Sunday, February 27, 2022

Epiphany Fugue 8/8: The Lasst one

This post will be brief after a busy weekend, but I did meet my goal of writing eight new fugues for each Sunday of Epiphany. This is the last Sunday Alleluias are sung until Easter, so I had the tune Lasst uns erfreuen on my radar for a while as it is associated with multiple hymn texts ending in Alleluias. A few weeks back, I’d considered the Old 113th (known to Lutherans as O mensch, bewein) as a fugue subject, and it happens to begin with the same opening phrase as Lasst uns erfreuen. Thus, one could theoretically write a fugue which serves equally well for each tune, though I decided to allude to the latter’s Alleluias in the countersubject here.

(I also realized while working on a diminution of the subject that the opening phrase is the same as that of Simple Gifts minus its pickup notes.)

I wanted to end the series with a grand postlude style suitable for organ, so this achieves that, although it’s pretty short. I ran into that curious composer problem where I’d written a good bit of a fugue early in the week and tacked on a temporary ending. The temporary ending grew on me, I was short on time, so it became more or less the ending. (It's amazing how powerful repetition is as a means of making something sound 'right.')

Perhaps later I’ll come back and write more about this fugue set. One of the ongoing challenges was to deal with the tension of not wanting to write the same fugue every week while also wanting to develop some consistency of style. Among others things, I realized after a few weeks that I wanted to avoid always using the same opening formulas. This week, the fugue answer comes in at the Dominant (very normal), but in minor (not normal). The most common procedure would then be to have the next voice back in Tonic, but I have it enter in the Submediant (which is naturally in minor, meaning the two middle entries of this major key fugue are minor) so that the entry of the bass voice in tonic has a strong sense of arrival. Thus, the entries are in: D Major, A Minor, B Minor, D Major.

(25 total / 8 new in '22)

Thursday, February 24, 2022


What a boring blog post title! Today is indeed the fifteenth anniversary of MMmusing, but I haven't come up with a clever angle on this. I've realized that 15, though roundish, is actually a pretty uninteresting number. I thought of posting a list of Top 15 Posts or Top 15 Videos or whatever, but 15 seems like too many for a well-curated list. 

So, here's just a quick "State of the Blog" spiel. Let's see...2007 was a pretty long time ago, so I guess I've been doing this a while. The past year was relatively slow after a strong January/February start to 2021, but I've had another busy start to 2022 with seven (soon to be eight) new fugues, some syncopated loops, and some general rambling. The future is bright.

Though it still may not be totally clear why I keep doing this in fits and starts for a fairly small audience, I am grateful to have so many half-baked thoughts and unique proof-of-concept videos and webpages archived. It's been long enough and I'm now old enough that I can find posts I'd completely forgotten about. I think that's the main reason I do this. I walk (drive, sit) around a lot thinking about these sorts of things - might as well preserve those ephemeral thoughts in....whatever this is.

I was thinking this week about a competition that took place around 2011 or 2012 for "best classical music blog." Blogs were still a good bit more hip and relevant then, but I remember being struck by two things (for what admittedly was a pretty gimmicky contest). Because the judging was to be based on a series of writing challenges, 1) the competition was stuck with the idea that a blog is just like an informal version of writing for print (newspaper, magazines) and thus fundamentally about words, and 2) the competition was really only about a limited series of exercises, not the building of a unique, long-term brand. 

Meanwhile, I as I've said and emphasized way too many times but will say again, the attraction of a digital platform for me is not just the free, unedited publishing (though I enjoy not being edited as evidenced by parenthetical diversions like this), but rather the idea that writing about music can be seamlessly integrated with audio and other multimedia illustrations. I love to read and can even enjoy the imagination required to look at printed musical examples or read a description of some musical process. But here's an example of a video I'd forgotten about which makes several complex points quickly and efficiently; I'd rarely want to be stuck merely with words, even though I love words. I absolutely did not set out to create a multimedia-themed blog, but that's the shape things have taken, and I've done so many cool things I'd never have imagined without taking that first step.

I suppose one of the many reasons blogs have lost a lot of influence is that talking-head videos are now the preferred, more likely viral medium for this kind of work. Adam Neely gets millions of views for his very well-conceived and multimedia-rich videos. He's a very sharp thinker who zeroes in on topics really well, so I'm not suggesting I could match his abilities if I tried. I have thought of trying my hand at the talking head thing (though I hate hearing my own voice), but generally I still prefer the asynchronous experience which reading allows, with links and multimedia provided to let the reader explore as needed. Though this is clearly not the best way to get views, I'm content to continue documenting whatever I'm thinking about at the pace it naturally happens with good ol' old-fashioned Blogger as my home base.

As always, you're encouraged to try the Magical Multimedia Musing Machine to see where the winds take you. Hope to be back here next year when I can title the post: "I am sixteen, going on seventeen."

And, ok, after all of that, here is a quick list of fifteen - not necessarily the Top 15, but a post from every year featuring a fairly wide variety of things. Compositions, Arrangements, Mashups, Performances, Programming, Animations, Words, etc. I intentionally tried to avoid some of the things I've already promoted over and over. (Some of these, like the first five listed, involved a lot of work, so as lighthearted as the tone here generally is, I'm proud of the investment of time and problem-solving that goes into projects like these.)
  1. The Birth of Coulenc (2021)
  2. Chaconne at a glance (2020)
  3. Haydn a Surprise (2019)
  4. Barber: Guitar Concerto (2018)
  5. Alternative Facts (2017)
  6. Sundays at the Improv (2016)
  7. What it the great composers wrote the music for the closing credits of 80's TV shows, Part I (2015)
  8. The Luigi Rag (2014)
  9. Moonlight Mashup (2013)
  10. Ballade Blogging (2012)
  11. Atonality on Ice (2011)
  12. Reflections on a Two-Part Invention (2010)
  13. Name that bassoon (2009)
  14. Ambigramania (2008)
  15. Hyperspace (2007)

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Parody Parade

This Sunday, my daughter's youth orchestra will be playing a big program which begins with Ravel's La valse. I've been thinking about my unusual affection for that piece, an orchestral showstopper which I love best as played by....pianist Glenn Gould. This preference is unusual both because this work is known for Ravel's brilliant, colorful orchestration and because Gould is decidedly not known for playing French or Impressionistic music in general. It strikes me that my attraction to his particular recording reveals several layers of distance from the origins of this music - and I like investigating such layers. 

Let's back up a little and note that pretty much ALL music gets part of its communicative and imaginative power by building on music that already exists. This is obvious enough, but ignored a lot as well. No waltz is an island, one might say.

So it is that one can trace many subterranean layers beneath Gould's version of Ravel's piano transcription of Ravel's own work originally conceived as ballet (the rejection of which almost led to a duel between Ravel and Diaghilev!*). I suppose one could go back to the earliest example of humans dancing, follow that trail to the evolution of formal dances like the waltz, then observe the way in which composers like Chopin and Strauss turned waltzes into concert pieces which inspired Ravel to write a nostalgic evocation of nineteenth-century ballroom waltzing. Ravel's work is thus a parody* of an older style, but the way in which Ravel and Gould re-imagine the colorful orchestral timbres in black-and-white piano context has elements of parody as well, even if not intended to be humorous. (Worth noting that, going back to the Renaissance, a parody just meant basing a work, like a mass, on a pre-existing work; doesn't have to be funny.)

I have always loved piano transcriptions, but will admit there's something a bit silly about having one piano re-create La valse. (There was a time when Ravel's two-piano version was the acknowledged best option, but the solo version seems to be becoming more popular as a vehicle for transcendent technique.) What I love about Gould's approach is that he seems to relish that absurdity. Rather than try to sound like a smoothly blended orchestra, Gould is happy for certain details to receive a new and unexpected spotlighting. This is most obvious at the very beginning where - speaking of subterranean! - Ravel has all sorts of primordial goings on submerged in the bass. (By the way, I only just noticed that the two pitches Ravel alternates, E and F, are the same two featured at the beginning of some famous below-the-surface music by John Williams.)

Whereas Ravel's opening is all muted, pianissimo rumblings, Gould sets his own tone right away.

It's comically different from Ravel's original, and the funny thing is that the piano can do this kind of blurry/submerged thing really well as demonstrated by plenty of other pianists. Gould, ever the iconoclast, seems to be clearing the air right from the outset with a mezzo-forte-plus Bartók sound. THIS IS A PIANO, NOT AN ORCHESTRA! So, although Gould's version does not fit the literal definition of a parody, it has that feeling, and yet I find it thrilling and colorful in its own way. Because it's all played by two hands (assuming Gould didn't do too much cheating in studio), it's more exhilarating listening for me than the almost-too-much orchestral original (though I'm very much looking forward to hearing the orchestra play it live in the great Symphony Hall).

The other thing that interests me here is that I'm not a big fan of the types of waltzes (Strauss, etc.) that Ravel is parodying, but I DO like his parody of them. I've found that dynamic at work in many contexts. For example, I love Fritz Kreisler's Praeludium and Allegro, which is an early 20th century parody of early 18th century style, and I find the Kreisler more compelling than a lot of music from the early 18th century. Kreisler here trades on a lot of the expressive devices of Baroque style while adding in a Romantic virtuoso mindset. The Vitali Chaconne is a similar sort of piece - probably not by Vitali! - though I find it a bit more tiresome than Kreisler's work. I could also happily go the rest of my days without ever again hearing Grieg's From Holberg's Time (in piano or orchestra dress), so I'm not always an easy mark for cross-century parody.

Another more modernist parody I enjoy is Stravinsky's Pulcinella, supposedly based on music by Pergolesi. Worth noting that just as Stravinsky adds dimension to these old tunes, their inspiration brings out something new in his own voice. I'm especially fond of the violin/piano Suite italienne drawn from this ballet, so again it's a transcription of a parody that hits the sweet spot. Maybe I am predictable?

My attitude about this is probably not the most mainstream, but my fascination with mashups and other distortions suggests how much I'm intrigued by off-center re-imaginings, whether of specific works (La valse) or general styles (Baroque). In this way, parodies (and mashups) are a kind of conversation. They are not just music - they are about music. (Which, again, is true of all music to some degree, but it's true in a special way with a parody.) I also have special affection for some of the Romanticized piano parts in the notorious 24 Italian Songs and Arias book, used by countless voice students, and I've always been disappointed by efforts to provide these 17th and 18th century songs with more authentic accompaniments. The piano-vocal versions that have come down to us are parodies of a sort (many by Parisotti), but none the weaker for that as they take advantage of sonorities natural to the piano. As with the works I've mentioned by Kreisler and Stravinsky, music from the past is viewed through the prism of intervening centuries, and that kind of mixing can be really rich and satisfying because there are so many layers.

Recently, I watched a video called "How Allegri's Miserere should really sound." You can watch the whole thing for yourself, but the basics are as follows: 1) Allegri's original work from the early 1600's is already meant as an homage to an older style, so it began life as a parody. 2) Various performance traditions evolved over centuries as the work acquired legendary status connected to its use in the Sistine Chapel and Mozart's supposed copying down of the work from memory. 3) Somewhere along the way, a part was mis-copied a fourth too high in a way that leads to a very memorable high C which, in my experience, is THE most famous thing about this music, but it's the creation of a much later nineteenth century point-of-view. When I hear mention of this piece, I immediately hear the part you may hear here (at 12:10). This is an unintentional parody, but though the video seems to want to say, "let's go back to Allegri's original vision," my temptation is to say that the distorted tradition is more interesting. (Of course, this kind of distortion happens in all sorts of contexts, and I'm not saying it's always a good thing.)

Popping over to another genre, I've never really felt any attachment to 60's folk music, but I simply adore just about all the music written for A Mighty Wind, which is just one affectionate parody after another. In that case it is partly the humorous aspect, but the creators and performers of those songs achieved something magical that transcends parody, and I'm forced to give some credit to a musical tradition which otherwise doesn't interest me. So the power of parody means there might be hope for...who knows what? In the meantime, my apologies for the parody in the footnote below.

* Perhaps worth mentioning as well that I love Ravel's dance even though I'm not such a big fan of dancing. Serge Diaghilev also seemed to agree that this dance music is better for listening than dancing, which I guess led to his almost dueling with Ravel. Unfortunately, I then found it impossible not to imagine this Diaghologue:

You should be able to click on it to enlarge, if you dare. For comparison, the original is here.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Epiphany Fugue 7/8

So, if you're keeping score at home, Epiphany Fugue 5/8 was not in 5/8 time, Epiphany Fugue 6/8 was in 5/8 time, but today's Epiphany Fugue 7/8 is just in boring 3/4 time. One irregular meter out of eight seemed like plenty.

I guess I don't have a lot more to say about this week's fugue. Last week I couldn't wait to get started and finished most of the work days ahead of time. This week it took more effort to get myself going, and I'm not sure I feel like this one is really finished, but it got the job done. Unlike a lot of these, I feel this one works better on organ, but I don't have a great recording yet, and I've been archiving all of these as piano fugues anyway. (UPDATE: Not great, sloppy organ recording available here.)

This happens to be a hymn tune around which I've already written two other non-fugues (a prelude and a postlude), so maybe it didn't have anything new to say to me. Or maybe starting school vacation dulled my senses rather than enlivened them. Or perhaps I spent too much time re-syncopating Nathan Detroit and Gary, Indiana

Whatever, I'm just one fugue from my goal. Then I can confess all of my part-writing sins during Lent....

(24 total / 7 new in '22)

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Trips along softly on the tongue this way...

As always, one odd blog project (bloject?) breeds another. So it is that only days after thinking about the elegant syncopations in "Why it's good old reliable NAAAthan, NAthan, NAthan, NAthan Detroit," my middle school music class had made it to the "Gary, Indiana" scene in The Music Man

Well, just as Frank Loesser delights in placing "Nathan" on various parts of the meter, Meredith Wilson literally describes his own metrical play as a series of "elegant syncopations" within the lyrics themselves. The idea is the same, though at a gentler pace. 

Here's how I distorted Nathan, with Nathan starting in four different places within the 2/4 meter:

In the middle of "Gary, Indiana," (a part not included here), Harold Hill sings: "If you'd like to have a logical explanation / how I happened on this elegant syncopation." You can see the syncopations below. The first "Gary" is on beat 1, the second on beat 4, and the third on beat 3. 

The logical, elegant extension of this idea would be to add one more "Gary, Indiana" starting on beat 2, and then the cycle can repeat itself for as long as desired. (My new little melodic phrase is shown in red. Would be nice to end it on A-sharp to keep everything stepwise, but that was trickier than I'd hoped.)

As with the "Nathan Detroit" post before, a lot of the appeal of projects like this is finding a way to re-mix the original multimedia. In this case, I found that Harold doesn't sing many of the notes in red on the correct pitches, so a little pitch-shifting wizardry was required (partly why the A-sharp was tricky to achieve), and then loop/syncing the video is its own challenge. Unlike the unpredictable Nathans, in this case I simply prepared one long video for your enjoyment:

Incidentally, because I needed to have a version of the video going backwards, I ended up with this odd half-Scandanavian version of the song - which also happens to bring out the "rag" in "Gary":

Still haven't finished (or started!) this week's fugue though, so enough about this.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Just how reliable is Nathan Detroit?

This is just a little diversion from the ongoing fugue series. I'm music-directing an upcoming school production of Guys and Dolls, which means for the first time I'm playing one of my favorite songs: "The Oldest Established." I've always enjoyed the way Frank Loesser syncopates the name Nathan in this song, hitting almost every possible position in the meter.

Though I'm not sure when it began, it has long seemed to me that this pattern could happily repeat ad infinitum:
So, as I've done with Stravinsky, Haydn, Satie, and my own blog, I thought the best solution was to create a page in which each re-load creates a surprise number of repetitions. Enjoy!

Good Old Reliable

UPDATE: I somehow forgot to mention, even in the middle of a big fugue-writing project, that Guys and Dolls opens with the well-known "Fugue for Tinhorns," which of course is really more canon than fugue. Perhaps it would be a fun challenge to write an actual "Fugue on a Fugue for Tinhorns," though would be hard to tie that in with Sunday morning... 

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Epiphany Fugue 6/8 (in 5/8)

This week's fugue was inspired in part by a quirky twist of words, which is one of my favorite kinds of inspiration. When I wrote my post last week about the fifth in this series of eight planned new fugues for Epiphany, I gave the post the generic title: "Epiphany Fugue 5/8." Only when I posted about it on Facebook did I notice the possible double-meaning in the title, so I wrote: 
Fugue 5/8 is in the books. (No, it's not in 5/8 time which, come now to think about it, is a little disappointing.)
But of course, the seed was planted. As it happens, I'd encountered and recorded an unusual fugue in 5/8 time a couple of years ago. That had come about due to a strange confluence of puns as well, feeding off the connection of "May the 4th be with you" with the date 5/4. Memes about Dave Brubeck and his 5/4 "Take Five" had led me to make other memes about other music in quintuple meter, and this somehow led to friends letting me know about Anton Reicha's unusual little fugue. I mention all of this because thinking about a fugue in 5/8 time immediately seemed liked a realizable and desirable goal. So this fugue is connected in various ways to Star Wars, Dave Brubeck, Anton Reicha, and the use of fractions.

I'd already settled on using the classic Welsh hymn tune HYFRYDOL as my subject this week. I was walking along absent-mindedly on Monday, and it occurred to me that I could easily fashion a 5/8 fugue subject by condensing some rhythms in the tune, which otherwise might've been suitable for a nice jig fugue. It's worth noting as well that, whereas most of the fugues I've written so far this year have been conceived as preludes, this one was scheduled as postlude, so it needed to be lively.

I was so motivated by this idea that, unlike in previous weeks when I did most of my work on Friday/Saturday, I actually had this one mostly finished by Wednesday. I think it came out pretty well as a kind of experiment in asymmetrical perpetual motion - and having it done early was good since this required a bit more practice. The fugue subject, because of the condensed rhythm, is admittedly not the most distinctive, though the countersubject (which is a continuation of notes from the original hymn tune) has a dotted quarter which helps establish the 5/8 groove. It would probably be more accurate to say that the subject is four bars, including that dotted eighth, but the answer comes in halfway through the subject, another factor which gives this piece a sense of forward momentum. 

I tried to stretch the whole fugue out to two minutes, but losing that extra 8th note every measure really keeps things moving!

This is my second 2022 fugue with a subject that is all 8th notes. In the first case, using the Gregorian chant Ubi caritas, I was intentional about not having a clear metrical feel so that the music would flow more like chant. In this quite opposite case, I found it important to establish a clear 5/8 pattern early on (partially using that rhythm which starts the countersubject) since here I wanted the meter to be quite apparent. 

I was also intentional this time about writing music which works as well on organ as piano and which broke out of the slow/contemplative lane I'd fallen into for most of the previous fugues in this series. Although I don't have the pedal technique to play the bass clef voice without a LOT of practice, this quick before-church run-through on manuals give a sense of how it works that way. (It would also sound pretty snazzy on harpsichord!) 

Live Organ

Synth Harpsichord

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Epiphany Fugue 5/8

Staying on schedule! I'm happy with how this one came out. There are definitely some similarities in tone and technique among these fugues, but I think that's to be expected. If nothing else, it makes me feel like I have some sort of consistency of style, even as I hope each week to find a more distinctively new approach. The writing continues to be sort of improvisatory, not in the sense that I simply sit down and make things up - I'm not really able to do that sort of thing well - but rather that I don't plan things out all that much, letting the ideas take me wherever they lead. 

This is a very familiar tune which, as used here, makes for a very simple fugue subject. For that reason, even though the hymn's emphasis on the Trinity might've been a good excuse to stick with three voices, I thought this would a good opportunity to go back to four voices.