Midterm Writing

or your midterm writing, I provide three prompts. You must answer all of them. The word count in total should be around 2500 words, and it is up to you to decide how many words you use for each prompt. You are welcome to go over the word count if you feel you need more room to make the points or fill out the descriptions you have in mind. Remember that this is not a research assignment, and you are discouraged from bringing in outside information. The writing should capture your own thoughts, in your own words, in response to the music and the prompts. You may find it useful to review lectures and lecture slides to brush up on specific pieces. Also do not hesitate to reach out to me or to your reader for advice, or to bounce ideas off us.

Prompt 1:

In this writing, I ask you to think through all of the steps that are involved in bringing a musical work to the public. I don’t mean the musical process, but rather the production chain as a series of social and technical arrangements, in which aspects leading up to the final result are divided among different competencies. You can think of this as a human labor process, and also as a process involving different kinds of technologies and material factors. I would like you to do this in an analytical and critical way, reflecting in particular on the possible effect that each stage might have upon the ultimate outcome. Of course, this chain of production will differ radically across different musical compositions and situations, therefore I ask you to trace the process in THREE different cases.

FIRST, you may choose any of the pieces we have studied thus far, with the exception of the fictional “fragmented” Gtterdmmerung as described by Alexander Kluge, which is not an actual piece of music. All the other pieces, including the original Gtterdmmerung by Richard Wagner, are fair game. I don’t expect you to know all of the steps that lead to the result that meets you as listener; but I ask you to imagine the process, all the way from a musician’s initial idea, to the fully fleshed-out listening experience that you encounter, speculating on what must have happened in between for the result to have been achieved, and for the destination — you — to have been reached. SECOND, choose a musical piece we have NOT studied, chosen from your own musical experiences or preferences, and subject this piece to the same analysis. THIRD, choose one additional musical piece, either from our class assignments or from your own listening preferences, to show a clearly contrasting, clearly different chain of production, compared to the two you have already discussed.

Note: You must provide a link to the musical pieces that you chose to write about that are not part of the listening assignments in our class.

Prompt 2:

Listen to the first movement of “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste” (1936) by Bela Bartok:

https://ucsd.nml3.naxosmusiclibrary.com/catalogue/00028948302062 (Links to an external site.)

(track 1)

In this part of your writing I ask you to describe the piece in the greatest possible detail. To the best of your ability, identify musical elements such as instruments, register, pacing, placement of sound in time, loudness, density, silence, articulation, anything you can hear and describe. Describe all these elements in your own way, showing a detailed and careful listening process. When new elements arise, or changes in the qualities of the music occur, note the timing. Try to listen forensically, so to speak, and describe the music in the most precise terms available to you. Then, stepping back from individual details, point out any larger musical landmarks, moments when the music changes abruptly or decisively, again giving timings. Based on this, try to describe the global shape of this long movement, suggesting its overarching structure. Indicate how this global structure is made audible, with reference again to the local detail you have already described. Finally, suggest what this music is doing in an aesthetic, expressive or atmospheric way. What does it convey to you as an overall artistic experience?

What I am asking you to do here is to give an aural analysis of the piece, based on listening. It’s my belief that this particular piece of music lends itself to this task. It is easy to find material online analyzing this piece, since it’s one of the most famous pieces from the mid-20th century. You are welcome to read any and all of these analyses and interpretations, but your writing must reflect ONLY your own close listening and observations.

Prompt 3:

Imagine that you are present for the world premiere of one of the works we have studied. Choose a piece that captures your imagination as a social event: a performance which would have disrupted audience expectations, puzzled or provoked the listeners. Describe the scene and the situation, the audience’s (and your) reactions, as a fictional story, but based upon an actual, historical work of music that we have studied. Try to capture the experience of encountering the music for the first time ever, in the kind of environment in which the music would have first been performed. Most importantly, describe the music in the greatest detail possible, based on your re-listening to the recording, or on descriptions of the piece from lecture. Convey to the reader the actual, non-fiction details of the piece in question, from the standpoint of a musically informed, interested listener. Leave out any knowledge that a listener of the time would not yet have had access to; but get very specific in what that listener would have heard and witnessed, showing a definite understanding of the materials and structure of the piece in question. This is a creative writing exercise, but one based on fact, and I urge you to find a good balance between the fictional and factual aspects, indulging your whimsy but holding firmly to the actual details of the music.


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