Sunday, November 29, 2009

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

I wrote last year about the Boston Symphony's lame "video" podcasting ventures, and it seems nothing has changed. Having just heard the BSO last night in a terrific concert with Joshua Bell, I stopped by a few minutes ago and see they're proudly proclaiming: "NEW! Video Exclusive - interview with Joshua Bell - WATCH IT NOW." I'm not gonna break this down like I did last time, but suffice it to say, the "video" is mostly just publicity stills of Mr. Bell that zoom slowly in and out with little rhyme or reason. (For example, when Bell is talking about visiting the White House recently, are there photos of the White House? Uh, no.)

Oh wait, no, I just realized that, a few minutes in, they've inserted some actual video footage of Bell performing with the BSO (looks Tanglewood-y) which, quite frankly, is even more bizarre. We see him passionately playing with not even the slightest audio hint of what he's playing. (Actually, it's just occurred to me that it could make a fun "violin puzzler" game to figure out what he's playing; maybe later.) They use this video as a sort of wallpaper a couple of times in the "video" podcast, but it's basically a poorly enhanced audio interview. Yet they're desperately urging us not to listen, but to WATCH.

Here's my point: it's astounding to me that as we approach 2010, this is what passes for multimedia on a major orchestra's website. The interview is fine, if rather tepid, but the BSO is about music, not talking. I know there are all sorts of union issues involved, but it's ridiculous that an orchestra website isn't filled with audio and video of actual musical performances. As I type, I'm sitting and watching NFL football for free, and yet the NFL stadiums are packed and the league makes plenty of money.

I feel certain that if the BSO website was filled with musicmaking, visitors to the site would be much more likely to think about buying tickets. They don't need to put up complete performances if they're afraid of giving away the farm, but 30 seconds of watching Joshua Bell actually playing the Brahms concerto would certainly do more than 10 minutes of him talking. Could a union really not agree to that? (Actually, don't answer that.) Orchestras need to figure this out.

UPDATE: I just noticed that there is a "music player" option on the front of the BSO website, though the button is hardly featured. Actually, this little music player is nice, with quite a few listening options (though it doesn't seem to ID the performers clearly). I can't imagine why it's not more prominently featured, but maybe it's a start.

UPDATE 2 (12/2): I see (via BSO's Twitter account) that the Bell interview "video" is on YouTube as well. I noticed that there are some images of Bell playing in the White House, so either I was mistaken above or the video's been updated a little. I probably just missed them; they don't exactly scream "White House," but I apologize for suggesting no White House images were used.

See also: an MMmusing podcast that actually uses images to enhance what's being talked about in the interview.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Do the MMmusing Shuffle

Click → Click

More than two years ago, about 100 days into my blogging career, I noticed that multimedia was starting to play a big role in my musing, so I designed the machine above to send readers off to random images, sounds, and videos that had figured in my posts. I've been updating it ever since. As of November, 2009, there are now about 150 directions in which it might send you. In most cases, you'll land on multimedia that was created specifically for this site, and in all cases you'll find a link to the original blog post to which the content was first linked. However, it can be fun to stumble on the content first and wonder why it's here. (In some cases, I'm still not sure.)

So, spin the wheel and see what happens...and you can always spin again using the machine over there in the margin.

[Last updated 11/10/14, now with about 300 possible outcomes.]

Thursday, November 19, 2009

-bert to -mann

I promise this won't be as long as the previous post, but I had another recent experience noticing an unexpected connection between two works. Sunday night, I heard the terrific cellist Carol Ou play Schubert's "Arpeggione" Sonata and, as pianist Noreen Cassidy-Polera introduced the main theme, I suddenly realized how similar it is to the main theme of Schumann's Piano Concerto. I happen to have a student working on the Schumann right now, so that may explain why it was available for easy comparison-noting in my subconscious playlist. I've actually played both works, the Schubert many times, but perhaps never in close proximity to each other. Schumann was, of course, a great admirer of Schubert, so perhaps he knew the "Arpeggione," although Wikipedia informs me the sonata wasn't published until 1871, well after Schumann's death.

Anyway, it doesn't take much analysis to see how closely these A minor tunes parallel each other at their outsets, both in rhythm and melodic structure. And that's really all I have to say about this; I did play around briefly with some sort of mashup idea (such as replacing Schumann's piano statement of the theme [which follows woodwind statement] with Schubert's theme), but nothing worked. So at least now you have evidence that I won't just slap ANY two tunes together. (Well, OK, you can hear the beginnings of the two tunes slapped together by clicking the third image below.)


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Don't forget to visit my old Tune Theft archive, though the above doesn't quite qualify as tune theft in my book.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Name that Bassoon

I continue to find iPod shuffling to be one of the more creatively engaging ways to listen. Not only is shuffling fun in a "name that tune" sense, but it can so often spark unexpected connections. As I've written many times before, I think that finding interesting connections is basically what creativity is all about, and inviting random input can be a remarkably effective way to find such links.

So, just yesterday I was driving home from work and the iPod shuffled to a track beginning with a lonely bassoon note, seemingly suspended in time. I assumed almost immediately that this was the beginning of the 2nd mvt of the Mendelssohn violin concerto, which famously begins with a lone bassoon B held over from the big finish of the 1st movement. And, though I don't have perfect pitch, it turns out that I was hearing a B in the correct register, and I'm sure that contributed to my sense that this was surely Mendelssohn - except, of course, it wasn't. Instead, it quickly became clear that this was Copland's Appalachian Spring - specifically, a reflective little connecting passage that precedes the famous "Simple Gifts" variations. I went back and listened several times, then cross-checked against Mendelssohn, not at all surprised to find it was the same pitch. Some pitch-moments are just loaded into the memory banks.

Not only do these two passages (from very different composers) begin with the same pitch on unaccompanied bassoon, but each then resolves up to a C. If you've been following this blog recently, you won't be surprised to know that I quickly thought of playing these two passages simultaneously, but I was quite surprised to find other little resonances. Most notably, Mendelssohn's C is followed by a G-sharp, while Copland's C is followed by an E-flat leading quickly to A-flat. Of course, G-sharp and A-flat are enharmonic equivalents - in piano terms, they are the same pitch! This is quite a coincidence, especially since neither is what would be expected in the respective contexts. Each passage is clearly in searching mode, but they start off searching in the same unusual direction.

From that point, the two excerpts head in different directions, with that Mendelssohn G-sharp creeping up to an A while Copland's A-flat holds steady. Still, there are some other nice little simultaneities - Copland arrives at a high G (melodic peak) where Mendelssohn arrives at a low G (lowest note) and when Mendelssohn's bass G resolves up to a C Major chord, Copland's melody lands on a C. By the end of this little mashup, we have Mendelssohn C Major nestling against Copland A-flat Major, two chords which share only that first C. The other pitches in those two chords clash wonderfully, and create a lovely bitonal sonority. Actually, the Copland passage (which is exactly like the opening of Appalachian Spring, except a half-step lower) already has some bitonal sonorities, with A-flat and E-flat chords coexisting in mm. 3-6 below. Thus, the clash with the Mendelssohn just seems like a logical extension of the sound world that's already in play.

Most amazingly, when I put the two audio files together, it turns out that almost all the barlines align pretty closely, even though Mendelsson is in 6/8 and Copland is in 4/4. Obviously, I got lucky with the recordings I happened to choose - there's no guarantee this would always happen, but I'm fascinated by how many connections can be heard and seen in this randomly discovered pairing. I find the result quite beautiful in its own way. Here's a reasonably accurate depiction of how the two scores line up (Mendelssohn on top):

[click to enlarge]
Here they are again, with annotations:

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So, I don't really know what this all means, but it was fun to explore. Here are links to the original audio for each excerpt: Mendelssohn | Copland

And here's what they sound like together:

More MMmashups.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Marylou Speaker Churchill

I only heard yesterday that Marylou Speaker Churchill, a great teacher and long time principal 2nd violinist of the BSO, passed away late Tuesday evening. She was only 64 and I find it heartbreaking to know that she's no longer around. One of the great benefits of being an accompanist is getting to work with such a wide range of teachers. I didn't accompany for Mrs. Churchill's studio all that often and not at all for the past ten years, but she is unquestionably the most perfect teacher I've ever encountered, absolutely committed to the highest levels of musicianship, but also generous and loving to a degree that can't easily be described. Actually, read through some of the tributes to her on Facebook and you'll get some glimmer of what made her so special.

From a selfish perspective, I had always hoped that some day my daughter might get to study with Marylou, not just because one couldn't hope for a better teacher, but because I always so enjoyed being around her. That radiant smile! I didn't get as many chances to hear her play as I wish, but I remember vividly once playing through the final movement of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time with her. She just wanted to run it with piano in advance of an out-of-town performance to come, but it was a great moment for me. Titled "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus," it is some of the most divinely transcendent music imaginable; perhaps she's playing it now. I know that she provided countless great moments for so many other students and musicians. My thoughts and prayers go out to her dear husband Mark and their two daughters. Such an amazing life, and such a tremendous loss.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Joy of (looking at) Music

As my participation in the "Drawing as Encounter" exhibit might suggest, I'm fascinated by ways in which music can be seen as well as heard. We explored that in a couple of ways in the exhibit (which I promise to get around to blogging about soon [UPDATE: here & here]), but I'm most interested in ways that visuals can be used to help listeners listen more effectively. As much as I like the Fantasia films, I suspect that type of fully realized visual can be so compelling that the music becomes of secondary interest. (Although you can read here about how Michael Steinberg avoided that problem.) I mentioned this "Fantasia Problem" when praising the simplicity of the fabulous Ries Rollercoaster ad.

I have all sorts of great ideas running around in my head about various video/animation possibilities, but more and more I'm convinced that we tend to underestimate the best visual of all: the score itself. Not just in the sense that a score can be a beautiful thing to look at, although it can. Rather, following a score can be a wonderfully engaging way of hearing more deeply and insightfully, without generally becoming an end in itself. Since I'm a sightreader by nature, it makes sense that I might feel this way, but I've come to find that even the untrained eye/ear can get a kick out of watching as little black specks come to life.

I had an unexpectedly big success with this simple concept last month when our Piano Hero team was invited to participate in a campus-wide Homecoming faculty/staff/student talent show. For an audience of a thousand or so (I'm guessing at the number), three pianist colleagues and I played this arrangement of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. As we had done back in May for a modest Piano Hero audience, we asked the audience to be the cannon-firers - everyone was given paper bags suitable for inflating/exploding. Although we'd had fun using a student armed with pop-gun to signal the cannons back in May, in this case I decided to go with a PowerPoint slide show.

Part of the idea was that the PowerPoint could be used not only to cue the cannons, but also to provide all sorts of information about the themes as the music went along. I thought through several different ways to present the information, but it finally dawned on me that the score could be used as the basic visual backbone. This had the practical advantage that all I needed from the PowerPoint operator was someone who could read music, clicking at the end of each page. It turned out to be impractical to display the 8-hand piano arrangement because the parts don't line up with each other nicely, but since Piano Hero is all about sightreading AND recreating orchestral works via the piano, it seemed appropriate simply to use the orchestral score. [Part of the idea here is that, as with watching gamers play Guitar Hero or Rock Band, the audience gets to see what it is we're gunning for.]

Of course, following such a score takes some training and experience, but I used the old "highlight the leading instrument" approach to help with that; and, most importantly, since we had someone to take care of changing the slides at the right time, the viewer could always easily get back on track if lost. (By the way, I have a lot of affection for the "highlighted" score system; I've written before about an old Norton anthology that was big inspiration for me once upon a time, and I'm not sure I could have navigated it without the highlighted lines.)

