Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Remembering David Diamond

I was listening to a recording of the Grosse Fugue this morning, and the Grosse Fugue always reminds me of David Diamond.

At Juilliard, students were able to take "Literature and Materials of Music" classes with the composers on the faculty, and my second year I took a course on the fugue with David Diamond. Of course we listened to the Beethoven "Grosse Fugue." While it was playing Mr. Diamond shouted out the different parts of the fugue. He made sure to point out (loudly) all the statements of the subject, the answers, the episodes, and the strettos. After it was over he asked, "Miss Fine, what did you think of that?" to which I replied, "Mr. Diamond, I couldn't hear it." He said that he understood, and that he had been trying to hear the piece for years.

Right before Thanksgiving break I asked Mr. Diamond where he was going for Thanksgiving. He told me that he was going to Rochester to see his family. I told him that I had an uncle in Rochester, my great uncle Milton, Milton Bohrod, and I asked in an innocent way if Mr. Diamond might know him. Mr. Diamond replied, "I have played in a string quartet with Milton Bohrod for twenty-five years."

I didn't expect that. Actually, I didn't even know that Uncle Milton played the violin!

Mr. Diamond took a liking to me, and he told me about a book that was very important to him, something that I "must read." It was by Cyril Scott Music, Its Secret Influence Through the Ages. It opened a whole world concerning the idea of music and mysticism to me. I still own the book, and find that it has its unusual (some would say wacky) charms, but because Mr. Diamond recommeneded it to me I read it carefully and took it seriously. I guess that Mr. Diamond's Fugue class and Cyril Scott's book must have made strong marks on my psyche. I imagine that this is the kind of legacy Mr. Diamond would have wanted, and that is why I am sharing this memory.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Melinda and Melinda

Last night my family and I watched Woody Allen's 2004 film Melinda and Melinda. It had some terrific acting, particularly Radha Mitchell's ability to play the two contrasting Melinda roles so well, and Will Ferrell's ability to play Woody Allen as a plausible love interest so well. The film had the unlikely presence of not one but three pianists as romantic characters (one for each of the Melindas, and one for Melinda's friend-rival—actually you can count Melinda as one of the pianists, which brings the total to four), and one of them was even a composer.

Then there was a musical soundtrack that had lots of Ellington, Garner, and Hyman, the Stravinsky Violin Concerto (there was a line, "You certainly know your Stravinsky") and the Bartok Fourth Quartet featured prominently—even played on camera by the Shanghai Quartet and discussed slightly in the booth at a recording session. There is mention of Mahler's Second Symphony, and the principal players are even seen leaving a concert at Carnegie Hall discussing the "second movement" of something on the way out. There were also implausible musical moments: a performance of a Bach Prelude at a party by the soon-to-be love interest pianist (he entered as the "help" and I assume he left as a guest) that morphed into a four-hand version without the addition of the lower parts of the piano. One pianist got up and the other continued, but the remaining pianist was not sitting in a plausible spot for her hands to play the notes they were playing. There were also other scads of other implausibilities that you can read about in the reviews.

Then there is a scene in a movie theatre (probably the Thalia) where the soundtrack of the movie the actors are watching is billed in the credits as a piece by Brahms (which it was, in part), but the people who wrote the musical credits at the end of the movie neglected to mention that the slow movement from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony was in there too. (My daughter said to me "I love that. That's Beethoven's Seventh, right?"). I started wondering if Brahms had lifted the Beethoven's Seventh Slow movement and inserted it into his piece. I don't think so.

All in all I enjoyed the movie immensely.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Going into Music as a Profession

Thirty years ago I had my eyes and ears wide open. I understood a great deal about the business of music, but I still chose to go ahead and seek a musical education. I went to The Juilliard School of Music, one of the best conservatories in the country (some would say the world), and I came out of it with the hope that I would find work as a musician (I was a flutist at the time). I was lucky. I did find work as a musician, but it was not anything like the orchestra job that, as a teenager, I imagined I would get. It was also not in America.

My first job was teaching recorder and flute (mostly recorder) in a little town in Austria where one of my duties was to don a drndl and march in the town band for funerals. Later I had my taste of professional orchestral life subbing in the Hong Kong Philharmonic which came bundled with insecurities and never turned into a "real job." Many musicians from my generation went out of the country to find work. Some made lives in other countries, but many returned to look for jobs outside of music to support their musical habits.

