Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Inside In Season

In our last episode, I debuted a new little holiday piece, In Season, inspired by Terry Riley's In C. Although it's silly and lighthearted, I seriously hope it will inspire a few people to give it a try, so I've given the arrangement its only little webpage. In addition to making new versions of the score available in alto/bass clefs and Bb/Eb/F transpositions, I made a new version of the video with highlighting to show which fragments are being played at a given time. (Sorry, no link to the video here; you've got to visit the page!) Although my knowledge of javascript is pretty sketchy, I also managed to build some cool little "chapter" buttons* below the video which allow the user to jump instantaneously to any of the 14 entry points.

I took no small delight in watching my two younger children (9 and 7) push the buttons and follow the highlighting, listening for the melodic fragments to emerge from the mild cacophony. This is a fun little pedagogical aspect of this kind of project, as it takes a particular kind of listening focus to hear through such a dense texture. It's a bit like one of those magic eye puzzles, except here you have to "squint" your ears to zero in on a particular register or sonority or whatever. Even though I had the "performance" notated explicitly in Finale, so that I could track exactly when and where each fragment begins and ends, it wasn't always immediately easy for me to hear certain parts - and then, suddenly, the same parts would sound with absolute clarity. I found this to be true especially with the high-register glockenspiel tones, which often sound virtually un-pitched until I really tune in to those frequencies.

This kind of skill is, of course, quite handy when listening to just about any kind of music; as I've observed many times before, I suspect much of the pleasure I get from mashups* is the way they challenge the brain to distill discrete musical meanings from the mixed-up muddle. Of course, performing a piece like this (or, better yet, In C) is also great for learning group improvisational dynamics within a pretty non-threatening context. There's really no "wrong" way to play or repeat the fragments in a group performance, but learning to respond to what you hear around you and create inter-relationships on the spot is a great exercise for just about every part of your musical brain.

Anyway, I hope you'll take a second to check out this new In Season page. Did I mention that the page elements are designed to look like a snowman? 

OK, it's kind of a slightly creepy robot snowman, but I'm still not going to embed the new highlighted video in this post - you've got to face the snowman to give it a try.

* The chapter buttons work better on an iPad/tablet or computer than on smaller phone screens - at least on my iPhone, the video automatically goes full-screen when it plays, which means the chapter buttons become unavailable.

** Note that just about any kind of music is a mashup at some level.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Season's Greetings in C

I can't believe I somehow made it through most of 2014 without realizing that this is the 50th anniversary year of Terry Riley's In C, an iconic work that I've come to love while leading annual performances of some kind or another over the past 4-5 years...until 2014, that is. Although the music is hardly old-sounding, it's become so influential that it's hard for me to believe it was only 20 years old when I first encountered it at a high school summer music program. (This is a roundabout way of saying it's not much older than I am.) Riley's original instructions specify that "the pulse is traditionally played by a beautiful girl on the top two octaves of a grand piano." The main thing I remember about that first performance is sitting on the piano bench next to a fellow student who fit that description, though she and I switched off between playing the pulsing octaves and playing other patterns below (on the keyboard), so we were bending at least one rule when I was on top.

The music and concept themselves seemed fairly silly to me at that time, although performing al fresco in a courtyard made for a lovely happening. I'd since listened to parts of recordings over the years, but this is music of the moment that can only truly make sense in the moment, which is one of its most bittersweet qualities. Thus, it was only through leading performances for various classes that the work really made a strong impression as music. I can remember a couple of performances in which my hands/wrists should've been about to fall off from playing those octaves (alone and un-beautiful) for 45 minutes or so, yet feeling so sad to find we'd come to the end. (Curiously enough, I just heard Beethoven's Op. 132 string quartet live for the second time last week; both times I've heard it, I felt a deep kind of regret when the eternity-on-earth third movement ended. I just wanted it to keep going and going. There is a quasi-minimalist vibe to the last six minutes or so in which the parts move in and out of synch with each other, at times seeming to ruminate in their own separate spaces...à la Riley.)

The high school me couldn't make heads or tails of music which didn't make it clear where every note belonged, to say nothing of the absurdly simple looking musical materials. Of course, the key is that the performers get to discover in the moment how it is that those simple materials can interact with each other in all sorts of unexpected and delightful ways. Riley writes, "some quite fantastic shapes will arise and disintegrate as the group moves through the piece when it is properly played." This turns out to be true (!), and the disintegrations are sad indeed, but life is like that.

As luck would have it, I've also been thinking lately about needing a new Christmas project for the blog, and when I recently saw a notice about an upcoming In C performance, a string of light bulbs went off in my head. It started with the first three notes of Jingle Bells, and pretty soon I'd put together a series of distinctively seasonal melodic snippets that could be "In C-ed." I understand, of course, that I'm both blatantly copying Riley's concept and violating some essential aspects of that concept, but I'm nevertheless quite pleased with the result (so far as it's gone so far).

[If you don't know In C, the basic idea is that an unspecified number of musicians play through the numbered patterns in sequence, with each performer repeating each pattern as often as desired; parts do not need to synchronize, but all are held together by a constant pulse, and the performers should listen to the group and stay within a few numbers of each other.]

Riley's work builds (quite literally) on the elemental nature of most of its 53 patterns - many feature just two or three pitches, and only one (the epic #35) has a sufficiently distinctive contour to be described as a "melody" (and a pretty quirky one at that).

Riley's first five "elements"
Riley's epic #35

On the other hand, I've chosen short melodic patterns that are intended to be immediately recognizable as triggers for calling up various holiday tunes. I'm hopeful that these patterns can do double duty - serve as reminder triggers and also detach themselves from their original contexts and take on their own identities, so there's a kind of deconstructing/reconstructing going on here. Maybe.

MMmusing's first five fragments
There's a possible advantage in that the listener can experience the satisfaction of recognition as these tunes emerge from the texture. The fact that the patterns are more "formed" than Riley's means it's also more likely for there to be awkward clashes as various pitches and rhythmic shapes collide, but Ives taught me long ago not to fear clashes. (In fact, one of my first holiday specials was this Ivesian mashup of seven Christmas tunes.) I'm guessing one fallout from this is that, whereas Riley specifies an ideal performing group of about 35, I think something closer to 10 might work best here to avoid total congestion - which is just as well, because assembling 35 musicians is no easy feat, and it's such a busy time of year!

Perhaps the biggest and most interesting challenge in putting this together was trying to create a "performance" - a kind of reverse-engineering problem where the process to be reversed doesn't even exist. It was fun simply to work through the process with about ten "instruments"* and try to find a balance between letting things happen and looking for especially satisfying intersections. I suspect on the whole that this demo version is a bit heavy on the purposeful, but that also allows it to be shorter - a live performance would almost certainly benefit from more repetitions to give ideas time to gel.

As I've been writing this post, I've been listening to a much more ambitious project: Jeff Hall has created a complete, 50-minute symphonic-style performance of In C by layering together 21 synthesized tracks. By dispensing with the regular pulse and mixing instruments in and out regularly, he does an excellent job revealing how much variety and shape can be found in Riley's overall vision, although the synthesized orchestral sounds get on my nerves sometimes. I think this large-scale structural aspect of In C is under-appreciated (at least it was under-appreciated by me for decades), and in a small way, I've tried to create some structural flow within my holiday jumble.

Most obvious is that the more rhythmically busy patterns occur in #6-11, bookended by the two longest and slowest fragments, #5 and #12. (Note also that #5 ascends and #12 descends.) #3 leads very naturally into #4, both by shared dotted rhythm and the G-F-E connection. #4 ends with the same rising G-C that begins #5. Only C-D-E-F-G are used through the first five fragments. A appears only in #6 and #8-12, with the leading tone B appearing only in the climactic #10-12. (There's a sense in which 9-11 transitions into A Minor, the relative minor of C, and then the expansive #12 brings us back to C.) The final fragment, #14, is the only one not to include C, so it serves as a kind of implied dominant that might lead back...

In referring to the numbered patterns as fragments, I'm alluding both to the incompleteness of each as a musical entity and to the shared knowledge that each fragment points back to a complete musical entity of its own. I've been thinking about this idea recently after reading this review of an event in which pianist Andy Costello "performed" all of Chopin's Etudes (normally a wildly daunting task):
“...he only performed enough of each to make it recognizable, three or four seconds. This was just long enough to engage one’s own memory of each work, and Chopin’s genius became clear: only two seconds was enough to bring the entire etude into focus in one’s memory, so strongly characterized were each."
It's a wild idea, but true of course that hearing just a few seconds of music can set off much longer loops in our inner ear. In Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks describes a man who once "heard" an entire side of a Mozart LP only to discover, on going to turn the record over, that he'd never started it playing in the first place - but he still heard the whole thing. Technically, he imagined hearing the whole thing, but if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, maybe it can still make a sound in your imagination. (Did you hear that?) That's a little off-point, but it's part of the experience of this new little piece that your musical memory is sent in multiple possible directions. By the way, note that for those familiar with In C, the soundworld first evoked by Riley should also emerge as one of the recognizable building blocks of this new "tune." Nonetheless, this isn't pretending to be In C Lite. In Season is its own thing.

I'm presenting this now, pre-December, in hopes that maybe some theory/history classes out there will want to give it a try when Early Minimalism is on the agenda at the end of the semester. Although I believe Riley's masterpiece stands on its own just fine, it would be wonderful if this smaller, more easily accessible homage served as a kind of gateway drug for someone to delve more deeply In to the C. I'm certainly going to try to commandeer some musicians to see what happens when it happens in real time.

The score for In Season, complete with Riley-like instructions, can be downloaded here. Let me know if it happens to you!

UPDATE: The new In Season webpage is here. Read more about that here.

P.S. I wrote about In C several years ago when I created a little practice video to help performers learn their part. Strangely, I only just noticed last night, while listening to Jeff Hall's symphonic version, how much Riley's #27 sounds like Saint-Saëns Danse macabre, especially since Hall starts this motif out in the flute!

* If you're curious, my little band consists of flute, oboe, bassoon, trumpet, glockenspiel, marimba, harp, violin, cello, and the piano ostinato.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Generic 12-tone Happy Birthday

Turns out today is the 36th birthday of new BSO conductor, Andris Nelsons. Good for him, and let's face it, there are probably others with birthdays today as well - in fact, odds are that every day is someone's birthday, so I've repurposed a little 12-tone birthday song I wrote for a friend into a more generic version that can work for anyone deserving of a greeting. Happy Birthday to All!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

George Pastic's "The Violin"

Most of the multimedia featured on MMmusing is at least partly original in conception, but there are also a few "finds" that I'm pleased to have made available even though I had nothing to do with their creation. One example is George Pastic's "The Violin," a marvelous short film from 1974 which I'd first seen at several Suzuki Violin festivals more than thirty years ago. I had begun looking for it about ten years ago for my then young violinist daughter and managed to find an old VHS copy at the Boston Public Library. I decided to upload a copy to YouTube back in 2008 since it didn't seem to be available by any other means. Since then, many viewers have mentioned how much they loved this film and how glad they are to be able to see it again.

Last week, the following comment appeared on the video page from Greg Pastic, the director's son:
Michael, I don't know you but I want to thank you so much for uploading this to YouTube.  My father, George Pastic, passed away at the age of 86 on November 4th 2014, just six short days after losing his wife of 62 years in a tragic car accident.  The accident happened on Oct. 30th.  George had been ill for two years and my 83 year old mother and my younger brother Russell, had been caring for him at home.  When mom was killed, he simply lost his will to live.  This short film truly embodies my father's love of music, storytelling, the power of simple images, and most of all, his love for people.  I hope that, at some time in the future, my family can afford to release it on DVD.
Such sad news (an obituary for Pastic and his wife is here), but the film is certainly a wonderful tribute to Pastic's artistry, as beautifully described by his son. After seeing Pastic's comment, I noticed that an "official release" of the film on YouTube bad been posted back in August. You can view it here.

