When Music Becomes MUSIC: in which we watch a clip of Benjamin Zander

I love Ted Talks. I mean I love them. Even if I don’t agree with the opinions expressed in a Ted Talk, I’ll probably watch it anyway, just to squeeze the thought-juice from my mind-grapes. (That’s a 30 Rock reference, in case you’re wondering.)

The first Ted Talk I ever watched was probably the best I’ve seen—a moving discussion about music and its power to move the human spirit by Benjamin Zander. There are so many things in this talk that I want to memorize and dispense to my own students; it gets beyond the nuts and bolts of music to the reason anyone cares or pursues music in the first place—because at some point they had an experience that moved them and they want to know how to come to that place again.

[I was inspired to revisit this talk because of a post by John Gardner on Theology Through the Arts at his blog Honey and Locusts. There he posted a video of Jeremy Begbie, professor of systematic theology at the Duke Divinity School, who’s also a trained musician. I really enjoyed the video, which touched on some interesting music theory/theology analogies (although I thought Begbie was a little fuzzy on some of the theory).]

So here’s the vid:

It is unfortunate that Zander has recently been entangled in an imbroglio at New England Conservatory, where he taught for forty-five years. He hired a videographer who had a history of sex offense. There are many details to the issues which you can read here, but despite a lapse in judgement, it is a shame that students at NEC will be without such a fine teacher. I think Zander is in many ways this generation’s Leonard Bernstein, for his interest in and ability to talk to the layperson about music.

Old Meets New: in which Beethoven and OneRepublic get acquainted

I wasn’t the first to jump on The Piano Guys band wagon, but I’m so glad I did. Don’t let their name fool you—it’s actually a piano guy and a cello guy (and behind-the-scenes guys). They have done some fine things with combining older and newer music into something unique and refreshing. In some ways, that idea is what inspired the naming of this blog. I think that what they are doing will entice a younger audience back to an interest in art music. That, combined with nice visuals and professional videography, gives them a strong presence on YouTube. (Why aren’t these the sorts of videos that go viral?)

So here is one of their recent uploads, which combines elements from OneRepublic‘s song Secrets with references to Beethoven‘s Symphony No. 5. The YouTube blurb doesn’t mention this, but near the beginning I also hear distinctive connections to the “Prelude” from J. S. Bach‘s Cello Suite No. 1. (There’s also a vocal version of this mash-up.)

The Piano Guys have done other interesting mash-ups of old and new music. They combined Somewhere Over the Rainbow with the Shaker tune Simple Gifts; Adele’s Rollin in the Deep with Holst’s “Jupiter” from The Planets; and used elements inspired by Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in a new piece, played on electric cello.

Incidentally, they’ve also put out a re-imagined version of that same “Prelude” from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1—except the cellist, Steven Sharp Nelson, clones himself seven times. And here’s the kicker—Nelson combines the “Prelude” with bits of Charles Gounod‘s famous Ave Maria. That Ave Maria was Gounod’s own version of old-meets-new because he composed it to be sung over a different “Prelude” by J. S. Bach, the one in C major from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I.

Did you follow that? Bach composes the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello most likely between 1717–1723; he also composes Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier in 1722. Gounod takes the C major Prelude from Well-Tempered Clavier and writes a melody over the top 137 years later in 1859. Then Steven Sharp Nelson takes Bach’s Cello prelude from 1720-ish and Gounod’s melody from 1859, and combines them with his own ideas in June 2011—152 years after Gounod and at least 288 years after Bach. Talk about using the “old world for the new”!

“The Things Our Fathers Loved”–Part the Second: in which we learn a little more about Charles Ives and dissonance.

At long last! Part the Second!

[This post is adapted from a 27 January 2009 post for a musicology class blog on American Innovators.]

Ives was not one to shy away from musical edginess. This was due in part to training given him by his father, which encouraged experimentation. The other part has been said to be his desire to eschew the Romantic ideals of Europe and his fear that a deep interest in music might reflect badly on his masculinity among his business associates (he sold insurance, remember). In fact I recall an anecdote in which he referred to “not-man-enough Rachmaninoff.”

Regardless of the reasons, conscious or not, Ives is believed to have been the first to innovate a lot of compositional techniques that would characterize art music on both sides of the Atlantic for the next century. In Part the First, we looked at his use of borrowing tunes and influences in his art song, The Things Our Fathers Loved. In this post, we’ll have a look at Ives’s use of dissonance in the same song. It is by no means Ives’s most obscure or crunchy piece, nor is it one of his entirely traditional, 1st-symphony sorts either. Here, again, is a chance to listen.

By today’s standards, one might chuckle at the idea that this piece is edgy, highly dissonant, or obscure. As in any generation, we have difficulty imagining society any other way than the one we know. But we live in a post-libertation-of-dissonance soundscape; we have 21st-century ears. One hundred years ago, the soundscape was not so cacophonic.

One of the things Ives learned from his father’s tutelage is the craft of counterpoint. We see that at the outset. The voice begins in a very diatonic, and acceptable fashion that seems to imply C major, but within moments the piano is imitating the gesture up a major third. The piano doesn’t really have time to imply a key, but if the voice’s part is the template for the imitation, then E major would be the likely choice. At the moment the piano enters (on a G-sharp), it is creating an augmented 5th against the voice and the base pedal below.

Dissonant motivic imitation and polytonality

A similar sort of imitation happens again in m. 2, where the piano echoes the same motive. Here, the piano’s pitches have changed, but they still fit into the right hand’s indecisive use of E major. In this spot, the voice and right hand have aligned their timing, but both are sticking to their respective keys. These dissonances result from one of Ives’s hallmarks—polytonality, the simultaneous use of two or more keys at the same time (in this case, C major and E major, which don’t share all that much in common).

From m. 3, everything is rather pleasant until the downbeat of m. 10. In fact m. 10 just seems like a non sequitur—as though a measure is missing between mm. 9 and 10. This is an example of linear or melodic dissonance. That is, m. 10 sounds off because it’s nothing like what we expect to hear.

Crazy Tonal Shift

Even if you are not aware of it, your brain has learned patterns and norms of what to expect when listening to music. Ives thwarts those expectations by giving you something that doesn’t fit those patterns. (If you weren’t surprised by this spot, then it’s probably because you are listening with 21st-century ears.)

Again, things seem to normalize for a while until rising to the song’s climax in m. 15 (and continuing through m. 18). Here it seems like the piano and voice are in very different worlds.

When worlds collide

Just look at all the sharps showing up in the piano part; how many sharps, or accidentals of any kind appear in the voice in the these bars? None. Then, beginning in m. 20, the voice starts using some sharps just when they disappear from the piano. (Oh, Ives, you old rascal!)

The end is perhaps my favorite part. The song ends in such a curious way, and I love it. The slowing down and decreased dynamics all indicate that we’re coming to a final cadence, but the pitches Ives uses imply that the song isn’t over.

The beginning and the end

There are a few ways we can understand that last chord:

  1. It could be some kind of polychord. The piano has a D-sharp minor chord in the left hand and what could be a G-sharp major triad in the right hand. It’s a bit nebulous since the right hand only has two of the three pitches. This reading holds that all pitches present are chord tones, but they might belong to different chords sounding simultaneously, and that is supported by the fact that Ives has already used polytonality earlier in the song.
  2. It could be a B-sharp half-diminished seventh chord (B-sharp, D-sharp, F-sharp, A-sharp) with an added 6th (the G-sharp). This reading would view the G-sharp almost as a non chord tone, because it doesn’t really fit into the half-diminished paradigm.
  3. Or it could be a G-sharp 9th chord (G-sharp, B-sharp, D-sharp, F-sharp, A-sharp). Since ninth chords usually function as dominants, this would help explain why this last chord of the song feels, as I’ve already noted, unfinished.
My vote goes to Option #2 by simple virtue of the voicing of the chord. I don’t hear Option #3 because the G-sharp is so high in the texture that it doesn’t sound like a root. And while I can intellectually agree with Option #1, the fact that the the pitches are so spaced out means that I cannot aurally perceive where the left hand ends and the right hand begins. Typical use of a polychord would put some space between the two so that the listener can tell that there are two chords going on. However, a case can be made for any of the options, and if you put three music theorists in a room, you will likely get three answers. (The room itself is optional.)

It’s really the G-sharp in the voice and piano’s right hand that causes all these possibilities. Interestingly, that same G-sharp is exactly the same oddity that began this discussion on dissonance. Remember the piano’s right hand in m. 2? The whole last phrase of text (mm. 20–end) sounds to me like the fulfillment of the hint given by the piano in m. 2. The the melodic gesture and contour of that last phrase is actually the same as that at the beginning! Yet it is still at odds (dissonant) with that beginning.

So yeah! Ives packs a lot of hidden (and not so hidden) stuff into only 22 measures! “The Things Our Fathers Loved” is a super-neato microcosm of interesting stuff.

Here ends Part the Second.