Sunday, June 26, 2011

Mozart Mashup Decoded

I've been meaning to write a more substantial post about this video version of my Mozart violin concerto mashup, but in the meantime, for those who don't follow my Twitter feed, here it is:

I think it does a pretty good job of showing how this hybrid concerto (can a hybrid have more than two sources?) weaves back and forth among Mozart's three concerti.  I do wish I'd used higher quality score images to begin with - the video's a little jumpy at times; but, the basic idea is that material from the 3rd concerto always appears on the top level, material from the 4th appears in the middle, and material from the 5th appears on the bottom. You may notice that #4 in D Major (which has 2 sharps) is often the gateway between #3 and #5, since #3 is in G Major (1 sharp) and #5 is in A Major (3 sharps).

And perhaps some day I'll write more about it, particularly about my favorite moments...

[If you missed the original blog post, the basic idea is explained there.]

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Atonality on Ice

Last weekend, the Boston Bruins had a big parade to celebrate their first Stanley Cup since 1972. Although I've always been a big sports fan, I grew up in a part of the country where no one played or talked about hockey, so aside from the unforgettable winter of 1980, I've rarely spent much time caring about it. Still, I ended up watching a lot of playoff hockey this year, what with all the local Bruins mania, and I did enjoy it. Here's a Twitter post from April of 2010 that kind of sums up my feelings about watching ice hockey:
Watching hockey to me is like listening to really wild atonal music. The gestures/speed can be exciting, but I have no idea what's going on.
I've actually used variations on this line a couple of other times on Twitter and even in conversation at parties (see, you should invite me to your party). Actually, I just did a quick search of my Twitter archive and discovered that the atonal/hockey connection started back in 2009. A pianist and hockey fan named @mariocast tweeted during a playoff game:
"Carter SCORES!!! Flyers 1, Penguins 0," 
to which I cleverly replied,
"and you can purchase Carter SCORES here:"
He responded,
"uh...thanks for the link. I do dig some of Elliot Carter's music, but I was talking about a hockey game."
And that prompted my epiphanic observation:
"to me, watching hockey is kind of like listening to E. Carter. It's fast-paced and exciting, but I'm never sure what's going on."
There now, wasn't that an interesting little historical journey? And it proves that Twitter can inspire interesting insights, because I think there's actually something to this idea. For me, the basic atonality/hockey connection has to do with the perceptive framework each imposes on its audience (or, at least, on me). Hockey moves at such a lightning pace, with possession of the puck constantly shifting from team to team, scoring opportunities always a second or two away, yet rarely being fulfilled - as one is watching, it's hard to process everything that's going on, partly because the action is so continuous. Aside from a few timeouts per period and the occasional power play (when a penalty means one team has to skate with fewer players for a couple of minutes), it's challenging to organize the events of a game in a clear way.

In the same way, atonal music (though not always fast) tends not to feature the kinds of cadences, resolutions and general harmonic contexts that help the listener organize the musical events as they go by. This doesn't mean that one can't make sense of the events: die-hard hockey fans can find much more structure and intent than I can in what often looks like random darting around the rink. The announcers will often speak of set "plays" that I can sort of make sense of on replay - much as the theorist might be able to show me row statements and transformations. But the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky will use clear phrasing/harmonic clues to group the pitches of a melody distinctly, just as a baseball game clearly separates into distinct plays (almost always initiated by a pitch!).

In fact, based on my own culturally conditioned perceptive framework, I'm going to suggest that taking in a baseball game reminds me the most of 18th-century music (especially the Classical style of Haydn and Mozart): there can be tremendous passion, heart-rending surprises, etc., but usually within a neatly structured series of events. Carrying this not-too-serious kind of comparison along, football has more of a 19th-century Romantic kind of feel - the emotions of the game are more heart-on-sleeve, there's more obvious drama and violence, but the game still organizes into very clear "plays." Romantic music, for all its energy and revolutionary fervor, is often even squarer and more predictable in its phrasing structures than music of the Classical Era (see Kyle Gann on Dvorak here), and football also has a very regular pattern of stopping and starting.

Basketball moves along much more continously than baseball or football, but unlike hockey, the game is pretty clearly defined by which team possesses the ball at a given time. So, in terms of organizing one's perceptions, the game still falls into clear, if irregular, chunks, helped along by the fact that regular scoring also helps to structure one's viewing. So, I'm going to align the helter-skelter but mostly easily processed pacing of basketball with the early modernists like Stravinsky, Bartok, Shostakovich, and Prokoviev. (I know, that's a very Russian list.) Their music is often asymetrical and unpredictable (lots of sudden fast breaks), but melodies and phrases are still pretty easy to discern. There's usually something to hang on to. [The rules are often a bit of a mystery in each case as well.]

And then there's hockey and the atonal gang. It's true that one of the most important distinctions here is that hockey and atonality are simply less popular and well-understood than baseball, football, and tonal music. Some people will always love them partly because of the outsider-y status, but hockey suffers from a world in which the average sports fan doesn't really understand its strategies or know how to follow the puck, and Schoenberg's fans are still waiting for the day when children whistle 12-tone tunes in the street.

Of course, when the stakes are high, the non-stop, "anything could happen any time" feel of a hockey game is an asset - again, I'm not even a big fan of the game, but I found myself almost breathless watching the Bruins playoff games, especially the Game 7s (they had 3!) and the overtimes. There's almost no way of knowing or guessing when the big moment is coming, which can be tremendously exciting, but the game still strikes me as less artless than baseball/football/basketball because so many of the "plays" don't work out.

Passes are routinely missed, shots are often blocked in ugly fashion as the puck bangs into a series of legs and sticks that are running interference. And, perhaps my biggest complaint, often the goals that are scored are not that aesthetically pleasing. Yes, careful player positioning and a skilled shot may set things in motion, but more than not, the actual goal seems to come from a rebound that's hard to see and that seems a product of chance as much as skill - just as so much atonal music ends up sounding kind of like chance music.

Which reminds me of another similarity between the worlds of atonality and hockey. Each embraces ugliness with a curious sort of pride. I don't know if it's because men on skates are afraid of being seen as un-masculine, but hockey has evolved into a brutal sport that features not only lots of violent hits, but even looks approvingly on fighting as part of the game.* I'm still trying to come to terms with the fact that the Bruins' breakout star was rookie Brad Marchand, who's been referred to as a "little ball of hate." In one memorable "break in the action" from Game 6, Marchand punched Vancouver's highly skilled Swedish star Daniel Sedin in the face seven times in a row, for no other reason than he felt like it; although I'm sure Vancouver fans didn't like it, the mainline opinion on this goofy scene is that Marchand proved himself a tough warrior and Sedin, by trying to get a penalty called rather than punching back, was soft.

Atonal music is likewise full of brutal sounding sonorities that can feel like assaults on our civilized sensibilities

- and, again, it can seem like a sign of weakness to admit to not liking these sounds, at least in some circles. Ironically, many hockey players turn out to be surprisingly mild-mannered and good-natured off the ice - kind of like Milton Babbitt and his love for musical theater. Kind of.

But, to wrap up, I think the biggest similarity is that whole goal thing. There aren't many goals in a typical hockey game and it's hard to hear where the goals are in a typical atonal work.** That doesn't mean there's not a lot of purposeful action in either - I listened to the Schoenberg Piano Concerto for the first time in a long time last week, and was surprised by some of the gorgeous orchestral sonorities that floated by early on, almost like refugees from a lush bit of Gershwin. I know it's not fair to hear the music that way, but I'm just being honest about my own perceptive framework, which is the point of this whole post. I keep wanting these sounds to organize into a clearer harmonic framework, just as I long for a hockey possession to look organized and intentional for more than 6 seconds. But maybe it's just me...

* I realize football is also ridiculously violent, but somehow its violence is more aesthetically pleasing to me - maybe because I grew up watching it, but maybe because hockey has those big ugly sticks waving around and that brutally hard, cold surface. At least football players get to land on soft turf and they don't get slammed into walls.

** What about the lack of goals in soccer, you say? Yes, that's a problem for us unenlightend Americans, but soccer doesn't have the wild, ugly side of hockey, so I'm going to align soccer with the world of Renaissance counterpoint. Lots of beautiful, controlled play that seems endless in its purposelessly purposeful flow. (I actually like Renaissance counterpoint much more than soccer, but will admit I've never given soccer much of a chance.)

[This is perhaps the least timely post I've ever written. I actually starting thinking about writing it on June 15, the day of Game 7 in the Stanley Cup playoffs - then I wrote a good bit of it last Saturday, the day Boston celebrated the Bruins with a big parade. And here it is, more than a week past hockey season and officially a summer hockey column. Oh well.]

Friday, June 10, 2011

Mozart Mashup Medley

My last post/video reminded me of how much fun it can be to create horizontal mashups. Though the word mashup generally refers to a piece which layers two or more existing works on top of each other, it can also be enlightening (or, at least, fun) to weave back and forth between two pieces. In my last post, I was showing how Bernstein's "Somewhere" can be generated by gliding from a Beethoven piano concerto into a Strauss piano concerto. This reminded me of several other little projects from my blogging past.

Rachmainoff  Tchaikovsky

Britten  Lerner/Loewe

Haydn → Rodgers/Hammerstein

Tchaikovsky → Mendelssohn

But all these years, I've had a bigger project in mind. Mozart's last three violin concerti (#3-5) are all pretty equally well-known and oft-played; at least, I've accompanied each of them many times. I like them enough, but it's always struck me how interchangeable they seem to be in the kinds of passagework they feature. The joke is often made (unfairly) that Vivaldi wrote one concerto hundreds of times. Well, I'm not saying that Mozart wrote one great violin concerto three times, but he does seem to be working with the same set of building materials in each case, especially in the first movements. Actually, I can never hear the slow movement of the 5th concerto without feeling that it's trying to be (and, simultaneously, trying not to be) the slow movement of the 3rd concerto. I even proposed once that my ideal Mozart violin concerto* would be the outer movements of #5 sandwiched around the slow movement of #3. [Here's a playlist that lets you try it out.]

My goal here, however, is to combine the first movements of the these three concerti into one (sort of) seamless movement. The biggest trick is that they are each in different keys: G, D, and A. At least they're closely related keys, so without getting into too much theory mumbo-jumbo, there are plenty of ways to get from one concerto to another. In fact, that's the way I like to think of it, as if each piece has a series of little portals through which a violinist can pop into a different world. [Insert Narnia and/or videogame analogies here.] I've sometimes wondered if violinists who play all three pieces ever find themselves accidentally tripping into the wrong universe.

If so, then maybe violinists shouldn't listen to what follows**, but though it might seem that I'm making light of Mozart, the truth is that doing all this cutting and pasting has made me appreciate all the more how many beautifully crafted passages there are in these pages. It's certainly not my goal to improve on what Mozart has done - in fact, I decided pretty early on I'd rather explore as many portals as possible, at the risk of leaving some ugly seams showing. Not only is it tricky to merge separate recordings into one (though the tempi in these performances by violinist/conductor René Köhler are close enough not to be a problem), but there are all sorts of considerations of harmonic motion, phrase structure, orchestration, overall structure, etc.

So, what we have here is a bit of a Frankenstein's monster - if you know the pieces well, you may find it jarring it at times; and even if you don't know them well, there are a few comically awkward moments. But, of course, those moments are some of my favorites. (Yes, I've also found myself thinking about a more multi-layered mashup, but let's save that for another day.) In all, there are more than fifty cuts, so given that, I think things hold together remarkably well. Here it is:

I'll probably want to create a YouTube version at some point [UPDATE: done!] that will reveal where all the splices happen, but for now you're on your own...which is kind of the point.

* A case might be made that the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola is Mozart's greatest violin concerto - and, no, that's not a viola joke.

** For the record, my lovely violinist daughter has taken a great interest in this project (whereas she usually thinks I've lost my mind when I'm using up good computer time mangling music). At this point, she's only studied the G Major concerto, but she's genuinely interested in playing a performing version of my little monster. Having kids is the best!

P.S. Obviously, this kind of project could be tried out on all sorts of genres - Mozart piano concerti, Vivaldi violin concerti, Beethoven symphonies, Schoenberg piano pieces, etc. But, I think there's something particularly satisfying about this little set. Three is a nice, manageable number, and as I've said above, these pieces really do live almost interchangeably in the violin world. So there's something natural about exploring ways in which they're connected.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Somewhere between Beethoven and Strauss

So I turned on classical radio yesterday, something I don't do all that often, and found myself in the middle of a wacky piano concerto thing. At first it seemed to be in a Schumann/Brahms style, but I soon realized it was a bit later than either of them stylistically. Eventually, I decided it must be the Burleske of Richard Strauss - a piece I've known of for years, but have never gotten to know. However, as I was settling on "Strauss; in the Burleske; with the lead pipe," the mostly lively piece settled into a slow-ish, nostalgic bit and suddenly I wondered if I'd wandered into some sort of West Side Story piano concerto (it's been done for violin) as an unmistakable phrase from "Somewhere" floated by.

But, it did turn out to be Strauss, and as I was driving along, it occurred to me that Beethoven had already supplied the first phrase of "Somewhere" in the slow movement of the "Emperor" Concerto. (That's a pretty commonly made observation.) I knew then it was my job to go home and stitch the Beethoven and Strauss together into a little Bernstein. I wasn't surprised to find that others have also cited the "Somewhere" connection in the Strauss, most notably in this YouTube video, which cleverly pairs Glenn Gould's discussion of the Strauss with Barbra Streisand's rendition of the Bernstein. ("Clever" because Gould was a big fan of Streisand.) Still, I wanted a real mashup.

Because I was so eager to get right to it, I went straight to the second half of the Burleske, found the tune, and discovered that the Beethoven and Strauss components were a full tritone apart. Unfazed, I found that by transposing Beethoven down a m3 and Strauss up a m3, I could get them to match without the audio sounding too muddled from the pitch-shifting. Only as I began writing this post did it occur to me that maybe I should listen to the whole Burleske to see when and how else the tune is used. Well, wouldn't you know, the tune appears early on IN THE SAME KEY AS THE BEETHOVEN! (Technically the Beethoven's in B Major and the Strauss is in G-sharp Minor, but same key signature and, most importantly, same notes in the tune.) Quite a "coincidence," Mr. Bernstein! So, if I'd just done my research first, I would've saved some time.

Anyway, here's what they sound like together:

Here's what the Strauss tune sounds like in broader context.

You can listen to the complete Burleske here and here.

And here's how my first mashup came out - the one where I had to transpose the two tunes. I like it because the cellos play along with this second statement of the Strauss tune. So beautiful.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Multimedia Moonlight March Madness Mashup

I guess can I start by saying this: if I hadn't created this video, no one else would have. So there's that.

I'm not quite sure how I ended up so far down this rabbit hole, but as always, the journey is at least part of the purpose, even if it's a rather purposeless journey. As I wrote a few days ago, operamission's double bill of Stravinsky's L'histoire du soldat and Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire got me to thinking about these classic works as a team; the realization that they feature similar riffs (see below) led to the creation of a little mashup version of the two, which debuted in audio format on Wednesday.

The riffs aren't exactly the same, but each winds its way through a couple of descending triads in a manner that started a sort of conversation between the two works in my mind. And, come to think of it, that's so often what listening to music is about - a conversation of ideas, both as they occur within given pieces and as they converse (via the brain) with all sorts of other ideas. So, this kind of mashup, silly though it may seem, does say something genuine about the musical experience. If' it's true(-ish) that talking/writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then perhaps creating musical mashups is a more logical way of "discussing" music - although that's not stopping me from multiplying words here.

Anyway, once the audio was created, I knew another challenge awaited - creating the video. Partly this just has to do with the fact that MMtube is where so many of my multimedia creations live; somehow an MP3 doesn't seem like enough, especially since YouTube offers the possibility of so many more viewers. But, as with The Rite of Appalachian Spring, Chopin's Ghosts, Canon a 2 Tempi, and many other mashups, the visual component can also help to clarify what's going on.

Speaking of "conversing about music," I found that thinking about how to use the score excerpts helped me to understand the Stravinsky better - as it happened, I didn't have a full score on hand when I started (although I do have one from the library in hand now), just the quirky MIDI-generated score I'd used for the audio. Because this half-baked score doesn't have all the correct articulation markings, I decided I'd rather feature single instruments most of the time, and the idea of having the notes dance around the screen came from not wanting them to be scrutinized too closely.  So, making decisions about how the various instrumental tunes should pop off the page made me aware of how beautifully Stravinsky uses his forces. For the Schoenberg, I did have a full score on hand, but again it proved easier to recreate the notes in Finale (which means, for example, that there can always be a clef, etc.) - and, again, it proved very gratifying to get to know these little musical gestures better.

Although I haven't seen it in many years, I was probably influenced in the basic look of the video by R. O. Blechman's animated film of The Soldier's Tale [see sample here] - especially, the idea of sparse textures and, from what I recall, a sort of dreamscape look, with objects flying in and out. Certainly, Pierrot lunaire should be expected to have a hallucinogenic effect on whatever it encounters. (If you've been following this blog the past few weeks, you'll recognize that I borrowed Pierrot from the little xtranormal videos I made here.) I love the idea of animating musical notes (as in this fantastic video I wish I could say I'd made) and enjoyed this exercise in tossing them around on screen with Pierrot-like abandon.

By the way, operamission's final performance of these two fascinating works is tonight, and if, like me, you won't be lucky enough to be there in person, you can watch the show live online by going here. I believe they'll be performing the two works separately, but they're pretty interesting that way as well.

P.S. In poking around YouTube, I also stumbled across this cool animation of excerpts from The Soldier's Tale. Check it out.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Moonlight March

I turned my final grades in yesterday, so to what does a young (?) man's fancy turn when sprung free from the obligations of academia? Musical mashups, of course.
This one came about for fairly logical reasons. I've mentioned in two previous posts that NYC's wonderful operamission company is performing a double bill of Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire and Stravinsky's L'histoire du soldat this weekend. The program is subtitled "Defining Classics" and indeed these two almost hundred-year-old works (from 1912 and 1918 respectively) are widely admired and wildly influential. The fact that they're being performed in the lobby of the Gershwin Hotel is particularly appropriate as each work is intentionally designed on the "chamber" scale, with small but distinctively colorful bands of instruments required. (It so happens that the two sets of instruments pair nicely: Stravinsky uses violin, bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, and percussion: Schoenberg calls for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano.)

Having invoked Gershwin's name, I might as well admit that I owe a significant debt to Kyo Yoshida who designed this amazing mashup of Gershwin's I Got Rhythm and a sampler platter of Schoenberg tunes. If you've never heard that, you should definitely follow the link. Although it's probably not fair to Schoenberg, something about the Gershwin context helps to anchor all those wild atonal outbursts. (Confession: I played this video for a music appreciation class once. I then played a piano recording of I Got Rhythm and went to the real piano where I swiped wildly across the keys in the spaces left open by Gershwin's melody - and it came out pretty well. But, I haven't come here to bash atonal music, I promise.)

Anyway, although it now looks as if I won't make it to New York this weekend, I've been thinking about and listening to both  the Schoenberg and the Stravinsky the past few weeks. At some point, it occurred to me that the opening movements of both works feature somewhat similar little riffs:

[click to listen - first each in isolation, then in context]

They are admittedly dissimilar in many ways, but they still tend to run together in my mind (and who's going to argue with my mind?), so this mashup was inspired by the idea of using Schoenberg's riff as figurative decoration for Stravinsky's opening "Soldier's March." (By the way, Kyo Yoshida also uses the Pierrot riff at the 1:19 mark of his Gershwin/Schoenberg tune.) [Listen to complete recordings of the originals here & here.]

Most of my past mashups have involved editing together two separate audio recordings. In this case, I wanted more precise control and, quite frankly, to use the Schoenberg in cut-and-paste fashion, eliminating the voice altogether. So, the simplest solution was to go to Finale and stitch things together there, creating a little virtual score. I was able to find MIDI versions of both selections online, so I didn't have to do a lot of crazy note entry.

It turned out to be a lot of fun deciding where bits of Schoenberg would best fit. The Stravinsky march plays obliviously from beginning to end, but I find that Pierrot's moonstruck interjections make a certain kind of sense. Maybe it's just me. (If your computer gives you balance control, all of the Schoenberg is only on the right channel, so you can choose to fade it down - or out.) I can't quite guess what it would be like to listen to this mashup if you don't know both of the originals. Part of the fun of mashups for me is letting the brain recognize two separate somethings simultaneously; but these two works do kind of belong together, and I think the pairing makes for a lively affair.

Since this was just intended as a fun little post-semester project, I did not invest much energy in making these virtual instruments sound great. I actually ended up using mostly the piano and flute from Schoenberg because the synthesized violin/cello sounds are so unsatisfactory, but it's all pretty canned. However, I don't think a live performance of this arrangement is likely, so use your imagination and enjoy some of the uncanny virtuosity of the Finale Chamber Players. (Remember, most of those Schoenberg licks are supposed to be played a good bit more slowly; it's kind of fun to hear them sped up.) Oh, and there's one little quote from another defining classic of the 20th century that's thrown in near the end.

Coming soon...another recent musical mashup of mine that is much sweeter and easier on the ears. Just waiting to get a live recording made of that.

In the meantime, check out these mashups from the past: