Thursday, August 30, 2012


First of all, I'd better get around to mentioning that I'm giving a faculty recital in just two weeks and two days. This Facebook thing is as far as I've made it with an event page so far, although I hope to update it soon. The program, in case you don't feel like following that link, is:
  • Bach: "Allemande" from Partita No. 4 in D Major
  • Chopin: Ballade No. 4 in F Minor
  • Brahms: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel
  • ----------
  • Dvorak: "Dumky" Trio (with my cellist wife & violinist daughter)
[The recital is on Saturday, September 15 at 7pm in Phillips Recital Hall, Gordon College, Wenham, MA.]

It's a program both conventional and quirky, conventional in its "standard rep"-iness, quirky in its juxtaposition of pieces. There's no real theme other than "these are some pieces I want to play." I suggested in a March blog post that there is something inherently selfish about devoting oneself to this kind of endeavor, no matter how much energy we musicians invest in saying we're all about giving, giving, giving. One can be selfish and giving at the same time, after all. At an rate, I don't mind admitting that I'm doing this partly for my own satisfaction, and since I don't find the opportunity to do solo recitals that often, I'm going to play what I want to play.

It's funny, because I think my reputation among students is as an advocate of the unconventional (I'm always talking mash-ups, trying to get an In C thing going every year, etc.), but I've never been shy about the fact that I have pretty old-fashioned tastes. See my list of "Favorite Music" to confirm. There's nothing on there later than Shostakovich or Britten. There are voices in my head telling me I should be playing something from own century, or at least the one in which I was born - but, again with the selfish thing. (I'm a little surprised no Scriabin made it on the program; there's a wonderful portrait of Scriabin that a student painted for me a few years ago after I told her he's a personal favorite. Every time I look up and see him staring down at my piano, I feel guilty...)

Still, I was a little surprised at how this program came together. I first assumed I'd be reprising Schumann's Kreisleriana from a recital I gave in 2003; that may be my single favorite piano work. But as I reviewed the CD from that recital, on came the Brahms "Handel" Variations, and I suddenly felt "I have to play this again." It was as simple as that. Sometimes the music just tells you what to do. I even considered repeating the entire 2003 recital, but eventually Kreisleriana drifted away, partly due to fear that I wouldn't have time to re-learn it and Brahms-Handel.

I devoted a Spring Break blog series (sort of) to my decision to re-learn the Chopin ballade in a week; I didn't quite finish getting it memorized in those seven days, and then completely dropped it until mid-summer when I thought the thirty minutes of Kreisleriana were seeming like too much. These eleven minutes of Chopin scare me to death, and it's odd to put them side by side with the Brahms since each piece is kind of a closer, but I think it's Chopin's greatest work and there's really nothing quite like it. I want to play it. Whereas the Brahms is a highly ordered, though expansive, structure, the Chopin evolves tentatively and mysteriously, but in compact fashion, so they make for an interesting contrast.

Still, the Chopin is too intense to begin a recital. For a while, I figured the Chopin and Brahms would fall on different halves. Then, early one summer Sunday, as I was doing my fake-organist thing and getting ready to play the morning service, I was looking for a D Major prelude (to go with the opening hymn) and flipped upon the allemande from Bach's D Major Partita. It's a piece I remember well from Jeremy Denk's remarkable 7-part blog series from 2007. Bach wrote many, many allemandes, of course, but none at all like this extended, meandering meditation. I quickly realized it didn't belong on the organ, but was irresistibly drawn to it, so I ended up playing the prelude from the piano that morning. Quite a few parishioners remarked at how beautiful it was, and after dismissing the thought that this was just relief at hearing me not play the organ, I decided the special-ness of this piece would translate to audiences more easily than I'd have thought.

The initial dilemma: "Do I now learn the whole Partita?" which would mean learning six other pieces. The easy answer came back, "No, this piece stands on its own." It's kind of like the Chaconne from the D Minor Violin Partita in that respect. If both repeats are observed, this "allemande like no other" can easily last ten minutes or more. I fear its beauty might be less appreciated in the broader suite context, and I'm of the opinion that Bach's suites are fairly loose connections of pieces - but, let's be honest: I also didn't feel like learning all that Bach. So here we are.

This allemande is also no conventional curtain-raiser, but it's gotten me to thinking about why we so often begin with "loud and fast." Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I hope there's something about this piece which will serve to consecrate the space, calm me down, and usher in a world in which time seems like less of a concern - to prepare us all for this counter-cultural thing we call a piano recital. In fact, this allemande is probably the closest thing Bach ever wrote to a Chopin nocturne, even if it sounds nothing like Chopin; it does feel like a nice way to set up the ballade, which in a more conventional program might be preceded by a nocturne.

Although I'm basically a "collaborative pianist" these days, it's important to me to get a chance to revisit solo repertoire, memorization, and all that. But, it's also a joy to be playing as a family in the second half. As a matter of fact, the "Dumky" Trio is the piece that introduced me to my wife-to-be (we were assigned to the same trio at a summer festival), so it means a lot to us to be playing it with our oldest daughter. I'm feeling a bit guilty about that decision because I'm realizing the violin part is the hardest to bring off in this trio; the cello gets almost all the good tunes, while Dvorak makes the poor violinist play awkward, accompanimental double-stops again and again. But, Daughter of MMmusing is a trooper and she's got chops, so I think we'll get there.

Each of the last two paragraphs referred to ways in which music interacts with time: the way a Bach allemande can seem to make time stop, and the way the Dumky Trio can connect our family's present with its past. One of my Spring Break "Ballade" posts also touched on this, how re-learning the Chopin ballade brought back vivid memories (or something even more present than memories) of learning the same piece as an undergrad twenty-plus years before.

In the last couple of days, I've had another strange music-time experience. Because memorization is such a scary thing, so vulnerable to changes of mental state, I've been revisiting an old trick: playing through these pieces backwards. OK, not literally note-by-note (or sound wave by sound wave!), but more or less phrase by phrase. The Brahms is a pretty easy piece to chunk since it divides up into a theme and 25 variations, each of which has two repeated halves of four bars each. (The fugue is more complicated and less symmetrical, but still pretty easy to break up into groups.) So, after backmasking through the fugue, it's on to part B of variation 25 (with repeat), part A of Variation 25, part B of Variation 24, part A of Variation 24, etc. In some cases, the repeats are varied repetitions, so I try to play the variants first as well.

It's a great mental exercise and makes it so that I feel quite comfortable starting at more than 60 spots within the 30-minute opus. (It also keeps my mind from wandering while I practice ... sometimes.) Hopefully this will be less about giving me a place to start if I fall off the horse, and more about the constant sense that, "oh, yes, I can visualize precisely what's coming up in four bars." But having now played through the piece backwards twice, I was unexpectedly struck by the weird sensation of moving backwards through time. I know the music quite well, of course, so although time is obviously moving forward, each little chunk feels like something more past than what's just happened. (A good set of variations has a sense of building to a conclusion, and this is as good a set of variations as has ever been written. Yep, as good as Goldberg and Diabelli.) This is especially striking when I "end" with the half cadence that concludes the first four bars of Handel's theme.

Each time, it feels like the last bit of the piece has been sucked up into some time-consuming vacuum cleaner - that's not an analogy I went looking for or a thought I dreamed up because I wanted to blog about something. It was a genuine sensory experience. I'd like to try this with more big variation sets at some point, like the finale of the "Eroica" Symphony. (The Goldberg Variations wouldn't work as well since that piece ends as it begins.) But that sounds like another blog post, post-recital.

Last weekend, we heard a final concert for my daughter's music camp at which the orchestra of 9-13 year-olds finished with Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on "Greensleeves," chosen because the retiring camp director had played that same piece as a camper in the orchestra - in 1948! Talk about a time-travelling experience. Listening to these kids play this piece (which was quite new in '48, though the tune was already old) in an old-fashioned (though fairly new) barn in the foothills of the ancient Berkshires to honor a woman who's invested so much time in music and children - well, it made me realize that Einstein's theory of relativity may not be fully understood with respect to music.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Gateway to Insanity

There's nothing like a meandering path that takes you somewhere special. For example, many years ago I basically flipped a coin in choosing one musical festival over another, picked a piano trio to play, had my assigned cellist turn out not to be there, and then was assigned a new cellist...who is now my wife. We now have a daughter in music camp out in Western Massachusetts which led us to an afternoon of Sunday shopping in charming Northampton where I came across a book I've wanted to read for years. Vikram's Seth's The Golden Gate is a novel-in-verse set in 1980s Silicon Valley but modeled on Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, especially in its use of the peculiar Onegin stanzas devised by the "Russian Shakespeare." In Le Ton beau de MarotDouglas Hofstadter raves about The Golden Gate, gateway for him to Eugene Onegin which becomes the second most important case study in Hofstadter's wide-ranging study of translation.

I've now read Eugene Onegin a few times in this dazzling translation, and I've intended to read The Golden Gate for more than a dozen years, but somehow never got around to hitting the "buy" button on Amazon or tracking it down at a local library; seeing it on the shelf at The Raven conquered my irrational inertia, and now I'm happily flipping page after page.* My only slight disappointment is that Seth's book (or any good translation of Eugene Onegin) is a perfect candidate for e-book reading on a smartphone or tablet since each sonnet would nicely fill a screen, but it's only available in paper form. Oh's still delightful even only 160 or so sonnets in. My mind is rhyming in iambic tetrameter even when I'm not reading, which is a problem I've had before.

Unfortunately, I also made the mistake of wondering if an Onegin stanza could be fit into a single, 140-character Twitter post. I remember wondering this back in #operaplot days when I successfully tweeted several limericks, but if you do the math, 140 characters divided by 14 lines leaves only 10 characters per line, and that has to include spaces and line breaks. Iambic tetrameter demands 7-9 syllables per line so it's really impossible, right?

However, it occurred to me that using texting abbreviations might make the task just possible, and OMG! (which I'd interpret as "Oh my goodness" since that yields an extra syllable), voilà:

It's pretty ugly to look at, but it's Tweetable, although Twitter doesn't really let you use line breaks, so it ends up looking like this:
IOU a tiny sonnet of ≤ 140; In it 14=143 IIRC SRSLY I ineptly had U ROTF LOL once b4 @my TMI No IMO my MO I AKA admiration ≠ U & yet WYSIWYG
I do enjoy the oddly formulaic juxtapositions of 140, 14, and 143 and the 3-line set of "TMI, IMO, MO I," not to mention that any sonnet ending with "WYSIWYG" is pretty awesome.

If you're wondering how to read it, here's a "translation." Note that every line should begin with a stressed syllable and that line 5 requires "remember" to be accented awkwardly on its first and third syllables. "Seriously" should also get a secondary stress on its third syllable.

IOU a tiny sonnet
of ≤
140; In it
SRSLY I ineptly
had U ROTF
LOL once b4
@my TMI
No IMO my
AKA admiration
≠ U & yet

I owe you a tiny sonnet
of less than or equal to
one-hundred and forty; in it
Fourteen equals "I Love You."
If I remember correctly
seriously I ineptly
had you rolling on the floor
laughing out loud once before
at my "too much information."
No, in my opinion, my
modus operandi I
also know as admiration
does not equal you and yet
what you see is what you get.

OK, it's not Shakespeare or Pushkin...or Seth, but it sort of makes sense as a slightly desperate sonnet from a poet prone to ridiculously flowery flights of fancy. It's a bit pitiful since it seems our hero knows his recipient is a harsh critic; he's apparently trying his best to keep this tweet both short and sweet, but he is who he is.

It's also not quite an Onegin stanza since that requires iambic tetrameter which would add an extra unstressed syllable to the beginning of each line, but chopping off those 14 syllables was really helpful. The astute among you will further note that I've interpreted AKA as "also know as" instead of "also known as." So sue me. My first line takes up a luxurious 24 characters, and I had to find as many ways as possible to abbreviate thereafter. Honestly, I don't think I'd have pulled it off without that "less than or equal to" sign. That's six syllables of pure, 1-character gold.

I later realized I hadn't even thought about abbreviated proper nouns like UK, USA, IBM, etc., but textspeak is a perfect fit for Twitter anyway. Still, I think this is my first and last Onegin sonnet of 140 characters or less.

But I also wondered about a trimmer-style sonnet, and fairly quickly managed the following (I was home sick yesterday, so I had a little time on my hands):

A sonnet
in tweet?
I'm on it
A feat!
is short. See
each line
li'l more than
3 beats.
will pour in
for me.
You'll see.

If tweeted like so:
A sonnet-in tweet?-I'm on it-A feat!-140-is short.See-each line-assigned-lil' more than-3 beats.-RT's-will pour in-for me.-You'll see.
...this actually comes in at a highly efficient 134 characters. Note that I've kept the Onegin stanza rhyme-scheme with its charming variety of masculine and feminine rhymes. For those not in the Twitter know, "RT's" stands for "Re-tweets," which is the Twitter way of sharing posts. Also, you'll note that "140" in this case should be pronounced as "One forty." It's true that this rhyme scheme has quite a different flavor than Eugene Onegin with only 2-3 beats per line; in fact, in this regard the poem is much closer in spirit to Clement Marot's A une Damoyselle malade, the 28-liner beginning and ending with "Ma mignonne" that is the central case study in Hofstadter's book.

My favorite felicitous detail in my "Mignonegin" sonnet comes with the phrase "li'l more than / 3 beats"; I chose "li'l" to create a nice triple rhyme with "will pour in" but was slightly bothered by the fact that none of the lines actually has any more than 3 beats. EXCEPT, one could say that the contraction "li'l" has perhaps a little more than one syllable, meaning the phrase "li'l more than" contains something like pi beats; it thus becomes the very line to which it refers. I realized that while struggling through the last leg of my morning run, and that put a much-needed hop in my step.

* I could quote favorite turns of phrase for days, but here's one of Seth's couplets that I particularly admire:
Thus by default the fault is Phil's.
Jan sets her gaze at Look that Kills.
More MMmmusing Onegin stanzas:

Wednesday, August 15, 2012, um, Notational Signatures

I'm fond of saying to students that a musical score is just a set of instructions. Indeed, one of my Music Ed colleagues doesn't even like to refer to sheet music as "music," preferring to have her children's choirs look at their "notation." After all, all those dots and lines don't actually produce any sound on their own. They're not music. Still, I don't mind referring to these instructions as "music" since the word has clearly inherited that additional meaning. "Notation" sounds cold and too distanced from the music that is somehow magically embedded on paper. (Of course, "notation" "sounds cold" because I'm not used to using it this way; language gets much of its flavor from experience.)

Perhaps notation isn't the same thing as music, but there's still something aesthetically satisfying about these "instructions," even when we don't get to hear music. This, of course, has a lot to do with the meanings suggested by all those dots and lines. I love sightreading, I love studying scores, I love the dozen or so anthologies of scores aligned on a bookshelf above my desk, I love looking at all the other scores filling a large bookshelf nearby, I even love the digital joys of IMSLP. It stands to reason that notes themselves might start to appear beautiful, if only by association.

I wrote a few years ago about the pleasure of following a score while listening, with the idea being that watching the notes go by can be a good catalyst for listening (even for the uninitiated). But I also find that notes can be worth looking at simply for their own suggestive kinds of beauty. By suggestive, I especially mean the reference to particular sounds and patterns, which is why I find it annoying when musical signs are just tossed around like Clip Art. [e.g. the lazy use of musical notes in this disappointing Google logo.] See how I'm dancing back and forth between saying musical notation is beautiful on its own and yet stressing that "beautiful on its own" is connected to what the notes mean as music. It's a Hofstadter-y "strange loop." 

Words, words, words. Mainly, I just came here today to talk about a couple of images I created to personalize my Facebook page. The truth is, Facebook is notably uniform and bland in its look - which is mostly a good thing. (MySpace was a visual disaster because approximately 93% of people shouldn't be given free reign over choices about graphic design.) However, every now and then the Facebook gods throw us a design curve that provides the tiny potential for some creativity.

When, in 2011, they rolled out the "photo-strip" header at the top of profile pages, I was first just annoyed. The idea was that the five photos in which one was most recently tagged would become a little Muybridge-esque visual time capsule...


Facebook Photostrip

...with the added surprise that you never knew when someone might tag some 2nd grade picture of you that would suddenly be part of your banner story.

Come to think of it, I'm now disappointed that I never thought to use either of the first two just-created dummy photostrips for my page. But what I did do was decide that those five tagged photos might look cool if they became five measures of music. (This meant tagging myself in these score images and then vigilantly un-checking new photos in which I was tagged.) For some reason, I ultimately decided on the hypnotic opening of Scriabin's Vers la flamme, a piece I've never played, although I intend to. (I have, elsewhere, claimed Scriabin and Poulenc as the composers I like most above their reputations.) Vers la flamme is about as sensual (in the sense of creating a presence that can be felt) as music gets, so maybe that's why I was inspired to objectify it as image.

Like so many of my projects (like this very post!), this ended up taking longer than I intended since getting the measures to be equal lengths required putting the music into Finale (and, sadly, leaving out the pick-up notes). But this five measure group works well as an entity because the arrival at the fifth bar kind of lets us know this piece is going strange places.

Here are those measures as they appear in the score:

And here's what they looked like atop my Facebook page:

Elegant, mysterious, and....yes, just a tiny bit pretentious in its coded, insider messaging. ("What you don't recognize this music? You must not be as smart as I!")

But then, of course, Facebook comes along with this new Timeline feature and suddenly the photostrip was being phased out. I finally got the word this week that my page was automatically going to be converted to the new Timeline format, which replaces the "at least it's small" photostrip with a huge header of a photo (of the user's choosing). These photos take up way too much screen real estate and they're also oddly paired with a small, nested version of the user's profile pic. Thus, I'd avoided making the switch for months, both because I liked my little bit of Scriabin and because I was opposed to this clunky new look. But, it's a free service, so you get what you pay for - which, in this case, is not much choice.

After some playing around with images of piano keyboards, I finally ended up with the following as my new banner image:

[click to view larger]

It's not perfect - maybe a little overstuffed, but I like its painterly look and, of course, you will see that I couldn't give up my Scriabin signature, now heading right towards us due to some simple 3-D rendering. The m.5 chord looks even more ominous now with the notes getting progressively larger. I'm also pleased with the way the notes are poised in the air like ghosts (if you rotate your screen away from you, the notes will likely disappear!), although in an ideal world the bass clef notes floating over the keys would be a bit darker. Are these notes left over from a past performance? Are they waiting to be played? Are they happening right now (all five measures at once?)?

So that's today's story of music as image. Facebook remains annoying, but sometimes crazy constraints inspire unexpected creativity; for me at least, Scriabin's notes add multiple layers of texture that seem to bring the keys to life. Those who are reading on my actual blog (as opposed to in a feed-reader) will also "note" that my homemade template has featured Bach's notes as background image almost since the beginning. (A few of you may remember MMmusing's "Yellow" period.) I created that looping image of Bach's Invention in A Minor for another website way back in the early days of the Internet, but I think it still holds up. (Bach, of course, is great for looping, which is how he made it into Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach.) Ironically, I worked hard to distort those notes to make them look like refugees from some ancient manuscript, and now they are getting ancient, at least in web terms.

Finally, note that my attraction to notes as images is based to some degree on my understanding that notes really are music, in a mystical sort of way. In his fascinating book MusicophiliaOliver Sacks uses the term "musical imaging" to describe the way in which we can "hear" sounds in our imaginations - and only after typing that sentence did I think that the word "image" is embedded in the word "imagination." So we now have a strange loop in which musical notes are understood as images that inspire internal musical imaging, and thus became images that can inspire the imagination even more than mere images.

See also:

Music as Image/Image as Music

The Joy of (looking at) Music

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Right Turn

As evidenced by yesterday's item about Franz Liszt mysteriously appearing on the cover of The Picture of Dorian Gray, I get a kick out of strange little mistakes. I wrote about this at some length in a 2011 blog post which begins with a story about a missed shift in Dvorak's Dumky Trio. As it happens, the great Dumky has entered my life again this summer since my cellist wife, violinist daughter, and I are learning it for an upcoming recital. A lovely little collateral surprise is that my other daughter, who's seven, has taken a liking to the Dvorak, especially its last movement. I'll admit this might have something to do with my pointing out that Dvorak ends his wonderfully Slavic journey with the theme from E.T. Listen to how the cello morphs into John Williams at about 10 seconds in.

But that's not a mistake and I haven't come here to accuse Mr. Williams of plagiarism. (I might accidentally plagiarize someone else if I go down that path!) However, there is a quirky mistake connected with a recording of this trio. I have a Suk Trio CD that I've been playing in our family van for the past few weeks, but I recently downloaded the Kim/Ma/Ax recording which I first purchased years ago on LP. I put the new downloads on CD only to realize that the break between the last two movements is tracked incorrectly. The next-to-last movement has a kind of false ending, which apparently fooled the person who edited this CD. (I'm not sure if the LP features the same mistake.) Thus, the music fades gracefully away, and here endeth the penultimate movement according to these downloads:

...which means Dvorak's surprise ending becomes a surprise beginning for the finale:

[By the way, the roots of that "E.T." theme are right there in the piano tune that opens the last movement proper, eight seconds into the sample above.]

What makes this quirky mistake all the more amusing is that Younger Daughter of MMmusing will often request "the last movement of the Dumky" in the car, which means we begin with that manic ending. I'm not really bothered by this quirk though. First of all, I've made my share of editing mistakes (the worst of which was letting Tex tremendae slip into the program for a big performance of the Mozart Requiem with Robert Levin giving a pre-concert talk and everything - I didn't type "Tex," but he did get past me), and second of all, it's just kind of funny. (I may or may not have looped the first few seconds of that track multiple times just for fun - don't ask my kids.)

