Saturday, October 3, 2015

Pugilistic Pianism

Sometimes, the less said, the better, so I'll keep this simple.

Someone posted this on Facebook yesterday:

And, perhaps inevitably, having thought about what "Rockymaninoff" might sound like, this ended up happening:

If you're curious, it borrows from this, this, and this.

See also: The Rite of Spring Sonata

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Founts of Inspiration

[If you don't want to read 1000+ words about music right now, you can just skip to the end and hear the music.]

I don't tend to refer to myself regularly as a "composer," though compositions sometimes seem to happen. (Poetry, too. See recent post re: accidental verse.) I suppose it's mostly that I don't compose regularly, and that so many of my compositions are based on pre-existing material. Of course, just about anything is based on pre-existing material to some degree, but I tend to find inspiration mostly when 1) I have a familiar musical idea as a starting point, and 2) I have a particular performance purpose in mind.

The idea of starting with something familiar connects, at a fairly deep level, with my own tendency to be more interested in music that I know than in music that's new to me. I fully understand that this can be limiting, and I try to fight it, though I think it's also fair to say that this kind of attitude partly defines what "classical music" is as a cultural phenomenon.

[At its most positive, returning again and again to the known is a way to experience the natural pleasure that recognition brings; recognition of a tune or style or whatever provides a perceptive framework which can make it easier to process other details and connections. Of course, there's a partial paradox in that music has to begin life as unknown and somehow cross over into the known, or whatever you want to call it. I guess the point is that I like to cheat by starting with something from "the inside."]

Anyway, I believe I'm fully capable of coming up with my own original musical ideas, but I just haven't spent much time doing that. However, working as a church musician gives me plenty of opportunities to compose with pre-existing materials as I'm a big fan of the chorale prelude model for service music.

This past Sunday, the church was celebrating a summer service trip members of our congregation had taken working with the admirable Appalachia Service Project, so we'd chosen hymns that relate to that mission and that have a folksy, American flavor. Among the hymns was the ever-popular "Come, thou fount of every blessing," which I've found is the rare hymn that is pretty well-liked across the high-church/low-church spectrum.

As it happened, I already had planned to have my teenage daughter on hand to play a fiddle tune during Communion. (Technically, "Hector the Hero" is Scottish, but it's in our "music we can play with virtually no prep" rep. Daughter of MMmusing has a pretty busy life!) And if you don't happen to know "Come, thou fount of every blessing," here's what its tune (Nettleton) sounded like when Daughter of MMmusing played it eleven years ago at age five:

Rough, but sweet.

Speaking of which, since I was already going to have my "house violinist" in the house on Sunday, my mind turned to Charles Ives' Violin Sonata No. 2. Its last movement, subtitled "The Revival," happens to be a meditation on "Come, thou fount of every blessing" which whips itself up into a fervent climax, before ending simply.

[The hymn tune makes its first clear appearance around 1:15, though it's hinted at before.]

It's possible I'm writing this post just to boast that my daughter can be handed five pages of Ives (I gave her the piano score to make it easier for us to stay together) on a Saturday night and perform them beautifully and idiomatically about 14 hours later as the prelude. Ives' sonata isn't exactly Appalachian, but it certainly embodies the American spirit, and it has the composer's trademark combination of rough and sweet. This finale is immensely gratifying to play.

Ives is, of course, one of the best examples of a composer who loved working with pre-existing material. As it happens, I had also done some composing around "Nettleton" this summer when I needed something solemn but uplifting as recessional for a memorial service at which the hymn was sung. So, I reprised that piece on Sunday as the postlude, and am presenting it here today for anyone who might be interested.

I always like it when the postlude is either based on a tune from the day and/or when it is in the same key as the final hymn that precedes it, but I got a nice bonus surprise on Sunday just before I started postluding. Between the recessional hymn and the postlude, comes the spoken Dismissal:
LEADER: Let us go forth in the name of the Lord. Alleluia, alleluia.
PEOPLE: Thanks be to God. Alleluia, alleluia.
...and in that moment of hearing those "alleluias," I realized that the primary motif of my postlude has the same rhythmic profile as a spoken "alleluia," so the music felt righter than I'd expected.

It will have to fall to others to decide whether this composition is successful, but I'll say a bit about the compositional process, since that kind of thing interests me. The music opens in a way that is intentionally formulaic, beginning with a simple scalar descent in the bass that morphs into the hymn tune at the end of the second bar. As I recall, the "alleluia" motif just kind of happened as I was trying out different ways of countering the tune in the pedal. However, there are some interesting ways in which the complexity builds as tune and [newly christened] "alleluia" motif play off each other.

First of all, as the first phrase of the tune is finishing up in the pedal, the "alleluia" motif suddenly runs through the entire A section of the tune very quickly:

One thing that's interesting about this is that at the very moment the "right hand" is quoting the tune, it also seems to be breaking free of the formulaic melodic patterns that have persisted until this moment. It becomes independent by means of imitation.

The tune itself has a simple AABA structure. After the first two statements of 'A' have been heard in the pedal, a strange little interlude intervenes. First of all, the "alleluia" motif now anticipates the pitches of the 'B' part of the tune in m.10, while the "left hand" (not pedal) repeats the F#-E-D sequence which both opens and closes the 'A' section. (That's a really lovely feature of this tune that I don't remember having noticed before. Its end is its beginning.)

More importantly, you might noticed that the rests have disappeared from the treble staff above, and the "alleluia" rhythm is replaced by the "teach me some" rhythm that opens part 'B' of the tune. However, this motif, without the eighth note rest, occupies only three-quarters of a beat in this 3/2 meter, which means that, depending on how one hears and feels things, the right hand features four beats against the three of the left hand.

It's a fun little metrical interplay that isn't quite the same as the typical "4 against 3" because the right hand rhythms can easily be perceived in different ways. However they're perceived, the effect is that the 'B' section of the piece feels considerably less settled. Metrical order is restored just before the "recap" in which the final 'A' section is stated in m.24.

That's probably more than needs to be said about a piece that lasts less than two minutes, but as happens often once I've gotten some distance from the creative process, the various compositional procedures slip into the background as I listen to or play the music, and somehow it just sounds right. Because now I know it. (If only I could always write pieces I already knew, I might write much more!)

You can listen to the entire piece below. (The words, of course, are not intended to be sung.) If, for some reason, you're interested in playing it, please let me know! I'd love to hear a "real organist" play it.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Adding Words to Wordless Music

With my 12 Composers of Christmas turning ten this December, I've been working on a new SATB choral version of this little music history sampler. A couple of years ago, I added a video with a recording featuring my homemade "junior chorale" singing the tune, but I figured having a full choir afforded the opportunity to get the singers involved in the musical quotations that are all over the piano part. Hopefully, I'll be able to debut a recording of this arrangement in time for the holidays and those end-of-semester review sessions.

For now, I'll just focus on one little bit of problem-solving. The composer for Day 6 is Franz Schubert, represented by the sextuplets that permeate his legendary Erlk├Ânig. (Yes, technically they're marked as triplets, but they basically function as sextuplets.)

Both hands gets their own iconic versions of the sextuplets. For pianists, it's those insanely repeating right hand octaves that make this song memorable and truly terrifying, and though the Swingle Singers found a way to sing them, my arrangement leaves the octaves to the piano. However, the most distinctive hook in the whole song is the left hand motif that begins with a rising sextuplet scale. (Curiously, for this most melodically gifted of composers, the vocal part is mostly declamatory - except when the bad guy sings [1:25] his sickly sweet seductions - and the closest thing to a vocal hook is the child's cry [3:08] of "Mein Vater, mein Vater," which includes only two different pitches.)

So, I decided I'd let the choral basses in on the action by having them sing along with the left hand, which left me with the question of what syllables they should sing. The Swingles, not surprisingly, do a jazzy duhbaduh-duhbaduh-dum-dum-dum for the fast notes, but I found myself defaulting to doodlely-doodley-doo-doo-doo. Somehow the "oo's" make it seem more ominous, while the "doodlely" has a kind of playfulness I also like.

Anyway, it was only after I'd mostly finished the arrangement that I thought consciously about the unquestionable source for my "lyric." I had a distinct memory of Buddy Sorrell singing it as a comically ominous warning in some episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show - in fact, I'm sure I would've seen/heard Buddy's version several times before I ever heard how Schubert used this motif, though I've never spent much time thinking about the connection.

It took a little Googling (so many ways to spell "doodlely"), but I finally found my way to Episode 38: "Like a Sister."  Sally's fallen for a flashy singer (played by Vic Damone), and Buddy anticipates a bad outcome, communicated through music instead of words. In the high-quality moving cellphone video below, you can also hear how the soundtrack cues pick up on Buddy's vocal as a little leitmotif.

Vocalizing instrumentally conceived musical ideas has its own history though, and I don't just mean when a character like George Costanza mimics some music he's excited about. (By the way, Jason Alexander nails this bit, in which he's asked to sing something about as singable [0:38] as Schubert's repeating octaves.)

(Oh, and perhaps it's not so surprising that Seinfeld includes this smart bit of classical vocalizing, since the GREATEST CLASSICAL MUSIC EPISODE IN TV HISTORY is Curb Your Enthusiasm's "Trick or Treat," in which Seinfeld mastermind Larry David first whistles Wagner and then wildly wields Wagner as an act of revenge. More on that here.)

But, of course, many music lovers have been tempted to go the extra, sometimes fateful step, and add actual words to instrumental tunes. This topic could go in many directions. In fact, I just tracked down this commercial that I used to see over and over back in the days when I was watching reruns of Dick Van Dyke after school. It references "Stranger in Paradise," "Our Love," "Full Moon and Empty Arms," and "Tonight we love,"  popular songs based on tunes by Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky again. (I don't know how Chopin's "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" didn't make it into this commercial.)

[ Available on 8-track! ]

However, I think it's the music educators who've done the most harm in this realm - the folks who use the "just add words" technique on the classics to help us learn to remember these abstract tunes, never worrying about what parasitic harm those syllables can do over time. So, how do I even discuss such a sensitive topic without doing more harm?

Well, I'll just mention a little book I used to check out of my local library: The Great Symphonies, by Sigmund Spaeth. The curious Dr. Spaeth (who apparently made something of a career for himself in what Leonard Bernstein used to refer to as the "music appreciation racket*") decided that the best way to help listeners navigate sophisticated symphonic structures was to nail the tunes to some of the worst lyrics imaginable.

On the no-longer-active Dial M for Musicology blog, I once made a cautionary comment about Spaeth's book to which Phil Ford replied: "Sigmund Spaeth! That book is a musical neuroweapon — you get Speath’s idiot mnemonics in your head and it will forever overwrite your prior hearings of the music."

So, do I dare unleash any of these neuroweapons now? And I'll just add that a distinguished Twitter follower seemed genuinely alarmed when I tweeted a few of these out last week  She wrote:
Please stop posting those "Great Symphonies" excerpts. Burn that book. Those words can get into your head & ruin the music forever.
How about I put a big picture of the book's cover here, and you only scroll down if you don't mind exposing yourself to what lies beneath?

OK, you've been warned.

To ease us in, I'm gonna start with what might be my least favorite tune in the symphonic repertoire (though this might be because I read Spaeth's words so many years ago), this rousing bit of bombast from Franck's Symphony in D Minor, which you can hear at about 14:55 here.

The words are awful, but it's Franck's chromaticisms that really make me queasy.

You probably won't get this next example stuck in your head because it's so awkward to sing [1:00]:

And, finally, just one more example which is SO STUPID that I really don't think it will get stuck in your head either. I don't think it would be possible to write worse lyrics to the truly inspired opening of Mozart's 40th ("full of laughter and fun" ?):

I can confidently say that I've laughed at these words many times over the years and they've never upset my feelings for Mozart.

Obviously, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with this book. I even ordered my own copy on Amazon a few years back when I couldn't find my old copy (which I think I'd bought at a book sale at the same library where I first found the book). Anyone who's read this blog knows that I don't hold musical masterworks so sacred that they should never be re-imagined, and I also think that approaching music with a playful spirit is almost always a good thing.

BUT THE BEST NEWS IS: Spaeth's book is now available for perusing in full online. So, if you enjoy this sort of thing, then by all means, follow that link and see what you think.

There are, of course, some other "just add words" paths I haven't explored here, most notably the kinds of [often inappropriate] words that music students have passed around the halls of conservatories. I'll never be able to hear Chopin's 3rd Ballade without blushing a little, but I won't say why. Sometimes, it's best to stick with dummy lyrics like "doodle-ly, doodle-ly, doo, doo, doo...."

* In fairness, as evidenced by the fact that I used to check out Spaeth's book frequently, I've enjoyed the musical appreciation racket myself at various times.

P.S. For the record, although I know and respect some people who like it, I find the "Beethoven's Wig" series even worse than Spaeth because it include those inane arrangements/performances which I won't even link to - but I'm happy to say that none have gotten stuck in my head.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Happy Freedom to Birthday

So I guess "Happy Birthday" is finally free.

Let's celebrate the new birthday of Happy Birthday.

These first three are mine: Bruch - 12 tone - Messiaen

I only wish I'd created the rest of these:

I don't know who created the last two, but if someone does, let me know. Oh, and somebody needs to combine those two into one.

UPDATE: Oh, and someone on Twitter just alerted me to the existence of this:

Sunday, September 20, 2015

For better or for verse...

I rarely set out to write verse, but sometimes it happens anyway.

As it happened today, I was sitting listening to our newly ordained curate deliver the sermon on a day she was celebrating the Eucharist for the first time. In a beautiful sermon about the symbolic meaning of opening one's arms, she talked about a class in seminary which was focused on the study of "manual acts." I don't think I'd ever heard this expression, but I can tell you that on hearing it, I kept thinking she was saying "the study of Emanuel Ax."

I thought later that Ax's playing is worth studying, and as the day progressed, these couplets emerged:
Piano expressions come not just from facts
that a treatise exacts via keyboard didacts.
One can learn lessons from manual acts
of Emanuel Ax that a manual lacks.
The fun part, of course, is that the final couplet sounds like it's repeating itself, especially when read by a synthesizer.

Here's Manny in action: