Monday, August 31, 2015

Music in Willa Cather's The Best Years

Though there is not yet any direct mention of music in Willa Cather's The Best Years, which can be found in the out-of-print set of Cather stories published in 1948 as The Old Beauty and Others (Michael and I read half of The Best Years today), there is such music in Cather's prose. Here's one example:
The horizon was like a perfect circle, a great embrace, and within it lay the cornfields, still green, and the yellow wheat stubble, miles and miles of it, and the pasture lands where the white-faced cattle led lives of utter content. All their movements were deliberate and dignified. They grazed through all the morning; approached their metal water tank and drank. If the windmill had run too long and the tank had overflowed, the cattle trampled the overflow into deep mud and cooled their feet. Then the drifted off to graze again. Grazing was not merely eating, it was also a pastime, a form of reflection, perhaps meditation.
Here's another that mentions sound:
If they turned in early, they had a good while to enjoy the outside weather; they never went to sleep until after ten o'clock, for then came the sweetest morsel of the night. At that hour Number Seventeen, the westbound passenger, whistled in. The station and the engine house were perhaps an eighth of a mile down the hill, and from far away across the meadows the children could hear that whistle. Then came the heavy pants of the locomotive in the frosty air. Then a hissing--then silence: she was taking water.
Willa Cather worked for a time as a tutor for the Menuhin family, and remained a close family friend after the Menuhin children grew up. You can see some interesting passages about the relationship from a Cather-based perspective here, and from a Menuhin-based perspective here.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Practice Mirror "Hack"

Practicing with a mirror is extremely helpful for string players. My ideal practice space has a large window that takes up much of the wall. When I hang a mirror the normal way, the hook makes the mirror tilt towards the floor. I decided that the best remedy for this problem would be to prop the bottom of the mirror up so that it tilts ever so slightly towards the ceiling, which allows me to see the position of my bow in the space between the fingerboard and the bridge.

I made a set of two tilting "machines" from things I found in my desk drawer:




Sunday, August 16, 2015

Rambling Onward

I have always worked my way through grief through cleaning and through playing Bach. I made it through the grief I had during the time of my brother's death last August by organizing his music and the paintings and family memorabilia from my mother that he was transporting to his home in Memphis. I also spent time every day playing Bach on the piano.

I have been making my way through the grief I feel for my father-in-law by getting my own house in order. Marie Kondo refers to cleaning and de-cluttering as "tidying," which is a nice tidy word for a new way of thinking creating order with the things we like keep around us, and getting rid of the things that do not give us joy. Jim Leddy was a very "tidy" man, and my act of tidying is a mindful way of honoring him.

Our daughter sent a message to Michael about Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which she had been reading on the plane en route to the hospice in New Jersey. She thought Michael, who is deeply attracted to the idea of organizing things (and has a lot of things to organize), would like the book. We left the hospice for an hour or two, and went to a fine Barnes and Noble store in Paramus, New Jersey. Michael bought the Kondo book, and I bought a Hal Leonard piano collection of piano music.

The hospice where we were staying had a piano, and I really needed to play in order to work through all of the emotional intensity we were experiencing while Michael's father was in his final days. The piano at the hospice was missing a handful of notes, so I had to use my imagination to fill in the missing pitches. I usually play the piano behind closed doors. Not having all the notes available took the pressure off playing the piano in a public space.

I need to play music in order to feel like a human being. It is just the way I am wired. Years ago, before I started practicing the piano conscientiously, I wondered what it would be like if I were somewhere where the only instrument I could play was a piano. I found myself in such a situation, and I happened to be prepared. Being able to play for an hour or so made all the difference for me. After that I was able to keep myself on track.

We have been home for almost a week, and all my clothes are now folded in the Japanese way. Even though I cannot see into my drawers, I know that they are nicely packed and that everything is accessible. I can now open any drawer and see every item of clothing in it. I also feel that my mind is cleaner when I practice: my playing has magically become more "tidy." Really.

