Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Songs Without Singers #2

Part 2 of the new "songs without singers" series features one of the most piano-centric of all lieder, Richard Strauss's Morgen (greatest wedding present ever?). I've mentioned before how I much prefer the original piano accompaniment to the sickly sweet sound of the solo violin in the composer's orchestration. Here we take the final step and eliminate the voice as well. No vibrato allowed! I'm proud to say, in the spirit of piano blogging, that this was a first take; not perfect, but then neither are the piano, pianist, or microphone perfect.

{Listen here or in the new MMmusic jukebox.}

Incidentally, I really like the idea of informal piano blogging - just as blogging in general encourages a slightly less formal, more improvisatory approach to writing, this can do the same for recording. Many of my favorite moments as a musician are unambitious little performances in the practice room. It would be great to see some of the great artists doing this - just hitting record and posting the results for all to hear. Jeremy Denk did this once to very satisfying effect at the end of his remarkable Bach allemande week.

Also, I make no great claims about making the piano sing, but if anyone doubts what this "percussion instrument" can do, check out a Mr. Rachmaninoff in this recording of The Swan. I mean, I'm a cellist on the side and I used to play this; I've listened to dozens of cellists play it, but I don't think it gets more beautiful than this dusty old keyboard rendition.

Thanks to a YouTube acquaintance for passing this along.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Songs Without Singers #1

[UPDATE: I decided to change the name of this series from "Songs Without Vocal Chords" to "Songs Without Singers." The former is funnier, but the latter is more mellifluous.]

One of the many joys of being an accompanist has been discovering beautiful piano parts that just happen to have voice parts added to them. To continue on my piano blogging theme, I present today Chausson's incomparably exquisite Le colibri, which I had the pleasure of playing in recital with a wonderful soprano on Friday. The vocal part is lovely, but I have no attachment at all to the lyrics. So, here it is with just me playing both the vocal part and the accompaniment. There are many songs that can be quite satisfying this way, so I'm hoping to add more. As a disclaimer, I'll add that I'm looking for things that can be put together pretty quickly and recorded without a lot of fuss (aka practice). It's not my goal to expand on the Schubert/Liszt rep, but rather to enjoy some of these songs in the simplest way possible.

{Listen here or in the new MMmusic jukebox.}

The recording quality isn't great, but the waveform for this recording is actually rather attractive. It reminds me more of hummingbirds (subject of the song) than does anything in the music, atlhough that could probably be said of most waveforms.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Carrousel perpétuel

I mentioned a couple of posts back that I had a project in mind involving Poulenc's Trois mouvements perpétuels. This is not that project - but having recorded the piece, I somehow ended up imagining and then producing the following. I think it's pretty cool.

Although I recently wrote about a fabulous music-as-rollercoaster video, putting Poulenc on the merry-go-around was not originally intended as another trip to the fairgrounds. This happens to be a wonderfully circular piece that is also conveniently brief, so my first thought was that all the notes could be wrapped around a big disc. You can see what that early version looks like here. I then thought about a variety of ways to make sense of this score-as-circumference, including depicting it as the edge of a spinning coin or LP. Then came the idea of putting a flag on top to help show how far around we'd gone, and soon it had become a carousel. Of course, the 3D animation (created with this freeware) is pretty crude. I'd love to have the Pixar techies on hand; as it stands, this is rather like a composer posting a MIDI recording when the London Philharmonic isn't available. It's the thought that counts. (The notes are a little clearer if you go here and choose the "watch in high quality" option.")

This also gives me an excuse to revisit the thrilling Ries Rollercoaster. I was talking to a student recently who confessed that she sometimes prefers experiences in the jazz/pop world to classical because of the more natural invitation to express oneself physically - specifically, to dance. I mentioned the rollercoaster video to her - it exploits the same basic principle as those motion rides that use visuals to fool the body into thinking it's being whipped around. On some level, that's how we want audiences to respond to music - it's neither passive nor overly intellectual, but rather an intuitive interpretative response that makes us feel - well, whipped around.

And sometimes, after you've been whipped around on the rollercoaster, you just want to go for a nice relaxing merry-go-round ride. Actually, there's a famous French musical merry-go-around by Debussy that hardly sounds relaxing. (Lyrics here. Hear here.) Nevertheless, Poulenc's little bit of perpetual motion is closer in spirit to most carousels I've been around. And notice how the ups-and-downs of the ostinato L.H. can be heard as wooden horses gently bobbing up and down. If you think I didn't think about trying animate that - well, you don't know me very well.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

...the conclusion I never wrote

Dan, over at the excellent ThoughtLights, has posted an interesting follow-up to my "Music as Image / Image as Music" post. Among other things, reading his post made me realize I'd never really written an effective conclusion to my original post. (And just yesterday, I was criticizing lots of student papers for having ineffective conclusions!) So, my comment to his post might help to make clearer what I was trying to say.

In other words: read this.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Un mouvement perpétuel

Blogging continues to proceed at a slogging pace as the semester plods along, but here's my first example of piano-blogging. I've been plotting a little project based on the first of Poulenc's Trois mouvements perpétuels; the project (yeah, looping is involved) hasn't really gotten off the ground, except that I knew I'd want a recording of the piece with which to work. My first thought was to commission a recording from Joyce Hatto, but then I thought I might as well do it myself.

The Poulenc has been on my mind because one of my students is working on it, but it has personal significance for me that I hadn't thought about for awhile. This is the first music I chose for myself to play, which signalled the real beginning of my need to be a musician. The music was in my house (and mind) because my older brother had played all three. I had been taking piano lessons for a few years already, but without being all that serious. Thus, these pieces were maybe a bit over my head, but I remember telling my teacher I wanted to play them, and . . . well, here I am today. So, today I clicked record and tossed off the following on my slightly noisy studio Kawai. (I prefer the Steinway at home, but it needs tuning.)

{Listen here or in the new MMmusic jukebox.}

Such charming music. I guess Poulenc got tired of how popular these pieces became, but the first, especially, is so wonderfully nonchalant. It's also a joy to play - each of the idiosyncratic little right hand gestures is as appealing tactilely as it is aurally, and the left hand settles into a groove that I think my fingers still remember from many years ago. It's so satisfying to get lost in the sheer physical sensation of piano playing, which I'm sure is part of what drew me to this music years ago.

Recently, I've been seeing this in my oldest daughter. Whereas she's studied violin formally for five years, her piano training with me has been intentionally informal and spontaneous, and thus irregular. Still, she's managed to learn a couple of Bach inventions. What's fun to watch right now is that the keyboard has been like a magnet for her the past few months; she ends up at the piano many times a day, half-consciously tooling through Bach. While I don't doubt that the music appeals to her, it's obvious that the tactile satisfaction is what draws her to the keyboard over and over. Years of serious training can make one forget just how primitively appealing the piano can be, but Poulenc certainly knew.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Music as Image / Image as Music

I mentioned last post that the pairing of images and music can provide a useful catalyst for hearing (or seeing) more perceptively. More generally, the audio-visual axis provides an interesting perspective on similarities and differences between these two art worlds. In the interest of self-promotion, I'll use some of my recent video creations to explore this intersection.

There's a long history of comparing art to music, whether it's Debussy/Monet, Picasso/Stravinsky, Schoenberg/Munch, Duchamp/Cage, Rothko/Feldman, etc.. While these comparisons are useful, they're often presented in a way that glosses over an important difference: music is experienced as a series of events over time, while still images are taken in all at once. I'm not saying we can't still find lots of common undercurrents in such disparate media, but I guess I want tighter, more direct connections.

Of course, ballet and other dance forms have existed for centuries as ways to rethink music in "motion pictures," but film/video/animation provide rich possibilities that have only begun to be tapped, especially in contexts where the images serve the music more than the other way around. I recently created score visualizations to go along with recordings I'd made of canons from Bach's Musical Offering. In each case, there was a particular audio technique that inspired the project, but I ended up being at least as interested in the idea of presenting the music visually. An advantage of these short canons is that the entire score can be presented at once in a video frame - the music still needs time to unfold, but one can, in a sense, view each piece in one image, like a painting.

Thinking about musical entities almost always involves a balance between seeing both trees and forest; a typical form & analysis study (especially of the Schenkerian variety) is preoccupied with showing how an effective musical structure can be seen as an organic whole. We can't hear a piece all at once, but an analytical graph can let us see it at one glance - sort of. In the case of the crab canon, the score itself can be viewed this way. (One part plays the notes forwards, the other backwards).
The new little animated GIF below (ah, the underrated animated GIF) uses simple animation to reveal how your eyes/ears might process the score image above.

Listen here

Thus, the idea of seeing motion in a still image is, in a way, a normal experience for musicians. I've heard Jim Zingarelli, an art prof colleague, lecture several times on the idea of seeing direction in paintings as well. Generally speaking, a painting isn't as prescriptive as a musical score about how direction ought to be perceived, but it makes for an interesting comparison. Here's one of Jim's many paintings that is partially inspired by musical/alphabetic symbols:

Stanza 17

It's not hard to see this image as being in motion. [resisting temptation to animate...resisting temptation to animate...] When I created my "ambigram on the name of Bach" last week, I discovered that a fun way to present it was to make a little video in which the script unfolds in time. The purpose of the video was to show that the invertible image could be created by drawing identical patterns from two different directions. However, especially because the letters have a handscripted look about them, the video turns out to be a nice way of revealing the motion that's implicit in the still image.

One of my favorite features of the animation above [better version here] is that its Bach-ness isn't really evident until the letters are almost complete - for most of the drawing time, the symbols aren't recognizable. It would be harder to create that effect in music, mainly because we never get to hear the whole thing at once in the way we see a final cumulative image above. Experiencing the cumulative effect of a musical composition requires more complicated mental processing. I suppose a really perceptive listener might hear Bach's crab canon for the first time and, about 3/4 of the way through, think, "Hey, those voices are retrogrades of each other!" - but that would require comparing a current aural event to one just committed to memory, a much trickier task than recognizing a matching set of images right before one's eyes.

There are, of course, ways in which a composer can make us suddenly realize that something recognizable has been taking shape without our knowing it. We'll finish up with another recent video creation of mine, in which a recently realized image of Bach's face is slowly morphed back into the powdered wig context. In order to enhance the mystery of the "reveal," I added a soundtrack in which a heavily distorted Brandenburg #5 slowly comes into focus as the wigging takes shape. I'm not claiming it as a great compositional feat, but it is a useful analogy for how the letters of Bach's name are revealed in the animated ambigram.

Maybe one reason I like the idea of seeing music as image is that I'm a sightreader by nature - probably my best professional skill as a performer is being able to translate lots of notes I've never seen into music on the fly. It can really be a thrill to "watch" music go by in that way, even though I often have little conscious idea of how my eyes are talking to my fingers. Of course, little black notes aren't really music at all, any more than the letters B-A-C-H are the sound of someone's name, so here's an actual image of musical sounds. (Any guesses?)

(Not nearly as cool-looking as the Ries Rollercoaster.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Seeing Music

I'm a big believer in finding ways to create visual analogues of musical ideas. This is partly just an outgrowth of my interest in analogical thinking; as I've mentioned many times before, Douglas Hofstadter's explorations of Artificial Intelligence have been deeply concerned with how analogy-making is a fundamental component of human thought. Thus, it's only natural that one would try to find extra-musical ways of expressing the meaning one finds in musical sounds.

Of course, the connections between the visual and the aural can go both ways, but I'm particularly interested in visual analogues that help to focus the listener's aural skills. This turns out to be a tricky business. Maybe I'm unusual in this regard, but even as a trained musician who loves to listen attentively, I find that my primary focus tends to drift towards the visual when confronted with an AV pairing. I admire both of the Disney Fantasia movies (I actually prefer the less lauded 2000 edition), but inevitably the music tends to function more as accompaniment to the animated stories - nothing wrong with that, but I'm intrigued by the idea of visuals that keep drawing the ear back to the music. The best case scenario is when such visuals serve as catalysts to a more perceptive kind of listening.

Here's a surprisingly good example of that:

This ad (hat tip to Elaine Fine) for the Zurich Chamber Orchestra is way cool technically. (I need to get my hands on the software they used. I've imagined doing this kind of thing, but that kind of 3D imaging isn't just drawn frame by frame.) It's lots of fun to watch, but I also think it does a great job of leading the viewer back to the music, partially because the barebones visuals are so focused via the wispy black-lines-on-white-background; and, specifically, because the focus is on the musical notes. Part of me wishes they'd been a little more creative in choosing which notes to spotlight (the initial tight focus on an accompanimental violin part is odd), but the vertiginous thrill of the rollercoaster ride is effectively tied to the pace of the music. Note that by "pace," I don't mean that the tempo changes as the notes climb slowly and then rush downwards; rather, the visuals suggest something about the building tensions and headlong releases built into the feel of the music. Ideally, the viewer will have the sense that he/she is inside the orchestra or, better yet, inside the "great emotions." Whether it works as an ad I can't say for sure, but it definitely makes me want to hear more of this music.

And what is this music? Well, the ad doesn't tell us. It took some searching, but I finally determined this must be from the 2nd symphony of Ferdinand Ries, a student and associate of Beethoven. (I'm not sure I'd ever heard of Ries, but I finally found a vague web reference connecting the name to the video and connected the dots from there.) If I could download this recording right now, I probably would, just to see if the rest of the music is this captivating. It's true that the video above will be circulated mainly because its visuals are so clever, but I think this kind of thing can also serve as a catalyst for engaged listening.

I have all sorts of grand visions of how that could play out on a bigger scale, but that's for another day.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


I first learned about ambigrams a couple of weeks ago when I saw the cover for the new Princess Bride DVD. This inspired me to think about Bach's crab canon, which led me to create this little animation. However, I also started thinking about creating my own ambigram; a couple of days ago, I came up with one. I wouldn't be at all surprised if someone's done this before (and much more elegantly), but I'm proud to have designed it myself. It's not as complex as many of the ones you'll find here, but it is one of the most legible I've seen.

In this video, you get to see the ambigram created from both ends at once so that it unfolds something like Bach's canon. The analogy isn't perfect because the canon tune is just heard against itself backwards - the ambigram involves a set of symbols that appear against themselves both backwards and upside down. What I like is the way that the symbols just "played" forward don't mean anything, but they create something interesting when ambigrammed. Well, I think it's interesting.

Friday, April 11, 2008

My Pulitzer Prize Winning Sonnet Subject

I only just learned that Gene Weingarten's infamous Joshua Bell-in-the-Subway story won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. I find Nico Muhly's blistering critique (found via Geoff Edgers) to be virtually incoherent, but I do marvel that Weingarten's article could have been considered the best feature writing of the year. All the problems with the experiment were thoroughly blogged over by many at the time, so I'll just remind one and all that I spun a couple of sonnets out of the story. Unfortunately, I forgot to submit the sonnets to the Pulitzer poetry committee. My bad. Here they are again:

As bloggers here and there have noted,
a fiddling Bell who's quite well known
went busking in D.C. and toted
his Strad to play the Bach Chaconne.
He played his heart out for an hour.
He played with virtuoso power.
The passers-by went passing by
with hardly an attentive eye.
But why? When Mr. Bell is slated
to play the finest concert halls,
no seats are left; they line the walls
to hear him, even when inflated
demand means it costs much, much more
than sitting on a station floor.

So what's the moral of the story?
Are average folks so unaware
of beauty? Maybe, but before we
assume the worst, it's only fair
to mention that a subway station
is really not the best location
for Bach's Chaconne (which I adore
-it's just not made for train decor.)
The artist who ignores his context,
no matter if the talent's great,
is failing to communicate.
I hope that we can count upon, next
commute, a savvier setlist.
Then maybe beauty won't go missed.

The image above dates from this psychotic period in my blogging career.

Yeah, blogging's been slow. Life hasn't been. Stay tuned ...