Couperin Preludes

I’m a big fan of French unmeasured preludes, as I’ve mentioned before. I always have a blast trying to interpret all the little ambiguous notes, and trying to make them musical. They’re also such exquisite pieces of pure harpsichord music! (of course, unmeasured preludes exist for other instruments as well, but they they’re idiomatic for those instruments instead!)

François Couperin wrote a series of 8 preludes in his L’Art de toucher le clavecin which are particularly intriguing because, while he suggests they be played freely, they are very precise in their rhythmic notation as well, so there’s always a question of how much you can step outside of those rhythms, and how you do so.

A few weeks ago, Thomas Dent posted a recording of the first prelude to the harpsichord mailing list that were quite striking in how he moves individual 8th notes around in a fairly systematic way, but keeps the overall rhythm fairly strict. Personally, I feel that maybe this is a little bit backwards – to me, small changes within a stable beat characterize not an unmeasured piece, but just a typical baroque, and especially French baroque, approach to meter and rhythm. What makes the unmeasured pieces special, to me, isn’t that the small notes are flexible, but that the big beats don’t have to have the structured regularity that most French music, with its basis in dances, always seems to have.

With that in mind, I made a few recordings of my own of the first prelude, trying to emphasize different things. First of all, I tried to do the opposite of Thomas, just to see if I could! This version keeps the eighth notes fairly regular, but speeds up and slows down and stops on a few big beats. I think this is more or less the way I used to play this.

Then I tried adding in the sort of 8th note flexibility that Thomas talks about, while still thinking about the bigger beats. I think it’s quite successful, though I could stand to spend a bit more time on it, for sure! I found that, even though the notated rhythm is very similar from bar to bar, there are many different ways that Couperin uses the syncopated notes. Sometimes they are suspensions, sometimes they’re anticipations, etc..

Finally, I just bashed through, half-way ignoring the page, and making up my own sorts of things. Great fun! It’s not just pointless silliness though, by any stretch: I find it very useful, when trying to find out what little notes mean, to try improvising similar patterns. When improvising, I won’t play something ‘just because it’s there’ (because it isn’t!) but rather, I play things because it makes sense for where I’m taking the music. Doing this with this particular piece gave me a better sense of where the harmonies move, and what each syncopation is really trying to accomplish. Definitely a useful exercise!

So what conclusions are to be drawn? Mainly that there are many ways to interpret any piece as free as a prelude, measured or not. I think it’s important to keep in mind the underlying harmonies though, and to find a reason for every note to be where it is. Without that figured out, it’s nearly impossible to play the piece in a way that will hang together.

New copyright bill

So, the internet’s all abuzz about the new Canadian copyright bill that’s just been tabled. It looks pretty awful… as a musician and a computer geek, this basically seems targeted mostly at me, and people who use computers the way I do.

A few things that it would criminalize that I do regularly:

  • Copying a CD (legally bought) onto a computer or mp3 player
  • Watching a DVD on a linux computer (I don’t have a tv, and can’t watch DVDs any other way)
  • Watching non-region-1 DVDs (I don’t actually do this now, but I certainly might want to, and know many people that do all the time)

There are many other things that, while legal, I never do because I avoid any DRM-laden media because I disagree so strongly with it. For example, I will never buy anything from iTunes while Apple insists on DRM, even if it’s relatively easy to remove the copy protection. This law would make it illegal for me to play songs bought legally on iTunes on my computer or mp3 player.

My biggest complaint about this bill though isn’t that it makes me a criminal for something that I don’t think should be outlawed – I feel pretty safe in just ignoring the new penalties, since the chances of being actually caught are next to nothing. The main problem is that it completely changes copyright law, and puts the wrong people in charge of it.

See, the law says, essentially, that it is illegal to circumvent any copy protection device. So if I take a DVD, break the (largely ineffectual) copy protection contained on it and copy the movie onto my computer, I’ve commited a crime, even if I’ve acted completely within the bounds of copyright law, and even if the discs contents are not protected by copyright! In other words existing laws about what copyright restricts, and how long copyright lasts become pretty much meaningless, since whoever slaps any sort of copy protection onto their media basically can rewrite the law to work however they want. If they don’t want you to make a copy of a DVD to watch on your computer, they can prevent that, legally. If they want their copyright to last indefinitely, they just have to ‘make sure’ that the DRM doesn’t magically turn itself off after the copyright expires – i.e. they have to do nothing.

In short, this law says that our existing copyright laws (thousands and thousands of words in the current Act, and many more thousands proposed to be added by this bill) are useless and say nothing, since they can all be easily overridden by anyone putting the most simplistic ‘digital lock’ onto the work in question, and even worse, it means that these new pseudo-laws are not controlled by our lawmakers (misguided though they may be, at least we can – and will – vote them out of office when they make a horrible mistake), but they’re controlled by those tech companies that make the digital locks themselves. Why should we, as Canadians, grant that kind of power to American, Japanese, and other corporations?

I’m hoping that this nasty bill will lead to quickly getting rid of this government, but I expect nothing will happen until the Fall in any direction on this front. Parliament is supposed to adjourn soon for the Summer, and it would be ridiculously rushed for it to come to any sort of vote before then. Sigh.. another quarter of a year with this ‘strong leadership’ in place, wrecking our country.

Festival survived!

We made it! It was a lot of work, but the 2008 Fredericton Baroque Music Festival pretty much all came together nicely this past weekend! Highlights included playing a quiet intimate harpsichord solo (Hezekiah’s Lament, from Kuhnau’s Biblical Sonatas) and being almost entirely drowned out by a huge rain and wind storm! At least the tornado warnings didn’t come true… and I hope at least the people near the front of the church enjoyed what they heard! Unfortunately, attendance was a little bit lower this year than last – probably due to the weather and Riverfest, which was happening the same weekend, along with many end-of-school-year activities. Next year, there isn’t quite so much happening at the same time, so more people should be able to come!

We’re already planning next year’s festival, and the Early Music Fredericton‘s other concert dates have been mostly finalized. I’m going to be doing three all-Bach concerts, featuring all six (possibly seven, if you count the G minor reconstruction) sonatas for violin and obbligato harpsichord, along with many solo keyboard pieces. It will be a great chance to hear some well-known masterpieces, along with some of the music by Bach that you might not be familiar with.

Mark the dates on your calendar!