Friday, February 24, 2017

10 Years

Today is the 10th anniversary of MMmusing! You might think, "hey, it doesn't look like this blog is really very active any more." Well, I have alternative facts to that:

That's right, on a blog which has featured a wide range of multimedia creations, I'm celebrating in style with my first full-blown [very short] opera aria. It's true!

Our story begins right around the tumultuous election back in November with a Facebook discussion. (Mozart and Da Ponte did a lot of collaborating on Facebook back in the day.) My composer friend Wesley (who's actually been partly responsible for several of my strange experiments) and I had the following exchange as the election news rolled in:

And indeed, I think that the classical music world, with its tendency to be too serious about just about everything, has neglected the wonderful world of comic opera.* As if Mozart (or Sondheim, for that matter) couldn't address serious societal concerns with silliness and wit.

Anyway, in fairly short order, I'd churned out a perfectly ridiculous little demo, with "libretto" inspired by a Youtube clip. Trump's China Aria:

Then, the villain Wesley struck again and wondered which aria from this imaginary opera would feature overuse of the "Dies irae" (a Gregorian chant tune from the Requiem mass that was exploited by many 19th century composers for melodramatic effect). Well, of course I couldn't resist that challenge, and I'm actually kind of proud of this little partial aria, mainly because the "Dies irae" motif (first heard in bass and then in Trump's melody on p.2) is turned into something lighthearted.

And then, mercifully, I put the idea away. I did imagine at the time that an imaginary Trump opera would cast the First Lady as a mezzo, but of course I'd need to write a Michelle Obama aria first before I could start on Melania's (rimshot). However, in late January when the "alternative facts" saga began to unfold, I couldn't help but think that Kellyanne would make a great coloratura character. A few words came to mind, and suddenly I'd written something more substantial than I had for the Donald - and I honestly kind of liked it. It is operatic in style, though I hope it has some of the feel of musical theater, a la my heroes Britten and Bernstein. (The lyrics also owe a bit to George Costanza.)

Whereas I'd been more than happy to let Trump be personified by a synthesized voice, I knew I'd need an actual human to pull this off, so I sent the music off to a wonderful soprano, Julia Nelson, and she agreed to give it a whirl. We had hoped to meet and record it live, but couldn't make our schedules work, and in the end, she had to record it alone without even an accompaniment track due to some technical difficulties. I then spent this morning assembling an "orchestra" around her, and here we are, just before the blog-iversary is over. (Of course, late Friday is supposed to be the worst possible time to drop news. Oh well.)

It's all very much in beta form, though I don't know how much further I'd go with any of this. This aria, for example, is probably missing a couple of sections. I'm not likely to write anything like a full opera, but a song cycle of arias could be fun. But I do intend to go on blogging. In fact, I had a few items in the works this week in hopes of building a little anniversary momentum before circumstances (sickness, car trouble) intervened. At least that means I've got more content for the near future.

In the meantime, if you've missed anything these ten years, you might start here, or even here if you'd like to sample a wider range of creations. Or, be really brave and SPIN THE WHEEL!

* I know there are exceptions, but they don't tend to get as much attention as the SERIOUS things.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

NFL Pachelbel

Early this morning as I was practicing before for church, I realized I'd neglected to honor the special feast day that is Super Bowl Sunday - and, as happens remarkably often, the local team is part of the feast, which begins in about fifteen minutes. My scheduled postlude was a Toccata in G Minor by Johann "Don't Call Me One-Hit Wonder" Pachelbel, but I decided to insert a little fanfare introduction:

As it happens, this toccata features a tonic pedal tone, which is also true of the NFL on Fox theme. In addition to the fanfare intro, I inserted a little bit of the main theme starting right after m.7, though in the version above (recorded before the service), I made the mistake of not setting that quote apart with a trumpet stop, so it gets buried a little bit.

Anyway, the game is about to begin, so that's all I'll say for now - but at least I'm blogging again. Go Pats!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Bidin' my time waiting for a legit reason to blog...

For all the meta-multimedia mashup musing M.M. (from Massachusetts) has done here over the years, I've steered pretty clear of that ever-popular social media "m," the meme.* For the record, I'm annoyed that the broad and culturally interesting term "meme," which can apply to a wide variety of ideas and expressions that become widely disseminated, has become mostly associated with silly text applied to existing images. I'm even more annoyed with people who think they've "created a meme," when they've simply created an instance of a meme. I will not take credit for creating a meme, but I will submit some silly text I've recently applied to existing images.

An organist/church music director friend wrote the other day on Facebook about how much he loves the "Biden memes," in which the vice-president is depicted as a fun-loving prankster saying all manner of less than vice-presidential things to Obama and others. It's easy enough to Google "Biden memes" to get a sampling, but I figured my organist friend might enjoy imagining Biden talking music as well.

I'm not saying these are particularly good, but they exist, and here they are:

{If you've never heard "Young Messiah," here's a sample [1:01:08]}

That last one isn't very funny, but I was proud of Photoshopping a Stravinsky score into Biden's hands.

* OK, there was this uneven series of takes on one of the first popular Internet memes.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Schumann, Shostakovich, Scherzi, and Scales

Tomorrow I have the pleasure of playing not one, but two of the great piano quintets in a recital with North Shore Chamber Music. The piano quintet (piano + string quartet) has always been the ideal ensemble for my tastes, although composers have written many more piano trios (piano + violin + cello) and many, many more string quartets. The trio is a more practical combination for living rooms (really the primary venue for nineteenth century chamber music), and the string quartet is more perfectly balanced and avoids the annoying problems of making string players match the compromised tuning of a piano. (By the way, I couldn't care less about those problems!)

But the piano quintet offers more possibilities for heroic, grandly scaled drama, especially pitting the keyboard against the quartet. And, for whatever reason, it has inspired some of the most inspired works in the chamber music canon, perhaps because the ensemble size pushes composers to combine the best of the chamber music spirit with the ambitions of larger-scaled works like symphonies and concerti.

I'll confess that my absolute favorite quintet belongs to Brahms, but the Schumann is right behind with Dvorak's, all probably falling easily within my unpublished "50 Greatest Pieces of All Time" list. (Brahms is Top 10.) The Shostakovich is newer to me, and has a few quirky elements that still mystify me a bit, but it is deeply moving, strikingly original and thoroughly entertaining.

Tomorrow's recital pairs Shostakovich and Schumann, with the more modern work going first, in part because it has such a gentle, almost "lullaby-like" ending (one of its quirks). The two quintets make for a nice contrast: Shostakovich's five-movement structure is often moody, sometimes violent, sometimes sardonic, and particularly creative in the way the composer mixes and matches the instruments. Schumann's quintet is more tightly constructed, and though there is some definite pathos in the funereal second movement, the other three movements are among his most joyful and exuberant creations.

The great choreographer Mark Morris has apparently staged the Schumann quintet, although I  regrettably haven't been able to find any video. However, I love this description from critic Terry Teachout, who ranks Morris's dance as a masterpiece:
...toward the end of the last movement...Schumann launches a fugue-like musical episode and the dancers run out from the wings and start to embrace one another. Right then, I knew Morris had “solved” the dance–that he had successfully worked out its internal logic and was demonstrating the solution on stage–and my eyes immediately filled with tears.
That fugal episode (which you can hear at 27:26 of this video) combines the themes of the first and last movements, and is indeed as life-affirming as music can be. It's interesting that for Schumann, the fugue idea is used as a kind of summation; although the various instruments do present these themes in contrapuntal succession, the effect is one of unification. On the other hand, the entire second movement of Shostakovich's quintet is a fully worked-out fugue in which the individual voices seem to be wandering on their own separate paths. It's true that this is partly the difference between a major key "fugue-like passage" in a fast tempo vs. a minor key, slow and extended fugue, but it's also true that Shostakovich tends to treat his five players more as individuals, and he has a flair for expressing the feeling of isolation in sound. (Incidentally, the subject of this fugue sounds a lot like the haunting primary theme of John Corigliano's score for The Red Violin.)

But my favorite connection between these works is this: they feature two of the best scherzo movements ever! I first heard Schumann's scherzo in a scene from a documentary about the 1985 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in which all semi-finalists were required to perform either the Schumann, the Dvorak, or the Brahms. The scene was beautifully edited so that it cut back and forth among various contestants playing this scherzo with the Tokyo String Quartet. I fell in love with it right away, and never get tired of this manic celebration of that simplest of musical building blocks: THE SCALE. You can see exactly what I mean in this amazing visualization. (I know I keep using the word "favorite" in this post, but I think this is my favorite music visualization ever! Often graphical visualizations fail to capture important subtleties of harmony which are so essential to how music expresses meaning, but all those criss-crossing scales jump right off the screen below.)

The Shostakovich scherzo, which I first heard played by students at my daughter's summer music camp, is just as memorable, also based on fairly simple building blocks, including plenty of scales. Beginning around the 0:28 mark below, the pianist sounds like a student in a conservatory doing his exercises:

Speaking of students practicing, here's some slice-of-life video of me playing ping-pong with my son while a camp pianist diligently drills some ping-pongy passages from this scherzo in the background. Nothing much happens in the video, but it reminds me how much I love musical fragments - and it reminds me I should go back to practicing NOW.

Anyway, if you've got nothing else to do tomorrow afternoon at 3, come hear us!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

This just popped up

As ever, this blog tends to feed itself once it's active. In my previous post, I wrote about happening on a Bach fugue and converting the notation from the ungainly key of C-sharp Major to the slightly more gainly key of D-flat Major. I mentioned discussing this fugue with pianist/blogger Erica Sipes, who's spent a lot of time with Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier. In a Facebook conversation, she wrote: "The fugue reminds me of popcorn popping...starting with a kernel or two as the oil heats up and then speeding up as they all start popping. Profound, eh?"

Well, to me this actually seemed perfectly profound and on point (especially because of the way 32nd notes are gradually introduced to quicken the texture), so I started thinking about how to play with the concept. Since my piano tuner has advised against pouring hot oil into the piano, I decided to head back to the world of Scratch, MIT's marvelous graphical programming environment for kids (and kids at heart). I've actually learned enough "grown-up" programming since I last posted Scratch projects (see: here, here, and here) that I should really start learning how to do animations in JavaScript; but I wanted to see Bach popping right away, so I started scratching.

Scratch does have some limited MIDI capabilities (basically, you can tell it to play notes at a given pitch, for a given length, by a given "instrument"), but getting it to play a three-part fugue in which the beats stay synchronized, even as the tempo changes, meant I got to experience what it's like to build a MIDI system almost from the ground up. As I'll discuss more in a future post, this kind of problem-solving provides an interesting vantage point from which to think about how music works. Mundane functions like pausing, restarting, and jumping around within the music all required procedures that had to be thought through and executed. (In my programming experience, the latter is always much harder than the former!)

As for the popcorn animation, my first instinct turned out to be the best - nothing but a simple skillet in which each note "played" causes a kernel to jump up and then get randomly popped around the pan. I got to revisit my long dormant trigonometry skills as a way of ensuring that the randomly distributed kernels end up falling in a circular pattern. (Simply sending kernels to random values of X and Y resulted in a square distribution that looked silly with the round skillet.)

[The only nod to the actual musical structure is at 1:16 when the alto voice states the subject in augmentation (longer note values); if you look closely, you'll see especially emphatic pops for those four notes.]

Then, like kernels popping randomly in all directions, I found the project also started sprouting outwardly in unexpected ways. I spent a good bit of time trying to design a pop sequence that somehow shows the melodic shape of the three parts. This took a lot of work - and, frustratingly, resulted in something less elegant and realistic-looking than the simple random approach. The kernels that (for reasons unknown to reality) shoot popping kernels into the bowl look a bit too much like little bugs; perhaps a "bug" in the program. But I'm pleased with having met the challenge, although this version exists as an unfinished side curiosity for now. (Those are bass kernels in lower left, alto in upper left, and soprano in upper right.)

Other features crept in, including the fairly rudimentary functionality of being able to change instruments, tempo, volume balance, and key on the fly. Changing key (which, in a way, is how I got myself "into this fugue" in the first place) gave me the idea of allowing the user to change the key for each voice part individually. This led to the idea of a feature in which the music changes key randomly every beat, which creates a kind of 12-tone fantasy effect. (We all have different fantasies.) Then, it occurred to me that the integers I was inputting for pitches don't have to be integers, and suddenly a microtonal option was on the menu. (Unfortunately, "viola" is not one of the instrument options in Scratch's soundfont.) For the user who finds the popping kernels are inducing hunger, this microtonal option might help to erase any appetite.

Finally, because I already have the music entered into Lilypond, and because Lilypond is wonderfully flexible about output options, I converted the score into 35 one-bar systems which allow the user to view the score two bars at a time in the small window. It's not the most practical way to follow along, but it's nice for reference, and one can easily switch back and forth between staves and stovetop.

After I'd made it this far in writing this very post, I realized I needed to add a feature which inverts the music. Rather than simply invert each part within its own range, the parts are completely flipped so that the bass becomes soprano and the soprano becomes bass. Although it wouldn't have been so difficult to produce a nice elegant engraving of this new "score," I decided it's more fun to flip the existing measures upside down like so*:

Notice that the C-sharp which begins the subject in the bass is still a C-sharp two octaves up, and it even looks like a C-sharp in the inverted bass clef staff!

Here's a quick demo of most of these functions**:

That gets a little insane at the end as I flew to close to the sun in choosing a tempo that would get me to the end more quickly. All the more reason for you to try these fun features out on your own. Just go here or click the image below, which surrounds the embedded "game" within all the instructions you'll need.

Unfortunately, Scratch uses Flash technology which is becoming more and more outdated, so this program won't work on most mobile devices, and might not work on some computers, depending on what your browser thinks of Flash. This is why I'm not going to keep trying to iron out all the leftover kinks. (Sometimes, for reasons I don't feel like fixing, the kernels will suddenly grown enormous and overtake the entire screen - which is actually kind of a nice bug.) Time to move on and learn how to do this more elegantly and efficiently.

I have much more to say about "playing with" Bach in this way, and will post more soon. For now, I'll just say that the line between "playing Bach" (as in, performing it "respectfully" on a keyboard instrument) and "playing with Bach" perhaps shouldn't be so clear. Although there's no clear aesthetic purpose in inverting a fugue with microtonal distortions, I like to think of this program as a way of holding the music in virtual hands and turning it around to inspect like one would a snow globe.

In my last post, I quoted the great Charles Rosen about the satisfying way in which Bach's counterpoint fits the fingers. In the larger context, he's discussing the fact that this music was never intended to be performed publicly, but rather for more private encounters in which following the score (by performer and possibly by a few other listeners) is part of the experience of the music. Rosen writes:
Playing Bach for oneself or for a friend or pupil looking at the score...raises few problems; nothing had to be brought out, the harpsichordist experienced the different voices through the movement of the hands, the listener saw the score and followed all the contrapuntal complexity disentangling the sound visually while listening. Bach's art did not depend on hearing the different voices and separating them in the mind, but on appreciating the way what was separate on paper blended into a wonderful whole. [pp. 199-200]
Rosen goes on to suggest that modern performance in concert necessitates having the performer "bring out" the contrapuntal details more pointedly. I'm not sure I agree with that, especially because we know Bach loved secrets and hidden meanings, so he might enjoy the idea that various kinds of thematic connections are buried under a euphonious surface; but for now, I'm more interested in the idea that encountering this music can happen in lots of ways. And, yes, I'd agree that the best such encounters happen at the keyboard. Here again is my humble effort at playing this prelude and fugue shortly after learning them in my D-flat "version." (Fugue begins at 1:45).

Thanks again to Erica for her Bach/popcorn brilliant idea. Check out her brave and insightful online practice sessons and her lovely book on practicing. Come to think of it, practicing is something I should probably be doing! (I don't think it counts for me but, even as I type on a Tuesday night, I'm listening to my daughter zip through Bach's A Minor violin fugue, so I'm having a live fugue experience. Bach is the best!)

* Flipping the music upside-down distorts a lot of the tonal function, though the vague major-to-minor effect is cool.

** One feature I decided not to include, though I toyed around with it, is to have the notes played backwards. It's very easy to reverse the note/rhythm sets and that sounded cool in places, but running notation backwards also raises the question of whether notes should begin where they ended going forward (so that a whole note would begin right at the beginning of a backwards bar) or where they started going forward (so that a whole note wouldn't be played until the very, very end of a backwards bar), which aligns note attacks more often with the other voices but produces odd collisions going the other direction. If that didn't make sense, just think of how a record sounds played backwards. Assuming you're not trying to recreate that whooshing effect caused by reversing a note's sustain, then you're basically going to end up with significantly different rhythmic relationships among the parts.