Sunday, February 24, 2019

Blogger's Dozen

Today is the 12th anniversary of this blog's debut. I'd thought about doing some sort of celebratory post like a "The 12 Best MMmusing Posts"; or "1 post each from of the last 12 years"; or "Here's a new 12-tone composition in 12 movements for 12 players."

But, the good news is I've already celebrated by writing 7 new posts in the past couple of weeks (helped along by school vacation week). There were some long breaks this past year, but since last February 24, I've completed an unusual Barber Trilogy (here, here, and here), written 11 new fugues, and made a fun little Haydn "Surprise" Player, among other things. I'm especially proud of the Haydn page because it involved: conceiving the idea, coming up with the surprises, creating all the audio mashups (some of which keep going in sync with the Haydn for a bit), and designing the webpage with specially engraved background scores that flip according to screen orientation and custom JavaScript to allow for a variety of interactions with the page.

Like this blog, the Haydn page is still a work in progress, and like the Haydn page, I suspect this blog has quite a few more surprises to come. (Note that I will be among those surprised by these yet unimagined...whatevers.)

In the meantime, as always, I'd suggest a visit to:

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Cut that out! (Viola Edition)

So, my post about cuts yesterday focused only on one particularly vexing problem - ending the first movement of the Bruch concerto - but the truth is, accompanists (and/or teachers) have to make decisions about cuts all the time with concerto accompaniments. Just this morning, I accompanied my daughter playing the 3rd movement of the Bruch for an audition and I took three cuts, all of which were easy to choose.

I have (selectively) vivid memories of once having come up with a really clever cut to cover the big central tutti section in the first movement of Dvořák's cello concerto. I'd used it a few times before I played it in a lesson for a very well-known teacher....who just laughed, basically implied that it was ridiculous and said something like, "just stop here, and then start a few bars before the cello comes back." It helps this story in my mind that I don't remember any of the details of this particular cut (which I think did involve a transition chord or two that Dvořák hadn't written), so I still choose to believe my version was brilliant. (And it's worth noting that my longstanding interest in mashing pieces together connects closely with this idea of stitching two clipped parts of a longer work together. It's not a long trip from that to this.)

There are interesting philosophical questions in play about how one balances the value of convenience against the value of fidelity to the composer's vision (in fairness, it's probably not the composers's vision to have a piano be the orchestra in the first place) and also about whether it's better, as this teacher suggested, not to pretend one is re-composing at all but simply chop out some time. "Look, there's no orchestra here, so why pretend? The pianist is just here as a practical compromise to help create some context around the violin part, but who are we kidding?" But I'm more of a dreamer than that.

However, I'm here today to unveil a set of cuts which would also improve performances of a concerto WITH orchestra. Behold, my proposed cuts for the first movement of the Walton Viola Concerto.

Even if you don't know the work (which is central to the violist's repertoire), perhaps you'll be able to hear how advantageous these particular cuts are. [I have shared this on Twitter and Facebook before, but this ruthlessly efficient arrangement is only now debuting on my blog.]

Friday, February 22, 2019

Cut that out!

Facebook and social media get lots of bad press these days, perhaps deservedly so, but I still find them invaluable means for generating interesting conversation. (TOP TIP: These interesting conversations will likely almost never involve politics, but your mileage may vary.) I have a variety of mostly Facebook-based relationships that can turn into comment threads featuring thousands of words - and none of them hateful, unless you count some of the things I say about Haydn. But, yes, they are mostly about music, with some sports thrown in for good measure. Or is music a sport anyway?

Anyway, about a year ago, a collaborative pianist colleague raised the interesting question about how a pianist should choose to "end" the first movement of Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 when that's all that is being performed. This question actually comes up a lot - I've accompanied at least four different teenage violinists on this particular movement in competitions and/or recitals in the past year. In fact, one of those violinists lives in my house. Curiously, her big sister violinist never played "the Bruch," but it's often one of the first "grown-up" concertos students play.

Anyway, the first movement ends with a cadenza-like passage that mirrors the opening of the concerto; this final section concludes with the soloist playing a frenetic, three-octave G melodic minor scale that overshoots the top G to land on an A-flat. The purpose of the A-flat, aside from providing some over-the-top excitement, is that the orchestra uses it to set up a long-ish transitional passage which slowly calms down directly into the E-flat Major second movement. You can hear all of this, starting from 5:55 in this video. The problem spot is where the violin finishes at 6:57. The music doesn't finish "settling" until the 2nd movement begins at 7:40.

Here's what the score (with piano reduction) looks like from about 6:30 until the opening of mvt. 2.

