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Time To Play


Michael Monroe, le Penseur

In a time with no place to go and not much to hear live, I thought I’d share some of the musical diversions I’ve been creating online for the past 13-plus years. I started back before blogging was cool, thinking I would write mostly words to unravel the mysteries of how and why music interacts with our minds. But in short order I discovered it was at least as much fun to create multimedia that do the talking for me. Michael Monroe, music musing, mind and meaning, multimedia mashups, it just started happening, not only alliteratively, and now there are hundreds of thousands of words and also hundreds of creations including videos, mashups, interactive pages, computer programs, and even poems, all interconnected in a way that could never resemble a normal book, even if there are books’ worth of material. If you’re looking for something to read, read on.

This article will be full of links, but first I’ll say a few words about playfulness. It will be clear from following just a few links that I love playing, sometimes irreverently, with music that is loved and generally taken very seriously. A lot I’ve done is just silly, but it still comes from serious affection for music and the way its ideas interact with us. We often talk of “playing music,” but the free-spirited, childlike associations of the word “play” can get lost in a high-stakes world of getting things right, getting to the next gig, getting reviewed. I sometimes smile at the intensely felt arguments about musical performances that appear regularly on this site, both pleased that people care so much about music and amused that they care so much about play.

I’ve come to realize that what I love most about music is its conversational quality — the multidirectional interaction of listening, memory, expectation, and response. For example, the way I hear something like the beginning of The Rite of Spring and it awakens in my mind a memory of Appalachian Spring and out comes The Rite of Appalachian Spring. That’s partly just a musical pun based on a verbal pun, but it’s also articulating an awareness of similarities in the styles of Stravinsky and Copland (something I’d been reading about in Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise at the time this came to mind). Most important, the intricate work that goes into combining these works is a wonderful way to encounter the music of both composers. I’ve never actually played The Rite of Spring, but I’ve played with it many different ways, always inspired by things it has said to me.

In March of this year, I decided to celebrate 11 Days of Bach to connect his old (3/21) and new birthdays (3/31). Although I posted a few examples of playing Bach on piano in the traditional sense, I also worked manically on several projects that were more about holding Bach’s notes and ideas in virtual hands, twisting and turning to see what I could see. One result is a new realization of the composer’s little Canon per tonos, which in Bach’s hand occupies only eight bars. These bars are intended to keep modulating up by whole step so that after six times through we’re an octave higher than we began. In the new version, a continuous fading-in of a lower octave results in a virtual rendition in which the six modulations up leave us where we started. This potentially neverending “performance” has none of the human qualities we justifiably value in concert and recordings, but still it feels like a genuine conversation with Bach’s ideas.

A longtime fascination with the idea of holding an entire work in one’s mind found me returning to a project from 2017 in which I created a score of Bach’s monumental Chaconne viewable as a single page. This spring, through the addition of some magical JavaScript and the live Gardner Museum performance of violinist Ray Chen, I’ve added an interactive page in which one can easily jump around within the score and explore its 64-part structure. Although I’ll never be able to play this, perhaps my favorite work of all time, it’s been immensely gratifying to spend countless hours talking to it.

More-fanciful webpages from the past enable you to hear Haydn’s Surprise symphony theme with a variety of new (and thus actual) surprises, or to hear Stravinsky’s famously irregular Rite accents randomly distributed so as to keep you off your feet. I love knowing great music well, but I also love being surprised by the unexpected. One of the consistent principles of the blog has been that ideas usually come to me not through planning but in that conversational way I’ve mentioned. Once I accidentally opened two YouTube tabs at once and suddenly was inspired by the way in which the final two movements of Chopin’s 2nd Sonata can go together, the ghosts of the finale haunting the funeral march that precedes. Further afield was the idea of performing two famous Moonlight pieces simultaneously in recital. It kind of works!

As an accompanist who’s played the part of orchestra for countless violinists, I once found that my mind skipped easily from one Mozart concerto to another — like listening in on a conversation Mozart was having with himself. This led to a fairly complex journey into his Violin Concerto “No. 345,” which features transitions both seamless and silly. In order to taunt an accompanist friend who dreads the Barber Violin Concerto but enjoys the world of rock, I conjured up an image of virtual Samuel Barber playing the entire final movement of his concerto in progrock style, which made me like the music more than I had before. (I mean I now like the original more than before, although I also enjoy the switched-on version.)

As a lover of viola jokes, I once spent an absurd amount of time rewriting a Bach cello prelude to incorporate “Pop goes the weasel,” playing it as badly as I could at half-tempo on the cello, and then double-timing the recording to synch up with a violist playing a $45M Strad. Have you ever done that? My love for mashing things together has also led to a growing stable of entries in that familiar genre, the “Happy Birthday” homage: Bruch, Ravel, Prokofiev, Messiaen, Hindemith, Sondheim. In each case it was a chance to honor a friend and also to live inside these varied compositional worlds. Perhaps my most popular creation along these lines lines up 12 composers for Christmas.

It’s probably evident that I enjoy wordplay, and in fact one of my first blog projects was to catalog the gloriously messy Joyce Hatto scandal in six sonnets. And do you need cabaret lyrics about historically informed performance practice? Of course you do. Opera plots summarized in tweet form? Yep. Prototypes for a Trump operetta? Check.

Sometimes I write more seriously, such as this exploration of atonality as the ice hockey of musical styles.

The blog has always been more hobby than primary work, and while that has perhaps permitted too much self-indulgence, I trust the result is unique among music blogs. I’m not saying I’ve ever scaled the imaginative storytelling heights of peak Jeremy Denk or matched the erudite and playful musings of Matthew Guerrieri and his Soho the Dog, but I don’t know of anyone who’s done as much multimedia-infused work. Though only an outsider can judge how effective the results are, the blog combines various levels of expertise in writing, rhyming, piano playing, composing, arranging, animating, music engraving, video and graphic design, audio editing, and programming. (I’m a novice programmer but intrigued by the ways in which programming and composition both magically transform bland symbols into entire worlds.)

The result is writing that mostly wouldn’t make sense in book form, so the Internet is its native home. I’ve never really sought a wide readership, though I’ve gotten occasional nods from influencers like Alex Ross and Classic FM. But I am hopeful there are things to enjoy for an admittedly specific kind of audience. If you see something you like, drop me a line!

Michael Monroe is a Boston-based pianist, composer/arranger, writer, and educator. He has a DMA from NEC earned, after many years of stalling, by completing a new English translation and chamber orchestration of Gounod’s comic opera Le Médecin malgré lui, which appropriately enough translates as The Doctor in Spite of Himself. As pianist, he has performed with violinists Stefan Jackiw and Ayano Ninomiya and BSO trombonist James Markey. As conductor, he has music-directed productions of Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Oliver!, and multiple Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. He is director of music at Catholic Memorial School and at St. Paul’s Episcopal in Bedford Mass. He and his cellist / physician wife are happily raising two violinists, a cellist, and a labradoodle.

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  1. Mention must be made of this gem which ought to be in every concert hall with every enjoyable cliche of von Suppe: THE LIGHT POET AND PEASANT CAVALRY OVERTURE! Find a way to season it with The Queen of Spades overture and your von Suppe is complete! Wish the libraries were open so I could get that book–I refuse to buy electronic books by electronic mail order!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — May 17, 2020 at 9:15 am

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