Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Speaking of music

Strange. I was already planning to write a post about a light-hearted little speech-to-music thing I created - and then a speech-heavy work wins the Pulitzer Prize! I'm so cutting edge - though I don't have much more to say about this year's surprise prize. The Pulitzer has never really meant much to me anyway. Honestly, there are many previous winners whose music I don't know much better than I know Kendrick Lamar's work, though I know he's not the first to use speech in a musical way. For example, here's your 2013 Pulitzer winner.

(There are also iconic works by Steve ReichAlvin Lucier and many others which incorporate speech.)

I became interested in the idea of speech becoming music when I first heard an excellent 2010 (?) RadioLab episode called Musical Language. The opening segment features a fun little story about an audio expert hearing her own speaking voice looped and thinking she's hearing singing. The looped words that behave so strangely are: sometimes behave so strangely.

You can hear the whole segment via the link above. I used to play it for classes learning about recitative as a way of thinking about the tonal and rhythmic characteristics of language. I've since returned to the idea of looping speech into music a couple of times, and also just remembered that I'd explored it many years before.

Most recently, I was having a Facebook discussion with my composer friend Wesley. He said he'd been told that some scale passages he'd written into a work-in-progress were just noodling. I [wittily] suggested, "Make them octatonic scales....and then it'll be octatonic noodling." He replied: "They are octatonic."

At that moment, impressed by my obvious psychic insight, I heard unbidden the mellifluous lilt of Frasier's Daphne Moon saying, "I'm a bit psychic." The phrase came to me much as one might hear a musical theme conjured up by a memory. To be fair, this catchphrase, which really doesn't function as a catchphrase on the show, probably had taken on a thematic quality in my brain because of a podcast I'd been listening to about Frasier.

I can't really recommend the Talk Salad and Scrambled Eggs podcast, hosted by indie film director Kevin Smith and Matt Mira, unless you enjoy hearing two people spend 80% of their Frasier podcast talking crassly about Star Trek, The Terminator, Comic-Con, and just about anything else while laughing interminably at their own jokes. However, from early on, Smith took to imitating Daphne's Manchesterian "I'm a bit psychic" like so:

And thus, these distinctively delivered syllables had clearly come to function as a leitmotif which was awoken instantly the first time I felt a bit psychic! I quickly tossed together a little loop of the line as a message response to Wesley, then later toyed around with it a bit more until I'd come to this:

Turns out this is the second time on my blog in which I've turned an English actress's speech into song, though Emily Watson is so understated here that the syllables don't quite take flight. (The teacup percussion is awesome, though.)

Finally, just to be complete, I remembered while playing around with the psychic bit that I'd once done something similar with the plaintive words of my then 2-year old daughter back when she needed her beloved blanket. That 2-year old is now 18, so although I don't remember much about creating it, I must've found the bass loop in whatever cheap, turn-of-the-century music software I had at the time:

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Suggestions d'anniversaire

I'm afraid "Happy Birthday" parodies are becoming a bit of a cottage industry for me. I've tried to resist because the tune has been parodied and variation-ed so often...but Facebook. When a birthday comes up, I like the idea of "saying" something unique. Incidentally, this means I often don't say anything on friends' birthdays which "bad job by me!" because I enjoy getting lots of birthday greetings, even when they're simple. Anyway, the more I work with this tune, the more suggestible I become.

So this week, when I saw that my college roommate (a fellow pianist) had a birthday, I did a quick mental run-through of music I associated with him (narrowly avoiding a diabolical suggestion*). When the slow movement of the Ravel concerto came to mind, I noodled away enough at the available keyboard to figure I could make something of this marriage.

First of all, there's nothing as perfectly exquisite as this movement. It features a lovely but subtle tension between a slow-waltz-like left hand with two groups of three 8ths per bar (intentionally obscured by the beaming) and a right hand melody which tends to organize more often in three. This provides lovely cross-rhythms that help the melody to float independently. Harmonically, the writing is full of low-impact dissonances, like between the right-hand A in m.2 and the left-hand G-sharp - dissonances spaced far apart and played softly enough to register more as poignant than sharp. And a quick turn to the minor iii in m.4 establishes the bittersweet tone.

Everything moves slowly, with plenty of tied notes across barlines and phrases of unpredictable length. Improvisatory, meditative...but also sensual and beautifully planned out. Ravel is known as one of the great orchestrators, but this opening piano solo (almost three minutes long) is my favorite part of this movement; the wind writing that follows is actually rather precarious from a tuning/balance perspective, although the long English horn solo [5:46 below] at the end of the movement, with piano filigree around, is worth waiting for. You can view the whole movement with score here.

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I think the idea of "playing with music" in the manipulating and re-composing sense is underrated as a mode of engaging a given work. (As opposed to the more popular modes of performing, listening, analyzing.) So what I've loved most about all my "Happy Birthday" parodies is the opportunity they provide to look inside something that's beautifully composed and sort of compose alongside it.

In this case, I had lots of tricky choices to make. I first toyed with simply layering the first phrase of "Happy Birthday" right on top of Ravel's melody, like so [recording is an ugly synth "performance"]:

...but even with the unexpected cadence in minor, this just sounded too bright and cheerful. The Ravel/Birthday balance was tipped too far to the right, so I ended up beginning more ambiguously with Ravel's opening phrase turning itself into a relative minor version of the opening birthday phrase. From then on, the other three birthday phrases arrive in in the "correct" key of E, stretched this way and that to fit over the original. It would be easy enough not to notice "Happy Birthday" at all. The left hand accompaniment and "alto" countermelodies are mostly from the original, though I make a cut to the end of Ravel's opening piano solo because it is so beautiful. Here's what I came up with:

And here are some of my other re-imaginings of this tune:

* ...  the birthday friend also used to dazzle with this insane bit of Prokofiev, and what began as a footnote here has turned into another quick discovery realization, here with the four tune phrases rattled off in quick succession.

Friday, March 16, 2018

At the Barbershop: Closing Time

And so we circle back in this unlikely Barber Week to one of my first experiments in barbarizing Barber. Back in November, I debuted a 30-second demo animation of Barber himself playing the finale of his Violin Concerto on the electric guitar. I wrote," I don't see any reason for a full transcription as this gets the idea across." Ha! I should know myself better.

The truth is, this concerto closer only lasts about 3.5 minutes, and though that includes a LOT of notes (almost 1800 for the soloist, counting double-stops as one each) played at blistering speed, Finale has a wonderful input method which allows consecutive notes of equal value to be entered simply by playing them at any rate on a keyboard - and most of the notes here are triplet 8ths (played at a pace of about 10 notes per second!). So entering the notes wasn't such a big deal. I did have to do a lot of clean-up work on the MIDI notes I'd found online for the orchestra part - but not TOO much clean-up. A certain edginess in the backing band (here mostly electric piano, electric organ, bass guitar and percussion) just adds to the effect.

I already wrote about my working method for developing the animation here, but getting the animation to work was my favorite thing about this project. Essentially, each MIDI note event can be mapped to a motion from virtual Sam. This is hardly what real guitar technique looks like; in this video, Sam's hand simply moves up the fingerboard incrementally based on pitch as if the instrument only has one string - but it makes for a pretty cool visual! (At least I've updated virtual Sam's instrument from a bass guitar (!) to a Fender Stratocaster.)

My other favorite thing here is the cool-hot contrast between the classical world and the prog rock world. Although Gil Shaham is quite animated and engaged in this dazzling performance of the real thing (starting at 19:10)...

...there are still the "cool" signifiers of white jacket/tie, very serious orchestra, very quiet audience, neutral-looking stage. There is wildness and a feeling of abandon in the music, but all contained in a carefully controlled environment. (I've written endlessly about this with respect to The Rite of Spring.) With my animation, we get the grittier association of electric sounds (although my guitar articulates the pitches much more clearly than a violin can), the pounding rhythms of percussion (although in a way, these strong pulses actually tame Barber's metrical tricks*), and the fiery red stage and instrument, all intentionally contrasted with the unchanging, serious expression on cool Sam's face. By the way, those parenthetical "althoughs" are very important, as they point to internal contradictions in defining the classical and rock worlds as cool and hot.

But I am intrigued by the idea that the buttoned-up Barber (just listen to him talk in this 1958 interview, in which his speech is almost indistinguishable from the equally buttoned-up interviewer) had musical skills that would easily translate to an entirely different environment. Almost makes me think I should add wild, heavy-metal crowd noises to further the contrast, but I think I've done enough harm for now.

My week of Barbershopping thus closes with the conclusion of Barber's Violin Concerto - in red!

* Confession Time: Of all the pieces I've accompanied over the years, staying on track in this finale has always been one of the most difficult challenges. Barber does a lot of shifting accents off and on beats in ways that make it really hard to feel where the beat is. I would try "just counting" at the piano, but when the solo part does little things that make the beat seem to shift by just one tiny triplet note, it's very easy for the "just counting" part of my brain to get tricked. This may well be a sign of my own cognitive limitations, but I'm not convinced all of Barber's tricks are effective because they're so slippery, so in a perverse way, I kind of enjoy my animated version because the pounding drums make it so easy to keep track of the beat.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

At the Barbershop: Snack Time

Continuing on with my Barbershopping, today's offering is on the more absurd end of the spectrum. I've been thinking often recently about the idea of "playing" music and its not-so-distant cousin "playing with music." (I wrote about this briefly about thirteen paragraphs into this post.) The classical mode of engaging classical music is to do so either by performing, listening, or analyzing. However, my years of experiments in mash-ups and other types of arrangements have taught me that "playing with" existing music - bending it, contorting it, whatever - can be one of the most satisfying ways to get inside a composer's creation.

I know that such distortion is often treated as a sort of sacrilege, although humorists like Victor Borge and Peter Schickele get away with it in the name of fun. Many years ago, I quoted then New York Times critic Alan Kozinn (who has pretty wide and progressive tastes) saying, "I would probably cringe to hear a young pianist play Scarlatti the way Horowitz did, but Horowitz’s eccentric twisting and rebalancing of Scarlatti’s ecosystem sounds just right when he’s the one doing it." Clearly, he's reacting positively to ways in which Horowitz is "playing with" Scarlatti's conceptions, but he's also been taught to think that's a bad thing, so: "Don't do that, young people!" I'm not going to go into all the ways in which this kind of "don't mess with the classics" mindset plays out, but I will say that doing a half-serious, half-baked orchestration of the fugue from Barber's Piano Sonata taught me a lot about that piece and about Barber's abilities and methods.

And now I'm back with something much sillier and perhaps closer to real sacrilege, but I still had fun making it and it has increased my appreciation for Barber's gifts.

Let's back up a bit. As I mentioned last post, my friends Tim, Peter, and I will sometimes have extended Facebook comment threads that go on for hundreds and hundreds of words. Sometimes about music, sometimes about baseball and other sports, sometimes...well, that's really most of it. Tim was off on one of his violin-concerto-based Barber-bashing rants (Bernstein did not fare well either), and I was defending my fellow Americans zealously. Then middleman Peter says [italics added for clarity]:
As much as I do NOT [appreciate] SB’s talents, I happen to think that the Fiddlecerto is his masterpiece, if not Knoxville, Summer 1945 (is that the right year?)
I wrote back:
 I also agree with Peter that Knoxville, Summer of...ahem...1915 is a winner. 
A few comments later, Tim confessed:
my scorn for anything Barber is well known but then I remember I love that Knoxville Spring 1905 piece
You can see where this is going - though you wouldn't guess what's coming - as Peter summed up:
I actually can’t both believe and NOT believe at the same time that we both love Rockville, fall of 1549..
And finally, I concluded:
I'm just glad to see [Tim] acknowledge the beauty of Barber's sublime "Burger King: about fifteen minutes ago."
Don't you wish you were in on these conversations? And, incidentally, it took a bit of sleuthing to go back and find that thread from late January, so in a way today's post is about preserving it for all time - or at least until winter dawns on the planet Knoxatron in 2215.

If you don't know the glorious work in question, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a 15-minute setting for soprano and orchestra of prose by James Agee. Among other things, "Knoxville" is one of the best examples I know of turning prose into lyrics.

So I love "Knoxville" - but I also love having fun, and I simply couldn't resist having a go at just the opening of my imagined Burger King homage. For reference, here is the beginning of the text set by Barber (which may be heard at the 0:31 mark here):
It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds hung havens, hangars.
And here, my house soprano and orchestra:

I know it's ridiculous, but I it's worth noting that Agee's text is also a celebration of the simple things - he just didn't know about burger kings.

Tomorrow, we'll conclude this little three-part exhibition of Barbershopping, which I think will put Barber right up there amongst the composers whose works I've tortured the most. Stravinsky is still the leader by far in this regard with Bach alone in 2nd place, but I'm as surprised as anyone to see Barber not so far behind Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Ives and Satie. (Satie was unexpected as well.) And, to get back to my opening point, desecrating this much-loved work has reminded me how much I love a lot of Barber. Even something as simple as entering the orchestration for that opening into Finale made me appreciate little details I hadn't thought about before. Your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

At the Barbershop: A Fugue for Strings

For some strange reason, I've been finding myself re-imagining lots of Samuel Barber lately. Actually, come to think of it, it's all because of my friend Tim, a fantastic pianist who's apparently accompanied the Barber Violin Concerto one time (or a hundred times?) too many. He's not a big fan of Sam. Thus it sometimes happens that in the midst of some endless Facebook discussion thread, Tim will say something which inspires me to send some tweaked Barber back his way. I've decided to refer to these ongoing projects as Barbershopping (a little play on Photoshopping), and am debuting an example on this second snow day I've had in early March.

In fact, it was a discussion about a loopy slur (see previous post) found in the "Menuet" from Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin that got Tim to talking about the other movements in that suite, particularly the fugue. We were discussing the fact that the fugue is one of the two movements from this piano suite which Ravel did not include in his well-known orchestration. (The other movement he left untouched is the toccata.) I learned that Ravel's fugue has been orchestrated at least once by the pianist Zolt├ín Kocsis; you can hear what that sounds like here

Because this is the way my mind works, this suddenly had me thinking of the famous fugue from Barber's Piano Sonata and whether or not it had been orchestrated. I've heard that there was a time when the jaunty subject of this fantastic fugue was known as the "Juilliard Fight Song" as so many budding virtuosi were tossing it around in practice rooms. I honestly hadn't thought about it for years, but it is delightful. See for yourself:

I lamented that I couldn't find an orchestration of this fugue with which to taunt Tim. Our mutual friend Peter, a violist and thus cruel of heart, immediately suggested that I should orchestrate the fugue. Too much work for a joke, I thought - until I found a MIDI version online, which meant the note entry work was done. Sadly, this MIDI version was condensed to only two tracks (right and left hand), meaning the four different fugue voices were all mixed up and not easily assigned to various instruments. Undaunted, I converted the MIDI in about 15 minutes to a very heavy-handed all-string version. Unfortunately...I still really liked it!

So, the die was cast, and I next set about entering all of the notes properly to make a more legit string arrangement. I'm not sure how practical it would be in real life as the six flats and the disjunct theme, though well-suited to piano, would be quite awkward on strings. There are three or four spots in my arrangement where I divided sections in ways that would be problematic, and a few stratospheric piano notes are brought down an octave. Also, I entered the notes as quickly as I could, so I'm SURE there are mistakes that I'm simply not in the mood to hunt down right now. Since this new "arrangement" was to be "performed" by synthesized strings in what was already a compromise, I felt I'd done enough to provide a proof of concept.

Here it is:

Barber is, of course, best-known for a transcription of the slow movement from his string quartet into an Adagio for Strings, so it's fun to imagine this as a sort of yin-yang complement to that. Rather than posting with my own inelegant string score, I decided it would be more fun to add a visualization of the MIDI. (The sonata is, of course, still under copyright, so I'm already pushing it my posting my own unauthorized "performance." If you'd like to view the piano score, you can find it starting at 14:00 here.) If you've been following the blog lately, you'll know that I've been in something of a fugue state for some time now. (See here and here.) This kind of visualization makes for a really fun way to watch the voices of a fugue interact.

Warning: there's more Barbershopping to come...

If you missed it, an earlier bit of Barbershopping appeared here back in November. I hope to return to "finish the job" at some point.