Thursday, April 30, 2009

Birthday Music

(You can download a PDF here.)
Today is my 50th birthday.

If, at the age of 30 (a milestone for many), someone with the ability to see into the future would have told me that I would be a violinist and a violist by the time I turned 50, I would probably not have believed it. If someone told me at 30 that by the age of 50 I would have written nearly a hundred pieces of music, I would also not have believed it. I supposed I am living proof that life can begin at 30.

So this 50th birthday present I have given to myself (and to share with whoever might be interested) of a piece for viola d'amore (another implausibility) marks the day, and celebrates the fact that with enough desire and enough hard work (one day at a time) it is possible to do what seems to be impossible.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Einstein Violin Story

Julius Baker, who was a great admirer of Albert Einstein, told me a story that I want to share, whether it is true or not.

Albert Einstein was playing violin in a concert in Philadelphia, and a well-known playwright (presumably one who wrote comedies), was sitting in the audience and laughing. After the concert Einstein asked the playwright, "Why were you laughing at my concert? I never laugh at your plays."

Skye Boat Fantasie

This is a piece I just finished for violin, viola, and piano that is based on a traditional Scottish melody. It turns itself into a traditional Scottish earworm, and after hearing it you too will be humming the melody in your dreams.

Listen at your own risk.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Birdies that Sing in the Spring (tra la)

The ways of the creative mind are mysterious. There are times when it is easy to be inspired to write music by simply listening to the birds sing in the spring, and there are times when the birds that sing in the spring seem to be simply chattering among themselves in exclusive groups, with little concern for anything except calling to their own species, and making themselves heard. As a member of a different species, I can feel left out, useless, and superfluous. I guess it is all a matter of perspective.

There are also other seasons, and there are many things in life to celebrate with music, but there are a lot of situations in life that threaten the creative process. Seeing and hearing clearly--clearing away all the muck that comes with needing to be at least recognized (not to mention appreciated) for what we do, is something that does not come easily. The profession of music is filled with people who have to constantly build and rebuild their fragile egos, and sometimes that ego building and rebuilding takes up a great deal of creative energy. Sometimes it takes up a great deal of space and time as well.

I find that it is best to look to nature for strength. I get excited when the birds return and sing to one another outside my window, and I feel open to whatever inspiration happens to come my way. I also get excited when I hear a performing musician play or sing particularly beautifully (like I did yesterday). I think of it as a wonder of nature when it happens--a surprising mixture of many people, influences, and spontaneous feelings (combined with a lot of hard work). It's like all the innocent energy of birdsong, but its presented in an organized way, and translated into a language that allows me to take part in the conversation, even as a listener.

The birds are so busy singing their hearts out that they don't have the luxury of listening to their unintentional and highly complicated counterpoint. But I do.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Blue Ribbon in Support of Roxana Saberi

I'm joining T and other members of the blogging community by placing a blue ribbon on my blog in support of the journalist Roxana Saberi who is in Tehran's Evin Prison.

If you have a blog, join this rally celebrating free speech by displaying a blue ribbon.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Steven Staryk Anthology

I thought I'd share a link here to a collection of 30 CDs that form the Steven Staryk Anthology here. There are generous audio samples of music from the Anthology that play on the website (you might end up keeping it on all day).

Make sure to click on "more details" to read about the Anthology.

Friday, April 24, 2009

What I Think Composers Think About

Kyle Gann has been hosting an interesting discussion about what composers talk about (and think about) over at Postclassic, and I feel the need to add a cent or two--or perhaps a sentence or two in response.

The idea, of course, that I can get into someone else's head, especially the head of someone who is no longer alive, is absurd, so I can only speak for myself.

Music, being made mostly of feelings (though it can and should be organized in some way with the mind in order for those feelings to be transmitted either by a composer to the person or people playing the music, or by a performing musician to an audience), can be understood in relation to any number of different emotional situations by any number of different listeners. It is not my business as a composer to write a narrative, but I suppose it is my business as a composer to make an abstract narrative possible for both players and listeners. I also don't think that it is a future audience's business to know what my particular personal problems were when I was working on a piece of emotionally-charged music. Actually, I would prefer it if they didn't know.

Feelings are complicated. I imagine that I'm not alone when I say that I have used writing music as a ladder of escape out of a difficult emotional state. Sometimes just doing the work itself tends to help. Having a "place" to wallow and scream over and over again is a luxury, and it is great when it can have creative spoils. Perhaps hearing the piece after a period of months or years brings back the memory of having had difficulties, but once the details have been blurred by the kindness of time, the music takes on the emotional life of the moment and the emotional life of the performing musicians.

I wrote a piece for a friend while I was going through a difficult time. She asked me, in search for a way to interpret the piece, what it was about her that caused me to write the piece. The real answer is that I loved the way she played and was interested to hear what she would do with the piece, but she was far too modest to accept that as a reason. I told her that she and I were both going through some difficult personal struggles (each of us had our own life-circumstance-based struggle) during the time I was writing the piece, and the piece could be interpreted as being "about" those struggles. Her performance of the piece was very different from (and so much better than) the way I imagined the piece could be played. When she sends me her recording, I'll put a link to it here.

You don't need to know what my struggles were at the time to appreciate the music, and you don't need to know the struggles that my friend was having either. Actually, you will never know, because I will never tell.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Classical TV

Here is yet another way to spend more time at your computer: live concerts, performances of whole pieces, documentaries about classical music, master classes, chamber music, orchestral music, jazz, dance, operas . . .

It is mind boggling.

The Audacity of Audacity

I had a huge number of problems with Audacity, a free music recording and sequence program since I first started using it last March, but last night I came upon a new and improved beta version of the program that really works.

Not only does it really work, it does things to recorded performances that are almost obscene. If I play a note that is out of tune (as long as it is a solo piece or passage), Audacity has a feature that allows you to adjust the pitch of the note without altering its time value. Likewise, if a performance is just not fast enough, Audacity has a feature that will speed up a performance without changing the pitch. I can sound, to all the world, like a virtuoso without playing like one. There is also the usual array of echo effects that can be very carefully controlled, a compression effect that will boost up the sound of a distantly-recorded performance, and sound envelope tools that I have yet to try. There is also a tool that will reverse a passage or a whole piece. And this version of Audacity spits out mp3 files!

Now that more people listen to recorded performances of music than live performances (a claim I believe I can make without doing any research--but I welcome anyone to prove me wrong), I realize that anyone can doctor and sculpt what is captured on a microphone to suit the desires of the performer. So if a string quartet can't quite play a movement of a Schumann quartet up to speed with clean articulation, it can be fixed by the computer (any computer, and for free) and nobody would be able to tell.

There is something disturbing to me about this. I hear (and review) stellar recordings all the time. I usually attribute the high quality of the playing to an over abundance of musical technique, but now I need to consider the possibility of the addition of recording techniques to the mix, which is something I do not like to do because I do not have the ability to hear any kind of alternation because the editing is so precise.

I always knew that recordings were edited, but I never knew that it could be so easy to do. From now on I will only give my total trust to performances that I hear in real time and in real space or recordings of peformances that I know are recorded in real time and space. People (especially musicians) are imperfect. It is what makes us human. Music is a celebration of our humanity, and by extension our imperfections.

Poem for the day

Not having the local newspaper (which we stopped getting because it wasn't worth the bother of recycling) allows the breakfasting mind to wander. Here's my poem for the day.

So much depends

a New York
Times review

in black and

and read all

Friday, April 17, 2009

Life Imitates Art

In the 1956 Film The Girl Can't Help It, Edmond O'Brien plays a Gangster named Marty "Fatso" Murdock, who wrote a bunch of songs when he was in prison. The subplot of the film has to do with getting his songs performed and recorded.

And now we hear about a song Al Capone wrote while he was in prison. Here is a case where the song writer will get top billing. One person on the television news suggested that if Al Capone kept doing this that maybe he could have been the next Frank Sinatra. (I think she was trying to make a joke.)

There is news of a recording coming out soon.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Who wrote that song anyway?

Perhaps we might give a bit of credit to the composer and lyricists of "I Dreamed a Dream" for writing the kind of song that would fuel the socio-cultural phenomenon that is causing YouTube to nearly burst at its seams. When the recorded music stops, it is the song that rings in the world's ears.

