Saturday, June 30, 2007

This is beyond unusual: It's simply wonderful

I guess it must be in the genes: he is the great grandson of Konstantin Stanislavsky.


Friday, June 29, 2007

Musical Stewards?

I once played a performance of a piece for violin and piano written by a young (and rather talented) composer. I told him that I really don't enjoy performing my own music, and that I much prefer playing concerts of music written by other people. His answer was something like "other people are better stewards of my music that I am." I had never heard anyone refer to a person playing a piece of music as its "steward."

I looked up Steward in Merriam-Webster and found the following definitions:

1 : one employed in a large household or estate to manage domestic concerns (as the supervision of servants, collection of rents, and keeping of accounts)
3 : a fiscal agent
4 a : an employee on a ship, airplane, bus, or train who manages the provisioning of food and attends passengers b : one appointed to supervise the provision and distribution of food and drink in an institution
5 : one who actively directs affairs : MANAGER

I don't really get the idea of a person playing a piece of music being its "steward," but I kind of like the idea of performing musicians and composers being like note stewards. Composing musicians manage the harmonic and melodic concerns of the music while it is being written (would you like another E-flat in that chord, can I make that sextuplet more comfortable to play by changing the articulation, would this make more sense if there were five beats in this measure?), and performing musicians direct the affairs of the notes and phrases (I think that the G-sharp is the most important note in this measure, or that low D could be softer, or this is the right tempo).

Which reminds me of a totally unrelated story (or maybe it is related): Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was having a composition lesson with Charles Villiers Stanford, and Stanford spilled some of his tea on Coleridge-Taylor's score. He was then reported to have said "now your piece is in the key of ti."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Standing String Quartet?

Charles Noble wrote a response to a concert that the Emerson Quartet played last week in Carnegie hall with three quarters of their ensemble standing up. It seems that the Emerson Quartet's influence has rubbed off on some of the younger just-out-of-music-school quartets that are cropping up like violets just about everywhere.

To me chamber music, particularly playing string quartets, is a musical experience among equals, and four people sitting together, moving only when necessary, and watching one another's bows and faces, are playing together on a kind of equal turf. The musical product of the group of four has every chance of sounding like a unified sum that is greater than all its parts.

When the group of four stands up they become four standing individuals who each claim their own place on the stage, very much like the way a standing soloist takes a commanding place on the stage. The audience, which reacts physically (we all do) to what it sees as well as what it hears, has its attention pointed towards the players rather than towards the music. It is, as far as I'm concerned, the beginning of the end for any chance of a purely musical experience. What we get is "entertainment."

To me standing to play a string quartet is like standing to eat a meal. Sure, standing makes it possible for upper string players to move around more freely (though Noble said that the Emerson's violinists were kind of stiff), and moving around freely is one of the things that young string quartets are encouraged to do so that they can feel the music, I guess. Standing string quartet players look better as individuals because you can see the actual cut and style of their clothes, and costume is important when you are trying to provide a kind of (often expensive in cities) entertainment in order to compete for the "leisure dollar."

The idea of a string quartet concert as entertainment is a new thing for me. I like listening to string quartets for the music. I like the intimate experience of listening to four people sitting down and playing a piece of music for my enjoyment, my enlightenment, my education at times, and to satisfy my emotional needs. Entertainment I can get from the television.

I certainly hope that this is just a passing fad.

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Those wonderful teenage (y)ears

I love reading the recent posts and comments at Dial M for Musicology about teenage listening experiences. We all had them, and they almost always involved "discovery." When our children were young I tried not to impose my musical preferences on them because I remembered the joy I had as a teenager when I found my "own" music. Sure, my discoveries were sometimes found in my parents' small collection of recordings they never listened to (the small number of recordings we had amazed me since my parents were both musicians), and they were sometimes pieces I heard played at my father's concerts, like the Brahms and Dvorak Piano Quartets, but nobody told me what to listen to. I am grateful that my parents let me develop my musical tastes on my own, and I wanted to pass that experience to my own kids.

From a very young age both of our kids practiced (violin and cello), took lessons, played in orchestras and chamber music groups, sang in chorus and in shows, and managed to become exposed to a lot of what I would consider worthwhile music through the stuff that they heard around the house.

I will never forget the day that my daughter Rachel (who is now 20) came into my bedroom and started singing some Simon and Garfunkel songs for me. She had just heard them on the radio (a few years ago "oldies" stations were all the local rage). She had a look of pure joy on her face while she sang them. She had found something of her own, and it was something really beautiful, and it was something she wanted to share with me. I loved Simon and Garfunkel as a teenager too. Imagine my inner kvell.

Our son Ben (who is now 18) and his sister share many of the same likes and dislikes in popular music, but Ben has been devoting a lot of energy into expanding his musical horizons backwards and sideways. The other day he took some recordings out of the library. They were recordings that were important in my husband Michael's teenage years, and if he had known Ben was interested in listening to them, he would have gladly let Ben borrow his copies. I was very happy that Michael was able to share that particular "discovery" moment with Ben.

As exciting as my own teenage musical awaking was, watching and listening to the musical awakenings of our kids is even more exciting. It seems that all discovery for a teenager is self-discovery, and that's one of the things that makes watching (and listening to) kids grow up so much fun.

Update! Ben just told me about his brand new myspace music page where you can listen to him singing (and playing guitar and cello on) some of his own songs.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

A Response to Alex Ross "On the Road"

I live in what most New Yorkers might refer to as "beyond the provinces," but my husband and I still get the magazine. It is nice to know that Alex Ross took the time to fly to Indianapolis, rent a car, and drive to a couple of cities accessible by way of the interstate highway system. I'm glad that he enjoyed the concerts he heard played by three of the many fine professional orchestras scattered through the Midwest and upper south, and I'm glad that he shared his experience with the readers of the New Yorker.

He didn't quite get all his information right though. He mentioned that
"conservatories are producing wave after wave of almost excessively skilled players, and, like Ph.D.s in the humanities, hundreds of them fan out across the continent each year in search of jobs. They may stay with a regional orchestra for only a season or two before moving on to a higher salary, but they raise the level of playing as they go."
Mr. Ross needs to change that number to thousands, and he needs to make his geographical range global, because people routinely travel from the far "corners" of the world for the possibility of a job in a full time American orchestra. Also, if someone is lucky enough (and there is a certain element of luck involved in the audition process) to get a job in Indianapolis, Nashville, or Birmingham, s/he is more likely to stay than move on. Vacancies for any instrument in a full-time professional orchestra are few and far between, and the number of highly-qualified applicants is exponentially out of proportion to the number of jobs available "out in the provinces" in any given year.

Distance from the established centers of American music making does not have anything to do with the quality of a person's playing or an orchestra's playing. There are great musicians everywhere, and the people who are able to win competitive auditions should be celebrated the way Olympic athletes are celebrated for their accomplishment. It is no surprise to me that the bass solo in Mahler's First Symphony, as played by the Indianapolis Symphony's principal bassist, was great. The principal string players in Indianapolis are as good (I could even use the world great) as principal string players in any "big city" orchestra who make a lot more money.

There are a few (and that is a literal few: between three and five) people who "move up" in the orchestra world in a given year, but many of the best jobs (many is not a good word: I'm talking about a handful of jobs) in the East Coast orchestras have gone to excellent instrumentalists in their early 20s who have come straight from Curtis, and will stay in those jobs for the rest of their professional lives.

People with Ph.D.s in even the most specialized fields of the humanities have a far better chance of getting work in their fields that would pay the rent and raise a family than musicians graduating from conservatories.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Power of Vibrato

From a creepy website about brainwashing techniques:
"Vibrato is the tremulous effect imparted in some vocal or instrumental music, and the cycle-per-second range causes people to go into an altered state of consciousness. At one period of English history, singers whose voices contained pronounced vibrato were not allowed to perform publicly because listeners would go into an altered state and have fantasies, often sexual in nature."
Wow. Now that's as good a reason as any to practice vibrato and use it liberally.


Musical Ethics

I love the character of Niles Crane on Frasier. Whenever he violates his ethics (whether as a psychiatrist or as a person) he gets a nose bleed. Wouldn't it be wonderful if people in music had a similar sense of ethics? For many of us the process of playing, studying, writing, writing about, and listening to music is as important and as sacred as religious services and study are to people actively involved in practicing various religions (and there is, of course, some overlap in these groups). Many problems that arise between musicians and in musical institutions are ethical ones, and we do have many "unwritten rules" that cause all of us to scratch our heads and wonder if we are doing the right thing at any given time.

