The Arrival by Shaun Tan: Musical Walls and Bridges

Attending the 2019 Congress of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature was an utterly amazing experience. Both Stockholm itself and the Congress located in Norra Latin—a historic high school now turned conference center in Norrmalm—offered me a continuous deluge of warm collegial camaraderie, stunning urban and riverside views beneath an overcast sky, scholarship that advocates for the marginalized in all its forms—and coffee, lots and lots of coffee… There were so many things about the trip that offered me a chance to feel at home. Yet, of course, I wasn’t home, and the trip also constantly reminded me of my foreignness, from pedestrian-car interactions (no stop signs!) to prices in krona, and from the sight of cathedrals and cobblestones and the letter “å” to the unremitting child-consciousness of Swedish culture. This is why for my first post-Stockholm post, I decided to explore a children’s book that deals more intensely with the concept of foreignness.


The Arrival

by Shaun Tan

Hodder Children’s Books (2006)

Text: None! This is what one might call a wordless graphic novel, each page filled with pictures in various orientations. I had heard of this book before, though never read it, and then it came up in a keynote presentation on the second day. While browsing a book display during one of our frequent fika coffee breaks, I saw the recognizable cover picture accompanied by a single unexpected word, “Ankomsten”, the Swedish translation of “The Arrival”. For a moment I felt like the quizzical man on the cover, staring at a little alien creature, considering the odd mixture of familiar and unfamiliar that a foreign word can conjure.

Picture: The pictures are arresting, powerful, and intricate, rendered in muted tones and depicting a fantasy/futuristic setting that nevertheless references turn of the century America, specifically the experiences of immigrants passing through Ellis Island. The basic idea behind the book is that there is a man who leaves his family and travels to an entirely new metropolis, a place where absolutely everything is unfamiliar, strange, and foreign. He—and we as readers—struggle to make sense of this new place as the character seeks food, shelter, work, and above all human connection. Gradually and with the help of kind people he comes to understand the ways and codes of this place, reminding me of a George MacDonald quote from Lillith: “The only way to come to know where you are is to begin to make yourself at home.” It is a timely, challenging, and moving book, important for children and adults alike to engage with.

Music: This book entrenches readers in the complex and painful process of learning, specifically of learning to navigate through and within an unfamiliar culture. Music, as an expression and carrier of culture, appears twice in the book and vividly communicates this shift from confusion to understanding. The first picture below depicts the arriving man’s first encounter with this new world. 


The man is confused at this point in the story, and we are thrust with him into the middle of an alien world. The invasive protocols of immigration services, the goings-on of bustling people in the streets, the appearance and behaviors of new animals, everything is overwhelming to his senses. The street musicians appear ominous: rendered in very dark hues with dower faces and surrounded by rat-like birds, the otherworldliness of the instruments they play—which include a space-age violin and an accordion with a serpentine tuba bell—is palpable. The concept of “noise” is useful here, as is an oft quoted definition by Anna Tsing: noise is the “awkward, unequal, unstable creative qualities of interconnection across difference” (Tsing 2004, 1). The oddity of the picture and the imagined music—some of which seems to be visibly shooting up out of the tuba bell into the sky—is meant to create a wall of noise. Unsettled by difference, the man has no opportunity to come to grips with its discomfiting significance.

[Aside: Tan’s imagined world of organological difference is actually remarkably similar to our own world. Modern western culture has a very limited notion of what instruments are “normal”, and in the margins of time and space lie instruments that display the human capacity for imaginative music- and/or noise-making. Below: A) a French piano accordion from 1880s on display in MIM Phoenix, B) John Matthias Augustus Stroh’s mechanically amplified Stroh violin invented in 1899, C) Adolph Sax’s trombone à pistons from 1876 on display in MIM Brussels, E) a ca. 1900 harp-guitar by Cesare Candi of Genoa, and F) Linda Manzer’s 42-string Pikasso guitar of 1984.]

The next musical encounter in The Arrival offers fresh possibilities for the newcomer on his journey towards musical and cultural understanding. After befriending a family and learning their own traumatic story, he is invited to dinner. Shared food, conversation, and laughter lead to an after-dinner musical concert, and a new relationship to this culture’s music. We see each member of the family happily contributing to this delightful Hausmusik experience. The father plays a miniature version of the street musician’s trumpet accordion, the mother plays a turnip-shaped ocarina with glowing orb of musical warmth, and the son sings—with his Pokémon lizard!—while strumming on a four-stringed circular guitar reminiscent of a Chinese ruan


The newcomer’s relationship with this family offers him a bridge toward understanding the meanings of music in this foreign place. Within the safety of a warm domestic setting he is able to draw near enough and to sit still long enough to listen with open ears and to ask questions of the performers in order to approach understand. Tan’s two images of music in The Arrival illustrate the contextuality of whether we interpret something as noise or as music. Relationship opens the door.

Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis: Satie and Time

I’m starting a new series of posts dedicated to exploring references to and uses of music within children’s literature, specifically picture books. Music functions richly within the intermedial dynamics of picture books, which Perry Nodelman describes as an art form demanding constant alteration between two modes of communication—visual and textual— and “as a result of these unusual features, [they] have unique rhythms, unique conventions of shape and structure, a unique body of narrative techniques” (Nodelman, 1988, viii). Adding music to this unique textual and visual genre provides yet another mode of communication, which both compliments and complicates an already wonderful genre. Let us begin!

du iz tak1.JPG

Du Is Tak?

by Carson Ellis

Candlewick Press (2016)

Picture: This is a visually gorgeous picture book. Ellis frames up an insect-sized scene of an old log, and lingers there for the entirety of the book while seasons shift, adventures ensue, life is lived. The passage and cyclicality of time are of foremost importance: a single green plant provides the dapperly dressed invertebrate characters with many opportunities to experience the gamut of life’s emotions (puzzlement, excitement, leisure, horror, joy, letting go); a flamboyant caterpillar disappears into a cocoon in the first pages, metamorphosing near the end, and is followed by a second caterpillar at the close; and shifting seasons bring about changes to the foliage and landscape, most dramatically in the cleansing blankness of a winter’s snow.

Text: Ellis pairs these pictures with a delightfully innovative conlang (constructed language) of her own devising. (It appears to be nominally Germanic in syntax and phonology.) Readers are invited to speak “nonsense words” that are given meaning by the pictures. This technique highlights the nonverbal (shall I say “musical”?) power of communication through such things as gesture, intonation, addressee, and context.

Music: The bulk of the action happens in scenes of daylight. Yet three panels present us with a nocturnal version of the world: muted and dark colors, a starry night sky, and an absence of all characters apart from a single grasshopper perched upon a branch of the log directly over the caterpillar’s cocoon. In his [four] arms he holds a violin, which he plays introspectively, head bowed, eyes closed. Ellis employs a common technique: a string of musical notes emanates from the instrument and into the air. Remarkably, the notation symbols are not random (most examples are!). In the first two night scenes Ellis uses an eight-note rhythmic pattern made up of grace notes, eighth notes, quarter notes, and half notes that then repeats. Additionally, she provides a general melodic contour that gives enough information to show us that the notes are a quotation of a real piece of music: Gnossienne No. 1 by Erik Satie.

The second night scene with grasshopper and Gnossienne No. 1.

The second night scene with grasshopper and Gnossienne No. 1.

Erik Satie (1866–1925) was a French composer who was influential for his avant-garde experiments that modernistically challenged musical tradition and expectations. (He wrote minimalist background music which he termed musique d’ameublement (“furniture music”), included cheeky/ironic/impossible/overly dramatic narrations (in-score texts) in his music, and took as his programmatic subjects such things as the social lives and adventures of sea cucumbers.) Satie constructed his own cryptic term “Gnossienne” in three (perhaps seven?) compositions that share several generic characteristics: slow tempos, no barlines (known as “free time”), unconventional forms/melodies/harmonies, and strange in-score texts.

In the first two night scenes, Ellis’ grasshopper plays the opening theme of Gnossienne No. 1. I find the music hovering, yet heavy, improvisatory, as though playing with and reacting to half-remembered fragments. Follow along to a recording with sheet music performed by Klara Kormendi.

  1. The third night scene directly follows the second. In the face of the decaying flower, we witness the dramatic release of the transformed caterpillar, which bursts out of its cocoon as a dancing moth. Eyes closed, she is the introspective one now, absorbed in the soaring exuberance of her dance. The grasshopper is on his feet, leaning forward eagerly, eyes wide and fixed upon this wonderful sight. He continues to play, but his tune has changed to match the sweeping gestures of the moth: twenty-five eighth-notes concluded by a dotted quarter note.

The third night scene with grasshopper/moth and Gnossienne No. 3.

The third night scene with grasshopper/moth and Gnossienne No. 3.

Again, Ellis quotes Satie, this time Gnossienne No. 3. The third theme (fragment?) of this piece builds up momentum in a cascading sort of way, and bears the mysterious in-score text “Munissez-vous de clairvoyance” (“Acquire clairvoyance”). The grasshopper seems to be in the process of “seeing clearly”, standing as it were upon the overlap between life and death, gazing at the resurrected Muse, reifying the power of the moment with music that is both free of time and full of repetition. Listen to the performance by Daniel Versano starting at 0:35.

Ellis masterfully communicates through the richness of the picture book genre. Her static frame allows us to notice fine details and dwell upon growth and decay, life and death. Her invented language prompts us to find significance within/beyond/despite words. Music is hidden in this picture book, frozen as a string of symbols leaping from a grasshopper’s violin, yet the quotations of Satie’s haunting compositions, once deciphered, invite us to imagine unheard melodies that bind together memories, emotions, and meanings in new ways. May we all have eyes to see clearly and the courage to play our song in all of life’s seasons.

Hallå, Sverige!

This summer the Roys will be saying “Hallå, Sverige!”—pronounced [haˈloː sværjɛ], we will have to practice!—as we travel to Sweden. I submitted a panel proposal to the International Research Society for Children’s Literature (IRSCL) 2019 Congress and it was accepted! I and two other musicologists who are doing pioneering work on music and childhood/children will give papers on the theme of “The Sounding and Silencing of Musical Childhoods;” more on that soon!

Princess Tuvstarr in the Field  (1913) by Swedish illustator John Bauer.

Princess Tuvstarr in the Field (1913) by Swedish illustator John Bauer.

I am getting more and more excited about this trip, not just because the IRSCL will undoubtedly be an amazing experience, but because I know very little about Sweden and it gives me a wonderful opportunity to delve into its music, language, literature, and myths. By far the most compelling thing I have found recently is Rosenbergs Sjua (Rosenberg’s Seven), a musical ensemble comprised of four female vocalists and a string quartet. Their second album, R7 (1999) consists of arrangements of Swedish folk songs that are singularly riveting and haunting.

Vocal Polyphony

The driving force behind Rosenbergs Sjua is Susanne Rosenberg: singer, composer, musicologist, and professor in the Royal College of Music, Stockholm. Her arrangements for R7 reflect her mastery of an eclectic variety of singing styles ranging from Swedish folk to Baroque to jazz, as the singers create amazing textures ranging from playful to epic to lyrical. The sixth track “Pris Vare Gud”—a nineteenth-century hymn text written by Johan Olof Wallin—begins with a layering of an improvisatory motif that creates a sort of drone for the mournful melody. Alternately track two “Min Bröllopsdag” alternates between tight harmonies in homorhythm and polyphonic scatting.


Another sound that adds a certain northern wildness to R7 is kulning, a vocal technique practiced since ancient times in Scandinavia—primarily by women—as a means for calling livestock in from their grazing pastures in the mountains. Different melodic shapes and timbral colors echo and clash with high-pitched intensity throughout track seven “Jorid Lockrop” and offer a visceral example of female vocal power. This is apparently the function of kulning in Karin Rehnqvist’s composition for two singers and percussion, Puksånger/Lockrop (1989), which Rosenberg premiered. (The link in the recording is not professional, but the rawness speaks for itself.)


The string section of R7 simply rocks! In addition to several instrumental dance tracks (four “Artos Julpolska and thirteen “Nattöga”) which feature a wealth of idiomatic ornamentation, many of the songs are grounded in heavy, syncopated riffs worthy of a metal band. Listen to the first track “Leja Tjänstepiga” or the epic tenth “Balladen Om Liten Karin”. (The whole effect reminds me of the amazing instrumental arrangements of folk songs by the Danish String Quartet in their Woodworks (2014) album.) The contrast between voice and string in R7 —both equally strident at times—has a sort of hi-fi brutality that I prefer when it comes to modern arrangements of folk music.

Your suggestions for further reading/listening as we look forward to Sweden are welcome! Ha det så bra!

PhD Attained!

I am pleased to announce that last week—Wednesday, December 12 at 8:21pm—I completed the last hurdle between me and attaining a Doctorate of Philosophy in Music from UCSB!

  • The signatures have been given.

  • The forms have been filled out.

  • The fees have been paid.

  • The online surveys have been completed.

  • The dissertation is absolutely enough.

I feel so happy at bringing this monumental achievement to it’s conclusion! I’m thankful to all who have supported me in my journey and look forward to new horizons!

Boom! (I understand the pun, but it’s not in the best taste given the Procrustean Bed of proofreading that I just put into my dissertation.)

Boom! (I understand the pun, but it’s not in the best taste given the Procrustean Bed of proofreading that I just put into my dissertation.)

Baby/Piano Juggling: One-Handed Music, Pt. 1

Felix, my robust five month old, is quickly exceeding my ability to hold him with one hand. For the first few months I could easily tuck him into the crook of my elbow and sit quite nicely at the piano doing what any pianist-father would do: play piano music using only my left hand! Now that my son is healthfully growing (97th percentile), I fear for the muscular integrity of my spine in such a position, so I’ll reminisce about my brief stint in this interesting category of music.

Life-size Felix…

Life-size Felix…

According to Dr. Hans Brofeldt’s exceedingly informative website “Piano Music for the Left Hand”, this kind of music rests upon several interesting cultural factors. First, the invention of the sustain pedal allowed for a single hand to sound like several; technology opened up new musical possibilities. Second, the impetus for writing music of this sort could either come from the physical loss or injury of a hand—such as Paul Wittgenstein (1887–1961) who had his right arm amputated after sustaining a bullet wound to the elbow in WWI—or from what Brofeldt calls “musical-intellectual gymnastics” in which a composer simply limits their composition to a single hand to see what is possible. The two pieces that I’ve enjoyed are from the latter category.

Scriabin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2

Alexander Scriabin (1871–1915) wrote Opus 9 in 1894 and it consists of a Prelude and a Nocturne for left hand alone. I was drawn to the Nocturne for a variety of reasons, such as the piece’s remarkable playability with a single hand, the lavish beauty of the Romantic style (Scriabin, like many Russians, was simply gaga over Chopin), and the (impassioned) lullaby mood which perfectly suited the lulling of an infant. But most of all, at the time Felix cried consistently at a steady Ab pitch, which happens to be the first note of the piece! (My friend Alissa Aune—who has perfect pitch—suggested that I get him up to A-440 with a little pinch… I would not recommend this. It does not work!) I like this rendition by Martina Filjak that I found on YouTube. The camera starts in a way that really has you wondering how many hands she is actually using. It’s only when it moves later on that you see the left hand’s dexterity (pun intended).

Reinecke’s Sonata

Carl Reinecke ((1824–1910) wrote Sonata für die Linke Hand alleine, op. 179 in 1884. Out of the four movements I was most attracted by the second, marked Andante lento with its tuneful melody interspersed with pianistic filagree. Reinecke wrote the words “Ne menj rózsám a tarlóra” at the start of this piece, the title of a Hungarian folk tune. (Reinecke’s setting of the tune is looser than, say, Bartók’s grammaphone recording, which is pretty standard as far as nineteenth-century folk song use goes.) Takeo Tchinai plays the whole sonata, with movement two starting at 4:45. Once again, the melody starts on my son’s Ab! (Check out for more quality recordings of interesting pieces, including a one-handed fugue by Kalkbrenner!)

My resilient first-born, Penelope, with her own baby at the piano bench. Scriabin sheet music on the stand.

My resilient first-born, Penelope, with her own baby at the piano bench. Scriabin sheet music on the stand.

I’m finding these pieces to be a really boost to the left hand ego… A real shot in the arm, so to speak. #toosoon Has anyone had experience working on these? If so, what have you been doing with your free hand?

Winter's Lullaby

Yesterday the stillness of Santa Barbara, wrapped in the brisk and earthy air that follows a bout of rain, was punctuated by the sound of the pounding rotors of military helicopters. Every hour or so one would thunder across the blue, winter's sky. And every time we were brought back to the present reality of shock at the terrifying events that have come to call this season.

In the first weeks of December, California's largest wildfire on record came plundering across several counties, engulfing homes, causing massive evacuations, and sending up sun-choking clouds of smoke that descended upon our cities with ghostly blankets of ash. From San Louis Obispo where we escaped to keep our children out of the fumes, we received word that the evacuation zone had reached our house; I drove back that day, the yellow-dead sky thick with quiet urgency, and loaded the car with a hasty selection of valuables, closing the door on the rest for perhaps the last time. The smoke followed us north and eventually we decided to seek hospitality from relatives further afield, ending up in Roseville, above Sacramento, checking the news compulsively only to hear that the fire would likely burn on until Christmas.

Our house survived. We returned from a month spent in other people's guest rooms to a home that seemed odd in its familiarity. We spent the holiday in Pasadena, driving past hills that looked moon-blasted, charred trees blackening both sides of the coastal 101 highway. When we returned to Santa Barbara I spent an hour in a breathing mask with a push broom, scrubbing away the soot that covered our walkway and carport as we moved towards life shaken and hopeful.

Two days ago it rained. In the middle of the night avalanches of turgid mud tore through the hills of Montecito. Houses, streets, cars, people, gone, replaced by wreckage and sludge. Highway 101 closed. Westmont College evacuated. The sight of first responders and rescue dogs and muddied survivors and devastation vivid on the news. And helicopters, rumbling piercingly through the sky, bringing in supplies, transporting the injured, and seeking out those still stranded before the chill night. 

Those are streets I have walked many times, now impassable wastes. Those are people I have conversed with, now drenched with devastating loss. Those are people I have known, now missing in the dark.

This was not how I envisaged this season. The warming, lulling carols of Advent and Christmastide were conspicuous in their absence, save in the form of the Quadriga Consort's two winter albums as the soundtrack to my solitary return to Santa Barbara. Late at night in northern California I found myself mulling over one of my favorites, a Scottish Gaelic carol sometimes known as Tàladh Chriosda or Christ's Lullaby. Its melody rises and falls with a comforting ease and stark beauty. Its words describe Jesus from the point of view of his mother, Mary. This imagined mother's perspective is conspicuous for its unremitting combination of intimacy with awe, circling around the mystery of the incarnation just as Mary cradles and fondles the Holy One of Holy Ones in her arms. But she also expounds upon the experience of the Holy Family, a harrowing story of tumult: a mandatory relocation issued by the ruling colonial authorities, rejected from familial hospitality, Mary delivering her first child alone and friendless in a barn, and later a midnight escape from the genocidal soldiers of a malicious tyrant. This is no idealized cherub-Jesus, no placidly docile, haloed caricature of infancy. This is a baby born to the life-threatening and heart-breaking challenges of human existence.

"O hard-hearted Herod / Your plan will not be victorious / Many are the mothers you left wretched / When you vehemently pursued the death of my little one."

This is a mystery to me. I walked around the block today with 3.5 month old Felix in the front carrier as black helicopters fly desperately and purposefully in the distance.  I thought about Jesus born to the rush and tears and pain of homelessness and rejection and devastation. Of the fragility of his existence, the vulnerability of mortality, the tears and words and sighs and laughs and cries that would accompany his short life. I picture him walking beside me, hand shielding the wintery sun from his eyes. Or him knee deep in mud, keenly following a rescue dog into the wreckage of a house. Or him at a counseling center, anguished people haranguing him for news, screaming directly into his face until they are hoarse, or crumpling into sobs across from him at a card table.

Not One Is Alone / Shepherded by Beth Allen.  Her stirring art can be found here.

Not One Is Alone / Shepherded by Beth Allen. Her stirring art can be found here.

I do not know if this is comforting to me. Perhaps it is too soon for comfort. I do know that it is something deep and close and fervent. I cling to that.

"Neither holy angels nor men will understand / Until the last day of the world / The extent of your mercy and love / Coming to take a human body."

The Sacred Music of Harry Potter: The Hogwarts School Song

For the past decade my wife, Jess, and I have cultivated an evening ritual in which she prepares dinner while I read a book out loud: the sights, smells, and sounds of stir fry, enchiladas, soup, and barbecued kebabs mingling with spirited performances of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Madeline l'Engle, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald. One author who has received special attention is J.K. Rowling. Her Harry Potter series has received no less than seven complete and enthusiastic renditions in ten years and we are currently knee deep in Book Four for the eighth time! The books are like old friends and have been a rich source of comfort, entertainment, thoughtfulness, and extemporaneous nonsense.

Unknown artist. Dumbledore  would  own a combustable bird...

Unknown artist. Dumbledore would own a combustable bird...

This year I've also been enjoying a podcast entitled "Harry Potter and the Sacred Text". The co-hosts Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile, graduates of Harvard Divinity School, ask us to consider what might happen if we were to take the Harry Potter series and treat it with the same seriousness and devotion as when we read a sacred text. What might a piece of fiction reveal or teach, convict or inspire if we were to approach it with the expectation that by engaging with it we engage with something sacred? I find this project fascinating, whether or not I agree with their various readings, and it has inspired a whole new host of conversations at home.

For a while I have been interested in blogging about the role of music in the Harry Potter books. In the spirit of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, I'm going to try this out by selecting a music-related excerpt from the books and reading it through the lens of a sacred reading technique. I'll be using lectio divina, an ancient Christian practice that follows a four-step process of reading, mediating, conversing, and praying to enter into a sacred text. I'll be using the altered format that is employed in the podcast along with my own additional step:

  1. Context: What is happening in the story when this excerpt occurs?
  2. Musicology [MINE]: What might this music sound like and what ideas are associated with it?
  3. Metaphor: What imagery or associations does this excerpt suggest?
  4. Personal: What personal memories does this excerpt recall?
  5. Action: What does this excerpt motivate you to do in your life?

Here goes!

You may recognize this first passage as that poster on the wall of every junior high band room.

"Ah, music," he said, wiping his eyes. "A magic beyond all we do here!"
Unknown artist. Anyone else discomfited by the thought of hot wax dripping from thousands of floating candles? I guess that's why you wear the pointed hats!

Unknown artist. Anyone else discomfited by the thought of hot wax dripping from thousands of floating candles? I guess that's why you wear the pointed hats!

1. Context

This quote appears in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (US version, page 128), Chapter Seven "The Sorting Hat" and is spoken by the headmaster, Albus Dumbledore. It is the start of another academic year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the new students have been separated into their houses by the Sorting Hat and are sitting at their various House Tables in the enchantedly open-aired Great Hall. The customary feast that celebrates the start of term has been voraciously consumed, the golden plates magically cleaned, and Dumbledore has given out announcements both perfunctory and mysterious. As a benedictory gesture the headmaster leads the student body in a performance of the Hogwarts school song. Uniquely, the students were not taught the music to the song either by rote or by notation; after writing the words to the song in the air with a golden ribbon, Dumbledore declares, "Everyone pick their favorite tune and off we go!" Rowling continues, "Everybody finished the song at different times. At last, only the Weasley twins were left singing along to a very slow funeral march. Dumbledore conducted their last few lines with his wand and when they had finished, he was one of those who clapped loudest." After this Dumbledore delivers the excerpted quote and then excuses everyone to bed.


2. Musicology

Technically the musical event that Rowling describes is an instance of aleatoric polyphony. Polyphony is the simultaneous sounding of more than one distinct melody. For instance, in "Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich" from Jesu, meine Freude by J.S. Bach (1685-1750) five different melodies vie for your attention, each entering one at a time with the same theme before doing their own thing. This type of texture is more challenging to listen to than, say, a song with a clear melody over a clear accompaniment, and you may need some practice for your ears to make sense of it all. The good new is that, in this instance, and likewise for countless other examples of polyphony written in a certain idiom (ie tonal music), the challenge of listening to individual voices simultaneously is lessened by the fact that everything occurs within a stable harmonic and metric framework. This means that the dense texture actually has a solid and carefully crafted harmony that controls the vertical aspect of the pitches and a solid and carefully crafted meter that controls the horizontal aspect of the rhythm. Put more simply, it all lines up.

However, there are some extremely conflicted instances of polyphony, especially from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (ie not tonal music), where this harmonic and metric framework is lacking. Chaos reigns supreme! Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) depicts pandemonium with a creepy polyphonic beginning to his Second Symphony with thirteen extremely independent voices, Elliott Carter (1908-2012) wrote his Third String Quartet to sound like two pairs of instruments that just happened to start playing completely different pieces in the same room at the same time, and Andrew Norman (b. 1979) musicalized the flamboyant Baroque architecture of Bernini in the "Teresa" movement of his The Companion Guide to Rome with extreme polyphonic madness.* However, I think the piece that gets us closest to the Hogwarts school song, remarkably, is from 1673: Battalia for ten string instruments by the surprisingly modernistic Baroque composer Heinrich Biber (1644-1704). The second section of this piece, entitled "Die liederliche Gesellschaft von allerley Humor," instrumentally depicts a mass of soldiers, perhaps inebriated, definitely enjoying themselves, singing ten different songs simultaneously. For each instrument, Biber composed a different song at different speeds, keys, and rhythms, ending on a triumphant cluster chord. Yikes! Check out this link and listen from 1:44 to 2:30

A page from Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra. 

A page from Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra. 

Yet, as dissonant as Biber's example is, all of these polyphonic examples fail to truly represent the chaos of the Hogwarts school song because none of them are aleatoric.** Aleatoric music is music in which some elements are intentionally left to chance and the performer chooses what to play in the moment of performance. The composer could, for instance, indicate that a melody is supposed to rise in an arc and come back down after a given amount of time, but not specify the pitches, rhythm, articulation, or character. Such music could hardly ever be played the same way twice and the whole idea blurs the line between composition and improvisation in a very avant-garde sort of way. John Cage (1912-1992) stated that in his Concert for Piano and Orchestra "The only thing I was being consistent to in this piece was that I did not need to be consistent." He leaves just about everything you can imagine to chance and choice, including melodies, textures, instrumentation, and duration. Here are three vastly different performances of the same aleatoric "work": 1) Orchestre Philharmonique de la Radio Flamande, 2) Orchestra Laboratorio del Conservatorio di Alessandria, and 3) Chironomids Outerspace Group.

The singing of the Hogwarts school song is a an extreme case of avant-garde chaosDepending on how you count, there could be as many as 300 to 2000 individual voices, each singing any melody, in any key, and at any tempo. This is not some stately rendition of a venerable alma mater. This is aleatoric polyphony at black hole density!*** Dumbledore obviously does not have the same ideas of institutional prestige as other Headmasters.

*My guess is that Dumbledore regularly listens to Elliott and Norman in his office, with his fingers lightly pressed together. His Chocolate Frog Card does specify that he enjoys chamber music!

**This is why the cut scene from the fourth Harry Potter movie by Warner Brothers (and I assume by the score composer Patrick Doyle) doesn't do Rowling justice. If you watch it, you'll notice that, while spirited and rather noisy, it's really only a canon. Polyphonic? Yes. But not even close to the chaos described!

***Can someone please attempt to recreate this event and record it?!?! Send me a video!!


3. Metaphor

I read the theme of participation in this excerpt.

First, the participation of the students. The start of term feast is full of identity formation. Students become Gryffindors or Slytherins or Ravenclaws or Hufflepuffs, four distinct Houses separated from the others by personality traits, founder histories, dormitory locations, eating arrangements, animal mascots, color schemes. Within those Houses there are other divisions based on your year, your academic abilities, your course schedule, your Quidditch skills. These various (polyphonic?) boundaries crisscross and obscure the inherent unity of these students as a whole, namely that they are all witches and wizards. The singing of the Hogwarts school song momentarily sweeps aside these divisions and unites each and every student through—not just song—but a musical act that is radically egalitarian, welcoming, and accepting. Think about what it would be like to be participating in this event: every student hums, chants, bellows, croons, raps, squawks, or sings-with-good-diaphragm-support-and-excellent-vowel-shapes, with again, any melody, in any key, and at any tempo! It's a musical experience that offers each and every student a chance to participate exactly as they are. And while there are no musical barriers to participation, it's almost as if there are no social barriers as well.

Second, Dumbledore's participation. (Spoiler Alert!) Dumbledore can't get enough of this experience. He sets it in motion, basks in the chaos of the event, vigorously applauds its conclusion, and feels so brimful that tears well up in his eyes as he places music above all learnéd magic. What do those tears mean? Is he actually moved by the musicality of the moment? Is he being sarcastic and pointing out the inherent senselessness of reality? I think neither. I think that his participation in this odd experience has meaning for him because of his troubled relationship to power; later in the books we find that tragic events in Dumbledore's past caused him to distrust himself with positions of authority and with intimate relationships. Hence his reticence to confront Grindelwald. His refusal to take up the Minister of Magic post. His seven-book-long secret-keeping from Harry. I would imagine all these withdrawals, and the remembered, familial trauma of which they are a constant reminder, would have been a source of deep pain for Dumbledore. When he spreads his arms in welcome to the room full of students, perhaps he simultaneously fears to get too close and risk hurting those he loves. But, when he participates in the school song, he has a moment of respite. As long as that chaotic riot of aleatoric polyphony rages, Dumbledore is embracing and embraced in an intimate family. For Dumbledore this unity is a magic beyond all that can be taught at Hogwarts because it is a magic that reunites him with the closeness that he has both longed for and feared for a lifetime.


4. Personal

Owens Valley, We Love You.png

My mother actually composed my school song. For a good portion of our lives, my siblings and I attended Owens Valley Unified School District in Independence, California, a small K-12 school in a small desert town. And when I say small, I mean small. There were ten people in my graduating class. And it was an abnormally large class! I remember by mother, a singer and flutist, sketching out some words and melody on our electric keyboard in the back room. But it didn't just remain a sketch. Pretty soon we were all learning it in classes. And before you knew it we were singing it as a student body at assembly meetings and pep rallies in the gym! I've written it out below from what I can remember.

In many ways growing up in Independence was a lesson in scarcity. But it was also a place where, because of its small size, each person's individual contribution had great significance. My mother decided to write a school song and so we had one! We can easily lose that feeling of agency and importance in the larger picture of the world. I doubt that the song ist still sung at O.V. today. But I'd be interested to know if students from around my year still vaguely remember the birth and brief iteration of our very own school song, and whether they found any camaraderie in shouting "Orange and Black!" at the top of their lungs.


5. Action

Life seems pretty chaotic to me right now. I'm a dissertating graduate student, husband, father of a toddler and a newborn, with one car, living in an expensive city. It's aleatoric polyphony of calendaring and commuting and writing and cleaning and choosing and questioning and failing and rising and trying again. Often it feels heavy. But this passage of Dumbledore's has me thinking that chaos is a particularly rich moment to notice the magic of participation. I don't have to do these things. I choose to. I get to. And it's worth it. "A magic beyond all we do here." Where can you look for magic in the chaos of your life? Where can you sing connection and participation into your community?

I also find it significant that the sound-world that invites community and belonging through participation is decidedly avant-garde. Perhaps I can think of the chaos of life as the deployment of the avant-garde, the advance guard pushing forward into something new. Do we have our wits about us as we march forward into both the knowns and unknowns? Who do we bring with us on this mission? When and how do you rest? 

NEXT: Ghost music...


Hurdy-Gurdy Sounds

In elementary school I was loaned a CD-ROM from our school librarian that was a virtual tour of the musical instruments of the world. Searching by continent, by instrument family, or alphabetically, I explored an interactive encyclopedia that introduced me to the sights and sounds of the Arabic qanun, Native American plains flute, Chinese bianzhong, and European flageolet. It was MIM in computer form. And then I found the page on the hurdy-gurdy: It sounded like a pugnacious cross between a bagpipe and a harpsichord playing a raspy folk tune while accompanied by a sort of buzzing/barking/beat-boxing. What's not to love?! Needless to say, I was smitten! #instrumentcrush My infatuation with the hurdy-gurdy has been rather one-sided all these years, and despite my intense feelings I have not taken our relationship to the next level... Until now! That's right! Early next year yours truly will be in possession of his very own, custom made, genuine hurdy-gurdy, lovingly built by the good people at Altarwind Music in Oregon. I'm so excited!! (Don't worry, my wife knows and is cool with it.)

So in preparation for my instrument adventures next year, here's some info on the hurdy-gurdy that focuses on the wide range of sounds that it makes and the contexts in which these sounds had cultural capital.

Particulars and Generalities

What is a hurdy-gurdy? That seems like a good place to start. The hurdy-gurdy is a musical instrument with regional variants appearing across eastern and western Europe. Here are a few monickers to give you a taste of its breadth: hurdy-gurdy (English), vielle à roue (French), Drehleier (German), tekerő" (Hungarian), ghironda (Italian), vièrlerète (Belgian), zanfoña (Spanish), sanfona (Portugese), brenka (Basque), viola de roda (Catalan), ninera (Slovakian), lira korbowa (Polish), колёсная лира (Russian). 

As implied by several of these names (#etymologygame) this instrument has something to do with a "turning wheel". In basic terms, the hurdy-gurdy is a pear- or guitar-shaped resonating box strung with tunable melody and drone strings and fixed with a hand-cranked, rosined wheel that acts like a never-ending, circular violin bow while the melody strings pass through a tangent box where pitches are raised or lowered by means of keys. The following section has descriptions of some of the instrument's different sounds and historical contexts. Be sure to click on the links to hear/see some sampled YouTube videos. It's easier to see it in action than read a description about it!

Apocalypse jam session depicted in 12th century cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Apocalypse jam session depicted in 12th century cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Organistrum: The Two-Seater

According to evidence preserved in manuscripts and carved into the walls of the cathedrals, the Ur-ancestor of the hurdy-gurdy was called an organistrum and emerged around the 11th century. As seen here played by two of the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse, this massive instrument took two people to operate: one to turn the wheel and the other to lift tangent pins. (The tangent box was eventually inverted, allowing an individual finger to push up a key, rather than require a whole hand to pull up a key.) Apparently these pins altered the pitches of all three melody strings simultaneously and produced parallel harmonies. This made the organistrum the perfect church instrument, particularly for playing organum, a technique used to thicken chant texture by coupling the melody at a given interval. By the 14th century changes in liturgical polyphony would require a more complex and polyphonic instrument, a need that was answered by the organ, and the organistrum ceased to function as a church instrument. Clips: 1) the organistrum in concert in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, 2) French reconstruction with good closeups of the mechanism, and 3) the most adorable demo couple I've ever seen! I'll let you know how the congregation at the Presbyterian church I work in handles next year's all-hurdy-gurdy Easter service... :)


Buzzing Bridges and Barking Dogs

Illustration by Jacques Callo from circa 1624. Demonstrating the lifestyle choices of the devoted hurdy-gurdy artist/mendicant.

Illustration by Jacques Callo from circa 1624. Demonstrating the lifestyle choices of the devoted hurdy-gurdy artist/mendicant.

One of the hurdy-gurdy's most distinctive features since the Renaissance is the buzzing bridge. (It's first visual depiction seems to be from Heironymous Bosch's (ca. 1450-1516) Garden of Earthly Delights.) The way it works is that there is a drone string supported by a specially constructed bridge (called the "chien" or "dog" in French terminology) that is uneven, only connected to the instrument by a single foot. Changes in wheel velocity set the dog "barking" with a characteristic buzzing sound. (Sometimes I think it sounds like a scraping cabasa.) Two examples of this in action should clarify: 1) An Italian ghironda with slow motion and 2) demonstrations of how wrist action effects crank velocity and leads to various patterns. This adds a completely new dimension to the music because the rhythmic buzzing of the right hand operates independently of the left hand's manipulation of the key box and they can interact in so many different ways. To give some context of this happening in a piece, check out 1) Eric Raillard playing a Morvan traditional tune with various chien patterns, 2) Nigel Eaton playing a dance piece that adds the chien around 1:09 to great effect, and 3) TOMO playing a French folk melody with chien and what I assume is a kick drum.

Female aristocrat rocking her vielle à roue. Probably painted by Donatien Nonotte (1708-1785).  Link

Female aristocrat rocking her vielle à roue. Probably painted by Donatien Nonotte (1708-1785). Link

French Aristocratic Hipsters

By the 18th century the hurdy-gurdy had a well established reputation as a low class instrument fit for peasants and beggars. But around this same time the French aristocracy developed an intense enthusiasm for pastoral diversions (just without the dirt and poverty). Operas and ballets depicted idealized shepherds and shepherdesses, rococo art emphasized stylized tendrils as design elements, and folk instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy (vielle à roue) and bagpipe (cabrette) found themselves in vogue with the highest echelons of society. (Here is an example of Sean Folsom playing a folksong that includes the vielle and cabrette together. Now that I write that sentence, I'm not sure how that's humanly possible...) Aristocrats actually took the time to became skilled at playing this instrument, multiple treatises appeared giving detailed instruction, and court-sponsored composers wrote substantial and serious pieces. Check out Robert A. Greene's The Hurdy-Gurdy in Eighteenth-Century France (1995) for all the info on this period you can handle. Listening to this music I notice the importance of dance as well as lavish ornamentation and emotional nuance. Clips: 1) some pièces de charactéres by Jean-Baptiste Dupuits (1715-1758), 2) a movement from a trio sonata for two vielles and basso continuo by Jacques-Christoph Naudot (1690-1752), and 3) Antonio Vivaldi's (1678-1741) beloved Seasons arranged for vielle à roue by Nicolas Chédeville (1705-1782) because why not?


Schubert's Romantic Numbness

Minstrel  (1876) by Hippolytus Lipinski (d. 1884). I wonder if Müller's mention of growling dogs could possibly have to do with the hurdy-gurdy's buzzing bridge...

Minstrel (1876) by Hippolytus Lipinski (d. 1884). I wonder if Müller's mention of growling dogs could possibly have to do with the hurdy-gurdy's buzzing bridge...

The nineteenth century developed a Romantic view of folk culture with conflicted, nostalgic, and nationalistic overtones. While in many ways this was the age of the piano (where Industrial Revolution met the Age of Sentimentality), the hurdy-gurdy continued to have a symbolic and emotional association and operated as a musical trope. For instance, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) set poems by Wilheml Müller (1794-1827) for a song cycle for piano and solo voice called Winterreise or Winter's Journey. It's a painfully tragic song cycle for solo voice and piano which ends with Der Leiermann or The Hurdy-Gurdy Player.  

Over there behind the village / Stands a hurdy-gurdy man / And with stiff fingers / Turns over what he can.
Barefoot on the ice / He rocks back and forth / And his little plate / Always remains empty.
No one wants to hear him, / No one wants to look at him, / And the dogs growl / Around the old man.
And he lets it happen / Everything turns as it will / And his hurdy-gurdy / Never stands still.
Wonder of the ancients / Shall I go with you? / Would you play my songs / On your hurdy-gurdy as well?

Schubert sets this icy text very starkly by evoking the hurdy-gurdy's drone and repeating a spooky melodic fragment. For a cycle that has traversed so many emotions, this concluding piece falls deep into emotional and musical numbness. Here's a clip of Thomas Quasthoff and Daniel Barenboim performing it. Interestingly, Matthias Loibner arranged this composition for solo singer with hurdy-gurdy accompaniment which makes for a very different sound world. It makes me aware of the emotional flatlining that awaits the narrator at the end. Here's Der Leiermann accompanied by a Leiermann!

Eluveitie's Anna Murphy.

Eluveitie's Anna Murphy.

Gothic Nostalgia in Folk/Medieval Metal

Much has happened since the 19th century, but it's interesting to note an enduring strain of nostalgia for folk culture that continues to utilize the hurdy-gurdy. Recently this has surfaced in various sub-genres of heavy metal. Sometimes known as folk metal or medieval metal or German folk-rock metal, this 1990s European fusion melds together the guitar, drums, vocals, and head-banging of heavy metal with traditional instruments like tin whistles, violins, harps, bagpipes, and hurdy-gurdies. Here are some examples: 1) Swiss band (pronounce it el-VAY-tee) Eluveitie's song Inis Mona, 2) German band Subway to Sally's song Besser Du Rennst, 3) Belgian band Ithilien's song Blindfolded, and 4) German band Saltatio Mortis's song Hochzeitstanz. If you think about all the abrasive and edgy sounds the hurdy-gurdy is capable of, it makes sense that it would find a place in this type of music. I personally find it difficult to pick out the sound of the hurdy-gurdy through the thick textures. But there's more to heavy metal than just the sound and I would venture a guess that the hurdy-gurdy lends a lot of visual interest. It comes across as a medieval contraption and, because it is less well known than the bagpipe, its marginality has an air of mystique.

The hurdy-gurdy also plays a part in more intimate settings. Here the theatricality is toned down, but the strange sound and sight of the instrument keep a toe in the world of heavy metal. Two examples are 1) Anna Murphy playing A Rose for Epona and 2) Patty Gurdy (that's right) of the German pirate folk metal band Storm Seeker (that's right) playing a cover of Sweet Dreams.


Experimental Virtuosity

Matthias Loibner making sounds with plaid pants and astounding virtuosity.

Matthias Loibner making sounds with plaid pants and astounding virtuosity.

As the example of the buzzing bridge shows, the hurdy-gurdy, already a pretty complicated machine, can become even more complicated. Just take for example the Full Montey hurdy-gurdy by Altarwind Music that has all the add-ons: dozens of strings, buzzing bridges, capos, on/off switches, sympathetic strings, amp hookups, fretboards, cup holders, bells/whistles, spinning hubcaps, etc. (Disclaimer: I cannot guarantee the accuracy of this description. See Altarwind website for details.) These possibilities have caught the imagination of various composers/performers seeking new and experimental sounds. Matthias Loibner (b. 1969) sums it up well when he states in this recording at an aCentral Folque concert, "I will start somewhere and I will end somewhere, but I am not sure about it." Ben Grossman considers the hurdy-gurdy an "acoustic synthesizer" that has much to offer for "early, traditional, experimental, and ambient" musics. Here he is with an improvisation and explanation for TEDxWaterloo. Stevie Wishart (b. 1969) sees the hurdy-gurdy and other marginal instruments from the forgotten past as having greater potential for innovation because of the lack of present-day conventions, which opens the door to improvisation. She teamed up with Fred Frith (b. 1949) and Carla Kihlstedt (b. 1971) to record a series of improvisations: here's one called Aller Retour with the hurdy-gurdy entering around 1:27.

I'll see you in January for the unboxing of my hurdy-gurdy!

A Parent's Guide to 'A Young People's Guide to the Orchestra'

Perhaps you haven't heard... toddlers have some pretty strong opinions! Lately my two-year-old, Penny, has been weighing in on everything from who gets to screw on the lid of her water bottle (her), what we should eat for dinner (strawberries with yogurt), where we should go for an afternoon outing (Target), and who should sit in her car seat (me, but eventually her, but then she gets to put on the shoulder straps and buckle the top clasp no matter what!). It makes sense—her world is daily expanding through new experiences and experiments, which means this young person is in a state of continual boundary creation, testing, and maintenance. Sometimes all at once. No wonder she tries to up the number of bed time books to six!

Musical preferences are no less subject to the toddler's strong opinions. By and large my daughter's tastes tend toward "children's music": a fluid genre that includes, among other things, African American spirituals, nonsense songs, English Puritan nursery rhymes, anti-war songs by Pete Seeger, Japanese folk songs, and newly-composed works about everything from public transportation to families of ducks, and personal hygiene to lovable arctic aquatic mammals and their daily schedules. This music is characteristically catchy, repetitive, and singable (and on many occasions has miraculously deescalated tantrums during long car trips).

Penny playing impromptu side-table "drums" on clearance at Target, her favorite store in the world.

Penny playing impromptu side-table "drums" on clearance at Target, her favorite store in the world.

Penny feels much differently about "daddy music", by which I basically mean "classical" (though there's also a good mix of Gaelic EDM, Hungarian folk bands, and whatever freaky magic Matthias Loibner does with his magnificent Drehleier). Often the act of turning on flute fantasias by Telemann in the car results in a flurry of protestations from the back seat followed by heated negotiations. Indeed, "classical music" tends to be a hard sell for toddlers; very broadly speaking, the sort of musics that fall into this category tend to be long, developmental, enigmatic, and played on a wide range of old instruments.

This is not a post about the aesthetic merits or shortcomings of "children's music". It's also not about the "Mozart effect" and scientific or pseudoscientific arguments for guilting parents into playing more Eine kleine Nachtmusik. It's not even about how Raffi is somehow still recording and performing, and how his eponymous "Down by the Bay" is a song that maddeningly straddles realism and nonsense! This is a post about how I shared something I love with my two-year-old daughter, something that, because of a little parental participation, she has come to enjoy. Here's my guide for engaging your toddler with "classical music".

I started with a specific piece of music: A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra or as I call it in this post YPGO written by British composer Benjamin Britten in 1945. Despite the clear appeal to children in the title and Britten having written it on commission for educational purposes, it seems unlikely that my daughter would choose it over, say, Elizabeth Mitchell's "Little Bird". At face value, YPGO sounds "classically" complicated: it's a twenty-minute series of thirteen variations and a concluding fugue based on a rondeau by seventeenth-century English composer Henry Purcell written by a twentieth-century composer performed by a room filled with about twenty-five different types of acoustic instruments under the leadership of a stick-waving interpreter!! Sheesh... #canibeexcused

Take courage! What I discovered with Penny was that those very complications listed above which seem to discourage toddler (and sometimes adult) involvement are exactly those things which can hook the young person's interest. You could say that this piece of music has a lot going on. Rather than be intimidated by that, try to see that as the very point of the game. Here's how:

  1. Active Participation or Make it fun! The first thing to do is ditch the audience etiquette we associate with "classical music" concerts, namely, sitting silently in a darkened concert hall in detached cerebral contemplation waiting for the right moment to applaud. Rather stifling, even for adults. My solution is to hold off on the live concert experience and instead find a high-quality video of YPGO online to watch at home. This way you can interact with you child and the musical experience with as much enthusiasm as is necessary to keep things interesting. Penny sat on my lap, I opened a YouTube window, and these are the ideas that I kept in mind to actively participate with my daughter and the concert.
  2. Performative Listening or Use your eyes and say what you see! I developed this idea from teaching "Music Appreciation" to undergraduates at UCSB [link to post]. An orchestra is such a visual experience: bows gliding up and down, gleaming metal surfaces, dancing fingers, crashing cymbals, gesticulating conductor. It's well worth drawing attention to these things as the camera pans around the ensemble and focuses in on a particular section. These observations do not need to be particularly profound or insightful. Penny and I talked about how some instruments were big and some small, some performers had curly hair and some wore glasses, how some instruments were brown or silver or gold or black, and how some instruments are tucked under chins or held between legs or laid upon laps or held in front, etc. etc.
  3. Physical Mimicry or Use your eyes and do what you see! Who doesn't love to "air guitar"? #bohemianrhapsody Observations of how performers hold their different instruments easily morphs into a game of charades. All it really takes is for the parent to initiate by moving their hands and arms or with the use of a prop like a pencil or spoon. Moreover, the panning of the camera to different instruments will keep the game fresh and dynamic as you and your toddler quickly switch positions from sliding trombones to transverse flute to sawing violin to enthusiastic xylophone.
  4. Intuitive Listening or Use your ears and say what you hear! I also developed this idea from my collegiate teaching. The human auditory system comes prewired to detect even the smallest changes in sound. It's how we detect sarcasm in a person's speech patterns, the location of someone talking in a building, the presence of an ambulance. In the case of music, "classical music" in general is known for wide variation, often utilizing every shade of fast-slow, up-down, loud-quiet, happy-sad, etc. Once you notice a change (and in YPGO they are rather blatant) describe it using whatever words or phrases you can. It does not need to be technical. It can simply be descriptive. Or emotional. Or pictorial. The cool thing with watching a video of a concert is that often when there is an important change in the music the cameras will highlight the source of the sound giving a visual correspondence to an aural event. Here's some examples from my time with Penny:

"Wow, that sound was high like a bird!" [Camera focused on piccolo.]

"Those ones play very low because they are so big." [Group of double bassists.]

"They are going a lot faster now!" [Bows jerking up and down quickly.]

"Those ones play loud and strong!" [Group of brass players.]

"This part is very quiet. I wonder when it will get loud again." [String players motionless.]

"It's like they're swinging on a big swing!" [Clarinets alternately playing up and down.]

"I think it sounds like galloping horses." [Trumpets and snare drum clipping along.]

"I'm lost at this part. It sounds like lots of people whispering at the same time." [???]

That last example is extremely important. Whatever you do, don't make it seem like you are only participating in this experience because you have complete confidence in what's going on at all times. In fact, it's best if you aren't for the sake of your toddler. Sometimes the music will sound vague or overly-complicated and you will get lost. Own it! Show your toddler that it's ok to be lost. It's musical hide-and-seek! It's part of the game!

Below is the video I used with Penny. The music starts at 2:00 and they didn't get as good a shot of the percussion section in action as I would have liked, but besides that, I would highly recommend it! Good camera work, lots to see and hear, and very well played. If this one doesn't strike your fancy, find your own, for whatever reasons suit you.

My hope is that this approach to listening to "classical music" with a toddler sounds doable to any parent out there. You don't have to be a musicologist to do it. You don't even need to know the names of the instruments. Or the form of the piece. Or the socio-historical context of YPGO and its meaning for England at the close of WWII. All you need to do is actively participate with your toddler on a visually and aurally interesting journey. If you don't know the way, be attentive and courageous in the face of the unknown and point out all the things you notice. Show young people that life is full of wondrous and exciting things and that given a context of safety, curiosity, fun, and empathy, everyone is equipped to make something of it. #babysteps

Music 15: Teaching and Learning

This last week marks the last time in my UCSB graduate student career that I will teach "Music 15", more commonly known as "Music Appreciation". The concept of "Music Appreciation" has a long history that presents particular problems to twenty-first century graduate students and their undergraduate pupils. Around the beginning of the 1900s philharmonic orchestras in Europe and the US began to cater to wider audiences by offering pre-concert lectures aimed at giving unfamiliar listeners—children, lower-class workers, etc.—the active listening skills, musical nomenclature, and conceptual frames necessary for making sense of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, Listz's Les Prèludes, and other "great" works by "great" composers. A good example of these efforts is the New York Philharmonic's Young People's Concerts, lovingly developed in the 20s by conductor/composer "Uncle" Ernest Schelling who used "PowerPoint" presentations done on illuminated glass slides, developed silly mnemonic devices to recognize themes ("This is the symphony that Schubert wrote and never finished..."), and made use of various props. (Interestingly, the early Soviet government initiated a massive Music Appreciation program to involve the proletariat in "high" art, even during the famine and winter of the Civil War following the October Revolution!)

"Uncle" Ernest Schelling (1876-1939) and his well-dressed dog. He seems to have the sense of humor necessary to appeal to an audience of children. I'd  love  to write a book on this guy and spend some time in the University of Maryland archive collection.

"Uncle" Ernest Schelling (1876-1939) and his well-dressed dog. He seems to have the sense of humor necessary to appeal to an audience of children. I'd love to write a book on this guy and spend some time in the University of Maryland archive collection.

A century later, we still have Music Appreciation, both as part of educational outreach at orchestras, such as the New York Phil, and as undergraduate courses at universities, such as UCSB. I have taught this class (which has a capacity of ~70 in the summer to ~450 per quarter during the school year) seven times as a teaching assistant and six times as the lecturer/associate. In the summer of 2015 I spearheaded the department's effort to revamp the course and I've been fine tuning it ever since in the hopes that it's future will be bright. Here are some of our pedagogical concerns and solutions.

  • Music + Culture: Often "Classical" music is touted as a timeless, universal music, which has tends to make it untouchable and unrelatable. It was important to put this music back into a historical and cultural context to show how musical choices had value for those making and consuming it. This approach speaks to me because context is one of the things that excites me about music, it was possible get away from historical teleology by making units based on cultural issues, and it allowed me to get away from canonical pieces and composers (I developed a Music and Childhood unit from sections of my dissertation).  
  • Four Ways of Listening: It wasn't enough to have students learn to recognize selected "masterpieces" by ear using terminology (eg. melisma, sonata form, pizzicato, Klangfarbenmelodie) that they could barely define, not to mention use in a cogent sentence. Not to say that critical listening isn't important, but it should be taught in a more holistic way, which I divided into:
  1. Technical/Intuitive Listening: The use of any technical language a student may have from exposure to music—there's always one kid who raises their hand and starts talking about cadential hemiolas!—but also encouraging students to make attempts to put words to what they hear the music doing in an intuitive sense—getting louder, speeding up, building in energy, getting confusing, playing a singable tune. All of those observations are an attempt to interact with the development in the music and it's vital to encourage the innate human ability to notice sonic changes. Specialized language can come later.
  2. Performative Listening: We always try to either do live demos or watch high quality videos. Noticing the performers and the audience—how they are placed, what they look like, how they're behaving, what they're playing—emphasizes the human agency of music, reveals cultural values, and adds visual interest to a sonic experience. (There's nothing quite like seeing a small bass drum player pounding away for the end of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony and have to leap upon his instrument in the end to mute the sound!)
  3. Extra-Musical Listening: Words, costumes, backdrops, stories, expressions, pyrotechnics! Some genres (opera, character pieces, tone poems) revel in the extra-musical combination of media. Other genres (absolute symphonies and chamber music) go out of their way to try to avoid these things. Noticing either stance gives us more insight into cultural values and context.
  4. Cultural Listening: This is the backbone of Music 15 as I taught it. I always tell my students that the stories we discuss are only part of the complex story, but also that knowing about the context of a piece provides a frame of reference that can change how you hear it. Palestrina's beautiful a cappella masses go hand in hand with Counter-Reformation views of Catholicism's role as spiritual orthodoxy. Berlioz's creepy finale makes sense in a context of Romanticism and gothic novels. Schoenberg's twelve-tone compositions mesh with the cultural disillusionment in the wake of WWI and the advent of composition as an academic discipline.
Conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) directed the NYPhil's Young Person's Concerts from 1958-72, which were broadcasted on TV. Iconic.

Conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) directed the NYPhil's Young Person's Concerts from 1958-72, which were broadcasted on TV. Iconic.

 Good luck Music 15! May future graduate students appreciate you (in all senses of that word).

I.L.L.-mortal Beloved

I know most people think that musicologists lead a charmed life, but hopefully this epistolary post will show the world some of the trials and tribulations that effect musicologists everywhere. 

28 May 2017, 11:28pm

I'm freaking out! Through no fault of my own, UCSB has put my library account on hold and blocked me from ordering I.L.L.s (Interlibrary Loans)—Just like that, I'm cut off! What about all my books? And the sheet music? No more photocopies from Munich or London?!

I have so many intense emotions right now, emotions that I believe are best expressed through the riveting lyrics and choreographic wizardry of "Makes Me I.L.L." by *NSYNC. Thanks to Jess Roy for giving voice to my pain (and for knowing all the lyrics by heart). "You can say I'm crazy if you want to / That's true, I'm crazy 'bout you / You could say that I'm breakin' down inside / 'Cause I can't see that my lending account is blocked for something I'm pretty sure is all your fault!"

#heartbreak #librarydrama #gradschool #snafu #bookwithdrawal #godhelpmeacceptthethingsicannotcontrol #labcoats

29 May 2017, 4:12am

Thanks to everyone for their support through this trying time. Your sincere concern is what keeps me going. I still haven't heard from I.L.L. Maybe because they're ignoring my constant texts and phone calls. Maybe because it's the middle of the night. Maybe because it's a holiday... who knows!?!?

Alissa "Aune" Aune alerted me to this song by Run-D.M.C. "You Be'" which captures my state of mind as I grapple with the feelings that come as a result of the library having "left [me] standin' in [my]' stance."

#wheresmyclosure #hatersgonnahate #buggin #dignifiedweeping #musicologistshavefeelings

29 May 2017, 1:32pm

Well, the folks at I.L.L. have finally contacted me... and things just keep getting worse! They say I didn't return the book before the due date and I say that I did! Can you believe it?!? But you know what? I'm going to decide to put a bold face on it. No more weeping over cereal in the kitchen in the middle of the night for me! I'm going to brave this new chapter in my life with all the heroism I can muster! That's why this Gaelic folksong feels so right: "'I.L.L.ean bithibh sunndach" enjoins Scottish immigrants to be happy as they sail across the ocean... leaving their beloved books, I mean, country behind... and to embrace their new adventure like...


I can't do it!!!! Please I.L.L., check your stacks again! Don't send me to the metaphorical Canada of booklessness!

#acceptance #poiseinthefaceofadversity #gaidhlig #harsh #happymusicsadlyrics #afraidtocheckemail

31 May 2017, 9:31pm

Um... This is all quite embarrassing... It turns out I may in fact be responsible for this little I.L.L. snafu after all...

You see, I turned in a book by Sándor Balogh entitled Moldvai csángómagyar furulyás dallamok és énekek on May 26. The only problem is that that book wasn't due then. The one that was due was by Sándor Balogh entitled Moldvai hangszeres dallamok... Which I found on my shelf yesterday after the nice people at the library emailed me.


I blame the California public school system!! Yeah! If I had been given more quality instruction in Hungarian in my teens, this sort of thing wouldn't have happened! Come on Proposition 98! I thought you had my back!!


You know what? Enough finger pointing! This is silly. I accept the blame here. I also admit that I acted rather rashly the past couple of days. I said things to the UCSB library, terrible things. I only hope we can patch things up. We used to be so close. We used to have such great times. Remember all those books you lent me? And then how I returned them in a timely manner? Those were the days! I want to have that again! Here's a song to express my hope in a future with you: "I.L.L. Be There" by Jackson 5. "Let me fill your heart with joy and laughter / Togetherness, well it's all I'm after, / Just call my name, and I.L.L. be there."

#imsorry #givemeanotherchance #missinyou #songsaboututopianegalitarianism #outofexcuses #agoodhardlookinthemirror #hungarianflutemusic #beginningtohopeagain #agglutinativelanguagesarenojoke

I hope this story shines as a light to anyone who has gone through or is currently going through serious book withdrawal. Just take it one day at a time.

Illiteracy in Worship

In my work as a music director at a Protestant church here in Santa Barbara, congregants or choir members will every now and again forward me articles or blog posts that they think I might find interesting. The other day I was sent 15 Reasons We Should Still Be Using Hymnals. The title pretty much says it all. The author, a chap named Jonathan, describes himself as "bothered by the pervasiveness of commercial contemporary music and the arrogance with which tradition is discarded and ignored." I read it. Then I read A Response to "15 Reasons We Should Still Be Using Hymnals", a rebuttal by a guy named Brad who heads his post with a smokey black and white photo of circling birds with the words "Worship Wars" written across it. I read that one too.

I don't usually engage in online debates. But these articles got me thinking about what I see as the central idea of Christian worship, which neither of these authors get to the heart of. Read them first if you care to know where I'm starting from.

The Rejection of Illiteracy in the Context of Worship

Let me give two examples of what I mean by illiteracy in the context of worship. The first is pro-hymnal and the second pro-screen.

1. Perhaps there's a person used to the safety and familiarity of hymnals is put in the position of having to aurally pick up an unknown praise song that they find rhythmically challenging (lots of syncopation), formally ambiguous (verse, chorus, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge... huh?), and devoid of any of the visual/aural cues that hymnals provide (those open-ended I-IV-I-IV vamping intros). Add to that the idea that this person's ears may be unused to amplified instruments, their eyes unused to following words on screens and catching cues from the lead singers, and their bodies unused to dancing and hand raising even as everyone around them starts jumping and clapping. They stand there silent and overwhelmed. "This is not worship!" they say to themselves. They are, in this context, illiterate. And they reject it as worship.

2. Perhaps there's a person who is used to the suggestiveness and abandon of praise songs and screen-projected lyrics who is put in a position of having to look up a song in a hymnal (the red one, not the blue one!) and to quickly get to the right number as the organ (an instrument they only associate with horror movies) starts bellowing. They finally find the hymn, only to be faced with an accusatory page filled with staff notation that they have little idea of how to read ("Let's see... Every Good Boy Does Fine..."). Everyone around them is plowing on (it's verse 2 now, so keep up!), and this person settles down to silently reading the words or checking the bulletin to cue up the next hymn so they aren't behind next time. "This is not worship!" they say to themselves. They are also, in this context, illiterate. And they too reject it as worship.

Both of these people are out of their elements. The unfamiliar contexts in which they find themselves feel foreign, and as foreigners they become confused, lost, and embarrassed.

And that's ok.

The Acceptance of Illiteracy in the Context of Worship

It's ok because illiteracy and worship are not mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary. Instead of signaling the failure of worship and the rejection of discomfort, these uncomfortable experiences offer worshipers an opportunity to get to the heart of who they are, who God is, and how worship is the language that binds the two together. Maybe it goes something like this:

"This is not worship! Everything is unfamiliar! I feel like I don't belong with these people! I feel like an idiot! It hurts that I can't do it with the ease, confidence, and joy that usually accompanies my weekly acts of corporate worship!


"And God is here.

"He loves me when I am strong and when I am weak, comfortable and in distress, smart and stupid, happy and sad. His loving presence through the Holy Spirit is not contingent upon any earthly context. He loves me even in this strange and imperfect place. And this discomfort I feel is an opportunity, not to reject this experience, but to recognize that the desire, even the frustrated desire, that I have in my heart to give my best self to the God who made me is proof of my longing for Him, a longing he planted in my heart and has tended all my life.

"God is indeed here... 

"I will make a choice and worship! Perhaps I will rest quietly in the thought that His presence is ever present and ever calling out. Perhaps I will gaze in detached wonder at those around me who are fluent in this style of worship and rejoice in their joy. Or I will redouble my efforts and focus my ears to grab hold of the slippery melody or I will ask my neighbor for help in following the notation. Or I will kneel. Or cover my face with my hands. Or dance. Or clap. Or cry. Or laugh. Or breathe.

"God is here.

"And his presence is all that is needful for worship. Indeed, my own discomfort works to make me all the more aware of him."

Issues at Stake

This seems right to me. It seems more productive and profound than a surface-level battle over the relative worshipfullness of PowerPoint. But it also reveals why these debates over music-making are so volatile and why they have torn churches apart. Here are three issues that I believe emerge from this discussion on illiteracy in the context of worship.

Worship is an active and individual choice. In the end, it is not about hymnals or screens, old songs or new, pipe organ or cajón, choir director or music leader, technology working or technology failing (by "technology" I mean everything from projector screens to microphones to organs to paved roads to writing systems to mental signification—think about it)... In the end, I say, it's about nothing more or less than the question God has been putting to us all from the beginning: "Where are you? Are you hiding from me, thinking that uncomfortable circumstances or unintended failures separate us? Or are you searching for me just as much amidst the rubble as you do amidst security? Because I will never rest until we are together." Don't blame the hymnals and don't blame the screens. Be present and choose.

Churches should be places to learn together. Going back to my two uncomfortable and fictional examples, if familiarity does not eventually come and the barrage of newness in unremitting, they are liable to become overwhelmed. Familiarity is a process of learning. Learning is about coming to grips with our limitations, trying, failing, trying again, and failing. It comes down to the teachers (the leaders, both musical and otherwise) and the peers (the literate congregation) creating an environment of acceptance and patience. (In my experience, churches can be notoriously bad at this.) I would go so far as to say that this bumpy road toward learning is holy. Jesus came to earth as an illiterate and helpless infant (from the Latin "infans" = "the voiceless one") and went through all the ups and downs of learning throughout his time on Earth. His entire life was a life of worship. So to are ours.

Maybe Western Christianity would not be so afraid of the discomfort of illiteracy if we dealt with our unhealthy issues with emotion, particularly negative emotion. For all the hymns and praise songs that are based on the Psalms (a perdurable argument for both sides of the fence), there is a definite paucity when it comes to themes of rage, despair, or grief. These are raw expressions of a worshiping soul that is in the midst of struggling with what one could call an illiteracy with human existence. Few churches dare to allow these thoughts into their hallowed doors. The Man of Sorrows (a frightfully passionate person who felt the entire gamut of human feelings) might be frustrated by our emotionally narrow view of "praise". (On the other hand, depression and self-abnegation are not Christian virtues. This is a very easy path for religion to take, but it ends up, in my opinion, replacing looking for God and being honest with our present state of being with ignoring Him in favor of licking old wounds and focusing on failure, both ours and that of everyone around us.)

Goetz's Piano Quintet: Gotta Have That Bass

The term "piano quintet" actually designates a variety of five-person ensemble combinations. As mentioned earlier, by far the most standard group involves piano + string quartet or piano-violin-violin-viola-cello. However, other groupings are possible: piano-violin-viola-viola-cello (Paul Juon), piano-violin-viola-cello-cello (Henri-Jean Rigel), piano-oboe-violin-viola-cello (Théodore Dubois), piano-flute-clarinet-bassoon-horn (Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov), piano-clarinet-horn-violin-cello (Zdeněk Fibich), piano-oboe-clarinet-bassoon-horn (Beethoven), etc.

The standard ensemble of piano + string quartet has the advantage of matching the piano's wide range with four instruments that cover the same tonal space... almost. Truth be told, the piano actually goes more than an octave lower than the lowest note on the cello. A handful of composers have apparently felt that the strings should match the piano in the lower regions, and so have written piano quintets for piano-violin-viola-cello-double bass.

Herman Goetz (1840-1876)... I'm drawing a blank on some sort of beard-related joke. Come up with your own!

Herman Goetz (1840-1876)... I'm drawing a blank on some sort of beard-related joke. Come up with your own!

Herman Goetz was a German-Swiss composer who wrote such a quintet. Take a listen to the opening of the first movement. Throughout the sombre, moiling introduction, you may be able to detect the double bass grumbling along down below. Then, at 1:34, the mood changes... (I'd suggest listening at least until 3:41, when we hit the repeat sign.)

The drama promised and forewarned in the slow introduction, bursts from its proverbial dam and flows along "Allegro con fuoco", lively and with fire! Weeeeeee! In those downward, scalar gestures that begin the section, you can really hear the double bass go. To my ears it adds serious "heft", a word I use for the sense of weight being heaved about, but also for the sort of raspy, onomatopoeic quality you hear when the double bass bow digs into the strings. This instrument reminds you that bowed string instruments make their sound by rubbing or scraping wires, hairs, guts, or other strings perpendicularly against each other, a fact that the melodiousness of the violin, viola, and even cello seem to mask.

One more example: here's the last movement, a sprightly yet still hefty sort of dance. The double bass has some great moments, adding some weight to the section marked "pesante" or ponderous at 0:37 (which is an interesting juxtaposition of weightiness and dancing rhythms), doubling the cello at the octave in the fugal section (starting 1:33, bass in at 1:41ish), the weird, trembling fade out at 2:55, and of course, the killer dash to the ending starting at 4:40.

Check out the other movements as well! Have a grounded, bass-heavy day!

Arensky's Piano Quintet: [BONUS] Creepy Waltz

I didn't do anything for Halloween this year. Penny, while adorable in her owl costume, is not big on knocking on strangers' doors nor on eating candy with her baby teeth. Plus, Jess and I consider the day only an annoying, loud, orange-and-black stepping stone to Thanksgiving, Fall's real holiday. #hewentthere #nohalloweenspirit #oldfogy

Hocus Pocus  (1993), a movie that may have inspired me to love books with unhealthy intensity.

Hocus Pocus (1993), a movie that may have inspired me to love books with unhealthy intensity.

However, I'll give a nod to Halloween with this little "trick and treat" (see what I did there?): a spooky waltz from Arensky's Piano Quintet. Now, I already did a post on this composition where I talked about the fugue theme from the final movement. But I couldn't pass up this fascinating moment in the midst of the second movement. This movement is a Theme and Variations, meaning, you hear a theme at the beginning and then the rest of the piece is reiterations of that theme varied in a variety of various ways. It's like someone trying on different costumes, one after the other (not unlike a picky Halloween-er).

Press play. Listen up to 0:31. That melody in the first violin is the Theme. (It's actually a French folk song from maybe the 1400s called Sur le pont d'Avignon, j'ai ouï chanter la belle.) If you keep listening after that, the piano enters, playing the theme quite clearly and prominently, and constituting the First Variation. Et cetera. Et cetera.

Now check out the Sixth Variation. It starts around 3:16. The meter has now changed from duple to triple, as heard in the "oom-pah-pah" accompaniment in the piano and pizzicato cello. Meanwhile, the piano's upper part gracefully glides about like a solitary ballroom dancer. The effect is actually rather pleasant...

But then, the other three string players enter. In unison. In long, drawn out notes. And so quietly you might not notice it until it's been happening for a while. And then you wonder how long this sighing specter has been looking over your shoulder. Eeeek!

But it gets a little creepier. Because the piano waltzer doesn't seem to realize that they aren't alone. It doesn't acknowledge this austere presence and dances on, oblivious to the ghostly melody wafting in like a chilly breeze from the other side. Double eeeeek!

And then, with a bone chilling gasp, you realize that the unison strings are actually playing the original Theme, but with the duration augmented (that is, elongated) to the point at which it's almost unrecognizable. That sweet and sad melody that you just got to appreciate from 0:00 to 0:31 appears here in ghastly form. The situation is punctuated by the continued presence of the unsuspecting (or is it complicit?) music-box dancer. Triple eeeeeek!

Anastasia  (1997), and people say the Grimm Brothers are horrifying...

Anastasia (1997), and people say the Grimm Brothers are horrifying...

Wow. Maybe I like Halloween more than I thought... I will say that this musical interpretation could fit in well with Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the grotesque, a term he developed in the study of Renaissance carnivals and a time when weird festivals like Halloween actually had important cultural significance. (Check out his introduction to Rabelais and His World.)

Have a Happy November!

Arensky's Piano Quintet: The Little Fugue that Could

The last movement of Arensky's Piano Quintet made me laugh. When I first heard it there was something rather humorous about ending a grand composition with a movement half as long as any of the others that starts as a powerful fugue "in modo antico" (meaning "in olden style") that runs out of steam after less than a minute. What was Anton thinking?!

First off, to write music "in olden style" during the Romantic era usually means you're about to hear some fugues. (In case you don't know, a fugue is when a melodic theme enters one instrument at a time in independent layers. It gets very dense very quickly.) Fugues are difficult to write (and difficult to listen to unless you practice) due to the very real possibility of cacophony when more than one melody is sounding at once, requiring a composer of exceptional skill. (This is part of the reason J.S. Bach, the mind-bendingest fugue-o-phile of them all, was revered in the history-conscious nineteenth century, and has remained so to this day.) So all this "in modo antico" in the last movement had me primed to expect some major counterpoint!

But... That doesn't actually seem to happen. First off, just by glancing at the average length of movements, the final one stands out for coming in at around 3 minutes, while the first three of the quintet average 6.5 minutes. Secondly... well, go ahead and give the piece a listen. Note the powerful beginning and, also, when the mood changes. I'll wait...

Finished? Ok! It's a nice piece, yes? Bold at the beginning. Then lush. Then a scintillating and joyous ending. But, what about that "in modo antico"? It starts as a long-striding fugue with a strong, easy-to-catch theme. And then at about 45 seconds, it just stops. Fugue done! And what does the rest of the movement consist of, you may ask? The lyrical middle part that builds to a lovely climax is actually a second movement quotation of the theme that is put through variations. Then the joyous part at 2:08 is a first movement quotation of the main theme complete with identical ending.

It was as though Arensky said to himself, "For this last movement I will write a fugue in the grand style of Bach! [The sounds of writing, frustrated "humpfs" from composer, the crumpling of paper.] You know what? Forget it! I've got about 45 seconds of fugue; why not just get this thing done and bring back some of those sweet Romantic-sounding moments I wrote from earlier movements?"

Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861-1906), pictured here sporting identical mustaches as  Scriabin  and  Roslavets .

Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861-1906), pictured here sporting identical mustaches as Scriabin and Roslavets.

That's how I heard it at first. But I've actually changed my mind. The actual fugal part of Arensky's finale may be short, but the true significance resides in the theme itself. Because if you listen to the whole composition, you realized that you've heard that theme before. Check out the first 5 seconds of the piece, a salutation in the piano that bursts onto the scene without further elaboration.

It's the fugue theme!

Now listen to a grand climax that brings the Theme and Variations movement to a fierce halt. Start at 4:20. It's the beginning of the seventh variation with some galloping triplets in the piano with the theme entering staggered first on the viola, then violin 2, then violin 1. (It's not technically a fugue, but the effect is rather dense and contrapuntal.) The intensity increases to 4:48 where, in a fit of fortissimo, the piano plays some dramatic chords, that are answered by lunging runs in the strings before everything comes crashing down in a fortississimo haze.

It's the fugue theme!

This knowledge will change the way you hear. The appearance of this odd fragment in the first and second movements will be heard as presages of the final fugue theme. And the return of sections from the first and second themes in the last movements can then be heard as simply returning the favor. The stunted last movement becomes a matter of equilibrium and retrospection. You could even say that it reframes "in olden style" to draw attention to the temporal nature of the musical experience... #mindblown

De Castillon's Piano Quintet: Just Wonderful

That's right: just wonderful! I barely have anything else to say about it. Only that Alexis de Castillon was a short-lived composer whose Opus 1 truly touches my heart. The opening melody, heard many times thereafter, suggests to me that paradoxical strength that lies in fragility, a bold yet tender embrace.

Here's the first movement played by Timothy Kwok and the Romer Quartet. I hope you enjoy.

Medtner's Piano Quintet: Coloring Outside the Lines

Lately I have been enjoying some chamber music. Commuting to school or work in Santa Barbara rarely takes longer than 15 minutes, which is the perfect amount of time to listen to a favorite movement from an old standby or incrementally explore a new find.

Most recently the Piano Quintet in C Major of Nikolai Medtner has become something of an obsession. Even as I write this post there are fragments of melody spinning around in my head. I have been working my way through various piano quintets (for those unfamiliar, an ensemble usually involving piano + string quartet (2 violins, viola, and cello)). Perhaps in a later post I will share some thoughts on works by Schumann, Schubert, Shostakovich (hmm... I seem to be on a [sh] kick), Stanford, and Franck.

Nikolai Karlovich Medtner: 1880 (O.S. 1879) – 1951. Similar haircut to George Costanza in this photo. The similarity ends there.

Nikolai Karlovich Medtner: 1880 (O.S. 1879) – 1951. Similar haircut to George Costanza in this photo. The similarity ends there.

The Medtner stands out to me from these other examples because of his bold use of textures and colors. He has some very nice melodies (again, they are earworming my brain pretty strong right now), and I'm aware of some canonic or contrapuntal techniques, but the real interest lies in his textures, and especially in how he juxtaposes different sections.

Take a listen to the first minute of movement 1 below:

From the very first moments, the deep, arpeggiating piano punctuated by pizzicato strings has a striking effect. The oscillating harmony over a drone during this section has a modal quality that would make me want to use words like "epic" or "exotic" if my musicologist oath didn't prevent me. And just about when you get used to the sound, something different pops up: a descending figure in the piano, floating Zeus-like down on a cloudy bed of wavering strings. (To be fair, it is perhaps less Zeus-like than I thought a minute ago... If pressed, I think I'd change that to an Iris-like descent, the Greek rainbow goddess. Yeah, that fits. Nailed it! #hermeneutics)

After that interesting introduction (which comes back later, like at 6:44 and after, giving Iris a much more important role in the entire piece) the first real melody is passed around between some strings, building, subsiding, doing what a late-Romantic piece of music ought to. Then around 0:44 there is a sudden shift in harmony and the wavering strings come back in a moment that sounds like a fragment of a film score. The instruments seem unperturbed by this gravitational shift, and the piano takes up the opening melody.

Keep listening to that first movement and notice the constant shifts, especially those where the piano or strings or both lapse into shimmering filagree.

I want to highlight one more moment where the cool and calm of the piece is disrupted by a moment of utter perturbation and how the instruments find their way out of the problem. Start around 4:30 where an ecstatic and energetic chorale puts the piece in the height of self-possession. The melody starts to evaporate, flickering out with a tremolo until you are left in a rather uncomfortable silence at 4:57. The strings try to feel their way in the aural dark by striking some pizzicato matches. (It worked before in the introduction!) But this effort only rouses the piano, which strikes out in brutal gestures from the low register! The strings, giddy with fear, echo back the piano's declamation. It's hard to imagine how the music will recover from this derailment.

And then, BAM! a piercing shaft of light at 5:30! It's a brilliant moment of ornamental energy, completely shifting the harmony, reigniting the instrumentalists' focus, and returning to them their sense of unity as each take their place and set out anew. From there its pretty smooth sailing through glorious melodies until the pizzicato-punctuated ending.

For an interesting music-literature pairing, I suggest George MacDonald's  The Golden Key .  Light and dark and rainbows and opening doors. Illustrated here by Ruth Sanderson.

For an interesting music-literature pairing, I suggest George MacDonald's The Golden Key.  Light and dark and rainbows and opening doors. Illustrated here by Ruth Sanderson.

Very nice piece. I especially love "Musica Viva's" rendition here. Check out the other two movements when you have the time. Or take a 25 minute commute somewhere (down to Ventura to visit either of their two Target locations, perhaps?) and hear all three.


M&S Project: Sigh No More (Part 1: Lyrics)

Alright. Here we go!

For the first musicological analysis of Mumford and Sons music we'll take a look at the first song from their first album, Sigh No More. As stated in the introductory post, these explorations consider the music from a variety of angles in order to tease out instances of musical communication. This initial foray considers the combined effects of word and music as they progress through time.

I'm going to take some time to really dig into the lyrics of the song in this first post. This won't necessarily happen each time, but I think it's a good idea for three reasons:

  1. Most readers are probably more familiar and comfortable with analyzing words for their meaning or meanings (poetic exegesis, if you will),
  2. Having a solid foundation in the text will help us to understand how the music works with or against that meaning, how it relates to the semantic meaning of the words, and
  3. The eventual musical argument I'm trying to make will be important for future analyses, so going slowly now will give us a leg up later.

I won't always provide the written out song texts in their entirety. In some cases, ambiguities in the words provide opportunities for multiple meanings in their interpretation and is part of what makes the song so interesting. I'll actually be arguing that ambiguities in the words make them more musical, but that's jumping the gun... When considering the lyrics of Sigh No More, there is actually something of a problem in nailing down the "official" text; a quick search online reveals a plethora of contrary variations that drastically alter the meaning of the poem from one version to the next. The version I'm writing out here is the best one that I can come up with, based mostly on my own ears and aided by a little Shakespeare. Here it is, divvied up into three sections:

I've divided the words into three sections, basing this division on rhyme schemes, meter, and poetic meaning. By grouping the words in this way, we can see the tenor or feeling of the text change from one section to the next.

"Much Ado About Nothing" by Robert Smirke (1753-1845) via Royal Shakespeare Company Collection. Dogberry seems on edge.

"Much Ado About Nothing" by Robert Smirke (1753-1845) via Royal Shakespeare Company Collection. Dogberry seems on edge.

In section A, I've underlined the lyrics that are quotations from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing: "Serve God..." are Benedick's words of comfort to a dejected and wrathful Beatrice (Act V, scene ii), "Live unbruised..." comes from the concluding denouement where almost all character relationships are healed either through brotherly forgiveness or marriage (Act V, scene iv), and "Sigh no more..." is a fragment from a longer song that takes as its theme the infidelity of men ("deceivers ever") and the need of women to shrug off their defects ("by you blithe and bonny") (Act 2, scene iii). These quotations are not only plucked out of their theatrical context (while retaining some of the narrative associations for those who know where they come from), but are combined or sandwiched or mixed in with original lyrics by Mumford and Sons, which create interesting layers of reference and meaning.

What I mean by reference is what I perceive to be an ambiguity in who is speaking/singing the words at any given time. In the first stanza of section A, we hear a quote by Shakespeare, then an original line, another Shakespeare, and more original lyrics. The original words strike me as powerfully subjective and personal, as if uttered by a narrator, perhaps a narrator who is reading or listening to or recalling these lines by Shakespeare. This reflection upon someone else's words causes the narrator to insert their own commentary, and a desperate commentary it seems to be, judging by the repetition of "I'm sorry". Apparently Benedick's forgiveness does little to alleviate the narrator's conscience, but rather intensifies the feeling of guilt.

Again, in the second stanza of section A, Balthazar's song gets only two lines in before it is interrupted by the narrator who seems to identify only too closely with the culpability and fallenness of mankind, twice declaring "you know me". (Who this "you" actually is is a fascinating question!)

So, already this song has set up an interesting tension between a preexistent text and reactive commentary. Shakespeare is known as being an authoritative observer of human character, and it all seems to be too much for the increasingly despondent narrator.

The B section is short and unassuming, but actually functions as an important pivot point in the trajectory of this text. Another Shakespeare quote, "Man is a giddy thing" sums up Benedick's assessment of his own development, his changing character and priorities (Act V, scene iv). This time the narrator has nothing to add. Instead, the quote echoes not once, not twice but four times total! Repetition is very important in poetry and in music. The lyrics repeatedly declare that man is "giddy", a fun word that has roots both in "insanity" and in "being possessed by God". Benedick means here that he is duplicitous, a confirmed bachelor throughout most of the play finds himself recanting his views in the end and turning husband. Human changeability perhaps isn't all together a bad thing. Perhaps our very ability to change offers us escape from our sorrow, our impurity, and from the exposure we feel at being known and recognized as such.

Perhaps those are some of the ideas that are bouncing around the narrator's head, because as section C starts, we have moved into a very different world.

No longer quoting Shakespeare, here the contortions of the first section and the hammering of the second section give way to lyrics bursting with love, freedom, growth, alignment, beauty, and redemption. Interestingly the text does not seem to declare a happily-ever-after scenario, but simply, yet powerfully, speaks of new perspectives on the world and of choices to become "more like" that which we were designed to be. Perspectives have changed: the narrator now seems to be the one being addressed (perhaps by the knowledgable "you" that so frightened the narrator in section A?). The second stanza gives the mic back to the narrator and reveals their new understanding of the connectedness and potentiality of existence. We've come a long way.

Let me know how you think about this analysis of the poetry. I'd be happy to entertain other interpretations. Next time we will see how this lyrical trajectory plays out when put to music.

Mumford & Sons Project

In between dissertation and fatherhood I'd like to keep this blog going by starting a modest project that's been rattling around in my head for a few years now. About five years ago, in the midst of a brutal Spokane, Washington winter, my wife stumbled upon the band Mumford & Sons in the form of isolated songs from their first album (Sigh No More [2009]) played randomly by Pandora. Each song resonated deeply with us, and since that time they have continued to resonate after repeated listening. The next two albums (Babel [2012] and Wilder Mind [2015]) are filled with equally stirring numbers that at various times have strangely impressed me in a variety of ways.

I'd like to explore these songs. The thrust of this project is both analytical and interpretational: to turn my musicologist ear to a selection of songs by the band Mumford & Sons for the reason of exploring their musical attributes and nuances. My argument is that the music, both on its own and in conjunction with the words, functions in ways that carry the possibility of meaning, often complex or even contradictory meanings. The music in Mumford & Sons songs seems to communicate.

Before I get started I'd like to lay out a few ground rules:

  1. I am not a certified popular music scholar, nor am I someone who is particularly knowledgable of popular music. (It's actually a family joke. Jess finds my inability to correctly differentiate NSNYC from Backstreet Boys adorably pathetic.) So I will not be making statements about musical influences from or rankings with other popular bands or giving background information on producers, labels, or studios. I also will be using musicological terminology about which a popular music scholar or a fan might take umbrage.
  2. This is a project intended for the layperson. Analysis and critique that consist of torrents of technical jargon are ultimately an isolated and aggravating endeavor and I it is my hope that I can communicate clearly in ways that anyone can understand: the fan, the musicologist, or the curious listener. If I do end up using technical language, it will appear in [brackets]. [Musical hermeneutics should be fun!]
  3. This is not an unbiased analysis. As I've already stated, I have been cultivating a personal connection to this music for the past five years and because of that my analysis will not be free of personal anecdote or subjective interpretation. I am not aspiring to analytical objectivity; rather I seek to share my own thoughts and to reveal both how music can draw our ears into new ways of listening and how our listening can draw meanings from music in ever new and exciting ways.

There! I think this will be a pretty fun endeavor. I'm excited to have a side project that can help me engage with ideas that have been percolating for several years now. It should fit in quite nicely between translating academic German monographs and putting the baby to sleep. (Recently, Jess has discovered that little Penelope will go right to sleep as long as she's listening to Adele's new 25 album. Lights out in about 1.5 songs! #thepowerofmusic #teethingbaby)

Look out for more M&S Project posts in the next few months. The first one on the list is "Sigh No More" from the first album.

See you in 2016!