Thursday, April 28, 2005

Provocative Thoughts

A good composer does not imitate; he steals. Igor Stravinsky

Composers shouldn’t think too much – it interferes with their
plagiarism. Howard Dietz

To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from
many is research. Anon.

A good composer is slowly discovered; a bad composer is
slowly found out. Ernst Newman

It is better to make a piece of music than to perform one,
better to perform one than to listen to one,
better to listen top one than to use is as a means of distraction,
entertainment, or acquisition of “culture”. John Cage

(and any of the above is better than writing criticism of it?).

People whose sensibility is destroyed by music in trains,
airports, lifts, cannot concentrate on a Beethoven quartet.
Witold Lutoslawski

Music is spiritual. The music business is not. Van Morrison

I don’t know anything about music. In my line you don’t have to.
Elvis Presley

I like Beethoven, especially the poems. Ringo Starr

Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.
Igor Stravinsky

The manner in which Americans “consume” music has
a lot to do with leaving it on their coffee tables, or using
it as wallpaper for their lifestyles, like the score of a movie
- it’s consumed that way without any regard for how and
why it’s made. Frank Zappa

Modern so-called "classical" music has maneuvered itself, with some exceptions, into an elitist ghetto, which only specialists may enter -- and even they do so with what may sometimes be mixed feelings. The music of the masses has broken loose from this and treads a very different path. On the one hand, there is pop music, which is certainly no longer supported by the people in the ancient sense (populus). It is aimed at the phenomenon of the masses, is industrially produced, and ultimately has to be described as a cult of the banal. "Rock," on the other hand, is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship.
Cardinal Ratzinger now Pope Benedict XVI

Thursday, April 21, 2005

A Different Palette

Attending a pow-wow appealed to me not only because it would be a new experience near the end of a grueling semester, but I was also told that non-Indians are welcome. I would be with my Indian anthropologist friend who wanted my take on the music, and besides, I’m usually open to any new adventure that’s not life-threatening. So I said, “Sure!”

Pow-wow celebrations aren’t held only on reservations. Almost any large American city that has an Indian population frequently celebrates their Indianism locally with pow-wows. They come together in a large hall - men, women, and children - for an evening of food, dance, song, and camaraderie. Rowdy behavior, alcohol or other drugs are taboo and strictly enforced.

Many dancers were dressed in Indian costume: men in fancy head dresses, beaded buckskin leggings and moccasins; women in colorful, flowing dresses adorned with Indian style jewelry. But, anybody can dance and participate, costume or not. About 150 persons were in the hall. Maybe half participated in the dancing.

The atmosphere was electric and compelling; primitive, as though I went through a door into another era. It was motion, color, fantasy, hypnotic, vibrating, and totally irresistible.

There was a raised drum at the center of the floor and four men in Lee work clothes were hunched over and around it, drumming and singing. (Women singers are a rarity but they are slowly making their way into a male domain). The drum was a common bass drum just as those in a high school band. Songs were begun by a lone singer who intoned a chant, followed by the others, repeating the lead and continuing into a longer section with a coda that ended a song. Its form was iterative, an “incomplete repetition”, or AABCBC, and, I learned later, it is found throughout Indian America.

These songs had an astonishingly high, non-falsetto tessitura, beginning on the chant’s highest note, gradually falling, until it ended with a vocal “fall”. The men sang full throat, straining their vocal systems with taut facial and laryngeal muscles. The scale systems in all the songs were tetra/penta tonic and all the songs had a descending melodic pattern. The songs were “Plains” style. The leader decided how many times a song is repeated by gauging the interest of the dancers and the crowd. It’s usually four or five times, but could be more.

Dancing was done in a circle, counterclockwise around the drum mostly in a free style, moving with the spirit. Men’s dancing varied from very active and energetic turns, to leaps, bends, and shuffles. Women, wearing or carrying colorful shawls, danced with more reserve and restricted movements. Kids participated too; doing whatever dance imitation they chose. Small fry accompanied their parent, who held their hand while they tried to imitate the steps. Some of them, age 8-14, were already outstanding. Other small children slept on blankets at the edge of the circle or ran around enjoying themselves. There were no behavior problems.

Non-Indians would say that Indian songs all sound alike, but each song was different, not only the contours, but also the types and functions. There were war dance songs, honoring songs, women’s dance songs, and many more. They all used the same musical form, but the drumming patterns and tempo changed for some of them. Generations ago, all these song types had words. But today, most songs are sung with vocables, although words are sometimes part of some songs. The songs aren’t notated or composed as in the European fashion. Rather, they are “made up” by a singer and often modified by fellow singers before it is accepted. There is no copyright, but certain songs “belong” to a singer and others cannot sing it. Dozens of new songs are “made” in a month and they travel quickly across Indian America on the pow-wow circuit.

The atmosphere was joyful and deafening, rock-concert loud, reverberating from wall to wall, without amps. Oddly (I thought later), I didn’t feel in the least uncomfortable there. Indeed, before a Friendship dance, I was asked to join in, but I was too shy, even though the steps appeared easy. Some of the dancers came from reservations and one of them, from whom I had been asking questions, invited me to his reservation home. Of course, I accepted. There was no date, no time. I was told the invitation was sincere and typically open.

It was late when it ended. I’m not a night person but the exhilaration of the pow-wow kept me alert with a slight high, and it was much, much later before I slept with the drum still in my head.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

"The Czar of All Conductors"

I was fascinated looking at the list of orchestra members who played under Louis Antoine Jullien, the famous French conductor, when he visited the US in 1853-54.* M.Jullien brought 25 or 26 leaders (sources differ) and 2 vocal soloists with him from London, and then hired New York musicians to create his orchestra of 80+ players. Jullien was a stern, demanding, disciplinarian and his performances stunned the NY critics, even the hard-nosed Bostonian John Dwight, writing for the New York Courier.

Jullien’s “great orchestra” included members who were, or would become, prominent in American musical life. Theodore Thomas would become the first conductor to program an entire concert of serious music, and who toured widely in America introducing audiences to German music, especially Wagner, (but not American music, thereby setting future musical menus with mainly central and northern European music)and to set high standards for American orchestras. Ureli Corelli Hill was the founder of the NY Philharmonic and was its first American conductor. George Bristow championed American music; was a composer of operas, symphonies, overtures, etc. with American themes; played in the NY Philharmonic and was on its board of directors; and was a supervisor of music in the NY Public schools. William Fry, a composer, was the first American to compose a publicly performed grand opera, and an early espouser of American oriented music and American composers.

These better-known names leaped out from the list, but a closer look could probably find other contributors to American music. The influence of Jullien’s discipline and leadership on Thomas, Hill, Bristow, Fry, and others, must surely have been enormous, and his impact on the development of American orchestras (and bands) and their repertoire is also worth investigating further. Bandsmen have long ago acknowledged Jullien as a guru.

Jullien conducted 214 concerts in 10 months in the U.S. The dictionaries often accuse him of being, at best, a showman. He was indeed. But he was first of all, a distinguished and portentous conductor and splendid musician. He led his orchestras in the latest compositions of Berlioz, Mendelssohn, and Wagner together with Beethoven and other older masters. He also performed contrasting light dance music and program music with sensationalism to entertain his audiences. His concerts were always sold out, while other New York concerts were poorly attended. (Hmmm! and this was 150+ years ago).

Jullien was among the first conductors to use a baton. He was the first conductor strong enough to expropriate the power and authority from the concertmaster; to insist on uniform bowing; to demand, and get, precision of attacks and releases, accents, and wide, controlled dynamics. Neither Berlioz nor Wagner equaled him as a conductor.

His life, alas, was one of heights and depths; of enormous successes and disappointments. He died a broken man.

*Much of what is in this post comes from Adam Carse’s The Life of Jullien (Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1951). The rest is from my own research. Also, if you bought a copy of Jos. Horowitz (Classical Music in America, NY, W.W. Norton, 2005), he mentions Jullien with several citations.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Bells of Wuhan

Two years ago I was traveling in China, taking a camel trek across the Taklimakan desert following Polo’s route, and earlier stopped in the great city of Wuhan located on the famous Yangtze River. What I discovered there was astounding.

I’d guess that most Western musicians are unaware of the ancient chime bells in Wuhan, a set of 64 ritual bells perfectly tuned to the 12 tone tempered scale. The bells were part of a 1978 excavation that unearthed 20,000 articles dating from the “Warring States” period, 2405 years ago (B.C. 400) from the tomb of Marquess Yi of Zeng, who was buried in the late fifth century-B.C. They are now in the Wuhan Provincial Museum and should rank as an earth’s wonder.

48 bells produce two notes of minor thirds (six are needed to produce twelve semitones) and 16 produce notes of major thirds (eight are needed to produce twelve semitones). Each bell is marked to show what notes it peals. The range is five octaves and each bell produces the two tones depending upon where it is struck. (This data was furnished to me and I think I have it worked out. Readers are welcome to try too).

At 2500 kilograms (over a half ton), they are likely the largest instruments in the world and required five players. The heaviest bell is 203.6 kilos (about 446 lbs) and 1.5 meters high (about 5'). The name of the tone and the date is inscribed on each bell in both Zeng and Chu scripts. The bells were played only for rituals and were last played in 1997 for the return of Hong Kong.

I had to go back to the Greek Pythagorus and about B.C.500 when he wrote about achieving a twelve note system by superimposing perfect fifths. Then I read in the The Spring and Autumn of Leu, a Chinese document from about the 3d century B.C., that “considerable care was taken by bell makers to produce intervals very close to modern semitones”. But, it is unknown whether they were guided by theoretically accurate pitches. We do know that in this time (Han dynasty), the octave was recognized as the basic unit and it was divided into twelve smaller units. The ratio 3:2 was used for fifths and 3:4 for falling fourths. This suggests considerable contact between east and west to me.

Sachs writes that the Chinese attempted the first tempered scale in A.D. 400 and adds that it was Ju Zaiyu who expounded on, and created, the first tempered scale of 12 notes in 1596. Evans says the same thing. The history of these bells appear to contradict them. I wish I could have heard them. Mmm-maybe not. I’d likely still hear them.

This should be of interest to Western musicians who usually think of the tempered scale as a 17th century innovation and used first by J.S. Bach in 1722. Our Western histories trace the theory of equal temperament to H. Grammateus in 1518 and it was probably the result of Jesuits returning from China, who, as the bells show, developed it long before.

Anyone having more information on this please comment. Thanks.

Sources: Ruth Lor Malloy China Guide 1999, Open Road Publishing.

Curt Sachs Harvard Dictionary of Music 1969.

C.C.Evans Guqin Music, at

Robert Temple, The Genius of China