An Easter Medley: in which we relate a personal experience of the creative process

In some ways this post perfectly exemplifies what I had in mind when naming this blog—the old for the new. That phrase can be read and interpreted many different ways, all of which might be correct. It can be true from the perspective of faith, or my obsession with older ways of thinking and living, or with combining old and less-old ideas to create something new. As Kirby Ferguson has said in his engaging four-part web video series Everything is a Remix. In this particular instance, I’m referring to my experience of the creative process, which is always about making something new out of older elements. Specifically, arranging a medley of hymns for my church’s Easter Sunday service.

Given the limitations of available personnel (we’re small), instrumentation (flute, clarinet, saxophone, euphonium, electric bass, and piano), budget (there isn’t one), and existing church-owned choir music (there isn’t any to my knowledge)—because of all those reasons, I felt the best solution would be to tailor the music to the forces we have, rather than try to find something else. So when the going gets tough, make lemonade.  So when the going gets tough, that’s amore.  So when the going gets tough, the tough remember they have a B.A. in composition and arranging.

I’ve been gripped by this project. I’ve lost track of how many hours I have joyfully spent working out the puzzles it has presented me. The creative process works differently for different people, but mine is of the all-consuming variety—the sort which puts just about everything else on hold until the ideas can be externalized. I doubt that will always be feasible, but it works for me right now.

From a short list of about seven hymn tunes, I chose four that had Easter/Ascension texts. (I know they’re different, but what’s one without the other?)

  1. Lift High the Cross. The text was originally written in 1887 by George W. Kitchin and revised in 1916 by Michael R. Newbolt. The tune Crucifer was written in 1916 by Sydney H. Nicholson.
  2. I Know That My Redeemer Lives—Glory, Hallelujah!. The text to the verses was written in 1775 by Samuel Medley (and appropriate name), but the refrain is anonymous. The tune Shout On is an American folk hymn from the 19th century.
  3. A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing. This one’s old. The text is by the Venerable Bede (AD 672/3–735), translated by Benjamin Webb in 1854. The tune Lasst Uns Erfreuen is of German origin (Geistliche Kirchengesäng, Cologne, 1623), but comes to us via the English Hymnal, so we probably have Ralph Vaughan Williams to thank for keeping it around. Typically we associate this tune with All Creatures of Our God and King.
  4. All Praise to Thee, for Thou, O King Divine. The text was written 1938 by F. Bland Tucker (an unfortunate name, to say the least). The tune Sine Nomine works with this text, even though it is typically associated with For All the Saints. Again, Vaughan Williams is responsible for keeping this tune alive and well, and for giving us the his 1906 harmonization.

Lift High the Cross didn’t play well with others, so I had to cut it off and make it into its own entity, which the choir probably won’t have time to get ready in addition the medley that did emerge. So the final version only contains the latter three hymns.

Now if I’m being honest, I chose these hymns for their tunes rather than their texts.  Music that comes in groups (like song cycles, medleys, or any multi-movement work) requires certain considerations. What is the musical/historical/cultural baggage that comes with each tune? How well do these tunes get along with each other? What will be the artistic and psychological implications if tune X is heard before tune Y, versus after? What keys should I use in order for people to sing them? How can I link those keys in a logical and aurally pleasant (or at the least, acceptable) way? What motives embedded in the tunes themselves can serve as linking material between verses and between songs? Do I use the original harmonization? Do I tweak it? Do I write a completely new one? How well might said tune(s) work contrapuntally, and can they be placed in imitation of each other?

Some of those answers I can tell right away, but most require experimentation. I often don’t even know what I want until I find it. So here is a brief description of some of the highlights.

  1. Research—Two of the tunes have some folk music influences. Shout On is explicitly folk, and American folk music shares a number of idioms with Scottish and English folk music. Enter again, Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was intensely interested and immersed in the musical folk traditions of his native England. He’s the one who harmonized the most commonly used version of Sine Nomine. There’s my Musical/historical/cultural link!
  2. Experiment—Parts of Lasst Uns Erfreuen work rather well in counterpoint. I always try counterpoint out on tunes I choose because I think polyphony can be one of the most satisfying textures to compose and to listen to.
  3. Musical Memory—The incipit of Lasst Uns Erfreuen is remarkably similar to the incipit of yet another American folk song from the Shaker tradition, Simple Gifts, which was popularized in Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Old American Folk Songs.

    "Simple Gifts"

    "Lasst Uns Erfreuen"

    So perhaps Anglo-American folk music idioms can unify all three hymns. (This is uncannily appropriate since we are located so near Appalachia.) The text of the Shaker song itself, written in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett is described in Shaker manuscripts as a “Dancing Song,” implying that some or many of the lyrics may simply be dance instructions. However, read in light of the Resurrection, lines like “‘Tis the gift to be free,” and “Till by turning, turning we come ’round right,” take on more profound significance.

  4. Discovery—One of the hymns can actually work (with some metrical adjustment) superimposed on the other as a descant! This was truly a bizarre occurrence that I never planned. I had been trying to write a suitable descant for the final verse of the final hymn and couldn’t find the sound I wanted. I even looked around the web to see what solutions others might have come up with that could inspire me. Slim pickings. So I tried a wild stab in the dark with one of the hymn tunes I’d already chosen, and there it was—a solution that worked as both a descant and a unifying force between the end of the medley and the beginning. I am still kind of shocked that it actually worked. My last-ditch effort turned out to work better than anything else I’d tried. [In the recording below, see if you can pick out and recognize the descant, starting around  the 5:00 mark. I’ve actually used the text of the Doxology there.]

I’ve including a sound file below of my best approximation of the end product. I compose in Finale, so this recording uses the Garritan Personal Orchestra samples that come in the package. For some added realism I recorded each instrument separately and put it into GarageBand so that I could adjust the balance better. Finally, I actually spent two days singing all the choir parts into my computer, so that the voice parts have words and can be distinguished from the other “computery” tracks.

  • One caveat: I tried singing in falsetto for the higher voice parts, but the sound didn’t balance well with the stronger lower voice parts. My only recourse was to sing the higher parts in my lower range and then send them through a voice transformer. This makes the higher parts sound more processed and artificial in places and leaves digital artifacts I’m not skilled enough to eliminate. But for a first project in GarageBand, I think it turned out fairly well. I’m not happy with the balance or tuning of the high parts at the beginning, but if you can muscle through the 0:35–0:45 zone, it sounds much better thereafter.
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Inverted Classrooms: in which we speculate on the future of higher education

I’ve been seeing an uptick lately in discussions related to the direction higher education is taking (or ought to take), what with the financial struggles schools are facing just to keep their doors open, pay cuts (or just not meeting the rising cost of living) for faculty and staff, etc. Just doing a cursory Google search brought up more entries than I wanted to deal with. Maybe it’s not really an uptick, I’m simply more aware of it now.

At any rate, I was intrigued some time ago by some of the ideas implemented by Mike Garver, a professor of marketing at Central Michigan University. While our fields differ, I can appreciate what he achieves by distributing mini-lectures electronically, and then using class time to apply or interact with the subject matter. I really think this sort of thing could work well in music theory. It, too, is an abstract, highly technical, jargon-filled field that can lose students fifteen minutes into the class period (even worse for those pesky 75-minute class sessions).

I was reminded of Mike Garver when I read this article recently by Robert Talbert. I hadn’t heard of recorded lecturing prior to reading about Garver back in November 2011, and here I find that it’s perhaps not as novel as I thought. It even has a label—the inverted classroom! Apparently there’s even a TEDtalk about it

One major difference implied by Talbert’s and Garver’s approaches is that it sounds like Garver divides what would normally be a class-long lecture into bite-sized pieces so that students can get through one before distraction takes over. Talbert doesn’t say what he does in the articles I’ve read, but I suspect he simply records a normal lecture.

Even though students seem to cling to the preconceived notion that lectures ought to be suffered through, I see a lot of potential in this format. I suspect that Garver’s approach has few balkers than Talbert’s by virtue of the simple fact that there are more distractions at home, so listening to a 50-minute lecture is more difficult to do than when one is sitting in a physical classroom. Mini-lectures help to mitigate that problem.

Another thing that Garver does (I don’t know about Talbert) is to insert a lot of humor into his recorded lectures. This is natural to some (usually those who in-person lectures are equally entertaining), and not to others, but I imagine it could only aid student acceptance of inverted classrooms. Dynamic teaching is always a good idea, no matter what the format.

Podcasting could lend itself well to recorded lectures. Recorded lectures could even be combined/embedded with digital textbooks. iBooks Author certainly lends itself to embedded media within the flow of text (see my thoughts on iBooks Author), and I imagine other ebook-creation software and formats do as well. Not being familiar with those others, I don’t know really know.

So it looks like it’s time for another poll that won’t actually effect change by makes us feel like our opinions count.

iBooks Author: in which we enter the swirl of controversy

I recently started using Apple’s new software iBooks Author, aimed at aiding educators. (At the time of this post, the software is ranked 4.5/5 stars based on 826 ratings.) The application provides templates well-suited to textbooks, and that is the main purpose for which Apple seems to be marketing the product. However, there has been a certain amount of anathema leveled at the software since its debut.  Some of it is warranted, in my opinion; some of it is not.

The most legitimate complaints I’ve read have been in the review section of the application’s download/info page on the Mac App Store. These complaints mostly had to do with the lack of support for footnotes/end notes (both of which are truly a problem for software that purports to be for use in academia), the licensing agreement, and some reported software crashes or difficulties with previewing the books on the iPad (problems I have not had). insidehighered.com recently published an essay by Alan J. Reid on the subject, which you can read here.  His complaints are quite different from those most people have.  He states that for the past three years, he’s been pursuing a Ph.D. in this very field: instructional design and technology, i.e., interactive digital text. Therefore he feels, and probably rightfully so, that he has an edge when it comes to discussing this topic.  This is what he says:

But that’s just the problem; you don’t need to be qualified. iBooks Author allows any Apple user to design and develop an interactive, multitouch textbook. No design experience necessary.

I should be ecstatic that a layperson is able to design instructional products with applications that, until recently, required a personal computer programmer to develop. The digital revolution is finally upon us!

Not exactly. I’m concerned that the act of creating a digital book for students will impede the learning benchmarks that are expected of them. Let me put it this way: When was the last time you saw a well-designed, engaging PowerPoint presentation, where the speaker did not read the words directly off of the slide, verbatim?  This is my point.  We have allowed everyone to become an instructional designer.

I have three problems with his perspective:

1. This is not a new problem; calling it “instructional design” because it involves technology gives it more insight into how effective teaching works.  Previous generations called it pedagogy. I have endured my share of poorly designed course packets, syllabuses, Powerpoint presentations, and even entire courses in my ten years of learning in higher education. Adding one more way for careless faculty to make rum-dumby materials won’t change the ongoing trend. (And I don’t see how it could be much worse than having to decipher an entire course packet of scribbled handwriting on a photocopy of a photocopy made fifteen years earlier—and yes, I’ve had to do that.)

2. Chances are, instructors who don’t care about how something is designed won’t bother taking the time and effort to learn new software and re-make materials of which they already have a preexisting crummy version.

3. I have studied under plenty of professors whose instructional design was quite meticulous (contrasted with no. 1, above). Why shouldn’t they be allowed to distribute materials digitally? Just because they don’t have a degree in “Instruction Design” does not mean they don’t pay attention or have an eye for those considerations.

More legitimate concerns have been voiced by others, such as the licensing agreement, which prohibits the sale of your “itextbook” in the .ibooks format through any medium other than iTunes.  However, if instructors wish to simply create free materials for use in class, or distribute the publication via PDF, they are free to do so.

