in ‘blog’ style – most recent entries on top.


19 May 2009

  4 Types of Difficulties in the Arts and my own Sonata Rocinante.


7, 12, 14 May 2009


This series of lectures treats four loosely related concepts -- the role of the performer in interpreting classical music, a definition of jazz (which is going to include the idea of swing and improvisation), spontaneity in performance, and the importance of live concerts. 


The performer's role in classical music

Probably the most powerful variable from performer to performer (and performance to performance) is the choice of tempo.  As part of that, the flexibility of the tempo is a key choice.  The scope of large-scale gestures in tempo (gradually speeding up or gradually slowing down) can be highly expressive; small-scale fluctuations in tempo such as rubato are also potent.


The next most significant performer choice includes dynamics, both across time in the course of a piece and the relative dynamics of layers of the music being performed simultaneously.


Other performer choices included articulation of notes, bowing, type of instruments and some degree of choice of the timbre.


To illustrate the impact of tempo in an extreme way, we can listen to the two recordings of a Chopin Prelude in two radically different tempos.  (The pianist is Garrick Ohlsson.)


To illustrate different choices of tempo, balance of dynamics, and articulation, we can listen to the two different recordings of the Goldberg Variations made by Glenn Gould.  The 1955 version is quite fast and seems like a very rapid conversation between two more or less equal partners.  The 1981 version is slower and seems to feature two different personalities.  The upper line, played by the right-hand, sings like a soprano diva showing off her skill, while the left hand plugs away like a friendly beer drinking tuba player.


Which recording is better?  This brings up the issue of criticism or judgment.  We can think of a listener being very experienced, having heard many performances and recordings of a particular piece and maybe even have performed that very piece many times, compared to a naďve listener hearing the piece or even that type of music for the very first time.  I would tend to trust the judgment of the experienced listener more, but I have found that even inexperienced listeners often come to quite perceptive critical judgments, because of course they have lots of experience listening to different types of music.  Keep this in mind as you write your concert reviews.  I played brief sample of Japanese gagaku as an example of music that might be unfamiliar, but my friends and I somehow had opinion as to which of two recordings was the better one.  The reverse case is also shown by the experienced critics who were fooled by the fraud perpetrated by the husband of Joyce Hatto. 


The next section is a brief discussion of jazz.  While classical musicians can express themselves rhythmically by large durations in tempo, jazz and other 20th-century popular music features a generally rigid unchanging tempo and rhythmic expression comes from playing in unexpected ways between the beats.  This feeling is called swing.  Louis Armstrong is often celebrated as the most significant figure in the development of this feeling, although many musicians were involved in the origins of this style.  The swing feeling comes in part from syncopation.  Syncopation is the emphasis or accentuation of beats or parts of the beats that usually don't get accented.  This is only half of the story, because classical music dating from the Renaissance is full of examples of syncopation.  My favorite example is the Mozart Symphony No. 25 in G minor.  Swing is a systematic and expressive rhythmic feel that escapes easy quantization by our listening mind.  (A personal theory.)  Louis Armstrong examples: “Stardust" and "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues" (Chicago, 1933).


The other musical quality that I feel is essential for jazz is an emphasis on improvisation.  There are many kinds of music that use improvisation, including classical music between 1600 and 1800.  Many sophisticated musics in the world rely on improvisation as their primary artistic mode.  Indian raga and Arab taksim would be examples of this.  Jazz seems to me to be defined by a sense of swing and improvisation rooted in system of harmony.  This can be heard in Coleman Hawkins’ 1939 recording of "Body and Soul."  What is an improvising jazz musician basing his or her solo on?  The melody might provide some inspiration, but the solo is mostly about the harmony and new, spontaneously created melodies.


What is the difference between "jazz" and "swing music"?  Consider of the recording of Glenn Miller's "In the Mood."  The solos as recorded here may have been initially improvised, but they became codified and more or less repeated in performance after performance.  Is there any way to tell by listening to one performance?  Critics argue about the merits of recordings such as “Tiger Rag,” by the Original Dixieland Five (1936).  Some listeners do feel confident in making a judgment about the spontaneity of a solo.  A very lively classical performance can have a sense of spontaneity that is lacking in a routine jazz performance, even though all the notes are written down for the classical musicians and the jazz musician is choosing which notes to play as he works through the chord progression.  It is like an actor speaking lines – great acting is not just the illusion of spontaneous feeling, it is spontaneous.


Recordings v. live concerts

Recordings started out as a supplement to the experience of live music.  Now it seems that concerts are supplements to recording.  This is certainly true in popular music, where for decades concerts were planned as promotional events around the release of an album, a product to be sold.  Now that downloading has taken such a chunk of the economic demand for recordings, some artists are practically giving away (or literally giving away) their recordings, which now serve as promotions for concerts, where the real money gets made. 


Perhaps an example of the traditionalist view of the situation is in the testimony of Linda Ronstadt to Congress in support of arts funding.  She stresses the importance of children hearing live, unamplified music.  (Linda Ronstadt recently presented testimony (pdf) on the arts and the importance of live music for children).  Robert Levin, in his discussion of recording Mozart, also implies that he feels that live performance is preferable to recordings.


The opposite of the traditionalist view is probably best represented by Glenn Gould.  In 1964, he gave up giving live concerts, calling them "freak shows."  He felt the best way to "perform" a musical work is to create a very well considered and thoroughly edited recording of it.  Rather than relating to 2500 listeners all once the concert hall, he imagined the best relationship was the one to one experience of a listener at home with a recording.  (excerpts from an interview with Glenn Gould around 1980)


In popular music, the advent of projects such as Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band also signal a turning away from live performance to the thought of creating the work first and foremost in the studio.


Not only are concerts perhaps obsolete, there is also a possibly new way of creating music that will involve many more previously passive listeners.  I'm of course speaking of sampling and what intellectual property rights theorist Lawrence Lessing calls "remix culture."  (Glenn Gould was also a pioneer of this, using pre-existing classical music recordings as background layers of sound in spoken word collages intended for radio broadcast.)


Some argue that sampling and remixing are not as artistic or as truly musical as hands-on music-making, but I think one can go back at least to Mozart for examples of "sampling" and the reuse of rhythmic formulas and accompaniment patterns.  Even before recording, there is a long-standing philosophical question about what exactly a musical work is.  Is it the notes on the page?  Few people would agree with that.  The 20th century music theorist and cultural critic Theodor Adorno wrote that a musical work is "a copy of a nonexistent original."  Each performance is one of those copies.  The situation definitely is compensated when musicians such as the Beatles go into the studio and create a single seemingly definitive version of a musical work. 


I will give the last word on this to David Byrne.  In his blog comments, he brings up the important dimension of the social element of a concert.  That social element is to me a mixture of ritual and spectacle.  (Rock musician David Byrne discusses in this blog entry another Alex Ross article, this one about recordings and live performance.)

David Byrne links

Early (“Psycho Killer,” 1977) rec. 1978

Mature (“Take Me to the River,” from Stop Making Sense)


In this interview he suggests that there are buttons are performing musician can press that will trigger predictable emotional reactions in an audience.  Does knowing that and using those tricks take away from the spontaneity or authenticity of the moment?  Levitin/Byrne discussion


This interview is also a nice way to pivot and change the subject to the problem of musical analysis, here represented by scientist/musician Daniel Levitin.  (PBS News Hour segment)


A critic reflects on the live concert experience, authenticity, and rock.

Read Why So Serious?, by Alex Ross in the New Yorker magazine, 8 Sep 2008.




23 April – 5 May

The question to answer:  What of Mozart's view of the world, his feelings about the human condition, and his personality can we detect in his instrumental music?  (Due 7 May.)

(“Instrumental music” means music without words or singing.)


While the play and the film Amadeus are full of invention and are not documentaries, I feel the segment of the film that I showed probably is a fair representation of Mozart's personality, given the historical record. The cackling laugh and scatological humor perhaps deflected attention away from his serious political and social feelings. Evidence of these ideas is found again in his opera The Marriage of Figaro. (Shown in class: the opening scene from The Marriage of Figaro, video of staged production.

Are those feelings encoded in his instrumental music? My example is the opening of a string quartet (a composition for two violins, viola and cello) known as the Quartet in E-flat Major, K 428. This is one of the group of six string quartets that Mozart published with a dedication to Haydn, and so they are sometimes referred to as "the 'Haydn' quartets." (Obviously this is potentially confusing since Haydn himself wrote many string quartets.) Mozart had already written a good number of string quartets, but he was very impressed with the level of accomplishment in quartets by Haydn, and Mozart worked hard to incorporate Haydn's level of sophistication in his own music. Later, Beethoven was particularly influenced by these six quartets by Mozart.

For many people today, all Mozart is easy listening or even boring background music. This is the attitude that Robert Levin so vigorously argues against. (Robert Levin film shown in class 5 May on the early Mozart Piano Sonatas.)  In his day, some of Mozart's music was considered very difficult listening, and some pieces were even regarded as incomprehensible. When I first heard these quartets, so highly esteemed by musical scholars and string quartet players, I must confess that I found them rather boring and impenetrable. What was so special about these pieces? They didn't seem to have any hooks to draw me in. I don't know what changed in me, but one day, when I put these pieces on as background music, something in my brain clicked and I suddenly had a sense of the complex web of thematic connections in the music. It is this density of ideas that was off putting to audiences then. 

Does this music and its webs of musical signification have any relation to Mozart's feelings about society? I don't know and I don't think anyone ever will. But I do feel that Mozart is saying something about the complexity of life and how he said it did make some audiences uncomfortable.  For me, it is worth the effort of close listening to many of Mozart’s complex pieces.  For a very different opinion, see this commentary by the critic Norman Lebrecht:  A dissenting opinion about Mozart






2 April, 14 April

The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band.  (PowerPt presentation in pptx format)

Reaction paper:  is it a unified artistic work?  Due 21 April.


24, 26, 31 March 2009

Lyrics! Lyrics assignment.  Presentations start 21 April.  Work in your groups during class time 16 April.


Textpainting (numerous examples discussed)


The Music in the Words

Lyrics & patterns, blues as poetic form (AAB scheme) & as musical form. 

Songs discussed:

Bessie Smith, “Poor Man’s Blues” (4-bar phrases)

The Beatles, “The Night Before” (too much rhyme?)

U2, “One ” (ambiguous meaning; ‘one-too’ punch)

Anna Nalick, “Wreck of the Day,” (Ambiguity of address)

Dwight Yoakum, “Little Things” (POV)

“Strange Fruit,” performed by Billie Holiday (Power of rhyme)

“Let Yourself Go,” performed by Ginger Rogers (Calling attn to a particular rhyme)

The Clash, “London Calling,” regular phrase length


music & lyrics as equal partners

The Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby”



19 March 2009

Meaning in music – six types of meaning.  Sound example played in class was from Mountain Music of Peru, Vol II, Smithsonian Folkways SF CD 40406.  Samples available on-line.



17 March 2009

Viewed Appalachian Spring performance

Reaction paper due 19 March; no specific questions, just tell write what you think about the piece.


12 March 2009

Viewed Keeping Score:  Aaron Copland and the American Sound



10 March 2009

As a way of explaining a couple of terms that Michael Tilson Thomas uses in the Aaron Copland documentary, I explained the evolution of scales in the past 500 years.


Scales in the Renaissance are modal.  The example I played was a piece by Josquin, “Ave Maria . . . virgo serena.” (Composed around 1480.)


The tonal system began around 1600 and continued as the dominant musical system in Europe and the Americas until the early 1900s.


Two particular modes, major and minor, are used in the tonal system.  This system consists of major keys, minor keys, major scales, and minor scales.  Beyond being defined by scale or mode, the tonal system is characterized by harmony and a system of chord progressions.  The drive of most chord progressions can be explained in terms of the directionality of the seventh scale degree (the seventh note in the scale) of major and minor scales.  The drive is also from the root movement by fifths in the bass line.  This was demonstrated by two examples: the first movement from Vivaldi's "Winter" Concerto from his Four Seasons violin concerto series (1723), and "I Will Survive" recorded by Gloria Gaynor in the 1970s.


Two examples from Bach (from the French Suites for keyboard) demonstrated major and minor keys, but they also demonstrate that the two systems interpenetrate, and we hear plenty of minor chords in major keys and vice versa.


In the 20 a century, as a drive for greater color, Stravinsky mixed major and minor chords together.


A demonstration of another kind of scale, one associated with Jewish music, was heard in the song "Manhattan" recorded by the Klezmatics.  The example I played used a lowered second scale degree (the second of the scale is lower than the second note of major or minor scales).


The pentatonic scale, used in many cultures around the world, was introduced.  I then demonstrated that by combining the pentatonic scale with major chords can produce what is known as the blues scale, which is an interesting mixture of major and minor.  This is a fascinating example of convergent evolution of separate streams of musical culture.


Blues example played: Eric Clapton's recording of "Stormy Monday."


In class I asked you to play the black keys at the piano, which is a pentatonic scale.  I played chords from the key of Eb major, and together this sort of sounded like the blues (actually, it sounded more like chaos, but that's what happens when you have 20 pianists).  The chords I played were the I, IV and V chords, the chords and built on the first note of the scale, the fourth note of the scale, and the fifth note of the scale.  I played them in the order of I, IV, I, V, IV, I.  (The chords were Eb, Ab, and Bb major.)  The blues are a fascinating example of the technology of the ruling class (the musical system of European-Americans) being appropriated and repurposed by the most dispossessed social class.



5 March 2009

Stravinksy Rite of Spring San Francisco Symphony DVD performance


3 March 2009


Stravinksy Rite of Spring documentary.


Academic Integrity speech


Redwood Symphony concert preview (concert recommended for concert review assignment)


Questions due 10 March

1.       What is your reaction to the Rite of Spring?  Is it ugly?  Is it beautiful?  Is it true?

2.       Does this piece provoke fear?


17 February 2009


Questions due 26 February

1.       What is sonata form?  What is it for?  (You may answer the question strictly with information presented in lecture.  Don’t just draw a chart and leave it at that.  Explain it!  If you use the Internet or other reference sources, cite your sources and explain why you agree with the information and definition you have chosen.  How does it square with your own experience?  What or who is the source?  Is it reliable and is it useful?)

2.       How does knowing about sonata form influence your experience of the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3?


Class notes 17 February 2009


Examples played: 

·         Mozart, Symphony No. 40 in G minor

·         Beethoven, Sonata No. 3 in C major, Op 2, No.3 (also known as Sonata in C major, Op 2, No.3)  performed by Garrick Ohlsson.  The PowerPoint slides used in class are online. 


The evolution of a well-known music critic’s taste is told in this great article, with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 playing a starring role.  (“Listen To This” by Alex Ross, The New Yorker, February 16 and 23, 2004).


My comments:

The first theme starts with a simple, even banal, triadic melody which twists off course chromatically, setting up a second melody, the one that starts on the pleading G that MTT goes on about. 



10, 12 Feb mtgs 7 & 8

The questions for the assignment due on the 19th are


1.       What do you think of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3?  Comment on the overall impact and the individual movements of sections within movements.  Compare it to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in terms of your taste.  Do you like it more or less?

2.       How does knowledge of history, composer biography and social context influence your experience of this piece?


Type!  Edit!


Think about taking notes in class during music examples, especially long ones.  You could write the outline or notes for this assignment, for example.  Without notes, you may not remember various thoughts you had, especially as you write your paper at midnight on the 18th.  Some suggestions:


Beethoven Symphony No. 3, the Eroica – watched complete documentary, then the complete performance.


A reminder:  the 17th is the last day to drop without anything appearing on your academic record.



5 Feb 2009 class mtg #6


Article mentioned in class:  Why So Serious?, by Alex Ross in the New Yorker magazine, 8 Sep 2008.  Read it before you go to a classical music concert!  It is about the evolution of classical music concert audience behavior.


Discussion of form.  (looking ahead to Beethoven Symphony No. 3)

Available handout on forms in songs.

Examples played:

·         video, Prince, “Diamonds & Pearls.”  Hybrid AABA form as architectural metaphor.  

·         “Fantasy,” Earth, Wind & Fire, (Maurice White, Eddie del Barrio & Verdine White), 1977; formal expectations denied for expressive ends


Opening vocal melody of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it),” recorded by Beyoncé, considered as fanfare; sampled trumpet sound reinforces the idea.  Compared to fanfare in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. 



Meetings 1-5: Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 & issues of listening to classical music. 

·         Watched 1st section of the Keeping Score documentary & the performance of the first movement; mentioned the length and kind of rhythmic time (flexible tempo rather than groove) as potential problems

·         Watched remaining sections of the documentary

·         Discussion/demonstration of the ‘dissimulation’ of the waltz theme of the first movement (played 3rd movement of the Tchaikovsky 5th Symphony for comparison).  Unusual meter:  Radiohead song, “2 + 2 = 5.”  

·         Watched the complete performance of the 4th Symphony


Reaction paper -- Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4


Write about your personal experience in listening to the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 and the "Keeping Score" documentary.  One to two pages, double spaced.


(Suggested topics or questions to answer: was the documentary interesting?  What specifically was interesting about it?  Was the documentary helpful or not helpful in your experience of listening to the symphony?  Describe the various emotions or thoughts that came to you while listening to the symphony.  Describe the evolution and changes those thoughts and moods might have gone through.  Describe some of the musical details that you perceive and their describe emotional effect on you.  Evaluate claims made by Michael Tilson Thomas.  Does this music really engage questions of ‘how life is’?  Do the emotional states and meanings ascribed to the music by Michael Tilson Thomas, such as fate, resignation, suffering, alienation, joy and so on, correspond to your own personal feelings and interpretation of the music?  Rate the individual movements as to their interest to and describe the way in which the four contrasting movements work together across time.  Negative critical comments about the documentary or the music itself are encouraged if they are supported by specific observations.)


Purpose of this assignment: to promote thinking and reflecting about the experience of listening to this piece.  There is no right answer -- any thinking is encouraged.



A = a good mixture of specific details and observations with interpretations and conclusions; personal. 

A+ = well written and engaging.

B = good details or overall comments, but lacking in interpretation or specific details

C = some good comments but also confused or incorrect information

D = poor writing obscures any point being made           

F = no personal reaction described       

zero = plagiarism


A good recording by a student orchestra is available on the web; scroll down to the 2001-2002 season.


Due 3 Feb.


The DVD is on reserve after class 29 Jan.


Listening Identification Exercise (in-class, 3 Feb)

Which movement (I, II, III or IV) is this?

How (or why) do you know?  (“I recognize  . . . ”)

What moods, ideas or thoughts do you associate with this movement?

How would you rate this movement, or parts of this movement, in terms of favorability?



More on groove (looking back to Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4)   NOT COVERED




MUS 202 music appreciation home page

Jan-May 2009

David Meckler