brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: musical enculturation

On The Influence Of One’s Musical Teachers

In his New Yorker piece “Every Good Boy Does Fine”, pianist Jeremy Denk reflects on taking piano lessons from the time he first took up the instrument at the age five through his college years. Denk’s teachers helped him learn to better practice, interpret and think musically. “Learning to play the piano” says Denk, “is learning to reason with your muscles.” Denk’s most influential teacher was the great Hungarian pianist György Sebők (1922-1999) who spent many years teaching at Indiana University. Sebők was a master who made “the concepts behind the notes” come alive. Sebők could conjure worlds from the piano that felt “like music was escaping from the boring necessity of sound.”

Sebők’s playing a dual role of “spirit guide and physics teacher” in Denk’s life is something that any of us who have closely worked with a music teacher will recognize. Sebők aimed to “bridge the gap between boring technical detail and the mysteries of the universe.” Denk expands on the subtleties of Sebők’s approach as it relates to the complexities of the piano:

“He would make you focus on the myriad hinges of the arm and wrist, sometimes looking for the arm to resemble a sewing machine, with up-and-down linear simplicity, other times looking or curves, circles, spirals. The mechanism of bone and muscle brought to bear on the piano is very complex; the hidden responding mechanism inside the piano is also very complex; and the interaction of the two is a lifetime’s study.”

Particularly interesting for me is Sebők’s belief “that matching one’s motions to the gestures within the music was essential to unlocking the emotions of the piece.” Sebők considered it perverse “to play a phrase with body language that was opposed to the musical idea itself.” Denk’s essay also conjures the deep value of masterclass sessions with Sebők, describing them as “beautiful acts of attention, in which the revelatory detail is cherished for its own sake, freed from the narrative necessities of performance.” Reading this I recalled some of my own practicing during college, but also realized that there are everywhere opportunities for beautiful acts of attention. The  key, I suppose, is learning how to really notice things.

After Denk had finished his studies with Sebők and moved to New York, he did some teaching himself and got some sense of what Sebők may have experienced with his pupils. “When you give ideas to students, they tend either to ignore them or to exaggerate them. The first is distilled futility, but the second is grotesque.” Which leads Denk to reflect on the nature of one’s identity–musical or otherwise: “what if this really is you, and that only through the imitation of the struggling student do you see what you’re really about.” Whatever the case, Sebők’s teachings have remained with Denk. Having dinner with another one of his former teachers at, of all places, an Applebee’s in Florida and reminiscing about Sebők, Denk is surprised that twenty years after his lessons with the Hungarian master he still carries with him memories of how Sebők played Bach and made it feel like music was escaping from the boring necessity of sound.

Here is a video of Sebők discussing the relationship between feeling and music followed by a riveting performance of Bach:

On The Sound Of Epic Achievement And Luxury: A Rolex Soundtrack

While overdosing on Wimbledon 2012 TV coverage over the past few weeks, I noticed a recurring ad for Rolex watches that features Roger Federer. In the 30-second spot the narrator begins by asking “When is greatness achieved?” as we see a montage of Federer’s milestone wins throughout his career interspersed with still shots of him staring into the camera. As one viewer of the ad on YouTube puts it, it’s a pretty epic piece–a great tennis champion plus a great watch. A perfect endorsement too, though in some ways it’s not entirely clear who is endorsing who.

What really makes this Rolex ad epic though, is its music, assembled by Beetroot Music, an English music production company. As music goes, the core of the piece is quite simple, consisting of just three chords over eight measures in the key of f minor, with each chord held for four beats (or one measure of 4/4 time). Here are the chords:

f minor (i chord in f minor)
D-flat major (VI chord, 1st inversion)
C major (V chord, 1st inversion)
f minor (i chord)
D-flat major (VI chord)
C major (v chord, 1st inversion)
f minor (i chord)
f minor (i chord)

The chords are arpeggiated on piano and joined by a pulsating string section. (In older versions of the ad, there is also a booming backbeat–ah, nothing so subtle as classical music with a backbeat!) But as compelling as the spare instrumental arrangement for this 30-second spot is, the ad’s epic quality is primarily signified and suggested through the chords themselves. Let’s take a closer listen.

The first thing to note is that Rolex’s epic sound world is grounded in a minor key–in this case, f minor. Very briefly, in the history of Western concert music going back many hundreds of years, minor keys have long been synonymous with sadness, heaviness, a sense of longing, foreboding, and so on. Basically, a minor key is used to convey the opposite of a major key, which generally speaking is all about happy, brightness, and optimism. Of course, I’m generalizing about the range of meanings inherent in major and minor chords (and meanings are never inherent in anything musical anyway), plus there are a lot of grey areas too. For instance, one can freely mix and match major and minor chords, putting one after another in a sequence called a chord progression. In other words, context is everything in music, and a major chord can sound very differently after a minor chord and vice versa. Also, a simple major or minor chord consists of a triad with three notes–a root note, plus an interval of a third and a fifth above that root. But other intervals can be added on as well, giving major or minor triads very different favors. With added notes, minor is no longer simply sad and major simply happy; the extra tones can make the chords feel emotionally more complex. You can hear this emotional complexity in jazz among many other places.

Having said this, the music in the Rolex commercial doesn’t inhabit any grey areas at all: it’s just straight ahead triads, albeit with a few inversions thrown in to make the chord progression seem more elaborate than it in fact is. So then, the second thing to note about Rolex’s epic sound world besides its use of one minor chord and two major chords in the key of f minor, is its chord progression. Chord progressions have been the basis of Western music–classical as well as popular–for a very long time too. Chord progressions are what create a sense of the music “going somewhere.” The music isn’t actually going anywhere besides traveling through the chords one at a time, of course, but such is the neurological wiring and enculturation of the human imagination that we really feel like the music is taking us on a journey. The Rolex chord progression, while brief, packs a wallop because the i – VI – V – i sequence has such a rich history in our listening lives. We’ve heard it used many, many times without realizing it. It also affects us because the dynamics between its chords are so entrenched in those little movements by one semitone (e.g. the fifth of the i chord moving up to the fifth of VI in 1st inversion, and the third of the V chord moving back to root if the i chord). If you don’t believe me, flip the minor chord to major and the major chords to minor and listen again. I assure you the progression will feel differently.

Perhaps because of its history of heavy use and the dynamics among its major and minor parts, this chord progression continues to speak to us–even when we don’t quite know what is being spoken and how. In fact, the viewer comments on YouTube suggest that Rolex commissioned just the right music to subliminally convey a sense of what the brand is all about: luxury, achievement, precision, pedigree and class. Thus, a viewer named awe4cs asks about the music “Can someone say what’s the name of this ÜBER song?” This sentiment is echoed by others: mrvishal1000 calls the music “epic” and Katherineli notes “There’s so much class in this it’s ridiculous.” Finally, warLock21x speaks of Federer–but perhaps unwittingly too of the 100-year old watch company and the chord progression of the music–as being “of divine descent”.

Here, then, is the commercial:

On The Beastie Boys And The Hip Hop Enculturation Of 1980s Suburbia

With the news last week that Beastie Boy member Adam Yauch (aka MCA) had died, I thought about the seismic impact hip hop had when it first burst the bubble of kids living in suburbia all over North America and beyond during the 1980s. As the producer Rick Rubin noted in a recent interview, “The Beasties opened hip-hop music up to the suburbs. As crazy as they were, they seemed safe to Middle America, in a way black artists hadn’t been up to that time.”

Indeed, when I was in high school in Canada in the late 1980s, there was a definite, turning point moment when hip hop music ignited the collective mind of our mostly white suburban school. As I remember it, there was a pre-hip hop era, and then a post-hip hop era. In the pre-hip hop era, most kids listened to a lot of white bands and idioms–like rock and UK synth pop–partly, I think, because these were just the sounds that were around us, accessible and marketed to us, and considered cool. (I added Glenn Gould, New Age music, and jazz fusion to the listening mix, but then again, I wasn’t cool!) Then, as if out of nowhere, the soundscape was changing with the sounds of Public Enemy, Run DMC, LL Cool J, KRS-1 and Boogie Down Productions, Big Daddy Kane, and the Beasties too. I remember this post-hip hop era well because I made mix tapes (yes, cassettes) of a friend’s record collection (yes, vinyl LPs), soaking up all these new sounds from far away urban milieus. It struck me that while rock and synth pop were about constructing certain kinds emotion and a sense of what even back then I thought was an overly self-indulgent moodiness, hip hop worked by way of a different mechanism. I felt different listening to this music but wouldn’t have been able to describe to you what exactly the feeling was. All I knew was that the sounds were hard-hitting, but unlike rock music, also infectious, syncopated, and poly–with lots of different rhythms going on at the same time. In a phrase: hip hop was cooly energized music. And even if the lyrics didn’t necessarily speak to our immediate experiences in the suburban northern latitudes the music and the beats made you feel like a cool insider just for listening to them.

The Beastie Boys were part of this wave of hip hop culture that hit our school. They were, of course, three middle-class white guys from Brooklyn who had appropriated the hip hop habitus, sound, and fashion sense, but they put their own spin on everything in an honest way, recording for Rubin’s Def Jam record label, gaining the respect of their musical peers (Chuck D. of Public Enemy once said that the Beasties “had the best beats”), and selling millions of records too. Of the three Beasties, Yauch had the most raspy and grainy voice that set it apart from his band mates’ more whiny-sounding vocal timbres. His was a breathy, soulful voice.

***

One of the Beastie Boys’ releases that made an impression on me was their 1989 album, Paul’s Boutique. Produced in collaboration with a pair of sound-hound producers from California who go by the name the Dust Brothers, Paul’s Boutique features over a hundred samples from other songs (which cost the Beasties around a quarter of a million dollars in licensing fees, this just before all the big lawsuits that would considerably drive up the cost of sampling others) to make an intricately layered and funky sound. My favorite track was the irresistibly funky “Hey Ladies” on which you can hear among numerous other samples, the voice of James Brown chuckle-intoning “Ain’t it funky now?” every now and then. I re-listened to the song recently and it still sounds good.

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