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I’d like thank Stephen Soderberg for announcing his recent blog post on SMT Discuss. SMT Discuss is a forum for sharing various types of ideas that touch on music theory. This includes sharing links to blogs or blog posts—not only items that you have written, but also those written by others that you have noticed on the web and that you would like to bring to the attention of others.
To be sure, posting an announcement of a blog won’t necessarily start a discussion on SMT Discuss, especially since many blogs have their own "comment" section. Nonetheless, such announcements will help spread ideas in our field and thus are welcome on SMT Discuss. Please don’t be shy to announce your own blog here, nor should feel that you have to have a larger discussion point in order to alert people to blog posts—in many cases, a simple mention might suffice. If there is a blog post that would be of interest to SMT Discuss members, how else will we know about it unless someone tells us?
Likewise, if there is an event, new publication, new online discussion group, or similar item that you would like to share with others—but for whatever reason do not want to broadcast on SMT-Announce—feel free to announce it here. The blog folder on SMT Discuss (see tab left hand side of this page) provides a fitting spot to make announcements of blog posts, discussion lists,publications, and similar items. If you would like to make such an announcement, but are reluctant to start a new thread, please feel free to announce it on this thread.
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I would like to draw your attention to a new music theory pedagogy interest group in the New York City area:
The NYC Music Theory & Aural Skills Pedagogy Meetup group is free and open to anyone who teaches music theory and/or aural skills. We host monthly meetings at NYU during the academic year to discuss any and all topics related to music theory/aural skills pedagogy. We especially welcome those who teach at the college and high-school levels.
Upcoming Event: Steve Laitz, Professor and Chair of Music Theory at the Eastman School and Associate Chair of Theory and Analysis at the Juilliard School, will give a guest lecture at NYU Steinhardt on Thursday, March 26th, at 7pm (see poster for further details). The event is free and open to the public.
Hosted by the NYU Steinhardt Music Theory Program and the NYC Music Theory & Aural SKills Pedagogy Meetup
Assistant Professor & Associate Director of Music Theory
NYU Steinhardt, Dept. of Music & Performing Arts Professions
35 W. 4th Street
New York, NY 10012
Let me draw your attention to my somewhat unsuccessful blog, https://heinrichschenker.wordpress.com/. The idea had been to create in France an interest group on Schenkerian theory and analysis, in answer to a request of the French Society for Music Analysis. After about three years, the result is deceiving, to say the least:
1) Few people appear really interested. Schenkerian theory still meets with very negative reactions in France and, now that I retired, even the classes that I organized in the Sorbonne appear threatened, despite the efforts of my younger colleagues.
2) Even the few people interested (the visitors' statistics show a limited but constant number of visits) do not seem interested in actively participating. When I was teaching, I tried to involve my students, and traces of that can be found on the blog, but they were rather shy participating on their own.
3) As a result, what I had conceived as a possibly active blog turns into a somewhat static website. Yet, if the point is to run a static website, without any participation of the visitors, I have another one (http://nicolas.meeus.free.fr/Schenker.html) which better suits the definition, and I can hardly feed both.
I wonder now whether a blog can really become a place of dialogue (and/or of scholarly dispute); many blogs that I see appear mainly as monologues, were comments are but hardly tolerated... The French negative reactions mentioned above consist mainly in indifference. [Statistics about Wikipedia visits, available on the net, indicate about 100 visits a day for the English article on Schenkerian analysis, and about 4 a day for the French one.]
Anyway, while my blog is mainly in French, reactions (even negative ones) would be welcome in English as well, or any language...
In Defence of Blogging.
Nicolas et al:
The first thing that comes to mind for a practical suggestion relates to the interest of French vs English speakers that you have experienced: Try publishing the blog bi-lingually (or multi-lingually). If it's too much work, try doing the blog with a colleague & taking turns translating each other's posts -- then publish the two in tandem. English still seems to be deferred to in international communications -- at the loss of the greater international trade in ideas. Obviously, this doesn't solve what you describe as indifference to Schenker in France, but at least on that score it would provide a challenge to that indiffernce.
