Musical Space

Musical Space is a look at all things music, by KMUW Music Commentator Mark Foley. Mark is Principal Double Bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and Professor of Double Bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.

He has been a featured soloist with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, performs extensively as a jazz artist is also an avid bluegrass player. Passionate about promoting new and diverse music, Mark is the founder and music director of the Knob Festival of New Music, a series of concerts held in Fisch Haus Studios every Fall.

The Musical Space commentary airs on KMUW on alternate Tuesdays. Listen here or subscribe to the Musical Space podcast on Apple Podcasts or Google Play. (If you'd like to learn more about ways to listen on demand, read our guide here.)

Our system of music notation is notoriously hard to learn - an arcane and ancient code invented by monks to help remember liturgical chants. It has been amended over the years to show things like rhythms, black notes, key changes, and dynamics; this has made it even more unintuitive and complicated.

For the frustrated garage guitarist, however, there is a simple alternative: tablature, or “tab.” Tab is based on the guitar’s fretboard; numbers tell the player on which strings and which frets to put their fingers. It’s no more sophisticated than playing Rock Band on the Wii.

White noise is the sound of complete randomness; a statistically equal combination of all audible frequencies at the same time. It is the ultimate cacophony and it is all around us; the hiss from a steam radiator and the static between radio stations.

By definition white noise has no discernible pitch, nothing to make it tuneful or inherently interesting. It creeps into our lives as an artifact of our mechanical world and mostly just gets in the way of what we are actually trying to hear. Noise is why it is hard to hear really soft sounds, and why a plane ride so fatiguing.

Jordan Kirtley

Composer Catherine Yass was recently prevented by a neighborhood association from performing her piece “Piano Falling,” which involves a piano being pushed off the top of an unoccupied 27-story housing project building. The association concluded that the piece amounted to “antisocial behavior.”

I’m sorry that “Piano Falling” won’t be realized; it could have been a powerful statement about the unrealized promise of a decaying modernist structure. But mostly I just want to know what it sounds like when a grand piano hits the ground from a fall of over 270 feet.

There’s a long tradition of literature inspiring rock lyrics. Bruce Springsteen borrowed elements of John Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath for the song “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses” is filled with images culled from Homer’s Odyssey. And Devo’s signature song “Whip It” was inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s notoriously dense novel Gravity’s Rainbow.

Wikimedia Commons

Things are changing in the live music business. Clubs aren’t hiring live acts like they used to, and corporate integration has changed the concert scene into mainstream monotony. On the bright side, though, house concerts--musical events in private homes--are emerging as the hot, new venue.

It was a good thing in the 1950s when transistors started replacing vacuum tubes. Tubes are fragile, hot, heavy, noisy, power-hungry, expensive and prone to hum. Transistors are cheap, clean, and efficient; they are what make portable audio possible. So if transistors are so good, why are audiophiles willing to pay five figures for a pair of monaural tube amps?

Jordan Kirtley

For the last 20 years or so people have been watching The Wizard of Oz while listening to Pink Floyd’s album “Dark Side of the Moon.” They claim the two works have synchronicities that couldn’t have happened by accident. You know the kind of people I’m talking about. But I’m not here to dissuade them. In fact, I think that the practice known as “The Dark Side of the Rainbow” is a good thing.

A few of the coincidences are striking. For instance, the song “Money” begins precisely when Dorothy steps out of the black and white house into the colored world of Oz.

Jordan Kirtley

Click the Listen button above to hear Mark Foley's examples.

Internet lore has it that the sound of crickets, when slowed down, sounds like humans singing. I think trying it is the only way to see if it’s true, so let’s give it a shot.

This is the sound of one cricket chirping: (Ex. 1)

If I slow this sound to one-tenth the speed, it sounds like this: (ex. 2)

Beautiful, but not very human-like to me; maybe more like a large bird.

Neil Young has always been terrifically outspoken how the music business can hurt music quality; he’s also been doing something about it.

Coming off a successful Kickstarter campaign, he’s developing a new music delivery service called Pono. Pono promises to bring higher quality digital recordings by avoiding over-compression and by using a much higher sampling rate and bit depth.


May 22 of this year is the 100th anniversary of the arrival to this planet of Sun Ra. As a piano player, composer and bandleader Sun Ra’s terrestrial incarnation was one of the true innovators in jazz; a bridge spanning the beginnings of big band jazz to a distant world that only exists now in Afrofuturist science fiction.