Monday, January 12, 2015

The Perfect Blackout

My love for mashups and indeterminate pieces has a lot to do with the satisfaction of finding unexpectedly meaningful connections that arise from unplanned intersections. Yesterday, I had a new kind of experience in which multimedia elements came together in remarkably logical fashion. I was accompanying several young cellists at my son's teacher's studio recital, held in the living room of an elegant Harvard Sq. home. One of the pieces I accompanied was the Squire Tarantella, which I hadn't thought much about since I learned (and loved!) it back in my cello days. As part of the Suzuki repertoire, it's a widely played piece, although I have to admit I don't know anything else by Mr. Squire, an important English performer and pedagogue. I was surprised to be handed, for accompanying purposes, an entire book of Squire's pieces for cello, but for now I only know this highly entertaining little solo.

It begins with a dramatic 8-bar intro featuring varieties of octaves: 5 ff sets of A's, followed by a twisting harmonic minor figure and a menacing rising bass line that leads into the cello tune. Just as I started in with those accented A's, the lights went off. (I'd like to think my stunning sense of style startled someone into a switch, but in retrospect, it looks like the lights started off just before I did.) Fortunately, it's a pretty easy bit of music to remember since it's all in octaves, but I can recall wondering if I should stop. I was vaguely aware of people springing into quiet action, but I knew the cellist was using music and it didn't seem fair to have him start in the dark. Honestly, it felt like 10 seconds or so of processing all of this, but the lights did come on in time for the cello to make a particularly dramatic entrance.

As it happened, Son of MMmusing had been the previous performer, so I still had the camcorder running on a tripod, which means I have a document of this whole thing. It was quite a surprise to watch it today and realize how beautifully the "lighting design" synced up with the music. The lights fade to nothing during those octave A's, it stays dark during the twisting, searching 8th notes, and the lights come back up as the bass line ascends, just in time to light the way for the star. (The switch was turned on less than 5 seconds after it had been turned off.) It really does look like it could've been planned this way - especially with that one lonely outdoor light framed through the window. I wish I could've enjoyed it more in the moment!

[I've anonymized the cellist here and faded out at the end, but I promise no other FX were applied.]

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The 12 Tones of Christmas (The 12 Musings of Christmas #11)

Once again, today's feature isn't my own creation (though I wish it was), but it's a true Christmas classic that should be celebrated - and, I do have my own two cents to add. Richard McQuillan's "The Twelve Tones of Christmas" brilliantly houses a famous count-to-12 song within a 12-tone accompaniment, "fiendishly deployed to maximize the dissonance level," in the composer's words. He also scored it for the unusually piquant combination of ocarina and harpsichord, instruments which are perhaps even more chilling in digitally synthesized form.

I wrote a couple of years ago that it "sounds like the kind of thing that would be playing if Captain Kirk showed up on a planet ruled by some sort of eccentric aristocrat." In fact, I'm sure I was thinking of "The Squire of Gothos" episode, in which you can see the strange guest star playing some intergalactic Scarlatti at the 5:48 mark here. It's not 12-tone music, but it would be better if it was.

Anyway, Schoenberg supposedly dreamed of a day when children would be whistling 12-tone tunes in the street. We're not there yet, but I decided to do the next best thing and have my 9-year old daughter sing "The 12 Days of Christmas" while I played McQuillan's spiky accompaniment on the piano. Child labor laws being what they are and me trying to read from an iPad (which allows Airturn page-turning but makes for some small notes), I can't say I nailed every tone in the few takes we did. Perhaps an advanced ear training class could take on the challenge of figuring out where I betrayed the row. Nonetheless, I think it makes its effect, the child's voice bringing an extra layer of sweetness to the texture.

I wish I'd used separate mics to get better balance, and I wish I hadn't kept rushing ahead to the cadences; but the world needs more domestic 12-tone music-making, and I'm glad to have done my small part. Some day, perhaps, every home will have a harpsichord and Schoenbergiads will be commonplace - if not in this galaxy, then in some strange new world.

The 12 Musings of Christmas (so far...)
  1. Christmas Time is Here
  2. In Season
  3. Vertical Christmas Medley
  4. Trippin' with Chestnuts
  5. Sleigh Ride in a Fast Machine
  6. Sleigh Ride of the Valkyries
  7. Sleigh Ride in 7/8
  8. A Christmas Carol
  9. Savior of the Nations, Come
  10. Make it so!
  11. The 12 Tones of Christmas