Happy Moon Landing Day


Forty-nine years ago. This tribute is reposted from last year:


What makes this song great? Rick Beato on “Roundabout” by Yes

Music producer and multi-instrumentalist Rick Beato has a great series on YouTube where he picks apart — from a music theory as well as a studio techniques viewpoint — iconic rock and pop tracks. He uses either the original master tapes or artificial separates so he can illustrate individual vocal and instrumental parts and how they fit together. For illustration, he will demonstrate individual guitar and keyboard parts himself.

The series is very well worth watching, even if you don’t care for each and every song.

This time it’s the turn of one of my all-time favorites, Yes’s “Roundabout”.  Enjoy!

The myth of the starving composer

A friend of mine was told that, basically, “you’re not Beethoven and you’re never going to make a living at composing, so stop already. Besides, even Beethoven starved”. Aside from the proper answer being Sierra Tango Foxtrot Uniform or (in Yiddish) Golf Kilo Oscar Yankee, let’s address the enduring (and pernicious) myth of the starving artist/composer.
A writer https://goinswriter.com/die/ blogs about it here, particularly focusing on Michelangelo — whose fortune in today’s terms would have been in the millions.

The most damaging myths are always those with a grain of truth in them. It is undeniably true that few if any of the great composers of your were able to make a living directly and exclusively off composition — but that didn’t mean they starved, or that they could not make a living in music!

Let’s start with (to me) the greatest of them all, J. S. Bach. As explored in great detail in Christoph Wolff’s scholarly biography, the surviving financial evidence suggests Bach’s income stream made him solidly middle-class, or even upper middle class, by the standards of his day — and all of it was related to music. His main incomes were as an organist, then as a Kapellmeister (music director — the modern concept of a conductor emerged only later), then as the Thomaskantor (music director and assistant principal of the St. Thomas High School in Leipzig). Some of these jobs included composing duties — Bach wrote several years’ worth of weekly church cantatas.
He had respectable secondary incomes as a private keyboard tutor (for which he was in high demand), as what we would today call a “consultant” on church organ construction, and even as an agent for the Silbermann family of harpsichord and fortepiano builders. (The instrument he was representing them for was an early fortepiano — giving the lie to another myth, that playing Bach on the piano is somehow inappropriate.)
But would Bach have been able to feed and house his large family on intermittent composition commissions? Or from publishing his works? The economics of the day didn’t work that way. Copyright as we understand it today didn’t really exist. (Nor did the modern conception of plagiarism, by the way — composers borrowed thematic material from each other, from folk tunes,… as a matter of course.) Music printing was a laborious and costly process that involved engraving by hand on copper plates, and only a handful of Bach’s works were printed during his lifetime. (The Art of the Fugue appeared posthumously but Bach arranged for, and subsidized, the publication while he was still alive — he clearly intended this Mount Everest of absolute music to be his artistic testament.)

So could he live well? Yes. Could he live well off music? Yes. Could he live solely from composition? No, but the very concept of a full-time composer did not exist in the day.

But what about Mozart, you say? Mozart actually made quite a bit of money off music. He had wealthy admirers, he was a keyboard virtuoso since childhood, staged operas that not only will endure when today’s richest Broadway composer will have been forgotten but were popular in their day,… and indeed ghostwrote music for wealthy would-be composers. (This is the true origin of the “Requiem” story. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_von_Walsegg) On the flip side, he was a spendthrift and thus perennially in debt, though his fortunes appeared to have turned around when he caught what appears to have been [http://doi.org/10.7326/0003-4819-151-4-200908180-00010] a streptococcal infection and died — again, there was no king or queen safe from that at the time.

Beethoven, to greater or lesser degree, was able to live primarily off composition. Despite his by all accounts volcanic temper and cantankerous personality, he had rich admirers. But crucially, as discussed e.g. in Jan Swofford’s biography, he would subsidize his “serious” output with volumes of song transcriptions and “bagatelles” (short, easy, inventive piano pieces playable by amateurs) that his publisher would pay good money for. Yes, even that “artiste’s artiste” would write unabashedly for the masses sometimes! (It is a measure of Beethoven’s genius, to me second only to Bach, that even these throwaway pieces contain some real gems of invention.)

Liszt gained fame and fortune as a legendary piano virtuoso (a “rock star” of his day whose “groupies” engaged in embarrassing displays) before retiring to focus full-time on composition of works more profound than the flashy showpieces he had written for his own use. Chopin, aside from a concert pianist, taught piano lessons to the rich and famous of his day for what are princely fees by any standard. Mahler never gained the esteem he has now as a composer during his lifetime, but held one of the most prestigious conductor positions of the day. (That he had to convert from Judaism to Roman Catholicism to get it is another story.) Bruckner, whose symphonies I have only recently started appreciating, enjoyed fame as an organist during his lifetime. The list is endless.

In fact, until the modern era, the performer and/or practical music educator was the norm among composers, and the full-time composer the exception. Pianist and organist Anthony Newman, in an interview in Keyboard Magazine that I read as a teenager, actually argued that classical music started becoming a sterile art form precisely when composers were no longer primarily performers.[*]

As we have seen above, the “starving artists” weren’t all that starving (some, like Handel, indeed got rich); the Great Composers, for the most part, were professional performers first; and the Professional Composer is a comparatively recent phenomenon that coincidentally (?) coincides with the decline of classical music as a living art form.

We are now living in an era where skilled amateurs can put their music, writings, or other creative works in front of a global audience for comparatively modest investments. The challenge now has shifted to bringing it to the attention of people, to make it stand out from the crowd. Conventional agents and publishing houses are increasingly becoming redundant or even irrelevant to the process, though I can see the role of a publicist transforming, rather than disappearing.
However, the “YouTube/SoundCloud economy”, where you compete less for money and for people’s attention and time, in some ways will be an interesting throwback to aspects of yesteryear’s composers. Bands today often don’t make any real money off albums due to illicit downloading and the overheads of legacy record labels — it is in live shows that the real money is nowadays, as people are clearly still willing to shell out money for “the live experience”. Had Bach or Handel lived today, they would probably each have millions of followers on YouTube (and have millions of people illegally downloading their music) — but Handel got rich staging his own operas and oratorios then, and would likely have to do so now. Bach would likely be able to travel in style from one sold-out-in-hours gig to the next — but he likely would be touring if he wanted more money than a faculty appointment could provide. Of course, once they got famous in our fictional world, a billionaire with good musical taste would be willing to bankroll them, but I can’t see Handel giving up the stage. Bach perhaps, because as much as he loved the good life, this deeply religious man ultimately wrote for an audience of One.

I would counsel my friend to “Keep calm and carry on”.

[*] The case of Jean-Philippe Rameau is somewhat peculiar. He first gained recognition as a music theorist (his Treatise on Harmony is a milestone in the field to this day) and considered himself a music scholar first and foremost. But he worked as a church organist for over two decades after succeeding his father, and ultimately gained fame as an opera and ballet composer, conducting his own works. Ironically, the greater ease of printing a book (rather than sheet music) in the age before digital typesetting may have contributed to his early reputation.

Teaching the modes of the diatonic scale: another tack

I have made several attempts to explain the concept of musical modes to people unfamiliar with music theory. (This is not some arcane concept from medieval church music: folk, jazz, rock, pop, and even metal often delve into modes.) The video above, by “Signals Music Studio”, takes another tack and keeps it accessible.

If the Greek names are confusing to you, it may be helpful to just number them by the diatonic step that is the tonic (“home note”). [I personally used to number them by the number of flats they had in C, which is equivalent to numbering along the circle of fifths rather than by diatonic steps.] Thus you get:

  1. natural major mode (Ionian, classical major scale)
  2. “minor-lite” mode (Dorian)
  3. “uber-minor” mode (Phrygian)
  4. “uber-major” mode (Lydian)
  5. “major-lite” mode (Mixolydian, folk major scale, bagpipe scale)
  6. natural minor (Aeolian, modal minor scale, descending melodic minor scale)
  7. diminished (Locrian; not really used much because its tonic chord doesn’t even have a perfect fifth)

The Signals guy picks out “the characteristic note” of each: the note most keen to ‘resolve’, so to speak. That would be (assuming the tonic is C below):

  1. major/Ionian: the lead tone (B) which is a major seventh that wants to resolve to the octave.
  2. minor-lite/Dorian: the major sixth (A) which sets it apart from natural minor.
  3. uber-minor/Phrygian: the flattened second (Db)
  4. uber-major/Lydian: the augmented fourth (F#)
  5. major-lite/Mixolydian: the flattened seventh (Bb)
  6. natural minor: the flattened sixth (Ab)
  7. Locrian: the flattened fifth (Gb)

Note that, when improvising and unsure which mode the other players are in, the ‘poor man’s substitute’ of a minor pentatonic will work  with all three modes 2,3,6 (Dorian, Phrygian, natural minor), while a major pentatonic can fit all three modes 1,4,5 (natural major, Lydian, and Mixolydian)

Of course, the ‘flavor’ each mode has is intimately connected with the chords it implies. If you go by the major/minor character of the “three main chords” I (tonic), IV (subdominant), and V (dominant):

  1. natural major: C, F, G major triads
  2. Dorian: Cm, F, Gm.   Note that both tonic (I) and dominant (V) are minor, while the subdominant (IV) is major. Note also the major chords on the flattened seventh and third: countless rock riffs exploit cadences like Cm-Bb-Eb-Cm or Cm-Bb-F-Eb
  3. Phrygian: Cm, Fm, Gm. Note the characteristic major chord on the flattened second: cadences like Cm-Db just write themselves
  4. Lydian: C, F#dim, G. The most archetypical cadence in Lydian is however I-II
  5. Mixolydian: C, F, Gm. The major chord on the flattened seventh step just begs to be used, though, and you naturally get cadences like (in E) E-D-A/C# (AC/DC’s “Back In Black”)  or (in G) G-C-F-C (Rolling Stones, “Honky Tonk Woman”).
  6. Aeolian: like Phrygian, all three of the I-IV-V chords are minor. But here the IIIb, VIb, and VIIb are the major chords, so cadences like C-Bb-Ab follow naturall

Note that in common practice harmony as practiced in Western classical music, the minor chord on the dominant was more or less verboten, which led to the development of a melodic minor scale (often explained as ‘sixth and seventh not flattened when the melody ascends’) such that the dominant chord could be major. Throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods, it was still considered dissonant to end a piece on a major chord, so the final tonic chord of a piece would be turned major (a “Picardian third” as this was then known).

5/4: Dave Brubeck Day

Dave Brubeck’s probably best-known composition is the instrumental “Take Five” (for non-native English speakers: colloquial expression for “take a five-minute break”). Like the rest of the album “Time Out” (the first-ever jazz album to go platinum), it explores odd time signatures: in this case, 5/4.

Some jazz aficionados and music geeks, therefore, mark May 4 (or 5/4 in the US abbreviated date convention) as “Dave Brubeck Day”. Herewith, an original video of his quartet performing the composition.


Here’s to Dave. Take five!


Classical crossover delight: “Five” by Tony Banks

Tony Banks, keyboardist of Genesis for their entire existence and one of the band’s chief songwriters, just released a new album of orchestral compositions, “Five”. Somewhat unusually, he released videos of all five tracks on the album on his official YouTube channel. I posted earlier “Prelude to a Million Years” when it was released as a teaser: below are the remaining four pieces.

This is the third orchestral neoclassical album by Banks, and to me the strongest. Echoes of instrumental Genesis passages and of his own solo work are there, to be sure — but also of English Romantic composers (particularly Vaughan Williams), of Ravel, and of Rachmaninoff, plus film composers.

As a bonus, here is my favorite track from his first orchestral album. “Black Down” (named after a geographic feature near his home) was originally written for keyboard (string synthesizer) and then transcribed for orchestra.


“Wait for me, Saloniki”

Yacov “Jako” Philo was born in Thessaloniki — Greece’s fascinating symprotevousa (“co-capital”), onetime secondary capital of the Byzantine Empire, and for 450 years home to the world’s largest Sephardic Jewish community.

In 1943, Eichmann’s henchmen deported nearly the entire community to Auschwitz. Less than 4% survived. One of them was Jako — who immigrated to Israel, where his grandson, Kobi “Jacko” Paz, is now a musician.[*]

Another, more famous, Israeli musician born to Greek Holocaust survivors is Yehuda Poliker. Many years ago, he released a Hebrew version of a Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) song his father and fellow survivors would sing to each other.

Below is Kobi Paz’s recent re-recording, together with the Hebrew lyrics and my English translation. The city is referred to by its Ladino name, Saloniki

Soon this year, Israel will celebrate its 70th birthday. The Jews of Thessaloniki had, prior to the Shoah, only very limited encounters with hardcore judeophobia, and had indeed been a majority or plurality in the “Jerusalem of the Balkan” for over 400 years. Their fate is a reminder why, no matter how safe Jews feel elsewhere, we needed and need a country of our own.


עוד גבול אחד, עוד נצח זמן
חכי לי, סלוני

רבה הדרך ליוון
חכי לי, סלוניקי

שוטט הלב, קפוא הדם
בשלג של גרמניה
כולם כולם אבדו לי שם
בלאגר בפולניה

חיוורי פנים, שרידי חיים
פליטי מסע המוות
בלויי טלאים הנה באים
לבכות ברחובותייך

החופש בא, אביב חדש
קרוב אני אלייך
כצל דהוי בגוף חלש
אבוא בשערייך

One more border, one more eternity
Wait for me, Thessaloniki
Long is the way to Greece
Wait for me, Thessaloniki

The heart roams, frozen in blood
In the snow of Germany
Everyone was lost to me there
In the “Lager” in Poland

Pale faces, remnants of life
Refugees of the Death March
Wearing patches, here they come
To cry in your streets

Freedom comes, a new spring
I’m close to you
Like a faded shadow in a weak body
I’ll come to your gates

[*] “Kobi” and “Jacko” are both nicknames for Ya`aqov/Jacob. Unlike the Ashkenazi tradition where children are named to honor deceased relatives, Sephardic tradition is to honor living grandparents in this manner.