Sunday, May 19, 2019

Impossible Peace = Impossible Piece?

In my previous post, I wrote about saturating "Amazing Grace" with accidentals as a response to a colleague's call for a hymn harmonization "rife with secondary dominants." [← What a sentence!] When I posted my response (in even cruder form than here), this colleague wrote back:
"Perfect. And then they shall read Friede auf Erden and we will be done."
I'm proud to say I knew exactly what he meant because, about 20 years ago, I was the accompanist for a chorus that was rehearsing Arnold Schoenberg's Xtreme motet Friede auf Erden. The original version is approximately ten minutes of 8-part a cappella choral writing moving back and forth between rich Romantic harmony and intense chromaticism. The music was proving to be a big challenge for this chorus (as it would be for just about any group of humans) and there was a really important rehearsal which fell on a day of heavy snow.

When word went out that that evening's rehearsal was cancelled, I decided to see if I could use the free time to create some home practice aids to help choristers learn these challenging parts; so I entered all the notes into MIDI and posted those files online. (In those pre-broadband days, posting actual audio files [like mp3s] would've required more bandwidth than was practical, but standard web browsers could play back MIDI files, which basically just provide instructions about which pitches to play (using awkward, clinky sounds).) I believe the practice files proved to be helpful, and the final performance went well as best as I recall. In the performance, the director actually opted to have the choir perform the motet twice, once a cappella, and once with the orchestral accompaniment Schoenberg had created when he realized how difficult this music was for singers.

For purposes of demonstration in this post, it actually took me a while to find a recording that actually "works" for my ears, though there are several admirable live performances that have their virtues (such as this one). Then I came upon this recording by the English choir Tenebrae - a performance which strikes me as nothing less than miraculous:

Somehow this group manages to make even the thorniest sections sound logical and transparent, and the often skyscraping soprano part never sounds strained. Based on many other recordings I've sampled, I'm sure there are listeners who prefer a heavier, richer choral sound for this repertoire, but though the "British Light" sonority isn't always my cup of tea for Romantic works, it really works for me here. [By contrast, here's a wonderful "British Light" recording of an absolutely perfect German Romantic motet which just leaves me wanting that extra bit more of overwhelming sound for the final cadence at 2:59.]

It's also worth hearing this version, by Boston University student forces, with the orchestral accompaniment. The instrumental parts really help to focus the harmonies, and in this case support a full and sumptuous choral sound that might not tune so well on its own, but which pairs well with the style.

ANY....way, what brings me here today is that my colleague's comment made me remember that I've just had these Schoenberg MIDI files sitting on a hard drive for two decades. So much potential energy!

I made a stupid joke about combining the chromatic counterpoint with a samba beat - and I haven't ruled that out!* - but I decided that what really interested me the most was simply s-l-o-w-i-n-g things down so that the ear could have more time to process some of the fast moving brain-benders. Although Schoenberg is best-known for writing fully atonal music in which traditional harmony doesn't play a role, he also was able to work within a gorgeous Romantic canvas. But the extreme demands this music makes on the singer and listener can obscure that at times. Friede auf Erden is the kind of music that almost fights against itself - which is actually kind of cool, but also problematic.

So for now, mostly all I've done is "record" this with strings (synth strings, alas) at an almost impossibly slow tempo (synth string players have infinitely long bows), about three times more slowly than it would be performed. I chose to bathe the admittedly unsatisfying string sound in a lot of reverb so that what emerges is kind of a 30,000-foot view of the piece. I also made the choice, admittedly mostly for practical reasons, to remove tempo changes and dynamics, so what's left behind is just pure counterpoint swimming in reverb - which is kind of a fun contradiction.

Obviously, the result is NOT Friede auf Erden - it's missing the poetic language, the correct proportions, the highs and lows. But I do find it to be really beautiful, beyond just as an ambient haze phenomenon. More than anything, it tends to sound a lot like Mahler, though at various points it also reminds me of Wagner, the Barber Adagio (and a general American kind of string sound), certain kinds of film soundtracks; and I do think there's some value in - pardon me for saying it - smoothing out some of the edges of Schoenberg's work. I know that kind of thinking goes against a lot of aesthetic thinking, but I'm just being honest. Part of me actually enjoys listening to this more than the original, which admittedly would sound better in a live space than it does over laptop speakers.

What it doesn't remind me of so much is Minimalism, because the harmonies do change quite regularly, but it might be fair to say that what's going on is the application of a Minimalist time-scale to music that is otherwise quite dense and boundary-pushing from a tonal perspective. I love being able to settle into each harmony and let it unfold, and though this is obviously an enormous distortion of the composer's intent, I do think it makes a case for how beautiful this music is. (Not as beautiful as THIS Schoenberg, which is perfect as it is.)

I think it's possible that Schoenberg's original falls into the world of masterpieces which are impossible to realize perfectly, which is interesting given that the title translates as "Peace on Earth" - another ideal that can seem impossible to realize. Stretching it out to absurd lengths is not a true solution, but rather an interesting way to open up the soundworld and let the listener indulge more mindfully in each passing moment.

Oh, and unrelated to anything else, this is my 600th post here at MMmusing!


* I haven't tried adding a samba beat, but for fun, I did create this 100-second version with pizzicato strings. I'll offer no defense except that...I like it! [Yes, the impossibly fast pizzicato 8th notes are particularly surreal.]

Thursday, May 16, 2019

There are no accidents - just accidentals!

Again I find myself at the blog following on some Facebook-inspired digressions.*

A colleague casually mentioned, as a topical aside, that he was listening to sight-reading exams. Another colleague, gamely avoiding the topic at hand, asked:
"Can we please focus on the important issues though... how did the sightreading tests go?" 
I couldn't agree more that this qualified as the more important issue! Colleague #1 replied:
"I need more hymn harmonizations that are rife with secondary dominants. I often let [students] choose which voice to read and there aren't many with an accidental in every voice."
And we're off!

If it should turn out that I am nothing more than a robot, the first clue might be how predictably I react to this sort of stimulus. You want a hymn harmonization that's rife with secondary dominants?!? I cannot resist such a siren song. Basically, secondary dominants are chords which include accidentals as a way of strengthening the approach to the next chord. So a harmonization saturated with secondary dominants would have lots of pitches outside the given key, which of course would make sight-singing more difficult. (A harmonization with no accidentals means all the notes would fall into the "diatonic" Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti pattern, a stepladder of pitches to which our ears are conditioned to relate; adding accidentals is like hiding steps where not expected...which could certainly lead to accidents.)

I'm not sure why I chose "Amazing Grace," but I suppose I was drawn both to its familiarity and the challenge it presents as a fairly simple, pentatonic tune (which means there aren't so many different pitches to harmonize). It's easy to add one or two secondary dominants to any harmonization, but as they start to pile up, each accidental pointing to a different key, the center of gravity gets wonky. The familiarity of the "Amazing Grace" tune helps in that regard, but it was fun to work on balancing these excesses in such a way that there still seems to be some direction. I especially like the bass line from m.4-8, but I find that all of it hangs together...ish. The voice-leading has some issues, but this is where I say, "hey, this was only a rainy day diversion."

Of course, there are tons of chromatic harmonizations of Amazing Grace that use various extended jazz harmonies (see here, for example**), but those are not necessarily conceived with the idea of strict four-part harmony in mind, and anyway, my inspiration for doing this was to stick to secondary dominants, so mostly that's what I did. With the exception of m.7, there are diversionary accidentals in every measure, mostly doing secondary dominant kinds of things.

Oh, and as follow-up to my previous post, the final cadence gets lost in a Tristan haze....

AND, this harmonization sparked a comment which sparked another, very different creative concept which I will a day or two!


* And here's a Facebook-inspired digression: I think Facebook is fantastic, and though it's certainly caused its share of problems, I tend to blame users at least as much as the company. I have wonderful interactions and conversations there and don't find it all that difficult to avoid the negativity. The secret trick is to avoid the negativity. And to seek out interesting conversations. Because of the far-flung connections it enables, there are topics I might otherwise never get to engage were it not for Facebook. (This is not a defense of its policies or motivations, just a suggestion that one doesn't have to get sucked into its darker aspects.)