Showing posts from September, 2013

Battle of the killer B´s

The letter b has always meant something special in music history. You've heard about the three Bs: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Or was it Berlioz? I prefer Brahms, so I stick with him. We can also add be-bop, booze and... bass guitar. Well, you get it. But who is best of the Bs? This has been the great debate among music historians for decades - even centuries.

I recently got introduced to a service called Topsy, named after the elephant who never forgets. Topsy harvests social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and tumbldr and indexes them. You can then search for any term, and the site gives you beautiful statistics and graphs. For trend analysts it must be marvelous. Drink of choice? Coca Cola: 25 million tweets. Coffee: 125 million tweets, barely more popular than tea at 103 million. Water: 185 million tweets. I go for water. 
So I asked Topsy who was the greatest composer, and this is what I got:
The winner is - Bach!

I was rather surprised to see that with 4 million tweets, B…

Post 1980 canon #9: Sound art

Sound art traces its history back to Dadaism, Kurt Scwhitters' Ursonate and the craziest of John Cage's ideas. But as a major art genre, it's a child of the 1980s and 1990s when first tape and then computer technology got so affordable that it could more easily be incorporated in an art work.

Wikipedia teaches us the following:
The earliest documented use of the term in the U.S. is from a catalogue for a show called "Sound/Art" at The Sculpture Center in New York City, created by William Hellerman in 1983.
The distinction between music and sound art has been the topic of many fruitless debates over the years. As a general rule of thumb, sound art is site specific - it is conceived for a specific place at a specific time, while music in its nature seeks to transcend time and place. A work of music seeks to exist outside place and time.

No sound examples this time, but I will use Arne Nordheim's Gilde på Gløshaugen (2000) as illustration in the lecture. The l…

Post 1980 canon #8: Noise. Merzbow and Lasse Marhaug

The conservatives just won the Norwegian elections, so what's better soundtrack for this mardi bleu than Noise? I have chosen Merzbow and Lasse Marhaug as examples.

Of all the technology driven new music forms of the 1990s, noise is one of the most difficult to frame.  Socio-historical context, musical form and technology shares many similarities with ambient, but where ambient is floating an subtle, noise is in your face, load and brutal. Noise is sort of the black metal of electronica, but played in an art gallery. Noise embodies the ideas from the now 100 year old futurist manifesto L'arte dei Rumori in its most extreme form.

Even if this is a kind of anti-aesthetic anti-hero music, the genre has its pioneers and stars. The biggest star and one of the founders of the genre is Merzbow from Japan. In noise music the "work" is more in the performance than in the composition. This is partly the reason for the enormous output from some of the noise musicians. Merzbow…

Post 1980 canon #7: Acousmatic and soundscape - Smalley and Westerkamp

Following the tradition from musique concréte og Elektronishce Musik, the respectively French and German flavor of electronic music of the 1950s, purely loudspeaker based electronic music reemerged in the 1980s. A second generation of composers, many having studied with pioneers like Schaeffer or Stockhausen (but rarely both) redefined the genre. Where the original electronic music came out of the broadcasting studios, the new wave of electronic art music gained a foothold in the universities and academic institutions. And - for the first time this music gained a strong foothold in the UK. Trevor Wishart and Denis Smalley are among the great names of this second generation of what they now called acousmatic music, soundbased music for loudspeakers.

Personally I don't like the term "acousmatic" - it feels sort of exclusive (what does it mean?? Do I have to get into the whole Pythagoras/Schaeffer-thing?). I much more prefer "ear candy music." It is the ultimate h…

Post 1980 canon #6: New spectacle: John Adam's Nixon in China

Post 1980 canon #6: New spectacle - John Adam's opera Nixon in China (1987)
In the post WWII years most composers stopped writing operas, and the additions to the repertoire were few. For some reason this suddenly changed in the late 1980s. According to Paul Griffiths, the Metropolitan didn't premier a single new opera between the late 1960s and the late 1980s, but then suddenly they started commisioning new works on a regular basis. A similar history can be found in Houston Grand Opera, where Nixon in China was premiered. According to Wikipedia, the house opened in 1954 but didn't start premiering works before 1974. Until 1987 only 5 operas were premiered. But then suddenly the house start premiering one or two new operas every year! Texas were obviously a hot seat for opera in the 80s and 90s, staging the world premiere of Nixon in China in 1987, Phillips Glass' Planet 8 the following year, Meredith Monk's amazing Atlas in 1991 and several highlights from what ca…

Post 1980 canon #5: Ambient: Biosphere's Substrata

Post 1980 canon #5: Ambient: Biosphere's Substrata.

Ambient doesn't start with Biosphere, of course. The really canonic work in this genre is Brian Eno's Ambient 1: Music for Airports from 1978, but as a genre ambient was detracted by synth pop and EDM throughout the 1980s. In the 1990s ambient reemerged, and mysteriously Norway was one of the major actors. This is why I have chosen "Silence" from Biosphere's Substrata as example work. The album was released in 1997, and this coincides pretty well with my own discovery of ambient.

Ambient is interesting because it grew out of electronic pop music, but sees itself sort of as a prolongation of the tradition from the electroacoustic music of the 1950s and 1960s. It also draws heavily on John Cages writings on silence and environmental sounds and Steve Reich's process pieces like Drumming or Music for 18 Musicians. Biosphere's "Silence" can be interpreted as a direct allusion to Cage's influ…

Post 1980 canon #4: Postmodern zapping: John Zorn's Cat O' Nine Tails

Post 1980 canon #4: John Zorn's Cat O' Nine Tails (1988)

No one were more eclectic and embodying postmodernism than John Zorn, and no "classical" work were more postmodern than Zorn's string quartet Cat O' Nine Tails, written for the Kronos Quartet in 1988. Hearing the piece is like zapping on the TV, jumping from one thing to the other with no apparent connection between the parts. The piece is full of katzenjammer, jokes, film music snippets, cliches, contemporary music cliches, eerie beauty and poking fun. But the cat in the title is no fun at all - it's a nine tailed whip. So '90s! But mainly this piece is all about having fun with music.

Post 1980 canon #3: Kitsch and new age: The Piano

Post 1980 canon, part 3: Michael Nyman's music from The Piano

Kitsch is expressivity's worst enemy. In the music from the movie The Piano Michael Nyman crosses the border over to the dark side, but the piece is still canonic. This is one of the few "contemporary" piano pieces that has worked its way into the amateur repertoire.  You'll find youtube videos of this piece with several hundred thousand views. I heard tons of young girls stumbling their way through this music in the 1990s. But is this an example of minimalism gone bad, musical new age, new romanticism, or just pretty music?

Michael Nyman de la pelicula EL PIANO from Cortos Chèveres 2 on Vimeo.

Post 1980 canon #2: Irony, simplicity, eclecticism: Louis Andriessen's M is for Man, Music and Mozart

Example number two of the post 1980 canon: Louis Andiressen's M is for Man, Music and Mozart (1991).

This piece is a part of Peter Greenaway's really really odd movie Not Mozart, commissioned to the 200 year anniversary for Mozart's death in 1991 (is that really something to celebrate?). The movie yells "so 90's!!" but music, choreography and scenography has qualities that transcend the somehow disturbing video effects.

This piece is a great example of the postmodern 1990s eclectic treatment of historical subjects, 1990s irony, simplicity and minimalism. The piece has a mixed identity: it is classical music (scored for brass, double bass and piano), and it is not classical music (because of the jazz singer and the lack of string section). It is funny and witty, but still serious. It is both grotesque and beautiful. And it is a very cool piece of music. The dancing (and the dancers) are great too.


Post 1980 canon #1: The composer-performer. Meredtih Monk and Laurie Anderson

Welcome to the first post of my attempt to establish a post 1980 contemporary music canon.

Meredith Monk (1942-) One of the things that have been characterizing the last three decades of contemporary music is the composers-performers. There have off course been composer-performers before (from Chopin to John Cage), but traditionally the compositions these people have made were published with a general audience in mind. The music of for instance Meredith Monk is so linked to her own personal style that it is impossible to separate composition from performance. I am not saying that Monk invented this, but I think she can serve as a good example of this trend.

Monk also serves as example of the crossover artist, who exists very close to the popular-music-art-music divide. She has been releasing her music on ECM, but still keeps herself on the art-music-side.

As example work I have chosen Dolmen Music - one of the awesomest pieces of music to be conceived in the 20th century. I'm awar…

A contemporary music canon post 1980

Love it or hate it - most general music histories are centered on canonic works. As a music history teacher I need these canonic works for my survey courses. Of course I know that this imaginary museum of example works has made lots of damage on the musical repertoire. It has reduced history of music to a string of master works, overshadowing the complexities and wealth of music history. But we still need canons. They provide a common ground. They make it possible to discuss culture and provide the starting point for making comprehensive reflections on the past

For my music students at NTNU I want to discuss how we can construct a canon for the post 1980 era. Most general histories of music end their storytelling some 50, 70 or even 100 years ago. This year sees the centenary of Stravinskij's Rite of Spring, one of the last works to get into the permanent collection of the musical museum. But what about our recent past? What to include? What to exemplify? What has happened in musi…

Some thoughts on Digital Humanities

Do we see a similar type of shift in the humanities as what happened in engineering and science in the 1960s?

We've been living in the digital world for a while. Computers have been around for more than 60 years, and they've been rather present in our everyday surroundings for the last 30. Even the Internet as we know it dates back 20 years. Still we talk about new digital tools and new media. We aslo still find people that are intimidated by digital technology. Personally I find this odd. Computers are neither something new, nor much to be afraid of.

As I´ve been talking about before, the introduction of computers in science and engineering was one of the major shifts of the 20th century. It wasn´t just a quantitative shift (more calculations and faster number processing), it was a quatitaive leap. It made possible new types of questions and new ways of thinking. It paved the way for entirely new fields and new ways of doing engineering and science. It defined a new era. T…