Wednesday, December 15, 2010

History Stars are Back!

Hey, remember my History Stars from last December? What, no? You purposefully forgot, huh? Oh. Well, I don't have time to create a more substantial blog post since I have stacks of exams to grade, but I do have a few more of the great composers giving advice to my students on the Survey of Musical Masterworks (a.k.a. "music appreciation") exam they took this morning. Here they are:

You can click on them to reveal their identities. Once again, here are some of their predecessors.

I'm sorry.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sleigh Ride in a Fast Machine

Yes, it's been a slow ride here on the blog this Fall, but I do still churn out my share of words on Twitter, having just hit the 3500 "tweets" milestone. You can see all 3500 on one page here (warning: page may load slowly). Every now and then I get off a decent one-liner, like with this tweet.

And, every other now and then, the Twitter world inspires something over here on the blog. So it is that one @AndreiStrizek, having noticed my inability to resist a good mashup, sent out a good-natured challenge for a melding of two John Adams' works (Nixon in China and China Gates) into a Nixon in China Gates. Good idea, combining musical and verbal puns, kind of like with my The Rite of Appalachian Spring. But I don't really know my Adams all that well, and it's not like I've got all day to sit around doing this sort of thing. However, the music appreciation text I use does feature Adams' popular little curtainraiser Short Ride in a Fast Machine, so I've gotten to know it well enough - and once the post title above occurred to me, the following was beyond inevitable:

My poor family. My wife and oldest daughter just sort of sigh now when they hear these kinds of sounds emanating from my "man cave" - but, hey, I've been reporting to work all week while sick and coming home exhausted. If I choose to do this with my evening time instead of watching two hours of TV, who's to judge?

It's not the most sophisticated thing, but it did take some tempo tweaking to make things work out right, and the ending required a bit of manipulation. The rest is pretty much straightforward mashing, but I think it works - going on this Sleigh Ride seems downright boring now. As for the animations...well, I set myself a strict time limit, so nothing sophisticated there. Kind of in the same vein as Swan Loop, if you want to chart connections with my previous work, as future historians will no doubt be doing.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Trippin' with Chestnuts

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas here at MMmusing, with decorations overhead linking to past Christmas specials. I was hoping to come up with a new and brilliant multimedia creation for the season this year - but, you're getting this video instead. It is new.

It's been a mashup kind of year on the blog, highlighted by this bit of mischief, so I started thinking about good possibilities for blending Christmas songs. (I have, of course, been down that road before.) So, I thought, why not "THE Christmas Song"? I have to admit that I used to hate this song - it's so maudlin and  features some truly vapid lyrics, such as "...and every mother's child is gonna spy..."? As opposed to every father's child? Or every motherless child? And isn't "chestnuts" an awfully clunky word to be set so expansively? (Whoops, I'm starting to sound as grumpy as Stephen Sondheim deconstructing all the lyricists we used to think were good. Let's move on.)

The famous Johnny Mathis rendition was featured on one of the many Goodyear "Great Songs of Christmas" records that my siblings and I used to wear out every December. I remember thinking that song was about the worst waste of three minutes imaginable. But, the years go by, and gradually I've find myself feeling a vague nostalgia for this vaguely nostalgic old chestnut. (Whereas, I think I always appreciated the giddy delights of this Ray Conniff arrangement I like to call, "Hark, the Herald Angels Rumba." Seriously, check that video out [should link to the 2:44 mark], if only to watch Conniff bouncing along in his cardigan.) Let's face it, experiencing music is often as much about place and memory as it is about notes. At least, that's what I'm telling myself, having now spent more hours than I'd ever have expected with these 2-3 minutes.

The beauty of this song for mashup purposes is that it's already so soupy that it blends quite naturally, like Campbell's® in a casserole - and what better to blend it with than itself? Instead of "double the Johnny," I've enlisted Mr. Tony Bennett to man the other half of this duet, and as an added bonus, Tony's in a different key! Yet, because both arrangements are so schmaltzy and mellow, with their hazy rhythms and beds of sappy strings, the blend doesn't sound stridently dissonant - just blurry and, well...trippy. And, quite frankly, the Mathis version was pretty trippy already; I'm just helping it towards its logical conclusion. I actually used this new mashup as an example in class today during a discussion of polytonality - following on my tried-and-true Heart & Soul trick. (And then I threw in something by Stravinsky...)

To be specific, Mathis is in D-flat, and Bennett's a whole step up in E-flat - like some sort of global appoggiatura. As with my Callas-Fleming "Canon a 2 Tempi," I just set these guys off at the same time by synchronizing the "Chestnuts," and then let the individual phrases fall where they fell. Tony pulls ahead pretty early, but things settle into a satisfying, lazy back-and-forth for much of the rest of the song. My favorite happy coincidence is how Mathis finishes up (technically, his version is supposed to go over the bridge again, but I cut that) and then fades into the end of the Bennett playout, so we get an almost Coplandesque final cadence. Almost.

As for the visuals, I don't really know what to say. YouTube is the best place to post multimedia these days, and simply adding a few random still images seemed like a copout. So I took the "cottage in the snow" picture found on the Mathis video as an inspirational starting point for a dreamy (some might say "hallucinogenic") trip through some of those trite verbal images. And...scene!

[If you have a way to adjust the balance on your computer (or if you have headphones!), you should be able to isolate Bennett on the left and Mathis on the right, to get the blend that's just right for you.]

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Musical Signatures

Via Stephen Hough's wonderful blog (which has the best regular commenting community I've seen on a music site), I came across a nice piano blog that is new to me, Rick Robertson's Under the Piano Stool. The post that caught my attention was Robertson's investigation of a musical motif found in many of Grieg's works, which got me to thinking about the subject of signature gestures associated with various composers. Robertson also mentions Poulenc, who has some very distinctive and oft-used signature ideas; I also think of Mendelssohn, who has a particular way of setting up an evaded cadence at the end of movement that is just SO Mendelssohn. (I hope to get to that in another post some day.)

Anyway, this morning I was driving Daughter of MMmusing to school. I mentioned last post that her violin teacher has had her working on some movements from Bach's Partita No. 1 in B Minor; well, now she's been assigned the final movement of the Sonata No. 3 in C Major, so, cool Dad that I am, I searched my iPod for a recording. (What pre-adolescent doesn't yearn to listen to Bach on the way to school?) Turned out all I had on hand were these curious performances that include Robert Schumann's piano accompaniments. (For the record, I have many complete CD solo versions at home, but my iPod is populated more with downloads than ripped CDs.) I find the Schumann accompaniments tend to be dismissed as well-intentioned but misguided (oh, those poor Romantics didn't understand Bach's genius!), but I've really enjoyed listening to them. They certainly work better in some cases than in others, but I think they provide a nice rhythmic framework for some of the dance movements. Go here and sample Track 11 on CD 1 or Track 15 of CD 2.

Now, for my tastes, the accompaniment wasn't adding so much to the last movement of Sonata #3 (its rhythmic profile is already quite clear and strong in the violin writing), but then, right before the double bar, there was what seemed to be a signature Schumann moment. I should add that, as a rule, these piano parts are very respectfully written and, if anything, are almost too deferential. Schumann was clearly not looking to put his stamp on this music so much as to find it a wider audience, and I don't think this passage is any sort of intentional fingerprinting - but the piano part just suddenly sounded like Schumann, although it's the simplest of gestures. Fortuitously, you can hear the bit I have in mind by going to this mp3 sample; it begins 17 bars in, at about the 24-second mark. It's nothing more than a simple little rising bass line (D-G-Bb-D), set against bouncing off-beat chords in the R.H., but Schumann's piano parts are full of such moments (see #11 of Kinderscenen, #8 of Davidsbündlertänze, #8 of Liederkreis, Op.39). Hearing this Schumanniana oddly placed in the Bach made me very happy.

Coincidentally, I then turned on the radio, landing in the middle of a piano piece that I knew sounded familiar, but which I couldn't quite place. Many of the musical elements kept saying "Schubert" to me, but I also had a voice in the back of my head saying, "No, it's from a Beethoven sonata - and aren't you embarrassed that you can't immediately recognize one of THE 32?" (I don't like that voice.) Anyway, as a half-familiar theme wound its way into a cadence, I suddenly remembered a cool little inner-voice trill that was about to happen - and, just as suddenly, I had a vivid memory of sitting in a master class in Clarksville, Arkansas more than two decades ago and hearing Beethoven's Sonata in F-sharp, Op. 78 for the first time. (I even remember the look of the stage, though I don't think I ever set foot in that space again, and I could tell you the name of the pianist!) The little trill that struck me so memorably back then can be heard just past the 1:00 mark on the video linked above. That's not so much a Beethoven signature, as it was a signature moment for me, hearing a piece for the first time and having it imprinted so clearly.

The point of all this is that musical brains are programmed to find these patterns and signatures intuitively - it's a significant part of what makes listening to music pleasurable. One might weave a nice story out of this idea that an inner-voice trill could suddenly awaken some latent memory in a character.

P.S. Circling back to Grieg, I'll mention again his marvelous "2nd piano accompaniments" to some Mozart piano sonatas, which I wrote about here.Those loving tributes to Mozart are remarkably non-deferential, and definitely worth hearing. More or less the opposite of what Schumann did with Bach.

P.P.S. I mentioned in my last post that I would be posting "duet" recordings of other "dances plus doubles" from Bach's Partita in B minor, but the others just sound too lousy with my synthesized violins. (The Courante + Double works better because the music is so straight-ahead in character; all of the other movements require more thoughtfully conceived breaking of chords, agogic accents, etc.) However, an altogether different sort of mash-up will be appearing here in the not-too-distant future.