MUSIC FOR A WHILE
Script for the Engines CD, Fall 2004
by John H. Lienhard
Mechanical Engineering Department
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204-4006
Capella V. Tucker, KUHF
Katherine Ciesinski, HGO and UH Moores School of Music
Music and Sound Mixing:
Brad Sayles, UH Moores School of Music & KUHF
Jimmy Do, KUHF and KUHT Systems
Source material is given at the end of this text.
TO LEARN HOW YOU MAY OBTAIN A COPY OF THE AUDIO CD CLICK HERE
Track 1: Introduction (2:30): Let us think for a while about music -- what it is and what it does. Music is, of course, no human invention. Birds, whales -- even far lesser creatures -- were making music in many forms, long before we humans arrived upon the scene. And, as soon as we learned to shape bone, wood, stone and entrails, we found ways they could aid us in our music-making.
No sooner had we learned to organize and retain our thoughts, than we applied that organization to creating ever-more-sophisticated -- yet ever-primal -- music. But, when we gave music over to our tools, and to our systematic ways of thinking, it took on radically new dimensions.
So let us look at the gifts that we humans have brought to, and taken from, this essential animal act of expressing the inexpressible. We give the technology of music-making greater power in our lives than any other. We give to it the power to disturb as well as to resolve -- to activate our intellect, as well as to walk around analytical thought. Of course anything that strong will work its mischief. Music can pander, inflame -- even mislead us. We find ways to misuse any of our technologies.
But you and I won't make that mistake with music, will we? You and I will use music as a road to self-understanding. We'll use it as a teacher and a healer. Music will focus our thoughts and bring perspective out of chaos.
Before we start, be aware that the last track on this CD is only data; it won't play in your audio player. But when you put the CD in your computer, you'll be led to the full text, along with images, links, and sources. We recommend you do that. But right now, let there be(Katherine Ciesinski sings:
Music for a while, shall all your cares beguile.)
Track 2: Quieting the Conversation (2:50): A man in the audience raised his hand and said, "You said we have to be receptive to the passing idea -- the idea we catch out of the corner of our eye. Well, how do I get into a mental state where I can do that?"
That really is the $64 question, isn't it! I answered, "We need to turn off the endless conversation running in our heads." Easily said, but very difficult. How many times have I, have you, sat down to work on a nagging problem formulating it in words or equations -- and then wound up running in circles?
The great nineteenth-century psychologist William James used to argue with his Harvard colleagues over whether thought was possible without words. He knew perfectly well it was, but many of his colleagues did not. For them, thinking was not thinking, if it was not done in symbols.
We do have to work systematically when we're wrestling with something that yields to process -- like a calculation. But that's death when we look for a new idea. New ideas always enter from the corner of our eye. If they didn't, they wouldn't be new.
And so we have, down through the ages, found many means for turning off our own mental noise. The Buddhists ask us to block out the racket by focusing upon a minimal contemplation object. Various Christians use repetitive rosaries, walking a labyrinth, or singing plainchant. Hindus often chant the name of a god or gods, over and over. But they all provide a subdued focus that overrides our mental chatter. And all come at last to the use of music as the one universal door into our creative center.
When the Romantic poets looked for a creative mental state, they found it in the brief period of reverie that we enter between waking and sleeping. For sleep will not arrive until all our formulating has been stilled. A very creative colleague tells me that the reason he does some of his best work before sleep is simply that he's separated, for a while, from his pencil and paper. Reverie is powerful no doubt, but it is also brief. Music, on the other hand continues. It buoys us from one idea, on to the next.
In any case, you and I know very well that we don't deduce new ideas. Rather we find moments and means for turning off the noise of our own constant mental calculations. And none of the means offered us by saints or mystics is as universally available and effective as music. Music gives form to silence and structure to thought. And I would like for us to play with that idea -- for a while.
Track 3: Music and Silence (6:16): One Christmas, not too long ago, Henry Purcell and John Dryden moved in and took up residence in my mind -- composer and poet. Those two remarkable people converged as I settled in to the Christmas themes of clamor and quiet, haste and repose -- rushing toward, and waiting for.
Purcell was to the late seventeenth century what Mozart was to the late eighteenth. Both lived furiously active lives. Both lived only thirty-six years. Both were musical prodigies. Just as classical music had nowhere to go after Mozart, English baroque music peaked with Purcell's death in 1695. Such complexity, such bravura, such aching melancholy and soaring joy in his music.
Purcell's brief life was bracketed by, and woven through, the long life of another composer -- John Blow, organist at Westminster Abbey and one of Purcell's teachers. When Purcell was twenty, John Blow stepped aside and let the young genius take the position of organist.
Purcell died, probably of tuberculosis, only sixteen years later, and the elderly Blow reassumed the organist post. Purcell's friend John Dryden wrote the text for Blow's lament on Purcell's death, and together they capture what is, for me, the essential meaning and purpose of music.
Drink in [the] Music with delight,
On the one hand, silence and obedience before the majesty of music is an old theme. It's at least as old as the Orpheus legend. But Dryden and Purcell go to the healing power of that silence. In an earlier collaboration -- in the song, Music for a While -- they expressed that same idea more subtly, but inescapably. The song is from the musical drama, Oedipus. It's purpose in the story was to calm the three furies whose fury would not be calmed by any other means.(Katherine Ciesinski sings:
Music for a while,
Purcell responds to those words by languishing in them (Katherine Ciesinski sings: Shall, all -- all, all -- shall all your cares beguile.)
And, at Purcell's end, Dryden once more returned to the theme of music-in-combat-with-clamor. In his lament on the death of Purcell. He says, He ere long this had tuned the jarring spheres, and left no hell below. We find a very similar idea in Dryden's hymn to the patron saint of music, Cecilia:
From harmony, from Heav'nly harmony
Well, the jarring atoms were realigning very rapidly. Dryden died soon after Purcell, and left Earth's jarring sphere to a new century. Vast change was now afoot. Newton's Principia had come out just before they wrote Music for a While. Six years later, the first steam engine was up and running in Devonshire. These were not quiet times.
And so, as you and I labor among the jarring atoms of our own hectic lives, we'd better find ways to shut out the racket, just as Purcell and Dryden did. You and I need to be alert to that quiet breath of music -- at least for a while.(Katherine Ciesinski sings:
Till the snakes drop from her head,
Track 4: Dissonance (3:48): Lest we fall into a mesmeric state of calm here, I need to tell you about something that happened during a previous Christmas season -- another of those intervals between the darkening of Autumn and the light of Spring. My wife and I were playing a CD of medieval, Renaissance, and Appalachian Christmas music in the car when we heard a completely unexpected dissonance in the Coventry Carol arrangement. Two voices clashed in a minor second, in the "by by lully" line.
It was a delicious sound, like the bite of horseradish in an otherwise-bland meal.
We both reached for the rewind button. We both wanted to hear it again.
And, even as my finger moved, I remembered an article from that morning's New York Times. It was about an Asian elephant who did exactly the same thing we were doing.
It told about Richard Lair, who works with elephants in Thailand. Lair realized that elephants have extraordinarily good hearing and that they use a much larger range of vocalizations than other animals. He also knew that elephants have been reported to respond to musical cues. So Lair joined forces with David Sulzer, who heads a neurology lab at Columbia University and composes music on the side. They made a CD of elephant music. Unlike the songs of the humpback whale, this is largely instrumental music. Lair and Sulzer created scaled-up versions of several Thai percussion instruments, including the Thai version of the xylophone. Then they showed each elephant how to create sounds with a mallet held in its trunk.
Right from the start, the elephants began improvising rhythms and melodies. The results, says the article, were "meditative and deliberate, delicate and insistently thrumming." They "strike some Western listeners as haunting, others as monotonous."
Then Sulzer made an experiment. He inserted a wrong note in one elephant's xylophone. She was Prathida, the best of the elephant musicians. At first, she avoided the note -- simply played around it. Then she started going back to it, over and over. Prathida had, it seems, discovered dissonance. She was doing just what my wife and I had done in the car.
The fact that elephants will make music can't be entirely surprising. They are wonderfully intelligent and expressive creatures. But as I reached for that replay button, a much different dimension of my kinship with Prathida struck me.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that all our seasonal talk about the consonance of peace and good will has to play against a backdrop of clashing notes.
What I crave is not peace in its own right, but to see strife resolved. I want to hit the replay button and be rescued once more from that glaring combination of notes, too close to harmonize and too far apart to be at unity.
In the darkness that now and again surrounds you and me, Prathida the elephant reminds us that harmony has to emerge out of dissonance. Any good designer knows that.
A harmonious machine is a problem solved, but it exists only because the problem gave birth to it. Cacophony is always with us. A good machine, a good melody, a good day in our lives -- each is an instant when we, like Prathida, find the sudden joy of dissonance resolved.
Track 5: Music and Explanation (2:43): Okay, picture this scene: My wife and I are enjoying supper in a restaurant. We're surrounded by tanks of brilliant, colorful fish. We savor the food and we savor the sight. And yet, we know neither the recipe for the sauce nor the genus of the fish. Our knowledge is purely sensate.
As we dine, we talk about a fine college choral concert the night before. Between sections, singers came out and read program notes. They drove us to distraction by explaining the music. The sound was actually wonderful. It was all-in-all of itself, and we were overpowered by a craving to stay centered in the sensate joy of it. The meaning of a cantus firmus melody line, woven into renaissance polyphony -- egging it on and defining it -- does not lie in explanations of the cantus firmus. If it needs to be explained, the composer has failed.
Yet we have become a nation of explainers and explainees. How can anyone bear to watch football with the sound on? Ice-skating is an art which, like ballet, combines movement and music. But television won't let you experience it without a running thread of explanation -- drowning out the music and breaking the flow of motion into analyzed axels and lutzes.
We ask one another why scientific illiteracy rises so alarmingly. I suspect that the more scientific illiteracy we see, the harder we try to cure the problem with explanations. The trouble is, an understanding of science does not come from explanation. It comes from being within the logical and mathematical processes of science.
Understanding a cantus firmus line in music comes from hearing it. It takes a mind-set, not an explainable set of principles, to make a scientist, an engineer, or a musician. It's a matter of taking pleasure in questions and finding, within ourselves, the resources to answer them. It is all mental awareness -- the confidence to distrust explanation. The more we reduce teaching to sets of explanations, the worse we sabotage understanding.
The processes of science, or of music, have to lie precisely where knowledge does not yet exist -- where there cannot yet be any explanation. By putting endless explanations at the center of either one, we deny students the very soul, the cantus firmus, without which there is no science, no poetry, no engineering. In the end, we must use the well-designed machine, we must taste the sauce, we must clear our minds and hear the music.
Track 6: Science, Sound, and A-440 (7:17): Perhaps the one most difficult scientific challenge posed by music was simply learning what it was made of. What, after all is sound? Well, by 1600, change was afoot in the way we would address such a problem. By 1600, the alchemical philosophers had, for about two thousand years, been trying to understand reality through reason. They had tried to deduce truth. Now a new breed of philosopher was inventing the process of observation -- what we call the scientific method.
Ever since Pythagoras plucked strings, around 530 BC, we'd known that the length of a taut string determines its pitch. Pythagoras used different ratios of string length to build musical scales. Halve the length of a string and you raise its pitch an octave. Two-thirds the original length raises the pitch by a fifth (from do to sol). Pythagoras couldn't tell us what sound was, but he lent a cosmological significance to different pitches.
The last alchemists were still talking about Pythagoras's harmony of the spheres, in 1600. But the new experimental scientists noticed that you could vary pitch without changing a string's length. Galileo's father, Vincenzio, was a famous lutenist and music theorist. In 1590 he wrote down what every lute player knew -- that you changed the pitch of a string by increasing its tension or its density, as well as by changing its length. Vincenzio's famous son Galileo clearly explained what that meant. The vibrating string drives vibrations in the air. A pitch is created by air beating against the eardrum. The rate of vibration is what determines the pitch.
It was Decartes's close friend and supporter, a philosopher named Marin Marsenne, who converted that to a formula. In 1637 Marsenne published a treatise on music and musical instruments -- his Harmonie Universelle. That title was a lingering echo of Pythagoras. But in it Marsenne showed that, while a string's frequency varies directly with its length, it also varies as the square root of the tension divided by the string's density.
Marsenne also recognized overtones, but he was never able to tell where they came from. No one yet understood that a string can support shorter waves along with the one that runs its full length to produce the fundamental tone.
Another question outlived Marsenne: How do vibrations travel in air? Newton nearly solved that one in his Principia. He came up only a hair short. He thought the air temperature stayed constant as sound passed through it. Actually the temperature rises and falls slightly, making sound travel faster than Newton predicted. We didn't get that part right until the late nineteenth century.
And so, once we left the old alchemy, not only did our understanding of music change, so too did the very character of the music we listen to today. With an understanding of sound we could do many things we'd previously been unable to do -- systematic acoustic design of halls, or instruments, for example. We were now about to radically expand the size and texture of orchestras. And larger orchestras created another new need that would be served by our better understanding of sound -- the need for standardized pitches.You've all heard orchestras tuning to the same A above middle C. That A is normally set at 440 cycles per second or 440 Hertz. And we'd been devising means for standarizing on one particular pitch long before we had electronic instruments. As early as 1619, composer Michael Praetorius had proposed a particular A-425 organ pipe as a standard. He pointed out that higher pitches led to broken violin strings. That was almost a half-step below today's A. Down through the Industrial Revolution, A generally stayed below that 425 Hertz number. The tuning fork that Handel used in the premier of Messiah is still around. It gives A-423.
As orchestra sizes increased during the century after Galileo and Marsenne, Baroque musicians often used organ pipes as standards, even though pitches varied greatly from one organ to another. By the nineteenth century, music was intensifying and instruments were taking on the mechanization of the new steam powered world. People lengthened violin necks. Gut strings gave way to steel. Valves appeared in French horns. Orchestras became larger, louder, and more lush. And pitches rose as well. By 1850, A's were crowding 450 Hertz. Much eighteenth-century music could no longer be performed at those pitches. Musicians grew alarmed.
Enter now physics professor Jules Antoine Lissajous. Lissajous had written a thesis on tuning forks. He'd developed clever means for calibrating any new tuning fork against a standard fork. Then, in 1855, he wrote a paper proposing to set A at 435 Hertz. Three years later Napoleon III set up a commission to set a standard. He appointed Lissajous to be its consultant.
Now, the best-tuned orchestra is close to, but never exactly on, a standard A. Still, small as these pitch differences may seem, they can create vastly different audience reactions to a single piece of music. Just for the fun of it, listen to three A's in a row -- ones pitched at 415, 440 and 460 (The three pitches play).
You were very aware of the changes there. Make those changes smaller and you may have trouble distinguishing them consciously, but our subconscious hears what our mind might miss. Here are A's, much closer together -- one at 443 and one at 438 (The tones play) .
This time you think you hear it, but you're not quite sure.
So we created standard tuning forks. Still, the French couldn't stop the trend of rising pitches just yet. Only in the twentieth century has the pitch of an A pretty much (but not entirely) been held at 440. Today's orchestra players are likely to walk on stage with instruments pre-tuned to a backstage oscilloscope. An electronic policeman holds the line.
Only Baroque ensembles revert back to an older and gentler standard -- to an A as low as 415 Hertz. But, even then, that pitch is now set by scientific instruments that would have awakened wonder in the eyes of Marsenne.
Each of the eight rows shows five possible Lissajous patterns for one in-tune pair of tuning forks. The pairs of forks sound in the following intervals reading from top to bottom as follows:(1) Unison, (2) Octave, (3) Twelfth, (4) Fifth, (5) Fourth, (6) 3 to 5, (7) 4 to 5, (8) 5 to 6. (From a Lissajou article in Annales de Chimie et de Physique, 1857.)
Track 7: Josquin des Prez (8:21): A contemplation of invention takes us into some very different regions when we think about music. We've talked about mechanics -- how does sound work. Then there's the matter of creating machines that touch the human psyche as they make music. Of course that immediately reminds us that the most complex music-making machine is the human body itself. Whether singing or playing, the musician is, inevitably, an athlete (both mental and physical) of the very highest order.
Then, there is the maker of musical tunes -- the composer. How do we find our way into the mind of that particular kind of genius. Perhaps by looking closely at the greatest composer who ever lived. Well, now, that might be a very good way to start a fight. But I'll offer you my candidate. He is the somewhat shadowy figure of Josquin Desprez. Josquin defined the new music of the Renaissance. You've probably heard his L'homme Armé masses. You've very likely heard his little choral piece El Grillo -- the one that makes such a fine imitation of a cricket. In any case, even if you have a different favorite, Josquin provides a fine window into great composition.
When I was in graduate school, musicologists were waging holy wars with one another over Josquin's particulars. Today a few of those particulars are in pretty good order. We know Josquin was born in the northern part of France around 1440. That rough date comes from the 1459 records of a Milan cathedral which identify him as "Jodocho de frantia biscantori." "Jodocho de frantia" was an Italian version of his name. "Biscantori" meant a young adult singer.
The spelling of his name changes from place to place and time to time. Historians finally realized that Josquin himself had shown us how he wanted his name spelled in a five-voice motet, Illibata Dei. He arranged the text so it spelled his name out in an acrostic puzzle. That's how Josquin's mind worked. He used his music to write his autobiography. The title of his Missa 'Hercules Dux Ferrarie' tells who his patron was, and the piece itself pays a peculiar homage to Hercules. We've already mentioned the notion of a cantus firmus -- the binding melody that flows through a piece. Here, Josquin has matched the vowels of "Hercules Dux Ferrarie" to notes in the scale. The first e suggests the syllable re. The second vowel, u, suggests the syllable ut -- that's the medieval word for do, and so forth. He got:
(Katherine Ciesinski sings: re-ut-re-ut-re-fa-mi-re; Her-cu-les-dux-Fer-ar-i-e)The whole mass rides upon that tune.
(Katherine Ciesinski sings: Ky-ri-e-e-le-i-son).That binding thread grows in intensity.
(Katherine Ciesinski sings: Ho-sa-na-in-ex-ce-el-sis).And we remember an obscure duke of Ferrara only because Josquin wove that stunning memorial around his name.
When Josquin died in 1521, just past eighty years of age, his linguist's mind, his mathematician's mind, his wide-ranging genius mind -- had redirected western music. He bequeathed his house and land to the Church of Notre Dame in Condé. He asked the church's singers to stop by his house during festival processions to sing his settings of Pater Noster (The Lord's Prayer) and Ave Maria.
From that touching gesture music historians conclude that Josquin had a choir at Condé that could handle six-part harmony. That's a small thing to make a point of, but it reminds us how hard it is to read the record of five hundred years ago. Josquin wrote some of the loveliest music I know. And I am grateful to historians for any small bits they can give me -- about the times and the person who produced such music.Now, another piece by Josquin and another facet of Josquin. This one reveals the theologian behind the musical, mathematical and linquistic genius. It is his motet, Tu Pauperum Refugium -- Thou art the Refuge of the Poor. Josquin begins by placing that soul-settling thought in a sequence of soul-settling chords. Through the music, Josquin says to us, "I may move off into other places before I am done, but this is the thought that I want you to hold onto."
(Katherine Ciesinski sings the soprano, alto and countertenor lines.)
Once Josquin has us centered, he can shift off into the complex polyphony that he so perfected. He begins a meditation upon the text's list of God's attributes as the healer of our troubles -- alleviator of weakness, hope of the exiled. When he reaches the line, via errantium -- path for the erring, an odd thing happens. The grand order of the music, gives way to a curious indecision. The countertenor line stumbles about beneath the treble like a man lost in the woods. Where is it going?
(Katherine Ciesinski sings the soprano and countertenor lines.)
Well now, Josquin the linguist is teaching us about the word error. It's from the same root as errant, which means embarked on a searching journey. Five hundred years ago, the two meanings were closer together. A person in error was searching for the truth. So Josquin's errant countertenors search for order.
Now doctor and writer Lewis Thomas picks up on that theme as he looks at DNA molecules. DNA flawlessly replicates any living species -- well, almost flawlessly. For DNA does err. Every now and then it makes errors and provides mutations that change living species. Thomas points out that if humans had designed DNA, they'd have got rid of that design flaw. And, if they had, we would still be no more than anaerobic bacteria. There never would've been a Josquin.
But there was a Josquin, and he shows how error is the path for our search. Just as DNA searches out new life forms through repeated errors, we begin to see that error is at the core of our own creative process. Engineering design teams are learning to make errors rapidly and to correct them. To create is to wander off the path, to be errant, to start in one place so we might find, in the end, another place we never dreamt was there.
Josquin was one of those errant searchers -- trying ideas, expanding our ears's capacity for informing our souls. So many others have proceeded and followed him. And the idea of finally getting music right -- of completing the search -- makes about as much sense as dreaming of completing and perfecting the form of our own DNA. You have no doubt been asked, "What is your favorite piece of music?" The only answer we can possibly give is, "It is that piece which I have not yet heard."
Track 8: Music Comes to America (6:21): Two hundred years after Josquin's death, the colonization of North America was well underway. We had some universities that would, one day, achieve greatness. We had some notable cities. Music, of course, was a presence here, but it was largely imported from Europe. The importation of musicians was also beginning.
In a 1936 Musical Quarterly article, Virginia Larkin Redway described what she called, "the first recorded American concert". Of course there were no tape recorders when she wrote the article; she was talking about the first American concert of which we have any record. It took place at 6:00 PM, January 21, 1736, at a tavern in New York City. The cost was four shillings and the performer is a surprise. He was Theodore Pachelbel.
Theodore, son of Johann Pachelbel, showed up in Boston six years earlier. We all know the elder Pachelbel -- for his famous canon if nothing else. The Pachelbels and the Bach family had been close. Theodore's father had taught music to one of the Bach brothers, and young Theodore had been Bach's contemporary. They'd known each other. Theodore played keyboard instruments. He also composed some music, but the only piece anyone remembers is a choral Magnificat.
Skimpy Colonial records say little about Theodore's first few years here. By 1733, he was well enough known to be called from Boston by a church in Newport, Rhode Island. They'd bought an English pipe organ and needed him to install it. Then, two concerts in New York. Finally, he turns up at St. Philip's Church in Charleston, South Carolina where he's mentioned in newspaper accounts. He died in 1750 -- the same year his old friend, Johann Sebastian Bach.
Theodore married soon after he arrived in Charleston. Two years later a son was born. It seems he contributed to the local Negro School House. Yet, when he died, the biggest assets in his estate were two slaves, valued at 330 pounds.
That strikes a discordant note, because the German Protestant world of the seventeenth century -- the world that spawned the Bachs and the Pachelbels -- was one place in the Western world where slavery gained no foothold. Theodore had, it seems, adapted fully to the local culture. And yet he'd also brought with him the music that would eventually help to civilize this harsh new world that he'd chosen for his own.
Pachelbel represents the avenue by which music was entering the Colonies. But music would have to become indigenous. And a very surprising figure in the domestication of music would be Benjamin Franklin. We all know Franklin for a statesman, a scientist, a writer, an inventor, a printer. But he also had his hands in music. He played several instruments and he composed as well. You may be among the few who've actually heard his string quartet. It still gets played in a concert here and there.If we go to Franklin's treatise on electricity, of all places, we find letters on many topics beyond his foundational work on electricity. His friend Father Beccaria in Italy, for example, has sent him a new study of electricity, and Franklin apologizes for having nothing to send back on the subject. But, he says,
it may be agreeable to you, as you live in a musical country, to have an account of [a new] instrument that seems peculiarly adapted to Italian music, especially that of the soft and plaintive kind.Franklin plunges into a four-and-a-half-page set of instructions for building this instrument. He begins by recalling an Irish inventor who once arranged wine glasses on a table and filled each to a different depth. Then he created tunes by rubbing their rims.
You've seen that trick done and you know that it's very hard to play anything rhythmical as you lurch from glass to glass. But Franklin had figured out how to create real music with rubbed glasses. He had a glassblower make a set of glass hemispheres ranging in size. Each had a hub with a hole at the center, and it tapered outward to the rim. He then ground each hemisphere until it played one pitch accurately. Next he mounted all the hemispheres on a three-foot spindle, from the lowest tone to the highest.
To play this Christmas tree of nested glass bowls, Franklin mechanized the process. He mounted a flywheel with an 18-pound lead rim on one end of the spindle, he put the whole arrangement on a small table, and provided a foot-treadle to spin the flywheel and the glass bowls. The performer could now sit at the table, pedal the machine, and place his fingers on the rim of successive glass bowls to create a tune.Franklin also color-coded the seven notes of the scale with the seven rainbow colors. The lowest note, a bass singer's low G, was blue; A was indigo, B purple, and so on up to a soprano high G. Franklin tells players to wash the glasses and their fingers thoroughly, then apply just a bit of chalk-dust to the fingers. He concludes by saying that the instrument's tones,
... are incomparably sweet,Franklin fairly glows with pride in his accomplishment. He's as pleased with this as with his work on electricity or, later, the U.S. Constitution. He finishes his letter by saying, "In honour of your musical language, I have borrowed from it the name of this instrument, calling it the armonica."
History has largely forgotten Franklin's musical instrument and often muddies the water by calling it a glass harmonica -- adding an h and hopelessly confusing readers. But this was no mouth organ. It was a truly unique American invention, which a few people are at last taking up today, over two hundred years later.
More important, it was emblematic of the Colonies' rising will to be independent from their motherland. And it is to that profoundly important assertion of musical independence that we turn next.
Track 9: A Musical Declaration of Independence (8:10): To understand Colonial America, we need to understand the intensity of the Colonial impulse to be free.
Freedom was a much-used word that swept in more than just political independence from England. It included cultural freedom from Europe.
America's first notable poet, Joel Barlow, repeatedly asserted our cultural independence. He brashly called America a "theatre for the display of merit of every kind." Sometimes this impulse toward freedom was downright arrogant. A typical anonymous Revolutionary War song, set to the skirl of fife and drum, ends with the lines:
And we'll march up the Heav'nly streets,
Other times it resulted in gentler expressions of the same sentiment. Francis Hopkinson gave us a widely-sung, lilting melody with the title, My Days Have Been so Wondrous Free. But always present was a direct, innocent, homemade, and somehow completely engaging quality that captures our imagination. It was strong, affecting, and wonderfully amateur.
Benjamin Franklin had been laying the groundwork. One letter in his book on electricity was written in 1761 from Ben to his brother, Peter. Peter had sent a ballad he'd written. Franklin writes back from England, where he was serving as a Colonial representative. He looks at the homespun sentiments of the ballad and he says,
If you had given it to some country girl in Massachusets [sic], who has never heard any other than psalm tunes, or [ditties like] Chevy Chase, but has a naturally good ear, she might more probably have made a pleasing popular tune for you, than any of our masters here.
That's a swipe at the great Baroque composers around him. He doesn't like what they're up to. He says,
The reigning taste seems to be quite out of nature, or rather the reverse of nature.
Franklin strongly objects to the way they set words to music. He encloses an aria from Handel's oratorio Judas Maccabaeus and uses it to demonstrate that text settings are becoming dysfunctional. Accents, he says, are often in the wrong place. He objects to what he calls Drawling and Stuttering -- drawing words out on tied-over notes and fragmenting them with elaborate trills or other ornaments. He objects to placing words so they're Unintelligible. He objects to the Tautology of words needlessly repeated. (A century later, Tennyson would also complain that "Musicians always make me say twice what I would say only once.") The last item in Franklin's list is Screaming without cause.
So, how are we to view this. I've sung a lot of Handel's music myself, and I rather like the way he sets words. But I was raised on Handel. Franklin was honing a vision of a nation run by hard-working citizens, and they don't do music like this. Franklin was defining music for this new world. It should be a tuneful but straightforward vehicle for text. He returns to that point in a postscript that any good singer will certainly heed today. He finds that many leading British singers are lazy about consonants. Their singing isn't about words, he complains, it's only about showing off their vocal technique.
I don't know that composer William Billings had read Franklin's letter, but his music certainly reflects its sentiments. Billings was born in Boston in 1747. He was poor and uneducated -- he supported himself much of the time as a tanner. But he also took up music when he was young. He was teaching choral singing by the age of 22 -- in the same year Franklin's letter was published.
Billings is the best-known Colonial American composer, yet few sophisticated musicians think much of him. I love his stuff. His biographers call him a gargoyle. He was blind in one eye with a short leg and a withered arm. But the real problem was his practice of what a contemporary called "an uncommon negligence of person." He was hopelessly addicted to tobacco -- constantly inhaling handfuls of snuff. That may explain why he lived only to the age of 54. He had a stentorian, tobacco-damaged bass voice and he seemed uninterested in any easy beauty of sound.
He was only 24 when he published his first book of choral pieces. He called it The New-England Psalm-Singer, and Paul Revere engraved the frontispiece for it. He went on to publish five more volumes, as well as a good deal of sheet music.
The New-England Psalm-Singer was the first book of American music. It began a tradition of musical grass-roots choral singing in America and Billings knew what he'd done. He delayed publication over a year -- until he could print it on paper made in the Colonies. No British imports for Billings. As a result, the paper is a dirty gray in color, but in the book we find the song Chester, which rivaled Yankee Doodle as our anthem of revolution:
Let tyrants Shake their Iron rod
One remark that Ben Franklin had made was that art would flow to the west -- to the new American Athens. What he got was Billings's grand idiosyncratic music -- no cultural continuity with anything. Billings's music emerged in the classical, rationalist age, with no trace of classical elegance. It really is an artistic declaration of independence.
To know Billings, one should do more than just hear him; one should sing him -- four-square, almost-medieval harmonies, elaborate fugues, experiments with dissonance that foreshadow Charles Ives. He plays musical jokes, he praises God, and he dances into the erotic wonder of the Song of Solomon. Then he turns around and leaves us with one of the most exquisite short canons we've ever heard,
When Jesus wept, the falling tear
The essential genius of America, and of Billings, was recognizing that full independence of Europe would eventually be gained only after we'd formed our own cultural roots. And I am back to that letter from Franklin to his brother. Franklin offers an analogy. Wigs, he says, were invented to replace missing hair. But they've turned into something with no relation to natural hair. The wigs of the wealthy are patently false. So it is, he says, with European music.
Years later, a much older Franklin turned up in France representing our new nation. He brought along his glass armonica, and he appeared in the salons flaunting his unwigged, balding head. By then, Franklin's egalitarian ideas were no longer just ideas. The straightforward, tuneful, wigless country that he'd worked to create was now a reality. Billings' music embodied and defined that spirit -- that country -- just as perfectly as Ben Franklin himself had done.
Track 10: The Dark Night of the Soul (6:09): The early American vision of music that I've been describing could not really last, because it overlooked music's primal function -- that of leading us through and out of our own valleys of despair. That fact comes home to me every time I succeed in immersing myself very deeply in any concert.
Some years ago I heard German lieder singer Michael Schopper do Schubert's Schwanengesang Cycle. Earlier that same day, I'd read a review of a Symposium on Schubert The Man: Myth vs. Reality -- a post-modern dissection of Schubert that ended with a long analysis of whether he was gay or straight. One participant found a homosexual agenda in his Unfinished Symphony. Another plumbed the profundity of his heroic suffering and isolation.
Then, Schubert himself spoke to me and all the deconstruction washed away. Schubert added his huge musical dimension to the works of six German Romantic poets and, two hours later, we knew all anyone needed to know.
The poems dealt with the themes of unrequited love and human pain that German Romantic poets so liked to talk about. But Schubert veered off in a different direction. This, you see, was the age when great iron machines rose up over Europe -- the age in which we rebuilt nature. The Romantics told us that nature rises within us. For them, and for Schubert, nature was expanded. Waterfalls were higher, darkness more terrifying, light brighter, thunder louder. Forests were deeper and more mysterious in our minds than they were in the real world.
There in the darkened auditorium I met nature, far larger than life -- a world of murm'ring brooks and moaning winds. I could smell the forest humus -- feel leaves crunch under my feet.
Science and technology had responded to the Romantics with the grandest creative upwelling the world has ever seen. As they did, the Romantic vision of nature began including locomotives and the boiling smoke of collieries. Even before Schubert, that creative vision had given us both Frankenstein and Goethe's Faust.
And there, on the stage, singer, poet, and Schubert all celebrated the wild forces of nature being recreated within us. They told us that those forces have the power to set us free. Listen to the words:
. . . Stilled by the breath of the spirit.
Schubert leaves his dissectors behind. Look inside your own minds, he seems to say. Look upon your own nature, for that's where you'll find the truth. That's where you'll recreate the earth.
A few years after this experience with Schubert, another experience mirrored it. This time, I heard Robert Shaw directing Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. It's based upon a poem by Wilford Owen, the British soldier/poet, killed in the last days of WW-I. Once again, I was set up for the concert by that morning's newpaper. It had a photo showing the fresh ruins of Mostar Bridge in Bosnia. I visited it once. I thought it was incomparably beautiful. Now it was pounded into rubble by Croatian guns. That single image made war stand out of the page in three dimensions.
I thought about another time war became very real to me. I was in college in 1948, surrounded by returning WW-II veterans. I'd survived the war by being too young to go. The students around me had survived by being luckier than the ones who died. All those ex-GIs -- one who'd finished his degree in a wheelchair; another who'd survived the terrible 1945 German counteroffensive.
And here is another character from 1948: Robert Shaw was then the young wunderkind transforming American choral singing. I first sang under one of his protégés. Afterward, I went on into engineering, teaching, and singing everywhere I could. That whole part of my life played against the background of Shaw's musical methods, and of students who'd been through the same things Wilfred Owen wrote about. They too had told me about senseless death.
Now, I listen as Owen dreams up the ghost of a soldier he'd killed. The ghost says,
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I think about those GI's; I think about Mostar's once-serene bridge. The voice of Wilfred Owen's ghost cuts through like a knife, saying, "It seemed that out of battle I escaped." Well, he did not escape -- nor did Schubert, who died unhappy at the age of 31, nor in the end do any of us escape
It was all about sorting darkness and light. So much death, so much pain, no doubt. At the same time, Mostar Bridge has been rebuilt and it stands again. So does Schubert, I suppose. For he's still helping us through our own valleys of despair. Things do come out of the wash, and music sees us through. It walks us back through those dark places -- teaches us to weep; and reminds us that you and I are still standing.
Track 11: Music for a While (6:39): In the end, we listen and we gain a new recognition of ourselves. Cellist Carlos Prieto played a recital here some years ago. Shostakovich, unaccompanied Bach and contemporary pieces. No fireworks. Just wonderfully clean, cerebral playing. He drew us into that quiet part of the mind where peace is. His Bach murmured along with the delicate inequality of rhythm that fine Baroque players use to stress ideas.
Prieto was no entertainer. He did nothing to put himself between us and the music. He simply led us in meditation. Afterward we gathered in the art gallery under Mexican Retablo pictures. Primitive religous art, kin to Bach in its clean, complex simplicity. A classical guitar quietly filled the air and sustained our inner quiet while we ate Mexican desserts, looked at the Retablo, and greeted Prieto.
He had the usual credentials: Rave reviews from Carnegie Hall, a history of important concerts, world premiers. But his MIT engineering degree and his work as a steel company executive had been left out of the program.
So we talked about MIT. "Did you know den Hartog," he asked. Did I! Years ago I worked on the aeolian vibration of power lines. Power lines vibrate in the wind like cello strings. An undamped line will dance in the air until it tears itself apart. Den Hartog's work with vibrations in large smoke stacks had applied directly to my power-lines. Den Hartog is to the study of mechanical vibration what Jascha Heifetz is to the violin.
Prieto told me how he'd play piano trios with den Hartog and his wife. When she was too tired to go on they'd switch to violin and cello --- sometimes six hours at a stretch. Suddenly I saw violins, smokestacks, and power lines forming a vibrant whole. I saw Prieto whole. He'd studied engineering and played cello in the MIT orchestra. His life was no hodgepodge, no jump from one thing to another. Music and engineering were of a piece.
I thought about how a well-designed machine reflects the quiet confidence of the designer -- how it reaches the grace and beauty that lie on the other side of difficulty. A good designer reveals passion within detachment. May Sarton once spoke of passion in the odd words, "Love distant, love detached, and strangely without weight." That was my lesson that night. This engineer's passions were so powerful just because he had them under such control, and focused so absolutely.
I'd watched the front end of this process at another concert the year before. The University of Chicago Motet Choir had performed. Forty apple-cheeked, bespectacled young students -- serious, slightly nerdish, full of the wonder of Hans Leo Hassler and Jacob Handl -- forty budding mathematicians, philosophers, poets, and chemists.
There they stood where I'd stood, more than fifty years ago. The same music shaded my whole learning of thermodyamics and beam theory. It ran in my mind and tempered my life when I, too, was infinitely young. I listened to them singing a Byrd mass -- the same Byrd mass that I'd played in my head all through basic training in the army.
My wife nudged me and whispered, "Look, they feel as though they're the first people who've discovered all that music." She should know. She and I met, long ago, in a group singing Vaughan Williams, Poulenc, and Purcell.
The performance on stage was clean and in tune. Lacking in passion perhaps, but then youth itself lacks passion. Passion was still hypothetical. These singers had so much to learn. The Latin mass was still an antiquarian exercise. What's the meaning of "Dona nobis pacem" -- "Give us peace" -- when you've seen so little strife?
Then they got to a piece by the fine German choral composer Hugo Distler. Distler wrote during Hitler's rise. He was anti-Nazi, and he suffered for it. He committed suicide when he was only 34. He expected to be drafted and couldn't bear the idea. Not even his music could sustain him in a Nazi army.
That was drama that a twenty-year-old could fathom. Suddenly the singing took on a new dimension. This was strong stuff. And so we watched process taking place. It's the same process that shaped you and me, that shaped Prieto. Music molding the lives of those smart young people. It was at once a window into the world and into history. It was a mirror of ourselves.
The next week they were back to their paper chase. But the medium of music had revealed things about physics and literary criticism that they couldn't've known otherwise. I know, for I've walked that same road. This was an important night for me. It helped show me who I am by reminding me where I'd been. As I had with Prieto, I looked back and saw the abstract power that music has had in my life -- in our lives. Music for a While purges our demons, it reassembles all the scattered rubble of our lives, and it makes us, once again, whole.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in what makes inventive minds tick.(Katherine Ciesinski sings:
Music for a while, shall all your cares beguile.)
Track 12: Data This is where the data are stored for the CD-ROM. Please ignore it here as well as on your audio CD player.
Time: 61 minutes and 10 seconds
J. Westrop, Henry Purcell. The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians. (Stanley Sadie, ed.) Vol. 15, New York: Macmillan, 1995, pp. 457-456.
(Actually, I should note that Dryden collaborated with poet Nathaniel Lee in writing Oedipus.)
The recording with the dissonance was: The Pro Arte Singers and the Indiana University Children's Chamber Choir, Paul Hillier, Director. Carols from the Old & New Worlds, Vol. II. Harmonia Mundi, USA, HMU 907233. Band 7.
Here is a version of the Coventry Carol that you can listen to on the Web, but without that wonderful dissonance. http://www.cvc.org/christmas/coventry.htm
And here is a review of a performance that included it: http://www.sfcv.org/arts_revs/kingssingers_12_16_03.php
Lindley, M., Pythagorean Intonation. The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians, (Stanley Sadie, ed.) Vol. 15, pp. 485-487.
See also the relevant Encyclopaedia Britannica articles.
Tyndall, J., Sound: A Course of Eight lectures Delivered at The Royal Institution of Great Britain. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1867. The figure displayed in the text actually shows how one might bow a Pythagorean monochord to get overtones.
Marsenne's formula actually said that the frequency of a vibrating string varied as the inverse square root of its cross-sectional area. That would be correct so long as all strings were made of the same material. It is more correct to say that it varies in proportion to the string's density expressed in grams per meter of length or pounds per foot of length.
Lindley, M., Wachsmann, K., Rhodes, J. J. K., and Thomas, W. R., Pitch. The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians, (Stanley Sadie, ed.) Vol. 14, pp. 779-786.
Turner, S., Demonstrating Harmony: Some of the Many Devices Used to Produce Lissajous Curves Before the Oscilloscope. Rittenhouse Journal of the Scientific Instrument Enterprise, Vol. 11, No. 2, 1997, pp. 33-51.
Lissajous, Jules Antoine, The Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Vol. 8, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973, pp. 398-399.
I have taken some liberties here in the name of simplicity. Baroque pitches varied all the way down to around A-390. There is also evidence that some Italian Baroque ensembles may have used an A as high as 460. It is common for harpsichords to tune to A-392 today. The range form 410 to 425 seems to have been typical in the 17th and 18th centuries, however. Today, many orchestras are once again pushing pitches up beyond A-440 in an attempt to create a brighter sound.
I am grateful to several musician friends for their counsel, notably Matthew Dirst and Katherine Ciesinski of the UH Music School, Bob Stevenson of Radio Station KUHF, and conductor Mark Powell.
I am grateful to Carol Lienhard, to John Snyder, UH Music Department, and to Jeff Fadell, UH Library, for their counsel. The only recording of Missa 'Hercules Dux Ferrarie that I've been able to find is one I sang myself: Music of Bach, Josquin, and Hindemith, The Berkeley Chamber Singers, Music Library Recording No. 7075, 1959. Josquin's Ave Maria, El Grillo and L'homme Armé masses have been recorded repeatedly.
Thomas, L., The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.
See entries under err, error, and errant in the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (J.A. Simpson and E.S.C. Weiner, eds.). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.
For Josquin's Tu Pauperum Refugium, see, e.g., Davison, A.T., and Apel, W., Historical Anthology of Music. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957, pp. 92-93 and 249.
Tracks 8 and 9:
Redway, V. L., A New York Concert in 1736. The Musical Quarterly, Vol. XXII, No. 1, January 1936, pp. 170-179.
Redway, V. L., Charles Theodore Pachelbell, "Musical Emigrant." Journal of the American Musical Society, Vol. V, No. 1, Spring 1952, pp. 32-36.
Stevenson, R., Pachelbel [Pachelbell], Charles Theodore [Carl Theodor]. The New Grove Dictionary of American Music (H. W. Hitchcock and S. Sadie, eds.). New York: MacMillan Press Ltd., 1986, Vol. 3, p. 458.
Franklin, B., Experiments and Observations Made in America at Philadelphia ... 4th ed., London: Printed for David Henry; and sold by Francis Newbery, at the corner of St. Paul's Church Yard: MDCCLXIX. The letter describing the design of the glass armonica appears on pp. 427-433 and the letter to Franklin's brother is on pp. 473-478, and .
Also check the entries under Franklin, Benjamin, and Musical Glasses in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. (Stanley Sadie, ed.) London: MacMillan Publishers Ltd. 1980.
Glass armonica players William Wilde Zeitler and Cecelia Brauer each offer fine websites that describe the instrument and its history in some detail:
Rothstein, E., And If You Play 'Bolero' Backward . . . The New York Times, Sunday Feb. 16, 1992, pg. H25.
The Schubert performance mentioned above took place at the Shepherd School of Music, Rice University, on Thursday, February 6, 1992. (Michael Shopper, bass-baritone and Brian Connelly, piano.) The text that I've quoted is from Waldesnacht by Freidrich von Schlegel. It is one of Drei Lieder aus Letzter Zeit which preceded the Schwanengesang Cycle in the concert.The Houston Symphony, the Houston Symphony Chorus, and the Fort Bend Boys Choir performed Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, Op. 66, on Sunday, November 14, 1993 at Jones Hall in Houston, Texas. The soloists were Lorna Haywood, soprano; Stanford Olson, tenor; and Davis Wilson-Johnson, baritone. Britten's text is woven from poems by Owen and elements of the Latin Requiem Mass. Sandwiched between the Pie Jesu and the Dies Irae are these disturbing lines:
Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm,Track 11:
Carlos Prieto, Violoncello, and Edison Quintana, Piano, presented this benefit performance for our local public station KUHF, in the Dudley Recital Hall, University of Houston campus, on Friday, October 2, 1992.
Den Hartog, J.P., Mechanical Vibrations. 4th ed., New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1956.
The lines by May Sarton are the poem, "The Silence Now, in her collection Christmas Light. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1988, p. 27.
All music has been mixed, composed, or adapted by Brad Sayles. Unless otherwise noted below, Mr. Sayles was the composer.