Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Speaking of music

Strange. I was already planning to write a post about a light-hearted little speech-to-music thing I created - and then a speech-heavy work wins the Pulitzer Prize! I'm so cutting edge - though I don't have much more to say about this year's surprise prize. The Pulitzer has never really meant much to me anyway. Honestly, there are many previous winners whose music I don't know much better than I know Kendrick Lamar's work, though I know he's not the first to use speech in a musical way. For example, here's your 2013 Pulitzer winner.

(There are also iconic works by Steve ReichAlvin Lucier and many others which incorporate speech.)

I became interested in the idea of speech becoming music when I first heard an excellent 2010 (?) RadioLab episode called Musical Language. The opening segment features a fun little story about an audio expert hearing her own speaking voice looped and thinking she's hearing singing. The looped words that behave so strangely are: sometimes behave so strangely.

You can hear the whole segment via the link above. I used to play it for classes learning about recitative as a way of thinking about the tonal and rhythmic characteristics of language. I've since returned to the idea of looping speech into music a couple of times, and also just remembered that I'd explored it many years before.

Most recently, I was having a Facebook discussion with my composer friend Wesley. He said he'd been told that some scale passages he'd written into a work-in-progress were just noodling. I [wittily] suggested, "Make them octatonic scales....and then it'll be octatonic noodling." He replied: "They are octatonic."

At that moment, impressed by my obvious psychic insight, I heard unbidden the mellifluous lilt of Frasier's Daphne Moon saying, "I'm a bit psychic." The phrase came to me much as one might hear a musical theme conjured up by a memory. To be fair, this catchphrase, which really doesn't function as a catchphrase on the show, probably had taken on a thematic quality in my brain because of a podcast I'd been listening to about Frasier.

I can't really recommend the Talk Salad and Scrambled Eggs podcast, hosted by indie film director Kevin Smith and Matt Mira, unless you enjoy hearing two people spend 80% of their Frasier podcast talking crassly about Star Trek, The Terminator, Comic-Con, and just about anything else while laughing interminably at their own jokes. However, from early on, Smith took to imitating Daphne's Manchesterian "I'm a bit psychic" like so:

And thus, these distinctively delivered syllables had clearly come to function as a leitmotif which was awoken instantly the first time I felt a bit psychic! I quickly tossed together a little loop of the line as a message response to Wesley, then later toyed around with it a bit more until I'd come to this:

Turns out this is the second time on my blog in which I've turned an English actress's speech into song, though Emily Watson is so understated here that the syllables don't quite take flight. (The teacup percussion is awesome, though.)

Finally, just to be complete, I remembered while playing around with the psychic bit that I'd once done something similar with the plaintive words of my then 2-year old daughter back when she needed her beloved blanket. That 2-year old is now 18, so although I don't remember much about creating it, I must've found the bass loop in whatever cheap, turn-of-the-century music software I had at the time:

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Suggestions d'anniversaire

I'm afraid "Happy Birthday" parodies are becoming a bit of a cottage industry for me. I've tried to resist because the tune has been parodied and variation-ed so often...but Facebook. When a birthday comes up, I like the idea of "saying" something unique. Incidentally, this means I often don't say anything on friends' birthdays which "bad job by me!" because I enjoy getting lots of birthday greetings, even when they're simple. Anyway, the more I work with this tune, the more suggestible I become.

So this week, when I saw that my college roommate (a fellow pianist) had a birthday, I did a quick mental run-through of music I associated with him (narrowly avoiding a diabolical suggestion*). When the slow movement of the Ravel concerto came to mind, I noodled away enough at the available keyboard to figure I could make something of this marriage.

First of all, there's nothing as perfectly exquisite as this movement. It features a lovely but subtle tension between a slow-waltz-like left hand with two groups of three 8ths per bar (intentionally obscured by the beaming) and a right hand melody which tends to organize more often in three. This provides lovely cross-rhythms that help the melody to float independently. Harmonically, the writing is full of low-impact dissonances, like between the right-hand A in m.2 and the left-hand G-sharp - dissonances spaced far apart and played softly enough to register more as poignant than sharp. And a quick turn to the minor iii in m.4 establishes the bittersweet tone.

Everything moves slowly, with plenty of tied notes across barlines and phrases of unpredictable length. Improvisatory, meditative...but also sensual and beautifully planned out. Ravel is known as one of the great orchestrators, but this opening piano solo (almost three minutes long) is my favorite part of this movement; the wind writing that follows is actually rather precarious from a tuning/balance perspective, although the long English horn solo [5:46 below] at the end of the movement, with piano filigree around, is worth waiting for. You can view the whole movement with score here.

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I think the idea of "playing with music" in the manipulating and re-composing sense is underrated as a mode of engaging a given work. (As opposed to the more popular modes of performing, listening, analyzing.) So what I've loved most about all my "Happy Birthday" parodies is the opportunity they provide to look inside something that's beautifully composed and sort of compose alongside it.

In this case, I had lots of tricky choices to make. I first toyed with simply layering the first phrase of "Happy Birthday" right on top of Ravel's melody, like so [recording is an ugly synth "performance"]:

...but even with the unexpected cadence in minor, this just sounded too bright and cheerful. The Ravel/Birthday balance was tipped too far to the right, so I ended up beginning more ambiguously with Ravel's opening phrase turning itself into a relative minor version of the opening birthday phrase. From then on, the other three birthday phrases arrive in in the "correct" key of E, stretched this way and that to fit over the original. It would be easy enough not to notice "Happy Birthday" at all. The left hand accompaniment and "alto" countermelodies are mostly from the original, though I make a cut to the end of Ravel's opening piano solo because it is so beautiful. Here's what I came up with:

And here are some of my other re-imaginings of this tune:

* ...  the birthday friend also used to dazzle with this insane bit of Prokofiev, and what began as a footnote here has turned into another quick discovery realization, here with the four tune phrases rattled off in quick succession.