What is Classical Music?

violinist

Enjoying live [classical] music concerts could be one of the most exciting relationships you’ll ever develop.

 

But here’s one thing any valuable and interesting article or document shouldn’t start with: a definition.

The term “Classical Music” is difficult to embrace for three reasons:
– It conjures up images of rich elitism, boringness and dead white men.
– It actually refers to a specific period in musical history (1750-1830)
– Much of society is prejudiced against anything associated with it.

The enigmatic Founder and Artistic Director of The Discovery Orchestra, George Marriner Maull, visited two inner-city schools one week and worked with young children on “listening.” The heart-warming outcome is that every child was fully engaged, improved their communication skills, and loved the music.

Interestingly, when Maestro Maull starting working with the music he deliberately did not mention the composers’ names or when the music was written or give it a stylistic label, which is the normal practice when giving a workshop or lecture (heck, I even did it when giving this post a title!). The children just thoroughly enjoyed the music which happened to be written by some chaps named Bach and Vivaldi some 300 years ago. To them, it could have been last written last year.

George Marriner Maull and the Discovery Orchestra

Fascinating. And we have a problem.

Unfortunately, by the time these children become adults they may very well be turned off of the “Classical Musicgenre or style they’ve come to appreciate and enjoy, just because society tells them to.

We could explore the sociological and psychological reasons why that might be, and perhaps that should be the topic of a future missive, but it’s not this one. Instead, let’s recognize that the term “Classical Music” has, despite it’s actual reference to a specific period in history, come to refer to anything not in the popular mainstream realms of music, or which has another generic label.

Jazz is jazz, rock is rock, and so on. Many styles of music have their own sub-styles, but as far as you and I are concerned, let’s define Classical Music as:

Audio entertainment that is constructed around in-depth formulas and functions of sound presented with the intent of active and engaged listening and feeling, mostly using instruments that do not require electricity to function.

Sounds boring? Maybe.

Audio entertainment that is constructed around in-depth formulas and functions of sound presented with the intent of active and engaged listening and feeling, mostly using instruments that do not require electricity to function.

Have you really actively listened at a concert and engaged with what you hear? If you’re relatively new to classical music, probably not. Usually your mind wanders to problems of the day, what you’ll have for dinner later, or the lovely dangling earrings of the person sitting three rows in front of you.

It takes a certain amount of effort to listen to and engage in anything worthwhile, and classical music is no exception. But it’s hard for us when everything is so physical and instant these days. Instant gratification = surface material. Those who want more, who want meaningful relationships, who want something solid, grounded, stable, reliable, a cornerstone… can thoroughly enjoy classical music.

What do you think? Am I close? Is that definition too broad or too technical or just too plain… “huh?” Let me know in the comments below what you think of my definition, and if you have a better one – I really want to know!

Composing B: And so it begins…

Following last week’s post about how to start a composition, well… how I am starting this composition… a few decisions have been made.

Whilst looking around for a compositional structure I came across several main elements:

Each have their own special qualities and after a little thought, I thought it would be nice to try Sonata form. I don’t remember the last time I wrote something in Sonata form (and stuck to it) so here’s an opportunity.

At the moment, Sonata form will form the dominating format, although during the creative process unexpected twists and turns can often lead compositions into completely unplanned territory.

Tweetable!
The creative process can take unexpected twists and turns that lead into completely unknown territory. via @Stephen_P_Brown

Sonata form structure:

  • Introduction
  • Exposition: A main theme (usually a melody) followed by a second theme in a different key*
  • Development: Both themes mixed together through wildly changing audio experiences, although still always related to the exposition somehow
  • Recapitulation: The main theme revisted plus the secondary theme in the ‘home key’
  • Coda: An ending unlike any other. Or, probably like every other.

Beethoven had a really hard time ending his music, so pieces like his famous Fifth Symphony could actually end many, many times but none of them actually do end the piece. Until there are no more chords left.

Dudley Moore had a similar problem:

Dudley Moore doesn’t stop…

So, quite imaginatively, let’s call our piece after its structure, “Sonata.” But who is it for? Well, it’s for a chamber orchestra of sorts. Not piano, nor violin or any other solo instrument. So we can expand the title of our new piece of music to: Sonata for Chamber Orchestra. Like it? I do. Don’t like it? Are there any other options? Yes. Lots. Think of a title and put it in the comments below.

