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 Zolt├ín 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.

No comments: