Monday, March 31, 2008

March Madness

My second year of giving up following sports for Lent turned out to be even easier than the first, to the point that I don't really feel I gave up anything meaningful (except the donuts!). Missing out on all the post Super Bowl trauma turned out to be even more helpful psychologically than expected, but I also didn't remotely regret missing the first three days of NCAA's March Madness - I opened the paper (well, on Easter Sunday to find that Arkansas, my alma mater, would be playing UNC that afternoon, but I didn't feel particularly compelled to watch - just as well, since we got pounded. I also felt no particular gravitation towards this past weekend's games* - also just as well, because I was in the middle of my own March Madness.

Beginning Thursday, I spent 2 1/2 days as accompanist for the All-State chorus, which wasn't particularly taxing since all but one of the works they performed was a cappella. Still, it was a very busy rehearsal schedule and the performance was at none other than Symphony Hall. The sound of 250 voices on that stage was something else; it was a little sad only to play on one piece, but I swear even the rolling out of pitches for each selection was satisfying in that perfect acoustic. It was mostly fun to watch the students have such a fantastic experience at the concert (much credit for their experience should go to the inspiring conductor, Michele Holt) and, after all, it was their concert, not mine.

I hadn't experienced the All-State atmosphere since being the last-chair baritone in the Arkansas choir back in the '80s. The year before that, I'd actually been second chair cello in the all-state orchestra (which says a lot more about the quality of Arkansas cello-playing in those days than it does about me!), but I think chorus works better than orchestra in the "let's bring together a bunch of people really fast" department. How often does anyone get to sing in a group of that size? You could feel genuine emotion in what the kids were doing.

Anyway, all that would have been fine except I had two taxing recitals to accompany following the Mass hysteria, which put practice time at a premium. Saturday night featured four of Strauss's Brentano Lieder, which I'd never played, and Debussy's Quatre chansons de jeunesse, which I thought I knew better than I did. The Strauss songs are orchestrally dense, yet require a kind of subtlety and finesse that doesn't come easily with so many notes in play. Terrifying! I was practicing them right through the intermission, but they are really beautiful and were sung exquisitely. Sunday's violin program featured Beethoven Op. 30, No. 3, which is full of exposed passagework at top speed; Ives' second violin sonata, which is denser than Strauss, though more forgiving; and Tzigane, which felt like a stroll through the park after Beethoven and Ives.

It was all very stressful, but also richly rewarding - the kind of weekend that makes me so happy to be a musician. The Beethoven is full of spontaneity and humor, and I think that came across in spite of spontaneous finger happenings. I have other thoughts on that piece that I'll save for another post. The Ives, which I'd never played before, is really something. The barnburner second movement is a can't-miss crowd-pleaser; performing it feels like being shaken up in a kaleidoscope - which turns out to be a fun experience. The third and final movement, which transfigures Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing from meditation to pentecostal rapture, suffers only from being too short. Anyway, it's a work I'd love to play again, although the first movement is still something of an enigma to me.

So I am very tired and wish I'd had devoted more practice time to these works months ago. I spent very little time away from the piano from Thurs-Sunday. However, just to show how truly mad I am, I'll close with a ridiculous video I put together on Tuesday while working at my other keyboard. This is a promo for a faculty forum led by our technology committee. The back story is that during a meeting, after we'd come up with a pretentious title about "Shifting Technological Landscapes," someone starting singing a song I'd never heard. The rest of the committee members joined in, to my bafflement. Suffice it to say that I now know the song much better than I ever expected to. Here's why:

If, like me, you don't know your Carole King, perhaps this version will make more sense.

* The "out of sight, out of mind" (OOSOOM?) phenomenon is interesting, and perhaps stronger in me than in others. It may seem odd to my blog readership that I would ever have cared about basketball games, but when I'm in full sports intake mode, missing 10 seconds of these "big" games can feel like a travesty. Actually, I've had the OOSOOM experience with music as well. When I shifted my career focus to collaborative piano in my DMA years, I slowly starting convincing myself that I didn't really miss the solo piano rep - that duo sonatas and artsongs were much more satisfying. Then, in my second year, I taught a semester of music history. When we got to Beethoven and Op. 110 (which I had played) came up, I was blown away by how much I loved that music and how much I'd missed living with it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Channeling MM

Now that I seem to be YouTubing on a regular basis, the multimedia focus of MM is becoming ever more apparent. I love the serendipity of this embedded meaning in the name MMmusing. I invented the moniker both as a play on my name (Michael Monroe) and on the intended focus on music and meaning, but it's long since become obvious that the creation of multimedia content is part of my musing mission as well.

So, I've officially created my own YouTube Channel (which basically means I updated the wallpaper that was there and organized a couple of playlists.) Pretty much anything that shows up there will show up here as well, but you're still welcome to subscribe to the channel if you'd like. And don't forget that you can sample lots of other multimedia content in the Guide to MMmusing or via the come-what-may Multimedia Musing Machine in the margin.

And a hearty welcome to those who've stumbled by following today's Faculty Forum. (Yes, that was a sentence fragment. Welcome to blogging.)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Retro Loop

As I hinted in the previous post, seeing the Princess Bride DVD cover got my mind looping on loops again. I started thinking about Bach's crab canon from The Musical Offering, a 2-part canon in which the second part is the exact reverse of the first part. It occurred to me that if recorded with the right kind of synthesized timbre (specifiably, one without a distinct attack at the beginning of each note), it should be possible simply to play the audio backwards and have it sound the same. The result is quite effective. Here you can hear the canon played forwards. Actually, I only had my synth record the top part; then, I reversed that audio and layered it on to the original. The top, forward-moving voice is on the left channel and the reversed version is on the right channel. If you'd like to hear what happens when the audio is played backwards, here you go. It's pretty much exactly the same except the voices have switched channels. (Sorry, no hidden messages from the beyond.)

As with my Shepard Tone recording of Bach's spiral canon, I thought a follow-the-bouncing-ball score would make a nice visual accompaniment. It's not really all that easy to perceive the canonic effect unless one has listened often, so it helps to watch the music go in both directions. This video plays through the canon twice, the second time reversed, although YouTube doesn't preserve the stereo effect. Although I chose to display the parts on two staves, what you should try to do is just follow the top staff from both directions. The lightly shaded bottom staff is just there to show what the backwards voice is doing.

UPDATE: If you're wondering what a more conventional recording of this work might sound like backwards, you can hear it played forwards on the piano and then backmasked in this unusual little palindrome movie. Obviously, the sharp piano attacks create an odd whooshy effect when reversed.

UPDATE #2: For more than ten years (!), there have been two wrong notes in that video animation which has turned out to be one of my most viewed videos with over 180,000 views. I've finally created a new version with those notes corrected. Thank you to many YouTube commenters who've been reminding me of this error often!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Invertible Loop

[UPDATE (4/14): MM creates his own ambigram.]

I was delighted to find the relatively new special edition DVD of The Princess Bride in my Easter basket this morning. I haven't even opened the box yet, but I was blown away by the cover design, specifically the ambigramatic lettering for the title. I don't think I'd ever heard the word "ambigram" until I came it across it this afternoon while trying to learn more about this kind of thing, but this is as beautifully executed as any examples I've seen. Not coincidentally, it turns out that the term "ambigram" was coined by my strange looping hero, Douglas Hofstadter. Also, not surprisingly, my mind went back to the Musical Offering, wondering if any of Bach's puzzle canons worked like this. There is the famous crab canon, which is basically a musical palindrome, but an ambigram isn't really quite the same thing since it involves an inversion as well as a retrograde.

Whoa, that's getting too technical - the real beauty of this lettering is how elegantly the artifice is concealed, so just take a look. I couldn't resist putting this little video demo together - it will save you having to flip your monitor/laptop upside down.

Meanwhile, I'm finding myself drawn in to others of Bach's canons - some of them do involve inversion, of course, although none that are strictly analogous to this ambigram. I'm working on some other experiments in realizing these canons, but this week will be quite busy, so it may be slow blogging ahead.

Other recent "strange loop" posts: Strange Loop, Swan Loop, Canon Loop.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Not real-ly

Via Chris Foley's blog:

This is rather amusing, even if the song is so painfully bad that the so-bad-it's-funny dynamic doesn't quite work. What's ironic to me is that, although the idea is to show what it would be like for a musical production number to break out in a real-life situation, the real audience for this is not the poor folks stuck in the food-court but, rather, the YouTube audience. The unsuspecting diners become part of the show, as evidenced by the amount of work that was put into hiding videocameras and documenting the surprised reactions. It's basically Candid Camera, which of course is intended primarily to amuse TV viewers, not the people being pranked. The music isn't really designed to communicate with those who are there, as evidenced by the general low-energy bewilderment. Since neither TV nor YouTube can be considered real-life situations, this musical turns out to be just as un-real as all the rest - and a good thing, too. If real musicals like this were breaking out everywhere, I'd never go out.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Duet for Two Pianos, Two Hands

Less than a year and the boy is already practicing with great enthusiasm - and one keyboard isn't enough. Clearly, he's interested in exploiting the timbral differences between the Steinway grand and the baby grand. I might have been skeptical of the artistic intent, but Alex Ross has taught me to find beauty and meaning in the lengthy pauses, the sudden sforzandi, the experimental tunings, and the isolated motivic cells - not to mention the unexpected sprechstimme. (I've always balked at having to talk/sing/whistle while playing, but I'm so 20th century.) Each time I listen, the music makes a bit more sense. And this composer is much cuter than Morton Feldman.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sounds Like It Sounds Great!

In my last post, I wondered if Alex Ross sometimes manages to make the music he writes about sound better in prose that it actually sounds in sound. In fairness, if he's wanting people to seek out the music he's writing about, it makes sense that he'd accentuate the positive. I know when I write program notes, I try to downplay whatever faults a work may have on the theory that the program notes are designed to get people to listen eagerly - I had a student recently submit some program notes that were sufficiently critical about one set of songs as to make me wonder why she'd chosen them. Why put the audience in the position of wondering why you're making them listen?

I recently posted some notes I wrote for the Faure Requiem and the New World Symphony. If you read between the lines, you might deduce that I think the last two movements of the Requiem are the weakest ones, but I purposely chose not to make a point of that. I also left clues that maybe the last movement of the Dvorak could use some tightening, but again, why set the audience up to look for flaws? People should be left on their own to determine what they don't like. They're good at that.

A book like Ross's is a bit of a different story since it has a more naturally critical perspective; still, although he's openly skeptical of the mythologizing that surrounds certain composers, you'll rarely find him describing a passage of music that he finds ineffective. The book thus sits somewhere between being objective history and subjective advocacy - nothing wrong with that. One of the challenges I always face teaching music history is dealing with works in the textbook/anthology that I don't find particularly effective. I think it can be bad teaching to pretend that dull music is fascinating, since it can make the student feel stupid for not being fascinated; on the other hand, I know that sometimes students take to certain works more enthusiastically than I do, and I'd never want to discourage that (unless they take a liking to that Haydn fellow).

And speaking of writing about what music sounds like, I was amused to see Matthew Guerrieri rhapsodizing about a piece he'd never heard. He writes that "[Harriet] Padberg's 'Canon and Free Fugue' sounds like one of the coolest pieces of all time." This praise (somewhat exaggerated for effect, no doubt) is for a highly experimental, partly computer-generated work that uses unusual microtones and unpredictable means of generating pitches - how could one begin to imagine what it sounds like, except in the most general sense? Padberg's work may fall into that big category of ideas that sound good on paper, but paper won't play in my CD player.

But perhaps it will sound like I don't know what I'm talking about . . . which is curious, because I'm not talking or otherwise making any more sound than the clicking of my fingers on the keyboard. And it's not a piano keyboard, so it sounds like I might need to get back to work.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Let the Noise Rest

Minutes ago, I finally finished reading Alex Ross's magnificent The Rest is Noise. I'd started back in the late Fall, managed to lose my copy for several months, found it when I'd given up looking and - well, it's all over but the silence now. There are way too many things to say about this book for one blog post, but for now I'll mention two:

1. Ross writes so beautifully and convincingly about what music sounds like that he manages to make almost every work he discusses sound fantastic. Of course, "sound" is a funny word in that context, because the book is silent (although he has put up this excellent resource). This is why writing about music is such a tricky thing, and I envy him the ease with which he does it. On the other hand, by the end I start to get skeptical. I'll admit I don't know very well a lot of the avant-garde composers that populate the last couple of hundred pages; Ross makes me want to hear almost all of them, but I doubt they all sound as good as his writing suggests. In more than a few cases, my ears have already told me something different. I think he could find words to make just about any organization of noise sound like a masterpiece, and it's probably true that the human mind can make sense of out of just about anything if so inclined. But if that's the case, we don't really have much need for composers anyway. [I'm not pretending the preceding paragraph is particularly fair or well-argued yet - just initial thoughts.]

2. Just as watching the Bourne movies had me feeling like a superspy, I think reading about Cage, Stockhausen et al triggered my inner avant-garde, as evidenced by the little soundtrack to this video I posted yesterday. Since I had written that seeing the newly reconstructed images of Bach's face produced a sort of natural cognitive dissonance in the absence of wig/dresscoat, I wanted to communicate that musically while morphing this image back into a more familiar context. My goal was to phase in Brandenburg #5 from unrecognizably garbled to crystal clear. I didn't really have great distortion tools on hand, but I ended up enjoying the bending of Bach into something eerie and distant as much as I enjoyed the video editing - it felt like a truly creative process, setting up this time-travelling haze that suggests cognitive dissonance, as the familiar is shrouded in mystery. And, as I've suggested happens with Ross, I have probably wildly oversold the merits of this little creation. Now it's off to write a symphony for toothbrush, alarm clock, and ungraded papers.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Context is Everything

[UPDATE (3/8): I tweaked the video a little bit since it was first posted. The original version can be seen here. The newer version is now below, although it drives me crazy that YouTube doesn't let me choose my own poster frame; this one sort of gives the context away.]

I don't really know why I woke up this morning thinking this needed to be done - but now it's been done.

[UPDATE: see explanation of my intent here in the next post up.]

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Unlikely Doppelgänger

Many bloggers have commented on this image - 2008's best guess about what J. S. Bach actually looked like. I had assummed that most of the cognitive dissonance we experience when looking at this seemingly unfamiliar face had to do with the absence of powdered wig, dresscoat, etc. It's like hearing the Goldberg Variations played on electric guitars - too cold and modern to synch up smoothly with our associations.

So, a little amatuer Photoshopping later and, behold: see how much more convincing it is when put in the proper context. One can now see those eyes lighting up at the thought of six-part fugues, mind-blowing canons, and heartrending chorale settings. But . . .

. . . then I came upon Mark Connor's startling discovery.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Multimedia Musing

I've updated the ol' Musing Machine in the margin to include some of the more recent multimedia content. I tend to bury this stuff at the end of overly long posts, so just in case you missed something, here are some recent highlights - including my strange loopy trilogy and something from late last year. (Or, if you're feeling brave, just spin the wheel - now with 15% better chance of stumbling on a video!)

Spiral Canon

Endless Climb

Swan Loop

12 Composers

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Canon Loop

No, I promise, this won't be a Pachelbel marathon. Looping that canon would be way too easy, and it's so been done.

However, my exploration of Strange Loops and Shepard Tones led me to something really fascinating, and has resulted in the most interesting and satisfying of my loop creations. [see video below if you can't abide my prose.] In 1980, Douglas Hofstadter won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, which, introduced the concept of strange loops as part of a dazzling exploration of meaning, self-reference, artificial intelligence, etc. It's been years since I read the book (although I'm a huge fan of Hofstadter's later work, Le Ton beau de Marot), so I had no memory of his suggestion that the "modulating canon" from Bach's The Musical Offering could be made to cycle endlessly by using Shepard tones. (He apparently did this with some 70's era synthesizers; I don't know how often it's been done by others.)

Here's the basic idea: this canon is an 8-bar structure which modulates up one whole-step each time through. Thus, when played six times, the performers have moved from C Minor to D Minor to E Minor to F# Minor to G# Minor to A#(Bb) Minor and back to C Minor, one octave above where the canon began. So, the music could go on infinitely, but it would soon become inaudibly high. (Before it became inaudible, it would probably be unbearably squeaky.) However, Hofstadter proposed that the Shepard tone technique could make it possible to modulate up to the same pitch where the music started. How? By slowly fading out one register while another fades in slowly from below.

Naturally, I couldn't resist trying this out - and there went my weekend! Not surprisingly, the Shepard principle works much better when the register fade take place over 2.5 minutes, as opposed to the brief scale snippets I experimented with earlier. Also, I think the dry, staccato attacks of my virtual guitars helps, because we're less likely to notice the subtle balance changes when the notes don't sustain. One surprise is that I'm quite pleased with the way the little computer guitars handle this "performance," and I think it's actually satisfying musically. For example, I much prefer their sound to this; not only is the counterpoint in my version clearer, it's also more pleasant to listen to. This is certainly Bach at his most Webernesque, so the impersonal interpretative point-of-view works.

The video below also incorporates a score - the resolution is borderline acceptable (I'm working on improving that), but I thought it was worthwhile to get all 8 measures on-screen at once. Along with my improvised "follow the magic yellow line" technology, it provides a really clear way to "see" the canon unfold. Each new page is essentially the same music, transposed up. I think the fade-down to the lower octave is pretty well camouflaged, although you can certainly pinpoint the switch if you listen for it. Still, it's remarkable to hear this music unfold this way, continuously modulating upward, but always ending back in the same place.

The top voice is based on the tune given to Bach by Frederick the Great. The other two parts are in canon, with the bottom voice leading and the middle voice following a measure behind and a fifth above. (A red arrow at the beginning of the video shows how the two relate.) The bottom voice (leader) is recorded on the left channel and the middle voice is recorded on the right channel [UPDATE: The stereo separation was lost in the YouTube transfer; the left/right distribution of parts does work on the download files below]. The modulation up is easy enough to hear each 8 measures, although it's worth noting that the top voice mostly traces a downward trajectory. This also helps to disguise the Shepard tone illusion.

Of course, the audio is what counts; I listened to it looping continuously on the 30-minute drive home from a recital tonight; that's some pretty stimulating wallpaper - it really clears the brain. You can download the mp3 here and try for yourself. Also, since I haven't gotten YouTube to make the video as clean as I'd like, you can download a higher quality .wmv version here. It's about 33MB, but easier on the eyes.

If you want to hear my other recent experiments in looping, take a look at the last few posts. I'm still enjoying my looped Tchaikovsky sequence as an alternative to the Bach. Both are more appealing than most of what I can find on the radio, and I find the aural wallpaper idea quite interesting. Many classical radio stations trend that way anyway, but why not go all the way?

[Speaking of Hofstadter and the topic at hand, his latest book (2007) is called I Am a Strange Loop. I haven't read it yet, but I think I know what he means. I don't know if he revisits the idea of applying Shepherd tones to this canon.]

UPDATE: Just discovered something called Google (?!) which lets you do web searches; this led to the discovery of other Shepard tone recordings of this canon, including this one on organ and this one. I'm sure there are others, and there's much more information out there about Shepard tones. But there's no more time to search for now . . . [UPDATE2: but I did listen to that organ one, found on this course site, and must admit that the illusion is exceptionally well-disguised. I think we're so used to hearing single voices playing multiple registers on an organ that the ear is more easily fooled by the subtle phasing in of a new register. I prefer the sound of my guitars, but concede that the the effect works better on the organ recording.]