Wednesday, August 29, 2012

'Music and the Natural World'

Tomorrow my Fall semester class at The College of New Jersey begins. I'm teaching a Freshman Seminar titled "Music and the Natural World."

The idea for this course came out of a discussion on the Society of Music Theory email list about five years ago. Some on the list were interested in whether a music theory course could somehow work in ideas related to sustainability -- a hot topic at the time, as the academic world was reacting to mounting pressures to address climate change and environmental issues. The thought was that sustainability was one of the most important issues of our age and we had a responsibility as educators to reflect that concern to our students.

I was among those theory teachers who said, No, it can't be done. The theory curriculum is already demanding for the students and time allowed for that curriculum is far too brief. Moreover, the link between theory and sustainability is flimsy at best. We can recycle paper. But that's about it. In one way or another, most of theorists agreed with that assessment.

Out of that discussion, however, the idea arose that a separate course could be designed that focus on repertoire and environment. Composers throughout history have been inspired in many ways by the beauty of the natural landscape and composers today are examining that relationship in everything from traditional "musical landscape" scores to computer models of natural systems and chaos theory.

My thought was that, in a framework like that, students would be naturally sensitized to issues of sustainability and human responsibility for our changing environment. Putting it in a freshman seminar seemed perfect, as it allowed for a more broad-ranging discussion.

TCNJ's freshman seminars are intended give students an introduction to scholarship by presenting them with a subject of study, much like a graduate seminar, and then guide them through the process of research and scholarly discussion. The first two years in college are generally spent on required courses, with little other opportunity for this kind of personal scholarship.

By now, I've taught this particular course three semesters and I grow from the experience each time. We gambol around music history and the musicological spectrum, touching on other disciplines like philosophy, physics, sociology and biology. Since the course is open to students of any major, there are a jungle of approaches popping up in each classroom. Each voice adds to bigger picture.

We will start with an nature-themed trip through the classical repertoire, introducing some writings of Goethe and others along the way, and then head off into ethnomusicology and topics in semiotics before getting into soundscapes, musique concrete and John Cage. And we wind up with a look into the not-so-distant future of virtual environments -- what of nature, or of ourselves, do we take with us into the wholly digital city?

It's a mash-up dance, a rough-and-tumble idea playground.

So here we go. I'm excited. It's going to be a great semester.

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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Dvorak's Stabat Mater at Ocean Grove

Ocean Grove's Great Auditorium hosts its annual Sacred Concert with a performance of Antonin Dvorak's Stabat Mater tomorrow, Aug. 26 at 7:30 p.m. The auditorium choir and orchestra will be directed by Dr. Jason C. Tramm. Soloists will be soprano Monica Ziglar, contralto Martha Bartz, tenor Ronald Naldi and bass-baritone Jeremy Galyon. Organist Gordon Turk, artist-in-residence, will also perform with the ensemble.

The concert is free with a goodwill offering collected at the door.

The text of the Stabat Mater is a sacred Latin poem written in the 13th century depicting the grief of Jesus' mother as she watches her song dying on the cross. The poem attracted some of the greatest composers of history, including Pergolesi (whose fame rests mainly on his Stabat Mater and one or two other works), J.S. Bach, Franz Liszt, Giuseppe Verdi and many others.

Dvorak composed his setting as a way of working through his own grief at the loss of his three children -- his newborn daughter in 1875, followed by his two older children who died within weeks of one another of separate causes in 1877.

Dvorak's Stabat Mater was widely praised following its premiere in Prague in 1880. It was through this work that the Czech composer was introduced to the English speaking world, where he became a leading musical figure, a success that ultimately led to his invitation to visit the U.S. and the composition of his most famous work, the Symphony "From the New World."

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Save Charles Ives' Home

Speaking of Ives, his home in Connecticut is in danger of being torn down. Developers are excited to build on the property -- destroying a historic landmark in the process.

Here's an article on WQXR's website explaining the situation.

Below is a link to a petition to save the house that still needs 500 signatures. Please take a moment to sign it.

Petitions by|Start a Petition »

Thanks to Christian Carey for passing along this widget.

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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ives' String Quartet No. 2

I have long had a casual relationship with Charles Ives’ String Quartet No. 2. I was introduced to his music as an undergraduate, using it as a springboard to find my way into contemporary repertoire after having grown up hearing precious little of anything written post-1913 that wasn’t Broadway, mainstream jazz or pop music.

Ives opened up a whole new way of looking at music for me, a child-like way of toying with the material until it satisfied both child and grown-up sensibilities. No matter how eccentric, the result always seemed rooted in simple “what if” questions: If music can modulate from one key to another, why can't it be it two or more keys at the same time?

What about two time signatures at the same time? What about two completely different pieces of music at the same time?

If the harmonic series is a guide to functional harmony, what happens when we extend it to the higher partials? What about intervals smaller than a semitone?

If stacks of thirds produce triads, seventh and ninth chords, could clusters of notes or oppositions of seventh chords -- which could be realistically described as skyscraper stacks of thirds – be used as functional harmony? What about stacks of fourths?

What happens when you mix or imitate folk instruments with orchestra instruments? Bel canto and common singing? Does some political or social line get crossed? Is that good?

I love these questions. They seem a little transparent to me now, but the lesson I learned from them -- that music is not a goal, but a process of seeking -- has remained a vital one.

The String Quartet No. 2
S.Q. for 4 men--who converse, discuss, argue in re 'Politick', fight, shake hands, shut up -- then walk up the mountain side to view the firmament!
– C.I., note from score

In the 1980s, the String Quartet No. 2 was too much for me. Working in the music library as an undergrad, I had recorded the Kohon String Quartert performance onto cassette tape. I remember listening to it, admiring it and putting it away again. That process happened over and over. Finally, as I moved on to late Stravinksy and the music of the European avant garde composers of the 1950s and ‘60s -- the mid-century men -- I put it aside completely.

Driving across Pennsylvania last month -- my great revelations often happen driving across Pennsylvania -- I pulled that same tape out again and turned it on, thankful that my old car still had a cassette player. Listened to the whole thing twice through.

What I found was a tender, visionary work, post-modern at the dawn of modernism, post-Romantic in an era dominated by Romanticism, deeply personal where technology and the shadow of industrialized world war were quickly rendering society as a whole impersonal.

It shows the versatility of individual imagination, far removed from expectations of genre and style -- the tracings of a free flying mind imprisoned physically and historically by time and place, liberated by imagination.

Let’s admit that Ives was influenced by other contemporary innovations, that he strove to define himself as an outsider, to outdo deliberately all others in crazy re-imaginings of traditional methods. Let's note that a near-perverse machismo lay near the root of much of his experimentation, particularly so with this string quartet. Let’s even agree, for the sake of argument, that his eccentricity exceeded his control over the score.

I accept all that. No matter.

The second string quartet remains a work of remarkable conception, and fluid beauty. It presages Elliot Carter’s fascination with assigning identities to individual voices; its use of stylistic reference and literal quotation has nothing to do with the 19th century and everything to do with the late 20th; it establishes patterns of discontinuity as compositional elements, foreseeing the work of the mid-century; it overlays and juxtaposes in a way that often seems less like traditional polyphonic structure and more like tape-music-style mash-ups; it even lets the instruments step out of character to reveal themselves (with a prescribed imitation of tuning at a critical point), pointing toward the blurring of physical separation between performer and listener that came in the mid-to-late century.

All of these are, for Ives’ generation, new techniques, all pursued with a ferocious imagination, a playful yet steady loyalty to the material.

I suppose I will never lose my admiration for Ives, whatever personal and professional failings can be ascribed to him. It is hard to believe that I can return to this work after nearly 25 years and find in it so much that is still (or again) fertile ground for further experiment.

I wasn’t ready for it in 1988. I am now.

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