Saturday, February 29, 2020

Notes that float

As the Internet, social media, and blogs have evolved over the years, it's likely that more people now see this blog (if they see it at all) on a mobile device than in its true webpage form. This is a little sad for me since I once spent a lot of time tweaking the Blogger templates to create a look I really liked. A typical mobile trip to MMmusing won't even show cool things like my should-be-patented "Multimedia Musing Machine," nor will it show my homemade Bachground wallpaper.

I also recently remembered that the web version of the blog has long featured a link to one of my favorite recordings of my own playing. I opened a 2012 recital (wow, so long ago!) with the Allemande from Bach's Partita No. 4 in D Major. I'd fallen in love with this piece after reading Jeremy Denk's wonderful 7-part blog series about it back in Aught-Seven. (Denk's series begins here.) 

I continue to find it unique among Bach's works for its meandering qualities, melodic but not in a particularly memorable way (meaning there's not really a singable tune). Rather, the highly ornamented right hand rolls along with a wide variety of rhythmic figurations and a sense of harmony that seems more free-floating than "typical" Bach. It manages to be improvisatory and intricate. And inspired.There's nothing else quite like it.

I have nothing against the other six movements of this suite, but this Allemande definitely stands on its own. (It is not as out-of-scale as the mighty Chaconne is in the D Minor violin partita, but it is unusually long and winding for an Allemande.) I also have nothing in particular against other recordings of this piece, but my own performance happens to say just what I would want this deeply personal music to say, so I figured it was time I posted it on YouTube. As it is a live performance played in front of an audience from memory, it is certainly not perfect, but it's really not the kind of thing that needs to be perfect.

To accompany the recording, I prepared my own engraving of this ornate score in Lilypond, a rewarding creative challenge in its own right. Because this music has such a linear quality, as if Bach is inventing each new melodic diversion on the spot, I liked the idea of a continuously scrolling visual. Lilypond has a function which makes it easy to create a score that extends horizontally for exactly as long as needed. Imagine a short sheet of paper (only needs to accommodate the height of two staves) which stretches out across the room. 

I also allowed Lilypond to let the music spacing breath a bit more than I did when preparing a companion "normal-sized" copy. When printing to paper, all of the elaborate rhythms (some measures include as many as 24 notes across) have to be made to fit within orderly staff systems and with some degree of logic across multiple pages. For a long scrolling video score, it's actually better if the measures are relatively uniform in length so that the scrolling speed doesn't have to vary too much, whereas normal engraving will usually take more advantage of less dense bars by compressing their spacing.

In some respects this is a work-in-progress, but I was happy to develop some more techniques both working with Lilypond and in creating scrolling animation. I have some other projects up my sleeve that will require more of the latter. 

But for now, I'll end this rather discursive post with this sublimely discursive bit of Bach:

A few postscripts:
  • I am aware that the notes in the video are rather small. This is in part because using bigger notes would mean faster scrolling which can get a little dizzying, but also because I'm more interested in the visual than in the specific details. As I've written many times before, although there are plenty of nice ways to accompany music with visuals, I don't think anything beats the beauty of a musical score. Obviously, it provides a very close analog to the sounds being heard, but I find that listening while watching notes often helps to sharpen the ears. [To be totally honest, I wish the notes were a little bigger, so I might re-do this, but it takes time since quite a few synch points need to be entered manually to make the music flow properly.]
  • Though still a work-in-progress, you can see what my engraving looks like on paper via this download.

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