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10 Really Weird Pieces of Classical Music

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By Nathan B. Lawrence, Lawrence University 

Classical music seems to have a reputation for being straight-laced, stuffy, and obsessed with rules. But over the centuries, hundreds of composers have tested the boundaries of musical expression in strange and unique ways. Here are ten prime examples.

1. 4'33" — John Cage

In the last 50-odd years, John Cage's personal favorite work, 4'33" has become something of a running joke and subject of derision in the music world. It's easy to see why: to perform the piece, a pianist walks on stage, opens the lid of a grand piano, sits down at it, and then lowers the lid. With a stopwatch set for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds, he sits in complete silence, occasionally opening and closing the keyboard to indicate the various "movements" of the piece. What kind of music is that?! 

When Cage wrote 4'33", he seems to have intended for us to turn our attention not to the music on stage, but to the music and sound we all make as we watch this performance. In the seemingly silent concert hall, a symphony of new noises start to emerge that we took for granted moments ago: coughs, the squeaking of your seat as you slightly move, and even the guy scratching his head 30 feet away become a part of this score.

2. Organ2/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible) — John Cage

In 1985, John Cage continued his tradition of questioning the nature of music and performance with ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible), a piece which—as the title suggests—simply instructs the performer to play it "as slow as possible." In 1987, Cage published a new version for organ and since 2001, a cathedral in Halberstadt, Germany has been making good on Cage's instructions: Their organ has been playing the piece so slowly that it is not expected to finish until some time in the year 2640. In October 2013, more than a thousand people gathered to hear the thirteenth note change in the piece; another one is not expected to occur until September, 2020.

3. Fugue in G Minor (Cat Fugue) — Domenico Scarlatti

Though this piece may seem tame by today's contemporary standards, the (potentially apocryphal) story of how Baroque composer Scarlatti supposedly came across the rather unconventional motif makes it worth mentioning on any list of weird classical pieces. Scarlatti claimed that his cat, Pulcinella, was prone to walking across the keyboard. One day, in one of the feline's unexpected performances, the melody now synonymous with the "Cat Fugue" caught the musician's attention, and the rest was history.

4. Duetto Buffo di Due Gatti — Unknown

On another cat-related note, this 1800s art song also seems worthy of the "weird" crown, this time because of its unorthodox lyrics and musical humor. Duetto Buffo di Due Gatti, which roughly translates to "humorous duet for two cats," seems to tell the story of two cats meeting, lashing out at each other, and eventually making friends in an operatically styled duet using only the word "meow" (spelled "miau" in most scores). Though the work was originally published unattributed, conventional wisdom seems to point to Barber of Seville composer Gioachino Rossini as either the composer or a target of the work's parody due to its heavy appropriation of the famous vocal writer's compositional idioms.

5. Einstein on the Beach — Philip Glass

Let's zip forward 150 years to another "operatic" work. In 1975, Philip Glass, perhaps the most famous composer from the school of minimalism—which attempts to uncover the beauty in repetition and slight variation—wrote Einstein on the Beach, an opera in four acts and by far one of his longest works.

We call Einstein on the Beach an opera largely because we have no better name for what it is. There isn't much traditional opera in the work: there is no plot; the singers seem to represent specific thematic threads more than characters; and seemingly orthodox structural and performance vocabulary like "scene" and "aria" seem to take on a different meaning. Perhaps the most interesting parts of the work are its "Knee Plays," connecting tissue between the acts that combine a chant-like choral pattern with highly rhythmic human narration for an ethereal effect. The unexpected moments of synchronicity between the two parts create a strangely paradoxical feeling of serene disorientation.

6. Violin Concerto No. 2: The American Four Seasons — Philip Glass

Another from Glass's minimalist library, this piece was composed as a companion to noted violinist Robert McDuffie's touring performance of Vivaldi's Four Seasons concerto. Aside from the piece's unorthodox instrumentation—which puts a synthesizer and harpsichord on the same stage—Glass does something else to surprise us by refusing to reveal which movement goes with which season, forcing you to "figure that one out for yourself."

7. The Unanswered Question — Charles Ives

Though the first drafts of the piece appeared in 1908—more than 50 years before the first pangs of minimalism would emerge—the effects of Charles Ives's The Unanswered Question can be felt throughout the movement. The piece features three different ensembles: strings, brass, and flutes, all separated from each other and playing in wildly different rhythms and keys. The score also calls for the string section to be hidden from the audience, creating an eerie, disembodied sound.

8. Requiem — Andrew Lloyd Webber

Perhaps the strangest part of this piece isn't the bombastic and unapologetic dissonance or rock-influenced orchestration, but the composer himself. Webber, who is far more famous for his musical theatre works like Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, and The Phantom of the Operahas said he wrote the requiem as a personal contemplation on mortality and legacy after the death of his father. Despite the hard rock sound, Webber seems to have successfully captured the more tender feelings of grief and loss, especially in the softer moments of his "Dies Irae" movement.

9. String Quartet No. 6 — Brian Ferneyhough

Any of Ferneyhough's pieces would have been at home on this list: The composer has a highly unorthodox style that includes unusual time signatures, and he routinely pushes instruments to the limits, forcing the use of unorthodox techniques to create unexpectedly harsh sounds. In fact, Ferneyhough is frequently regarded as one of the most difficult composers to play on any instrument. 

10. A Musical Joke (K. 522) — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

While many composers on this list attempted to use unorthodox techniques and stylistic choices to depict complex emotions or uncover human truths, Mozart did it simply to entertain! His Musical Joke was a piece written intentionally to be as bad as possible. Mozart disobeyed many harmonic rules of the time, created cloyingly repetitive patterns, and even intentionally wrote parts that would sound like the musicians were playing wrong notes.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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