Monday, December 31, 2012

Churning out Christmas Songs

This post is a follow-up on the Christmas music and Nostalgia post, and the last Christmas-related post of the season. I promise. I'm going to examine a news story sent to me by one of my readers about writing new Christmas songs.

The audio version of the story is longer than the written version you'll find at the link, but the basic idea is this: A band named Office Romance talks about their experience writing new holiday songs. They mentioned a few problems: decoding what musically makes something a Christmas song, penning lyrics that are fresh and new, and trying to appeal to everybody.

Be there with bells and clichés on

I agree that there are certain musical sounds that frequently appear in holiday songs. Maybe not always sleigh bells, but certainly bell references, glockenspiels being the most ubiquitous. I do think it's interesting that the musician interviewed stopped short of specifying any other signifiers, because that's about as far as I've gotten in my analysis, too. I'm convinced there are other musical things that signify Christmas, but I'm still trying to figure those out. Maybe next year.

I think the main problem in writing a new holiday song is that the lyrical themes are so hackneyed, and that is exactly what I heard in story's musical examples. Good songs create emotional packets that BOTH make people think "Oh, I haven't really heard it that way before" AND are musically memorable. There is a short cut: if you were really having trouble with new words, you can also take well-known words and attach new memorable music. Religion is one way to access emotions, and if you rule out religious songs, creating emotionally moving music is that much harder.

When generic is unreal

Bill Cosby once said "I don't know they key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody," and I think these featured songs prove that. In trying to create a song that appeals to everybody, Office Romance has created songs so generic that they won't have any lasting value. I would write a parody Christmas song with a list of generic Christmas symbols as lyrics, but there are already several out there (which are not meant as parodies). Also, if make your Christmas song's music be like other Christmas songs (Office Romance's apparent goal), how is that going to be memorable? I'm not saying that songwriters should avoid musical symbols of Christmas, but throwing in as many as possible could be dangerously generic.

But I don't think Office Romance is totally to blame for their generic music and unimaginative lyrics. As they wrote their songs, they mentioned bringing in music supervisors. Why? Well, music supervisors are now more important than ever. As CD sales plummet, people get music illegally, and online streaming services pay less in royalties, getting songs placed in movies and on TV is one of the few ways that artists can definitely make money. But I think this story illustrates the problem pitching to a music supervisor creates. Music supervisors are not normally artists looking for new ways of expression; they are instead looking for something similar to what they know already works. So, it is very easy for music supervisors to say "we need this and this" in a song, leading to flat and unimaginative music. Giving the artists complete artistic freedom or at least some collaborative give-and-take instead of dictating would most likely yield better results. At the same time, it's more risky. But that's art, isn't it? You never know when your work is going to connect or completely go over someone's head.

What musical sounds do you think signifies holiday songs? Care to suggest what you think makes a great song, holiday or not?

Happy New Year!

Vocab: signifier

Monday, December 24, 2012

Musical form and meaning in the Messiah

Handel (1685-1759)
I want to follow up from last week's post about Handel's Messiah and talk a little more about the Handel's music itself. Messiah has one of the best examples I know about how the musical form can effect the meaning of music. Much music commentary focuses on lyrics, yet focusing on lyrics at the expense of music gives an incomplete picture, since music also communicates meaning.

This example is the first thing people hear when they go to a Messiah performance—the overture (which has no lyrics). Overtures today are normally associated with musicals or operas, and feature themes from the songs we are about to experience. This was not always the case, however; 150 or 200 years ago, the overture was just more music played by the orchestra to get the audience's attention before the show started, without any connection to the music in the show.

Messiah's overture is one of the older kind, and features music not heard elsewhere in the work. The overture is at first generally slow with prominent dotted rhythms, meaning that instead of having the beat divided into two equal parts, the second half of the beat is delayed by at least 3/4 of the beat value. This slow section is followed by a fast, imitative section where a new theme is passed around from section to section. This type of slow, dotted-rhythm-laden overture followed by a faster, imitative section has a name: a French overture. French overtures were first introduced by Jean-Baptiste Lully, the court composer for the French Sun King, Louis XIV.* As you can image, the Sun King liked to make a grand entrance, and so when the he went to an opera or ballet, he wanted his entrance to be part of the performance. The first part of the French overture was his entrance music: slow, grand, and majestic. After the king was seated, the faster section began.

Lully (1632-1687)

Now, the French overture became popular all over Europe, but Handel, writing Messiah almost one hundred years later, did not need to use it. Messiah was not written for a king's court, but for public performance. Yet, Handel made a decision to use the French overture. Why? Well, the French overture was written for the symbolic entrance of King of kings, who is the subject of Messiah. When seen this way, Messiah's overture is not just a bit of introductory music, but a pointed and powerful religious commentary. And Handel conveyed all this without using words.

What songs or other music do you know that conveys meaning without lyrics or where the music changes the meaning of the lyrics?

Vocab: overture, French overture, beat, dotted rhythm

*Yes, this is the same Lully who died from a gangrene-infected wound caused by his conductor's staff. In his day, instead of waving a baton to keep the time, conductors beat it on the ground, so stabbing your foot with one makes a little more sense.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Mormons and the Messiah on MMM

You'll find this week's post on the Modern Mormon Men blog. Continuing the Christmas theme, I speculate why members of the Mormon church like Handel's Messiah so much. I hope you enjoy it, and the proliferation of M's involved.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Holiday movies with holiday song titles

Continuing the theme of holiday songs and their power, this week I thought I would write about one specific way these songs impact society: the movie industry. 

Often, people try and capitalize on the power of popular songs, even if the meanings those people want conveyed are completely different than the song's original meaning. The classic example is politicians using Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" for their own promotion, even when the song is really an ironic and negative commentary about the negative effects of the Vietnam War.

Hollywood tries to capitalize on Christmas songs by stealing their well-known lyrics for holiday movies (mostly bad). What better way to label a shameless marketing ploy? For example:

This year, we've got an addition to this list, this time in the Christmas Horror genre: Silent Night. (Note: it's supposedly a loose remake of Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)). Aren't you excited? No?

In that light, I've got some suggestions for bad holiday movies with titles drawn from holiday songs:

  • "A hippo hero standing there" (The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle special.)
  • "The other kiddies" (A story about those evil bullies down the street who ruin the Christmas spirit for everyone.)
  • "Io, io, io" (Christmas for aliens on Jupiter's highly volcanic moon? What does this mean, anyway? For that matter, what does any of "Ding Dong, Merrily" mean?)
  • "Don we now our gay apparel" (The What Not to Wear Christmas special.)
  • "Sing a [slaying] song" (in the Horror Christmas genre)
  • "Hurry down the chimney" (Do you think this was a possible title for the Santa Clause 2?)
  • "Gone away is the blue bird" (The Rachel Carson Christmas story. )
  • "If the Fates allow" (The fantasy Christmas special. It is this line's Destiny.)
  • "Everybody knows a turkey" (Don't you?)
  • "He sees you when you're sleeping" (What they should have called this year's Silent Night.)
What is the take-away from this? Well, music can give words extra power and meaning by association, but that extra power and meaning may not always be constant. In other words, added music makes makes words perhaps more multivalent (or open to many interpretations) than words alone. Especially when those words are taken out of context.

Vocab: multivalent

Monday, December 3, 2012

Peter's Christmas Mix

I used to make music mixes for my friends all the time, first with cassette tapes, then with CDs. One of my favorite was a Christmas mix tape. With Christmas music in the air, I thought I'd revisit the idea of a Christmas mix and give a few personal suggestions. It's mostly choral music, but choral music is itself a Christmas tradition—as in "Yuletide carols being sung by a choir." Christmas is when choral groups know they can get an audience.

Here's 10 songs I would put on my Christmas mix. Feel free to look them up at your leisure:

  • "O Magnum Mysterium" (Morten Lauridsen). Though almost everything Lauridsen writes sounds the same, this is the first (and best) one.
  • "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" (from the Grinch who Stole Christmas Soundtrack). "I wouldn't touch you with a 39.5-foot pole." 'Nuff said.
  • "Christmas at Sea" (Sting). From Sting's album If On A Winter's Night, it's one of the few songs on the album with original music, to words of Robert Louis Stevenson. It's Celtic meets Christmas in the best way.
  • "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time" (Paul McCartney). I know it's cheesy, but it's hard for me not to be happy listening to this song.
  • "What Cheer?" (William Walton). Short, but so catchy and English.
  • "Gaudete" (traditional Dutch, arr. by the King's Singers). Latin, high energy carol from probably my favorite Christmas album, the King's Singers A Little Christmas Music.
  • "The Twelve Days of Christmas"  (The Muppets). I may have chosen this one simply because of nostalgia. And "Five golden rings."
  • "The Wexford Carol" (traditional English, arr. by the King's Singers). A beautiful, lesser-known carol, also from A Little Christmas Music (I allow myself two songs from the same source per mix, but that's it.).
  • "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree" (Elizabeth Poston). A somewhat strange, beautiful choral piece. Try blasting it in your car stereo.
  • "Chiron Beta Prime" (Jonathan Coulton). A Christmas card sent from a family in a work camp run by robots on an asteroid. By the way, Jonathan Coulton has a new Christmas album out, which you can check out here. Though I cannot endorse it, as I have not listened to it yet. Also, it doesn't have "Chiron Beta Prime" on it.
I also have a new favorite Christmas song this season, sure to be a hit. With music theory nerds, anyway (kudos to my sister-in-law for forwarding this to me):

Are music mixes going out of fashion, or do you enjoy making them? What would you include on your Christmas music mix?

Vocab: choral

Monday, November 26, 2012

Christmas Music and Nostalgia

The pervasive ambient Christmas soundtrack

From Flickr
By now, if not a month ago, we've broken out our Christmas playlists and radio stations (perhaps Pandora), and stores have transitioned to all-Christmas music mode. Everywhere we go, for better or for worse, we're surrounded by music of "glad tidings and great joy."

What fascinates me about this radio and ambient Christmas music is the variety in genre and age. In just a few minutes on a single station, we can hear rock, swing, gospel, jazz, choral, R&B, and broadway, from the 40s through the present, sometimes with a sprinkling of even older classical music. Also, religious music is suddenly mainstream, even sung by non-Christian singers or those who wouldn't touch religion with a long stick the rest of the year. Unlike the rest of the year, when most are not excited about the nostalgia of previous generations, Christmas is all about bringing back the music of the past.

Why the nostalgia?

So why the interest in nostalgia during Christmas? Are stations just playing a little bit of everything to please everybody? Or during Christmas, do we become interested in the history of previous generations? Is Christmas music timeless?

Perhaps, but it seems to me that younger audiences like "Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer" just as much as those who were alive when it debuted. I think it would be a mistake to call Christmas music timeless because it's apparent what decade or genre each selection is from. Even when old songs are "updated" to new styles, we can like the old one and the new one.

My theory for the Christmas nostalgia is that because we hear these songs every year, they are a part of all of our pasts. We actually do (mostly) like all of it. We realize that it's part of a previous decade or drawn from another style, but we can enjoy it anyway. We may not like particular songs, but we still recognize them, and they bring back memories of "Christmases long, long ago." The Christmas "feeling" is about nostalgia and memories of happiness and we want our music to reflect that. Just think of how Christmas songs keep referring to one another and to common symbols (mistletoe, bells, shepherds, angels, etc.). Of course, not everybody likes all the songs in this eclectic mix. But many people put up with the few they don't like for the whole package—after all, something completely different will be next.

The big break

Perhaps another reason why most people like most songs in the Christmas mix is that it's very hard to make heavy rotation. There's a lot of Christmas music that just doesn't break into the canon. Anyone remember Christmas in the Stars: the Star Wars Christmas? No? Artists produce Christmas music because if the songs makes it, the artists will make money every year. I'm thinking here about the movie About a Boy, in which Hugh Grant's character has his fortune made because his father wrote a hit Christmas song. There is such a volume of songs, past and present, competing for the airtime that if a song does make it into the Christmas canon, it's probably pretty good. There are some genres, however, that have not been invited to the radio Christmas party, perhaps because they haven't quite achieved universal appeal: hip-hop, indie, metal. Or maybe they are not "holiday" enough? I don't know.

Do you have any other theories why nostalgia is such a part of Christmas music?

Vocab: canon

Monday, November 19, 2012

The music of language and the language of music

I listen to a fair amount of music with lyrics in different languages: Irish, Scots-Gaelic, Spanish, Hindu, and Japanese, to name a few. Despite the fact that I don’t understand many of these spoken languages, I can still enjoy music in those languages.

Does music transcend the language barrier, then? Is music a universal language?

One of my undergraduate professors, Paul Broomhead, argued that music is not a universal language. He would play music to different groups of people and asked them how they felt. The answers varied greatly, especially across cultural and age spectrums, suggesting that music does not communicate the same thing to everybody even in the same culture. Music is not a universal language.

Musical style, however, is a type of language that people from different cultures can learn to understand. People who listen to a lot of electronic music, or Indonesian gamelan music, or Spanish flamenco music, to name a few, have a pretty good idea of the musical cues in each style genre, even if they can't verbalize it.


Permit me some brief examples of how musical style can be understood or misunderstood. In America, we are taught that minor mode=sad and major mode=happy. Besides this being an oversimplification even for Western music, it is patently false in Easter European folk traditions; they have plenty of very happy, minor songs. Those within the same socioeconomic can easily misunderstand a culture, too. For example, there is a whole Metal music culture (and multiple subgenres) that outsiders just don't really get (I include myself with those outsiders here).

Musical style does not necessarily match up with spoken language, either. This is why the Korean-language "Gangnam Style" is more understandable to today's Americans than Milton Babbitt's Philomel (1964), despite the fact that that latter is written (mostly) in English. Why? "Gangnam Style" is written with reference to an international popular music style, while Philomel is written with reference to the avant-garde electronic music style. It is amazing how something from a different country can still communicate, because they are using the common vocabulary of popular music. And how something written almost 50 years ago can still bamboozle people because the stylistic language behind it is new to them. I think both of these stylistic languages are very complex. But most people are bombarded with popular music constantly, and so they have learned to understand it. Those have spent the time to understand Philomel usually find it rewarding. But it might take a while to get to that point.
Babbitt's Philomel (1964).

In the end, understanding lyrics does make an impact in my value-judgment of the song. Words can make a song better or worse; I've liked songs less when I found out what the lyrics mean, but I've also liked songs more. Maybe I also feel culturally superior by liking non-English songs. But I still think it's the music that makes the most difference to liking a song.

Vocab: avant-garde, minor and major modes

Monday, November 12, 2012

Songs: fact or fiction?
Is Katy Perry (or what she sings about) real?

I say fiction. Song is a genre of music probably as old as music itself. While styles of the music have changed, the basic idea hasn't—an (usually) accompanied solo singer singing words (called lyrics). A song's expressive emphasis is usually on the lyrics, with music built to support lyric meaning. Song is an important expressive art form for many people because of the power of personalizing music and lyrics through the singer.

Many songs are obviously fictional, such as Sting's "Bourbon Street," about a vampire (inspired by Anne Rice's Interview with Vampire). But what about his "Every Breath You Take," about a stalker? Or "Don't Stand So Close to Me," about a high school student's inappropriate love interest in her teacher? Was Sting singing from experience?

The answer is no on all counts. He just made them up. But that doesn't stop people, including Sting, from promoting personal connections to his songs. It's common today for the audience to assume that the singer is telling about their own experience. This is especially true since the rise of the singer-songwriter in the 1970s, but even before that, many people associated Frank Sinatra with the songs he sung, though he wrote none of them. This association of the singer with the song's content is so ingrained in us that we assume that songs are autobiographical until told otherwise. The truth is that most singers are just actors filling presenting a fiction. I would argue that all songwriting is fiction, even if the songwriter does write a patently autobiographical song (actually a very rare case).

Here's why I think all songwriting is fiction-writing:
  1. Music does not accompany real life. Usually.
  2. Even if an artist writes from their own experience, the constraints of the song medium mean compressing stories and feelings into a tight form. This inevitably leads to some "artistic liberties"--words or feelings paraphrased in text or music, using known symbols (music and textual) to convey information, or simplification for purposes of space or time. What ends up in the song is really an exaggerated or highly modified version of thoughts or events. Think of Mike Birbiglia staring in the movie about himself, Sleepwalk with Me. Sure, the movie is about him, and he stars in it, but the constraints and hyperreality of the movie genre mean it's far from real life.
  3. Unlike written work, where only the words intermediate between the author and the reader, songs needs an interpreter, someone to sing them. Sometimes the singer is the same as the songwriter, but often it's not. Especially with popular artists, their performance persona and real personality are two different things. This  distinction is fairly clear with Lady Gaga, but not for Katy Perry. But Katy Perry and everyone else also leverages their song fictions to take advantage of their personas (Katy Perry is not her real name, by the way). If the person singing the songs is fictitious, then the songs are fictitious, too. The current queen of song fiction leveraging is Taylor Swift, who passively and actively invites her listeners to consider herself as the subject of her songs. Although Taylor Swift generally claims that all the songs come from personal experience, it's more complicated than that. She's mentioned that specific songs were written about friends. But even her own experiences are idealized or exaggerated or fantasized by enshrining them in a song, if not by the words, than by the added music. Also, Taylor Swift the person is not Taylor Swift the performer, despite how many people believe differently. The bottom line is that song singers, even real ones, are actors.
In conclusion, I feel that our culture should move away from assuming that singers' songs are autobiographical. The Irish traditional culture is more like this, to the point that singing an opposite-gendered song doesn't phase anyone. Everyone knows that singers are not expressing their experience; they are just actors playing a part in a small multimedia play.

Although this shouldn't diminish the power of song. Fiction is awesome. I just think people should be aware of the fiction.

Do you often assume that singers are expressing their personal experience and feelings, or not? Why do you think people do that?

Vocab: song, lyrics

Monday, November 5, 2012

Taylor Swift's Red


Stop me if you've heard this one, but Taylor Swift's Red sold 1.2 million albums in its first week, making it the best first week for an album since 2002. It has already sold twice as many total albums in 2012 than the next best-selling album. As many of you know, I've been a Taylor Swift fan ever since I listened to Fearless and her debut album together back in 2008, and this album lived up to my expectations.

Here's some thoughts:
  1. Popular artists have a tightrope to walk with their new albums: they can't do something too different or everyone will complain. But they can't just repeat what they did last time, or even more people will complain. I think Red succeeds in straddling the line between. One way that Taylor does this in Red is by bringing on co-writers to freshen things up. 7 of the 16 songs have co-writers listed. The big hit "We are Never Getting Back Together" is co-written with Max Martin, the Swedish song-writing genius responsible for a surprising number of girl power pop hits.
  2. At 65 minutes and 16 songs, the amount of music on this CD is impressive, especially considering Speak Now came out only two years ago. And while I don't think all the songs are the same quality, none of them are poor.
  3. I disagree with many that Taylor Swift's lyrics are suddenly mature and sexual. Those who state that have been reading her fan sites, not listening closely to her previous albums, and reading too much into this album.
  4. If you're like more people and consider Speak Now to be break-up album, Red seems to be the post-breakup album.
I prefer the animation version to the one-take.

But this blog is about music, which most reviewers seem to be ignoring, except for caveats that this album is more pop than her others. I agree that the album is more pop, though there's still some country stylings present. Not that the style matters to me, as long as I think the music is effective.

So here's why I think Taylor Swift's writes effective music:
  1. Melody: she builds her songs out of "hooks" that are memorable and hummable, and has several per song.
  2. Control of repetition: she repeats her hooks, but not enough that they get boring. She knows when to move to a different section and she's good at varying the melodies on the section return, so that the music is slightly different or has added textures. Which brings me to:
  3. Instrumentation and texture: She varies the musical texture and timbre of hers songs. For example, she's good at singing with different voice colors for different moods, and even in the same song. She's not afraid to be loud and thick or sparse and soft, even in the same song. She also varies the types of instruments, using banjo, mandolin, electronic effects, and more. One critique on this album: while I enjoy the complex over-dubbed backup singing on Red, sometimes it obscures the words.
While her rhythm and harmony usage is not bad, on the other hand, these musical features do not set her music apart.

One final note: most of Taylor Swift's songs are invitations to ride on her emotions. What I think she's best at is bringing out (or bringing back) strong emotions from the past or present. I'd say that is what makes her music so popular. But it takes both music and lyrics to achieve that effect.

Next week: Songwriting as fiction-writing (or not), which will continue my Taylor Swift discussion.

Vocab: timbre

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Scary Art Music

Phantom of the Opera – neither scary nor artsy

At this time of year, people are thinking about scary music, so I've put together my top five list of scary art music:

5. Ligeti's Lux Aeterna - I don't think this music was meant to be scary, but gained that connotation after it was used in conjunction with the black monolith in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

4. Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring - I've been thinking about this work a lot, as this weekend UNC–Chapel Hill hosted an international musicology conference dedicated to the Rite and the Carolina Performing Arts series is programming Rite-related concerts all season long

3. Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, movement 5: "Dream of a Witches Sabbath" - Berlioz evokes a trip to hell in which his ex-beloved dances an "infernal orgy" at his own funeral. You can't beat the lengthy parody of the Dies Irae, a chant from the liturgical Requiem for the dead.

2. Crumb's Black Angels - An electric string quartet with dark overtones of just about everything evil, reportedly finished on Friday the 13th.

1. Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima - a pretty amazing work for string orchestra written with graphic notation and producing amazing, never-heard-before sounds.

Honorable mentions: Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain (also check out the disco version), and Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre.

This brings up an important question: what does it mean for music to be scary? Is it ugly? Microtonal? Dissonant? Does it feature screeching violins (the fiddle has long been characterized as the Devils music)? Does it mean sudden contrasts that might startle you? Instruments mimicking scary things like clouds of insects or bats? Well, it's complicated. All five are scary in their own way.

I will be the first to say I'm being overly reductive of these five "scary" works. All of these works have sections that could easily be described as beautiful, probably the opposite of scary. What is very interesting, though, is that all five either are given a programmatic element, or had one thrust upon them. Perhaps we need that extra touch of reality to let the music set our imagination loose. Or maybe the composer was able to create a link between their music and our emotions associated with the scary thing.

Another trait all these pieces share is that they are pretty much each composer's most popular work. Coincidence? Maybe not. Ever try and watch a horror movie without the music? Not very scary. It turns out that we're used to having composers manipulate our emotions with music, and we like it. And when composers can manipulate you with as strong emotion as fear, people will remember and want to hear it again. If it's a really good piece, as these are, the fear will come again.

What do you think makes music scary? Do you have your own nominations for scary art music?

Vocab: programmatic, liturgical

[Note: musicologists often prefer the term "art" music instead of "classical" music, mostly because to them, Classical music is a specific period of art music (c.1750-1825)]

Monday, October 22, 2012

Two Weird Rituals of Pop Music Concert Culture

#1 The assumed encore

There are a couple of understood or unspoken rituals of pop music concerts which don't make any sense to me. The first ritual is the end of a pop music concert. I'm talking about how performers are expected to give an "encore," meaning after saying they are done with the concert, they come on again and play 1–3 more songs, irrespective of how exited the audience actually is to hear more.

Now, in classical music concert culture, an encore is (mostly) still optional, which I believe is the original purpose of the encore. If the audience is really excited and simply need more, a performer may play a little something else. In the popular music concert culture, however, the encore pretty much a given. In other words, the audience knows popular musicians are lying when they say "this is the last song."

One pithy pop performer near the end of his concert said the following: “We’re getting close to that time where I leave the stage, you give me a standing ovation, and I come back and play a few more songs.” That really made the whole concert for me—why not say it like you mean it!

This brings me to the solution: Performers, stop lying to us. If you are actually getting to the end of your concert, tell us. Let yourself actually earn a real encore.

#2 The standing concert

The other popular concert ritual that doesn't make sense to me is the standing concert. Sure, I understand that some concert venues don't want to have seats. That's fine. You can fit more people in, it's a more relaxed atmosphere where people can dance if they want, etc. This "no seats" model leads to people people queuing up an hour (or more) before the printed "doors open" time. While this is annoying, that's understandable, too. Waiting in lines can be fun for those involved and lets people get psyched up for the performance.

What I don't like is what happens after the doors open. After the more excited fans rush to claim spots right in front of the stage, the audience usually has to wait another 1 or 1.5 more hours before the warm-up act starts. This makes no sense to me. After 2-3 hours of mostly standing, we finally get to hear the act we didn't come to see. Why can't the venues just move the "doors open" time back an hour or so? If they are really just trying to sell more stuff, have the merch table and refreshments open for the people waiting in line, or have someone walking around selling stuff to them. I also think that there should be less time between the warm-up and main acts, but I think if I already weren't waiting around before the warm-up act, the inter-act set-up time wouldn't bother me so much; they could just call it intermission and tell us approximately how long it will be (which they don't do, for some reason).

What do you think? Are you annoyed at the inherent waiting involved in the standing concert? Or are there good reasons for the procedures that I don't know about? Do you like the assumed encore?

I'll leave the concept of audience clapping (and the now-ubiquitous standing ovation) for a post at a later date.

Vocab: encore

Monday, October 15, 2012

Concert Review: Irish New Age/Folk/Rock group Clannad


History Lesson

Before I get to the concert review, a bit of history:

Clannad started out as traditional Celtic group from Donegal (in the northwest of Irleand, kind of the wild west of the island) in the the 1970s. The group consists of three siblings, Moya Brennan (harp and lead vocal), Ciarán Brennan (keyboard and bass), and Pól Brennan (flute and guitar), with their twin uncles Noel Duggan (guitar) and Pádraig Duggan (mandolin, guitar). They did pretty well for themselves in the Irish folk circles for a while, singing in Irish and playing their traditional instruments.

In the early 80s, however, they took a decidedly different direction, writing their own songs in English and adding to the usual traditional Irish sound all sort of new noises like synthesizers, keyboards, saxophone, and drum set. Was their adopting of popular musical signifiers music selling out? Fans are still debating this. Whatever you think, they (along with their younger sister, the more famous Enya) pioneered the sound and content of the genre we call New Age, which was as much about folklore and mysticism as overdubbed vocals and synthesizers.

Clannad's real international breakout came in 1982 with "Theme from Harry's Game," which was a theme song for a British TV show. This song charted in at #5 in the UK, which was pretty impressive for being in a foreign language. It featured close harmonies over synthesizer drones and was a completely new sound. Clannad followed up this success by writing the sound track to the BBC Robin of Sherwood in 1984–1986 (nerd confession: I own the series on DVD). Clannad wasn't the only Celtic group to break into the international scene with soundtrack music. Enya followed suit in 1986 with the soundtrack to The Celts, which later became the basis for her first solo album. Capercaillie, the Scottish counterpart to Clannad, did the same with the soundtrack to the Blood is Strong in 1988. All three of these projects mixed Celtic and popular music elements that we now associate with New Age music.

The Concert

Last Friday, I saw Clannad live in concert. They're pretty old now (especially the uncles), but they are still attracting a medium crowd, at least of a certain age; there were very few people in the audience younger than I, and most of them were probably dragged by their parents. The music definitely improved as the concert progressed, as they worked out the technical problems and perhaps warmed up a bit.

Clannad were at their best when the five of them sang together in close harmonies. They have really refined this lush and blended sound. Of these, the soundtrack selections were really the best presented and written, I think. I'm not sure why they thrive in soundtracks; perhaps because they didn't feel they needed to convey a story with words (English lyrics aren't the band's strength) and instead focused on translating the extant story into music. My biggest complaint is that the words were unintelligible when they had all the instruments cranking, which could have been the sound person's fault.

One final note: the amazing thing about Clannad's sound is that even as they made their transition into popular music, they still kept traditional elements, such as working in the Irish language and their traditional instruments (how many folk harp solos have you heard in popular music?). Still, sometimes I do wish for some blistering Celtic dance music. But that's not their style, and that's okay. They proved in this concert that even though they "went popular," they did not turn their back on their traditional roots.

Next week, I'll discuss the peculiar ritual of ending a pop concert. Stay tuned!

Vocab: drone, musical signifiers, close harmonies

Monday, October 8, 2012

Vocab: the Shamisen

Since Asian music is popular topic at the moment, I thought I might introduce an instrument that you might not be aware of—the shamisen.

A shamisen, from Flikr

It's a Japanese traditional instrument, and you play it by plucking the strings, like a guitar. Instead of plucking with fingers, though, the player uses a large plectrum. The plectrum makes the shamisen's sound more twangy than it might normally be. I'm not talking a country or spoken "twang," but the onomatopoeic "twang" sound heard when releasing an arrow from a bow. The shamisen only has three strings, no frets, and traditionally the body is covered with a skin: dog, cat, or snake. Like many Japanese traditional objects, the shamisen originally came from China. Here's a video of some famous contemporary shamisen players, the Yoshida brothers:

This is a great opportunity to talk about folk-popular hybridity (of the many things I could say about this video). The above musical object (a technical term for what we are studying, in this case the music video), is a combination of folk music and popular song construction. Music can also go the other way, putting a popular song in a folk music setting. Like this second musical object:

In both cases, the instruments and styles used are different from what you might expect. The second is an extreme (and funny) example, but it might provoke a question: What is the difference between folk and popular musics? The answer would be a large enough subject for a book, but in the interest of time, I think the two above objects show that there are less differences than you might think. At one time, folk music was popular music. We might say that folk music is the popular music of the past, though of course it is more complicated than that.

What do you think about the shamisen or popular/folk hybrids? Do you enjoy it when musicians mix up genres?

Vocab: plectrum, musical object, onomatopoeic

Special thanks to Megan Hill for introducing me to the Yoshida brothers.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Happy Sting Appreciation Day!

Today is what I call Sting Appreciation Day (a.k.a the birthday of Gordon Sumner). I, of course, grew up hearing his songs, but it wasn't until my senior year in high school that I finally attached the name with his work. "The same person wrote all those songs?" I said, "But they are so different and varied." Besides variety, here are some reasons I like Sting's music:
  • His music often defies stylist labels, borrowing from jazz, rock, reggae, folk, soul, electronic, and world music. He has even produced a few country songs, though the country stars that cover them often chart higher than he does (though I like Sting's versions).
  • His songs frequently expressively deviate from standard forms (try mapping out the form of "Every Breath You Take" sometime), and he's not afraid to employ (my favorite) asymmetrical meters.
  • His lyrics subvert popular conventions and challenge listeners with political commentary and literary references.
One example of that last feature is from "Fortress Around Your Heart," a fairly well-known song from Sting’s first solo album. The line "It took a day to build this city; we talked through its street in the afternoon" is a quote from Ewan MacColl's song "Ballad of Acounting." MacColl is a little-known English folk and protest singer (read: Socialist) from the 1960s, who was incidentally married to Peggy Seeger. I was in Ireland when I came upon Ewan MacColl's song and I might have got a little teary-eyed when I realized the connection.

Weird video, though. My favorite part is the little person saying "Mr. Sting, Mr. Sting!" Sting is not known for his good music videos as much as his B-movie acting, but the following video is weird and also very entertaining. It features a mermaid, several knights in armor, and Sting getting turned into a pig.

Seeing Sting perform this song, "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You," was definitely one of the best live music experiences I've had. And now I can consider myself an expert—I wrote the entry on Sting for the forthcoming second edition of Grove’s Dictionary of American Music from Oxford University Press.

What do you think of Sting? Are there artists whose birthdays you personally celebrate?

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The new Dave Matthews Band album: To listen or not?

Disclaimer: This is not a review. This is an introspective look about how taste for a band can change over time. Or how the band itself can change over time. 
Note: As always, your comments are welcome.

Earlier this month, the Dave Matthew’s Band (DMB) released their eighth studio album, Away from the World. I’ve listened to the iTunes samples, but I’m not sure I want to buy the new album or even listen to it. Why? It’s complicated.

Classic DMB: the big three

Dave Matthews was an important part of high school for me. Classic Dave Matthews Band for me mean the first few albums, Under the Table and Dreaming (1994), Crash (1996), and Before These Crowded Streets (1998, my favorite). I liked these albums mostly because the inventiveness and variety of the music. The best melodies were memorable, but that wasn’t always what made songs work for me. Lyrics and exiting riffs were a part, too. Here’s couple of specific examples:

1. “Drive In, Drive Out” from Crash. It’s the music that mainly gets me here, and I still get goosebumps when I listen to it. There is so much power in how this music is constructed, though everything fits into basically one riff and four chords. Although it’s a power song, our interest is kept alive throughout because there are so many variations of instrumentation and volume and texture until the music reaches the final unison section—maybe 6 or 7 unique sections that still preserve continuity in various ways. In preserving the interest, the electric violin and saxophone are leveraged to create effects totally uncommon in other pop music, and the cymbal and triangle work is pretty amazing, too.

2. “The Dreaming Tree” from Before These Crowded Streets. A totally different feel than “Drive in, Drive Out,” the lyrics are much more important in this song and are presented in verse instead of prose. Some of you know I’m a sucker for odd meters, and this one in 7 is no exception. Once again, each verse is a musical variant of the previous one, and the same is true of the simple riffs repeated between verse and chorus--they all have a musical direction and morph slowly. Strange pop instruments include bass clarinet, flute, bongos. It really keeps the listener’s interest for the whole nearly 9 minutes.

Both songs have interesting riffs (or a series of related riffs) that are varied throughout, really strive for new sounds, and have lyrics that connected emotionally in some way to the music.

Musical Decline?

Despite the success of these three albums, however, over the next three albums, most of the people I know stopped listening to new DMB material. Some people I know stopped listening at Everyday (2001) others at Busted Stuff (2002) Both these albums were just not as good as the classic DMB, I agree, but they were okay. The songs emphasized less those things novel to pop instead fixated on catchy melodies. Structures were more about repeating these catchy melodies instead of interesting variation. Even Dave’s voice was more neutral. Busted Stuff’s hit “Gray Street” is a good example of this: though the melody and riff are pretty memorable, the whole 5 minute song is basically one-and-a-half minutes of music repeated a few times, with some lyrical differences. While this is common for lots of pop music, this was not like Classic DMB (By the way, the disconnect between the dark, sad content of this song and the happy, dancing fans in the video is disconcerting. Is it the music’s fault, I wonder?).

But Stand Up (2005) was the final straw for me. I remember borrowing the album, listening once, and deciding to give up on DMB. I haven’t consciously listened to any new DMB since then (until this past week). Since that was seven years ago, I can’t remember exactly what made me actively dislike the album, but weird anti-piracy software aside, it was basically too predictable. The song forms (and topics) were stock, with quick sound bites recycled multiple times. The timbre was homogeneous, and you couldn’t even hear the electric violin anymore.  There were less novel musical experiences per song. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t decry something becoming pop-style, depending on how you define the word—I usually like high, sleek production. But it did seem that the DMB had sold out, meaning they had decided to stop producing quality music and instead produce simplified reproductions of the aspects of their music that they thought would sell.

Why the decline? The main theory is that their label pressured them into a new sound to sell more records. They did switch producers after the first three albums. Many support the producer-linked quality decline with Dave Matthew’s solo album Some Devil (2003), This album seemed more like the classic DMB albums, and the songs packed more variety and punch, though. “Are these what Matthews really would like to be writing, if he had his way?” people asked.

Or maybe, they realized they could stop working as hard and get about the same results.

Post breakup remorse—time to get back together?

Since Stand Up, DMB has produced two studio albums. Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King (2009, nominated for two Grammys) and the latest one, Away From the World, and both premiered at #1 on the Billboard album charts. But have they got back to the Classic DMB sound? I’m skeptical. I don’t want to get my hopes up to have them dashed. Steve Lillywhite, the same person who produced the Classic DMB three, is producing Away From the World, so that could mean something.

What do you think? What’s your DMB story? Are you still following them, or did you stop like me? Were you never interested? Have you listened to the last two DMB albums and love them or hate them? What other bands have disappointed you with new music that doesn’t seem to live up to earlier material?

Vocab: riff, pop-style

Saturday, September 22, 2012

"Gangnam Style": Wait, there’s music involved, too?

Now that I’ve set forth the foundation for this blog, I’m going to turn to something more current (and fun).

The viral K-pop video just hit 240 million YouTube views and counting, and the artist responsible, rapper PSY, is riding on a wave of success into the US spotlight. The song’s success is more exceptional because the song is (mostly) in Korean.

Much of the media hype around the song focuses on the video, and there are plenty of factors there that make it a tantalizing YouTube hit: the hilarious dancing, the crazy characters, the random scene changes, the culture shock, and the over-the-top antics. Underneath all that, there is a layer of nuanced satire (for more about its background, see this AP article and this from the Atlantic). While the envy and distaste for the conspicuously wealthy might lurk at the edges of consciousness of our fascination, I think it’s safe to say that for the most part Americans are unfamiliar with the cultural issues behind the video.

But what very few people talk about is the music. Let’s face it, the video wouldn’t be viral without it. What about the music makes the music of "Gangnam Style" work?

A Chorus?

Pretty much all the media mentions about the music is the “catchy” or “addictive” chorus. What they probably mean is the “hey, sexy lady” section, perhaps because that’s all they can understand. To that, I say 1) that section isn’t really a chorus and further, I claim the song doesn’t have a chorus, and 2) that section is not what makes this song really work.

There are basically two sections to this song, which I’ll call A and B. A dominates the piece, forming the background of most of the music. This section has an infectious, danceable rhythm that captures the motion of jumping up and down. The electronic glissando (or pitch slide filling the space between notes) on the main beats really helps with the jumping motion. The rapping, the short “op, op, Gangnam style” sections, and the “hey, sexy lady” sections all can be classified under A. Although the song does an excellent job of varying each recurrence of A in interesting ways, there really isn’t much harmonic motion (meaning the chords don’t change much) during any of these parts. And sitting on A for a while, though fun at first, eventually becomes of boring.

In comes B. The harmonic motion picks way up (meaning the chords change). The rapper suddenly starts singing. This section builds in volume, and the phrases get shorter and shorter. Through this, the glissando jumps out of A and starts getting higher and higher in pitch. Finally, the phrase breaks down to simply quick beating, building the tension to a climax. And then, silence.

This section, B, is really the key to why this song works. Notice how the video imitates the tension of the building music. Notice that the silence helps accentuate the tremendous lift preceding it. I would argue that B is what songwriters would call a pre-chorus. Like a chorus, a pre-chorus has the same words each time it appears, but unlike a chorus, which is a goal in itself, the pre-chorus builds to a goal. With its harmonic movement, B really sets the song apart from most rap songs, which hardly ever depart from one chord.

Except what happens after the silence is not a chorus, but a return to the intro and verse beat, A. It’s a recovery, like the music is telling the listener “we’ve just gone a long distance, let’s rest awhile in this comfortable place. And dance while we’re at it.” The layering of “hey, sexy lady” onto A is then a nice icing on the cake, a varied repetition of A we haven’t heard yet. The song goes through the whole cycle again, and by the time we reach B again, the lift is even more effective because we’ve been through 4 whole repetitions of A without a break. The third time through the cycle, the song avoids B with a building version of A, perhaps either because B is so draining or because leaving B out leaves us wanting more.

Here’s a full map of the different sections in "Gangnam Style":

intro    A       A      B    A    A       A       A      B    A      A       A        A      outro
         rap1   rap2         op  sexy  rap1  rap2         op   sexy  build   sexy

Comedy in rap: a backdoor

One more note about the music: the comedy not only happens on the screen, it also happens in PSY’s satirical tone of voice, and this has an effect on the music. You can tell despite the language barrier that “Gangnam Style” is not your run-of-the-mill serious gangster rap; it's a completely different thing. Just the fact that a Korean’s doing the rapping creates some laughter-inducing cognitive dissonance for us Americans. By the way, other not-black people have gotten into rap by the same comedy rap backdoor. For example, Eminem, who did not hit the big time until he created his Slim Shady alter ego, a parody of lower-class whites. PSY could be the nerdy Korean’s answer to Eminem.

Would this song have made it in the US without the video? Probably not. But I don’t think the video would have made it without the backbone of a well-constructed song, either.

So, what do you think? Is there something in the music of "Gangnam Style" you like (or don't like)?

Also, check out this "Gangnam Style" Flashmob at the University of Michigan.

New vocab: harmonic motion, glissando, outro, pre-chorus

Monday, September 17, 2012

How to Gainfully Employ Music Vocab

Take it from an artist
Some of our music-specific vocabulary is borrowed from visual art. Notice on the vocab page how the flute’s melody is described as angular? Yet, music doesn’t really have angles. In this case, the term comes from someone looking at the printed notes and then visualizing what it would look like if lines were drawn between each note. Music isn’t really chromatic or dynamic, either, at least not in the same way as art. Some of the commonly accepted art music classifications, such as baroque, impressionist, or minimalist, come from art, too (and often don’t fit the music they label very well. But that’s a rant for another day). The point is that when trying to describe or label an abstract thing, visual art already has some good solutions, so why not steal them?

When writing about music, it’s good to follow the pattern of visual art reviewers, too. When they are writing about a painting, they don’t simply describe the art, for example: “It’s a painting of a clown with tears on its cheeks.” We can see the painting, after all. We want to know why we should care about the painting. Yet, having just encountered the bevy of specific vocabulary, in my experience, students new to writing about music do just that—say what they hear. A sentence might read: “The music begins with three flutes in duple meter in a polyphonic texture.” They might feel proud, and rightfully so, because they used new, difficult vocab. And while this might be a good description, the burning question is this: why do I need to know this? I can hear the music, can’t I? Descriptions like this don’t add meaning; they just are a written simplified replacement for the audio. A written description might also act like an arrow or a magnifying glass in art, drawing attention to some detail, but there should be some purpose for this.

Build from the bottom up

Art reviewers instead determine “Why does the clown have tears painted on his cheeks?” or “How does the artist paint the tears,” or “How does that effect the way I interact with the picture?” The descriptions, then, support general ideas. The same idea applies to writing about music. Instead of writing “It is a scary piece with pizzicato violas in triple meter,” answer a question such as “Why did the composer write the piece in triple meter?” or “How and why does the melody or accompaniment convey “scary”?” Then, use your handy written description to prove your claim. It’s almost never good to start at the beginning of a piece and describe what happens in each measure. Always work from a general concept and then give specific supporting examples.

As in art, the most interesting parts of an art object are usually the parts that are most different. For example, if a painting is mostly dark, the important part is probably where it’s light. In music, if there is a rhythm that recurs constantly for the entire piece except for one section, that different section must be important. “Why is it different,” ? There’s probably not enough time or space to write about an entire piece of music from start to finish, anyway, because often music is just too complex; a little music is as good as at least 10,000 words. Instead, find the interesting sections of music that prove your point.