Saturday, September 29, 2007


It's been awhile since I've written anything substantive and, alas, this post will probably provide only fragments of substance at best. One of the last substantive (i.e. really long) posts I wrote addressed the question of substandard audio quality on iPods. I think I had two main points: 1) what really matters in a listening experience is what our minds hear, not just the audio signals picked up by the ears; 2) each different listening experience (live, great quality recording, average quality recording, greeting card quality performance) can be understood as a sort of translation of a given work. Yes, with me it always comes back to translation.

But beyond whether or not one can have an authentic, meaningful experience listening to substandard audio is the question of listening to substandard performance - or, an incomplete performances. I was thinking of this the other day while sitting in my office preparing to teach a class that would mostly be devoted to the music of Bach. One of the pieces I was going to be teaching (although, due to poor time management, I barely got to it - sorry, students!) was the first movement of the Cantata No. 80 Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, and I was thinking about how the ceaseless energy of this music creates a joyful internal response that I can't quite explain. Meanwhile, I slowly became aware of the fact that in a practice room next door, a student pianist was working on the 1st movement of Bach's Italian Concerto.

Now this student wasn't performing the music, but rather working on it, starting and stopping, fixing things here and there - practicing it. However, what I began to realize is that I was still getting the same joyful listening experience that I might hearing a professional level live performance. Maybe even more so. In fact, removed from the trappings of performance and the expectation of a complete, organically conceived interpretation, I was able to respond on a more instinctive level to the joyful energy of the music. The audio quality was clearly compromised both by thick walls and the fact that I had music playing off and on in my own studio - still, these fragments of Bach were working their magic on me.

Of course, it helps that I know this music well and that Bach's music is perhaps the most indestructible of any composer's. The day before I'd had a similar experience when, while talking on the phone to my wife, I could hear my daughter playing the 1st Bach invention in the background. Of course, fatherly pride is part of what I was feeling there, but the Bach was again working its magic under highly fragmented conditions.

What makes this unexpected is that we spend so much of our musical lives learning to expect performances that are accurate and complete. This makes perfect sense, but it also can involve shutting off the natural ability to appreciate music at a less critical level. It's similar to the old familiar problem of learning what not to like (e.g. I once learned not to like the 1812 Overture, which I had once loved - and which I pretty much now love again!). On the other hand, I'm not pretending that quality or interpretive decisions don't make a difference. After about 30 minutes of setting up a streaming, online listening guide for the 1st movement of the Bach cantata - 30 minutes in which, for test purposes, I heard the opening measures about 15 times and got a joyful jolt each time - I sampled a different performance that left me completely cold. And this was the indestructible Bach.

OK, so I don't know what my point is, but it has to do with underestimating how much fragmented experiences of music can be quite meaningful. Charles Ives certainly understood this - I know that for me, I still find it exhilarating to walk through the halls of a conservatory and hear all that crackling energy coming from so many different students and composers at once. It also reminds me that most music can communicate through far less-than-ideal performances. I wrote about that at some length here. This is not at all to say that we shouldn't be aspiring to high standards - high quality performances are more likely to bring us closer to the heart of a composition, but by conditioning ourselves to take note of what's not good enough, I feel sure we also shut ourselves off to the music sometimes.

It's certainly no accident that I'm writing this as I enjoy, in a half-conscious way, listening to my daughter's Saturday morning string orchestra rehearse. It's a big, rough, unwieldy sort of sound into which concerns such as phrasing have not yet entered the picture. Still, it's fantastic music-making in a very meaningful way - fragmentary though it is in pretty much every possible way. And, the fact that the rehearsal is ending means that this fragment of a post will end as well.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

At least they'll make the playoffs

Sorry it's been so slow here. Maybe it's just malaise picked up from following the Red Sox as they swoon through September, but things'll pick up. I could pretend I was just following the wise counsel of Hugh Sung, who hasn't been e-seen since he blogged about backing off from e-obsession, but I've spent just as much too much time online as ever. It's just one of those times when my blog posts sit half-finished past their expiration dates, but there's no point in writing more about not writing.

We'll see what tomorrow brings . . .

Friday, September 14, 2007

Digging up old ledes

I have a tendency to bury my ledes, putting my most inspired multimedia creations at the end of overlong posts, so for anyone who didn't bravely wade through my prose to hear the following, here are some personal favorites from posts past:
  1. Albert Herring fugue intro seemlessly turns into "I Could Have Danced All Night." (I'm particularly proud of how this one came together.) [original post]
  2. A movement from Stravinsky's Divertimento shuffled seemlessly into "I Feel Fine" on my iPod one day. It's recaptured here. [original post]
  3. One of my virtual singers sings Nessun dorma. Not only does he nail the B, he adds a D at the end and outlasts the orchestra. [original post]
  4. Maurizio Pollini has a triple espresso before playing a Chopin etude. [original post]
  5. Stravinsky, Bach, and Mozart meet The Simpsons. [original post]
And if you want more, just spin MM's Multimeda Musing Machine over there in the margin.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Brittenish Invasion

I promised a little more tune theft this week - unlike Mozart's stealing from J.C. Bach stealing from Gazzaniga, we now return to a 'classical' work which seems to anticipate something from a more 'popular' genre. After The Marriage of Figaro, Britten's Albert Herring is probably the opera for which I have the most affection. If West Side Story and Candide are fantastic musicals which seem operatic in their musical ambition, Albert Herring is the opera which reminds me most of musical theater in its sophisticated theatricality and bouncy tunes.

The first time poor Albert's name is mentioned, we hear a familiar sounding musical idea. Here's Superintendent Budd nominating the unlikely Albert to be May "King." I can't remember if I made the following connection on first hearing, but I do remember my mom saying right off that the "Albert Herring" motif reminded her of this. That's right, the first time we meet the name "Albert Herring," we also meet something akin to "Meet George Jetson!"

The tunes aren't exactly the same, but when Lady Billows finally consents to the preposterous idea of a King of the May, she sings the Jetsons' tune exactly. Obviously, what ties all these variants together is the use of a leading tone on the penultimate pitch. Here they all are:

[By the way, notice that the response of the ensemble to Budd is almost exactly the same as Strauss's famous Till Eulenspiegel tune which means, yes, it's a variation on Leonard Bernstein's beloved "How Dry I Am" kernel.]

But my favorite connection is yet to come. Listen again to the end of this clip where Lady Billows leads off the fabulous "May King" fugue. Now listen to it the way I always find myself hearing it. (In this case, it's not the tune, but the character of the accompaniment that looks ahead.) No wonder I think of Albert Herring as being halfway to Broadway!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

It's not a lie, if you believe it

The New Yorker has just published the best telling yet of the Hatto saga, although it's remarkable how the author (Mark Singer) is simultaneously aware of Barrington-Coupe's (Hatto's widower) incapacity to tell the truth and yet openly drawn in by the con man's charm. It would seem that Barrington-Coupe is a supremely gifted manipulator.

In the end, I still haven't gotten my question answered about how the telltale information got plugged into iTunes (I don't believe iTunes made the match just on timings), but maybe that's a secret that won't get out. Also, reading the article absolutely confirms that a movie must be made out of this story. Maybe even an opera, with Barrington-Coupe as a Dulcamara-like buffo role.

And remember, you can read that lengthy New Yorker article, or you can get all you need to know about Hatto in six stylish sonnets.

UPDATE: More comments in the comments.

Googling Gazzaniga

Time for another tune theft installment. Most of the ones I've posted before (and most of the ones I find most interesting) are cases where some remnant of a classical tune shows up in a more popular genre, but I've just stumbled on a more likely case of real theft by none other than Wolfgang Amadeus. I was recently handed music for an upcoming recital with a tenor in which an obscure concert aria by J. C. Bach figures on the program. Here's the way the orchestral intro to the opening recitative begins [click music to listen - and apologies for the canned computer rendition]:

It doesn't take much of a musical detective to see (and hear) the Countess's famous aria, "Porgi, amor" from The Marriage of Figaro in the melody - it's even in the same key:
Now it would take more of a musicological detective than I feel like being to unearth the history of this J.C. Bach piece. As far as I can tell, it's a resetting of a recit/aria by the great Giuseppe Gazzaniga, of whom I know nothing - here one can hear a sampling of Gazzaniga's "Mi scordo a torti miei...Dolci aurette" sung by a self-billed modern Farinelli (!), but that sample doesn't include the recit intro above which is the only place where Mozart's famous tune shows up. (When I was growing up dreaming of being a great baseball player, it never would have occurred to me I'd type that last sentence.) Anyway, it's well-established that JCB was a big influence on WAM, so it's not at all unlikely that this admittedly simple melodic idea could have passed from one to the next.

I'm sure anyone who's run across this Gazzaniga/J.C. Bach concoction will have noticed this connection, but my extensive web-based research didn't come up with anything, so let me be the first to make this Gazzaniga grift Googleable. If nothing else, I'm almost certainly the first to type that last sentence.

TOMORROW (or soon): More Recent Tune Theft Discoveries!

Friday, September 7, 2007


For anyone stopping by in response to this morning's panel discussion on Shalom, I'll try to add a few more relevant links later this afternoon.

UPDATE: OK, here's the scene from the end of "The Marriage of Figaro" that I mentioned. The sublime moment of reconciliation happens about 1:30 into the clip; this clip ends just before the rousing final chorus. If you want to try to "catch up" on the plot, you could go here.

