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Michael Monroe's Musings on Music, the Mind, Meaning, and more.

Updated: 2018-01-20T18:28:09.220-05:00


Re-Inventing Bach


A couple of days ago, my blogging pianist friend Erica pointed me to a new edition of Bach's Two-Part Inventions in which the right hand and left hand parts are switched.

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This is a fun idea, although I think referring to these inventions as "inverted" is a bit misleading because the notes still all go in the same directions. It's just a matter of shifting one part down a few octaves and the other up. However, you could say that having an idea like this tossed my way was like having a pebble tossed into a pond. A Lilypond, to be precise.

Because all of the Inventions are readily available online in Lilypond format, I snagged the notes for the F Major Invention No. 8 demo'd above and, because Lilypond is magic, did some quick little operations to:
  • truly invert the two parts (down is up and up is down)
  • play the original backwards (retrograde)
  • combine the inversion and retrograde operations
The results are more satisfying than I expected, although I admittedly have quirky tastes. Of course, Bach's tonal relationships work in such a way that flipping things upside down distorts a lot of the original context. Major often becomes sort of minor, final chords end up without the root on the bottom, etc. But I decided not to try to "fix" anything, but rather remain perversely faithful to the original. One might think of these "compositions" or "variations" as negative space defined by what Bach actually wrote. 

There are dissonant moments that sound like they could come straight from a 20th century contrapuntal master like Shostakovich, but I also think the pure energy of Bach shines through. Rather than write much more about them now, I'll just present this little "Theme and Variations" for your enjoyment (variations 2-4 are where the real fun begins):


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Again, even if you don't like everything, I hope you'll find a few passages here and there to spark your interest.

Here's another example of me re-inventing some Bach:

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Trumped up G & S


For some strange reason, this is the second year in a row in which my first blog post features our opera buffa presidency as material for...comic opera! You may recall that the ever-tweeting Trump recently described himself as a "very stable genius," and this has inspired a series of Twitter verses inspired by the ever-parodied Modern Major General song from The Pirates of Penzance.A friend of mine suggested last night that I should try my hand at this. As I wrote on Facebook:I said to myself upon hearing this challenge: "Resist!" .... I failed.Honestly, my verses could use some work, but I'm proud of sticking with a single rhyme for all 24 lines - something even Gilbert didn't do. (I did depart from the Genius-General connection since that already seemed to have been mined a good bit.) I figured for blogging purposes I might as well make a singalong video since social media loves multimedia, so here's a hastily realized combo of text and tune: allow="encrypted-media" allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" gesture="media" height="225" src="" width="400"> If you know the tune and just want to read the words, you'll find them below.Strangely, enough, this is my fifth Trumpopera creation. You can view them all, quirky as they are, via this playlist: allow="encrypted-media" allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" gesture="media" height="225" src="" width="400">Relevant blog posts are here and here.Happy New Year!I am the very model of a modern US president.I tweet my every thought without a thought for any one’s consent.I know the mainstream media is something I can circumventBecause no news is bad news, I just constantly sow discontent.I never bothered learning how to follow legal precedent.I’d rather cheat, harass, and lie. I see no reason to repent.America will once again be great though lib’rals will lament:It’s really only great if you are part of the top one percent.It’s really only great if you are part of the top one percent.It’s really only great if you are part of the top one percent.It’s really only great if you are part of the top one, top one percent.I’ll build a wall to keep out all the people who don’t representThe folks like me who’d never be a sad illegal immigrant.In short, I’m tall and great and went to Washington where I was sentTo be the very model of a modern US president.~ ~ ~To towers, steaks, and one great university my name I’ve lent.My businesses are bigly cause I spent and spent and overspent.I fired a lot of people who did not deserve employ-a-ment.It made for great TV and made me famous as a malcontent.I never really earned a thing not given by my par(a)ent,But I know how to back out of a deal, I just don’t pay the rent.I’ve got a button and will cause an internat’nal incident -By making inappropriate remarks about the Orient.By making inappropriate remarks about the Orient.By making inappropriate remarks about the Orient.By making inappropriate remarks about the Ore, the Orient.I’ve had three wives; my new one has a European a(a)ccent,But otherwise I do not trust a foreign-sounding resident.In short I’m tall and great and went to Washington where I was sentTo be the very model of a modern US president.[...]

MMmerry Christmas!



slightly updated from 2015 with new [virtual organ] recording of Fugue in Royal David's City.



Well, it's been awhile since I posted here, but 2017's not getting away that easily. This will be brief, but I've got a few more tricks up my sleeve before the new year.I mentioned in my previous post from June how a Facebook discussion led me to do a quick mashup of music by Samuel Barber and The Who - because my pianist friend Tim is a passionate fan of neither. The same Tim wrote this week in response to a poll about "favorite string instruments":...after spending thousands upon thousands of hours of my life with violins, violas, and cellos - my vote for best string instrument goes to Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Number One" Fender StratocasterBecause I know that Tim's disdain for Barber has a lot to do with his having accompanied that composer's Violin Concerto thousands upon thousands of time, I thought I'd try to do a quick mock-up of Stevie Ray Vaughan playing the fiery final movement. (Same movement I paired with The Who!) Admittedly, my knowledge of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Stratocasters can basically be summed up as "electric guitar sounds," but Barber does most of the talking here anyway. The result is more prog rock (think ELP's Musorgsky or Yes's Brahms) than Stevie Ray, but I found that Barber's gritty, manic perpetual motion machine sounded "right" with the distorted guitar. It really does sound like a wild man riffing away, almost out of control, with a backing band that can barely stay with him.*I only made a 30-second demo, and then posted that audio on Twitter - where it attracted zero attention because Twitter isn't any fun anymore. (That's a whole other story.) I figured maybe I could blog about it, but also figured I'd be better off putting it on YouTube since social media algorithms love video. And, yeah, I could've just added a random slideshow of Barber photos as is done here. But I thought it would be more fun to...well, things kind of evolved, and when I had the idea of animating Barber himself playing the guitar, I couldn't resist the challenge.Honestly, doing this was more a proof-of-concept experiment than anything else. The syncing of animation and audio is far from perfect and I'm sure Virtual Barber's guitar technique is far from authentic, but I still think it sells the idea well enough, and I got to toy around with some basic animation concepts that have interested me. So, in the spirit of those great Switched-on-Bach records from the 70's, I present Switched-on-Barber: allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="280" src="" width="400"> What more can I say?If nothing else, I feel like I'm perhaps the only person who would've done this - not just re-imagining the notes on guitar (easy enough), but pairing it with this sort of homemade animation. It's short! (But you won't be able to resist watching it at least a couple of times.) I don't see any reason for a full transcription as this gets the idea across.If you're curious about the method behind my madness, I was able to get a quick start because someone out there has posted the MIDI for the piano accompaniment. I'm not sure it's all that accurate, but I just dumped that into Finale, then entered the violin notes (easy, because all the same rhythmic value) from this score video. To make the video, I used Scratch in a fairly crude re-working of the animation program I created for this Bach fugue. It was a big relief to remember that I'd written a Python script (even though I barely know Python) which imports notation from a Lilypond text file. I just exported the Barber notes from Finale to Lilypond via Music XML, ran the Python script, and I now had the notes needed to drive the Scratch animation. [I was just trying to write the geekiest paragraph in MMmusing history there. Hope you enjoyed it.]If you like this sort of thing, here's a more complete electricalization of some Brahms. ___________* For the record, I do really like the Barber Violin Concerto, although I've always found[...]

flotsam and jetsam...and covfefe


One of the inevitable byproducts of my peculiar way of being on social media is that I end up with all sorts of multimedia fragments produced in response to this or that. Many of them find their way here to the blog (such as this Bach Suite Boys bit now featured on Classic FM), but some don't seem quite postworthy - unless, I introduce them this way in a post about the unpostworthy!A couple of weeks back, when the Trump covfefe tweet was having its fifteen seconds, I kept seeing musicians link to a little "covfefe" aria that ends with the famous Rite of Spring chord - which was fine and cute. But, I couldn't help speculating that the ambiguity of Trump's neologism deserved a similarly ambiguous musical context, so I suggested that Wagner's Tristan chord would be more appropriate.Even though the story had long since blown over, I couldn't resist the challenge and decided I'd transition to Wagner from the much more conventional and comic Rossini - specifically, the opening of Almaviva's aria "Ecco ridente in cielo." One could make a case that this tenor aria is much too elegant and lyrical for this character, but I couldn't come up with a good transition from Figaro or Don Basilio, buffo characters more in the spirit of Don Trump. And I think the raspy synth voice makes up for it. Plus, the one bar of Rossini I quote is quite pedestrian, so it's more like Don Trump begins by trying to be profound and quickly finds himself completely lost.Anyway, what we have here is a two-bar micro-composition. It's fragmentary for sure, though I think it can also stand on its own as a Tweetstück. (A German piano piece is often titled "Klavierstück.") allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400"> There's not really an original note here as all I've done is segue from one work to another, though I still think I deserve a finder's fee for showing how nicely this transition works. A quick history of 19th century opera in two bars. Short as it is, a Trump opera should have at least one tweet aria, so I've included it in my quirky Il trumpatore playlist.And since I promised both flotsam and jetsam, here is something even briefer, which is nothing like a complete composition. Just a little proof of concept. In a Facebook discussion that had sprouted off from my Bach Suite Boys example, it occurred to me that one of the discussants is a big non-fan of The Who and Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto. So, just for T.B., I proposed a "Barber O'Riley" mashup that would combine Baba O'Riley and...well, you know. Because it's easy to do and because it's fun to do, I offered up only four bars, and here they are: Your browser does not support the audio element. If there's anything valuable about this kind of exercise, it's showing how easily gestures from very different genres can cross over and work together. Sometimes ten seconds of audio are worth a thousand words - or at least a few dozen.[...]

Punspiration (or Puns as Portals)


Anyone who's been here before would know that I love mashups and wordplay, and if you've read closely enough, you'd know that I think of these two sports as two sides of a many-sided coin, connected by the idea of connection. (Counterpoint is another side of that coin.) For whatever reason, I've found myself creating two little mashups in the past week which were inspired by puns; you could even say these mashups have no reason to exist apart from the coincidence of some silly wordplay. Keep reading if you dare.Just a couple of days ago, a Facebook friend wrote something about how young people in his children's choir don't know/respect the classics...specifically, the music of "The Backstreet Boys." The truth is, I only know one one song (only because of this) from this boy band's canon, but I nonetheless ended up making a silly joke about "knowing all the canons in the Bach Suite Boys' canon." Before long, I was thinking of which Bach suite might best host "I want it that way," and after I'd settled on the Allemande from the D Minor French Suite.... allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400"> ...the rest took shape pretty fast. (I believe that in square dancing, participants are sometimes asked to allemande this way and that, so I ran with this idea and imagined a caller just telling his dancers to allemande...that way.) allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400"> Only a few days before on the very same Facebook, I had written something about Pachelbel's Canon in D and weddings. A friend mentioned she'd heard once of a couple who requested the "Indie Canon" for their ceremony. It didn't take long for me to think of re-imagining Indie as Indy, and voilà, another bit of punned counterpoint: allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400"> So, I believe both of these little "pieces" are musically satisfying, but they would honestly be less so if they didn't have that silly pun logic holding them together. It's as if the pun becomes a portal through which we find two somethings are more connected in a way we'd never otherwise have imagined.I have, of course, done this kind of thing before, most notably with varied ways of combining Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" with other springtime selections. (I guess these are barely puns since the word "spring" basically means the same thing in each context.) Anyway:Stravinsky + Copland allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400"> Stravinsky + Vivaldi allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400"> Stravinsky + Beethoven allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400"> But that's not all! There's this play on the fact that pianists often refer to Rachmaninoff as "Rachy." allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400">And finally, two realizations of a world in which Luigi Boccherini meets Mario's brother Luigi: allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400"> allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400">(Yes, I realize Luigi -> Luigi is also not a pure pun.)If you just can't get enough, here's an MMmusing Musical Pun Playlist, with a few bonus tracks.[...]

Creativity as its own reward


A few days ago, my sister posted some photos of azaleas on Facebook and noted that the azalea has historically been cheated in the poetry department, at least compared to the more easily rhymed rose. I suppose one could call azaleas by a more easily rhymed name (zales?) and they'd smell just as sweet, but she took up her own implied challenge and wrote a lovely little poem incorporating regalia, Australia, etc.I find this kind of challenge irresistible, but to up the stakes, I decided to reply to her photo with some verse about the chrysanthemum. It took a little doing and some really lame and ultimately abandoned attempts to make something of "anthem hum"-ming, but eventually the following popped up:I've fifty cents and offer up this handsome sumto any who can versify chrysanthemum.I think this little meta-couplet is pretty good (the trick being that "handsome sum" is a commonly used expression so that it flows naturally), and I hope you notice that writing it proved literally to be its own reward. I won the fifty cents! True, this is sort of the ultimate example of a closed economy. I've thought about this lately since I spend a lot of time doing little creative things that haven't necessarily paid off outside of my own little circular economy, but they're still rewarding!So it is that, also a few days ago and also on Facebook, I saw that it was the birthday of my blogging pianist friend Erica Sipes. I'll admit I don't pass along Facebook birthday wishes as often as I should because I always feel the pressure to do something creative. But I'd noticed that Erica was Facebook-live broadcasting one of her Bach practice sessions, so the idea of putting "Happy Birthday" into a Bach context came to mind.Of course, I knew without even searching that this is a challenge that's been taken up many times (including in this charming fugue), but I reached the point of no return when I thought about the C-sharp Major Fugue from Book II of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, a piece with which Erica and I have a shared history. She's the one who suggested that its bouncing staccato character and the rhythmic acceleration that happens over the course of the piece create an effect reminiscent of popcorn popping, which led me to create a fun program/animation: allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400"> The reason this new, self-imposed challenge was so instantly appealing is that I realized Bach's fugue subject begins with the same basic melodic shape as the famous birthday tune (which also goes up, back down, back up a bit further, then down a step):So the terms of the challenge (or puzzle?) basically set themselves:Write a short (it's just a Facebook birthday greeting, after all), playable, fugue-like snippet that mimics the structure of Bach's popcorn fugue, while re-orienting the pitches along the lines of "Happy Birthday."There are many approaches I could have taken within these constraints. Notice that if I'd begun on the same bass-register C-sharp as Bach, I would have ended up with a subject in F-sharp Major instead of C-sharp because "Happy Birthday" begins on the 5th scale degree, whereas Bach's subject begins on the tonic. (Opening pitches would've been: C# - D# - C# - F# - E#.) As you can see below, I begin on G-sharp.So, the puzzle solution I came up with has the bass present all the correct pitches of "Happy Birthday" (in C-sharp Major) in order (minus a few pitch repetitions), but with a different rhythmic profile that follows the character of Bach's fugue. Because the subject also ends up functioning as a bass line, and because the birthday rhythms are obscured, it would probably be easy to miss that it's even there - which pleases me.The soprano fugue "answer" does pretty much the same thing (in the subdominant F-sharp Major*) through the third phrase of "Happy Birthday" before turning towards [...]

No hidin' from this joke master


I've never done an April Fools Day post because it's kinda cliché - just an excuse for people to post misinformation in hopes of getting a cheap laugh. But, it occurs to me it's a perfect day to give credit to music's greatest jokester - whose birthday is also today! That's right, the one and only Papa Haydn was born on April 1; and legend has it that on the day he was born, just after he'd seemingly drifted off to sleep at the end of a perfectly periodic lullaby, he suddenly cried out fortissimo. All the midwives burst out laughing.

Of course, the Classical Comic's ingeniously witty "surprise" trick would make a return in the famous slow movement of his Symphony No. 94. Sometimes I have my doubts and wonder if this particular joke is overrated, but I just found this fantastic recording which really reveals how forward-looking and modern he was:

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A little birthday music


Yesterday I posted twice regarding Bach's birthday, but I hadn't known that there's another great composer born a day (and 245 years) later on March 22. So, between rehearsals this afternoon, I put this little tribute together. I bribed my house violinist to record it with me after dinner, and here it is, with two hours to spare:

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[Lyrics will be much easier to read if you follow full-screen.]

For the record, this is my fourth re-imagining of this tune.

See also:

à la Bruch:

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à la 12-tone

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à la Messiaen
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worth at least 1000 words


OK, as a last-second Bach's Birthday gift, and a promise of things to come, here's a little image I've been working on:

It is nothing less than all 257 measures of Bach's Chaconne in D Minor, which might just be the greatest piece of music ever written. And it's all there on one page. If you click on that image above, you'll be able to see a much higher-res version, where are all the notes are actually pretty clear if you zoom in closely enough. Or, you can download the same thing in PDF format.

I have much more to say about this kind of thing, but for now I'll just say that I find it quite beautiful as a sort of snapshot representation of this:

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Happy Birthday, JSB!

See also: Looking Bach (from earlier today)

Looking Bach


Today is Bach's birthday, and I was surprised to realize I've never done a post about my posts on Bach. (MMmusing is very meta, and what's more meta than posts about posts?) I've given Stravinsky the retrospective treatment, but the truth is that I've probably written about Bach even more than The Rite of Spring. So, for this first day of spring, here's a collection of ways in which I've mused about Bach, from the sublime to the truly ridiculous:[See also: YouTube playlist of Bach videos.] First, my two most popular YouTube videos.Bach's Neverending CanonBach's Crab CanonNext, a series of posts exploring Bach's magnificent Cantata No. 4, including four annotated score videos.Good Friday BachUnd singen Halleluja!Sometimes, I sit down and play Bach on the piano: Piano Blogging and the Art of Impossibilityvideo, with score Allemande from Partita in D Major blogged about here Here, an imagined combination of two closely related Bach movements into a single duet: Bach Doubled(and a perverse combo of a Bach gigue played at two wildly different tempi)I've spent a good bit of time engraving Bach's music, which has led to:This discussion of my piano transcription of a chorale preludeThe Joy of Engraving, re-setting Bach from C-sharp major to D-flatThis just popped up, featuring a computer program which animates a Bach fugue with popping kernels and offers the possibility to play with the music in various ways.I've also done a little bit of composing using Bach as source material: My Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiringperformed live with trio in recital The Good, the Shred, and the Ugly (Bach + Pop Goes the Weasel)This also features my attempt to imitate the sound of a viola by playing the cello as badly as possible at half-tempo and then doubling the speed. Finally, a couple of examples of visual manipulations of Bach's face and name:Unlikely DoppelgängerAmbigramania And there's something new in the works! But that will likely appear on a day that isn't Bach's birthday...UPDATE (still on Bach's birthday): Here's one new thing for today, about which I'll have much more to say: The Bach Chaconne on One Page[...]

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: allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400"> 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: allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400">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. allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400"> 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.I[...]

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:

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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!(image)

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.[...]

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: the[...]

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.) allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400">[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.) allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400">Other features crept in, including the fairly rudimentary f[...]

The Joy of Engraving


There was a time in my musical life when I wanted nothing more than to know every corner of the repertoire in systematic fashion. I loved collecting complete sets of symphonies, sonatas, and string quartets on records, looking at them lining my shelf, listening while reading the score or liner notes, and imagining that some day I'd know each movement of everything that mattered. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was a time when finding something new took effort and diligence, especially if you lived in a small town in Arkansas with no classical record stores within a couple of hours.Now that every corner of the repertoire is just a simple search away, I've come to enjoy much more the serendipitous encounter. So, for example, it would shock the younger me to know that I never did get to know all 48 preludes and fugues of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier as well as I know Seinfeld episodes. (Incidentally, I also prefer just happening upon a random Seinfeld to choosing one on DVD). I once learned the first 12 preludes and fugues of Book I and performed them in an informal recital, but for some reason I've never wandered regularly into Book II - which means it can still surprise me!The time when I'm most likely to open those pages is when I'm looking for prelude/postlude possibilities for Sunday morning. If no obvious chorale prelude or other hymn-based option is available, I'll often consider the more generic approach of finding a prelude in the key of the opening hymn or a postlude in the key of the closer. By definition, the two books of the Well-Tempered Clavier provide four options in each major and minor key. Still, most hymns tend to have no more than 2-3 sharps or flats, so that leaves a lot of well-tempered ground untrampled.In planning for September 4, I realized our closing hymn was to be in the fairly unusual key of D-flat Major: Technically, Bach doesn't use D-flat Major in his "cover all the keys" books, but that's because he chooses the enharmonic equivalent C-sharp Major. Basically, it's a different way of notating the exact same set of notes (at least for a keyboard instrument), though for many, the more commonly used D-flat, with its five flats, is easier to read than the seven sharps of C-sharp. Both key signatures would've been highly unusual in Bach's day (one of the reasons he created the books), and he may have enjoyed the intellectual game of pushing every note of C Major to the right. Sharp keys tend also to be associated more with music that's on the bright side.  The C-sharp Major set from Book I is certainly very bright. The virtuosic fugue, one of Bach's giddiest creations, is one of my favorites, but I'll admit that when I learned it years ago, I was pleased to find that my Peters edition had both prelude and fugue printed in D-flat versions at the end of the book. However, neither of those pieces seemed like the postlude I was looking for (especially since getting the fugue back up to speed would be nontrivial), but I liked the fact that the more innocent-looking C-sharp Major fugue from Book II begins with the same two pitches (enharmonically) as the hymn tune above. I was away from a keyboard but chose it anyway, without playing a note or even listening to it. Bach is trustworthy that way.As that Sunday morning approached, I was again away from home and piano, but I looked at the fugue I'd chosen a week before and grimaced at all the double-sharps and cancelled double sharps (which, by strange convention, are often printed with a natural AND a sharp next to the note to show that it's gone back to "normal"). Rather than say to myself, "I'd better start practic[...]

