Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The flexibility of music notation

I've been reading and playing music since I was seven or eight, and over the years it's struck me more than a few times just how flexible a system music notation is. Here are a couple of examples:


Firstly, there's more than one way to write the pitch of a note: it depends on what key you're in, whether it's a sharp or flat key. You can even change how you write a note within a piece, regardless of the key (this is called using the enharmonic equivalent). Modern music increasingly does this because of the complications of having many flats and sharps in a piece that doesn't have an official key signature.

I've been working on the vocal score of War Hero, a new opera by John Drummond, over the last couple of months (I'm a slower learner now, in my early seventies, than I used to be when I was in my twenties - unfortunately!) John sometimes uses key signatures, and sometimes doesn't, and in some bars there's a real mix of sharps and flats. Occasionally they've taken a bit of unravelling.

This isn't a new approach. On Sunday I played the accompaniment to a trumpet piece (Legend) by Georges Enescu, which was written at the beginning of the twentieth century. Enescu does the same thing. Even though his piece is mostly in a key with three flats, the score is littered with 'accidentals' - the name for those sharps and flats that don't officially belong in the key you start out in.

Of course there's nothing in the least 'accidental' about the additional sharps and flats in either John's music, or Enescu's. The word 'accidental' is a bit of a misnomer, in fact. In John's opera, he uses a particular chordal structure as the basis of most of the music, a structure that requires accidentals in order to make sense. Once you get used to this 'harmonic world' as you might call it, the accidentals form a kind of 'key signature' of their own.

I don't know if I'm explaining this very well! If you have any questions, ask me in the comments.

Expanding and contracting notes

A second thing that's struck me about the flexibility of music notation is the fact that time is very loose and fluid, by which I mean that a stretch of notes in one piece that might be marked Adagio, for instance (that means the notes are to be played slowly) can be played quickly in another piece that's marked Allegro, even though, on the page, the notes look exactly the same.

And even within a piece, a crochet, which is the basic unit of much music - the note from which we gauge the speed of all the other notes around it; a crochet, as I say, can be shorter or longer, depending on the context. If the composer asks us to play fast for a stretch and then pull back, as though we were reining in a horse we were riding, the crochet will obligingly stay the same on the page, but can be stretched out to accommodate the fact that everything has slowed down.

Musicians understand this, because after a certain amount of training it becomes intuitive. To someone to whom much of this language is already obscure, the idea is much harder to express. I remember it being like a leap into the unknown for one of my piano pupils, a few years back. Not quite as difficult as dealing with quantum theory, perhaps, but, in its own way, still a curious phenomenon in the way music works.

There isn't just one system of music notation

Having been trained in the old school of classical music, like millions of other musicians, I read a lot
of stuff on a page that makes no sense not just to non-musicians, but even to some other musicians. See the t-shirt to the side, which gives you an idea how complex some music can be.

I used play at church a lot. When we were at a Pentecostal Church I played from a single line that gave the tune, and added in the chords as I went along from the minimal symbols given above some of the notes. Some people find this very easy; I had to work fairly hard to make it come together, but in due course found it very freeing, and was able to improvise to a great degree.

Then we shifted churches, and they were using regular music with all the notes. This was fine too, because it meant that chords could be written out in full, and I found myself playing harmonies that I hadn't used in the previous church.

In due course they stopped using 'proper' music and gradually shifted to the extremely simple approach of just the lyrics on the page with a few chord symbols for the musicians. For some musicians this was enough and they could produce interesting music. For me, it was limiting: without a sense of what the composer intended (there was no vocal line with this format) you had to rely greatly on your ear and on what the other musicians - who knew the tune - claimed the piece should sound like. Tricky.

Jazz musicians use a similar approach, and often their music consists of nothing but chord charts. This is like having a skeleton in your living room, and having to explain to guests what it really looks like once it's got flesh on it. Effectively the musicians make up the music as they go along using the chart as a basis for sticking together. It takes practice to learn how to do this, but it provides something different every time the music is played.

I'd never heard of the Nashville Number System until today, but it's another form of music notation, perhaps even more skeletal than what jazz musos work with.

And in the past, keyboard players often used 'figured bass', which was no more than the bass line of the piece with symbols above it that gave an indication of what chord should be played. Good keyboard players could improvise on this skeleton and produce remarkable music. Unfortunately, most of it was lost, because there was no way to record it. Unlike jazz music of today.

The more you explore the subject of music notation, the more intriguing it is to discover how earlier musicians coped with remembering and recording their music, before the extraordinary system we have available today came into being. Something to discuss in another post, perhaps.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Dough - and The 100-Foot Journey

We caught up with a 2015 movie last night called (simply) Dough. As in cash, of course, and in actual dough for baking.

It's a story about an elderly Jewish baker in London whose business is losing customers and money. The shops on either side are either owned or being bought out by an unscrupulous former 'barrow boy.' Through various circumstances a young African Muslim boy becomes the Jew's apprentice baker and things begin to turn around. Of course there are difficulties and troubles along the way. 

It's a comedy, for the most part, and the kind of necessary violence in it is kept to a minimum. 

A number of critics have pooh-poohed the film as being predictable (it is, as much as any film might be), and because it doesn't tackle the real issues of what might be involved in a Jew and a Muslim working together. For these critics, things are too simple. 

Of course they are. It's a comedy, not a film by Ken Loach or one of his ilk. Of course there are improbabilities, and even a considerable loophole in the plot - if you stop and think about it later. But there's also considerable joy in places, warmth, and some well-performed characters, especially Jonathan Pryce as the baker. Jerome Holder is the African immigrant, and I found his performance full of contrasts; he was well able to stand up to the more seasoned actors around him, such as Pauline Collins, as the recently-widowed landlady of the baker's shop, and Phil Harris and Ian Hart (neither of them chosen for their good looks) as the two villains. 

It's not a film that'll change the world. It's a feel-good movie, but seemingly many critics these days think that feel-good movies shouldn't be allowed to stand alongside the blockbusters, the Marvel comic adaptations, the deeply serious art movies. And the foreign movies, including the foreign comedies - wait, most of those are also feel-good movies, but they have subtitles...!

You can see Dough on Netflix.

21.6.17 Also on Netflix is The Hundred-Foot Journey. 
It's the story of an Indian family of cooks making good opposite a Michelin star restaurant in a relatively small town in France. They manage to do this in spite of Helen Mirren being the owner of the French restaurant, a place where 'classic' food is served. There should be no contest, except that one of the sons of the Indian restaurant happens to be a cooking genius.

I'd avoided seeing this previously because it got poor critical reviews. But it turns out to be another feel-good movie, beautifully filmed (the food looks wonderful, and the mouth waters) and well-acted. The script might be a bit undercooked, but the overall effect is enjoyment and delight.

There are some oddities: the French characters often speak French at the beginning of a scene but then wind up shifting into accented English. The Indians speak accented English throughout (though of course with a different accent). Both the restaurants are well-out of town: you wouldn't walk to either of them, yet they both have a good clientele.

Anyway, relax and enjoy it. Some films exist for no other reason.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

On Sharia Law in the US

Shireen Qudosi
I don't normally include material relating to Islam and ISIS on here, but this series of sixteen tweets from Shireen Qudosi, a tweeter I follow, needs to be more accessible. (It's difficult following sixteen tweets in a row on Twitter: other tweets interrupt the flow!).

The series started as a result of this tweet from Isaac Cohen @IHWCo on the activist, Linda Sarsour.
Ms.@lsarsour claims having anti-Sharia bills or laws that forbid it from being made as US laws, prevents Muslims from practicing their faith

1. Anti-sharia bills look at sharia as it is practiced today, which isn't even original Islam. So anti-sharia bills are rightfully...
2. ...tackling an innovation in Islam. In original Islam, sharia was meant to be a pathway. It was never meant to be the Matrix.
3. Basically over course of 1400 years, bunch of Islamic philosophers sat around & talked about Islam. Their ideas got added onto the faith.
4. Since their ideas are codified into faith, sharia went from being, let's say, different currents in the ocean you could use to...
5. ...this rigid draconian anti-feminist legal system that is a thought-tentacle controlled by people who act like minions of God.
6. So if someone wants to propose an anti-Sharia bill, go for it. You're doing original Islam a favor.
7. Muslims will still be Muslims because being a Muslims is a simple thing. Sharia is not simple. Sharia today is in violation of Islam...
8. And sharia today is in violation of U.S. Constitution which should never be undermined, supplemented or run parallel to another system.
9. Truth is, no society can function with two separate codes of law. One law for all. American law based on American values. Because...
10. We don't compromise or negotiate the United States Constitution. Don't like it? There are 194 other countries to choose from.
11. Allowing Sharia to gain any ground in the U.S. is the day we give up on America. It's VITAL Americans understand how Islamism works.
12. Every single disgusting supremacist action allowed under Islam as it developed through scholarship and mutation of the faith....
13. ...is permissible in a nation that follows Muslim law. A Muslim nation. Sharia is a huge HUGE win in that fight. So ask yourself...
14. What comes next? Because all this Islamist talk of "America" is not about America as you and I see it. It's about....
15. ...whatever America looks like, today is one thing. Tomorrow through Islamism isn't another form of America. Their America.

16. And that is why we need to fight people like Linda Sarsour and every single thing she stands for. No negotiation. No compromise.

The same information could easily apply to the UK. 

Linda Sarsour