Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Gustav Helsted: Decet and String Quartet

Just how progressive was Danish composer Gustav Helsted? Well, he founded a musical society that was playing Bruckner and Mahler symphonies in 1896. And while he studied with Niels Gade, Helsted was vitally interested pushing beyond Gade's concept of romanticism -- as his heroes Bruckner and Mahler had.

Helsted’s Decet, Op. 18 for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn and strings is a good example of that boundary-pushing. Composed in 1891, it was still considered far too modern-sounding twenty-five years later (according to critics).

While the harmonic progressions might not seem quite outre a century later, the Decet is still an unusual work. Its instrumentation allows for some unconventional timbres. At times it sounds like a chamber orchestra, and other times an intimate trio or quartet.

To my ears, Helsted sounds superficially similar to Grieg in this work, but that might just be the Scandinavian character coming through. The odd instrumentation will naturally limit performances, but the quality of the writing makes this a work that should be heard often.

Helsted's String Quartet is, I think, a truly remarkable work. Possibly written as early as 1917, it strongly reminded me of Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8 -- composed in 1960. Although it lacks the urgency and angst of Shostakovich's work, Helsted's quartet does outline its motifs in sharp relief, with stark, dramatic contrasts driving the music.

If these two works are any indication of the quality of his output, then Gustav Helsted is a composer I would like to know better. Members of the Danish Sinfonietta, under the direction of David Riddell, turn in unapologetic performances of these obscure masterworks that bring the music to life. If you're interested in Bruckner, Mahler, or Shostakovich, then Helsted's works are worthy of your attention.

Gustav Helsted: Decet and String Quartet
The Danish Sinfonietta, David Riddell, conductor
Dacapo 8.226111

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Sally Forth's Metadate

Sally Forth began in 1982 as a simple domestic comic strip, humorously showing the ups and downs of a working mother. In 1999 original creator Greg Howard turned the scripting duties over to Francesco Marciuliano things got interesting. Marciuliano occasionally had the characters break the fourth wall and directly address the reader. More often, though, it's more subtle. Buried in the gag-a-day dialog are indications that the characters know they're in a comic strip.

Look at these examples from an extended sequence from April, 2016.

This sequence is full of meta references. As Ted notes, the strip used to be just a gag-a-day comic. Sally comments on how Marciuliano more fully develops the characters and situations. In the final panel, Ted almost seems aware of the reader, but Sally defuses it with the punchline.

In the first panel, Ted says it's been almost 24 years since their first date (which took place while they were in college) -- 1992. Sally remarks that their timeline doesn't bear close examination. Which is true. When the strip started in 1982, their daughter Hillary was 12 years old (and still is). That pushes that first date back to 1970 at the earliest.

Ted's right -- Hillary's last name is in the title of the strip.

And yes, Sally's final observation, while seemingly comic exaggeration, isn't. The sequence at the restaurant did indeed take two weeks of strips to tell. 

Personally, I enjoy the extra dimension Marciuliano gives to the strip with these meta-observations. It's made Greg Howard's original creation even better -- and certainly more rewarding to read on a daily basis.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Diabelli Project 127 - A Work for Chamber Orchestra

The Diabelli Project is about offering my weekly flash-composition sketches freely to all. Like Antonio Diabelli's theme, these sketches aren't great music. But perhaps (as in Diabelli's case) there's a Beethoven out there who can do great things with them.

This week I think I got a litter over-ambitious and sketched out something for chamber orchestra all in the space of the allotted 10 minutes. I think it turned out rather well, considering. The basic idea was to have a burbling energy generator in the strings that slowly changed over time. On top of it, the winds and brass would provide three motifs that would gradually come together to form the opening theme (or they would, given enough time).

As you can see,the three motifs are a whole-note slide (mm 2-3, oboe and clarinet), syncopated fifths (mm 3-4, trombone and tuba), and a sweeping arpeggio (mm 4-5, flute and bassoon). This is another sketch I'll place in the "possibilities" folder to revisit later, I think.

As always, you can use any or all of the posted Diabelli Project sketches as you wish for free. Just be sure to share the results. I'm always curious to see what direction someone else can take this material.