Wednesday, August 28, 2013


Once connected to the news each morning (unlike certain New Yorkers last week), I try not to succumb to lists (“Five Things the Government Can Do to Lower Airline Ticket Prices;” “3 Easy Ways to Use Clickers and Peer Instruction in the Arts and Humanities”—both of these pretty instructive, BTW) or rants. For one thing they remind me of what is, increasingly, the hardest part of teaching the young to write: understanding the difference between a proper think piece and the models they've absorbed from radio, cable, and self-selected news feeds. For another, it disturbs morning coffee.

But it was hard to ignore "Why I Hate Museums" by the CNN travel writer James Durston. I disliked them too, once, more naturally drawn to the excitement of the concert hall; then acquired the taste and technique from years of living in and around Paris, where museology reigns supreme—and a tolerable concert hall is so far nonexistent. Durston has a point about vases and pots. Also the fatigue (as pictured) and, too often, the crowding. As to the little tags (referencing the superb traveling exhibition from the Orsay), I won't read beyond any sentence that has the words Fauvism, post-Impressionism, pointilism, and cubism in one sentence.

But there are infinitely more reasons for the historically minded to admire the museum model than to denigrate it, several of them noted in the response by Ford W. Bell. When Joseph Kerman retired nearly two decades ago(!), we hosted an afternoon symposium at UC-Davis on what he liked to call Criticism, and during the Q&A I asked him what he was looking forward to most about retiring. “Not going to concerts,” he pronounced categorically. Aghast, we disciples listened as he went on about his growing distaste for sitting upright in tidy rows and worshiping at the altar of, as they were by then widely known, dead white European men. The alternative model he proposed was the vibrancy of the museum experience, “where you can touch and feel, use the computer, stretch out,” he said.

In the end museums are not so much about tourism, of course, as about one's personal connection with the past. Once the past and its artifacts are in your veins, there's a real thrill to coming around the corner to see Vermeer's "Girl with the Pearl Earring" or Gaugin's ladies on the beach—in the flesh as it were. It's a feeling I associate with hearing the Brandenburgs on old instruments or (yes) the Bayreuth Experience.

I was thinking along these lines, anyway, during a week marked by such connections. One was an organ recital by the distinguished English organist-choirmaster Martin Neary at Notre-Dame-des-Marais of La Ferté-Bernard, in the Sarthe region, France. It was not just that the historic instrument comes from 1532 (restored 1986): here, in a tiny loft suspended between two columns, the smallish artist scarcely managed to wedge himself—acknowledging applause like a gargoyle come to life. But in introducing the Purcell rondeau on the program, Neary noted in passing that the composer had been his predecessor (from 1669) at Westminster Abbey. A proper frisson passed through the assembly—for me a flood of thoughts and associations altogether similar to those encounters with Vermeer and Gaugin.

Daily Princetonian, 1967
For Kenneth Levy (1927–2013), whom we lost last week after a long illness, 1532 was relatively modern. A generation of Princeton musicologists learned their medieval and Renaissance notation from him, and I went on from one of his seminars to enjoy a lifelong scholarly interest in Edmond de Coussemaker and a literary/musical affection for the work of the trouvères and troubadours. Not so secretly, Ken was also a fan of Bellini (and curious about Steibelt), which is what led him to conclude that he just might be interested in a dissertation on Berlioz. Adieu, bon père.


D. Kern Holoman, professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis, is curator of Musicology Now.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Big (Bad) Data

by Robert Fink

The effect of “big data” on the humanities is a hot topic in intellectual circles these days, and every so often, the shifting sound of popular music is at the center of a big data story: the research results may seem counter-intuitive (is pop music getting sadder and slower?) or confirm what you thought all along (is pop music getting louder and more monotonous?), but, as reporters rush to assure us, they are newsworthy because, for the first time, the conclusions are backed with hard data, not squishy aesthetic theorizing. The numbers don’t lie.

