Everything Sounds Better In Classical

My brother linked me to his Pandora station started from The Piano Guys, and it turns out there’s an entire genre of pop translated to music!

What can I say, I’m a snob.

I like pop as much as the next person, perhaps even more as so many people are convinced they’re too sophisticated for anything suitable for general consumption. As much as I may complain about the low standards of popular culture, or just people in general, I don’t actually object to the so-called low genres.

Actually, I’m not sure anyone actually uses the phrase “low genres”, but I’ve decided it suits my needs.

Genre Model - Interacting Elements

Genre Model – Interacting Elements (Photo credit: Derek Mueller)

Many people object to the idea of anything produced for the middle class: traditionally the largest and greatest commercial drive in the United States. With our Western idealization of the individual, even at the expense of community or society, anything aimed at the largest possible audience can’t be something to use to craft an identity. It’s a terrible sad development in our culture and I’ve already blogged of what comes from that.

But the elite especially despise the middle class: just read any “literary” novel. A great many are written by MFAs who (as far as I can tell) despise the middle class for taking up resources that they, as the battalions of culture, don’t receive.

I’ve got a whole ‘nother post in me about all the reasons I think that devoting those resources to the arts would be a bad idea, as radical as it seems.

Right now, however, I want to clarify that I don’t particularly consider myself better than anyone because of my taste in music. The reasons why anyone likes any kind of music and not another are far beyond my comprehension and aren’t related to intelligence, mental health, or virtue in any way outside of popular perception.  I’ve been reading Snoop, and in a recent chapter, Gosling reference a study saying that music is one of the primary topics people use to get to know each other.

That doesn’t mean it describes anything specific about you, but it can, and I think that has more to do which which music you enjoy, rather than the genre, and how people think of genres: like country music (is it really that bad? I just don’t hear the problem myself). So no need to judge me for being a snob (because I like the instrumental version better) or for being too low brow (because God forbid real musicians from even thinking about those dirty commoners).

Is there such a sad figure anywhere as the elitist confronted with reality?

 

Umm Kulthum

Umm Kulthum (isn’t that a beautiful name?) was an Egyptian singer in the 20th century (1904-1975) and the documentary Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt, reveals this woman’s art and what she means to Egypt even today.

Umm Kulthum was named after one of the daughters of Mohammad, and though her family was poor, her father was an imam (local spiritual leader). Her family was able to send her to school, where she primarily learned how to recite the Qur’an. She was very gifted, and her father began taking her along with him on his trips so that she could sing religious songs. But because she was a girl, it made her father uncomfortable for her to sing in front of men, and for several years she had to dress as a boy to perform.

I found it very interesting that one of the the first qualities of Umm Kulthum’s singing voice that the documentary mentioned was her pronounciation. Because she was classically trained to recite the Qur’an, in her later songs she retains her quality of diction. This isn’t exactly something that seems to be emphasized in music today…in many cases it seems to me the more incomprehensible the better: nonsense words are used as filler. But Umm Kulthum didn’t just sing songs the way most modern music (at least what I’m primarily familiar with) is sung and written today.

Umm Kulthum was a classist Arabic singer. She would read poetry first, and then she would sing the poems she liked. From the presentation of the documentary, it seems that Arabic poetry is more meant to be sung…more a part of the language than poetry is here. In the US, poetry seems to be exclusively for the elite, but the poetry that Umm Kulthum chose really affected her listeners, not only could they sing her songs without any accomanyment, but they could recite the lines without the music.

After she chose a poem she wanted to sing though, other musicans would set it to music. It was a very interconnected process. Poets would write Umm Kulthum poems specifically for her to sing, then she might choose to or not, and then composers would set the poem to music. Umm Kulthum was such a classist that she insisted the musicians feel the music. They could not learn their parts from sheet music, but by ear, by hearing it alone. I can’t imagine doing that. I played the clarinet for years but was never able to play really anything by ear.

Performances of Umm Kulthum’s classist Arabic music could take hours, and she could spend mauch of it on one song, because she would reinterpret the poem as she was singing it. After she’d sung it the first time, she would restart the line, this time emphasizing a particular interpretation, feeding off the response in the audience.

Umm Kultum was probably the greatest beloved singer in Egypt. Her career lasted more than fifty years, and she sang up until she was seventy years old. When she died, her death was acknowledged to be equal to that of any public leader. Her funeral was attended by as many as four million people.

Arabic music is very different from anything that seems to be popular today. But I really enjoyed Umm Kulthum’s singing. It was different yes, but it was easy to see she had a powerful, amazing voice. I’m really glad that I found her music at last.

How About a Round of Applesauce!

(What can I say? I read the headline “How About a Round of Applause” wrong. It has nothing to do with anything…but I do like applesauce.)

So, let me think of a ‘real’ topic.

Hmm. I played the clarinet from fifth grade to senior year. With a few things that actually happen in my life, I tend to mention it on a fairly regular basis. At first, when we got to choose our instruments at the end of fourth grade, I had no intention of actually choosing the clarinet. I went straight to the line for the flute…and couldn’t even get a sound of it. Probably tried the trumpet next, although I don’t remember that. I do remember that at some point I got a hold of the trombone, which I could play, but hated.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the trombone, or even that trombone, but in fourth-grade though I like to play at playing it, it just wasn’t good enough. Neither was the clarinet, for that matter, but it didn’t require so much arm work. And I could play it.

Therefore, I told the music teacher I would play clarinet for fifth grade band–with the intention of later switching to something cooler, like the flute or French horn. Whereupon I went home, informed my parents of my decision, and found out that my uncle had played the clarinet for years himself. In fact, his band had played in front of the president…or the governor of Illinois…or some other illustrious personage, which I cannot really recall, but found myself much impressed by at the time.

At any rate, I got to borrow his instrument. A lovely instrument, wood, in a very battered old-fashioned case (that, most unfortunately, did not survive my stewardship). For clarinets, wood is better, unless it’s new and gets too cold and cracks on you. His wasn’t, obviously, and there were no cracks. Although the key pads had to be replaced at least once. By the way, I can’t say way wood is better, or even that it is to other people. It’s personal preference , really.

I don’t really know much about the clarinet, as an instrument. I have read that silver-plated keys are sometimes considered to be better than nickel-plated, although, again, I don’t really know why. Clarinet reeds come in several degrees of “hardness” though I don’t know if that’s how someone who actually knows clarinets would word it. When I graduated high school, I was playing on a 4 1/2. I believe the harder reeds are supposed to be better for playing on the highest register of the instrument. I also have a second mouthpiece, which, again, I think is supposed to be better for the highest register, but this time I did know, and just forgot this time.

Throughout middle school and (most?) of high school, I heard pretty much the same thing: “Play louder!” Over and over again. Because I played quietly, and for the most part never felt any need to play louder. Usually there were a few other clarinetists in the band either better or with seniority, so I figured they could play, and then the teacher wouldn’t be able to tell when I was playing the wrong note, and stop the whole band just to make me fix it. Generally though, despite the quiet playing, I seemed to get by well enough.

Bad habit: once I stopped having to verify that I’d practiced, I’d pretty much stopped practicing. I’d still play probably fifteen minutes out of school about once a month when I either particularly liked, or had a particularly hard, passage. But mostly I figured I practiced enough during school.

In high school, my senior year, I somehow ended up wanting to apply for the Western International Band Clinic (WIBC: pronounced WIB-ic)–fancy name, but dare you to find much about it on Google. I suppose band teacher thought: her senior year, may as well offer the chance, though probably understood it wasn’t very likely. Told me to practice. And I really didn’t. Well, more than I usually did, say about an hour total in my month of “preparation.” Had to do the audition tape twice…really upset the teacher though he didn’t say anything, and hid it rather well (yes, it was a terrible thing to do–I am sending telepathic apologies to him as I type).

Apparently though, they had a bad crop of clarinetists that year. I got in. Scraped by in the last chair of the last clarinet section of the last band. Theoretically, the bands are all equal, but among the students it seemed very clear that they were arranged by skill anyway, I was the…twelfth? (no longer remember for sure)…seat of the third clarinet section, which meant that all my parts were boring but easy to learn. The girl in the seat ahead of mine went to a music academy and owned a two thousand dollar instrument, with silver-plated keys. Made me feel a little better, true or not.

When I was in band, I never played in a group, say, larger than fifty. That may well be stretching it. At any rate, each of the WIBC bands was about two- to- three hundred people (no longer remember this either…what can I say, I’m bad with numbers). And the day of the concerts, two bands would combine for a 600 person band. That many people…it was incredible. So much more powerful. I loved it. It was definitely the most fun I’d ever actually had playing band. I’d had plenty of great experiences in band, but though we’d had some pretty good local concerts, they couldn’t compare to the grandure.

Not only that, but the guest soloist that year was clarinetist Robert W. Spring. Probably the first professional clarinet I’d ever even heard of. I even got his signature. When he came in to practice, he played “Flight of the Bumblebee” without pausing for breath–he was breathing, it’s called circular breathing, just in case that worried you. Now that was cool. And though it was very cool, it did not make me want to be a professional. He mentioned he had to practice hours a day. Still very inspiring though.

I took band a lot more seriously after that. Even got to play the solo part once during a concert. I wish I was still playing, but without having an already structured class, it seems hard to find the time. Or place. Or band for that matter. I’m thinking of looking into a concert band at this school… one band advertises itself to those students who haven’t played since forth grade. Right about my speed, there. Time after time, I still practice. It’s just much harder when you have anyone living nearby. Since fourth grade, I’ve come to see that the clarinet is highly under-appreciated, and is in fact totally awesome, but when practicing the upper registers, it can sound really bad. Really painful.

I should break these posts into sections or chapters or something.