After I retuned to America I married a great guy and moved to a small town in Illinois where I worked as the classical music director at a radio station (I learned how to do it on the job) and did a small amount of flute playing. I didn't have a master's degree, so I could not get a job teaching at the local university. I didn't get a master's degree because I didn't think it was ethical to encourage flutists to go into music as a profession.

Then I switched instruments: I learned to play the violin, and then learned to play the viola. After practicing at least three hours a day for several years, I was able to play in a professional string quartet. I got work playing string quartets for weddings and playing string quartet concerts. When the work is plentiful I make around $5,000 a year playing. Add a few freelance orchestral jobs to that and the amount I make playing my instrument goes up $2,000 or so.

I decided to get a master's degree in composition, and now that I have a master's degree I am qualified to teach music appreciation at a community college, which still does not bring my yearly wages above the poverty level. I also make a little bit of money as a composer (very little) and as a critic (very, very, little) and as a writer. These activities take a huge amount of time, and the amount of money I make per hour of work is not worth measuring or mentioning. These activities are labors of love.

I am thankful that I am married to a person who understands my need to be a musician and is able to support our family financially. My advice to anyone determined to go into music as a profession is to marry well (meaning marry someone who understands your musical needs and is able to support them) and to get a real education. Learn about the world. Learn to use your brain. Learn about history and science. Learn to read literature. Learn to write. Learn how to find happiness in things that do not cost money. Play concerts. Share your love of music with people, especially your children and/or other people's children.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Van Loon's Lives

When I feel out of sorts I often go to my bookshelf and pick out a book that I might have bought when I felt out of sorts at some earlier time. The book I picked up yesterday was Van Loon's Lives by Hendrik Willem van Loon. I bought it at a used book store thinking that it was the book I tried to read in second grade (I wanted to read every book in the school library, and this was the biggest one of all) called The Story of Mankind by the same writer. When I realized I had the wrong book it went on my book shelf and sat there for a few years, until yesterday.

The book, written in 1942, is a series of scenarios involving dinner parties with various people from various times history. Some dinner party "groups" are made of people who lived at around the same time, and some groups are made of people who lived in entirely different times from one another. Van Loon introduces each guest to the reader, he and his wife have to decide what to serve, and we get to read about their dinner discussion. Here are some of the chapters that involve musicians:

Chapter IV: This Time Erasmus Had a Surprise for Us, and we Make the Acquaintance of the BACHS and the BREUGHELS

In the course of this chapter the host plays Bach a recording of his Toccata and Fugue as orchestrated by Stokowski, and Bach is not impressed. He thinks it sounds like something Vivaldi might have written before he learned to write. J.S. Bach is joined by his ancestors and his sons, and W.F. does a considerable amount of drinking. Of course the Bachs spent much of the evening playing music while the Breughels painted their portraits.

There is reference also to dinner guest from another evening, Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire (I learned his full name from this book), who was impressed with Frits' (another member of the party-giving crew) typewriter. "If I had one of those contraptions," he said, playing with the keys, "I might have done a little writing."

Chapter XI: SAINT FRANCIS, H.C. ANDERSEN, and MOZART Come, But They Do Not Come Alone

Chapter XVII: And Now a Rather Strange Combination, EMILY DICKINSON and FREDERICK CHOPIN, But Emily Has the Time of Her Life, and Chopin Shows us What Can Be Done With a Minni-Piano

This book is sure to keep me "in sorts" for a long time.

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

My Experience with the Mozart Effect

When I was about 13 and beginning to learn algebra I used to listen to a recording of Mozart's 20th Symphony when I did my math homework. For some reason it seemed to help me, and while I was listening I actually seemed to understand what I was doing. Unfortunately nobody played Mozart's 20th Symphony when I was in math class or when we had tests, so I never really got good at math, but I did learn to love Mozart.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Random Thoughts about Listening to Recordings

Because I work as a record reviewer, much of the listening I do could be thought of by some as work. When I listen to a recording that I am planning to review I need to pay attention to what I hear and figure out something to say about it that might be useful to someone who may or may not be interested in what I have to say. Those readers may or may not go out and buy that particular recording, and if any of them do, each person would certainly have a different experience listening to the recordings I write about. I hope that I'm doing some good.

My concern as a record reviewer is to try and hear what the people who participated in the making of a particular recording, including the composer of the music, put into it. This requires listening beyond the surface. It is very important to be honest. If what I write is true (and there are many truths when it comes to writing subjectively) then I am happy.

