Saturday, September 21, 2013

MMmusing Recital Links

Since tomorrow's MMmusing recital is significantly based on material that's been presented here on the blog, here are some useful direct links to the original posts.

Read more about the entire program here.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The MMmusing Recital

I've made passing reference to this already, but this Sunday I'll be presenting my first "MMmusing Recital." That's right, some of the unusual ideas presented here on the blog will finally be submitted to a live audience in live performances - not that I consider my readers to be less than alive, but you know what I mean. The idea, as with so many of my blog posts, sprang up kind of accidentally as I'd had another more conventional recital collaboration postponed, but still wanted to do some performing to start off the year. I already had the recital reservation, so all I needed was a program.

I knew I didn't have time to memorize and perform solo repertoire with the pressures of a new semester bearing down, but with Daughter of MMmusing having returned enthusiastically from five weeks of summer music camp, this seemed to offer an excellent opportunity to work again as a trio with her and my cellist wife. (We debuted as "Montrieau" at my faculty recital last September.) We'd all really enjoyed hearing a performance of the opening movement from Mendelssohn's Trio in D Minor at the camp, so my first thought was that we might play that entire trio as the recital's second half. Meanwhile, I started thinking about ways to explore blog-inspired possibilities for a more informal first half.

I'll spare you all the details, but I ended up deciding upon a series of loosely connected "experiments" in musical mashing as a kind of theme. I'm purposefully using the term "mashup" pretty broadly because there is a sense in which most kinds of music (and life!) involve some degree of mashing or another, especially contrapuntal genres. So it is that we'll open with a variation on Bach's most famous chorale-prelude. As genre, chorale-preludes already have mashup-like qualities since such pieces are built around hymn-tunes - except that I'm substituting our own college hymn, A.J. Gordon's "My Jesus, I Love Thee" for the tune most often known as "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." This is what might be termed a negotiated mashup, since I made some significant changes to Bach's famous flowing triplets so that they're now in 4/4 instead of 3/4. You can read and hear more about that here.

As a further illustration of counterpoint as mashup, we'll do a fun little performance of Bach's "Crab Canon" from The Musical Offering. In this case, this is a tune mashing up with its backwards self, though the fact that Bach designed the tune with that in mind is kind of a cheat. That will transition into Steve Reich's Clapping Music, which is basically a canon based on metrical phasing - like the Bach, it's a mashup against itself. This then leads to an inspired mashup suggested by recent graduate Wesley Newcomb in which the two "chords" of Stravinsky's famous Rite of Spring polychord are subbed in for Reich's two clapping parts. It sounds like a 70's TV car chase. 

We'll then turn to a couple of time-bending French concoctions. Wesley has set up a nifty real-time phrase-shifter for Satie's Gymnopédie No. 1 which will allow me to play my Randomnopédie from the same on-the-spot score the audience will be watching. Satie's iconic work is famous for its directionless way of meandering around, so we'll be exploring what happens when the directionless phrases are sent back and forth through time. Next, I'll play my all-time favorite of Bruce Adolphe's radio piano puzzlers, a magical amalgam of Hey, Jude and Messiaen's radiant harmonies in praise of the eternity of Jesus. I know it sounds gimmicky, but somehow it works. The chords move so slowly that Adolphe only manages to get through part of McCartney's timeless tune - probably just as well that it doesn't get to the 19 repetitions of "Na... na-na na-na-na-na / na-na-na-na / Hey Jude," which has its own time-stopping qualities.  

The first half ends with two very different two-piano showdowns with a new colleague, Stephanie Emberley. First up is Mozart's ubiquitous music-box of a sonata (K. 545) heard alongside Grieg's mischievously charming second piano addition. I honestly don't know why there aren't more pieces like this as it reveals such an unstuffy and creative affection for an older style. Some of the happiest music you'll ever hear. Which is just as well, because what will follow (the most truly mashup-y event of the afternoon) will be more disorienting: simultaneous performances of the first movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata and Debussy's Clair de lune. You can get a sense of what this might sound like here.

Though inspired first by the punny "moonlight" connection, the works complement each other in several ways. They share the same tonic (C# = Db), they're about the same length, each is mostly quiet and reflective, etc. Still, one is in minor, one is in major, one is Germanically directed and purposeful while the other breathes a French kind of nonchalance, so contrasts abound as well. The fact that Beethoven's work has a regular and insistent rhythm actually makes an excellent foil for Debussy's free-floating harmonies. We've run this "piece" a couple of times, and new things emerge each time - can't wait to see/hear what happens on Sunday.

So, that's the first half - everything that will be played has been featured on this blog at some point or another. These experiments exhibit another general characteristic of my musical interests: though some subversive, outside-the-box things will happen, everything is rooted in (or at least alludes to) the past. The Moonlight Sonata, Clair de lune, Gymnopédie No.1, Mozart's K.545, and Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring are all iconically overexposed. Not only can they all stand a little jabbing, but the audience will have a better chance of perceiving what's going on since the source material will likely be familiar.

Since I'm pretty unapologetically rooted in the past myself, the recital's second half will be more like a normal chamber music affair, though with a couple of thematic mashups thrown in. First of all, we decided not to program the entire Mendelssohn trio because there just wasn't time to learn it all with school starting, my daughter preparing for some auditions, etc. The second half will thus begin with a striking sacred/profane, cello/violin matchup. The wife and I will play Messiaen's Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus as originally intended (for cello and piano, no Jude), though removed from the Quatuor pour la fin du temps context. Then, Daughter of MMmusing will put her fiddle through its paces in the wild gypsy smackdown that is Ravel's Tzigane. A heartstopping prayer followed by a pulse-pounding hoedown.

Just as the first half ends with a Franco-German conversation, we follow the colorful French soundworlds of Messiaen and Ravel with the passionate German Romanticism of Mendelssohn's first piano trio. (Did I think long and hard about fitting in the finale of Mendelssohn's other trio, which mashes in a famous hymn tune along the way? Yes, yes I did. But I can only throw my family so many curves. As it is, the wife is learning the Messiaen in about a week's time since I only thought to include that last week.) I'm a nineteenth century Romantic at heart, and I've never gotten to play this trio. Since we're only performing the first two movements, they'll be inverted, with the song-like second movement providing a bit of repose before the manic storminess of the first movement closes the program. Ending with an opening movement seems like the right way to go.

View the MMmusing Recital poster here!

UPDATE: Recital-related blog links here.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Fragmented Thoughts on Fragments

Here's a weird confession. Background: I've been a big sports fan all my life, and like most Boston-area folks, have experienced all the melodramatic ups and downs of being a Red Sox fan for 20 years now. The last two nights, the Sox beat the dread rival Yankees in wonderfully unlikely fashion, each game uniquely compelling. The stakes shouldn't have been that high, because we have a pretty safe lead in the standings, but Boston had one of the worst-ever collapses at the end of 2011, and New York has been on a late-season push that meant if they could sweep this four-game series, things would've gotten uncomfortably interesting on many levels.

What I have to admit, and what probably makes me a bad fan, is that as the years have gone by, I have less patience with Sox-Yankees games that go on for 4+ hours (as they always seem to do) and I find the stress of these games more than I care to endure. So, on Thursday, when the Sox had blown their own 7-2 lead and trailed 8-7, I watched them tie the game dramatically with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the 9th against the best closer in the history of the universe - and then I went to bed thinking, whatever happens now, THAT was rewarding enough, and I don't want to be up until past midnight if this game goes 15 innnings, especially if it means watching the Yankees win. I've done that kind of thing before, but I'm getting to a "life's too short" stage where I just don't need that, especially since I had to get up early for school the next day.

Then, last night, the Sox were trailing 8-3 in the seventh inning and things were looking bleak, although having won the first game of the series softened the sense of dread. Still, I hung in there, half-asleep (it had been an unbelievably long and crazy day) as my wife noted we'd loaded the bases. I became a bit more alert when an infield single yielded another run, and then watched as the epically bearded Mike Napoli hit a seemingly harmless fly ball that became one of the shortest, least impressive grand slams you'll see - particularly strange because the lumberjack-like Napoli is known for hitting no-doubt-about-it towering shots. So, 8-8, tie game, just like the night before.

And, again, I decided THAT's enough. Even though it was a Friday, it had been a long day and I felt like I'd gotten what I needed out of this game - plenty of excitement and satisfaction. Better to go out on a high note (like noted Yankee fan George Costanza once learned) than risk seeing a dispiriting loss. So, two nights in a row, the game "ended" for me with the score tied 8-8. In true, modern, consumer-driven fashion, I'd gotten what I wanted out of the product, and then I threw it away before it was fully consumed. (Again, bad fan!)

In each case, the very first thing I did the next morning was check the score on my phone, and I was twice rewarded to discover Boston had come out on top both nights. You might think I'd be disappointed to realize I'd skipped out on happy finishes, but for some reason, at this stage of life, I was perfectly content - it even made for an exciting way to start the day, two days in a row. I'd seen (from a Boston perspective) the best parts of each game, but I hadn't invested too much time in either game (both of which I started half-watching mid-game), had spent time with my family, etc.. It all worked out - this time.

I suppose the broader point here is that fragments can be as rewarding - or, in some cases, more rewarding - than the whole thing, although that notion goes against a lot of typical thinking. And, though I wouldn't literally argue that one should leave an opera or symphony after the highest note, I'm often struck by how much I enjoy music in fragments as well. I attended six chamber concerts at my daughter's music camp this summer, and never really regretted that I was hearing single movements of major works. I have nothing against the "perform everything as intended" model of course, and I have nothing against watching baseball games in their entirety, and I believe true understanding of either art form requires an appreciation of the "big picture."

But, just as I've enjoyed watching this stunning Mendelssohn movement (divorced from its full 4-movement context)  multiple times in the past week, I'm enjoying the idea that I can sometimes take in a baseball game on my own terms.

As Charles Rosen has beautifully described, many Romantic Era composers loved exploiting the idea of the fragment - a musical structure that, by design, is incomplete. Actually, the first couple of times I listened to the video above, it seemed to me that it was starting in the middle of that trio's final movement, when what's happening is that Mendelssohn wrote music that has the "feeling" of beginning in the middle. But I love fragments in lots of other ways as well. For the past few weeks, Daughter of MMmusing has been preparing some difficult excerpts from Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 for an audition, and I have loved hearing these excerpts repeated again and again, even though this is about as fragmented as a musical experience gets. She's playing music intended to be played along with about 12-16 other violinists, with another 70 or so musicians onstage playing lots of other stuff, all going on for close to an hour. But it turns out also to be pretty cool to hear these 3-5 minutes of fragments (mostly half-filtering in through the walls from downstairs), in part because they connect me back to the full experience of the symphony, but also because of their own quirky, musical value.

Returning to baseball, it's always kind of strange to me that the most famous moment in Red Sox history is a Carlton Fisk home run that won a game in a series that Boston ended up losing. That fragment has somehow become more important than the purpose (winning the World Series) it supposedly served. Of course, ultimately, a great sporting event or a great musical experience is filled with a series of moments that range from pedestrian to exhilarating, so it makes sense that those moments could be thought of as satisfying on their own, and please don't think I don't value the way in which the broader context informs those moments.

But this post itself will have to remain a fragment...something, perhaps, to return to at another time. For now, you can always read this 2007 post on Fragments or just enter "fragment" into the search box at the upper left of this page...

P.S. I wrote this earlier this afternoon, but can't help mentioning that since then, the Sox topped the Yanks 13-9 this afternoon. Good times.