Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Musical Storyboards

A couple of posts ago, I suggested that the fast-forward feature on certain kinds of CD players can provide a useful aural overview of a long musical structure. Although this worked pretty well for some wild Prokofiev, my initial experiments with the more orderly soundworld of Mozart didn't work out so well. (Those experiments haven't made it online, which is good news for us all.) The jumbled clash of indiscriminately selected musical "snapshots" (the CD player in question fast-forwards by sampling tiny little segments in quick succession) just sounds too far removed from the character of the original.

However, I've still been thinking of using something like this technique in the classroom where I often find that students have trouble "hearing structure" in large musical structures. The old ABACA language makes plenty of sense to me, but if the student isn't readily able to associate a musical idea with each of those letters, the analysis can seem overly abstract.

For example, my music history class is studying early Classical style. Our anthology includes a piano concerto movement by J. C. Bach, and the authors provide a nice little table that summarizes the major structural events relating to themes, harmony, and texture. (Texture here is mainly about orchestral ritornelli vs. solo episodes.)

I love looking at tables like this, but it becomes clearer to me year by year that not all students are used to thinking this way. It occurred to me that the table would make a lot more sense if the student could easily associate each thematic idea (its aural image) with its abbreviation (1T, Tr, 2T, CT which stand for 1st theme, Transition, 2nd theme, Closing Theme), so I opened up Audacity and threw together a little bird's-ear view of the movement, with each important event represented by 3-4 seconds of music. Here's what that sounds like:

For the most part, each jump in the music matches up with the thematic changes shown above, except that in the "Second Episode" (essentially, the "Development" section), each modulation to a new key is also sampled. [Sorry, I can't post the entire recording, but if you find yourself wanting to hear more, you can download the whole movement for only $0.99 here.]

Yes, it's a bit jarring, but I think it provides a useful way to "hear" the whole piece in 60 seconds; ideally, that can then provide a framework for listening to the real thing. In this way, the clipped version functions kind of like an aural storyboard - or, you can just think of it as an aural version of the chart above.

I thought it would be useful for this post to "storyboard" a more well-known work, and since the first movement of Mozart's Symphony No.40 will be coming up in my music appreciation class soon, I took out my shears and pasted together the following:

Although the snapshots are even shorter here (2-3 seconds), I was surprised to find that some of them went together quite nicely (especially the quick modulations in the Development section from 0:15 to 0:33) so that, while it's not always elegant, this Cliff's Notes version actually makes some musical sense on its own. Perhaps you'll recall that earlier this summer I pasted together parts of three different Mozart violin concerti. In that case, my goal was to make things musically comprehensible, but I'm gratified to find some "music" can still be discerned in this symphonic snapshot when entire phrases are reduced to mere motives.

That raises another connection to be made, that this kind of musical storyboard is somewhat analogous to the kind of long-range voice-leading analysis made famous by Heinrich Schenker. (See here.)  I'm no expert in Schenkerian analysis, but I have found that listening to Mozart this way gives me a greater appreciation, even in just one afternoon, for the way in which Mozart fills up this structure. That's a crucial point, because I'd never want students to think that the structure is an end in itself. The point of this kind of thinking is to perceive more effectively the long range shape that all these beautiful tunes and harmonies and textures inhabit. In the process of picking and choosing where to cut, I became aware of several passages in which Mozart elegantly extends or contracts expected phrase structures. True, those details get lost in the version above, but they were revealed to me by thinking in storyboard mode.

And more importantly, from the Schenkerian point of view, it's much easier to hear the long-range harmonic motion when seven minutes are reduced to one. I feel certain Schenker's mysterious graphical reductions would have made more sense to me when I first encountered them as an undergrad if I could've heard audio reductions like the ones above. (Yes, I realize many important Schenkerian principles are lost in my reductions - but the overall principle is the same.) When I mashed up the three Mozart violin concertos, my original goal was to show how similar they are, and I didn't necessarily mean that in a flattering way; but spending time with Mozart's fragments only gave me a greater appreciation for his skill and creativity - which probably means that the best thing I could for students is get them to do their own trimming and storyboarding!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Remembering Vangie

On September 11, a day that had seemed sad enough, we lost one of the most remarkably gifted students I've had the pleasure of knowing. Evangelyna Etienne, a mezzo-soprano with limitless potential, joined the choir of angels after a long and brave struggle with cancer. She had just turned 21.

"Vangie" had a voice and musical maturity that far surpassed what one might expect from an undergrad. I can still vividly remember hearing her for the first time as I accompanied her audition for our school, and within a few months of her arrival on campus we'd decided to cast her as Dido in an extended scene from Dido and Aeneas. Performing in a dry science auditorium with no-budget sets and costumes, she left us all riveted, showing how music has the ability to transcend limitations of space and time. I'd heard, played, and taught Dido's famous lament dozens and dozens of times, but it was new and unbelievably real in those moments.

She was hysterical and terrifying as the witch in Hansel and Gretel her sophomore year, but I probably remember her best from two full roles she sang last year, first as the witch in Into the Woods and then as Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance. She was already quite sick through both runs and had to miss many rehearsals when getting out of bed wasn't an option, and yet she never even considered the option of dropping out - nor did she ever complain. The Into the Woods role is particularly grueling and we had ten performances, all of which were elevated by her gorgeous singing and the uncanny combination of brokenness and wisdom one felt every night during "Children will listen." Time stopped again and again.

For practical reasons, we held auditions for both of those shows at the same time, and when Vangie walked in, I assumed she was mostly interested in Pirates. I have to confess I didn't even know Into the Woods that well yet, so when she handed me the music to "Stay with me," it was a song I had never played. There were about 8-10 of us in a little black-box theater as I started in the wrong tempo on a horrible old upright, but when she started singing, we were all brought directly into the dramatic moment, and it was as if the show was in full production. I'd never realized the song had even 1/10 the potential she delivered in that moment, which felt nothing like an audition. We had many fine students who could've sung the role, but she had managed to own it completely in two minutes; on some level it felt like I'd experienced the entire show within this tiny fragment. I'll never forget that.

I've written before about the power that musical fragments can have, and I'll close with two other fragment-like musical memories of Vangie. (Of course, it's worth pointing out that Vangie's voice and musical abilities are only a small fragment of what made her so special to so many.) One moment comes from early last May when I Twittered the following about her:
...half-listening to Poulenc's "Les chemins de l'amour" drifting in from a studio next door. So great...but jealous I'm not playing.
I'm still jealous I wasn't playing, but remember this moment even more because a couple of days later, Vangie's situation took a turn for the worse. Yet I can still hear those fragments of melody floating by, and they are as real and beautiful as if I were hearing her sing the whole song now. And, yes, I still wish I could hear her sing the whole song now.

One quality I especially admired about Vangie is that she loved so many different types of music and was as curious about new and varied repertoire as any singer I've come across. She certainly loved opera, but also all kinds of art songs, gospel music, choral music, musical theater, etc. Since she knew I loved to blog about unexpected musical connections, she'd often let me know of ones she'd heard. I tweeted about her in this context last November:
Very impressed by student noticing connection between this Poulenc http://bit.ly/aSkHnk (1:05) and this Puccini http://bit.ly/90LzYT (2:50)...
She once noticed something quite insightful about one of Eric Whitacre's choral works, emailed him about it, and he responded to her with delight that she was the first to have pointed it out to him. Though she was a born soloist, she loved Whitacre's choral works and was a participant in each of his Virtual Choir experiments. He even featured her briefly in his TED Talk [4:50 mark].

The day after she passed away, I found myself listening to her upload of the Soprano 2 part for the second incarnation of the Virtual Choir. (You can read her comment about recording it here.) Whitacre's music is so much about the shimmering harmonies created by the massed parts that I was taken aback at how beautiful, satisfying, and complete this single-voice fragment is. 

It is simultaneously heartbreaking and comforting to hear Vangie singing these words alone and yet with so many others. I think it gives some taste of her unique voice, and I use voice in every possible sense of the word. Her life certainly feels like an unfinished fragment from a human perspective, and yet the life she lived was as complete, beautiful, and satisfying as a life could be. We miss her terribly.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Musical Snapshots

One of the most frustrating (and wonderful) things about loving music is dealing with its temporality - its impermanence. The experience of performing, listening to, or thinking about music can seem like it transcends time and a musical work can feel like a single whole - but, it's really a series of moments that are here and gone.

Having begun with those profound thoughts, it's now back to our regularly scheduled programming in which Michael finds some bizarrely distorted way to experience music and tries to convince you it's profound. 

OK, so we're back to the CD player on our Honda Odyssey. You may remember a couple of episodes again when I was celebrating the way the player distorted some Taylor Swift songs, robbing them of their steady pulse and making my musical experience richer and more engaging.

However, the CD player works like a normal player most of the time. So it was that I was listening to the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No.3 a few days ago and, as often happens to me with this and the composer's first concerto, I found myself rewinding to hear the final few minutes again and again. No one creates a rush to the finish quite like Prokofiev - off the top of my head, I could also cite the end of the 5th Symphony, the end of the Violin Sonata in D (which flutists think is a flute sonata) and the end of the Violin Concerto No.2. Oh, and of course the entire final movement of the Piano Sonata No.7. Prokofiev's the man, and I get a little more annoyed every year that his star doesn't shine as bright as Stravinsky's...but, I digress.*

So, the cool thing about CD players is that fast-forwarding or rewinding usually lets you hear the piece in a crazy series of musical fragments, stitched together like some sort of manic, ADHD tour of the music. How often do we stop to notice how crazy and manic it is to hear music this way? Of course, it's a convenient way to "know where you are" as you search, but it also creates a new way of listening. One might expect the scanning to produce a wildly sped up version of the notes, but instead you get a few notes here, then a few notes from 5 seconds later, etc. This has the advantage of working as well backwards as it does forwards - the pitches aren't distorted and you don't get the hallucinogenic experience of hearing musical attacks reversed. It's more like reading the first few words of every paragraph in a book.

But there's another advantage, too. Listening this way enables a kind of compressing of time, so that the music can be "taken in" in far fewer moments. It's not the same as hearing an entire 10 minutes at once, but it's on the way there. My favorite thing about musical analysis is developing the ability to "think" or "see" a large musical canvas in one glance; listening on fast-forward isn't so different. Or so I would have you believe.

It probably works best for music you already know, which enables the chaos to be processed coherently. So, maybe if you don't know the Prokofiev 3rd - well, you should! - but maybe if you don't, the clips below and this entire post will seem like nonsense. So, maybe you could watch/listen to this a few dozen times first.

Done? So, here are these 10 minutes (different recording**) reduced to 1 in fast-forward mode**:

Here's what that would sound like merely sped up x10:

Here's the same music "rewound" by the CD player:

And here it is played backwards à la Beatles:

Versions 1 and 3, for me, are genuinely useful ways of "hearing" this music in snapshot mode - much moreso than the hyperspeed versions. True, I already had a good sense of the overall ABCBA structure, but listening through the stitched fragments provides a unique kind of aural overview, even in reverse. By the way, I just love that bizarre little C section (3:25-4:35 in the video above); it has nothing to do with anything - it's just there, idly passing the time in the midst of the wildly primitive A section and the wildly passionate B section. And I think my bird's eye viewing has helped me make sense of its senselessness.

Of course, the results could be quite different depending on the music chosen, but I think there's real potential here as a way to "show" a work's structure in short order. In fact, I've already pretty much decided to add this movement to this semester's "Music Appreciation" playlist, and I might try using the compressed version as a teaching tool. Getting students to listen to long works is hard enough, but especially when their ears aren't well-trained to follow a large musical structure. Maybe mapping a listening experience on to this kind of blueprint could be helpful...

* Hey, I love Stravinsky and have written about him probably more than any composer on this blog (admittedly, mostly about The Rite), but Prokofiev is far more gifted as a melodist, as a dramatist, and, most importantly, as a piano composer. But again, this isn't to disparage Stravinsky - it's just that Prokofiev is awesome.

** Apologies for the poor recording quality. The fast-forward and rewind versions were created crudely via the "Voice Recording" function on my daughter's Sony Walkman. All recordings, by the way, feature Joyce Hatto on piano with René Köhler and the National-Philharmonic Symphony.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Ringing in the New Year (well, the new school year...)

As much as I love technology, I've always lagged contentedly behind on the cellphone/smartphone train; I don't really like talking on cellphones in the first place, and having the Internet at my fingertips isn't really worth the price of admission for me since I'm near a computer almost all the time.  However, we did just buy the first family smartphone for my wife; it's useful on trips and when out and about, and she's much less likely to over-ride the data plan than I would be. (I never said I wouldn't enjoy having a smartphone.) Meanwhile, I "upgraded" to her old Sony not-so-smart phone. To make this upgrade more exciting, I decided to do a little personalizing.

I'm always astounded that anyone would pay for ringtones (absurdly priced for what you're getting), but then people will also pay ridiculous amounts to send texts that use a fraction of the bandwidth a "free" voice call would require. But aside from the cost, it's just more fun to create your own ringtones. (Perhaps you remember my Rite of Springtone post from the technical dark ages of 2007.) So, last weekend, I sat down with iTunes and Audacity for a couple of hours and came up with this exciting assemblage of ways to be summoned.

I'm not pretending this is a comprehensive list of the best of all possible ringtones - these are just ones that came to mind and for which I had mp3s readily available. You'll notice there are a few works that get raided more than once and a few composers who show up multiple times. Honestly, the difficulty now is deciding which tone to use since I like them all; it almost makes me wish I used my cellphone more regularly. Almost. (If you want to know what's what, you can see the whole playlist here and even download your favorites.)

Of course, aside from making phone calls more exciting, there's something interesting about condensing a large musical work down to a 6-10 second calling card, and it's fun to think about which musical ideas work best for this kind of situation (especially ones that have a sort of "ringing" quality). Maybe that's a subject for another blog post...