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.

  • I’m gonna get you little fishie!

    My in laws live right next to the sea in Rhode Island. Many a time I’ve coerced my father in law and husband to take me fishing off the dock near them. And while they’ve pulled fish in by the bucket off that dock when I wasn’t there, in all my nearly dozen times fishing with them, we’ve never so much as had a strike. I have therefore accused my father in law of pulling a great hoax off on me — that there are no fish in the Atlantic Ocean.

    Apparently, after two years worth of father’s day cards making this point, he got tired of it. He scheduled a charter fishing boat with a friend of his.

    Thus it was that I found myself awake and drinking coffee at the ungodly hour of 5:00 am. I was astonished to find that the sun actually rises about that time of morning in June. I chalked it up to stuff I would have been happy never knowing first hand. Mike, Adam, Peter and I sped along, groggily in the New England morning, to a point as far away from their house as any two points in Rhode Island can possibly be. We arrived at Port Judith at 6:15.

    Our boat for the day was to be the Twenty-Five — a capable 20 footer, captained by Craig and mated by Dean. While we passed up the chance to bet them about whether or not I’d get skunked (the way I figure it we’d already placed a $400 bet on that), we laid a friendly wager that Adam and I would catch more fish than Peter and Mike. (We tied)

    The day was absolutely gorgeous — sunny with a blue sky and a brisk wind over the waters. Although the weather report called for highs in the 80s, in the cool of the morning we were glad for our long pants and jackets. It was a day tailor-made for fishing with one’s family.

    The first place we fished, we brought in only one fish. Pete’s line was wrapped around its tail, but my bait was in its mouth. We judged it a tie, although Pete had gotten the fun of reeling him in. He was a sand shark — a theoretically endangered species that absolutely infested the waters off Block Island. We threw him and the rest of his brethren we pulled up back in. We constantly lost our bait to these menaces. Sometimes they’d nibble at it, so we’d start reeling in, and unhooked they’d follow our bait in and jump at it as we pulled it out of the water. We weren’t there long until we moved to a section of water other people seemed to be having luck in. As Mike so aptly put it, the allies had fewer boats invading on D-Day.

    The current was strong, so we’d start at one spot, pass through a band of many fish, and then pass out of it and have to motor back to our original starting point. Peter brought in two beautiful striped bass, which I was highly impressed with. They were apparently average bass, though, to judge from our guides responses. I was green with jealousy. Then Adam got a strike. They thought it might be another sand shark, since it didn’t fight like a bass. But as they brought it up… it was a trophy flounder. And by trophy, I mean that the guides said “Wow!” for like 5 straight minutes and kept sneaking peeks at it in the hold. They said it was the biggest they’d ever brought in, and it was about twice as big as the other flounders we got later. It was 27.5 inches long (and pretty much that wide — flounder are pretty circular). I didn’t know it was possible to turn blue with jealousy, but I was! After that, we really only brought in sand sharks. (I did get one or two of those.)

    We dropped our Mate off on Block Island for a guitar gig he had that night. Dean had become hardened. He was NOT going to send me home skunked! So he picked up a bait flounder and we headed to the beach. Adam and I slept on the bench in the middle, tired after long exertions and an early morning. This was difficult, as the boat kept catching air as it quickly skimmed over the white-caps, hard whipped by wind and tide.

    We fished for a while at the beach (actually just off the beach), bracing ourselves against the rolling waves and whipping wind. We stared in envy as the boat next two us brought in flounder from right under our keel. We fished Mike’s hat out of the drink. I could tell Dean was getting worried. He confided to me that he had a last resort — cleaning the fish usually brought a good number around.

    Dean was holding Adam’s pole while Adam, um, reveled in nature, and he got a strike. He passed the pole to me, and I reeled in a little sea bass — a cute thing with lots of fin and dark patterns. Although it was a legal catch — barely, we threw it back. Next year, my fishie friend! So that was ok, but I wanted my own strike. And then… a tell-tale jiggling of the tip. And for once, the fish did not cleverly evade my hook while eating my bait. No! I reeled in, and pulled up my very own average flounder! Oh frabjous day! And nearly simultaneously, Adam pulled in its twin brother. We were successful! Fishie fishie fishie!!! I even then caught another flounder which we threw back, and Peter another sea bass (this one too small to even be legal). We could stop now. We were successful.

    And so, utterly exhausted but glowing with success and sea-sun, we returned to Port Judith. Now, I have a good 8 pound of freshest fish in my ‘fridge. (We took equal portions.) We cooked up some of the striped bass on arriving at the in-laws, and oh! It was good! I will cook some for dinner tonight, and perhaps even those who don’t like fish will be surprised at how much better freshly caught fish is than your usual fare!

    I’m hoping we get to go again next year!

    As though designed to make me happy

    So A. and I are attempting to have a garden for the first time ever. We planted it with vegetables we would like to eat in March. Needless to say, we planted it again in late April. We have had more than our share of failures, and some few successes.

    Not too long ago, we harvested the products of our vermicomposting experiment to enrich the soil of our vegetable garden — hoping to need no other kind of fertilizer. We spread the rich dark soil around the garden. I put some under the dahlias I was planting. We put it in the furrows between optimistically planted rows. And we proceeded to agonize over our surviving tomatos and the cucumber plant.

    It rained, and then the sun shone strong and welcoming for a week. I went out one day and lo! There were squash seedlings all over the place! Now, we had planted yellow squash, zucchini and cucumber throughout our garden. None had really deigned to grow more than one or two pale seedling. And now, I surmised, my wicked, evil nemesis Mr. Squirrel had wrough havoc on my garden by stealing my seeds by night, and then hiding them in the ground. Little did Mr. Squirrel know that removing them from their designated location and planting them in another did not prevent them from growing! And gazing at the riot of seedlings skirting my dahlias, figured that Mr. Squirrel, in addition to being evil, was also lazy. He preferred ground that had recently been disturbed. And I went throughout my week cursing the name of Squirrel.

    The next weekend, I was weeding the garden, and I decided to move some of the squash plants. There were too many too close together, and looking rather sad around my dahlia. I pulled one up, and prepared to replace it in the ground. There, at it’s base, was a seed. It was not a zucchini seed. It was not a cucumber seed. It was not a yellow squash seed. No, my brethren, it was… a pumpkin seed.

    We had planted no pumpkins.

    And then the light went off over my head. Mr. Squirrel, while a vile perpetrator of many evils, was not responsible for this one. No. I was. It had not occurred to me that my wormies, in turning food garbage into rich black earth, might leave untouched the seeds of the leavings I had given them. All these plants strewn about my garden sprouted from seeds remaining in the vermicompost.

    The best part about this, from my perspective — watching the squashes grow — is that I have no idea what is growing, other than that it will be tasty. We have put into our worm bin butternut squash, pumpkins, cucumbers and yellow squash. We may have put in other sqaush remnants that I don’t remember. Each plant may be a different kind of squash, or they may all be the same. The plants are vigorous (they are well fertilized, recall!), and will likely at some point in the summer reward me with fruit. And only then will I know what it is I inadvertantly planted in my garden.

    And that is the exact kind of surprise I like best.