Sunday Jukebox


In mid-August, my sleepy blog suddenly sprouted a three-part series focused on combining tunes in unlikely ways. The last of those posts explored the intersection of two hymn tunes - which apparently anticipated where I was headed this month as this week is also going to feature a series of three posts, all inspired by my experiences as a church musician. We began on Sunday with some adventures in improvisation. Today, I'm doing a bit of show'n'tell with one of my major summer projects. Tomorrow, we'll explore a new way I've found to avoid practicing!While I've been figuring out what to do with my life these past couple of years, I've been learning more and more about JavaScript and programming in general. I debuted some magical musical listening guides a year ago today, also coming off a summer of digging into JavaScript, and then the programming lights went off for much of the school year. with so much of the creative work I end up doing, I kind of stumbled into this project, mostly due to procrastination and writer's block.Each month I write a music director column for the church newsletter, and usually I'm at a loss for a topic until about 72 hours after the column is due. When it came time to write the last entry of the program year in late Spring, I found myself thinking about the months ahead, when the choir gets the summer off and the hymn-singing is left entirely to the smaller-than-usual congregation. As we all know, communal singing is less a part of our culture than it was a hundred years ago, so although hymn-singing is a wonderful and very accessible practice, being confronted with a new set of tunes each week can be a challenge for those who don't read music easily.I decided I could use the column to discuss summer singing and to promise that I'd post the hymns for each week online (essentially writing a check I'd have to cash later) to help folks prepare. Back at the dawn of the World Wide Web in the mid 90's, I used to upload the weekly hymns for a different church job. In those days of low bandwidth dial-up, the only practical way to make music available was via MIDI files, which are very clever and versatile, but which often sounded awful in web browsers. Nowadays, it's pretty easy to find room to post .mp3 files, so I set up a system for inputting hymns as quickly and efficiently as possible and turning them into audio which highlights the various SATB parts as available.The initial site design was relatively simple, but as I started to build up a stash of hymn recordings, it occurred to me that making this growing archive easily accessible and searchable would be fun - not least for me. Over a couple of fairly intensive weeks of work, the concept of an "organ console with stop knobs" design emerged, with a scrolling archive of hymn tunes at the ready, and a nifty search box to help find things quickly. There are separate stops for soprano, alto, tenor, bass, and descant (when available, as you'll see by entering "descant" into the search box), and an easy way to toggle the search by date or by tune name. Check it out!For copyright reasons, the player does not show the musical notation, though each hymn title links to information about the hymn on, which often shows the text and in some cases shows page scans of public domain tunes. I'm not 100% sure about the copyright implications of posting what are, essentially, my "performances" of the hymns as printed in our hymnal, but I think it's well within the spirit of supporting congregational use of the hymnals our church owns without providing direct access to copyrighte[...]

Sundays at the Improv


Improvisation and Composition played almost no part in my musical training, which is regrettable. I can blame this in part on the biases of classical music education in the late 20th century, in part on my own silly biases against non-classical types of music, but, probably most importantly, on a lack of confidence and the absence of context in which I thought my creative voice could make a difference.As I've written before, my first real efforts at composition came from my experiences working as a church musician, where I wasn't being evaluated from an academic perspective. Whereas the "lesson and recital" context I knew well was defined almost entirely by the idea of performing existing works as nearly as possible to the way their composers intended, and given that there seemed to be an almost infinite repertoire of music better than I could imagine writing, it was striking to come to a Sunday morning and realize that Piece X by Great Composer Z didn't quite meet the liturgical needs. Meanwhile, I'd also come across a repertoire of chorale preludes (old and new) that were much more functional than great, so I started to see where I might get the best results by 1) creating my own functional pieces and, 2) tinkering with existing works. [I suppose that years of "faking" as an accompanist and adapting on the fly to whomever I'm accompanying has helped nudge me past the idea that my job is always and ever to play things exactly as written.]The most basic kind of tinkering might just involve cutting and pasting and repeating some generic prelude by Bach or Handel, but pretty soon I'd also find it useful to flip something major into minor or, most fun of all, recompose the opening to a chorale prelude by the likes of Pachelbel so that it seemed like a postlude based on the closing hymn that had just been sung. In some cases, this would involve changing as few as 3-4 notes, which essentially created a bridge from hymn to a "piece actually based on a different hymn tune." In other cases, I'd try to keep the new tune going against Pachelbel's figuration as much as possible.Perhaps in a future blog post, I'll provide a more subtle example, but I happen to have a recording of an extreme instance of this kind of segueway. A couple of years back, the morning service was to be followed that afternoon by the parish's biennial variety show, in this case a 50's themed "Rock Around the Clock" celebration of the church's 1950's founding. Rather than picking up from the final hymn, I decided to anticipate what was to follow with the cryptically listed "Concerto in D Major, Vivaldi, arr. by W. Haley." Clearly, I didn't spend a lot of time on it, but it basically begins with Haley in the style of Vivaldi, transitions into Haley in the L.H. with Vivaldi figuration above, and finally into Bach's keyboard transcription of Vivaldi.That's hardly a real improvisation though it was very unrehearsed, but in the past couple of years, when I've been playing organ regularly for the first time, I've experimented more and more with improvising freely for preludes, simply taking phrases from a hymn tune and "playing with it" over various pedal tones (easy to do on organ!), re-harmonizations, etc. Sometimes it goes better than others. Playing softly and slowly almost always helps in this regard as it's easier to hide in a haze. I'll admit I can't always hear in my head exactly how things are going to come out, although every now and then I end up with a total accident that works out (the kind of thing that has long since stopped surprising me). For the Independence Day-ad[...]

Triangulated Counterpoint


As I started working on adding a third voice to facilitate the contrapuntal combination of two different national anthems (see previous two posts), I had an emerging sense/memory that I had done something like this before. I could just almost see three staves in which a newly written bass line interacts with two distinct melodies, and I could feel the sense of satisfaction in having completed an unlikely trio. I even remembered writing a blog post about this process as a kind of compositional triangulation. I searched my blog and came up with...nothing.  Finally, after a day of being taunted by this déjà vu, I shut the radio off while driving, did a deep memory search, started to have a vague idea that it had to do with writing for church, and at last the story below came back to me.  I had indeed started a blog post, but never finished it and thus never published it. Here's what I had so far: As my interest in various kinds of mashups has grown, I'm drawn again and again to the idea that mashups are a kind of counterpoint  -  or, seen from a different vantage point, counterpoint is a kind of mashup. (Yeah, yeah, this could extend to saying all music is a mashup, but that's less interesting.) Mashups and contrapuntal works both draw on the kind of stimulation/pleasure the brain gets from following multiple musical strands simultaneously. Of course, coordination (of a beat, of harmonies, of voice-leading, etc.) certainly plays a role in making mashups and counterpoint effective, and this raises an interesting question. For any two given musical works, is there always some kind of coordination that can be applied to make them function effectively together? My best guess is: yeah, probably, though I'm not in a hurry to fuse together "The Hoedown Throwdown" with a Telemann flute sonata. (I really don't like Telemann.)But an interesting sub-set of that question might be this: for two works which fit together in terms of time-scale, is there some third-party musical work (pre-existing or not) which can serve to bring the first two together in a more satisfying way than if they're simply heard mashing against each other? The idea is that the third party music sort of triangulates between the features of the first two musics, accentuating where they already work well against each other and building bridges in places where the differences (or similarities) are ineffective.OK, I didn't just come up with this question out of the blue. It arose when I was preparing music for the church's children's choir to sing on All Saints Day (Nov. 1). We'd already decided that they'd sing the delightful, slightly batty* "I sing a song of the saints of God," (hear here) although some of the children didn't seem that enthusiastic since they'd also sung it the year before under a different music director. It's a great little choir, and though the age-span of the children and our limited rehearsal time mean things can't get too complex, I thought it would make things more interesting to add a descant. So I began experimenting. For some reason that I don't remember (the muse is amusing that way), the tune of "Jesus loves me" came to mind and I had the idea that it might kind of fit with the Grand Isle tune we'd be singing. ("Jesus loves me" probably has a privileged place in my mashup memory bank because of the beautiful way it's used by Ives in his 4th violin sonata.)Like thousands of other hymn tunes, each has a 4-4-4-4 phrase structure in common time, so it was just matter of what happens when they go toge[...]

Rhythmic Mediation at the Border


After I posted yesterday's musing about putting the American and Canadian anthems together (in spite of one being in triple meter and the other duple), a Facebook friend (thanks, Paul!) asked about the possibility of putting both tunes in 6 and using tied dotted notes to keep the original rhythmic values intact, while also aligning the barlines. That seemed like a lot of trouble until I remembered that Lilypond, the quirky but powerful notation software I prefer, makes it incredibly easy (assuming you've gotten used to Lilypond) to notate polymetric music. I'd never had a chance to try this out, so this was the perfect opportunity.Essentially, this makes it possible to combine the tunes in the most basic (but also complex!) way, with the phrases lining up perfectly. All the downbeats arrive together, but within each measure the beats clash, sometimes as simple cross-accents and sometimes as if the two parts have nothing to do with each other. Because The Star-Spangled Banner is a bit longer in terms of phrases, I decided to expand the final phrase of O Canada to make the ends meet, but otherwise this is less composition than simple overlay.When I first listened to the output, it sounded pretty hopelessly garbled, even with very different instrumental colors assigned to the separate voices:Then it occurred to me that I could soften the effect by using the gentle, more pointillistic sounds of plucked guitars. The result is less jarring, though still pretty disorganized: allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400"> In the previous post, I proposed the idea of a third contrapuntal voice as a kind of mediator, but as the big problem here is a rhythmic one, I decided to toss a drum kit loop into the mix instead. It turns out that rhythmic mediation makes a big difference, even if it mainly just serves to affirm where the downbeats are. For me at least, what had seemed relatively random sounding now had acquired a cool veneer that makes the points of rhythmic contention come across more as intricate detail than mindless mashup. allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400"> Your mileage may vary, of course, but as "found composition," I think this is pretty charming. It allows, as good counterpoint and good mashups do, the opportunity for one's musical perception to enjoy multiple points-of-view at once.I still have a more successful example of combining two independent melodies to share, but that will have to wait until tomorrow. Stay tuned! See also:Brahms Mixed Meter Mashup, blogged about herePlaylist of "Border Anthems" here.[...]

Border Counterpoint


The Summer Olympics are in full swing now, and though they continue NOT to offer medals in piano (what is a Ligeti étude if not a type of rhythmic gymnastics?), there have been some musical concerns raised. First, the New York Times had a hard-hitting piece on the unusually mellow harmonization of the U.S. national anthem being used at the medal ceremonies. (It's also just bad. Hear at 3:15 here.) Then, not long after swimmers from the U.S. and Canada tied in the women's 100 meter freestyle swimming event, a Twitterer proposed the following solution to a real problem:For a gold medal tie they should play BOTH national anthems simultaneously at the podium #Rio2016— Bryan (@NachoHelmet) August 12, 2016 Well, of course, I love mashing things up, so NachoHelmet's idea proved too tempting to resist. Although I could have just put two existing performances together and let them fight it out (which I'm sure could've been satisfying), I decided to try to "compose" something. The most fundamental problems are that 1) the U.S. tune is in triple meter while Canada's is in duple, 2) the phrase structures don't really match up at all, and 3) I'm pretty lazy.Although there are surely more sophisticated ways to bend the tunes towards each other, I first decided it would be fun to see what happens if each is simply allowed to go its own way. I "discovered" that by 1) starting the tunes together, 2) simply adding one extra beat after the very first "O, Canada," and 3) leaving out the first of the two concluding "O Canada we stand on guard for thee" phrases, the tunes could end at the same time and kind of amble along without hurting each other too much. (They don't clash too badly.) The unsynced meters make them seem quite independent so that it's not that easy to follow both at once, but I like that kind of funhouse effect. allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400"> The trick is to find/create a third part which can, in theory, bring the two melodies together. However, I didn't spend much time creating the bass line above, and it shows. I described this "walking bass" on  Facebook as "more like a drunk guy trying to play Pokemon Go with a 1990s flip-phone, a broken compass, and combat boots." As mediator, with those two melodies each going their separate ways, the bass sounds like it's purposelessly going back and forth from one to the other, trying to create accord, but mostly just going in circles. A true diplomat!The other basic option for composing these tunes together is to align their phrases more naturally by changing one of the meters. In this case I showed my national bias, leaving my country alone and stretching the Canadian anthem into a lazy triple meter by doubling the length of the stressed beats.*  This meant I didn't have room for the whole tune, so it cuts from the middle to the end abruptly, but it works for this stars and stripes guy. The mediator in this case, working alongside two tunes that are at least trying to play nice, has a much stronger sense of direction, although an attempt to hide some consecutive 2nds from m.13 into m.14 resulted in an odd bit of harmonic disturbance. allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400"> I'm sure the voice-leading could be better, but I wasn't aiming for perfection. Just exploration.I do have a better example of this kind of mashup counterpoint which I'm saving for later this[...]

Chopin in 7/8


Some day I need to write about the curious, sometimes uneven, but very impressive and increasingly essential Boston Musical Intelligencer, a locally based site which provides exponentially more reviews of area concerts than the Boston Globe ever did (at least in my 20+ years in Boston), even before the Globe started cutting arts coverage in the recent past.

But today, I'd just like to respond, in typical MMmusing fashion, to a line from a review of a young pianist who finished an impressive recital with the Chopin B Minor Sonata. The reviewer, David Moran, concludes by saying:
To my ear it all felt 7/8-baked, the last finishing touches not yet settled. And again his hands and fingers were not perfectly clean or always together in attacks and at measure starts. The effect was slightly hesitant, at best probing, but at worst causing small starts and fits—noty, almost static, unurgent. That said, I admired it more than enjoyed it, and it was so unusual I would like to study a recording.
The review appeared last week, but when I just read it, I couldn't resist commenting:
It took me a second reading to realize that "7/8-baked" referred not to an irregular meter but something only 87.5% realized. Before that realization, I enjoyed imagining Chopin's 6/8 finale limping along in 7/8 time, especially as the performance was also described as "slightly hesitant" with "small fits and starts." Perhaps a mashup of this finale and the finale to Prokofiev's 7th sonata?
And then, I couldn't resist tinkering around with the limited notation tools I have on my vacation laptop to see what this might sound like. Here is Chopin's "version":

allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="300" src="" width="400">

And here's a taste of what might have been if Chopin hadn't been so conventional (forgive the horribly tinny "piano" sound):

See also:

Happy Augmented Sixth Day! (2016 ed.)


It's been awhile on the blog, but I couldn't let Augmented Sixth Day pass without a post. (OK, I did let it pass the last three years without a post, but here's the inaugural celebratory Aug 6th Day post from Aug 6th, 2012.) However, I don't have much time as we're also leaving soon this morning for the last weekend of concerts at the magical Greenwood Music Camp, where our oldest daughter has spent her last five summers walking around barefoot and playing chamber music. Tonight she'll play movements from quartets by Beethoven, Dvořák, and Debussy, but in typical Greenwood fashion, each of the two marathon chamber music concerts will end with Mendelssohn, the greatest youthful composer ever. The last piece on the second program, which will happen around 11pm, will be the first movement of Mendelssohn's Octet (written when the composer was 16!), which may be my very favorite thing ever, even if Daughter of MMmusing won't be playing that. (She gets to go next-to-last, though, leading this bit of transcendent middle-period Beethoven.)Anyway, as I was trying to think of a favorite augmented sixth chord to feature, I suddenly remembered some magical Mendelssohn this same daughter's young string orchestra performed six years ago. I wrote about that music in this blog post, trying to explain all the reasons why a low-quality recording of kids too young to know better is THE definitive recording of the slow movement of this particular string symphony Mendelssohn wrote when he was 12(!).I mentioned briefly in that post that THE most magical moment in this movement occurs in the transition to the recap. The music has meandered from C Major into the relatively distant key of A-flat Major and in a classic "treading water" motion, the second violins and viola are slowly arpeggiating in A-flat as if lost and wondering where to go. In the third measure below, the harmony changes to C Minor* over the same A-flat in the bass (creating an achingly lovely major seventh sonority) and then the G changes in bar 4 to an F-sharp, so that we have the classic augmented sixth interval between the bass (A-flat) and F-sharp, and in classic augmented sixth fashion, this German Sixth chord resolves outwardly by half-steps, with the A-flat heading down to G and the F-sharp leading up to G. G is the dominant in C Major, and suddenly we're back in C Major with the opening theme back in the right key, although beautifully poised above the expectant dominant G in bass rather than tonic C. It is all SO much more sublime than I've just made it sound.[The audio excerpt begins about 5 seconds before the score excerpt above.]And there you have it. I'd love to say more, but I've gotta pack the car!* This is really better understood not as a C Minor harmony, but as the A-flat in the second violins descending down chromatically to a G in bar 3 above and then to the magical F-sharp.[...]



Although I haven't blogged as often as I'd like lately, I've been at this long enough to have a certain "reputation" among friends and followers. Simply put, I like to mash things together*, so when I saw this fun tote bag was being sold as part of a recent Timo Andres/Gabriel Kahane collaboration.......I couldn't help but start thinking of ways to bring the dueling Ives and Britten together. It's an interesting matchup of composers who don't share a lot of close stylistic ties - other than love for simple folk material and use of mostly tonal idioms spiced with plenty of colorful dissonance. Each has a reputation tied closely to his respective native land, though each is also too idiosyncratic to be a classic nationalist. Ives was a macho capitalist, while Britten was more the mild-mannered communist, though Ives has the more sentimental sweet-tooth. I first thought of making a silly Ives joke by layering two Britten pieces together and calling it an "Ives arrangement," but as I was thinking of works that best represented each composer (difficult to do as neither can easily be defined by one kind of style), it occurred to me that the serene strings of The Unanswered Question might alternate nicely with the amazing waves in the first Sea Interlude from Peter Grimes. From that basic idea, this came together pretty quickly:If you don't know the originals - well, first of all, you should! But, I think these two landscapes merge together pretty naturally. Honestly, The Unanswered Question (1908) is music I hadn't thought much about for years, and I was surprised to realize only now that its opening sonority sounds very close (pitch and all) to the opening of Vaughan Williams' famous "Tallis" fantasia from 1910: allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400"> allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="225" src="" width="400"> [NOTE: I wove together this Vaughan Williams with some even more unlikely Shostakovich at the end of this blog post.]Perhaps that's why this particular Ives sounds more "British" to me than usual and seemed a natural setting for Britten's uncannily natural sea sounds. allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="300" src="" width="400"> I don't think there's a lot to add about my fairly straightforward mashup, although I'm particularly proud of how Britten's violins make such lovely counterpoint with Ives' bass line from about 0:30 - 0:55. I also like that Britten's brass at 1:08 seem to introduce Ives' questioning trumpet at 1:18. Easily, the most jarring music in the brief mashup is not my "fault," but is due to Ives' flutes playing the role of "fighting answerers," although I only gave them a brief cameo [1:42]. (For the record, the Ives begins at its beginning and is left as is except the one jump to the final trumpet question; Britten's music is chopped up a bit to fit above.)So, there I go again. I definitely can't resist doing this sort of thing, but I like to think it's more about letting these composers speak to each other than it is about clashing.  As far as Ives and Britten go, I think these works are about as iconic as it gets for each, so I'm glad they were able to play nicely with [...]