An Experiment in Criticism: in which I defend Western art music

[NB This post has since been edited for clarity and typos] 

This post is the result of a number of recent confluences, among them my post on Lawrence Kramer’s essay in The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, Twitter conversations (more my lurking than conversing), and side-reading (C.S. Lewis again—when will this infatuation end? Never, I hope).

A few weeks ago, I became aware, via Twitter, of a Slate article by Ethan Hein, who has, I believe, now graduated from NYU with his master’s in music. His article has caused a fair amount of Sturm und Drang in the community of music theoreticians (at least those who are active in the online community). Bryn Hughes and Kris Shaffer have published well-written responses to Hein on their respective blogs, and I know others have as well, but I haven’t taken the time to read them all. Hein has made dubious assertions on his blog like:

Common-practice period classical music theory is fine and good, but in the hands of the music academy, it’s dry, tedious, and worst of all, largely useless. The strict rules of eighteenth-century European art music are distantly removed from the knowledge a person needs to do anything in the present-day music world (except, I guess, to be a professor of common-practice tonal theory.)

I disagree with such statements for a variety of reasons, but I won’t go into all of them here. Many people labor under the assumption that the ivory tower of the academy (and, yes, I admit it is too often an ivory tower) perpetuates outmoded and perhaps arbitrary ideas of what constitutes important (I would go so far as to say vital) musical experience. However, my purpose in this post is not to add yet another response to Hein in an internet already teeming with criticism. I bring up his words only because it is a recent iteration in a long line of “progressive” thought that keeps trying, seemingly, to knock down the columns of our cultural and expressive history so that the real estate can be used to erect a McDonalds or an interstate bypass. I exaggerate, of course. Some of those McDonalds will turn out to be TGI Fridays, and their Jack Daniel’s burger is DELICIOUS!  I’m scraping my metaphor-butter over too much toast, but I hope you can see my point. There is a certain distaste in postmodernity for “canons” and “rules,” believing them to be prescriptive. Saying that something is better than another has its pitfalls, but it can also be the very tool that separates the dross. Just as different metals have different melting points, so different repertories require different standards of evaluation. As democratic as it may sound, one cannot hold that “all [musics] are created equal.”

Therein may lie part of the problem—in many ways, this seems a uniquely American pathology (although I know it’s not exclusive to the New World). Some don’t like Common-Practice music because it’s too European or it’s too old. America wouldn’t know “old” if it toppled over and crushed it under a thousand years of recorded history. As to European-ness, prior to the 20th century, American music seemed to suffer from an inferiority complex with regard to the longer tradition of Europe. Look at what Nicolas Slonimsky wrote to introduce Richard Burbank’s 1984 reference book Twentieth-Century Music:

American music in the 19th century was but a faint reflection of German music. Edward McDowell, regarded as the first American composer of stature, received his musical training in Germany; his harmonies follow the Germanic mold. It was only after the First World War that the German influence on American music began to wane . . ..

Even so, composers still sought their education in Europe, exemplified by Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, Roy Harris, Elliott Carter, et al., who were all (as Slonimsky puts it) “wet-nursed” in Paris by Nadia Boulanger.

It took a long time for America to feel that it was coming out from under the shadow of the “mother continent.” But like adolescents, some Americans can still chafe at times against what they view as hoity-toity European-ness. Watch a recent episode of Downton Abbey and you’ll glimpse this conflict between the Old World and the New, between tradition and innovation, between the past and the future. We Americans (not all of us) love our fast food and our high-rises. New = better; if it’s not new, it’s disposable. 

When I toured Italy with Asbury’s Collegium Musicum, I was amazed at how many people came to our concerts—concerts filled with music too old to even be colloquially called “classical,” i.e., pre-Common Practice. At home in America, we would nearly have to pay our own friends to be part of inattentive audiences of half the size; and then, only if there were free food afterward. That’s not to say that all Europeans love “old” music, or drop whatever they’re doing to hear it performed. What I do mean to say is that I experienced a greater appreciation for the past, for “whence we come,” when I visited Europe—a quality I wouldn’t mind seeing more of in America.

But I doubt any of those reasons will change anyone’s mind who is not already so inclined. They are, in my opinion, some of the unacknowledged underlying factors in a debate that goes beyond any one argument or pundit. I’m actually reminded of a 2011 debate at Cambridge University between Stephen Fry and DJ Kissy Sell Out (I understand videos are available on YouTube, but I’ve only read summaries) on the statement “classical music is irrelevant to today’s youth.” Both decried the elitism of some art music enthusiasts, with which I couldn’t agree more, but they came to very different conclusions. On one hand:

. . . ‘classical music does not represent or embody the racial, ethnic and cultural diversity of our world’ and that ‘pop music is by far the more creative field.’

—Greg Sandow, Juilliard, took the side of  DJ Kissy Sell Out*

On the other hand:

‘You can like two different things at once and not explode or be a hypocrite. Surely if education in a university is about anything it is the fact we can accept and absorb all kinds of ideas and celebrate and love all kinds of human expression.’

—Stephen Fry*

*Quotations excerpted from a write-up in Limelight

But what really sparked my fingers into motion today was reading yet another of C.S. Lewis’s writings, a bit of An Experiment in Criticism, in which he discusses people’s tastes in literature. As so often happens when reading Lewis, he has already eloquently orchestrated the tune echoing in the back of my mind. Although he is writing about literature, much of what he says is reflected in music as well, if we make a rough equation between great literature and Western art music. Admittedly, vivisecting what he said and placing it before you in a few pieces does him a disservice.

. . . the first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary, an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before.

This has been my experience, most often of art music, almost never of popular music; and that is why it deserves to be studied by students of music theory. Lest you think me a fuddy-duddy, I listen to popular music too, and I enjoy it. Indeed I have found examples worthy of deeper study, and I know other scholars have too. But it rarely has the capacity to move me as art music has.

Though I shall concern myself almost entirely with literature, it is worth noting that the same difference of attitude is displayed about the other arts and about natural beauty. Many people enjoy popular music in a way which is compatible with humming the tune, stamping in time, talking, and eating. And when the popular tune has gone out of fashion they enjoy it no more. Those who enjoy Bach react quite differently. Some buy pictures because the walls ‘look so bare without them’; and after the pictures have been in the house for a week they become practically invisible to them. But there are a few who feed on a great picture for years.

I freely admit there is value to be found in popular musics and non-Western traditions. But let us not forget that we are, for better or worse, in the West. We should remember that there are traditions beyond that sphere of influence, yes, but the Western tradition is our tradition. Yours and mine, even if your ancestors hailed from a non-European continent. We share it because it has influenced the world. Only in the last 100 years has the tide of influence begun to give more weight to the world’s influence on the West, at least in terms of musical influence. As much as Jazz or Rock or Country seem to contrast with art music, they all owe a great deal to that tradition while simultaneously reinventing it.

It is a simple, practical impossibility to find enough time to teach students an entire world’s-worth of music; some things must be chosen to the exclusion of others. Sometimes I wonder at those who rail against the notion of canon. As if some esoteric oligarchy sits in a fusty room somewhere (probably in Europe, by all accounts) sending down judgements from on high. That room’s probably in Rome. First the Caesars, then the Pope—Rome must be a magnet for people who want to tell the world what’s what. The truth, I suspect, runs more like this: the best endures. There were plenty of composers of the Common Practice about whom we never hear. Why? Because their work wasn’t up to snuff. Like it or not, there will be a canon of 20th-century popular music in a hundred years. In fact, we already see it forming. How many popular songs from the early 20th century can you sing? Not nearly so many as were written, I’d wager. I’ve been teaching myself lots of them on the ukelele. They’re loads of fun, but they’re also drivel, and if I have to choose which to teach, I’m going to pick Stravinsky over Irving Berlin every time, even though I’d often rather listen to Berlin. The Beatles have already established a revered precedence in popular music. Is anyone talking about the Monkees? They both gained popularity around the same time, they both named themselves after animals, they both couldn’t spell those animal names properly. The two bands even interacted. So why have the Beatles endured to a greater degree? (No doubt, some would say, because they’re European.)

Canons form and evolve—like language. Some words never go away, some fall out of use, some are revived, some are newly invented. Dictionaries have to be updated to reflect the passage of time; we have dictionaries of British English, American English, urban slang, and on and on. Yet some words persist, and even the newer ones usually have their roots sunk deeply into ancient languages like Latin. People said Latin was dead too, you know; but without Latin, we wouldn’t have the vocabulary to argue how poorly the old vestiges of European culture serve us today.

To say that popular music is worthy of equal or greater attention in the classroom, if it is to be said at all, will require more time. Time sorts out many things, not least of which is the worthiness of a piece of art (be it music, literature, architecture). If it is truly as attention-deserving as one believes, then it will stand the test of time, whether or not one feels the compulsion to beat to quarters or release the dogs of war over it, in favor or against.

But I will let Lewis have the last word, because he, unlike me, is able to stick to the point and remember why we study the arts in the first place.

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.


There’s Always a Lighthouse: in which we reflect on the study of video game music

This past weekend, I attended (and presented a paper at) the inaugural North American Conference on Video Game Music in Youngstown, Ohio. It gave me an outlet for writing about some of the music in BioShock: Infinite, which, as my three long-time readers know, has been on my mind since I played the game nearly a year ago. At last, I have been energized to get off my duff and write (and maybe collaborate?) with others who are interested in this topic. Some of my initial thoughts about the game can be found in the posts “Levine Shall Sit the Throne and Drown in Reflection the Musings of Man” (on story) and “Would You Kindly?” (on religion, faith, and theology).

I was quite pleased by three aspects of the conference:

1) to learn of the depth of other scholars’ (and emerging scholars’) interest and work in video game music. I feel rather new to an already new subfield of study, so I have a lot of resources and reading available to me now.

2) at the collegiality and warmth among the small gathering. This is often more common, in my experience, at smaller academic conferences—rarely at the larger ones—but I found this particular group to be even more so than other smaller conferences. I don’t know if that’s due to the generally younger average age, perhaps implying that the dog-eat-dog mentality that some of academia’s “old guard” instill in their students hasn’t yet tainted their experience. Perhaps it was the relative youth of ludomusicology as a sub-discipline  that gave a sense of banding together for protection against the derision of that same “old guard” who deride it as an illegitimate area of study. (Of course, a quick history lesson in our own discipline would reveal that jazz, film music, and popular music on the whole have all come—or are coming—to be acceptable focus areas of musical study.)

Screen Shot 2014-01-21 at 11.20.26 AM3) at the staggering amount of press coverage. This never, never happens when academic conferences take place. A list of the media outlets can be found here, including a disappointingly lackluster article in Wired, complete with errata that could have easily been fixed with a Google search (Read: diegesis). This article was, I thought, more well written—perhaps it helps that the author was actually present at the conference.

It is exciting to be present at the beginning of something that promises to yield great intellectual dividends as time goes on. Well, near the beginning anyway; I’m not as experienced at writing about these topics as some who were present, but I hope to learn from their example as this burgeoning interest develops.

So, as soon as I can, I will be recording my presentation and posting it to my website (and, perhaps, here) in the interest of open scholarship. Stay tuned.

“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.

“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.