Further adventures in PMX
Thus far, I have completed my arrangements of
- Recover Decoration – for solo piano
- Sophie’s Castle (TKCA-72775 track 24) – for soloist and piano
- Underwater Town (TKCA-73340 track 29) – for vocalist and piano
I’m thinking about where to go next. The obvious choice is “The Boy Who Drank the Star” (TKCA-72775 track 25), but that piece daunts me. I absolutely want to do right by it, but without a trusted brass soloist (preferably a trumpet player) to bounce ideas off of, it’s easy to imagine this going poorly.
My musical limits
I listened to two different things this evening that prompted a thought about the limits of my musical ability.
Cabin Pressure – S3E4 – Ottery St Mary – Part 9
…in which Douglas and Arthur gain extraordinary expertise in pushing a piano up a hill to a pub in Ottery St Mary. The proprietor plays a few notes to spot-check the delivered piano. They are the three bare notes B3, F#4, F#5, and finally a major second comprising F#6 and G#6. I can tell this by inspection (and am confident of my guess), but anyone could reasonably derive this by standing next to a piano and trying a bunch of note sequences.
I can be confident about my guess because these are three single, unmistakable notes, followed by a tiny tonal cluster whose sound I find quite familiar.
But this note sequence is nothing – absolutely nothing – when pitted against
Marc-André Hamelin’s “Variations on a Theme by Paganini”
Hamelin’s sense of tonality positively blinds me. Here is a piece chock-full of adorable musical allusions (most of which flew over my head, like the Beethoven op. 109?) and carefully clustered writing. I find most of these inscrutable; I suspect that if you shut me in a room with a recording of this piece, I would be unable to rederive its score before I died. The density of its construction makes it nigh on impossible for me to deduce exactly what notes are being played at any given time.
Sensitivity to tonality is definitely worth something here: hearing the saccharine transition from A minor to A major to D flat major gives away the Rachmaninoff allusion before the melody line kicks in. But the dense harmonies of this composition otherwise obscure much about it that I consider essential.
It feels like we’ve arrived at a beautiful and intractable musical problem: the notes make a one-way trip to my brain, where I can appreciate them viscerally, but cannot deconstruct them whatsoever. It’s kind of like hearing a musical hashing function. I can make guesses – bad guesses – but bad guesses in such dense writing materially detract from the quality of the arrangement. This is often obvious even from a visceral and cursory perspective. You cannot substitute Mountain Dew for sugar and expect Mary Berry to give you passing marks on your cake. Hell, you might not even fool a child.
Compare, instead, to the situation in which you shut me in a room with a recording of a Vivaldi bassoon concerto. The antiquated, well-trodden tonality Vivaldi used is imprinted heavily in my head; I wager that I could create a serviceable arrangement of any such concerto with two or three days’ concentrated work. It would not be perfect, but in my unsubstantiated opinion, Vivaldi hailed from a time period where a C643 was…just a C643, and from an analytical standpoint, it doesn’t matter exactly where you place every single note that comprises that chord.