Friday, December 31, 2010

A Cup of Kindness

A Happy 2011 to all my friends in Bloggery!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Albert Einstein in 1928: play it, don't say it!

Albert Einstein on Bach:
"Was ich zu Bach's lebenswerk zu sagen habe: Hören, spielen, lieben, verehren und--das Maul halten."

("This is what I have to say about Bach's life work: listen, play, love, revere--and keep your mouth shut.")
Albert Einstein on Schubert:
"Zu Schubert habe ich nur zu bemerken: Musizieren, Lieben--und Maulhalten!"

("As to Schubert, I have only this to say: play the music, love--and shut your mouth!")
English translations by Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffmann

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Simplicity and the Sounding Point

Sometimes I wonder why it took me so long to understand the importance of keeping the bow on the same place on the string during the duration of a given note. I always knew about the importance of keeping my bow straight, but I always (abstractly) thought of the sound of a note as being connected with the caprices of the bow hair, and not with the actual vibration of the string. Two bouts of forearm tendinitis, and loads and loads of frustration has finally given way to a simple realization that I would like to share.

I find that if I keep my attention on the actual sounding point, and think of the trajectory of the bow as secondary, while I "observe" the vibration of the string, it is much easier to control the sound. Bow changes become incidental and brief interruptions of the string's vibration (and once in a while they don't interrupt the vibration of the string at all). It is really easy to inadvertently allow the bow to slide to another sounding point when the left hand changes position. Consciously avoiding this tendency, and keeping the bow on the sounding point during a shift, allows the string to remain vibrating, and makes for a better-sounding shift. It works with any sounding point--even one near the bridge or near the fingerboard. It makes harmonics far easier.

When I share this with my students, their playing gets better instantly. They begin (as I have begun) to lose tolerance for any deviation or dullness in the sound. I wonder why none of the people who acted as my teachers ever noticed my problem? Perhaps it was one of those cart before the horse things, and I was quite expert at hiding it--especially from myself.

I explained this graphically to one of my recorder students (a person who doesn't play the violin) over a cup of tea. I held a knife in my right hand (like a bow), and I held a spoon in my left hand. I Tried to keep the knife connected with the same spot on the spoon by controlling the knife from its handle. The I tried keeping the knife connected with the same spot on the spoon by focusing all my attention on the spot on the spoon, and letting the knife make its own path. The second way, which involves much less effort, is far more effective. Trying this without equipment, using only the index finger of each hand, is rather enlightening.

Just a note on equipment. I only noticed this AFTER I got new bridges on both my violin and my viola (after 15 years).

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Chrismitzvah

Our son Ben just coined a useful word. A Chrismitzvah is something Christmas-related that Jews do for people on Christmas. Our family just did a Chrismitzvah by playing Christmas music at a convalescent center in our town today.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Music for the Solstice!

This is, perhaps, the greatest song for the winter season ever! It is attributed to Colin Muset (1210-1250).


You can download the score and parts here, and listen to a midi here. This is but one arrangement and instrumentation option. If you have Finale 2011, you can easily try one of your own!

The Unanswered Question

Monday, December 20, 2010

Doing Good with Music

Perhaps it is in opposition to doing well with music, but in some places and in some cases it has much more lasting significance.

Yesterday I played a concert of "seasonal music" with my consort (we play Medieval and Renaissance music) as a benefit for our town's soup kitchen. We played all kinds of buzzing instruments (crummhorns, cornamuses, dulcian), the whole range of recorders (contrabass to sopranino), strings (vielle, viola d'amore, bowed psaltery), and a bunch of percussion instruments. There was no other entertainment aside from watching us all switch instruments between pieces (it was not a historical demonstration or a scholarly lecture). Most of the music we played was unfamiliar to our audience, and all of it was really old.

The concert made the people in the audience very happy. It raised $1,500 (in free-will donations), and it allowed us to devote serious attention to rehearsing (we normally play together every week just for fun) and to really bond as an ensemble.

It is really rewarding to do good with music.

This again?

Read it (or just skim it) and groan loudly.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Art of Composing Music by a Method entirely New


This gem, the first description we know of "chance music" comes from William Hayes, and was published in London in 1751. Read the whole hilarious thing here. (Here's a transcription--or should I say "tranfcription"--of pages 21 and 22.)
Hitherto the Business of Composing Music hath been chiefly in the Hands of the Masters; but this admirable Scheme of mine will enable Gentlemen to make their own Music; and by a Method so easy, that a Child of Five Years may do it -- as well as myself.

Any one must imagine so noble an Invention was not brought to Perfection in a Day, any more than Rome was built in that Time; no; it was a very laborious, toilsome Undertaking.

The End proposed, is one Thing; but the Means whereby to effect it, is another. Saying, I would teach the Nobility and Gentry to Compose Music, to the great Mortification of their Masters, was soon said: but finding out the Method, was a Work of great Labour and Difficulty.

The first Thing that occurred, was the Lagado: that wonderful Invention of the learned Professor mentioned in Captain Gulliver’s Travels: which, with some little Alteration, might have fitted my Purpose extremely well, and which I could easily have got made. as now I live in a Place famous for mechanic Operations. But then, the Bulk of the Machine, and the Number of Hands required to work is, viz. Forty Pair at least, made it at best inconvenient; and in many Cases wholly impracticable. Otherwise, it would have been the prettiest Employment imaginable for those ladies and Gentlemen who are remarkable for their Dexterity in cutting Paper, and pasted them on the little Pieces of Wood: which you know is very like cutting out the Figures in coloured Prints, viz. Birds, Beasts, Flowers, Trees, Men, Women, Houses, etc. and pasting them on Cabinets and Dressing Boxes, then varnishing them over: this is the modern Art of Japanning; and was the sole Amusement of the Polite of both Sexes for a considerable Time. However, for the above reasons I dropt all Thoughts of the Lagado.
After another couple of pages, Hayes finally reveals his method, and it involves taking a stiff brush, the kind used for making splatter decorations on the covers of books, and turning the splatters into noteheads:
Stepping one Day into my Bookbinder’s shop whilst he was at work, I stood some time and chatted with him: regarding but little of aught he did, till leaving me for a Minute, going to one Corner of his Shop, and fetching from thence a Gallipot with a Brush in it: thinks I, what can this be for? I soon discovered, that Use he applied it to, was to sprinkle the Edges of the Leaves, and (with some Variation) the Outside of the Covers. ‘Twill do! ‘Twill do! said I in the greatest Rapture imaginable! and directly flew out of the Shop.

[The Man told me afterwards, he thought me mad.]

Home I went, and immediately made me one of these Machines: which for the future I shall beg leave to call a Spruzzarino; not by that vulgar Name a Brush any longer. I made Experiment of my new Discovery, and fount it answer, even beyond my Expectation. Before I give you thorough Directions in what manner to apply this Instrument, I shall beg leave to suggest a few Things as being absolutely necessary to be observed, in order to make a right Use of it.

First, It will be proper you should be acquainted with the different Fashions and Make of the Blackheaded Notes . . .
Not having a proper Spruzzarino on hand, I downloaded a picture of some splatter painting, to which I applied my trusty Noligraph (I followed Hayes' direction to avoid open notes and only consider the black-headed ones). I did this without a thought of anything besides lining up the notes in a plausible way.