The footnotes/end notes issue is the only raspberry seed in my wisdom tooth. Any academic software ought to be equipped with this capability, and I’m frankly shocked that Apple didn’t include it. It seems like a no-brainer. However, I imagine that this will be amended in future updates.

I’ve used the software, and I’m really excited about its potential—particular in regard to the interactive elements. One of my areas of interest is spatial/geometric representations of musical relationships.  The fact that iBooks Author can accommodate moveable 3D models almost gets me to ignore the footnote problem. Some musical spaces represented in three dimensions are just too complicated to ever be meaningfully represented in a set of 2D pictures.

So yeah, Happy Valentine’s Day!

Publishing Academic Presentations Online: in which we learn about publishing presentations online

Publishing Academic Presentations Online

This is an excellent idea from the GradHacker blog over at insidehighered.com. As many a grad student knows, publishing options are limited, especially while working on a dissertation, so why not put the presentations you’ve had to make to good use by recording them and publish in them online. It’s a nice way to disseminate your research beyond the six people who came to your session during the conference—and it’s handy when applying for jobs to be able to refer potential employers to a web address where they can see the quality of your work.

“The Things Our Fathers Loved”–Part the First: in which we learn a little about Charles Ives and intertexuality

[This post is adapted from a 27 January 2009 for a musicology class blog on American Innovators. However it makes for an ideal first topic here, where I’m very interested in engaging the old and the new together.]

Charles Ives (1874–1954) was an American composer who actually made his living as an insurance salesman (certainly not the “starving artist”). His unique contribution to art music, and to American music in particular, is in his quirky combinations of popular music of his time, traditional idioms of art music, hymnody, and patriotic songs.  His sense of humor, wit, and irony are rarely difficult to notice.

His solo song The Things Our Fathers Loved is a particular favorite of mine. I think this piece alone encapsulates a great deal of what Ives is known for. By that, I mean, the composition itself is idiomatically “Ivesian,” as well as the text which Ives himself wrote. The full score of the song can be viewed at IMSLP, along with 113 other songs by Charles Ives. The Things Our Fathers Loved is no. 43 on p. 91.

(Or you can watch the score along with a less-than-stellar performance here)

You may listen to that and decide right away, that its not your cup of tea.  Perhaps it sounds too avant-garde.  But keep in mind that Ives wrote this back in 1917.  Ives is walking a thin tight rope between “push the boundaries” and “make it accessible.”  In many of his other pieces he strayed farther into “push the boundaries” territory (such as The Unaswered Question), so count your blessings.

Quotation, or intertextuality, is the most obvious trait perhaps, and that includes both direct quotation/allusion to specific tunes or pieces, as well as stylistic quotation. (Stylistic quotation is music that gives us the listeners an impression that we associate with a particular time, place, or genre.)  Quotation is a technique used to great comic effect by Peter Schikele (and his fictional creation, P.D.Q. Bach—not to be confused with the historical J.S. Bach, J.C. BachC.P.E. Bach, and all the other little Bachs).

The Things Our Fathers Loved is not a very long composition, but it contains a wealth of interesting details. In fact, the first line of the lyrics provide helpful insight into how Ives put the piece together:

I think there must be a place in the soul all made of tunes, of tunes long ago

1. Direction Quotation

First, let’s look at some examples of direct quotation.

Compare the melodies of these two excerpts. The first is from the first three measures of The Things Our Fathers Loved; the second is the popular southern tune Dixie. The blue boxes in each excerpt enclose the same melodic material, with the exception of a brief alteration that Ives inserts into his version.

Example 1

Ives, “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” mm. 1–3

“Dixie”—a popular tune in the American South, written around 1859 by Daniel Decatur Emmett

Even though Ives has altered the rhythm, the right pitches are still in the right order.  Now when Mark Evan Bonds discusses this piece in his textbook A History of Music in Western Culture (2003, link is for the 2009 ed., I believe), he says that Dixie ”merges imperceptibly into My Old Kentucky Home” (p. 504). Well, in my opinion, that merging is so imperceptible I don’t hear My Old Kentucky Home at all.  Perhaps someone can point it out to me (assuming anyone is reading this).  Still, Dixie is there.  Not convinced? Read on.

[EDIT: After further consultation, My Old Kentucky Home does show up, but later than I had expected to find it, based on Bonds’s comment. It actually begins in the voice, pick-ups to m. 5, whereas I’d been expecting it to actually merge with Dixie in m. 4. This egregious oversight is entirely my fault.]

Compare these two excerpts. The first is from mm. 7–9 of The Things Our Fathers Loved; the second is from the tune Nettleton, better known for its association with the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” Notice the similarities? The red boxes show how much the two tunes share in common.

Example 2

Ives, “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” mm. 8–9

“Nettleton”—an American folk tune composed by John Wyeth. It is better known for its use as the hymn tune for the text, “Come, Thou Fount of Ev’ry Blessing”

Here we find Ives using a hymn tune to underlie his text: “Aunt Sarah humming Gospels.”  On some level, then the listener is associating the words with familiar Gospel-associated music.

Now compare these two excerpts. The first is from mm. 13–14; the second is from the  then popular patriotic song ”Battle Cry of Freedom.” The green boxes show the part that is shared between the two. (The yellow box in the “Battle Cry of Freedom” excerpt will come into play soon, so be on the lookout.)

Example 3

Ives, “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” mm. 13–14

“Battle Cry of Freedom”—a popular song of the American North during the Civil War, composed in 1862 by American composer George F. Root.

Notice how Ives uses a patriotic tune to set the text “The town’s Red, White and Blue, all Red, White and Blue.”  Granted, the tunes end differently, but that’s because Ives is preparing to introduce yet another quotation.

Compare these two excerpts (last time, I promise). The first is from mm. 15–20; the second is from the the spiritual song In the Sweet By and By.  The purple boxes (once again) show the parts that are shared between the original and Ives’s version.

Example 4

“In the Sweet By and By” in Charles Ives’s “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” mm. 15–22

“In the Sweet By and By”—a hymn tune by Joseph P. Webster, published in 1868

Ives does make some adjustments to the tune but we can still hear it embedded there—quite a lot of it actually.  And look! As promised, the yellow box in “Battle Cry of Freedom” did matter. Here the piano echoes a different part of the tune that the singer’s part never quoted.  And actually, hints of “battle Cry” show up all over the place in the piano’s right hand, underscoring the singer’s “In the Sweet By and By.” There are some other quirks having to do with voice/piano interaction, but I’ll save them for “The Things Our Fathers Loved”—Part the Second.

2. Stylistic Quotation

Stylistic quotations are a bit more nebulous and subjective.  However, I would cite mm. 6–7.3, where the text reads, “I hear the organ on the Main Street corner” as an example of stylistic intertextuality.

Ives, “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” mm. 6–7.3

To me, this lilting melodic/rhythmic style conjures a sense of parlor entertainment popular around the turn of the 20th century that. With the rise of the piano in the 19th century, members of the emerging middle class were able to afford pianos. With an increase in laypeople playing piano came a blossoming of popular songs that people could play for their own enjoyment or to entertain guests. (Remember, this would have been before iPods, cassette tapes, television or even radio; the only way to disseminate popular music was if people could play to for themselves.)

Likewise, mm. 11–12, “The village cornet band, playing in the square,” has nuances idiomatic oom-pah of the American brass band, with the bass line in the piano.

Ives, “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” mm. 11–12

You may notice in the right hand of the piano, the “Battle Cry of Freedom” theme shows up, foreshadowing its arrival in the voice part (which occurs in mm. 13–14, shown back in Example 3).

In “The Things Our Fathers Loved”—Part the Second, we’ll have a look at melodic and harmonic dissonance in this song.