Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Christmas Carol (The 12 Musings of Christmas #8)

Today, we turn from distorted sleigh rides to a more sentimental type of musing. What's better than gathering the family around to watch a classic Christmas movie on a cold winter's Saturday night? How about watching a movie starring your family? Here we have my first ever cinematic production, a somewhat abbreviated filming of the Dickens' tale (which, itself, is a pretty short story) starring a variety of nieces and nephews. Here's what I wrote about it seven Decembers ago:
The backstory is that I'd just gotten a computer powerful enough to import and edit video (remember when that wasn't routine), so on the drive down to see our large assortment of adorable nieces and nephews that Christmas, my sister and I hatched the plan of making a movie. Dickens' tale seemed the obvious choice, and somehow the casting all worked out pretty easily too. Since many of the actors were under the age of 6, the basic process was to feed lines one at a time and shoot. I made all sorts of videoing mistakes, such as not realizing that when I stopped (not paused) and then restarted the camera, I'd lose the last few seconds of the previous take. This, and the realities of shooting the whole thing in a couple of days with young children (and those annoying child labor laws) meant that the editing task that followed presented some . . . challenges. Although it took me almost two years to brave the task, I had a great time working within these rather tight constraints.

The final product is quite charming, and even features some special effects that tested the limits of the bargain-basement software I used. Of course the cute kids carry the film (my then 1-year old daughter makes a tiny cameo walking through the party scene), but the aesthetic point to be made here is that the constraints become a part of the language of the work. I wrote about that (and another family movie) in a past post, how certain flaws that would be unacceptable in one context are actually positives in another. (I was thinking something tangentially related the other day listening to Kermit the Frog sing on a Christmas album; that goofy, shaky voice would not be acceptable from just any singer, but our associations with Kermit's persona make it meaningful. Maybe the same could be said of Bob Dylan's voice, although his sound isn't as polished as Kermit's.)
It's amazing to realize that the Scrooge and Bob Cratchit from this production are now college freshmen, and the even younger "Christmas girl" is dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy this weekend for an excellent ballet company. My oldest daughter was only a toddler at the time, so she only toddles on and off screen briefly in the party scene. This movie is definitely a ghost of Christmas past.

I know that posting it veers pretty closely into family insider territory on the level of making someone sit through all your vacation photos - which, come to think of it, is now pretty routine on Facebook. I don't expect everyone to be as charmed by my family as I am, but I do think this is a fairly unique document of...something. There's bad jokes aplenty, a singing fish, and some genuinely moving moments. And it's much shorter than all those other Scrooge movies!

I've posted this on YouTube in two parts before, but this is the first time it's available in a single movie, with somewhat improved video (though this was in the "Christmas past" days before HD.)



The 12 Musings of Christmas (so far...)
  1. Christmas Time is Here
  2. In Season
  3. Vertical Christmas Medley
  4. Trippin' with Chestnuts
  5. Sleigh Ride in a Fast Machine
  6. Sleigh Ride of the Valkyries
  7. Sleigh Ride in 7/8
  8. A Christmas Carol

Friday, December 19, 2014

Sleigh Ride in 7/8 Time (The 12 Musings of Christmas #7)

We conclude our "Sleigh Ride" portion of "The 12 Musings of Christmas" with an arrangement I can only say I wish I'd created. John Eidsvoog's suave setting of the tune in 7/8 time glides along with such elegance that it hardly sounds off-kilter, at least as he plays it:



When a friend posted it on Facebook a few weeks back, I found it so irresistible that I ordered the sheet music right away (a bargain at $3.99). It is as delightful to play as it is to listen to, in part because EIdsvoog writes in a wonderfully pianistic way; it's not easy, but everything feels right and natural under the hands. (My biggest objection to much new music I encounter is that it seems to be written against the hands and the instrument. Writing for the piano is a very sophisticated art in itself.)

Since I'm advertising it as a pleasure to play, I thought it would be fun to try to record it myself. The arrangement is listed by the publisher as an "Early Advanced" solo, and it does fit the hands beautifully, but it's still full of traps, especially because the hands leap around a lot. I could really use more practice, and I haven't quite gotten into that relaxed groove in which Eidsvoog glides along, but perhaps my rendition is thus more neurotic. (It's hard in 7/8 not to get caught up in the feeling of falling forward!) I tried recording it first reading from my laptop and using a page-turning pedal, but I don't really know the notes well enough to read them when they're so small - so, I found a handy page-turner in the house, and got this done in the first take. There were a few takes that followed, but things didn't improve, so the video below is Take One, unedited. (I'm sure there's a Law Of Faking somewhere that says, "the first time is always best.") Not perfect, but proof that I've played it.



[Oh yeah, since I took a portrait-mode video and had some blank space on the edges, I decided to add a little running meter counter. If you'd prefer to view without the numbers, go here.]

For regular readers of the blog, the following will seem inevitable, but when I first followed that Facebook link a few weeks back, I ended up clicking over to the sheet music link in another tab. Turns out the purchase page starts the same video playing so, yes, I was suddenly hearing the arrangement mashed up against itself. And, yes, I liked it! I couldn't resist recreating that experience, though I cheated by starting the second recording right as the first section is ending in the other. (I always miss that effect now when I play it.) Sounds like this:


It becomes frenetically chaotic at some points (I think in part because the arrangement goes briefly into 5/8 right after the "second entry," so the downbeats don't align for awhile.) But there are some really fantastic harmonic clashes along the way, and those high hits starting around 1:20 are especially exciting. I can't help but think of the greatest 7/8 piece ever written.



Prokofiev. Piano. Precipitato. Pollini. Perfection.

Finally, in a fortuitous coincidence, Eidsvoog's arrangement in 7 lands on Day 7 of "The 12 Musings of Christmas." I didn't even plan it that way.



The 12 Musings of Christmas (so far...)
  1. Christmas Time is Here
  2. In Season
  3. Vertical Christmas Medley
  4. Trippin' with Chestnuts
  5. Sleigh Ride in a Fast Machine
  6. Sleigh Ride of the Valkyries
  7. Sleigh Ride in 7/8

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Sleigh Ride of the Valkyries (The 12 Musings of Christmas #6)

Yesterday, I mentioned that not all YouTube commenters are thrilled with my Sleigh Ride in a Fast Machine. Then there was this more positive (?) comment:


I can't disagree with ol' Curt - I didn't even post the "Sleigh Ride of the Valkyries" on my blog when I first created it. But, it's grown on me over the years - more smash-up than mash-up, perhaps. The opening actually works pretty well, and the final cadence has a nice whiplash effect. The less said about the middle, the better. I think what I like best about the whole thing is the unlikely combination of Sleigh Ride's completely good-natured merriment and Wagner's slashing menace.



Anyway, to quote Taylor Swift, "haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate." Nicholas Slonimsky has famously documented a wide-ranging number of great works that were initally panned by critics. In fact, when the #fakeAMS meme was going around a few years ago (mimicking the absurdist style of so many musicology paper titles), I proposed the following:
It's true that this "work" was also initially panned by me, but what do I know?

If this holiday offering disappoints you, I can also recommend Matthew Guerrieri's 2006 Dreidel Attraction, in which the Valkyries take a ride Wagner would never have imagined:




The 12 Musings of Christmas (so far...)
  1. Christmas Time is Here
  2. In Season
  3. Vertical Christmas Medley
  4. Trippin' with Chestnuts
  5. Sleigh Ride in a Fast Machine
  6. Sleigh Ride of the Valkyries