Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Up Next: Mandolins? Meyerbeer? Mezzopiano? Morendo?

For what it's worth, today marks the 3-year anniversary for MMmusing. As evidenced by my most recent posts, I really enjoy relatively random connections - thus, whereas originally I gave this blog its name because of my initials (which I commonly use as an e-signature) and the idea of exploring music and meaning, I've been amused to realize that original multi-media creations became defining elements of what I do here, and it's just occurred to me that mashups, often of the meta-variety, have been a mainstay here in the past six months. I also happen to live in a city and state with M initials. MM musing indeed. [Monday, in our weekly Musicianship class, I wrote our performers' names up on a whiteboard, arranged according to what I thought made the most musical sense, only to discover that the final four performers were all females whose names begin with E. The odds of that happening have to be pretty low, so though I have no idea what it means, I loooove when things like that happen.]

While it's true that a graph of my blogging activity over the past three years has a certain downward trajectory, I'm confident that we're not yet headed in the morendo direction. Since this seems like a suitable day for self-promotion, I'll add that I think I've carved out a fairly distinctive niche in the musical blogosphere, particularly due to the multimedia content. I love the idea that thinking about music can so easily be expressed in more than just words - in fact, it would be bizarre if this wasn't the case, and I honestly don't see much of a logical future for books about music that exist only as text on a page.

I'm still hoping for the day when musicians blog via actual musical performance more often - meaning, why shouldn't blog posts regularly incorporate impromptu recording sessions? As a once-upon-a-time cellist, I loved running across these YouTube clips of Joshua Roman just sitting down once a week to record Popper etudes in straight-ahead, unedited, unglamorous settings. He may not call that blogging, but it is a kind of musical web-logging after all. I still remember that wonderful week when Jeremy Denk wrote for seven days about a Bach sarabande, and concluded the project with a homemade recording - in some ways, so much more interesting and direct as a way of expressing something than producing a perfectly edited CD. I can still vividly remember the feeling of sitting and listening to his Bach that first time. And it's definitely worth a re-listen or two. I have tried my hand at piano blogging and need to return to it, though I I hardly think myself Denk; but I don't think he's mashed up as much music as I have.

Anyway, to celebrate the anniversary, here are some of my favorite multi-media posts from three years of multiplying words in ways that often go beyond words...

The Hatto Sonnets

The Rite of Appalachian Spring

J. Peterman sells Schubert

Canon a 2 Tempi

Webern in Mayberry

Mr. Stravinsky's Random Accent Generator

Ambigramming Bach

Carrousel perp├ętuel

Bach's Crab Canon

Chopin's Ghosts

MM's Virtual Singers

The Brittenish Invasion

Classical Vanity

Piano Blogging Bach

An Octave of Octaves

A Taste of 1825

[The first and last are literary links; I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed that little imaginary dialogue of 1825...]

Of course, if you also have a taste for random, then MMmusing's Magical Multimedia Musing Machine is always there for you in the margin.

Finally, it's time to say goodbye to a quirky mainstay of MMmusing. When I first started out, I was so desperate to have content onsite that, in addition to churning out 30-40 posts a month, I posted lists of my favorite movies and the like over in the sidebar. I've always thought one could learn a lot about a person by knowing what movies they like - but, sometimes I squirm when I'm scrolling to a blog article in class and my silly little TV Mt. Rushmore image rolls by. So, I'm archiving all that content here, and will look to reimagine the sidebar in the months ahead.

To close with one last little bit of self-congratulation, another feature I've always liked about my blog is its elegant layout. Blogger isn't the sexiest platform, but I've enjoyed tricking it out in subtle ways; a few of you may remember when my blog looked like this. The Bach Invention wallpaper dates back to my first-ever website from the mid'90's. I still can't bring myself to clutter things up with Google Ads or dozens of little RSS feed icons and the like. I like a nice, clean interface - no blinding light-on-dark texts, not even a live Twitter feed (though you're always welcome to follow me here). I still regret that past content tends to get lost on blogs (who was the last person to think about Jeremy Denk's amazing Sarabande Week?), and I need to buff up the Guide to MMmusing page at the least, if not just build an honest-to-goodness website.

So, look for more posts to come (and not just posts about posts, like this bit of meta-musing) as we enter Year Four. Coming soon, a new series called "Almost too serious..."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Reflections on a 2-part Invention

[The video above was already embedded in the previous post, but annotations have now been added as well.]

So what can we learn from this little experiment (see past two posts) in which two musical works virtually drawn from a hat turn out to sound pretty cool played simultaneously? One of the strangest things about this discovery is that I feel I've come across something remarkable for which I'd like to take a lot of credit - and yet, one of the things that makes it remarkable is that I didn't work very hard or exercise much creativity to make it happen. I had this idea of combining two student performances, there were nine performers to choose from, we only had one piano available so it made sense to go with the only two students performing without piano, and that's pretty much how I settled on these two pieces I hardly knew - that these two pieces happened to complement each other harmonically, rhythmically, and structurally was sheer good fortune. Maybe even more amazingly, the two YouTube performances I first chose just to provide some reference turned out to match up even better than the live mash-up. It was certainly not the only or most likely way this could have played out.

Still, I'm going to say that Lesson #1 is that it's not so unlikely that a random pairing will produce lots of satisfying connections. I've written about this many times before in various contexts. In The Power of Random, I mused about how a CD track that had been running through my head (though I hadn't paid much attention to it) inspired a strange little music/poetry/video response to the Red Sox trading away Manny Ramirez. In Hyperspace, I wrote more broadly about how the creative process is often just a matter of making connections among ideas that come before us. It is simply human to try to make sense of what we perceive, even if sensible connections weren't intended. (It's hard to imagine what composers Benjamin Britten and Mitchell Peters would think about the fact that I've turned their finely crafted works, each intended to be heard in an otherwise silent context, into something which is both brand-new and which also preserves exactly what they wrote.)

Still, I did get lucky this time. The first time I ever posted about this "random simultaneous listening" idea was in this 2007 post, where one can hear performances of Mozart and Handel fighting to the bitter end. (mp3 here.) The clashes in that audio file are particularly and consistently intense because the two performances inhabit different tuning worlds - microtones abound; and, of course, Mozart and Handel each write in musical languages that are more rule-bound and restrictive, both in terms of harmony and rhythm, than in the Britten and Peters works. The more ordered the originals, the more disordered a mashup is likely to sound. I still like listening to that Mozart-Handel recording because it poses a fun challenge for the ears, both to pick out the different strands and perceive their separate logics, and to savor the odd blend. I was honestly intending something more in that vein for Monday's class, but only because it hadn't occurred to me that we'd stumble on such a match. Fortunately, there are more classes in the future to push the envelope a bit more.

And that's Lesson #2 from this experiment: that the brain can really enjoy this kind of challenge. Maybe it's just me, but whereas I sometimes struggle settling my ears into the world of pervasively dissonant music, I find much less of a barrier when I know the dissonant strands make sense on their own. I feel certain that the attention/interest level in the room went up quite a bit when we switched from the standard fare of students performing one after the other to this little bit of mind-bending simultaneity. Yes, the novelty factor plays a big role, but minds like to be challenged this way; certainly that's one of the reasons counterpoint is appealing, even if it's generally more rule-bound than our Britten-Peters 2-part Invention. Whereas traditional counterpoint has rules designed to regulate the use of dissonance and promote independence among the lines, here the listener may draw some comfort from the regulation that each piece is completely self-sufficient.

Lesson #3 is that layering works like this can reveal some of the common ways in which musical works are constructed. It's not entirely coincidental that the oboe and marimba reach several structural milestones at more or less the same time, since each of these works follows a very familiar pattern of exposition, development, and recapitulation. The Peters work is a bit longer, mainly because it has introductory and closing sections, but it's central formal structure is pretty close to Britten's. Each has an opening section that ends right around 1:10, with a temporary relaxation that follows; each reaches a climax of instability/tension around 1:50, with relatively fast-paced descending patterns that lead into recaps. One of the features I've always liked about my Vertical Christmas Medley (seven metrically aligned carols played at once) is that, because the musical phrases are all tightly lined up, one hears in the undulations the natural tendency for phrases to start and end with longer notes, with busier rhythms in the middle. The Britten-Peters duet shows something similar about large-scale structure.

Lesson #4 is that there's something really nice and freeing about not being so focused on the technical execution by the performers. Although both of our student performers surely felt a bit awkward and self-conscious about this unusual challenge, I assured them that an advantage would be that any mistakes would be both less obvious and, more importantly, less important. Classical musicians too rarely get to experience this sense that "maybe every note doesn't matter so much." It would be nice if we could learn to perform and listen with this mindset all the time!

Following from that, Lesson #5 is that this kind of exercise is a great way to experiment not just with a special kind of concentration (kind of like how Glenn Gould reportedly practiced "in the company of radios, TVs, and vacuum cleaners, every instrument switched on while he perfects the accents of a piece"), but also with all sorts of possibilities for improvisation in the moment. As I mentioned in my first post about this, our oboist did a wonderful job of timing her entrances to the rhythm and pacing of our marimbist. I hadn't really anticipated that, since part of the point in this exercise is to stick to your guns, but it was great to see how the intersection of these two pieces inspired that kind of thinking.

Anyway, we'll definitely be trying this again. For now, if you've wondered about adding more layers, you can sample this chaotic little amalgam of music history quiz excerpts that I wrote briefly about in this 2008 post; listening to it again just now, one of the things I like about it is how the two completely different Monteverdi excerpts outlast all the others (not by design, just by happy chance). First to emerge are the fading, frenetic stile concitato strains from Il combattimento and, most elegantly, the last thing ones hears is Orfeo lamenting amidst the madness, "ed io sospiro" (and yet I breathe). In the opera Orfeo, he sings those words in devastated response to the news of his beloved Euridice's death - but it works well as a response to surviving the vertical music history medley.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

...for the lazy among you

Following up on yesterday's post: just in case you didn't take the time to try out your own mash-up of the two videos cited, I've done the work here for you. I've chosen what I think is an optimal entry point for the oboe; I believe it's close to what our student oboist chose on Monday. However, I didn't make any other changes to the audio - both performances simply proceed on their own, and yet there are some astonishing moments where they seem to be listening to each other. The passage at 1:15 probably stands out the most, but I also like 0:48-0:55 and the way the last fading oboe note [2:40] is matched by a ritard in the marimba. Our live performance did not time out quite as neatly as this one does.

I'll have more to say about these uncanny connections in posts to come...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Monstrous Mash?

[UPDATE: I've uploaded the mashup described below as a single video.]

I've been hoping to pick this poor blog up off the ground for some time now, but the right topic hadn't jumped out at me - until yesterday. (Actually, I have a theme I'd like to explore for the year, but I think I'll save that for another day - hopefully, not another year!)

In fact, what happened yesterday grew out of my favorite blogging topic from the Fall - the Classical mash-up, wherein multiple distinct recordings are layered on top of one another. Past experiments have included:
[NOTE: You can easily access all these videos, and other kinds of classical mashups I've created here.]

I would hasten to add that in none of these cases did I seek out the experience - if you read through those blog posts, you'll see that all of the ideas came to me rather naturally. A recurring theme has been that, due to the wonders of modern technology, I often find myself accidentally setting two streams of music in motion, mostly through having multiple browser windows open. By the way, one of the best projects I've seen that takes advantage of such possibilities is the fabulous In B-flat, an homage to Terry Riley's iconic In C.

What's almost disconcerting is how often I find that my musical attention is much more riveted by these accidents than by the original recordings. For example, a student recently emailed me a recording of the King's Singers performing a beautiful Sweelinck Psalm setting. As I was half-listening to the flowing strains of Sweelinck, I was also looking for more information on the piece and surfed my way to the homepage for this King's Singers' CD. Suddenly, my ears were awakened by something really unexpected in the Sweelinck, some lively new complexity. Of course, what had happened is that the CD webpage had started autoplaying another track from the CD. (By the way, there's an extra fascination with this connection, because the point of the CD, Sacred Bridges, is to intersperse Psalm settings from Christian, Jewish, and Islamic musical traditions; in this case, I was experiencing a sudden double-decker sacred bridge that layered a Psalm setting by the Jewish composer Salamone Rossi over the Christian Sweelinck.) My point is not to diminish the beauty of the Sweelinck piece, but rather to note how stimulating it can be to hear two perfectly poised and self-sufficient musical entities playing off one another.

OK, so fast-forward to yesterday. It had occurred to me recently that the next logical step in this kind of experiment was to experience simultaneous live performances. (Anyone who wanders the halls of a Conversatory will have experienced this phenomenon to some degree.) As it happens, I oversee a weekly all-department performance hour every Monday, a recital experience that alternately inspires and confounds me with the seemingly random sets of pieces that are performed each week: a few singers here, some pianists there, maybe an organ piece, some brass, a guitar every now and then, etc. I've tried this year to introduce some order to the process by organizing the works into the most logical "programs" I can devise and by leading discussion, when there's time, about the various intersections one can find among the given pieces. (For example, it's always fun to create a scorecard of how various nationalities are represented among the composers. (Germany/Austria always seems to win.))

At the end of last semester, when we were trying to get in as many performances as possible to satisfy student requirements, I'd joked about setting up two different performance zones (each with its own piano, stands, etc.) in the Recital Hall and having the pieces fade into each other with no time wasted between selections. I'd also joked with a few students about the possibility of simultaneous performances. Well, here we are, early in the Spring Semester, and we often have leftover time, so yesterday I decided that the time was right to try a live mash-up.

In looking over the ten works that were scheduled, my attention had first been drawn to the possibility of pairing the first movement of Debussy's Cello Sonata with the opening movement of Bach's soprano cantata, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen - however, there wasn't time to pull out a second piano before the class began, and since I was playing piano in the Debussy, I was also concerned I'd miss out on what the class was experiencing. The truth is, that Debussy-Bach pairing would have been pretty out there, with the brightly uptempo and continuously moving Bach set against the dark, brooding, alternately passionate/contemplative tone of the Debussy. [Of course, you can try this combo out for yourself by opening these links in separate tabs/windows: Bach (in the piano version we would've heard), Debussy. I'm kind of glad I didn't go this route!]

So, as the class proceeded, I realized the best option for success would come from pairing a solo marimba work by Mitchell Peters with a work for unaccompanied oboe by Britten. (Well, at least Britten thought it was an unaccompanied work!) I'm not sure I could have gotten much luckier than I did - the two pieces actually paired up so nicely that one might have been persuaded that they were intended to go together. It helps, of course, that the Britten oboe piece proceeds in a rather free, improvisatory manner, while the Peters marimba piece flows along in a more constant rhythm. The fact that the Peters piece (which we had start first) is basically in F and that the Britten starts on an F was just dumb luck - I had no idea that would happen. This meant that the first note from the oboist sounded like it fit right in.

You can get some sense of how unexpectedly well the pairing worked by setting these two videos going - start the one on the left first, and start the Britten after the Peters has been going for about 10 seconds.

[UPDATE: You can watch the two as a single "duet" video here.]

There's one important aspect of yesterday's performance that you can't replicate above, and this was my favorite thing about the experiment: although I'd instructed the performers not to worry about listening to each other, our oboist, used to working against silence in this piece, did a wonderful job of placing her entrances in logical places that often fit in perfectly with the underlying marimba rhythm. In other words, she improvised against a live accompaniment and responded in a natural way to what she heard. I actually find it kind of bittersweet to think that we can never reenact that impromptu performance, but it was unquestionably successful.

I should have expected the performers to respond to each other, but based on my experience mashing up recordings, I had been more focused on how the audience would hear what was going on. If we had tried out the Debussy/Bach combination, I think the audience would have found less of an actual blend and more of a challenge (an interesting and useful challenge, I think) processing the two different sets of events. At any rate, one of the aspects that I think was unquestionably successful was the sense of heightened attention and interest from the class compared to the way they listen in general. Obviously, the novelty/amusement factor played into this, but I think it goes deeper. In spite of all the ways in which this was clearly the "wrong" way to perform these works, the fact that it felt "right" is quite important. In fact, that has lots of implications for my "theme" for this blogging year.

I have lots of other ideas about what can be learned from this kind of experiment, but perhaps I should save those for another post... [UPDATE: That post has arrived.]