I wonder why this subject that hasn't been discussed much in a public way on line? In my last google search I was surprised to find only seven entries for "musical code of ethics," and only two for "code of musical ethics." A search for "musical ethics" had many more, but they all seemed to be connected with the business of music, popular or commercial music, or legal ownership of intellectual property. I had hoped to find something addressing musical ethics among practicing classical musicians.

A code of ethics would make life much easier. There isn't really, for example, an established ethical way to deal with situations involving possible performances of new works. Communication between composers and the people they write music for might fall into the category of business ethics, except for the fact that with classical music there is little (if any) money to be made. Ethical situations encountered in teaching music to students might be a lot like ethical situations in other forms of teaching, but they involve issues unique to music.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Hocket anyone?

I guess Britain's got taste

Paul Potts did win the Britain's Got Talent show, and his prize, aside from world-wide recognition, is to sing for the queen. In addition to talent, Paul Potts has training and operatic experience as Michelle Bennett revealed to us in a link to the German publication 20minuten. Still, I think that this is a great step forward towards interesting the TV-watching masses in "serious" music. Of course this new found interest could go in many different ways.

fantasy scenario 1

Mummy? What is that man singing about?

He's singing a song about the fact that the Queen has made a law that nobody can sleep in the kingdom until she learns his name, but you see . . . (Here's a synopsis of Turandot. "Nessun Dorma" -- roughly translated as "nobody is sleeping" -- comes at the beginning of the third act).

Can we watch this opera some time?

fantasy scenario 2

Some accomplished musicians, including instrumentalists, get the idea to enter these kinds of contests with the hope that Simon and the other judges might give them a chance. They can all make sure to mention their day jobs as their primary occupations.

fantasy scenario 3

People start to realize that singing by really using a trained voice and not depending on a microphone for projection can be a very powerful thing. They might want to do it themselves. Then they might start to think of what they previously referred to as "talent" as a matter of training and discipline, and they might even start to move away from using amplification altogether. Modern churches might once again be constructed to have real acoustics rather than have expensive sound systems, and the ever-growing number of people who will go out of their way to hear excellent singing will choose powerful trained voices over powerfully-amplified ones.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Happy Father's Day, Michael

Look at the picture Michael put on his blog today.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Alan Shulman

When I was 20 my cellist friend and teacher Danny Morganstern took me to visit his friend Alan Shulman. I didn't know anything about Alan Shulman at the time except that he played in the NBC Symphony and that he had written a cello concerto for Leonard Rose. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but then again, I was just along "for the ride."

This was back in the 1970s, a time when the adult world (of which I was not really a part yet) seemed to be divided between people who were "old school" and had lifestyles that were pretty much the same as they would have been during the 1940s or 1950s, and people who were "progressive" and "hip." Shulman was definitely "old school," as was his house, that had a sort of sun room that reminded me at the time of the sun room in the house where I took violin lessons ten years before. He played us a recording of Rose playing his concerto, and I was bewildered because so many of the composers I knew spent their time writing atonal music, and what I heard was strikingly expressive, and exceptionally beautiful and colorful. I found myself wishing that someday I might be allowed, if I ever had the chance to write music, that it could be something like his music.

Then he played us a recording that he said was the very best chamber music he had ever heard. It was a 1975 recording of Teresa Berganza and Felix Lavilla singing and playing Spanish songs. It was an enlightening experience to listen to this fantastic recording with someone who listened so deeply and with so much love for both the music and the music making. Danny tells me that we also talked about a lot of things, but all I can really remember is how much I liked this man and his music.

I went to the record store and bought the Berganza-Lavilla recording, and I listened to it daily for years, until I gave it to someone special (though I can't remember who) when I left the country.

When I started to get serious about writing music, I thought I'd write to Alan to tell him how much it meant for me to meet him twenty years or so earlier. I got his address from Danny, and then got a letter from his son Jay thanking me for the letter and telling me that his father had just had a stroke. Alan died shortly afterwards. Jay knew about the Berganza recording, and he made me a tape of it for me. I cherish the fact that it is a tape of Alan's copy of the recording.

I have been really fortunate to get to know Alan's music by working with Jay to make computer-engraved editions of some of his brilliantly-orchestrated pieces for orchestra, as well as through playing some of his music myself. His music has also been recorded, and continues to be performed, now that "old school" music is now "hip."

You can listen to some examples of Alan's music here.

Sometimes going along for the ride can really change your life.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


Does this bother anyone aside from me? Don't these "music professionals" know that most musicians, especially singers, have day jobs? Who would define himself or herself as a "cell phone salesman" anyway. The whole thing on the part of Simon Cowell, the rest of the judges, and the camera people is so very staged and emotionally edited (maestro, if you will press the green button please), but I imagine that the Welsh audience's reaction is actually spontaneous. Many of the members of the "Britain's got Talent" audience know the piece from the World Cup Soccer tournament a few years ago, so it was a good choice. Do you think that Paul Potts might win?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

80 Pieces!

I just finished entering everything that I have written that I consider worth sharing into my Thematic Catalog and now I really feel like I have accomplished something, because I am able to look at it and count it, and realize that I am proud of what I have done over these past eight years or so of writing music seriously. I hope that somebody can make use of some of the music in this catalog.

I think I deserve a nice chunk of violin practice before settling into our movie entertainment for the night.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Thematic Catalog

In an effort to try my hand at the kind of self-promotion that composers have to do in order to survive in the vast world of music, I have decided to start an on-line Thematic Catalog of the music that I have had published (as well as some that is not published) during the last several years. My plan is to put the first page of each movement from one piece every day, or more, if possible.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Musical Doctors

When I was growing up outside of Boston, our family doctor played the violin. Around Boston it was common for doctors to be musicians (and even for musicians to be doctors). Out here in Central Illinois there are lots of musicians with doctoral degrees in various disciplines, but I haven't come across a medical doctor-musician in years. What a treat it was to come across this beautifully-written blog by a Boston-based anesthesiologist who recently started playing the oboe.

I am very glad that there are still a lot of doctor-musicians "practicing" in the world. There's a famous doctors' orchestra that seems to be thriving in Los Angeles, there's one in Houston, one in New York, one in Europe, one in Philadelphia, and of course one in Boston.

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

Ellington Symphonic Music Concert

Last night I played a concert of Duke Ellington's Symphonic music (Three Black Kings, New World-a-Comin', three pieces from The River, and Harlem, as part of the University of Illinois Summer Jazz Festival. It is very difficult for me to separate the concert experience from the experience of rehearsing the music, because so much of the fun of playing it comes from the process of learning it.

We had the privilege of working with Maurice Peress, who worked with Ellington for many years and orchestrated much of the music on the program. He is an excellent conductor with excellent ears and a lively musical soul (he told us that he was 77, which I found hard to believe because he has the energy of a much younger man). He can hear everything, and he knows everything in the score; as if the notes, articulations, and dynamic markings are members of his immediate family. His role of conductor is as an advocate of Ellington's music, and, by extension, of all music.

He speaks of Ellington in the present tense, which makes sense because when you play a piece of music it is happening in the present tense. The composer is there because the music is there. He also has the conducting technique to make everything he wants to hear in the music obvious to the musicians playing it. Syncopated rhythms that would be difficult to play in the right places under ordinary circumstances roll off the instrument effortlessly when the conductor really feels the music.

He also seemed to like our orchestra, a group made of faculty from the University of Illlinois (both Jazz and Classical), some students, and some freelance musicians. Peress let us know that he liked working with us. He told us so, and he meant it. He's the kind of person who wears his emotions on the outside, which for a conductor is often fortunate, but sometimes a bit dangerous. He does not have to hide behind scholarship. He could have spent a long time dropping names and trying to impress everyone with who he is and where he's been, but the only person he really talked about was Ellington.

All of our rehearsals ended too soon (and I'm usually tired after a 3-hour rehearsal), and the concert was over far too quickly.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Come into the Garden, Maud

I love Tennyson. I always have. I love him because there is so much music in his poetry, and once in a while the music makes itself so obvious to me that I just have to write it down. A few years ago I wrote a setting of section XXII from Tennyson's 1855 monodrama Maud after found a tiny shirt-pocket-sized American edition from 1877 of it in a used book store. This is the cover (how could anyone resist such a thing?). This is (at least on my computer) the actual size of the book.

Here's a 5-minute excerpt (the whole piece is 14 minutes long) from a performance given by baritone Brian Yakey and pianist Sonny Pickowitz.

Here's a peek inside the book: the first page of the text of section XXII (the part on the recorded excerpt).

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Sunday, June 03, 2007

Mystery Violinist

I love the way this very young violinist plays Bazzini's famous "La Ronde des Lutins." I also love the way the pianist (who looks and sounds like a relative) plays. All I know is that they are from Latvia, and that the boy is named Eugene. Anyone have any more ideas?

Rudolf Serkin, Saxophone Player?

I enjoy reading liner notes by Tully Potter because I always learn something new. In the liner notes for the superb new re-issue of the Busch-Serkin Duo playing Bach and Brahms (with Aubrey Brain) on APR, Potter offers the following piece of surprising musical ephemera:
They championed the Bach repertoire available to them, but little of it found its way to records. This wonderful performance of the F minor Sonata, a valuable addition to their discography, may not be recorded in high fidelity but it is inimitably interpreted. The men enjoyed listening to jazz and blues and even attempted to master these forms in domestic surroundings. Serkin bought a saxophone and taught himself to make music on it, while Busch wrote pieces for the instrument, among them his Quintet for saxophone and string quartet. He also wrote works based on spirituals, his favourite American music.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Musical Brains certainly run in this family

I just came across this Wikipedia Classical Music Project while looking for some information about Aubrey Brain, who I guessed correctly as the father of Dennis Brain (what a family, eh?).

After reading through the article (and being frustrated by the family members who have links but do not yet have articles), I scrolled through the names of participants in the Wikipedia Classical Music project, and didn't see many (if any) familiar names. With all the (obviously intelligent) readers who might make their way to this blog because of a particular musical interest backed up by a considerable amount of musical knowledge, I imagine that there would be a few who might have something worthwhile to contribute to Wikipedia, if they only knew how. This tells you how to do it.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Luxury Suite

I was very impressed by a book I read by James B. Twitchell called Living It Up; Our Love Affair with Luxury in which he writes about the three basic kinds of luxuries that we Americans seek out and enjoy. Two summers ago I decided to write a piece for cello or viola and piano (I couldn't decide which instrument worked better, so I made it possible to be played by either) with three movements that attempts to give a kind of musical "illustration" for each of the three kinds of luxuries Twitchell discusses.

"Populuxe" is a tango, "Opuluxe" is made of all kinds of opulent chords that try to give the impression of shiny precious and semi-precious stones, and "Technoluxe" is a three-part invention that inadvertently incorporates a bit of Strauss' Don Quixote.

I just put a recording of "Opuluxe" on my New Music Jukebox page. The performance here is by cellist Shannon Hayden and pianist Sonny Pickowitz, and it comes from a concert given in February of this year.

Polyphonic Flute

Back when I was a flute-playing teenager I used to enjoy trying to play polyphony on my instrument. I did it by singing and playing at the same time. For a while I could play a special two-voice (or one flute and one voice) version of the exposition of the Bach C major Fugue (the one for solo violin). I remember once back in the late 1970s spending an afternoon with Robert Dick, the champion of "extended techniques" on the flute, and playing him my little parlor trick "arrangement." It occurred to me that my trick, with its close voicing, was something that he never would be able to do exactly the way I could, since the only way he could sing in the flute register (being a man) would be in falsetto. The overtones that would result from a man singing in falsetto and playing flute at the same time would be different from those of a woman singing in a comfortable register and playing.

I thought about this when a friend asked me to write a piece that he could use to help his students ease into the idea of singing and playing at the same time. I called the piece "On Such a Winter's Day" because it uses the basso ostinato from "California Dreamin" in the voice. I also thought of it while I was out walking on a cold November day. Until I heard this performance in February, I could only hear the piece (as played by me) with the vocal line being very close to the flute line, where it creates all kinds of interesting difference tones and extra-harmonic material. Keith Wright, the flutist in this performance, sings in a baritone register, making the resulting overtones very different from the ones I get. I actually prefer it with a male-register voice because of the contrast between the "pure" flute material (with polyphonic stuff written the "traditional" way by using fast arpeggios) and the vocal polyphony.