Monday, July 9, 2012

Minute by minute

That last post was supposed to be an introduction to these new "Minute Waltz" videos, but the introduction became its own unwieldy post - so back to some lighthearted Chopin, and some even more lighthearted "interpretations." As I anticipated, my "Minute Waltz in a minute video" inspired some tsk-tsk'ing. A Twitter follower commented:
Impressive, yes. like it? no. There is no time to enjoy the melody and harmony. Don't think Mozart would like it.
I suppose I can't really disagree with this assessment, but I'd still like to pick it apart a bit, if only to help answer the question of why I accelerated Chopin's poor little waltz in the first place.

First of all: Impressive? I'd say, "No." I just took some audio from a poor, hard-working pianist who'd done the work of learning the notes and interpreting them with sublime artistry, I hit a virtual switch and, voilà, 108 seconds was sliced to 60. At least this guy you see below worked with real fingers in real time (notice by the way how he, too, feels compelled to post multiple disclaimers ahead of time [you have to turn the annotations on], just as I did in my previous Chopin post; the moral highground is pretty intimidating in classical music):

As for my video, I'm more impressed with the nifty visualization, with its time counter, sweeping second hand, sweeping composer eyes, and newly added spinning score - they all provide useful visual analogues for thinking about this as a high-stakes, one-minute event.

But our concept of impressive is significantly based on an understanding that a real person with real fingers has played all those notes in time, and most of us can instinctively tell that this performance isn't real. It's too fast to be impressive! As it happens, my very first two blog posts (ever) focused on related topics: 1) my debut post about the Joyce Hatto scandal stressed how much our listening is colored by what we know or think we know about the performers, and 2) my second post discussed how much musical meaning can be shaped by our understanding of the technical challenges involved. It's hard to evaluate such music outside the context of how humans can and ought (?) to play. (That parenthetical question mark indicates my eyebrows being raised suspiciously.)

Now, as for the objection raised above: "There is no time to enjoy the melody and harmony. Don't think Mozart would like it." We can dismiss the Mozart point, because who knows? (Although I think Mozart would've liked it.) But what about this "no time" to enjoy the melody/harmony? First of all, this piece does not feature any particularly noteworthy harmonies (not by Chopin's standards) and they only change once per bar, which isn't that fast, even when accelerated. More to the point, we all know the melody and harmonies quite well, so certainly we can take them in a little more quickly than usual. Of course, the "no time to enjoy" really is code for "there isn't the optimal amount of time to enjoy," and it's a fascinating topic in itself how often reviewers (myself included) use this kind of all-or-nothing language to describe something less than ideal. It's also curious how we train ourselves to think that the "optimal time" should be a constant, no wonder how well a work is known.*

I think part of what's going on is that the almost unreal tempo sends a message to our brain that musicality is being sacrificed for velocity, but is that the case here? The performance I stole is beautifully proportioned and features several moments of rubato, so even well above the speed limit, there's still time taken to take in the scenery. Proportionally, this is not at all a rushed performance - rather, its particulars have been translated to a different time frame. This brings me back to some of the issues raised in Douglas Hofstadter's Le Ton beau de Marot. Rather than transposing this waltz for violin or tuba quartet, Hofstadter might say it's been translated to the medium of "pieces that last 60 seconds." (By the way, several of Chopin's preludes come in easily under a minute. Go to the iTunes store, and you can listen to all 24 seconds of Op. 24/10 for free within the 30-second preview limit.) Maybe if you drink enough coffee before listening, the medium will be just right.

Still, why translate this piece to such a medium when Chopin definitely never intended it to last a minute? I'd say there's some poetic justice here. There's little doubt that this waltz has received exponentially more performances and notoriety than it would have if it were known only as Waltz in D-flat Major, Op. 64, No1. Well, Mr. Op.64/1, you gotta take the good with the bad. The association of this music with 60 seconds may be unfair, but the title is so culturally ingrained, it's hard not to think about it as a one-minute ride, just as it's hard to disassociate Beethoven's Op.27/2 from moonlight - and, as often, there's some truth in the stubborn title; turning it into a minute waltz is on the edge of possibility, even it leaves little opportunity for musical subtlety, at least for us humans. [Impudent Question(s): Why does everything have to be so subtle anyway? Can't Chopin just let loose every now and then?] Virtual engineering makes it more than possible, so why not give it a try? It would be almost crazy if I didn't do this. 

You may recall Stephen Hough complaining that "it's impossible to play [this piece] in 60 seconds unless you crash brutally, meaninglessly through the central section," but I couldn't help noticing how unhurried that section is in my video above; could I borrow some time from there to ease up the outer sections? So, I played around with the tempi just a little, slowing up the outer sections and speeding up the middle so that they end up being closer to the same pulse; I hoped this would make the outer sections seem a bit more realistic, but I think more harm is done than good as the middle section really does seem too giddy now, if not brutal. Here's what this more tampered version sounds like:

Unfortunately, this now left me with two different interpretations of the piece that each last exactly 60 seconds, but with different interior proportions. How could I resist playing them simultaneously? Thus, in the video below, we have the following going on with reference to the ABA structure:
  • Top Score/Right Channel: proportions are roughly 22+16+22
  • Bottom Score/Left Channel: proportions are roughly 20+20+20

It's not clear to me if I'm the only person in the world who gets such a kick out of this kind of thing, but I find it genuinely gratifying to listen to and watch. It is, in some respects, a kind of mensuration canon (same tune moving at two different speeds), though without anything like the meticulously worked-out vertical intersections conjured by Ockeghem and others. There is also an analogy to the kinds of phasing techniques pioneered by Steve Reich, but again, without nearly the same attention to detail. (There's also an analogy to viola duets, but let's not go there...)

And yet, the sound of the two parts chasing after each other is invigorating and, I believe, can provide the same kind of pleasure in following multiple melodic strands as more traditional counterpoint. I especially enjoy hearing the parts join together briefly at the midway point and the extra long trill starting at 0:35 is cool, too. At other times, it's just like a kooky echo chamber; listen to that almost-together run at the end. And even if you hate it, it's only a minute of your time.

If you do like it, you might want to sample the following from my shady past:

* There's good reason for thinking an optimal tempo should be constant; in the classical tradition especially (though broadly true for most traditions), music exists in time in this sort of eternal new, even though we so often listen to music that's old and familiar. Thus, that deceptive cadence or that rhythmic disruption can be "surprising" every time, even though it's not really surprising at all. (See just about everything I've ever written about The Rite of Spring. Of course, this can also be true of events in novels, films, etc.) In fact, an effective performance is often judged on its capacity to get these fully expected "in the moment" moments just right, and sometimes a microsecond's difference of timing or a tiny shading of timbre will cause a reviewer/listener to say a theme was not given "time" to breathe. And (I think) the better the listener knows the music, the more likely he/she is to insist that the spontaneous moment conform to a preconceived notion of how it should be executed so that it sounds spontaneous. Such notions are conditioned, to some degree, by virtually everything that's ever happened in our musical past, both personal and culturally. This merging of past and present is not unlike those Douglas Hofstadter's self-referential loops, which loops us back to the previous post.

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