Sunday, March 29, 2009


It's been far too long since poetry bloomed here on MMmusing. So, Miss Mussel's meme proved to be an irresistable invitation, even if poetry isn't specifically requested. The goal is to summarize an opera plot in 140 characters or less (spaces and punctuation included), which is apparently the tweet length imposed by the Lords of Twitter. I don't Twitter [update: now I do], but I can appreciate a fun constraint when I see one. These are reminiscent of Maurice Sagoff's ShrinkLits, which I first discovered via the indispensable Le ton beau de Marot. Sadly, there will probably be more to come from me. You've been warned.

Queen of May? Girls today! So, be daring; Crown Al Herring. He's afraid; lemonade makes him braver. Misbehavior! Doesn't die. Makes Mum cry.

Poor Susanna counts the Count as quite a fan, a not nice man. His wife is sad, and Fig'ro's mad. Switcheroo exposes cad; he admits he's bad. [see improved version below.]

By the way, I'm proud to say that each of the above uses exactly 140 characters. Now that's following a constraint. (Those are also my two favorite operas.)

UPDATE: Here's another, also weighing in at 140 on the nose.
Susannah bathes, the Elders see, and blame her; Blitch says fervently, "Repent," but sins against her, so he's killed by her protective bro.

UPDATE 2: I'd like to change my Figaro tweet to (still =140):
Count wishes he Susanna had; his wife is sad, his servant mad, a mezzo plays a lusty lad. Switcheroo exposes cad, finale he admits he's bad.

UPDATE 3: Turns out I really should have restricted my plots to 130 since they needed to be tagged (in the Twittersphere) with the 10-character tag, #operaplot. (I didn't understand Twitter at the time, and by the way, this article helps to explain why so many people find it confusing at first.) However, Miss Mussel kindly let me stay in the competition, and Al Herring got an honorable mention. Will try to play by the rules for Round 2.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Piano Hero Blooper and a Hectic Hoedown

Here's just a bit of video from Wednesday's Billy the Kid Piano Anti-Hero recital. I don't know if Billy the Kid really qualifies as a classic anti-hero, but who can resist a good title? Anyway, this music really was a delight to play on the piano, and the audience seemed to enjoy it as well. It's such straightforward, uncomplicated music, and yet so artfully written. 

I think the laid-back cowboy tunes also maybe helped this week's event feel a bit more informal, even if a brawl never managed to break out in the audience. A student came up right before we started and offered me his cowboy hat. How could I refuse? The hat stole the show at the end, as you can see in the video. Unfortunately, the audio didn't capture Nathan's improvised wind-across-the-plain noises that he delivered while I was playing those open prairie open fifths that start the piece.

I've also included our complete performance of the "Hoedown" from Rodeo, but since it was filled with, uh, improvisational, spur-of-the-moment excitement, I decided I'd add a little artificial tempo enhancement to the video - maybe all the wrong notes that flew out of my fingers won't be quite so obvious this way. (If you enjoy hearing that, you might want to revisit my old Amphetepollini post.)

I had so much fun playing the "Hoedown" that I decided on the spot that we should play it again - which turned out to be a really bad idea! I think with sightreading, the whole "your first guess is your best one" test-taking rule applies. I hoped to fix everything I'd just bungled, but I was so tired that my fingers felt like they were glued together. However, I am quite glad that we took the time to play the "Saturday Night Waltz" before the "Hoedown." That is one beautiful piece, maybe my favorite-ever Copland. 

No Piano Hero next week, since I've got an Opera Scenes program to survive, but Level Five on April 8 promises to be a lot of fun...

Also see video samples from: Level Two and Level Three.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Piano Hero Level Four: Piano Anti-Hero

Wish I had more time to blog right now, but things are getting a little crazy. However, Piano Hero is back after a two-week break. The truth is, I'd originally thought of doing Tchaikovsky 4 for "Level Four," perhaps deluded by this mindblowingly great lecture moment into thinking it would sound good on piano. I love Tchaik 4, but the first movement did not sound good on the piano (a blog-worthy topic in its own right), at least not in the 4-hand version we had, so we decided to take an extra week off after Spring Break. (To be really honest, it also wasn't that easy to read!)

However, Copland's arrangements of music from Billy the Kid and Rodeo sound great on the piano, so I'm excited about this week. Such great music, and such fun, and fortunately not requiring too much practicing.

Blogging will probably remain slow for the next couple of weeks....

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Maybe it's just me...

Our family finished up the original Star Wars trilogy on Sunday night, a first time experience for my 9-year old. (Very fun to watch her get pulled into the story, be astounded by the Luke/Leia sibling revelation, etc.) As I mentioned a couple of posts back, the first of the movies came out when I was at the ideal age of 10, so it's not too surprising that Empire and Jedi never quite measured up for me, but I also just remembered that when Return of the Jedi I came out, I had firmly entered the "classical music geek" phase of my life. So, it only just came back to me that I used to refer to the early bit in which Han Solo is unfrozen from the carbonite as the "Glenn Gould" scene; the temporarily blind Han, with hair slicked back, stumbles around with the sort of tortured/ecstatic look that I associated with the late period Gould, whose odd appearance on record jackets always fascinated me.

These pictures don't exactly do the comparison justice, because you really need to see unfrozen Han in motion (ha) to appreciate fully the way in which he seems to channel the greatest of piano heroes. Here's some very poorly transferred video of Han (who knows how long it will last on YouTube?) and one of many available videos of the quirky Gould. [2016 Update: more Unfrozen Han here.] As I recall, Han is at his most Gould-like when he meets up with Chewbacca in the prison cell, but I couldn't find all of that scene online, and this is definitely not worth the time it would take to transfer the video myself. So, use your imagination.

Also, note that just as Han was frozen in carbonite and put on display for Jabba the Hut, Gould has been immortalized in bronze for the good people of Toronto. If only he could be unfrozen...

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Brahms 4: Watching the Chaconne Go By

[UPDATE #2: Though, as the previous update notes, this embedded video here doesn't work, the good news is that all of this content and more (including synced score) is now available as one of my "musical manipulative" listening guides here:

[UPDATE: Sadly, the video below won't work in most web browsers now as Quicktime .mov format is no longer as readily supported. If you have an old version (7) of the Quicktime Player on your computer, you can still download the file here and then open it in that player. For whatever reason, newer versions of the player won't show the captions, which are the raison d'être for this particular file.]

I have a great gift for burying ledes. I wouldn't blame you if you never made it to the end of this recent post that takes the BSO to task for putting out uninspiring podcasts, but that post did end on a positive note by showing a little listening guide I once made for the last movement of Brahms' 4th. It's a great piece to teach because it shows both the Romantic and Baroque classicist sides of the composer, and because a chaconne structure is relatively easy to follow. What I like about how this guide is designed is that the QuickTime architecture makes it possible for each caption to be its own little track, so that the listener can easily jump back and forth from variation to variation by using the arrow keys. (If the embedded file below doesn't work right, you can download it here.)

Music history textbook/anthologies are featuring this sort of captioned listening guide (generally with more graphics) more and more, although they vary greatly in quality; but this strikes me as a perfect way to help a novice listener make sense of a big piece. The biggest problem with creating them on one's own is that they need to be attached to a specific recording, so it's a little dicey for me to be posting the copyrighted work of René Köhler and the NPSOAS (National-Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra Association Society). Still, hopefully this kind of thing will inspire someone to buy an actual recording of the whole symphony. Or to go hear the local orchestra play it!

As designed for a class website, the above was accompanied by the following basic information:

What to Listen For:

This movement is in the old Baroque form of
a passacaglia or chaconne.
Basically, that means it's a set of variations on a
short, chordal theme.
In this case, the theme is 8-bars long and
heard right away.

There are 30 variations, followed by a 59-bar coda. Listen for the way in which Brahms creates a rich variety of musical ideas above and around this simple theme.

Also, listen to how some variations seem to blend together to make larger units. For example:

4-6 become an extended waltz
8-9 are a matched set
12-15 are all twice as slow (like a slow movement within the movement)
Note that #16 (exactly half-way through the 30 variations) acts like a sort of recap, as the theme is again in the original tempo and quite loud.
17-18 are unified by continuous string tremolos
19-20 go together, with 19 adding triplets
26-28 flow together as the last bit of calm

Note that Variation #30 is extended by 4 bars to introduce the big:

In the coda, there's no longer the constant presence of the theme's structure, though the music still often falls into 8-bar phrases. The coda can be divided into 7 sections of the following measure lengths: 8-12-8-8-8-4-11

By the way, you'll note that, in spite of my love for scrolling scores and the like, this guide doesn't show any music at all. That's partly because it was designed for a class of non-music majors, and even more because that would have taken more time, especially because figuring out what to show from a full orchestral score can be complicated. Still, it's tempting to think about adding score images to the above...

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Blogs, Pianists, Movies, Actors, Droids!

I've only just discovered Bruce Brubaker's wonderful new blog, PianoMorphosis. A highly accomplished pianist, Brubaker teaches at my old stomping grounds; reading his thoughts makes me wish he'd been around when I was still stomping there. (Or, to be more accurate, when teachers were stomping about my playing - or to be really accurate, when Michele Auclair was banging that huge ring on a desk to keep my concerto accompaniment strictly in tempo. She did not like it when I "followed" the violinist.)

A few recent posts worth noting:
  • We're All Composers Now - in which Bruce makes me remember that I'm a composer, too, given that I recently "composed" this canon.
  • Bruce Brubaker's Guide to Alliterative Artists - be sure to see the additional comments, none of which bother to mention that I am an alliterative artist as well.
  • Can we play too well? - of course, I'm firmly committed to not playing too well, which is why I don't practice enough...I mean, as much as those joyless perfectionists. This also reminds me of an old MMmusing post, Too Good to Be True?
  • Masterclass - assorted vignettes proving how problematic master classes can be. Oh, how I agree. I recently sat in on a class given by a very distinguished artist who could hardly articulate anything useful - although this musician played beautifully when demonstrating, and dropped fists full of names. (Brubaker doesn't "drop names" here, but he's not afraid to "name names.")
  • And then there are more rhapsodic and harder to summarize posts such as: Pianoscape and Tale of Two Cities, a wonderful exploration of the subjectivity of place and tastes.
Good stuff, and always entertaining.

