"Spelling" is the seemingly trivial decision about what note to write down to indicate a particular pitch. And the decision is usually so trivial that no thought need be given it. But that's not always the case. For a composer of functionally tonal music, the spelling of the notes of a harmony or a melody is often determined by the function of a note in that chord or melody. For example if a chord is leading towards A natural, the note a semi-tone below A in the chord generally will be spelled "G#", though it could also be spelled "Ab".
The spelling of pitches also affects how they are played in tonal music. Our G# would likely be pushed a little higher by string players and singers, in order to emphasize its leading tone function.
In a pantonal context, the spelling issue comes down largely to performability. My principal composition teacher, William Hibbard, inculcated two spelling principles in me. One, spell in sharps as a general rule, especially if you are writing music for strings. Sharps are more, as it were, natural for string players because the open strings are tuned to notes that are the home pitches in keys with sharps in the key signature. The other general rule is to spell tonally, even if the context isn't tonal.
Intervals are designated with two words. An adjective refers to the particular "width" of the interval, and a noun communicates the distance between the letter names of the notes involved. The interval between notes with the letter names "C" and "D" is going to be a "second" of some kind, while a "C" and another "C" is a unison, a "C" and an "E" a third, and so on. C natural and D natural are two semitones apart and are refered to as a Major second. Make the C a C# and you have a minor second. Raise the D to a D# and you are back to a Major second. If you then lower the C# to C nat, you have an augmented second (C/D#), an interval that is generally avoided in tonal music, mostly for intonation reasons. So, in non-tonal music you would most likely change the "D#" to an "Eb", with the result being a user friendly minor third.
These issues came up in composing Radiant Geometries, and they rear their head again in the data entry, with the addition of transposing for the parts. Trumpets are generally transposing instruments (don't ask) and Bb trumpets (the most common kind; really, don't ask) have parts that are written a Major second above the sounding pitch. This can lead to some spelling issues, the most interesting of which are B# and E#. B and C are only one semitone apart, as are E and F, unlike all the other letter pairs, which are two semitones apart. Therefore, B# and C natural (as well as E# and F natural) are the "same" notes (apart from the leading tone issues mentioned above, which generally don't come into play in a pantonal context).
When an A# or D# appears in the untransposed score, the software prints B# and E# in the parts, and nobody wants to play those notes unless they absolutely have to. C and F are much easier. So then you have to decide whether to renotate the line to avoid those spellings while still following the rule to spell tonally, or ask the trumpeter to play the offending notes in an unusual spelling in a fast piece.
What's a mother to do?
I thought of this music school lounge/theory bar type of question when I read A. C. Douglas' rave about a young composer named Jay Greenberg, who was featured on CBS' 60 Minutes yesterday evening.
A little Googling turned up a good amount of information on the composer, including this appearance on PRI's From The Top, which includes a Pittsburgh Symphony performance of Mr. Greenberg's Overture to 9/11. I won't say much about the piece, which is well-, if not imaginatively, orchestrated, and competent.
I was not bowled over by the piece (could you tell?), and I don't know how much of that was due to overselling on Mr. Douglas' part, or by the fact I don't share his desire for a Great Tonal Hope to rise up and save us all.
Could it be professional jealousy? Of course it could.
EDITED TO ADD: The question about composers writing in styles of the past came to mind because of Mr. Greenberg's music (and his publicity), not because of Mr. Douglas' post. Of course there can be, and is, very fine music to be written in styles that are essentially tonal.
As Elliott Carter is one of my obsessions, I usually listen to what I consider one or more of his most typically "American" pieces, like the Cello Sonata, the First Quartet, or the Concerto for Orchestra.
Another obsession is the string quartet, and I frequently turn to Lee Hyla's Second or Howl (which may be perfect for this year), Samuel Barber's Quartet, Ruth Crawford's marvelous Quartet, or Crumb's Black Angels.
You can't go wrong with one of Copland's ballets, his Emily Dickinson songs, or his Third Symphony. Or Roy Harris' Third, for that matter. Sousa marches. Gershwin songs.
The 2004-2005 season of the Artist Series continued Friday evening with a virtuoso performance by Chanticleer at the Co-Cathedral of St. Thomas More.
Chanticleer, making its first visit to Tallahassee in 10 years, is a 12-voice men's chorus. What makes it different from other men's choruses (which normally consist of tenors and basses) is its complement of "countertenors," who sing in falsetto with full power.
Friday's concert was organized around the theme "Women, Saintly and Otherwise" and included pieces by and about women. The first group of pieces focused on Mary, and one of the highlights of the concert was the performance of the Gregorian chant "Ave Maria." Gregorian chants are unaccompanied one-voice settings of the liturgical texts of the Roman Catholic Church. The sound of 12 voices singing in perfect unison was as voluptuous in its own way as the full harmonies of most of the program.
A selection of Elizabethan and modern madrigals included a performance of Thomas Weelkes' As Vesta Was that was distinguished by balanced counterpoint and rhythmic life. The assured performance of Maurice Ravel's "Nicolette" was subtle and colorful, and Chanticleer handled the French composer's rich chromaticism with ease and style.
A performance of a selection of madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi showed off the group's strengths. Here were beautiful sounds, rendered with a strong sense of ensemble and impeccable intonation.
Robert Pearsall's Lay a Garland was the only 19th-century music on the program, and Chanticleer embraced the harmonic language, which included many melodic dissonances, beautifully emphasized and resolved in this performance.
The high point of the evening was a powerful performance of John Tavener's Song for Athene, an elegy for a family friend. Tavener is a proponent of the New Simplicity, and his music is made of elements of Russian Orthodox liturgical music. The text is a combination of lines from Hamlet and from Orthodox liturgy. The music places simple melodic lines over a drone in the basses. Chanticleer's austere reading was poignant and direct.
Selections from Augusta Read Thomas' Purple Syllables anchored the second half of the concert. These settings of Emily Dickinson poems about birds (the piece was written for Chanticleer, whose name comes from a singing rooster in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales) were subtle, colorful, and at times, playful. Chanticleer navigated the difficult pieces with expression and, as always, a beautiful sound.
The concert ended with a selection of folk songs and popular numbers, which Chanticleer performed with flair and good humor. A Stephen Foster encore sent the Tallahassee audience out into the night happy and entertained.
Chanticleer (along with ensembles like the Kronos Quartet) subscribes to a dominant contemporary performance aesthetic that emphasizes a gleaming, beautiful sound surface and the presence of the performers themselves.
There are times when this sound quality overwhelms the music, replacing the individual expression of the composer with the performers' personality and making much of the music sound the same, regardless of compositional style.
There are other times, such as in Friday's performance of the John Tavener piece, when the prodigious resources of the gifted performers are fully in the service of the music. These moments are transcendent and are a major reason we listen to music in the first place.
Also: I look forward to Alex Ross' report on the Boston Symphony performance of Elliott Carter's Symphonia.
Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring (1947) is an intimate opera. It has a relatively small cast, a very small orchestra of 13 players, and is fairly short. Its tone is almost exclusively lyrical, its conflicts those of manners rather than those of actions. The story of moral repression and the youthful exuberance that overcomes it is told in colorful music of imagination and subtlety.
So I was curious when I saw that the Florida State Opera's production of Herring was being staged in Florida State University's Ruby Diamond Auditorium rather than in the smaller Opperman Music Hall. Not to worry: Stage director Matthew Lata, scenic and costume designer Gerry Leahy and lighting designer Victor En Yu Tan were able to use the greater space of the Diamond stage in a way that opened the visual field without making it seem to have been artificially stretched. Lata accomplished this through the use of more "supernumeraries," the operatic equivalent of extras in a movie, than usual and his decision to block most of the action at the front of the stage.
Albert Herring is a fine vehicle for young voices, and a good number of them can be heard in this production. Ryan Harper was very good as the title character. He was able to communicate both Albert's innocence and his curiosity physically as well as vocally. Harper will sing Albert again in Friday's performance. Oliver Mercer will sing the role today and Nov. 13.
Jeffrey Wienend and Megan Roth winningly portrayed the pivotal roles of the young lovers Sid and Nancy. The town elders were given with proper unctuousness by Luvada Harrison (Lady Billows), Melissa Vitrella (Florence Pike, who "scolded" the orchestra for what she considered their less-than-timely beginning of the second act), Christine Keene (Miss Woodsworth), Christopher Boulter (The Vicar) and Kyle Jones (The Mayor).
Malinda LaBar was a convincingly hovering Mum to Albert, and Victoria Wilson and Arian Ashworth were also convincing as local schoolgirls. Special mention should be given to youngster Colin Wulff, who was an agile and mischievous Harry.
FSU Opera Director Douglas Fisher led the orchestra in a well-paced, exciting performance. Britten's imaginative score, with solo passages for virtually every instrument, is a difficult one, and the student performers carried it off with style.
This Albert Herring is an engaging afternoon or evening in the theater.
Re, your http://listen101.blogspot.com/2004/11/bingo.html
With all due respect to George, how is his remark more Bingo! than my prior, "And what exactly do I mean when I say that "a marriage of the two is desirable when handled in such a way as to serve a better understanding of the music under discussion"? I mean that only when the 'hardcore technical' is used to provide clarifying concrete example of an 'impressionistic' point made in general critical writing on music (as opposed to, say, critical writing for use in music theory courses or other specialist venues) is it being used as it ought to be used, and that its use in any other capacity in such critical writing is decidedly out of place, and hugely counterproductive."
I realize George's framing of the matter better suits your "hardcore technical" bias, but both say essentially the same thing, wouldn't you agree.
Me, in response:
Yes, I would say they say more or less the same thing, with a different bias, or perspective, rather.
(You did note, I trust, that the "bias" ("perspective") you mention was due entirely my focusing exclusively on *general* critical writing; i.e., critical writing for "civilians" rather than professionals or music students.)
Yes; that distinction is important. I must admit to still prefering Mr. Hunka's formulation both for its slant, however slight, towards technical analysis and for its elegance.
This is a circuitous way of getting to what I really want to talk about today, and that is analysis and criticism. Or more precisely, what place do analysis and/or criticism have in creating a ciommunity of desire around concert music?
Recent weeks have seen music bloggers analyze passages from the classics and Moderns, discuss the content of those analyses, and criticize those analyses and discussions. And we also have an explication of some analytical tools. Analytical/critical styles have been criticized not so much for what they tell us as for how. In the simplest terms, some want audience-friendly "impressionistic" analysis and others want more hardcore technical material.
There is both room and need for both approaches, as well as any other that may be forthcoming. The community of desire for concert music has at least two sub-communities: A community of interest and a community of practice. (One hopes that every member of the community of practice is interested, of course.) For practitioners a greater or lesser degree of technical knowledge of a piece may be necessary if we are to do with the piece what we need to, be that play it, write about it, use it as a model for our own work, or teach it.
Occasionally someone will write a highly-technical piece on a composition and write so that it will be off-putting to a lay person, for whatever reason. But that is the exception. For most of us, thinking about music in a technical way--and expressing in prose (and charts) what we have learned about it--is an important part of practice.
Talking about music in the more impressionistic way has value, too, especially when it helps listeners find their way into a piece. I hope we can find meaningful ways of combining the two approaches and enriching our community of desire.
EDIT: Here's a good example of the value of analysis from the performer's point of view; in this case, Helen Radice. (7.11.04)
The biggest threat to the TSO is the one that is visiting every orchestra: whither goeth classical music? Its marginalization by a population that wants much more instant and tangible gratification should be a worry to us all, for the rapid shift that is speeding through our culture affects not just this area of music, but the fundamental quality of our lives. More and more, an embrace of reflection, subtlety, and complexity is being replaced by an addiction to visceral excitement, quick satisfaction, and simple-mindedness. We should be troubled. Serious music may be one of the first victims, for it undoubtedly demands much of us, but its illness should at the least serve as the parakeet in the mine warning us of danger. Our society is at stake. And, if I am right, so are our
. . .
. . . there are concerns that specifically affect the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra, ones I hope the leaders will ask in the years to come. Among them are:
How committed is this city to having the highest quality orchestra that it could have? What would be required to develop such?
How does a community that cannot claim wealthy, old businesses that see their own future tied to the cultural health of the community, acquire the means to thrive?
Does the community want a paid-community or a professional orchestra? What are the differences, and what are the benefits of each?
Whom does the orchestra serve? The conductor? The players? The audience? The community at large? In what ways might these interests be incompatible, and how might conflicts be
Readers, how are these issues apparent in your communities? Are there others? Are there art forms thriving in your communities and others that suffer? The comments section is for you. A blog without a comments section is like art without an audience.
Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra Music Director David Hoose announced earlier in the week that he would not return to the Orchestra after the 2004-2005 season. That season began Saturday evening at Florida State University’s Ruby Diamond Auditorium with a program of music by Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Rachmaninov.
The program, and the audience’s reaction to it, highlighted the growth of the TSO during Mr. Hoose’s directorship in addition to showing the limitations of a part-time ensemble.
Shostakovich’s First Symphony (1926) is a brash and assured debut. It has all of the earmarks of the composer’s mature style—sardonic wit, melodic ingenuity, rhythmic vitality, and colorful orchestration. The Orchestra responded to Mr. Hoose’s crisp tempos and gestures to give a taut, exciting performance of this early modern masterpiece.
The Orchestra displayed solid ensemble work throughout the Symphony, which is awash in the discontinuity that is a hallmark of Modernist art and thought. Soloists (there are too many solos in the Symphony to name all the players) handled their melodic twists and turns with panache, and the Orchestra boldly attacked Shostakovich’s dissonant harmonies, which is key to making them work for the audience.
The audience responded with a sustained and enthusiastic ovation, which indicates how far Mr. Hoose and the Orchestra have come in their programming, which is adventurous for a community-based orchestra in a city the size of Tallahassee. One selling point the TSO’s search committee will have is an audience open to unusual repertoire, in addition to the players capable of delivering fine performances of that repertoire.
Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances marks the end of the composer’s career, and in some ways, of the Romanticism he championed and even, for many, embodied. It is a colorful and expressive work, full of memorable melodies and orchestral color. Saturday night’s performance was fiery and solid. Once again the numerous soloists gave telling accounts of their parts, with principal cellist Kim Jones a standout among standouts.
Mark Rohr’s program note made much of the idea that Rachmaninov eschewed Modernism even as late as 1940, the year of the Dances. While it is true that the composer never wrote music that was anything other than unambiguously tonal, he did make use of the same kinds of discontinuities heard to such good effect in the Shostakovich. This piece was full of sudden textural changes and melodic surprises, so while it was not avant-garde, it certainly was Modern in some respects, and Mr. Hoose’s reading emphasized some of that aspect of the score.
The performance was not quite fully realized—I had the feeling throughout that, with one more rehearsal, the Orchestra could really have let go and pulled out all the stops. The Rachmaninov is a greater technical challenge for an orchestra than is the Shostakovich, and this lack of rehearsal time is a serious and inevitable limit on the artistic growth of an orchestra like the Tallahassee Symphony. This was a fine concert, but the Orchestra is capable of even more.
This concert, then, placed the potential and challenge of the TSO in relief, and it will be fascinating to watch the search for the musician who will take on the task of leading the Orchestra into the future.