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!