Saturday, July 29, 2017

The A la carte Composer Polls

Between October of last year and February of this year, I followed up my "A la carte" polls of most-liked classical works with a series of 43 A la carte Composer Polls. The same principles applied: in each poll, participants selected whichever of 14 composers they liked, with an option to say "I don't know or don't like any of them". 43 polls allowed me to slightly exceed 600 composers, which sounds like a lot - well, it is a lot! - but nonetheless required me to be more selective than I wished. The primary motivation for this set of polls was a thread started by TalkClassical regular mmsbls, which asked "Do you enjoy all the "top" composers?". I had (as my first contribution to the thread stated) already thought about doing composer polls, but I was spurred into action by the discovery that the 3 composers that seemed to be most responsible for people saying they didn't enjoy all of mmsbls's "top 10" were Wagner, Schumann and Handel - which was matched by my analysis of the popularity of these composers' works on the A la carte polls.

I can't remember how many composers I was going to include at first, or at what point I knew I'd have to have a "don't know/don't like" option (with a max of 15 options, having that option means I end up with multiples of 14 composers rather than 15, which is annoying if I want a total number ending in 0!) but eventually I settled on 504. 
But which composers should I include? There's a couple of hundred obvious ones that had to be included, but who then? Fortunately I have my painstakingly constructed spreadsheet that gives number of Arkiv recordings (now several years out of date but still useful) and length of 1980 New Grove entry for many many composers, so it was reasonably easy to select most of them. The difficulty came in deciding where to draw the line, or rather multiple lines because I wanted to be sure that the whole history of "classical" was adequately covered. One (Johannes Eccard) got no votes whatsoever, so it's reasonable to imagine that there are hundreds of other composers more popular than him.
For the nerd record, here's exactly how I settled on the final list. First I sorted the composers by birth decade and then by Arkiv recordings, and gave 1 point to the top 5 in each decade (or fewer than 5 if  it was a "weak" decade) and 0.5 points to any others that had a lot of recordings (this being a somewhat arbitrary decision). Then I did the same for New Grove entry length, but not giving out 0.5 scores in this case. Seeing as my New Grove is the 1980 edition, this put modern composers at a severe disadvantage, but the online version lets you know how long (in words) a composer's entry is, so I got those figures for all composers born in the 1920s to 1950s. 
Totting up the scores gave me 514 composers but then it got tricky again because some of them still seemed unlikely candidates. Anyone with 2 points was definitely included (oddly, there was no one with 1.5 points). But going through earlier composers that scored high with New Grove I found many that had relatively few recordings and thus were unlikely to be known, certainly compared with other less-early composers. For instance, Leonhard Lechner's New Grove entry is about 6 times longer than Franz Schmidt's, but the latter has 5 times as many recordings, so although Schmidt failed on both original criteria he's a much better candidate (in the end, 26% of people said they liked him). All told, 66 composers were parachuted in instead of others, and 10 more were removed altogether, giving a final list of 504, filling out exactly 36 polls. Not as ambitious as the works polls, but that was an open-ended project that evolved over time, whereas this had to be planned in advance. One important aspect was to ensure the composers were well balanced; I needed to have popular ones in each poll to draw people in. Cue some sort of ordering system I can't quite remember that also took into account my need to spread the composers around chronologically too.
And then when I'd sorted that out and actually posted a few polls on TC, I decided I wanted to increase the number of composers to 602, i.e. 7 more polls! In particular, I wanted more living composers but also there were several composers about whose popularity I was curious or that I thought would prove more popular than their position in the selection process might indicate. Selecting those 98 composers was basically my own judgement.
It's interesting now to compare the results of the polls to the way in which the composers were selected. Although Bernardo Pasquini was selected in the top 5 composers of the 1630s by both Arkiv and New Grove, he scored under 2% (2 out of 119 voters liked him). Whereas Kurt Atterberg, who didn't even make the original list of 504 composers, scored 29% and finished in the top 200 composers. But then again, David Gillingham was parachuted into the list of 504 and he scored less than 1%! So I'm not necessarily the best judge. But as I always say, a data point is a data point, and now we know Pasquini and Gillingham aren't popular composers.

I was pleased with the response to the polls but was well aware of the ineradicable problems with trying to do a poll series on TC: you need enough voters for the results to have some sort of statistical reliability, but you also need enough regular voters for you to be able to compare one poll with another. After a bit of an advertising push once the polls were completed, I was delighted that all but one poll ended up with at least 100 voters (poll 40 had 99). All told, 235 people participated, and I'd so love it if they'd all voted in all of the polls. But 88 people did vote in all of them, which was enough in itself to make some generalisations.
One rather ungratifying aspect of the polls was the appearance in my discussion of the results of a trollish individual named MartinD, who really didn't approve of the poll methodology despite my constant protestation that he was taking things too seriously. Inevitably the fact that my top 3 wasn't Bach-Mozart-Beethoven (in some order) drew ire, but the whole thing was a disgrace as far as he was concerned. This MartinD character was active on TC for about 3 months, and the majority of his posts seem to have been direct or oblique attacks on me. Weird. One other person named Genoveva also took me to task during poll 8, for similar reasons. I know that with 50 or 100 people you certainly can't extrapolate any result to the wider world, but it's very frustrating when serious people go on the offensive and try to, well, ruin other people's fun. The criticisms helped me better understand what I was trying to do, and not trying to do, but they left a bad taste in the mouth and were a contributor to my slowness to revisit the results. Side note: by a remarkable coincidence, Genoveva's last activity on TC was a couple of days before MartinD joined the forum.

The "leaderboard" is on Nereffid Supplemental. Unfortunately some people put too much store in the rankings - I fall back on them myself sometimes! - but it's the most convenient shorthand. The % score achieved by each composer is the most important thing, but it's handier to think "that composer's in the top 100" than "that composer got more than about 37%".

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Mozart in a Go-Kart

I love Edgar Wright's new movie, Baby Driver. The plot's a familiar tale of a getaway driver who falls in love and wants to escape his life of crime, but what elevates the movie into the stratosphere is its use of music. Ansel Elgort's title character, Baby, has tinnitus and keeps his iPod running as much as possible, with a tune to suit every mood and situation, and throughout the movie Wright cuts the action - not just the set-piece chase sequences, pretty much everything - to fit the music. The soundtrack includes most of what's used in the movie, and it's a great blend of rock, soul, R&B and jazz.

And no classical.

But why would there be? Don't get me wrong - this isn't a moan about people not appreciating classical music. Classical does get used well in some movies and TV, but its link to criminality tends to be confined to a character trait of a detective (Morse, Wallander) or a cold-blooded killer: think of Hannibal Lecter's love of the Goldberg variations, or Stanley Tucci as Adolf Eichmann in Conspiracy, listening to Schubert's quintet after organising the Final Solution. When used to accompany action, it tends towards naffness like the use of the 1812 Overture as the climax to that Jeff Bridges/Tommy Lee Jones things-exploding movie Blown Away.

So having enjoyed Baby Driver a couple of times, I got to thinking: You could never use classical music in a movie like that. But what if you could?

And thus was born "Mozart in a Go-Kart" (a line from the movie): my foolhardy attempt to create, track by track, a classical "equivalent" of the Baby Driver soundtrack. It's in the form of a Spotify playlist, available via the web player here, or you can listen below:

It started off as a totally ridiculous idea, of course, but a few things immediately presented themselves. Blur's Intermission, for instance, is a cheesy instrumental that simply repeats itself, speeding up to a high-powered climax - which is a pretty good description of Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King. Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries, while undoubtedly more of a cliché than The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's Bellbottoms which begins the movie, shares that track's sense of massive anticipation as it begins. And Tequila? Bernstein's Mambo, natch.

There are quite a few bits of the original soundtrack that are instrumentals - such as a Dave Brubeck piece drowning out Kevin Spacey while he's laying out the plan for a heist - but the crucial thing here in trying to find a classical match is the notion of pulse. A quote from Steve Reich that I'm prepared to trot out at any opportunity is this: "Brahms is a great composer... but I don't want to hear a note of it, not now, not later, not ever. Same thing for Mahler, Wagner, Sibelius. If it all disappeared tomorrow, I wouldn't even know. If you don't follow that discipline of a fixed beat, I'm not interested." And when it comes to finding classical music that somehow "feels" like tracks such as Egyptian Reggae or Bongolia, Reich's right: you need that ever-present pulse, pushing things forward, not the more complex, less rhythmically inclined music that dominates what the wider public knows as "classical". As a result, I found that all the Baby Driver instrumentals would be replaced by Baroque music or new(ish) music. (Which occasionally allowed me to cheat a bit, because some of the modern stuff has a jazz or R&B influence...)

The other big obstacle to be faced was sex. Classical music just doesn't do sex. Oh, sure, there's plenty of love and romance, and Tristan und Isolde is basically just a three-and-a-half hour orgasm, but I think we can all agree that, however much they may share the same general philosophical premise, O soave fanciulla isn't Be my baby. So in the end, for the vocal tracks that follow Baby and Debora's love story, I had to wing it a bit more. Greensleeves has nothing lyrically to do with T. Rex's Debora, but Joel Frederiksen's version has what felt to me like a suitable groove. The movie's closer, Simon & Garfunkel's Baby Driver lacks both streams and water-nymphs, but given where it falls in the narrative sequence, Schubert's Wohin? is surprisingly appropriate. I'm quite pleased with Gretchen am Spinnrade as a substitute for Nowhere to Run. And I'm also proud of noting that Nessun dorma! is thematically similar to Never, Never Gonna Give You Up, while simultaneously Big Lucy is morphologically similar to the Walrus of Love.

As for my replacing Beck's Debra ("Ain't no use in wastin' no time gettin' to know each other / You know the deal / Cause only you got a thing / That I just got to get with") with Mozart's Exsultate Jubilate, well yes, that is a bit cheeky, but I mean come on, we all know that most of the religious music ever written is just love songs with theological lyrics. Also, I offer no apology for swapping The Young MC for a bloke singing into a tuba. It just had to happen.

In conclusion, let us be clear: It is not possible to create a movie like Baby Driver using only classical music in its soundtrack. But if it were possible, then "Mozart in a Go-Kart" might be what it would sound like.

You're welcome!