But research can only be as good as the encoded data it’s based on; look under the surface of recently reported computer-enabled analyses of pop music and you’ll find that the old programmer’s dictum—“garbage in, garbage out”—is still the last word.

1. The Million Song Dataset

Take, for instance, the research that gave rise to the “pop music is getting louder and more monotonous” meme. A group of Spanish researchers in artificial intelligence led by Dr. Joan Serrà ran statistical analyses of the “Million Song Dataset,” a machine-readable collection of metadata correlated to about that many songs, chosen to provide a representative random sample of the music consumers might be looking for online. (Full information about the MSD can be found here.)

Yes, I said consumers—the Million Song Dataset is a collaboration between sound researchers at Columbia University and a commercial start-up called The Echo Nest, working together on better methods of Music Information Retrieval (MIR). MIR is the algorithmic back-end behind the preference engines that drive music streaming services like Pandora, swinging into action when you ask the computer to show you “more songs like that last one.” The basic data in the MSD is catalog, artist, and genre. But there is also computer-generated data about musical structure. Some of the information is basic (length of track), some would require a little processing (number of beats), and some could only be the result of complex Echo Nest algorithms whose working assumptions are proprietary (key and mode, time signature, timbre).

The point to remember is that the MSD does not have any actual audio in it; the data on musical characteristics like key, mode, meter, and timbre are represented by arrays of pre-crunched numbers. Thus any conclusions drawn from the MSD are already constrained by the assumptions and mindset of the industry-research teams that created the database, and by the technical limitations of the DSP that turns sound files into numerical arrays. Of course, digital sound files are themselves nothing more than huge arrays of numbers, but, as the MSD FAQ freely admits, “there is a lot of information lost when going from audio to these [numerical representations of musical] features.”

2. All That Stuff Sounds the Same to Me 

As long as the data in the MSD is being used to sharpen the wits of online preference engines, this rough numerical representation of a few chosen musical features is probably good enough—and if it isn’t, market competition will obsolete the methodology. Unfortunately, researchers’ attempts to transform marketing data into musicology just don’t work anywhere near as well. It’s a relatively simple task to correlate the date field of each record in the MSD with the number between zero and one that represents its “loudness.” The results do support an “evolutionary” hypothesis: adapting to an increasingly noisy environment, popular music has indeed been getting louder over time. Bolstered by this positive finding, the Spanish team tried a more complex correlation exercise. The following discussion is going to get a bit technical, but we need to track the actual methodology of the study, found only in a supplement to the published research paper, to see if its news-making conclusions actually hold up.

The MDS has numerical arrays representing pitch and timbre for every “segment” (= one beat); these store dimensional values between zero and one for each of the twelve chromatic pitches used in Western music, representing their relative presence. Serra and his colleagues threw away most of this information, settling for a simpler set of twelve binaries: effectively, each pitch was either “on” or “off” during the segment in question. This generated 4096 (212) discrete “codewords” (i.e., chords) which could then be tracked by the researchers to see how often they occurred and whether they changed from beat to beat.

Timbre is represented in the MDS by an array of floating-point values for loudness and eleven other abstract features of perceived sound (brightness, flatness, sharpness of attack, etc.). In Serra’s model this immense field of sound is run through a high-medium-low statistical filter and reduced to 311 (117,147) possibilities. (I told you this was going to get technical.)

So, do you believe that there are precisely 4096 chords and 117,147 sounds in Western music, ready to be distributed, one per beat, across the entirety of popular song? If so, you’ll be happy to know that their general distribution follows Zipf’s Law, the same inverse-square relation that describes the frequency of words in a corpus of language, a satisfying scientific result and not particularly newsworthy. But then Serra tracked the transitions between pitch and timbre codewords across the entire corpus, and found that, for both pitch and timbre, the number of non-identical transitions has decreased over time since 1955.

 Or, as one headline writer summarized: “Modern Music too Loud, All Sounds the Same.”

