Saturday, October 31, 2009

When the Sun Comes Out

I've been mildly obsessed with Sibelius' Symphony No. 5 lately, partly due to rereading Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, a book which I'm having a class read and which has a wonderful chapter on Sibelius. I came across this video of a performance in which a J.M.W. Turner painting (I think it's Turner) is slowly unveiled behind the stage at the first big climax (about 2:25 into the video). Although I think music should certainly be given a chance to speak for itself as a general rule, I find this quite effective. It does a good job of cuing the listener to the magnificence of the moment without being so visually engaging that the music becomes mere soundtrack.

If you don't know this inspiring work, be sure to stick around for the stunning conclusion.

See also: Seeing Music & Music as Image/Image as Music

P.S. I should add that it's not 100% clear whether or not the Turner image was just added to the video post-performance, but I suspect audiences would enjoy this kind of thing live.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mysterious arabesques

I was just passing the time playing through Couperin's beguiling "Les barricades mystérieuses," and remembered how much it has always reminded me of Robert Schumann's Arabeske. Not in a "Tune Theft" sort of way - rather, each piece is based on a similar type of flowing texture in which multiple melodic strands are slightly offset from each other, creating chains of suspensions. No time to go into more detail here, but I think the kinship is quite evident to the ear:

Couperin Schumann

...and, perhaps a bit less so, to the eye:

Couperin: Les barricades mystérieuses (1717)
Schumann: Arabeske, Op.18 (1839)
You can view the complete scores here:
Couperin (p.123) | Schumann

Whatever you might think about the relative compositional similarity of these two works, written about 125 years apart, what they most share in common is that each composer seems to have unlocked some magical soundworld - two of the more perfect pieces I know.

UPDATE: I said I don't think of these pieces as sharing the same tune, but they do open with similar melodic outlines: a small interval up, a step down, and then a rising 4th - albeit with Couperin's 4th going re-sol and Schumann's sol-do. And each tune is housed in the same kind of dotted rhythmic figure. (Couperin uses ties instead of dots, but same difference.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Classical Enthusiasm

Interesting sighting of classical music in pop culture in the most recent episode (Season 7: #5) of Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Entirely coincidental - I think - that my last post concerned Seinfeld. This recent Curb episode, by the way, was chock full of Seinfeld homages, even as the season-long story arc about a Seinfeld reunion show was kept in the background.) I haven't seen all the episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but I've seen enough to know that Larry David has an obvious, Woody Allen-esque affection for classical music. The funniest Curb moment I've ever seen was the moment when Larry exacts revenge on a rude neighbor (and his trick-or-treating daughter) by conducting (with hilarious abandon) a live orchestra in a performance of the overture to Die Meistersinger on the neighbor's lawn. Enjoy this clip while it's still on YouTube.

Anyway, Sunday night's episode opens with Larry sitting in a cafe, whistling to himself while listening to something through headphones. We first assume he will end up offending someone with his whistling (in fact, it may be the only moment of the entire episode when he's not offending someone), but to our surprise, his whistling attracts the sympathetic attention of an attractive woman who asks what he's listening to. His curious reply is, "Chee-Yun." I'll get to why that's curious in a moment, but it turns out the woman is also a Chee-Yun fan and a half-hour's worth of sophisticatedly crude comedy has been set in motion, all of which will come to a climax at a private Chee-Yun recital.

Now, I and many other classical music types know that Chee-Yun is a very successful Korean violinist, thought hardly the biggest name of her generation; but I would guess a fairly low percentage of Curb viewers would have known this, and there's very little help for those viewers until the end of the episode. Not that there's anything wrong with that - the "Chee-Yun" situation is intentionally established as a sort of exclusive something-or-other, so I'm guessing the director was happy to leave this vague.

However, I was dying to know just what Larry David was whistling along to in that opening scene - at the end of the episode, we briefly hear Chee-Yun playing the slow movement of the Mendelssohn concerto (scandalously, with no accompaniment*), but I didn't think that's what I'd heard. I ended up having to re-watch the opening several times before I could pick out the tune. You can try it yourself here (until it gets taken down - UPDATE: no longer available), although it doesn't help that Larry's first few whistled pitches were cut:


Oh, here it is:

So, after several OnDemand rewinds, I finally recognized the beautiful theme from the 2nd movement of Schubert's B-flat trio (see p.94; hear here) - the whistling isn't that bad, but the scene starts from the middle of the tune and Larry's rhythm could use a little work. Still, there's no question this is what we're hearing. Which begs the question: who, listening to a chamber work such as this, would respond to a "what are you listening to" question by naming the violinist as opposed to the composer?

Of course, some people would, especially anyone who happens to be a particular fan of the violinist, but it's still an odd choice for the whistling, when they could have chosen from so many violin-specific pieces (like the Mendelssohn she's later heard playing). I haven't found any recordings of Chee-Yun playing the Schubert, though I see she performed it at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston last year. Maybe Mr. David was there and made his own bootleg recording, but I'm guessing he just really likes that tune - it IS one of the most perfect of melodies, although I always think of it as a cello tune, since the cellist gets it first.

[By the way, we in the classical music world tend to underemphasize the appeal of a good tune, which is why extraordinary tunesmiths such as Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and Poulenc are too often underrated. If you can get your hands on Bernstein's The Joy of Music, take a look at this great conversation, "Why Don't You Run Upstairs and Write a Nice Gershwin Tune?" I love that Larry David's classical fandom manifests itself in whistling a little Schubert here, or whistling Wagner's Siegfried Idyl in the "trick-or-treat" episode that ends up with him maniacally conducting Die Meistersinger. The all-out intensity with which he wails away at his little orchestra is the kind of visceral thrill we want all of our audiences to experience.]

As much as anything, I suppose the little coffeehouse scene illustrates a fundamental difference in how classical music types think vs. the rest of the more pop-oriented world. We're used to thinking in a composer-based way, they're used to thinking in a performer-based way. Neither is right or wrong, but even though the Curb folks were happy to reference a fairly vague classical soloist without clarifying who she is, they still have the characters talk about her from the performer-based point-of-view - even when she's collaborating in some of the most sublimely non-showy chamber music imaginable. [Or, more likely, Larry David was just idly whistling a tune, and no one suspected anyone would actually care to think this much about it.]

* I mean, seriously, they have Chee-Yun giving a recital at a gorgeous, enormous mansion, which obviously would've housed a nice piano, and the producers couldn't be bothered to hire a pianist to play along? So unfair.

P.S. On this very day that I've been thinking about music fans idly whistling great tunes, I was walking across campus and heard a student (someone I didn't recognize, so pretty definitely not a music major) loudly whistling the theme to Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, complete with wide, theremin-like vibrato and portamenti. It was quite the unexpected scene.

UPDATE: I've noticed on yet another viewing that the woman actually asks of Larry, "Who are you listening to?" Still begs the question, has she then already recognized the Schubert tune from Larry's whistling? If so, is she expecting to hear only a violinist's name, or, more likely, to hear the name of a trio? It's presented almost as if she's expecting him to say "Chee-Yun," since she's very excited by his response and declares herself to be a big fan - not of Schubert, but of Chee-Yun. Some enterprising musicology major needs to investigate this...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Seinfeld Sonnets

[Skip directly to sonnets.]

Here's something odd from my pre-blogging past. I've mentioned many times that reading Douglas Hofstadter's Le ton beau de Marot awakened an unexpected interest in writing poetry - especially poetry that follows fairly strict constraints and that invites lots of wordplay. Two of my favorite MMmusing moments involve sonnetized versions of two of the more celebrated classical music stories from the last two years: the Hatto Sonnets and the Bell Sonnets.

I was reminded of them today when Terry Teachout twittered about Calvin Trillin's fantastic couplet-ized takedown of Roman Polanski, which you should go right now and read. It's short and brilliantly to the point. Pretty soon, my mind wandered back to a kooky project on which I embarked a few years back. The goal: summarize each episode of Seinfeld in sonnet form. After all, I'm certain there's no episode I've seen less than five times, so I've got all this knowledge floating around, just begging to be used. As with the Hatto and Bell sonnets, I chose to follow the delightfully varied rhyming/metrical pattern that Pushkin uses in his great novel-in-verse, Eugene Onegin. (Hofstadter devotes part of his wonderful book to the issue of translating Pushkin's rhymed Russian into effective English.)

Alas, as it happened, I only got around to finishing nine episodes before...well, I'm not sure what harebrained scheme drew my attention away, but I don't think I spent much more than a long weekend jamming these words together. I've always had the insane idea that I'd like to finish the project, but it occurred to me today that I probably never will and that I probably never should. So, where I once worried that presenting a few samples to the world would spoil the surprise (or perhaps inspire someone else to finish before me - delusional, though that thought may be), I decided today that I might as well post a few. They may appear as little more than gibberish to those who don't know the plots, full as they are of little quotes and allusions to as many details as I could manage in fourteen lines per show.

So, here are Seven Seinfeld Sonnets (complete with notes to self from way back), with enough enjambment and tortured rhymes to make you glad I never got around to the other 171 episodes:

16. The Chinese Restaurant

A Chinese restaurant is the setting
for dinner for a band of three.
The problem seems to be in getting
a table, so they wait and see.
Elaine is starving, George is waiting
to make a call; he needs sedating.
They try to bribe the maitre d'.
He takes their money cluelessly.
Elaine is offered fifty dollars
by Jerry to steal someone's food.
She chickens out. George scolds the rude
and antisocial payphone callers.
Despair sets in, they hit the door.
The clueless host says, "Seinfeld, four!"

[could still use references to "Skyburger" and "Plan 9 from Outer Space."
Also, the interesting trivial fact that there is no Kramer.]

23. The Parking Garage

Like wand'rers in a desert, fretting
inside a Jersey mall garage,
our heroes search the maze-like setting
for Kramer's car. "Right there?" Mirage!
Elaine's new fish is slowly fading,
while George's folks back home are waiting.
The friends divide, search high and low.
Both George and Jerry have to go.
Behind some cars, they go discreetly,
but each is caught, though Jerry pleads
his Uromysitisis needs.
George finds a woman who quite sweetly
agrees to help, but George misspeaks,
insults Ron Hubbard; then she freaks.

[missing heavy AC unit and closing scene]

34. The Boyfriend, Part I
35. The Boyfriend, Part II

A friendship blooms with Keith Hernandez
for Jerry. Soon Elaine competes
for interest from this baseball man, des-
pised spitter, Newman says; repeats
a JFK-type tale that Jerry
dispels with evidence contrary.
The "magic loogie" must have come
from somewhere else: McDowell, that scum.
To get his benefits extended
for unemployment, George invents
a firm that Jerry represents,
sells latex. All goes as intended
'till Kramer answers Jerry's phone,
"No Vandalay!" George ends up prone.

George dates Ms. Sokol's girl to flatter
in hopes that he'll keep getting paid,
while Jerry thinks something's the matter
when Keith, who's moving, asks for aid.
Poor Seinfeld's doubly jealous knowing
Elaine and Keith are still out going.
Keith's smoking turns Elaine away
and Jerry balks on moving day.
The homely daughter dumps Costanza,
his only hope is to impress
by introducing Mrs. S.
to Keith, but once again the plans a
mistake since Jerry's quit the move,
though Kramer, Newman helpful prove.

[no dropping of baby by Kramer, although that's no big loss to me. Wish I
could fit in ". . . and YOU want to be MY latex salesman!"]

51. The Contest

Poor George's mother lands in traction
when she walks in on George, who's by
himself with Glamour; his reaction
is evermore to self-deny.
His friends do not believe him able
and so they wager at the table
to see who can the best abstain,
be master of his own domain.
First Kramer loses to temptation:
a naked neighbor. Then Elaine
meets John-John. Jerry can't explain
to virgin Marla his frustration,
while George must watch a comely nurse
sponge-bathe a patient. How perverse!

[I'm just happy to have gotten through this one!]

57. The Outing

Elaine starts trouble by pretending
That George and Jerry are in love.
A girl who hears had been intending
to meet with Jerry, subject of
her story for the college paper.
At first it seems that they'll escape her
intent to out them when they chat.
(Not that there's something wrong with that.)
A faulty phone undoes their doing,
and soon they're outed in the press.
Costanza's mom falls in distress.
As Jerry sets things straight by wooing
the girl, in George walks playing gay
to scare his clingy girl away.

[substitution of "something" for "anything" annoys me. No mention of
Elaine's refusal to take off coat, although I never thought that was very
funny. Wish I could've mentioned "Guys and Dolls" and/or Better Midler.]

78. The Marine Biologist

When Jerry meets Diane from college,
he lies, says George matured. Now she
thinks George is a marine biolog-
ist. Kramer golfs balls out to sea.
Elaine repeats, while in discussion
of "War and Peace" with an old Russian,
what Jerry'd said: the book once bore
the name, "War, What is it good for?'"
The Russian hurls her organizer,
its names lead right back to the fiend:
to sum up, twice Corrine gets beaned.
George saves a whale: frees "fish's" geyser
from hole-in-one 'midst angry man-
in-deli sea. Truth miffs Dianne.

[The angry old man's soup is left out, but I'm pretty pleased I got that
much in. I don't think I've got space to work in the tape-recorder in any
more detail.]