Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Princess and the Fugue

...It was not yet day when Scheherazade finished telling the story of "The President and the Twitter Account." There was time enough therefore to begin another, but the Sultan interrupted: "My bride, I read on Wikipedia that you have 'studied philosophy, sciences, and the arts,' and since your stories are getting a little less believable every night, I thought we could mix things up a bit. How about improvising a fugue for my enjoyment?"

Scheherazade hesitated. She knew she could devise a fugue without much trouble, but she feared that when it ended, the Sultan would be satisfied, the night would end, and her life would end as well. However, the Sultan was insistent, and so Scheherazade took a seat at the palace piano, thought of a twisting motif that might work, and began to play:

From the first few notes, the Sultan was entranced by the enticing theme and the Buxtehudian manner in which the voices were entwined. The princess seemed to lose her way along the way with some suspect voice-leading and overly indulgent chromaticism, but the arrival of a dominant pedal signaled that a strong final cadence would soon arrive for the fugue - and for his bride.

Thus was the Sultan astonished when Scheherazade's reverie came to an abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion. A tentative final diminished chord had left him feeling unsettled once again - like one of those episodes of Batman (basically every episode) which leaves you wanting more. He asked the princess to continue what surely was the beginning of a larger musical narrative, but just then a ray of sun broke through, the rooster crowed, the alarm sounded, the automatic coffeemaker began percolating, and the Sultan knew he'd have to wait until the next evening to find out how that suspended B-flat would resolve...

Blogging has been a bit slow here the past few years, but I've never seriously thought of stopping - even though I'm not under threat of death from any sultans if I run out of ideas. I actually have quite a few half-written drafts from 2017 and many more from years before, but blogging silence tends to breed blogging silence.

On the other hand, active blogging feeds itself! So it is that within a day or two of posting my previous entry about discovering a Rimsky-Korsakov fugue that doesn't sound like Rimsky-Korsakov, I found myself idly wondering what I'd expect the Mighty Russian's counterpoint to sound like. On Friday, I was sitting in a rehearsal that didn't demand too much of my time, and when Scheherazade's famous violin theme popped into my head, I immediately thought of its similarities to the triplet-feel of the F Major Fugue.

Before the night was over, I'd finished up a little mini-fugue on Rimsky-Korsakov's second most famous theme. (I suppose the task remains to write a fugue on this.) I'm pretty happy with how it came out, although it could use more development, and the middle voice gets stuck harmonizing with the top voice too much perhaps.

The opening of the fugue is modeled on how Rimsky-Korsakov's fugue presents its subject (middle voice followed by top followed by bass), but from there I let things go where they wanted. I like the way the Sultan's Theme (which opens Rimsky-Korsakov's suite) appears in m. 13, m.17, and m.19. Also, the top voice in m. 21-22 is closely based on the wonderful orchestral passage that first occurs at 4:59 in the original. As for the theme itself, a fugue is a kind of exploration, and it makes sense that Scheherazade's creative inspiration would begin with her own searching motif.

The false ending is an admittedly odd touch; I didn't want to take the time (for now anyway) to expand the fugue, but a conventional ending felt too sudden. And, anyway, finishing with an ending would be death for the poor girl. Otherwise, I'm not sure what to say about this unexpected diversion. I don't have much use for this fugue in church, and for now it's too short to fit into a recital, but it was an engaging exercise. I also enjoyed imagining it as a kind of alternative storytelling Scheherazade might do to put off death for another night. (Quick story recap here, if you don't know the tale.)

What I love most about this experience is the way one musical idea generates another. My search for a Russian-sounding organ postlude in F Major led me to a not-Russian-sounding fugue for piano by Rimsky-Korsakov, which in turn led me to write my own "Rimsky-Korsakov Fugue," which led to the idea of incorporating that into a partial retelling of the original story.

Actually, I originally imagined this fugue for organ, which gives it a more imposing feel:

However, the intimacy of the piano feels more authentic for improvisational musical storytelling. You'll notice that neither version of the score includes any tempo or dynamic markings. I like the idea that a piece can function completely differently according to interpretation. And I'm lazy.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Missing links

I've written a few times before about the task of finding suitable organ postludes (and preludes) for Sunday morning services. The search is in itself a search for how it is that musical sounds can acquire meaning, and since my blog subheading promises "musings on music, the mind, meaning, and more," I might as well pause to consider what this means.

Some common ways to choose a meaningful postlude, from specific to general, are:

1. Play something based on a familiar hymn tune. Big bonus points if that hymn tune is the recessional hymn which immediately precedes the postlude. (e.g. this goes well with this.)
  • The text-based associations of the hymn will naturally make the music sound like it's about the same kind of thing. The Lutheran tradition in which J.S. Bach worked offers a seemingly endless supply of chorale-preludes like this, although there's only a limited number of Lutheran hymn tunes which show up regularly in my Episcopal church.
  • Here's one example of many postludes I've written based on a hymn tune. Blog post.
2. Play something that's motivically connected to the recessional hymn.
  • The most perfect example of this is perhaps Bach's St. Anne Fugue, which is actually not based on the famous hymn tune ST. ANNE, but it sure sounds like it is!
  • Sometimes I'll visit to see if I can find something that starts with the same few pitches as the closing hymn. This once led to a fun Sunday of all Scarlatti sonatas! (I believe it began when this search connected this spiritual with this sonata.)  
  • See also footnote below.*
3. Play something in the same key as the recessional hymn. At least it will sound kind of like there's a logical connection from one to the next.
  • As I discuss below, using a key as a signifier of meaning is kind of arbitrary, but it's a kind of arbitrary I like.
4. Play something which has motivic or other stylistic connections to music featured elsewhere in the service (such as the prelude or a choral anthem).
  • This past summer, with choir on hiatus, I had a pre-July 4th All-American prelude-offertory-communion-postlude lineup of Ives, Copland, Barber, and Beethoven's Variations on God Save the King My country 'tis of thee. I also had Sundays of all-Bach, all-Mozart, all-Scarlatti, all-Ravel, and all-Shostakovich!
5. Play something that creates an atmosphere in keeping with the end of the service, taking into account the church season, etc. This usually implies playing something festive as congregants head back out into the world, though some times of year might call for something more subdued or pensive.

6. Play something - and hope it doesn't sound too random.

~     ~     ~
So, this past Sunday I found myself somewhere between #3 and #4. It happened that the two scheduled choral anthems, by Tchaikovsky and Ippolitov-Ivanov, were both in the Russian orthodox style. I had paired the anthems more or less for that purpose, and so it occurred to me that maybe I could find a postlude to match. I also knew the recessional hymn, John L. Bell's Will you come and follow me?, was to be in a lilting F Major, so my ideal target was: Russian Orthodox in F Major.

But the truth is I don't have a large collection of organ music, and the Russians aren't really known for their organ rep, so I cast my net a bit wider. Somehow, I stumbled on the IMSLP page for Rimsky-Korsakov, perhaps remembering his famous Russian Easter Overture. I didn't find any organ music, but I did find a set of six piano fugues - fugues almost always sounds churchy to me - and, lo and behold, one of them was in F Major. It looked festive and playable, so I went ahead and scheduled it.

When it came time to prepare for church, I quickly realized what I surely already knew in my heart: this fugue doesn't sound remotely Russian Orthodox. In fact, it doesn't sound particularly Russian at all. It's actually very much in a Bach-ian style, but I do like Bach, and it turned out I really like this fugue. Here's a synth recording I made that gives you a sense of what it might sound like on an organ. (You can also hear it at the 7:20 mark of this recording.) Note that in this score, the three individual voices are notated in open score without any of the composer's dynamic markings or articulations. 

Definitely not Russian Orthodox, but in happier news, the lilting compound meter (which just means the beats divide into a triple feel) matched up surprisingly well with KELVINGROVE, the hymn tune we'd be singing right before. (KELVINGROVE is based on a Scottish folk tune which originally does not have a triple feel.)

In the end, because I enjoyed the unlikly affinity between tune and fugue, I cheated a bit and introduced the fugue with the opening motif of the hymn tune, and I also snuck in a final reference near the end. Like so:

That's right, I had the audacity to re-write one measure of Rimsky-Korsakov's little-known fugue, which is kind of a topic in itself: changing a given artwork for contextual reasons. But I'm not going to go any further defending that idea for now, other than to say that it helped the music do its job on Sunday. Obviously, as a fan of mashups and the like, I find it very gratifying to link two otherwise unrelated works to each other. This idea that everything can be connected is its own kind of search for meaning. And, as a happy accident, I came to know this delightful fugue I wouldn't otherwise have known.

As for whether grafting the hymn tune onto the fugue made the postlude more meaningful, I think that's a judgment call, but I actually do this kind of thing at least 4-5 times a year. The point isn't necessarily to make listeners consciously believe that the postlude was written to go with the hymn, but rather to establish a continuity, a sense that the one follows logically (and thus, meaningfully?) from the other. The strongest connection really comes from the shared key, and this is admittedly a pretty arbitrary signifier, especially given that there's a magic button on my organ that allows me to transpose pretty much any postlude to sound in the same key as the final hymn.

However, transposing a postlude is something I don't often do, except in some cases where the postlude is explicitly based on the closing hymn; as a general rule, I like to stick to the idea that a composition was intended for a certain key and will likely sound best there. Honestly, I'm happy to have that constraint as I look for music. I'd likely never have found my way to this particular F Major fugue if I hadn't intentionally limited myself to that key. (I wrote a few years back about how a search for a postlude in D-flat Major led to a crazy burst of creative activity inspired by a Bach fugue.)

In a lighter vein, here are a couple of other postludes in which I've played with curious ways of connecting the music to the community:
  • NFL Pachelbel - Since the home team was playing in the Super Bowl last year, I infected a Pachelbel toccata with a little NFL on Super Sunday. (Looks like I'll get to reprise it in two weeks as the Patriots are headed back to the big game!)
  • When our church was putting on an afternoon talent show based on a 50's Rock'n'Roll theme, I did this to poor Vivaldi. Read more about it here.

* Actually, after I'd written most of this post, I was looking for a postlude for this coming Sunday in which the final hymn tune is WOODLANDS. (You can hear this tune, with Wife and Daughter of MMmusing in the orchestra, at the 33:30 mark here.) As the tune begins with three A's leading to a D-A-B, I first plugged A-A-A-D-A-B into and got nothing. However, as those first three A's serve as a single pickup gesture, I then searched for A-D-A-B and realized there's a close connection to the finale theme of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. As I said above, I do like Bach, so on Sunday I'll be playing some sort of organ reworking (probably condensed) of that movement. I hope that means something.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Re-Inventing Bach

A couple of days ago, my blogging pianist friend Erica pointed me to a new edition of Bach's Two-Part Inventions in which the right hand and left hand parts are switched.

This is a fun idea, although I think referring to these inventions as "inverted" is a bit misleading because the notes still all go in the same directions. It's just a matter of shifting one part down a few octaves and the other up. However, you could say that having an idea like this tossed my way was like having a pebble tossed into a pond. A Lilypond, to be precise.

Because all of the Inventions are readily available online in Lilypond format, I snagged the notes for the F Major Invention No. 8 demo'd above and, because Lilypond is magic, did some quick little operations to:
  • truly invert the two parts (down is up and up is down)
  • play the original backwards (retrograde)
  • combine the inversion and retrograde operations
The results are more satisfying than I expected, although I admittedly have quirky tastes. Of course, Bach's tonal relationships work in such a way that flipping things upside down distorts a lot of the original context. Major often becomes sort of minor, final chords end up without the root on the bottom, etc. But I decided not to try to "fix" anything, but rather remain perversely faithful to the original. One might think of these "compositions" or "variations" as negative space defined by what Bach actually wrote. 

There are dissonant moments that sound like they could come straight from a 20th century contrapuntal master like Shostakovich, but I also think the pure energy of Bach shines through. Rather than write much more about them now, I'll just present this little "Theme and Variations" for your enjoyment (variations 2-4 are where the real fun begins):






Again, even if you don't like everything, I hope you'll find a few passages here and there to spark your interest.

Here's another example of me re-inventing some Bach:

Monday, January 8, 2018

Trumped up G & S

For some strange reason, this is the second year in a row in which my first blog post features our opera buffa presidency as material for...comic opera! You may recall that the ever-tweeting Trump recently described himself as a "very stable genius," and this has inspired a series of Twitter verses inspired by the ever-parodied Modern Major General song from The Pirates of Penzance.

A friend of mine suggested last night that I should try my hand at this. As I wrote on Facebook:
I said to myself upon hearing this challenge: "Resist!" .... I failed.
Honestly, my verses could use some work, but I'm proud of sticking with a single rhyme for all 24 lines - something even Gilbert didn't do. (I did depart from the Genius-General connection since that already seemed to have been mined a good bit.) I figured for blogging purposes I might as well make a singalong video since social media loves multimedia, so here's a hastily realized combo of text and tune:

If you know the tune and just want to read the words, you'll find them below.

Strangely, enough, this is my fifth Trumpopera creation. You can view them all, quirky as they are, via this playlist:

Relevant blog posts are here and here.

Happy New Year!

I am the very model of a modern US president.
I tweet my every thought without a thought for any one’s consent.
I know the mainstream media is something I can circumvent
Because no news is bad news, I just constantly sow discontent.

I never bothered learning how to follow legal precedent.
I’d rather cheat, harass, and lie. I see no reason to repent.
America will once again be great though lib’rals will lament:
It’s really only great if you are part of the top one percent.

It’s really only great if you are part of the top one percent.
It’s really only great if you are part of the top one percent.
It’s really only great if you are part of the top one, top one percent.

I’ll build a wall to keep out all the people who don’t represent
The folks like me who’d never be a sad illegal immigrant.
In short, I’m tall and great and went to Washington where I was sent
To be the very model of a modern US president.

~ ~ ~

To towers, steaks, and one great university my name I’ve lent.
My businesses are bigly cause I spent and spent and overspent.
I fired a lot of people who did not deserve employ-a-ment.
It made for great TV and made me famous as a malcontent.

I never really earned a thing not given by my par(a)ent,
But I know how to back out of a deal, I just don’t pay the rent.
I’ve got a button and will cause an internat’nal incident -
By making inappropriate remarks about the Orient.

By making inappropriate remarks about the Orient.
By making inappropriate remarks about the Orient.
By making inappropriate remarks about the Ore, the Orient.

I’ve had three wives; my new one has a European a(a)ccent,
But otherwise I do not trust a foreign-sounding resident.
In short I’m tall and great and went to Washington where I was sent
To be the very model of a modern US president.