The correspondence began midway through the year, but even in that first six months we had plenty to talk about.

On Sightsinging and Pitch

That business about hearing accurately is a rather sticky one. I would say that most people would consider that they knew “Happy Birthday” quite well by heart, and could hear it accurately in their heads, at least accurately enough to sing it. However, a class of Conservatory students faced with singing Happy Birthday in solfege (naming the notes they are singing) wouldn’t do at all well. Thus while they might be hearing pitch relationships pretty well, in a sense they aren’t hearing well at all since they don’t really know *what* it is that they were singing. They would find rather quickly that they couldn’t write it down accurately, either.

I suppose it boils down to one’s definition of “a good ear.” To the trained musician, a good ear means this ability to hear and know what it is; in short, to be able to take it down or at least identify the pitches accurately, at least as scale steps, better yet in actual pitches. The reverse is also true—to look at a piece of printed music and hear it accurately in one’s head, without distortion. Yet it would be possible to approach this from another angle. Many students who are told that the first note of Happy Birthday is the 5th scale degree will then be able to identify that it is followed by the 6th scale degree (on “birth”), then the 5th scale degree again (on “day”). However, many of them will suddenly fall to pieces on the next note, on “to”. That’s the first scale degree, a jump of a perfect fourth up from the previous note. The phrase ends on the seventh scale degree, on “you”. So the notes in scale degrees are 5-5-6-5-1-7. In C major, that would be g-g-a-g-c-b. Now, if the student missed the first scale degree and identified it as, say the second scale degree, you could then have them sing the correct note; underneath that you sing the scale degrees, one at a time in order (1-2-3-4-5-6-7), until the student realizes what the correct one is when the two match up. So the student is able to make the connection from the “outside”—i.e., when there is something to compare to, but not necessarily from the inside—realize immediately that the note on “to” is the first scale degree.

What this shows is that there are two kinds of hearing. One kind of hearing is the recognition of music—that is the ear that recognizes a wrong note. The other kind is the generation from within the mind—the ear that hears within the privacy of the mind without external aid. One would think that singing something like “Happy Birthday” is solely the province of the internal ear, but actually it isn’t. There is a third element which works in concert with the two other kinds of hearing, and that is kinetic or muscle memory. There is muscle memory involved with singing just as there is in playing the piano. The muscle memory can be quite adept at negotiating the leap of a perfect fourth vocally, but the inner ear doesn’t really have the faintest idea what notes are actually being produced or the size of the interval between the notes. You can “match pitch” with another singer as a combination of outside hearing (yes, those notes sound alike) and muscle memory (which allows you to remember how it felt to sing the note previously.)

This explains why trained singers aren’t any better at sightsinging than untrained singers. The vast majority of people have enough vocal cord muscle memory to be able to carry a simple tune, and that is certainly true of music students. Faced with eartraining challenges that involve using the mental ear, a singer’s vocal-cord memory just isn’t going to take care of things the way it would in the case of singing something which has been carefully rehearsed and coached beforehand. In sightsinging, it is the strong inner ear that predominates, with the result that students having an instrumental major which involves a lot of sophisticated ear-work are invariably better in a musicianship class than are singers. The only muscle memory that is required (or even advantageous) is the base-level muscle memory that most people have anyway, so the singer’s vastly more sophisticated muscle memory is of no use, and in fact is sometimes a major stumbling block.

Thus the use of solfege syllables or scale degree numbers in teaching sightsinging; the idea here is to be able to identify what it is you are singing, and not just depend upon muscle memory or other automatic actions to create music. Some of the kinds of mistakes that come up during a sightsinging session are highly revealing. For example, a piece might end with a figure that is a commonly-encountered one, but one with just a minor change. Let’s say the thing ends 1-2-7-1. That is about as common as they get: c-d-b-c on the piano. Now change the third note from a ‘b’ to an ‘a’—thus c-d-a-c. Many people will sing a ‘b’ there anyway, because that is what the muscle memory expects to be there. Frequently they can stare right at the notation and not realize that they are singing it incorrectly. But if you make sure that they are using numbers, they will have to sing 1-2-6-1, and hopefully will realize that they aren’t singing 1-2-7-1. The same thing holds true in the case of syllables, in which do-re-la-do is quite different from do-re-si-do.

The properly trained ear can hear these distinctions easily and will have no problems singing something like Happy Birthday with the correct notes, either using solfege, American note names, or scale degree numbers. Furthermore, a properly trained musician will be able to do so in any key, without having to think through the notes that make up that particular key. It is really a fairly simple process, but many musicians have lazy minds and never really learn the basic elements of the craft very well.

One of my standard diatribes against lazy minds concerns key signatures. There are exactly 30 key signatures in classical tonality, 15 major and 15 minor. (You might be wondering why not 12 since that’s all the chromatic pitches there are within an octave, but remember that there are three enharmonic keys per modality—F#/Gb Major, C#/Db Major, Cb/B Major being the ones in major keys.) The majority of music students will be reasonably comfortable with the major key signatures, at least up to five sharps or flats or so. But they just don’t know the minor key signatures worth shit. Many times they resort to the “count-up-minor-third” practice, in which you start from the minor key, count up a minor third, and then think of the key signature for that key. So if you can’t think of the signature for g# minor, you think up a minor third to B, and B Major has five sharps, thus so does g# minor. Incredible waste of time and bother. The minor key signatures can be learned quickly and easily; anyone with half a brain can memorize 15 objects without too much difficulty. But I have seen people sit in musicianship classes and count up those minor thirds every time they encounter a minor key signature, although by the time they’re out of musicianship class they’ve had enough minor key signatures to have them firmly memorized for life.

The degree of aural flabbiness in the average music student is actually rather mind-boggling. It can be toughened up, and is. That is my job, as a matter of fact. But most music students have tripped along so far without thinking carefully about the music they are playing, relying primarily on muscle memory, and “outside” hearing, and not developing any “inside” hearing at all. One could call it the difference between listening (outside) and hearing (inside). Some music educators have adopted the term “audiate” for inside hearing, but I heartily despise this term and refuse to use it. I heartily despise pseudo-coinage of all sorts, the bane of many a pseudo-profession.

Having students sing modal music can be quite revealing. A lot of modal music will not feature the semitone between the 7th and 1rst scale degree as is common in modern tonality. (For example, an a-minor scale without any of the usual inflections, just a to a on all the white keys). A lot of students will absolutely insist on sharpening that 7th scale degree anyway, despite the fact that the music does not sharp the note. The ear is accustomed to hearing and the muscles accustomed to singing semitones between 1 and 7. It can actually be something of a struggle to get a chorus to sing a natural 7th scale degree, since no matter what, there will always be a few dummies who keep singing the sharp 7—and the rest of the chorus follows them like lemmings into the sea. Presumably chorus masters in the mid-Renaissance had just as much trouble getting their choruses to sing the raised 7th degree, since their ears were much better attuned to the natural 7th.

Atonal music is the ultimate challenge for the “assuming” ear. Anyone whose ear is governed primarily by the expectations of traditional tonality will fall utterly to pieces trying to sightsing atonal music, or even music in which the tonality is radically expanded—say a composer such as Bartok or Berg. If atonal music does have a use, it can be to fine-tune the ear into hearing almost anything. Unfortunately, excessive use of atonal music tends to dull the ear to the subtle distinctions of traditional harmony, thus at the Conservatory we tend to avoid atonal music in musicianship classes until the third year Advanced Musicianship course, which is an elective for most students and required only for composition majors. Only the best of ears can handle the gamut of possibilities with ease—can deal with Schoenberg’s levels of dissonance comfortably and yet not lose the distinction between highly similar harmonic functions—a relatively coarse example being the difference between a dominant and dominant seventh chord. But it definitely can be done, and it is a never-ending process of refinement. One can always hear better, more clearly, more sharply. Like all skills, it can be infinitely refined.


But nobody would ever confuse the human race with a rational creation. There is little that is rational about it. Pyramids built upon houses of cards built upon sand built upon air. It all stands shakily for a while, then somebody or something manages to totter it just enough to show it for the sham it all really is. Unrational, unreasoning, violent behavior is the norm. Anything less atavistic can only be created by intense pressure from all sides, constantly applied. Loose the grip for a second and a bit of the monster within bulges out or a claw manages to strike out and wound.

Civilization survives by force of numbers, more than any positive character and certainly not for any supposedly beneficial or uplifting reason. I can’t stand those moralists who apply ethical stances upon the entire idea of civilization, as if it is in some way a proper or superior form of existence on ethical reasons. I would tend to say that a civilized society manages to eat more and therefore reproduce more, and therefore tends to grow faster and eventually smother out the non-civilized societies. But that doesn’t make it any better, just different. There is no real survival of the fittest, only survival of the survivors. Mother Nature doesn’t care whether the genes are stronger or better, just that they get passed down.

Odd words coming from a person engaged in the humanities. I am supposed to look on the achievements of the human race as marvelous things, justifications for the wonder of western civilization. Yet those achievements are all part of the constant pressure to keep us hemmed in properly so we can be civilized. The music appreciation books love to talk about the greatness of Beethoven, the nobility of Beethoven’s music, its uplifting and enrichening aspects. Well, OK. But they never seem to mention that it has a distinctly psychotic nature to it as well; when Stanley Kubrick made “A Clockwork Orange,” the sociopath Alex did not have sado-masochistic sexual fantasies to the music of Beethoven for nothing. The fascination with Beethoven seems to be just how close he manages to step to the edge of the void and look over. The civilized veneer is so very, very thin; you can see the smoking pits of hell right through it. Of course it’s fascinating.


There was a period in which I really loved Halloween during my childhood. It was primarily during the years we lived in Fort Worth; we lived in a typical middle-class suburb in a neighborhood with a lot of kids right around the same ages. Definitely a white-people-with-good-jobs-and-kids kind of neighborhood. As a result, Halloween could be a fairly trouble-free and fun evening. The neighbors tended to stay home (after all, most of them had kids who were out trick or treating) so almost every house had a ringable doorbell and candy. There were always a few families who fixed up haunted houses for us inside, complete with ghosts and scarey people jumping out of dark corners. Most of us kids wore dime-store costumes, the kind you bought in a box. They were perfectly dreadful, of course—a plastic mask with the costume part consisting usually of a one-piece suit of some very, very flimsy synthetic. But there were lots of variations; you could be a skeleton (always popular, especially the glow-in-the-dark kind), a zombie, a mad doctor, Frankenstein, Dracula, a Hunchback of Notre Dame. Girls could be witches, princesses, ballerinas as a rule. (Ah, sexism. Seems downright nostalgic, doesn’t it?) I can still conjure up the smell from the inside of the mask to this day. Inevitably there was some terribly cool costume that was therefore in short supply; every kid wanted one but only a couple of kids were truly cool enough to really get one. I seem to recall such a situation with the Creature From the Black Lagoon. My mother was always pretty slow on the uptake so I wasn’t one of the kids who got the truly cool costume. The truly cool kids had mothers who lived at the shopping mall, I think.

We had the same scares about razor blades in apples and such, so much so that my parents made me throw away any pieces of fruit or homemade treats. This was utterly silly, considering that we knew all of our neighbors well, they all had kids of their own, and I didn’t go anywhere but the immediate vicinity of the neighborhood, which consisted of Bilglade and Lanark streets. (I thought I had forgotten the name of those streets, but they came popping back into memory as I started thinking about Halloweens. Our house was 4345 Bilglade, right at the corner of the two streets. Our front door was on Bilglade, but the driveway on the right side of the house opened onto Lanark.) I undoubtedly had a better chance of being hit by a falling comet than I did of getting contaminated candy or razored apples. But we went through the bags, anyway. It was still early enough in the razor-blade-and-poison-scare years that a lot of parents went to the trouble to make homemade treats, despite the fact that a lot of other parents were making their kids throw them away.

God, that street and that neighborhood. Talk about the American Dream. All the houses were brick, either one or two stories, and not a one was more than five years old. Everybody had a front and back yard, everybody had a decent car, usually several. The mothers definitely stayed at home while the fathers worked. The McAnallys (I even remembered the odd spelling) were a slight scandal because Mrs. McAnally wasn’t all that good of a housekeeper and the two boys, Banks and Sky, were a bit dirtier than the other kids. (What odd names. Their dad was an aeronautical engineer at General Dynamics, as I recall. I suppose if they had more kids he would have named them BarrelRoll or Flaps. He was our Cub Scout troop master and was a really good one since he could teach us how to build things.) Naturally, being a “bit dirtier” than the other kids meant that they just *might* not put on a fresh change of clothes after coming home from school. This was the Westcliff section of Fort Worth, Texas, in the 1960s, after all. They hadn’t really invented integration yet in Fort Worth. About the only acceptable diversity was being Jewish. But that was so common that nobody gave it much thought.

What gets me about the recollection is the realization that this was by no means a wealthy or even all that affluent neighborhood. We were just ordinary middle class, that’s all. However, at that time being ordinary middle-class meant having a nice suburban three-bedroom house with all-electric kitchen, front and back yard, brick barbecue pit in the backyard, two cars, and so forth. It sure the hell doesn’t mean that in 1990s California, though.

Faith and Linearity

I've been playing around with some half-baked ideas when I get a few moments to sit back and think (usually while commuting over to Berkeley), regarding religious faith, notions of purpose, and an unchallenged assumption of time as being exclusively linear. Seems to me that religious faith rests fairly solidly on an underlying assumption that there is a purpose to existence, which in term lies fairly solidly on an underlying assumption that the flow of time is absolutely linear, since a concept such as "purpose" stops being meaningful without cause/effect linear time. Considering the limitations of our senses, we can sense time only in the linear sense but that doesn't by any means prove that it is. In fact, most of modern physics, at least insofar as my terribly limited understanding of them, point to a different conclusion. Time warped through 'n' dimensions of space/time certainly cannot be viewed as linear. Or can it be? For example, gravitation according to Einstein is warped space. Fine and dandy. We can consider an object "falling" as traversing along one possible path through curved space, much like those demonstrations using a rubber sheet with indentations in the rubber representing local gravitational curvatures. A ball bearing rolls along the rubber sheet and the indentation in the rubber makes it change direction, not moving directly downwards but spiralling instead down the sides of the indentation. Yet the ball bearing is travelling in a linear fashion from its own point of view—there is something in front of it and something behind it, and it is moving from a single point to another single point. The only problem is that the ball bearing might consider itself to be moving "straight" ahead, but to us looking at it from another dimension, we can see that it is actually moving in a downward spiralling motion.

So there is our concept of time as something moving along nicely and linear, with a "tomorrow" and a "yesterday" and all the implications of such concepts, but possibly we're actually moving in the direction of a "sometime" that is not tomorrow, at least not the way we think of it. Of course this entire argument is depending upon analogy to make its point, which means that it is essentially useless. Analogy isn't argument. But this underlying concept of linearity strikes me as essential for the "believing" mind to believe. It could well lie behind the deep-rooted stubbornness of many minds against "belief" in the traditional sense. All I can tell from my own experience is that the panoply of religious feeling and thinking never got very far with me. It rather rolled right off like water off a waxed surface.

Time viewed as a multi-dimensional helix, with curvature through 'n' dimensions simultaneously. Sheesh; the more I think about it the more I am longing for a flat earth with heaven just barely above the highest mountain peak, hell real and right below us, and a stern Jehovah peeking out of the clouds, ready to turn the nonbeliever to cinders. It is a limited world, but at least you know where you stand, no bullshit. And there ain't none of this multidimensional curved time horseshit. Yesterday is yesterday, today is today, tomorrow is tomorrow, and I'll deck any egghead sombitch who thinks he can tell me no different.

Religious Anaesthesia

As a person who is anaesthetic to the religious impulse, Catholicism in general will always remain a mystery to me. Not the actual dogma of the thing; in many ways it is very easy to understand. How any reasonable person could invent such nonsense is astonishing enough, if it weren't for the staggering fact that such nonsense can be believed by millions of people. It has simply got to be something in the wiring of the human brain that allows for this to happen -- a kind of bug, like the floating-point error in the Pentium chips. Always there, but only under certain circumstances is it executed; on the Pentium you get the wrong division, in humanity you get Popes.

Beethoven and Revolution

Beethoven's 9th is definitely not a cozy, sleepy work. There is so much within it that is disturbing, even amidst the "joy" of the last movement. There is an edge to the joy; it isn't delight by any means, but almost a ferocious kind of thing, a joy in having become the successful victimizer rather than the victim. The militaristic, almost tacky, finale is perfect to the mood of the thing -- but it is nonetheless a dark mood throughout. But that's Beethoven in general; there were more dark corners in that man's psyche than light areas, and he let us see them all. Let us? Hell, he shoves our face in them. It amazes me that such a violent, lonely, and sometimes chaotic composer could also write music of such exquisite tenderness or fresh beauty as he did. Or that everything he wrote was crafted with such amazing technical virtuosity. Given his overall psyche you'd expect him to be stream-of-consciousness about everything. Around 1800 or so he lashed out at Haydn saying "you never taught me anything!" Later, in 1808 at the performance of "The Creation" that was Haydn's last public appearance in Vienna, Beethoven bowed to him and kissed his forehead. Beethoven learned a great deal from Haydn, in fact: every time Beethoven starts spinning a work out of the germ of one thematic idea, he is paying homage to Haydn whether he knows (or likes) it or not. It is generally accepted that Beethoven never came to realize just how much he carried forward Haydn's torch. I have no doubt that Haydn was appalled by much of Beethoven's music (he lived long enough to hear at least up through the Eroica and probably more than that.) But he must have recognized the utter integrity of the structure as being his heritage, even if Beethoven didn't.

But he was Beethoven. Whether or not we are completely happy with the direction that music took afterwards, he certainly did lead the next generations. The artist as hero was a Romantic invention with Beethoven its most glamorous example.

Although there was a time in which I always saw the artist as necessarily the revolutionary, the artist as the misfit, the artist as the one who lifts up the veils to make us see the dark corners beneath, now I'm not so sure that isn't a terribly myopic viewpoint. Not to imply that Beethoven was some kind of inferior composer (God knows he wasn't) but that the Beethoven model of the artist is not the only one, even though it seems to have become the preferred model nowadays. It is because of Beethoven that quacks like Cristo can flourish. Obviously paving the way for Cristo was not Beethoven's intent, but there it is. Nonetheless, the artist as the happy, well-adjusted person, creating products that are intended to be pleasing, or moving, just isn't in too good of repute right now. Artists aren't supposed to be happy; they are supposed to be miserable or at least tormented by a bunch of awful demons. Well, I'm not so sure about that: why should I want to go see a play or attend a concert of somebody's homemade psychoanalysis? I am infinitely sick and tired of composers who have written works in response to this or that crisis; this work was written in response to the AIDS crisis, or the situation in Bosnia, or world hunger, or whatnot. But even nasty, selfish old Richard Wagner wrote a tender work in response to the birth of his son Seigfried (the "Seigfried Idyll"). Why can't some composer be inspired to write a work by the sight of a kitten cavorting on a rug? Or just write the piece, for money, or for whatever? But people will put up with the Gustav Mahlers of the world, even give them great credence as Great Thinkers. Bah. In music Beethoven was damn near the only composer who was big enough in spirit to pull that sort of thing off successfully. I could only wish that other composers hadn't been so hell-bent on trying to copy it.