Last time, I touched on some of the musical connections between Mozart and the Insane Clown Posse. Today, I look a slightly less intuitive combination – Mozart and Brahms.
“Brahms’s secret weapon is rhythm. Nineteenth century classical music is not prized for its rhythmic invention…but Brahms paid close attention to the science of the beat.”
In “Blessed Are The Sad” – Alex Ross’s Brahms essay from the Listen to This collection, Ross points to the composer’s middle-period as a time of deepening rhythmic sensibility and prowess. In large part, Ross posits, this is due to Brahms’s engagement with Gypsy music and German folk songs. This is undoubtedly true. His engagement with non-classical European music is, to me, one of the reasons he is so clearly a Romantic rather than a retrograde classicist. However, I would suggest that, alongside his Romantic-era nationalist interests, his immersion in pre-Beethovenian classical music also helped to shape his specific rhythmic sensibility. Mozart, for example, is well known as one Brahms’s favorite composers and, as such, is very likely a strong influence on his rhythmic sensibility. With that in mind, I would like to take a short look at the opening of Mozart’s concert aria “Bella Mia Fiamma…” to examine how the work of a Classical composer, such as Mozart, is rhythmically different from (Ross’s description of) the Romantic style of rhythm in which “composers would generally put a 4/4 time signature at the outset of a piece, set a pulse in motion, and attempt to sustain large structures through harmonic means.” In this Mozart example, harmony and rhythm work together to create slippery, mercurial phrases that tease the listener’s expectations of musical place and time.
The aria’s opening utilizes six-beat gestures that serve to swap the perceived downbeat between beats 1 and 3 of the measure. In effecting these swaps, Mozart composes a fourteen-measure (plus a downbeat) opening section without allowing the music to feel asymmetrical and/or markedly unbalanced in the way that a later composer like Prokofiev might.
The main shift in metric emphasis appears at m.8, beat 3 (from here on measures and beats will be indicated with a decimal: m. 8.3). At 8.3, the voice reenters with an altered statement of its original material from m. 2.3. However, because of the way in which Mozart manipulates his harmonic rhythm (that is, the placement and pacing of his chord changes), the entrance at m. 8.3 feels like a downbeat, while m. 2.3 feels, as expected, like a mid-measure entrance. Juliane Banse’s performance with the Munich Chamber Orchestra (streamable on Spotify) emphasizes this by entering her voice slightly later than the strings at 2.3, but with the strings at 8.3.
Through the aria’s first six measures, harmonies basically change at the rate of the half note despite a touch of filigree here or there. Beginning with m. 7, the chords are changing every quarter note. In e minor, the progression from mm.7 – 8.3 is: |i – V/V – V7 – VI – | iv – V – i. However, not all chords in this progression are created equal. In m. 7, it is, of course, the i and V7 chords that fall on the strong beats. Following that, the VI and iv chords that come after the V7 are more of a chordal embellishment of m. 7.3’s dominant harmony than they are independent chords in their own right. If you didn’t quite follow that last bit, look at the bass line between 7.3 and 8.2 and notice how, without the rests, it looks exactly like a double neighbor figure of the sort you’d find as an ornamentation in Bach.
Following this prolonged dominant, m. 8.3 marks that first time in the piece that the voice enters at the same time as a cadence. The combination of an authentic cadence, pseudo-repetition of melodic material, and a re-normalization of the harmonic rhythm following the speeding up of m.7 – 8.3 creates the sense that the next musical cycle is beginning. That is, in every way but the notation, m. 8.3 is the downbeat. Mm. 9 – 14 work in almost the exact same way, so that when the next substantial section of the piece begins at m. 15, the perceptual and notated downbeats have re-aligned.
So, while music of the classical era may often look somewhat rhythmically stilted from beat-to-beat, it can often contain a wealth of subtlety and sophistication from measure-to-measure. A musician of Brahms’s character would have surely internalized the lessons of Mozart and brought them to bear wherever they might be beneficial to his vision.
December 16, 2011
Crisis or Opportunity:
Tales from a Music Educator in the Trenches
“A man has no more character
than he can command in a time of crisis.”
— Ralph W. Sockman
My allotted teaching space from 11:15-11:55 am was a brightly-lit, yet bare and uninspiring, second-floor multi-purpose room of a 98% minority public middle school in downtown Augusta, Georgia. I smiled at the boy opposite me, a stoic seventh grader named Christopher Quiller, whose solemn eyes only rarely connected with mine. I could hear the rowdy noise of his classmates in the hallway as he approached this room, and as he sank into the deeply scooping plastic chair, he seemed conflicted. The way his jaw was set told me he didn’t want to be here. The way he cradled his viola suggested exactly the opposite. His reputation, as supplied to me by his string teacher of the previous year, supported both of my observations.
This was my first teaching day in the fall of 2006. I taught chorus and general music classes at another Augusta area middle school for the two previous years, but there was an opening in the Richmond County Orchestra (RCO) faculty and I was finally able to get into my chosen musical field, being a violinist myself. Chris, on the other hand, had spent the last couple of years getting detention or in-school suspension for the occasional scuffle with his classmates while proving to be something of a natural on the viola. Due to a perfect storm of circumstances, he and I began our year of one-on-one lessons. Read the rest of this entry »
December 14, 2011
“To this day, the arts in America, when pressed, define themselves in opposition to society.” – Alex Ross, Listen to This, page 236
Turning through the pages of Alex Ross essay on education – “Learning the Score: The Crisis in Music Education” – in his book Listen to This, I was struck by his attention to the plurality of outcomes that music education may realize. It got me thinking about the necessity for re-evaluating how we measure the importance of integrating arts training into our educational system. But as Sir Ken Robinson has already proposed, do we need educational evolution, or revolution?
December 7, 2011
“Silence!” — Laura Lentz on Alex Ross
December 7, 2011
There are a lot of rules and regulations surrounding classical music, and a lot of these are very recent inventions. People don’t realize that. –Alex Ross
Alex Ross’s opening essay in Listen to This subtitled Crossing the Border from Classical to Pop, has got me thinking a lot about the culture surrounding classical music. Mr. Ross describes the present culture as “mediocre elitism” which seems to have begun within the past century with atonal music which defined classical music as more of a theoretical exercise. At the same time, there grew a wonderful mish-mash of new genres which would appear over the years. Blues, jazz, rock, and pop, all became more a part of popular culture and promised more possibility to engage and relate to the music. Over time, classical music became something we needed a degree to decipher. It became inaccessible. Classical music wasn’t of the people any longer, and it started to have new rules and regulations.
Conductor and composer Rob Kapilow, creator of What Makes it Great? a touring series that combines lecture, concert and Q&A, looks to make classical music more engaging to the general public. His project, he says, is to make the music accessible, to get people to ‘get it.’ He adds that, “There is a lot of stuff around the music that is not about the music. People will say, ‘It’s so puckered up!’ The clapping thing is a big deal.”
Imagine this scene from the 19th century, from Listen to This:
Concerts were eclectic hootenannies in which opera arias collided with chunks of sonatas and concertos. Barrel-organ grinders carried the best-known classical melodies out into the streets, where they were blended with folk tunes. Audiences regularly made their feelings known by applauding or calling out when the music was playing.
Quite different than what we experience today. Mr. Kapilow adds that Beethoven would have been horrified if the end of a movement didn’t get applause. Critic Greg Sandow says that our present style of performance, with silence and formal dress, puts a frame around the music that says, “Something very important is happening here,” and you, the audience, aren’t a part of it. We’ve ignored the real meaning that classical works from the past had when they were new, in particular for pieces written at a time when composers expected performers to improvise, and the audience was expected to react by clapping or cheering as they felt.
Classical music unfortunately has created the image of an art that is stuffy, lacking in passion and remote from contemporary society. In Rebirth, the Future of Classical Music, Mr. Sandow suggests that classical music must become a contemporary art and part of contemporary life in order to breathe life into classical music once again. I enjoy his observation that all contemporary music, outside of classical music, has a beat—and perhaps this may be why it doesn’t sound like contemporary life. The question is, how do we make classical music become a part of contemporary life? Mr. Ross’s crossing the border into pop music gives us some new possibilities to consider.
How can we work to make classical music more a part of contemporary society and change the culture surrounding it?
We need look no further than to some of the trail-blazing classical performances taking place in our communities. In particular, we should look to the smaller ensembles that are playing new, contemporary classical music, or are presenting the “classics” combining music, drama, art, dance and other art forms. Some that come to mind are ICE, Bang on a Can, Fifth House Ensemble, and Alarm Will Sound. And then there’s Classical Revolution, live chamber music for the people in over 20 cities across the United States and Europe, hosting performances in coffeehouses, cafes and other nontraditional venues. Then there are groups blending genres, crossing the border from classical into pop and beyond.
There’s the Wordless Music series that puts classical pieces on concert programs with leading New York indie rock bands and has many sold-out concerts. The Pittsburgh-based Eclectic Laboratory Chamber Orchestra of which I’ve been fortunate to be a member fuses classical and pop music effortlessly, with orchestral arrangements of popular music, jazz improvisation, and other genres blended in to each concert. The San Francisco Classical Voice recently featured several small freelance orchestras who are performing in nontraditional venues — rock clubs, churches, college auditoriums — rather than concert halls, and frequently playing nonstandard repertoire, ranging from contemporary postclassical music to pop covers. Groups like Boston Modern Orchestra Project, A Far Cry, and The Knights are some to watch.
Using technology can be another way classical music can fit more into contemporary society, and one very innovative idea in recent days is that tweeters are now welcome at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s concerts. TweetSeats are an area in the theater for those who wish to communicate about the concert in real time. Another possible way to capitalize on technology could be for music groups to offer video casts, as a way to reach more audiences and create a new revenue stream at the same time.
The role of social media as a tool for classical musicians and organizations can’t be underestimated. The San Francisco Classical Voice ran a recent post titled “Simply Connect: The Rise of Social Media in the Arts“, which discusses the benefits of social media as a means to boost, expand and communicate with audiences. Social media provides a kind of backstage access, revealing more than what goes on behind the scenes. It lets people feel more engaged, and not only in the end result, says Janet Cowperthwaite, managing director for the Kronos Quartet, but in the concert, the recording, and the process in getting there.
Thinking outside the box, beyond the typical concert setting, reaching audiences in new ways like this is brilliant. It looks at contemporary society and puts pieces of the puzzle together. The more we can connect with contemporary society, the more we can change the culture surrounding classical music.
December 6, 2011
FYI, Jennifer Borkowski is my new blog crush. If you haven’t yet had a chance to read her fantastic post from yesterday, click here. I’d like to take this post and just write about all the right-on stuff in her essay, but I feel that I already pulled a bit of a bait-and-switch last time by writing more about Brian Eno than Alex Ross. I would hate to gain a reputation as the site’s master baiter. So, here’s part two:
“[Classical music is] a tenaciously living art…”
What is it that’s tenaciously living? Is it the repertoire itself? Is it the act of playing orchestral instruments? Is it the act of writing and/or playing music through the means of traditional notation? Is the curatorial gravity of the music’s presentational institutions? Classical music, whatever it might be, is not a thing-in-itself but, rather, a category that emerges when performance, composition, and culture intersect. Because classical music is not a thing, but an outcome of an intersection, I don’t know what kind of music he’s talking about when he talks about… Read the rest of this entry »
December 2, 2011
n.b. Don’t forget to check out Alexis del Palazzo’s “Breaking the Cycle” here.
I. – The Shuffle
In the not-too-distant past, I finally acquired a deck of Oblique Strategy cards. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Oblique Strategies, it is a deck of over 100 cards authored in 1975 by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt. Each card contains a short aphoristic instruction such as “Honour thy error as a hidden intention” or “Work at a different speed.” Like many owners of the deck, I use it in somewhat of an oracular fashion, occasionally drawing a card at the start of an artistic endeavor or perhaps consulting the deck if I’m stuck within a particularly thorny creative conundrum. Interested parties can purchase a deck here.
II – The Deal
In the much-more-recent past, I set about strategizing my initial essay for IPAP’s current series of responses and reactions to Listen To This – Alex Ross’s recent collection of essays. My essay, as it had originally existed in my head, drew from the last three-and-one-fifth pages (from the bottom of p. 18 in the U.S. hardcover edition) of Ross’s “trumpet-blast manifesto” of a first chapter in order to sound a complementary call-to-arms. It hoped to encourage performers to base their artistic identity in their instrument itself rather than in any specific repertoire and to move towards a type of pan-stylistic model of performative musicianship, using – as an example of one approach to this – the music of Janice Whaley, whose work we will be discussing here in the near future. To accomplish this, the essay would synthesize, among other things, the financial straits of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the role of improvisation in organ pedagogy, Michael Tilson Thomas, Marx’s mode of production, Deadmau5, Duke Ellington, David Foster Wallace, the Oxford comma, and Locatelli. Read the rest of this entry »
December 1, 2011
Alex Ross’s Listen to This is a collection of essays that examines music across multiple genres and seeks to escape the confines of the “classical music” label. The first chapter crosses the border from classical to pop – factors that affect this crossing include societal traditions, values and education. Going from classical to pop is the direction the author took; however, this essay can resonate with anyone that loves music and came to classical music via a different path.
Composers are always paving the path for the future even if they don’t realize it. Beethoven could not have known that his Eroica symphony would still be performed some 200 years later and as we cycle through the stages evident in all musical genres, from youthful rebellion to retrenchment (an excellent point made in this chapter), we can argue the same for popular music and all its sub-genres.
In reading this chapter, I became curious about the cultural values that have encouraged or discouraged the creation of classical music. Mr. Ross states that he feels he would be more at home in the 1930s and 40s, since his listening patterns matched that time more than his own coming of age in the 70s and 80s. So why is there a difference? I feel that our education system and its emphasis on standardization play a large role in answering this question. Read the rest of this entry »