Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Portable Swan

Here's a performance from Tel Aviv by the Pizzicato Quartet playing my string quartet arrangement of Saint-Saens's "The Swan." I get a kick out of a group named the Pizzicato Quartet playing this arrangement because the viola part is played totally pizzicato. I call it a "portable" swan because it is a lot easer to travel around with a string quartet than with a harp or a piano!



You can see the arrangement here.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Finding a Voice: Musings on Creativity

It occurs to me that so much of what becomes popular culture (in other words, culture that catches on with a large casual audience) has to do with imitation. Take Christmas music, for a seasonal example. Many of the enduring classics of the Christmas season, like "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer," written by Johnny Marks, are pretty much variations on the same formula, much like what we think of as candy bars are variations on pretty much the same few formulas. There is popular Christmas-season music that doesn't follow the Marks formula, like descendants of "Sleigh Ride," selections from the Nutcracker, and the ever-popular Schubert "Ave Maria," but there is a lot of exquisite Christmas-specific music that people in stores and shopping malls would never identify as Christmas music.

Here's one example, and here's another.

I heard an interview with Audra McDonald the other day where the interviewer, who was not a musician, asked her who she used as a model for her voice. Her elegant response was that when she was young she tried to imitate singers she admired, but she failed miserably, so she understood that she had to live with her own voice. The current assumption, I suppose, is for "lay" people to imagine that musicians must model what they do on someone else's creativity. Some of us, like Audra MacDonald (or perhaps I should say unlike Audra McDonald), fail miserably when we try to imitate another person's voice.

I don't know about you, but I would prefer to fail as an imitator than succeed as an imitator.

Monday, December 01, 2014

"Having written"

Before I started writing music, I had a talk with a composition student about writing music. He told me that he enjoyed having written music, but did not particularly enjoy writing it. Once I started writing music myself, I found the process itself far more interesting than the satisfaction of "having written." There are some pieces that I am happy to have written, many, in fact, but the real creativity and the real satisfaction comes in the putting of one note after and against another.

I suppose that we are all wired differently.

The big problem comes when you have written a lot of music, as I have, and have little motivation to engage in the process of self promotion, which has been elevated to the status of an art in itself. A person gifted in the art of promotion can make anything seem appealing, no matter how useful, beautiful, or worthwhile it actually is. But a person without the drive or the means to promote his or her music this way can feel the act of "having written" as something negligible.

In the years before the internet, composers had music festering in drawers and files. Now it can fester in plain sight on publisher's computer hard drives or in online libraries, amid hundreds of thousands of perfectly good pieces that other composers have written.

Mild success can give a person hope, but success always seems relative. Seymour Barab always felt let down when his efforts to promote his excellent work (and it remains excellent work) proved unsuccessful. The fact that his Little Red Riding Hood was performed constantly didn't mean much to him, but the fact that his more recent theater work could not get a run in an off-Broadway theater did. Fortunately during the very last year of his long life he got some of the acclaim he deserved. When we talked about this his reply was, "I wish it hadn't taken so long."

Seymour was always most interested in what he was working on at the moment. At the end of his life he was working on a set of songs that he wasn't able to finish. It was a set of songs about New York, and the last time I saw him he described the texts as being racy jokes. I remember when he ran out of the specially-sized music paper that he liked to use for songs, and how I found some PDF score paper that could be photocopied into a size that would work for him. He was very happy to be able to get back to work.

Now that Seymour Barab is no longer writing, we have the music that he has written. And there's a lot of it.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Bloch on Bach

