Friday, April 21, 2017

Creativity as its own reward

A few days ago, my sister posted some photos of azaleas on Facebook and noted that the azalea has historically been cheated in the poetry department, at least compared to the more easily rhymed rose. I suppose one could call azaleas by a more easily rhymed name (zales?) and they'd smell just as sweet, but she took up her own implied challenge and wrote a lovely little poem incorporating regalia, Australia, etc.

I find this kind of challenge irresistible, but to up the stakes, I decided to reply to her photo with some verse about the chrysanthemum. It took a little doing and some really lame and ultimately abandoned attempts to make something of "anthem hum"-ming, but eventually the following popped up:
I've fifty cents and offer up this handsome sum
to any who can versify chrysanthemum.
I think this little meta-couplet is pretty good (the trick being that "handsome sum" is a commonly used expression so that it flows naturally), and I hope you notice that writing it proved literally to be its own reward. I won the fifty cents! True, this is sort of the ultimate example of a closed economy. I've thought about this lately since I spend a lot of time doing little creative things that haven't necessarily paid off outside of my own little circular economy, but they're still rewarding!

So it is that, also a few days ago and also on Facebook, I saw that it was the birthday of my blogging pianist friend Erica Sipes. I'll admit I don't pass along Facebook birthday wishes as often as I should because I always feel the pressure to do something creative. But I'd noticed that Erica was Facebook-live broadcasting one of her Bach practice sessions, so the idea of putting "Happy Birthday" into a Bach context came to mind.

Of course, I knew without even searching that this is a challenge that's been taken up many times (including in this charming fugue), but I reached the point of no return when I thought about the C-sharp Major Fugue from Book II of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, a piece with which Erica and I have a shared history. She's the one who suggested that its bouncing staccato character and the rhythmic acceleration that happens over the course of the piece create an effect reminiscent of popcorn popping, which led me to create a fun program/animation:

The reason this new, self-imposed challenge was so instantly appealing is that I realized Bach's fugue subject begins with the same basic melodic shape as the famous birthday tune (which also goes up, back down, back up a bit further, then down a step):
So the terms of the challenge (or puzzle?) basically set themselves:
  • Write a short (it's just a Facebook birthday greeting, after all), playable, fugue-like snippet that mimics the structure of Bach's popcorn fugue, while re-orienting the pitches along the lines of "Happy Birthday."
There are many approaches I could have taken within these constraints. Notice that if I'd begun on the same bass-register C-sharp as Bach, I would have ended up with a subject in F-sharp Major instead of C-sharp because "Happy Birthday" begins on the 5th scale degree, whereas Bach's subject begins on the tonic. (Opening pitches would've been: C# - D# - C# - F# - E#.) As you can see below, I begin on G-sharp.

So, the puzzle solution I came up with has the bass present all the correct pitches of "Happy Birthday" (in C-sharp Major) in order (minus a few pitch repetitions), but with a different rhythmic profile that follows the character of Bach's fugue. Because the subject also ends up functioning as a bass line, and because the birthday rhythms are obscured, it would probably be easy to miss that it's even there - which pleases me.
The soprano fugue "answer" does pretty much the same thing (in the subdominant F-sharp Major*) through the third phrase of "Happy Birthday" before turning towards a sudden cadence, but again the tune could easily be missed here because our ears still hear this context as C-sharp Major. Note that, as with Bach's fugue, the entries of the theme are piled right on top of each other, with the third voice entering inverted and diverted towards the cadence almost right away. It's not really a full fugue or even a fughetta - more of a postcard fugue. It would make nice bumper music heading towards the commercial on some Baroque sitcom ("I Love Lully?").

Is this way too much to have said about a four-measure piece? Is this too short to be a piece? Is it more of a puzzle solution? Do I need to stop with the "Happy Birthday" homages already?

There was a time when, understanding much less about musical structure and style, I was stunned that people could re-house a familiar tune in what I assumed to be the ineffably inimitable character of Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven. Now I realize it's kind of a parlor trick, and though I don't really aspire to be a musical comedian in the mold of Victor Borge or Peter Schickele, I obviously love interacting with musical puns. Such a fun creative outlet. I think I'll pay myself another fifty cents...

* Having the answer in the subdominant instead of the dominant is a bit unusual, but it happened to work out well in a piece that needed to end quickly.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

No hidin' from this joke master

I've never done an April Fools Day post because it's kinda cliché - just an excuse for people to post misinformation in hopes of getting a cheap laugh. But, it occurs to me it's a perfect day to give credit to music's greatest jokester - whose birthday is also today! That's right, the one and only Papa Haydn was born on April 1; and legend has it that on the day he was born, just after he'd seemingly drifted off to sleep at the end of a perfectly periodic lullaby, he suddenly cried out fortissimo. All the midwives burst out laughing.

Of course, the Classical Comic's ingeniously witty "surprise" trick would make a return in the famous slow movement of his Symphony No. 94. Sometimes I have my doubts and wonder if this particular joke is overrated, but I just found this fantastic recording which really reveals how forward-looking and modern he was:

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A little birthday music

Yesterday I posted twice regarding Bach's birthday, but I hadn't known that there's another great composer born a day (and 245 years) later on March 22. So, between rehearsals this afternoon, I put this little tribute together. I bribed my house violinist to record it with me after dinner, and here it is, with two hours to spare:

[Lyrics will be much easier to read if you follow full-screen.]

For the record, this is my fourth re-imagining of this tune.

See also:

à la Bruch:

à la 12-tone

à la Messiaen

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

worth at least 1000 words

OK, as a last-second Bach's Birthday gift, and a promise of things to come, here's a little image I've been working on:

It is nothing less than all 257 measures of Bach's Chaconne in D Minor, which might just be the greatest piece of music ever written. And it's all there on one page. If you click on that image above, you'll be able to see a much higher-res version, where are all the notes are actually pretty clear if you zoom in closely enough. Or, you can download the same thing in PDF format.

I have much more to say about this kind of thing, but for now I'll just say that I find it quite beautiful as a sort of snapshot representation of this:

Happy Birthday, JSB!

See also: Looking Bach (from earlier today)

Looking Bach

Today is Bach's birthday, and I was surprised to realize I've never done a post about my posts on Bach. (MMmusing is very meta, and what's more meta than posts about posts?) I've given Stravinsky the retrospective treatment, but the truth is that I've probably written about Bach even more than The Rite of Spring. So, for this first day of spring, here's a collection of ways in which I've mused about Bach, from the sublime to the truly ridiculous:

First, my two most popular YouTube videos.
Next, a series of posts exploring Bach's magnificent Cantata No. 4, including four annotated score videos.
Sometimes, I sit down and play Bach on the piano:
Here, an imagined combination of two closely related Bach movements into a single duet:
I've spent a good bit of time engraving Bach's music, which has led to:
  • This discussion of my piano transcription of a chorale prelude
  • The Joy of Engraving, re-setting Bach from C-sharp major to D-flat
  • This just popped up, featuring a computer program which animates a Bach fugue with popping kernels and offers the possibility to play with the music in various ways.
I've also done a little bit of composing using Bach as source material:
Finally, a couple of examples of visual manipulations of Bach's face and name:
And there's something new in the works! But that will likely appear on a day that isn't Bach's birthday...

UPDATE (still on Bach's birthday): Here's one new thing for today, about which I'll have much more to say: The Bach Chaconne on One Page

Friday, February 24, 2017

10 Years

Today is the 10th anniversary of MMmusing! You might think, "hey, it doesn't look like this blog is really very active any more." Well, I have alternative facts to that:

That's right, on a blog which has featured a wide range of multimedia creations, I'm celebrating in style with my first full-blown [very short] opera aria. It's true!

Our story begins right around the tumultuous election back in November with a Facebook discussion. (Mozart and Da Ponte did a lot of collaborating on Facebook back in the day.) My composer friend Wesley (who's actually been partly responsible for several of my strange experiments) and I had the following exchange as the election news rolled in:

And indeed, I think that the classical music world, with its tendency to be too serious about just about everything, has neglected the wonderful world of comic opera.* As if Mozart (or Sondheim, for that matter) couldn't address serious societal concerns with silliness and wit.

Anyway, in fairly short order, I'd churned out a perfectly ridiculous little demo, with "libretto" inspired by a Youtube clip. Trump's China Aria:

Then, the villain Wesley struck again and wondered which aria from this imaginary opera would feature overuse of the "Dies irae" (a Gregorian chant tune from the Requiem mass that was exploited by many 19th century composers for melodramatic effect). Well, of course I couldn't resist that challenge, and I'm actually kind of proud of this little partial aria, mainly because the "Dies irae" motif (first heard in bass and then in Trump's melody on p.2) is turned into something lighthearted.

And then, mercifully, I put the idea away. I did imagine at the time that an imaginary Trump opera would cast the First Lady as a mezzo, but of course I'd need to write a Michelle Obama aria first before I could start on Melania's (rimshot). However, in late January when the "alternative facts" saga began to unfold, I couldn't help but think that Kellyanne would make a great coloratura character. A few words came to mind, and suddenly I'd written something more substantial than I had for the Donald - and I honestly kind of liked it. It is operatic in style, though I hope it has some of the feel of musical theater, a la my heroes Britten and Bernstein. (The lyrics also owe a bit to George Costanza.)

Whereas I'd been more than happy to let Trump be personified by a synthesized voice, I knew I'd need an actual human to pull this off, so I sent the music off to a wonderful soprano, Julia Nelson, and she agreed to give it a whirl. We had hoped to meet and record it live, but couldn't make our schedules work, and in the end, she had to record it alone without even an accompaniment track due to some technical difficulties. I then spent this morning assembling an "orchestra" around her, and here we are, just before the blog-iversary is over. (Of course, late Friday is supposed to be the worst possible time to drop news. Oh well.)

It's all very much in beta form, though I don't know how much further I'd go with any of this. This aria, for example, is probably missing a couple of sections. I'm not likely to write anything like a full opera, but a song cycle of arias could be fun. But I do intend to go on blogging. In fact, I had a few items in the works this week in hopes of building a little anniversary momentum before circumstances (sickness, car trouble) intervened. At least that means I've got more content for the near future.

In the meantime, if you've missed anything these ten years, you might start here, or even here if you'd like to sample a wider range of creations. Or, be really brave and SPIN THE WHEEL!

* I know there are exceptions, but they don't tend to get as much attention as the SERIOUS things.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

NFL Pachelbel

Early this morning as I was practicing before for church, I realized I'd neglected to honor the special feast day that is Super Bowl Sunday - and, as happens remarkably often, the local team is part of the feast, which begins in about fifteen minutes. My scheduled postlude was a Toccata in G Minor by Johann "Don't Call Me One-Hit Wonder" Pachelbel, but I decided to insert a little fanfare introduction:

As it happens, this toccata features a tonic pedal tone, which is also true of the NFL on Fox theme. In addition to the fanfare intro, I inserted a little bit of the main theme starting right after m.7, though in the version above (recorded before the service), I made the mistake of not setting that quote apart with a trumpet stop, so it gets buried a little bit.

Anyway, the game is about to begin, so that's all I'll say for now - but at least I'm blogging again. Go Pats!