Thursday, November 30, 2017

Switched-on-Barber

Well, it's been awhile since I posted here, but 2017's not getting away that easily. This will be brief, but I've got a few more tricks up my sleeve before the new year.

I mentioned in my previous post from June how a Facebook discussion led me to do a quick mashup of music by Samuel Barber and The Who - because my pianist friend Tim is a passionate fan of neither. The same Tim wrote this week in response to a poll about "favorite string instruments":
...after spending thousands upon thousands of hours of my life with violins, violas, and cellos - my vote for best string instrument goes to Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Number One" Fender Stratocaster
Because I know that Tim's disdain for Barber has a lot to do with his having accompanied that composer's Violin Concerto thousands upon thousands of time, I thought I'd try to do a quick mock-up of Stevie Ray Vaughan playing the fiery final movement. (Same movement I paired with The Who!) Admittedly, my knowledge of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Stratocasters can basically be summed up as "electric guitar sounds," but Barber does most of the talking here anyway. The result is more prog rock (think ELP's Musorgsky or Yes's Brahms) than Stevie Ray, but I found that Barber's gritty, manic perpetual motion machine sounded "right" with the distorted guitar. It really does sound like a wild man riffing away, almost out of control, with a backing band that can barely stay with him.*

I only made a 30-second demo, and then posted that audio on Twitter - where it attracted zero attention because Twitter isn't any fun anymore. (That's a whole other story.) I figured maybe I could blog about it, but also figured I'd be better off putting it on YouTube since social media algorithms love video. And, yeah, I could've just added a random slideshow of Barber photos as is done here. But I thought it would be more fun to...well, things kind of evolved, and when I had the idea of animating Barber himself playing the guitar, I couldn't resist the challenge.

Honestly, doing this was more a proof-of-concept experiment than anything else. The syncing of animation and audio is far from perfect and I'm sure Virtual Barber's guitar technique is far from authentic, but I still think it sells the idea well enough, and I got to toy around with some basic animation concepts that have interested me. So, in the spirit of those great Switched-on-Bach records from the 70's, I present Switched-on-Barber:



What more can I say?
  • If nothing else, I feel like I'm perhaps the only person who would've done this - not just re-imagining the notes on guitar (easy enough), but pairing it with this sort of homemade animation. 
  • It's short! (But you won't be able to resist watching it at least a couple of times.) I don't see any reason for a full transcription as this gets the idea across.
  • If you're curious about the method behind my madness, I was able to get a quick start because someone out there has posted the MIDI for the piano accompaniment. I'm not sure it's all that accurate, but I just dumped that into Finale, then entered the violin notes (easy, because all the same rhythmic value) from this score video
  • To make the video, I used Scratch in a fairly crude re-working of the animation program I created for this Bach fugue. It was a big relief to remember that I'd written a Python script (even though I barely know Python) which imports notation from a Lilypond text file. I just exported the Barber notes from Finale to Lilypond via Music XML, ran the Python script, and I now had the notes needed to drive the Scratch animation. [I was just trying to write the geekiest paragraph in MMmusing history there. Hope you enjoyed it.]
  • If you like this sort of thing, here's a more complete electricalization of some Brahms
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* For the record, I do really like the Barber Violin Concerto, although I've always found the final movement to be the least successful, like it's trying a little too hard to be edgy. So, naturally, I set out to make it edgier.

Monday, June 19, 2017

flotsam and jetsam...and covfefe

One of the inevitable byproducts of my peculiar way of being on social media is that I end up with all sorts of multimedia fragments produced in response to this or that. Many of them find their way here to the blog (such as this Bach Suite Boys bit now featured on Classic FM), but some don't seem quite postworthy - unless, I introduce them this way in a post about the unpostworthy!

A couple of weeks back, when the Trump covfefe tweet was having its fifteen seconds, I kept seeing musicians link to a little "covfefe" aria that ends with the famous Rite of Spring chord - which was fine and cute. But, I couldn't help speculating that the ambiguity of Trump's neologism deserved a similarly ambiguous musical context, so I suggested that Wagner's Tristan chord would be more appropriate.

Even though the story had long since blown over, I couldn't resist the challenge and decided I'd transition to Wagner from the much more conventional and comic Rossini - specifically, the opening of Almaviva's aria "Ecco ridente in cielo." One could make a case that this tenor aria is much too elegant and lyrical for this character, but I couldn't come up with a good transition from Figaro or Don Basilio, buffo characters more in the spirit of Don Trump. And I think the raspy synth voice makes up for it. Plus, the one bar of Rossini I quote is quite pedestrian, so it's more like Don Trump begins by trying to be profound and quickly finds himself completely lost.

Anyway, what we have here is a two-bar micro-composition. It's fragmentary for sure, though I think it can also stand on its own as a Tweetstück. (A German piano piece is often titled "Klavierstück.")



There's not really an original note here as all I've done is segue from one work to another, though I still think I deserve a finder's fee for showing how nicely this transition works. A quick history of 19th century opera in two bars. Short as it is, a Trump opera should have at least one tweet aria, so I've included it in my quirky Il trumpatore playlist.

And since I promised both flotsam and jetsam, here is something even briefer, which is nothing like a complete composition. Just a little proof of concept. In a Facebook discussion that had sprouted off from my Bach Suite Boys example, it occurred to me that one of the discussants is a big non-fan of The Who and Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto. So, just for T.B., I proposed a "Barber O'Riley" mashup that would combine Baba O'Riley and...well, you know. Because it's easy to do and because it's fun to do, I offered up only four bars, and here they are:




If there's anything valuable about this kind of exercise, it's showing how easily gestures from very different genres can cross over and work together. Sometimes ten seconds of audio are worth a thousand words - or at least a few dozen.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Punspiration (or Puns as Portals)

Anyone who's been here before would know that I love mashups and wordplay, and if you've read closely enough, you'd know that I think of these two sports as two sides of a many-sided coin, connected by the idea of connection. (Counterpoint is another side of that coin.) For whatever reason, I've found myself creating two little mashups in the past week which were inspired by puns; you could even say these mashups have no reason to exist apart from the coincidence of some silly wordplay. Keep reading if you dare.

Just a couple of days ago, a Facebook friend wrote something about how young people in his children's choir don't know/respect the classics...specifically, the music of "The Backstreet Boys." The truth is, I only know one one song (only because of this) from this boy band's canon, but I nonetheless ended up making a silly joke about "knowing all the canons in the Bach Suite Boys' canon." Before long, I was thinking of which Bach suite might best host "I want it that way," and after I'd settled on the Allemande from the D Minor French Suite....



...the rest took shape pretty fast. (I believe that in square dancing, participants are sometimes asked to allemande this way and that, so I ran with this idea and imagined a caller just telling his dancers to allemande...that way.)



Only a few days before on the very same Facebook, I had written something about Pachelbel's Canon in D and weddings. A friend mentioned she'd heard once of a couple who requested the "Indie Canon" for their ceremony. It didn't take long for me to think of re-imagining Indie as Indy, and voilà, another bit of punned counterpoint:



So, I believe both of these little "pieces" are musically satisfying, but they would honestly be less so if they didn't have that silly pun logic holding them together. It's as if the pun becomes a portal through which we find two somethings are more connected in a way we'd never otherwise have imagined.

I have, of course, done this kind of thing before, most notably with varied ways of combining Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" with other springtime selections. (I guess these are barely puns since the word "spring" basically means the same thing in each context.) Anyway:

Stravinsky + Copland



Stravinsky + Vivaldi



Stravinsky + Beethoven



But that's not all! There's this play on the fact that pianists often refer to Rachmaninoff as "Rachy."



And finally, two realizations of a world in which Luigi Boccherini meets Mario's brother Luigi:




(Yes, I realize Luigi -> Luigi is also not a pure pun.)


If you just can't get enough, here's an MMmusing Musical Pun Playlist, with a few bonus tracks.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Creativity as its own reward

A few days ago, my sister posted some photos of azaleas on Facebook and noted that the azalea has historically been cheated in the poetry department, at least compared to the more easily rhymed rose. I suppose one could call azaleas by a more easily rhymed name (zales?) and they'd smell just as sweet, but she took up her own implied challenge and wrote a lovely little poem incorporating regalia, Australia, etc.

I find this kind of challenge irresistible, but to up the stakes, I decided to reply to her photo with some verse about the chrysanthemum. It took a little doing and some really lame and ultimately abandoned attempts to make something of "anthem hum"-ming, but eventually the following popped up:
I've fifty cents and offer up this handsome sum
to any who can versify chrysanthemum.
I think this little meta-couplet is pretty good (the trick being that "handsome sum" is a commonly used expression so that it flows naturally), and I hope you notice that writing it proved literally to be its own reward. I won the fifty cents! True, this is sort of the ultimate example of a closed economy. I've thought about this lately since I spend a lot of time doing little creative things that haven't necessarily paid off outside of my own little circular economy, but they're still rewarding!

So it is that, also a few days ago and also on Facebook, I saw that it was the birthday of my blogging pianist friend Erica Sipes. I'll admit I don't pass along Facebook birthday wishes as often as I should because I always feel the pressure to do something creative. But I'd noticed that Erica was Facebook-live broadcasting one of her Bach practice sessions, so the idea of putting "Happy Birthday" into a Bach context came to mind.

Of course, I knew without even searching that this is a challenge that's been taken up many times (including in this charming fugue), but I reached the point of no return when I thought about the C-sharp Major Fugue from Book II of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, a piece with which Erica and I have a shared history. She's the one who suggested that its bouncing staccato character and the rhythmic acceleration that happens over the course of the piece create an effect reminiscent of popcorn popping, which led me to create a fun program/animation:



The reason this new, self-imposed challenge was so instantly appealing is that I realized Bach's fugue subject begins with the same basic melodic shape as the famous birthday tune (which also goes up, back down, back up a bit further, then down a step):
So the terms of the challenge (or puzzle?) basically set themselves:
  • Write a short (it's just a Facebook birthday greeting, after all), playable, fugue-like snippet that mimics the structure of Bach's popcorn fugue, while re-orienting the pitches along the lines of "Happy Birthday."
There are many approaches I could have taken within these constraints. Notice that if I'd begun on the same bass-register C-sharp as Bach, I would have ended up with a subject in F-sharp Major instead of C-sharp because "Happy Birthday" begins on the 5th scale degree, whereas Bach's subject begins on the tonic. (Opening pitches would've been: C# - D# - C# - F# - E#.) As you can see below, I begin on G-sharp.

So, the puzzle solution I came up with has the bass present all the correct pitches of "Happy Birthday" (in C-sharp Major) in order (minus a few pitch repetitions), but with a different rhythmic profile that follows the character of Bach's fugue. Because the subject also ends up functioning as a bass line, and because the birthday rhythms are obscured, it would probably be easy to miss that it's even there - which pleases me.
The soprano fugue "answer" does pretty much the same thing (in the subdominant F-sharp Major*) through the third phrase of "Happy Birthday" before turning towards a sudden cadence, but again the tune could easily be missed here because our ears still hear this context as C-sharp Major. Note that, as with Bach's fugue, the entries of the theme are piled right on top of each other, with the third voice entering inverted and diverted towards the cadence almost right away. It's not really a full fugue or even a fughetta - more of a postcard fugue. It would make nice bumper music heading towards the commercial on some Baroque sitcom ("I Love Lully?").

Is this way too much to have said about a four-measure piece? Is this too short to be a piece? Is it more of a puzzle solution? Do I need to stop with the "Happy Birthday" homages already?

There was a time when, understanding much less about musical structure and style, I was stunned that people could re-house a familiar tune in what I assumed to be the ineffably inimitable character of Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven. Now I realize it's kind of a parlor trick, and though I don't really aspire to be a musical comedian in the mold of Victor Borge or Peter Schickele, I obviously love interacting with musical puns. Such a fun creative outlet. I think I'll pay myself another fifty cents...



* Having the answer in the subdominant instead of the dominant is a bit unusual, but it happened to work out well in a piece that needed to end quickly.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

No hidin' from this joke master

I've never done an April Fools Day post because it's kinda cliché - just an excuse for people to post misinformation in hopes of getting a cheap laugh. But, it occurs to me it's a perfect day to give credit to music's greatest jokester - whose birthday is also today! That's right, the one and only Papa Haydn was born on April 1; and legend has it that on the day he was born, just after he'd seemingly drifted off to sleep at the end of a perfectly periodic lullaby, he suddenly cried out fortissimo. All the midwives burst out laughing.

Of course, the Classical Comic's ingeniously witty "surprise" trick would make a return in the famous slow movement of his Symphony No. 94. Sometimes I have my doubts and wonder if this particular joke is overrated, but I just found this fantastic recording which really reveals how forward-looking and modern he was: