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.


dfan said...

I agree that this is a great way to get an overview of a piece's structure, which is really necessary to understand it at all.

I remember as a little kid when I suddenly realized that I actually could hold the whole structure of the first movement of Beethoven's 5th in my head and follow it from beginning to end, and that it actually made logical semantic sense in the same way that a long sentence does, rather than just being a continuous stream of arbitrary music that happened to end at some point. It was a real epiphany. Enabling people to get that same sense of a piece's structure is a great thing.


Yes, Dan, that's exactly the kind of thing I have in mind. I think it could also be nice for showing long-range harmonic structure, which is hard to get across in just words to the novice listener. In class recently, I played various statements of the very familiar ritornello from Vivaldi's "Spring" back-to-back-to-back as a way to show that each modulation helped give the work its overall shape. But I can tell that students still might not get the point - hearing the piece in a few seconds could help. Kind of Schenkerian...