Archive for the ‘Music’ Category
In September of 1935 Paramount Pictures released a nine-minute movie remarkable in several ways. Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life is one of the earliest cinematic explorations of African-American culture for a mass audience. It features Duke Ellington and his orchestra performing his first extended composition. And perhaps most notably, it stars Billie Holiday in her first filmed performance.
The one-reel movie, directed by Fred Waller, tells the story of Ellington’s “A Rhapsody of Negro Life,” using pictures to convey the images running through the musician’s mind as he composed and performed the piece. Ellington’s “Rhapsody” has four parts: “The Laborers,” “A Triangle,” “A Hymn of Sorrow” and “Harlem Rhythm.” Holiday appears as a jilted and abused lover in “A Triangle.”
Holiday’s only previous screen appearance was as an uncredited extra in a nightclub scene in the 1933 Paul Robeson film, The Emper0r Jones. Symphony in Black was produced over a ten-month period. Holiday was only 19 when her scenes were shot. She sings Ellington’s “Saddest Tale,” a song carefully selected by the composer to fit the young singer’s style. “Saddest tale on land or sea,” begin the lyrics, “Was when my man walked out on me.” In the book Billie Holiday: A Biography, author Meg Greene calls the performance “mesmerizing”:
Symphony in Black marked an important milestone in the development of Billie Holiday, the woman and the singer. Ellington’s deft handling enabled Billie to distinguish herself from other torch singers. She did not wear her emotions on her sleeve; instead, she revealed herself gradually as the song unfolded. Hers was a carefully crafted and sophisticated performance, especially for a woman only 19 years old. This carefully woven tapestry of life and music was the origin of the persona that audiences came to identify with Billie. Other singers such as Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland may have more successfully established and cultivated an image, but Billie Holiday did it first.
Again, via Open Culture:
Four years ago, I experienced musical polymath, rock producer, “drifting clarifier,” and high-tech painter Brian Eno‘s generative-art installation 77 Million Paintings in Long Beach. I also saw him give an entertaining talk there on his observations of and ideas about sound, images, and culture. This year, he brought the show to New York City, giving it the largest staging yet, and then sat down for an equally entertaining 80-minute Q&Afor the Red Bull Music Academy. Perhaps it sounds a little odd that a creator who has based the past few decades of recent solo work on quietude, reflection, and mental receptiveness would appear at such length in a forum sponsored by an energy drink, but hey, we live in interesting times, and Eno has interesting thoughts, no matter where he voices them.
Sitting back on a sofa (whose side table comes stocked with cans of Red Bull), Eno discusses composing music for hospitals after meeting a great many children born to his 1975 album Discreet Music; the amateur chorus he runs and with whom he sometimes invites famous singer friends to sit in; “scenius,” or the special kind of genius that emerges when large numbers of enthusiasts cohere into a scene; the DJ as cultural “lubricant”; his love of early 20th-century Russian painting; what makes popular music, from Abba to Beyoncé, sound popular; the importance of deadlines; and his new iPad app Scape, which, to his mind, should soon displace the tiresome conventions of Hollywood film scoring entirely. While this provides a stimulating introduction to Eno the intellectual, longtime fans will want to catch up with his latest thoughts on several favorite subjects, such as the value of surrender in not just experiencing but creating art, and the counterintuitive bursts of creativity that come when working with fewer options, not more.
I fairly frequently mention Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s seminal book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (at the link, secondhand copies for $1), and the ideas he explored in other books. Indeed, the morning shave is a source of flow. Richard Carrick has a nice column in the NY Times on flow and music:
As a composer who studied music and mathematics, I have always found numbers, structure, and science accessible touch-points. But something more interesting evolved over the past several years as I returned to the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on “flow.” Coined in 1969, he defined flow as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” No surprise then that some of his first participants were composers: this is a constant aspiration. Composers have a reputation for working methods that include long sessions alone in their workplace with intense focus on their work, occasionally — indeed, arguably ideally — eventually losing a sense of time. I was attracted to this idea and felt a kinship, less to my working method but more in the way I thought and organized my music. But how was I to use “flow” in any musically meaningful way?
Many composers in the 20th and 21st centuries transformed ideas from science, mathematics and other fields into compositional techniques and sources of inspiration in their works. They varied broadly from literal application to inspirational reference, and composers varied in their apparent comfort in discussing these influences.
Claude Debussy, master of the spontaneous, “break all the rules” approach, secretly used the Golden Ratio to structure precisely many of his middle period works. Edgard Varese, brashly rejecting equal temperament and classical influences, developed a new modernist paradigm with his metaphorical inspirations from science, epitomized in the seminal concert work without classical instruments: “Ionisation,” written for 13 percussionists. The Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, who was also an accomplished engineer and architect, used higher-level mathematics (most notably the complex stochastic process) to generate his music in equally fantastical ways, pushing the limits of players and their instruments. The spectral composers Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail used computers to analyze sounds and recordings as complex harmonic overtones, where melody, harmony, and form are subservient to timbre. This is but a minute sampling. The list of composers influenced by numeric systems in science is vast.
The recent enthusiastic celebration of the centenary of John Cage’s birth highlights another degree of engagement with ideas that came from non-musical sources. Cage’s adoption of the “I-Ching” and chance procedures is now par for the course in discussing 20th century compositional techniques. Yet chance operations were distinctly not a significant part of Western compositional techniques until Cage championed them in 1951, first with his piano piece, “Music of Changes,” quickly followed by the notorious silence piece “4’33.” ” Cage’s concurrent studies in Zen Buddhism lead him to claim “all sounds are music,” freeing him to adopt techniques that rejected compositional subjectivity, such as rolling the dice, which were initially anathema to his European counterparts Boulez and Stockhausen.How influential were these techniques to other composers? It perhaps depended on how daunting or approachable those techniques appeared to others, or how naturally they could be applied to other artistic concepts. There are thousands of preeminent living musicians, visual artists, dancers and theater directors who cite Cage as their major influence. Compared to someone like Xenakis whose mathematical structures were so unique, complicated, and idiosyncratic that few people dared to follow in his footsteps, Cage’s chance procedures, coupled with his openness to new ideas, were the source of many younger artists’ visions, in performance art, dance, theater and literature, as well in as music.
Csikszentmihalyi analyzed how a person enters the flow state, how one maintains flow (engaging in a task where the difficulty matches the ability), and the factors that cause one to leave the flow state — drifting toward other mental states of anxiety, relaxation, boredom, worry, arousal, etc. He was able to demonstrate that someone in flow loses a sense of self-consciousness: the activity is entirely rewarding in and of itself, as one gains a sense of personal control over the activity.I was fascinated that someone could capture and articulate something so fleeting and magical as the precious moments when all things in the perceived universe merge to enhance one’s own engagement. Maybe it is a response to the multi-tasking overload of our smartphone age, but I found this theory more relevant today than ever before.
This strikes me as ultra-cool. (I formerly played flute and saxophone.)
Totally fascinating article in the current (28 Jan) issue of the New Yorker, but you’ll have to go to the library to read it unless you’re a subscriber. Worth it, though. Here’s the abstract:
ABSTRACT:ONWARD AND UPWARD WITH THE ARTS about Edgar Choueiri and three-dimensional recording. Of all the amazing things the mind does, the most amazing may be that it can take sound and turn it into music, and then take music and turn it into meaning. Edgar Choueiri, a rocket scientist at Princeton, has a laboratory the size of a small airplane hangar, and it is filled with plasma rocket engines that run on electricity. In his smaller lab, adjacent to the rocket one, Choueiri, the president of the Electric Rocket Propulsion Society, works on his musical projects, trying to force three-dimensional sound from ordinary stereo speakers. By three-dimensional sound he does not mean wraparound sound. In Choueiri’s system, when you listen to choral music by his hero, Bach, you will hear it coming not from speakers but as if from performers in the room itself. Outside his smaller lab is an office whose shelves are filled with those strange white dummy heads which sound scientists love. Choueiri plugged in his box, which runs what he calls his BACCH filter—the acronym also stands for “Band-Assembled Crosstalk Cancellation Hierarchy—and Bluetoothed it to the writer’s iPhone. The writer chose the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden,” and there they were. Keith Richards was limping over to his left, licking at chords, and Ronnie Wood to the right. Choueiri belongs to a distinctly modern type: the engineer-aesthete. The creation of three-dimensional sound depends on each ear’s hearing only what it’s supposed to hear. The catch with previous attempts at crosstalk cancellation, or “XTC,” is that the sound coloration is extremely sensitive to small changes in position. Choueiri has discovered a way to feed more error into the designs of the XTC than anyone had previously imagined possible, so that the signal will never discolor. The sound of all stereo-era recordings can easily become three-dimensional, because they were all recorded with at least two microphones. Perhaps the densest concentration of sound scholars in the world can be found in Montreal, at McGill University, where the writer went to school. Albert Bregman, a former professor of the writer’s, spent almost fifty years at McGill studying the psychology of sound, and his masterwork, “Auditory Sense Analysis: The Perceptual Organization of Sound,” remains a basic text in the field. Discusses Bregman’s suggestion that music is essentially a form of what he dubbed “chimerical perception.” Mentions Robert Zatorre, Daniel Levitin, and Jonathan Sterne.
One of he scientists with whom he talked, a guy who has high respect for how MP3 has changed our music-listening experience, had some interesting comments about the artificiality of the concert-hall experience common to classical music: attentive listeners, isolated in their experience, paying hushed attention to a musical performance. He points out that in almost every other human cultural context, people are dancing and talking as music is played. I assume he’s correct, but of course one feels an enormous “So what?” forming. Different cultures are different? A striking observation indeed. The culture that gave rise to the concert hall and the extended musical compositions of the classical period resulted in amazingly complex and satisfying musical constructions, and the experience of listening to those is, however, unique to a particular culture and time, a wonderful experience. I don’t know that the Bach Masses, or the Mozart opus, or Beethoven’s symphonies, or indeed complex chamber music is to be denigrated because people listen attentively rather than talking and dancing. Perhaps things are possible in that context that don’t work so well in other cultural experiences of music. Value the uniqueness, for God’s sake.