David Byrne: How Architecture Helped Music Evolve

Here’s a music TEDtalk after the last few which were not related to music much.

Byrne, a musician who came into the international spotlight around the 1980s as the vocalist/guitarist for rock band Talking Heads, has performed at many venues. In the short lecture, he talks about his thoughts on how space and acoustics of architecture has influenced music throughout history. He also ties in a reference to Attenborough’s nature shows, where birds also change their songs depending on environment as well. (I can link later to an NPR talk about how the same species of birds will change their song when moved from a rural setting to an urban setting. Check back for that!)


Glenn Gould & J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations (1981)

Of legendary status is the 1981 studio recording of Glenn Gould performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It is a piece for solo piano, consisting of an aria + 30 variations. In the musical world, variations is a compositional technique where the composer takes a musical idea/theme and alters it in some particular way in each variation. These can be changes to, or variations on melody, harmony, composition, counterpoint, and so on.

Bach’s Goldberg Variations revolves around the bass line and chord progression introduced in the Aria. One can refer to the skeleton of the structure of harmony here: [Form of BWV 988]
Along with the score of the variations (download here), one can see that the harmony from variation to variation follows true to this skeleton–even though the rhythmic and melodic material change each time.

Glenn Gould’s interpretation of the set is wonderfully light, refreshing, clear, and raw. The clarity with which one can follow all the melodic lines woven together is something to strive for, not only in this piece, but in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (Fugues, especially) and Inventions as well. Once again, I have linked a recording in which one can study Gould’s technique and way of achieving such tone. That being said, I would like to add this warning to the ambitious who may want to emulate Gould’s piano technique:

The height of one’s seat at the piano is determined by the position of the elbows, which should not be below the level of the keyboard to avoid introducing too much weight into the playing. Sitting much lower prevents the pianist from using the weight of his upper body. (I am convinced that Glenn Gould was able to play the way he did not because of his abnormally low sitting position but in spite of it. It certainly has not worked as well for some of his emulators.) People with a small build in particular may need every ounce of their upper body weight to produce a powerful and full sound. On the other hand, sitting too high may invite shallow playing, with fingers not reaching to the depth of the keys.
–Boris Berman, Notes from the Pianist’s Bench, pg.30

That being said, Watch and Listen on! Best done in a quiet room, in a quiet mood. For the uninitiated, a second warning: Glenn Gould is a character; among many of his odd habits, ‘humming’ and ‘hurring’ along while he plays is common.

J. S. Bach – Goldberg Variations
00:00 – 06:34 Interview with Glenn Gould
06:34 – 58:56 Goldberg Variations

TEDSalon London Spring 2012: Pam Warhurst – How We Can Eat Our Landscapes

It’s TED Tuesday everyone! Today I’m sharing two lectures on the subjects of community food gardening.

I’ve always been interested in What was in my food; as a kid, while eating cereal, or anything from a can or box, I’d flip it around to the nutrition facts and look at the caloric makeup of the food, and the ingredients that went in it. I never cared much about whether it was healthy for you or not–it was more fascinating to me to see what words cropped up on these processed foods over and over again (and the fact that six-year-old me got a kick out of being able to rattle off these scientific sounding words.) Early on, I had noticed that “high fructose corn syrup,” “thiamine mononitrate,” “sodium benzoate,” and various food dyes commonly occurred from food to food.

Over the course of the last couple of years, I’ve been growing more aware of where our food comes from and, more importantly, how we obtain it. Articles on the growing obesity problem in America always interested me, and I had always been interested in nutrition for maintaining health. My cousin, who attended USC, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins for her Public Health degrees would rail against the effects and consequences of buying certain products, or having certain viewpoints made me aware of a level of apathy which I had maintained all the previous years. Then I read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and watched the documentary “Food Inc.” (while I was laid up in bed with shingles) and these three things really kicked off the part of me caring about where and how we get our food.

In the past few months, I’ve been watching a series of lectures entitled “Lifelong Health: Achieving Optimum Well-Being at Any Age” given by a Dr. Anthony A. Goodman (distributed by The Great Courses company). He also mentions the benefits of growing your own food.

On to the TED lectures!

This first talk with Pam Warhurst is very well written; she’s a good public speaker, she’s obviously made this pitch many, many times, and it is comedic while serious, easy-to-follow, and inspirational. She talks about how much of our space in the suburbs and cities go to waste when we plant random things that aren’t harvestable. More than that, she also touches upon the impact that cultivating the small bits of land we have in front of us would have on our children, and so, future generations of humankind.

For those of you who think, ‘oh blah, well, I live in the heart of the city, so there are no green spaces, and I’m in an apartment’… The second video is of Britta Riley, talking about a method of gardening (window gardening) and how social media has aided on its research and development. She is not as good of a public speaker and the lecture itself is not as inspiring as Warhurst’s, but it is to the point, and informs otherwise those who think they get a pass on community gardening, or feel out-of-the-loop, due to living restrictions.

Pam Warhurst – How We Can Eat Our Landscapes

TEDxManhattan: Britta Riley – A Garden in My Apartment

Bedřich Smetana – Vltava, from Má vlast

Czechoslovakian composer Bedřich Smetana wrote a set of six symphonic poems entitled “Má vlast”–literally translated as “homeland”. Typically they are performed as a set, with the exception of this one, the Vltava, (number two of the set) which for whatever reason philharmonics may perform on its own.

The River Vltava is the longest river that runs through the Czech Republic. In the video, you can hear how Smetana evokes winding, rushing path the water takes–from its smooth, rippling beginning to its wild, splashing rapids and how the eddies swirl back down to a calmer state. I especially love the syncopated harp, violins’ pizzicato, and triangle in the beginning! It adds light and texture; one can practically hear the sun glinting off a random ripple here and there; perhaps it’s also the arched trail of water droplets from a random fish hopping out of the water. The other part I love is the gradual addition of pairs of instruments, like different branches of the river gradually coming all together to one main source. It creates a very intimate portrait in the beginning with sole focus on just a few instruments, and almost this IMAX, zoomed-out view when it all comes together.

Unfortunately, this video is cut off before the piece actually ends… however, it is the best recording on YouTube that has video of the orchestra. The next best recording is here: [full audio recording], however I feel it lacks some of the character of Kubelik’s recording. I wouldn’t waste my time on any of the other orchestra-view videos currently on YouTube–they drag, feel heavy, have ensemble issues.

Má vlast
1. Vyšehrad (The High Castle)
2. Vltava (also known as “Die Moldau” in German)
3. Šárka (name of a warrior maiden from ancient Czechslovakian legend of the Maidens’ War)
4. Z českých luhů a hájů (“From Bohemia’s woods and fields”)
5. Tábor (a city)
6. Blaník (a mountain which, legend has it, houses the armies of St. Wenceslas who will awaken and help the country in its most dire hour)

conductor, Rafael Kubelik
Czech Philharmonic, 1990

Feel free to follow along in the conductor’s score here: [Vltava score]

TED Global 2012 Lecture: Neil Harbisson – I Listen To Colour

Guiltily, I was not initially impressed with the lecture for the first half of it (I’ll explain the guilt later.) I’m glad I kept listening, because the end of his lecture was very strong. The only reason I had chosen to watch the link is because I am interested in synesthesia, and (being a musician and daughter of an artist) I myself am strongly moved by music/sound and art/colours.

In retrospect, I think my boredom/apathy stemmed from the fact that Harbisson’s extra-sensory perceptions are things that I do not have, do not experience. And so, like a person leading a stupid horse right up to the water, Harbisson had to eventually lead me and the audience to how these extra-sensory perceptions could have an impact on in world-at-large, on our knowledge. I feel guilty to have been apathetic for the first half of the lecture because I think it implies a lack of vision… or a lack of creativity to independently apply what he was saying to anything greater.

If we were able to sense a wider range, or more, of what we are currently able to experience, humans would be able to draw more correlations between things than we have or are capable of without the aid of technology. This seems like a very dull statement; obviously, if we couldn’t see the little bacterias without the microscope, we wouldn’t understand biology as we know it today. But what Harbisson says technology could aid humans with, is so much more direct and personal; first-hand observations of the world would be completely different.

(Also, totally agree with him–enough with the useless phone apps. Make some apps to interface directly with humans. Something game-changing. Not one more tower defense game or farm city friend game.)