Then I did another, using a bit more thought (but not too much), and improved it with some accidentals:



Here's a modern transcription:



You can listen to this Spruzzarino masterpiece here:

Encouragement vs. Discouragement

Marjorie Kransberg Talvi's latest installment of Frantic: the Memoir quotes a letter of discouragement from Harry Ellis Dickson that she got after playing a movement of a Paganini Concerto for a Boston Symphony Orchestra children's concert when she was a teenager.

Because this letter was unsolicited, and because Marjorie was not happy with her performance, it proved a double whammy. Ultimately what Dickson said in the letter proved to be true: that there other paths in music besides that of a solo violinist, but its living and breathing presence yells out for discussion.

Words of discouragement, when they are presented to us directly, can be very painful. Often adults don't really think about the kinds of criticisms they offer. They may have best of intentions, but often, in a developing person, they can do more harm than good. (I can't help it--I keep thinking of the problems that Kitty Dukakis --born Kitty Dickson--had in her life. It must have been hard to have a father like Harry.)

I remember all of my direct encounters with discouragement (one unsolicited from Mr. Dickson, as a matter of fact). There have only been a handful. Most people encouraged me to go on in music. My teachers in high school let me get away with very little in the way of work because they approved of the direction I was going. My father's reaction to my SAT scores, "It's a good thing your going into music," sealed the deal (talk about a thoughtless statement!).

Now that I am the adult, I dole out my encouragement carefully. I always advise other people's students who seek out my advice (my students already know) to get a real education. I advise them to go to a college rather than a conservatory, and I let them know that in order to have a career as a soloist they would need to have serious financial security and support, and would have to develop all kinds of marketing skills and interpersonal skills. And they would have to compete all of the time.

Music departments and conservatories make their bread and butter on convincing students that they can give their students the skills they need to function in the "real world" of music, but once those students get out, particularly if they play winds, brass, or percussion instruments, their degree is worth little more than getting past the resume round of a job application. Many remain in the academic world until they get a terminal degree.

Telling a young person that her problems with nerves will compromise her career as a soloist is not telling her anything she doesn't know already. Unsolicited judgments like that from "important people" can actually make the occasional problem turn into a stigma. I imagine that Harry, who had chosen Marjorie as the soloist in the first place, was trying to save face (and respect) in front of his colleagues. I imagine that letter was more about him than it was about Marjorie.

We all need to be careful when offering unsolicited advice to young people.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

going places, luring faces?

Perhaps the Denver Post could do better by hiring a knowledgeable musician to review concerts rather than issuing term papers like this to fill their culture quota. I get tired of repeating myself when I say that "classical" music is not an "it." The institutions that support (read "hire") classical musicians may dumb their programs down, glitz their programs up, shorten their programs substantially, pepper them with extra-musical benefits and banter, cross them over, or bring in choruses of young singers (who bring parents to the concerts), but they are still too few in number to employ a decent number of the many qualified musicians who would like to make their living from music on much more than a part-time basis.

For a real look at what is happening in the classical music world, go take a look at the YouTube Symphony's American Idol style audition page. You get the opportunity to choose between an awful lot of excellent young musicians who would like to be part of what is essentially a music festival. The quality of the playing here is extraordinarily high (in contrast to American Idol), but the toss of the coin for who gets a position in the orchestra still depends on the whims of the general public.

If you listen with the ears of a person on an audition committee, you will understand that musicianship is a subjective thing, and there are many factors that go into choosing a person for a position. I listened to the viola audition "finals" yesterday. Everyone there can play Don Juan better than I can. Everyone plays Bach differently. Everyone had the opportunity to choose their acoustics and do as many takes as necessary to get a nicely representative tape. I imagine that all the younger people learned a great deal from the experience of making these YouTube recordings, and I know that all violists, both young and old, would benefit from watching Roger Benedict's lessons on Harold in Italy, Don Juan, and the Midsummer Nights Dream Scherzo. I know I did.

An audition for an actual paying job in a full time orchestra is judged by a set of people who are given the directive to find the best person to fill the opening. I would imagine that this list of YouTube Orchestra hopefuls would represent about one percent of the people who would apply for an orchestral job. Winning an audition (and people do use the term "winning") these days is riddled with barriers, particularly if it is a principal position, because you have to be a known quantity in order to even be considered for an audition.

Take 1000 university and conservatory graduates per year, and unleash them yearly on a set of performing institutions that might be able to employ 50-100 of them in a good year. This is not nearly as bad for string players as it is for wind players. The odds for getting a job as a wind player are far smaller, and the pool of applicants is just as vast as it is for string players. Watch these graduates get advanced degrees and make their way into the hinterlands (like my neighborhood), where all they can really do to support their musical habit, besides play chamber music and recitals for the fun of it, is teach and play in regional orchestras along with highly-qualified musicians who rely on day jobs to pay the bills.

It is great to see the quality of musicianship go up in cities and towns far away from the former centers of culture in America, but I can't imagine that we'll ever see the number of employment opportunities (i.e. gigs) go up.

Don't get me started on pianists, singers, or composers.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Udderly Charming


This is an instrument called the udderbot, the invention of (now) downstate Illinois' own Jacob Barton (though he invented it while he was a student at Rice). The above video is Jacob's audition for the YouTube Symphony. If he makes it in (he's one of the finalists), it's sure to bring some great publicity to his instrument.

If you like what you hear, you can vote for him (and his creation) here.

Wanna know how to make one? Jacob will show you how right here. Just remember that the development of the embouchure and breath control takes time.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Changing our Musical Way of Life

Musicians in America enjoyed the "fat of the land" from the middle of the 20th century to the beginning of the 21st, but before that orchestral musicians who lived outside of major cultural cities (like New York, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles) had a very difficult time making enough of a living to support a family from music. Musicians had to work constantly (often playing commercial music) in order to make ends meet, and many orchestral musicians in smaller cities had to take summer jobs outside of music to make it through the "off season," but at least there was work.

During WWII and for the next decades, a good number of first-rate musicians had the opportunity to play in what would become the Seventh Army Symphony, which flourished from 1952-1962. Musicians who were not enlisted (for various reasons) were needed to fill the ranks of the American orchestras, so low-paying employment opportunities for competent orchestral musicians were almost plentiful. Musicians from New York made their way westward to places like Cleveland and Indianapolis. I know a bunch of them who returned to New York because they could make a better living freelancing.

As these orchestras became more established, musicians could make enough money to live from their orchestra jobs. Through the second part of the 20th century we saw an explosion of high-quality music making coming from places all over America. Great conductors from Europe made America home, and musical life flourished in many cities. Conservatories produced new generations of employable and employed musicians, musicians and audiences began embracing new American music, and the quality of musicianship kept going up and up.

The 1960s and 1970s were years of great hope for music. Young musicians had options. Some took orchestral auditions (and the good ones got jobs), and some decided to become university professors. The really good musicians who went the university professor route (and you could do it with a Master's degree even in the 1970s) became excellent teachers, and produced musicians who were even more competent than musicians from previous generations. Their students (who required doctorates to get university jobs) made their way into positions at "lesser" universities, spreading the quality of teaching (and music making) out to places that nobody had heard of twenty years before. Chamber music ensembles and chamber orchestras began to flourish, blossom, and record.

The recording biz was bopping during the LP era, but, with the advent of superior recording technology, and the portability of the CD, the recording business magically turned music from an activity into a thing. Something you buy. The term "music industry" started to be thrown around, because people made a lot of their living from royalties from these music-holding things. Now these music-holding things produce little to no royalties for musicians (consider Naxos).

Before the fidelity of recorded music came near to the quality of the real live thing, people would get their musical fun from being in the very place that the music was being played. They would socialize at concerts, and they would enjoy the communal experience. The experience of listening to music has now become largely a personal one, and most of us do most of our listening privately and through earbuds that are wired to devices that hold huge libraries of music.

The amount of music we now have at our fingertips would have blown our minds during the 1970s (and, with all the innovation concerning both old and new music, we thought we had a lot of music at our fingertips then).

We are experiencing a change in our way of life. Classical Music can't be given an imperative to change anything, because it isn't a "thing" that can change. There's no "it."

Those of us who play, write, write about, study, and listen will continue to do what we do, but we will never regain the kind musical life that we (collectively) once had, unless a magnetic force comes close to the earth and wipes out all of our music-producing devices that require electricity. That would put musicians back in business.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Motherlode of Old American Concert Programs


This is but one of the treasures to be found in the Concert Program Archive of the University of Michigan. Notice that this comes from the days when Kreisler claimed that his pastiches were written by 18th-century composers. (There is also a wonderful photo archive.)

Doktor Faustus


I have finally finished "Four Pieces from Doktor Faustus" for viola d'amore and piano. You can see it and hear it here.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Growing Pains

Perhaps it is because Liz Mann and I grew up in the same musical environment (we grew up in same town, played the same instrument, and had the same Juilliard education at the same time) that I want to agree with her statement that perhaps the musical world is, like the rest of the world, going through growing pains. It was pretty exciting for me to see and hear her in this New York Times interview, so I thought I'd share it here. Unfortunately, everything else I hear, read, and experience tells me that there is nothing positive about the prospects for a professional orchestral musician in a major city (like New York) to make a living by freelancing.

The parent article in the Times makes it very clear that the freelance world is really experiencing the "pain" part of these "growing pains." The current Broadway theater seems to call for more of a rock-based set of instruments than the Broadway theater of 20 years ago. When synthesizers made their way into the Broadway pits around 30 years ago, I knew that it was the beginning of the end for freelance musicians. Now, from my Midwestern perch and through the window of the internet, I feel like I'm watching a whole way of life crumble.

There are more competent orchestral musicians around now than there have ever been, and budgets for Broadway shows, even in this economy are breaking records. The cost of producing the first run of Spiderman on Broadway, for example, is $65 million. The music for it, written by Bono and "The Edge," is probably intended to be played by a rock band ("The Edge," from what I can understand, is an electric guitar player). I can't imagine that the music is scored for a very large ensemble, and I can't imagine that any of the musicians would be orchestral freelance musicians (unless they double on instruments appropriate for a rock band).

I suppose that the producers of shows like this one feel like they will get more of a return on their investment if they present their work to particularly proven target audiences: people who loved the Spiderman movie, people who are nostalgic about U2, people who like going to rock concerts, and people who like seeing shows that have special effects. We can't forget that comic book characters also appeal to children. If the money rolls in, this trend will certainly continue.

Part of the experience of watching dance used to involve the relationship between the musicians and the dancers. Too many dance companies now perform with recorded music, and audiences seem to accept it. Perhaps they believe that the state of the economy dictates that it is just too expensive for dance companies to perform and tour with actual musicians that they have to pay. Perhaps audiences have become numb, or perhaps they have simply become complacent.

Perhaps these growing pains are really shrinking pains. Perhaps the notion of being a professional freelance musician in a major city is going the way of the wheelwright or the cooper.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Easy Harissa


Because most recipes for harissa call for an array of reconstituted exotic dried peppers, I always considered it complicated and intimidating.

I decided to go the simple grocery store supply route, and used a fresh serrano pepper for a harissa I made to go with Moroccan vegetable stew (sweet potatoes, carrots, zucchini, onions, chickpeas, celery, and an array of North African spices like turmeric, coriander, ginger, clove, and cumin). It was not too overwhelmingly spicy, had a very nice color and consistency, and took about ten minutes to make.

Seed and roughly chop

1 red bell pepper
1 red serrano pepper (green ones work fine as well)

Chop up one clove of garlic and sauté it in a little olive oil. Add the peppers and cover the pan.

When the peppers are soft add

1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon crushed caraway seeds
3/4 of a teaspoon salt

and cook for a few minutes.

Mix everything up with a blender (immersion or otherwise).

Movable Mi, Movable Sol

While making a comment on a post concerning authenticity over at Gretchen's Pianos, I thought of the attitude certain kinds of performing musicians have towards an audience is that of a kind of "movable me." Very often this kind of performing musician's playing involves a kind of schtick, and often this kind of performer considers the audience something he or she is playing "at" rather than "to." This is not always the case, of course, but it is often the case when a performing musician considers a performance "all about me," rather than "all about the music."

I'm coining the phenomenon of a touring musician, who has very little regard for either the audience or the music he or she is playing, as a case of "movable mi."

I suppose you could have movable sol for a truly heartfelt performance, where the traveling performer shares very deep personal feelings and insights through his or her music making to every audience (this would be the opposite of "musical mi"). Movable re would be appropriate for a touring musician who brings lights, electronics, and other technical glitz to his or her performance venues. Movable ti could be appropriate for harpists and small ensembles who play at teatime in fancy hotels (movable si would be for entertainers on board ships). We shouldn't forget the other kind of movable do. That's what you get when a performing musician is paid by a third party.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Happy Hannukah

I have been busy with other writing projects this Hannukah season (a piece for viola d'amore and piano based on Thomas Mann's novel Doktor Faustus), so "Hannukah Latkes," will have to suffice for this year as well. Perhaps you remember it from last year? If you are new to the blog, make sure to give it a whirl. It is saturated with true Ashkenaz-American spirit (and is all about oil).

You can download the music (for free, of course) right here.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Another must read post from Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi's memoir

This installment includes a cautionary tale about tension from Erick Friedman, and is something that every fiddle player should read.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

For the Man Who Has Everything

Catalog season seems to be in full force in my mailbox (the postal one that hangs outside of my front door). Yesterday's cache had a catalog clearly targeted for men, or, as much of the copy reads "gentlemen." This one has a soup maker that chops vegetables for you, a toaster that cooks your eggs, a $1,400 Swiss Army Knife that has 87 tools, heated socks, and various other articles that might make appropriate gifts for the man who has everything.