You can read a bit more about George Pastic here, and my original blog post from 2008 is here. The "print" of the film I'd posted is a bit darker in color, though I think the aspect ratio might be a bit more accurate. It would be great to see a fully cleaned-up transfer on DVD, but there's something about the old-world charm and simplicity of the film that easily overcomes these imperfections. A film about music and memory, it manages in less than thirty minutes to be lighthearted, bittersweet, and memorably musical.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

500 miles

For what it's worth, this is my 500th post here at MMmusing.

Milestones are quirky, arbitrary things, I'll admit. If we had eight fingers instead of ten, 320 might look like 500, and this would be post #764. Furthermore, a "post" is a wildly inconsistent unit of measure since a single post might feature 50 words or 500 words - or a picture that's worth 512 words (which would be 1000 words in base 8).

Furthermore, if you look at the number of posts by year, you'll see that I was more than 1/3 of the way to 500 after just one year! What happened?

Obviously, things have changed from those manic first couple of years, though not necessarily for the worse. (Perhaps I'm just closing in on the perfect zero!) There are a couple of logical reasons why the numbers have dropped so precipitously. First, when I was starting out, I didn't really know what I was trying to accomplish, so I was much more focused on getting something going - momentum seemed very important in proving to myself that the blog was a living thing. It reminds me of when I went camping this summer and tried to make a couple of fires, working with the limited skill set of someone who never made it past Cub Scouts. Even though I bought camp firewood and had a lighter, I'd still spend about half an hour feeding stacks of paper napkins and the like into the flames, along with whatever kindling I could accumulate (where's a viola when you need it?), until things really got going. There are definitely some stacks of paper napkins in those first couple of blogging years (though there's a lot of good stuff too!).

Just as importantly, the blogosphere has changed enormously in the last 7+ years. When I started out in early 2007, Facebook and Twitter weren't yet relevant, and even feedreaders weren't all that common, so it meant something to have regular activity at a blog as a way of encouraging return visits. Conductor Kenneth Woods, one of the best and most consistently productive music bloggers I know, recently wrote an excellent article about the way the social media revolution has marginalized blogs in some troubling ways (especially negating the way in which blogs used to feed traffic back and forth to each other), but Facebook and Twitter do offer useful, if Big Brotherly, ways to point readers to new material. Since I was desperate to look alive in those early days, there are a number of posts that are basically marking time by apologizing for slow output and promising more posts ahead.

I know this because I spent the last several days reviewing all 499 existing posts - not reading them all, for goodness sake, but at least glancing at each one, while fixing some dead links here and there. I was tempted to remove some of the paradoxical "sorry, no post today" posts, but then that would've thrown off the 500 milestone and made the post-count even more ambiguous. The line between substantive and trivial is often not clear; substance can be quite trivial, and trivia can be quite substantive! 

Although the best I can do is approximate, I'm pretty confident I've written well over 300,000 words here (about 3-4 novels' worth?), and that's to say nothing of all the fully integrated multimedia creations: more than 100 (mostly) original YouTube videos which collectively have been viewed more than 500,000 times, plus lots of images, live recordings, even a few compositions and computer programs. And don't forget the sonnets and viola jokes. I do sometimes wonder what the return-on-investment of all this is (it didn't get me tenured!), but I know I've created a lot of stuff I would never have otherwise created, and that's honestly satisfaction enough. There are plenty of fantastic music blogs out there, but I feel confident in saying there's no other like this one.*

Of course, one could make the argument that I should be putting some of this material into more permanent form, but let's leave that argument for another day. I still like the idea of working against the ephemerality of blogging and thinking of this richly hyperlinked "document" as a living, breathing permanent thing - although I have to admit that going through all of those dead links was a chore, and I know that many of them will die again, sometimes never to be recovered. In one case, I was sad to see that a lengthy response I'd written to a commenter had disappeared with the commenter's vanished blog! 

Anyway, even if there have only been 21 posts so far in 2014, they have included an intricately executed "shredding" of Bach (with "Pop Goes the Weasel" thrown in), a series of computer programs that interact with 12-tone principles and the formal properties of Erik Satie's music, a cool mashup ragtime arrangement, some experiments in 12-tone composition, and, in the self-referential spirit of which this post is an example, an interactive index for the blog itself. Although I originally expected MMmusing to be populated mostly by think pieces, I've found it's often more interesting to "think out loud" by creating. I've also used the milestone as an excuse to update the ol' "Musing Machine" in the margin, now with about 300 possible random multimedia outcomes. (Sadly, your mileage with that machine may vary on mobile devices.)

One last gesture for this momentous occasion: I've decided to give in to the inevitable and experiment with an MMmusing Facebook page. I'm honestly not sure what I'll do with it, but I've figured I can only figure that out by trying. I hate how little control Facebook provides for the look and feel of a page, and I'm not going to be paying them to promote my links, so it will likely wither away in cyberspace. So, I invite you to LIKE it! We'll see where it goes as I set out on my second 500 posts.

. . . . . . . .

Oh, one more thing. I recently came across this September 2012 recital recording of the Allemande from Bach's Partita in D Major. It is an extraordinary piece (introduced to me by this Jeremy Denk series), quietly unlike anything else of Bach's I know in its searching, meandering quality. I don't think I'd listened to the performance since the recital, but two years seemed like a safe enough distance...and I was pleasantly surprised! Some crazy sort of honesty compels me to admit that there was one very slight memory stumble which I was able to splice out since each half of the piece is repeated; at least this confession allows me to affirm that I performed from memory. It's not perfect, but it says what I think about this piece and Bach and the piano and music perhaps better than words could...so, enough words.

* I know an argument could be made that lack of focus hurts "the brand," that the blog darts in too many self-indulgent directions instead of sticking to a clear kind of theme, but the appeal for me of a self-published blog is being able to link up all sorts of divergent ideas in ways that inform each other. Some day, it will all make sense.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Dodecaphony

A little over a week ago, I wrote about a new string quartet movement I'd written more or less using the 12-tone "method." Although I didn't think it needed to be any longer on its own, as its internal argument works pretty well for me, it does seem as if it could be the beginning of something bigger. Since this "opening movement" is a mostly solemn, fugal structure, the logical next step was a lighthearted scherzo. (I'll admit I had in mind the opening two movements of Beethoven's Op. 131 as a kind of template.) I started experimenting by taking an ostinato figure from the climactic buildup of the "first movement" - that ostinato is really just a fast statement of the 12-tone row: 12 sixteenth notes in 3/4 time.

I thought it might be even more twelve-y to start this new movement in 12/8, so it does indeed begin with the 12 notes of the row split up equally amongst all four instruments in a 12/8 bar. (I've dispensed with alto clef below so as not to confuse any violists.)

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the dodecaphony. As the example above neatly illustrates, 12/8 really means there are four beats to the bar, and I realized the first notes of each beat could fit fairly nicely into a very simple C Major context; true, the last beat (cello) is more C Minor (or C Phrygian), but those chromatic notes go by so quickly that they don't seem so out of place when this kind of thing starts happening:

[Yes, I know there are parallel fifths between soprano/bass.]

When I created this row (to go with the oh-so-serioso words "When Jesus Wept..." as described here) I hadn't noticed that the wraparound notes 12, 1, and 2 create a C Major triad, but it suddenly seemed very lighthearted to have a 12-tone piece break into this simplest of keys, especially given Schoenberg's famous quote, "There is still plenty of good music to be written in C Major." Plus, to be honest, I'd been struggling to summon a jolly mood sticking strictly to 12-tone ways. So the die was cast: this movement would be aggressively tonal comic relief, while still using the row as a basic building block.

The rest took shape pretty quickly, although I still consider this very much a work-in-progress. It has a basic ABAB structure in which the trio-like B section is darker and features the primary row as an extended lyrical melody (mm.26-42) passed among the upper three instruments. The B section is introduced by the most stridently 12-tone harmonies in mm.24-25 (and later, mm.69-70) in which the 12 pitches of the row are deployed across three successive chords. Otherwise, the row is used in a much breezier manner, with the "accidentals" functioning more as chromatic decoration than tonal disruptions.

The 12/8 meter led pretty naturally to a fiddly jig tune, and though the bass line is quite primitive most of the time, there's a sort of funhouse passage starting at m.54 in which the cellist suddenly plays the row in retrograde; for three bars, all four parts are cranking out versions of the row, but things snap back into place just as quickly, the exception having proved the tonal rule.

The recording is again, of course, played by horribly unsatisfying virtual string players (especially in the more lyrical parts) so one has to use one's imagination, but if there's one thing I can say for this piece...it's short.

The strongly contrasting "first" movement, in case you missed it:

P.S. Did I consider titling this post "A Phony Thing Happened on the Way to the Dodecaphony?" Yes, yes I did. I've also realized that my instinct is always to spell Dodecaphony as Dodecacophony  (as in dode-cacophony).

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Le ton beau de Shostakovich, Hofstadter, etc.

Just a bit of follow-up to recent activity here, with links aplenty.

In response to yesterday's post about "hearing four symphonies at once," the wittily wonderful Will White, conductor/composer/etc, tweeted about this epic mashup of ALL FIFTEEN Shostakovich symphonies. I'd heard of John Oswald's legendary experiments in audio re-arranging, including his layering of 24 Also Sprach Zarathustra recordings atop each other, but this Shostakovich pile-up (not by Oswald) is both zonkers and surprisingly listenably Shostakovich-y; his music often has openly spaced textures and enough spiky orchestrations that various elements come through with surprising clarity, even with so much clashing. (He also likes clashing!) The assemblers of this "performance" stretched and compressed the various movements to make them fit together, so there's yet another layer of distortion at work. I made it through the entire first movement, and though it certainly has a generally cacophonous effect, one does experience something of the intensifying progression of a symphonic structure. Sort of.

While we're on the topic of Shostakovich, I'd just like to note that when a Facebook friend posted a picture of a birthday bon-bon presented to her cryptically by DSCH (Shosty's own signature cryptogram), I deduced that Shostakovich would probably order a Double Shot Caramel Hazelnut latte for his daily Starbucks fix. A Double Shot Coffee Hot would perhaps suit his personality better, but I don't think that represents proper ordering protocol.

Finally, having cited Radiolab yesterday, I need to mention that one of the most recent episodes features my hero, Douglas Hofstadter, talking about Le Ton beau de Marot*, which is only my favorite book in the history of books. Alas, it was only a brief segment introducing a show devoted to translation, but it did offer a chance to hear the author himself reading a series of translations of the little Clément Marot poem that inspired Hostadter's enormous book. And this reminds me that, of all the dozens of Marot translations arrayed throughout the book, I'm not convinced that any are as good as my own humble effort, which I've featured here before and will point you to again.

* Le Ton beau de Marot is subtitled "In Praise of the Music of Language." That subtitle is what first attracted me to the book. I thought of it last week when I was puzzled by Terry Teachout's expression of disdain for the semicolon. (Teachout has written more about this here.) I, of course, am an inveterate user/abuser of semicolons, em-dashes, commas, parentheses, etcetera, etc. My basic defense would be that such tools make it possible to modulate written prose in a way that helps the reader follow the musical elements of a verbal composition - the rises and falls, hesitations, summations, etc. Though I resist more every year the notion that music is a language (for reasons I won't go into here), I have no hesitation in thinking of language as a kind of music, which is why the subtitle of Hofstadter's opus was and is so appealing to me. This inspired me to create my own little aphorism, which is perhaps more insightful than true:

Music is not a kind of language;
Language is a kind of music.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Music + Music = Music

A former student sent along a link to a fascinating Radiolab episode, "Inner Voices." I have a bit of a reputation for liking mashups, and the student astutely observed that the final segment would thus interest me. In "A Head Full of Symphonies," we meet an unusually gifted pianist, Bob Milne, who convincingly claims to be able to "hear" four completely different musical works at once - all in his head. They test this out by having him get to know four recordings well (music by Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Brahms) and then start "playing" them in his head.  When stopped at random intervals, he's able to identify exactly what's happening (with perfect pitch, of course) in whichever work he's asked about, pretty much down to the second.

This is obviously remarkable, not least because Milne's internal clock is metronomic, but also because the idea of making sense out of so much unsynchronized simultaneity is daunting. Actually, from the way Milne describes it, it's not so much that he's making sense of the mashed-up sounds as that he's able to keep track of all of them separately - though I hope you notice there's a lot of slippage between those two possibilities. Part of the joy of listening to a symphony or fugue is making sense of sounds that are individually perceptible and yet meaningfully related. So, it's not totally clear to me what Milne is "hearing" when he's hearing four symphonies, but here's how Jad, the affable host, responded to such sounds produced out loud:

Noisy, yes, but noise? Cause I kind of like it! This might not have been the best example for them to play because the cadence from the Schubert "Unfinished" Symphony is coming through so clearly that it's pretty easy to make sense of that as the central musical idea, with the other stuff serving to intensify the proceedings. At least, that's what I immediately heard - far from nonsense, and kind of exhilarating. I'm not claiming to have anything like Milne's abilities, but I have come to love more and more the mental game of juggling multiple musical streams at once. (I also enjoy it when familiar things get mangled!) As I've observed many times here, that's basically what counterpoint and rich symphonic writing are all about, though each is historically focused as much on unity of purpose as diversity. What seems to intrigue me more and more each passing year is that strange periphery where bits of unity, or at least satisfying simultaneity, emerge from cacophony.

[I wrote about some early experiences of this here, here, and here, though all of those examples are more about finding delight in chaos itself. Note that, for me, that delight comes in being able to pinpoint ordered elements within the chaos such that it becomes more complex to the ear than an irreducible mass of sound. Like Glenn Gould in this fabulous scene.]

Getting back to Bob Milne for a second, he was introduced on the program as one of the "best ragtime piano players in the world," and much was made of his ability to play simultaneous rhythmic patterns (a basic feature of ragtime, or "ragged time") with ease while also holding conversations, etc. This came back to me when, a couple of days ago, I happened to throw together a little mashup of a "celebrated" minuet and the famous theme from "Super Mario Brothers." [That idea, like The Rite of Appalachian Spring, was a musical pun inspired by a verbal pun: a Facebook friend, who happens to play the cello, posted a picture of himself dressed as Luigi (Mario's brother) for Halloween, and this made me think of the famous cellist/composer, Luigi Boccherini. Cue mashup.]

What surprised me is that, once I got the two Luigis to play nice with each other, the result sounded kind of like: ragtime! Yes, rags are usually in duple meter (though there are ragtime waltzes), but there's something about the strongly grounded rhythm of the Boccherini left hand (which, in the MIDI file piano version I'd downloaded, uses a ragtime-like style of single bass notes on the beats and chords on off-beats) against the pervasively syncopated Mario Brothers theme that delivers a pretty convincing ragtime experience. (The Mario theme doesn't sound particularly raggish on its own because it doesn't have the regular, steady accompaniment.)

I think the new "Luigi Rag" actually works pretty well - it has the advantage of uniting two over-exposed pieces which are familiar enough to most listeners that keeping each in view isn't so difficult. [On a completely different topic, perhaps to be explored later, I found myself realizing that both the Boccherini minuet and Koji Kondo's theme are SO well-known that it seems almost impossible to judge either on "purely musical merit" (as if such a thing even existed) - I'm tempted to say neither is really all that special on its own, but who can say when one can't help but hear each as a kind of icon that both affirms and overshadows itself?] I'm also kind of crazy-proud of my silly little animation above, but it occurred to me that making available a playable violin/piano arrangement (in the original and more standard key of A) might coerce some brave accompanist to break out the ragtime at a Suzuki play-in somewhere. So, you can download the score here and see/hear it in action, with my house violinist helping out, below:

P.S. I hope you notice how elegant the music engraving is in that video (and in the downloadable PDF.) After two decades of relying on Finale, I've finally dived into the Lilypond. Learning to use it is a heady challenge, but it sure does put out pretty notes! I started a blog post about that this summer and never finished it, but hope to return to the subject soon...

P.P.S. If you're new to the blog, here's a helpful Youtube playlist of various MMmusing multimedia mashups from over the years: Classical Mashups.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Luigi Rag

First, there was Luigi Boccherini.

Then, there was Mario's brother, Luigi.

And now, perhaps inevitably: "The Luigi Rag"

UPDATE: More on this here.