Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Blogging Year in Review

Michael had a nifty idea for an end-of-the-year blog meme: take the last sentence of the last blog post from each month of 2009, and put them all together, one after another, in a blog post. Since the resulting blog post would be the last blog post for December of 2009, the last sentence would need to be repeated.

Here's my blogging year in review. It was a good one: both my 50th birthday and 25th wedding anniversary came at the end of a month.

After the piece was over, the announcer told me (and the rest of the listening audience) that the performance was by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Daniel Barenboim. He also has a whole gallery of odd violins, along with soundclips from the various fences he has played, and a bunch of videos. 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.

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. This article by Andrew Clark is well worth reading. You can download a PDF of the music here, if you want. Now I'll go and compare what I did to what Melissa did (if the recipe is up now). A lot has gone down these past 25 years, and in the process both of us have certainly grown up.

Easy-Ass Pie! They are playing a concert next week. They are playing a concert next week.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Odd Instruments: the Csakan

I just learned about the Csakan,
a keyed recorder that was popular
during the middle 19th century and
into the 20th. It has a rather large range,
and from the music I have heard
written for the instrument, probably
has a very flexible high register.
It was invented by Anton Haberle and
championed by Ernst Krämer, who
wrote a bunch of nifty music for it.
Unfortunately the instrument seems
to have fallen into obscurity. You can
read all about it here, and try to imagine
the instrument playing this.
There are bunch of odd instrumental
treasures attached to the above link.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Peace for the New Year

I'm such a creature of habit. Even though I don't really think about it, I always seem to write a piece during the last two weeks of December, and it is usually finished by the first of the next year. It would be dishonest to date this piece for viola d'amore and piano for Friday, especially since I finished it this evening. I need to be done with it in order to move on to other things, so I'm releasing this piece into the ether of cyberspace, and then I can have some peace for the new year.

It amazes me how much time can go into a writing piece that lasts a mere four minutes and thirty seconds. The act of getting rid of the notes that need to be eliminated, and making sure that the remaining notes are in the right places takes a vast amount of time. Hours and hours. Days. Weeks, even.

You can listen to it here.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Bit of Christmas Cheer from 1932

(There are a few racist elements which are best ignored. Perhaps we can view them as a part we would prefer to forget about the humor of the time. We have come a long way socially, I suppose, but as far as the art of animation is concerned, these were great days.)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Unjustly Neglected Composers: Amanda Maier

While seeking out material for our annual March concert of music written by women, my pianist friend randomly came upon a sonata for violin and piano by Amanda Maier in the World Cat. After the first two measures we both agreed to postpone our previous choices for this year's program for another year, and spend a few wonderful months with Amanda Maier. I set out to find out everything I could about her, which led me to corresponding with her great grandson, and locating the rest of her music.

Amanda Maier was born into a working-class family (her father was a baker), she became the first woman to get a music degree from the Stockholm Conservatory of Music in 1869. She continued her studies from 1873-1876 with Engelbert Röntgen, the concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, at the Leipzig Conservatory. Like many of the other violin soloists of her time, she wrote her own music. She wrote her B-minor Violin Sonata while she was in Leipzig (around the time of the above picture, taken when she was 20). It was published in Stockholm in 1878, and it is possible that Amanda included this work in her extensive tour through Sweden and Norway during the spring and summer of that year.

She met her future husband, Julius Röntgen, in Leipzig. He was the son of her violin teacher. They married in 1880, and entertained guests like Johannes Brahms and Edward Grieg in their home. Both Brahms and Grieg admired Amanda's ability as a composer, but the ethos of the time prevailed, and when Amanda became a mother, her main musical outlet became teaching her sons.

She contracted tuberculosis after the birth of her second son, and she died at the age of 41 in 1894. Her superb violin sonata probably went unplayed until 1994 when it was recorded for the first time. Here's the first movement, the second movement , and the third movement. This recording, and this excellent series of performance videos beginning with this one miraculously appeared on YouTube at about the same time that we first read the music (just a few weeks ago).

The Stockholm State Library houses her manuscripts and published editions of her other music. There are also diaries in old Swedish, and an exchange of letters with Johannes Brahms. I have written to the rare manuscript people there, requesting that they contribute scans of these works to the Petrucci Library, but I would seriously appreciate it if anyone in Stockholm with access to the library could help make a case for making Amanda Maier's music available to musicians everywhere. The B-minor Sonata is the only piece available through interlibrary loan, and the paper, from 1878, is growing weak. There are only two copies in circulation in the United States. One is at the Loeb Library at Harvard, and the other is at the University of California, Riverside. There's a copy in Copenhagen as well as the one in the copy in Stockholm.

In manuscript there are 25 Preludes for Piano (1869), a Violin Concerto (1875), a piece for cello and piano (1880) that she wrote with her husband, a couple of songs, and an E-minor Piano Quartet (1891). Her Six Pieces for Violin and Piano (1878) were published, and are available at the Haag in the Netherlands.

I hope that someone (or everyone) reading this will share my enthusiasm for this unjustly neglected composer, and share in my quest to make her music easily available to anyone who would like to play it.

UPDATE: There are more photos of Amanda Maier here.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Map of Civilization

This 1850s attempt at mapping the flow of world civilizations as rivers emerging from the flood is fascinating. You can have a really close look here. There is a bit of a question about the Adam and Eve thing, which this artist solves by extending the ether surrounding them, and adding civilizations as references to them appear in history or in literature.

It is a simply stunning way of organizing history. Thanks again to Pecay at BibliOdyssey for brightening up my day!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christmas Music

It isn't even Christmas yet, and I have played more Christmas music (in public that is) than I thought even possible, and there is still more to come. For me it all ends on Christmas day at the Hilltop Convalescent Center, with our family (it is always a pleasure to play there).

The commercial radio stations have Christmas music going all the time. I haven't spent too much time in stores, but when I go to one, there's yet another arrangement of yet another seasonal favorite. And then there's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," the most obstinate ear worm ever. Yes, it is a successful song (probably for that reason), but at times I feel that enough is simply enough.

For the past few years I entertained the idea of writing a Christmas song, but something always seems to stop me. Perhaps it is not wanting to add to the din, perhaps it is because of serious intimidation (so many of the most popular Christmas songs are simply really successful songs), or perhaps it is because there would be a certain element of insincerity in my endeavor, and insincerity is something that I try to avoid whenever possible.

Michael pointed me to this Op-Ed in the Times by Michael Feinstein which gives me a bit of courage.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Music Appreciation: A Note to All Students

I'm probably not the music appreciation teacher you had this past semester. I probably don't know the music appreciation teacher you had during the past semester (or in semesters past), but I can tell you that I share his or her absolute joy in bringing people who have never had any real exposure to classical music to the point where they can evaluate performances, recognize eras, and sometimes even identify national styles. Some of you have learned some history and geography along the way, and some of you have made improvements in your ability to write. Some of you have learned that the internet has tremendous classical music resources (which is one reason you might be reading this blog).

You are now equipped to begin a life-long adventure exploring the world of music. After taking your music appreciation class you can never again say, "I don't know much about classical music." If you have been paying attention in class, you do know something about classical music. If you have been going to class and haven't been paying attention, you still know a lot more than your fellow students who have never even approached the shore of what is a great ocean. You have been in the water, and though you are probably not an Olympic champion, you now know how to swim.

Visit some of the blogs and sites on the sidebar. Seek out concerts in your community. Remember that tickets to a concert make a great (reasonably priced) gift, and going to a concert together is a great way to get to know somebody who interests you. There is nothing wrong with impressing your friends with what you know. And they will be impressed.

Now that you have (what some of you know shouldn't be called) classical music in your life, your life will never be quite the same again.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Stop, Plop, and Pop

My father used to refer to people who played really well as playing like "gangbusters eating rice krispies." Perhaps that might have influenced three of the most important words that I use in lessons with students (both violin and recorder students) and in my own lessons with myself (in other words, when I am practicing).

Stop refers to a momentary stopping of the bow, which I find useful when thinking about plopping and popping: making sure all the necessary fingers are in place before the bow sounds the next pitch.

Plop refers to what the fingers do. In order to have a Milstein-like left hand, I try to always plop as many fingers down as possible. "Drop" might work for some people, but plop gives me a far more secure feeling. You can "drop" something by accident, but you "plop" on purpose, and you usually do it with a great sense of security.

Pop is what the fingers do when they release notes. When I have three fingers of the left hand down, and I pick up only the third finger, that lifted finger "releases" the note that the second finger is going to play. When I do this action with a feeling of "pop," there is a clarity to the released note. The word "lift" implies work. The word "pop" implies play.

The way it works on the recorder involves a momentary stop of the tongue before the fingers plop or pop.

He makes it look so easy!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Perry Mason Mystery Solved

Load up and listen to this clip from Wozzeck at 3:40, and now listen to this. I find the homage extremely appropriate, considering that this particular music happens right after a murder in the opera, and a large number of Perry Mason episodes begin shortly after a murder.

The Berg-emulating composer? Fred Steiner.

Orrin Hatches a What?

I'm not amused about the hype over this seasonal ear-worm, which I just heard on the TV news, that seems to be making major news-lite this week. The music for this song (it always strikes me as something strange to refer to the music of a song as something secondary in importance) comes from Madeline Stone, a Nashville songwriter who is very big in the commercial music field, particularly the lucrative Christian music field. She isn't given much in the way of credit by the news sources, and when she is given credit, it is not necessarily correct. CBS news refers to her as "a Jewish woman from New York who writes Christmas songs."


Update: Here's a Hannukah Song for 2009 that I wrote in response to this one.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Sound that Says Love

I have been spending my weekend with my viola d'amore, finishing a set of three dances for five violas d'amore, and finally figuring out how to make a plausible multi-track recording. I haven't quite figured out how to edit individual voices, so there are flaws here and there which I hope are not too apparent to people who don't know the music (which, at the moment I am writing, includes everyone in the world outside of my immediate family).

The images come from the remarkable Amore e Simpatia: alla scoperta della viola d'amore. The score and parts are available to download (for free) here.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Sign Hallelujah, come on get happy!

I laughed and laughed when I watched this performance (thanks to my friend Martha), but was disappointed to see that it is actually a movement-by-movement copy of this rendering from last year, and this one too. This one is from December 2007 (the music starts halfway through the video), and has some nifty creative twists, and this one from September of 2007 might be one of the first.

Does anyone know of an earlier performance? I wonder who had the original (brilliant) idea?

Friday, December 04, 2009

A Breath of Fresh PBS Air

What a great surprise and delight it was to hear Jim Lehrer read this set of PBS NewsHour principles on television this evening. It is the perfect antidote to my recent off-topic rant, and a great set of guidelines to help me to improve the integrity of everything I do (although, unlike Mr. Lehrer, I suppose I am in the entertainment business).

Do nothing I cannot defend.

Cover, write, and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.

Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.

Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.

Assume the same about all people on whom I report.

Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.

Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories and clearly label everything.

Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.

I am not in the entertainment business.

(Thanks to Michael for finding the list on line and posting it here.)

Repeating myself: a few thoughts on minimalism

A.C. Douglas set forth a mini rant after listening to a maximal amount of minimalism on WQXR Q2. Too much of anything (especially repetition) can get on anyone's nerves. Staying in the same key for too long can make a few minutes seem like an eternity. Minimalism is a good tool for messing with our sense of time, kind of like repetitive patterns used in decorating can mess with our sense of space.

I have used minimalism, but only in context and for specific purposes. In the case of this moment in my Snow Queen opera, Gerda, while en route to find her friend Kay, is stuck for what might be eternity in a magic garden. The concept of eternity looms large in the opera, and the above excerpt happens in the opera's temporal center. The text comes from a passage in Richard Jefferies' The Story of My Heart, which was published in 1883.
It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the sunshine; I am in it, as the butterfly in the light-laden air. Nothing has to come; it is now.
The idea here is to make a minute and forty-four seconds seem like a huge amount of time: to mark the moment of now in music that, by its very nature, consists of a series of events that take place over time. This is, of course, distinctly different from the real (or imaginary) moment of actual "now."

Minimalism can be hypnotic, and minimalism can be abused. Repetition can be effective, and repetition, if it isn't used in a context where it serves a purpose, can be downright boring. Repetition, however, has always been a part of the heart and soul of all music. Consider (in Western music) the song forms from the Middle Ages, dance forms from the Renaissance and the Baroque, the major classical forms, and dance forms (from all over both Eastern and Western Europe) used in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Ostinato was (and still is) an important element in music of the early 20th century (consider Bolero and the Rite of Spring). Perhaps ostinato might have even spawned the technique of minimalism, at least in Western musical practices. Perhaps minimalism, which could be viewed as a kind of hyper-tonality, was an appropriate reaction to the dominating dodecophonic music (which restricts repetition of pitches) that only a few composers have had actual musical success with. Many composers have had huge amounts of success (deserved and otherwise) with minimalism, so I believe it is best not to throw the musical baby out with the musical bathwater.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Svengali: Soprano and Flute duet

Go in about six minutes for a real treat!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Take Heart: another off-topic rant

For those readers who are disappointed in President Obama's decision on Afghanistan, have a look at this, and keep an open mind. Most of us are ill equipped to make any kind of intelligent evaluation concerning the situation in Afghanistan. Most of us do not have the necessary information to even begin to make an informed military decision. And even if we had all the necessary information, very few of us would have the courage to take the responsibility for making a decision that has so many far-reaching consequences.

The talking heads (as we call them in our house) feel obliged to evaluate this military decision on a very superficial level. They are required to do so in order to entertain their viewers and keep a lot of people watching their cable channel so that the people who buy commercial time will continue to buy commercial time. When it comes to situations like this one, their comments are as meaningless as mine are. I imagine that even with their inflated egos they know how meaningless and how pathetic their evaluations are. Perhaps we should pity them.

Those people are entertainers. All of them, left, right, and center. President Obama is not. He is an extremely intelligent person who is willing to do the most difficult job in the world, and I believe with all my heart that he is trying to do what is right, what is fair, and what is just. Say what you will (but not here, please), but don't dismiss the hope that so many of us had during the election and during the inauguration.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Who Could Ask For Anything More?

The only thing better than hearing this (played so well), seeing the score, and seeing its graphic interpretation would be playing it myself. For my 60th birthday (which is in 9 1/2 years), I want to play this piece. Opus 60. Get it?

I'm not kidding either. I missed the boat on Opus 25 and 26, because I didn't play any of the requisite instruments.