Part Three – Reflective Account

Part Three was a welcome return for me to an area of music with which I had some acquaintance and “history”. Although my personal preference, background and area of interest is and has always been the baroque-influenced end of electronica, rock/metal and ambient instrumental music, no one can deny the influence that the classical and romantic periods have had on the development of Western music over the last two hundred years.

Although Mozart and Beethoven have always been part of my listening repertoire, part three has given me the opportunity to listen more critically to the output of this most creative of eras and I believe that I have a greater appreciation of the work because of it. Because I was already acquainted with and understood the music presented, it didn’t have such an impact on me as did the work in part two. The subject matter was also less contentious so I didn’t have to reason with myself so much when trying to describe the pieces.

Having said that, I did find the actual writing more of a struggle with this section as this period in Western art music is well known to all of us and we all have opinions, feelings and at least a degree of knowledge of most of the pieces presented or referred to tangentially. Because of this the temptation is to keep writing as we move deeper into the subject, following rich seams of content and concepts and moving away from the focus and point of the argument. I have a small amount of knowledge regarding instrument construction (see www.mmguitars.co.uk) and the temptation to ramble on about fingerboard radii when playing double-stops (or whatever the subject might be) is strong. It’s an interesting yet frustrating exercise; having to temper ones enthusiasm for a particular subject to keep the text pertinent and to avoid straying into the realm of the dull and geeky. I’m afraid that my writing in this section has suffered because of this, especially the pieces on Beethoven (here) and the assignment (here).

One section that I’d never really considered in depth before and which has made at least an academic difference to my outlook on a certain sector of romanticism was my research for the piece on Wagner and Nazism (here). I was loosely aware of the connection between the two, mostly from a book that I read in my twenties (The Isle of Sea Lizards (Bellairs, A. (1989))) but I would never have known of the depth of feeling from so many of the prominent composers of the day.

In all, I come away from this section with a renewed interest in the development of the orchestra as a composition tool and palette for the artist and although I had to stop work for a month in the middle of the allotted timeframe I’m quite happy with my progress in listening and the results of my research.

Assignment Three – The Cello

The violoncello (abbreviated to Cello in English and German) is a member of the string group of orchestral instruments, and the bass member of the violin family. As with all other violin-like instruments, the cello is primarily played with a bow strung with horse or synthetic hair, allowing a good deal of control over the resultant note and its tone. The cello is tuned in perfect fifths an octave lower than the viola at A3 D3 G2 C2.

The front and side of the cello.

The front and side of the cello(Click to view).

Coming into existence around the early fifteenth century, the advent of the cello parallels the move towards a lower register as polyphonic vocal music gained acceptance, due in no small part to the work of the Franco-Flemish School and its most celebrated composer, Johannes Ockeghem. As Western vocal music became more complex, instrumental music followed suit allowing definite bass and tenor parts to form in accepted and expected multi-part harmony. The need or desire was for a “bass violin” to add a lower register of accompaniment and harmony to the melodies provided by the violins before the viola more completely held the middle register.

In line with the rest of the violin family, the fingerboard of the cello is unfretted, providing infinite variation to the played note at the expense of the requirement of increased accuracy by the musician. A fretted cello-like instrument does exist, the viola da gamba (from which the cello’s role evolved and eventually took over during the eighteenth century), but the frets make the microtonal adjustments required for orchestral participation extremely difficult to play, and therefore unsuitable for this type of music.

The main body of the cello (and its method of acoustically amplifying the vibration of the strings) is the sound box. This is mechanically connected to the strings by the bridge. The vibrating strings cause the bridge to react sympathetically and transfer this sympathetic vibration to the top plate of the cello (what we see as the “front”). The greater surface area of the top plate produces a far greater volume of sound than the string alone due to the increased mass of air moved.

The strings of a modern cello are anchored to the bottom of the instrument via a tailpiece which is attached (via the tailpiece “loop”) around the supporting floor spike so we don’t need the complex system of struts for support and reinforcement that would be found in an instrument with a bridge affixed to the top plate such as an acoustic guitar. The only two internal components are a bass bar running under the C string and a sound post located just below the bridge which connects the top and bottom plates, allowing them to resonate sympathetically. The bass bar serves to distribute the vibrations from the bridge and also lends some support to the top of the instrument which might be as little as four millimetres thick.

Cello endpin

The cello’s endpin, used for supporting the instrument on the floor. Note the loop used to anchor the tailpiece and strings to the end of the instrument (Click to view).

The size of the cello’s body has settled and standardised at around 75 centimetres long after experimentation which began in seventeenth century Bologna by various luthiers, including Antonio Stradivari. Previous to this the instrument was larger and more difficult to play, especially when attempting faster passages. The woods used in the construction of the instrument have also become traditionally standardised with spruce used for the top plate and maple for the sides, back and neck. The fingerboard is traditionally ebony. Modern luthiers frequently experiment with other woods and materials such as carbon fibre or aluminium for reasons of cost, scarcity of traditional tonewoods and to achieve aesthetic or tonal effects.

A feature seen on all members of the violin family is the scroll and pegbox at the top of the neck. The tuning pegs aren’t cylindrical, but slightly conical to allow the player to push the peg “into” the pegbox as it’s being tuned, generating the friction which holds the peg in place.

The Cello's Pegbox

The cello scroll and pegbox. Note the nut supporting the strings and keeping them correctly spaced (Click to view).

Development has continued throughout the history of the instrument and the eighteenth century saw the arrival of several important improvements including the thinning and lengthening of both the neck and fingerboard and the introduction of more robust, thinner and tighter strings, resulting in increased responsiveness in both the instrument and the tone produced. Another innovation worthy of note was the development of the concave bow by François Tourte in the eighteen-seventies, resulting in the precision and level of manipulation of the instrument that modern players can employ.

The cello came to prominence as a recognised solo instrument in the seventeenth century after works such as those by J. S. Bach (Six suites for solo cello) and Haydn (Cello concerto in C Major) were performed to a wider audience, and the baton was taken up by other composers such as Brahms and Saint-Saëns. As the solo repertoire grew, so did the cello’s role in the orchestra with later compositions from the likes of Dvorak, Elgar and Shostakovich.

Playing these enhanced roles required a more disciplined, focussed and competent musician and several notable performers from the classical and romantic periods are documented. Cellists such as Domenico Gabrielli (1659-1690), Giovanni Battista Cirri (1724-1808) and Jean-Baptiste Bréval (1753-1823) paved the way for future virtuosos, each raising the profile of the instrument. Moving into the romantic period we find outstanding musicians such as the Bohemian Antonín Kraft (1752-1820) and Bernhard Romberg (1767-1841) from Germany playing their part to promote the Cello. Many of these prominent instrumentalists were also composers, ensuring that their instrument of choice was given suitable exposure in their productions.

Music for cello is usually written in the bass clef and the available range of four octaves makes it extremely versatile. As a consequence of this, a cello score may frequently move to the treble clef.

Compositions focussing on the cello in the classical and romantic periods were provided by most if not all of the major composers with work from Mozart, Haydn, Boccherini and Beethoven clarifying the ideas that had been provided by Bach, Handel, et al. By the time of the early romantics such as Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn, the cello was firmly entrenched as both a member of the orchestra and as a solo instrument and many sonatas were composed for it.

It would be impossible to outline the effect that each of these composers had on the development of the cello as a classical or romantic symphonic instrument but one piece stands out for me, Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor Op. 104.

Of all the stringed instruments, the cello is most closely comparable to the human voice, generating empathy between the musician and listener and because of this, audiences have always found the cello compositions approachable. This piece by Dvořák seems to exemplify the range and dynamic of the instrument, both leading and supporting the orchestra with virtuoso flourishes and rhythmic stability in turn while maintaining this accessibility for the listener. There’s no conflict between the two sides, orchestra and soloist, no battle of wills and most importantly, the listener is permitted to just enjoy the well-rounded whole without having to perform any cerebral gymnastics in order to make sense of the work.

