Sunday, February 5, 2017

NFL Pachelbel

Early this morning as I was practicing before for church, I realized I'd neglected to honor the special feast day that is Super Bowl Sunday - and, as happens remarkably often, the local team is part of the feast, which begins in about fifteen minutes. My scheduled postlude was a Toccata in G Minor by Johann "Don't Call Me One-Hit Wonder" Pachelbel, but I decided to insert a little fanfare introduction:

As it happens, this toccata features a tonic pedal tone, which is also true of the NFL on Fox theme. In addition to the fanfare intro, I inserted a little bit of the main theme starting right after m.7, though in the version above (recorded before the service), I made the mistake of not setting that quote apart with a trumpet stop, so it gets buried a little bit.

Anyway, the game is about to begin, so that's all I'll say for now - but at least I'm blogging again. Go Pats!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Bidin' my time waiting for a legit reason to blog...

For all the meta-multimedia mashup musing M.M. (from Massachusetts) has done here over the years, I've steered pretty clear of that ever-popular social media "m," the meme.* For the record, I'm annoyed that the broad and culturally interesting term "meme," which can apply to a wide variety of ideas and expressions that become widely disseminated, has become mostly associated with silly text applied to existing images. I'm even more annoyed with people who think they've "created a meme," when they've simply created an instance of a meme. I will not take credit for creating a meme, but I will submit some silly text I've recently applied to existing images.

An organist/church music director friend wrote the other day on Facebook about how much he loves the "Biden memes," in which the vice-president is depicted as a fun-loving prankster saying all manner of less than vice-presidential things to Obama and others. It's easy enough to Google "Biden memes" to get a sampling, but I figured my organist friend might enjoy imagining Biden talking music as well.

I'm not saying these are particularly good, but they exist, and here they are:

{If you've never heard "Young Messiah," here's a sample [1:01:08]}

That last one isn't very funny, but I was proud of Photoshopping a Stravinsky score into Biden's hands.

* OK, there was this uneven series of takes on one of the first popular Internet memes.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Schumann, Shostakovich, Scherzi, and Scales

Tomorrow I have the pleasure of playing not one, but two of the great piano quintets in a recital with North Shore Chamber Music. The piano quintet (piano + string quartet) has always been the ideal ensemble for my tastes, although composers have written many more piano trios (piano + violin + cello) and many, many more string quartets. The trio is a more practical combination for living rooms (really the primary venue for nineteenth century chamber music), and the string quartet is more perfectly balanced and avoids the annoying problems of making string players match the compromised tuning of a piano. (By the way, I couldn't care less about those problems!)

But the piano quintet offers more possibilities for heroic, grandly scaled drama, especially pitting the keyboard against the quartet. And, for whatever reason, it has inspired some of the most inspired works in the chamber music canon, perhaps because the ensemble size pushes composers to combine the best of the chamber music spirit with the ambitions of larger-scaled works like symphonies and concerti.

I'll confess that my absolute favorite quintet belongs to Brahms, but the Schumann is right behind with Dvorak's, all probably falling easily within my unpublished "50 Greatest Pieces of All Time" list. (Brahms is Top 10.) The Shostakovich is newer to me, and has a few quirky elements that still mystify me a bit, but it is deeply moving, strikingly original and thoroughly entertaining.

Tomorrow's recital pairs Shostakovich and Schumann, with the more modern work going first, in part because it has such a gentle, almost "lullaby-like" ending (one of its quirks). The two quintets make for a nice contrast: Shostakovich's five-movement structure is often moody, sometimes violent, sometimes sardonic, and particularly creative in the way the composer mixes and matches the instruments. Schumann's quintet is more tightly constructed, and though there is some definite pathos in the funereal second movement, the other three movements are among his most joyful and exuberant creations.

The great choreographer Mark Morris has apparently staged the Schumann quintet, although I  regrettably haven't been able to find any video. However, I love this description from critic Terry Teachout, who ranks Morris's dance as a masterpiece:
...toward the end of the last movement...Schumann launches a fugue-like musical episode and the dancers run out from the wings and start to embrace one another. Right then, I knew Morris had “solved” the dance–that he had successfully worked out its internal logic and was demonstrating the solution on stage–and my eyes immediately filled with tears.
That fugal episode (which you can hear at 27:26 of this video) combines the themes of the first and last movements, and is indeed as life-affirming as music can be. It's interesting that for Schumann, the fugue idea is used as a kind of summation; although the various instruments do present these themes in contrapuntal succession, the effect is one of unification. On the other hand, the entire second movement of Shostakovich's quintet is a fully worked-out fugue in which the individual voices seem to be wandering on their own separate paths. It's true that this is partly the difference between a major key "fugue-like passage" in a fast tempo vs. a minor key, slow and extended fugue, but it's also true that Shostakovich tends to treat his five players more as individuals, and he has a flair for expressing the feeling of isolation in sound. (Incidentally, the subject of this fugue sounds a lot like the haunting primary theme of John Corigliano's score for The Red Violin.)

But my favorite connection between these works is this: they feature two of the best scherzo movements ever! I first heard Schumann's scherzo in a scene from a documentary about the 1985 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in which all semi-finalists were required to perform either the Schumann, the Dvorak, or the Brahms. The scene was beautifully edited so that it cut back and forth among various contestants playing this scherzo with the Tokyo String Quartet. I fell in love with it right away, and never get tired of this manic celebration of that simplest of musical building blocks: THE SCALE. You can see exactly what I mean in this amazing visualization. (I know I keep using the word "favorite" in this post, but I think this is my favorite music visualization ever! Often graphical visualizations fail to capture important subtleties of harmony which are so essential to how music expresses meaning, but all those criss-crossing scales jump right off the screen below.)

The Shostakovich scherzo, which I first heard played by students at my daughter's summer music camp, is just as memorable, also based on fairly simple building blocks, including plenty of scales. Beginning around the 0:28 mark below, the pianist sounds like a student in a conservatory doing his exercises:

Speaking of students practicing, here's some slice-of-life video of me playing ping-pong with my son while a camp pianist diligently drills some ping-pongy passages from this scherzo in the background. Nothing much happens in the video, but it reminds me how much I love musical fragments - and it reminds me I should go back to practicing NOW.

Anyway, if you've got nothing else to do tomorrow afternoon at 3, come hear us!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

This just popped up

As ever, this blog tends to feed itself once it's active. In my previous post, I wrote about happening on a Bach fugue and converting the notation from the ungainly key of C-sharp Major to the slightly more gainly key of D-flat Major. I mentioned discussing this fugue with pianist/blogger Erica Sipes, who's spent a lot of time with Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier. In a Facebook conversation, she wrote: "The fugue reminds me of popcorn popping...starting with a kernel or two as the oil heats up and then speeding up as they all start popping. Profound, eh?"

Well, to me this actually seemed perfectly profound and on point (especially because of the way 32nd notes are gradually introduced to quicken the texture), so I started thinking about how to play with the concept. Since my piano tuner has advised against pouring hot oil into the piano, I decided to head back to the world of Scratch, MIT's marvelous graphical programming environment for kids (and kids at heart). I've actually learned enough "grown-up" programming since I last posted Scratch projects (see: here, here, and here) that I should really start learning how to do animations in JavaScript; but I wanted to see Bach popping right away, so I started scratching.

Scratch does have some limited MIDI capabilities (basically, you can tell it to play notes at a given pitch, for a given length, by a given "instrument"), but getting it to play a three-part fugue in which the beats stay synchronized, even as the tempo changes, meant I got to experience what it's like to build a MIDI system almost from the ground up. As I'll discuss more in a future post, this kind of problem-solving provides an interesting vantage point from which to think about how music works. Mundane functions like pausing, restarting, and jumping around within the music all required procedures that had to be thought through and executed. (In my programming experience, the latter is always much harder than the former!)

As for the popcorn animation, my first instinct turned out to be the best - nothing but a simple skillet in which each note "played" causes a kernel to jump up and then get randomly popped around the pan. I got to revisit my long dormant trigonometry skills as a way of ensuring that the randomly distributed kernels end up falling in a circular pattern. (Simply sending kernels to random values of X and Y resulted in a square distribution that looked silly with the round skillet.)

[The only nod to the actual musical structure is at 1:16 when the alto voice states the subject in augmentation (longer note values); if you look closely, you'll see especially emphatic pops for those four notes.]

Then, like kernels popping randomly in all directions, I found the project also started sprouting outwardly in unexpected ways. I spent a good bit of time trying to design a pop sequence that somehow shows the melodic shape of the three parts. This took a lot of work - and, frustratingly, resulted in something less elegant and realistic-looking than the simple random approach. The kernels that (for reasons unknown to reality) shoot popping kernels into the bowl look a bit too much like little bugs; perhaps a "bug" in the program. But I'm pleased with having met the challenge, although this version exists as an unfinished side curiosity for now. (Those are bass kernels in lower left, alto in upper left, and soprano in upper right.)

Other features crept in, including the fairly rudimentary functionality of being able to change instruments, tempo, volume balance, and key on the fly. Changing key (which, in a way, is how I got myself "into this fugue" in the first place) gave me the idea of allowing the user to change the key for each voice part individually. This led to the idea of a feature in which the music changes key randomly every beat, which creates a kind of 12-tone fantasy effect. (We all have different fantasies.) Then, it occurred to me that the integers I was inputting for pitches don't have to be integers, and suddenly a microtonal option was on the menu. (Unfortunately, "viola" is not one of the instrument options in Scratch's soundfont.) For the user who finds the popping kernels are inducing hunger, this microtonal option might help to erase any appetite.

Finally, because I already have the music entered into Lilypond, and because Lilypond is wonderfully flexible about output options, I converted the score into 35 one-bar systems which allow the user to view the score two bars at a time in the small window. It's not the most practical way to follow along, but it's nice for reference, and one can easily switch back and forth between staves and stovetop.

After I'd made it this far in writing this very post, I realized I needed to add a feature which inverts the music. Rather than simply invert each part within its own range, the parts are completely flipped so that the bass becomes soprano and the soprano becomes bass. Although it wouldn't have been so difficult to produce a nice elegant engraving of this new "score," I decided it's more fun to flip the existing measures upside down like so*:

Notice that the C-sharp which begins the subject in the bass is still a C-sharp two octaves up, and it even looks like a C-sharp in the inverted bass clef staff!

Here's a quick demo of most of these functions**:

That gets a little insane at the end as I flew to close to the sun in choosing a tempo that would get me to the end more quickly. All the more reason for you to try these fun features out on your own. Just go here or click the image below, which surrounds the embedded "game" within all the instructions you'll need.

Unfortunately, Scratch uses Flash technology which is becoming more and more outdated, so this program won't work on most mobile devices, and might not work on some computers, depending on what your browser thinks of Flash. This is why I'm not going to keep trying to iron out all the leftover kinks. (Sometimes, for reasons I don't feel like fixing, the kernels will suddenly grown enormous and overtake the entire screen - which is actually kind of a nice bug.) Time to move on and learn how to do this more elegantly and efficiently.

I have much more to say about "playing with" Bach in this way, and will post more soon. For now, I'll just say that the line between "playing Bach" (as in, performing it "respectfully" on a keyboard instrument) and "playing with Bach" perhaps shouldn't be so clear. Although there's no clear aesthetic purpose in inverting a fugue with microtonal distortions, I like to think of this program as a way of holding the music in virtual hands and turning it around to inspect like one would a snow globe.

In my last post, I quoted the great Charles Rosen about the satisfying way in which Bach's counterpoint fits the fingers. In the larger context, he's discussing the fact that this music was never intended to be performed publicly, but rather for more private encounters in which following the score (by performer and possibly by a few other listeners) is part of the experience of the music. Rosen writes:
Playing Bach for oneself or for a friend or pupil looking at the score...raises few problems; nothing had to be brought out, the harpsichordist experienced the different voices through the movement of the hands, the listener saw the score and followed all the contrapuntal complexity disentangling the sound visually while listening. Bach's art did not depend on hearing the different voices and separating them in the mind, but on appreciating the way what was separate on paper blended into a wonderful whole. [pp. 199-200]
Rosen goes on to suggest that modern performance in concert necessitates having the performer "bring out" the contrapuntal details more pointedly. I'm not sure I agree with that, especially because we know Bach loved secrets and hidden meanings, so he might enjoy the idea that various kinds of thematic connections are buried under a euphonious surface; but for now, I'm more interested in the idea that encountering this music can happen in lots of ways. And, yes, I'd agree that the best such encounters happen at the keyboard. Here again is my humble effort at playing this prelude and fugue shortly after learning them in my D-flat "version." (Fugue begins at 1:45).

Thanks again to Erica for her Bach/popcorn brilliant idea. Check out her brave and insightful online practice sessons and her lovely book on practicing. Come to think of it, practicing is something I should probably be doing! (I don't think it counts for me but, even as I type on a Tuesday night, I'm listening to my daughter zip through Bach's A Minor violin fugue, so I'm having a live fugue experience. Bach is the best!)

* Flipping the music upside-down distorts a lot of the tonal function, though the vague major-to-minor effect is cool.

** One feature I decided not to include, though I toyed around with it, is to have the notes played backwards. It's very easy to reverse the note/rhythm sets and that sounded cool in places, but running notation backwards also raises the question of whether notes should begin where they ended going forward (so that a whole note would begin right at the beginning of a backwards bar) or where they started going forward (so that a whole note wouldn't be played until the very, very end of a backwards bar), which aligns note attacks more often with the other voices but produces odd collisions going the other direction. If that didn't make sense, just think of how a record sounds played backwards. Assuming you're not trying to recreate that whooshing effect caused by reversing a note's sustain, then you're basically going to end up with significantly different rhythmic relationships among the parts.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Joy of Engraving

There was a time in my musical life when I wanted nothing more than to know every corner of the repertoire in systematic fashion. I loved collecting complete sets of symphonies, sonatas, and string quartets on records, looking at them lining my shelf, listening while reading the score or liner notes, and imagining that some day I'd know each movement of everything that mattered. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was a time when finding something new took effort and diligence, especially if you lived in a small town in Arkansas with no classical record stores within a couple of hours.

Now that every corner of the repertoire is just a simple search away, I've come to enjoy much more the serendipitous encounter. So, for example, it would shock the younger me to know that I never did get to know all 48 preludes and fugues of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier as well as I know Seinfeld episodes. (Incidentally, I also prefer just happening upon a random Seinfeld to choosing one on DVD). I once learned the first 12 preludes and fugues of Book I and performed them in an informal recital, but for some reason I've never wandered regularly into Book II - which means it can still surprise me!

The time when I'm most likely to open those pages is when I'm looking for prelude/postlude possibilities for Sunday morning. If no obvious chorale prelude or other hymn-based option is available, I'll often consider the more generic approach of finding a prelude in the key of the opening hymn or a postlude in the key of the closer. By definition, the two books of the Well-Tempered Clavier provide four options in each major and minor key. Still, most hymns tend to have no more than 2-3 sharps or flats, so that leaves a lot of well-tempered ground untrampled.

In planning for September 4, I realized our closing hymn was to be in the fairly unusual key of D-flat Major:

Technically, Bach doesn't use D-flat Major in his "cover all the keys" books, but that's because he chooses the enharmonic equivalent C-sharp Major. Basically, it's a different way of notating the exact same set of notes (at least for a keyboard instrument), though for many, the more commonly used D-flat, with its five flats, is easier to read than the seven sharps of C-sharp. Both key signatures would've been highly unusual in Bach's day (one of the reasons he created the books), and he may have enjoyed the intellectual game of pushing every note of C Major to the right. Sharp keys tend also to be associated more with music that's on the bright side. 

The C-sharp Major set from Book I is certainly very bright. The virtuosic fugue, one of Bach's giddiest creations, is one of my favorites, but I'll admit that when I learned it years ago, I was pleased to find that my Peters edition had both prelude and fugue printed in D-flat versions at the end of the book. However, neither of those pieces seemed like the postlude I was looking for (especially since getting the fugue back up to speed would be nontrivial), but I liked the fact that the more innocent-looking C-sharp Major fugue from Book II begins with the same two pitches (enharmonically) as the hymn tune above. I was away from a keyboard but chose it anyway, without playing a note or even listening to it. Bach is trustworthy that way.
As that Sunday morning approached, I was again away from home and piano, but I looked at the fugue I'd chosen a week before and grimaced at all the double-sharps and cancelled double sharps (which, by strange convention, are often printed with a natural AND a sharp next to the note to show that it's gone back to "normal"). Rather than say to myself, "I'd better start practicing," I thought, "I wonder if I can get this in D-flat Major." Well, neither of my editions had it this way, and none of the editions I could find online had flattened it, though Awadagin Pratt's recording curiously IDs it as D-flat.

With the wrong keyboard in front of me, I decided maybe I should just make my own D-flat edition on this humble Macbook. My ancient copy of Finale is only available to me on my Windows desktop, but I prefer the beautiful output of open-source Lilypond anyway, so I set to work entering the notes by name and number. 

I haven't written often about Lilypond here before, but though it does amazing things, the learning curve is steep. However, because I've been doing more and more programming anyway, the text-based interface has a certain appeal and I've slowly learned to love this way of interacting with musical ideas. I would go so far as to say that engraving music in this fairly arcane manner becomes another mode for encountering the music* itself (as opposed to the modes of listening or performing). The Lilypond experience is a bit paradoxical: the process is clunky and non-visual, but its algorithms do such a lovely job of spacing the elements of notation that the output can seem like magic. 

Actually, because I wasn't using a MIDI keyboard to enter pitches (generally a much faster approach), I chose to "cheat" by entering the music first in C Major. Although I'm just now learning that there are ways to enter pitches by scale degree, the default Lilypond input method means that a C is entered by "c" but a C-sharp is entered by "cis," a B-flat by "bes," etc, so it was much easier to "type in" the C Major version (which mostly just means ignoring the key signature, changing double-sharps to sharps, and naturals to flats). At this point, I realized that I could totally cheat and just play in C Major while turning the transpose button on our Rodgers digital organ up a step, but I wanted the tactile experience of playing as Bach might have felt it.** Plus, flat keys often sit more comfortably under the fingers. (Any pianist will tell you that D-flat Major scales are much more comfortable to play than C Major.)

Although the fugue hadn't made much of an impression on me when I listened to a few recordings, I found it thoroughly delightful to play and survived the Sunday morning postlude without too many slips. Meanwhile, the piece had slipped into my system, and I'd become intrigued by the possibility of making the Lilypond engraving look as good as possible, so I kept hacking away at it, while also starting work on the prelude.

The basic idea behind Lilypond is that it attempts to follow the principles of spacing that old-school music engravers would employ by hand. Its algorithms aren't perfect, so I've had to do some nudging here and there to get to where I am now, but the intricacies of laying out Bach's counterpoint on two staves create just the kind of challenges Lilypond is well-suited to solve. To be honest, I've never cared all that much about the editorial considerations among various editions, but I do care about elegantly laid out music which doesn't waste space. For my taste, most computer-generated modern editions use space very poorly, so one ends up with too many page turns and notes that don't really seem comfortable hanging out together. It takes time and craftsmanship (virtual or otherwise) to put notes, beams, accidentals, slurs, ties, etc. close together in ways that enhance readability.

My intention is to make my edition available on the IMSLP Petrucci Music Library (where I'd searched in vain for just such a thing). I'm pleased that the prelude and fugue each only occupy two pages, though I'll probably add larger font, three-page versions of each for those who love space to write in fingerings and phone numbers. I'll also likely upload the scanned version of the set from my old copy of Book I since that should also be easy for people to access.

I mentioned that engraving music is satisfying as a kind of artistic pursuit, but I do still enjoy playing, so it's been equally satisfying to learn these pieces while I worked, especially because playing through them is a good way to catch and fix mistakes. (I haven't yet figured out how to fix all the mistakes I make while playing!) I decided to try my hands at recording them so I could make a YouTube video of the score, and here you go:

Friend and fellow pianist blogger Erica Sipes has written and played eloquently about these pieces as part of her ongoing exploration of the entire Book II. I sent her my D-flat notation (not the recording) and she, having dutifully and appropriately learned the music in C-sharp, replied: "It's crazy how different that 'sounds' to me!!" I wrote back that, for the prelude, "I like the 'mellow' feel of D-flat," and she responded poetically, "I hear it as bright but mellow, if that makes any sense. It's like the sun behind the clouds."

This raises the fascinating question of how our musical perceptions are affected by key associations, and more generally by what we see on the page. One of the interesting truths about computer programming is that there are countless ways to write code that will produce the exact same output, but that's because the interpreter is a machine. Musical notation is a kind of programming, but we are both less reliable and, hopefully, more interesting as interpreters.*** (Another interesting difference between these types of script is that the slightest missing comma can disable an otherwise perfectly good computer program, whereas a human performer can overcome all sorts of musical notation errors.)

Beautifully engraved music can also help signal to the performer something about how a set of notes cohere. One reason I like more music per page is because I can more easily see larger shapes and structures, but I'm also convinced that the pure aesthetics of a good layout can have a positive effect. The visual becomes a part of the music for some performers. When I was searching online for information about the old Peters edition I own (with the D-flat Major appendix), I came across a message thread on in which a poster asked about finding a copy of this out-of-print score (edited by Franz Kroll). Many of the responders wondered aloud why someone would want less-than-up-to-date Bach when so many more "reputable" versions are readily available. Here was the touching response from "Marie1":
All of your suggestions sound good, but what I need is the edition that comes closest to the Kroll. I am quite elderly, have been playing from the Kroll edition for years and find it difficult to contemplate a change....
I don't even know for sure if Marie1 is using the same edition I've used and loved, but I do know the feeling. I've annoyed many violinists by preferring my old International Edition Beethoven Sonatas to the Henle Urtexts they worship, but I might as well be as comfortable as possible while wrestling with Beethoven's demands.

As for this specific prelude and fugue, I'm amazed as always at what Bach can accomplish in two pages. The prelude, which at first glance/listen seemed uninteresting to me, is incredibly satisfying to play, in part because it invites so many different approaches. I like to think I'll never play it the same way twice, though the performance above is kind of on the neutral side since I was probably trying too hard not to mess up. It resembles on the surface the famous "Ave Maria" Prelude in C from Book I, but whereas that harmonic progression/pattern is so familiar that it simply cannot surprise, I find there are dozens of unexpected twists and turns in the C-sharp/D-flat prelude. Each time I play, the "sun" Erica mentions wants to peek out from behind different clouds. Honestly, it feels less fully realized than the famous C Major, and that appeals to me more than it once would have.

The fugue is just as satisfying under the hands. Although the simple subject is treated quite playfully, with entrances of various voices piling closely upon each other, I find the satisfaction in playing Bach is in how everything works together, both musically and physically. Obviously he knew how to write counterpoint, but just as importantly, he knew how to write counterpoint for two hands in a way that is not always about independence of voices but is always about a gratifying interplay among the fingers. Charles Rosen writes:
Bach's art did not depend on hearing the different voices and separating them in the mind, but on appreciating the way what was separate on paper blended into a wonderful whole. (p. 200)
And it's just a guess, but I suspect Bach also loved the act of putting notes down on paper.

Here's a link to my "D-flat" versions in their current state. Please let me know if you find errors! Note that the PDF includes both the two- and three-page versions of prelude and fugue.

* One of the fads of current music education is to teach children to refer to sheet music as "notation" and not "the music." While it's true that squiggles on paper don't produce sound, they are music to me! 

** Actually, it seems the original version of the Book II C-sharp Prelude was in C Major (see p.2 here), so Bach himself might've just ported C Major into C-sharp. Who knows, maybe he never even played it in C-sharp?!

*** Right after playing in church, before I'd fixed some notational errors, I tweeted and uploaded a video with Garage Band guitars performing. I actually like this version a lot, but we can safely say it would sound just the same if I'd sent the pitches over in C-sharp.