Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Berloiz/Sondheim Connection

The theme for the Dies Irae is one of the most often quoted melodies in music history. I am unaware as to how many composers did this before the Symphony Fantastique but I find it interesting that since the monumental work has become such standard repetoire for orchestras, that melody creeps in all kinds of different places.

Lets take a look (and listen to) at "The Witch's Sabbath"

The Dies Irae starts at about 3:23, pretty catchy stuff if you ask me.

Now lets listen to Stephen Sondheim talk about his musical Sweeny Todd Listen to the narration at about 1:30 to hear what I am referencing. Also, stick around on the video to hear Sondheim talk about "Sweeny's love of death" because it is pretty compelling stuff.

So we can hear that in many ways we are still living with innovations of the Romantic era and especially Berlioz. For that matter we are still living in the shadow of Gregorian Chant, especially when we think of the sheer number of church hymns we have all sung based on chant... I hate cliches, but; the more things change... (well, you know the rest).

A Brief History of Technology in Music

For this blog I really wanted to focus on one of the most profound musical innovations of the 20th century; that being the influence of technology in music. When we think about it, technology has always been part and parcel to the instrumental process, as an example we can look into history and see the value placed on the violins of Stradivarius and his contemporaries. What is novel in the 20th (and now 21st) century is that technology moved from something of a side relationship to an absolutely essential aspect of modern music. I thought we could look at some examples.

Essentially, the process really started with the Telharmonium. This was an electric organ that was transmitted through telephone lines into hotels’ dance rooms. The subscription to have the Telharmonium broadcast was less expensive than the dance bands the hotels used to hire; therefore there was something of a profit incentive. Below is the first part of a 3 part documentary (which you can view if you are interested).

The cold mechanical sound of the Telharmonium’s novelty wore off quickly and was soon to be replaced by ragtime, jazz and Big Band music, still, it did break ground in affirming that electronics could in fact play a role in the production of music… Enter the Russian/Soviet composer Leon Terimin and his Theremin Vox. Here was an instrument that was truly outer worldly, something that seemed to come genuinely from the future, mostly due to the method which it is played; it is the only instrument in the history of musical instruments that you don’t touch. Please see the video below:

As beautiful as the Theremin could be in the hands of a master, like Clara Rockmore, it proved somewhat difficult for the average musician to get a handle on. What was needed was an electronic instrument that could produce the beautiful voice-like quality of the Theremin, but at the same time possessed an easy to control pitch mechanism. This is where we see the introduction of the Ondes Martenot.

The Ondes Martenot is not a simple piece of machinery by any stretch of the imagination, however; the Theremin by contrast is a relatively easy and elegant design. Because of this many hobbyists (such as the gentleman from the video on the Theremin) began to build their own based on schematics they could purchase from a magazine for a nominal price. One such individual was Bob Moog who would eventually revolutionize the world with his “Minimoog” synthesizers. This would not only impact the production of classical music (such as the “Switched on Bach” album) but popular forms would never be the same either.

The keyboard synthesizer, especially the models built by Moog and company, remained the standard for electronic music production for decades. Something happened about 10 years ago though, computer engineers started to develop machines that were capable of storing massive amounts of data. Currently, the kind of music that would take a musician up to 100-1000 keyboards to do, can be done relatively easily on just one home computer. This is where the world of sampling comes in; essentially we can have our own personal orchestra sounds, synthetics, electric guitar and a host of whatever else you can imagine in one software program. I use Kontakt 3, but there are many others that exist.

The computer sampler has almost done away with the need for live musicians on projects such as film and television soundtracks (I am not really saying this is a good thing, just stating a fact). But, is there a place in modern electronic music for the hands on type of instrument? The developers of the brand new “Reactable” would say a firm “Yes,” The Reactable is absolutely an instrument of the here and now, it is a revolutionary design that does away with all previous notions of what an instrument had to look like and instead takes its design from simple voltage and amplitude control schematics. Currently there are only a few in existence, but I foresee a future where instruments such as the Reactable exist alongside the piano and violin.

I will leave you with the Reactable in action, here again is Bjork with “Declare Independence.”

Works Cited: Retrieved Nov 23, 2009. Provided documentary on Teleharmonium Retrieved Nov 23, 2009. Provided Theremin video. Retrieved Nov 23, 2009. Provided Ondes Martenot video. Retrieved Nov 23, 2009. Provided Bob Moog video. Retrieved Nov 23, 2009. Provided Kontakt 3 commercial. Retrieved Nov 23, 2009. Provided Reactable commercial. Retrieved Nov 23, 2009. Provided Bjork video.

The Demise and Resurrection of the Fretted Bowed Lutes

As it has formed, the modern symphony orchestra's bowed string section is made up entirely of one family of instruments; the violin family. This is not the case with woodwinds, where we have double reeds such as the oboe or bassoon; single reeds like the clarinet; and reedless side-blown flutes. There is also the percussion section which is made of both pitched instruments (timpani, various bells and piano) as well as non-pitched instruments (snare-drum, woodblock...etc).  Together with the brass, all of these sections combine to form a single unit capable of producing some of the most colorful  musical sounds ever heard.

But why a single family of instruments for the largest section of the orchestra? The truth is; it wasn't always that way.

It wasn't really until the classical period (1750-1820) where the string section of the orchestra became uniform, prior to that (at least in the bass) there was often a combination of cello as well as a bass viola da gamba. The "viol" family of bowed lutes emerged out of Spain in the 15th century, when some of the players of a guitar-like instrument known as the vihuela, began using rebab bows instead of strumming with their fingers. From the 16th through the 18th centuries in Europe, viol playing in the home and on the stage was quite comon.  Over time, the instrument fell out of vogue (there are varying opinions as to why this happened but no concise explanation that is satisfying to me) and both the cello and double bass became charged exclusively with maintaining the low end.

A 17th Century illustration of a bass viol da gamba;
notice that the sound holes look like the letter "C"
instead of the familiar violin-style "F" holes, also note the frets.

A beautiful rendition of a John Dowland piece done with lute (left) and viol da gamba (right)

In the 19th century, there was a brief popularity of an instrument called the "arpeggione" which was in virtually every sense; a bowed guitar. The instrument shared a lot with the viol family, in that it was very capable of playing chords, as opposed to the four-stringed violin family of instruments on which playing of three or more notes simultaneously is somewhat impractical.

An excerpt of the most famous composition for Arpeggione; the Schubert Sonata
for Arpeggione and Piano

As practical as it was, the arpeggione's time of popularity was quickly to fade. It seems as though once the violin family had achieved a reputable status in European society; it was going to dominate the bowed instruments indefinitely. I would venture to say that the vast majority of musical lay-people would not even know of the existence of fretted bowed lutes, were it not for the 1990's French film "All the Mornings of the World." This was a fictionalized account of the relationship between two of the greatest composers in the early baroque for viol da gamba; Saint-Colombe and Marin Marais. Needless to say, the films provocative nature and philosophical rantings on the nature of music really struck a chord with fans. 

The trailer for the film; "All the Mornings of the World"

The soundtrack to the film was recorded by Jordi Savall, who is most likely the world's foremost authority of the viol da gamba. As he is a Spaniard, there aren't a whole lot of videos on him in the English language but nonetheless, he has made a tireless career of bringing this instrument to the attention of the world.

A Jordi Savall concert featuring various viol da gambas

Because of this film and the internet at large (through sites such as YouTube) there has been a growing interest in the instruments. The problem is that for the hobbyist musician; the cost of a viol da gamba or arpeggione is just simply impractical. These instruments are not mass produced and are often made solely by hand through the work of craftsmen. Therefore; it isn't like the cello on eBay you might find for 200 dollars (which will serve you fine for the first couple years of study). In order to purchase just a student grade viol, one must be willing to spend over 1,000 dollars which seems like quite a commitment. Hopefully this will change, if instruments were widely available in schools or at music stores we might see more musicians interested in music of the early baroque and renaissance periods, but as it stands it looks like the instruments will continue to be the domain of early music aficionados.

If you are interested in the viol or its relatives I encourage you to visit:

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Arabic Orchestral Music

Its funny that this style of music has drawn so much criticism from the scholarly community revolving around Arabic music.

So, I am a little disappointed that the orchestra doesn't contain any "traditional" middle-eastern bowed lutes such as the rabab or even a yayli tambur. Of course, you could make the argument that the Violin family of instruments are just rababs that grew up in Europe and they are finally coming home.

That aside, this does seem to be a somewhat typical arrangement of the recent Arabic orchestras over the last century. We have European bowed lutes (violin, cello, D. Bass), some winds (flute and ney), middle eastern plucked zithers (Kanoon) as well as plucked lutes (oud and some kind of saz) and of course, percussion (darbuka, daff, riq and so on).

Harmonically speaking the texture is quite thin. Although, I wouldn't quite say "heterophonic." Yes, its true that the ensemble plays in what we could call "decorated unison," but there are also very poignant question and answer dialogs going on between the various players, and often there is even something of an argument as instruments periodically interject motivic ideas. Another consideration is that there are also accompanying ostinato figures in both percussion and melodic parts over which the flute may improvise.

So what has the connoisseurs so upset? I wouldn't say that it s quite the same mentality as critics of counterpoint in the 15th through 16th centuries in Europe, or those who complained about popular melodies being used in religious music (Une Jeunne Fillette - and the like). I do believe that mindset exists, however I think we have to look a little bit beyond just the obvious.

Music is often one of the biggest staples of a core cultural identity, but we also have to remember that cultural identity is almost always measured against the "other" - as if to say: "we don't know exactly who we are, but who we are NOT is you." But why? over history musics and musical instruments have been exchanged and evolved/adapted often greatly in the course of just one generation. The same phenomenon takes place linguistically. Indeed, virtually every time humans interact the net result is a change (sometimes minor) in identity and culture. It is one of the major caveats to being a herd/pack species.

Of course, in our day where economic and cultural imperialism seems to overshadow any attempts in history of the same adaptation, it looks like some who hold a protectionist mindset are saying "enough!" There may not be a place for western style-orchestras adapting Middle-Eastern musical styles, because to do that would be tantamount to saying "we still think they are better than us." And do they have a point? The European mindset has always felt, at least a little, as though the rest of the world looks on them as being the most evolved, the most cultured and the most free. It is a mentality that has filtered all the way to the United States where every child in America is taught from their first day in school that all other children all over the world go to sleep at night dreaming of being Americans, eating hot dogs and watching baseball games. Needless to say, its pretty insulting to the rest of the world, isn't it? And in the end is it better to work on preserving and exalting traditional styles?