It seems to me that “modern music” has little to do with it. At what point during the crunching down of sound into numbers, numbers into codewords, and codewords into transition networks, do we accept that so much information has been lost and regenerated that the model itself is showing its monotony, not the corpus? It’s as if you were to convert all the CD-quality audio in your collection to 64-bit MP3, then expand it again using interpolation, crunch it back down to 64 bits again, interpolate and reduce, over and over again, until the end product had the sonic texture of processed cheese. Would you then blame “the music”?

3. Most of My Heroes Don’t Appear in No Dataset 

But all my musicological second-guessing to this point is just preamble to the one really stunning failure of the Million Song Dataset. What, you may ask, does the MDS tell us about syncopation, polyrhythm, groove, swing, flow? The answer: absolutely nothing. (Say it again!)

This is a classic example of how any map, no matter how big, differs from the territory. In the numerical world of the MDS, musical rhythm is nothing more than a mapmaker’s grid, like longitude and latitude, to orient the pitch and timbre algorithms as they do their work. The dataset shows where, and with what degree of confidence, a computer can locate the fall of a song’s basic beat—but that evidence is used only to define the boundaries of significant units. The complicated distribution of attacks and releases between the beats is not quantitatively analyzed in any way that I can see.

This is not a technical problem, since existing beat-slicing software for DJs could easily do the job. It is, rather, a problem of cultural perspective. Our own language betrays us: what is “monotony,” literally? In European languages, listening too long to “one tone” is a deep-rooted metaphor for existential boredom; is there an analogous figure of Western speech whose vehicle is rhythmically impoverished music? (Evidently not, since at least one online dictionary gives the following usage: “That song has a monotonous rhythm.”)

Do I have to spell it out? Music isn’t getting stupider, it’s getting funkier. Increasing rhythmic complexity, increasing overall volume, and decreasing pitch circulation with homogenization of timbre means that popular music has indeed “evolved,” away from the European model of expansive melody and big ensembles (middle-period Elvis) toward a leaner, more African ideal based on small groups emphasizing repetition and tightness (middle-period Run-DMC). If you want to confirm this hypothesis, I’m afraid the Million Song Dataset will be of no use; you’ll need another, less ethnocentric set of data, and, in the meantime, why not listen to some actual contemporary popular music? (How about this; or this; or this; or even this?)

I think you’ll find it anything but monotonous.

Robert Fink is Professor of Music at UCLA, where his work examines music since 1965. A popular lecturer on campus and off, he is author of a study of minimalism called  Repeating Ourselves (University of California Press, 2005). The—wonderful—working title of his next book is  Beethoven at the 7-11: Classical Music in a Post-Classical World.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Katherine Bergeron, musicologist,
named President of Connecticut College

Connecticut College
Music historian Katherine Bergeron has been named 11th president of Connecticut College in New London, it was announced this week. Bergeron, a native of Old Lyme, nearby, will take office in January 2014. Until then she will continue as Dean of the College at Brown University, where she has been since 2004. Prior to her appointment at Brown she was on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Wesleyan University (Middletown) and  holds the MA and PhD degrees from Cornell.
Bergeron's book, Voice Lessons: French Mélodie in the Belle Epoque (Oxford UP, 2010) won the prestigious Otto Kinkeldey prize in 2011. (Otto Kinkeldey, 1878–1966, held the first chair in musicology at a American university, at Cornell, 1930–46; was a charter member of the American Musicological Society Society; and served as its president, 1935–36 and 1941–42.)
Her colleagues in musicology salute President-designate Bergeron and wish her well. We note that she joins at least two other musicologists who have served as college presidents (Leon Botstein, president of Bard College; and Don M. Randel, past president of the University of Chicago, 2000–05, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, 2006–13)—and dozens who serve or have served American arts and letters as academic deans.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Prokofiev on the Train

by Kevin Bartig

On the evening of 8 February 1930, a train spirited Prokofiev and his wife Lina south from New York City. The cloudy skies and freezing temperatures of the upper East Coast soon gave way to the sun-filled horizons of the American South. Pleased that he had chosen a route that brought him through more temperate climes, Prokofiev tended to his correspondence and updated his journal. In the latter, he remarked that the journey—which would eventually bring him to Los Angeles—afforded several days of respite in the midst of his North American concert tour, already more than a month in progress. Along the way, he recorded travel highlights that included the French Quarter of New Orleans, the rafts that ferried passengers across the swamps of southern Mississippi, and the warmth of the desert Southwest, where Prokofiev enjoyed sitting on the rear platform without an overcoat.
The Prokofievs in Cuba, March 1930.
            Two days into the journey, Prokofiev described an unusual event in his journal: “In the evening a telegram came from Gloria Swanson’s film studio: they want to confirm that I’m on the train. A commission? Or do they simply want to film me exiting the train in Los Angeles?” He joked with Lina that Swanson surely wished to engage their photogenic son, Sviatoslav. They had to wait for an explanation until they arrived at their hotel, where they received a memo from one of the actress’s associates. It explained that Swanson was “very much interested in music of the modern trend” and wished to consult Prokofiev “in connection with a new motion picture, being prepared for production.” The invitation stirred Prokofiev’s curiosity—he wrote in his journal that it was “splendid and smelled of money”—and he and Lina agreed to have breakfast with the actress the next morning.During their meeting, Prokofiev learned that the film in question was What a Widow!, a comedy starring Swanson as a wealthy widow pursued by unwelcome suitors. Swanson explained that her financial backer, the Boston banker George Kennedy, was a great fan of Prokofiev’s music and hoped the composer would write the film’s score. Prokofiev recorded nothing about the commission’s musical requisites or the film’s subject in his journal, instead jotting down strong impressions of his surroundings: Swanson was “so beautiful and so famous that you don’t know how to approach her,” and worked not simply in a studio, but in a veritable “cinematic town.” He also felt “naïve” when Swanson learned that he had never seen a sound film and escorted him to an impromptu showing. The resources and glamour of America’s “cinematic town” made their first, but not last, impression on Prokofiev.

Ecerpt from Composing for the Red Screen: Prokofiev and Soviet Film (Oxford UP, 2013).

Kevin Bartig is assistant professor of musicology at the Michigan State University College of Music. He earned his MA and PhD degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Preview: Louise Talma in Her Youth

by Kendra Preston Leonard

On September 24 at the Library of Congress, I’ll give a talk on American composer Louise Talma (c. 1906–1996), her youth, and her first composition. At the same time, I’ll be putting the finishing touches on my book about Talma and her works (Ashgate, forthcoming 2014). My interest in Louise Talma stems from my first book, an institutional biography of the Conservatoire Américain in Fontainebleau, France. She was, along with Aaron Copland, one of the Conservatoire’s most successful pupils, and although her music is not performed today as frequently as it was during her lifetime, she was at one time a significant figure in the contemporary music world.

Nadia Boulanger and her class, including Lousie Talma.
(Library of Congress)
My work on the Conservatoire uncovered many documents related to Talma, who was once a protégée of Nadia Boulanger and later the first American to teach at the school. These materials, uncatalogued and mostly unknown, led me to more organized collections of Talma’s letters, scores, notes, and sketches at the Library of Congress and at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which houses materials related to her collaboration with Thornton Wilder on their opera The Alcestiad. It was evident from these collections, along with those in private hands and at other repositories, that despite her heavily guarded and private persona, she kept everything—from score drafts to shopping lists—for posterity. One of her former students wrote to me, “[She] was adamant about a composer’s being known only for her work rather than her life, but in view of the epistolary trail she left, she must have been well aware of what she was in for.”

“Epistolary trail” only begins to describe the boxes and boxes of letters, telegrams, drafts of letters, cards, and transcripts of conversations she left behind at her death. While it’s obvious that some materials have been lost, in general she retained letters ranging from the 1930s to her death. Even with letters that were destroyed, Talma nonetheless usually saved the envelopes so as to record dates of receipt, often making notes or comments as to what had been inside. Of the letters she did save, Talma often annotated them, identifying casual “Saturdays” and “Tuesdays” with the exact date, and identifying individuals referred to by nicknames. She was a re-reader, once telling Wilder that he could donate their opera-related correspondence to Yale only after she’d made copies of all of their letters, “as I can't bear not to have them in immediate reach so that at any moment I can live over again the joy I had on receiving them.”

Her scores, musical sketches, and notes for works are also often annotated. In selecting texts to set as songs, she identified poems “about death—mostly of a young girl,” and marked others as humorous, nature-related, or personal. She copied out texts she considered setting; made fair copies of her scores; identified portions of rows in her more serially-influenced pieces; took dictation from birds, the sounds of silverware falling on the floor, and the sounds of the cities in which she lived;  made copies of the letters she sent, so that she would remember exactly what she had written; and kept track of how much composing she had done each day by writing the date and time she stopped at the end of each day into the manuscript at hand.

With such an abundance of material, especially combined with the fact that so many of Talma’s pieces were overtly autobiographical in nature—such as her religious works, which serve as conversion narratives, her musical responses to the Vietnam War and the Kennedy assassinations, and others—it seemed only logical to explore the issue of musical autobiography in her work. While there were plenty of other approaches to take with Talma’s work, including traditional musical analysis, queer theory, feminist theory and analysis—all of which I use in my work—reading both deeply and broadly in women’s autobiographical theory led me to decide that using it autobiography as a frame for Talma’s work was altogether appropriate. It also offered a relatively new way of examining the conjunctions of a composer’s life and work. Although the autobiographical reading of works of music is not new and has been done before, particularly with Berg, Berlioz, Mahler, and other male composers, the direct application of women’s autobiographical theory and the concept and theory of écriture féminine to works of music is less common. Hélène Cixous has famously written that “women must write themselves,” and this need not be limited in any way to prose writing.

This approach has proved illuminating. Once I began to understand Talma’s writing—both prose and musical—as a form of self-writing engaged with the sociopolitical and creative atmospheres in which she worked, the connections between her self and her music became even more striking. And while there are competing theories of women’s self-writing, no scholars can deny the complexity of the issue of women writing their own lives in a culture in which women are viewed as—and frequently view themselves as—the Other. Talma’s works serve as rich, multi-layered examples for this point and many others put forth by theorists of women’s self-writing.

Between Talma’s letters and her compositions, reading with the theories of women’s autobiography in mind has enabled me to chart the course of her life and development as a composer and artist with far more information than a more traditional approach or even mix of approaches to her works might have supplied. This study, along with old-fashioned digging, interviews, and time spent with microfilm, has revealed her fears, hopes, compromises, and decisions in ways that can only benefit both the scholarly understanding and performative interpretation of her music.

Note: Kendra Preston Leonard's lecture is now available as a webcast

From her home base in Loveland, Ohio, Kendra Preston Leonard serves as Managing Editor of the online Journal of Music History Pedagogy and director of the Silent Film Sound and Music Archive.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Birth Announcements and Other Current Events

Version 1.6.0 of music21, the noted suite of tools for computer-aided research, was released by Michael Cuthbert, Christopher Ariza, and their MIT team on August 8. (The previous versions 1.5 and 1.4 appeared in May and January.) It's a robust environment of programming modules, where “straightforward tasks such as displaying or playing a short melody, getting a twelve-tone matrix, or converting from Humdrum's Kern format to MusicXML can each be accomplished with a single line of code.” Take a look. (The musical example, the first in the demo, shows the product of one such “simple line of code.”)
     The all-new Music21 Documentation is the work of Josiah Wood Oberholzer and can be, given the idiom, a fetching read: “How do I ask a question so that it becomes frequently asked?” begins the FAQ unit. Answer: “Don’t you hate FAQs that are not based on anything anyone’s ever asked? To ask, post to But first read what we’ve already come up with below.”
     Q: “What is the native music21 data format?” A: “There is none, but it doesn’t matter.”
     Speaking of musical examples, we hope to treat them, in the general context of life after Finale and Sibelius, in a forthcoming post that considers the worlds of LilyPond, MusScore, MusicXML, and the like.

Joe Horowitz's book on Rouben Mamoulian and Porgy and Bess was published on July 29: “On My Way”: The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and Porgy and Bess (W. W. Norton). Mamoulian, who went on to stage Carousel and Oklahoma!, figured importantly in Horowitz's Artists in Exile (HarperCollins, 2009). Spoiler alert: things went downhill for him (M., not H.) from there.

Meanwhile in London, the Southbank Centre's year-long theme/festival, The Rest Is Noise, embarks on its second half by commemorating the Britten Centenary in events scheduled for 27 September–12 October. The remainder of the year considers classical music in the aftermath of World War II. It's a dandy partnership involving the London PO, The Guardian (free PR), BBC 4, and The Open University. Among the speakers Alex Ross is of course front and center, but also Nuria Schoenberg-Nono, Frances Stonor Saunders (Who Paid the Piper? on the CIA and the Cultural Cold War), Angela Davis, and Steve Reich.

The week brought more bad news for music journalism from the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Village Voice, and the (London) Sunday Independent; really big news from the Boston Globe and Washington Post; and a fine riff on modern media from Doonesbury last Sunday. Two big opera stories made the daily press and lit up the web: the booing of Frank Castorf's production of the Ring in Bayreuth (copulating crocs, Siegfriend's machine gun) and Thomas Hampson's enviably cool responses on BBC-TV to unspeakably silly badgering—and generally bad manners—of the kind that characterizes American daily rants, aka cable news. We mean to follow up on both stories.

The loquacious maestro Hampson is, as somebody put it a long time ago, one of the good guys; for musicology, that includes having established a Thomas Hampson Fund meant to foster editions and scholarship on classic song in all its contexts. And, by the way, the trailer for Simon Boccanegra (why Hampson was in London to begin with) shows a more comely facet of the new media.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Shape Notes, Billings, and American Modernisms

by Will Robin
24 July 2013

Note: Will Robin's piece for NewMusicBox begins with Charles Seeger's discovery of American shape-note notation and goes on to trace "a sturdy lineage of American musicians who sought out a maverick impulse in native hymnody." Don't miss the YouTube posting of Pare Lorentz’s film The River (1938), with music by Virgil Thomson.

Tracing the Spirit of the Early American Symphony

by Joseph Horowitz
15 July 2013

Library of Congress
Note: NPR's summer project is a "Search for the Great American Symphony." Joe Horowitz's contribution deals with the "early history": Gottschalk, Paine, Dvorak, Chadwick, Beach, Strong, Ives. Horowitz writes:

The accompanying audio tracks include a terrific new recording of Paine's First by JoAnn Falletta on Naxos--way better than the Zubin Mehta version on New World. I would like to think that this will be noticed and have some impact. NPR is eager to foster discussion--if anyone feels like responding to my various tendentious claims (e.g. that George Templeton Strong composed the most beautiful slow movement of any American symphony; that the New World Symphony is "American"; there are two Great American Symphonies, both by Charles Ives).

  • Read the NPR piece HERE.

Welcome Back, dial "m"

Fans of Phil Ford and Jonathan Bellman's weblog are mightily pleased to welcome it back after a hiatus of some years. Who wouldn't grin to think about the "Maestro-Industrial Complex" or enjoy Ford pimping his new book [his construction, not mine] under the heading "Ontogeny, Dammit"?