Monday, August 15, 2016

Border Counterpoint

The Summer Olympics are in full swing now, and though they continue NOT to offer medals in piano (what is a Ligeti étude if not a type of rhythmic gymnastics?), there have been some musical concerns raised. First, the New York Times had a hard-hitting piece on the unusually mellow harmonization of the U.S. national anthem being used at the medal ceremonies. (It's also just bad. Hear at 3:15 here.) Then, not long after swimmers from the U.S. and Canada tied in the women's 100 meter freestyle swimming event, a Twitterer proposed the following solution to a real problem:
Well, of course, I love mashing things up, so NachoHelmet's idea proved too tempting to resist. Although I could have just put two existing performances together and let them fight it out (which I'm sure could've been satisfying), I decided to try to "compose" something. The most fundamental problems are that 1) the U.S. tune is in triple meter while Canada's is in duple, 2) the phrase structures don't really match up at all, and 3) I'm pretty lazy.

Although there are surely more sophisticated ways to bend the tunes towards each other, I first decided it would be fun to see what happens if each is simply allowed to go its own way. I "discovered" that by 1) starting the tunes together, 2) simply adding one extra beat after the very first "O, Canada," and 3) leaving out the first of the two concluding "O Canada we stand on guard for thee" phrases, the tunes could end at the same time and kind of amble along without hurting each other too much. (They don't clash too badly.) The unsynced meters make them seem quite independent so that it's not that easy to follow both at once, but I like that kind of funhouse effect.

The trick is to find/create a third part which can, in theory, bring the two melodies together. However, I didn't spend much time creating the bass line above, and it shows. I described this "walking bass" on  Facebook as "more like a drunk guy trying to play Pokemon Go with a 1990s flip-phone, a broken compass, and combat boots." As mediator, with those two melodies each going their separate ways, the bass sounds like it's purposelessly going back and forth from one to the other, trying to create accord, but mostly just going in circles. A true diplomat!

The other basic option for composing these tunes together is to align their phrases more naturally by changing one of the meters. In this case I showed my national bias, leaving my country alone and stretching the Canadian anthem into a lazy triple meter by doubling the length of the stressed beats.*  This meant I didn't have room for the whole tune, so it cuts from the middle to the end abruptly, but it works for this stars and stripes guy. The mediator in this case, working alongside two tunes that are at least trying to play nice, has a much stronger sense of direction, although an attempt to hide some consecutive 2nds from m.13 into m.14 resulted in an odd bit of harmonic disturbance.

I'm sure the voice-leading could be better, but I wasn't aiming for perfection. Just exploration.

I do have a better example of this kind of mashup counterpoint which I'm saving for later this week (teaser!), but I'll close here with a video I just found while looking for piano versions of The Star-Spangled Banner. I was going to do a little footnote bit about how gold-medal winning pianists could play their own national anthems when I ran across this remarkable studio audio in which the great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould boasts of having discovered a way to blend two anthems - not including his own! What I love about this is his sense not so much of having composed something, but rather having discovered a secret link:

If I only I had Gould here to help me now...

* Alternatively, I could've stretched The Star-Spangled Banner into a duple meter as Renee Fleming does here - but I really didn't like that performance. She lost me at "hailed."

No comments: