Monday, October 28, 2013

The Chris Thile Show!

A mandolin. Thile's, actually.

For my post this week, I'm doing something a little different. Tomorrow, I'm going to a concert by Chris Thile, a mandolin virtuoso (meaning he's very, very good player) and one of my favorite performers. As an assignment for one of my classes, I made a basic pathfinder or guide about Chris Thile and the concert, which you can find here. I hope you enjoy it.

A personal note: you'll notice Thile is quite accomplished for someone so young (he's 32); he's actually only four days older than I. I guess I've got a lot of catching up to do!

Vocab: mandolin, virtuoso

Monday, October 21, 2013

Birdsong and the Musician Wren

What are birds? We just don't know.

Birds of a feather sing together

Some of you may know that I like birding. Since I also like music, it may come as no surprise that birdsong is particularly fascinating to me. I'm not the only one; birdsong has intrigued and stimulated people throughout history. For example, in the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale "The Nightingale", a nightingale's song brings the Chinese imperial court to tears and later distracts Death, saving the life of the emperor.

Probably the best-known composer to use birdsong in music was French composer Oliver Messiaen. He wrote many pieces based entirely on birdsong. While I'm not a big fan of these pieces (to be overly simplistic, to me, they don't have direction or progression), I think it shows the fascination some musicians can have with natural sounds, especially something as ordered as birdsong.

While I'm not as knowledgeable as Messiaen about birdsong (and European birds are just different, anyway), I can tell a few birds just from hearing their song. One of my favorite common birds is the chickadee, which has several different interesting songs in its repertoire.

And your bird can sing

Yesterday, the blog The Presurfer featured a bird called the Musician Wren. Here's what it posted about the wren (

The Musician Wren is a species of wren named for its elaborate song. It is native to the Amazon Rainforest in South America, and west and southwestwards into the Amazonian Andes. In Portuguese it is known as Uirapuru. Especially in Brazil, the Musician Wren is the subject of several legends and fables, most relating to its loud and beautiful song. One of these tells that when it starts singing all other birds stop their song to hear it.*
Here's an audio example of the bird's song, which has a very clear tone, with a picture of it:

But how does it work?

What's interesting to me about the Musician Wren's song is that it's beautiful without fitting into our normal common practice tonality, the system that Western culture has used for music for the past  three centuries. Yet, the music fits together as a whole because it is broken into phrases with a hierarchy, meaning some phrases feel more conclusive than others. There are really only three phrases in the example, which I will call (in the order we hear them): B, A, and B'. All three start with a similar melody, but the B phrase sounds like  a consequence phrase, or most conclusive, mostly because of the descending octave at the end. The A phrase, on the other hand, doesn't sound as final, perhaps because it ends on something close to a second-inversion triad. These two phrases alone would be enough for a complete song, but the wren also produces a variation on the B phrase (B'), which starts like the B phrase, but just kind of stops. These three phrases are different enough and mixed around enough (and their melodies complex enough, with unexpected jumps and clips), that I can listen to them for a while and not get bored. But they are similar enough to make this birdsong sound connected.

Now, do I hear these phrases in a hierarchy because of my musical training, or because nature's music really works that way? I think that's very debatable.

What do you think of the Musician Wren's song? Do you have any favorite birdsongs?

Vocab: common practice tonality, phrase, antecedent phrase, consequence phrase, second-inversion triad

* I think this blurb was summarized from another, lower-quality YouTube video of the Musician Wren, which you can find here.

Monday, October 14, 2013

I don't know how music works

What's with this guy, anyway?
A few weeks ago, I performed as a singer in four performances Beethoven's 9th Symphony. It's a long work, and the choir doesn't come in until close to the end, so I had a lot of time to sit and think about what was going on in the music. And with Beethoven, there's always a lot going on. As any regular readers of this blog know, I like taking music apart and analyzing it to see how it works. At the end of the four performances, what I decided was this:

I don't know how music works.

I know what pitches the open strings of a violin sound, how many times a second a string vibrates to sound an 'A' in Europe or the U.S., how to spot a second theme in the first movement of a classical sonata or symphony, how to lift my soft palate so that my vowels sound better, and how to sing beautifully in German.

But I don't know how this music made Beethoven, a middle-class German who lived centuries ago, a hero and household name for all the generations since.

I know how to analyze or write a four-part fugue, how to orchestrate, transpose, and balance a woodwind section, how to finger an Ab on a trumpet and what the same note would sound like if played on a bassoon. I know how to take apart a clarinet, how a baritone sax is different than a soprano sax is different than a bass clarinet. I know the German name for viola, how to dance an Irish jig, and the difference between a bulgar and a freilach. I know how to dampen an Javanese reyong, how to chant kechak, and how to count gong cycles.

But I don't know what about the music of 9th symphony made it a symbol of New Years in Japan or the reunification of Germany in 1990.

I know how to conduct music in 11/8, how to recognize a blues progression and improvise a solo over it, how to correctly voice and resolve a Neapolitan chord, how low a bass can usually sing and what happens to their tone above an 'A'.

But I don't know what about Beethoven's 9th (or any other piece of music) would make someone dedicate their whole lives (with minimal financial award) to studying a composer who died years ago. I don't know why some people decide to spend thousands of dollars on a music education with little hope of financial reward. I don't know why a few people spend millions of dollars to shore up the failing finances of symphony orchestras all over the world because those musicians hardly make enough money to buy their instruments.


When you get down to it, this symphonic performance is just a bunch of people waving their arms and moving their fingers and blowing, or shouting in a very specialized way, and vibrating strings and membranes and columns of air. And it's not just classical art music—all music is just
vibrating air molecules that we pick up with some very small bones in our ear and transfer into electrochemical pulses in our brains. It's not like art or literature, where pictures or words can represent tangible things in our lives and relationships (and by the way, many critics think that the words to "Ode to Joy" by themselves are pretty much drivel). How can a vibration be a symbol for joy or anger or pain or group belonging?

So how does it help me to know what I don't know? It's important because we need to know what we are assuming before we can move on. Take science—it starts with assumptions, or postulates. For instance, in Euclidian geometry we have to assume that there's such a thing as two parallel lines that never meet. But we can't really prove that, and in fact on the Earth, which is not flat, Euclidian geometry doesn't really work on a large scale, just as Newtonian physics doesn't work in large-scale space.

In music's case, we take as a postulate the transformative power of music. This assumption helps us move on to make some conclusions that in practice seem to work out. But I think we should never forget that it's an assumption. We don't know how or why music is or can become such a big deal, such an important factor for change in the world. And our lack of answers is one of the things that makes music so intriguing.

Vocab: theme, sonata, symphony, soft palate, fugue, blues progression, transposition, gong cycles

Monday, October 7, 2013

Concert Review: Ani DiFranco, Queen of the Varied Vamp

Last week, I attended a live concert by the amazingly prolific artist and businessperson Ani DiFranco. Here's what I thought.

The opener: Pearl and the Beard—missing a mustache?

The opening band for Ani was Pearl and the Beard, an indie trio from New York City. I applaud their inventive song, their powerful unaccompanied voices, and their courage at creating unique instrumentation, but that choice of instruments (percussion, cello, and guitar) put most of their sound in the low-middle register. The cello and guitar players seemed to be having a fight as to who was supposed to play the bass and the harmonic accompaniment. I think the band would benefit from some more melodic instrumental thinking, either using the instruments they have differently, or bringing in something like a lead guitar (ukulele? mandolin? accordion? zither?). This would fill out the treble range and allow for hooks, or catchy melodic snippets that get and keep people's attention. Also, it was often difficult to understand their lyrics, often a problem for those not already familiar with a band's music (though it shouldn't be, in my opinion).

Guitars, words, and vamps

As for Ani, I was very impressed by her guitar skills. The range, volume, and variation of her guitar playing is breathtaking. Nobody really plays guitar like her. Though considering how much tension her playing style takes, I'm not surprised she's had to take career breaks for tendonitis. It's also impressive that she needs a new guitar after each song (we counted six or seven guitars that she rotated through). Despite her abilities, I was happy that she brought along a drummer and bassist  for this tour, because for me, even great guitar playing gets old after not too long.

Unlike Pearl and the Beard, Ani really does a great job communicating her words to her audience. I think besides good diction, she does a good job of composing music that highlights the meaning and sound of her lyrics. Most her songs come from a first person perspective. While I think in some ways that makes her songs more powerful, I think it's curious that she has a hard time writing songs about other characters.

As for the music, Ani's songs almost always follow a similar construction blueprint. She builds her songs over guitar vamps, or repeated patterns of a measure or two. How does she keep her songs interesting, despite this constant repetition? While, first of all, the vamps are usually quite complicated. Second, she's skilled at varying them, trimming them down or making them more complex as the song progresses. Sometimes she just stops playing for a few beats, especially if she wants to emphasize her lyrics. And speaking of her words, she has learned how to sing over, around, and through the vamps. Her words often carry their own interesting rhythms. The chorus melody will also be different, even if they are placed over the same vamp. And occasionally, she does throw in a few contrasting chords.

Stop being happy and play your angry stuff!

Though Ani was touring to promote her new album, it was obvious (even to herself, from comments she made) that the audience really was there to hear her classic music, not the new stuff. I could feel the excitement build in the hall the few times she gave in to audience requests to play an older song.*

What makes her old songs most exciting to audiences? I've got a few guesses. First, her emotions aren't as strong as they used to be and that plays out in the music. Second, many of her new songs don't really have a lyrical direction or an arc; they are more just a platform to broadcast her random thoughts. Third, her newer songs are missing choruses or anthems, fun and memorable phrases the audiences can grab on to and take the song upon themselves. Perhaps if she took on other people's stories instead of her own (especially with her cooler emotions), she might find a greater fountain of inspiration.

All in all, it was an enjoyable concert. There's a reason she has so many loyal fans. Oh, and (spoiler alert!) a great kazoo solo from her drummer.

What do you think about Ani? Do you like her new stuff better than her old stuff?

Vocab: hook, lyrics, vamp, instrumentation, harmonic, measure

*I witnessed the same thing a few years ago at a They Might Be Giants concert. It's apparently hard to keep coming out with more creative stuff after a long career. But it's a critic's job to complain about that, right?