The Avid Listener: Western Art Music

33 posts categorized "Western Art Music"

March 28, 2016

Temperamental Differences

Blake Howe (Louisiana State University)

In their lessons, violinists must train very hard to play “in tune.” Singers face the same challenge; some, fearful of sounding “pitchy,” might even use Auto-Tune to prevent mistakes in live performance. The slightest change in temperature and humidity can knock a piano “out of tune,” so concert halls usually hire a professional tuner to “retune” the instrument before each concert—a grueling process that can take hours.

To play or sing in tune is to match the pitch frequencies prescribed by a tuning system. Despite an infinite number of possible systems, for the past 200 years most Western musicians have used just one, called “equal temperament. Listeners have become so accustomed to the sound of equal temperament that its organization of pitch frequencies sounds normal, and a performer’s failure to match those frequencies produces music that sounds wrong. But equal temperament, much like the very concept of normality, is a product of its time and place. It reflects the politics of a culture that values consistency over variety, uniformity over difference—and, as we will learn, a prototypical nondisabled body over the extraordinary diversity of human morphology.

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March 21, 2016

America Goes to the Opera

Kristen M. Turner (North Carolina State University)

To many people, opera means expensive productions of long, melodramatic works composed more than a century ago and sung in a language other than English. The genre conjures up images of formally dressed, older audiences who have spent a small fortune on tickets to attend a performance in a regally appointed opera house in Manhattan or Paris. But opera is not always like this. A quick perusal of YouTube reveals smaller, sometimes student productions, which lack the elaborate scenery, large orchestral accompaniments, and beautiful costumes often associated with opera.

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February 29, 2016

Listening to Beethoven in and through The King’s Speech

Jonathan Godsall (Worcestershire, UK)

It is common for filmmakers to use pre-existing music, both within the stories of their films and as part of the narration of those stories (that is, both diegetically and non-diegetically). We can study these uses not only for what the music brings to the film, but also for what it takes away. A filmmaker’s use of pre-existing music is an interpretation of that music, which is then relayed to us, the film’s audience. Films can therefore influence how we listen to and think about music that might have already been very familiar.

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February 16, 2016

Coca-Cola Goes to the Opera: Lillian Nordica’s Celebrity Endorsements

Kristen M. Turner (North Carolina State University)

In 2013, Taylor Swift debuted a commercial for Diet Coke. The ad is a collage of shots that alternate between Swift composing her hit, “22,” and different fans in a series of mundane locations singing the tune. We hear Swift’s music, not as it appears on the radio, but as a union of her image and creativity, and the voices of regular Americans. A can of Diet Coke is always by Swift’s side, and the commercial ends with her walking on stage to perform the song. The message of the ad is clear—Diet Coke is hip, young, and inspires its users (like Swift) but is still perfect for regular folks who can only dream of a life similar to that led by the beautiful and youthful pop star.

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February 1, 2016

Music and Social Change on Downton Abbey

Carrie Allen Tipton (Houston, TX)

The first episode of the hyper-popular BBC series Downton Abbey used the 1912 sinking of the Titanic as shorthand for the aristocratic Crawley family’s sudden and jarring transition, not only into a new epoch of its own dynasty, but from the waning and comfortable Edwardian era into a strange and destabilizing phase of world history. Now, as the show enters its sixth and final season (extending into the late 1920s), Downton’s inhabitants muddle clumsily through changing gender roles, shifting economic landscapes, volatile global politics, and seismic shifts in England’s essentially medieval class system, which is crumbling at last. In compressing such an expansive story into so few seasons, the show relies heavily on music to highlight the central tension between inevitable social change and the corresponding reluctance of the British aristocracy to adjust. Roughly speaking, the show’s diegetic music emphasizes the forward impetus of historical change, while the non-diegetic music looks wistfully back in time. The result is a Janus-faced soundtrack to accompany what creator and writer Sir Julian Fellowes has described as a Janus-faced storyline, gazing into the past and future at the same time.

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Norton Music

A History of Western Music

J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca

The Enjoyment of Music

Kristine Forney, Andrew Dell’Antonio, and Joseph Machlis