Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

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Archive for September 2011

Musical Modes: Part 2, Rhythmic Modes

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This is the second of three blogs on musical modes. Part 1 is about “church” modes, Part 2 is about rhythmic modes, and Part 3 is about non-European modes.

In the 10th century, music was starting to diverge from unison; one voice maintained a somewhat slow and steady tune (called the tenor) and another voice waxed ecstatic (often called the superius or the altus). Although the rhythms in the wandering voice didn’t matter much to the steady voice, there were certain markers that needed to be met so that syllables or unison notes could be lined up.

Without written notation, both singers had to listen and take visual cues from one another to stay in step. There was the tenor voice plodding purposefully toward the final note while the other voice wiggled and wandered and all but mamboed in a way that thrilled the listener.

They had to come up with some way to keep together, to change syllables at the same moment and to come to a satisfying end together. At first, they must have employed significant glances or nods, but in time, a form of rhythm evolved. The original two-part music, organum and conductus, was performed as the monks walked down the aisle as part of the mass ceremony. A natural rhythm accompanies such things, and voila! Rhythm joined melody.

At first, rhythms were only allowed in certain prescribed forms, what are known as the rhythmic modes. They do seem to travel in threes—the count tallies to three or multiples of three in each of them. This may have had some religious symbolism, but it is actually more likely to come from secular music. The dancing aspect of the rhythms is rather easy to hear.

The work being done to create a notation system was pivotal in the development of rhythmic modes. There had to be some way to aurally tie one voice to the other, and writing it down made it easier both to learn and to perform. It also made it possible for more than two singers to participate.

It is thought that the development of rhythmic modes originates from the treatise De musica by St. Augustine in the 4th and 5th centuries. He described two units of measure, a long (longa) and a short (brevis), where the short was exactly half the length of a long. But they didn’t really get down to documenting these until they had block-note mensuration in the late 11th century. The first notation for the rhythmic modes was based on the block-notes they used for writing down the chants.

It isn’t known who originated the six rhythmic forms, although it is rather likely to have begun at the school at Notre Dame in Paris, where considerable work was being done regarding documenting music theory and coming up with new musical forms. In the 13th century, there was a definitive treatise (attributed to Johannes de Garlandia) that at last described these modes in De musica mensurabili positio.

The first mode was likely the first to be used, a pattern of a longer note and then a shorter one. The reversal of the order to a short and then a long note was a natural progression, and that is the second mode. It is thought that the sixth mode was a sort of ornamentation of this arrangement in that it is three short notes, equaling both the first and second mode in duration.

The third, fourth, and fifth modes are thought to be later developments. The third consists of three notes, one that is half-again as long as a long note (or the equivalent of three shorts), a short, and then a normal-length long (like a dotted quarter, an eighth, and a quarter note in modern notation). The fourth mode is a short, a long, and a triple-wide long (like an eighth, a quarter and a dotted quarter note in modern notation). And the fifth mode is like two triple-wide longs (two dotted quarter notes in modern notation).

At first, the problem must have been that re-using the same rhythmic patterns throughout a single piece grew tedious and it was also a little hard to document—not every text ends neatly at the end of a rhythmic mode. By the 13th century, scholars at Notre Dame had come up with something called fractio modi (the breaking of the mode), which combined notes of several modes and filled in spaces with notes that didn’t comply with any mode and with rests (silence). They also created a diamond-shaped note to indicate running patterns, usually downward and which may have been performed as ornaments rather than staying in a particular rhythm. (This shape got borrowed back into block-note chant notation.)

Polyphony (multiple melodic lines) made it necessary to indicate how the various voices fit with each other so that the group could stay together. The Notre Dame School replaced the even unmeasured flow of plainchant and early polyphony with the recurrent patterns of long and short notes of the rhythmic modes. No song is likely to have maintained any single rhythmic pattern for the duration—it would have seriously squelched the exuberant nature of the wandering voice or voices.

And of course, a sensitive artist wouldn’t follow the notation on the page with mathematical rigor, but would introduce rhythmic nuance suggested by the text and the mood of the poem and by the melody itself. This probably caused the creation of even more developments in the musical world. And it didn’t take too long for music to evolve in such a way that it was too complex for thse few little modes.

It’s interesting to note that the six rhythmic modes correspond to the “feet” of meters in classical poetry. Although the modes have names (Trochaic, Iambic, Dactylic, Anapestic, Spondaic, and Tribrachic), they are usually referred to by their numbers (1-6).

Like the literary meters, the formulas created by these rhythmic modes allowed development into the musical shapes we find familiar today—soon, they needed meters divisible by 2 or 4, and now, we have things with sevens and fives and nines!

Next in the series, non-European modes.

Early Medieval Music Up to 1300, edited by Dom Anselm Hughes, Oxford University Press, London, 1954
Medieval Music, Richard H. Hoppin, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1978
A History of Western Music (8th edition), J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010

Written by Melanie Spiller

September 26, 2011 at 3:46 pm

Virtue and Vegetables

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At meditation the other night, someone said something about vegetarianism being more virtuous than being omnivorous. I don’t know about that—and I’m a vegetarian.

Two things came up for me: Being a vegetarian amounts to being a picky eater and virtues are not generally lifestyle choices.

First, the human body is designed to be omnivorous. Tooth and stomach design, not to mention inclination, are evidence of this. Humans don’t have the ripping teeth or beaks of a predator, but they do have the grinding teeth like other meat eaters and that vegetarian animals are conspicuously missing. The enzymes—and the sheer length—of the digestive organs are specifically meant to break meat down and distribute its various nutritious elements throughout the body. But even more than that, no amount of coaxing will make a giraffe eat meat. Meat simply does not smell or look like food to them. Humans, for the most part, do like the taste, sight, and smell of meat. That some of us don’t is parallel to having a favorite color or preferring the countryside to the beach.

There are many reasons for being a vegetarian. Some choose this path because they object to the way the animals are treated during their short lives. Some choose it because they don’t like the idea of eating something that could look back at them. Some have religious reasons—whether or not they agree, their religious beliefs or cultures proscribe eating either all animals or certain animals. And some choose not to eat meat for health reasons—in some cases, the body simply has to work too hard to digest meat, leaving them vulnerable to disease, and in others, there are allergies, sensitivities, and digestive complaints that are solved with this simple change.

I’m in that last group. I stopped eating red meat when I was a teenager (mostly because I didn’t like it much, and partially because I was a bit of a hippie and the diet fit into that) and almost immediately I stopped getting colds and flu. More recently, my liver has decided that fat is not my friend, and it’s way easier to eat a controlled-fat diet without animal products of any kind.

Gosh, and I feel better too. Again.

Now that I’m a vegan, I find that it’s hard to keep my protein levels up. When I was a teen, it didn’t matter much, but now, I pay for those sorts of imbalances. I’m probably also paying for the imbalances of my youthful ignorance about balanced nutrition. So I count protein intake much as others count calories. I have all kinds of supplements and processed foods that give my protein count a boost when I simply cannot eat another bite of tofu, nuts, or beans. There is a significant improvement in how I feel when my protein count is above 40 grams a day, so I’m pretty committed to counting protein grams. (Protein requirements are determined by body weight, so your requirement could be higher or lower than mine.)

But none of this feels particularly virtuous. Oh, it’s true that I make most of my own food—that’s one truly beneficial side-effect of this choice. I have more control over the fuel I supply myself with than omnivores with a typical American-style diet. But there’s not much that can be counted as virtuous in a typical American-style diet. It’s full of processed foods, has a horrible imbalance of meat and dairy products, and seems to eschew carbohydrates as evil rather than as a good source of energy.

But is avoiding an American-style diet  enough to make vegetarianism into a virtue?

It seems to me that a virtue is more like a personality trait or a natural inclination than a choice. I mean, a person can choose to be kind, gracious, merciful, charitable, or wise, but really, these things come more naturally to some than to others. There is the instinct to make a sarcastic remark just as there is the instinct to hug someone who weeps. Not having the sarcastic impulse is a virtue, as is the impulse to comfort someone. Squelching the one and acting on the other impulse might be considered virtuous too.

Does being virtuous mean denying natural urges? Like not punching the cretin who cut you off for the third time while on the freeway today or jumping into bed with that hunky construction worker or spending beyond the budget? Does it mean keeping the house clean, volunteering to charitable organizations, calling parents regularly, and respecting other people?

My first encounter with a raw-food vegan (not only do they eat no animal products, but nothing can be heated over 110 degrees Fahrenheit either), led me to think that this diet was an enormous inconvenience. Eating in an ordinary restaurant was a problem, making a meal without a lot of warning was a problem, and frankly, he was constantly eating something, which was a lot like being friends with a caterpillar. He thought of his diet as “taking the high road.” I didn’t see it that way at the time, and I still don’t see it, nearly a decade later. Besides.  I like less of my day to be devoted to fueling myself and more of the fuel to be about pleasure than function.

But that’s just my choice.

I talked to a vegetarian friend about this issue, and she said that she doesn’t tell dinner hosts that she’s a vegetarian. If she is served chicken, for instance, she just eats it. She said that she doesn’t seem to suffer for it (physically or psychically) unless she’s eaten more animal flesh in a short period of time than usual (like three times in a week). But she’s not a vegan, and her diet is about ethics, not health. Inconveniencing a host is less ethical to her than eating the meat, so she just goes along with the crowd.

In her case, eating meat is more virtuous in certain circumstances than not eating it. On her own, she doesn’t eat meat, though, and I haven’t noticed her being uncomfortable staying vegetarian around non-vegetarians or judging when other vegetarians step off the narrow path.

It seems like people who are NOT vegetarians are the ones who think of being a vegetarian as virtuous. Is it that we’ve now labeled any sort of abstinence as virtuous? Does that make subsistence farmers more virtuous than those of us who work in an office because they procure their food from their own sweat equity rather than from the corner market?

I guess I don’t think of my dietary habits as virtuous in a general way. I think of some of the details as virtuous, such as counting protein intake or baking my own bread, but in general, it’s just a choice, like wearing certain clothes or living in a particular place. But if you want to think of my diet as virtuous, I can live with that.

I can also live with it if you think I’m just being picky.

Written by Melanie Spiller

September 7, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Posted in Food, Thoughts

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