A final note about this most versatile of instruments returns us to the first point regarding its malleability of tone. Like all of the bowed string instruments, the cello can be played in a number of ways, generating multiple, sometimes compound effects: Col Legno (with the back (wood) of the bow), pizzicato (plucking the strings), natural and artificial harmonics, the list goes on and more are being discovered and developed. The cello is particularly receptive to this type of adventurous technique due to its well balanced size, scale (string) length and playable range. The strings are neither too short and thin  like the violin or viola, restricting manipulation and movement, nor too long and heavy like the double bass, needing too much energy to excite, therefore becoming cumbersome and lacking dynamism. The cello is ready for another ars nova in orchestral and solo music and can be expected to lead the way.

Click here to hear Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor.


– Wade-Matthews, M. (2000) The illustrated book of musical instruments. London: Southwater.
– Scholes, P. (1970) The Oxford companion to music. Tenth edition (reset). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
– Oling, B. and Wallisch, H. (2004) The complete encyclopaedia of musical instruments. Second edition. Netherlands: Rebo international b. v.
– Midgley, R. et al. (1976) Musical instruments of the world. London: Paddington Press Ltd.
– Sadie, S. and Latham, A. (1985) The Cambridge music guide. First paperback edition, 1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Part Two – Reflective Account

Part Two has led me down a surprisingly challenging path, not so much in the content or requirement of the work but in my ability to keep up and understand the music presented. In this I feel that I’ve only been partially successful. I suspect that my primary fault is my continued deep entrenchment with tonality and a prejudice against anything in which I can’t find an explicit pattern.

After the fragmented nature of Part One’s content, it has been nice to be able to look at specific genres of music in slightly more depth, spending some time with the composers and the works in question. Comparative listening is a lot easier when one is sticking to an area for a while.

I’ve noticed myself shying away from the Internet and moving back to books or publications for information. I’m lucky enough to work in a school with a good library and free rein of whatever the music department has on its shelves. I’ve also been buying recommendations from Amazon and being able to cross-reference information between books turns out to be a surprisingly gratifying experience. Both “The Cambridge Music Guide” (Sadie) and “A History of Western Music” (Grout and Palisca) are splendid resources.

Part of our enjoyment of music lies with its ability to spark emotion and cause comment and this happened several times during Part Two, on both the positive and negative sides of the scale. I’m well aware that my lack of exposure to many of the diverse landscapes of music has left me ignorant but however I look at it I really can’t see any need, desire or justification for “Graphical Scores”. Why should we want a method of communication that is only really understood by the author? I feel that it’s this kind of artistic posturing that gives art music a bad name and hinders its wider consumption.

Aleatoric music is interesting as an academic exercise but I do feel that it’s been given too much leeway. Serious listeners of music get upset when composition or performance is helped along with the use of computers or sequencing hardware as it’s seen as taking some of the humanity away, yet conceptual pieces that allow chance to dictate the output have been lauded as revolutionary. David Cope’s work with computer generated composition upset a lot of people but the result was (and is) definitely musical.

On the other hand, the work of the minimalist composers that I was ready to dismiss became something of a revelation and I’ve started listening to more from Glass and Reich away from my desk, along with more Britten, Sibelius and Stravinsky. My recording of 4’ 33” was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and one that I’ve gleefully shown to bemused friends and family.

Overall, my personal experience of Part Two has been a success and I can happily come away from it knowing that I’ve benefitted from the experience and broadened my horizons. Having said that, I won’t be sorry to move into the nineteenth century and back to a period of music with which I am already connected.

