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...

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