Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Two blog posts in one day! I knew there was a positive side to making unicorns out of soap. For those playing along at home, today's other post is here.

It seemed to be time for another post chalk full of embedded videage. Thus I do less and you see more. There's a dirty joke there — maybe about eight of them — so I'll end the paragraph.

So I was thinking about multiple performances of the same piece — possibly by the same performer(s), or more particularly, by different performers. As a result, I was also thinking about the difference between the MIDI of a piece before its first performance, and the actual piece, and how the composer feels about those differences. That's a subject for another blog post, but it will be briefly returned to here.

I feel fortunate to have a bunch of pieces that have been taken up by multiple performers. They all play with different sensibilities and different styles, and they all bring different viewpoints to the music, even when it's kinda silly music. It fascinates me that I can write something that sounds right under considerably different manifestations. Could I have put that any more pretentiously? Yes.

Consider a piece with a silly premise like Fists of Fury. You get to use your fists sometimes, and the piece uses black-note and white-note clusters as primary materials. It's not rocket science, but then again, neither are unicorns that are made of soap.

Amy Briggs was the first pianist to learn it and record it, and she made an amazing video of it way back in 2001.

It's a real virtuoso showpiece that looks both hard and fun, and the tight fists that Amy makes make the climax when both hands are fists look pretty cool. It feels like a romp with a little bit of caveman rhetoric. The flourish at the ending looks awesome.

Then Marilyn Nonken, for whom it was written (it was, against her will, the name of a recital she gave at Miller Theater in 1999), recorded it and also agreed to be videoed.

Marilyn's performance is totally nutso. In contrast to Amy, who makes it look like the composer was mad at something (got it in one), she turns up the metronome, does away with fists entirely — except for the concluding gesture — and she makes it into a dangerous scherzo of over-the-top zaniness (also got it in one). In order to get to the dengerous and zany, she had to unfist it, but that is entirely up to her. Like Amy's performance, when you hear it without seeing it, it is jaw-dropping.

Years later, I-Chen Yeh took up the piece and consented to be videoed doing it at Brandeis.

I-Chen's tempo is closer to Amy's and the touch a little bit lighter so that it comes off as a highfalutin scherzo. The sight of the rolled-up sleeves also signals that she means business. The choreography of the hands and head motions together show it seems to be fun for her. Of all the performances on YouTube, this is the one that makes the piece sound the most fun.

Then, recently, Marilyn's student Lillie Gardner posted a video of herself playing the piece.

Her tempo is faster, like Marilyn's, and, unlike Marilyn, she uses fists. It feels as if, by now, the piece is such a routine part of the piano literature that to perform it at this fast clip is a matter of fact thing. Of course it goes this fast. This tempo is the new normal. It still is a blazing fast virtuosic scherzo. It doesn't even look hard. But it sounds as zany as ever, and especially dangerous.

Add to all this Adam Marks's performance of the piece, which has no video representation at the moment. His is a powerful performance with a bigger sound than any of them, a little slower than Marilyn and Lillie's, but has a different kind of danger built in: it really feels as if at any moment the piano could break into pieces.

Now the reader can compare three video performances of Wiggle Room — the first by Amy (I was gape-mouthed the first time I heard her do it, and I invited every stranger walking by to come and watch), the second by I-Chen (I was gape-mouthed the first time I heard her do it, and I invited every stranger walking by to come and watch), and the third by John Mackey's disklavier. Go ahead and write your 1000-word essay comparing the three. Be concise, and use proper citations.

And now compare these three renditions of Moody's Blues, given here in chronological order. They're all fantastic.

Sometimes a composer gets different performances of the same piece from the same performers, and you realize how much of the way the piece is communicated in this manner depends on acoustics, microphone placement, quality of microphone, and the precise kind of soap which is used to make the unicorns. Exact Change, which I squeezed out last December for Mary Fukushima and Jeff Loeffert, is now on YouTube twice, from European performances this summer. The first is from June at Cortona Sessions, taken mostly by Tina Tallon with the microphone built in to a flip video. The second seems to be taken from what was a live stream of one of the venue for the World Saxophone Congress in Scotland this July. The sound quality in that one is a bit better, but the microphones are more distant and the space more resonant — thus a lot of the details of the sounds are lost, particularly the contrasts of key clicks, tongue pizzicati, tongue rams and slap tongues in the second movement.

You also get a good sense in the two videos of the differences in climate between Italy and Ireland. Even though both countries start with "I". Go ahead, say it. There's no I in Ireland. Wrong!

A final point to make here about the image of a piece a composer carries in his/her own head — for which none of these videos provides much evidence. The first sonic image I had of Fists of Fury was Amy's performance, and it was the only one out there for a long time. Similarly, first performances and the recordings of them that composers get become the basis of comparison for any subsequent performance. Which is not very interesting in itself. But for me, the first detail I hear in a new performance that is different from that to which I am accustomed to in sounds wrong. That is, until I adjust my own inner sonic image to accommodate a different manifestation. So at first, for instance, I thought Marilyn was playing Fists too fast. I got over that pretty quickly. I had to get over a lot pretty quickly. I always have to get over a lot pretty quickly. For I am Spartacus.

Which leads to what may be a topic of a future blog post. Now with vastly improved MIDI realizations, often a composer comes to a first rehearsal with a highly suspect, extremely polished sonic image of the piece already. Having such a sonic image only gives the composer the right to correct wrong notes and rhythms, should there be any. Otherwise, tempi will seem too slow, or things won't actually pop out like they sound they should in the MIDI, and so on. Do I love MIDI? Yes. Do I hate MIDI? Yes. Do I love MIDI saxophone? Does anybody?