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 voilĂ !




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.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Blue birds, wind chimes, minor sevenths, and mine craft

Although January has generally been the quietest month here at MMmusing, this post has arisen naturally from recent experiences and encapsulates the kinds of things that interest me the most. You'll find here two significant new multimedia creations, many nods to past work, and reflections on how seemingly disparate topics can run together. Because these sorts of connecting threads are the primary point, these words might run a bit longer than usual, but I hope you'll make it to the end of path, even if you find yourself sidetracked as I so often am.

So, this story begins with a simple school lunch period last Wednesday. Twice a week, I oversee a group of nine 8th graders taking a noon-time break from their studies, and one student had been asking for some time if I would bring a keyboard in for him to play something for us. We crossed signals many times, with me bringing it on days when he was out and forgetting on others, but finally I brought upstairs a little 3-octave Yamaha, the student was there, and off we go. (First side note: I really love these little PSS-A50 keyboards which have remarkably decent sound, some fun features, and MIDI functionality, all as demonstrated by me here.)

The student - we'll call him Marcel - played something very short and simple several times, and then I asked him to connect the keyboard to his computer so I could record the MIDI information. I was interested in recording it because I realized after a few repetitions that the music reminded me of something quite specific, and I was hoping that it was in part because of a direct pitch connection. Here, direct from his fingers, is what Marcel played:


First of all, the music Marcel was proudly playing is one of the primary themes from the wildly popular world-building game Minecraft. (Working regularly with middle and high school boys has reinforced how much video game music is now an essential part of the musical vernacular.)

Apparently like most Minecraft music, the vibe is ambient and free-floating and not all that distinctively thematic, so it was odd to have it calling out to me. After a little more research and studying the MIDI information Marcel left behind, I realized that the music he'd been taught (likely by a friend) uses only five adjacent black keys. "Black key" music is notable for a few reasons. First of all, beginning piano students are often taught to play simple melodies on black keys first because the more obvious visual groupings make them easier to find. 


Having students begin piano explorations on black keys is also advantageous because these five pitches can function as a Pentatonic scale, a set of five pitches from which many folk songs from many cultures are built. One particular advantage of this kind of pentatonic scale is that all notes are at least a whole-step apart. So, if one is improvising on the black keys, there's a good chance of chancing upon a catchy melody while, if experimenting with harmony, there's no chance of landing on the most dissonant intervals. The minor second, which results from pitches directly adjacent (half-step apart), and the tritone are simply not available.

As it happens, one of my most recent 2020 posts concerns the virally transmitted Chopsticks which uses only white notes; but there are several black key songs popularly passed from child to child, including the Knuckle Song, which begins with the knuckles rolling across the three-note group of black keys. (The "Knuckle Song" actually does include some white notes to fill up chromatic space, but even those are easy to find because the black key groups act as clear anchors for the melody.)

Because music featuring lots of black keys also requires a lot of accidentals, young students often quickly pivot to white-key music as they begin reading. In fact, I found several "Beginner" versions of the Minecraft theme which are transposed to white notes for ease of reading, but it seems that Marcel and many other Minecraft fans have figured out how easy and natural it is to play it on the black keys. The music itself feels like a kind of lazy, random sampling of these keys. Although notated in 4/4, there's no strong sense of meter because of the ties across the barline. (I've re-notated the original F-sharp Major piano version in G-flat Major - same notes, different notation - for reasons I'll explain a bit later.)
Marcel actually played something even simpler than this, with the all notes held down and sustained to create an ambient pentatonic haze (which I'm sure is just what he was thinking): 


Anyway, what struck me almost right away is that, though I had a vague sense Marcel thought he was playing Minecraft, my mind was pretty quickly led to another song, and I was really hoping it was because of the specific pitches he was playing - otherwise, there didn't seem to be enough material to make the connection feel so right. As I've written several times before, I don't have anything close to perfect pitch, but like many others, I've noticed that I often experience specific pitch memory triggers. 

The song which immediately came to mind is Charles V. Stanford's The Blue Bird, a perfectly perfect four minutes of a cappella poetry. I'm not exactly a choral music aficionado, the only group among which this song or composer is likely well-known. Still, I fell in love with this music when I first heard the recording linked above on a Cambridge Singers LP given to me by my brother more than thirty years ago.


I've never found a recording as perfect as the one conducted by John Rutter here, but I have taken the curious step of recording it as a solo piano piece (we'll get to that), which probably helped my mind to hear the Minecraft theme on piano as a portal to Stanford. And, as I was pleased to affirm with a quick search, Stanford's little partsong is in G-flat Major, and begins with a melody descending from B-flat to A-flat, just as I'd heard from Marcel.  

And because Marcel's simplified version did not include the low D-flat from the original version of the Minecraft theme, he was beginning on a root position G-flat Major chord, just as Stanford does. Marcel's version also includes a subsequent descending E-flat and D-flat, just as one finds in Stanford's bass line, and though the timing isn't quite the same, the way Marcel held down all the notes creates a mild clash similar to the soprano/alto A-flat/G-flat on the words "lake" and "blue." We'll get to Stanford's harmonies soon, but even though there's not much melody at the beginning of The Blue Bird, the primary motif descending from third-degree B-flat to second-degree A-flat, repeated right away, is also about as close to a primary motif as one can find in the Minecraft theme. Finally, note that both works in a question are quiet, slow, and without clear rhythmic/metrical definition. We'll get back to that soon as well.

Still, I'm certain my brain made this connection at least in part because these are the exact same pitches, although I suppose if I had perfect pitch, I would have known that right away without needing to check. And again, my strong association of these a cappella choral sounds with my own piano experiments playing Stanford put me in just the right position to be transported by Marcel's helpfully simplified Minecraft theme.


As I thought about the unlikely connection and pondered the bucolic scene (used in the first video linked above) of a blocky Minecraft character sitting in a sunlit field, it occurred to me that both musical worlds are concerned with nature, stillness and a lazy kind of unfolding of vaguely defined musical ideas. Having also given some thought to the aimless noodling of a child playing across the black keys, the image of wind chimes caressed by a breeze came to mind, and I started wondering about what kinds of pitches are chosen for these outdoor instruments. 

This led down quite the unexpected path. At first, I thought about building my own virtual wind chimes as a webpage, but when I considered the possibility of creating within the multimedia-friendly child's programming language Scratch, I quickly found that many wind chimes projects already exist in this open-source community. (It's not lost on me that Minecraft and Scratch are both child-friendly worlds which offer up rich possibilities for doing sophisticated creative things.) I began working from a wind chimes project which already provided a nice, animated visual representation and the basics of a sound design. 

I had much more aleatoric fun than expected adding functionality, first by setting up a pentatonic tuning that mirrors the piano's black key setup, then adding many alternate tunings (including whole-tone, chromatic, and microtonal), alternate instrument sounds, and a way to speed up and slow down the "wind," all against a blue lake background inspired by Stanford's song. I'd love for you to give these chimes a try by going here and exploring the options explained in the instructions, but you may view a quick demo here. 


However, as much I love playing around with this kind of randomly generated ambient music, there is admittedly much more going on with Stanford's blue bird. About five or so years after I first got to know the song on LP, a music theory teacher, Alan Fletcher, walked into class one day and mentioned having heard an exquisite choral work playing overhead in a music store. It turned out to be the very same Cambridge Singers recording. Fletcher mentioned how the song is a virtual study in the minor seventh chord, a lovely harmony which is less functionally directional than dominant and diminished sevenths. That comment about a song I'd always loved without thinking about it had a big influence on me, and I've been a big fan of minor sevenths ever since. (It's likely that I overuse them in my Sunday organ improvs.)

Exploring how Stanford used that harmony is probably one of the reasons I decided to record it on the piano, rather spontaneously, almost thirteen years ago. I included it in a little "Songs Without Singers" series from the early years of this blog and, revisiting the recording this week, I was quite happy with how it had come out. This partly speaks to my love for the piano sonority. I would guess a true lover of choral music would feel much is missing without the sustained voices and the special sound of those high soprano E-flats. Of course, much is missing, but I still love feeling the suspended quality of those harmonies in my hands, and there's a particular kind of delicacy that results from the fragile sustain of a piano, especially with chords that are voiced differently than they normally would be for a piano.

So, I decided to make a YouTube version of my recording. I used the magical Lilypond to create a score suitable for slow scrolling across the screen. Curious about those minor sevenths, I also decided to add a Roman numeral harmonic analysis below. The analysis probably isn't perfect, and you're free to ignore it, but I indicated all minor seventh chords (occurring in various inversions and over various scale degrees) in blue to show how often Stanford leans that way. Although the minor seventh chord is not a standard part of a blues progression, the inherent sadness in this mildly dissonant harmony works really well for Stanford's sonic depiction of blueness. 

If you're curious about Fletcher's assertion, I did some calculations and discovered that about 35% of The Blue Bird features some variety of minor seventh chord, with another 15% using the slightly more intense half-diminished seventh chord. Add in 25% usage of dominant seventh harmonies which predominate (hah!) during the end of each verse and a few diminished seventh chords (6%), and it turns out more than 80% of the harmony here features some sort of seventh chord. Use of seventh chords, in general, suggests a kind of extended harmony; the seventh scale degree, added to a stable triad base, creates dissonance which can either be used directionally (as in the dominant/diminished sevenths) or more coloristically as in all those wonderful floating minor sevenths. The fact that minor seventh chords don't obviously point anywhere is...the point.


I wouldn't want all music to be so indulgent, but I believe Stanford hit a particular sweet spot here. The simple, direct poetry about a blue lake, sky, and bird seems to have inspired a desire to stop time and linger in the liminal. Kind of like listening to wind chimes or playing Minecraft.

Kind of...