Monday, September 18, 2017

Columbus (the movie)

It has taken a while for me to formulate an opinion on Kagonada's 2017 film Columbus. After looking at Kagonada's other work, I think that I understand a little bit more about him as a director, and can therefore be more generous in my assessment of this film than I was while watching it.

Ultimately I think that Columbus is a more a film about photographing architecture than it is about architecture, and more a film at looking at relationships from the outside than it is a film about getting to understand characters.

The characters themselves are enigmas (and I hope I am not spoiling anything for anyone by describing them superficially, which is pretty much all we get in the movie).

Casey is a bright young woman (we don't know how young) who has an unusual attachment to the buildings in her home town in Indiana. She works in the public library (which has a Henry Moore sculpture in front of it) and doesn't want to leave town to go to college because she feels the need to take care of her mother (for reasons I will not disclose here).

Professor Jae Yong Lee is an architecture scholar who comes to Columbus to give a lecture and falls ill (that's literally all he does in the film).

Jin is Jae Yong Lee's son, who flies in from Korea to be with his father. He is older than Casey, but we don't really know how much older. John Cho, who is 45 but could easily pass for 30, keeps his age a mystery. Casey and Jin develop a friendship, which provides most of the film's substance.

Eleanor comes to Columbus with the professor. She is American, speaks Korean fluently, and calls Jae Yong Lee "professor," but it is not clear what the extent of their relationship is. Over a glass of wine Eleanor tells Jin how much she owes to his father. Her relationship with Jin is also not clear, though and they do eventually reveal that they had some kind of intimacy in their past.

Casey's mother is named Maria (I missed her name in the film, but found it in the cast list). She has the same coloring, haircut, voice type, and build as Eleanor, and is probably around the same age--whatever that might be. She is a woman of mystery who apparently can't cook, can't drive, and can't tell her daughter the truth about where she is much of the time. In the beginning of the movie she is often shot from the side or the back in a way that obscures her facial features. I have a feeling that we are supposed to confuse Maria with Eleanor.

There are architectural features that act almost like characters, and there are shots upon shots of doorways and hallways that seem to jump from one interior location to another. The shots are set up to be asymmetrical, yet balanced, and there is dialogue that lets us know that asymmetry and balance are important to modern architecture. The photography is beautiful.

Not everything in this compendium of architecture in Columbus, Indiana makes it into the film, and some buildings are featured more than others. The film got me thinking about architecture (and about visiting Columbus, Indiana one of these days), which is, I suppose, what Kagonada would like it to do.

It occurs to me that architecture is at once the most personal and the most impersonal of the arts. Architects design structures that provide shelter and safety, and they design interior spaces that determine personal boundaries and allow for shared experiences. When we are inside well-designed buildings and look out we feel a sense of connection with the outdoors, and when we look at buildings from the outside, we see them as sculptures that punctuate and enhance the natural landscape. We imagine what they might be like on the inside, but we cannot understand the real character of a building unless we are inside it. Even if we are watching it on film.

Watching this movie is, for me, like looking at the characters from the outside. We get small "windows," here and there, but even during periods of personal and revealing dialogue, I feel like the characters are about as comprehensible as the buildings they enter and exit. I like to think that this the director's intention.

There is one scene where Casey is parked outside her high school at night. She is dancing wildly to music that is playing on her car sound system. Jin is sleeping in the passenger seat of the car, and the headlights of the car are shining on her. She could be dancing as a reaction to what happened in previous scenes of the film, or she could just be dancing about architecture.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Finding Piatti

I have been thinking about Boccherini lately.

When he was in his twenties, Luigi Boccherini wrote six cello sonatas for cello with an accompanying bass line. They were first published in London 1770 in an edition that was not authorized by the composer (you can see it, a later edition, and a transcription for violin on this page of the IMSLP). None of the early publications have figures below the bass line, which would indicate to me that Boccherini either intended them as works for two cellos rather than as works for cello and basso continuo, or that he didn't intend to publish them at all.

It seems that the first person to make a full piano accompaniment from one of Boccherini's bass lines was Alfredo Patti (1822-1901). Luigi Forino (1868-1936), an important cello historian and composer, who served as the director of harmony and counterpoint at the National Conservatory in Buenos Aires, also had a hand in the piano part that Pablo Casals used for his recording of the Adagio and Allegro of the A major Sonata in the 1920s. It was published in 1946 by the International Music Company (designating Piatti and Forino as editors), and it was published in 1948 (without designation) by Carl Fischer as the "Feuermann" edition six years after Emanuel Feuermann's death.

I came across a reference to Morton Latham's 1901 book Alfredo Piatti: A Sketch while trying to learn something about piano part of the Boccherini sonatas. I found a difficult-to-read copy in Google Books, and was thrilled to find a lovingly transcribed edition presented by Lonely Peaks Records in an appropriately illustrated format. There is a lot of musical history in this portrait. It is teeming with famous composers, famous performers, and famous instruments. I imagine that Latham would have gotten all the stories directly from the cellist's mouth.

Here's a story about Piatti and one of the Boccherini Sonatas (as an example):

You can start reading here.

Friday, September 15, 2017

A Set of Five New Songs

For years my friend Daniel Morganstern has peppered our conversations with quotations from his mother's poems. I finally asked him to send me some of her poems with the hope of finding one or two that I could set to music. I was really pleased that I found five.

It is difficult finding poems to set to music because many of poems I like are complete within themselves, and they simply don't need music. And then there are poems that sound like they were written with the idea of music not far away. Milly Morganstern's poems are full of musical suggestions, so setting them was remarkably easy.

I felt, in a way, like I was getting to know Danny's mother through setting her poems. I did meet her briefly once, around 40 years ago. But I was very young (twenty), and she was my grown-up friend's mother. Milly Morganstern (1913-2000) was, according to Danny, a great pianist and a person with excellent musical instincts. I tried to imagine how she might have heard her poems as songs, and had a wonderful time doing so.

You can see the music on this page of the IMSLP, and you can listen to them here.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Alan Schulman's 1970 Setting of Kol Nidre

This setting of the Kol Nidre just blows the Bruch out of the water for me.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Skin in the Game

The score, parts, and a computer-generated recording of Skin in the Game are now available on this page of the IMSLP.

Enter the curiosity shop if you dare!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Writing Music is Bliss

It really is. Particularly when it involves completing a project that I have been working on for nearly 20 years.

I get a great deal of enjoyment out of moving notes around on staves. That sort of happiness could never be accurately weighed against any amount of money. Being able to do the work (having the material, time, technique, and passion) is its own reward; and when the piece I'm writing is completed, hearing a performance is an additional reward.

Right now I am in the middle of writing a piece based on Balzac's 1831 novel Le Peau de chagrin, known in English as The Wild Ass's Skin. I originally tried to set it as an opera, and I worked for years on a libretto, but no matter what I did, it didn't hold a candle to the novel. During the past two decades I worked out musical ideas here and there, and this summer I finally decided to put my musical ideas together in the form of a six-movement piece for a ten-piece chamber ensemble (or a chamber orchestra) that illustrates a few choice parts of the novel.

What do I love about writing for chamber orchestra? I love the choices of musical color and texture. I love exploring the personalities of the various instruments, as well as the musical personalities of the people--some who are real--that play them in the theater inside my head. I particularly love the way that articulations and dynamics work to shape phrases. And I feel so happy when I have all the notes, rhythms, and dynamics in the best of all possible places.

After this little bit of bloggery I'm excited to get back to work. So that's all for now . . .

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Stone Guest

I tend to equate events having to do with people who have risen to positions of power and abuse that power with what happens to the title character of Mozart's Don Giovanni. I did it in these pages back when John McCain was running for president, but I never would have imagined there would be so much to compare with the character of Don Giovanni in the current presidential administration (including the name).

We seem to be close to the end of the first act, where the Don is tricked into an intervention by the characters we know that he has harmed.

But with this new addition of statues into the mix, I can't help hoping for something like this to happen:

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Mozart Requiem on BBC "Soul Music"

This podcast episode of the BBC Radio 4 series "Soul Music" demonstrates more about the "why" of music than I ever thought possible. If you have a spare 27 minutes, particularly if you are feeling discouraged or detached, it would be beneficial to listen.

One segment includes an interview with Michael Finnissy, a composer who was tasked with completing Mozart's Requiem for a performance at the school where he taught. I find it particularly touching that Finnissy decided to complete it in the style of Rossini, when you consider that Rossini was born 91 days after Mozart died.

Here is a link to a paper that I intend to read soon.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Inventi Ensemble Recording

The Inventi Ensemble, an Australian ensemble made of flute, oboe, and string trio, made a lovely recording of the J.C. Bach D major Quintet, Op. 11 No. 6, the Britten Phantasy Quartet (one of my favorite pieces), the Mozart D major Flute Quartet, and their own excellent adaptation of my string quartet transcription of the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria for flute, oboe, viola, and cello.

The recording is available here.

Monday, August 07, 2017

I Think This is Progress!

The National Flute Association is holding their convention this weekend. I had a look at their website and found a list of all the music that will be performed at the convention.

Since I had just come from scanning the new uploads in the IMSLP for music by women, I decided to see how many female composers have music being performed at this convention. Since my method of tallying was far from scientific (but I did look up names), please allow for a margin of error.

My rough results:
Out of 403 composers (including 25 or so listed as "traditional"), 44 of them are female. There are also 30 female arrangers (arrangers of the pieces marked "traditional" as well as arrangers of pieces that were not written originally for flute). Granted, some of the arrangers are also listed as composers, and some have made arrangements of their own music for flute.
That still means that 9% of the composers who are having music performed at this convention are women.

I was surprised. 9% is certainly a larger representation than what we come across at concerts by orchestras or at major chamber music festivals. I also found it refreshing that many of the composers (around 250 of them, both male and female) represented on this list are living.

I imagine that the body of flute music that is performed at the NFA that is written by living composers will increase (this is far from an exhaustive list), and I trust that a decent percentage of those composers will be women. It would be nice to hope that during my lifetime (and I am looking at the possibility of a few more decades) the percentage of music performed at NFA Conventions will increase to somewhere closer to 50%.

N.B. Only two pieces by Mozart will be performed, one piece by C.P.E. Bach, one piece by W.F. Bach, and six pieces by J.S. Bach (four of which are arrangements).

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Reasons for Being a Musician

I recently heard a former musician talk about her musical accomplishments. And then she said that her attraction to studying music had nothing to do with music. She really enjoyed the work of practicing, studying, and getting incrementally better at something.

To me that notion is akin to being in a marriage with someone without feeling love, but really enjoying the idea of being a better and better wife, and getting better at resolving conflict. It is a good thing that the person I heard make that statement no longer plays for a living. This person does, however, offer practical professional advice to musicians. Love of music itself does not seem to fall into any part of the equation, though.

I confess that I do love the work of being a musician. I enjoy writing counterpoint exercises. I get a big burst of musical love (my reward) when I can make something small and meaningless sound beautiful. And I enjoy practicing scales, particularly in thirds and sixths, because I enjoy the resonance that happens when they are in tune. I also know that if I practice thirds and sixths every day, I will get stronger, and making double-stop passages sound beautiful becomes more of a possibility than it would be if I didn't practice double-stops. I also love practicing difficult passages with a metronome, and I love solving musical problems.

For me, though, the reward has always been in the music. The better I understand the music at hand, the more I find to love.

I do know people who love music as much as I love music, but they are not devoted to the daily work. I suppose that we all fall short of our goals in music, our early goals as well as the goals that we find later in our lives. The balance between the tenacity of daily work and the humility connected with the ultimate realization that reaching our loftier goals might never happen causes a constant state of dissonance that is, from time to time, resolved. Then the "goal post" gets moved: we learn something, we hear something, generations shift, rules change.

There are always young musicians who are attracted to the musical life because they want to be in the company of other musicians. Being part of an organized musical group gives young people who might otherwise consider themselves outcasts (and I think that all adolescents feel like outcasts at one time or another) the chance to be part of something cooperative and fun. I guess I did this too, to a certain extent, but I kind of chose the people I spent time with based on the repertoire possibilities. I remember always having duets in my bag, and I spent much of my adolescent time hanging out with like-minded flutists and oboists I could play duets with.

Some people like performing simply for the sake of performing. There are people who shop for snazzy concert clothes and really dress up for their audience, and there are people who really enjoy being the center of attention. There are certainly musicians who get excited when hearing applause.

I like playing concerts because I love sharing music, and I always dress for comfort. I love the excitement that enters the room when people are listening. I love it when things happen in the music during a concert that have never happened before. I think of audience applause as a part of the musical dialogue. It offers a physical and non-verbal way for an audience to collectively respond to the physical (and usually non-verbal) alternation of tension and release that happens in a concert. It also allows the members of the audience to feel connected to one another in their response to the emotional journey they have been on together.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Ladies and Gentlemen: York Bowen's Phantasy played by Anna Kolotylina

It is pretty silly that the German music critic Oscar Schmitz's 1904 comment calling Great Britain “the land without music” was taken seriously for so long. York Bowen certainly proved Schmitz wrong. This piece, written in 1918, is still fresh after nearly 100 years.

I find it amusing that Oscar Schmitz doesn't seem to be known for anything aside from this (clearly faulty) claim.

Anna Kolotylina, who comes from the Ukraine, plays in the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Eleanor Roosevelt's Wisdom as Applied to Music

These paragraphs from Eleanor Roosevelt's You Learn by Living (1960) resonate particularly well with me as I go about my daily business of practicing and writing music.

From her chapter on fear:
Do the things that interest you and do them with all your heart. Don't be concerned about whether people are watching you or criticizing you. The chances are that they aren't paying any attention to you. It's your attention to yourself that is so stultifying. But you have to disregard yourself as completely as possible. If you fail the first time then you'll just have to try harder the second time. After all, there's no real reason why you should fail. Just stop thinking about yourself.
From her chapter on the uses of time:
Since everybody is an individual, nobody can be you. You are unique. No one can tell you how to use your time. It is yours. Your life is your own. You mold it. You make it. All anyone can do is to point out ways and means which have been helpful to others. Perhaps they will serve as suggestions to stimulate your own thinking until you know what it is that will fulfill you, will help you to find out what you want to do with your life.
These apply to music-making on the level of the note, the phrase, or the overall conception of a piece, whether it is a piece that has been written (and needs to be practiced in order to be played) or a piece that has not yet been written (but needs to be).

Monday, July 31, 2017

Eleanor Roosevelt and Frank Sinatra

We all need a little bit of Eleanor Roosevelt these days. And she almost sings here.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Musical Thoughts from the Vegetable Garden

I don't spend a lot of time in our vegetable garden, because the plants that live there do their growing by themselves, but the time I spend there is always meaningful. I observe the way the plants relate to one another, and I observe the way they compete for light and space within the confines of our two 4 X 8 raised beds.

And I can't help thinking about the whole thing in musical terms.

The plants have leaves that take up ample space. The leaves take in energy from the sun, and, as long as there is water, good soil, and something to do the pollinating, they use that energy to make fruit. The plants get more efficient at making fruit as the season progresses, and the fruit the make tastes better once they have figured out the most efficient way to make it.

It is my job, now that everything is planted and flourishing, to make sure that the cucumbers don't strangle the tomatoes, and that the pole beans don't cast a shadow on the eggplants (heh heh the former pole beans . . . I have my priorities). I am the master of the garden.

Building an instrumental technique and becoming a musician is not that different, and I am the master of my technique.

You need good "soil" (a good teacher, good material to work on, and a decent instrument). You also need "rain," which could be analogous to consistent and intelligent practicing. Then, like any good plant, you learn to convert energy as efficiently as possible into what becomes the fruits of your labor, which other people can enjoy.

In order to produce "fruit," you have to gather musical energy from the stuff around you that is not given to you by your "soil" and "rain." This means doing a lot of listening (to your teacher and to your inner teacher) and a lot of observing in order to learn the ways other musicians manage to build technique. This comes from going to concerts and playing with other people. It also comes from reading, and thinking about the things you read. It comes from learning about the music you practice, and about the way that music relates to the time and place where it was written.