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 B├ęzier 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.

No comments: