Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Happy Anniversary Michael!

It is hard to believe that our wedding was twenty-five years ago today! And who would have even imagined back in 1984 that we could celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary with our friends in anything remotely related to the idea of a blogosphere? A lot has gone down these past 25 years, and in the process both of us have certainly grown up.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Intervals: what happens between the notes

One thing that recorded music can never seem to reproduce is the stuff that happens in the air when you play resonant double-stops on a stringed instrument. A particularly good instrument (or a group of instruments) will excite a whole rainbow of vibrating resonances, that dance around like a group of excited atoms. A good set of speakers and a set of extremely sensitive microphones can come close to capturing what happens on the surface during a given moment, but the beauty of live performance (or live practice) is that each time you play--even the same written notes--the set of phantom rainbow resonances that happens inside of the intervals, inside of the double-stops, is different. The set of dancing rainbow resonances even varies over the duration of a double-stop, even if the double stop only lasts for a very short amount of time.

There is a universe inside of a perfect fifth, particularly because, in addition to all the magical dancing atomic rainbow vibrations, it contains implied possibilities that are sometimes filled in by the imagination of the listener (and player), and are sometimes filled in by the addition of a major or minor third, which throws those atomic rainbow resonances into a whole new hierarchy.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Darwin the Musician

While responding to a comment on a previous post I came across this bit of information which is too good not to share.
Nothing is known about Darwin's musical disposition as a child. There is no indication that he ever played a musical instrument, nor had an appreciation of music in general. As a young man Darwin acquired a taste for classical music while studying at Cambridge University. He often visited King's College there, and would sit for hours listening to the church choir.

What is interesting about Darwin's fondness for music is that he was tone deaf, and had a very difficult time recalling a tune he just heard the day before. Darwin was also unable to hum a tune properly, or keep time to music as he was listening to it. As far as specific composers go, he loved the symphonies and overtures of Mozart, Handel and Beethoven. In the evenings his wife, Emma, who was quite an accomplished pianist (she was trained by Frederic Chopin), would play for him on her piano forte as he reclined on a nearby sofa.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Crazy for God

I have been spending a significant part of these past two days of awe reading Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as one of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back by Frank Schaeffer, and found much more in this memoir than I expected to find.

I first learned of the book through an interview on Fresh Air back in December. I was expecting an expose of the inner workings on the beginnings of the Christian "Right" movement, and a detailed explanation of how relatively innocent people allowed it to mushroom into something that has become terribly ugly and powerful. What I found was a beautiful memoir about an extremely unusual childhood in a family with larger-than-life parents and larger-than-life freedoms in extraordinarily beautiful places, interspersed with vignettes involving personally-moving experiences with music and art.

Frank Schaeffer's father, was, in addition to being a self-taught theologian, a pure humanist with a great love and understanding for art, music, and the beauties of nature. He was also, by Frank's account, a emotionally uneven (perhaps bipolar) and often absent father who showed one face to his religious disciples and another to Frank's mother, who put up with a great deal of abuse in exchange for the opportunity to hold a highly important place in what was to become a superstar-studded world-wide religious movement.

It is rather riveting to read about being a child living in a religious-retreat-community in the Swiss Alps during the 1960s. Frank's childhood was unusually free. Everyone was always busy with their work (or rather "The Work"), and he tells wonderful stories about the mostly American guests that he got to know at the retreat.

Frank's undiagnosed dyslexia made it impossible for his homeschooling-minded family to teach him his basic subjects, so he was sent to a series of English boarding schools for much of his childhood. His coming of age (and his escape from a particularly unfair boarding school) coincided with the dawning of hippie culture. The religious community was visited regularly by young Christian pilgrims interested in finding some kind of "truth." They came to learn at the feet of Frank's father, while indulging in all the trappings that came with being a young person in the early 1970s. Frank's father bent with the times, and became a kind of "cool" Dad for a while, before eventually reverting to the staunch ideology of his earlier years.

Frank apologizes for his father again and again by mentioning at every opportunity just how much his father cared about art, music, and beauty. He draws a loving portrait of a flawed human being. There are also apologies for his mother, who talked very frankly (sorry--but there is no better word) about things that he really didn't need to know concerning her relationship with his father.

Frank grew up to become a "propaganda" film maker for the religious right. His father, who became an icon of the movement, was the star. They made lots and lots of money. There was (and still is) a lot of money to be made in the religious media business, and, as Frank points out, a lot of influence to be won. Eventually he left the religious media business and the evangelical movement altogether. This is both his confession and his apology. Every time this book is read, the apology is repeated. May it be read many, many, many times.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Facebook (an administrative note)

In the off chance that some of my Facebook friends feel insulted by the fact that I no longer appear in their roster of Facebook friends, my experiment with re-connecting with people from my the past by way of the daily update is over (not that I ever really used the daily update as a means of communication).

I am, of course, always happy hear from old not-necessarily-only-facebook friends (and new ones, and blog readers) by way of e-mail or phone, but I just can't complicate my creative life with so many reminders from my (not always happy) past lives.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Another look into the future

Check out all that "modern" art on the walls!

The Future is Now (1955) (by way of Paleo-Future)

Music of the Future

John Elfreth Wakins, Jr. made a series of predictions in 1900 that were printed in the Ladies Home Journal. Some predictions have actually come to pass, and some predictions, like the entry about education, should come to pass. The section about music is priceless.
Automatic instruments reproducing original airs exactly will bring the best music to the families of the untalented.
This comes via Paleo-Future, where I predict you will be spending a lot of time today. I know I will.

(Thanks Rachel!)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Great Rossini Story

"He was a strange fellow. He manufactured some brandies, gave a few music lessons, and in that way made ends meet. He never owned a bed--he slept standing up . . . . At night he wrapped himself in his cloak, and slept thus in a corner of any arcade. The nightwatchman knew him and didn't disturb him. Then, at the crack of dawn, he would come to me, pull me out of bed--which I didn't like at all--and then I had to play for him. Sometimes when he hadn't rested enough, he'd go to sleep standing up again while I was working at the spinet. I'd take advantage of that in order to crawl back into bed. On waking up again, he'd look for me there and would be gratified by my assurances that while he had been asleep I had played my pieces without mistakes."
Gioccino Rossini's description to Ferdinand Hiller of his early studies in Bologna with Guiseppi Prinetti.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

So Sad: An Aside

This 10 minute video "documentary" taken in Washington D.C. during the recent anti-u-name-it rally, shows the poor education level of the adults who showed up. It is tragic, actually. It's even more tragic than the messages these people have on their signs.

After a decent health care plan gets passed, we have to do something about education, and we have to do it soon. We can't afford to have another generation with any significant percentage of adults as under-educated as the people in this video. It is very clear that these people have been terribly manipulated by powerful entities (corporate as well as religious) that take advantage of their low level of education. I imagine that the powerful entities have serious contempt for these people outside of their use for them as "the base" or a "voting body." These people would be better served to direct their anger towards the people who are trying to (and succeeding to) manipulate them, fuel their deepest fears, and feed them misinformation to repeat and distribute on line.

These people have fallen prey to the ravings of lunatics who dominate certain areas of the airwaves and cable television. I'm sure that many of them mean well, but they appear not to be educated enough to separate reason from propaganda. Many of these people only came to this event because "big brother" on their television told them that they needed to go to Washington on the day after September 11th to voice their anger. That's all they know. That's all many of them need to know. It is terribly sad.

Thank you to Chase Whiteside and Erick Stoll for taking the time and energy to film this.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Rare 1941 Dinu Lipati Test Recordings

Brahms, Intermezzo Op. 116 No. 2 in A minor
Bach, Chorale in G major "Jesus bleibet meine Freude"
Scarlatti, Sonata in G major L. 387
Chopin, Etude in G flat major Op. 10 No. 5

(A big thanks to Eliane Lust!)

And here's a Lipati motherlode to use as a therapeutic ladder of escape for those times when the world seems to be too small, too difficult to understand, and too complicated to negotiate.

Monday, September 14, 2009


I used to be competitive when I was a child, and it really messed me up. I used to count the number of lines in the plays I was in, and I would measure my strength as an actress by how many I had. I (childishly, since I was a child) believed that the people who had fewer lines than I had were, clearly, not as good as I was. But the people who had more were, somehow, superior to me. I used to think that if I tried hard enough I too could get leading roles, but it didn't happen. By the time I made it to Junior High, I was comparatively short, not built like a dancer, and wasn't the leading-lady type. In spite of the fact that I knew every line and every song in every Jr. High School show, and I went to all the rehearsals, I spent my acting time in the offstage chorus.

There were already very good flutists in my school who played in the orchestras for the shows, so I remained in the chorus. I started playing the flute towards the end of seventh grade, and I decided to work really hard at it. After a few years of hyper-competitiveness, I eventually learned that the only real reward for hard work was in the work itself and in the ability to play. My competitive spirit worked its way out of my psyche, thank goodness, by the time I entered Juilliard (which, I suppose is the ultimate "lion's den" of musical competition). There was also no possible way I could compete with my classmates, so I simply didn't. I got myself onto a path of doing music for its own sake, and I believed that if I really worked hard enough, the quality of what I did would speak for itself.

