Friday, April 18, 2014

Orfeo by Richard Powers

I am not generally a reader of best-selling fiction, but I devoured Orfeo and savored every bit. It is a novel about music: the protagonist is a composer of avant-garde music who came of age in the 1960s. The novel is set in places I know very well (including Urbana, Illinois and Brookline, Massachusetts), and Powers describes them succinctly and accurately; even the small places and fleeting moments (including stops en route from Urbana, Illinois to St. Louis along I-70). He also describes places he hasn't been with great artistry, like the camp where Messiaen wrote and performed the Quartet for the End of Time and the first performance of HPSCHD at the Assembly Hall on the U of I campus on May 16, 1969.

Powers and I are contemporaries, and though his protagonist (in current time) is a decade and a half older than we are, he is able to vividly and realistically capture a sense of the cultural and technological "now" in contrast with the progressive "then" of the 1960s. He is able to switch between decades deftly and seamlessly. The reader instantly knows where and when time changes before the transitional sentence is finished. It's kind of like a tempo change or key change in a piece of music.

Powers has a deep understanding of music, and a deep understanding of musicians. Better than Thomas Mann, perhaps. And he uses a device for dialogue that I have never seen before (and didn't really notice until I was about halfway through the book). Dialogue is printed in italics, and the speaker is never identified. He writes so clearly that speaker doesn't need to be identified.

I bought an electronic copy which I read on the flight to our daughter's wedding in Los Angeles. One of the first things I did in town was go to a bookstore and buy a hard copy to give to my (musician/scientist) father. I'm excited to discuss it with him.

Here's a link to the book on Amazon, and here's an interview with the writer (which is how I learned about the book).

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Franz Liszt was a Freemason!

From James Huneker's 1911 book about Franz Liszt:
On the 31st of July last one of the greatest artists and men departed at Bayreuth for the eternal east, who had proved himself a worthy member of our brotherhood by his deeds through his whole eventful life. It is Brother Franz Liszt, on whose grave we deposit an acacia branch. Millions of florins Franz Liszt had earned on his triumphal career—for others. His art, his time, his life, were given to those who claimed it. Thus he journeyed, a living embodiment of the St. Simonism to which he once belonged, through his earthly pilgrimage. Brother Franz Liszt was admitted into the brotherhood in the year 1844, at the lodge 'Unity' ('Zur Einigkeit'), in Frankfort-on-the-Main, by George Kloss, with the composer, W. Ch. Speyer as witness, and in the presence of Felix von Lichnowsky. He was promoted to the second degree[390] in a lodge at Berlin, and elected master in 1870, as member of the lodge 'Zur Einigkeit,' in Budapest. Since 1845 he was also honorary member of the L. Modestia cum Libertate at Zurich. If there ever was a Freemason in favour with Pope Pius IX it was Franz Liszt, created abbĂ© in 1865 in Rome.

Joan Manen's "Garbo"

I just discovered the music of Joan Manen and thought I'd share this delightful tidbit:

and this one for guitar:

Monday, April 14, 2014

Here's what happened Saturday!

Michael and I walked Rachel down the aisle.

Rachel and Seth got married.

After Rachel's first dances with Seth and Michael, she sang with us. Ben played banjo, Michael played (Seth's) guitar, and I played (Rachel's) violin.

Everyone had a great time. Then we all flew away from Los Angeles, including Rachel and Seth. It was a wonderful wedding. It was a wonderful weekend.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Totally Distracted!

With our daughter's wedding coming up this weekend (is it time to go yet?), Michael and I are both totally distracted. Somehow listening to this fabulous recording from 1967 of Anshel Brusilow conducting the Chamber Symphony of Philadelphia in Haydn's Symphony 60, "Il Distratto," is excellent medicine.

If you are new to this piece (and don't know what to expect) make sure to listen all the way through the last movement. Surprise and delight await at every turn.

Here's a roster of the orchestra from 1966:

Friday, April 04, 2014

Jodi Levitz Talks About the Why of Playing the Viola

"All emotion comes from memory." I like that.

Good Hair Days, Bad Hair Days

Anyone with wavy or curly hair knows that there are good hair days and bad hair days. There are days when my hair simply droops, and days when it seems to keep itself in place. I'm convinced that it has a lot to do with the degree of humidity in the air, and the relationship of that humidity to the temperature.

I have found, through careful research (the hair on my head and the horse hair on the bows that I use), that good bow hair days and bad bow hair correlate to good head hair days and bad head hair days. It is on the good bow hair days that I enjoy playing the most. On the bad bow hair days I tend to reach for the rosin and scrutinize everything in my bow-drawing anatomy (I also avoid looking in the mirror).

Too much humidity in the air causes the hair to relax, which makes the stick bear a different kind of burden from the burden it bears when there is a moderate amount of humidity in the air. When the air is too dry (like in some concert halls I know quite well), the hair bears more of a burden. The problem is compounded by the fact that sound travels more quickly through moist air that it does through dry air. Mathew Abraham gives an excellent explanation:
The density of dry air is more than that of moist air (Wonder why? Just answer me – which is denser – skimmed milk or fresh milk. The cream is lighter and when removed from milk, we get skimmed milk and therefore skimmed milk will be denser than the fresh one with cream content. Just like that the water vapor is lighter than dry air. When moisture is removed from air, its density increases). The speed of sound in a medium is inversely proportional to the square root of its density. Therefore, the speed of sound in moist air is more than that in dry air.
Years ago, when I was deeply into the practice of making bread, I read an article in Gourmet magazine about the way humidity affects the wheat crop, and therefore affects the bread that is made from it. In order to have a consistent "product," bakers have to either have consistent ingredients or compensate for the inconsistencies that crop up from time to time. [Bad pun, but I'm keeping it in because it wasn't intentional.] String players, like bakers, have to come up with a consistent "product," regardless of what physical environment we happen to be in at the time.

Perhaps we should embrace the daily changes in the temperature and humidity (and they are daily these days) because they connect us more with the natural world and its inhabitants. And as "long hair" musicians that is something that we should strive to do.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Spoils of the Day

Here we have a mouse that has grown Beethoven's ear thanks to DNA from Beethoven's hair.

I'll use this opportunity to post a (now-chached) link to the great La Folia website that lists and links to settings of La Folia from the early 17th century through the 21st century.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Heard But Not Seen: A Memoir by Daniel Morganstern

My dear friend Daniel Morganstern, who recently retired as the principal cellist of the Chicago Lyric Opera, wrote a memoir about his 50-year career as experienced in large part from the principal cello "hot seat" of ballet and opera orchestras in New York and Chicago.

I proudly served as Danny's editor, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The 96-page book is honest, optimistic, and a lot of fun to read. You can order a copy here.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Some Great Comedy for a Rainy Day

While searching (once again) for the Spike Jones version of the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on YouTube, I came across this gem from January 9, 1954. It's live television, and is a half hour packed with a huge amount of comedic variety, musical and otherwise, with special guest Harpo Marx.

If you don't have half an hour, but need a quick laugh, watch this:

Monday, March 24, 2014

Es muss sein

This is from the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata, Opus 111 (his last piano sonata),

and this is from the last movement of his String Quartet, Opus 135 (his last string quartet).

Isn't it interesting that he incorporates and exploits the same motive?

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Thoughts About Intonation

I spent some time practicing viola with a tuner this morning. I am playing a piece that spends a lot of time in the rather unpopular key of B major, so I thought it would be appropriate to use my metronome/tuner to gauge whether I was playing my B-major scales and arpeggios in tune or whether I was missing the mark. I usually trust my ears, but in this case (and because of this key) I thought I would give myself a little bit of help.

I found that in order to play absolutely in tune with the tuner (and make the little needle stop moving) in B major (where there are no open strings), I had to play with a sound that was totally devoid of character. It wasn't fun, so I stopped using the tuner.

It occurs to me that much of the string playing I love is filled with both character and expressive intonation. In these days of machines we tend to think that "the tuner" is correct, much like the way we used to think that the piano was always correct (which, with tempering, it isn't, but we adjust). Sometimes, particularly when interpersonal situations become tense and we are under pressure to be another person's version of "correct," we have to narrow ourselves to achieve our "goal." Sometimes we forget about the music.

Because of the way the modern flute is constructed, it is sometimes very difficult to play the instrument in tune. When I played the flute I found it very difficult to accept the intonation that was built into my instrument. After consulting with a bunch of singers (including Eleanor Steber, who taught one of my friends), I devised a way to open up my throat, lower my diaphragm, and play with a wide supported stream of air that would "find" the center of the pitch by itself. With practice I found that I could simply listen and the pitch would go where I wanted it to go, as long as there wasn't any tension in my tone production equipment that would stop the pitch from finding its natural center.

String players can do the same kind of thing (and in tense situations I need to remember this). The bow arm is analogous to the diaphragm, the bow hair moving across the string is analogous to the air itself, the fingers of the right hand work like the flute-players tongue, and the fingers of the left hand, with their various degrees of pressure and place, can adjust themselves in minute ways to allow a pitch to find its center and sound in tune, as long as there isn't anything getting in the way of the tone production.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Happy Bach's Julian Calendar Birthday

According to the Julian Calendar (used in Bach's time), today is Bach's birthday, but according to the Gregorian Calendar the day marking his birthday would be March 31.

The adaptation of the New Style Gregorian Calendar was gradual. I find the whole thing fascinating.

Contemplating Joseph Kerman's Contemplating Music

Back in the beginnings of the musical blogosphere (about ten years ago) a great number of academically-minded musicians (i.e. musicologists) used blogs as places to "publish" some of the papers they wrote in graduate school. Yesterday we lost Joseph Kerman, one of the shining lights in the world of musicology. In honor of him and in honor of the (now vanished) tradition of exposing graduate-school writing to the larger world on blogs, I offer you my graduate-school "take" on the first two chapters of Joseph Kerman's Contemplating Music:

The first two chapters of Joseph Kerman’s Contemplating Music are extremely well organized and packed with information about the origins of musicology and its “founders,” the disciplines related to musicology, and attitudes and concerns about contemporary music. He discusses musicology as a profession and addresses what he considers some conflicting issues concerning musicology at the time of his writing (1985). Kerman defines musicology in both a broad way and a narrow way, and makes a case for the former. He cites Charles Seeger as his model for a comprehensive musicologist. Mainly thought of as an ethnomusicologist, Seeger was a virtual musical omnivore who, because of his many different interests within the field of music, basically created the field of musicology in America.

In the process of talking about the world in musicological terms, Kerman manages to weave in some very interesting information about music of the past, and he cites the trend for musicologists to be conservative. I am very impressed with his discussion of the work of Philipp Spitta. Kerman's discussion of the re-assessment of Bach by the New Bach Scholars illustrates the need for a community of passionate musicologists with different areas of expertise to do the work of authenticating and dating Bach's music correctly. Kerman mentions that, at the time of his writing, musicologists had done comprehensive work on the music of Bach, but they had not begun to critique the broadly accepted evolution of Bach’s style. I’m sure, partially due to Kerman's comment here, there is now a whole library of opinion on the matter, as well as a library of commentary and criticism on the critical writing.

Kerman asserts that the discipline of music criticism is not on par with either musicology or music theory. He mentions that in 1985, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and serious feminism were not present in either the study of musicology or the study of music theory. This statement must have been seen as a feeding ground for topic-hungry scholars. Though post-structuralism has not yet made it into music criticism, we now have dozens of books and essays written in the 1990s that include feminist music criticism and gender studies, as well as a healthy (or maybe an unhealthy) handful about deconstruction and music.

Kerman writes rather scientifically and factually about the disciplines he respects, but he tends to get more emotional when he writes disparagingly about journalistic criticism. Some publications and newspapers from the 1980s employed excellent music critics, but many did not. I think that Kerman, for better or for worse, might have bruised the egos of a few competent journalists by writing about the journalistic criticism the way he did. It is also important to remember that the journalistic record is very valuable for understanding music history, and is vital for people who want to follow musical activities in places where they are unable to attend concerts.

In the course of discussing some of the major figures in musicology, Kerman writes about material, attitudes, and styles that concern 20th century music. He discusses the prescriptive as well as the descriptive nature of modern music theory, mentioning that composers often feel the need to write music using the analytical methods devised by theorists in order to keep in step with the times. To give weight to his argument, Kerman mentions key composers, schools and styles.

Kerman's perception regarding the once-progressive Peter Maxwell Davies and conservative trends in British music is remarkable. Kerman mentions Davies fleetingly in the context of British music as a student in the 1950s in need of a teacher, and then he goes on to discuss the generally “behind-the-times” nature of British music. In the 1980s Davies, with his extraordinary imagination, proved to be an exception to the rule that British composers were more traditional than everyone else, but in the later 1990s his music became almost archetypically conservative.

Kerman mentions that musicologists are respected for what they know about music but not their insights into the aesthetics of music. Nowhere in either chapter does he mention anything about the real stuff of musical performance, the only real way that music is able to live. The performing musician, it seems, is not as important to the musicologist as the non-performing musician.

Music is far more than a historical, theoretical, and social practice; it is an expressive and emotional artistic one. Music offers a vehicle for expression of emotions that can be appreciated on many levels, especially on the non-intellectual level. It seems that the study of musicology, according to Kerman, is intended for musicologists and scholars rather than for practicing musicians. When he talks about the implication of musicologists as failed musicians, Kerman writes about the way musicologists separate musical passion and insight in their scholarly work, but he does not address this issue in any detail. I suppose it is out of the realm of musicology.

These chapters are a terrific introduction to the vast field of musicology. Even though they look at musicology from the musical atmosphere of the 1980s, they still serve as a point of departure for creative thinking about music.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Nothing New and Everything New

One of my astrology-minded friends attributes the recent changes in my life to conjunctions happening in the zodiac band. I'm not sure that is the best explanation for two of my long-time local friends independently deciding to nominate me for two different local awards. One is a "Woman of Achievement" award given annually by the Women's Studies Program at the local university, and the other is a Jefferson Award, which is something given for community service to people all over the country.

I feel rather shy about this embarrassment of recognition, but I also feel honored to be recognized in the community where I live for the contributions I make to the larger musical community. It does please me that people in the university community and in the greater local community recognize that musical contributions are indeed something of value.

The musical blogosphere may be slowing down, but even the small towns of Illinois, music (the "classical" kind) is still considered vital, even by people who don't necessarily go to concerts.