Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Haydn!

I've made sport for years of complaining that the much-revered Papa Haydn rarely seems to move me in the way his reputation would suggest. But I'd rather not argue that point right now, especially since I've recently become obsessed by a truly great bit of music that's been in Haydn...er, um, in hidin'...or, well, yes, in Haydn's vast catalogue of sonata forms, slow movements, minuets (so many minuets!), prestos, etc. As it happens, I first heard (or noticed, anyway) this Haydn in a live concert, which is particularly meaningful after more than a year of virtually no live performance experiences.

Our three string-player children have been attending the magical Greenwood Summer Music Camp for a decade now and, after a sad summer of silence in 2020, the campers are back playing weekly chamber music marathons this summer. There are plenty of repertoire favorites that feature regularly in these 3-4 hour concerts, including lots of Mozart, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Shostakovich and, yes, Haydn. And I'll admit that I generally enjoy movements from Haydn's 60+ string quartets as there is often much charm and lively interplay to be found. In fact, one of my favorite Greenwood memories involves my oldest daughter playing first violin in this remarkably beautiful set of variations from an early quartet. So I am aware that Haydn can take it to the next level.

The truth is that as much as I love these very long concerts, there is an endurance aspect to listening, and sometimes it's easy to lose focus. I don't generally get excited when Haydn is up at the plate, but about halfway through the first half of the third weekend concert in July, a group came out to perform the Adagio sostenuto second movement from Op. 76, No.1. I know the six Op. 76 quartets more by reputation (they are much admired!) than repeated listening, though I did play cello in the more famous Op. 76, No. 3 "Emperor" Quartet many moons ago.

But the teenagers playing this Adagio sostenuto managed to stop time (in a good way) from the simple, opening bars. I'm sometimes embarrassed that I don't have that many "love at first listen" moments, but in this case a disarmingly simple structure made the logic easy to follow while Haydn kept delivering moments of unexpected transcendence. Although it's probably not fair to compare everything to Beethoven (who learned much from Haydn after all), I couldn't help but think of the visionary impact found in slow movements from Beethoven's legendary late period. (Or even mid-period.)

As often happens with late Beethoven, the basic building block here is a simple, hymn-like melody. The melody moves mostly by step in a fairly limited range, with the emotional punch delivered by the sonority and harmonies. In this opening section, we hear the 8-bar melody twice, each time organized into conventional periods of 4-bar open-ended phrase followed by 4-bar finishing phrase. Most of the harmonies are fairly conventional, including the use of an expressive but by-the-book German sixth chord in the final cadence of this section (not shown here), but I remember being affected by an unexpected chord in the first cadence, and I think that moment is part of what captured my attention and focused my vision on Haydn's vision. 

Below you can see the first presentation of the 8-bar theme (its paired phrases create what's known as a "period"). The chord shown in red strikes me every time as unexpected, but in a way that's warm and comforting rather than jarring. The sound those four notes create is a minor seventh chord on the dominant (5th scale degree), which is not a typical dominant function. Minor Seventh Chords (which I love) occur often enough in Haydn Era Classical Style, but usually built on the 2nd scale degree. The usage here is more unusual. BORING PART: The most logical way to analyze this moment functionally is to hear the 1st violin and viola D and F as accented passing tones (meaning they are not part of the prevailing harmony) which resolve into a secondary vii 6/5 diminished chord of the F Major IV chord that follows in m.7. The real chord in terms of function is what we hear on the last note of m.6 immediately after the red notes, with 2nd violin and cello notes still sustaining. IMPORTANT PART: The sounds these four "red" notes make together in this context seem lifted from another world.


This is admittedly quite a subtle detail which could easily be explained away, and it's odd to feel that this sound which lasts for less than a second should make such a difference, but that's just the way it is sometimes. (For better or worse, this kind of love for subtle detail is part of classical music culture.) Haydn at this stage of his career had incredible command of his craft, and an unusual little turn of phrase like this can magically unlock a higher plane.

So, in terms of the simple, logical structure I mentioned, it can pretty easily be laid out as follows. Note that the other major building block for this movement is what I've elaborately labeled "expansive, flowing dialogue between violin and cello." In each of these sections, there is much more forward motion and each climaxes in some way before returning to the serenity of the original thematic mood. The first and fourth climaxes are quite similar, ending with the violin ascending almost impossibly high. The third climax is the most dramatic (thus most like a sonata form Development section), with a wandering violin diminishing to pianissimo followed by subito forte and several significant silences. 
  • THEME (including my favorite chord)
    • 8 bars
  • THEME REPEATS (octave higher and varied, with German Sixth at cadence) 
    • 7 bars (cadence elides into next section)
  • EXPANSIVE, FLOWING DIALOGUE BETWEEN VIOLIN AND CELLO
    • 17 bars
  • THEME (now in G and even simpler than before)
    • 7 bars (cadence elides into next section)
  • EXPANSIVE, FLOWING DIALOGUE BETWEEN VIOLIN AND CELLO
    • 9 bars
  • THEME (just like the theme repetition above except an octave lower)
    • 7 bars (cadence elides into next section)
  • EXPANSIVE, FLOWING DIALOGUE BETWEEN VIOLIN AND CELLO (in minor)
    • 16 bars
  • THEME (just like first presentation, with my favorite chord again at last)
    • 7 bars (cadence elides into next section)
  • EXPANSIVE, FLOWING DIALOGUE BETWEEN VIOLIN AND CELLO
    • 12 bars
  • CODA (more expansive flowing dialogue, with violin, cello, and viola!)
    • 5 bars
Maybe I've made it look more complex than it is. To the listener, it's basically an alternation between the serene hymn flow and the more restless dialogue flow. There are elements of what we'd call Sonata Form (in terms of the tonal plan) and Rondo Form (with the sense of return provided by each recurrence of the theme), but what matters is the beautiful balancing and merging of these contrasting flows. The dialogue sections also feature some imaginative textures in which the first violin is delicately syncopated against the other three instruments.

Naturally, I didn't hear all of these details in such terms on that wonderful first hearing. But I was curious about that chord that had seemed surprising, so I went looking for the score a few days later. At first I was excited to see that IMSLP has a piano version (see p.7 here) of the whole quartet arranged by the English composer William Crotch. Imagine my horror on realizing that Crotch LEFT OUT THE B-FLAT THAT MAKES IT ALL HAPPEN. (There's also a wrong note - denoted by X - in the alto of the next measure. Nice job, William! It turns out the arrangement is riddled with errors and general sloppiness.) 



So maybe this proves my point about how otherworldly that chord is - William Crotch couldn't handle it. For reference, here's a quick demo of 1) Crotch's simplification, 2) another typical way Haydn might have harmonized this with standard secondary dominants, 3) harmonized with the accented passing notes removed, 4) Haydn's perfect version, and 5) overindulging by sustaining the harmony for too long so as to appreciate its sound.


Naturally, this experience led me down an unexpected path. Even after playing a bit of Crotch's poorly made piano reduction, I discovered how much I loved the feeling of this music under my hands. In fact, I realized that almost the entire movement fits comfortably on the keys and could quite plausibly be conceived for the piano. Only small adjustments are needed to make it work, and who knows? Maybe Haydn first worked this out as a slow movement for a piano sonata. Some of the passages certainly have a different effect on the piano compared to the quartet version, but I couldn't resist making my own and I find it very gratifying to play. I firmly believe it would stand as one of the outstanding slow movements from all of Haydn's piano sonatas.

In true MMmusing fashion, I have so far put much more effort into making a scrolling score animation which syncs both the quartet score and my new piano version than I have into...you know...practicing or creating good conditions for recording (like getting the piano tuned or using a bench that doesn't squeak). So what I have for now is more a proof-of-concept recording than anything polished, but it'll have to do as school starts soon and I need to put this aside. Still, I wanted to get it into the world, and hope to return with a better recording when opportunity allows. I haven't finished all the tedious work that needs to be done to make the reduction looks its best, but if you're interested in getting a copy of the less elegant version I have now, drop me a line.

Here's where things stand so far, enough to demonstrate how it works on piano:



And here's one of my favorite recordings I've found in the boring string quartet dressing. (The score may be viewed starting on p. 11 here.)


Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The MMmusing Virtual Recital

In the past year, for quarantine-based reasons, it's become customary for many musicians and organizations to post virtual concert/recital videos. Obviously, there's very good reason to do this, although this now puts such performances in competition with the virtually infinite supply of concert video from the past. There is of course some perceptive immediacy provided by the notion that a performance was prepared recently, under certain recital-like conditions and for a specific audience, but the big missing piece is that performers and audience are not in the same space - so even a true livestream loses the virtues of a live acoustic, the knowledge that nothing is edited, the tangible sense of being with others, the thrill of a night out, the focus provided by sharing an experience with others, the noisy program-shuffling, the coughing, the search for parking.... well, I guess all that's lost isn't a loss.

Anyway, for my first virtual recital offering in these strange times, I'm breaking lots of rules, but hopefully providing something unique, while still housed in a familiar recital-like shell. For starters, there's nothing new about any of these performances, though many feature new visuals. There also isn't very much video showing me playing - though almost all the sounds are of me playing the piano - and some of the performances are gently edited. The performances are from different times, dating from 2003 to 2020, and on different pianos, some recorded before live audience, but most not. 

Hopefully what holds things together are: a consistent musical sensibility, a love for the piano as singing instrument, some introspective tendencies I'll get to, and the way in which all of the music intersects with ideas presented on MMmusing. All have appeared here on the blog in various ways. Of the twelve selections, only about a third are performed as the composer intended (more or less), although there is only one real mashup. The rest involve re-imaginings which range from straightforward transcription to extreme re-composing. 

Recently, an organist friend posted the following:

"The problem with doing organ transcriptions is that there isn't enough time to learn them once they're finished. But the good side is that you can fake your way through it because you're already doing that!"

My response:

"Pro Tip: Just think of EVERYthing you play as a transcription!"

I meant this as a joke. Any failure to adhere to what's in the score can simply be thought of as transcriber privilege! But I do like the idea that encounters with great music need not be limited by strict expectations about what the original score demands. Half of the works presented here are, indeed, transcriptions of music originally intended for something other than solo piano, and that immediately invites some freedom of choice, even though I'm basically reading from the original score; in none of these cases did I even write out a transcription. I'm just kind of making choices as I go, hopefully making it work, but very much in the moment.

If there is a theme, aside from "things I've blogged about," it might be that almost everything is on the slower side, with lots of melancholy (even though only one selection is truly in a minor key). Because of the different recording methods used, I won't pretend everything flows together perfectly, but a feeling of floating predominates, and that's emphasized by how many of these videos feature my favorite kind of visual - the slowly scrolling score. Nine of the videos feature scores I created and optimized for this purpose. I love looking at this music almost as much as I love playing and listening to it.

I'm calling this the MMmusing Introspective Retrospective Recital to suggest both the overall character and that these selections provide entry points into my fourteen year blogging odyssey. Though I originally imagined a simple YouTube playlist of mostly pre-existing videos, I realized that in order to keep sound balances relatively consistent from piece to piece, it made sense to do some minor re-mixing and make one big video. (I've also realized just what a big and daunting task it is to mix and master effectively; the results here are far from professional, but hopefully do the job.) Fortunately, YouTube now offers a chapters option. As you listen, moving the mouse (or finger on mobile) to the bottom edge of the video should bring up a chapter title and clicking on that should bring up a full menu. I've also built a webpage to house the video and an accompanying program list with clickable time stamps.

We start, as perhaps all things should, with Bach at #1 and #4. Though only 1/6 of the titles, the Bach works occupy about 1/3 of the total time as we find the master of intellectual counterpoint displaying a particularly lyrical and tender side. The rest of the program is weighted towards France, with two offerings each of Couperin and Poulenc, a Chausson chanson, some retrograde Satie, and a Messiaen homage. So we hear Bach at his most leisurely and spend much of the rest of the time in the spirit of a rainy day in Paris.

Here's the program:

  1. Bach: Concerto in G Minor, Andante. Best-known in its Violin Concerto in A Minor version, this slow movement works really nicely as a duet between the hands which I've described as a sort of Orpheus taming the Furies scene. I've created a new scrolling score which debuts in this video; it simply shows the orchestral notation from which I played, though of course I don't play everything shown, and in at least once place (m.14), I changed the solo part to the way Bach writes it in the violin version. But the "arrangement" was more or less devised on the spot. [February, 2009]
  2. Couperin: Le Couperin. Yes, the composer named this beautiful piece after himself, though he might be mystified by the free-ranging ornamentation inspired by artist Jim Zingarelli's hand-painted score. I've always had a rather laissez-faire attitude to how ornaments should be interpreted. This takes that to the extreme and creates an interesting soundworld. I hope you like trills. [October, 2009]
  3. Couperin: Les barricades mystérieuses, the composer's most famous work (re-worked dramatically in previous post) accompanied by the skittering sounds of Zingarelli, seated nearby and live-drawing on a Tablet PC. (Sound is a little boomy, and the pen sounds are unusual, but I've grown to like the effect, and it's fun to watch the abstract shapes take shape.) [October, 2009]
  4. Bach: Allemande from Partita in D Major. The longest work on this program is played straight, recorded live as the opening work on a 2012 recital. Though Bach has one of the most consistent voices of the best-known composers, the writing here seems freer and more spontaneous than normal, with some arresting changes of rhythmic flow and an almost Romantic feel for harmonic color. [September, 2012]
  5. Eitas: Eidéponmyg. Things take an unusual turn with Bach's D major followed by the final D Minor chord of Satie's Gymnopédie No. 1, which is played backwards here. This performance debuted seven years ago in the midst of a series of experiments disordering Satie's greatest hit. I'd forgotten how well this works - it has the same hypnotic pacing of the original, with an extra dose of poignancy. The score animation, which shows Satie's original flowing backwards below, was newly created in the past few weeks. (If you follow along, you'll notice there are a few editorial decisions that have to be made when reversing music; these were discussed in the original blog post.) [April, 2014]
  6. Reicha: Fugue, Op. 36, No. 20. This unusual little fugue in 5/8 time (most unusual for 1800!) was one of my favorite discoveries from 2020, the year in which this composer celebrated his 250th birthday. [May, 2020]
  7. Stanford: The Blue Bird. Four of the final six selections here are from my "Songs Without Singers" series of 2008 in which I recorded vocal music without the vocals. This piano version of an a cappella classic features a new score created as part of my first post of 2021 which connects Stanford's work with Minecraft and wind chimes. [May, 2008]
  8. Chausson: Le colibri. Another newly created score from January to go with an old recording of this perfect 5/4 song by Chausson. [April, 2008]
  9. Poulenc: Mouvements perpétuel No. 1. I've included this in part because I love the animated notation carousel, even though the free 3-D animation tools I was using in 2008 are rather crude. This also happens to be THE first piano piece I chose for myself at an important turning point when I transitioned from kid-who-takes-lessons to kid-passionate-about-piano. And, this is also the music I paired with Couperin's mysterious barricades in my most recent post. [April, 2008]
  10. Adolphe: "Hey Jude" in the style of Messiaen. This wonderful little arrangement, created by Bruce Adolphe for his NPR Piano Puzzler series, transcends its seemingly silly origins. The McCartney tune is slowed way down and heard against a series of chords from the Louange a l'eternité de Jesus movement from Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. This video is from a live recital performance in a concert focused on musical mashups. [September, 2013]
  11. Hoiby: The Lamb. One of the most beautiful American art songs - a setting of poetry by William Blake. Recorded back in 2008, although the video version only debuted in 2020 on Twitter and is new to the blog. [May, 2008]
  12. Poulenc: Fleurs. The oldest recording here is a simple piano version of probably my favorite art song. I played this from the vocal book, with almost no planning, as an encore on a big recital which had featured major works of Ravel, Schumann, and Brahms. (I do sometimes play music that is fast and loud.)The scrolling score was newly created for this virtual recital. [September, 2003]
Again, you may view the video on this specially created page or watch it on YouTube.





Around the time I was putting some finishing touches on the online version of this recital, I learned that Chris Lawson, one of my best friends from high school, had passed away on April 1. Chris was the son of my piano teacher (who is still with us and grieving this great loss) and an excellent pianist and violist, but also a brilliant, caring person who inspired me in lots of ways. He and I spent years together in orchestra as well as one memorable year in chorus, but we also argued passionately about all sorts of things, sometimes using the English class chalkboard as a place to construct bruising arguments in the guise of sentences to be diagrammed grammatically. He had much more wide-ranging musical tastes than I did, and I still treasure a mixtape cassette he made for me of music by the progressive rock band Yes. He somehow convinced me to be his running mate as student council president, and though I wasn't really qualified for the job, he was a born leader and went on to a stellar career as an attorney, focused on serving people and often working on behalf of public education. Forty-five minutes of reflective music doesn't do away with any of the sense of loss, but I have thought of Chris often in these past weeks as I've listened to this inward-looking music, and I'm grateful for his life and friendship. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Birth of Coulenc

First things first, today marks the 14th anniversary of the MMmusing blog! 14 is not a particularly interesting number, even though it's significantly larger than the flashier 5 and 10. 14 years is more years than I've spent in any single job, and longer than I've lived in any town, other than my hometown, and though there have been plenty of quiet months here, I'm proud of the unique body of work it represents - and the lively beginning to 2021.

A few numbers. This is post #633, although I should admit that more than half of that number came in 2007-2009. Those were different days when a blog might hope to function more as a place people would check regularly, as opposed to now when the best bet is to send readers to new posts via Facebook or Twitter. I don't have a strong public presence on either, so this blog really serves more as...well, a web log. A place to store ideas I've had and things I've created. Blogger is hardly the flashiest platform, but I enjoy the continuity of having all these posts in one place (even though many old posts need maintenance to keep up with various technical standards).

I've posted well over 200 videos to my closely linked YouTube channel, with more than 950,000 views. Hopefully I'll pass the 'ol million barrier this year. That's nothing for a mega-star, but that's a lot of clicks on strange mashups, score animations, and other idiosyncratic musical explorations. Speaking of which, let's get back to strange mashups, score animations, and other idiosyncratic musical explorations!

[But don't forget to spin the wheel at MMmusing's Magical Multimedia Musing Machine, which now leads to about 425 unique multimedia outcomes!]


In my last post, I wrote about the idea of splicing two works together not via simultaneous mashup, but rather by fast-paced alternation, beat-by-beat. For that first experiment, I intentionally chose works by Mozart and Chopin that clash vividly, so the result is more funhouse mirror than marriage of musical minds. In a few conversations that followed that post, I've been reminded of other ways in which Mozart's music can serve well as subject for further treatment.

I've already mentioned Grieg's second-piano additions to the same Mozart sonata, but a brilliant Twitter friend reminded me of a remarkable inversion of this sonata (which, as my Twitter friend says, "produces a modal color akin to Shostakovich's)". The pianist-composer Timo Andres has created his own mixed-up version of a Mozart piano concerto in which the orchestra and his right hand play Mozart, while his left jumps ahead a few centuries. And one of my own favorite blog projects links together three Mozart violin concertos in regular alternation.

But I was also interested in the kind of conversation that might result from two pieces with a more natural mutual affinity. Honestly, I can't remember exactly how I came to this next pairing, but I felt it had real potential from the start, bringing together two much-loved French keyboard works which are separated almost exactly by two centuries. 

François Couperin's Les barricades mystérieuses, published in 1717, has a legendary reputation as music with special transcendental powers, all housed in a humble few pages and a regular interlocking texture created by constant suspensions (basically meaning the four voices tend to change out of sync with each other, creating chains of elegant dissonances). One probably has to really love and have lived with notated music to feel this, but I find it immensely satisfying just to look at these notes. The top line (with alto clef!) is from 1717 and the second version shown is more recent, but very elegantly engraved.




There are many available recordings, but I'll share my own from some years back when I was collaborating with an artist who live-sketched while I played. You have to do deal with a reverberant hall, possible over-pedaling (I pedal in contrapuntal music, so sue me), and the sounds of my friend Jim sketching on my tablet computer (this was pre-iPad!):



If that recording doesn't suit you, you easily can find dozens of different approaches on piano, harpsichord, guitar, and more. 

Anyway, at some point my brain connected this with the first of Francis Poulenc's Trois mouvements perpétuels from 1918. These breezy miniatures were so popular that the composer ended up resenting them (much as Couperin might be annoyed how much his one little piece is so much better-known than the many, many others he wrote), although I don't get the sense they're played as much as they once were. They mean a lot to me because this was the first music I ever chose for myself, having heard my brother play them some years earlier. Saying "I want to play this" to my teacher was basically the point at which I turned from a kid who happened to take piano lessons to someone who fell in love with the instrument. 

They are only of moderate difficulty, but the first piece has a uniquely intoxicating appeal reminiscent of Couperin's barricades. In this case, the bass line never changes from its bouncing 8th note ostinato, and though the right hand has some curiously dark diversions, the music keeps returning to its iconic opening, just as in Couperin. Again, I'll choose my own version to share because it includes one of my favorite animations ever, one of my rare forays into 3-D animation. I especially like the way the constant rise and fall of the left hand suggests carousel horses bobbing up and down.



It was convenient for me that Poulenc uses no key signature (there'd be no good place for it in my circular score design), but the music is clearly in the same B-flat Major of Couperin, and it's in 4/4 as well. Although a simultaneous mashup was not my ultimate goal, I couldn't resist starting that way. You'll notice here and elsewhere that I've reduced Couperin's little rondeau to its 8-bar A section, while Poulenc's 19 bars loop above. Poulenc loves quirky endings (a future blog post topic, perhaps?), so it turned out that after 4 times through, plus four looping coda bars, I could get things to end nicely. 

NOTE: I do not consider this mashup a particular success, though it has moments I enjoy. The piano vs. harpsichord sound is a bit annoying. I'm not suggesting you listen to all of it (though I loved the challenge of creating this score), but you might at least sample it, and then please keep reading!

The next step was to do the beat-by-beat alternation trick I did with Mozart and Chopin. One of the weird things about this process, a quirk which pops up a few times in both Mozart and Chopin, is how gestures that naturally cross beats get awkwardly chopped. Now, I enjoy awkward things, but I realized soon that Couperin's piece presented a particular challenge. Almost all of the primary two-note melodic groupings cross the beat lines which would mean that breaking this up into one-beat sections would conceal much of its charm. This little image shows how these groupings cross the dotted lines which group each bar into beats

On a lark, I decided to shift the Couperin back by a half-beat which I knew would create some syncopation as now the accented beats of Couperin would fall on off-beats with respect to Poulenc. But I tried it anyway, and the result was: really satisfying! It turns out the emphasis on the off-beats creates something like a tresillo rhythm, which is fundamental to Cuban and other Latin styles. (Think of the well-known habanera rhythm from Bizet's Carmen, but leaving out the third of the four notes). See what you think:



Although Couperin's music is admittedly reduced to a subsidiary role (especially as it keeps looping 8 bars while Poulenc gets its full 19), it definitely adds a wonderful kick that pairs well with the playfulness of Poulenc's original conception. A case could be made for just keep repeating the opening bar of Couperin, as the changing bass line otherwise clashes a bit, but I like the various rotations produced by this alignment. Each time through brings subtly new melodic/rhythmic relationships. 

If you're curious, the tresillo rhythm I hear is created more or less in the following way. The first example below shows a simplified version of what the two pieces look like together, with the Couperin notes in red. The accents shown indicate where/how these patterns tend to create natural emphasis. (Remember that the top voice in Couperin puts a natural stress on beats 2 and 4, now displaced by an 8th note.)

Another way of thinking about this is that the following combo pattern emerges from this pairing:
If that all seems a little mysterious, here's a quick audio/video demo which lets you see and hear how the two pieces, combined in this off-kilter way, produce something like a tresillo feeling:


And, for the record, I couldn't have told you what a tresillo rhythm was two days ago, but I wanted to know why this "found music" had this effect on me. Your mileage may vary.

At any rate, I couldn't help but extend the analogy a bit with some percussion:


There's much more I'd love to say about all of this, but I'd really like to get this posted on my blogday. Happy MMmusing Day!



P.S. I will mention briefly that a big part of the appeal of this project was creating these unique scores. Figuring out how best to show the Couperin-Poulenc (Coulenc!) alternating video, with the downbeats mis-aligned, took a lot of brain cells and....well, let's just say a lot of time! But it's the kind of time I find so rewarding. 

There's much more I could say about Couperin's mysterious Les Barricades Mystérieuses, but for now I'll point you to this interesting post which catalogues more than a dozen composition inspired by the little character piece from 1717. Perhaps my Coulenc will find its way on to such lists in future....

And in addition to my performance of Couperin's piece shown above, I wrote briefly back in 2009 about how much it reminds me of Schumann's equally beguiling Arabeske. I see that the pianist Simone Dinnerstein has been touring with a program that opens with those two pieces!

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Chopped Art = Chopzart

Early in my school vacation week, I was spinning the MM Multimedia Musing Machine wheel  (which you should do regularly as well) and ended up re-reading the post where I first started on my journey towards playing (with a partner) the Moonlight Sonata and Clair de lune at the same time. I wrote the following back in 2013:
A twitter acquaintance made note that an internet radio station was mistakenly cutting back and forth between two different recordings; another Twitter acquaintance helpfully (?) suggested this was just my sort of thing (see last post), and I was suddenly imagining what pieces might make nice jump-cut partners. I had the idea of splicing quickly and methodically back and forth between two distinct pieces to see if the ear could somehow hear each half as complete, but didn't get so far with that idea - yet.

There are many "roads not taken" in my musing past, but this splicing idea caught my interest again so I did some thought-experimenting. I started thinking about splicing two pictures together where the images are interwoven like...well, I couldn't find a great example, so I made this:


I call it The Screama Lisa. Although the color palettes actually merge surprisingly well, the effect is still quite disruptive, even though one can easily see all of both paintings. Notice that in the method above, all the information is kept in view, as opposed to this kind of merging technique in which the images overlap each other:

As with the contrast shown in those image creations, my first thought was to pair two musical works which are different in tone, but which also have formal qualities that make them sync fairly well. (In the case of The Mona Lisa and The Scream, in spite of their affective differences, each are proportioned similarly, with primary figures in the center and a more atmospheric background.)

Somehow, I ended up first with the very familiar first movement of Mozart's Sonata in C Major, K. 545 vs. Chopin's Etude in C-sharp Minor. I liked this contrast because, on the one hand, they are strikingly different in style. The Mozart is gentle and lyrical while the Chopin is fiery and without any real melody. The Mozart is in major, with C as tonic, and is mostly diatonic (meaning there aren't many accidentals), whereas the Chopin has a C-sharp tonic (the most dissonant relationship to C), in minor, and in highly chromatic style, with frequent modulations as well. One is nicknamed "Easy," and one is a formidable struggle - something I know, having fought Chopin's finger-twister many times. On the other hand, the pieces are in 4/4, similar in length, can be played at similar tempi, and feature lots of sixteenth notes. 

So, this first experiment is meant to sound pretty out there as a battle of opposites (and if you hate it, please do come back for my next post), but I find I can track both parts - with some effort - while also getting a thrill from the constant back-and-forth. It takes a little while to learn how to follow the score, so I added little animations to the first two measures to make the process clear - basically, the two pieces alternate every single beat. You can see the basic process in this snapshot of the MIDI file I created. (By the way, for the video below, you'll notice dynamics and other expressive marks are removed from the otherwise carefully prepared scores I prepared. This is not meant to be expressive playing!)


Each little line represents a note, and you can see that the parts never overlap. Of course, the effect is jarring with the constant switches of tonality, but it's exciting! (I had to add a little coda to the Mozart to make them end "together.") 


I don't expect everyone to enjoy listening to this as much as I do, but there are some fun moments along the way, and, having created dozens of mashups, it was interesting to use this different approach where the clashes are only via horizontal perception, never vertical. No information is eliminated for the listener, as would happen if switching quickly between two radio stations, and the dissonance never results from simultaneous sonorities.

I think it also works because the Mozart is so iconic that it provides a nice center of gravity. By the way, if you don't know it, there is a lovely "two-piano" version of this piece in which Grieg added an indulgent second piano part to Mozart's original, also taking advantage of its iconic status. (I've done a little additive composing along those lines as well...sort of.) For my little bit of Chopzart, I generally find it works best to listen with Mozart at the center of one's perception with Chopin providing a Bartókian chromatic blanket.

Still, this bit of Chopzart is pretty much a curiosity. In my next post, we'll get to a more interesting "discovery."


Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Chime After Chime

As much as I love talking about unexpected connections, it's embarrassing that I missed a big one between my first and last posts of January. When discussing the magical, ever-changing and unsynchronized ostinato patterns suggested by composer William Albright for the lovely hymn tune named for him, I compared the work to Terry Riley's In C. Riley's iconic masterpiece is perhaps the best-known work in which musical fragments are combined in different ways depending on choices the performers make. But for In C to be truly successful, those decisions should be made with an improvisational feel for what's going on around; the possible interactions of neighboring patterns, while varied, should not be left entirely to chance. Riley planned the progression to allow for all sorts of wonderful interactions among neighboring segments - what he described as the emergence of "fantastic shapes." Its design is very flexible, but far from random.  

What Albright is doing is really much simpler, though still beautifully conceived, and I suddenly realized a few days ago that the bell-like, rhythmically unmoored patterns he requests are more like random chime ringing or...well...wind chimes! Not sure why I didn't think of this sooner since I spent a lot of time building my own virtual wind chimes a few weeks back to illustrate the way the slowly unfolding pentatonic tones of the Minecraft theme suggest backyard bells, not so much in sound as in spirit. (Of course, what keeps the Albright hymn anchored are the constancy of the tune and the organ chords; it's only the atmosphere that depends on random twinklings.)

As it happens, I've kept tinkering with my changeable wind chimes and the little program is starting to feel like a full-fledged instrument, capable of generating interesting compositional ideas with just a few clicks and keystrokes. Specifically, in addition to the features shown in my first demo, you may now 1) move the starting pitches for a pitch pattern up or down, and 2) see the letter names of the pitches associated with each pipe. As shown in the new little demo below, it can be fun to set the scale to minor thirds, which creates suspenseful diminished seventh harmonies, let those ring out at top speed, and then create very effective changing patterns by raising and lowering the overall pitch.



I've gotten to know the ostinato pattern specified by Albright quite well since the ambient mood of my initial synthesized video beckoned me to create a longer-playing version. This new video lasts just under 30 minutes, and though technically nothing is ever quite the same since the seven ostinato instruments are always interacting at different rates, the effect is basically unchanging. Albright's melody and the organ accompaniment keep things grounded and we don't hear the ostinato patterns as melodic, contrapuntal, or harmonic. They simply create a celestial ambience. I should know because I've listened to this thirty-minute version in full at least 5-6 times already while driving! (Pairs wonderfully with mid-winter snow.)


[By the way, if you decided to brave a long listening session, I suggest keeping things fairly soft as the haziness comes through better that way.]

It was during one of these sessions that I made the (fairly obvious) wind chimes connection, although the pitch set gives this hymn a particularly bright (all bright?) sound quality. And yes, I realize many will think I'm crazy for listening over and over to a synthesized recording with some real limitations, but I find the music both calming and stimulating. And since I was thinking of this wind chimes connection, I made a separate version of my virtual chimes set to Albright's 9-pitch set. Just click the green flag below and then you can brush them or hear them played continuously by clicking the treble clef.



A few other observations. Repeated hearings have made me aware of several possible auditory illusions and allusions in Albright's soundworld. At one point, as the main tune had finished up for the nth time, my mind went unexpectedly to the famous snare drum pattern from Ravel's Bolero. Obviously the music is different and in this case less varied and less rhythmic, but the brief interludes between statements of Albright's tune called back memories of hearing that snare drum as an omnipresent force linking repetitions of a seemingly endless loop.

And then, a few days after writing the paragraph above, I realized there's another reason my mind goes to Ravel. Throughout most of the Albright hymn, and between all verses, the organ rocks back and forth between D Major-ish chords with C-sharp included on downbeats and melting into C-natural in the second half of each bar. Since these chords come to the fore during the interludes between the verses, it makes sense that I would hear a connection to Ravel who between "verses" of Bolero features a little two-chord progression in which the second chord also features a flattened 7th. So that little drop from 1 to flat 7 (D to C in Albright, C to B-flat in Ravel) is found in both, although the Albright only becomes an endlessly repetitive exercise in my new imagining.
 


[Hear the Ravel chords in the harp starting at 2:38 here. All of the interludes between "verses" in Bolero feature some set of of chords with pitches descending by a whole step, but this version reminds me most of what's happening in Albright.]

Maybe that sounds like a lot of gobbledygook, but as usual here on MMmusing, the important thing is that the experience of hearing/feeling this connection happened before the tortured explanation.

My favorite little detail to listen for over and over in the Albright is the way the circled chord below creates what always sounds to me like some sort of glissando effect in the low registers of the organ. This is probably the most expressive note in the melody and part of a funky final cadence which begins as minor plagal (iv-i) before shifting back to something more like D Major. I suspect the illusion is caused by my mind trying to make sense of all the quiet dissonances stacked on top of each other....like I'm trying to separate the notes out. Or it's probably really an even more complex auditory thing having to do with overtone clashes, but let's leave well enough alone.


One other illusion that is surprisingly persistent is that, during those rocking chords (last two measures shown above), I find I often hear this simple little moving pattern, even though it is never played. In fact, it's almost impossible now for me to unhear this.


So to finish up this rather unusual post, I made a little video which helps to illustrate some of these illusions. Sort of a little trip inside my mind! ("Trip" is definitely the right word.) Although these examples go by pretty quickly, remember that when playing a YouTube video, tapping the left arrow on your keyboard will automatically take you back five seconds which is a handy way to do comparative listening.



Good luck in there!

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Groundhog Déjà Vu

If I were more organized, I could now mark quite a few milestones of each year with MM multimedia. For example, I have ready-made music for the birthdays of:

Other important days include my Blogaversary (Feb. 24), July 4,  and of course, Augmented Sixth Day! Not to mention countless Christmas options. 

Today I was reminded of a video I made (for vague reasons) last April which happens to be perfectly suited for today. If you somehow haven't seen Groundhog Day, I suppose this contains mild spoilers, but at any rate, it's my attempt to make this almost perfect movie just a little more perfect:



P.S. Not going to go into my not completely serious "Haydn hatin'" reasons today. At any rate, he can certainly survive my not liking his music as much as I'm supposed to....

Sunday, January 31, 2021

All is bright

In choosing music for this morning's services - livestreamed affairs in which only one choir soloist and a clergy member or two do all the singing - I had kind of half-heartedly chosen one of our hymnal's "deep cuts" as a solo to be sung by the soprano on hand. The Hymnal 1982 has now been the official hymnal of the Episcopal church for almost forty years, but it has some unexpected little corners which still communicate an optimistic openness to new things, even if some of the new things might seem a little dated now.

I always feel a slightly and wonderfully subversive energy when I happen on these pages, and would love to go back and look in on the room where these choices were made. There are some really lovely tunes by David Hurd and Calvin Hampton that I've loved for years now, but I've always looked a little sideways at the handful of selections from William Albright, a composer with a sizeable reputation and career - though I admittedly know him more by name than his music. (Here's a lovely reflection which includes some suggested listening.)

Like Hampton, another virtuoso organist, Albright died far too soon and his legacy seems to be strongest in the organ repertoire, but it's clear from the bits I've read online in the past twenty-four hours that he was brilliant, wildly creative, and an inspired teacher. He recorded all the Joplin rags while helping to inspire a ragtime revival, wrote many of his own rags (including for organ), studied with Messiaen, and wrote in all sorts of styles with a flair for color and merging the unexpected. 

I'll admit I'm still a little frightened by this frenetic Albright hymn, although rehearsing it once with my choir brought up a great moment when a soprano asked if I could play one part again "without the background noise" - by which she meant, the accompaniment. I suggested later that from now on in recital programs, rather than be listed as accompanist or pianist, I'll just be listed as "Michael Monroe, background noise." 

But Albright's noise can be a bit distracting - in the best way - and that brings us to this morning's hymn. In this case, the tune name is simply ALBRIGHT and it's offered as an alternate option for the hymn Father, we thank thee who hast planted thy holy name within our hearts. The tune itself is fairly simply,  meant to be sung in unison with some bluesy touches along the way. I've had my choir sing it before with me just playing the organ part which mostly features the same rocking chords over a D pedal with lots of pianissimo dissonance mixed in. 

That was my plan for today, but yesterday I looked more closely at the instructions for optional ostinato instruments. This had seemed impractical even when I had a full choir in the house, but having already recorded the accompaniment to give our soloist something to practice with, I couldn't help but wonder what it would sound like to add these extra sounds. I won't go into all the details now, but basically Albright suggests a variety of bell-like instruments (celesta, vibraphones, chimes, electric piano, harp etc.) as possibilities. All the instruments play the same series of notes in an additive/subtractive fashion, but each player chooses a different tempo and sticks to it. The idea is to create a "celestial" effect.

So, I made some seven quick virtual recordings set to various tempi, layered them over the melody and organ part, did some basic adjustments for balance, stereo separation, and reverb, and....well, I was amazed at how beautiful and magical the result was, synthesized limitations aside. I've listened to it countless times already. And, though I'm generally quite hesitant about using pre-recorded material, I even decided to float these ostinati into the sanctuary this morning while the soprano sang and I played the organ part. This is a special hymn and deserves to be heard and sung more often.

Not having found a recording online, I'm posting this to YouTube today, though I might try to make a more sophisticated mix at some point. I'm at that point in the process where if I keep tweaking, I'd be opening up very time-consuming layers of deeper decisions; but the truth is that this music is supposed to find its own way to some degree. Like Terry Riley's In C, a prescription that seems random and lazy turns out to be beautifully conceived, and part of the beauty is in letting new things emerge in the moment. See what you hear. And if you'll excuse the pun, I will add that this evocative, otherworldly music in the brightest of keys is all bright indeed.



Saturday, January 30, 2021

Rite and Wrong

In my last post, I showcased a video in which Freddie Mercury's We are the champions melody is repurposed in the mold of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring bassoon solo. 




But it occurred to me that rather than hearing unaccompanied Freddie, maybe what we needed was accompanied Igor. Le voilà!




Although I suggested before that harmony wasn't the main thing keeping me from hearing Stravinsky as Queen, I'll say again that, even though I'm perfectly aware of all the matching pitches, this just doesn't sound like The Rite of Spring in this context. Beginning over a big major chord obscures all that primordial mystery we should hear around the solo bassoon, so perhaps harmony is more important that I'd thought. In this context, it becomes remarkably tamed and even a little glam. 

Nonetheless, Igor and Freddie make a fun pair and should probably star in their own animated series. Curiously enough, the band Queen was founded in 1970 and its classic line-up was settled in February, 1971, three months before Stravinsky's death in April.


Here's a big list of MMmusing posts inspired by Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps:

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Hidden Rites

In the past couple of years, there have been a few different viral stories about how the very famous bassoon solo which opens Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is basically the same melody as the even more famous pop anthem We are the champions. I'm not sure how far back this goes, though there's this tweet from 2018, and Classic FM did one of their things about it in 2019. For some reason, this story popped back up on my radar in two different places this week, so I decided to take a closer look. Mainly, I was intrigued by the notion that the two tunes definitely have a lot in common...yet, they still don't sound very similar to me. 

Unfortunately, because I was struggling to really hear this connection convincingly, it occurred to me I could try blending the two by doing some surgery on Freddie Mercury's original vocals from the Queen song. This kind of thinking always gets me into trouble. Honestly, I was as intrigued by the technical challenge as I was by the theoretical angle, so although I really don't much enjoy listening to this, I did manage to create something. 


As you can see/hear, I decided to string together a series of samples, each focused only on the first eight notes of Stravinsky's melody:
  • In the first two examples, we hear Stravinsky's original key (starting on a C) which means poor Freddie Mercury gets bumped up a 5th. (At least I didn't make him go as far as "keep on fighting," which would take him up another 5th!)
    • The first example has Mercury singing his original melody.
    • In the second example, his melody is adjusted (following the small alternate notes shown) to fit more closely with Stravinsky's bassoon.
  • In the third and fourth examples, we hear the same thing as the first two except with everything transposed down to the original key in which Mercury was singing.
  • Finally, we hear the original Stravinsky bassoon by itself, following by Fake Freddy singing the bassoon melody (-ish) alone. If this had all worked out like I hoped, hearing Fake Freddy at the end should sound like he's straight up singing Stravinsky.
The most surprising - even inexplicable - thing to me is that I never really find myself hearing the Stravinsky melody in what Fake Freddy does, even when the pitches are exactly the same. I think that may partly be a psychological reaction based on a bias I developed because of comparing the actual melodies in question. (It's true that the high bassoon tone is an essential part of the Stravinsky identity - but when I hear that melody played on the piano, I'm immediately drawn into StravinskyLand. In theory, a vibrant male voice in its upper range should sound much closer to a bassoon timbre than a piano. Of course, I am hopelessly devoted to the piano as the perfect transcription machine!)

Although there's an obvious difference in that the Stravinsky is unaccompanied and ends up implying a sort of modal minor feeling whereas the Queen song is in major, I'm not convinced that's what's throwing me. I think there are a few places where melodic shape (and one absent note) make the melodies quite different in effect. [In the graphic shown below, which I created by adapting the one shown in this 2018 tweet, the Queen melody is shown in C Major to make the melodic comparisons easier.]
First, most bassoonists play those grace notes quite quickly so that they don't sound at all like melody notes, though that's a pretty small difference, and both melodies do land quite strongly on the B of "CHAM-pions." Given the way melodic shapes work and are perceived, that difference shouldn't be such a big deal since the underlying motion from C to B to A is clearly there in both tunes. But I do think there's something distinctive about the way all six interior notes in the Stravinsky move quickly as one gesture, whereas the Queen melody has a more rhythmic feeling with the extended syncopated G on "-pions." Most importantly, the leap up from E to B before the final A is perhaps the most distinctive melodic characteristic of Stravinsky's opening phrase, and that's the one thing that is completely missing in We are the champions. Finally, Freddie Mercury glides off the final A to an E, though again, in theory, that shouldn't make such a strong perceptive difference.

To be honest, my arguments seem weak to me, but I just don't hear these melodies as sounding all that similar, and maybe I'll have to live with that. In support of my point-of-view, these are two VERY well-known melodies, and yet this doesn't seem to be something that was noticed for a long time. At any rate, Classic FM's absurdly over-the-top clickbait claim ("We are the Champions’ sounds exactly the same as ‘The Rite of Spring’ – and life will never be the same again") is definitely overstating things. I've heard about this connection several times in the past few years, and then quickly forgot about it.

What makes this case particularly interesting to me is that, some thirteen years ago, I wrote about how Stravinsky's melody has long reminded me of something else. 

[Click on the examples to hear them played.]

What's fascinating is that there are far fewer shared pitches between these melodies which nonetheless DO call out to each other (at least in my mind). The first phrase of La vie en rose comes to rest on B, not A, for example. However, the French tune has a rhythmic shape that is closer to Stravinsky: a long note, some fast notes that outline a triad and end with a leap up, followed by a step down to another long note. And really that's it. Note that like We are the champions, La vie en rose is in a clearly major key, so it's not a harmonic thing. 

Maybe it's just the French influence in Stravinsky and La vie. Here's Edith Piaf's singing adjusted up to start on the same note as Stravinsky.



Back in 2007, I wrote about these melodies:

They also both have Parisian associations, and the sultry high register of the bassoon is at least as distinctive as Edith Piaf's freaky timbre....I wasn't able to Google much mention of this pairing, but I'm intrigued to see that some Peter Schickele wannabe named Ernest Acher recorded a "Rite of the Rose," along with other such mashups in an album entitled "Mischief with Mozart: Classical Combat with the Classics." I haven't been able to find an audio sample, but it's not hard to imagine. 

First of all, an important 2021 update: I found that Rite of the Rose recording! You can hear it here. It's fun, staying mostly in a Rite of Spring vein, with the bassoon melody eventually veering into La vie en rose territory. The French tune actually takes over briefly around 2:25, but not for that long. You can also hear the musical humorist Hyung-ki Joo doing a lighthearted little mashup in the Paris airport here - for some reason, he ends with music from Stravinsky's Petrouchka. Anyway, I'm not the only one to make this connection.

But ultimately, I think it's the suave, sensuous, flowing quality that unites The Rite of Spring with La vie en rose and separates both from the more muscular, insistent We are the champions. And it's a reminder that, though pitch is obviously important in defining a melodic identity, shape and gesture may matter just as much. Your mileage may vary, but when I hear Stravinsky, I think C'est la vie (en rose).


P.S. The Rite of Spring remains the topic about which I've written the most. Here's a post linking to many such other posts.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Humming Along

Last week, I wrote about my solo piano recording of an a cappella choral work - an a cappella work about a blue bird. That call-back to my "Songs Without Singers" series from the early years of MMmusing gave me the idea of re-visiting and updating all these recordings for our new multimedia world. Once again a bird is the subject of today's song, though once again, all the singing will come from the hammered strings of a piano. And like Stanford's The Blue Bird, this song also makes notable use of the minor seventh chord.

Back in 2008, when I recorded six songs without anyone singing along, YouTube was in its infancy, and so I just posted mp3 audio recordings in the clunky way Blogger allowed. As my YouTube channel has grown, I find satisfaction in archiving such recordings on video with my favorite kind of visual to accompany: THE SCORE. I've written countless times about how much I love watching music notation float by and how much I love creating notation for that and other purposes, so my goal is to get these old recordings scrolling onto YouTube and perhaps out to more listeners.

Ernest Chausson is a bit better-known than Charles Stanford, and it wouldn't be fair to call either a one-hit-wonder. But with both composers, it's a small-scale song inspired by humble poetry about a bird which has stolen my heart. I described Stanford's The Blue Bird, which clocked in at exactly four minutes on video, as "perfect," and the same word applies perfectly to Chausson's Le colibri, which curiously enough times out at exactly three minutes. (Both videos include some silent seconds devoted to title, but it was a happy accident that each ended up with the second hand pointing straight up.)

Chausson's song is about a hummingbird; but it's really about something else, which perhaps explains why Chausson's writing is not at all quick or neurotic, but rather leisurely, lush, and sensuous. You can read a translation of Leconte de Lisle's sonnet here. My French is much too bad for me to judge the poetry on its own merits, and I'll admit that I loved this song for years (it's often assigned to voice students) without worrying what any of the words even meant, other than thinking the music doesn't sound very hummingbird-like.

My singer-free recording dates from an early morning impromptu session in my office thirteen years ago, but I've spent hours this past weekend making an elegant scrolling score and thinking about why this music is so magical. First, I'll admit that I was going for a kind of 19th century French look here and thus chose some fonts that are a little more stylized than I'd usually consider ideal. I even kept the unbeamed 8th notes in the vocal line, though I generally much prefer the more modern convention to beam to the meter rather than the syllable. This results in a lot of looping flagged notes, but the rhythms and textures are simple enough, and this helps to emphasize how syllabic the setting is. (Even the slightly out-of-tune and fairly humble piano sounds right here for this intimate music.) It's hard to express how much I love watching these notes moves across the screen.



