Saturday, December 31, 2011

Half-Acre Whole Family

Here's a moment of family music. Rachel and Ben have flown back to their grown-up nests, but right before they left (literally) we made this video.



(No, we don't all play backwards! Ben's computer just recorded it as a mirror image.)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Vi Hart Mathomusician

I was delighted to come across this video explanation of the way overtones work on Mind the Gap.



Isn't it a treat to learn that the brilliant Vi Hart is a violist (though she doesn't admit to it in this interview, and she does treat her viola oddly by writing on it) and a composer? And look at the way she uses a music box to demonstrate the way a mobius strip works as a conduit for musical possibilities. Somehow, as a bona fide mathophobe, I feel optimistic living in a world with young people like Vi Hart opening up possibilities of how to think about things differently. Here's her YouTube channel, where I plan to spend a lot of time.

[Clearly, the apple hasn't fallen very far from the tree.]

Bravo!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Instruments for Political Figures

From Barack Obama's Interview with Barbara Walters
"If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I deeply regret not having learned a musical instrument. And I regret not having focused more on Spanish when I was studying it in school. I would love to be able to speak Spanish fluently and play an instrument."
What instrument do you think Barack Obama would have played well? My guess would be that a polyphonic instrument like the piano would work well for him. And he would probably make a good chamber music pianist. (There's always time to learn as an adult, Mr. President, though I know that it might have to wait until after your second term.)

People who have chosen instruments successfully (or have had them successfully chosen for them) tend to develop personalities that correspond to the way those instruments behave in performance situations, collective or otherwise. What instrument would you assign to which prominent "in the news" political figure (even political players who are no longer in the headlines and/or no longer running for office).

[Our son Ben, who found this interview on line and shared it with me, suggested at breakfast that a good instrument for Ron Paul would be the Erhu.]

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Musical Nature Ramble

I have been doing some reading lately. One of the most eye-opening books I have enjoyed is The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt. I decided to get the book on a whim when I heard Greenblatt describe it during coverage of the National Book Awards somewhere on television. I thought it would be a good idea to actually know something about Renaissance thought since I spend a lot of time thinking about and playing Medieval and Renaissance music. I always wondered how the people who contributed to the Carmina Burana (or at least some of them), for example, knew about Greek and Roman mythology. But this post is not about my ignorance. That would take up too much space, and would not be very interesting to read.

The Swerve, if you haven't clicked on the above link, is about the circumstances concerning the discovery of a book-length poem called De Rerum Natura by Titus Lucretius Carus. Now I have a copy of Rolfe Humphries' translation of the poem (thanks, Michael), and I find it beautiful and fascinating. I have finished the first book, which makes the case for Epicurus' idea that nothing comes from nothing, that all things are made from atoms that float around in space. The racy parts of the poem (I have peeked ahead) seem to make it clear that the concept of Venus (though not the goddess herself) is what encourages all of nature to continue to be. Some essential components of Lucretius' argument that many people would object to this "holiday season" are his loud and constant claim that there is no life after death, and his claim that there is no entity that watches humanity and causes things to happen.

Lucretius was, of course, reacting against what many modern people would consider mythology: the polytheism of the Ancient Greeks, and probably the polytheism of the Ancient Egyptians, the Babylonians, and other mythologies that might not have survived. But his arguments work just as well to counter the various beliefs and mythologies that people have in the modern world.

Reading the poem helps me to understand that poetry and music are all part of nature. It is comforting to know that what we do as musicians is not "extra" as many members of modern society seem to believe. It also makes a case for the imagination. Anyone who has enjoyed fiction, either as a writer or as a reader, knows that when we create characters or empathize with characters created by other people, we do it with emotions that feel real to us. Some of us care about characters in books and operas with the same kinds of feelings we have for people we know in our non-reading lives. It is one of the reasons we read fiction, and one of the reasons some of us write it (I make up stories, but I have never actually written fiction, per se). Most of us are guilty of believing things that are fictitious about people who are real, and some of us are guilty of making up stuff about people that may not be true. We also sometimes try to believe things that other people believe, and sometimes we try to have faith in something intangible, and attribute "results" to that faith.

I have faith: I belive in atoms, I believe in gravity, I believe in the usefulness of the scientific method, I believe in practice, I believe in instinct, and I believe that each person has his or her own human nature that really can't be altered. I believe in tonality, but I do not believe it's the only way to organize music. I believe in the necessity of musical instinct in the creative act of writing music, and I believe in musical instinct when it comes to interpreting music and playing music with other people. I used to believe in the seasons, but things have changed in our world, and I can no longer trust the seasons. I do believe that as long as the carbon that is inside the planet stays there, nature will find a new balance.

I believe in the continued relevance of Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms (and a whole slew of other wonderful composers who believed in Christian theology), regardless of where they believed their inspiration came from. It's the music that matters.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Polymusic, Polyculture, and Polly Wolly Doodle All the Day

The more tools I have to look out into the world, the more I begin to understand that there is nothing about modern life that suggests anything like the "common practice" monoculture or set of monocultures that existed in the West before the days of mass communication. There are people who explore a different internet from the one I explore; and there are people who watch a different set of television channels, see different movies from the ones I watch, and read different books from the ones I read. There are people who eat totally different food from the food I eat, and English-speaking people who use entirely different groups of words to transmit reflections on the the world that I understand we share.

I am therefore not surprised when the responses that I get from my Community College students to a question on their final exam that asks them to list the pieces they liked most and least during the semester are all over the map. Some prefer the pieces that they heard later in the semester (when they finally figured out that they like listening to what we call "classical" music), and some chose music from very early on in the semester--music from the Middle Ages--as their favorite music. Some students really love opera, and some students really hate it. Some people slept through classes, and some people who slept early in the semester stopped sleeping and started paying attention. Some students respond to Wagner, and some respond to Stravinsky. Most people tend to like Mozart (what's not to like?), but some do not respond to Beethoven. Many students have an open mind when it comes to 20th and 21st-century music because they have heard serial music in horror movies and on "The Twilight Zone," and they have heard minimalism in movies and commercials. Some people are comfortable with electronically-generated sounds, and some people find Berlioz too wierd, too dissonant, and too chaotic.

There is no rhyme or reason to the choices students make when it comes to the 500 or so years of "classical music" we study. It all has to do with people's individual personalities. I think about how far we have come as a society when our young adults have the opportunity to make so many personal choices when it comes to music. When I think of my place in the world as a person who might open up doors to the wonders of the senses to unsuspecting people, both in class and in places where I play concerts (not to mention the people who happen by things I have written on this blog), makes me feel proud to be who I am and to do what I do.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Outer Life: Empty Middle Seat

I read this post several times this morning, and thought I would share this fine bit of bloggery.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Randolph Hokanson's With Head to the Music Bent: A Musician's Story

Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi introduced me to this book through a blog post, and I am sincerely grateful to have had the opportunity to read it. Not being from the American West Coast, I hadn't heard of Randolph Hokanson when I was growing up, but I certainly knew of two of his closest friends and teachers: Dame Myra Hess and Howard Ferguson.

I first encountered Ferguson's music a few months ago on a recording from a concert Hess played with violinist Isaac Stern on August 28, 1960 at Usher Hall in Edinburgh that was just issued by Testament (I just noticed that one of the quotes from reviewers on the website for this recording is from me!), and was overwhelmed by everything about the performance.

Hokanson had the great fortune to leave the state of Washington in 1936 (when he was 20), and become immersed in and embraced by the world of England's musical and literary intelligentsia (he met G.B. Shaw and H.G. Wells at the same party). In this memoir he chronicles the highlights of his musical education, giving specific (and extraordinarily useful and insightful) examples from Myra Hess and Wilhelm Kempff about the what, how, and why of music.

He manages to condense 70 years of experience into less than 200 pages, and along the way he describes some of the artistic and geographical wonders of Europe, his impressions of what Germany felt like right before WWII (he attended a Furtwangler performance where Hitler was in the audience, surrounded by flags), and what it was like to tour for "Columbia Concerts," an organization that sent New York musicians (Hokanson was living in New York during the 1940s) on long trips to far away places to play concerts for very little take-home pay. Hokanson gives the rollicking details of one such concert in a place he calls "Nowhere," where a terribly out-of-tune piano was put on a "raked" stage (one that was sloped upwards towards the audience).

One of the photos (there are a few pages of photos) has Hokanson with his piano student Corey Cerovsek (who looks to be about nine years old). Now I understand one reason that Cerovsek's Beethoven Violin Sonatas are so spectacular.

Hokanson, who is now retired in Seattle, but is still paying, is a "music first" sort of person and an excellent writer. His memoir makes me long for the musical world of days gone by, when substance separated the competent from the committed, and accomplished musicians seemed to care more about their quest to understand the music they played than about the size and shape of their careers. But he makes it clear that the what, how, and why of music that will always matter, and that the quest to be come a "Beethoven player" is one that does take a lifetime, and one that makes a lifetime worthwhile.

The book is a print-on-demand book that is available through the University Bookstore in Seattle (1.800.335.7323).

I found this wonderful recording of the first movement of the Mozart A minor Piano Sonata, K. 310 on line. The playing says everything.

[N.B. Here's a link to more recordings, and a link to still more!]

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Friday, December 09, 2011

Inadvertent YouTube Cagean Moment

Yesterday I had my last classes of the semester. My morning class, which covered later music from the later 20th and early 21st centuries went pretty well, despite the fact that I loaded up the browser of the windows classroom computer with 19 or 20 YouTube videos. I held my breath, and everything went as planned.

Feeling confident for my afternoon class, I loaded the browser (Firefox) with one or two more videos than I had used in the morning (I couldn't resist the the temptation to give examples of all three parts of Reich's Different Trains). When the first Messiaen piece played with an almost still video picture, I had a feeling that everything was doomed to fail. There is no silence as deep as the silence of a class watching a teacher wrestle with a computer. Even the silence of 4:33 doesn't compare. When the title for one piece and the silent and still picture for another were being displayed at the same time, I knew I was in serious trouble.

The silence was broken when I simply said "to hell with it" (to myself, of course), and decided to try to close the browser. Nothing happened. I tried various things in the task manager, but nothing happened. Then all the tabs began opening up, and layers of Carter, Babbitt, Messiaen, Seeger, Glass, Cage, Dun, and Reich started entering like Renaissance points of imitation.

I had to identify which was which (which was surprisingly easy because each of these pieces is surprisingly different from the others), but the tabs wouldn't close. When the Mad King in Davies' "Eight Songs for a Mad King" started screaming, I had to laugh. When the loops of Cage's Microtonal Ragas came to the foreground, I explained to the class that we were having a true Cagean moment. The only problem is that I didn't have the chance to explain Cage to them before this happened (and I can never depend on students to do their reading), so I was alone in my appreciation of the chaos. The students were smiling only at my folly. I thought I was in the middle of a teaching nightmare.

I tried closing the browser again, and this time it seemed to actually close, but the music kept on playing. And playing. And playing.

I was, finally, able to get about 45 minutes of the 75-minute class in (gosh, this fiasco lasted for a half an hour!), and I think that the students might actually have learned something about later 20th century music.

Try it for yourself. Load up as many of these YouTube videos as you dare, and play them at the same time. The effect is truly remarkable.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Advertures in the Closet


Like many people who live in post-Walmart, small-town America, if I don't want to buy my clothes at Walmart (and I don't feel like going out of town), I have to get them by mail order. Looking through my closet yesterday, I noticed that the places my mail order clothes (from American companies) were made looks like a set of destinations on a travel guide for Asia.

Then I noticed the clothes I have from TravelSmith (the home of the best travel concert clothes as well the green sweater I seem wear almost every day, and wear in most every photo) . . .



were made in the U.S.A.

When I bought this vest from L.L. Bean nearly thirty years ago (and I still wear it) . . .



just about everything you bought at L.L. Bean was made in the U.S.A.

What's in your closet?

Monday, December 05, 2011

Scandal: The Stuff of Opera


Check out this article about Puccini's love life. Compared to it, his operas are almost tame!

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Viola d'amore Sul Palco in the Humming Chorus

The Humming Chorus of Puccini's Madame Butterfly could be considered three of the most beautiful wordless minutes in all of opera (particularly when you hear it in context). I just found out, from a glance at the score . . .



that the viola d'amore part (which is hardly ever performed with an actual viola d'amore) is supposed to be played from the stage. That really changes everything. The chorus of humming sopranos and tenors is off stage, Butterfly, Suzuki, and baby Dolore are in silhouette behind the screen of their Japanese house waiting motionlessly for Pinkerton to return, and the only movement you see (in Puccini's inner eye and score) is a viola d'amore player, with a scroll that reminds us that love is blind.



There is a visual echo of a viola d'amore scroll a few measures from the end of the second act when Butterfly blindfolds her son.

[No spoilers here for those who have not yet experienced the opera.]

Friday, December 02, 2011

Ruth Crawford Seeger's Transcription of "Ground Hog"

This is what happens when a great composer puts together folksong books for children. We should remember the kinds of things that the children she raised did with their lives, for music, and also for children. And yes, Eden, one of these days you will be able to turn the tuning pegs on your ukulele!

Thursday, December 01, 2011

"Oh well" and Other Treats from "On The Town"

I just love Eileen Ferrell's "Oh well. . ." As for Lennie's voice (which comes in for a verse towards the end), it is certainly "singular."



Here Monica Zetterlund sings it with the Bill Evans Trio, and Tyne Daly (as Hildy) shows how well she can cook:



Of course no visit to "On The Town" is complete without hearing Carried Away and Lonely Town.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Autumn Leaves for Two Violins

Here's a slide show with computer-generated audio of the fourth and final installment of the seasonal duets I have spent the year writing for Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi and Ilkka Talvi. Eventually the computer-generated audio will be replaced with violin-generated audio!



You can get the music here.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Now That's What I Call String Theory

This interview with Michio Kaku on today's installment of Fresh Air totally blew my mind.
Well, very simply, that all the sub-atomic particles - neutrons, protons, quarks - are nothing but musical notes on a tiny rubber band, that when you twang the rubber band, it changes from one frequency to another. So it changes from an electron to a neutrino. And you twang it enough, it can turn into all the subatomic particles we see in the world.

So all the subatomic particles that make up our body are nothing but different notes on many, many, many tiny little violin strings, little rubber bands, and that physics is nothing but the laws of harmony of these vibrating strings. Chemistry is nothing but the melodies you can play on these vibrating strings. The universe is a symphony of strings, and the mind of God that Einstein wrote eloquently about the last 30 years of his life, is cosmic music resonating through 11-dimensional hyperspace. That is the mind of God.

Monday, November 28, 2011

28 Minutes of Awesome and Thrilling Bliss from Saint-Saens and Richter

I just found this complete live recording from April 3, 1955 of the Saint-Saens Egyptian Concerto. Back in my radio station days we had a copy of the LP, and I played it whenever I could. After I left the station the powers that were sold all the station's LPs (without my knowledge), and I never thought I would hear this performance again. Now I can share it here.

Sviatoslav Richter is playing with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, and the conductor is Kiril Kondrashin.

Temperate Temperament

The Thanksgiving trip that Michael and I took to Los Angeles was the first trip to a sunny place that we took together (and we've been together for almost 28 years). In addition to being a palm-tree-filled botanical wonder (albeit mostly artificial), Los Angeles is a vegan's delight. Every restaurant we visited (chosen, of course, by our daughter) had vegan options, and most of the restaurants that we visited had many. Some were primarily vegan. This is not something I experience often.

One restaurant in an area called "Larchmont," where the Spanish Colonial architecture of "Miracle Mile" (where we were staying with our daughter and her boyfriend) gives way to "New England Village," offered free coffee drinks to vegans who filled out a post-meal questionnaire. I also wrote down everything I could see about the Green Enchiladas I had eaten in my little red book, and I'm making them for dinner tonight. I learned from this video that the free coffee I had was roasted on site:



This vegan paradise, covered by a clear sky and beautiful weather, is set in a city teeming with the kind of ethnic diversity we lack in the only-slightly-expanded monoculture of East Central Illinois. And where we have miles upon miles of empty ('cause the growing season is over) corn and bean fields, Los Angeles has miles upon miles, upon miles of businesses--some trendy, some steadfast, and some downright dowdy. We have two-lane and four-lane roads, and Los Angeles has six lanes of traffic on its freeways. Our daughter navigates them like a native. I don't know if I could.

Returning to the cold and grey rain of Illinois was depressing, but returning has also been a lesson in temperament for me. I returned to my year-long project of writing seasonal violin duets, and feel new-found gusto for the violin duets I'm writing about Fall. I call the set "Autumn Leaves," and I seem to have a more distinct sense of what is and what is not Autumn after returning to it from the endless summer of Los Angeles.

[I noticed that the Sweet Gum is one of the few deciduous trees growing in Los Angeles. Now I understand the confusion I noticed with one of the Sweet Gums in our neighborhood I noticed last week. Once they lose their leaves, they are ready to grow new ones. Perhaps they don't really need the long winter to be dormant. The confused tree now has brown leaf tips, and now it looks like any other Gum preparing for its long winter's nap.]

I keep telling myself that if I were to move to LA, I wouldn't get much done in the way of creative work and in the way of practicing, I could never make enough money to support what would surely become a vegan restaurant habit, I would have a really difficult time finding playing work, and even a more difficult time trying to find a place for myself in the creative musical community.

I have a new wool coat, an insulated hat, and some really warm boots in the closet. I feel adequately prepared for the cold weather that is beginning to make its home in the Midwest. I am very grateful that I have the ability to entertain myself with gastronomical and musical projects, and I know that the sun will come out one of these days. Even if it is shining on ice. Perhaps I really do have a temperate temperament.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Eames Words on Wednesday



The day that Michael and I chose to visit museums in LA happened to be the day that most of them are closed. We did, however, after a rather long walk, make it to the Architecture and Design Museum for their Eames Words exhibit. What a treat it is to arrive at a museum and be able to sit in a variety of Eames chairs, each one offering a particular variation on the theme of functional sitting and comfort, and take in statements about design that apply just as well to composing music as they do to making chairs.

Fiddlers on the Walk

Michael and I were in Los Angeles for Thanksgiving, and returned to the grey, wet, cold midwest last night. Imagine my surprise when I found these three violinists and a violist on the Hollywood Walk of Fame!



And here's Harpo Marx's harp, in his own hand:

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Viola in his Life: Article in the Palo Alto Weekly



Rebecca Wallace wrote an excellent article about Bernie Zaslav's book in this week's Palo Alto Weekly. You can view the article with pictures here. Just click on "section 1" of the November 18th edition where it says "Virtual Edition," and make your way to page 19.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

More Seasonal Confusion

Perhaps it isn't that odd to see one of these pop its head out in mid November . . .



but this was a real surprise!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

"The Hand Somehow Has a Mind of its Own"

Sol Schwartz has been drawing pictures of musicians at Tanglewood for decades. A friend gave me a copy of his Drawing Music a few years ago because there is a portrait of my father on the page with the text "BSO Members: Each a soloist in their own right, makes this one of the world's great orchestras" (the pages aren't numbered).

Anyway, here's the artist talking about his work:



For people close to the Berkshires, an exhibit of his work at the Norman Rockwell Museum has been extended, and will be open until November 28.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

From the Mouths of Babes

One of my younger students is working on the Beethoven Minuet in G, so I showed him this video. His first comment was that he thought Perlman was like a "man violin version" of me (which I take as a huge complement), and he also mentioned that he really thought Perlman might need the next size violin.



I also showed him this one:



He was seriously bugged about how well the girl played. Her identity, as far as I know, remains a mystery.

In Praise of the Sixth (and Other Double-stop Intervals)

The Coleridge-Taylor Violin Sonata that John David and I are playing tomorrow night is loaded with sixths. Violinist-composers tend to load up their music with sixths because the sixth is such a harmonically rich interval. It is simply loaded with overtones, some that can be heard, and some that can't really be heard distinctly. They can be felt though, by the person playing and the people who are listening. It is rare that a microphone can pick up the full array of overtones and difference tones. These are the things that give texture to the music and contribute to the personal quality of an individual player's sound.

I like to think of those overtones as sheep that I am herding. Getting them to line up and come with me is a task that is gentle, yet firm.



The overtones in the interval of the third are a bit more rambunctious, and sometimes playing successive thirds is more like herding cattle than herding sheep.



Sometimes, in some keys and in some registers playing thirds is like trying to herd wild horses.

Practicing scales in double stop sixths and double stop thirds has its benefits beyond simply knowing where the notes are and being able to sustain pitches on two strings at the same time. I believe that it enriches the sound. Every key is also a different "herd." The traditional violin keys (G major, D major, A major, and E major) are actually far less stable (or with more wild horses) than keys that have more sharps and keys that have multiple flats because the sympathetic resonance of the open string and its interaction with the other pitches is an added factor. Throw in an open string, and you need a lasso!

The surprise treat for me in this adventure in sixths is the key of G-flat major. It is unusually rich and warm. Your fiddle will thank you for being brave enough to enter into that forest of flats. Actually, I think that "forest" is more a term I would associate with sharps. Perhaps it's a forest when you think of the key as F-sharp major, and it's something else when you think of it as G-flat major. A swamp perhaps?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Sheet Music "Life Hack"

If you are like me and keep your 15.4" laptop computer at home most of the time, but have a neoprene travel sleeve for the rare times you do take your computer out of the house, here's a way to put the sleeve to good use:



It is the perfect size for music, and it keeps your music safe from "injury" when you carry it in your shoulder bag or back pack. It also weighs next to nothing, is waterproof, has a great zipper, holds a healthy pile of music, and NEVER wears out.

The text in the lower right hand corner reads "Second Skin folder," the brand name appears to be Tucano, and I believe my color is "Aluminum alloy." Case Logic makes a 16" neoprene folder that sells for 11 bucks, and a 17" folder that sells for 13. Those would probably work beautifully for carrying French music.

Performance Practice

I really like the way the Zemlinsky Quartet plays this piece, but it disturbs me to see that every time the violist has a solo, he faces out to the audience. I don't know for sure if turning your head to the audience (and the requisite few inches that the viola's scroll faces them) increases the amount of sound you produce on the viola, but I sure find it a distraction to have choreography tell me where I should focus my attention.

But I suppose that this is 21st century performance practice, and we'll just have to live with it. Just like the stomping that some quartets do (and this quartet does only occasionally).

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Monday, November 07, 2011

Steven Staryk's Violin Secrets Revealed!

Who wouldn't like to play the violin as well as Steven Staryk? The secret to great violin playing is, of course, practice. And lots of it. What you practice does make a difference, and Staryk has decided to share his particular and practical version of "what" on line.

Steven Staryk's 1975 collection of daily exercises, his "Daily Dozen," is now available as a free download from Cedar Coast Music. There's one for violists too--a straight transcription one fifth lower that is written in the alto clef.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

I'm becoming a "pipa person"

I'm playing a concert that includes Tan Dun's Pipa Concerto, and until today's rehearsal, I really had no idea how totally cool an instrument the pipa is. None of the YouTube recordings of the Dun pick up all the pipa's nuances, but this Kronos video of the 1995 "Ghost Opera" (that shares some of the same material as the concerto) comes pretty close.



Here's the pipa in a more traditional setting:

Friday, November 04, 2011

Gender Equality and T-Shirt Size

I went online to order a T-shirt to support a cause I believe in strongly, and I couldn't help but noticing that there are sizes for "Women" and sizes for "Adults." Does that imply that the "Adults" are male? What does that imply about women? Hmmm . . .

I hope they fix this.

High Tech Notching: Notes from a Former Luddite

The act of practicing difficult passages hasn't really changed through the ages (at least through my ages), but the tools to do it have. Faced with the huge task of preparing a program of difficult music (in my case a program for violin and piano), I'm using every tool I can get my hands on.

This is one way I use Finale to my best advantage. I'm sure it will work with other notation software programs.

I enter the piano part of a difficult section into Finale, and set a very slow tempo. Then I copy the passage twenty times (or as many times as I want to repeat it), leaving a measure of rest and then of just the pulse (played on some high or low note that has nothing to do with the passage) between each repetition. Then I go in and set incrementally faster tempos for each repetition. After the masterpiece is completed, I export it as an audio file, load it into my ipod, and let the passage "practice me." It beats pure metronome notching because you don't have stop to move the metronome, and you get the harmony and counterpoint notched into your brain along with the passage in question.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

String Bag "Life Hack"

I have been using string bags for my groceries for a couple of years now, and I always keep them in my shoulder bag. Sometimes they get tangled up in other stuff, which is why I invented this "life hack." I thought I'd share it here.

Two string bags:



Two string bags tangled in my shoulder bag:



I take an odd sock (who doesn't have one of these?) . . .



I put my hand in the sock . . .



and grab the handles of the string bags . . .



slipping the sock, pillowcase style, over the string bags.



La voila!



Then I put the stuffed sock it in my bag where it acts as a very light and non-bulky cushion for whatever else I have in there. No more tangles!



[Notice that I put the most attractive book in my library in the bag?]

Berlioz's orchestration of Schubert's Erlkönig!

Perhaps it is just a tad late for Halloween, but it's never too late for Schubert or for Anne Sofie von Otter! Berlioz's orchestration is mighty surreal.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Musical Success Story

This interview with Francisco J. Núñez from the NPR podcast The Story, tells a great story about the kind of musical success that really matters. Núñez was given a 2011 MacArthur Genius Grant for his work with the Young People's Chorus of New York City, a program that he created in order to get children from various neighborhoods in New York City to get together and make music. Listen below, then listen to the podcast!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Don Juan and the Jews of Spain

"Concealed in its puppet-theater plot is a Jewish joke: Don Juan exists to prove by construction that a devout Christian can be a sociopath, and by extension, that the Christian world can be ruled by sociopaths. The Enlightenment’s most insidious attack on Catholic faith, then, came not from atheists like Voltaire, but from a Spanish monk with buried Jewish sensibilities."

". . . [Don] Juan is not an archetype of legend: He is a metaphysical construct unique to his time, and to the tragedy of the Spanish Jews."
Go to Tablet Magazine and read this most interesting article about Mozart's Don Giovanni by David P. Goldman.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Variations on the Obvious?

I'm playing a concert tonight with a really wonderful program: Dohnanyi's "Variations on a Nursery Song," Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," and Elgar's "Enigma Variations." The Britten is, of course, not unrelated to the Elgar, but what I found going through my head between dreams last night was the concurrent juxtaposition of the theme that Dohnanyi uses and the variations of the Elgar. And then I realized that the "mystery" theme (one that everybody knows, yet nobody knows because it is absent) is the theme of the Dohnanyi. Pay special attention at the 3-minute mark of this video, and then consider the first Elgar Variation as a variation of this theme in the minor mode. The harmony is Elgar harmony, of course, and the relationship is obtuse, as the best variations on themes tend to be.



Thursday, October 27, 2011

Maslow's World and How it Applies to Music

Would you believe that I just recently encountered the work of Abraham Maslow? As musicians we apply his "Four Stages of Competence" in everything we do. I know that I go through the path from conscious incompetence to unconscious competence with every piece I write, and if I'm lucky I make it from conscious incompetence to conscious competence with almost every piece I learn. If I'm lucky I make it all the way to unconscious competence. Sometimes I find myself going through the cycle many times with the same piece, if the piece is strong enough to take it. With a lot of music, like solo Bach, going through the cycle again and again is actually part of the fun.
Unconscious Incompetence

The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

Conscious Incompetence

Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

Conscious Competence

The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.

Unconscious Competence

The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.
If you wade through all the primitive "pseudo-psychedelic" pop-ups on this page, you can read all of Maslow's Religion, Values, and Peak Experiences on line. Or you can just look at the Wikipedia summary. Perhaps what we are doing when we practice has something to do with trying to replicate the idea of a peak experience for ourselves (once we are able to get close to unconscious competence), and perhaps when we are performing our goal is to share that peak experience with others. Perhaps when we are writing music, our goal is to write stuff down that makes it possible for people to have and share peak experiences.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Musical Cycles: An Optimistic Rant

People talk and write about how the development of writing as a way of communicating ideas caused a certain amount of skepticism and stress back in the Ancient world, particularly in Ancient Greece. It is kind of refreshing when you think about how much communicating with the written word--or written symbol--had been going on in the relative "neighborhood" of Greece before 370 B.C.E., and how little people like Socrates were able to know about it mainly because they didn't communicate in writing. Writing in Asia is even older.

Writing has going through various phases, has used different kinds of materials and machines, but people still find it worthwhile to communicate using written language.

This information helps me to feel a little bit better about where "we" are in the grand scheme of all things musical. Notation for music is far younger, as far as we know, than the notation systems used for representing words. There are a great many musicians who have no need for it, and even people who read music are sometimes crushed by its limitations. We have benefited from musicians who could use musical notation to full advantage and could give us great art, and recently, through the work of the volunteers participating in the IMSLP/Petrucci Library, we have been able to have a glimpse of just how many excellent composers wrote and published music during the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. For a long time notation was the only way of recording musical ideas, but musical ideas could only be recorded by people who could use the system to their advantage. Musical ideas could only be recorded by people who had the inner tools and the discipline to take down their own "dictation."

After 1860, the year when people started making the first primitive recording devices, it became possible to record and reproduce musical ideas without having to translate them into notation. A mere 150 years later it is possible to record and transmit musical ideas across the world instantly without real-time sound production made by a physical friction-producing object (in the case of electronically-generated music).

In between these two technologies (1860-2011) we have, through around five generations of the technical approaches of playing and singing handed down from teacher to student, a world where many pieces of music that were once thought virtually unplayable can now be played by children. Thanks to the technological advances that have helped students learn (like electronic metronomes, phonograph records, CDs, tape recorders, video cameras, computers, PDF score libraries, and the communities fostered by musical bloggery), we probably have more excellent instrumental and vocal musicians per square mile than anyone could have dreamed possible in 1860. Musicians still make up a small percentage of the world's population, but there are enough of us (mostly concentrated in metropolitan areas) to supply live music everywhere it might be wanted.

We do, unfortunately, have to compete with music that comes from boxes, headphones, and screens, but I can imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when people might turn their backs on recorded music and seek out musical experiences that involve a live person or a group of living and breathing people playing music on instruments that generate their sounds as a result of friction rather than electricity. They might even pay for the privilege of listening. The closer virtual reality comes to the real thing, the more pronounced the differences become. And everyone reading this knows what those differences are.

Perhaps we're all participating in a large musical cycle, and due to the speeding up of progress that computers afford, we can kind of see part of the curve. Maybe we might even see a change soon. I'm not holding my breath, but I'm going to keep practicing, just in case an exciting change comes during my lifetime. I figure that at 52 I have about 40 good years left.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Lilia Skala

Last night Michael and I watched the film Roseland. He was interested in it because of Teresa Wright, but that was all he knew about the film. What a thrill it was to find the actress Lilia Skala, the actress who played the Mother Superior in Lilies of the Field, in the role of Rosa.

Now THIS is acting. Here's a clip from the film where the character of Rosa begins with an impression of Marlene Dietrich, and after a bit of Puccini, contemplates a proposal of marriage.

Encountering acting like this echoes the line that the character of Arthur, played by David Thomas, says at the end of this clip: ". . . but gee wiz, I know it when I see it. The real thing. When I see that, something in me goes "bang, bang" instantaneously. Never fails."



and here's another very short clip:



Acting like that does not come without brains. Skala was the first Austrian woman to get a degree in architecture. She had to go to Germany to get one because in the second decade of the 20th century Austria wouldn't accept women in the university (at least in technical fields).

Skala's granddaughter, who is also an actress, wrote and performed a one-woman show about her grandmother a couple of years ago, and Libby has generously put some clips from it on YouTube:

Slow Learner
Never in Love

Here's part one of a four-part interview with Libby about her grandmother.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Szell's reorchestration of Beethoven 5!

I love Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. It's one of my nine favorite Beethoven Symphonies. The new edition of the textbook we use at my community college replaced the 1987 Concertgebouw recording with Haitink with a 1964 recording by Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, and that is the version I played for my classes today. Imagine my surprise when the transition motive that is played by the horns during the exposition wasn't played by the bassoons in the recapitulation. Szell must have decided to replace the bassoons (or enhance, perhaps) with horns. I find the doubled bassoon color there such a fine example of Beethoven humor, and I'm shocked that Szell took it out. You can hear it at 5:32 of this film.



Have a look at the score!



There are other bold Szellisms in the 1964 Cleveland recording, like the slow tempo and heavy quality of the Scherzo, and the way the microphone seems to be trained a single violin during the pizzicato section near the end of the Scherzo (to give the illusion of absolute cleanliness, perhaps?).

Here's a wonderful clip of Szell rehearsing the first movement of the 5th. Unfortunately Szell doesn't make it to the recapitulation in this rehearsal, but he does say "that's good" to the brass who play the motive in the exposition. A complement from Szell? I have heard that is rare indeed. Perhaps he was playing for the cameras.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Possible Guest Editorial for a University Newspaper

This is an editorial I would like to send to our local university paper, eventually:

When I first moved here in 1985 I was surprised to find a town with a remarkably lively musical community. I was welcomed by scores of people who were thrilled that an experienced musician from the East had come here to live. I found people to play with right away (a baroque triosonata group, no less), and started giving concerts that were quite well attended by members of the university community and members of the local community. A surprising number of faculty members from departments not connected with music would come to concerts regularly. They came because they liked listening to music.

During the ten years that John David Moore and I have been giving concerts together, we have watched our audience dwindle from a healthy crowd to just a handful of individuals. A number of people have retired and moved away, and a number of people have died.

I suppose that most people on the faculty are busy with obligations and commitments, and some might consider "going to hear someone perform" just another commitment. I am surprised that people who devote their time to the study of English literature and/or History are not excited about the mini concert series that John David and I are playing this Fall. Who wouldn't want to hear music written by British composers on either side of World War I? Do they fear that British 20th century music would be discordant or too intellectual for them to understand? Are they afraid that they won't like the music because it is music written by composers they have never heard of? Are they afraid that they will be bored? Are they afraid that the music won't be played well (after all, the people playing live in this community, and they're offering these concerts for free)? Would they feel ill at ease, and not know what to do?

Never fear. The British composers working during the first two decades of the 20th century did not embrace the progressive musical developments that were gaining popularity on the European continent. Nobody British wrote anything atonal until the 1930s, and even then it was rare. Most British composers saw nothing wrong with doing what they could with traditional melody and traditional harmony--with a few lush extensions. Because the British composers were considered backward by people on the European continent, most of them have been ignored by music scholars (aside from Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Holst, who are extremely popular--go figure).

We are eager to share this music because it is beautiful, interesting, and closely connected with the literature that John David is teaching this semester in his senior seminar. It is music that was current (and very much in the air) when many of the great pieces of 20th-century English literature were being written.

British music from the early 20th century has never held an important place in the general academic musical canon. It still doesn't get the recognition it deserves. I can assure you that nobody in the audience will have heard any of the music on this program (recordings are rare and mostly no longer available), so you will be sharing a unique experience with your fellow audience members. After the concert you will know the music. You will have experienced it in real time and in real space (about an hour and a half, including intermission). It will be a part of you.

I can promise you that John David and I will do our very best to make sure that the music sounds good. We hold ourselves to very high standards, and we put a great deal of time and effort into preparing our concerts. Music is our vocation. We play these concerts in order to create fulfilling lives for ourselves, and to share what we do with our community.

It is easy to be anonymous at a concert. A concert is not a designated social occasion, and you don't need to talk with anybody, unless you want to. Everybody will be listening during the concert anyway. If you're afraid that you won't know when to clap, just follow the lead of the other people in the audience. Hopefully there will be more than just a handful.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Gesualdo Effect!

The Gesualdo Effect: Child begins each sentence on one topic, then shifts unexpectedly to a new, unrelated topic. Grows up to be a serial murderer.
Go here for more. Make sure to scroll beyond The "established" list for Sarah's other contributions.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Looking at Art, Listening to Music

Whenever I leave a museum I see the world differently.

When I look at art in a museum I am always selective. Some pieces grab my attention, and some do not. The pieces that do grab my attention do so for various reasons. Some stimulate my imagination and make ME want to paint, sculpt, or draw. Some fill me with absolute wonder as I try to imagine the amount of knowledge about composition, understanding of materials, and simply the pure technique that goes into making a work of art that can pull me in and "speak" to me.

I always go to concerts in evaluative mode, whether I am there to review it or not. I place extremely high demands on the people performing, and more often than not they do not live up to my expectations. When they do, or when they exceed my expectations, the thrill remains with me. Sometimes it remains for years. If the concert, for whatever reason, doesn't do much for me, I still learn from the experience. As an eternal student of music, I always question what it is that makes something work, and I question what it is that makes something not work. I appreciate the visual aspect of a concert, and I appreciate the way the sound operates in the room. I appreciate witnessing the tensions and releases that are always active in high pressure concert situations, and I appreciate the level of dedication that the performing musicians demonstrate. After most concerts the way I think about music in both the general sense and in the specific sense has been changed, even if only slightly. That feeling of change rarely happens when I listen to recordings.

Sometimes I like to pretend, in the case of a concert recording, that I am listening in real time and real space, but much of that experience is enhanced by my imagination. The experience of listening to recordings (for me) is a very different kid of experience from that of listening to concerts--being in the room while the music is being played.

Many people have come to think of either analog or digitized "impressions" of music (including videos) as the real thing in much the same way that many people have come to believe that a photograph of a work of art is just as good as seeing the real thing. I have certainly enjoyed looking at many photographic reproductions of pieces of art, and I have certainly enjoyed listening to recordings of pieces of music.

When I look at a photograph of a piece of art, I am looking through the lens of a photographer who tries his or her best to get the colors right, and tries to replicate the textures of the art in two dimensions. When I listen to a recording I am listening through the audio equipment and the ears of an engineer who may or may not be able to capture, for technical reasons, as much of the music as he or she would like to.

I also know that I am often listening through the evaluative post-recording-session ears of the performing musicians, who choose only the best "takes" to be preserved for "all time." I may be listening to a set of strung-together compromises rather than a performance when I listen to a recording, and in the case of musicians who are no longer around or are otherwise inaccessible to me, there's no way I will ever know.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ice Music: Chillingly Awesome



The harp looks like it has a wooden frame that is dipped in water and frozen, and it seems that everything needs to be amplified to actually be heard, but the concept is nifty.

This video has violins, guitars, and a flute, in addition to percussion instruments. A huge amount of effort and energy goes into putting these temporary and temperamental instruments together, but it does create quite a spectacle.

Nifty Arpeggio Exercises That Really Work



When I first started playing the violin as an adult, my father gave me his book of 36 Studies or Caprices by Federigo Fiorillo: a Ditson Edition that cost 1.00 back in 1920 (you can download a PDF here). My copy has handwriting in it that I imagine must be Galamian's because I have seen it in all of my father's "student" violin music.

For years and years the etudes were simply too difficult for me to play or even to understand, but now that I'm working on music that requires me to spend a vast amount of time in the upper positions, I find the Fiorillo studies extremely helpful. The last etude (above) is a bowing etude that I found very enlightening. I have practiced arpeggios for years, but for some reason, as if by "default," I tend to practice them from the bottom up and not from the top down (like in 3, 12, and 15). Thinking of them as chords (someting I have always known, but until today have really never KNOWN) really opens up loads of possibilities. You could, for example, apply these articulation patterns (or similar ones) to any chord progression in any position on the violin. You could also apply the concept to any instrument, actually.

Going backwards through the book (the way I sometimes read magazines), I realized that exploring and exploiting the violin as an arpeggiating instrument is pretty much Fiorillo's whole schtick. Number 36 certainly worked to improve my control of my schtick (the bow schtick, that is), so I thought I would share it here.

If you look at Fiorillo's page on the IMSLP Petrucci Library, you will see that he also wrote flute music. Interesting.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Worldwide Accent Project

I grew up in Boston, and many of my friends and teachers had Boston accents. I always wanted one, and wondered why I never acquired one (or simply couldn't). I can spot an authentic one instantly, and I feel a real sense of familiarity and a bit of nostalgia when I hear someone speak with a Boston accent.

I love regional accents, and I can usually identify them. I can often even tell the language of origin for a person who speaks English as a second language. I once guessed (correctly) the language of origin of a person I met in our local library many years ago. Her English had a vaguely Slavic tinge to it, but it reminded me vaguely of the way people I knew from former Yugoslavia spoke German. Then there was this bit of French in the way she pronounced the letter "D." I guessed that her first language was Serbo-Croatian, but that she might have learned English from someone who was French. I was right on both counts: she was from Serbia, and her family moved to Toronto when she was a teenager. It kind of freaked her out.

It occurred to me that with all the people I knew when I was growing up in Boston, and later when I lived there as an adult, I never met an African American person with a Boston Accent. While searching online to see whether anyone else noticed this linguistic phenomenon, I came across the "Worldwide Accent Project", and have decided to contribute my accent-less voice to the project.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Dr. Beethoven, assisted by Drs. Gingold, Oistrakh and Oborin

I must confess that seriously underestimated how personally important it is for me to keep this blog, and am humbled to know that it has meaning for people who read it. Thank you for your comments, e-mails, phone calls, and concern. I had a rough few days. I learned that abandoning this connection to the collective you (anonymous and otherwise) is not something I want to try again.

It's worth remembering that the process of going through emotional rough spots allows us to understand the breadth and scope of music. Somehow Beethoven came along just in time to remind me that honest and personal experience with the full spectrum of emotions is as necessary for us to grow as musicians as practice and study. We are thermometers and barometers of emotion, whether we perform music or write music, and whether we want to admit it or not. Perhaps it is the only reason that we do what we do.

This morning I listened to a fantastic 1963 recording of Josef Gingold playing the Violin Concerto with a university orchestra, and then I taught a class about Beethoven's sonatas (piano sonatas, violin sonatas, and cello sonatas). I feel almost like new.

I thought I'd share this almost complete film of Oistrakh and Oborin playing the "Spring" Sonata to help brighten up your day. Oistrakh's bow arm is a wonder of nature.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Epilogue Fermata


UPDATE: OK. I'm calling it a Fermata, but I'll spare you the details, and will write when I have something positive to say about the state of my world--musical and otherwise.

I have decided to write a final post for take a hiatus from Musical Assumptions. I began this blog with the hope of having some kind of interaction with a greater musical community, but I feel that I have arrived at a point where I need to stop adding to the din. I will keep Musical Assumptions on line with the hope that some of the 1,301 posts (!!!) I have written during the past six and a half years (!!!) will mean something to someone.

I will continue to update my thematic catalog, and hope to spend my non-practicing time writing some worthwhile music rather than running the risk of repeating myself in public prose. I'm always happy to engage in private e-mail correspondence, by the way. One-on-one conversation, whether through writing or talking, is my favorite way of communicating.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Fish Story



Sometimes, when I wonder why such a small segment of the population (particularly the small segment of the population that lives in the small university town in my neck of the prairie) takes the time to go to concerts, I think of a story that an old friend used to tell about a man who talked about building a garage with space for a live box in it. When my friend asked this man why he wanted to have a live box in his garage, the man's response was, "doesn't everybody?"

Monday, October 03, 2011

Achieving New Balance

The phrase "Achieve New Balance" is printed on the bottom of my relatively new sneakers, and though I step on that phrase multiple times daily, it has taken quite a while for its impact to reach my brain, fingers, and blog.

When I began playing violin 20 years ago (it will be 20 years this Thanksgiving), I worked like crazy to make up for the many years I spent away from the violin. It has taken me 20 years, but finally all those bowstrokes, scales, and shifts have made paved passageways between my brain, fingers, arms, hands, and ears that I can actually rely upon.

I remember distinctly the first time I felt "it," that moment when playing something the way I want to play something happens effortlessly. It happened to me at Juilliard, in a practice room (with my flute), playing the Handel A minor Sonata. All of a sudden the process of getting from one note to the next had meaning. I could make phrases go wherever my imagination wanted them to go, and I could articulate the way I wanted to articulate. My biggest problem from that point on was to figure out what I wanted to do with a phrase, not how to do it. I had been playing for about five years at the time.

I figured that it would take at least five years to get to that point on the fiddle, but, because all the physicality involved in playing the violin as opposed to playing the flute, I didn't really find "it" until last week; twenty years in. Perhaps it's my age, perhaps its the instrument, perhaps its the fact that I haven't worked with a teacher (as a student) for ten of those years (for better or for worse). Perhaps it's the lack of strife and tension in my life, or perhaps it's just time.

I attribute at least 50% of it to my new bow. Its particular weight and particular personality has allowed me to find balance on my violin. Through finding that balance between the parts of my playing anatomy, everything is so much easier, even if the music I'm playing is difficult. My bow can (figuratively, of course) draw a straight line and a perfect circle freehand, with its eyes closed. It makes it possible for me not to waste energy, and it lets my instrument give energy back to me.

Yesterday, when I read Tom Burritt's post about Evelyn Glennie on Drum Chatter, and saw this video:



I understood that what I was feeling was real.

I don't think that this feeling is really possible to teach. Sure, you can demonstrate "it," as long as "it" isn't too much a part of your musical anatomy (many really good players are too immersed in "it" to identify its components). A teacher can notice when "it" is missing, but, from my experience with teachers, they are just as likely to miss the mark as they are to hit it. They can correct hand and arm positions, and they can correct intonation. They can offer strategies to avoid physical tension, and encourage students to breathe. They can even get a student to feel "it" during the lesson, but ultimately it must be the student who finds "it" in his or her own personal/musical space, because "it" is internal and personal.

Some kids get the physical "it" right away, and then their hands and arms grow, and the balance changes. Everything changes when they become adolescents. Some kids keep "it," and some spend their entire musical lives trying to find "it" again.

From my first experience if "it," or "New Balance" on the flute, I realized that personal musical demands and the ability to execute those demands are almost always in an imbalance. When the musical demands exceed a person's technical ability, the answer is pretty straightforward. It's a time to gather tools to address the problem (scales, arpeggios, practicing with a metronome, practicing double stops). The process is usually straightforward.

When technical ability exceeds musical demands, however, it produces a period of stagnation and sometimes boredom. Sometimes this can last for years. Solving that problem is never straightforward.

On a micro-musical (i.e. daily) level these factors are in constant play, and that's why we always need to look for balance in our musical lives, and, because everything is in constant flux, it's always a new balance.

Time for me to practice!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Do you think I'm doing this for my health?

Doing musical things without monetary compensation can be healthy. But it can also be unhealthy. Our greater culture really does use money to determine value, and, unfortunately, it devalues things that are offered for free. People assume that a free concert, for example, might not be as good as a concert that has an admission charge. They are often wrong. Sometimes sponsoring entities make it possible for concerts to be free for audiences by paying the musicians and paying for the venue. Sometimes musicians like to play concerts as a community service, and they donate their services.

The free concerts that I have played (and I have played many) rarely have as big an audience as the concerts I have played that were not free. People who have hired me (or my quartet) to play for weddings are usually aware that the price we charge is fair, and that it reflects the quality of our performance (we are professionals, and we take our work seriously). They always respect the terms of our contract, and they know that if they don't pay us (and pay us in advance), they won't have music for their wedding. It is an easy and ethical form of commerce.

It's the same with orchestral jobs. The hiring entity pays me and my colleagues for our time and professionalism, and we do our best to live up to their expectations, and most of us hope to exceed them.

Its those "iffy" situations that bother me. Providing entertainment for an unknown charity that is hosted by an acquaintance, without the terms of the agreement spelled out, or writing a piece of music for a specific charity-related performance for which I simply couldn't, in good conscience, ask for money, and then learning, for whatever reason, that the ensemble didn't play the piece. These situations always seem to involve lack of communication on the part of the person requesting my services, and I always feel the tacit sense of a lesser regard for the value of the thing (piece or performance) that I have given as a gift. I always take it personally. I believe there is a subtle difference between receiving something as a gift and getting something for free. I believe that a gift has more value than money. I try not to get into those kinds of situations, but they still seem to make their way into my musical life. I'm sure I'm not alone.

I do play concerts for my health, but only when I play violin and viola d'amore. I almost always play for money when I play the viola. That's just the way it works. It's part of my personal musical agreement with myself. I also keep this blog for reasons that are totally non commercial, and I find that doing so contributes a great deal to my sense of well being, musical and otherwise. It helps me connect to a larger musical community, which is a vital necessity for musicians living and working outside of the usual areas of musical discourse.

I do write for my health. I get a great deal of joy out of writing music. I provide all my new music to people for free because I don't think of performing musicians as "consumers," and don't believe that they should be the ones to pay money for the music they play. I believe that audiences and concert organizations should be the people responsible for providing the finances connected with musical commerce (including commissions).

As long as it doesn't cost me anything, and as long as I have a place to make my music available, I will continue to do so. Does that make what I write now less valuable than music I wrote ten years ago that is available for purchase from a publisher?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

British Violin and Piano Music from the Eve of the Great War



1904-1914 was a fantastic decade for British music. Here's a map, if you happen to be in my neck of the woods next Thursday at 7:00.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Enrichment vs. Entertainment


No matter how hard I try, it seems that when I am trying to teach a class of students who are, for the most part, not terribly interested in the subject at hand (music of the "classical" variety), I end up simply being entertainment for them rather than providing enrichment. I fear that most students don't come away from a class knowing much more than they came in with, no matter how hard I try to engage them. The harder I try, the more entertaining I must be.

[Cue Frank Sinatra singing "Send in the Clowns"]

Isn't it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
You in mid-air.
Send in the clowns.

Isn't it bliss?
Don't you approve?
One who keeps tearing around,
One who can't move.
Where are the clowns?
Send in the clowns.

Just when I'd stopped
Opening doors,
Finally knowing
The one that I wanted was yours,
Making my entrance again
With my usual flair,
Sure of my lines,
No one is there.

Don't you love farce?
My fault, I fear.
I thought that you'd want what I want -
Sorry, my dear.
But where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
Quick, send in the clowns.

What a surprise.
Who could foresee
I'd come to feel about you
What you'd felt about me?
Why only now when I see
That you'd drifted away?
What a surprise.
What a cliché.

Isn't it rich?
Isn't it queer?
Losing my timing this late
In my career?
And where are the clowns?
Quick, send in the clowns.
Don't bother - they're here.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Steve Martin and the American String Quartet

Steve Martin and Bela Bartok, that is.



[Thanks Carrie!]

Time Study Ramble

I suppose that musicians use time differently from the way that "lay people" use time. After all, what we do involves time as its currency: how many beats, how many measures, and at what tempo. When I'm working at music (whether practicing or composing) time in the normal clock-based sense really doesn't matter. What matters involves the way I'm measuring the amount of time it takes to get from one note to the next. A combination of the task at hand and the state of my concentration tells me when it's time to stop.

I imagine that some of the people contacted for this US government time study must have been musicians (or otherwise creative people), but the categories they were given to catalog their use of time are not specific enough to discern anything useful. I suppose I would have to categorize practice, rehearsal, reviewing, and composition time as "work," but it is all creative time.

This chart tells us that Americans spend most of their non-sleeping time working, eating, and watching television.



It also tells us that "education" time is sequestered to school hours, and that we don't socialize or spend time on correspondence (which I suppose would mean e-mail). What it really tells us is that Americans spend most of their evenings at home watching television.

I was surprised to see that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics had to say about what musicians do. I imagine that most people who are not musicians have no idea about how hard "classical" musicians work in order to, as Trey Anastasio puts it, spend "countless hours of work just to be invisible." Anastasio, who enjoys a high-profile career as a successful rock musician, understands the difference between what he does and what orchestral musicians have to do in order to get a small fraction of the recognition he gets.

There are "classical" musicians who are trying to break through the cloak of invisibility that covers us most of the time. They wear wild clothes and make up, play rock music, and/or go for sex-appeal in order to have respect of the people who they believe (or their managers and advisers believe) need some kind of extra-musical stimulation in order to pay attention to music.

I happen to like invisibility. My goal when performing is to have the musical experience (i.e. the experience of the music) be the most important thing. In my case it mostly involves trying to make sure everything is in tune, is in rhythm, and sounds good. It also involves trying to make it possible for the line of the music to lead directly into the heads of the people listening to it, without anything bumpy getting in the way. I would liken it to driving a car through wonderful countryside. The music I'm playing is like a vehicle that has serious protection from the bumps in the road so that I can play at a steady pace. I want my passengers feel both exhilarated and safe while they take in the scenery and enjoy the twists and turns and ups and downs of the road. That's stuff of the mind's eye, and it's individual for every listener. I figure that I am (figuratively) driving, so I'm in control of (at least my part--in the case of chamber music) of the experience, but the experience of the music is one that everyone shares.

As a composer I experience invisibility regularly. Most of the time I am totally invisible, because I'm usually not there when music I have written is being played or being rehearsed. My job as a composer is to try and make the contours, harmonies, and happenings in the music (with all its notes, phrases, articulations, and dynamics) as clear as possible so that other people (people I don't know and may never meet) can "drive the car" safely and comfortably through different landscapes, and to allow their interpretations to weave into and around he heads of the people who are listening.