B*$%@-meme (Can we swear in meme titles?)

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MMM 459

Last week flew by for me, I can’t believe it’s Monday again already.

Hoist it like a boss.

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Rock Around the Croc: Renaissance Men

Let’s take some time to talk about rules. Certainly there are those who think art has or should have no rules, but I respectfully disagree. I think there are two kinds of rules in music. Some of them cannot be broken, and some can be broken but only at a price. As an example of the former, if you play a C and a C sharp, it will sound highly dissonant, and if you play a C-E-G chord it will sound highly consonant. That’s not to say dissonant or consonant is good or bad – you need both in music, in the right places. A saxophone has a different timbre than a harp or a drum, and no snotty music theorist can change that.

But there are also rules that can be bent or broken.

It’s just important to be aware that when you are breaking a rule, it may come at a cost. If Beethoven decides that classical-era forms are too constraining for his self-expressive goals, then he is perfectly free to break out of those constraints. In his case, it came at the cost of his contemporary audiences and critics largely sitting there asking what the fresh hell they were listening too. They had no context for what he was doing, because their context followed a certain set of rules and he was breaking some of them. Beethoven’s cost was that his genius was not recognized until much later. Some musicians break the rules in such a way as to make them – hopefully – permanent laughing-stocks:

I showed that video to my kids, and now Yoko Ono is synonymous in their minds with terrible, bizarre, self-indulgent nonsense. Sounds like I’ve done something right as a father. The point is simply this: sometimes you break the rules at the cost of losing your audience, or you might break them in a way that people love, or they might not consciously recognize. In pop or alternative, you can’t make a mandolin the featured instrument, and you need a verse – chorus – verse – chorus – solo – chorus structure, or else you will lose your audience, except for when you don’t lose your audience:

The reality is, in order to make something new you need to break the rules. In my opinion, you should not break the rules without first understanding why they exist, so that you can replace them with something better (and not sound like Ms. Ono up there), instead of just nihilistically tearing everything down and hoping something cool shows up in the aftermath. Guillaume de Machaut, the great pioneer of isorhythm, wrote florid organum pieces that sound just like the old-timers he labelled the ars antigua, proving that he could do it before striking out to do something different.

Last time, I talked about how in the lead-up to the Renaissance, the old rules started to fall apart as the influence of the Catholic Church started to wane. Prohibitions on secular music or instrumental accompaniment started to weaken, and I argued in part that was because it just wasn’t that much of a threat. No one was concerned that someone would listen to Guillaume de Machaut and start worshipping Zeus, or try to translate the Bible into vernacular languages, so it wasn’t a big deal.

The Renaissance was kicked off with a flood of ancient texts hitting the European intelligentsia like a hammer. Before the sack of Constantinople, Greeks started moving their ancient libraries away from the threat center. With the Spanish reconquista of the Iberian peninsula, Arabic citadels were captured and their ancient texts preserved and translated into Latin. The ancient Greek ideas led to revolutions in art, architecture, sculpture, medicine, exploration, philosophy, drama, and of course music. For the ancient Greeks, music was a fundamentally humanistic endeavor. For the early Catholic Church, music existed to glorify God and lead the mind towards His contemplation. In the Renaissance, the pendulum swung back towards the humanistic ideal. The Europeans read Greek authors who said that music had the power to change the physical world – healing sickness, producing physical effects on the psyche, even taming wild animals. The Europeans recognized that, as pretty as their plainchants were, they simply didn’t appear to have the same effects as what the Greeks were describing. So they made some new rules.

Renaissance music emphasizes clear vocal declamation. That means you can’t be overly melismatic, because if your four-syllable word takes 57 seconds to sing, no one will have any idea what you’re singing about. It should also follow, as much as possible, the natural contours of speech, so the spiky rhythms of the Machaut piece I linked last time are definitely out. It should reflect the meaning or feeling of the word, which means complicated rules for word-painting were devised for use in madrigals (more about madrigals later). There were also rules devised for tuning and harmonic structures, so the reason we have B Major and Eb minor scales is because of Renaissance composers.

These harmonic rules allowed for the rise of something called homophony, which is the single most common musical texture you will hear in Western music for the last six hundred hears. As a reminder, there are three harmonic textures in music: monophony (one musical line, and all instruments and voices are doing that same line), polyphony (two or more musical lines at the same time) and homophony. In homophony, there are two or more musical lines, but one of those lines is the dominant line, with the others in a supporting role. The best explanation I’ve ever heard of how this works is, in homophony, there simply isn’t enough musical content in the other voices to compete with the main line. Here’s an example of what I mean, Now Let Us Rejoice as performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir:

There are four vocal lines happening there, but only one of those vocal lines is singing the melody, the flowing line that actually gets stuck in your head. If you sing the bass part, you’ll have long measures where you sing the same note over and over again. If you sing just the bass, you sound more like you’re chanting a monotone than singing. But if you put those four vocal lines together, using harmonic rules developed during the Renaissance, you get beautiful music.

I’ve written a lot of words about Renaissance music without playing any Renaissance music, so I’ll end with a piece that demonstrates how the rules can sometimes come into conflict with each other. Here is Ave Maria, Virgo Serena by Josquin des Prez. This music is stunningly beautiful:

The two rules that come into conflict are that 1) you need clear vocal lines, and 2) harmonic structure allows for multiple lines to run concurrently. Each one of those voices, taken alone, is clear as a bell. But the fact that they weave together, overlap, compete with each other for musical space, means as a whole piece you can’t follow what is being said at all. This is an issue that will definitely come up as the Church faces the threat of the Reformation.

Next week (or whenever) I will talk about the two dominant musical forms of the Renaissance: the Renaissance mass, and the madrigal. In the mean time, do yourself a favor and spend the coming week looking on YouTube or wherever for Josquin Des Prez and Giovanni da Palestrina.


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Hello, and welcome to Big Boob Friday.




Your model for today was born March 26th, 1993 in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. She stands 5‘ 6″ and measures 362435 and 120 lbs. Please tee it up for Miss Paige Spiranac.

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Hopefully no repeats

Let’s see what we have in the funneh folder for today.

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Kyrie Meme

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MMM 458

Welcome back. August is winding down, hope y’all are ready for cold&flu season…

BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA something better snap soon.

Butt first

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Rock Around the Croc: Time to Get Medieval on your Ears

For today’s lesson we move past the ancient world and into the Middle Ages, defined musically as about 600 AD to about 1400 AD. That period gets further subdivided, and we’re going to cover three musical styles: plainchant, ars antigua and ars nova.

Plainchant is also known as Gregorian chant. That latter term is sometimes disfavored because Pope Gregory had nothing to do with the composition of any plainchant, but it refers to the fact that the Church codified the rules for sacred music during Gregory’s reign, and I have no problem with the word Gregorian because it means it follows Gregory’s rules, not because of who wrote it, but whatever. The plainchant repertoire was developed over hundreds of years, but it all sounds very, very similar because of its purpose. Plainchant is unaccompanied by any instrument, has a monophonic texture (meaning a single melodic line), and is structured based on the words rather than a beat. It comes in three flavors: monotones (in which the words are chanted on one note, sometimes ending a phrase by dropping down one note), plainchant masses, and plainchant hymns. The hymns are compact, simple, and repeat their melodies. Here’s an example of a monotone:

And here’s a plainchant hymn:

This is beautiful music that holds up even after a 1200 years. Why does it lend itself so well to quiet contemplation? Because it is very simple, plain, unadorned, straightforward. You don’t need to think about it, you just feel it. So it doesn’t intrude on your thoughts. A while back Car In noted that people like bands like Radiohead or Tool because the music is complicated. That’s true of those bands, and complexity is certainly something that draws some listeners, but one thing I’ve noted in my studies is that the pendulum likes to swing between simplicity and complexity in the popular opinion.

The popularity of plainchant comes and goes, even today. When I was finishing up high school and starting college, many of my friends got into Gregorian Chant and bought the CDs. You can look up The Dark Side of Chant, which I don’t much care for, and which is chant-remakes of popular songs like REM’s Losing My Religion. By far my favorite modern borrowing of plainchant is Sadeness Part 1, by Enigma:

Beautiful. Definitely not plainchant.

Starting around the 1150s, a French composer named Leonin became the master of a new style which he called florid organum. This is the earliest form of polyphony, which means music with more than one melodic line. In florid organum, there is still a simple line of chant, but stretched out to incredible lengths due to the melismatic nature of Latin – you can drag those vowels out as long as you want in Latin, and Leonin made the most of it. The lower voice is called the tenore, from the word to hold or carry, and that’s where we get our modern word tenor. That voice is then decorated with the higher, florid part, which sings the same vocal line but in an extremely flowery or decorative way. Check it out:

The first 58 seconds of that piece is the single word “alleluia.” You can also expect to hear an instrumental accompaniment in florid organum, because the Church prohibition on musical instruments was enforced with much less rigor at the time. That makes sense, I think: in the year 1150 there was simply no rival – no more pagans or barbarians to threaten the purity of faith by sneaking in subtle messages – to the Church’s authority, so no real need to freak out about putting in a line of organ music to help people stay on key. That becomes increasingly important as the music becomes increasingly complex.

The music of Leonin’s age is now called the ars antigua – something Leonin would not have called his own music, and more than the Monkees would have described their music as Golden Oldies. Their successors called their music the ars nova. In the 1300s, as the Church’s authority continued to wane in the face of the Babylonian exile, the Black Death, and local princes and kings increasingly asserting their authority, musicians wrong increasingly complex music based on a technique called isorhythm. The great composer of isorhythm was Guillaume de Machaut, a French composer based at Notre Dame Cathedral from circa 1300 to 1377. Isorhythm is defined as the repetition of a rhythmic pattern in at least one voice part throughout a composition, and the rhythm and pitch are manipulated separately from one another. Frankly, it sounds super weird. Proof, in my view, that something can become increasingly complex without becoming better. The following piece, Quant en moi, is a great example of this kind of complexity. Not only is there a complicated isorythmic structure, but Machaut uses for his vocal lines two separate love poems that he wrote, in two separate voices, singing simultaneously.

Another element of the complexity of this piece is something called a hocket, defined in music as a single melody shared between two or more voices such that alternately one voice sounds while the other rests. It’s a musical zipper, in which two voices take turns exchanging notes. You can hear it in the Machaut at around 42 seconds, and you can see it in the printed text that alternates from the lower voice to the higher twice in a row.

For a modern hocket, allegedly, if you synch up the Tool songs 10,000 Days, Wings for Marie and Viginti Tres in just the right way, then it creates a new hidden track, and that the vocals from 10,000 and Wings will line up in such a way that you get a hocket effect. I’ve also heard that’s just a myth, so I don’t know. Whatever.

Here’s a fun thing called Hockets from the Medieval Jazz Suite for Bassoon Quartet. I know what each of those words mean individually, but not all together like that:

More modern hockets, just to show that musical ideas all come back around, even if in a completely new form. From the album Hockets for Two Voices, by Meara O’Reilly. I can’t say I recommend this:

Next week is Renaissance music, and no hockets whatsoever, I promise. Go out and enjoy some plainchant or some florid organum.