Why is competition considered such a virtue? A quick Google search gleaned 61,300,000 websites on which to find competition quotes. Perhaps competition is an addiction like gambling. Perhaps the thrill of bettering another person gives a momentary sense of value to the winner. Perhaps that sense of defeat that surrounds the loser gives motivation to win next time. Perhaps it is exciting for kids to compete, but, in my eyes, using childish games as the major measure of accomplishment in the world, is simply childish. There should be room in the world for everyone who does anything of value, but that doesn't look like it is the case when I look at the view through my window, computer screen, and television.

Competition has made its way into everything: music (in all its forms), fashion, drama, art, architecture, cake decorating, cooking, raising animals, education, attractiveness, physical fitness in all its possible forms, and even blogging. Being successful in business doesn't necessarily mean that you have a good product or service to sell. It means that your goods and services are chosen over the goods and services of the competition, for reasons that do not necessarily have anything to do with the actual quality of what you do.

It seems that television has become one large game show, expanding the boundaries of competition to the ridiculous. It is hard to watch cable television during any given hour of the day and not find at least one show that involves some kind of a competition (in between the commercials, that is). Even the news, particularly the cable news, treats every stage of politics as a game (in between commercials, that is).

Sadly, it is those of us who choose not to compete that end up being relative non-participants in the continually competitive game of life.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Don't Judge a Book by its Title

I found Joseph H. Kupfer's Prostitutes, Musicians, and Self-Respect: Virtues and Vices of Personal Life through a Google search concerning self-serving musicians (another rant that I will spare for another post), and imagined, from the excerpt that I read on Google Books, that it might contain some interesting ideas (in the sections of the book that were not available on line). I didn't buy the book. Michael was able to get it through inter-library loan for me, and had a look at it before I did, since the book made it from his office to our living room by way of his backpack.

On first glance he mentioned that it looked like a philosophy book, and he asked me where I found it. I told him. He looked in the index for "music" and told me that there was nothing there. I, in my infinite optimism, imagined that the coverage of the subject of music would be so large that an entry in an index would be superfluous, but I was totally wrong. The subject of music, in the context of self-respect and the idea of prostitution, gets only a tiny mention in the title chapter of the book (which is the ultimate chapter), and it only comes through a discussion of "Sex, a Feminist Perspective," an article from 1986 by Janet Radcliffe-Richards. Kupfer tells us that Radcliffe-Richards "compares the prostitute to the musician. She sees nothing worse about people selling their services to produce sexual pleasure in other than in selling musical services to produce aesthetic pleasure."

Reflections on this argument could move into interesting territory, but Kupfer argues against it in an unsatisfying way. I will quote:
When gifted people capable of creative work forgo the chance to undertake artistically worthwhile projects in order merely to please or make money, we speak of them as prostituting themselves. They have sold out. We need to say "merely" to please or make money because nothing is wrong with pleasing or making money provided the musicians are being true to themselves. This requires pursuing art commensurate with their talents and is likely to develop nonmusical dimensions of themselves as well as their musical abilities. The risk of genuine failure and the discipline required in meeting such a challenge often bring with them nonmusical growth. For example, it takes courage to put one's best efforts on the line. Then, too, humility may be required to seek help or accept one's true limitations. If we never take our best shot, then we can always deceive ourselves by rationalizing that we could have done superlative work had we only tried."
That is pretty much the whole musical discussion. No wonder the word "music" didn't earn a place in the index!

Gee. I could write a book about the myriad humiliations that musicians put themselves through in the course of trying to live a musical life. I have seen, lived through, and experienced many situations that would make a musician's life similar to that of a prostitute. The biggest difference for me between music and prostitution is that music is sacred, and the understanding of a small corner of it through study and practice, is the greatest reward there is. There is, as far as I know, very little personal reward in trading sex for money, aside from the money.

Orchestral musicians put themselves through a large range of humiliations, both social and hierarchical, in order to play professionally (a glance at Blair Tindall's Mozart in the Jungle will give a pretty good idea how much sex-related trade there is in the world of music--and she just touches the tip of the iceberg). Freelance musicians have to vie for position in the eyes of contractors, which sometimes can lead to circumstances that violate appropriate ethical behavior. Orchestral conductors have been known to humiliate musicians that they don't particularly like, for reasons that often have nothing to do with the music at hand, and the stretching of personal boundaries between musicians of influence and musicians new to the profession is, and always has been, quite common.

Perhaps self-promotion, which is considered a musical virtue these days, a little akin to prostitution. As a person who would rather do things than promote what I do, I feel that a piece of music, a performance, or even a lesson or a class should "speak" for itself. I also feel that each musical act accomplishes a purpose, and that purpose is not to reflect on the "greatness" of the person performing that act. For me, in the instance of a piece I am writing, the purpose is to have something that is useful and can bring some kind of emotional and social pleasure to the people playing it and hearing it. The purpose, in the case of a concert I play, is to fill alienating silent spaces with something that can unite all the people in them (including the often-no-longer-alive composer) by making it possible for the audience to enjoy music that is vibrant, fluid, free from technical "blemishes," and is emotionally and intellectually engaging. I believe that voluntarily playing a concert for free or writing a piece for the fun of it has nothing to do with prostitution. But playing a concert for free for a paying audience is extremely humiliating. And writing a piece that a publisher sells without reporting the sales to the composer (or sending royalty checks) is a good way to compromise a composer's self-respect.

I'll stop now. And I'll return this book to the library right away.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Edda, Jetta, and Hans

I devoted a large chunk of my afternoon watching Hans Christian Andersen: My Life as a Fairy Tale on a commercial television channel that managed to infuse this nearly three-hour-long movie with three more hours of commercials. It was painful to wait between segments, but, being a long time devotee of Andersen, I pressed on. I enjoyed the film a great deal, and I particularly appreciated the way the film was written, even though most of the film's plot was indeed a fairy tale. Terri Windling's article about Andersen's life will help anyone separate fact from pure fiction, or fairy tale.

The film's writer was able to mold the story of "The Snow Queen" to fit the needs of the film's plot, and he was also able to make Jenny Lind a central dramatic character. I was rather impressed with the fictional character of "Jetta," (the woman with the dark hair in the above film clip) who served as the third member of a love triangle with Jenny Lind. I wonder if Kit Hesketh-Harvey, the film's writer, gave the Jetta (pronounced "Yetta") character her name because of the Edda, the source from which Andersen might have drawn some of the mythic material he used in his stories.

In my Snow Queen opera, published in 2003, two years after this film was made, by the way, I gave the grandmother character in the story the name Edda. I knew about the name because my step-grandmother was named Etta (pronounced "Edda") and it seemed perfectly appropriate, almost serendipitous to give her that name. The Edda-Jetta connection here, if it is one made from the folkloric connection, is also serendipitous. In searching (in vain) for a way of contacting the screenwriter, I learned that we share the same birthday. Triple serendipity.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Interpreting Avant-Garde Music

I'll leave writing a detailed review of the music that Muhal Richard Abrams, George Lewis, and Roscoe Mitchell played at the Chicago Jazz Festival earlier this evening to Michael, and will spend my two cents on the person interpreting the concert visually for people who could not hear the music. This was my first purely instrumental concert with an interpreter for the deaf and hard of hearing. I imagine an instrumental concert is quite a challenge for an interpreter.

Michael and I arrived early enough to hear a set played by the Jeff Parker Quartet, and ensemble I particularly liked because the keyboard player played a Hammond Organ. I noticed the interpreter, who, moving to the rhythm of the music, tried to transmit what she heard in the music through gesture. She did a fine job, and seemed to be having a great time.
When "The Trio" came on, a different interpreter came to the corner of the stage. This person seemed baffled by the avant-garde music that this group of musicians played. Eventually the first interpreter came back to the stage, and tried her best to translate electronic sounds and extended instrumental techniques, set in a format that lacked both regular meter and harmony, into sign language.

Some of the sounds these musicians made during their 50-minute set are very difficult to describe by using words. I didn't see the interpreter use signs other than signs showing which instrument was playing to describe what was happening in the music (and there was a lot happening in the music), and use facial expressions to transmit some of the emotional expression. The musicians themselves were improvising in such a free way that it was difficult to figure out where phrases were going before they got "there" (and they stood remarkably still on stage: this was a concert, not a "show"). The addition of sampled sounds (including train sounds and nature sounds) from Lewis' laptop added a great deal to the texture, and it sometimes took a while to figure out exactly which sounds were made by the instruments and which sounds were made by the laptop.

I thought she did an admirable job, and seeing her there started me on a train of thought (yes, my mind did wander once in a while during the performance). I began thinking about the ultimate value that a savvy interpreter could add to the experience of the ASL-informed members of an audience for new music, both hearing and non-hearing. S/he could give verbal descriptions of the contours and textures in the music, much the way a film voice-over script gives aural commentary on the visual happenings in a film for people who are unable to see.

It is difficult to do with improvised music. The interpreter must be quick with his or her commentary, but with music that s/he could study beforehand, and relate a commentary in real time, an interpreter could add something quite special and useful. It could even work for avant-garde music from earlier times, like Haydn and Beethoven!

And he can also dance . . .

. . . and the piano can too!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Melodica Anthology

I had a wonderful time looking through Daniel Wolf's brand new Melodica Anthology today, and I imagine you will too.