The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: On Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m., SoundWaves moves to Mills Hall to present a FREE and PUBLIC discussion and performance of inventions and music from the 1920s. | October 20, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Daniel Grabois (below, in a photo by James Gill), a professor of horn at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music and a friend of The Ear, writes:

Daniel Grabois 2012 James Gill

I’m not sure if you know about my FREE and PUBLIC series SoundWaves. But I’d like to tell you about it because we have our first-ever presentation in the UW-Madison School of Music next week. It is part of the statewide Wisconsin Science Festival.

The basic idea is this: I choose a theme and get four scientists from different disciplines (or sometimes academics from the humanities) to explore the theme — for the layman — in short 15-minute talks.

I then give a short talk about the theme as it relates to music.

Then, there’s a related music performance.

To make this concrete for you, our program coming up is about The Roaring ’20s.

Now in its fourth year, the SoundWaves series is underwritten by Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF, below with founder Prof. Harry Steenbock), which is celebrating its 90th anniversary. So it seemed fitting to explore the decade of its creation for our first event of the year.

Harry Steenbock WARF bldg

Accordingly, we will have a historian of science speaking about Vitamin D, which was discovered and synthesized by Steenbock,  explaining things like “What the hell IS a vitamin, anyway?”

Vitamin D

Then, a dermatologist will talk about bandaids (invented in 1920). Kids love them, but do they work? How? Why does someone invent a bandaid?


Next, a law professor will discuss the lie detector, also invented in 1920. We see them on cop shows, but do they work? Is their evidence admissible in court? How do they work?

lie detector

Then, an industrial engineer will speak about automotive breakthroughs from the 1920s that have shaped our driving experience. Power steering, the traffic light, the car radio (invented by Motorola, hence the “motor” in the company name) — all were invented in the 1920s and all have had a broad impact on cars and driving today.

traffic light

Then I’ll be talking about music of the 1920s. I’m particularly interested in what was then the recent invention of the 12-tone system by Arnold Schoenberg (below). If you are a composer, how on earth do you respond to that? Do you reject it, and if so, what do you do instead? How is the musical aesthetic reshaped by such a radical (and difficult to listen to) idea?

Arnold Schoenberg 1936

At the end, there will be a performance of the String Quartet No. 1 (subtitled “Kreutzer Sonata,” based on the short story by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy) by Czech composer Leos Janacek (below top), written in 1923, played by the Rhapsodie String Quartet (below bottom, in a photo by Greg Anderson), made of Madison Symphony Orchestra players including Suzanne Beia, our own second violinist of the Pro Arte Quartet. (You can hear it in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Leos Janacek

Rhapsodie Quartet MSO Greg Anderson

We’ve been getting around 175 people for our programs at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, including lots of people who come back over and over.

For me, doing this series is hugely stimulating — being able to collaborate across traditionally rigid academic boundaries is one of the reasons I was excited to come to Madison.

Here are the specifics:

Date: This Saturday, Oct. 24, at 4 p.m. in Mills Hall, FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC

Speakers and performers:

Kevin Walters, WARF historian-in-residence

Klint Peebles, Department of Dermatology

Keith Findley, UW Law School

John Lee, Department of Industrial Engineering

Daniel Grabois, School of Music and SoundWaves curator

Rhapsodie String Quartet

For more information, visit:–events/soundwaves/soundwaves.cmsx

Sales pitch over!

Hope to see you there.



  1. Bye bye.

    Don’t forget to take those atonal textbooks with you!

    They do indeed require a different mindset.

    Comment by fflambeau — October 21, 2015 @ 10:02 pm

  2. The textbooks on atonal theory point out that one cannot listen to non-tonal music with tonal expectations, or “filters.”
    A different mindset is required to hear the structures that underlie the re-organization of pitches into units that do NOT refer to the overtone series.
    Whether such a mindset is desirable, possible, or being completely ignored is THE Question, to me, as a composer and listener.

    Comment by 88melter — October 20, 2015 @ 1:26 pm

    • If you can’t hum a song, it is worthless.

      Comment by fflambeau — October 20, 2015 @ 8:42 pm

      • That IS good to know. I am done with his blog now, as its posters are poster children for narrow-minded-ness. Bye, MBB

        Comment by 88melter — October 20, 2015 @ 10:52 pm

  3. Serialism is THE issue I am dealing with as a composer right now!, But, alas, i cannot attend,as I have a gig mere hours after that, and could not risk being late. Will there be a podcast or other recording made available?

    Comment by 88melter — October 20, 2015 @ 1:22 pm

  4. A great and fun idea.

    Two problems, though: 1) the link to Kevin Walters leads to an Australian football player; 2) “lots of people who come back over and over” I hear you but redundant, no? Get out your copy of E.B. White.

    As for Schoenberg, he set classical music back and, I believe, is one of the reasons classical music is in trouble. As one critic said of his music, “his work is usually defended rather than listened to… .” A sure way to kill classical music. There were many better, and greater composers writing contemporaneously who rejected his ideas; they are listened to, he is not.

    Comment by fflambeau — October 20, 2015 @ 4:10 am

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