Monday, December 31, 2007

Greatness ramble

Thanks to A.C. Douglas for a link to this article from the Times that reminds us all that it is really difficult to find greatness when there are so many places where it could be found.

I think of the difficulty I have finding a pair of socks in my laundry basket and three drawers filled with odd socks (from many members of the family). If I really took care of my socks and carefully put them into pairs after washing them, I could keep track of them. Maybe one of these New Years days I will.

It is still far easier for me to find a pair of socks than it is to keep up with everything that I should be reading and listening to that has been proclaimed "great." How many times have I read a line in somebody's biography saying that he or she is the "greatest _______ of her or his generation?" It is rare that I have actually heard something that I would consider "great" from a person who has used that line in a biography.

I have my stable of musical "greats." Most of them are no longer alive. Those who are alive are mostly in their 60s, 70s and 80s, and many no longer play or sing, at least in public. A few of them are young and are active, but so many of the younger musicians I know have never heard (or heard of, even) the people I hold as musicians of real importance. Those people managed to make it into my pantheon by playing really well all the time, writing wonderful music, much of which people didn't proclaim as great when it was written, and doing what they could (and still can, if they are alive) to keep their legacy moving forward. They, after all, learned what they know from a lifetime of experience.

Now that we have so much in the way of musical choice, there is relatively little room for all that we are capable of mentally and aurally digesting. There is also, with all the stimulation we have in our lives, too little time to give due contemplation to what we hear (and by extension what we read and view). Even if we take time, there are so many elements that get in the way of actual concentration.

It's hard to know what to do with it all.

In my radio station days, when I spent four hours every day for 13 years listening to recorded music very intensely (that way I knew that there was at least one attentive listener), I used to play recordings of Gian Francesco Malipiero, who I always thought a tragic musical figure because he seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledege of music, which he put into everything he wrote. He was a composer without a specific voice because he was a composer who knew the voice of at least every Italian composer who came before him. He never made it to "greatness."

With so many resources at our fingertips, we are all in danger of becoming like Malipiero. I wonder if he wore matching socks?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Playing "at" and playing "to"

Back in my "know-it-all" twenties, surrounded by accomplished musicians of all kinds, both at Juilliard in New York, and in my own home, and playing an instrument that did not give me what I wanted, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what made listening and playing music pleasurable for me. I assumed that my feelings were universal, but time has proven that I was both young and, for the most part, wrong.

One thing that kind of stuck from my "lab" experiments was that there are people who play in a way that seems to be playing "at" an audience (no matter how small), and there are people who play "to" an audience. It kind of boils down to the relationship of a note being played to the meter of a piece. It also has a lot to do with the subtle contours of a given phrase, and its relationship to the piece as a whole, as well as the way a person responds to the acoustics of the playing environment and the responsive energy of the audience.

I believe that a good and well-prepared player is a person who presents a "finished product" to the audience. There are good players who present their finished product "at" an audience, much the same way a person can make a sales presentation "at" a captive audience, or an uninspired teacher can lecture "at" a class. I believe that a great player is a person who brings his or her own energy to the "stage," and allows that energy to interact with the energy from the audience--making every member of the audience feel a part of the performance; making every audience member feel connected to it, the composer, and to one another.

The difference is one of personality and intention, I suppose, but I don't know many musicians who want to be perceived as salesmen and saleswomen or as dull and uninvolved lecturers. There are ways of manipulating rhythm to make "playing to" an audience easier. It is similiar to the way an actor (and I use actor to mean both men and women who act) uses diction and timing to direct a phrase in a meaningful manner. A great actor manipulates rhythm in order to make the audience believe the text.

I have noticed, through practicing with a metronome and a tape recorder that rhythmic playing (playing evenly and holding notes for their full value) has, believe it or not, more potential to be connected with "to" playing than "at" playing, and truly rhythmic playing (understanding a particular note's place within the written meter or the larger meter of a piece) has the potential to go beyond accuracy and onto to the musical world that lies on the other side of precision. That's where musical freedom can begin, and that's the point where the real work for an interpretive musician begins. It is what happens on the other side of precision that is both wonderful and frightening. It is then that it is possible to take interpretive chances.

"To" playing is, for me, connected with taking interpretive chances, while "at" playing is safe. "At" playing is playing to impress, while "to" playing is playing to express. "To" playing is always involved with the music itself, while "at" playing is usually involved with the the performance. It is possible to observe "to" playing and "at" playing in solo work and in chamber music, but it is also possible to hear it in orchestral playing, particularly in solo situations. There it is the responsibility of a conductor to gesturally insist on the "to-ness" of an interpretation.

I have always wondered if anyone else has noticed this kind of thing.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Square-keyed Alto Flute

I was really excited to find this slide show that shows the process that Leonard Lopatin goes through in order to make his nifty square-keyed alto flute.

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

From the guy who gave us the metronome

There's a treat on BibliOdyssey today: drawings and this photo reconstruction (the original was destroyed in a fire in 1854) of Wolfgang von Kempelen's automatic chess player, which (I guess I can't say "who") was exploited to the fullest by Johann Mälzel, the friend of Beethoven's who got the patent on the metronome (he stole the idea from Dietrich Nokolaus Winkel). This machine played against Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte, and was one of the greatest hoaxes of the 19th century.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The most unwanted song

Michael sent me this article in Design Observer that has a link to and a description of what they call "the most unwanted song," made of elements that I guess people in a survey group said they didn't like in songs (atonality, bagpipes, accordion, banjo, etc). It's 22 minutes long, and is a kind of "rhapsody" of stitched-together elements, a musical collage, if you will. It certainly is annoying at times, but I did enjoy the the atonal parts, especially the singer's voice.

You can read more about it here. I guess I am one of the 200 people in the world's population (mentioned in the above link) who would like this: I'm partial to the accordion and the banjo (which my son practices all the time, and distracts me from my work because I really love listening to him play), I enjoy well-performed and well-written atonal pieces, and I don't have a problem with music that lasts more than 25 minutes.


Where music comes from

Roger Bourland has once again reached into the collective compositional unconscious and speaks eloquently for those of us who like to spend our time stacking and pasting together the notes and rhythms we find lying around the house.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The muse is not always female

I believe very strongly in the concept of the muse, but my muses are many, and they are rarely female, unless I am writing something for a female singer, or setting a text that was written by a woman. I do find it odd that in Ancient Greek culture, a culture that had very little regard for women in actual life, the inspiration for creative work was so often assigned to women, and each imaginary woman had exclusive charge over a particular domain. You know them well.

Calliope is the muse of epic or heroic poetry
Clio is the muse of history
Erato is the muse of love and erotic poetry
Euterpe is the muse of music and lyric poetry
Melpomene is the muse of tragedy
Polyhymnia is the muse of sacred song and rhetoric
Terpsichore is the muse of choral song and dance
Thalia is the muse of comedy and bucolic poetry
Urania is the muse of astronomy (I have never quite understood the need for a muse of astronomy, but I guess back in Ancient Greece the study of the cosmos was more artistic than scientific)

Plato named Sappho the tenth muse, and several others have named tenth muses (why are they not eleventh or twelfth muses?).

Patrick J. Smith, the writer of The Tenth Muse: a Historical Study of the Opera Libretto has a far more modern take on the concept of the muse. He gives credit to the scores of men who wrote excellent opera librettos from the 17th century through the 20th century, and served as muses to their composers.

My current muse is a gift from my daughter who knows that I am making a musical setting of a Hans Christian Andersen story about a teapot. Working on the piece makes me want to drink tea, so the teapot, which holds and pours inspiration into my cup, acts as my muse.

My teapot, which doesn't have any gender, has the name "Chantal" stamped on its bottom. "Chantal" means "stone" and "singer," so I think that it is a highly appropriate muse.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Happy Birthday

(Thanks for this one, Michael!)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Name That Tune

Tom Myron is at 33 of a series of 100 pieces in a contest to name various pieces from fragments of their scores. I know that I'm, pardon the expression, going to stay "tuned" to play (or watch other people play) the game. Today's was a real doozy: no key signature, G major (or G minor--or for that matter G flat major or G flat minor) chords being sustained by divisi strings, with a drop in the bass to octave Cs. Identifying the copyist's hand was probably the best clue.

Schoenberg Spricht

Thanks to Alex Ross for posting a link to the Schoenberg spricht archive of the Arnold Schoenberg Center. The texts from all of the recordings--even the long ones--are clearly transcribed. Someone put a lot of work into this, and I intend to put a lot of time into reading the transcriptions.

By the way, the date that Alex Ross calculated as the 100th anniversary of atonality, December 17, 2007, is also the 237th anniversary of Beethoven's baptism, though his birthday is celebrated on December 16th. I guess, like the actual birth of atonality, we really don't know exactly when Beethoven was born. But it is interesting to have some kind of measuring device, like a dated manuscript (which could have been written on the 16th, or even earlier, but was dated on the 17th).

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Before reading Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia, I thought that everyone heard music in pretty much the same way. I knew, of course, that some people could hear with greater degrees of structural understanding because of experience, and some people could hear with a greater degree of pitch sensitivity than others, but I never knew that there were actually people who "see" music in colors. I thought it was just something that people talked about in abstract terms, but in Sacks' chapter about synesthesia he writes at length about people who actually experience music in color the way I experience the world that I see in color.

I had a difficult time reading his chapter on musical hallucinations because every time Sacks would mention a piece of music I knew, I would hear it in my head. I can't say that I "suffer" from musical hallucinations, because I really enjoy having them. People often comment that I seem happy when they see me. It is probably because when I am out and about I always have something wonderful going through my head. I often dream about pieces of music, or I work out problems with something I'm writing by playing passages over and over in my head until they are fixed. I guess I am pretty lucky because I can control my musical thoughts and auditory hallucinations pretty much at will. There are people who cannot.

This book is a great companion to This is your Brain on Music (Sacks quotes Levitin often), because it explains to the non scientist in clearly-explained physical and neurological terms what actually happens in differently-wired people's brains when confronted with musical situations. Sacks writes as a neurologist, but he also writes and as a passionate music lover as well as a skilled amateur musician.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Musical Mountains

Last night I played a performace of the entire Handel Messiah in the German re-orchestration by Mozart. Most violists would agree with me that the original orchestration is not much fun for our section. Handel (or maybe one of his copyists, who knows?) gave the violists little to do on many of the solo numbers, and the parts we do play are filled with awkward passages and annoying string crossings.

Mozart not only gave us a viola part (and a challenging one at that), he even gave us divisi parts once in a while. We get to accompany the duet "O Tod, wo ist dein Pfeil" ("O death, where is thy sting?") in the third part of the work by ourselves--the violins get the number off. Clearly Mozart was thinking and acting with the mind and heart of a violist. Mozart also added parts for winds and brass, simplified some of the alternating tutti and concertino exchanges, and updated the voice-leading. The result is kind of like the way someone would modernize an old house by putting in indoor plumbing and electricity: making it easy to live in, and making it easier to appreciate the brilliance of the work.

It is like two having two musical mountains rolled into one.

After my Haydn Seasons experience of last weekend, I feel as if I have been creeping around at the feet of giants, and because I have been able to play the viola parts, I have been able to look at the inner workings of their musical minds.

And now I am in the process of writing program notes for Verdi's Otello, a mountain that is just as high, and kind of similar to the Mozart Messiah since it is a translation and an operatic re-thinking of a play by Shakespeare.

Needless to say, I might not be posting for a while.

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Friday, December 07, 2007

Wolfgang Windgassen in the final scene of Verdi's Otello

While thinking about writing program notes for a performance of Verdi's Otello, I found myself at a completely drained emotional loss by this performance by Wolfgang Windgassen, a tenor who is best known for his Wagner roles. I thought I'd share the experience here.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Composer as "he" sightings: #1 in a series that I hope will end soon

This article by William Kraft deserves 3 "he"s: one for Bernard Holland, whom he takes to task, one for himself, and one for President John F. Kennedy, who Kraft quotes at the end of the article.

What is the plural of "he" anyway?

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world

Like many people who grew up during the 1960s, I was privileged to witness the great expansion of opportunities for women in all fields of study and in every profession, particularly in the field of music. I saw the Boston Symphony grow from an orchestra that had only one female member into an orchestra with a string section that has an equal balance of men and women. I have seen serious change in the gender balance among well-respected solo instrumentalists and international competition finalists. There are still musical organizations that refuse to accept the musical gender equity that came about during the second half of the 20th century, but they are a distinct minority and their hiring practices are not respected in the larger musical world.

The International Music Research Centre's Music Gender Identification Survey asks the person taking it to determine whether a performer on a variety of instruments is male or female. After making a few guesses I realized that there was no way for me (and probably for anyone else) to determine the gender of an instrumentalist without seeing the person play. Even the kinds of inflections that I thought might characterize male and female speech were covered up by the inflections and nuances notated in the music.

What about the person who put those inflections, nuances, pitches, and rhythms in the music that was being played? Is it possible to determine the gender of a composer from hearing a piece of music that s/he wrote? There may be qualities in music that could be referred to as distinctly feminine or masculine, but are those qualities connected to the gender of the composer? If it is not possible to identify the gender of a composer from hearing a piece of music, should women who write music be referred to as "women composers" while men who write music are referred to as simply "composers?" I believe that using the world "woman" as an adjective is as archaic as feminizing endings of professions in German. "Lehrer," for example, is the word for teacher, and "Lehrerin" is the name for a female teacher.

By the same rule "Musiker" is the word for a musician, and "Musikerin" is the word for a female musician. We can't do anything about the structure of the German language, but we can decide which words should remain gender neutral in a culture that is on a path towards gender equity. Ludwig Wittgenstein's famous statement, "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world" unfortunately applies to the way that some very intelligent (but also limited) people write about composers these days. In most academic situations the term "chairman" has been shortened to "chair," the words "professor," "artist," "painter," "director," "choreographer," "senator," "dentist," "conductor," and the words to describe instrumentalists like "violinist" and "cellist" are all gender neutral. I believe that "composer" should also be a gender-neutral term.

Imagine what simply changing "he" to either "she" or "s/he" when writing about the people who write music would do to expand the way people think about the gender balance of composers in the 21st century. The limits of my language do define the limits of my world, but my musical world (and everyone's musical world) is growing in new ways, so we need to use language that can keep up with that growth.

As I was entering the age of musical awareness in the 1970s, I heard the names Amy Beach, Lili Boulanger and Rebecca Clarke whispered among groups of musicians who seemed surprised that a woman could write music that was actually good. I remember my surprise when I found out that Cecile Chaminade, who wrote a flute piece that every high school flutist studied, was a woman. I had a firm image of a composer as a man, much the same way I think of a roofer or a train engineer as a man. I devoured music history books, but it was a long time before I read anything about Clara Schumann being anything besides "Schumann's wife." Fanny Mendelssohn was mentioned here and there, but nobody had access to her music. It was a time when most composers were referred to as "he," as well as a time of atonality, serial writing, electronic music, and other forms of experimental writing. Those "feminine" qualities in music (certainly not only used by women) like expression, emotion, and tonal beauty seemed to be on a kind of hiatus in music that was to be taken seriously, and "masculine" qualities (certainly not only used by men) like mathematical organization, experimentation, virtuosity, and bold orchestration, were the respected qualities found in composers of new music.

Though I wanted to start writing music when I was a teenager, I was put off by the gulf between the values I held for the music I practiced and the values that seemed to be important in new music. Serial music had its uses and charms, but I wanted to be able to write music that I could really hear, play, sing, and enjoy. When tonality made a re-appearance in new music in the last decade or so of the 20th century, I felt that it was finally time for me to start writing the music that had been swirling around in the abstract part of my mind for the past 20 years.

I was inspired by the music and lives of women who lived in less friendly (yet more tonal) times like Germaine Tailleferre, Louise Farrenc, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, Pauline Viardot, and Nadia and Lili Boulanger. I have often wondered if the return of tonality as an acceptable component of new music might have had something to do with the general approach to gender equity that started to come about in music after the end of the 1970s. I also wonder if the trend to embrace the more traditionally "feminine" components of music might also be due, in part, to the musical and artistic community's acceptance and celebration of diversity in sexual orientation.

I was encouraged from the start by musicians (both female and male) who were thirsty for new music that would allow them to be expressive on their instruments, particularly on instruments and instrumental combinations that were in need of serious repertoire. Once I had enough technique and confidence to do so, I wrote piece after piece. I have slowed down a bit since the "chain writing" days of my relative youth, but I still almost always have a piece in the works. I try to write in a way that makes the instruments and voices I write for sound strong and resonant, and I like to write music that is rewarding and comfortable for musicians to play. I also try to write music that is accessible, entertaining, meaningful, and interesting for audiences.

I can't imagine that my approach to writing music or my reasons for writing music differ a great deal from my male colleagues who, writing in the 21st century, also embrace tonality and strive for direct and meaningful communication with performing musicians and audiences. I believe that on the practical side of music, the side that includes performers and composers, we are making progress on the path towards gender equity. I am dismayed, however, at the lack acknowledgment in the mainstream commercial musical press, where I do not believe the progress that the musical world has been making towards gender equity has been properly discussed.

I am very happy with my life as a composer. Nearly all of my work is published, and I get the opportunity to write music for wonderful musicians to play. I hope that the higher-profile people in the world of music criticism will take a serious look at the number of women who enjoy the kind of life as a composer that I enjoy, and consider the power that their use of language has to encourage us all on the path towards true gender equity in the world of music.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Rite of Spring and Petrushka

These films of two of Stravinsky's superb ballets are just too good to only share with the students (and assorted other people) who go to my class blog, so I'm linking to them here: The Rite of Spring is performed by the Joffery Ballet with the original Nijinsky choreography, and Petrushka is performed by the Bolshoi Ballet.

Rite of Spring, Part 1
Rite of Spring, Part 2
Rite of Spring, Part 3

Petrushka, Part 1
Petrushka, Part 2
Petrushka, Part 3
Petrushka, Part 4

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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Exalted Reigns

Last night I had a wonderful Haydn experience. It was a performance of the whole Seasons with a large chorus, some fine soloists, and a very small orchestra (a viola section of two). I was unable to go to the single rehearsal, but I spent some serious time wrestling with some of the many difficult passages, wondering what some of the more seemingly obtuse harmonic situations would be like with all the voices. I listened only to the "incipits" I found on Amazon, but otherwise knew nothing of what was going to happen. I have played the viola parts in many Haydn quartets and in a few symphonies, but this was was also my very first time playing the viola part (or any part, for that matter) in an orchestra for a Haydn oratorio. I knew my part, and was excited about the experience.

I call this post "Exalted Reigns" because of the passage "He sole on high exalted reigns" from The Creation. "Exalted reigns" is a "term" I use to describe Haydn's glorious choral contrapuntal writing. The Seasons is filled to the brim with exalted reigns. It is also filled with harmonic puzzles: surprising dissonances with even more surprising resolutions. Because I was hearing the piece for the first time, I felt like I was both audience and performer. Because the piece is performed relatively rarely (nobody in the orchestra had ever played it before), I felt myself part of a small community (or viola section, if you will) with members that had a similar ear-opening experience to mine, through the whole of the 19th and 20th centuries, and all over the world. It felt like a piece of "new music" because of its boldness, its invention, and its surprising ability to be conventional and unconventional at the same time. Haydn also manages to put a little Mozart in (some Magic Flute and Figaro), while still sounding like himself. There are hundreds of details I missed the first time: I have to get my hands on a score!

The oratorio is probably performed (in its entirety) so rarely because it is three hours long, and it requires constant playing (and constant attention) on the part of the string section. My section-mate and I split the recitatives (which were played by solo strings): she played the first two seasons, and I played the last two. The person who plays the recitatives plays and concentrates constantly for an hour and a half, so I can understand why she wanted a break.

We took a brief intermission while the conductor changed scores. I told him (meeting him for the first time) that I was really enjoying the performance. He was, of course, tired. Here's part of our exchange:

Me: I guess a year is a long time.
He: That's why I prefer The Creation: it only takes 7 days.

Clever man. Clever composer.

I was physically worn out by the end, but I was emotionally giddy, filled with exalted reigns. After The Seasons, the two Messiahs I'll be playing next week will be a relative piece of cake, but I would love to play more Haydn.