Monthly Archives: April 2012

Music and Silent Film: “Way Down East”

Last weekend, Hamilton College hosted the American Musicological Society (AMS) Conference, during which composer Philip Rothman oversaw the second performance of his score that accompanies the silent film, Way Down East. Here’s a trailer of Rothman’s musico-visual adaptation:

I happened to write a pseudo-review for The Spectator, Hamilton’s weekly student newspaper (I’m the former Editor-in-Chief) of the film last week. In my comments, I spoke largely of how enthralled I was by the entire display of sound imagery and visual dynamics. When music is set to a silent film, the effect is astounding; suddenly any dialogue that appears on the screen is laced with new meaning, and the most ordinary or banal of exchanges becomes extremely nuanced. Rothman’s music — so endearing in its simplicity, so authentic in its design — complemented Lillian Gish’s distinctively ethereal and poignant facial expressions.  I think I came to realize, while watching Way Down East, that this genre (silent film accompanied by music) might actually make for a very intellectually stimulating experience, simply because the brain must interpret the music as it would words in such a context. And the music reveals the originality and breadth in emotional scope of the plot. As Peter Gilbert of Vermont Public Radio noted in this segment, “Yes, it’s melodrama, but it’s good melodrama.” Way Down East, especially Rothman’s conception of it, is breath-taking and genuine. Maybe this is why I have some difficulty watching movies with too much action and too many words — the sensory input really gets to me, and it helps to be able to relax and partake in a new kind of cinematic and acoustic activity, rather than feel inundated with too much noise and banter.

I conducted an interview with Rothman last week, and I hope to type up the transcript very soon. You can check out Rothman’s website here.

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Perception and Music

A few days ago, I came upon this video that touches on the complexity of perception:

One hypothesis as to why this effect occurs is that our brain is conditioned to interpret extremely subtle changes in facial expression, but when our eyes can’t directly settle on one set of images or another, any drastic changes in structure appear rather grotesque — different from the way we ordinarily seem them. In conjunction with the video below, I’m wondering what the implications are for aural perception. The beginning of the Rite of Spring morphs into a musical meme once we take it out of context, and especially when we place it alongside variations of the same phrase. How “real” are the combinations and permutations of sound waves that we think we hear? What is their “actual” nature? And what sounds become more apparent in certain contexts?

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Why can’t we be friends?

For unknown reasons, wind ensembles and orchestras don’t seem to get along. I’ve always  wondered why that is; why, we might ask, should wind symphonies be relegated to a less prestigious position in the music world than orchestras? And why is there such a militaristic stigma surrounding traditional “bands”? The problem I see here is one of upbringing — in schools, the divide between band and orchestra members is sharp and immutable from day one. And, perhaps for the sake of fewer headaches, wind players do not venture across the hall to the orchestra until high school, when both groups are better prepared to play some of the more standard and challenging repertoire. But in my experience, most wind players parked themselves in the back of the ensemble grudgingly — they appreciated the band “culture” far more than the orchestra culture. And what’s more is that most of the wind players, unless they had previously participated in an orchestral performance, were totally ill-equipped to understand the differences in style, balance, and aesthetic. On the flip side, string players (bassists, occasionally a cellist) who  played in wind pieces never appeared to grasp their role in adding a new texture to what is can sometimes be a thin, strident, “bandy” sound. Couple these problems with arrangement difficulties when it comes time to borrow pieces from the other side — wind symphony arrangements of orchestral pieces often write the violin part into the clarinet part, a regrettable move, particularly when too many (up to eight or nine) clarinetists sit in a typical wind ensemble, let alone a larger concert band. Bizarre tuning practices develop, too, causing even further problems. I’m saying all of this despite having attended a public school with an excellent music department; my wind ensemble performed at the Midwest Clinic a total of two times, and still I was aware of these issues.

I was reminded of this fascinating problem in music education (one that I think is similar to the practice of “tracking” students based on academic ability or “categorizing” them as math kids or creative writers) because first, I was listening to my favorite piece for wind ensemble, Lincolnshire Posy by Percy Grainger, and second, because Christian Carey recently posted an interview with Dr. David Maslanka by Brooklyn Wind Symphony Artistic Director Jeff W. Ball on the music of the late composer John Barnes Chance and on the growing prevalence of commissioning consortiums among wind ensembles. Maslanka says that

“Wind bands do not need symphonies in order to be ‘important’, to try to lift themselves to ‘orchestral’ status.  They need powerful music, well-crafted for the medium, music which inspires the players and their audiences. This has been happening for quite some time now, and the grass roots wind band movement has become a world phenomenon. Wind bands need to program significant works, regardless of length or form, because players and audiences are intensely hungry for deeply nourishing and affecting musical experience.”

It’s true — wind bands don’t need to play orchestral music to be legitimate. While we’re arguing that, though, we might as well admit we don’t have a clue (beyond the works of a few respected composers) what wind ensemble music actually is. Is it actually a blessing to be free of the preconceived notions that come with different periods of orchestral music? Or would wind music benefit from a more restricted definition, from something that can distinguish it from the new music of the orchestral realm but also from jazz and from marching bands? Maybe we could just agree that the wind symphony is suited for amorphous material — it’s the musical “other,” always compared to orchestras or used as training ground at colleges and universities. But the socialization process that accompanies music education should reflect a greater desire to have these two groups communicate more with each other.

And wind ensembles need better and more pieces to perform. An interesting report by Stephen Budiansky and Timothy W. Foley printed in 2005 in the Journal of the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles addresses this issue. And David Goza’s “Lessons from Lincolnshire” shows how Lincolnshire Posy is one of those great pieces that can really prove educational in multiple ways. Goza stresses note grouping, which I completely agree with, but I would also say that the piece has this special way of conveying thought and phrase very tranquilly, as if, collectively, the ensemble could decide to surrender to the next phrase at any given moment — as if it were listening to its own breath outside of itself, not asking the mass to inhale, but waiting expectantly and calmly for it to do so. I hear this especially in the second movement, “Horkstow Grange.”


This piece has so many other neat moments, like the beginning of the third movement, and the lithe and awkward little instrumental lines. Pieces like this are rare, but I think if the music education community could see more of them, so much would change in the way student conceptualize music and the function of the wind ensemble in the greater scope of things.

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