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!

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