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 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. 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 [] 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.

Karl Richter (1971) conduct Bach’s Matthäuspassion BWV 244


It is Passover for us Jews and the Easter holiday weekend for Christians of the Western Communion. (Orthodox Christian Easter is in another week this year.)

The way in which Karl Richter conducted Bach’s immortal Matthew Passion, BWV 244, would nowadays be considered “Romantic”, and “not historically authentic”. Yet for sheer musical and expressive power, it has rarely been equaled.

Here is the full movie of the 1971 performance on YouTube (featuring tenor Peter Schreier as the evangelist):

A short biography of this amazing Bach performer can be read here. I had no idea that he was offered the position of Thomaskantor in Leipzig — musical director of the St. Thomas Church, the selfsame position Bach held! — at the age of only 30, but that he declined it on the grounds that (a) he felt 30 years too young to bear the weight of such a position; (b) he had built up an excellent ensemble in Munich and did not want to abandon it. Unspoken was probably (c) having fled the East German dictatorship with a single attaché case and the clothes on his back, he surely had no desire to move back there, even in a privileged position.

People would wonder about the punishing workload Richter subjected himself to. His parents both having died young, he apparently suspected the same would be his own fate and said “my time is now — we Richters don’t live long”. Indeed, he died in his mid-fifties of a heart attack while preparing for an upcoming concert tour.

Let Bach and Richter’s music speak for itself. Enjoy and happy Passover or Easter, as applicable!

Bach Day post

Today, J. S. Bach would have been 333 years old. In honor of the day, this organ piece.

A “Toccata” in Bach’s day was a virtuosic type of prelude with somewhat improvisational character—the word comes from the Italian verb ‘toccare’, which means both ‘to touch’ and ‘to play [a musical instrument]’. Bach actually wrote two “Toccata and Fugue” pairs in D minor: the extremely familiar BWV 565 with its stark musical contrasts, and the misnamed “Dorian Toccata and Fugue” BWV 538 with its driving perpetual motion in the toccata. It is actually in D minor rather than D dorian, but the (in the modern era) unusual notation without a key signature led to the erroneous nickname.

Below is a scrolling-score video — the audio is a performance by the great French organist Michel Chapuis, in standard pitch. Enjoy!


Roman numeral analysis, and “four chords that made a million”

[No, I’m not dead yet — just absolutely snowed under in my day job. Here is a little blog post to keep the blog alive.]

Anybody who has ever played off a jazz lead sheet or ‘fake book’ is familiar with chord symbols like G (G major triad), Cm (C minor triad), D7 (D dominant seventh), G/D (G major triad with a D in the bass), and the like.

One ‘abstraction level’ above is the so-called ‘Roman numeral analysis’ which is found in music theory texts, particularly classical ones. It considers not the absolute chords but their relative position (and diatonic function) in the scale. For example, a 12-bar major blues in G corresponds to the progression G-C-G-D-C , and in C# to C#-F#-C#-G#-F#, but in Roman numeral notation, both would be I-I-IV-I-V-IV in their respective keys. Likewise, a minor blues would be i-i-iv-i-v-iv regardless of the key it is in.[*]

The system was invented by the eccentric classicist composer and music theoretician (teacher of Carl Maria von Weber) in the late 1700s. It is not a system that comes naturally to people with absolute pitch (since the same progression in different keys really sounds different to us) but it is an excellent ‘meta’ tool for describing commonalities between what may be very different compositions. Effectively, it is a form of notation that stresses function (as in ‘functional harmony’) — tonic (I), mediant (III), subdominant (IV), dominant (V), etc.

As already seen in the blues example above, major chords are indicated by uppercase Roman numerals, and minor chords by lowercase ones. Seventh, ninth,… chords take digit qualifiers just like in conventional chord notation, e.g., i9, Vb9, etc. A ‘+’ and a ‘°’ indicate augmented and diminished chords, respectively.

Inversions are indicated by suffixes like Ib (tonic, 2nd inversion) and V7d (dominant, third inversion) although I personally find  the ‘b’ confusing due to its similarity to a ‘flat’ sign and prefer I/V and V7/IV, respectively. (In C major, these would correspond to C/G and G7/F, respectively)

Finally, out-of-scale chords are prefixed by accidentals # and ♭. For example, a Neapolitan chord in a piece otherwise in a minor scale would be written♭II

Rick Beato has a video here about ‘the four chords that killed pop music’.

