Friday, June 16, 2017

Zeno's Quarter Note

I present for your enjoyment: Zeno's Quarter Note! It's impossible to get to the end of this note, but it'll will nonetheless be over in two beats.

"What the heck is this?" you may ask. Here's a quick explanation.

The Greek philosopher Zeno presented a set of paradoxes, the most famous being the Dichotomy Paradox.

If you wish to travel from point A to point B, you must first travel half the distance. Then from there you must travel half the distance again, and half again, and so on. Thus, you would have to pass through an infinite number of points, which is impossible.

In music, we can emulate this with time and rhythm. In 4/4 time, a quarter note lasts 1 beat. If you add one dot to the note, you must hold it for 1.5 beats. The dot adds half the time value of the item right before it. A second dot adds another half the value of the first dot, bringing the total to 1.75 beats. A third dot would bring us up to 1.875 beats. Four dots gives us 1.9375 beats, and so on.

In practice, one dot shows up in nearly all pieces of music. Two dots are seen occasionally, and three dots are very rare. Beyond that, I haven't come across four or more dots. Though, theoretically, you can add as many dots as needed, ad infinitum, and that's exactly what I've done here.

No matter how many dots you add, you get closer and closer to 2 beats, but you can never reach it nor pass it. Then again, this is only a thought experiment, applying Zeno's paradox to time instead of space, and it makes for a great math-meets-music joke.

A couple of weeks ago, I submitted this gem to a prominent music engraving page on Facebook, which received 340 reactions (to this date), and scores of funny replies. Here are my favorites:

[It] takes an infinitely long piece of paper to notate.
Unless you make each dot half the distance to the barline.... 
Fortunately, on my saxophone, the A can be fingered using the left hand only. This leaves the right hand free for the infinite number of page turns. However they come faster, one after the other, as one plays more and more of the dots.
I did the math! The note pictures has 19 dots, which would give it a value of one and 524287/524288 beats.
Sisyphus would be proud.
An infinite series is usually denoted by three dots. Hmm... now I'm extra confused!
a metaphor to life?  so long but so short

And finally, Vili Robert Ollila offers alternate notation (the second note in the picture being the very fast note you must play to finish out what's left of the 2 beats):

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Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Many Inspirations of John Williams

How many times have you heard that John Williams steals music from other classical composers? I'm not sure exactly why everyone seems to pick on poor Johnny, as every movie composer borrows from someone else. Heck, even classical composers borrow from other classical composers. It is not stealing as long as you take the melody, harmonies, style, and do something different with it. Then it becomes a variation, a tribute, a nod of the hat to the inspiration from which it came.

So how about we pick on poor Johnny?

I'm always filled with joy when I'm listening to random classical compositions on the radio, and I hear something that I recognize from a movie. Just a couple of weeks ago, the radio was playing Korngold's "Much Ado About Nothing" suite for violin and piano, and I heard this over and over again:

After the second time, it hit me that it sounds an awful much like the Star Wars theme ... mainly the minor 7th jump. As soon as I got a chance, I started researching to see if this Korngold character (who--believe it or not--I had never heard of before) was intentionally doing variations on "Star Wars." I was surprised to learn that I had it backwards.

It turns out that Korngold was a prominent movie composer in the 1930s and a major influence on John Williams. This piece very well could have helped shaped the main Star Wars theme (not so much the first five notes, but the ones that follow that--the first five notes come from another piece).

This previous example may be difficult to hear, but I think you'll have no problem making out the rest of the movie themes from the following excerpts. As you listen to each, I've cued up Youtube to play just the pertinent excerpt. However, if you hit replay, it will play the whole video. If you want to get Youtube to re-cue the excerpt, just refresh this blog post (thus giving me more page views -- yay!).

So from here on out, I'm not going to give the answers. You tell me what movie themes the following inspire.

#1) Korngold - the main theme from "King's Row" -- inspires two different John Williams movies.

#2 Holst - "Mars" from the Planets

#3 Stravinsky - "Rite of Spring" (The Sacrifice)

#4 Richard Strauss - "Death and Transfiguration" (Transfiguration theme)

These next two go together:

#5a) Stravinsky: Rite of Spring

#5b) Dvorak: New World Symphony (4th Movement)

Finally, here are two more bonus videos to show that John Williams isn't alone. See if you can identify movie themes inspired by the following:

Bonus #1) Mahler 1: Symphony #1

Bonus #2) Saint Saens -- Carnival of the Animals - "Aquarium" (Think Disney on this one)

And there you. I hope you enjoyed going down Movie Inspiration Lane!

PS - Update: I forgot this one. It may be harder to hear, but John Williams has specifically named this piece as an inspiration for "Superman." Plus, it's such an awesome piece, and an awesome performance. Let me know if you hear "Superman."

Monday, February 20, 2017

Spotlight: Haydn's Farewell Symphony

Did you know Haydn, the playful composer, knew how to protest? In the music of symphony #45, he wrote this "message" to Prince Esterhazy. It appears the message was received and the musicians were allowed to go back home a day early.

This is one symphony you have to watch to believe.  The whole thing lasts about 30 minutes, but this clip is just the last movement, so you don't have to wait so long.