Category Archives: Music

Interjected intervals

If any of you have ever done ear training you have almost certainly encountered the method for recognising intervals which is based on memorising the first couple of notes from songs you know.

For example, first two notes of:

Isn’t She Lovely – Minor 2nd
Frères Jacques- Major 2nd
Greensleeves – Minor 3rd
Oh, when the Saints – Major 3rd
Here comes the Bride – 4th
Maria – tritone
Twinkle, Twinkle – 5th
Go down Moses – Minor 6th
My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean – Major 6th
Somewhere- Minor 7th
Superman Theme – Major 7th
Singin’ in the Rain- Octave

If you don’t know all of those, here’s a list with several alternatives.

But there are also songs which specify the intervals sung in the lyrics. Here, for example, is The Interval Song by Django Bates, which I think everyone should know.

Here’s another one, which changes the words to the Christmas Song to sing about various elements of musical theory:

 

Finally, slightly different, but a lot of fun, this is Bobby McFerrin literally jumping around the pentatonic scale and claiming that it is written into everyone’s mind.

Halfpenny thoughts no.2 – What does the Queen sing in the shower?

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Thoughts which aren’t even worth a penny

If you have watched any royal ceremonies involving the Queen of England,  you may have noticed that she is the only person who doesn’t join in when “God Save the Queen” is sung. She can’t, of course. It would make no sense.

But I am sure that there have been times when she has sung it in private. How could one resist it? When she’s really worked up about something or, almost unthinkingly, in the shower. She would still need to change the words, though. This is what I think she sings:

“God save my gracious Me, Long live my noble Me, Go-od save Me!”

And, perhaps, people would enjoy it more if they too could sing those words instead of the standard version. In this selfie-littered age of self-display and ceaseless selling, this should, really, become everybody’s personal anthem.

Rossini’s little train

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When I look at of the books in my library, the only thing I can remember in most cases is whether I have read them or not. Books in the second-largest category trigger one single anecdote or image and nothing else. One image which has been in my head for decades now comes from a book by Alberto Savinio (the brother of the painter Giorgio De Chirico), who was a fine writer and music critic, but of whom the only thing I recall is this passage he wrote about Gioacchino Rossini:

When, in Rossini’s symphonies, the allegro theme with the repeated little notes starts up, followed by one of his famous crescendos, I close my eyes and I see an ancient train with the steam engine in front, an ostrich-neck smoke stack with something like a pasta colander on top and the open-sided carriages behind, the curtains flapping and all full of fat Rossinis, paunchy and chuckling, who blow kisses to the crowd and shout out witticisms. The train starts giving off slow puffs, which then pick up pace, until they reach a steady, blistering speed, and the train races through the countryside, which is green with astonishment.

I often think about that when I hear Rossini’s music.  Here are some of his famous crescendos. Try and see the train going by. Or get on and stand behind all the Rossinis as you go through the greenly astonished countryside.

Rossini retired from writing operas when he was 37. He wrote some other music, including some pieces which he called “Old Age Sins”, one of which is about peas (Ouf, les petis pois!).

He was famous for his witticisms. Just like the images from my books, I recall one in number. It’s about Wagner (look away now, Wagner fans):

“Mr. Wagner has some wonderful moments, but some awful quarters of an hour.”

(Note: the caricature of Rossini is by David Levine. You can see several other outstanding examples of his art here.)

Arise! An imaginary film scene

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Recently, I came across an article published in 1945 in the New Yorker entitled “Return to Place Pigalle”, where Joseph Wechsberg, originally from Czechoslovakia,  describes returning to Paris as a US soldier and meeting the musicians he used to play with there in the 1920’s.
The musicians describe the experience of playing in  Nazi-occupied Paris and leds to a discussion  of a violinist-cellist called Maurice, who is remembered for the following:

After 2 A.M., by which hour many of the German customers, not having been brought up on Pommery and Veuve Clicquot, were under the tables, Maurice’s favorite sport was to get up and announce in German that the orchestra would play “Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles.” (Maurice had been born in Alsace and spoke German fluently.) The plastered Germans would crawl out from under the tables, make an effort to stand at attention and fall flat on their faces. The French customers would start laughing, and in the end an S.S. man who wasn’t quite drunk would call in the nearest patrol and have the drunken Germans arrested.

I think that this would make a marvellous sequence in a film. In fact, it would be even better if the gag was repeated two or three times in a row. Of course, there is no need for the soldiers to be Germans. I think that Russians would be a good alternative, simply on musical grounds, since the Russian anthem has a swaying quality to it which would well accompany the efforts of drunk soldiers to stand up straight. Even better perhaps, Chinese soldiers, once you know that the Chinese national anthem begins with the call qǐ lái (起来) –  Arise! or Stand Up!

 

If Beethoven had been Mozart

Wolfwig Beethart (1770-1806), famous for his 3rd Symphony

Like many people who love Mozart’s music I have often wondered what he would have given us if he had not died before he was 36. Even if he had lived just one more year, there is no telling what he might have produced, given that his last three symphonies – 39,40 and 41 – were composed in the space of three months.

And, since none of us has Mozart’s genius, it is completely impossible to know what he would have gone on to do ten or twenty years later if his life had been of a normal length.

One way of getting some idea of the scope of what he might have produced, I think, is to look at someone equivalent, Beethoven say, and see what they would not have composed if they had died at 36. Read more…

More bitter still

Listen to this (Dinah Washington- This Bitter Earth as she sang it in 1960 )for thirty seconds or so.

Now listen to a few bars of Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight”.

Now hear how Max Richter combined them. I think you will listen all the way to the end.

Kora, Griot, Diabate, Sissoko, Kairaba Jabi

IMG_0996I met a guy playing the kora on the street last night. It is such a beautiful instrument to look at and to listen to. Here’s a description.

I asked the musician whether he was a griot. He pointed to the card in front of him with his name and said “My father was a griot and so was my grandfather. Diabate is a griot surname. Like Sissoko.”
Other griot names, I found out on this page are Kouyate, Traore, Susso/Suso and Tounkara.

It always makes me happy to see and hear a kora, so I thought that I would share my favourite kora song from my favourite kora album, entitled Kairaba Jabi with Dembo Konte and Kausu Kuyateh. I could listen to their conversations, because that is what it sounds like, for hours. It’s also the kind of music that makes you want to set out on a 10,000 mile journey.

Giant Steps, Steps by Step

Here is a step-by-step depiction of John Coltrane’s amazing playing on “Giant Steps” as he relentlessly races through chord and key changes. If you watch carefully you’ll feel that you are the one playing.  I found this on a Youtube channel http://www.youtube.com/user/dancohen?feature=watch which also has an animated transcription of Miles Davis’s “So What” and two or three Charlie Parker pieces.

If you are interested in finding out more about the musical theory involved in the changes Coltrane played you can read this article.

Mozart’s starling sang G sharp. An invasive story.

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I can’t say I ever appreciated starlings much before I discovered that Mozart kept one as a pet for three years. My impression of starlings was formed by the experience of having multitudes of them descend on Rome in autumn behaving like a million drunken football fans.

Their formation flying is pretty impressive, you can’t deny that. They soar up high in the sky and fill it like an aerobatics team with a thousand jets . They expand, contract, make sharp turns, ascend, descend, branch out, regroup. You can’t predict what they will do. It resembles a frenzied motor-driven kaleidoscope with just one colour: black.

The problem is when they come down and settle on a couple of trees. Settle is the wrong word. The collective noun for starlings is a “murmuration” but whoever invented that was deaf or was in bed, half-drunk, with a cushion on his head and the starlings were five miles away when he heard them. I would suggest “obstreperation”, “altercation”, “stridulation” or “riotation”. They don’t settle on trees, there are always countless numbers swarming around them in a state of great excitement shrieking and shitting on everything. I have always wondered whether they are shitting because they are excited or whether they are excited because they are shitting. Read more…

Duck and crystal

Just to remind myself that there are at least two ways of doing things, here are a couple of clips I came across some time ago, both of outstanding performances.

The first one is Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli playing Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in B Minor K 27 in 1949. What this feels like to me is approaching a crystal lying at the centre of the universe. Everything is under complete control: the piano, his hands, his face, his feet, the turn-ups on his trousers and every single hair on his head. It is so perfect that if any flaw had developed anywhere in the crystal, if someone for example were to have crept in and untied one of his shoe-laces, perhaps everything would have shattered, leaving a pile of tiny splinters and his moustache.

Read more…