Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Rites of Spring Are Bursting Out All Over

So, right at the same time as I'm in the midst of (w)riting a short article* called "Rites of Spring" inspired (sort of) by Stravinsky's iconic The Rite of Spring (which, of course, inspired a riot), I start seeing regular Twitter updates from Terry Teachout about the upcoming premiere (tonight) of his new opera/musical theater collaboration with Paul Moravec, Danse russe, which is all about the creation of The Rite. And, via another Twitter acquaintance, I learn about The Bad Plus' recent performance of On Sacred Ground, which is essentially a performance of The Rite of Spring by piano, bass, and percussion. Iconic, indeed. You can sample Danse russe here and hear all of On Sacred Ground here, ri(gh)t now.

Well, it is Spring, after all. So, here are some of my past (w)ritings on the subject:

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


I've been working on a little article inspired by Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, starting off with an observation I've made many times here and elsewhere - that this is music meant to suggest a primitive, prehistoric civilization, yet it requires a remarkably civilized and well-trained group of about 100 players to perform. It's rigorous, modernist music intended to help us escape from the rigors of modernism. One of my lines that got left on the cutting-room floor is the observation that "if Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-Hour Rule applies to top-flight orchestra musicians, then a first-class performance of The Rite would require a million or more combined hours of practice." That's a lot of lessons, etudes, patient parents, youth orchestra rehearsals, etc. Of course, the same could be said for just about any work requiring a large orchestra (which is one reason I abandoned the quote), but it has particular resonance when considering the wild and disordered effect this music can have.

Since that tension (prehistoric vs. ultra-modern) has long been what fascinates me most about this music, I was a bit disappointed to discover that Leonard Bernstein said/wrote the following in a book that's been sitting on my shelf for more than twenty years, though I've never read it:
But the most striking semantic effects of Stravinsky's primitivism results from the utterly modern sophistication with which it is treated. There is an exciting friction here of conflicting forces: after all, here's a thoroughly twentieth century composer writing prehistoric music. It's a glorious misalliance, producing glorious offspring - a synthesis of earthy vernacular embedded in stylistic sophistication. (359)
OK, so I suppose it's a pretty obvious point anyway, and I'm sure many others have made it. And I'm sure others have critiqued Stravinsky for appropriating his own idealized idea of the past into something that really reflects the present, but that's a question for another day.

However, I'm also regretting not having read The Unanswered Question because of another observation Bernstein makes about The Rite of Spring. He writes:
[of a specific passage] That page is sixty years old, but it's never been topped for sophisticated handling of primitive rhythms...[more broadly] it's also got the best dissonances anyone ever thought up, and the best asymmetries and polytonalities, and polyrhythms, and whatever else you care to name. (357
I'm particularly intrigued by that idea of writing "the best asymmetries" because I've listened to this music countless times, and I still find that it sounds unpredictable, even though I pretty much know exactly what's going to happen. As with a great suspense novel or horror film, what Stravinsky has managed is to create a sort of permanent meta-unpredictability; he's encoded the idea of unpredictability into something that's stable, yet volatile.

I experimented with this idea a few years back when I created Mr. Stravinsky's Random Accent Generator. The inspiration came from my own experience of knowing the "aymmetrical" accents in this iconic passage so well that I wondered if they'd lost their unpredictable punch.

It took awhile to build my little machine, so I ended up not having much time to write about it at the time (I guess this is the followup post!), but the idea is that each time you reload the page, you get a different set of accents from what Stravinsky penned - and that should really put you on your toes as a listener. Go give it a try!
But I soon discovered that it didn't work - at least not for me. Stravinsky's predictable asymmetries still did the best job of sounding menacingly off-kilter. Now, of course, there's some conditioning bias at play here - I've heard Stravinsky's accents a lot, so they have a certain rightness that goes along with that. In fact, I'm sure that part of the satisfaction I get from hearing them is in feeling good that I can predict when those unpredictable accents will occur. It's an ego boost. It makes me feel smart. (Every now and then, I wonder how much of the music aficionado's love for music is fed by this sort of ego boost, but I digress...) Still, I think there's more to it than that. I think Bernstein is right that Stravinsky "has the best asymmetries" - that his formulations are calculated so well that they embody the idea of unpredictability more than they sound unpredictable.

This, of course, is something art does all the time. A deceptive cadence doesn't have to be unfamiliar to deliver an expressive punch that means surprise. A perfectly timed line delivery can make a comic moment funny every time, even if we've heard the line a hundred times. Climactic "one more time" evaded cadences can be thrilling every time. A guillotine blow can be chilling every time. We happily surrender again and again to the feeling that a great artistic moment can summon. Stravinsky's very specific accents will always work against the well-ingrained assumption that music should fall into regular patterns of stressed beats. Bernstein refers to this as "rhythmic dissonance" (345), so I suppose my couching it in terms of unpredictability isn't quite right, but it's the experience I get listening, even when I know exactly what's coming.

Still, part of me would like to see an orchestra mix up Stravinsky's accents just a little bit every now and then...just to keep us on our toes while we're being surprised. And I'm sure there's always a horn player willing to oblige...

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Und singen Halleluja!

As I mentioned way back on Good Friday, Bach's Cantata No. 4 "Christ lag in Todesbanden"  is really an Easter cantata, though it is much more grim in tone that the typical Easter fare. But, it is truly joyful music, even if the joy is not always bubbling over on the surface. Leonard Bernstein says of Bach, in this 1950's TV  show:
There are great beauties hidden in this music, only they're not so immediate as we expect them to be. They lie beneath the surface, so to speak, but because they do, they don't rub off so easily; they last and last.
Bernstein spends the remainder of that program (with the "help" of an absurdly dressed choir) highlighting some of those hidden beauties. There's more skepticism in our current culture about this sort of directed listening approach; for some, being told what to listen for can apparently take the joy out of the listening experience, making it seem more like an exam than something pleasurable. All I can say is that reading Bernstein's The Joy of Music (which includes the tele-script for that Bach program) more than two decades ago was ridiculously exciting for me.

So, my new little annotated listening guides for Christ lag in Todesbanden are designed with the idea that there's real joy in the search for subtlety - in the case of this cantata, those subtleties include not only intricate musical details about counterpoint and the like, but also the composer's extraordinary sensitivity to intricate details of theology. Just as Bernstein suggests that the joy of Bach's music isn't always readily apparent, Bach understood that the joy of Easter is bound up with some pretty serious stuff.

This is evident right away in the Verse 1 movement which begins almost as a funeral march, putting the emphasis squarely on Death and sin ("Christ lay in Death's bands, given over for our sins."). The basses keep heading straight to the basement of their ranges and the counterpoint is filled with thorny, twisting chromaticism (using notes outside of the main key). However, beginning with the third phrase ("Er ist wieder erstanden" [He has risen again]), the tenors introduce a rising countersubject that starts the music on its journey to the light. The fifth phrase calls us to be joyful ("fröhlich"), and the counterpoint starts to dance in response. When the seventh and final phrase calls for "singing Hallelujah," the Hallelujahs enter tentatively at first, but they start to multiply and grow in confidence until, finally, the music explodes into a thrilling, double-time "Hallelujah chorus." The entire movement, then, is a slow unfolding of Easter joy, like a cloudy sunrise service that ends in cold, but brilliant light.

Verse 1 Hallelujahs

But that's just a start. One of my favorite features of the cantata is the widely different ways in which Bach treats the singing of "Hallelujah," which appears at the end of each verse of Luther's hymn and each movement of the cantata. The second movement is just about the saddest music I know, funereal in tone throughout, with soprano and alto lamenting above a steadily processing cello; so it's almost stunning to have these words end with "Hallelujah." [Translation from Emmanuel Music.]
No one could defeat death
among all humanity,
this was all because of our sins,
no innocence was to be found.
Therefore death came so soon
and took power over us,
held us captive in his kingdom.
Bach responds to this challenge with three achingly drawn-out sets of "Hallelujahs": the first is little more than two overlapping, descending scales, intensified by constant suspensions as the alto lags a step behind the soprano. In the second set, the soprano starts up higher (an outburst of weeping?) on the unstable seventh scale degree, and now lags behind the alto; the mood is one of quiet desperation. The third set brings the two voices back towards each other, with the alto now rising up to meet the soprano; this leads to a fourth and final "Hallelujah" which is shorter and unified at last. These Hallelujahs remind us that there is power in word and truth, even in the darkest hour.

Verse 2 Hallelujahs

In the defiant third verse, Bach provides a melodramatic image of Death losing its power; the violins are in constant motion throughout the movement until we're told that "there remains nothing but Death's form," at which point there is a chilling silence and the accompaniment goes cold as we see (hear) Death's own ghost float by. The Hallelujahs that follow invite the tenors to taunt death ("its sting is lost forever") with virtuosic unison flourishes - the joy of victory.

Verse 3 Hallelujahs

The fifth verse is the most intensely personal in tone, as Bach responds to the Passover imagery of the Easter lamb, roasted high on the cross, marking the door and keeping us safe from Death. There are numerous symbolic references to the cross, both in melodic shapes and in the use of the crossed sharp sign (#) itself. (See Listening Guide for details.) The most dramatic moment occurs when the bass drops to a long, low E# on the word "Tod" (Death). There follows a resolute proclamation that the "Strangler" can no longer do harm - you can hear Death's power fading away as the word "nicht" is repeated.

Although the first movement has the most thrilling set of "Hallelujahs," this fifth movement features the most dramatic emotional progression. Following on that realization that Death has lost its power, it's almost as if the bass voice is trying "Hallelujahs" on for size, tentatively at first. The interval of a rising 4th becomes prominent, and in the listening guide you can see that the violins seem to be urging the singers on, with the rising 4ths rising ever higher and coming more quickly. The final melodic gesture spans a full two octaves.

This is a joy grounded in Faith and a firm resolve.

Verse 5 Hallelujahs

I haven't yet prepared listening guides for Verses 4 (a vivid battle scene) and 6 (a dancing celebration), but the examples provided above are evidence enough of how vividly and with what variety Bach can respond to a musical/textual challenge. Alleluias are traditionally silenced throughout Lent*, but they make a stirring comeback in this magnificent Easter work.

* Yes, this argues against my idea that this is an appropriate Good Friday piece.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday Bach

I've been teaching Bach's Easter Cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, in as many classes as possible for years now. I know it's one of his earlier works and doesn't display all the sophistication of some of the later more elegant, Italianate cantatas, but it's my single favorite choral work of Bach or anyone else. Of course, the St. Matthew Passion is a more obvious Good Friday choice, and I have been teaching that more and more as well, but it's so monumental that I'm still a bit intimidated by it. (Actually, one of my problems with the St. Matthew Passion is that I find the orchestral opening so perfect, that even the magnificent choral writing that follows feels like a slight letdown.)

Anyway, one of the odd things about Christ lag in Todesbanden is that, though it is a celebratory Easter piece, it is full of dark, grim imagery - just as Christians see Good Friday as something hopeful in the face of sorrow, Luther's hymn text takes an "already and the not yet" approach to Easter; throughout the hymn, we feel the anguish of living in a world where sin and Death are still present, even if the victory has been won. The relentless E minor tonality, the funereal tread of the Sinfonia and Verses 1 and 2, the fierce battle of Verse 4, and the impassioned lament of Verse 5 all evoke a mood far different from the typically exuberant Easter anthem. Even the giddy Hallelujahs that end Verse 1 are almost manic in their contrapuntal density. It feels almost as appropriate to Good Friday as it does to Easter.

This past week, I've been teaching the cantata as part of a big, general arts lecture class. It is ambitious material to expose to the musically uninitiated, but I can't help but want to try. (I take comfort in the fact that Leonard Bernstein says much the same thing in his Bach chapter in The Joy of Music*.) In past years, I've had online audio of the music available with some captioned listening pointers, and of course I've done my best in class lectures to walk students through various high points in the score. Still, it occurred to me that students listening on their own could use more help, so I decided to create videos with scores. As I've written before, this kind of online score can work well for someone who doesn't read music because the pages turn automatically, so you can't get lost for long - plus, in a vocal work like this, there are words to follow.

But the really new thing for me is using YouTube's built-in annotation feature to point specifically to all sorts of wondrous Bachian details. Having spent countless hours the past few days getting these annotations to work just so, I can't say for sure that I'd recommend it. There are much easier ways to insert text/highlights/etc in other video-editing programs that would provide a lot more flexibility; but the YouTube captions have two big advantages: 1) I can constantly edit and update them without having to recreate/reupload the video; 2) the annotations can easily be turned on and off by the viewer on the fly. (A downside is that I don't know of any easy way to transport these annotations out of YouTube, so they're kind of stuck there; but it's such a widely used platform, I can live with that.)

So, what we have here are densely packed listening guides for 5 of the 8 movements from the cantata. I may do the other 3 at some point, but 5 movements is enough for my class, and this makes me feel slightly less guilty about blatantly using copyrighted audio. I'm not quite sure what to say about this copyright question. I will certainly remove these videos if asked to do so by the copyright holders, but the truth is that, for reasons I don't fully understand, YouTube is packed with copyrighted material. In the case of these fantastic recordings by John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir, I'd certainly encourage anyone who likes them to purchase the CD, which is clearly linked on all the videos.

At least I've added real value to the recordings from an educational perspective. In fact, there's so much information at some points that it will probably be intimidating for students, but I'd stress that there's no need to take everything in at once - indeed, there are countless details that are still left unannotated, but I'd hope that even one or two little insights per movement could be catalysts for deeper, more engaged listening.

Although I originally intended to do little more than add text comments, I ended up getting addicted to the possibility of highlighting important musical lines. (This is what became so time-consuming, getting all the highlights to happen in real time.) The most satisfying results of this are some of the faster moments where the highlight boxes seem to dance across the score, especially in the Hallelujahs that conclude Verses 1 and 5. As someone who loves sightreading, I hope these listening guides give some sense of the kind of joy I get from watching notes dart across a page.

All the videos can be found on a single page here, a page which also contains some background information on the work, links to translations, a recording of the chorale tune alone, etc. I'd highly recommend heading over there. But, you can also sample the new videos below. My favorite annotations include the Hallelujahs at the ends of Verse 1 (Go to 3:30) and Verse 5 (3:45) and all the suspensions in Verse 2. If you don't know this music, it is well worth knowing.

Verse 1

Verse 2

Verse 3

Verse 5

Verse 7

* Speaking of Bernstein's The Joy of Music, I've actually been using that as a textbook for my arts class, mainly because reading it as a teenager impacted me about as much as anything I've ever read. Anchoring this unusual book are seven tele-scripts from live lectures Bernstein gave on the Omnibus arts program back in the '50s. Imagine my delight when I discovered that all of these lectures, which I'd never seen before, are now available on DVD and, yes, YouTube.

Except, I'm not sure I like the lectures as much in their TV versions. Amazing as it is that Bernstein could pull this kind of thing off on live network TV, his talking actually comes across as too scripted for my taste. This is a curious paradox because what I've always loved about reading the scripts is that they sound so naturally conversational, but I imagine the pressure of delivering the words on live TV (and coordinating so much musical activity) makes them come off as canned. The pace is often slow, and some of the banter sounds anything but spontaneous. Indeed, poor Bernstein looks pretty stressed at some points - I especially love his hair at the 4:15 mark of this video. (But again, let me stress, these lectures were performed live - I get stressed out talking to 75 students at once and hoping my PowerPoint and iPod won't let me down.)

The other problem is that the musical performances (with the exception of Bernstein's keyboard playing) often sound just awful, especially the choral examples from the St. Matthew Passion - and, my goodness, who dressed this choir? It's fascinating to listen to Bernstein feeling that he has to make a case (9:19 mark) for Bach; these videos are a good reminder that this music was less widely loved and understood than it is now, and we've certainly come a long way in learning how to sing this music. Still, I can't recommend Bernstein-on-Bach highly enough - and if you have to watch the videos instead, both Lenny and Johann are still pretty compelling.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

It Feels So Right (How Can It Be Wrong?)

Jazz musicians supposedly have all sorts of sayings about mistakes. "Do not fear mistakes. There are none." "When you make a mistake, just make it again." "Once a mistake, twice an arrangement." Classical musicians don't get quite that much leeway since we're supposedly all about playing what's on the page. Of course, some mistakes are bigger than others. One of the skills I think I've developed pretty well as an accompanist is avoiding those BIG mistakes that everyone can hear. (And, believe me, I remember the BIG ones that I fail to hide.) It has to do with anticipating when something bad might be about to happen and bailing out before the disaster. If I'm helping a student make an audition CD, no one cares much if I leave out a few notes, but a noticeable clinker can turn a promising take into a missed-take.

But that doesn't mean we classical types can't enjoy a good mistake every now and then. For one thing, I find some mistakes to be hysterically funny. The summer I met my wife, she and I were playing Dvorak's Dumky Trio with a wild Eastern European violinist who could never execute a certain shift correctly. I had a terrible problem trying to keep from laughing every time this passage arrived - even when he somehow hit the shift, it sounded funny. I still can't hear that passage without smiling - and smiling is a good thing, right?

I blogged a few years back about my nostalgic feelings for a Veracini violin chord that I'd heard crunched by countless students. Matthew Guerrieri commented on that post about once being struck by a fascinating harmony in the Ravel Valses nobles et sentimentales that turned out, on examination of the score, to be the result of user error (well, it was a brass player). That comment was an amazing coincidence to me since I have my own story about that very same Ravel piece (even the same movement), although mine concerns the original piano version of the waltzes.

I played the set on a 2003 solo recital and, though I generally don't like hearing my own recordings, I've always been pleased with the way that recital came out, so I've listened to the CD many times. There are, of course, lots of mistakes (or, um, arrangements) in the recording, but one of the most obvious is one I quickly grew to love. In the 3rd bar of the passage printed below, my right hand inexplicably landed on an A# instead of a G# on the downbeat. I also then played the next melody note (the F#) a step too high.

Now what fascinates me about the mistake is that Ravel's G#/F# should sound like a nice melodic appoggiatura, meaning the first stressed note (G#) is dissonant against the harmony (basically F# major) and then resolves into the F#. It's one of the most classic melodic devices there is, this tension/release gesture, and I'd messed it up by playing a relatively consonant note (A#) and resolving (?) down to a dissonant G#. But here's the thing. I've heard this music so many times that, in a global sort of way, the dissonant G# sounds right to me, which means that landing on the A# gives it an extra expressive punch - even though the A# is actually more consonant with the harmony. {NOTE: Each of the audio examples below goes a bit further into the piece than the score excerpt above, but the measure in question happens almost right away.]



I know that sounds like tortured, circular logic, but I think it accurately describes the way I've come to hear this mistake of mine; it actually sounds right as a kind of meta-appoggiatura, dissonant in the sense of being a mistake, not in the harmonic sense; and then, for whatever reason, I resolved to the note I should've played first, so it's a similar melodic gesture. Of course,given the fact that Ravel's harmonies are full of added-note sonorities, it's maybe not a surprise that this kind of error can work out. Going back about a century (composer-wise, that is), I have an example of an even more strikingly wrong note which I've also come to like. My favorite-ever recording of the Mendelssohn violin concerto is by a young violinist playing with a youth orchestra, recorded live in a performance at which I was present. I've probably listened to this recording at least 50 times, and though there are many moments (especially in the tricky finale) where the very fine youth orchestra shows its youth, there is one real clinker that actually made me really sad the first time I heard it on the CD. (I can't remember now what impression this moment made on me in the concert, although I'm sure I would have noticed it.) In the second presentation of the lyrical theme from the 1st movement, the woodwinds arrive at the cadence and the first clarinet plays a C-natural instead of C#. In this poor student's defense, there had been a C-natural just four bars earlier.
However, Mendelssohn's original harmony is already pretty pungent (C# against B and F# against E), so over the years, that extra half-step of pungency has grown on me to the point that I enjoy playing it that way myself sometimes when accompanying violinists (not on stage!). It really does sound right to me in a strange sort of way.



Actually, just to give you a sense of how much harmony influences how we hear melody, I sort of casually assumed for years that the oboist (who has the tune when the clarinetist misreads) had played a wrong note there - it gives that oboe B such a different color. Strangely, what brought all of this to mind is another category altogether - the intentionally mischievous misreading. Oh wait, let me first give a quick "printing error" example which delighted me no end. I was rehearsing the Dvorak Sonatina once with a violinist and he'd forgotten his piano part, so I printed out the public domain version from IMSLP. No one is a bigger fan of IMSLP than I, but they're just scanning in what publishers published long ago, so the errors get scanned in too. The beautiful G minor 2nd movement has a lovely middle section in major; when it goes back to the main minor theme, someone forgot to tell the pianist. Oh what a moment that was when we arrived at these bars.



OK, so a couple of nights ago, I'm about to rehearse the Fauré Élégie with a cellist and, while he's tuning, he asks me to play a C Major chord. Ever the quick-witted one, I said, "but this piece is in C Minor." After the fits of hysterical laughter that followed, I thought to myself, "hmm, what would this piece sound like in C Major?" So, I gave it a try and, of course, it sounded pretty goofy if you happen to know the piece. But, there were a few cool little harmonies that emerged at the end of the first phrase that I really liked. Whereas the chromatic bass line adds to the intensely tragic mood in Fauré's version, the major version results in some pretty happenin' jazz-like chords.


Oh, so wrong: 

So, we're back to jazz.. And maybe that's where this should end for today, but the Fauré will make a nice transition into another topic that interests me: Rewriting the classics! Stay tuned...

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Somewhere beyond the C...

First of all, I can't believe that's the best I could come up with for a blog post title, but I'm trying to do a micro-post thing here - get this up before I attend a recital that starts in about 30 minutes.

I've talked about Terry Riley's In C in various music classes many times, but I hadn't really performed it since I was at a high school summer program. I don't remember a lot about that, other than sharing the piano bench with a cute girl (she and I swapped out on sustaining the constant 8th notes), and I'd never since heard a live performance, though I've sampled many recordings. So, for yesterday's iteration of my big Spring arts lecture class, I assembled a group of about 16 student performers to play it for about 75 students. One thing I hadn't really understood about the piece until a few years ago is that the composer really does expect the performers to practice their parts, and even to rehearse some, especially by playing through the patterns together. As it turned out, we weren't able to have a real rehearsal (although we did practice a little bit before class and a little bit for the class), but I did decide it would be fun to create a practice video to help students practice.

As simple as the patterns appear, a little experience trying to play them against the constant 8th notes reveals that some of the counting can be tricky - and that's without a bunch of other performers playing different patterns all around you. Also, since we were performing for an audience of mostly non-musicians, I thought this video would make a lot more sense to them than just the one-page score. Although I can read music and hear it in my head well enough, I still found the process of entering all the patterns into the computer and watching them come to life gave me much more insight into the work's structure and inner life. So, because I hadn't been able to find anything quite like this online, here is my In C practice video:

Maybe it was because I spent many hours the day before hearing and thinking through these patterns, but I found yesterday's performance (last ed about 45 minutes) to be an intensely rewarding experience. In part, this may have been because I assigned myself the role of "8th-note pulse keeper," while letting my left hand play the patterns along with everyone else. This meant I got to experience the metric changes more directly. One of my strongest memories is of getting started on a given pattern and finding it get more and more satisfying and "in groove" on repetitions - to the point that I often found myself not wanting to move on to the next pattern. I think I felt this most strongly with #20, #22-26, #43, and #46 - and, of course, the epic #35. (By the way, I'm enjoying writing in these quasi-reverential nerdy tones about the various patterns - I've encountered other musicians talking about the piece in that way before, but never really got it until yesterday.)

Having the opportunity to live in these little moments with this kind of freedom is, of course, one of the very special things about the piece. There's also a sense, as the music goes on, of being in the middle of a big machine and having the music just pass right through you - I often felt less like I was performing than like the music was happening to me. I'm sure none of these experiences are earth-shattering, many musicians have them all the time, but many of us more straight-laced classical players surely don't experience this kind of thing enough. I had expected to pass the constant 8th notes off to the other pianist present several times, but in the end, I only gave them up briefly, and my left hand almost never stopped playing (although Riley gives the performers freedom to take as many breaks as necessary). From a technical standpoint, it was a very satisfying challenge to stay relaxed and find that I could keep playing so repetitively and not experience significant strain.

OK, now I've got 8 minutes until the recital starts. If you've never heard of In C, you can view the score and performing instructions here. And, of course, if you don't read music, you can view the little video above to get some sense of what the 53 patterns sound like - at least, before they're combined. It's a trip!

P.S. There are at least a few recordings on YouTube, none of which are quite the way I'd like it, but they're easy enough to find.

P.P.S. No blog post about In C should fail to mention the fabulous website: -and, I suppose, it's worth mentioning NEC's blatant ripoff of inblat: Both site are lots of fun.