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....