The Farce Awakens

January 20, 2017 at 10:20 am

Since ‘Murica has turned into a reality TV spin-off, we better pick some appropriate theme music.

It’s tempting to use Art Music to make some clever jokes, but it just doesn’t feel funny because it’s real. Well, let the farce begin. Thankfully, a composer (from ‘Murica, no less) has already composed music which we could use for the run of this TV series: Music for a Farce, by Paul Bowles. And it’s a good thing, since clearly this administration isn’t interested in the arts.

Nah, I take it back. This music is too enjoyable. Let’s Fucik instead.


When Buglers go on Holiday, they play Trumpet

September 30, 2016 at 10:30 am

Nothing says TGIF like a fun, light piece by Leroy Anderson – makes me want to make a martini and do a white-man dance.

“Bugler’s Holiday” is a piece loved by trumpet players, for obvious reasons. The abundance of trumpet-players in high school and community bands means that this piece gets a lot of plays, and the better players get a chance to show off a bit. The piece’s title is a bit of a misnomer; the three solo parts need to be performed on a modern trumpet, not a bugle. A bugle is a very simple brass instrument – essentially just a coil of metal tubing with a mouthpiece on one end and a bell on the other. This means the only way to change pitch is by increasing the air pressure – to oversimplify, “blowing harder”. Other brass instruments control pitch both by air pressure and with aids that actually increase the length of the brass tubing. A trombone is the easy example – push the slide out, and the air is travelling an extra four feet of length, lowering the pitch. Valved instruments like a tuba or horn follow the same idea; instead of adding tubing by moving a slide, the player presses a valve which forces the airflow through little coils of extra tubing, cut to a specific length for precise pitch finding. Valved brass instruments are only about 150 years old (that’s quite young in the instrument world).

So how did valved instruments play in different keys before they had valves? A French horn without valves can realistically play about 10 usable notes covering 6 different pitches. Players fixed this shortcoming by carrying around boxes of “crooks” – lengths of tubing that they would attach to their instrument, one at a time, to change the key in which it would play. Then, using air pressure, they could nab whatever pitches were necessary. When the key changed, so did the crook. This was slow and clunky, but it worked; it must have been a great relief, however, when valves came onto the scene.

Too confusing? Head spinning? Time for a holiday.


The Unanswered Question

July 31, 2016 at 11:00 am

The Unanswered Question is probably Charles Ives‘ most famous composition. It’s equally a philosophical statement as it is a work of art. While that may sound simple, I think it’s actually quite a compositional feat. Ives has written a remarkably transparent composition that clearly conveys his philosophical idea. Compare this piece to StraussAlso Sprach Zarathustra, written only a decade before, which merely paints the mood of Nietzsche‘s book, and fails to put forth a logical argument or statement of any kind. Meanwhile, Ives’ work is perfectly clear.***

[SPOILER ALERT – skip this paragraph and listen to the piece if you want to hear it for yourself. If you want some hints, read on.] Three instrumental voices create the musical landscape. The strings, representing eternity, play slow, beautiful music. The lone trumpet asks its question: “what is the meaning of existence?” Dissonant winds provide the answer, which does not satisfy. The question is asked again and again, and the answer becomes more complicated, but never satisfactory. In the end, two things remain: the question, and eternity.

*** That is to say, I believe the meaning of the music is clear as long as the audience knows the title of the piece. If a person heard this work without knowing the title, there is a chance s/he might understand the deeper meaning, but it’s certainly less likely.