Electronic Music

If you haven’t experienced any of the wonderful music courses taught by Dr. Robert Greenberg, available through The Great Courses, you’re missing a lot.  In episode 1, “The Language of Music”, of Understanding the Fundamentals of Music (Course No. 7261), Greenberg describes music not only as a language, but as what I would call a superlanguage.

Music is the ultimate language, a mega-language.  A language in which our hard-wired proclivities to use successions of pitches and sounds to communicate are exaggerated, intensified, and codified into a sonic experience capable of infinitely more expressive depth and nuance than mere words alone.

Greenberg goes on to present a definition of music that is far better than any you will find in the dictionary.

Music is sound in time, or, if you prefer, time ordered by sound.  That definition isolates the two essential aspects of music, sound and time, without any qualifications.

After defining timbre, Greenberg presents the five families of instruments in the Western musical tradition.  Aside from the human voice, they are

  1. Stringed instruments
  2. Wind instruments
  3. Brass instruments
  4. Percussion instruments
  5. Keyboard instruments

And, Greenberg states,

If this course had been written back in the 1970s or ’80s, it would have included a sixth instrumental category: electronics.  There was a genuine belief back then that digitally synthesized sound was the wave of the future.  And that an entirely new vocabulary of sound, one relevant to the technocracy of the modern world, was just around the corner.  You know what?  It never happened.  As it turned out, composers prefer to write for real people playing real instruments.  And audiences would rather listen to real people playing real instruments.  Ironically, more than anything else, digital electronics are used today to imitate those “antiquated” instruments that they were purportedly going to replace.

Though I certainly agree that electronic music will never replace natural instruments played by real people, and I hope that orchestral and chamber music will be with us centuries hence, I have no doubt that new instruments will occasionally be invented and join their venerated ranks, and that electronic music will one day garner enough respect that it will take a permanent seat as a sixth instrumental category.

The world has yet to see a composer of electronic music that can be considered on equal footing with Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, or Mahler.  But it will happen.  Perhaps, even today, there lives a young girl or boy somewhere in the world who is already on the path towards becoming the world’s first great composer of electronic music.

Isao Tomita (1932-2016), of Japan, has arguably come the closest.  Yes, his music is idiosyncratic, and his best work a reinterpretation of existing orchestral pieces, but when you listen to Tomita at his best, you get at least a sense of what is possible within the electronic idiom.  Who wouldn’t be tempted by the ability to create any tone color or instrumental timbre imaginable?  It’s not for everyone, I know.

Here is a sampling of Tomita’s best work:

Snowflakes are Dancing (1974)

Pictures at an Exhibition (1975)

Firebird (1976)

Tomita was a pioneer.  The best is yet to come.

Wind in the Window

One very windy morning last week I lay in bed listening to the wind whistling in the window above me.  It was playing a pentatonic scale!  Albeit accompanied by some very complex and interesting overtones.  The pitches formed a major pentatonic scale: G♭4 – A♭4 – B♭4 – D♭5 – E♭5.

This led me to reflect on the origins of human music.  Even though there were no windows in prehistoric times, there has always been the sound of the wind amongst the rocks and the trees, and a myriad of other sounds in the natural world.  These sounds of nature must have provided the initial impetus for human music making, both vocal and instrumental.

All is Well

Iowa County, Wisconsin needs a secular, four-part (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) choir for adult singers that meets regularly. When was the last time this area had something like that? I really miss singing in the tenor section of the Sul Ross State University Concert Choir under the outstanding leadership of Dr. Donald Freed.  Dr. Freed is quite a good choral composer, too.  What a privilege it was to sing a number of his choral works during my years in Alpine, Texas.

Fortunately, each year I have the opportunity to sing with the Lands’ End Choir here in Dodgeville each holiday season, under the capable leadership of Phil DeKok, conductor, and Dawn Lingard, accompanist.  It is an amateur choir, of course, and though we rehearse just once a week over the noon hour from late October through early December, it is always a joy to be singing again.

This year, my favorite piece by far was All is Well by Michael W. Smith and Wayne Kirkpatrick (words & music) in a beautiful arrangement by Lloyd Larson.  Here is Lloyd talking about the piece:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c6wqL6Kt_L4

I get pretty emotional about music, and I had a hard time getting through this particular piece without getting a little choked up and teary eyed.

The son of one of our choir members, Bev Adams-Sugden, recorded our performance of this work in Bldg. 5 over the noon hour on Tuesday, December 20, 2016.  Enjoy!

http://skythisweek.info/Lands End Choir 201612 B5 All is Well.mp4