Swing vs. syncopation, and imagining enemy tribes where none exist

It’s nice to see someone else mention this.

“Swing” and “syncopation” are not the same thing.

Swing is when you dot your damned 8ths. Syncopation is stress on the off-beat, often through suspensions. It’s not that hard.

This can be like listening to people who can’t do math throwing around terms like “quantum physics” and “calculus.” Please stop. Or else at least please appreciate that these words actually mean stuff and are not just croutons on a hipster word salad.

And by the way, many forms of classical music are heavily swung and syncopated, Mr. “I Know Nothing Whatsoever About Music But I’m Going To Pretend To Be A Deep Jazzhead.” Yes, you can notate swing and syncopation in musical notation. They are not “beyond the page” and “can’t be defined.” They most certainly can, and are. Why do people turn into smokeheaded hippies whenever they talk about anything related to jazz?

Probably for the same reason they love pitting jazz and 800 years of half a continent’s art music from dozens of countries classical against one another. They want to make sure everyone knows what “tribe” they’re in. And they want to make sure everyone knows it’s the cool tribe. Not those other people over there, who aren’t cool.

Most of these idiots would fall over if they had any idea how much more music theory (and I mean hardcore stuff) the typical jazz musician knows versus the typical classical violinist. Every jazz musician — who “just felt it, maaaaaan” — I’ve ever encountered can spool out diminished 7ths, pentatonic scales, and mixolydian modes like an encyclopedia, while a significant number of classical violinists barely even know what key they’re in. To judge from them, it’s the classical types who “just feel it” and the jazz types who’ve got the theory down cold.

Believe me, no matter what you think you’ve invented, I can almost guarantee that someone else someplace did it first. And given that classical music (in its various incarnations from many cultures around the world) stretches some 1,000 years into the past … well, sorry to bust your bubble, but whatever the hell you’re talking about and however “revolutionary” you think it is, someone who is called a “classical composer” probably did do it first. It’s not because they’re so wonderful. It’s just because there’s so goddamned many of them.

1,000 years is a long time.

And jazz and classical are simply not enemies. They are not opposing tribes, no matter how much certain types of people would like to imagine. Over a century ago, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Ravel, and Debussy were listening to and playing jazz. And the biblical Adam of piano jazz, Scott Joplin, was classically trained. If this bothers you, too bad.

If you want to pit groups of people against one another, then I don’t care how revolutionary and anti-establishment you think you are, you are part of the problem.

Musings on long pieces

I tend to like not overwhelmingly programmatic music. Excepting opera of course, which is about as programmatic as you can get. By “programmatic,” I mean stuff where the music is supposed to tell a story, like “Erlkoenig” or something. The typical example of it is something like “Peter and the Wolf,” where you’re supposed to lean forward and say, “Oh the oboe is the duck!” or even “The Four Seasons” where the dripping icicles are the pizzicato and the fierce strings are a summer storm. I don’t mind it, but I’m not entirely crazy about writing it. If I do slip bits in, it’s usually pretty hazy and not that organized. For example, the middle part of Thunder and Stars where it goes into Gb got bombastic because I had just watched Curiosity land on Mars. I didn’t write it about or because of the rover, though. I was just in a really good mood when I got to that part of the music. Moon of Memory is a bit sparkly because of a very distinct and distorted memory I had as a kid of an offshore moonrise, but I didn’t write about that family vacation, just that one disembodied memory.

So it’s not like either piece tells a definite story. I very often will just write and let my ear tell me where I want to go next, with occasional glances at the map of music theory. But lately, I’ve been getting a bit antsy to write something longer, something approaching ten or fifteen pages where I have to break the piece up into multiple sections, revisit themes, and let myself noodle around. One of the things I know I tend to do is just set up themes and knock through them one by one without more than a few measures of transitional glue to move from one theme to the other. I imagine that’s fairly standard for new composers. Eight bars, then eight more, then two measures of “let’s see what’s around this corner,” and then oh, look! another eight bars and another eight bars!

I’m halfway between admiration and impatience with the willingness of the good composers to just take their damned time and spin their wheels in a circle for a bit, letting the audience sit and wait until they’re good and ready to move on. Granted, sometimes it gets irritating. I will never lose the suspicion that these four-movement-forty-five-minute epic symphonies of the late Romantic period are just goddamned egotistical musical masturbation. Sure, some of the bits are nice, but a lot of times, it’s just some guy just banging on and on and on and on, and Jesus Christ, aren’t you done yet? Yes, you’re very good. We know. Holy shit, wrap it up already. My ass is asleep.

For an almost-fifty year old, I sound like the classical world’s worst nightmare of the brat youth with the short attention span. But let’s face it, a four-hour movie can be paused and come back to. A 800-page book can be closed and resumed later. A piece of music generally has to be apprehended in one go unless you pause between movements, and when one movement is long enough to make your back ache, that’s going a bit far. There’s a very fine line between spinning an epic, and being that guy with the fat ego at the party who won’t shut up because he’s convinced everyone must be hanging on his every word.

Now, like Walt Whitman, I contradict myself or appear to.

I do still admire these composers’ confidence that they will say what they want to say, take as long as they want to say it, and the audience can damned well sit there and listen. At least I admire it when it’s not taken to extremes. I don’t want to get to the point where I’m reeling out 33-page monsters — at least not without distinct stopping points where a listener can go get a cup of coffee, hit the john, or get up and have a stretch. But I do want to let myself take some damned time over my ideas and not rush to the next theme because I’m afraid I might drop dead before I get to it.

Which means that I need some unifying idea. I’ve been mulling the planets — and the real planets, not Holst’s versions of the planets, which is very nice but not about the planets so much as the gods they were named after. Venus is not the bringer of love, it’s a seething hellpit hot enough to melt lead. Mars is not a war planet; it’s a serene, dusty place whose salad days are long finished, the surface of which looks like a crime scene photo. Jupiter is stately and mysterious but active and swirled with colors like a close-up of a Georgia O’Keefe painting. It’s not the King of the Gods. And what about comets? Asteroids? The Oort cloud? The Kuiper belt? The heliopause?

Might be fun.

“Why do I need a piano qualification? I’m a flutist/violinist/etc.!”

For one simple reason:

I am a schmuck off the street who never once considered going to a conservatory or studying music formally.

You are a conservatory or music school kid who can probably look forward to a life of auditions and professional performing.

And yet, because I play a piano, I know a ton more music theory than you do. And I mean, a ton.

That is why you need a piano qualification.

Now put down the flute, pull up the fallboard, and get to work.

Rhythm and structure, algebra and arithmetic, concreteness and abstraction

Erica Sipes of Beyond the Notes is rolling around an interesting topic on Twitter at the moment, that of why in her experience so many people seem to have problems connecting with rhythm and are almost fearful of it. I’ve been mulling it.

I tend to compare music to math and language a lot, so it’s natural I guess that I’d see this in that light. Both math and language have structure underlying the actual words and numbers.

For example, you can diagram a sentence — illustrate the grammar underlying the words by putting the words into a tree structure. It turns out that when you do that, you reveal that there’s far more to any sentence than just the words themselves. There’s a whole tinkertoy structure underneath the whole thing, invisible but essential. You can diagram a sentence and then erase the words, and still have something vital sitting there that will tell you way more about that language than just whatever that one sentence was talking about.

Same with math — start out with simple arithmetic, something like 7+4=11. When you erase the numbers, you wind up with algebra: x+y=z. Again, it turns out that there was structure underneath those concrete numbers the whole time that is a vital part of the whole understanding, and the vast majority of mathematics lies in grasping that invisible structure — and many others!

I think that worrying so much, as classical musicians tend to, about the real, actual notes keeps students from seeing the underlying structure. Linguists and mathematicians are okay with putting their words and numbers on a tree structure, placing them relative to one another, and then wiping out the actual words and numbers and manipulating the structure itself. They seem to be more comfortable with a certain level of abstraction whereby the invisible structure is as real — or realer — to them than the actual words and numbers. They’re okay with that. Like Saint Exupery’s Little Prince, they regard what is invisible to the eye as more essential than the things you can stub your toe on. They (we, really — I know I’m like this) often regard the words and numbers as merely bits of lint the main function of which is to reveal to us the shape of the structure they attach themselves to.

Music students don’t have this attitude. They live and die by the notes. They are encouraged to live and die by the notes. Hence, making out the invisible structure behind the notes involves letting go of something that they have always seen as their one and only calibration point. As far as they’re concerned, their worth as a musician, and possibly their worth as a human being, relies on keeping a death grip on those notes.

The problem?

Rhythm lives on the invisible structure.

If the students can’t see that structure, they can’t sense the rhythm naturally.

And in order to perceive the structure, they have to relinquish their death grip on the notes.

(I think this is a big part of why improvisation is so useful — not just to get over fear of mistakes, but to help perceive the things that you can perceive in music once you do unclench your hand, rhythm being one of them.)

Now, there are up and down sides to these attitudes. I’ll never be a fussy soloist, and I was never qualified to be one. The notes mean less to me than the abstract structure, so a clinker every now and again is to be expected, as long as the abstract representation of the piece on paper is clean. This is part of why I’m going nuts with the recording process; the “who cares about a bum note here and there?” attitude is not acceptable once you plug something into AUX OUT. The audio recording now has to stand in for the sheet music, and well … the sheet music is 100% perfect, no clinkers, no pops or hisses, no skips or compression issues. As someone who regards abstraction as more real than reality, I resent having to be so detail-oriented about one transient representation of a piece. I will never be detail-oriented enough to make an acceptable performing classical musician.

And people who are concrete and very fussy about quality of the actual notes, who might have more trouble with the underlying structure or even dislike it (as many performing musicians dislike music theory), may make better actual performers since they are focused on the quality of the actual notes. (Although I reserve the right to go o_O at violinists who sound good and yet have no idea at all what key they are even in. Come on.)

Every person will probably lean more to one side than the other. An awful lot of professional orchestra musicians (who live and die by the notes) outright hate music theory, yet I’m reminded of Beethoven’s famous quote that a wrong note here and there means nothing, which indicates that composers may be more more worried about getting it right on paper; clearly composers are not likely to win auditions playing their own pieces.

And I think youngsters are more likely to focus on Getting The Notes Right as well, especially since they’ve spent their lives from the age of 6 immersed in an environment where grasping fine points of concrete detail matter far more than abstraction, and where authority figures will mark them down for getting the wrong answer no matter how well they grasped the broad strokes.

As we grow and mature, hopefully we all come to an appreciation of the side toward which we do not naturally incline. I’ve been made through my working life to realize that abstraction matters less if it’s not realized properly, and perhaps a more detail-oriented person will grow in awareness of the abstractions that surround us all.

Anyhow, there’s some babble for you.

Ah, a solution!

To notating at least dotted-rhythm music if not syncopated: Swung note

In other words, they just didn’t bother to write the dots. 🙂 It still doesn’t quite work for off-beat stuff, but let’s face it, most of the Haendel I’m working with anyway is swung.

Got stuff done plus a neat new scale mode

Nearing the bottom of the fourth page. A busy two weeks coming up (particularly next week), so I don’t know what will happen now, but it’s looking okay from here.

I think I’d like to finish one more piece and replace one very old one that I wrote that really doesn’t deserve to be on a compilation at all — although it might make a decent sort of bonus thing.

I’d also like to mess around with a scale that I became enamored of when I was piffling around on the Rodgers on Friday-ish, a natural minor with a major third. It’s not a diatonic key signature; it’s missing the second flat in all cases, I think. So not quite diatonic, but not too bad. And I’m fairly sure that one or two key sigs a fifth up and down from A are mixed signatures, with one flat and one sharp, or something. I need to work them out.

Let’s see, I know that D in this funky scale is mixed — an F# and a Bb. E is probably what … F# and G#. Okay. So at least D is a mixed key signature. The other ones are probably just missing a flat.

Anyhow, it should be fun to mess with it and see what happens. The chords you get from it are really cool: a Major, two diminished, two minors, an augmented, and another Major. So kind of cool. A neat new set of toys to play with. 🙂

ETA: I need to write out the key sigs of this weird natural minor/mixolydian hybrid. It’s becoming very weird in my head as I work it out.

ETA2: You know what, that key sig isn’t missing the second flat. It’s missing the second flat from the end — the penultimate flat. Here’s the signatures:

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

(BTW, I created this starting with the image found here.)

Obviously not diatonic as there isn’t a single transposition of it that’s all white keys, and the half-steps aren’t maximally distant. Sometimes I just get off on saying this junk out loud. 🙂

So you start with A natural minor, and add a sharp. Add a sharp to each minor key signature (or remove the penultimate flat), starting with C# (that would have been there had it been major) and then adding them in the normal order.

Another way to think about it is that it’s Mixolydian, plus a flat, starting at D Mixo and adding them in the normal order from Bb.

I think I’ll do it in C just to keep from getting totally turned around.

I hope I can make some neat music with this. It looks cool and it’s fun, and I had some fun finding pretty things in it on the Rodgers, but if I can only write stinky music in it, it won’t be worthwhile. There isn’t something cool hiding under every rock, after all.