George Crumb

Sing-aulos

These days I am studying every day for my upcoming placement exams at UNT this August.  I'm going through all the online chapter outlines from the Norton history books and also reading Strunk's Source Readings.  I had considered using this blog to summarize my studies every day, but decided that would get really dull.  However, from time to time I will discuss things that I am studying based on a very important criterion:  what I think is interesting.  Look for the catergory "Placement Exam Study." Here's something I thought was funny from Aristotle's Politics:

And let us add that [flute]-music happens to possess the additional property telling against its use in education that playing it prevents the employment of speech.

George Crumb might disagree!  In his Vox Balaenae (1971) he instructs the flutist to "sing-flute," or sing while playing.  (Although in fairness to Aristotle, he was referring to the Greek wind instrument the aulos, many of which were double-reeded (like the oboe) and would have made aulos-singing very difficult.)

And the quote of the day, from the same source:

...[B]oys must have some occupation, and one must think Archytas's rattle a good invention, which people give to children in order that while occupied with this they may not break any of the furniture, for young things cannot keep still.

10 Albums that Changed my Life

Here's my bloated version of the ubiquitous Facebook note. I wanted this list to reflect albums that actually had a major impact on my relationship with music, not just a list of my favorite albums.  These don't seem nearly as cool as some of the lists I've read.. oh well.

Nirvana - Nevermindnirvana_nevermind_cover

I was at a middle school dance when someone gave the DJ/PE teacher a new tape.  The DJ announced that this was a new song, and he'd never heard it before.  It's hard to describe my emotional reaction to the first four chords of distorted guitar and the nasally gravelly, indistinct voice that matched the guitar and created a sound we would call grunge or, ironically, alternative.  I guess it wasn't as new as I thought at the time, but most of the pre-Nirvana music was alternative, underground, and punk, none of which I was familiar with.  I've often bristled at the notion that Kurt Cobain was the poet of a generation and that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was that generation's anthem, but when you heard it, you felt the ground of pop music shift under your feet.

John Cage - Sonatas and Interludescage

This was my first exposure to prepared piano.  To prepare a piano, one places screws, paperclips, erasers, chains, paper and anything else between, around, and on top of the piano's strings.  The material used as well as the placement on the length of the string offers an infinite number of possible timbres.  Many have compared the overall effect to a percussion ensemble being played by one player on one instrument, and the first time I heard Sonatas and Interludes I did not suspect a piano.

The Beatles - Magical Mystery Tourthe_beatles-magical_mystery_tour-frontal

This is the first of many on this list that may not be the most representative of a particular band, but happened to represent my first exposure to that band.  I was introduced to Magical Mystery Tour when I was in high school and it seemed refreshingly unpretentious compared to rock acts who tried too hard to be authentic.  The tunes were hummable, even kind of cheesy.  But, that seemed more authentic to me.  I liked "Fool on the Hill" and "I Am the Walrus."  But, I especially liked "Blue Jay Way"... maybe because my mom hated it.

The Beatles - The Beatlesbeatleswhite

"The White Album" blew me away when I finally heard it.  The Beatles I had grown up on had been grossly misrepresented I decided.  The Beatles I had known were the favorites of old people who listened to golden oldies on the radio.  I despised "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Love Me Do."  I wondered why no one had ever played "Helter Skelter" or "Happiness Is a Warm Gun."  I even loved "Rocky Raccoon."

Doc Watson - Ballads from Deep Gapdoc

Deep Gap is a small Blue Ridge Mountain community on US 421 just east of Boone, North Carolina.  It's where Doc Watson has lived all his life, and it's about 20 minutes from where I live now.  Here again, there are better, even Grammy-winning, examples of the genius of Doc Watson, but I bought this one because I liked the title.

Pearl Jam - Tenpearl-jam

This is probably my favorite album ever.  I learned to think about timbre by trying to figure out how they could make their guitars sound so many different ways.  They combined wah-wah with distortion and chorus to effectively hide the Who's strong influence.  They used flanger to sound like steel drums.  And Eddie Vedder's voice didn't sound like anything I was used to.

Michael Jackson - Thrillermichael_jackson_thriller-front

I cried when I was 6 or 7 and my parents wouldn't buy it for me. Whenever it was my turn to rent a video, I picked the making of "Thriller" even though it scared me to death.  I loved all of it, but especially "Human Nature" and "Billie Jean."  And "The Girl Is Mine" was my first positive encounter with Paul McCartney.  My favorite arrangement I've done is a marching band version of "Billie Jean."

George Crumb - Black Angels / Makrokosmos IIIcrumb

Black Angels taught me that contemporary music could be beautiful even if it wasn't always "pretty."  Before that I thought that composers were just trying to out-weird each other.

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Radiohead - In Rainbowsin-rainbows

This is the most recent release on the list.  Fantastic, well-crafted songwriting.  Made me stop trying to pretend that rock wasn't sophisticated.. or maybe it made me realize that rock was a sophisticated artistic outlet.

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Public Enemy - Apocalypse '91apocalypse-91-cover

You could say I was just another white kid listening to gangster rap in the early 90's.  I'm not arguing--but it did get me thinking about people in other situations.  The anger was intoxicating, and all the "Yeah, boyeeee"s were simply thrilling.

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Bach - Mass in B minorbach

My first choral album.  It set far too high a standard for choral music in my opinion.

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Led Zeppelin - "Four"ledzeppelin4

I think I used to listen to this on LP before we got the CD.  I'd play "Stairway" on the piano with the stereo turned up all the way.  Made me realize that even a pianist could play rock.  Plus I loved all the literary allusions to Tolkien.

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Morton Feldman - Why Patterns? / Crippled Symmetryfeldman

Schoenberg talked about emancipating the dissonance, but Feldman, at least for me, emancipated the rhythm.  No discernible meter or patterns makes this music float with nowhere to go.  That's freedom.

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Guns 'N Roses - Use Your Illusiongnr

Much more polished than Appetite for Destruction, this represented the last big push for the ill-fated band.  The perfect mix of Axl's industrial rock and Slash's sense for lush melodies, songs like "You Could Be Mine" and "November Rain" balance this double album. I know Appetite might seem more authentic without its orchestral arrangement, but Illusion had a bigger impact on me for that very reason.  At that time I thought the bigger the production the better.

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones - Live Artbela

Electric banjo, drumitar, two saxes in one mouth, and bass.  What else do I need to say?

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Bill Evans and Tony Bennett - The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Albumbennett-tony-bill-evans-86-l

Maybe not the most cleverly named album, but it says all it needs to.  Here is a singer singing like a instrumentalist and a pianist playing like a singer.  "Some Other Time," "When in Rome," "Young and Foolish" and of course "Waltz for Debbie" are the best examples.  I used to listen to this every night on my way to piano gigs in the hopes that it would rub off on me.

Is Music Grading a Bad Thing?

Here's a blog post from composer Daniel Wolf regarding the Texas Board of Education's University Interscholastic League.  This is an organization that controls athletics and music in Texas schools.  For those of us in music education, the UIL governs a lot of what we do.  The North Carolina Bandmasters Association uses some of the UIL structure in its own concert festivals regulations.  Now, it may seem strange to combine scholastic sports with music.  Goodness knows the two seem to be in constant competition with one another.  I think there is something utilitarian and super-efficient about this Texan bureaucracy, and I think that's part of what has appalled Wolf.  We artists shun the notion of categorization (at least explicitly), and the idea that some group of jocks in Texas might somehow influence music education around the country is intensely offensive.  I'll leave it to the linked article above to explain the details of the UIL and how this influence is wielded.  I will say, however, that the North Carolina system does not govern marching band festivals, nor is it governed directly by the North Carolina Board of Education. I think there are obvious benefits to grading music for adjudicated festivals--mainly, it is necessary to divide bands by their levels of proficiency.  Comparing bands of greatly differing abilities isn't very useful.  Thus, the bands choose their music from a list that arranges a finite number of compositions by difficulty.  My middle school band is playing Grade I, the easiest because we're a small band with mostly beginners.  It wouldn't make sense to be compared with larger bands with more experience.

However, where I am most interested in Wolf's point is the idea that this set-up introduces bias into music education.  I agree wholeheartedly that it does.  The list is finite.  There is a procedure for adding other pieces, but I haven't looked into it.  The system makes it too easy to buy from the publishers and composers on the list.  I can't see why the list can't be evolutionary and infinitely expandable.  Sure, have a panel of conductors to review new music for difficulty, but not for anything else. There's no reason to exclude any new music; let the individual teachers decide what they want to play.

Not only is there an exclusionary bias inherent in having a list, there is also a bias in the band world against new music, and that doesn't help our students.  I am rehearsing Terry Riley's In C this semester in honor of the groundbreaking piece's 50th anniversary.  The piece has no meter, no key, no phrasing indicated, no dynamics, no parts, and not even any instruments indicated.  A typical adjudicator wouldn't have anything to judge.  But, the notion that music must have all these elements was discarded decades ago--at least outside the band world.  Inside the band world, these are the foundational elements of music.  I'm not suggesting we stop teaching students these concepts, but let's keep going.  Let's show them aleatory music, improvisatory, atonal, music.  That extended techniques and experimental timbres in the music of George Crumb are powerful.  And most importantly, that these new music concepts aren't novel or weird--that you can phrase Schoenberg just like you would Brahms... or Swearingen.

©2017 Joshua Harris