Among these items is a $200 banjo that comes with a DVD, so you can learn how to play. Then there's the violin:
This hand-carved solid wood violin and instructional DVD help aspiring virtuosos learn to play the fiddle. A Hammacher Schlemmer exclusive, the violin meets or exceeds all string instrument standards set by the Music Educators National Conference, allowing you to master the fundamentals on an authentic, full-size instrument. A spruce top and a maple neck, back, and ribs produce rich, full sound. The maple bridge, solid ebony fingerboard and fittings, built-in fine tuners, and a precisely balanced Brazilwood bow with real, unbleached horsehair provide the feel of a professional violin while remaining manageable for novices. The DVD teaches the fundamentals of tuning, bow preparation, correct hand and arm positioning, and how to play several songs. Includes a pitch pipe, adjustable shoulder rest, rosin cake, and a hard-sided carrying case. Ages 13 and up. 23 1/2" L x 8 1/4" W x 2 1/2" D. (5 lbs.)
I suspect that the violins they sell are very much like the $80 factory violins that too many of the students who call me for lessons told me they got on e-bay or as a gift from some well-meaning relative. Invariably these instruments are extremely difficult to play, almost impossible to keep in tune, and are not capable of making the kind of sound that would motivate a beginner to practice. (The solid wood DVD would be something to see.)

The copy above is filled with statements that give the impression that the fiddle is more than what we know it is. The "string instrument standards set by the Music Educators National Conference" are standards in size, and not quality. I don't know how a violin could exceed these standards and still meet them. Hmmm. Then there's the "precisely balanced" Brazilwood bow." I imagine that it lives up to factory specifications, and that there might have been some precision involved in measuring the mold for the plastic frog, and I imagine that the length and shape of the stick would be precisely measured. Other than that, the statement says nothing. The phrase "authentic full-size instrument" is also meaningless. I don't know about "mastering" any kind of fundamentals on this kind of instrument. Many people who play rare Italian instruments are still on the road towards "mastering fundamentals."

Caution! If you want to give a violin as a gift to anyone, don't buy one from a general-merchandise catalog. Contact a teacher, and arrange for a number of introductory lessons. Call up (or e-mail) a respectable violin shop and rent an instrument (your teacher should have some good recommendations).

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Hymn of Thanksgiving


This song, which makes me think of the Thankgivings of my New England childhood, is really a Dutch hymn from the 16th century. The above 1597 setting is by Adrianus Valerius, and the tune comes from the once-popular song, "Hey Wilder dan Wild" (Wilder than Wild).

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

More Fun with the Petrucci Library


If you haven't been over to the Petrucci Library for a while, you will be surprised to see that they have started organizing their music (now 78,000 scores) in a most useful way. I particularly like the Genre category, where you can search directly for PDF scores and parts for polkas, melodramas, or passemezzos. You can also search by instrument and get your own copy of "Funny Sings for the Ukelele," which includes all the verses and the chorus for this classic by Septimus Winner:

[Make sure to click twice for a larger view.]

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Mendelssohn Thriller for the Day



Here's the highly-eventful second movement:

Check out the gardener listening through the open door at 2:40. Piatigorsky sees him at 3:10, and in the next shot, at 3:16, the piano has been turned around 90 degrees, and placed in front of a window. They obviously tried to camouflage the problem by splicing in different shots of people listening (you'll see them at 4:26), and by 4:48 the piano has once again flipped around, the door has been opened, and our original gardener is back in place.

For the last phrase, the door has been closed, the piano has been flipped into its in-front-of-the-window position, and day has turned into early evening. Rubenstein offers everyone a drink (it must be at his house). Piatigorsky accepts, Heifetz declines, and everybody takes a break.

Realistically they must have recorded the piece several times--once in front of the open door (with the gardener), and at least once in front of the closed window, and they probably preferred the takes with the gardener.

They must have recorded the Scherzo first, since you can see bright daylight through the open door (when the open door takes are being used). But why watch the door or the background when you can watch these magnificent bow arms?

(Don't bother to look for the first movement. It's a real disappointment.)

Friday, November 19, 2010

My Son the Moral Philosopher

I borrowed the title of this post from Michael, because Ben is my son too (I suppose this might pose a moral dilemma). Read Ben's letter that responds to a column about the Florida cheating scandal in the Daily Illlini, and you'll be proud too. While you're at it, read Michael's post about the Florida cheating scandal.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Brave New World?

This article by Martha Goodavage is interesting reading, but the comments are even more interesting to read. I take issue with this article in many ways, but I also take issue with what the market-based world of music hawking has become, because I grew up in a musical world that was far less crowded. I also grew up in a musical world where competence was the surest way to musical success.

There are many of us who, for the sake of sanity, keep our technology ceiling low, adding new components when they become truly useful and truly necessary. There is limited space in my head, and I want to keep much of it free for productive practicing, effective teaching, and for writing music. I am very resistant to the use of "social networking" as "professional networking." I like my friends to be people I talk to, exchange e-mail messages with, and play music with. I don't imagine I will ever tweet, but I do enjoy using the latest version of Finale, and I totally enjoy being able to use the internet to write, edit, and share music.

Goodavage does have some worthwhile guidelines, but people over the age of 25 (her target audience) need to take many of them with a grain of salt. I have learned a great deal from making string quartet arrangements of country songs, rock songs, and indie-type pop songs. Like most musicians, much of my play for pay consists of playing music that I would not choose to play under any other circumstances, but I do my best, and I'm happy for the opportunity to work.

Knowing how to market your "product" is a real plus. Most musicians I know have difficulty "marketing" what they do, because everything in music is so personal and so subjective. I don't know about you, but I have a great deal of trouble thinking of the music I write as "product." People with money can hire publicity people to market their "product" for them, but I don't know that many musicians who have that kind of money.

Choosing not to compete with the marketed masses is my personal and practical choice. If you like what I do, you know where to find me.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Oh Jessye!

Chronicles of American Musical History


I was thrilled to find the Handel and Haydn Society's timeline that lists many important American premieres and other musical events. I would give more details here, but it is so much more fun to slide through the timeline yourself.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Wikipedia

I use Wikipedia all the time, and I might have been on my fifth visit of the day, when I clicked on the message at the top of the site asking for contributions to keep it going. What's Wikipedia worth to me? It is exhaustive, free from commercials, edited cooperatively, and free to anyone who wants to know just about anything. I made a contribution today (it's tax-deductible), and so can you. There's a little button over at the sidebar on the right.

You can read about their campaign (which started yesterday) here.

Must reading for anyone who teaches

The Shadow Scholar

Life after Flute

Paula Robison is still a flutist, but she has been stepping out of the flute-envelope recently, and doing something she has always wanted to do: the Sprechstimme part of Pierrot Lunaire. Here's a link to a performance she gave of it last year with a superb chamber ensemble, and information about an upcoming performance in New York on December 2 of this year.

I applaud Paula's courage. It does take a huge amount of chutzpah to face an audience without an instrument as your "mask," but it is, at least in this case, balanced by the incredible joy involved in taking the plunge (and the risk). Perhaps playing a character, and speak-acting in German with the cushion of supportive and sensitive instrumentalists, softens the blow, but it is still a huge and joyous leap into madness for everyone.

Hmm. Perhaps this might start a trend. Performances of Pierrot Lunaire by a whole ensembles of former flutists, or flutists who double. I'll play the violin and viola part!

Brava Paula!

[The image above is actually Pulcinella, as drawn by Maurice Sand, but he's wearing a costume typical of what people wear to play Pierrot!]