I rarely have any contact with any of the people who make the recordings I review, even when they are people I once knew, and it is equally rare that anyone makes any kind of comment about a review I have written. It is a kind of lonely way of communicating, but listening to recordings has become a rather solitary act thanks to portable stereos and ipods. Even listening to the radio is usually a solitary act. People tend to listen alone in their cars. Once in a while two people might be listening at the same time in a car, but I believe it is rare to have a really communal listening experience listening to classical music on the radio. There is certainly no communication with the person sitting in the radio station who decided to play that particular recording and press the button to have it play.

In a way listening to recordings is the opposite experience from being in the audience at a concert. A recording you can turn off if you are tired of it, but at a concert you would be disruptive or even insulting if you got up and left. If you happen to be listening to a recording with someone else, you can make comments out loud about the music (another concert no-no). If you want to listen to something again on a recording, it takes no more effort than pressing a button. In a concert you would have to wait unti the end of the piece and yell "encore!" Even then the performers would probably play a selection they prepared for their "encore," and would not repeat the exact movement or section of a movement you would have liked to have heard again. It would also surely be different from the performance you would have just heard, because no two performances of any piece are exactly the same, even when played by the same people in the same place, and for the same audience.

At a concert (one that is not being recorded) you can share a collective experience of a moment in time that happens only once and will never happen again.

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Friday, November 04, 2005

Is it a trend or an exception?

Last night my husband Michael and I played for "open mic night" at a local coffee house. Michael is a jazz guitarist and plays like one, and I improvise on the violin like a composer. Still, we get along musically and have developed a respect for each other's style. Anyway, we played a couple of old "standard" songs last night and had a really good time playing. What impressed me most about the evening however, was the kind attentiveness of the audience. The performing area of the coffee house was packed with mostly college and high school students, and nobody talked during any of the performances (we stayed for two hours). It almost seemed to me that the people who were there last night (people in their later teens and twenties!) had a kind of need to participate in live performance either as a performer or as a listener. In this media-drenched age it fills me with hope.

Is this particular coffee house an isolated island of highly civilized behavior, or does this reflect a general trend?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Why do people go to concerts anyway?

Part of my musical life is spent going to concerts. I used to spend more time going to concerts when I lived in a city, but now that I live in a more rural area it seems that half of the concerts I attend are those I am playing in myself.

My major activity as a teenager (besides practicing) was going to concerts. I lived in Boston where there were always free concerts at the various universities and conservatories. I actually got to recognize members of the audience who seemed to "always be there." I suppose those people saw me as a person who was "always there" too, but one of the nice things about going to concerts in a city is that as part of the audience you can be among people, but you can also be with the music by yourself. There can be a tacit understanding between "regulars" that never needs to erupt into conversation. Sometimes those silent relationships are magical in themselves. It is, in a way, a luxury to be able to have the intimate contact that you have with the musicians playing and with the strangers sitting by you without having to say a word. For the time being there is a unique sense of community.

Playing concerts offers a similar experience. There are individuals in the audience, but when you are playing for them the line between each of the individuals seems to vanish. Everyone is experiencing the music. Some people are listening more intently than others (and I do believe that there is some kind of tacit communication between listeners, and those who listen with the most intensity somehow convey that sense of concentration to the other people in the audience) and some are only able to absorb what is on the surface. Still, it is the collective experience that makes concerts such special events. And as an instrumental musician I can communicate without having to use words.

Unfortunately when the music is over the experience is over.

One of the assignments I give to my music appreciation students is to go to a concert and write about it. I have 50 or so students, and only one of them has gone to a concert so far this semester. My hope is that my students will be sensitive to the delicate and rare sort of communication that happens during a concert of unamplified art music performed by people who have spent years learning how to play their instruments and months learning the music that they are playing on a particular concert.

I always hope that the concerts my students go to will be given in the spirit of universal music making. I always hope that the performers will maintain a sense of formality and offer their performance in the spirit of magic that I believe is ideal. Music is sacred and should be different from everything else. It is not simply entertainment. Entertainment can be found on television.

It is important to reach out to an audience with interesting programming. I always feel cheated with performing entities reach out to their audience with only music that is familiar. It is as if they think that their audience is not capable of listening to anything besides what they know. If performing entities do this for long enough, we will only hear the most familiar music on concert programs, and will have to turn to recordings to hear anything besides the warhorses of the repertoire.

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