Monday, March 30, 2009

More (or Less) About Music by Women

I spoke with another friend about yesterday's concert. She was stunned that this was the first time she had been to a concert where she heard 19th-century music written by composers who were not men. In these parts even performances of pieces written by living women are rare. It is very likely that the most often played female composer in downstate Illinois might actually be me, and it also may be possible that most of the other performances of music by women in these parts have been arranged by me. Considering the number of excellent pieces by women who are no longer alive, as well as the number of pieces by those that are still alive, this is a rather sad realization.

During the past 23 years that I have spent in downstate Illinois, I have heard three concerts that included music by Lili Boulanger. One was actually played by me, back in my flute days. Shortly after we moved here, I invited Patricia and Philip Morehead, friends from my Boston days who live in Chicago, to come to our little town to play a concert. We played a flute and oboe duo by Madeline Dring, and I believe that there were some pieces by Patricia Morehead on the program as well.

The next Lili Boulanger performance was by the teenage daughter of a pair of university faculty pianists, one who accompanied her daughter (this was a really pleasant surprise). The third Boulanger hearing was at a concert of music by women at a community college that I programmed. We also included Nadia Boulanger's cello pieces on the program, and a piece that I wrote.

There have been three performances in the immediate area of music by Amy Beach, a composer who I believe should be played often (she wrote around 300 pieces). The pianist I played with yesterday played the Violin Sonata some years back with another violinist, and I played the Piano Quintet--a wonderful piece--with my quartet and a guest pianist on the aforementioned community college program.

Around twenty years ago, the local university invited Emma Lou Diemer here as a part of Women's History and Awareness Month, and the chorus sang some of her pieces, and recently the local university invited Libby Larsen to do a program that incorporated poetry and musical material by students. That makes two women in twenty years.

Champaign-Urbana, the university town an hour or so up the road where I do most of my professional playing, has a better record. My music is played there relatively often, but this post is not about my music. About five years ago Sergiu Luca played a beautiful performance of Clara Schumann's Romances on a recital at the Krannert Museum in Champaign that was broadcast on the radio. A chamber orchestra I play with in Champaign once played a piece by a woman who had a residency at the University of Illinois a few years back. I didn't play the piece, and I only heard it once. It bothers me terribly that I can't remember the name of the composer. Kimberly Kelley, a doctoral bassoon candidate at the University of Illinois, wrote her thesis about music for the bassoon by women, and she played a recital of music by Alex Shapiro, Ellen Taffe Zwillich, and me.

On a lark I decided to look on line for recent performances of music by Amy Beach, a composer who enjoyed a great deal of popularity and international respect during her lifetime (1867-1944). I found one performance of her Galic Symphony from 2000 by the American Composer's Orchestra, and an all-Beach concert from 1995 performed by the Boston Academy of Music at MIT. I found quite a few recordings, but recordings are not concerts. Concerts require a different kind of commitment from both the performers and for the audience. Concerts, as far as I'm concerned, are what really matter.

Alex Ross apologized to me about the scarcity of composers who are/were women in his book The Rest Is Noise, which is something I sincerely appreciate. Perhaps the scarcity of women from the 20th century on the programs of the many concerts he attends unconsciously informed his omission. Ross enjoys pointing listeners, both old and new, in interesting musical directions, and I imagine that future editions of his book will include composers of both sexes. Scholars are always a little ahead of the game, and it is hard, given the necessities of attracting a paying audience, for performing institutions to keep up. There are an embarrassingly small number of pieces by women on concert programs. I can't remember ever going to a performance of an opera that was written by a woman, though I do remember seeing (and loving) Deborah Drattell's The Festival of Regrets on the television around ten years ago. Drattell has had subsequent works performed at the Los Angeles Opera, which is very good news. We'll see if her work remains in their repertoire.

I'm hoping that someone reading this post will be able to "talk me down," tell me that I am wrong, and then assure me that there an increasing number of performances of music (orchestral, chamber music, and operas) written by women, both living and not living, out in the larger world.

Boston Accents and Degrees of Separation

Even though I grew up in Boston, I never had a Boston accent. My parents came from Chicago and Philadelphia, and I seem to have inherited a virtually accent-less Midwestern way of pronouncing my vowels. I can't even reproduce a Boston accent accurately, but I can tell a real one from one that is fabricated in an instant. My friends' parents spoke with Boston accents. I always wanted one, but it never seemed to happen.

While working on the music for the program that I played yesterday, I found myself wondering if Amy Beach might have had a Boston accent. She was born in New Hampshire to solid New England stock, and she fit right into the Boston elite.

The audience that comes to the violin and piano concerts that I play is a mixture of young people (students, our families) and old people. Very old people. Some of them in their 90s.

There is one concert-going woman in town who comes from Boston. She has one of the thickest Boston accents I have ever heard. She really responded deeply to the Amy Beach sonata. I suggested that it might have something to do with where Beach came from, and the way she may have spoken. Caroline agreed, and she added that they were also contemporaries. Thinking about the fact that the Violin Sonata was written in 1899, I suggested that might be stretching it a bit. But Caroline noted that Beach died in 1944, and that she was around in 1944. Caroline was an adult in 1944. Wow.

(Listen to Beach's Hermit Thrush at Morn for nice treat.)
(This Romance is certainly going on one of our next WHAM concerts)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Old Enough

Here's a little family fun from last night: Rachel (on the ukulele) and Ben (on the banjo) are singing. I'm playing, violin, and Michael is playing the harmonica.

Here's another take using a directional microphone on the voices.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Past musical identities in my face (book)

Like most people approaching the age of 50, I have had a series of pasts: pasts connected with places, families, institutions, instruments, affections, fears, and circumstances. Until a week or two ago many of my pasts were neatly filed away, content to be represented by an old photo, a story, or a piece of music. Then, inspired by a name from the past, I found myself exploring facebook, particularly a group devoted to discussing my junior high school in Newton, Massachusetts.

A total nostalgia fest ensued, and in the process of explaining to my almost 50-year-old classmates why I am no longer a flutist, I found that I am still essentially the same person that I was when I was 12 or 13. I would even venture to say that I am still the same person I was at 11, or even at 7, though there is no photographic record to support that statement. An image of my 13-year-old self from a friend's Bat Mitzvah party made it clear that I must have been a rather intense (and probably hard-to-take) child. Adulthood certainly suits me more than childhood.

Now that my personal history time line is firmly in place, I realize that as soon as I stopped playing the violin at the beginning of 6th grade I no longer considered myself a violinist. Or perhaps I considered myself a failed violinist. An eternity passed between that 6th grade year, when I imagined that I had forgotten everything about playing the violin, and the beginning of 8th grade, when I desperately wanted to play an instrument. I reached for the closest instrument at hand: the flute. We had one in the house that my mother could no longer play. It seemed to be an easy choice, and it was very easy to learn to play reasonably well. Besides, my mother could no longer play, so I could fill her empty place in the musical puzzle.

There were only two measly years between my first violin life and my flute life. If only I had had the courage to jump back on the fiddle, and put the kind of energy into it that I put into 15 of the 17 I spent with the flute, my life might have been totally different. But it might not have been as rich and as interesting. I could have experienced the world as a violinist, and might never have had the need to really search. Perhaps I would never have had the need to write music, or the time and space to do so.

It is time to bury the past once again, and concentrate on the present.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

If you happen to be in the neighborhood next Sunday

This concert is one of the final events of Eastern Illinois University's Women's History and Awareness Month (WHAM for short). The Tarble Arts Center is located on South 9th Street on the campus of Eastern Illinois University, about an hour due south of Champaign.

Friday, March 20, 2009

An Inness Sky

There is nothing like an Inness sky. George Inness can consistently capture the look and feel of a sky (any sky) at its most expressive: he manages to preserve the kind of sky that makes you summon the family to drop everything and come and look out the window. He didn't only paint the skies that come before and after storms, but those are the paintings of his that excite me the most.

A few years ago I wrote a piece for three cellos as a musical attempt to "paint" an Inness sky. Unfortunately the synthesized recording is only a suggestion of what real instruments can do. The picture above comes from a postcard purchased at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, where the painting makes its home in the permanent collection. The real thing, in its oiled "flesh," does far more for me than the postcard or its digitized image, but the image does help remind me of what it was to experience the real painting.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Measuring Improvement

I remember when I was a teenage beginner flutist I practiced constantly so that I could develop some kind of technique and some kind of credibility in the highly-competitive flute world of greater Boston in the 1970s. Perhaps once a week I would ask my little brother if he thought I had improved. I know that it annoyed him because he kind of turned my question into a pitch-and-rhythm only closed-mouthed hum, something that was idiosyncratic to our family. (We MUST go BACK the WAY we CAME became a series of sixteenth notes and dotted eighth notes--a pickup sixteenth note followed by four beats dotted-eighth, sixteenth.)

hum (ascend a fifth) HUM (back down a fifth) hum (up a major third) HUM?

Anyway, all my brother could comment on was that I might have changed my order of scales and arpeggios (and he did so gleefully). He couldn't see or hear improvement any more than I could see or hear improvement. It is kind of like watching grass grow.

Technique on the flute is all internal, so it is very difficult to notice improvement--even in yourself. There is the flexibility of the tongue which gives you the ability to double-tongue or triple-tongue quickly, there is agility of the fingers which gives you the ability to get from one note to the next quickly, and there is the whole internal breathing mechanism, which gives you quality and quantity of sound. Flutists need to be able to keep the breathing mechanism open and functional while the fingers and tongue juggle sharps in all kinds of rhythmic situations, through a whole range of intervals. Doing all this cleanly, in rhythm, with a good sound, and at the right time is a great accomplishment, but it is not one that the non-flutist outside observer can see.

There are subjective measuring sticks though, and they come up as surprises. The difference between not being able to play a piece and being able to play it comes sometimes from the long-term acquisition of technique rather than beating the piece over the head with a stick (or a bow, as I now tend to do).

String players are luckier than flutists, because they wear their technique on the outside. The ability, for example, to actually draw a straight bow solves a great number of technical problems in countless musical passages. The acquisition of the technique necessary to draw a straight bow is hard won, but it is easily seen. The most satisfying violin playing looks as good as it sounds: consider David Oistrakh's bow arm. Simple as it may seem to the non-string-player, it is a great accomplishment to have "straight" become a "default" bow setting rather than something that always has to be fixed. It requires a great deal of thought and practice.

Another measurement of improvement for string players is being able to shift accurately and correctly, and knowing exactly what are going to do once you get to your destination on the fingerboard. Most string players know their usual positions: violinists and violists spend most of their time in first, third, or fifth position, and cellists like to spend their time in first and fourth. The ability to be in second, second, fourth, or sixth position in a key with a healthy helping of sharps or flats, being able to vibrate, and knowing where you are and where you are going on all four strings is a great measure of improvement. Not having to think and look both ways before crossing and having those positions in your "default" setting, just like a having straight bow, is a great accomplishment.

Everyone looks to the outside for affirmation, but ultimately the greatest satisfaction comes from inside. Being able to play in tune is its own reward (and it has everything to do with bowing, shifting, and, vibrating). The people who are listening to you play expect it, just like they expect their soup to be warm and their ice-cream to be cold. Even the most unschooled ear can hear when something is out of tune, but most people will not comment about something being in tune. In tune and in rhythm are the "default" settings for audiences' expectations. It is after that point that the music can reach them and do what it needs to do. That's why we practice.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Making the World a Better Place

Emily, the Stark Raving Cellist offered up a list of five things that can make the world a better place, which are well worth sharing here:
1) When turning right, move to the far right side of the lane. That way people going straight don't have to stop or miss the light.

2) Never, ever litter. Not an ATM receipt, cigarette butt, napkin or straw. Consider making each place you visit better in some small way. Sometimes I wipe down a wet counter so the next person doesn't lean against it and get soaked.

3) When you're about to explode, implode, or unleash a storm of wrath or blame, don't. Now is your chance to create something better. My life was changed when a very old man who was not paying attention turned right into my path, causing me to swerve and half spin. My car stopped, his car stopped, and I was about to give him one of those "What the bleepity bleep are you doing??" gestures, when he pressed his palms together and bowed. Totally changed everything. It was not on purpose. We are lucky to be alive, even if our lives are peppered with car crashes and people not paying attention all the time. The unhappiest person I know constantly repeats the same pattern: indignation, blame, explosion, victimhood. It's not working out so well. That old man in the purple Cadillac presented me with a different way to do business.

4) Do nice things for strangers. Pay for their drink at the coffee place. Offer a smile in traffic. Go down the list of disagreeable people in your life and try to muster empathy for them. Think of it as seasoning the soup of daily life with a little bit of goodness. It makes it taste better for everyone.

5) You are an example to the children around you. Be a good one, and be around. My continuing experience with kids is worrisome. Never before have I seen such desperation for discipline, direction, conversation and relationships. Love is not a trip to the Mac store or expensive sneakers. It's an investment of your time. And as it turns out, that is making an investment in yourself, too. One that lasts.
The last one I find particularly resonant. So much of teaching is, on the part of the young (and older) people who study music, the need for someone to listen, care, and respond to their needs, musical and otherwise. Music is a "ladder of escape" for a lot of young people: a way to express themselves, a way to communicate that doesn't involve "fitting in," and often a way to have some kind constant identity in the ever-turbulent life of children making their way through the rocky path to adulthood. I am grateful for the parents who understand the importance of the relationship between a private teacher and his or her student. They know that it is about so much more than "just" music.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snail and the Rosebush"

This is one my favorite Hans Christian Andersen stories. I set it to music a few years ago, and am thrilled to have found such a beautifully read and beautifully animated video of the story in Danish, with English subtitles.

So far I have set seven of his stories to music. Between the time I started my obsession with Andersen and now, all of his stories have been made available on line.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

When the Great Seems Like the Enemy of the Good

You have to feel for Max Bruch. I found this excerpt from a letter he wrote to Simrock quoted in Christopher Fifield's biography, Max Bruch: His Life and Works
"The Scottish Fantasy, which even gives pleasure to people like Brahms and Joachim, is torn apart everywhere by the mob of critics. One can bear all this for many years, but there comes a time when disgust and bitterness overpowers a creator, and one says to oneself, 'how much longer do I cast pearls before swine?' I shall withdraw into myself, my house, my loved ones, and my daily duty, and only now and then will dream that there was once a time when I fought with Good and Evil in the dust of the arena. This is more than a passing mood, I have for a long time had no other desire than to withdraw from this miserable commotion. since I now love and am loved, and have a last found the simplest and deepest happiness, it has lost the last of its charm for me."

"I saw the latest published works of Brahms with my usual interest. As far as Dvorak is concerned, I tell you this as a well-meaning friend: be a bit choosy, in spite of Joachim and Brahms. He is a talented man, but is quite overrated in certain quarters."

Max Bruch December 1880
Thank goodness it wasn't any more than a "passing mood." He continued writing for another 40 years. Still, most people only know him for his G-minor Violin Concerto, his Scottish Fantasy, and his Kol Nidre. Violists know him for his Romance and for his pieces with clarinet (a double concerto and a set of pieces for clarinet, viola, and piano), some of the only pieces of his that have remained in print. Thanks to the International Score Library Project, some of Bruch's out-of-print music is available to download for free.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

American Musicscape

Of all the answers to the question of what American music actually is, I find the most satisfying one to be that it is music written in America (attributed to Aaron Copland, as quoted by Van Dyke Parks). America's landscape is extremely varied, and over the course of history, has had spots of breathtaking natural beauty. Coming from the East coast, and living in the Midwest, I have only lived with certain kinds of American natural beauty, and certain kinds of American urban beauty within my (almost 50 year) lifespan. The rest I get through images and sounds. Lately, partly due to my time spent with Amy Beach's music, how much a composer's music reflects the physical environment where s/he lives and writes.

I have always been particularly attuned to sense of "place." I remember one backstage conversation I had (in Illinois) with Peter Bowman, the principal oboist of the St. Louis Symphony. We were talking about beautiful places in New England. I mentioned that the most beautiful spot I knew was the area between New Hampshire and Vermont, around Keene and Brattleboro. It is the place where I imagine Peyton Place was set, and an area where I once spent a glorious week in May (the 13th-23rd, to be exact) watching the lushness of Spring take over the mountains. It turned out that Peter grew up in that area. Amy Beach did too.

I have always loved Gene Stratton-Porter's "Limberlost," as described in A Girl of the Limberlost and her many other writings, both as a naturalist and as a fiction writer. There are still remnants where I live of what used to be the general landscape of downstate Illinois and Indiana when it was mostly swampland. I have come to appreciate the beauty of the flora and fauna in my area, though the richness of the flora and the fauna that existed during the 19th century floods my imagination, as it flooded the canvases of the painters from the Hudson River School of painting.

To my ears, our 19th-century American music preserves the lush beauty of the 19th-century American landscape in sound, particularly in the music of Edward MacDowell, Amy Beach, Sidney Lanier, Arthur Foote, Charles T. Griffes. There are, of course, American composers, like Louis Moreau Gottshalk, who take their emotional material from other sources, sources which are just as uniquely American as the natural physical landscape, but lately, after a lifetime (or half a lifetime--I'm hoping for another 50 years) of trying to figure out just what it is that I "recognize" in American music from the 19th century, these images help me to understand something about American Romanticism.

These 19th-century composers breathed the same air as their Hudson River School contemporaries. They traveled down the same unpaved roads, using the same rhythmic means of locomotion (foot, horse, or train), and experienced some of the same sounds of nature, like the sounds coming from the bird life. (Sibelius believed that bird life had a great influence on music from different parts of the world. I think that he was certainly onto something.)

It is easy to play 19th-century American music and concentrate on the elements that we recognize from 19th-century European music. After all, the musical materials are often the same. But the danger of going for what we recognize in the music of Brahms, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and other 19th-century composer who set standards for American composers who studied their music, is that we can cause the music to sound derivative, like Faux Faure. By taking a walk outside, in an undeveloped spot, or going to the 19th-century American wing of an art museum (for people who do not live in America), perhaps we can get a passing whiff of what might get at the heart of the sound of American music in the 19th century.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Amy Beach at the MacDowell Colony

I have been spending a lot of time with Amy Beach during the past few months, so I thought I'd put this really striking picture of her here, to serve as a reminder for me to keep practicing the difficult parts of her Violin Sonata carefully every day (and I may just be able to play them when the time comes to do so). This photo was taken around a hundred years ago at the MacDowell Colony, which has a stunningly-beautiful website.

Finding the right instrument

From Bleak House by Charles Dickens (read to me by Michael today over lunch).
"It was the old girl that brought out my musical abilities. I should been in the artillery now, but for the old girl. Six years I hammered at the fiddle. Ten and the flute. The old girl said it wouldn't do; intention good, but want of flexibility; try the bassoon. The old girl borrowed a bassoon from the bandmaster of the Rifle Regiment. I practiced in the trenches. Got on, got another, get a living by it!"

Monday, March 02, 2009

Unpopular Thoughts

Galen Brown's critique on the Los Angeles Times article about Barack Obama and "The Arts" started me on an unpopular path that I thought I'd share with the people scattered around the globe who share my worldview.

I have often imagined that if I were stuck on a deserted island surrounded by nothing but bird life, fish life, and a bunch of animals that thought of me as a potential meal, I would have everything in common with another human being who happened to be on that island. It would be the same thing if I were in outer space.

The moment I gave birth for the first time 22 years ago, I felt that I had everything in common with every woman alive giving birth for the first time, as well as every mother who had ever lived. It was a powerful feeling, and in that moment I had a fleeting feeling of belonging that I have craved ever since. I have felt similar feelings during unexpected moments in concerts, times when the moment itself took over, and all the barriers that existed between the people playing and the people listening were simply gone. Those moments, unlike my birth experience, do not happen after a period of anticipation. Like elements in nature that produce stunningly-beautiful skies, they just happen when the conditions are right.

When our children were small I had a lot to talk about with other parents of small children. I felt I had a lot in common with other parents who were concerned with teething, diapers, lack of diapers, burping, breastfeeding, and other countless details of early parenthood. Unfortunately there was rarely any cultural common ground, and most of those adult relationships with our children's playmates' parents no longer exist.

What I do is terribly foreign to most of the people who live in my community, and it is completely foreign to a lot of the people who live in my country. I have never really "gotten" popular culture. I observe it, and I have been known to "consume" it (seeing popular movies once in a blue moon) occasionally, but my default setting is really that of an elitist. Even "highbrow" culture that is popular can send me back into my cave.

Fortunately my husband can serve as a watchdog for popular culture. He always seems to know, in addition to everything else, a lot about what's going on in the "outer world." If he didn't keep me up to speed, I would never know, for example, that there was this "thing" about bacon rolling around the internet that is now passé (evidently I never noticed it passing).

I have had feelings of community during this past political campaign. When Michael and I went to Springfield to hear Barack Obama introduce Joe Biden, I felt that I had, for that moment, a great deal in common (common cause, I suppose) with the rest of the people in that crowd.

Anyway, the general take on our First Family's cultural life does have fleeting interest for me. I don't care if Barack Obama listens to "classical music," but I do care about the fact that he understands that there are a significant number of Americans who do. What we need in our government officials are not people who press forward on personal agendas, but people who can step back and look at the big picture of our hugely-diverse culture, including the people who work hard at doing things that are not generally popular, and do not make a lot of money, like playing and teaching "classical" music. I believe we have that in our president, and knowing that helps me feel more like a contributor to the culture of this country than an outsider.

The fact that Barack Obama goes to his daughters' ballet recitals is a good thing. It shows that he is a good father. The fact that they dance and take piano lessons probably has a lot to do with the fact that he and Michelle are good parents who offer their children the kind of educational opportunities that allow them to be expressive. Either or both of their children may choose sports over ballet, or one of them may join that subgroup of people who live to dance, but at least they have exposure, the chance to build up knowledge and technique, and the opportunity to perform.

What is important is that Barack Obama and his administration recognize that there are people who need to participate in creative and expressive activities, either as "makers" and performers, or as viewers and audiences. I believe that they know that support for what we like to call "the arts" improves our greater culture.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Lego Harpsichord

Lego is an abreviaion of the Danish phrase leg godt, which means to "play good." This harpsichord actually plays (though I wouldn't say it plays "good"). It is still a remarkable accomplishment.

Make sure to look at Henry Lim's M.C. Escher page. It's brilliant.