Saturday, March 30, 2013

Jazz Vocab: Beethoven figure

This is the first of what I intend to be many "Jazz Vocabulary" posts. We're kicking it off with some Ludwig van Beethoven. I played his Sonata No. 16 in G Major, Op. 31 (Movement 1) last spring, and within the piece, there is a recurring melodic idea (first stated in the key of G major) that works well as a jazz pattern.

The Figure

 Here's how it appears in the sonata, in the key of G Major:

(RH: treble clef, LH: bass clef)

I liked the shape of this line so much that I decided to integrate it into my jazz vocabulary. It's easy to construct and figure out in any key: It begins on the tonic, approaches the major third by a half step, encloses the tonic, moves stepwise down to the 5th of the scale, continues to the 6th with a chromatic passing tone, encloses the 4th, then continues down stepwise until making it "home" to the tonic.

Applying the Figure

It can be used over major chords, and is easily repeatable (as Beethoven demonstrates in his sonata), given you are using a proper fingering. For instance in the key of G, I make sure my thumb is landing on the root (G) and the fifth (D) of the scale. This ensures that the fingers are in position to repeat the pattern for the next octave below.

Practicing the Figure

Take this pattern around the circle of fifths all 12 major keys. You'll find that slightly different fingerings will be necessary for each key, but the adjustments are only minor. Many keys may use identical fingerings for this pattern. To get you started, I created a sheet with the pattern in the keys of C, F, Bb, and Eb. At the end of the sheet, I also included the pattern in the original key of G major. Fingerings have been included, but they are only suggestions, as your fingers might prefer something else.


In this video, I play the pattern first in C major a few times, then I continue to take it around the cycle, as per the sheet.


Download the worksheet: Beethoven Worksheet
Watch the video again: Watch again

Sunday, March 3, 2013

"The music is all around us..."

"...all you have to do... is listen." —fictional character, August Rush

I haven't gotten to the point (yet) where I walk down the street and hear the noise of traffic as a sort of symphony of sounds (as August Rush does). However, I do realize that there is that potential. Music has that boundless, unlimited potential. We hear a symphony orchestra playing and easily identify it as music, but we could just the same hear a car's horn and call it music.

This gets into a musical philosophy reminiscent of John Cage's, who said, "The function of art is not to communicate one's personal ideas or feelings but rather to imitate nature in her manner of operation." Music for Cage is a sort of "purposeless play" and an "affirmation of life," which serves only to present sounds as they are in their natural form, rather than to manipulate sounds in order to portray something other than nature.

August Rush (fictional), John Cage (nonfictional)

For Cage, this philosophy resulted in music which challenged more traditional notions of music. For example, his famous composition 4'33" contains no notated music. In fact, at first glance, it would seem the piece calls for complete silence (three movements of tacet). However, Cage's intention was for the performer to refrain from making sound in order to allow the other sounds in the environment to be brought to the aural forefront (e.g. a cough from an audience member, or a squeak from a chair).

Calling a stifled cough "music" may be hard idea to swallow for some music listeners, but for Cage, he saw it like this: Self-expression is not the most beautiful, truest form of art. After all, what we deem self-expressive is largely only a reflection of our individual tastes and biases which we have picked up during our lifetimes. These tastes are developed through a series of judgments, by imperfect, fallible human beings. The most beautiful, truest form of art is that which is untainted by human manipulation or judgment. So, for Cage, the the only way to express truth in a musical manner was to remove the performer entirely from the creation of the music.

This all challenges our traditional views of aesthetic. It is natural for us to develop tastes for particular pieces of art and distastes for others. We see a painting, and we very quickly cross-check it against our likes and dislikes and form an opinion about it. But, as Cage posits, what may be more "natural" in the "Mother Nature" sense of the word, is a life free of judgment. If we remove judgment, we are left with beauty.

Cage summarizes:

"Every day is a beautiful day. Everything is pleasing, provided you haven't got the notion of pleasing and displeasing in you."

(Easier said than done, Mr. Cage.)

But it is an important idea, I think. There are certain realms of life where judgments (well-informed) are necessary (e.g. dietary discretion at the dinner table to ensure a healthy, functioning body), certainly. But in our aesthetic lives, I think it's important to challenge ourselves to "turn off" judgments occasionally and try to see a painting with fresh eyes or listen to a new type of music, free of any pre-conceived bias. If we adopt some of Cage's ideas, we can work to broaden our aesthetic sensibilities and more easily appreciate the beauty of our natural world.

So, after all this talk of John Cage, here's a clip of 4'33" performed by David Tudor. Your task is to notice the beauty in the performance, whatever that may mean to you.

And if you haven't got the time for Cage, take a quick stroll down the nearest street and listen for some beautiful, musical car horns, in the spirit of August Rush.
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