Saturday, September 29, 2007

Harry Partch - The Diamond Marimba

Today's instrument is one of Partch's first forays into the world of percussion. When he was presenting his music around New York City in 1943 and 1944, one of the most frequent criticisms he received was that his music lacked rhythmic interest. Many seemed to feel that Partch concentrated too hard on pitch to the exclusion of rhythm.

So when he arrived in Madison, Wisconsin, Partch set to work adding some "rhythmic interest" by creating percussion instruments. One of the first fruits of this new focus was the diamond marimba.

Before describing that instrument, I need to make a slight detour. One of Partch's great contributions to microtonal theory was his formulation of the tonality diamond. In the diamond, he took his starting pitch (a G for him) and built chords of six pitches above it following the overtone series to the 11th limit (which he called otonalities) and then built chords of six pitches flipping the overtone series and going down (which he called utonalities). He then arranged these in a diamond shape with the starting pitch (that G) in the middle and the otonalities moving up towards the right and the utonalities moving down towards the right, resulting in 29 pitches altogether. It looks like this:
(Here's a website where you can listen to the various pitches.)

Right up the middle, you can see the same pitch rendered in the various limits - 1/1, 3/3, 5/5, etc. Recognize this shape? Yes, the diamond marimba is nothing more than the tonality diamond come to life with a few modifications for ease of playing. Partch worked with Warren E. Gilson in Madison to create the instrument, making the blocks out of Brazilian rosewood and Pernambuco, mounting them on thin foam rubber, placing resonators of Brazilian bamboo below the blocks, and holding the entire thing together on a stand of white pine with bronze posts supporting it.

Here's the beginning of Partch's song "The Waterfall." You'll hear the diamond marimba make runs as well as the sweeping chords that are its most distinguishing characteristic:

Friday, September 28, 2007

New Review - "No Reservations"

After a long hiatus from reviewing film scores, I'm back with a review of this summer's nod to female, adult movie-goers, No Reservations. While the movie did poorly at the box office, the soundtrack isn't that bad. It has several excellent recordings of standard Italian arias and pop standards and is an enjoyable listen. Too bad the same can't be said of Philip Glass's score. In any case, if you're interested, you'll find the review here.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Watch Out, Ladies

It has finally turned a bit cool here, so yesterday morning I put Sam in a t-shirt and a pair of pants that had some soft, sweatpant-like material lining the inside. When I was helping him get dressed I mentioned that we were going to go outside and play, so he would need these nice, warm pants.

Sam looked up and me and said, "these are hot pants!"

Yes they are, Sam, yes they are.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Grammar Tips Flow Out of My Fingers

Sorry you haven't heard much from me over the past week or so. We're five weeks into the semester which means that the first round of projects and tests are all coming due. For the students, that means getting a few days to relax after working feverishly; for the professor, that means getting to continue working feverishly while adding grading on top of my duties. I've been grading worksheets, essays, journals, and paper proposals. The rest of the week will be spent dealing with tests and listening journals and worksheets examining various types of printed music. Needless to say, I'm a bit cross-eyed at night.

But all this grading invariably turns a professor's thoughts to dreams of proper grammar. I keep a small folder of the most egregious examples of bad writing, those little gems that become unintentionally hilarious by means of misplaced modifiers and incorrectly used commas. The folder even contains some of my own writing, but thankfully all of those examples are from before I submitted the paper or article. Not so with my students, and not with other faculty. I'm still chuckling over the faculty member who e-mailed a significant portion of the faculty and student body under the subject heading "Your invited" and proceeded to exhort us all that "you got to be there!" I still haven't figured out what of mine was invited. Perhaps my hand so we could finally answer the koan "what is the sound of one hand clapping?"

I've developed a reputation among the students for being something of a Nazi when it comes to grammar (their phrase, not mine). It's a reputation I wear with honor. I join the proud rank and file with my newly-discovered favorite podcast, The Grammar Girl. Hosted by Mignon Fogarty, The Grammar Girl's podcasts are short, snappy, and snarky tips on common grammar mistakes. She's addressed "Which vs. That," "Who vs. That," and even my personal favorite, drilled into me by a music history professor of mine, "Split Infinitives." I've started recommending her site to my students, but the podcasts are just so darn entertaining and informative that you should take a look too.

In my attempts to break up the monotony of grading, I've also stumbled across a website that deals with another topic dear to my heart - the useless quotation mark. The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks collects reader-submitted pictures of inappropriately-used quotation marks that have humorous consequences like this one or perhaps this one. I see this all the time as students do not know how to use quotation marks for musical works. The signs collected on the "Blog" offer a good antidote to the decidedly un-humorous task of grading papers.

So, dear readers, favorite grammar-related stories of your own?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Congratulations, Mr. Krosoczka, You Scare My Child

Generally, Sam is an easy going fellow. He takes most everything in stride: when another child steals a car from him, he shrugs and finds a bus; when he falls off the slide, he looks around to see what happened and then climbs up again.

But occasionally, an irrational fear grips him. Sometimes it's people that set him off but more often it is a book or toy. I say these fears are irrational because things we expect would frighten him actually intrigue him. For instance, I was certain he would find the "scary piggy bank" just that, scary. Instead he was slightly bemused. No, this is what my son finds scary these days:

Granted, the duck does have an evil, curvy eyebrow, a dark, mysterious eye patch, and a menacing scowl...ok, so maybe he is a bit scary. Sam won't even stay in the room with the book. This afternoon, we were reading through a stack of books and when this one surfaced, Sam got up, backed away, and said, "No, no, no." He stayed on the other side of the room until I covered the book up and promised not to read it.

I'm sure Jarrett Krosoczka is a nice man. His website doesn't make him look scary...ok, except for the kid with a bag for his head. And the chicken playing keyboard - everyone knows chickens have no rhythm. But his other books look fun. It's just that duck.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Parental Success #37

We live in a strange age in which childhood has been almost completely co-opted by advertisers. It is almost impossible these days to buy anything for your child that does not have some sort of product tie-in. Even diapers are emblazoned with various characters. The hot marketing demographic seems to keep getting younger. Don't believe me? Note that advertisers find that children under 3 years of age represent a $20 billion market.

Of course, one of the pioneers and most successful businesses in this field is McDonalds. A recent study in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, the oldest peer-reviewed pediatric journal in the U.S., found that no matter what food was presented, when put in a McDonald's wrapper, kids preferred it. I still remember begging to go to McDonald's as a kid and thinking a birthday party there was the coolest thing ever.

So fast-forward to yesterday afternoon. Joy was meeting with a woman about Kindermusik, and they needed a place to talk without childcare. They hit upon the idea of McDonald's since it has an indoor playplace. Joy packed Sam up and told him they were going to McDonald's to play on the playground. Sam turned to her with his eyes wide and reverently asked:

"The farm has a playground?"

Sam likes their fries too much to be ignorant of MacDonald's forever, but I'm going to cherish that comment for a while.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Heard This Morning

Tuesday is a big day at our house - garbage day. Sam lives for the moment when first the recycling truck rumbles down the street and then, about an hour later, when the garbage truck follows. He races to the window and stares out in rapt attention, praying that perhaps today, the trucks will turn into our driveway and stay a while so he can go play on and in them.

This morning, as the big green truck drove past our house, I excitedly asked Sam, "What is it?" He looked at me and then out the window at the truck and purposely replied, "A snow plow truck!"

Keep hoping, Sam, keep hoping.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Our Budding Artist

This summer, as a way to keep Sam occupied during the long trips in the car, we arranged for a Magna Doodle to make its way into Sam's life. What could be better than paper that never ends he could draw on to his heart's content?

The Magna Doodle was the gift that kept on giving. It was such a huge hit that once we arrived home, Sam still wanted to use it for extended hours during a day. He sits with it and draws shapes and swirls and lines and squigglies for hours at a time, letting us get work done or just read a book.

Invariably, though, Sam decides that he needs something he can imagine but not draw. When those moments hit, he waddles over to us and demands: "Dada, draw a car and a truck!" or "Mama, draw a boat, a big boat!" We oblige, which elicits more demands, and we end up drawing together for 20 to 30 minutes.

All around good bonding time.

Sam's drawings have become increasingly complex over the past month and he's started telling us what he's drawing. To give you an example of the drawings he leaves around for us to find, here's last night's final rendition: Recognize it? It's a boat, of course! And, knowing Sam, it was probably a blue boat, but after explaining to us in an I-can't-believe-you-can't-tell-what-it-is voice, we didn't have the heart to ask.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Proclamation

This is what I just overheard as Sam "read" bits of newspaper from paper recycling pile this morning:


Been watching Dad read the paper much, Sam?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Pushing forward, pulling back

Other parents are always telling me how their child is a daredevil too, how their son or daughter runs off from them or seeks to conquer stairs, or chairs, or streets without their help. They tell me this because they see Sam out in front of us at Target, pulling things off shelves and declaring that we obviously need to by that fuschia bathmat.

What other parents don't see is that Sam is quite tentative. Sure, he occasionally opens the front door and runs up the street while I'm upstairs, causing his poor, tired, weak father to have a heart attack after frantically running through the house screaming his name. But he only pulls those stunts when he feels comfortable in his environment. Get him around new people in a new place and he is clingy. He'll sit demurely next to me and shyly smile when spoken to. Then, after he's been there for a while, he'll feel comfortable enough to pull the books off the shelves and read himself "Babar" out loud. Sam extroversion is a constant tide, ebbing and flowing in and out. I've been fascinated by this aspect of his personality for some time (primarily because I see so much of my own proclivities reflected in it) and I finally got photographic proof. Here is Sam over Labor Day weekend at a local park:

We love this park partly because it looks like a Monet painting, but also because it has a wonderful playground, a pretend frontier village, and a huge pond you can stroll around and even fish in. Right through the middle of that pond is this series of stepping stones. The pond itself isn't deep; if you fell off the stones, you would only go in waist-deep at the most. The stones are close enough together for children to run across if they so desire (another heart attack inducing experience, I'm sure). In other words, it is fairly safe, as these types of bridges go. Of course I wanted Sam to walk across the water, as it were, and as you can see, he wasn't sure of himself or his feet at first. He even stepped into the water once on accident. But once he was comfortable and felt sure of his surroundings, I could barely keep up with him:
Pushing forward, pulling back. I'm sure it's only beginning.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

This is your face on lipstick

Sam has decided he's at least as big as we are, if not larger. If Joy is cooking, he needs to help by stirring and shaking and sticking his hand in the batter and scooping out a big handful to eat. If I'm hammering bookshelves together, he needs to get his hammer and bang away a bit before finding the nails and seeing if they fit inside his trucks. If we're reading, he needs to sit in our laps and turn the pages for us, vainly looking for pictures while wondering why our books have so many words.

In short, Sam is into everything.

As parents, we've developed an alarm of sorts - one that rings when there is too much silence. Typical exchanges at our house proceed like this:

Joy - Do you hear Sam?
Me - No, and I haven't for three minutes!
Joy - SAM?!?!?

We then run up the stairs to find what he's gotten into this time. This past week, it was Joy's makeup:
Yes, that's Sam of the blue, blue eyes and the red, red mouth. Ah well, such is life. And his lipstick application will prepare him for his future career in the theater. Or as a clown. Or as a cannibalistic killer. In any event, the picture certainly shows our excellent parenting skills.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

This is what happens when you stay up too late reading Harry Potter

I spent my weekend putting together and painting bookshelves I built for our front room. Joy aided me by painting and, more importantly, keeping me entertained through long hours of work by reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to me. We got so into the book that we read every chance we got and finally finished the book last night, staying up way past our bedtime to read and then talk through the book's implications and the answers provided to so many Potter questions.

A satisfying read, all in all. And in honor of finishing the last new bit of Harry Potter we'll ever get to read, here is an alternative, musical ending to Harry Potter courtesy of a dear friend from grad school days:

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Happy Birthday, John Cage!

If John Cage were still alive, we'd be celebrating his 95th birthday today. Several performing organizations have taken this date to produce interesting programs, so if you're in New York tonight, head over to the Kitchen and see Avant Media's concert that includes one of my favorite Cage scores, Four6. Since the Musicircus was enough concert organizing for me for this year, I'll mark the occasion with this simple video featuring one of the most interesting and underrated composers of the generation following Cage's, James Tenney, playing a bit of the Sonatas and Interludes:

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Cross on Over

In our society we are obsessed with naming and categorizing. In many ways, naming is how we define our world. I'll admit, that having not seen a good friend pregnant that it did not fully hit me that her children were real until they had names. There is something powerful in a name. That's why the genre of "Crossover" strikes me as a little surreal.

Crossover means, mildly, classical music that everyone might enjoy. Think Charlotte Church, Andrea Bocelli, the Three Tenors; all artists that achieved a modicum of mainstream success. Sometimes, as with Henryk Gorecki's Symphony no. 3 ("Sorrowful Songs"), a work that otherwise might have lain dormant, strikes the popular fancy and becomes a best-selling album. More often, however, crossover artists are carefully bred, groomed, and presented.

The reason I find crossover a strange name is that it implies that without the crossing over, without presenting the music in an easily consumed form, most people would not enjoy it. Think of crossover as the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese of music - it tastes like it has real cheese and is a similar color, but is in powdered form and appeals to kids and adults. There nothing inherently wrong with crossover; indeed, some of the artists are truly talented. But it bothers me that so many in music publishing, recording, and marketing believe that classical music is like spinach - something you should eat because it is good for you, but it needs a healthy dose of cheese for most people to eat it.

I fight against this stigma all the time. Music is music, as I tell my students, and good music is good music. I still find it amusing when my students are amazed that I know current pop music and actually enjoy it, that I sometimes listen to jazz and even old-style country music. I've tried to cultivate a wide variety of music and to enjoy it in all its forms and encourage my students to do the same. It's just tough when the very labels we use to describe our music work against this attitude.

So, in the spirit of classical crossover, here's my find of the week. East Village Opera Company takes opera's greatest hits and recasts them as rock anthems. Their premise is that if the composers were alive today, they'd all be writing Rent-like operas using drums and guitars. A shaky premise, but one that produces some interesting musical effects and more than a few chuckles. I wish I could show you their video for Verdi's "La donna e mobile," which is set in a strange netherworld of Orientalist-tropes that have nothing to do with the lyrics, but they won't let you embed it from youtube. So, here's a live performance. My favorite part? The fact that they've combined the pomposity of opera with the pomposity of rock a la Queen. The lead singer positively channels Freddie Mercury at one point:

And is it just me, or does lead singer Tyley Ross look an awful lot like U2's the Edge? Maybe it's just the hat.