Monday, February 25, 2008

Seamless Sequence Segue

Longsuffering readers of this blog will have learned that I have a weakness for wordplay. (To quote my blogger profile, "I adore alliterations; elegant allusions; absurd nonsequiturs; and buffalo wings.") My own experience of this weakness is that there seems to be a little software-like program running most of the time in my brain which samples incoming words, whether heard, spoken, read, thought, etc. and looks for connections that might produce something punny . . . er, um, funny. For example, mere seconds after publishing a recent post under its original title, "Dancing Adolescents on Line 1," this virus-like program sent up the following information: "The Rite of Spring" + "ringtone" = "The Rite of Springtone." I didn't ask for that bit of wisdom - it just came unsolicited from within, from this bit of renegade mental software. Obviously, this software falls into the "virus" category, as I suggested awhile back about my sonnet "problem."

I've been aware of this inveterate verbal virus for awhile, but it's more recently occurred to me that I'm the same way with music. I suppose most music-lovers are, to some degree or another. The basic principle is one of pattern-matching - the brain hears a tune or other musical idea and then looks for analogues. Musical cognition - in fact, all cognition - has a lot to do with pattern-matching, so this is the most natural thing in the world for a mind to do, but just as I seem to spend more energy finding alliterations than do most other intelligent beings, I find the search for tune connections to be an unusual fixation. All my "tune theft" discoveries, mash-ups, and medleys are variations on the theme of musical puns.

My most recent such discovery is really a rediscovery. My daughter recently danced a small part in a local production of The Nutcracker. [OK, I started this post two months ago.] She was only on stage for a few minutes, but it just happened that her participation as an ornament meant she was dancing to my favorite music in the entire score, the big crescendo when the Christmas tree gets supersized. Tchaikovsky is notorious for using long sequences to build excitement - sequencing a musical phrase may be a simple process, but no one does it as well as 'ol Pete. I've mentioned many times before that I think pedal point passages provide a wonderful way to talk about musical function to inexperienced listeners; the same could be said of sequential passages such as this magic tree music.

So, I was thinking about that passage and suddenly remembered that when I first heard it years ago, it sounded to me like it was lifted from Rachmaninoff's second concerto, a great passion of my youth. Of course, I now realize the thief here would be Rachmaninoff, ripping off his beloved idol. It's an interesting connection, because the passages don't really share a distinct tune, but rather a little motivic kernel (re-do-ti) that steps up by sequence. The leading tone function at the end of each little sequence segment is what drives the music ever upward. As you can see, Tchaikovsky's sequence is more uniform, while Rachmaninoff has a more varied rhythmic and melodic shape, but the idea is clearly of the same cloth.

[Click the musical examples to hear them played.]

Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Act I, Scene 6


Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2, 1st mvt.


Again, more than a tune borrowing, what Rachmaninoff has imitated is the feel of this sequence. To prove it, I managed to weave the two together; this is cool, because although one is in E Minor and the other in C Minor (the Rachmaninoff is transposed to E Minor above to make comparison easier), each has multiple entry steps; it didn't take long to find a pathway from one to the other. Whereas a pedal tone passage usually provides a sense of direction by creating an expectation of resolution, a sequence is often more open-ended, as evidenced by the fact that I was easily able to double the length of Tchaikovsky's melodic stairway by having it double-back on itself, sort of like an Escher staircase. The segueway from Rachmaninoff to Tchaikovsky and back isn't really seamless, but I think it works. By the way, as always, these recordings feature René Köhler conducting the National-Philharmonic Symphony.


POSTLUDE: Although I'm a decent enough cellist, I know just enough violin to be dangerous: here you can hear me demonstrating on my daughter's half-size violin how a sequence can keep going and going - even when you really want it to stop. I did the recording in one take!