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.]

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