warning. technical musical talk about rows of stones

Yesterday was a bit of a musical day.

I spent several hours transcribing and arranging string parts for Holy Week. For Maundy Thursday I prepared string accompaniment to the choral anthem for the evening: “As in that upper room you left your seat” text by Timothy Dudley-Smith, music by Carl Heywood.  I have taught the choir this lovely hymn for use as an anthem.  I added a short string intro, interludes and postlude. This will dress it up.

For Good Friday, I finished a transcription of an organ piece by Timothy Flynn based on “O Sacred Head.”  Flynn has written a series of chords that fit nicely on piano. I gave the melody to the strings in octaves. This will make a nice prelude for that evening.

I emailed off the parts to the players.

The challenge in the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday selections was my ensemble consists of one viola, two cellos and piano. This challenge made it kind of fun.

I will do a few more hymn arrangements for these four players. We have a rehearsal scheduled on Wednesday. I am trying to make these arrangements well with in the playing capabilities of these players since they are receiving the scores just before they will be asked to perform them.

In between, for fun, I started my first serious analysis of a Charles Ives piano piece.  I enjoy throwing myself at compositions and trying to figure out how they work.

This piece is the first of the “Five Piano Pieces” I purchased through the mail. It is called “Varied Air and Variations: Study #2 for Ears or Aural and Mental Exercise!!!” (One commentator suggests there might be a bit of a pun in that title: “Very Darin’ Variations.”)

It’s a sectional piece, ostensibly a theme and variations. It also includes a short introduction, brief interludes and a small postlude all of which are labeled “protests.” The intriguing aspect of it initially are these little comments from Ives throughout the piece. An example is the note he has written over the first introductory Largo section: “First Protest from ‘box belles’ when ‘man; comes on stage”.  This reminded me of Satie’s piano music where he sometimes prints comments throughout. In Satie’s case the comments are ironic performance notes. At first I thought Ives’s words were something similar.

example is the top note which translates “To play this motif 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities”

My attention was first caught by the second variation, “March time or faster,” which is in an obvious mirror inversion counterpoint. This is a fancy way of saying that the right hand melody is mirrored by the left hand melody (there are only two parts) but when the right hand goes up, the left hand goes down the same distance and when it goes down, the left hand goes up the exact same distance.

But this technique wasn’t really what caught my eye. I also noticed that it seemed as though the notes went through all 12 possible of the notes of the scale before repeating. This piece is dated c. 1910, revised 1925 (according to Groves Online Music Dictionary. Thanks again, Hope College, for this perk for the old guy playing the piano in the ballet class!).  It is just about period of music history that across the ocean Schoenberg is developing an influential strict technique that uses all twelve notes equally (link to wikipedia article on 12 tone technique).

Intrigued I began counting unique notes. I found that Ives uses 11 of 12 possible different notes in a row, stopping just short of Arnold’s 12 tone row. Then he started over with a series of 7 unrepeated notes. Then he begins to repeat notes. Also about half way through the variation he abandons the mirror inversion technique.

It was at this point, I began to look closely at those little comments Ives put in the music. I realized that they tell a dual story. One story is the story of a musician who is playing for an unappreciative audience (“box belles). You can hear this clearly in his label for the least dissonant of the variations: “16 nice measures, E minor as much as possible! All right, Ladies, I’ll play the rock line again and harmonize it nice and proper.”

When I read this, I wondered about instructing a player to “play something in E minor as much as possible.” Then I realized this was a descriptive comment, not one meant to affect the key in which the player plays. Then I thought about the phrase “rock line” in terms of the way Ives strictly ordered his pitches throughout the piece.

Sure enough, he refers over and over in his comments to stones and rocks: “the old stone wall around the orchard– none of those stones are the same size” and “Follow the stone wall around the mountain.”

At this point I began to see what Ives was driving at. Even though I found this piece described as a programmatic piece, I think it is a unique example of sort of a non-programmatic programmatic piece. The music does tell a sort of story. There are repeated soft and loud sections which represent the protests and eventual acclamations of the audience. There are also the theme and its variations which culminate in a wild rhythmic dissonant finale in the description of the “man” getting mad at the audience and starting to “throw things at them.”

But the music materials of the theme and variations itself is about the stones or rocks of the chosen material not actually making musical sounds that make a picture in a more typical programmatic way.

Programmaticaly there are only those shorter sections throughout which aurally represent the reaction of the audience to the music. (At one point Ives marks a series of hammered bland C major chords FFFFFFFFFFF. Note that there are 11 of those fortes. Hmmmm.  This is supposed to represent applause of the players attempt at harmonizing in E minor mentioned above.)

I love finding stuff like this. I don’t really care whether Ives was flirting with the same technique that Schoenberg basically has the credit (blame?) for originating.

In fact I love the fact that he used his brain in a similar way to make a piece of music, but instead of the serious academic approach of Schoenberg, he used it playfully and humorously in sort of a double programatic way.

Apparently Ives wrote this piece as a sort of ironic critique of the reception of some of his finest piano music including my favorite, The Concord Sonata. Cool beans.



It Depends on What the Meaning of ‘Metaphor’ Is – NYTimes.com

These are letters in reaction to David Brooks’s article Poetry for Everyday Life – NYTimes.com

Joel Ralphaelson from Chicago says that when George Bernard Shaw was confronted with trying to come up a clear description of his reaction to music without resorting to trite metaphors he wrote: “Shaw was confronted with the lack of an exact, non-metaphoric word for what he wanted to say. So he wrote, “I did with my ears what I do with my eyes when I stare.”

I quite like that.

I also like this:

David Brooks’s column is a strong piece of advocacy for the arts in education. “Metaphors are not rhetorical frills at the edge of how we think,” he writes, paraphrasing James Geary. “They are at the very heart of it.”

And this is what educators know about the importance of the standing, speaking, moving, memorizing, hearing and seeing in an arts curriculum: they are not frills, they are at the heart of learning. They are the nation’s hope for a strong, confident and competitive future.

In our panic over how badly we’ve used our resources, how shortsighted we’ve been, how deeply we’ve gone into debt, we could cut out our hearts.

BILL IRWIN   New York, April 12, 2011


Paul Violi, Poet, Dies at 66 – NYTimes.com

In this interesting obituary I find it odd that the writer seems to think that the poetic form Tanka is a kind of Haiku. It isn’t.


The Pirates of Capitol Hill – NYTimes.com

Charles Blow puts it well in this article:

“Corporations are roaring. Wall Street is rolling in cash. C.E.O. bonuses are going gangbusters. It’s a really good time to be rich! If you’re poor, not so much.”

Fun fact he cites:

“[T]he spurious argument that cutting taxes for the wealthy will somehow stimulate economic growth is not borne out by the data. A look at the year-over-year change in G.D.P. and changes in the historical top marginal tax rates show no such correlation…”


Bing West, Critic of Afghan War, Takes Issue With Pentagon – NYTimes.com

Lastly even though I personally struggle with the whole concept  of war, I find this aging Marine’s ideas interesting and worth thinking about:

“In Mr. West’s view, counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is a feel-good, liberal theology that is turning the United States military into the Peace Corps and undermining its “core competency” — violence.”

I’ve always felt that this is the basic reason to have a military: to wreak violence and death on enemies. Even though I have a son who benefited from spending time in the service and nephews and nieces who have served and are still serving in military, I still feel uneasy at the morality of the whole thing. Mark Twain describes this nicely in his War Prayer (link to text).

As he ends his story: “It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.”

sort of the theme of many of my blogs, heh..

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