Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The future is now later

I've seen the future. Actually, I've been seeing it for awhile. Some day, in the not-too-distant future, music theory and history textbooks will exist primarily (only?!) in online format in which all the scores and audio (and indices, and maps, and charts) will be elegantly hyperlinked. I know, I know - normal people prefer reading from book-like objects with paper, etc. Well, normal will change eventually, and the sooner, the better.

Unfortunately, we still live in the present. I am teaching from a textbook published in 2007 which is chock full of musical examples I'm fairly certain many of my students can't easily play for themselves. Even if I'd had them buy the accompanying CD's, that wouldn't have covered all the brief examples in the text - or, at best, the student would have to find each track and search through it for the appropriate measures - not conducive to fluent reading. So, I set myself the little project this afternoon of playing through about 40-50 musical examples and uploading them to the class website. I actually enjoy that sort of project - not as intense as lesson-planning or grading, but I still feel like I'm doing something productive, and I love working out the technical logistics.

The playing part reminds me of how much I used to love playing for voice lessons, just sitting there in a half-conscious state, sightreading. The biggest challenge today was being content with as many 1-take recordings as possible, but I think the project came out well, and all the examples are now easily accessible online. This is the way it should be. Of course, if the entire text were to be published in the logical way, such examples would be built right into the content. Read about a passage and CLICK - it plays for you. A better world awaits.

Thinking about the joys of casual sightreading reminds me of how nice is it to just sit and play the piano, even when I'm just playing little fragments. Among the examples were two bits from Dvorak's 8th symphony: the gorgeous main themes of the 3rd and 4th movements. Those melodies have stuck with me for hours since. That's a fantastic piece that I hadn't thought about for awhile, but this little exercise brought it all right back, even if the soaring violins and suave cellos are being meekly imitated by my beloved Steinway. Today was even a chance to remember how much I love my piano which, oddly, I don't actually play all that often, since most of my practicing takes place at school.

As for the sightreading, I've long thought of the pleasure therein as closely analogous to playing video games. When everything's locked in, the response of the fingers to fast-moving visuals isn't really much different from playing . . . well, some really complicated game that I can't quite imagine, but you'd get extra points for turning a nice phrase, avoiding ugly clinkers, nailing a run that comes out of the blue, etc. It could be the saviour of music education: why play Grand Theft Auto when you could play Fake That Fugue? But that's really a blog topic for another day.

Monday, June 25, 2007

But I'm not supposed to like it . . .

My favorite blog-reading moment from the weekend concerned Jeremy Denk's little comeuppance on learning that a soundtrack moment (from Ice Age: The Meltdown, of all things) he loved was not by some undiscovered Hollywood composer, but rather by Aram Khachaturian! Denk, in the midst of one of his inimitably rhapsodic, dream-like bits, had opined, "Whoever wrote the music for this scene, I declare him or her a genius, one of the greatest living musical geniuses, and I refuse to back down from this." When a reader then ID'd Khachaturian as the "genius," I was disappointed to see that Denk backed down. True, everything he writes is on the border of tongue-in-cheek (tongue-approaching-cheek?), but it's funny how he felt one way thinking he'd uncovered something special in the hack world of Hollywood, but his opinion instantly changed on realizing he'd just saluted one of the great classical hacks. "Everything is contextual," Denk concluded. Well, yes, but it also shows how much we tend to be influenced by what we think we're supposed to think - even an iconoclast like Denk is alarmed to discover he unwittingly gave big props to the Sabre Dance man.

So, in addition to my very subjective lists of favorite movies, I'll proudly keep Kreisler's Praeludium and Allegro on my list of favorite musical works - and Kreisler makes Khachaturian look like Kirchner.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Movie Magic

This post by Greg Sandow from a few weeks back set off a wonderful series of comments from his readers. Their discussion about trying to get people to enjoy classical music also brought to mind Matthew Guerrieri's recent post on that topic. I'll let those comments speak for themselves to any who have time to read them, but I was most particularly drawn to the long Pauline Kael quote that made up most of Sandow's initial post. Kael's basic point is to talk about how naturally people in our culture take to movies and great moments in movies, and how what draws them in is often quite different than the more technical, intellectual sorts of things that academics say about movies. Sandow compares this to the absence of such a natural culture for the reception of classical music. As I embark tomorrow morning on teaching a Form & Analysis class for the first time, I'm particularly interested in the problem of getting lost in the academic side of explaining things, but that's not really what I came here to blog about either.

No, Kael's quote reminds me of one of the reasons I've kept my long lists of favorite movies over there in the MMmusing margin. For starters, I think I put the lists there because, when the blog was brand new, I desperately wanted to have some content on-site. I also imagined that one by one I'd eventually post about each movie and say why I loved it. I now realize I haven't done that, and I probably won't. (By the way, for the 0.05% of my readership that overlaps with the Sports Guy's readership, you may have noted that several years ago he started off an attempt to write columns on his top 75 [or some such number] favorite sports movies, but has only written about 10 of them, and the project seems to have died.)

A reason I probably won't is that I don't really feel a need to talk about these movies at a critical level. That's not my field and, as Ms. Kael's suggests, I don't naturally respond to them in a high art sort of way. I liked putting the lists together because the only real rule was that the movies had to be important and particularly satisfying to me. I realize that sounds kind of anti-intellectual, but I don't mean it that way. Many of the movies are probably worthy of long written tributes, and I could probably write decent reactions to them, but the truth is that my reasons for liking them often have more to do with my associations - what the movies meant in my life. For example, I've kind of snobbishly kept Chariots of Fire only on my honorable mention list because I know people snicker sometimes at its earnestness and manipulativeness. It seems to have a rep as one of the less deserving Best Picture winners, but I know it deserves to be in my top grouping.

I can't really pretend to be objective about it. Like I mentioned before with the HBO broadcast of Camelot on Broadway, Chariots of Fire intersected with a peculiar moment in my family's history when we'd first gotten cable TV but did not yet have a VCR. If a movie we liked was on HBO, my siblings and I would watch it every chance we'd get, because you could never be sure when you'd see it again. (Ironically, with Camelot, there ended up being a loooong wait to see it again.) So I watched Chariots of Fire -which had completely bored and confused me the first time I saw it in a theater - over and over, and it's now like a part of my family.

It's also finally (as of 2005) out in a widescreen DVD version with two excellent documentaries that I watched this weekend. Seeing them (and the movie a few weeks back) has convinced me to move it to my top 13 14 favorite movies list. The movie is so beautiful in so many ways and such a part of my life, why should I pretend I'm too cool to love it? I also keep trying to convince myself that A Fish Called Wanda doesn't really deserve such exalted status, but you know what? I'm not sure I can think of a movie with four performances as picture perfect as those delivered by Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis, John Cleese, and Michael Palin. So it stays as well. And maybe I'll someday write well-crafted essays in which I argue for the merits of these two very different 80's flicks, but it's useful to remind myself that there's no need to do that.

Unfortunately, there is a need for me to think about analysis as it relates to Bach, Beethoven, etc. I just hope I don't kill them in the process. (Oh yeah, they're already dead.)

[QUICK UPDATE: Another way of saying this is that thinking about how I react to and enjoy movies provides a nice counterbalance to the tendency to overthink my way about music. I'm most fundamentally interested in why it is that music is meaningful to me and others, but sometimes one naturally gets lost in explanations that are too intellectual. Here's a recent Dial M for Musicology post that addresses that problem in a different way.]

Friday, June 22, 2007

Consideration of Posts Past

No new post today, but there are some interesting comments attached to the previous post. OK, one of those comments is mine, and it's long enough to count for a post, so maybe I have posted today after all. After all, this is a post as well. I feel better already. (Now, back to the darkness of syllabus prep.)

UPDATE (two minutes later): I just realized that I recently passed the 100th post milestone. #100 turns out to have been one of my slightest posts of all, but what it links to is a more appropriate source of pride. - Now . . . back to the darkness . . .

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Remembrance of Things Past (and Crunched)

I love Terry Teachout's post today, not least because my family also used to make regular vacation stops in Gatlinburg, albeit usually en route to somewhere else. He does a great job articulating how memory and nostalgia can work, and he makes me want to get back to the Smoky Mountains. Not long after reading that, I had my own musical nostalgia moment while helping my newly 8-yr old daughter practice. She's just started working on the Veracini Gigue near the end of Suzuki Book 5. She doesn't actually study under the Suzuki method, but her teacher uses a lot of that repertoire, and the Veracini was always one my favorites. And I should know, having grown up with three Suzuki violinist sisters. (By the way, the Suzuki rep deserves a blog post or two of its own; I have my quibbles with it - with the very rigid idea of it, in fact - but there's a lot to be said for it as well, and it now has taken on a life of its own to the point that it's shameful that Wikipedia's entry on Veracini doesn't mention his place in Suzukidom. I'd guess a very high percentage of the world's Veracini performances are of that gigue in Suzuki settings.)

But back to my nostalgia moment. This gigue is a wonderful piece that, generally speaking, sails along much more easily than the difficult Vivaldi concerto that Suzukily precedes it. Then, right after the double bar, it happens: a crunch of a diminished seventh chord that, through the power of memory, makes me brace myself before it even arrives. I'm not saying my sisters and other Suzukiites I've heard over the years never mastered this chord; I'm just sayin'. That moment in the music to me is as much about the crunch of a student struggling with it as anything - and I'm sure I would feel that even if the finest violinist in the world were to sail through it. There's no telling how many times I've heard it tortured over the years -and I love it that way!

Here's what it's supposed to sound like: (Click on the music.)



Here's what it will always sound like to me: (Click again, although it's not quite right. I didn't feel it was fair to record my daughter, so I had some fun trying to get my computer synth to struggle.)




UPDATE: My dad, who's probably heard this chord more than I have, suggested that the crunch could use more punch, so I tried to make it worse, and I added piano. (Click above) Making my computer be humanly bad turns out to be harder than I expected. Here's the old version.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Constraints, Constraints

Clearly I'm still not back in full blogging mode, due to a variety of constraints, including getting ready for an upcoming summer semester of teaching. We'll see if I can get back on track soon.

I found this article in today's Boston Globe quite interesting. Yes, it's about Kelly Clarkson, and the pop world isn't really my territory; but, what I like is Joan Anderman's nuanced take on the conflict between artistic independence and commercial constraints. Anderman both salutes Clarkson's desire to let self-expression be her guide and laments the fact that the artistic results might not be as satisfying as when a savvy pop producer had guided her efforts. I've written several times before about the sometimes surprising value of constraints that might first seem limiting and even opposed to artistic ideals. It's nice to see a writer present such a balanced assessment of a complex aesthetic problem.

I was a little taken aback after my recent LOL caption binge to discover that there's a pretty well-defined syntax to that of thing, stupid as it is. I now realize that many of my efforts didn't really fit the mold. Who knew there'd be constraints involved in doing a good job of making a really silly and awkwardly phrased cat (or other) caption? Like so many kinds of humor, half the fun in such fads is the feeling of recognizing how something fits some existing pattern; the recognition provides one with a satisfying sense of insider-ness. But even in more exalted arts, that feeling of grammar recognition is an important part of why we enjoy what we hear/see/read, etc.

And now, constraints compel me to end this post already.

Monday, June 11, 2007

It's mine!

My almost 8-yr old recently received from Subway one of the lamest kids' meal prizes I've seen in a while - and that's saying something. The "prize" is a very cheap little CD-holder that holds all of 2 CD's. So many questions: First of all, what's the point of a CD-holder that only holds 2 CDs? Second of all, what's the percentage of kids ordering kids' meals who own CDs and need a place - outside of their natural cases - to store them? And yet, inevitably, my daughter loves it. As it happens, I had recently burned 3 CDs for her of music she likes since she has an old bookshelf 3-CD player in her room. Of course, the first thing she wanted to do when she got home was to remove the CDs from the player (which actually extracts music from them) and put them into the Subway holder.

She later proudly brought one to me to play on the computer. I told her that the music was already on the computer and I could play it more easily without the CD, but that clearly wasn't the point. Quite by coincidence, she received a nice CD as a gift yesterday and immediately wanted to insert it into the Subway case - even thought it was packaged nicely in its own case. In fact, at this point she's clearly more interested in the new CD as something to put in the holder than as something to listen to. It's not that she doesn't like music (quite the contrary, I'm happy to report), but she's simply revealing the meaning we all tend to find in owning something - and that meaning can be applied to something as seemingly unownable as sounds of music (not to mention the bizarre pride of ownership that is routinely attached to crummy kids' meal toys).

I don't know for sure if this is good or bad. Like most such human quirks, it's a mixed bag. Geoff Edgers recently mentioned the emptiness he felt seeing that music is now being sold on USB memory sticks, but at least you still get something to hold that might have a cool logo on it. With digital downloads, you don't get anything except some more entries in your iTunes - and the always annoying iTunes e-mail receipt that arrives a few days later. (Those always kill me. Sometimes it's two days later and I've completely forgotten I made the impulse buy. Reminds me of Jerry Seinfeld's riff about getting a check at the end of a big meal.)

So it is that when I finish up my monthly pillaging* of eMusic.com (often amounting to about 6 hours of music for $9.99), I never feel anything like the sense of satisfaction I used to feel walking out of Tower Records with 5 or 6 CDs. I've even built an eMusic purchases playlist in iTunes so that I can look at all I've accumulated, add up the total track times, etc. I tell myself I'm doing that to keep track of my purchases and remember to listen to them, but the truth is it's my small way of taking pride in ownership.

This is one reason I believe the e-commerce/download model can work for music, in spite of all the inherent pirating possibilities. People actually enjoy knowing they've invested their own money in something; it makes it more satisfying and meaningful. I'm always amazed that, as already overpriced as Red Sox tickets are, fans can't get enough of merchandise that is also overpriced. It's not the T-shirt or hat that really matters, of course; it's the ability to feel invested in the team. In much the same way, people will pay to download what they could pretty easily steal, and I think it has as much to do with pride of ownership as it does basic honesty. Of course, I'm very cynical . . .

[You know, that's it. I'm sick of half-finishing posts and not posting them because I've lost my blogging momentum. I'm posting this, and hopefully will get back on track soon. Sometimes, you've got to work through a slump.]

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* By the way, I'm not that naive. I know eMusic is happy to get my monthly $9.99, no matter how many megabytes I walk away with.

Friday, June 8, 2007

not quite ready for prime time

Coming back to blogging is harder than I thought it would be. Meanwhile, Phil Ford over at Dial M for Musicology has issued another call for classical music LOL captions. Seemingly not realizing that he was already behind the Denkian curve, he also suggested in a comment on Soho the Dog's blog that there might be a need for a meta statement to herald the inevitable death of this bizarre meme. I think that last sentence might fit the bill in its own way, but I did come up with this not particularly original addition to the oeuvre. You see, the fact that's it's not that original or clever is kind of its own meta-statement. So, I've now successfully blogged today, as promised, and will try to say something more useful tomorrow.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

almost back

. . . trying . . . to . . . resist . . . turning this . . . into . . . a baby blog . . . but, here he is.

regular blogging resumes tomorrow.