The Miracle of Wind

Some data courtesy of the USGS, The US Wind Turbine DB, YMBK (Your Mom‘s Breezy Knickers), and Bernie Sanders.

Some of the data I will unabashedly pull out of my ass and fling it with style and aplomb.

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You Saw Meme Comin

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Nothing Meme Matters

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Rock Around the Croc: Madrigals and Word Painting

Last time I left off with Palestrina’s response to the Council of Trent, which was in turn a response to the new threat posed by the rise of Protestantism in northern Europe. The Church, which had until then been extremely tolerant of musical experimentation in the masses, took a sharp turn towards increasing conservativism with respect to the mass. As a result, when composers wanted to experiment, the genre of choice became the madrigal, which is an unaccompanied, secular song in parts, and it came to become characterized by word painting. Word painting served the Renaissance ideal of using music to achieve greater emotional and spiritual effects, in this case by enhancing or stressing the meaning of the words being sung.

To illustrate, I’ll start with Tom Petty, because Jay in Ames mentioned he liked him. Here’s Stop Draggin My Heart Around. According to the rules of word painting, if you have the word “stop” in a piece of music, then the music should stop after you sing the word stop.

It’s a very subtle effect in that song, much more obvious in the song Stop by Jane’s Addiction:

I could add to the list “Stop in the Name of Love,” “Ice Ice Baby” and “U Can’t Touch This.” I don’t know if the writers of any of those songs consciously thought “I just wrote the word stop, so I should stop singing there for a second,” or if it’s just an idea that got so engrained in the musical sub-conscience that it just happens spontaneously.

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Ballistics and Other Boring Stuff

I’ve been trying to think of an entertaining way to organize thoughts on our cursory talks about firesticks and their associated consumables.

This is stolen directly from Merriam-Webster:

bal·​lis·​tics | \ bə-ˈli-stiks \

Definition of ballistics

1a : the science of the motion of projectiles in flight b : the flight characteristics of a projectile

2a : the study of the processes within a firearm as it is fired b : the firing characteristics of a firearm or cartridge

Not sure I’ll pass the test.

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Rock Around the Croc: The Renaissance Mass

Today’s lesson is about the Renaissance Mass. This musical form was the most important test of a 15th century composer’s abilities, as the symphony and opera would be for later generations. Let me start off by saying, I’m not Catholic, I know a lot of you are, and so if I say anything wrong I will happily accept any corrections, and I apologize in advance if any of this is really basic, but I want to be thorough here and not assume too much knowledge on the part of the reader. I’ll try to make that stuff as simple, yet accurate, as possible to I can get into the music.

The mass is comprised of two categories of activity. The sections called the Proper change from day to day, depending on the day of the liturgical calendar. The sections of the Ordinary stay the same every day. The sections that comprise the Ordinary are the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Ite missa est, and these sections are split up among the sections of the Proper. Only some portions of the mass are set to music because otherwise it would take many hours and it’s just not very practical, so composers (starting with Guillaume de Machaut) opted to set only the Ordinary, as the music can then be reused more than if the Proper were set. If you know what you’re looking for, you can go to YouTube and find either a complete mass (meaning all of the sections of the Ordinary) or the individual sections. For example, here is the Kyrie from the Pope Marcellus mass by Palestrina:

So much of music is having a context to understand what you are hearing. Before I started learning about this stuff, I might listen to this and think “that’s pretty” but have no idea what was going on, so I wouldn’t really get anything else out of it. In context, I understand that Palestrina has set a specific section of the mass, which has a fixed text, to a piece of music, and the same music will be used every time this particular mass is chosen. But there is a lot more to know about the Renaissance mass in general and Palestrina’s masses in particular.

There are three main types of mass in this era: the cantus firmus, the paraphrase, and the imitation. All three are unaccompanied by instruments, and based on a single tune that is repurposed as the mass proceeds. A cantus firmus is based on a plainchant, in the original medieval form, usually in the tenor voice. This is the oldest kind of Renaissance mass. The advantages of using a known tune are that the congregation and singers will already be familiar with that tune, and that the tune unifies these sections that are of different lengths, for different purposes, and sometimes at wide spaces throughout the mass. But the cantus firmus form fell out of favor because the underlying plainchants were based on pre-Renaissance harmonies that sounded old when the major/minor scale systems were developed. So the paraphrase mass was developed, in which the plainchant was modified to sound more modern. The alteration might be so dramatic that the original composer couldn’t possibly be expected to recognize his own work, but there was still this underlying source. Here’s an example of a paraphrase mass, the Agnus Dei from Josquin’s Ave Maris Stella mass:

Josquin’s original listeners might know that there was a plainchant called Ave maris stella (Hail, Star of the Sea), but the original plainchant has been very drastically altered to fit Josquin’s purposes and you can’t possibly pick out the notes of the original on a casual listen.

Finally, the imitation mass was based on a pre-existing tune, but it could be literally any tune at all. In the modern context, that would be like setting a mass to the tune of the Brady Bunch theme, or the Andy Griffith Show theme, or Tom Petty or Journey or anything else. The fact that this kind of mass was written and performed says something very, very important about how tolerant the Catholic Church was at the time, although that tolerance would not last. After the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent spent 18 years examining every aspect of religious life in an effort to correct the secularization and abuses that led to the Reformation in the first place. The council objected to, among other things, noisy instruments in church, complicated polyphony that made it impossible to understand the words, and the use of imitation masses. With these three ideas in mind, I’m going to very quickly move through three composers of masses to show how the mass changed.

I previously discussed Guillaume de Machaut, the great composer of the High Middle Ages, and a developer of complicated isorhythms. Machaut composed the Messe de Notre Dame, the single most famous piece of music written in the middle ages. He wrote it based around isorhythmic construction. Here is the Kyrie from that mass, and the video I’ve linked helps illustrated how isorhythm works. If you look at the tenor voice, you see the rhythm in the first four measures will be repeated in that tenor voice throughout the entire piece. But the pitches of those rhythms will change each time. The rhythm is 6-2-4-6-(rest for 6). I’m not sure how to read this old-style notation, but for illustration purposes, if the pitches of the first four measures are A-A-G-A, in the second four measures they are C-B-A-G and then A-A-G-F. Same rhythm, different pitches.

By the time of the Renaissance, the rediscovery of Pythagorean tuning ideas led to the development of major/minor scales, which allowed for increasingly complex polyphony. Josquin’s Ave Maris Stella mass allows for four voices to sing their four complicated parts without creating dissonance as the voices step all over each other, in a way that wasn’t really possible with the Machaut. Here’s the Gloria from that mass. As you listen, please note two things: you won’t hear a single note of dissonance (two notes that seem to clash with each other, for reasons that I won’t get into today), and you can’t really follow the words because of how the voices step all over each other.

The Council of Trent did not specifically ban polyphony, but it would be possible to read its requirement of making the words comprehensible as a de facto ban. That’s why Palestrina is so amazing: he figured out a way to write beautiful, 6-part polyphony, that is still very clear to the listener. Here’s the Gloria from Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus mass. Notice how much easier it is to follow the vocal lines, because each syllable introduced by one voice comes in while the other voices are holding their notes, so they don’t interfere. This is an idea that will come back in the Baroque era when we talk about the fugue:

Now the big thing I like to do in this series is tie the historical material to something more modern, to show how musical ideas are woven like threads through history. Mr. Mister wrote the song “Kyrie” based on the Greek prayer “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison” (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy).

And sticking with the theme of setting your religious beliefs to modern music, here’s Shambala by the Beastie Boys. When Adam Yauch (MCA, RIP) converted to Buddhism, he wrote his Bodhisattva vows in the form of a rap and put it on their album Ill Communication.

As always, I am heavily indebted to and strongly recommend Robert Greenberg’s “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” course by Great Courses. He goes into a lot of detail that I pass over, although he never once name checks Mr. Mister or the Beastie Boys. If you don’t have big plans for the day, you can turn on seven hours of Palestrina and eight separate masses that you can leave running in the background:

Previous post here.

Firesticks for Pigwacker’s and Cowsucka’s

The myth of the short barrel rifle

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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.

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.

A Post Meant for Stomping

Harambe Season

This is kind of interesting – PA gov not mandating masked murder of the chillens’

Posting from a phone with the new block editor – Ways to prove you’re inept for

500 Alex