What he really means is the progression I-vi-IV-V and its permutations like vi-IV-I-V, which some producers seem to think are nearly a prerequisite for hit singles. In Rick’s video, you can hear a plethora of examples in a wide variety of keys and styles (what do Taylor Swift and Iron Maiden otherwise have in common?! Or the choruses of Roxette’s ‘Listen To Your Heart’ and The Beatles’s ‘Let It Be’?). At a higher abstraction level, all of them boil down to just that pattern I-vi-IV-V, straight up or rearranged.

To be sure, if one is willing to escape the tyranny of simple triads and power chords, even I-vi-IV-V can be made interesting… And if one is not (e.g., because on a distorted guitar more complex chords quickly get muddy), then changing the scale to a more exotic one helps…

For instance, here is a video touting the Mixolydian mode as the ‘secret sauce’ of AC/DC

Leaving aside that AC/DC, while fun to play, is hardly a model of musical sophistication: What is he talking about? Let’s compare the diatonic triads on the major scale with those on the Mixolydian scale (more correctly: the Mixolydian mode[*]):

major (Ionian):   I – ii – iii – IVV – vi – vii°

Mixolydian: I – ii – iii° – IV – v – vi – VII

Yes, the major triads in the major scale are the familiar tonic, subdominant, and dominant — but the mixolydian one has them on tonic, subdominant, and leading tone! This automatically invites riffs like A-A-A….D-D-G…D-D-G-D-D-G-D-A-A (“Highway To Hell”) or E–D-A/C# (“Back In Black”), or …

They also use the Dorian mode fairly freely (“Hells’ Bells”, “Shot Down In Flames”,..)

Dorian: i – ii – ♭III – IV – v – vi° – VII

Now the Mixolydian and Dorian modes are, of course, very common in Anglo(-American) folk music — but yes, much of the character of different scales and modes derives from the chords progressions they generate. I will elaborate in this in a future post. Meanwhile, here are the biting observations of one of my musical heroes, Steven Wilson, on the music industry:

[*] The “Nashville number system” used by some country and gospel singers (including by Elvis Presley’s backup singers the Jordanaires) is a variant that uses Arabic instead of Roman numerals, with minor chords being indicated by a dash (e.g. 6- instead of vi). It was invented to facilitate transposition to fit the vocal range of the singer being accompanied.

[**] Technically, a scale is a sequence of notes/intervals covering an octave, a mode a different choice of tonal center (‘starting point’) among them. For example, the G mixolydian mode is generated from the C major scale simply by starting at G rather than C.

Saturday night music: “Prelude to a million years” by Tony Banks


Tony Banks was my first rock hero, as Genesis’s keyboardist for their entire existence as well as the writer of many of their signature songs. Quiet, shy, and introvert in person, he was the one-man orchestra that put the S in ‘symphonic rock’. He has issued a number of underrated solo albums (‘A curious feeling’ and ‘Still’ both have gems on them), but in semi-retirement he has devoted himself to writing orchestral neo-classical music. The results sound much like film music, with echoes of John Barry and Bernard Herrmann, and occasionally of Ralph Vaughan Williams and other late-Romantic English composers. Tony has released two albums of his orchestral work so far, “Seven” and “Six” (the titles refer to the number of pieces on each). This is a track from his upcoming third orchestral album, “Five”, taken from his official YouTube channel.


International Shoah Memorial Day: Chiune Sugihara (“The Japanese Schindler”), the Teheran Children, and David Draiman’s powerful memorial song

In observance of International Shoah Memorial Day, January 27 [the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of the Auschwitz death camp], a few items.

(1) Here is an interview with survivors and escapees who remember the “Japanese Schindler”, the diplomat Chiune Sugihara.

Sugihara was appointed vice-consul in Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania in 1939. After the USSR occupied sovereign Lithuania in 1940, many Jewish refugees from the Nazi war and murder machine tried to flee eastward. “Sempo” Sugihara issued Japanese transit visas that allowed such refugees as could afford a ticket to board the Transsiberia Railway and travel to the Pacific Ocean port of Vladivostok, and hence by boat to Kobe, Japan (the one town in Japan that had a significant Jewish community). His instructions from his superiors were that such transit visas could only be issued to people who had entrance visas to a third country: in the beginning the Dutch consul helped out by issuing entrance visas to the Dutch Antilles and to Suriname, but eventually Sugihara ignored orders and hand-wrote about 6,000 visas until the consulate was closed, and he himself reassigned to Königsberg, East Prussia (present-day Kaliningrad, Russia), later to Prague and to Bucharest. He reportedly passed his last batch of visas from the train window as the train was pulling out of the station.

Many of the “Sugihara visa” holders spent the war in Shanghai, including the parents of a friend of mine. (Japan was an ally of Nazi Germany but for the most part had no idea what Jews even were, let alone shared the obsession with killing them.) Sugihara’s act — in open defiance of his superiors — was culturally unthinkable on the one hand, but on the other hand brings to mind the famous story of the 47 Ronin, with its conflict between obedience and honor.

(2) The story of the “Teheran Children” (Hebrew Wikipedia page here) and how they escaped​ is not well known outside Israel. Below follows a documentary in English. The foreword to a book in progress can be read here.

(3) [Reposted] David Draiman, the frontman of heavy metal band Disturbed, grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family adn actually trained to be a chazzan (cantor). Even though he lost his faith later, he remains connected to his Jewish roots, and it is hard not to hear the echoes of chazzanut in his vocals. The song below is his response to Shoah deniers: if heavy metal isn’t your thing, then just read the lyrics.

They have a frightening desire for genocide
They wouldn’t stop ’till what was left of my family died
Hell-bent on taking over the world
You couldn’t hide in the shout of conformity
We can’t forget how we were devastated by the beast
And now we pleaded with the captors for release
We were hunted for no reason at all
One of the darkest times in our history

[CHORUS:] All that I have left inside
Is a soul that’s filled with pride
I tell you never again
In a brave society
Didn’t end up killing me
Scream with me, never again…not again

A generation that was persecuted endlessly
Exterminated by the Nazi war machine
We will remember, let the story be told
To realize how we lost our humanity
You dare to tell me that there never was a Holocaust
You think that history will leave the memory lost
Another Hitler using fear to control
You’re gonna fail this time for the world to see


For the countless souls who died
Their voices fill this night
Sing with me, never again
They aren’t lost, you see
The truth will live in me
Believe me, never again


Meeting of the spirits


By accident, I stumbled on the YouTube channel “Fredneck” of the guitarist of a fusion jazz cover band named General Zod. In the following video, they offer a worthy tribute to one of my all-time classics in the genre, “Meeting of the Spirits” by the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

The intro (which is a bit distorted on my CD of the original) begins with a rather strange chord progression based on minor-major chords: C#add#9 — Dadd#9/C# — C#add#9 (another voicing) — Cmadd#9/B — C#9#11/G — F/E — G/F — G/A — F/G.

The main section is a modal 6:4 jam in the F# Phrygian mode (i.e. the 3rd mode of the D major scale). The riff is a based on arpeggiating a mutant version of the familiar Phrygian i-IImaj7 progression: F#m is “jazzed up” to F#b9 without the 3rd (the individual notes are F#2 F#3 C#4 G3 E4) and Gmaj7 is spiced up to. Gmaj7b5add6 (individual notes G2 F#3 C#4 B3 E4). In a 6:4 meter, the arpeggiation follows a 5-5-2 pattern. The repeated riff is most easily played using the thumb to fret the bass note.

The “spirits” that meet are guitar, keys, and violin. I literally never tire of this progression for jamming over. Enjoy!



Of art, craft, and acquired tastes

A friend who is an art historian lamented that even his most attentive students could not share his enthusiasm for modern art and that even those who understand the context in which it arose still dislike it.

One of the issues I have with much of what passes for modern “art” is that it is 99% concept (the more pretentious and preachy, the better) and 1% about execution. I am reminded of how in Dutch, “kunst” (art) comes from the same root as “kunde” (ability, skill, knowledge). It’s hard to see any “kunde” in making cans labeled “Merde d’Artiste” [sh-t of artist/sh-tty artist] (Piero Manzoni); in displaying one’s unmade bed as an art installation; dripping paint on a canvas (Jackson Pollock); making stains of various bodily fluids (Andres Serrano — this work of “art” was used by Metallica for two album covers); and the like. Richard Bledsoe of the Remodern Review has been blogging up a storm about this poseurism, and the neo-figurative “Stuckist”  and “Remodern” movement that arose against this “stuck on stupid”.

What much of modern “art” really amounts to is a rejection of “craft” in favor of “concept”. I cannot help being reminded of a similar trend in literature.

Now you could call me an artistic philistine who is stuck on Renoir, and maybe you have a point — but I’m much more conversant with music than with any visual art, and yet we see something similar there: contemporary classical music has, for the most part, become a sterile exercise in intellectual and ideological peacocking by academic musicians for academic musicians and snobbish hangers-on.

Another friend asked in response whether this was a matter of acquired taste. After all, people who are not chocoholics or wine connoisseurs cannot truly appreciate “the good stuff” for how good it is?

Perhaps, but here’s the thing: even the person who would like the cheap chocolate from the dollar store as well as the rare gourmet stuff still has no trouble recognizing the latter as chocolate — they just would miss the added value. To use a musical analogy: consider listening to a Bach fugue.  Knowing formal counterpoint will make you realize just how much of a genius Bach was to do what he did, but you don’t need to know any music theory to hear it’s music — and if it’s well played, an attentive listener — even without any formal training — will realize it’s a tapestry of independent voices in a harmonious conversation, even if you don’t know any of the “rules of order” that govern it (which is what classical counterpoint really is, a “Roberts’ Rules” for polyphonic music).


On consciously and unconsciously knowing


A Facebook friend of mine, very articulate, a sharp thinker, and with multiple academic degrees in “hard” subjects, was discussing his frustration with only speaking one language, and even so, “don’t ask me about the rules of grammar. On good days, I know what a gerund is.”

Now his written communication is always flawless in spelling and grammar, so he clearly knows how to apply grammar — which illustrates the difference between knowing something and knowing the words for it. Or, if you like, between having internalized a skill and being able to explain it.

Richard Feynman, in “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” recalls how his father taught him that knowing the name of, say, a species of bird in several languages still doesn’t teach you anything about  the bird. That is true enough, of course, except for one thing — if I know what the bird is called, I can go look it up — trudge to the library for the Britannica or a handbook of ornithology when I was young, or just search in Google or Wikipedia nowadays.

I write a fair amount of highly technical nonfiction in my day job — well enough that I’ve been asked to teach others — and frankly didn’t consciously know any of the grammatical rules until I realized I was able to teach people how something was done, but not why. “This is how it goes, it just sounds wrong otherwise, don’t ask  why,” isn’t how thinking people like to be taught. Consequently, I was forced to hit the textbooks myself just so I could “tell people what the bird was called so they could look it up”. I imagine this is a similar situation to people who are self-taught as jazz or rock musician but need to go learn theory just so they can be more effective teachers.

In an interview shortly before he passed away, the legendary jazz trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis reminisced about a meeting with Jimi Hendrix, planning a recording session that sadly never came to pass due to Jimi’s untimely death. He recalled mentioning a “diminished seventh chord”, and Jimi looking blank. He then took his trumpet and arpeggiated the four notes — Jimi of course immediately played the chord that he’d never known the name of. In fact, Jimi would have stared the same way at the mention of a “major-minor chord”, a.k.a. “dominant seventh-sharp ninth chord” — even though it’s nowadays often referred to as the “Purple Haze chord” or “Hendrix chord” due to its prominent use in one of Jimi’s best-known compositions.

Hendrix “spoke music like a native”, but didn’t consciously know the grammar, if you like — he just could apply it in his sleep. A very different intuitive musician, Evangelos Papathanassiou — world-famous among electronica and soundtrack lovers by the Greek nickname Vangelis — had classical piano lessons but never properly learned to read music: blessed with a prodigal ear and memory, he could reproduce what his teacher showed him just fine. While he apparently took some college classes in music (as did his more meditative German college, Klaus Schulze), he kept an intuitive, “feel” attitude toward music his whole life. When an interviewer in Keyboard magazine asked him how he composed, he answered tellingly: “it’s like breathing: if you think about how to breathe, you choke”.

Now while some of Vangelis’s more ambitious compositions (such as “Heaven and Hell”) clearly draw inspiration from Western classical music (Klaus Schulze even wrote a brief orchestral fugue in the studio version of “Ludwig II”), it would be hard for a musician to “function” in the classical world without the musical equivalent of “knowing your grammar”. (To be sure, at least one famous classical organist needed to learn most of his repertoire by ear — Helmut Walcha had been totally blind since age twelve — but he surely knew his theory, and taught for many years at the Frankfurt Conservatory.) Likewise, in some of the more ambitious, through-composed realms of jazz and progressive rock, a thorough conscious knowledge of music theory is a great asset—though you may be able to get by just fine with an unconscious one, as long as your fellow band members are comfortable learning by ear.

Conversely, knowing the rules without being able to apply them in real time may get you a job as a critic, but won’t get you far as a musician — or a writer.



