Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Of iTunes, Streaming, and Thrift Shop Finds

A gramophone. The binary text in the caption says "gramophone".

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Apple has announced that it will be discontinuing iTunes on Apple devices.  For the moment, iTunes will remain untouched in the Windows environment.  You can read about the change in this Apple press release about the new Catalina OS.  You might also find this CNET article of interest.  Apple users will still have access to all of their music, but will reach it through the Apple Music app.  You do not have to subscribe to the Apple Music streaming service to access your existing collection, and the iTunes Store will still exist to purchase music.  The decommissioning of iTunes follows the trend of more people using streaming services to access music.  Also, iTunes has been criticized as it has evolved from its earlier sleeker form.

If any of you find this upcoming change uncomfortable, you might want to check out my survey of music management software for Apple and Windows devices.  There are a variety of solutions available (many free) for managing your music library.  Also, here is a previous post on streaming services.

In the meantime, you still have all of your digital music on your computer.  As with any digital data, I would advise readers to keep their music media in several locations.  I learned this the hard way after a hard drive failure, followed shortly thereafter by an external drive failure.  My mistake was to have data in only one operational device—which then failed.  Fortunately, only a small amount of data was lost; unfortunately, this included a couple years of photographs.  Yeah, you don’t want that to happen.

So how do you avoid that?  External drives have been dropping in price and are very portable, so if you can afford one, having one wouldn’t hurt.  Also, microSD cards, the size of your fingernail, now have capacities that can handle even large music libraries.  You might also decide to back up your music to the cloud, for example, with Amazon Music, Google Play Music, or iCloud.

Do be aware, however, that if you “upload” your music library to iCloud, Amazon Music, or Google Play Music and play it from there, you may not actually be hearing your copy of your music.  To save space, these services match your track to an existing track in their system, and use that one instead.  Otherwise, they might be storing millions of copies of, say, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  To hear your copy, you would need to back your music up to a service like Dropbox or OneDrive, or the like, that doesn’t have its own music database (but you will probably have to pay a fee for storage if you have more than a small music collection).

One of the reasons streaming services are appealing is that this pesky maintenance issue goes away.  For a small monthly fee, you don’t have to worry about losing your music, or getting scratches on your CDs (or vinyl) and you have access to a vast library (as long as you keep paying).  You will always have a pristine copy anywhere you go (as long as you have an internet connection).

You also don’t have to physically store music in “pre-digital” form.  More than one article I’ve read recently has declared the CD dead.  Many computers no longer have drives that can play CDs; some tablets no longer have USB ports to hook up an external DVD drive or hard drive (digitally, you can still usually accommodate a microSD card, especially in phones).  The inexorable force that moved us from VHS to DVD, from LP to 8-track to cassette to CD is now nudging us toward the cloud.

The other day, I was wandering through a local thrift shop and stopped to look at the CDs and LPs.  For those of you for whom these are not extinct formats (and who have room for them) there are wonderful bargains to be found, as people digitize and divest themselves of physical media.  And in fact, I found LP box sets of Wanda Landowska playing Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Vol. 1 and 2.  Each box set contained three LPs—all were in perfect condition.  I paid 99 cents for each box set (about the cost of buying one digital track).

LP box sets of Wanda Landowska playing Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, priced 99 cents

I lowered the needle on the record, and clear analog sound streamed forth.  Twenty-some minutes later, I had to get up and flip the record.

Or I could have listened on YouTube.

The choice is yours.

 

 

 

 


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Bach and Awe

J. S. Bach

Every now and then, I listen to Bach, and as the music starts, and I start to hear the melody lines interweave, I think, “You know, I think I’m starting to get this.” And then Bach throws in three more lines, ramps up the speed, and I realize something:

I’m not even close.

It’s very much the same feeling you might get when you’re learning a foreign language, and you decide to test your newfound skill with a native speaker.  And your methodical elementary-school-level bid is met joyfully with a flood of fluency, the torrent of a mountain stream, water flowing over and around rocks, streams combining in ways that leave one wondering where one begins and another ends.  Itisveryhardtounderstandwhenyoudon’tknowwherethewordsactuallyend.

The same goes for Bach.  When those melodic lines start to intertwine, you can try to follow them, and you catch a glimpse of one every now and then as it goes by, but it is really tough to grasp everything that is going on.

I was listening to Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1 (BWV 1052), and immediately had to listen to it again to try to figure out what was going on, it was so good.  The first movement begins simply enough as Bach states his theme.  Ah, but then, the keyboard and orchestra begin stating the theme individually, and the keyboard adds a rippling line, and here the water image is particularly apt, as the strings and keyboard take turns surging forward then receding.  If you want to hear it and follow the score, you can do so here.

This video provides a balanced, and amazingly fast, performance of the first movement.

Another fascinating video puts the keyboard in a more prominent role, this time with Glenn Gould at piano and Leonard Bernstein conducting.  The performance begins at 5:08, but Bernstein’s introductory remarks about the performance of music that bears few interpretative markings may be of interest as well.

