Introduction to Western Classical Music, pt. 1

We had a 3-week intensive period of studying history of western classical music. This is a post about how the course changed my thoughts about western classical music.

The course was was highly interesting but I admit, I had preconceptions about the course before it started. I’ve developed the ground for my taste for music mainly listening to popular music such as the synth pop of Pet Shop Boys and grunge of Nirvana.

When I was 17 I went to see a classical music concert as an obligatory part of a high school course. I thought it would have been nice. But no, I left the concert hall totally bored after the first half of the concert. I couldn’t get a grasp of the music, it didn’t transfer any feelings to me. I don’t even remember what the orchestra played. Apart from that, I haven’t had actual bad experiences with classical music. It just hasn’t been a part of my life. I haven’t been exposed to classical music and I haven’t made the effort of introducing myself to it either.

However, I have interest towards classical music. I enjoy all kinds of music – even more so when I pay attention to it. During the recent years I have listened more and more music that has elements from classical music: most prominently post-rock that uses classical instruments and has typically long compositions. So, I was delighted to have the opportunity to expose myself to music that I didn’t know much about. On the other hand, I was skeptical whether it is going to change my attitude towards the whole genre.

How my thoughts changed regarding classical music

At the beginning of the course, classical music to me meant that it was music composed more than a hundred years ago and was played by large symphony orchestras. That attitude changed. I realized that the most interesting part of western classical music was composed in 20th century. And also the ugliest part: the extreme examples of serialism.

I also learned that western classical music doesn’t necessarily mean classical instruments. I hadn’t really thought of that before. I knew that there were classical music developed after the 2nd World War but I didn’t have any name for it. Now I have many names with all the different genres of western classical music developed during the 20th century.

Another important learning outcome was that it is highly important to look at the music in context of the historical era and its habits and events when analyzing classical music. One example is how classical music had a very different role during the Baroque or Classical era. It was designed to serve purpose of entertaining the court people. In that sense it’s quite similar to some genres of popular music that we hear today: music that makes people do more pushups in the gym, or, music that is designed to fill a radio playlist harmlessly in between commercials. However, music that serves a certain function we nowadays rarely call art music, or classical music.

One of the key things was to understand what were the elements of culture and society that made music sound like it did. Classical music was kept alive by patronage, as opposed to folk music which was living as lore among the stories of people.

How my thoughts changed about the agreed rules on classical music

During the course I realized that the closer we are to the modern times, the stricter set of rules classical music has in terms of scales, temperament and notation. Now classical music has pretty much settled to equal temperament and sheet music. It was interesting to see all the different ways that composers and musician are moving away from the current conventions, and hear examples of music with 8 tones in a full scale instead of the full 12-tone scale.

 I hadn’t realized before that music is just math to the extent that it’s fairly easy to create all kinds of alternative temperaments with computers. I think the the times are changing. With computers many complicated  things are easy to try out and hear. In addition to being 8-tonal, what if music contains rhythms that are impossible to present in sheet music? That’s another thing which is fairly easy to test with a computer.

How my thoughts changed regarding defining music into categories

The biggest thing that made me think during the course was splitting music into different genres. Already the fact that the course itself wouldn’t deal just classical music (by it’s strictest definition) made me think that perhaps the boundaries between different genres would not matter that much. There’s just good music, and not so good music (or ugly, if we listen to extreme examples of serialism).

I’m quite sure that proceeding towards the future the attention we give to all the thousands of different music genres we have at the moment will be smaller. Or at least we will have new genres and the least important genres will be forgotten. But it’s important to see the big picture.

Looking at western classical music as we did during the course was eye-opening. Before the course it was just a huge mostly unknown genre of music to me. But when we listened to all the examples and analysed what they were made of, I started to see differences that I didn’t know there were.

The course gave me the push to start listening more to classical music and taking more and more influences from there to my own works.

Introduction to Sound Design and Music

Introduction to Sound Design and Music was a course in Media Lab that gave us a broad view on topics around sound design and music. In overall I really really enjoyed the course. There were two assignments that were part of the course that gave us extra credits. I was quite excited about both of them.

The first assignment was a field recording in the Helsinki Baltic Herring Fair. The recording needed to be a one-minute unedited recording, cut to the length from both ends, not from the middle. That was the only brief we had.

In general, I haven’t done much field recording but always been planning to try out how to do it properly. I borrowed a Zoom H4 from a friend. At the market I realised I didn’t have a wind shield for the recorder. It was very difficult to catch sounds without the wind disturbing too much. After all the last attempt of the day was successful:

However, the recording above wasn’t the one I wanted to present for my classmates. I went to the marketplace a few days later and tried to focus on recording the ambience created by the chatting people, but without concentrating on individuals. This was the recording that came out of that session:

There were several challenges in capturing a good moment on the tape. First of all the use of windscreen is a must. It’s very difficult to catch sounds without the disturbance of wind, even if there’s just a tiny bit of wind. I thought it was even more of a problem when doing a recording as long as minute.  Second challenge was to set a decent recording level. With poor Apple headphones it was difficult to listen if the the recorder was on a good level. Additionally, adjusting the input level with zoom is almost impossible on the fly because of the noise it creates when turning the level knob. (That was the biggest reason I decided to buy Sony PCM M-10 recorder).

The second assignment was a composition with the same lenght, 1 minute. The brief was to use MIDI as much as possible. I thought it was a very brilliant task. How to create an interesting but solid composition that is only 1 minute of length?

My approach was to teach myself away from the major key I always tend to have in my compositions. I planned to start with minor key and then create a bridge that would turn the key from minor to major, sending the listener back to the field of happy major chords!

I was very proud of the end result. I liked the sounds I selected. The Roland 808 model of Ableton Live accompanied the synthesised sounds quite well. The arpeggios for the midi notes work quite well together, keeping the song alive and breathing. The bridge from from minor to major leads to the last melody that tends to stay echoing in your head still long after hearing it.

Pure Data

2 weeks of Pure Data. It was exhausting. It was fun. It was rewarding. It was good!

The first actual course in Sound in New Media 2013 was called Composing with Data Flow Programming. In our case we used Pure Data. The first week we went through the basics and learned through examples. The second week we had to come up with an idea for a project we were supposed to present to everyone else (and other people interested) in front of the class.

I learned a lot. We had exampled of dealing with both visuals and sound. I chose as my project a template of using pure data in enhancing a live performance.

Your Personal Space

Metamorphosis in Your Personal Space

The first course of my studies in Sound in New Media was called Understanding Media, Art and Design. Despite the promising name  it was simply a general introductory course for studying in Medialab Helsinki.  The main point was to get to know all the teachers, researchers and fellow students of Medialab.

However, the best part of the course was the final project, done together with other 1st year MA students of Department of Media, namely graphic designers and photographers. The project instructions were simple: with the group of 8 students, design and create an installation with the theme Metamorphosis. The exhibition was held in the Design Forum Showroom in the center of Helsinki.

The final project was a very nice opportunity to get to know other students of the department and form connections that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. It was really nice to  see other installations and hear about the processes of designing and creating them. The theme was sort of an art school cliche but it lead our group to some really interesting discussion, ideas, and – in the end – to our installation. The most interesting idea that we didn’t develop further was about invisible metamorphosis that happens to a valuation or perception towards a person and a product or an idea.

Metamorphosis of perception

I was thinking about metamorphosis of the perception while watching Tomahawk playing live in Helsinki. I knew I would appreciate the band and its music. I knew Mike Patton would be great and John Staniers’s world’s highest symbals would amuse me. I knew it was a superband but I wasn’t really interested in the other members of the band. Not until I asked my friend who the bass player was. “The bass player of Mr. Bungle”, he replied. The bass player of Mr. Bungle! It was a total metamorphosis to me. I couldn’t perceive the bass player as just a member of the band anymore. He’s one of my favourite bass players. Even though he didn’t play anything special that night, after finding out his identity my eyes and ears were following mainly him. It’s was interesting.

There are many similar situations: you find some information you didn’t know before and then your perception changes. I think it’s a very interesting concept and I need to develop it further at some point.

Your Personal Space

Our installation was called Your Personal Space. It was also dealing invisible metamorphosis. We wanted to create a space that would be isolated from outer world in a similar manner as a larva when becoming chrysalis. We wanted to create a cocoon.

But how to create a cocoon that would be interesting and really isolated from other installations in the showroom? We ended up with a quite radical idea: let’s have a coffin where the visitors can lay down, close the lid and experience their very personal moment. For some it would be a bit frightening but we thought we should do it. And so we did it. We painted the coffin white on the outside, black on the inside and put a mattress and pillow inside. We wanted to create a space that would resemble a cosy living room. The coffin itself was really comfortable. It was a bit frightening in the first place but after trying it out, I wanted to go there again and again. So, during the first time, I really went through an invisible metamorphosis. After the first time I didn’t have the same fear for being inside a closed coffin.

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Sound Design

My job, with a fellow member of our team, was to design and install sounds inside the coffin. The idea was to create something soothing and meditative. And something that would also be interactive: the sound would be triggered when the lid was closed.

We came up with four elements for the sound design:

  1. Theta waves created with Max/MSP
  2. Sound of waves of an ocean, which generally have similar frequency to average heart beat
  3. Wind with some bird chirps to create a calming white noise background
  4. Sample of a heartbeat, to create an illusion of being inside a womb

These elements were played through a small laptop speakers which were installed behind the pillow in the coffin. The interactive system was built on top of Arduino. There was a button that was pushed when the lid was closed. The push triggered an Max/MSP patch which started playing the sounds. It was our first Arduino and Max/MSP project ever and we got it working! Unfortunately the button got broken during the test day. But then trying to solve the button issue we realised we need to hide the Mac Mini we were using as a source for the sounds. So, in order to make things less complicated and more maintainable we decided to record the sounds into a loop and play them from my good ol’ iPod mini (model from 2006). It actually worked very well.  The fact that now the sounds were audible all the time didn’t matter, because the volume was very low and the the visitor could actually hear the sounds only after lying down and closing the lid.

I think the sound design worked really well. It was great fun and I think we presented a nice piece of art for the exhibition.


…and you will know me by the trail of…

…blog posts!

Whenever there’s a project that I’ve done or an interesting class that I’ve taken I’ll write about it. I thought this is a nice way of keeping a diary of sorts.  In addition to reporting what I’ve done I will write down what was left undone. So, this blog also works as a backlog of things to be developed further.