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Twelve Tones
June 27, 2013 2:54 PM   Subscribe

"It's just one of those days where you wake up thinking that if you jazzed up Stravinsky's Owl And The Pussycat it'd be awesome..." [SLYT]

Twelve Tones is a new video essay by mathemusician Vi Hart, using Schoenberg's twelve tone technique as the jumping off point for a meditation on the nature of art, meaning, and creativity, the tension between cliche and stuff people recognise, and pattern recognition.

Previous Vi Hart: 1, 2, 3, 4.
posted by motty (42 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
First she was awesome at math, now she is playing the piano, then she is talking about Borges. She is trapped in some kind of Groundhog Day isn't she. We have to help her.

Vi! You are pushing the limits of Awsome and turning into Prince! Come back to us!
posted by Ad hominem at 3:14 PM on June 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's like Douglas Hofstadter with magic markers. This is intended to be a sincere compliment.
posted by hanoixan at 3:21 PM on June 27, 2013 [7 favorites]


Ok, so if you don't take the time to listen to 'Mary Had a Laser Bat' (somewhere around the 5 minute mark) you are seriously missing out... it is... awesome.
posted by Nanukthedog at 3:22 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I left a link to this the the Is there any point to the 12 times table? thread but have been secretly hoping that somebody would make a good FPP post for it.

Saw it this morning when she posted it and every time I thought it got to a dull moment and should end it instead just got better and better.

Evidently she's been working on this video for most of this year with occasional tweets of 'hehehehe' and apologizing to her neighbors about the strange music coming from her apartment.

Totally awesome.
posted by zengargoyle at 3:58 PM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is goddamn phenomenal. I was just coming here to post this.
posted by Rory Marinich at 4:30 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Vi Hart's music-themed videos frustrate me because they're obviously very neat and clever, but they're always filled with some common misconceptions which she then spreads further afield with her meme-tastic viral abilities.

For example, she makes fun of Stravinsky for writing twelve-tone music when he really only dabbled in it late in life, and even then wasn't terribly strict about it. (He wrote some serialism-inspired pieces with less than twelve tones, for example.) He wrote plenty of damn catchy music in his day. And the story about predicting that people will be humming 12-tone music is usually attributed to Schoenberg, and apocryphal anyway.

Besides, if being catchy was the point of music, nursery rhymes and commercial jingles would be the pinnacle of the art form.

So yeah, I guess I'm that guy who makes fun of the neat and clever thing.
posted by speicus at 4:35 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Rory Marinich: "This is goddamn phenomenal. I was just coming here to post this."

Me too! Why are there not, like, ten thousand favorites already for this post? This video is astonishingly good.
posted by ocherdraco at 4:40 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Me too! Why are there not, like, ten thousand favorites already for this post?

Gratuitous ragging on Stravinsky and an ahistorical presentation of the methods of 12-tone composition!!!!!1!
posted by kenko at 4:42 PM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


speicus said what I came in here to say, which is that this is really well-done but riddled with inaccuracies that make it frustrating to watch for someone who knows their theory/history. I don't think it's nitpicky to wish that someone who presents her videos as educational be a little less glib about the subject matter she's presenting, and I don't think those inaccuracies make it bad, I just... if this were one of her math videos, would we take a bunch of errors in stride? If not, is it because we subconsciously don't respect music as a discipline enough to want to hear about it when something like this gets it wrong in some respects?
posted by invitapriore at 5:03 PM on June 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


man, I, ah... Wow. This is incredible.

on preview, invitapriore, that's an interesting point.
posted by rebent at 5:30 PM on June 27, 2013


Wait. So she's not really that awesome? Yes!

I always count an L for anyone else as a W for me. It is the only thing that makes my completely Average existence bearable.
posted by Ad hominem at 5:31 PM on June 27, 2013


For some reason it reminds me of David Foster Wallace's book about infinity, which I enjoyed reading a lot, and then I read some reviews from mathematical types who seemed to say that his understanding of the math was less than stellar in some parts. That retroactively took away a little of my enjoyment, maybe, but I wasn't like "fuck you, math guys" just because I didn't know as much as I think I did.

I imagine a mathematician's experience reading DFW's book is similar to my experience with this video. You have to respect the intelligence and effort and cleverness it took to create! And things go by pretty fast in such a way you can tell they're being intentionally fast and loose with some things, so you let those things slide. But at the same time there's this itch that gets more persistent with each inaccuracy. The first couple you brush aside, the next few you sort of tamp down because you feel churlish, but then finally it gets to be too much and you either have to say something or disengage completely.

And then people are usually all "fuck you, music guy" because they just wanted to like something in an uncomplicated way for once and you ruined it for them. WHOOPS
posted by speicus at 5:43 PM on June 27, 2013


The great pianist BILL EVANS did a far better job than her "jazzy" section in his "Twelve Tone Tune". The row starts at :13 seconds for those who know the form. He also composed a second one, which is a little more abstract, but as usual, Bill filled it out with great harmonic tension and skill..
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 5:59 PM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


fuck you, music guy

Nobody is saying that.

By all means give us the straight story on this. People who worked hard to become experts shouldn't have to hide it.
posted by Ad hominem at 6:00 PM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


For example, she makes fun of Stravinsky for writing twelve-tone music when he really only dabbled in it late in life

Which video were you watching? She doesn't "make fun of Stravinsky for writing twelve-tone music." She uses one indubitably twelve-tone piece he wrote as a kicking off point for a pretty wide-ranging meditation about the nature of artistic creativity and perception in general. She only "makes fun" of Stravinsky as part of a joke about US copyright laws.

Besides, if being catchy was the point of music, nursery rhymes and commercial jingles would be the pinnacle of the art form.

Again, if you think that the point of this video is to rag on 12-tone composers for failing to write "catchy" tunes you really didn't pay enough attention to it or watch enough of it for your criticisms to be worth heeding.

She may be making all kinds of horrible errors in this video--I'm certainly not expert enough in music theory to say--but you're not making a very convincing case here.
posted by yoink at 6:12 PM on June 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


I enjoyed this for what it simply is, a performance, designed to engage the viewer. It's catchy, and some of the tunes are cool.
posted by Vibrissae at 6:21 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow, thank you internet. This is one of the most engaging, witty, and clever gifts from the WWW!
posted by BobsterLobster at 6:34 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Swell video!

I was interested in dodecaphony when I was young, because I liked the provocative aspect: "I don't need no coherent melody, because, fuck you!" I gradually lost interest in these ideas, but I came away with a respect for Anton Webern.
posted by ovvl at 7:16 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Which video were you watching? She doesn't "make fun of Stravinsky for writing twelve-tone music." She uses one indubitably twelve-tone piece he wrote as a kicking off point for a pretty wide-ranging meditation about the nature of artistic creativity and perception in general. She only "makes fun" of Stravinsky as part of a joke about US copyright laws.

Yeah, I got that, but then there was the little snide bit about mothers helping babies "break free of the tyranny of tonality" that made me think there was more nastiness behind it and the copyright thing was more of an excuse. (After all, she doesn't use any part of the Stravinsky piece, so she's in the clear whether or not it's parody.) But I dunno, maybe I'm reading too much into these things.

Anyway, I really doubt that Stravinsky would be "rolling in his grave" (as she puts it) because of people using 12-tone rows to create tonal music, since he did similar things in his own music. His brand of serialism was always pretty idiosyncratic. Composers like Schoenberg and Boulez, on the other hand, were much more polemical about it, and maybe would have been better examples for Vi's arguments.

I guess there are other things I could nitpick, but again, I don't want to crap on this video too much because like I said, it's neat and cute and I imagine a great introduction to some of these ideas for someone less pedantic than me.
posted by speicus at 7:24 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I'm a little confused by the criticism offered here too. Did you guys watch the whole thing? At around 19 minutes in, she has a little bit about Stravinsky turning to serialism after Schoenberg's death. It's a quick reference and it's cuted-up, but I don't get the sense she's unaware of the general chronology. Anyway, I imagine she starts with Stravinsky because "The Owl and the Pussycat" provides a better lead-in for playing around with nursery rhyme-ish things than, say, "Moses und Aron" would.
posted by neroli at 7:35 PM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]


What got me was the random generation of a tone row accompanied by a quip about nobody being able to tell the difference anyway, which is frustrating because composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg put a lot of thought (for example) into how tone rows should be organized for the sake of sonic and formal coherence. And yes, one can level the charge at serialism (IMO, rightly) that it fails to make a lot of its devices aurally apparent to even well-trained listeners, but that doesn't mean that those organizational decisions are entirely inaudible. To claim as such really reads as disrespect for the subject matter, sorry. Maybe I'm just sensitive after years of having to defend the notion that music doesn't need to be beautiful and can act as something other than an aural opiate. On the other hand, surely it's not hard to understand why someone who has some investment in this gets a little frustrated when an opportunity to expose a wider audience to some of the devices of twentieth century music is squandered with an appeal to the same old "LOL NOISE" tropes that always come up in these contexts.

Anyway, I didn't get the sense that she believed that Stravinsky was a serialist from the beginning, but she wrongfully imposes a lot of Schoenberg's dogma onto Stravinsky, as speicus mentions.
posted by invitapriore at 7:51 PM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


I just loved this!
posted by Toecutter at 7:53 PM on June 27, 2013


Yeah, the fact that she gets it right later on makes it even weirder to me that early on she infers all these things about Stravinsky's motivations and beliefs that as far as I can tell were just not true. Maybe they're not meant to be taken seriously, but I do think it's reasonable to think that someone who watched the video would come away with a distorted view.

Anyway, here's a movement from Stravinsky's 1953 Septet that uses "diatonic serialism" -- i.e. tone rows in a tonal context. It's a cool piece!
posted by speicus at 7:53 PM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


I just went to see my local spirit medium and we had a seance and she conjured up Stravinsky's ghost and here's what Igor said:

"Hey, it's a cute and clever little video, and while the gal who made it might be, well... a little full of herself and all, I think it's just fine and I'll try to watch the whole thing later when I have some time. But lemme tell ya this: I don't give a flying rat's ass in hell about no goddam serialism, see? Actually, up here in heaven I'm still composing, and I canned that dopey 12-tone crap a loooong time ago. So call me a post-serial composer, if you like. Cause anyway, that was always my favorite, you know, for breakfast, back on earth. Post cereal. Get it? GET IT? Post CEREAL! AAAAAAAA-hahahahaha!"

Then he told an off-color joke and mentioned something about Radiohead that I didn't quite catch.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:56 PM on June 27, 2013 [6 favorites]


Ooh, ask him what he thinks about Daft Punk!
posted by speicus at 8:03 PM on June 27, 2013 [4 favorites]


On a lighter note regarding Webern, I've always found it funny how, in spite of his reputation as the arch-abstractionist of the first generation of serialists, he consistently produced the most sensual music of any of them. Schoenberg comes close at points-- he's underrated as an orchestrator in my opinion-- but he let his taste for rhetoric get away from him sometimes. I'll never forget that chord in the trumpets in the third movement of his Six Pieces for Large Orchestra (ok, so that particular piece dates to his free atonality period, whatever).
posted by invitapriore at 8:10 PM on June 27, 2013


speicus: For example, she makes fun of Stravinsky for writing twelve-tone music when he really only dabbled in it late in life, and even then wasn't terribly strict about it.
Weak sauce, and wrong anyway. She makes fun of Stravinsky to "avoid the copyright". (Foghorn Leghorn voice) It's a joke, son. A humdinger. (aside) Ah believe this boy's not playing with a full deck.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:48 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


I love Vi Hart with all my hands.
posted by FirstMateKate at 9:36 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


That sequence at the end is like all the best of those gloriously nightmare-inducing Sesame Street things. Having a hard time finding a good example on Youtube, but I'm sure someone here knows what I'm talking about.

Also, the whole thing was amazing, and I will have visions of the birdbowl and the laserbat stuck in my head for quite some time.
posted by NMcCoy at 10:20 PM on June 27, 2013


NMcCoy... I only had the vaguest of recollections, but turned up number 9. The sort of nightmare you had in mind?
posted by smcameron at 11:04 PM on June 27, 2013


Nice. Her math videos were on stuff that I mostly knew already but I enjoyed them a lot. This was on something that I know nothing about, so I had to think more and slide through some moments with "okay, if you say so", but I might have actually learned something.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:17 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Weak sauce, and wrong anyway. She makes fun of Stravinsky to "avoid the copyright". (Foghorn Leghorn voice) It's a joke, son. A humdinger. (aside) Ah believe this boy's not playing with a full deck.

yeah I got it thanks for restating the obvious
posted by speicus at 2:10 AM on June 28, 2013


NMcCoy, could you be talking about this?
posted by KChasm at 3:04 AM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


What got me was the random generation of a tone row accompanied by a quip about nobody being able to tell the difference anyway, which is frustrating because composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg put a lot of thought (for example) into how tone rows should be organized for the sake of sonic and formal coherence.

Erm, did we watch the same thing? She explained that without context anything can be meaningless. The whole video is about the beauty of serialism as a means of organisation.
posted by pmcp at 4:53 AM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


And she explicitly says that nothing lets you appreciate the music of Schoenberg more than comparing it to the improvised "randomness" she's doing at the point where copyright laws prevent her from playing the real thing.
posted by cx at 8:44 AM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Stravinsky's ghost: up here in heaven I'm still composing

Composing on high; decomposing below.

So call me a post-serial composer, if you like. Cause anyway, that was always my favorite, you know, for breakfast, back on earth. Post cereal. Get it? GET IT? Post CEREAL! AAAAAAAA-hahahahaha!"

So Igor Stravinsky was Jack Aubrey, reincarnated?
 
posted by Herodios at 9:05 AM on June 28, 2013


She makes fun of Stravinsky to "avoid the copyright". (Foghorn Leghorn voice) It's a joke, son. A humdinger. (aside) Ah believe this boy's not playing with a full deck.

Except that doesn't even make sense, and the way she does it is still unnecessary. Parodying a musical work isn't a matter of saying "The composer was kind of silly" and then, independently, creating a parodic musical work. The parody is in the work, not in the narration you give alongside it.

The fact that she has this (weaksauce) excuse for saying a bunch of dumb things about Stravinsky doesn't make the things she says less dumb. The supposed fun-making is badly done! It isn't funny, even if it's supposed to be a joke—it comes off as, at best, kidding on the square.
posted by kenko at 2:38 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Parodying a musical work isn't a matter of saying "The composer was kind of silly" and then, independently, creating a parodic musical work.

I think that's the joke.
posted by neroli at 2:58 PM on June 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


NMcCoy, could you be talking about this?

Yes! The thing with the shapes and the chanting and the creepy synthesizer! That thing!
posted by NMcCoy at 5:00 PM on June 28, 2013


What got me was the random generation of a tone row accompanied by a quip about nobody being able to tell the difference anyway.

You may know a lot about twelve-tone music, but apparently you don't know much about absurdism. Sure, she makes fun of twelve tone music and describes it as random nonsense, but then around 22:00 she shows how beautiful it can be with her rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb. She's setting up the preconception so she can knock it down, or maybe show that both views are true, or neither.

Plus, it was fun. Big thumbs up. I don't know if I've ever watched a 30 minute long video on YouTube before. It just kept me going.
posted by alms at 10:20 AM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think we can all agree that Stravinsky was a horse-faced fascist, though.
posted by iotic at 3:36 AM on July 3, 2013


She doesn't appear to be aware of Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat, but otherwise it's a fun video.
posted by A dead Quaker at 2:37 PM on July 6, 2013


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