And my goodness, how have I missed out on the existence of Stephen Hough's blog? And he's friends with Niles!

Here are two quick points about Niles: I recently made up my own little response to a couple of Facebook memes by shuffling my iPod 25 times in order to inspire 25 "random" thoughts about myself. Maybe I'll publish all 25 some time here, but I was most proud of the following:
11. Brahms: Violin Sonata No.2, 1st mvt. This isn't on my list of favorite pieces [#10 had just been revealed as #1a on my all-time list], but the 2nd theme is probably the greatest, most perfect 2nd theme in history. Kind of like how "Frasier" isn't my favorite-ever TV show, but Niles is probably the greatest, most perfect 2nd character in TV history. I was never a big fan of "Frasier" when it was first airing, but on more nights than not, I watch two episodes from 10-11 every night. It's always dependable (except when they were pole-vaulting sharks the last few years) and, when it's a really good one, as perfectly executed as a Bach fugue.
So, Hough links to Niles playing a Bach partita. How wonderfully circular.

Also, re: Niles, last night our family watched Star Wars. Not a sequel or prequel, but the good 'ol original on a good 'ol VHS (mercifully free of the awful interpolations Lucas later made to this movie). First of all, what a great movie, some comically bad acting aside. It's perhaps not coincidental that I first saw this movie multiple times at the age of 10, so a postmodernist might fairly argue that this has defined what I think a perfect movie should be, but there's not a frame that bores me or where the through-line lags. And the soundtrack really is extraordinary. Also, the special effects are more realistic and convincing to me than most of what you see in modern films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Harry Potter films. And this movie was made less than a decade after the backyard FX of Star Trek. Again, maybe the effects still look realistic to me because I internalized them at 10, but wow. And, of course, everyone should take a look at this. Oh, and in spite of the amusements to be gotten from that link, it may be tempting to say that Star Wars is operatic, and thus deserving of being made into an opera. Wrong. It is operatic already, film as opera evolved. (And that helps to explain Luke Skywalker's "heightened" acting style.)

But what about Niles? Well, it struck me again and again last night how uncannily C3PO resembles Niles, which is odd because Star Wars and Frasier could hardly be less like each other. So this is what happens when you watch the former multiple times at the age of 10 and the latter twice a night at the age of...

Friday, March 13, 2009

When dull things happen to good ideas...

[Update: I originally titled this post "Fraudcast News," because I can't resist a play on words, but that seemed overly harsh; I don't think there's anything fraudulent about these podcasts, although the idea that the video "enhances" them might be considered fraudulent.]

Let me begin by saying the following: I admire the Boston Symphony Orchestra tremdendously. My wife and I subscribed to a 7-concert package for the first time this year, and we've loved every concert we've been to. Unlike the kinds of things one often reads about symphony audiences over at Greg Sandow's blog, we've found the audiences to be lively, enthusiastic, not all dressed up, etc. The orchestra is terrific and we've heard many inspiring performances.

Now, where I finding myself agreeing with Sandow over and over again is in his oft-repeated suggestion that arts organizations have no idea how to use the internet or multimedia in general. This morning I stumbled upon the "enhanced video podcast" for this weekend's BSO concerts. As it happens, I'm not attending this weekend, but I can't imagine what about these video "enhancements," or the podcast in general, would make me want to do anything but run in the opposite direction of Symphony Hall.

Let's break this down a bit, OK? I'm not gonna say too much about the audio narration by WGBH's Brian Bell, although I think it could be more animated, but let's go right to the videotape. How has the BSO enhanced Bell's narration about Brahms' 4? First of all, there's no true animation or video, just a bunch of stupifyingly dull, slow zooms and pans in and out of images. Actually, no; first of all, I should mention that the video begins with an ad for the sponsor (fine, no argument with that) that features music notes dancing across the screen and... no audio at all! So, whereas this could be a good time for the listener to adjust the volume, instead the listener is frantically trying to figure out why there's no sound. Even the commercial is dull in this podcast!

Just as you've probably turned your speakers all the way up, an image of the score for Brahms' first symphony starts scrolling along. Finally, Bell's voice chimes in (hopefully not at ear-busting levels) and you're thinking, "Cool; we're going to get to see excerpts from the score to help understand what's being said." As recently as the very end of my last post, I was saying what a wonderful thing it is to encourage listeners to follow a score as a means of engagement. On cue, at [0:38] the top of the score for Brahms 4 shows up just as Bell mentions it by name. Fine, so far, if still rather dull. As it happens, that's about as good as it gets. There follows some discussion of initial reactions to Brahms' work, with PBS-documentary style zooms to "animate" these faces of the nineneenth century. Fine. Dull, but fine. Here are some highlights from what follows:

2:48 As Bell describes the opening thematic motifs, we do see the correct notes on screen, scrolling listlessly by, while in the background some music from a bit later fades in. So, no, we're not hearing what we're seeing. Bad omen.

