Everything’s Heavy Underground!
The role of enforced creative boundaries in the songs of Ben Folds Five
Presented by Dr Jade O'Regan
Date: Wednesday 31 October 2018
Location: Room 2174, Sydney Conservatorium of Music
The nature of musical creativity is at times difficult to define. In popular music, many song writing books and tutorials encourage musicians to write “without boundaries” and to “break through” the blocks or rules they unconsciously have when creating new music. On the other hand, having no rules at all for creativity can lead to an overwhelming array of musical choices, resulting in a creative paralysis. This paper aims to look at how enforced creative rules can impact the way new songs are written, recorded and performed live. These concepts will be analysed through the music of 1990s indie pop band Ben Folds Five, and Ben Folds’ subsequent solo work after the break-up of the group.
Ben Folds Five were a three-piece band that began North Carolina in the early 1990s and are best known for their alternative hit “Underground” (1995) and their breakthrough ballad “Brick” (1997). Unlike the many guitar bands of the alternative rock scene at the time, their instrumental line up consisted only of piano, bass and drums. In fact, the group had one main musical rule: no guitars. So important was the piano to their sound, the group refused to perform if Folds was unable to play an acoustic piano. This meant that the group, with the help of friends, would personally haul Folds’ baby grand to every show they played; assembling and tuning it each time. In a 1996 interview, Folds commented: “We just don't play if there's no piano…Once you compromise then you're f***ed” (Jones, 1996).
This paper takes an analytical look at the way this “no guitar” rule shaped the course of their career. In their earliest days, this boundary encouraged the group to be creative and ambitious in their arrangements, often using instruments in unconventional ways to fill the textural space in the mix. However, after several years, this self-imposed rule began to fracture the group, as each member, particularly Folds, became increasingly eager to experiment with other sounds and textures.
By looking at the group’s instrumentation, melodies and chords progressions, and the recording techniques used to capture their performances, this study charts how the “no guitars” rule both encouraged creativity and then eventually stifled it, and how the course of the groups’ career was shaped by an instrument they refused to play.
Wednesday 3 October, 4:15pm, Room 2174
Shakespeare’s Hamlet has intrigued, exasperated, and mostly defied opera composers for over 400 years. Only one operatic version of the play, by Ambroise Thomas (1868), has until now enjoyed a tenuous place in the repertoire. Yet there have been over forty documented versions. Franco Faccio’s Hamlet (1865), with libretto by Arigo Boito, was successful when premiered, then dropped completely out of the repertoire. A Bregenz Festival revival in 2016 revealed a taut, and engrossing adaptation and a masterful condensation of the play. Also in the Shakespeare year of 2016, an innovative interpretation by German composer, Anno Schreier, who reimagined the play as a claustrophobic family drama, was premiered at the Theater an der Wien. A year later Brett Dean’s Hamlet appeared at Glyndebourne to universal acclaim, and was repeated in Adelaide in March 2018, and seems destined to be added to the current repertoire with performances at the New York Metropolitan Opera and in Europe lined up. The focus of this presentation is on Dean’s opera, but contrasts it with the Faccio and Schreier operas, investigating what elements in the play are amenable to operatic adaptation.
Wednesday 19 September, 4.15pm, Room 2174
In 1641, the painter Andrea Sacchi immortalized the Roman castrato Marc'Antonio Pasqualini in an allegorical portrait, in which the singer appears alongside the mythological musicians Apollo and Marsyas. While the painting celebrates the sitter's musical triumph, the inclusion of the satyr Marsyas, bound and awaiting punishment, is a sinister and enigmatic detail. Is it an allusion to Pasqualini's own status as a mutilated singer? Does it offer a warning against Dionysian passions, in favour of Apollonian control? This paper takes Marc'Antonio Pasqualini Crowned by Apollo as a starting point and case-study for how the multifaceted myth of Apollo and Marsyas functions in seventeenth-century painting and allegory. It will compare Pasqualini's portrait with works by Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian and Caravaggio, and examine the symbolically versatile figure of Marsyas as he appears in Italian Humanist discourse, treatises on the visual arts, and anatomical textbooks. Ultimately, I hope to offer a few suggestions as to why the flayed satyr makes an appearance in the allegorical representation of a castrated singer with ties to both the sacred and secular worlds.
Wednesday 5 September, 4:15pm, Room 2174
The University of Sydney launched its first Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) in April 2016. Titled “The Place of Music in 21st Century Education”, it presented seemingly contradictory contemporary research and practice from the field as a series of provocations for critical thinking. It did not advocate for any one position, instead hoping to prompt worldview change toward a more pluralist, inclusive music education. Participants were prompted to think carefully not just to gain marks, but because their thoughts had to be blogged publicly. Two years later, over 3,000 musicians, teachers, artists, academics, and interested public internationally have been active learners in the course. They have also agreed for any data they generate to be used for research purposes. In this paper, having formed a research team with Dr Danny Liu and Catherine Zhao, I consider what our first analyses of hundreds of thousands of clicks, polls, blog posts, marks, and written feedback might be telling us about our participants, whether we see evidence of changing worldviews, and think about what this might mean for music education.
Wednesday 22 August, 4:15pm, Room 2175
Today the Thai popular music industry dominates mainland Southeast Asia through two of Asia’s largest entertainment companies GMM Grammy and RSiam. The roots of this profitable recording industry lie in a brief period, from 1903 to 1911, when the Gramophone Company, Odeon, Pathé, Beka and a host of smaller companies engaged in a race to record the world’s music so asto gain market share (Gronow 1981: 56-65). During the final ‘golden’ decade of King Chulalongkorn’s long reign, the new gramophone technology functioned as an influential site of interaction between Siamese royalty and court musicians, Chinese and Malay compradors and European recording experts. The story of this interaction demonstrates the effects of Siam’s semi-colonisation by the British and Chinese on the development of Thai music and the broader issue of how discography and discology can be usefully incorporated into the field of ethnomusicology. Merriam’s criticism of “armchair analysis” (1964: 39) is contrasted with a discussion of National Taiwan University’s Recording in East and Southeast Asia (RIESA) Project.
Wednesday 8 August, 4:15pm, Room 2175
Music history is littered with examples of works now considered masterpieces which initially were rejected by audiences and critics. In the politically fraught world of mid-nineteenth-century Germany, such bruising encounters were common for those of progressive inclinations. Painted as Zukunftsmusiker (musicians of the future, i.e. not acceptable at the time), composers such as Liszt and Wagner took the fight to their opponents by writing pamphlets justifying their art. They refused to be trammelled by existing norms and appealed to the concept of progress as justification for their departures from orthodoxy in matters of form and harmony. This colloquium explores this contested terrain in the aftermath of the 1848-9 revolutions, situating artistic innovation within broader philosophical discourse about progress, and interrogating how both sides understood the relationship between composers and the audiences of the day.
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