Tuesday, December 22, 2009

An Octave of Octaves

It may seem odd to be posting a "wall-of-sound" mashup just days before Christmas, but the truth is that my latest little YouTube creation was inspired by the sounds of Christmas. As I hope you already know, Day 8 of the "12 Composers of Christmas" features one of the most famous passages in the piano repertoire, the barrage of octaves that precedes the last "big tune" statement in Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto. (Octaves = 8ths, of course.) When I was adding annotations/links to the "12 Composers" video last week, I was looking for a YouTube video that would start right at that spot in the 3rd movement. To my great delight, someone had posted the fiendishly amazing Martha Argerich playing just that passage, and so I'd found the perfect link, especially because you get to watch her hands doing miraculous things.

It turns out that the little Argerich excerpt was posted in response to another YouTuber who'd created a back-to-back-to-back, etc. recording of sixteen pianist playing those octaves, and pretty soon I'd discovered that someone else had also posted a slightly different lineup of octave-slayers. First of all, let's just pause to say that this is one of the oh-so-wonderful things about the Internet - that someone could post something like this for easy comparison. Twenty years ago, the best one might have hoped for was that some musicologist might write an article comparing such performances, and if you were lucky enough to stumble on that article, then you could read about the playing, look at tables of timings, take in some overly studious analysis, etc. But you wouldn't be able to hear anything. So, thank you, Internet, and thank you, YouTube.

Whether anyone will thank me for what follows is a bit harder to predict, but there was essentially no way I could keep from trying out the inevitable: playing all sixteen of those performances simultaneously. I've been dabbling in mashups for some time, and perhaps you'll recall that I recently discovered the work of self-proclaimed plunderer John Oswald, who once combined 24 recordings of the Also Sprach Zarathustra opening; but I don't think I'd topped the 4-track mark until now. Not surprisingly, there's nothing subtle about the sound of sixteen pianists storming the gates of a big Russian tune - the effect borders on incomprehensible, but it's quite a sound, thrilling in its own way.

It then occurred to me that maybe the perfect number would be an octave of pianists (putting aside the fact that these are actually double octaves). I chose the eight recordings from this video that were closest to each other in tempo, put them together, and here you get something a bit more recognizable - not as avant-garde perhaps, but ultimately more satisfying to my ears.

There's more fun number stuff here. The printed cadenza consists of 96 (nice round multiple of 8) octaves in each hand, which adds up to 384 notes in all. With 8 pianists playing, that's a total of 3072 notes heard in a span of about 16 seconds (another multiple of 8!) - or, about 192 notes/second. That means the 16-performer version includes about 384 notes/second, so it's hardly surprising that we end up with a virtual wall of sound at that point, especially since there are a lot more tempo variants included.

Incidentally, I have done other odd things to Tchaikovsky's music in the past few years. Here's a sampler.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

I much prefer the 32-hand version to the 16.

Thanks, Michael. Love the octaves...