Sunday, May 5, 2024

Lost in Brahms

Four or five days ago, a Facebook friend posted an image of the opening two pages from the finale of Brahms German Requiem. Alongside, he wrote:

"I've just spent 55 minutes on these nine bars. The downbeats evaporate at m. 5 like a bubble popping...."

Part of the experience of being a musician is getting happily lost in a tiny bit of music. Or maybe not always happily. I and, I'm sure, many other music students have memories of lessons where the teacher somehow never got past the opening bars. Although the purpose of such microscopic focus is to make sure everything is good under the hood when an actual performance happens, such moments are also part of the fascinating way in which music intersects with time. 

These experiences can go both ways from a time perspective. I've been in rehearsals where obsessive focus on tiny details has made time seem to stop in the worst sense - a two-hour rehearsal suddenly seems like four hours. And I've been in rehearsals (usually when music is being run continuously) where time stops because one stops noticing time, only to realize that two hours felt like thirty minutes. Both are experiences of being lost in the music - one unpleasant and maddening and the other a state of flow or even transcendence. 

Score study has a special relationship to time because it often involves mentally twisting and turning the musical object at particular moments to see what's going on inside, all while the real clock is still running. We often don't notice the paradox of how much time we might spend thinking about one or two seconds of music. Thus, getting lost for 55 minutes in the opening bars of a richly layered work can make a lot of sense. 

Of course, I also playfully reinterpreted my friend's comment to mean he was just listening realllly slowly at a tempo which stretched 36 seconds into 3300 seconds. Indeed, stretching the music to last that long can actually be done, and I'll reveal what that sounds like below. There's a website called 9beetstretch where a complete performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, stretched out to 24 hours, is continuously livestreamed. That's stretching things by a factor of about 24. You may sample the effect here: the first movement only takes about 5.5 hours! I've never listened to the whole thing, but listening in is something else. 

Mostly, the super slow Beethoven sounds like some sort of untamed ambient music. Even in the three instrumental movements, it often sounds like wordless voices from an apocalyptic soundtrack. The precision of a world-class orchestra is revealed at a fractal level to have all sorts of tiny discrepancies of attack which become rhythmic events of their own. The fact that music is fundamentally about vibration becomes apparent as the concepts we usually use to understand the vibrations (melody, harmony, rhythm) lose their meaning. If you know the quick-paced scherzo, I recommend sampling some of that in the x24 version because the notes go by quickly enough that it is just possible to follow what's happening. But it mostly sounds like...well, you decide

So I was interested in various ways of slowing Brahms down, and though it is possible simply to distort the audio of a live performance to pretty much any length, I also thought it would be fun to hear a synthesized version where the notes are just played really slowly (and not distorted). This eliminates the otherwise inevitable imprecision of attack and pitch - so much that I found it necessary to add some very soupy reverb to smooth out the edges, creating a dream-state effect. I've tinkered with this on and off the past few days and have found the process really satisfying, even if the result is little more than a curiosity. 

What I find appealing:

  • Getting to know just about every single note and instrument choice used by Brahms in this short passage. The time spent listening and manipulating is its own kind of score study. It's a kind of literal experience of what it means to get lost in the details.
  • Getting to spend time "conducting" the result by adjusting general levels and attack levels for various pitches, etc. I am no expert at mixing audio, but it is fun to think like a conductor, in this case using sliders and automation curves instead of baton and words. 
  • Basking in the admittedly hallucinatory soundworld which results.

For various reasons, I settled on a much less dramatic stretch factor of around 3.5x. (Synth sounds are just kind of boring if note changes are too far apart.) This makes it quite easy to process the familiar music, but it still enables a new awareness of certain passing moments, like how non-harmonic passing tones create a lot of tension when one takes the time to listen to them.

Brahms' music itself is quite striking as a beginning (the beginning of the end of the requiem). Coming on the heels of the large-scale and emphatic sixth movement, this seventh movement begins as if in the middle of something over a secondary dominant. Sopranos first and violins next are sent into their stratospheres as we seem to be glimpsing heavenly realms. (The German text translates as: "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth.") The mostly rising accompanying figure in the strings is written so that the 8th note pairs are constantly reaching across the beats, which provides a restless kind of forward motion in what is otherwise a steady tempo. As my friend's quote at the top suggests, Brahms also plays with texture with the pedal bass notes dropping out after four bars, almost as if we're leaving earth's gravity behind.

So, hopefully you will find two minutes to indulge this little indulgent thought experiment of mine. At least I only did nine bars! You could do worse than to get lost in these good vibrations.

And though I do NOT recommend listening to all of the following, the technology just made it so easy to stretch Brahms' 36 seconds out to 55 minutes, I couldn't resist. My son and I did listen (please don't alert DSS) to the first seven minutes in the car yesterday. It takes a little over six minutes to get to the entrance of the sopranos in m.2. After that, the wobble of the high voices would probably give you a headache. (I don't make any claims for how precisely the yellow highlighter tracks exactly where things are!) 

This is not my first entry into the world of videos that flirt with eternity. Here's a short playlist. My favorite, by far, is a very slow, synth string version of Schoenberg's gorgeous, but super dense a cappella Friede auf Erden. I find this "performance" to be genuinely beautiful. (I even...shh...kind of prefer it to the original!) The other three videos found here are more about looping infinitely, but I've listened to all of them all the way through with some satisfaction. Perhaps I have...unusual tastes.