Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Techfail For the Win

I wrote back in April about my slightly perverse affection for musical mistakes that sound right to me. This leads fairly naturally into an affection for musical imperfections that sound undeniably wrong to me, but in a way that's still enjoyable. "Delightfully wrong" might be a way of putting it. A couple of recent real-life examples come to mind, and although technology is often seen as an enemy of the kind of musical imperfections that are gratifyingly human, I'm delighted to say that each of these examples is the result of technology gone wrong.

The first has been provided courtesy of our Honda Odyssey's CD player. Although buying our first minivan a couple of years ago was midlife-crisis inducing, I was delighted that the CD player plays mp3 CDs. The mp3 CD is an underrated medium - while it's not quite the same as having an iPod's worth of music at hand, you can typically get about 10 album's worth onto one disc, so we usually have a disc in the player with lots of kids' favorites. It's always there, ready to go - no worries about hooking up wires, etc.

Now, try as I might to convince the children that Bach, Schumann, and Prokofiev should be their musical favorites, I've got to admit that my daughters enjoy the musical stylings of one Taylor Swift, so Ms. Swift gets a lot of minivan airtime. However, one quirk of the mp3 CD system is that the discs tend to age fast, for reasons (weather?) I don't fully understand. Unlike records which might crackle and skip, or tape cassettes which tend to warp and bend the pitches, these discs start skipping just little tiny bits at a time, so it sounds rather like Taylor's had too much coffee. (Taylor Too Swift?) Measure after measure, there are these little lurches ahead, rarely significant enough to obscure the melody or lyrics.

Of course, pop music is nothing if not predictable as to where the beat falls, so it's still pretty obvious when the skipping starts because the beat gets weird. My 4-year old son, who's often angling to switch to some other musical choice, will frequently notify us right away when the irregularities begin - a beat gone awry can be felt quite easily. The techy side of me gets a little annoyed that the technology breaks down so often; but the mischevious side of me really enjoys the funhouse polyrhythmic results. Suddenly, music that can be mindnumbingly banal (I'm probably being too hard on Ms. Swift, but whatever) has a wonderfullly unpredictable kind of manic energy. Here's a little sampler:

Yes, it's maddening, I suppose, but it's also engaging and kind of fascinating to hear the poor CD player try its best to keep the music going, even though something has obviously been corrupted. At any rate, I enjoy hearing it this way more than this way. (Taylor, if you're reading this, maybe you can write a song about how mean I am.)

So, yeah, my daughters have inflicted more Taylor Swift on me than I would've predicted, but they are also excellent young violinists in training, so I can't really complain. In fact, much as I've always loved accompanying, I'm finding nothing is more satisfying than being their accompanist, so I don't mind at all accompanying them to their lessons. Except....their generally old-school Russian teacher has a very new-school piano in her studio. It is not, in fact, a piano at all; it is a digital piano. Ugh.

Ironically, one of the biggest problems with a digital piano is that its sound is too clean and carefully modulated. I think the piano is the most wonderfully imperfect of instruments (all viola jokes aside) - it can never be perfectly tuned, the upper register never sustains enough, it's a percussion instrument often masquerading as a lyrical instrument, etc., etc. All of these imperfections are part of what make the piano so special - a great piano sound is the product of all sorts of compromises and sleights of hand/foot that meld into something much greater than its parts. Too often, a digital piano bypasses all the magic and just produces a dry, pale shadow of the true piano sound. I'd generally rather play a badly out-of-tune, uneven upright piano than a digital thing, so I'm always left a little unsatisfied playing at the girls' lessons.

Until...some time last Spring, this dry, predictable machine sprung a leak of a kind that should logically be even more frustrating than a skipping CD player. The keys are "touch sensitive" as one would expect from a digital piano, but for some reason, the touch sensitivity started failing on the second B below middle C. This turned out to mean depressing the key would have one of two equally depressing results: no sound at all, or the loudest sound possible, as if the key had been pounded ferociously.

The first couple of times I experienced the latter, it was truly disorienting. There I am, absent-mindedly playing along fairly softly when, for no apparent reason, there's this cannon-shot effect. Pianists are so used to having the level of sound correlate to the physical input that this kind of synthesized anomaly is wildly unnatural. As it happened, one daughter was playing a piece in B minor that day, the other a piece in E minor (which features lots of low B's as the dominant), so sightreading suddenly took on a minefield-like quality. I quickly learned to scan ahead for low B's, and then make quick decisions about whether an octave displacement was practical or whether bailing altogether would be best. Inevitably, I'd miss a few (meaning I'd hit a few) and then WHAM!

From a musical point-of-view, this was and continues to be a very frustrating problem. But I've come to look forward to the challenge of avoiding that B, week after week. I've written often about how sightreading can be like playing a video game (hence, the whole Piano Hero thing); this just adds an extra layer of difficulty to the experience. I suppose it's also gratifying to see the technology fail so bizarrely. Lots of things can go wrong with a piano action, including having notes that don't play at all, but the experience of having a very gentle touch converted into an aural karate chop is just SO wrong. It definitely keeps me on my toes.

It's a complicated question as to whether or not this is a kind of musical satisfaction. I would argue that it is - that part of the joy of musicmaking is the thrill of negotiating the technical minefields any instrument presents. And while the pleasure I get from the over-caffeinated Taylor Swift is not a sophisticated kind of musical taste, it is a reaction to the same kind of tension-through-unpredictability that Stravinsky and so many others have exploited via complex meters,syncopations, and the like. When technology goes wrong, even in its own inhuman ways, it can seem comfortingly human, because what's more unpredictable than humans?

Or maybe I'm just getting bored.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

My Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiring

To end my summer blogging hiatus as summer nears its end, I'm finally getting around to recording and uploading an arrangement I made at the end of the spring.

I'm planning to write a good bit more about this piece in the weeks ahead, but for now I'll just say that it was written in honor of Judson and Janice Carlberg, the recently retired president and first lady of Gordon College. The Carlbergs were wonderful leaders of our school for the past nineteen years, and they also happened to be enthusiastic supporters of our Piano Hero recital series. Although Piano Hero was on hiatus this past year, we presented a special year-end recital in honor of the Carlbergs on May 23. A couple of days before the recital (which featured fan favorites such as the overtures to Candide and 1812), I had the idea of arranging the college hymn for our two-piano context.

Gordon's college hymn is the classic "My Jesus, I Love Thee," its tune having been composed by A.J. Gordon, the college's founding father. The melody is quite simple in shape and structure,

and as I thought about it, Bach's famous "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" came to mind. Bach's flowing triplets are anything but simple, but they were designed by Bach to accompany another very simple hymn tune, so I figured I might as well steal from the best.

Bach's triplets are re-imagined to some degree because this new arrangement is in duple meter, whereas Bach's is in triple time. I originally tried switching Gordon's hymn into triple time, but because it has such a simple melodic profile, it tended to get lost that way. (Actually, the hymn tune Bach borrowed was originally in duple meter; you can see many versions of the tune here.) Stretching Bach's triplets from 9 to 12 per measure turned out to be a fun challenge, but I think it works, both as an extension of Bach's idea and as an accompaniment to Gordon's tune.

Although I was pleased with the two-piano version, I decided to record it here with violin and piano so that the tune floats clearly above the counterpoint. (Also, I forgot to hit the record button at the premiere!) The recording itself is an unedited take from an hour or so spent in the recital hall this afternoon with my "house violinist" - having a daughter learning to play the violin is really starting to pay off! She was quite patient as I faked my way through a hybrid piano part I patched together from the two-piano score.* Some day I'll try to make a more polished version, but I think this captures the spirit of the arrangement pretty well.

* Actually, the day before the May 23 Piano Hero recital, I was at church early in the morning preparing to play the 10am service. I didn't have a prelude picked out yet, I needed something in G Major, and it occurred to me that the then arrangement-in-progress would work nicely with violin. So, I called home and asked my wife to bring our house violinist along early with fiddle in hand; then, I whipped out the laptop and tossed together a very quick violin/piano version which we premiered an hour or so later. She's a pretty cool customer. (She wasn't thrilled about being asked to play on the spot, but not having to practice much seemed to make up for it. Growing up as Daughter of MMmusing is going to be an interesting experience.)