Archive for the ‘music’ Category

Summer is icumen in


The mice and the mouse organ from Bagpuss. Photograph: Peter Firmin

The mice and the mouse organ from Bagpuss. Photograph: Peter Firmin (via The Guardian)

On Saturday the 26th of April 2014 during the BBC Radio 3 breakfast showBBC Radio 3 breakfast show, Martin Handley revealed that the wonderful Sumer is icumen in had been added to the BBC Radio 3 Best of British playlist, the first entry attributed to “anonymous”. The whole playlist is available on Spotify and the recording Handley played is the last track on the Dufay Collective’s collection of anonymous secular English music of the middle ages titled Miri it is. It is such a joyful and fun recording of the song, recorded in St Bartholemews Church in Orford.

Roll on a few days and Kate and I were back fro the first of this terms choir sessions for the 69th of 4th 365: Jotting down a list of what we sang tonight at Cambourne Community Choir, a choir-cum-evening-class run in Cambourne Village College. Natania Goldrich, our director, had us trying Sumer is icumen in too. Great fun. I’ve been singing it on the cycle in to work ever since!

Not to belittle the Dufay Collective’s mastery or indeed our own tentative beginings but afterwards Kate remembered where she knew the tune from. Of course! It is not, after all, an anonymous thirteenth century song, but the creation of some cute (if a little mischievous) mice dreamt up by Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate in Bagpuss:


MIDI notes and enharmonic equivalence – towards unequal temperaments in Clojure


“Positiv Division, Manila Cathedral Pipe Organ” by Cealwyn on flickr

One current ‘when-I-get-spare-time-in-the-evening’ project is to explore how different keys sounded before the advent of equal temperament. Partly out of interest and partly because whenever I hear/read discussions of how keys got their distinctive characteristics (for example in answers to this question on the Musical Practise and Performance Stack Exchange) temperament is raised as an issue or explanation.

Having recently enjoyed Karsten Schmidt‘s Clojure workshop at Resonate 2014 Clojure and Overtone seem a good place to start. My first steps are with the easiest non-equal temperament to get my head around, the Pythagorean Temperament. My (albeit limited) understanding of temperaments has been helped enormously by the amazing chapters on the subject in David Benson’s book Music, a mathematical offering.

The story, as I was told it, has Pythagoras walking down a street in ancient Greece when he hears the sound coming from blacksmiths hammering iron bars. He notes that some hammerings produce harmonious sounds and some do not. On further investigation into the pleasing sounds Pythagoras discovered the frequency ratios behind the octave (a doubling of the frequency) and the perfect fifth (adding a half to the bar length, a frequency ratio of 3:2). Thus the Pythagorean Temperament is formed solely of repeated perfect fifths and octaves.

So how might that look in Clojure? This is me working through my understanding so I’m going to keep it simple. But first up I need some helper functions

(defn keep-in-octave [ratio]
  "Shift ratio by octaves until it falls between 1 and 2 inclusive"
(> ratio 2) (keep-in-octave (/ ratio 2))
(< ratio 1) (keep-in-octave (* ratio 2))
:else ratio))

(defn apply-ratio
"Vector of ratio and pitch shifted by ratio"
([ratio] (apply-ratio ratio 440.0))
([ratio pitch] [ratio (* pitch ratio)]))

With them in hand I can define the ratios that take our root pitch up through the fifths in Pythagorean tuning:

(def pythagorean-ratios-ascending-fifths
"Lazy sequence of ascending fifth ratios in Pythagorean temperament starting from root."
(iterate (fn [x] (keep-in-octave (* x (/ 3 2)))) 1))

Inverting the ratio to take us up a fifth takes us down a fifth, which when we shift up an octave is the same as going up a fourth:

(def pythagorean-ratios-descending-fifths
"Lazy sequence of descending fifth ratios in Pythagorean temperament starting from root."
(iterate (fn [x] (keep-in-octave (* x (/ 2 3)))) 1))

I can now just write out the names of the fifths and fourths we are interested in. Starting from A the first few give us the notes we need for a scale of A major: A, B, C♯, D, E, F♯, and G♯, and if we take the first twelve of each we get to common notes before needing double sharps, double flats, etc. (N.B. We’ll come back to that “etc”!)

(def fifths-ascending-from-a
[:A :E :B :F♯ :C♯ :G♯ :D♯ :A♯ :E♯ :C :G :D])

(def fifths-descending-from-a
[:A :D :G :C :F :B♭ :E♭ :A♭ :D♭ :G♭ :C♭ :F♭])

Zipping these together gives us the ascending fifths and fourths:

(zipmap fifths-ascending-from-a
(map apply-ratio pythagorean-ratios-ascending-fifths))

=>{:A [1 440.0], 
:D♯ [729/512 626.484375], 
:C [19683/16384 528.59619140625], 
:B [9/8 495.0], 
:G [59049/32768 792.894287109375], 
:D [177147/131072 594.6707153320314], 
:E [3/2 660.0], 
:C♯ [81/64 556.875], 
:G♯ [243/128 835.3125], 
:F♯ [27/16 742.5], 
:E♯ [6561/4096 704.794921875], 
:A♯ [2187/2048 469.86328125]}

(zipmap fifths-descending-from-a
(map apply-ratio pythagorean-ratios-descending-fifths))

=>{:A [1 440.0], 
:C [32/27 521.4814814814814], 
:D♭ [8192/6561 549.3796677335771], 
:F [128/81 695.3086419753087], 
:G [16/9 782.2222222222223], 
:D [4/3 586.6666666666665], 
:C♭ [65536/59049 488.33748242984626], 
:F♭ [262144/177147 651.1166432397949], 
:B♭ [256/243 463.5390946502056], 
:G♭ [32768/19683 732.5062236447696], 
:A♭ [4096/2187 824.0695016003657], 
:E♭ [1024/729 618.0521262002745]}

That’s a fun start, but it has left me with a question. Overtone seems to use MIDI notes as the underlying note ‘name’, but MIDI notes give enharmonically equivalent notes the same name. So, for example, the MIDI note 73 is C♯ and D♭ but in Pythagorean Temperament rooted on A they have different pitches. Benson refers to this by changing the familiar “circle of fifths” to the “spiral of fifths” noting that the “Pythagorean spiral never joins up”, i.e. after double sharps there will be triple sharps etc. without ever reaching enharmonic equivalence. I’ll check on the Overtone mailing list to see how important/correct my sense of underlying MIDI notes is.

Britten’s Curlew River


Submerged in the Serpentine by Swizzle Studio on flickr
Submerged in the Serpentine by Swizzle Studio on flickr

One of the great things about living in a city like Cambridge with such a vibrant tradition in classical music is that the student societies are always putting on amazing performances. They are amazingly talented youngsters and the audience is usually packed with their friends which lends a real buzz to things. The Cambridge University Opera Society (CUOS) has put on some wonderful productions since we moved here. They’ve done big operas from the standard repertoire like Eugene Onegin and the forthcoming Don Giovanni (which my son Will recently saw the students at York perform) but also less often staged ones like Pelléas et Mélisande, The Rake’s Progress, and Britten’s The Turn of the Screw.

That last one, The Turn of the Screw was amazing. I blogged about it and it has remained one of my favourite nights at the opera ever. So I am so excited that the CUOS are putting on another of Britten’s smaller ‘operas’, Curlew River. It is on this Friday and Saturday the 7th and 8th of February 2014 in Trinity College Chapel. There’s more information on their website or Facebook event page and tickets are available from the ADC Box Office. It’s a strange and magical piece in which Britten combines aspects of Japanese Noh plays with a medieval church parable. The resulting chamber piece is hauntingly beautiful.

I have seen Curlew River once before, as a late night prom at the Royal Albert Hall in 2004 and there is some video on YouTube of that performance.

The current CUOS committee have also started a series of academic talks to run alongside their productions. The series opened on Saturday at St John’s Divinity School where John Hopkins talked on all aspects of the piece, from its position in Britten’s canon and in the culture of the time through to musical aspects like Britten’s use of heterophony and musical frames.

We are also lucky that the original production was recorded, and further that it is available on Spotify.

See you there!

X marks the stop


Another crazy musical marking.

I’ve been working on Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Dances from The Two Fiddlers” (in The Boosey & Hawkes Violin Anthology) with my violin teacher and we came across this line:

Before this line the time signature is set to 3/8, though clearly the line starts in 2/4; but what does the X mean? I was going to pose the question on the Musical Practise and Performance Stack Exchange site but first I reached for a birthday present. My sister got me the bible of musical notation, Elaine Gould’s Behind Bars. And sure enough Gould has the answer. On page 611 she starts a section on unmeasured bars, or music without metre, and tells us that “An ‘X’ placed on the stave cancels an existing time signature” though Gould goes on to note that one should “Indicate whether the performer takes a new speed […] or continues at the same speed as the previous metre.”

There – now I know though it looks like it’ll take a lot of practise to master this line!

Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Passenger at the ENO


it was more than one step for the man by Leszek Golubinski on flickr"it was more than one step for the man" by Leszek Golubinski on flickr

Back on Monday the 19th of September Will & I attended the opening night of ENO’s production of The Passenger, Mieczysław Weinberg’s first opera. It was amazing. Harrowing, but amazing. It’s based on a novel (sadly not available in English) by Zofia Posmysz which in turn is based on her own 1959 Polish radio play Passenger from Cabin Number 45.

Normally when you read opera critics they either talk about the music, the staging, the acting, the costumes, etc. This opera appears to be Marmite to critics – the reviews are varied indeed – and one perplexing theme is a debate as to whether writing and staging an opera set in wartime Auschwitz is valid, or wise at all? I don’t get this. Throughout our history we, as a species, have used storytelling and song to pass knowledge from one generation to another, so that important events that shape our understanding of the world and of ourselves are not forgotten. Surely then the Holocaust is exactly the kind of event we should write stories and music about? In my own experience it is often the story-telling from unexpected genres that brings the impact home. For example the children’s story The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne helped introduce my children to this subject and the graphic novel (i.e. comic book) Maus by Art Spiegelman is a shocking but insightful biography of his father, a Holocaust survivor. There are other more obvious reasons why both Posmysz and Weinberg should be allowed to write about Auschwitz: she was there and he lost his family to the Nazis. But even without that harsh heritage, surely anyone should be at liberty to explore what happened through story-telling and music?

I think so, and I’m excited to be returning this evening (with my wife Kate this time) to see the closing night. To find an opera that is so moving (and harrowing) tackling such necessary subjects in a thoughtful way is rare. And that’s without mentioning the music. I’d never heard of Weinberg but he is great – especially his writing for strings. If you are a Spotify user I’ve put together a playlist, roughly in opus number order, of all I could find there: His music is a weaving together of much that was important in twentieth century composition, and that seems a very modern (and accomplished) approach.

Roll on tonight!

Nico Muhly’s Two Boys at English National Opera



"On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog", a cartoon by Peter Steiner published by The New Yorker on July 5, 1993

Yesterday Kate and I went to see Nico Muhly‘s new (and first) opera Two Boys at English National Opera. Kate’s not much of an opera fan but we’d both seen and loved another Muhly premiere, Impossible Things with the Britten Sinfonia, and so it wasn’t hard to persuade her along.

What a great evening it was. We attended the pre-concert talk, part of the ENO’s Join the Conversation: Live series, and it was far fuller than your usual pre-concert talk with three speakers (including Muhly and the video producer Mark Grimmer from 59 Productions) and a brief recital with Muhly accompanying Valerie Reid on the piano as she sung the character Anne Strawson’s opening aria. I learnt tons about the opera and the talk turned my excitement and expectation up to 11!

And we were not disappointed. Two Boys is a fabulous and gripping opera. Beautiful and thought provoking.

The video promised to be beautiful too. I had already seen 59 Productions work with the ENO in Death in Venice, Riders to the Sea, Doctor Atomic, Messiah, Satyagraha, and The Pearl Fishers so I knew how good they could be – neither background nor foreground but subtly integrated into the staging and performance. I was even more excited to find (in the pre-concert talk) that Grimmer had eschewed the usual graphics used to sum up the internet. Initially I was disappointed. When Grimmer said they’d avoided the obvious I assumed he meant they would not use abstract data visualizations of networks. But that is exactly the aesthetic reference they started with! I was left pondering which more conventional imagery they had discarded. But I was not disappointed for long, because the projections were so well done in terms of integration into the action and in terms of balance with the acting and other staging and just so beautiful that I soon forgot my disappointment and just enjoyed them.

The criticism that proved harder to shake was of the subject itself. Back in the early days of the internet there was a real fear that when you were talking with someone on the internet you had no real idea who they were. This fear was summed up perfectly in 1993 (yes 18 years ago) by Peter Steiner in the New Yorker cartoon above. Academics also explored this idea, most notably Sherry Turkle in her 1995 book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Perhaps the internet would prove a place of continual identity play where we could be whoever we wanted to pretend to be. But no, that is not what happened, and most of these analyses have been revised, even the cartoon.

Response from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Now we realise that the opposite problem may be more real. Like all teenagers I did things I’d rather forget. And indeed I have forgotten most of them. My children play their lives out in an archived medium and so for them forgetting and reinvention is harder, not easier. Jaron Lanier talks about this (amongst other things) in his book You Are Not a Gadget. But even these new fears are not crippling. I grew up surrounded by cars and find crossing the road relatively easy (though I was taught how to do it). My children grew up surrounded by the interweb and by social media. Though I’ve done my bit to teach them how to use it safely I’m sure it is their generation not mine that will be fluent and safe.

Not that the old fear was without founding, the news event on which Muhly and Lucas based Two Boys was real, as was the Lori Drew / Megan Meier case referred to by Muhly in the programme. But these events are uncommon. Nico Muhly is fluent in interweb, so why choose a hackneyed 1990s fear as the driving plot device? Why not look more subtly at  the problems presented to young and old by the internet? danah boyd’s writings are a great resource for this. Or why not recognise that communication on the internet is less about problems and more about adding depth (and texture) to existing real friendships, as is pointed out in Richard Harper’s recent book.

[N.B. In the interests of full disclosure I ought to point out that Lanier, boyd, and Harper are all colleagues of mine at Microsoft Research.]

My criticism is quite abstract. The concrete detail of the opera was wonderful. The plot was gripping. Kate and I spent the interval sipping pink drinks and trying to guess who the guilty party was, and I’m happy to fess up that I guessed wrong. The production, the set, the video projection, etc. were beautiful and really drew us in. The singing was fabulous, especially the boy soprano Joseph Beesley and the main characters: mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley, tenor Nicky Spence, and soprano Mary Bevan. Above all of that goodness the most memorable part of the evening was the orchestration. I’m sorely tempted to buy tickets for Friday and go and listen again. There were some lovely touching parts and I especially enjoyed the way the tuned percussion was woven together from either side of the orchestra pit, with the glockenspiel and two xylophones (marimbas?) on the far right and the celesta on the left. Fantastic.

Bella Béla Bartók


From Béla Bartók's 44 Duos for two violins No. 11 (Universal Edition)
Name that key?’ on flickr

Each week recently, for sight reading and ensemble playing practise, my violin teacher and I play a duet from Béla Bartók’s 44 Duos for two violins. The harmonies are exquisite and odd. This one’s No. 11 and made us both laugh – what key is that!

Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus at Kings


Judas Maccabaeus menorah 2008 by Sara Hopkins on flickr
Judas Maccabaeus menorah 2008 by Sara Hopkins on flickr

I while back I wrote a blog post in response to the amazing production of Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” put on by the Cambridge University Opera Society. One of the things that made that production so magical was the lad playing Peter Quint, one Matt Sandy. I’ve just picked up the Cambridge University Musical Society brochure for the 2010-2011 season from our post room and notice that Matt (now listed as Matthew – this must be posher) is singing in the CUMS Chorus performance of Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus. It will be at 20:00 on Saturday the 13th in Kings College Chapel. If you don’t know Judas Maccabaeus (I don’t) Spotify has at least two versions: the Sir Charles Mackerras (with the English Chamber Orchestra, Felicity Palmer, Dame Janet Baker, John Shirley-Quirk, …) and the Nicholas McGegan with the Philarmonia Baroque; plus there’s an informative Wikipedia page.

========== EDIT ==========

Darn it – I cannot go. It clashes with a concert by the Cambridge Concert Orchestra at Comberton Village College which I’m playing in.

Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande


 CUOS Pelléas et Mélisande artwork by Anna Trench
CUOS Pelléas et Mélisande artwork by Anna Trench

Well tonight’s the night. My son and I are off to the opera again. This time it’s just a local one but I couldn’t be more excited. It’s the local students, the Cambridge University Opera Society (CUOS), putting on Debussy‘s Pelléas et Mélisande and we’re going to the opening night.

I’ve been doing some homework. There are three recordings available on Spotify:

  1. Eric Tappy, Gérard Souzay, Erna Spoorenberg, Orchestre De La Suisse Romande & Jean-Marie Auberson
  2. Frederica von Stade/José Van Dam/Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
  3. Roger Desormière/Choeurs Yvonne Gouverné/Orchestre Symphonique de Paris/Dame Maggie Teyte/Alfred Cortot/Mary Garden

CUOS Pelléas et Mélisande, Christopher Stark conducting
Christopher Stark conducting in rehearsal (from Facebook group)

We’ve seen the CUOS perform twice before, both last year. Firstly we saw them do Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and then Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. Both were excellent, but The Turn of the Screw was particularly fine. We went down to see it done professionally at the ENO but the CUOS performance is still our favourite. No small part of that comes from the amazing work of the orchestra, so knowing that the conductor, Christopher Stark, is also conducting the Debussy tonight just adds to the antici … pation.

As an added bonus on the first and last nights there will be short talks given by Professor Robin Holloway and Dr Natasha Grigorian, Cambridge experts on Symbolism, 20th Century Opera and the work of Debussy and Maeterlinck. So we’ll be getting there early for the 19:00 talks’ start, touch wood it won’t be too dry for a 15 year old lad.

There’s also an interesting brief section on Pelléas et Mélisande in the book I’ve just finished, Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise. Here’s what Ross has to say about the opera (from page 47).

With the opera Pelléas et Mélisande, sketched in the early 1890s and then extensively revised before its 1902 premiere, Debussy created a new kind of drama, using Wagner as raw material. The text is by the Symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, and, as Strauss would do in Salome, Debussy set Maeterlinck’s play word for word, following its riddling prose wherever it took him. The love triangle of Pelléas, his half brother Golaud, and the inscrutable wandering princess Mélisande moves towards a grim climax, but most of the action takes place offstage; the score places the listener in a liquid medium into which individual psychologies have been submerged. Debussy’s established resources—whole-tone scales, antique modes, attenuated melodies that rise from wavering intervals—conjure an atmosphere of wandering, waiting, yearning, trembling.

Later come glimpses of a beautiful country on the other side. When Pelléas and Mélisande finally confess their love for each other—"I love you," "I love you too," without accompaniment—the orchestra responds with a simple textbook progression moving from a tonic chord to its dominant seventh, except that in Debussy’s spectral scoring it sounds like the dawn of creation. A similar transfiguring simplicity overtakes the prelude to Act V, in which we discover that Mélisande has given birth to a child

Spectral scoring that sounds like the dawn of creation? No pressure then 😉

Josephine Stephenson (Yniold)
Josephine Stephenson (Yniold) in rehearsal (from Facebook group)

Britten Sinfonia: Britten in America


"Nico Muhly, through the window of Kaffibarinn" by Roo Reynolds
"Nico Muhly, through the window of Kaffibarinn" by Roo Reynolds on flickr

During my violin lesson on Friday my teacher Gabrielle mentioned that she was off to see Pekka Kuusisto play with the Britten Sinfonia at West Road. Gabrielle’s great at discovering interesting players with vibrant technique, and remembering what she’d said about the last time she’d seen Pekka play with the Britten Sinfonia I was keen to go along, but pretty doubtful there’d be any tickets left. So I checked the the box office and the website, but it was too late – the few remaining tickets had been handed over to the venue. Given that Kate’s not a Britten fan I wasn’t hopeful, but the programme looked so amazing I was keen to try:

Purcell Fantasia VII in C minor
Purcell arr. Muhly Let the Night Perish (Job’s Curse)
Purcell Fantasia XIII in F ‘Upon one Note’
Tippett A Lament, from Divertimento on ‘Sellinger’s Round’
Britten Les Illuminations, Op. 18
Steve Reich Duet
Nico Muhly New work (World première tour)
John Adams Shaker Loops

To add to the excitement Pekka and Nico were down to do a pre-concert talk at 19:00. I knew that Nico’s pre-concert talks were liable to be entertaining from a blog post (or should I say blog rant) he wrote about naff questions at pre-concert talks:

It worked out well. We dropped tochter and her friends at Bella Italia and then wandered over to West Road and brought one of the few pairs of tickets left 🙂

The pre-concert talk was suitably amazing, Nico talked extensively about his responses to Britten and Reich and tried to get Pekka to reflect on the differences (and similarities) in his playing as he approaches the romantic repertoire he’s famed for and modern / contemporary pieces. I spent a (wonderful) week in Finland once, in Tampere, and one lasting memory is that the Finns aren’t big fans of small-talk. As a Quaker you’d think I’d be up for long silences but even I was challenged! Pekka’s impish wit was perfect for entertaining and informing us the audience, but a full answer to Nico’s interesting question would have been intriguing.

Andrew Bird's pedalsPekka and Nico were planning to do the pre-concert talk over a musical backing and were playing some violin loops through a Line 6 DL4, but a mixture of strange electrical interference and us oldies inability to distinguish talking from background noise. Shame though, it may have been a fun happening!

The concert itself was amazing – I’ve been spoilt by some great concerts over the last year but this was a cracker. The Purcell was beautiful, Pekka’s technique is flamboyant but the resulting sound is very delicate.

One aspect of Pekka’s playing that did make me smile was his bow hold – he olds the bow some way up the stick, not adjacent to the frog. Earlier in the day Gabrielle had been correcting my hold as it kept slipping up the stick, towards Pekka’s 😉

The Tippett was a revelation, not the architectural eclectic Tippett I’ve heard before. A touching little piece inspired by Purcell’s Dido’s Lament. I’m going to keep an eye out for performances of the whole of his Divertimento on ‘Sellinger’s Round’.

Next up was Britten’s Les Illuminations. I’ve heard several recordings of this (Spotify has a Pears/Britten one, along with other recordings) but I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful it sounded live. Pekka and the Britten Sinfonia brought a haunting fragility to the playing that perfectly complimented Mark Padmore‘s expressive narrative tenor singing.

The second half started with an exciting performance of Reich’s Duet. How Pekka and Jacqueline Shave kept their line as what they were playing wove in and out of each other is a mystery. Beautiful and high energy stuff.

Nico Muhly‘s piece was great. It’s always exciting to hear the premier of a piece and this was so expertly written for Pekka, the Britten Sinfonia, and Mark Padmore that even Kate – not a fan of contemporary classical stuff – loved it. The programme really showed it off too, bringing out the Britten like evocative qualities and the Reichian energy. The end of the piece reminded me of Andrew Bird (the Line 6 box had put me in mind of him earlier) as it called for Pekka to play and to whistle.

If I had to criticise anything it would be the programming of Adams’ Shaker Loops. It’s a wonderful piece, and the string orchestra version gave us another opportunity to hear Pekka’s wonderful playing. But. After the Reich and the Muhly it would have been nice to have a greater change of scene – perhaps moving the Tippett to the end of the concert.

West Road was the first UK date for this concert (after performances across The Netherlands), but if you are near Dartington tonight, London’s Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on Monday, Christ Church in Cockermouth on Tuesday, Southampton on Thursday, or Norwich on Friday, then do check it out.

"Pekka Kuusisto" by brittensinfonia
"Pekka Kuusisto" by brittensinfonia on flickr