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A Glamorous Female Figure: Hildegard de Bingen


A friend of mine has a great interest in studying the idea and music of Hildegard de Bingen,  a legendary, yet glaring, female artisit star, living in the period of time in which the Catholic Church and man possess the absolute power over the society, as well as the thinking of every individual. Bingen’s music, incredibly, never fails to display her frank, heartfelt affection to both the heavenly God and the earthly people. Her profound ideas and thoughts are always embedded in every nuance of the musical notes, as well as the texts. The following discussion is a reworking of the short introduction of Bingen written by my friend. I expand her ideas and remake the wordings of the original essay in order to lay out briefly the important contribution of Bingen in the western musical world.


Doubtless Hildegard de Bingen, as a mere woman living in the so-called “dark” age of the 12th century under the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church, has exhibited her amazing, yet glamorous, female disposition to the world. Bingen’s life is said to be replete with ineffable meanings of experiences and dramas. She was a prophet, a healer, a writer, a painter, a performer, and a composer, serving the Church in different roles. She experienced the highest acclaim, but at the same time, received the heaviest sentence from the same authority to which she devoted all through her life. As a composer, Bingen’s contemporary attitude in art and innovative way of composing reflect every nuance of her female sensitivity toward her surroundings, her life experiences, as well as her God, displaying a unique, creative thinking of humanity as well as theology. Indeed, she knew what to express and how to express, all of her thoughts, emotions and ideas by skillful use of music.

In fact, the medieval 12th century was the period of time in which the illiterate and the submissive  mass, unlettered woman in particular, were highly recommendable. While the majority of the medieval women were shameful to disclose their affluent emotions and ideas, viewing the take-for-granted silence as a ‘virtue’, Hildegard de Bingen, on the contrary, was boldly to express her spiritual visions and personal ideas, as well as her inner feelings and emotions through musical notes and texts, unleashing the true voice of a medieval woman. Bingen’s individualism, as I believe, is not experienced from her abundant emotions and ideas embedded in musical sounds, but rather, from her genuine and courageous act to expose all these traditionally restrained sentiments to not only the high God but also the ordinary people from all of her musical works.
Bingen’s courage to disclose her affection comes parallel with her great concern of many of the philosphical and theological issues, ranging from the heaven down to the earth, just as contemporary male intellectuals have done. Not surprisingly, in the medieval period, ‘great’ thinking and idea indubitably belonged to the privilege of man. Woman possessing the thoughts and ideas such as creation, cosmology, nature of God, nature of virtue, and so forth were almost incredible. However, the achievements that Bingen did contribute to the philosphical and theological fields were so influential that almost no male contemporaries could surpass in her day. As such, whether as a mere medieval woman or a creative composer and artist, Hidlegard de Bingen is no doubt a unique and remarkable figure that is worth to invite a further academic study.

David Leung (theorydavid)
2013-11-26 published


The Affective World of Troubadour’s Songs


The paper below is memorable. This is because it is the first academic writing in my previous university life.   Viewing the paper from today, although the English is no good, and the expressions is overwording, I still like it very much, not only of ideas but also the first success of developing my thinking pattern.

The Affective World of Troubadour’s Song: 

A symbol of the relief from religious restraint


From time to time, the artistic value of poem not lies in the elegance and sensuous words, but rather, the idea or symbol concealed behind these words. In a similar way, what the troubadours, a group of poet-musicians from the aristocratic class of France active from the 11th to 12th century, leaves to the world is a treasure of heartfelt, profound and consummate affectionate musical works. Although this affection is somewhat idealistic and unattainable, its influence is still far reaching till to many centuries, constituting part of what is  now called European humanistic culture. It was in the 11th century that the troubadours first began to appear. The combination of the ‘Heroic Chivalry’ and the ideal ‘Courtly Love’ that they contributed found expression in the daily words and deeds of the medieval people. The first troubadour of record was Duke William of Aquitaine. His poetry is said to contain all elements of ‘Courtly Love’, a kind of lovely affection commonly reflected in many troubadours’ poems. The nature of ‘Courtly Love’ is rather ambivalent, sometimes positive and joyful, but sometimes  melancholic and miserable. Although many of the extant troubadour poems exalt the pure and passionate affection of the ‘Courtly Love’ between a gentleman and a courtly lady in the surface, such passions, however, always give evidence of presenting somewhat the religious symbolism as a personal emotional reaction to the social/liturgical orders and codes beneath.[1] In the following discussion, I shall examine the affective world of troubadours through their songs and lyrics, especially seeking the underlying tones of the words, so as to reveal how the ‘Courtly love’, was shaped and shaped the medieval musical culture.


It is almost impossible for us to understand the symbolism of the troubadours’ poetry without referring to the culture and religious situation in the Middle Ages. Medieval people lived under a restrained world of codes and rules. Treaties, guidance, manners, no matter on chivalry, on hunting, on table, on liturgy, subliminally directed their daily life[2]. In addition, the Catholic Church acted as the ministry of God’s representative on earth. It was the sole means of maintaining the divine, godly, order of the terrestrial world regardless of her ‘greedy zeal’ in accumulating their prestige and wealth incessantly. The Church doctrine and liturgy not only gave coherence but also restraints to everyday life.


The promise of salvation, the soul’s redemption from sin and its eternal life in a world to come, for instance, was assured by the Church through the ways of burdensome sacraments[3]. No matter is the ‘Ladder of Salvation’ of the wall painting of Chaldon Church, or the ‘Ladder of Perfection’ by Whicker, gives the impression of how a medieval individual should put in effort for the whole life but still wore an entire face of fear and uncertainty in the last judgment before the awe-inspiring God[4]. The rooted religious affection of the poets, therefore, like the common medieval people, unavoidably was a contradictive amalgamation of anxiety and devotion, as well as desperation and piousness. It is because of these underlying negative emotions that rooted unconsciously in the mind of the troubadours, the ‘Courtly Love’ that flourished in their poems becomes a kind of substituted and transformed affection, becoming a relief from the liturgical rigidities. In this sense, the poems of troubadour comprise religious symbolism.


