Michael Meets Mozart

I love classical music. It was my first musical vocabulary; I didn’t start listening to popular music until I was 14. When I grew up enough to notice that I was listening to a collection of museum pieces and not a living genre, that realization made me very sad.

But go listen to this: Michael Meets Mozart.

Now, if you’re a typical classical purist, you may be thinking something like this: “Big deal. It’s just a couple of guys posing like rock stars, even if there’s some Mozart in the DNA. Electric cello and a backbeat is just tacky. Feh.”

I’m here to argue that this attitude is tragically wrong – not only is it bad for what’s left of the classical-music tradition today, but that it’s false to the way classical music was conceived by its composers and received by its audiences back when it was a living genre.

Mozart didn’t think he was writing museum pieces…

…and neither should we. Once upon a time, classical music communicated with the popular music of its day. Composers mined the folk music they had grown up with for ideas. And ‘classical’ music was popular; adulation of its virtuosi and the electricity surrounding live performances was intense. By period accounts it is not hyperbole that Franz Liszt has been described as “the first rock star”.

The avant-gardists strangled classical music in the early 20th century precisely by driving away its popular audience, reducing it to a arid landscape of theory, manifesto, and demonstration (I have written about this before). New composition found a fragile refuge in film scores, while dwindling concert-hall audiences of the increasingly old and elite settled for museum exhibits. Some time back I wrote this:

My favorite piece of recent classical music is a particular section of Hans Zimmer’s Pirates of the Caribbean score. It combines kettledrums in 5/4 time, somewhat reminscent of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps with a wood flute being played microtonally.

I second Tom DeGisi’s recommendation of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Their Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 is a setting of a well-known Christmas carol that combines high-Romantic orchestration and electric guitars played with savage elegance.

Another standout from a few years back was the soundtrack for an otherwise forgettable movie called Hidalgo made as a Viggo Mortensen vehicle. Lovely classical music mixed with North African hand drums and what I think might have been griot singing.

If you notice a pattern here of co-opting modern instruments to achieve a wider tonal range, good. I have a personal fondness for polyrhythmic hand drumming. But more generally, this is what “classical” sounds like as a living genre willing to experiment rather than a dead set of museum pieces!

And this is what the Piano Guys give us in in Michael meets Mozart – straight up, not a film score but standalone music that dares us to take it on its own terms as boldly as a pop album and co-opts the language of modern popular music for its own ends. This is the sound of classical music climbing out of its grave, spitting out the goddamned embalming fluid, and kicking ass.

A while back I wrote about how moving I found Ravel’s Bolero played in a train station. The Piano Guys give me the same feeling of hope and pride. The nihilists and the downshouters and the politically-correct multi-culti zombies haven’t done for Western civilization yet, not while we can regenerate ourselves like this. And that, as much as the music itself, is something to celebrate.

104 thoughts on “Michael Meets Mozart

  1. >New composition found a fragile refuge in film scores

    This reminds me of what Heinlein wrote in Expanded Universe about how commercial art continues to improve while current fine art “continues to look like the work of retarded monkeys” (from memory, it’s a big book and I couldn’t find it just now). Some of my favorite music now is from movie scores, though I have also been listening to a lot of Cruxshadows and DragonForce recently.

  2. Years ago I went to sleep to Concerto #5 for French Horn. These days, what with the hearing issues, a lot of nuances are lost to me. Used to be a good cello piece would make me cry.

    I saw the video just before Heather posted it. The cinematography certainly didn’t suck, either. Well done. When our fight music cycles through to an orchestral piece (usually from a movie) it’s certainly rousing to fight to.

  3. I grew up on classical music and big-band swing, as one was my mother’s love and the other was my sax-playing father’s. I’ve seen a number of attempts to recast classical music in modern terms, and most I don’t think were terribly successful. (The usual practice was “mix a rock band and a classical orchestra”. Only Procol Harum, offhand, really pulled it off.)

    The fact that classical music *was* the popular music of its day can’t be stated too loudly. An awful lot of current popular music has its roots in folk songs and traditions, too.

    And the great contemporary composers working in the classical idiom all got into film scores, because that’s where the money was. Classical composers did it for a living, but they got paid by patrons who commissioned them to create works, often as “court composer” or the like. Movie studios simply became the new patrons, and could afford to commission the work and pay for the orchestra and studio to record it.

    Everything I’ve seen by the Piano Guys has been first rate, and purists who disparage it need to step back and rethink their approach to music in general.

  4. One serious problem we face today is the ridiculous application of copyright. Classical composers borrowed and stole whatever they wanted from popular music of the day. The only access we have to many folk tunes and popular songs of their times is because “classical” composers ripped them off freely. Today’s composers must by law stay clear of popular tunes even in snippets – or face the wrath of the music companies.

    On the other hand – there is a vast supply of 20th century (and growing 21st century) of “classical” music which almost everyone is already familiar with (but does not “know” in the technical sense). Works by John Williams top the list, but others such as Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings), Mancini, Ennio Morricone, Rodriguez.

    Personally, I think the perceived lack of interest in “classical” music is a conceit that lacks truth. People of all ages know and love a lot of classical music. Whether they know it or not. Those who deride classical music as boring or allude to its museum status are demonstrating themselves as shallow and ignorant.

  5. I have similar feelings; while I do appreciate classical music on its own, I find a lot of pleasure listening to, for lack of a better term, “modernized” classical, like TSO. I find bond (sic) to be fun to listen to.
    There are other ways to enjoy classical, or classical-LIKE, music:
    Turning it around – playing modern music on more orchestral instruments. Two prime examples of this are Metallica & Kamen’s San Francisco Symphony orchestra playing Metallica tunes (it’s odd; the orchestral parts don’t sound “tacked on” – they sound like they were always meant to be there)(the album is titled “S&M”), and Apocalyptica (a Scandinavian quartet of cellists who play metal – Metallica, Megadeth, Sepultura…).
    Genre-mixing – Mortiss and Therion. I can’t do their music justice; I’ve tried describing it to people as a “head-on collision of heavy metal and opera”. It is wonderful stuff.

    When you put your very large digital-media collection on random, it’s amazing what you get… like Morricone’s “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” followed by Alice Cooper’s “Desperado”.

  6. Did some of the great classical composers have the hacker nature? It seems at a blush that composing and hacking reward some common skills and personality traits.

  7. I’ve said for a while that a symphony makes anything better – the depth of sound you get is just worlds apart from traditional rock, even when it’s the exact same song. I remember thinking that there was something obviously wrong with the studio version of Metallica’s “One” the first time I heard it, because I was used to the S+M version.

    I’m a fan of modern music, and I think that classical suffers greatly from being moved away from an evening event into being background music to my computer gaming(which is why I don’t listen to too much of it), but you’d have to be a fool to neglect to learn from the brilliant folks who made it. There’s plenty that can be done combining modern approaches with old techniques, and trying to calcify classical is just dumb.

  8. Bond seems very successful within the popular classical crossover (or whatever it’s called) genre even if you discount them as a studio creation.

    Folks that deride classical music as boring or believe them to be museum pieces are as shallow and ignorant as purists who hate modern interpretations of classical pieces IMHO.

    That said, I’ve been to recitals with technical excellence but no soul. There really are a lot of boring classical music performances so I can understand the feeling.

    In addition to movie soundtracks there are some games with good soundtracks.

  9. Thanks, Eric, for the link. I really like the music, the energy, the videography.

  10. Since the combination of classical and metal has been brought up…
    -Fleshgod Apocalypse is a symphonic technical death metal band. They’re not just tacking it on, either; somehow, they make it all blend together seamlessly. Furthermore, their latest album, “Agony”, was one of the heaviest things I heard in the summer of 2011. Here’s a video they did: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjKyzwqIT7s
    -Xerath is a symphonic progressive groove metal band. Just go listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zoh1698DnxY
    -Devin Townsend is … Devin Townsend, and his album “Deconstruction” is a massive composition. Here’s a video for Juular: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-DKs0qfdEk (spoiler: the old man is also Townsend).

  11. Was all set to buy the youtube hits album, but then their web interface forces me to register to buy.

    No thank you guys. Love your music, no need to get my personal information to sell your stuff.

    /I’ll cave eventually, after several aborted attempts to buy so that I add statistics to their sales records.

  12. Feh.

    I’m all for demuseumizing classical music (it was a lot freer and improvisational back in the day), but I didn’t find this compelling. Was there actually a melody? Is it something you’ll find yourself humming in the shower?

    On the plus side, give that cellist a mullet wig and he’d make a killer MacGruber…

  13. Well, that was quite nice. Somewhat new-agey, so trying to sort-of connect it back to Classical music, perhaps it’s something upbeat from the Romantic period? I also listened to another piece of theirs, something of a riff on the Moonlight Sonata, which actually reminded of Vangelis as much as Beethoven. Well, you did mention soundtracks, and his music for Antarctica is beautiful.

    I’m curious as to what modern day ‘folk’ music a serious composer would mine for themes (assuming the copyright police weren’t waiting to squash him like a bug)? As mentioned above, metal seems pretty ripe. But what little current pop music I’m aware impresses me as nothing more than bubble-gum pop resurrected — now with Auto-Tune! Perhaps I’m being overly-serious about it, as I doubt that the folk songs you mention were all serious musical pieces.

    We can be glad that Rachmaninoff, Handel, et. al. didn’t have modern copyright to contend with, as did Eric Carmen.

  14. I must say I’m somewhat surprised, yet not entirely, that metal and classical clashes have been mentioned here numerous times. I’ve been noticing quite a lot of such genre-merging (which practically creates a new genre) in the past decade, especially with metal.

    That being said, here’s just two examples that came to mind immediately:
    - http://youtu.be/PH68Z6ysqZs Master of Puppets cover by Apocalyptica; taking one of the staples of metal and playing it on cellos and being excellent at it. I can’t even listen to the original song anymore without hearing classical undertones… and I like that fact :)
    - http://youtu.be/k2Vkow5KGyM Dream Theater’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence introduction played by orchestra — not only does it capture the feelings of the album’s purely rock/metal composition, but it far exceeds what the album did. On top of the audience loving every second of it, it brings good feelings.

  15. Two points:

    esr keeps talking about classical music and Western culture. Not any more. It’s performed and enjoyed the world over. More important, it’s composed all over the world. Odds are, the next Beethoven will be Chinese.

    esr thinks that classical music is in decline. There’s selection bias at work there. When you hear the old stuff, it’s the best music from the best composers – things that have stood the test of time. Had you been alive in Mozart’s day, you would have been overwhelmed by music from the also-rans, like Salieri, or Mozart’s father, Leopold. It’s the same today – a few exceptional individuals drowned out by a cacophony of utter crap.

  16. >It’s performed and enjoyed the world over. More important, it’s composed all over the world.

    I know this. But signs of renewed life in the genre are still evidence that Western civilization has a healthy relationship with its past.

    >esr thinks that classical music is in decline.

    For many years there wasn’t enough new classical work being composed outside film scores that we could even form a judgement about whether classical music was in decline. Or, to put it a different way, being “in decline” but a living genre might have been an improvement over the actual situation…

  17. Try listening to Nightwish’s Imaginaerum album sometime…it’s orchestral symphonic metal at its widest range. Their main songwriter, keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen, is heavily influenced by film composers such as Hans Zimmer, and in fact, Imaginaerum has been made into a forthcoming film. The album has big, grandiose metal pieces to it, such as “Storytime” and “Last Ride of the Day,” but also gentler acoustic pieces like “The Crow, The Owl, and The Dove,” a doom-metal-inspired track in “Rest Calm,” a piece described as “Danny Elfman goes humppa” (“Scaretale”), and even a jazz number, “Slow, Love, Slow”…and it all meshes together, and they pull it off beautifully. The last track on the album, its title track, is kind of an orchestral overture of the whole album (possibly the end-credits music for the movie). We’ve seen flashes of this film-inspired style before, such as “Ghost Love Score” off Once and “The Poet and The Pendulum” off Dark Passion Play, but this takes it up to 11. Maybe that’s what happened to some of the classical composers…they’re now writing metal songs. :-)

  18. David Crooks:
    > Apocalyptica (a Scandinavian quartet of cellists who play metal – Metallica, Megadeth, Sepultura…).

    For some definitions of ‘Scandinavian’. Apocalyptica is Finnish.

    Mike Swanson:
    >Master of Puppets cover by Apocalyptica; taking one of the staples of metal and playing it on cellos and being excellent at it.

    Not sure about excellent. If you listen to Apocalyptica and actual virtuoso cellists one after another, Apocalyptica sounds like a pretty mixed bag. Admittedly their line-up has changed and the players have matured since that first Metallica album (1996). In my humble opinion they failed pretty horribly at reinterpreting Metallica there. They’re literally playing the Metallica songs from start to finish, doing the monotonous vocal parts and all with the cellos, which sounds (again, IMHO) just insufferable.

    Try this for cello music by a Finnish composer. That piece may be all the evil things that ESR is complaining about in modern music, but I was actually stunned by it. (Kaija Saariaho is currently the resident composer at the Carnegie Hall.)

    Btw. I couldn’t hear any Mozart in that Piano Guys piece… I guess it’s just me. I’m pretty much completely free of any musical talent.

  19. > Not sure about excellent. If you listen to Apocalyptica and actual virtuoso cellists one after
    > another, Apocalyptica sounds like a pretty mixed bag.

    I get the feeling that they’re more of a novelty act, if one with a long career. In a live performance they’re headbanging while playing the cello:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZNj5ZQwv1U
    Meh – it’s quirky, it’s fun, though as you mention they might not be the best technical players.

    I suspect that there are 3 aspects which doom what people refer to here as “classical” music:
    1) A symphony is expensive. You need lots of people. This is offset by the ability to produce much of this electronically these days, but for anything which is going to be a featured instrument it isn’t good enough. For background accompaniment or fill it’ll do.
    2) People like lyrics. Lyrics are something you can sing, even if you don’t have the backing music. Sure, you can hum an instrumental tune, but for some reason people don’t like to hum together, but you’ll hear people break into the lyrics of a song and have others join in.
    3) Your classical “classical” music tends to have a very complex melody which is very difficult to memorize. There was some research done with MRI recently looking at the brains of people listening to different musical compositions. What they discovered is that people feel good when they are able to predict what’s going to happen (think: confirmation bias). Since pop music is nothing if not predictable, it sells very well at the mass-market level. This works against your classical compositions.

  20. > I get the feeling that they’re more of a novelty act

    Yes. The founding members of Apocalyptica were students at the Sibelius Academy when got the idea, apparently on a very late night at a summer camp for instrumentalists. I. e. it was a case of a bunch of drunken teenage cellists sitting in the middle of nowhere in Finland in the light summer night going “let’s play Metallica”. The members have had careers outside of Apocalyptica, though. E.g. Perttu Kivilaakso has played in the Helsinki Philharmonic and has had success as a soloist playing a classical repertoire.

    Re: different times and predictability: These days people listen to, or at least hear, an enormous amount of recorded pop, and a lot of the time it’s playing in the background without anyone paying very much attention. Before that was possible, obviously the only way was to play the music yourself or listen to someone else live, which probably meant going somewhere and stopping to listen. Of course, a lot of the time the concerts and operas in 18th or 19th century Europe were as much about socializing, eating and drinking than about music, but still, you had to invest quite a bit of time and energy to hear well-played music, and you hadn’t had recorded music landing in your ears all day long before the concert. I guess the composers could expect quite a lot from the listeners, at least in terms of attention.

  21. You know art exists in a social context, and a lot of what I find stinky about classical music is the bunch of posers who advocate it, while dis-ing modern music. Classical music that survives is the best of the best, all the rest has been forgotten, yet somehow we are to compare the best of the best of classical, against the average of modern? It seems an unfair comparison. 90% of everything is crap, but if you throw away the 90% from the old stuff, and compare it to 100% of the new stuff, your comparison is pretty skewed. And it is also an entirely different form of art to write a 90 minute opera compared to a 4 minute song for the radio and iPod.

