Tag Archives: music

Polyphony

A bewigged quartet of musicians I drew for my pals at the good ol’ Renaissance & Baroque Society of Pittsburgh some years ago. Did Alcuin have any idea his invention would eventually come to this?

It wasn’t long before musicians figured out they could use notation to write several tunes into the same song: tunes that harmonize with or play against the main tune and enrich it. This is called polyphony.

Alcuin’s invention makes it possible to write fugues and symphonies and operas with parts for an entire orchestra of musical instruments and many human voices. Other cultures nowadays may write and perform symphonies, but they couldn’t do it without Alcuin and Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire.

Here are a couple of quick explanations of how musical notation works:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZN41d7Txcq0
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFaKNR7eeJk
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyphony
https://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/dec/17/polyphonic-music-fragment-origins-rewritten
Mediæval music manuscripts are a lovely combination of lettering and notes. https://sites.google.com/a/umich.edu/from-tablet-to-tablet/final-projects/music-in-medieval-manuscripts
https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=44459
Here are the Mediæval Bæbes to show us what the Middle Ages sounded like—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXrdfTSLWCY
Likewise Carlo Gesualdo (he’s the composer; I can’t find who performed the Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday in this recording)—
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YjXQeuO0fLw
You sure can’t beat the Tallis Scholars—
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4VoKso5ERI
Girls could play the game, too. In the 1100s, divinely-inspired Sister Hildegard von Bingen created this music—
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YTOiJ-zjP0
Eventually (ad 1700s—see the sketch above) we got Johanne Sebastian Bach writing stuff like this. I believe the bottom staff has the main tune while the top staff has all the deedle-deedle-deedle (I don’t know how to read music so maybe a musically-literate reader can help me out): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCL5Zvnt0TU
A couple centuries later—you can hear and see the different lines of music played here, in Khachaturian’s gorgeous adagio from Spartacus (this piece brings me to tears every time): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXsDsLHasWo
Here’s what 20th-century New York City sounded like. This is a 1940s Hollywood recreation of the 1924 debut of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, but that sure looks like Paul Whiteman at the podium. The piano plays the main tune; the orchestra plays the variations. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAuTouBhN5k

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Alcuin solves the problem

This guy, Alcuin. Not only did he run Charlemagne’s palace school, standardize calligraphy throughout the Holy Roman Empire, invent punctuation (like the question mark), set up the way Latin ought to be pronounced in church—he invented musical notation, too.

It got under Charlemagne’s skin that the Empire’s churches and monasteries sang the same hymns but each church gave a hymn a different tune. Charlemagne was relentless in his campaign to standardize everything. He put Alcuin in charge of making sure every choir sang the same tune. So Alcuin invented musical notation.



Musical notation was meant simply to record the tune of a song. Each note represents a particular pitch, depending on where it sits on a scale. The scale is horizontal lines—it’s a frame of reference. Notes at the top of the scale are sung higher than notes at the bottom of the scale. Thanks to Alcuin, choirs throughout the Empire knew exactly what tune to sing just by looking at the written musical notes.

Here are a couple of quick explanations of how musical notation works:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZN41d7Txcq0
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFaKNR7eeJk

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Same words, different tune

Charlemagne had a problem. He had an empire full of churches and no two of them sang a hymn the same way. They knew the words, but it was tough to remember the tune for every hymn. Remember, there was often a lot of distance between churches. Communication of words was made easier with the standardization of writing. Tunes you had to memorize. Maybe by the time a monk got from one church to another he might forget the tunes to all the hymns and te Deums and requiems and responsories. So they made ‘em up. One church might sing a hymn to a particular tune:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60euxXvw5aA
And another church would sing the same hymn but with an entirely different tune:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0EN_Hmq534

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

 

Please hold while I speed-read through Gibbon

Yes, yes, I know—I’m late with today’s post. I’m working on it! I’m giving Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire my patented Western-Lit-In-Only-One-Sentence ® treatment. Six volumes is taking a little longer than I thought it would. To keep my devoted readers happy while you wait, I thoughtfully provide you with links to some Roman Empire hold-music:

Here’s the mighty Miklós Rózsa’s music for the movie Ben Hur (he gets what the Roman Empire should sound like. Switching from triumphal thundering brass and drums to those foreign-oriental minor discordant bits; I don’t even read music but I know this is just right)—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmoWJ4R8c-E
Here’s Miklós Rózsa again with music for Quo Vadis—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3snEHuUV4Y
Here’s Dimitri Tiomkin’s music for The Fall Of The Roman Empire (it’s okay, it’s epic, but doesn’t sound Roman Empirey enough for me)—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lMe8HKopNLE
Here is Stephen Sondheim’s dead-on parody of Rózsa’s epic music. It’s from A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLgOrvsA9tw

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Homer starts the Vowel Movement


We speak by letting air flow from our lungs and through our vocal cords, located deep in our throats.

The Phoenician abjad was all consonants. A consonant is a hard sound you make in your mouth by closing off the air flow from your lungs. You make ‘D’ or ‘T’ by pressing your tongue to the roof of your mouth then releasing air. You make ‘K’ by closing the back of your mouth, then releasing air. Close your lips then pop ‘em open to make ‘P.’ Every consonant is made by closing the air flow in your mouth, then releasing it. To make ‘H, R, W & Y’ you don’t cut off air flow completely, but you do restrict it by a lot. You push a sudden gust of air out to say ‘hey.’ You lips and mouth tighten up to say ‘roo woo yay.’

On the other hand, vowel sounds are made by keeping your mouth open and letting the air flow freely. You adjust the shape of your open mouth to make ‘A, E, I, O & U.’

‘Y’ can be a vowel or a consonant.

Homer needed vowels to compose and recite poetry because a vowel can be extended over more than one beat. Try singing this without vowels: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbrnXl2gO_k

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IuQ63QlJIMY

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Homer busts a dactyl


My pal Jeffrey K asked me about the Odyssey post: “Did Homer write it or rap it?” I said, “Both! He had to keep to a meter.”

The blind Greek poet Homer wrote and recited or sang the Odyssey. Rap music is sung poetry, or at least it’s spoken over a musical beat. In both cases the poetry needs to stick to a meter.

A meter is the rhythm of a poem. Each line of a poem gets a precise amount of syllables. Homer’s epics are written and recited in dactylic hexameter. Hexameter means six ‘feet’ in each line. Each foot is a dactyl: one long and 2 short syllables. Boom-diddy. Boom-diddy, boom-diddy, boom-diddy, boom-diddy, boom-diddy, boom-diddy is kind of repetitive so Homer mixed it up by sometimes making the last foot 2 long syllables or sitting a long word over 2 feet or replacing the 2 short syllables with a long one.

The poet is the only person who needs to know this technical stuff. When you read or hear a good poem you’re aware that it’s satisfying to listen to. When you read classic poetry you’re aware of a rhythm that lures you into that world. A rapper recites a poem and emphasizes different syllables to play with or against the accompanying music, but the poem still sticks to a meter, its rhythm.

Poetry raises language from a means of communicating to an art form.

Why am I telling you this? Because if you’re going to write poetry in dactylic hexameter, it’ll be nearly impossible to do without vowels. You need vowels to extend a syllable. You need vowels to divide a word into syllables. And the Phoenician abjad didn’t have vowels.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dactylic_hexameter
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/rhythm
Dactyl means ‘finger’ in Greek.
https://video.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?fr=yhs-trp-001&ei=UTF-8&hsimp=yhs-001&hspart=trp&p=rapper%27s+delight+lyrics&type=Y143_F163_201897_121020#id=1&vid=d7b5953b49a56c301fdde7d113c23d0b&action=click

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

32,768 oscillations per second

When you hit a tuning fork against something it vibrates, giving a specific musical note.

We learned that a digital clock is regulated by measuring how many times a quartz crystal oscillates per second—32,768 times. How does it count all those vibrations so quickly? Here’s how: the crystal is purposely cut with a laser to exactly the size and shape (the shape of a tuning fork) that will produce 32,768 oscillations in a second, then stop.* The electric circuit zaps the crystal with electricity, which makes the crystal vibrate until it returns to its original shape. When the vibrating stops, exactly one second has passed. The stopped vibrations trigger the circuit to move the second hand and give the crystal another zap.

The same principle applies in animated entertainment for children. The mouse hits the cat, who oscillates for a second, then resumes his former shape.

Here’s how a tuning fork works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hW-igtIn3A8

Basics of LC oscillators and their measurement


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

* “Because 32768Hz can be so conveniently divided to give a 1 second pulse, it is a very popular size for it to be cut to. Manufacturers can bang them out and be sure they will sell.” https://www.quora.com/Why-does-Quartz-vibrate-exactly-32768-2-15-times-per-second

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

Jim Morrison

Here is the second in a series of three images for the Pittsburgh Public Theater‘s season brochure—specifically for the world premiere of L’Hôtel, a new comedy by Ed Dixon. The cast is stars from the recent and distant past. Yesterday I showed you Sarah Bernhardt. Here is Jim Morrison—sketches and final painting. I can’t seem to find work-in-progress photos for this one. I must have forgotten to take them. You’ll notice that instead of thumbnail sketches I’ve done gesture sketches of these characters. I was trying to capture their attitude as well as likeness.

By the way, this painting and the two others will be on display at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh Alumni Show which opens this Friday evening.

UPDATE! The final color painting is up for auction on eBay this week (November 17-23, 2014). It’s beautifully framed and ready to hang.

Loud art poster

I don’t think I ever posted this—it’s a poster I designed for an exhibit of music-related art at the Graffiti Gallery here in the National Transit Building in early 2013. I was without a camera at the time and took these in-progress photos with my cell phone. I finally uploaded them to my computer. Enjoy!

Renaissance & Baroque musical instruments

I had it in mind to create some note cards with these images.  Never got around to it.