Tuesday, February 24, 2015

MMmusing's 10th (base 8) Anniversary!

If we lived in a base-8 world, today would be the 10th anniversary of MMmusing! As it is, since most of us include our thumbs when counting, today will be more properly be understood as the blog's 8th anniversary, but that's still something. January and February have traditionally been hibernating months here (check the archives to the right), but I'm back just in time with a strange little video that maybe should've stayed underground.

Some quick background: in the run-up to the Oscars last week, we ended up watching "The Theory of Everything", the Stephen Hawking bio-pic that was up for Best Picture. It's an enjoyable movie, though a bit too smooth and elegantly packaged for my tastes, but I did find one little scene particularly enjoyable - enough so, that I made my own iPhone bootleg of the scene as it streamed on my laptop:

Poor Emily Watson didn't have much else to do in the movie, but she nailed this scene, which seemed to me the perfect thing one might e-mail out to that potential church choir recruit. In fact, I made my own looping page for anyone who wants to try that out. (It leaves out Felicity Jone's clever, though possibly too perfect, reply.)

Because that resulted in me hearing the bit repeated over and over, I started wondering if it could be subject to the "speech-to-song effect" described quite memorably in this fun Radiolab "sometimes behave so strangely" segment. The idea is that a phrase repeated over and over can start to sound more like music than speech, partly because such repetition is a common musical device, but also because pitch and rhythm are important (if often taken for granted) parts of speech. It turns out that, at least for me, because Watson's speech is so whispered and relatively unmodulated, it didn't convert to a tune quite as easily as I'd hoped, though the rhythmic cadences are quite musical, and the tea-cup percussion adds a lovely counterpoint.

Anyway, I did come up with this, for better or for worse. There's an old saying, worth repeating: "there's humor in repetition." Perhaps there's music in repetition as well.

So: Happy MMmusing Day! If you don't want to join the choir, perhaps you'll enjoy something found on this interactive, annotated bibliblography.

P.S. For an example of spoken phrases used really effectively as musical phrases, there is Steve Reich's wonderfully inventive Different Trains. "From Chicago to New York..." starts at about 35 seconds in.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Der Schaufelmann

Spending 3-5 hours a day shoveling snow gives one lots of time to reflect. Inevitably, for me over the past week, those reflections turned to ways in which winter has been expressed through music, and though the likes of Vivaldi, Liszt, and Debussy have tried their hand at depicting the harshness of the season in sound, it occurred to me that no one really understood the loneliness of standing out in the freezing cold like Schubert. He wrote a whole song cycle about it. The poignant final song is supposedly about a pitiful hurdy-gurdy player standing out in the freezing cold and providing a nice metaphor for the poet's hopeless love life, but I felt a one-ness with the futility of the hurdy-gurdiest while tackling the white stuff these past fews days - and my time spent moving snow around (as the snow kept falling, and knowing the snowplows would come and push more back into my driveway) provided the mental time and framework for me to re-translate Wilhelm Müller's grim words for the common man. Here you go, winter.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Perfect Blackout

My love for mashups and indeterminate pieces has a lot to do with the satisfaction of finding unexpectedly meaningful connections that arise from unplanned intersections. Yesterday, I had a new kind of experience in which multimedia elements came together in remarkably logical fashion. I was accompanying several young cellists at my son's teacher's studio recital, held in the living room of an elegant Harvard Sq. home. One of the pieces I accompanied was the Squire Tarantella, which I hadn't thought much about since I learned (and loved!) it back in my cello days. As part of the Suzuki repertoire, it's a widely played piece, although I have to admit I don't know anything else by Mr. Squire, an important English performer and pedagogue. I was surprised to be handed, for accompanying purposes, an entire book of Squire's pieces for cello, but for now I only know this highly entertaining little solo.

It begins with a dramatic 8-bar intro featuring varieties of octaves: 5 ff sets of A's, followed by a twisting harmonic minor figure and a menacing rising bass line that leads into the cello tune. Just as I started in with those accented A's, the lights went off. (I'd like to think my stunning sense of style startled someone into a switch, but in retrospect, it looks like the lights started off just before I did.) Fortunately, it's a pretty easy bit of music to remember since it's all in octaves, but I can recall wondering if I should stop. I was vaguely aware of people springing into quiet action, but I knew the cellist was using music and it didn't seem fair to have him start in the dark. Honestly, it felt like 10 seconds or so of processing all of this, but the lights did come on in time for the cello to make a particularly dramatic entrance.

As it happened, Son of MMmusing had been the previous performer, so I still had the camcorder running on a tripod, which means I have a document of this whole thing. It was quite a surprise to watch it today and realize how beautifully the "lighting design" synced up with the music. The lights fade to nothing during those octave A's, it stays dark during the twisting, searching 8th notes, and the lights come back up as the bass line ascends, just in time to light the way for the star. (The switch was turned on less than 5 seconds after it had been turned off.) It really does look like it could've been planned this way - especially with that one lonely outdoor light framed through the window. I wish I could've enjoyed it more in the moment!

[I've anonymized the cellist here and faded out at the end, but I promise no other FX were applied. Technically, if I'd been the lighting designer, I would've brought the lights up a bit more slowly. This looks like a rush job.]

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The 12 Tones of Christmas (The 12 Musings of Christmas #11)

Once again, today's feature isn't my own creation (though I wish it was), but it's a true Christmas classic that should be celebrated - and, I do have my own two cents to add. Richard McQuillan's "The Twelve Tones of Christmas" brilliantly houses a famous count-to-12 song within a 12-tone accompaniment, "fiendishly deployed to maximize the dissonance level," in the composer's words. He also scored it for the unusually piquant combination of ocarina and harpsichord, instruments which are perhaps even more chilling in digitally synthesized form.

I wrote a couple of years ago that it "sounds like the kind of thing that would be playing if Captain Kirk showed up on a planet ruled by some sort of eccentric aristocrat." In fact, I'm sure I was thinking of "The Squire of Gothos" episode, in which you can see the strange guest star playing some intergalactic Scarlatti at the 5:48 mark here. It's not 12-tone music, but it would be better if it was.

Anyway, Schoenberg supposedly dreamed of a day when children would be whistling 12-tone tunes in the street. We're not there yet, but I decided to do the next best thing and have my 9-year old daughter sing "The 12 Days of Christmas" while I played McQuillan's spiky accompaniment on the piano. Child labor laws being what they are and me trying to read from an iPad (which allows Airturn page-turning but makes for some small notes), I can't say I nailed every tone in the few takes we did. Perhaps an advanced ear training class could take on the challenge of figuring out where I betrayed the row. Nonetheless, I think it makes its effect, the child's voice bringing an extra layer of sweetness to the texture.

I wish I'd used separate mics to get better balance, and I wish I hadn't kept rushing ahead to the cadences; but the world needs more domestic 12-tone music-making, and I'm glad to have done my small part. Some day, perhaps, every home will have a harpsichord and Schoenbergiads will be commonplace - if not in this galaxy, then in some strange new world.

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
  9. Savior of the Nations, Come
  10. Make it so!
  11. The 12 Tones of Christmas