Thursday, December 21, 2006

First Times

There’s something special about mom’s recipes. No matter how many times you may try one of these dishes at restaurants with the greatest chefs in the world, there’s always going to be something dear about the way mom makes it at home; it seems to just suit your palate better.

Why is that? Is it because your mom is the best chef in the world? Probably not. I believe it’s a psychological effect that occurs based around “first-time conditioning”, in which opinions of something are formed based on the first experience with it, and it’s hard to alter those opinions. Mom’s macaroni and cheese is what macaroni and cheese is supposed to taste like – it’s the first macaroni and cheese you ever had. These opinions are formed in the absence of anything to compare against, and, as a result, they are by definition treated as “the best”. In some cases, these opinions are elevated even higher because of where they can take us – remembrance of childhood or other important associations.

I believe the same can be applied to our experiences with classical music. The first time you hear a piece, be it live or on recording, your mind will be conditioned against that performance; it becomes the definitive version of that piece, including tempos, accents, tonal qualities, etc.

An example from my experience is with Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Concerto. The first recording I ever heard was on a record with Dmitri Sgouros at the piano. I still love that recording, though most don’t even recognize it in the list of the great performances, including Argerich, Horowitz, Rachmaninoff himself, and now Ansdnes. When I listen to that of Argerich and others, I can recognize how they are all unique and can make a case for greatness, but I still just love that Sgouros recording – it’s become the definitive recording for me, with just the right tempos (Argerich is known to play a little fast), my preferred cadenza (with most don’t perform), great accents, and overall sound.

But there is a trap we can fall into as a result. In classical music, we know that each piece is an interpretation of a score. Therefore, upon first listen, we are conditioning our ears against someone else’s interpretation of a score. Since there is no “definitive” or “true” performance of any piece, by conditioning ourselves in this manner, we often close our minds (and ears) to other interpretations we might hear later and can fail to appreciate the greatness of these other recordings (“it’s just not the same as Sgouros’!”). In relation to a previous article I wrote, it’s important to appreciate multiple versions of these pieces, each performer with different interpretations of the written score. Therefore, beyond simply trying to listen to as many recordings of pieces as possible, we must be sure to keep an open mind about all of these interpretations – the first version you heard might always have a special place in your heart, but it may not always be the greatest.

Not At First

When you think of the most popular melodies in classical music, I recently realized that in cases where the piece is not a single-movement work, the most popular melodies tend to come from the first movement of the symphony, concerto, sonata, etc. In most cases, I think that is justified. However, it may also come from something to do with “listener patience”, in that maybe listeners rarely hold their attention past the first movement, especially if it’s a piece like Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony (first movement is nearly 30 minutes alone!). Either way, these are all great melodies, but I thought it would be interesting to come up with a set of pieces where the most memorable, or famous, melody does not come from the first movement, but rather is found later in the work. Therefore, this article is more exploratory rather than being an opinion-backed commentary.

As a disclaimer, I realized it is tough to include works like operas, ballets, and suites in this conversation, because typically in these pieces “highlights” were intended to be scattered throughout the work and the “opener” (or overture), if one exists, is meant to introduce or ease the audience into the work.

The first such work that comes to mind is the famous “Ode To Joy” chorus from the finale of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. If you’ve read any of my previous writing, you know by now how I feel about the entire work as a masterpiece. However, I do acknowledge that in most cases, people are most familiar with the finale. Think of it another way – when you pick up many of those “Classical Music’s Greatest Works” compilations, it’s never the first movements of the 9th that are on there – it’s always the finale.

Also by Beethoven, I would cite the Allegretto from his 7th Symphony (the 2nd movement). Few people can actively sing the other movements, but that Allegretto has come to be one of the more famous melodies in all of music.

Here’s some others I could think of:

  • Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, 2nd movement (“Elvira Madigan”)

  • Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 22 in Eb, 3rd movement

  • Vivaldi: Four Seasons, Winter, 2nd Movement

  • Handel: “Hallelujah Chorus” from “Messiah”

  • Haydn: Symphony No. 94, 2nd Movement (“Surprise Symphony”)

  • Chopin: Piano Concerto in B Flat Minor, 2nd Movement (“Funeral March”)

  • Verdi: “Dies Irae” from “Requiem”

  • Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, 2nd Movement (“New World”)

  • Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D, 4th Movement

Again, there’s not much deeper psychological insight that I have into this topic, nor do I really have any opinion on it. I just thought it interesting to think about which works have survived in this manner – in which the true gem of the piece is found within and we have to dig a little to find it.

Chordal Music

In this article, I want to explore an idea that I call chordal music, and how it’s taken shape over the years. We should all be familiar of the idea of a chord (group of notes played in unison) and a chord progression (a sequence of related chords). Whereas a chord progression is defined as a sequence of chords, chordal music requires a slightly more complex definition. It requires first to understand the nature of two of fundamental building blocks of music, “melody” and “harmony.” Melody can be defined simply as a sequence of singular notes, and it’s typically the focus of a song. As a result, it’s most often what you end up singing, humming, or whistling all throughout the day (oh, those dreadful “ear worms”). The most famous melodies throughout history generally map to the most famous pieces in history; consider everything from “Ode To Joy” to “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”.

Harmony, on the other hand is the accompaniment to the melody – resting underneath in support. What are the other instruments doing underneath the main “Ode To Joy” melody? What are the guitar, bass, and piano doing underneath Bono’s voice in U2’s “Running To Stand Still”? These represent the harmonic parts.

In some cases, however, the two are merged, in which there is not a distinct concept of melody and harmony, but rather just “chords”, each element of which being critical to the overall piece. This is the nature of chordal music – the point at which the melodic and harmonic components are fused together, indistinguishable from each other. Note that fugues and other contrapuntal music should not be confused with this category. In those cases, it can be argued these are intertwined melodies, in which a second iteration of the melody acts simultaneously as a harmony, but both are distinguishable and are indeed a melody.

One of the earliest examples of pure chordal music comes from the religious chanting of the medieval and renaissance periods. In Gregorian chants, for example, all vocal parts were considered equal, and worked in unison through the piece. In these cases, there wasn’t a true “melodic” concept, unless you arbitrarily pick off the highest note in the chord and sing that throughout. Everything was harmonic to each other, and songs were simply progressions from one chord to another with no distinguishable melody from the harmony. In other words, the melody and harmonies were the same, representing the first examples of chordal music.

Moving forward a little bit, another of the most famous classical pieces is a great example of chordal music: the “Canon in D” by Johann Pachelbel. The cellos introduce the canon, which comes as the root of the chords. From then on out, the other strings progress through a series of harmonies, but never stray from the fundamental chords. In other words, there isn’t a true melody in the piece (though there are many), and the core of the piece is using the harmonies, or chords, as the melodies themselves: D Major, A Major, B Minor, F#Minor, G Major, D Major, G Major, A Major, and repeat, over and over. Music that bases its existence on a fusion of the melody and the harmony.

Jumping forward, Bach can be thought of as one of the earliest “masters” of the chord progression and chordal music. Take, for example, the prelude from his “Well Tempered Clavier, Book 1”. This piece might be recognized by anyone who has taken piano lessons – it’s one of the standards in the repertoire, and is a prime example of both chordal music and the chord progression. [BACH SAMPLE] On the surface, you might ask why I would pick this piece – there are barely any “true” chords in it! Yes, you are correct. However, if we examine the construct of the piece, we see that it is comprised purely of chords, just arpeggiated (broken up) versions of them. Let’s take a listen to the same piece, this time in a chorded fashion [SAMPLE 2]. It’s simply one long chord progression! On top of that, there is no clear melody here – these broken chords are all harmonic to each other – again, an example of chordal music.

Moving to my friend Beethoven (we’re now friendly), we can find another famous example of the chordal music in the second movement of his 7th Symphony, the famous Allegretto. The central theme to the movement is manifested as a series of chords, starting with the A minor à E major à A minor motive. [BEETHOVEN SAMPLE]. In this case, one might argue that there actually is a melody embedded within, but I would counter that the power in the theme comes from the chords themselves rather than the scatter melodic notes to bridge the chords together. The melody and the harmony are one, and the overall sound is what you are really hearing.

I’m going to take a drastic departure for my last example, moving forward almost 200 years. As soon as vocals started entering music, from the early German Lieder to modern rock and roll, chordal music has been harder and harder to find. This is due to the idea that the human voice is primarily used as a melodic vehicle, such that the vocals in a song are almost always a melody and everything else a harmony. However, I believe the track “Everything In Its Right Place” by Radiohead, from the album “Kid A”, is a good example of chordal music, in which the electric piano is driving the song, combining the song’s true melodic and harmonic components. Thom Yorke’s vocal parts, at times, constitutes a primary melody, but, in others blends in with everything else, voiding the track of any true melody or harmony. This is especially clear in the sections in which Thom sings “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon, etc”, and later “There are two colors in my head, etc”. It’s harder to appreciate because of the inherent qualities of the human voice, but, when you boil it down to its core, it is chordal music, melodic and harmonic components blended into one.

Melody and harmony are two of the primary building blocks of all of music, and each composer and artist must find a way to use them to the advantage of the work. In the traditional case, a melody rises to the surface accompanied by the harmony. In chordal music, the two become one, indistinguishable from the other. Keep an ear out for this rare, but effective, use of the two!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

All Kinds!

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea of “small talk”. There’s always a high degree of superficiality that goes hand in hand with it, and often times there’s a lack of genuineness on both sides as each of you try to find common ground to initiate a deeper conversation. A necessary evil, but an awkward one nonetheless.

However, despite the necessity of the conversation, there is a particular question that comes up time and time again that has started to frustrate me. Almost very time it comes out that I have deep interest in music, I get the question, “So what kind of music do you listen to?”

I’d bet many of us have heard that exact question before. And I’d bet most of us reply the same way: “all kinds” (or “everything”), especially those of us who appreciate music to any degree higher than relegating it simply to existing in the background, as a soundtrack to our daily lives.

Unless you are an infant when it comes to music, your collection probably contains at least a base amount of albums representing a wide array of genres, from classical to jazz, rock, dance, hip-hop, and others. We all like different kinds of music. Music is mood-based, and different genres have different places in each of our lives - of course we own all types of music! Wouldn’t we, therefore, answer the question “all kinds?”

Imagine the same conversation and asking the question “what kinds of movies do you like?” Sounds like a dumb question, right? Don’t you agree that most people would answer, truthfully, “all kinds – dramas, comedies, action, you name it”? It’s a dumb question, because, well, it reveals nothing unique about the person you’re talking to, which is the primary purpose for putting up with small talk in the first place!

But here we are asking a virtually equivalent question, substituting the word “music” for “movies”. Who wouldn’t answer “all kinds”?

I understand the situation – you’re knee deep in small talk and trying to find something the other person is interested in, and so you try to initiate a conversation about music, because, hey, we’re all interested in music, aren’t we? Rather than asking the standard question, let me help you out with a few alternate suggestions:

  • What music are you listening to at the moment? What 5 CDs are on heaviest rotation?

  • What are some of your favorite artists, pieces, or albums?

  • If talking with a musician] What artists influence you the most?

  • There are many other questions similar to these, which initiate a conversation about music but also reveal unique characteristics about someone’s tastes. Please, however, refrain from asking the generic “so what kinds of music do you listen to?”. You may not know me at all, but, you always know the answer.

    All kinds.