Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Stephen Malinowski and the Animation of Music

Some people claim to see colors when they hear music. I’m not one of them. I wish I were. I would love to be able to visualize the tapestry of sound that so easily sets fire to my emotions. I would love to see what it looks like when my emotions change from sorrow to joy with a single key change. Music affects how I feel, but it does not evoke color in my mind’s eye.
Fortunately, I have Stephen Malinowski and his Music Animation Machine to help me with seeing the color of music. Malinowski creates animated graphical scores for great pieces of music, and I faithfully follow his YouTube channel to see his newest creations. 

I have always enjoyed following printed scores while listening to music. Knowing what’s in a score brings music to life. I can see individual notes and voices as they weave together, generating music’s magic. Following a printed score helps me understand how a piece of music is organized and grasp the musical narrative. 

Malinowski’s animated scores serve the same purpose — and they do it with much more power and excitement than printed scores. His videos allow me to see what I am hearing and anticipate what is coming. The persistent forward motion of the beautiful shapes and colors in Malinowski's videos has changed how I hear music. Malinowski helps me understand what it must be like to have some form of synesthesia and be able to see colors when hearing music. If synesthesia meant that music would conjure up colors in the manner of a Malinowski video, I would welcome the diagnosis. 

Malinowski published his first YouTube video — a recording of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor — in December 2005, and I am posting this blog in celebration of the twelfth anniversary of that event. 

Although Malinowski has posted well over 500 videos in the last dozen years, that first video has remained his most popular, receiving over 28 million views on YouTube. (That's right, 28 million!) Malinowski told me via email that his first video of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue was “crude and the recording was poor.” He recorded the music for that video on a synthetic pipe organ and decided to celebrate its tenth anniversary with the creation of a new version. His first choice for the new recording was organist Hans-André Stamm, and Malinowski was thrilled when Stamm agreed to collaborate.

Here's how Malinowski described his 2015 version of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. (The video he is describing is embedded below. The toccata begins at 0:05 and the fugue begins at 2:26.)
“Since 2005, I've been developing tools and techniques for visualizing music, but for this video, I decided to keep it relatively simple (as a tip of the hat to the simple original video) and not distract from Stamm's performance: I use balls for the fast-moving parts of the toccata, rectangles for the toccata chords, and octagons for the fugue. The three-note motif that is the seed of the piece is highlighted in red."
Thank you, Stephen Malinowski! Thank you for bringing so much pleasure to those of us who love classical music and for introducing millions of people to classical music who might never have listened to it without you. 


Hans-André Stamm on the Weyland organ in the Catholic parish church 
Heilig Kreuz in Köln-Weidenpesch Cologne (Köln), ca. 1992.


Follow the links below for a sampling of what you can find at Malinowski's YouTube Channel. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Beethoven, The Beatles, and Electricity

Contrary to what we hear from many critics, classical music activity in the U.S. is certainly greater today, by any tangible measure, than it was 20 years ago.
– Douglas Dempster

Some people are lucky enough to live in the midst of a rich musical culture — Vienna, New York, New Orleans. I’m not one of those people. I was born in a small town in Arizona and raised in a small town in southern New Mexico. I still live in New Mexico — only 60 miles from where I grew up — and have spent my entire life in a literal and cultural desert.

If not for my hometown’s high school band (about 60 members in a good year), I would have known nothing about live music when I was growing up. I was dependent on radio, television, vinyl records, 8-track tapes, and the local library to teach me about music. From Jimi Hendrix to Leonard Bernstein, the recordings I heard at home and in my car taught me what great music sounded like.

In Listen to This, music critic Alex Ross has included a chapter titled “Infernal Machines: How Recordings Changed Music.” Ross addresses the issue of whether technology has destroyed classical music or helped it thrive. Ross points out that he discovered too much of his favorite music through LPs and CDs to lament technology’s impact on classical music.

I’m in the same camp. Like Ross, I can’t believe that recordings have destroyed classical music. What else could a desert dweller think? For me, technology created a sanctuary in a cultural backwater. I’ll concede that recordings may rob music of the spontaneity of a live performance. However, I will always be grateful for electricity and the technology it powered because that's how I learned about Beethoven and the Beatles.

Technology has provided an easy and relatively inexpensive way to access the greatest musicians in the world performing the most beautiful and enduring music ever created. I'm not one to complain that recordings have destroyed music.

For several years I taught a high school humanities class with music history as a central element of the curriculum. I learned from teaching the class that we should have no reason to wring our hands about the death of classical music. Almost every day I spent teaching high school students I was a witness to the truth of Benjamin Zander’s TED Talk proclamation that “everybody loves classical music, [some people] just haven't found out about it yet.” I was rarely discouraged about the future of classical music when I was explaining it to teenagers.

After learning a little about the language of music, my students generally liked the pieces they heard. Once my students understood both the content and historical context of the classical pieces I played for them, few left my class disliking what they heard. It shouldn’t be difficult to help young people appreciate the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or the last movement of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique — and it wasn’t.

Before we lament the perceived decline in the audience for classical music, we should remind ourselves to give the world's greatest music more credit for its power to endure. The music created by master composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven contains enough beauty and power to survive a long time. As a desert dweller, if I had not had the benefit of the recordings that make music ubiquitous, I may have never known about the great music that could turn a dusty, gritty small town in New Mexico into an oasis.

* * *
For an explanation of why we should not bemoan the death of classical music I recommend an article by Douglas Dempster titled “Wither the Audience for Classical Music?” The article was published in 2000, and some of the data Dempster provides may be out of date. I suspect, however, that Dempster's central point is as true today as when he wrote the article.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Convalescent's Soul: Beethoven's Opus 132

"[Beethoven's] last quartets testify to a veritable growth of consciousness, to a higher degree of consciousness, probably than is manifested anywhere else in art." 
J. W. N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Journey  

"You never get to the bottom of [Beethoven’s quartets]; they may be the most single profound statement that any human being ever contributed to the world of art."
– Peter Oundjian, violinist and conductor (Toronto Symphony Orchestra)

Take the quotes above as an example of the well-deserved and ubiquitous praise for Beethoven’s late string quartets. The maestro’s last five quartets (Nos. 12-16) plus the Grosse Fuge, which was originally composed as a finale for No. 13, have received almost universal recognition as some of the greatest music ever composed.

Beethoven began composing the quartets at the request of Prince Nikolaus Galitzin, an amateur cellist from the Russian aristocracy. Galitzin loved Beethoven’s music and offered fifty ducats for each of three quartets. Two years after Galitzin made his offer Beethoven delivered what the prince had requested — three quartets — and was only paid for one. Even so, Beethoven wrote two more quartets and a different finale for No. 13. No one had asked him to write the new music, and he composed it with no commission. One can’t help but feel that Beethoven had discovered something to say with the first three quartets and felt compelled to get the rest of his ideas written down. Whether or not he was paid seems to have made no difference, and the quartets serve as one of history’s greatest examples of art that was created for the sake of art.

As with any music containing as much content as Beethoven’s late quartets, listeners must do some research and and expose themselves to repeated hearings. Rest assured, however, that the time invested in Beethoven’s late quartets will provide tremendous rewards.

If you are new to the quartets, I recommend beginning with the Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132. Although Beethoven composed it as the second of his late quartets, it was published as the fourth and is therefore labeled No. 15.

Listen to Opus 132 and think of it as an exploration of the universal human struggle against both physical and spiritual pain. The first, third, and fifth movements provide the greatest intellectual and emotional challenges, while the second and fourth movements provide a respite from those challenges. If you have never heard the quartet, the third movement is the one that is most likely to catch your attention. The movement shows a spiritual side to Beethoven that allowed him to create one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed.

Beethoven titled the third movement, “Holy Song of Thanksgiving by a Convalescent to the Divinity in the Lydian Mode.” The title speaks volumes about what is in the music.

First, the Lydian mode heard in much of the movement was used in medieval church music to represent healing and recovery. If you are a musician, think of the Lydian mode as a major scale with a raised fourth. If you are not a musician, think of the Lydian mode as sounding “bright,” somewhat like music in a major key.

Second, the movement is a hymn of Thanksgiving that Beethoven composed after surviving an illness in April 1825 that almost killed him (possibly Crohn’s disease). The movement was a product of Beethoven's premonitions of death.

Third, take note that Beethoven describes himself in the title as a “convalescent.” He had suffered for years from health problems associated with lead poisoning. And, as almost everyone knows, Beethoven was deaf, an affliction that caused him also to suffer from the pain of loneliness.

As Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon writes in Late Beethoven, “He was a deaf composer, painfully confined within an ever-darkening inner space.” In reference to Beethoven describing himself as a "convalescent soul," Solomon states, “The invalid is another kind of prisoner, afflicted and weary, in whom there is need to cross a threshold, or to awaken from a frightening dream. The invalid, too, yearns for an open space, looks upward to the presumed realm of the deity. Beethoven’s sufferer — later convalescent — prays for deliverance more from a sickness of the soul than of the body.”

Watch the animated recording I’ve embedded below and notice how the music moves back and forth from a hymn of thanksgiving to an expression of joy for being alive. Use the following outline to guide yourself through the piece.

0:00 — Hymn of Thanksgiving. This section explores the world of the spirit. It is composed in the Lydian mode and employs few flats and sharps.

3:18 — Interlude. This section explores the world of the flesh. The music in this section is highly chromatic.

5:38 — Hymn of Thanksgiving

8:16 — Interlude

10:44 – Hymn of Thanksgiving

15:07 – Coda



If you have not yet heard all of Beethoven’s late quartets, I urge you to do so and wish you the very best on your journey.


Happy Holidays!

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Power of Music

This baby's reaction captures the way so many of us feel when we listen to great music.

Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and a Utopian Vision of the Future

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is one of the most influential pieces of music ever composed, and the “Ode to Joy” of the last movement is certainly one of the most recognizable melodies in the history of classical music. A complete deconstruction of the symphony would require more than I can provide in a single posting on this site. In any case, I would like to say a few words about the power of the "Ode to Joy," 

First, let me provide a little information about symphonies.

When you listen to a Classical era symphony — a symphony composed between the mid-1700s and the 1820s — you are expecting to hear instrumental music composed for an orchestra. You are also expecting to hear music that takes you through a variety of "emotions" developed in four movements. If you are new to classical music, I would ask you to think of a Classical era symphony as a “story” told in four “chapters.”

The first movement (or chapter) is normally the most challenging of the four, and when the movement is finished you might want to turn to someone and say, “Wasn’t that interesting?” The second movement is generally slower and more peaceful than the first, which might prompt you to ask, “Is it time to wake up yet?” The third movement is a faster movement in triple time, and you might want to ask, “Do you want to dance?” The last movement is generally fast and upbeat, designed to leave you wanting more. If the composer ends the symphony on the right note (no pun intended), you should be saying, “Wasn’t that fun?”

In short, think of a Classical era symphony in these terms:
  • The first movement challenges the intellect.
  • The second movement provides relaxation and time for reflection.
  • The third movement is dance-like and "physical."
  • The fourth movement provides pleasure.
Although Beethoven's Ninth has as many interpretations as it has members in its audience, let me give you one interpretation to get you started. To understand the Ninth, think of it as an epic story of human suffering that ends with a utopian vision of the future. Remember, it's a symphony, and the story is traditionally told in four movements.
  • First Movement: This movement can be heard as an exploration of the suffering and turmoil that humans must endure. The movement moves back and forth between minor and major tonalities. If you think of a minor tonality as “darkness” and a major tonality as “light,” you should begin to hear the movement as a metaphor for the contradictions and uncertainties of our lives. The movement ends with a statement of darkness and terror.
  • Second Movement: Instead of the slow, quiet music that we are expecting in a second movement, Beethoven gives us a violent introduction to the movement that is followed by music played in a fast and spirited triple time beat. Although the movement may make us want to get up and start dancing, we should notice that the music is often in a minor key, and we just might be dancing with death. (Phew! Serious guy, this Beethoven!) Fortunately, the movement ends in a major key, giving as a glimmer of hope before we move to the third movement.
  • Third Movement: In this movement we finally get the slow and quiet music we had wanted to hear after the first movement. The movement is long and achingly beautiful, giving us time to meditate and reflect on what happened in the first two movements. We might even sense a little peace of mind in the third movement. Beethoven might be telling us that even though the world is full of darkness, terror, and uncertainty, humanity will endure and prevail.
  • Fourth Movement: This is a long and complicated movement that begins with a terrifying chord of darkness and despair. The frightening chord that opens the movement then leads to a “conversation” between different parts of the orchestra providing quotes from the first three movements. In some ways, it’s like trying to follow a play in which the actors have not been told how the story they are performing will end. Then comes the “Ode to Joy,” and we should immediately realize that the symphony had been moving toward this melody all along. Beethoven ends the instrumental introduction of the "Ode to Joy" by shattering our expectations and having vocal soloists and a full choir sing the melody. (Before Beethoven's Ninth, symphonies had been defined as music composed for an orchestra — no voices.) The words sung in the fourth movement come from a poem by Friedrich Schiller titled “Ode to Joy.” All told, the poem — and Beethoven's use of it in the Ninth Symphony — describe a utopian view of the future, a world built upon brotherhood, peace, and joy. If you're not inspired to try to make this a better world after listening to this final movement, you're not really listening.
The elegant tune that Beethoven gave us for the “Ode to Joy” has become one of humanity's most enduring and recognizable melodies. Today, the “Ode to Joy has become the European Anthem of the Council of Europe and the European Union, and we would be hard pressed to find a better anthem than the "Ode to Joy" to inspire the cooperation of European nations.

I spent time at the beginning of this blog describing the basic elements of a Classical era symphony so that the power of the "Ode to Joy" can be understood in context. On its own, the "Ode to Joy" is a beautiful melody that will remain in your memory long after you first hear it. In the context of a symphony that explores issues of human suffering, uncertainty, and terror, the melody has tremendous power to lift your spirit and elevate your soul. 

Flash Mob – Beethoven, "Ode to Joy" from Symphony No. 9 in D Minor


Friedrich Schiller, “Ode to Joy”(1785)
O friends, no more these sounds?
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
more full of joy!

Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread
Thy sanctuary.
Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.

Whoever has created
An abiding friendship,
Or has won
A true and loving wife,
All who can call at least one soul theirs,
Join in our song of praise;
But any who cannot must creep tearfully
Away from our circle.

All creatures drink of joy
At nature’s beast.
Just and junjust
Alike taste of her gift;
She gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine,
A tried friend to the end.
Even the worm can feel contentment,
And the cherub stands before God?

Gladly, like the heavenly bodies
Which He set on their courses
Through the splendor of the firmament;
Thus, brothers, you should run your race,
As a hero going to conquest.

You millions, I embrace you.
This kiss is for all the world!
Brothers, abobe the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving Father.
Do you fall in worship, you millions?
World, do you know your Creator?
Seek Him in the heavens!
Above the stars must he dwell.