Monday, November 11, 2019

The Man beHind a Myth

It's been awhile since I posted here for reasons I might get around to writing about some time. But I still find occasional inspiration in the odd Facebook conversation. And many of my Facebook conversations are odd. Also, many of my Facebook conversations involve me making fun of violas, Haydn, and Hindemith. I recently proposed that some of my friends (including a violist) who think highly of these two H-men should look to reconfigure Boston's venerable Handel and Haydn Society as the Hindemith and Haydn Society, replacing the annual Messiah performances with the crowd-pleasing tones of Das Unaufhörliche. Who would turn down a chance to see a German oratorio with a title that translates as "The Incessant?"

And the truth is, I appreciate plenty of things about Haydn, Hindemith, and even - horrible as it is to have to hear - the viola. But it's more fun to make fun, so when my violist friend tried to say his deep admiration for Hindemith is not just a function of being a violist (Hindemith was a violist who wrote significantly in alto clef), I said "Ha," and also created this useful graphic to illustrate the Hindemithian hypnosis that is likely at play:

A few days and comments down the road, friend violist offered this amusing graphic which alludes to the composer's intensely critical personality:

The idea of Virtual Hindemith judging immediately brought to mind a memorable Tom Cruise scene from one of my three favorite movies of all time. (Any chance we can get Cruise to star in a Hindemith biopic?) And thus, it wasn't long before I was doing my own video mashup of a stern Hindemith photo with Tom's hyper-focused delivery. My interest in musical mashups should be well-known to anyone who's read 0.3% of this blog, but it was fun to explore the mashup idea in the visual realm. I think it really works!

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Impossible Peace = Impossible Piece?

In my previous post, I wrote about saturating "Amazing Grace" with accidentals as a response to a colleague's call for a hymn harmonization "rife with secondary dominants." [← What a sentence!] When I posted my response (in even cruder form than here), this colleague wrote back:
"Perfect. And then they shall read Friede auf Erden and we will be done."
I'm proud to say I knew exactly what he meant because, about 20 years ago, I was the accompanist for a chorus that was rehearsing Arnold Schoenberg's Xtreme motet Friede auf Erden. The original version is approximately ten minutes of 8-part a cappella choral writing moving back and forth between rich Romantic harmony and intense chromaticism. The music was proving to be a big challenge for this chorus (as it would be for just about any group of humans) and there was a really important rehearsal which fell on a day of heavy snow.

When word went out that that evening's rehearsal was cancelled, I decided to see if I could use the free time to create some home practice aids to help choristers learn these challenging parts; so I entered all the notes into MIDI and posted those files online. (In those pre-broadband days, posting actual audio files [like mp3s] would've required more bandwidth than was practical, but standard web browsers could play back MIDI files, which basically just provide instructions about which pitches to play (using awkward, clinky sounds).) I believe the practice files proved to be helpful, and the final performance went well as best as I recall. In the performance, the director actually opted to have the choir perform the motet twice, once a cappella, and once with the orchestral accompaniment Schoenberg had created when he realized how difficult this music was for singers.

For purposes of demonstration in this post, it actually took me a while to find a recording that actually "works" for my ears, though there are several admirable live performances that have their virtues (such as this one). Then I came upon this recording by the English choir Tenebrae - a performance which strikes me as nothing less than miraculous:

Somehow this group manages to make even the thorniest sections sound logical and transparent, and the often skyscraping soprano part never sounds strained. Based on many other recordings I've sampled, I'm sure there are listeners who prefer a heavier, richer choral sound for this repertoire, but though the "British Light" sonority isn't always my cup of tea for Romantic works, it really works for me here. [By contrast, here's a wonderful "British Light" recording of an absolutely perfect German Romantic motet which just leaves me wanting that extra bit more of overwhelming sound for the final cadence at 2:59.]

It's also worth hearing this version, by Boston University student forces, with the orchestral accompaniment. The instrumental parts really help to focus the harmonies, and in this case support a full and sumptuous choral sound that might not tune so well on its own, but which pairs well with the style.

ANY....way, what brings me here today is that my colleague's comment made me remember that I've just had these Schoenberg MIDI files sitting on a hard drive for two decades. So much potential energy!

I made a stupid joke about combining the chromatic counterpoint with a samba beat - and I haven't ruled that out!* - but I decided that what really interested me the most was simply s-l-o-w-i-n-g things down so that the ear could have more time to process some of the fast moving brain-benders. Although Schoenberg is best-known for writing fully atonal music in which traditional harmony doesn't play a role, he also was able to work within a gorgeous Romantic canvas. But the extreme demands this music makes on the singer and listener can obscure that at times. Friede auf Erden is the kind of music that almost fights against itself - which is actually kind of cool, but also problematic.

So for now, mostly all I've done is "record" this with strings (synth strings, alas) at an almost impossibly slow tempo (synth string players have infinitely long bows), about three times more slowly than it would be performed. I chose to bathe the admittedly unsatisfying string sound in a lot of reverb so that what emerges is kind of a 30,000-foot view of the piece. I also made the choice, admittedly mostly for practical reasons, to remove tempo changes and dynamics, so what's left behind is just pure counterpoint swimming in reverb - which is kind of a fun contradiction.

Obviously, the result is NOT Friede auf Erden - it's missing the poetic language, the correct proportions, the highs and lows. But I do find it to be really beautiful, beyond just as an ambient haze phenomenon. More than anything, it tends to sound a lot like Mahler, though at various points it also reminds me of Wagner, the Barber Adagio (and a general American kind of string sound), certain kinds of film soundtracks; and I do think there's some value in - pardon me for saying it - smoothing out some of the edges of Schoenberg's work. I know that kind of thinking goes against a lot of aesthetic thinking, but I'm just being honest. Part of me actually enjoys listening to this more than the original, which admittedly would sound better in a live space than it does over laptop speakers.

What it doesn't remind me of so much is Minimalism, because the harmonies do change quite regularly, but it might be fair to say that what's going on is the application of a Minimalist time-scale to music that is otherwise quite dense and boundary-pushing from a tonal perspective. I love being able to settle into each harmony and let it unfold, and though this is obviously an enormous distortion of the composer's intent, I do think it makes a case for how beautiful this music is. (Not as beautiful as THIS Schoenberg, which is perfect as it is.)

I think it's possible that Schoenberg's original falls into the world of masterpieces which are impossible to realize perfectly, which is interesting given that the title translates as "Peace on Earth" - another ideal that can seem impossible to realize. Stretching it out to absurd lengths is not a true solution, but rather an interesting way to open up the soundworld and let the listener indulge more mindfully in each passing moment.

Oh, and unrelated to anything else, this is my 600th post here at MMmusing!


* I haven't tried adding a samba beat, but for fun, I did create this 100-second version with pizzicato strings. I'll offer no defense except that...I like it! [Yes, the impossibly fast pizzicato 8th notes are particularly surreal.]

Thursday, May 16, 2019

There are no accidents - just accidentals!

Again I find myself at the blog following on some Facebook-inspired digressions.*

A colleague casually mentioned, as a topical aside, that he was listening to sight-reading exams. Another colleague, gamely avoiding the topic at hand, asked:
"Can we please focus on the important issues though... how did the sightreading tests go?" 
I couldn't agree more that this qualified as the more important issue! Colleague #1 replied:
"I need more hymn harmonizations that are rife with secondary dominants. I often let [students] choose which voice to read and there aren't many with an accidental in every voice."
And we're off!

If it should turn out that I am nothing more than a robot, the first clue might be how predictably I react to this sort of stimulus. You want a hymn harmonization that's rife with secondary dominants?!? I cannot resist such a siren song. Basically, secondary dominants are chords which include accidentals as a way of strengthening the approach to the next chord. So a harmonization saturated with secondary dominants would have lots of pitches outside the given key, which of course would make sight-singing more difficult. (A harmonization with no accidentals means all the notes would fall into the "diatonic" Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti pattern, a stepladder of pitches to which our ears are conditioned to relate; adding accidentals is like hiding steps where not expected...which could certainly lead to accidents.)

I'm not sure why I chose "Amazing Grace," but I suppose I was drawn both to its familiarity and the challenge it presents as a fairly simple, pentatonic tune (which means there aren't so many different pitches to harmonize). It's easy to add one or two secondary dominants to any harmonization, but as they start to pile up, each accidental pointing to a different key, the center of gravity gets wonky. The familiarity of the "Amazing Grace" tune helps in that regard, but it was fun to work on balancing these excesses in such a way that there still seems to be some direction. I especially like the bass line from m.4-8, but I find that all of it hangs together...ish. The voice-leading has some issues, but this is where I say, "hey, this was only a rainy day diversion."

Of course, there are tons of chromatic harmonizations of Amazing Grace that use various extended jazz harmonies (see here, for example**), but those are not necessarily conceived with the idea of strict four-part harmony in mind, and anyway, my inspiration for doing this was to stick to secondary dominants, so mostly that's what I did. With the exception of m.7, there are diversionary accidentals in every measure, mostly doing secondary dominant kinds of things.

Oh, and as follow-up to my previous post, the final cadence gets lost in a Tristan haze....

AND, this harmonization sparked a comment which sparked another, very different creative concept which I will a day or two!


* And here's a Facebook-inspired digression: I think Facebook is fantastic, and though it's certainly caused its share of problems, I tend to blame users at least as much as the company. I have wonderful interactions and conversations there and don't find it all that difficult to avoid the negativity. The secret trick is to avoid the negativity. And to seek out interesting conversations. Because of the far-flung connections it enables, there are topics I might otherwise never get to engage were it not for Facebook. (This is not a defense of its policies or motivations, just a suggestion that one doesn't have to get sucked into its darker aspects.)

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Wrong Turn on Duke Street

[As is often the case, I come here to this we(b log) to document a thing I did, sometimes (as now) with no larger purpose in sight.]

An organist friend confessed on Facebook recently that he'd realized just before playing his own re-harmonization of a hymn that he was about to play "illegal" parallel fifths. He decided the violation was worth the aesthetic reward, but amongst the comments, a mutual friend suggested he try incorporating the "Tristan" chord into a hymn some day. This chord, perhaps the most famous in Western music history, is a famously ambiguous sonority that kicks off Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. [Click excerpt below to hear.]
I couldn't but help but think about ways to tackle this challenge. Because "The Tristan" and its resolution harmonizes an upward-reaching chromatic melody (G# - A - A# - B), I thought for a bit until the final phrase of the wonderfully four-square "Duke Street" came to mind.* It's not chromatic, but it does go up by step, and I figured I could sneak one extra passing note into the tune while the parts below get all murky. The way I've incorporated this is pretty different contextually from what Wagner did, but it's all there, even if the "resolution" goes by more quickly.

Here's the original transposed into the key of D Major I used. (OK, technically, the context I chose harmonizes an ascent from 6 to 8 instead of 7 to 2. So, from a "Tristan" perspective, it's as if we're briefly in C Minor, although that's not really a logical way to hear what I've written.):
And here's what those harmonies look like under the final phrase of "Duke Street."
And here's what it all sounds like, with a few more chromatic harmonies thrown in to wrap things up.

One big difference is that Wagner's version lingers on the most unsettled pitch (the leading tone G-sharp) with an accented longer note value, and the next-to-last note (also unsettled) is stressed, with its resolution in an unstressed position. In my version, the melody comes to rest on a strong downbeat on the tonic D. This means that aside from that little passing C-natural in the melody, the tune retains its Presbyterian propriety, and Tristan's longings are suppressed a bit.

This is always the kind of thing I love most about this sort of project, the way in which two incongruent styles can meet in the middle, with some give and take. Although the "Tristan" chord moment passes quickly, it's referenced again in the downbeat of m. 15, which repeats the chord with different voicing.** Also, as the "Tristan" chord is enharmonic to a half-diminished 7th chord (the most beautiful of all 7th chords), I chose a half-diminished ii chord for the next-to-last harmony. A ii-I progression is closely related to the IV-I "Amen" cadence, so this felt just wrong enough to be right.

Here's a silly little visualization of the basic process. I like the visualization because it illustrates the idea of two separate musical entities merging.


* It's not so surprising that this tune came to mind; I wrote just a few months back about a prelude and fugue I've written on "Duke Street."

** That low A-flat in m.15 of my harmonization should really be a G-sharp, but I wanted to keep the connection to the spelling used in m.13.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Bach to the future?

Whether or not you agree with the UNDENIABLE fact that J.S. Bach is the greatest composer of all time, his music is surely the most durable and flexible of any important composer. His writing is undergirded by such beautiful logic that the ideas and structures seem to survive and even thrive in a wide variety of transcriptions. Today we'll put that to the test.

My composer friend Wesley has probably provoked more blog posts here than anyone not named Bach or Stravinsky. He sent along a video the other day in which YouTuber/composer David Bruce explores the rhythmic/metrical subtleties of the well-known Preludio from the unaccompanied violin Partita No. 3 in E Major. Bach's original is in 3/4 time with 16th notes throughout except at the very beginning and end. But the way in which those notes can be grouped is open to interpretation; the patterns often suggest accents that don't align neatly with the beats. This is explained quite well by David Bruce in this video, so I won't go into more detail about that here. (Actually, as it happens, my younger daughter has been working on this prelude for the past few months, as did her sister before her, and no matter how many times I hear it, I often find myself surprised at where a few downbeats land; Bach definitely plays with your mind here.)

A few days ago, Bruce posted a completely worked-out piano arrangement of the Bach in which the metrical groupings are shifted around quite a bit, with the left hand leading the way. You can hear a performance of Bruce's arrangement beginning at 1:18 in this video.

It's very enjoyable in a mildly mischievous sort of way and even includes a few bluesy passages. I wrote back to Wesley that though I thought the arrangement was very successful, I wasn't convinced that this was because Bach's music called out for these new metrical groupings - or that, even if that was the case, that the appeal for me was much more about hearing Bach dueling against these contrasting ideas. Remember, Bach is durable - almost bulletproof. I was almost immediately reminded of this Mozart concerto "arrangement" in which Timo Andres plays Mozart with his right hand and all manner of dissonant, modernistic things in the left hand. [Piano enters just after 2:30.] The result is wonderful - sort of like Mozart played through a Prokofiev funhouse mirror.

Earlier this afternoon, I thought I'd experiment with this theory and write my own "out there" left hand part to go with the Bach prelude. My initial goal was just to do 12 bars or so, but I found the process addictive. However, with a few exceptions, I decided to work mostly with the kind of rhythmic/metrical play Bruce had used and not indulge in much Andres-style dissonance. The main difference is that, unlike Bruce, I didn't spend much time worrying about whether Bach's patterns provide any justification for what I was adding. It was a thoroughly sequential process: I simply worked from phrase to phrase until I'd reached the end, and for now, I haven't tried to polish anything up. In some passages, my goal was explicitly to write something that pulls the ear two ways; in other cases, I was more intentional about interacting with the original.

The other main restriction I decided on was to keep the "left hand" part as a single melodic line with no chords - this was mainly because introducing the possibility of chords would've made for a lot more work! Also, I put "left hand" in scare quotes because I also wasn't really thinking about writing this for a real performer, though I'm sure there are pianists who could play what I wrote. For my purposes, I was perfectly content to let my computer's internal pianist do all the fingerwork. Remember, Bach is durable! Or not. You be the judge. (You only get to see Bach's notes - my score isn't ready to be seen.)

The most I can say for now is that it pleases me, though the recording could use a lot of finessing and the arrangement could certainly use some tweaking. It's not nearly as sophisticated as the Bruce arrangement, but it has more of the kookiness that I love. There's a giddiness about my version that amuses me every time I listen to it. (Yes, I laugh at my own jokes.) It's reminiscent of the playfulness found in the flips and reverses to which I once subjected an innocent Bach invention.

I should add that, among the many other more honorable arrangements of this piece (including Bach's own setting for organ and orchestra), the real standout is Rachmaninoff's imaginative reworking:

But he probably spent more than one afternoon on it...

[UPDATE: When I originally posted this last night, the YouTube version I'd uploaded had some buzzy audio issues, so I've replaced it with a cleaner version. The only sad thing is that I'd already gotten one dislike on the original - great art always mystifies some - so I'll have to see if I can earn some fresh dislikes!]


POSTLUDE: As I've suggested, this Bach prelude has been arranged for all sorts of different contexts. I've made a playlist here including versions for lute, guitar, Bach's own version for organ and orchestra, an arrangement of that arrangement for solo organ, arrangements for piano by Saint-Saens (based on on Bach's cantata version) and Rachmaninoff, and the version with Schumann's accompaniment with soloists on both violin and sax. If you go out into the wild, you can easily find versions on viola, cello, and who knows what else.

The ubiquity of these arrangements also reminds me that David Bruce's version (and mine, perhaps) falls into a fun category: futurized works in which a well-known classical work is given an accompaniment or reworking that intentionally adds a modernist twist on the original. I've made a very short playlist here which includes three takes on Mozart (by Grieg, the virtuoso pianist Arcadi Volodos, and the Timo Andres piece I mentioned) and Lutoslawski's 20th century variations on Paganini's famous variations. Obviously, there are many more works that could be added here, but the spirit of these pieces was on my mind while I was vandalizing Bach...