Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Concerning Transcriptions

In the early 2000s, I thought about getting my string quartet arrangements published. The publisher I worked with did not publish transcriptions, so I contacted some publishers that did. I was told that it would be at least five years before the people who were interested in my transcriptions could publish anything. I considered self-publication, but I didn't have the physical space in my house for equipment and inventory, and I lacked the skills necessary to run a business.

I am good at writing music. I am good at making readable scores and parts. I am good at making arrangements, and I am good at playing music. I am also pretty good at writing about music, and teaching. As a person in my 40s, I preferred to spend my time doing the things I could do, and let my "learning" happen in my musical work.

In 2007 I started a blog to "advertise" my compositions. Raoul Ronson, the owner of Seesaw Music had died, and his inventory went to a company that did not do the kind of promotion that Ronson did (which really was exceptional and involved a great deal of personal contact). I used the internet-based tools I had at hand to try to point people to my 79 pieces of published music.

I was an avid user of the Werner Icking Music Archive, so I decided to contribute my transcriptions of public-domain pieces there. I posted a link to the WIMA listing for each transcription on my Thematic Catalog blog. I hoped that people would come to my Thematic Catalog blog for transcriptions of well-known pieces, and then stay a while and look at my published music.

When the curator of the WIMA invited me to contribute my own music, I gladly accepted. The WIMA became absorbed into the IMSLP, and I contributed to contribute. I encouraged other people to contribute as well. I believe wholeheartedly in the mission of the IMSLP.

Thousands of people have gone to my Thematic Catalog blog in search of transcriptions of well-known pieces. Here's screenshot from my blogger "stats" page.

I am very happy to share my transcriptions with people who want to play them, and I am happy to share my own music with people who want to play it.

There are people who use my quartet arrangements to play weddings and parties. That's what the transcriptions are intended for, so it makes me very happy when people let me know that they enjoy playing them. I'm glad to know that my arrangements add something to the commercial value of their musical endeavors. I am happy when young people play my arrangements, particularly when they play my string orchestra arrangements, since school music programs rarely have the financial resources to buy new music that is both interesting and accessible for young people.

But the real reason I share my transcriptions is to promote my work as a composer. I don't know any other honest way to promote the work that I do.

So I am making a plea to people who play my transcriptions: look at the music I have in my Thematic Catalog. Every post has a page example and a link to an audio file. You might want to buy the pieces that are available from publishers (they are reasonably priced, and you can buy them online).

Look at the music I have in the IMSLP (and there are audio files there too). Play it with your friends. Play it on concerts (and please let me know when you do)! Let your friends know about it. Make recordings! Leave comments! Come back!

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Done (a ramble)

I just finished listening to a particularly engaging episode of the Crushing Classical podcast called "Fireside Chat #20: Pondering the Myth of 'Done' and Your Legacy." The host, Tracy Friedlander, is a horn player who plays with the North Carolina Symphony (but makes it clear that she is not a member of the orchestra). Eileen Gordon, her conversation partner, is a musician from Tracy's past who followed a career in business rather than one in music.

As part of Tracy's struggle to figure out where she fits in the musical world, she created a podcast to interview musicians who have created ways of working as musicians other than the orchestral path that music schools claim to prepare their students for. The naked truth (that we all pretend to ignore) is that the number of highly prepared orchestral musicians far exceeds the number of openings for professional orchestral jobs that pay enough money to live a comfortable life. In order to make a living as a musician you really need to consider enhancements and alternatives to the traditional orchestral path.

I started listening from the beginning of the podcast (it has been going for about a year), and have enjoyed hearing how it has gotten better from a technical standpoint. But I appreciate the fact that Tracy Friedlander has kept the "blemishes" (moments that could have been edited out) in the earlier conversations. It keeps the whole thing honest.

There's enough deception in the workings of the professional musical world, and a little honesty is a breath of fresh air.

During the above podcast episode, Tracy and Eileen contemplate the idea of musicians who play classical music obsessing about the idea of being done. When we learn etudes as young musicians, some of our teachers will even write "done" on the etude. When we go through books of pieces, we often talk about them in the past tense: I played that, I finished that, etc. When we play a run of Nutcrackers, for example, we talk about each performance being "done," and then the season being "done." Maybe it has something to do with having a double bar at the end of every piece, but musicians seem to be obsessed with getting to an end point.

Tracy mentions early in the discussion that she always thought that once she "won" an orchestral job she would be "done." I know that she is not alone. Many people feel that way. I told myself in my 20s that as soon as I had established myself in a steady job, I would return to playing the violin. And I did.

Composers talk about "finishing" a piece of music when we feel it is finished. For me it happens when all the notes are where I want them to be, when all the expressions I can indicate are written into the music, and when the parts look the way I want them to look. A piece is finished when I have no more work to do on it, but I don't think of it as being "done," because I don't think of music as being real until it is played (and hopefully more often than once, and hopefully by different groups of musicians). Perhaps a composer's greatest fear is that a piece of music should be "done."

Eileen Gordon talks about an alternative way of looking at "being done" as coming to a point of arrival. She talks about those points of arrival as times where you need to double down on your efforts towards your next goal.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Measure of a Musician: Family Matters

I have always found that people respond differently to people who have, for whatever reason, achieved "status" in (or preferably outside of) the musical community. I grew up as a person perceived to be of "status" because of my father's position in the Boston Symphony. That status (my father did not intervene) got me into a youth orchestra that I had no business being in. I believe that status got me into Juilliard (again, my father did not intervene) because my teacher was impressed by my parentage. My sense of musical self worth was really screwed up, so I actually longed to be judged for what I could do. I actually envied people who got their positions in musical life without having grown up in a known musical family.

While I was at Juilliard there were four students who were daughters of principal violists of major orchestras: Two daughters of Sol Greitzer (Debby and Jody, a bassoonist and a flutist), the principal violist of the New York Philharmonic, and the daughter of Abe Skernick (Linda, who was a harpsichordist), the principal violist of the Cleveland Orchestra. I thought it would be fun to form an ensemble.

At lunch time in the Juilliard cafeteria, my teacher would always introduce he to his friends as my father's daughter. They all respected my father, even if they didn't know him. I met some interesting people, and had some wonderful conversations. I became friends with Paul Doktor who talked with me about his famous father.

After my last year of Juilliard I was accepted at two summer festivals: Tanglewood, and the American Institute for Musical Studies in Graz, Austria. I chose to go to Graz partially because I felt that in Europe I could test the waters and see if I really had what it would take to be a musician as an anonymous person. I will never know whether I was accepted at Tanglewood because of my family status or from my playing. From my European (and Asian) experience I learned that there is no such thing as anonymity in the international community of musicians. My family status followed me like a loyal dog, and it wagged its tail even when I wasn't paying attention.

When I moved to Illinois, my family status followed me. I had instant acceptance and respect from my new community because of it. So I made the most of it, and arranged for my father to come to Illinois and play concerts with me, first when I was a flutist, and later when I became a violist. It was great to introduce him to my friends and colleagues, not to mention the people who liked to go to concerts. Dinners were held in his honor. People came to the concerts.

My father is now retired from the Boston Symphony, and he gets a kick out of it when concert-goers from the neighborhood recognize him when he is in line at the pharmacy. He is enjoying his well-earned status as musical elder statesman, and I enjoy the fact that he is enjoying it.

Partially because of the natural generational shifts that have happened in the musical community, my father's name is no longer a (musical) household one. And I have had many affirmations that the work that I do, both as a violist and as a composer, is acceptable on its own terms.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Substance: A Rant

I have always tried to make my musical life one of substance. I have always tried to make the phrases that I play and the phrases that I write reflect the statement attributed to Coleridge, "Nothing can permanently please that does not contain within itself the reason why it is so and not otherwise." In 2012 I wrote a post about it that you might like to read. Five years is almost a lifetime in the digital world.

The idea of substance still makes sense in what I call the "real world" (as opposed to the digital world) but I am far behind the times, and I guess I have been for my whole life. The "digital world" is now a serious part of the "real world," and I have observed that it is nearly impossible to navigate musical waters (i.e. have a career in music) without doing so through digital pathways. And the problem with using digital pathways is that surface appearance becomes everything. And if you don't keep "repaving" those digital pathways, everything you do vanishes into less than thin air. It seems to take more effort to promote a musical "brand" (whatever that is) than it does to do the work of building and maintaining a musical vocabulary and the necessary technique to express what you need to express.

My first experiences of life with the internet had to do with finding like-minded people. It was truly thrilling to communicate with people who shared my (sometimes rarified) musical interests. Back in the glory days of newsgroups and email, I often had several serious correspondences going. Now I have to wade through (i.e. delete) scores of solicitations in order to find the work-related email messages that come into my inbox.

Another sad truth is that most of my email correspondence partners are no longer living.

But oddly through all of this, the music I love remains the same. Yesterday I had a rehearsal of the Haydn "Kaiser" Quartet. Every phrase of the music, written 220 years ago, retains the same set of possibilities for intimate interaction, and it holds the same surprises, cyclical references, treats, and rewards. And they are there every time you play them. Everything in the piece contains within itself the reason why it is so and not otherwise.

As individual people there are substantial things that we seek out and recognize when we find them (absolute emotions like love and hate). I wonder, however, if as a larger culture we have become more superficial and less substantial in the way we face the world. I wonder if the speed and ease with which news comes to us (both big news and small) dulls our senses, and makes it more difficult to give the weight of our feelings the time they deserve.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata for Viola published by International

Three editor's copies of this new viola transcription of the Rachmaninoff Sonata in G minor that I made for International Music greeted me in today's mail!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Lilacs for Piano Quartet

A while ago the Musical Delights Quartet asked me to make a piano quartet arrangement of "Lilacs," a piece I wrote in 2005 for flute, clarinet, cello, and piano. I just found a performance of it on YouTube, which you can hear here:

Friday, June 23, 2017

Three Character Pieces (and one transcription) for Clarinet and Viola

Thank you to clarinetist Alan Schaffer and violist Heather Faust for such a terrific performance!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Count Emilio Guidoboni-Visconti

In his book about Balzac, Stefan Zweig introduces a most interesting musical character from history: Count Emilio Guidoboni-Visconti. The count was the husband of one of Balzac's lovers, and, according to Zweig, was a passionate violinist.
His real love was for music, and he was a character worthy of being immortalized in a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Though he was a descendant of the great condottieri, his greatest pleasure was to sit in a theater orchestra among the professional musicians and play the violin. At Versailles, where he had a house in the Avenue de Neuilly in addition to his palaces in Paris and Vienna, he would slink out every evening and take his place in the orchestra pit, and wherever he went he humbly requested the favor of being allowed to scrape away at the local theater. In the daytime he amused himself by playing at being a chemist. He would mix all sorts of ingredients, pour the result into bottles, and attach neat labels. Society bored him. He liked to keep in the background, so he was no bother at all to his wife's lovers. He was affable to every one of them, since they enabled him to devote his energies all the more uninterruptedly to his beloved music.
There is little to be found about this violin-playing count, but he does appear very briefly in Isabelle Aboulker's 1999 opera Monsieur de Balzac fait son theatre. He has one spoken line in the first act, and never returns again.

But Zweig, Balzac, and the Count have just led me to the music of Isabelle Aboulker, and I can, in turn, lead you there too. Aboulker's musical sense of humor reminds me a great deal of Seymour Barab's sense of musical humor.

Here's a whole recital of her songs set to text by Jean de la Fontaine, Jules Renard, Hans Christian Andersen (!!!!), Marie Curie, and Charles Cros, performed by soprano Elsa Tirel and pianist Eleonore Sandron.

What an excellent composer!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Stadtappelle Schladming!

When I taught flute and recorder in Schladming, Austria in 1980 and 1981, I played with the Stadtkappelle Schladming. Two of my flute students played with me. This video from the early 1980s shows the group at its very best (playing without music!) One of my flute students, Anita Stocker, is here, and it looks like the other flutist could be a teenage version of my recorder student Judith Pohle. The clarinetist who gets a few solo shots is Hans Plank, who was the director of the music school.

Here's a video from 1986:

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Escalators, Elevators, Facebook, and Bloggery

I live in a city that doesn't have escalators. We used to drive for an hour so that our kids could have the fun of riding a department store escalator. It was a treat for them. It was a novelty.

This was long before anyone thought about the internet as we know it. It was a treat and a novelty to those of us who live outside of bustling cities. When blogging became a way to share writing on the internet, it was like the opening up of a door.

The early days of the musical blogosphere were a lot of fun for me. The 2017 bloggery experience is only a shadow of what it was in 2007. Most of the musical bloggers have stopped writing. Some of them started as a way to find community in a world that dismisses classical music as a "genre," and then left in favor of communicating on Facebook where you can have the illusion of a community without devoting the time and care that maintaining a blog demands. It is also very iPhone friendly. Blog platforms like this one are difficult to use on an iPhone.

I have been thinking lately about how similar a Facebook experience is to an escalator experience, and how the rest of the internet (i.e. the blogosphere) is more like an elevator experience.

You summon an elevator and after a short wait you enter one of a few enclosed rooms that can hold a few people. You might be completely alone, or you might have company. You might smile at the other people in the elevator, or you might avoid eye contact. It's your choice. You will forget about your elevator mates as soon as they get off, and they will forget about you just as quickly, unless you have some meaningful contact. Your journey feels safe and private, even though it may not be either. Still it is possible to travel through the tubes of the non-social internets in search of information and enrichment in a way that is enjoyable and self directed. Elevators are almost always located near stairwells, so you can choose whether to ride or walk.

Facebook takes you for an escalator ride. There is an element of danger in the escalator ride. The ride stimulates your attention to both the presence and absence of your physical self as you look at reflections of other escalators. I find that when I am riding an escalator I have a strange sense of tension and a deep desire to reach the point where the escalator stops and I can step off safely.

I feel a similar mixture of danger and desire every time I step onto the Facebook "escalator." Like an escalator in a big department store, Facebook literally directs your attention where its advertisers want it to go. Once you go on Facebook a few times and look at the ads that register as "seen" in your newsfeed, they come up more often. The walls of the escalator entices you with mirrors (analogous to the people who validate your existence and "like" what you post) and shiny objects: friends who post pictures, clever commentary, and links to articles that you can sometimes, but not always, access via Facebook (magazine and newspaper articles are often behind a paywall).

Your friends and their friends leave projections of their best selves for you to glance at and feel a momentary sense of connection with, only to be forgotten when the "ride" stops. Stores are designed so that you can't miss featured products because they are placed near the end of the escalators. We have come to accept that. On a Facebook "ride" you see images of promoted products again and again, and you accept their presence in your news feed as part of the experience. I seems like the price you pay for having friends on Facebook.

Saturday, June 03, 2017


Michael and I are reading Stefan Zweig's biography of Balzac. I read it about twenty-five years ago, while I was at the height of a personal Balzac craze, and am enjoying Zweig's book with very fresh eyes. When I started writing music seriously around the time of my Balzac craze, I dreamed about setting one particular Balzac novel as an opera.

During these past twenty-five years I have written a libretto for the whole opera and music for the first scene. It is a crazy amount of work to write an opera, and it takes a crazy amount of work to try to get an opera performed. In my case all the effort I put into seeing even one of the four operas I have written on stage has largely been futile. It's a vicious circle: nobody in the field of opera wants to invest time and resources into the work of an unknown composer, and there doesn't seem to be a way to become "known" without having work performed.

I made a promise to myself not to write another opera until I had the chance to see and hear a performance of one of the operas I have written. But reading about Balzac and thinking about Balzac has motivated me to break my promise and get to work on my original opera idea. For me it is the work of writing that keeps me going, and even if the theater inside my head is the only one where it is played, that will just have to do.

I'm not saying anything here about the opera, but when I'm finished I'll put it in the IMSLP (my two published operas are probably the last pieces of mine that will ever be performed because they are buried in a publisher's catalog, and have expensive rental parts), and I will share it here.

Friday, June 02, 2017

(Mar-a) Largo al Factotum

With apologies to A.A. Milne, but it had to be done

King Don’s Christmas

King Don was not a good man—
He had his little ways.
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days.
And men who came across him,
When walking in the town,
Gave him a supercilious stare,
Or passed with noses in the air—
And bad King Don stood dumbly there,
Blushing beneath his crown.

King Don was not a good man,
And no good friends had he.
He stayed in every afternoon...
But no one came to tea.
And, round about December,
The cards upon his shelf
Which wished him lots of Christmas cheer,
And fortune in the coming year,
Were never from his near and dear,
But only from himself.

King Don was not a good man,
Yet had his hopes and fears.
They’d given him no present now
For years and years and years.
But every year at Christmas,
While minstrels stood about,
Collecting tribute from the young
For all the songs they might have sung,
He stole away upstairs and hung
A hopeful stocking out.

King Don was not a good man,
He lived his life aloof;
Alone he thought a message out
While climbing up the roof.
He wrote it down and propped it
by the antenna for the TV:
And signed it not “Donald J.”
But very humbly, “D.”
“I want some crackers,
And I want some candy;
I think a box of chocolates
Would come in handy;
I don’t mind oranges,
I do like nuts!
And I SHOULD like a pocket-knife
That really cuts.
And, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all,
Bring me a big, red, india-rubber ball!”

King Don was not a good man—
He wrote this message out,
And gat him to his room again,
Descending by the spout.
And all that night he lay there,
A prey to hopes and fears.
“I think that’s him a-coming now.”
(Anxiety bedewed his brow.)
“He’ll bring one present, anyhow—
The first I’ve had for years.”
“Forget about the crackers,
And forget about the candy;
I’m sure a box of chocolates
Would never come in handy;
I don’t like oranges,
I don’t want nuts,
And I HAVE got a pocket-knife
That almost cuts.
But, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all,
Bring me a big, red, india-rubber ball!”

King Don was not a good man—
Next morning when the sun
Rose up to tell a waiting world
That Christmas had begun,
And people seized their stockings,
And opened them with glee,
And crackers, toys and games appeared,
And lips with sticky sweets were smeared,
King Don said grimly: “As I feared,
Nothing again for me!”
“I did want crackers,
And I did want candy;
I know a box of chocolates
Would come in handy;
I do love oranges,
I did want nuts.
I haven’t got a pocket-knife—
Not one that cuts.
And, oh! if Father Christmas had loved me at all,
He would have brought a big, red, india-rubber ball!”

King Don stood by the window,
And frowned to see below
The happy bands of boys and girls
All playing in the snow.
A while he stood there watching,
And envying them all...
When through the window big and red
There hurtled by his royal head,
And bounced and fell upon the bed,
An india-rubber ball!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

If Bach were to write his "Coffee Cantata" today:

Covfefe Cantata: Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht
(Keep quiet, don’t tweet)

Ei! wie schmeckt der Covfefe süße,
How I love the taste of sweet Covfefe,
Lieblicher als tausend Küsse,
More than a thousand kisses,
Milder als Muskatenwein.
Milder than Muscat wine.

Covfefe, Covfefe muss ich haben,
Covfefe, I must have Covfefe,
Und wenn jemand mich will laben,
and if anyone wants to give me a treat,
Ach, so schenkt mir Covfefe ein!
Ah!, just give me some Covfefe!