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 post...it 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.