108 Notes

Posted: 12/5/2009 4:54:21 AM

From: Santa Rosa, California USA

Joined: 7/25/2005

A while back in this forum I mentioned the difficulty of Bach's Sarabande from the C minor Unaccompanied Cello Suite, exactly 108 notes if you don't play the repeats. (1 * 2*2 * 3*3*3. Any mystics out there?) Constant key changes, like the quality of light changing on a day in early autumn when clouds skim past the sun and the curtains flutter. If you push the feeling too hard, it's Liberace-land, if you ignore it, it's too dry and clinical, so you look for the right blend of restraint and abandon, right? What the hell, here's a try: Sarabande (http://tinyurl.com/ycur86e)
Posted: 12/5/2009 8:59:58 AM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

And a noble try it is!!

Here are my thoughts for what they're worth. I shall restrict my comments to objective observations about your approach to the composition, rather than technical things in regard to theremin playing.

First of all, you have played the piece a semitone lower than the three flats it was written in. That's probably closer to what Bach had originally intended, since pitch standards have crept up considerably since his time but, more significantly, you have also chosen to play this sarabande one octave higher.

I'm no purist, believe me, but I do think that when we transcribe a piece of music and hopefully give it an entirely new lease on life, we need to retain its soul, the essence of what made it a masterpiece in the first place.

This movement is written as a rather dignified, slow waltz and I'm not sure that speeding it up and playing it TWICE AS FAST (you play it "allegro" but it is an "adagio") as well as playing it an octave higher, has brought out its innate gravity and poignancy.

Another, and perhaps the most important element that has changed the musical flavor of this sarabande is that you begin it in 4/4 time instead of 3/4. I'm not sure if this was intentional on your part, or if you just hesitated too long on your quarter notes (thus making them into half notes), but the result is that you have changed the initial time signature and are no longer playing a sarabande at all!

Listen carefully to your two opening bars and you will hear what I mean. You can clearly count 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.

Given all of the above, I would suggest that your performance is really a variation on Bach rather than a transcription (magical metaphysical mystery meditations on the 108 notes notwithstanding).

This is not intended as a criticism of your work. I'm just pointing out, for those who are at all interested in such things, some of the differences between Bach's original work and your most remarkable performance!
Posted: 12/5/2009 11:16:45 AM
Brian R

From: Somerville, MA

Joined: 10/7/2005

Eliot, first, hats off for your rendition; few of us can take on anything so thoroughly suffused with large melodic leaps!

About the opening bars: Peter's indisputably right about the extra time between measures, and I agree that it's not appropriate.

About the tempo: Peter, I'm not a Baroque specialist, but I've rubbed shoulders with a lot of early-music specialists, and soaked up a lot of historically-informed performances. So I think I can say with confidence that Eliot isn't rushing so very much, and certainly not double the proper tempo.

Gory details: Eliot's performance is in the neigborhood of 66-72 bpm. This is a shade fast; the quarter ought to be around 48-60. Down in the original 'cello register, the lower end of this range is appropriate. But back in the day, instrumentalists regularly raided each others' repertoire, so 1) it's perfectly natural to transpose a piece by an octave, to put it in a more suitable register, and 2) a tempo that works well for a 'cello may be too slow for a viola, as the sound clears more readily in the higher register.

(Yes, there are 'cellists who have played the piece at a much slower tempo, but that's a [i]Romantic[/i] performance tradition.)

About the sarabande: The characteristic rhythm emphasizes the second beat, and normally there would be a longer note value there (cf. the chaconne from the D minor violin partita, BWV 1004). In the movement at hand, Bach instead emphasizes beat 2 by placing a non-harmonic tone there. Eliot, IMHO, in every instance, that non-chord tone needs to be nailed [i]very[/i] cleanly (so that its identity as a surprise note is without question), and given a bit more volume (which then dramatically subsides into the following eighth ... i.e., a classic "sigh" gesture).
Posted: 12/5/2009 4:13:16 PM

From: Croxley Green, Hertfordshire, UK

Joined: 10/5/2005

After reading Peter's observation that it was double speed and an octave too high, I downloaded a copy and played it back at half-speed.

Haha! Didn't work at all. The half-speed vibrato was what did it for me.

Nonetheless it strikes me that doing this might be of some benefit as a performance analysis tool - I understand that many athletes watch themselves in slow motion to help fine-tune their technique.

