Sunday, May 21, 2017

Musical Assumption #2: Power in Music

We all have the power to create and the power to destroy. In the yard I have the power to decide which plants will grow where. I can exercise that power lovingly (as in planting, watering, and pruning) or I can exercise that power hatefully (as in digging up stumps and roots, and pulling weeds and vines). Some days I feel as mighty as nature herself, and some days I feel totally powerless.

My power in the yard is all subjective.

We talk about power in music, but that power is different from the traditional concepts of power. We certainly have hierarchies in musical relationships (consider the roles of conductors, contractors, teachers, section leaders, and the people who manage musical institutions), and we have hierarchies in volume and register (consider the contrast between the trumpet and the lute).

The "power" we encounter in hierarchical musical relationships has little to do with music. The "power" to write or play, the "power" to create or re-create something beautiful, resonant, and/or meaningful is a combination of experience, instinct, and knowledge, but it is also a kind of "dance" with the muse (which we could even call "nature").

Everyone participates in the dance, and everyone has challenges. Not everybody "dances" their best all the time, and we all have to do a combination of leading, following, and sitting dances out. As we become better musicians when we become more sensitive to others, and we notice when other musicians are sensitive to us. There is a feeling of shared "power" when we truly connect with other musicians. (I think of it as "might.")

Unlike the power struggles (and triumphs) with nature that happen in the yard, the "nature" in music is not seasonal. Frost, draught, flooding, and the onslaught of non-human creatures cannot hold power over me while I'm writing music or while I'm practicing or rehearsing (at least while I have a roof over my head).

It's a nice thing to remember.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Hans Christian Andersen Stories

A couple of weeks ago I finished writing a piece for solo cello or solo viola and narrator based on "The Collar" a Hans Christian Andersen story about a collar, a garter, an iron, and a bootjack, and now I'm ready to start work on a musical setting of "The Jumping Competition." It has four characters: a flea, a grasshopper, a jumping jack, and a King, so my setting is going to be for woodwind quartet (flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon). The interesting twist here is that I am going to have the musicians alternate between playing and narrating.

I'm excited about how it will work itself out. I'll have to make maps and charts to figure out which voice does what, and then I'll need to make parts with truly functional cues. It is a nice set of challenges.

Thinking about musical stories brings me back twenty years, to the days when I used to make up musically-narrated stories with our son Ben. Ben would play the cello, I would play the viola, and we would improvise together, musically illustrating each other's contribution to the story. Sometimes we would get together with other string-playing kids, and make up stories with them. The stories usually included mystery, sadness, and scary stuff, but they almost always ended in chaos and laughter.

I'll keep you posted on my progress . . .

You can see the nine other Andersen stories I have set to music here.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Good Day's Practice

A good day's practice is just rosin under the bridge.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Musical Assumption #1

I gave this title to a piece (now discarded) of electronic music I wrote for an electronic music class. I liked the title more than the piece, and the "Musical Assumptions" part of the title has a much better "life" as the title of this blog.

Now that this blog is in its second decade, I guess it is time to make, as adolescents often do, some assumptions. Here begins a series of assumptions about the musical world that might matter to someone other than me. Feel free to disagree. As my brother Marshall used to say, "When you assume you make an ass out of u and me."

Musical Assumption #1

Musicians in the 21st century can still engage in musical discourse almost exactly the way they engaged in the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries when playing notated music of the time.

The instruments we play in modern times are less problematic, and we do have the undeniable benefits of climate control (heating and cooling), accessibility (the IMSLP, for example), recordings for reference and for rehearsal, ergonomic devices, indoor plumbing, comfortable clothing, instant communication (which helps for setting up rehearsals), and photocopy machines, computers, and printers.

Still, when it comes to figuring out what bowing or bow stroke to use, how to tune and balance a chord, or how to decide something about phrase direction, we are still faced with the same choices as musicians throughout time (and space). Nothing of modern life can really interfere with or add to the musical situation at hand. It is all there for us as it was for the string players who worked at Esterhazy.

When we play Haydn quartets that are clearly meant for the entertainment of the musicians playing them, we chuckle at the same bits of musical humor that our musical ancestors did. These "secret signs" unify our musical "species" across the centuries, and transcend cultural boundaries.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Music of Our Mothers Radio Program May 10th

Tomorrow, May 10th, between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m Eastern Time I will be one of the featured composers on a radio program called "Music of our Mothers" on WFCF, Flagler College's radio station, 88.5 in St. Augustine, Florida. You can listen to the live stream of the program through this link and read about the program on their website.

There will also be music by Cecilia Macdowell, Mercedes Zavala Gironés, Vivian Adelbert Rudow, Chen Yi, Joan Tower, Missy Mazzoli, and Nancy Dalberg on tomorrow's program.

They will be talking about and playing my set of pieces for contrabassoon and piano called "More Greek Myths."

Friday, May 05, 2017

Stefan Zweig on the writing of "La Marseillaise"

From "The Secret of Artistic Creation," written in 1938 by Stefan Zweig and translated from the German by Will Stone:
Rouget de l'Isle is not a poet proper, nor a composer. He was an officer of genius who during the French Revolution found himself in Strasbourg. On 25h April 1792 at midday came the news that the Republic had declared war on the kings of Europe. An atmosphere of drunken exaltation flooded the city. In the evening the mayor laid on a dinner for the officers. During the meal he turned to Rouget d l'Isle, to whom he said: why not write some jubilant verses, and in friendly fashion asked him to compose a song which the troops could sing as they marched into battle. And why not? Until midnight the officers remained assembled, then Rouget de l'Isle set off for home. He had fully participated in the general merriment and had drunk enough; his head rang with toasts and speeches, words such as "Allons, enfants de la Patrie!" and "Le jour de gloire est arrivé." He sat at the table and wrote straight out the required lines. Then he took up his violin and struck a melody. In two hours it was finished. The next morning at six, he went to find the mayor and presented him the finished song, the completed composition. Ignoring fatigue, and in a kind of trance, he had somehow created one of the most immortal poems in the world, one of the most immortal melodies, through sheer inspiration. it was not of course he himself who was author, but rather the genius of the hour.

You can read more about Rouget de l'Isle here.

This essay, which is part of a collection called Messages from a Lost World (published by the Pushkin Press) is outdated at times, especially when it comes to music (I don't know if anyone still subscribes to the idea that Mozart, Schubert, and Haydn never made sketches, for example), but much of it is terrific. Here's another morsel:

The true artist is then as occupied by his creation as the believer by his prayer, the dreamer by his dream. As a result, in contemplating the internal, he is unable to see clearly the external, or himself. This is why artists, poets, painters, [and] musicians are incapable, whilst they are creating, of observing themselves, still less of explaining themselves, or by what manner they have produced the work. They are bad witnesses, useless witnesses for the creation courtroom, and, like inceptions criminologists, it would be a mistake on our part to rely blindly on their testimony.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Brian Collins Interview

I’m sure that this interview with designer Brian Collins will resonate with other composers. He talks about being “different” as a child, and embracing his unique view of the world and his personal interests (reading and drawing) rather than allowing bullies to bother him. He talks about designers not merely being problem solvers; he thinks of them as “problem creators.”

Isn’t that exactly what composers do? We create musical problems, and we try to solve them in the most expressive ways possible. Collins talks about envy (and what composer doesn't carry a bunch of envy), and he talks about periods of depression being useful (if not essential) for growth.

Performing musicians do their best to identify problems in musical situations, and then they draw on the depths of their creativity to solve them. Performing musicians also create problems while they are performing (I made this crescendo, and now I have to maintain it; I need to get to another part of the bow; I have to adjust my intonation to match the clarinet; I have to match a bowing; I need to take a breath somewhere; I'm not sure where I am; I made a counting error, and now I have to make up for it, etc.), and they have to solve them on the spot, and without anyone noticing.

Composers make all those problems possible. (And some make solving them impossible.)

I think musicians (composers and performing musicians) will find it interesting listening.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Yitzhak Schotten: The Art of the Bow Arm

Yitzhak Schotten played in my father's viola section in the Boston Symphony in the late 1960s and early 70s. My father often referred to him as "Dr. Shotten," and as a child I always thought that he must have been a medical doctor as well as a musician. I wondered what would happen if he got called to perform emergency surgery during a concert. Holding a high degree in a non-musical field wasn't that unusual to me. My father sometimes got mail addressed to "Dr. Fine" (because of his Ph.D. in chemistry), and Charles Kavalovski, the principal horn at the time, had a Ph.D. in nuclear physics.

Perhaps my father's "Dr." title was an affectionate one, since Yitzhak Schotten is such a smart man.

His video about the bow arm is excellent. I'm posting it here so that I know where to find it. I hope you like it too.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Preludes to the Twenty-first Century

On December 30, 2000, just because I could, I started work on a set of six preludes for piano. I wanted to finish them before midnight, which would make them some of the last pieces of music written in the 20th-century, but I ended up finishing them shortly after midnight on January 1, 2001, so they are also among the first pieces of music written in the 21st century. This kind of thing doesn't happen often.

You can listen to a performance here.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Monday, April 17, 2017

"Climbing up the Stairs," an alternative to the "Monkey Song" for beginning violinists

I wrote this little piece for a beginning violin student, and thought I'd share it here. It is filled with all sorts of practical "word painting."

Like the "Monkey Song," you "climb" up the A string, but after the half-step interval of C-sharp and D we have the word "kiss." I like to refer to half steps as "kisses" with beginners. It helps them pay attention to their fingers touching when playing half steps (and when you have a lot of half steps, you have really romantic music). The word "mother" also has a half-step kiss, because she has just been kissed.

In order to get to the E string (which is a higher string) to play the open E, you need to lower your right elbow (so getting to a higher note requires lowering something!), and in order to get back to the open A (to get into bed), you have to lift the elbow of the bow arm. Notice that we have a rest following the word "bed."

You can get a PDF of the whole "lesson" here.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Willa Cather explains why we go to the theater

Jim Burden, the narrator of Willa Cather's My Àntonia takes his friend Lena to a performance by a traveling New York theater company of La Dame aux Camélias in Lincoln, Nebraska.
The actress who played Marguerite was even then old-fashioned, though historic. She had been a member of Daly’s famous New York company, and afterward a ‘star’ under his direction. She was a woman who could not be taught, it is said, though she had a crude natural force which carried with people whose feelings were accessible and whose taste was not squeamish. She was already old, with a ravaged countenance and a physique curiously hard and stiff. She moved with difficulty—I think she was lame—I seem to remember some story about a malady of the spine. Her Armand was disproportionately young and slight, a handsome youth, perplexed in the extreme. But what did it matter? I believed devoutly in her power to fascinate him, in her dazzling loveliness. I believed her young, ardent, reckless, disillusioned, under sentence, feverish, avid of pleasure. I wanted to cross the footlights and help the slim-waisted Armand in the frilled shirt to convince her that there was still loyalty and devotion in the world.
What Jim thinks about after the play must be similar to what countless people in all times and in all places (at least in places where there is theater) have experienced.
When we reached the door of the theatre, the streets were shining with rain. I had prudently brought along Mrs. Harling’s useful Commencement present, and I took Lena home under its shelter. After leaving her, I walked slowly out into the country part of the town where I lived. The lilacs were all blooming in the yards, and the smell of them after the rain, of the new leaves and the blossoms together, blew into my face with a sort of bitter sweetness. I tramped through the puddles and under the showery trees, mourning for Marguerite Gauthier as if she had died only yesterday, sighing with the spirit of 1840, which had sighed so much, and which had reached me only that night, across long years and several languages, through the person of an infirm old actress. The idea is one that no circumstances can frustrate. Wherever and whenever that piece is put on, it is April.
I imagine that Willa Cather could easily have been writing about her own theater experience, and since she made mention of Augustin Daly's New York company, it is possible that the actress Cather describes could be Ada Rehan.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Eva Kor

My friend Eva Kor has been awarded Indiana's highest honor. She will be the Grand Marshall of the IPL Festival Parade on May 27.

I became friends with Eva in 1995 when she came to the television station that was connected with the radio station where I worked. She was working mostly from her kitchen table to create the C.A.N.D.L.E.S. organization, and was working on her book, Echoes from Auschwitz, and trying to open a Holocaust museum in Terre Haute. Very few people knew Eva outside of her circle of friends and acquaintances, and now she is a symbol of strength for so many people. I am so proud of Eva, and so gratified that she has gotten the recognition and respect that she deserves.

Eva asked me and my string quartet to play for the opening of her museum, and I couldn't find appropriate music to play (short pieces that would give the flavor of the time and place), so I made some settings of Chassidic melodies that were connected to texts that I felt reflected Eva's character and mission. They were the first serious pieces I ever wrote. You can see them and listen to a performance here.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Music Theory Examples by Women

Molly Murdock, Trevor Nelson, and Ben Parcell have put up an exceptionally interesting website that organizes concepts of music theory that are often studied. The concepts link to scores, audio files, and downloadable PDF files. There is also a pop-up page for each concept that cross-references other music theory concepts that are in the piece. All the examples of music theory concepts are from music written by women.

It is beautifully organized, but it is only in the beginning stages of a work in progress. The list of composers they draw from is pretty much limited to the "usual suspects" from the common practice era. The 20th and 21st century sections are still empty, so examples of modal, pentatonic, octatonic, whole tone, and twelve-tone scales are missing.

(Note to the organizers of this website: you might like to look around this blog to find information about women composers with music in the IMSLP who use the elements you would like to illustrate.)

Thursday, April 13, 2017

More about Frances Goldstein

A couple of years ago I asked readers to share their experiences studying with Frances Goldstein at Juilliard. The comments on that post might be interesting to people new to this blog. You can find the post through this link.