Monday, November 29, 2021

Hats off to so many hats

Appreciations abound across the Internet in celebration of Stephen Sondheim, who passed away the day after Thanksgiving at the age of 91. I'm not sure how much I have to add, but I'll share a few observations from just out on the edges of musical theater fandom.

I was fairly late to the game in grasping Sondheim's genius, mostly because I was more focused on the world of classical music through pretty much all of my education. I grew up with a lot of Golden Age musicals, including West Side Story (for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics), but had somehow not quite tuned into the Sondheim sound/style. His elusive, indirect way of composing managed to sidestep me even when I would occasionally accompany a song of his here or there. This makes some sense as his songs are not as easily excised from their contexts as many Golden Age favorites.

As it happens, during a time in which I was mildly dismissive of Sondheim, I wondered often why there weren't more "serious" composers interested in musical theater and musical comedy in general. I'd fallen in love with the comic brilliance of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and Britten's Albert Herring and thought it a shame that the typical modern opera composer seemed more interested in ultra-serious storytelling than (deceptively) simple silliness. (I know there are exceptions to that, but that's not the point for now.)  Mozart and Britten had proven to me how effectively music can serve two essential elements of good comedy - precise comic timing and expressions of human frailty.

I suspect that the typical "serious" composer might find that a true stage show requires surrendering too much control of the overall product, but it seemed a price that could be worth paying for a composer interested in connecting with audiences. I was also curious to see how a classical composer might work with non-classical voices trained to focus more on text declamation than bel canto sound. And though I loved shows like Guys and Dolls, Camelot, and The Music Man, that Broadway tradition seemed inherently simpler and more formulaic than what a sophisticated classical composer might offer if given the chance. (Again, I know that's overly simplistic, but I'm just trying to give a sense of where my thinking was.) 

My point, of course, is that I hadn't been paying attention to the incredibly sophisticated and endlessly creative work Sondheim had been doing all along. The music doesn't often sound like classical music, though there are definitely echoes of Ravel and Stravinsky and others to be found, and the singing often sounds even less classical, with exceptions here and there; so superficially, it was easy enough to miss just how much was going on. The fact that he was setting his own lyrics certainly helps explain his willingness to write in a way that doesn't always foreground the "pure" musical ideas, but skillful text-setting also demands a kind of artistry that has eluded many classical composers. Sondheim's songs generally provide more freedom for singing actors to find their voice than one finds in typical opera roles, and that might seem like a kind of musical compromise; but he generally manages to keep the words, the drama, and the music in a magical equilibrium on the same level as a Schubert or Schumann.

The question of which musical world (classical, opera, musical theater, jazz, pop, etc.) a composer belongs to might seem needlessly artificial and limiting, but it's a reality that practical experience tends to categorize things in these ways. One basic example of this is that, as a music major, I never heard Sondheim's name mentioned in a class - at least not that I recall. There's a lot of consternation about the way the classical music world fences itself off, some of it justified and some of it a little unfair, but a useful distinction might be this: classical composers tend to think of the composed music as the primary thing and thus the thing that develops and shapes a perceptive experience. Sondheim didn't choose to enter this arena.

In the same way, a film composer like John Williams may have all the necessary skills to be a classical composer, but he's chosen to work mostly in a world in which visuals and storytelling lead the way. Hearing his soaring melodies and brilliant orchestration accompany a film is quite a different thing than having Beethoven or Mahler firmly at the helm guiding our perceptive focus for 30-60 minutes (or more). Though Sondheim often blurs this distinction, a musical theater experience tends to be led by words and stories with songs as embellishments. In contrast, we tend to think of an opera as being led primarily by the composer's vision. One can listen to operas by Mozart, Wagner and Puccini and find deep satisfaction without even knowing what the words mean. (I know this from experience!)

There are lots of exceptions for sure, but though Sondheim surely had the skill to write sonatas and string quartets, he chose to do almost all of his composition in the service of words and stories on stage. A typical composer of symphonies or operas expects specific kinds of sonic sophistication from performers since the sound is, on some level, the thing. Sondheim's music can soar when sung by "character" voices like those of Elaine Stritch, Angela Lansbury, or Chip Zien. Though Sondheim has something of a reputation as a show-off (at least as lyricist), this willingness to serve the dramatic moment, at the expense of putting his composer chops on display, is one of his strengths.

I'll give three examples from my three favorite Sondheim shows. First of all, anyone with doubts about whether he could write great tunes should get to know "Not while I'm around." It's as gorgeous, and soaring, and heart-stirring a melody as anything by Rodgers, Loewe, Kern or even Gershwin. But it's also stuck in a rather creepy scene in Sweeney Todd, sung by a character who often has more of a "character" voice and who seems thoroughly unqualified to provide what he's so eloquently professing to offer. As if that weren't enough, there's some really unsettling accompanimental material when Mrs. Lovett takes a verse. This song can function as a relatively sweet lullaby  - if you don't know too much about it (and if you don't mind a big emphasis on "Demons"), but Sondheim could certainly have saved it for a more traditionally comforting context and gotten more heartwarming mileage out of it. I'm not sure he wrote a more beautiful song, and though its beauty works beautifully in the scene, one couldn't blame him if he'd saved it for something less horrifying.

I also really admire Sondheim's willingness to write what I hear as purposefully bad music. Well, good bad. At the top of Act II in Into the Woods, various characters are singing about how they're "so happy." They sing it over and over, a shapely phrase that might've gone somewhere interesting - except we're not supposed to believe in this happiness, so it just keeps repeating without much development until finally a big crash sends the characters into chaos. I remember first being bothered by this music and this scene as it felt so static, until it dawned on me what was going on. This is a good example of how Sondheim's music doesn't always make a great first impression - but its impact often deepens on repeat listenings because it's serving deeper purposes.

Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods are among the composer's most approachable shows. The former has an immersive operatic appeal and, though grisly, its story is compelling; the latter has a wonderful child-like facade with relatable characters. I'm probably not supposed to say it, but I wish Sondheim had written a few more shows like these, even if I know it wouldn't be true to who he was to return to the same well over and over.

On the other hand, I'm surprised how much I love the more offbeat charms of Company. It has a dated '70s sound and a high concept structure that isn't as obviously gripping as shows about madmen and giants. Honestly, I think I could make a pretty strong case for why I should hate the opening title number of Company, but even though it sometimes sounds like manic refugees from Sesame Street hyping up their dinner parties, I find it irresistible. (I did hate it on first listen.) And though I never thought I'd find the big personality, non-singerly manner of Elaine Stritch engaging, every second she sings on the original cast recording is amazing. (Maybe especially some of the really flat notes.*)

The room Sondheim gives his performers shows admirable humility, but as with "Not while I'm around," the willingness to subvert beautiful music in the service of story really comes to the fore in "Getting married today." I can remember first listening to the cast recording and being almost repulsed by the shrill opening "Bless this day" solo. I'm not sure what the effect is supposed to be of this peculiar celebrant who coldly observes a bride falling apart; but at least on the original cast recording, the perfectly fine, but unusually high melody sounds claustrophobic, increasingly so as on subsequent hallucinogenic entries the backup singers buzzily hum along. Following the short opening, Paul sings passionately to Amy, his bride-to-be, a declaration of love which wouldn't be out of place in South Pacific or even Puccini, though it seems a little out of place in this show. It's a great tune.

But this is all setup for the main event: Amy's absurdly high-strung patter that makes Gilbert and Sullivan's Nightmare Song seem like a dirge. Somehow the creepy soprano blessing and the overripe tenor are the perfect frame for helping us understand how desperately Amy feels overmatched by her circumstances. Again, Sondheim could've saved Paul's music for a more classic romantic scene, but here its beauty is cause for a panic, so it becomes a kind of romantic self-parody. The last few pages of simultaneous singing are particularly stunning as Amy's manic unravelling makes Paul's melody seems lost at sea, and the chorus barks tone-deaf Amens into the mix. I'm not sure it's my favorite Sondheim song, but it packs an incredible punch.

I suppose my point is that one proof of Sondheim's brilliance as a composer is how effectively he uses his virtuoso songwriting skills to undermine his own songwriting - and thus lead us to unexpected places that resonate with our own interior experiences and frustrations. (I can almost directly connect the dots from how Amy feels to how my mind can spin in meetings listening to overly positive, promising-too-much presentations.) I don't love every one of his songs, and there are shows of his which I still haven't come to know well, but no one can say he took the easy path. Getting to know each show requires a commitment to listen into the oddities, to look for more than just good tunes (though there are so many), so it makes sense that it would take time. It's very sad that Stephen Sondheim is no longer with us, but I'm selfishly glad that I still have a lot more to learn from him. 


* Seriously, the incredible held "LOVE" from Stritch starting just after 3:59 here is like nothing else. Or it's like a goat wandered into the studio. Seth Rudetsky does a great job breaking this down at 8:22 here.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Augmented Reality

Although I believe I'm the inventor of AUG SIXTH DAY, that special occasion every August 6th when we *should* celebrate harmonies which exploit the interval of the augmented sixth, it still sneaks up on me every year. So I never give it the attention it deserves. Alas, on August 6, 2021, all I could find the time to do was hit re-play on this old celebration of a German Sixth Chord in a string symphony by a 12-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. 

However, as I was also spending early August prepping to teach AP Music Theory for the first time this year, thinking about that wonderful Mendelssohn passage got me thinking about the whole 4-minute Andante and all the ways the young composer uses texture, register, and harmony (with melody emerging from a combination of those three elements) to create something truly magical. I played it for my students on the first day of class, using an analytical score I created, to show them some sense of where we were heading with our study of music theory. For me, at least, there's something deeply satisfying about seeing these under-the-hood structures and hearing how they enable the music to flow, to soar, and to surprise. You can see a video demo of this score analysis at the end of this post.

I suppose my main goal that day was to introduce the concepts of harmonic reduction and Roman Numeral Analysis. Most of what happens in this Andante is fairly conventional and thus easily reduceable; even the particularly beautiful details relate closely to that framework. I wanted to show the students that all those notes the young Mendelssohn wrote have a clear, internal logic which can help us hear and understand why certain notes are so effective and affecting. In other words, I wanted to show why it's worth taking the time to study music theory!

Although I do genuinely enjoy this kind of exploration, I'll admit I don't have the kind of ear which can instantly recognize and label harmonies as they go by. But it's been satisfying to realize that after years of looking for augmented sixth chords (in part because theory students often get tripped up by the seemingly convoluted way in which these "chords" arise and are labeled), my ear does sometimes intuitively notice what's going on before I see it in a score. 

So it was that a few weeks after starting my re-exploration of Mendelssohn's augmented-sixth-based modulation in this Andante, I heard my 14-year-old cellist son play the extraordinary first movement of Brahms' first sextet at chamber music camp. (To be honest, this music was a bit over the heads of these campers musically and instrumentally, but they did a great job with the challenge, and managed to present it with confidence and a convincing overall shape.) It's music I've heard often enough, but didn't know super well, yet as the Recapitulation approached, I remembered that something special was going to happen. (Side Note: this kind of musical memory-based recognition/anticipation is one of the most satisfying things about listening to familiar music; this is surely one reason people who love classical music enjoy returning to old favorites.)

As the dramatic texture unfolded and suddenly the opening theme returned in a harmonically arresting way, it occurred to me that this sounded a lot like what happens in Mendelssohn's Andante. The two musical passages (Mendelssohn and Brahms) are different in so many ways, but that makes the analogical connection all the more meaningful. (I've been writing about my love for and fascination with analogical thinking since the blog began.) Hopefully I'll get around to writing about the Brahms sextet more in a future post as there is SO much to say, but for now just listen to the way the music moves from G-flat Major to the home key of B-flat Major. These are not closely related keys (they only share three common pitches), but Brahms uses a German Sixth chord as a sneaky way to get from one key to the next. The video below should begin at 6:35, where the cresc. is marked in the score.

The most important thing to listen for is that, in m.233, the first violin (highest instrument) goes from E-natural to F (up a half-step) at the same moment the 2nd cello (lowest instrument) goes from G-flat to F (down a half-step). G-flat and E-natural are an augmented sixth apart - not an interval that shows up if sticking to one key - and the resolution of those distant notes outward to an octave is the fundamental thing about how augmented sixth chords work. (There's something else unusual going on in this case which I'll get to in a later post.) 

Also, as we'll see/hear in the Mendelssohn, the recapitulation of the main theme occurs over a dominant pedal tone F instead of the tonic B-flat we heard at the very beginning. This adds a heightened kind of tension to the otherwise stabilizing effect created by the return of the main theme in its home key.

Now, let's back up a little. This kind of modulation technique is where I find Augmented Sixth Chords are most powerful, but they can appear in other, sometimes simpler contexts in which the chromaticism (use of pitches outside the key) is just a means of heightening the approach to a cadence. Below are two such examples from works by Haydn which crossed my path this summer. (Remember, part of my point here is to focus on augmented sixth chords which I happened to notice without looking for them.) These nicely demonstrate the simple voice-leading origins of these harmonies.

The first movement of Haydn's well-known Piano Trio in G Major, which I coached in July, begins with a graceful theme in G Major which modulates to D Major in its second phrase. The modulation is intensified by the use of chromatic passing tones between G and A in treble and B and A in the bass. The G and B occur as part of a very standard IV chord leading to a I 6/4-V-I cadence, but the insertion of G-sharp leading to A above and B-flat leading to A below creates an augmented sixth chord (in this case, a German Sixth again). All of the harmony can be heard in just the piano part, so for simplicity, I just show that, but you can hear it played below, both without and with the German Sixth.

In a case likes this, it's almost silly to think of the sonority as a chord - the main point is the voice-leading created by the chromatic passing tones, but they do add an extra oomph to the cadential approach. (For the students I was coaching, I pointed this out as a rationale for leaning on those notes just a bit.) You can hear and see this passage both with German Sixth removed and then as written in this little demo video:

In my most recent blog post, I wrote about a Haydn quartet movement with which I'd fallen in love. My focus there was on a more unique cadential approach in the opening phrase, but that simple theme also includes a passage quite close in character to the trio excerpt shown above. In this case, the music is in C Major and approaching a cadence in C, so the destination for first violin and cello again is the 5th scale degree (G) which anchors the I 6/4 chord. 

Again, you can hear and see this passage both with German Sixth removed and then as written in this little demo video:

Both Haydn examples of Augmented Sixth Chords are German Sixths because of the addition of one more chromatic note (F-natural in the trio and E-flat in the quartet), but the basic idea of intensifying the connection between the very conventional IV and I 6/4 is easy to see, and again, it would be tempting simply to call these chromatic passing tones and not even bother to attach a fancy name to the sonorities.*

In the Mendelssohn and Brahms examples, the German Sixth is used much more dramatically as a means of modulation which initiates a harmonically suspended recapitulation. In each case, the music has ended up in the distant "flat 6th" of the tonic key (A-flat in Mendelssohn's C Major and G-flat in Brahms' B-flat Major) as the music has reached a low ebb. Both composers then add an augmented 6th above that flat 6 - that means the addition of a sharp 4 - to push back to the I 6/4 chord of the home key which features a 5 in the bass. Flat 6 goes down to 5, while Sharp 4 goes up to 5. Whereas the two Haydn examples had the German Sixth pass quickly mid-phrase into a concluding cadence with no change of key, Mendelssohn and Brahms use the German Sixth to push us into a new key and a new (returning) phrase. 

Technically, the new phrase - recognized as such because of the return of the main theme - becomes an extension of a longer cadential motion, so it's also a continuation of the distant key music that led into the Recap. (We generally think of a phrase ending as being defined by a cadence; here, the new phrase arrives mid-cadence.) We definitely hear the melody as beginning something new, but because the German Sixth naturally progresses to an unstable I 6/4 chord, the main theme begins over the fifth scale degree (Dominant) instead of the first (Tonic). This sleight of hand propels the music forward until the cadence in the home key is finally reached. Mendelssohn's cadence back in C Major happens as expected after eight bars. Brahms somehow manages to evade a cadence back in the home key of B-flat for a full 36 bars! Listen here starting at 10:38 until we finally get our resolution in the tonic over a minute later at 11:45. 

There is so much more that could be said about each of these works, and I will devote future posts to a "running diary" account of all the little details that I love. (I already have thirty virtual sticky notes on my 3-page Mendelssohn score.) In the meantime, here is a draft of a scrolling score I've prepared for the Mendelssohn. It has a few special features:

  • I've included a basic (hopefully correct) Roman numeral analysis below the score which shows the modulations to G Major and A-flat Major and return back to C. The German Sixth chord occurs exactly halfway through in m. 42. (more on these proportions in a post to come)
  • A reduction of the harmonies to two staves below. Although register shifts play a big role in how Mendelssohn's music takes shape, I chose to set up this 4-voice reduction to emphasize where common tones occur between chords. Thus, you'll find that this reduction does not correspond exactly to where the pitches occur among the parts. (more on these registral shifts in a post to come)
  • Perhaps most unusually, the recording I use is the one of my then 12-year old daughter's chamber orchestra playing this in a concert ten years ago. Though far from perfect, there are many elements (including my daughter's participation, of course) which make this my favorite recording I've found of this transcendent music. (This is my favorite professional recording.)

* Just to give Haydn his due, he does sometimes use Augmented Sixth chords in more dramatic structural ways as well. The suspenseful introduction to his "Oxford" Symphony ends with strings repeating the notes of a German sixth multiple times before the music resolves to the V7 chord of the tonic G major as the Allegro begins. In this case, Haydn does not resolve the Augmented Sixth in the usual way: while the bass E-flat does go down to D, the C-sharp which ought to resolve up to D moves down to C-natural instead. However, the effect is similar, and as with the Mendelssohn and Brahms examples described above, the fact that the cadence doesn't really end until four bars later makes this a most unusual opening for a symphonic main theme. You can see/hear all of this starting at 1:15 here

P.S. If you're interested in more different contextual uses of Augmented Sixth chords, the Beethoven and Schumann examples I posted way back on the inaugural Aug 6th Day in 2012 are quite tasty as well.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021


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, 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)
    • 17 bars
  • THEME (now in G and even simpler than before)
    • 7 bars (cadence elides into next section)
    • 9 bars
  • THEME (just like the theme repetition above except an octave lower)
    • 7 bars (cadence elides into next section)
    • 16 bars
  • THEME (just like first presentation, with my favorite chord again at last)
    • 7 bars (cadence elides into next section)
    • 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 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 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.

See follow-up post with virtual Albright wind chimes and a 30-minute version of this hymn tune.