Thursday, February 18, 2010

Reflections on a 2-part Invention

[The video above was already embedded in the previous post, but annotations have now been added as well.]

So what can we learn from this little experiment (see past two posts) in which two musical works virtually drawn from a hat turn out to sound pretty cool played simultaneously? One of the strangest things about this discovery is that I feel I've come across something remarkable for which I'd like to take a lot of credit - and yet, one of the things that makes it remarkable is that I didn't work very hard or exercise much creativity to make it happen. I had this idea of combining two student performances, there were nine performers to choose from, we only had one piano available so it made sense to go with the only two students performing without piano, and that's pretty much how I settled on these two pieces I hardly knew - that these two pieces happened to complement each other harmonically, rhythmically, and structurally was sheer good fortune. Maybe even more amazingly, the two YouTube performances I first chose just to provide some reference turned out to match up even better than the live mash-up. It was certainly not the only or most likely way this could have played out.

Still, I'm going to say that Lesson #1 is that it's not so unlikely that a random pairing will produce lots of satisfying connections. I've written about this many times before in various contexts. In The Power of Random, I mused about how a CD track that had been running through my head (though I hadn't paid much attention to it) inspired a strange little music/poetry/video response to the Red Sox trading away Manny Ramirez. In Hyperspace, I wrote more broadly about how the creative process is often just a matter of making connections among ideas that come before us. It is simply human to try to make sense of what we perceive, even if sensible connections weren't intended. (It's hard to imagine what composers Benjamin Britten and Mitchell Peters would think about the fact that I've turned their finely crafted works, each intended to be heard in an otherwise silent context, into something which is both brand-new and which also preserves exactly what they wrote.)

Still, I did get lucky this time. The first time I ever posted about this "random simultaneous listening" idea was in this 2007 post, where one can hear performances of Mozart and Handel fighting to the bitter end. (mp3 here.) The clashes in that audio file are particularly and consistently intense because the two performances inhabit different tuning worlds - microtones abound; and, of course, Mozart and Handel each write in musical languages that are more rule-bound and restrictive, both in terms of harmony and rhythm, than in the Britten and Peters works. The more ordered the originals, the more disordered a mashup is likely to sound. I still like listening to that Mozart-Handel recording because it poses a fun challenge for the ears, both to pick out the different strands and perceive their separate logics, and to savor the odd blend. I was honestly intending something more in that vein for Monday's class, but only because it hadn't occurred to me that we'd stumble on such a match. Fortunately, there are more classes in the future to push the envelope a bit more.

And that's Lesson #2 from this experiment: that the brain can really enjoy this kind of challenge. Maybe it's just me, but whereas I sometimes struggle settling my ears into the world of pervasively dissonant music, I find much less of a barrier when I know the dissonant strands make sense on their own. I feel certain that the attention/interest level in the room went up quite a bit when we switched from the standard fare of students performing one after the other to this little bit of mind-bending simultaneity. Yes, the novelty factor plays a big role, but minds like to be challenged this way; certainly that's one of the reasons counterpoint is appealing, even if it's generally more rule-bound than our Britten-Peters 2-part Invention. Whereas traditional counterpoint has rules designed to regulate the use of dissonance and promote independence among the lines, here the listener may draw some comfort from the regulation that each piece is completely self-sufficient.

Lesson #3 is that layering works like this can reveal some of the common ways in which musical works are constructed. It's not entirely coincidental that the oboe and marimba reach several structural milestones at more or less the same time, since each of these works follows a very familiar pattern of exposition, development, and recapitulation. The Peters work is a bit longer, mainly because it has introductory and closing sections, but it's central formal structure is pretty close to Britten's. Each has an opening section that ends right around 1:10, with a temporary relaxation that follows; each reaches a climax of instability/tension around 1:50, with relatively fast-paced descending patterns that lead into recaps. One of the features I've always liked about my Vertical Christmas Medley (seven metrically aligned carols played at once) is that, because the musical phrases are all tightly lined up, one hears in the undulations the natural tendency for phrases to start and end with longer notes, with busier rhythms in the middle. The Britten-Peters duet shows something similar about large-scale structure.

Lesson #4 is that there's something really nice and freeing about not being so focused on the technical execution by the performers. Although both of our student performers surely felt a bit awkward and self-conscious about this unusual challenge, I assured them that an advantage would be that any mistakes would be both less obvious and, more importantly, less important. Classical musicians too rarely get to experience this sense that "maybe every note doesn't matter so much." It would be nice if we could learn to perform and listen with this mindset all the time!

Following from that, Lesson #5 is that this kind of exercise is a great way to experiment not just with a special kind of concentration (kind of like how Glenn Gould reportedly practiced "in the company of radios, TVs, and vacuum cleaners, every instrument switched on while he perfects the accents of a piece"), but also with all sorts of possibilities for improvisation in the moment. As I mentioned in my first post about this, our oboist did a wonderful job of timing her entrances to the rhythm and pacing of our marimbist. I hadn't really anticipated that, since part of the point in this exercise is to stick to your guns, but it was great to see how the intersection of these two pieces inspired that kind of thinking.

Anyway, we'll definitely be trying this again. For now, if you've wondered about adding more layers, you can sample this chaotic little amalgam of music history quiz excerpts that I wrote briefly about in this 2008 post; listening to it again just now, one of the things I like about it is how the two completely different Monteverdi excerpts outlast all the others (not by design, just by happy chance). First to emerge are the fading, frenetic stile concitato strains from Il combattimento and, most elegantly, the last thing ones hears is Orfeo lamenting amidst the madness, "ed io sospiro" (and yet I breathe). In the opera Orfeo, he sings those words in devastated response to the news of his beloved Euridice's death - but it works well as a response to surviving the vertical music history medley.


Bruce Brubaker said...

More and more we will be accepting this kind of layered experience in the "classical" world. In Echternach, I did a concert with my former student Francesco Tristano. We each played continuosly for 90 minutes. Although we knew in advance what we would play -- solo piano works by J. S. Bach, Stravinsky, Glass, Chopin, Bussotti, Earle Brown -- we overlapped everything, finding connections as we went. It's what DJs do, although we were playing and "mixing" in real time.


Thanks for chiming in, Bruce. I really enjoy your blog and Twitter posts, by the way.

Whereas you are probably about as fluent as any pianist with all the most contemporary types of musical creation, I've tended to be more traditional in my tastes/experiences. (I don't necessarily say that as a source of pride or shame; it's just the way it is.)

Thus, for me, this kind of experiment with layering traditional works into a kind of postmodern experience provides a nice way into new kinds of thinking about how music can be put together. I sensed the same thing from my students as well, most of whom have more conservative tastes than I do. The combination of the recognizable with the unconventional is a fairly accessible kind of challenge. Students are also pretty comfortable with the kind of multi-tasking that this kind of listening might entail.

I'm not saying all new music is necessarily inaccessible, of course. Would love to hear more about the recital you describe.