The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

A to Z Theme Reveal for 2019

Blogging A to ZOnce again, the Daily Parker will participate in the Blogging A-to-Z challenge, this year on the theme: "Basic Music Theory." 

For the A-to-Z challenge, I'll post 26 entries on this topic, usually by 7am Chicago time (noon UTC) on every day except Sunday. I'll also continue my normal posting routine, though given the time and effort required to write A-to-Z posts, I many not write as much about other things.

This should be fun for you and for me. Music theory explains how and why music works. Knowing about it can help you listen to music better. And, of course, it'll help you write music better.

The first post will be on April 1st.

(You can see a list of last year's posts here.)

Today's Google Doodle

Today is Johann Sebastian Bach's 334th birthday, and to celebrate, Google has created a Doodle that uses artificial intelligence to harmonize a melody that you can supply:

Google says the Doodle uses machine learning to "harmonize the custom melody into Bach's signature music style." Bach's chorales were known for having four voices carrying their own melodic line.

To develop the AI Doodle, Google teams created a machine-learning model that was trained on 306 of Bach's chorale harmonizations. Another team worked to allow machine learning to occur within the web browser instead of on its servers.

The results are...interesting. (I'm about to get my music theory nerd on, so if that's not your bag you can wait until I post something political this afternoon.)

Here's a little d-minor melody I whipped up:

The basic harmonic structure of this melody is i-V7/V-V-vi-V-i. Even though I haven't taken a music theory course in [redacted] years, I can probably harmonize this melody ten times without breaking a sweat. Basically, on the beats, you've got d minor, a minor on &2, E major, A major; then in the second bar, Bb major, g minor, E major, A major, d minor. (Note that some of those are passing harmonies that expand other harmonies.)

Google's AI did not do that. It actually got a little flummoxed. Here's one example:

Oh, dearie dearie me. I think one of the problems is that it thought I had done something really weird in F-major instead of something prosaic in d-minor. And it doesn't provide any way of tweaking the harmonization.

So, really very cool AI going on there, but not yet ready for prime time. Still worth playing around with. If I had more time I'd try some simpler melodies to see if it helps.

(If you liked this post, by the way, you will love what I do in April.)

Concerts this weekend

It's been a busy week with lots of Händel.

Last Saturday the Apollo Chorus performed Messiah with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, which involved a 3-hour bus ride each way and enough downtime for a long game of Cards Against Humanity.

Monday we had a regular rehearsal. Tuesday some of us sang in a local retirement community's Messiah sing-along. Wednesday, caroling at Cloud Gate in Millennium Park. Thursday, dress rehearsal with orchestra. Today at 7pm and tomorrow at 2pm, full performances at Harris Theater. Wednesday, another rehearsal. Friday, finally, another Messiah performance, with some of us joining the choir at St Michael's Church in Old Town.

If you're in Chicago, should hear one of our performances.

You say it's your birthday?

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' White Album:

There’s something about The White Album that invites listeners to mess around with it. Joan Didion stole its title for her 1979 essay collection, an elegy for the dreams of 1960s California. The producer Danger Mouse chopped it to pieces and recombined the fragments with vocals from Jay-Z’s The Black Album to create his 2004 mash-up The Grey Album. The jam band Phish covered all 30 songs on stage on Halloween night, 1994. Charles Manson, notoriously, had his own theories. Even the title has been rewritten: The Beatles called it The Beatles but their fans had other ideas.

The new reissue defamiliarises the album yet again, with 27 demos, 50 outtakes, and a thorough digital reconstruction by Giles Martin, the son of Beatles producer George Martin. The White Album is the only record by the most analysed group in the history of popular music that still retains considerable mystery, because there’s just so much of it. Whether or not you consider it the best Beatles album (I do), it’s certainly the most Beatles album.

Over the years we’ve learned almost everything there is to know about the circumstances of its creation. We know that due to various rows, sulks and walkouts, the first stage of the band’s disintegration, all four Beatles appear on fewer than half the songs. We know about Yoko Ono’s contentious presence, Ringo’s huffy absence from Back in the USSR, John’s contempt for Paul’s “granny music shit”, and so on. We know that they were less than a year away from the last time that they all stood in a studio together, although in the newly released demos we can also hear that there was still plenty of fun to be had, despite those fissures. Even at the time, I imagine, one could hear pop’s quintessential gang of mates splintering into four individuals, and their musical fusions unravelling into discrete genre exercises. Listening to it is like watching an explosion in slow motion.

I'm about to put it on. But I'll skip "Revolution 9."

Lyric Opera musicians continue strike

Citing a $10m budget shortfall, Lyric Opera of Chicago has cut their orchestra's year by two weeks and cut six performances. In response, the Chicago Federation of Musicians has gone on strike, forcing the cancellation of La Boheme and possibly other productions:

The orchestra and management have stalled on contract negotiations, and according to bassoon player Lewis Kirk, musicians have been working without a contract since June.

Kirk said management had issued “severe demands.” He pointed to management’s proposal to eliminate five positions in the orchestra as a major point of contention. He said overall quality will be threatened.

[Anthony Freud, general director at the Lyric Opera of Chicago] maintained the proposed cuts come as a result of supply and demand. There were 61 performances during the 2017 to 2018 season.Freud said only 55 were scheduled for the 2018 to 2019 season to ensure the company could  sell enough tickets. According to Freud, fewer performances account for management’s plan to reduce annual working weeks for members of the orchestra from 24 to 22.

Said one of my friends who is familiar with the negotiations:

If Lyric faces financial challenges, it is not because of the Orchestra. Lyric grew its budget in recent years, from $60.4 million in 2012 to $84.5 million in 2017. But the Orchestra saw none of that $24 million increase. To the contrary, the Orchestra’s share of the budget has decreased steadily, from 14.6% in 2012 to 11.9% in 2017. If Lyric wants to make cuts, it is looking in a misguided place. Since 2011, orchestra members’ weekly salary has increased an average of less than 1% per year; adjusted for inflation, wages have actually decreased by 5.1% since 2011. The musicians’ last bargaining proposal to management proposed tying wage increases directly to the rate of inflation. They are not even trying to make up for lost ground. It is infuriating and heartbreaking.

I haven't seen La Boheme yet, and I may not this year. Heartbreaking indeed.

Mann, that was fun

Aimee Mann performed last night at Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago's Millennium Park—for free! So naturally I went.

The weather couldn't have been better, so the picnic area was totally full. Which meant that the pavilion itself had plenty of seats. Which meant I got to see her directly rather than just projected on a big screen.

Just for posterity, here's her set list:

  1. 4th of July
  2. Little Bombs
  3. Patient Zero
  4. The Moth
  5. Labrador
  6. Humpty Dumpty
  7. You Can't Help Me
  8. You Never Loved Me
  9. Goose Snow Cone (which, she explained, really is about her cat)
  10. Save Me
  11. Going Through the Motions
  12. Borrowing Time
  13. Long Shot
  14. Encore: One
  15. Encore: Wise Up
  16. Encore: Voices Carry

I love Aimee Mann's songs. I am conscious, however, that when her songs become my life's soundtrack, things are seriously out of joint. Sample lyric, from "Long Shot," which opened her 1996 album I'm With Stupid: "You fucked it up / You should have quit / Til circumstances / Had changed a bit." Or from "Save Me:" "You look like / A perfect fit / For a girl in need of / A tourniquet."

Seriously good, but seriously unhappy.

But totally worth the ticket price, I must say. And now I need to download Mental Illness, her last album.

Chicago's first opera

On this day in 1850, Chicago had its first (sort-of) professional opera performance. It wasn't exactly up to the Lyric's standards:

In New York, P.T. Barnum was paying Jenny Lind—“The Swedish Nightingale”—$1,000 a night to perform. Chicago’s first opera didn’t have Jenny Lind. But the local promoters were crafty enough to choose one of her biggest hits for their first show, at Rice’s Theatre. The opera was Bellini’s La Sonnambula.

Four singers are not enough for an opera. So the Chicago cast was filled out with local amateurs. A few of them had good voices, most of them didn’t. Rehearsals were—I think “confused” is a good word to describe them.

Just like in one of those bad old Hollywood movies, the show had problems. The audience kept applauding at the wrong time—whenever one of the hometown amateurs showed up on stage, his friends in the audience would stand up and cheer. Meanwhile, one of the extras named J.H. McVicker sang so loudly he drowned out everybody else.

It helps to remember that 18 years after the city's founding, it more resembled a frontier town than the international metropolis it became in the 20th century. Still, it sounds like a fun show.

And then the theater burned down the next day...

Five myths about the Beatles

The Washington Post enumerates them:

MYTH NO. 1
The Beatles objected to trading leather outfits for suits and ties.

“In the beginning,” John Lennon told Melody Maker, the British music magazine, in 1970, Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, “. . . put us in neat suits and shirts, and Paul was right behind him. I didn’t dig that, and I used to try to get George to rebel with me.” Lennon later complained to Rolling Stone that by giving up leather for suits, “we sold out.” Soon, the story of the Beatles chafing against Epstein’s directives was part of the lore.

The other Beatles — and sometimes, Lennon himself — remembered things differently. “It was later put around that I betrayed our leather image,” Paul McCartney said in “The Beatles Anthology,” “but, as I recall, I didn’t actually have to drag anyone to the tailors.” George Harrison said that “with black T-shirts, black leather gear and sweaty, we did look like hooligans. . . . We gladly switched into suits to get some more money and some more gigs.” Lennon put it this way to Hit Parader in 1975: “Outside of Liverpool, when we went down South in our leather outfits, the dance hall promoters didn’t really like us. . . . We liked the leather and the jeans but we wanted a good suit, even to wear offstage.” To which he added, “I’ll wear a fucking  balloon if somebody’s going to pay me.”

Yeah, that sounds like John.

I believed a couple of the other myths, too.