Ragtime Oct20

Ragtime

Jazz is often thought of as “America’s Music”, but everything comes from someplace. If any genre of music can be thought of as the primary predecessor of jazz, it would probably be ragtime. Ragtime arose from black music traditions of the late 19th century, mostly as a blending of American march traditions with the polyrhythmic dance traditions of black music. It’s earliest form would probably be black bands that would do their own take on marches. The thing that really caused ragtime to take off was the fact that it was the first time this music was made available as piano sheet music, which allowed people from all across the country, regardless of background, to enjoy it as well. Another strong point was the rise of the player pianos, which allowed noted ragtime composers to record and distribute their actual performances. Ragtime is not like march time or waltz time, which had specific meter patterns that they followed. It was more stylistic. In piano ragtime, the left hand would play strong bass notes on the first and third beats of the measure, and higher-voiced chords on two and four. The right hand handled the melody for the most part, but the stressed notes would fall in-between the beats that were provided by the left hand. This actually had the effect of making the beats more pronounced, and encouraged movement and dancing to the listener. Composer Ernest Hogan is usually credited with coining the term “ragtime”, which gets its name from the “ragged” rhythms of the syncopated melodies. His sheet music for “All Coons Look Alike to Me” is regarded as the first big hit in ragtime sheet music sales, and inspired a ragtime subgenre known as “coon music”. (Hogan later regretted using the racial...

Musebreak: A Vision

When I contemplated the idea for Musebreak, I envisioned an online magazine dedicated to bringing the world information about The Arts. A place where everyday people could take a break from their everyday world and learn about the muse that inspires us all. What we deal with as artists, where we come up with our creative ideas, where our challenges lie. I believe that as creatives, we are obligated to explain our choices and talk about what drives us to do what we do, so we can break down the barriers holding us in an awe-inspired isolation; an enigma to the rest of the world. I envisioned Musebreak as an outlet for this purpose; a way to share creativity to those who have not found theirs. Most creatives tend to hang with other creatives, because they share a common bond and draw inspiration from the symbiotic relationship. They feel understood. There’s no need to explain behaviors that don’t necessarily conform to the norm. Unfortunately, that leaves the rest of the world shaking their heads and wondering why this type of person does what they do. My vision for Musebreak would enlighten those not privy to the artistic world—I had no idea what a challenge this would be. Being 100% volunteer, getting writers to volunteer their time has been a struggle. It is here that I have to sing the praises to the writers who have chosen to help me in this quest. Their weekly contributions are done without any type of feedback or pay. The only thing I can offer is to promote whatever artistic venture they are involved in and a space to write, free of strict deadlines or strict editorial constraints. I also feel the need to apologize for my attempts at...

Album Review: Kenny Rogers’ You Can’t Make Old Friends...

The new solo album from Kenny Rogers has just been released, and Kenny shows us that he is not someone to rest on his laurels. This is a diverse, sometimes challenging, collection of songs that has the potential of being a big hit. The title track, “You Can’t Make Old Friends”, is a duet with Dolly Parton. This song is the only concession that Rogers makes to his age and history, and he makes it with one of his most popular partners. Dolly sounds slightly huskier now than she did when they recorded “Islands in the Stream” thirty years ago, but both performers are still very capable. This is going to be the first single from this album, but that’s largely for marketing purposes. There are stronger tracks to come. “All I Need Is One” is a contemporary, up-beat love song with a good hook. It’s an easy song to remember, and an easy song to like. “You Had to Be There” is Kenny Rogers on familiar ground: the storyteller. It tells the tale of an estranged father meeting his imprisoned son, and touches on themes of parenthood and responsibility. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as compelling as earlier Rogers’ stories. The next track is “ ’Merica ”. This is a bluesy patriotic anthem in 6/8. Not really Rogers forte; it would be interesting to see what someone like Michael McDonald or Garth Brooks could do with a song like this. Perhaps as a complete about face, we are next given “Turn the World Around”. This is a chanted song with a lot of attitude. It’s rather dark, and addresses the ills of society. This may be the strongest song on the album, and if Warner Bros has enough guts this should be the next...

Great Moments in Instrument Innovation: The Spit Valve Oct06

Great Moments in Instrument Innovation: The Spit Valve...

The biggest problem with most wind instruments is, of course, that one must blow into them to make them work. Apart from the rather distasteful act of repeatedly putting such an instrument in or on your mouth no matter where you’ve had it previously, there is the rather problematic fact that one’s, shall we say, expectorations will inevitably accumulate within said instrument. Except in the case of the bird whistle, this is generally regarded as a bad thing. How bad it can be is demonstrated by the case of the Royal Trumpet Corp of 1497, who were told they could not participate in the feast laid out before them until after they had performed. The sights and aromas of the banquet were so profound that their herald trumpets gathered many pints of saliva during the performance, resulting in the drowning of the whole corp. Henry VII was so appalled at the disruption of his meal that he had all four of the corpses beheaded writing, “Furely, the feafts of the crown are fuch that the provifion of mufic can be difpenfed with henceforth.” The mufician’s… er, musician’s guild realized that if they were to keep their sweet jobs, they needed to find some way to remedy the problem. This was resolved by the invention of the spit valve. Invented in 1498 by trumpet maker Alexander Spitt, the Spitt Valve was regarded as revolutionary, especially by people who were easily impressed. With the mere depression of a lever, a hole was opened in the body of the instrument which allowed the drainage of any accumulated bodily fluids that might find their way into it. The response by the instrument makers of Europe was universal: “Ew. Gross.” Over the years, instrument makers have experimented with these...

Ten-HUT! Sep29

Ten-HUT!

My sister-in-law and I have a friendly on-going debate about the merits of the Ohio State University marching band. She’s from the state of Ohio, where its inhabitants are very proud of “The Best Damn Band in the Land” which is a show band. I’m a Kentucky native, where corp style bands are popular. (I’ll go into the differences between the two shortly.) My brother, her husband, wisely keeps out of it. Considering the time of the year, with schools in session and football games all over the place every weekend, it might be a good time to explain what marching bands are, where they come from, and what types you can expect to see in the United States. The original style of marching bands was the military bands. These came from the transition of using musicians on the battlefield to stir the troops to keeping them almost exclusively on the bases for ceremonial uses. These groups march in parade formation, a large block with rows and columns with everyone using the same size of step in order to keep the formation. All music was played at a standard march tempo (around 120 beats per minute). These groups were so popular and common that pretty much all marching bands use some aspects of military style in their performances. Most bands use a military style uniform. Parade marching is still mostly done in a military style. All branches of the military have several such bands. They can also be found at Texas A&M and with the “Highty Tighty” band at Virginia Tech, as well as a few dozen high school bands in Texas. The “show band” (aka “traditional style band”) came about largely from the use of bands as entertainment at football games. These groups...

The Evolution of an Instrument: The Piano Sep22

The Evolution of an Instrument: The Piano...

The pipe organ is called the “king of instruments”. The drum is probably the oldest and most widely spread instrument. In the world of popular music, guitars are ubiquitous. But when it comes down to it, nothing approaches the piano in versatility, popularity, or utility. The piano is so well-known, it would be pointless to spend time describing what it is or what it sounds like. Categorizing it is a bit trickier. If you judge it from what vibrates to make the sound, it’s a string instrument. If you judge it by how the sound is initiated, it’s percussion. If you judge it by the type of musician who plays it, it’s considered a keyboard instrument. Whatever group of instruments you put it with, it dominates. It’s used in everything from light classical music to boogie-woogie. It can act as a solo instrument in front of a full orchestra, or as an accompaniment for a solo from the quietest of instruments. It can be loud and brash, or calm and serene. It is played by some of the greatest virtuoso performers of all time, and by young children barely out of diapers. Where did it come from? The piano (full name “pianoforte”, which is Italian for soft/strong) has something of a split ancestry. If you go all the way back, you have the psaltery, which was an early version of a harp. It had a few strings stretched in a frame which could be plucked or strummed to produce music. Eventually this was mounted on a box that would amplify the sound, and the strings were hit with small hand-held hammers, creating the instrument known today as the hammered dulcimer. Probably at some point in the middle ages, Italians began producing the first harpsichords....

Supporting the Arts from the Ground Up...

“The future belongs to young people with an education and the imagination to create.” –President Barack Obama The news is full of stories of hard economic times causing funding cuts in arts education. More than a few schools have slashed support of the arts; some have eliminated them entirely. For artists this is alarming, for most others it’s a non-issue. Why should we spend our sparse education funding on painting and music and writing? Our math scores trail many other developed countries. Many students leave school barely able to read and write at a first grade level. Artists know the answer to this question. The arts exercise the mind in ways that the mere ingesting and regurgitating of facts can never do. Unfortunately, the ones who make the decisions on where to spend the money rarely see it that way. It is our responsibility to educate them, so they will educate our children. When people talk about supporting a school’s football team, they don’t mean for people to sit around and hope that the school will come up with the funds to keep it going. They’re talking about putting butts in the seats. They’re talking about an enthusiastic demonstration of support and good will. Why should we approach support of arts education any differently? How successful would a football program be if the only people who showed up for games were the mothers and fathers of the players? And yet, when a school music ensemble has a concert, or the theater department is presenting a play, they’re lucky to get as many people in the audience as they have on the stage. One big problem that arts programs have is, frankly, that the teachers rarely have the time or know-how to promote their programs...

The Official Musebreak Over-Simplified Guide to Western Music, part three Sep01

The Official Musebreak Over-Simplified Guide to Western Music, part three...

So, after the past two weeks we’ve worked our way all the way from 500 AD to the very beginning of the 20th century. It’s been a long ride with a lot of changes. Now it’s time to wrap up by looking at the wide variety of western music that we’ve had in the past 100 years. Some things have been calm and easily understood, and some things have been very peculiar. We won’t try to cover everything, or even mention everyone. We’re just going to hit some of the broader ideas. And we’ll invent a few very broad headings to group some of them. Let’s start with… Going “Retro” Art always has a tendency to pay homage to earlier ideas. Perhaps the movement that goes the furthest back is Primitivism, in which prehistoric and non-western ideas are emulated. In music, the most prominent Primitivist composer was Igor Stravinsky, and especially his ballet suite Le sacre du printempts (The Rite of Spring). Its subject matter of primitive pagan celebrations and sacrifices is represented in powerful pulsing music. Closer to recent times is the movement called Neo-Classicism. In this the ideas of the classical period (i.e. simplicity in harmony and easily defined melodic forms) is combined with a broader harmonic palette. Stravinsky worked in this style for a while, but the premiere neo-classical composer was Paul Hindemith. At this point, it might be worth considering music that musicologists tend to overlook due to its general popularity: namely movie soundtrack music. Contemporary soundtrack composers are frequently called on to write music that helps set the tone for the movie it is accompanying. So you have people like Ennio Morricone writing sparse, folk-like music for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and then heavy, troubling full...

The Official Musebreak Over-Simplified Guide to Western Music, part two Aug25

The Official Musebreak Over-Simplified Guide to Western Music, part two...

Last week we looked at the historic periods of Western music starting with the Medieval period, progressed through the Renaissance, and concluded with the Baroque period. You may have noticed that as we went along, the periods became shorter and shorter. Partly this is due to their remoteness. The further in the past you go, the less difference is apparent between the minor changes. The closer you come to modern times, the more set the instrumentation is, and the differences become more about styles. Also, transportation and communication has an effect. As it has become easier to move about and communicate with remote parts of the world, the faster the changes happen. Anyway, we’re going to pick up with the Classical period (circa 1750-1820). This is the true classical period. Three of the biggest names are from this seven decade period, and in many ways defined the genre forever after. Haydn is classical. Mozart is classical. Beethoven is (mostly) classical. (More about that later.) In many ways, the Classical period carried the ideas of the Baroque to their extreme. For the first time, most accompanying parts were written for specific instruments rather than whoever-was-available. The style was simpler and cleaner, with solo instruments or one section carrying the burden of the melody and given a very simple accompaniment by the other members of the group. On the other hand, other subtler changes were introduced. Phrasing (the act of performing a series of notes as a unit, much like you would sing a sentence) became included in written parts. Also the indication of dynamics (how soft or loud to play) became much more involved. This last part is particularly noteworthy as the pianoforte (or as we know it today, “piano”) became much more popular. Unlike...

The Official Musebreak Over-Simplified Guide to Western Music, part one Aug18

The Official Musebreak Over-Simplified Guide to Western Music, part one...

So, are you one of those people who think that the music of J. S. Bach is Classical? Do you think that a Mozart aria is Romantic? Well, here’s your Official Musebreak Over-Simplified Guide to Western Music (or “Why not all classical music is Classical”). Now take it from a guy who spent a lot of time catching up on his sleep during Music History lectures, this is an extremely watered-down version. Also, we’ll only be looking at the major divisions. There have been some minor divisions as well that were sub-movements in the larger divisions, and some that represent transitional periods overlapping the major ones. Impressionist is an example of the former; Rococo is one of the latter. When musicologists talk of Western music, they don’t mean Roy Rogers or Merle Haggard. They’re talking about the music traditions that covered the area from mostly Europe and later North America. Areas like the Orient and the aboriginal areas of Africa and Australia (and Native America, or course) had their own traditions, frequently following a completely different form of music theory than what we’re used to. The foundations of Western music began in ancient Greece, but we’re going to skip ahead a few centuries to get to the periods where music started becoming more formalized. The first period was the Medieval period (500-1400). It is generally thought to start about the time of the fall of the Roman empire, and as you can see it covers a period of nearly a millennium. This period brought us the Gregorian chants, and madrigals and motets. Although most of the period was monophonic (one melody, unaccompanied) the later part of the period introduced polyphony, the use of more than one line of music at a time. Basic harmonies...

The Evolution of an Instrument: The French Horn Aug11

The Evolution of an Instrument: The French Horn...

It’s been suggested that one of the things we could look at in Musebreak’s music articles is the evolution of instruments. Good idea. So let’s start with the one I know best: the horn. Most people (in America anyway) know this instrument as the French horn. However, the instrument is primarily German in origin. Therefore its official name is simply “horn”. The instrument traces its origin all the way back to the “shofar” horns of the Middle East, horns made of actual animal horns. The early metal horns were much simpler than what they would become later; little more than a length of metal tubing with a small flared bell on the end. The design quickly gained a large loop to make it easy to carry on horseback. This was important due to their use as a means of calling the dogs during hunting. These instruments had no valves, and a limited number of pitches available. Like bugles, these horns were limited to what is called the “harmonic series”, a set of notes that can be made by adjusting the speed of the air and the tightness of the lips. (The word for lip tightness is “embouchure”.) When composers started using these instruments in their works in the late Baroque era (around the early 18th century), it was largely to invoke the feeling of outdoor activities like hunting. Soon it was used as more of a fanfare instrument. Since the musical works were written in various keys, you couldn’t just stick any old horn in your orchestra; it had to be pitched in such a way that its harmonic series would fit in with the key of the piece. To that end, horns were made to have sections that could be removed and replaced...

Magic in the Dark Aug04

Magic in the Dark

It’s a story I’ve told many times, but it seems appropriate to this web publication to trot it out once more. Late summer – 1981: I was a high school junior taking part in band camp for the third time. We had learned the music for that year’s marching show, and were on the practice field learning the “drill”, i.e. the marching movements that go with the music. It was a hot day, and my band mates and I were happy to see a thunderstorm on the horizon heading our way. As it neared we could see there was a lot of electrical activity in it, so shortly before it became dangerous Mr. Thompson, our band director, gave the word to head indoors. We had barely made it inside our windowless band room when we heard the heavy rain and thunder pummeling the roof. Not wanting to waste the time we had left on our practice for the day, Mr. Thompson dismissed the percussion to a different part of the building to work on their music, and had us wind players form a large circle in the band room. While we faced each other, our field commander counted us off and we started playing the first song in our show. Before we had gone halfway through the tune, the power cut out and we found ourselves playing in pitch darkness. A few members dropped out expecting us to stop, but when no word to stop came from our field commander or Mr. Thompson we all continued playing without missing a beat. That’s when it happened. Our music, well memorized by this point, took on its own life. With no visual distractions, we were totally focused on how it sounded. It sounded better and better...

Hell Bent on Agony Jul28

Hell Bent on Agony

“I’m in love with my mobility, but sometimes this life can be a drag; Like when I noticed your nobility and how my leaving only held you back. I remember one occasion- you were drinking,-when you asked me to the coast, But I was hell bent on agony back then, so I missed the boat.” – “Starkville” by Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls   I was listening to some Indigo Girls music the other day when the track “Starkville” came on. The line “but I was hell bent on agony back then” caught my attention. I know the feeling. More precisely, I remembered the feeling. I think many of us with an artistic bent go through the agony phase at some point, usually when we’re old enough to know that things don’t always work out the way you want, but too young to know what to do about it. There are a lot of artists, musicians and otherwise, who make a career out of this phase. A handful get so wrapped up in it that they become self destructive and never make it out the other side. Others wallow in it their entire lives. Most simply give up on the arts and go about building a “normal” life. And some allow the changes to occur that lets them redefine themselves. I consider myself as one of that group. Life’s priorities shift as you get older. For artists, a group of people who are thoroughly in touch with what is going on in their heads and hearts, this can be traumatic. One day you feel strongly about romance, or world crises, or something; and then you wake up and find yourself knocking on the door to middle age and are horrified to find that...

Know Your Audience Jul21

Know Your Audience

My musician friends like to trot out a YouTube video every once in a while that shows violinist Joshua Bell playing “street musician” at a metro stop in Washington, DC. He received almost no attention at all, despite being one of the country’s best violinists. My friends usually present it as a demonstration of how little people care about quality music and quality performers. I like to add the comment: “The real lesson here? Know your audience.” I find it annoying when artists, any artist, assume the world revolves around them, or that everyone should enjoy exactly the same thing that they themselves enjoy. Theoretical physicists don’t assume everyone has a functional understanding of string theory. Electrical engineers don’t assume everyone knows what goes into designing a computer’s motherboard. Why should we be surprised when people moving quickly through a station in a major American city during rush hour don’t take the time to appreciate the intricacies of a virtuoso performer playing the works of J. S. Bach? Many people like to refer to music as being the “universal language”. This may be so, but any artist needs to understand that the effectiveness of the ideas and “vocabulary” one uses will vary depending on who is listening/looking/reading what they are presenting. One of my favorite writers is Harlan Ellison. There is something I’ve noticed when reading his work; his writing becomes much more complex when he’s writing a column or essay than when he writes fiction. He knows that his target audience is very different, and he tailors what he’s writing to fit who he expects to be reading it. The way this translates into music can be very obvious. However, among serious musicians it becomes a discussion of “good” music versus “bad” music....