From Essays on the Philosophy of Music, translated by Peter Palmer (Cambridge University Press):
. . . . He cherishes his theme, in which he as no other composer compressed what was to come, tension and the sharpest outline of tension. He goes on lovingly considering the theme from all angles and prospects until it blossoms forth and until, in the great modulations of the fugue, it has become an unlocked shrine, an internally unending melody (`internally' meaning within the context of the theme), a melismatic universe in respect of the developed individuality of his theme. For precisely this reason, Bach's layout is not purely diatonic, however clear its flagrant nature. Obviously the harmonic clement in itself becomes irrelevant with Bach insofar as it is manifested in a fortuitous, pleasantly meaningful simulultaneity of the parts. But it is surely not irrelevant to the extent that the pertinent motions and their framework, which is to say the counterpoint, are now also the paramount factor and, as such, emphasized. To the extent that it represents a complete horizontal transparence, it is certainly the essence of Bach more than it is of Beethoven and Wagner. And yet, even in Bach, there is in the layout an active desire. There is the pervasive flow of a succession of themes rich in associations, a twofold thematicism already inherently rich in tension which finds itself far less strongly dependent on the constant polyphony's non-decisive part-writing than on the transitional, turning and corner points, but above all the rhythmically stressed anchor-points in the harmony. And as we can see, this is not straightforwardly homophonic but a different, deliberately chosen harmony, one that underlines, that emphasizes by virtue of its mass. The one reflects upon the other, even though Bach remains the master of the single voice, multiplying the old homophony by two or by five, the intrinsic master in the spinning to of lines and in this procedure's seemingly unlyrical, supra-lyrical domain. The blending, harmonic-rhythmic element still has an influence: it prevents a revelling in the mechanics and the formal aspect of counterpoint even where Bach's wide gaps between parts play an important role in preventing a vertical blending, i.e. the being and changing of whole columns of notes or hosts of chords, no matter whether rhythmically diminished or caught up by and released from he dominant. But it is only the song, the theme, that seeks to become extensive and unending within th fugue melody which is, as it were, internally unending. It is by virtue of this above all that the element of diatonic counterpoint is reduced to a mere means, to something reflexive, permitted only because the lyrically flourishing melismata acquire a sharper profile from the juxtaposition. For it is in the contrapuntal or, rather, dailiness system of balances that they can best represent their protected, unbroken simultaneity, that lyricism of theirs which no longer has any individual relevance but simply means soul, developed soul. And that lyricism, in spite of all the dramatic community choruses, is the core of Bach's Church music. Where this balance is self-supporting, it is easy to recognize, within the framework of Bachian counterpoint, the hidden, connected, multi-layered lyricism of he Passions, built into the niches of three-dimensional counterpointing. It is akin to the uneven surface of the bas-relief, where we can feel the presence of air, the arrangement of figures in the landscape and, in fact, the whole actual landscape that is set in the rise and fall of the uneven background.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

More Thanksgiving Music

Here's one more Thanksgiving arrangement that can be played with violin and viola or any combination of treble and bass instruments. You can download a PDF to print here. I wish a wonderful day of Thanksgiving to everyone who visits here!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thanksgiving Music

Most people know this traditional Thanksgiving Hymn as "Come, Ye Thankful People, Come," but the piece was originally called "St. George's, Windsor," and was written by Sir George Job Elvey (1816-1893) who was the organist there. It works very well as a duet for violin and viola.


You can click on the images for a larger view, and a PDF is available on this page of the IMSLP. Here's a note about the piece from the Psalter Hymnal Handbook
George J. Elvey (PHH 48) composed ST. GEORGE'S WINDSOR as a setting for James Montgomery's text "Hark! The Song of Jubilee," with which it was published in Edward H. Thorne's Selection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes (1858). The tune has been associated with Alford's text since publication of the hymn in the 1861 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern. ST. GEORGE'S WINDSOR is named after the chapel in Windsor, England, where Elvey was organist for forty-seven years.

This serviceable Victorian tune is held together by the rhythmic motive of the opening phrase. Sing the opening stanzas in parts, but sing the prayer of stanza 4 in unison. Use of the descant by C. S. Lang (PHH 253) with stanza 4 may suggest a foretaste of heaven's glory.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Some Cookies



I haven't posted a recipe for a while, so in honor of the upcoming food holiday I'm sharing the recipe for the very best batch of oatmeal raisin cookies I have made to date. I futz around a little with the recipe each time I make them, and after a few months of making them at least once a week, I hit cookie perfection tonight. These cookies are not too sweet, not greasy in the least, very satisfying, and actually probably healthy to eat. [The photo makes them look a lot bigger than they actually are: the wooden board is only about 6 inches long.]

People who have come here from Michael's blog will certainly get the reference in the title, but for those who have found their way to this post by other means, you can get some context here. But don't forget to come back for the recipe!

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Find two mixing bowls, a set of measuring cups, and a set of measuring spoons.

Cream 1/2 stick of softened unsalted butter with 3/4 cup brown sugar. Add 2 eggs and 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract.

In another bowl mix 1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour with 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon baking soda, and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt. Mix the dry ingredients together and add them to the creamed mixture above. Once everything is incorporated, add 3 cups old fashioned rolled oats (not the quick-cooking kind) and 1 cup of raisins.

The real secret to cookie baking is using the right pan. The right pan is made by USA Pans. Mine is called a "Half Sheet Pan," but it is pretty much the same as the jelly roll pan in the link above. You flip it upside down and use the bottom as a cookie sheet. I also just noticed that they now have an actual dedicated cookie sheet in their inventory, which I bet is just as good as their half sheet pan.



Make tablespoon-sized balls and flatten them out onto the un-greased cookie sheet. I aim for getting 20 onto one cookie sheet, which is about half the batch, and then I put the remaining dough in a covered container, which I pop into the refrigerator to bake in a couple of days. Or the next day.

Bake the cookies for 12 minutes. Take them out of the oven, but leave them on the cookie sheet for a minute or two. Then transfer the cookies to a cooling rack. They will be crispy in about five minutes. Let the cookies cool completely before storing them in a covered container.

Here's a final noble portrait:





Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Musical Intelligence and School Music Programs

In this article for the new (just up today) magazine CreateSir Anthony Seldon writes about the value of music for children in state schools:
Research shows that self-discipline is a better predictor of success in life than IQ tests – and it has further shown that good character and resilience can be taught at schools, with lifelong benefits. Work at the University of Birmingham Jubilee Centre for Character and Values shows that an undue emphasis on exam passes robs young people of the broad education that schools should be providing.

The argument has been put succinctly by the distinguished educationalist Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard. He says the question that schools should ask is ‘not, how intelligent is this child, but rather, how is this child intelligent?’
As much as I appreciate school music programs, I really believe that it is the teachers and not the programs that make all the difference. Like general education programs in colleges, musical education programs often attract students who are adequate at applying methods to what they teach once the find themselves in school positions, but some are not necessarily good teachers. I have seen too many music teachers make school musical activities uninteresting and even annoying. I have also seen teachers who are excellent musicians themselves turn neglected abused music programs around.

Studying music, particularly the classical kind, is not a way out of economic poverty. Someone who practices like crazy in high school and sets out to make a living in music these days has a good shot at life at or below the poverty level unless s/he acquires the skills necessary to get a day job to support a musical habit. On the other hand someone who has private lessons from a good (and affordable) teacher can bring the values of musical experience into adult life while following a non-professional or semi-professional musical path.

Like everything else in the business of education, what matters most is the ability of the individual teacher to reach the individual student. It can happen in a classroom or in a private studio. This is a slow and steady process that involves commitment on both sides. It is also something that cannot be quantified in any way, because success is different for every single student.

Some students have a lot of intelligence, but they don't pay attention to what they need to do physically on the instrument in order to make a beautiful sound. Some students make lovely sounds, but have difficulty with rhythm. Some students have difficulty opening up emotionally through music. Some students don't have the patience to listen to themselves. Some students don't practice. Some students practice, but hold a lot of tension in their hands. Some students have good enough ears to get away with not reading music. Some students read music well, but have a difficult time thinking beyond the notes and rhythms.

The journey is different for every musician at every stage of the game.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Empowering Musical Thought for the Day

There's much that I cannot control in the world, but I know that when I am practicing I have the ability to control the beginning (including the when and how) of every single note I play, as long as I pay attention and take the time and care to do so.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Russian Music for Viola and Piano Concert November 16th


It's not just Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) who is "neither fish nor fowl." Everyone here has influences from outside of Russia's borders. Even Reinhold Glière (1875-1956) who was born in Kiev, died in Moscow, and spent his entire career in Russia, became immersed with the folk music traditions from Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. The four Preludes for piano (from Opus 30) are right at home (or perhaps would be better to say appropriately far from home) in this cosmopolitan program.

Alexander Winkler (1865-1935) was born in Besançon, a city near the German border of France, studied law and piano at the University of Kharkiv, and taught at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He wrote his Viola Sonata in 1902, and dedicated it to Auguste Joung. The final movement is a set of musically-cosmopolitan variations on a song in Breton, a Celtic language spoken in the lower part of Brittany, near the region where Winkler was born.

Paul Juon (1872-1940) was born in Moscow to Swiss parents. After studying with Arensky and Taneyev at the Moscow Conservatory, he left Russia to study in Berlin. He wrote his F minor Sonata, Opus 82 for clarinet and piano in 1923 and dedicated it to the clarinetist Ernst Orlich, who served as the University Rector at the Berlin Technical High School. He probably made the viola transcription for his own use.

Most people who read this blog live far away from Charleston, Illinois, but anyone within driving distance (or walking distance) is welcome to come! We plan to make a recording, so if you can't come would like to hear something from the concert, just let me know.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Supreme State of Bow

Remember the Smothers Brothers and the "Supreme State of Yo?" This video below is set at the right place, just in case this state is new to you.



I have experienced the trance-like state that sets in when I am in the Supreme State of Mow (while mowing the yard, something I actually enjoy, as long as I'm not mowing up hill). When I practice scales or Bach in the morning, I find myself immersed in the Supreme State of Bow.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Rehearsal Rules

"I never trust rules that tell me never to do something." This came blurting out of my mouth during a rehearsal today, and I thought I'd share the sweet irony.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Music Theory for Musicians and Normal People



I just came across a great book in PDF form by Toby Rush that explains the ways of means of musical notation, harmony, counterpoint, modes, and the forms used in the common practice period. This book is witty, but it is also correct, complete, and straightforward. I'm planning to use these pages with my violin students, and I thought I would share them here.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Meet the Composer II

A while ago I made a post about WQXR's Q2 Podcast called Meet the Composer, and now that I have listened to a few episodes beyond the interview with Caroline Shaw, I'm starting to have issues. I could stew about these issues, or I could write about them. I choose to write.

Nadia Sirota, the host of the show, is a far better violist than I am, and a far better radio host than I was during my time on the air (broadcasting 40 miles in all directions from a college station in a small town in downstate Illinois during the last century). I certainly appreciate what she is doing for the composers she works with in New York, and for new music in general, but I fear that the music she presents on this particular program (at least this year) sounds kind of the same to me. It seems that everything I have heard so far (with few exceptions) is minimalist in nature, and much of the string music seems to exploit the natural harmonic series.

I listened to a great deal of new music when I was a teenager in the 1970s. My first opera was Wozzeck. The first piece I sang in a professional chorus was Stravinsky's Canticum Sacrum. I have a special fondness for the sound of 12-tone music because it reminds me of Tanglewood, where I spent summer after summer attending the Fromm Festival concerts. I wanted to be a composer during the 1970s, but I knew that writing in the 12-tone idiom was not any kind of true expression of who I happened to be. I had no interest in electronics, and never wanted to use rock music as the basis of the music I imagined writing (like my brother Marshall did). As much as I would like to have embraced it, I found minimalist music repetitive and boring. I wanted to write music that meant something to me, and I wanted to write music that would be as moving to me as the music that I loved from the whole of the history of notated music. I couldn't wait for minimalism to die out. By the time I turned 40 I had lots and lots of music to write, so I just started writing.

When I was in my 20s I thought I knew a lot about music. A lot of people thought I knew a lot about music. Through working at the radio station and reading scores and scores of books about music I learned more about music. I eventually learned that I knew very little, and that my narrow-minded views were ridiculous. Perhaps they still are.

I don't believe I really started to learn about music until I reached my 40s and started writing music seriously. Now that I am 55 I feel like a kid in a candy store, because with the hopes of a career behind me, I have the leisure to keep learning new things about music. My experience of music is far deeper than it was when I was in my 20s and 30s, and my understanding of how important it is to get from one note to the next in a meaningful way sometimes yields real results. Sometimes I get, whether writing or playing, from one note to the next in a way that I feel is a true expression of how the music should go.

I do hope that Nadia Sirota ventures out of the envelope she has drawn around her new radio program and finds composers of note (no pun intended) who write in ways that don't simply reflect her personal love of extended techniques, minimalism, the harmonic series, and their spectral sisters. There are a whole lot of people in her parents' generation (like me) and even in her grandparents' generation who are indeed interested in hearing interviews with living composers who write in other ways, even in traditional ways.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Noonday Witch (for Halloween)

When I hosted a radio program that ended at noon, this was my usual selection for the last quarter hour on October 31.



Here's the score.

Here's a synopsis of the story (courtesy of a good Wikipedia article)

A mother warns her son that if he does not behave she will summon the Noon Witch to take him away. He does not behave, and the witch arrives at the stroke of noon. The witch, described as a horrible creature, demands the child. The mother, terrified that the witch has actually come, grabs her son, and the witch begins chasing them. Finally the mother faints, grasping her child. Later that day, the father arrives home, and finds his wife passed out with the dead body of their son in her arms. The mother had accidentally smothered their child, while protecting him from the witch. The story ends with the family's lament over the terrible event.