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I am posting this as a benchmark, not because I think I'm playing very well yet.  The idea would be post a video every month for a ye...

Monday, January 27, 2020


I went to a percussion concert last night. It was a solo performance by Colleen Bernstein. I liked her Bach cello suite playing on the marimba.  Bach works well for any instrument. She also played some Debussy and then some Debussy-ish things on vibes. The second part was more didactic, with a project she call "Strength and sensitivity," with percussion + spoken word. She played a march on snare drum while projecting inspirational feminist quotes on a screen. She read some poems and played music that went along with them, or was paired with them. As might be expected, the spoken word / poetry part of the pairing was not all that impressive.  She doesn't have a great poetic sensibility, so the result came off as too didactic / content driven (for me). Her playing is very good, and the spirit behind the project is idealistic. The project might develop into something more interesting, but that would involve using words in a more interesting, maybe musical way, not for their content alone.


We think that to work on music, we have to have a great musical erudition, but people work on literature all the time without a deep understanding of literature. And I am including people trained in literature in this category.


I discovered the work of someone supposedly the leading philosopher of music, Peter Kivy. It is a bit odd. He takes the position that we listen to music for the music itself, not a fashionable position at all. He makes some good points, but there is something a bit off about it.  For example, in a thing on repetition he talks about the repeat sign, but doesn't consider that music is repetitive even within a section that is then repeated. Of course, the meter of a piece does not count as a repetition, though it is, in a sense, and rhythmic patterns are constantly repeated. Motifs are pounded home relentlessly. The point is not the repeat sign, with an entire section being repeated verbatim, but that the entire structural principle of music is repetition. Imagine a piece entirely through-composed: it would be impossible to follow. Now, because of the importance of repetition, we need to counter balance it to avoid monotony. So we derive the next principle of music, which is variation. I'll give you the "same thing," but changed up a bit. If it's not a variation, it will be an elaboration or development, but it has to be a development of the same thing.

But variation is not enough, we need contrast too. But all of this only makes sense if we first think that repetition is the main game in town. Whole sections that are repeated verbatim are not really the main problem to be considered here.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Program Music

The intellectual embarrassment of seeing cadence as "patriarchal" is similar to the embarrassment we feel at "program music." The idea of music imitating storms or battles just seems hokey, cartoonish.

I have listened many times to Duke Ellington's Shakespeare suite, "Such Sweet Thunder." I still cannot identify which piece of music from the "Sweet" goes with what character.  I'm sure someone could explain it to me, (why this piece of music is about this character) but if you have to explain it...I'm sure I would forget the explanation and go back to my non-programatic listening.  

We know music can mimic a storm, but we feel that is not what music does best. Those effects seem secondary. We have the sounds of nature already, we can tape them and we don't need a musical mimesis of them. Those kind of "sound effects" seem secondary, unnecessary at best, the grounds of a hokey kind of "appreciation."

National Poets

Canonical poets set to music are often national poets, in other words the standardly cited representatives of their national literatures: Dante, Shakespeare, Burns, Whitman, Lorca, Goethe. This is partly because of their hypercanonical status.

Song Setting

I found it very difficult to write words for music I had written. I was a bit puzzled by this at one time, but the reason is a very simple one. My melodic lines were rhythmically complex and sometimes long. There were a lot of notes. It is much, much easier to go in the other direction. Unless, of course, you write melodies that already fit a strophic form. When I start with a text, it is easy to find a melodic shape that fits that text. You might think too that there are only 12 notes but thousands of words, so you have too many possibilities for a lyric.

Music and Literature

Our library has 391 books under the subject heading "Music and Literature." Most of them are irrelevant to me, of course, but when can get a a kind of "lay of the land" from reading through all the titles. There are the books about "______ and Music," where blank is the name of a writer of literature.

Saturday, January 25, 2020


I know when I have prepared well for a lesson when my piano teacher starts addressing things like the pedaling, the articulation of a sforzando or of a rolled chord, when we get to talk about the musicality of it all. I am learning Mompou prelude 6 pour la main gauche.  I like left hand studies (this one at least) because they are linear.


Charles Rosen is a viciously funny critic. Even when he is handing out praise, he will do so in a semi-malicious way--though sometimes he hold back a criticism a bit. For example, he find the equation of "cadential closure" with "patriarchal domination" to be to "too facile to be convincing"(in Susan McClary). I would say it is intellectually embarrassing.  He also gets in a dig about her writing style being "macho," not exactly what a feminist critic would want to hear. By doing so, he is actually making a pertinent point: that we identify things as male in female in a rather arbitrary way.  

At another point, he responds to the idea that there is a "conspiracy" against a minor composer that he obviously thinks is mediocre.  (I forget who.) He says, "where can I sign up for this conspiracy?" Noting the absence of an article on eroticism in an opera dictionary, he says there is an article on Milwaukee.

At one point, he says he has left in some mistakes in his own writing when reprinting articles as an object lesson. Since he is eager to point out other people's slips this is a good reminder. Reading his books I feel my own ignorance rather keenly. Rosen had a PhD in French as well being a concert pianist and a self-taught musicologist.  I cannot even say that I know more about literature than he does, or that my prose is more refined.

Friday, January 24, 2020


The meaning of music is always a literary meaning.

It is either associated with the words set to music, or with a "progammatic" interpretation, or with an allegorical reading of the harmony. There has to be a literary device there at some level. There have to be words there in the music itself, or else words supplied later to account for what the meaning is.

This not to say that music is meaningless.  But its meaning is literary in any given instance.

The words frame our interpretation of the music, and vice-versa. It can be easy to see that a setting of a poem gives it a certain interpretation.

For example, a poem by JRJ that is all about contained emotion, gets a setting and performance that is highly emotive and expressive in the flamenco style. Then you see that the music frames the text in a way different from that of other possible readings.

Or a mournful reading of a cheery lyric, by Billie Holiday.  We get ironic performance.