Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Serial Satie (Gymnopédie No. 12)

This blog has taken me many places I didn't expect, which is what creating is all about, which is what this blog is all about. Sometimes it seems to me that creating is basically about nothing more than a + b and variations thereof. You put two things together and, voilà, something new - which may or may not be worth further exploration, but eventually, interesting things just seem to happen, and a significant part of creativity is simply recognizing the interesting when it comes along. Mashups, a particular fascination of mine, are obviously based on this principle in a very literal way, but as I've said many times before, just about any kind of creation can be thought of as a mashup at some level or another.

I guess I'm trying to make a case that my latest mashup is quite creative, though clearly derivative on the surface. ("Creative" and "derivative" are often treated as opposites, but they're closely related.*) This new creation is actually a mashup on a couple of levels. First, it combines the subjects of my two previous blog posts/projects into something new, borrowing quite equally from each. Second, it combines musical ideas of two musical opposites, Satie and Schoenberg, born only eight years apart but at opposite poles of the French/German aesthetic divide. (Yes, I know Boulez and others made serialism a French thing as well, but Boulez's name doesn't begin with an S.)

So, what do we have here? Well, having used MIT's Scratch programming language to create a site that randomizes Satie's Gymnopédie No. 1, and then having created a 12-tone Sandbox that enables easy exploration of Schoenbergian 12-tone rows, the next logical step (a + b) was to put these ideas together: A + B = 12-tone Satie. My point in randomizing Satie was that his music has a lovely directionless quality that can survive and even thrive (?) when its events are dis-ordered. This project takes that to another level by disordering the pitches as well - all that's really left of Satie is the basic rhythmic and textural gestures, while 12-tone rows take over both hands.

You can (and should!) try it out by going here. If the idea sounds complicated, understand that I put a lot (lot) of time into making it pretty simple to use. You can certainly take the time to input the row of your choosing and then decide which permutations of the row to use for each phrase of the melody and the accompaniment while considering matters of pitch cells and interval content - but, you can also click one button to generate a random row, one more button to choose the phrases for you, and you'll be making music in no time. Click!

As with my measure-for-measure randomizing of Satie's Gymnopédie, I didn't really know what to expect when I set out, and I was skeptical that this would amount to anything. Among other things, I'd assumed it would be important to keep the basic shape of Satie's melodies intact to make this work, going up and down at the same times, but that turned out to be unnecessary and even counterproductive. I did build a script which determined whether each successive note in a given row went up or down based on Satie's model, but that actually made things sound more random and disjointed for reasons I won't go into here. (They're easy enough to imagine.)

I think the point here is that Satie's melodies have a basic ambling quality built into them (in much the same way that Stravinsky's famous off-kilter accents feature a kind of encoded meta-unpredictability) that can fortuitously be found in many 12-tone rows. Thus, the "shapes," though quite different on the local level, can still suggest the same ambling idea at a higher level. They sound Gymnopédie-esque. Or so I would have you believe.

The bottom line is, I believe this little mashup of gestures and ideas does amount to something new and interesting. An advantage, at least for someone like me who's admittedly not a devoted fan of much 12-tone music, is that this mashup emphasizes the gentler, hazier side of serialism and atonality, as opposed to the brutal soundworld with which it's often associated. The association with Satie's archetypal mellowness helps to frame the pitches as distant cousins of something familiar and tonal. True devotees of 12-tone technique may take some offense at this, or even more at the notion that 12-tone music often ends up sounding kind of random. But that quality is turned to some advantage here: every performance outputted from this program has a kinship with others that makes each random set of notes seem related. Still, there's enough variety that it's well worth exploring different combinations.

This brings up a question that has fascinated me as I've worked on this project. To what degree can the result be thought of as a composition? I don't mean each of the countless separate outcomes, I mean the program itself as a coherent compositional concept that happens to allow for a range of indeterminate possibilities, each of which I might plausibly label "Gymnopédie No. 12." Indeterminacy is, after all, a part of just about any kind of music at some scale - in typical classical performance, the indeterminacy has to do with subtleties of timing and color and occasional bits of improvisation (and wrong notes); in jazz, indeterminacy is expected/demanded on a much broader scale, and then there's that whole world of radically indeterminate works.

Here we have a composition that performs itself (though I LOVE the idea of performing this live some day, reading the pages as they're generated on the spot) and that (I think) remains recognizably "the same," even through all the different possible row combinations. It's all held together by a few basic but distinctive concepts. Satie's three Gymnopédies already accomplish this kind of thing on some level, which is what first inspired my idea of a randomized Gymnopédie segueing seamlessly back and forth among all three. (Haven't made that version...yet.)