(*)
I also chose to go with the key signature of G Major. The KEY of a piece of music tells the players what tonality to focus on. In the Western world we have developed a system using 12 different tones that repeat (on a piano, play every consecutive note starting with the left of the three black keys, F sharp(#). You’ll end up hearing ‘another’ F# 13 keys later). From those 12 notes, 8 of them form the basis of tonality – major (happy) scales and minor (sad) scales.

Again on a piano, find ‘C’. It’s the white key immediately to the left of the two black keys. Play that C plus only the 6 white notes to the right, and then finish with the 8th key which is actually another C. Repeat. And repeat. Start with any C and play the scale – they all sound the same only higher or lower. The combination of tones forms the scale, in this case a major scale.

Copy that combination of tones but start on G (G is 5 notes up from C, including C. It’s the white key immediately to the RIGHT of the LEFT-MOST of the THREE black keys. Got it?!). Only this time, instead of playing all the white keys, when you get to the 7th key, don’t play it. Instead, play the black key immediately to the right – that’s right, F#.

This major scale is what will form the tonal foundation of our new piece.

G Major scale on a keyboard

G Major scale

 

Next week, lets look at the melody, or the ‘Main Theme’

Churches and Arts

How many artists does it take to change a light bulb?

How many churches can you fit into one square mile?

It didn’t take long to get overwhelmed by both the sheer number of churches in Tampa Bay as well as the incredible arts scene. There are artists everywhere, from muralists to house sculptures, street musicians to ballet, four opera companies to symphony orchestras, three regional performing arts centers and seven local ones.

You’ll have no problem finding a
church in Tampa Bay

As for churches, there is barely a single block without one. Every denomination is represented and quite a few independent ones, too. And it’s not as though these churches are spread so thinly they’re all empty – far from it. There are two on the same street with 2,000 seat auditoriums as well as schools. They don’t need a volunteer policeman to help with traffic flow, they have a whole brigade!

So when thinking about what piece of music to write, it happened that the most obvious but probably understated thing about Tampa Bay is the proliferation of churches and arts. Active churches and live arts.

So that’s actually where our story begins, with what became movement 5 of my piece “Tapestry Tampa Bay.” It also happens to be my most favorite piece, because it’s well written and it’s pretty.

Think church bells. Think artsy. Combine the two, and you get a high-pitched bouncy theme that is repeated and repeated and echoed and echoed. Tinkling and hymnal at the same time. Religious yet constantly defying normal conventions. It’s all rolled into one little ditty, which to me encompasses all that Tampa Bay is.

On top of that, there’s some thematic material (i.e. a tune) that was initially a pleasant secret that I can hold in no longer: this movement directly reflects the title of the whole piece. Say “Tapestry Tampa Bay” out loud, in a rhythm and with natural inflection. Soon you’ll be singing along with the music!

—–

The World Premiere concert of this piece has been getting some pretty wide press coverage, I’m very happy to say. The Tampa Bay Times, The Palm Harbor Beacon, NBC News, WFLA-TV, and a spectacular article in the Tampa Tribune.

 

Fish for music, not chips

I’m not obsessed with fish. Really!

Of course it’s a favorite dish of mine – I grew up in “Fish & Chip” land (and to be perfectly honest, still have not yet found anything that comes close to it in the USA). On overnight camping trips to Hastings we’d walk the promenade, play on the beach and watch the boats land on the pebbles before unloading their stock, indulge in crazy golf or the indoor amusement center (I once won £130 in pennies!) and then head to the local chippie. You really can’t get fresher fish than that! And, at that time, it was all cod with the occasional haddock or flounder. Yummy stuff.

So white fish has played a big part throughout my consuming life. No surprise, then, that moving to Florida opened up plenty more opportunity for immediate (i.e. fresh) and inexpensive fish dinners.

But what was this thing called Grouper? Eventually I tried it. And really liked it! Big, meaty, fleshy, moist, almost impossible to overcook white fish. It is great in a sandwich, or just plain. Don’t spoil it by deep frying it in less-than-perfect batter, either. I began eating Grouper almost everywhere I could, and eventually came across this video:

Can you believe the size of this fish? Not all species of Grouper are this large. Some are bigger:

No hoax: check here

http://www.hoax-slayer.com/giant-warsaw-grouper.shtml

So, how could I do anything but write a piece of music about this giant in a piece about the place where I discovered it? So, movement three of “Tapestry Tampa Bay” is, in fact, called Grouper!

The movement starts out deep underwater, with some bubbles floating up from a rock-like bulge – actually a fish. The rock slowly turns sideways as more bubbles escape from underneath it. As it opens its mouth to impersonate a yawn, a few more bubbles interrupt and the fish gets annoyed. “Do you mind!” he exclaims. “I’m yawning.”

Again, an attempt at a yawn. More bubbles. Eventually, the fed-up fish doesn’t care and if it could growl, it did so. No more bubbles.

So off he heads, into the warm swirling waters. Being such a large fish means very little disturbs its direction or wake. Smooth and flowing, the gentle giant surveys his domain. Occasionally little spurts of bubbles emerge from his mouth, but all-in-all he is a happy fish. It takes a lot of energy to move such a large body, so eventually King Grouper settles down for a nap.

Is that really a piece of music?

Yes.

You wait ’till you hear it! And now, we are preparing to have the concert broadcast live online, too! Look out for details soon.

Up and up and up and…

Fifth Dimension’s “Up, up and away in my beautiful balloon” comes to mind. Not that the song has any bearing on my composition, but the title simply reflects the experience of driving over Skyway Bridge – the gateway to Tampa Bay.

It’s a scary ride. If you repeatedly get in line for the latest roller coasters at theme parks, you may just wonder what all the fuss is about, but for most mere mortals, Skyway Bridge [Wikipedia link] causes anxiety rarely experienced elsewhere. Up, and up, and up, and up you go – with supports between the driving lanes (not on the outsides) and only a concrete barrier between your 65 mph vehicle and a 175ft drop into usually calm warm water.

Interestingly, the access to the bridge on both sides is a long causeway. There are a lot of causeways in the Tampa Bay area, which fascinate me – some are literally two or three feet above the water line (Route 60, perhaps) yet never seem to get wet (except when it rains). I don’t think I’ve ever been in an environment where a lake or sea doesn’t have moments of swelling.

Surf Sailing from the approach to Skyway Bridge

– yes, it’s that far.

Anyhow, both sides of the bridge host fishing piers and state parks (actually, they are the approaches to the previous bridge), but the north side also sports beaches and several water enthusiast sites, including surf-sailing.

The beginning of the second movement in my piece reflects the monotony of driving on a long, flat causeway by utilizing a Philip-Glass-like compositional technique. Although there’s much to look at for passengers, it’s a boring drive. And, of course, one has to slow down at the toll booth and then pick up speed again. It’s in the music, too.

Then begins the climb. The ‘up, and up, and up. And up… And up’ climb. There’s no descent in the music because descents always are a lot quicker than climbing, and usually we’re so relieved to be over the apex that we don’t even notice coming down. Until we reach the other causeway, and enjoy the ride a little more – reflected in the music by a more relaxed tempo (speed).

Beaches and Boats

“Beaches and Boats”

The first movement in my new piece “Tapestry Tampa Bay” seems to sum up my initial impression of life here in Tampa Bay. There are beaches everywhere. There are boats everywhere. The latter is quite understandable bearing in mind that three sides of the St. Petersburg/ Clearwater area is surrounded by water.

The former was, well… unexpected.

The largest and most famous beach is Clearwater Beach. But that entire coastline is full of them. From Sunset beach in Tarpon Springs to Sarasota’s Siesta Key (#1 beach in USA) and beyond, there are miles and miles of soft warm sand. It is a grand spectacle and a luxury we have fully indulged in many times since moving here – especially the beaches on Honeymoon Island.

The opening of my piece reflects the grandeur of Clearwater Beach. Although wide and long, it doesn’t take too much time before one gets either lost or burned, so must retreat to safer quarters such as the Clear Sky Cafe. The same theme is used to demonstrate another beach just as wide and just as long – Indian Shores. Then another, less grand beach such as Caladesi Island (read more about this idyllic isle here). And other similar-sized beaches. Then there are the medium beaches and finally, a couple of spurts of tiny beaches such as the aforementioned Sunset Beach.

Marbel photographed by Melissa at Sunset Beach. There’s not much more to it than this.

So, it’s time for sailing. Although there are many, many more power boats than there are sailboats, there are still plenty of the latter, and my first experience on the waters of the bay was in a sailboat, thanks to our dear friends Dale & Barbara.

The flowing, smooth, calm swaying of gentle waves and a hot breeze across the cheeks is what follows in my music. There are some dolphin sightings as they pop up to say hello, but the music is clearly as peaceful and tranquil as sitting in a wind-powered water-glider in the hands of an expert.

Sailboats are popular in St. Peterburg.
Dale doing his thing.
Wild dolphins are frequent and friendly.

Of course, along the way we pass several small and private beaches along the Bay’s inside edges, so the music eventually combines the beach theme with the boat theme: “Beaches & Boats.”