Friday, October 31, 2008

Electronic Underscoring

Because we left at the intermission, I'm not in a position to write a review of the play Michael and I saw last night, but the reason we left is worthy of commentary. Actually it is worthy of complaint because it ruined what might have otherwise been a worthwhile production.

The play was written by (I hate to use this word, but I will anyway) arguably one of the finest playwrights in all of history, and the production was well directed and, with the exception of a few uneven bits of casting, well acted. The actors did not use amplification, and they projected their voices well in a decently-sized theater with excellent acoustics.

What ruined the production for me was an almost omnipresent electronic underscore. The first distraction was some Darth Vader-like breathing that served as a kind of "white noise" over which the actors needed to yell in order to feel that they were being heard. Then came some soft pseudo-recorder music under some quick exchanges of dialogue. I thought that it could have been someone's cell phone ringing on a low setting, or someone's child playing with a 1980s-style casio keyboard backstage. This distraction made it impossible for me to concentrate on the play.

Perhaps the worst moment of undermining underscoring came during a very famous soliloquy that was turned into a duet for synthetically-generated woodwinds (including an almost realistic flute) and obbligato speaking voice. The overwhelming presence of electronically-generated music coming from speakers in the hall dominated and controlled the actor. The actor was reacting to the music, and because the audience reacts to what the actor does on stage, the audience was forced to "re-act" to the music as well.

Maybe this trend in theater (if it is a trend) comes from the use of underscoring in film. It is important to remember that underscoring in film works because everything in a film is synthetic. There are no natural voices. The voices of the actors become a track to be mixed and balanced. In a stage play using electronic music as "underscoring" actually becomes overscoring. It is the synthetic nature of electronically-generated music that captures our attention when we hear it. In this case it succeeded in drawing my attention away from the voices of the actors, and in its abundance, away from the play as whole.

Don't get me wrong. I don't have a problem with music being used in plays (if musicians are actually present and playing their instruments in real time). There are many ways that music serves well, especially in plays by this particular playwright, but this just isn't one of them.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Same Old Song

"An alter nign," a song with a text by Leyb Kvitko and traditional music arranged by Emil Gorovets, is the title track of this recently-reissued recording by Jalda Rebling.

The text is an adaptation of an old Yiddish story that resonates on many levels:
"Go and buy a pair of oxen," says the master, and Nachman takes the money and sets out on his way. "How much does your melody cost," he asks the shepherds by the roadside, and they sell him their melody. Humming the melody, he carries on and meets a musician. From him he also buys a song. Nachman chooses two oxen at the market. However, when he tries to pay for them, he discovers that his purse is empty. He returns home empty-handed, and is flogged by the lord of the manor. While being lashed, Nachman sings his song.

Californians: Vote No on Proposition 8

And I'll add a resounding "Yes!" and loud "Thank You" to Itzhak Perlman for this:

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Musical Re-creation

It has been kind of difficult for me to put much effort into musical creation these days because I have been involved pretty heavily in musical re-creation (which is another word for practicing and rehearsing). I imagine that the creative process is kind of like the stock market: there are times when everything is flowing, and there are times when movement is a bit slower.

I don't do "slower" very well, so I'm putting my musical "eggs" into violin playing and into making music with a few composers who have been way out of my league for hundreds of years (Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart) with the intention of playing a concert in a couple of weeks. Here's your invitation, if you happen to be in the neighborhood.

One of the pieces we are playing is the Bach E major Sonata for violin and keyboard, BWV 1016. I actually performed it once before around 30 years ago (!) at Alice Tully Hall (!!!!) on the flute (!). I had a harpsichordist friend named Helen Katz who had scheduled a performance of the piece for a "Wednesday One O'clock Concert" (free concerts for the people in the neighborhood to attend) with a violinist who was a student of Dorothy DeLay. It seems that Miss DeLay was not happy about the idea of her student playing in "Baroque" style (which during the 1970s and 1980s involved a lot of experimentation with inegal or unequal note values, regardless of the style). Helen, who really wanted to play the piece, asked me on a Monday night (I remember it well because I played at a restaurant called "Ruskay's" on Monday nights) if I would be willing to play in place of the violinist that Wednesday (yes, I had about 36 hours to learn the piece). I agreed. What was I thinking?

All I can say is that it is a good thing Helen was such a good harpsichordist. She followed me through a landscape of rhythmic inaccuracies. I remember the stupid blue platform shoes (they must have been four or five inches off the ground) I wore, and the brown wrap-around dress with blue piping along the edges. I remember the speed with which we played, and I remember my pioneering and rebellious spirit. I was playing a violin piece on the flute in Alice Tully Hall, and I was playing all the eighth notes in the second movement as dotted eights and sixteenths, and all the sixteenth notes in the last movement as dotted sixteenth notes followed by thirty-second notes. I felt like I was on the cutting edge of creativity (and I know I was on the cutting edge of fashion). What was I thinking?

Now I'm playing the piece on the violin. The eighth notes in the second movement will be eighth notes, and the sixteenth notes in the last movement will be real sixteenth notes. Thank goodness.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Campaign Music: finally something from the non-pop world

Judd Greenstein wrote this nifty (and very catchy) piece of "new" music which is performed here by the NOW Ensemble.

I appreciate the fact that both the composer and the performing ensemble are credited for their work on this veritable earworm. The tax calculator is also an informative (and brilliant) device.

Drawing and painting music with young children

Bach E-major Partita Preludio by Rachel Leddy (c. 1990-91)
watercolor on paper

When our children were little, it was part of my job to monitor the university radio station during the classical music hours when I was not at work. The hours I spent at home were always spent with our two kids, especially when they were little. We spent much of that precious pre-schooling time at the kitchen table with crayons, pencils, and watercolors, or with materials for making collages, and the music on the radio (music that I programmed) simply became part of the drawing and painting experience.

Once in a while one or the other child would consciously paint or draw the music, and the above painting by the three- or four-year-old Rachel (who is now nearly 22) was a visual response to the Preludio of the Bach E-major Partita, BVW 1006, as performed by Nathan Milstein. She made it in the course of the three or so minutes that the movement takes to play. There are very few pieces of art in the world (in my mind) that approach the deep feeling and honesty of this painting. (The scan does not really do justice to the original, which has a grey circle behind the "eye" in the center.)

We often brought our children to concerts when they were little, and we always brought pencils, crayons, and paper with us. Our family archives are filled with the spoils from those events, and our children learned to involve themselves in listening to music by participating in it, even before they began to play themselves.

I know that there are many of parents with young children who would love to take their children to concerts with them, but they are afraid that small children would be distracting for other members of the audience. My advice is to find free concerts like student recitals at colleges, and community orchestra concerts, and bring your kids. Make it clear to them that their "job" is to draw the musicians so that everyone can remember details about the event that someone in the family or group might otherwise miss.

Drawing musicians, particularly string players, is very difficult for adults, but little kids seem to enjoy drawing challenges. And if the drawing becomes a little tiring, they can always listen to the music.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Creamy Potato and Mushroom Soup

Michael and I were so pleased with this soup that I made on the "fly" (making up the recipe as I went along) this evening, that we thought it would be fun to share.

Creamy Potato and Mushroom Soup (it's vegan, of course)

2T olive oil
8 small red potatoes (new potatoes)
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
16 oz. (one pint) Baby Bella mushrooms, sliced
a splash of sherry
2 stalks celery, thickly sliced
2 large carrots, thickly sliced
1 small zucchini, thinly sliced
32 oz. Swanson Organic Vegetable Broth (or any other broth)

Put the potatoes (with their skins on) in a steaming device. While the potatoes are busy steaming, heat the oil in a stockpot, add the onions, and let them cook on medium-high heat for 3 minutes or so. Add the garlic and the mushrooms, and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the splash of sherry, and then add the rest of the vegetables. Let them cook for a minute or two, and then add the stock.

At this point the potatoes should be done. Let them cool a bit, and cut them into quarters while the vegetables and stock cook on medium heat. Divide the quartered potatoes in half, and throw half of then into the soup. Remove a cup or two of stock and vegetables, and blend it with the remaining steamed potatoes. Add the creamy mixture to the stock pot, and let everything cook at a low temperature for 10-20 minutes.

Add salt and pepper to taste, and enjoy your soup.

It's on the bag . . .

. . . and hopefully in the bag!

Ladies and gentlemen, my purse:

Early voting started today in Illinois.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

My Myth of the American Musical Dream

Growing up as a child of a musicians who came from families of musicians themselves, I always understood the concept of "working" as practicing, playing concerts, and teaching. I knew that my father worked in a "lab" before he worked as a musician (he was a chemist for what was to become NASA before he started playing in the Boston Symphony), but that was during a time when I was too small to have really noticed. My youngest childhood memories of family life always involved a great deal of music.

My window to the world of work was always a musical one. My friends' parents (all of them, I guess) worked, but I never really understood what any of them did. I know my paternal grandfather made picture frames for a living, but he was a violinist. My maternal grandmother taught piano lessons, and I'm pretty my maternal grandfather (who was also a violinist) did something else for a living, but I never knew him. The only conversation I remember having with him was on the telephone, and in that conversation he told me that he wanted to give a violin to my brother. Oh well.

Anyway, when I started out in music I had every intention of working as a musician. Even as a flutist I had the "American Dream" mentality that if I worked hard enough, I would succeed. I got into Juilliard, which was a version of success, I suppose. I got a pretty good teaching job at a music school in the Bronx. I had pretty good social skills, and was able to get some lower-tier musical work in New York. There were mountains to climb as a musician in New York, but I had every intention of climbing them because I knew that I had the capacity for hard work and the desire to succeed.

Then the work in New York kind of dried up, and like many musicians trying to find work in the 1980s, I went to Europe to find a job. I was very lucky to find one (though the circumstances of the job made it impossible for me to stay in my little alpine Austrian town). Returning to America after my short stint in Hong Kong, I found myself faced with an economy that did not support professional musical life the way it had in the past, and I had to find a way to support myself.

I spent a summer in New York. I investigated the world of work, and applied for the kinds of jobs that didn't require typing (I didn't know how to touch type) like working in stores and restaurants. I did manage to get a part-time job reading to a blind stockbroker who liked employing musicians, and I found a few students, but (along with playing on the street and a little freelancing) I couldn't make enough money to pay rent in New York.

I used to ask musicians how they supported themselves. Some did it by collecting unemployment insurance for playing seasonal jobs like the Ballet. One person told me that he supported himself (seriously) as a small-time criminal. And there were always people who worked as "call girls." And then there was temporary office work, which involved knowing how to type at least forty words per minute. I decided that it was time to learn to type.

Typing seemed like an oasis of stability, but office work was a mystery to me. I found that people working in offices spent a lot of time on their personal social lives while at work. I also found that a lot of people who typed in offices did "other things." There were lots of visual artists typing around Boston, and there was a sharp line between "professionals" and "support staff." The professionals around Boston seemed to enjoy having "support staff" who were "cultured" and "educated." I think that it made some of them feel that their professional status (and salary) was raised by having impressive underlings.

I played jobs on the weekends, but had a hard time getting musical work because my "day job" required me to be at an office from 8 to 5 every day. There was also not enough time to practice, so I had to try to squeeze it in during my lunch hour, if I could find space somewhere to do it.

It was then that I realized that the "American Dream" for musicians is a myth, especially during tough economic times. We work hard, we practice, we write, we arrange, we teach, we reach out to new audiences, we create new and innovative ensembles, we make recordings through improved and cheap technology, and we drive great distances for jobs, but it seems that the idea of an "American Dream" just isn't something that could apply to "classical" musicians anymore.

Friday, October 10, 2008


Quick! While it is still the word of the day over at the OED:

muso, n. slang.

1. Austral. A musician; esp. a classical one.

1967 Kings Cross Whisper (Sydney) XXXIX. 9/1 (headline) Musos blow cold... Members of the Sydney symphony orchestra will work to rule. 1978 Melbourne Truth 18 Mar. 28/2 Davis ended up doing four numbers{em}and the musos backed him beautifully right off the cuff. 1993 Sunday Mail (Brisbane) 21 Nov. 141/2 Musos of the calibre of Eric Bogle and Jeanne Lewis joined a choir of talented high-school students and the result is a cheerful collection of ditties telling the story of the gumnut babies and their adventures.

2. Brit. A musician or music enthusiast, esp. (freq. mildly depreciative) one who takes himself or herself too seriously.

1977 Melody Maker 26 Mar. 10/5 Among the many musos who heard him at the Seven Dials in Covent Garden last Thursday was brassman Alan Littlejohn. 1989 Empire Sept. 108/3 It's hard to imagine many people, apart from die-hard musos and dedicated Gabriel fans, would want to listen to this in the comfort of their own home. 2000 Evening Standard (Electronic ed.) 1 Nov., This is in serious breach of his job description, viz, Slightly Dumb Cook. He is not a muso--he is not cool enough.

(Thanks Michael!)

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

I guess it shows

Yesterday, as I was walking to class, a student from the class asked what we would be doing today. I told her that we were doing good stuff: sacred music by Bach. To that she said, "I guess you're really stuck on Bach." To which I replied, "I guess you're right."

I like to introduce Bach's sacred music with the Crucifixus from the B-minor Mass. By this point in the semester the students can recognize the techniques that he uses in it, and they, like me, can be completely blown away by the emotional universe Bach shows us in just three short minutes.

I guess I am pretty stuck on Bach.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

It's a good thing she didn't try to go into music.

Listen for yourself.

Sacred Music

I got the chance to blow the shofar this Rosh Hashana. The shofar service is one that I always love: the overtone-rich sound of one of the most natural of sacred musical instruments has always represented some part of what could be the voice of God to me. I always close off my other senses and allow my whole inner being to take in the sound. It is a sound that has as much presence and importance to me as the air around me, and it is a sound that I always associate with new beginnings and new opportunities. This year, with the absence of a student rabbi in our (very) small rural congregation, it was up to me to blow the shofar.

The blowing of the shofar is preceded by a great deal of seriousness. The responsibility I felt as its player was great, particularly since I was not really able to practice it for very long: there are only a finite number of blows in this non-brass-player's lips. There are a few stable notes on the shofar, and I was worried that I would not be able to find a single one of them when the first "tekiah" moment came.

The shofar calls are immediately preceded by a reading of the shehekianu, prayer; a prayer that is only used for only the most special of occasions. It set up the collective mindset in our Jewish community that the notes that would (or would not) come out of the instrument were sacred.

They did feel special. An odd kind of special.

And when I picked up my fiddle to play the music for the rest of the service, the notes I played on it also felt an odd kind of special.

Blowing the shofar this Rosh Hashana somehow allowed me to think about the potential sacredness of every single note that I play. And it also helped me to realize the deep difference between a note that is sounded and a note that is sung, and it helped me to have a glimpse at the infinite musical possibilities available to me on the instrument(s) that I love to play. It also helped me to understand how much responsibility I have as a musician, and, in a population that otherwise does not seem to think of the music that I play as something beyond background sound, pleasant entertainment, or a way to get all the bridesmaids in for a wedding, how what I do can actually be, note-by-note, important and meaningful simply for its own sake.

Now, if I can only carry that sense of meaningfulness with me for another year!