Tag Archives: music

Musical Thoughts

On Josef Hofmann playing Chopin’s Concerto No. 2

It is not uncommon to speak of musical “ideas”. It has become very common, in fact, since a number German music writers in the early eighteenth century started speaking of musikalische Gedanken.

A musical idea is more or less what musicians and music analysts call a “theme”. One might think of a theme as a purely musical idea, a sound pattern. But Gedanke is more like thought, and “thought” suggest a thought process — typically, about something — rather than just sound patterns or shapes. Musical “thoughts” are what’s implied in musical “sentences”.  Continue reading


Ringtones and the Limits of Music

Having finally acquired a smartphone, I had to choose a ringtone. A trivial problem; but one that blew my thoughts into more philosophical directions.

Many people choose for this purpose some favourite piece of music. I find this hard to understand. Of all the music I know and enjoy, I can’t think of any piece I would want to cut down to a few seconds, degrade to a mere signal, to be controlled by any odd caller. Hey, pick up the phone!

For a ringtone is nothing but a signal; it’s not music. At least, I tended to think that there should be a basic difference between one thing and the other.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.

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On Wings and Wooden Shoes

Of Chopin’s 51 mazurka’s my favourite is Op. 24 Nr. 4. It starts with a broken octave F which shrinks in alternating semitone steps: two voices seeking to meet halfway, in a simpleminded, but musically weird and ambiguous pattern. If left to shuffle along the two would meet on the tritone B – the musical nowhere.

Just in time the bass steps in, hm-pa-pa, but gently, and starts to pull things straight. The contralto makes a step ahead of time, the soprano briefly freezes on the spot, then, swirling upward through four more hm-pa-pa’s, they settle for the key of B-flat minor. Jarring octaves; no soft melting in unison. Forward and backward, up and down, through mood swings huge as mountains.
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