Music and Warfare

May 29, 2016 at 10:00 am

Nowadays we usually associate music-making with peace. In modern combat, listening to music is frowned upon and considered a distraction – but listening to music in this case might be more to steady the nerves. After all, orders can be given, instantaneously, from practically any commander to any soldier, anywhere, thanks to radio and digital communication.

This is a relatively modern phenomenon. Before radio, there were a very limited number of ways to communicate with troops over large distances, while the noise of battle raged: visuals like flags and of course, music!

Thanks to baseball and horseracing, you probably know the bugle call that means “charge!” If you’ve seen Barry Lyndon, the 4-measure piccolo melody might be burned into your memory. And of course, there’s the loud beat of marching drums. Now imagine it’s 1778, and you’re on the battlefield. In the distance you hear “Yankee Doodle” on the piccolo – you know who is on their way. Your commander is so far away you can’t hear his voice – but the drummer plays a drumroll, and so you prepare your rifle and aim; a loud rim shot, and you fire. The bugle signals a charge and the cavalry ride ahead. The piccolo in the distance changes its melody, and you know those Yanks are up to something.

Although the music in warfare might be more function than art, you can’t deny that there is often art in function. Here is a renaissance piece by Tielman Susato, inspired by battle, complete with bomb sounds (way before Tchaikovsky‘s 1812 Overture …)

This guy is so amazing I just had to feature him again.


This dude didn’t crum this up

May 19, 2016 at 10:30 am

“Retro” is a word you hear a lot these days – taking something old and clearly dated and making it fashionable again. Bell bottoms, vinyl records, lumberjack beards, thick plastic glasses, mullets (someday, I hope!)

Many people have said to me how much they enjoy the sound of older instruments – since I’m a keyboard player, I usually hear it about the harpsichord. It looks like a piano, but its sound has a bite to it that is not unlike the electric guitar; it’s gentle and elegant, but has a real edge to its sound. I think we are attracted to the older instruments because they remind us of something we already know, but are different enough to really catch our attention (our “beginner’s mind“). The fact that the instruments are recycled from the past (as opposed to newly invented) gives an added benefit of transporting our imaginations to an idealized time in history.

The Crumhorn could be called the lovechild between a bagpipe and an oboe. It is a double-reed instrument with fingered holes (like an oboe), but the player’s mouth doesn’t touch the reed – instead it is contained in a box, giving it a growling sound while severely limiting its range. It was a popular instrument in the renaissance, but its lack of range made it fall from favor as newer instruments were invented. The sound will put you back in the 16th century – as you can see by this extremely talented performer who is playing all 4 crumhorn parts, all 4 viol parts, as well as the drum. It’s slightly surreal, but completely awesome, and yes, I’m totally jealous of this guy’s abilities.

Make sure you pay attention to the video, especially the artwork. Yeah.


The Months of Morley 2: “Yada yada yada”

May 2, 2016 at 10:30 am

Remember that Seinfeld episode that turned a stupid catchphrase into a national sensation? ***

Elaine: “Yeah. I met this lawyer, we went out to dinner, I had the lobster bisque, we went back to my place, yada yada yada, I never heard from him again.”
Jerry: “But you yada yada’d over the best part.
Elaine: “No, I mentioned the bisque.”

Thomas Morley (friend and composer of no less than Shakespeare) was in last week’s post: “April is in my Mistress’ Face“. His “Now is the Month of Maying” is another madrigal with seasonal references. This time, though, his December-hearted lover has been warmed by the May sun:

Now is the month of maying,
When merry lads are playing, fa la la …
Each with his bonny lass,
Upon the greeny grass. fa la la …
Whoa! Wait a minute. You fa la la’d over the best part!

 *** Technically, this was every single episode of Seinfeld.