Claude-Michel Schönberg wrote the music for Les Miserables and Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer, wrote the lyrics.

Here's a lovely performance in Norwegian, and a lovely (though not professionally recorded) performance by Lea Salonga, and another lovely one by an unnamed singer here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Boyle Effect

I imagine that by this point everyone reading this blog will have heard Susan Boyle sing on Britain's Got Talent. In just a few minutes she single-handedly proved that in order to be a good singer you don't have to have any of the outward attributes associated with stars. She also mentioned that nobody had ever given her a chance before. If she were to walk into an audition, she would probably be asked to dance, and be eliminated immediately because of not having the "look."

What will happen? Will she win and become "made over"? Or will they let her be who she is, and give her 15 minutes of fame. Perhaps she will be a real life "never been kissed" story, and the Britain's Got Talent organization will capitalize on that.

Perhaps by having someone like Susan Boyle walk into their very public lives, the people who created this show can make a major statement about the whole entertainment "industry." She is not everywoman though. She has spunk, a rather odd wit, a rather distinct character, a good sense of rhythm, good diction (at least when she sings), a natural alto voice (she could develop those low notes with a bit more training), and she has, it turns out, a great deal of stage presence when she is singing.

The beauty of this whole thing is that nobody knows where it might go. All we know is that Susan Boyle probably has more people listening to her on YouTube than Elaine Paige has, at least at this moment.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Life in a Totally Unjust Musical World

Here is a really sad example of how unjust the musical world can be. And Nathan Kind Currier is not only an excellent composer, but he is one of the more successful composers working today. Perhaps the exposure given to him and his music through this lawsuit by way of the internet and the musical blogosphere will help recover the $70,000 he gave to the Brooklyn Philharmonic to perform his piece in New York.

I think it is criminal for a composer to have to pay to have his or her work performed, but it is even more criminal for a composer to have to pay and to have the piece stopped in mid performance because of fear of having to pay overtime.

There is something brutally wrong with this picture.

Musical Motions: Air Bowing

It astounds me when I see this violinist's "choreographic" approach to violin playing. It reminds me that violin playing is physical in many different ways. I tend to think of it as something more aural and tactile. I get my physical-musical jollies when I hear the instrument vibrate under my ear, and feel the strings, bow, and fingerboard. I don't think I could even "air bow" to a recording.

This unnamed four-year-old seems to me like a natural-born fiddle player. Notice her beautiful bow arm, even without the bow. Her uncle has made and shared a chronicle of her progress from the beginning. It is rather inspiring (and even a little intimidating) to watch. With luck (because a lot of success in music depends on luck, as well as winning competitions) we might get to know her name as a soloist in the near (or not so near: she is still very young) future.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Imitation v. Creation

"I'm trying to figure out who she's imitating." (Words spoken by a well-known musician after hearing a piece by Amy Beach.)
It bothers me that the first reaction of an intelligent person would be to assume that because the composer of a piece is a woman, it must be classified as a work of imitation.

Even though our society has progressed to the point where we accept the work of women in medicine, law, politics, research, and even musical performance (because it has been demonstrated that it is impossible to tell the gender of an instrumental musician by his or her performance), there are people who still cannot accept the idea of a woman as a "creator" of original material.

Now I happen to agree with Fran Liebowitz's comment about original thought being like original sin: "both happened before you were born to people you could not have possibly met." I also believe that harmony is not property, and that the harmonic and structural material of any given time period was a vocabulary shared by many composers. Through the musical centuries there has been a celebrated tradition of homage through quotation and parody. Mozart paid homage to Handel in his Requiem. Beethoven paid homage to Mozart in his quartet Opus 59, no. 3. There is a whole Renaissance tradition based on parody, as well as a tradition of transcription (consider some of the work of Johann Sebastian Bach). The list does go on, but in the case of "great" composers, the general response to homage, parody, or transcription is the phrase "he makes it his own."

And then we have those horridly-classified "lesser composers." Why do we insist on making musical hierarchies? We are all "lesser composers" when we compare what we do to what Bach was able to produce in a daily basis, or what Mozart could do with a libretto, or what Beethoven could do with a string quartet, or what Schubert could do with anything he touched, or what Brahms could do with the orchestra. There are composers who, it seems, did not write "second-rate" (another term I hate) music. I believe that they had very high standards, as well as very large wastebaskets and fireplaces that they were willing to use whenever necessary. Felix Mendelssohn was an example of a superb composer who had enough money in his personal fortune to support himself and his family well, while he took his time writing and rewriting music. Some composers had friends who were excellent musicians to honestly critique their work (consider the letters between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann), and some had patrons to support their work (consider the letters between Nadezhda von Meck and Pitor Illich Tchaikovsky).

Why is it that when we evaluate a creative work as "second-rate" it seems to become synonymous with "second-hand?" And why are we so ready to accept that a piece of music written by 19th-century women is a little bit of both? Consider, for a moment, the music of Lili Boulanger (who was born in the 19th century). It sounds like Boulanger. And music by Fanny Hensel (Felix Mendelssohn's older sister) sounds like Hensel. Even the music of Amy Beach, once you have heard more than one of her 300 pieces, sounds like Beach. Some of the music I have heard by Clara Schumann sounds like music written by her husband, but perhaps I have it all wrong. Perhaps I, along with other people, have failed to consider the possible (probable, actually) influence of Clara's creative musical voice on Robert's music.

Perhaps we are all a bit narrow minded. Perhaps we can blame some of our sexual-cultural prejudice on the fact that most music that we hear from the 19th century was written by men, and since the traditions of the man as creator and woman as muse or helpmate are long and deep, they continue to be married to the concepts of male creativity and female re-creativity or "recreation." I imagine that it will be a long time before this cultural prejudice will go the way of some of the other prejudices that we have fought so hard to grow beyond.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Variations on a Theme of Risotto

I have made mushroom-asparagus risotto three times this week. While it is still asparagus season, I thought I would put my own personal recipe here for all my blog-reading friends (both vegan and non vegan) to try. All things being relative, most of the measurements are flexible, as is the cooking time. I tend to go into a hypnotic state while stirring risotto, and I completely forget to look at the clock. It is fascinating to watch this mass of separate foods turn into a creamy indulgent-tasting comfort food before my very eyes.

Here is my recipe: it serves four hungry people, and is a hearty main dish meal.

2-3 Tablespoons olive oil, depending on the diameter of the pot you are using
1 minced onion
1 cup minced celery
1 carrot, peeled and cut into tiny dice
2 large minced cloves of garlic
1 large container of cremini mushrooms (also called "baby bella"), cut into slices

1 cup Arborio rice
1 bunch of asparagus, cut into 2-inch pieces, and steamed for 2-3 minutes

1 cup white wine
4 cups warm vegetable stock
3 cups warm water (or more stock, if you like)

1/4 cup (or more) of fresh thyme leaves that have been separated from their stems

Heat the oil in a large, heavy pot, and add the onions, celery, and carrots. Cook for a few minutes over medium heat, and then add the garlic and the sliced mushrooms. Cook for another minute or two, and pour in all the rice. Let the rice absorb whatever liquid happens to be in the pot, and then add the wine. Using the lowest heat possible to maintain a simmer, use a wooden spoon to stir the rice. Make yourself comfortable at the stove, because you will need to stir constantly for about a half an hour.

After the wine is absorbed, add the stock, little bit by little bit, still stirring. You will eventually notice that the starch that is washed off the rice from all the stirring will begin to thicken the stock-wine mixture. Just keep adding more stock and stirring. After about 15 minutes, throw in the asparagus, and keep stirring and adding stock. It is kind of astounding how much stock the rice can absorb. You will know when you have added enough stock because the grains of rice will be tender and the risotto will become difficult to stir. It seems to take about 30 minutes, but I always forget to look at the clock while I am stirring.

Stir in the thyme leaves. Add a bit of salt and pepper to taste, and enjoy with either Parmesan cheese or Gomashio (toasted sesame salt), and the rest of the bottle of white wine.

Variations I: You can use two bunches of asparagus (like I did tonight). Increase the Arborio rice to 1.5 cups, and increase the liquid by a cup.

Variation II: Try substituting sliced leeks for the mushrooms, and canned and drained or frozen artichoke hearts for the asparagus.

Variation III: Small slices of sweet red pepper add a bit of a kick, and they add color to Variation II.

Variation IV: Scallions do too.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Song of India

I have always loved watching traditional Indian dance. I took two summers of Bharatanatyam dance when I was a clumsy pre-teen, and found it physically very difficult but aesthetically very wonderful. I have always loved Indian food, especially when it is prepared by a professional, but I had no idea that India had such a beautiful national anthem until this evening, when it was used to open an Indian variety show at the University of Illinois. If you (like me) are new to it, you can follow a translation and read about Jana Gana Mana here. Thanks for taking us to India Night, Rachel!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Peter Principle at Play

Day two with the cello has proven to me that my arms are indeed too short to play the instrument. I gave it a healthy try, but I fear that compensating for my shortcomings might mess up my hands and arms. I don't want to progress from healthy to unhealthy, adding injury to musical insult.

I suppose that this is an example of narrowly avoiding the Peter Principle at musical play. I think I'm better off sticking with instruments better suited to my stature. I'll leave the bass lines to people who can reach them, like Lucy, who is built like a cellist. She appears with cello in hand after about 3 minutes in this video.

You can read about the sad fate of the cello she used in the comments of this Pepito and Joanne blog post.

You can also watch the whole 1951 pilot episode that the clips come from.

Relationships Between Music and Listeners

I recently saw an application form for a composition contest that asked the composer to indicate his or her view on the relationship between the submitted work and the listener.

It is funny. I rarely think about "the listener" when I'm writing. I do, however, think about the person who (hopefully) will be playing the piece. I think of a piece of music as a dialogue between a disembodied composer and a fully-embodied musician or a group of fully-embodied musicians. The audience is invited to share in the intimacy of that relationship. But people in audiences are vastly different from one another. Each person who comes to a concert comes with with a unique web of musical experiences. Each person will probably have a unique reaction to every piece, and each person playing will also react in unique and personal ways.

I have found that people in audiences tend to pay attention to performing musicians first, and if all is well with that, they are safely able to listen to the music. An ideal performance is one that allows the attention of the audience to jump from one to the other: from musicians to music. And when the performing musicians do something particularly interesting (by giving phrase a certain elan, rhythmic sparkle, or perhaps by doing something interesting or engaging with their individual or collective sounds), the audience's attention becomes fixed on the performing musicians, who have the ultimate task of redirecting the listener to what is happening in the music.

I'm starting to think that my approach to playing and writing music may not be the norm. Perhaps there are composers who could answer the question at the beginning of this post in a convincing way. I could only answer the question in a satisfying way if I were to describe a song, a song cycle, or an opera, but I would still know that the music would be my own personal response to a given text, and I would also know that the singer's interpretation of the text would be the one that would reach an audience, to be interpreted not collectively, but by each individual listener's response to and understanding of the text.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Hello Cello

Due to the growing up (and away) of many local young cellists (including my own son, who travels mostly by banjo now), our Summer Strings orchestra will be left with only two cellists. I decided that the best contribution I can make this year would be to play the cello, so today I spent 15 or 20 minutes playing Ben's cello, and I made it rather quickly through his Suzuki book two (where everything is in either C major or G major).

The left hand isn't much of a problem: all is relative, and the pitches are rather easy to find. Vibrato is a piece of cake. I'm comfortable with the clef (at least with the bass clef), but boy, cellists need more developed upper arm and shoulder muscles than fiddle players do. We upper string players can let our upper right arms relax in a very natural position, and we can use their almost dead weight to get sound out of our instruments. The forward position of the upper arm that is necessary simply to reach the strings requires all sorts of new muscles that I have yet to understand. Perhaps my problem is that I know what a good cello sound is, and I definitely don't have the brawn to make one yet.

So, between now and the summer I'm going to try to devote an ever-increasing daily time to the cello, with the hope that I can make it through a two-hour playing session by July.

Cellists, I salute you (with my tired right arm)!