Saturday, June 13, 2009

Ojai Envy

I guess I'm not going to the Ojai Festival. Didn't know until yesterday whether I would or not. The marathon concert for tomorrow sounds magnificent. They'll be playing both Steve Reich's masterpiece Music for 18 Musicians, which I've never heard live, and his new, un-recorded, Pulitzer-prize-winning Double Sextet.

And I'd really, really wanted to see the new piece with Rinde Eckert on Friday. I've had the good fortune to see him perform Slow Fire twice, and he is truly an amazing performer. The set design, wherein he makes the most out of a few simple props, was equally impressive.

But, alas, I couldn't quite make up my mind to drive all the way down there.

Reading all the descriptions and reviews, I'm getting mighty jealous.

I'm even still uncertain whether I'll go to the Cabrillo Festival this year. That is a lot closer, but hotels in Santa Cruz are ridiculously over-priced.

On the other hand, I have made firm plans to go to a few performances of the Santa Fe chamber music festival this summer. The main concert I'll be seeing should be good, but I also decided to go because it corresponds with the big Indian Market ™. I should finally get to meet Sheldon Harvey, who is one of the few artists from whom I've ever bought a painting. He won best-in-show at last year's market in both painting and sculpture categories, so people should be closely watching what he turns up with this year.

I'm using frequent-flier miles, and I was planning to use a gift certificate for the hotel, so it wasn't going to cost much at all. But the hotel has gone out of business, so I had to scramble to find some other place to stay!

I drowned my Ojai-missing greif by cruising YouTube for Rinde Eckert performances. I also stumbled-upon this lovely concert (which is not by R.E., but so what?):

Saturday, May 23, 2009

About last night...

... with a little remixing, some of this could be kinda good!

Last night, I got to go see a new piece by local composer Mason Bates. I've written before about a performance of his lovely Sirens, written for Chanticleer. And I've seen two of his pieces performed at the Cabrillo festival in years past. (One wonderful, the other "just a[lr]ight, dawg!")

This one, too, was just alright for me, though I'd like to hear it again. Here is a bit of the last of five mostly-unrelated movements, performed by the YouTube orchestra:

Though there is no evidence of it in that video, the percussionists really got a workout in this piece. They played all sorts of things, including a typewriter and a broom. My favorite bit was when a xylophone, a marimba, and a glockenspiel were all playing at the same time. You don't see that everyday!

In the pre-performance talk, Bates talked about the differences between performing in a club (as DJ Masonic) and writing for the symphony. He said he feels that a strong beat, greatly appreciated in a club, gets tiresome in a concert hall. To some extent that is true. I don't want a constant disco beat with my symphonies. At least not usually. But the after-intermission piece, Prokofiev's 2nd Piano Concerto, has a pretty constant beat throughout each movement, and it is invigorating.

Yuja Wang (Wáng Yǔjiā) was the pianist. And it was a fiery performance. It really got the audience on their feet. So much power in such a little body. Oh how I wish I could play like that! Or even play like she could probably play at age 5.

Yuja Wang - Prokofiev Piano Concerto 2, Mvt. 4.

After the show, they turned the top-floor lobby into a little club with DJ Masonic spinning his platters and seamlessly (so they said) segueing into acoustic performances of pieces: Call by Berio, The Light Within by John Luther Adams, Calm like a Bomb by Jesper Nordin, and ending with Steve Reich's classic Eight Lines. The keyboard part in that looked much harder than it sounds!

As with the other pieces, they began playing Eight Lines while the DJ was still spinning. The effect was something like this:

Remember how when I wrote about Sirens, I got May and June confused? Well, this time I got the Sibelius 4th confused with something else. I went to this show in part because I thought the Sibelius 4th was one of my favorites. It isn't. I was confusing it with one of his others. The 4th is odd. The pre-performance talk, program write-up, and MTT's little intro all basically said the same thing: not very many people like this one because it is slow, depressing and goes nowhere. Actually, it isn't bad at all, but certainly isn't the one I thought it was.

Incidentally, the first person I ran into at the show was my neighbor R. I had no idea, but she apparently has been working there for 20+ years. She said that if I ever need a ticket I should just ask her. So perhaps there will be more posts like this to come, provided, of course, that they offer more programs like this one.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

One of the fun things for me about playing Hovhaness' 12 Armenian Folk Songs, which I introduced in my last missive, is that the scales and rhythms are out of the ordinary for me. So, along with sharing a few more of my (very non-professional) renditions, I'd like to give a bit of info now on what is going on with these scales. A later post will address the meters.

Eight of these twelve songs are in Dorian mode. Take number 1 as an example.
Armenian Folk Songs #1

The most common scales (or modes) in Western classical and folk music for the last few hundred years have been the Major (Happy Birthday To You) and the Minor. (Blues and Jazz are a whole 'nother story.)

But Dorian mode is not uncommon, even in European and American folk music (e.g., Yankee Doodle). To understand why that is so, suppose you had an instrument that could only play a diatonic scale (like the white notes on a piano) over the following range:

The dashes represent the black notes on the piano, which you don't have on this instrument. The dashes also show that the distance (frequency ratio) between D and E is larger than the distance between E and F. This is an imaginary instrument, but there are real instruments (simple flutes or harps) with similar restrictions.

If you want to play a piece in Major you've got two full octaves to work with.

If you want to play a piece in Minor, you can use A Minor, but you are limited to one octave with some bits and pieces above and below.

Minor sounds different from Major because the distances between the notes are different. Most importantly, the distance from the first note to the third note is 5 semitones for Major (CDE) and only 4 semitones for Minor (ABC). Why this smaller distance makes the Minor sound sadder than Major is a complete mystery to me, but most people agree that it does.

If you want to play a song with that sad, Minor sound, you get a lot more room if you switch to Dorian mode. In fact, you get two full octaves.
Note that the spacing of notes is pretty similar to Minor. The distance between the first and third note is identical; only the distance between the first and the relatively-unimportant sixth note is different:

12345678 (Major)
12345678 (Minor)
12345678 (Dorian)

Enough theory. Here's another piece in Dorian mode.
Armenian Folk Songs #2

Now, if you have an instrument like the piano, with access to all 12 semitones (the black and the white keys), there is no reason you have to play Dorian mode starting on the key D. Both of the pieces 1 and 2 above use the Dorian mode starting on A, which looks like this on the piano:

Piece number 7 also uses Dorian mode, but starting on G:

They look very different on the piano keyboard, as well as in Western notation, but they sound very similar:
Armenian Folk Songs #7

I can not simply look at or listen to a piece and immediately know what scale or mode it is in. I often have to do a bit of research. The piece that gave me the most trouble was number 12. It is interesting both for the scale and the meter. I'll talk about the meter later, but for now just consider the scale: "E F G# A B C# D E".

I had to do lots of digging-around on the web last week to find out what scale this is. It turns out to be the "Harmonic minor inverse", which I'd never heard of. That is the Western name, but I'm sure it is called something different in Armenian folk music. In Arabic music, this appears to be called Maqam Zanjaran (Zankulah), and in neighboring Turkey it seems to be Makam Hicaz (video musical example). Of course Turks and Armenians don't really get along.

So here is number 12. Notice how very unusual the scale sounds to a Westerner.
Armenian Folk Songs #12

For me, this is a fascinating sound. Hope you enjoy it, too.

Since I did my digging last week, a new toy has become available called Wolfram Alpha. With it, my search for scale names could have gone a lot faster. All I would have had to do is type in "e f g# a b c# d e" and it would spit-out the answer "E Harmonic minor inverse scale", along with pictures and a button to let you listen to an example.

In summary:
  • 1-2 are in Dorian on A;
  • 3-5 are in Dorian on C;
  • 6 is in Mixolydian on A;
  • 7-9 are in Dorian on G;
  • 10 is in Phrygian on D;
  • 11 is in Full Minor on F;
  • 12 is Harmonic Minor Inverse on E.

(PS: The copyright issues around Happy Birthday To You are both fascinating and disturbing, so be sure to follow that link.)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Cinco de Mayo

It's "Cinco de Mayo" today. In honor of this special occasion, I thought I'd offer you a few Armenian folk songs.

Armenia is in South America, right?


These pieces are by the very prolific Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness, from his collection 12 Armenian Folk Songs (Opus 43).


While this is among the easiest of his piano works, it does offer some challenges to me. Unusual scales and meters, for instance. I have no doubt I've totally botched some of these.


Nonetheless, I've had great fun learning these. I'm sorry I neglected Hovhaness for so long!


The rest of the collection is coming soon, along with some commentary. But I really need to go watch American Idol now!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Miracle of Easter

For years I've been having a problem with my mailman. First off, it isn't the same person every day. My real mailman, who is good, has been on reduced shift for about 5 years now, and there is always some new temporary flunkie walking my route.To reach my mailbox, it is necessary to climb 2 steps. Most of the time, that is too much of an effort, so they just walk on my flowers instead! I call this the Killing Field.

This year, it got pretty bad. I went out one morning and found 3 of my iris had had their heads chopped off. The next day I found another 4 stalks broken. To save my remaining flowers, I ripped the mailbox off the wall and hid it. I also considered investing in a pitchfork. I left the dying stalks lying around on my porch for a week before finally throwing them in my compost bin.

On Good Friday, a few of my remaining flowers started to bloom. I was glad that some survived and that I got to see them before my vacation.

But when I went to empty my compost bin, lo! and behold! three of the decapitated stalks were showing sings of blooming, despite having been cut off from the plant for more than a week. It is a miracle, I tell you!

Adding to the miracle, these iris always bloom on Easter, no matter what time in the year that occurs. Last year, Easter came very early. Only one stalk bloomed; the rest decided to hit the snooze button and wait for an Easter at the appropriate time of the year. I would have done the same thing.

Friday, April 10, 2009


The cruel taskmasters at the office have finally allowed me some time off.

I've always wanted to spend April in Paris, so I'm going to Nice instead!

With the economy in decline and the fact that it isn't high season, incredible deals are available. I couldn't resist.

Unusually for me, I planned in advance this time. Almost 2 whole weeks in advance!

Somehow, that almost wasn't enough time. After buying my non-refundable ticket, I realized that I couldn't find my passport. I looked everywhere for it, even in the place where it was supposed to be. I turned my whole house upside down for two days looking, with no luck.

I had to quickly research the shady world of passport expediting services. If you happen to live close to one of the passport-issuing offices, you should be able to get an emergency appointment for a renewal when you are traveling within two weeks. If you don't live nearby, you can hire one of these services to stand in line for you, for a big fee.

Fair enough. That serves a legitimate need. The problem is, these guys get priority treatment at the passport offices, and they scoop up many of the appointments. When I tried to get one for myself, there was no chance. So I committed myself to using the service, and started getting all the paperwork in order. Luckily, I still had an old passport to prove my identity. (Otherwise it would have been a major ordeal.)

I had a day off last Friday, and I wanted to get it done that morning. Plus, I realized that Thursday was the absolute last day to get my smog check without paying a fee, so I took my car in for that around 4, and headed off for passport photos. First I had to get a haircut, another thing I've been too busy to do; can't have bad hair on a photo I'll be carrying for 10 years.

When I got those pictures back, man I was speechless. I knew I was ugly, but come on! I was wet (from the cheapo haircut), pale and puffy like a corpse dragged from a lake, with big raccoon-like bags under my eyes.

I almost canceled the trip just to avoid using those photos.

Started again Friday morning. Got new photos, not quite as ugly, and went to the post office to get my forms "observed" by the agent. I'm trying to rush so I can get the forms sent to the expediting service on time and still have some time to enjoy my day off. No luck. The lady at the post office explained to me that the lady who does the passport papers is off that day, and that while there was a temporary replacement for her, I'd be a fool to let that lady come anywhere near my paperwork. So I took her advice and looked for another place to take my papers. I discovered I could go to the clerk's office in Albany. But I had to hurry. Due to budget cuts, they'd be closing early.

Once there, though, things finally got better. A very competent and helpful clerk told me there was no need to pay through the nose for an expediting service. She could call the passport office manager and get me an appointment for Monday, and she did. (She also told me that the professional passport photos I'd paid for, both the ugly and the less ugly sets, didn't actually meet the specifications and might be declined.) Of course, that meant I had to go to the city on Monday to deposit the forms and then go again on Wednesday to pick it up, but finally it was done!

(So, if vacations are supposed to relieve stress, why are they so stressful?)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Rubato, ma non troppo

Today a cool toy called the Echo Nest BPM Explorer was released. As discussed here and here, this makes it easy to analyze a piece of music to determine whether the performer used a click track or metronome.

Since my last post on music in 5/4 included one track with and one without a metronome, let's give it a test.

Here is a BPM chart for my rendition of the Bartók piece.
There is some variation around the beat, but not much, because I was sticking close to the metronome. (Something I rarely use.) The scale bars show that this variation is confined to a narrow range. The green line is a smoothed-out version of the instantaneous BPM, shown in white.

Here is the BPM chart for my rendition of the "Serenade".

There is much more variation going on there. Some of that is intentional rubato, though partially subconscious. But there is also a gradual increase in tempo from beginning to end. That is not intentional, but is probably common when I make recordings. Near the end I start thinking "Hey, this take seems ok! I'd better hurry and finish it before I goof up."

Finally, a more interesting example from Candlefire.

There is the same gradual speed-up as before. I often have that problem with Nyman, because his tempos are absolutely glacial in some cases. But the more interesting thing is the way the white line wiggles up and down regularly. As I explained before, this piece shifts back and forth between 3/4 and 4/4 in an interesting way which gives the impression of speeding-up and slowing-down. It appears that Echo Nest is fooled, just like a human listener would be. Though I'll need to study this more closely to figure out where it really thinks the beats are.