Breakdown: Souvenir de Porto Rico

This series is called Breakdown. In this series, I will break down the technical part of a song that I have learned to play as my years as a musician

Souvenir de Porto Rico by L.M. Gottschalk is one of the more prominent pieces in developing my personal passion for classical music. While familiar with classical music as a child due to playing piano, I never really liked classical music until I heard Souvenir de Porto Rico. As such, I figured that Souvenir was the perfect choice for my first breakdown.

Souvenir de Porto Rico, Op.31 by L.M. Gottschalk, is a solo piano piece that was composed over a period of four years and published in 1860. Op.31 is a stylistic piece in the form of variations, written in 2:4 time and in Eminor, a rather jazzy key. According to wikipedia, the piece was inspired by the scenery of Puerto Rico during Gottschalk’s stay in Puerto Rico, and the piece is influenced heavily by a Christmas folk song, Si Me Dan Pasteles.

Upon listening to Souvenir de Porto Rico, the first attribute that strikes me is familiarity. Ever since the first time I heard Souvenir, the song sounded familiar to me; unlike other classical compositions, this piece is very easy to understand and to follow. This makes sense due to a number of factors. First, this piece is from the mid 1800s, and so  it is much more modern than a piece composed in, say, the 1600s. Second, this piece finds influences from Latin and African music, which is pervasive in modern music in America. These roots are the same roots found in ragtime and jazz, and so the piece dissipates a rather jazzy feel. Third, the technicals of this piece are largely based around octaves and triads, both of which are pervasive in popular music. Everything that happens in this piece can be found in your local Metallica song, and so one doesn’t need to have a ph.d in music theory to listen and enjoy this piece.

Souvenir is a double variation; there are two themes, hereto referred to as A and B. Each variation becomes a more complex take on the initial theme. The piece strongly utilizes dynamic range; loudness is often a relative quality, and as such, the song starts out very quietly, and with each variation becomes louder and more lively, until the piece climaxes and dies out. Without further adieu, let’s assess the piece.

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The first variation begins as Moderato ma con moto. This sets the tempo as moderately fast, but also explains that the piece is played with rhythm. As such, this gives a ‘swing’ feel to the piece, a quality more akin to jazz than to rigidity of classical music. This swing highlights the Latin American roots of the piece. The piece starts out as pianissimo, or soft in loudness. In terms of notation, the piece swings from E♭ to Gplayed in three octaves. This rhythm is in the pattern of traditional march rhythm, with the timing being long, long, short, short, long. A B is played as a transition between repeats. It is worth noting that EGB makes up an Etriad.

At the second repeat, a ‘lick’ occurs where a ghost note appears before a B triad that adds complexity to the initial theme. This addition of complexity is repeated throughout the song, and signals a transition into a new ‘pseudo-theme.’

Next, the piece is played at four octaves, rather than three. The part is denoted misterioso, meaning mysterious. The highest octave is always an E, and is played simultaneously with all E♭, and held on the swings from E♭ to G♭. This highest octave changes to a D natural at the ‘kick,’ which is supported by an inverted B♭ triad and once again signals a change in complexity.

At this point, we add the melodic part of theme A, which consists of an E♭ major which transposes up and down the scale. This is noted to be played bien rythme, with rhythm. Here we see a divergence in theme A; throughout the rest of the piece, theme A is central around the rhythmic right hand, played between E♭ major and A♭ major. The rhythm  is as follows; build up, build down, build up and end on the tonic major, build down and end with a B♭ triad. The rhythm is repeated twice, then evolves. After repeating the rhythm four times, the piece moves into theme B.

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In the first variation of theme A, we note that the bass is used only to keep the rhythm. The bass plays an E♭ in march rhythm; long, long, short, short, long. At the end of each rhythm is denoted by playing a B♭ rather than an E♭. After the theme evolves, where the piece is denoted ben legato, we add a fourth octave, similar to before. Here, our octave plays in sequence with the marching rhythm, and plays a D natural after the second repeat; this  sequence mirrors the first part of the song, and leads into theme B.

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Theme B is played legato, meaning smoothly, and malinconico, meaning melancholy. The theme begins with an E♭ triad followed by a B♭ then an A♭ triad. The 2:4 time signature is emphasized here; ONE two ONE two ONE two ONE two, similar to iambic pentameter in poetry. After the A♭ triad, a C♭ is followed by an A♭7 and a melancholic dance which leads into a diminuendo, meaning the piece becomes softer. The diminish is followed by a B♭7, followed by an F, followed by an E♭ triad which leads to a mirror within the theme. After the E♭, another A♭7 is played, but this time with the highest pitch voice on the E♭ rather than the A♭; this is important, because the ear is naturally drawn to the highest pitch, so the ear hears this second variation as ‘below’ the first variation of Theme B, which lends a melancholy sound to the theme.

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At the next repeat of theme A, the complexity takes a step forward. Here, the song is played entirely in the bass cleft. It is labeled mercato il basso, meaning the bass dominates, and is denoted ben misurato, meaning very strict timing. The right hand plays only the main melody, and the bass carries the action in the second variation of theme A. Immediately interesting is the timing in the first measure, where the bass is played between notes of the rhythm. This is very rubato and jazzy. Also note the accent above the B♭ in the first measure; this is a percussive accent stating that the emphasis is on the second note. This adds a dynamic fluidity to the piece, adding the sense of improvisation; again, very jazzy, and not something that is often found in European Classical Music.  After the first ‘march,’ we note a crescendo in the bass that occurs with a downscale movement; this is also interesting. Typically, we expect crescendos with increasing pitch, but a crescendo with decreasing pitch contrasts two separate feelings.

This crescendo transitions into a very smooth playing. Here we see our first variation in the rhythmic right hand, playing G♭ and C♭ rather than the A♭and C♭ we’d normally expect. Additionally, we have a nice downward chromatic run in the bass that occurs simultaneous to the end of the first ‘build up’ referenced previously. The theme ends on the tonic, and leads into Theme B, which is not varied upon with respect to the first time Theme B is introduced.

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After the theme B is played, we come back to a more intricate version of theme A. This version is played with a downward chromatic run in the bass which runs from the tonic to the fifth during the main melody. After each chromatic run, the tonic is played in the right hand, which adds a very delicate touch to the piece. After the first repeat of the main theme, the right hand is slightly varied to breathe more life into the piece; this gives a good jumping off point for what’s about to happen in theme B.

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As we see, we lead into theme B by playing a scale into an E♭7. This immediately jumps into a chromatic run in the bass as the main melody of theme B is played. As the bass builds upwards it jumps into the right hand, where another chromatic run is played from A♭ to C natural. This then jumps into an E♭, supported by a D♭ in the bass, which jumps down to a D♭ to an E natural. This is then followed by a small fall, a B♭ to A♭ supported by it’s fifth, F♭, then a greater fall which starts at the tonic E♭ and ends at a G♭ an octave and a half lower. It’s worth noting that this part is played elegante, brillante, and sounds heroic. The fall is played alongside a dimunendo, which gives a ‘rise and fall’ effect to the music. It’s also worth noting that the bass ends on the tonic E♭, and the corresponding note in the right hand to the bass notes are the thirds of each note played. After the fall, the piece builds again, but transposed to a pitch. After the next chromatic run, the piece takes a different direction that the first time, where a crescendo is met by a decrescendo. After the decrescendo, the piece borrows from the melody of theme A and ends on the tonic E♭.

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The next variation on theme A begins on eighth notes of the fifth, B♭. This leads to a the main theme, which is backed by a bass note followed by quarter notes of a high E♭ and punctuated by the E♭ even an octave higher. This gives a roaming quality to the piece, and playing it will lead you to agree; the left hand does quite a bit of traveling on this part. At the end of each variation, a B♭is played rather than an E♭. The whole variation ends on a grand E♭ triad, which leads into theme B, which is played the same as before.

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Theme B ends on the tonic E♭, but immediately jumps into a percussive fortissimoThe fortissimo is played as B♭ in the right hand, but a descending B♭ to G♭ to F to E♭ in the bass; this grants a concluding sentiment to the piece. In what feels like the climax of the piece, the main melody is supported by the root note an octave below, and the jazzy bass from the second variation makes a return with more oomph and a greater role. The chromatic run from the second variation is again varied, now including octaves to give a more powerful effect. The theme ends on a martellato, a forceful hammering of the keys that leads into theme B.

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Here it is; the true climax of the piece. Beginning on tutta forza, with the most force, the piece reaches its greatest complexity. The beginning of theme B has a bit of a stutter compared to how it has been in the beginning of the song, which can be exaggerated for artistic effect since this is a solo piano piece. Ignoring the facilite version, or the easy, alternative version, this essentially is two gigantic chromatic runs, much like before, except with octaves and triads and a couple of 7 chords thrown in. Breaking down this part would be a post in itself, so I invite you to just listen and enjoy the virtuosity (I would like say that I have not yet learned this part, and have no intention of learning this part in the near future; it is above my technical level, and would require an inordinate amount of practice to successfully play).

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 12.19.41 AMHere an interesting thing happens; a well timed key change! The song switches to B Major, and the song takes on a different feeling. The variation is played giocoso, playfully, and in addition to the major key, gives a triumphant if carnival-like emotion to the piece. This part is fun and is similar to the previous variation, but with a more complete-sounding tone.

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After yet another chromatic run, the variation jumps up an octave, yielding an explosively happy tone. Eventually, the piece switches back to Eminor, and is played agitato. This is eventually followed by a large diminuendo, as the piece slows down and eventually dies out. For the rest of the song, nothing that hasn’t already been introduced is introduced.

Through this post, I hope I have shown how deceptively simple, in theory, this seemingly-daunting classical piece is. The song abides by a few rules and doesn’t throw anything really heavy in theory-wise. As far as chords go, the song relies mostly on octaves, triads, and the odd 7 chord; typically the three simplest chords that can be played. A key switch does occur, going from Eminor to B♭ major; both of these keys are fairly easy to play on piano however. The song follows the same marching rhythm; long, long, short, short, long. This pattern can be seen at any point in the entire song.

The song is based on double variations, varied around two themes. Theme B is a bit more complex than theme A, but both themes are fairly simple. The volume of the piece varies throughout the piece, with a climax in the center; this gives the piece a fair bit of dynamic motion, and enables the piece to evolve into a burst of triumph. The piece stays at the same time signature and tempo throughout, and is written in the incredibly familiar 2:4 time signature. 2:4 is almost identical to 4:4 time, and 4:4 time is the time signature for just about every single piece of popular contemporary music.

The piece becomes more lively and smooth as the song evolves. This gives an interesting contrast to the beginning of the piece, which is very abrupt in style and very faithful rhythmically. While the piece doesn’t deviate from the rhythm, it begins to fill in the gaps between silences.

What makes this piece interesting is two-fold; first, the dominance of rhythm. This is a very Latin American/African trait. The dominance of rhythm is what makes this piece sound so familiar to anybody that has grown up in America or around American music, where most pieces, especially pop songs, faithfully follow 4:4 time, often captured by a metronome-like, hard hitting percussive bass drum. Second, this piece has a lot of syncopation. While I hinted at syncopation during the second variation of theme A, it becomes much more pronounced as the piece becomes more and more complex. Syncopation, ‘off-beat’ playing, is a very jazzy quality; it gives the piece a free-flowing and improvisational quality, despite being rigidly reproduced by a sheet of paper. This is a sharp contrast to the very strict, rigid image many people get when they think of classical music. While it may not be entirely fair to compare Mozart to a composer who came 100 years later, the contrast is striking; as impressive as Rondo Alla Turca is, it sounds very machine-like, almost like a computer is playing it, whereas Souvenir has a very human quality to it.

Thank you for bearing with me here; next up will likely be Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy, once I’ve finished playing through the piece. Please leave feedback regarding my breakdown; if what I said was too confusing, not confusing enough, too technical, etc… I’d love to hear it.

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End of Hiatus

I apologize for the lengthy, unannounced hiatus. My life became too overwhelming to handle, and something had to go; sadly, this blog was the lowest priority for me. Now that it is summer, I have abundant free time to actually focus on building the blog. Throughout the summer, expect approximately 2-3 quality posts per week.

Tea-Bagging: Uji Gyokuro

This series is called Tea-Bagging. In this series, I brew a new tea, give instructions on how to brew this tea, and give my personal reviews.

For my first tea-bagging, I thought I’d start with the best of the best; Uji Gyokuro Green Tea.

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Having brewed this tea a few times now, I have a few words of caution; make sure that you brew correctly. The first time I brewed this tea, it tasted alright, but not phenomenal. This tea, however, should be phenomenal. The brewing of this green tea is a bit unorthodox.

When brewing Uji Gyokoru, it is important to follow the instructions. First, bring a pot of good quality water to a light boil; if you see smoke, then you should stop. Allow the kettle to cool down if you reach this point, just for a few minutes. If your tea is hot, it is recommended that you pour the water into a few containers that act as middlemen, cooling the water. The ideal brewing temperature for Uji Gyokoru is an astonishing 50-60 degrees celsius, or approximately 130 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, the container should feel warm to the touch, but should not be uncomfortable to touch.

Once the desired temperature is achieved, preferably verified with a thermometer,  the tea is ready to be brewed. This tea uses a lot of leaf compared to a relatively small amount of water. When I brew this tea, I use between 4-5 grams for 90 mL worth of water, typically measured using shot glasses (Each shot glass is approximately 45 mL). As the tea can cost upwards of $200 per pound, this is not an insignificant amount of leaf.

After measuring out my tea, I pour the water into an intermediate mug, and steep the tea for approximately 3-4 minutes. The tea will let you know when it is finished brewing; the leaves will open, and the scent will be indistinguishably Uji. Typically, once the aroma becomes noticeable in tea, I give the leaves another minute to brew.

After brewing, I pour the tea into my drinking glass. Considering the high quality of the tea, in addition to the minute amount of tea, it is advisable to get every drop of tea that you can. Then, it is time to drink.

As I type this review, I am drinking Uji Gyokoru for the second time today. I have re-steeped the same leaves that I used earlier in the day. The re-steeping took longer than expected (approximately 3 minutes), and the flavor is unfortunately noticeably weaker than the tea I had before. I dare say that I will not be giving this tea a just review drinking my current mug, but I will try my best.

The scent of Uji Gyokoru is unique. I must say, I can’t accurately capture the smell of the tea with words, but it is immediately obvious that this tea has a uniqueness to it. The smell is both refreshing and natural, while remaining very complex. The smell is both off-putting and attracting, creating the dichotomy of ‘I don’t want to drink this’ and ‘I want to drink this.’

The first thing I noticed while drinking this tea is how cold this tea is in contrast to other teas I have had. The temperature is comfortable, caught between a hot and an iced tea, allowing  the flavors of the tea to unveil themselves. Too often, hot teas, especially black teas, are scolding hot and numb the taste buds. The temperature is relaxed, and sets the tone of the tea. Uji Gyokoru has an earthy sweetness to it and an almost complete lack of bitterness. This tea is refreshing while enjoyed, but doesn’t seem to quench thirst, rather, leaving me even more thirsty than before. However, the most apparent part of this tea comes from the aftertaste and aftereffects. This tea leaves the mouth with the ultimate green tea aftertaste; think Arizona green tea with ginseng, but the taste is much less forced and has a higher quality. Additionally, the absence of sugar makes this taste very palatable. Additionally, soon after drinking the tea, I am left in an interesting state of mind, similar to the feeling left after doing yoga or meditating. This has happened every time I have had this tea, so I don’t believe it’s just a feeling that exists in my head. My mind is much at ease, and my soul lives more in the body and less in the head. I feel a relaxation in my frontal and sphenoid sinuses. The effect is momentary, lasting minutes at most, but provides an interesting experience. As I drink the tea, this tea becomes uncomfortably cool due to the length of time I have spent while writing this review [note: after finishing the review and researching this tea later in this article, I have found that some people preheat the glass they plan on drinking the tea from in order to maintain the warmth of the tea].

Sadly, the tea is now finished, and this brew wasn’t as good as my brew from earlier in the day; still, this tea blows most other teas out of the water.

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After drinking this tea and writing this review, I did some research on Uji Gyokoru tea. Uji Gyokoru is grown in the shade in Japan, and shielded from sunlight for weeks before harvesting. The shading of this this leaf results in an increase in the amount of theanine and caffeine present in the tea. These two chemicals likely explain the aftereffect I described; theanine is a psychoactive chemical that reduces stress and boosts mood when combined with caffeine, while caffeine is a stimulant that would likely provide the ‘live in the body’ characteristic that I had described.

Like many green teas, Uji Gyokoru has a number of health benefits, primarily due to the antioxidants found in high quantities in green tea. The antioxidants present in green tea, called polyphenols,  are thought to remove free radicals in the body which can come from sources such as smoke and UV rays, and are believed to reduce stress and signs of aging. Additionally, the caffeine in the tea can act as an appetite suppressant for short periods of time while boosting cognitive and physical performance, although I hesitate to say that ingesting large amounts of caffeine is ‘healthy;’ while small amounts of caffeine can improve performance and have health benefits, many people tend to take in too much caffeine as is, which can lead to restlessness, insomnia, and addiction.

Ultimately, Uji Gyokuro is a delicious treat that can be happily enjoyed in small quantities. Additionally, this tea would serve as a great meditation aid or a relatively healthy way to relax after a stressful day. This tea is brewed in an unorthodox manner, but when brewed correctly, the tea is phenomenal.

My biggest complaint may be in the strength of this tea. Having had just two 90mL servings of this tea within two hours of each other, I already feel as though I’ve had too much tea for one day. For comparison, a typical water bottle has 750 mL of water. In the future, I may brew this tea slightly less strongly, although this tea traditionally should be served to be very strong. Nevertheless, as is this tea is one of my favorites, and I look forward to enjoying this tea more frequently.

The Value of Physics, and Coulomb’s Law

~Sadly, I do not have any beers with me today. However, I do have a 12 pack of snapple and some Uji Gyokuro, so tea will be my poison of choice today~

For those of you who don’t know, I’m in the final year of an undergraduate degree in physics. The last core course I have remaining is Electricity and Magnetism, although I also have to fulfill major elective requirements, so ultimately, I’m taking four physics courses this semester. As of now, I have no intention of pursuing a career in physics unless I get into one of the select few graduate programs I’m interested in.

So the first question is “why?” Why waste my time and money working towards a degree in a field that won’t ultimately make me money. To that question, I have two answers:

First, I thoroughly enjoy physics. The subject matter is interesting.

Second, physics is a unique degree in that, like similar subjects such as mathematics, philosophy, and computer science, physics trains the skills of critical thinking and problem solving.

The first response is self-explanatory, and completely subjective. I won’t touch on that for now; however, the second response explains the true value of a physics degree. You see, when a physics major finishes college, and decides to go into a field such as finance in order to make money, the physics major starts at a huge disadvantage when compared to finance majors. This logic makes sense, because a finance major has been training for four years in order to understand the workings of finance, and how to be successful in finance, while a physics major has been talking about why the lattice structure of sodium chloride doesn’t collapse and destroy the universe. For some potential employers, it’s hard to see the crossover.

The thing is, there is crossover. While there are no direct applications of Coulomb’s Law in finance, there is direct application of the critical thinking and problem solving skills learned in physics. Give that recent physics graduate a year, and he can be just as competent in finance as the finance major. Give that recent physics graduate five years, and more often than not that physics major will be better at finance than the finance major will be.

Why is this? Without going into too much detail, the problems encountered in physics are much harder than the problems encountered in most other majors. Physics requires more in the way of critical thinking and intuition and less in the way of tedious work and memorization. The physics major isn’t spending his time in university typing long papers with skills largely learned in previous education, he is spending his time solving some of the world’s historically most complex problems using math and logic. Physics is analogous, in a way, to training in as an MMA fighter, whereas a lot of other specialized majors, such as finance, are like training as a boxer. A boxer has no chance against an MMA fighter in an MMA fight, whereas an MMA fighter fighting a boxer in a boxing match could probably put up a good fight. Additionally, that MMA fighter will certainly pick up boxing much more quickly than an average non-fighter, and will likely pick up boxing a lot faster than a boxer will pick up other martial arts disciplines.

Continue reading “The Value of Physics, and Coulomb’s Law”