But that's not all! No, I've got another little recording quirk encountered in another trio. This one I discovered listening to an LP of the Ravel Trio in A Minor in my piano teacher's studio, a long time ago in an undergraduate school far, far away. The Beaux Arts Trio was doing the honors when I noticed a pretty obvious page-flip during the Scherzo. I remember first assuming that this must be a piano turn since piano pages fly by in a fast-paced piece like this with all three parts taking up space in the score. So, I pulled out the score (handily available in the same studio; maybe I was using it already?) and discovered the flip didn't align with a piano turn. However, it turned out quite clearly to fall during three precious bars of rest in the cello part.

For some reason this delighted me no end, both doing the detective work and to think that the great Bernard Greenhouse was put on the spot this way, having to execute his turn as if he were playing the whip in Sleigh Ride. You can watch him do this bit of choreography (quietly) at the 1:53 mark below.

But whoever produced their studio recording left a very obvious turning sound in, for whatever reason. I can't imagine it wasn't noticed, but it seems like something that could've been edited out. Maybe it was just decided that it adds excitement to the already jumpy texture, with offbeat pizzicato snaps all over the place. Well, I like it this way. In the video below, you can "think along with Bernie" as the page turn approaches. Imagine how quickly he had to fly the bow back to the strings, ready to execute a delicate staccato passage on page 6.

At that point in my life, musicians of Beaux Arts Trio caliber were nothing less than legends to me - I suppose they still are, but I have a better understanding now that they're also just regular musicians who make mistakes. Back then, I just assumed these recordings were made under ideal conditions with page-turners sprinting noiselessly around like Wimbledon ball boys if necessary. The truth is, Greenhouse probably had some old, well-worn part that he liked, and he probably was so used to making the turn himself that it didn't really bother him.

An opera director friend has told the story many times of an accompanist for a big-time singer (Janet Baker?) who replaced a tattered score of O Had I Jubal's Lyre with a brand-new copy before a recital. Ms. Baker (or whoever) ended up getting lost and having to restart twice during the recital, to her great embarrassment; only later did they realize that the old score demanded an audible page flip from the pianist that the singer had grown used to hearing. When it wasn't there (due to a differently formatted edition), it tossed her memory for a loop. Whether true or not, it's a great story.

Perhaps the Beaux Arts Trio needed Greenhouse's whip to keep them on track...

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Wilde About Liszt

[Emptying out the Twitter summer desk drawer...]

About a month ago I was strolling towards the cash registers at Barnes and Noble when my eye was caught by the following from a row of paperback classics:

Before I even noticed that this was The Picture of Dorian Gray, I recognized that this was a picture of Franz Liszt. It's a fairly well-traveled painting (by Henri Lehmann) that shows up on LPs, CDs, and sheet know, of recordings and scores having to do with the composer/pianist Franz Liszt. I can't really explain why Liszt became Dorian Gray other than that he's a famously striking figure who also dabbled in debauchery along life's way - and, I suppose, it's a public domain image that could easily be slapped on a cheap reprint.

I commented about this discovery on Twitter, and that set off some fun exchanges. First, musicologist Bob pointed out the existence of this book about the songs of Henry Duparc:

Duparc wrote some fine songs which definitely deserve their own book, but it's kind of strange that someone chose to put on the cover...a photograph of old Franz Liszt! (I'll be honest and admit I don't know what Duparc looked like in his later years, but I doubt he looked exactly like Liszt.)

This got me thinking about other possibilities for Liszt as coverboy, and though I resisted re-using "old Liszt" for a Mrs. Doubtfire: The Novelization, I did come up with this natural fit for very young Franz (although Mozart would work even better):

Jose was a bit more clever and found a place for old Franz in a new musical, inspired by this and, perhaps, this:

The Broadway musical idea got me thinking about ensemble casts, and soon this famous painting of Liszt and friends had morphed into a take-off on Sondheim's Company:

Somewhere along the way, it also occurred to me that Oscar Wilde, a pretty photogenic guy himself, might want to exact some revenge. This recording would surely feature a thrilling performance of Etude #8, Wilde Jagd*:

Bob also proposed the following, a book that would appeal equally to me and the wife:

And, finally, it wasn't such a big leap to imagine that the dashing Arnold Schoenberg could also serve ably as a coverboy for a book he helped to inspire:

And there you have it, your summer reading (and listening) list. See how useful Twitter can be.

* Liszt's title "Wilde Jagd" translates as "Wild Hunt," but in this case it might be interpreted as "Hunt for Wilde."

P.S. Some of these images are tangentially related to the "wrong character" principle that drives an amusing meme, which once inspired me to create this.

UPDATE (8/9): I only just remembered that the great piano virtuoso Earl Wild had a surname that was irresistible to his marketers, resulting in quite a few "Wild About [Insert Composer Name Here]" album covers, including this one that I owned on LP:

So, clever as my post title is, I'm sure it was partly inspired by memories of the above. And now that I've looked around a bit, I'm quite tempted to order this.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Happy Augmented Sixth Day!

This morning, I was grading an analytical graph of a Mozart sonata that a student had prepared in Excel®. The student had, quite correctly, labeled one measure as featuring an "Augmented Sixth" chord, using the abbreviation "Aug 6th." Well, those who have battled with Microsoft Office products over the years will probably guess what came of that; instead of displaying"Aug 6th" in the little square, the graph said "8/6/2012." Perhaps this serves the student right for not being more specific and calling the chord an "Italian Sixth" (one of the three famous flavors of Augmented 6th harmony), but I couldn't help but be delighted by this bit of AutoCorrect® gone wild, especially because........TODAY IS AUGUST 6th!!!

So, this lovely little coincidence has led me to the realization that August 6th should be celebrated every year as Augmented 6th Day, and I quickly set up a hashtag on Twitter for #Aug6thDay. Unfortunately, it's probably too music-geeky to become a viral sensation (probably?!?), but I've still gotten a few nice responses, including proposals from pianist Geoffrey Burleson for a "San Francisco Sixth" and a "Hungarian Sixth" in honor of Henry Cowell and Franz Liszt. I'm gonna admit I don't know my way around Cowell's music, and I don't know off the top of my head exactly where Liszt's variant occurs - which perhaps will make you feel better if you don't know or remember what an Augmented Sixth chord is. (Augmented Sixth chords are notoriously confusing for music theory students just getting used to normal 'ol triads.)

Well, I'm still supposed to be grading here, so it's hardly the time for a big explanation, but although there are different configurations commonly referred to as Italian, German, and French, what they all share is a downward-pulling note on the bottom and an upward-pulling note on the top that resolve out by half-steps to an octave. Half-step motion is quite important in voice-leading in general, so this double-pull in opposite directions can have a very powerful effect since it's also always going to be using at least one note outside of the key. Thus, when Beethoven in his Waldstein Sonata wants to break through to a B Major chord (the V of E Major, which is where he's headed), he can just turn an A-natural into an A-sharp and, voilà, an Italian-style pull into B from above and below.

[Hear in context here, starting around the 0:28 mark.]

You can sample all manner of Augmented Sixth Chords if you so choose at the very useful Internet Music Theory Database. However, I'm going to end with just one more example, in this case a strikingly unsettled way to begin an extraordinarily beautiful song (#12) from Schumann's Dichterliebe. In this "German Sixth," the initial G-flat in the bass pulls down to F (the V of the song's B-flat Major) while an E in the right-hand leads up to an F. [The C-sharp is what makes this a German Sixth, and it also resolves up by half-step to D.]
This tender introduction sets the tone for a song which is quite simple melodically, but which seems to keep floating from one fragile flower petal (translation here) to another harmonically. Listen to the whole song, and note that this opening figure initiates a heartstopping piano postlude when words finally fail.

The same postlude returns at the end of the final song (when words have failed for good) and sets up the most satisfying but painful page any pianist ever gets to play (in any repertoire).

[should start at the 2:34 mark]

This chord deserves its own day, if only for the first measure of the first Schumann song above. Happy Augmented Sixth Day!

P.S. Another Twitter acquaintance notes that we've already missed the tritone fun that August 4th had to offer...

Friday, August 3, 2012

Time to Rhyme

So, I've provided a vague sort of intro to Douglas Hofstadter's Le Ton beau de Marot and plenty of passing references in posts this summer; it's time to unveil its central "character" and the first poetic response that it inspired from me. As I mentioned last time, Hofstadter's sprawling book was generated by a tiny little poem from the 16th century French poet, Clément Marot. Hofstadter was intrigued by the question of how such a poem might be translated into English, especially considering all the tight constraints imposed by the medium. He ended up writing more than 600 pages about this question. There are, of course, reasons to translate a poem literally (whatever that means), with concern only for the meanings (whatever that means) of the words, but an important point is that the meaning of this poem is clearly embedded, in part, in its poetic elements. A word-for-word translation is only a partial translation at best.

Still, before I reveal my first translation, it makes sense to include, along with the original poem, one of Hofstadter's "word-for-word" translations so that you can appreciate some of what is going on in Marot's charming creation. The poem was written to cheer up a young girl who'd fallen ill. It is quite lighthearted in tone, but beautifully crafted. Hofstadter, in sending the translation challenge out to his friends and colleagues, identified the following eight structural features that deserve consideration:
  1. It is made up of 28 lines.
  2. Each line has 3 syllables.
  3. The stress falls on the last of these syllables.
  4. It is a series of rhyming couplets.
  5. The semantic couplets are out of phase with the rhyming couplets.
  6. After line 14 the formal "vous" is replaced by the more colloquial "tu".
  7. The last line echoes the first.
  8. The poet slips his own name into the poem.
Actually, Hofstadter originally left out #5, an oversight which surprised me greatly. That lovely cross-rhythm is a key feature that jumped right out at me. (On the other hand, I might easily have missed #6.) Even when one of Hofstadter's colleagues first points out that the rhymes are out of phrase with the semantic couplets, he expresses some hesitation* about whether this property is essential or even intended by Marot. Hofstadter is an avid amateur musician and subtitles his book "In Praise of the Music of Language," so it's odd to me that this particularly musical quality escaped his notice, but it also shows how differently we can hear the same thing. (I probably took extra delight in having out-perceived Hofstadter since his general, wide-ranging brilliance is so intimidating. I do have quite a few other disagreements with his ideas, but I'm saving those for later posts. He's still "the man!")

Anyway, I was quite surprised that on first reading I felt compelled to take up his challenge right away, before reading a single "real" translation. There are dozens and dozens in the book, including dozens by Hofstadter himself, and his own translations of translations others made into languages other than English. (This book will wear you out!) The book is structured so that each chapter is followed by a series of related translations. My hope over the next few months is to continue exploring Hofstadter's book from many angles (especially with respect to musical implications), interspersed with little intermezzo posts featuring various poems I wrote while first reading this book back in 1998. (Too bad I wasn't blogging then, though I was emailing my little creations out to my poor family.) So, I present here my very first translation of Marot's A une Damoyselle malade ("To a Sick Damsel").

To see it, you'll need to highlight the invisible text in the third column. [Of course, you should try translating it yourself first.] You can also go see it here.

Ma mignonne,
Je vous donne
Le bon jour;
Le séjour
C’est prison.
Puis ouvrez
Votre porte
Et qu’on sorte
Car Clément
Le vous mande.
Va, friande
De ta bouche,
Qui se couche
En danger
Pour manger
Si tu dures
Trop malade,
Couleur fade
Tu prendras,
Et perdras
Dieu te doint
Santé bonne,
Ma mignonne.
My sweet
I bid you
A good day;
The stay
Is prison.
Then open
Your door,
And go out
For Clément
Tells you to.
Go, indulger
Of thy mouth,
Lying abed
In danger,
Off to eat
Fruit preserves;
If thou stay’st
Too sick,
Pale shade
Thou wilt acquire,
And wilt lose
Thy plump form.
God grant thee
Good health,
My sweet.
My delight,
I invite
you to smile;
For awhile
you¹ve been jailed.
Find your failed
health again.
Open then
the cruel door
to explore
right away,
for I say
you’ve no choice.
Go, rejoice,
since your tastes
lay in waste
while you’re ill;
Have your fill,
cakes devour!
Ev'ry hour
sickness wins,
color thins
from your face,
to displace
May God bless
you tonight,
My delight.

It's not perfect, but I'm rather proud of it as a first effort. I actually prefer it to most of the ones found in Hofstadter's book, but I may be biased...

If you're just dying to read more of my tortured rhymes, there are links to quite a few at the end of this post.

* Hofstadter writes: "...couldn't [this "out of phase" property] be pure chance, something Marot never intended or even realized, but that just by accident came out that way? Of course that's conceivable, though hard to believe." (11a) I find it inconceivable that Marot didn't intend this. It gives the poem a kind of forward momentum since each completed rhyme is only halfway through a thought - and when the thought is completed, the ear knows that another rhyme is around the bend.