The YouTube examples I found from Duruflé's Requiem didn't do much for me, but I highly recommend this fantastic recording (or on iTunes) that also features the beautiful Fauré Requiem. Each of these French works is famous for being more contemplative and comforting than the famous settings by Mozart, Berlioz, and Verdi. I had honestly forgotten how beautiful the Duruflé is, with its evocative use of Gregorian tunes, until I put the Robert Shaw CD on last night while prepping for today's talk.

[By the way, Fauré's Requiem will be performed on campus early in 2008, so be on the lookout for that; a wonderful expression of shalom in music.]

And, of course, Venezuela's joyful Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar can be seen in the post below.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Mambo Magic

There's justifiable raving all over the place about this video of Venezuela's amazing youth orchestra playing the Mambo from West Side Story.

I don't mean this in a negative way at all, but there's no question that the visuals (colors, smiles, dancing, cello-twirling) are a significant part of the experience. It's quite different than watching this next version (which I'm assuming is from the main body of the concert, with the video above being a delirious encore):

I'm not going to try to do a note-by-note analysis of the two performances, which are certainly different in more ways than just the visuals noted above. Still, it's instructive how different they are in effect. I know about the story of the orchestra when I'm watching version #2, but when watching version #1, I KNOW about the orchestra much more viscerally- everything about their story comes to life. (Of course, the Mambo lends itself to that; I assume their performance of Shostakovich 10 was less visually arresting, but I'm sure an audience would still hear it differently knowing who these kids are.)

By the way,
since I'm still waiting for my Hatto Sonnets to catch fire, I was excited to see that a new article on that fascinating story has just been published; sadly, the new article doesn't shed much new light on anything. (The question I still want answered is who "planted" the iTunes connection into iTunes; it's pretty clear that iTunes didn't figure out where those Liszt etudes came from, especially since they came from multiple sources. It's much more likely that someone "in the know" plugged this info into the iTunes database, but this is almost never discussed.) In addition to rehashing all the established facts of the tale, we get the same wide-eyed astonishment as before about lack of critical objectivity:

Do you experience “King Lear”, or Robert Stephens’ or Paul Schofield’s Lear? It is a paradox that these masterpieces come mostly vividly to life bent through the prism of an almighty interpretative ego. And therein lies the trap. Although our knowledge of the performer enhances our aesthetic experience, it inevitably distorts our critical judgment.

It's only a "distortion" of critical judgment if we have an unrealistic expectation about what critical judgment should be. I've written about this too many times before to go over it again now, but suffice it to say that I don't know how one could watch the first video above and not "hear" the visuals as part of the aural experience.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Still searching...

I find I'm still obsessed with the classical music anagrams, mainly because I haven't yet found the "perfect one." (You know, like Clint Eastwood becomes "Old West Action.") I especially like anagrams that convert to a single word, but those are hard to come by. Also, of course, it's important that the anagram reveal something meaningful. Gabriel Faure converts to "A Real Firebug," but that doesn't really describe him; "Beguiler Afar" is a little better as descriptor, but too contrived sounding. Heinrich Schütz converts amusingly to "Thresh Zucchini" and "Unhitch Scherzi"; since his Scherzi musicali are famously innovative, the latter sort of works, but it doesn't sound natural. [UPDATE: Just realized Monteverdi wrote Scherzi musicali, not the German Schütz. Well, I've never been a Schütz guy anyway.] The names Gilbert & Sullivan (minus the &) can become "Rivaling Bullets." Not bad. Actually, "Subtle Rivalling" is even better if you don't mind the British spelling, which is appropriate after all. As for the one-syllable options, in addition to large, butchers, phonic, and tameness, I've managed to come up with drive, sobbing, and meanest. Tameness is definitely the best of those.

What I like about this search is the possibility of finding a creative solution within a very tight constraint. I've written about constraints in the creative process several times before - in the work I did translating the rhyming and metered libretto of Gounod's Le médecin malgé lui into The Doctor in Spite of Himself, my favorite experience was discovering improbably effective rhymes that fit the meter, vocal line, and plot. It's amazing how flexible language is, but anagrams are maybe too inflexible. By the way, if anyone out there is looking for a fabulous comic opera in English translation, let me know (MMmusing at gmail dot com). The Gounod is a great piece (based on a very silly Molière play), and I've also prepared a reduced orchestration that would be kind to budgets and small voices. I'm planning to write more about that project soon, but I think my translation really works.

For anyone puzzled by any of the recent classical anagrams (scroll down to see others), I've posted solutions here.

Here's one more new one, using a last name only:

Sir Boldface

In cute-kid news, yesterday in church one of the readings from Hebrews ended with the well-known text, "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and for ever." Immediately upon hearing this, our 2-year old softly began singing the opening of "Yesterday." No, that wasn't one of the hymns of the day.