Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Roads to Music


There is a tradition of progressive musical pedagogy in the US that ought to be given a bit more credit. The kindergarten rhythm band, when done well, was as vital and musical and inventive as the Orff ensembles, and as with Orff, there is an honest-to-goodness connection to grown-up new music, in that John Cage's developments with the percussion ensemble owe more than a little to his Aunt Phoebe James, whom he assisted in teaching children and in the production of two books on rhythm pedagogy. The elementary school music textbooks of the Silver Burdett company had a long tradition of a broad approach, in the editions of the 1970's, the books included new music by Steve Reich, Moondog, and Doris Hays, experiments with tape recorders and a healthy sampling of classical, vernacular, and non-western musics.

I just re-encountered a book in my shelves, given to me when I was nine or ten: The Road to Music by Nicolas Slonimsky. Dated 1947, it's a collection of essays, expanded from a column on the Children's Page of the Christian Science Monitor. A mixture of theory, history, and the musical curio cabinet, this astonishing little book hasn't dated a bit: while imaginately covering more familar items like simple harmonization (imagine my surprise to find Slonimsky beating me to the music theory-via-limerick method:

Consecutive octaves or fifths in good harmony
Ought not to be used lest ears they many harm any.
If F goes to G,
Don't move C to D,
Or else it will result in disharmony.)

or counterpoint or the overtone series, or "the great composers", Slonimsky goes far beyond to building melodies from permutations of tones, or imbedding words into notes, or taking melodic contours from the outlines of things, like a skyline, or the Slonimsky family at breakfast, as was done here by Heitor Villa-Lobos:


In many of the bits of music here, intended for his young readers to try at home, you can find the genesis of some of Slonimsky's famous Minitudes.


Another childrens' book on my shelf is Marian E. Baer's SOUND: An Experiment Book, of which I've got the third printing, dated 1952. The book is just a collection of small experiments, using everday objects, some of which approach approach Alvin Lucier's music in their ears-wide-open elegance:

(C.f. Lucier: Music for Piano with Amplified Sonorous Vessels).

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