Timeline

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Timeline is a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition. Hosted by VPR Classical's James Stewart.

Check out our new web app where we can listen to all of the episodes in order.

If you'd like to go deeper, please see our suggested reading list.

Timeline is made possible, in part, by a grant from the Ida and William Rosenthal Foundation.

    

Timeline: Soundwaves

Dec 11, 2017
U.S. Public Domain

Picture yourself at the beach watching the waves rise and break over the sand. You can see the water gather and rise as each waves comes in. Once a wave breaks the water level drops again. You watch the peaks and valleys rolls onto the beach. These waves transfer huge amounts of energy from one place to another traveling through the water and displacing it. We call this a mechanical wave because it needs to travel through a medium, in this case water. The number of waves that crash during a specific period of time is called the frequency.

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Why do humans sing? Why do we make music at all?

U.S. Public Domain

The desire to preserve music for future generations led to the development of Western notation; the lines and staves that we associate with written music today. However, there are many other forms of musical notation that were developed over the centuries by cultures around the globe.

U.S. Public Domain

James: You’re hearing recording artist Bobby McFerrin at the 2009 World Science Festival. I asked a couple of my colleges at Vermont Public Radio to watch a video of Bobby leading the crowd in a musical, communal social experiment and give us their reactions.

Timeline: Bone Flutes

Nov 13, 2017
U.S. Public Domain

Music lies close to the foundation of our common humanity. Let me explain what I mean.

U.S. Public Domain

We start with a recording I made almost 13 years ago of my oldest son, Jeremiah. He’s a teenager now, runs track, plays cello and already sings lower than his dad. Like most parents, I remember spending hours holding Jeremiah as an infant; marveling at his little hands and feet and watching him begin to take in the world around him. I laughed as he discovered his own fingers, smiled as he began to recognize faces and listened intently as he began to make and mimic sound. I listened to his coos and cries, his moans and gurgles, waiting to hear his first words. There was a sense of pride that I felt when he said, “Dada” in the tiny, thin baby voice.

U.S. Public Domain

Let’s start from the beginning… Where does music come from? I believe that music is at the heart of everything. It is the language of a vibrating, living cosmos. And this isn’t exaggeration; this is the basis of a current theory about what truly makes up the universe.

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Music has always been created with a specific venue in mind. The composer may not know who will be in the audience or how it will be received but they know it has to be played on an instrument or sound system in a place. Throughout all of history, whether it was a church, a ballroom, a dance hall, an opera house or a dive bar, music was written to fill that location.

U.S. Public Domain

In the 20th century no medium affected culture more than film. The music written to accompany the images, story and dialogue has become a huge part of the movie-going experience. In many cases it’s impossible to separate the musical theme from the film itself; the two become one in our minds.

Timeline: Minimalism

Apr 3, 2017
U.S. Public Domain

The music of the early 20th century was marked by increasing complexity and abstraction. Serialism and the chance practices of John Cage and his followers created an aesthetic that stood opposed to the Romanticism of the century before. In the '60s and '70s a counter-reaction began to emerge as a new group of young composers sought to free themselves from the strict rules of atonalism and serialism and embrace the simplicity of minimalism.

Every morning, for more than 75 years, American composer Elliott Carter would awaken and go to his studio to write music. Carter and his wife, Helen Frost-Jones, lived in the same apartment in Greenwich Village in New York, since 1945. He was one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century, composing over 40 works after the age of 90. Carter’s music encompasses many of the influences and styles that shaped the last 100 years of music.

James Stewart / VPR

Musical labels are useful. The title of a genre or style comes in handy in the record store, on the radio or for streaming services. But these labels can also be problematic and divisive.

James Stewart

In 1952, on a summer day in Woodstock, New York, pianist David Tudor held an outdoor recital of contemporary piano music. During this concert he premiered a new work by composer John Cage. For this performance, Tudor sat at the piano with the lid closed, keys covered for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, split into 3 movements. The results of this performance are still controversial to this day.

U.S. Public Domain

In the second half of the 20th century, technology evolved at an ever-increasing pace. The ability to capture a performance and manipulate recorded sound allowed musicians, artists and composers a freedom that they had never experienced before. It all started with the advent and adoption of magnetic tape.

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As a composer, Aaron Copland desired to be as American in his music as Mussorgsky and Stravinsky were Russian. He was always interested in expressing his Inscape, the true emotions happening within him. His writings, music and instruction helped bring the rigor of the European tradition to American music and influenced a generation of composers.

U.S. Public Domain

His life embodied the American dream. Starting from nothing, he used his talents and musical intuition to build a fortune and an international reputation. George Gershwin’s music touched a diverse array of audiences and forms, from popular song to concerti to opera. In his short life he helped shape the future of American music.

U.S. Public Domain

The modern American musical is usually associated with the “triple threat”, singing, dancing and acting. It is also the culmination of costume and set design utilizing resources and technology that would make Wagner jealous. The line that connects operas to musicals is a complicated one, influenced by shifting cultural tastes, commercial enterprise and a wide ocean.

U.S. Public Domain

Aaron Copland, Jean Franciax, Elliot Carter, Philipp Glass and Quincy Jones; what do all of these musicians have in common? They were all students of Nadia Boulanger. Nadia was a composer, conductor and teacher. For seven decades, out of her family’s flat in Paris, she taught some of the most influential composers of the 20th century.

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Ralph Vaughan Williams spent 60 years in the public eye as a composer, conductor, professor and writer. His work set off a renaissance of English music in the 20th century.

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Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich saw himself a Soviet man first and a composer second. He felt that it was his duty to compose music for his countrymen that reflected the heart of the Soviet ideal. He left behind 15 symphonies and 15 string quartets that stand as some of the most influential works of the 20th century.

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