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What does Wind sound like?

October 23, 2017 at 12:47 pm

Wind is one of those words that can mean different things according to the context in which it is used. Physically, it is the movement of gasses; metaphorically, it can refer to luck (winds of fate), change in society or culture (winds of change), change of (metaphorical or actual) season, the state of being alive (having breath). Wind takes a role in many, if not all, religions. And of course, let us not forget the wind of the butt.

So, how do composers set the idea of wind to music?

We may as well start with some of the stereotypical musical settings of wind – the fast, chromatic passages that rise and fall in Richard WagnerOverture to Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), the trills and tympani in Gioachino Rossini Storm Scene from Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), and the spooky violin glissandi in this colorful, fun work by Ferde Grofé – Cloudburst from Grand Canyon Suite.

Franz Schubert – Die Wetterfahne (The Weathervane) from Winterreise (Winter’s Journey). It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how Schubert paints the wind in this song – piano arpeggios and trills practically make you shiver, just like a cold, biting wind. This song is part of the wonderfully depressing song cycle that Schubert wrote as a he approached the end of his short life.

The wind is turning the weathervane on the roof of my sweetheart’s house. Round and round it mocks and teases my sighs and my tears…. For Nature plays with our hearts as the wind plays with the vane.

The wind also plays a part in Schubert’s Erlkönig.

Gustav Mahler – Im diesem Wetter (In this Weather) from Kindentotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). Another happy little composition, here the wind is a nasty thing that kills babies. Mahler’s amazing orchestration makes you feel the stinging raindrops and blowing gales.

In this weather, in this windy storm, I would never have sent the children out. They have been carried off, I wasn’t able to warn them!

César Franck – Les Éolides (The Breezes). This is a sort of tone-poem about Aeolus, the keeper of the winds in the Odyssey, who gifts the winds to help Odysseus find his way home. The piece doesn’t narrate the story like some other tone-poems, but instead paints a picture of the breeze blowing the sea and gently swaying a ship on its journey. The music is so ridiculously French Romantic in its melodic gesture and harmony; it’s easy to see where Debussy and Ravel got their sound. Finally, we need to note that the composer’s full name is César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck, because it takes a good bit of wind to get that name out.

Speaking of Aeolus, there’s an instrument called the Aeolian Harp which is played by – you guess it – the wind. You can listen to one here.There are two piano works related to this ethereal instrument – though neither can be said to really imitate the Aeolian Harp’s sound, they do capture the mystical, magical quality of its music. First, Frédéric Chopin’s Ab-major Etude was subtitled “Aeolian Harp” by his fellow composer, Robert Schumann, because of its quick, wind-like arpeggios.

Henry Cowell – Aeolian Harp. Cowell was known for pushing the boundaries of composition. Ironically, this work is one of his tamest, but it’s still a little different from what you might expect in a classical piano piece. And, unlike Chopin, he himself titled this piece with Aeolus’ name.

Carson Kievman – Hurricane Symphony. You might call this a modern equivalent of the Franck work mentioned earlier. It’s a longer listen, and tells the story of a real storm rather than mythology. Kievman is a living American composer whose current project is an opera about Nikola Tesla. How cool is that?

Johann Sebastian Bach – Kyrie, Gott Heiliger Geist (Have mercy, God Holy Ghost). This is part of Bach’s third Clavier-Übung, also called the German Organ Mass – much has been written about it, so I won’t discuss it here for the sake of brevity. This piece is a fancy setting of a hymn which pleads for mercy from the Holy Spirit, which, in the bible, first appears to the disciples in a wind. The melody of the hymn (cantus firmus) is found in the bass –  long, slow, deep notes – and as it is an organ piece, these low notes require a lot of wind flowing through organ pipes. As the piece progresses, there are rhythmic motifs that sound like the rushing of wind as well (running 8th notes starting at 2:49). There is also a sequence which repeats itself seven times (normally, it should be no more than four), climaxing at the highest note on the baroque organ (starts at 3:06, climaxes at 3:22). Bach is definitely thinking deep here.

Olivier Messiaen – Le vent de l’Esprit (The Wind of the Spirit) from Messe de la Pentecôte (Pentecost Mass) Not to be outdone by a German, Messiaen writes his own windy setting of the Holy Spirit for that big bag of hot-air, the organ. At the end, a nice fat chord puts the bellows to the test, as wind rushes through the pipes and into the church.

-= So, I promised some fart music as well. =-

Carl Orff – Ego Sum Abbas from Carmina Burana. The fart in this short little aria (if you can call it that) from this monumentally famous choral work is, sadly, nearly always ignored by conductors and performers. A baritone soloist sings a satirical monologue about being a nasty drunken abbot. But then, at 1:26, there’s a single-note tuba solo, which has no musical relation to the rest of the piece. Why? I’ll tell you why. It’s a fart. The drunken jerk of an abbot farted. And I believe it should be required that the soloist pretend to break wind at this pinnacle moment of this oratorio.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Bei der Hitz im Sommer eß ich. Mozart was a dirty little boy. He wrote a number of canons on butt licking, probably for singing with his mates at the local drinking hole. No, I’m not lying. After his death, his dirty little canons were all published, but with alternative words that were much more acceptable for public performance. The video below, unfortunately, is sung with the alternate “clean” lyrics, but here is is a translation of the original:

In the heat of summer I like to eat roots and spices, also butter and radish; they expel a lovely wind and cool me.

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Tics and Tones …

October 18, 2017 at 10:36 am

My wife told me a fantastic true story about a performance she recently attended.

The concert was of a large choir. Before the singing began, the director spoke to the audience (I’ve paraphrased here):

“Good evening. One of our choir members has Tourette syndrome, and he wanted you to be aware that his particular tic is a high-pitched squeal …”
tweeeeeeeeee …
“… kind of like that.”
(nervous laughter)
“He’s an important part of our choir and we’re really glad that he’s here with us.”
(thunderous applause)

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how music has become a pastime of expertise. I’m thankful that there are musical superstars and ensembles that play with near perfection. I’m thankful that recorded music allows me to listen to any kind of music, anytime, anywhere. But with these wonderful gains have come a loss of personal music making. Many people are afraid to make music in public, lest it become known that they are not great. Many people abandon making music when they graduate from high school, and many never join a band or choir again.

Think back to the story above. This young man is aware that at any moment, he might make a sound that could mar the choir’s performance. The choir is equally aware that this might happen. But both the young man and the other choir members have accepted this reality and have chosen to sing anyway – and all of them are far richer for doing so.

So, if you are one of those people who “used to” or “haven’t since high school”, let me be the first to encourage you to start again. Join a choir, pick up your instrument, improvise, practice, mess up, have fun, work hard. Give thanks for the inspiration of the experts – but let the best music be your own. Don’t be afraid to make an unpleasant sound – because the good sounds will surely outnumber the bad.

The video below was from the whole concert. The piece that the choir sang is “Dwijavanthi”, an unaccompanied choral work that imitates an Indian Raga, written by American composer Ethan Sperry.

And, incidentally, I wasn’t able to hear his tic at all.

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Down with the Dots?

August 31, 2017 at 11:41 am

Which is more valuable: being able to read music or being able to play by ear?

Maybe you’ve had some good armchair arguments on this subject. Team Aural (ear) will point at the multitude of musicians who couldn’t read a note (and no, not all of the musically illiterate were popular or jazz musicians), and were unhindered by this supposed deficiency. Team Literacy*** usually concedes to this, but points out how foolish it is to purposefully not learn something that would be hugely beneficial. The negative stereotypes would be the ear-only rock musician who can only play three chords and a handful of tunes, or the stuffy, classical music reader who merely translates dots on a page into notes, playing without any feeling, and not connecting with the audience.

The truth, naturally, is that both literacy and ear are hugely important. A child can learn stories and life lessons aurally, but it would be ridiculous to use that as an excuse to not teach reading and writing; it is equally ridiculous to reject musical literacy. And just as we teach reading comprehension, musicians must learn to do more than reproduce the printed dots into sound. I need not go into any more detail here – you get the idea.

So when you think about it, the legend of Beethoven‘s Third Piano Concerto isn’t as amazing as it may seem. When it was first performed, the composer himself performed the solo piano part – which had yet to be written down! We have this tidbit from his page turner:

I saw almost nothing but empty pages; at the most, on one page or another a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me were scribbled down to serve as clues for him; for he played nearly all the solo part from memory since, as was so often the case, he had not had time to set it all down on paper. (Steinberg, Michael; The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide)

So be like Beethoven. Master music reading – but don’t forget that the page is just paper covered with funny markings. Neither the musician nor the music should be bound to dots on a page.

*** I say “Literacy” as opposed to “Eye” because there are many blind musicians who are musically literate – just as braille text books exist, so do braille scores!

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