Monday, June 30, 2008

Thinking Ahead: Environmentalism

Continuing with this idea of weekly themes, I decided that I'd like to cover a few things on Environmentalism. Having just finished Jared Diamond's book Collapse, I have been inspired somewhat to put down a few words on the subject. In this first post, without getting into the controversial parts quite yet, let me just mention a few common-sense concepts.

To start, in our first-world society of bounty and convenience, it becomes increasingly difficult for us as members of this society to see how dependent we are on the earth. I think most of us are fooled into thinking that food comes from grocery stores and fuel from a pump, electricity through a power line and clean water from a pipe. But enter a third-world country and a self-sustaining fishing village and ask them where their resources come from. The answer wouldn't surprise most of us. It's the third world. Of course they rely on the earth - maybe more than we do?

And somewhere between the reality of there and here lies a disconnect. The truth is this: human beings are entirely dependent on the earth for their survival. And it being our most precious resource, is an asset that can produce the compounding returns we need to survive, but if we damage and destroy it, it becomes more than just a shame that we've lost our natural beauty. But our very survival comes into question. I'm not saying quite yet that we need to stop driving cars, burning fuel, or burying trash.

First, let's just agree on this one thing: Environmentalism is a concept that we as intelligent and responsible stewards of this earth must embrace now.

- Taylor

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Benjamin Zander on Classical Music

I found this video on classical music and thought I should post it as kind of a bonus or supplement to this week's music theme. It comes from one of my favorite websites for the spread of knowledge and ideas, The speaker is Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic. He is an excellent communicator and sort of follows in that same vein of work as Leonard Bernstein, educating the public on classical music. As a side note, I am not particularly fond of his playing of this prelude. It does, however, work for his purposes in this lecture.


Friday, June 27, 2008

Research Paper Topics

In keeping with the music theme this week, I want to present a few of my topic proposals for a research project I'm doing with my grad work.

The Evolution of Modulatory Techniques through Mozart, Haydn, & Beethoven

The technique of traveling through tonal areas in music has been one that has undergone an evolution over time. This paper focuses on the short time span around the turn of the 19th century that concerns itself with the compositional years of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. These three composers form a sort of chain in through which various compositional techniques have been transferred. It is interesting to note through the harmonic analysis of various works throughout this period how these modulatory conventions contributed to the large-scale transition from the Classical to the Romantic periods.

The Culmination of Beethoven’s Compositional Style: The Late String Quartets

Beethoven’s music generally conjures up thoughts of its inter-period qualities that seem to, by and large, form the bridge from Classical to Romantic periods. Exhibiting characteristics of both periods, his works seem to emulate a sort of unfolding journey, the culmination of which comes in his final works, most notably his late string quartets. Here he expands the boundaries of form, harmony, and melody. A brief overview and discussion of these string quartets examines them in light of their various novel aspects as well as their role as the embodiment of Beethoven’s final compositional style.

The Seeds of Change: The Op. 10 Piano Sonatas

The three piano sonatas that form the set in Op. 10 are of particularly contrasting styles. The first exhibits the famous c minor mood, which imparts distinctive characteristics to many of Beethoven’s works, including his Fifth Symphony. The second sonata takes on a very whimsical character, playing with the formalities and harmonic conventions of the evolving sonata-allegro form. The last, in D Major, sort of displays Beethoven’s propensity to take small motives and expand them to form entire movements, indeed even entire symphonies and sonatas! It is in this set of sonatas, this precursor to the famous Op. 13, Pathétique, that we begin to see Beethoven as the mischievous, rule-scorning youth (and later, as the thoughtful and candid innovator) who sows the seeds of change for the coming era.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Beethoven Op. 14, No. 1 in E Major

For whatever reason, this sonata has always had a certain allure for me. For one, it is fairly simple to sight-read and thus gets some attention when I am meandering through them at the piano. I also feel that the themes are just so singable and "catchy" as it were. The opening theme actually does appear in other works, most notably to me is the fugue in the final movement of Op. 110.

In the exposition, Beethoven introduces his key with a theme in E Major. A lyrical theme rises from the quiet and rhythmic plodding of harmonies, tapers off, and then scurries back down the keyboard. The melodies become lyrical again and make their way into a repeat. What is fairly typical of Mozart (and Beethoven does it here), but nonetheless interesting to me at least, is his method of modulation to the second tonal area. Instead of the expected repeat of the opening bars, Beethoven branches the melody off, alternating with the V of V of V (or technically the leading tone chord of V of V, an e-sharp fully-diminished seven). His cadence on an F-sharp Major chord becomes a half-cadence of the new key, which begins promptly in B Major.
The Development begins by working with the opening theme in f-sharp minor, the relative minor of the subdominant. The lyricism and drama is evident, and what was cut short by the scattering of the opening theme is allowed the cathartic decanting. As it moves through several tonal centers, it works its way back to the dominant for the recapitulation. Here, the mood is different, less reserved, bursting with energy, and articulated by the rising scalar accompaniment below. The transitional material becomes a brief foray into the subdominant, maintaining the tonal center as E Major at the outset of the second theme.
This piece really wears a lot of emotions on its sleeve, and that display really draws me in and leaves me singing its melodies. This recording is Grigory Sokolov's thoughtful performance of the first movement.

-Taylor Baldwin

Monday, June 23, 2008

Bartók and The Miraculous Mandarin

Though it hasn't been an endeavor of mine, I suppose occasional bouts of topical interest will come and group a week's posts under a particular theme. If last week was for mental health, let this one be for music. Today I post an excerpt from a program note I wrote on Béla Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin.

In 1918, amid the shambles of postwar Hungary, Béla Bartók (1881-1945) began work on his pantomime A csodálatos mandarin (The Miraculous Mandarin). When both Sergei Dyagilev, the famous choreographer of Stravinky’s The Firebird and Petrouchka, and Ernő Dohnányi passed over Melchior Lengyel’s short story of murder, mystique, and passion, Bartók took it upon himself to compose a setting for the piece. In just eight months, Bartók had completed a short score sketch of the piece; its final orchestration was completed in 1924, and on November 27, 1926 the pantomime received its first performance in Cologne, Germany.

The graphic tale is told in one act and centers on the ruse of three thieves, who, using the sexual appeal of a young girl, lure passers-by into a room to be beaten and robbed. On this particular night, two penniless victims have left the thieves without a bounty, until an oriental mandarin is coaxed inside. A certain eeriness surrounds the man as his gaze remains fixed on the girl, but the thieves force her to continue with the plan in spite of her fright. The suspense builds through a sexually-charged dance until at last the thieves leap from their hiding to attack the man. When the mysterious figure doesn’t respond to the blows, the thieves, desperate to kill the man, drive him through with a sword and then hang him, but he remains alive and transfixed on the girl. When he is cut down, the girl, under great remorse, throws herself on the mandarin and gives herself to him. At last the mandarin is satisfied by love’s ecstasy, his wounds begin to bleed, and he dies.

The work, with its lurid and controversial subject matter, proved to be too much for a city already rife with political unrest. Even among a growing number of works displaying a wild expressionism with violence, sex, and psychological overtones, the work was, as Bartók had predicted, not well received. The headlines of the local Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger read “Uproar in the Cologne Opera House,” while the Kölnische Volkszeitung (The People’s Newspaper) denounced the conductor Eugen Szenkar as a “partisan of the young, radical trend in music, [… aimed] to drive back German romantic opera more and more.” Szenkar was summoned to the mayor’s office the following day and ordered to withdraw the remaining performances of the work. Over the following years, Bartók revised the work as an orchestral suite, resulting in a more palatable but, in his opinion, a less-satisfying version.

The work opens with the material of the original pantomime’s overture. John Mangum of the Los Angeles Philharmonic describes it as “a striking portrait of the unsettling dynamism and vigor of the seedier side of the modern urban landscape.” With violas representing the thieves’ restlessness and a seductive clarinet solo, the young girl’s explicit dance, Bartók seizes upon individual instrument qualities to pull the listener through the story. In a truly unique ensemble, he mixes the timbres of harp, celeste, piano and organ with colors of traditional orchestral instruments. Bartók’s innovative orchestration is evident throughout the work. At one point, the string players hit the wooden backs of the bows on their strings, resulting in a sort of click-clacking signifying the approach of the first victim. The rhythmic energy is constant and unrelenting, and though it persists for the larger part of 20 minutes, it never becomes excessive or monotonous. Indeed, an audience member at the first performance, if not prepared for the macabre and jarring content, might easily be overwhelmed by such a brash and unapologetic display of what many considered coarse obscenity.

-Taylor Baldwin

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Importance of Success on Mental Health

In keeping with the theme of mental health this week, I'll go ahead and round out the trio of posts with another about the topic. I have seen this one in action quite a bit over the past several weeks. It might even be described as a sort of momentum. I'm talking about the importance of success on one's mental health. I think success can be this kind of momentum that is so helpful in pushing us on towards achieving even more success. A book I just finished awhile back (and have subsequently been quoting from for this series of posts) juxtaposes this concept with some biological evidence.

Even better for our spirits are activities that bring a sense of success. It's important that we set goals when we're going through periods of sadness [...].
That the experience of success becomes especially important when people are having a hard time can be explained by the functioning of the two halves of the prefrontal cortex, according to the neuropsychologist Richard Davidson. When we're sad, its left half, which both directs us towards goals and controls negative thoughts, is insufficiently active.
-The Science of Happiness, page 192

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Unexpected Pleasure at Everyday Experience

Through many years,
At great expense,
Journeying through
many countries,
I went to see high mountains,
I went to see oceans.
Only I had not seen
At my very doorstep,
The dew drop glistening
On the ear of the corn.
-Rabindranath Tagore, Bengali writer

I read this poem in a book, and it really illustrated for me a psychological concept that I had recently read about. This concept has to do with the natural expectation system and its relationship with how we experience pleasure.

A certain experience can bring about a sense of pleasure, but the intensity of stimulus required for each subsequent experience will be more and more in order to experience the same amount of pleasure, especially as those events are experienced closer together. If one goes long enough without the experience, it will have the same pleasurable effect with little or no change in the required intensity of stimulus. So, theoretically, one could have a number of experiences that create pleasure, but spread out over time so that the intensity of the stimulus can remain the same and still provide a similar pleasurable effect.


It also seems to be the case that one can use his mind to focus on a stimulus that wasn't previously noticed. The novelty of a new environment is perhaps what provides us with a sense of pleasure when we take vacations, but what if we took the time to notice of our present environment, those things that fade into the background daily. It seems that as a kid, a small neighborhood could provide as much mystery and fun as an entire city might provide for an adult. In this sense, we really create our own pleasure by doing no more than looking a little closer than we did before.

-Taylor Baldwin

Monday, June 16, 2008

Depression Can Literally Kill the Brain

I remember a conversation I had with a friend about a year ago. We were debating the merits of a theory I had. This was that if someone were to convince themselves of a reality different than that of the actual world, if it caused a sort-of happiness, the ends were justified by the means. Now, while I don't believe that today, for some glaring fallacies of logic found therein, the following quotation does underscore the importance of harnessing control of your thinking habits.

Of all the discoveries that recent research into depression has brought to light, this may be the most disturbing. Depression [...] affects the hardwiring of neurons. To what extent the damage can be undone is still unknown. In the process, the brain loses its adaptability [...]. Our ability to feel fades, and our judgment and concentration diminish. Tests have shown that depressed people are less able to solve even simple tasts, such as the sorting of playing cards. At the beginning of a depressive phase, the working memory is affected, and the stress hormones impede the brain's ability to think. [...] The brain sends stress hormones, which can cause harm to the neurons and do lasting damage to the brain. [...] In people who have suffered repeatedly from serious depressions, the space in the prefrontal cortex occupied by certain kinds of neurons is diminished by a third [...]. Other parts of the brain lose so much matter that they just shrivel up. This has been observed, for example, in the hippocampus, on which memory depends.
-Stefan Klein, The Science of Happiness, pg. 188

Friday, June 13, 2008

What Is History?

I was recently given an assignment to read a certain article from the New Yorker for my Introduction to Music Research class. Just the Facts, Ma'am appeared in the magazine this year around March or April. It addresses the broad question, What is History? Though Jill Lepore doesn't really answer that question, she does pull ironically from a variety of sources in history to form what is sometimes called a "think piece."

In this article she mentions a quotation by William Godwin that really got me thinking:

He that knows only on what day the Bastille was taken and on what spot Louis XVI perished, knows nothing.
I began thinking about facts. The nitty-gritty minutia of events and their dates. History, indeed even unrecorded, must be full of millions of them. Are these things history? Or is history something more than that? Maybe it's out of these details that a deeper meaning rises. This deeper meaning, purpose, higher-level metaphor and analogy is the story of history. It's more than facts and seeks to explain something of the human condition.

-Taylor Baldwin

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Goal Evaluation

A little over a month ago, I posted some summer goals of mine that I had hoped to implement over the next few months. I thought it fitting maybe to review some of those and see how well I have kept up with them. I had formally written them out with a little more specificity over two posts, but here I'll just quickly review and give an update.

Ride My Bike
Yeah... Straight-up didn't do this one at all. To be fair, I don't own a bike. It would definitely be nice to take a few rides around some of the neighborhoods some morning, but to make it a regular thing seems impractical at this point. My schedule is getting busier and busier with my summer school courses, now two of them! My progress on the rest of these goals will do well to cover up this complete failure.

Beethoven Sonata Analysis
As I posted last week, I have completed a good number of these. I have been able to outline some phases and steps I need to take to reach my goal here. I've remained fairly motivated and slightly ahead of my plans to finish Phase I by the end of the summer. Today, I have 13 completed with another 6 partially completed.

Start Blogging on a Regular Basis
I think I've done fairly well on this one. Since I've started, I've kept up my three-blogs-a-week goal. The topics have changed quite a bit - really as my interest has waxed and waned in each subject. I have several drafts written that really just need to be edited or expanded before posting. All in all, I have done well here.

My exercise program, I feel, is one of the biggest achievements I've made this summer. It is increasingly difficult, as I get older and busier, to make time for working out. But I'm happy to report that I'm now beginning my 4th week of having worked out 5 times a week. This includes lifting weights and running every weekday. This has not been easy, but it's been very rewarding to keep it up.

Out of the House by 9am
And finally, what has now become a little maxim of my mornings. I have done very well with this one as well. A few times it has been 9:30 before I made it through the door, but the purpose of this rule has really been achieved. I was fed up with wasting my time watching TV or doing whatever and especially tired of wasting my mornings, which are, as I have felt for a very long time, the best part of the day. With the new schedule I began on Monday, I have been getting up around 7:30 or 7:45 and getting to the gym around 8:30. This is all before I start class at 10:30. So, with summer school now in session, I'm really forced to get up quite early now, but it really isn't a struggle for me anymore to have my head hit the pillow before 12:30am.

Overall, I have to say, not too shabby. I feel like I've been accomplishing those things that I wanted to when I set out to map a course for this summer. It's also pertinent to point out that summer is really only about a third over at this point. Not only is there time for me to implement goals I haven't really given much attention to, but I also have time to write up other plans for goals this summer. And when I do, you can be certain that I'll end up posting about them here.


Monday, June 9, 2008

Farmer's Market

I went to the local farmer's market this morning. Was a little disappointed in the lack of variety. One stand sold herbs, another a smattering of vegetables, the rest inedible plants. It was about 10:30, so most of the fruits probably went rather quickly. I was impressed by two stands that sold free range meat and eggs, however. I'll probably be stopping by there again at some point. I'm expecting the fruit season for this area to come around in a few weeks. Maybe by then it won't be so far-fetched to expect a supply from a stand or two by 10:30.

As I was making my soup this afternoon from the onions and herbs I purchased, I thought about the growing trend of buying locally-grown and organic foods. An article a few days ago in the New York Times talks about the trend and the new 100-mile diet where one feasts only on those products produced within a 100-mile radius. The average person really ends up consuming more fruits and vegetables this way, which might be why the health benefits touted by the diet's die-hard supporters rely more on the fresh-produce "side-effects" and less on the mantra of "locally-grown". If nothing else, the principle of energy-conservation is certainly heeded. The closer the produce is to the consumer, the less fuel needed to transport it, and the greener our future becomes.


Friday, June 6, 2008

The Morning

There is something promising about a morning.

The world restarts, rebirths and tells you to do the same.
The dew covers the grass - dripping as though the earth just stepped from the shower.
Clean and un-muddled by events of the day.
The air is fresh; the cars have not come to pollute it yet.
The breeze is that deep morning breath that the earth takes. The cool air rushing through its nose to prod it on.
The blues of the sky fade into brighter whites, and hope sits embodied just below the horizon.

Yesterday doesn't matter. All that is ahead is potential. Today's possibilities are new and exciting.
Dry off with the earth and heed its pitch:
The promise of second chances.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Phase Outline for the Beethoven Piano Sonata Analysis Project

I thought it might be a good idea to track for you my progress, though it also provides a great benefit to myself. By doing this I can let you in on how the progress is coming along as well as provide some accountability and motivation to actually complete the project (not to mention the benefits of writing out an actual plan of action and keeping in mind how far you've come and how far you have to go).

I figured I should go ahead and detail what I have planned so far in respect to the first few phases.

Phase I consists of doing a sort of introduction to the the first movement of each sonata, listening through it, noticing various formal and harmonic aspects, reading material on the sonata, writing a summary, and preparing a formal diagram. So far I have fully completed 10 of 32 sonatas in Phase I, another 7 are partially completed, leaving 15 that have yet to receive any completion. All in all, I'm about half of the way through Phase I.

Phase II will consist of doing a detailed harmonic analysis on actual paper copy and creating diagrams of the more general tonal areas and interesting harmonic aspects of the first movement. I have completed one of these. These are, understandably, the most time-consuming. Though the one I did complete was a fairly modest and straight-forward movement, it still took me three to four hours to write out the harmonic analysis. Needless to say, this phase will take the most discipline to complete.

Phase III will continue by focusing on the final movement of each sonata. This will be fairly similar to Phase I but with the final movement as the subject. I will listen through, identify harmonic and formal aspects, read associated materials, write a summary of the movement, and prepare diagrams of the formal analysis.

Having said all that, I have to confess that I do feel like I've made fairly decent progress; however, Phase I still has a way to go. And once I've reached this milestone, there will be still be much more before I start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.


Monday, June 2, 2008

Beethoven Op. 10, No. 2 in F Major

Previously, I talked about the sonatas of Op. 10 in a sort of summary, and now I'd like to go into a little more depth with one of them. This is the second of the Op. 10 set. There are a few figures that illustrate in the music some of the aspects I am pointing out. In my next post, I'll go over a little more concerning my overall strategy to completing this project. But now for Op. 10, No. 2...

This sonata is fairly interesting. It contains a good bit of irony and subtle humor. After only 12 measures in F, Beethoven begins to transition to the second tonal area, C major, and he is there by measure 18.
He remains there until the end of the exposition at measure 66. During his stay in C, he leads the listener through the minor mode as well and also to believe he might even switch keys before the exposition’s end.

What become particularly interesting are his transitions through tonal areas throughout the movement. For his transition to the second tonal area of C major, he goes by way of an E major chord, the dominant of the relative minor of C major, a minor. This comes from a common practice during Mozart’s and Haydn’s time where the development section would oftentimes end on the relative minor. After some time it seemed fit to simply end the section on the V of the relative minor. However, by the time Beethoven composes Op. 10, this is not really consider "of the fashion" anymore. But Beethoven utilizes this harmonic progression in a different environment. Before it had only been common at the end of development sections, not, like Beethoven does here, in transitions within the exposition.

The final cadence of the exposition is simply a I-V-I stripped to just octaves. As Beethoven often likes to do, he uses this bare-bones form of basic harmony and develops it. Much of the development section consists of the development of this I-V-I progression in different keys.

The transition to the exposition is equally as interesting as the return to the recapitulation. Beethoven begins in the wrong key: D Major. He plays through the first theme and transition. At the transition he stops and isolates a small melodic fragment out of its harmonic context. Using a technique he learned from Haydn, he repeats this isolated fragment until the listener forgets where he was. Now, reharmonizing it, Beethoven makes the smooth transition to F where he starts the second half of the opening theme again.
With no need for the transition, he leaves out the material altogether and starts immediately in the second thematic section. Beethoven ends the movement as the exposition ended; there is a complete absence of a coda.

-Taylor Baldwin