Some Listening Tips for Canon Newcomers

When I began work on my album Canons I expected that its main audience would consist of three groups of experienced classical listeners:

  • those with a particular interest in counterpoint (folks who own multiple recordings of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach’s Art of The Fugue, Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis, and so on)
  • those with a particular interest in the harpsichord, and in new repertoire for early keyboard instruments (folks who own a recording of Lambert’s Clavichord by Herbert Howells, for example)
  • those with a particular interest in math-music connections (folks who own the book Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter)

At the same time, I hoped that I could turn some new listeners on to counterpoint, including those who don’t consider themselves classical music buffs and who might not know what a harpsichord is.

On the evening of April 3, 2017 I had my first success towards that latter goal. Continue reading


Counterpoint as conversation

I’ve been thinking about what advice I’d give to a listener who wants to explore musical counterpoint. What is the best way to understand a composition where several musical parts (or lines, or voices) are moving independently, in a way that seems fascinating but sometimes overwhelming and difficult to follow?

The best way I can explain counterpoint is to liken it to a spoken conversation. To understand a contrapuntal piece of music, you can apply the same listening strategies that you would use in understanding a conversation between people.

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CDs were

CDs were expensive. In the late 90’s a new Hyperion import from the UK could cost $18.99.

CDs took up limited space on your shelf. If you bought a CD you had to figure out where to put it.

CDs couldn’t be had instantly: you had to go to a store and look for them. You had to find the right section of the store (Classical, Folk, World) and flip through rows and rows of discs which might be separated by letter (A, B, C) or major composer (Bach, Mozart, Schubert) or performer or band (Glenn Gould, Bob Dylan, The Doors) or generic category (Vocalists, Historical). Sometimes there was a “Miscellaneous” section for albums that the staff didn’t know what to do with. Sometimes CDs were just miscategorized and you’d only find them by flipping through everything in the aisle. If you wanted more than one CD you’d walk around the store clutching your possible buys and keeping a mental tally of the likely cost.

CDs could be hard to find. You could mail order them but that could take weeks or months.

CDs made you plan your acquisition process. You had to think about which CDs you wanted to get, ask around, read reviews, try to get the person in the store to play you a track or two if they were willing, and then you’d have to be ready for everyone in the store to hear what you were thinking of buying, and what if you hated it? Maybe you could borrow a CD from a friend and listen for a while. Maybe you could trade. Some stores had listening stations where you could hear a few staff selections, and a few stores had a system that could play an arbitrary disc. But many CDs were not available to preview at all — you had to take a chance.

CDs could be duds. You’d think you were going to love a CD but it turned out to be lame, and in buying it you’d lost your chance to buy another CD that you really wanted, but now that this lame CD was sitting around you’d keep trying to listen to it, seeing if maybe you could get yourself to like it — and every once in a while, that worked.

CDs could be great deals. When you spotted a rare or expensive CD on the rack at a used record shop, marked at $7 or $8 you felt lucky, you grabbed it.

CDs always had to pass through a salesperson. You had to take your CDs up to some man or woman at the sales counter, hand the CDs to the person, wait while the person looked over your selections, scanned them, maybe made a passing comment, computed the total, took your cash or your credit card, put the discs in a bag, gave you a receipt and a parting glance.

CDs were possessions. When you bought a CD it became a part of your life. It lived in your bedroom, or your kitchen, or your office. It joined a chorus of CD spines asking to be pulled out. You came to recognize the lettering and color of that spine. You could quickly find your favorite CDs on the shelf using only your peripheral vision and your intuition about where you had probably placed it. There were some spines that you had seen in record shops year after year – the same spine – and one day maybe you’d finally take a chance on that album and bring it home and now that familiar spine would finally join your collection.

CDs could get messed up. Maybe the disc got scratched if you dropped it one day, maybe the jewel case cracked. Every once in a while you might have to clean a CD with a rag or, if you thought it was necessary, a microfiber cloth; and water, or, if you believed in it, that special fluid that came in those little bottles.

CDs reminded you how old they were and where you got them. If you had owned a CD for ten years its case was probably old and worn. If you had bought it used, without plastic wrap, its case probably still held the price tag that had been stamped on it, and that tag probably had the name of the store like Academy Records or Cutler’s or Soundtracks or Colony Music or may be some store in another town or city or country you had visited once on a trip.

CDs came with liner notes and you were more likely to read them in full than, say, a PDF on your computer screen today, competing with thirty browser tabs. Sometimes you’d expect to see lyrics and translations in the notes and you’d find only a blank page. But sometimes the booklet was so thick you’d have trouble squeezing it back into the jewel box and it would all frayed.

CDs had covers that you got to know. Sometimes you’d go to a record shop looking for a certain cover even though you couldn’t remember the title of the album you wanted, and maybe if the salesperson was nice they’d humor you and let you describe the cover and they’d see if they could figure out what album you might talking about and whether it was in stock.

CDs could end up in the wrong cases. CDs could be temporarily misplaced, mistakenly left behind, sometimes permanently lost. CDs could turn up in unexpected places after you had searched for them for days or months. You could end up with duplicate CDs if you bought one you forgot you already owned, or if you bought one you thought you had lost when you really hadn’t. And sometimes two CDs with totally different covers actually contained the same recording.

CDs had to be played through a sequence of steps. Open the jewel box. Press that thingy to release the disc. Hear a little bit of a squeaking sound. Then walk the disc over to the CD player, yes, walk it over there. Eject whatever was inside. Hear the tray open. Take the other disc out and put it aside – wonder where its case had gone. Put in the new disc, press a button to make the tray to retract: a bzzzz followed by a kind of mechanical gurgling sound as the player registered the new disc. Look at the LED light show the total number of tracks. Then press “play” and hear some more mechanical gurgling as the player got started. Then go back to your chair and listen as the music starts.

CDs came with a specific track order. You could program your player to use a different order but that was enough of a hassle that you rarely ever did it. If you liked a CD and listened to it a lot, you got to know the track order so well that at the end of one song your mind would automatically start playing the next song before the CD player actually got to it.

CDs forced you to be patient. Once a CD started playing you’d probably let it keep going for a while because in order to change it you’d have to go through that whole sequence of steps again.

CDs could encounter tragedy. Sometimes a CD player would eat a CD and refuse to give it back and you’d have to plead with it.

CDs could be stacked. You could have all your rap in one stack and all your Renaissance choral music in another stack. Or you could make a stack of new CDs that you had been meaning to listen to, or old favorites that you wanted to revisit. You could merge two stacks or break a stack apart; you could pick up a whole stack and move it to another room.

CDs could be seen all together, in aggregate. You could see how big your collection was – whether it was neatly organized or a mess. You could see when it needed attention, when it was getting shaggy, when it needed to be sorted or pruned. You could see your collection getting bigger and taking more space as you bought more CDs and you could see it getting smaller as you sold CDs or gave them away. People who came to your home could see what music you had.

CDs could be taken on trips, but not too many. When you went on a trip you had to decide which CDs you wanted to take with you. Your backpack had room for five, maybe ten. Could you survive a week away from home with only five albums to listen to? Maybe if you ditched a book or two, or a bag of granola, you could make room for more CDs.

CDs came with a little story that you held in the back of your mind. The music was on the CD. When you bought a CD and took it home you felt like you were carrying the music itself.  That bag from the record shop actually contained Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or Coltrane’s Giant Steps – what a miracle that you could have those things! When you put the CD in the player, the player would read the CD. If the CD had been scratched it might be unreadable, but sometimes you’d see used CDs in the store marked as “scratched, plays fine.”

CDs had players and those players had their own personalities. You could buy a fancy CD player or a generic one. Some people said they were all basically the same but others swore that having multiple lasers and a boutique digital-to-analog converter would make all the difference, would make you happier and more satisfied.

CDs had stores dedicated to them, and you could dedicate days to going to those stores. You got to know where the record shops were, the ones that sold only new discs and those that had a used section. If you lived in a city and had the time and some cash, you could spend a whole Saturday walking from shop to shop. Lots of shops would make you check your bag so you didn’t steal a CD. These things were valuable.

CDs helped you enjoy music. They did this not just by holding the music but by giving structure to your experience as a listener. CDs slowed you down. If you wanted to play a CD you’d have to find it first, then set it up in the player, and by the time the music actually started, you were ready to pay attention.

Your pride in owning a CD – in having tracked down something rare and wonderful – made you more likely to actually listen to it. Your stacks of CDs helped you remember what you wanted to hear. The mild inconvenience of changing a CD made you give more attention to whatever was playing now.

The fact that there were CDs “out there” – amazing, unusual CDs on the shelves of some shop, somewhere – CDs that would blow your mind if only you could get a hold of them – it made life seem like a musical treasure hunt. And when you found a treasure you gave it a special place on the shelf, a special place in your life, and when you listened to it, your awareness of its rarity, of its value as a thing, made you more attentive to the actual music it contained, more ready to receive the real gift.



Canons: liner notes




A canon is a composition in which one melodic part, the follower, imitates another part, the leader, with a delay. Such pieces range in complexity from children’s tunes like “Frère Jacques” to intricate masterworks like the canons Bach incorporated in the Goldberg Variations and the Art of Fugue. While the canon is a fundamental and centuries-old form, at once puzzle-like and admitting of great beauty, it does not often receive the close focus of a dedicated album; the present album is unique in featuring a stylistically diverse set of contemporary canons performed on the harpsichord. The forty-five compositions recorded here—each one, the realization of a musical impetus under a specific set of technical constraints—together form a testament to the canon’s history as well as a survey of its potential as seen in the 21st century.

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Canon Q & A

This is a Q&A about canons that I wrote sometime after finishing my forty-fifth canon. It was included in the liner notes of my collection of digitally rendered canon performances, now titled Canon Previews. It applies just as well to the album Canons, featuring harpsichord performances by Matthew McConnell, that we’re now releasing.

Q: What is a canon?

A: You could say it’s a piece of music built on the idea of an echo. In a two-part canon you have one part that leads and another part that lags a little bit behind, echoing everything the leader does.

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Why Harpsichord?

“All the pieces are performed on an instrument called the harpsichord – have you heard of it?” This is me, describing my Canons album to someone whose musical interests I don’t know. If the person turns out to be a classical music buff, they might be slightly offended by my assumption that they could possibly not know what a harpsichord is. On the other hand, if the person isn’t “into classical,” they might look at me with a blank stare, if they don’t just assume I’m using a fancy word for… maybe.. the harp.

Considering that my canons can also be performed on piano and could be arranged for other instruments altogether, I wanted to say a few words about why I sought the harpsichord’s particular voice for this project.

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Announcing the release of my Escher’s Drum EP album.

You may have already seen the video of percussionist Gavin Ryan performing this piece on bongo, tom-tom, and cymbal, but Gavin went further and created a second version using Indonesian Gamelan instruments, available now for the first time.

The use of tuned percussion transformed a purely rhythmic composition into one that’s filled with active melodic motifs. In a wonderful surprise, these motifs turned out to have an intentional, composed quality to them even though they arose as a direct consequence of assigning one fixed pitch to each part. Gavin’s experiment uncovered a totally new dimension of this piece that’s not visible in the score, and in so doing he created a unique sound where traditional Gamelan meets the mathematical arena of rhythmic tiling canons.

The album consists of two tracks, the drumset version and the Gamelan version of Escher’s Drum. Great care has gone into the recording, mixing, and mastering to achieve the best possible sound, so if you like the streaming preview, please download the full-quality tracks.