Monday, October 20, 2014

Music Theory 101 #7: The Basic Skills of Music; Timbre

Ok, no more playing around! I will finish this post today. I've been busy with the convention, and being sick but today is the day I finish this post and get to finishing the series for the new one I have planned!

Continuing on from where we left off way too long ago, we shall talk about timbre, or more commonly called tone color. Timbre (pronouced tam-ber) is basically the characteristics that make any instrument sound the way it does. Think about it as if this would be the instrument's accent. Every language we speak has an accent to where it was created, and there is no difference with musical instruments. The major difference here is the science behind why it happens.


Looking on to why this happens, we have to get some what technical about how it works. The basic explanation is the sound wave itself has changed shapes, which then changes how we hear it. Think about the differences between the four basic sound waves: Sine/Cosine, Square, Triangle and Sawtooth. Each one has their own definite shape and sound very different. There is A LOT that is involved into explaining that, and if you are interested then click here to read what HyperPhysics.Edu have done on the topic. For those whom don't want all the details, there are two basics things to consider. The first way to analyze a sound wave is by analyzing the harmonic content of the sound, or how the overtones and harmonics are heard in relation to the primary sound wave. An organic sound wave (that being by a live instrument) is created by playing a primary frequency or fundamental pitch. That then triggers all the overtones, harmonics, and in the case of instruments with strings, similarly divided strings to play simultaneously. Sometimes these overtones and harmonics can be directly heard while other times aren't even recognizable. The second way is how the sound wave envelope is created. Every instruments has a certain way to make sound. For example, a cello normally has to bow a string. The energy to get started with the bow moving across the string helps define strings musicians because of the "lag" from the energy transfer. Compare to guitarist and pianist whom strike the string with their fingers, pick or by a hammer. The energy is transferred differently, and is creates a different sound. In case you are interested in hearing so, then check out this piece. It has played piano and bowed piano. 

After all the scientific gibberish followed by a crazy videos, what does this all mean for a simple composer? Why should timbre matter this much in my piece?

Because it can change to context of your piece extremely. The best example I think I've ever seen are these two videos: Both of a song called "Raining Blood" by Slayer. This first one is the studio version of the song by Slayer (in case the video doesn't do this automatically, skip to around 0:30 to avoid the intro)


Now let's show what happens when you go from electric guitar to another guitar-like instrument and play the same song:


The differences are really staggering here. This is a bit of an extreme juxtaposition of the song but it does show what is possible. Another example I like to share (that is a little more socially accepted) is orchestrated version of Stairway to Heaven. This one is by Triple Door Cello Quartet


Finally, let's look at one from a classical example. While this isn't the best example I can think of, this one combines the past topics to express itself.


If you would like another example, listen to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. He does a lot of things in terms of building timbres up and pushing the limits of the instruments and musicians. I hope this was worth the wait! I am really sorry about the delay on this one but between the convention (which I will share the videos once they're available to me) and being sick, I was loaded down. However, once we finish this series and then go into our next series: Explaining how all these topics and more convert into composing. Perhaps even some workshop like episodes and analysis. Also, if anyone is interested in listening to me break down music books and explain them differently then let me know! Thanks for reading!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Jean-Baptiste Lully: the Italian Frenchman

Wow! It's been a long time since I've posted, and I'm afraid I've rather forgotten the elaborate plan I had for conquering the Baroque period. Getting married will do that to you. So rather than go into great detail on the technical side of things, we'll look at the lives and works of three major Baroque composers from three different countries: the French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully; the master of the Italian baroque, Antonio Vivaldi; and likely the greatest genius of them all, the German Johann Sebastian Bach. Hopefully this will cover most of the ground needed to properly understand this pivotal period in music history.

Interestingly enough, while Lully is known for being a pioneer of the French baroque style, and especially of French opera, he was actually born Giovanni Battista Lulli, an undeniably Italian name, in the undeniably Italian city of Florence. As a child in a working class family, he picked up enough skill as a dancer and a violinist to earn extra cash as a street entertainer. When he was 14, he caught the eye of a passing French nobleman who had been instructed to visit Italy and bring back a companion for his royal niece, who needed practice with her Italian.

So it came to pass, that in 1646, the boy moved to Paris, and very quickly fell in love with the people and the culture of France. As a court entertainer, Lully had the opportunity to work with the best French composers of the day. It was not long before he began to develop a distaste for the practices and styles of the Italian music of his childhood.

When his employer moved away from the city, 20 year old Lully resigned in order to stay in Paris, making his living by writing and dancing in court ballets. It was one of these performances in which the young dancer impressed the 14 year old Louis XIV, who was to become Lully's lifelong patron. At this point, France was for all practical purposes ruled by the young king's guardian, which left Louis free to pursue entertainment. Ballet and music was one of his passions, and he took an instant liking Lully. It was not long before Lully replaced an older, and much more experienced, Italian composer as Louis XIV's personal music director.

Because the king's guardian was an Italian cardinal, there was considerable Italian influence in Paris at the time, including several productions of Italian opera. Many of the French noblemen did not appreciate this art form, and Lully whole-heartedly agreed. He took it upon himself to collaborate with various French poets and playwrights and create a whole new breed of opera.

These productions were in the French language and moved away from many of the Italian operatic practices. Instead, Lully mixed recitative and aria together, used more natural and predictable poetic forms, and scored his works for a variable ensemble.

In 1661, the year that Louis XIV took over the rule of France upon the death of his guardian, Lully
finally was granted full French citizenship. It was at this point that he changed the spelling of his name to reflect his love for his adopted country. For the next twenty years, Lully produced operas and ballets for the royal court and the people of Paris. He continued to hold considerable influence through his position in court, and was fairly proud of the fact. By 1681 he was signing his works: Monsieur de Lully, escuyer, conseiller, Secrétaire du Roy, Maison, Couronne de France & de ses Finances, & Sur-Intendant de la Musique de sa Majesté. (Don't ask me to translate all that!)

Unfortunately, in 1683 the king grew disenchanted with the entertainment that Lully provided. The new queen brought a much more puritanical air to the court, and Lully's liberal lifestyle choices were suddenly not nearly as acceptable as they had been previously. He retained his position at court but lost some of his friendship with the king.

Sadly, it was also his career that indirectly ended his life in 1687. As a baroque conductor, he did not use a baton but instead a staff which he thumped on the ground to keep the group together (similar to a middle school orchestra director banging his pen on the stand). Unfortunately, when Lully was conducting a piece in celebration of Louis XIV recovery from surgery, he impaled his own foot with the end of the staff. Whether this came about through carelessness or a little bit of pouting, it didn't end well... his foot developed gangrene and he died shortly afterwards from complications.


Despite his undignified exit from this world, Lully did much for the musical world of France during his life time. He brought liveliness and attitude to instrumental works, and made the whole genre of opera accessible to his country. He also introduced the French overture style, which carried over into much of baroque and classical music, French or otherwise. Even Beethoven used it to open his Pathetique sonata. This particular style was a slow, stately march in duple time, often used an an introduction or overture to a larger work. It is characterized by frequent dotted rhythms in the melody and thick, chordal accompaniment.

A classic example of Lully's French Overture style is the overture to his 1670 collaboration with  French playwright Moliere. La Bourgeois Gentilhomme is a comedie-ballet, or the French version of the ballad opera. The premier of this work boasted a start-studded cast, including both Moliere and Lully playing roles.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

CD Reviews: Led Zeppelin 1-3 2014 Deluxe Remastered Set

        Hello everyone! I'm really sorry about the delay in the music 101 series. I've been working on the presentation for Sept. and getting it perfect have been time consuming. However, I'll have the next one soon though! Just as a fair warning, I know my "English" is normally pretty bad, but the video with this was a rushed project to go with some friends of mine. So what I say doesn't line up with what I've written exactly. I made sure that it does make some sense though, and this follows the outline pretty well. If you want me to do more reviews then I will! I have a book that I've been working to finish in the works now and hopefully will have out before the convention. Otherwise, enjoy and see everyone soon!





       Hello everyone, my name is Adam Sullivan also known as Sulli00700 and welcome and welcome to this review. As some of you may know, I'm a bit of a Led Zeppelin fanatic. My parents grew up listening to it in high school and college. Once they thought I was old enough to be introduced to rock n roll, this was where they started me off. So naturally, I've collected a few things over the years and I've become a fan. After strolling through Target about two weeks ago (from the beginning of writing this review) and while looking for some stuff for college I just so happened to come across these beauties! That's Led Zeppelin I, II & III and they have been remastered for 2014 and we're going to take a look at them right now.

       Back in March of 2014, LedZeppelin.com (http://bit.ly/1fwgoMR) announced Atlantic Records was to release remastered versions of Led Zeppelin I, II and III. It was also said to be remastered by Jimmy Page himself and was to be featured on CD, vinyl, digital download and not to forget box sets. Jimmy Page has gone on to say, "The material on the companion discs presents a portal to the time of the recording of Led Zeppelin, /.../ It is a selection of work in progress with rough mixes, backing tracks, alternate versions, and new material recorded at the time”. While I haven't been able to find the vinyls or the box sets in person, I have found them online, not to mention we have these three to look at. So then, the really big question is, "Are they really worth buying?"

       Visually, these albums look really pristine. Clearly updated versions of what made the original albums so great. It even goes as far to have the working pin wheel from Led Zeppelin III. However, these have more art than the originals did. The back panel the CDs have an inverted version of the front, and the inside has the original back panels plus what was meant to be inside art for the vinyls. (Update: Turns out that they are actually art in the insides of the remastered vinyls.)

       Hidden inside the tri-folds of the albums is an album with a bunch of pictures of the band around the time the album were being produced and while they were on tour. Not to forget a little bit of technical information. This is where we run into my first problem. Now don't get me wrong, these are really nice but do we really need this many pictures? Personally, I would like a little more technical information than the half a page in the booklet and the 12 photos. Same thing goes for the print on the CDs as well, they're just the generic Atlantic Records image. One may argue that it's out of nostalgia but I personally feel that Atlantic Records was going for a more unique feel to these albums, seeing they were re-release with the bonus material. Over all, however, this is more of an opinionated nit-pick of mine and will not be weighed against them heavily.

       All three albums feature remastered audio from the original albums as one would expect. There's a bit of a controversy on how alike these three sound to the original 1991 remasters that were released onto CD. However after doing a little bit of research into the situation, I found the previously mentioned LedZeppelin.com article states that they are indeed based off the original 192kH/ 24bit transfers. (Note: I did not say the 1991 albums, but the rough transfers that the albums were based on.) With that said, since it is based on the same source material, they are going to sound alike. Controversies aside, what really sells people on these albums are the companion disks. Led Zeppelin I having this never before released concert from Paris. It happened approximately two weeks before Led Zeppelin II was released. Led Zeppelin II and III have the previously stated bonus material. Led Zeppelin II premiering a song called "La-la" and Led Zeppelin III premeiring two songs; " Jennings Farm Blues" and "Key to the Highway/Trouble in Mind".

       So then, all that remains is the big question: Are they worth it? If you already own the original remasters and you're simply looking at it because you heard they were being remastered then I would not recommend this for you. However, if you are big into Led Zeppelin or interested in collecting bonus material then I would highly recommend this for you. My only complaint is the price, they're a little over priced in my opinion. Now don't get me wrong, as I said in the beginning I bought these from Target so naturally they're going to be a little over priced, paying $13 plus SC sales tax a piece. The reason I mention this though, is I cannot find them online or otherwise less than $12. Personally, I feel like the deluxe would be more reasonable around $10 each. $10 would be where I would say they are definitely worth it. However, what really drives in the issue is with the box sets. I cannot find them online for less than $120 dollars. This is where I think they are pushing them just a bit. Don't get me wrong, they are great albums, but $120 per set is a little "out there" in my opinion.

       All this aside, it's time to rate them! All things considered, I gave Led Zeppelin I a 3.5 "rocking Jimmy Page solos" out of 5 and Led Zeppelin II & III an even 4 "rocking Jimmy Page solos" out of 5. The reason for knocking that half point of Led Zeppelin I is because of the live concert not worth as much compared to Led Zeppelin II & III. I would have kept that point (if not made it 4.5 out of 5) if it was the same as II and III and had the rough tracks and/or never before heard albums from the original album. That little bit aside, I think they are all still great albums to add to your CD collections.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Major Announcement and Interview with @Kidstruments

Hello everyone! Sorry about the lack of posts lately but between Faith's getting married in the next couple of weeks and I've been setting up for a new series plus running Team Young Spark as we head towards our first couple of major events... Life's been a little overwhelming. But seeing there has been 90+ views on the "Music Theory 101" series thus far, I think it's safe to assume that I will finish this season of it. The next series I'm going to do is a tutorial series on using and making the most out of Audacity. While it isn't the best program to do a lot of complicated audio manipulation, people underestimate its potential. By the time the series begins to trickle out, I should have released an animation project I've been working on with my friend Benjamin and everything audio related has been mixed and mastered in Audacity. Also, I want to revisit the Finale Tutorials but teach over 2014 this time.The original series had such a positive reception that I wouldn't imagine not doing it but I need to save up for 2014. Leave a comment if you would like to see more of them (and they will be actual lessons this time, not randomly teaching tools!)

The first major announcement is that I've been accepted as a panelist for Derpy Con South as my alias Harmonic Inferno, and I will be giving 2 lectures: One on the series I've been working on here (Music Theory 101) and the other an open discussion on arts activism. I wanted to make sure that if anyone here was interested in coming out to the convention and hearing them that you were aware in advance. The other thing I wanted to announce was Faith will be getting married in the near future. I mentioned it briefly before, but I wanted to make sure I gave her a major congratulations for her milestone with her fiance but for all the help she's done in building this site back up. Now without further ado, let's get onto the interview!

Adam: Explain what Kidstruments Fund is? How was it started and how long has
it been around?

Kidstruments: Kidstruments Fund is an organization that helps kids play instruments in school band or orchestra. It was started when my 6th grade orchestra teacher's violin broke. It was very sentimental to her and I raised money to try to fix it. She did not take the money but in the process I learned that there are kids without the sufficient funds to rent an instrument. I had this money and nothing to do with it, so I used it to start Kidstruments. Kidstruments has been around for 3 months now [as of the time of this interview].

A: What all does Kidstruments Fund do to help/ benefit the music community?

K: Kidstruments helps the music community by helping others playing music, by expanding the community (in the future hopefully greatly) and making more people to play the music that other people write. Now, as for the normal community, it shows people that little people (grammar for the win) can make big impacts. It also helps more people enjoy music. It also helps kids in school, because for some, a love of music might be the thing that makes them like school and be a better student. 

A: What goals does your group have towards helping the music community at
large?

K: Our goal to the music community at large is to help more and more people not just play music, but write it, understand it, and enjoy it. We try to grow it and expand it. Kidstruments is trying greatly to expand music all over the world.

A: How can someone help your cause?

K: People can help by donating online at [http://kidstrumentsfund.org/donate/] or they can send a check to:
Kidstruments Fund Inc.9425 N. Meridian #201IndianapolisIN 46260They can also follow us on Twitter [@Kidstruments] or Facebook [https://www.facebook.com/Kidstruments]. Finally, and most important, if music people just told other music people about us, I think so many musicians would remember how important their school band or orchestra was to their life, and would want to help kids get the same opportunity. The younger kids, after all, are the musicians of tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Music Theory 101 #6: The Basic Skills of Music; Dynamics

Hello everyone and welcome back to the next episode of Music Theory 101. Sorry about vanishing, but between the end of school, the trip/ meeting in Minneapolis and then getting two major plans set up (announcements ASAP) I literally had no time to keep working. This will be the end of the explanations and salutations though because we have a month’s worth of material to make up in this extended post!

Music Terms:

~Amplitude
~Dynamics
~Forte and Piano
~Mezzo
~Adding -issimo (fortissimo, pianissimo)
~Fortepiano and Pianoforte

Catching everyone back up to speed, we have gone through posting about the basics of music and have made our way through two of the six: Pitch and Rhythm. This time, we move onward to the next topic for discussion; dynamics. Dynamics are the musical equivalent to amplitude. For those in need of a quick refresher, amplitude is the expansion or contraction of the wave’s height causes the wave to have more or less force. This increase or decrease in power can cause our ears to perceive what we hear to be louder or softer. That’s honestly all there is to this one in terms of science and terminology. However, dynamics play a more important role in music.


Music’s emotional weight is primarily built off of dynamic control. It is true to the point of listening to movies. Think to the last movie you’ve seen and how the dynamics of the music played into each point that the scene was trying to make. For example, whenever there is a romantic scene and there is a couple talking, the music backs off but you can hear that they are playing. Once they start to kiss,  the music becomes really loud to show that emotion’s weight. The same can be argued for any kind of music. A classical example is “March of the Scaffolds” by Hector Berlioz. The beginning starts out low and quiet until the cellos and bass come in with the motif of the movement. Every time there is portrayed a horrifying moment or a moment of triumph in the movement then the horns play loud. Whenever the thought of his beloved come to him, then it is soft and tender. Modern music examples is the difference between a rock ballad and heavy metal. The difference between trance/chillstep and hard style/brostep. Dynamics control a lot in music.

Now that we know what it is and what they do, why not explain how they are in music. Before we begin however, it should be noted that they are very situational. None are defined by an absolute “loudness” like pitch and other things in music. Dynamics are based off their original words in Italian and use the first letter to represent the dynamic. Forte is considered to be “loud” and is shown by adding an italicized f. Piano is considered “soft” or quiet and is shown with an italicized p. Next thing to know about with dynamics is the mezzo range. Mezzo means medium and if it’s used as a prefix, it means either medium loud, mezzo forte or mf, or medium soft, mezzo piano or mp.

There are also extremes by adding more of each letter into the mix, getting fortissimo, ff and pianissimo, pp. When you add the -ssimo suffix; meaning very, you can create more extremes for your dynamic timeline. You can add more letters to mean more contrast, such as fffffffffff. Just be warned that the mentioning of relations of dynamics are meant to be taken. So don’t expect a cannon like sound from your instruments… Unless you use a cannon. The last thing related to dynamics I want to mention is the case of fortepianos. Fortepiano and it’s reverse pianoforte are used for extreme changes in dynamic that are meant to last temporarily. They are played as they are read. In the case of fortepianos, fp, they should be played loudly and then soft. The reverse is true for pianofortes, though they aren’t as commonly used.


There is one other dynamic term that I will go over during our next episode. I hope this extended post was worth the wait! Keep an eye out for announcements in the next day or two.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Baroque Beginnings

The last couple of weeks have been full of travelling (Adam), wedding planning (me) and other sundry life happenings that tend to sneak up behind you and trip you when you're not looking (also me). But I'm back for now, and have some interesting topics to get to work on.

In last couple posts in this series, we tied up the Renaissance period of music history, both in the secular and sacred genres. As we move into the Baroque, there is less distinction between the two, and they progress in basically the same direction, so you'll be hearing a lot less about the dichotomy between sacred and secular.

First off, let's examine the term "baroque." Today, it is simply used to describe various styles developed in the arts between 1600-1750(ish). However, it was originally applied to the time period as an epithet by 19th-century art critics, implying that one was wrinkling one's proper classical nose at the gaudy, overly ornamented style of visual art or music prevalent during this period in history. But, as I have been reminded three times in the past couple months by three different history professors, art history is not a linear progression: we are not moving from good to better to best. Each time period had its strengths and weaknesses, and those classical critics would have done well to remember that. Either way, "baroque" is no longer considered a derogatory term and you can use it safely without be arrested by the Politically Correct Police. (Such an organization exists, trust me. Especially on Facebook. They're kind of like the Grammar Nazis.)

If you recall, the Renaissance period finished with a bang, full of crazy dissonance, over-the-top dramatics, and elaborate text painting. Towards the end of the period, there was a group of intellectuals who called themselves the Florentine Camerata (Florence Club) that met regularly to discuss the state of the world, and more specifically that of the arts. One of them, Vincenzo Galilei (father of the more famous Galileo Galilei of gravity and heliocentrism), write a fairly complex treatise on the reasons why the popular music of the day was not as effective as the ancient musics. He also added his two-cents on how music should change for the betterment of society rather than its amusement.

He said a lot of things in this work, a lot of them not very complementary to the current state of the arts, but one of his main arguments was that music should be used to better the state of society rather that simply to amuse or please our senses. Galilei felt that the popular style of text painting was useless in that regard, as it only described what was occurring in the text and did nothing to incite an actual change of heart in the listener. He also argued that the thick polyphonic textures were so complex that they were a distraction from any single purpose. His solution to this problem was for composers and musicians to consider themselves actors or even lawyers, so to speak. Music could be used as language, to convince the listeners to take on a certain "affect" or, state of being.

