Tuesday, July 31, 2007


As a manifestation of my interest in connection-making, observe as I make connections among my last three posts. In my most recent musing, I wrote about the wonderful potential for iPod shuffling to create interesting and unexpected connections and suggested that perception of art has a lot to do with making our own connections with what we see/hear/read/etc. Before that, I "translated" Stravinsky and myself into Simpsons form, and even transformed the Simpsons theme into Stravinsky, Bach, and Mozart. "Simp"ly put, the process of translation is my favorite pet topic in the world of aesthetics, whether the subject is translating a poem from French to English, transcribing a concerto accompaniment from orchestra to piano, or transimpsing a real-world image into Simpsons yellow. What I find most interesting is the question of how identity is maintained for a given subject when it passes from one medium to another, even as the medium (new language) demands that something be lost. Obviously, connections are key.

For example, if Stravinsky were to appear in a Simpsons episode, it would be odd to create photorealistic animations of the real Stravinsky like so:

The following makes much more sense:

Stravinsky becomes more real "in the Simpsons world" by becoming less like what he really looks like. In this thought experiment, The Simpsons functions as a sort of visual language into which images of people and objects may be translated. For me or Stravinsky to keep our identity in the new world, we have to be transformed; yet, there is something maintained (with more or less success) that enables us to see the connection between the real thing and the Simpsons thing. Translation necessarily involves changes, yet it also depends on certain recognizable identity features being maintained (e.g. Stravinsky's nose, my goatee, the melody, rhythms, and harmonies of a concerto, etc.) Thus, translation can help reveal what we perceive as more or less essential to identity recognition.

One of my favorite examples of this comes from one of my all-time favorite Simpsons episodes: "The Crepes of Wrath." When Bart first arrives in France as an exchange student, his host drives him through the countryside and we see, in quick succession, the following background scenes:

[For now, the scene can be seen on Youtube about 2:50 into this clip, although such links often disappear. Each painting is on screen for about 2 seconds.]

Obviously, these make reference to the following famous paintings by Monet, Van Gogh, Manet, and Rousseau, but their distinctive styles have been translated into the visual language of the Simpsons so that, in the context of the show, they are more real representations of these artists than if the animators had just put photorealistic reproductions of the paintings in the background:

The process is not much different than having a German-speaking audience hear Shakespeare in German; that makes for an experience that is simultaneously less true to the real Shakespeare (because the English is lost) and more true (because the audience understands much more of the underlying content). The use of the French paintings is also a good example of how art can function as a cultural sign; even for the viewer who may not recognize what's going on in those brief seconds, the reference to iconic paintings, which ironically are not particularly realistic to begin with, makes a stronger "this is France" statement than more realistic French countryside imagery might. Isn't art something? And how 'bout those Simpsons creators, tucking art history so subtly into the narrative? Maybe Barbara Bush would have thought more highly of them if she knew that.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Shuffle Off to Stuff I Know

It's becoming evident that my life can be divided into two main periods: the time before I had an effective way to listen to my iPod in the car, and the time after (3 weeks and counting). It's like the iPod that I've owned for almost two years was finally unlocked. Previously, I've used it plenty, especially for class lectures, etc., but the truth is I'm not a big fan of headphone listening, so I've got that going against me. Not too long after I went pod, I invested in one of those FM transmitters - actually I bought and returned an inexpensive one and then bought an expensive one. The bottom line: for most classical music, or any music with much dynamic range, it just wasn't satisfying. Too much interference, etc.

Long story short - I waited a long time and finally got a new car CD player that has an auxiliary audio input. Since my old FM transmitter came with a handy iPod charger and cradle that sets the iPod up in a perfect position, I now have the means to get the most out of all those mp3s. It's especially significant because family life at home doesn't allow for a lot of quiet listening time - but spending an hr+/day commuting works quite well for that. Actually, the fact that the CD player will play mp3 discs is pretty exciting in itself. It's easy to have a couple of discs now that each contain the equivalent of 10 or more CDs, and moving back and forth among different albums is a snap.

Still, my favorite thing about having the iPod at the ready is shuffle mode. I don't know what it says about me that I have trouble making my own listening choices, but I find shuffling often makes for some of the most satisfying listening, and it also uncovers some fascinating connections. My love for shuffling is an odd combination of both an old-technology mindset and a new-technology dependency. The old-technology mindset comes from growing up in a world in which one had much less control of media, especially TV and radio. My favorite illustration of this is that, though I'll watch just about any episode of Seinfeld that I stumble upon while channel-grazing, I always find it quite difficult to choose an episode from the six or seven seasons I own. At least when it comes to that sort of media, I find it more natural to let the episode come to me.

That also reminds me of the childhood pre-cable, pre-VCR days in which the annual network showing of The Wizard of Oz or The Sound of Music was something to anticipate for weeks. There was an added element of 'occasion' to watching those movies that they don't have now that they're available any hour of the day - albeit in much better quality and absent the cuts and commercials. Although I certainly grew up choosing my own records to listen to, I still find it strangely freeing to have music chosen for me - and yet classical radio doesn't do a very effective job of picking music I want to hear. (It's as if all my TV channel-grazing kept landing only on The King of Queens.)

The new technology dependency could also just be called laziness. I have a big CD collection, so I've had the capacity for listening to a wide range of music in the car at high quality for some time; but it's so much work to pick out a CD, get it to the car, put it in the player. Laziness. It wouldn't even have occurred to me twenty years ago to think that music should just be at my beck and call, and I once spent lots of time transferring LPs to cassettes for listening on the road. In the more technomarvelous recent past, my car CD player got very little exercise until I finally got it hooked up to the iPod. Since having so much music available is a bit overwhelming, the shuffle option turns out to be a great way to "decide" what to listen to.

As I'm sure many have noted, it's kind of like having one's own radio station, except if something comes up that I'm not in the mood for, I can easily jump to the next, although I usually make myself wait at least a minute to see if I might be won over. This turns out to be a great way to rediscover music I'd forgotten about, and it can make for some fascinating playlists. True, sometimes the juxtapositions are jarring, but often they are interesting and even illuminating. I've written before about the degree to which I think art, the creation of art, and our perception of art has to do with making connections. Shuffling is a good catalyst for doing that.

Here's a fun recent example. At some point on the commute, up came the "Sinfonia" movement from the violin/piano version of Stravinsky's Divertimento. This is not a work that I know well and I think I almost skipped it, but started listening and really enjoyed it. I'm glad I listened to the end because here's how we shuffled from Stravinsky: LISTEN.

It's an almost seamless transition - to something quite different. Basically the big A's that the violin's been hammering away at (originally to lead right into the next movement) segue right into another preparatory A in the bass. I don't know exactly why I find this sort of "found music" so satisfying, but it's pretty cool when it works out this way. Of course, sometimes creative people make such connections without the help of randomizing technology, but I wonder how often it happens that a great creative connection comes from seemingly out of the blue, even if it's just some sort of natural brain shuffle mode. (As a low-level ADD type, I think I have a pretty natural brain shuffle mode.)

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Rite of Springfield

Today, of course, is the big day of the Simpsons movie debut. Life with a newborn means I'm not sure when I'll actually get to see it; the truth is, I haven't really been a faithful viewer for 7 or 8 years and, like many, I've always felt Seasons 1-8 were the peak years, but I still recognize the arrival of the movie as a momentous occasion. Having discovered the SimpsonizeMe site, I had big plans to put some of our great composers into "yellow" form, but that site has apparently been completely overwhelmed and is hardly functioning at times. I had labored much too long over a couple of characters who then got lost by the sympstem, so I'm just going to go with this one. If you're not sure who he is, you can click on him for a big hint. (In an ideal world, I would've come up with images for this and this as well.) [UPDATE: More on translating into Simpson.]

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Well, I still haven't come up with a new post, but I did manage to spend too much time here. I think I'll use this for my blogger profile pic for awhile too.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Out of the silence

I guess I just have to resign myself that I'm blogging at a summer's pace - the combination of an intense teaching schedule and some wonderful family vacation time (all happening at one) has sapped all momentum, although I do have a couple of mostly finished posts; check back soon to see if they escape the dreaded Drafts Folder, where brilliant ideas go to die . . .

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Licentious Tune Theft

It's been awhile since I tackled the fascinating subject of melodic identity theft, but Jeremy Denk's latest column provides a wonderfully subtle example. He's discovered that the inversion of the fugue subject in Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata - marked in the score as "fugue in three voices, with some license" - is an anticipation of the theme song from none other than Three's Company. Obviously, this connection provides a comic gold mine of material for such as Mr. Denk, but I was skeptical about the link at first. To me, the tunes seemed pretty different, but I hadn't really tried to think about the fugue subject in an unprejudiced fashion before reading about his discovery. However, as it happens, I have a little piano keyboard attached to my computer keyboard, and I was sort of absent-mindedly playing through the Beethoven example on Denk's blog when my wife, who was sitting across the room, started singing, "Come and knock on our door; We've been waiting for you . . ." My first thought was, "Oh my, she knows the Three's Company theme song!"; but that was quickly followed by the realization that she heard the connection without pride or prejudice. (You see, if she had any pride, she wouldn't have admitted to knowing the song. (Well, yes, I know the song as well.)) Here's a look at the tunes. You can click on each to hear it played.

(Yes, I've again enlisted the Melody Assistants to sing for you. Here they are trying to sing those 70's lyrics to the fugue. And they're not done yet.)

I don't think I would have believed the shared identity was convincing had I not witnessed its cross-century power in action. So what did Mr. Denk and my wife hear? The only real connection, other than that the opening phrases go up, is that each gesture ends by countering the ascent with a descending 4th. At first that doesn't seem a particularly distinctive fingerprint, but the most important thing is that the leap is from a non-chord tone - what those theory folks call an "escape tone" or "incomplete neighbor." (In each case, the E from which the melody leaps is not part of the G Major harmony.) I'm going to resist the temptation to make Three's Company-style double entendres out of those terms, but perhaps the naughtiness of that melodic leap is what makes the horrendously bad Three's Company song so perfect for that show. (As for Beethoven, he shows himself to be more Buxtehude than Bach when it comes to fugal elegance.)

If you want to hear what those tunes might sound like with leaps from chord tones, here's one of our Melody Assistants again to demonstrate. In the demonstrations, the tunes are first heard ascending only to the chord tone D before dropping. Yes, that makes for a smaller leap, but the more distinctive difference is the blind leap from the non-harmonic E's in the actual tunes. At least, that's the best I can do to make sense of it.

Naturally, all this digital manipulation also made me wonder what the fugue would sound like in an Amphetepollini version. After all, it's a pretty long fugue, but this chops more than 3 minutes off what Maurizio usually requires. It's exciting!

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Music for a summer's day . . .

The lazy summer blog schedule continues - but, at least I've been putting my free time to good use, taking bike rides with my daughters. The 8-year old has just become comfortable enough to get out on the open road (well, the open bike trail) and the 2-year old has discovered the joys of riding shotgun on my bike. All in all, it's a pretty satisfying activity, even if we don't move all that fast. This video features trips along the fantastic Minuteman Bike Trail and along the part of Memorial Drive in Cambridge that's closed off to cars on Sunday afternoons. (For the eight or so years I lived in Cambridge, I always found the Sunday closing of Memorial Drive to be a big pain, especially when trying to drive into Fenway. Now, I see the wisdom of it, at least if you have little ones.)

Best of all, this video features some fantastic music about which I know almost nothing, although it certainly seems to have a 40's-50's vibe. (UPDATE 16 YEARS LATER: The music is by Les Baxter and may be heard here.)  I stole the music from the infectious ad for the Conference Bike that you can see here. (Quicktime format; someone needs to get that ad up on Youtube.) I first saw that web ad a couple of years back; a couple of weeks ago, I actually saw a conference bike in person for the first time; it seemed to be transporting some fans to Fenway from a satellite parking zone. So, it all comes back to baseball. Anyway, I love this music, especially the use of chorus - what my siblings and I always called the "Disney Chorus" sound. Can choruses still make that sound, or is it a lost art? ( . . . not that that would be a bad thing.)

My own video is no polished product (most of the footage was shot this afternoon), but the subjects are cute enough to make up for some jittery editing.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Spin the wheel!

Much like the Red Sox, I'm still sputtering along here, and it looks as if I'll be doing more grading than blogging on July 4th. However, don't forget that you can spin the 'ol MMmusing Machine wheel over there in the margin. I especially enjoy landing here and here. (Yes, I do take trips on my own musing machine.) Who knows where you'll land?