In defense of Bach and Mozart

November 28, 2010 at 10:46 am | Posted in Composers, Repertoire/Programming, Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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While riding in the car with my violinist son (aged 20) this week, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto came on the Sirius Radio (one of the greatest inventions of the past 20 years, Howard Stern notwithstanding).  “I can’t wait to play that”, he said.  “When?”, I asked.  “Not for a while.  They say you shouldn’t play it until you are at least thirty.  It’s not very difficult, but it’s very hard.”

Bach wrote 6 unaccompanied Partitas and Sonatas for violin.  Mozart wrote five violin Concerti and thirty-six violin Sonatas.  My son told me that he hears a lot of violinists play the Bach or the Mozart and “you can tell from the first bar that it’s not going to be music, it’s just going to be note-note-note-note-note.”  He told me that every good violinist is musical when playing music from the Romantic period.  What’s really impressive is playing the seemingly simple and less “sophisticated” works with musical maturity.

“Beethoven created music.  Mozart discovered music” – Albert Einstein

There are a lot of ways to describe the difference between music of the Classical period and music of the Romantic period.  And while Beethoven is usually described as a “transitional” composer, the distinction that Einstein made is useful.

Albert Einstein loved Mozart.  He also loved Bach, about whose music he said “I have this to say about Bach’s works: listen, play, love, revere – and keep your trap shut”.  But mostly, he loved Mozart.  Einstein was an accomplished violinist.   He once said that had he not been a scientist, he would have been a musician. “Life without playing music is inconceivable for me,” he declared. “I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music…I get most joy in life out of music.”  He never went anywhere without his violin.  He particularly loved to play Mozart Sonatas and Quartets, often playing the quartets with other scientists and professors who also played music.

Einstein credited his violin playing experiences with leading to some of his greatest insights. Einstein explained that he loved Mozart because it seemed that Mozart was capturing a pure music that was simply formed by the universe or divined by God.  Mozart himself would sometimes say that he felt like he was not composing so much as taking dictation.  Einstein would go on to explain that while Beethoven was a revolutionary genius, that his music was “too personal” and thus overwhelming and unnerving.

This makes sense though.  Einstein never saw himself as creating anything.  His quest was to simply discover how the universe worked, perhaps to explain it.  Mozart and Bach had a structure and simplicity that he saw as coming naturally from the universe, not from Mozart or Bach themselves.  It fits with his life long quest to explain the physical universe in a complete and organized way.

Another great figure of the 20th century, physician, philosopher, and theologian Albert Schweitzer, was a devotee of Bach.  Among his many accomplishments he was a music scholar and organist who studied the music of Bach extensively, examining its symbolism and imagery which he said illustrated with sublime simplicity the religious themes of the hymns the works were based on.

There is a belief so long held that it is axiomatic among many musicians.  It is that Baroque Music and Classical (period) Music is too simple to be given any more attention than the occasional “roots” performances.  It is a belief that Romantic Music, 20th Century Music or Post-Modern music is the only music with sufficient sophistication to be taken seriously.  It is a belief that only the common rabble prefers Mozart or Haydn or Bach over Mahler or Bruckner or Stravinsky.  It is a belief that the earlier music is not sufficiently complex to warrant much attention.  It is no small thing that Mahler and Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky revered Mozart and Bach.  It wasn’t nostalgia.  It is in their music.  The third movement of Mahler’s First Symphony works because even if the melody is altered just enough to not be obvious, something in is will still subconsciously recognize and be moved the simple folk tune Frere Jacques.   Percy Grainger, Aaron Copland and Anton Dvorak had a reverence for simple accessible folk songs that informed their greatest works.

I would submit that it is in this simplicity that genuine sophistication lies.  Countless philosophers, educators and scientists have opined, researched and concluded that music is a basic human need.  It is a need for all humans, not just the initiated.  If that is true, then accessible music is far from being inferior music.  Music that reaches humans at a basic level regardless of their level of musical sophistication is “classical music” regardless of when it was written.

Einstein said, “ the music of Mozart is of such purity and beauty that one feels he merely found it—that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe waiting to be revealed”.

You won’t hear Mozart and Bach at the next IWS concert.  But you will hear some great Holiday music – much of it very familiar, accessible and comforting to the human soul.  Not a bad thing to accomplish on a chilly Sunday afternoon (Sunday December 12th, 3:00 p.m. in the Auditorium at Arsenal Tech High School).

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Eardrum Assault Month Begins

November 26, 2010 at 9:28 am | Posted in Music Reviews, Repertoire/Programming, Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Warning: I realize that many people may disagree with what I write here. This post contains only my opinions — and boy am I opinionated. Although I’d love to see a slew of commenters agreeing with me, I don’t expect it. You have been warned.

I am still amazed when I find someone who looks forward to Christmastime “because of the music,” but to those of you who love Christmas music, your time has come. With Thanksgiving in the bag and Christmas shopping season in full swing, the shopping malls and department stores that had occasionally tossed a carol into the usual background mix of muzak and eighties pop over the last month will dive wholly in with a constant stream (or barrage, take your pick) of Christmas music.

It’s a time of year I call Eardrum Assault Month.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve disliked Christmas music.  Why? Because Christmas music is, on the whole, musically uninteresting. It’s built on basic major harmonies, simple melodies (after all, your five-year-old child can sing Christmas music), and an ungodly amount of repetition. There so little of musical interest in the most well-known Christmas carols — no chromaticism, no surprise harmonies, no dynamic changes, no modulations, no thematic development.

But I guess that comes with the territory, no? Most Christmas music is meant to be sung by hoi polloi, those with little musical education outside of what they can absorb from church hymnals. So the music is necessarily simple, sometimes rustic, and definitely short. Thank goodness they’re short. (So short, in fact, that you have to string a bunch of them together to create a whole piece. Come to our December concert to hear what I mean.)

My guess is that the people who truly enjoy Christmas music enjoy it for the feelings and memories that it evokes, and not for any musical reasons. Which is fine and good. I have the same types of reactions to the fifth symphonies of Shostakovich and Mahler. But I would not ever want every store I go into to play only these two pieces for an entire month. Those fond memories I hold now would surely be quickly replaced by feelings of weariness (like I get when I have to listen to Ravel’s Bolero).

The sheer repetition is a major factor in my dislike of Christmas music — and of Bolero, for that matter. Christmas music is the musical equivalent of political campaign commercials, only those commercials come every two years. And Christmas songs and carols, like political commercials, can become well-known specifically because of how bad they are. (Speaking of repetition and badness, let me just say that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is the second cruelest joke ever perpetrated on man, instrumental versions of the same song being the first.)

I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t point out that some yuletide music is acceptable, and even good, to my ears. Here are a few of the songs that I enjoy hearing this time of year — or any time of year. Note that most of them aren’t related specifically to Christmas. The blokes who select what music to fill a department store with might want to give this list some scrutiny and consider what they’re piping into their stores. (Are you listening, Target?)

  • “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” — A wonderful duet. I prefer more modern renditions over the somewhat dated versions from 50 years ago.
  • “Winter” by Tori Amos — I’m a huge Tori Amos fan, so this beautiful and haunting piece has to make the list.
  • “Long December” by Counting Crows — Easily the most depressing song on the list, this is a good addition to include those people who have no one to celebrate Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa with.
  • “The Nearness of You” the Norah Jones rendition — This is great to pair with “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” to capture the idea of curling up with a loved one by a warm fire as the snow falls outside. Which isn’t really what department stores et al. want to get you to do.
  • “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” — The sadder the better.
  • “Christmas Time Is Here” — Only the Vince Guaraldi/Charlie Brown version is worth a listen.
  • “Linus and Lucy” by Vince Guaraldi — Not exactly a Christmas song, though I’ve heard it programmed on more than one Christmas concert.
  • “Ice, Ice, Baby” by Vanilla Ice — Just kidding.
  • The Duke Ellington “Nutcracker Suite” — Russian musical giant meets American jazz master.

I’m sure there are plenty more examples of “acceptable” yuletide music out there. Unfortunately, they are up against a horde of traditional, uninteresting Christmas songs.

What Christmas songs grate on you the most? What wonderful winter music have I forgotten? What do you think of the music that gets piped into stores this time of year?

To March or Not To March, That is the Question!

November 16, 2010 at 7:33 am | Posted in Random, Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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For those of you who clicked on this blog post looking for some suave literary reference beyond the title have been rickrolled. The title is actually quite succint. We’re talking about marching band here folks!

Wait, hold on! Don’t close that browser window just yet. I am not going to be writing a blog post about the latest marching band results at BOA. My topic is one much more philosophical, and at times, very volatile between music educators. As the title suggests, to march or not to march? That is, should a school spend the time and resources on marching bands or spend it elsewhere?

Now, before I go any further let me make a few statements of my own background regarding marching band. When I was in high school, I was a member of a large (200+ member) non-competitive marching band. Our band director was an amazing teacher, and put on a quality product every year. However, we did only one competition (district), some marching band festival-type invites, and of course the home football games. That was is it! I never marched drum corps, and there was no marching band at my undergrad university. Throughout my college studies, though, I was involved in several competitive marching band programs too. Some were very competitive (all way to BOA) and some were merely involved at the state level, advancing to regionals, semi-state, etc. So while I have not myself marched competitively, I have been involved both with programs that did and some that did not.

Background given, let’s continue by discussing the pros and cons of each argument:

Pros:

  • Marching Band teaches students cooperation, hard-work, and leadership skills
  • Marching Band gives the general public a “face” to the band department as a whole
  • Marching Band gives the students something positive to be a part of outside the school day
  • Marching Band is a social/fun thing for the students
  • Marching Band enhances the students’  physical and playing abilities
  • Marching Band attracts students to continue in music

Cons

  • Marching Band is time consuming, expensive
  • Marching Band is not musical: it’s all the same stuff for 3-5 months
  • Marching Band teaches bad playing habits
  • Marching Band dissuades students from continuing in band

Now, these are just a few of the things off the top of my head. Marching Band clearly has elements of both good and bad. Marching Band is most importantly a face for the public. The community might not know a thing about your wind ensemble, but every person has probably seen a marching band on TV, or in a parade. It also does teach many positive things like team work, dedication. But there are also negatives for people who take it over the top: it is very time consuming, and frankly can be argued that it is very unmusical in its concept.

For me, the discussion really boils down to what your goals are for your program. As with all good things, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Does rehearsing the same music from June-November constitute a productive thing? (Given you could be working on your concert band music, talking about sound production, air flow, talking about musical form of a piece, etc) Likewise, does putting on a marching band uniform and walking out onto the field and standing and playing constitute a marching band?

Let’s look to the middle! If we in Indiana are devoted to doing marching band, do it so it isn’t overkill. Plan some good music, decent drill, and do it well. When it comes time to competitions and performances, play for the home games, and some shows. But when it comes down to it, remember that the band program’s core ensemble is the concert band. As music teachers/band directors, we need to focus on things that can enhance our players’ sense of musicality, rhythmic accuracy, intonation and other basics. We also need to focus on that core gorgeous sound, and how to produce it. If marching band can enhance your program and players’ development, use it for that vehicle. (But be sure not to drive it 100mph into a ditch!)

Please note, I am not arguing a particular case, but rather presenting arguments for discussion. So what are your thoughts on marching band, either for or against?

Lights, camera…music?

October 26, 2010 at 9:00 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Ever since the invention of the moving pictures, music has been an integral part of Hollywood and of films. When it first accompanied movies, it was in the form of piano or organ players improvising along with the film being shown. As technology progressed, the function of these musicians diminished and entirely disappeared. Edison’s invention of recorded sound predated motion pictures by some 20 years. Without the aid of any type of amplification, people could only hear sound via single person Nickelodeon-type units.

But that all changed when all movies were released with sound. Music then became much more elaborate. The 1950’s saw the rise of the modern film score, with some more well-known scores being composed by Bernard Herrmann (famed of Hitchcock movies “The Birds” and “Psycho”).

Music continued to be an important part of movies, but never really as integrated until one Johnny Williams came along (many recordings credited him as Johnny). Williams himself worked with, among others, Bernard Herrmann, as well as playing piano on the recordings of many scores by other well known composers like Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, and Henry Mancini. (Small world, huh?)

One of William’s first scores was the 1958 B-movie Daddy-O, with his first Academy Award in 1967.  He quickly gained notice because he could compose both jazz and symphonic music.  He also worked on some other lesser known projects: several B-movie disaster flicks like The Towering Inferno, and wrote the opening credits, closing credits, and much of the incidental music for the 60’s TV show Lost in Space. He shared these responsibilities with several composers including the man responsible for the Star Trek theme, Alexander Courage.

Of course, his biggest break came when he was approached by Steven Spielberg in 1974, and he has gone on to compose for nearly every Spielberg film since.

His biggest claim to fame is none other than the juggernaut that is Star Wars.  His heavy use of the Wagnerian-inspired leitmotif throughout undoubtedly is what makes John Williams one of the most memorable composers in movie music to date.

Williams’ ability to use a reoccurring theme for specific people, places, or ideas are what has ingrained so much of his music into the subconscious, or rather even conscious of movie-goers everywhere. Truly, you cannot go to a movie with a Williams’ score and not come out at least humming one theme.  John’s music isn’t simply background; it actually matches pace and is an equal partner with the film. You cannot separate the image of the twin suns of Tatooine setting from this sweeping, emotional theme…

What was seen almost as a joke of a film at the time, Williams’ score for Star Wars made it a legit film. He always takes amazing melodic material, treats it with such interesting harmonies, and scores it in a way that showcases all families of instruments and individual sections incredibly. I will go on record to say that no other movie composer has ever come even close.

For a long period, Williams composed music and shared Hollywood with many other composers who have also learned to develop thematic material with their scores. But as film making progressed, so did the use of technology. Films began using highly percussive music using synthesizers, drum loops, and ambient sound to create a sense of drama and tension. It was cheaper, and many films did not require the sweeping symphonic scores.

So as the 90’s and 2000’s have progressed, John Williams has continued composing amazing symphonic scores: Jurassic Park, Harry Potter films, the new Star Wars, to name a few. And he now shares the screen with a newer set of film composers, many of whom are not even qualified to turn a page for JW!

Yes, I’m calling you out! James Horner (ok, older Horner stuff is pretty good!), James Newton Howard, among a few of many composers who are the complete antithesis to JW. Ok, I know what you are saying: How can they be like John Williams? He has done so much, surely they are good just not as good as Williams. No, I don’t believe that is the case. In fact, I’d actually believe that modern composers (2000s +) make a habit of not creating music that uses any sort of theme specifically because they are afraid that they will be mistaken for John Williams. While I’d understand that, that’s like Ford saying, “We can’t make a car with 4 doors; Nissan already has one of those. Let’s make a car with 1 door. That’s totally different. No one can confuse us with Nissan now!”

That’s a very ridiculous analogy which acutely makes my point. John does things differently. You can tell a Williams score from Bernard Herrmann, from Howard Shore. (Oh, and Howard used thematic music…just one theme, but I’ll take it!) So you can’t use that argument guys.

The other argument is that producers and directors want the music of their films to be secondary, because it serves the film not vice versa. I actually buy into this. Many directors see their project as the main thing, and the music is secondary or even in some cases, tertiary. Spielberg and Lucas both understood that having a score that incorporated themes actually enhances the story. Jaws will forever be known by a two-note motive. Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not!

Although I don’t even want to think it, we are fast approaching a time where John Williams will not be with us. I haven’t seen a composer in the last decade that has shown the musical aptitude, the understanding of instrument usage, the finesse, the power, or the emotion that John Williams has. We need our current generation of movie composers and our new generation to learn from the master. I’m not saying you need to copy him. I’m just saying this: Don’t be afraid of writing a theme..or two, or *gasp* three. And don’t be afraid to write new material, not just something you directly ripped off on a Sibelius symphony!

So what do you think? Any composers in the last decade who you think might have the ability to take up the torch?

Hello Musical World!

October 7, 2010 at 4:28 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Indiana Wind Symphony will soon be taking its first steps into the blogosphere. We hope instrumentalists of all persuasions can find something interesting, entertaining, and useful here as we share our experiences, opinions, and peeves of all things musical. Watch this space for more!

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