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?