The Crave

At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century a powerful musical phenomenon which would become known as "Jazz" began to take shape.  New Orleans had had a strong culture of African American folk music and ragtime, and when the Creole musicians were kicked out of the orchestras on the basis of their "race," they were forced to take their classical instruments and professional chops to the streets.  The subsequent merging of styles and instrumentations was an organic process from which many new types of music emerged ("Jazz" is often used as an umbrella term used).

The piece above is by Jelly Roll Morton, self-proclaimed inventor of Jazz.  Listen as the left hand holds the bass in a single key while the right journeys wherever it wishes.  You could call it a rag.  Interestingly much of the classical, European piano music from the same era not only uses similar harmonies, but the same type of arrangement.

Listen again and hear how there are strategically placed "wrong" notes.  They're not actually wrong (obviously) but they break out of the expected harmonic patterns and make you ear dance a little to catch up.  "The Crave" has some examples of 'blue' thirds: when the major and minor third are played almost simultaneously to give an emotive quality seldom heard outside of Jazz.  Interestingly, classical musicians of the same era were also fond of this sonority in different contexts. Below is a jazzy improvisation by Gabriela Montero on Rachmaninoff's third piano concerto:

Nature Jamz

The Japanese have built an enormous Marimba-like music mechanism which plays Bach in a forest outside of Kyoto.  The making of this music machine (instrument?) involved dozens of musicians, mechanics, builders, and more.  Besides thoroughly enjoying the inventive take on a classic Bach piece, I could not help but ask a number of questions.  Who is the musician?  Is each person involved a member of a hyper-modern orchestra of sorts? If someone's job is simply to set up the wooden run in the forest but he is in no way involved in the coordinating of tones, is he still a musician, or is that role analogous to an instrument manufacturer?  What if the person who came up with the idea never lifted a finger to create the sounds - what's the name of that role? Not composer, not player, but something.

After a few minutes of contemplating these question I went back and watched my favorite Japanese musical comercial:

Yes, that is a real television commercial (for soy sauce).  

Relative Major and the Remix

Recently my brother and I did a remix for local artist Brett (composed of members from The Dance Party). A lot of people have asked me how we came up with the chords we used in the intro.  Here's the original:

The track quickly establishes itself in the key of E major with the bassline wandering back and forth between E and G# and the lead guitar proclaiming a high E straight through the intro.  The mood is dancy and upbeat.  A major key is constructed by starting on the tonic note and ascending in the patter W,W,H,W,W,W,H (where W represents a whole step and H represents a half step).  So starting this pattern on E results is the E-major scale: E,F#,G#,A,B,C#,D#,E.

Seeking to reinvent the emotive content of the song, my brother I and went beyond just changing timbre, tempo, or style; instead, we manipulated the harmonic structure itself so that the exact same vocals heard in the original would take on new meaning against the backdrop of a different tonality (as I will explain).

I have been told that the result seems darker than the original.  That makes sense because we used the "relative minor" key: C#minor.  C#minor has the honored distinction of having its own Wikipedia page dedicated to its relationship with Beethoven.

What is a relative minor key?

A relative minor uses the exact same notes as its relative major partner, but begins a step and a half lower thus forming the pattern W,H,W,W,H,W,W - or - C#,D#,E,F#,G#,A,B,C#.  We used the chord progression: C#m, F#m, AbM, Am, C#m, F#m, AbM, C#m. Since our key uses all of the same notes as that of the original, the same vocal melody works with both versions but to a strikingly different emotive effect.

Your homework is to take a happy pop song you like and convert it into its relative minor key on an instrument!

If you liked the remix check out Rex's other stuff and hit up my soundcloud.

Classical Picks: Rachmaninoff's Bells of Moscow and Samuel Barber's violin concerto.

Food for thought...

Until I return from Colombia at the end of this month, posts will be small and far between.  I had a thought, though, on which you may care to chew (and feel free to spit it out in the form of a comment on this blog or an email).

As humans have made increasingly detailed records of music, we have changed the parts of the brain associated with musical aptitude (particularly in the west where music transcription has been held on an extraordinarily high pedistal).  Once music is written down, it is no longer an exclusively aural experience, but rather engages visual, spatial and logical aspects of the mind among others.  Music documentation in the west has followed a clear genesis from midieval transcriptions of simple, monophonic chant melodies through expansion into multiple cleffs and complex harmonies, to print and mass-produced scores, to the first records using wax tablets to render an analougue reproduction of the sound, to modern recording technology.

My point is simple: when we listen to much of recorded western music, in a sense we are hearing an audio experience of a written description of the origional essence of song rather than pure music directly communicating in it´s origionally intended form.  No judgement here, simply an observation.  I find it interesting, too how this has often resulted in a very specific, controlled, polished, complete musical experience which lacks the emphasis on virtuosity of a single instrument or voice; hence, those coming from a european musical background (including popular) may be more drawn to the polished, recorded product than to, say, a grippingly emotional vocal performance.

I would get into how this mirror´s German opera´s emphasis on the orchestral experience, but then I´d have to spend more time at this internet cafe.

Hasta luego!

To Cover Yourself in Another's Musical Dogshit

All members of the Kingdom Animalia have physical instincts (e.g. avoid pain, seek pleasure, etc...), in humans, the vehicles of these physical instincts are emotional instincts, and to widen our purview: the vehicles thereof are psychological instincts.  We are not the only animal to have emotional instincts, and probably not the only to have psychological instincts.  My aim in illuminating these vehicles is to make plain the fact that individual humans are as instinctually compelled towards certain music(s) as dogs are instinctually compelled to roll in animal excrement. Thus pop music is born.  There may not be a specific dog whose excriment's scent is particularly moving to all other dogs, but there sure as hell is a combination of scents which will stir the nostrils of vast contingents of the doggy population. Same goes for music and humans.

In modern engineering there are sonic tools to elicit specific responses from your ears.  A skilled producer may achieve an extreme level of precision in regards to which frequencies of which sounds should be louder or softer or echo; he or she can control which sound should come from which direction and how long or short it should be held; he or she, using modern technology, may actually contort the shapes of the sound-waves themselves.  These men and women know that a bass at 50hz will make your romp shake and that a drum at 200hz will make your throat thump.  They know that even with an enormously loud sound pulsing away at those low frequencies, you will still be able to hear Lady Gaga's sweet melodies overhead.

Without having a virtuoso on the Tuba, or muddying an arrangement with excessive tympani, it can be hard for some composers to reach those depths of bowel shaking ferocity which your speakers may not even pick up in electronic pieces like this (listen to the drop at .25 on your computer speakers, then do it again on some good headphones or speakers with a sub):

Composer Max Richter's response to this conundrum is to turn to electronics.  Listen in the following piece to the time leading up to minute 2.50 (make sure it's absolutely blaring on loud speakers).

Make of it what you will, my point is that mastering preferences have changed overtime in addition to changes in simple timbrel preferences.

Remastering Albums and Interpreting Symphonies

The entire reason I started thinking about this topic was that I heard the remastered version of the Beatles' The White Album  the other day (heaven forbid that estate go dry).  While some parts sound nice and crisp, I noticed that the mastering caters to the modern pop audience and thus looses a bit of its sixties character.  Particularly the bass drum was stomping on my vibe in some of the more mellow tracks because engineers these days have an evolved (for better or worse) idea of technical 'right' and 'wrong.'  

Similarly,  when a modern orchestra plays a symphony from the Viennese Classical era there are two schools of thought as to how the piece should be treated.  In pop there's a strong sense of empirical good and bad, whereas in classical there are two equally respected schools: Classical and Romantic.  An orchestra under the management of a 'Classical' music director strives to use the exact type of instruments available in the period of the composer and tenaciously obeys all tempo marks in the origional score.  His or her aim is to provide the audience with the experience of the symphony exactly as it would have been heard by the composer.  On the other hand, a 'Romantic' music director feels that a performance is an interpretation and that the conductor should take liberties where it serves the emotive content of the concert.  The orchestra will use the best instruments at hand, perhaps extra performers will be added to beef up the aural experience.  The NSO's current director Christoph Eschenbach is notorious for his slow orchestral interpretations.  Beethoven himself was not known for his technical prowess but was able to rise above his contemporaries in public acclaim because every music fan for thousands of miles knew that he played with more vigor and emotion than his contemporaries.  In his own words: "To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is unforgivable."  What a boss.

Is That the New Beethoven?

     Back in the day composers such as Beethoven would go about  their daily lives and when musical ideas would pop into their heads, they would sketch them down in a notebook for later use.  Perhaps when sitting at the piano, such a composer would begin to compile some melodic ideas for a piece and write them down on staff paper.  Often these "sketches" went nowhere and were abandoned.  Sometimes the composer fleshed them out and added harmony, and perhaps instrumentation and published them as polished pieces.  Other times bits and pieces were left behind in treasured notebooks, some of which have ended up in modern museums.  Several of Beethoven's notebooks are still around (BTW this is still how a lot of composition is done although notation software has changed the game to an extent).
     When Beethoven was 22 years old, he wrote his first piano sonata: Sonata Fantasia in D.  Somehow it was lost and never published.  Recently, it turned up in Bonn - it was somewhere between a sketch and a completed piece.  Most of the thematic ideas were in place but there are parts where Beethoven hadn't yet fleshed out the left-hand accompaniment.  It was reconstructed and performed a few days ago.  What you heard if you watched the video above was the world premiere of Beethoven's first and last piece...

According to Gramophone:
"There are a number of thematic similarities to Beethoven’s later works, however. The first part of the Sonata shares a theme with the trio of the third movement of his Symphony No 7. There are also several themes common to the Pastoral, Appassionata and Moonlight Sonatas."

Opium Hallucinations of Demons and Death

In 1830, only three years after the death of Beethoven, a young, French composer named Hector Berlioz premiered a piece which would change the world of art forever.  The transformative effects of his piece were felt not only in the realm of music, but can be observed to this day in theater, movies, and television.
     The piece is Symphony Fantastique, and at the time of its premiere the composer was 27 years old.  He had been born just as Beethoven had begun to test the limits of the definition of the symphony and of classical music itself.  The prodigious Berlioz took this unbridled drive to expand sonic and artistic boundaries and ran with it.  In addition to utilizing new harmonies, forms, and instrumentations, the composer introduced one particular idea which ushered in a new era.
     The idée fixe or "fixed idea" (yes folks, it is also the derivative of a modern psychological term of the same name) is a specific musical theme which represents a specific idea - or character, or place, or emotion, etc... It is a close relative, I'd say the father of the better known leitmotif made famous by Wagner, and hence a precursor for over a century of opera and film-scoring.  Without Berlioz, you bet your ass Hans Zimmer wouldn't be living in this sweet mancave. Let's see what we're dealing with here:

Symphony Fantastique is one of very few "program" symphonies. This means that the music is a direct representation of a narrative and as such is accompanied by a written program (without which the piece should not be approached). A brief synopsis of the piece's five movements:

     An artist falls totally in love, and whenever he sees his beloved her image is accompanied by a specific musical theme.  He sees her everywhere and can't handle being alone and not knowing if his love is requited.  Eventually he deals with his anxiety by ingesting a large amount of opium which, rather than killing him brings on a series of vivid hallucinations.  He sees himself murder his beloved and he witnesses his own execution.  The last movement is a "devilish orgy" complete with witches, ghosts, and the return of his beloved.  Good stuff in general.


Here's the forth movement.  Note how at times the music seems classical almost to the extent of feeling robotic, yet at others it pours forth emotion without thought to the musical sensibilities of the era.  At  6.08, after an uproarious section we hear the idee fixe for the beloved float in the clarinets and ends abruptly with a loud tutti crash and a thud which signifies the guillotine on the artist's neck:

If you enjoy this, I encourage you to seek out a live performance, download (and pay for) the music, or better yet join me for a listening of the vinyl :)  No matter how you listen, DON'T FORGET THE PROGRAM!  It's below in case you can't find it elsewhere.

"Part I: Reveries--Passions. The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a well-known writer calls the vague des passions, sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being he has imagined in his dreams, and falls desperately in love with her. Through an odd whim, whenever the beloved image appears in the mind's eye of the artist, it is linked with a musical thought whose character, passionate but at the same time noble and shy, he finds similar to the one he attributes to his Beloved. This melodic image and the model it reflects pursue him incessantly like a double idee fixe. That is the reason for the constant appearance, in every moment of the symphony, of the melody that begins the first Allegro. The passage from this state of melancholy reverie, interrupted by a few fits of groundless joy, to one of frenzied passion, with its moments of fury, of jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations--this is the subject of the first movement.

"Part II:
A Ball. The artist finds himself in the most varied situations--in the midst of the tumult of a party, in the peaceful contemplation of nature; but everywhere, in the town, in the country, the beloved image appears before him and disturbs his peace of mind.

"Part III:
Scene in the Country. Finding himself one evening in the country, he hears in the distance two shepherds piping a ranz des vaches (shepherd's song) in dialogue. This pastoral duet, the scenery, the quiet rustling of the trees gently brushed by the wind, the hopes he has recently found reason to entertain--all come together to afford his heart an unaccustomed calm, and to give a more cheerful color to his ideas. He reflects upon his isolation; he hopes that his loneliness will soon be over. But what if she were deceiving him! This mingling of hope and fear, these ideas of happiness disturbed by black presentiments, form the subject of the Adagio. At the end, one of the shepherds takes up the ranz des vaches; the other no longer replies. Distant thunder--loneliness--silence.

"Part IV:
March to the Scaffold. Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, too weak to kill him, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most horrible visions. He dreams that he has killed his Beloved, that he is condemned to death and led to the scaffold, and that he is witnessing his own execution. The procession moves forward to the sounds of a march that is sometimes somber and fierce, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which the muffled sound of heavy steps gives way without transition to the noisiest clamor. At the end, the idee fixe returns for a moment, like a final thought of love before the fatal blow.

"Part V:
A Witches' Sabbath. He sees himself at the sabbath, in the midst of a frightful troop of ghosts, sorcerers, and monsters of every species, all gathered for his funeral; strange noises, groans, bursts of laughter, distant cries which other cries seem to answer. The Beloved melody appears again, but it has lost its character of nobility and shyness; it is now no more than a dance tune, mean, trivial and grotesque. It is she, coming to join the sabbath ... a roar of joy at her arrival. She takes part in the devilish orgy--funeral knell--burlesque parody of the Dies irae--sabbath round-dance--the sabbath round-dance and the Dies irae combined."