In a full performance of the concerto, this is a lovely, organic touch, recalling the way Mendelssohn also directly links the first two movements of his most famous concerto. But, in the case of the Mendelssohn, it's very logical to play the short final tutti of the opening movement, which ends with a very clear and emphatic cadence in the "correct" key of E Minor. Mendelssohn's technique is to have a single bassoon hold on to one B from the cadence to initiate a transition; Bruch doesn't give us anything so easily tidied up.

The most obvious, and probably most common, solution is simply to play four bars of what Bruch wrote, except re-writing the end of the third bar to jump right ahead to a cadence in E-flat Major. Harmonically, it works fine, but it's unsatisfying because it's so odd to finish off a dramatic minor-key movement with what sounds like an afterthought of a conclusion in major. Hear for yourself (with my computer's orchestra applying the finishing touches for Heifetz et al.):

My Facebook collaborative pianist friend mentioned that she'd once heard a pianist re-write those four bars to cadence in G Minor (which requires a little work since the violinist's climactic A-flat is not IN the key of G Minor). I've since tried this a few times, including the last time I performed it with my daughter in an informal recital - but, after hearing the recording of that, I've decided it's too jarring, even though it ends in the right key. (It's made me appreciate more why composers, like Beethoven especially, feel the need to reiterate final cadences multiple times so that the ending really feels like an ending.) But here's what that might sound like with a "real" orchestra:

So we have two possibilities that are both unsatisfactory in different ways.* Again, the real problem is that Bruch's final violin swoop just isn't a good way for a soloist to finish a piece. (I suppose the Sibelius concerto does end in a way that's rather abrupt [start at 6:27], but Bruch's context is more traditional.)

One unconventional solution would be to double down on Bruch's abruptness and just have the violinist end the scale on G, with a big G Minor piano chord to go along. No one legit would ever approve of such a thing since it changes a note in the solo part, but it would be exciting! When I proposed this option on our Facebook thread, I also came up with the idea of "using" the big G Minor chord from Berlioz's "March to the Scaffold" - the chord which signals that the Symphonie fantastique protagonist has just lost his head. Here's what that would sound like (to hear as a lone final chord, just pause before the Berlioz head-rolling effect comes in):

OR...if you really want to ramp up the drama, we could cut in the poignant clarinet memory of Berlioz's idée fixe before the final guillotine flourish.

As you can plainly see, I've now entered the territory I explored in my Haydn "Surprise" page from a few posts back (of course, I LOVE this territory), but I'll just restrict myself to a couple more "magic portal" options. The orchestral motif that introduces all of the excerpts above is also the theme Bruch uses to open the concerto, although curiously, I don't think the violinist ever plays it. It's always used by Bruch as a sort of "presentation" gesture. It can be defined as a repeating 3-note descending stepwise pattern with this rhythm:

My ears are sort of naturally conditioned to notice that this gesture appears in at least a couple of other famous places in music history. One of them I just noticed a couple of days ago when I was playing the first movement of Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony for a conducting student. There's a passage early in the development where....well, take a listen:

This ending depends on the violinist ending on the G instead of A-flat. My final example would as well, except it sounds even better with the surprise transposed up a half-step to the violinist's A-flat. (Believe me, I've tried it both ways.) I think this would be the all-time best way to end the first movement of the Bruch concerto....though I'm not sure how this ending would end either.

Tomorrow, I'll share one more topic related to concerto cuts. Stay tuned!

{What's that, you want more Bruch blog content? OK, here you go.}


* Incidentally, it turns out that someone has self-published a composed "concert ending" which can be downloaded here. It basically uses more of Bruch's original transition, but then interpolates a few changes to finish up in G Minor. However, given that it would probably last about 30 seconds...and still sound like a strange way to end, it doesn't strike me as a useful solution, though I could see the benefit in going a little further than the 4-bar G Minor finish I demo'd above.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Proofreading gone wrong...

On Sunday, I had the great pleasure of hearing pianist Robert Levin give a fantastic performance of the Beethoven "Emperor" concerto with the Boston Philharmonic. I wrote a bit about it on Facebook, and a friend mentioned she'd been on a committee with the pianist when she was a student at Harvard, where Levin taught for many years. I decided I could one-up this by mentioning my own historic run-in with Levin.

I never actually met him, but many years ago, I was tasked with proofreading the program booklet for a performance of Levin's edition of Mozart's Requiem. The evening featured Levin (famous both as musicologist and pianist) as pre-concert speaker to talk about his completion of Mozart's unfinished work. So it was a pretty big deal, big audience, etc. I don't honestly have a lot of experience as a proofreader (any glance at a random blog post here should confirm that), but I thought I'd done a pretty careful job.

The day before the performance, I was talking about the work in a class and had slides up showing the text. A student raised her hand and noted that the title of Rex tremendae was amusingly misspelled in the listing of movements. I chuckled, but almost immediately went to a darker internal place as I put two and two together. I'd copied the PowerPoint text from the program draft I had "proofed."

The rest of the story is pretty much a blur. I remember making a panicked call to the print shop. I was told the programs were already being printed and it was too late to fix anything, but they did a quick check and assured me the typo wasn't there.

Nonetheless, I still showed up at the concert a bit nervous, and when I opened the big, glossy program booklet, my worst fears were immediately realized. I don't remember precisely what went through my head, but seeing the word "Tex" certainly felt like this angst-ridden music of Mozart's was pounding in my brain:

When I told my little story on Facebook, a friend mentioned that "Tex tremendae" sounded like " some sort of Texas-based superhero," and I immediately began imagining these dramatic rhythms and a large chorus sporting a Texas-sized drawl. Of course, Texas is home to lots of superior choral singing, so I'm not pretending Texas choirs would sing this way on accident - but if tasked to summon the superhero Tex Tremendae, perhaps it would sound a bit like this.

The main reason I'm posting it is because, for better or for worse, I took the time to see if I could make my virtual chorus sing with a drawl. I could still do with more vowel variety, but I also think I spent enough time on it. At least it's short.

If for some strange reason you like this, perhaps you'll enjoy my reworking of Barber as a Burger King tale...


UPDATE: If you're curious, my intent was for the "singers" to execute the text more or less like this, although that proved harder to achieve than I expected:

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Re-writing a Wrong

This blog has had its ups and downs, and there are many cool things I've created that never went as viral as I might've hoped. But, for better or for worse, two fairly straightforward animations of Bach canons (from The Musical Offering) have consistently been my "best sellers." Well, I don't actually get paid or anything, but these two videos have racked up literally hundreds of thousands of views.

So, wouldn't you know, one of them has had two wrong notes all along (in score and audio). I've known this for a long time since YouTube commenters are not shy about offering critiques. (This one happens to be a very fair critique). Unfortunately, it's not possible simply to fix the original video, with its 180,000-plus views, and as the years I've gone by, I'm a few computers and software programs away from how I did the original animation. So, this to-do project has sat on my virtual shelf for all these years - until now.

Finally, over the past couple of days (aided by a lovely school vacation week), I've righted this wrong by re-writing this song canon so that it matches what Bach actually wrote. If you're curious, the wrong note occurs first in m.4 of the lower part in this old version - that D-flat should be a D-natural. Because this canon is simply a melody heard in reverse against itself, the same mistake shows up in m.15 in the top part.

Otherwise, I've left the style pretty close to the original, though the pixel resolution is a bit better and the crabs (!) slightly more animated. We'll see how long it takes to get this up to 180,000 views.

The original March 2008 blog post is here. And the other, even more oft-viewed canonimation is here. That one has over 300,000 views, so please don't find any mistakes.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Forgotten children

A few years a back, in what was then a new church job, I thought I'd printed out a copy of my own fugue on the hymn tune "Duke Street," a sturdy old tune I've always loved since I first heard it in Chariots of Fire. I've played this fugue many times (including quite badly this morning!) - you can hear a pedestrian performance of it by a non-virtual fake organist here - and was intending to play it that morning. But I was surprised to realize what I'd printed (simply file-named as "mm_dukestreet") was a Prelude on "Duke Street" I'd had NO memory of writing. I can't remember how I problem-solved my way out of having the wrong music that morning, because this prelude for piano is COMPLETELY different from the organ fugue in just about every way except the "subject" matter.

With "Duke Street" as our opening hymn tune today, I decided to bring back both prelude and fugue for prelude and postlude this morning, and I had the idea as I was practicing early this morning that I should record the prelude. Now what's really weird, and what I've only realized after starting this post, is that I'd forgotten I'd already written about this forgotten prelude on Facebook back in 2016, complete with a video recording that mostly just shows my right arm moving inside the white cotta I wear on Sundays.

I discovered this recording because a sense of déjà vu had come over me while listening to the recording I made this morning. I went searching back in my phone video records for past Sundays on which I've played this forgotten prelude, and found yet another Sunday when I'd recorded it as well! So I keep remembering, recording, and then forgetting this prelude until....well, maybe this is just an early document in an oncoming dementia, but I now have three recordings of this quirky prelude, all on the church's quirky little Baldwin console piano. Here's the one I made today, with the phone placed further away.

The music definitely shows some influence of Ives and Messiaen, and it's generally about as out there as my church repertoire gets. It's a progressively polytonal structure in which the tune each verse adds a new canonic voice a whole step higher, so by the end, the tune is at canon with itself in C, D, and E, though that gets obscured here and there by some murky writing. I need to go in and re-work it, but I obviously like it enough to keep trying to get it on record.

Oh, and I realized in doing more research today, that I seem to have written this prelude in May of 1999, which was one month before my first real child came into the world - so that might provide a good excuse for having forgotten this child even existed.

Sunday, February 10, 2019


I've written before about my tortured relationship with Papa Haydn. I like this and that of his, and he was certainly talented and clever and highly influential and apparently counts the symphony and the string quartet among his children, so...good job by him. I just don't love his music the way some do - or as much as I love what he inspired in the likes of Mozart and Beethoven. Maybe it was from being told as a young person that Haydn was so funny and clever because he put a really big loud chord in the middle of an otherwise quiet and boring tune.

I really shouldn't hold this against him because he could hardly have imagined how overplayed this "joke" became. So, I've had the idea* for some time that it could use an updating, to keep the surprises fresh. I've tried to mix things up a little bit, though for now there are only about 20 possible outcomes,** including Haydn's original version. Step over here and give it a try! You'll see that Haydn is dutifully covering up the surprise in the score. (There's also a small surprise hidin' in the title.)

I'm probably as guilty as anyone (even before having put this together) of reducing this whole symphony to one silly moment. To be honest, even just the second movement alone is better than I'd remembered, and I particularly enjoyed stumbling on this delightful Alkan transcription for piano solo just now. I will also say that working on this project has actually made me enjoy this music even more - perhaps in part because I feel invested in it now, but also because I've appreciated how well Haydn's banal theme sets up the surprise. When his original version pops up to surprise me, it still works!

Of course, I have a longstanding interest in randonmess (see here and here and here) and in the kind of culturally embedded meanings that can make a surprise feel surprising even when we know it's coming. The whole idea of "classical music" has a lot to do with the idea that certain works are worth hearing over and over because they continue to sound fresh and engaging - if not always surprising. But in general, I think classical music culture needs a lot more genuine surprises....though I think we've got plenty of Haydn, thank you.

UPDATE: Although I love the idea that people would try this over and over, eventually landing on all 25 (as of now) surprises, the truth is that would likely take well more than 50 tries since each re-load is totally random. So, you may go to this little audio player and sample all 25 options in sequence. HINT: #1 is Haydn's original.


* I didn't want to lead with this, but the thing that brought this back to my mind was an amusing choir rehearsal misunderstanding, when the singers misheard "terraced dynamics" as "terrorist dynamics." This, of course, is a very natural and surely common mishearing, but it was new to me. In trying to think what "terrorist dynamics" might sound like (but not wanting to get too silly with actual, grim explosions), I tossed this together, and that got my mind spinning on this bit of Haydn.

** Part of me would definitely love to have 50 or more brilliant outcomes, but there are a few I like a lot, and I fear they'd never get heard if I had too many. Some of the current options are far from perfect, but who says every surprise should be a good or pleasant one?

Monday, February 4, 2019

Posting with frequency...

It's been quiet here on the blog since the summer of fugues, but as infrequently as I've been posting, I'm back for the first time in 2019 with a post about frequencies. This will not be a long post, but perhaps it will kickstart something.

One reason I haven't posted as much lately is because of a new job that involves a lot of time talking to middle school boys about music. It's satisfying work, but can leave me mentally drained, and I'm still coming to terms with how to meet certain challenges. (As it happens, this blog began when I was tasked with teaching a broad-based, freshman arts lecture course and confronting all sorts of questions about why I love what I love; this new work may well inspire more of the same - or destroy my soul.)

So it is that, having spent some time teaching these students how pitch, frequencies, octaves, consonance, and dissonance (and singing and musical meaning!) interrelate, I realized it would be nice to have a tool that quickly shows and demonstrates pitch/frequency relationships, both visually and aurally. I spent yesterday' Super Bowl pre-game time putting something together - still a work-in-progress, but it does the job.

It helped a lot that someone had already created a nice little virtual keyboard on Scratch*, so all I had to do was add some interactive features to display pitch/frequency information for each key played and to show the ratio of any two pitches, which can then be heard played together. For my students, the main point is to reinforce how octave relationships are based on 2:1 ratios, but it's also just a fun quick way to interact with pitches, and our class Smartboard makes it easy to have students come try this out on the big screen.Do they care yet about our ear's ability to distinguish between a 2:1 ratio and a 1.78:1 ratio? Stay tuned!

You can try this project out here or by clicking on the image below:


* I went through a big Scratch phase a few years back. Here are links to some of my more successful experiments: