Thursday, June 30, 2016

Aleatoric Music and John Cage

There are different types of contemporary classical music that fall under the heading “postmodern.” Minimalism, for instance, can be considered postmodern. Or what about aleatoric music? Aleatoric is a term used to describe the use of chance to create something—a quality of postmodernism. Today, let’s focus our attention on how John Cage experimented with this type of music.

Influenced by Zen Buddhism, composer John Cage often used aleatoric methods in his work, believing music with structure that creates a sense of emotion or imagery for a listener was old news. His approach opened up opportunities for audiences to hear sounds as they are, leaving it up to chance to determine the performance outcome. One example of this method can be found in his Music of Changes, a piano work that uses the Chinese I-Ching method of tossing coins to determine the outcome.

Another aspect of aleatoric music is indeterminacy. Indeterminacy leaves certain aspects of a piece unspecified so that the outcome is up to the performer’s interpretation. The composer may provide various graphics or instructions in the score but the performance will vary each time it is played. Cage’s infamous 4’33’’ is a great example of this.

Join me next month as we look at classical crossover! 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Postmodernism in Art

This month, Clef Notes has been looking at how various music and art movements overlap throughout history. Let’s wrap up our topic this week by looking at postmodernism.

Just what is post-modernism? This late 20th-century style in art, music, architecture, and literature began as a reaction to objective explanations of reality. While modernism focused on new innovative ideas and the concept of art for art’s sake, postmodernism believes that anyone can be an artist and often takes images from pop culture or mass production as its subject, thus blurring the bridge between high and low art and culture.

Not sure if you’ve seen postmodern art? If you’ve visited the Cincinnati Art Museum, you most likely saw a few Andy Warhol works that fall into this category. The first, shown here, reflects the idea of mass production and commercialism in art—everyone has seen a Campbell’s soup can!

This next piece draws from pop culture, again, an example of blurring those lines between high and low art. Most people, even those not accustomed to viewing art, would see this piece and be familiar with who it depicts—pop culture icon Pete Rose.

Next time, we’ll take a look at why John Cage is considered to fit into the postmodern category with some of his works. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Webern's Use of Pointillism

This week, Clef Notes is looking at pointillism and how it appears in both art and music. Last time, we looked at Georges Seurat’s famous pointillist painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Today, let’s listen to Anton Webern’s (1883–1945) Symphony, Op. 21, which shows how pointillism is used in composition.

Anton Webern
Courtesy of 
A student of Arnold Schoenberg, Webern was known to use the 12-tone method in his work. He was a firm believer that composers worked as researchers, discovering new ideas and ways to compose. Believing that the best art only does what is necessary, many of his works are quite concise, without the lush elaboration found in music of the Romantic era. His Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10, No. 4, for instance, is only six measures long!

Some of Webern’s work is considered to use pointillism. Like the dots on the artist’s canvas, pointillism in music uses only one to four notes at a time, sounding like pitch points to the ear. The only way to truly understand this is to listen to an example.

Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21 above is quite interesting in that, not only do we hear pointillism, but in the first movement alone we also witness a double canon in inversion and palindromes!

Next week, we will wrap up our month on music and art by looking at post-modernism. Stay tuned! 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Art of Pointillism

Have you ever heard of pointillism? This technique emerged as part of the Neo-Impressionist movement of the late 19th century and will be our topic this week on Clef Notes.

While Impressionism was known to blur images and mix pigments, Neo-Impressionist artists attempted to move away from these methods by meticulously placing separate dots on their canvas that, from a distance, formed a beautiful image. This technique is known as pointillism and artists believed that it would create a vibrant palate for the viewer’s eye.

Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte 
Courtesy of 
I am sure many of you recognize the image above. A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was painted in 1884 and is one of Georges Seurat’s most well-known works. Using pointillism, it’s interesting to note that, while the individual dots can be observed up close, the work appears as solid color from a distance.

How does pointillism exemplify itself in music? Find out next time as we look at the work of Anton Webern. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Varese's Ameriques and Futurism

This week we are looking at Futurism and how it plays out in visual art and music. Last time we looked at Joseph Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge. Today, let’s look at how Edgard Varese (1983–1965) used Futurism in his music.

Varese was born in Paris and at a young age, attracted the attention of several pillars in both art and music including Claude Debussy, Richard Strauss, and Pablo Picasso. Like Stella, Varese spent much of his adult life in New York City, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the crowds and growing commerce.  Varese was interested in re-creating unique sounds that are not made by conventional orchestral instruments. His ideas were a precursor to what would become electronic music later on in the century. He did his best to create certain sounds by using the percussion section of the orchestra.

His work on Ameriques began in Europe in 1915 and was not finished until long after his arrival to New York. The work is in one movement for a large orchestra and an offstage “banda.” As you listen below, note the ship and fire engine bells, sirens, boat whistles, and other interesting sounds that he used percussion to imitate.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Joseph Stella's Futurism

This week we are going to jump to the 20th century and look at Futurism in art and music. Futurism is an avant-garde movement that used technology and modernity as its inspiration. It especially draws from the new machinery during this era.

Joseph Stella (1877-1946) is one example of an artist who favored Futurism in his work. After discovering this type of art while visiting Paris, Stella returned home to New York City and decided that he wanted to be able to show modern life in his art. One famous example of his Futurist art is Brooklyn Bridge.

Stella's Brooklyn Bridge Courtesy of 
Can you see machinery or examples of the modern era displayed in this work? What appears to be a traffic light can be found in the lower middle section. Cables run diagonally throughout the piece. Notice what appear to be the bridge towers at the top and a subway tunnel toward the bottom right. In this approach to art, nothing is exactly clear; rather it reflects the complexity of the time by using abstract representation. 

Join me next time as we look at how composer Edgard Varese used Futurism in his music!

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Romanticism in Music

Last time we looked at Romanticism in art. Today, let’s see how it shows itself in music.

During the mid to late 19th century, composers sought to stretch the musical limits of the past while using their imaginations. Robert Schumann is one great example of a Romantic composer who reflected himself and drew on the listener’s imagination in his Carnaval. This collection of twenty short character pieces written for the piano depicts a masquerade. Each piece in the collection is either the name of a dance, a costumed character, or a friend of Schumann who shows up at the ball. Titles include “Chopin”, “Clara” (after his friend and wife), “Florestan” and “Eusebius” (characters he created to reflect different sides of his own personality), and even “Coquette”, depicting the flirtation amongst party guests.

You can listen to Carnaval below. Do you think Schumann does a successful job at reflecting the Romanticism of his time?

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Romanticism in Art

The term “romantic” is rooted in the medieval romance, a poem or story about heroic people or events. Romances were presented in an imaginary fashion, taking readers far away from the realities of everyday life. We now associate this term with the mid-late 19th century during which art and music took a turn away from the simple and orderly ways of the classical period. Today, let’s look at a famous piece of art from the Romantic period and then we’ll explore a musical selection next time.

Romantic art focused on the expression of self. As society changed due to advances in science and technology, Romantic artists reacted by reaching into the past and exploring myths and imaginary themes. They also tended to focus on subjects such as nature or solitude as industrial city centers and populations grew.

Here you can see Casper David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. Which of the characteristics mentioned above does this piece reflect?

Casper David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog
Courtesy of 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

All About Baroque Music

This month, Clef Notes is exploring various periods in art and music that overlap in style characteristics. This week, we’re looking at the Baroque period. Last time we looked at Baroque art as ornate, emphasizing drama, action, and lighting. During the 20th century, music historians began to notice that some of these style characteristics map onto music from the period as well (roughly 1600–1750).  

When we look at Baroque music, we often see the rebellion from the polophony that was prevalent during the Renaissance. Polophony is music that contains multiple, independent voices. Instead, Baroque composers would often use homophony, or a melody line with a basso continuo accompaniment. They would then leave the harmonies up to the performer to fill in. Because of this, performers often had the opportunity to improvise and ornament during performance. This reflects the ornamented architecture of the time that we discussed last time. Listen below to an excerpt from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo. Can you hear that the vocal line is ornamented?

Last time we also talked about Baroque art emphasizing drama. In the Monteverdi excerpt below, take note of how the composer uses dissonances on words such as “Cruda” (cruel) to better convey the text.

There are, of course, many other characteristics found in Baroque music. Can you think of more?