Sunday, December 13, 2020


Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, a day on which Mary's Magnificat is part of the lectionary. As it happens, I composed a new setting of this text for our annual service of Advent Lessons and Carols last Sunday. Of course, there are many, many musical settings of the Song of Mary, including a very famous and brilliant multi-movement work by Bach. Because this text is part of the liturgies for Vespers and the Anglican Evensong services, there are regular opportunities for these words to be sung. Stanford apparently composed versions in every major key!

In many past years, I've written a new anthem for our choir for Lessons and Carols, but for this year, any choral offerings needed to be produced virtually; though I was mildly tempted by the idea of creating something specifically intended to be assembled online, I ultimately decided this would be a great year to write something for Emily, our outstanding soprano leader. She and three family members served as our in-house choir since they could safely sing next to each other. (Do I need to include a note here for future readers that this was during the Pandemic of 2020?)

I'm not an expert on the subject, but I have thought before that the grandeur and exuberance of so many Magnificat settings can seem a little out of proportion for words spoken by a simple young woman. I'm also not a big fan of breaking this kind of text up into so many sections, although I understand the temptation to mine each line for maximum effect.

But, since I was writing for solo soprano, my goal was more to communicate a sense of quiet, first-person wonder, with the words flowing by at a fairly regular pace - not quite like chant, but delivered with directness and simplicity. Also, I was a little slow getting notes on the page, and in fact, Emily didn't see a note of this until the Wednesday before the service. We ran it once on Friday night, and she sang it exactly as I'd hoped. The writing is indeed pretty straightforward, with an unobtrusive organ part providing support, and regular use of a bVI-bVII-I cadential pattern I tend to associate with wonder. (For the record, I didn't set out to use that pattern; it just kind of emerged as a unifying factor as I tried out this and that.)

Here's the performance from the livestreamed service last Sunday morning. Only a small number of people were in the sanctuary for social distancing reasons, and Emily was banished to the small chapel area in the back where singing can be done far from others. Given the distance and limited rehearsal, I'm pleased with how well we stayed together! Through the many wide open windows in the building, you can hear the leftovers of a Saturday night snow melting to the ground, especially over the quiet final chords.

Oh, I meant to add that I fell into a mostly King James English without really thinking too much about it. I'd actually been looking at a Purcell setting when I started putting notes on the page and was casually borrowing those words, taken from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. I pivoted to the King James version in a few spots, but I guess I just find the beautifully archaic language helps evoke the past. 

Thursday, November 12, 2020


In our last episode, I discussed the way in which Beethoven's Für Elise can be felt according to its original 3/8 meter or alternately in 6/16. (Tip: The most fun is try to hear both at once!) Each option includes six 16th notes per bar, but the former groups the 16ths in three pairs and the latter groups them in two sets of three. After creating my little re-metering, I flashed back to an even earlier and even more iconic piano piece associated with children which can also be heard as 2x3 or 3x2. That's right, after chopping up Für Elise, today we'll be considering the most chopped piece ever: Chopsticks

A little research has confirmed that the closest thing to an original version of this music, which has surely been played many different ways as virally transmitted from child to child, uses the waltz-like 2x3 pattern:

You can hear it played in the 1946 Academy Award winning "The Best Years of Our Lives" here, with Hoagy Carmichael counting in "1, 2, 3." [video should begin at 2:09:53]

[If you need more waltzing chops, Liberace awaits you. He eventually ends up in duple meter.]

Of course, the version which was somehow known to every piano-adjacent child in America before the Internet and Tik-Tok introduced instant virality, would just feature the top staff above, played by single fingers of each hand in delightful contrary motion. Its appeal is surely in part based on the fact that the performer needn't worry about controlling independent digits (or hooks in the film clip above), with their relative strengths and weaknesses.

But getting back to meter, after a few Facebook conversations, I'm guessing it's true that most young piano pugilists feel these six-note repetitions in three groups of two rather than in two groups of three. I know I did. Like so:

[Just ignore the left hand in that quick re-alignment.]

So, here's a very famous melody which is probably meant to have the beat subdivided into threes (waltz feel), but which is maybe better known among children pounded out in groups of two or perhaps even "groups" of one! This makes sense since it requires a bit more musical and technical subtlety to group repeated notes in threes, with the second and third note of each group thus needing to be lighter. 

One of the tip-offs that the song should be felt in two groups of three (what I'll call a 6/8 feel) is the middle section which has a metrical pattern that is clearly 6/8. And this is what interests me most. That I, at least, learned this song with a 3/4 feeling, but switching to 6/8 in the middle and right back to 3/4 for the return of the opening. More or less like this:

This is as opposed to the more authentic and graceful (but somehow less interesting) through-waltz feel:

Notice it would be particularly awkward to play the entire piece in 3/4, though I've attempted to show how that might feel with my obnoxious percussion here:

And finally, I couldn't resist doing a more fun mixed-meter version inspired by Leonard Bernstein

I think that's all I have to say about that, and though I have already written about another kid-repertoire standard in the past, don't expect a feature on The Knuckle Song any time soon.

However, I shall be returning to Für Elise very soon as I'm finishing up a project I've had in mind for years. You've been warned.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Variations on Beethoven

When I last blogged here, I wrote about a composer celebrating his 250th birthday in 2020 - and it wasn't Beethoven. Well, today I'll give Beethoven his due. Or at least half his due. In an effort to get the blog back in gear, I'll keep this pretty short, but maybe return later to a few of the ideas raised here.

Today's two projects were both inspired by something very non-Beethoven. A Facebook friend linked to this cool video in which an iconic Michael Jackson song has been manipulated in an unusual and surprisingly effective way. As the video title says, each off-beat of the song has been removed so that things proceed twice as fast, with words becoming fairly nonsensical, and the melody....actually, it's not such a melodic song, so the melody doesn't sound so off. The song is probably driven by its bass line more than anything, but that also survives the extreme surgery, and....well, give it a listen:


It has tremendous, driving energy (inherited in part from the original, of course), and it's also over surprisingly quickly! As the day went on, I started thinking about this idea of cutting out half of each measure - and was a little sad I'd never thought to try this trick on my own. I did once write about a "musical storyboarding" concept in which I made recordings which skipped quickly from the beginning of one section to another to help give an overall feel for the structure of sonata form works. And I've made other experiments in speeding quickly through recordings, with the same idea of getting a quick, bird's-eye view.

In the case of the Michael Jackson song, I was partly just impressed that a recording could be edited so cleanly, and that a song with words could come across as not too absurd sounding when sliced and diced. However, I quickly realized that many musical structures might work just fine with measures chopped in half since so much music only changes harmonies once or twice per measure. For no particular reason, the first music that came to mind for a quick experiment was Beethoven's Xtremely iconic Für Elise. 

Because this little piano piece is in a triple meter (3/8), my first thought was that I would remove the final third of each bar, but after a quick look, I realized that so much of the figuration groups 16th notes into half-bars. This meant that converting 3/8 to 3/16 might actually work, and in fact, the music - or some subset of the music - survives remarkably well. The effect is to strip  down Beethoven's flowing writing into something more elemental, almost like a Schenkerian reduction. For this little project, I chose to work only with the A section. In the video, you can view it first in the original context, with eliminated notes whited out. Following that, you can hear the same (synth) performance while viewing a newly created score in 3/16.

So, yes, I do think this works pretty well, and it feels a bit like a "found music" thing. This humble little piece has been hidden in plain sight within Beethoven's canvas. I didn't so much write it as discover it.

But I also discovered something else. The experiment made a bit more plain something I hadn't thought about so much, which is that though Beethoven's composition definitely functions with a subdivision of three beats to the bar, the groupings (often defined by the hands playing) often appear as two groups per bar, and the little reduced version I created actually treats the groupings that way. 

In other words, the music has switched from basic groupings equalling an 8th note to groupings equalling a dotted 8th note. 

Whatever factors have gone into making this such a notoriously well-known work, a case could be made that part of its real charm comes from the way Beethoven's patterns glide back and forth between groupings of two and three. I'm not really arguing that the music should be heard with groupings of 3 16ths as primary, but I couldn't help wonder what that might sound/look like.

So, my final little project today was to re-notate the entire piece in 6/16. 6/16, like 6/8, implies that two beats are felt per bar, whereas Beethoven's 3/8 suggests three beats per bar. It would be a fun experiment to perform the whole thing with that in mind, but to make the point more obvious here, I added a little background percussion to make explicit where the beats now fall as my robo-pianist supplies the artistry.

And it all works, with some charming syncopations along the way - until we arrive at the climactic triplets in m. 78. (I never liked that part in the original anyway!) At this point, the jig is up, as it were, as the two-beats-per-bar percussion creates an odd conflict against the nine triplets per bar. But, it's also an exception that otherwise proves the rest really does kind of work.

This "performance" is pretty brutally unmusical, but it makes its point.


If the distinction between "three beats per bar" versus "two beats per bar" is confusing, here's what the original would sound like with a drum-part emphasizing the more natural feeling of "three beats per bar."

And that's all for now, but there's more 2020 blogging ahead. Stay tuned...

UPDATE: I should've done a quick search before posting, but have now realized there's at least one rendition out there of Für Elise with a 6/16 feel, and it's from an album I've definitely listened to before: Don Dorsey's "Beethoven or Bust" from the late '80s. My favorite track there has always been the "Western" version of the Scherzo from the Sonata, Op. 31, No. 3, but I just checked and found there is indeed a Für Elise given the same two-beats-per-bar treatment I do above. The main difference is that the beat only drops when the left-hand bass line comes in, so Dorsey's treatment allows the ambiguity of all those introductory figures to remain. This is surely another part of the charm of Beethoven's original. Whether or not the main "tune" is heard as 3/8 (correct) or 6/16 (for fun), all of those winding figures defy clear metrical categorization (unless someone like me inserts insistent percussion). In thinking more about this, I've realized that for many years, I always heard this music with the beats more or less as follows:

It's less important whether the first note is heard as a real downbeat than that the feeling of three beats per bar doesn't arrive until the second full measure; and Beethoven keeps obscuring that feeling between phrases.

Monday, May 25, 2020

The one about the other guy having a 250th birthday year

As with so many blog posts in the past, I'm here again due to the wonderful world of Facebook discussion threads. In this case, a pianist friend and her conductor/oboist husband were wondering about examples of music in 5/4 time that pre-date the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6. As it happened, I had been dabbling in this trivia a few weeks before - specifically on "May the Fourth Be With You Day" when another Facebook friend posted this (which actually refers to a Paul Desmond tune made famous by Brubeck);

I fairly quickly responded with a couple of improvised responses to that from Holst and Tchaikovsky:

So, my knowledge of famous 5/4 music also basically went back to Tchaikovsky, but I did sent along a link to this very useful Wikipedia page on quintuple meter which I had run across while investigating May 4. My friends wrote a bit later to make note of an unusual fugue in 5/8 they'd found there written by Anton Reicha. Did I have a clear sense of who Anton Reicha was at this point? (This was five days ago.) Not really. I think I remembered him as someone who'd written wind quintets (true!), though I wouldn't have wanted to be held to that. Contemporary of Beethoven? I feel like maybe I would have guessed that as well, but wouldn't have been surprised if I'd been off a hundred years either way.

My friends also sent along the only YouTube link they could find of the Reicha fugue, and though it seems to be a generic synth rendition (with a mystifying picture of a bunnies for the video), I started listening. At first, in part I'm sure because of the synth sound, it seemed forced and weird, but as I kept listening, I started to get into the swing of it. I listened to it at least two more times on a walk, found a couple of early 19th century editions on IMSLP, and suddenly was in the midst of obsession.

So to back things up, since I shouldn't assume anyone knows much about poor Mr. Reicha, he was indeed an exact contemporary of a VERY famous composer also born in 1770. In fact, Reicha and Beethoven were fellow students and orchestra members in Bonn and later friends in Vienna. Reicha was also a pioneer of the wind quintet and an important teacher of composers such as Liszt, Berlioz, Gounod, and Franck. (Not too shabby). He also wrote a good bit about theory and had some very adventurous ideas about going beyond usual procedures, for example in the writing of fugues. The 5/8 fugue that brought me to this point was published in a set of 36 fugues which push all sorts of futurist boundaries. For whatever reason, though some of his ideas may have been influential (Beethoven became fugue-obsessed in his late years and Liszt was a pioneer in pushing tonality in ways that are suggested in this little fugue), Reicha did not make a big name as a composer, and aside from the wind quintets, he exists pretty much on the music history periphery. (Sadly, his February 250th birthday has already passed, but he still deserves some 2020 attention.)

Although the "ahead of his/her time" metric is not always a sign of greatness, it is remarkable that this 5/8 fugue dates from 1803 (or earlier). I don't know of anything from the period that sounds like it. Curious that the "old-fashioned" genre of fugue should be used for such experimentation.

I'll perhaps write more about it in days ahead, but its quirks include:
  • Being written in the unusual quintuple meter, which Reicha actually indicates as 3/8 + 2/8. 
  • Beginning in A Major but not really being in any particular key. For whatever reason, it ends in F Major. 
  • Having a long, meandering subject which, bizarrely, involves a single triplet and some afterthought sixteenth notes. The triplet is odd in part because the composer makes a point in the preface of being sure the performer doesn't interpret 8ths grouped in three as triplets. And then tosses in a triplet that's not easy to feel in time. But it's also just odd. 
  • Having successive entries of the fugue subject come in at pretty much whatever interval he felt like. The second voice enters a tritone above the first, for example. I guess this is the kind of thing he and Beethoven argued about. (There are eleven entries of the subject, all in major, and they begin on the following pitches: A, E-flat, G, A-flat, F-sharp, A-flat, B, E-flat, C, A-flat, F. Note that the most common is A-flat, and that A never returns!) 
  • Having long passages which modulate freely.
So, yes, it's a quirky fugue, but I have also found it irresistible. Although some of the writing for piano doesn't take best advantage of piano sonority, the notes lie very nicely in the hands, and even though I've now played through it many times, it still feels surprising and even magical. Unlike the inexorable logic one finds in a great Bach fugue, Reicha sometimes seems to be composing on the spot. That nonchalant final cadence in F Major could almost be inspired by someone saying, "Anton, time for dinner!" I still find the meandering tag of the subject (with the triplet and sixteenth notes) to be a little unnatural to the musical discourse, but he just kinda rides with it.

And that's what I'll do here as well, rather than try to analyze every chromatic alteration. Unfortunately, the two early 19th century scores available on IMSLP are both rather poorly engraved, and so I couldn't resist the siren song compelling me to re-engrave the whole thing. I decided to let Reicha keep most of his curious spellings (he likes having one voice in sharps while another is in flats), but there were a lot of spacing issues and also some poor choices about how the voices are arranged across the two staves. He's just one example of a passage that I think is much clearer in my version:

So, although I'm still at the work-in-progress stage, both with the engraving and the performance (on my poor piano which really needs a tuning and re-voicing), I'm releasing this into the wild because I think this is such charming and unusual music. There are at least three commercial recordings of this fugue (here and here and here)*, though they don't seem to be available on Youtube. (Actually I just discovered that the third is available on YouTube Music. It's very fast!) I have listened to all three, and they are fine. But this one says more closely what I think - based on my five days of Reicha expertise!

* Those three linked recordings go from slow to medium (my tempo) to fast. For some reason, on the first album linked, this fugue is listed as #9. I believe all of these pianists play the triplet in the theme a little more slowly then I do, which means I'm probably rushing; but I prefer that sort of headlong falling-forward feeling leading into the 16th notes.

Addendum: A few more observations about my edition and performance. All of the commercially released recordings have the A on the downbeat of m.24 re-articulated, although it is tied from the previous measures in all of the 19th century sources I looked at. This 20th century Barenreiter edition (kind of sketchily uploaded to IMSLP) does not have the tie, and the editor probably had good reason, but I like effect of that tie as it helps this transitional phrase elide more elegantly with what came before.

This brings up a broader point which is that I LOVE that Reicha does not include many articulations or dynamics - in fact, I wish he'd included fewer. I think there's a lot to be said, in music like this, for letting the performer make those decisions. My own set of fugues from the Summer of '18 has no such markings, and though this might be mere laziness on my part, I love the sense of adventure that comes with a good fugue. I play Bach fugues in church many times a month, and I make all sorts of idiosyncratic decisions related to tempo and articulation with them. Many different solutions can be satisfying depending on the context.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Signs and Magic

[If you don't feel like reading a lot, there's a fun new game about 2/3 of the way down. I LOVE burying the lede.]

There's a throwaway line in the article I wrote for the Boston Musical Intelligencer last week which I've found myself thinking about ever since. After boasting that my "blog combines various levels of expertise in writing, rhyming, piano playing, composing, arranging, animating, music engraving, video and graphic design, audio editing, and programming," I felt compelled to add the following parenthetical (bold added for emphasis here):
(I’m a novice programmer but intrigued by the ways in which programming and composition both magically transform bland symbols into entire worlds.)
I didn't want anyone to think I was claiming anything like real expertise as a programmer, which is why I added the first four parenthetical words. The other words just sort of magically followed - which is sort of like how this post has been magically generated by these previous bits of word-generated magic. Sort of.

The two contrasting points I'd want to make about my experiences as a programmer are:
  1. I really am mostly a self-taught novice, with perhaps a creative flair for getting things done, but with all sorts of faults I can't really even articulate - because my faultiness recursively includes not understanding fully what I don't understand - but having to do with writing inefficiently and struggling with more abstract principles of recursion and multi-dimensional thinking. 
  2. I LOVE programming. Maybe in part because I often don't quite know what I'm doing and am not working from familiar internal scripts, it's just always amazing to me when things work. Partly, the speed with which modern processors work and the remarkably flexible, powerful languages available mean that a lot can be accomplished with seemingly little. Paradoxically, there are many things that seems like they should be simple (because our own brains have so many sub-conscious algorithms) which can be a tricky to "explain" to a processor. And confronting that reality, while frustrating, is also fascinating.
The main reason I'm writing about this now is that I've been hard at work on a couple of code-oriented projects the last 2-3 days. One of them is still in process, but it's a music engraving challenge using Lilypond which has required a few deeper-than-normal dives into the program's text-based commands - commands that somehow produce really beautiful-looking music notes.

Unlike a more typical program such as Finale or Sibelius, you generally don't see results in real time in Lilypond. You type out commands and then update the output as needed. Finale and Sibelius will certainly take time to re-format a major layout change, but in Lilypond (using the Frescobaldi environment), even adding an articulation or accidental won't show up immediately in the notation. Although this might sound odd, my favorite part of this process is when I try out some solution, hit the "engrave" button and wait to see what happens. This can take 2-10 seconds depending on the complexity. A lot of times, it's back to the drawing board, but that makes the moments when things work that much more satisfying. 

My other recent project has to do with my day job, which I haven't written about much here. I have mentioned before that this blog got its start when I first started teaching a big arts lecture class to non-music majors. Grappling with "outsiders" who didn't necessarily think like musicians was a big disruption to my own way of thinking, and that's basically why I started blogging. I now teach at a boys prep school, work which includes general music classes for middle schoolers. This has pushed me yet further outside my comfort zone as the need to see things from a different perspective has shifted again. 

Currently, my 7th graders are learning about Beethoven's 5th - a handy topic in this Beethoven year - and I'm always searching for multimodal ways to get the boys into Beethoven's world. (We've done some simple composing using the primary motif, and one mad scientist student put this together in just fifteen minutes of class time after being provided only with the drums and once instance of the motif.) We've conducted the Exposition section of the first movement many times; conducting together is one thing that actually kind of works in this brave new Zoom world. Conducting has the advantage of being physical, without being as intimidating as dance, and it invites a range of ways to feel the music in the body and to pay attention to moments where the pulse is paused and where the character changes. It's also a fun excuse to show videos like this.

Earlier this week, I had each student submit a video of himself conducting the Exposition, and I was impressed by how well they were anticipating what was coming and responding to various style changes. (Was also fun to see the wide variety of conducting styles, from Bernstein-esque melodrama - one even donned a Beethovenesque wig -  to the most serious, sober-minded, technical focus.) So I thought it would be fun to put together a little puzzle game which would require re-assembling musical segments that are out of order. I'm sure that to some degree, something like this Google Doodle from Beethoven's 245th was in the back of my mind, though I wasn't thinking consciously about it.

Anyway, I dove into Scratch, MIT's amazing programming environment for "children" (which I've written about many times before) and after a few hours, I'd roughed out a little game. After a trial version with one class, I put some hours into refining it and adding fun graphics, and here you go:

I think it's pretty cool. It was a challenge for many students, though I had one solve it in less than three minutes. However, after their first attempt, for which they had no previous information about how the music was divided, we talked about what to listen for in each segment - not only what to recognize, but how to think about where it fits into the 8-part structure. (We had already spent a good bit of time learning to identify various themes, using my Beethoven listening map.) I think it was a very successful exercise.

If you don't feel like playing right now, you can watch this demo of the game in action.

Returning now to my parenthetical comment with which I began:
I’m a novice programmer but intrigued by the ways in which programming and composition both magically transform bland symbols into entire worlds.
I'm not saying that musical composition and programming are the same thing, although it is well-known now that computers can compose. My point is that the satisfactions both offer me feel similar. Of course, the situation is muddied by the fact that I do most of my composing and arranging on a computer, and most of my programming involves producing or manipulating music. (Here's a rare game I created which has nothing to do with music.)

But both do feel like a kind of magic. I'm proud to say I built my little Beethoven game in Scratch from scratch - meaning it's not based on another Scratch project. (One of the cool teaching features of Scratch is that anyone can look inside any other published project and copy the code to build something new. Programmers beware - the "code" inside my projects is typically sloppy, uncommented, and certainly inefficient). But even though I basically understand the logic of what's going on, it's still a little miracle when things work.

Here's a little summary of what it's like to do something like this: I conceived the basics of what I wanted the game to do, then put together a series of commands to get it to do what I wanted. This included such basic tasks as creating a function that puts 8 numbers in order by comparing them a pair a time. (A more advanced programming language would have this sort functionality built in, but part of the point of Scratch is to learn this kind of process.) There were multiple ways in which I could've written the instructions, but what matters most is the output. Also, as I worked and confronted challenges and successes, I added many elements to my original concept.

All of the above is pretty similar to what one does when composing, with music notation instead of code. (Yes, it is possible to compose without using notation.) It's also similar in some ways to writing (which also uses "codes") and other creative pursuits, but composition and programming feel a bit more closely connected to me. I find for example that when composing/arranging or programming, once my mind is switched into that mode, it's very difficult to come down from it. (I told my wife that, like drinking coffee, I should really try to stop programming by 6pm or I'll find it impossible to go to sleep.)

As I admitted parenthetically above, my code can be overlong and inefficient, and this is also true of my writing, so in final summary: GO PLAY.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Skip to my loop

This post might create a sort of strange loop for anyone visiting via the Boston Musical Intelligencer, which was kind enough to run an article of mine promoting this very blog. Read the article there, come here, follow the links back there, etc. Anyway, thanks to the Intelligencer for giving me this platform.

I've admired this site since it debuted more than a decade ago, inspired by the legendary Dwight's Journal of Music, a 19th century Boston institution. In a time when major newspapers are not really able (for mostly good reasons) to cover a town's musical scene, the Intelligencer provides a remarkable number of reviews (mostly written by volunteers, I believe) of local events as well as an indispensable concert listings page, various feature stories, and a lively reader commentariat. One can find a wide variety of viewpoints which provide a fascinating and reasonably broad picture of our local musical life. Some of the reviews display high levels of expertise and allow more room for digressions and personal commentary than a newspaper would. The commenter perspective can seem analogous at times to how sports radio gives voice to more than just the newspaper columnists. Although ill-mannered banter sometimes is a result, in general the Symphony Hall gang has a lot to offer, especially in showing how passionately people care about the music that comes to life on our stages.

I've always had an interesting relationship to music reviewers in that 1) I love reading reviews of concerts and recordings, 2) I don't feel like I would ever want to write such reviews. This is somewhat paradoxical because I do enjoy encountering strong opinions, and I sometimes have strong opinions; but I tend to feel like my own opinions about a given performance are too hopelessly subjective to be given the weight of print, virtual or otherwise.

There's also the fact that I don't actually get out to that many live concerts for various life reasons. As I wrote back in 2008, I sometimes feel like Tom Townsend from Whit Stillman's Metropolitan, who would argue passionately about the strengths and weaknesses of Jane Austen novels, only to admit that he'd never actually read the books - just the literary criticism. It's probably fair to say that I enjoy living on the periphery of the music world, diving in every now and then but often viewing from a distance, and the work I do on this blog has a similar relationship to actual performing. What I'm doing here is often articulating around the edges of what's going on in performance of a given musical work, rather than just performing the music and letting it speak for itself.

Anyway, as the Intelligencer concert listings page is a bit more dispensable during the pandemic, I figured this was a good time to promote access to the mostly online musical diversions I've been creating here. It does perhaps feel a little dissonant to promote my own "play" in a time of suffering and loss, but of course all artists are grappling with what it means to make art in such times. And I do intentionally use the word "play" to suggest something more substantive than it might first appear. I have definitely found that I'm listening to music and thinking about music more during the past two months, and though there may be some element of escapism there, it's also about connecting more deeply with music's expressive and spiritual power.

As for promoting the blog, I am always hopeful that my strange creations will find their audience, however spread out around the world that audience might be. And I've also always wanted to resist the idea that a blog is just an ephemeral collection of passing thoughts. Packaging a lot of those thoughts together is a way to affirm that something more lasting is happening here. As I wrote way back in 2008 when I debuted my "Multimedia Musing Machine":
George Costanza once said, while trying to impress a NYC tour guide who thought he'd just moved in from Arkansas, "You know if you take everything I've ever done in my entire life and condense it down into one day... it looks decent." To paraphrase, "if you take everything I've ever done in my entire blogging career and condense it down into one looks decent."

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The 11 Days of Bach: Tweaks and Reflections

It's been a few weeks since I finished up a major Bach blogging project with a down-to-the-wire demo of a new "Chaconne at a glance" page. I've used some vacation time this week to add lots of fun features, and I'm quite pleased with the result, though I'm sure I've missed some bugs. (One thing that is certainly true about any sort of coding project is that every new feature brings with it a seemingly exponential new range of "things that could go wrong.")

The major new features are:
  • Four-bar segments are now auto-highlighted, both as you search through the score and mouse-hover over them and as the music plays. This makes it easier to follow the score. (This may seem and hopefully looks simple, but getting this functionality going took a lot of experimenting and tweaking.)
  • Score navigation has several added features:
    • Arrow keys (on keyboard or on screen) may be used to jump forwards or backwards among the 4-bar segments.
    • The SPACE key may be used to play/pause, and clicking in the score will begin playback from the segment clicked. (Playback can also still be toggled via the Play button or by clicking on the larger 4-bar segment shown at top.)
    • In addition to showing the elapsed time, the counter in the upper left corner now shows which of the 64 segments is being played.
  • Functionality on mobile devices is much improved. I find that I can get around pretty well on my iPhone (though the arrow buttons are hard to hit, and the mouse-over feature doesn't work) and it's really satisfying on an iPad!
  • I've added an old "listening map" of the Chaconne which I made years ago for a class of non-music majors. For now, it just sits below the score, but it is also click-enabled to the recording. 

As it says on the site, this organization of segments is just a subjective suggestion of how one might hear Bach's ideas. The main point is to hear the music as something more than just 64 4-bar sets. At the bottom of the new page are some observations about the overall structure.

This whole project has been both very time-consuming and immensely rewarding. Though I'll never play this music on the violin, I could probably have learned at least the Brahms left-handed version of this piece to a passable degree in the time it took to do all this (we'll leave Busoni out of this). Maybe I should have! But the constant engagement with the music (I can't begin to imagine how many times I've heard this piece start up while testing things out) has been a different sort of playing, and I have something to show for it. Hopefully, someone else will enjoy holding Bach's music in hand this way.

More broadly, my 11-day Bach project itself was a fun dive into the kinds of work I love to do. You'll find there various levels of expertise exhibited in piano playing, music engraving, composition, arranging, audio mixing, programming, and graphic design, although somehow poetry didn't make it into the festival. Maybe next year. I wasn't at all sure what I was doing when I started out on March 21, and that's the most fun thing about blogging. You never know where it will lead. Here's a series review:

* If you're curious, the old version of the page is here.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Bach Day #11: Chaconne at a glance

[UPDATE (4/23/20): The page debuted below has been updated quite a bit, with many new navigation features. Check it out. The original version of the page referenced below is here.]

Well, it's been an exciting few days here at MMmusing, trying desperately to get this final project finished in time for Bach's "new" birthday. As I understand it, Bach's birthday was properly referred to as March 21 during his lifetime, but some sort of calendar adjustments mean that if we were to count back from now, we'd find he was born on our March 31 in 1685. And that gave me this lovely excuse to indulge in a lot of Bach blogging over these past eleven days during this odd time of quarantine. I won't deny that there's something particularly satisfying about spending time grounded in this music during times of uncertainty. (Of course, all times are uncertain.)

The project I'd most hoped to get off the ground has been bugging me since about three years ago, on Bach's old birthday, when I debuted a one-page version of the great Chaconne in D Minor. I've always found it appealing to be able to look at something monumental like this in one glance. Here's an absurdly bird's-eye view:

Absurd and wonderful. Such shape and character.

But since then, I've wanted to build a page around this image that would do something. Alas, all I have to offer is a prototype for now, but I'm pleased with where this stands since I basically had nothing as of yesterday.* I was able to build off the structure of my Musical Manipulatives (still kind of prototype stages as well), so I didn't have to reinvent the JavaScript wheel, which is good because my knowledge of JavaScript is pretty half-baked. I could tell many stories of the heartaches I experienced just in the last 24 hours getting this far, but somehow I have a workable thing. 

I don't know that it will be of much use on cellphones, and I certainly haven't yet been able to cross-test it across browsers, but on Windows Chrome, it does pretty much what I want for now. When you go to the page, you'll find a simple design (needs a little tweaking) with a play button in the upper right. Start it going and you'll see somewhat larger versions of the music in the upper frame. (Timings could also use tweaking - this was just a one-pass attempt to approximate.) Click on part of the music below and, hopefully, the outstanding performance by Ray Chen will magically jump to the correct part. That's pretty much it for now, but being able to "hold this music in virtual hands" this way is really fun.

The Lilypond-generated score(s) could use a lot of tweaking as well. Because Bach often writes up to four voices on one staff, decisions about how to show that are very tricky, and I've mostly just gone with defaults for now. So, I've got much work ahead.

But why spend more words on this now when the picture on the page linked below is worth so many more words?

Happy Birthday, Bach!


* 6 hours ago, I was pretty sure this blog post title would be "Bach Day #11: IOU," as there were some technical hurdles I didn't think I'd surmount. Also, 30 minutes ago, I was pretty sure this blog post title would be "Chaconne à Son Goût," until a quick Google search told me another Bach had made the same joke before.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Bach Day #10: Giving Up?

Well, I'll admit this Day #10 of "The Eleven Days of Bach" has left me a little empty-handed in terms of new material. I thought and thought about what I should feature from the past - not Bach's past so much as MY past. And I finally decided I might as well follow my heart. Here's something I wrote in a blog post about six years ago.
....although I'm still not sure what my place in the musical universe should be, I feel pretty sure that I'm the only person in the world who would have made THIS video:

So, if I didn't post this today, who would? I'm still rather proud of this elaborate viola joke which involved me re-writing a Bach prelude to incorporate "Pop, goes the weasel," playing it as badly as I could at half-tempo on the cello, and then doubling the speed to make it sound like...well, a viola.

You're welcome. I'll try to redeem myself tomorrow.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Bach Day #9: My Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiring

I'm keeping things simple on this Second Sunday of "The Eleven Days of Bach," and to be honest, after managing to get the new version of Bach's Canon per tonos up and running and fixed, etc., I'll probably keep it simpler for these last three days. I had one other major project mentally in the works, but I think I'll need more space and time to get that finished.

Having focused the last two days on one of Bach's more forbidding compositions, today features what is surely one of his most accessible and beloved tunes, the ever-popular Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring - but with a twist. The funny thing about that work, which is originally from the Cantata 147, is that though it is a setting of a chorale melody (basically a hymn tune), the tune itself is quite simple and not that interesting. The "melody" everyone knows is the running triplet accompaniment which Bach wrote to adorn the chorale. Though it is too busy and fast-moving to be very singable, it combines pattern and variety in a way that is memorable and has become iconic.

Back in 2011, I debuted a two-piano arrangement of another simple hymn tune, A. J. Gordon's "My Jesus, I love thee," which uses Bach's "melody" as accompaniment, but with additions made to move from a 3/4 to a 4/4 context. You can read more about this arrangement here, featuring an impromptu home recording with my young violinist daughter. A couple of years later, she and I performed it in recital in a new version adding my wife on cello:

Although it is obviously a distortion of Bach's original, I think the "idea" of the Bach is maintained and it was interesting to experiment with the malleability of the original material. The moment I'm most pleased with is at 3:08 in the video above when, over the familiar pedal tone, the third phrase of the hymn tune is stretched out in running 8th notes across the triplets.

That's it for today. No 30-minute videos, no pitch-bending distortions. Just a little Bach twisted into something new.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Bach Day #8: Listening to Math

Today I spent a fair amount of time fixing a couple of mistakes that had been hidden (from me) in yesterday's 30-minute version of Bach's Canon per tonos from The Musical Offering. I noticed one mistake while listening to the WHOLE thing cooking breakfast, and a friend with a very good ear noticed the other. It's rather crazy that I tried to get that complicated project online so quickly, but it's the way I tend to work; if I didn't do it this way - I probably wouldn't do it. I'm sure other little things could use fixing as well, but hopefully nothing major. So, first of all, here again is the latest "corrected" version:

The main thing I wanted to add today is that, as much as I admire Bach's craftsmanship, I can't really say I think this is a great piece, which is one reason it has surprised me that my earlier version has been so popular on YouTube. And I doubt Bach would argue. It's more puzzle than art perhaps - not that the worlds are mutually exclusive.

Just look at how simple the original is on the page:

That's all there is to it, though the second canonic voice is not written out, nor are the modulations. Bach wants the user to figure out how the music goes. But as music, it's rather perplexing. Of course, it doesn't help that the whiny theme Frederick the Great presented to Bach is so unwieldy. The music of this canon is overindulgently chromatic, the cadence into the repetition is hardly satisfying (which means it never really feels resolved), the rhythm is odd, with lots of offbeat notes that sound less like syncopation and more like general disorientation, and the general tone is one of restless busyness.

I've always found it comical that Bach appended the following to this puzzle: "As the modulation rises, so may the King's glory rise." OK, but it does not sound very glorious. The fact that the top voice is mostly descending doesn't help. (As with the Shepard Tone principle, the descending melody helps camouflage the tonal motion upward.) Of course, paying tribute to the King's theme is a way of glorifying him, I suppose, and it's Frederick's own fault that the tone is so somber. (To be fair, the clumsiness of the theme was perhaps part of the challenge in the first place.)

But I DO like this canon! I like a lot of things that are odd, and the fact that this sounds kind of like someone working out a math problem isn't so bad. (I also like math.) One can hear a kinship with some of the harshly intellectual music of the 20th century from the likes of Babbitt and Boulez, music that is uncompromising in its commitment to its own logic. When I listened to the whole 30-minute version this morning, I found it soothing and stimulating, an interesting combination. Eventually, that sense of never arriving becomes its own strange comfort.

Unfortunately, I did have one more thought - which I only later realized I'd seen executed elsewhere. It occurred to me that another "solution" to the ever-rising problem is to slide downwards continuously over each 8-bar group. By sliding down a whole step over this time, we end up magically where we started. Since Bach called his piece a "Canon per tonos" ('tonos' referring to movement by a whole tone), I'm calling this "Canon per microtonos." I did NOT spend a lot of time on it, but imagine an instrument in such bad shape that the strings are constantly loosening. Wait, you don't have to imagine!

I'll admit that I had a vague sense of déjà vu that I'd thought or heard of this concept before. I finally did a search and remembered that the remarkable Stephen Malinowski had done much the same thing, though using synth strings, with his Musical Animation Machine. That version is arguably more successful at disguising the pitch drop, though I like the clattering harpsichord - and everyone's already used to harpsichords being out of tune!

Maybe you'll need something to cleanse the ear after that, so here's one last possibility. Just let the music rise until it disappears. It turns out that using the basic synth built into Finale, it can go pretty far up using the piano sound, and it becomes quite charming and ethereal. (WARNING: I also found my head hurt a bit after listening to this...]

Friday, March 27, 2020

Bach Day #7: Bring out the Canons!

So I've been blogging and posting multimedia for more than thirteen years, and honestly there were a few times that I thought I would hit the big time. Not yet! However, my two steadiest performers over the years (the "big guns," one might say) have been two relatively simple animations I created of canons from Bach's The Musical Offering, so I knew they'd figure into these eleven days of Bach.

In fact, of the almost 900,000 YouTube views I have as of today, more than a third of them are for a video of the endlessly rising canon, the "Canon per tonos." (The title "per tonos" refers to the fact that this canon rises by a whole tone each time through.) To my great surprise, this video has amassed more than 340,000 views. My version of the crab canon has just over 200,000 views, so together, that's well over half of my YouTube audience.

Both videos are, from my point-of-view, more notable for audio tricks I played than for the animations, adorable crabs aside. For the crab canon, a single melody played against itself backwards, I actually recorded the melody only once and then reversed the audio to create the second voice. A YouTube commenter alerted me not too long after I'd posted it in 2008 that it had a wrong note in the score and recording. Ugh. Fortunately, that only took me a little over ten years to fix. That wrong note has been seen and heard many times!

As for the endlessly rising canon, I used a technique suggested by the great Douglas Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach. Because the basic structure is that the 8-bar canon modulates up a whole step each time through, a performance taken to its logical conclusion would actually run out of playable/audible pitches. Hofstadter's idea was to use the Shepard Tone technique by which the constant, gradual introduction of a lower octave occurs while the original octave fades out above. If executed correctly, the listener doesn't really notice the switch, but finds that the music, having risen an octave, is right back where it started. Here's a version of a Shepard Tone illusion created by a Wikipedia contributor:

Notice that the tones seem to be descending continuously, but they never run out of space. The effect is often compared to a barber's shop pole. Of course, applying this effect to a musical composition is something quite different.

My first attempt "to Shepard" Bach was posted more than twelve years ago, and though I'm pleased with it, I've always intended to fix some things. Among the problems with the original are a few misspelled enharmonics, the stubborn refusal to change clefs (resulting in some wacky ledger lines, although it makes the overall "rising" effect clear), and most importantly, the failure to go beyond two full times through the sequence. In the decade that has passed, there are far more novelty YouTube videos that go on for hours, and this was an obvious candidate for that approach (though I stopped at half an hour).

So, the truth is I had all these thoughts three or four days ago and figured it wouldn't take long to make a new version. As with so many projects, I mapped it out in my head and thought, "just do this, this, and this" and I'll be good to go. But I've realized that, though it's a straightforward project in many respects, the details, details, details kept multiplying. I also had to make choices about how much I wanted to copy things I'd done in the first video and where I wanted to do something different.

The two biggests tasks were recreating the score (in my beloved Lilypond) and making a new recording. I actually thought about sticking with the original acoustic guitar version, as it has a nice mellow quality that's suitable for endless listening. But I thought it would be more fun to try something new, since that video is still available. After a lot of experimenting, I felt the virtual harpsichord provided the most authentic and satisfying effect, though the sound is perhaps a little more annoying. I mean, it's a harpsichord sound. (I'll leave the Beecham jokes out of this.)

Creating the cross-fade effect is trickier than it sounds, and after much tinkering, I was also reminded how different the results can sound depending on the dynamic range of the speakers being used. But I think I've settled on something that basically does the job. It really does keep rising without going anywhere, though it's not so hard to hear why that's happening.

As for the score, I struggled over many decisions. Unlike the previous version, I finally decided NOT to use key signatures. Bach's version only shows 8 bars, which clearly start in C Minor, but with no signature. He doesn't even include the middle voice! The performers are supposed to add in the canonic voice, which follows the lower voice by one bar and a fifth above, and then work out the transpotions for each repetition.

Although key signatures are a nice way to signal change of tonality, the music is so chromatic that it actually reads a little more smoothly without key signatures since so many notes end up changed anyway, especially as the modulation is prepared for the next key. Also, after flirting with the elegance of alto clef, which mostly works beautifully for the middle voice, I finally decided to stay with treble and bass clefs only, with discreet changes along the way, simply because more people read each fluently. I did keep a couple of quirky features from before: the barlines do not connect the staves (it just looks cleaner this way) and I kept the little cue note at the end to show the new tonic that is coming.

Well, that's surely more than anyone wants to know about the endless hours I put in this week creating this endless video, so perhaps I should just finish with the video. Tomorrow, I'll write a bit more about the work itself. If the last two days focused on Bach at his most jovial, this is surely Bach at his most austere and cerebral. And, spoiler alert: Frederick the Great's theme (on which all of The Musical Offering is based) is....not that great. But we know Bach liked a challenge....

UPDATE: The morning after posting this I listened to the whole thing while making a big breakfast - and discovered a mistake (a volume irregularity in the middle) ! It has now been fixed.

UPDATE #2: There was another mistake, but thanks to the great ears of a great friend, it has been fixed as well, along with a few other minor stylistic tweaks. Putting something this complicated out so quickly is kind of insane, but it's how I roll.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Bach Day #6: Pass the Popcorn

To continue with some of the levity from Day #5 (there is more "serious" Bach ahead), I'll just do a quick re-share today. I mentioned the C-sharp Major fugue from Book II of The Well-tempered Clavier yesterday. It's a piece I "discovered" a few years back when I was looking for a church postlude in D-flat Major, and I turned from the Book I fugue I'd known well to this delightfully compact, intricate romp, which is full of surprises.

When I wrote about it several years back, I quoted my blogger pianist friend Erica Sipes' vivid description: "The fugue reminds me of popcorn popping...starting with a kernel or two as the oil heats up and then speeding up as they all start popping." This image ended up playing a big role in one of my most elaborate Scratch projects, a little program that plays and plays with this fugue. You can change the tempo, change "instrument," put in temporary ritards and accelarandi, invert the whole thing, make it play with all three voices in different keys, play microtonally, etc.

The whole time it plays, popcorn kernels are randomly popping, which is a nice analogue for how little outbursts of fast notes pop up all over the score. And speaking of the score, you can switch back and forth between score view and popcorn view and, yes, when the music inverts, the score inverts as well. Honestly, I'd forgotten how much this silly little program does, which is a nice analogue for how much Bach does in this silly little fugue.

Here's a straightforward "performance" of the fugue by my program:

...and you can go to this fancy page in which the program is embedded with lots of instructions to let you create mayhem.

P.S. Bach's wig in the Scratch program is one of my better creations, by the way.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Bach Day #5: LOL

A couple of my Bach projects are dragging along more slowly than expected - music is hard! - so I'm going to lighten my own spirits on Day #5 of 11 with the silliest, most humorous music by Bach that I know. Yes, he wrote plenty of jaunty gigues and other dances which have lighthearted qualities, and his counterpoint can be effervescent. For some reason, for example, he seemed amused by C-sharp Major and wrote two of his giddiest fugues in that key:

[By the way, though I like Glenn Gould's approach to the Book I fugue, he plays the Book II fugue at a slower tempo than I could've imagined. It's SO slow, it's still kinda funny.]

Anyway, this is a lighthearted post about some music by Bach that is not just light or fun. No, this duet from the Cantata No. 78 "Jesu, der du meine Seele" is really laugh-out-loud silly, especially in this fantastic recording by the American Bach Soloists.

The text in English is as follows (translation by Pamela Dellal from the amazing Emmanuel Music archive):
We hasten with weak, yet eager steps,
O Jesus, O Master, to You for help.
You faithfully seek the ill and erring.
Ah, hear, how we lift up our voices to beg for help!
Let Your gracious countenance be joyful to us!
The way the two soloists chase each other around is clearly a whimsical take on the idea of following weakly in Jesus's steps. Perhaps not every recording/performance is quite on the same Goofy Greats level as the one above (and I mean that with all respect and admiration - just listen to their way with "zu dir"), but I do find the tone and bounciness of this music to be an outlier for Bach. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because I love his more typical fare, but it's nice to hear him letting his powdered wig down a bit.

The combination of that non-stop bouncing bass line and those twirling vocal lines makes the music seem a bit simpler and sunnier than so much Bach, even though there is still lots of cleverness in the construction.

I suppose maybe there's a certain kinship with the wonderful Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 (Desert Island material for sure) with its follow-the-leader soloists and simple bass line [listen starting at 48.12 here].

But as joyful and cheerful as that music is, it's just a little too dignified to be ridiculous. I'm glad Bach left behind at least one bit of music that cheerfully crosses that line!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Bach Day #4: Orpheus in the Underworld?

Well, life definitely caught up with me today, and although I did get some work done on something new, it's not quite ready yet.

So, we return to the winter of 2009 and a Bach recording I've always been pleased with. As described in this post, the recording was made pretty informally, with a few tidying-up edits made later. It was originally posted without score, which I added in 2011. The video only shows the orchestral score, from which I more or less made up a version (it helps that the keyboard part covers much of the material). Someday I should create an honest-to-goodness notated piano version, but that will have to wait.

The music is better-known as the slow movement of the composer's Violin Concerto in A Minor, but there is a harpsichord version of this concerto in G Minor. As so often happens with Bach, music that seems perfect on one instrument can turn out to be pretty satisfying on another as well. Here's what I wrote about this back in Aught Nine:
I hear the slow movement of this concerto as a sort of "Orpheus Taming the Furies" dialogue. True, the orchestra isn't as gruff as in the famous "Orpheus" movement of Beethoven's 4th piano concerto, but there's a stubbornness in Bach's bass ritornello that the solo passages seem intent on melting. The final solo statement is a miracle of sweetness and simplicity, so perfect that there is no concluding ritornello. It's less a victory than it is a unification of opposing forces. Honestly, I can't really put into words what happens in this musical dialogue, so I figured I'd just play it.
There are many compromises at play here. First of all, all those long, suspended notes the violin sings can really only be imagined as sustaining that way in a piano version. Second of all, I didn't have an orchestra available when I slipped into the recital hall early this morning, so it's just a dialogue between my two hands, not a violin (or piano) vs. orchestra. I did my best to incorporate the orchestral violin parts, but I'm inconsistent about that. Third, I only had about 15 minutes, so I just sat and played, and when I had a couple of slips, I backtracked a little and then stitched things together later this afternoon. It's far from perfect. But, whatever. I really love the way it sounds this way, and in some respects the fragility of the piano sonority just adds to the impossibly beautiful writing.
In 2011, when I added the video, I also added this comment:
I remember that when I first heard this music years ago, I found the repetitiveness of the bass line to be a bit annoying; but perhaps it's supposed to be that way, and I think it's quite telling that the R.H. melody gets the last word.
I've also always been puzzled by that rhythm in the bass - the stubborn "Furies" rhythm. Although I believe it should basically be played as written, the fast notes always somehow feel more like triplets. I think I'd thought that's what they were from a recording I'd heard before I ever saw the score.

I can't really put my finger on what I mean exactly. I actually tried having a synth record this with a rhythm halfway between the "16th + 2 32nds" and a triplet, and I also tried just adding a tiny bit extra to the triplet (so that each measure ends up being a tiny bit longer), but I couldn't generate what I was hearing. So you're just stuck with my performance! Perhaps after three days of me bragging about robo-performances, it was about time the computers lost one.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Bach Day #3: Bach to Bach

I promise not every day of this 11-day Bach-a-thon will be about the Preludio from the E Major Violin Partita, but we'll take one more "trip" in that direction today, and then head down another little stream tomorrow. (Bach, of course, is German for brook.)

Before getting to today's admittedly silly bit of play, I thought I'd reflect a bit on some bigger picture questions about WHAT WE ARE DOING. I think about this probably way too much, the written and unwritten rules that govern how we think about classical music, and the ways in which I love and fight against those rules. "Playing Bach" does not normally mean treating the great master's exquisitely crafted compositions as so much silly putty for one's own repurposing pleasure. Rather, "playing Bach" generally means trying to recreate as closely as possible the musical ideas Bach had in mind. And I do still find satisfaction in that. 

But I also find a lot of satisfaction from recomposing and distorting what's on the page. Of course, it's worth remembering here that Bach himself spent a lot of time reworking compositions by the likes of Vivaldi and Marcello (Alessandro & Benedetto!), and though my post-modern reworkings may seem to be in a different spirit, they are grounded in the joy of conversing with the past. Bach's music is conversational in so many ways. (It's also often improvisational, which naturally invites conversational feedback.) Counterpoint, his great specialty, is itself a kind of conversation, but there's also something conversational about the way his melodies unfold. I almost literally hear them talking to me and saying, "what's your response?" (Ok, that's not really true, but it sounds cool.)

There's also something usefully strong and resilient about music that is well-known and strictly patterned, because experiments with such music can use this familiarity and structure as a center of gravity. Although I'm not such a big fan of wildly dissonant music in general, I really enjoy bouncing dissonance and complex rhythmic tricks off of music that our ears can hold on to, as explored in the annotated video I posted yesterday. (As I've discussed before, Timo Andres' Mozart concerto distortion is a great example of this kind of thing.)

Here's something I wrote back in 2011:
...though I am clearly sympathetic to postmodern deconstructions of how we hear and experience the world (e.g. Bach's music sounds greater and more meaningful to us than it otherwise might because of cultural conditioning), I'm surprised at how often postmodernists just leave these deconstructed messes behind as if there's something wrong with loving something for culturally embedded reasons. I think this lies at the heart of what it is to love classical music (or just about anything we love via culture) - this big sense of connected-ness, the way in which one musical work calls out to another, the way in which we listen within these wildly divergent but related frameworks.
I think my point is: 1) I'm happy that there are so many scrupulously faithful recordings and performances of Bach's music in the world, even if their existence flows in part from some arbitrary ideas about what being a musician should be; and I'm happy in part because 2) the existence of that enormous galaxy of all things Bach provides a stimulating jumping-off point for all sorts of post-Bach things.

And that could be a book. But for today, here's my latest attack on the Kapellmeister. 

Having created an independent left hand to go with Bach's solo violin line, I couldn't help but think about pitting Bach against himself. Fortunately, the wonderfully magical Lilypond makes it easy to invert, reverse, and otherwise manipulate musical ideas, so it didn't take so long to create this two-part invention:

There were a lot of choices to make, the most important of which was to create a counterpoint that is a completely exact inversion of the original. This means that harmonically things go to pieces almost right away, and in fact, I did experiment with tweaking the inversion to make more sense, but....that was gonna take a LOT of work, and I wasn't sure it was worth it. I love the zany interplay that happens here.

I won't go into all the technical stuff, although I was surprised to realize how well it worked to put the lower part in C Major. (Technically, it's E Phrygian, a notoriously intense mode, which explains a lot about the results here, but the key signature is the same as C major!) Inverting the steps of a scale in E Major results in the following natural set: E F G A B C D E. Once I realized that, I knew I had to stick with this pure inversion rather than some wimpy modal alterations. Notice there is not a single accidental in the lower part until the first accidental shows up in the original in m. 19. The spelling choices are odd in many places (check out the E-sharp vs. E-flat in m.34 and following!) and not what would be done in a proper score - but they nicely represent the inversion principle. As with my arrangement posted on Sunday, this is not really music made for human hands.

I also gave up and put some long stretches in alto clef (!) because some of the more expansive passages simply wouldn't sit well in treble or bass, and the purist in me wouldn't let any of the mayhem be tempered by register shifts. Because I chose the inversion split-point to be the E above Middle C, this also means there's a significant amount of "hand" crossing. For better or for worse, this is what was meant to be.

There are some delicious dissonances in places like mm. 32-33, and and maybe my favorite moment is m.78 in which the crossing parts end up just trading notes completely - so it just sounds like one buzzing minor 7th for a whole bar. I have some small regret the climactic cadential chords in m. 134 are a complete disaster, but there was no turning back at that point.

So that's that, although I should mention some previous MMmusing two-part experiments that are echoed here:

  • Bach Doubled - a Courante and its Double combined.
  • Re-Inventing Bach - inverting, retrograding, and retrograde-inverting a famous Bach invention.

Note sure what's coming up tomorrow, but I will leave this poor Preludio behind...