Yearly Archives: 2010

Journey into the heart of dorkness

I recently listened to this concert, the 66th of the current Proms season, featuring the Berlin Phil with Simon Rattle in the following program:

Wagner, Parsifal Overture
Strauss, 4 Last Songs

… and then, played without any break:

Schoenberg, 5 Orchestral Pieces
Webern, 6 Orchestral Pieces
Berg, 3 Orchestral Pieces

[I should mention before we go any further that the audio from this particular concert is available for only another 12 hours (i.e. you won’t be able to listen to it after Friday morning.)  Sorry!]

I think this is really a hell of a program, and certainly an interesting choice for a Prom, given that those programs usually tend toward the populist side of things.  But first off, if you end up listening to one of the Proms broadcasts on the BBC iPlayer, you’ll notice something a tad peculiar about the volume adjuster.  This has got to be a joke, right?

Or is their player really just louder?

My analytical juices started to flow when Sir Simon mentioned in his introductory remarks that the Parsifal Overture was in many ways the most rhythmically complicated piece on the program. This seemed like it might be kind of a stretch particularly because when you listen to it, it sounds like pure, unfettered melody with a subtle oscillation running underneath (like around 0:44).

But not being familiar with the Overture (or is it a Prelude?) myself, I decided to take a look at the score:

So now things start to get very interesting, because if you look at the flute part in the last bar, you see this:

which is one of these musical-mathematical conundra that conductors just love to stew over.  See, what happens is that while the rest of the orchestra keeps playing in 4/4 – i.e. four quarter notes per measure – the flutes and two of the clarinets have to count 6 quarter notes to each measure.  So, each of their quarter notes will end up being shorter/faster than the other players’ at a ratio of 6:4.

It would be easy enough if all they had to do was play 6 of their shorter, faster quarter notes against a conductor beating a four pattern of slightly slower quarter notes – musicians have to do this basic sort of trick all the time.  But Wagner doesn’t make it that easy.  Instead, he writes a rather complicated rhythmic figure (which, vexingly, will hardly even be heard in the orchestral texture.)

In this figure, the flutes and clarinets have to subdivide each of their six quarters into three triplet-eighth notes, so the total number of these notes in a bar is 6 x 3 = 18.  This is all well and good, lest we forget that their visual and musical reference in lining up with the rest of the orchestra is 4 (quarter notes to the measure, that is).  18 ÷ 4 = 4.5.  Since 4.5 isn’t a whole number, it’s not exactly useful.

Except that a particularly clever flautist bent on finding a practical solution to this problem (the problem being how to know how fast to play her triplet-eighth notes in a bar of six and line that up with the conductor’s four pattern) might notice something: despite the fact that 4.5 seems to bear little logical relevance to the problem at hand, if we take a closer look at the particular rhythm that she’s playing:

we notice that the second beat in this pattern consists of 2 eighth notes.  So, one solution is to approximate the triplets and make sure that the second eighth lands on the conductor’s fourth beat.  1 eighth note = 1.5 of the triplets; therefore 3 triplets + 1 eighth equals 4.5 triplets.

And that’s likely what everyone who actually plays this does, but the University of Chicagoan in me just hast to know the exact, theoretical answer, as practically untenable a solution as it may present.  The next step is to multiply the 18 triplet-eighth notes by 2 – basically, we’re looking for a least common multiple between 18 and 4, i.e. 36.

So then, the really anal-retentive flautist, who probably has no job and definitely has like zero friends, if she were hired to play the Parsifal Overture (Prelude?) would sit at home and practice counting 36 notes per bar (that’s 9 notes per beat, btw), and regroup those 36-lets into twos so that she would wind up with 18 groups of 2 and divide those 18 groups by 3 so that she could feel 6 beats per bar and know that she had done a really thorough job.  She might employ a chart that looked something like this:

and still not be quite satisfied with the outcome.  Now, if she really got to thinking smart, said flautist might decide to trip the conductor before he went on stage and step in for him, since beating a simple four pattern and letting everyone else worry about this crap is a way better idea.  But she wouldn’t be able to escape her obsession – her obsession with rhythm.  And now it would just get even worse, because did you see what was going on with those violas??  They play 8 notes to the beat, multiplied by 4 beats to the bar, so 24 notes in total per measure.  Now our valiant flautist/conductor must find the least common multiple of 24 and 36 (it’s 72) if she wanted to figure out how the flute and viola parts really lined up.

I wonder if any conductor or musicologist or whoever has ever actually taken the time to figure out how these two parts line up by dividing the bar into 72 parts.  I can only think of one conductor who I would even remotely suspicion of doing such a thing [who shall remain nameless.]

NEXT TIME: I rate Schoenberg, Webern and Berg.  [Which I actually meant to do this time, but it seemed like things were getting a little intense already.]  Somebody had to do it.

Time to hop on the bandwagon

Does the thought of a middle-aged North German woman’s violin bow thrusting out into your face fill your little heart with glee?  Well then you’re in luck, because the Berlin Phil is now in 3D!  And you can even watch it in 3D on your computer, if you click on the links at the bottom of that page and then you are able to figure out how to activate the software (maybe it’s a PC thing?) and of course, if you have the proper eyeware.

Dare I admit that this development hardly came as a surprise to me?  Well, it didn’t.  Avatar may have announced the arrival of this revitalized technology, but there was another summer blockbuster that confirmed it was here to stay: Step Up 3D.

I recently took in a screening of this third installment of the Step Up triptych with these three other dudes.  Not having seen the previous two films, I was worried that I would be hopelessly adrift when it came to the plot.  Not so.   The writers were extremely generous in the pains they took rendering the story’s exposition crystal clear.  And the third dimension made up for everything else.

In all seriousness, I do predict that the Met will be the next to jump on the 3D bandwagon.  What exactly these organizations think they have to gain from going 3D is a little bit beyond me though – in fact, I already find the HD Met broadcasts a tad frightening in their intimacy… 3D threatens to go well over the line.

The other trendy new orchestra thing seems to be these season trailers.  Witness:

[bt-dubbs, is it like, embarrassing that they both chose Sibelius symphonies as their theme music for the present season? At least it wasn’t the same symphony… would be a little like showing up to a party wearing the same dress, à la Lucy and Ethel or Dorothy and Blanche?]

In fact, the Baltimore Symphony is even doing this weird thing wherein they present a concert of individual movements of the season’s highlights.  Interesting, isn’t it, that this modern idea ends up closer akin to what an orchestra concert used to look like 150 years ago…

I’ve got a much better idea for these orchestras, so I think it’s time for a pitch: instead of cheezy video montages and patchwork regional concerts, why not hire me to write a Medley of the big tunes that will feature in your season’s repertoire?  You choose the tunes and leave the rest to me — I’ll jazz ’em up with swell new show-biz arrangements and string them together with an array of irresistable musical theater transitional clichés.

[You know the type:

It will make for a killer promotional tool.  Especially when you film it — wait for it — in 3D.

My aunt Betty

OK, can someone please explain this sudden burst of cultural currency afforded to Betty White?  Don’t get me wrong – I’ve got no beef with said popularity resurgence, quite to the contrary.  B-dubbs and I go back – way back – to the days of Sue Ann Nivens on MTM (not to be confused with MTT) and her work on the Golden Girls informed my childhood, youth, and young adulthood (to which I still desperately cling).  I mean, come on, “Miami, you’re cuter than… an inter-uteran…” ??  That’s pure gold.

So, this is not meant as any kind of a criticism, just a statement of curiosity.  For someone who has been intimately (well, not intimately) familiar with Betty’s work for so long, it comes as a sort of gratifying but confusing turn of events that she would gain so much in popularity after having gained so very much in age (she’s 88).

Am I wrong, or did it all start with the whole Facebook groundswell to get her to host Saturday Night Live?  And what was that all about?  Now she’s on the Emmy’s, has a whole bevy of guest appearances on other TV shows, and is even starring in her own sitcom on TVland?

Again, don’t get me wrong, I love the woman dearly, but it all just comes as a bit of a surprise?  Anyone?  Maybe Betty and the rest of the Girls made some kind of pact that the last one alive would harness the combined powers of the other three and ride the wave to a new brand of stardom… or was it that they would all have their heads frozen?

Necessary juxtaposition

I’m sorry, but I just think these two videos need to share the same space:

Final thought: A few weeks ago, I was hanging out with my friend Eric in the avant-hipster Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn.  It is entirely possible that both of these videos were spliced together using candid footage from this region.

The Sound that Says “Love”

I attended last night’s penultimate concert of the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Season – Mahler’s Symphony No. 2.  The rendition was simply splendid: the playing brilliant, the singing lustrous, the chorus precise, warm and immensely clear in their diction.  Basically, it was a great concert – even greater because the outdoor, somewhat casual setting gives me an opportunity to pontificate on one of my favorite subjects: applause.

See, you’re probably thinking – especially those of you who know me – that I am setting up to chastise the hoi polloi for their inter-movement ovations.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  Those of you who really know me (you lucky little cherubs) know that applauding between movements of a symphony or concerto (especially one written prior to the 20th century) is something that I whole-heartedly endorse!

For me, the best “inappropriate applause” last night came at the moment in the score when the development goes slamming into the recap of the colossal first movement.  You know the spot:

What better place to applaud?  The thing that I enjoyed most about applauding right there (which I did) was that it felt like that gut reaction of clapping when a really great rock guitar solo in a concert matches exactly (artlessly?) what you heard on the album -  not the knowing applause of the cognoscenti that follows a solo jazz improvisation.  At least, that’s what it was in my mind anyway.*  I just thought that such great, vehement playing of 2’s against 3’s really deserved some applause!

Alex Ross wrote a famous article on this subject in The Guardian, but unfortunately he stopped short of endorsing a new era of applauditory freedom.  See, the thing is, I wouldn’t be so very much in favor of applauding between movements were it not for the fact that composers specifically designed their pieces to elicit applause at the ends of movements.  So many letters have been handed down to us from antiquity in which the great composers take considerable delight in having a first or an inner movement applauded so much that they even had to repeat it.

Of course, the big problem is that certain places demand applause while others achieve a far greater effect by forgoing it, even in moments of exalted excitement.  In Mr. Ross’s article, he mentions the case of the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony – which happened to be on the radio as I was driving home from the concert last night, incidentally – and which goes a little something like this:

Seems like the perfect place for applause, right?  Well, it would be, were it not for the fact that this exuberant finale happens to be followed by the most heart-wrenching suicide note of a movement ever penned:

To me, the big effect here is the startling, knock-the-air-out-of-you change of mood (or, let’s say “affect“).  The colossal weight of the fourth movement loses all of its impact if it doesn’t shock you out of the march’s vigorous mood – the effect should be akin to dousing a red hot iron with the Arctic Ocean.  I prefer to time it something like this:

or maybe even spaced a little closer together, just to be audacious.  Whatever it takes to give the audience even an inkling of Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky’s inner turmoil.

But how to do it?  How can one possibly stop the inevitable outpouring of cheers and clapping at the end of a thrilling march like the third movement?  I think that an explanation before the beginning of the entire symphony would be a great place to start.  Explain and demonstrate to the assembled spectators just what it is that Tchaikovsky was trying to achieve with this stark juxtaposition and why they are in for a deeper, more thrilling emotional experience if they take the plunge into the fourth movement without any pause.

So, I suppose that my solution to the applause conundrum is to have audiences be completely educated and enlightened to the point where they can anticipate every nuance of a piece and respond to it according to my exact taste.  And when I’m Music Director of the World, that’s exactly what I intend to have happen.

Speaking of Alex Ross, is everyone aware of this?

*[Ed: “Are you saying “boo” or “boo-urns”?]