Unexpected non-standard cello techniques


Several years ago I came across George Dennehy, the boy who played the cello with his feet because he was born without arms and hands.  Every once in a while I’d take a look to see what other differently-abled* folks are doing with the cello (or other instruments) since I have a driving curiosity to learn about alternative string techniques.

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Jim Carrey, Steve Martin, Classical Music, and why you might not want to follow your passion…


I’m sure most of you have seen the recent Jim Carrey commencement speech (or at least the shortened clickbait version).  If not, here’s the short one:

While it is inspirational and uplifting if we put aside some of the issues of privilege in Carrey’s situation which I’ve been having discussions about with some folks elsewhere, this Salon.com piece, Dear graduates: Don’t follow your dreams (A commencement speech for the mediocre), by Tim Donovan reiterates what I’ve talked about regarding Survivorship Bias in two previous posts. Interestingly, Donovan’s piece isn’t specifically a response to Carrey’s speech as the post was published two days prior to the Maharishi University of Management Graduation.

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New Music for Kids!

Jon Silpayamanant teaching an "Alien Music workshop for Kids" at Cyphan Science-Fiction Convention in Chicago, Illinois.

A recent piece by Kenneth D. Froelich at NewMusicBox has spurred some interesting discussion on my facebook timeline here. I posted it with the following quote from the piece:

Then she played Steve Reich for them.

The response was, in a word, astonishing. The students began tapping along and became actively engaged in their listening. They asked questions—questions!—about the music (which, in of itself is a pretty remarkable feat). Whereas Mozart was boring, Reich was exciting! It was new—something they did not expect, especially in the context of “classical music.” They wanted to hear more! Several times after my wife played them Electric Counterpoint, they asked for it again, even over popular music examples that she had played.

While Steve Reich might be a composer that we would expect younger students to engage with, what was more surprising was the response she received when she played them Pierre Boulez. Admittedly, the students reacted with confusion at first. However, as the music played they wanted to hear more. They wanted to know where this “crazy noise” was going. Once again, the music engaged her students on a level that neither Mozart nor Tchaikovsky ever did. They became active listeners. The music was unique and didn’t sound like “stereotypical classical music.” Like Reich, her students asked to hear “that weird Boulez music” again—many times over, in fact.

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Creativity, Craftmanship, and Copying


Michael Rushton’s recent post says some wonderful things about the problem of focusing on either Creativity or Quantification.

Creativity is a wonderful thing, but successful songwriters, playwrights, poets, video game designers and chefs, know technique – they have to. It is great to encourage children to experiment and explore, to instill a love of creativity. But they won’t turn into adults that make genuinely interesting creative works until they have learned technique. “The Daily Show” sketches cannot be written by someone who only understands how to analyze data, Egan is correct. But neither can they be written by somebody with no experience or sense of how television comedy works.

In my post, to create or to copy, I explored the misguided dichotomy of creativity versus copying by giving an example of a comment by Japanese Bunraku musicians:

[This] reminds me of interviews I had with the chief puppeteer in the major bunraku troupe, the chief chanter, and the chief shamisen player. I asked them how they trained, how they learned as children. As we all know, the standard system in Japan is to copy your master. [But] those artists said, “We do not copy our masters. Of course we watch our master and we learn. But no two human beings are alike, so it is impossible for me to copy my master. I have to internalize my art, make it my own. Then I can become a great artist.” This is a wonderful illustration of the solution to what might seem to be impossibly opposite goals: to “replicate” and to “create” anew.

And what they are describing is the process of learning Craftsmanship.

Sure, there are plenty of artists who “copy,” and probably as many who are “creative” without any sense of craftsmanship. But as I said in that post,

In the end, the greatest artists are those that can make ANY work, whether their own or someone else’s, speak powerfully. On the flipside the weakest artists have to hide behind the rubric and hubris of citing originality and creativity, or, dedication to the re-creation of a previous work to hide the fact that he or she has nothing really to say.

So again, I wonder, going back to Rushton’s final paragraph:

The need to teach “creativity” has achieved a lot of buzz lately, as Egan notes. But is it misplaced? Should the emphasis rather be placed on technique, know-how, rather than some generally vague notion of creativity? Misleading to characterize the issue as one between creativity and the quants.

and my questions about the Music Conservatory and Music Education industries and Arts funding politics I still have to wonder how much of the entrepreneurial and business shift in some conservatories are more for the sake of legitimizing the status quo in the pre-professional world of music making.

Brief Synopsis of the History of the term “Classical Music”

"Story of Music" - Episode 6 of Dara O Briain's Science Club on BBC Two
"Story of Music" - Episode 6 of Dara O Briain's Science Club on BBC Two

“Story of Music” – Episode 6 of Dara O Briain’s Science Club on BBC Two

Doug Borwick brings up an interesting idea in his post about making the Arts Indispensable:

Everyone who works in the arts industry believes, as an a priori truth, that the arts are indispensable, that there is no need to make them so. And that is true. The arts are indispensable. However, when “the arts” is thought of as synonymous with the organizations that comprise the arts industry as it exists today, it is demonstrably false in any objective sense.

I’ve spent a few posts talking about how we have our own idiosyncratic definition of Classical Music and how that shapes what we believe about the field as a whole (or, indeed, how it shapes what is actually the field as a whole), but I haven’t much talked about how that term has evolved over time.

The Leipzig critic and composer, Johann Gottlieb Wendt, apparently first coined the term in 1836. It was originally used as a term to contrast with contemporary music (i.e. romantic music) and encompassed Baroque (a term that didn’t come into vogue until Heinrich Wölfflin rehabilitated its usage in 1888) masters like Bach and Handel up to the composers we normally consider to be from the “Classical Music Period,” Mozart, Haydn, and Early Beethoven.

By now we sometimes use the term to refer to a vast range of music spanning Church music (e.g. Gregorian Chants) from the middle ages up to contemporary times all while recognizing the Classical Period as a very specific range posed between the Baroque/Rococo and Romantic Eras. While this expansion in denotative range was useful when referencing the totality of the evolution of Classical Music as a specific geotemporally located Art Music it has also been the source of so much confusion and imprecision.  Personally, I prefer to use the phrase “Western Art Music” or “European Art Music” to get away from some of the baggage that comes with the usage of the word “Classical.”

This Geographic border also constitutes a significant boundary of what constitutes classical music. Music History Texts now usually reflect the fact that it is “Western” music or European Classical Music that is the subject of study, but I’m looking at my 1988 edition of the “Concise Oxford History of Music” (originally published in 1979) which spends the first 74 pages (Part I) on “The Rise of West Asian and East Mediterranean Music” before spending the rest of the 800+ pages on Western Art Music (i.e. Classical Music).  The focus reminds me of this strange video describing the “Story of Music”

which briefly mentions ancient bone flutes made from the femurs of bears which segues into a comment about melodic flutes in ancient China then spends the majority of the rest of the narrative speaking about Western Music.

This jump from ancient Greece to Medieval Church music I’ve remarked on quite a bit given we often leave out the evolution of music in the Eastern Roman Empire/Arabic and Ottoman Empires–despite the fact that the fact that all have been a significant part, geographically, of Europe–and how those Empires’ musics and cultures have interacted with the Western Roman Empire and the rest of Europe.

As the border of what we consider to be Europe expanded over the centuries to its modern day equivalent, so has what has constituted “Classical Music” – initiatives to include some musical styles, like Manuel de Falla’s ill fated attempt with Flamenco, into the canon of Classical Music have failed. Neither do we include the art musics of the Ottoman Empire, Eastern Orthodox Churches (at least until Soviet Russian Classical Music became part of the Canon), and the Arabic Empire (including the Andalusian Flamenco style) still remain outside of the central Classical Music canon.

Going back to the whole Classical Music Crisis and Classical Music is Dead discussions, we see a different kind of selective usage of what constitutes Classical Music, usually centered around failing institutions as prototypical examples of the field. I think what is always important to ask is “What do you mean by Classical Music” when these discussions come up, because we can easily show decline or growth if we’re selective enough in our choices. That kind of selectivity doesn’t lend itself well to falsifiability which, as Popper has argued long, should be the hallmark of any good scientific theory. Without falsifiability, you don’t have a theory at all.

In other words, going back to the quote above: when “Classical Music” is thought of as synonymous with the organizations that comprise the Classical Music industry as it exists today, it is demonstrably false in any objective sense–and, when Classical Music is thought of as synonymous with a subset of the organizations that comprise the Classical Music industry as it exists today, it is demonstrably false in any objective sense.