The upshot of all this is that the performance was a HUGE success. I think we played fine, and it was certainly exciting to be up on stage (and hear a tremendous rustling of paper bags throughout), but I also think the success had a lot to do with 1) letting the audience participate in the performance, and 2) giving them something engaging to follow leading up to those cannons. I had so many people tell me how satisfying it felt to be able to "follow" a score, and the information about themes and the like that would usually get lost in program notes was presented in a way that people could hear immediately. I honestly think orchestras could have a lot of success with this kind of experiment.

And, in the interest of promoting my own last-minute laziness, I'd also suggest that the somewhat rough and improvised look of the slides (inconsistently sized staves, below-average resolution, hand-scrawled highlights, etc.) helps them to function more as catalysts for listening rather than as captivating visuals in their own right. I wish I hadn't misspelled cannon a couple of times (fixed in the video below), but even that might not have been such a bad thing. The bottom line is that the audience, not at all composed of classical music types, loved the whole experience in ways that surprised me and them.

So, here is what the PowerPoint looked like, more or less. The screen capture software I used to make this video doesn't do a great job with motion, so there are a few fade-in, fade-out moments when the video quality is much worse than what our audience saw. Also, there's one spot [3:26] where the score zooms up and in that looked much smoother in real life. Oh yeah, and in this case you don't get to hear our 8-handed piano sound - just a boring orchestra. (Thanks to the invaluable René Köhler and his National Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra.) Be sure to go full-screen to get the best effect.

Also, we did take a cut [at 9:27], so it's not quite the whole Tchaikovsky. As for the cannon countdowns, they do require a little more specific timing on the part of the slideshow operator, but there's certainly nothing very complicated about running it. If you're interested in using the PowerPoint file, let me know.

P.S. If you want to skip ahead to the cannons, the countdowns start soon after the cut at 9:27.

Also, you can see samples of a couple of earlier Piano Hero score projections here and here.

UPDATE: Thanks to the first commenter, I now realize that the video above does not contain the spelling corrections I made to the PowerPoint, post-performance. Oh well, that makes the video more accurate historically, since that's the spelling our audience saw. And, as regular visitors here should know, I like canons.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Alas, no submarines are featured in this exhibit...

Maybe I haven't been blogging so much, but I am featured in my first ever art exhibition, as you can sort of see above [click pic to enlarge]. I'm even listed as a composer, which is perhaps misleading, but it's the kind of misleading I could get used to. So, no, I did not write the little musical excerpt you see above (can you ID it?), although I did introduce it to Jim Zingarelli, who then went to work on it in ways I'll explain in a post yet to come. [One of Jim's fantastic paintings figured in a past post which anticipated some of the questions that came up in our collaboration.]

I'm not much of an artist myself, although I have drawn my share of submarines and intersecting planes (geometrical, not aeronautical) while listening to various classroom lectures over the years. Still, it was lots of fun to rub shoulders with art types at the Opening on Saturday, and the experience of the collaboration has inspired all sorts of thoughts that I hope to blog about some day. For today, you just get the pretty picture above.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Chopin's Funeral March (with ghosts!)

Last night, while thinking about music I might use to frighten the trick-or-treaters, I posted on Twitter links to Horowitz playing the 3rd and 4th movements of Chopin's second piano sonata. The 3rd movement is perhaps the most famous funeral march ever written, but the ghostly 4th movement is even more harrowing - just frighteningly fast unison triplets played mostly at a deathly whisper, often described as "wind howling around the gravestones."

3rd mvt
4th mvt

So, naturally, I accidentally opened both videos at the same time and another mashup possibility was born. (You can easily experiment yourself by playing the above videos simultaneously.) I think this one works particularly well, hearing the funeral march in the foreground with the 4th mvt providing an eerie backdrop. I tweaked the tempi just a bit to make things end satisfactorily, so here you go. If you'd like to see the actual score, you can go here (pp.15-20), although the 4th movement notes aren't much easier to follow even when they're sitting still on the page.

Previous MMmashups: Canon a 2 Tempi ~ Campanella Canon ~ The Rite of Appalachian Spring ~ Webern in Mayberry ~ Four Roses