Ok, so now we reach the second movement.  And one would expect the same sort of interplay of instruments and lines.  You know, predicting, because you’re starting to get this.

Not even close.

Bach pulls the rug out from under your feet, beginning the second movement with an extended statement, everyone playing the same note (within the particular octave their instrument plays).  It then develops into a thought-filled, deeply expressive, one might even say somber, melody.

The liveliness of the first movement returns in the third movement, and it is classic Bach.

And yet.

There are moments, something in the strings, that seems to reach forward in time toward the Classical era.

And that’s the stunning thing with Bach.  Every now and then, you come across a phrase, and there is foreshadowing of music yet to come.  It’s there, little glimpses of the future, and yet, it’s undeniably Bach.

One more thing.  Here’s the kicker about the keyboard concerto.  Most experts say that he put it together from earlier works, probably a violin concerto, judging by the violin-like features, and there’s some direct copying from earlier cantatas.

As stunning as it is, it’s just a reworking of stuff he already wrote.

And that’s the Bach and awe of it all.

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References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keyboard_concertos_by_Johann_Sebastian_Bach

https://www.laphil.com/philpedia/music/keyboard-concerto-d-minor-bwv-1052-johann-sebastian-bach


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Haiku Wednesday: Telemann, Newton, and Roy G. Biv Walk into a Concert…

A_caricature_of_Louis-Bertrand_Castel's_-ocular_organ-

Color joins music
The ocular harpsichord
The world’s first light show.

After the recent excitement about the discovery of a lost work by Telemann, I couldn’t resist this story, which I read in an entertaining article by Becky Ferreira.

Turns out, Telemann also wrote several pieces for the ocular harpsichord.

Wait…the what?  Ok, settle in for a slightly convoluted story.

It’s hard to believe that there once was a time when people didn’t know how colors worked, but it’s true.  The laws of physics governing them hadn’t been worked out yet.  People were coming up with all kinds of theories, and Isaac Newton decided to throw his hat in the ring too.  Maybe he shouldn’t have, what with the apple and all; or maybe the theory came after that alleged apple assault (actually it did; his Principia Mathematica that discussed gravity came out in 1687.  As a further side note, a piece of Newton’s apple tree escaped Earth’s gravity briefly in 2010).

Anyway, in his 1704 work Opticks, Newton presented his theory of colors.  He also related the seven colors you see in a prism (or a rainbow; hence the Roy G. Biv) to musical notes, the seven notes in the diatonic scale.  Here Newton used the Dorian scale, the white notes on a piano starting with D.  Newton theorized that the spectrum of colors and the diatonic scale used the same ratios.

Newton's_color_circle

As it turns out, Newton didn’t get it quite right (but I think we can cut him some slack, given the whole gravity thing, and calculus).  But his theory generated a lot of excitement and discussion (for more on historical discussions of color and music, read this).

The French mathematician Louis Bertrand Castel, inspired by Newton’s theory, souped up a harpsichord, adding sixty lanterns with different colors whose light would be shown when specific notes were pressed.  Castel said, “the pressing of the keys would bring out the colors with their combinations and their chords; in one word, with all their harmony, which would correspond exactly to that of any kind of music.” (Franssen, via Ferreira).

Sadly, the only image of the ocular harpsichord, also called the color organ, is one that lampoons the device (shown above).

Enter Telemann (finally).  Telemann saw the ocular harpsichord while he was in Paris, and penned a description of the device.  He also was inspired to write several pieces of music for it.  Sadly, I could not find those specific pieces—I wanted to see how chromatic they were (sorry! couldn’t resist).

While the ocular harpsichord has not survived, the idea of combining light, color, and music certainly has, providing a new avenue to interpret the tonal colors of music.

Here is John Adams’s Harmonium, as visualized on the face of Usher Hall, Edinburgh.

 

With thanks to my friend Louis B. for referring me to the Ferreira article.

References

Becky Ferreira, “Behold the Ocular Harpsichord, the Laser Light Show of the 18th Century”, Motherboard, 16 November 2015.  http://motherboard.vice.com/read/behold-the-ocular-harpsichord-the-laser-light-show-of-the-18th-century

Maarten Franssen, The Ocular Harpsichord of Louis-Bertrand Castel, http://www.tbm.tudelft.nl/fileadmin/Faculteit/TBM/Over_de_Faculteit/Afdelingen/Afdeling_Values_and_Technology/sectie_filosofie/medewerkers/Maarten_Franssen/doc/OcuHarpsCastel.pdf

Isaac Newton, Opticks, 1704, Book I, Part II, Proposition VI, Problem 2

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Image attribution

Castel’s ocular harpsichord, characactured by Charles Germain de Saint Aubin, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AA_caricature_of_Louis-Bertrand_Castel’s_%22ocular_organ%22.jpgNewton’s color wheel.

Color wheel.  Isaac Newton, Opticks [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Newton%27s_color_circle.png