    However, it is my view that the primary purpose of art is to stimulate us on an emotional level, and I think that in one sense opera is the apotheosis of that particular form (though I will admit to never having watched on end to end, and I think there is a lot of la de da in between the big songs.)

    FWIW, music is less prone to this social bla than other forms of art. It is the ridiculous posers when it comes to painting, especially crappy modern painting that really creep me out. I was in an office building full of “modern art” this week. It just renewed my opinion that the Emperor’s new clothes is a parable for today.

    However, what I have always been interested in is why exactly it is that music has such a powerful effect on our mood, or my mood anyway. Why am I always depressed after listening to Enya, yet crank code three times as fast when listening to lady Gaga? Vivaldi is kind of like blocking white noise to me, but The Marriage of Figaro makes me happy, even though I don’t understand a blessed word.

    However, what exactly is the physiological mechanism that connects sounds in our ear into the endocrine system that has this impact on my body? And second question, how and why did that evolve? I don’t think apes listen to music much. Music from songbirds seems to be primarily used as a mating behavior, perhaps as a kind of pleonastic indicator of resource abundance. But we are evolutionarily a long way from birds.

  22. >And second question, how and why did [musicality] evolve?

    Most plausible theory I’ve heard is that music and language are both grounded in an adaptive requirement to be able to learn complex patterns of motion with internal time precision shorter than the human reflex arc (approximately 0.1 sec). You need to do this to throw things accurately, which apparently our ancestors did a lot (potting small game with rocks) before they developed cursorial hunting.

    Did you know that humans are ridiculously good at throwing things relative to other primates? It’s true; even humans who are bad at throwing are way better than J. Random Chimp, and there is nothing else in nature even remotely like a human fastball pitcher.

    Under this theory (which I think is due to William Calvin in The Ascent of Mind) the neural machinery to develop complex, precisely-timed motor routines, buffer them up for downloading to our fingertips, and introspect on them developed into a generalized pattern-buffering facility. Which in turn underlies human abilities at music, language, dance, and mathematics.

  23. “However, what exactly is the physiological mechanism that connects sounds in our ear into the endocrine system that has this impact on my body?”

    This is only my own guess, those more expert feel free to ring in on this, but I believe it’s a side-effect of yet another survival mechanism. One of my pleasures in listening to music is to ‘pick apart’ a really rich (complex) sound, like that of an early pipe organ. It’s like your brain does an FFT in your head. I think the ability probably evolved so that noises made by enemies or prey could be picked out of the sonic background efficiently and identified.

  24. On that ‘FFT in your head’, I should have mentioned that a lot of that is done in hardware. The cochlea in your ears has receptors sensitive to different frequencies, and the nerve impulses they send to your brain already contain spectral information.

    …another bit of evidence that your mind extends outward from your brain to include the rest of your body….

  25. For me a head rush (cf isostatic hypotension) or a good piss shiver is a pleasure without parallel. Sex is great, and the crunch as a living creature expires between your teeth is untranslatable. At any given moment I can tell you exactly which I want, or don’t, and some pleasures are heightened by delay or denial, others are best unasked for, unbidden, & even unwanted.

    Music listening requires practice & familiarity to create the possibility of interesting, humourous, & enlightening juxtapositions; otherwise it’s just noise. Lady Gaga is a perfect example: if you’d never heard of Madonna, Lady Gaga would seem rather dull, silly, repetitive, trite, childish, & banal, but in the context of 20th century pop-music it becomes a rather interesting joke on the listener. The best analogue I can think of is: http://thesurrealist.co.uk/personality

  26. > if you’d never heard of Madonna, Lady Gaga would seem rather dull, silly, repetitive, trite, childish, & banal, but in the context of 20th century pop-music it becomes a rather interesting joke on the listener.

    A good part of Lady Gaga’s audience seems to be blissfully unaware that the joke is on them.

  27. I don’t understand what makes some music bring a smile to my face, independent of anything else. Consider Diesel’s Sausalito Summernight: it’s a song about a road trip from hell, and yet it’s a happy fun tune. The music is speaking to us at a far more fundamental level than the words. There are others, but that’s the example that pops immediately to mind.

  28. As a more general question to what Jay said what is it that makes music communicate emotions? (aside from the subtle note variations mentioned in Breaking free from the curse of the gifted)

  29. I. e. it was a case of a bunch of drunken teenage cellists sitting in the middle of nowhere in Finland in the light summer night going “let’s play Metallica”.

    Given what other tipsy Finnish teens have accomplished (i.e., Linus Torvalds…), I have this image of Finnish parents surreptitiously smuggling beer and alcohol into their teenager’s camping gear and dorm rooms….

  30. @esr:
    Being brought up with the kind of music you describe as being heard in your household during your childhood might have influenced what you described (elsewhere) as spontaneously channeling Pan when you learned to play the flute.

    And it could be explained along with the fact that the flute isn’t a particularly hard instrument to play (I’m thinking about this kind of flute right now, which I learned how to play when I was a kid: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recorder)

    It is known that the main difference in ability to learn music (before practice) is exposure to music during childhood. (I could produce a source for this information if asked for it)

    What say you?

  31. Thing is, I don’t get what “classical” music is supposed to encompass here. One definition is music designed for orchestral instrumentation, barring any use of sound amplification or electronic synthesizers (which requires a concert hall environment). But there’s little reason to perpetuate that particular style, other than historical legacy.

    For one thing, electronic synthesizers can be used to devise deeply innovative forms of “art music”, such as Willian Sethares’ xenotonal music (which actually sounds good, unlike most non-tonal music!)

    Some composers may be unwilling to make the jump to artificial timbres and xenotonality, but even so, the general consensus seems to be (1) that 12-TET tonal music has been pushed about as far as it will go (Peter Westergaard’s “An Introduction to Tonal Theory” gives a comprehensive description of its music theory) and (2) that serial atonality sounds like crap: we’ve been trying to put polish on that pig for a long time, and it hasn’t worked out.

  32. The best film scores are the ones that avoid traditional orchestration.
    Akira, for instance.

  33. guest: Since when do we have to push tonal music any farther? That line of thinking is what got us into this mess in the first place.

  34. Jay Maynard, sure, we don’t _have_ to innovate in any given direction, and I can see where a single-minded focus on radical novelty could lead to problems. Nonetheless, having listened to Sethares’ work on xenotonality, if casually, I found it to offer striking evidence that sustained innovation is possible, in a way that, say, “noise music” (which really is fine as far as it goes, but should perhaps be regarded as sound art rather than music proper) or Schoenbergian atonality do not.

  35. @esr:
    “Most plausible theory I’ve heard is that music and language are both grounded in an adaptive requirement to be able to learn complex patterns of motion with internal time precision shorter than the human reflex arc (approximately 0.1 sec). You need to do this to throw things accurately, which apparently our ancestors did a lot (potting small game with rocks) before they developed cursorial hunting.

    “Did you know that humans are ridiculously good at throwing things relative to other primates? It’s true; even humans who are bad at throwing are way better than J. Random Chimp, and there is nothing else in nature even remotely like a human fastball pitcher.”

    Slightly off-topic:

    These types of arguments are increasingly leading me to believe that the Drake Equation analysis of why there is so few technological civilizations around has put low values in the wrong coefficients. Generally, “Uniqueness Proponents” have argued that either life or intelligence is rare; others have argued that the galaxy if full of aliens, but the lifetime of technological civilizations is short.

    I used to think that intelligence was a difficult thing for evolution to achieve, but the more that I read about the complex interactions between members of social species, the less I believe that. I’m in the camp of “humans got smarter to deal with each other, not to deal with the rest of the environment”. This means that intelligence may be common, while technology may still be very rare because the equivalent of human hands are not found on most intelligent beings. (I’m ignoring here my other belief that has been gaining in strength; that given the amount of time it took to go from unicellular to multicellular life, that may be the hardest transition of all, harder than developing intelligence or technology.)

    Now that anthropologists have determined that humans began to walk upright long before their brains began the dramatic expansion that led to H. sapiens, it looks more and more as though the evolution of the tool-making-and-using hand was largely uncoupled from the evolution of the complex brain. Outside of primates, I see little to no correlation between cranial complexity and ability to manipulate physical objects with dexterity.

    Hypothesis: Intelligent, sapient aliens who do not come from our hands-driven hunting evolutionary path will not have or understand music.

  36. “Did you know that humans are ridiculously good at throwing things relative to other primates?”

    I am beginning to think there is something really wrong about the “man, the thinking and speaking ape, full stop” picture I was fed at school. Year by year I learn new exclusive or rare features: man, the long-distance running ape, man, the sweating ape, man, the throwing ape…

  37. I think that not only movies are driving classical music. If you look at modern Triple-A games, they often have soundtracks that are (in composition) similar to classical or at least score music.
    Recent examples range from Skyrim to Assassin’s Creed and others. They are often pretty good for games that mostly distinguish themselves by their graphics.

  38. @Cathy
    > the Drake Equation analysis of why there is so few technological civilizations around has put low values in the wrong coefficients.

    You know I think there is a whole other coefficient that isn’t included. It is correct not to include it for the narrow goals of Drake’s hypothesis, but from a practical point of view is essential.

    That coefficient is how detectable these remote aliens are. If we can’t detect them they, to all intents and purposes, don’t exist from a human perspective. The fact is that detectability is almost certainly tiny.

    The best way to detect them is via their EM emissions, yet even the most powerful transmitter ends as background noise within a light year of its point of transmission. (Sorry, not a radio person so can’t do the math.) That is compounded by the fact that it seems to be an intrinsic property of technology that the more advanced it is, the less we broadcast our EM, and when we do, we do so with less and less power. That means we sent it down physical pipes like wires and glass fibers, or we use very low power to narrow it to broadcast in small cells. Further, we compress the data in the EM traffic to the point where the entropy is tiny, and consequently it just sounds like noise to the outside observer.

    I suppose if a civilization wanted to be detectable they could try to send “Hello there” pulses around the galaxy, but what are the chances of being in the right place at the right time? Small enough to be effectively zero.

    Of course if they have to destroy earth to make way for an interspace bypass, well then we would detect them, but somehow it might not matter so much. Anyway, that is why I think SETI is a waste of time and effort.

  39. Skyrim had a boring soundtrack.

    I think games are similar to movies: the soundtracks are better when they move beyond or away from traditional “score music.” I’m thinking of Xenosaga Episode III.

  40. And ‘classical’ music was popular…

    Not what is meant by “popular” today. The 18th century composers wrote for an elite audience, drawn from the wealthiest 5% to 10% of the population. Even Bach’s church music was for the wealthy burgers who attended the most prestigious church in Leipzig.

    The true “popular” music of the period was composed and performed by anonymous ‘folk’ artists.

    In the 1800s, the increase in general wealth from the Industrial Revolution broadened the audience to 15%-25% of the population. Liszt became a rock star; virtuosos like Paganini and Clara Schumann made very good livings from concert touring.

    But that greater wealth also supported the development of formalized popular music, performed in music halls and vaudeville reviews, published as sheet music for home performance, and eventually sold on records.

    By the late 1800s, these two genres were very distinct. Classiical music was bigger than ever; but popular music was enormous. Some “classical” composers’ work was in both markets (Sullivan, Offenbach, Verdi, Strauss). But others were not (Bruckner, Mahler, Debussy, Wagner). Their music, though still melodic and accessible, was distinctly not popular.

    In the early 1900s, the avant-gardists took over, moving composition further in that direction. There was a spectrum – from Respighi, Richard Strauss, Ravel, through Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, to Shostakovich, Berg, Scriabin, Schoenberg.

    Thus the avant-gardists took composition down that dead end. But I don’t believe they did it just by out-talking everybody. What they wrote had elements which attracted and interested the most capable listeners.

    I myself don’t really “get” music the way musicians do, I think. There appear to be subtleties of performance, as in versions of a work by different artists, that are invisible to me. (I get words really well, by comparison.) So even the early avant-garde music is nothing to me – verging on noise. It’s for a listener elite only – to the extent that it has real content, and is not just an exercise in modernist theory. There’s stuff from just before that transition that I do get, somewhat, in spite of the conscious dissonance and chaotic rhythms – so maybe people with smarter ears get the even harsher stuff,

    Classical performance thrived, with the ever-increasing prosperity of the general public, drawing on the glorious heritage of the previous 200 years. That of course was the beginning of “museumization”.

    But popular music was growing into the Colossus of recent years.

    I would note here that some modernist composers could and did produce quite acceptable “popular” music. Leonard Bernstein, for instance, wrote wonderful popular music – for West Side Story, Candide, Wonderful Town, and On the Town – but his “concert” music is all grimly modernist.

    The problem is not just that “avant-gardists hijacked composition”. Classical composition was moving away from the most popular and accessible forms before the avant-gardists came along. This seems to be a problem in art genres generally. In music, much the same thing has happened to jazz. The insiders become bored with the elements which are most accessible to the general public, and start working with elements that have actual esthetic value, but are fully accessible only to devotees and those with the best perceptions in the area. This work comes to have the most prestige, and gradually drives out everything else. In the final stage, the genre decays into ritualistic exercises in the most esoteric forms, encysted in theory, with the only function as a display for prestige.

    There remains a certain amount of interest in the genre’s great-works heritage, and even some in making new works in traditional styles, but the high-prestige core is dead.

  41. Feh: what I value about classical music, and it’s something that linked piece lacks, is intricate and beautiful complexities. I like my music to be baroque, regardless of whether it’s Baroque.
    Still, I maintain that classical music is not dead; the avant-gardists failed to kill it completely. I’d like to point you both at my own works – http://jttlov.no-ip.org/music.htm – and at those of André van Haren, http://www.andrevanharen.com
    So you see, people are still writing classical “Classical” music, not to be museum pieces, but because they like and value music in that tradition.

  42. “In the early 1900s, the avant-gardists took over, moving composition further in that direction. … There’s stuff from just before that transition that I do get, somewhat, in spite of the conscious dissonance and chaotic rhythms – so maybe people with smarter ears get the even harsher stuff,”

    Yes, but there was in fact no solution of continuity there, at least from the POV of an experienced listener. What we see is a long-run trend of packing more and more entropy (hence complexity, “novelty”, potential for artistic expression etc.) into the music, at the expense of the kind of redundancy which would make it recognizable to naïve, non-expert listeners. For instance, in tonal-theoretic terms, Schoenberg’s music can be analyzed (at least in part) as an extreme version of key modulation (as seen e.g. in 19th century music – mind you, that would in fact have sounded jarring to listeners at the time!) where clues as to the proper “key” (and thus degree on the musical scale) of each note are minimized, requiring intense attention and musical sophistication on the listener’s part. Of course such a development is not without its drawbacks. Thing is, it was the result of gradual evolution, and could well make sense when seen on its own terms.

  43. Eric, while I plead guilty to Michael Meets Mozart leaving me rather cold, I agree with what you say about “classical” music communicating with popular music. My own favorite modern(ish) example along these lines is Glenn Gould. Here he is, hacking the Star-Spangled Banner and God Save the Queen into a quodlibet. You can listen to it on YouTube.

    Out of curiosity: Am I correct in suspecting that this post is connected with your earlier one about generative vs nongenerative science? It occurs to me that the same concept works for music as well. And I doubt it’s a coincidence that classical music turned sour around the same time musicians abandoned its generative traditions, such as improvising and porting pieces from one instrument to another.

  44. @Jessica:
    “You know I think there is a whole other coefficient that isn’t included [in the Drake equation]. It is correct not to include it for the narrow goals of Drake’s hypothesis, but from a practical point of view is essential.That coefficient is how detectable these remote aliens are.”

    Only if you assume that 21st century humanity represents the approximate pinnacle of technological achievement.

    We could detect Dyson spheres (which would show up as dim stars with very odd spectra), and if the aliens had spread exponentially all over the galaxy, we could definitely detect them because they’d be sitting right here in the solar system. Even if they stayed home but sent out STL probes that would explore, transmit findings back home, and replicate themselves — a trivial cost of resources for a truly advanced civilization — the sky would be full of probes transmitting away. You can postulate that they use a method other than electromagnetic spectrum for this, but now you’re starting to multiply hypotheses.

    I would argue that Occam’s razor suggests that truly advanced high-tech civilizations don’t exist in our galaxy, and since I see nothing standing in the way of humans ultimately becoming truly advanced, I am inclined to think that some factors suppress the creation of such civilizations.

    In other words, H. sapiens is an unlikely accident.

  45. @guest:
    “Since when do we have to push tonal music any farther? That line of thinking is what got us into this mess in the first place.”
    @Will:
    “Because not doing it leads to stagnation.”

    I recall reading an argument (can’t remember the book or author) that the reason there is no “modern Mozart” is that to become viewed as a great classical composer, you have to discover a complex new part of the musical noosphere, and that by the 20th century all of the available space had already been explored and mapped. What was left was obscure corners that were meaningless to most listeners, and broad areas that were popular but had already been heavily homesteaded.

    On the other hand, the actual musical performers can be as great today as ever, because top-quality performance does not require the degree of originality that is expected of composition.

  46. >Am I correct in suspecting that this post is connected with your earlier one about generative vs nongenerative science?

    I didn’t intend the connection, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. :-)

  47. ESR “For many years there wasn’t enough new classical work being composed outside film scores that we could even form a judgement about whether classical music was in decline.”

    I don’t understand your exclusion of film (and I assume video game) scores. In a free market, demand is where you find it, and some of these works certainly can be enjoyed on their own.

  48. Jessica Boxer: It is the ridiculous posers when it comes to painting, especially crappy modern painting that really creep me out. I was in an office building full of “modern art” this week. It just renewed my opinion that the Emperor’s new clothes is a parable for today.

    This is my area of expertise. The early and high examples of fine art modernism were meant to be enjoyed in the same visceral, aesthetic way as all previous art had been, except without the benefit of recognizable content. There is definitely crappy modern painting, but there are also wonderful examples. (I’d link, but most of them have to be experienced in person because scale is an important part of their power.)

    Late modernism and postmodernism are another thing. Content reappeared as a modernist concern in the ’50s, and by the ’70s the art world had become a different place. By then, the seminal works of high modernism had all been painted. Movements like Pop, minimalism, Fluxus were ascendant, video art was just getting going, and increasingly art was accompanied by intellectual and social justifications instead of aesthetic ones. The reasons for that are dissertation-length, but suffice it to say that that work has little or no relation to the rest of aesthetic experience. This is a major strike against it, in my opinion.

  49. >What was left was obscure corners that were meaningless to most listeners, and broad areas that were popular but had already been heavily homesteaded.

    Nonsense.

    If this were true, Hans Zimmer’s movie-soundtrack albums wouldn’t sell as well as they do. What does he do? Why, the same thing Romantic-era composers did – incorporate broader ranges of timbre through new instruments, and rhythms at increasing distance from 4/4. There are immense possibilities out there – African polyrhythms, microtonal coloring, and raga have been touched by classical composers (especially in film scores) but not truly assimilated into the tradition. Just fully exploring what electric guitars make possible could take a century in itself.

  50. >I don’t understand your exclusion of film (and I assume video game) scores.

    Hell, I don’t exclude them. The problem is that the classical-music establishment has largely relegated them to the category of “junk written for money” and enforced a separation of that from “real” music.

  51. Cathy sez:
    > Even if they stayed home but sent out STL probes
    > that would explore, transmit findings back home,
    > and replicate themselves — a trivial cost of resources
    > for a truly advanced civilization — the sky would be full of
    > probes transmitting away.

    At STL speeds they would have had to do it starting at least 1 year in the past for every light year they are away from us. For a middling distance across the *galaxy* that would mean that they would have had to start what, 1000 years ago? so that we could see them today.

    > You can postulate that they use a method other
    > than electromagnetic spectrum for this, but now
    > you’re starting to multiply hypotheses.

    Really all you have to do is postulate an encoding method we don’t know to look for. Consider the difficulty of finding a spread spectrum signal when you don’t know the spread. Or if for some reason they’re doing frequency hopping (for example if the Chinese and the Indians were both trying to colonize the Universe (because the US had given up), would they be partners for very long? And if they used both frequency hopping spread spectrum stuff with hops and spreads we didn’t know about (we like stuff in powers of two, or base 10. Powers of two is *probably* common, but that might be cultural. Powers of 10 is almost certainly “cultural” based on 10 fingers. If they have are exactly like us, but with 5 fingers and one thumb-or don’t have bilateral symmetry and wind up with 11 fingers, what does that do to their bias in regards to number selection?

    And if one used a laser for communication it would be even tougher.

  52. “I would argue that Occam’s razor suggests that truly advanced high-tech civilizations don’t exist in our galaxy, and since I see nothing standing in the way of humans ultimately becoming truly advanced, I am inclined to think that some factors suppress the creation of such civilizations.

    In other words, H. sapiens is an unlikely accident.”

    ….and then there are those who think there may be a Great Filter that snuffs out civilizations once they get sufficiently advanced. Perhaps once they develop atomic weapons, it becomes inevitable that they get used, or once they start burning fossil fuels, it becomes inevitable that they poison themselves, or….

  53. ESR and Random832, there is a distinctive tradition of “light classical music”, which is sort of a transition phenomenon between “serious” art music and popular music. I would include the easy-listening/”lounge” genres in there as well as ragtime (from the more “popular” end of the spectrum), although some folks might disagree. Western art music sort of split off that tradition in the late Romantic period, with a trend towards long and musically heavy works and increasing dynamic range.

  54. Shenpen:

    Don’t forget ‘man, the swimming ape’. There are certainly mammals (even land mammals) that are better swimmers, but none even close among primates.

  55. @ESR

    I have a very general question: why are you against elitism in the arts but in favour of it in the sciences?

    More precisely, why do you (seem to) exclude that intelligence (of the “hard” type measured by IQ tests) is irrelevant in the appreciation of the arts? And if intelligence is relevant, how can the arts not be driven by the most intelligent creators, and therefore be something that only other equally gifted individuals can appreciate?

    I think that what little we know about the cognitive foundations of the arts and estethic sensibility supports this parallelism with science.

    While we do not know as much about our estethic faculty as we do about other cognitive faculties, it seems clear that our unique (as humans) ability to produce and appreciate art has a strong cognitive foundation, and that that foundation overlaps considerably with those mental abilities at the basis of mathematical thinking.

    It is a commonplace to say that beauty and correctness (in a scientific, mathematical sense) are strongly related in the human mind.

    But it seems there is more to this parallelism than just a shared general cognitive foundation: it is now becoming increasigly clear that music, poetry, but also narrative arts like films and novels are also the result of a generative cognitive capacity (in the case of music, this has been claimed for some time now).

    If that view is correct then part of the task of appreciating a piece of music, a painting, a novel, requires re-tracing the steps that led the author to produce those works in the first place. My claim is that this is tantamount to build a generative hypothesis about a natural phenomenon.

    Maybe this process does not happen consciously, but when any experienced reader/listener etc. finds himself predicting what the author will do next, this is what is going on inside his head. And from this basic fact stems the need for increasing complexity in the arts. If you want to get more pleasure out of your favourite art/genre, you have to make the art more unpredictable and difficult to decipher.

    In practical terms, this means that there is a lot of background information that you have to gather in order to be able to appreciate the work of art and/or that the structure of the work is such that there is a considerable parsing effort to be done before the work is readable (this is true for music as well)

    It seems clear to me that much modern “arid, cerebral, experimental” art falls in this category: for instance, i think you can get a lot of pleasure out of dodecaphonic music, but you have to know a lot about music in order to understand the “algorithm” those guy used to produce that music, and then you still have to make the effort to parse a complex stream of “artistic data”, so to say, according to that newly learned “algorithm”.

    I don’t think this has anything to do with a popular/intellectual opposition: the complexity I’m talking about can be part, for instance, of a best-seller novel – provided the pre-requisite that the reading experience is going to require intense intellectual effort is clear. An example of this case would be … science-fiction.

    Similalry, I don’t think the evolution towards complexity has any historical significance as a clue about the health of western civilization: the increase and decrease in complexity seems to be a direct function in the way we produce and parse esthetic works, and can be seen in the career of a single artist, as you clearly showed in your survey of Satriani’s works.

    In short, my point is that there is no difference, from a cognitive point of view, in deciphering a science -fiction novel or Joyce’s Ulysses: both are decipherable, even if it is difficult to decipher them, but the difficulty is part of the pleasure.

  56. >>What was left was obscure corners that were meaningless to most listeners, and broad areas that were popular but had already been heavily homesteaded.

    >Nonsense.

    >If this were true, Hans Zimmer’s movie-soundtrack albums wouldn’t sell as well as they do. What does he do? Why, the same thing Romantic-era composers did – incorporate broader ranges of timbre through new instruments, and rhythms at increasing distance from 4/4. There are immense possibilities out there – African polyrhythms, microtonal coloring, and raga have been touched by classical composers (especially in film scores) but not truly assimilated into the tradition. Just fully exploring what electric guitars make possible could take a century in itself.

    this may be true if you consider only classical music (in a narrow sense), but if you look at the whole of 20th century music, that argument may still be correct (I am not claiming it is): the experimentations you talk about were also done in many jazz big bands, for example, and many “experimental” jazz/rock bands (am I the only one here to remember Henry Cow??)

  57. Don’t forget ‘man, the swimming ape’. There are certainly mammals (even land mammals) that are better swimmers, but none even close among primates.

    Oh, yes. That one gave rise to the “aquatic ape” theory, though last time I Iooked that was rejected by the professional anthropology community.

    I don’t believe we have a black monolith in our past, but at some point you have to wonder. :-)

  58. Music listening requires practice & familiarity to create the possibility of interesting, humourous, & enlightening juxtapositions; otherwise it’s just noise.

    Uh-uh. Music that can’t be listened to on its own terms is just noise. My nearly 1-year-old nephew rocks vigorously back and forth — or side to side — when he hears a song he likes. He hasn’t got the neural wetware yet to make juxtapositions or determine the provenance of references a given song makes; but he already knows how to appreciate music.

    Thinking like yours is what turned music from a technical and aesthetic phenomenon into a social one. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is an aesthetically un-interesting song. Go ahead, put it up against Van Halen’s “Jump” with its fiery guitar and synth solos; or even Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” with its tons of things going on, and tell me which has more interesting features. But it is hailed as a work of revolutionary genius because of the social context in which rock musicians and music critics existed wherein the provenance and message of the music is more important than the music itself. But rock music doesn’t need that social context to be good. Play some Elvis and my little nephew quite literally rocks and rolls.

    Lady Gaga is a perfect example: if you’d never heard of Madonna, Lady Gaga would seem rather dull, silly, repetitive, trite, childish, & banal, but in the context of 20th century pop-music it becomes a rather interesting joke on the listener.

    Guess I just don’t get the joke.

    Lady Gaga’s music is all that to me and I’ve heard — even sometimes liked — Madonna. This is just an epiphenomenon of the fact that pop music is done. Finished. Stick a fork in it. It’ll still get made, sure, but it won’t develop while still remaining itself. The interesting pop artists these days are either going back to the synth-heavy aesthetic of the 1980s — perhaps the last time when basic principles of melody, harmony, rhythm, and counterpoint were respected — or embracing the tropes of the rave culture, which has produced some of the most sweepingly emotional music since the classical days.

  59. I think games are similar to movies: the soundtracks are better when they move beyond or away from traditional “score music.” I’m thinking of Xenosaga Episode III.

    Counterexample: Shadow of the Colossus, whose soundtrack is worthy of purchase alone, never mind the excellent game it was written to be a part of.

    The best video game music tends to come about when music is an integral signalling component of the game itself. Even Super Mario Bros. qualifies to an extent, but at the top end of the spectrum is Rez.

    Some Rez gameplay.

    Rez hints at the future of music: in which the units of composition are not individual songs but song-parts which are woven together by computer to create a unique experience for each listener and each listening.

    Bio-digital jazz, man.

  60. Jeff: You hit the nail squarely on the head with “Music that can’t be listened to on its own terms is just noise.” I truly fail to understand why I should be somehow considered unenlightened because I consider High Music unlistenable; the reason I do is precisely because it can’t be listened simply as music, but instead has to be processed as High Art.

    Though I’d like Jump a hell of a lot better without David Lee Roth’s screaming.

  61. @Cathy

    I don’t believe we have a black monolith in our past, but at some point you have to wonder. :-)

    Didn’t you get the memo? It’s the next iDevice. You will find yourself learning all sorts of uses for the thighbone of an antelope.

  62. @federico

    Art is either communication or self-abuse. If it is the latter for you, please don’t do it in public. Otherwise, art requires an audience. If they don’t get it, it isn’t art.

  63. I don’t understand what makes some music bring a smile to my face, independent of anything else. Consider Diesel’s Sausalito Summernight: it’s a song about a road trip from hell, and yet it’s a happy fun tune.

    Sounds like one of my favorite bands, the Australian band TISM: listenable, upbeat tunes about depressing topics. “Greg! The Stop Sign!!” is a brisk surf-rock anthem about teenage dreams that will never be realized; the title comes from an Australian PSA wherein the teenage Greg, out driving drunk, misses a stop sign and hits a vehicle in cross traffic, condemning himself and his friends to an early death.

    And their characteristically Australian, swearword-filled rant against unlistenable High Music, from “The TISM Guide to Little Aesthetics”, is one for the ages:

    Q. Why is it that, in artistic terms, your ideas are post-modern, while your song structures are in a firmly traditional mode? Or to put it another way, why are your press releases more interesting than your songs? (NB: If you really were serious, you probably wouldn’t release records.)

    A. The reason for this, Jon, you perspicacious over-analytical cocksucker, is because it’s far easier to toss off a quick dose of good, solid post-modernism than to write a ‘traditional’ – as you so slightingly refer to it – pop song. Post-modernism is as easy as one – two – Albert Camus. Here we go now. I feel a dose of post-modernism coming on:

    The Janus-Faced Bead Game

    The street lights stretched provocatively into the distance, forming in the distant perspective a distant view of a distinctly distant capital V. Remus saw the arc of bluish-orange electric light, and thought,”What would Romulus say, if he were here today, in this world obsessed with ephemera? Who is this fellow?” “Ah, mista, why not?” grunted his new companion, stamping his feet on the permafrost. “Seeing the wise man is not hearing the fool”, replied Remus. “Fish. Fish. Fish. Fish. Fish.” chattered the overhead subway express.

    The End

    See what I mean, Jon. Anyone can toss off this shit in 15 seconds. All the fucking dance groups, every puppet troupe, the theatre collectives, the no support centres, the poetry-performance origami synthesis consortia, they’re all the fuckin’ same, they mystify and bore the audience shitless, but the audience are all too fuckin’ ridiculously caught-up in their post-modernist underwear to say so.

    The post-modernist emperor has no clothes, Jon. If everyone has 15 minutes of fame, Andy Warhol had 14 too many. Give me a good, long traditional work of boring, straight narrative; give me a hero with moral attractiveness, not a confronting juxtaposition of disturbingly evocative imagery eschewing the device of chronological narrative structure. Jesus, Jon, surely you’ve been bored shitless by enough brilliant one-person explanations of this slowly cooling universe to last you a life time? Give me a pop-song, mate. Give me a fucking pop-song. Not only is it more fun, it’s pretty fuckin’ hard to write as well. You can bung in as many out-of-tune oboes as you want, but putting chords together so they sound pleasant isn’t as simple as it might appear. It mightn’t be the Sistine Chapel, but what is? Ollie fucking Olsen with his stupid feedback and cough mixture? The Jesus and Mary Chain, with their stupid feedback, and their stupid stage show with 800 powerful stupid lights and enough stupid dry ice to enhance their stupid stupidity up its own bullshit crappy teenage pretentious one dimensional dick witted puissant artistic enigma?

    So you tell me, Jon, what have you listened to for a good time that isn’t, after all, a ‘traditional’ song? Still playing the Mike Oldfield records, huh? Still whipping Yessongs on for a good time? Wanna count on one hand how many people have fun at a Sonic Youth gig? I’m not supporting The Choirboys, old man, I’m just saying that the day some jumped up over-paid self-important post-modernist cocksucker puts his foot upon his Fairlight computer in the middle of his 47 minute opus The Silent Forgiveness Of The Pig-God and belts out the chords to Johnny B. Goode is the day I’ll join you at the footlights of post-modernism.

    Besides which, pop songs sell more.

  64. TISM as in the assholes who made “Everyone has had more sex than me?”

    Give me Merzbow any day. Way too many pop-songs in the world. And people talking in clichés, but I digress.

  65. That’s an interesting article! Market forces as a proxy for determining security strength, huh?

  66. More apologies for continuing off topic. I had my laugh for today reading a piece of news about RIM and mobile operator Cubio introducing BlackBerries in Finland for the first time. Accorring to Cubio’s web page, the phones are coming soon. Better late than never, I suppose. In other news, since it became available a month ago, Lumia 800 has become the fastest selling phone with two Finnish operators ( of the three major ones, Cubio is not one of them). The numbers probably include preorders. See what happens now that the fans have got theirs… Some of the so-called analysts have already declared Lumia dead on arrival in the large markets, but it’s early days.

  67. federico on Monday, March 26 2012 at 12:52 pm said:
    >I have a very general question: why are you against elitism in the arts but in favour of it in the sciences?
    > More precisely, why do you (seem to) exclude that intelligence (of the “hard” type measured by IQ tests) is irrelevant in the appreciation of the arts?

    There is a very big difference between art and science. In science you can be demonstrated to be objectively wrong or objectively right. In art it is mostly about opinion and preference. There is no real check against vanity in art. Ask Stanley Pons if that is also true of science.

  68. Most plausible theory I’ve heard is that music and language are both grounded in an adaptive requirement to be able to learn complex patterns of motion with internal time precision shorter than the human reflex arc (approximately 0.1 sec). You need to do this to throw things accurately, which apparently our ancestors did a lot (potting small game with rocks) before they developed cursorial hunting.

    Don’t forget the synchronisation aspect of time precision.

    Napoleonic Sea Shanties had two main purposes, one was certainly morale based, but they were used to regulate the tempo of work being done by medium to large numbers of people at once.

  69. >the Kronos Quartet has backported Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze

    I didn’t like it. The decision to use legato phrasing throughout seemed perverse to me. A sharper attack with some use of pizzicato would have served them far better, I think.

  70. federico on Monday, March 26 2012 at 12:52 pm said:
    >I have a very general question: why are you against elitism in the arts but in favour of it in the sciences?
    > More precisely, why do you (seem to) exclude that intelligence (of the “hard” type measured by IQ tests) is irrelevant in the appreciation of the arts?

    >There is a very big difference between art and science. In science you can be demonstrated to be objectively wrong or objectively right. In art it is mostly about opinion and preference. There is no real check against vanity in art. Ask Stanley Pons if that is also true of science.

    the question is how deep “opinion” goes.

    My claim is that appreciating complex works of art entails an equally complex parsing process, and intelligence (IQ) cannot a priori be excluded from it. In turn, this parsing ability is a premise for more subjective evaluations.

    My hunch is based on my own experience of being tested for “readiing ability” at high school (14 years old).

    That was no ordinary school test, but (with hindsight) a fairly advanced evaluation test evidently developed by some psychologists. There were a lot of questions, and most of them were fairly complex: for instance, we had to rearrange a set of sentences in all the possible ways that would form a coherent narrative, vice-versa, given a “free-flow” piece of narrative, we had to reconstruct how the events described in it followed each other, or, given a noun like “cabbage”, write as many possible one-verb sentences with that word that still made sense, and so on and on – the whole thing took three hours! we were told to do at least, say, 15 questions, but encouraged to to do them all.

    We were also told we would be scored but there would be no marks. That may have caused some particularly bad results, but the point is not that the usual suspects failed to answer even 15 questions, rather what surprised me then (and my teachers) was the difference in speed: some of us finished answering all the questions in little more than an hour and a half (as opposed to the three we were given), and those were also the ones that did better on the final score.

    As you may expect, that group was also better at finding possible ambiguities, multiple solutions to the same question (i.e the same piece of text could describe at least 5 different chronological narratives etc.) and so on.

    Another factor that I remember discriminated strongly between the two groups was the ability to hypothesize out of the details provided by context: some questions were tricky in the same way of those “who-done-it” quizzes in which the “two victims” are a pair of jelly fish (category changing tasks). The test contained similar quizzes, but crucially the tricky element was a grammatical word: i still remember the protests of those with a low score when the teachers told us that “who” (as in “who could have done this?”) referred to a dog.

    All this has nothing to do with opinion and preference, and many of the questions I had to answer tested techniques widely used in literature – as our teachers repeatedly pointed out. Likewise, the difference in speed makes me thing that some kind of computational ability is at work here.

  71. >My claim is that appreciating complex works of art entails an equally complex parsing process, and intelligence (IQ) cannot a priori be excluded from it. In turn, this parsing ability is a premise for more subjective evaluations.

    Obviously you’re right. Music is an even clearer case because the “complex parsing” doesn’t necessarily have to do with anything to do with IQ. People who are tone-deaf just won’t get it even if they have very high IQs. At the other end of the spectrum, it seems certain to me that my tastes in music are shaped by the fact that I have excellent pitch discrimination and am generally musically talented (for whatever else that means, neurologically speaking).

    But…so what? Healthy artistic forms meet their markets by having a spectrum of offerings for each level of acuity. I like complex instrumental prog-metal, myself. I also like reading SF that is diamond-hard to the point where you have to know speculative physics even to just fully grasp the stage setting (excellent recent example, Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief). But unlike a typical avant-gardist, I don’t sneer at basic three-chord rock or despise popular space operas – they too have their place.

    Art is unlike science in that an art form that deliberately cuts itself off from the popular end of its audience is courting sterility and suicide. Quantum physicists don’t worry about whether their work is popularly understood because its value is objectively proven by consequences like the computer I’m using; on the other hand, the meaning and consequence of art is, exactly, its audience response. Without the yeasty background of popular art to recruit new audience members and train composers able to reach a broad audience, “high art” rapidly withers.

  72. >the Kronos Quartet has backported Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze

    I didn’t like it. The decision to use legato phrasing throughout seemed perverse to me. A sharper attack with some use of pizzicato would have served them far better, I think.

    Agreed, in spades. Blarg. I had to stop it less than halfway through because it just sounded wrong.

  73. esr> I didn’t like it. The decision to use legato phrasing throughout seemed
    esr> perverse to me. A sharper attack with some use of pizzicato would
    esr> have served them far better, I think.

    That’s fair. They did play it in a faster tempo and with a more aggressive attack when I first heard them back in Munich. I liked that better too. (That was In 1996, or whichever year you gave your Cathedral-and-the-Bazaar talk in Erlangen. A fellow grad student at my lab heard you there. But I digress.) It seems to me you’re disliking the Kronos Quartet’s Hendrix in the same way I dislike the Amadeus Quartet’s Beethoven. Too harmless (I prefer the Emersons). This kind of disagreement always comes up within a musical subculture without delegitimizing it. But I think we agree that the basic idea of the port works, and that classical music would be healthier if more musicians tried something like it.

    Having made this distinction, I listened to the Michael-Meets-Mozart clip again. I wanted to see if my reservations about it are on a similar level, and if I like their general approach when other musicians apply it with slightly different specifics. It now occurs to me that I’m hearing solid number of gifted musicians play in this spirit near where I now live—just not in the officially-anointed cathedrals of classical-music-dom, but in New York’s Penn Station, its subway, and in the South-West corner of Central Park (probably Juilliard freshmen who haven’t been corrupted yet). Maybe this is another bazar-beats-cathedral story.

    Hey, this is fun! Thanks for helping me clarify my own thoughts on this.

  74. >But I think we agree that the basic idea of the port works, and that classical music would be healthier if more musicians tried something like it.

    Agreed. For contrast, try this: Overture: Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. This is music in the classical (more properly, Romantic) style, written by the members of Dream Theater, a prog-metal band, which appears on one of their albums without explanation or apology. I think it is quite good – stands comparison with (say) Dubcek’s New World Symphony or other work from the immediate pre-Modernist period.

    Yes, their arrangement includes trap drums and electric guitar. I think this is a proper modern-day parallel to, say, Kodaly’s use of the cimbalom (a Hungarian folk instrument) in the Hary Janos Suite. It is exactly the sort of thing I am intending when I call for a living classical genre that is in creative dialog with the popular music of our day.

  75. >I think Lights Out Asia exemplifies modern romanticism more so.

    Listened to one track (Except for Europa). Found it soporific. If I wanted this effect I’d take Quaaludes or just hit myself with a big rubber mallet.

  76. ESR, “At the other end of the spectrum, it seems certain to me that my tastes in music are shaped by the fact that I have excellent pitch discrimination and am generally musically talented (for whatever else that means, neurologically speaking).”

    That’s interesting. May I ask if you have an opinion on William Sethares’ work (linked above) or xenotonal music more generally? Were you previously aware of it? I happen to find it strikingly innovative (though Sethares’ exposition of his own work seems overenthusiastic at times), but I am open to alternate views.

  77. Try Shifting Sands Wreck Ships
    Six Points of Fire
    Outstretched To The Middle of the Sky
    Spiti Elefas

  78. Except Europa is the middle song of three (All These Worlds Are Yours, Except Europa, Attempt No Landings There)

    Yeah, it came out in 2010.

  79. >May I ask if you have an opinion on William Sethares’ work (linked above) or xenotonal music more generally? Were you previously aware of it?

    I was not. Am listening to some of his tracks now. I quite liked Immanent Sphere.

  80. esr> For contrast, try this: Overture: Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence.

    It’s a fine piece of pop music. I appreciate the craftsmanship. I’m finding the classical or romantical influences very discreet though. Dream Theater clearly gave a tip-of-the-hat to early Queen songs in the overture, and to the Beatles’ Day in The Life in the final chord of the CD. But if you hadn’t primed me to listen for “classical” influences, I might have missed them. They aren’t nearly as overt as, say, those in Our Prayer by the Beach Boys or Eleanor Rigby by the Beatles (both of which I strike me as successful mergers of pop and classical music). You have a good analytical ear if you picked them up immediately.

    As I listened to the Overture, I also discovered something about the electronic-instrument phobia so common among lovers of “classical” music. Our acoustical instruments often achieve a human-voice-like quality by adding vibrato. This vibrato is frequency-modulated. By contrast, the ‘vibrato’ that the synthesizers in the Overture add to their ‘violins’ is at least partly amplitude-modulated. As soon as my piano-playing brain perceives this sound, it interprets the ‘vibrato’ as beats, and some neural circuits fire in panic: “Call the piano tuner, now!” I think this is a conditioned reflex, kicking in well before the sound reaches my critical faculties. Amateur rockers wouldn’t have this reflex because they grew up with electronic sounds. If that’s so, you won’t have much success trying to improve our critical faculties around electronic instruments. There’s no arguing with reflexes.

    PS: I think you meant Dvorak, not Dubcek, but Dvorak would have been thrilled to be connected with the Prague Spring. He, too, was a fierce advocate of the view that “classical” music is best composed by refining folk music. And while he worked at the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, professors there were shocked about his interest in Black music, from ragtime to spirituals.

  81. PPS: Second try for Our Prayer by the Beach Boys. Until recently by the way, I didn’t know they were that good. I had always discarded them as elevator music about surfing and cars.

  82. “Our acoustical instruments often achieve a human-voice-like quality by adding vibrato. This vibrato is frequency-modulated.”

    Acoustical instruments also seem to have richer sounds due to higher harmonic content. They also tend to have more complex transients (on note attack and decay) plus noise that electronic instruments lack.

  83. I particularly enjoyed this piece. Music is a passion for me and I have a very wide range. No one likes it when I drive – my playlist shifts between the classical masters, opera, Led Zeppelin, Malmsteen/Satriani/Petrucci, Tool, old American blues, A Perfect Circle (well, the first record) Firewind, etc. all within the space of an hour or so. Drives people crazy.

    I have to agree with pretty much everything you wrote. And to me, it often seems that we are in a strange time of waning creativity in the mainstream (okay it was never great, but it seems worse now) where every damn song, TV show and movie of the past is being remade. And yes I have found validity in the updating of good stories/themes for our times, and in some case superiority, though rarely.

    But finding gems like The Piano Guys and the golden scores in modern cinema is always a treat. One modern score that for some reason really stirs me is Trevor Morris’ (friend and studio mate of Hans Zimmer) thematic score for the TV series “The Tudors”.” Another that I find emotionally evocative is the opera “Vide Cor Meum” (another on which Hans Zimmer worked), which first appeared in the movie Hannibal.

  84. Between this post and another recent one in which you mentioned Joe Satriani (whom I had never heard of) you have introduced me to a whole new, interesting genre (or set of genres) of music I was unaware of. I don’t know where I’ve been, but…thanks. Pandora has become vital.

  85. When everyone on this thread speaks of this type of music as “classical”, it jars me a bit. But then, I have some Formal Academic Musical Training: I minored in music. Thus, I associate “classical” to be a time period, that began with, who was it? Hayden? and ended with Beethoven. The periods studied in my class were Renaissance, Baroque, Clasiscal, Romantic, and Modern.

    Of course, these are just “approximate”, because music periods are artificial lines placed on history for academic convenience. (Amazingly enough, my Music History class even made this point rather clear!)

    The word I have come to use to describe the music that Eric et. al. is discussing is “Symphonic”–but even *that* doesn’t encompass all the music that the term is meant to encompass, because I tend to include quartets, choir music, and other types of music with that term; of course, a lot of the Modern Atonal Music* that the Advant-Guards liked so much can be played by Symphony as well, so it also doesn’t exclude all the music I intend to exclude with that term, either.

    (* Modern Atonal Music, admittedly, has its own place in the world, ironically enough, in the music and game industry–to create tension that something bad is about to happen, fittingly enough.)

    And I love symphonic music, in particular, because it has a certain range of freedom, that is difficult to acheive (although not impossible) with a handful of people.

    Music lives when the composers, players, and listeners have fun with it; music dies when academics stuff it it a jar for study, and insist that it stay fossilized that way forever.

    I particularly like Rachmaninoff because, although he *technically* was a “Modernist” composer, all the other modernists *hated* him, because he preferred to compose in the style of, and extend, the Romantic Period of music. They also hated him, because he was popular with his audiences. (Gasp!) I cannot think of a better recipe for sterility and obscurity, than to strive to be unpopular with your audience.

  86. Oh, I should also add: thank you for highlighting that particular piece. I don’t have much time to search for music I enjoy, and this particular piece moved me!

  87. I think TPG is mindlessly simplistic and insipid. More pablum for people who can’t wrap their minds around anything unless it’s updated to some arbitrary modern set of criteria. I would rather listen to jazz or hip hop. At least it’s authentic and challenging. These guys are a musical scam. You can have my share and then some!

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