Something I'd forgotten about this song is that it's in 5/4 time, a pretty unusual choice for 1882, if not quite as unusual as the 5/8 of the much earlier Reicha fugue I wrote about last year.  In this case, the quintuple meter functions less to create obvious asymmetry than to give the phrases breathing room. Notice how the wide-ranging arpeggios in the richly scored introduction further distort the sense of a strong pulse; that quarter rest in m.2 could be heard as nothing more than an indulgent lift.  Even the five repeated A-flats that lead to the singer's entrance are just lonely reverberating quarter notes with no other elements to define the metrical context. Back when I was playing this accompaniment regularly, I can remember counting those notes carefully, and also being prepared for the singer to come in AT ANY TIME.

Chausson ushers us right away into a dreamy soundscape with an A-flat major chord that rolls all the way up to an F, a pitch which doesn't belong in the chord. Although one could analyze it as an inverted minor seventh chord (and we'll get to the minor seventh soon), the steady A-flat in the bass through these four bars makes it more logical and meaningful to hear that F as an expressive over-reach - a non-harmonic tone a step above the chord tone E-flat. And now I'm going to avoid describing every single beautifully chosen note in this introduction, but there's a remarkable range of color and shape as falling melodic gestures are suspended over exotic harmonies.

We'll return (as Chausson does) to that introductory material, but it's notable how subtly and surprisingly Chausson transitions into the vocal line. Whereas the opening suggests A-flat Major, albeit with aching chromaticisms, when the vocal line picks up on the same A-flat being repeated in the piano, the lower piano register disappears and we're left with the simplest D-flat Major triad. So, in retrospect, the introductory material in A-flat can be heard as a Dominant to the D-flat tonic, but it doesn't really sound that way. It's more like waking from a dream. The textural shift is like zooming in from a wide shot (of a lush garden?) to a tight focus (on a hummingbird?). It also feels like a shift from BIG feelings to simple narration, with the connection between the two yet to be revealed.


What follows is disarmingly simple, with modest chords in the piano, a vocal line that rises and falls easily from F to F as the movements of the small bird are described, and elegant countermelodies in the piano right hand. (Someone close to the composer's time has arranged this with an obbligato violin or cello part to take those countermelodies - an awful idea from the perspective of this pianist who wants ALL the notes for himself.) There are some lovely chromatic inflections, but the music shifts gears with the arrival on a beautiful minor seventh chord at m.15. 


In my last post, I made much of how the minor seventh harmony is the virtual thing that Stanford's Blue Bird is made of, and though it's not as omnipresent in Chausson, its ambiguous floating quality is just as essential to the sound world. That downshift to a B-flat Minor Seventh chord, ushered in by an expansive melodic descent in the piano that begins on the highest note yet played (see m.14 above, and doesn't it look beautiful?!?), begins a six-bar ascent in which voice and piano trade phrases urgently, with the pace slightly accelerated. 

In the waveform image above, you can easily see that build-up leading to the climactic mid-point of the song at m. 21 where Chausson brings back the piano's expansive introductory material - except now the vocal line joins in, having reached back up to the high F and holding it out for longer than any previous note. This return functions as an ecstatic arrival, with the poetic text turning from simple garden geography to this scene:
Down to the flower he flies, alights from above,
and from the rosy cup drinks so much love
What was once a suggestive four-bar introduction is now expanded to an 8-bar descent from m.21-28, with passionate chromatic harmonies sliding down above the sustained A-flat pedal tone. In addition to the soaring vocals, the arpeggiated idea from the introduction is expanded now with constant 8th-note motion rolling down  ("down to the flower") through each new harmony, ending on a soft dominant seventh chord which could easily signal a cadential return to the opening vocal melody. 

"From the rosy cup," we are told, the hummingbird "drinks so much love." So much love that...? Well, if you check out the waveform above, you can see the music dips down to silence. And this is the most inspired moment. After the expectant V7 chord and the silence, the vocalist sings a simple V-I motion of A-flat to D-flat; except, instead of D-flat in the left hand, we end up with...a heartrending minor seventh chord on E-flat. 

In fact, it's even more special than that because at first we only hear a single low E-flat against the vocal D-flat, with the rich harmony filling in a beat later. Chausson must've loved this moment as much as I do because the piano just keeps gently pulsing that chord pianissimo for what seems like forever. Just as Stanford demonstrates throughout The Blue Bird, the minor seventh chord is perfect for stopping time. And what is the text here? That vocal A-flat to D-flat is sung to the words "Qu'il meurt," which means: "that he dies." The entire tercet translates as:

Down to the flower he flies, alights from above,
and from the rosy cup drinks so much love
that he dies, not knowing if he could drink it dry.

Now, at m.33, the vocal part returns to its opening melody in D-flat for the final tercet. Having reached the high F seven times previously, the voice finally ascends a half-step higher to begin the closing line of the poem, singing "du premier baiser" ("from that first kiss") just as that high G-flat is touched at last. (The harmony under that first kiss? A minor seventh chord.)

Notice that the subject has shifted from the hummingbird to something more personal, and we can imagine other meanings for the death caused by drinking so much love from the flower. 

Even so, my darling, on your pure lips
my soul and senses would have wished to die
from that first kiss that perfumed it.

Having begun the song with arpeggiated chords, the piano concludes with three rolls, all the way up to a beautiful kiss-like ping as the final sound.

So, yeah, that's a lot of words about three minutes of music, but it's such exquisite music. There's also something very satisfying about the tactile experience of playing this piano part, right from that opening sweep, and looping in the melody. And, oh yeah, some people do prefer this with someone actually singing the vocal part, so here's a lovely version if you MUST.




One little postscript. The waveform image above is from when I first posted about this audio recording in 2008. I like both that it shows the overall shape of the song as well as that it has a hummingbird-like energy. I know very little about birds, but I know hummingbirds have the ability to hover almost as if still while their wings are moving very quickly. This is oddly analogous to how it is that musical pitches can sound static while they are actually animated by extremely fast vibrations. Of course, that's true of all musical sounds, not just Chausson's, but all the wonderfully suspended repeated chords in this piano part, which seem static, are in fact vibrations which convert tremendous energy into apparent stability. I still don't think this music is meant to imitate hummingbirds, but perhaps it's that vibrant stillness that it captures best.

Also, regarding the scrolling score, I thought to include regular bar numbers this time after forgetting to include them for The Blue Bird. But though I really like the look of infinite scrolling, the one problem I haven't really solved is that this means the key signature disappears. I've experimented with keeping a static one in the left margin, but that ends up looking awful. As these songs of Stanford and Chausson each have lots of flats, it's an awkward thing to miss. What's odd is that, when reading music in real time, I find it very disturbing not to be able to see a key signature (if obscured by a book holding the music open, for example), but somehow it doesn't bother me aesthetically here. Might be in part because I know the music so well, but I'm not really providing the notation for performers here anyway. It's more about the way notation abstractly represents the sounds....

NOTE: The translations used in this post are closely based on this English version by Peter Low.