Archive for June, 2009

Email Lists: The Next Victim of Web 2.0?

June 30, 2009

After reading this article in the Chronicle of Higher Learning, I started to think about the usefulness of email lists as new types of social media gain in popularity. My immediate reaction is that email lists have a moldy, musty smell to them and are beginning to resemble the old bulletin boards at the end of the 1200 baud dial-up modem from yesteryear. I love new technologies and new ways of connecting. I also enjoy being able to participate from a variety of portals, including my desktop, a community computer, my phone, and my laptop. Looking at email lists right now is a bit like watching Grandma driving her 1973 Plymouth sedan at 45 mph in the fast lane.

Like some people in the article, I have dropped off of some of the lists. I foolishly felt obligated to read the emails. What if there was a real gem hidden in one? I finally understood that deleting without reading doesn’t work well for me, so I unsubscribed. In reality many of the lists had degenerated into whining (why can’t I find a job? why did you misunderstand me? why won’t anyone pay attention to my special cause?) or concert/event/recital/job postings. I remain on one list, mostly for professional reasons, but I have been sorely tempted over the last year to unsubscribe to it, too. I have become very uncomfortable with the attitudes expressed there and have also been discouraged, disheartened, and dismayed. I feel like the email list has become the place where the old guard pitches its greatest battles to save the castle. Meanwhile, I suspect the hipper and cooler people are probably hanging out by the pool at the condo complex down the road (i.e. on Facebook, blogging, Twittering, etc.). So I want to mix up my metaphors and jump ship.

And then I realize the world probably needs places for all types of discussions in all kinds of manners. While the old guard infuriates me, at least I have the opportunity to read and contemplate their opinions and views. The intellectual challenges presented through opposing opinions are beneficial to all of us, as is open discussion.

Some users of email lists are often unwilling or unable to keep pace with the rapidly changing technologies. I’m glad they still have a place to go (for now, at least) to participate in the discussions. I suspect there will be enough of them to keep email lists alive for quite some time. The downside is that their arena of ideas may become very narrow and isolated. That will be sad.

One current downside of blogging and social networking approach to discussion is that the tools for finding, consolidating, and filtering is still in its infancy in my opinion. It’s only a matter of time (days? weeks?) before that changes, too.


Truck Driver Modulation

June 30, 2009

Here’s a list of the 12 greatest key changes in pop music. Of course once you start a list like this, you open yourself to criticism. So I’ll add my two cents. Though the author suggests that it’s a legacy of Michael Jackson, the process of modulating to an unrelated tonal area is older than that. I will note several examples drawn from an essay by Walter Everett, “Swallowed by a Song: Paul Simon’s Crisis in Chromaticism,” in Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis, edited by John Covach and Graeme Boone, 115-153 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997):

  • Paul Simon, “Baby Driver,” 1969
  • Bobby Goldsboro, “Honey,” 1968
  • Zager and Evans, “In the Year 2525,” 1969
  • Classics IV, “Traces,” 1969
  • Toys, “A Lover’s Concerto,” 1965
  • Bobby Hebb, “Sunny,” 1966
  • Four Seasons, “Opus 17 (Don’t You Worry ’bout Me),” 1966
  • Playmates, “Beep Beep,” 1958
  • Jan and Dean, “The Little Old Lady (from Pasadena),” 1964

And from Richard J. Scott, Chord Progressions for Songwriters (Lincoln, NE: IUniverse, 2003), here’s a portion of his list of Beatles songs:

  • “Norwegian Wood,” 1965
  • “Fool on the Hill,” 1967
  • “Things We Said Today,” 1964
  • “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” 1968
  • “And I Love Her,” 1964
  • “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” 1967
  • “A Day in the Life,” 1967
  • “My Sweet Lord,” 1970
  • “Another Girl,” 1965
  • “Here, There and Everywhere,” 1966
  • “Lady Madonna,” 1968
  • “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” 1963

And I’m sure we can trace similar processes at work in other types of music, particularly in the work Debussy and some of the twentieth-century composers.


June 29, 2009

I have been following the Michael Jackson discussion on the AMS-L mailing list (I can’t locate a publicly accessible archive at this point). MJ is dismissed by some as too eccentric to be worthy of attention (much less scholarly study). In his defense others raise Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner as examples from “classical” music; presumably these individuals transcend their eccentricities through their music. MJ has also been categorized as a mere entertainer–one person even described him as a kind of updated Vaudevillean. I take from this view that (a) “classical” composers were never in the business of entertaining and that (b) vaudeville and its related forms of American musical theater are caricatures and not a vital and durable part of the American musical history. Some of the writers on the list have reduced Jackson to merely a singer or a dancer, which apparently does not make him a musician and therefore a creator of music. His music has also been judged an artifact of the production, containing no intrinsic value of its own. At the same time, production, singing, dancing, and other dimensions of music carry no significance. After all, you cannot put the Moonwalk or the left-to-right or front-to-back stereophonic movement of popular music into a score. Finally, among the condemnations raised by these scholars was one that had the sound of a playground taunt: well if he was so important, then someone would have written about his music before he died. So where does that leave Bach, Beethoven, and the boys?

I am disturbed by the way in which some musicologists continue to fight to reduce the field of inquiry to Western classical composers who are usually European, white, and male, most of which who died before the middle of the twentieth century, and whose music, in some fashion, can be conveyed on paper. Performances take place in concert halls with orchestras and are observed by attentive, well-educated audiences who clap at the appropriate moment. The rest of the musical world need not apply. I could climb on my soapbox and palaver for days, but that’s not terribly productive, and I believe others, such as the group at Musicology / Matters, will do a better job about that and about Michael Jackson. I might suggest, though, that some of these scholars actually read some of the popular music literature and perhaps even listen to a bit of the music that they dismiss, repeatedly and with open ears (like I had to do with Schoenberg). My thought is that if it appeals to someone on any level, then it is worthy of some respect on my part and I may learn something fascinating about music or society or history by not dismissing it.

Now, I’m going to get off my soapbox and crawl back into my headphones to continue transcribing various renditions of “Salty Dog Blues,” from Papa Charley Jackson (1924) to several variations by the Allen Brothers (1927-1934) to the Morris Brothers (1938). The song and its variations (not covers of the song but modified versions of it) tell a fascinating story about African American and white performers in the 1920s and about the blues and hillbilly music in their infancies. These recordings also provide insight into the concept of “originality” in 1920s and 30s and how the US copyright law of 1909 and the recording industry influenced musical compositions. Bach and Beethoven it is not, but I like to think they might appreciate some of the issues at hand. They might even have admired Michael Jackson. I’m pretty sure Mozart would have!

Naturally 7

June 5, 2009

I love these guys. I watched a recent TED talk with them and I keep getting distracted with their YouTube videos. One of my favorites is them singing on a Paris subway because you get to see real people reacting to their energy.

Today I heard about a link to another N7 video (thank you, Twitter!) just as I had just finished writing a summary of 4-shape and 7-shape tunebooks and their relationship to what is called Southern gospel. A good number of the gospel songbooks printed around the turn of the twentieth century employed the 7-shape system. Naturally.

Tracing the melody

June 3, 2009

I spent Monday in the Hay-Harris Library at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, looking at old shape-note tunebooks, including:

  • Christian Harp, attributed to C. H. Brunk (Singer’s Glen, VA, Joseph Funk’s Sons, 1867)
  • Song-crowned King, compiled by Aldine Kieffer (Singer’s Glen, VA, Ruebush and Kieffer, n.d. [cover indicates 1870])
  • Christian Harmony, compiled by William Walker (Philadelphia, Miller’s Bible and Publishing House, 1873)
  • Temple Star, compiled by Aldine Kieffer and B. C. Unseld (Singer’s Glen, VA, Ruebush and Kieffer, 1878)

All of these tunebooks use seven shapes, with one vocal part per staff, in the same manner as is used in the four-shape, four-syllable tunebooks such as B. F. White’s Sacred Harp and William Walker’s Southern Harmony (for an explanation of the Sacred Harp singing tradition, see The following shows an example of this dispersed notation, from Walker’s Christian Harmony.


Dispersed notation, from Christian Harmony

These tunebooks fall into a transition period between the older four-shape sacred song tradition and the rising gospel music style. In the fasola-style (four-shape and the seven-shape books that adhere to the older style), the melody is in the Tenor (the staff directly above the Bass); above that are the Counter (sometimes called the Alto) and the Treble. In Southern Harmony (I have the facsimile edition of the 1854 edition) Walker describes the two lower parts as being for male voices and the two upper for female, though he recognizes that the upper parts may be sung by men (no mention is made of women singing the melody). Twenty years later, in Christian Harmony, Walker suggests allows for both male and female voices on all but the Bass part. While Walker included “a large number of new tunes, from eminent composers, never before published” (title page), his modernization seems to be limited to the use of seven shapes and a recognition of the vocal variety that presumably was occurring in singing schools and conventions.

The Christian Harp contains many fewer tunes, being one of the small tunebooks that would later become a staple of the gospel-music singing conventions. No instructional or pedagogical information is included in the book, but observation reveals that the melody is still in the tenor. The book includes tunes for two, three, and four voices (I have not witnessed two-voice tunes in other books so far). Occasionally the tenor and counter/alto are combined on one staff, as seen below.

Combined tenor and counter, from Christian Harp

Combined tenor and counter, from Christian Harp

This might be perceived as a modernization or a nod towards traditional European-style condensed notation (soprano and alto on the upper staff, tenor and bass on the lower), but I suspect it was employed more as a space-saving device given the size of the book (13 X 16 cm., 112 pages). The tunes and texts do seem (without a thorough study) to reflect George Pullen Jackson’s assessment that they contain a “new note of optimism.” Jackson notes that many of them are in the major mode, contain larger melodic leaps and syncopation, and use a greater pitch compass. He further characterizes them as having an “instrumentally influenced melodism,” caused apparently by the introduction of the melodeon and Sunday-school reed organ into churches. He goes no further in quantifying this statement, so it is difficult to determine what he means. I have to trust that he senses a significant change in the temperament of the songs in this tunebook, distinguishing it from its four-shape, tradition-bound brethren.

From the same publisher, Ruebush and Kieffer, only three years later, we have Song-crowned King, compiled by Aldine Kieffer. The instructional pages label the parts as soprano (also called air or treble), alto, tenor, and bass. Soprano and alto are female voices, tenor and bass, male. The melody is printed in the staff above the bass staff, and Kieffer further states that the soprano and alto sometimes occur on the same staff. The first tune in the book has only three voices, labeled from top to bottom tenor, treble, bass. In other words, in this book the melody has been renamed soprano/air/treble and assigned to the highest female voices and what had been the treble has been renamed tenor and assigned to the highest male voices. This represents a shift in nomenclature towards the Europe-style condensed notation, and the voice distribution also more closely resembles the SATB-style hymns in use in other hymnbooks. If singers followed the instructions closely and shifted female voices exclusively onto the melody, the sound of the song would have changed. It is hard to imagine, though, that singers would affect such a change rapidly or consistently. Certainly, the notation leaves the possibility open of performing the songs in exactly the way they had been for decades.

Temple Star employs the same terminology, the same dispersed notation, and the same voice distribution as Song-crowned King. The only difference is that it now uses Jesse Aikin’s seven shapes rather than the shapes that Kieffer’s grandfather, Joseph Funk, had devised and used for several publications.

My next goal is to examine two later Ruebush and Kieffer publications, Royal Proclamation (1886) and Star of Bethlehem (1889). According to Jackson the soprano and alto are on one staff and the tenor and bass on the other. The gospel music publishers that sprang up in the South beginning in the last decades of the nineteenth century also used the SA/TB condensed notation with seven shapes, but the music itself stands apart from the fasola-style in numerous ways. It will be interesting to see how these two Ruebush and Kieffer books compare.