Tag Archives: music

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Key Terms in Ballet: Giselle and Leitmotifs

When thinking about ballet, most people picture scenes of ethereal leaps and turn-sequences, all performed by ballerinas donned in their tutus and pointe shoes. While certainly not an incorrect notion, it is definitely not all-encompassing of the art form: ballets simultaneously attempt to combine music, dance, and plot to create coherent stories. It is not unlike how a good paper strikes a structured balance between our beloved lexicon terms, which I was reminded of this Reading Period.

While recently watching dance clips on YouTube as a mode of procrastinating from studying and finishing my term papers, I was reminded of the ballet Giselle, a seminal work in the classical repertoire. Giselle shares much in common with its romantic predecessors, as its protagonist Giselle falls in love with a man named Albrecht. However, the story takes a dark turn in the infamous “Mad Scene,” where Giselle discovers that her beloved Albrecht is in fact a prince who is engaged to another, causing her to die of a broken heart at the end of Act I. Inspired to watch the ballet in its completion, I was struck by how composer Adolphe Adam manifested our conceptualization of key terms into his score. More specifically, Adam utilized leitmotifs as themes to denote specific characters, objects, or feelings. These musical motifs are exactly what we in the Writing Center refer to as key terms: a paper’s primary terms or concepts. By defining these musical renderings of key terms early in Act I of his ballet, Adam conditions the audience to recognize his leitmotifs, in turn enabling them to follow the themes of the ballet as the plot progresses.

This can be seen most evidently in the leitmotif that characterizes the relationship between Giselle and Albrecht, one that is filled with love yet also bitter deceit. This leitmotif is established during their first interaction in the coveted “Flower Scene” of Act I, a moment that unites each of their individual character-based themes into a single, combined leitmotif. Listen to the leitmotif in this video, starting at 7:55. Adam reuses this theme throughout the ballet, ultimately preparing the audience for the pivotal moment between Giselle and Albrecht, the “Mad Scene.” In this video of the “Mad Scene,” listen carefully at 2:12 for the same leitmotif. Through his use of leitmotifs, Adam continually reinforces the audience’s perception of the codependence between the score, themes, and plot. Adam’s utilization of leitmotifs in Giselle is a proficient model to understand how a paper’s key terms act like a thematic glue that ultimately guides the reader to a better comprehension of the writing at hand.

–Doruntina Fida ’21

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“Shallow” as an Analysis of Shared Experience in A Star is Born

After that late-February Oscar performance, pretty much everyone on the planet has heard “Shallow,” a song performed by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in the film, A Star is Born. The song has been a pop-culture phenomenon, becoming a Billboard-topping platinum hit and winning an Oscar, a Grammy, and a Golden Globe. The song, beyond being an obvious earworm (devised by Mark Ronson, the man behind hits such as Uptown Funk), has also generated a strong emotional response from audiences. So what has made the song resonate so powerfully with audiences? In a November 2018 interview with Billboard, Gaga noted that “it’s the connection and the dialogue established between Jackson and Ally, which made “Shallow” impactful.” In other words, Gaga believes that the conversation through which the main characters, Jackson and Ally, get to know one another, is also a form of introducing their characters to the audience. This moment of shared intimacy is what has made the song so precious to audiences. From Gaga’s claim, we can see “Shallow” as a form of very effective character analysis.

To show how “Shallow” effectively analyzes Jackson and Ally’s characters for the audience, let’s put “Shallow” in the context of the movie (some small spoilers to come). Jackson has just met Ally after her performance at the bar, and now they’re sitting in the parking lot chatting. Ally realizes that Jackson is often objectified as a celebrity, with his privacy violated consistently by fans and non-fans alike. Meanwhile, Jackson recognizes that Ally, in spite of her powerful voice, lacks the confidence and opportunities to express herself as a songwriter. In this key moment of realization and recognition of key aspects of one another’s personalities, Ally breaks up the dialogue by immediately interpreting it into another form: a song. This analysis opens the audience up to an implicit realization of the commonalities between Jackson and Ally’s experiences, and how they are obviously yearning for something beyond what they currently are experiencing. Ally uses her song as a form of analysis to point out that neither of them are truly happy with who they presently are. This analysis is so powerful that, it resonates with both of them, as well as audiences (in the movie and in real life), making the song the foundation of not only Jackson and Ally’s relationship, but also the start of Ally’s career and the source of another trophy in Lady Gaga’s Givenchy bag.

“Shallow” by Lady Gaga, Andrew Wyatt, Anthony Rossomando, & Mark Ronson

Tell me somethin’, girl
Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more?
Is there somethin’ else you’re searchin’ for?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself
Longin’ for change
And in the bad times I fear myself

Tell me something, boy
Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?
Or do you need more?
Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself
Longing for change
And in the bad times I fear myself

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

–Catherine Wang ’19

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Tortoise Tuesday: Writing About Music

On recent Tortoise Tuesdays, Isabella, Ellie, and Paige have all analyzed music or musical theater in terms of the writing lexicon. Writing about music is, of course, a discipline in its own right – and often one that requires special attention to orienting, key terms, and other lexicon items to ensure that the writing is clear to readers who may not have extensive prior knowledge. Zachary Woolfe’s recent New York Times article on the opera singer Anita Rachvelishvili masterfully combines technical insights with explanations and examples, demonstrating how good writing can make any topic accessible to a non-expert audience.

Woolfe starts with a specific example: a recent rehearsal of the opera Adriana Lecouvreur. He gives the background information necessary for any reader to make sense of his description and then transitions smoothly to the real focus of the article: Rachvelishvili herself.

“Late in the third act of “Adriana Lecouvreur,” Francesco Cilea’s irresistible potboiler of an opera, the vicious Princesse de Bouillon and Adriana, an actress, square off at a party, rivals for the love of the dashing Maurizio.

In the tumult, Maurizio makes a move toward Adriana, but the princess stops him. “Restate,” she commands, ordering him to stay by her.

On a recent morning deep within the Metropolitan Opera, where a new production of “Adriana” starring Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala opens on New Year’s Eve, the Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili made the three syllables of “restate” a paradox: a gorgeous snarl.

Diving into her chest voice, but not milking it or pushing too hard, her tone stayed round, warm and not all that loud, an iron fist in a cashmere glove. Listening, you felt like Maurizio, pinned to your seat by her sound and authority.”

Throughout the article, Woolfe continues to provide the information necessary to make it comprehensible, defining key terms as they come up. He avoids doing so in a cumbersome, didactic way, instead providing explanations as necessary. For example, in the introduction, Woolfe chooses not to give a direct translation of Rachvelishvili’s line “Restate” (“stay”), instead describing what her character is doing with that command.

When writing in a specialized discipline, especially one that, like opera, already is perceived as unwelcoming to casual participants, it can be hard to find a balance between providing not enough information or too much. Students are sometimes unsure whether to include a dedicated “key words” section at the beginning of a paper, at the risk of overwhelming the reader or causing confusion if some terms don’t reappear until much later in the paper, or to explain each term as it becomes necessary. Woolfe’s article demonstrates an exemplary approach to the issue.

–Rosamond van Wingerden ’20

Source:
Zachary Woolfe: “A Young Singer Takes the Opera World by Storm.” The New York Times. 28 December, 2018.

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Tortoise Tuesday: Thesis and Structure in Ravel’s Bolero

A few days ago, I was having lunch with a friend of mine, an oboist, and Maurice Ravel’s Bolero came up in the conversation.

“How in the world,” she asked, after we had talked about it for a few minutes, “does Ravel build a fifteen minute piece out of so little music at all?”

I had never thought about it before, but once my friend brought it up, we both agreed it was not an easy question to answer. The Bolero has three main motifs — three theses, if you like. First comes the motor rhythm on the snare, which begins in the first bar of the piece and continues virtually unchanged until the end:

 

The second motif, introduced by the flute, is the primary major melody:

The third and final motif — which my friend and I affectionately called the snake-charmer theme — is introduced by the bassoon and weaves in and out of the major-key passages:

The Bolero is composed entirely of the interplay between these three motifs, varying only the instrumentation. Though, in a written work of comparable length — say, ten pages — three distinct “theses” would almost certainly be excessive, in a piece of music, to have only three motifs carry an entire piece is almost unheard of. Listen to a Beethoven symphony, and you will hear countless themes introduced, and then varied in key and texture until they are almost unrecognizable. Even in a Bach sonata, the epitome of simplicity, the structure is relatively involved, bursting with Escher-like variations that turn one motif into the next without giving you time to notice how the change came about. There is no such variation in the Bolero. And yet somehow, there seems nothing strained or contrived about the piece. With its gradual increase in intensity from the voice of a single snare at pianissimo to a full orchestra at forte, the Bolero holds our attention from the first bar to the last.

By its simple yet flawless execution, the Bolero reminds us that writing of any kind — analytic or creative, literary or musical — need not be complex to be compelling. While there is something to be said for the “broad”, “multi-faceted”, or “comprehensive” thesis, such a thesis is also very easy to mishandle. Too often, we lose control of our argument in the rush to say everything at once. Through the understated structure of the Bolero, we see that it is sometimes better — though certainly, no less difficult — to confine ourselves to the exploration of a single theme. As anyone who has listened all the way to Ravel’s raucous final measures will attest, the simplest construction is often the strongest of all.

–Isabella Khan ’21

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Tortoise Tuesday: Methodology in Hamilton

With the Grammys on Sunday, Hamilton has been on my mind. While Annabel Barry ’19 has previously commented on motive in Hamilton, I’d like to focus this week’s Tortoise Tuesday on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s methodology in telling Alexander Hamilton’s story.

What is most intriguing about Hamilton is of course, its subject: America’s “forgotten” founding father. But a little over 3 years after Hamilton’s release, a Google Trends comparison between Alexander Hamilton and his counterparts shows that he is anything but “forgotten”. Interest clearly spiked in August 2015, as Hamilton made its Broadway debut.

If Lin-Manuel Miranda’s motive in writing Hamilton was to draw attention to Alexander Hamilton’s story, then he has clearly succeeded where others have not. After all, Alexander Hamilton has been the subject of hundreds of thousands of biographies and documentaries. What sets Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work apart is his creative methodology, specifically his use of the musical format.

Starting with a supposedly forgotten subject, as opposed to a more familiar figure, such as George Washington, Miranda had his work cut out for him. The audience enters unassuming, possibly skeptical of a historical musical set in the 1700s (that is, if they haven’t read the glowing reviews yet). However, using a musical — not just any musical but a rap musical — Miranda inserts vibrant elements of artistry, nearly disguising the fact that, at its core, Hamilton is a historical account.

What makes a musical a good methodology? Musicals are similar to television in the sense that you typically don’t expect or wish to gain a history lesson from watching an episode of your favorite drama. However, unlike television, musicals are able to subtly insert otherwise dry historical information in the form of song lyrics. Hamilton capitalizes on this opportunity, leaving the audience with a number of catchy, jazzy, eclectic songs to listen to on repeat, lyrics that easily rival even the “best” of rap, and most importantly, without even realizing it… a newfound interest in and knowledge about Alexander Hamilton.

While not everyone may be able to write and produce a musical to communicate their R3 or senior thesis, I challenge you to think more openly about methodology in your next piece of academic or personal writing. What is the best, most engaging way to communicate your research, your analysis, your argument, your interests? It may just be a musical.

— Ellie Shapiro ’21

Analyzing a medium, Spring 2017

What is Truth? The Relationship between J.S. Bach and Arvo Pärt Considered from their Respective Versions of the Johannes-Passion

In a Tortoiseshell: This excerpt exemplifies a successful attempt to find an appropriate language to analyze a medium that might at first seem resistant to description — music. The author is able to justify his unusual method, describe and problematize the melodic lines of two very different pieces of music, and use that analysis to argue about the pieces’ respective influences.

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Orienting

PSY’s “Gangnam Style”: A Social Critique of Korean Consumption Patterns and the Media’s Perpetuation of Nationalism

In a Tortoiseshell: This essay is about the Korean media’s nationalist sentiments, as seen through its reaction to PSY’s ridiculously popular music video “Gangnam Style.”  The following excerpt situates “Gangnam Style” as a satirical commentary, orienting the reader to the actual features of the Gangnam district and how those features clash with the song’s representation. Continue reading