Monday, November 25, 2013

Noteworthy Instruments: The Viola Organista

The outer workings of the viola organista. Photo: Tomasz Wiech/AFP

I'm sure many of you have seen the video of the viola organista as it was circulated on social media this week. The instrument, which is part of the chordophone family, is basically a harpsichord or piano whose strings are vibrated with a spinning wheel instead of plucked or struck. The spinning wheel is meant to imitate the bowing mechanic on many string instruments.

The instrument's builder and designer, Slawomir Zubrzycki, claims to have been inspired by Leonard Da Vinci's notebooks. However, lest you think this is a major breakthrough in instrument technology, it should be noted that bowed keyboard instruments have been made before, as early as 1575 by Hans Hyden and as recently as 2009. For a great essay on the background of bowed keyboard instruments, see this blogpost from The History Blog. The post also features the best video of the inner workings of the instrument, narrated (in Polish, unfortunately) by Zubrzycki. Take a look!

But wait, remember my Noteworthy Instrument post on the hurdy-gurdy? The hurdy-gurdy operates using the same principles. They both feature a rotating wheel which causes strings to vibrate. The only major differences is smaller range and lack of keyboard. And while the viola organista probably does not have a future as more than a novelty instrument, the hurdy-gurdy will continue to inspire generations to come…as a novelty instrument, too, I guess.

What did you think of the viola organista?

Vocab: chordophone, harpsichord,
keyboard, bowing

Monday, November 18, 2013

New Music Books I Wish I Had Time to Read #4

It's time again for another installment of New Music Books I Wish I Had Time to Read. As always, I've been busy processing new books for the music library (about 100 per month), and I note the ones that I think would be interesting to read, had I the time. Hopefully, there's something interesting here for everyone. Here are my biased picks, listed in no particular order:
  • Music Career Advising: A Guide for Students, Parents, and Teachers by Eric Branscome - Maybe a little too academically inclined, but I think it is important because so many young people go into university music programs because they are told they should, yet have no idea where such a program could lead them.
  • Download! How the Internet Transformed the Record Business by Phil Hardy - Tries to chronicle how the music industry had to adapt to the new internet digital music market, from the CD boom through MP3s to the present. Probably a bit premature, but we have to start somewhere.
  • Ubiquitous Musics: The Everyday Sounds That We Don’t Always Notice, edited by Marta Garcia Quinones, Anahid Kassabian, and Elena Boschi - Essays on gym music, mood music, ambient music, mobile phones, listening while traveling, etc.
  • Javanese Gamelan and the West, by Sumarsam - Examines not only how Gamelan performance in Indonesia has changed since it was introduced to the west, but how Gamelans have influenced the western music, including the many university Gamelans in the U.S. and elsewhere.
  • Made in Spain: Studies in Popular Music, ed. by Silvia Martinez and Hector Fouce - English language collection of essays about popular music in Spain, encompassing jazz, folk song and dance, pop, music during Franco, and regionalisms (because Spain is not a monolithic whole like sometimes we think in the U.S.)
  • Understanding the Music Industries, by Chris Anderton, Andrew Dubber, and Martin James - The plural in the title is no mistake—instead of talking about the monolithic industry, instead they try to see how all the little pieces interact and work together (or don’t work together): Songwriting, publishing, production, distribution, promotion, live music, audiences (which have a big impact on how people make money, it turns out), and copyright.
  • “Cashville”: Dilution of Original Country Music Identity through Increasing Commercialization, by Stephanie Schäfer - I’ve always thought that country music was mostly a self-perpetuating myth refined over the years to make money, but now here’s a book that backs up that arguement.
  • The Notation is Not the Music: Reflections on Early Music Practice and Performance, by Barthold Kuijken - While this book focuses on early music, which is usually not my cup of tea, I think it is important to keep in mind that what you see written was not necessarily what was heard when it was originally performed, especially for pre-1700 music and folk music.
  • Elvis Costello and Thatcherism: A Psycho-Social Exploration, by David Pilgrim and Richard Ormond - How could you go wrong with a title like this?
  • Music Education in Crisis, edited by Peter Dickinson - A collection of essays from the past 15 years, mostly from a British perspective, defending music education as it has been recently attacked and cut. Because we all need more things in our pocket about music advocacy.
  • Erik Satie: Music, Art, and Literature, edited by Caroline Potter - A collection of essays, including one on a topic for which I wrote a short paper as a graduate student: Satie as a comic. Sadly, (or probably happily for those reading this essay), this is not my paper.
  • Songs of People on the Move, edited by Thomas A. McKean - A collections of essays about the music of itinerant groups from all over the world, groups which are often on the margins of society.
Have you read any good music books lately?

Vocab: MP3, gamelan, ambient music

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Rise and Decline of KT Tunstall and Avril Lavigne—or Not?

Is this girl just relying on crazy eye shadow to drive record sales? (Image from Amazon)


The best laid plans...

I have to admit, I had this post planned a few months ago. I was going to write about two female pop artists who had exceptional debuts in the early 2000s, Avril Lavigne with Let Go (2002), and KT Tunstall with Eye to the Telescope (2004). I loved both of these albums and have followed the careers of both of these artists ever since.

And then, I was going to write about that despite both their great starts, I've been mostly disappointed with everything since these debuts. For Lavigne, the only good songs on her second album were clones of the best songs from the first album. Her third album was a complete departure from her previous material in a direction that I didn't like. And strangely, it’s not just Avril’s music that has suffered, but her words, too, even though she wrote all the words for her first album. As for KT Tunstall, I bought her subsequent two albums, but decided later that they were both mostly forgettable. Forgettable as in, it is hard for me to name or hum any songs from those albums even though I own them and have listened to them many times.

And then I was going to bring up that both KT Tunstall and Avril Lavigne recently released new albums, Tunstall in August with Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon, and Lavigne with the eponymous Avril Lavigne this past week. I was supposed to lament about the quick rise and decline of both of them on their release of yet more mediocre albums.

...can go awry

With Tunstall, I can stick to my original intent. Her new album is mostly blah, with a bunch of slow, mopey, strumming-guitar prominent, forgettable melodies. Though there are some nice fleeting timbral moments, more than anything else these only seem to try to make up for lack of substance elsewhere. She almost rises out the stupor with "Feel it All," but even this song doesn't quite make it to the energetic/relevant surface. The album's failure was the last straw for me; I've given up hope that she'll ever rise to the level of her first album, and I can only guess why her output has come up short.

I predicted that Lavigne's new album would send me the same message as Tunstall's. But I can't say that. Though I've only listened to the iTunes Store samples so far, I think Avril Lavigne may be her best album since Let Go. I can't say that I personally loved it and want to buy it; some of her musical and lyrical directions are not my cup-of-tea, but that doesn't mean it isn't good music. The album accomplishes what it was meant to. She's constructed some powerful ideas, emotions, and personas (note the plural) for this album, all wrapped up in pretty good music, and it really comes out (in great variety) in the final product. On the other hand, I should have guessed that Lavigne might have a comeback. I failed to mention her fourth album, Goodbye Lullaby, in the previous list—I think about half of the songs on it were pretty good. So the quality of this album should not have been the surprise it was.

The moral of this story is...

What do I think is the lesson to be learned about all of this? Collaboration. Avril Lavigne is at her best when she's working with someone else. All the hits on her first album were co-written by a music production team called the Matrix (I have no idea why they split ways). On Avril Lavigne, she worked mostly with her now-husband and member of Nickelback, Chad Kroeger. Having partners in crime really brings out her best work (though I'll still pine about her and the Matrix splitting up). Maybe that's what Tunstall needs, too.

I don't plan to write a full review of Avril Lavigne, but if you are curious, this track-by-track Billboard review is pretty good.

Did you like Eye to the Telescope or Let Go? Have you listened to either of these new albums? Any thoughts?

timbral, music production

Monday, November 4, 2013

"Ain't too many folks play too many notes on the mandolin"

I wasn't going to write a concert review about Chris Thile, seeing as how I already dedicated one blog post about him last week and concert reviews have historically been my least-viewed posts. However, after seeing him live, I decided I needed to share a couple of things. I'll keep it short.

Why I like Chris Thile in concert

  • Not many people can do a solo concert with one instrument and one microphone and no intermission. And keep it up for two hours. He didn't even have a loop machine.
  • He talks to his audience about form and chord progressions.
  • He really tries to make his songs sound different and try new things, even after years of performing. For example, among many novel things he did at this concert, for one short piece, he treated the mandolin only as a percussion instrument.
  • He often used his body to indicate the purpose or direction of a musical phrase or note.
  • I could tell that he thought deliberately about the placement of every single note, especially when he played Bach.
  • He never repeated a musical phrase exactly the same way.
  • His lyrics are well written, and he often uses form to accentuate the meaning of the words.
In short, if you ever get a chance to see him perform live, I would take it!

Vocab: loop machine, phrase