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.

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