Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Dread Pirate Oswald

I’ve confessed that Twitter may have sucked some energy out of this blog for the past few months, but as MMmusing comes back to life, it’s worth paying tribute to some of what I’ve learned from Twittering. For example, it is through Twitter that I learned about a great pirate from whom I’ve sort of been unknowingly pirating some ideas – ideas about pirating, as it happens. John Oswald, where have you been all my life?

I first heard of the enterprising Oswald about a week ago in my first ever “tweetup.” (By the way, I still squirm at some of the standard Twitter vocabulary. For instance, I refuse to refer to my Twitter acquaintances as “tweeps,” [admittedly, better than “twits”], and I really wish Twitter itself had a different name.) Yes, I had my first in-person meeting with a Twitter acquaintance last weekend; we were discussing my interest in exploring my improvisational/compositional side (given that I spend most of my performing life reading other peoples’ notes), and he suggested I check out Oswald’s creative work as a re-assembler of existing musical ideas. A few days later he emailed me the mp3 of what Oswald had done to a Count Basie tune. Segments had been snipped apart, reordered, and turned into something altogether off-kilter. I loved it, and found it wonderfully engaging. Something about perceiving order and disorder simultaneously, I think.

I don’t honestly know if this Oswaldian way of thinking was what inspired me to toss four sopranos into a little mashup of a Ned Rorem song a few days later (see previous post). I know I wasn’t consciously thinking of Oswald when I did it; as far as I could tell, the inspiration came from the following connection: I was writing about the various rates at which these sopranos sang a short little song, and that reminded me of having created a mashup of Maria Callas and Renee Fleming singing a famous Puccini aria at two widely divergent tempi. In fact, I’ve created lots of little projects that have used existing audio files as primary source material. [see below]

But here’s what happened. I posted my new “soprano quartet” on Twitter, and pretty soon got the following response from another Twitterer: “You’re a regular John Oswald!” A week previously, that would have meant nothing to me, but now I started to see the connection. Then, not much later, my tweetup friend tweeted, in reply to my “soprano quartet”:
Oswald Was Here:"Z24" (1993) superimposes beginnings of all 24 CD versions of Also Sprach Zarathustra then extant.
Soon after, I was listening to a remarkable sonic Strauss collage that makes that overly familiar fanfare seem newly breathtaking. So, yeah, this was basically exactly what I was doing with Rorem’s song, although the source material could hardly be much different. I was stealing from Oswald.

Of course, Oswald could hardly object since he’s a confessed thief. In fact, his most famous album is entitled Plunderphonics. Not surprisingly, he’s run into his share of objections from those (including Michael Jackson) who didn't appreciate having their work appropriated. Fortunately, no one's pulled the plug on any of my creations yet, but it's interesting to be learning about the pioneering work of the great Pirate Oswald.

In blog posts to come, I'll write more about why I find this sort of thing so appealing, especially since I'm not generally attracted to the chaotic or avant-garde. Actually, I think the attraction can be summed up by the phrase I used above: "perceiving order and disorder simultaneously." Indeed, though the Puccini and Rorem mashups I've done have their cacophonous moments, the listener is aware (or at least can be) that more traditionally beautiful music is there - it just has to be sorted out from...well, from the other beautiful music that's there. And that's also part of the appeal to me: the exhilaration of listening to multiple streams at the same time. (The marvelously conceived In-Bflat is a good way to explore that.) In this way, the appeal to the listener is not all that different from the appeal of counterpoint.

I'm running out of time for getting this posted, so rather than say much more here, I'll post my most recent mashup. A quick setup: With sadness, I learned yesterday that the great pianist Alicia de Larrocha had passed away at the age of 86. While sampling her playing on YouTube, I came across a very impressive rendition of Liszt's fiendishly difficult La campanella - extraordinary playing, even not taking into account how tiny de Larrocha's hands were. Then coincidentally, and in the spirit of "In-Bflat," I accidentally set two Firefox tabs playing the video at almost the same time. Naturally, I was entranced, and have tried to recreate that here:

Unlike my Rorem and Puccini collaborations among various sopranos, here the two "parts" are exactly the same. There's a cool sort of temporal displacement effect, as one part is echoed in the other. By the way, although I experimented with timing the second part at, more or less, exactly one or two or four measures apart from the first, I quickly found that the effect is more satisfying when the two tracks don't sound like they're trying to get along. We don't want too much order here!

Also, I've created a little YouTube playlist for other little mashups that I've produced in the past couple of years. And here's one other musical merger that hasn't made it to YouTube yet. Oh, yes, and there's Amphetepollini. [UPDATE: in a slightly different vein, here's my 7-part vertical Christmas medley. WARNING: Music will start playing when the page loads.]

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