Michael jokes that our house is now a "Kondo-minium." When making the space you live in tidy feels like a pleasure rather than a chore, life feels much more harmonious, even during difficult times.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Exhibit at the Library of Congress Website

I believe that Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge was the most important American patron of chamber music performance and chamber music composition in the 20th century. The exhibition devoted to her life and work at the Library of Congress website has letters, photographs, compositions, and recordings that I have never seen or heard before.

You can read some Musical Assumptions posts about Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge I have made over the years here.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

August Is the New April

August is the cruelest month.

I haven't posted for a while because my husband lost his father last week. Michael wrote a beautiful eulogy for him that I think anyone who reads this blog would enjoy reading. My time and mind have been taken up by family things these days, but I will post about things musical at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Why Playing the Piano Is Like Riding a Bicycle

The other day I saw a video about learning to ride a bicycle that has been adjusted so that the front wheel turns left when the rider turns it to the right. If you haven't seen it, it is well worth 8 minutes. If you don't have 8 minutes, the gist of the film clip is that learning to ride a bicycle is an activity that requires a specific set of left-right balances. Once you learn those specific balances, they become unconscious. The person in this film clip taught his young son to ride a backwards-engineered bicycle, and he did so with the same degree of difficulty he would have learned to ride a conventionally-engineered bicycle. The grown-up person (who had learned to ride a conventional bicycle as a child) had a great deal more trouble. After he finally got the hang of the backwards-engineered bicycle, he could no longer ride a conventional bicycle.

After watching the video I became acutely aware of my left-right balances when playing the viola. When I would move myself from one side of the music stand to the other, the (very familiar) music felt and sounded a little bit different. A lot can be gained by changing our position in relation to the music stand when we are reading music.

But my real understanding of how the left-right balance bicycle problem relates to music making happened this morning when I was practicing the 10th Prelude from the first book of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV 855) on the piano.

Since I spent the plastic years of childhood NOT learning how to have both hands do similar yet sometimes opposite things on the piano in order to make music move forward in a balanced, deliberate, and speedy way (particularly in the Presto section), I find this Prelude particularly difficult.

Perhaps adult pianists who try to play this Prelude with crossed hands might understand something about what the beginning adult pianist goes through concerning left and right balances.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Gilligan's Hamlet

These were the original words as far as I was concerned, because it was on Gilligan's Island more than 40 years ago that I heard these melodies for the first time. I saw this episode only once and somehow all the words have remained vividly etched in my brain (though the images were only in black and white). I had no idea what Hamlet was, or why this would be parody. I thought it was just a nice treat for those of us who faithfully watched the show.

Summer Music, Einmal Anders

I wrote Summer Music for violin and piano in June of 2009. My friend Jennifer Paull asked me to make a transcription of it for oboe d'amore and piano, and yesterday I came across this recording of it on YouTube played on electronic instrument called the EW1.

This performance by Gorden Gunzelman is so expressive that it is hard to believe it is being played on an electronic instrument (or two electronic instruments, since there is also a piano part). Since the world of electronic wind controllers is new to me, I had to do a bit of investigation. I learned that these wind controllers have been around for almost 30 years. They make it possible for people to make the sounds of instruments that require specialized techniques and hard-won embouchures easily, and can be wonderful vehicles for expression. Expression is, along with imagination, syntax, timing, and contextual awareness, one of the human components in music making. I write music for people can be use as vehicles for expression, and I write music so that people can communicate musically with other people. I am pleased as punch that Gorden Gunzelman chose "Summer Music" as a piece to demonstrate how beautifully it is possible to play using an electronic wind controller.

These instruments could, if they can "run" string sounds, also make it possible for anyone who can read music and understands basic recorder fingerings to experience the great body of string chamber music from the 18th and 19th centuries. It certainly isn't a substitute for a string instrument (and probably should be considered an instrument in its own class), but using these instruments in unconventional (or perhaps conventional) ways could open up a vast repertoire to players of wind (and brass) instrument that they otherwise would not be able to experience personally and intimately.

The instrument Gunzelman is playing is an EW1 4000s, and it is made by Akai. The practitioners of the instrument call it an "ee-wee," but if you search for it online, make sure you use a numeral 1 for the "I."

Monday, July 27, 2015

Imaginary Venn Diagram: Sewing Intersecting with Composing

I have dismally failed at making a Venn diagram to illustrate the phenomenon I have been experiencing these last few days, so words will have to suffice.

A couple of weeks ago I made a post about the "Supreme State of Sew," and since that time I have been alternating between sewing and writing a piece for string quartet. The piece for string quartet is a set of variations on a theme that I wrote many years ago (at least 10), and have used before, but not in a piece for string quartet. The sewing I have been doing is similar in spirit. I have been taking old pieces of clothing that no longer fit me (or never fit me properly), and turning them into useful pieces of clothing. A huge Indian dress from the 1990s that has the label "one size" has become a comfortable and size-appropriate skirt, and a skirt from the 1990s that was always too long and had an elastic waist that has lost its "spring" has turned into a shorter skirt with pleats and a waistband. Another dress that lost its elastic has become a skirt, and I have one more "one size" dress to convert.

The whole process is kind of thrifty. I don't need to make room in my closet because the items at hand are already taking up space there. I also don't need to spend any money (except for the occasional fastener or package of bias tape which is useful in making waistbands).

I always have repeating musical figures that run through my head when I sew. This time, because I was busy at work on a piece of music, the music I was working on was running through my head. While sewing I would work things out in the music I was writing. While I was at work on my piece, I would occasionally get a solution to sewing problem. This is the first time that my "state of sew" has intersected so intimately with my extended "state of bow." It's been a great couple of weeks!

Here's a computer-generated recording of the piece.

The music is in the IMSLP.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

"You Never Know."

Here's a great NPR piece about Stuart Canin, a 19-year-old violinist who brought his instrument with him when he went off to become a rifleman in WWII. Here's a link to a site that includes Canin playing a 2014 concert of the music that he and Eugene List played for Truman, Churchill, and Stalin when they met in Potsdam.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Marshall's "Memphis" Sonata Played by Daniele Colombo

Marshall's "Memphis" Viola Sonata played excellently by Daniele Colombo:

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Keyboard Adventures

I think the same exact thought every time I come across the measures on the left (from the Second Prelude of the first book of Bach's WTC), so I'm finally sharing it here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Supreme State of Sew

Michael made a post the other day about Simone Weil's statement, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” I feel that the sheer act of being extremely attentive to something in motion (like nature, dance, music, poetry, prose) is both stimulating and calming. That's probably one reason I love to sew. It's also one of the reasons I love to write music.

I have often made analogies between sewing and music (though not in this blog). Both involve material that begins in a pure state and gets manipulated (cut up, and put together). Both involve adjustments, corrections, and brief periods of examining a small part of a whole through a strong magnifying glass. Both involve measuring and taking risks. Both involve making something for practical use that is both durable and expressive.

A good theme, subject, or harmonic progression is kind of like having a few yards of a good fabric. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out what to make of it. Sometimes the fabric works for a particular pattern that I know fits, wears well, and usually looks just fine. I have one dress pattern that I have used for six dresses. (I think that the dress I made yesterday will be the last one I make with that particular pattern.) I have more material in the closet, but I will just need to wait to see how to use it. I also have musical material scattered here and there that I know will find its way into one piece or another.

While I am sewing I find myself in what I call the "supreme state of sew." It's sort of like the "supreme state of mow," which happens when I mow the lawn, because musical figures loop through my mind over and over again (last night it was a snippet of "Poor Wandering One" from Pirates of Penzance). There's also the "supreme state of bow," which (see the link above) happens when practicing slow scales.