Month: April 2007

The Song Is You

Gil Alterovitz, a research fellow at the Harvard Medical School, has devised a way of musically representing genetic sequences.* Alterovitz hopes to use the technique as a real-time health monitoring tool. As reported in the Harvard Crimson, Alterovitz presented some of the tunes as part of the Cambridge Science Festival last week:

While showing protein structures on a screen, Alterovitz played the compositions made when he matched up certain instruments to protein structures, creating harmonious melodies for healthy patients and atonal ones for sickly ones.

Now, is that really accurate? Every time I’ve watched a consumptive perish on the operatic stage, it’s always been to the accompaniment of ringing triads. (Although all those “classical music is dying” types will probably accuse Alterovitz of swiping their diagnostic tool.) On the other hand, I do like the idea of a hospital ringing with the cacophony of hundreds of genomic melodies in Cagean counterpoint.

Alterovitz may end up with a hit on his hands, according to this report:

By turning the components of genetic and proteomic data into musical notes, he was able to represent biological networks such as gene regulation and protein interaction in a way that sounded exciting to a broad audience of all ages.

Hey, if he can make proteomic data sound exciting to any age group, the sky’s the limit.

*Update (5/1): Dr. Alterovitz notes in the comments that it’s the genetic expression (for example, the resulting manufactured proteins), not the sequence itself, that’s being musicalized.

Dreams of night, lost in shade

The admittedly parochial thing that always amazed me about Mstislav Rostropovich, who died today, was that, even if he had never picked up a cello or a baton, he probably could have still been world-famous as an accompanist. As it was, he only ever really showed this talent in recitals with his wife, the formidable soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. The pair premiered a number of works written for them, including a personal enthusiasm, Benjamin Britten’s Pushkin cycle The Poet’s Echo—which I continually, and so far unsuccessfully, have attempted to foist on many a singer. (They also started their own foundation dedicated to improving the health and plight of children in the former Soviet Union.) Here’s the pair performing the “Elegy” from Mussorgsky’s Sunless.

Dreams of night are lost in shadow.
Through heaven’s misty clouds,
A pale, lonely star keeps watch over the earth,
While far below, in the distant valley,
The tiny bells of roaming sheep sadly echo.

Why We Fight

… with the piano, that is. It’s a practice day, which, seeing as how I played a recital last night, will require extra motivation for my default-lazy fingers. (Spring can really hang you up the most, once it gets to end-of-the-semester juries.) Anyway, this is what’ll keep me going today: Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Roy Eldredge, and a whole bunch more, giving “Fine and Mellow” a bluesy workout. If practicing is all about being ready just in case lightning strikes, this is a musical anvil cloud. (Via Hester, who writes about it beautifully.)

R.O. Morris momentarily indulges his inner Vorticist

I’m addicted to antique textbooks, so, looking to brush up on some basics, I naturally ended up with a 1922 copy of Contrapuntal Technique in the Sixteenth Century by the British composer and educator R.O. Morris. Morris was in the vanguard of teaching counterpoint as an exercise in style rather than rote memorization, and thus the book has a certain verve: nothing inspires a Brit quite like disparaging his academic predecessors. When he gets to the section on parallel intervals, Morris liberally boils his strictures down to three. The first:

1. Consecutive fifths (and a fortiori consecutive octaves) are forbidden between any two parts if no other notes intervene, no matter what the value of the note.

Pretty obvious. Here’s the second:

2. Consecutives on successive semibreve beats are broken by the intervention of a minim if it is a harmony note, but not if it is a passing discord. Consecutives on successive minim beats are similarly broken by the intervention of a crotchet if it is a harmony note; not otherwise. (This is the doctrine of Morley, and it is in every way substantiated by sixteenth-century practice.)

Morris throws students a lifeline by letting them finesse parallels via consonant escape tones. (I don’t have a problem with this, but I’m pretty sure I have at least one other textbook that does.) But then we get to his third rule:

3. A suspension may be said to temper the wind to the shorn consecutive.

The what to the what now? What he’s getting at is that it’s OK to use a suspension to avoid parallel fifths even though they’re technically “still there” (i.e., they show up if you move the suspended note onto the beat). But that’s pretty Modernist-enigmatic for a counterpoint rule. It’s practically a haiku.

The note, suspended,
Will temper the wind to the
Shorn consecutive.

Ezra Pound would have slapped an ideogram on that and sent it to Harriet Monroe. I need to hunt down Morris’s book on keyboard harmony; I’m hoping for an Imagist evocation of the various semitonal alterations available on the subdominant.

Update (4/26): Joshua Kosman reads more than I do (see comments).

Ink-Stained Wretch

I’ve once again been thinking about getting a tattoo, after my genius friend Jack Miller reminded me the other day that I once had a plan to get a tattoo on my back saying, “If you’re a heart surgeon, flip me over.” Anyway, I started trolling the Web for designs related to classical music, and came up with, well, next to nothing. I mean, I wasn’t expecting a full-sleeve portrait of J. S. Bach with a flaming skull (although that would be pretty lovely), but given the predominance of popular music logos, lyrics, and album covers I’ve seen permanently disfiguring various club denizens, I was hoping that at least a few adventurous souls were holding up the highbrow end. (Frank Zappa did turn up, as did La Divina—we’ll give Nietzsche an honorable mention.)

The most common classical tattoo seems to be the music itself: This guy opted for a Bach suite, and here’s an interesting cross between the Ravel Pavane and an Earle Brown score. Also Brahms 3, although if you’re going to ink up your foot, Winterriese might be a wittier choice. My favorite is this guy, who will never, ever forget the fingering to the Chopin First Ballade. (All links via the inexhaustible BMEInk.)


I considered tattooing my hand in a Guidonian manner, but palm tattoos are, from what I hear, comparatively excruciating. Maybe I’ll go with the lion from Marc Chagall’s Zauberflöte poster.


Ah, maybe not—that face kind of creeps me out. See? This is why I still don’t have a tattoo.

I would’ve settled for pawning one of them shoes

The Academician of the Week here at Soho the Dog HQ is David Grazian, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, for his paper “The Production of Popular Music as a Confidence Game: the Case of the Chicago Blues” (originally published in Qualitative Sociology in 2004). Grazian takes a look at the way electric blues has thrived in Chicago, in large part due to the city’s marketing it to tourists and visitors as an authentic Chicago experience, and points out that it’s strikingly similar to the way large-scale con games have historically been run.

The similarities between confidence games and rock concerts, discos, jazz clubs and even hootenannies are represented by much more than simply their reliance on general tactics of impression management, rhetoric and performativity. Rather, in the context of such enterprises a cultural ecology of deception entwines proprietors, promoters, performers, support personnel and patrons in a set of relations that bear an even closer resemblance to the confidence games played by traditional grifters and their marks. Specifically, the successful production of live popular music and cons both rely on (1) a set of structural relationships in which operators, ropers, insiders, shills and victims are enmeshed; (2) the deployment of carefully planned strategies of deception; and (3) a pattern of success owed in part to the moral and financial motivations of insiders, the willingness of the state to assist in the enterprise, and the desire among victims to be swayed by the production.

In Grazian’s calculus:

  • Club owners = operators
  • Media oulets and civic boosters = ropers
  • Musicians = insiders
  • Bouncers, bartenders, servers = shills
  • Patrons (particularly out-of-towners) = marks

  • Each step of the way, the players engage in various subtle deceptions to convince the mark that the experience they’re paying for has the requisite veneer of “authenticity.”

    The great thing about Grazian’s analogy is that it can be adapted to almost any performing situation. Classical music breaks down in almost the exact same way, except that the “authentic” experience being promoted isn’t gritty and “working-class” one, but plush, refined, and “upper-class.” And the downside is the same: an ossified repertoire. Grazian quotes one musician:

    What happens on Friday and Saturday night when it’s like, you know, packed full of tourists who really don’t know anything?… You know, they want to hear, I mean, I can just list for you the “set list from hell”: “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Mustang Sally”… and, you know, those other f–king songs, you know, “Kansas City,” and f–kin’, you know, “Johnny B. Goode” and s–t. You know, how are you supposed to play those songs for ten years, twenty years?… But that is what these people wanna hear! Like, go to B.L.U.E.S. or Kingston Mines, or wherever…. The two blues songs everybody knows are “The Thrill is Gone” and “Sweet Home Chicago.” And what does everybody sing along to? “Mustang Sally.”

    Most classical musicians could probably imagine a similar “set list from hell.”

    Grazian’s is one of the most entertaining sociological papers I’ve come across in a while (and I’m a big enough library nerd that I can make that assessment). Looking for more? He’s written one book (Blue Chicago) on the same milieu, and a forthcoming tome looks like an expansion on the con game idea.