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Fine Map: No Relation


After making all these posts about famous people in my family, I thought I'd share a nifty map by Oronce Fine, a person to whom I have no relation whatsoever (there's nothing French anywhere in my DNA), and my surname was given to my paternal great grandfather at a German port after their ship sank (destroying all the family papers). I often imagine that the name is rather common because of the possibility that the answer to the question, "Who are you?" could easily be interpreted by Yiddish-speaking ears as "How are you?"
It sure is a nifty map.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Dag Wiren Ironiska smastyken (ironic miniatures) for piano

For a real hoot, go to this page and preview #10. The title of this miniature is indeed partially Swedish in origin.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Memorandum from the War Department, March 1, 1943

. . . Try to omit nothing; duplicate to your heart's content. Express if you can - realistically or symbolically - the essence and spirit of war. You may be guided by Blake's mysticism, by Goya's cynicism and savagery, by Delecroix's romanticism, by Daumier's humanity and tenderness; or better still follow your own inevitable star. We believe that our Army Command is giving you an opportunity to bring back a record of great value to our country. Our Committee wants to assist you to that end.
My Great Uncle Aaron Bohrod was one of a group of artists sent to Europe to draw and paint images of the war in progress for Life. Here's a link to a photograph of the mimeographed letter sent to the artists from George Biddle of the War Department.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Musing on Reality, Truth, and Music

After being boggled by the suggestions about the relativity of reality presented in the podcast I linked to in my last post, I have decided that the only way for me to preserve my sanity and enjoy happiness is to seek out and hold onto what I know is real and true. For me it happens in music, particularly when I'm practicing. If something is in tune, I know it is something real and true. Nobody needs to confirm it for me, and I don't need anybody to remark on it (there's usually nobody around anyway--or at least there's nobody paying attention). I know it's true, and I know how to make it be true again.

Perhaps music is the purest form of reality. Perhaps the more we open our ears and minds to the things we hear that lie below the veneer, the more we understand it. Perhaps the more performing (and composing) musicians strive to be true to the music, the more truth it will project. Perhaps this is why we need music.

If I do everything I'm supposed to do, I can hold my own truth in my hands, and I can share it with you, as long as my motivation for sharing it is the right one. If my motivation is to impress, all I'm doing is impressing. There's always an element of "impressing" in performing, and I often find that need to impress is always vying to get in the way of real musical experience. The trick is to get the proportion right, so that reality and truth triumphs over the need to impress and all the other psychic elements that come into play during a concert.

Recorded music is a can of worms, and, for the most part it belongs in a whole 'nother category from the truth and reality experienced in music that comes directly out of an instrument or voice.

It's a rough world out there, and it's a big one too. It's hard to find a non-competitive "safe" zone anywhere, particularly among people who discuss music over the internet. We all need to draw our personal boundaries, so that we can feel that this world is manageable. The social media-induced bursts of euphoria that alternate with feelings of isolation can make us numb, so we all have to be careful to keep these things in proportion. Holding our here-and-now reality in our hands is a really good way to keep things balanced.

I cling to my own reality, which is to practice whenever I can, and do what I need to do technically so that I can play in tune, in rhythm, and with a good sound. Once those things are in place (which takes some doing), I can encounter whatever it is I am feeling, through whatever piece I choose to play. I know that it is real and true, and its reality, validity, and truth are not dependent on what anybody else thinks.

Monday, November 08, 2010

It Boggles the Mind

I just listened to a segment of To the Best of Our Knowledge called "reality", and my mind is completely boggled. It is available currently as a free podcast. The parts that grabbed me the most were Chuck Klosterman's discussion about his book of essays called Eating the Dinosaur, and a segment where Brent Silby talks with Anne Strainchamps about his article called "The Simulated Universe" in the magazine Philosophy Now.

Thank goodness none of this has anything to do with music, or does it?

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Surrogacy and Wishes


There are times in all of our lives when we have to rely on surrogacy when the real thing is not available. Perhaps this need is what prompted the popularity of certain books for children during the 1940s and 1950s, a time when parenting (particularly the fatherly kind) in real life was sometimes less "hands on" than children wanted it to be.

For me there is no better book about the importance of finding what you need to make up for what you don't have than Robert McCloskey's One Morning in Maine (1952). The story is simple and complicated: one morning in Maine, Sal and her sister Jane are getting ready to go shopping with their father (they go by boat to Buck's Harbor). While brushing her teeth, Sal finds that her tooth is loose (for the first time), and her mother tells her that she can make a secret wish on it. When she goes to tell her father (who is digging clams), her tooth falls out into the mud. Because she lost the tooth (literally), she can't make a wish on it ("I guess some clam will find my tooth and get what I wished for"). She finds a feather, and after a small amount of discussion with her practical father who doesn't really "get" her need for something to wish on, she decides it's just the thing (it could have been lost by a baby gull).

Sal, Jane, and their father get in the boat, and the outboard motor doesn't start, so the father has to row across the harbor. When they get to shore, Sal gives a gap-toothed smile to Mr. Condon, the man fixing the motor. In the picture to the left, we don't see Sal's smile from the front, but we know what she is showing Mr. Condon (who happens to be looking the other way). Mr. Condon takes a spark plug out of the motor ("Came right out, just like that tooth of yours, didn't it, Sal?"), and mentions that it needs a new one. Sal wonders how long it will take for the motor to grow a new spark plug.

In the picture to the right, Sal hands the old spark plug to Jane (I know, not a great toy for a toddler), so that Jane can wish on it. Sal's wish is for a chocolate ice cream cone, and she uses Jane's spark plug wish (Jane is too young to understand things like wishes) for a vanilla one, which Mr. Condon (Mr. Condon's brother who runs the store) gets for them from the store freezer.

I believe it is part of the human spirit to have wishes, and to keep finding things to wish on. I imagine that many people, like me, saw themselves in Sal. I don't think too many people would see themselves in Jane, because Jane would be too little to read this book. Sal was just the right age, and was going through the same rites of passage as her readers: losing teeth, and believing in the power of wishing.

This book made a deeply powerful impression on me as a child, and I have never outgrown it. I still read it again and again. I could go on and on discussing other deep meanings in the book, but I prefer just to let you know about it, and discover the rest of its wonders for yourself.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Auditions then and Now

Wow. I just read an article about auditions by Dr. Noa Kageyama that struck me as a something that draws a firm line between generations and musical mindsets. Dr. Kageyama is speaking to a "performance-oriented" generation, rather than an "essence-of-music-oriented" one.

I usually find auditions sterile and demeaning experiences, so I find myself at quite a distance from Dr. Kageyama. I remember only one from my days as a flutist that was not sterile and demeaning. It was in 1980, and I was auditioning for Tanglewood. I had auditioned for the previous summer, and was totally tripped by the orchestral excerpts they asked me to play. I was truly sight-reading for the "sight-reading" part of the audition.

I worked on those particular orchestral excerpts diligently (every day with the metronome) for a whole year before my next audition, and was thrilled to find that they asked for exactly the same two excerpts: the bird from Peter and the Wolf, and the part of Strauss' Sinfonia Domestica that calls for the flute to play a high D. I played them competently (if robotically--since they were rather robotic excerpts).

I was deeply in love with the music of Messiaen during the late 1970s, so I decided to play Le Merle Noir for my audition (pretending that it was part of the Quartet for the End of Time), even though it wasn't a standard audition piece. Gunther Schuller and Charlie Russo (both advocates of new music) were the only members of the jury. I played the piece for them, and the spirit of Messiaen was in the room. Hearing the music played by someone deeply in love with it must have meant something to them, because I got a call a few weeks later telling me that I was Gunther Schuller's first choice as flutist for Tanglewood. Certain personal issues made it seem like a better choice to go to Graz, Austria for the summer, so I declined the invitation to Tanglewood.

I can't imagine, with the insane level of competence, particularly among flutists around today, that any audition could ever be that personal. It is a shame that young musicians who want to have careers in music have to live (and compete) in a such a different world.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Radio Moment

I had a lovely radio moment driving home from my afternoon class today. In preparation for an exam on Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, I like to play a variety of random movements by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and ask the students to try to identify the composer, the form, the meter, the tempo, and the instrumentation. It is always fun, and I find that for many students it is a real ear-opening experience.

Today's class was particularly lively, and after listening so carefully for all the above elements for 75 minutes, my brain had turned to highly spiced mush. I got in the car, and whaddya know! There was a Haydn Symphony waiting for me on the radio. It was one that I didn't know, number 95, and it has a last movement filled with "exalted reigns." I had to sit in the driveway and listen all the way to the end.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The City that Once Was: Ruskay's on Columbus Avenue in New York

When I was studying at Juilliard, I had a job playing solo flute on a balcony at a restaurant on Columbus Avenue called Ruskay's. I played every Monday night from 6:00 to midnight (for the dinner hours), and I had a wonderful time. The restaurant was owned by Richard Ruskay, who also owned the downtown Empire Diner. The food was terrific (in addition to getting paid, I got dinner--I loved the chicken salad with walnuts and tarragon), and the bar area (where I ate) always seemed to attract the same very interesting and intelligent people, and they were always really nice to me. As far as I can recall, the restaurant only had live music, and it had a bohemian kind of energy that made it far more than a place of business.

I believe a friend (who played piano there) suggested I go into Ruskay's and ask if they were interested in having a flutist play. I only recently learned that Michael Parloff had been playing there before he got his job as the principal flutist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and that I must have walked in at the right time. It was 1978, they had been open for two years, and they were indeed looking for a flutist to play during dinner.

I stayed until I left New York in 1980, and learned that Ruskay's had closed in my absence. There are very few remnants of it (and no pictures) on line, so I thought I would post a bit about it, just in case some of my nostalgic friends from those glorious days might be searching.

[2016 Update: I found a postcard from Ruskay's that you can see here.]

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The City that Once Was: 3854 West Roosevelt Road



From John Drury's Dining in Chicago
CAFE ROYALE
3854 West Roosevelt Road

Here is Bohemia in the true sense of the word. The Cafe Royale is an intellectual and artistic rendezvous of the west side Jewish quarter. Full of poets, musicians, actors, artists, radicals, intellectuals, and all night talkers. Founded and operated by Israel Blume, a poet, and Morris Mason, an actor, as a Chicago counterpart of the famed Cafe Royal on the East Side of New York. Saturday nights, beginning at 10, the Jewish cabaret, a sort of neighborhood version of the Russian Chauve Souris, is staged in the concert hall at the rear of the place. Harry Rosen and his orchestra are in Russian costumes; Mme. Maria Masheir sings gypsy ballads; Gregory Venetzsky and Joe and Edith Levinson entertain; playlets are performed; there is dancing after the show; and Jewish, Russian, and Roumanian dishes tempt your palate. The walls are decorated with rustic murals by the artist, De Vries. All is gay, garrulous.Continental, colorful and worth much more than the $1.00 you pay for it.

Always, the main dining room out front, unique with its modernist panels depicting the various arts, is crowded with lively bushy-haired men wearing hornrimmed spe'ctacles and carrying books under their arms; black-eyed actresses from the nearby New Yiddish Lawndale Theatre; visiting Jewish celebrities from New York; and gourmets who have a weakness for substantial Jewish dishes fragrant with garlic. The popular entrees here are rib steak, broiled in the Roumanian style, and gratchitze, or sweetbreads. The foods in general are wholesome and savory and not so expensive. Here, then, dine most of the local Jewish celebrities in the arts and allied interests -- Emil Armin, the painter; S. P. Rudens, the essayist; L. M. Stein, the publisher and patron of the arts; Todros Geller, the wood-block artist; Joseph Kriloff, the singer; Dr. M. S. Malamed and J. Siegel, the well-known newspaper editors; J. Z. Jacobson, author of "Thirty-Five Saints and Emil Armin"; I. Iver Rose, the painter and potato pancake maker; and a great many others of lesser note. Meyer Zolotareff, the newspaperman, edits his Yiddish literary monthly, Chicago, from a table in the corner. Here also have come such famous figures in the Jewish world as Abraham Raisen, the poet; Prof. Enrico Glickenstien, the Italian- Jewish sculptor; Molly Picon, the actress; Maurice Schwartz, theatrical director; Boris Thomashefsky, the actor; Alexander Kipnis, the opera singer and Morris Topchevsky, the painter. Politicians also come here -- Alderman Jacob Arvey, Ward Committeeman Moe Rosenberg, and their followers. We could go on describing this interesting place but the above information ought to be enough to arouse your curiosity. Don't miss it. Saturday nights are the best.
The proprietor, Israel Blume, was my maternal great grandfather. My grandmother told me that Emma Goldman used to go there when she was in town.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Nathan Gunn's Schubert

It must have been sometime in 1991. I saw a notice up about a unscheduled performance of Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin performed by pianist John Wustman and a student from the University of Illinois. Some far-sighted person had the generosity to offer them a local run-through before taking the cycle on the road as part of Wustman's six-year tour performing all of Schubert's lieder with various singers.

I brought my three-year-old daughter to the concert, and we were part of an audience of just a handful of people--maybe there were between ten and twenty other people there. It was, to date, the most exciting, dramatic, and thrilling performance of Die Schöne Müllerin I have ever heard. My daughter, who I figured would go to sleep after she heard a song or two, was mesmerized through the whole song cycle.

I always wondered who that singer was, and what became of him. Now I know. Luckily he is now living, once again, just an hour's drive from my neck of the woods. I might even get the chance to hear him sing another Schubert song cycle at some point in the future.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Whither liner notes?

I rarely buy anything resembling a pop recording, but, after hearing a radio broadcast of a concert of popular songs that Nathan Gunn and his wife Julie Gunn performed this summer in Urbana, I just had to buy Gunn's recording of this repertoire. I had a pile of listening obligations to run through before being able to crack open this recording, but today I did.

I was very excited to see that my old violinist-friend Joyce Hammann featured on the Amazon listing (I haven't seen Joyce for 30 years), but was terribly disappointed not to see her listed on the printed material that came with the recording. The name of Gene Scheer appears Nathan Gunn's four-paragraph essay about life in New York (written in English and translated into French and German), which could lead someone to believe that Scheer composed all the music on the CD, or that he might be playing piano on the CD. None of the other composers' names appear, none of the arrangers' names appear, and none of the accompanying musicians' names appear.

The poorly-designed booklet is printed on cheap paper, with a centerfold of the Sony Music logo sitting in the middle of two pages of white space. There are five poorly-printed head-shot photos of Nathan Gunn, and a page about Legacy, which prompts me to imagine that this might be a reissue of an older recording (but from when?) I'll never know. Nobody will ever know.

The liner notes are truly designed to be thrown away. Perhaps the CD is too. I loaded it into my ipod (where the composers of the songs are displayed, and I learned that Scheer wrote three of the songs. The other information I want to know (like the recording date(s), the specific arrangers, and the performing musicians) will never be known by anybody except for the musicians themselves, and the people at Sony who are withholding the information.

Couldn't Sony have used the vast amount of white space on that centerfold to provide information for people who might think of the music they listen to as more than just the utterings of a pretty voice? It couldn't have anything to do with money, because it doesn't cost that much to print black text on paper that is already white.

Humph! I hope that I enjoy listening to this recording.

UPDATE: I did enjoy the recording: the arrangements for various combinations of (superbly-played) flute, clarinet, horn, string quintet (with many solos), harp, piano, and a moment of recorder are great, and they really help hold interest in this group of mostly mournful songs about the endings of relationships. There are two more sprightly pieces tacked on from what sound like recordings made at different times (with music arranged by different arrangers and performed by different ensembles). I love Nathan Gunn's voice, but after this I want is to hear him sing Schubert again.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Happy Halloween

There's something terribly creepy about the words "boneless arm roast" under the words "Happy Halloween." In my mind's eye, I see abstract images of boneless human arms being roasted, like marshmallows. (Thanks to Michael, who got out of the car and took the picture.)

More Alice Herz Sommer Interviews

Here are some more YouTube clips of Alice Herz Sommer: a two-part BBC interview, and another video of her talking about music and playing. What a terrific pianist!






Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Film about an almost 107-year-old Pianist Named Alice

UPDATE: It seems that after getting millions of views (literally), the trailer for the film has been removed from YouTube, but the whole film is available on line. Please go to this post to see more interviews with Alice Herz-Sommer on line (where you can also hear her play).

The cellist in the film Dancing Under the Gallows is Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, one of only two cellists who played with the Women's Orchestra at Auschwitz between April, 1943 and October, 1944. Here's a page about Alice's son Raphael Sommer.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Crazy Wild Asses!

This is normally played on two pianos!

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Individual Sound"

I can't really understand this violinist's concept of sound. I could dismiss this as a joke, but, if you watch further, beyond the first piece (which, for all I know, could be written call for a sort of vibrato that is hyper-extended in both directions), you will hear (if you can stand it) that it is her "individual sound" (as a conductor describes it at 2:51). I just don't get it. What are these people talking about?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Have Some Lousy Apples? Make Apple Crisp!

There is little as disappointing for me as the sensation of biting into what I think will be a crisp apple, and finding mush in my mouth, so last night I made apple crisp.

This recipe is so good that it must be shared, and I'm going to copy it here (with a few personal modifications--because I want your apple crisp to come out as good as mine did):

Preheat oven to 375 F
Core and peel and slice 5-6 sub-standard apples (mine were sub-standard Jonathan).

Mix

1 Tablespoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup brown sugar

in

1/2 cup water, and set it aside.

Mix

1/4 cup canola oil
1 Tablespoon soy milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

and add it to

1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt

For later: Earth balance (or another kind of margarine or butter)

Place the apples in a covered glass casserole dish and pour in the cornstarch mixture. Sprinkle the oat and flour mixture on top of the apples, cover the casserole, and bake it for 15 minutes. Remove the cover, dot the top with bits of Earth Balance, and bake it uncovered for another 30 minutes.

(The recipe I linked to has baking powder in it, which I managed to unwittingly leave out. The linked-to recipe also has allspice, which I didn't have, so I doubled the nutmeg).

Ever Forward: Micro and Macro

When I was a kid my father used to mock us by saying, "But what have you done for me lately?" I guess he was, in his own way, remarking on the fact that we have short memories of the ways in which people have been nice to us or supportive about what we do or have done. We also have long memories of times we were wronged, times we were ignored, times we have been taken for granted, and times we were not respected. At least I do.

It is kind of the same way with work. Sometimes I feel, with all the different things that I do, that I am on a train, chugging away, and then I switch to another train, and chug away on it. After something is finished, I leave it at the station (the end of the train line, perhaps), and I get on another train. Whatever it is that I have finished seems, whether it be my work or work I am doing for someone else, to remain only as a vanishing point somewhere "back there."

Oh how I admire people who can tout their accomplishments. I can barely remember mine, because there is always the next thing. Because it is my habit, there is always a next thing, even if I have to make it myself.

I see these things subjectively and on a small scale in my life, and I see it objectively and on large scale when I observe way people take the accomplishments of our president and his administration for granted. That makes me think that it might just be part of human nature to dismiss and belittle, and then wait for the next thing to dismiss and belittle.

I see how reticent we are to celebrate the fact that certain choices made by smart people have made it possible for our economy (and the world economy) not to fall apart, for people to have the chance at getting health care who would not have the chance due to preexisting conditions (especially children), and for us to have a chance at having a country that does not discriminate against various portions of its population.

I suppose the only thing to do is to get back on one of the trains, and keep plugging forward. It's a lot better than standing still and doing nothing, and far better than going backwards (which is, thankfully, impossible to do).

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beautiful Proof that Classical Music is Not Dying

Hearing young people play Brahms like this gives me hope and courage. The music and the sentiment behind the music (and there is a huge amount there) is not "dated" in any way. As you can plainly see and plainly hear, this music is eternally relevant, eternally meaningful, and eternally beautiful.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Aesthetic Experience Versus the Anesthetic Experience

Sir Ken Robinson hits the nail on the head in his evaluation of our current system of public education:

Thanks, once again, to Carrie for sending it my way. Here's the long version of this talk, and another related short talk.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Jackie and William

Such joyous sight-reading! Such wonderful music making! Thanks Emily for pointing me towards this 6-part series about her life.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Perhaps God Works in Mysterious Ways

Not to get all religious on you, but here's something to ponder: The other night, while Michael and I were playing for Shabbat services, the F natural on my D string started buzzing. He was worried that there might be something wrong with my instrument, but I assured him that the problem probably had something to do with my bow arm, since it was a stopped note and not an open string. Oddly, a similar thing happened at the last Shabbat service, but it never seemed to happen in my normal practice (in normal-to dead acoustics).

The first thing Saturday morning I tried to figure out what the problem could be, and then I realized that it had something to do with the position of my upper arm relative to the timing of the string crossing. It took me a few enlightening hours of practicing Kreutzer and Bach to fix the problem, but I fixed the problem, and it made all sorts of improvements in my playing (and in good time too, since I had a concert to play today).

If this problem hadn't occurred in shul, I might not have noticed it, and therefore I wouldn't have fixed it. Hmm.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Friday, October 15, 2010

Britten and the Physicality of String Quartet Writing

I have just now discovered the wonders of Benjamin Britten's string quartet writing, and thought I would share this example as proof in spades that the physical experience of the musicians who are playing a piece can be as important as the musical material itself. In this case, and without the intrusion of any non-functional theatrics, they are pretty much one in the same.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Alexander Bernstein Remembers His Father

My sister has said that his real ambition was to 
connect, in one way or another, with every person on the planet. For 
having lived only 72 years, he didn’t do a bad job of it. My father loved
 people and made love with multitudes. He never stopped learning. His 
appetite for knowledge and life was insatiable. Not only did he read
 constantly, but he would stay up all night with a group of students 
talking about music, love, and religion. He would drink them under the
 table and still be ready to rehearse at 10 a.m.
It's hard to believe that today is the 20th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein's death. Here's the rest of Alexander Bernstein's personal tribute to his father.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Banjar Plays Shortnin' Bread and Bonaparte's Retreat


Our son Ben Leddy and his friend Claire Johnson, who perform together under the name of "Banjar," played a concert the other night at the Krannert Center in Urbana (for Krannert Uncorked) and surprised us all with this inventive pairing of tunes. The second tune begins about halfway through.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Guidelines and Subdivisions

I put grey-scale lines on the essay page for the most recent exam I gave to my classes, and, to a student, everyone wrote more neatly and organized their ideas more successfully than they did on the essay portion of their previous exam, where they only had margin-less space on a blank sheet of paper.

Perhaps having margins and guidelines helps to alleviate the feeling of working in an abyss, particularly when there is potential tension involved.

While I was practicing Brahms this evening, I noticed, after recording and playing back a passage or two, that I was not always holding notes out quite as long as they should be held. Sure, I was counting quarter notes, but something was amiss. I decided to practice with the quarter notes on off beats (the beats-per-minute wheel on my old-school metronome doesn't go high enough to subdivide the quarter notes into eighth notes in a fast tempo), and after half an hour of actively and deliberately subdividing every single beat, and then re-recording and playing back the passages that bothered me earlier in the evening, I found that my rhythm was much more satisfactory. I also played with cleaner articulation, and found there there was more "voltage" happening during long notes. I even found that I could use rubato, and snap back into tempo whenever I wanted to.

It's kind of like having margins and guidelines. The margins and guidelines on a piece of paper do not put creativity in any kind of straitjacket, and neither does subdividing beats when playing Brahms. It might even alleviate tension, because exactly "when" to play is no longer a question. It becomes an answer.

Friday, October 08, 2010

A captcha without principles

The random spinning of captcha got a chuckle out of me when it made a nice bit of Yiddish dialogue that reads, "Principles? Gar nichts!" Gornits is pretty close to the Yiddish pronunciation of "Gar nichts," which means pretty much the same as "bupkis."

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Hang Tough

My friend Carrie sent this piece of sage advice given to her by Roger Lebow that I'd like to share:
I'm told things are wretched. So we'll hope for music, offered without propriety, without restraint, and straight from the soul. Let it be excessive. Let it make a scene. Hang tough.
This speaks volumes to me. Whether classical music is "dying" as a profession, or not, it is still vital for musicians to be musicians. It doesn't matter if you can't make a living from playing it or writing it (a relative few of us really do), and it really doesn't matter whether playing it on your own terms (like playing a recital of music you love) is "play for pay" or "play for play."

The profession is changing drastically. I have watched it change in front of my eyes. There are far more people in it, the technical level is higher than ever, and the materials necessary to play (including good teachers) are more accessible than ever. Expectations are up, and audiences are smaller now because there is not only competition for the "leisure dollar," but competition for the leisure minute.

Honest and informed concert reviews are hard to find, and it seems that what used to be music criticism is being supplanted with promotional copy. A handful of brand-name soloists have star power, and the rest of the truly excellent musicians around wonder if anyone will ever notice the value of what they do. Everything seems to be disposable--something of the moment that is soon forgotten. As individuals and as institutions we can try to change things, but ultimately we can't make much of a dent, so most of us play for the people who want it (need it), and, if we want to maintain our sanity, we don't worry about having what kind of "impact" it makes on the larger world.

But music itself is still the same. I have never been more excited about playing the violin, because I can finally (in my second decade as a violinist) play the Beethoven Kreutzer Sonata. The concert I'm giving with my pianist friend John David next Sunday is not going to be an attempt at the Kreutzer (and the Brahms D minor, and the Bach F-minor, BWV 1018). It's going to be a performance. I can finally play the fiddle well enough to actually play the music. For the past 200 years, millions of violinists and pianists around the world have felt the same sense of honor, awe, and power involved in standing at the threshold of really being able to play this music. That is one thing that doesn't change. Roger's statement bears repeating:
I'm told things are wretched. So we'll hope for music, offered without propriety, without restraint, and straight from the soul. Let it be excessive. Let it make a scene. Hang tough.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Influence and Imitation

Somehow my comment on Ron Davis' post over at Chamber Musician Today got labeled as an anonymous one, so I thought I'd reproduce it here, because it is something I truly believe (and I'm kind of proud of writing):
I think that this is an appropriate place to draw the line between jazz, which is ideally a kind of music that involves spontaneous improvisation, and what we call "classical music," a kind of music that involves an exact series of directions that are written by a composer with the intention that they will be played as written, and enhanced by the tonal and interpretative imagination of the performer.

Jazz also relies on a kind of tradition in order for it to be recognized as Jazz. Influence and types of inflection, having to do with diction, tone color and tone production, articulation, and rhythmic swing are of utmost importance. Therefore imitation is vital. A lot of iconic jazz musicians (the people chosen to be imitated) did not notate their music, so imitation from sound alone is probably the purest way of keeping the music alive.

"Classical" music is kind of the opposite. I know that I carry all kinds of influence in the music that I write, but I am rarely aware of it at the time of writing (and sometimes I cringe when I hear a performance, years after writing a piece, where the performer notices a bit of "homage" and brings it out). In "classical" music it is important to learn techniques. Everybody worth his or her salt as a composer is able to employ techniques used by great composers of the past, including great composers of the past. But what "classical" composers strive for is to find ways of expression and organization that are true to his or her own sense of music. The danger sign for a composer is when one piece that he or she writes does sound too much like another.

People in the visual art world are encouraged to find a medium and a style that they can perfect within that medium. You have sculptors, oil painters, print makers, watercolor painters, people who draw with pencil, people who do their visual art in abstract, people who are realistic painters, people who assemble objects, people who specialize in collage, people who make objects, people who design . . . The list goes on and on. I believe that success for a visual artist would be to make work that can be instantly identified as a work by that person, yet can be unique in its individual expression.

Composers need to be able to work in every medium, but success, to a certain degree is similar to the success experience by a visual artist described in the above paragraph. When I turn on the radio and can be sure that a piece I have never heard before is by Bartok, Barok has been successful. If I turn on the radio and hear a piece that sounds like the composer was influenced by Bartok, and that influence is all I can hear (I know, it is rare to even hear anything post-Bartok on the radio these days), perhaps the composer of the piece has only succeeded in showing his or her influences.
Still, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, the limits of my musical experience define the limits of my musical world.

Related Post: Imitation v. Creation

Friday, October 01, 2010

OMG: It's Dorothy Delay, and we're not in Kansas anymore

When did you say your performance of the Mendelssohn will be, Margaret?"

"Margie," I corrected. "I'll be playing it in a couple of weeks."

"Where dear? I've forgotten."

"In Kansas, with the City Symphony."

"That's right," said Miss DeLay with a smile. "Mention Kansas and I become nostalgic. That's where I grew up—in Medicine Lodge."

"You don't say," I replied with feigned interest.
Here's another must-read installment in Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi's Frantic: the memoir.