Monday, April 22, 2024

Sound Tracks

I was flying back to Boston from Atlanta Friday night, and by good fortune had a port side window seat in front of the wing. I hadn't thought much of the view I might get on this budget Spirit Airlines flight, but as we descended from clouds into the Greater Boston area, I started noticing I could see a lot of detail out the side, although honestly the window looked too small and smudgey to think I could do any worthwhile photography. I took a few phone photos that looked pretty bad and kind of put the idea way. 

Then as I started seeing the Boston skyline way in the distance, I thought this might be a nice approach and started video-ing. In this way, I captured the last two minutes of the flight in gorgeous, dusky skylight, with clear views of the South Boston waterfront all the way to the crossing of Boston Harbor (almost at water level!) and onto the Logan Airport runway which sits just across the harbor from downtown.

When I got home, I did some triangulating with Google Maps, working backwards from the very clear view of the "Rainbow Swash" design on a giant National Grid LNG tank that sits right on the ocean's edge, followed shortly thereafter by a spectacular view of UMASS-Boston and the JFK Library. In the opening of the video, I could pretty clearly see what looked like a cemetery, and after following the flight course backwards, I identified the Cedar Grove Cemetery in Boston's southeastern Dorchester neighborhood; the long white roof of another nearby location turned out to be the Ashmont MBTA station. Here's the basic flight path I retroactively charted:

Anyway, I came here not to talk about Boston geography (though the views coming in over the city and harbor are gorgeous), but rather to talk about the music I chose to pair with this majestic descent into town - because I had to share this video on social media, and the cabin sounds of overhead announcements are so pedestrian. [To be fair, although the views are awesome, you don't get a great view of the Boston skyline which is more classically photographed from a little further north across the harbor. The three tallest buildings in Boston (including the Hancock and the Prudential) can be seen early on rising up over Back Bay in the upper background, but as they are west of downtown, they always remain in the distance.]

When looking for the right soundtrack, I thought of the terms "soaring" and "flying," and I think I even did a search for those terms with "classical music." But on my own, I pretty quickly thought of the glorious "whales" scene from Disney's Fantasia 2000, which is accompanied by music from Respighi's Pines of Rome. There are lots of great "big finishes" in classical music, but this one has just the right kind of stately, inexorable grandeur that an airplane descent calls for, even if Disney has its whales ascending. (Notice how often slow, steady, rising scales are heard amidst all the gleaming fanfares.) It took just a little experimenting to get it to line up pretty well, and I feel confident in saying this soundtrack complements the visuals very effectively. In fact, for me the music elevates the experience quite a bit, mainly because the music is SO good. (But I'm also genuinely amazed at the quality of video one can get from an old iPhone through a small, smudgey window.)

This reminds me that just last week, I was looking for some music to go with a spirited game of tug-of-war between my dog and a niece's dog last week. In this case, I intentionally sped up the video for comic effect. I'd wanted to post it for family members but thought it awkward to include the unrelated conversation going on in the background, so I brought in some great fight music from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet and shortened the fight itself so that it ended along with a good stopping point.

One of my favorite aspects of this kind of thing is how our brains can find connections that weren't necessarily intended between sight and sound in such situations. I'll let you find your own! In the meantime, here are a couple of older posts/videos where I experimented with adding unrelated soundtrack music to new video.
In the former, video was edited to match some of the changes in the flow of the music.

In the latter, each repetition of the short looping video allows the viewer to make all sorts of connections between images and audio.

Curiously enough, I'm not always a fan of music doing so much heavy lifting in movies. I sometimes find the overly manipulative soundtracks someone like Spielberg prefers to obscure/overwhelm subtler aspects of storytelling. I'd prefer that good actors be given the room to act without music telling me what to feel, and sometimes silence is the best frame for that. 

As a final note, I'll add that the first two videos here are evidence of what a wonder it is to live with high-quality cameras at hand so readily in the form of small phones. There's a lot that's wrong with smartphone culture, but I'd hate to give up this part.

Friday, April 5, 2024

Preluding and Fuguing

Only a couple of days before Christmas, I mentioned using a "make myself write a fugue trick" by submitting a title for a work that did not yet exist for the Christmas Eve service leaflets. I suppose this trick works because it's very easy to commit by email to doing something, and I know that once the paper is printed, I will have successfully backed myself into a corner. It's even possible that I have done this in the past because it's easier in the moment to commit to writing something (which ultimately will take a lot of time) than it might be to find an alternative piece to play. I might be saving myself 10-20 minutes in the moment even though this will likely cost me many hours of work on the other end. Not a good interest rate, but still genuinely appealing to the true procrastinator!

Once again, after looking at this year's draft for the Easter Vigil leaflet, I knew I wanted something different for a slow/fast pair near the end of the service. The final hymn was to be We know that Christ is raised (#298 in The Hymnal 1982), sung to Charles V. Stanford's stirring tune ENGELBERG. So, before I even gave it much thought, I was signing on the dotted line to play a Prelude on Engelberg and a bit later a Fugue on Engelberg. All that was left was....well, the hard part of manufacturing notes.

I'm actually not going to go into too much more detail here about these new pieces and am choosing not even to reveal much of the scores, in part because both feel a little unfinished, even though I think they served their purposes well. (The prelude was needed during a quiet time before the final hymn; the fugue immediately followed that hymn.) However, I thought it was worth pointing out a cool trick I stumbled on (or did I?) for writing the prelude. 

First of all, ENGELBERG is a really outstanding tune, very singable and featuring climactic Alleluias at the end of each verse. I actually think a historical disadvantage this tune has is that it is perhaps used too often with too many different texts. It apparently appears six times in the 1904 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern, and it appears three times in The Hymnal 1982. This can make it seem a bit generic when matched up against another famous stirring tune which also begins after a strong downbeat and also ends each verse with Alleluias, but which is very strongly associated with only one text. Still, it's a good sing:

I improvise quietly around hymn tunes pretty regularly, and though I would like to be much better at this, I felt pretty confident I could devise a simple plan for a nice, quiet, reflective prelude. I was sitting at the organ to see what I might come up with, and within just a few seconds, a little noodling had given me the idea that the first fifteen notes of the melody could be sped up into an ostinato pattern. (An ostinato is basically a musical figure which is designed to be repeated many times, "obstinately" one might say - at least in this case!) Here is the opening of the tune and then the ostinato figure it generates:

To be honest, there's not much more to this prelude, as I just added a simple ascending pedal line to the bass part and kept both repeating (with occasional variation) while a middle voice slowly works its way through the tune. It is quite repetitive, but it is designed more for quiet liturgical function than concert use, so I'm OK with that.

[Quick Confession Time: Although I do take some credit for devising this ostinato structure, I had remembered in writing this post that I had once looked at a large-scale organ Fantasia which Stanford wrote based on this tune. I think I even faked my way through parts of it before. In looking it up now, I only now remembered that Stanford, after introducing the tune in quarter notes in the pedal, immediately adds an improvisatory sixteenth note figure for the hands which certainly anticipates what I ended up doing, though he doesn't quote the tune as explicitly. It is somewhat likely that my subconscious memory of this passage helped to "inspire" my approach.]

The fugue is a pretty straightforward three-voice affair with quite a few modulations in a short time. The fugue subject uses only the first ten notes of the tune, although the closing Alleluias are referenced in the flexible countersubject material. [Fugue begins at about 3:05.]

Hopefully at some point I will post more polished versions of both, but here's what we have for now. Happy Easter!

P.S. And, of course, let's add this to the list: MM Hymn Fugues - YouTube