Thursday, September 8, 2016

Sunday Jukebox

In mid-August, my sleepy blog suddenly sprouted a three-part series focused on combining tunes in unlikely ways. The last of those posts explored the intersection of two hymn tunes - which apparently anticipated where I was headed this month as this week is also going to feature a series of three posts, all inspired by my experiences as a church musician. We began on Sunday with some adventures in improvisation. Today, I'm doing a bit of show'n'tell with one of my major summer projects. Tomorrow, we'll explore a new way I've found to avoid practicing!

While I've been figuring out what to do with my life these past couple of years, I've been learning more and more about JavaScript and programming in general. I debuted some magical musical listening guides a year ago today, also coming off a summer of digging into JavaScript, and then the programming lights went off for much of the school year. with so much of the creative work I end up doing, I kind of stumbled into this project, mostly due to procrastination and writer's block.

Each month I write a music director column for the church newsletter, and usually I'm at a loss for a topic until about 72 hours after the column is due. When it came time to write the last entry of the program year in late Spring, I found myself thinking about the months ahead, when the choir gets the summer off and the hymn-singing is left entirely to the smaller-than-usual congregation. As we all know, communal singing is less a part of our culture than it was a hundred years ago, so although hymn-singing is a wonderful and very accessible practice, being confronted with a new set of tunes each week can be a challenge for those who don't read music easily.

I decided I could use the column to discuss summer singing and to promise that I'd post the hymns for each week online (essentially writing a check I'd have to cash later) to help folks prepare. Back at the dawn of the World Wide Web in the mid 90's, I used to upload the weekly hymns for a different church job. In those days of low bandwidth dial-up, the only practical way to make music available was via MIDI files, which are very clever and versatile, but which often sounded awful in web browsers. Nowadays, it's pretty easy to find room to post .mp3 files, so I set up a system for inputting hymns as quickly and efficiently as possible and turning them into audio which highlights the various SATB parts as available.

The initial site design was relatively simple, but as I started to build up a stash of hymn recordings, it occurred to me that making this growing archive easily accessible and searchable would be fun - not least for me. Over a couple of fairly intensive weeks of work, the concept of an "organ console with stop knobs" design emerged, with a scrolling archive of hymn tunes at the ready, and a nifty search box to help find things quickly. There are separate stops for soprano, alto, tenor, bass, and descant (when available, as you'll see by entering "descant" into the search box), and an easy way to toggle the search by date or by tune name. Check it out!

For copyright reasons, the player does not show the musical notation, though each hymn title links to information about the hymn on, which often shows the text and in some cases shows page scans of public domain tunes. I'm not 100% sure about the copyright implications of posting what are, essentially, my "performances" of the hymns as printed in our hymnal, but I think it's well within the spirit of supporting congregational use of the hymnals our church owns without providing direct access to copyrighted material.

The site is mostly designed from the ground up, though I did import the cool search feature using the DataTables plug-in. It's far from perfect, but I spent a good bit of time trying to set things up so that this works both on desktops/laptops and on mobile devices. That kind of thing gets complicated! Honestly, even a humble little feature like the "this week" playlist button took hours to get working properly, but learning to problem-solve in this way was a big motivation for doing this.

I should mention that in addition to the musical listening guides I wrote about last September, I did some experimenting last year with using that template to create practice pages for choirs. These pages allow the user to isolate a voice part, speed up or slow down, and jump instantaneously around within the music's structure. Depending on your tastes, you can try this out with Bach's Crucifixus or a jazz choir setting of No more blues.

As I'll discuss in my next post, I'm finding that I get a lot of musical satisfaction out of interacting with musical building blocks in ways that go beyond just listening and performing, though I still love those pastimes. The hymn-player above is a fairly straightforward idea/design, but I have other projects in mind that will expand on this idea of engaging musical materials in creatively interactive ways. What better way to avoid practicing?

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