Saturday delight, Chanukah edition: Rami Kleinstein, “All your wonders have not yet ceased”

Happy Festival of Lights/Chag urim sameach!
Happy Festival of Dedication/Chag Chanuka sameach

In honor of the holiday, not my usual classical, prog-rock, or electronica fare. but an Israeli pop song that is a paean to this small, weird, and wonderful country: Rami Kleinstein’s “Od lo tamu pela’ich” —”All your wonders have not yet ceased”.

“Ulpan la-inyan” has a pretty accurate translation, which I’m quoting here:

ארצנו הקטנטונת, ארצנו היפה
מולדת בלי כותונת, מולדת יחפה
קבליני אל שירייך, כלה יפהפייה
פתחי לי שערייך אבוא בם אודה יה.

בצל עצי החורש, הרחק מאור חמה
יחדיו נכה פה שורש אל לב האדמה
אל מעיינות הזוהר, אל בארות התום
מולדת ללא תואר וצועני יתום.


Our little land, our beautiful land
Homeland without robes, homeland barefoot
Accept me among your songs, beautiful bride
Open your gates, I’ll come forth and praise G-d.

In the clearing trees’ shade, far from sun’s light
Together shall we plant into the earth’s heart
To the shining springs, to the groundwater wells
Homeland without figure, orphan gypsy.

עוד לא תמו כל פלאייך
עוד הזמר לו שט
עוד לבי מכה עם ליל
ולוחש לו בלאט:
את לי את האחת
את לי את, אם ובת
את לי את המעט
המעט שנותר.

Your wonders have not ceased
The song has yet to sail
My heart still strokes at night
And whispers in the dark:
You are for me the one
You are for me mother and daughter
You are for me the little,
little that remains.

נביאה בבגדינו את ריח הכפרים
בפעמון ליבנו יכו העדרים,
ישנה דממה רוגעת
וקרן אור יפה,
ולאורה נפסעה ברגל יחפה.

עוד לא תמו כל פלאייך…

We bring with our clothing the village scent
To our heart’s bell shall the flocks stride
There is a calming silence
And a pretty ray of light,
And to its light we tread barefoot.

Your wonders have not ceased…

And since it’s also the Sabbath, another song by Kleinstein, “Small gifts,” which is an ode to the Sabbath and to the transmission of Jewish heritage:

[Translation by the YouTube poster, with a few slight corrections.]
Another Friday, breathing the air,
Light and shadow are playing “tag” again.
The table is set, childhood photos on the wall,
Processions in white are returning from shul,
And that smell which scratches my heart-
Sneaking in and opening doors
To a small joy,
To the same old song which is being passed along the generations.
Small gifts
Someone has sent me small gifts
Shards of intent, circles of belief
Small gifts
Such as the strength to accept what I lack and what I possess
What more can one ask for?
Another Friday, a balcony, and a newspaper,
The sun, like worries, is slowly being erased,
Simple melodies crawl through the window
and there is no longer any storm which can hide the silence.
To a small joy
To the same old song which is being passed along for generations.

Saturday musical delight: Well-Tempered Clavier in MuseScore animation

Via YouTube channel “gerubach”, which has been presenting “scrolling score” youtube videos of musical compositions for many years, I stumbled upon the following gem of a playlist:

All of Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is being rendered there in MuseScore animation: as you hear the audio, not only do you see the score on screen (two systems at a time) and a pointer scrolling across the notes being played, but at the bottom of the screen, you see the notes currently sounding displayed on a piano keyboard.

Especially in combination with YouTube’s ability to play back videos at reduced speed without altering the pitch, this is a marvelous self-tutoring tool for keyboard playing as well as music theory.

The audio is taken from the performance by pianist (and former competitive weight lifter!) Kimiko Ishizaka [official website]. The MuseScore team could legally do so as the (IMHO excellent) performance was released in the public domain (!)

The onetime child prodigy pre-funds her recordings through Kickstarter campaigns (most recently, she ran one for a “Libre”recording of Bach’s The Art of Fugue), then releases them online under PD or Creative Commons licenses. The word “Libre” she uses has some currency in the open source software developer community: It refers to one of the two words in French (and other Romance languages) that correspond to the English “free”, namely libre (without restrictions, “free as in speech”) vs. gratis (without cost, “free as in lunch”).  She does not work gratis, but on what I have been calling a “massively distributed commissioning” model, and what is becoming known as a “threshold pledge” model: she sets a funding goal, solicits pledges from patrons on Kickstarter, and if her threshold is met, the work is performed and the money collected. For her last campaign, the threshold she set was 20,000 Euro, and the minimum pledge was 10 Euro — the price of an album at a CD store (remember those). Larger pledge amounts (20 Euro, 50 Euro, 100 Euro) get various extra goodies, such as live recordings from recent concerts, a physical CD of the music, and admission to one of three “meatspace” live concerts.

D. Jason Fleming has been talking a lot about the “Open Culture Movement”. I believe this is an interesting example, and may actually point a way toward the future for classical performers. The big losers here, of course, are the classical music labels, who in this model are about as profitable as illegal CD bootleggers….


Guitars with more than six strings? What for? An overview

Following my Bach’s “Chaconne” on 11-string guitar post, a few people have asked me what else guitars with more than six strings are good for.  In response, here is a quick overview.

The standard guitar, of course, has six strings tuned (scientific notation) E2-A2-D3-G3-B3-E4. There are a variety of alternate tunings being used in especially nonclassical music, of which I will only cite a few examples:

  • Drop-D: D2-A2-D3-G3-B3-E4 as used by many metal and alternative rock outfits
  • Drop-C: C2-G2-C3-F3-A3-D4 as used by bands like Killswitch Engage
  • Open G tuning: D2-G2-D3-G3-B3-D4 as used by, e.g., Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones
  • “New Standard Tuning” C2-G2-D3-A3-E3-G4 as advocated by Robert Fripp of King Crimson

But those merit another article. Suffice to say that some of the more exotic tunings require restringing with lighter or heavier gauge strings.

“Baritone guitars” are standard six-string instruments with longer necks, tuned a fourth or fifth lower than standard.

Seven-string guitars come in both “classical”/acoustic and electric varieties

  • acoustic, Russian: open G tuning with extra top string tuned to high G4
  • acoustic, Brazilian: standard plus an extra bottom string tuned to low C2.
  • electric: typically with an added low B1 string. Somewhat popular in progressive rock and metal. Stevie Vai and Dream Theater’s John Petrucci are acknowledged virtuosi on the instrument. In heavier genres, the bottom string may be tuned down to A1 (Korn).

Eight-string guitars likewise come in classical and modern varieties

  • acoustic: “cello guitar” or Brahms guitar. Originally devised for playing Theme and Variations, Op. 21a by Brahms. Adds low A and high A strings to standard: A1E2A2D3G3B3E4A4
  • electric: either with extra bass and treble string), or with two low strings (“djent” guitars, as favored by “math-metal” band Meshuggah), which can be tuned F#1B1. Or E1B1, giving it the same low-end range as a standard bass. (e.g., Tosin Abasi of Animals As Leaders switches between guitar and bass parts thay way.)

Nine-string guitars are rare: the rare examples are like six-strings with the three upper strings (in pitch, not geometry) being doubled up into pairs. (“Courses” in guitar speak.)

Ten-string guitars exist in three types:

  • “harp guitars” (see below)
  • Narciso Yepes guitar: the famed classical guitarist played an all-frettable 10-string with the top six strings in standard, the remaining four chosen to maximize sympathetic resonance: F#2-Ab2-Bb2-C2-E2A2D3G3B3E4 Note that this tuning is “re-entrant”, i.e., the strings do not go from low to high in a neat row.
  • English guitar: C-E-GG-cc-ee-gg (two strings plus four courses)

Harp guitars exist in (at least) 11-string, 13-string, and 10-string variants. The idea of a “harp guitar” is that below your standard strings, you have a set of 5-7 bass strings that are tuned harp-style, on a diatonic scale. You can then use the thumb of your picking hand to strike bass notes as open strings, and accompany your fretted playing.

This was a common performance practice on the Baroque lute, and harp guitars are indeed used for this type of repertoire. The bass strings may be retuned half steps up or down to fit the scale of the piece being played. For instance, here is a piece by the lutenist and composer Sylvius Leopold Weiss, a contemporary of J. S. Bach:

Last but not least, we are left with twelve-string guitars, which have seen some notable use in folk, rock, and pop music. 12-strings are strung in six courses. The standard tuning has the bottom four courses in octave pairs, and the top two in unison pairs. In scientific notation:


Playing what would normally be single lines on the bottom four courses effectively turns your part into parallel octaves, and chords on a 12-string sound particularly rich and full, kind-of like double-fisted piano chord played Rachmaninoff-style 🙂

If one wishes to reproduce the 12-string sound in the studio without an actual 12-string guitar, the answer is to have two guitarists play the part on standard 6-strings, one tuned normally, the other strung with lighter-gauge strings and tuned E3—A3—D4—G4—B3—E4, i.e., to the upper half of each 12-string course. (This is known as “Nashville tuning” in guitar lingo.)

Many folk musicians use an open-chord variant of this tuning. Some jazz musicians tune courses to intervals other than unisons or octaves in order to generate more complex chords. For instance, on the album Twelve by Anthony Phillips (a personal favorite of mine), the erstwhile Genesis guitarist uses this tuning throughout


“June” is my favorite tune from that album. Here is a cover by “hyperboreal”: His instrument’s tuning is a little off, and he flubs a few runs, but you will get the idea.

Let me conclude with Anthony Phillips himself, in a rare on-camera performance since crippling stage fright made him quit the stage:

Saturday delight: Bach’s “Chaconne” on 11-string guitar

I accidentally stumbled on Moran Wasser’s amazing performance of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor, BWV 1004, on an 11-string guitar, embedded below:

What’s the deal with an… 11-string guitar?! Sounds pretty scary, no? Actually, 11-string and 13-string guitars are similar to the Baroque lute in conception:  The top six or seven strings are played like a standard guitar, while the additional bass strings are typically tuned ad hoc to cover the bass notes of the piece, and plucked as open strings with the thumb as a harmonic foundation. I am sure that sympathetic vibration also adds a lot to the body of the sound when these strings are not explicitly struck.

But let’s talk about the piece now. Many instrumental jazz and rock improvisations are based on a repeated “riff” or bass line that forms the foundation. This is, however, not something invented in the modern era. Early Western classical music had a form called a “ground” where exactly the same was done: take, for example, William Byrd’s virginal/harpsichord piece “The Bells” (1580). During the early baroque period, two forms of Western art music evolved with a repeated-riff structure: the Passacaglia and the Chaconne. Significantly, both were originally slow, stately dances in 3/2 rhythm.

It seems nobody is quite sure what is the difference between the two: I remembered it as “in a chaconne, the repeated riff is always in the bass, while in a passacaglia, it can move through all voices” — but it appears this definition was too narrowly based on J. S. Bach’s monumental examples, the Passacaglia and Fugue for Organ in C minor, BWV 582, (about which I have blogged previously), and the Chaconne from the Partita for Solo Violin in D minor, BWV 1004.

This piece, which stretches the capabilities of violin and violinist to the very limit, has numerous times been arranged for other instruments: for piano (by Ferruccio Busoni and by Alexander Siloti), for piano left hand (by Brahms), for organ, and indeed for orchestra (by Leopold Stokowski). It is particularly often performed on guitar (either in Andres Segovia’s arrangement or directly from the original score).

Moran Wasser’s arrangement is transposed one half-step down from the original, i.e., to C# minor: this sounds equivalent to playing it in “baroque tuning” (A=415 Hz) in its original key. Note that he places a capo on the 2nd fret over the seven top strings.

For those who prefer a violin original, here is Hilary Hahn’s performance:

The piano arrangements for two hands both tend toward the flashy, but Siloti’s is to my ears the more musical of the two. Here is a surprisingly powerful recent performance by a young pianist named Tanya Gabrielian:



The “Magical Mystery Chord” finally revealed?

The classic Beatles song, “A Hard Day’s Night”, opens with a complex ringing chord that has had songbooks (and musicians) arguing among themselves for decades. Complicating the answer is that even Paul McCartney can’t exactly remember what was done.

Full disclosure: I relate to the Beatles much the way I relate to Mozart: I recognize their musical genius but much of their most popular music does not ‘move’ me either intellectually or emotionally. But I love a good musical puzzle as much as can be.

In principle, given modern computer technology, the problem of transcribing a piece of music should be simple: digitize the audio, carry out a Fourier analysis, and convert the resulting frequencies to note names. Right?

Well… Feed in unaccompanied flute and this will work fine. (As anybody who’s owned an analog synth knows, a triangle wave is a pretty decent starting point for a flute sounds — and while a triangle does have some harmonics, the fundamental is very strong and there are only odd harmonics so you can tell apart the fundamentals pretty easily from the rest in the Fourier spectrum.) Feed in a Hammond organ with just a single drawbar open: ditto. Feed in a more complex sound but with restricted harmony (e.g., a violin playing only single notes), no problem. Feed in a complex chord played by multiple instruments on top of each other, and things get hairier. Have some of the multiple instruments not be quite in tune, or let some be in equal temperament and others in just intonation, and things gets even worse.

An applied mathematician at Dalhousie University did a Fourier analysis on the opening chord some time ago and turned that into a paper.  Does this sound like an academic with too much time on his hands, “partially supported by a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada,” no less? Well, to me it sounds like a good “torture test” for the robustness of a musical transcription code. And where it comes to science popularization, this definitely hits the spot with the musically minded: only yesterday I saw another popular article about the now a decade old analysis being linked on Instapundit.

Just retaining all frequencies with relative amplitudes above 0.02 still gave him 48 frequencies, from which he squeezed a solution that looks good in theory but just doesn’t sound “quite right”.

A musical transcription site run by somebody with the delightful pseudonym “Waynus of Uranus” points out a fly in the ointment that people who grew up with digital recording wouldn’t even have thought of. Back in the day, loud bass tones meant pushing against the limitations of vinyl singles and lo-fi audio equipment alike, so the deep end of the bass (about 80 Hz and lower) was routinely rolled off with an equalizer or a highpass filter during mixing or mastering. What this means, for example: if Paul were to strike an open D string on his bass guitar (or an A string at the fifth fret) his fundamental would be below the filter cutoff, and the Fourier spectrum would instead have the second harmonic much stronger — leading to claims like “Paul played a D3 and a soft D2 at the same time”. I know bass players like Geddy Lee or Rush or Steve Harris of Iron Maiden play lots of double-stops, but this really is a progressive rock or metal thing to do, not a pop thing.

Applied mathematician Kevin Houston takes it from there and digs further in a very geekish way. While the original record was mono, it turns out there is a stereo mix made for the movie—and in the early days of stereo, it was not unusual for recording engineers to just put some instruments all left and others all right, with the vocal in the center. (This is, pretty much, how I used to jam along with Deep Purple records: Jon Lord’s organ and Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar were usually at opposite end of the stereo image, so you could single out their parts by listening to one stereo channel at a time.) In the stereo

In the stereo mix of AHDN, Paul (bass) and George (12-string guitar) are off to one side, and John (acoustic guitar) off to the other, together with producer George Martin on piano. Better still: after subtracting the left channel from the right (i.e., “phase-inverting”), it becomes clear that the acoustic is playing an Fadd9 chord. (That means: an F major chord with an added ninth, a.k.a. a “Steely Dan chord“. It differs from a major ninth chord F9 in that the seventh is omitted.)

To cut a very long story short (some mathematicians can get quite verbose ;)), this is the solution (which relies on a good dose of Occam’s razor/the Law of Parsimony as well):

  • Paul just plays a low D2, but because of EQing off the deep end, the D3 overtone/second harmonic comes through louder than the fundamental, hence the acoustic illusion that the bass note played is D3
  • John plays F2 A2 F3 A3 C4 G4 (in standard tuning, frets 1-0-3-2-1-3)
  • George plays the same chord, but on a 12-string in standard tuning—where the bottom four “courses” have the second string one octave higher. Hence aside from the slight tuning discrepancy with John, he adds F4 A4 as new pitches
  • Finally, George Martin on the piano, with the sustain pedal down, plays D2 G2 D3 G3 C4, which one could call a Gsus4/D chord. Sympathetic resonance from the undamped piano strings adds the wash of low-level extra pitches that befuddles the Fourier analysis.

Not only does this not require attributing instrumental acrobatics to the Beatles that are out of character for them, but actually playing those notes on the respective instruments does produce a sound quite like the record. (Listen at 7:17 in the video below.)

Kevin and his collaborators could not readily find an electric 12-string, so they simulated that by layering two six-string electric chords: once fretted 1-0-3-2-1-3, the second time 13-12-15-14-1-2 with an extra hand. “Fake Nashville Tuning“, if you like.)

If this isn’t  the solution, it sounds much closer than anything else I’ve heard. Enjoy the above video!

Rush, “Between the Wheels” – A song for uncertain times


You know how that rabbit feels
Going under your speeding wheels
Bright images flashing by
Like windshields towards a fly
Frozen in that fatal climb
But the wheels of time just pass you by…

Wheels can take you around.
Wheels can cut you down

We can go from boom to bust
From dreams to a bowl of dust
We can fall from “rockets’ red glare”
Down to “brother, can you spare?”
Another war
Another wasteland
And another lost generation