Tuesday, December 22, 2009

An Octave of Octaves

It may seem odd to be posting a "wall-of-sound" mashup just days before Christmas, but the truth is that my latest little YouTube creation was inspired by the sounds of Christmas. As I hope you already know, Day 8 of the "12 Composers of Christmas" features one of the most famous passages in the piano repertoire, the barrage of octaves that precedes the last "big tune" statement in Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto. (Octaves = 8ths, of course.) When I was adding annotations/links to the "12 Composers" video last week, I was looking for a YouTube video that would start right at that spot in the 3rd movement. To my great delight, someone had posted the fiendishly amazing Martha Argerich playing just that passage, and so I'd found the perfect link, especially because you get to watch her hands doing miraculous things.

It turns out that the little Argerich excerpt was posted in response to another YouTuber who'd created a back-to-back-to-back, etc. recording of sixteen pianist playing those octaves, and pretty soon I'd discovered that someone else had also posted a slightly different lineup of octave-slayers. First of all, let's just pause to say that this is one of the oh-so-wonderful things about the Internet - that someone could post something like this for easy comparison. Twenty years ago, the best one might have hoped for was that some musicologist might write an article comparing such performances, and if you were lucky enough to stumble on that article, then you could read about the playing, look at tables of timings, take in some overly studious analysis, etc. But you wouldn't be able to hear anything. So, thank you, Internet, and thank you, YouTube.

Whether anyone will thank me for what follows is a bit harder to predict, but there was essentially no way I could keep from trying out the inevitable: playing all sixteen of those performances simultaneously. I've been dabbling in mashups for some time, and perhaps you'll recall that I recently discovered the work of self-proclaimed plunderer John Oswald, who once combined 24 recordings of the Also Sprach Zarathustra opening; but I don't think I'd topped the 4-track mark until now. Not surprisingly, there's nothing subtle about the sound of sixteen pianists storming the gates of a big Russian tune - the effect borders on incomprehensible, but it's quite a sound, thrilling in its own way.

It then occurred to me that maybe the perfect number would be an octave of pianists (putting aside the fact that these are actually double octaves). I chose the eight recordings from this video that were closest to each other in tempo, put them together, and here you get something a bit more recognizable - not as avant-garde perhaps, but ultimately more satisfying to my ears.

There's more fun number stuff here. The printed cadenza consists of 96 (nice round multiple of 8) octaves in each hand, which adds up to 384 notes in all. With 8 pianists playing, that's a total of 3072 notes heard in a span of about 16 seconds (another multiple of 8!) - or, about 192 notes/second. That means the 16-performer version includes about 384 notes/second, so it's hardly surprising that we end up with a virtual wall of sound at that point, especially since there are a lot more tempo variants included.

Incidentally, I have done other odd things to Tchaikovsky's music in the past few years. Here's a sampler.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Ghosts of MMmusing Past

The time has come to promote ye ol' MMmusing Christmas Specials - alas, there's nothing new to offer this year, but I'm a classical music person, so it's appropriate that I rely on classics from the past. By the way, it's possible that my creative well simply has run dry as a result of, for fatherhood-based reasons, listening to the Chipmunks' Christmas album about 30 times in the past month. Honestly, I don't mind the Chipmunks as much as you might expect, if only because my kids enjoy them so much and sing along with remarkable gusto. Anyway, the point is, here's some stuff I created a few years back:

Most importantly, the festive "12 Composers of Christmas." Last year's goal was to get the YouTube view-count up over 1000. It's now been viewed more than 6,000 times, but let's try to get that up to at least 10,000 this year. Then, if everything falls into place, I and my little animated stickman might get signed to a record contract as happened with these guys. Or not. Here you go (note that annotations [with links] were added this year):

Then, there's the delightfully cacophonous "Vertical Christmas Medley," seven popular tunes of the season bopping along simultaneously. Do you hear what I hear?

And, finally from 2000, my first ever movie, starring an adorable cast of nieces and nephews. I think this achievement is looking less impressive every year as homemade video editing is so much more common than it used to be; back in 2001 (when I'd finally finished all the editing), it seemed like a miracle to create those stunning special effects. I still think the script holds up, though, and the performances are as endearing as ever. Worth noting that the entire shooting schedule took place in about 2-3 days, with very little planning ahead of time. This is filmmaking as improvisation.

Part I:

Part II:

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Testing with the Stars

A few years back, for reasons forgotten and perhaps better unknown, I started inserting pictures of famous music types into the final exam margins for the two quads (Baroque & Classical) of music history I teach. The tradition began with some of the amusingly coiffed heroes of the Baroque, in pictures lifted from the pages of Norton's A History of Western Music. A year later, these history stars began spouting mostly comforting advice to the inevitably nervous test-takers. Then, last year's Classical Era exam featured some stunningly bad puns from that well-known cast of characters. [NOTE: Bach and Handel actually kick off this quad in my arrangement.]

Remarkably, one of the students who'd endured all of that last Spring wrote the following on my Facebook wall today: " I think I'm going to miss having cartoons on my exams this semester." In retrospect, he may have done this knowing that I couldn't resist the temptation to conjure up a few words of wisdom from the finest the 20th century has to offer. (I don't teach that class, alas.) I happened to be home "watching" the kids, so it was pretty much inevitable that this student (let's call him "Joe") would end up with a little gallery of composerly advice on his Facebook wall. I figured I might as well get a blog post out of all this as well.

Here's the first batch of Baroque sages who, I believe, debuted in March of 2007:

Then, last Spring's "Classical Era" exam featured these highly unoriginal, cringe-inducing puns:

If, by some miracle, you haven't fled this post in pain, here are my little 20th-century additions to the genre, created on this very afternoon:

NOTE: You can reveal the identify of all of the above by clicking on the images - well, except the first 20th-century image has two composers, the second of whom is this guy. The horrible Haydn thing is, of course, a reference to my oft-confessed lack of affinity for Papa Joe.

UPDATE: A new batch from 2010.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Les lignes mystérieuses...

My recent collaborative "encounter" with artist Jim Zingarelli found us not only decorating old scores, but also creating a sort of music from the act of drawing itself. I've been intrigued for some time by the contrasting ways in musicians and visual artists think of and experience direction. I've heard Jim talk many times about the ways in which an image can lead a viewer to follow a kind of path in the act of viewing, but it's quite a different thing than the temporally prescribed way in which one experiences the events in a piece of music. (Let's put aside for now the complex ways in which a listener does indeed keep "in mind" musical events that have passed or that are yet to come.)

[NOTE: I mused on this issue at some length here, including some reference to Jim's work, although that was long before we'd imagined this collaboration. There's also some further commentary on the matter from Dan B. at Thoughtlights, with yet further comments by me in the comments to his post.]

Whatever you might think of this distinction between the worlds of art and music, I wanted to see and document what it would be like to watch a drawing unfold as a sort of performance. I decided a fun way to do that would be to have Jim sketch on my Tablet PC, using screen capture software to record all the strokes of the pen. The first time I handed him the tablet, he immediately threw a challenge back at me by asking me to play something for him to "draw to." Not being an improviser (see previous post), I pulled Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier off the shelf and faked my way through the C Minor Prelude from Book I. Not my finest moment as a pianist (nor had my office piano been tuned yet for the semester, so things were less well-tempered than ideal), but afterwards we were both captivated by the sight of watching his lines dash across the screen. Even the sound of the pen tapping against the tablet added something surprisingly satisfying. [Perhaps some day I'll have the courage to post this first session, although I'll have to load it up with as many disclaimers as possible about my playing.]

So, for now, I'm going to post a "live drawing" we did several weeks after that first encounter with Bach. In this case, having already embarked on our adventure with ornamenting a Couperin score, I decided to play what is probably Couperin's most famous work, "Les barricades mystérieuses," a bewitching little piece I compared to Schumann last month. What you see below is Jim's pen dancing along to the notes as I play. It's an unrehearsed, one-take, unedited performance by both of us. The point here is not to present some finished product, but rather to see what happens when these two worlds join forces, and when a drawing becomes something which can literally be experienced as unfolding in time.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Illuminating Ornamentation

I mentioned about a month ago that I recently collaborated with artist Jim Zingarelli as part of an exhibit called "Drawing as Encounter." Again, just to be be clear, he did all the drawing/painting/etc. I was just an encounteree, although that did produce some musical performances from me that have become part of the exhibit. The process of talking with Jim about the different ways we think as artists - he as free-thinking creator in visual media, I mostly as a recreator of existing musical scores - brought us back several times to thinking about the phenomenon of the musical score, both as visual object and as a somewhat vexing authority figure.

Musicians, of course, tend to refer to the score as "the music" even though, as I cleverly demonstrated at the exhibit opening by holding The Well-Tempered Clavier up to a microphone, the score doesn't produce any actual music. The process of interpreting those little black specks is an art in itself (I like to think), but one fraught with all sorts of tension about being true to the composer's wishes, etc.

Jim had the idea of emancipating the score, in a way, by treating it as a sort of canvas to which he could add his own decorations. We talked about various possibilities, including some music of Poulenc, whose musical spirit reminds me of Z's work. Jim showed me a little impromptu watercolor sketch he'd made that was inspired by listening to some Poulenc I'd suggested. The delicate figurative intricacy of the sketch somehow brought to mind the kind of florid ornamentation one sees and hears in the French Baroque style. It occurred to me that the music of François Couperin, whose scores are readily available in public domain form, might make an interesting canvas for our experiments since the music lends itself to liberal ornamentation from the performer.

The first score I gave him is a beautiful little piece charmingly self-titled "Le Couperin." I chose it partly because it can be played slowly enough that florid elaborations are possible; I actually removed all of Couperin's indicated ornaments and then basically instructed Jim to do whatever he wanted to with the rest. His intent was not to try to think like a musician, but rather to respond to the score as a visual object. My job, then, was to perform it, finding whatever suggestion and inspiration I chose to from Jim's encounter with Couperin.

I don't mind admitting that I'm no expert when it comes to Baroque improvisation - or when it comes to any kind of improvisation, for that matter. In fact, this is part of what I hoped to gain from the experience - the enigmatically ornamented score presented itself less as an academic challenge in following instructions than as inspiration to be freely creative. Although I did settle on some consistent ways of interpreting some of the colorful markings, I gave myself permission not to be too constrained by them. Still, one of the outcomes of the experiment was finding that the new score was not just liberating - I also learned that certain ideas (end of m.4, for example) worked so naturally that they became, in my mind, settled ways of reading some of the markings.

But, I'm not going to try to explain or defend any of my choices here. There are still some passages that I'd like to explore more, but I won't say which ones. Here then, complete with the Couperin/Zingarelli score, is one possible interpretation:

Note that there are ways in which this sort of visually inspired interpretative process is related to some of shuffling experiments I've blogged about recently. Although Jim's score markings (or "illuminations," as I like to call them, thinking of medieval manuscripts and the like) aren't exactly random, the way in which they interact with the notes is at best tangentially related to the kinds of instructions that notes are supposed to convey. So, just as shuffling an iPod can lead to unexpected connections and discoveries, using an artist as intermediary can provide a fresh way of looking at an old score.