Monthly Archives: November 2014

Copland, Appalachian Spring

After reading so much of Mr.Copeland’s views on listening to music, it’s a treat to finally listen to his own composition. Unlike the Stavinsky piece, this seems a bit less confusing. Perhaps this sounds more familiar or at least less complicated.

It seems nice and simple until, 2:15 things get more interesting with a pause and odd clapping interspersed with single instruments seeming to pop up in a inquisitive manner asking, like the audience, “what happened”, and then returning to nice and simple at 2:25. This occurs again  and again returning to the nice and gentle melody soon enough, in an ABABAB, with the same little horn signifying the shift, until around 4:45. One of the male figures begins dancing and changes the theme slightly. At 6:00 the man and woman dance together with shifts in major and minor abound.

It changes to an upbeat, more playful tune as the man in black dances with the women in bonnets. The pause at 2:38 of part 2 when the bride enters is followed by a different, grander major tune. The change at 3:40 is interesting as it sounds a bit start and stop but then continues in a bouncy manner, although interspersed with some contrasting sounds such as the deeper horns around 6:40. As the bride’s dance ends we feel a sense of cohesion as the instruments harmonize when the couple comes together for the marriage scene.

After the marriage scene we hear a recognizable tune on the flute, that invokes a sense of innocence. In all the piece at this point makes one feel nostalgic of a simple time, a far off, perhaps untrue, American dream that existed somewhere.

At 3:00 the music gets more serious, turning to minor as the minister dances without his hat in a seemingly wild way. The other woman gets up and changes it back to major but in a slower way. We understand that there is some conflict or trouble from the lower horns that chime in. This conflict or tension seems forgotten as the minister gets up and dances with the girls with the bonnets, but it is brought back with the sudden sharp chord of the violin and the low rumbling as the bride dances. The abrupt shift at 1:30 moves to a faster pace implying maybe a birth, but resolves back down to the simple, more common tune we hear before becoming grander with the accompaniment of more instruments around 3:30. The pace slows down implying a sense of stability in the lives of the couple.

The piece, didn’t seem to have much conflict but rather seemed to guide us through a joyous, blossoming spring. I really enjoyed the piece in how calming, yet engaging it was.


Stravinsky, Rite of Spring (ballet, 1913)

I found the piece enjoyable, but only to the end that it puzzled me throughout causing me to want to understand it more and more. It starts off with a bassoon, which sounds mysterious which is only compounded by whirring wind instruments. It isn’t clear at any point whether the piece is major or minor, but there seem to be elements of both.

At 3:31 the cacophony ends and we appear to go back to the beginning. Shortly after the curtain goes up and we are introduced to a puzzling scene, which brings up the question of to what extent we must consider the action of the ballet alongside the music. Is it a necessary accompaniment or just complementary. For example, the stomping  and clapping one hears may be a component of the music that Stravinsky intended the audience to enjoy, providing a marching rhythm to accompany the instruments. On the other hand it’s easy to imagine following the narrative without the ballet.

The music came together strongly producing tangible effects. For example around 10:50-11:15 there is a sense of gravity to the piece as the main tone becomes lower, more focused on horns in a way making it crescendo grimly then drop down to only shift from 11:16 to 11:30 where there is a lot of  movement and action, which then just dissipates into a light airy sound. This is done through the shifting in instrumentation, tempo, and key even using two keys at the same time. Stravinsky has these wild shift, particularly noticeable at 14:30 where there is a pause, low instrumentation, then a break out into fast, turbulent sound which abruptly ends after part 1.

The second introduction seems to flow very well, inciting that same eerie feeling. It continues to puzzle, but to that end entices the listener forward. At 23:30 we begin to hear a very familiar tune, with rhythmic drums and a somewhat sliding back and forth crescendo. A sense of suspense is maintained throughout, which seems to build at 28.20 come into catharsis only to go back at 28:45. When the figure in the middle is surrounded by creatures one expects a release, but there never is one as the figure simply collapses and the piece ends.

Overall I found the piece very interesting yet, as with many of the more recent pieces, had a hard time identifying what exactly the innovation was. It sounded “off” in that it didn’t fit with the classical mold that we were first introduced with, but identifying what made it sound off was difficult, perhaps because of my inexperience or perhaps because there were many things contributing to that feeling.

Take the A Train

Billy Strayhorn’s famous arrangement for the Duke Ellington orchestra, its signature piece, almost never saw the light of day because Strayhorn had discarded it initially. Today it is one of the staple jazz standards along with Gershwin’s Summertime or Miles Davis’ and reminds us of the New York of our predecessors, in the era when the A Train was brand new. This piece strikes a particular chord in me because our jazz ensemble performed it in high school.

Most jazz is described as disorganized but it’s simply a further iteration of the avant-garde emotional freedom Schoenberg was aiming for. Jazz was played over the radio and thus had to be aesthetically pleasing to most people, but it remains a form of pure art because aside from the head, which determines the tonality and the rhythm, the performers are free to take the original wherever their imagination pleases, and each artist or even each performance by the same artist is going to be unique. Miles Davis was unapologetically dissonant and he is very widely known and heralded as one of the greatest jazz artists of all time. Jazz hits a sweet spot where the intrigue and brazenness of dissonance is kept in check by the familiarity of the head.

Jazz: Music Lacking Structure?

I agree with all the other posts about how refreshing and enjoyable it was to listen to more familiar music this week! I thought the time would never come that we would talk about a song that I already knew but that time has finally come! It’s especially nice after a few classes about atonal music (which , as I mentioned in class, I don’t really find “pleasant”). However, jazz is pretty much a 180 degree turn from atonal music for me. It’s familiar, fun, and extremely pleasant to listen to!

That being said, I found it extremely hard to notice patterns in the music like the ones we’ve been trying to learn about in class. This music is very different in a lot of ways than any of the other music we have been learning about in class. For example, with a sonata form, you always know exactly what you’re going to get next, but with jazz I feel like you never can really know. Jazz based a lot in improvisation and riffing and I think that makes it feel much more difficult to talk about academically  than other things we’ve been listening to. To me, it seems that jazz lacks the structure that the other music we’ve talked about throughout the semester has had and therefore I’m not really sure how to talk about it in the way we’ve talked about the other music this semester.

Finally, familiarity.

Personally, when it comes to Jazz, there is an automatic imagery that comes to mind depending on the tune. While there could be an argument made for the other forms we have studies, there is an element in Jazz that cannot be attributed to the other genres. I cannot pinpoint it exactly, but I think it is the presence of Jazz in film. Whereas in the previously studied pieces I had to use my imagination to paint a scene, their modern counterpart presents me with a point of reference, whether it is through its composition, relatable themes, or contemporary influence.

Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues” has a composition that highly resembles the structure of contemporary pieces. That is, there is a conjunction of instruments succeeded by a solo that guides the piece. In the case of this piece, the solo is instrumental, while in the case of contemporary music, the solo would be vocal. In addition to its structure, I cannot help but to think of an a cappella group in which the rest of the group soften their pitches to pave way to the soloist. In this particular case, Armstrong’s smooth solos resemble a poem recited eloquently, with the delivery of each line timed perfectly.

Duke Ellington’s “Take The A Train” is perhaps the most vivid out of these three pieces, especially to those who can envision a Subway ride. While I can make a direct comparison to my experiences commuting, Ellington does not fail to provide the imagery to those without it. The constant beat in the background presents the listener with a double entendre, one which mimics the pace of a locomotive and the other which represents the constant movement of people across the city. In addition to allusions of movement, Ellington, through the repetition of pitches, replicates the sound of the train’s horn. Perhaps, the repetition may allude to the anxiety that could arise from the uncertainty of riding a train; whether it is cause by its delays or the possibility of collision.

To me, Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” was the most pleasing. While the others presented a vivid image, this piece did not. For this reason, I found “Confirmation” to be the most relaxing. Though we have discussed that masterpieces should be examined by their compositional value, I could not help but think that this song would be a great study companion. Moreover, I felt as thought the piece were speaking to me. That is, the speed and tight note range felt like someone giving me advice rather than a song.


I think the most striking thing about these jazz pieces is that all the instruments are featured. An example can be seen in the latter half of Confirmation (2:18 – 2:30ish), where there is a short period where there only the drums carry the tune and the other more melodic instruments are silent.

In other musical forms, percussion almost always remains as a supplement to the melody and harmony. It was a time keeper for the orchestra, or it could add some drama or exoticism to the melody/harmony. In chamber music, percussion was not even thought to be needed, and the largest, most baritone instrument would sometimes substitute if needed.

Of course with Charlie Parker, the saxophone dominates all else. However, it is egalitarian and shares the stage with, in this case, the piano and drums. Giving the piano a solo is logical since it has a limitless capacity of sounds. However, drums are monotonic and therefore, you are limited in pitch. I don’t think Parker really needs to include it. After all, he could have given us 30 extra seconds of his saxophone.

“Take the A Train” – A Harlem Odyssey // “Potato Head Blues”

This week’s pieces take us into a new style of music. Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” has us traveling very close by, through Harlem, in the 30s. The lively, fast-paced feeling of the song creates a melodic dancing ambiance. The piece has repeated notes in AABA form with a quick rhythm. Additionally, this song is mainly in consonance, as a contrast with the music from last week, which engaged the audience through its dissonance. The instruments to some degree incarnate the sounds of the train as described in the title. According to certain sources, the diminuendo at the end of the song symbolizes the rolling away of the train, while the brass instruments represent the train’s horns. The narrative of the train is developed through these many musical means.

Louis Armstrong’s beautiful composition, “Potato Head Blues”, is characterized by a stop-start rhythm, which is not found in “Take the A Train”, which has a continuous sound, without empty spaces. There is a very spontaneous feeling to this piece as it also has an enjoyable swing style, and a long solo. It is in a 4 meter just as Duke Ellington’s piece is and it’s short-long rhythm create a very vibrant ambiance.

Jazz is “Dance Music”

So far this semester, we have surveyed a variety of Western musical genres: monophonic religious plainchant from the Middle Ages, polyphonic religious hymns from the early Renaissance, operas, symphonies, chamber ensembles, and, now, jazz. All of these genres served a distinct social purpose: plainchant and polyphonic hymns were an integral part of Catholic mass; operas are secular musical dramas designed to amuse and entertain; symphonies are meant to entertain audience that has gathered in a concert hall for the explicit purpose of hearing Mozart’s “Jupiter”; and small chamber ensembles are generally used as background music at weddings and parties (at least, that’s what chamber music is used for today).

The majority of the music we have studied so far in class was composed for consumption by a stationary audience. We haven’t yet encountered “dance music” in this class—besides waltzes, which are decidedly different from jazz.  Jazz is the first Western musical genre we’ve discussed that is explicitly meant for dancing. Of course, you can listen to Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” or Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues” without dancing—but it’s difficult for me to remain completely stationary when I hear one of these upbeat jazz tunes. Even if I don’t jump to my feet and start dancing, I usually tap my feet or snap my fingers to the music.

Jazz music is “dance music”, because it’s constructed in a way that makes it easy to dance to. For example, “Take the A Train” is in duple meter; it has a consistent (and fast) tempo emphasized by a steady drum beat and cheerful plucked bass line; and its melody is repetitive. “Take the A Train” does not include any long pauses. The music does not grow incredibly quiet for thirty seconds and then suddenly become extremely loud (like in Mozart’s “Jupiter”). There is a consistent melodic theme throughout the song, though there are enough slight variations to the melody to prevent it from becoming tedious. And, perhaps most tellingly, the song is 2 minutes and 53 seconds long—which, coincidentally, is the longest amount of time I can dance energetically without suffering an exercise-induced asthma attack.

Take the A Train!

Maybe being in Jazz band when I was in high school has colored my perspective, but I much prefer watching videos of live performances to listening to meticulous recordings. There’s something to the improvisational spectacle that I find really captivating. A lot of that probably stems from my being painfully incapable of improve, but fortunately for me, very few jazz standards feature the bari sax. But I digress… After listening to Ellington’s “Take the A Train” several times, I managed to track down a recording from 1964 featuring Ernie Sheppard on vocals and bass.

What I think is really special about jazz, and what we haven’t really seen thus far in the semester, is that the forms are incredibly fluid. It’s not always about playing the right note or the right rhythm, but rather choosing to play with intention. This song, like many other standards, essentially uses a lot of the techniques that we’ve looked at in classical music. Much like the sonata, we are given a theme that is developed and returned to; however, the development is subject to the soloist – they can stray as far away from that theme as they like so long as they stay within the basic chord progression. In the Spotify recording we hear the trumpet soloist around 0:52 taking the main rhythm and melody and reinterpreting it, in particular this one pattern of long-short-long. Because he uses these motives, it still has a semblance of unity: it sounds like it belongs in the piece.

Potato Head Blues

This piece was an interesting diversion from the other types of music we have studied. The structure of this piece is ABCBA with the four deliminators at 0:39, 1:03, 1:45, and 2:34. The A segments have all instruments playing simultaneously. Despite the seeming musical chaos, the sounds blend quite nicely. It is also clear that two of the instruments make up the melody. The brassier trumpet seems to lead a softer brass instrument, and the other instruments harmonize. In the B section, the leading trumpet from section A is the clear soloist. The harmony is played by the piano and a lower-register brass instrument. The C section has the same instruments playing the harmony, but the melody is played by a higher-register brass instrument. In the transition from the C section to the second B section, a string instrument plays a short tune quietly.

In the second B section, the trumpet makes use of novel Jazz techniques between 2:15 and 2:34. The voice seems to call out and hang on to notes. The trumpet also uses this technique several times in the second A section. This technique is very expressive and makes the instrument seem like a man’s voice.

I would characterize the mood of the piece as consistently light-hearted, joyous, loud, simple, and relaxed. While these emotions are not particularly complex, they are expressed very clearly and strongly. I envision a family reunion in which the loud banter is interrupted by men telling stories in the B and C sections. The final section is a reconvening of all the voices of the family.

The piece is absent of dissonance and tension. Instead, it flows easily between sections and voices. It remains in a major key throughout, and the beat is given openly by the harmony. These features distinguish it from the past music we have studied and give it a ‘popular’ flavor.