This led, naturally, to a change in styles. Instead of focusing strongly on contrapuntal textures, Galilei argued for the use of monody, or compositions made up of one primary voice with harmonic accompaniment. This would bridge the gap between single line chants of the very ancient times and the multi-voiced polyphonic works of more recent styles.

Galilei's intellectual theories sparked a radical change in compositional practice, leading to the birth of the ubiquitous basso continuo line that persisted throughout the Baroque period and even somewhat into the Classical (Beethoven himself included a continuo line with figured bass in a few of his compositions). However, I've spent so much time talking about the theory that practice will have to wait till the next post. When that time comes, I'll start by defining the whole basso continuo idea, and then we'll move on to some of the seminal composers of the period.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Mannerism of Madrigalisms

In my last article in the series (somewhere around a month ago--apologies for the long wait!), I outlined the trends of sacred music at the end of the Renaissance. This included moving away from the elaborate productions of mid-Renaissance style, and returning to the simpler, more text-focused music for liturgical purposes.

Secular music, on the other hand, felt no such need. In fact, it just got crazier.

Mannerism is a generic term, not restricted to music at all, and in fact is more often used to describe visual art. Nevertheless, it is the perfect term to describe what happened with secular music at the end of the Renaissance, around 1560-1600. According to Webster's dictionary, mannerism is defined as follows: 


a :  exaggerated or affected adherence to a particular style 
                           b  :  an art style in late 16th century Europe characterized by spatial incongruity and excessive elongation of the human figures



In other words, taking a style to such an extreme that before long, people will grow sick of it and move away from that that style for good. This is exactly what happened with both art and music at the end of the 16th century. Here is a painting by one of the most famous Mannerist painters, El Greco (1541-1614). As you can see, the proportions are a little funky, the colors are vivid, and the emotions are intense and obvious. Mannerist art can get a little overwhelming, but it achieves its purpose nicely. By the time you get done studying this picture, you'll have a very a clear idea of what the artist wanted you to think or feel. 

The exact same thing happened with secular music. Composers were already writing madrigals, and, as we discussed a while ago, one of the characteristics of the madrigal was word painting. By the end of the 1500s, word painting, through either melody or harmony, was taken to such an extreme, and was so married to the genre that the technique became known as madrigalisms. 

Madrigalisms included frequent and unusual use of chromaticism, sometimes abandoning what sense of key signature music had developed by this point. One type of chromatic harmony that was particularly unique in that time period was the cross-relation. This referred to a note played in both its natural and its sharp or flatted version at the same time, or in very quick succession. For instance, a five voice madrigal might have the soprano line singing a C sharp at the same time the second tenor is singing a C natural. This type of dissonance is perfect for expressing the intense emotions desired by the Mannerist composers such as Carlos Gesualdo or Cipriano de Rore.

Another choice by composers of late Renaissance madrigals rather than ones earlier in the century was the type of text. Earlier compositions included literary poetry such as sonnets, and the text was always chosen for its sophistication and quality. By the end of the period, texts were chosen for their emotional content, and, if looked at critically, could even come across as slightly manic or unstable. However, once again, they were perfect for the effect.

This madrigal by Gesualdo is one of my examples of the Mannerism in composition. If you take a moment to follow along in the score, you will see the extensive chromaticism and non-diatonic harmonies. A small portion of the text reads:
"I depart." I said no more, for grief
robbed my heart of life...
"Hence in pain I remain, Ah may I never
cease to pine away in sad laments."

Crazy, huh? By the early 1600s, this style had been done to death, and people were ready for a change. Enter... the Baroque! Which we will discuss next time, because I have to get ready to play for an opera. 

Oh, by the way... if you're interested, there's a 7:30 pm show on Saturday, April 26 and a 2pm show on Sunday April 27 of Hansel and Gretel, an opera that's actually in English, and has some pretty fun moments. It's in Robinson Hall at UNC Charlotte, and really would be worth it. Even if you don't like opera. Would love to see you there!