Sunday, December 30, 2012

Words to Leave Behind in 2013

So Lake Superior State University, which clearly has a superiority complex, has published its annual list of words that need to be banned from our collective vocabularies. Honestly, the list could and should be a lot longer, but that's not my problem. What is my problem is that some Twitter acquaintances (not sure I should call them friends anymore) began suggesting that someone such as I might want to do something creative with these words. From that point on, I'm not really responsible for my actions as I simply cannot resist this sort of challenge.

Here then, first of all, are the newly banned words/phrases:
  • Amazing
  • Baby Bump
  • Shared Sacrifice
  • Occupy
  • Blowback
  • Man Cave
  • The New Normal
  • Pet Parent
  • Win The Future
  • Trickeration
  • Ginormous
  • Thank You In Advance
And here is my Pavlovian response:
Hear this amazing sonnet, formal
poetic blowback ‘gainst the bleat
of words which think they’re the new normal,
which occupy our discourse street.
Must I take refuge in my man cave?
No, through shared sacrifice I can save
mankind and win the future now.
I’ll use these words and show us how
this trickeration’s so aberrant.
So drop this lingo, baby, bump
these words into the verbal dump.
For just as any wise pet parent
rebukes, I this ginormous stance
must take and thank you in advance. 
It is, of course, an Onegin stanza, following in the tradition of previous MM musings:
Happy New Year!

UPDATE: OK, I now see that this is last year's list. If you want to write a new sonnet, here's the freshly published 2013 list. The 2012 list is now archived here.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas Time is Here (?)

Wow, at the risk of sounding trite and old, Christmas has come up really fast this year. So, instead of my half-planned series of clever posts recapping favorite creations from Christmas Past, let's just toss them all into one fruitcake-syle post.

First, though, I must acknowledge a video that is new to me and that I'm very disappointed I didn't think to create myself: The Twelve Tones of Christmas.



It is of course an elaborate realization of a silly pun - which is enough to make me love it - but there's actually something quite charming about this arrangement. The ocarina + harpsichord scoring helps a lot; this sounds like the kind of thing that would be playing if Captain Kirk showed up on a planet ruled by some sort of eccentric aristocrat. It has cheered me many times this past week.

Of course, my own "Twelve Composers of Christmas" features an authentic 12-tone row for Day 12:


Here's the whole thing if you've somehow missed it:



If you're in a sentimental mood, you might enjoy this little multi-tracked "choir" featuring my then 6-year old daughter singing a Peanuts classic. (It was created for a little Christmas movie my sister made last year.)



I've already plugged the "Vertical Christmas Medley," which I actually discovered to be excellent white noise background while I graded exams yesterday. Click the pianist to see how many tunes you can pick out:
And speaking of mashups, we have:



...and...



...and, something I'd never bothered to post on the blog before because it's not very good, but whatever:


On a slightly more sentimental, but still rather silly note, here is a version of A Christmas Carol I "directed" back in 2000 featuring a wide array of adorable nieces and nephews and some cheesy synth cues on the soundtrack.



...and with that, I think the Christmas cupboard is now bare. God bless us, every one!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Holly and the Ives

Slow times here at MMmusing, and with a lot of exams, papers, and projects still to be graded, 2012 will likely end quietly here. However, I will continue the tradition of bringing back some old seasonal chestnuts.

Before I even had a blog, way back in Aught Five or so, I created a little online greeting card titled "Merry Christmas from the Ives Family" which effectively reduced Charles Ives to the idea of throwing a bunch of tunes together in chaotic simultaneity. By the time it debuted on my blog, I was just calling it "The Vertical Christmas Medley" - seven of the best-known seasonal tunes in glorious harmony. You can sample this feast (and try to pick out the individual tunes from the mire) by clicking on the hard-working pianist below:
So, there's that. But recently, Ives has surprised me with a couple of unexpected Christmas hints of his own, both surely unintentional. Some time last spring, a coaching student brought in a song I'd never run across before with the merry title, "Like a Sick Eagle." It begins like so, and as I began playing it and hearing it for the first time, a familiar tune caught my ear amidst the dissonant intro (there's a special sort of fun in being surprised by something one is playing!):


That's right, sing along with me: "Oh'the....wea'ther....out-....side....is....fright'ful..." It is a very normal tonal pattern (sol-SOL-fa-mi-re-do-sol), albeit in a non-tonal context, so the connection to the 1945 Cahn/Styne song is surely just an accident, but it jumped right out at me last spring (when the weather was not at all frightful), and then again this fall when I re-opened the music, having completely forgotten everything I just suggested above, and immediately heard/felt the same thing. Musical déjà vu on multiple levels. You can hear the Ives for yourself here, although I suppose I've already prejudiced you to "hear what I hear":



But Santa Ives wasn't done with me yet. (It's worth noting that Ives has popped enough vernacular tunes into unexpected places that one starts to expect the unexpected.) Just a couple of weeks ago, the same singer handed me another Ives song. This time it took a little while in before the Christmas spirit took hold. Do you hear what I hear here at the 0:54 mark?



In this case, it's only the first four notes, but the addition of the syncopated fifth note (alas, a third too low) suggests 1950's Frosty, the Snowman. At least, that's the way I heard it in early December of 2012.

More and more, this kind of connection-making seems to be a big part of what listening to music is for me. I don't know, maybe I'm doing it wrong but, to quote a great lyricist, how can it be wrong when it feels so right?

In fact, although I penned most of this post last night, I just read the following celebration of connecting in a Jeremy Denk appreciation of the great Charles Rosen:
At the end of the corridor was the nerve center: a piano stacked with music, a desk stuffed with papers, a threadbare couch, and a book-covered coffee table. It was desperately unhip. But it was affecting and intense, the accumulation of things, of ideas, and Charles’s shuffle. You felt a kind of slow frenzy at his place—connections mounting upon connections, understanding upon understanding. Erosion in reverse.
One could argue (as I have before) that the musical experience is largely about connections, and though Rosen's specialty was connecting the dots of the past, there's no reason new, coincidental connections can't be just as meaningfully a part of that experience. I would guess even Rosen found meaning in a few connections that weren't really connections until he made them so.

More Christmas specials and kooky connections in the days ahead...

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Choose your own soundtrack

There's an old saying that's worth repeating: "There's humor in repetition." It's hard to say if this is more or less true depending on how humorous the source material is. For example, the quoted statement above isn't particularly funny, but it can become meta-humorous if repeated. There's humor in repetition.

Philosophies of humor aside, there was a play in the Thanksgiving Day Patriots-Jets game that was hysterically funny, and as far as I can tell, it just gets funnier with each viewing. (It might help that I'm a Patriots fan.) Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez was trying to make the best of a broken play and boldly careened towards the line of scrimmage, hoping to follow his linemen to daylight. Instead, one of his blockers got pushed backwards directly into Sanchez and the rest...well, you can view it as many times as you like below. (If you didn't see the game, it's worth noting that the collision caused Sanchez to fumble, which led directly to a Patriots return for a touchdown, one of three such scores in a dazzling 52 seconds of game time.)

As enjoyable as it is to watch the play, it only seemed natural to add a soundtrack. But what to add? Well, this being a very lowbrow vacation weekend project, I didn't expend too much energy on the question, and opted instead to offer a series of possibilities. Here you go (music changes at 0:58, 1:50, 2:03, 2:36, 3:20, 3:33, and 3:36; I started out with a couple of soundtrack warhorses, then got a little more creative).

 

I think they all work pretty well, although I'm sure there are many other excellent possibilities. As ever with these kinds of semi-random mashups, the delight is in seeing unintended synchronizations between the music and the video. Even synchronization with silence (as at 3:27) can seem right. It's the perfect ballet.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Differently Similar

Once upon a time, I devoted a lot of blogging energy to charting notable examples of "tune theft." Although it's fun to suggest that composers are lazy plagiarists, I don't really believe that's what's usually going on when tunes align across the centuries, and what's really more interesting is how a similar set of pitches can sound so different according to context. (This point is beautifully made in Leonard Bernstein's wonderful "How Dry I Am" lecture, a.k.a. "The Infinite Variety of Music.")

A tune connection I noticed just yesterday has captured my attention because there's so little similarity of actual pitches, to the point that these really aren't close to being the same tune - but, at a slightly higher structural level, they are closely related. It's a gestalt thing. And, as is always most interesting, it's not a connection that came to me because I looked for it (I'm too lazy to do research), but rather that dawned on me slowly and, at first, subconsciously. This theme from the finale of Mozart's "Dissonance" Quartet, ambled by...


...and as I listened, I kept thinking that those staccato 8th notes in the 2nd half of the phrase reminded me of...something. Eventually, the theme from the finale of Brahms' Clarinet Sonata No.1 (the piano part of which I've played many times) raised its hand in some corner of my mind (here transposed from F to C to make comparisons easier).




Of course, neither phrase is particularly unusual in terms of phrase construction - each begins with two upbeats, then longer notes and a slow-ish harmonic rhythm followed by harmonic acceleration towards a half cadence. It's definitely those pairs of staccato 8ths notes that connect the two tunes, even though Mozart goes up where Brahms goes down. The openings of the two phrases don't share so much in common other than a general twisty-ness, but each leads into the staccato 8ths with the same melodic pattern (see circled notes below): three 8ths descending stepwise, then a drop of a 3rd to introduce the "paired staccato motif" which jumps up a 4th heading into the next bar. It's striking to me how similar the tunes sound even as they then head in opposite directions; and, because the circled sequences below begin a 4th apart, the parting of ways leads each to arrive on D at the same time.


So, that's really about it. The two good-natured tunes are clearly quite different, but what makes each memorable (to me, at least) are those bouncy 8th notes. I don't know if Brahms was somehow inspired by Mozart, but I love hearing this kind of kinship. As I've said many times before, there's an obvious analogy to puns and other types of linguistic references, and just as I can't seem to avoid looking for wordplay possibilities when words are in play, my listening ear loves to play pattern-matching games. Surely, on some level, listening to music is basically about pattern-matching, although no one wants to think about that too much.

By the way, since we're on the subject, my favorite moment in this Mozart movement comes a bit later in an exquisitely Schubertian chromatic mediant modulation. The music has been cruising along in the Dominant key, G Major, and the first violinist seems to get stuck/lost in a maze of 16th notes; abandoned by the other instruments, the violin tentatively hangs onto a D (Dominant of G) and then suddenly the violin sneaks up a half-step as we drop by a third into the distant key of E-flat Major. The lovely scoring for violins in octaves somehow complements this shape-shifting perfectly as the music gradually finds its way back, but as ever, it's the searching that we (I) remember.



Passages like this one fascinate me because when I'm listening to a piece like this, I've found that much of my pleasure comes from anticipating and then enjoying these very small moments; much of the rest of such a movement will often strike me (dodging lightning bolt) as rather formulaic. It may not be fair to Mozart to say this (quantifying pleasure is risky business), but I if I'm honest, it's as if 50% of my interest in this piece takes place within about 5% of its discourse. But that's a difficult topic for another day... (I have written about it before, with passing reference to the famously "dissonant" introduction to this same quartet.)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Random Acts of Mindness

It's been said (right here in this post, to be precise) that "random" is literally the most oft misused word in the English language. Let's see what I can do to contribute further to the problem. If this lengthy blog post seems unappealing to you, why not spin the "MM's Multimedia Musing Machine" wheel over there in the right margin? It's just been updated with more than 50 new possible outcomes.

.................

I'm going through one of my Shuffle phases on iTunes, partly because I only recently discovered that one can now automatically re-download all past purchases, which spurred me to realize there were literally days of music that had never made it to my laptop from iTunes, from Amazon, from eMusic, from ripped CDs. My digital music collection has always been split/shared awkwardly across two or three computers and an iPod. The iPod died last year and since then I’ve mainly just been using iTunes in class, often wondering why I couldn't find this or that – until now.

Once I'd gone to the trouble of collecting most of my digital music into one place, it seemed like a good idea to start shuffling through it to see what I'd been missing. A couple of points about that: 1) I've made a habit of excluding the following from shuffle lists: just about anything with short recitative tracks, such as operas, oratories, cantatas, etc. I just find 31 seconds of random recitative to be more annoying than enticing. So, the list skews pretty strongly towards the instrumental side. 2) I still have a yet bigger collection of music on an ancient medium known as the "compact disc." (Let’s not even talk about the 500 or so LP’s in my basement.) Although I'm sure I've forgotten about many potentially interesting CDs that I own, I think the bulk of that collection is bread-and-butter repertoire that I've known for a long time. But, the digital downloads tend to feature music I don't know as well - impulse buys from the likes of eMusic and Amazon inspired by thoughts like "I really should get to know more of [Composer X]'s music."

So, shuffling through myTunes is a great way to start realizing those oft-forgotten goals. I’m not sure how unusual I am in this respect, but I find I tend to listen more openly when music comes to me this way – unbidden, unexpected and seemingly destined to be heard. It's almost like being seduced. Almost. That’s quite irrational, but I’m not sure there’s much about listening to music that’s rational anyway. My experience is that if I consciously "put on" those new [Composer X] downloads, I'm likely to begin with all sorts of prejudices or even false hopes about what I'm about to hear and how I'm about to hear it. Whether the music is unexpectedly lovely or strange or disturbing, there's something about the "name that tune" context that makes me listen more curiously and less judgmentally. Maybe I have issues.

Nevertheless, I often find this the most pleasurable way to listen to music - kind of like listening to the radio, except there's no banter, the selections are stacked in my favor, and I can skip ahead at will. Perhaps it's the anxiety of choice that otherwise gets in the way. I don't mind admitting that I love watching Frasier re-runs many evenings to usher me off to sleep. Frasier is a great show at its best, but it's often not at its best, so I could easily go to Netflix and choose the best episodes each night, but I prefer just letting the Hallmark Channel (!) do the choosing. This really makes no sense; not only am I stuck with whatever episode happens to be on, but there are inevitably little cuts in syndicated showings, cuts needed to make room for all those commercials for Hallmark programs and Hallmark-oriented products that have no appeal. (I've probably seen at least 50 promos for Hallmark movies and have never watched one.) Nonetheless, when a truly great episode comes on, it always seems more special that it "just comes on" without me doing the choosing. Maybe I have issues.

My iTunes "Super Shuffle" playlist has 15+ days worth of music at the ready, and yet anyone who's ever dealt with shuffling knows how often the resulting playlist seems less than random. Here are a few recent tweets on the subject:
My iTunes Super Shuffle playlist has 4452 tracks, 411 from Haydn symphonies. Yet, I'm getting Haydn symphonies about 35% of time. Weird.
Well, my spooky iTunes Super Shuffle playlist just picked 4 Bach tunes in a row. Would be stranger if 4 Blochs in a row, but still...
OK, now iTunes Shuffle is really going hipster (after so much Haydn and Bach a few days ago): Boulez - Cage - Webern.
Yes, it always seems as if there's something intentional going on...except, when it doesn't:
I've been tweeting fun iTunes shufflings, but I can now tell you that mvt 5 of Bartok's 4th Quartet does NOT work following Siegfried Idyll.
...oh I see, iTunes shuffle; from Wagner to Bartok to Vivaldi, huh? Anyone who thinks all classical music is the same should walk this path.
My experiences updating Mr. Stravinsky's Random Accent Generator and the Multimedia Musing Machine have just confirmed how un-random random processes can seem. The Musing Machine now has more than 200 options, but I've seen the same result show up 3 times within about 10 chances. So, it stands to reason that I'll be getting Haydn 35% of the time and then not at all for hours, even though this seems unreasonable. Why should we expect randomness to be reasonable?

Shuffling also leads to all sorts of surprising encounters, of course. I blogged several years ago about realizing that Strauss's early and flashy Don Juan segues perfectly into his late and mellow Metamorphosen, a discovery brought to me by iTunes. Or, I once found that some Stravinsky cadenced perfectly into a Beatles song. This morning, while working on a syllabus, I heard something shuffle by that I instantly recognized as Bach/Stokowski, but Stokowski's romanticization was so complete I failed for almost a minute to realize that this:



is this:



even thought I teach the latter piece twice a year and love it. Not sure I would ever have selected that Stokowski track on my own, but I'm glad it was handed to me.

Followers of this blog will know that I love a good mashup, partly because there's always an element of randomness involved in smashing two separate entities together. This morning, while testing out the newest version of the Musing Machine, I stumbled on a marvelous synchronicity between an unknown song, brought to me via shuffling, and a pre-existing mashup that had started up unexpectedly. That's confusing, huh? So, iTunes had chosen a single-voice a cappella song from a collection of Shaker Songs that I never get around to listening to when the Musing Machine fired up this pairing of a Britten oboe piece with some random marimba piece. (That pairing first debuted in a music class where I asked two students to play their two pieces simultaneously.) So, if you're keeping score, we now have: solo Shaker song, solo Britten oboe, solo marimba, all joining together, for a moment at least, as if they belonged together:



...or maybe you disagree. But for me, that intersection doesn't seem at all random (especially the way the oboe seems to echo the singer). Pretty random, huh?

Anyway, if you have a taste for random, perhaps you've noticed that I keep mentioning my newly updated "Musing Machine" in this post. I continue to be proud of this distinctive feature, which escorts you to an MM multimedia creation of its choice; I don't know of another blog that has anything like it, and I'm not sure there's another blog that could have anything like it, although that's not necessarily a good thing.

Still, why not give it a spin or two?


NOTE: There are more than
200 possible outcomes.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Mr. Stravinsky's Random Accent Generator 2.0 - Now With More Random!

For what it's worth, I've fiddled around with one of my stranger creations, Mr. Stravinsky's Random Accent Generator. I'm afraid it's not much less strange, but 1) I think the recordings sound better now, 2) there are more "random" options, and 3) the audio doesn't cut out so abruptly at the end of 8 bars. (You can sample the previous version here. Read more about it here and here.)


As before, those patient enough to try out enough patterns will be treated to a couple of surprises, although I'm not trying to encourage hours spent idly refreshing the page. Minutes, perhaps...

I will admit that the accent patterns aren't truly random. I "designed" each potential outcome, though I intentionally went about this quickly and tried not to "compose" too much. However, with many of them, I would find myself tinkering here and there to get things to sound more "right," whatever that might mean. Certainly Stravinsky's version sounds the most "right," though it doesn't hurt that I've heard it approximately 4,637 times.


So that got me to thinking about the possibility of generating a truly random sprinkling of accents, and I thus managed to create a little spreadsheet formula that accomplishes this task handily. I decided that since Stravinsky's original (see above; hear here) only accents 6 of the 32 chords, it made sense to average something like 6/32 rather than just go 50/50 on each chord, so each chord basically has an 18.75% chance of being accented. Here are some of the first patterns I generated this way (with 1's standing in for accents).

0100 0000 0100 0100 0000 0000 0000 0000
0000 0001 0000 1000 0000 1010 1000 0000
1000 0010 0000 0000 0000 0010 1011 0101
0000 0000 1000 0011 0000 0110 0001 0000
0010 1000 0100 1010 0100 0100 1000 0000
1000 0100 0000 0000 0100 1000 0001 0000
0100 0000 0000 1010 0100 0001 0000 0010
1000 0000 0001 1000 0110 0001 0100 1000
0100 1101 1000 1000 0000 0000 0010 0101
0010 0000 0000 0000 0000 0000 0100 0000
0000 0010 0000 0000 1001 0000 0000 0001
0100 0000 0010 0001 0000 0000 1000 0000

[I'll wait while you clap through them.] I especially like the third one from the end. Of course, I understand that Stravinsky's accents are not necessarily intended to sound random, though they are supposed to be unpredictable (random ≠ unpredictable). Still, it's kind of interesting to see the different ways in which this process can unfold.

If you're interested in investigating further, I've uploaded my little spreadsheet to Google Docs, with the added attraction that accents are added directly over the chords right in the spreadsheet. (Doesn't perform it though.) To use the document, you need to sign in to Google Docs, open this document, then choose "Make a Copy" from the file menu. Once you've got your own copy, you can give yourself an infinite supply of clapping exercises.

(Or, I suppose, you could just go here.)

More random-y stuff coming tomorrow on the blog, including an update of "MM's Magical Multimedia Musing Machine."

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Splendid Sunrise

I've gone on record before as not being the biggest fan of Haydn, but it's certainly not that I don't appreciate his genius. I've also gone on record as not being a big fan of Haydn's widely adored creation, The Creation, but I do love some things about it, including the beautiful recitative passage that precedes the work's most famous chorus, "The Heavens are Telling." (Notice I'm not saying what I think of that chorus, although thisthis, and this might provide some evidence.)

So I've come not to bury Haydn, but to praise him. Just the other day in Music History, I was playing the orchestral intro to this beautiful recitative passage for my class and realized something that should've been obvious to me before: it's just a D major scale! Well, it's just a D Major scale that is harmonized and orchestrated exquisitely. This rising scale in the most brilliant of keys is appropriate for a passage that celebrates the first rising of the sun: "In splendour bright is rising now the sun and darts his rays; an am’rous joyful happy spouse, a giant proud and glad, to run his measur’d course." (We're just not going to discuss this poetry now, OK?)

So, a D Major scale (plus two extra notes for free):
But here's what Haydn does with it:



As is so often the case with Haydn, I could only wish this passage were longer. I've written before about how both Haydn and Mozart will often "save their best stuff for first." Still, I think it's even better than that other famous sunrise passage. (No, not this one.) So, while sitting in a dentist's chair today, I had this idea of visualizing the way the music rises from the orchestra, and there you go (although I'd like to make the animation look smoother).
I could write at length about the amazing seventh bar, when we hear E, F#, G, B, and C# simultaneously. (The B and G are just suspensions over a V7/vi chord, but they are wonderful.) But, I think the remarkable fact that this is beautiful even when "played" by the synthesized orchestra inside my computer is saying enough. Listen to how different that D Major scale sounds when it radiates outward this way.

If you'd like to hear what comes next (performed by humans, no less (although the sun was created before humans)), go to 2:50 of this video:



The part about the moon rising is perhaps even more beautiful, by the way...
In splendour bright is rising now the sun and darts his rays; an am’rous joyful happy spouse, a giant proud and glad, to run his measur’d course. With softer beams and milder light steps on the silver moon through silent night. The space immense of th’ azure sky innum’rous host of diant orbs adorns. And the sons of God announced the fourth day in song divine, proclaiming thus his power: The heavens are telling the glory of God...

Monday, October 1, 2012

Willkommen, Bienvenue...

I've found myself drawn into the orbit of New York City's enterprising operamission several times before, first when I helped tweet the opening evening of "Così fan tutte: Some Assembly Required" back in the summer of 2010, and one year later when I was inspired to create this kooky Schoenberg/Stravinsky mashup. For 2012, the debut of a new "cabaret song" competition seemed but a curiosity to me at first - until the fateful moment when I thought about writing some cabaret lyrics.

I suppose it's as simple as that: I'd never thought about writing cabaret lyrics, so I'd never done it, but once the thought popped up, I couldn't see a way out. To be precise, the overly clever idea that first trapped me had to do with the word "cabaret" itself. I've enjoyed creating "mad gabs" for some time, as I wrote in this 2008 post. (My own favorite do-it-yourself madgab creation is "Dew Witch Horse Elf.") It's a natural extension of a general interest in wordplay - seeing how one set of sounds can sound much like an otherwise unrelated set of sounds. Like, I inadvertently thought to myself: "cabaret" and "cap hooray." And, thus, a song was born:

I drowned myself in Cabernet,
then went to hail a cab away,
but though I waved my cap-beret
I could not tempt the cab array. 
The subway riders gab their way
through sunken post-nightcap soiree;
when exiting, "mind the gap," they say,
but without you, I can't bear the day. 
REFRAIN:
So all I do is mind the gap and pray
and hope and wish that you'll come back to stay
until you do I'll live my way without a sky or sober day,
you've left me nothing but the night – and cabaret. 
Verse 2: yes, my vocab's OK,
inspired by bottlecaps astray.
The critic tips his cap, "Hooray,"
when I lament in cabaret. 
You came along and captiva-
ted all of me; a captive may
be freed and yet still capsized stay;
I might as well recap this way: 
REFRAIN
Perhaps I got too caught up in this attempt to sound out something close to "cabaret" as many times as possible. Perhaps I should've written "chic beret" instead of the awkwardly constructed "cap-beret." Perhaps we should all be grateful I didn't go full-meta and try to shoehorn "mad gab array" into these verses. Actually, I'm more bothered by the mundane refrain, but it's growing on me. I enjoy the transition from "mind the gap" as cautionary subway message to cautionary metaphor for lost love. At least, I think that's what this is about.

What will become of these lyrics? Well, I might just try to set them myself, although interested composers are welcome to inquire about a collaboration. Just as composers sometimes work with a "dummy lyric" to compose a tune, I'll admit that I used Britten's "Tell Me the Truth About Love" as a "dummy tune" for the verses, and imagine them to be similarly talk-y, with a more lyrical refrain. Various quasi-tunes have wandered teasingly through my mind. We'll see if I can catch one.

Meanwhile, I happened to notice not long after finishing the above that the contest specifies "for solo voice and piano (or voice and harpsichord)." Since we've been talking quite a bit about Historically Informed Performance Practice (HIPP) in my Music History class, I quickly found myself pulled down the following rabbit hole. What it lacks in the former's geeky phonetic wordplay it makes up for in geeky references to obscure musicological concerns. But I like it. Seems it should be written for harpsichord accompaniment, with a dramatic modulation down a half-step for the first transition to the refrain. (Often, Baroque performance practice calls for A to be tuned to 415Hz instead of the standard 440Hz, which results in music pitched about one half-step lower than usual.)

I used to vibrate night and day
and tighten up my bow
to make it easier to play
with steely strings in tow. 
I loved a chorus hundreds strong
for Bach’s and Handel’s scene,
until one day you came along
and tuned to Four..Fif..Teen… 
REFRAIN:
HIPP-HIPP Hooray for Historically Informed Performance,
It's not too late to be an early-music gal.
My playing's up to date, whether 1698
or a 19th century musical locale.
I've learned the ways of the days that came before us,
from tired traditions I have been set free.
What once was old is new, and now I'm telling you
the past is where the future lies with me.  
I sold my Steinway late last year
cause I prefer to drive
a double-manual clavier:
It makes me feel alive! 
I improvise and ornament
and realize figured bass,
and realize I’ve been heaven-sent
back to that time and place. 
REFRAIN 
I can't count the countertenors
I've had over to my place.
I can't deal with all those sinners
who think wobbling equals grace. 
Don't believe that propaganda
the Romantics left behind.
A theorbo or da gamba
is romantic in my mind. 
REFRAIN 
Notes inégales are just my style
My rhythms fairly dance
I would’ve been so versatile
In 17th century France. 
We’ve tuned our hearts authentically
to temperaments just and mean;
and now I know that every key
sounds best at 415.
Yep.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Teachable Moments

First of all, my recital has come and gone, as things do. It was, I think, a big success in a lot of ways (the program booklet was widely admired), although it's hard for me not to remember the moments that got away (minor, but still...), and it's also something of a letdown to be done. What happened? Where did all that practice and preparation go?

As I get older, I find myself reflecting more on space/time issues - sometimes even in the middle of a performance! At some point in the middle of the 30-minute Brahms "Handel" Variations, I remember thinking that I felt kind of like a prisoner of space and time. I was tired, physically and mentally, and though things were going well enough and I was mostly focused on the music, I found myself reflecting on something rather obvious: I had no choice in that moment but to keep playing this difficult music with pinpoint focus (a focus not helped by my focusing on the need to be focused). I couldn't just stop, perhaps say something to the audience, go get a drink of water, recite a sonnet, or even take an unmusical breath. Yes, to some degree this is true of any situation where one has a job to do, but a musical work like this is particularly unforgiving.

Of course, riding a musical wave is also one of the joys of musical performance, so I don't want to sound like I'm complaining. Anyway, although I have much to learn from this experience (including that I wish I'd worked in a few "days off" leading up to the event since I played through the Chopin four days after the recital and it felt so much easier!), I have more lighthearted teachable moments to share today. In fact, they're lighthearted enough that I've already shared them in that frothy land of Twitter, but now they're getting the blog seal of approval.

The first moment of good teaching fortune occurred on September 5th as I had just exited my office on the way to music history. (I should probably capitalize "Music History," but I like the idea of "being on the way to music history.") We were in the midst of several Bach classes (alas, now passed/past) and that day's main course would be the Chaconne in D Minor, which is only perhaps the greatest example of human creativity ever. I've taught this piece many times, but still can feel at loss for words to describe it, as evidenced by the lame sentence preceding. As it happened, only steps from my office door, I heard none other than the Chaconne in D Minor coming from a practice room nearby. I correctly guessed who the violinist was, and knew her to be an enthusiastic student from the previous year's class, so I knocked on the door and asked if she might want to come play in our little cinderblock classroom. She graciously agreed, and suddenly everything about teaching it was easier because there's just nothing like live performance, right?

There's just nothing like live performance. Of course, we musicians say this all the time in a desperate attempt to maintain a sense of relevance performing music that has been recorded over and over. It's pretty much true, too (I hope) - otherwise, why would I have spent so much time learning music for my recital? Getting back to that space-time thing, there's no question that Chopin's 4th ballade is widely available in recordings and widely performed in recitals, but I still knew that every time I played it (even in a practice room), there was something distinctive about "holding" "it" in my hands in that moment of time. Not the score of course; I barely looked at it in the past month (which is probably bad, by the way, but that's a subject for another day). I mean that having the notes shaped in my hands feels like a "thing," elusive as its thing-ness is. (Are the notes in my hands negative space? No, let's not go there...*)

But back to Bach: because the Chaconne is written for solo violin and the violin-writing often verges on (or crosses over to) harshness, "it" struggles even more than the average musical work to communicate via recording. Violins are notoriously difficult to record. I read somewhere** that the heavy use of vibrato we now take for granted is partly an evolutionary adaptation prompted by the fact that early recording technology made straight-tone violin playing particularly unappealing. Add to this the fact that my cinderblock classroom has a pretty subpar set of speakers, and it reminds me of something I often forget: Recordings of the Chaconne sound pretty bad in this classroom.

Why do I forget that? Because I already know how the piece sounds for real, so I can easily hear the real "thing" through the imperfections. This also explains why opera buffs can enjoy historical recordings that often sound like desperate screeching to me. Once you've heard the real thing enough, you can filter out the limits of technology and hear what's not there. I wrote about this at some length in this post from 2007.

This is really one of the central challenges of teaching and talking about music. When you don't have the real thing there and the students haven't experienced it, words in a textbook/anthology and even recordings can ring as hollow as...well, a violin on a CD. Having this gracious student play extended excerpts for the class made the whole teaching experience so much easier. Plus, the human element of seeing the violinist battling the fiddle is a nice visual/social aid. The students clearly got this music in a way I haven't seen them get it before. So, the lesson is: always bring a real violinist with you to teach the Bach Chaconne. (I have done this before in a more planful way, by the way.)

[A couple of side notes. When I tweeted "Was heading to class to talk about Bach Chaconne; heard student violinist practicing it; she agreed to demo much of it (beautifully). Nice!", a clever follower tweeted back, "Talking about the Bach Chaconne. And next week, dancing about the Parthenon." He, of course, was alluding to the famous saying that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. I mention all this to boast about the newly invented aphorism this inspired from me: "tweeting about music is like twitching about architecture."]

[Side Note #2: Speaking of Bach, the Chaconne, and a failure to communicate, back when the "Joshua Bell in the subway" story was all the rage, I wrote a couple of sonnets to summarize the tale. I can sense that you're not about to follow that link, so let me tempt you with these couplets: "...to mention that a subway station / is really not the best location / for Bach's Chaconne (which I adore / -it's just not made for train decor.)"]

Now to teachable moment #2. For my afternoon "Survey of Musical Masterworks," a one-semester music history class for mostly non-majors, I like to have music playing the five minutes or so before we begin. For example, before yesterday's class introducing opera as the new dramatic kid on the block of the Baroque, I played this hyperdramatic music from Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie. (Skip to 1:20 if you like, and try to stay to the end.)



Well, later on that very same fortuitous Chaconne day, I got distracted by some computer-related issue and forgot to start anything up for my surveyors. Just as I was about to apologize for this oversight, I remembered that Sept 5 of 2012 happened to be the 100th birthday of John Cage, so the four-plus minutes of silence I'd played were the perfect music for that day.



And I have nothing more to say about that...


P.S. But, I did have one other felicitous teaching moment recently. I was discussing issues of Historically Informed Performance Practice with students, and the topic of unreliable metronome markings arose. As I talked about the problems of pendulum imprecision and veered off course to  mention Ligeti's symphony for metronomes, a student actually speculated out loud that one might be able to synchronize pendulum metronomes if they were on the right kind of surface. I don't think he did this to set me up for what followed, but THIS, of course, is what followed.

P.P.S. Notice I didn't include an audio link for the great Chaconne, for what should be obvious reasons. Go see if you can find a live performance in a practice room near you...

See also: Augmented Sixth Day

* that's a joke. sort of.

** just realized (20 hours later), via a helpful Twitter follower, that I first read about this violin/vibrato adaptation in Chapter 3 of Alex Ross's Listen to This where he, in turn, cites Mark Katz's Capturing Sound. And, to continue with the coincidence theme of this post, it just so happens that Chapter 3 of Ross's book is assigned for one of my classes for this coming Friday. (I last read the chapter a year ago, and thus the violin/vibrato information had lost its moorings in my mind.)

Final Postscript: It will be some time before I'll feel ready to listen to all of the recital recording (especially the solo stuff), but here are two samples from the second half that featured our new family trio, Montrieau (with my 13-yr old daughter on violin, my child psychiatrist wife on cello, and me doing my Piano Hero thing (meaning I didn't practice it enough!) on piano).

Friday, September 14, 2012

MMrecital - the Program Booklet

My recital is tomorrow night, so no long-winded blog post for this week, but I thought I'd post the recital booklet I just completed yesterday. (Having a program ready more than 48 hours ahead of the concert must be some kind of record for me.) It continues the whimsical Simpson-y theme I stumbled into for my poster (which just kind of grew out of years of using Simpsonized me as my avatar), which meant: 1) I could be as informal as I like, 2) use catchy titles for each piece, an idea I'd already been thinking about, 3) and use the much-derided Comic Sans font in what I think is its most appropriate context.

It's designed to be printed in a booklet format, so you can better see how the facing pages are supposed to work (sort of) here.



Because I plan to talk to the audience as well, it freed me up not to write too much about each piece. You'll notice I didn't even list the movement titles for the Dvorak, which is maybe a mistake, but since each of the six movements has multiple tempo changes, I think it just invites confusion. I'd rather listeners just go with the "Dumky" flow. On the other hand, I provide a very detailed outline of the twenty-five Brahms variations, partly because I think an audience member can easily follow those, if they so choose. (I'll assure those in attendance that there's no obligation to follow along. I hate for a recital to feel like class.)

Otherwise, although I was rushed as usual, I think this booklet accomplishes most of what I want it to do: set an informal, friendly tone (even though, to be honest, the music is mostly pretty serious), and provide some basic ways to think about what each piece expresses. The central tension for me is that, though the music is often serious in tone, I don't want the recital experience to feel solemn or ritualistic - the seriousness, I hope, is in the depth of the musical expression (though the Brahms and Dvorak pieces each have many humorous, lighthearted passages as well), not in the idea that this music is important. (You see, it's important, of course, but not important.)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

No Danny Elfman on This Recital

It's a good thing it's a Saturday, so I don't have pesky classes and meetings to deter me from practicing for my recital which is due to happen in just over 1 week. (See here or here, or read lots of words about it here.) Yet, somehow I found time to do this:

[click pic to view larger]

I never thought it would go this far when I first Simpsonized myself and Stravinsky back in 2007 (I don't even watch The Simpsons much anymore, though I own seasons 1-8 on DVD), but I feel my identity is slowly merging with that avatar. And at least it hasn't aged in five years.

Also, you'll note that I've given our family trio a pretentious name. If it doesn't quite make sense to you, here's the progression:

 monroe
 montrio
 montrioe
 montrieau

(I thought of going as far as "montrieault" since my wife's surname ends in "-eault," but that would just be going too far. I do love playing in mon trio, by the way.)

And now...yes, more practicing.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Time-traveling

First of all, I'd better get around to mentioning that I'm giving a faculty recital in just two weeks and two days. This Facebook thing is as far as I've made it with an event page so far, although I hope to update it soon. The program, in case you don't feel like following that link, is:
  • Bach: "Allemande" from Partita No. 4 in D Major
  • Chopin: Ballade No. 4 in F Minor
  • Brahms: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel
  • ----------
  • Dvorak: "Dumky" Trio (with my cellist wife & violinist daughter)
[The recital is on Saturday, September 15 at 7pm in Phillips Recital Hall, Gordon College, Wenham, MA.]

It's a program both conventional and quirky, conventional in its "standard rep"-iness, quirky in its juxtaposition of pieces. There's no real theme other than "these are some pieces I want to play." I suggested in a March blog post that there is something inherently selfish about devoting oneself to this kind of endeavor, no matter how much energy we musicians invest in saying we're all about giving, giving, giving. One can be selfish and giving at the same time, after all. At an rate, I don't mind admitting that I'm doing this partly for my own satisfaction, and since I don't find the opportunity to do solo recitals that often, I'm going to play what I want to play.

It's funny, because I think my reputation among students is as an advocate of the unconventional (I'm always talking mash-ups, trying to get an In C thing going every year, etc.), but I've never been shy about the fact that I have pretty old-fashioned tastes. See my list of "Favorite Music" to confirm. There's nothing on there later than Shostakovich or Britten. There are voices in my head telling me I should be playing something from own century, or at least the one in which I was born - but, again with the selfish thing. (I'm a little surprised no Scriabin made it on the program; there's a wonderful portrait of Scriabin that a student painted for me a few years ago after I told her he's a personal favorite. Every time I look up and see him staring down at my piano, I feel guilty...)

Still, I was a little surprised at how this program came together. I first assumed I'd be reprising Schumann's Kreisleriana from a recital I gave in 2003; that may be my single favorite piano work. But as I reviewed the CD from that recital, on came the Brahms "Handel" Variations, and I suddenly felt "I have to play this again." It was as simple as that. Sometimes the music just tells you what to do. I even considered repeating the entire 2003 recital, but eventually Kreisleriana drifted away, partly due to fear that I wouldn't have time to re-learn it and Brahms-Handel.

I devoted a Spring Break blog series (sort of) to my decision to re-learn the Chopin ballade in a week; I didn't quite finish getting it memorized in those seven days, and then completely dropped it until mid-summer when I thought the thirty minutes of Kreisleriana were seeming like too much. These eleven minutes of Chopin scare me to death, and it's odd to put them side by side with the Brahms since each piece is kind of a closer, but I think it's Chopin's greatest work and there's really nothing quite like it. I want to play it. Whereas the Brahms is a highly ordered, though expansive, structure, the Chopin evolves tentatively and mysteriously, but in compact fashion, so they make for an interesting contrast.

Still, the Chopin is too intense to begin a recital. For a while, I figured the Chopin and Brahms would fall on different halves. Then, early one summer Sunday, as I was doing my fake-organist thing and getting ready to play the morning service, I was looking for a D Major prelude (to go with the opening hymn) and flipped upon the allemande from Bach's D Major Partita. It's a piece I remember well from Jeremy Denk's remarkable 7-part blog series from 2007. Bach wrote many, many allemandes, of course, but none at all like this extended, meandering meditation. I quickly realized it didn't belong on the organ, but was irresistibly drawn to it, so I ended up playing the prelude from the piano that morning. Quite a few parishioners remarked at how beautiful it was, and after dismissing the thought that this was just relief at hearing me not play the organ, I decided the special-ness of this piece would translate to audiences more easily than I'd have thought.

The initial dilemma: "Do I now learn the whole Partita?" which would mean learning six other pieces. The easy answer came back, "No, this piece stands on its own." It's kind of like the Chaconne from the D Minor Violin Partita in that respect. If both repeats are observed, this "allemande like no other" can easily last ten minutes or more. I fear its beauty might be less appreciated in the broader suite context, and I'm of the opinion that Bach's suites are fairly loose connections of pieces - but, let's be honest: I also didn't feel like learning all that Bach. So here we are.

This allemande is also no conventional curtain-raiser, but it's gotten me to thinking about why we so often begin with "loud and fast." Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I hope there's something about this piece which will serve to consecrate the space, calm me down, and usher in a world in which time seems like less of a concern - to prepare us all for this counter-cultural thing we call a piano recital. In fact, this allemande is probably the closest thing Bach ever wrote to a Chopin nocturne, even if it sounds nothing like Chopin; it does feel like a nice way to set up the ballade, which in a more conventional program might be preceded by a nocturne.

Although I'm basically a "collaborative pianist" these days, it's important to me to get a chance to revisit solo repertoire, memorization, and all that. But, it's also a joy to be playing as a family in the second half. As a matter of fact, the "Dumky" Trio is the piece that introduced me to my wife-to-be (we were assigned to the same trio at a summer festival), so it means a lot to us to be playing it with our oldest daughter. I'm feeling a bit guilty about that decision because I'm realizing the violin part is the hardest to bring off in this trio; the cello gets almost all the good tunes, while Dvorak makes the poor violinist play awkward, accompanimental double-stops again and again. But, Daughter of MMmusing is a trooper and she's got chops, so I think we'll get there.

Each of the last two paragraphs referred to ways in which music interacts with time: the way a Bach allemande can seem to make time stop, and the way the Dumky Trio can connect our family's present with its past. One of my Spring Break "Ballade" posts also touched on this, how re-learning the Chopin ballade brought back vivid memories (or something even more present than memories) of learning the same piece as an undergrad twenty-plus years before.

In the last couple of days, I've had another strange music-time experience. Because memorization is such a scary thing, so vulnerable to changes of mental state, I've been revisiting an old trick: playing through these pieces backwards. OK, not literally note-by-note (or sound wave by sound wave!), but more or less phrase by phrase. The Brahms is a pretty easy piece to chunk since it divides up into a theme and 25 variations, each of which has two repeated halves of four bars each. (The fugue is more complicated and less symmetrical, but still pretty easy to break up into groups.) So, after backmasking through the fugue, it's on to part B of variation 25 (with repeat), part A of Variation 25, part B of Variation 24, part A of Variation 24, etc. In some cases, the repeats are varied repetitions, so I try to play the variants first as well.

It's a great mental exercise and makes it so that I feel quite comfortable starting at more than 60 spots within the 30-minute opus. (It also keeps my mind from wandering while I practice ... sometimes.) Hopefully this will be less about giving me a place to start if I fall off the horse, and more about the constant sense that, "oh, yes, I can visualize precisely what's coming up in four bars." But having now played through the piece backwards twice, I was unexpectedly struck by the weird sensation of moving backwards through time. I know the music quite well, of course, so although time is obviously moving forward, each little chunk feels like something more past than what's just happened. (A good set of variations has a sense of building to a conclusion, and this is as good a set of variations as has ever been written. Yep, as good as Goldberg and Diabelli.) This is especially striking when I "end" with the half cadence that concludes the first four bars of Handel's theme.


Each time, it feels like the last bit of the piece has been sucked up into some time-consuming vacuum cleaner - that's not an analogy I went looking for or a thought I dreamed up because I wanted to blog about something. It was a genuine sensory experience. I'd like to try this with more big variation sets at some point, like the finale of the "Eroica" Symphony. (The Goldberg Variations wouldn't work as well since that piece ends as it begins.) But that sounds like another blog post, post-recital.

Last weekend, we heard a final concert for my daughter's music camp at which the orchestra of 9-13 year-olds finished with Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on "Greensleeves," chosen because the retiring camp director had played that same piece as a camper in the orchestra - in 1948! Talk about a time-travelling experience. Listening to these kids play this piece (which was quite new in '48, though the tune was already old) in an old-fashioned (though fairly new) barn in the foothills of the ancient Berkshires to honor a woman who's invested so much time in music and children - well, it made me realize that Einstein's theory of relativity may not be fully understood with respect to music.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Gateway to Insanity

There's nothing like a meandering path that takes you somewhere special. For example, many years ago I basically flipped a coin in choosing one musical festival over another, picked a piano trio to play, had my assigned cellist turn out not to be there, and then was assigned a new cellist...who is now my wife. We now have a daughter in music camp out in Western Massachusetts which led us to an afternoon of Sunday shopping in charming Northampton where I came across a book I've wanted to read for years. Vikram's Seth's The Golden Gate is a novel-in-verse set in 1980s Silicon Valley but modeled on Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, especially in its use of the peculiar Onegin stanzas devised by the "Russian Shakespeare." In Le Ton beau de MarotDouglas Hofstadter raves about The Golden Gate, gateway for him to Eugene Onegin which becomes the second most important case study in Hofstadter's wide-ranging study of translation.

I've now read Eugene Onegin a few times in this dazzling translation, and I've intended to read The Golden Gate for more than a dozen years, but somehow never got around to hitting the "buy" button on Amazon or tracking it down at a local library; seeing it on the shelf at The Raven conquered my irrational inertia, and now I'm happily flipping page after page.* My only slight disappointment is that Seth's book (or any good translation of Eugene Onegin) is a perfect candidate for e-book reading on a smartphone or tablet since each sonnet would nicely fill a screen, but it's only available in paper form. Oh well...it's still delightful even only 160 or so sonnets in. My mind is rhyming in iambic tetrameter even when I'm not reading, which is a problem I've had before.

Unfortunately, I also made the mistake of wondering if an Onegin stanza could be fit into a single, 140-character Twitter post. I remember wondering this back in #operaplot days when I successfully tweeted several limericks, but if you do the math, 140 characters divided by 14 lines leaves only 10 characters per line, and that has to include spaces and line breaks. Iambic tetrameter demands 7-9 syllables per line so it's really impossible, right?

However, it occurred to me that using texting abbreviations might make the task just possible, and OMG! (which I'd interpret as "Oh my goodness" since that yields an extra syllable), voilà:


It's pretty ugly to look at, but it's Tweetable, although Twitter doesn't really let you use line breaks, so it ends up looking like this:
IOU a tiny sonnet of ≤ 140; In it 14=143 IIRC SRSLY I ineptly had U ROTF LOL once b4 @my TMI No IMO my MO I AKA admiration ≠ U & yet WYSIWYG
I do enjoy the oddly formulaic juxtapositions of 140, 14, and 143 and the 3-line set of "TMI, IMO, MO I," not to mention that any sonnet ending with "WYSIWYG" is pretty awesome.

If you're wondering how to read it, here's a "translation." Note that every line should begin with a stressed syllable and that line 5 requires "remember" to be accented awkwardly on its first and third syllables. "Seriously" should also get a secondary stress on its third syllable.


IOU a tiny sonnet
of ≤
140; In it
14=143
IIRC
SRSLY I ineptly
had U ROTF
LOL once b4
@my TMI
No IMO my
MO I
AKA admiration
≠ U & yet
WYSIWYG

I owe you a tiny sonnet
of less than or equal to
one-hundred and forty; in it
Fourteen equals "I Love You."
If I remember correctly
seriously I ineptly
had you rolling on the floor
laughing out loud once before
at my "too much information."
No, in my opinion, my
modus operandi I
also know as admiration
does not equal you and yet
what you see is what you get.

OK, it's not Shakespeare or Pushkin...or Seth, but it sort of makes sense as a slightly desperate sonnet from a poet prone to ridiculously flowery flights of fancy. It's a bit pitiful since it seems our hero knows his recipient is a harsh critic; he's apparently trying his best to keep this tweet both short and sweet, but he is who he is.

It's also not quite an Onegin stanza since that requires iambic tetrameter which would add an extra unstressed syllable to the beginning of each line, but chopping off those 14 syllables was really helpful. The astute among you will further note that I've interpreted AKA as "also know as" instead of "also known as." So sue me. My first line takes up a luxurious 24 characters, and I had to find as many ways as possible to abbreviate thereafter. Honestly, I don't think I'd have pulled it off without that "less than or equal to" sign. That's six syllables of pure, 1-character gold.

I later realized I hadn't even thought about abbreviated proper nouns like UK, USA, IBM, etc., but textspeak is a perfect fit for Twitter anyway. Still, I think this is my first and last Onegin sonnet of 140 characters or less.

But I also wondered about a trimmer-style sonnet, and fairly quickly managed the following (I was home sick yesterday, so I had a little time on my hands):

A sonnet
in tweet?
I'm on it
A feat!
140
is short. See
each line
assigned
li'l more than
3 beats.
RT's
will pour in
for me.
You'll see.

If tweeted like so:
A sonnet-in tweet?-I'm on it-A feat!-140-is short.See-each line-assigned-lil' more than-3 beats.-RT's-will pour in-for me.-You'll see.
...this actually comes in at a highly efficient 134 characters. Note that I've kept the Onegin stanza rhyme-scheme with its charming variety of masculine and feminine rhymes. For those not in the Twitter know, "RT's" stands for "Re-tweets," which is the Twitter way of sharing posts. Also, you'll note that "140" in this case should be pronounced as "One forty." It's true that this rhyme scheme has quite a different flavor than Eugene Onegin with only 2-3 beats per line; in fact, in this regard the poem is much closer in spirit to Clement Marot's A une Damoyselle malade, the 28-liner beginning and ending with "Ma mignonne" that is the central case study in Hofstadter's book.

My favorite felicitous detail in my "Mignonegin" sonnet comes with the phrase "li'l more than / 3 beats"; I chose "li'l" to create a nice triple rhyme with "will pour in" but was slightly bothered by the fact that none of the lines actually has any more than 3 beats. EXCEPT, one could say that the contraction "li'l" has perhaps a little more than one syllable, meaning the phrase "li'l more than" contains something like pi beats; it thus becomes the very line to which it refers. I realized that while struggling through the last leg of my morning run, and that put a much-needed hop in my step.


* I could quote favorite turns of phrase for days, but here's one of Seth's couplets that I particularly admire:
Thus by default the fault is Phil's.
Jan sets her gaze at Look that Kills.
More MMmmusing Onegin stanzas:

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Musical...er, um, Notational Signatures

I'm fond of saying to students that a musical score is just a set of instructions. Indeed, one of my Music Ed colleagues doesn't even like to refer to sheet music as "music," preferring to have her children's choirs look at their "notation." After all, all those dots and lines don't actually produce any sound on their own. They're not music. Still, I don't mind referring to these instructions as "music" since the word has clearly inherited that additional meaning. "Notation" sounds cold and too distanced from the music that is somehow magically embedded on paper. (Of course, "notation" "sounds cold" because I'm not used to using it this way; language gets much of its flavor from experience.)

Perhaps notation isn't the same thing as music, but there's still something aesthetically satisfying about these "instructions," even when we don't get to hear music. This, of course, has a lot to do with the meanings suggested by all those dots and lines. I love sightreading, I love studying scores, I love the dozen or so anthologies of scores aligned on a bookshelf above my desk, I love looking at all the other scores filling a large bookshelf nearby, I even love the digital joys of IMSLP. It stands to reason that notes themselves might start to appear beautiful, if only by association.

I wrote a few years ago about the pleasure of following a score while listening, with the idea being that watching the notes go by can be a good catalyst for listening (even for the uninitiated). But I also find that notes can be worth looking at simply for their own suggestive kinds of beauty. By suggestive, I especially mean the reference to particular sounds and patterns, which is why I find it annoying when musical signs are just tossed around like Clip Art. [e.g. the lazy use of musical notes in this disappointing Google logo.] See how I'm dancing back and forth between saying musical notation is beautiful on its own and yet stressing that "beautiful on its own" is connected to what the notes mean as music. It's a Hofstadter-y "strange loop." 

Words, words, words. Mainly, I just came here today to talk about a couple of images I created to personalize my Facebook page. The truth is, Facebook is notably uniform and bland in its look - which is mostly a good thing. (MySpace was a visual disaster because approximately 93% of people shouldn't be given free reign over choices about graphic design.) However, every now and then the Facebook gods throw us a design curve that provides the tiny potential for some creativity.

When, in 2011, they rolled out the "photo-strip" header at the top of profile pages, I was first just annoyed. The idea was that the five photos in which one was most recently tagged would become a little Muybridge-esque visual time capsule...

Muybridge

Facebook Photostrip

...with the added surprise that you never knew when someone might tag some 2nd grade picture of you that would suddenly be part of your banner story.


Come to think of it, I'm now disappointed that I never thought to use either of the first two just-created dummy photostrips for my page. But what I did do was decide that those five tagged photos might look cool if they became five measures of music. (This meant tagging myself in these score images and then vigilantly un-checking new photos in which I was tagged.) For some reason, I ultimately decided on the hypnotic opening of Scriabin's Vers la flamme, a piece I've never played, although I intend to. (I have, elsewhere, claimed Scriabin and Poulenc as the composers I like most above their reputations.) Vers la flamme is about as sensual (in the sense of creating a presence that can be felt) as music gets, so maybe that's why I was inspired to objectify it as image.

Like so many of my projects (like this very post!), this ended up taking longer than I intended since getting the measures to be equal lengths required putting the music into Finale (and, sadly, leaving out the pick-up notes). But this five measure group works well as an entity because the arrival at the fifth bar kind of lets us know this piece is going strange places.



Here are those measures as they appear in the score:


And here's what they looked like atop my Facebook page:


Elegant, mysterious, and....yes, just a tiny bit pretentious in its coded, insider messaging. ("What you don't recognize this music? You must not be as smart as I!")

But then, of course, Facebook comes along with this new Timeline feature and suddenly the photostrip was being phased out. I finally got the word this week that my page was automatically going to be converted to the new Timeline format, which replaces the "at least it's small" photostrip with a huge header of a photo (of the user's choosing). These photos take up way too much screen real estate and they're also oddly paired with a small, nested version of the user's profile pic. Thus, I'd avoided making the switch for months, both because I liked my little bit of Scriabin and because I was opposed to this clunky new look. But, it's a free service, so you get what you pay for - which, in this case, is not much choice.

After some playing around with images of piano keyboards, I finally ended up with the following as my new banner image:

[click to view larger]

It's not perfect - maybe a little overstuffed, but I like its painterly look and, of course, you will see that I couldn't give up my Scriabin signature, now heading right towards us due to some simple 3-D rendering. The m.5 chord looks even more ominous now with the notes getting progressively larger. I'm also pleased with the way the notes are poised in the air like ghosts (if you rotate your screen away from you, the notes will likely disappear!), although in an ideal world the bass clef notes floating over the keys would be a bit darker. Are these notes left over from a past performance? Are they waiting to be played? Are they happening right now (all five measures at once?)?

So that's today's story of music as image. Facebook remains annoying, but sometimes crazy constraints inspire unexpected creativity; for me at least, Scriabin's notes add multiple layers of texture that seem to bring the keys to life. Those who are reading on my actual blog (as opposed to in a feed-reader) will also "note" that my homemade template has featured Bach's notes as background image almost since the beginning. (A few of you may remember MMmusing's "Yellow" period.) I created that looping image of Bach's Invention in A Minor for another website way back in the early days of the Internet, but I think it still holds up. (Bach, of course, is great for looping, which is how he made it into Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach.) Ironically, I worked hard to distort those notes to make them look like refugees from some ancient manuscript, and now they are getting ancient, at least in web terms.

Finally, note that my attraction to notes as images is based to some degree on my understanding that notes really are music, in a mystical sort of way. In his fascinating book MusicophiliaOliver Sacks uses the term "musical imaging" to describe the way in which we can "hear" sounds in our imaginations - and only after typing that sentence did I think that the word "image" is embedded in the word "imagination." So we now have a strange loop in which musical notes are understood as images that inspire internal musical imaging, and thus became images that can inspire the imagination even more than mere images.

See also:

Music as Image/Image as Music

The Joy of (looking at) Music