This page is not really for musicians only! I figured if I called it that, non musicians would be even more curious...and it worked. Didn't it? ;-) But it does deal with various musical issues in depth, so if you are a musician, it will be of special interest to you.
Von Cello is always interested in hearing from dedicated musicians. If you would like to jam, offer a gig, get a gig, collaborate, or audition for the band, please send an email. Include a letter describing your musical interests and a resume and/or bio. Also, feel free to email with questions or comments, or just to say hello. Visit this web site often to find out about my latest musical direction. Thanks.
Now I will present some articles that I have written that are of interest to musicians and those interested in the nitty gritty:
- Internet Distribution - Artist Beware
Many musicians today look to internet distribution companies as the answer to propelling their careers forward, but there are big risks involved. Below is an expanded version of an article that I wrote on the subject that was published in the International Musician (June 2000), the newspaper of the American Federation of Musicians. It also ran in the newspapers of locals in New York, California, Oregon, and British Columbia.
- Endorsements - A Power Tool For Musicians?
This article is about the benefits of endorsing musical products. It was published in Allegro, the newspaper of Local 802, the American Federation of Musicians, New York City, 12/00.
- I Used to be an Orchestra Player, or, Living the Dream
This article goes into the category of "how I quit my day job". It was published on the Musicdish website and elsewhere.
- A Brush With Immortality
This article is a detailed account of how I came to write my string etudes and ensembles, plus background information on the pieces, and the history of the spread of the music worldwide. It was published on the Internet Cello Society Website, the Musicdish website, and elsewhere.
- Who Was Greater: Hendrix of Beethoven?
I first posted this article to a musicians email list group and became amazed at the controversy that it caused. I did not write it to create controversy...well, maybe that was part of it...but the main reason I wrote it is because this comparison brings up many interesting points about the state of music today. It was published on the web by Musicdish, and I am expecting it to appear soon in the International Musician (the musician's union paper).
- What Can We Learn From Janet Jackson's Breast?
Janet Jackson released one of her breasts during the televised half time show at the
superbowl. This article looks at how this event fits into the history of music and what we
can learn from it. The article was very popular, ending up on dozens of music news
Internet Distribution - Artist Beware
By Aaron Minsky a.k.a. Von Cello
They act like they are the artist's best friend. They portray the traditional record companies as the enemy. They claim that the internet is the great equalizer. They say, "Distribute your music through our web site and millions of people will be able to download your music all over the world. The opportunities are endless." Who are they? The internet distribution companies. Are the opportunities endless? Yes, the opportunities for them to make money from your music are endless, and the opportunities for you to get hurt are also endless.
I was optimistic about the potential of the internet and was looking forward to signing on with internet distributors as a way to sell my music to the public. I had gone to some interactive music conventions and had gotten excited by the pitches of internet entrepreneurs. They used words like "non exclusive" and "fifty - fifty split". It all seemed so easy, and I was feeling quite happy...until I spoke to a lawyer. Afterwards, I felt like I had been saved from jumping into a snake pit.
The sad reality is that the internet is a breeding ground for a new generation of greedy, manipulative business people who take advantage of trusting musicians. In a way, they are worse than the record companies because at least with the record companies, you know they're out to take advantage of you. These people speak soothing words and then take even more advantage of you. Of course, there are honest companies out there that have fair, artist friendly contracts, but there are many that don't. Let's look at some examples.
One prominent internet distributor offers a contract with the following sentence: "You grant us throughout the territory and during the sales period the non-exclusive right to sell...your recordings". That sounds fine, doesn't it? I thought so too...until my lawyer pointed out that they define "sales period" as forever and "territory" as the universe. In other words, they want the right to sell your CD for the rest of your life and beyond. They also say, "You agree to furnish us with your CD's promptly upon our request." This also sounds reasonable, until you realize that there is no end to this responsibility. You could be retired and living on social security and yet you are still responsible to supply them with your CD's, at your expense. Now you may think that that's not so bad because you'll be making money...Think again.Though the contract states that you are entitled to a percentage of the sales, it also states that they can deduct "any costs related to those sales". What does that mean? Suppose they take a trip to Hawaii to make a"business" contact, isn't that a cost "related to those sales"? If they also soak up some sun, well I guess that's just part of the cost of doing business. Fairness dictates that the musician know specifically which costs are deductible, and that those expenses have a cap.
They also reserve the right to "assign" the agreement to anyone they choose, so you may become responsible to someone you never dreamed you would do business with. Of course, you can't assign the agreement. On top of this you also agree to indemnify and defend them from any legal action arising out of any claim by any third party concerning any breach of the agreement by you.
Scary stuff, isn't it? On the other hand, I have seen contracts that look perfectly benign...except for this one little clause called "Modification". One contract states, "We may amend any of the terms and conditions in this agreement at any time solely at our discretion". Furthermore, they will email any changes and unless you respond within 5 days you accept the change. What if the change is, "You give us the rights to the copyrights on all the music on your CD"?! If you sign this contract you better hope you never get in a situation where you can't check your email every 5 days.
I even saw a contract recently that said the company can make modifications at any time and it was your responsibility to check their site daily. If 24 hours pass after a change and you don't notify them, you accept the change! Since it is unreasonable to expect that someone will be able to check a web site every day for years to come, this clause will in most cases have the effect of making the contract non-binding on the company while remaining binding on the musician. True, actual modifications may tend to be minor, but unless the potential changes are specified, the musician is placed in a position where he just has to trust the beneficence of the company (or its future assignees), or be on constant guard. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I thought the whole purpose of signing a contract was to set out the complete agreement in writing for the protection of both parties!
For those internet music entrepreneurs who would like advice on what constitutes a fair, artist friendly contract, I offer the following: 1. Don't ask for ownership of our copyrights or for permanent rights to distribute our music (non-exclusive or not). This can hurt us later in our careers. Always put a clear and complete termination clause in your contracts. 2. Don't be vague about how the money will be split. Specify any deductions, or better yet, figure them in, and just give a straight percentage. 3. Modification clauses should be outlawed. If you are afraid that things will change in your business then make your contracts of shorter duration. If you feel you must have some flexibility, then severely limit what can be modified. (Ex. Only the following things in this contract may be modified: ...) And always give us adequate notice of a change and a fair chance to terminate the contract when you modify it. Would you sign a contract giving the artist the right to modify it without adequate notice to you, and no chance for you to opt out if you didn't like the change? (If so, then please contact me immediately!) The bottom line is this: don't ask an artist to sign something you would not sign yourself!
- Von Cello has been included in the year 2000 edition of Who's Who In America! (His past achievements include twelve books of original string music published by Oxford University Press, some of which are now in the curriculum of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, United Kingdom.) His CD, Breaking The Sound Barriers, was released this year and entered in the Grammys under classical crossover. The top music promoter on MP3.com, Dave Blumberg, has recently agreed to promote the CD. He was awarded an ASCAPLUS grant from ASCAP this year as well. Von Cello's list of endorsements has recently grown to include: Yamaha, Gallien-Krueger, D'Addario and PegHeds. Please feel free to submit feedback to this article at his website at www.voncello.com.
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Endorsements - A Power Tool For Musicians?
By Aaron Minsky a.k.a. Von Cello
Someone recently asked me if obtaining endorsements would help to further his music career. I could have said yes or no and left it at that. Instead, I answered with the following story: As a teenage rock guitarist searching for a new sound, I got the idea that something really new would be to play rock cello! Seeking first rate classical credentials, I received a Masters degree from the Manhattan School of Music. Then I joined a top professional orchestra. Soon, though, I returned to my original goal of inventing a rock style of cello playing. Since there was no method available to study, I decided to teach myself by writing my own set of cello etudes. I told colleagues about my new method. Some were interested, but many said things like, "Why are you wasting your time with that", or, "Rock cello is a ridiculous idea", or even, "You're nuts"! Then Oxford University Press decided to publish the book and all of a sudden those same people were saying things like, "I'm impressed. You must be quite a composer for a company like Oxford to publish you"!
I remember feeling a little angry when I got those comments. I was the same person I had been before Oxford came along. I realized something very valuable, however: most people judge you not by how talented you are, but by whom you are associated with. This is an unfortunate reality, but in a way it makes sense. After all, most people can't really judge talent, and that is why they rely on others to tell them who is talented. They do the same with most things. From fashion to religion, most people need to be told what to do. Being an Oxford composer opened many doors for me, but when it came time to move into the rock world, the Oxford connection didn't seem to have the same clout. Many rock people didn't know about Oxford. After all, Oxford never put out a hit record!
My move into corporate endorsements happened accidentally. I was playing my home made blue electric cello with a big band. The trombonist, of all people, approached me and said that Yamaha had just come out with an electric cello and had put up a picture and specs on the internet. When I got home I checked it out and was very impressed. I contacted Yamaha to tell them I was interested in the cello. They, in turn, checked me out on the internet. Several phone calls, letters and meetings later, I became a Yamaha Artist!
I figured the Yamaha endorsement would gain me some respect in the popular music industry. For one thing, they make products that are industry standards, for another, artists such as Elton John were also Yamaha Artists. I think it helped. Soon I had endorsement deals with Gallien-Krueger, PegHeds, and D'Addario Strings. All of the attention led to my being included in Who's Who In America! (Now, hopefully, this will lead to other things.)
For those who are interested in obtaining endorsement deals here's some advice:
- Don't sell out. Only endorse products that you believe in.
- When approaching a professional corporation, be professional too.
- Show all contracts to an attorney. Having no deal is better than having a bad deal.
- Be a team player. They are helping you, and you should help them.
Now as to the question that started this whole article, I still can't give an unequivocal yes or no. Getting endorsements can help establish an artist in some ways, but they are only a part of a larger picture. In the end it is your music and your attitude which will determine your career...And if you find that you can't get endorsements, don't worry: you are the same person with or without them.
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I Used to be an Orchestra Player, or, Living the Dream
By Aaron Minsky a.k.a. Von Cello
(Most musicians, and other artists, wrestle with the need to make a steady living and the need to create their art. They often wonder if they should quit their day jobs and pursue their art full time. The following article goes into the category of, How I Quit My Day Job. I hope it may serve as an inspiration.)
I once had a nice cushy job. Well, maybe not cushy, but the work was
steady, the pay was good, and the benefits were excellent. I was a section
cellist in one of South America's top orchestras.
When I first joined the orchestra I was thrilled. For one thing, we played
great music, the real war horses, like Beethoven's 5th, Tschaikowsky's 4th,
and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. We also had a great group of musicians;
most were imported from top U.S. conservatories. It was fun to take in a
new culture and every day was an adventure.
One day I showed up to a concert when suddenly the personnel manager,
who had always been friendly to me, came running over and started
screaming at me. My shirt wasn't pressed! The way she carried on, you'd
have thought I killed someone. Yes, I understood that an orchestra must
maintain a certain image, but the shirt was wrinkled in the back where it
would end up covered by my jacket anyway. I didn't argue, it was clear from
her attitude that there would have been no way to win. This was lesson one
on the powerlessness of orchestral musicians.
On another occasion, we were rehearsing a Mozart symphony and I was
playing my best, when the principal bassist made a comment to me that I
wasn't playing with the cello section. I told her that I was hitting the notes at
exactly the same time as the section but playing the notes with a round and
ringing sound. I further explained that I had studied Mozart with Lillian Fuchs
( the famous violist ) who taught us to play Mozart with just such a sound.
She said, "I see."
During our next break the principal cellist walked over to me and in an angry
tone said, "Why aren't you playing with the section?" Surprised, I said, "Oh,
you must spoken to the principal bassist. As I explained to her, I WAS
playing with the section. It's just that the section was playing with a dry short
sound and I was taught at Manhattan School of Music to play Mozart with a
round ringing sound." He said, "You're not in school anymore. Play with the
section!," then he briskly walked away. So much for musicality!
It was rumored that our conductor was given the funding to create our
orchestra as a gift from the president of this democratic (on paper) country.
His position seemed clearly due to politics. On one occasion, he started a
rehearsal of a Mozart symphony a little differently. He explained that he had
made an intense study of Mozart, his favorite composer, and he felt that
Mozart was always played incorrectly. He wanted to play the music exactl
as Mozart had written it. It seemed that this time we would actually have a
good experience with him. Perhaps we would finally play Mozart with style
We started playing the first phrase of the piece when he stopped us. He
said, "Why are you playing a crescendo? Mozart didn't write a crescendo."
We played again. He stopped us. "Why are you playing a crescendo?! Let's
try it again." Again we started and again he stopped us, yelling, "A whole
orchestra of American conservatory trained musicians and you can't even
play Mozart! What do they teach you up there?!"
At this point we were all getting nervous and wondering what kind of game
he was playing. It continued on uncomfortably with him becoming more and
more angry each time. Finally, the section leaders whispered something to
each other and then the word was passed down through the sections by
musicians whispering with cupped hands, "Play a decrescendo as the
phrase goes up." Apparently what was happening was that as the musical
phrase went up in pitch there was a natural and slight growth of intensity.
The conductor was interpreting this as a crescendo, so to compensate and
make the music not increase in intensity at all, we had to fight nature, and
actually pull back in sound to keep the music completely flat in volume and
emotion. We did just that. It sounded bizarre. The conductor smiled with
satisfaction and said, "Now THAT's Mozart!" Needless to say, the rest of the
rehearsal was sheer torture as we butchered this beautiful piece of music.
The dictator, I mean, conductor, was always finding ways to demonstrate
his power over the musicians. The lowest blow came when he decided to
break the contract and move a rehearsal to the Jewish high holiday of Yom
Kippur. He had no right to unilaterally change the schedule and there was
no need to do it. The Jewish members of the orchestra complained,
charging him with breaking the contract with no justification. He admitted
that he made the change solely because he felt like it, nevertheless, he
would dock the pay of any musician who took the day off. He suggested that
if the musicians were unhappy, they should speak to the orchestra
committee chairman, and that is what they did. (The orchestra committee
was a group of orchestra members whose job it was to settle disputes. The
chairman was a very nice guy who happened to have epilepsy. It was known
that he could have an epileptic fit if he were stressed, so everyone was
careful to be kind to him.) He was outraged by the conductor's actions and
agreed to speak to him with the musicians present after the next rehearsal.
The next day he went up to the conductor and diplomatically made his case.
The conductor responded by screaming at him. He started to shake and the
musicians encouraged him to walk away. The conductor kept screaming
even as the musicians walked the committee chairman off the stage. They
pursued the matter no further and all were docked pay!
These experiences and many others led me to the realization that being an
orchestra player was not for me. Of course this is an extreme example, but
similar things happen in many orchestras or in any work environment
where a boss or manager has unbridled power and low morals. I fulfilled
my contract and then proudly quit the orchestra.
When I returned to New York, I wrote a rock song called, "I Used To Be An
Orchestra Player," and started joining rock bands. It was hard to quit my
"day job," and many years of struggle followed, but I never looked back. This
song became the opening song on my solo CD, "Breaking The Sound
Barriers." It took many years to get in this position, but I am finally able to live my dream!
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A Brush with Immortality
By Aaron Minsky a.k.a. Von Cello
In my mid twenties, at a point in life when most musicians devote most of
their time to getting a steady gig, I was spending countless hours
pondering, improvising and composing, creating a new popular style of
cello playing. The thing that kept me going through those lean times was
the hope that one day, when I became an old man perhaps, my music
would become standard cello repertoire. You can imagine then how happy I
felt when my "Ten American Cello Etudes" was included this year in concert
cellist and scholar, Jeffrey Solow's, "A Guide to the Standard Cello
My cognizance of the spread of these pieces has come in ever growing
waves. I was fortunate to have been able to premiere them at the First World
Cello Congress in 1988, just after their publication by Oxford University
Press. This gave them a good send off which lead to other publicity
including a featured article in Strings Magazine. After that, years passed
without much news, aside from several positive reviews. In the mid
nineties, I started to notice that when I would attend music festivals, cellists
would come up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed my etudes. On
one occasion, I attended a festival and was immediately drafted as a coach.
Next thing I knew, a group performance of my etudes was added to the
program! During those years I also started to receive letters, programs and
phone calls from concert cellists and professors from around the world.
In the late nineties, my "Young American Ensembles" was added to the
manual of the New York State School Music Association (NYSSMA). Then
"Ten American Cello Etudes" and "Three American Pieces for Viola" were
added to the curriculum of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of
Music, United Kingdom, a group which gives half a million music
adjudication exams in over eighty countries every year. Now, with the
inclusion in Mr. Solow's list, the fact that my etudes are widely considered to
be standard cello repertoire has a solid stamp of approval!
I currently have six titles published by Oxford. The first, and most well
known, is "Ten American Cello Etudes." This set was written for college
level and professional cellists who have a familiarity with the traditional
etudes of Popper and others. It took standard techniques, and some new
ones, and applied them to enjoyable, original music in several popular
styles. The guiding principle was to create fresh new music which would
provide a road map for helping the cello to fully participate in today's
changing musical currents, while also helping cellists improve their
technique in a fun new way. At the request of several violists, a set of three
of the pieces was transcribed for viola as "Three American Pieces."
I called my pieces "etudes", because each one zeros in on a different set of
techniques, but in reality, they are pieces of music, each expressing a
different mood using the language of American popular music. Many of the
pieces are joyful due to the fun I was having coming up with new ways of
playing the cello. I was, however, influenced by composers of the past.
Impressed by the Bach Suites, I composed in a way that would let the cello
stand on its own, making full use of its broad range and ability to create
satisfying counterpoint. Most of the pieces rely heavily on double stops and
chords to create a robust sound. Often melody is interspersed with chords
and bass tones. I was also influenced by the string crossings of Haydn. I
would have great fun playing the one or two measure phrases that he would
write that made use of rhythmic arpeggios. I took that concept and extended
it to whole pieces.
I also borrowed a concept found in guitar playing; that of rhythm guitar. The
cello traditionally goes back and forth between acting as a bass or a melody
instrument. Why not act as a chord playing rhythm instrument? This concept
was further developed in my "Three American Cello Duets", where one
cellist plays "lead cello" and the other plays "rhythm cello" throughout a
whole piece. This way of playing should lead to a whole new set of
possibilities for cellists.
As my original set of etudes developed, I made sure to incorporate different
techniques so that playing through them all, a cellist would get a complete
work out. Some of the techniques include far reaching arpeggios, spiccato,
thumb position, whole tone scales, tremolo, flautando, harmonics,
syncopation, legato, and new techniques like finger picking and hitting the
string onto the fingerboard with the bow. The technique always grew out of
the music and was never an end in itself.
Most of the etudes began life as improvisations. Sometimes I would
immerse myself in a certain genre of music and then improvise something
that would be related. Other times I would just get into a calm receptive
state and just play whatever would come. Only later were the ideas turned
into thoroughly thought out pieces. That original spark can be found in each
piece and it is my hope that cellists will take ideas back out of these pieces
and create new improvisations. Once again we find a new direction for the
cello, based on tradition. In Bach's time all instrumentalists were expected
to improvise and so it should be again!
I then composed a set of more challenging pieces geared toward bringing
this new style into the concert hall: "Three Concert Etudes." These pieces
extend and amplify the techniques of the American and also use world
music styles such as those of the middle east and Brazil. In the first piece,
the cellist plays in the highest possible register and uses more intricate
chords. The second makes extensive use of left hand pizzicato. The third
piece incorporates several new techniques including singing and stamping
while strumming with a pick! It also employs a technique which I believe I
invented. I call it the "bow harmonic." It is a way of creating a harmonic using
the bow. I even invented a musical symbol for it! These pieces are very
satisfying to play and advance the cello musically and technically beyond
any of the others. I look forward to the day when a brave concert cellist will
take on the challenge to give them a proper world premiere in a major
Next I composed the set of duets, mentioned above which would bring the
concept of playing chords and taking solos to the cello. It occurred to me
that popular styles could also be taught to beginners on all string
instruments, so "Young American Ensembles" was born in three volumes
(violins and guitars, violas, cellos and basses). These pieces were hand
tailored to actual beginning students. Some parts only use open strings
and others only three or four notes, yet they sound like basic pieces of rock
music or other popular music. This brings a new level of fun to the early
days of string study and also brings early experiences of syncopation and
other popular techniques such as pentatonic scales and playing with a
rough sound (something kids love)!
I realized that to complete the set I needed a bridge from the beginner
pieces to the higher level ones, so I composed "Pacific Northwest Suite", for
high school and early college level string players in five volumes (guitars,
violins, violas, cellos, basses). Based on country music and blues rock,
these pieces use string crossings and chords in a similar way to the
American etudes and duets, but were hand tailored to actual high school
students and can lead string players up to the level of the college and
professional level music. The idea behind the writing of music on all of
these levels is that now cellists can play Minsky's popular style music from
the first weeks of study until they perform as artists in the concert hall!
Adding to a small but important part of the cello repertoire, I also composed
"Judaic Concert Suite" which is as yet unpublished. These pieces use
similar concepts and techniques to my other advanced music, but apply
them to original Jewish music. They represent a modern take on the
spiritual type of pieces that Bloch wrote so effectively. I feel that they are part
of a venerable tradition and hope that one way or another, they will see the
light of day!
It may come as a surprise that the composer of some of the most recent
additions to the standard cello repertoire actually began his musical life as
a rock guitarist! In fact, influenced by Hendrix and others, it was a search for
a unique guitar sound that lead me to the cello. I felt, however, that I would
never be accepted as an innovator of the cello unless I first gained the
respect of the classical community. Therefore, I studied with top teachers in
top music schools and then went on to play with professional orchestras,
chamber ensembles and as a soloist, in major concert halls and on radio
and television. The acceptance of my etudes by cellists world wide, has
given me the legitimacy for which I strove. My inclusion in Who's Who in
America, has also helped. I now feel confident to bring my cello style back to
the place where my musical life began. Through my recent CD, "Breaking
The Sound Barriers" and with my new band, Von Cello, I plan to bring the
cello into the center stage of rock! When kids are lining up at music stores
to buy cellos, like they do now for guitars, I will know that my goal has been
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Who Was Greater: Hendrix or Beethoven?
By Aaron Minsky a.k.a. Von Cello
Who Was Greater: Hendrix or Beethoven? Do you find that question ridiculous? Ah...but why is it ridiculous? Is it because you think that Beethoven is greater? Are you perhaps a trained classical musician, or someone well versed in music history? From your vantage point, the answer may seem obvious indeed.
But what if you are a rock musician, or a serious guitar devotee? Perhaps you have listened to every famous rock guitarist from the `50's until today. Perhaps you have mastered many styles but found Hendrix impossible to imitate. You may be aware of how Hendrix's influence has touched almost every guitarist who came after him. To you, Beethoven may seem ancient and irrelevant. Thus you may feel that Hendrix is greater.
Or are you one who feels it is impossible to compare the two? Whatever your point of view, at least you can see that this seemingly silly question can actually be the spark for a rather thought provoking discussion. It also opens one up to thinking about just where music is today, and where it's going. I think it is useful to compare Hendrix and Beethoven because they were both outstanding musicians in their times. Both seem to embody the spirit of their ages. And they each had a profound influence on many musicians who followed.
A good place to start comparing the two is on the objective issue of how much mastery each had over various aspects of music. Hendrix was clearly a great electric guitarist, some would say the greatest. He had a certain sensual energy and intense emotional power in his performances that no other instrumentalist could replicate. In addition to playing the guitar, he was a composer of songs and occasional longer pieces. He was also an excellent improviser, combining elements of rock and the blues and sound textures that he created with his guitar using feedback and other techniques. He surprised listeners with his imitations of the sounds of sirens, guns, bombs, etc. A veteran of the army, Hendrix somehow was able to recreate the sounds and the feelings of modern warfare in his music. His powerful compositions helped fuel the American anti war movement, along with the compositions of other rock groups from his era.
Beethoven was a great pianist. Like Hendrix, he pushed the boundaries of his instrument further than they had ever gone before. He had an emotional power in his playing that had never been known before. Beethoven also played the viola, and had an intimate familiarity with every other concert instrument of his day. We know this because he wrote brilliantly for virtually every instrument in the orchestra. Not only did he use all of them in his symphonies, but he wrote sonatas and concertos for many instruments. He also wrote the most complex and meaningful string quartets ever written, and wrote much vocal music including masses, an opera, and many songs for voice and piano. He was known as a great improviser and could create intricate pieces instantly with melodies offered to him by onlookers.
Hendrix's compositions in general were not particularly innovative. He typically wrote rock songs that were variations on the basic blues formula used in many other rock songs. He recorded a few extended compositions that were based on stream of consciousness jams, which, while unique in sound and of the highest quality, were not unlike jams of other groups at that time, such as the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Starship. It is primarily as a guitarist that Hendrix is revered.
Beethoven made several significant innovations in composition. He inherited the symphony from Haydn, but made a number of changes. One of the most obvious was his replacement of the minuet movement of the symphony with his invention, the scherzo. The minuet was a courtly dance in 3/4 time, while the scherzo (which means joke) was a fast and wild movement fused with a rough humor never dared by his contemporaries. Beethoven also extended the length of the movements in the symphony and added an emotional level that was never tapped before. Whereas Mozart and Haydn were always aware of pleasing their royal patrons (i.e. not getting "overly emotional" in their music), Beethoven expressed himself with abandon. Another innovation was his use of the trombones, which made their dramatic debut in the symphonic literature in the last movement of his 5th Symphony. In that symphony he also added a second coda to the first movement, which had never been done before by anyone in any piece of music.
Beethoven changed the order of the movements when it suited the music, moving the scherzo to the second spot in his 9th Symphony. Also in that symphony he added a chorus to the last movement, a great new innovation not seen again until the late romantic era. Beethoven's 9th was at least double the length of the symphonies of his contemporaries, starting the trend toward bigger and longer symphonies that lasted 100 years.
His innovations didn't stop with his symphonies. Many of his pieces, such as his concertos, were much longer and much deeper emotionally than any that had come before. In his late String Quartet in C# minor, he expanded the four movement quartet form into a seven movement form. He also used dissonance in a way that was never done before, leading some critics to think he had gone insane. Beethoven's late quartets still stand, over 200 years later, as the greatest music ever written for that idiom. One reason they are considered so great is the connections in rhythm, melody and meaning, among all the movements. In fact, Beethoven moved classical music to a new level by writing multi movement pieces in which the whole piece was one consistent statement. Whether we look at his symphonies, operas, quintets, quartets, trios, duets, sonatas or solo works, Beethoven wrote for every combination of instruments in ways that were revolutionary in their time, and remain full of energy and vitality to this day.
What about influence? Hendrix influenced many of the rock guitarists who were playing when he was alive, and he continues to influence young rock guitarists. His influence has extended to other instruments too, even to the cello (for which I take much credit). Many of his songs are still covered in venues across the country, and continue to be heard on radio and television.
Beethoven is credited with starting the Romantic Period in music. You can hear a distinct change in the sound of classical music before and after him. Among the composers who were influenced by him were Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Berlioz, Mendelshonn, Liszt, Dvorak, Wagner, Tschaikovsky, Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss, and Brahms. In fact, Beethoven's influence can be strongly felt in virtually every composer of note that followed him for the next hundred years, until the innovations of Debussy. Indeed, the whole romantic era can be looked upon as a commentary on the musical ideas and concepts of Beethoven.
Beethoven was the trailblazer of the concept of the musician/artist. Before him, there were musicians who were great artists, but they were looked upon by society as the servants of their powerful benefactors (usually royalty or clergy). Even the great J.S. Bach used to sign letters to his patrons, "Your Humble Servant". Beethoven lived during the revolutionary times known as "The Enlightenment". He became a leader in the struggle for equality. He risked his freedom, and even his life, by talking back to, and even insulting, royalty who did not show him the respect he felt he deserved. For instance, he was known to make outbursts during his concerts if people talked while he played, no matter what their station. There is also the famous story about the time he was walking down the street with Goethe, the great author. Goethe saw some royalty approaching, so he stepped off the sidewalk to let them pass, as was the custom. Beethoven refused to step aside. Amazed at his daring, Goethe questioned his actions. Beethoven said that there were many princes in the world but only one Beethoven and therefore, they should step aside for him! Only a man of great talent and inner strength could get away with that. It is known that he dedicated his third symphony to Napoleon, whom he saw as a great liberator. Yet, when Napoleon declared himself emperor, Beethoven ripped the dedication off the score and trampled it! Such were the actions of a musician who remains a legend to this day.
Jimi Hendrix was indeed a trail blazer in his own right. He created sounds from his electric guitar that had never been dreamed of before. He also used amplifier feedback to create colors that were unknown. Hendrix sonically turned his guitar into a whole battlefield. He made music of an intensity never heard before. His anti war music in particular, was extremely powerful. His persona was that of someone unafraid to break down barriers, musical and social. He spoke of a world of tolerance and acceptance.
Yet, without Beethoven there would have been no Hendrix. Beethoven was, in a sense, the first "rock star". He was the first musician to stand up to authority and say that talent makes one more important than money or title. He was the first to stand up and say that an artist has the right, if not the duty, to express his own unique vision. He was the first musician to use his popularity to make critical comments about the inequities of society and to stand up to power. He started the trend of the great musical rebel, a trend that was later picked up by Elvis, Lennon, and Hendrix.
As one can see, when you do a detailed comparison between these two great musicians, the differences speak for themselves. But Hendrix fans shouldn't feel bad: even musicians as great as Brahms and Wagner made comments about how much greater they thought Beethoven was than themselves. Beethoven was a phenomenon, and by definition, a phenomenon is something that only happens once, or at least once in a very great while. There are phenomenons in other fields. Who can match Da Vinci, not only as an artist, but as a scientist, naturalist, militarist, and all around "renaissance man"? Who can match Michelangelo as a sculptor, or Shakespeare as a playwright? Who can match Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha as religious leaders? We must realize that there is not always going to be a person in each generation of the talent or influence of certain others from the past. It is unlikely that we will ever see another Shakespeare or Moses. It is also unlikely that we will see another Beethoven.
Hendrix was a great musician, but was he greater than Miles Davis? Was he greater than Coltrane, Parker, or Armstrong? Can we even say that he was greater than Frank Sinatra? After all, Sinatra was the most influential singer of his generation. Miles Davis revolutionized the trumpet, and Parker and Coltrane the sax. They influenced most of those who followed on their instruments. I would say that Hendrix fits in somewhere in this category; that of the great and influential instrumentalist. He may even be comparable to some famous classical musicians who are best known for performing on, and composing for, one instrument, like Chopin, Paganinni, or Liszt. Yet even they are not thought of as being in the same category as Beethoven.
In writing this article, my goal is not to raise one genre of music over another. To me, music is music. My desire is to use objective criteria through which all musicians can be compared, so we can create some kind of standard by which to separate the truly great musicians from the not as great, and the not great. The reason I like this idea is not because I want to inject competition into music, but because I believe that talent should be recognized and rewarded and great talent should be rewarded greatly. That just seems fair. Unfortunately, too often fame and fortune go not to the greatest artists but to those with the most shocking gimmick, the greatest sex appeal, or the strongest publicity machine. Hendrix and Beethoven were exceptions, but throughout history many great musicians were not rewarded or barely rewarded, while lesser talents received great fame and fortune.
Without standards there is no equity. In the field of professional sports, for example, only the greatest athletes get to the top. In baseball, the one who hits the most home runs, or throws the most strike outs, is the one who gets the most money, and ends up in the Hall of Fame. You can't get there if you are an average player or a below average player. Yet in music today, the greatest fame and the most money do not go to the greatest players or composers, but go to musicians who are average or even below average in their musical abilities. Ironically, many of the big "musical" stars of today, know very little about music.
If you think about it objectively, you will see that there are no musicians in popular music today that can come anywhere near Beethoven, in terms of his wide ranging knowledge and ability in all kinds of areas of music. For instance, how many rock stars could compose a symphony, let alone a symphony of the size and complexity of Beethoven's 9th? Most rock stars, if they compose at all, just write songs, others only play their instruments, some sing and dance, others just rap (talk to a beat). Even among those musicians who could potentially compose a symphony, such as modern day classical composers, we don't hear music of the power and influence of Beethoven. Why?
A couple of hundred years ago people didn't have radios, televisions, and computers. Entertainment could only be created live by actual human beings. In that environment, a music composer was a very valuable person in society. The greatest composers would get hired by the richest, most powerful nobles and would often live with them in the court, or at least become staples of their social scenes. Becoming a great composer was one of the few ways for a peasant or middle class person to rise out of his circumstances and sit at the table, or at least in the room, with kings. It was one of the few roads to fame and fortune available at that time to "commoners". Therefore, many parents pushed their kids to practice and study music intensely. Beethoven's father, for instance, would wake young Ludwig up in the middle of the night and make him practice for hours on end.
Today, most parents enjoy seeing their children play an instrument, but it is all but unheard of to push a child intensely to master musical composition. More commonly, kids will be pushed into science, business or math, as those are the fields that are more likely to lead to big money. Furthermore, if someone were a genius today, why would he go into music and try to compete with the likes of Beethoven and Bach? How many people are interested in hearing modern classical music anyway? There is much more opportunity in science, with computers, genetic research, space exploration, military technology, alternative energy, etc. The Beethoven's of today are the Einstein's and the Bill Gates'. They are also the Bill Clinton's and the Ronald Reagan's. When one can become the leader of the strongest nation on earth, or a multi billionaire, why settle for scratching out a living writing music? That is not to say that there aren't still brilliant people writing and performing music today, but people on the level of a Beethoven are people who stand out as the most famous and important people of their age. Even if a genius like Beethoven wanted to create art, he would more likely become a movie producer, as they make much more money, have more prestige and create art that reaches many more people. Beethoven was not involved in a peripheral art form, he was involved in the most sought after, cutting age art project of his day. Music wasn't in the background, music was the show! If someone of his caliber were alive today he would be on the cutting edge of society in a position of great fame, fortune and influence. Two hundred and fifty years ago, that place was composing music, it no longer is today.
I think we must come to terms with the reality that the era of the great composers is over (at least for now). Mankind has hit the heights and depths that music can reach. Now humanity is attempting to hit the heights and depths of other fields of endeavor. Yes, there will always be great musicians, but just as we no longer have a Shakespeare writing plays, or a Da Vinci doing portraits, we no longer have a Beethoven writing symphonies. We should rejoice that there ever was a Beethoven, and while there will always be a need for new music, we should never forget the roots of western music and should give credit to whom it is due. The fact of Beethoven's towering influence does not make Hendrix any less exciting, less vital or less influential. Hendrix had a raw energy and a power that can never be diminished. Every talented musician has his own unique greatness. Nevertheless, no matter how strong our emotional bond may be with any particular artist, we must be aware of the larger picture and not let emotions blind us. We can still appreciate new music and create new music, while acknowledging that there once was a giant stamping his feet in the primordial jungle of western music!
What Can We Learn From Janet Jackson's Breast?
By Aaron Minsky a.k.a. Von Cello
Recently, in a performance during half time at the Super Bowl, one of Janet Jackson's breasts was released on national television. That is a simple fact, but it has caused a massive controversy from coast to coast. You may wonder what is the big deal, but Janet Jackson's breast is a very big deal!
I don't wish to comment on the morality of her display of nudity. The fact that there were children watching at that moment, is not my concern. I'll leave that debate to the spiritual leaders and the politicians. What concerns me, are the musical implications of her few seconds of controversy. What does Ms. Jackson's breast say about the state of music in America in 2004?
There was a time when being an expert at playing an instrument would lead to fame. This was particularly true if you could compose and play your own compositions. In this category we think of Chopin, Liszt and Paganinni. In more modern times, musicians who could not compose but who were great instrumentalists became famous worldwide. The names Casals, Heifitz, and Horowitz come to mind. In the field of jazz, one had to be an expert improviser, and a good tunesmith, to win fame. In this category, we think of Dizzy Guillespie, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane.
With the birth of rock n' roll, all that changed. To be fair, for the most part, in the early days of rock, to get noticed you had to be a decent instrumentalist and have some kind of a distinctive sound. But very early on, a man rose to prominence in rock who became so influential he was dubbed "The King". That man was Elvis Presley, yet Elvis was hardly a guitar virtuoso! What Elvis did was not so much about being a trained musician as it was about being a performer, creating an image, and stirring up controversy. The main buzz about Elvis was the way he shook his pelvis. Though he was quite a good singer, it was his sensual persona that brought him his fame. In this, he set the pattern for many who would follow in his footsteps; people who are not so much musicians, as musical entertainers, or performance artists, commonly known simply as "artists".
A decade after Elvis hit it big, the rock "artist" was still looking for a way to be noticed. In the sixties, the way to be noticed was to do drugs and get wild on stage. A good example of this was Jim Morrison. He happened to have a powerful singing voice, but his image, that of an out of control drunk liable to do anything, helped earn him his fame. In fact, Morrison was arrested for indecent exposure. His antics created a constant stream of publicity, but it also took a toll. The attacks on him by the police and the press, not to mention the lawsuits and court appearances, became overwhelming. It was not long before Morrison was found dead of an overdose of drugs. A disease that also afflicted Elvis and many other artists.
Around the time of Morrison, rock had matured to the point where there were some excellent musicians on the scene. Jimi Hendrix was considered the greatest rock guitarist of the time, yet even Hendrix had to do more than ply his craft to get noticed. Hendrix used to set his guitars on fire as he kneeled sensuously over the flames. Other rock groups would break their guitars, smash amplifiers and keyboards and commit other acts of violence to get noticed. Ozzy Osborne distinguished himself by biting off the head of a bird, and routinely biting the heads off of rubber bats on stage. This trend, of the violent musician, reached its zenith with the Plasmatics, a band that I actually played with for a short while. (They added a string quartet to their madness for some reason.) Admittedly marginal musicians, they became known for chain sawing guitars and chairs, smashing televisions with sledge hammers, and ultimately blowing up whole cars on stage!
Back on the solo artist side, performers kept trying to push the envelope. In the 1980's, Madonna burst upon the scene. Like a female Elvis, she was a good singer, but became known for her sexuality. In concert, Madonna would hump on a bed or on the floor as if she were masturbating. She also brought in a heavy S & M presence to her stage act, including spankings, whips and chains, and the treating of her dancers as sex slaves. With each CD she pushed further, attacking sexual taboos involving race and religion. She also included nudity in videos and in a coffee table book that bordered on pornography.
She seemed to spawn the next generation of female artists who were even more determined to use sexuality to the fullest. Artists like Brittney Spears and others played on taboos such as the naughty schoolgirl, and the wild girl. They showed as much skin as they could without actually becoming naked, and they made a practice of using the most suggestive dance moves imaginable. On the Hip Hop side of the track, images of guys with multiple girlfriends in hot tubs or in expensive cars or homes became popular. Grinding dance moves with girls in skimpy outfits became standard video fare. One artist, Snoop Dogg, actually crossed over to porn, becoming a player in the "Girls Gone Wild" videos of late night TV fame.
Which brings us back to Janet Jackson's breast. The whole nation was treated to a view of Janet's large round breast, with her pierced nipple surrounded by some type of jewelry piece that looked like a star. With the removal of a little swatch of material, in a matter of seconds, Ms. Jackson crossed a line that no one dared cross before. She was naked on national television on prime time during a family entertainment event! No longer can hinting at sex be considered pushing the envelope: the envelope is open!
Is what she did pornographic? Perhaps one could argue that one breast is performance art, but two breasts would be porn. Perhaps one could argue that even two breasts are performance art, but exposure "underneath" would be porn. Perhaps one could argue that full frontal nudity is where this is all going. Maybe we are going back the the days of burlesque, the days of Gypsy Rose Lee, when an "act" consisted of a woman singing while stripping. Performances like Janet's certainly open the door to this possibility. Of course, Gypsy did not strip on television during prime time, but maybe that is what is necessary to finally bring this trend to its conclusion.
Breasts and other parts of the female anatomy will always be a source of fascination, but I would like to know one thing: Where's the music?! What happened to practicing hours a day, studying music theory, harmony, counterpoint, improvisation, performance practice? What happened to spirituality, to expressing deep, meaningful ideas through sound? What happened to becoming famous because you are a really great musician…even if you don't shake your pelvis, smash your guitar, or show your bosom?
Is it possible that, with Ms. Jackson's highly public performance, we are beginning to reach the end of sexuality replacing musicianship? Perhaps the pendulum will swing back to the situation where a highly trained, dedicated musician can become famous just for being a great musician. It is with this hope and with this dream that I have been promoting my cello fronted rock band, Von Cello.
If you agree that the trend toward performance art has gone far enough, and it is time to reintroduce musicianship to the world of popular music, please support those bands and soloists who are out there trying to make it happen. I am not saying that there is no room in the musical world for Janet Jackson's breast, or any other part of her anatomy, or anyone else's body parts for that matter! Certainly, promotion was, and always will be, a part of being a musician. What I am saying, is that there should also be room in the musical world for those who choose to excel at playing their instruments and singing their hearts out!
- Von Cello (Aaron Minsky) started out in music as a rock guitarist, but later became a cellist, graduating with a Master of Music degree from the Manhattan School of Music. He has since published thirteen music books with Oxford University Press. He is a Yamaha Artist, a D'Addario Artist, in Who's Who in America, and the International Who's Who. You can find out more about his background and hear his music at his website: http://www.voncello.com/
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