Category Archives: Music

Elections, Muddleheadedness and Music

stemming  /’stɛmɪŋ/ (nom. fem.) 1. voting, vote; ballot; 2. ♪ tuning; 3. frame of mind; …

One good thing about the Dutch electoral system is that its low threshold allows so many parties to enter parliament, that absolute majorities are unlikely to arise. Maybe this mechanism has just protected us (the Dutch) from being governed by the nationalist ultraright.

Another effect of the system is that for any crackpot idea you may find a party to represent it, and sometimes several. Take, for example, basic income (a form of social security dispensed to all citizens unconditionally). To be sure, I don’t think this is a crackpot idea. There are strong arguments in its favour, and four parties in parliament at least encourage experiments (PvdA, D66, GroenLinks, Partij voor de Dieren).

And exactly because it should be taken seriously it is a pity that two fringe parties (which failed to win a seat) have made it their nr. 1 priority: the Basic Income Party (Basisinkomenpartij) and the Freethinkers’ Party (Vrijzinnige Partij, VP). “Free thinking”, I’m afraid, is a euphemism for muddleheadedness. Witness the curious paragraph on music in their election programme.

Much of the the trouble and strife in the world, according to the freethinkers, is due to the fact that musicians tune to a “fundamental” (grondtoon) of 440 Hz. This tuning “provokes discord and agression”. If only musicians would attune to a “natural” 432, harmony would spread through society.

The mistakenly so-called “fundamental” is, evidently, the conventional pitch standard (or “concert pitch”), fixed by reference to the A written in the treble clef. Now, the idea that this somewhat arbitrarily established standard is “unnatural” (and therefore unhealthy) is not new. Tracing its origins will send you spiralling down into a netherworld of superstition, pseudoscience, number mysticism and conspiracy theories. Which I disrespectfully decline.

If this proposal deserves to be mentioned at all, ever so briefly, it is because in the press coverage absurdity was raised to the superlative. In a somewhat ironic reportage, De Volkskrant, a leading newspaper, defined the so-called “fundamental” as “the lowest pitch produced by a vibrating source, such as a musical instrument.” (A mistake for which the journal’s editor may be to blame, who evidently relied on Wikipedia). As a result, the Dutch government was called upon to lower the range of musical instruments (to 432 Hz!), preferably in a European collaborative framework.

The fact that this garbled version of a muddleheaded idea has spread across the internet shows the helpless ignorance of the average citizen when faced with even the most basic concepts of music. Fixing the basics (De basis op orde) was the Freethinkers’ Party’s election slogan. Let’s fix the basics of education — giving their due to both music and critical thought.

May I Share My Earworm?

Voilà: my new Philosophy & Music videoclip, which should warm you up to my three lecture course on music — how it moves us, why it matters.

Don’t forget to turn on the sound. Unless you’re allergic to earworms: the music I made to go with it has been playing in my mind for two weeks, barely going to rest at night.

Memorability is an essential feature of what we tend to call a “good tune” (not, of course, of good music). Memorability and “catchiness”, which implies memorability, but also something seemingly contradictory — the feeling that it is new, yet familiar — the déjà-ouï.

Certainly music may be both. Often the familiarity will derive from some background pattern (primarily harmonic), the novelty from foreground features — typically, melodic. Most of the world’s music is based on prefab patterns. The scope for creating new melodies to a given harmonic pattern is not infinite. So, an appealing, potentially popular tune will never be 100% new, or even 50%, I would say, though there is no way of measuring musical novelty.

And the catchier it sounds — the stronger the feeling that it has a right to be there (as I feel it, from the maker’s perspective) — the greater the risk that actually it has already been there. You may carefully and deliberately craft your tune from scratch, changing a note here and there, but still have no guarantee that the unpredicted and unpredictable end result (voilá) won’t happen to be a duplicate of something that has been out there all along.

But that’s no reason to silence the worm.

Reverend Father Adam, Whence Didst Thou Get Music?

What is the origin of music? — And how does music relate to language? Scientific research into these questions is booming. Psychologists, neurologists, cognitive scientists, biologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and musicologists are in the origins business. Despite the fact that we’ll never have the kind of evidence that may lead to a scientifically valid answer.

Theories may be fables. They still can be evaluated by how well they connect the things we know, and by their power to inspire new enquiries.

One idea that may seem obvious and common sense is that there are aspects of language — more particularly, of speech — that can be called ‘musical’ and expressive: the ‘rhythm’ and ‘melody’ of speech, or prosody. Rudiments of melody, or intonation, are present in the most basic human and animal vocal expressions — screams, calls, sighs, grunts, and so on.

So maybe before there were language and music there was vocal expression, a kind of primitive communication that with growing complexity developed into true language on the one hand, into music on the other. Or, as it has often been put, into the ‘language of ideas’ and the ‘language of feelings’. It being understood that linguistic prosody belongs with the latter rather than with the former.

This sounds like a common sense idea, and it is a quite popular hypothesis in recent scientific research. It inspires more specific inquiries into the musical features of language,  into the linguistic features of music, and into the question how both are processed by our brains.

Not every idea that strikes us as obvious must always have been so. What seems trivially sensible today may be yesterday’s nonsense, or revelation.

Herbert Spencer was a popular philosopher of the Victorian age. In a somewhat prattlesome essay on The Origin and Function of Music, published in 1857 in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, Spencer pointed out that vocal sounds are expressive because we recognize them as the product of the bodily effort of making them. A happy, open, relaxed sound is made by a happy, open, relaxed body. An anguished sound is made with tensed muscles. And so on. Human shouts, sighs and cries are, just like those of animals, a primitive but effective medium of expressive communication. In music this is developed into an a full-fledged “emotional language”, which is “only second in importance to the language of the intellect; perhaps not even second to it” (p. 407). Spencer thought this expressive-communicative potential of music could explain its evolutionary function. Here he disagreed with Darwin, who thought singing was most likely to be explained as courtship display.

In recent scientific literature Spencer has got a lot of credit for his idea — particularly for establishing a link between muscles and the sound we make. If your muscles contract, you squeak; of they relax, you may yawn or produce another low pitched sound. It even has entered the literature as Spencer’s Law. That is, one of Spencer’s Laws: because there is also Spencer’s Law of Equal Freedom, Spencer’s Law of Cognitive Development, Spencer’s Law of the Survival of the Fittest (also known as social Darwinism), and the equally sinister Spencer’s Law of Why We Shouldn’t Worry. Leaving aside what looks like a Wild West pulp novel titled Spencer’s Law.

Too much credit for Spencer, at least within the realm of music. For Spencer, who cited no sources, did little else but echo an eighteenth-century commonplace. In 1746 Étienne Bonnot de Condillac had proposed the term ‘action language’ (langage d’action) for what linguists nowadays call protolanguage. He thought of it as the common precursor of music and language, consisting of spontaneous cries along with gestural elements. That roughly similar ideas were proposed a little later by Jean-Jacques Rousseau is well known. And that high and loud taxes our muscles more than soft and low has, no doubt, been known since times immemorial.

The idea that prosody is an evolutionary link between music and speech has resonated strongly through the European intellectual world, around 1750. We may find its echo in unexpected places, such as the writings of a German-Dutch musician and writer with the jolly name of Jacob Wilhelm Lustig, who for more than six decades played the organ in Groningen.

In the sixth of his Twelve Discourses on Useful Musical Subjects (Twaalf redeneeringen over nuttige muzikaale onderwerpen, 1756), Lustig too adopts the theory of the expressive protolanguage, casting it however in an orthodox Christian creationist framework. The inventor of music is Adam, and since Adam began his life in Paradise, the first sounds he produced could not have been anything else but “resounding joy and admiration”, “praise and thanksgiving to his Creator” (p. 278).

It may be noted that Rousseau too located the origins of music and language in paradise, albeit a secular paradise, complete with palm trees and fountains. “There, around those fountains, the first discourses were the first songs”, Rousseau wrote sometime in the 1750’s (it wasn’t published until 1781). Here’s Lustig in 1756 (p. 281): “it is not unreasonable to conclude that the two first singers [Adam and Eve] were also the first poets”.

Like Spencer, Lustig bluntly assumes that (in Spencer’s words) “All music is originally vocal”. The inventor of music is therefore not the biblical Jubal, “father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes” (Genesis 4: 21). Jubal has only done what Scripture says he did, inventing musical instruments. It is to Adam, his great-great-great-great-grandfather that Jubal poses the question I’ve quoted in the title. And here is Adam’s answer, taken from Lustig’s Introduction to the Theory of Music (Inleiding tot de muziekkundesecond edition, 1771, p. 125-6) — I won’t try  to reproduce the weird flavour of the eighteenth-century Dutch:

Jubal. — Reverend Father Adam, how did you get music? […]
Adam. — I noticed that I was capable of making many various vocal inflections, which on different incidents I gradually changed, and therefore produced by song rather than speech. […] Also, love, joy, grief and other passions often elicited all kinds of inflections and intonations: in this we simply followed the prescription of nature, in such a way as the passion inspired in us. From this originated the first known melodies. They were reproduced by one singer after another, following our innate tendency to imitate, disseminated everywhere, and used as a basis for novel ones.

What distinguishes this and similar Enlightenment fantasies from Spencer’s is mainly, maybe, the latter’s interest in animal behaviour. Eighteenth-century thinkers, and particularly orthodox Christians, may not have been so eager to put human singing on one line with the howling of dogs, the mooing of cows, and the screaming of monkeys (nor were, of course, many nineteenth-century aestheticians).

Does it matter to present-day research when these ideas originated, and how credible they seemed at a given time? — To make a long answer short, I think it matters. Because ideas need a context, and narrowing the context narrows our perspective on that idea and our ability to develop it. In other words, I think that research into human psychology cannot ignore the history of ideas.

The Wötzel Puzzle

The word ‘declamation’ is likely to evoke negative associations — pompousness and a swollen tone. It was no different two centuries ago. At least in the German-speaking world, where, despite a widespread anti-declamatory prejudice (or sensible aversion) declamation as a stage art boomed around 1800.

This has been the subject of my research of the past few months. And that’s how I came across Dr. J.C. Wötzel’s Outline of a General and Comprehensible Doctrinal Edifice or System of Declamation (1814). It took me some time to get through its 840 pages even in hop-skip-and-jump fashion. For Wötzel uses three words were anybody else would use one.

It took a while too before I found out the reason: it’s that Dr. Wötzel wrote his books by copying from those of others, wötzling them into his ‘own’ simply by adding words. Unnecessary, redundant, superfluous words. I realized this when a paragraph looked all too familiar — indeed it had been copied from a well-known earlier work on declamation, Outline of Bodily Eloquence, by Hermann Heimart Cludius (1792). It even shows in the title: Cludius’ Grundris der körperlichen Beredsamkeit: für Liebhaber der schönen Künste, Redner und Schauspieler becomes Wötzel’s Grundriß eines allgemeinen und faßlichen Lehrgebäudes oder Systems der Declamation nach Schocher’s Ideen, für Dichter, Vorleser, Declamatoren, Redner, Lehrer und Kunstschauspieler aller Art, für deren Zuhörer und Zuschauer zur richtigen Würdigung der Erstern.

I’m always curious about the man or woman behind the book (see my previous post on Gustav Anton von Seckendorff), but Wötzel was something special. In fact, he had been exposed as a plagiarist years before he pasted his Outline together. More recently an American scholar has revealed that he illegitimately carried the title Dr., had appropriated the name of another, more famous author (J.C. Wezel), and had heaped ridicule upon himself with an ‘experiment’ in spiritism, Veritable Appearance of My Wife After Death (1804).

Ghost stories and fraud — it looks like an entertaining mixture. In fact any reader of Wötzel is likely to be discouraged by the sheer amount of empty verbiage he pours over any subject he lays hands on. Still, unravelling the Wötzel web makes for an interesting story, and I’ve told it in a short article that I’ve just put online.*

Cludius, one of the many victims of Wötzel’s plagiarism, is also an interesting subject for man-behind-the-book studies, and I will add a few words about him. Cludius was a Lutheran pastor and dean in Hildesheim who grew fruits as a hobby, and his name lives on in four apple cultivars. His Outline (Grundris) stands out from the mass of similar works by its scrupulous references. And yet Cludius too was a sort of con artist or con scholar, but a nice one. Whereas Wötzel may have incorporated a lost work by Wezel into his own, Cludius actually wrote an original work masquerading as another author’s lost book, the fourth book of Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods. It was published in Latin (a very decent Ciceronian Latin, it seems) by a ‘Pater Serafinus’, after a manuscript allegedly found among the rubbish in a book stall. Its true authorship has long remained uncertain, but the ascription to Cludius has recently been confidently made by its German translator. The deceit is quite transparent, and no doubt satirical: Cicero is made to utter views strangely resembling Roman-Catholic doctrine, views that can never have been his, nor those of the Lutheran pastor.

* Schocher’s Ideas and Wötzel’s Words: Notes Along a Sidetrack
— Alternative location.

Seckendorff, alias Peale

Is speaking a kind of singing? Are we talking tunes?

The common sense answer is: evidently not. Music — most music at least — has fixed pitches, pitches that make up a scale. If we speak of ‘speech melody’, we’re simply using the word ‘melody’ in a broader sense.

Seckendorff shows the expression belonging to a toothache (after a drawing by Wilhelm Tischbein).

Seckendorff shows the expression belonging to a toothache (after a drawing by J.H.W. Tischbein).

Gustav Anton Freiherr von Seckendorff was not a common sense man. Seckendorff thought that speech too has its scale, though with much smaller intervals. Singing is a kind of speaking, but louder, and in the effort of producing volume we loose the finer pitch distinctions of speech. In fact, all speech is a kind of music – he called it ‘the concert on the musical scale of speech’.

This allows us, Seckendorff thought, to bridge the gap between speaking and singing. He demonstrated this by declaiming poems to his own piano accompaniment, producing a kind of speech-song, or rather song-speech.

Seckendorff was active as a professional declaimer around 1810, when a fashion for declamation was reaching its peak in Germany. Many actors were touring around with programmes of poetry and drama, performing in musical concerts, or in their own ‘declamatoria’. Seckendorff was not an actor, but a dropout government official, and acting was not considered a suitable profession for a Freiherr. This may explain why he performed under a stage name, Patrik Peale, though it doesn’t explain why it should be an English one. (It may have something to do with his earlier visit to America.)

In the same period flourished a very peculiar fashion for mime, living statues, and tableaux vivants. Here too Seckendorff went along (or took the lead), showing himself and his family members on stage in such compositions as Christ Praying on the Mount of Olives and A Father Protecting His Child from the Attack by a Wild Animal. It must have looked rather like a ghostly cabinet of living wax figures.

If Seckendorff is remembered nowadays, it is mostly for his two volumes (plus appendix) of Lectures on Declamation and Mime (1816). These are clearly indebted to the rhetorical tradition, with its cultivation of speech and gesture (or body language), as well as to the study of paintings. The images (in the appendix) show various kinds of facial expressions and postures, ranging from a ‘toothache’ to ‘false admiration’.

As for the problems of speaking and singing — and the broader issues of language and music (what are they? how do they relate?) — these cannot be resolved with common sense alone. Unfortunately, where Seckendorff departs from common sense, his ideas tend to be crackpot rather than constructive. But the few available biographical data were intriguing — and as I delved into period journalism and the memoires of contemporaries, I discovered that the story of his life was well worth telling.*

*Gustav Anton Freiherr von Seckendorff, alias Patrik Peale: A Biographical Note
— alternative address

Four Funerals and No Wedding

Dust and Ashes, a new opera by composer Thomas Winstrich, was premiered last week in the State Opera of Brönitz. Those who were attracted by the production’s massive publicity and expected Gothic horrors were disappointed. For me it was the opposite. The work turned out te be more serious, subtle and ironic than its theme or title might suggest. Winstrich calls his work a “documentary opera”, not in the sense that it presents us with facts, but rather that it documents the universal human tendency to seek answers in myth, particularly concerning “this hardest-to-swallow truth: that there is an end to all of us”.

Dust and Ashes is exceptional simply because all its heroes are dead before the curtain rises. Its shows the funerals of four composers, Mozart, Paganini, Weber, and Liszt. Living protagonists there are only two: Richard Wagner, cast as baritone in the third act, and his wife, Cosima Wagner née Liszt (mezzo soprano), in the final act. Apart from a somewhat surrealist recreation of the funerary rites little happens on stage – it may be the most static and ritualistic musical drama since Parsifal. Luckily the imaginative cinematic stage design (by Voss & Tohanka) succeeds in keeping things alive.

The main action however is in the music. Though it is basically a pastiche from the four dead composers’ oeuvres, the complexity of its many levels of quotations and allusions exceeds familiar postmodernist pasting practices. Music is piled up layer upon layer in a score which demands a huge orchestra, a strong choir, and in acts 3 and 4 a wind band on stage. Despite the intensive use of borrowed materials, there is great inventiveness in the ways these are structured in waves of increasing and decreasing density. And if I can trust my ears and memory, there are quite a few original ideas hidden in between the stolen notes.

The opera’s first act is the shortest and maybe the most effective. Whether or not Mozart’s “third class” burial in a shared grave was disgraceful by the standards of the time, it remains a shocking idea to us that no ceremony took place at the graveyard and that no permanent marker was erected to identify the spot. Winstrich fills the void with a grimly humorous, Shakespearean dialogue between grave diggers, undertakers, coach drivers and a drunken priest, interspersed with fragments from Mozart’s Requiem and other works, which sound like they’re carried by the wind from a distant place.

The second act is maybe the weakest, due to the lack of any great mournful music by its deceased hero, Niccolò Paganini (1824). It also has the weakest foundation in known facts. The truth seems to be that the devil’s own fiddler died without absolution, and therefore was denied a religious burial. The body remained above ground for more than a year, then was moved from one temporary grave to another, and found its present resting place only in 1896. Legend has it that Paganini’s son Achille sailed the coffin from one port to another in despair, until he set foot on an uninhabited rock in the Mediterranean where he secretly dug a grave. With its maritime scenery, this act most heavily depends upon cinematic effects. Musically it works more or less like a grim symphonic scherzo, the apotheosis of demonic virtuosity, with an orchestra of ghostly violins in the air (playing in the pit and and projected above the stage). It refers, I suppose, to the burden of virtuosity (or eternal restlessness) carried by all post-romantic musicians.

Following chronology, the opera puts Carl Maria von Weber (1826) after Paganini, because what it shows is Weber’s second burial in Dresden, 1844. Already gravely ill, Weber had traveled to London, were he died without his family soon after the premiere of Oberon. His grave was neglected and nearly forgotten, according to Richard Wagner, who, 31 years old and an ambitious second conductor at the Dresden opera, took lead in an initiative to bring home the remains of his predecessor. For the occasion Wagner arranged fragments from Weber’s Euryanthe for winds, and at the graveside held the speech which is the basis for the first extended vocal solo in this opera (sung more securely than sensitively by Claus Sikurny).

“It happened to me (Wagner writes in Mein Leben), as I had started my speech with clarity and great sonority, that for a moment the sound of my own voice had such an almost frightening effect upon myself, that I was completely carried away and imagined not only hearing myself, but watching myself before the breathless crowd. This self-objectification created in me an intense expectation of the fascinating event which was about to happen before me, as if it was not I myself standing here, ready to speak. […] Only my own prolonged silence and the quietude around me reminded me of the fact that I had to speak, not to listen.”

His first inspiration for this work, Thomas Winstrich says, has come from this episode, at the heart of which is an astonished, self-reflective silence, a kind of Doppelgänger experience. Similar (yet differently motivated) silences are the core of each of the four acts, as a kind of “white hole” around which the musical waves “keep rotating”.

Act 4 is the weightiest, weirdest and saddest. Franz Liszt died in 1886, three years after his son-in-law Richard Wagner, during his visit to the Bayreuth festival. The focus is on his daughter Cosima, Wagner’s widow (intelligently interpreted by Angela Berger), whose monologue is set on an extratemporal plane outside the action, a reflection on life, death and pain drawn from her diaries and childhood letters to her father.

Not a note written by Liszt himself sounded during the real event, an omission redressed in this operatic recreation, which includes parts of the Requiem Liszt supposedly composed for himself (a little known, austere composition for male voices, organ and winds), as well as fragments from his many other funerary compositions. These are overlaid with a thick carpet of allusions which remind the spectator of the many directions the Liszt Nachfolge has taken in the 20th Century.

Musical density increases as the opera progresses, reflecting (according to the composer) “music history’s ever growing burden of riches”, as “a tribute to the presentness of the past”. This explains something of the haunting quality of this work. Never have there been so many auditory ghosts in my already overstuffed head.

Shapes Moved With Sound

Or the Birth of the Animated Cartoon from the Spirit of Music
Tönend bewegte Formen oder die Geburt des Zeichenfilms aus dem Geiste der Musik. 

Listening to Chabrier’s Joyeuse Marche (in a 1919 recording conducted by Eugène Ysaÿe) it dawned upon me: before there was the animated cartoon, there was animated cartoon music. In fact the piece dates from 1888 (the original four hand piano version from 1885) – that is, from a period when the animated cartoon was just developing. The first public screening of an animated projection (by Charles-Émile Reynaud) took place in Paris in 1892, but his Pauvre Pierrot does look poor and suggests that, indeed, the spirit of the cartoon was there musically before it took shape graphically.

But what makes this music cartoonish? – Chabrier called his piece Joyeuse Marche, not Marche Joyeuse, and I’m not sure what that word order implies to the native French, but it seems to me that the composer thought of a walk (a silly walk) rather than a march. Listen to it (preferably in an early recording), and I bet you won’t be able to stay in your chair. You’ll start walking around in a funny way – jerky, angular, and a trifle too fast, like an early cartoon character. Not with those rounded corners, those stereotyped retards, that make modern computer animation look like swimming in syrup.

Music consists of animated forms, the 19th century music critic Hanslick thought, but he was at a loss what to do with the idea: what does it mean, animated? – The answer came from the movies.