Category Archives: Music

190: further adventures in PMX and my musical limits

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.


189: Some typesetting

Ever since I switched to my new laptop, I’ve found myself unable to use MuseScore. It seems like an issue with my graphics card that I can’t fix for myself. For some months now, I’ve been looking to take up a different musical typesetting system to fill this gap. This weekend, I took the first step in actually figuring it out.

I’m using this delightfully obscure three-lettered preprocessor. Its name really does it no favors with search engines, and the underlying typesetting system doesn’t seem to get much love at its corresponding StackExchange site. I’ve been using this cheat-sheet and this slightly longer reference to get by. I selected my arrangement of Recover Decoration to experiment with; I’m happy to report that in the space of about a weekend, I’m nearly done porting all the notes, having used the most recently revised PDF generated from MuseScore. Some unstructured thoughts follow.

The volta look nice

As far as I can recall, manipulating the volta to create first and second endings was a bit of a chore for me. I personally prefer to minimize clicking and dragging in my life, and volta extension / adjustment involved quite a bit of both.

That’s not to say it was easy in PMX – I kept getting the notation wrong and causing MusixTex to spit some error about volta collision at me. My solution was at odds with the available documentation, which suggests you ought to “Vx” / “Vb” (to close a volta) at the end of its last measure. I could only make the error disappear by placing it at the start of the first unenclosed measure.

But once it came out, it was perfectly aligned – no finagling needed.

After some crying, the stock volta as typeset by PMX / MusixTex come out quite nicely. Please ignore all the collisions with other elements!

I feel empowered to make some revisions

The triplet depicted below used to zip by much quicker. When I paused to think about it, it wasn’t a zoom so much as a thing that elapsed in a quarter-note in a relatively quick piece.

The triplet gets its full due – not as a cluster of 64th notes, not as a grace group; just a full-fledged triplet.

I fixed a counting error; in the following phrase, the final eighth (Eb7) in the measure wasn’t previously present. I had to think a bit to catch this one.

You need to swing those chords!

I typed out the full voicings for the high “Oooh ~ ooohhh” vocalizations near the end of the chorus (rather than messing with the counts to reflect what the performer will actually do). It feels good to see these on the page.

Bar 64 is impossible to faithfully execute – but it sure does look nice on the page.

But most things stayed the same

The vast majority of the score is unchanged. A small portion of the score is deliberately left in a possible suboptimal state, actually, like this phrase (and all its rhythmic siblings) in the latter part of the verse:

There should be a lot more tied eighths here.

I deliberately left these intact because I like the look of these pseudo-triplets.

Some things need tweaking

Once I finish typing out the notes, at the very least, I feel compelled to fix some typographical nits here and there. These can only fester for now until I muster up the motivation to fix them.

In blue: to avoid overlapping the C flat octave with the rising voice below, I manually overrode the alignment and shifted the octave one note to the right. I’m fairly sure I can make the slur follow, but I’m a little surprised this isn’t automatic.
In purple: this difficult chord is actually assembled together from two logical voices and involves quite a lot of manual alignment override. The result is still subpar in that the flat accidental overlaps the D flat unacceptably.

In the most recent MuseScore revision, I close the cadenza with a bar of 17/4. This actually brings the whole arrangement shockingly close to the timing of the original song, but was neither fun to execute nor fun to hear. I elected to preserve common time in this revision and express the figure as…a 24-tuplet instead.

The file comment here actually says “I need to rewrite this.”


185: two-note wayfinding

I heard a delightful song on KCSM (the Bay Area’s local Jazz station) this afternoon driving home from San Bruno.

  1. It was arranged for more than one vocalist (at least one high-register and one low).
  2. Other performers included a backing rhythm section, bass player, and piano.
  3. It was heavily swung and interspersed with free, improvisatory singing.
  4. Its chorus was always delineated with the near-full-measure hold of the phrase “Soul food,” (for human readers, “Souuuuuuuul Food!”) sung D flat to F (7/8 + 1/8).
tl;dr - the winner was Horace Silver's Home Cookin', performed by Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross.

I fell in love with the arrangement and the peppy performance. I wanted to purchase this song, probably the whole album. The universe chose this past day (28 December 2019) to confound me.

The song was unknown

The DJ didn’t announce the song immediately after it aired, passing directly onto the next song without comment. I didn’t want to stick around in my parked car for a whole other song just to catch a title. No problem. I could check the past playlist on the KCSM website.

The song was omitted from the KCSM playlist

It wasn’t there. I knew I was looking in the right neighborhood from the appearance of “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby” performed by Catherine Russell. None of the entries after that song (played before 17:15) fit the bill. (Prudence forced me to check almost every single one of them for vocal work.)

Still no problem, right? I could consult Google-dono about the lyrics.

The lyrics weren’t readily Google-able

Google is famously (and scarily) good at distilling meaning out of word salad. It’s even better at performing simple reverse searches on lyrics, provided you give it enough words to go on.

The phrase “soul food” turns out not to be enough to go on. Aside from being the title of a 1997 film of the same name, it’s also

  1. the title of a song by Goodie Mob,
  2. the title of an instrumental by Cyrus Chestnut, and
  3. the subject of many other songs, according to some lyric indexing websites.

Trying several variations on “soul food jazz song,” “soul food swing,” etc. didn’t help.

The final resort

KCSM retains a limited archive of past playlists. I sought out the show around the 5 PM timeframe and scraped the MP3s served out of AWS (thanks, Firefox Inspector and curl!). I sat down and scrubbed back and forth, looking for the right time. I anchored on Art Tatum and worked backward. I hit indescribable vocal bubbliness and knew that I struck gold.

I activated Google Assistant and held her up to my speakers. The result came back almost immediately. I got to know Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross a little better.

What could have gone better

It’s a happy ending overall, but…

  1. I should have picked up faster that the lyrics were obscure or possibly not formally existent. AFAIK I listened to a random vocal setting of a Horace Silver instrumental; this explains why nobody’s uploaded lyrics for this.
  2. I shouldn’t have sunk my entire evening into tracking this song down from just two notes (D flat and F) and distilled it into this write-up.


As a lousy counter


I stumble the hardest over note values when arranging. My counting game is incredibly weak. I learned triplets when I disastrously attempted to accompany Dvorak’s cello concerto.

Revisiting the Spirited Away score in depth, I came to appreciate Hisaishi’s evocation of his minimalist roots. The Empty Restaurant is a delightful example of this that I expanded on in my paper on Ghibli film music. Most of the piece is sparse enough that I was unable to lock down the counts until tonight. I sat down, cranked up my headphones, and looped the beginning of The Empty Restaurant until the above emerged (albeit in a weird super deformed shape in my notebook – I initially used 2 measures of 5/8 each).

Having found the basic meter (which sets the beat for the measures immediately after), everything else should be easy up to the point where Chihiro’s parents get into eating. There are some unusual motions there that I don’t think I’ve yet nailed down.

The TOK cla-tter TOK TOK drove me crazy (in my ignorance) all day until I wrote it down – and then it all made sense.

I think that’s enough arranging for today!


“Mindless Deadrun” take BB

I have invested quite some time on this arrangement and I’m fairly satisfied with the results. The limitations of the intertwined piano 4-hands format I chose mean that this arrangement is lobotomized. There’s no way I (me “up” and me “down” depending on where I was perched on the bench) could hope to match the colors of a full orchestra. Just listen to me fumbling the sixteenths when a string section would breeze effortlessly through.

A few notes –

  • I’m fairly proud of my synchronization, but I have no idea if that will suffer when I work my way up to the proper tempo.
  • That weird trill is supposed to be a snare drum. Limitations of the medium.
  • I left out the repeat and the huge bass drum strike at the end of the piece. But I know that the simulated bass drum sounds cool!
  • I got completely bum-lost in the middle and that made me very sad, but at least I came back in the end.

Shooting a whale in a teacup

Before Rogue One came out, I remember reading some excited comments on Reddit amounting to a score wishlist from Giacchino. Most of that wishlist came true: first and foremost, Darth Vader’s theme got a good showing (Krennic’s Aspirations and Hope). This is like shooting a whale in a teacup; Giacchino could have stuck in an Imperial quote played by a Peruvian pan flute and made the crowd go wild.

The finer points of the A New Hope score that the aforementioned comment hoped for were the insidious minor-third motif (which I hadn’t really taken notice of before) and the over-the-top Death Star flourish.

To my delight, Krennic’s Aspirations fulfilled the former almost gleefully. Giacchino really did his homework, I imagine. However, the Death Star motif didn’t get any showing that I can remember. In fact, the Death Star doesn’t seem to have any particular musical motif for itself in Rogue One since it is rarely the focal point in this movie.

A shower thought came over me tonight: the 2 firings of the Death Star provide a musical foil to each other from film to film. The cue Destruction of Alderaan is chock-full of dramatic tension, whirling up and down the heartstrings before culminating in a shocking and angry resolution in which Leia’s home is destroyed. The big ending to The Battle of Yavin evokes Holst (a bit like the opening Tantive IV chase) with no less bombast, going for the wholesale brass fortissimo to keep the audience engaged.

Compare these 2 examples against how things played out in Rogue One. In Star-dust, the quiet, almost nonchalant destruction of Jedha is just background noise while Jyn tearfully reconnects virtually with her father. One of the quickest genocides in galactic history plays out over quiet piano chords with minimal orchestral work. The cue and scene are serene, because the emotional crux of the scene lies between Jyn and the unreachable Galen. In Your Father Would Have Been Proud, the rate of mickey-mousing drops below zero as a choir layers a slow-paced cue over the abrupt destruction of the upper Citadel tower (and the death of Orson Krennic). Again, the action need not be frenzied because the outcome is inescapable. Jyn and Cassian have no way out; all they can do is collapse on the beach and wait for their time to come, soaring away on a heroic refrain of Jyn’s theme. The Death Star is mostly irrelevant in the scheme of things, having failed to interrupt the rebel transmission.

Compare the cues against each other and you see that we lose nothing by the omission of the quasi-motif of the New Hope Death Star. Rather, the musical blindness to the Death Star prevents the audience from being distracted by what is the largest on-screen object, enhancing the flow of the story.

“Hi,” he said, shaking my hand. “I’m Pablo Hidalgo.”

I grinned. “And I’m John Williams.”

He didn’t react. He stared blankly at me, still vacantly pumping our hands up and down.

“No, really,” I said, “no joking, who are you?”

“Pablo” sighed and motioned for me to sit. I did, still studying the old man behind the desk. This wasn’t Pablo – a few short years ago, Pablo had been so alive, zipping around the Twitterverse in an unending quest to straighten the Star Wars canon. Here I beheld a tired, thinly stretched, and graying old man who could have passed for a Jedi in exile.

“Did you orchestrate this?” Would-be Pablo held up the printed cue faintly.

“Yes.” I was more confused than peeved. Scoring was hard work, and this was the first time I had been referred to the story department on matters of music. It shaped up like a pointless dent in my schedule for wholly unmusical reasons. “Is something the matter?”

“You indicate that this cue,” said Pablo weakly, “incorporates a men’s choir.”


Pablo sighed. “I’m sorry to tell you this, but you’ll have to rethink this. If you’ve built anything in particular around the sound of a men’s choir, that’s also out.”

I wasn’t shocked, but my annoyance now overtook my confusion. “Just a minute, please. What about a men’s choir is so objectionable that the story group has to step in to interfere with the scoring process?”

Pablo didn’t answer. He lay his forearms on the table, wrapping both hands wearily around a bright green mug.

“I’d really like an answer, ‘Pablo,’ because that is a lot to ask.”

I suddenly noticed the veins in Pablo’s forearms. They stood out vividly as though they had been stenciled in with magic marker. He was straining – and he was gripping his fluorescent mug pretty hard.

“Is this about that silly Sno – ”

CRASH. I flinched. The mug had shattered from between Pablo’s hands. A gash in his palm pulsed heavily, and blood began to dribble out.

“You’re bleeding, my god, you’re bleeding. Are you okay? Where’s your first aid kit?”

“Stop.” Pablo hadn’t moved.

“You’re bleeding!”

“Just.” Pablo was still sitting ramrod-straight. “Just. Please.” He didn’t sound hurt, just wearier than ever. Maybe that was shock. “Please redo this cue.” He looked me in the eye. “And please don’t try using a men’s choir again.” The cut in his hand was slowly pooling blood among the ceramic shards of his former mug.

I bolted out the door. I had passed a first-aid kit next to the hand sanitizer on my way in.

147: The Falco intensifies

It’s so strange that one of the most meaningful decisions in my undergraduate career is yet to come. I am faced with a modest dilemma about the Music 41A final recital. It’s a little less than two weeks out (May 1); we must commit to our individual pieces in about a week’s time. I have studied very little this semester (of course), having only two bits from Barnes’ first serenade to add to my repertoire. These are the Milonga and the Barcarolle. (We ignore the silly Bach chorale I arranged.)

Felix has been learning the first serenade in its entirety since day one; he has focused his practice around the same pieces plus the Sicilienne. Anders has been eyeing the Sicilienne for himself, too. If I decided to be selfish, one of them will almost certainly be thrown under the bus. I.E., if I claim the Barcarolle,

  1. Either Felix takes the Milonga and not the preferable Sicilienne, which goes to Anders,
  2. Or Felix takes the Sicilienne and Anders loses out on his dream piece that haunted him first when he listened to the carillon.

After dessert at McDonald’s

I let myself into the Campanile and locked myself into the Verdin Room (someone had the library keyboard). The tower had freshly struck eight. After about half an hour of practice, I heard the sound of the outer library door closing (but my earplugs deafened any feet on the staircase). I nosed around the library; nobody was in. I helped myself to the keyboard. From there it was another solid hour of practice, homing in carefully on the weaker parts of the Barcarolle (mostly the pedalling in the first part!). It’s worrisome that I can’t hit 100% accuracy on such a slow-moving pedal part. At least the Vanden Gheyn had its fast parts to shield me from criticism.

Actually, directly after dessert

I went to the observation deck first, partially to test the elevator and partially to watch the beautiful sunset alone. I spied the dome atop Campbell Hall for what it was (a bona fide telescope); I saw the Big C, still fluorescently outstanding in the fading light. I pulled out my phone and put on Zimerman playing Chopin’s third ballade. At the close, I lay down my phone and wallet. After a moment’s thought, I also lay the tower key on the ground. I absolutely did not need to see it hurling out of my pocket over the lip of the observation deck.

I turned two cartwheels on the west end of the observation deck – first in a southerly direction, then northerly. On the latter turn my foot clipped the far pillar (second furthest northwest, I believe), reminding me that there wasn’t much room for these physical shenanigans. I pocketed my things and returned to the first floor.

I have done two things that few people have ever done (or will probably ever do) atop Sather Tower – listen to Chopin’s third ballade and turn a cartwheel, both in the sunset. I find that the experience is totally unremarkable.


136: Kappa

Nope, not feeling too hot at all. Not finishing the CS 162 project didn’t help. Some days I can’t look myself in the mirror.

133: Zzz

Joey was out of town on an interview or similar, so he pinged the carillon guild asking if anyone could cover his Thursday recital slot. I was free Thursday at 6 PM, so I jumped right in.

I got to the tower with half an hour to spare, but I was feeling ill. I used the elevator for once, because I didn’t trust my jellied legs to manage the stairs. Nobody was on the first floor – I guess nobody practices ’round this time.

I went up with ten minutes to spare, took a selfie in the playing cabin, and waited for the six o’clock chimes. The program came out a lot faster than I realized – I actually underran the ten-minute cap. I ended up playing “Pigeons and a Boy (Pazu’s Fanfare),” the “Air” by G.F. Handel (the very first piece we played!) and the Fugue in E flat minor by A. Gerken (omitting the prelude).

I ended with a miniature encore for my own benefit – the opening fragment of Sayaka Sasaki’s “Zzz,” the ending theme to Nichijou. It sounded really weird on the carillon, but then again, so did everything else this past evening.

I deposited my music back in my folder and left the tower discreetly. It was fun.


132: Relinquish

A word about “Let It Go.”

I played the (Chinese – not Taiwanese) Mandarin translation for the family last Thanksgiving, and everyone there with a decent command of Mandarin had a good laugh. The chorus, “Let it go,” is translated “隨它吧,” which just sounds wrong to our Taiwanese ears. 隨它吧 is loosely translated “as it likes,” “whatever,” etc etc. The first character is close to “whatever,” the second is a general non-human pronoun (e.g. “it”), and the last character is … literally verbal filling. It has no meaning; it ranks lower than an interjection in the English language. I guess you could say it adds a proper ending to the phrase, which would sound very strange indeed without the last character. But it has no proper translation that I can readily think of. It just ends a lot of declaratory sentences.

The three-word phrase is common enough in China, so my Chinese friend tells me, and can definitely be construed to approximate “Let it go” in English. But he and I agreed that “吧” is awkward as an analogue to “go.” “Let it go” comprises three words easily digestible by your five-year-old, but it does not strike one as a fragment, a linguistic misfire, or lack of ingenuity in songwriting (indeed, the song’s charting speaks for itself). To simulate the awkwardness that I and my family hear in “隨它吧,” imagine if the chorus “Let it go” were replaced by “Whatever.”



and I’ll rise like the break of dawnnnn

doesn’t really have the same ring, does it? It sounds almost moronic. Stressing the trailing “errrrrrr” makes it sound pretty silly. The runner-up for awkward sound is probably “Okay thennnnn,” though that somewhat offsets the clumsiness into using “Okay” in the lyrics.

I can at least vouch for the chorus of the Taiwanese Mandarin translation. The chosen lyric was “放開手” for most of the song, and later “讓它走” when Elsa gets her big wardrobe change (the last reprise of the chorus). Both of these may loosely translate to “Let it go” in English, but the images they generate in Chinese are startlingly descriptive. The translation’s flexibility is both clever and pleasing. “放開手” is just the verb phrase “放開,” meaning “to release” or “to relinquish,” and the noun “手,” meaning “hand.” The “hand” bit merely qualifies the verb phrase, clarifying that someone (the object of the directive) has a handhold on something. (Naturally, we all know that the speaker addresses herself in the song.) “讓它走” is also easily translated; roughly, “let it leave.” This highlights the translation’s excellence: whereas “放開手” is a directive that says nothing of the object being released, much like what Indy Sr. would have said to Indy Jr. of the Holy Grail, “讓它走” very obviously imbues action into the thing being let go. It’s easy to imagine making the link from turning up your palms in the first few rounds of the chorus to finally seeing something off in the last reprise. (Twice or so, you set them free; “放開手.” The last time, they turn to go; “讓它走.”) They are all more or less “let it go” in English, but the particular phrases in Taiwanese Mandarin are very colorful.


130: Helsinki

“It sounds like … a sink in hell.”

As always the title is totally irrelevant to the post: but today we celebrate the Rotterdam Philharmonic for its scheduled collaboration with Rafal Blechacz.

Screenshot from 2015-02-13 15:21:37

I already posted about this in the Facebook group, but for posterity I keep a copy here of the record. Ta-dah! As promised, Rafal has worked Brahms’ first piano concerto into his repertoire. As of 13 February 2015 this is the last visible schedule concert on his page, but I expect there are more to come. Akiko (over at the [un]official Rafal Blechacz fanpage) mentioned that Rafal will be on sabbatical come 2016, but I hope we will hear lots of the Brahms before then. I cannot imagine why he would take a break (last I heard, he was aiming to complete his thesis before the Chopin Competition this year), but I hope he enjoys a well-earned rest.



First, read this article. Skip to the bottom if you want to save time.

If the link is dead, this is the only relevant bit:

Koncert w Carnegie Hall, to część tourne Rafała Blechacza po Ameryce Północnej. Był już w San Francisco w Kalifornii, Houston w Teksasie oraz w Toronto w Kanadzie.

W tym sezonie artysta koncentruje się przede wszystkim na koncertach. Wystąpi 21 listopada w Poznaniu, a następnie w Niemczech, Wielkiej Brytanii, Austrii i Hiszpanii. W drugiej połowie lutego zagra w Warszawie. Ma już też gotową i czekającą na wydanie płytę z utworami Bacha.

Which Google Translate suggests means:

Concert at Carnegie Hall, is part of a tour of Rafał Blechacz in North America. He was already among in San Francisco, California, Houston, Texas and Toronto, Canada.

This season, the artist focuses primarily on the concerts. Performers will include the November 21 in Poznan, then, among others, in Germany, the UK, Austria and Spain. In the second half of February will play in Warsaw. It has also been ready and waiting for the release of a CD with songs by Bach.

Let me repeat that:

ready and waiting for the release of a CD with [pieces] by Bach.

Additionally, I asked for confirmation within the Facebook fan group; someone (presumably Polish) got back to me and green-lit the initiative to start bouncing off the walls:

Screenshot from 2014-11-05 23:38:51

Akiko, if you’re reading this, you had better sound the alarm – A NEW ALBUM APPROACHES!


EDIT: Also,

Screenshot from 2014-11-05 23:57:38