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:

[click to enlarge]

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.

No comments: