Friday, March 16, 2018

At the Barbershop: Closing Time

And so we circle back in this unlikely Barber Week to one of my first experiments in barbarizing Barber. Back in November, I debuted a 30-second demo animation of Barber himself playing the finale of his Violin Concerto on the electric guitar. I wrote," I don't see any reason for a full transcription as this gets the idea across." Ha! I should know myself better.

The truth is, this concerto closer only lasts about 3.5 minutes, and though that includes a LOT of notes (almost 1800 for the soloist, counting double-stops as one each) played at blistering speed, Finale has a wonderful input method which allows consecutive notes of equal value to be entered simply by playing them at any rate on a keyboard - and most of the notes here are triplet 8ths (played at a pace of about 10 notes per second!). So entering the notes wasn't such a big deal. I did have to do a lot of clean-up work on the MIDI notes I'd found online for the orchestra part - but not TOO much clean-up. A certain edginess in the backing band (here mostly electric piano, electric organ, bass guitar and percussion) just adds to the effect.

I already wrote about my working method for developing the animation here, but getting the animation to work was my favorite thing about this project. Essentially, each MIDI note event can be mapped to a motion from virtual Sam. This is hardly what real guitar technique looks like; in this video, Sam's hand simply moves up the fingerboard incrementally based on pitch as if the instrument only has one string - but it makes for a pretty cool visual! (At least I've updated virtual Sam's instrument from a bass guitar (!) to a Fender Stratocaster.)

My other favorite thing here is the cool-hot contrast between the classical world and the prog rock world. Although Gil Shaham is quite animated and engaged in this dazzling performance of the real thing (starting at 19:10)...

...there are still the "cool" signifiers of white jacket/tie, very serious orchestra, very quiet audience, neutral-looking stage. There is wildness and a feeling of abandon in the music, but all contained in a carefully controlled environment. (I've written endlessly about this with respect to The Rite of Spring.) With my animation, we get the grittier association of electric sounds (although my guitar articulates the pitches much more clearly than a violin can), the pounding rhythms of percussion (although in a way, these strong pulses actually tame Barber's metrical tricks*), and the fiery red stage and instrument, all intentionally contrasted with the unchanging, serious expression on cool Sam's face. By the way, those parenthetical "althoughs" are very important, as they point to internal contradictions in defining the classical and rock worlds as cool and hot.

But I am intrigued by the idea that the buttoned-up Barber (just listen to him talk in this 1958 interview, in which his speech is almost indistinguishable from the equally buttoned-up interviewer) had musical skills that would easily translate to an entirely different environment. Almost makes me think I should add wild, heavy-metal crowd noises to further the contrast, but I think I've done enough harm for now.

My week of Barbershopping thus closes with the conclusion of Barber's Violin Concerto - in red!

* Confession Time: Of all the pieces I've accompanied over the years, staying on track in this finale has always been one of the most difficult challenges. Barber does a lot of shifting accents off and on beats in ways that make it really hard to feel where the beat is. I would try "just counting" at the piano, but when the solo part does little things that make the beat seem to shift by just one tiny triplet note, it's very easy for the "just counting" part of my brain to get tricked. This may well be a sign of my own cognitive limitations, but I'm not convinced all of Barber's tricks are effective because they're so slippery, so in a perverse way, I kind of enjoy my animated version because the pounding drums make it so easy to keep track of the beat.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

At the Barbershop: Snack Time

Continuing on with my Barbershopping, today's offering is on the more absurd end of the spectrum. I've been thinking often recently about the idea of "playing" music and its not-so-distant cousin "playing with music." (I wrote about this briefly about thirteen paragraphs into this post.) The classical mode of engaging classical music is to do so either by performing, listening, or analyzing. However, my years of experiments in mash-ups and other types of arrangements have taught me that "playing with" existing music - bending it, contorting it, whatever - can be one of the most satisfying ways to get inside a composer's creation.

