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BEHIND THE SCENES with Paolo Pietropaolo


Where did the idea for the Signature Series originate, and what's your overall goal with/hope for the series?

I've been playing piano since I was a kid, and once in a while I still play. My favorite piece to play is "Clair de Lune" by Claude Debussy. There's this one chord that just knocks me over every single time. Whenever I get to this one chord (a D-flat major chord with a B-natural added in) tears well up in my eyes. There's something beautiful and sad but also wondrous about that specific chord in that specific place, and something profound and ineffable too. I could hear it a thousand times more and it would still have the same effect on me.

That got me thinking about important notes in the history of music and I thought, wouldn't it be neat to find the most powerful instances of B-natural being used in a piece, and string them together to tell a story, sort of a history of music through the eyes of that one note. I presented my idea to my friend and colleague, the executive producer of In Concert , Denise Ball (who is also, incidentally, a Grammy-Award winning classical record producer).

We started brainstorming with it and we ended up with the idea for the Signature Series : since many composers have believed that every key signature has a personality, and have intentionally chosen specific keys for specific pieces in order to express specific images or emotions, then, perhaps, if you string together some of the most famous melodies in a given key, you might encounter an actual personality - even an actual person, whose life story could be told.

There are two goals: one is primarily to entertain and to tell a good story: the melodies are all so famous and recognizable, so there's a thrill in hearing them - they're like old friends even to people who don't know much about classical music. But also, strung together they become something different: a bit of a thrill ride, I hope.

The other goal is to strip away the walls of elitism and stuffiness that make classical music inaccessible to many. It's enormous fun to put this together and my hope is that fun comes through in the listening.

What's your process for determining each key's main traits?

First, I find as many pieces as possible in the given key. This takes a very long time. Apart from the first movements of symphonies and sonatas, keys are not identified in the titles of pieces. So I came up with a very long list of important pieces, then I started consulting the online Petrucci music library, which contains scores of music that's in the public domain - ie, most classical music. I don't have perfect pitch, or else I'd be able to identify each key simply by listening. So I have to pore over each score and determine the key (which is pretty easy, but time-consuming because there are so many pieces to look through.

Then, once I've gathered a bunch of pieces in a given key, I start to mash up the melodies. I swear the melodies put themselves in a certain order: it's the only order that makes sense. Then Denise and I listen, and we brainstorm about the person we imagine. Invariably, a personality jumps out to us. It amazes us each and every time. We knew right away that C minor was a tortured genius like Ludwig van Beethoven or Kurt Cobain, that A minor was a faded beauty àla Blanche DuBois (or Blanche Devereaux!)

Each time, it's been gratifying to afterward open up a book called "A History of Key Characteristics in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries" by the musicologist Rita Steblin, and read the descriptions of key characteristics written in the 1700s and 1800s by musicians and composers. It's amazing how close they are to the character we've imagined.

Besides personality descriptions, how do the stories about each key formulate? I'm thinking of the ice queen, tucked away in her empty castle's highest tower.

That's part of the same brainstorming session. After the first few (G minor, D major, B minor) we quickly realized that images are the most powerful way to tell the story of the person that the music is bringing to life. So we sit there and just throw out images - it's a lot of fun, and we end up laughing a lot as I scrawl down a whole collection of little scenarios, like the ice queen tucked away, alone & lonely in her empty castle, gazing out at a wintry landscape.

I'm fascinated with the obvious first choice – gender of each key. Are there any keys for which this was especially challenging?

This also jumps out at me almost right away and I've never had any doubt about any of them. This might sound weird, but I remember when I was a kid, playing the piano, I always had the powerful feeling that D was a girl and C was a boy. (A kind of synesthesia, I suppose? Some people associate specific colors to notes, like orange to A, or red to F#, for example.) So that personal history forms a part of my impressions.

The gender choices are an opportunity to make the person more specific, and are not necessarily intended to be grand pronouncements. For instance, the key with which I personally feel the most affinity, so far, is D-flat major, who I've made female in the story, but whose characteristics could be applied to a dude, too. ### Which key (or "who") would you choose to be stuck on a desert island with, and why.

Oh boy. This is tough. So far (there are twelve more keys, coming up this spring and fall in Season Two of the Signature Series) I'd have to say that for the personality, I'd choose D major or G major, because they're so optimistic, bright and pleasant - happy people! But for the music, I'd choose A minor or D-flat major, because those keys contain some of my favourite pieces.

Has anyone taken issue with particular characteristics you've presented? Classical music lovers are a fairly discerning audience, I'd imagine.

Indeed they are. And yes, people have taken issue, but not with particular characteristics. People have taken issue with the idea that keys can actually have specific characteristics. They'll say, "If you just transpose it to a different key, it's the same piece, with the same characteristics." But I disagree. In an orchestra, certain instruments sound better in certain ranges, and over the centuries, composers have selected specific keys for particular sonic reasons as well, not just emotional ones. So I think there's some truth to the notion that keys have characteristics. However, I welcome debate! The main goal here is to have fun, and not to make any sweeping musicological statement.

How does this series tie in with your connection to music in general, and the musicality of your radio/audio work?

I came to radio and audio through music: my background is in composition and ethnomusicology; I grew up playing the piano, playing bassoon in an orchestra, and then after a degree in music at the University of Toronto, I spent four years playing and touring professionally with a taiko (Japanese drum) ensemble in Toronto. I really wanted to be a composer from a very young age, and I feel lucky that I've found an outlet for composition in the world of radio and audio. I try to bring a compositional approach to everything I produce.

This series is very special to me in that it's allowing me to have a ton of fun mashing up some of the great classics.

What's next for the Signature Series?

I just finished working on E minor: The Handsome Rogue and it's gotten me really excited to work on the remaining eleven keys for Season Two. E minor will be available on May 26th at cbcmusic.ca

Finally... we have to ask. If Third Coast were a key signature, what would it be?

Third Coast would easily be D major, Miss Congeniality, or perhaps D-flat major, the Free Spirit. A bit of both. And obviously Pidgey is G major, the Trusty Sidekick.