Friday, April 4, 2014

The Good, The Shred, and The Ugly

Been a strange few days here in the world of MMmusing. Before I'd even thought about the coming of April Fools Day, my desperate search for a good viola joke about the $45 million Strad led to me making my first "shredding" video. In retrospect, it's surprising it took me so long. As I've already detailed, the idea initially was to make the New York Times demo video for this instrument sound more like...well, like a viola. If you haven't encountered shredding videos, there are countless ones all over YouTube. I particularly enjoyed these two while just now doing a quick look. The basic idea is to dub in humorously bad playing over the video of an accomplished performer playing in an accomplished manner. (I've written before about how much I love musical mistakes.)

Obviously, the idea of doing a "viola shred" is redundant, but I might as well take this opportunity to say that David Aaron Carpenter plays the viola exceptionally well. I owe him that. Here again is his performance of the dazzling prelude from Bach's 3rd cello suite.

I'll start with the good here, which is that this whole exercise has reminded me what a fantastic piece this prelude is. I've known it forever and played it myself on the cello back in the day, but one tends to take such canonical works for granted. Just minutes ago, I had the lovely experience of showing my 6-year old cellist son a video of Mischa Maisky playing it - my son had never heard the original, but he had heard my shredded version many times! Probably got that backwards... *

Anyway, I've unexpectedly kept "hacking away" at my own little shred over the past few days, mainly because I got the idea that it would be funny if a stupid tune started popping up amidst the shreds of Bach. I needed something in triple time, and somehow "Pop! Goes the Weasel" came to mind. Done! After downloading a MIDI file of the Bach into Finale, I just started squeezing in bits of "pop" wherever I could. This became a delightful little exercise in and of itself, and occupied me through several lunchtimes, etc.What fascinates me about a project like this is that it can be taken seriously on some level, even though the basic framing idea is absurd. Within that absurd frame, how best to achieve something truly and perfectly awful? I found myself fighting to get the wrongs just right, but also to keep it real, as it were.

Thus, my favorite part of the process was my firm commitment to not practicing at all before my live recording sessions. Let the mistakes happen naturally. Not surprisingly, my new "pop" version of the prelude is somewhat more awkward to play than the original since Bach, um, knew what he was doing. Even more challenging was trying to play along with the original Carpenter recording (slowed down to half-speed and thus in cello register) as my new version departs quite a bit, melodically and harmonically, in some passages; and though I haven't practiced the cello for more than 20 years, my fingers still half-remember the right notes, so steering them elsewhere created some additional cognitive dissonance. Carpenter also uses a lot of rubato, so it wasn't just a matter of playing in time. I was able to watch his bow, but only when I could tear my eyes away from the score. Because of all this, the music coming through my headphones had to be pretty loud for me to keep track of what he was doing, which meant I really couldn't hear all that clearly what I was doing. Perfect. These rules of the game become part of the final product.

Well, in most cases. The truth is, I had to re-record several passages to improve the synch with the video. Although the synching still isn't perfect, that is of course the area in which the shred requires actual skill - otherwise, the illusion fails. What a strange and wonderful musical challenge it turned out to be - though my mostly dormant cello skills were just barely up to the task, trying to survive the process was quite satisfying, even as my poor hands were cramping and my ears were being pulled in multiple directions. Pain and pleasure, together again.

However, the truly magical part of this process came via the double-speed transformation from scratchy, plodding, barely hanging-on cello sounds to believably fluent (if sloppy) viola-playing. I don't even mean that as a viola joke - it's just that the 2x process hides so much and creates so much artificial competence. And, yes, I do have a genuine affection for the beauty of ragged viola-playing. I've listened to these recordings many, many times and I honestly enjoy them on an actual musical level. Of course, some percentage (between 15%-95%) of that enjoyment comes from my own satisfaction in playing this game**, but part of me really does love the lack of perfection - the "can-do" spirit of this fictional violist, who looks so suave and assured in the video, seemingly oblivious to his own sounds. There's a lot of aesthetic stuff colliding here.

As any reader of this blog will have guessed, I've come to realize that this kind of twisted listening experience has become a core part of my musical self - I'm still no fan of the most avant-garde noise creations out there, but my brain loves puzzling out these kinds of listening experiences in which something good (too good?) and familiar is distorted, blended, or whatever - but still recognizable. I suspect a lot of the enjoyment comes from the brain's attempts to re-sort all the information and make sense of it. The feeble "viola" sounds are just part of the puzzle, but an essential part. For the record, I have no interest in hearing David Aaron Carpenter or any other violist or cellist play my prelude, because to play it right would be to play it wrong.

At any rate, although I'm still not sure what my place in the musical universe should be, I feel pretty sure that I'm the only person in the world who would have made THIS video:

By the way, I realize there's a case to be made that a too-finely-tuned shred defeats the purpose. The typical shred video is more blatantly honky and goofy, and I love those videos. Mine runs the risk of taking itself too seriously and being packed with too much detail for the genre. Who will want to listen multiple times to notice all the little places in which snippets of "Pop Goes the Weasel" are embedded when listening means listening to this? On the other hand, the embedding of a tune in a contrapuntal texture is right up Bach's alley. There are moments in Bach's prelude (such as 2:21-2:24) which I'll probably never be able to hear again without internally hearing*** "Pop!...goes...the wea-...sel." Believe it or not, I think Bach would be OK with that.

* I also was able to explain the concept of the octave to my 8-year old, who was curious about how I made my video and why my cello recording ended up sounding like a viola. So, learning is happening.

** Music, of course, is basically a game.

*** Hearing, of course, is always internal.

No comments: