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Posts Tagged ‘music’

13 DECEMBER, 2012

Remembering the Godfather of World Music: Ravi Shankar + Philip Glass, 1990

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East meets West in an exquisite meeting of the minds, hearts, and strings.

Legendary sitar player Ravi Shankar passed away this week at the age of 92. (Coincidentally, the same age at which we lost Ray Bradbury earlier this year.) Celebrated as “the godfather of world music,” Shankar not only brought a new appreciation of Indian sound to the West but also influenced generations of eclectic musicians around the globe. In 1990, he partnered with Philip Glass, one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, on an uncommon six-track collaboration: Passages unfolds into 55 minutes and 21 seconds of exquisite melodic fusion, blending the Eastern tradition with Glass’s classicism as the mesmerism of Shankar’s sitar and the magic of the saxophone, cello, and the rest of Glass’s signature instrumentation flow seamlessly into and out of one another. The result is the musical equivalent of when Einstein met Tagore.

My favorite track on the album is the beautifully restless “Meetings Along The Edge,” but the record is sublime in its entirety:

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11 DECEMBER, 2012

Song Reader: Beck Revives the Romance of Sheet Music with 26 Illustrated Songs

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“Each era finds something new to return to; things that seemed out of date have a way of coming back in new forms, and revealing aspects of themselves we might not have noticed before.”

In the 1930s, as recorded sound was beginning to replace live musicians who played sheet music in movie theaters to score films, the American Federation of Musicians formed an organization called the Music Defense League and proceeded to take out a series of newspaper ads admonishing against “making musical mince meat” and the “menace” of recorded sound. But in the eight decades since, besides the loss of sound quality with digitization and the demise of music notation as art, could we have lost something else, some part of the romance of music? That’s arguably what Beck has set out to capture, on the heels of reimagining Philip Glass’s lifetime of music, in Song Reader (UK; public library) — a remarkable sort-of-album containing 26 never-before-released or recorded songs that only exist as pieces of sheet music. The songs come with original full-color illustrations by celebrated contemporary artists, illustrators and designers like Jessica Hische and The Rumpus’s Ian Huebert, inspired by the aesthetic of the golden age of home-play.

Beck writes in the preface:

After releasing an album in the mid-1990s, I was sent a copy of the sheet-music version by a publisher who had commissioned piano transcriptions and guitar-chord charts of everything on the original recording. Seeing the record’s sonic ideas distilled down to notation made it obvious that most of the songs weren’t intended to work that way. Reversing the process and putting together a collection of songs in book form seemed more natural — it would be an album that could only be heard by playing the songs.

A few years later, I came across a story about a song called ‘Sweet Leilani,’ which Bing Crosby had released in 1937. Apparently, it was so popular that, by some estimates, the sheet music sold fifty-four million copies. Home-played music had been so widespread that nearly half the country had bought the sheet music for a single song, and had presumably gone through the trouble of learning to play it. It was one of those statistics that offers a clue to something fundamental about our past.

'Do We? We Do' illustrated by Sergio Membrillas

So when Beck met with McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers in 2004 to discuss a songbook project based on music notation, they quickly became obsessed with the broader world of old songs and began collecting vintage sheet music, artwork, ads, and other ephemera that went along with the art of sound. Beck writes:

I wondered if there was a way to explore that world that would be more than an exercise in nostalgia—a way to represent how people felt about music back then, and to speak to what was left, in our nature, of that instinct to play popular music ourselves.

'Why'

'Old Shanghai' illustrated by Kelsey Dake

In a meditation on the humanity of sheet music and why the project is more than a gimmick, Beck reflects my own concerns about the presentism bias of the digital age and observes poignantly:

I thought a lot about the risks of the inherent old-timeyness of a songbook. I know I have friends who will dismiss it as a stylistic indulgence, a gimmick. There’s a way of miniaturizing and neutralizing the past, encasing it in a quaint, retro irrelevancy and designating it as something only fit for curiosity-seekers or revivalists. But although the present moment can exclude the past from relevance, it can’t erase its influence entirely. Each era finds something new to return to; things that seemed out of date have a way of coming back in new forms, and revealing aspects of themselves we might not have noticed before.

'We All Wear Cloaks' illustrated by Kyle Pellet

In the introduction, Jody Rosen calls the project “a trip back to pop’s primordial past” and offers a primer on the visual legacy of sheet music, tracing how — just like the evolution of natural history — the aesthetic of sheet music was shaped by the concurrent evolution of imaging technology:

Song sheets are strange, seductive art objects. In the first half of the nineteenth century, sheet music art was mostly text-based: titles splashed across covers in ornate fonts. After the Civil War, advances in lithography brought alluring black-and-white illustrations to sheet music. By the turn of the century, new photographic printing techniques and the development of offset presses made color illustration ubiquitous. Songs arrived on store shelves in a riot of colors and graphics — graceful art nouveau design motifs, proto-Deco typefaces, illustrations that ranged from cartoonish to classicist to sleekly moderne.

'Don't Act Like Your Heart Isn't Hard' illustrated by Josh Cochran

Beck concludes:

Fifty-four million homes singing ‘Sweet Leilani’ in 1937 would have felt like some weird convergence. That time is long gone, but the idea of it makes one wonder where that impulse went. As for these songs, they’re here to be brought to life—or at least to remind us that, not so long ago, a song was only a piece of paper until it was played by someone. Anyone. Even you.

Here are just a few of the wonderful performances based on the sheet music in Song Reader already out there, by both “professional” musicians like Steve Mason and Leila Moss, and “amateurs” (where’s the line anymore?):

Thanks, Debbie

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04 DECEMBER, 2012

How To Sing: Lilli Lehmann’s Illustrated Guide, 1902

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“It is the artist’s task, through offering his best and most carefully prepared achievements, to educate the public, to ennoble it.”

Just like learning to listen to music is an acquired skill, learning to make music may have as much to do with discipline and practice as it does with inborn “talent,” if not more. In How To Sing (public library; public domain), originally published in 1902, German opera superstar Lilli Lehmann sets out “to discuss simply, intelligibly, yet from a scientific point of view, the sensations known to us in singing” by exploring “the expressions ‘singing open,’ ‘covered,’ ‘dark,’ ‘nasal,’ ‘in the head,’ or ‘in the neck,’ ‘forward’ or ‘back.'” But more than a mere technical guide to vocal skill, Lehmann’s treatise is really a guide to thinking musically and a dimensional meditation on the general art of learning. Equally enchanting are the anatomical diagrams — an inadvertent recurring theme around here lately — illustrating her theories.

Lehmann begins with an articulate assertion about the osmosis of nature and nurture:

The true art of song has always been possessed and will always be possessed by such individuals as are dowered by nature with all that is needful for it — that is, healthy vocal organs, uninjured by vicious habits of speech; a good ear, a talent for singing, intelligence, industry, and energy.

She expresses a concern, eloquently echoed a century later by Sir Ken Robinson, about the industrialization of education:

But art to-day must be pursued like everything else, by steam. Artists are turned out in factories, that is, in so-called conservatories, or by teachers who give lessons ten or twelve hours a day. In two years they receive a certificate of competence, or at least the diploma of the factory. The latter, especially, I consider a crime, that the state should prohibit. All the inflexibility and unskillfulness, mistakes and deficiencies, which were formerly disclosed during a long course of study, do not appear now, under the factory system, until the student’s public career has begun. There can be no question of correcting them, for there is no time, no teacher, no critic; and the executant has learned nothing, absolutely nothing, whereby he could undertake to distinguish or correct them.

She stresses the responsibilities of students and teachers:

One is never done with learning. … Learning and teaching to hear is the first task of both pupil and teacher. One is impossible without the other. It is the most difficult as well as the most grateful task, and it is the only way to reach perfection.

Lehmann goes on to delineate a number of technical and strikingly specific recommendations for singing, such as:

The singer’s endeavors, consequently, must be directed to keeping the breath as long as possible sounding and vibrating not only forward but back in the mouth, since the resonance of the tone is spread upon and above the entire palate, extends from the front teeth to the wall of the throat. He must concern himself with preparing for the vibrations, pliantly and with mobility, a powerful, elastic, almost floating envelope, which must be filled entirely, with the help of a continuous vocal mixture, — a mixture of which the components are indistinguishable.

She gives specific instructions regarding tone:

To attack a tone, the breath must be directed to a focal point on the palate, which lies under the critical point for each different tone; this must be done with a certain decisiveness. There must, however, be no pressure on this place; for the overtones must be able to soar above, and sound with, the tone. The palate has to furnish, besides, the top cover against which the breath strikes, also an extremely elastic floor for the breath sounding above it against the hard palate or in the nose.

This breath, by forming the overtones, makes certain the connection with the resonance of the head cavities.

In order to bring out the color of the tone the whirling currents must vivify all the vowel sounds that enter into it, and draw them into their circles with an ever-increasing, soaring tide of sound.

The duration of the tone must be assured by the gentle but uninterrupted outpouring of the breath behind it. Its strength must be gained by the breath pressure and the focal point on the palate, by the complete utilization of the palatal resonance; without, however, injuring the resonance of the head cavities. (See plate, representing the attack.)

[…]

The head tone signifies, for all voices, from the deepest bass to the highest soprano, — excepting for the fact that it furnishes the overtones for each single tone of the whole vocal gamut, — youth. A voice without vibrancy is an old voice. The magic of youth, freshness, is given by the overtones that sound with every tone.

She gets as specific as the position of the tongue:

The tongue must generally form a furrow. With the lowest tones it lies relatively flattest, the tip always against and beneath the front teeth, so that it can rise in the middle.

As soon as the furrow is formed, the mass of the tongue is put out of the way, since it stands high on both sides. It is almost impossible to make drawings of this; it can best be seen in the mirror. As soon as the larynx is low enough and the tongue set elastically against the palate and drawn up behind (see plate a), the furrow is formed of itself. In pronouncing the vowel ah (which must always be mixed with ?? and o), it is a good idea to think of yawning.

The furrow must be formed in order to allow the breath to resonate against the palate beneath the nose, especially in the middle range; that is, what a bass and a baritone (whose highest range is not now under consideration) would call their high range, all other voices their middle.

Without the furrow in the tongue, no tone is perfect in its resonance, none can make full use of it. The only exception is the very highest head and falsetto tones, which are without any palatal resonance and have their place solely in the head cavities. Strong and yet delicate, it must be able to fit any letter of the alphabet; that is, help form its sound. It must be of the greatest sensitiveness in adapting itself to every tonal vibration, it must assist every change of tone and letter as quick as a flash and with unerring accuracy; without changing its position too soon or remaining too long in it, in the highest range it must be able almost to speak out in the air.

She then moves on to the lips:

Of special importance for the tone and the word are the movements of the lips, which are so widely different in the bright and in the dark vowels. These movements cannot be too much exaggerated in practicing. The same strength and elasticity to which we have to train the muscles of the throat and tongue must be imparted to the lips, which must be as of iron. Upon their coöperation much of the life of the tone depends, and it can be used in many shadings, as soon as one is able to exert their power consciously and under the control of the will.

Every vowel, every word, every tone, can be colored as by magic in all sorts of ways by the well-controlled play of the lips; can, as it were, be imbued with life, as the lips open or close more or less in different positions. The lips are the final cup-shaped resonators through which the tone has to pass. They can retard it or let it escape, can color it bright or dark, and exert a ceaseless and ever varying influence upon it long before it ceases and up to its very end.

No attempt should be made to use the play of the lips until complete mastery of the absolutely even, perfect tone, and of the muscular powers, has been acquired. The effect must be produced as a result of power and practice; and should not be practiced as an effect per se.

In a section on preparing for singing, Lehmann outlines the three functions that need to be performed simultaneously in order to perform:

First, to draw breath quietly, not too deeply; to force the breath against the chest and hold it there firmly till the upward and outward streaming — that is, singing — begins.

Second, to raise the soft palate at the same time toward the nose, so that the breath remains stationary until the singing begins.

Third, to jerk the tongue backward at the same time, its back being thus raised, and elastic, ready to meet all the wishes of the singer, — that is, the needs of the larynx. The larynx must not be pressed either too low or too high, but must work freely. The breath is enabled to stream forth from it like a column, whose form is moulded above the larynx by the base of the tongue.

When these three functions have been performed, all is ready. Now the pitch of the tone is to be considered, as the singing begins.

She echoes William James’s famous words on habit in discussing vocal routines:

The degree of the evil, and the patient’s skill, naturally have much to do with the rapidity of the cure. But one cannot throw off a habit of years’ standing like an old garment; and every new garment, too, is uncomfortable at first. One cannot expect an immediate cure, either of himself or of others. If the singer undertakes it with courage and energy, he learns to use his voice with conscious understanding, as should have been done in the beginning.

And he must make up his mind to it, that even after a good cure, the old habits will reappear, like corns in wet weather, whenever he is not in good form physically. That should not lead to discouragement; persistence will bring success.

Lehmann writes beautifully of the texture of language and the art of listening:

It is very interesting to note how much a word can gain or lose in fulness and beauty of tone. Without the use of auxiliary vowels no connection of the resonance in words can be effected; there is then no beautiful tone in singing, only a kind of hacking. Since it must be quite imperceptible, the use of auxiliary vowels must be very artistically managed, and is best practiced in the beginning very slowly on single tones and words, then proceeding with great care to two tones, two syllables, and so on. In this way the pupil learns to hear. But he must learn to hear very slowly and for a long time, until there is no failure of vibration in the tone and word, and it is all so impressed upon his memory that it can never be lost. The auxiliary vowels must always be present, but the listener should be able to hear, from the assistance of the oo, only the warmth and nobility of the tone, from the a and e only the carrying power and brilliancy of it.

She then offers a number of practical exercises:

The practical study of singing is best begun with single sustained tones, and with preparation on the sound of ah alone, mingled with o and oo. A position as if one were about to yawn helps the tongue to lie in the right place.

In order not to weary young voices too much, it is best to begin in the middle range, going upward first, by semitones, and then, starting again with the same tone, going downward. All other exercises begin in the lower range and go upward.

The pupil must first be able to make a single tone good, and judge it correctly, before he should be allowed to proceed to a second. Later, single syllables or words can be used as exercises for this.

The position of the mouth and tongue must be watched in the mirror. The vowel ah must be mingled with o and oo, and care must be taken that the breath is forced strongly against the chest, and felt attacking here and on the palate at the same time. Begin piano, make a long crescendo, and gradually return and end on a well-controlled piano. My feeling at the attack is as shown in the plate.

At the same instant that I force the breath against the chest, I place the tone under its highest point on the palate, and let the overtones soar above the palate — the two united in one thought. Only in the lowest range can the overtones, and in the highest range the undertones (resonance of the head cavities and of the palate), be dispensed with.

Lehmann goes on to extol The Great Scale, noting:

This is the most necessary exercise for all kinds of voices. It was taught to my mother; she taught it to all her pupils and to us. But I am probably the only one of them all who practices it faithfully! I do not trust the others. As a pupil one must practice it twice a day, as a professional singer at least once.

[…]

The scale must be practiced without too strenuous exertion, but not without power, gradually extending over the entire compass of the voice; and that is, if it is to be perfect, over a compass of two octaves. These two octaves will have been covered, when, advancing the starting-point by semitones, the scale has been carried up through an entire octave. So much every voice can finally accomplish, even if the high notes must be very feeble.

The great scale, properly elaborated in practice, accomplishes wonders: it equalizes the voice, makes it flexible and noble, gives strength to all weak places, operates to repair all faults and breaks that exist, and controls the voice to the very heart. Nothing escapes it.

It becomes inescapably evident that for Lehmann, art and discipline are inextricable:

In practicing the singer should always stand, if possible, before a large mirror, in order to be able to watch himself closely. He should stand upright, quietly but not stiffly, and avoid everything that looks like restlessness. The hands should hang quietly, or rest lightly on something, without taking part in the interpretation of the expression. The first thing needed is to bring the body under control, that is, to remain quiet, so that later, in singing, the singer can do everything intentionally.

The pupil must always stand in such a way that the teacher can watch his face, as well as his whole body. Continual movements of the fingers, hands, or feet are not permissible.

The body must serve the singer’s purposes freely and must acquire no bad habits. The singer’s self-possession is reflected in a feeling of satisfaction on the part of the listener. The quieter the singer or artist, the more significant is every expression he gives; the fewer motions he makes, the more importance they have. So he can scarcely be quiet enough. Only there must be a certain accent of expression in this quietude, which cannot be represented by indifference. The quietude of the artist is a reassurance for the public, for it can come only from the certainty of power and the full command of his task through study and preparation and perfect knowledge of the work to be presented. An artist whose art is based on power cannot appear other than self-possessed and certain of himself. An evident uneasiness is always inartistic, and hence does not belong where art is to be embodied. All dependence upon tricks of habit creates nervousness and lack of flexibility.

And yet, she admonishes against disciplinary extremism:

Agents and managers commit a crime when they demand enormous exertions of such young singers. The rehearsals, which are held in abominably bad air, the late hours, the irregular life that is occasioned by rehearsals, the strain of standing around for five or six hours in a theatre, — all this is not for untrained young persons. No woman of less than twenty-four years should sing soubrette parts, none of less than twenty-eight years second parts, and none of less than thirty-five years dramatic parts; that is early enough. By that time proper preparation can be made, and in voice and person something can be offered worth while. And our fraternity must realize this sooner or later. In that way, too, they will learn more and be able to do more, and fewer sins will be committed against the art of song by the incompetent.

In considering the line between transformation and authorship, Lehmann offers:

A word is an idea; and not only the idea, but how that idea in color and connection is related to the whole, must be expressed. Therein is the fearsome magic that Wagner has exercised upon me and upon all others, that draws us to him and lets none escape its spell. That is why the elaboration of Wagner’s creations seems so much worth while to the artist. Every elaboration of a work of art demands the sacrifice of some part of the artist’s ego, for he must mingle the feelings set before him for portrayal with his own in his interpretation, and thus, so to speak, lay bare his very self. But since we must impersonate human beings, we may not spare ourselves, but throw ourselves into our task with the devotion of all our powers.

Ultimately, Lehmann honors the role of the artist as an educator of the public and a celebrator of the work rather than an absorber of the spotlight — an ethos the singer shares with the curator — and shares a heartening sentiment akin to E. B. White’s wisdom on the responsibility of the writer. She writes:

To me it is a matter of indifference whether the public goes frantic or listens quietly and reflectively, for I give out only what I have undertaken to. If I have put my individuality, my powers, my love for the work, into a rôle or a song that is applauded by the public, I decline all thanks for it to myself personally, and consider the applause as belonging to the master whose work I am interpreting. If I have succeeded in making him intelligible to the public, the reward therefor is contained in that fact itself, and I ask for nothing more.

[…]

It is the artist’s task, through offering his best and most carefully prepared achievements, to educate the public, to ennoble it; and he should carry out his mission without being influenced by bad standards of taste.

The public, on the other hand, should consider art, not as a matter of fashion, or as an opportunity to display its clothes, but should feel it as a true and profound enjoyment, and do everything to second the artist’s efforts.

How To Sing is now in the public domain and is available as a free download in multiple formats from Project Gutenberg.

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28 NOVEMBER, 2012

When Babbage and Dickens Waged a War on Noise

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How the father of the computer enlisted the greatest Victorian novelist in ridding the streets of sound.

“Sound imposes a narrative on you,” wrote George Prochnik about the cultural evolution of silence, “and it’s always someone else’s narrative.” Indeed, the public-private negotiations of sound date much further back than iPod earbuds and boomboxes. From Discord: The Story of Noise (public library) — which gave us the counterintuitive story of the silent Big Bang — comes the fascinating tale of the first organized war on noise, championed by none other than computing pioneer Charles Babbage, who took it upon himself to purge London of its populous street musicians, known to use their noise as an extortion tactic by playing loudly outside fancy establishments until they were paid to leave. In 1864, Babbage published Chapter on Street Nuisances which, together with Street Music in the Metropolis released by Derby MP Michael Bass the same year, became a seminal manifesto for silence as a civic right.

Italian street musicians in London, 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith

Sound scholar Mike Goldsmith writes:

Babbage in particular did everything he could to oppose the noises of the streets, using his considerable resources of intelligence, political contacts, and obstinacy. History has on the whole not been kind to him. He is remembered with respect as the originator of the computer, but most of his other work has been either neglected or ridiculed. Certainly, Babbage was an eccentric in many ways, an dan obsessive man too.

[…]

Babbage attacked noise on many fronts, making numerous court appearances and, like any good naturalist, collecting data to support his case, including his detailed list of 165 interruptions that he suffered over 80 days and his estimate that noise had reduced his working output by a quarter.

Babbage’s efforts might have been more successful had he not insisted in characterizing the battle against noise as the battle of the ‘intellectual worker’ against ‘those whose minds are entirely unoccupied.’ He included in his pamphlet a list of ‘Encouragers of Street Music':

tavern-keepers, public houses, gin-shops, beer-shops, coffee-shops, servants, children, visitors from the country, and, finally and occasionally, ladies of doubtful virtue…

And he also lists ‘Instruments of torture permitted by the government to be in daily and nightly use in the streets of London,’ comprising

organs, bass bands, fiddles, harps, harpsichord, hurdy-gurdies, flageolets, drums, bagpipes, accordions, halfpenny whistles, tom-toms trumpets, and, the human voice, shouting out objects for sale.

Charles Babbage

But his efforts fell on deaf ears — or, worse yet, inspired retaliation ranging from the petty to the staunchly spiteful:

Babbage’s confrontational tactics regarding local noise-makers and in particular his numerous letters to The Times met with equally devastating responses from his targets: his neighbors hired musicians to play outside his windows, sometimes using damaged wind instruments to add to the annoyance. Another neighbor blew a tin whistle from the window facing Babbage’s house for half an hour every day for several months. A brass band played outside his house for five hours. And, when Babbage left his house,

the crowd of young children, urged on by their parents, and backed at a judicious distance by a set of vagabonds, forms quite a noisy mob, following me as I pass along, and shouting out rather uncomplimentary epithets. When I turn around and survey my illustrious tail it stops .. the instant I turn, the shouting and the abuse are resumed, and the mob again follow at a respectful distance … In one case there were certainly above a hundred persons, consisting o f men, women, and boys, with multitudes of young children who followed me through the streets before I could find a policeman.

Still, Babbage persevered, enlisting the help of notable writers and artists in testifying to his mission. He even got Charles Dickens to contribute to the book:

Dickens writes that he and his cosignatories ‘are daily interrupted, harassed, worried, wearied, driven nearly mad, by street musicians.’ Writing of ‘brazen performers on brazen instruments,’ he adds: ‘No sooner does it become known to the producers of horrible sounds that any of your correspondents have particular need of quiet in their own houses, than the said houses are beleaguered by discordant hosts seeking to be bought off.’

Ultimately, Babbage had his way — sort of:

The publications of Babbage and Bass won the day. Later in the same year that they appeared, Bass’s Act passed into law. It was the beginning of the end for street musicians, though that end was slow in coming — so slow that, when Babbage was on his deathbed, an organ grinder played outside.

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