Speaking generally about blogs:
A deeper issue is the blog format vs an interest group format (such as Google or Face Book Groups). The group solution may work, but in my opinion, whether it is run as restricted or open, people join or peek in & then rarely check back in. A good example of a field-focussed group is here on SMT Discuss. Although there are 700-800(?) members in SMT & many more outside with a "theory" knowledge & interest & presumably a lot to add, a look at the stats published with each individual discussion is telling. There is a fair amount of trolling going on, I assume mostly depending on the topic and, to a lesser extent, the names of the originators & commenters which now can easily be filtered. As to why there is even this amount of trolling & so little actual participation (given the large potential), it's my guess that at least part of the answer (in the U.S. at any rate) might lie in music theory's peculiar academic history & status & the hierarchy that has developed since SMT's breakaway (see for starters the stats recently published by SMT).
As for the blog format, it's important to realize it's mostly a vehicle for personal expression of ideas & (like the on-line interest group) not amenable to the sort of discussion that takes place in a university classroom or colloquium. The blogger, however much video content & however many selfies s/he provides, remains a sort of talking enigma if the goal is only to transport the lectern/conference table to a digital, MOOC-like format. This means the trick is to get your point across in accord with your digitized personality. The biggest problem (Freud ahead) is, as I can attest, your personality often overwhelms your point. Less of a problem, but still a big problem, is the opposite: submerging your personality in favor of making your point such that your reader quickly leaves, bored after scanning a few sentences. It just doesn't work like a colloquium where those attending (a) know approximately what to expect and (b) out of politeness give you half an hour before they excuse themselves to take a bio break.
Seriously, though, there is nothing you can do on the web that can compete with honest, face-to-face human interaction. But what you can do with a blog is (a) tell whatever it is as a story and (b) as much as possible, write in a way that convinces the reader why that story is important to you, whether the reader likes it (agrees with you) or not -- and not even whether they like your web personna or not.
The value of the peer-reviewed journal article is not going to go away soon, nor should it; but, once you get over the idea that peer review will magically save you from your inevitable stupidities and automatically grant access to the faculty cloakroom, the opportunity offered by the blog format APART FROM AND EVEN OVER that offered by the academic journal is the opportunity to escape the expectations of an audience imposed on you by your profession and impart your personal passion about your subject to any audience open to sharing your passion. One practical tip: the key is tagging -- the blog's answer to the journal's subscriber list.
I really only started to blog seriously a year or two ago when I suddenly remembered that I once inexplicably fell in love with this really weird esoteric subject -- not because of how I thought it could be applied to "real music," but for itself, like the mathematician loves math. Whether it had any immediate or current application or not has always been of interest, but ultimately irrelevant. (And I admit I've also been motivated to a lesser extent by anger at those I've observed who appear to be unwilling or unable to think themselves off the dime they inherited. They seem to be accumulating of late.)
Nicolas, I sincerely hope you continue to add to your blog -- and given what I've read from you over the years, I hope you might expand beyond purely things Schenker from time to time. I hope others decide to join in as well -- and announce here when you blog on a topic of interest.
Thanks a lot, Stephen. This is both enlightening and encouraging. Let me shortly answer some of your points:
1. Making the blog bilingual: I am myself an advocate of passive multilinguism — i.e., we try to understand other languages, but write in our own. This, to me (and you apparently agree), is the condition of an international trade in ideas, and I thought it would be possible at our supposedly scholarly level. This appears an almost unavoidable solution for exchanges in Europe, and especially in my own country, Belgium, as you probably know.
2a. I take your point about a blog being "a vehicle for personal expression". I have spent quite some time on your blog, mainly because the definition of "music theory" (and the history of the definition) interests me much. Yet I remain somewhat at loss to comment or answer because the question as posed on your blog, if you allow me to say, also to a large extent is about Stephen Soderberg himself... [We might perhaps open a thread here on this topic, to make it more general, less personal?]
2b. American Schenkerians might realize that the presentation of Schenker's theories on my blog is not exactly what one may read in American texts. Yet, I would like them to wonder not so much why I present things that way, than whether my presentation may be conform to Schenker's own (which, by the way, may involve some rereading of Schenker in the original German).
2c. But you are right and I should probably stress how and why my view is not exactly the orthodox American one. I'll think of it and, if I succeed writing about it, of course it will be in English. This in any case, as you imply, is something that I could hardly propose to a peer reviewed American journal...
3. When you write "I hope you might expand beyond purely things Schenker from time to time", do I understand correctly that you suggest that I shouldn't limit myself to Schenkerian matters? Let me tell you this: I published my first music theoretical paper 40 years ago, on Debussy's "harmony of mediants"; the topic had been part of my PhD. Since then, I published about 100 papers and a few books. Of these, about 15% deal with Schenker — i.e. 85% deal with other matters (organology, semiotics, medieval theory, etc. etc.); and many of these publications are in more or less free access on Internet. The main trouble is that most of them are in French, which leads us back to point 1 above.
But, once again, thank you. This is entertaining.
Thanks so much for your reply, Nicolas.
I must first make sure that you are not left with the impression that I believe that your contributions (and passion, if I may say) rest solely on (and for) Schenker. I was speaking only with regard to blogging and (what I wasn't specific enough about) that I, and I'm certain many others, would enjoy and benefit from a more general musicology blog from you along side the Schenker blog you were prompted to start for the interest group suggested by the French Society for Music Analysis. An ancillary effect of such a more general blog may be that it draws readers to the Schenker blog forming an interest group as you intended.
Re your comments 2a-c: Personally, I'll stay away from things Schenker, especially in America, for right now & probably forever -- It's generally not a good idea to try to balance on a third rail - a bit like trying to offer a critique of the Apostle Paul at a convention of fundamentalist preachers: it might all start out reasonably, but you can be sure it will end up with everyone screaming at you (and each other) - and you end up damned to hell, of course - and you leave more confused about Pauline theology than when you came in.
As far as E&EN, especially over the past several months, being about me -- often to the detriment of a topic I sincerely would like to see open out to comment and discussion -- I plead guilty. Three things about this. First, it is the nature of the beast (blog) as I think you agree. But that's a relatively minor part of it. It is also the nature of the subject which has encouraged me to use the blog to continue to talk to myself in public about it regardless of the lack of feedback: (a) there is very little I know of written directly about the question "What is theory?" in music let alone what sorts of things it ought to provide both inside and outside music's realm [Is there even such a history of a conversations about this?]; and (b) no one else seems to want to talk about it, with me or anyone else - I end up wondering which it is, my self-indulgence or others' fear of self-examination. I have absolutely no idea whether or not anyone else shares my self-doubt concerning the value of what we all allegedly love to do (beyond teaching "it", else why not teach pottery, a subject that at least can hold water?)
Third - and this may seem a cop out at this point - believe it or not, the entire "seeking relevance" thread has intentionally been conceived as a preparation for an unequivocal statement to come of what I believe any music theory ought to be, regardless of a fragmented, often xenophobic community such as ours. (Whether "unequivocal" will be possible is still a toss up for me -- but it's my intention.)
As far as opening a thread on SMTDiscuss re how theory is currently defined and the history of various definitions, I am skeptical it would result in the sort of dialog and/or scholarly dispute we may wish to have - if any at all.
Thanks again, Stephen.
Let me first state that my decision to (try to) concentrate on Schenker is the result (1) of a growing awareness that in my career I had been dispersing my interests further than was reasonable and (2) of a growing interest for Schenker the theorist.
I can see why you prefer to avoid Schenker. Let me say that anti-Schenkerians often are even more fundamentalists than Schenkerians themselves (as you know). Reading Schenker is quite a difficult enterprise; answering the arguments of people who did not even try reading him is even more difficult. But let's not begin on that.
About music theory, I am nevertheless tempted to try and open the discussion here; I will do so in a near future, probably in a new thread. If this proves unsuccessful, we may continue the discussion on your blog.
I was pleased to find that Schenker's music was quite enjoyable to listen to when I had the opportunity to hear it. Although I value what Schenkerian analysis has to contribute in summerizing with a kind of condensed brevity outlines of a composition (which is indeed valuable), it's the only theory text I've ever tossed in the trash. Why? Simply put it's much too convoluted for my mind and taste and I don't find it very useful at all - I am not a professional theorist. I prefer Schoenberg's motivic analysis as the more practical explanation and generator of musical development for the classical masters (at least) and even in the work of post modern composers including Schoenberg's own work. I prefer a freer more flexible unrestrained approach to analysis in the investigation of a piece of music and find Schenkerian analysis to be too anal and dogmatic as a means of describing a musical work for my purposes. For me analysis is an exploration of music, not a codification. At least with Schoenberg's explanations we can see how Beethoven uses a motif to generate musical relationships at the micro and macro level. The German and Austrian composers have a penchant for this type of structured compositional aesthetic, but it is certainly not universal. French, English, Spanish, and Italian composers (for instance and many others) use their own unique languages and Schenkerian structural descriptive language does a poor job of addressing other ways of thinking for me. I believe Schenker was a brilliant mind and has contributed greatly to musical theory in so many ways, yet I do not find that approach to analysis very appealing as a composer, or as a musician who dislikes a codefied language spoken mostly by specialists to other specialists.
Carson, one question about Schenker indeed is to know for what kind of musicians he conceived his theories. I do believe (and I am not the only one) that he wrote mainly for performers, and I do believe that once the performer masters all these lines that Schenker identifies, once she/he can perform that "distance hearing" that Furtwangler mentioned and that Schenker often implied, her/his playing will be different. This is not to say that Schenker wrote only for performers, many would gain reading his analyses. You are right that other musical descriptions may be easier and more straightforward, but should one always prefer what is easier?
Schenker's approach, as you say, works better for some kind of repertoires, mainly German and Austrian ones. But to acknowledge that does say something of these other repertoires, in a unique way. Did you ever realize that one special aspect of Debussy's style is that he rarely writes lines that stress the harmonies? Isn't that more important, and at a deeper level, than the superficial characteristics so often mentioned, parallel chords and the like? Even although the teaching of fugue at the end of the 19th century probably was more developed in the Paris Conservatoire than anywhere else in the world, French music, since Rameau and even today with the spectral composers, is characterized by the fact that they write chords, not counterpoint. And this is something that Schenker indirectly enlightened. Schenker's analyses of Chopin also indirectly explain how Chopin's style differs from French styles of his time.
But you are right when you say that there are other methods of analysis. The problem with Schenker is that his theories have been presented, either by pro- or by anti-Schenkerians, as replacing all others, while one would better consider him in addition to all the rest. It is then, and then only, that one correctly measures the importance of his contributions.
(I didn't hear much music by Schenker, but what I heard induced me to think that he has been right to abandon composition...)
Hi Nicolas, thank you so much for your intelligent response. I agree with what you have to say and have high regards for Schenker's work and historical significance in the field of music theory. I suspect from your notes that he did not consider himself a composer of any merit and that he obviously devoted his talents to analysis. However, I found the piano music he composed to be pleasantly enjoyable and not what I would have suspected - pedantic and/or derivative. It was quite beautiful piano music and I would listen to it again! Any composer that writes music that one wants to listen to again is on to something good!
One of my favorite quotes by Schoenberg (from Fundamentals of Musical Composition, pg. 1) - "Moreover, one can comprehend only what one can keep in mind. Man's mental limitations prevent him from grasping anything which is too extended." To a certain extent this sums up my feelings and thoughts regarding convolution. You are correct, the universe is indeed a complex place and complexity is something we must come to terms with, yet the universe is also elegant in it's simplicity as well. E=mc2 is a good example of this as are the Mandelbrot equations that generate infinity. Stephen Hawkings goal early on as an astrophysicist was to find a simple equation that would explain the beginning of time otherwise known as "the theory of everything." I do not believe he has found that equation yet!
I would agree that musicians in various fields all contribute to the whole of musical understanding and I might be going out on a limb here, but I suspect that musical theorists are more prone to Schenkerian analysis endeavors than composers, performers, historians, etc. My question is, and I'm certain any first rate performer does detailed research (including Schenkerian analysis) in the preparation of repertoire. But do you think Yo Yo Ma or Glenn Gould or Sophia Mutter goes through the process of Schenkerian analysis as preparation for performance? I would really like to know. And if they are engaged in Schenkerian analysis I suspect it is the work of a musical theorist they are referring to.
Many of the tenets of Schenkerian analysis are to me common sense and evident without the layers of complexity and technical jargon required. For example any cellist or violinist who plays Bach's solo works (cello suites or violin suites for example) is more than aware of compound lines, various layers of structure, harmonic resolutions, modulations, irregular resolutions, prolongation, etc. Good music can also be understood from a sonic hearing relationship and I would argue that theorists can explain structural elements of a composition, but they cannot explain the composer's intent - that is to some extent a mystery and for every performer to interpret philosophically and express emotionally.
Back to one of your original premises - why the French are not so interersted in Schenkerian analysis? It certainly is popular in America. With my limited talents as performer and composer I have the utmost respect for Schenker and his work, but find it to some extent redundant, convoluted, and as stated find more value in the explanations of other theorists, mainly Schoenberg (as least as related to the work I do and have time for!).
Carson, the question of how far one can hear, how much one can "keep in mind", as Schoenberg wrote, is a good one, one that puzzles me also. I think however that one cannot argue against Schenker that his distant connexions cannot be heard; one can at most avow that one cannot hear them. I am convinced that Schenker was sincere and that he did hear very distant connexions. It is but a matter of exercise, after all, and I suppose that the best of us could, after a while, hear much of what he heard. Is it worth the effort? I don't know, but I think so.
I don't know about Yo Yo Ma, Glenn Gould or Sophia Mutter. You certainly know as I do about Perahia. Now, when Perahia (or Carl Schachter) discuss Schenker, they hardly mention the background level, the Ursatz, that which puzzles the amateur schenkerians. And indeed, the Ursatz is needed for theoretical reasons, but may easily be left aside when pure theory is not at stake.
One Friday night at the Sorbonne, when everybody had left, a Japanese girl came to inform what university music studies were about. I thought of easily getting rid of her, but in our discussion she showed me the score (Deodat de Severac's Baigneuses au soleil) which she was working at the time. Her score was full of lines and arrows that she had traced to record distant connexions that she wanted to make in her playing. I asked her whether she had ever heard the name Schenker — no, she hadn't. [Since then, I realized that her piano teacher probably had.] Anyway, I accepted her as my student, and she produced an exellent Schenkerian analysis of Baigneuses.
My own daughter on the other hand, who is a professional baroque violinist, when I tried to show her some things about one of Bach's solo sonatas, answered exactly as you do: Oh yes, dad, we all know that, and there are limits to the lines we can follow, etc. etc.
What I conclude from this is that personal situations can be extremely variable. I am perfectly aware that some performers don't need analysis at all, because their playing is inherently analytic. Others badly need it. Our job as teachers is to accept that both extremes exist among our students.
As to French reactions against Schenker, I am sure that they result mainly from ignorance. Even very reluctant colleagues changed their mind once they knew more. But so many others don't even want to know. In the Paris Conservatoire, the very name of Schenker was considered a curse word, until we created a Doctoral degree in research and performance, which appealed to foreign students who, in turn, have been demanding in Schenkerian analysis. [Perahia, years ago, came to give a master class in the Conservatoire, which he began asking everyone to draft a Schenkerian analysis of their piece; they didn't even know what he was speaking about, and didn't dare ask; I don't know how it eventually turned.] I can fully understand that you may not need Schenker, but I trust that there is nothing redundant nor (excessively) convoluted in his theories.
Thank you for your most excellent comments Nicolas. I will keep an open mind regarding Schenker - I do have enormous respect for the man and his work. I feel similar to Holst - at this point in life I wish to write music, not study it. That being said I am always reading technical material on the subject of music. I feel I have studied enough to know what I am doing and composing music is an organic way to explore new territory. I think an important question for the teacher to ask of a student is to investigate a composition and see what the student discovers without assuming that Schenkerian language must be used in order to reach a conclusion. The assumption that Schenkerian jargon and terms must be used in order to analyze music suggests a protocol approach. I believe the enjoyable aspect of investigating a composition is one of discovery and open mindedness, not protocol. If one is allowed to investigate without presumptions and rules (which to my mind are dense in Schenkerian analysis), a unique viewpoint is possible and there is room for individual perspective. I like the metaphor of asking a child to paint a picture - you can show the child how to draw trees and mountains and landscapes, or you can let them do it on their own from their own imagination. I find this approach valuable in teaching. Of course you are correct that music students should have the opportunity and exposure to Schenker's theories and ideas (as I have). Only then can they find the value and worth relative to their particular musical interests. I do agree that the more levels of a composition (philosophy) a performer can bring out in a performance the better and merely relying on sound itself is not sufficient for professional musicians. The reason the French don't like Schenkerian analysis is due to ignorance? I find that hard to believe with much respect for French culture and a long history of innovation and musical excellence! Where would we be without the contributions of the French in Western music?
Carson, I did not mean French ignorance in general, I meant French ignorance of Schenker. Not so long ago, I was the only one teaching Schenker in France.