The 8 modes

I’ve sat down at the keyboard the last two nights to write one entry about music, and different ones keep coming out. Let’s see if I can get the one I intend out.

When my parents came to visit, we stopped by a store that sold sheet music. This is rarely a satisfying experience for me. My library usually knocks the tar out of their trumpet selection. But we stopped and I looked because I could tell Dad needed to sit.

I found this book: Plainchant for Trumpet. I was enchanted. The composer (W. Jonathan Gresham) took 22 chant lines from the Liber Usualis (Medieval Big Book o’ Chants) and wrote etudes on them. The etudes are quite nice. But my favorite part is that he highlights the medieval mode in which the music was written.

Medieval theoretical musicians (the best kind, according to my buddy Boethius who’s responsible for transmitting most of this stuff from the Greeks to the middle ages) thought there were 8 different modes of music. It gets all squishy in my brain, what goes where, because they stole this from Ancient Greece and didn’t completely understand it. The Greeks thought that the modes inspired different methods of action (here we’re getting into my thesis topic). For example, music in a Phrygian mode would cause someone to be warlike. A Lydian mode, on the contrary, tamed inflamed passions. I can’t remember which (the Dorian perhaps) the Greeks discouraged ever using because it made men timid and weak.

Medievals pulled across this idea of modes, but they sort of ignored the alchemical nature of the modes. There are 8 medieval modes (which act similarly to keys in modern music), four of which are authentic and four of which are plagal. They are the Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Hypodorian, Hypophrygian, Hypolydian and Hypomixolydian. The very names to me are magical. They carried a significance, a meaning along with them.

I’m not really going anywhere with this. In some ways, I’m being nostalgic over my own past, when I was given the marvellous opportunity to delve into these mysteries and call it homework. I’m not sure I ever truly mastered my subject, but I was fortune enough at times to see glimpses of a whole and coherent picture.

If I won the lottery, and I had the time, energy and attention to devote to whatever I wished, I’m sure I could find more meaningful and more important things to do. But what I would like to do is delve even further, understand even better, and see clearly and laid in front of me that picture of the genesis of music that I made the barest pencil outlines of in college. I’m not sure what I would do then — if I could transform my understanding into a communication for others.

That day will probably never come. But that doesn’t stop me from rolling the words off my tongue and dreaming about how the obscured picture might look. Dorian. Lydian. Phrygian.

The inevitability of polyphony, and lack thereof

Music history is fascinating to me. I have a music history minor, except for Theory II which Paul Althouse insisted on holding at 8:30 in the morning Monday, Wednesday and Friday. After my experiences with Theory I at that time, I didn’t think my GPA was up to it. But I took all the requisite classes otherwise.

I’m transfixed by music before it’s fully formed. Consider, my friends, that a mere thousand years ago (or so) music had no standard pitch. It had very little in the way of rhythmic variation, and nothing in the way of tempo. Written music only dealt with one set of voices at a time — there were no parts and no polyphony. Music was not written for specific instruments. Chant notation, while it has it’s own beauties and complexities was basically relational: you hold this note for twice as long as this other note, and then you go a step up from the first note you started with. (Yes, my musical friends who have studied it far more than I, I’m simplifying. Bear with me.) From that, in only a half century, you get to music so complex (hocketing) it wasn’t rivaled for another five hundred years. First you give different voice parts different notes, even though all the voices move together. Then you start having one set of voices move at a different time than the other. You standardize rhythmic notation. You create clefs and keys and accidentals. You start specifying which instrument you want used. You say whether you want it loud or soft. Fast or slow. (They even created an entirely different way of notating music for keyboards and strings, but I won’t go there lest I display my ignorance further.)

In some ways, I think learning to write words was inevitable. Many cultures came up with different solutions to the same problem — letters, phonemes, hieroglyphics, characters representing words, etc. But when Western civilization came up with a way to accurately communicate music by means of writing… well, I consider that little short of a miracle. And without that miracle, there can be no Bach fugues. Or rather, there could have been, but they probably would have died with Bach. Can you imagine trying to communicate a Wagner Opera line by line to the musicians, and then have them memorize it and try to put it all together? It might not be impossible, but it would be close.

I love polyphony. I think that’s one of the reasons a lot of modern (and by modern, I mean 20th century) popular music bores me. It’s not truly polyphonic. Ok, granted the base line is doing one thing, and the singer is doing another, so it KIND of counts, but I love the complex interplay between voices and lines. My favorite “pop” music has a rich harmony in multiple voices — like the Beatles at their best. My favorite music of all — mostly to participate in — is a quintet or similarly sized ensemble. It’s small enough so that you can pick out each line as a separate individual, but rich enough that you have to really pay attention to do so. I love Gabrieli for this. He passes the lines back and forth in downright enchanting ways.

I wonder: is complicated polyphony unique to Western culture? Did any other society create a fully-fledged way of communicating music, other than rote teaching? Is it possible that Pachabel’s Canon in D represents a truly unique cultural achievement?

Musings on my past

There was a time in my life when I was quite possibly the world’s expert on something (although probably not). Unfortunately, it was when I was about 19. I wrote an independent research paper — cobbling together scraps of information from ‘divers’ sources, about the wind ensemble I called the pifarri. They were an Italian phenomenon that never stayed the same for a century. Mutable creatures. They started out being homogenic shawm bands, with shawms of different pitches. You know, your average bass shawm. Shawms are, for those who didn’t bother to click, basically loud bagpipes without the bags.

Then came the lovely, my heart’s desire, the cornetto. I mourn that the cornetto got lost, and had largely disappeared by the time the great classical composers arrived (although it hung around in German drinking bands for a while). It has a beautiful, soft sound. It’s versatile and lovely. The cornetto played in mixed ensembles with sackbuts (a trombone predecessor), and that is the 16th century ensemble I dream of.

It was for that grouping that Giovanni Gabrieli, arguably the best and most important composer of his century, wrote his Sonanta Pian e Forte — the first known piece with dynamic markings. He is also one of my favorite composers. He wrote in Venice, in St. Marks cathedral. They would get two bands of these pifarri — 12 or 16 players in all, and put them antiphonally on balconies on either side of the church. The music written for these circumstances intertwines, opposes, combines in rich an luscious ways. And it was so specifically written for one geography, this one church, that I longed to go. (Of course, what I was really longing to do was to be a pifarro, but that’s another story.)

I bring this up because after longing to go my whole life (or since my sophomore year of college), I will hopefully be going to Venice this October. I will stand in St. Marks. If I’m very, very lucky perhaps I will be able to hear antiphonal brass choirs calling to each other from across the congregation and echoing in the dome.

I wonder if it can possibly be as splendid as I imagine it. I hope so.

Connect the Dots Part II

I should mention that after doing this graduation trip with me, my grandfather and godfather (who were best friends for like 50 years) decided travel wasn’t so hard after all, and went to Scotland together. For a month.

My grandfather died about a year ago, but in the last 3 years of his life, he did something he always wanted to do with his best friend.

And I still miss him.

Connect the Dots

When I graduated from college, my parents came out to New England for the first time since they dropped me off as a freshman. Much to my surprise, my grandfather and godfather also accepted my invitations. It was the first time my grandfather had flown in like 30 years. He was 80 at that point.

After graduation, we wandered around New England for a few days. I remember a breakfast in which I shocked my godfather by paying for it (in sort of an “I’m not a kid anymore and get to be in on the fighting over the check” move on my part.) That same breakfast, a woman at an adjoining table asked if we were part of a history club. I love my family for that.

We also stopped in this Northern Massachusetts mill town, and had a ball doing the whole museum thing. I remember my grampa on a scooter listening intently to a discussion of 19th century work practices. We all really enjoyed it, and my godfather had a brief obsession with fabric factories in the period.

My company recently moved to a Northern Massachusetts mill town (NMMT) — into a mill building no less. While I’ve thought desultorily a few times about that trip, I never buckled down and thought. I figured that the tours had taken place in Lowell — I didn’t remember the name of the town from the visit, but Lowell is sort of NMMT central. (Isn’t it strange, on a side note, when you visit some random place and then find yourself living there much later? It’s a sort of surreality of perception.)

Well. My parents are going to be here soon soon soon! And by here I mean my office. I gave them the address and told them my chances of getting to leave before 5:30 were quite slimmish. So they decided that if they were early, they’d go revisit that museum.

You know, the one we visited four years ago?

The one that is two blocks away?

Which, in my working here for four months, I had never realized was the same one?

Sunday School Curriculum — the mission statement

Mission statements, when done by big corporations and imposed on others, are generally laughable. I mean, really, either they state the obvious about what you’re about, or they’re hypocritical about what you’re about. I’m sure they’re more useful than that, but despite having been part of a mission statement writing process, I’m not too into them.

On the other hand, when *I* personally set out to do something, I often need a mission statement. Which is another way of saying, “Why am I doing this? What am I hoping to accomplish? What would a successful outcome be for me?” A mission statement is the answer.

So here is my mission statement for my youth group/Sunday School.

The purpose of this Sunday School class is:

  • To teach our youth about God’s presence in this world and in our lives.
  • To show the youth ways that God’s presence directs and informs our understanding of the world.
  • To encourage a daily living out of whatever beliefs our youth hold.
  • To give a cultural and historical understanding of Christianity, in context to other religions and to current events.
  • To create young adults with enough curiosity to want to ask the great questions of faith, enough knowledge to know where to begin asking, and enough courage to confront these questions head-on and change the way they live their lives because of the answers they find.

    So that’s what I’m headed for, in 45 easy lessons. Wish me luck, friends.