Friday, February 29, 2008

Swan Loop

A few posts ago, I suggested that listening to a 24-second Tchaikovsky loop for 45 minutes had done me no harm. Well . . . it now seems possible that I'm stuck in my own strange loop in which each blog entry will just be a return to the same topic. At least that might solve the annoying blogger's block problem. Anyway, if this is the beginning of my descent into madness, so be it.

Whither today? After linking to the Wikipedia article on Strange Loops, I actually read it myself and discovered the Shepard Tone Scale. This is sort of like a barbershop pole of sound: tones continually ascend (or descend) in multiple octaves, fading out at the top as new ones fade in from below. Thus, there is continuous directional motion, but the mass of sound never really goes anywhere. I was intrigued to learn about this, because I'd used a similar principle in looping Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker sequence. Each time the sequence starts in a new octave, I wanted to restart it an octave below, but to smooth the transition, I faded the violins back into the violas. I intentionally did this after the sequence starts up again in the upper octave to make the switch less obvious; thus, you hear the last three pitches below (which are the same as the first three) resolve to the expected E, which maps onto the E in the first complete measure; the fade takes place going into the second complete measure.

So, I was proud to have discovered this technique on my own, and I also couldn't resist the temptation to explore it at greater length. First of all, here's an example of a Shepard-Risset Glissando (found here). Cool, but spooky. I thought I'd just try it out on some scales, so I enlisted the aid of the tiny little cellist inside my computer to create the following:

G Major Scale

Whole-Tone Scale

In each case, kind of like with one of those magic-eye pictures, the illusion works best depending on how you listen. I found that by focusing on a single scale as it ascends, one gets the best effect. Still, these aren't very interesting musically. My next step was to feature the same little cellist in the opening of The Swan.* It doesn't work as well as it might if I invested hundreds more hours, but you can get the idea by clicking on the gliding swan below. Wait a minute! Swans? Tchaikovsky? How could I possibly resist what comes next?

True, this isn't so much about a looping sequence as it is manipulating what happens in countless melodies where a phrase seems to be repeating itself, but then goes in a different direction. Or not, in this case. Props to Maestro Köhler for keeping the tempo steady, and to the anonymous oboist of the National-Philharmonic Symphony who just keeps spinning out beautiful tone. (I'll bet other oboists are jealous.) This is one of my favorite melodies of all time, and I always enjoy the buildup more than the slightly crass entrance of the brass that follows. Problem solved . . . at least until that swan develops an attitude.

By the way, having entered the world of Escher-type animations, I got a kick out discovering this one.

* I know, computer cello? But it sounds better than me playing this game, which I could master just fine if my mouse would cooperate. Hat tip to Elaine Fine for pointing to the game, which is actually quite cool.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Strange Loop

Strange how ideas evolve. I started a few posts ago with an interest in a similarity between sequential passages in Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. This led to an interest in sequences that can keep going endlessly, which made me think of M. C. Escher drawings and a Vivaldi concerto that I love to mangle. I found an online cartoon that humorously depicts someone stumbling down an Escher-type endless staircase, but my stumbling Vivaldi recording has the disadvantage (and advantage) that it ends. (Because it spirals downward, one runs out of pitches.)

This looped me back to thinking about how I'd extended the Tchaikovsky Nutcracker sequence by looping it, leading to the most recent post which provides an mp3 that can loop seamlessly, seemingly forever. As an experiment, I listened to it continuously on my 45-minute commute home last night; mixed with snowfall at dusk, the melancholy minimalist music made for quite a companion; minimalist, but always going somewhere. As with most such experiments, much of the interest is in the effect on the listener. (Ultimately, that's true of all music!) I found my attention drifting in and out of the loopy soundtrack - one could say the "development section" of this "piece" was wherever my mind went.

One of my first thoughts: given that these 24 seconds are some of my favorites in the entire Nutcracker (not exactly one of my favorite works), what does it mean to jettison everything else and bask in the part I like? True, there's a lot to be said for letting context make the most of these moments, but I'm guessing just about everyone has had that experience of waiting for the good parts - (and sometimes the waiting is boring.) Whatever else one might say about the ridiculousness of listening this way, I was struck towards the end of the journey by the thought that I still found the passage beautiful. (That René Köhler sure knows how to summon gorgeous sound from his National-Philharmonic Symphony.) And it still sounded like it was going somewhere!

Anyway, this morning it occurred to me that I needed to find a way to combine the looping Tchaikovsky with the looping staircase, but, unlike the downward spiralling Vivaldi, the Nutcracker sequence reaches up - less than an hour later, I'd churned out this crude animation;

Sadly, although I figured out how to make the video above loop, there's always a hiccup when it starts again - whereas the mp3 version loops seamlessly in iTunes and on my iPod. So, you only get 2:47 of truly seamless infinity here, but that's probably enough for most of you.
The subject heading comes from a concept developed by the great Douglas Hostadter.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Neverending Sequence

A few extra points about yesterday's post. First of all, I love the way this picture intersects with the audio of me playing Vivaldi. Too bad the audio doesn't loop endlessly. (Click pic to hear.)

[By the way, I swiped the image from here.]

Secondly, since I'd actually done the audio mash-up of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky back in December, I'd forgotten about one of my favorite little details that my wife pointed out last night - Rachmaninoff's piano arpeggios merge quite gracefully into Tchaikovsky's harpeggios. That was more or less dumb luck.

Finally, speaking of looping endlessly, I thought it would be fun to create an mp3 of the Tchaikovsky sequence that can go on forever. You can download it here. Technically, it only lasts for 2:46, but if you set your mp3 player to repeat, it can keep going, and going, and going . . . I've had it playing for about 15 minutes and I still seem to have my wits about me. Perhaps I should keep a journal. I do feel like something big is gonna happen any second now.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Seamless Sequence Segue

Longsuffering readers of this blog will have learned that I have a weakness for wordplay. (To quote my blogger profile, "I adore alliterations; elegant allusions; absurd nonsequiturs; and buffalo wings.") My own experience of this weakness is that there seems to be a little software-like program running most of the time in my brain which samples incoming words, whether heard, spoken, read, thought, etc. and looks for connections that might produce something punny . . . er, um, funny. For example, mere seconds after publishing a recent post under its original title, "Dancing Adolescents on Line 1," this virus-like program sent up the following information: "The Rite of Spring" + "ringtone" = "The Rite of Springtone." I didn't ask for that bit of wisdom - it just came unsolicited from within, from this bit of renegade mental software. Obviously, this software falls into the "virus" category, as I suggested awhile back about my sonnet "problem."

I've been aware of this inveterate verbal virus for awhile, but it's more recently occurred to me that I'm the same way with music. I suppose most music-lovers are, to some degree or another. The basic principle is one of pattern-matching - the brain hears a tune or other musical idea and then looks for analogues. Musical cognition - in fact, all cognition - has a lot to do with pattern-matching, so this is the most natural thing in the world for a mind to do, but just as I seem to spend more energy finding alliterations than do most other intelligent beings, I find the search for tune connections to be an unusual fixation. All my "tune theft" discoveries, mash-ups, and medleys are variations on the theme of musical puns.

My most recent such discovery is really a rediscovery. My daughter recently danced a small part in a local production of The Nutcracker. [OK, I started this post two months ago.] She was only on stage for a few minutes, but it just happened that her participation as an ornament meant she was dancing to my favorite music in the entire score, the big crescendo when the Christmas tree gets supersized. Tchaikovsky is notorious for using long sequences to build excitement - sequencing a musical phrase may be a simple process, but no one does it as well as 'ol Pete. I've mentioned many times before that I think pedal point passages provide a wonderful way to talk about musical function to inexperienced listeners; the same could be said of sequential passages such as this magic tree music.

So, I was thinking about that passage and suddenly remembered that when I first heard it years ago, it sounded to me like it was lifted from Rachmaninoff's second concerto, a great passion of my youth. Of course, I now realize the thief here would be Rachmaninoff, ripping off his beloved idol. It's an interesting connection, because the passages don't really share a distinct tune, but rather a little motivic kernel (re-do-ti) that steps up by sequence. The leading tone function at the end of each little sequence segment is what drives the music ever upward. As you can see, Tchaikovsky's sequence is more uniform, while Rachmaninoff has a more varied rhythmic and melodic shape, but the idea is clearly of the same cloth.

[Click the musical examples to hear them played.]

Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker, Act I, Scene 6

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2, 1st mvt.

Again, more than a tune borrowing, what Rachmaninoff has imitated is the feel of this sequence. To prove it, I managed to weave the two together; this is cool, because although one is in E Minor and the other in C Minor (the Rachmaninoff is transposed to E Minor above to make comparison easier), each has multiple entry steps; it didn't take long to find a pathway from one to the other. Whereas a pedal tone passage usually provides a sense of direction by creating an expectation of resolution, a sequence is often more open-ended, as evidenced by the fact that I was easily able to double the length of Tchaikovsky's melodic stairway by having it double-back on itself, sort of like an Escher staircase. The segueway from Rachmaninoff to Tchaikovsky and back isn't really seamless, but I think it works. By the way, as always, these recordings feature René Köhler conducting the National-Philharmonic Symphony.

POSTLUDE: Although I'm a decent enough cellist, I know just enough violin to be dangerous: here you can hear me demonstrating on my daughter's half-size violin how a sequence can keep going and going - even when you really want it to stop. I did the recording in one take!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

One down . . .

So I've now been blogging for a year, for whatever that's worth. Here's how it all started. Ah, Joyce Hatto, why have you been forgotten so soon? I tried to immortalize her with sonnets, but my powers of influence are still weak, as indicated by my Technorati authority rating of nada. I'm basically an introverted person, so I have mixed feelings about having people actually pay attention to me, but hopefully I'll get that rating up into actual digits some time this year.

Still, I'm pleased with year one. Here's the basic statistics: 183 posts, 95,000 words, 8 sonnets. I just (I mean, just) realized that's almost exactly one post every two days - a pace I probably won't keep up this year, but I feel less pressure now that there's a body of work. One of the sad things about the typical blogging format is the ephemeral nature of the blog post. Words get lost in the archives, and though that's sometimes a good thing, it would be nice if there was a more consistent way to index the past. I've tried to do this some with my Guide to MMmusing, but I guess one probably still needs to write a book to give words a little more permanence. Still, amazingly good sites like Think Denk and Soho the Dog deserve some sort of table of contents - so many fantastic posts that disappear unless one remembers to look for them again.

The truth is that as much as I hope to be more widely read some day, I often stumble on other little-known blogs that are terrific and worthy of wider audiences. I'm not going to tell you which ones they are! - let's just say that there are a lot of smart and interesting people out there. As for what the year ahead on MMusing holds, I have no idea, but I should probably start by resuscitating some half-finished posts from the past few months. Or not. We'll see.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Let's not take this too seriously . . .

One of my favorite little discoveries in my first year of blogging (anniversary coming on Sunday!) is this exchange between British composers George Benjamin and Luke Bedford:

GB: where do you find your inspiration for new pieces?
LB: I'm still most inspired by the music of the 50s and 60s, people like Stockhausen, Xenakis, and Boulez. But I'm also fascinated by comedy. I find I can learn things technically from shows like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
GB: My great friend, the composer Oliver Knussen, loves Curb Your Enthusiasm, and he's trying so hard to convert me. Every other conversation we have, he will drop it in. But I'm succeeding so far in resisting him, although it's very hard to resist Olly.
LB: I really love the way the stories converge in Curb Your Enthusiasm.
GB: I find that Fawlty Towers does that magnificently. In the beginning of a Fawlty Towers episode, reality is disturbed. You get about five different types of character, and they all send out their tendrils, and by the end of half an hour, they're all connected in the climax in the most atrocious ways. It's a mix of inevitability and awful, agonising surprise: and that really is a lesson in composition. You set up things that disturb normality in the beginning; by the end it's culminated in something surprising. It's as if in bar five of a piece, you plant a tiny little detail which shouldn't be there, and that little moment grows into the biggest element in the music 10 minutes later.

I thought of this recently when I confessed to rating A Mighty Wind as one of my three favorite movies of all-time. The skill involved in making the best comedy work is inevitably (and, perhaps, happily) underestimated because of the generally lighthearted tone. Bedford and Benjamin are correct to point out the sophisticated "compositional" way in which a comedic scene can weave various strands together, and everyone knows that timing (rhythmic sensitivity) is what makes comedy work. However, there's a different musical point to be made about A Mighty Wind, which is that the best comedic actors and impressionists tend to have amazingly good ears for the subtlest of details.

Yes, such skills can be used for pure silliness (nothing wrong with that), but they also can enable really convincing acting. I honestly believe that Christopher Guest, Catherine O'Hara, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch, and Ed Begley, Jr. gave Oscar-worthy performances, so spot-on and believable are the folks they created. Guest amazes me more than any of them, because his Alan Barrow is so beautifully underplayed that the acting disappears; Guest lost himself equally well as Harlan Pepper in Best in Show. That movie is sillier and less realistic than AMW, but even if Fred Willard steals the show, Harlan helps ground it in reality - a very strange reality, but still.

It's surely not coincidental that improv comedians with great listening skills were able to create some of the most convincing musical characters in cinema history. You can't fake being a musician without an ear for music; of course, many of these actors are musicians to some degree or another. The Folksmen (Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer) even live alternate musical lives as Spinal Tap, and John Michael Higgins, who stars as the leader of The New Main Street Singers, arranged the vocal harmonies for this psycho-happy group. (Having grown up hearing The New Christy Minstrels on multiple Goodyear Christmas albums, I can confirm that Higgins and Co. got the psycho-happy thing down right.) And who knew that Eugene Levy could flat out sing? Granted, becoming a convincing folk musician is easier than becoming Jacqueline du Pré, but you can't fake being musical. (By the way, I can forgive Emily Watson for not becoming a great cellist, but she could learn a lot from Christopher Guest about subtlety in inhabiting a role.)

Finally, as a musician, I value comedy not just because it requires great timing and a great ear, but because it reminds us not to take things too seriously. More and more, I find myself wanting to focus on enjoying music more than treating it as some sort of high-stakes artistic endeavor. I was recently rehearsing a Beethoven sonata with a violinist and I found the inevitable discussions about matching articulations, and subito pianos, and settling on a tempo to be so beyond the point. I know that those things do matter, and having been trained to take them seriously can make music-making more satisfying, but the music is pretty satisfying just played for sheer pleasure. Like in this fabulous deleted scene from A Mighty Wind (although even the Folksmen get bogged down in a little rehearsal obsessiveness):

"Iron law, Alan: nonny before ninny. That's just all you need to know."

[Two posts in one day? Ah, the beauty of a snowed-out rehearsal.]
UPDATE: As if to make my point, immediately after finishing this post, I saw one of the most flawlessly constructed half-hours in TV history, the "Room Service" episode of Frasier. The performance of the waiter ("Ohh-kay...") alone is a pitch-perfect example of perfect timing. He's just a bit player, but Lilith proves to be one of the few characters who can hold her own on screen with Frasier and Niles. If only Roz, Daphne, and Martin had been that virtuosic.

Warhorse Wordsmithing

MMmusing is still trying to get off the ground for 2008. I promise more soon, but I ended up spending way more time than expected this week writing program notes for an upcoming orchestra concert. I volunteered to do it because: I love writing program notes, I believe they can be very effective if done well, and I already knew the two works quite well. Somehow, though, it took forever to get these cranked out, and I'm still trying to tidy up the prose. As you can see below, I like program notes that function as a guide for listening, but it's always difficult to decide how much is too much, not to mention what vocabulary is too technical. For example, I chose not to use the term "trio" to describe the middle of the scherzo because I suspect a lot of our concertgoers might not know what that is, and it didn't seem worth the effort to unpack the confusing usage of that word historically.

By the way, I don't mean that as an insult toward our concertgoers, some of whom will certainly know the works well. Part of my philosophy here is that such listeners don't really need the program notes nearly as much, but I'll bet a good percentage of audience members at any symphony concert could use more help than most program notes provide. One of the ironies of the classical music world is that even the warhorses aren't really that widely known. Yes, the New World Symphony may be numbingly familiar to critics and the most seasoned aficionados, but what percentage of a typical audience really knows it well enough to find a live hearing too familiar?

Anyway, I'm supposed to be doing the grading that I didn't get done while I was writing these notes, so in lieu of a real post, here are my 2000 or so words about the Fauré Requiem and the New World Symphony. Yes, it's a rather odd pairing, although interesting to think that these works were composed around the same time. One thing I enjoyed about the project was remembering how much there is to love about the Dvorak. When I first sat down to listen to it, after not having thought much about it for years, my intitial reaction was a little jaded, but it's really grown on me. Such confident music, and so many great tunes. I didn't need to be reminded of how much I love the Fauré, but I sure didn't mind listening to it again. (By the way, if you want to attend the concert, there's more info here.)

The history of Western music up through the sixteenth century is inextricably linked with settings of the Roman Catholic mass and other liturgies. Though interest in more humanistic genres such as opera and the symphony would slowly overtake the leading role of church music, even nineteenth century Romantics still found inspiration in these ancient texts, none more intensely than in the requiem – the mass for the dead. The subject of death, of course, is of great interest to humans; both composers and listeners have been drawn in by the inherent drama of death, judgment, and the promise of eternal rest. Two of the most famous requiems are from the operatic masters Mozart (1791) and Verdi (1873), each of whom forged searingly powerful blends of the personal and the eternal, with particularly vivid responses to the Day of Wrath. Other notable settings include an extravagant creation by Berlioz (1837); the German Requiem by Brahms (1869) in which the composer chose his own, more comforting selection of biblical texts; and Britten’s pacifist War Requiem (1962), which incorporates modern poetry.

Though less grandiose than these titanic works, Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem is surely as beloved as any. Relatively humble in conception, part of its power lies in Fauré’s conscious decision to emphasize consolation and rest; the word “requiem,” after all, means “rest.” The composer reworked the standard text, eliminating almost all of the famous 57-line Dies irae (Day of Wrath) sequence, and inserting texts from other sources. The work has a somewhat complicated history, having been composed originally as a five-movement work for Fauré’s Paris church in 1889. The two movements with baritone solo were added later, and the original orchestration was filled out quite a bit in the version that first became well-known. However, the noted conductor and scholar John Rutter has convincingly argued that Fauré may have had little to do with this thickening of the orchestra, and Rutter’s 1983 reconstruction of the more transparent scoring that Fauré likely intended is what will be heard today. The orchestration is often little more than a subtle augmentation of the central organ accompaniment, but the unusual absence of violins leaves the top of the string section in the hands of divided violas and cellos, providing a distinctively warm aura.

The Requiem opens in an arresting manner, with unified voices pleading for rest in phrases that sound more speech-like than measured; the word “shine” (luceat) is given special emphasis. Though Fauré has a great gift for melody, the writing for chorus is often quite restrained, as if evoking the austerity of Gregorian chant. Soon, the orchestra takes up a richly flowing tune, over which the tenors sing a plaintive melody that is first fixed on a few pitches, but which eventually becomes more expansive. The movement builds to a climax imploring God to hear the prayers (exaudi orationem), and the tenor melody is recapitulated by unison choir in the traditional pleas for mercy (kyrie eleison).

The second movement begins in a more mystical manner, as shadowy visions of eternal torment are intoned by hushed counterpoint in the choir and quietly ominous interjections from the cellos and basses. The baritone soloist takes up the plea for protection of the departed in music that is restlessly optimistic. When the choir repeats the text from the opening of the movement, the counterpoint is both denser and more sustained than before, perhaps the most sophisticated writing for choir in the entire work, though still mostly subdued in tone. As is so often the case with Fauré, the mastery is in the subtlety of his craftsmanship. A radiant “Amen” suggests a hopeful transformation from the darkness that began this prayer.

The Sanctus is pure celestial radiance throughout, featuring a soaring solo violin and harp in the accompaniment. The use of violin is especially striking because of the reliance on the darker viola timbre elsewhere. As with the flowing orchestra tune that supports the tenors in the first movement, the accompanying violin line is more shapely than the simple phrases that are passed back and forth between the women and men of the chorus, as if the voices are transfixed by the heavenly vision. These unhurried melodic fragments range ever wider until a triumphant arrival at Hosanna in excelsis, from which the violin trails off into eternity.

Whereas the Sanctus ripples along continuously, the Pie Jesu is remarkable for its stillness. Though written in 4/4 time, Fauré subverts a strong sense of meter, floating exquisitely tender soprano phrases above the simplest of accompaniments. The orchestra echoes the soloist twice with a gentle rocking motion that gradually becomes a more regular part of the texture; the lullaby-like effect perfectly undergirds the soprano part as it rocks back and forth on two pitches, singing of eternal rest (sempiternam requiem).

The Agnus Dei begins with a sublimely rhapsodic melody in the violas. This becomes a countermelody to the arching tenor entrance that follows, as once again Fauré weaves an intricate instrumental idea around a less ornate vocal line. The full chorus responds more ominously, but the soaring tenor line returns. The previous movement is echoed as the tenors rock back and forth on sempiternam requiem, leading to a magical chord change on lux aeterna (light eternal); the whispered words that follow are bathed in the richest, most harmonically complex choral sonorities heard yet, as if something is gloriously illuminated from a great distance. A climax is reached and suddenly we are back at the starkness of the very beginning of the work, the lights having gone out. Again, the arresting plea for eternal rest is heard; consolation is offered as the rhapsodic viola melody concludes the movement.

There are many satisfying symmetries among the seven movements, including the placement of the intimate soprano solo in the center and the use of baritone solo in the second and sixth movements, which have the darkest texts. Whereas the second movement puts the baritone's music in the middle, the Libera me is framed by solo sections. This movement had actually been written years before, and it features the most melodramatic, least chant-like vocal writing. This is especially true of the baritone solo, which could come right out of an opera with its ringing references to fiery judgment. The chorus responds with appropriately mortified trembling, and the intrusion of tolling horns summons up violent visions of the Day of Wrath. Most melodramatically of all, the chorus then takes up the soloist's tune in grim, trembling unison.

Just as the dark second movement is followed by a radiant Sanctus, the sixth is followed by the even more ethereal In Paradisum. This is music of great delicacy that hardly needs description. The sopranos lead the way throughout, finding rest in the support of the chorus at cadences and an unending bed of arpeggios in the organ. In this year in which Gordon College has been investigating various perspectives on biblical shalom, Fauré's music provides a wonderful framework for thinking about the eternal promise of peace.

Antonin Dvorak actually wrote a very fine requiem of his own, but he's better known as a composer who can make instruments sing, whether writing for small ensembles or full orchestra. Works with a programmatic title always seem to have an advantage in the public eye, but Dvorak's ninth and final symphony, "From the New World," certainly deserves its popularity. Written in the same year (1893) that Fauré was adding the two movements to his Requiem, it is a celebration both of the "old world" ideal of a symphony in the mold of Beethoven and Brahms and of being open to new inspirations. It was written while on an extended stay in America, during which the composer spent a lot of time listening to and advocating for what he thought of as America's music, especially that of Native Americans and African Americans. He strongly believed that American composers should mine these resources, but it's open to speculation how much their influence can be heard in the New World Symphony. There are plenty of folk-like melodies, but that can be said of many of his works; Czechs have folk-songs too. If the work doesn't really sound like the more distinctive American music that sprouted in the twentieth century, there's something about its big-hearted gestures and wide-open spaces that connects with the optimism that a new world promises; just as importantly, the moments of melancholy may suggest a longing for the composer's homeland. In the final analysis, the main point is that the work surely reflects something of Dvorak's experience as a stranger in an exciting land.

The opening of the first movement is shrouded in mystery, beginning in the subterranean depths and echoing in the woodland heights; thus, the sense of a spacious canvas has been created even before the symphony proper has really gotten under way. After a series of violent outbursts, tentative woodwind figures are answered by the first occurrence of the symphony’s primary motto – a rhythmic pattern of long-short-short-long with a syncopated stress on the last note. Finally, a drumroll and tremolando violins announce the arrival of the principal theme, introduced by the french horns. Constructed from a rising triadic pattern in the rhythm of the new world motto, the theme functions like an open-ended question. The working out of the movement is mostly concerned with explorations of this questioning idea, which draws forth a wide variety of responses from across the orchestral palette. There are quieter, chamber-like moments as well, including a gentle transformation of the motto into a sort of prairie tune, but a sense of unrest predominates and leads to a defiant close.

The second movement begins with a striking series of chords from the brass that magically transports us from the turbulent E minor of the first movement to the distant realm of D-flat major. (These chords will return at the end of this movement and, in blazing fashion, near the end of the last movement.) The modulation sets up the english horn to sing one of the most famous of all themes, beautifully tailored to the instrument's plaintive voice. The movement proceeds at a leisurely pace, though a more restless minor-key theme is introduced in the flute, music that could easily be interpreted as a longing for home. This is followed by an unexpectedly merry, dance-like tune in the oboe that suggests happy memories, memories that are soon interrupted by a dramatic reentrance of the new world motto – the outburst sets the stage for the return of the english horn theme. This time, the second half of the tune is taken up by a small group of muted strings – their hushed phrases trail off into several heart-stopping silences, but an even smaller group of soloists leads the way back home.

Whereas the major key of the second movement is tinged with persistent sadness, the minor key third movement is a spirited scherzo in ABA form, full of lively cross rhythms and playful echoes back and forth across the orchestra, with the timpani a featured player. One could say that the symphony as a whole gives lie to the notion that minor key music is always sad. Here, the vigorous main idea of the A section is countered by a more relaxed major key tune that anticipates the kind of cowboy song one might hear in a Western movie; the A section is rounded off with a return to the vigorous minor key music. Cellos and violas then recall the new world motto as a means of connecting to the good-natured B section, featuring yet another free-range cowboy tune. The A section is then repeated, though its ending is briefly interrupted by another dramatic reentry of the new world motto.

The final movement begins in startling fashion with unison strings biting away at the same half-step interval that would later be associated with a great white shark. This rush of excitement ushers in a heroic fanfare theme, first delivered by trumpets and horns. Dvorak’s seemingly endless supply of catchy tunes and dance figures is put to good use in the kaleidoscopic finale, but the fanfare theme is never far away. As if this variety isn’t enough, the heroic trumpet theme is converted into a viola ostinato over which the primary themes of the second and third movements are set dancing. Of course, the new world motto becomes part of this melting pot, and several great climaxes are achieved. One senses that the composer hates to say goodbye to such rich material, as apparent endings are extended several times; after quietly reminiscing on the middle movement themes one last time, the new world motto is combined with the heroic fanfare theme to set up a final race to the finish.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

the kind of infectious it's good to spread around

The NY Times recently invited some of their classical music critics to "confess" their "secret musical passions" - to reveal some works/recordings they enjoy in spite of what one might expect of such highbrow types. Obviously, there's no right answer to such a question, but what I found most revealing is what some of the answers said about the moralistic tendencies of the classical music world - specifically, that there should such an obvious "right" and "wrong" way to perform various works. It's nothing new for me to suggest that ideas about "performance practice" are too prescriptive and idealistic - Richard Taruskin started beating that drum decades ago. And yet, here's Allan Kozinn 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."

What better indication is there that the academic side of the music business has gotten too much of an upper hand in how we listen, that one should be embarrassed to like something so likeable, and only willing to accept it because of the performer's fame? Is it any wonder that young performers are often criticized as being less original and spontaneous in their musicmaking than the giants of previous generations? Of course, the question of tastefulness in performance is one of infinitely recursive complexity; while I would argue for a much less moralistic tone about performance decisions and much more freedom than "the establishment" tends to allow, I also really value all the work that has gone into looking at performance practice in a scholarly way, and my own musical instincts are very strongly colored by "the establishment" way of thinking. In other words, I might want to say that performers should rely on intuition, but I might be horrified by what 1910 or 1810 intuition sounded like.

So, I haven't come to bury the "performance practice" movement, but rather to say that it's ridiculous that someone need apologize for enjoying politically incorrect musicmaking. (I understand, by the way, that Kozinn's remarks are somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but they reflect a predominant way of thinking.) Here's a more practical way in which I experience this tension. Not infrequently, while listening to a student, I'll find myself thinking, "I should really tell him/her not to articulate/phrase/pedal/ritard, etc a certain way," not because it offends my musical sensibilities or makes the music unmusical, but because I know it's not the way one is "supposed" to play. Naturally, it's important when learning anything to have to work within a set of rules, but the further I get from being a student myself, the more I find myself wondering why we're so rigid about so much.

MM's Law, which I don't think I've ever revealed on MMmusing, states: "There's always a tradeoff." The tradeoff in our academically-grounded method of training musicians is that concerns about authenticity (doing what we think the composer wants) have tilted us too much towards this moralistic attitude about music-making, and away from a more intuitive sense of what sounds right. It's a very tricky balance; not every one has Horowitz's instincts, and a good musical training requires some rigidity in the early stages about what's musical, acceptable, etc. Still, I'm convinced the importance we put on "doing it right" by academic standards can be a significant impediment to communication with audiences, because it can distract us from the business of communication.

I'm not interested in going further down that thorny path today, but I was also a little disappointed that the focus of the "guilty pleasures" was still on classical music. First of all, that seems like a great way to reinforce just how insulated we tend to be, to suggest, as Vivien Schweitzer did, that enjoying Klemperer's romanticized St. Matthew Passion is a kind of low-brow slumming. (How may potential classical fans have been turned off by hearing that a performance they thought they loved wasn't really any good at all because it violated some critic's sensibilities?) Secondly, I'd be much more interested to hear about the non-classical music that excites these critics.

Since my Lenten discipline demands that I forgo my normal sports radio on the daily commutes, I've been working the iPod more and, to be honest, sometimes struggling with what to listen to. I'm just not a pop/rock guy, but I'm often not in the right frame of mind to listen to typical classical fare either. With great joy, though, I did recently stumble back onto my favorite soundtrack of all time, the music for A Mighty Wind. Christopher's Guest's masterpiece is one of my three all-time favorite movies, along with The Purple Rose of Cairo and Magnolia. A very personal list, to be sure, and not intended to suggest these are the best movies ever made, just the most important to me. With Magnolia, it's the symphonic scope of the film, the way in which three hours go soaring by and feel connected, despite a wide range of content. The Purple Rose of Cairo is just perfectly executed from start to finish, both hilarious and heart-rending.

A Mighty Wind is the oddest choice here (a guilty pleasure, I suppose), but it's what went into making that extraordinarily delightful soundtrack that makes the movie special. These actors actually managed to create three convincing musical groups (The Folksmen, The New Main Street Singers, and Mitch & Mickey) that are equal parts hilariously satirical and legitimately entertaining, and the authenticity that comes from that gives the characters and situations unusual dimension for such a lighthearted film. I just watched the "concert" part of the movie again last night and I'm just amazed at what was accomplished. From the spot-on absurdity of the Main Street Singers' covering the Folksmen's "Never Did No Wand'rin" to the exuberant final ensemble (in which the title song proves to be both a huge joke and completely genuine), it's the most realistic incorporation of musical performance into any movie I've ever seen.

By the way, it's pretty cool how that scene was put together. Not only did the three groups perform for a live audience, but the concert was both filmed and videotaped, so that the scenes in the production truck show true TV-like video on the monitors. (Ed Begley, Jr. kills me in those production truck scenes.) All the drama going on during the concert is believably coordinated with the concert in real-time; fortunately, the fantastic DVD extras let you watch the performances in their entirety, but getting to know the CD soundtrack (which includes yet more songs) is essential to really appreciating what went into this movie.

It's surely a sign of my own snobbery that I seem to need the satirical layer to let myself have so much fun to listening to folk music, but so be it. The point is that when I'm listening to "Never Did No Wand'rin" (either version), "When You're Next to Me," or even "Potato's in the Paddy Wagon," it's hard to tell when I'm having fun because the parody is so good and when I'm just enjoying the very thing that's being parodied. That's a really difficult line for an artwork to straddle, but I feel no guilt in declaring this soundtrack one of my favorite guilty pleasures.

[The subject heading is taken from Jonathan Steinbloom's introduction of The New Main Street Singers, but it could just as easily apply to Horowitz's Scarlatti.]

Monday, February 11, 2008

Found Music, Part 2

Sitting in my drafts folder are five unfinished posts started within the last week. The fifth was intended to explain succinctly why these posts haven't been getting posted - but now it has expanded into something that's not ready to be finished, and I only have ten free minutes left today. So, just to get me back in the game, let's go with another example of found music, if only to give me an excuse to link back to my first foray into this field. Last time I only combined two works (and that, arguably, is a better bet for getting something interesting), but last night, as I was posting the ten listening excerpts I'd played for a recent music history quiz, I couldn't resist setting all the clips going at once.

Hear here.

A lovely wall of sound from the Early Baroque. Enjoy!

[NOTE: It reminds me a little bit of some moments in Albert Herring, when Britten has all the characters singing at once, not necessarily in synch with each other. If I have time and the inclination, perhaps I'll post a DIY version of these 10 Baroque excerpts, so you can "find" your own music.]

. . . also see the Vertical Christmas Medley.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Well, that could have gone better . . .

There's not much to say about the sad events of last night, but there must be some useful lesson of mortality . . . flying too close to the sun? . . . Anyway, the TV set was switched off from the second Brady's last pass fell incomplete, and I'll be officially sports-free until Easter. I don't need to hear any analysis to tell me what happened or to try to re-live it. I will say that the moment Eli Manning completed that impossible play in which he got away from two or three enormous guys, threw a crazy pass downfield and had it caught miraculously off a helmet - well, the Giants seemed destined to win from then on. It may well go down as the greatest Super Bowl ever, but that's little consolation. Avoiding sports radio and the like for these last two days before Lent will actually make me happier, so in order to counteract that potential enjoyment of abstinence, I also resolved to give up donuts starting today instead of Wednesday. Now that's a sacrifice.

I tried to break free of despair immediately last night by popping in an episode of the great Dick Van Dyke Show - about as escapist as possible, and always entertaining. Usually I'd be half asleep at the end of a half-hour, but in this case it took much longer to get to sleep, reliving the five or six moments when the Patriots almost put the game away. Still, the truth is I'm not that heartbroken. The Patriots have won three Super Bowls in the past decade and the Red Sox have won two World Series. This game doesn't even remotely compare to the horror of 2003 when Aaron Boone's homerun . . . Oh, why linger on such things?

So, this morning, it was nothing but music on the ride up (including the amazingly sexy duet between Nerone and Poppea in L'incoronazione di Poppea (prep for a class)) - and then an early morning swim. I've tended to be horrible about exercise in the non-summer months, so I'm going to try to get to school early a few days a week to see if this works. Hitting the indoor pool on a freezing morning was remarkably refreshing, and it cleared my mind of football better than Rob and Laura Petrie.

If nothing else, I may be one of the few bloggers to have gotten football, Lent, the Dick Van Dyke Show, and Monteverdi into one post . . .

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Dimanche Gras

Well, here we are, less than 60 minutes from kickoff. Some years, the Super Bowl is just a game, but not only is the home team participating this year, they have a chance to . . . no, let's not talk about that.

Anyway, I was assuming that it's a rarity for Super Bowl Sunday to fall just before Ash Wednesday, but it turns out it's happened as recently as 2005. I believe that's the only other time it's ever happened, since all pre-2004 games were in January, but it seems appropriate; I don't anticipate any big Mardi Gras blowout this Tuesday (unless not bothering to vote in the primaries counts as wild), so the game makes a good excuse for indulging in excess. (Wings? check. Whole Foods guacamole? Check. Chips? Check. Beer? Czech.) It's doubly appropriate for me because I'm intending to give up sports for Lent again this year . . . I think. Actually, giving up sports radio,, and other such temptations won't be as difficult this year because the early Easter means the March Madness tournament will only have just gotten started when I resurface. So, I'm also thinking of giving up donuts. Now that will be tough.

Win or lose tonight, I'm also planning to embark on a semi-regular exercise plan starting tomorrow, so there's a chance I'll be a much healthier person come March 23 - and that I'll rebuild the kind of good music listening habits (absent sports radio) I built last Winter and slowly allowed to erode afterwards. Hey, it was a tough year to stay away from sports with the Sox winning the Series and the Patriots flirting with . . . Whoops, no more about that.

Game time! (And of course, by the time most read this, you'll know whether or not I'm euphoric or miserable. You can check here, if you're somehow not sure.)

[UPDATE: I think I'll be starting my Lenten discipline early this year. No sports until Easter. Congrats to Giants' fans.]

Friday, February 1, 2008

More Synthpathetic Vibrations

Following the discovery of my last post, the logical next step was to let one of the Virtual Singers try out Beirut's "Scenic World." Again, here's Mr. Zach Condon. Here's the new Virtual Version. I realize there's a chance I'm offending all sorts of Beirut fans, but if this is what people want to hear, I don't think it will be that long before a virtual voice is conquering the pop world. It may take a little longer to conquer opera, but maybe that will happen too. No more sick sopranos (unless the software crashes!). Hey, we accompanists have been facing this future for some time; it's only fair that singers would be next.

Meanwhile, my oh-so clever post title demanded that this be done.

[Amusing Addendum: My 2-yr-old daughter is now walking around humming the "Scenic World" tune. However, her voice is so sweet and perfect, no computer could ever copy it.]