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.

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