February 12, 2015

Ephemeral Life

Music is ephemeral. It is never the same twice. Even listening to a recording is never quite the same because the listener brings a different awareness each time they listen. They can’t help it. This is what makes music so tricky to explain and so wonderful to experience.
Many Classical musicians focus on learning to play the notes they see with as much accuracy as possible. The goal becomes to play the piece exactly as written every time. This is a good skill to have, never think otherwise, but there is more to music than that. Music is not the written notation but the moment of playing or performing including all the mistakes or even deliberate changes to what we see on the page. Music is the act of creating sound and listening to it. Improvisation is part of this and always has been. Even when improvisation isn't taught, performers end up making little tiny changes every time they play (there is no way not to). Perhaps instead of striving for note-by-note repetition, we should spend time trying to understand WHY these changes felt good or bad, what in the moment caused the music to transform and how we can make these different "interpretations" work for performers and audiences. This is the beginning of improvisation and part of what makes music an experience that is treasured.

A Couple of Examples
The Medieval troubadours are well known for setting their poetry to music but their music was not “complete” as we would understand it; they rarely included any rhythms and even wrote multiple melodies for the same poem. In other words, they improvised and used written music as a chance to expand their possible musical ideas instead of writing out a perfect version of the music. They adapted the music to their instruments and voices, they changed tones to fit the mood of the moment and treated the music like the living creature it is. There are a large number of period performers who carefully use only musical ideas from the age of the troubadours, going so far as to exclude all modern instruments and most period wind instruments since they weren’t “commonly used” at the time. Their goal is to recreate the troubadour sound as exactly as they can. This is wonderful and shows us a whole different kind of music than we are used to but I can not help feeling that the spirit of this music is in some ways being ignored. This was music that was meant to change, to adapt. If a performer didn’t play the instrument a composer had in mind, they still played the music even if they had to change the melody to do so. If only certain keys or modes worked for a specific instrument or voice, the performer could even CHANGE the scale of the piece and play the piece with different harmonies. If the audience wanted a different mood than the original piece, the music could be changed. A lament could become a dance in next to no time.
Baroque music incorporated improvisation into opera and bass lines as a matter of course. But the melody instruments were expected to change their more completely written lines too. A straight performance was often considered dull and not worth the audience's time. Today, students often spend hours researching how musicians might have improvised a piece in that day and age. But why stop there? Why limit ourselves to imitating someone else’s improvisation? Don’t mistake me, imitating is a great way to learn but then we can add our own ideas. Radical, I know, because this may well result in older pieces being made modern. But why is that always seen as a bad thing? We are modern musicians and we bring that sound with us. As beautiful as I find the Baroque style, I see no reason to rigidly make everyone follow it in every performance.

I admit, creating new music can be frightening. Some changes don’t work and some improvisations fall flat. It takes time and practice to get reliably good at improvising. But why should that stop us? We spend hours, even years, learning to reliably recreate written music after all. There is no reason to assume improvising will just come naturally without any effort. But the seed of improvisation is there, in anyone who has played one note and then another without any direction from someone else.
Improvisation and written music are not exclusive to each other and I love playing written music just as much as improvising. I find it beautiful and inspiring to play and hear music others were trying to share. But I know that I will never create a carbon-copy performance of any piece and I wouldn't want to even if I could. New sounds, new ideas and new music leap out of performances of old music. Some are sweetly similar to the sounds that created them, some are radically different. The musical possibilities and knowledge that this music will never be exactly the same again is what makes the experience so rewarding.
We are as ephemeral as the music we love.

January 17, 2015

The Gem Flutes of Gilgamesh and Tammuzi

I put off this post in a deluded attempt to find more information but have now admitted the truth; I likely have all the information I can find. Both of these instruments are only mentioned in fragments of myths, making our information spotty at best but I'll do what I can.
First, a note about the term flute in these myths. The instrument in Gilgamesh’s story is often called a flute in English translations (and other languages) however it most likely was a reed instrument. This seems to be an extremely common mistranslation when dealing with old texts; any old or archaic wind instrument that is basically a hollow pipe is translated as flute regardless of the type of mouthpiece or how it is held. Why I’m not quite sure aside from the translators not realizing that “pipe” is a generic instrumental term and was never exclusively used for flutes. In the case of Gilgamesh's story, there is some doubt as to what kind of instrument is really meant but it was almost certainly end-blown (held vertical to the body instead of horizontal) and most likely had a reed in the mouthpiece. I have yet to find anyone examining the term for Tammuzi’s wind instrument but given the prevalence of musical translation issues and the popularity of reed instruments in this time and area, I think it is safe to assume it wasn’t a flute either. At this point, the use of the word flute in translations of myths is so common, I think it is quite reasonable to include these stories as part of the flute’s mythology so long as it is made clear when the instrument in question was really a flute or reed instrument.
Second, I apologize for using so many different versions of Dumuzi/Tammuzi and Ishtar/Inanna. It is a result of the how many cultures have told these stories and the fact that I do not feel qualified to simply "merge" the names into one without damaging the stories. I have kept things as simple as I could.

The Carnelian Pipe
The story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu comes from Mesopotamia. This is a very old and very fragmented poem. The different fragments are pieced together in different ways creating several versions. In short, Gilgamesh is the King of Urek (possibly Sumeria or thereabouts). He has divine parentage (quite common for royalty in myths) and a bad temper (ditto). Enkidu is created by the Gods to be his friend and calm him down. They have a number of adventures and encounters with the Gods which are anything but calm (but at least they stop bothering ordinary people so much). Eventually, Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh holds a funeral for his friend. In the process, Gilgamesh offers a wind instrument made of carnelian to Dumuzi (the Sun God is witnessing this ceremony I believe, not keeping the offerings) so that Enkidu will be welcomed into the afterlife. It is worth noticing that he also offers a flask made of lapis lazuli to Ereshkigal for the same reason (both lapis lazuli and Ereshkigal will be mentioned later). 
He displayed to the Sun God a flask of lapis lazuli
   for Ereshkigal, the queen of the Netherworld:
"May Ereshkigal, the queen of the teeming Netherworld, accept this,
   may she welcome my friend and walk by his side!"
He displayed to the Sun God a flute of carnelian
   for Dumuzi, the shepherd beloved of Ishtar:
"May Dumuzi, the shepherd beloved of Ishtar, accept this,
   may he welcome my friend and walk by his side!"
---from Book VIII of the Epic, lines 144–149

The Lapis Lazuli Pipe
Now for Tammuzi’s other wind instrument we have to look at the story of the descent of Ishtar into the Underworld. Again, there are several different, fragmented versions of this story. Ishtar is often related to Inanna the Sumerian Goddess of love, fertility and war. Tammuzi/Dumuzi (and various other spellings) is Ishtar’s/Inanna’s lover. Ishtar/Inanna decides to go to the Underworld to see her sister Ereshkigal the Queen of the Dead. In the process, Ishtar/Inanna basically dies but being a Goddess, she can return to her home and divine role of keeping the world alive if some one will take her place in the Underworld. Now while she was gone Tammuzi/Dumuzi has been living it up in her palace, sitting on her throne and playing a wind instrument (often called a flute but likely something else) made of lapis lazuli. She sends him to take her place in the Underworld supposedly for not mourning her properly. Tammuzi/Dumuzi took his lapis lazuli instrument with him to play comforting music for the dead. In some versions Dumuzi’s sister takes his place for half the year so he will not always be dead. The seasons change when they trade places in the Underworld. 

A Few Gems
We don’t always know exactly what stones the ancients meant by carnelian or lapis lazuli but they generally meant something reddish with carnelian and something bluish with lapis lazuli. We do know they meant something valuable as these gems were used in trade and by royalty. It would have been expensive to make instruments from them but not impossible and since both stones were associated with the Gods, anything made from them would have been appropriate as offerings. There have been a number of gem encrusted flutes (and other instruments) made in history, both for display and just to see how they would work, so there’s no reason to assume more ancient cultures wouldn’t have made instruments out of something flashy too. It is also quite common to say someone in a story or myth is playing an instrument made out of unusual or exotic materials to enhance the mythic or magical quality of the instrument.

So what shall we take from this? Well, we can't say anything for certain but I like the idea of Tammuzi’s/Dumuzi’s music changing colors as the seasons shift. Blue and red, cool and warm, living and dead, circling and harmonizing every year as the earth spins year after year.

December 17, 2014

Music and Meditation

Today, I'm going to share one of the methods I have developed for working music into my meditation practice. Music isn’t required for meditation of course and I don't always use it (how repetitive that would be!) but I tend to incorporate music into most things I do at least in some small way.
Meditation is about calming the mind. Some people do this by “emptying” their minds of all thoughts, sometimes by counting breaths. Others do it by focusing on a single simple thought or image. For the record, I prefer using simple pretty images but feeling them rather than seeing them. I tend to get bored when thinking of “nothing,” and counting breaths is too much like work (all that counting explains why musicians get kind of focused and spacey at the same time while playing) for me to really settle into it.

Music can be added to either the mind-emptying or the focusing approach to meditation. The idea is to allow the music to fill your mind and let the flow of notes become your thoughts. I’m not talking about imagining a story to fit the music (although that is a useful trick too) but experiencing the music on its own terms. Now there are several books out there that try to pin down exactly what impact different types of music have on people. They often go so far as to say you should listen to music in certain keys for certain issues (completely ignoring the fact that most Classical pieces modulate quite a bit and some are almost never in the key that is listed in their name). The trouble with this approach is that no two people respond exactly alike to the same music. A piece I think is happy may sound aggressive to someone else. A piece can be thoughtful and calming or sad and depressing depending on who listens to it. What this means is you will have to test out these pieces for yourself. Keep in mind that different instruments and performers can change a piece wildly. I typically prefer music with overlapping lines and repeating arpeggios that aren’t too fast but some single line or fast pieces work wonderfully. The key is that the music is enthralling in some fashion.

I haven’t yet figured out how to fully describe the music I like using for meditation so I’m going to periodically share short lists of pieces and recordings that I find to work well. I've been using a lot of Classical music but other genres work just as well. I find it easier to use instrumental pieces than vocal but some vocal pieces are wonderful (I'll share some of those in later posts). My friends/guinea pigs who tried these pieces out were generally surprised when the music ended, even the longer Classical songs, saying they didn't think that much time had gone by. This is one reason I think these pieces are effective as meditation support.

-Dunmore Lassies from “The Long Black Veil” performed by the Chieftains and Ry Cooder. This is one of my favorite pieces of music in general. It starts with a beautiful guitar and flute duo then builds and grows in absolutely amazing ways. It is about 5 minutes long.
-J. S. Bach’s Sonata in G Major for Two Flutes and Continuo BWV 1039. The flutes and continuo parts weave around each other in wonderful ways. The third movement is especially hypnotic but the entire piece works. This piece is about 12 minutes long.
-Telemann’s Concerto for Flute, Oboe d'amore, Viola d'amore, Strings and Continuo in E Major. The second movement may be a bit lively for some but I find its energy fits just fine after the first movement. This piece is about 15 minutes long.

Have fun with this idea. Don't get stuck on my recommended pieces though. If they don't work for you, try something else.
When looking up Classical pieces, be aware many on-line sites don't bother listing composers. In pop music, the performer is the more important information for finding the music so they got into the habit of skipping the composer. But in Classical music, if you don't know the composer, you won't find the piece (the names are just too similar). They are getting better on this issue but you may need to hunt a bit. Some sites DO include the composer's name as part of the name of the song or album so that can help you find what you are looking for.


November 15, 2014

What Do You Hear?

I teach a music history class for non-music majors. One of the first things I make my students do is talk about music. I play musical examples for them and say "tell me what you thought". And silence falls.
After about five minutes of gentle encouragement someone finally gets up the courage to say "I liked it" or "I didn't like it" and I breathe a sigh of relief. If I can get them to admit they have an opinion, there is a chance they will develop some ability to talk about the music. This works even better when one student says they like a piece and another says they don't like the same one. With a little careful assistance in finding the words to describe what they heard, the class often realizes that the exact same musical moments caused both opinions. That is when they realize this class is not about right and wrong answers but about experiencing new music and learning to express their own thoughts.
Quite a few students drop at this point. The idea that their grade is at least partly based on their own opinions and observations seems to be overwhelming for them. They can't just read the book and parrot it back to me or express the same thing another student does because I ask them "why didn't you like this, because of the choppy rhythm or the dissonance?" or "what made you like this piece, the instrument sound or the melody?" The fact that there is no wrong answer to these questions doesn't help them much at first. They may have spent years in school but they have almost never had to express their own opinions. The realization that opinions are exactly what I am after startles most of them and the lack of absolute right answers appears to be terrifying to many.
 Once they get this far, they nervously ask for tips and ways to start talking about music "right". I tell them to start with the obvious, all the things that seem too blinding clear to bother describing; is the piece fast or slow, smooth or choppy, loud or quiet, consistent or changeable, name the instruments you hear and when they change to other instruments. Because when you are talking about music, you aren't actually listening to it anymore. All those musical sounds that are obvious in the sounding music aren't obvious at all once the music stops.
Words and music are two different languages and learning to translate one to the other can be tricky. Music says some things with such ease and grace that the complexity of what they are saying vanishes into simple sound. Those same ideas can take an entire paragraph to describe properly in words and even then, we often have only described the bare surface of the musical sound, not the depth of meaning (for lack of a better term) within the music.
The secret, I think, is that the meaning of the music is at least partly created by our own minds and therefore changes subtly (or less subtly at times) from moment to moment, hearing to hearing and even in retrospect. It is entirely possible to experience a piece one way while listening to it and while writing about it, experience it differently in our own memories. This can make writing about a piece seem like a fantasy or a made up answer. Which it is, of course, since we are talking about what we think about music. We are the ones creating those thoughts and therefore we are making it up as we go. And there is no wrong answer.

October 14, 2014

I Don't Know That Song

"I know that one but I can't do it". This quote from a book about improvisation got me thinking; What is the difference between knowing and being able to perform something? And how does that difference shift based on if the performer reads music or plays by ear?

I was trained to read music so for me, knowing a piece means I can play it reliably well when the music is in front of me. But take that music away and I am suddenly at sea even with simple tunes that can turn into ear-worms. I can often fake a harmony line or even stumble through the tune (after a few false tries) if it is a simple song but I won't really retain it based on that alone. The interesting thing is that I clearly "know" the tune because I recognize whenever I hit a wrong note, flub a rhythm or miss an entrance. For that matter, I also recognize when I get it right! 
I find that learning a piece by ear, even a short repetitive folk tune, can take a startlingly long time compared to reading the sheet music. Having to recognize when a note is right or wrong AND work out the technical details of playing it AND commit the song to memory all at the same time doubles or quadruples the time required to learn the piece. I often get wildly frustrated and say, "just find me some sheet music, it will be faster". But the tunes I have learned by ear I KNOW. They are in my head, my fingers and sometimes simply spring out of the flute without any conscious plan to play them. Even the music I have memorized after learning to play them from sheet music don't take up quite the same space in my mind.

So here are some of the conclusions I have come to; 
Those who habitually play by ear can recognize a tune without knowing it well enough to play by themselves. This doesn't mean they can't play along with a group since they often can come up with something reasonably close based on knowing similar tunes or simply having absorbed the style of music (much easier to do when you spend such intensive amounts of time on every single song). 
Those who usually read music can play a tune with the notation in front of them but may have trouble jumping in with a group that is playing from memory. On the other hand, they can play a wide range of tunes using the sheet music with relatively little prep time. They can even switch styles with reasonable accuracy based on having studied so many different styles (much easier to do if you aren't spending quite as much time learning every single song). 
Additionally, musicians in both groups may develop the ability to fake a tune or a harmony line based on what others are doing. Oddly, this skill is not generally taught in spite of how useful it is in almost all musical situations. Maybe because it feels like cheating to so many musicians, hence the term "fake". What we are actually doing is improvising, often at a very skilled level.

It seems to me that there is a wide range of "knowing" music, ranging from simply recognizing a familiar melody to having each turn and twist committed to soul deep memory. And somewhere in-between, each musician comes up with a sweet spot that let's them know, perform, teach or ornament a tune to the audience's (and their own) satisfaction.

Playing a piece I have halfway memorized and the odd faces I make in the process.