Thursday, December 8, 2011

Deck the Hall with Ives of Chestnuts

Let’s face it, Christmas is one big mashup of intersecting experiences: religious traditions, cultural traditions, shopping traditions, movies, TV episodes, yard decor, music of all varieties on the radio, in stores, on street corners, in church, etc. Even the signature seasonal food, the fruitcake, is a kind of mashup. (OK, bad example.) It's very popular to rail against all this - Christians lament that the true meaning of Christmas is lost, others feel religion becomes uncomfortably public, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa get a sort of patronizing "yeah, you're special too" treatment, everyone seems to object that radio stations and retail stores start Christmas too early, it's too materialistic, families are a pain, we hear again and again how depressed everyone gets. Well, I don't buy it. I love the big messy way in which all of this comes together (except for the fruitcakes), so I've come to celebrate the mashup that is the Christmas (or holiday, if you prefer) season, and I've brought mashups to the party.

Just this past weekend I put together the first family Christmas mp3 CD of the year – it combines about 10 albums worth of music from Handel's Messiah, John Rutter’s Cambridge Singers, the Baltimore Consort, the Boston Camerata, string quartet carol renditions, the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack, John Denver and the Muppets, the Chipmunks, some Scottish harp/dulcimer disc – not to mention (except that I am) all sorts of folksy chestnuts via Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, Steve and Eydie, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, the New Christy Minstrels, the Brothers Four, Percy Faith, etc. In fact, those not-to-mentionables are the best example of my mashup experience with Christmas.

Growing up, the Goodyear "Great Songs of Christmas" LPs spun constantly in our house, and I still have a strange affection for the way in which "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" and Messiah choruses played nice with "Jingle Bells" and "Silver Bells" and Burl Ives. My favorite way to use our Christmas mp3 disc is to shuffle among all the albums, which kind of recreates the Goodyear experience. Mainly this is about relieving the whole "anxiety of choice" problem ('What's the perfect song for this moment in time?') and just letting what happens happen, but it's often quite satisfying to jump genres this way.

Anyway, I don't know if I'll have a new Christmas special for the blog this year, but it occurs to me that four of my past specials are mashups of one kind or another. So, it's time to break them out along with the Advent wreath, the tree, the lights, the lawn reindeer, and the rappin' Santa.

The Vertical Christmas Medley from 2007 is kind of my holiday answer to Terry Riley's In C - let's put a bunch of melodic ideas together and not be too picky about how they go together, but let's keep it all in one friendly key. [WARNING: Clicking this image will lead to a page where music starts automatically - kind of like stumbling into a Christmas party.]

Last December, the mashup spirit visited MMmusing twice, first with the woozy Trippin' with Chestnuts. [This is more like stumbling out of a Christmas party - but if you can't take it all, check out the cool, Copland-esque cadence at the end.]

And, just a week later, I found a seasonal use for John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine:

Finally, we have my oldest Christmas classic, The 12 Composers of Christmas. It's really less a mashup and more a purposeful arrangement than the others, but Day 12 does get pretty manic:

The message: enjoy the season for all its wondrous and kooky variety. You're gonna hear some songs you're not anxious to hear and get some fruitcakes you're not anxious to eat, but don't be anxious. Every good  mashup needs a little internal tension. Merry Christmas Season!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Connecting with Elgar

I'll just admit right off that I'm no Elgar expert. I know the cello concerto very well, having accompanied it many times and having listened to it many other times (I was a cellist once upon a time, and I married a cellist, AND I saw Hilary and Jackie (though I didn't like it)). I know the Engima Variations sort of well, but...yeah...I mainly know the "Nimrod" movement which I've listened to countless times (especially this excellent youth orchestra (!) version); frankly, I've never been such a big fan of the rest of the piece. And, yes, I think I've heard one of the Pomp and Circumstance marches once or twice. And, then there's a lot of other stuff I don't really know so well...I remember accompanying this and this once for a chorus and caring for it. (Such purple harmonies!)

But, I haven't come to bury Elgar - I've always felt a bit guilty I haven't gotten to know the symphonies and the violin concerto better. The Dream of Gerontius has always scared me for some irrational reason, but, yeah, that too. Some day. (Isn't it strange how loving something [music] can make you feel so guilty?) In the meantime, I recently got a chance to know the Violin Sonata since I played it in recital last weekend. Maybe because I don't have a fully developed sense of Elgar's style, I found myself driving the poor violinist crazy week after week in rehearsal, saying profound things like, "Ooh, that passage sounds just like something or other, but I can't think what." Or: "That's really weird." Or: "That sounds like Brahms." Or: "That sounds like Fauré."Or: "This piece is kind of "Franck Sonata-y." Etc. 

I say all this partly to document that this is a common part of my musical experience - hearing something else in what I'm hearing. Speaking more broadly, this is what humans do all the time, as I described in one of my first and favorite blog posts, "Hyperspace." I suspect that a significant amount (between 5% and 95%) of musical pleasure comes from the way listening lets our minds play with patterns and memories and shadows of one bit of music (and/or experience) we hear in another. It's not that I'm consciously trying to figure out where Elgar's language came from - it's that I can't seem to help but listen that way. (Teaching music history, which sometimes seems like one big string of "see, composer X borrowed that gesture from composer Y" statements, probably doesn't help.)

OK, so what did I hear? Well, this "treading water" passage in the first movement reminds me a lot of a passage from the first movement of Brahms' third violin sonata.


And there's something in the harmonic language (especially of the third movement) that reminds me of Fauré's first piano quartet. I haven't nailed down the specifics here (if there are any), but I definitely feel a kinship in the way each final movement coda builds up from a low ebb point:


The second movement of Elgar's sonata is, to quote myself from above, "really weird." Listen to its tipsy main theme that keeps getting passed nervously back and forth between violin and piano - like neither knows what to do about it. ("Here, you take it." "No, really, you should take it."...)

Perhaps my saying "it's really weird" is a recognition that this doesn't really sound like anything else I know - maybe it just sounds like Elgar.

But, the most unmistakable connection happens in the middle of that quirky slow movement; a yearning Romantic theme stops by and it sounds a LOT like a passage from Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3: 

The melodic/harmonic similarities are striking: each passage starts over a fully diminished seventh harmony and features a descent of m2, then a M2, then a leap up a M7 over a more stable harmony, followed by a continued stepwise descent. (Of course, a leap of a seventh, in this otherwise descending stepwise context, is really just a continuation of the descent with the register leap used for expressive effect.)

This Elgar passage drove me crazy through multiple rehearsals because I knew it sounded "just like" something else, but I never programmed Mendelssohn into my mental GPS while searching my memory bank. The Mendelssohn passage is somehow more "Romantic" than I tend to expect from Mendelssohn. (That's my own mistake for underestimating how Romantic Mendelssohn can be - I mentioned in this post that a passage from one of his teenage string symphonies sounds like Mahler to me.) Finally, one day I brought the Elgar score home, played those measures for my wife, and tried humming what I was hearing. She gradually started humming a long, winding tune that ended with the Mendelssohn bit above - she'd played Mendelssohn 3 in her youth symphony days, so perhaps it's more a part of her than it is of me. I can't say whether or not Elgar had made the same connection consciously or unconsciously. 

The other "other" I heard in Elgar's sonata is a bit more subtle, even "engimatic." When I finally got around to practicing the often awkward third movement, I found myself repeating these bars over and over. (Well, I was sort of repeating them - the big leaps in the left hand weren't always coming out the same, which is why I kept re-attempting them.)
The strange thing is that the circled L.H. notes just double what's going on in the R.H octaves., but it was only through the struggle of leaping for them that this little melodic idea (up a M3rd, up a P4th, down a m7th) sent my brain off to Elgar's famous "Enigma" theme:

This is a less obvious connection than the Mendelssohn one - the intervals aren't exactly the same since the circled melodic pattern from Elgar's own Enigma Variations begins with a minor 3rd, and the harmonic contexts are different. Still, for some reason I found it to be a gateway from one Elgar piece to another, and afterwards I found it impossible not to hear shadows of "Enigma" when I played those bars from the violin sonata. This, by the way, is a good example of a musical gesture that is felt as much as heard; if you look at the Violin Sonata passage, the L.H. leaps from the bass grace notes get progressively larger leading up to the high note so that the sense of "reaching" (longing, yearning, hoping) is palpable.

It was that physical sense of reaching which unlocked the Enigma Variations connection, and to be really specific, it was the circled notes below from "Nimrod" that always came to mind, from a passage which is basically all about exploring the descending 7ths from the theme. (Remember, the Elgar-Mendelssohn link was about ascending 7ths, for what it's worth.*)

Again, the important point is that I wasn't looking for this kind of connection - the fact that Elgar led me to Elgar probably suggests something more than just a sequence of three intervals; it's as if the violin sonata already had my brain fixed in an Elgar space into which other Elgar tunes could easily wander. Or, maybe I've stumbled on the elusive answer to the whole "Enigma" puzzle - although I don't really know what that answer would be. 

But wait, there's more! That's all the deconstructing of the violin sonata I have for today, but I found Elgar popping up in another unexpected place recently. The Norton Anthology of Western Music, which provides the backbone for my music history class, features a kooky, "everything but the kitchen sink" scene from Meyerbeer's grand opera Les Huguenots. When the fiery Protestant Marcel interrupts the chorus with some grumpy recitative, he gets his own special accompaniment via solo cello double-stops (apparently intended to suggest a Baroque continuo-style, à la another Protestant named Bach). The first time I heard this passage...

...I immediately thought of...wait for it...the opening of Elgar's Cello Concerto

The link here is pretty obvious, as much about gesture and the sound of those gutsy double-stops as a melody or harmony, but I did wonder if I've just had Elgar on the brain, so I played the Meyerbeer passage for Wife of MMmusing and asked what it sounded like. "Elgar cello concerto?" said she. Sure, she's got a natural cello bias, but at least I know I'm not the only one who hears this. The question is, had Elgar ever heard the Meyerbeer?

Did you know Elgar is an anagram of Large? Yep, so it's time to look for "large picture" lessons from these Elgar investigations. What have we learned here? Well, aside from me admitting that I don't know my Elgar so well, I think the most important takeaway point is that we are (or, at least, I am) always listening with a whole world of musical associations at the ready, ready to help us make sense of what we hear. That matters because those associations also likely have a lot to do with how we evaluate what we hear. Since I don't know Elgar's output all that well, I'm inclined to make sense of what he's written by hearing it in relation to other music I know. On the one hand, that can be seen as an unfair bias - shouldn't Elgar's sounds be evaluated on their own merits? But on the other hand, there is really no such thing as "on their own merits," at least not practically speaking. It's ALL connected.

Which means I've suddenly made my way to a larger point I mean to explore more fully some day - namely, that though I am clearly sympathetic to postmodern deconstructions of how we hear and experience the world (e.g. Bach's music sounds greater and more meaningful to us than it otherwise might because of cultural conditioning), I'm surprised at how often postmodernists just leave these deconstructed messes behind as if there's something wrong with loving something for culturally embedded reasons. I think this lies at the heart of what it is to love classical music (or just about anything we love via culture) - this big sense of connected-ness, the way in which one musical work calls out to another, the way in which we listen within these wildly divergent but related frameworks.

There's plenty that's wrong with "classical music culture," but there's nothing wrong with loving something in part because of a wider sense of connection/recognition. (I'm talking about connections much broader than just tune links.) Does this make it harder for a new composer to break into the club? Almost certainly, and that's not good, but that's a problem for another day...

* To top it all off, the Elgar 2nd mvt theme with the rising 7th (the one that sounds like Mendelssohn) is being recalled in the 3rd mvt when the piano plays that "Enigma" theme with the descending 7ths. I know this all sounds impossibly geeky, but the geekiness is just noticing the details about an experience of "rightness" that I suspect is pretty common. Listen:

P.S. If you're interested in exploring the Elgar sonata more fully, you can download a free score and mp3 here. That's the recording (with Viviane Hagner, violin & Tatiana Goncharova, piano) I used for the samples above. The "Nimrod" performance by Ben Zander and the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic is available for free here. That recording also features the best Meditation from "Thais" you'll ever here, featuring the then 16-yr old Stefan Jackiw.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Happy Bruchday!

Well, it's not actually Bruch's birthday, but a recent conversation with a student reminded me that many years ago I'd been regularly rehearsing the Bruch concerto with a fantastic violinist, and for her birthday, I penned the following:, um, yeah, if you know a violinist with a birthday, send'em over here. And when January 6 rolls around, we'll all have a nice way to celebrate. (This is, of course, an homage to this (which should start at the 1:22 mark).)

P.S. I realize it would make more sense if I'd waited until January, but I could use a blog post and life is insanely busy right now. Besides, I figure someone somewhere must be having a birthday today...

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tweeting the 5000

For what it's worth, I've been Twittering regularly since March of 2009 and today I hit the 5000-tweet milestone. This is nothing compared to some more prodigious tweeters, but it is something when viewed all on one page. Does this mean I've blogged less than I once did? Of course, but I've always preferred the blog for longer form posts anyway. Twitter is a great tool for free-flowing conversation, link-sharing, and all sorts of fun with words. Witness the great #fakeams hashtag* from September in which hundreds of would-be musicologists tweeted their ideas for American Musicological Society papers. (This was inspired by Alex Ross's post about ten "real" AMS paper titles.** Ross actually was tipped off about those by Will Robin, who also started the #fakeams fun.)

Here are my #fakeams submissions:
  • "A New Lexicon of Musical Invective: The YouTube Commentariat as Aesthetic Arbiters for the Petit bourgeoisie" #fakeams peer-review: kate97485 link
  • "This is Not a #FakeAMS: Reality Dislocation and the Assumption That Every New Tweet Should Be Interpreted as Geeky Musicological Humor" link
  • "C What I Did There?: Terry Riley's Response to Schoenberg's Claim that "There is still much good music that can be written in C."" link
  • "What You Talkin' Bout, Weelkes?: The English Madrigal and The Urban Vernacular." link
  • "A Lemonade Sublime: Balancing the Rum and Wagner in a Perfect Albert Herring." link
[***see tiresome joke explanations below.]

That second one is kind of meta - a reflection on what it's like when one of these great hashtags is in play; after a while, everything I'd read sounded like a possible musicology paper. I have too many favorites from the other submissions to list now, but I did take the trouble to archive most of the tweets that came in over about three days. (My archive doesn't include a few that came in later.)

The reason I created that archive is that Twitter is set up to make past posts hard to find, although they don't actually disappear. When a hashtag like the one above is created, one can easily track newly tagged posts as they come in, but they disappear from Twitter search after about a week. I, however, have stubbornly insisted on keeping ALL of my own tweets archived so that no typed thought of mine should go unforgotten. Every time I've reached a milestone (starting way back with 300), I post them in a big page so that it's easy to search through them. (Believe it or not, I've found these archives quite useful multiple times when I've been trying to track down an old link.)

So, I'm keeping this post short, but you can go here and read everything I've ever tweeted - more than 100,000 words! (The link may take some time to load; it's about 8MB of minutiae.) Some of the conversational stuff might not make that much sense, some of the links have gone cold, but there's bound to be something in there of interest. George Costanza once said, while trying to impress a NYC tour guide who thought he'd just moved in from Arkansas, "You know if you take everything I've ever done in my entire life and condense it down into one day... it looks decent." To paraphrase, "if you take everything I've ever done in my entire Twittering career and condense it down into one looks decent." (Second time I've used that quote, if you're keeping score. Also, I am from Arkansas.)

*And, of course, there's always #operaplot.

** Not sure why I put "real" in scare quotes there - but I like it.

*** Probably the only thing worse than a too-clever-for-it-own-good bit of humor is someone explaining that humor, but since my #fakeams titles are intended to sound pretentious, it's perfectly understandable if they make no sense whatsoever. So, just to pat myself on the back a bit more, here they are explained:
  1. The first one refers to Nicholas Slonimsky's famous Lexicon of Musical Invective which immortalizes all sorts of harsh words critics delivered at works now considered to be masterpieces. Anyone who's ever read through a few YouTube video comment pages will know that there's no shortage of absurd but strongly worded opinions to be found there. (I'm not even sure what the "Petit bourgeoisie" is; it just sounded good and Marxist.)
  2. The second I've already explained above. It's not very good anyway.
  3. So I'm not sure if Schoenberg ever really did say "there is still plenty of good music to be written in C Major," but the quote is often attributed to him as a way of showing that he wasn't just all revolutionary, tonal-busting fervor. He loved and respected the tonal tradition, although I don't know what he would have thought of Terry Riley's In C
  4. If #4 is a mystery, there's no shame in not knowing about Gary Coleman's catchphrase. And you could be forgiven for not know much about Thomas Weelkes and his madrigals.
  5. I love Britten's comic opera Albert Herring about as much as any opera - in one famous scene, the title character has his lemonade spiked with rum and Britten quotes the love-potion music from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde to illustrate the effect the rumonade (which should certainly be known as an "Albert Herring") has on poor Albert.

Monday, October 31, 2011


I'm giving myself only five minutes to write this Halloween post, relying as it does on already existing multimedia:

For quietly scary fun, there's this mashup I created a couple of years ago, combining the final two movements of Chopin's Piano Sonata No.2. It features the most famous funeral march ever with the terrifying ghostly echoes of the whirlwind finale:

So, that's to set the mood.

Then there are these two videos which I regret to say I didn't create. But they're frightening visual companions to Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire. First...

The companion video is not longer on YouTube, but you can still view it on Facebook here.

So, no, I didn't make those, but they did inspire me to make this, which is pretty unsettling: (Check out the look on the sun's face.)

Now, let's pause for an ad from J. Peterman.

Here's my own little take on Pierrot lunaire, combined with some Stravinsky. Creepy clown!

And if you like Stravinsky jabbing at you unexpectedly, you might give this a try. [Click on image below.]

Finally, in light of the surprising intersection of wintry snow cover and October we're having here in the Northeast, you can find all manner of creepiness in these various versions of Schubert's "Der Leiermann," from his song-cycle Winterreise. (None of these are mine: this is just a little playlist I put together for Twitter-based reasons a couple of days ago.) I'll embed one here, but you can find the others by following the link just above:

Enjoy the day!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Wiggles of Spring

A terrific new video has been making the rounds on Facebook and Twitter:

The first time I saw it, I'll admit I felt sad that I hadn't thought of this idea first. It's an absolute natural, and it's not like I haven't been exposed both to the Teletubbies (I have three kids) and Pierrot lunaire (which comes up in a class every year and to which I'd already done this). Four days later...I'm still kicking myself.

So tonight, I did a little thinking about what other projects might work this way and, a little YouTubing and Quicktiming later, I had this:

I'm not pretending it's nearly as inspired as the moonstruck tubbies - this is more of a humble homage to a great work of art. (Which is the great work? Stravinsky's music? The Wiggles' dancing? Daniel Capo's mashup? You be the judge....) It's certainly not as creepy as the first video, but I would say the Wiggles dancing is at least vaguely reminiscent of the kind of thing you see in this recreation of the original choreography for The Rite of Spring. [should start about 3 minutes in.]

And, we have ample evidence that kids can dig Stravinsky, so the Wiggles might want to put The Rite in their rep. In fact, while I was sitting on the couch putting this video together, my four-year old son sat nearby watching and eventually started intoning his own little "bump, bump, bump, bump, bump, BUMP, bump, bump...." which, by itself, made up for the countless hours of Wiggles videos I've seen and heard over the years.

Honestly, I wasn't even intending to post anything, but I was pleasantly surprised at how nicely the Wiggles and Stravinsky aligned without me doing much of anything. I just tossed the two together and all the nice little synchronicities fell into place - like Captain Feathersword (yes, I know his name - remember, I have three children) showing up just as the music changes and doing a little jump on the first big accent that follows his entrance. Pure serendipity.

So, my point here is not to show off some finely crafted mashup - it's to make the point that sometimes the mashup makes itself. I've explored that idea often before, here and here for example, but I'm still pleasantly surprised when things work out nicely.
Thus, I chose not to do any re-aligning, and I didn't even take this over to a nice video-editing program for elegant fades in and out. What I saw is what you get. Except: I chose this Wiggles video partly because the set reminded me of Nicholas Roerich's design (shown at right) for The Rite of Spring, so I layered a Roerich painting over the Wiggles, but fairly transparently. Just adds a few ominous cloud textures. I can't explain the bee at the end...

For the record, this is at least the third Rite of Spring mashup that's found its way to my blog: I'm still proudest of The Rite of Appalachian Spring (which makes Roerich's design the video star), and just days ago I was merging Stravinsky and Beethoven. And there's this Stravinsky-Schoenberg mashup from last spring.

See also: Webern in Mayberry and a whole bunch of Rite of Spring posts here.

P.S. YouTube is telling me my video is "blocked in some counties," ostensibly because of the blatant copyright infringement (René Köhler told me this was his recording, but YouTube thinks it's Boulez), but possibly because it's just wrong.

P.P.S. If you like the first Pierrot/Teletubbies video, there's another one.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Perfect Pitches

So, of course, yesterday's post wasn't all true - maybe I fabricated that very authentic-looking Beethoven sketch and maybe I doctored the video a little bit, but there's always a little truth in fiction.

The truth here is that while listening to Paavo Järvi conduct the passage on the left at 8:44...

...both my wife and I independently thought of the famous "Rite of Spring" passage on the right at 3:01. Obviously, a lot of it has to do with the heavily accented, thickly scored chords in both the Beethoven and the Stravinsky, but I was also intrigued to find that each set of chords features a D-sharp (or E-flat) on top.

Not only did that make it easier to mash Stravinsky's chords into Beethoven's -  I think it's highly likely that this pitch connection is part of what made me hear the connection between the two pieces, even though I certainly don't have perfect pitch. That's the cool/frustrating thing about pitch memory - it's clear to me that my brain can sometimes hear pitches in a way that resembles perfect pitch, but it's also clear that I can't access that skill reliably. (I have "slightly perfect" pitch!) Here's part of a blog post I started more than a year ago and never finished:
I do not have perfect pitch or anything like it. Like a lot of musicians, I often find that I can imagine a familiar piece and discover I'm hearing the pitches in the right place, but that's hardly a failsafe method for me. To test myself, I tried imagining the opening of Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata the other day, and I was distressed to be a half-step low. I thought I'd get that one right for sure. 
However, I had an interesting experience with pitch memory recently. I was coaching a mezzo-soprano in Schumann's Eichendorff Lieder, Op.39 and when we got to #5, Mondnacht, which is perhaps my favorite song ever, I remembered that her middle-voice edition puts this song down a minor third from the original. In fact, I was quite consciously aware of this before I started because there are some funny chromatics in the opening that I knew I might mis-read in this unusual key. So, I started, fully aware that I'd be starting in "the wrong" key. 
And yet, from the second that first low A-flat sounded, I felt a quite strong sense of disconnect I hadn't expected - the note sounded as wrong to me as if a piccolo note had sounded, or as if I'd accidentally struck two keys at once. It even felt wrong. This wasn't a conscious reaction, this was my whole musical being (aural and tactile) saying, "No, No, No." Of course, striking a black key does feel different than striking a white key, and pitch differences in that register are probably more noticeable as well, but still. For someone without perfect pitch, it was the closest I can remember feeling to that sense of absolute certainty about a particular pitch's quality. (On the other hand, other transposed songs in the set hadn't really affected me.)
I stopped and mentioned all of this to the singer; she laughed and said I'd said exactly the same thing when we last coached the song last Spring. Of course, getting old and all that, I had NO memory of that conversation, but my identification with the opening of this song is apparently just as strong. It is a song I've played and talked about a lot. I've added it to the listening list for my Music Appreciation class for the past three years, and I always talk about how that opening B in the left hand represents the earth, which is then kissed by the high C-sharp in the right hand. (The text that follows is: "It was as if the sky had quietly kissed the earth.") So, I've played those two particular keys many times with an intense focus on what they feel and sound like. 
Here's what they sound like:

You can decide for yourself what they feel like, but I think they're perfect.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Beethoven - more ahead of his time than you thought!

Here's an astonishing musicological scoop from MMmusing. Some newly discovered Beethoven sketchbooks have turned up a page that's almost too remarkable to believe. It seems that in his already revolutionary 3rd symphony (the "Eroica"), at the moment of greatest tension in the Development Section, the composer toyed around with adding a wildly dissonant polychord. This would have followed the already jarring (F Major + E) chord that gets hammered several times before the music settles into a beautiful new waltz theme. Here's the sketch:

The newly contemplated notes would have replaced the already dissonant dominant chord that's crossed out. That chord (B-D#-F#-A-C), which treats the previous FM7 chord as a Neapolitan 6th, adds a minor ninth to the B7 harmony that eventually settles into E Minor - but Beethoven considered something much more radical: an Eb7 chord over an Fb Major chord. Perhaps this was to highlight the tension between the primary key of E-flat Major and the new theme in the distant key of E (Fb) Minor. Further sketches suggest that this chord was intended to continue through the next couple of pages. Here's what it might have sounded like, with the new "harmony" showing up first at 0:10. [Thanks to René Köhler and the National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.]

What makes this all the more astonishing is that this "crazy" chord is exactly what Igor Stravinsky ended up using to shock Paris about 100 years later in his "The Rite of Spring."

Above, you can see the chord Beethoven eventually settled on next to the chord that Stravinsky used - and that Beethoven first conceived! So, Beethoven ended up keeping that E-flat on top (respelled as D-sharp), but apparently even he wasn't ready to unleash such a primitive sonority on the world.

More to come... [UPDATE: It's here.]

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Immortal Franz

Today is the 200th birthday of Franz Liszt. Back in my high school days, when I was trying to learn everything I could about the piano in a small Arkansas town, I remember two books from the local library that made a particular impression on me. One was Abram Chasins' The Van Cliburn Legend, which was written shortly after Cliburn won the 1958 Tchaikovsky competition. Cliburn had grown up less than two hours from where I lived and this book was written with the same kind of celebratory style as the kid-oriented sports books I loved to read - books like Great Quarterbacks of the NFL. So, the Cliburn story was quite inspirational for someone who went, in a few years time, from dreams of sports stardom to dreams of...well, winning the Tchaikovsky Competition.

The other library book I loved was a wildly fictional biography of Liszt called Immortal Franz. Dating from the 1930s, it was written by someone with the wonderful name, Zsolt Harsanyi, which gave it an extra dose of exoticism. I don't remember much detail from the book now other than that it spent a lot of time recounting the composer's many torrid affairs. And that was OK with me: classical music could not have seemed more exciting. (I see from searching online that it was subtitled "The Life and Loves of a Genius.") I also remember liking one part where fictional Franz told a female student, "Women can't play Beethoven." It actually seemed like that might be true to me - I figured this knocked out half my competition if I ever entered the Tchaikovsky! - but I've since learned that women can play Beethoven. (But, of course, they can't play Liszt.)
I never won the Tchaikovsky Competition and I haven't led the extravagant social life that Liszt did (though I've encountered many women who can play circles around me), but I'm still a fan of piano pyrotechnics and the nonfictional Franz. I haven't really played a lot of Liszt, although I did learn (on 24 hours notice) his version of the "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde for a lecture a couple of years ago. But there's a lot of Liszt I'd love to play if time and fingers were willing - perhaps some day. High on the liszt of pieces I'd want to try are these two opposites, showing that Liszt can speak to both sides of our natures.

...and if you should choose to start playing these two recordings at the same time, well...that's between you and your shoulders. (Of course, I would never do such a thing to Liszt.)

P.S. Those pieces are: Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude & THE Mephisto Waltz.

P.P.S. Yes, I realize it would've tied this post together better if those were Van Cliburn recordings of Liszt - but I couldn't resist using YouTube videos with pictures of Liszt. I have to admit, I'm rather proud of the way those videos are sitting on my virtual shoulders there...

P.P.P.S. But, yes, Cliburn can play Liszt.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Eroica Mix'n'Match

So, having found a way to link up score and video for the lengthy Act II Finale of The Marriage of Figaro, I went right to work on the next big piece we're tackling in music history this semester: the first movement of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony, a movement lasting more than fifteen minutes (if the repeat is taken) and even more continuous as musical argument than the Mozart. I'll admit to being a bigger fan of Beethoven 1, 5, and 7 (yes, I'm one of those "odd number Beethoven types"), but there's no denying the monumental, revolutionary quality of the "Eroica." There had certainly never been anything like it before it debuted.

To try it out, roadmap-style, click here. (See disclaimers about user experience in the previous post.)

Again, my goal is to create a sort of one-stop shopping for navigating this sprawling musical landscape to help the listener develop a big picture view of its structure and scope. The fact that the entire outline appears on one page (with score and video) is crucial - I'm always annoyed when a student submits an outline of a work that bleeds over to the next page, because an all-in-one visual is a great way to "think" of a work as a whole. My hope is that the user can feel as if all 15 minutes and all 63 pages are just a click away.

Admittedly, a visual like this, on its own, is a bit depressing.

However, when all those mathematical-looking letters can instantly be turned into music (music both heard and seen on a page), all sorts of significant connections can become apparent. I don't mind admitting that my favorite thing about these experiments so far is score-hopping - trying out all appearances of "Tr1" (Transition Theme 1) in succession, for example, or looping the first few seconds of a theme DJ-style. It's also useful in the classroom to be able to play a theme in contrasting keys in quick succession. Almost exactly in the middle of the movement is a gorgeous "new theme" (maybe the only really good tune in the piece!) that follows the moment of greatest discord - this melancholy theme first appears in E minor, which is far, far away from the brilliant main key of E-flat Major. That's the kind of detail that's hard to put into words (I'm struggling with it right now!), but clicking back and forth between the very first PT and the first NT, I think it's pretty easy to hear.

Not only do these score/video projects build on a recent interest of mine in "big picture" listening - they also are inspired by a long-held belief that the score is underrated as a potentially engaging visual, even for audiences that don't read music fluently. Yes, a score exists first as a set of instructions and, true, those instructions only begin to suggest all that happens in a performance - but it can be fun to follow musical ideas across a page and, as I've suggested often before, a score runs less risk of distracting the listener from listening than Disney animations or the like. Many of the moments in the Fantasia films are so engaging visually that the viewer could be excused for not really paying a lot of attention to the music. (Is it always the listener's job to "pay attention" to the music? Of course not, but if you're reading this, you probably agree that it can be very satisfying and rewarding.)

By the way, I'm aware that the San Francisco Symphony's excellent "Keeping Score" series has an "Eroica" chapter. (Warning: I only just realized that it's one of those annoying sites that plays music upon loading. Bad idea, SFSO.) It has a lot of good features, and certainly provides a lot of detail (especially descriptive) that you won't find on my barebones site. It also does something I haven't managed yet: turn the pages for you. On the other hand, I'm not a fan of the awkward "time-beating" bar that moves fitfully across the screen, bar by bar, and yet somehow not rhythmically. I also don't like the ugly, computer-generated look of the score, and it's very frustrating not to be able to go full screen. And, of course, I don't like that you can't "see" the whole movement in a glance.

It's also annoying that the "Keeping Score" site doesn't let you hear the whole thing. Really? I know there are probably union issues and the like, but c'mon. It's not that I'd go there to hear it all at once, but I'd like to be able to hear any part I want to hear. However, this brings up the slightly awkward "rights" issue of my own site, since I'm "borrowing" a video of Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen that I found on YouTube. I'll do the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer defense here and say that I don't really understand how this whole brave new world works - your free-flowing videos and mixed media messages frighten and confuse me. ("When I see a big symphony orchestra playing pretty tunes on this smooth, flat, glowing rock, I think, 'Oh no, did an evil fairy shrink them?'  I don't know. Because I'm a caveman. That's the way I think... those violas sound awesome, though!") The classical blogger-twittersphere relies heavily on all the audio and video that's sketchily posted on YouTube, and the music industry seems to be OK with some of it, and it's...well, it doesn't seem like such a big step from linking to these videos to re-posting them myself. If nothing else, I hope you get a chance to appreciate the amazing playing of these musicians. (I did buy their disc - so should you.)

One last thought for now: as I mentioned above, the "Eroica" has never been my favorite Beethoven symphony, though I admire and respect it. ("Ouch," says Ludwig.) But the experience of putting this outline together and tossing these musical ideas around has made me remember how fantastic this music is. Honestly, I think the "Eroica" always suffers in my memory because that opening tune is so...not great. Maybe it's true that Beethoven's greatness comes from getting more out of less, but because that tune comes to mind first when I think of it, I tend to forget all the great stuff. My fault, of course. I remember having the same experience when we played it for Piano Hero - a few bars in and I was riveted for the rest of the symphony. And for me at least, the experience of chopping the music to bits only makes it more rewarding when everything is back in its rightful place.

If you stick around to the end of this video, you'll see what I mean by chopping it to bits. (I'm a little sad I missed Charles Ives' birthday by a day.)

Quick Analysis Notes: I threw the chart above together pretty quickly, changing my methods as I went along, so it's not the most elegant of analyses. The labeling of themes is a bit idiosyncratic, and I was particularly interested in keeping the labels short so that the table didn't get too big. The key areas listed simplify things to some degree, but I think they give a useful sense of the important tonal milestones. If you go to the site, you'll find I added one more fanciful set of links at the end of the outline - these "Big Bangs" are not really thematic, but they capture the "big picture" spirit of the piece quite well.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fun with the First Figaro Finale

[I'm very good at burying the lede, so if you don't feel like reading all this, then just jump down to the video at the bottom, or go straight to my new integrated score/video for this Figaro finale.]

There's probably no musical excerpt I've taught more than the Act II Finale of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. I have been using it regularly in three different classes (music history, a music appreciation type class, and a big general arts lecture class) going back many years, and I've accompanied it in opera scenes performances two different times; so if nothing else, I've gotten to know these twenty minutes pretty well. The fact that the finale is twenty minutes long is a big part of why I choose to teach it. Teaching opera in excerpts is always frustrating because the best operas (and certainly Mozart's operas) are so cumulative in impact. (Yes, that's true of some symphonic works, but I find it more satisfying to teach a movement of a symphony than an just aria or two from an opera.)

Certainly, there are plenty of Mozart arias that are worth using as introduction to Mozart's style, but it's the ensembles and the way in which he builds momentum over a lengthy scene that interest me the most - and there's nothing quite like this finale. (The Act IV finale is extraordinary as well.) Peter Shaffer makes a big deal about it in Amadeus, giving Mozart this wonderful speech extolling the virtues of the opera ensemble:
That's why opera is important, Baron. Because it's realer than any play! A dramatic poet would have to put all those thoughts down one after another to represent this second of time. The composer can put them all down at once - and still make us hear each one of them. Astonishing device - a vocal quartet! [More and More excited] I tell you I want to write a finale lasting half an hour! A quartet becoming a quintet becoming a sextet becoming a septet. On and on, wider and wider - all sounds multiplying and rising together - and then together making a sound entirely new . . . I bet you that's how God hears the world! Millions of sounds ascending at once and mixing in His ear to become an unending music, unimaginable to us!
Peter Hall, the original director of the stage version of Amadeus, has a terrific chapter on Mozart ensembles in his little book, Exposed by the Mask. He echoes Shaffer's Mozart's words here:
Only opera can exploit the paradox that we all have different responses to the same situation, even when we are saying the same words. And for us – the audience – it is a moment of complete chaos made clear. The music gives it form and meaning. (p.87)
Of course, the length of this finale is a challenge from a teaching perspective. On the one hand, it's not hard to have a big success just showing a video, because it's very entertaining theater* - certainly more entertaining than listening to me rattle on and on. On the other hand, it's easy for the students not to think much about the music at all. That doesn't mean the music isn't a big part of what makes the scene entertaining - but there's a lot to be learned by investigating both the finer details and, most importantly, the large-scale structural principles.

Several of my recent blog posts have been about hearing/seeing/experiencing a large work in “big picture” format. I love dfan's comment from one of those posts:
I remember as a little kid when I suddenly realized that I actually could hold the whole structure of the first movement of Beethoven's 5th in my head and follow it from beginning to end, and that it actually made logical semantic sense in the same way that a long sentence does, rather than just being a continuous stream of arbitrary music that happened to end at some point. 
Back in the darker ages, before YouTube had become so useful, I created for students a Quicktime file with the audio for the finale and a series of captions that describe the gist of what’s going on, with prompts to listen for various musical details. The over-riding structural principle for the finale is quite easy to grasp: the way in which the characters are systematically added to the stage, building from duet to septet. “A quartet becoming a quintet becoming a sextet becoming a septet….” In fact, although this finale is often celebrated as twenty minutes of continuous music, each of the five big sections (Duet; Trio; Quartet; Quintet; Septet) could stand alone pretty well as a musical number. It’s noteworthy that Mozart moves the plot along without using the more conventional recitative style for these twenty minutes, but it’s also not exactly true that the plot moves forward continuously. In fact, as Peter Hall suggests, there are moments throughout the finale when the characters turn to the audience (at least figuratively) to confide their inner thoughts, the special point being that we get to perceive multiple sets of thoughts all at once.

Aside from pointing out the obvious about characters being added to the stage, I also like to emphasize the pacing choices Mozart makes. Most important is the way in which he uses an old-fashioned courtly dance style at three crucial junctures in the finale. A lot of the dramatic tension in this finale comes from the back and forth as to who has the upper hand; sometimes it’s the Count, sometimes it’s the Countess, Susanna, or Figaro. Though most of the music is fast-paced, and even frenetic, each of these dance episodes is used to slow things down as we watch the characters sizing each other up. The courtly dance style works well for this, combining a surface formality with barely concealed emotions simmering away beneath. It’s easy to think of dozens of powdered wig period films in which dance scenes are used to the same effect. There's a broader analogy to what Mozart accomplishes with his operas in general, because he generally relies on fairly standard musical styles that can appear merely polished and elegant on the surface, but which can reveal amazing depths of human feeling.

I can still remember a time when I tried to teach this scene from the piano with a fat piano-vocal score that never stayed open; I'd suddenly think about a moment 35 pages down the road and awkwardly flip my way around, then jump over to the podium to see how quickly I could zero in on the right spot in the VHS or DVD. Fun, but crazy and frustrating. I've been using PDF scores in class almost exclusively for years now, but it still can be a challenge to get around efficiently in the score, on the iPod, and on the DVD.

Although I'm pretty good at flipping from window to window on the laptop, I knew there had to be an easier way. Thus began a week-long journey, with some lessons in html, Acrobat, Quicktime, and javascript (!) along the way. I won't go into all the techy detail (although I will admit both that I love fiddling with code, and that I have almost no training in doing so), but I finally managed a solution that works very well in the classroom. I'm still struggling to make this something that can be easily shared online, due to differences in web browsers, screen sizes, and various compatibility issues, but I've decided to post what I've got so far. 

The beauty of this system (which I hope to employ with many other long pieces) is that one can, with one click, jump right to the same place in the score and the embedded video. I have found this to be wonderfully freeing in the lecture setting. I'm sure there must be easier ways to do all this, and I'd love to learn flash or HTML5 to that end, but this is a start.

To try it out, click here. For best results, you'll then want to go fullscreen (use F11 in Windows) and then reload the page (usually F5 or Ctrl-R works) in fullscreen mode to size the score optimally. (Hit F11 again to exit fullscreen mode.) If the commands aren't working, you may need to click in the white space around the movie window so that the commands go to the browser and not the score or movie. Finally, you'll almost certainly need to wait a few minutes before the movie fully loads. You'll probably also need to approve the use of a javascript-embedded file (you may get a warning about potentially dangerous content - I promise I'm not out to get you!) and you'll need Quicktime installed.  (See, it's killing me that there are all these little disclaimers; but once these things are set, it should work beautifully.)

Here's a good 'ol YouTube video that shows you sort of how it should work. You should watch the YouTube video fullscreen, ideally in HD.

The main features:
  • Easy-to-use score. Just click on the left or right margins to turn the pages backwards or forwards. (At this point, the pages don't actually turn as the video plays, but the bookmarks will take you to the right places.)
  • Embedded video. This is a nice Met, all-star production with Fleming, Terfel, Bartoli, et al. It has useful subtitles as well. I just pulled it off of YouTube; there are a variety of little glitches along the way, including one spot where about half a page of music gets skipped. However, I don't want this project to be about getting lost in a great video; the video is there to help the user see the stage context and follow a rough translation. If you want to watch the opera, go watch the opera! (There are worse ways to spend your time...)
  • Page numbers marked in the video. If you look in the bottom right corner of the video window, you'll see a little box that shows the current page number, so if you get lost, you can always pause and flip to the correct page.
  • "What to listen for" captions playing beneath the video. These are just the old captions I made years ago, slightly updated and re-timed for this video.
Again, the main point is that all these items are linked, so it's really easy to jump round and explore the score. If you're interested, the three "dance episodes" to which I referred are:
  1. beginning of the Trio, when Susanna emerges from the closet, to the confusion of the Count and Countess.
  2. Interrogation #1 in the Quartet, when the Count asks Figaro about the mysterious letter he received.
  3. Interrogation #2 in the Quintet, when the Count asks Figaro about the papers left behind by the mystery man who jumped out the window.
[Here's a synopsis of the opera if you need to get up to speed.]

The rest I leave to your own exploration. This obviously won't work so well on small screens or smartphones. I don't know if it's iPad-ready or not. If you're interested in downloadable files that wouldn't have to load over the Internet on your computer, feel free to email me about that.

Of course, there are many music textbooks now that come with guided listening programs, some of them pretty good. But it's gratifying to integrate score, video, subtitles, and captions this way, and to know that I can do it with other scores. And, to be honest, it was just a fun, geeky thing to do. Hope you find it useful. Mozart's the best!

* For the record, the video I like to show in class is the Peter Sellars "Trump Towers" version. In spite of Sellars' reputation for being outrageous, I find that this production takes the characters more seriously than many others and makes the emotions feel genuine and even unsettling. I also don't think anyone will ever sing Figaro more beautifully than Sanford Sylvan.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Musical Storyboards

A couple of posts ago, I suggested that the fast-forward feature on certain kinds of CD players can provide a useful aural overview of a long musical structure. Although this worked pretty well for some wild Prokofiev, my initial experiments with the more orderly soundworld of Mozart didn't work out so well. (Those experiments haven't made it online, which is good news for us all.) The jumbled clash of indiscriminately selected musical "snapshots" (the CD player in question fast-forwards by sampling tiny little segments in quick succession) just sounds too far removed from the character of the original.

However, I've still been thinking of using something like this technique in the classroom where I often find that students have trouble "hearing structure" in large musical structures. The old ABACA language makes plenty of sense to me, but if the student isn't readily able to associate a musical idea with each of those letters, the analysis can seem overly abstract.

For example, my music history class is studying early Classical style. Our anthology includes a piano concerto movement by J. C. Bach, and the authors provide a nice little table that summarizes the major structural events relating to themes, harmony, and texture. (Texture here is mainly about orchestral ritornelli vs. solo episodes.)

I love looking at tables like this, but it becomes clearer to me year by year that not all students are used to thinking this way. It occurred to me that the table would make a lot more sense if the student could easily associate each thematic idea (its aural image) with its abbreviation (1T, Tr, 2T, CT which stand for 1st theme, Transition, 2nd theme, Closing Theme), so I opened up Audacity and threw together a little bird's-ear view of the movement, with each important event represented by 3-4 seconds of music. Here's what that sounds like:

For the most part, each jump in the music matches up with the thematic changes shown above, except that in the "Second Episode" (essentially, the "Development" section), each modulation to a new key is also sampled. [Sorry, I can't post the entire recording, but if you find yourself wanting to hear more, you can download the whole movement for only $0.99 here.]

Yes, it's a bit jarring, but I think it provides a useful way to "hear" the whole piece in 60 seconds; ideally, that can then provide a framework for listening to the real thing. In this way, the clipped version functions kind of like an aural storyboard - or, you can just think of it as an aural version of the chart above.

I thought it would be useful for this post to "storyboard" a more well-known work, and since the first movement of Mozart's Symphony No.40 will be coming up in my music appreciation class soon, I took out my shears and pasted together the following:

Although the snapshots are even shorter here (2-3 seconds), I was surprised to find that some of them went together quite nicely (especially the quick modulations in the Development section from 0:15 to 0:33) so that, while it's not always elegant, this Cliff's Notes version actually makes some musical sense on its own. Perhaps you'll recall that earlier this summer I pasted together parts of three different Mozart violin concerti. In that case, my goal was to make things musically comprehensible, but I'm gratified to find some "music" can still be discerned in this symphonic snapshot when entire phrases are reduced to mere motives.

That raises another connection to be made, that this kind of musical storyboard is somewhat analogous to the kind of long-range voice-leading analysis made famous by Heinrich Schenker. (See here.)  I'm no expert in Schenkerian analysis, but I have found that listening to Mozart this way gives me a greater appreciation, even in just one afternoon, for the way in which Mozart fills up this structure. That's a crucial point, because I'd never want students to think that the structure is an end in itself. The point of this kind of thinking is to perceive more effectively the long range shape that all these beautiful tunes and harmonies and textures inhabit. In the process of picking and choosing where to cut, I became aware of several passages in which Mozart elegantly extends or contracts expected phrase structures. True, those details get lost in the version above, but they were revealed to me by thinking in storyboard mode.

And more importantly, from the Schenkerian point of view, it's much easier to hear the long-range harmonic motion when seven minutes are reduced to one. I feel certain Schenker's mysterious graphical reductions would have made more sense to me when I first encountered them as an undergrad if I could've heard audio reductions like the ones above. (Yes, I realize many important Schenkerian principles are lost in my reductions - but the overall principle is the same.) When I mashed up the three Mozart violin concertos, my original goal was to show how similar they are, and I didn't necessarily mean that in a flattering way; but spending time with Mozart's fragments only gave me a greater appreciation for his skill and creativity - which probably means that the best thing I could for students is get them to do their own trimming and storyboarding!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Remembering Vangie

On September 11, a day that had seemed sad enough, we lost one of the most remarkably gifted students I've had the pleasure of knowing. Evangelyna Etienne, a mezzo-soprano with limitless potential, joined the choir of angels after a long and brave struggle with cancer. She had just turned 21.

"Vangie" had a voice and musical maturity that far surpassed what one might expect from an undergrad. I can still vividly remember hearing her for the first time as I accompanied her audition for our school, and within a few months of her arrival on campus we'd decided to cast her as Dido in an extended scene from Dido and Aeneas. Performing in a dry science auditorium with no-budget sets and costumes, she left us all riveted, showing how music has the ability to transcend limitations of space and time. I'd heard, played, and taught Dido's famous lament dozens and dozens of times, but it was new and unbelievably real in those moments.

She was hysterical and terrifying as the witch in Hansel and Gretel her sophomore year, but I probably remember her best from two full roles she sang last year, first as the witch in Into the Woods and then as Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance. She was already quite sick through both runs and had to miss many rehearsals when getting out of bed wasn't an option, and yet she never even considered the option of dropping out - nor did she ever complain. The Into the Woods role is particularly grueling and we had ten performances, all of which were elevated by her gorgeous singing and the uncanny combination of brokenness and wisdom one felt every night during "Children will listen." Time stopped again and again.

For practical reasons, we held auditions for both of those shows at the same time, and when Vangie walked in, I assumed she was mostly interested in Pirates. I have to confess I didn't even know Into the Woods that well yet, so when she handed me the music to "Stay with me," it was a song I had never played. There were about 8-10 of us in a little black-box theater as I started in the wrong tempo on a horrible old upright, but when she started singing, we were all brought directly into the dramatic moment, and it was as if the show was in full production. I'd never realized the song had even 1/10 the potential she delivered in that moment, which felt nothing like an audition. We had many fine students who could've sung the role, but she had managed to own it completely in two minutes; on some level it felt like I'd experienced the entire show within this tiny fragment. I'll never forget that.

I've written before about the power that musical fragments can have, and I'll close with two other fragment-like musical memories of Vangie. (Of course, it's worth pointing out that Vangie's voice and musical abilities are only a small fragment of what made her so special to so many.) One moment comes from early last May when I Twittered the following about her:
...half-listening to Poulenc's "Les chemins de l'amour" drifting in from a studio next door. So great...but jealous I'm not playing.
I'm still jealous I wasn't playing, but remember this moment even more because a couple of days later, Vangie's situation took a turn for the worse. Yet I can still hear those fragments of melody floating by, and they are as real and beautiful as if I were hearing her sing the whole song now. And, yes, I still wish I could hear her sing the whole song now.

One quality I especially admired about Vangie is that she loved so many different types of music and was as curious about new and varied repertoire as any singer I've come across. She certainly loved opera, but also all kinds of art songs, gospel music, choral music, musical theater, etc. Since she knew I loved to blog about unexpected musical connections, she'd often let me know of ones she'd heard. I tweeted about her in this context last November:
Very impressed by student noticing connection between this Poulenc (1:05) and this Puccini (2:50)...
She once noticed something quite insightful about one of Eric Whitacre's choral works, emailed him about it, and he responded to her with delight that she was the first to have pointed it out to him. Though she was a born soloist, she loved Whitacre's choral works and was a participant in each of his Virtual Choir experiments. He even featured her briefly in his TED Talk [4:50 mark].

The day after she passed away, I found myself listening to her upload of the Soprano 2 part for the second incarnation of the Virtual Choir. (You can read her comment about recording it here.) Whitacre's music is so much about the shimmering harmonies created by the massed parts that I was taken aback at how beautiful, satisfying, and complete this single-voice fragment is. 

It is simultaneously heartbreaking and comforting to hear Vangie singing these words alone and yet with so many others. I think it gives some taste of her unique voice, and I use voice in every possible sense of the word. Her life certainly feels like an unfinished fragment from a human perspective, and yet the life she lived was as complete, beautiful, and satisfying as a life could be. We miss her terribly.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Musical Snapshots

One of the most frustrating (and wonderful) things about loving music is dealing with its temporality - its impermanence. The experience of performing, listening to, or thinking about music can seem like it transcends time and a musical work can feel like a single whole - but, it's really a series of moments that are here and gone.

Having begun with those profound thoughts, it's now back to our regularly scheduled programming in which Michael finds some bizarrely distorted way to experience music and tries to convince you it's profound. 

OK, so we're back to the CD player on our Honda Odyssey. You may remember a couple of episodes again when I was celebrating the way the player distorted some Taylor Swift songs, robbing them of their steady pulse and making my musical experience richer and more engaging.

However, the CD player works like a normal player most of the time. So it was that I was listening to the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No.3 a few days ago and, as often happens to me with this and the composer's first concerto, I found myself rewinding to hear the final few minutes again and again. No one creates a rush to the finish quite like Prokofiev - off the top of my head, I could also cite the end of the 5th Symphony, the end of the Violin Sonata in D (which flutists think is a flute sonata) and the end of the Violin Concerto No.2. Oh, and of course the entire final movement of the Piano Sonata No.7. Prokofiev's the man, and I get a little more annoyed every year that his star doesn't shine as bright as Stravinsky's...but, I digress.*

So, the cool thing about CD players is that fast-forwarding or rewinding usually lets you hear the piece in a crazy series of musical fragments, stitched together like some sort of manic, ADHD tour of the music. How often do we stop to notice how crazy and manic it is to hear music this way? Of course, it's a convenient way to "know where you are" as you search, but it also creates a new way of listening. One might expect the scanning to produce a wildly sped up version of the notes, but instead you get a few notes here, then a few notes from 5 seconds later, etc. This has the advantage of working as well backwards as it does forwards - the pitches aren't distorted and you don't get the hallucinogenic experience of hearing musical attacks reversed. It's more like reading the first few words of every paragraph in a book.

But there's another advantage, too. Listening this way enables a kind of compressing of time, so that the music can be "taken in" in far fewer moments. It's not the same as hearing an entire 10 minutes at once, but it's on the way there. My favorite thing about musical analysis is developing the ability to "think" or "see" a large musical canvas in one glance; listening on fast-forward isn't so different. Or so I would have you believe.

It probably works best for music you already know, which enables the chaos to be processed coherently. So, maybe if you don't know the Prokofiev 3rd - well, you should! - but maybe if you don't, the clips below and this entire post will seem like nonsense. So, maybe you could watch/listen to this a few dozen times first.

Done? So, here are these 10 minutes (different recording**) reduced to 1 in fast-forward mode**:

Here's what that would sound like merely sped up x10:

Here's the same music "rewound" by the CD player:

And here it is played backwards à la Beatles:

Versions 1 and 3, for me, are genuinely useful ways of "hearing" this music in snapshot mode - much moreso than the hyperspeed versions. True, I already had a good sense of the overall ABCBA structure, but listening through the stitched fragments provides a unique kind of aural overview, even in reverse. By the way, I just love that bizarre little C section (3:25-4:35 in the video above); it has nothing to do with anything - it's just there, idly passing the time in the midst of the wildly primitive A section and the wildly passionate B section. And I think my bird's eye viewing has helped me make sense of its senselessness.

Of course, the results could be quite different depending on the music chosen, but I think there's real potential here as a way to "show" a work's structure in short order. In fact, I've already pretty much decided to add this movement to this semester's "Music Appreciation" playlist, and I might try using the compressed version as a teaching tool. Getting students to listen to long works is hard enough, but especially when their ears aren't well-trained to follow a large musical structure. Maybe mapping a listening experience on to this kind of blueprint could be helpful...

* Hey, I love Stravinsky and have written about him probably more than any composer on this blog (admittedly, mostly about The Rite), but Prokofiev is far more gifted as a melodist, as a dramatist, and, most importantly, as a piano composer. But again, this isn't to disparage Stravinsky - it's just that Prokofiev is awesome.

** Apologies for the poor recording quality. The fast-forward and rewind versions were created crudely via the "Voice Recording" function on my daughter's Sony Walkman. All recordings, by the way, feature Joyce Hatto on piano with René Köhler and the National-Philharmonic Symphony.