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.