Bob Dylan’s Nobel Lecture

I haven’t been able to make my mind up about Dylan’s win of the Nobel Prize, partly because I’ve never been able to make my mind up about Dylan. At times I see the genius some people credit him with, and at other times I see The Great MacGonagall.

In any case, given his usual intense privacy, his Nobel lecture is surprisingly revealing and personal, an exploration of the words—both in song lyrics and in books—that have influenced him, and springing from “wondering exactly how [his] songs related to literature.”

That’s what songs are too. Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says, “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”

New Design

This site has a new look.

I liked the old design, but it left some things to be desired as regards a modern WordPress blog. This keeps the best of the old site, but it’s got more up-to-date features like responsive design and (hopefully) properly-functioning, not-hacked-together link posts.

It’s a heavily-modified version of the Toivo Lite theme. My thanks to Bart Busschots for both doing the heavy lifting and showing me the ropes of CSS.

I’ll be making other tweaks here and there as I find things that don’t work or don’t work properly, but in the main it’s done.


The Nodosaur

National Geographic:

At first glance the reassembled gray blocks look like a nine-foot-long sculpture of a dinosaur. A bony mosaic of armor coats its neck and back, and gray circles outline individual scales. Its neck gracefully curves to the left, as if reaching toward some tasty plant. But this is no lifelike sculpture. It’s an actual dinosaur, petrified from the snout to the hips.

I got very wary of NatGeo when Murdoch bought the magazine, but this story shows that they’ve still got it when it counts. And, as ever, incredible photography.

“They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead”

Netflix have taken on the task of finishing and releasing (and sorting out the extensive legal problems of releasing) Orson Welles’ last film, The Other Side of the Wind. Now Wellesnet is reporting that Netflix will be releasing a companion documentary on the making of the film, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead.

If the only film of Welles’ you’ve seen is Citizen Kane, you’re missing out. I find it hard not to gush when I’m talking about his work: I love every film he made.

Marco Arment: “MP3 Is Dead” Missed the Real, Much Better Story

Marco Arment:

MP3 is no less alive now than it was last month or will be next year — the last known MP3 patents have simply expired.

So while there’s a debate to be had — in a moment — about whether MP3 should still be used today, Fraunhofer’s announcement has nothing to do with that, and is simply the ending of its patent-licensing program (because the patents have all expired) and a suggestion that we move to a newer, still-patented format.

I admit this story really got my goat. It’s a company transparently trying to push people away from a format on which they don’t make money, and towards one on which they do. Judging by the number of “MP3 is dead” headlines I saw, they may have succeeded too.

If you really think you can hear the difference between high-bitrate MP3 and AAC, I’d love to see you do it in a double-blind test. Succeed, and I’ll buy you a cookie.

Sarah Kirkland Snider: Candy Floss and Merry-Go-Rounds: Female Composers, Gendered Language, and Emotion

And speaking of the problems of composing while female, just about everyone is linking to this piece by Sarah Kirkland Snider on NewMusicBox, so I will too:

I receive a discouraging number of emails from young female composers thanking me for my “courage” and “bravery” in writing music that is emotionally direct. Courage! Bravery! They use these words because the implicit mistrust of emotion and affect in art is the aesthetic world we continue to live in, well beyond the turn of the 21st century. In a career where the deck is stacked against them before they write a single note, young female composers are eager to prove that they are every bit as serious and capable as men. Some feel pressure to compromise their natural artistic instincts to fit within a paradigm that can seem intractable and inhospitable. I know where these women are coming from.

I remember being in college (maybe earlier), learning about the history of sonata form, and being told about the two main themes: one “masculine”, one “feminine”. I always found it a strange, old-fashioned way of talking about music. And yet somehow it’s only in retrospect that I ever realised we barely spoke about female composers.

Kirkland Snider has a lot to say in this piece. Some things, like taking care when gendered language in talking about music, seem attainable today. But she’s frank about the fact that others pose more complex problems.

“Why Are Pioneering Female Composers so Neglected?”

Terrific post from a few weeks back by Emily Hogstad on her Song of the Lark blog. She runs down a number of (more) prominent historical female composers, and the unfortunate fates that prevented them from pursuing composition as a career. There’s something heartbreaking in this line:

It seems strange to me that so many of the best-known female composers ran into these cruel twists of fate that prohibited them from fulfilling their true potential, while so many of their sisters who went into performing didn’t.

Yours Truly on James Dillon’s The Louth Work

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the première of a new work by James Dillon, The Louth Work: Orphic Fragments, hosted by the Louth Contemporary Music Society (a local Irish society that has amassed an impressive string of premières and commissions in its eleven-year history).

The Journal of Music published my review:

This is complex music, but ritual is central, and in performance the ear was often drawn towards a single sound – a slow, steady beat on the gong, or cold interjections from the snare drum, or a driving cello motif on a single aggressive note – repeated at the heart of dense textures like a lighthouse flash in stormy waters. Distinct melodic strands – here a duet for clarinet and xylorimba, there an electrifying piano part with a slow song – soar around each other, coming into brief concord before diverging again.

A Star Wars Speculation

James Brooks Kuykendall writes one of my favourite classical music blogs, Settling Scores. It’s pretty wonkish: Kuykendall goes into the weeds on the differences between different editions of the same musical score. It’s fascinating, nitpicky, and esoteric.

The other day, Kuykendall posted about something I didn’t expect: John Williams’ opening fanfare to Star Wars. Specifically, he was writing about the first chord of the film—or, more to the point, the chord that almost wasn’t first:

[T]here are substantial differences in [other takes of the fanfare from the recording session]. To use a philological term, the takes are actually variant readings. The most stunning of these to me was that three of the five takes started with a pick-up chord before the B flat fanfare—a “flat-VI” G flat major chord, swooping up with a crescendo into the familiar downbeat. Really?!? That famous first chord almost wasn’t the first chord?!?

Kuykendall goes on to explore the differences between the takes. In short, the right orchestral balance was found by having more or fewer of the musicians play their parts. Different parts were left out until the music became too spare, then the preceding take was used:

[I]t is astonishing to discover that Take 20—the last of the takes, the one just past the “keeper” (no. 19)—begins very sparsely: no big chord, no string tremolo, no woodwinds. Just the cymbal clash, the rolling triangle and the unison trombones. The horns, trumpets and tuba accumulate gradually, but there is no hint of the rest of the ensemble until the pick-up to b. 4. … Was this seriously considered for the iconic introduction?

I find this fascinating, partly because it’s the same iterative approach the film took to its logo design.

But back to the G flat chord. The case is interesting, for a reason Kuykendall doesn’t explore. In his post, he states that he’s not sure when the chord would appear in synchronisation with the film, but I have an idea about that.

Star Wars was a deliberate throwback to earlier films, and George Lucas wanted to use the original Fox fanfare, composed by Alfred Newman, to open it. Newman’s fanfare had fallen out of favour by the time Lucas made Star Wars, but the director presumably wanted the “old Fox movie” feel. And Williams set the Star Wars fanfare as a direct response to the Fox one. Quoth Wikipedia:

By the 1970s, the Fox fanfare was being used in films sporadically. George Lucas enjoyed the Alfred Newman fanfare so much that he insisted for it to be used on Star Wars (1977)…John Williams composed the film’s opening theme in the same key as the fanfare (B flat major), serving as an extension to it of sorts.

I would guess that the G flat chord that Kuykendall explored in his post wasn’t intended as an opening to the Star Wars fanfare, but as a direct link from the Fox fanfare to the Star Wars one. Presumably, Williams and his team tried it out a couple of times, but it didn’t work well enough, and was dropped.

My suspicion is that the G flat chord originally appeared instead of the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” (If you think the opening chord is iconic, imagine removing that text!) The music needs something to transition from the big B flat ending of the Fox fanfare to the big B flat beginning of the Star Wars fanfare, and in the end the film uses a long silence over those words. But I think Williams’ original plan may have been to instead bridge the gap with a single transitional chord. When that didn’t work, some kind of transitional image would have been needed to fill the silence. Hence the text.

To test this, I’ve cut together the three takes from the special edition recording—the ones with the G flat chord—with the Alfred Newman fanfare. I think my hypothesis sounds plausible at least. That said, even if I’m right, it’s something that Williams deemed a failure, so the best I can hope for is an inconclusive result.


In this version, the G flat chord passes very quickly. Even for a link, it makes sense for the chord to be a little more sustained, which is exactly what happens in the next two takes.


This version and the next draw out the intermediate chord a little longer, to make for a bigger landing on the Star Wars fanfare.


If I’m right—and I’m not saying I am—then this is the last take before Williams decided to drop the G flat chord completely. The differences between this take and the previous one are pretty small, especially in the extract I’ve included, but I’ve kept it for posterity.