Friday, April 8, 2016


Although I haven't blogged as often as I'd like lately, I've been at this long enough to have a certain "reputation" among friends and followers. Simply put, I like to mash things together*, so when I saw this fun tote bag was being sold as part of a recent Timo Andres/Gabriel Kahane collaboration....

tote bag with cartoon image of Charles Ives and Benjamin Britten facing off in a 'celebrity death match'

...I couldn't help but start thinking of ways to bring the dueling Ives and Britten together. It's an interesting matchup of composers who don't share a lot of close stylistic ties - other than love for simple folk material and use of mostly tonal idioms spiced with plenty of colorful dissonance. Each has a reputation tied closely to his respective native land, though each is also too idiosyncratic to be a classic nationalist. Ives was a macho capitalist, while Britten was more the mild-mannered communist, though Ives has the more sentimental sweet-tooth. 

I first thought of making a silly Ives joke by layering two Britten pieces together and calling it an "Ives arrangement," but as I was thinking of works that best represented each composer (difficult to do as neither can easily be defined by one kind of style), it occurred to me that the serene strings of The Unanswered Question might alternate nicely with the amazing waves in the first Sea Interlude from Peter Grimes. From that basic idea, this came together pretty quickly:

If you don't know the originals - well, first of all, you should! But, I think these two landscapes merge together pretty naturally. Honestly, The Unanswered Question (1908) is music I hadn't thought much about for years, and I was surprised to realize only now that its opening sonority sounds very close (pitch and all) to the opening of Vaughan Williams' famous "Tallis" fantasia from 1910:

[NOTE: I wove together this Vaughan Williams with some even more unlikely Shostakovich at the end of this blog post.]

Perhaps that's why this particular Ives sounds more "British" to me than usual and seemed a natural setting for Britten's uncannily natural sea sounds.

I don't think there's a lot to add about my fairly straightforward mashup, although I'm particularly proud of how Britten's violins make such lovely counterpoint with Ives' bass line from about 0:30 - 0:55. I also like that Britten's brass at 1:08 seem to introduce Ives' questioning trumpet at 1:18. Easily, the most jarring music in the brief mashup is not my "fault," but is due to Ives' flutes playing the role of "fighting answerers," although I only gave them a brief cameo [1:42]. (For the record, the Ives begins at its beginning and is left as is except the one jump to the final trumpet question; Britten's music is chopped up a bit to fit above.)

So, there I go again. I definitely can't resist doing this sort of thing, but I like to think it's more about letting these composers speak to each other than it is about clashing.  As far as Ives and Britten go, I think these works are about as iconic as it gets for each, so I'm glad they were able to play nicely with each other.

* Let's just say more than one person made a point of sending me the link to this recently gone-viral medley, which is fairly clever, although not as insightful to me as this great bro-country wall of sound.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Music and Lyrics, Paganini Edition

A Facebook friend recently posted about lyrics she'd written to go along with a Suzuki violin rep standard - which reminded me that I once wrote some Suzuki lyrics back when Daughter of MMmusing #1 was learning the Book 2 "Witches' Dance," which is based on a theme of Paganini. (Actually, I guess the tune is by the same Süssmayr who wrote parts of Mozart's Requiem!)

First of all, if you don't Paganini's variations on this tune, you should [theme starts at 3:00]:

I'm happy to say that DoM #1 is now working on Paganini Caprice #24, but back in the day, I wrote these words to help her learn the Suzukified Süssmayr/Paganini, and I was delighted to discover this morning that I'd recorded her singing the words.

Witches' Dance (lyrics by Michael Monroe)
I’m a little witchy,
I’m a little itchy,
When I feel all twitchy,
I like to dance all around. 
If you’re not too lazy,
you can dance like crazy,
I will show the way. See,
watch as my feet leave the ground. 
Now I am up in the air.
Now I am way over there.
Now there are birds in my hair, but
that’s fine with me, I don’t care. 
Now I’m feeling sleepy,
much too tired to keep me
flying, so I come back down. 
Now that I am rested,
all the birds that nested
in my hair and messed it up
all are flying away
but I do hope that they
will all come back to see me some day!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

MMerry Christmas!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Fugue in Royal David's City

I've mentioned again and again that I tend to be most interested in composing when I'm building on something familiar. I need to get over this, because I think it's less about an inability to create good melodies and more about lazily taking advantage of the cachet that an existing melody carries. I don't just mean that I don't think listeners will believe in my tunes; it's more that I don't believe in them myself until I've lived with them for a while. (As I've often remarked, the world of classical music trades on this kind of cachet all the time. The famous tune of Beethoven's 9th is about as undistinguished as can be, but we don't tend to hear it that way because it carries so many strong associations from within and without.)

Perhaps getting over this hangup would make a good New Year's Resolution, but for now, I continue to find inspiration in Erica Sipes' ongoing musical advent series (see yesterday's post), in which she plays piano settings of well-known Christmas tunes. I was thinking it would be fun to try my hand at such a setting, but I'm also old-fashioned, so I decided to make it a fugue. I find the fuguing process to be fascinating because, though there are some very standard signposts to hit, the form invites the subject to find its own path - which is another way of saying, I didn't expect this to come out at all like it did.

The subject is based on the very Anglican "Once in Royal David's City," which is the traditional opener in the legendary King's College Lessons & Carols service. Honestly, I used to think of this as a pretty dull melody, but I've heard and sung to Nathan Skinner's inspiring orchestration at the Park Street Church Lessons & Carols for many years, and it has grown on me, especially the way in which Nathan harmonizes the downbeat of the final verse as a I 6/4 chord instead of the standard I, creating a wonderful sense of forward momentum. (You can hear the interlude leading into the final verse starting around 7:00 of this video from last Sunday evening. Wife of MMmusing is sitting first chair cello, Daughter of MMmusing is playing in the first violin section, and I'm standing there singing in the congregation - but I won't say where. The interlude also features a series of imitative entries, which suggest a fugal texture.)

Though my little fugue (started and finished on the same day) begins fairly properly, I do indulge in some parallel fifths and unprepared modulations along the way because...well, fugues are really about freedom, not rules. I wish my piano was better tuned here (perhaps yesterday's Beethoven banging didn't help), but I'm still pleased with the outcome:

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Carol for Beethoven

Carol of the Beethoven

I was asked by pianist/blogger friend Erica Sipes the other day if I had any favorite piano arrangements of The Carol of the Bells. Curiously, the first thing that popped into mind was this fun little Kabalevsky teaching piece:

Of course, it doesn't really qualify since it's basically in major instead of ominous minor - speaking of which, while considering the Ukranian carol tune, I realized for the first time that its basic four-note motif is also the beginning of the famous Die irae chant, which has been featured by so many composers. It occurred to me briefly that Liszt's fabulous Totentanz, based on the Dies irae, could easily be converted into some sort of wild exploration of those sweet, silver bells, but I chose only to go this far:

...and that was far enough.

However, the stupid tune was dancing in my head and soon it had danced its way into Beethoven's 5th. I'm proud to say I whipped this up in just a few hours, though I wish I'd invested more time in making it easier to play. But, since Beethoven's birthday comes but once a year, I figured I'd better get it posted today, so there it is [at the top of the post].

Happy Beethoven Day!