Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Speaking of music

Strange. I was already planning to write a post about a light-hearted little speech-to-music thing I created - and then a speech-heavy work wins the Pulitzer Prize! I'm so cutting edge - though I don't have much more to say about this year's surprise prize. The Pulitzer has never really meant much to me anyway. Honestly, there are many previous winners whose music I don't know much better than I know Kendrick Lamar's work, though I know he's not the first to use speech in a musical way. For example, here's your 2013 Pulitzer winner.

(There are also iconic works by Steve ReichAlvin Lucier and many others which incorporate speech.)

I became interested in the idea of speech becoming music when I first heard an excellent 2010 (?) RadioLab episode called Musical Language. The opening segment features a fun little story about an audio expert hearing her own speaking voice looped and thinking she's hearing singing. The looped words that behave so strangely are: sometimes behave so strangely.

You can hear the whole segment via the link above. I used to play it for classes learning about recitative as a way of thinking about the tonal and rhythmic characteristics of language. I've since returned to the idea of looping speech into music a couple of times, and also just remembered that I'd explored it many years before.

Most recently, I was having a Facebook discussion with my composer friend Wesley. He said he'd been told that some scale passages he'd written into a work-in-progress were just noodling. I [wittily] suggested, "Make them octatonic scales....and then it'll be octatonic noodling." He replied: "They are octatonic."

At that moment, impressed by my obvious psychic insight, I heard unbidden the mellifluous lilt of Frasier's Daphne Moon saying, "I'm a bit psychic." The phrase came to me much as one might hear a musical theme conjured up by a memory. To be fair, this catchphrase, which really doesn't function as a catchphrase on the show, probably had taken on a thematic quality in my brain because of a podcast I'd been listening to about Frasier.

I can't really recommend the Talk Salad and Scrambled Eggs podcast, hosted by indie film director Kevin Smith and Matt Mira, unless you enjoy hearing two people spend 80% of their Frasier podcast talking crassly about Star Trek, The Terminator, Comic-Con, and just about anything else while laughing interminably at their own jokes. However, from early on, Smith took to imitating Daphne's Manchesterian "I'm a bit psychic" like so:

And thus, these distinctively delivered syllables had clearly come to function as a leitmotif which was awoken instantly the first time I felt a bit psychic! I quickly tossed together a little loop of the line as a message response to Wesley, then later toyed around with it a bit more until I'd come to this:

Turns out this is the second time on my blog in which I've turned an English actress's speech into song, though Emily Watson is so understated here that the syllables don't quite take flight. (The teacup percussion is awesome, though.)

Finally, just to be complete, I remembered while playing around with the psychic bit that I'd once done something similar with the plaintive words of my then 2-year old daughter back when she needed her beloved blanket. That 2-year old is now 18, so although I don't remember much about creating it, I must've found the bass loop in whatever cheap, turn-of-the-century music software I had at the time:

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Suggestions d'anniversaire

I'm afraid "Happy Birthday" parodies are becoming a bit of a cottage industry for me. I've tried to resist because the tune has been parodied and variation-ed so often...but Facebook. When a birthday comes up, I like the idea of "saying" something unique. Incidentally, this means I often don't say anything on friends' birthdays which "bad job by me!" because I enjoy getting lots of birthday greetings, even when they're simple. Anyway, the more I work with this tune, the more suggestible I become.

So this week, when I saw that my college roommate (a fellow pianist) had a birthday, I did a quick mental run-through of music I associated with him (narrowly avoiding a diabolical suggestion*). When the slow movement of the Ravel concerto came to mind, I noodled away enough at the available keyboard to figure I could make something of this marriage.

First of all, there's nothing as perfectly exquisite as this movement. It features a lovely but subtle tension between a slow-waltz-like left hand with two groups of three 8ths per bar (intentionally obscured by the beaming) and a right hand melody which tends to organize more often in three. This provides lovely cross-rhythms that help the melody to float independently. Harmonically, the writing is full of low-impact dissonances, like between the right-hand A in m.2 and the left-hand G-sharp - dissonances spaced far apart and played softly enough to register more as poignant than sharp. And a quick turn to the minor iii in m.4 establishes the bittersweet tone.

Everything moves slowly, with plenty of tied notes across barlines and phrases of unpredictable length. Improvisatory, meditative...but also sensual and beautifully planned out. Ravel is known as one of the great orchestrators, but this opening piano solo (almost three minutes long) is my favorite part of this movement; the wind writing that follows is actually rather precarious from a tuning/balance perspective, although the long English horn solo [5:46 below] at the end of the movement, with piano filigree around, is worth waiting for. You can view the whole movement with score here.

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I think the idea of "playing with music" in the manipulating and re-composing sense is underrated as a mode of engaging a given work. (As opposed to the more popular modes of performing, listening, analyzing.) So what I've loved most about all my "Happy Birthday" parodies is the opportunity they provide to look inside something that's beautifully composed and sort of compose alongside it.

In this case, I had lots of tricky choices to make. I first toyed with simply layering the first phrase of "Happy Birthday" right on top of Ravel's melody, like so [recording is an ugly synth "performance"]:

...but even with the unexpected cadence in minor, this just sounded too bright and cheerful. The Ravel/Birthday balance was tipped too far to the right, so I ended up beginning more ambiguously with Ravel's opening phrase turning itself into a relative minor version of the opening birthday phrase. From then on, the other three birthday phrases arrive in in the "correct" key of E, stretched this way and that to fit over the original. It would be easy enough not to notice "Happy Birthday" at all. The left hand accompaniment and "alto" countermelodies are mostly from the original, though I make a cut to the end of Ravel's opening piano solo because it is so beautiful. Here's what I came up with:

And here are some of my other re-imaginings of this tune:

* ...  the birthday friend also used to dazzle with this insane bit of Prokofiev, and what began as a footnote here has turned into another quick discovery realization, here with the four tune phrases rattled off in quick succession.

Friday, March 16, 2018

At the Barbershop: Closing Time

And so we circle back in this unlikely Barber Week to one of my first experiments in barbarizing Barber. Back in November, I debuted a 30-second demo animation of Barber himself playing the finale of his Violin Concerto on the electric guitar. I wrote," I don't see any reason for a full transcription as this gets the idea across." Ha! I should know myself better.

The truth is, this concerto closer only lasts about 3.5 minutes, and though that includes a LOT of notes (almost 1800 for the soloist, counting double-stops as one each) played at blistering speed, Finale has a wonderful input method which allows consecutive notes of equal value to be entered simply by playing them at any rate on a keyboard - and most of the notes here are triplet 8ths (played at a pace of about 10 notes per second!). So entering the notes wasn't such a big deal. I did have to do a lot of clean-up work on the MIDI notes I'd found online for the orchestra part - but not TOO much clean-up. A certain edginess in the backing band (here mostly electric piano, electric organ, bass guitar and percussion) just adds to the effect.

I already wrote about my working method for developing the animation here, but getting the animation to work was my favorite thing about this project. Essentially, each MIDI note event can be mapped to a motion from virtual Sam. This is hardly what real guitar technique looks like; in this video, Sam's hand simply moves up the fingerboard incrementally based on pitch as if the instrument only has one string - but it makes for a pretty cool visual! (At least I've updated virtual Sam's instrument from a bass guitar (!) to a Fender Stratocaster.)

My other favorite thing here is the cool-hot contrast between the classical world and the prog rock world. Although Gil Shaham is quite animated and engaged in this dazzling performance of the real thing (starting at 19:10)...

...there are still the "cool" signifiers of white jacket/tie, very serious orchestra, very quiet audience, neutral-looking stage. There is wildness and a feeling of abandon in the music, but all contained in a carefully controlled environment. (I've written endlessly about this with respect to The Rite of Spring.) With my animation, we get the grittier association of electric sounds (although my guitar articulates the pitches much more clearly than a violin can), the pounding rhythms of percussion (although in a way, these strong pulses actually tame Barber's metrical tricks*), and the fiery red stage and instrument, all intentionally contrasted with the unchanging, serious expression on cool Sam's face. By the way, those parenthetical "althoughs" are very important, as they point to internal contradictions in defining the classical and rock worlds as cool and hot.

But I am intrigued by the idea that the buttoned-up Barber (just listen to him talk in this 1958 interview, in which his speech is almost indistinguishable from the equally buttoned-up interviewer) had musical skills that would easily translate to an entirely different environment. Almost makes me think I should add wild, heavy-metal crowd noises to further the contrast, but I think I've done enough harm for now.

My week of Barbershopping thus closes with the conclusion of Barber's Violin Concerto - in red!

* Confession Time: Of all the pieces I've accompanied over the years, staying on track in this finale has always been one of the most difficult challenges. Barber does a lot of shifting accents off and on beats in ways that make it really hard to feel where the beat is. I would try "just counting" at the piano, but when the solo part does little things that make the beat seem to shift by just one tiny triplet note, it's very easy for the "just counting" part of my brain to get tricked. This may well be a sign of my own cognitive limitations, but I'm not convinced all of Barber's tricks are effective because they're so slippery, so in a perverse way, I kind of enjoy my animated version because the pounding drums make it so easy to keep track of the beat.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

At the Barbershop: Snack Time

Continuing on with my Barbershopping, today's offering is on the more absurd end of the spectrum. I've been thinking often recently about the idea of "playing" music and its not-so-distant cousin "playing with music." (I wrote about this briefly about thirteen paragraphs into this post.) The classical mode of engaging classical music is to do so either by performing, listening, or analyzing. However, my years of experiments in mash-ups and other types of arrangements have taught me that "playing with" existing music - bending it, contorting it, whatever - can be one of the most satisfying ways to get inside a composer's creation.

I know that such distortion is often treated as a sort of sacrilege, although humorists like Victor Borge and Peter Schickele get away with it in the name of fun. Many years ago, I quoted then New York Times critic Alan Kozinn (who has pretty wide and progressive tastes) saying, "I would probably cringe to hear a young pianist play Scarlatti the way Horowitz did, but Horowitz’s eccentric twisting and rebalancing of Scarlatti’s ecosystem sounds just right when he’s the one doing it." Clearly, he's reacting positively to ways in which Horowitz is "playing with" Scarlatti's conceptions, but he's also been taught to think that's a bad thing, so: "Don't do that, young people!" I'm not going to go into all the ways in which this kind of "don't mess with the classics" mindset plays out, but I will say that doing a half-serious, half-baked orchestration of the fugue from Barber's Piano Sonata taught me a lot about that piece and about Barber's abilities and methods.

And now I'm back with something much sillier and perhaps closer to real sacrilege, but I still had fun making it and it has increased my appreciation for Barber's gifts.

Let's back up a bit. As I mentioned last post, my friends Tim, Peter, and I will sometimes have extended Facebook comment threads that go on for hundreds and hundreds of words. Sometimes about music, sometimes about baseball and other sports, sometimes...well, that's really most of it. Tim was off on one of his violin-concerto-based Barber-bashing rants (Bernstein did not fare well either), and I was defending my fellow Americans zealously. Then middleman Peter says [italics added for clarity]:
As much as I do NOT [appreciate] SB’s talents, I happen to think that the Fiddlecerto is his masterpiece, if not Knoxville, Summer 1945 (is that the right year?)
I wrote back:
 I also agree with Peter that Knoxville, Summer of...ahem...1915 is a winner. 
A few comments later, Tim confessed:
my scorn for anything Barber is well known but then I remember I love that Knoxville Spring 1905 piece
You can see where this is going - though you wouldn't guess what's coming - as Peter summed up:
I actually can’t both believe and NOT believe at the same time that we both love Rockville, fall of 1549..
And finally, I concluded:
I'm just glad to see [Tim] acknowledge the beauty of Barber's sublime "Burger King: about fifteen minutes ago."
Don't you wish you were in on these conversations? And, incidentally, it took a bit of sleuthing to go back and find that thread from late January, so in a way today's post is about preserving it for all time - or at least until winter dawns on the planet Knoxatron in 2215.

If you don't know the glorious work in question, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a 15-minute setting for soprano and orchestra of prose by James Agee. Among other things, "Knoxville" is one of the best examples I know of turning prose into lyrics.

So I love "Knoxville" - but I also love having fun, and I simply couldn't resist having a go at just the opening of my imagined Burger King homage. For reference, here is the beginning of the text set by Barber (which may be heard at the 0:31 mark here):
It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds hung havens, hangars.
And here, my house soprano and orchestra:

I know it's ridiculous, but I it's worth noting that Agee's text is also a celebration of the simple things - he just didn't know about burger kings.

Tomorrow, we'll conclude this little three-part exhibition of Barbershopping, which I think will put Barber right up there amongst the composers whose works I've tortured the most. Stravinsky is still the leader by far in this regard with Bach alone in 2nd place, but I'm as surprised as anyone to see Barber not so far behind Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Ives and Satie. (Satie was unexpected as well.) And, to get back to my opening point, desecrating this much-loved work has reminded me how much I love a lot of Barber. Even something as simple as entering the orchestration for that opening into Finale made me appreciate little details I hadn't thought about before. Your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

At the Barbershop: A Fugue for Strings

For some strange reason, I've been finding myself re-imagining lots of Samuel Barber lately. Actually, come to think of it, it's all because of my friend Tim, a fantastic pianist who's apparently accompanied the Barber Violin Concerto one time (or a hundred times?) too many. He's not a big fan of Sam. Thus it sometimes happens that in the midst of some endless Facebook discussion thread, Tim will say something which inspires me to send some tweaked Barber back his way. I've decided to refer to these ongoing projects as Barbershopping (a little play on Photoshopping), and am debuting an example on this second snow day I've had in early March.

In fact, it was a discussion about a loopy slur (see previous post) found in the "Menuet" from Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin that got Tim to talking about the other movements in that suite, particularly the fugue. We were discussing the fact that the fugue is one of the two movements from this piano suite which Ravel did not include in his well-known orchestration. (The other movement he left untouched is the toccata.) I learned that Ravel's fugue has been orchestrated at least once by the pianist Zoltán Kocsis; you can hear what that sounds like here

Because this is the way my mind works, this suddenly had me thinking of the famous fugue from Barber's Piano Sonata and whether or not it had been orchestrated. I've heard that there was a time when the jaunty subject of this fantastic fugue was known as the "Juilliard Fight Song" as so many budding virtuosi were tossing it around in practice rooms. I honestly hadn't thought about it for years, but it is delightful. See for yourself:

I lamented that I couldn't find an orchestration of this fugue with which to taunt Tim. Our mutual friend Peter, a violist and thus cruel of heart, immediately suggested that I should orchestrate the fugue. Too much work for a joke, I thought - until I found a MIDI version online, which meant the note entry work was done. Sadly, this MIDI version was condensed to only two tracks (right and left hand), meaning the four different fugue voices were all mixed up and not easily assigned to various instruments. Undaunted, I converted the MIDI in about 15 minutes to a very heavy-handed all-string version. Unfortunately...I still really liked it!

So, the die was cast, and I next set about entering all of the notes properly to make a more legit string arrangement. I'm not sure how practical it would be in real life as the six flats and the disjunct theme, though well-suited to piano, would be quite awkward on strings. There are three or four spots in my arrangement where I divided sections in ways that would be problematic, and a few stratospheric piano notes are brought down an octave. Also, I entered the notes as quickly as I could, so I'm SURE there are mistakes that I'm simply not in the mood to hunt down right now. Since this new "arrangement" was to be "performed" by synthesized strings in what was already a compromise, I felt I'd done enough to provide a proof of concept.

Here it is:

Barber is, of course, best-known for a transcription of the slow movement from his string quartet into an Adagio for Strings, so it's fun to imagine this as a sort of yin-yang complement to that. Rather than posting with my own inelegant string score, I decided it would be more fun to add a visualization of the MIDI. (The sonata is, of course, still under copyright, so I'm already pushing it my posting my own unauthorized "performance." If you'd like to view the piano score, you can find it starting at 14:00 here.) If you've been following the blog lately, you'll know that I've been in something of a fugue state for some time now. (See here and here.) This kind of visualization makes for a really fun way to watch the voices of a fugue interact.

Warning: there's more Barbershopping to come...

If you missed it, an earlier bit of Barbershopping appeared here back in November. I hope to return to "finish the job" at some point.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Learning curves

Consider this curve:

[OK, before we go on, be sure you try out the ALL-NEW MM'S MAGICAL MULTIMEDIA MUSING MACHINE! I'm very proud of this meta-creation which hurls you randomly into various corners of the blog. I'll have more to say about it in posts yet to come.]

Anyway, some months ago a composer friend got me hooked on a Facebook group called "Music Engraving Tips" where people interested in the subtleties of music notation gather to argue about how rhythms should be notated within given meters, how notes and articulations and dynamics should best be spaced, what fonts look best, etc., etc., etc. Populated by hundreds of regular users, from professionals to students and novices, the group can be a bit maddening with its circular discussions; but it's definitely opened my eyes to details I once wouldn't have noticed.

For example, recently while waiting to accompany my daughter in a lesson on the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto*, I looked down at my old Schirmer score, from which I've played dozens of times, and suddenly noticed the treble clefs are tilted at dangerously drunken angles. Like so:

I wondered if it could possibly be intentional and flipped through the score to see that the clefs remained stubbornly tipped this way throughout the first two movements...but, for the final movement, the clefs (both in violin and piano parts) had righted themselves! Someone in a 19th century engraving department just got sloppy, misplaced a stencil, and probably was haunted by that mistake to the end of his days (as I will forever be haunted by allowing the words Tex tremendae to slip past my proofreading eyes in the glossy program for a Mozart Requiem performance at which Robert Levin was present to give a pre-concert talk).

~   ~   ~   ~   ~

I've written many times here about how much I've enjoyed diving into the world of Lilypond. Lilyond is a very powerful, open-source music notation program that can do magical things when figuring out how to space the elements on a page. It has a steep learning curve because the basic text-based interface is closer to writing code than doing graphic design, but finding elegant solutions with a few well-chosen words can be very gratifying. I actually love it because its default output often gets a lot more subtle details right than the industrial-strength Finale I've been using for 20 years, which means I spend less time fussing with certain kinds of problems. But not every problem can be anticipated by the software.

Recently, I had reason to arrange the sublime Menuet from Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin for soprano saxophone and piano. The work is originally written for piano, though it's also well-known in its orchestral version that prominently features solo oboe, so passing those gorgeous French melodies off to the most songful sax seemed like a natural.

But what excited me most about this project was that it offered a chance to tackle my favorite slur in the history of slurs. In a passage from the contrasting "musette" section, Ravel has written a melody that is passed back and forth between the two hands measure-by-measure so that the right hand can alternate high-register pedal tones with the left's low-register responses. I had learned this piece quickly over the summer and was enchanted by how beautifully these 8 bars are conceived and by how gratifying they are to play.

Here's what the melody alone would look like, with the staff switches showing how it is distributed between the two hands. Notice I've drawn a slur to show that all of these notes are connected as one phrase. The melody is always at the top of a full chord played by whichever hand has the tune. [NOTE: Actually the high D in the third bar is taken by the thumb of the right hand as shown by Ravel's use of parentheses in the score excerpt that follows this video.]

[You can also hear/see a lovely complete performance, with this particular phrase starting at 2:16 here.]

So, the engraving challenge for Ravel's publisher was to find a way to draw a slur that connected this melody as it crosses back and forth from upper to lower staff. Here's what some genius (presumably some combination of Ravel and the engravers at Durand) came up with:

The Music Engraving Tips Facebook page is filled with people insisting that various situations are governed by hard-and-fast "rules" about how musical details should be shown - and sometimes such rules really do exist, but there are situations like this where an exception calls for an exceptional solution.

It looks as if the slur shown above was probably just drawn by hand, but I knew there must be a way to get Lilypond to create such a slur. It took some searching and a lot of trial and error, but I found a function someone had written which basically allows multiple slur shapes to be stitched together. The downside of this solution is that the slur has to be meticulously shaped by defining coordinates for Bézier curves, and the shape of the curves can only be determined after the music layout has been set.  (In other words, I can't just say, "Hey Lilypond, loop around this melody through both staves.") This is slightly less than ideal because, in the best situation, Lilypond's spacing algorithm would shift notes and clefs around a bit while taking into account that a line would be snaking its way through, but I'm still happy with the results I achieved.

Here's my first version, which pretty closely imitates Ravel's published edition.

I liked it, but I wasn't crazy about the effect of slipping right between the treble clefs and the barlines as this means the slur runs a bit too parallel to the barline. So, I also designed my own loopier version, which I now love like my own child:

This is precisely the same curve you see at the top of this post. Of course, it is much more beautiful in context! One could argue that its curviness is too distracting, but...oh what was I saying? Sorry, I was admiring the slur again. Here it is in homemade video format:

...and here it is in bonus slow-mo video, in case you find the hand to be quicker than the eye:

You'll notice that, though there is a staff for the solo sax, I found it inconceivable to re-write this passage for sax + piano, even though that would certainly simplify things. Since wind instruments need to take breathing breaks every now and then, and this phrase echoes the previous 8 bars in which the sax introduces the same melody, preserving the original slur and all it entails makes sense. Incidentally, although much of Ravel's writing for piano is extremely challenging, this passage lies very comfortably under the hands. Balancing the sound and achieving a good legato is not trivial, but there's plenty of time for the hands to shift back and forth gracefully.

So obsessed was I with this slur that when I performed it with the saxophonist, I had not yet corrected lots of other important details in the piano part (including some much-needed cautionary accidentals and some complex articulation marks), and I honestly should've spent more time actually practicing the part as well. But I was in love. The slur, strictly speaking, isn't necessary, but seeing it makes the playing all the more pleasurable. And that's what it's all about.

* Yes, it is one of my life's great joys that I've now gotten to play this incomparably perfect concerto with both of my daughters - and some other amazing violinists.

And don't forget the ALL-NEW MM'S MAGICAL MULTIMEDIA MUSING MACHINE! There's much more to come in Year 12 of MMmusing, and new creations will always be added to the machine.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Turning it up to eleven...

Today my blog turns 11. I decided yesterday that a good way to celebrate would be to rebuild, from the ground up, one of my favorite and most distinctive blog features: MM's Magical Multimedia Musing Machine. I was surprised to look back and discover that I debuted this random media generator way back in May of 2007 when I'd only been blogging a little over three months. Though I'd begun the blog thinking it would mostly be a writing journal, the use of audio, video, and graphic creations had already became central to my mission as I realized the possibilities of an online platform. This has led to the development of all sorts of multimedia authoring skills, an increased interest in composition and arranging, and a wide variety of adventures in coding and web design.

The original Musing Machine was designed in a pretty clunky manner, as I barely knew anything about JavaScript. Basically, each new possible destination was created as its own blog page; each "spin" of the wheel picked a different random page. This meant there was no way to do any sort of global editing of these pages, and it also meant that as various ways of embedding multimedia became obsolete, I'd have to track down every single offending page. Ugh.

However, the biggest problem was that the mechanism to operate the machine was located in the blog margin, and I realized recently that Blogger doesn't even show those margins to most mobile users - which is how most people consume web content now. Creating a new setup doesn't completely solve that problem, but it should mean that once one lands on a random page, the option to spin again is right there. You can still use the old version on mobile by choosing to view the "web version" of my archives site, but each time it's activated, your device will likely bring you back to a mobile view where the machine is not visible.

Anyway, that's all pretty boring and I only have about an hour left on this blogiversary, so just a couple more comments.

This new version is truly brand new and still very much a work-in-progress. It has more than 300 destinations loaded in (probably including a few dead ends I missed), but there are more to add and the look is quite barebones for now.

But the important thing is that this is a really fun way to dive into eleven years worth of material. If you've followed me much at all, you'd know that the idea of a random method of discovery appeals very much to my love for finding surprising connections. There are definitely lots of quirky landing spots as well as some that I believe are genuinely inspired, but I see the quirky stuff as just as essential to my work as the more polished stuff. Wherever you land, you'll have the option of clicking over to the original blog post where more context is provided about what I had in mind.

So, take it for a spin. If you don't like where you land, you can just hit the little red button in the upper right and try again. Happy hunting!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Oh no no no . . . I'm a hocket man

I've been blogging for almost eleven years, but I've never posted on Valentine's Day. However, I stumbled on something absurd yesterday which just begged to be showcased today.

Our story begins last Friday when I tweeted out a story that I'd heard from a Facebook music teacher friend:
Friend asked his HS students to ID a musical technique where melodic notes are passed back & forth between two parts. 
He hinted: “starts with an h- and ends with -ocket.” 
The answer offered: Hot Pocket!
Great story! Then, a couple of days later, another friend, knowing my many weaknesses, tweeted back the following:
Waiting for your arrangement of the "Hot Pockets" jingle utilizing the hocket device.
I tried to ignore it, but I've also come to terms with who I on Monday, I put this bit of nonsense together:

Look, it's pretty bad (it's not like the jingle tune I was working with is Gershwin) and I've even left it as "Unlisted" on my Youtube account. But, I was intrigued by this idea of writing a melody which is formed by two alternating parts, particularly in which the individual parts make sense both as music AND as text. I couldn't tell you what a Waterpik® has to do with hockets or who's "goin' up to Pa (?)," but I figured if I started from scratch, I could come up with some sort of interlocking lyric puzzle pieces. It would be even better if merging the two pieces created an opposite sort of meaning.

A lover's quarrel that fuses into a love duet seemed like a fun way to go, and when I realized it was Valentine's Day Eve, the race was on. It took most of my lunch break to sketch out the lyrics, and after fiddling a lot with double negatives, verb agreements, and the like, I had a rickety libretto. I'm sure there are better solutions (the two individual parts seem to be missing some important context), but I was happy to find something that worked at all.

This led to the really interesting musical challenge of building two melodies (for female and male registers) which cohere into a satisfying single melody across the two registers. Mind you, none of this existed at all even 24 hours ago, so this is still very much in the "concept" stage, but I do have a "performance" to share featuring my beloved virtual singers. Somehow, their yearning-to-be-human robot voices seem well-suited to the strangeness of this mini-duet.

Although it's more of an exercise than a completed composition (the piano part is especially half-baked), I figure I'll present it as a Valentine's Day Special:

...and if you'd rather hear synth-y oboe and bassoon, I've got that too:

The structure is quite simple. The parts take turns, each singing twice, against minor-key harmonies. Then, they overlap twice, creating a new melody and text, and finally the soprano sings the same melody with the tenor adding harmony beneath. As dramatic progressions go, it's rather sudden, but I think it's a nice melody.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Friday, February 2, 2018

Fuguing up to Boston

After I'd posted the little fugue I wrote based on a theme from Scheherazade, a friend alerted me to the disturbing fact that an organist from Philadelphia has just written a fugue on "Fly, Eagles, Fly." That's the fight song for a football team that will be playing my team in a little game on Sunday. I actually first read the alert as a fugue on "Fly like an eagle," which I think would make a better fugue subject...if, that is, I wanted the Eagles to fly.

Anyway, here is my response:

It's based on the Dropkick Murphys' "Shipping up to Boston," which has become the go-to pulse-pounding anthem for the local teams. The song begins with a rousing Irish jig which makes a nice fugue subject in the gigue style. The rest took shape pretty quickly, in part I'm sure because I've been in a fugue state of mind for the last week or so. (See previous posts here and here.) It's a short fugue, but it incorporates lots of fun techniques including inversion, retrograde, and augmentation. And unlike your typical Bach fugue, it's got football highlights.* Go Pats!

Incidentally, the word fuguing is most closely associated, in my mind at least, with the fuguing tunes (or fuging tunes) of Boston composer William Billings - songs like this in which the choral parts occasionally go off into fugue-like passages [like at 0:58]. However, if I wanted rugged Boston sounds, I'd prefer the Murphys. (A friend reminded me of this memorable rendition of the national anthem at a game I attended.)

* The background videos were pretty hastily assembled last night, but just like a fugue usually has lots of little insider tricks, I like that the grainy background video features a series of great moments in Patriots history that any insider will immediately recognize.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Princess and the Fugue

...It was not yet day when Scheherazade finished telling the story of "The President and the Twitter Account." There was time enough therefore to begin another, but the Sultan interrupted: "My bride, I read on Wikipedia that you have 'studied philosophy, sciences, and the arts,' and since your stories are getting a little less believable every night, I thought we could mix things up a bit. How about improvising a fugue for my enjoyment?"

Scheherazade hesitated. She knew she could devise a fugue without much trouble, but she feared that when it ended, the Sultan would be satisfied, the night would end, and her life would end as well. However, the Sultan was insistent, and so Scheherazade took a seat at the palace piano, thought of a twisting motif that might work, and began to play:

From the first few notes, the Sultan was entranced by the enticing theme and the Buxtehudian manner in which the voices were entwined. The princess seemed to lose her way along the way with some suspect voice-leading and overly indulgent chromaticism, but the arrival of a dominant pedal signaled that a strong final cadence would soon arrive for the fugue - and for his bride.

Thus was the Sultan astonished when Scheherazade's reverie came to an abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion. A tentative final diminished chord had left him feeling unsettled once again - like one of those episodes of Batman (basically every episode) which leaves you wanting more. He asked the princess to continue what surely was the beginning of a larger musical narrative, but just then a ray of sun broke through, the rooster crowed, the alarm sounded, the automatic coffeemaker began percolating, and the Sultan knew he'd have to wait until the next evening to find out how that suspended B-flat would resolve...

Blogging has been a bit slow here the past few years, but I've never seriously thought of stopping - even though I'm not under threat of death from any sultans if I run out of ideas. I actually have quite a few half-written drafts from 2017 and many more from years before, but blogging silence tends to breed blogging silence.

On the other hand, active blogging feeds itself! So it is that within a day or two of posting my previous entry about discovering a Rimsky-Korsakov fugue that doesn't sound like Rimsky-Korsakov, I found myself idly wondering what I'd expect the Mighty Russian's counterpoint to sound like. On Friday, I was sitting in a rehearsal that didn't demand too much of my time, and when Scheherazade's famous violin theme popped into my head, I immediately thought of its similarities to the triplet-feel of the F Major Fugue.

Before the night was over, I'd finished up a little mini-fugue on Rimsky-Korsakov's second most famous theme. (I suppose the task remains to write a fugue on this.) I'm pretty happy with how it came out, although it could use more development, and the middle voice gets stuck harmonizing with the top voice too much perhaps.

The opening of the fugue is modeled on how Rimsky-Korsakov's fugue presents its subject (middle voice followed by top followed by bass), but from there I let things go where they wanted. I like the way the Sultan's Theme (which opens Rimsky-Korsakov's suite) appears in m. 13, m.17, and m.19. Also, the top voice in m. 21-22 is closely based on the wonderful orchestral passage that first occurs at 4:59 in the original. As for the theme itself, a fugue is a kind of exploration, and it makes sense that Scheherazade's creative inspiration would begin with her own searching motif.

The false ending is an admittedly odd touch; I didn't want to take the time (for now anyway) to expand the fugue, but a conventional ending felt too sudden. And, anyway, finishing with an ending would be death for the poor girl. Otherwise, I'm not sure what to say about this unexpected diversion. I don't have much use for this fugue in church, and for now it's too short to fit into a recital, but it was an engaging exercise. I also enjoyed imagining it as a kind of alternative storytelling Scheherazade might do to put off death for another night. (Quick story recap here, if you don't know the tale.)

What I love most about this experience is the way one musical idea generates another. My search for a Russian-sounding organ postlude in F Major led me to a not-Russian-sounding fugue for piano by Rimsky-Korsakov, which in turn led me to write my own "Rimsky-Korsakov Fugue," which led to the idea of incorporating that into a partial retelling of the original story.

Actually, I originally imagined this fugue for organ, which gives it a more imposing feel:

However, the intimacy of the piano feels more authentic for improvisational musical storytelling. You'll notice that neither version of the score includes any tempo or dynamic markings. I like the idea that a piece can function completely differently according to interpretation. And I'm lazy.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Missing links

I've written a few times before about the task of finding suitable organ postludes (and preludes) for Sunday morning services. The search is in itself a search for how it is that musical sounds can acquire meaning, and since my blog subheading promises "musings on music, the mind, meaning, and more," I might as well pause to consider what this means.

Some common ways to choose a meaningful postlude, from specific to general, are:

1. Play something based on a familiar hymn tune. Big bonus points if that hymn tune is the recessional hymn which immediately precedes the postlude. (e.g. this goes well with this.)
  • The text-based associations of the hymn will naturally make the music sound like it's about the same kind of thing. The Lutheran tradition in which J.S. Bach worked offers a seemingly endless supply of chorale-preludes like this, although there's only a limited number of Lutheran hymn tunes which show up regularly in my Episcopal church.
  • Here's one example of many postludes I've written based on a hymn tune. Blog post.
2. Play something that's motivically connected to the recessional hymn.
  • The most perfect example of this is perhaps Bach's St. Anne Fugue, which is actually not based on the famous hymn tune ST. ANNE, but it sure sounds like it is!
  • Sometimes I'll visit to see if I can find something that starts with the same few pitches as the closing hymn. This once led to a fun Sunday of all Scarlatti sonatas! (I believe it began when this search connected this spiritual with this sonata.)  
  • See also footnote below.*
3. Play something in the same key as the recessional hymn. At least it will sound kind of like there's a logical connection from one to the next.
  • As I discuss below, using a key as a signifier of meaning is kind of arbitrary, but it's a kind of arbitrary I like.
4. Play something which has motivic or other stylistic connections to music featured elsewhere in the service (such as the prelude or a choral anthem).
  • This past summer, with choir on hiatus, I had a pre-July 4th All-American prelude-offertory-communion-postlude lineup of Ives, Copland, Barber, and Beethoven's Variations on God Save the King My country 'tis of thee. I also had Sundays of all-Bach, all-Mozart, all-Scarlatti, all-Ravel, and all-Shostakovich!
5. Play something that creates an atmosphere in keeping with the end of the service, taking into account the church season, etc. This usually implies playing something festive as congregants head back out into the world, though some times of year might call for something more subdued or pensive.

6. Play something - and hope it doesn't sound too random.

~     ~     ~
So, this past Sunday I found myself somewhere between #3 and #4. It happened that the two scheduled choral anthems, by Tchaikovsky and Ippolitov-Ivanov, were both in the Russian orthodox style. I had paired the anthems more or less for that purpose, and so it occurred to me that maybe I could find a postlude to match. I also knew the recessional hymn, John L. Bell's Will you come and follow me?, was to be in a lilting F Major, so my ideal target was: Russian Orthodox in F Major.

But the truth is I don't have a large collection of organ music, and the Russians aren't really known for their organ rep, so I cast my net a bit wider. Somehow, I stumbled on the IMSLP page for Rimsky-Korsakov, perhaps remembering his famous Russian Easter Overture. I didn't find any organ music, but I did find a set of six piano fugues - fugues almost always sounds churchy to me - and, lo and behold, one of them was in F Major. It looked festive and playable, so I went ahead and scheduled it.

When it came time to prepare for church, I quickly realized what I surely already knew in my heart: this fugue doesn't sound remotely Russian Orthodox. In fact, it doesn't sound particularly Russian at all. It's actually very much in a Bach-ian style, but I do like Bach, and it turned out I really like this fugue. Here's a synth recording I made that gives you a sense of what it might sound like on an organ. (You can also hear it at the 7:20 mark of this recording.) Note that in this score, the three individual voices are notated in open score without any of the composer's dynamic markings or articulations. 

Definitely not Russian Orthodox, but in happier news, the lilting compound meter (which just means the beats divide into a triple feel) matched up surprisingly well with KELVINGROVE, the hymn tune we'd be singing right before. (KELVINGROVE is based on a Scottish folk tune which originally does not have a triple feel.)

In the end, because I enjoyed the unlikly affinity between tune and fugue, I cheated a bit and introduced the fugue with the opening motif of the hymn tune, and I also snuck in a final reference near the end. Like so:

That's right, I had the audacity to re-write one measure of Rimsky-Korsakov's little-known fugue, which is kind of a topic in itself: changing a given artwork for contextual reasons. But I'm not going to go any further defending that idea for now, other than to say that it helped the music do its job on Sunday. Obviously, as a fan of mashups and the like, I find it very gratifying to link two otherwise unrelated works to each other. This idea that everything can be connected is its own kind of search for meaning. And, as a happy accident, I came to know this delightful fugue I wouldn't otherwise have known.

As for whether grafting the hymn tune onto the fugue made the postlude more meaningful, I think that's a judgment call, but I actually do this kind of thing at least 4-5 times a year. The point isn't necessarily to make listeners consciously believe that the postlude was written to go with the hymn, but rather to establish a continuity, a sense that the one follows logically (and thus, meaningfully?) from the other. The strongest connection really comes from the shared key, and this is admittedly a pretty arbitrary signifier, especially given that there's a magic button on my organ that allows me to transpose pretty much any postlude to sound in the same key as the final hymn.

However, transposing a postlude is something I don't often do, except in some cases where the postlude is explicitly based on the closing hymn; as a general rule, I like to stick to the idea that a composition was intended for a certain key and will likely sound best there. Honestly, I'm happy to have that constraint as I look for music. I'd likely never have found my way to this particular F Major fugue if I hadn't intentionally limited myself to that key. (I wrote a few years back about how a search for a postlude in D-flat Major led to a crazy burst of creative activity inspired by a Bach fugue.)

In a lighter vein, here are a couple of other postludes in which I've played with curious ways of connecting the music to the community:
  • NFL Pachelbel - Since the home team was playing in the Super Bowl last year, I infected a Pachelbel toccata with a little NFL on Super Sunday. (Looks like I'll get to reprise it in two weeks as the Patriots are headed back to the big game!)
  • When our church was putting on an afternoon talent show based on a 50's Rock'n'Roll theme, I did this to poor Vivaldi. Read more about it here.

* Actually, after I'd written most of this post, I was looking for a postlude for this coming Sunday in which the final hymn tune is WOODLANDS. (You can hear this tune, with Wife and Daughter of MMmusing in the orchestra, at the 33:30 mark here.) As the tune begins with three A's leading to a D-A-B, I first plugged A-A-A-D-A-B into and got nothing. However, as those first three A's serve as a single pickup gesture, I then searched for A-D-A-B and realized there's a close connection to the finale theme of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. As I said above, I do like Bach, so on Sunday I'll be playing some sort of organ reworking (probably condensed) of that movement. I hope that means something.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Re-Inventing Bach

A couple of days ago, my blogging pianist friend Erica pointed me to a new edition of Bach's Two-Part Inventions in which the right hand and left hand parts are switched.

This is a fun idea, although I think referring to these inventions as "inverted" is a bit misleading because the notes still all go in the same directions. It's just a matter of shifting one part down a few octaves and the other up. However, you could say that having an idea like this tossed my way was like having a pebble tossed into a pond. A Lilypond, to be precise.

Because all of the Inventions are readily available online in Lilypond format, I snagged the notes for the F Major Invention No. 8 demo'd above and, because Lilypond is magic, did some quick little operations to:
  • truly invert the two parts (down is up and up is down)
  • play the original backwards (retrograde)
  • combine the inversion and retrograde operations
The results are more satisfying than I expected, although I admittedly have quirky tastes. Of course, Bach's tonal relationships work in such a way that flipping things upside down distorts a lot of the original context. Major often becomes sort of minor, final chords end up without the root on the bottom, etc. But I decided not to try to "fix" anything, but rather remain perversely faithful to the original. One might think of these "compositions" or "variations" as negative space defined by what Bach actually wrote. 

There are dissonant moments that sound like they could come straight from a 20th century contrapuntal master like Shostakovich, but I also think the pure energy of Bach shines through. Rather than write much more about them now, I'll just present this little "Theme and Variations" for your enjoyment (variations 2-4 are where the real fun begins):






Again, even if you don't like everything, I hope you'll find a few passages here and there to spark your interest.

Here's another example of me re-inventing some Bach:

Monday, January 8, 2018

Trumped up G & S

For some strange reason, this is the second year in a row in which my first blog post features our opera buffa presidency as material for...comic opera! You may recall that the ever-tweeting Trump recently described himself as a "very stable genius," and this has inspired a series of Twitter verses inspired by the ever-parodied Modern Major General song from The Pirates of Penzance.

A friend of mine suggested last night that I should try my hand at this. As I wrote on Facebook:
I said to myself upon hearing this challenge: "Resist!" .... I failed.
Honestly, my verses could use some work, but I'm proud of sticking with a single rhyme for all 24 lines - something even Gilbert didn't do. (I did depart from the Genius-General connection since that already seemed to have been mined a good bit.) I figured for blogging purposes I might as well make a singalong video since social media loves multimedia, so here's a hastily realized combo of text and tune:

If you know the tune and just want to read the words, you'll find them below.

Strangely, enough, this is my fifth Trumpopera creation. You can view them all, quirky as they are, via this playlist:

Relevant blog posts are here and here.

Happy New Year!

I am the very model of a modern US president.
I tweet my every thought without a thought for any one’s consent.
I know the mainstream media is something I can circumvent
Because no news is bad news, I just constantly sow discontent.

I never bothered learning how to follow legal precedent.
I’d rather cheat, harass, and lie. I see no reason to repent.
America will once again be great though lib’rals will lament:
It’s really only great if you are part of the top one percent.

It’s really only great if you are part of the top one percent.
It’s really only great if you are part of the top one percent.
It’s really only great if you are part of the top one, top one percent.

I’ll build a wall to keep out all the people who don’t represent
The folks like me who’d never be a sad illegal immigrant.
In short, I’m tall and great and went to Washington where I was sent
To be the very model of a modern US president.

~ ~ ~

To towers, steaks, and one great university my name I’ve lent.
My businesses are bigly cause I spent and spent and overspent.
I fired a lot of people who did not deserve employ-a-ment.
It made for great TV and made me famous as a malcontent.

I never really earned a thing not given by my par(a)ent,
But I know how to back out of a deal, I just don’t pay the rent.
I’ve got a button and will cause an internat’nal incident -
By making inappropriate remarks about the Orient.

By making inappropriate remarks about the Orient.
By making inappropriate remarks about the Orient.
By making inappropriate remarks about the Ore, the Orient.

I’ve had three wives; my new one has a European a(a)ccent,
But otherwise I do not trust a foreign-sounding resident.
In short I’m tall and great and went to Washington where I was sent
To be the very model of a modern US president.