The other question that kept bugging me as I chipped away at this program is whether this is just frittering away time, since the result is, at best, a loop of about 90 seconds worth of music. (Well, technically, if you choose 4 R.H. rows and 3 L.H. rows, it would take about five minutes to get through all the combinations; and the program can generate an almost infinite array of 90-second pieces.) What made this question especially interesting to me is that I've been (poorly) balancing my time working on this against time re-learning Schumann's Kreisleriana, 30 minutes of the most inspired music ever written for the piano. Few in the musical world would think it frittering to spend countless hours learning a "masterpiece" like this, but I can always sense that people think these little musical experiments are just fluff.

And they may be right. No version of this Gymnopédodécaphonie** is going to come close to matching Schumann in inspiration. On the other hand, the Schumann will be played and heard countless times whether I get around to it or not, whereas this "piece" apparently needed me (like Charlie Brown's tree) to come into being. I think one of the confounding factors here is that we (especially we in the "serious music" world) tend to underestimate the degree to which music is about "play." More and more, it seems to me that making games "about" music is a really great way to "think" about music. I'm not saying it's better or worse than composing, performing, listening, or analyzing - just that it's useful and substantive. Having worked my way through this strange meeting of Satie and 12-tone technique, I feel I understand each a bit more. Perhaps you will as well...

Here's one example of a nice-sounding piece that I randomed upon...

[sorry, the audio is a little buzzy; working on it...UPDATE: Improved, along with video quality]

* The line between "Bach was influenced by Vivaldi" and "David Cope taught a computer to write like Bach" is thinner than many would like to believe.

** Note that the absurd word Gymnopédodécaphonie, while trying to be French, has a LongGermanicCompoundWord thing going on. More mashing up....

DISCLAIMER: It's worth noting that this is still a work-in-progress in some ways, though I think everything is working correctly. Because I keep building on top of things in ways I hadn't originally intended (and because I'm such a novice at this), the program's architecture is pretty unwieldy, like some ancient church that's been gradually rebuilt on top of itself; changes that should be simple involve re-setting multiple variables and the like. It's definitely possible that strange things will happen every now and then, but that's part of the fun, right? You can always just hit the re-set button.

SPECIAL EXTRA BONUS: I really like that randomly-generated piece in the YouTube video. (Technically, there was a glitch when that was generated so the fact that a couple of rows appear multiple times was a happy accident.) Anyway, here's a screen-captured score if you, like me, want to play it. SCORE

Monday, May 12, 2014

Twelve Little Notes

My timing isn't always the best here at MMmusing. One of my favorite-ever blog posts, Atonality on Ice, was inspired by the Boston Bruins' 2011 Stanley Cup title run - and posted about a week after the final game, when even the 0.7% of my readers who enjoy hockey had moved on to baseball. (The Bruins are on the move again, so that post is more timely now! Check it out.)

And speaking of atonality, just after most college semesters are winding down, I'm debuting a fun (?) new teaching tool for that 20th century music theory/history class that probably just ended: The MMmusing 12-tone Sandbox.

This started off as an exercise in creating my own 12-tone matrix calculator, although there are plenty of those already available online, such as here and here. I first set up a Google Docs spreadsheet to do the work, and you can give that a try here (you first have to save a copy to your own account in order to make changes - otherwise, my thousands of readers would constantly be competing to get their preferred pitches in order). But the online calculators I've found don't do one particularly useful thing - play the row!

"Play" is an important word in this context, not only because a 12-tone matrix is intended to create a set of 48 playable rows, but because "play" in the broader sense is maybe underrated as an aspect of 12-tone composition. My sense, at least from students, is that the process is too often viewed as forbidding and intellectual and kind of scary and...well, not very play-ful. So, my goal was to create a tool that's easy to "play" around with and which "plays" for you. I'm calling it a sandbox because it's not designed as a robust compositional tool, but rather as a quick way to try out a row and its transformations alone and in simple counterpoint. A pitch is sort of like a grain of sand, right? And, like most sandbox creations, the outcome is less about a final, permanent product (though my tool does let you save a result) than it is about creating in the moment.

The best way to see what it does is to click the image above and give it a try, but the main features are:
  • Allows you to:
    • Input a row of your choosing. You hear the pitches played as you enter them! (Technically, you're allowed to repeat pitches and create a "bad row," but assuming you want a true 12-tone row, it's easy to see which pitches have already been selected as you choose.)
    • Alternatively, will generate a random 12-tone row. I love random! This saves you time and lets you get right in to play.
  • Generates a 12-tone matrix from the chosen row.
  • Plays any of the 48 versions when you click on the row headings (P0, R1, RI5, etc.).
  • Plays up to four different versions of the row in counterpoint, with options to change the note length, octave, entry point, instrument, and volume for each row individually. (There are significant limitations as well: each voice will only play one rhythmic value once it's started; though one can choose to raise or lower the entire row by an octave, individual notes can't be moved up or down by octave.*)
  • Exports/Imports a "performance" you've designed, so that you can play it again later.
As with my Random Gymnopédie Generator, this project was designed in MIT's Scratch, an easy-to-use introductory programming platform which has been a favorite sandbox for me lately. I'm sure someone with more programming experience could've designed my project in about 1/12 the time it took me, and with much more elegant code, but this actually represents a lot of work for me. I'm sure there are still some bugs running around in this sandbox, but I hope you'll give it a try. Here's a demo (which would be best-viewed in full-screen mode, of course):

* This was one of those unanticipated complications I ran across in making a playable matrix. A 12-tone row, at least in matrix form, doesn't specify octave registers for the pitches, so from one note to the next, one could always choose to go up or down. For simplicity purposes, this is set up so that the first note of each Prime and Retrograde is the lowest note played and the rest of the notes fall within the octave above; in the Inversions and Retrograde Inversions, the first note is the highest played.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Satierical Gymnasium

It's hard to say for sure what Erik Satie had in mind when he titled his three most famous pieces "Gymnopédies." I used to think he'd invented the word, but Wikipedia is telling me maybe not - well, that hasn't stopped me from making up my own gymnowords. The word "gymnasium" also has a wide range of meanings, from more playful to academic, and so it seems a suitable word to house these reflections on my playfully serious deconstructions of the especially famous "No. 1." Alex Ross refers to these quietly revolutionary works (hard to believe they're from 1888) as "oases of stillness," and it's this quality of directionlessness which inspired the idea of redirecting the order in which Satie's musical events happen.

To review/summarize.
  1. My first gymnopédésign just involved separating the piece into 20 phrases and having them shuffled randomly - a "Randomnopédie." As detailed here, I went through a variety of experiments in making this work before finally arriving at this solution. Note that this solution features a homemade recording on my naturally detuned 1891 Steinway, an instrument born only three years after Satie's pieces.
  2. My early experiments from summer '13 also led to this video in which the phrases are played in reverse order. I borrowed Égor Lacsap's recording for that, although you can also set the Randomnopédie player linked in #1 to play the phrases backwards.
  3. Next came the idea of rewriting Satie's music to be performed backwards, and that led to this performance of his "Eidéponmyg" on a nicely tuned, state-of-the-art recital hall Steinway. (If you follow that link, you can choose either to follow my backwards score forwards or Satie's score backwards.)
That seemed like it would be enough, but then I couldn't help but wonder about seguing randomly from bar to bar (there's a joke in there somewhere) instead of phrase to phrase. This didn't seem like a very promising idea, but I was intrigued by the task itself - coming up with a way to make the segues seem seamless, and also finding a nice way to "show" the music as it's happening. So, I went back to Scratch (MIT's programming language designed for children and, apparently, me) and found a way to make it happen, and the result is much more engaging and successful than I'd guessed it would be. 

This project required separate recordings of all 78 measures, and they needed to be sufficiently un-nuanced so that any one could lead into any other. For programming purposes, it also would help a lot if each measure was identical in length. Thus, I decided the easiest solution was to let the little piano player in my computer do the work (via the Garritan "Steinway" in Finale) and, with a little subtle reverb added, that came out pretty well. If you're keeping score, that's three different Steinways in play here, although I'd guess Satie played an Erard. (The aforementioned Égor Lacsap is also a Steinway artist.)

When the new measure-by-measure randomizer started generating music, my first thought was that it didn't work as music - too silly and stilted as musical expression, but as the music kept playing, things started happening. In such cases, I'm reminded of Terry Riley's absolutely true prediction that "fantastic shapes" will "arise" in performances of his iconically indeterminate In C. Fantastic new shapes and surprises did start emerging (I promise this wasn't because I'd been seguing randomly from bar to bar) and a recognizably Satie-like soundworld settled in. Satie's own Vexations can easily last 18 hours or more, but this can go on for as long as you and your computer can stand it.  

I think there are a lot of worthwhile musical/philosophical lessons to learn from these experiments, but for now I'd just encourage you to give them a listen. (Sadly, the Flash-based programs inside most of these pages won't work on iOS devices and the like - full-screen viewing is ideal, at any rate, if you want to view the scores.) All are linked together, but I'd suggest you start with the new, measure-by-measure version...

P.S. Yes, I am aware that the possibility of seguing from beat to beat exists (I even toyed around with it briefly, of course), but that brings up vexing problems at the sub-atomic level, since there are so many dotted half-notes sounding for three beats. I don't think I'm going to go there...