Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Dread Pirate Oswald

I’ve confessed that Twitter may have sucked some energy out of this blog for the past few months, but as MMmusing comes back to life, it’s worth paying tribute to some of what I’ve learned from Twittering. For example, it is through Twitter that I learned about a great pirate from whom I’ve sort of been unknowingly pirating some ideas – ideas about pirating, as it happens. John Oswald, where have you been all my life?

I first heard of the enterprising Oswald about a week ago in my first ever “tweetup.” (By the way, I still squirm at some of the standard Twitter vocabulary. For instance, I refuse to refer to my Twitter acquaintances as “tweeps,” [admittedly, better than “twits”], and I really wish Twitter itself had a different name.) Yes, I had my first in-person meeting with a Twitter acquaintance last weekend; we were discussing my interest in exploring my improvisational/compositional side (given that I spend most of my performing life reading other peoples’ notes), and he suggested I check out Oswald’s creative work as a re-assembler of existing musical ideas. A few days later he emailed me the mp3 of what Oswald had done to a Count Basie tune. Segments had been snipped apart, reordered, and turned into something altogether off-kilter. I loved it, and found it wonderfully engaging. Something about perceiving order and disorder simultaneously, I think.

I don’t honestly know if this Oswaldian way of thinking was what inspired me to toss four sopranos into a little mashup of a Ned Rorem song a few days later (see previous post). I know I wasn’t consciously thinking of Oswald when I did it; as far as I could tell, the inspiration came from the following connection: I was writing about the various rates at which these sopranos sang a short little song, and that reminded me of having created a mashup of Maria Callas and Renee Fleming singing a famous Puccini aria at two widely divergent tempi. In fact, I’ve created lots of little projects that have used existing audio files as primary source material. [see below]

But here’s what happened. I posted my new “soprano quartet” on Twitter, and pretty soon got the following response from another Twitterer: “You’re a regular John Oswald!” A week previously, that would have meant nothing to me, but now I started to see the connection. Then, not much later, my tweetup friend tweeted, in reply to my “soprano quartet”:
Oswald Was Here:"Z24" (1993) superimposes beginnings of all 24 CD versions of Also Sprach Zarathustra then extant.
Soon after, I was listening to a remarkable sonic Strauss collage that makes that overly familiar fanfare seem newly breathtaking. So, yeah, this was basically exactly what I was doing with Rorem’s song, although the source material could hardly be much different. I was stealing from Oswald.

Of course, Oswald could hardly object since he’s a confessed thief. In fact, his most famous album is entitled Plunderphonics. Not surprisingly, he’s run into his share of objections from those (including Michael Jackson) who didn't appreciate having their work appropriated. Fortunately, no one's pulled the plug on any of my creations yet, but it's interesting to be learning about the pioneering work of the great Pirate Oswald.

In blog posts to come, I'll write more about why I find this sort of thing so appealing, especially since I'm not generally attracted to the chaotic or avant-garde. Actually, I think the attraction can be summed up by the phrase I used above: "perceiving order and disorder simultaneously." Indeed, though the Puccini and Rorem mashups I've done have their cacophonous moments, the listener is aware (or at least can be) that more traditionally beautiful music is there - it just has to be sorted out from...well, from the other beautiful music that's there. And that's also part of the appeal to me: the exhilaration of listening to multiple streams at the same time. (The marvelously conceived In-Bflat is a good way to explore that.) In this way, the appeal to the listener is not all that different from the appeal of counterpoint.

I'm running out of time for getting this posted, so rather than say much more here, I'll post my most recent mashup. A quick setup: With sadness, I learned yesterday that the great pianist Alicia de Larrocha had passed away at the age of 86. While sampling her playing on YouTube, I came across a very impressive rendition of Liszt's fiendishly difficult La campanella - extraordinary playing, even not taking into account how tiny de Larrocha's hands were. Then coincidentally, and in the spirit of "In-Bflat," I accidentally set two Firefox tabs playing the video at almost the same time. Naturally, I was entranced, and have tried to recreate that here:

Unlike my Rorem and Puccini collaborations among various sopranos, here the two "parts" are exactly the same. There's a cool sort of temporal displacement effect, as one part is echoed in the other. By the way, although I experimented with timing the second part at, more or less, exactly one or two or four measures apart from the first, I quickly found that the effect is more satisfying when the two tracks don't sound like they're trying to get along. We don't want too much order here!

Also, I've created a little YouTube playlist for other little mashups that I've produced in the past couple of years. And here's one other musical merger that hasn't made it to YouTube yet. Oh, yes, and there's Amphetepollini. [UPDATE: in a slightly different vein, here's my 7-part vertical Christmas medley. WARNING: Music will start playing when the page loads.]

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Last Roses of Summer?

OK, so this latest hiatus has been ridiculous, to the point that you might well wonder if I'd stopped blogging for good. (Would that mean I'd started blogging for evil?) But, it's always been my intention to get back to it - there's just an enormous amount of inertia to overcome the longer one of these gaps lasts. I've also managed to get behind on a number of non-blog projects, so it's been hard to justify taking the time to put a post together, but here I am. I think it's fair to say that Twitter has consumed some of my potential blogging energy, but it's also been a source of lots of interesting discoveries, inspirations, etc. If you don't *do* Twitter, I can't pretend it's the easiest thing to make sense of from the outside, but I am ever followable there at Also, my first 1000 (!) tweets are archived here.

I could be wrong, but it sometimes seems to me that the classical music blogosphere is less energized than it was when I first started at this in 2007. Of course, it could just be that the blogs I follow the most have gone through natural cycles of diminishing activity. It is a lot of work to keep the content flowing, and I strongly suspect that Facebook and Twitter have each served to siphon off some blogging energy. While it's easy to be critical of that, what I would say, in Twitter's favor at least, is that it facilitates a kind of regular back-and-forth dialogue that is harder to achieve with a blog - but, depth of content is inevitably lost, just as blogs provide less depth (but more sense of two-way communication) than journals and the like. So, I'm committed to get back on track here. Goodness knows, I've written dozens of blog posts in my mind this summer. (They were all brilliant!)

Well, anyway, I'm here today to report on a minor bit of Twitter inspiration that reminds me how much I love the back-and-forth of the Internet. It began with a couple of Twitterers posting about this astonishing story, in which music industry types are revealed to be seeking payment for the 30-second audio samples iTunes provides in its online store. I realize the intent is probably to get iTunes to pay up behind the scenes, not to make users pay directly for each sample sampled, but nevertheless, it's hard to imagine how the music industry can't see that free samples are a valuable advertising tool.

Still, if I'm honest, I'll admit that I often use iTunes free samples as a way to check up on tempi, performance style, etc. without a real intent to buy. Even more intriguing is the rare iTunes sample that actually is an entire work, making a purchase seem altogether pointless. A few years back, Scott Spiegelberg had a post about the shortest complete tracks on his iPod; that led me to think about the shortest complete pieces I could think of, and I remembered Ned Rorem's tiny little setting of Gertrude Stein's "I Am Rose." Sure enough, it appears four times on iTunes, in lengths ranging from 19 to 30 seconds. (Go to the iTunes Store, search "rorem am rose," and you can hear them all.) So, as I commented on Scott's blog way back then, you can essentially get this song for free.

I was reminded of this by the "let's charge for samples" story, and so I tweeted about the songs briefly here. (I realize that "briefly" is a redundancy where Twitter is concerned.) A couple of tweets later, the thought of four sopranos being timed on this song gave me excuse to plug my "Callas vs. Fleming" mashup from March, and the MMmusing wheels were pretty much in motion. As I tweeted next, "...if you've been following my past few posts & if you know me well (wife nods, frowning), you'd know this had to happen:" So, yes, I tossed these four bits of Rorem into a little collage, made all the more delightful by the variations in tuning among the pianos involved. There's a lot more I'd like to say about this, but why waste material that could make another blog post? So, for now, I just leave you with this little oddity, with animations I added this evening. Enjoy!