Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sax and Violence

I keep hoping this blog will emerge from hibernation; perhaps this (an actual post!) is a sign that Spring has finally come to MMmusing. I actually gave up Twitter for Lent, partly in hopes of getting back to blogging - instead, I've just transferred more time over to Facebook, where I'd previously kept a pretty low profile. I've even thought of giving up Facebook for the balance of Lent, but I don't think Lenten discipline is fundamentally about self-improvement, so maybe I should just exercise more self-control.

On the positive side (or, perhaps, you'll say negative), Facebook has inspired my latest bit of musical mischief. A horn player acquaintance was complaining on the 'book yesterday about hearing a trio perform the Brahms violin/horn/piano trio (aka THE HORN TRIO) with saxophone. (I've since learned that both the violin and horn parts were annexed by saxes.) This indeed struck me as alarming, but always looking for the clever comeback, I commented that the sax-in-Brahms might work if the pianist played a Fender Rhodes. I was supposed to be grading exams so, naturally, I took my own comment as inspiration to investigate what "smooth" Brahms might sound like. A bit later, and I had generated this little mp3, featuring a trio of very synthy electric guitar (in place of violin), sax (in place of horn), and electric piano. It's the bouncy scherzo from the Brahms trio, and it turned out that I rather enjoyed the way it sounded.

This surprised me because, whereas I'm used to thinking of Bach as a composer whose works translate into just about any instrumental medium, I tend to think of Brahms' instrumental colors as more essential to making his works work. But this little scherzo is all high-energy and rhythm, so the giddy precision of the computer version is quite delightful. Believe it or not, I'm generally not a big fan of the Walter/Wendy Carlos, Don Dorsey, Tomita school of electronic transcriptions (although I'm a big fan of transcriptions); but there may be a reason this electric Brahms sounded right to me.

Back in my high school days, when I was as complete a classical music snob as was possible, I had a good friend who loved both classical music and progressive rock. He made a mix tape for me of music by Yes, his favorite band, and I listened to it quite a bit. I actually grew to like much of the tape, but the part I liked best turned out to be this, although I didn't know its title:

So, maybe less than a year later, I bought my first set of Brahms' symphonies LPs, and I can still remember my shock when the 3rd movement of the 4th symphony started. Yes, Brahms had stolen from Yes! Of course, I realized it was the other way around, but I'd heard the Yes version enough that it was too late for me to hear it as offensive. I did quickly grow to like Brahms' version better, but I suppose that intersection of Brahms' folksy German vigor and the laid-back, trippy 70's vibe had found a place in my own aesthetic field. (The aesthetic field is a topic to which I shall be returning on this blog. Promise.)

In fact, it turned out the one part of my electric Brahms that I didn't like was the sax part - I'm not sure if it's because it sounded too synthetic or too much like a sax. Pick your poison. No, seriously, I have nothing against the sax, although I'm astonished at how this formerly outsider instrument has ascended within the classical ranks, at least if this list of MTNA chamber music contestants is taken into evidence: the seven regional winners include three (!!!) saxophone quartets, and two other groups also features saxes. In fact, the seven groups include a total of fifteen (!!!!!!) saxophonists, as compared to two pianists and one violinist. I have to imagine this is partly a fad within the MTNA and perhaps a function of the sax giving off a sexier, more exciting vibe (and repertoire) than the staid old strings and piano groups which tend to rely on...well, Brahms. (It's also quite possible that the best young string quartets aren't entering this competition, but I don't mean that as an insult to these saxoformations. UPDATE: Yes, I do.)

Anyway, once I'd settled on two electric guitars against the electric piano, I felt my electric Brahms scherzo had arrived. All that was left was to add a little percussion backing track and, here you go:

I can't claim too much creative input; I just found a MIDI version of the music online, reassigned instruments, tweaked a few things here and there, added a score, and let Brahms' genius takes care of the rest. Of course it's different than listening to a live trio of actual humans (or saxophonists) who've worked hard to learn their parts, rehearse, etc, but all I can say is, I love it! The insanely fast tempo is certainly part of the fun, and I'm especially partial to the little guitar riffs at around the 0:57 mark.

However, in the process of finding a good 3/4 backing percussion track, it also occurred to me that it might be fun to combine Brahms' 3/4 with a more standard, hooked-on-classics 4/4. We all know that Brahms loved his hemiolas - this just takes that love to its illogical conclusion, a constant fight between two mashed-up meters. It makes for very stimulating listening, as one can enjoy trying to switch back and forth from perceiving either the triple or the duple emphasis - or both!

So, there you have it, Facebook inspiring something creative. In fact, this is the second time this week I've found myself creating for Facebook-based reasons, but I'll save the other example for another post...and perhaps finish grading those exams now.

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