Friday, June 20, 2014

Muse Your Own Adventure

[If you don't feel like reading all of this, just check out the blog's new interactive table of contents.]

Having been at this blogging thing for more than seven years and almost 500 posts, I often find myself vexed by the question of what a blog is. Specifically, since I'm reasonably proud of what I've got here, what can be done with what I've got? I started blogging as a way of getting myself to write more regularly (like a journal, you might say!), and that has worked. So now I've got all of these words, some of which I even think are worth preserving. What next?

An obvious answer would be to create a book from the blog, and I've definitely thought of doing that (see below). In fact, there are many potential books that could grow out of various posts, but a book implies a kind of linear format that doesn't really capture the spirit of what I'm doing, especially because hyperlinking and multimedia creations are so central to the "writing" I've done here. In fact, as much as I love the written word, it simply doesn't make sense to think of this blog as a collection of essays.

Strangely, I think there's an intellectual bias out there (I know, because I feel it myself) against writing that doesn't stand on its own as "just words," but the most important point I'd want to make is that technology, more than just allowing a platform to publish words, allows one to speak fluently through words-plus-multimedia. (Of course, art in general is often about saying something non-verbally.) This kind of natural integration of words and other media wasn't really possible before the Internet came along. Rather than thinking of blogs as replacements for paper, we should appreciate that blogs and other technology-based platforms provide possibilities for new kinds of communication that can't be housed in a book. I'm not saying such platforms are better than books - just that they can be radically different.

The bias towards the linearity of books is at least as strong as the bias against "words that needs pictures and the like." An authorial voice naturally seems stronger when it leads you inexorably from point to point. But, let's face it, linearity is also a default convention imposed by the classic book platform, for which experiments like Choose Your Own Adventure books are exceptions that prove the rule. As I wrote long ago in Hyperspace (just a click away!), the Internet makes possible a kind of multi-dimensional reading experience which can resemble the creative process itself. I think this is more revolutionary than is generally acknowledged.

As it happens, I did try to turn my blog into a sort of book a few years ago in an effort to showcase it for professional purposes. Well, I tried to turn it into an e-book, but that didn't really solve the multimedia problem. E-books do have lots of multimedia potential, but they're still based more on the idea of replicating a "real" book in paperless form. Because I wanted something that could be read offline (a feature that's becoming increasingly unimportant), I wanted all essential multimedia to be embedded in the "book," so I ended up with a 150MB behemoth (it turns out that a picture really is worth thousands of words in bytes!) of a PDF file, featuring 55 selected posts. You can read this MMreader here, and I am proud of it. It looks kind of like a book, even if the formatting of multimedia content is much less elegant than on the blog itself.

But you know what's elegant? The blog platform itself! And it can be read in tablets, on phones, on laptops, etc. though it wouldn't print out as nicely as the 129 pages of the MMreader. (By the way, I wouldn't expect anyone to print out those pages.) The point is, this isn't a print medium, so why pretend it is? However, the one feature I liked about the MMreader was the idea of highlighting a series of signature posts, so I've taken its table of contents and created something new and fun: a flexible, keyword-searchable table of contents, with brief abstracts for each of the posts. All you have to do is enter a keyword into the search box and the table of contents immediately filters out all the stuff you don't need to see. In fact, I think I can describe this better with...a (moving) picture:

So, you know you want to try it yourself, right? Look at these awesome search terms:  aesthetics, amateur, animation, atonality, bach, beethoven, best, canon, chopin, coding, connections, fragments, fun, hatto, loops, mashup, meaning, mozart, pedagogy, peterman, poetry, program notes, random, recordings, satie, strauss, stravinsky, theory, translation, twitter, viola .... each of which will turn up a customized set of posts. Go here or here (more screen estate) to give it a try. Or just click "A Guide to MMmusing" at the top of the blog.

This "table of contents" doesn't search the entire blog, just the selected signature posts, but it's a nice way to sample a broad range of content. And don't forget, if you really want an adventure, why not just spin MMmusing's Magical Multimedia Musing Machine over there in the margin. Find a book that does that!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Lazy music, lazy post...

Not a lot of heavy liftin' in this, the first post of summer, but sometimes I think there's too much heavy lifting anyway when it comes to how people think about music.

So, let's call these "semi-random acts of (?) creativity." We start with a few nights back when I had Cecilia Bartoli's wonderful debut CD, Se tu m'ami, playing during dinner. I don't have music playing that often at mealtime, but I'd just re-hooked up my once trusty 'ol Sony 300-disc player. (I know, CDs are so last century.) I'd made a nice (I hope) dinner for our wedding anniversary (we were having a proper night out the next night) and my wife has always loved that CD, so that's basically why it was playing, although I'll admit I wasn't paying much attention...until....

...strange sounds started issuing from the living room, and it soon became evident that either the player or the disc (or Ms. Bartoli) was having some problems. Suddenly, I was paying attention, and I actually kind of liked what I heard. I turned on my handy Zoom recorder and even took this brief iPad video of the player tripping out during Caccini's Amarilli, mia bella.

Here's the longer-form audio recording. The result is a kind of musique concrète which sounds much more like late 20th century Minimalism than Caccini or anything else Bartoli might sing, even though her voice and the piano do play fractured/fragmented roles as source material. The very regular rhythmic pulse could almost be straight out of Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. In the case of the audio recording, the changes in the loop occur when I tried to set things right by hitting the fast-forward on the remote. Eventually, Bartoli finds her way and the heartbreakingly beautiful song continues. It's one of my favorite recordings, but I'll admit I hadn't even noticed it had started until the technical disruptions took over.

What's my point? I'm not sure, other than that, from a very personal anthropological point-of-view, it intrigues me that this kind of mistake can be so engaging and, in some ways, more interesting to me than the music I adore. I don't know what that means, though it's not the first time I've had some fun with failing CD technology. (For us old-school, analog musicians, even one who loves technology as much as I, there's maybe something gratifying about this kind of digital failure.) Obviously, to some degree it's about the element of surprise and the appeal of something that's generated in a semi-random way. I'd be less interested, I think, if someone had worked hard to create this or if the source material had been music less lovely than the Caccini/Bartoli, which I guess just affirms how much listening is never just about the sounds one is hearing.

[As it happens, yesterday I turned on the radio in the middle of the first movement of the Schumann Piano Quintet; I could tell it was an older recording and the playing struck me as stodgy and un-involved - that is, until I used my phone to deduce that this was LEONARD BERNSTEIN performing with the Julliard String Quartet. Being a huge admirer of Bernstein, I suddenly found myself hearing what had seemed "stodgy" as "deeply felt" and "interesting." If you don't think listeners' judgments are colored in this way on a regular basis, well...]

But enough about that. Yesterday, on another fine, summer-like day, I was out at the playground with the two younger ones and I happened to have my wife's new iPhone 5s with me. I love the slo-mo video feature of this phone, so I took some video of both kids swinging across a set of monkey bars. The result is hypnotically ballet-like, with a little Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gravity defiance thrown in.

When I got home and decided to make a little Facebook video out of this, it soon occurred to me that the perfect music to accompany the slo-mo effect would be Satie's Gynmnopédie No.1, subject of my most recent blogging obsession. (See here and preceding posts.) Satie's music magically seems to suspend time, and the marriage of sound and image, of gym and playground, worked really well. Unfortunately, since I prefer to give the kids a bit of anonymity, and as there lots of other children in view who I don't even know, I'm posting this video here in a blurred-out version. I'd hoped that would add to the dream-like quality, but the slo-mo effect is much less powerful when you can't see the amazing detail. Still, here it is, with my own solemn Steinway doing the ambient honors:

That would be about it, except that today, while taking a walk, I started wondering:: If Satie's music has the feeling of time slowed down, then what would time slowed down sound like sped up? I didn't spend much time on this, but I arranged for the little pianist inside Finale to play the gynmnopédie at about a triple-time (quarter note=300), which, as I expected, ended up sounding like something Francis Poulenc might've tossed off:

And, in the interest of serving you better, I went ahead and took the next logical step (egged on by the 7-year old Son of MMmusing) and quadrupled that tripled tempo to 1200*:

And finally, to balance things off, here's what it sounds like at quarter-note=30:

Now that's suspending time. What better way to spend a summer day?

* Incidentally, hearing this music played at warp speed like this give the listener a cool sort of aural overview of the piece which makes Satie's gently asymmetrical phrase structures much more noticeable. This reminds me of my musical "storyboarding" post, which is all about condensing musical time into a virtual snapshot - a very different way to suspend time.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Serial Satie (Gymnopédie No. 12)

This blog has taken me many places I didn't expect, which is what creating is all about, which is what this blog is all about. Sometimes it seems to me that creating is basically about nothing more than a + b and variations thereof. You put two things together and, voilà, something new - which may or may not be worth further exploration, but eventually, interesting things just seem to happen, and a significant part of creativity is simply recognizing the interesting when it comes along. Mashups, a particular fascination of mine, are obviously based on this principle in a very literal way, but as I've said many times before, just about any kind of creation can be thought of as a mashup at some level or another.

I guess I'm trying to make a case that my latest mashup is quite creative, though clearly derivative on the surface. ("Creative" and "derivative" are often treated as opposites, but they're closely related.*) This new creation is actually a mashup on a couple of levels. First, it combines the subjects of my two previous blog posts/projects into something new, borrowing quite equally from each. Second, it combines musical ideas of two musical opposites, Satie and Schoenberg, born only eight years apart but at opposite poles of the French/German aesthetic divide. (Yes, I know Boulez and others made serialism a French thing as well, but Boulez's name doesn't begin with an S.)

So, what do we have here? Well, having used MIT's Scratch programming language to create a site that randomizes Satie's Gymnopédie No. 1, and then having created a 12-tone Sandbox that enables easy exploration of Schoenbergian 12-tone rows, the next logical step (a + b) was to put these ideas together: A + B = 12-tone Satie. My point in randomizing Satie was that his music has a lovely directionless quality that can survive and even thrive (?) when its events are dis-ordered. This project takes that to another level by disordering the pitches as well - all that's really left of Satie is the basic rhythmic and textural gestures, while 12-tone rows take over both hands.

You can (and should!) try it out by going here. If the idea sounds complicated, understand that I put a lot (lot) of time into making it pretty simple to use. You can certainly take the time to input the row of your choosing and then decide which permutations of the row to use for each phrase of the melody and the accompaniment while considering matters of pitch cells and interval content - but, you can also click one button to generate a random row, one more button to choose the phrases for you, and you'll be making music in no time. Click!

As with my measure-for-measure randomizing of Satie's Gymnopédie, I didn't really know what to expect when I set out, and I was skeptical that this would amount to anything. Among other things, I'd assumed it would be important to keep the basic shape of Satie's melodies intact to make this work, going up and down at the same times, but that turned out to be unnecessary and even counterproductive. I did build a script which determined whether each successive note in a given row went up or down based on Satie's model, but that actually made things sound more random and disjointed for reasons I won't go into here. (They're easy enough to imagine.)

I think the point here is that Satie's melodies have a basic ambling quality built into them (in much the same way that Stravinsky's famous off-kilter accents feature a kind of encoded meta-unpredictability) that can fortuitously be found in many 12-tone rows. Thus, the "shapes," though quite different on the local level, can still suggest the same ambling idea at a higher level. They sound Gymnopédie-esque. Or so I would have you believe.

The bottom line is, I believe this little mashup of gestures and ideas does amount to something new and interesting. An advantage, at least for someone like me who's admittedly not a devoted fan of much 12-tone music, is that this mashup emphasizes the gentler, hazier side of serialism and atonality, as opposed to the brutal soundworld with which it's often associated. The association with Satie's archetypal mellowness helps to frame the pitches as distant cousins of something familiar and tonal. True devotees of 12-tone technique may take some offense at this, or even more at the notion that 12-tone music often ends up sounding kind of random. But that quality is turned to some advantage here: every performance outputted from this program has a kinship with others that makes each random set of notes seem related. Still, there's enough variety that it's well worth exploring different combinations.

This brings up a question that has fascinated me as I've worked on this project. To what degree can the result be thought of as a composition? I don't mean each of the countless separate outcomes, I mean the program itself as a coherent compositional concept that happens to allow for a range of indeterminate possibilities, each of which I might plausibly label "Gymnopédie No. 12." Indeterminacy is, after all, a part of just about any kind of music at some scale - in typical classical performance, the indeterminacy has to do with subtleties of timing and color and occasional bits of improvisation (and wrong notes); in jazz, indeterminacy is expected/demanded on a much broader scale, and then there's that whole world of radically indeterminate works.

Here we have a composition that performs itself (though I LOVE the idea of performing this live some day, reading the pages as they're generated on the spot) and that (I think) remains recognizably "the same," even through all the different possible row combinations. It's all held together by a few basic but distinctive concepts. Satie's three Gymnopédies already accomplish this kind of thing on some level, which is what first inspired my idea of a randomized Gymnopédie segueing seamlessly back and forth among all three. (Haven't made that version...yet.)

The other question that kept bugging me as I chipped away at this program is whether this is just frittering away time, since the result is, at best, a loop of about 90 seconds worth of music. (Well, technically, if you choose 4 R.H. rows and 3 L.H. rows, it would take about five minutes to get through all the combinations; and the program can generate an almost infinite array of 90-second pieces.) What made this question especially interesting to me is that I've been (poorly) balancing my time working on this against time re-learning Schumann's Kreisleriana, 30 minutes of the most inspired music ever written for the piano. Few in the musical world would think it frittering to spend countless hours learning a "masterpiece" like this, but I can always sense that people think these little musical experiments are just fluff.

And they may be right. No version of this Gymnopédodécaphonie** is going to come close to matching Schumann in inspiration. On the other hand, the Schumann will be played and heard countless times whether I get around to it or not, whereas this "piece" apparently needed me (like Charlie Brown's tree) to come into being. I think one of the confounding factors here is that we (especially we in the "serious music" world) tend to underestimate the degree to which music is about "play." More and more, it seems to me that making games "about" music is a really great way to "think" about music. I'm not saying it's better or worse than composing, performing, listening, or analyzing - just that it's useful and substantive. Having worked my way through this strange meeting of Satie and 12-tone technique, I feel I understand each a bit more. Perhaps you will as well...

Here's one example of a nice-sounding piece that I randomed upon...

[sorry, the audio is a little buzzy; working on it...UPDATE: Improved, along with video quality]

* The line between "Bach was influenced by Vivaldi" and "David Cope taught a computer to write like Bach" is thinner than many would like to believe.

** Note that the absurd word Gymnopédodécaphonie, while trying to be French, has a LongGermanicCompoundWord thing going on. More mashing up....

DISCLAIMER: It's worth noting that this is still a work-in-progress in some ways, though I think everything is working correctly. Because I keep building on top of things in ways I hadn't originally intended (and because I'm such a novice at this), the program's architecture is pretty unwieldy, like some ancient church that's been gradually rebuilt on top of itself; changes that should be simple involve re-setting multiple variables and the like. It's definitely possible that strange things will happen every now and then, but that's part of the fun, right? You can always just hit the re-set button.

SPECIAL EXTRA BONUS: I really like that randomly-generated piece in the YouTube video. (Technically, there was a glitch when that was generated so the fact that a couple of rows appear multiple times was a happy accident.) Anyway, here's a screen-captured score if you, like me, want to play it. SCORE