Also, please, please, please, can someone record themselves playing the finale of the William Tell overture at quarter tempo and two octaves down, then post it on YouTube at quadruple speed so the tempo and pitch are correct. I promise it will be the funniest theremin video ever, and go completely viral instantly.
Posted: 12/5/2009 5:16:28 PM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008


About the tempo - here is a quote from the Oxford Companion To Music: [The sarabande] is in a three-in-a-measure time and its phrases usually begin on the first beat of a measure and go along at a sober, steady pace with a degree of nobility. Handel's LASCIA CH'IO PIANGA is a good specimen of the sarabande."

My observation in regard to Eliot's performance was that he did not play it in 3/4 time, nor did it proceed "at a sober steady pace with a degree of nobility."

Out of curiosity, before offering an opinion, I did compare the tempo of Eliot's theremin transcription to the following cello version of the piece played by Mstislav Rostropovich, and found the former to be exactly twice as fast.

Sarabande (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3dgACCAzwM)

I am neither a traditionalist nor a purist - we're THEREMINISTS for heaven's sake - but I do think it behooves us as musicians to ask ourselves, before radically changing elements as essential to a piece as the tempo and time signature, if we are really complementing the composition, or if we are simply being careless and haphazard.

I have no doubt that many in the theremin community will find Eliot's performance of the sarabande from Cello Suite #5 to be brilliant, and the finest they have every heard (the same good people will probably find me to be a mean-spirited pain the ass!) LOL

Posted: 12/6/2009 12:23:21 AM

From: Santa Rosa, California USA

Joined: 7/25/2005

Many and sincere thanks for all the great crit. How fascinating and enlightening, the info about the musical "sigh." I hope to investigate that with arm and ear. I'm not sure how intent I am at historical authenticity. Maybe it would have been better to label my piece "Variation on a theme of Bach" or something like that. I didn't play the repeats, either, which most everybody does, to my knowledge (though Rostropovitch has said that his teacher forbade his students to play ANY of the repeats!) I really love something about this Sarabande, and I tried to inform my little rendition by that in it that made me love it.

Coalpy, I don't think you meant to call me "careless" or "haphazard"--I think you were speaking generally, as you often do, but, just for the record, though I spent little time, it's true, in musicological study, I did spend an obscene number of hours, early and late, working on these 108 notes, trying to teach my neuromusculature how to navigate them, and trying to reproduce in sound what I felt inside.

Also for the record, Pablo Casals took 80 seconds to play the parts that I took 70 seconds to play,not so big a difference as two to one, and the measures that I play in what sounds like 4/4, he actually plays in 7/8--though the note to which he adds the extra time is not the same one that I extend. In truth, I was so thrilled by the fade of the last notes of the opening phrases of each section, as enhanced by Thierry's mod, I just LEANED on them, milking them for all they were worth, and chart be damned! Mea maxima culpa.

God knows (and many besides) that I'm no Casals, am rather a lit fart to his sun, but I think, actually, he messes more with the sarabande rhythm than I would ever dare to, ignoramus that I am. In fact, when he plays it, it's more like a collaboration on all levels between Pablo and Johann than an interpretation by one of the work of the other. And among other cellists, one to another, there's also A LOT of variability--though, mind you, I do not forgive myself my IGNORANT variation on that account!

But even bracketing all the historical musicological crit, I really would very much appreciate exactly the area of crit that Coal said he wanted to forego. You superior ears and musical minds, if you feel like it, I would love you to tear apart my dynamics, phrasing, and especially intonation--the stuff that depends on INTERNAL evidence regardless of the musical history behind the work.

Did I shift up and down from the proper pitch all over the place? Did I make you wince?

I'm not one of the ones C. refers to in the boilerplate who may think my performance is so great. I like to listen to it myself--so far, but if experience is any guide, entropy will set in, I'll start to notice the defects, and I'll end by feeling ashamed and deleting the thing from the public record.

Maybe you can help me quicken the process. I guess I can countenance being less than brilliant at the theremin, after all. I excel in other areas, I think. For example, I'm a pretty darned good listener.

Thanks, all.

Posted: 12/6/2009 10:36:51 AM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008


Clara Rockmore pointed out in her book, METHOD FOR THEREMIN, that in searching for transcription material that is suitable for the theremin we need to be aware that certain "over the string" pieces that are easy to play on the violin, do not adapt well to the theremin. This applies to pieces originally written for cello as well since the "over the string" principle is the same.

The theremin cannot play connected notes that are separated by large intervals because, unlike the 4 stringed violin or cello, it has only one "string", so what we end up with, particularly in large interval compositions that are relatively fast, is the impression that we are lurching and leapfrogging from note to note (usually with an audible "swoop") rather than passing smoothly and seamlessly "over the string" in a true "legato" style.

Even when our pitch is good, we still cannot get rid of this awkward "leaping" impression and all the audio artifacts that go with it, because that is exactly what we are doing. We are forced to jackrabbit wildly from one octave to the other because we have no choice.

While there is no doubt that this is happening, THROUGH NO FAULT OF YOUR OWN, in your interpretation of the Sarabande from Bach's Cello Suite #5, I think it is for you, and for individual listeners, to decide whether or not it is disturbing.

I hardly need to point out that technical standards and opinions on theremin playing vary greatly within the theremin community. What is virtually unlistenable for one person, is often hailed as brilliant by another. Everybody is right.

Both you and I have experienced believing that one of our theremin performances is great on Monday, and then by Thursday or Friday we have deleted it in shame!

Perhaps the most important quality for a thereminist is a sense of humor.

Posted: 12/6/2009 10:54:21 AM
Brian R

From: Somerville, MA

Joined: 10/7/2005

Still on tempo:

[i]About the tempo - here is a quote from the Oxford Companion To Music: [The sarabande] is in a three-in-a-measure time and its phrases usually begin on the first beat of a measure and go along at a sober, steady pace with a degree of nobility. Handel's LASCIA CH'IO PIANGA is a good specimen of the sarabande."[/i]

Yes, but... what does that mean, concretely? Quarter at 60? 48? 72? For expert opinion, we should consult performances by musicians who specialize in Baroque repertoire: f'rinstance, Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Jordi Savall, William Christie, Ton Koopman.

I offered that "48-60" range by the seat of my pants; it turns out to be a bit narrow. Here's Cecilia Bartoli (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=peJxkzPSQFg) performing "Lascio ch'il pianga" at ca. 48. (Bartoli isn't a Baroque specialist, but she arrived on the scene after the early-music movement became mainstream.)

Here's Harnoncourt (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6haW_Swg_gM) performing the movement at hand (at ca. 42).

For the upper range, I'll let people poke around for themselves, lest I seem to cherry-pick examples. Suffice to say, on YouTube (simply searching "sarabande koopman," "sarabande christie," etc.), there are plenty of examples at 72... i.e., the tempo of Eliot's performance.

And again: within this broad range, the choice of tempo depends on how much musical/sonic information is flying by. The examples I've found at 72 don't incorporate running eighth-notes, so: Eliot, I would still suggest a slower tempo (60? 54?) for playing this piece in a viola (vs. cello) register.

[i]Out of curiosity, before offering an opinion, I did compare the tempo of Eliot's theremin transcription to the following cello version of the piece played by Mstislav Rostropovich, and found the former to be exactly twice as fast.[/i]

Rostropovich was a fine musician, but he represents that post-Romantic performing tradition I mentioned. Again, I'm not an expert, but my gut reaction was: "too slow," and I suspect you'd have to search far and wide to find a specialist performance at quarter = 36.

About the repeat:

The whole point of repeating a section (right up through Mozart's time) wasn't to hear the same music literally repeated, but to use the second time through to demonstrate the performer's skill at improvising embellishments. I suspect the tradition of not taking the repeats of this sarabande results from a combination of 1) overly slow tempos and 2) dropping ornamentation from musical training in the 19th century.

On this count, I was surprised to hear Harnoncourt playing the repeats without embellishment. Admittedly, the bariolage texture doesn't readily lend itself to extensive melodic ornaments... but then again, it doesn't readily lend itself to performance on theremin, either. :-)

Posted: 12/6/2009 5:28:46 PM

From: Canada

Joined: 8/1/2008

The Bartoli version is rather slow, but I think she is trying to act every note of the aria, and it is a real downer! It's a wonderful performance.

Here is my own version of "Lascia ch'io pianga" recorded in 2005 on the Hoffman RCA theremin. I did it at around 58. I'm not sure quite why I recorded this at all, I think I was in love with baroque trills at the time and was showing off.

I would approach the composition quite differently today.

Lascia ch'io pianga (http://www.peterpringle.com/music/lascia.mp3)
Posted: 12/7/2009 10:32:42 PM
Brian R

From: Somerville, MA

Joined: 10/7/2005

Peter, thanks for sharing! That's lovely, and I'd be curious to hear what you would do differently. (I would prefer a more subdued accompaniment, but everything you do with the melody makes perfect sense to me.)

Somehow, "Lascia ch'io pianga" had slipped under my radar until now... I know I'd heard it at least twice before, but it hadn't quite registered. Perhaps because one of those times was the climactic flashback sequence in [i]Farinelli[/i]. :-/

Now I needs must add this aria to my repertoire; thanks for bringing it into the conversation!

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