Assignment Two – Minimalism

Minimalism as a musical movement matured in 1960s America, especially San Francisco and New York, where it was the testing ground for ideas for musicians that took inspiration from earlier composers such as Pierre Schaeffer at the French National Radio studio, Moondog, Javanese Gamelan and as a reaction to and a rebuttal of European experiments with atonal devices such as Serialism. The name itself was borrowed by the English Minimalist composer Michael Nyman from the contemporary artistic movement that attempted to strip a subject back to its essential elements, although the term “Minimalist” was never really adopted by the primary exponents of the musical genre.

Although the musical “scene” of the time included a number of notable composers, the development of Minimalism can broadly be attributed to four major voices: Steve Reich, La Monte Young, Philip Glass and Terry Riley.

The primary goals of the new movement included the pursuit of simplicity and the development of a new tonality to replace the atonality that had become vapid and almost unlistenable. Of the methods used to achieve this, one was a renaissance in the use of ostinato and rhythm to create a harmony through shifting the phase of repeated voices such as with Reich’s “Piano Phase”, another being the use of shifting accents to create a complex syncopation as exemplified by Glass’s “Music with changing parts”.

The Well-Tuned Piano by La Monte Young might well be considered one of the most important American piano pieces of the late 20th Century. Consisting entirely of guided improvisation, there exists no “score” as such. Instead there is a detailed document laying out chords, scales, intervals, patterns and concepts which guide the performer.

Played on a piano tuned to “just” tuning (i.e., tuned accurately to a harmonic series rather than the compromise which is the common Equal Temperament) a performance lasts for between four to six hours and makes considerable mental and aural demands on the listener due to both the constant waves of musical content and the readjustment needed (however slight) of our modern ears to an unfamiliar tuning system. This tuning system is vital to the performance, producing ethereal textures from the played intervals and occasional harmonic “beating” not unlike the Ombak effect heard in Balinese Gamelan.

Premièred in 1974 in Rome, the piece was never officially “finished” the composer stating that the composition dates are 1964, 1973, 1981, Present.

A Rainbow in Curved Air is the fourth major work by the American minimalist Terry Riley. Released in 1969, this composition/record/release has, perhaps more than any other, shaped modern electronic and ambient music. Direct comparisons can be made to the output of artists such as Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Mike Oldfield, Jean Michel Jarre and Pink Floyd, most obviously with Floyd’s “On the Run” (Dark Side Of The Moon) and The Who’s Baba O’Riley (named as a nod to the composer).

Recorded by the composer, the music makes extensive use of the delay effect by bouncing the signal between two tape machines, the whole being built up in several layers by means of overdubbing. Drawing on classical, modal, Hindustani and modern electronic influences, “Rainbow” has become what many people mean when they refer to minimalism.

This work was a revelation to me as not only had I not heard it before but I wasn’t aware of just how far-reaching and influential it was. Truly a watershed in modern music, “Rainbow” allowed a whole new generation and breed of musician to run with the idea of multiple overdubs to create a new Wall of Sound from one performer, an idea first posited by Les Paul.

Riley’s use of primarily electronic instruments gives the whole experience a “Space Age” feel that, although sounding slightly dated in an era of MIDI sequencing and DAWs, is still compositionally fresh.

Coming, as it did, not long after the release of Steve Reich’s seminal composition, “Drumming”, it’s not difficult to see the progression in the composer’s work in “Music for Mallet instruments Voices and Organ”. Drumming, especially the second and third movements could almost be seen as a proving ground for the techniques and textures produced in this more elaborate piece.

Scored for a collection of tuned percussion instruments plus organ and (female) voice, one can once again immediately hear the influence of Gamelan lying atop the obviously Western tonality. Throughout the sixteen or so minutes of music, we are shown a new facet of Reich’s trademark phasing technique by his playing the instruments off one against another to build texture and tension, released at the beginning of each new movement by a change of key.

The composition was premièred in 1973 in New York and has been played regularly since, becoming one of Reich’s (and minimalism’s) most famous and recognisable works.

Minimalist music developed and matured alongside many other cultural movements including pop and minimalist art, postmodern architecture and cinema as an art form rather than mere entertainment for mass consumption. It would only seem natural then that complimentary artistic movements would come together to form compound experiences and music and cinema are well suited to this task.

Philip Glass’ “Koyaanisqatsi” (Life out of balance) was composed to accompany the 1982 film of the same name and although it was conceived to directly partner the film can be listened to as a piece of work in its own right, having been rendered into a coherent work by the composer.

The music is primarily orchestral with the addition of pipe organ and choir, the organ taking centre stage in many of the movements by providing an ostinato foundation for the rest of the performers. There are also frequent appearances of sequenced synthesiser giving us a distinctly mechanical feel, especially to the penultimate track.

The film and soundtrack were not initially widely recognised, taking on “cult” status among the cognoscenti, but recognition has grown and this is now one of Glass’ best known works, pushing minimalist music if not into the mainstream at least to a wider consciousness.

Koyaanisqatsi exemplifies many of the points that have made minimalism a success in an arena where many modern musical genres have failed or withered into insignificance; a continued popularity, the return to tonality and a crossover into popular culture via the alternative media of cinema.

Glass’ application of orchestral textures alongside the organ and choir provide a solid testament to the vitality of modern classical music. An orchestra doesn’t have to be buried in the sensibilities of 19th Century composition to be justified, and this music really is of our time. Although not in movements in the traditional sense, appearing as tracks on a CD, the music has a definite purpose and progresses as we move through it, evoking imagery worthy of a tone poem.

I find the whole composition both refreshing and somewhat intimidating in its execution, this isn’t music to be taken lightly and although I’m relatively new to the genre I can’t help but feel that this is a piece that I’ll be returning to for many years to come, finding unexplored corners of the work with each repeated performance.

Click here to see a copy of the Spider Map which accompanies this assignment.

Click here to see a full-resolution version of the Spider Map (1.2MB)

The Listening Log can be accessed (as always) from the menus above or by clicking here.

Assignment One – A reflective account

Part one of this course has more than anything else shown me that there’s a lot more music out there for me. I listen to a lot of music but I now realise that I’ve become quite staid and conservative in what I choose, even when I’m apparently looking for a new sound or direction. Having a “Suggested Listening” list is a masterstroke by the course authors, giving direct and pertinent examples of the music being discussed and relieving the learner of the need to hunt them down. The combination of these lists with Spotify and YouTube is a powerful learning tool.

A couple of things that I’ve learnt about myself in this initial section are that I seem to have the propensity to waffle when trying to make a point rather than being able to marshal my thoughts for a focussed delivery. This is something that I’d like to work on as I progress as I feel that it’s an important life skill as well, and something that I’ve not been aware of before. I’ve also made a concerted effort when listening to not concentrate so much on the presentation (production, balance, stereo imaging, etc.) of the performance and to try and feel the texture of the music in and of itself, to the point of listening to some of the work in mono if I get too distracted. This is new to me and changes the listening experience for complex pieces.

Another weakness that I need to address is my written reaction to musical examples in the listening log. When I allowed myself to become loquacious I found that my reactions became formulaic and dull. When I kept the descriptions short they became terse and brusque. Hopefully I’ll become more adept with practice, and my reports will become useful.

The different colours and textures of the exercises have been welcome with the genres of music flitting from Pop to Opera to Jazz to Choral. I’ve started to recognise particular areas of the different styles which appeal to me and that I can look for in other possibly contrasting styles. This shouldn’t really be a surprise to me as I’ve long recognised the connection between Classical and Metal, it just never occurred to me to carry this over into other genres.

It took me a few days to figure out what I wanted to do with the learning log and how I thought that it should be presented. I’m still not entirely sure that what I’ve produced is what the OCA is looking for so I’ll be seeking guidance from my tutor with regard to things like publicly visible or hidden content and word counts.

Overall this first part has been a success from my point of view. Having the section broken down into sub-sections allows me to allot time to the task or the pieces to be listened to, making it much less daunting. I hope that part two will be a little easier to tackle as I won’t have to spend so much time fiddling with the blog and working out a personal timetable.