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“I don’t get this piece of 20th century music”

I sent my friend Roy a recording I made ages ago with the Polish violinist Hanna Lachert.   Among other things it contained the three “Myths” Karol Szymanowski*.  Part of his response was:  “What’s the structure of these pieces?  They seemed episodic, and I did not recognize the music as being in any traditional form.”

I responded:

I once read an article by Sir Donald Francis Tovey*, about the first movement of Beethoven’s “Arch Duke” trio.  He compared “side by side” a phrase taken from later in the movement with one taken from near the beginning of the movement.  At first they seem totally unconnected: different number of notes, different rhythm, etc..  However, Tovey demonstrated that if you connected the two phrases with a series of in between phrases heard during the interim in the same movement, they form a chain in which each link in the chain was clearly related to the link before it.  If you skipped from the beginning to the end of the chain, the ends seemed to have nothing to do with one another.  But if you followed the chain one link at a time you could always see, going on, a process of gradual transformation, or morph-ing.  Each link “developed” into the next.

If we let the links of the chain be made out of statements of the same musical theme, each next version of the theme brings out things that were more hidden in earlier version of the theme, though, ‘in retrospect’, were clearly based on what was latent or implied in the earlier version.

Something that was potential in the previous version the theme, had become actualized in the next version.  Tracing the history of these statements of the theme, from one version to the next, you would discover that each next step has kept something essential of the spirit of the preceding manifestation of the them, and so on all the way back to the beginning of the movement.  When looked at from this perspective, one not only grasps intellectually, but literally ‘hears’, the later material as a true derivation of the beginning theme.

The above process is contained within a single movement of a piece. What if we extend the process to one composer and the another through the span of a century?  In the case of Szymanowski the links  were forged from the eve of  the nineteenth century through the early twentieth.

We would witness the analogous process at work.  Each next, great composer, more fully developed something that was lying there in the previous composer, but now developed more fully.

One of the things that makes it harder to see this relationship over decades or even centuries is from our standpoint in the 21st century, what Brahms or Mahler realized out of the essence of Beethoven or Schubert, we now take so for granted, that we “see it” already when we look or listen to Beethoven or Schubert.

If we arbitrarily pick three times: Beethoven’s, Brahms’s and our own era.  The quality that was first fully exposed in Brahms’s works we attribute it “backwards” to Beethoven.  We hear things in Beethoven that he would not have heard.  This leads to some odd observations.  Due because of the order within my personal life in which I got to know, let us say Beethoven and Brahms, I would say: “how clever of Beethoven to have stolen this idea from Brahms.”

I think the way to understand the structure in a work like that of the Szymanowski, is to conceive of a process that begins historically with a very clear structural ordering of parts in a movement, perhaps that of a late Haydn Symphony.  That the next step in this process takes place a number of years later, say at Beethoven’s time.  Comparing the Haydn with the Beethoven we see that the latter has changed the way one of the structural parts of the Haydn evolves into the next.  Same two parts, but differently connected.  Or the greater or lesser aesthetic significance one of the structural parts has for Beethoven than for Haydn.

Then another decade or two goes by, and similar transformation takes place to the Beethoven.  And so on.  We continue this process until there is a linked chain of developments from the structure of Haydn to that of Szymonowski, with the latter being simply the “latest” but probably not the “last” state of the evolution of the structure in a movement, a process continuing in our day.

I got this response back from my friend***:

“What a great reply!  This explains to me, actually, why a work like Szymanowski’s Myths seems so familiar in its structure, but when your mind tries to analyze what your ears receive, it’s difficult to understand the form.  The listener’s emotions flow right along with what’s happening, indifferent to any question of logical process, because, I feel, that that historical underpinning, as you so eloquently have said, is there, even though it’s so difficult to pinpoint.  This seems like an In Medias Res kind of issue.  Whereas in the Beethoven, as Tovey points out, there is a beginning and a conclusion, both related to and supporting one another, in these Szymanowski pieces, he starts in mid-historical stream, so to speak, and then has a problem about how to conclude.  In popular recorded music, they just do the “fade out”, where the music just gets softer and softer, until it disappears.  Szymanowski does something similar, sometimes concluding pianissimo, but with a short little epigrammatic phrase that is really quite clever and surprising.  In a sense (or so it seems to this musically uneducated mind), he is able to enact a temporary resolution to the piece.  You’re mind says, this is the conclusion, but your emotions tell you that nothing really ends, and the music is still going on, but inaudibly, awaiting another composer or composition to revive it.  Schubert often does something like this  in Die Schone Mullerin (sorry no umlats) by creating a running figuration in the piano, which breaks right through the last sounded note, and keeps going as an earwig in the listener’s mind.   Feel free to post this on your site.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karol_Szymanowski

** https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Tovey

Sir Donald Francis Tovey (17 July 1875 – 10 July 1940) was a British musical analyst, musicologist, writer on music, composer, conductor and pianist.

***  Please search for Roy Doughty’s poetry on line; you won’t regret it. Here is a link to some older poems:  http://doughtyspoetry.com/page/2/

 

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Ear Training, an introduction: the what, the why, the how

#1 Why do ear training?

Ask a student or performer if they listen as they play, and the answer which they give, without much pause to think, is generally “yes”.  Yet the ability to hear clearly while playing, and to understand what one is hearing, is the principal things that sets a good player apart from others.  The good player does not only have a good technique, but they have as strong an ability to listen completely and objectively to the sounds they are making.  In the hands of a master, technical matters are brought under the control of the ear.

It is a surprise to most musicians if you tell them that they are not really listening attentively when they play.  That too much of what they consider listening is actually physical sensations generated in the muscles causing notes to sound.   At the moment of an attack of a new note, there is often more tactile and kinaesthetic feeling going on than listening.

When the physical action stops but the note continues to sound, it is easier to focus purely on the sound.   Ideally there is a way to how to isolate sound from any muscular feelings or other sensations than that of hearing.

There is a way for the ear alone, whether that of the pianist or a listener, to learn to identify and distinguish among the many relations into which notes can combine.

Each such relationship produces for us a quality, and it this quality that forms the basis of ear training.

Being a good musician means having a mastery over the medium in which music exists, I.E. sound.  When possessed of such mastery, one can mold the medium of sound to one’s will.

No prior experience is needed to begin to develop the sensitivity of the “ear”.

#2  Sound is a quality.

The experience of sound is a quality and not a measurable quantity.

How notes combine into a single conscious experience is not a dividable into half steps or ticks of a clock.  Being a quality, there is no way of describing the quality of sound using words.   We must experience it.  If we try to ‘describe’ it to someone else, it is useless unless the other person has also experienced it directly.

The sounds we hear may result from combining notes in some measurable way, but we do not “hear” these measurements.   The quality of a chord, for example, is like a perfume.  It impresses us directly and unmistakably.  We do not need anything extra, such as the chemical makeup of the perfume, to fill ourselves with its aroma.

As I walk I may identity a certain scent in the air as that of a “rose”.  But unless one has already experienced this aroma and then also learned to associate it with the same word that I use, it is of no use to say the word “rose” to another and expect that they will know what scent we are talking about.

Associating an aroma with a word does not alter the aroma in any way.  We can study and examine the rose, but all we gain is knowledge (facts, quantitative measurements, etc.).  But all the while the fragrance persists calmly in our consciousness apart from anything visual, descriptive or analytical.

It is easy to stray from just the quality.  We are apt to substitute for it a symbol in the form of a name or an image.

A ‘rose expert’ can tell us while blindfolded what the name is of the specific type of rose they are smelling.   And though an ‘ear training expert’ would be able to give separate names to different patterns of sounds, it is more important that we simply have the ability to recognize when sound qualities are the same, or just similar, or vary more considerably.  Thus, while we could say: ah, that’s a perfect fifth sounding, or that’s a major chord in the first inversion, or those melody notes all belong to this or that scale, the important thing is that when you hear a perfect fifth and then a perfect forth, you can “smell” the difference.   If we never heard of a ‘half step’ we would still be aware of the difference in quality.

Ear Training is most successful when you work with qualities; when you use your innate, rapid, intuitive faculty of directly perceiving even the most subtle differences in quality between one combination of notes and another.   At first maybe we may only notice the most obvious differences, as between a chord and a melody.  In the world of odor, this would be like only being able to tell difference in quality between the smell of a lilac and that of a rose.   Later though we will be able to notice the difference in quality between various types of chords (various types of roses), and still later the subtlest differences between chords that arise from the intervals between the notes in the chord, their inversion, the number of notes they contain.  Our ability to distinguish between similar qualities in sound gets finer and finer.

If we hear a fast melody, we can tell from its overall quality through time just how many notes were in it (without counting as we hear them).

Eventually we become like the rose expert and can detect slight variations in quality between two roses on neighboring bushes.  We will be able to tell the difference between two chords that have the same root note, same ‘quality’ (major, minor…), and the same number of notes, whose only difference lies in the arrangement on the staves of where the root notes are, the thirds, and the fifths.  We will be able to single just one note from the chord with our ears and say whether it is a root note, third, or fifth.

We can be just as expert with intervals, melodies, and any other abstract relation between pitches (what I call “Sonic Geometry”).   We just want to avoid the temptation of applying some sort of musical ‘ruler’ to the sounds, by which we can measure the distance between two notes by a sense of their distance on a staff, along a piano keyboard, or along a violin string.

#3. Resolving ‘complex’ ear training abilities into an amalgam of simpler abilities.

In looking for a starting point for ear training, we might be tempted to start with something like : what is this chord that I just heard?  However, this is already a fairly complex ability.  It entails separate skills: is it a chord I’m hearing; how many notes are sounding; is it in root position or in an inversion; if I wanted to can I single note with my ear each individual note; can I tell what the intervals are between these notes; which of these notes are root notes, thirds, fifths, etc..

To come to realize that the original question involves an amalgam of simpler abilities,  we can learn to ‘refract’ through a ‘musical prism’ the original ability to see if it resolves into simpler component.   Nor should we be surprised if these simpler abilities, in turn, if each is put through another prism, do not resolve into even simpler abilities.  All ear training questions ultimately boil down to: 1) which is higher in pitch of two notes?  2) which is longer in duration of two notes?  3) how many sounds just sounded?  Then we can work our way backwards to our original question: what chord did I just hear?

#4.  Ear training is fun to do when there are two people together.

If you do not have access to a computer program*, or to a class being offered locally, Ear Training can be easily practiced with the help of just one friend and a room with two pianos (one will do also but it is a bit more cumbersome logistically).

The two people go back and forth presenting “questions” or answering questions.   The questions are always some combination of sounds.  The answer is either given in words or by reproducing the sounds on the other instrument.

Some examples on the simpler side:

Play two notes in a row: ask which one was either higher in pitch or longer in duration.   You can do something similar with three or more notes in a row (which was highest in pitch; which was longest in duration).

or

Play two or more notes at the same time: ask how many notes were sounding.  Play two or more notes one after the row: ask how many notes sounded.

or

Play a series of notes, one at a time, from an agreed upon range.  Have your partner try to match each one.   This range can after a while be expanded when agreed upon.   Later, let it be two simultaneous notes from an agreed upon range.

or

Agree that all the notes will be, for example, C-naturals, then play C-s in different ranges of the piano and have your partner match it in the correct octave.

Some examples of something with moderate difficulty:

Play examples of intervals (harmonic or melodic) but limited to only two possible answers (major third / minor third; perfect fourth / perfect fifth …).  Your partner provides the name of each that you play.  Later, there can be three possible correct answers (and eventually more).

Did the two chords just heard contain the same notes, or was one or more different (one being much harder than several).

The same principle of starting with two correct choices, then adding a third, fourth, etc.. can be applied to most ear training situations:  distinguishing among types or aspects of chords, three-chord harmonic progressions, types of rhythms, etc.).

As things advance, and the recipes become very gradually more complex.

Here are some examples of things of harder difficulty:

Which steps of a common scale did you just hear and in what order?  Or match the same notes (given the first note).

Was the chord in root position, first inversion or second inversion …

Listen to two chords: by how many half steps (and whether up or down) did the root notes move.

How many of the notes in one chord were also in the next chord.

Here is the scale of a particular key (play it one octave up and then down).  Then play a series of chords.  Ask on which scale step each is built.  Complicating factors can be whether the chord is in root position or inversion; whether non-diatonic chords are allowed; whether altered steps of the scale can be used for root notes.**

* You are welcome to request a copy of the “Joe Bloom Ear Training Program” which runs on PC-s but unfortunately not on Macs.

** For a more complete list of ear training activities, just send me a request.

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Sometime subdividing beats, sometimes combining beats

When we are playing slowly and the notes seem to separate from each other and there is no flowing line, it is useful to subdivide the note into 2, 3 or 4 equal parts.  This subdivision can occur just in the head, or better yet, in the body.  The body can go through all the same motions that it would to play the note again, except that instead of a new sound resulting, the old sound simply continuous.

When we are playing rapidly and the notes don’t seem to flow evenly, it is useful to combine notes into groups of notes.  In doing this only the first note of the group is played with any intentionality.  The other notes happen as if unintentionally, as if filling in a parenthesis, with physical motions that are more subtle or subconscious.

 

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Music is the art of time alone

Music is the art of time, and in it space has little role to play.  This results from the basic difference between hearing and seeing.

While the physical cause for all our sensations, including sight and sound, lies in some mechanical phenomenon in space, the ‘effect’ of that cause, as experienced in our consciousness, is of a radically different nature.    We cannot answer the question “what does sound like.”  There is nothing about a sound wave that implies hearing.

The transmission of electro-chemical impulses in the auditory nerve is no different than what occurs in the optic nerve.  Examining these transmissions gives us no clue as to what sense is being transmitted.

What would happen if, in the distant future, a surgeon took the auditory nerve’s connections into the brain and spliced them instead into the visual part of the brain.  Would we see sound?

Consider a person who had been born blind, and who grew up without companions on the proverbial dessert island.  If that person was suddenly granted the ability to see, and heard what we know is the sound of a bird, would she have any ability of linking the quality of that sound in her consciousness to a cause somewhere in space, in particular the thing over there in that tree with wings and a beak.

Sound, and therefore music, is quality experienced through duration in time.

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I always choose the part “on the left”

When I play four hands with another pianist, given the choice, I will choose to sit on the left, and play the “secondo” or lower pitched part.  Why?

The person with the lower pitches  can always insure an overall balance of sound with the person on the right  (the “primo” part) no matter how loud or soft that person plays, in spite of any unanticipated crescendos or decrescendos that he or she might make.

The secondo defines the harmony and thus creates the underpinning that gives definition and shape to the melodies in the primo.

When the person doing the primo is a student, or an amateur pianist, the secondo provides a nurturing, surrounding embrace of sound, that elicits the best playing from the person playing the primo.  The latter hears how much better things are sounding than they thought they would versus when they played their part alone.  In general, the secondo can act as the ideal accompanist, following every twist and turn in the primo: masking inconsistencies, smoothing over unintentional jumps or errors, giving to the primo a freedom that may surprise the player.   I can also do more to influence the musical interpretation of the piece from the left side than the right side.

Lastly, there is the subtle effect of overtones and sympathetic vibration.  The tones I generate in the bass can partially transform the quality (timbre) of sound in the treble.

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