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.

No comments: