Monday, December 24, 2007

Divinum mysterium

It's Christmas Eve, and this will likely be my last post of the year. Time to take a break - and get my grading finished! Yes, it's an annual holiday disaster that grades aren't due until the very end of December. This year I'm in much better shape than in the past, but there's still work to do. Oh yeah, and tomorrow it's Christmas. Tonight, I'm playing with my wife and 8-yr-old daughter for our church's Christmas Eve service. This is only our second time performing as a trio; once before we played a movement of a Mozart trio in an otherwise solo recital for me. However, this is our debut as a violin/cello/cello trio. We're playing an arrangement of my favorite Christmas hymn, "Of the Father's Love Begotten." Not only does the hymn feature a beautiful plainchant-style melody, but it lends itself to a young violinist without a fulltime vibrato. As parents, you don't want to force your kids to love what you love, but we hope there's a lot more chamber music in our future. (And if you think it's never occurred to me to make a wishful connection between the Brahms and Schubert quintets I just posted about and my own family of five,'s too soon to know where we're headed, but maybe - although I'd need to work on my cello skills for the Schubert.) Perhaps the most persistent of Christmas traditions in my extended family is to make extended disclaimers about gifts, just to be sure too much is not expected. I'm going to try not to disclaim much about this recording - except to remind you that the violinist is young, that I only play cello two or three times a year, that we're still working on it, that I don't have a very good microphone, and the mic placement wasn't very well planned in this 'rehearsal' recording. That's all. So here it is. And here are the lovely words:
Of the Father's love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the Source, the Ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore.
Oh, that birth forever blessed
When the Virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bore the Savior of our race,
And the Babe, the world's Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face,
Evermore and evermore.
O ye heights of heaven, adore Him;
Angel hosts, His praises sing;
Pow'rs, dominions, bow before Him
And extol our God and King.
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Every voice in concert ring,
Evermore and evermore. Christ, to Thee, with God the Father,
And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee
Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
And unending praises be,
Honor, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory
Evermore and evermore.
(many other verses available here)
MMerry Christmas

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Best Christmas Party Music Ever

At the end of my last post, I suggested that the appeal of a family-produced, amateur movie is analogous to the appeal of playing chamber music at home. Just to be clear, I wasn't saying that my Christmas Carol movie is on the same artistic level as the Brahms and Dvorak quintets I'd played recently. The intended analogy would be:

DickensBook : MyDickensMovie :: BrahmsQuintet : PlayingBrahmsAtHome

Here's a little more background on the right side of that analogy. My psychiatrist wife, who just happens to be an excellent cellist, was recently invited by a fellow psychiatrist, who happens to be an excellent violist, to spend an evening playing string quartets with a cardiologist and an astrophysicist. (I know, sounds like the beginning of a joke. How about, "Note that all these highly intelligent people chose not to become professional musicians, not for lack of ability but...well, because they're all highly intelligent.") I was a little jealous...not that she was spending the evening with three gentlemen much smarter than I, but that she was getting to play chamber music for sheer pleasure.

However, a week ago we were both invited back and got to spend a delightful evening reading the Dvorak and Brahms piano quintets. These are difficult works and, naturally, not every note landed in the right place, but what a thrill to play them just for thrills - straight through each work (with repeats), with no fussing about how to interpret this ritard or that articulation. Not that such details are unimportant, but as fuss-worthy as this great music is, it's also intended to be played spontaneously. (As I should have said to the astrophysicist, "Hey, it's not rocket science." I'm sure he's never heard that one.)

If the evening accomplished nothing else, it reminded me that the Brahms quintet is one of the all-time great works, maybe even deserving of a place in the MM Top 10. At any rate, I've been listening to it over and over since that night. Of course, I'm glad I have recordings that were rehearsed and edited to be mistake-free, but my interaction with those recordings has a lot to do with having interacted with the actual notes, free of the pressures of performing for a formal audience. I had rehearsed and performed the Brahms years ago in grad school and even coached it with members of the Guarneri Quartet, but it was kind of nice that I didn't remember all the details. The slow movement, especially, has many sublime moments that I'd forgotten about until my fingers ran into them. How ever much I manage to broaden my musical horizons, I suspect this 19th-century chamber music rep will always be the most important to me as a musician.

Last night, the leader of these throwback salon sessions had a big Christmas party to which we, our three children, and the cello were all invited. It was a fantastic party all around, the kids all had a great time (and got presents!), and, after dinner had been served, the instruments came out. I figured there'd be some lighthearted carol-playing, but then I noticed someone pulling out a part for the Schubert C Major Quintet (string quartet + cello). These folks are serious: this is one of the longest, most profound of all chamber music creations - unquestionably part of the MM Top 10. I do play a little cello on the side, but in this event I was on baby-holding duty while my better half spent the better half of the party reading the entire thing - with repeats, of course. Yeah, I was a little jealous, and I had thoughts of jabbing my son in the side so that he'd wake up, need his Mommy, and let me take over, but I'm sure Schubert's glad it worked out the way it did. (The other cellist was terrific, too - I'm guessing she's a neurosurgeon.)

Anyway, it was an unforgettable experience to hear this impromptu Schubert, surrounded by my three children, who all behaved (or slept) miraculously well. Yes, we had a few "are we there yet?" moments along the way (that "heavenly length" thing), but it was a blissful scene. Here's the best part: this morning, my 8-year old was spontaneously humming the so-beautiful-it-hurts 2nd theme from the 1st movement. She may have heard the music before, but definitely not lately; Schubert's heavenly length (and the exposition repeat, no doubt) did the trick. It's so satisfying to know that she was captivated by this theme, which is treated by Schubert in the most unforgettable way, maybe the most beautiful music ever - or so it seems today. In the end, there wasn't time for any carol-singing, but I'll definitely remember this "Christmas" music for a long time. True, I've still got Matthew Guerrieri's Bring Us In Good Ale stuck in my head, but if my children are humming the Schubert cello quintet, that's a great Christmas present.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Christmas Carol

[Now available at YouTube in 2 parts: Part I - Part II.]

I'm going the easy route with my final Christmas special of the blogyear - cute kids, classic story, singing fish. Like my other two holiday posts, this one draws on something from my past (and I'm pretty much out of clever Christmas creations, so next year the MMmusing stockings will be empty if I don't get to work). A Christmas Carol is my first "movie," filmed in 2000 and edited together in 2002. I'm mainly posting it because it's fun and makes me happy, but there are aesthetic points to made, as always.

The backstory is that I'd just gotten a computer powerful enough to import and edit video (remember when that wasn't routine), so on the drive down to see our large assortment of adorable nieces and nephews that Christmas, my sister and I hatched the plan of making a movie. Dickens' tale seemed the obvious choice, and somehow the casting all worked out pretty easily too. Since many of the actors were under the age of 6, the basic process was to feed lines one at a time and shoot. I made all sorts of videoing mistakes, such as not realizing that when I stopped (not paused) and then restarted the camera, I'd lose the last few seconds of the previous take. This, and the realities of shooting the whole thing in a couple of days with young children (and those annoying child labor laws) meant that the editing task that followed presented some . . . challenges. Although it took me almost two years to brave the task, I had a great time working within these rather tight constraints.

The final product is quite charming, and even features some special effects that tested the limits of the bargain-basement software I used. Of course the cute kids carry the film (my then 1-year old daughter makes a tiny cameo walking through the party scene), but the aesthetic point to be made here is that the constraints become a part of the language of the work. I wrote about that (and another family movie) in a past post, how certain flaws that would be unacceptable in one context are actually positives in another. (I was thinking something tangentially related the other day listening to Kermit the Frog sing on a Christmas album; that goofy, shaky voice would not be acceptable from just any singer, but our associations with Kermit's persona make it meaningful. Maybe the same could be said of Bob Dylan's voice, although his sound isn't as polished as Kermit's.)

Even though I'm now presenting this to a wider audience, I'll cheat and remind all that it was mainly designed as a family thing. Inevitably, there are inside jokes and an appearance by a singing fish that had been gifted and regifted a couple of times that year. There's also sadness: my then 2-year old niece, who has a small part as Mrs. Cratchit, lost a battle with cancer a few months after that Christmas. We still miss her terribly, but it's wonderful to be reminded of her, and we can't wait to see her again.

This is quite obviously amateur filmmaking (let's just say Industrial Light & Magic was not consulted for the FX), and I make no pretenses of being a real director. (Speaking also as the editor, I can say I wish we'd had a more experienced director!) On the other hand, I think it's wonderful that technology has opened up the possibilities for this new kind of art. I spent an amazing evening last night reading Dvorak and Brahms quintets with my wife and others, and although those works are certainly masterpieces by any standard, I was reminded that the joy of the chamber music experience is as much about creating art on an intimate, spontaneous level as it is the works themselves - I think homemade family movies tap into some of that same unpretentious joy and satisfaction that only art on a local scale can provide.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Snowed Under . . .

The combination of digging out from snow/ice and the giving of a final exam tomorrow means I'll be postponing Part III of the MMmusing Holiday Spectacular until Tuesday, when it will arrive without fail. (I know you're all waiting with bated browsers.) For now, I'm just trying to avoid having the MMmaison and the MMmobiles be encased in the layer of ice predicted for the morn. However, once the MMexam is over (Survey of Musical Masterworks, you see), it'll be clear sledding. (um...except for grading). At least some in my family are thrilled about winter's onslaught.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Rite of Springtone

Here's the basic chronology: way back when, Russian pagans celebrate the arrival of Spring with barbaric ritual sacrifice; time passes . . . Stravinsky and Diaghilev immortalize these pagans with a fantastically primitive ballet, featuring music that turns its back on the sort of refined Western art music that had arisen since those prehistoric times; as more time passes, this barbaric music becomes the ultimate test for an orchestra, a highly civilized sort of group for which Stravinsky's primitivism is routinely realized by having a hundred or so immaculately trained musicians collaborate with stunning precision; finally, it all comes together as technology improves to the point that I may be summoned from a sitcom via this odd blend of the primitive and the cultured:

Yes, I recently got a new cellphone; the pre-loaded selection of ringtones is horrible, of course, because "the man" wants me to buy new ones, but the bluetooth connectivity means I can finally get my own homemade ringtones onto a phone with minimal effort and at no cost. I see now that Boosey & Hawkes will sell you all sorts of classical ringtones, but there's no reason to throw good money at something that can be created so easily. In fact, I think my rite is much better than theirs; actually, this is the Stravinsky I'm now using as my default ring. It's pretty much the perfect ringtone. (Back in primitive times, when cellphones didn't play mp3s, I had to create my own MIDI-like ringtones note by note - the best was the opening of Bach's first cello suite.)

By the way, since the new phone also takes pitifully bad photos and video, my original meta-plan for this post was to use the phone to film itself (using a mirror) talking a call, but it turns out not to be that smart. When it's taking a video, an incoming call just crashes the system. Maybe things are still more primitive than I'd hoped . . .

[Part III of the Holiday Spectacular is coming on Monday . . . Don't miss Parts I and II.]

UPDATE: See also 24 specially created ringtones (including some Stravinsky) in this 2011 post.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The 12 Composers of Christmas (2.1)

[UPDATE: now available on YouTube as well]
[UPDATE 2 !: New version, with singing,  available here.]

It was a Christmas miracle. You see, in the previously posted version of The 12 Composers of Christmas, I'd chosen to interpolate a recording of Don Giovanni singing the beginning of "Là ci darem la mano." However, in my arrangement, the tune quotation needs to begin a minor third higher than in Mozart's original; as it happens, I've been playing around with pitch-shifting on some recordings to make some mash-up medleys, so I figured it would be a breeze to get Bryn Terfel to start on C rather than A. Electronic Bryn was more than willing, but he emerged from the procedure sounding much more like a tenor than a baritone. You can compare the two here: bariterfel - tenorterfel.

And then the miracle - a fine baritone walked right into my studio yesterday, quite unexpectedly, and within minutes I'd captured him singing from C in true baritone timbre. He'd never even sung the duet before - from now on he'll find it a breeze, of course, in the easy key of A. By the way, the other odd thing about my quotation is that, though the intervals are exactly the same as in Mozart, they occur on different scale degrees, so the tonal context is a little off-kilter. (Basically, the tune should start on the first scale degree [do], but my context requires it to start on the fifth scale degree [sol].)

It only qualifies as a minor miracle because this very baritone was due to arrive for a coaching 24 hours later, but I still enjoyed the spontaneity of the impromptu recording session. So now, you'll no longer have to be vexed by the wrongness of a tenor singing Giovanni. (I'd still like Stickman Beethoven to get to the downbeat a little sooner. There could be a 2.2 in the future.)

['Works cited' list available here.]

[UPDATE: Google Video is turning out to be unreliable, so I'll put this on YouTube tonight (12/12). [Done!] For the record, I've avoided YouTube, because I hate that they superimpose their name in the bottom corner of embedded videos, but that beats videos that suddenly become unavailable, as has been happening with Google the past few days.]

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The 12 Composers of Christmas (2.0)

[Version 2.1 is now available with authentic baritone sound!]

[UPDATE: A quick list of the 12 'works cited' is now available here.]

For my second "holiday special," I'm again bringing back something from my past, albeit in a new version. I first created The 12 Composers of Christmas two years ago for friends and family; last year, although I didn't yet have a blog, it got a wider audience thanks to a Geoff Edgers mention. This year I decided to enhance it a bit - there's always the danger of diminishing returns doing this, and I predict that next year I'll go too far when I add CGI animation, the London Philharmonic, and a Burger King tie-in, but I think the 2007 edition is a positive upgrade. It certainly builds on Edger's description of the song as "deliciously weird."

I liked the elegance of last year's web version, but the synth clarinet drove me crazy, and I always thought it could use some visual aids. In terms of audio, I had visions of putting together a live recording with singers, etc. this year, but I ended up relying on various electronic resources, including a cameo by an unrecognizable Bryn Terfel, whose rich baritone had to be transposed up a third to fit my arrangement. (I may yet enlist a live baritone to fix that.) There's no singing of the text, so you'll have to provide that yourself, which of course is part of the fun; but the animations are all brand new.

Maybe it's not too late to use this for that music appreciation review session you have coming up. I'll definitely be playing it for my class, which means I can justify the time I spent working on it. Actually, unlike most computer projects, this one came together pretty fast, mainly due to my commitment to letting the animations be as unpolished as possible. (Mission accomplished.)

In case you missed it, be sure to check out this year's first holiday special, The Vertical Christmas Medley. And, hopefully, there's one more seasonal surprise to come . . .

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Unchained Medley

If you had trouble picking out all seven songs from the Vertical Christmas Medley, help has arrived. You may now click on the individual pianists to hear the different tunes highlighted; but don't give up too soon. It's an interesting exercise to see what your ears can pick out of the equalized morass. Even knowing the identities of all the tunes, I find it challenging to see how many I can tune into at once - kind of like one of those magic eye puzzles. I'm always trying to get my music appreciation students to hear textures; this might be an interesting way to train ears to isolate textural components. Kind of like the Great One does in this great Canadian scene.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Vertical Christmas Medley

Soho the Dog's not the only one recycling holiday specials on his blog - although I agree with Matthew that there's no topping his top from last year. But hey, you can't watch Wagnerian dreidels all day long. Anyway, I'm opening the season by bringing back an old, pre-blog creation of mine. I used to call it "Sing Along with the Ives Family," since it was designed as a tribute to Charles' love for smashing tunes together. However, I'm not sure he ever set seven going at once, and if he had, he would certainly not have set them all in the same key. (Maybe I should call this "Christmas In C.")

So, in the spirit of medleys that I established last post, I'm going to call this a Vertical Christmas Medley. It's just right for our busy, modern world when no one really has time to hear seven carols in succession - now, you can have them all at once, and still have time to do a little shopping. If your ears are sharp, you might be able to pick out all seven, but I'll post the names of the tunes . . . in a day or two. I'm sure Charles himself would say it's not about the intellectual game of naming tunes, it's about letting the simultaneity envelop you and become its own melodic mass.

(click above)

As ever, I can't resist a postscript. We've been talking about Stravinsky in one of my classes, and I always enjoy breaking out the "Heart and Soul" in-two-keys-at-once party trick to illustrate polytonality. [UPDATE: See this 2008 post.] However, I've been playing it that way for so long that it no longer sounds whacked to me - nor do Stravinsky's Petrouchka clarinets or his Le sacre chords, etc. In the same way, I've been listening to my little vertical Christmas medley for so long that it sounds right. I love the way it illustrates the tendency for tunes to be more rhythmically active in the middle of measures/phrases; there's this sort of frenetic undulation as the rhythmic activity quickens and then slows. It definitely puts me in the Christmas spirit.

More MMholiday fun to come . . .

Monday, December 3, 2007


After reading in my last post that some Strauss made me think of Rachmaninoff, my Dad emailed to say that the intro to the last movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto always has him anticipating Mendelssohn instead. Make it so!

While putting that together*, I couldn't help but think about how my sisters and I used to love to make melodic medleys by switching midstream from one tune to another. We did this with all sorts of songs, and I can't seem to remember many of them offhand, but what I can remember is that there's a particular bridge section from a particular Broadway show that always seemed to make nice medley glue. Now I'd never tried this bridge on anything classical, so I wanted to start with something by a lesser composer, so as not to offend anyone. Make it so!

* No, those concertos aren't in the same key, but that's not gonna stop the MMmedley machine.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Metamorphosis of Don Juan?

A Bold, New Discovery
(which probably isn't new, and which certainly involved no boldness)
I've written twice before about my experiences with "found music": 1) once, when I was entranced by the strange, loopy experience of hearing works by Mozart and Handel simultaneously; 2) later, when my iPod shuffled logically from Stravinsky to the Beatles, due to an odd coincidence of sustained tension and a connecting pitch. The connection I just stumbled on tonight is much less random than either of those and may well have been observed by many before, but I haven't Googled any mentions of it. In fact, it's quite startling given its implications.

Here's what happened. I was listening to Richard Strauss's Don Juan on iTunes while doing some work at the computer (if "surfing the net" can be called work). Don Juan is a brilliant orchestral showpiece, but it ends quite solemnly, as described here by Alex Ross in The Rest is Noise: "an upward-scuttling scale in the violins, a quiet drumroll, hollow chords on scattered instruments, three thumps, and silence." (14) I don't actually know Don Juan all that well, but I slowly realized the music playing had ceased to be Don Juan - in fact, iTunes had segued right into the next work on the playlist, Strauss's Metamporphosen. I skipped back to the end of Don Juan and discovered how seamless the transition had been: LISTEN.

So, Don Juan, written in 1888, one of Strauss's earliest successes, a youthful work about a famous rake, ends on those "three thumps," - in E Minor - "and silence." It's an expectant silence to say the least because the music hardly seems resolved. In fact, the silence before the final thump is long enough to make us suspicious of the final silence. Tonight, before that silence had had a chance to be convincing, however, Metamorphosen had dawned with its opening chord on E Minor! This is one of Strauss's final works, from 1945, and it is very much the reflective work of an artist at life's end. Of this period, Ross writes, "The composer was musing in some deep way on the course of his life, perhaps questioning the philosophy of individualism that had long guided him." (337)

Two works that reveal their composer's extremes, and yet the one flows into the other as if it had been planned that way - as if Don Juan (and the youthful Strauss) had not really died, but rather entered into some sort of . . . well, metamorphosis. In fact, the sudden shift to a new harmony after the opening chord of Metamorphosen is arguably less jarring when preceded by Don Juan, because the E Minor has a context. I'm no Straussian, and I don't really know either work well, but I'll never be able to think of them separately again. Again, maybe the connection between these works has been remarked upon by others, though a quick, and admittedly unscientific Amazon search has yet to turn up an album on which the two works appear back to back. Curiously, I have managed to find references to a 1959 (?) book by Leo Weinstein called The Metamorphoses of Don Juan. However, that book doesn't seem to have anything to do with Strauss.

One little postscript. As anyone who follows this blog would know, I'm fascinated by connections that my mind makes from one musical work to another. The lingering trill in the low strings that happens about 18 seconds into the Don Juan clip above immediately reminded me of something else, and I couldn't think what, which of course is insanely frustrating - like seeing the slightly familiar face of some actor and not being able to place it. I spent about 30 minutes obsessed with that trill, playing it over and over in my mind to find the link. Frustration aside, it's a fun process and an amazing journey into how the mind and memory work - just a matter of trying to hear the Strauss trill and then letting memory search for what comes next. Finally, I started hearing an oboe finishing a phrase . . . and then . . . yes, one of the slow variations from Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Here's the Strauss and Rachmaninoff trills, back to back. Now I'll be able to sleep tonight.