I like to muse on lots of music-related subjects: everything from how a composer turns a short idea into a large piece to how music changes our experience of time. For more about me and my music, visit my website: http://plumleafmusic.com.
I like to muse on lots of music-related subjects: everything from how a composer turns a short idea into a large piece to how music changes our experience of time. For more about me and my music, visit my website: http://plumleafmusic.com.
What is the difference between "major" and "minor" in music? Is it just a question of mood - whether a song is happy or sad? Or is there something else to it?
First, let's take a look at the technical side of Major and Minor:
The distinction between major and minor is one of the fundamental concepts in Western music theory. A major key, like C major, is based on the major scale, a series of half steps and whole steps that follow a particular pattern - but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Let's start with something smaller - a major and minor third - and compare them. The "third" is an interval in music. An "interval" is the distance between any two notes, for example C and E. Intervals are measured in half steps (or whole steps, since 2 half steps make a whole step). “Half steps” are two notes that are the closest to each other in pitch. On the piano, a white note and the black note that's right next to it are a half step apart: for example, C to C-sharp. C to D would be a whole step since we had to skip a black note to get there.
In the case of C to E we have 2 whole steps, one from C to D and then another from D to E. (This is also the equivalent of 4 half steps). We call this interval a "major third" because they are exactly 2 whole steps apart. This is also one of the most common intervals found in music - in every sort of music you can imagine. Check out the dots on the keyboard:
Let's take a different interval - let's go from C to E-flat. This is a shorter distance because we have a whole step from C to D, but then there's only a half step from D to E-flat, since E-flat is a half step below E (flats by definition are a half-step below the note for which they're named: for example, E-flat is the black note just left of white note E). We call this interval, from C to E-flat, a "minor third" because these two notes are 1 and 1/2 steps (or 3 half steps) apart. This is one of the other most commonly found intervals in music. More dots:
Comparing these two intervals, the "major third" and the "minor third" is interesting. For one thing, they are just a small difference in distance, but the sound they produce is very different. Also, they are the foundation for major and minor triads (3-note chords) which are used in every sort of music from rock, pop, jazz to folk and classical.
If you play a major chord, for example a C major chord (or "C chord") on a guitar or at the piano, you have within the chord the "major third" we just described. On the other hand, if you play a minor chord, for example C minor, you have in that chord the "minor third" we talked about. [Note: There's another important interval called a Fifth, which, in the C Chord would be from C to G.] Here are the notes of the C chord:
Now listen to the C major chord (above) - how does it sound? Next, play the C minor chord (below) and listen - what's the difference? Many people say the major chord sounds "brighter" or even happy while the minor chord sounds "darker" or maybe sad. Do you agree? Well, that is something of a mystery, especially when you consider that fact that the only difference between the two is one little half step.
So, what is at the heart of this difference between major and minor? Is it just the mood? Can we say that a song that is happy and upbeat will be in a major key, while a song that is sad and melancholy will be in a minor key? Well, I've found that it's not that simple as you'll see in my song list below. Most songs have both major and minor chords in them. Technically, the difference is in the interval, as we saw above: the major interval is larger while the minor interval is smaller. But why should that matter?
Another factor is what key the song is in. The “key” has to do with the chords used in the song and also the notes of the melody. Songs are usually either in a major key or a minor key. For example, you could say a song is “in C minor”. Without getting into the details, a clue to what key a song is in lies within what chord the song starts and ends with. For example, a song that starts and ends with a C minor chord most likely is in the key of C minor - lots of exceptions to this, but it tends to be the case more often than not.
Here’s a list of songs! First some really popular tunes that I also think are great. I’ll give the artist, title, whether it’s in a major key or a minor key and the mood (which is my own opinion, of course!).
Elton John – “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” – sad (but resolved) song in a major key – this one is actually a little tricky because the chord progression is fairly complex.
Adele – “Someone Like You” - sad song but it's in a major key - however there are a fair number of minor chords in there. Interestingly, a lot of sad songs happen to be in a major key. Adele's voice is what makes this so great.
Eurhythmics – “Sweet Dreams (are made of this)” - upbeat song in a minor key - a little mystery - not really happy or sad. Come to think of it, I haven’t found too many songs that I would call truly “happy” in a minor key.
Eagles – “Hotel California” - beautiful lamenting in a minor key. Kinda sad.
Beatles - “Yesterday” - sad song in a major key.
Bob Dylan – “Blowin’ in the Wind” - folk song in a major key, kind of a sad sentiment.
Janis Joplin – “Piece of My Heart” - medium rock, major key. Mad and rockin'.
And here are some of my personal favorites (!):
Jimi Hendrix – “Purple Haze” - upbeat in a minor key, just rockin', weird and mysterious.
The Doors – “Break on Thru” - upbeat minor key, rockin' and jazzy. Kinda mysterious also.
The Cure – “Just Like Heaven” - upbeat major key, pretty happy. Rockin'.
John Lennon – “Imagine” - major key but sad and slow.
Mazzy Star – “Fade Into You” - sad song in a major key.
Tommy Santee Klaws – “Straight Lines” – minor key, beautiful, kinda sad but there’s a glimmer of hope. (I’m a huge fan of Tommy’s).
Bill Withers – “Grandma’s Hands” – wonderful song in a minor key, slow, a little sad.
or Bill Withers – “You Can’t Just Laugh it Away” – lovely sad/happy (?) song in a major key.
Sonic Youth – “Teenage Riot” - happy song (finally!) in a major key. Upbeat and rockin’ (after the weird intro).
Twisted Sister - "We're Not Gonna Take it" - Wow, really dated (1984!) but it's a happy one - major key and rockin' - a lot of fun.
Beatles – “Let it Be” - sad slow song in major key.
Gershwin – “A Foggy Day” – slow and a little sad in a major key. I like Oscar Peterson’s version on his “Easy Walker” album.
Beethoven – Pathetique Sonata, 2nd movement, "Adagio cantabile" - Ok not a “song” per se, but sad, beautiful, and in a major key.
So the next time you listen to a song - ask yourself what mood or feeling the song conveys - and then, find out what chords the song has and whether it starts with a minor chord or a major chord or what combination of major and minor the song uses - also what key the song is in..
The mystery to the mood of the song may be found in the chords..
I'm releasing my first album, a collection of 12 original piano pieces. Through the course of creating the pieces and making the recordings, I found myself grappling with questions about being a composer versus being an improviser and performer. In the end, I found I had to change the way I was thinking about music composition in order to bring out my artistic voice - I decided to leave certain elements of the music out of the written part and let them happen spontaneously in the performance.
Many composers have experimented with music notation by leaving certain elements of the music up to the performer. Morton Feldman is a great 20th Century example of this. In several of his pieces, he removed the meter, which tells the musician how many beats to play or whether the piece is in 4/4 time or 3/4 time, and the rhythm, leaving them to the performer. He also created his own graphical system of music notation using squares where each square represents a period of time. Within each square is a number, representing how many notes are to be played in that period of time. One work he created using this system is a series of pieces called "Intersections" (1951-53). Another composer who experimented with graphical representation as opposed to standard musical notation was Karlheinz Stockhausen. Stockhausen wrote a piece entitled "Kontakte" (1958-60) where he had charted volume changes and timbre changes graphically for electronics and percussion - he also included detailed instructions on how to place the speakers (there were many) for the piece to be performed. In the case of Feldman, the piece is notated but there is an element of indeterminacy - that is, we don't know exactly which notes the performer will choose to play. By contrast, with Stockhausen, the piece is fully notated but there are graphical elements with room for varying interpretations particularly with regard to the electronics. Nonetheless, Stockhausen was very specific about what he wanted from the musicians so, in effect, he minimized the element of indeterminacy, although it's still there. This all begs the question: exactly what is music composition?
Getting back to my music, when I first set out to create a collection of new works, I thought I'd compose the music much as I do for any other piece. So I composed 12 piano pieces - notes on paper. But I wasn't satisfied. The pieces were nice, but they sounded a bit too rigid and they didn't reveal the voice that emerges when I'm improvising. So instead, I wrote several short themes or ideas that would serve as triggers for improvisation. In some cases they were just 4 or 6 measures; in other cases, I composed an entire minute or two of music. Each idea, with improvisation, resulted in a substantial piece. I practiced with these musical 'thoughts' and then went into the recording studio and let them flow.
Using short ideas or the beginning of a piece rather than trying to compose the entire piece, I found that I was able to play more naturally and allow my 'improv voice' to speak. The short idea written out was the spark that set my fingers in motion and started me down a path. Each piece had its own voice, too, one that I tried to be sensitive to. I hope that came out.
Here it is! "Static Planet" - CD or download:
I was inspired by a video post of a 1980 performance by The Cure before they got really big. It was before Robert Smith started wearing his hair and make-up for which he became so famous along with his great song-writing and stage performance. I noticed, at this stage in the band's development (they had only been together since '76) that the thing that made them so great was their sound. It was not rock 'n roll in the "classic rock" 70's way (The Eagles, Led Zeppelin) and yet it was not punk either (Sex Pistols) although the members site punk as a major influence when they started, coming out of Crawley, West Sussex in England.
The Cure's sound was different and unique and I started to think about how they achieved that sound. I noticed Smith used chorus (a pedal effect mimicking the sound of multiple guitars) on his guitar instead of distortion, which created a twangy yet mysterious sound; and occasionally a flanger (another pedal effect), which created a washy, murky effect. He had a delay (similar to echo, but you control the timing) on his voice, but it was done carefully so that you only heard it when he explicated a word and then stopped singing for a moment, like at the end of a phrase, which gave the delay a chance to work effectively. The vocals, as a result, highlighted Smith's distinct natural voice and were enhanced by an eerie echo-effect. The instrumentation was simple, Smith on guitar and vocal, Simon Gallup on bass, Lol Tolhurst on drums and Matthieu Hartley on keyboards (Cure fans, please correct if I'm wrong, this was July 1980); no horns or strings, of course. The drums had a "tight" sound - that is, they weren't loud and "boomy" but rather crisp and clean. The bass was also "clean" in the sense that it had little or no distortion (rock without distortion must have been quite a concept at that time - I know other groups were doing it as well). Also, the fact that many of the songs were in minor keys and the melodies were minor, adds to the dark and brooding feel. The beats for most songs were also more driving and machine-like rather than laid-back and loose. The synthesizer (keyboard) sound was characterized by a more "futuristic" sound which was achieved by triangle-shaped ('sawtooth') wave forms and 'frequency sweeps' with envelopes that went from square to sawtooth, as opposed to the rounded, "freaky" psychedelic sounds that came from the early '70s. The look of the band is also worth mentioning - short hair instead of long, and Smith had angular tapered pants and suit jacket, a far cry from bell-bottoms and puffy shirts that came out of the late '60s/early '70s.
I also started to think about the ethos, or the cultural statement behind this music. What was this music about? It was not overtly political, like the folk and rock of the '60s. Nor was it necessarily meant to shock the parents or society, like punk was. And, of course, it was not the feel-good, "let's party" mentality of Kiss. Rather, it seems as though this period of music that developed in the years 1976 - 1980 may have been the first rock sound that was based purely on aesthetics, or sound, rather than part of a clearly defined culture (sex, drugs and rock 'n roll) or political movement (end the war in Vietnam, overthrow the Establishment). Other bands that took shape during this period, most notably Joy Division and Talking Heads, share this same attention to sound and "rock as art" ethos - post-punk, post-industrial, and, in a way, post-society, where the sound is central and the culture surrounding that sound is just a side-effect.
I'm not a rock scholar, and I'm sure much has been written on this subject, but this idea struck me. Perhaps one of the reasons this period of time resonates with me so strongly is because it covers the first four years of my life and, consequently, the sound of this period greatly influenced the sounds of the bands that I grew up listening to, and the MTV generation. Here's that youtube video - The Cure is the opening act, I hope the person who posted doesn't mind:
My website, which includes info about me and audio clips of my music, is: http://plumleafmusic.com
Many composers have written music that is inspired by a place, such as a country, city or culture. Just think of Dvorak's New World Symphony which portrays the wonders of America from the perspective of a Hungarian composer living in New York City. I also think of Rimsky-Korsakov's Spanish Capriccio, Bartok's Hungarian Dances or Borodin's Prince Igor and its famous Polovtsian Dances. Other composers write music with a nationalistic bent stemming from pride of their homeland. I'm thinking of Sibelius' Finlandia, or any one of the works by Mussorgsky, a member of the "The Five", who sought to create music that was distinctly Russian. Night on Bare Mountain is a favorite Mussorgsky piece of mine, later adapted by Rimsky-Korsakov, another Russian Five member (as was Borodin). Other composers simply use their compositional prowess to make an allusion to a particular style, such as Bach's French Suites or his Italian Concerto. There's also modern examples, such as Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain, and more kitschey or fun examples like Andre Kostelanetz's "Lure of the Tropics", an LP which features orchestral arrangements of melodies from various tropical locales (kitsch aside, these are very imaginative, well-performed works).
Crossing over to Mainland China, there's Hu Deng-tiao's Three Refrains on the Songs of Yangguan Pass for Chinese chamber ensemble. There are also modern arrangements of folk melodies from various cultures, like Norman Luboff's "Songs of the World", an LP with choral arrangements of folk melodies from Japan, Morroco, India, Germany and many others. There are lots of contemporary composers writing music that is inspired by places, like Bright Sheng's The Singing Gobi Desert. Some wonderful examples coming from Bay Area composers include Gabriella Lena Frank's Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout and Francis Wong's Shanghai Story which chronicles Wong's father's experiences growing up in 1920's Shanghai. A very recent example is Joan Huang's Along the river During the Qingming Festival which describes a very specific time and place: an ancient festival in China and all its goings on as depicted by a Song Dynasty scroll painting.
There are so many ways a composer can draw on an aspect of a place. One way is to make use of the folk melodies found in that culture as thematic material, which carry not just melodic but also rhythmic possibilities, for which Bartok is famous. Or, using today's technology, a composer could use sound clips of folk music from a particular place and stitch them together into a sort of sound collage (adhering to copyright laws, of course - although much traditional folk music is considered to be in the public domain, the sound recording would most likely belong to someone) or weave it into a piece composed for acoustic instruments to be performed live, like Carl Stone's piece Sarris for Chinese instruments and pre-recorded sound. And with the internet, it's easier than ever to research other cultures, purchase or stream music and other sound.
The San Francisco Bay Area has many great places to portray through music: there's the city of San Francisco with all its artful uniqueness, the Marin headlands and its natural beauty, and Oakland with its lively cultural milieu. Last year, I composed a piece entitled Standing at the Gate for Chinese sextet: yangqin, guzheng, erhu, pipa, dizi, sheng and percussion (guzheng doubling percussion). Standing at the Gate portrays the waterway connecting the Pacific Ocean to the San Francisco Bay, known as the Golden Gate, and its standing as a symbol of the many cultural influences found in the Bay Area. The 12-minute piece is in three parts: the first strain portrays the majestic Golden Gate; the second depicts the busy commerce of a thriving city and the third portion is a rhythmic dance where every instrument gets a chance to play the theme representing the coming together of various cultures. Melody of China premiered Standing at the Gate at Old First Church in San Francisco on December 7th, 2012. I'd like to share a brief excerpt from the piece. This is from the part of the piece that represents both the bustle and the wonder of the City by the Bay:
For other samples of my music, visit my web site: http://emtones.com.
When you go to a concert having seen the press photo of a string quartet in formal attire do you expect to hear Mozart and Brahms? When you go to a show where there's a saxophone, piano, upright bass and drums on stage do you expect to hear Coltrain and Ellington? What about a small group of musicians with spiky hair, electric guitars and drums - Greenday? To what extent do the instruments on stage dictate what you will hear or what you expect to hear? Are you ever surprised by what you hear? If you went to the symphony, would you be shocked to hear a Beatles song? One of the ways a music group stands out is the interesting or unexpected repertoire they play. If you saw a jazz quartet suddenly bust out with a Lynard Skynard song, wouldn't you raise your eyebrows? Or, how about a string quartet performing a Lady Gaga hit? Actually, I'm pretty sure that last one's been done. Anyway, I find it fascinating to think about the various styles of music that are out there and what a musical group might do or not do to get people's attention. On the flip side, a music group may decide to stay well within their chosen style and do it really well. After all, there's nothing like a Thelonius Monk tuned played true to form by a really tight jazz combo. What gets me really excited thinking about chamber music today, are the groups who go a little bit against their own style (so to speak) without betraying it. That is to say, they defy stereotype but they do it by being who they are.
There's an arts organization here in the Bay Area called Asian Improv aRts led by saxophonist/composer Francis Wong. They present lots of performing arts but they mainly focus on performances by Asian, particularly Chinese, dancers, musicians and composers. One of the artists they present is pianist/composer Jon Jang. Jon Jang Quartet, with Jon Jang and Francis Wong performing, premiered Jang's newly commissioned work celebrating the contributions of Chinese workers to the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad. The piece was premiered at the 2012 Chinatown Music Festival in San Francisco. What makes Asian Improv aRts and Jon Jang Quartet so special is here you have a Chinese group of musicians performing not just jazz standards - but they do that, too - but also new jazz compositions by Asian composers. It's like a whole new genre - oh, and by the way they are amazing musicians.
Now, shifting to chamber music in the more traditional sense - let's get back to that string quartet I mentioned earlier. What if they took off the formal attire and put on colorful or hip street clothes and spiky hair (maybe?) and specialized in performing new cutting edge works by contemporary composers. For example, how about a piece where the quartet performs outside at a busy intersection with one string player on each corner? Or, what if they play with their instruments mic'd and distorted with computer software so that it sounded like they were playing under water? Well, there are many string quartets who do wonderful things like this. I'm thinking of groups like Kronos quartet and Del Sol quartet - they are pushing the boundaries but I don't think they've experimented with performing at a busy intersection yet. Although I do remember a piece Del Sol did where each member was standing on opposite ends of the theatre - so, as an audience member, you had to turn around to see some of them and you couldn't see them all at once. My point is, they are not a string quartet in the traditional sense - they represent a new style of chamber music, one that is more experimental and less predictable. Then there's Earplay, the chamber group that specializes in performing 20th Century, 21st Century repertoire and new work by contemporary composers. They perform John Cage, Morton Feldman, George Crumb and a lot of composers that you've never heard of; they are really, really dedicated to new music. The music you expect to hear at an Earplay concert is always something very unusual, which brings me to the Other Minds festival where you can expect the unexpected. I remember the concert at Other Minds a few years ago where a drummer performed an entire piece with drum sticks but no drum, just electronics and it was incredible, very engaging and memorable.
Now, if you saw a poster of Chinese musicians with Chinese instruments, what would you expect to hear? That's an interesting question and depends on what people associate with Chinese music. There's Peking (Beijing) Opera which a lot of people think of but that's not what a typical Chinese music group does. What mood does Chinese music convey? Is the music sad or happy? Loud or soft? What are the different instruments? Are they harsh or soothing, mellow or bright? Well, we need only do a little research and we'll have an idea of what to expect: there's erhu (2-string bowed fiddle), yangqin (hammered dulcimer), pipa (Chinese lute), sheng (mouth organ - a real eye-opener), dizi (bamboo flutes) and guzheng (zither, predecessor to the Japanese koto). But even that does not address the issue of repertoire. Will they perform ancient Chinese music? Or Chinese pop songs? Or, new pieces by living composers? There's a group in San Francisco that performs on Chinese instruments and they do traditional repertoire but a big part of the programming is newly commissioned works by composers who are very much alive!
Melody of China is the group I'm thinking of. They'll be performing with Earplay on December 7th, 2012 @ 8pm at Old First Church in San Francisco. They're performing Joan Huang's new work Along the River During the Qingming Festival (2012) for Chinese and Western instruments. Along the River portrays the festive spirit and worldly commotion of the ancient Qingming Festival. Melody of China is also premiering my new piece Standing at the Gate (2012) for Chinese sextet. Standing At the Gate draws inspiration from the waterway connecting the Pacific and the Bay known as the Golden Gate and its standing as a symbol of the many cultural influences found in San Francisco. Old First Church is a really nice venue - perfect for chamber music performances. For tickets, visit their website at http://www.oldfirstconcerts.org.
Here's a link to my own music website: http://www.emtones.com
Is there anyone you know who does not have a piano or keyboard in their home? It has to be the most commonly found instrument in the American home besides the guitar. It's been a fixture in our homes, schools, churches and our culture for well over a century. If you're reading this, chances are you've taken piano lessons at some point in your life or at least you're familiar with the instrument. Vocalists on reality TV shows, classical musicians and rock stars all use it. The piano enjoyed a surge of interest in the late 19th Century in America just as ragtime music was becoming popular. In those days, instead of downloading a song on the internet, you would go to the drugstore and buy a copy of the latest sheet music, like Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag or his famous The Entertainer. Sheet music was big business at that time and just as everyone has a computer today for downloading and listening to music, in those days, most everyone had a piano - of course, someone in your house had to know how to play - but wait, if you were wealthy, you could get a "player" piano and it would play itself! Outside the home, Vaudeville acts, which were still popular at that time, often used piano accompaniment.
Sheet music cover for Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin. This low-resolution image was taken from the widipedia page: wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Joplin.
Then, with the rise of the American middle class in the 1920's popular music continued to develop with famous vocalists like Bessie Smith singing tunes for which you could buy the sheet music that always had the words, the melody and a piano accompaniment. At that time, also, you had the victrola or phonograph, which, along with the radio, certainly stole some of the piano's thunder for household entertainment. However, the piano was still used a lot in bars, restaurants and even movie theaters to provide the sound track for silent films until "talkies" (movies with sound) took over. Broadway, with its song and dance numbers, always used a piano (and still does), especially for auditions and rehearsals but in the orchestra as well. George Gershwin was an important part of the development of Broadway, jazz and modern composition during this period with piano pieces such as his famous Rhapsody in Blue. The advent of jazz music brought on by such luminaries as Louis Armstrong (who played trumpet), Duke Ellington (who did play the piano) and King Oliver and his band continued to fuel the growing demand for the piano. The number of great jazz musicians who made their name with the piano throughout the 20th Century are too numerous to list here but how about James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Bud Powell and later McCoy Tyner, Thelonius Monk, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock just to get started? Then there are the pop legends who made their name at the piano like Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Elton John.
If we cross the ocean over to Europe and trace the origins of the piano, it was the first keyboard instrument that could play both loud and soft. It's predecessor was the harpsichord (aside from the pipe organ), whose strings were plucked and had only one dynamic level (or volume). The piano, however, had a system of hammers that struck the string so that if you pressed the keys lightly the sound was softer, and if you pressed harder, the sound was louder. Mozart was composing music right around the time the piano as we know it was coming into being in the late 18th Century. His piano sonatas are still performed widely (along with Beethoven's piano sonatas which are probably just as popular among pianists today). By the way, my favorite classical pianist of all time has to be Caudio Arrau. His recordings of the Beethoven sonatas are, for me, the definition of piano performance. Need I mention Horowitz and Rubenstein? Getting back to composers, some are known solely for their piano compositions. Frederic Chopin was one, whose etudes, preludes and nocturnes include some of the most beautiful piano music every written. Franz Liszt was another, whose sweeping and virtuosic pieces made full use of the range of the instrument. And that's another important point, the piano has the broadest range of pitch from its low A to its high C of any instrument in the orchestra (not including computers). Interestingly, the piano is in the percussion family right alongside the timpani (kettle drums), trap set (drum set), glockenspiel (bells) and xylophone, among many others.
So what is it about the piano that's endured these many years? Well, for one thing, it's big and hard to move, so once you've committed to having one, you've got it for awhile. People often view the instrument as a nice piece of furniture. Also, it's not difficult to sit down casually and press the keys to make sound, so even someone who doesn't play can "mess around" on a piano. I think its versatility as an effective instrument for composers, arrangers, singers and entertainers makes the piano a mainstay in our culture. And how about in Asia, where there's a strong demand for Western music? The famous pianist Lang Lang has ushered in a new generation of young Chinese pianists and let's not forget the Korean pianist/composer Yiruma and his popularity, especially among teenagers in the U.S. So, we could even say that the piano isn't going anywhere especially when you consider our global economy with all of its cross-cultural developments.
I've been composing a series of piano pieces and I'd like to share an excerpt from one of them. This piece makes use of the piano's broad range and rich sonority. It's entitled A Dragonfly Crosses the Ocean. Here's the first minute:
Eric Myers, A Dragonfly Crosses the Ocean (2011, excerpt)
My website: www.emtones.com
I fist saw the famous painting The Persistence of Memory (1931) by Salvadore Dali at the MOMA in New York when I was in college. I must have been around 19 or 20 at the time. The tour guide was talking about the painting but I don't remember what he said about it. What I do remember is the impression this unusual surrealist work had on me. I was truly intrigued by the watches that appear to be melting or made of rubber and the ants which perhaps represent the passing of time and the decay that is inevitable. The way objects are placed on a beach is also very interesting (a place Dali used in a lot of his paintings, presumably the Mediterranean coast in Spain where he lived). What is Dali saying about time? Was he saying that time is flexible or has no fixed form? What is he saying about memory? We know that memory requires time. Is he telling us that time, like memory, is a constant in life and that it has no clear beginning, and, so far as we know, no ending, and so, by that logic, has no clear definition or form. What is time made of? Minutes? Hours? Days? What is the standard for time - Greenwich Mean Time? And what does that mean exactly? Without veering off into my favorite Taoist philosophical musings, we can at least establish that Dali was making a statement about time and, music being a time-based art, and given my preoccupation with music and my ongoing interest in time, I suppose this painting struck a chord with me.
Salvadore Dali's The Persistence of Memory (1931). This low-resolution image taken from the Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Persistence_of_Memory
Part of my interest in The Persistence of Memory stems from my belief that music can have a direct impact in how we experience time (see my blog entry "Time Perception and Music"). Music can help us forget ourselves and our troubles, if only for a short time; it can also help us to sort through a difficult period, as music therapy seeks to do, or just help us achieve a more relaxed state of mind. In terms of perception, music can make time seem to go faster or slower depending on a variety of factors (as I talk about in "Time Perception") including tempo, rhythm, dynamics, instrumentation and other factors we probably can't imagine. Music can also make us feel nervous or uneasy, depending on our preconceptions and how "wierd" or "crazy" the music may sound to us - how about a piece of music that uses finger nails scratching a blackboard as an instrument? Music can also be incredibly boring - elevator music, grocery store "muzack", doctor's office waiting room selections, or even a lot of classical music can be boring to people who aren't used to hearing it. I find the average radio station incredibly boring and unimaginative as they play the same 15 or 20 songs over and over.
So, music is made from time (and other things) and is experienced in time. Given that fact, music has a huge influence on how we experience time as well as our conception of what time is. Dali's painting, for me, creates a visual reference for the flexible and almost formless nature of time, an idea to which I'm very attached (but I still try to get to my appointments on time!) and it's an idea that I often draw on in my own music. I was so intrigued by The Persistence of Memory that i composed a piano piece as a direct response to it. The piece, entitled Ice Cream Clock, creates a rather dark image of time with its stark notes and strange harmonies. The rapid, descending 32nd note phrases are a musical image for the melting or drooping of the clock in Dali's painting and also stands for the pliability of time, or at least, our experience of it. The repetitive chromatic theme is intended to bring to mind the ticking of a clock, bell tower chimes and the passage of time. What do you think of this painting? Do you see any relevance to the images in the painting and this excerpt from my piano piece? Following is the first two minutes:
Eric Myers, Ice Cream Clock (2011, excerpt)
My website: www.emtones.com
I remember when I first saw Disney's film Fantasia (1940). I was so disappointed that there was no story, no characters, no evil emperor, lovely princess or daring hero and no funny little creatures clowning around. Actually, there were a lot of these things in Fantasia, it's just that they didn't all support one long narrative or fairy tale. So, for this reason, I was disappointed as a kid who was around 9 years old - but my disappointment slowly turned to a vague curiosity. I asked myself, "if Disney isn't making a movie about a prince or princess, then what is it about?" And that's an important question: what is anything - a story, music, art - really about? It turns out the creators of Fantasia had no intention of telling one story, but they did tell a lot of little stories, like the part of the film that tells the entertaining tale of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, about a young magician's apprentice who gets in over his head. Each piece of music in the film has its own setting (or backdrop), characters (even if the "characters" are simply geometric objects), and a narrative of sorts (sometimes just movement). It wasn't long before the musician in me recognized what this film was about - music! And once I recognized that fact, I was able to enjoy the film for what it was - the visual representation of music through the art of animation. Needless to say, much credit is due to all the visual artists who worked on the film and their important role in the telling of each story. To this day, I still admire Disney for producing such an imaginative work for youngsters - and to think how it affected my musical development at that age (!).
This all begs the question, thinking about music in general - what is it supposed to be about? Well, what is art about? There's often some background or story behind any piece of music or art (program notes you read at a performance, for example). And since we're on the subject of music appreciation for kids, the first piece that comes to my mind is Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf for orchestra and narrator. Now, here we have a very clear narrative, and, in fact, spoken words are part of the work. This Russian tale tells the story of a boy named Peter, who is warned by his grandfather not to go out into the forest for fear of the hungry wolf that lives there. But, Peter ignores his father's warning and goes anyway. He ends up killing the wolf and becomes the town's smallest hero. Getting back to our original question of whether or not a story can be told through music alone - well, if you remove the narrator's voice from this work, you aren't likely to get a story about a young boy, his grandfather and a wolf. Some explanation would certainly be required to stimulate the listener's imagination. Incidentally, I love how Prokofiev portrays each character in the story using a different instrument in the orchestra: Peter is represented by a lively motif in the strings, the grandfather by a double bassoon and the wolf by a brooding brass melody. While we're still dependent on words to tell this story, the instruments of the orchestra do a lot to create depth, wonder and momentum in the telling of the story.
Next, I'm thinking of another Russian composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and his incredibly popular orchestral suite, The Nutcracker. With The Nutcracker you have several shorter works, each with its own sound, style and each lending itself to a particular image or idea. Subsequently, a ballet with a cast of characters grew around these wonderful little pieces and we have the popular ballet by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov that we're all familiar with today. What interests me about The Nutcracker is the fact that each piece is so distinct from one another. For example, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy has a very sweet and light melody that exudes mystery, delight and awe. As a contrast, there's Trepak, the fiery and exciting Russian dance. Going from one piece to another is akin to changing scenes in a play as the ballet does. This moving from one "place" to another conveys the type of story-telling that I think only music can - one without words, where the feeling reigns supreme. Another great piece of music comes from yet another Russian composer, Modest Mussorgsky. His piece Night on Bald Mountain, and the subsequent work Night on the Bare Mountain by Rimsky-Korsakov is actually depicted in Disney's Fantasia and it's a great one - with darkness settling over the village below when demons coming out to frolic in the night. Here, the story is a very simple one, what happens on this mountain-top after the sun goes down, but a story nonetheless.
Let's also consider Gustav Holst's great orchestral suite The Planets. Again, several shorter works, in this case, each representing a planet in our solar system. As in The Nutcracker each piece of music creates its own backdrop, characters and scene: there's Mars, the Bringer of War with thunderous horns and percussion, for example, and Mercury, the Winged Messenger and its busy and boisterous fast-paced melodies, while Venus, the Bringer of Peace is more serene and gentle. Each planet tells its own story and, together as a whole, they tell a larger story - one that is as varied and dynamic as life itself.
Segueing to my own work, I've been composing a series of piano pieces intended for the intermediate pianist. One piece in particular is inspired by my experience hiking the Seven Lakes Trail in the Alaskan wilderness with my wife and brother in 2010. The piece, entitled Trail to the Seven Lakes, tells of our journey as we discovered each lake (we actually made it to five) and our unexpected encounter with a bear. It's for solo piano and relates the short adventure without words. Following is the first minute of the piece:
Eric Myers, Trail to the Seven Lakes (2011, Excerpt)
My website: www.emtones.com
We've all whistled or hummed a simple melody, like a nursery rhyme or a tune we heard on the radio. Maybe we've even made up our own melody. How does a composer take a simple melody like that and create a piece for an entire symphony orchestra? This question is at the heart of almost every great piece ever written for the orchestra. It depends, of course, on the composer's knowledge of the different instruments of the orchestra and his or her experience composing for them, but it also depends on the composer's imagination. The composer has to ask himself a lot of questions before he begins: What instrument (or instruments) should start the melody? How many instruments? How fast or slow? How loud or soft? And that's just the first 20 - 30 seconds. As you can see, there's a lot to think about when composing for a full orchestra. Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov was a Russian composer who had to ask these questions a lot. His most famous orchestral work, Scheherazade, Opus 35 is a shining example of how a composer creates a great work starting with a simple melody. Now, taken as a whole, Scheherazade is comprised of a lot of different melodies, but I'll focus here on the opening 4 or 5 minutes of the piece.
The first movement, Largo e maestoso, opens with a theme in E minor, a simple melody (measures 1 - 4) of nine notes: E down a fourth to B and back up a minor third to D and so on. The last two notes happen suddenly in a prompt "One-two!" (or, "Bum-Bump!) statement. Then this "one-two" statement is repeated but a half step down. This is followed by soft chords in the woodwinds.
Here's the opening theme from "Scheherazade" as in appears on the score:
Next, a totally new 'sound space' starts at measure 14: violin solo, high register 16th note triplets cascade down an E minor scale and back up in A minor arpeggios with accompanying harp strumming an occasional chord, starting with A minor chord. Violin continues in this fashion very sweet and lovely - the 2nd chord by the harp in an A minor with an F-sharp added - suppose you could call that an A minor 6 chord. Now - horns and woodwinds answer with a thick, heavy E major chord held..
Here's the beginning of the violin solo with harp accompaniment:
In answer to the violin solo, the strings give us the theme again at measure 20 - this is only the 2nd time we've heard it - with some support from the woodwinds but now it's in the context of E major (the opening was in E minor) - but still the same melody. Cellos and basses support the melody with quarter note arpeggios. The "one-two!" statement played by strings is echoed by the woodwinds. Now, the strings continue this nice arrangement of the theme but this time at the fifth (so starting on B instead of E). The "one-two!" statement becomes more prominent and is repeated (echoed) with pizzicato. The theme is repeated softly at the 6th (C-sharp) then again at the Flat I a bit louder and again at the Flat III but not the whole melody, just the first part of the phrase (and louder) then again at the Flat III then at the IV - good and loud by now - and the full melody ending with a loud "one-two!" statement (V - II) and then the "one-two" statement repeated. By this time, Rimsky is off and running with a wonderful structure, a magnificent musical 'space' and the makings of a great work.
That simple 9-note opening melody has grown into a tremendous orchestral behemoth and makes me think of a big old ship on the ocean in a storm with the waves crashing up on the deck as the movement's title, The Sea and Sinbad's Ship, suggests (Scheherazade is based on the Arabian Nights stories - perhaps the brooding theme is Sinbad's ship and the sweet violin solo is the sea.. ) The maritime image also has relevance in that Rimsky-Korsakov himself was a ship captain in the Russian navy. No doubt Rimsky was a master orchestrator - he wrote a book on orchestration, and, by that token, is a great composer, his instrument being the orchestra itself. He made full use of the various colors: the sweet violin solo accompanied by an occasional strum of the harp creates a wide 'open' space that the other sections of the orchestra can respond to. Also, that simple melody, first in E minor then in E major, gives the orchestra something of substance to build on. Finally, that short sharp "one-two!" statement provides real fodder for the other instruments - you can do that with any dynamic and in any key and still have the same effect - like a simple "A-men" sung in different languages or by a variety of people with different sounding voices. Rimsky took that incredibly simple thing and made it into a wonderful movement - strong but alluring and memorable.
Here's the Moscow Symphony Orchestra performing same:
My website: www.emtones.com