Thursday, July 23, 2015

K-T-R and other Stringed Instruments

This is a discussion that occurred on a linguistics page on Facebook. I thought musicians might be interested in it. I’ve changed writers’ names – actually I’ve given them fictional initials (except ME, which is, uh, me) – and provided explanations (in italics) for those unfamiliar with linguistics jargon.

ME: Here's one that touches on two of my interests: linguistics and music. Has anyone else noticed the Eurasian preponderance of words for stringed instruments that have three consonants: a K or S (or a voiced derivative), a T, and an R. Guitar, sitar, santur, zither, kithara, cittern, to name a few. This looks like an example of widespread borrowing (the word went with the thing) but the dictionary etymologies usually suggest different origins. There are a few others that are somewhat similar, from outside of the main area where these words are found: krar and kora (both in Africa and missing the T) and koto (in Japan and missing the R). Are these earlier borrowings? Or is there some common root word here? (Nostraticists might suggest an answer, but I think it's too recent an invention for this to be likely.) Or all some of them coincidences? Other stringed instruments have names that are entirely different. ...And, here's a really weird one -- the word "string" in English begins with the same sequence, minus the vowels...

BC: Guitar, zither, kithara, and cittern are documented cognates. The other stuff just sounds like coincidence to me...

(Cognates: words that share a common origin in related languages, for example, “apple” in English and “Apfel” in German.)

CJ: What if the names describe how they sound, when I think of string instruments I think of k's and t's.... it must be something common, like the fact that most languages I've ran into have m for mother, and b, f, or p for father.

LG: Similar to violin, string bass, zither and harp. (The words sound like, or at least describe, the instrument's sound.)

KT: When you pick six common sounds (k, s, g, z, t, r), a concept, and a continent, and look in languages on that continent for words for that concept containing a couple of those sounds, you are very likely to find a number of them even with no borrowing.

As for cognacy, consider that the proto-language whose existence this suggestion entails would have existed far longer ago than the oldest proto-languages that we have firm evidence for (for example, Indo-European, which is probably about 6,000 years old). Now consider some facts about sound change and meaning change.

(Indo-European: a large family of related languages, including many in India, Europe, and places between, such as Iran [Persia].)

(Proto-language: the [extinct] language from which members of a language family descended.)

Sound change: consider the Proto-Indo-European sound *dʰ. One example of a root containing this sound was *dʰeh₁y, meaning 'suckle, nurse'. The first sound in words starting with that root is now /f/ in Italian (e.g., /fiʎo/), /θ/ in Greek (/θili/), was /d/ in English until these words dropped out of the language (/delu/, /deːon/), and has been completely lost in Spanish (/ixo/), to give a few examples. So in about 6,000 years, *dʰ turned into /f/, /θ/, /d/, and nothing—totally different sounds: three different places of articulation, voiced and voiceless, fricative and stop, and nothing whatsoever.

(The “weird symbols” stand for individual speech sounds, called phonemes. These symbols are used in the science of phonetics and not in any actual language. The asterisk before a word or symbol for a sound indicates that it has been reconstructed and is not in the language now. The paired slashes, before and after, indicate a word being written with symbols, not the way it is actually written in the language.)

Meaning change: that same root *dʰeh₁y has descendants in Romance languages meaning 'son/daughter,' in Greek 'nipple,' in Kurdish 'mother,' etc.

(Romance languages: Languages descended from Latin, an Indo-European language.)

If, as you suggest when you suggest that some of these words (other than the set already pointed out) may be cognate, there was some kind of root *{k,g,s,z}-{t,θ}-r in a language that is ancestral to all of the ones you mention—namely Japanese, an uncertain West African language, and Greek or Arabic depending where the guitar word originally came from—this word would have been used many, many years before Proto-Indo-European was around. Since it was around longer, you would expect it to have changed even more in both sound and meaning than that example Indo-European root did, and it would be pretty likely to have dropped out of the language entirely—words do this a lot (I don't think there's any evidence that the speakers of Proto-Indo-European, for example, had string instruments). In summary, if a root in a proto-language that old did survive into a number of geographically and linguistically distant modern languages, it would almost certainly not have recognizable similarities anymore in those languages.

Also, the kora seems to have been invented in the 16th century [according to online sources], so people would have had to hold onto the ancestor of the word "kora" for literally thousands of years, probably more than 10,000 years, before finally applying it to this new instrument. Similar situation for the koto, whose precursor instrument was first introduced to Japan from China in the 7th and 8th century [according to online sources].

DH: It looks like the examples you give fall into two classes: 1. Guitar, zither, kithara, cittern--from Greek kithara. 2. Sitar--loan from Old Persian. What the two have in common is that both contain a shared root meaning 'string,' which is apparently "tar" in Old Persian, and presumably something similar in PIE or other shared ancestor. It's worth noting that "psalter" is also in this group, with the Greek 'psallein' meaning "pluck". "Santur" might be a loan from this Greek word.

(“Loanword” and “borrowing” in linguistics refers to words moving from one language to another, for example, using the word “sushi” in English.)

(PIE = Proto-Indo-European)


EF: Yes as KT explained so well, it's PIE!

ME: Yeah, I thought it was too recent an invention to be entirely PIE or something even older (see my note about Nostratic, if it ever existed). "Krar", by the way, is Amharic, I think, and "santur" turns out to mean "hundred string(s)" in Old Persian.

KT: Most historical linguists reject the idea of a Nostratic family, fyi. I think the similarities among these words are coincidental, except the ones we already know are borrowings.

(Nostratic: A hypothetical language super-family including Indo-European and several other large families.)

ME: I looked up some lists of stringed instruments in the world, and I think I might have figured this out. There are three groups of words here. 1. Those obviously related to "guitar". 2. Others with the root word "tar", meaning "string", as mentioned above. These are all IE, of course. 3. Non-IE outliers: kora, kwitra, and krar in Africa, kantele in Finnland, and koto in Japan. These look like more eroded forms. More likely, they are accidental resemblances though I should note that the African examples are in the traditionally Orthodox and Islamic areas of Africa (which are geographically closer to the homelands of Indo-European), and other words for stringed instruments in Africa and Asia (and Europe) sound completely different. I might propose an earlier borrowing for one or more of these, though Idon't know which ones.

JW: I wonder whether there is any true acoustic similarity between the names of string instruments and the sounds they produce, say, "s", "z", "c" for the continuous sounds, "k", "t" for the pizzicato or pinching of the strings. Maybe just a coincidence?!...

KT: Yeah, I think just coincidence. The problem is it's pretty easy to imagine an onomatopoetic relationship between any randomly selected segments and things (especially things that make noise).

Monday, July 20, 2015

Retro Review: A Different German Music, Maybe Not So Different - Stockhausen's Piano Music on Vinyl

(This review was originally published, in a slightly shorter version, and as part of a series on "Krautrock"! - on Sit Down Listen Up.)

I think that when I was twelve or thirteen, my music teacher (composition and classical piano) pulled a fast one on me. One day I passed by his coffee table, as once a week, on my way to play the piano. Sitting on the coffee table that day was a two-record boxed album, the Complete Piano Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. “Don’t ever listen to that. It’s absolute junk,” my teacher growled, and we went on with the piano lesson. Later, of course, I asked to borrow the album. He gave it to me with a snarl (and probably a wink), and I took it home and listened to it – and of course, since it had been denounced as garbage by someone who represented the Powers That Be, I loved it. My teacher never made another comment about it.

Eventually I bought my own copy (and later, the three CDs by a different pianist – including more pieces that hadn’t been written when the records came out). However, the LP set, though monophonic, still has more of the spirit of the mid-century avant-garde than the more recent recordings. The CDs are too slick: they don’t have the necessary roughness that one associates with the style.

The pieces have abstract titles following the avant-garde tradition, actually derived from classical titles such as “Symphony no. 3” and “Sonata for ‘cello and piano in A major, opus 6 number 4”. Stockhausen’s pieces are simply titled “Klavierstück” (“Piano Piece”) and numbered with Roman numerals. Since these titles don’t really mean anything, the listener is free to imagine whatever he wishes.

Side A of the first record consists of Pieces I through VIII, missing VI, which takes the entire “B” side. The first four are short studies in the “total serialist” style; every note is derived from a series of notes treated mathematically. These pieces are interesting enough in their own way, but (to those unfamiliar with the procedures in the style) can sound like just random notes. I like them mainly as a chaotic introduction from which the order in the rest of the pieces emerges. Piece V begins to group the mathematics-derived notes into clusters, and we catch evanescent glimpses of melodies and rhythms. These are scattered in VII, which counts as a “slow movement” and surrounds most notes with silence and imaginative reverberations from the piano itself – made by complex overlapping of various pedal techniques. VIII is interesting in that it is nearly the antithesis of both V and VII; here, “total serialism” returns, fiery, in loud clusters and dissonant chords.

Piece VI, the “B” side of the album, was recorded on a different piano. Musically it is a longer version of V, with shadows of other methods of organization (melodies, rhythms) underneath the avant-garde atonality. The difference in the piano, however, produces a completely different effect – there are harsher high notes and much louder overtones floating above the bass, which makes me wonder how the quieter VII would sound if played on this same piano.

Side A of the second record includes Pieces IX and XI. Piece IX is one of my favorites. If I may indulge the reader in an extended synesthetic metaphor, the piece is shaped like a fancy ornamental goldfish, though one with a fantail and an extraordinary number of fins. It begins with two long decrescendos on a single chord – an unusually “stable” moment for Stockhausen – (these are the two parts of the fantail). What follows is a long exposition that slowly unravels the chord into a serialist piece (this is the body of the imagined fish). Along the way, there are both some startlingly romantic, melodic gestures and some thick dissonance. The chord keeps reappearing in small moments of repetition, recalling the beginning (these are the fins, which resemble the showy fantail but are smaller). Finally there is a leap to the highest registers of the piano, where scintillating tones sound over an occasional bass pedal point – I’d like to say this is the head of the fish, but the image fails at this point and I’d say, rather, that it reminds me of scattered stars in a galaxy. It ends in freeform silence, the opposite of its beginning. The final two notes are not literally the same two as in VII, but sound similar and thus tie the two pieces together.

Piece XI is a chance piece; a set of composed fragments that may be played once or twice in any order, with the tempo and dynamics instructions coming at the end of each previous fragment. The amount of engagement with the score must make this piece fascinating to the performer; but as an audience member it’s always seemed more interesting in theory than in practice. Even in a style of music that often deliberately sounds random (even if it’s not), it seems to lack direction and coherence. In Kontasrsky’s performance, there are clusters of quick arrhythmic chords at the beginning, and then it merely seems to meander along never reaching the same level again. (However, I once remixed it with Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” and got some beautiful synchrony.)

The last on the album is Piece X. This is the sonic climax; a scarifying labyrinth of tone clusters (including “banging on the piano” – there is a wonderful Youtube parody of this part…!), rapid glissandi (played with gloves on the hands to avoid injury), tremolo, trills, and, slowly emerging from the chaos, melodic fragments (one was lifted by Takemitsu as part of an idée-fixe for his piece “For Away”) and – finally – restful silence. The piece, and this two-record album, ends with a sonic “fade to white”, though my copy is rather old and includes a fair amount of scratches and surface noise at this point.

Stockhausen couldn’t really go any further in the same direction as X and XI without too much strain on both the pianist and the listeners. Subsequent Piano Pieces (still titled the same way) are lighter, more melodic, and introduce the element of humor. Those, however, are not included in this set of records. Where music such as Piano Piece X did go is somewhat surprising: rock music.

American rock bands, it seems, have always been somewhat reluctant to drop the beat and engage in a little exploration of sound simply as sound (with the obvious exception of the Grateful Dead’s “space” improvisations). British (i.e. Pink Floyd) and European (such as “Krautrock” bands) have been more open to the idea. In a three-CD collection of early “lost tapes” by Can, there are a number of long instrumentals that go firmly atonal and explore the shape of the sound, much as in Stockhausen’s IX (remember the fish?) and X. The bassist, Holger Czukay, studied composition with Stockhausen. …And so, what goes round comes round: Stockhausen’s early Piano Pieces, in the “total serialist” avant-garde style, were probably intended as a rebellion against “normal” rhythmic and melodic development, but as the works proceed, a new kind of order emerges and crosses over to rock music, and thus is right back into “normal” aesthetics. The history of both types of music – “classical” and “popular” – is richer for it.

Multimedia Installation Reivew: Gabriella Denise Frank's "Ugly Me" at Jack Straw, Seattle

Walk in
Distorted selfies greet you with a smile,
A guffaw,
A bellylaugh

Fashion pictures on the other wall spell “UGLY”
Perfect plastic airbrushed clones

On the third wall,
reflective metallic material spells “ME”
A conversational voice hovers in the air,
Stories about cameraphobia.

This was the first installation I’ve seen where my first reaction was laughter. The distorted selfies are fun-house mirror projections with giant noses or big protruding teeth or two heads. They contrast with the fashion-magazine cut-outs on the other wall. Yet, aren’t they all distortions of reality? Doesn’t the beauty industry distort reality to sell us products? Isn’t it all really to get us to buy more?


Who needs rock and roll?
Who needs songs about saving your soul?
Plastic music, plastic food,
Cellophane tunes for that synthetic mood
You got your inspiration from a vending machine,
It's an audio starvation diet,
Mannequins on a shopping spree,
Who cares if you like it? - Buy it.
– Resurrection Band, “Elevator Muzik”


But this is more than just a critique of pop culture. The word “ME” on the third wall says it. Anyone who views the installation is “ME”, of course… So in the end, we are part of the culture that says beauty, and what's manufactured to show to others, is everything. In this installation, we take a step back and laugh at ourselves for such a ridiculous idea, and then move beyond it.

“UGLY ME is a multi-media sound installation that explores the interplay between appearance and self-worth through fashion photography, distorted selfies, and spoken prose. Twelve original works read by the author play as a backdrop to a series of comical personal images and large-scale typographic collage. Visitors are encouraged to listen, linger, and contribute their own selfies to the investigation.” – Jack Straw website. The installation runs through August 14th.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Word(less) Music

(Unlike most of my blog posts, this one isn’t a review of a concert or an album.)

I'm assuming that other people have experienced the weird psycho-musical phenomenon that I'm about to relate, and that there's a name for it. It's probably somehow related either to synesthesia, mondegreens, having a “song stuck in your head”, or some combination.

Here’s the set up. I must have been nine or ten years old. The radio was on at home, to a classical station. Dohnanyi’s “Variations on a Nursery Tune” came on. At some point, I began singing along with the words. “…Under the apple tree, under the apple tree…”

“What do those words have to do with ‘Variations on a Nursery Tune’?” asked my mom, quizzically.

I answered, “I don’t know, but that’s the words.” I thought to myself, why would the words relate to the title if the composer didn’t want them to? (Or, why would they have to relate to “Twinkle twinkle little star”, the nursery tune on which the piece was based?) I don’t remember her response, but when I listened more closely, I realized that that, of course, this was an instrumental piece, for piano and orchestra. There was no singing. So where had the words come from?

A couple of years later, I had forgotten all about it, and it happened again. I was at a symphony pops concert with some family friends. The orchestra was playing “On the Beautiful Blue Danube”. I don’t think I’d actually heard the second theme before then, because when it started (after the more famous part), I nearly folded over with hysterical laughter. All I could do was gasp between spasmodic giggles. The words were so ridiculous! …But nobody else seemed to think that the crazy rhyme was as funny as I did.

It turns out again, of course, that there isn’t any rhyme – but I clearly heard, “lumpkin pumpkin pie / it’s a lumpkin pumpkin pie / yes a lumpkin pumpkin pie / and it’s lumpy all over / all the way up high”. There was no way for me not to notice it – those words were (and are) as intrinsic to the music as its instrumentation, tempo, and rhythm. If I listened carefully, concentrating on the instruments, I could try to ignore them; but even so the rhyme buzzes away in the background.

Once, another (even loopier) version of the same suddenly appeared. The Danube happened to come on a classical radio station, and suddenly: “lumpf gallumpf galai / it’s a lumpf gallumpf galai / yes a lumpf gallumpf galai / and it’s flopping all over / really makes me cry.” In the half-second that followed, I mumbled, “huh!?”, blurted out “They changed the words!”, then, “What the @&!! is a lumpf gallai!?”, and finally, was glad that there was nobody else at home to hear me. Now, when I hear the piece, I wait to see which version it’s going to be... There hasn’t been a third one.

(Anyone who’s wondering about “hearing voices” at this point needn’t. I don’t actually hear anyone singing the words – the words are merely there, as part of the music, in the same way that the notes are there.)

There are a small number of purely instrumental pieces where my brain stubbornly insists that there are words – these “lyrics” are usually nonsense, as the above examples, and I hear them as plainly as the instrumental parts (or even more so). I don’t notice that they actually aren’t there until I think about it. The finale of the Nielsen Third has “high above the hill…” (why “above” rather than “upon” is one of those mysteries that goes with this phenomenon); Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” contains a descending scale that sings “selus unta crobita”, pure nonsense that sounds like it might mean something in Latin but probably doesn’t. And speaking of foreign languages, here’s the strangest part: this involuntary mental trick isn’t limited to the sounds or combinations of sounds that can occur in English (obviously, my native language). There’s part of Harry Partch’s “Castor and Pollux” where a plucked string clearly sings out “nyairf-nyoi”, with the Y’s as a consonants as they might occur in Russian. When I first heard this piece, I was unaware that this combination of consonants was possible (it never occurs in English at the beginning of a word, and I was twelve or thirteen years old and didn’t know any foreign languages or anything about linguistics) – but I clearly heard it and struggled to write it down or explain it to others. (Of course this Partch example might just be an extreme case of onomatopoeia. But then again, I’d always pronounced “thirteen” and “fourteen” with a "foreign" sound that doesn't exist in English either, the Japanese double T. It made it easier for me to learn Japanese pronunciation later…!)

This bizarre mental gymnastics seems to be limited to orchestral music – and Harry Partch – I’ve never noticed it in chamber music or jazz or other types of instrumentals. Of course it doesn’t happen in rock or rap or pop because those already have words.

So what of it? Is this something that only happens to me? Has anyone else had this experience? Is there a name for it? Comments and commentary are welcome, as are suggestions that I seek professional help.

As the bumper sticker proclaims: You’re just jealous because the voices talk to me.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Seattle Composers Salon, 7/10/2015

The Seattle Composers’ Salon fosters the development, performance and appreciation of new music by regional composers and performers. At bi-monthly, informal presentations, the Salon features finished works, previews, and works in progress. Composers, performers, and audience members gather in a casual setting that allows for experimentation and discussion.

First up: Keith’s piano pieces. Or, piano piece. This was a set of very short pieces (the shortest was about thirty seconds) intended to follow after “One” by Keith’s former music teacher – this was “Another”. The six pieces had evocative titles and hypertext:

(Sphinxes can appear most anywhere) – chords.
(Scarabs love to scuttle among the sphinxes) – three scuttles of notes, very very very short.
(Pools stay put) – beautiful, seemingly immobile, languid sounds.
(Potions can be mixed together, bit to bit or batch to batch)
(All options remain open) – these two sections acted as the “classical” development section.
(Smoke is where it ends) – gradually dissipates into the atmosphere.
(As an alternative, try not filling the clavichord with ping-pong balls.)

Next up: The continuation of the mythological trio by Nadia Kadrevis. This is an interesting concept, where the instruments take on the rolls of invented mythological figures (as I once imagined a symphonic-rock version of Tolkien’s “Music of the Ainur”). Here, an angular, modal melody kept reappearing, though the three instruments often used it as a springboard into their own material. It was quite pretty, and the soprano sax (though unfortunately getting out of tune near the end) inevitably recalled Paul Winter and Oregon (the band). The third and last installment will be in a future Salon.

After the introduction (and stage reconfiguration): the next installment of my “garbage piece”. Part one: traffic and yelling in the street, and clang and clatter from pots, lids, sticks, cardboard boxes, and zoob-toobs. I’m afraid that I gave the wrong impression about this, saying that it was a reflection of political noise but containing samples of Pentecostal street preachers. I was not saying that they are supplying the noise. Sometimes they do, but more often they rail against it. The noise is actually coming from all directions in the U.S. government right now. Part two: more traffic, giving way to children playing, a high-school performance of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing”, a 78-record of vintage big-band jazz, an indie-rock band, and bells and reverberations at St. Mark’s Cathedral. All of this was recorded on a single summer evening three years ago. Anyway, following fragmentary instructions, Keith Eisnebrey and I played a scattering of miscellaneous objects as percussion. These “found object” parts create random rhythms that gradually synch up (or not) to the jazz and rock. An audience member asked about the relationship of the recorded sound to the objects on stage: there really isn’t any. This piece is merely about the differences and similarities of noise, sound, and music.

There will be a full performance of this "garbage symphony" at 8:00 on August 28th, at the Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, 4649 Sunnyside Ave N, Seattle, WA 98103. Keith and I will play the found percussion, and Keith will also play a piano set.

Lastly, Kam Morrill presented a piano trio (violin, cello, piano) in three movements. Minimalism in the manner of Steve Reich gradually opened up into neo-classical. There was a beautiful pizzicato section; a symphonic gesture that recalled the Tchaikovsky 4 or the Mahler 2. The middle, slow, movement developed a single long melodic line, stretching it to the breaking point (I was reminded again of a symphony, the Bruckner 7) and then abruptly resolved in a different direction. The dance-like, syncopated finale was an unexpected merger of Ginastera and, again, Steve Riech: Latin-inspired dance rhythms were crosscut with other Latin-inspired dance rhythms a smooth harmonic language in open fourths, fifths and major seconds. Despite these disparate influences, the piece presented a coherent and sonorous whole that seemed much shorter than its fifteen minutes.