Music, the Arts, and Ideas – Leonard Meyer (1967)

Leo Mey, the Music Guy.

Earlier this summer, I finished reading Meyer’s Music the Arts and Ideas.  Now Leonard Meyer is no slouch in the field of music theory—his classic text Emotion and Meaning in Music (1956) has been endlessly cited for convincing music theorists that there might actually be something to *gasp* empirical descriptions of musical works!  Of course, I jest; it’s only half-true.  The postmodern wave in the humanities was still a decade off when Meyer published his opus (the same year as George Miller’s The Magical Number Seven), and Claude Shannon’s introduction of information theory was still tickling the minds of humanities scholars, who thought we might have struck on an Urtheorie of culture.  Well, the short story is: no such luck.  Humanities types retreated into hermeneutics and hyperrelativism, and that seemed to be that for the time being.  Meantime, Leonard Meyer shifted his focus to studies of musical style, since meaning was too fraught with postmodern peril.  Oh, silly academes.

Which brings us to Music, the Arts, and Ideas, published in 1967.  The book is something of a ragtag collection of essays, but there are some common threads.  Most importantly, Meyer sets out to describe how he forsees culture in the postmodern age progressing.  This happens to be exactly the age in which I was born, so I figure I have a reasonably good standpoint from which to evaluate his statements.  But oh, what statements he makes.  Get a load of this one, chosen by flipping through and pointing with my eyes closed:

Though analytic formalism and transcendental particularism are clearly in conflict regarding the efficacy of causal explanation, it should be emphasized that they do not necessarily disagree about either the existence or the nature of causation.  (p.163)

Woo-ee! now that’s a humdinger there.  Meyer is an incredibly well-loved and much-missed personality, and deservedly so.  But boy does it take some effort to wade through his prose.  Here’s some reader’s digestif:

Easy-drinking format.

Meyer has learned from cross-cultural studies of the 20th century that sayings like “Change is the only constant” don’t really apply world-wide.  Sure, in Western history from the Romans on up, we’ve seen a huge parade of history, a flowing river of chaotically repeating eddies and flows.  But looking around, it seems like stasis in culture is far more “normal” than the constant bustling change that we’re used to in the Western world.

But what has changed, says Meyer, is that technology has grown to the point that we are able to look back and enjoy recordings of music produced forty years ago just as well as we can enjoy recordings of music produced yesterday.  All time periods and fads, all historical styles are equally accessible.

So in the end, he describes rather effectively what it looks like for culture to move to a steady-state system with local fluctuation.  He even predicts that, due to a “psychological accessibility of the past” (p191), all sorts of recycling of old culture will take place.

Is this an artist, an oeuvre, or a work?

Furthermore, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that “A multiplicity of styles, techniques, and movements, ranging from the cautiously conservative to the rampantly experimental, will exist side by side… past and present will, modifying one another, come together not only within culture, but within the oeuvre of a single artist and even within a single work of art.” (p209)

Sounds like remix culture to me.  More distressingly, he seems to have a certain Williamsburg, NY demographic pegged, but didn’t correctly predict the ultimately uncontrolled spiral of meta-snark and strangeloops of ironic kickballing.  We can compliment ourselves for those!

For Once In My Life

Paul Williams of the Temptations, singing For Once In My Life by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden.  The tune was originally composed for the Motown label, and Stevie Wonder’s version made it famous, but it has been performed and recorded by a variety of other outstanding artists.  This live rendition, Williams’s most famous, is from December of 1968.

The performance is monumental and triumphant!  It’s a cruel irony that Williams himself died at age 35 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  He had been experiencing marital problems at the time, and struggled his whole life with Sickle-Cell Disease.

Autotune Magic

The Gregory Brothers, more popularly known as the people who Auto-Tune the News, are not only satirically cunning, but they use their musicianship in a particularly effective manner. If you don’t troll YouTube like I do, seeking out memes and delighting in double rainbows, Auto-Tune the News is when popular/recent news clips are set to music and the speech is altered to jive with the music. It’s pretty hip; here are some of their works.

Anywho, these guys are more than satirists, but pretty savvy musicians. It takes a creative mind to come up with compositions, then they splice-slice-dice live non-musical footage into the compositions. The rhythms need to be kept to some extent so the speech can still be understood, but there are snips and repetitions so it slides right into the musical groove. It also allows satiric emphasis- you hear what the creators want you to hear again and again. The visual element gets spiced up by having the creators green-screen themselves to provide musical/satiric foils to the actual news bits. The music makes it memorable and catchy, but the real point is the political satire.

While a lot of the messages are liberal in nature, the musical style is pretty standard pop music. The heavy electronics, the ubiquitous auto-tune, and the ostinato and repetitions are very “pop”. I think the music genre lends a topical aura to the source material: that which is literally topical. While it definitely makes a splash today, the musical workmanship in the future will probably only be admired for its innovation, rather than as a work of art. You don’t go listen to old episodes of Auto Tune the News because the news is out of date, therefore the video is out of date. Topical becomes stale, stale becomes history, history becomes retro, and retro churns out hipsters and thrift stores, and who really likes thrift stores? Really? You just want to admire old things for being old. “These dresses are so silly! Let’s go get a bubble tea.”

Out of date isn’t necessarily bad. Some choice phrases (“Very thin ice,” “Hide yo kids, hide yo wife”) make the music a little catchy, but you sing that on the streets and people will give you the crazy eye. [aside: I may have turned the auto-tune remix of the double rainbow clip above into my ringtone. Listen to the end, and you’ll see the whole troupe doing a live version. ] But still, there used to be lots of classical compositions that “quoted” other popular composers in their works…and nobody knows who those quoting composers are. They were topical. Now they’re forgotten (mostly).

Old clips of the Daily Show? Entertaining only because of the gags, not the news. There’s a huge difference between John Stewart making an impeachment joke about Clinton when Clinton is in office versus out of office for 8 years. It’s old. Yeah. Get with the times.

Portamental is Born

We are now Portamental—and an official dot-com!  What is Portamental?

A portamento is fluidity of pitch in music.  It’s a slide from one pitch to another, blurring the boundaries between notes.  Portamental is mental fluidity, playing with concepts, eschewing quantization for analogue, or even vice-versa.  Don’t worry, though, the SmarterGuides are still here.

Why the change? A change in the status of the collective.  I’m at Ohio State University, pondering the ins and outs of academia, and busying myself with the literature of music theory.  In particular, I’m immersed in academic literature in music perception and cognition.  But this leads also to mathematical and computational modeling, philosophy of language, evolutionary theory, and social psychology.  Ridiculously exciting, but also ridiculously insulating, if we’re not careful.  Others have transitioned and moved about, and need a broader platform.

So we’ll move about, and be fluid.  Portamental.

That old honkey-tonk

I just finished watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I must say is an awesome TV series. Evidently the movie was a shame, which pains me considering that the TV series was so good. It’s the kids of series where you don’t want the show to end because you’ll miss the characters so much. Kind of like leaving summer camp.

The music in it, while not particularly epic or amazing, was perfect for the show and I wouldn’t have asked for anything else. Synth sounds, traditional Asian instruments, and artfully stylized character motifs all arise naturally, without being too stilted. Huge ups for a great TV show!

I really need you tonight.

I really need you.

First-time arrangements, Third Installment

~I wholeheartedly support all kinds of research that you can do before putting notes to a page. Steal ideas! Save yourself time! Don’t reinvent the wheel with every new arrangement, especially if you’re cutting your teeth for the first time.

~Ostinatos, or repeated bits of music, make teaching and retaining a lot easier…so you should do it! Do a single measure motif, then repeat it for a section. Every part can have a different ostinato (which makes it sound flashy), but it drastically cuts down on the amount of material you need to devise.

~What may seem less important than notes- the dynamics, shaping, and syllables- are just as important as the notes. Don’t forget them.

~Be enthusiastic about yoru arrangement, even if it’s your first. Attitude changes a lot, even if it’s a crummy arrangement. If you come in tentative, your singers will be tentative, and your performance will be tentative. Tentative performances suck.

~Try to avoid putting the highest notes of the arrangement near the beginning or middle. Let them be a literal high-point near the end of the arrangement.

~Arrangements take time. It’s ok if you’re spending hours and hours on it. That’s normal! Just keep working until you believe that it is ready- don’t try to finish it in an hour.

First-Time Arranging Suggestions, Part Deux

As far as first-time arranging tips, I’d advise against taking the basses too low.  Even if they have a solid low E, the chords will ring better with the basses up the octave, and they’ll sing better, too!  The same goes for the low F and frequently the low G as well.

If you’re stuck for ideas (esp. in the verse), you could always add some sort of lyrical echo.  There are these long pauses between each short phrase the solo has, so I would probably experiment with little counter-melodies repeating the lyrics the soloist just sang. (I would probably wait to use this kind of effect until the 2nd or 3rd verse)

I also second Yuri’s suggestion of singing first.  If you write it first and then try to add vocal syllables, it will tend to sound sort of unnatural — Instead, try to sing something that feels/sounds natural to you, then write it down.

Don’t be afraid to shorten the introduction.

Consider cutting the instrumental interlude(s).  Guitar solos almost always come off as corny, which could ruin the mood of the song.  If you have someone who can do a mellow, authentic scat, that could work well.

Other than that, I’d suggest searching YouTube for any and all versions of the song that could give you ideas.  Live performances, acoustic versions, or a cappella arrangements.

Lisztomania Mashup

Don’t miss Phoenix — and get their album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.  Those French know what’s up!

Here’s a mashup:

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Update: It’s offline—another case of major industries sniping down creative remix projects with legal nastygrams.  But that’s another story entirely.

First-Time Arranging Advice

Your first arrangement won't be ambitious as this one.

Your first arrangement won't be ambitious as this one.

A reader wrote in requesting some pointers on arranging for his high school a cappella group, and I thought I’d post a few here: advice for writing your FIRST arrangement.  These tips do not necessarily apply to ALL arrangements and are not general rules, but are good ways to make sure nothing goes too haywire from the start.  Enjoy!

  • The best advice for somebody who hasn’t tried it before would be 1) to map out the structure of the piece, 2) to figure out the chords and make the arrangement conform, and 3) don’t write women’s parts — even the sopranos — higher than an an A or B.  Things can get very messy very fast.  Exceptions exist, of course.
  • Make sure vowels match between parts.  Have at most two different vowels happening at once, but really writing a homophonic texture is good.
  • The way I arrange is by singing first.  So, sing along to the original song, improvising a line that you think might belong in the arrangement.  Then, I go back and expand it through harmonization, and/or fill in the chord with other parts.
  • More specific to the song you’re working on, try to find a midi of it with a decent piano transcription, or find piano sheet music.  This can help take a LOT of work out of the project.
  • Your first arrangement will probably have lots of repeats in it, and that’s okay.  You can repeat a section COMPLETELY and just instruct the choir to sing different vowels, and it’s a good quick way to make the piece sound like it’s growing.  Sustained oos can turn into sustained ohs or ahs.
  • The most important part about writing a good arrangement is making it FUN for everybody to sing, since that makes all the difference in how well they do it.  So, make sure you sing every single part of your written arrangement on your own, and see if you enjoy it.  If you don’t, fix it.