3:07 The orchestra is finally heard playing the opening theme, but the opening notes have already scrolled by. Soon, for a brief tantalizing moment, we do see the right notes, but the zoom is so tight and the scrolling so slow, that the audio quickly gets ahead of what we're seeing.

Bell then quickly jumps to making a few brief comments about the 2nd and 3rd movements. My only complaint here is that he mentions that Vaughan Williams made up "tavern" words to go along with the lively theme of the 3rd movement, but we don't get to hear those words. On the other hand, I haven't been able to Google anything about this, so maybe the words aren't readily available. Anyway, it slowly becomes clear that we're going to focus on the wonderful 4th movement passacaglia, an excellent strategy for a brief talk such as this. Here we go:

4:07 Bell starts talking about mvt. 4, while we see...the non-melodic wind parts for the opening of mvt. 1.

4:22 We hear the stirring 8-bar theme of mvt. 4 while the wind parts for mvt. 1 scroll aimlessly by. Is there a hidden message here about intermovement connections?

4:52 Bell play examples of various versions of the bass line - using the most lifeless synth piano sound imaginable. Couldn't the folks at WGBH have come up with a real piano to record these sounds? Hearing them played this way, they don't even sound like music.

6:14 We hear (and see!) the music that leads into the slow "flute solo" variation, except when the audio fades up nicely to focus on the flute, the "page turn" takes us back to the bottom of the page we just heard.(!?!) Bell tells us we're now in 3/2, but the music is clearly still in 3/4. Then, unexpectedly, the notes for the flute solo show up at 6:32, but we quickly zoom down to some generic accompanying material. I see: it would be too easy just to follow a melody.

6:50 Bell tells us the bass line settles on a pedal E as we move into the next variation in major. Actually, the pedal has been there throughout the previous flute solo variation. They do try to show us the pedal pitches in the horns (let's hope the viewer knows how to transpose horn parts), although the zoom is again much too tight to make this clear visually. Seeing two measures of scattered E's doesn't scream out pedal point.

7:30 At the point of the trombone chorale, we actually see...the trombone parts! The scrolling is a little too slow, so the notes finally fall behind, but still, this is very gratifying.

Now, what follows in the symphony is some of the most thrilling music that Brahms wrote, as the final third of the passacaglia rushes to the coda. Bell chooses instead to focus on the fact that the piece ends in minor and that Brahms eventually died (unlike other 19th century composers?) - never mind that he died some twelve years after writing this. It's apparently one of the last works the composer heard live, which is interesting, but not a reason to ignore that the symphony ends with a blaze of defiant energy. (I might also add that nowhere in Bell's talk does he actually demonstrate how the variations work by, oh I don't know, playing the theme and a variation back to back.)

Look, I know this a bit mean-spirited, and that some poor soul at the BSO was probably told to toss some nice visuals onto this in about 30 minutes. The point is that a world-class organization such as the BSO should know better. Either don't do multimedia, or do it right. The idea of using a score as mostly just slow-paced window dressing for what's intended as an audio talk is - well, it's a bad idea. And did I mention it's really dull?

Now, just to be a bit more obnonxious and condescending (and self-serving), allow me to show a visual listening guide I created for the last movement. If I'm not mistaken, I did most of this in the 2-3 hours before a class once. It consists simply of captions that go along with the music, but that reveals one of the great advantages of multimedia - it makes it possible to hear the music and let the descriptions not interfere aurally. To get the most out of this, you need to have QuickTime installed. Although I believe RealPlayer and other software will play the audio and captions, if you play this in the QuickTime Player, you should be able to use the arrow keys to jump from caption to caption, which can be a pretty cool way to follow the structure. (Try it! If the QuickTime plug-in isn't working automatically for you, you can download the file here.)

[UPDATE: Read more about this Brahms' guide here. I've moved some descriptive info that was originally posted here to the new post.]

Now I understand that there's potentially a problem here in terms of audio rights. (I'm crossing my fingers that René Köhler doesn't come after me for using his recording with the National-Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.) Even if the folks at the BSO wanted to use a BSO recording of Brahms 4 for this podcast, they might not be able to. (See this story. Thanks, Patty, for the link.) By the way, when I've used the above in my class, I've attached it to a recording the students already had to buy on CD, so I feel no guilt about using it that way.

Still, aside from the very poorly planned visuals of this little audio talk, they're missing an even more important potential value of multi-media guides: music generally speaks for itself better than words. Organizations such as the BSO need to learn that the more we can hear them playing (or, at least, actual music) on the website, the more likely we are to want to go hear them live. (All the major sports learned decades ago that televising sports for free makes people more likely to want to go to the game.) So, if you're going to do an "enhanced" audio podcast, how 'bout more music and less words? (Ironic, I know, given the ridiculous length of this post.)

I know this would cost money, but here's what I'd really love to see. Get James Levine (yeah, he's not conducting this program, but he's the music director for goodness sakes) to play Brahms 4 on the piano. Obviously, this would appeal to my Piano Hero-loving side; in fact, I was thinking the other day that if I saw a program advertised of Levine and Barenboim playing something like Schubert Fantasy, a Mozart sonata, the Poulenc duo sonata, and the Brahms Haydn Variations, I might be intrigued - but if they were going to play two Beethoven symphonies, I'd kill myself to get there, especially if I had the idea that they'd be mostly sightreading, playing from the seats of their pants. So if you can't get rights to use BSO audio for a listening guide like I've created above, then bring in a piano hero.

The internet offers unbelievably rich options for promoting music. It would be great to see an organization like the BSO figure that out.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Piano Hero Reflections

Yesterday was our first Wednesday off for Piano Hero, due to Spring Break, so I thought I'd take this time to reflect on what we've learned so far. [Just to review, there've been three events so far: Beethoven's 1st, Mendelssohn's "Italian," and Beethoven's 3rd.]

First of all, one thing I feel good about is that, though we're clearly trying to make a pop-culture connection with the play on Guitar Hero, it's not an empty connection. Not that there's anything wrong with empty connections, but a local musical organization recently advertised a March Madness concert which, unless I'm mistaken, had nothing to do with basketball, tournaments, or Cinderella stories. It's fine to take advantage of the pop-culture associations there, but it's a pretty quick bait-and-switch to use that name for the purpose of advertising a musical event. (I mean, of course, unless John Tesh is involved.)

With Piano Hero, we're honestly trying to make the point that the experience of sightreading in real time has real similarities to the experience of playing a video game. I haven't played video games much for years (I don't need to - I play the piano!), but I can remember back in the '80s sitting and playing Astrosmash for hours on end. Such a game becomes intensely satisfying and addictive when the eyes start taking in information so fast that the complex finger responses seem mostly unconscious, while the conscious part of the brain is reserved for...well, not that much in Astrosmash, aside from keeping up with score...but in Piano Hero, the conscious part of the brain gets to enjoy the music and make interpretive decisions along the way.

I can also remember, back in my Astrosmash days, the feeling of sitting down to start a game and understanding that I was putting myself on some kind of diabolical treadmill that wouldn't end until I finally got tossed off an hour or two later. And I liked that. Sitting down to start the "Eroica" last week, I had much the same feeling. We'd had very little rehearsal, I hadn't even looked at some of the pages, and yet I knew Beethoven was in charge for the next 45-50 minutes, for better and for worse. It's true that any long piece in a concert can feel that way to some degree, but it's an especially vivid feeling when there's so much uncertainty about how things will go.

A larger point here is that we in the music world tend to underemphasize this aspect of being a musician - the thrill of taking on these complex challenges of coordination. True, not every musician gets a big kick out of sightreading, but beyond that, it's quite simply fun and pleasurable to get all those fingers (there must be more than ten it sometimes seems) going at once and doing wildly complicated things. In the same way that swishing three-pointers or hitting a baseball on the nose can feel great (or so I assume, having not gotten around to doing either for some time), it can be immensely satisfying to command a musical instrument, even putting aside the beauty of the music and whatever aesthetic purposes it may or may not serve.

Here I go again with my daughter, but since (as mentioned last post) we don't push her piano practicing too hard, it's striking to see how sometimes she'll go through phases in which the piano seems to pull her right over - you can tell she just likes the feeling of putting her fingers through their paces because, out of the blue, a Kuhlau sonatina will come bounding out of the living room, with no one having suggested she needs to practice. At such times, she's not wasting any energy worrying about legato or cadencing sensitively. I know that what she's doing is not much different than if she were to pop out her Nintendo DS to pass the time. For this reason, it doesn't surprise me to know that some music teachers endorse Guitar Hero as a useful way of connecting kids with the physical joy of musicmaking.

It's also not surprising to learn that someone has designed a keyboard-based videogame called Piano Hero - well, it was called Piano Hero until the GH folks got involved (understandably, I suppose), so it's now called Synthesia. There's a free version and an inexpensive full version, although you need a MIDI keyboard of course. This amusing video gives you a quick sense of what it's like. [Amusing Side Note: In the video, the pianist is playing Schumann's "Wild Rider" from Album for the Young; just a couple of days ago, my daughter was in my office toying around with a digital piano hooked up to a Roland XV-2020, playing the "Wild Rider" with distorted electric guitar sounds - which she'd settled on after searching around a bit - and it sounded really cool that way. Another Piano/Guitar interaction.] Because the scoring is based entirely on replicating the information in the MIDI file (which you supply), it's clear that there is no value put on phrasing, dynamics, or general musicality; it's just straight note-gunning. While it could be easy to dismiss that as unmusical, again it overlooks the kind of fun (useful fun) that can be had by challenging one's technique. Obviously, etudes and metronomes have been used for this purpose for years, but you don't get the cool graphics and scoring.

Speaking of scoring, that's my favorite thing about our Piano Hero. The idea of trying to score what we're doing is crazy, because there are so many layers of complexity. If sightreading were an Olympic sport, think of all the parameters that would need to be taken into account to judge effectively. Accuracy is one thing, but there's the whole issue of learning how to avoid "obvious" wrong notes (i.e. the art of faking), and then just about everything that goes into effective musical presentation, including articulation, phrasing, dynamics, feeling for structure, etc. etc. etc. To design software that could gauge all that would be wonderfully impossible, which is why playing the piano is so much more than a video game.

Still, the fact that this "video game" involves recreating something familiar like a Beethoven symphony is another obvious connection with the Guitar Hero experience which, as I understand it, is all about recreating familiar songs through rapid-fire hand-eye coordination. Of course, as a spectator sport, Piano Hero pretty quickly runs into the same problem that other classical concerts tend to - we're not just playing 5-minute songs, so keeping the audience focused is a challenge.

Here one runs up against a big tension in the way we think about presenting music. I've had people who've come to these events say that it still feels too serious, that there should be more talking, more a prevailing sense of informality; but the truth is, once you hand it over to Beethoven, it's very hard for people to feel that they can interrupt it, so the "serious" concert atmosphere tends to set in. I've wondered if it would be "wrong" to take cuts, or even leave out a movement. For example, I love the Eroica's 2nd movement funeral march, but it probably does suffer more in the piano version than do the faster movements. Still, for good reason, it's hard to get past the idea that a musical work should be played in its entirety as envisioned by its composer.

So we're left with a hybrid pop-culture/serious concept where hopefully a listener attracted by the Guitar Hero connection won't feel baited and switched when the music takes a more sober-minded, large-scale turn (such as Beethoven's funeral march). I think the score projection helps a little with that, and hopefully next time I'll have a chance to annotate the score to provide more engagement points for the wandering mind. I did have one seasoned concertgoer say to me how much he enjoyed following the score, and it clearly gave him a sense of pride to have been able to "participate" in that way. I think he was surprised he was able to do it.

By the way
, the joy of being able to follow a score is seriously underrated as a vehicle for getting listeners to be engaged by music. When I was in high school and just developing an attraction to classical music, I bought an old Norton Scores anthology at a library book sale. (I even still remember that the book had belonged to David Joyner, a HS classmate of my older brother who, I'm sure, had bought the book for a college music appreciation class.) I can still vividly picture myself following the Overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream, Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and The Rite of Spring and being thrilled by the process of learning to keep up. I'm not saying every mind works this way (I have all sorts of odd tastes, I suppose) but I'm not sure there's a better way to get a relative novice to think inside a musical work.

There's one other serious point to be made out of all this, although it's too complicated to explore fully now. In summary, the serious point is: we musicians tend to take ourselves too seriously! This is a difficult point to argue in the academy where more serious perspectives will always seem...well, more serious, and thus more worthy of attention. Not that there's anything wrong with serious, but there's a reason I've listened to Koji Attwood and Lazar Berman playing a Tchaikovsky scherzo about a dozen times in the past few days, and it has everything to do with the sheer kinetic joy of seriously whacking the piano around.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Easy Does It

I know I shouldn't resort to writing about my kids too much - they deserve their privacy (especially given the scope of my enormous reading audience), and I should come up with my own material. But, I've got a long post in process that doesn't seem near completion yet, so here we go with a short and easy one - that happens to mention one of my children.

Daughter #1 of MMmusing, whose main instrument is violin, has been taking piano this year and showing a real affinity for it, even though her practice sessions are pretty free form. She'd been sort of "studying" with me for several years, but I wasn't the most dependable teacher, so it's been a good thing that I've handed over the reins to someone who, you know, actually gives her regular lessons.

Anyway, for some reason (in spite of Piano Hero!), I hadn't even thought about the possibility of playing four-hand repertoire with her until I happened to read (on a comment to this Mark Swed blog post) that Martha Argerich had followed a performance of the Ravel concerto by coming out on stage with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and playing the finale of Ravel's Mother Goose Suite. I love that piece!* Thinking about that later today, I suddenly remembered that Ravel had written this music for young children; all of the five movements are pretty simple technically, but especially the first one.

I own a couple of editions of the score, but they're at school and I wanted to jump right in tonight. So, it was the indispensable to the rescue. After about 30 minutes of after-dinner rehearsing, we had the first piece down pretty well, with DoMM even taking the slightly more complicated secondo part. Her piano sightreading isn't quite up to the level of her playing, so this was a good exercise in pushing her abilities in that area - and a reminder that very simple music can be uncompromising musically. It makes me wish more great composers had taken on the challenge of constraining themselves to write great music that doesn't require tremendous technique. Part of the beauty of this little pavane is its pure simplicity.

Anyway, this is, as they say, what it's all about - more than playing for audiences, perfecting sonatas, mastering interpretive challenges - playing Ravel with your daughter after dinner on a Wednesday night during a snowy Spring Break.
* Ironically, given how I've recently been singing the praises of piano transcriptions of orchestral works, I really much prefer Ravel's orchestration (which is, after all, the transcription in this case) of the Mother Goose Suite - and that's coming from someone who prefers even the sumptuous La valse in its stripped down two-piano version. Still, for tonight at least, the four-hand version was as good as it gets.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Piano Hero: Level 637?

I just ran across this video on Bart's Well-Tempered Blog. First of all, I'd never heard of this Feinberg transcription of Tchaikovsky, but it is mind-blowing and ridiculously fun to listen to. I'd also never heard of Koji Attwood, but he's got some chops. 

It's also fun, in a Piano Hero kind of way, to reflect on how the crudity of this video contributes to the experience of hearing this performance. I rushed right out (well, not really out) and downloaded Arcadi Volodos' recording of the arrangement - a bargain at $0.99 for 9:29 - but it's not quite the same. Yes, all the notes are in place and more under control and the sound of the piano is much better, etc., but the YouTube practice room rendition comes across so much more viscerally. Of course, that partly has to do with getting to see Attwood play, and maybe part of the point is that, for a piece such as this, I'd much prefer to see Volodos giving a one-take performance than hear a highly polished studio production. As I mentioned here, it can be highly engaging for a listener (or audience of listeners) to feel that a performance is on the edge. And, as Piano Hero has proved to me three times already, there's something especially fun about hearing a very familiar piece in a sparkling new context. (NOTE: This does not apply to all new contexts!)

Neither the sunglasses stunt [2:54] nor the lid-raising [6:10] do much for me, by the way, but I do like the way Attwood makes several little false starts before he gets going, and the gesture to the camera at the end seems genuine and deserved. It's clear from beginning to end that this is about entertainment, and the playing delivers the goods. To summarize, the Attwood video makes me remember why I wanted to become a pianist. In fact, I still want to become that kind of pianist!

[At the opposite extreme, I happened on an ultra-slick, overly produced Boston Pops special last night. It features jazz trumpeter Chris Botti and a bunch of superstar collaborators, but although some of the playing and singing was fine, everything had this thick haze of pre-packagedness about it, including all the stagey smiles back and forth among the performers, the stylized lighting and camera zooming. It didn't help that most of the music was in a smooth jazz style that's not my fave, but I would say I had almost the exact opposite experience watching this fund-raising special and watching Attwood a few hours later.]

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Piano Hero: Level 3 Complete

Well, we survived Level Three of Piano Hero on Wednesday - survived is a good word because, 1) the "Eroica" is one long symphony, and 2) we had our Monday rehearsal snowed out, so we had only an abbreviated rehearsal Wednesday morning. Wednesday morning was also quite frenetic for me, as I was running around getting the projector set up and working properly. I was still setting up the audio and video recorders less than five minutes before we started. There were more than a few pages in the actual performance where we were quite literally sight-reading.

Since this was our first foray into a two-piano arrangement, I'd also spent some kooky hours on Tuesday experimenting with ways to run two widescreen monitors from one laptop, the hope being that we'd each be able to see two portrait-oriented pages at a time, all changed by a single Airturn pedal. It's certainly doable, but without a good VGA-extender box or a more powerful laptop than I had on hand, it was going to be too much trouble. (It also would have helped if my two widescreen monitors had the same screen resolution, not to mention that I determined my old 20-inch flatscreen is probably too heavy to put on a piano.)

In the end, I played from my Tablet PC, viewing a single page at a time, and Nathan used something called paper. He actually had to reach up and physically flip the pages over. In fairness, I had a few snags with my page-turning because the scanned file that we were using was larger than ideal, meaning the turns were slow. (This is the first time I've found myself wishing I'd invested in the Music Reader software, which eliminates the slow turn problem.) There were a few times when I'd feared the turn hadn't taken, so I panicked and pedaled again, thus ending up a page ahead and having to scramble to get back on track. It's fun to listen to those moments on the recording - much more like chaos than what Haydn depicted in The Creation.

Still, I think it was a success, and the audience seemed really to enjoy the projected score. (In the ideal world, those pages would've been turned by my Airturn, but in this case we had a helper running the projector from a separate laptop.) In a 50-minute piece, it can be nice to have such a directed visual for the listener, although the brightly lit recital hall meant that the projections didn't show up as well as we would have liked. (In the video above, I pasted in a separate image of the score to make it sort of readable - the projections didn't show up at all on the original video. The pasted-in score also has the advantage of covering up an annoying microphone hanging from the ceiling.)

Also, as a special surprise, we had a couple of horn players hiding in the organ loft who joined in for the trio of the scherzo. We didn't rehearse that at all, so that was exciting, but they did a great job and it added to the general festivity. And, this is rather obvious, but what a great piece the "Eroica" is. I think because the first and last movements have such silly and seemingly unpromising themes, I tend to forget the miracles Beethoven works with them until the score is underway. I may post more recordings later. The third and fourth movements are especially fun on the piano.

A-leg-grow misterioso

I've made fun of WCRB's Kids' Classical Hour before, and I'll make fun of it again, but during this morning's special on "creepy, crawly, things," I learned something new. The peppy announcer was introducing Gottschalk's "Grand Tarantella for Piano and Orchestra," the connection to the theme being that Tarantella and tarantula are related words. Then, in the kind of clever commentary you can always count on from Kids' Classical Hour, he joked, "but, unlike a spider, the grand piano only has four legs!" So, I'm assuming the recording that was then played featured one of those classic square pianos:

It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the writers for this show had never seen an actual grand piano. Actually, this was one of the better theme shows I've heard, with interesting selections by unexpected composers, including Gottschalk and Amy Beach (a piano piece about fireflies). Daughter of MMmusing was excited by the latter, saying with some bewilderment, "I didn't know there were women composers." Still, it drives me crazy that whenever a piece ends on this show, the announcer never says anything about what's just been heard - not even a sentence or two to remind us who wrote the piece and what it was called. More than not, there's just a circus-like slide-whistle sound leading into commercial or some canned recording of kids giggling out "Hoorays."

And, while we're on the subject, we ended up listening to "Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery" on my iPod driving home from school with the kids yesterday. If anyone can explain the plot of that goofy, disjointed story to me, I'd appreciate it. It may just be that I'm distracted by some of the worst writing and acting imaginable. Even the fine actor Colm Feore, so good as Glenn Gould, sounds absurdly stiff as Vivaldi - and then there's Giovanni, the gondolier, who proves that, even on the radio, you can chew scenery. But, I'm probably making sense to no one at this point, so I'll leave it at that. (To be fair, Daughter of MMmusing does enjoy this story and she enjoys Kids' Classical Hour in general, but both could be so much better.)

Friday, March 6, 2009

Canon a 2 Tempi (Take Two)

Look, if I choose to spend the beginning of my Spring Break trying to hone my video score-scrolling techniques, what's the harm? (True, the three children I'm currently "watching" could end up wandering the streets, having OD'd on junkfood and Wiggles videos, but we all have to make sacrifices.)

Anyway, the real answer to my problem (the technical one, not the general personal one) is probably to get some video-editing software more suited to the task, but I've had fun trying to get this to work. The point here is to synchronize the two scrolling scores more precisely with the audio than in the previous version. Ironically, I find the smoothly scrolling staves of Take One to be more aesthetically appealing, but this makes it easier to see exactly what's happening, especially with the measure numbers. The bottom line is: I could sit around doing this and watching the results all day.

Favorite Moments:
  • The gorgeous stacked harmonies when Callas's orchestra is recapping the opening tune in A-flat (m.21), while Fleming's band is working through a B-flat minor 7th chord and an F minor chord (mm.15-16). That this all happens under the word 'morir' is all to the better.
  • Similarly stacked harmonies at m.9/m.6, when the downbeats line up almost perfectly.
  • Watching Maria increase her lead by 1.5, measures...while Renée sits on that A-flat at the end of m.3.
  • A truly canonic little moment when Callas sings m.15, followed by Fleming singing m.11.
  • The quick imitations of A-flats descending to E-flats at 1:20.
  • Fleming sustaining a high A-flat pedal all the way through Callas's m. 17.
  • The way Fleming hangs on to 'Dio' in m.20 to let Callas finish her little 'pieta.'
  • The way the final chord from Callas's orchestra seques into Fleming's orchestra interlude at m.21.
Now, I'm just kicking myself that I didn't think to make this widescreen, given how precious width is in this kind of thing. However, the next task is to report on Wednesday's Piano Hero, Level 3. Hopefully tomorrow...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Canon a 2 tempi

[UPDATE: Newer, more precisely scrolling version available here.]

Matthew Guerrieri posted a clever little poem today, inspired by the rather different rates at which Maria Callas and Renée Fleming sing "O mio babbino caro." You can follow that link to see each of the divergent divas in action, but it occurred to me that it would also be fun to hear them sing in duet. So, because I'm clearly desperately in need of the upcoming Spring Break and may actually have lost my mind, I decided to make a little video that also lets you see the notes going by. In my mind, this was a task that would take about 30-45 minutes*. Let's just pretend I did this only in my mind:

It's fun to watch Renée falling further and further behind, but it sounds pretty cool as well, what with all those A-flats floating back and forth. It's also satisfying how the final shimmering chord in the Callas version complements Fleming's next to last cadence.

See also: Mondnachts

* Actually, I did do most of what you see in about 45 minutes, but then spent an unspecified extra bit of time trying to make the notes come out more clearly. Big mistake. I've had better luck with score visualizations here, but generally speaking, my videoediting software doesn't like all those little parallel staff lines.