Friday, August 31, 2007

Things I Never Thought I'd Hear My Toddler Say

"I don want Charlie Brown. I want Beatles!" Yes, the 2-year old can sing along with most of the You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown soundtrack, but I guess that's old hat to her now. Under the influence of her 8-yr old sister, she's experiencing her own British Invasion, and she' not bad at clap-singing along with "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." I'm holding off on "I Am the Walrus."

Must Stop...

...but I couldn't resist a few more:

Sinner Bet
Sigh Wren
Sole Gripe
Lone Cup
Pain Gain
The Hi Mind

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Obtuse Observations

Obtuse is an obtuse word. I almost used it in a lecture today to describe something I'd written and then thought the word itself was too vague to say what I was trying to say about what I'd written. (For the record, what I'd written was truly obtuse, which should surprise no readers of this blog.) Webster says "not clear in thought or perception," which is what I meant to convey, but then it occurred to my internal editor that the word wouldn't convey that clearly - at least not for my audience. Anyway, I like the idea of a word that can describe itself.

By the way, "Obtuse Observations" is an anagram of "Soviet Bassoon Brute." One has to imagine that, back in the day, there was a tough double reed prof at the Moscow Conservatory who made some obtuse observations.

And now, here are some composer anagrams:

Can Plod
Go Undo
Be Sudsy
Cats Trail
Navy Skirts
Berg Chosen
Nerd Motive
Nacho Man Riff
Lavish Wig Manual

Some are harder than others, but all are last name only.

On a completely unrelated topic, the Red Sox are killing me.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Back to School

Definitely going to be a slow week as classes are starting up today. Revising old syllabi always takes about 4 times longer than I think it will. Lots of stuff in the works - we'll see how soon I get to it.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Crossing Over Rickety Bridges

If you head over here, you'll see that the answers have been pouring in for Matthew Guerrieri's latest quiz. There's a part of me that finds this sort of quiz a confirmation that classical musical lovers love nothing more than to show off what they know. But, it's also a lot of fun to see all the answers that such an open-ended quiz inspires and - well, it's fun to show off.

To that end, I don't think anyone's topped my "Sting sings Dowland" answer for worst classical crossover album ever. I mean, just listen. (If that link doesn't work, head over here and sample #16.) On the other hand, it's not such a bad idea, as crossover concepts go. In fact, Dowland lute songs have a lot more in common with the music of Sting than they do with Beethoven, Mahler, or Stravinsky; there's more potential here than when Barbra Streisand or Michael Bolton take on the great opera arias or when Jose Carreras masquerades as one of the Jets. The Dowland project could have been a great bridge-builder if Sting didn't sound like a dying animal while singing; I don't doubt that there's a pop artist out there who could pull it off better than many opera singers, but Sting's voice has really gone down since he peaked with "We're Sending Our Love Down the Well."

In theory, bridge-building is what crossing over is about, which makes me surprised that so many of the quiz-takers just scoffed at the whole idea of "best crossover." I guess the cynicism is justified by the fact that so many crossover projects seem to be more about crossing to where the money is as opposed to connecting different kinds of musical expression. In fact, I couldn't come up with a really great example of a classical musician taking on rep outside the comfort zone, although I'm sure I'm missing something. Poor Yo-Yo Ma has tried, but most of what I've heard is unconvincing. I've seen him try to play "Mood Indigo" with Wynton Marsalis and I've heard him try to do Cole Porter with Stephan Grappelli and the results come out . . . awkwardly. (Check out his pizzicato towards the end of that clip.)

As it happens, I was listening just yesterday to a recording of Andrew Manze play the famous Corelli La Follia variations and was struck by the freewheeling, improvisatory quality of his playing - it sounded more like a bluegrass fiddler than a classical violinist; in other words, it sounded like crossover playing because it convincingly linked two different traditions. I picked Shirim's klezmer version of Peter and the Wolf as my favorite crossover album because it does the same king of thing; it reveals the folksiness in Prokofiev's tunes and even adds to the playfulness in a way that makes sense for a childrens' piece. I mentioned in my comment to question #2 that I've always found Prokofiev's original narration (both its tone and the story itself) a little unsatisfying. Maybe that's a translation problem, but maybe this great composer just wasn't a good storyteller. It's not surprising that Maurice Sendak's version would be an improvement.

It's also not surprising, given my interest in translation and transcription, that I would see lots of good potential in crossovers, but there has to be a really creative meeting of minds for them to be interesting. Just handing an opera singer a showtune isn't enough. Even fairly creative efforts seem just as likely to come out oddly, though. In the classical -> pop direction I could cite the King's Singers' various Beatles efforts; going the other way, we have Emerson, Lake, and Palmer reinventing Pictures at an Exhibition. In each case, some real re-creation is going on, but the end product doesn't seem genuine. Actually, in spite of myself, I'd have to say the East Village Opera Company may build a better bridge than most. (I believe one person did mention them on the Soho quiz.) I haven't heard all of their work, but a student once sent me a link to this Nessun dorma cover as a joke. You know what? It's pretty darn good for what it is - Puccini's aria (which I've always thought was a little overrated, even though I love Puccini) makes an excellent rock anthem. If only Jonathan Larsen had been able to write like this.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Soho Quiz

My answers to the latest Soho the Dog quiz:

1. What's the best quotation of a piece of music within another piece of music?
"Jesus Loves Me" in the second movement of Ives' 4th violin sonata. (Yeah, I know, Ives quotes all the time, so this isn't that original as an answer – but what he does with that tune is so beautiful.)
2. Name the best classical crossover album ever made.
Pincus and the Pig: A Klezmer Tale is perhaps better than the original - certainly the narration is a big improvement on Prokofiev's clumsy tale. (Though not an entire album, Arleen Auger singing "Before I Gaze at You Again" is my favorite crossover track.)
3. Great piece with a terrible title.
Chichester Psalms (Maybe it's not a "terrible" title, but it just doesn't sound right for this very American, very Jewish piece. I think dedicatee titles like this and "Dumbarton Oaks" often end up sounding too limiting. )
4. If you had to choose: Benjamin Britten or Michael Tippett?
Britten, 8 days a week
5. Who's your favorite spouse of a composer/performer? (Besides your own.)
Mahler's muse. (No, it's not Alma. Hat tip to Elaine Fine.)
6. Terrible piece with a great title.
"While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (I haaaaaate this song. It's so whiny.)
7. What's the best use of a classical warhorse in a Hollywood movie?
Letter duet from The Marriage of Figaro in The Shawshank Redemption
8. Name the worst classical crossover album ever made.
Sting sings Dowland.
9. If you had to choose: Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye?
No opinion.
10. Name a creative type in a non-musical medium who would have been a great composer.
Arnold Schoenberg (He started out so well . . .)
For early-music nerds: Name a completely and hopelessly historically uninformed recording that you nevertheless love.
I grew up with the Bernstein recording of Messiah and I love it – especially the weighty overture. All the "informed" up-tempo, light versions of the overture drive me crazy. Clearly, though, I'm not an early music nerd.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Bourne Identity Theft

One quick illustration of how effectively the Bourne movies draw the viewer in: immediately after watching The Bourne Identity, I was doing some quick computer work and, as I watched my fingers flying over the keys, I realized my mind was seeing the act of typing and intense monitor engagement as if I were up to some super secret assignment. The next night, our borrowed-from-library copy of The Bourne Supremacy started laboring in our DVD player and finally froze at a moment of great suspense; we tried cleaning the disc, fast-forwarding around, but nothing worked. Then I thought to try things out on our little portable travel DVD player. As I was unpacking it, plugging wires into the TV, etc., I again felt as if I were in a race against time to decode hidden information. (We were able to finish the movie; mission accomplished!) Even as the more rational part of my brain looked on in amusement, the feeling of being Bourne (and then Bourne again! hah-hah) was still unmistakable. I remember, as a kid, running around playing Nerf football in the house after watching a big football game, but there's something gratifying about how a movie can still pull me in like that, even though I've never harbored any serious superspy aspirations.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Fast-food post

Oh, wait, I do have something quick and shallow to post about, so maybe I can get this one done quickly. For the first time in I don't know how long, my wife and I watched an entire movie in one sitting - and then, we watched another whole movie in one sitting the next night. Curiously, I was inspired by the classical music blogosphere to check out The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy from the library. I believe it was Alex Ross who started things with his Ludlum title take-offs. Honestly, I didn't even understand some of those, but that drew my attention to the fact that the recently released The Bourne Ultimatum is getting great reviews - it's currently #55 on the list of best movies ever, and that list is nothing to sneeze at, although it's far from perfect.

There was a time when we tried to stay up with the culture in terms of hit films and the like, but we've fallen so far behind that's it quite freeing, because there's now no chance of catching up on all we've missed. Anyway, long story short, these two earlier Bourne movies were quite compelling to watch, as evidenced by the fact that our sleep-deprived selves didn't need two nights to get through either of them. On the other hand, in the end we didn't find them that satisfying - too many absurd plot points, ridiculously absurd car chases, and a general feeling of not living up to great promise - but they were fun rides. Kind of like Cool Ranch Doritos - a really tasty snack that doesn't really leave you better in the end. (I'm assuming the newest Bourne film is better, given its lofty IMDB rating, but I'm not sure when I'll get a chance to find out.)

And to swing things back in a positive direction, I don't have any objections to experiences that excel at the Cool Ranch Doritos level (including Cool Ranch Doritos). It makes me think of some of what I learned in this great Malcolm Gladwell article, which reminds us of the level of excellence to be appreciated in products with broad appeal such as Coca-cola and Heinz ketchup. An excellent jumping-off point for exploring the incredibly murky waters of the high art/low art spectrum . . . but I don't have anything like the will to jump in there now. Time's up! (But if you've never read that Gladwell article, you should.)

Don't give up on me . . .

I'll be back blogging soon, but the last few days of summer vacation have me turning my energy to "Spring Cleaning," "Fall prep" and Family Time. It seems to be a low-energy time in the classical music blogosphere anyway. Not sure when I'll get something substantive posted, although as usual I have several half-finished posts getting drafty. I also just finished up selecting another major haul of music from and have finally cancelled my subscription, having gotten about as much as I want from them. I believe the final tally for about a $60 investment over five or six months is about 38+ hours of music. Now that's a lot of music to listen to, and that's something I'd like to start catching up on as well. Back to cleaning . . . and listening to a wonderful recording of the Schubert Fantasie with Viktoria Mullova and Katia Labeque. What a crazy wonderful piece!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Transcription as a Metaphor for Listening

A well-known blogger with a perfectly named blog, Sounds and Fury, has directed a bit of his fury towards the feeble sound quality of iPods and their seriously compressed mp3 files. I've written before that I'm less bothered by this problem than some. Curiously it comes down to my complete agreement with part 1 and complete disagreement with part 2 of the following statement from Mr. S&F: "a live performance is quite literally an irreproducible benchmark, and the only true and fully acceptable means of experiencing classical music." While I might leave the door open for some technological development that could overcome the first problem, I don't even know what it means to say that an experience is only "true and fully acceptable" if heard live. Aside from the obvious authority questions about who decides what is true and fully acceptable, the statement just makes no sense. It's clear from reading the S&F blog that recordings play an important role in that writer's musical experience; in what way are such experiences not true or fully acceptable?

The basic problem here is to assume, as people commonly do, that music can simply be defined as the sounds generated in performance. On one level, that's a fine definition, but to be understood as a meaningful experience, we have to consider what the listener hears and how he/she makes sense of it. If the "true and fully acceptable" sounds of a Mahler symphony fall in a forest and no one hears them, they may as well not have sounded. (Let's forget, for a second, that the live performers producing the music would have to hear the sounds.) If they fall on an audience of listeners with no cultural context in which to understand Mahler, the musical communication will hardly be any stronger than with the empty forest, although certainly something will be experienced. However, it's surely the case that these out-of-context listeners will hear less of the music than a Mahler devotee would listening to a 1940's mono recording played on a scratchy old record player.

The level of "aural authenticity" is just one of many factors that are involved in "experiencing classical music" or any music. The more recordings have become a part of the music world, the more the sound of recorded music has become a part of the natural musical experience - in much pop music, the recorded route IS the experience, as I mentioned here. Sure, there are many uniquely special aspects of live performance, but given that we hear with our minds, it's amazing what one can hear that one doesn't actually hear. As I wrote a while back:

I suppose the more one trains oneself to be concerned about audio quality, the more one is likely to be distracted by its absence. However, I think this again speaks to the fact that music lives in our response to it - not in the sound waves that send it to our ears. This is why a Beethoven was able to compose when he was deaf. Of course it must have been awful for him not to hear what he wrote, but the meaning of the music he could still perceive using the same mental pathways that we use. He couldn't connect them to aural events - but he could, in many ways, still have an aural experience.

Now I would agree that Beethoven was never able to have the ideal aural experience of his own 9th symphony, but it would be absurd to suggest that he couldn't have a "true" experience of it. His experience of it, even in the solitude of his own room, was probably more authentic than that of most listeners. That seems like an odd idea, to suggest that music can happen without sounds, but musical experience can certainly take place in silence. So, why shouldn't music also be truly experienceable when the sound quality is just substandard?

[By the way, a statement like this - "but the music contained in these [mp3] files represents less than 10 percent of the original music on the CDs" - is silly as well. The fact that the digital space used to store the audio is only 10% is far from the saying the resulting audio is only 10%, especially because the compression is designed quite specifically to help preserve the very aural information that we're most likely to interpret. Since the music is "what we hear," it's fair to say that a lot of the lost information isn't "music to our ears" anyway. That doesn't mean nothing is lost, but I can't think of any meaningful way in which that could be called a 90% loss of music.]

All of this has made me think a bit more profoundly about the process of transcription, which is already one of my favorite topics. My love for transcription probably started with the years I've spent "being the orchestra" in countless hours accompanying concerti, choral works, opera scenes, arias, etc. Especially because I generally know what the orchestra part sounds like, it can be amazingly satisfying to simulate that at the keyboard, even though much more sonic data is lost than with the worst mp3 compression. It's often remarked that 2-piano arrangements were the phonographs of the 19th century. Short of getting to a concert, the best way to hear one of those old Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven symphonies was via such homemade experiences.

Of course, a piano transcription isn't the truest experience of an orchestral piece, although the nature of Western music up until the 20th century is such that melody, harmony, and rhythm are arguably much more essential to a work's identity than timbre issues. A piano transcription of a Haydn symphony makes much more sense than one of Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (although piano versions of the Debussy exist!); a piano transcription of Poème électronique makes almost no sense, but most common practice music allows a piano to present a "compressed" reduction of orchestral music in a quite meaningful way.

What I'd never thought of is that our ears are, in a sense, transcribing everything we hear. Just as a Liszt version of a Beethoven symphony does its best to keep the essentials intact, and just as an mp3 does its best to keep the e-ssentials intact, our ears do their best to make the most sense out of whatever comes through. Even when the sounds are live, the information might be "compressed" because of a noisy neighbor, a passing fire-engine, a bad cold - or by the mind's inability to parse everything that's coming in. For certain listeners, a Beethoven symphony and a Debussy tone poem might sound more similar than a Beethoven symphony and its piano transcription. To more culturally conditioned hears, the two Beethoven's would have much more in common with each other than the Debussy. The mind is always translating what the ear provides into a listening experience.

Yes, there's nothing (yet) to match the thrill of hearing a live performance (not to mention the thrill of being there in the moment), but the sounds are only part of the experience. There are all sorts of arguments to be made about the adverse effects of turning classical music into a recorded phenomenon, but decrying the widespread use of iPods is really going after a fairly innocuous byproduct of all this. I, for one, am thankful that mp3 compression allows me to cart many days worth of music with me in the car. Even if the experience isn't "fully acceptable," I know I'm getting much more than 10%, and sometimes I get musical experiences that make my day or even change my life. And you know why? Because the mind is a pretty darn good compressor as well. It can take infinite sensory stimuli (road noise, honking horns, air conditioning, stupid bumper stickers) and compress them into just me and Poulenc's Fleurs. I can live with that.

[UPDATE: I should have added to that last paragraph that the mind doesn't just compress (or distill) what it hears - it also can add all sorts of information to what is heard, filling in the blanks so to speak. "Hearing what's not there" may be the best summary of what I find intriguing about transcription.]

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Still Life

Now that my summer teaching is almost over (it would be completely over if I'd gotten my grading finished - always with the grading, sigh), a little family vacation time meant I could finally try out what Hugh Sung suggested as a Spring Break activity. As it happens, my daughter's been asking about stop-motion animation since she recently rewatched some of the amazingly wonderful Wallace and Gromit movies. Whereas Hugh's boys went the robots at war direction, our project has turned into a wedding scene - a wedding which will also be featuring a ballerina performing because, well, we have a ballerina Bendo, and because an 8-year old girl is running the show. I don't know how far we'll get with it, but our first experiments were kind of fun and successful AND only take 13 seconds to view. (AND I don't have anything else to post for now, although stuff's coming.)

[As a little "music and meaning" side note, it's striking to me how adding a soundtrack takes it to the next level - admittedly, still a pretty low level, but there's no question the musical associations help bring these littles stills to life.]

[UPDATE: We added a little zoom-in to the video. It's not much different, but the original posted version is here.]

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

On second thought . . .

I'm withdrawing today's post because, upon re-reading it, it gave me reader's whiplash. I'd spent a lot of time on it so I'd decided to post it, but now I've thought better. However, if you'd like to see this overlong, briefly posted, half-baked musing, I've preserved it here. (The virtual equivalent of stuffing it in the back of the garage.) Nothing offensive (I hope!) about it - just too all over the place to be featured on the front page.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

For we are consumed - by Mennen!

We can easily transition from the topic of identity translation back to another personal fave: tune theft. As it happens, a couple of tune thefts have been on my mind, and I've been trying to remember not to forget them before getting around to blogging about them. Here we go. As a reminder, by "tune theft" I don't really mean acts of conscious compositional borrowing or thievery, but rather instances of melodies which, probably by coincidence, share something distinctive enough with another to make me hear them as close cousins. It's a fun way to explore how melodic DNA works.

In a way, this is the reverse of the normal translation process in which the translator intentionally recreates an identity in a new medium. Here we find a creative situation in which an unexpected identity sneaks in via certain distinctive characteristics. Recently, the Sports Guy has noted that in the current ESPN miniseries The Bronx is Burning, the actor playing Reggie Jackson looks disturbingly like C. Thomas Howell playing a white guy pretending to be black in the awful but remarkably watchable 80's flick, Soul Man. (SG's right!) That's a completely accidental connection, but it's the kind of thing minds like mine can't help being distracted by. It's not so surprising since the whole idea of intelligence is arguably based on the ability to make analogical connections.

Just as the Sports Guy can't get past the Soul Man problem while watching the miniseries, I have an unusual problem with Charles Ives' famous setting of Psalm 90. I think this is generally a terrific piece, and the story goes that the composer declared it to be one of the few works that completely satisfied him; I mentioned it here as an example of a work that doesn't fall into the trap of depicting awfulness in a way that's too artful. Still, while I find the bewitching final portion (beginning with "O satisfy us early with thy mercy...") utterly satisfying because it so peaceful (almost Lauridsenian), and while I know that the peaceful effect is significantly created by contrast with some of the unsettling musical effects in the first half, I don't feel that all of those unsettling effects work for me on their own terms - they're more awful than artful, although artfulness can create its own problems. (That problem of finding genuine, not-too-artful artistic expression for something awful is a question for another day - although it's a BIG question.)

Anyway, there are several sections in Psalm 90 that build to big, messy choral tone clusters on texts such as "Thou turnest man to destruction" and "For we are consumed by thine anger." I know what he's getting at here, and I understand that there's an essential honesty involved in making these thoughts sound ugly (as opposed to the exquisite craftsmanship we can't miss in a Dies irae setting by Mozart or Verdi, although Ives' music still falls far short of what it would be to experience true destruction/consuming anger). Still, the music just sounds clumsy and too artless for me, but that may be because of a tune theft problem.

I've been rehearsal accompanist for a couple of performances of Psalm 90, and a passage like "Thou turnest man to destruction" gets rehearsed a lot because the clusters are so difficult. So, I've heard that and its analogous passages many times - unfortunately and unfairly, I inevitably hear something else as well. The Ives sounds like this. If you're a fan of this piece, you might not want to read further, but that characteristically quick octave leap followed by a sudden cutoff sounds a lot like this. Now maybe if you're young enough, you're also lucky enough not to have had the "By Mennen" jingle implanted in your brain. For those of us who sat through thousands of commercials like this one though, we understand why it is that George Costanza thought of himself as its dating equivalent:

George: . . . and I got a date with the sales woman. She's got a little Marisa Tomei thing going on.
Jerry: Ah, too bad you got a little George Costanza thing going on.
George: I'm going out with her tomorrow, she said she had some errands to run.
Jerry: That's a date?
George: What's the difference? You know the way I work, I'm like a commercial jingle. First it's a little irritating, then you hear it a few times, you hum it in the shower, by the third date it's "By Mennen!".

So there it is. Not only do I find Ives' "consuming anger" music a bit contrIVESd, but I can't help but hear in it one of the most powerful and insidious jingles of all time. I have my other complaints with Ives' setting, but you really can't blame him for this one and, all in all, I highly recommend this music. Among other things, the 10+ minute work is one of the most striking examples of pedal tone usage as a low organ C sounds all the way through, symbolizing God's enduring faithfulness; faithful readers of this blog know that I'm putty in the hands of a good pedal point. (A good recording of the Ives is available for (not free) download here and here.)

Wow: I've already covered the Sports Guy, Reggie Jackson, Soul Man, Charles Ives, Psalm 90, George Costanza, and Speed Stick deodorant without even getting to my second tune theft example for the day, so let's get right to that. Francis Poulenc had the kind of gift for melody that Mozart had - great tunes just pop up all over the place, and the delightful Concerto for Two Pianos is a terrific place to find an abundance of Poulencian melodies. Some sound like they come from the circus, other from the local tavern. This one, from the third movement, sounds like - well, take a listen first. So, maybe it's just me, but from the first I've always heard this. However, it's not nearly as distracting a problem as the Ives/Psalm/Mennen thing. The funny thing is, I've never even seen Oliver! ( I do like that exclamation point though; maybe I should change my name to Michael!; then, if I go see Oliver! and like it, I could write, "Michael! loves Oliver!!")

Eventually, I'll get these posted over in my Tune Theft Archive, although the tune connections are easy enough to hear without musical examples. Last time I did this, Patty from Oboe Insight pointed me to an Andrew Lloyd Webber spoof that mentions a major Tune Theft I'd never picked up on. It's particularly stunning because we find one of the most serene and gorgeous melodies of all time, the slow movement theme from Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, turned into one of the worst songs of all time. And I won't debate the latter assertion; that's just one bad piece of musical theater. As amazing as it is that these tunes could have so much in common, it's worth noting that Lloyd Webber's disaster really goes downhill in the clumsy phrases that follow the borrowed part; Mendelssohn's version, on the other hand, soars to even greater heights. Ah, the infinite variety of music.* (*NOTE: Infinite Variety doesn't guarantee that all varieties will be of equal value.)