Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Archive for April 2011

Tough Times

It seems like times are terrible these days. I mean, people seem so mean-spirited, so unkind, so thoughtless. When I think about the political environment in the US these days, I feel sad—we (as a culture) are putting the needs of the country, the state, the business, over the needs of individuals. Doesn’t that define communism? Aren’t we, as a country, supposed to be against that?

Did you hear all the folderol about who didn’t pay taxes? Big corporations made the list. People on unemployment, they had to pay, moms and pops, retired people, people who are struggling to pay the lighting bills, sick people who can’t get health insurance. For that matter, look at the health insurance debate. Look at all the redefining of abortion, marriage, which drugs should be legal, how animals should be kept before slaughter, all of that. Everything is about the majority not just controlling things but denying those same privileges, securities, and comforts to others only because they differ or can’t fight for themselves.

It all gives me the blues. So I turned on the radio, thinking I’d get to hear some nice socially interesting piece on NPR, but instead, I got the ramifications of Chernobyl, the tsunami, tornados, earthquakes, flooding, everything but pestilence. No wait. The bees are dying, sharks have been overhunted, and they are finding evidence of DDT in the fetuses of pregnant women who weren’t even born when DDT was still being used. Hmm.

I was feeling bleak about the state of the world, barely recovering from an unpleasant experience with a choral group where people seem to enjoy being unkind to one another and I went to a social event. There I learned that a woman who I find particularly unkind (the first time I met her, she told me how much she hated all the stupid people she worked with and how she was looking forward to firing one of them), told me that she was getting a degree in psychology in order to heal the world of “assholeness.” Hmm.

At work, it was revealed that the whole company was getting a significant raise, except my group because, after all, as the Big Shot explained, the market valued the roles of those people getting the raises. Hmm. The “market” does. Yes, that’s what it feels like: the “market” not valuing me or my coworkers.

So I drove home trying to repeat to myself that the only thing I truly have control over is my attitude. I tried to concentrate “lovingkindness,” as they say, on the world, on the people in my life, on the people who control my world in the smaller sense and in the larger, on the earth, as it struggles to recover from disaster after disaster and all the torments we inflict upon it and ourselves.

I tried to think about the people I love, the people who make me a better person than I am otherwise inclined to be, the people who ask me be part of their lives, despite all my negative personality traits. I tried to think of the things that went well today, the short trip to the grocery store, the recipe that turned out well, the moment of insight on a complex project at work, the lack of traffic on my way to that social event, the thoughtful gift from a friend who went on a trip I’d planned to go on but couldn’t.

I thought about the friend I hadn’t talked to in a few months, who called out of nowhere last weekend for no particular reason, and we ended up talking about things that were deeply important to both of us, a sort of accidental parity. What a gift, unexpected, rare, and without strings or boundaries.

I thought about another friend, the epitome of kindness, with whom I’d had a strange synchronicity of reconnection with old friends last week. I thought again, for the gazillionth time, of her kindness and attentiveness when I was so ill last year, of her patience through all my whining about it. How thinking about her makes me wish I could express my joy at knowing her in some way that would make it a more joyous experience to know ME. I wished that I had a tail to wag or something that would send a clear signal.

I thought about the softness of the ears of the lovely dogs I’d petted tonight, of the sunshine glistening on the drying puddle this morning, of the bird singing so enthusiastically along my path. I thought about how unreasonably long daffodils were staying in season this year, my favorite flower. I thought about how that woman who wants to become a psychotherapist really appreciates a good pun and all but barks with laughter, which made me think of my mother, the queen of Shaggy Dog stories. And that made me think of a fellow I work with (sort of), who is the perpetrator of many a dreadful Shaggy Dog story, and who wants to read my novel as a critical reader and wants my advice on his own, an unexpected symmetry.

I thought about my father defining intelligence to me on the telephone this week and how a few years ago, he would have defined it so differently, less kindly. And I thought about how open he has become, how much more like my mother now that she is not here to be herself anymore.

Yes, there are nice people in the world, there are beautiful things in nature, and I’m sure if I look hard enough, I can find something about politics or government that is going well.

It’s possible to find peace in a world that isn’t always very nice. Usually I find it in the smaller things, the silences, the “somebody let me change lanes” kindnesses, the familiar greeting of a grocery clerk, the welcoming handshake of a stranger. And some days, like today, I have to enumerate these things, counting blessings, if you like, to get myself out of the doldrums.

Written by Melanie Spiller

April 27, 2011 at 12:56 pm

Posted in Thoughts

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A Medievalist in a Modern World

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I’m sort of a semi-Luddite, I suppose. I mean, I really enjoy modern things like stoves and electricity and such, but I’m annoyed by our culture’s obsession with the Next Great Thing.

I took a long walk last Saturday, for instance, wandering through a popular neighborhood in downtown San Francisco, and I could easily count the number of people who did NOT have a phone being scrutinized or sprouting from their ears. Maybe I could count them on one hand.

I used to have the same thought about iPods and other MP3 players: Can’t people just enjoy their own thoughts about their surroundings without being plugged into something and constantly entertained?

There’s a little bit of resistance to change going on here, but it’s more than that. It’s dismay at what I perceive as a kind of corruption of our ability to process information as individuals, to be entertained by whatever is in front of us, whether that’s a bird landing in a tree, traffic passing by, or something more traditionally considered entertainment, like television or a movie or a book. And to appreciate what came before as much as what will come next.

This thinking crosses over into people singing along at concerts. I can understand the pleasure of singing along, believe me. It’s just that you kind of spoil the listening aspect of a concert for everyone near you, even if you’re some sort of singing genius. People paid to hear the people on stage, right? There are proper sing-alongs (for classical music, anyway), and if you want to sing along to more modern music, the radio or a recording in the privacy of your own home or car seems like an ideal place to do that. Even worse, if I shush you, I’m the bad guy, even though everyone else is glad to hear the live performance instead.

Lately, some of the groups that I sing with have taken to doing modern music. These are groups filled with classically trained musicians; I’m not saying that they should not forage in the wilderness of modern classical music. It’s just really odd to see a bunch of formal-gowned, tuxedo-laden prim and proper people singing spirituals and cereal commercial jingles, you know?

Most of us are not inclined to sing jazz or spirituals—that’s why we joined the groups that sing classical music. What bothers me is that there is some amazing music that isn’t going to get performed if, say, the gospel groups, the spiritual groups, the pop groups, and the classical groups are all doing spirituals. And just as someone trained to sing opera is going to have trouble singing motets or blending in a choir, someone who really feels classical music might struggle to sing pop. A whole gaggle of awkward pop singers is not a beautiful thing.

It is very interesting to do pairings of related music (perhaps all based on the same Gregorian chant or Biblical passage or poem)—Palestrina and Polenc with Lauridsen or Whitacre or someone else who is still writing music today. I’m not suggesting that classical groups pick an era and stick to it (although I love that). I’m suggesting that they stick to a genre. Or hold auditions to replace the whole choir, if the conductor has other ideas. (Or maybe replace the conductor?)

I am a bit of a musical Luddite, then. I prefer to do truly ancient music, and I get all grumbly when I’m asked to sing something I can’t relate to those good times.

Written by Melanie Spiller

April 21, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Posted in Music

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Chords versus Polyphony

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It came up at rehearsal last night. The bass was having trouble because his note was strange and he couldn’t make it line up into a chord. The answer was simple: The music was based on a medieval song and it wasn’t a chord at all because chords hadn’t been invented yet.*

*The following history lesson pertains to European music. African, Asian, and New World music can be told in similar stories, but with some changes, like African was rhythm-based, Asian was pentatonic, and the New World was rhythmic and pentatonic.

In the beginning, there was monody. Monody is a single line of music: no harmony, no drone, not even rhythm. Gregorian chant, for instance, is usually monody. One person or a group sings a single line of music, everyone singing the same thing. If the notes have varied weights, lengths, and colors, it can be lovely. Hildegard von Bingen, my favorite composer, wrote a lot of this sort of thing.

But Hildegard didn’t invent it. Oh no. She built on about 4,000 years of tradition that came from Mesopotamia, Egypt and Israel, and Greece. All of those cultures have known songs (although the documentation situation is bleak because music notation didn’t really take off in the West until about the 8th century of the Common Era). But in the 900 years since Hildegard, all kinds of fancy things have happened.

For instance, around the end of the first millennium of the Common Era, someone noticed that in certain songs, one note stood out as dominant. In fact, it could be sung or plucked on a harp, lyre, or psaltery continuously while the melody was sung against it. And thus was harmony born.

But it wasn’t harmony like you think of today. It was a single note produced for the duration of a song. It didn’t move, although later drones did change if the mode of the song changed. (A mode is like a key signature that declares which notes occur to make a scale. It’s different, though, and I’ll save that discussion for another time.)

Suddenly, the melody was affected by the context each note had with the drone. Some combinations were prettier than others, but all had some sort of emotional impact. It was not a leap, then for the drone note to begin to move, and so began a new form of music, called organum, and later, conductus.

This new music had two discrete lines of melody: the tenor or cantus firmus, which slowly produced the melody of the chant and provided a sort of moving drone, and the duplum, which floated away from the melody and often exhibited some performance skills. Organum originated around the end of the first millennium of the Common Era. The tempo was thought to be the walking tempo of the monks entering the church up the long center aisle, but don’t be fooled—this was not rhythm. This was just tempo.

Conductus came around the 12th century, mostly in France, and allowed a more florid showing. Instead of the tenor part holding the ground (the cantus firmus), both lines of song could wander melodically around. And once that happened, the future opened up.

Conductus allowed complex melodies in more than one part. And if you can do two, you can do three or even four voices. Remember, chords weren’t invented yet, so each line was melodically interesting on its own. If one of your voices didn’t show up, no harm: the remaining voices sounded mighty fine on their own.

This gave rise to polyphony—multiple lines of melody—and the musical form called the motet. Now, the word motet comes from the French word “mot,” which means “word.” So you have to understand that the significant change here was the focus from the melody to the words.

It’s subtle, though, so let me help you. In chant, organum, and conductus, the words shaped musical accents, note duration, and sometimes the way the melody climbed or fell. The words were a sort of vehicle on which the music rode. But with polyphony and the invention of the motet, the words became the central character, and, for the first time, words that were not quotations from the Bible were documented.

If you think you don’t know what a motet is, guess again: Lots of familiar Christmas carols are based on them, such as “Deck the Hall.” That little “fa-la-la-la-la” bit is the give-away. The composer was using a kind of filler in secular music to mean something they weren’t willing to say outright. Lots of secular motets have this sort of device when the boy and girl disappear into the grassy meadow of a lovely spring day. It’s a euphemism for “frolicking ensued” and a raised eyebrow.

But to us, the interesting bit about motets is not the words. It’s the parallel lines of melody. You see, by the 13th century when motets were getting popular, people were rather likely to be run over by a cart, catch the plague, or otherwise take a leave of absence without warning. You couldn’t count on the same people showing up from one week to the next, so it was important that each melodic line stand on its own. If only one guy showed up on Sunday, the mass could still be sung. If two guys showed up, all the better. By the time you’ve got three or four, the music was getting pretty fabulous.

Now, during all this exploration of multiple lines, several other things developed. Rhythm, for instance, although it wasn’t a driving factor as it is in modern music. Rather, it provided a subtle connection so that the various sung parts could line up pleasantly. I talked about this a little in my blog post about the history of music notation. (

Once rhythm was part of the musical scene, the rules of harmony began to develop. There were new resting places in the form of longer notes where things lined up in all the parts. There were parts that moved in parallel, perhaps a few notes apart, perhaps in opposite directions and crossing in the middle. And these architectures invited a whole new set of rules for harmony.

Once we had harmony (where the music lined up among the various parts), we were just a breath away from having chords. You see, if you pass through the same three lined-up notes several times in a song, you start to think of those three lined-up notes as a sort of theme. And themes have meaning, either emotional or in a sort of musical color. And presto bingo, the chord was born.

Timed nicely with the development of music notation into what it looks like today, the new rules of harmony demanded the use of chords. For vocal music, this was truly significant, as it moved the melody out of ALL the parts and into only ONE of the voices, usually a high voice. The other parts provided the chord structure underneath. So it might have been interesting to sing the alto or tenor line in the 13th century, but by the end of the 15th, your part was mostly filler, fleshing out the chord. That makes it a lot harder to sing than a more melodic line. It especially makes it hard to practice on your own.

At the same time, keyboard music was taking its place center stage. For the keyboard, once chords were available, everything became possible—in the early days, the chords were abbreviated by number within a key signature, and by the time of the great Romantic masters, chords had expanded well beyond simple three-or four-note combinations to become grand elaborate augmented and diminished whatnots involving all two dozen of your fingers and a few of your toes.

And so, dear bass singer, that is why Chopin and Ciconia don’t sound much alike and why that wasn’t a chord.

Written by Melanie Spiller

April 12, 2011 at 6:06 pm