Copyright © 2018 by Jordan Alexander Key

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Music history, and history generally, is often presented as a narrative of innovation and exceptionalism. One could, I think, summarize any music history curriculum at the undergraduate level (at least in the United States) as Charlemagne, Perotin, Machaut, Ockeghem, Josquin, Palestrina, Monteverdi, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Liszt, Brahms, Wagner, Schoenberg, Stravinsky. There will certainly be some other “stuff” in that two to three-semester curriculum, but - let us be honest - no one except for the pedantic musicologists [1] ever remembers the interesting details. It is “the de...

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Herbert Brün (1918 - 2000), pioneering composer of electronic and computerized music, returned many times to the unassuming phrase, “A language gained is a language lost,” [1] in writings and speeches throughout his latter career at the University of Illinois. The history and concern of notation of any kind is provocatively summed in this quotation, as musical notation is itself a cypher for the communication of a language, and each version of notation that has been created throughout Western music history can simply be understood as representing a living or historical dialect of this language...

Monday, December 10, 2018

By the 18th century, Europe was fervently attempting to classify and dissect the world through the rediscovered power of the natural sciences; independent in many spheres from the intellectual tyranny of medieval theology, philosophers were emerging critically questioning the human institutions incubated under feudalism and theocracy during the European Dark Ages; rediscovered from Classical Greece, the perspective and dramatic arts, rhetoric, empiricism, mathematics, and many other fields of thought contained in the Trivium and Quadrivium returned to preeminence under broader and freer educat...

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

William Bolcom’s The Garden of Eden is a set of four piano rags, completed by Bolcom in 1969. Illustrating an abstract narrative from the Abrahamic Genesis-creation, the four rags encapsulate Bolcom’s third-stream Americana style, incorporating into a virtuosic piano piece intense melodic, harmonic, and formal composition with traditional rag rhythms, chromaticism, and expressive nuance.  While the four rags of The Garden of Eden present a diversity of musical styles, it is in the “rag fantasy,” The Serpent’s Kiss, that Bolcom makes his most interesting use of form, incorporating many contempo...

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Sol LeWitt’s series of 28 photographs, “A sphere lit from the top, four sides, and all combinations” might at first seem like a simple exercise in permutability, lacking much creativity or expressivity. Indeed, the aim of this series of images is not conventional “expressivity” or even originality. It is, in essence, an artistic compositional etude. What intrigues us in this exercise, ultimately elevating this set from the mundane to something we might consider artistic – that which has meaning beyond the skill it demonstrates and the aesthetics it may or may not possess –  is the implication...

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen for two pianos, first premiered in 1943, is aesthetically similar to better known pieces from Messiaen's mid-20th century oeuvre, such as Quatour pour la fin du temps, premiered only a two years prior in 1941. The use of ostinato, repetition, and slight variation is highly prevalent during this compositional period, and naturally finds its way into the musical language of Vision de l’Amen. In these works, Messiaen makes extensive use of isorhythmic sequences paired with quartal harmonic/melodic pitch collections to communicate his music's formal unity. While d...

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Italian Trecento is an often overlooked period in Western Music history, marked as the transition between the artistic pinnacle of Medieval music with Guillaume de Machaut and the genesis of Renaissance music with the Burgundian School's adoption of the contenance angloise in the early 15th century. The Trecento, however, persists as a period essential to the cultural and social changes that Europe underwent during the early modern era. Not merely transitory, the Trecento, with its societal tribulations during the Black Death and Papal Schism, fostered a climate of pseudo-secularism that w...

Monday, December 19, 2016

Having now featured a chace from 14th century France and a caça from 14th century Spain, it is only appropriate that I feature the Italian parallel during the 14th century, the caccia. The chace, caça, and caccia (literally “the hunt” in French, Spanish, and Italian respectively) are essentially regional variations on the musical canon or “round”, called rota, or rondellus in the British Isles during the 14th century and after. The rota most parallels the chace, caça, and caccia in form, and feel, since the rota is a type of canon at the unison on a secular, pastoral theme. The most famous Eng...

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thirty miles west of the bustling Spanish metropolis, Barcelona, nestled in the craggy serrations of the multi-peaked mountain range Montserrat is Catalonia’s most important religious pilgrimage site since the Middle Ages, the Benedictine abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat (“St. Mary of the Serrated Mountain”). Starting in the 11th century and continuing through the late Middle Ages, Montserrat became a significant pilgrimage site for devotion to the Virgin Mary. Intriguingly, music has consistently maintained a central role in these pilgrimage activities beginning with the founding in the 12t...

Saturday, September 24, 2016

After having spent time on music from late medieval France, I think it fair I give attention to the other contemporary musical movements happening in Europe. Over a series of three blogs, I hope to give some analytical attention to music from Italian composers and sources from the Trecento (literally meaning “14th century,” but referring to the Italian parallel to the French Ars Nova movement) and the Ars Subtilior (“subtle art,” which was an esoteric music trend in both France and Italy during this time).

This week, I would like to focus on Johannes Ciconia, perhaps one of the most prominent c...