According to the Webster’s Third New International Dictationary, the word ‘relief’ means that an feeling of removal or lightening or setting free of something burdensome, painful or distressing. One of the ways to remove the stress of the afflicting emotion, in general speaking, is to let the negative affection substituted by another positive one. In the daily experience, for instance, consoling by good friends or enjoying a nice trip can always assist to calm down, or to relieve from the vigorous and agitated emotions after the quarrel between a couple of lovers. It is because the negative affection is overcame, or substituted, by some positive affection. The same thing happens in the poems of the troubadours. It is obvious that the troubadour song presented a kind of love so-called ‘Feudalization’ of love. The lady was called ‘midons’ or ‘senhor’. Only a bad lord refused to protect and aid his vassal with pity. In some poetry of the troubadours, the lady is depicted as so lofty and unapproachable, somewhat like the God in certain ways, that the lover in aspiring to her is like a lesser, humiliate knight seeking a seat by a mighty baron[5]. It can be imagined that a medieval man who was zealous, heartfelt and devout but could not touch even the corner of the “Ladder of Salvation’. Where his affection could be released? It is not surprised to assert that the loyalty or honesty between the lord and the vassal in the feudal society resembled the dedicated love towards God. The more the man dedicated loyally as a serf to his lord, the ‘midons’, the more the man felt relief from the restricted emotion because of the more acceptance from the lord. In Pus Vezem, Guilhem of Poitou, also named William of Anquitane, stated:


  Flowering fields again we see, the meadows rich with greenery, the

  springs all rippling lucidly, the wind, the breeze

  With every man that joy should be, which brings him ease…………


  Obedience he must not spurn,

  Bowing to many. In his turn he must do pleasant deeds to earn

  The love he has to sought.

  Yes, like a serf he now must learn silence in court………


Interestingly, ‘Feudalisation of Love’ consists of certain elements of what is said to be called ‘Courtly Love’. The poet is about a serf and how he feels if he could gain more freedom from the rigid and aloof world by showing absolute obedience to the lady in regardless of whatever the pain brought. The rising of love is linked with the spring. The lady is the most beautiful in the world and the poet is submissive to her power.[6] With releasing of his obedient love, poet seems to gain the freedom from his restrained affection world, in the other word, from the very hypocritical and superficial religious orders, and those sacraments. Through the use of feudal metaphor in troubadour’s poem, the negative, unrequited affection towards God was substituted by a kind of positive and rewarding feudalized fidelity, though deriving from poets’ imagery, was still a way of passionate relief. In fact, troubadours showed no pretence of worshipping aloofness. They really wanted the consummating embrace. But not all the idealistic love in the poems give a perfect result from their ‘Midons’, or the lady.


Undeniably, many of the ‘Courtly love’ ideas presented in the poems flourishes with grief, sorrow and disappointment. To love is to suffer, and even it associates with distressing physical symptoms such as an inability to eat or sleep[7]. The tenets of such love requires a knight to prove his love for his lady by performing courageous, and often impossible deeds; he must even be willing to die for her. If this kind of affection is another form of affection to substitute the rigid and unfulfilled Christian love, we can understand why when Pope Urban II proclaimed for the bloody crusade in 1095A.D., albeit irrational, the response was a tremendous success that totally exceeded his expectation. However, what remaining nowadays is only a horrible and bloody historical record of mankind.


In the troubadour’s song of ‘Distant Lady’, the religious symbolism in the poetry, again, is obvious. The troubadour secularizes this highly self-devoted, vassal-like or even serf-like affection believing that the lesser he asserted his own will, the more he accepted by the lady, that is, he was closer to the top of the ‘Salvation Ladder’[8]. Jaufre Rudel, undoubtedly, depicts us a clear picture of the writer’s devout affection, his inner intense religious love and how it is sublimated and realized into the metaphorical feudal affection towards his ‘Lady’. The ‘Distant Lady’ in the song can be every woman truly loved and loving. The separation is not meant that she is unreal or unattainable but, on the other hand, it is the aim in life to seek or to discover, no matter for the poet or for the others. Rudel wrote:


   When now the days are long in May,

   I love to hear the birds far distant,

   And when the song has died away,

   I dream about a love as distant………..

   Sad and rejoicing I shall part from her,

   When I have seen this love far away:…………


   He speaks the truth who I says I crave

  And go desiring this love far away

For no other joy pleases me more,

For my godfather gave me this fate

  Than the rich enjoyment of this love far away[9]…….


In a more concrete sense, Rudel’s poem shows us that seeking for the Courtly Love from the distant ‘Lady’ is the seeking for the love, or the pity from the angry God. The more he suffered in the course of seeking, the more godly devotion he had sacrificed, and thus, another way of relief of his onerous affection. This might be the aim in life of the poet, to some extent, the aim in life of every medieval man[10]in order to fulfill the unsatisfied religious heart.


As we have seen that how the metaphoric ‘Feudal Love’ or ‘Courtly Love’ plays an important role in troubadours’ poem and is related with their religious affection, it is interested to point out that the cult of the Virgin Mary in the High Middle Ages is also another factor affecting their underlying emotion of the poems. Ironically, Christianity succeeded ultimately in this period because it represented a return to the pagan way of worshipping the original goddess which devotion to the Roman gods or ancient earthly goddess had precluded though the Church had attempted to stamp out previously. The importance of the adoration of the ‘Mother of Heaven’ was not only meant that the rank of the woman, at least in the middle class, was exalted, but also the rigidities of fear underlying the medieval world-views dominated by the concept and image of God’ s harsh judgment, was gradually broken down. The adoration of the Virgin, therefore, satisfied some of the attitudes that went to the troubadour system with its worship of the ‘Lady’. In a more progressive sense, the ‘Feudal Lady’ in the poem of troubadour is now transformed into Virgin Mary who was defined as a human character that could really temper justice with mercy, even with a warm or a merciful smile. On the other hand, Virgin Mary, the intercessor for the salvation of wicked human soul, tended to be humanized. She was seen as a real, fleshy and attainable human of tenderness and compassion. No matter is the ‘Goddess’ transformed to “Lady’ or vice versa, the restrained religious affection is relieved through this religious symbolization process. In poem of Bernart De Ventadorn, the ‘Lady’ is transformed to become the Virgin Mary, Goddess of love, mercy and pity. The ‘God-liked Lady’ is all beautiful and amiable. She lifts all worshippers including the poet himself up to passionate perfection and completeness and never lets down his hopes. The poem states:


    This love wounds me so gentle

    In the heart with sweet savor

    A hundred times a day I die of grief

    And revive with joy another hundred………

    good will be the reward after suffering


All the gold silver in the world

I would have given, if I had it

Provided my lady might know

How truly I love her………


When I see her, it certainly shows

In my eyes, my face, my color

For I tremble with fear, like the leaf in the wind

I haven’t the judgement of a child

 So overwhelmed am I love

  And toward a man who is thus vanquished

A lady could show great pity[11]……….


Ventadorn obviously expressed the devotion of a knightly servant to the ‘Lady’, but in one aspect as we have seen, the energies that had alienated into God struggling for salvation had been drawn to the ‘Lady’, a ‘God-liked Lady’ that was more attainable, more perfect and even more human-liked. In a more ridiculous way, the image that appeared before the poet’s eyes when he prayed was his human ‘Lady’, not the angry God swaying to and fro in acceptance of salvation.


On the other hand, in the song of Guiraut Riquier, Humils, forfaitz, repress e penedens, we explicitly find that the previous concentrations of love on the feudal ‘Midons’ turned to the Goddess Mary requesting for mercy and redemption. The Goddess, ‘Virgin Mary’, was transformed to become a humanized person, a real person in life that was more sensuous and attainable. He definitely wrote:


Humble, guilty, accused and repentant,

Saddened, unhappy to return,

I am, for I have lost my time on account of sin,

I beg mercy, lady, gracious Virgin,

Mother of Christ, son of the all-power, that you take no account of my sin towards you,

If it pleases you, consider the need of my miserable soul………….


Again, in another song of Riquier, he begged for love and pardon even more honestly. His poem Be.m degra de chantar tener states:


I should certainly refrain from singing,

For to song, happiness is fitting,

And worry constrains me so much

That it causes pain from all sides,……………..


My sense, my joy, my displeasure

My pain and my profit truly

For I scarcely say anything else good………


With a great umber of setbacks

From which it seems that He is against us

On account of disordered desire

And overweening power………


Lady, mother of charity,

Secure for us, out of pity,

From your son, redeemer,

Grace, pardon and love[12].

Goddess Mary is humanized in the poem. This upsurge of deep pagan elements that revived popularly in the medieval period was returned to the hands of Troubadours’. The expression of the poet’s deep and pious devotion of Mother of Heaven was now turned towards his ‘Humanized Lady’. He was requesting for mercy, for redemption, even for the salvation[13]. The goal of joy after redemption, seen as the motive force of love, is interpreted in terms of poet’s experience as he offered his devotion in the face of setback and disappointment. The previous unattainable desires for the religious affection of satisfaction are fulfilled through his own created ‘Virgin Mary’, a humanized Goddess.

In conclusion, it is because of this kind of substituted or transformed lovely affection, the ‘Feudal Love’ or ‘Courtly Love’, relieves the troubadour poets from the restrained religious affliction. Perhaps, this may be the reason why the music of the troubadour was so popular in the Middle Ages. The echo was clear. Whether the influences are directly or indirectly, the ideas of pure love lauded by nobility and idolized by the troubadours spread rapidly and extensively like diseases. Under the influence, Tristram and Ysolt, Wace’s Brut and the romance of Troy were written. Andress Capellanus, furthermore, viewed ‘Courtly Love’ which embraced in the affection world of the troubadours’ poetries, as an art of rules and he regulated these rules into his remarkable work of The Art of Courtly Love. Whether this work is satirical, sincere, or debatable is not the most important. Its recognition is nevertheless the golden testament of love to all medieval people. It is also regarded as the incipient of the ‘Romance Love’, which is the most essential love culture of the European world[14].

The impact of the troubadours’ poems, however, was far beyond this limit. We find that more and more the secular used the religious symbolism that prevailed in troubadours’songs. Chretiende Troyes took over a great deal of the religious vocabulary and turned it to the use of sensual love. Love was adoration. In Gottfried’s Tristan of the early thirteen century there was a Cave of Lovers described as a richly adorned church with its shrine. In the center was ‘the nest of crystalline Love’ with design and proportions explained after the modes of the Gothic World[15]. As the time passed, more and more different kinds of sculptures, literatures, poems reflected in religious symbolism, and even frequently, gave evidence of hostility, or fierce attack on the social inequity and corrupted Church and thus, enforced the reformation of the Church. The poets, the artists tended to express their personal ideas and affection, at the same time, release their religious or social restrained emotions through their artistic activities. Therefore, through the contribution of the troubadours’ music and their ways of discharging the affection by using religious symbolism, it is undeniable to assert that the most precious and valuable lyric poetry in Western humanistic culture begins with the ‘Troubadour’.



Andrea Hopkins, The Passionate Code of the Troubadours, New York: Harper San Francisco 1994.

Fiero Gloria K., The Humanistic Tradition: Medieval Europe and the World Beyond, 2nd ed., Singapore: Brown & Benchmark Publishers, 1995

Goldin Frederick, Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouveres, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1983.

Lindsay Jack, The Troubadours and Their World, London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1976.

RosenbergSamuel N., et al., Songs of the Troubadours and Trouveres, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998.

Stoner Kay, L., The Enduring Popularity of Courtly Love http://www.millersv.edu/~english/homepage/dincan/medfem/court.html.




David Leung (theorydavid)
2013-10-12 Published

[1] Gloria K. Fiero, The Humanistic Tradition: Medieval Europe and the World Beyond, 2nd ed., Singapore: Brown & Benchmark Publishers, 1995, pp75-76.

[2] Hopkins Andrea, The Passionate Code of the Troubadours, New York: Harper San Francisco 1994, p15.

[3] Gloria K. Fiero, The Humanistic Tradition: Medieval Europe and the World Beyond, 2nd ed., Singapore: Brown & Benchmark Publishers, 1995, p80.


[4] Jack Lindsay, The Troubadours and Their World, London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1976, pp214-217.

[5] Jack Lindsay, The Troubadours and Their World, London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1976, pp213.

[6] Jack Lindsay, The Troubadours and Their World, London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1976, pp15-17.

[7] Hopkins Andrea, The Passionate Code of the Troubadours, New York: Harper San Francisco 1994, pp6-7.

[8] Jack Lindsay, The Troubadours and Their World, London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1976, p221.

[9] Frederick Goldin, Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouveres, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1983, pp104-107.

[10] Jack Lindsay, The Troubadours and Their World, London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1976, p69.

[11] Samuel N. Rosenberg, et al., Songs of the Troubadours and Trouveres, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998, p65.


[12] Samuel N. Rosenberg, et al., Songs of the Troubadours and Trouveres, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998, pp172-173.

[13] Jack Lindsay, The Troubadours and Their World, London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1976, p215.

[14] Kay L., Stoner, The Enduring Popularity of Courtly Love http://www.millersv.edu/~english/homepage/dincan/medfem/court.html.

[15] Jack Lindsay, The Troubadours and Their World, London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1976, pp222-224.

Charles Ives and His Philosophical Ideas of Stylistic Diversity


Charles Ives can be regarded as a legendary figure in the history of western music. Apart from his many compositional outputs, his philosophical ideas toward art, life, and humanity are still enchanting, worthy of reading. Below is the article about his works and his compositional ideas.


Charles Ives (1874-1954), though was bought up in European musical tradition, is the first important western composer attempts to stand essentially outside the mainstream of European musical culture. Without influenced by the progressing scientific technologies, he is the first to use the unity of the human experience as a subject matter for composing. The result is that his music is in great diversities of style, which  not only appears in different works written in different periods, but also appears in one single composition. Ives composes proto-serial and proto-aleatory music. He invents block forms and free forms and he uses tone clusters and structural densities. He also writes in collage texture and freely quoted others’ tunes whatever he likes to his work, regardless of the stylistic inconsistent issue. He, at the same time, employs polymeters, polytonals and polytempi in his work and he also composes spatial music or music that could be realized in a multiplicity of ways. Furthermore, Ives also anticipates recent improvisatory works-in-progress, assemblages, and pop music, just about every important development of the last sixty years and some of the most notable of post-World War II avant-gardism. As such, majority of Ives’s composition of various styles are written in the first two decades of the century, which anticipates the main stream of the Modern avant-grade music after the World War II.  His stylistic diversity in music, therefore, is proved to be significant and influential in the western music history. 


If not because of the book Essays Before a Sonata written by Ives in 1920 that provides the valuable information about his aesthetic thoughts and philosophical ideas, it is difficult for us to understand the factors that affecting Ives’s development of his musical style. In the following discussion, I am going to explore the aesthetic and philosophical ideas of Charles lves behind his compositions, as well as the external environmental factors that give incarnation of the musical diversities in his style.


The development of the personal musical style of Charles Ives can be traced back to his childhood. He is trained as both an organist and pianist. This standard keyboard knowledge is often reflected in his mature compositions. At the same time the vernacular music of the small Connecticut town in which Ives has grown up, including the hymns, the popular and patriotic songs, the marches and dance tunes. These various forms of music are equally important in the formation of Ives’s personal musical style. Furthermore, these precious musical experiences during childhood, albeit remaining only fragments after years, provide prodigious resources for quotations in his music. The melody of At the River, taken from a well-known hymn tune by other composer, is a typical example. Although here Ives borrows the entire melody, more commonly he quotes only fragments from the catholic hymn tunes, popular songs of the day, marches and ragtime music from the daily life of his day. Therefore, Ives’s musical training and environment in his childhood are the notable external factors that greatly influence his music, especially in developing his stylistic musical diversity.


Another factor that affects Ives’s musical style is his amateur identity as a composer. After Ives graduated from Yale University, he came to a decision not to take music as a profession. Instead, he began his life insurance business. This decision led him to a total isolation from the public and from other musicians from about 1895 to 1917, in which he worked intensively on composition. As a result, Ives’s music is virtually unperformed at this time, and thus has no immediate influence on other composers or vice versa. The isolation was itself proved essential for Ives to develop his own unconventional predilection. In addition, as a life insurance agent, Ives is guaranteed the financial independent that he is able to compose exactly as he wishes without worrying about pleasing the public or other musicians or other public critics, or even the performance of his works. Hence, Ives wrote strictly for himself, frequently not even bothering to put them into completely finished form. This is important for Ives’s conception of music as an ‘open’ art form. Ives could now freely encompass all types of music, including his fading memories of childhood’s sound, mingled them into a higher synthesis that eventually became his unique style of musical diversities.


As we have discussed before, the diversity of the music style of Charles Ives is not only shown in different works written in different period, but also reflected in one single composition. In order to understand why Ives seems to turn back from the main stream of European avant-gardism, which was centered on the exploration of the twelve-tone music or the neo-tonal music, the philosophical ideas of Ives toward music, art and even life should be considered. 


The important foundation of Ives’s philosophical idea is stated in the Essays Before a Sonata and most of his other writings from 1910s and 1920s. These documents ingenuously reflect Ives’s personal and social idealisms, especially his idealism in music or idealism about music. Ives believes that the main path of all social progress has been spiritual rather than intellectual in character and he has mentioned that there is a ‘universal mind’ existed in the world. It is very important to the progression of the mankind. This common ‘universal mind’, albeit developing gradually, brings forth a unity within the diversities and eventually becomes a cure of the bifurcations of human existence. Such conception, undoubtedly, is at the root of all Ives’s idealisms, in the world of his insurance business, as well as in his art. The result of this conception nurtures Ives gradually to accept his intuition as the surest and the most reliable teacher than any other tradition, authority, guiding his spiritual seeking of daily life. 


In order to illustrate the idealism of Ives in the conception of the intuition and the universal mind, let us take the Scherzo, Over the Pavements (1906-13), as an example.  This work is a typical example of a single composition consisting diversities of style. The music is a combination and coordination of multiple layers of conflicting rhythmic activities. Ives asserts that this piece is a kind of take-off street dancing, and it evokes the audience about the sounds of people going to and fro, all different steps, and sometimes all the same – the horses, fast trot, canter, sometimes slowing up into a walk. He asserts that he is struck with many different and changing kinds of beats, time, rhythms, not chaotic, but natural or at least not unnatural. As such, the music of the Scherzo Over the Pavement contains complex cross-rhythms and metric subdivision. The drum announces each downbeat of the notated 5/8 meter. The clarinet and trumpet are moving in imitation, dividing the measure equally into two groups of 5/16, and thus contradicting the notated 8th note pulse. Simultaneously, the bassoon, piano and the trombones altogether play a drum-like cluster in a syncopated rhythmic figure that dividing the three measures as a whole into ten equal subunits. Therefore, this work is exemplar to reflect Ives’ universal mind that just he has mentioned: there is a unity within the diversities though it comes slow.


Another humorous example is found in the cadenza section of Over the Pavement. On the score there is a statement: ‘to play or not to play? If played, to be played as not a nice one – but EVENLY, precise and unmusical as possible!’ What amusing Ives’s indication! Undeniably, this indication is originated from his conception of intuition. The intuition dominates all authorities, even the practicality of music. Therefore, in the realm of music, Ives claims for the composer the right to search for new modes of expression according to his/her intuition, rather than perpetually following the rules and thus, inevitably, the diversities of Ives’s musical style is then achieved.


The aesthetic idea of Charles Ives toward art, toward the music, is also an essential factor that gives incarnation to his diversities of musical style. Ives views art and life is an inseparable entity. Art and life has to do with the value of a poetic idea realized as a human action or activity. Despites all his presumed impracticality, Ives think of his music as a kind of non-passive, performance activity, primarily something to do, to be actively involved with and only secondarily to be listened to. He wants his music returning to reflect some underlying realities about human activities, about human experiences, no matter these experiences are complex, contradictive and incoherent. This is a speaking kind of music, a music that could be ‘jotted down to convey fresh impressions and thoughts, that could flow with the naturalness of plain speech; a music that could somehow get across the impenetrable barrier between art and life, not to ‘express’ nature but to flow along as part of it.’ His aesthetic idea about music, thus, is the representation of human experiences and activities or perhaps in a more accurate sense, his own experiences and activities.


The product arouse from this aesthetic idea is a little contradictive. On the one hand, Ives write music that is difficult, which every part is a separate and individual activity; on the other, he write things that are easy, banal and popular. This is a diversity of musical style of Ives in general. However, Ives’s aim is to break down the distinction between man and nature, between art and life, and to integrate them into some all-embracing experience. As such, Ives’s aim assists to give birth to the formation of the diversities of musical style in even one single work. For example, Ives’s last unfinished piece, the Universe symphony, is an example. According to Ives’s idea, the work is to be a ‘Universe’ Symphony (its name is Universe) that should be played and sung in the field and mountains by thousands – indeed, by all of humanity.


In another work, Ives seeks to capture American life – the human life in his view – especially American experiences – the human experiences in his view – with music, in a more directly programmatic way. The Housatonic at Stockbridge is this extraordinary work that evokes a walk by the river Ives and his wife shares soon after their marriage. The main melody is given to second violas, horn and English horn, and it is harmonized with simple tonal triads by lower strings and brass suggesting a hymn wafting from the church across the river. At the same time, there are some repeating figures set in distant tonal and rhythmic regions (upper strings) and are subtly changing over time. The sound seems to convey a sense of the mists and rippling water. How romantic the experience of Ives is! How fantastic the experience of human life is!


Similar to the sonic setting of this work, most of Ives’s works about human life experiences, or his experiences, are composed in the form of various textural layers, distinguished by timbre, register, rhythm, pitch content and dynamic level. These sonic layers functions to create a sense of three-dimensional space and multiple planes of activity. For example, the Central park in the Dark, it is a work that depicts the noises and music of the city against the background sounds of nature, which are rendered as a soft series of atonal chords in parallel motion. In addition, the songs, such as The Last Reader and The Things Our Fathers Loved, suggest a similar source of memory through a patchwork of fragment from songs of the past. The music, eventually, becomes a complex collage of sounds. Collage, therefore, becomes a favorite technique of Ives, which helps Ives to develop his unique style.


In conclusion, the musical style of Ives is unique, innovative and diversified.  Although Ives’s music enjoyed only a few public performances in Ives’s life time, this special situation turned to become an advantage for Ives to develop his avant-garde music style. Ives is proved to be one of the earliest artists to use the human experience as a subject matter for art and thus assisting the development of his musical diversities.  His ‘amateurism’ ensures him in a unique position of his composing career that he could create whatever he likes without necessarily care about the authority. In addition, Ives’s musical background in the childhood provided him unlimited musical experiences, the resources that he could quote in his music. In fact, the most important factor contributing to his musical diversities is his idealism about the music, about the social world. Ives accepts the conception that a unity within diversities would eventually come, no matter in the social or the artistic sphere. And Ives’s strong belief of intuition, as well as his aesthetic of music as a kind of human experience or activity, leads him to enjoy writing diversities of musical style even for a single piece. Therefore, Ives’s music styles can range from the simple hymn tunes, ragtime to the most complex, atonal polyphonies, bringing him to become one of the most important 20th century composers in the western music history. Furthermore, Ives’s idea of the totality of human experience within a personal utterance is proved to be an evocation of some Golden Age in which art and life are – or will be – naturally and inextricably woven together.

David Leung (theorydavid)
2013-05-10 published

In Search for Home Culture: Muzak in Chiense New Year Celebration – Part 2

前言: 本文接續前文,探討大型商場的背景音樂,對遊人,心理上,又或美學經驗上的影響。

In Search for Home Culture: Muzak in Chiense New Year Celebration – Part 2



The Sogo Department Store

        Although January 28, 2006 was a cloudy day with little rain, to most people, it was a public holiday of relaxing and enjoying.   Locals all knew that tomorrow would be the first day of the Lunar New Year.  In every Chinese’s cognitive mind and sensuous heart, New Year means a new opening.    In order to get a well preparation for its coming, people from different genders, aged groups, education backgrounds and careers, regardless of their social status or religious classes, were busy participating into their different daily life activities, such as, buying, shopping and entertaining.   As I was standing in the boisterous

Yee Woo Street

at CausewayBay around 2:00 pm in the afternoon, a sound of rock music attracted my attention.   Just in front of the entrance of the Sogo Department Store, there was a wide screen playing a video of western rock and pop music as usual.   Although there were many people gathering and waiting outside of or passing by the department store, only a few people watched the screen, or were aware of what the video was playing.    

        As I entered Sogo, I found every corner was crowded with people.  Some of them were working, while others were selecting their favorite gifts.  Noises of cashiers’ ding-ding sound, department store’s advertising announcement, people’s chatting, children’s screaming, youths’ whispering, and the background music, the muzak, were entangled among each other in a complex, multifarious sonic web.   I then walked down to the lower floor to the superstore of Sogo, where a place offered various kinds of good for customers.   I felt little stuffy and pressured, as it was so small the space but with so many people and goods.   Wearing with a happy and contented smile, customers were queuing up for payment in front of the cashiers.   As Hong Kong people are notorious for their impatience and annoyance due to the efficiency-aimed life style, this was quite strange to see such a scene in the store.    The festive mood might be one of the magic cures for this notorious style of sickness of impatience.   However, I believe that the muzak played also assists to enhance such relaxing and enjoying environment, influencing the behaviors, practices and feelings of the local customers.  
        The rock and pop music heard from the video screen outside Sogo showed an intensive, or even ironic contrast with the muzak played inside.  I observed that the muzak played during the period of Spring Festival were merely Chinese traditional instrumental music.    There was no exception here.  When I was looking at the queue of the customers in front of the cashiers, the piece played was a Cantonese traditional instrumental music, Spring Festival Overture, reminding me of the coming of the New Year.    My memories were stirred up, thinking of my friends and relatives, whom I would like to visit in the coming days.  “Did I prepare enough presents for them?” I began to ask myself the question in my mind.   To Chinese people, visiting their relatives and friends and giving new presents to each other in the first day of the New Year is an important socio-cultural practice.  It not only means to show love care and kindness to others, but also to show a sincere respect to the Chinese traditional culture.  It is only Chinese, whether they locate in which part of the world, that perform such practice to celebrate the New Year in this particular time. 
        Just like the typical style of Hong Kong life that is absent of enough patience, in normal case, I would prefer not to queue up for payment, but to buy these three sets of chocolate, which were newly selected from the stand from the other stores.   To me, waiting is a waste of time, and time often means “money.”   However, at this particular moment, I did not mind to wait for the payment.   My sense has already well prepared for such environment and was told by experience that every store was also crowded with customers, which was similar to the situation of today’s Sogo, because this was the time of Chinese New Year.     I thought Roy Mak, a middle-aged property broker near forty, possessed a similar kind of thinking and feeling as me. 
        In my memories, Roy was a short figure with little fat, eyeglasses wearing, talkative and friendly, behaving just as a sort of salesman that you could easily meet in the Central everyday.  It was this “ordinary” appearance that attracted my attention.  When I talked with him in front of the restroom near the cashier, he was waiting for her girl friend.   In his hands there were a few sets of biscuit and chocolate.   
       Q: Have you finished buying the presents for the New Year?
   Roy: I thought that I have already prepared all the presents for the New Year.   But when my friend and I passed by the store (Sogo), I was reminded that I might have forgot a few customers. 
        Q:  How do you remember?  What makes you thinking of this matter?
    Roy:  I think those people crowded in the store reminds me a lot.  
        Q: How about the music in background, what do you think?
    Roy:  Oh, Yes, the Chinese music.   I have heard this before but I don’t know much about music.  But this kind of music is played everywhere now.  It is Chinese New Year.    I like this music because it creates the Chinese New Year atmosphere. 
        Q:  How do you feel in this period of time?
    Roy:  I am happy and feel much relaxed. I enjoy the Chinese New Year holidays.  Buying new things and shopping in this period of time make me feel more like a “Chinese.”   We celebrate different kinds of festival in Hong Kong, such as Christmas.  I like them too.  But only these activities (buying and shopping) make me closer to our tradition.   I really don’t mind to spend more in this period of time.  I have been doing so.
        After I have chatted to Roy, a loud crying voice was heard.  There was a little boy claiming his mother for a new toy.   Perhaps, mother will scold this kind of naughty normally.  However, I heard the mother comforting to her boy that she would buy this “present” to him a while later.   But the mother emphasized that she only did it this time because of the New Year.  The tiny matter reminded me of some Chinese traditional practices.   Apart from having all things new, Chinese do not like crying or any other unhappy things happened in the New Year.  But on this occasion, be it the unexplainable power of the Chinese music in background, the New Year milieu was a crucial factor to influence people’s behavior to a certain extent.   This might be why the mother did not want to scold her child, even when he showed greatly naughty.  
        The music played in the background now was called Rosy Clouds Chasing the Moon when I went upstairs to the other departments.   It is a well-known Cantonese instrumental piece, which is often played in the Mid-Autumn Festival. The title and contents of this piece seems to have no direct connection, or otherwise, to the Spring Festival.   It is selected only because it contains Chinese traditional melodies, playing with ethnic instruments.  In my opinion, the muzak used for the so-called Chinese New Year Celebration is a shorthand-like selection.   I knew that Vivian Cheung has absolutely agreed with me.
        When I met Vivian, a fashioned young girl below thirty, she was drinking a bottle of cola near the escalator.  She looked nice and pleasant, half-leaning against the wall and looking at the surroundings.  It is quite interesting that when many people were carrying bags of present, she got none in her hand, except that cola.
        Q:  How are you?
Vivian: I am fine, thank you.  I am taking a rest.  I have been shopping for more than an hour here.
        Q:  Do you always enjoy shopping?
Vivian:  Absolutely!  I love shopping.  It is one of my habits every week. 
        Q:  Is there any difference between today and previous shopping?
Vivian:  Of course!  Tomorrow will be the New Year.  I enjoy the festive mood here.  You see people are celebrating the festival.  They are busy for preparing the New Year, buying goods and presents for themselves and for their friends and relatives. 
        Q:  How can you feel the so-called “festive mood” you have just mentioned?
Vivian:  Can you hear the music?  When you are in the shopping malls or even in the street, you can hear this kind of Chinese music playing.  I played Gu Zheng in my secondary school, but I stopped after I came to work after graduation.  Chinese New Year, of course, needs Chinese music for celebration. 
        Q:  But this is Rosy Clouds Chasing the Moon!
Vivian:   Who cares!  It is Chinese music (she emphasized the second time).
        Q:  As a Hong Kong local, do you enjoy or celebrate other kinds of festival? 
Vivian:  I enjoy all festivals.  For example, I like Christmas.  But I also like traditional festival, such as the New Year.  I celebrate all festivals no matter they are Western or Chinese.  
Q: Owing to many different forms of festival existed in our daily life, do you think the traditional one will soon disappear?
Vivian:  I don’t think so.  You see we are keeping our New Year practice under this festive mood.  I do not always prefer traditions, but Chinese New Year is an exception.  The atmosphere makes me feel a “Chinese” more. 
        After talking with Vivian, the muzak was changed to another piece, A Night Gathering, which is not a Cantonese music, but a symphonic repertoire that is always heard in CCTV 4 at all kinds of celebratory programs.[1]   The shorthand form of muzak now seems to be accepted by many local Chinese as a musical representation of “Chineseness.”   Whenever there are traditional cultural occasions, regardless of its natures, the traditional instrumental music is the necessary repertoire.   As I was much fascinated by the functions of this shorthand version of music, I also bought one piece of CD, which, according to the salesgirl, contained the music that was playing at the current time in the store.  The CD is labeled as “Chinese Celebration Music,” not only indicating its multi-purpose nature, but also acting as a representation which contains traditional values of our ancestral cultures.
I have spent more than one hour’s time in Sogo.   Through immersing myself in the festival atmosphere and participating the activities of shopping and buying, just as Roy has commented, I seem to be more attached to our Chinese traditional culture, and to behave more like a “Chinese.”   Indeed, there is not always a chance for an ordinary Hong Kong people to act like a Chinese.  Not only do we have too many multicultural choices in our everyday life, but also we are brought up from the so-called colonial political environment that no traditional cultures have been emphasized.   However, our ancestral culture will never disappear.  It can be preserved, albeit displaying in guises, through the continuation of a particular social activity.
At present, increasing numbers of local Hong Kong are realizing the importance of Spring Festival to their culture, and enjoy doing things in the traditional ways.   Viewed from this traditional aspect, great importance is attached to the New Year festive activity with its many cultural connotations.   It is essential for both the spiritual and material demands of the people, as it is traditionally a time when the best foods and best new clothes are worn.   While many locals do their New Year house cleaning or “preparing new things,” others go out together with family, shopping and buying presents for the New Year visits, as well as for their family.   This celebratory activity offers a chance for them to maintain relationships with family members and friends, to show their love for their family, to establish more harmonious interpersonal relationships, to relax and to leave behind the stresses of modern life for the moment.   And, the shorthand form of the background Chinese music played in department stores can function as a process that affects one’s sensuous feeling from tense to relax, from serious to happy, opening up a wider aesthetical dimension for one to conform to the Chinese New Year tradition.  

In short, the shorthand-like muzak for Chinese New Year celebration not only affects the customers’ consuming behavior and sensation, but also creates a metaphor of the Chinese identity for the locals under this particular moment of a relaxed and happy festive atmosphere.  Although all the time there are more and more new fashionable things to do, and may be they do replace traditional customs, I believe that our home identity and traditional culture can be found through this shopping and buying activity year-by-year in the Chinese New Year period, which is enhanced by this particular muzak played in the shopping malls and department stores.  


David Leung (theorydavid)
2011-05-12 (published)

[1] CCTV4 is the Government TV channel of the Mainland China.

‘Folk’ Voice as Contemporary Music

Foreword: To many contemporary composers, one of their problems is to search  new, fresh sound for their new creations. Where can they get new sound? What is contemporary sound? Sometimes, the answer is quite contradictory. The remote, past, even dimishing traditional sound in our native folk, surprisingly, becomes one of these “contemporary” voice, which greatly cries out from our present compositions.



From time to time, composers have tried different ways to write their music with new and modern sound.  Some composers write the music by employing total serialism, while others try to use ‘chance’ elements in their works.  No matter which compositional techniques they used, their efforts are only for one purpose; that is, to make their music sounded ‘contemporary’ and ‘new’, which is distinctive from the tonal idiom of the common practice period.  Minimal music, textural music, serial music, chance music, pointillistic music, free tonal music and many different kinds of music flourished our music garden.


In the course of seeking ‘contemporary’ sound for the music, interestingly, there are two main controversial issues arouse.  Some composers prefer writing their ‘new’ sounded music by using the traditional Western musical language, which is regarded as a kind of international musical language though it is rooted from European musical tradition.  They believe that this kind of musical language has been generally and widely accepted by the listeners for a long time and could be enough to express their music in a ‘contemporary’ way.  They do not depend on the national elements to produce a newly and originally sounded composition.  Another composers, by contrary, would intend to develop a unique kind of musical language and a new tonal system of their own by adopting musical elements from the musical tradition of their nations.  Therefore, the music would reflect a non-Western style and the musical sound, of course, is ‘contemporary’ or ‘new’ to the common music audiences. 


To Hong Kong local composers, the same issue is raised.  Some Hong Kong composers, returning from the overseas after studied abroad, started to write the contemporary music in Western-based musical language.  They believed that their music could still sound new and contemporary through this way.  They did not feel a necessity to focus on the Chinese musical elements to create the ‘contemporary’ sounded music.  However others did not agree to this belief.  They claimed that a real ‘new’ and ‘contemporary’ Chinese music is a kind of music that is rooted only from Chinese traditional music.  Only through composing in a national style, or at least putting some national characters in their music that the music can sound “contemporary,” which is distinctive from the West.  Focusing on the national elements, therefore, becomes a tool to produce a ‘new’ or ‘fresh’ musical sound, which is non-Western style to the audenices.


Therefore, if we really concern the development of the Hong Kong contemporary music, we will want to find out the answer.   After watching the JVC Video of The World Music ad Dance – East Asia, this tape perhaps, provides us some illuminations.


The content of this video can separate into two main parts discussing about the folk music of Xinjiang Ugur and Mongolia.  Both places are belonged to autonomous regions of People’s Republic of China.  Their music belongs to the minority nations’ music.  To me, as an audience without too much knowledge on their folk music, it is interesting to find that the music is rather ‘contemporary’ sounded.  I think there may be four factors that affecting the music sounded ‘modern’, that is, the traditional instrumental color, rhythm, melodic linear motion and vocal gestures. 


Firstly, the most notable feature that made the music of Xinjiang and Mongolian sounded ‘contemporary’ to me is the traditional instrumental timbre.  Penderecki, an important avant-garde music composer in our day, has once stated that the problem of nowadays’ contemporary music is that its sound is not ‘contemporary’ because the instruments we commonly used are too old.  We have great developments in musical style, musical techniques and musical system, but there is no change in instruments that we used in our music.  We are still writing pieces for violin, flute, or trumpet but these western musical instruments already have a few hundred years’ history.  In fact, today’s listeners are familiar with the timbre of these western instruments.  In the video, we can hear some special sound produced by xushtar (bowed instrument), dutar (plucked lute), daf (tambourine-like percussion) and many different kinds of conventional instruments but sound unconventional to the general audience.  The timbre of the plucked instruments, dutar and yangqin in the music Mashrap – circle dance and Panjgah – mukam – classical music give me a fresh impression.  These two instruments can be used for playing accompaniment to the singers or dancers and also for playing main theme in an ensemble.  The Mongolian Morin xuur (string instruments) is another wonderful instrument for producing emotional (new) musical sound.  In the song Urtiin duu, the morin xuur player plays a highly ornamented line that matches the complexity of the sung part and the effective playing skills such as trills and other fine melodic ornaments produce a sound of lonely mood and strengthen the vocal part of the singer. 


Secondly, the rhythm is another essential factor that contributes the ‘contemporary’ feeling to the music.  In the Western classical music, metric division or pulse is a significant feature (except the music in middle ages).  Music usually progresses in pulse.  There is no obvious sense of free rhythm.  In the Mongolian song Urtiin duu, it is sung in free rhythm.  If we listen closely, you will hear that the leisurely melody is structurally divided into three repeating section and it is improvised by the singer freely to express the mood of the music.  In addition, the Xinjiang Threshing song and lullaby are also in free rhythm.  Perhaps, the lullaby is truly a universal form for all ethnic groups in the world and thus, improvisation is one of the most natural ways to express the mood of the song. 


We often agree that Western music tradition emphases the vertical relationship, that is, the harmonic relationship.  Therefore, it will be a new experience for the listeners to hear the music that focus on melodic linear motion, but not harmonic progression.  The ensemble music of Xinjiang and Mongolian always possess melodic patterns in different parts forming a somewhat heterophonic texture.  Sometimes, a vocal line is accompanied by another instrumental line with ornamental decorations.  In the Mongolian song Urtiin Duu (The beautiful sun of the universe), the morin xuur gives pitch to the singer.  The two performers then create their melody together, with each sometimes anticipating, sometimes lagging slightly behind the other.  Also, the melodic lines are constructed from some non-western scales, for example, the modal scale.  In the Xinjiang song, Doppasorman, the initial melodic line contains many augmented seconds. These melodic patterns sound ‘contemporary’ or ‘strange’ to the audience.


Finally, the Xoomij, a kind of throat singing, is also an important feature to make the folk music sounded ‘contemporary’.  In the Western musical tradition, the Italian bel-canto is nearly an orthodox singing style for all kinds of vocal music.  But xoomij, is another kind of vocal style and it can produce multiphonic musical sound.  There are several varieties of xoomij, focusing on different parts of the singer’s body: the nose, throat, or diaphragm.  Each has a slightly different timbre, but the basic voice production technique is the same.  When we listen to the Mongolian song, the chestnut horse with round hooves, and the dzoroo horse that walks with small steps like a sheep, a contemporary musical sound is easily heard.  This is not the sound produced by familiar bel-canto singing style.  Of course, the judging of this ‘contemporary’ sound is based on different aesthetic. You may like it or dislike it but, unavoidably, it sounds new and uncommon. 


Although some of the music performed in this volume still contains many common western musical elements, for example, in the Xinjiang Group dance, Dance solo and Mashrap, we can find the obvious rhythmic pulse and meter or other western melodic characters, still, there are many non-western elements inside, which are the sources of the ‘contemporary; and ‘new’ sound.  Perhaps, it is undeniable to assert that the traditional musical elements can assist in producing contemporary sounded music.  For all Hong Kong contemporary music composers, of course, the musical tradition is not meant Mongolian or Xinjiang folk music.  Determining what is ‘Hong Kong tradition’ will be a different issue.  However, inheriting from our tradition for composing can be regarded as one of the effective and useful ways to write a ‘new’ or ‘contemporary’ composition.

David Leung (theorydavid)

2013-01-02 Published

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