I know that such distortion is often treated as a sort of sacrilege, although humorists like Victor Borge and Peter Schickele get away with it in the name of fun. Many years ago, I quoted then New York Times critic Alan Kozinn (who has pretty wide and progressive tastes) saying, "I would probably cringe to hear a young pianist play Scarlatti the way Horowitz did, but Horowitz’s eccentric twisting and rebalancing of Scarlatti’s ecosystem sounds just right when he’s the one doing it." Clearly, he's reacting positively to ways in which Horowitz is "playing with" Scarlatti's conceptions, but he's also been taught to think that's a bad thing, so: "Don't do that, young people!" I'm not going to go into all the ways in which this kind of "don't mess with the classics" mindset plays out, but I will say that doing a half-serious, half-baked orchestration of the fugue from Barber's Piano Sonata taught me a lot about that piece and about Barber's abilities and methods.

And now I'm back with something much sillier and perhaps closer to real sacrilege, but I still had fun making it and it has increased my appreciation for Barber's gifts.

Let's back up a bit. As I mentioned last post, my friends Tim, Peter, and I will sometimes have extended Facebook comment threads that go on for hundreds and hundreds of words. Sometimes about music, sometimes about baseball and other sports, sometimes...well, that's really most of it. Tim was off on one of his violin-concerto-based Barber-bashing rants (Bernstein did not fare well either), and I was defending my fellow Americans zealously. Then middleman Peter says [italics added for clarity]:
As much as I do NOT [appreciate] SB’s talents, I happen to think that the Fiddlecerto is his masterpiece, if not Knoxville, Summer 1945 (is that the right year?)
I wrote back:
 I also agree with Peter that Knoxville, Summer of...ahem...1915 is a winner. 
A few comments later, Tim confessed:
my scorn for anything Barber is well known but then I remember I love that Knoxville Spring 1905 piece
You can see where this is going - though you wouldn't guess what's coming - as Peter summed up:
I actually can’t both believe and NOT believe at the same time that we both love Rockville, fall of 1549..
And finally, I concluded:
I'm just glad to see [Tim] acknowledge the beauty of Barber's sublime "Burger King: about fifteen minutes ago."
Don't you wish you were in on these conversations? And, incidentally, it took a bit of sleuthing to go back and find that thread from late January, so in a way today's post is about preserving it for all time - or at least until winter dawns on the planet Knoxatron in 2215.

If you don't know the glorious work in question, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a 15-minute setting for soprano and orchestra of prose by James Agee. Among other things, "Knoxville" is one of the best examples I know of turning prose into lyrics.

So I love "Knoxville" - but I also love having fun, and I simply couldn't resist having a go at just the opening of my imagined Burger King homage. For reference, here is the beginning of the text set by Barber (which may be heard at the 0:31 mark here):
It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds hung havens, hangars.
And here, my house soprano and orchestra:

I know it's ridiculous, but I it's worth noting that Agee's text is also a celebration of the simple things - he just didn't know about burger kings.

Tomorrow, we'll conclude this little three-part exhibition of Barbershopping, which I think will put Barber right up there amongst the composers whose works I've tortured the most. Stravinsky is still the leader by far in this regard with Bach alone in 2nd place, but I'm as surprised as anyone to see Barber not so far behind Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Ives and Satie. (Satie was unexpected as well.) And, to get back to my opening point, desecrating this much-loved work has reminded me how much I love a lot of Barber. Even something as simple as entering the orchestration for that opening into Finale made me appreciate little details I hadn't thought about before. Your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

At the Barbershop: A Fugue for Strings

For some strange reason, I've been finding myself re-imagining lots of Samuel Barber lately. Actually, come to think of it, it's all because of my friend Tim, a fantastic pianist who's apparently accompanied the Barber Violin Concerto one time (or a hundred times?) too many. He's not a big fan of Sam. Thus it sometimes happens that in the midst of some endless Facebook discussion thread, Tim will say something which inspires me to send some tweaked Barber back his way. I've decided to refer to these ongoing projects as Barbershopping (a little play on Photoshopping), and am debuting an example on this second snow day I've had in early March.

In fact, it was a discussion about a loopy slur (see previous post) found in the "Menuet" from Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin that got Tim to talking about the other movements in that suite, particularly the fugue. We were discussing the fact that the fugue is one of the two movements from this piano suite which Ravel did not include in his well-known orchestration. (The other movement he left untouched is the toccata.) I learned that Ravel's fugue has been orchestrated at least once by the pianist Zoltán Kocsis; you can hear what that sounds like here

Because this is the way my mind works, this suddenly had me thinking of the famous fugue from Barber's Piano Sonata and whether or not it had been orchestrated. I've heard that there was a time when the jaunty subject of this fantastic fugue was known as the "Juilliard Fight Song" as so many budding virtuosi were tossing it around in practice rooms. I honestly hadn't thought about it for years, but it is delightful. See for yourself:

I lamented that I couldn't find an orchestration of this fugue with which to taunt Tim. Our mutual friend Peter, a violist and thus cruel of heart, immediately suggested that I should orchestrate the fugue. Too much work for a joke, I thought - until I found a MIDI version online, which meant the note entry work was done. Sadly, this MIDI version was condensed to only two tracks (right and left hand), meaning the four different fugue voices were all mixed up and not easily assigned to various instruments. Undaunted, I converted the MIDI in about 15 minutes to a very heavy-handed all-string version. Unfortunately...I still really liked it!

So, the die was cast, and I next set about entering all of the notes properly to make a more legit string arrangement. I'm not sure how practical it would be in real life as the six flats and the disjunct theme, though well-suited to piano, would be quite awkward on strings. There are three or four spots in my arrangement where I divided sections in ways that would be problematic, and a few stratospheric piano notes are brought down an octave. Also, I entered the notes as quickly as I could, so I'm SURE there are mistakes that I'm simply not in the mood to hunt down right now. Since this new "arrangement" was to be "performed" by synthesized strings in what was already a compromise, I felt I'd done enough to provide a proof of concept.

Here it is:

Barber is, of course, best-known for a transcription of the slow movement from his string quartet into an Adagio for Strings, so it's fun to imagine this as a sort of yin-yang complement to that. Rather than posting with my own inelegant string score, I decided it would be more fun to add a visualization of the MIDI. (The sonata is, of course, still under copyright, so I'm already pushing it my posting my own unauthorized "performance." If you'd like to view the piano score, you can find it starting at 14:00 here.) If you've been following the blog lately, you'll know that I've been in something of a fugue state for some time now. (See here and here.) This kind of visualization makes for a really fun way to watch the voices of a fugue interact.

Warning: there's more Barbershopping to come...

If you missed it, an earlier bit of Barbershopping appeared here back in November. I hope to return to "finish the job" at some point.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Learning curves

Consider this curve:

[OK, before we go on, be sure you try out the ALL-NEW MM'S MAGICAL MULTIMEDIA MUSING MACHINE! I'm very proud of this meta-creation which hurls you randomly into various corners of the blog. I'll have more to say about it in posts yet to come.]

Anyway, some months ago a composer friend got me hooked on a Facebook group called "Music Engraving Tips" where people interested in the subtleties of music notation gather to argue about how rhythms should be notated within given meters, how notes and articulations and dynamics should best be spaced, what fonts look best, etc., etc., etc. Populated by hundreds of regular users, from professionals to students and novices, the group can be a bit maddening with its circular discussions; but it's definitely opened my eyes to details I once wouldn't have noticed.

For example, recently while waiting to accompany my daughter in a lesson on the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto*, I looked down at my old Schirmer score, from which I've played dozens of times, and suddenly noticed the treble clefs are tilted at dangerously drunken angles. Like so:

I wondered if it could possibly be intentional and flipped through the score to see that the clefs remained stubbornly tipped this way throughout the first two movements...but, for the final movement, the clefs (both in violin and piano parts) had righted themselves! Someone in a 19th century engraving department just got sloppy, misplaced a stencil, and probably was haunted by that mistake to the end of his days (as I will forever be haunted by allowing the words Tex tremendae to slip past my proofreading eyes in the glossy program for a Mozart Requiem performance at which Robert Levin was present to give a pre-concert talk).

~   ~   ~   ~   ~

I've written many times here about how much I've enjoyed diving into the world of Lilypond. Lilyond is a very powerful, open-source music notation program that can do magical things when figuring out how to space the elements on a page. It has a steep learning curve because the basic text-based interface is closer to writing code than doing graphic design, but finding elegant solutions with a few well-chosen words can be very gratifying. I actually love it because its default output often gets a lot more subtle details right than the industrial-strength Finale I've been using for 20 years, which means I spend less time fussing with certain kinds of problems. But not every problem can be anticipated by the software.

Recently, I had reason to arrange the sublime Menuet from Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin for soprano saxophone and piano. The work is originally written for piano, though it's also well-known in its orchestral version that prominently features solo oboe, so passing those gorgeous French melodies off to the most songful sax seemed like a natural.

But what excited me most about this project was that it offered a chance to tackle my favorite slur in the history of slurs. In a passage from the contrasting "musette" section, Ravel has written a melody that is passed back and forth between the two hands measure-by-measure so that the right hand can alternate high-register pedal tones with the left's low-register responses. I had learned this piece quickly over the summer and was enchanted by how beautifully these 8 bars are conceived and by how gratifying they are to play.

Here's what the melody alone would look like, with the staff switches showing how it is distributed between the two hands. Notice I've drawn a slur to show that all of these notes are connected as one phrase. The melody is always at the top of a full chord played by whichever hand has the tune. [NOTE: Actually the high D in the third bar is taken by the thumb of the right hand as shown by Ravel's use of parentheses in the score excerpt that follows this video.]

[You can also hear/see a lovely complete performance, with this particular phrase starting at 2:16 here.]

So, the engraving challenge for Ravel's publisher was to find a way to draw a slur that connected this melody as it crosses back and forth from upper to lower staff. Here's what some genius (presumably some combination of Ravel and the engravers at Durand) came up with:

The Music Engraving Tips Facebook page is filled with people insisting that various situations are governed by hard-and-fast "rules" about how musical details should be shown - and sometimes such rules really do exist, but there are situations like this where an exception calls for an exceptional solution.

It looks as if the slur shown above was probably just drawn by hand, but I knew there must be a way to get Lilypond to create such a slur. It took some searching and a lot of trial and error, but I found a function someone had written which basically allows multiple slur shapes to be stitched together. The downside of this solution is that the slur has to be meticulously shaped by defining coordinates for Bézier curves, and the shape of the curves can only be determined after the music layout has been set.  (In other words, I can't just say, "Hey Lilypond, loop around this melody through both staves.") This is slightly less than ideal because, in the best situation, Lilypond's spacing algorithm would shift notes and clefs around a bit while taking into account that a line would be snaking its way through, but I'm still happy with the results I achieved.

Here's my first version, which pretty closely imitates Ravel's published edition.

I liked it, but I wasn't crazy about the effect of slipping right between the treble clefs and the barlines as this means the slur runs a bit too parallel to the barline. So, I also designed my own loopier version, which I now love like my own child:

This is precisely the same curve you see at the top of this post. Of course, it is much more beautiful in context! One could argue that its curviness is too distracting, but...oh what was I saying? Sorry, I was admiring the slur again. Here it is in homemade video format:

...and here it is in bonus slow-mo video, in case you find the hand to be quicker than the eye:

You'll notice that, though there is a staff for the solo sax, I found it inconceivable to re-write this passage for sax + piano, even though that would certainly simplify things. Since wind instruments need to take breathing breaks every now and then, and this phrase echoes the previous 8 bars in which the sax introduces the same melody, preserving the original slur and all it entails makes sense. Incidentally, although much of Ravel's writing for piano is extremely challenging, this passage lies very comfortably under the hands. Balancing the sound and achieving a good legato is not trivial, but there's plenty of time for the hands to shift back and forth gracefully.

So obsessed was I with this slur that when I performed it with the saxophonist, I had not yet corrected lots of other important details in the piano part (including some much-needed cautionary accidentals and some complex articulation marks), and I honestly should've spent more time actually practicing the part as well. But I was in love. The slur, strictly speaking, isn't necessary, but seeing it makes the playing all the more pleasurable. And that's what it's all about.

* Yes, it is one of my life's great joys that I've now gotten to play this incomparably perfect concerto with both of my daughters - and some other amazing violinists.

And don't forget the ALL-NEW MM'S MAGICAL MULTIMEDIA MUSING MACHINE! There's much more to come in Year 12 of MMmusing, and new creations will always be added to the machine.