Thursday, March 31, 2011

Corruption and Greed in the Violin Market

Here's an article about violin dealer Dietmar Machold from a few years ago, and one from a few days ago. This New York Times article from 2001 gives bit of history about the violin market, and Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi gives further and more personal insight into Machold and his ways.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Donut Ramble

It seems that musical and artistic movements that used to take centuries now take months, and they leave very little in the way of a trail once they're discarded. Evolution in the natural world takes a long time. From paleontologists and other scientists we learn that it happens as a result of life forms having to compete for survival, sometimes with other species, and sometimes with natural phenomena. I believe that music "evolves" slowly, and I believe that it "evolves" as a result of personal contact with musicians and, perhaps, the "muse" itself. It takes lifetimes. (Revolution, on the other hand, is probably more effective when sped up by way of tools for instant communication, but revolution and evolution are completely different animals.)

It seems like new forms of sensory stimulation are always competing for our individual and collective attention. I believe that one real danger of having so much visual and aural stimulation instantly available is that, without really being aware of it, we can easily skim over things that are worthwhile, and only see and hear the surface. By experiencing so much of our lives superficially, we are creating a void that makes itself known (or felt) in the form of an insatiable hunger for real experiences. But who has time for real experiences with all this instant stimulation?

It's time to share my donut theory. When we eat a donut we are eating an attractive circle made of refined sugar and refined flour that has been fried in very hot fat. The fat enhances the flavors of the sugar and the dough, and allows for textures that give a momentary sense of pleasure; but that pleasure fades away in a very short time. The body reacts to the event. It has just consumed large numbers of empty calories, has been duped by short-lived pleasure, and it demands nutrition. Hungry for real food, we reach for the most instantly-accessible forms of what might be "real," but we have been blinded (or at least our taste buds have been "blinded") by the donut experience, and our first impulse is to satisfy our resulting high-intensity emptiness with something equally sensually stimulating. Perhaps we then eat too much of some kind of fast food (because it's accessible), or perhaps, if we think about it, we come to our senses and eat some whole grains and a vegetables to fill our nutritional deficit (which takes time to prepare, and time to eat).

The analogy to music is fairly obvious, so I'll let you fill in the blanks.

Most American college students have the tools to listen to almost anything almost anywhere, but I fear that many of them consider all this access an excuse for procrastination. No matter how often I tell my community college students that they need to learn the material of the class slowly, and that the time to begin studying for whatever upcoming exam we have is immediately after they learn the material, inevitably there are people who wait until the last minute to try to cram information into their memories. Music doesn't go "in" that way. Music happens in real time, and superficial listening in the background is almost meaningless. Memorizing is difficult for musicians, and it is impossible for non-musicians.

Why don't they listen?

Tafelmusik 2.0 (Oy vey ist mir!)

Michael sent this to me, and I had to share.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Haydn: A Cure for What Ails You

In my case it's a rare kind of Spring fever that most people don't seem to understand. Haydn seems to put it all into perspective, and translate it all into music.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Other, Other, Other Schu

I remember seeing Robert Schumann referred to as "the other Schu," to differentiate him from Franz Schubert, in a piece of fiction about a string quartet (I can't remember the title). Perhaps William Schuman could be called the "other Schumann" or the "other, other Schu" (even though his name only has one "n").

I just discovered yet another Schumann worthy of a place next to the other "Schues." Walter Schumann (1913-1958) wrote the music for Night of the Hunter. The film is praised for its direction, its cinematography, and its screenplay, but I find the music truly effective and worthy of equal praise. It is a huge part of what makes the film great. Here's a clip:

Schumann also wrote the title music for Dragnet. (The link is to a 30-minute episode that also includes some nice vintage ads: one that has opera singer Marguerite Piazza selling Camel cigarettes, one for Dentu-Creme, to remove those cigarette stains, one for a GE blender that has a really catchy jingle, and a Chevrolet commercial with Dinah Shore and Pat Boone.)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Perceptive View from the "Unschool"

I just read an extraordinarily perceptive comment on Unschooled: Superman Isn't Worth the Wait that concerns the general state of education. It comes from a homeschooled high school student named Amanda, and I will repeat her comment in its entirety:
I’m currently a home-schooling high school student and everything in this post resonated with me. I take a full course load online in addition to a few classes with tutors, and the writing level of my peers is appalling. We often have “discussion” assignments where the instructor asks a question and each student has to respond on a forum, generally in one or two paragraphs. I am always elated to find a student who has answered the question, stated a thesis, written in complete sentences, and spelled everything correctly. However, this does not happen often.

It’s not only in the English department that education is slipping, it’s everywhere. It seems like the basics are being taught quickly and shoddily so the students can be moved in more specialized directions, god knows why. For example, why are high schools in my county offering nuclear physics, psychology, and Latin American literature classes? I would be delighted in such diverse opportunities for my friends, if it weren’t for the fact that these courses are considered “core” courses, not electives. From what I’ve come to understand these courses are being offered as core curriculum because there are too many students to supply teachers (in the current economic situation) for everyone to have the basic, building-block courses. This is going to be incredibly harmful to future college students. Their foundations will be brittle in many areas. I have a good friend that I’m tutoring in Calculus who is struggling because she does not understand how to factor. How to factor! How have her math professors missed this central building block in the past four years of her schooling? Something is very wrong with the educational system.

There is also far too much pressure on students at all grade levels. Unfortunately the problem runs deeper than just the educational system. There is something terribly disconcerting in a society where childhood is something to be embarrassed about and rushed through. I think standardized tests are laughable, grouping children by grade is socially impairing, and homework is generally redundant. Learning should be eye-opening and miraculous, it should be a fun experience for everyone involved. It shouldn’t be associated with being locked in a cinderblock, artificially lit building for eight hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year. That sounds like a punishment to me.

Your brother is right. Regardless of home schooling or not, if you are not taught how to memorize information, transitioning into college will probably be more difficult for you. Having said that, in my opinion, all levels of education should be about learning, not memorizing. Of course there are situations where you need to know your unit circle off hand, or the composition of amino acids, or the Transcendentalist authors; but that should be a part of learning as a whole, not the means of learning.

I sound very bitter, but I’m not at all. I have many, many fantastic and intelligent friends who have come out of both public and private schools. I attended a wonderful preschool, and two different Montessori schools for elementary school and freshman year of high school. I am just increasingly disappointed in the school system and infuriated for my friends who haven’t read the classics, or studied world history in depth, or have missed out on because topics were covered too quickly.
Thank you Amanda.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

High Speed Rail

One of my students asked me to write a piece of "train music" for Summer Strings. What started out as a compendium of old train songs (they never seemed to make it into the piece) ended up as a way of working out my deep desire for having high speed rail in this country. I hope that during my lifetime (which I do hope lasts another 40 or so years) I'll have the chance to travel across America on high speed rail. The score and parts are available here; and you can enjoy this slide show with a computer-generated recording, and share my moment of train love.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Numbers in Beethoven's Manuscript of the Fifth Symphony

There is an incomplete early manuscript of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony available through the Petrucci Library that presents something I have never seen before. Instead of using clefs or names of instruments, Beethoven puts numbers next to each staff as an indicator of which instrument is playing which line. This is how I translated his code:

8 = Violin 1
9 = Violin 2
10 = Viola

4 = Flute
5 = Oboe
6 = Clarinet
7 = Bassoon

3 = Horn
2 = Trumpet

1 = Timpani

11 = Cello
12 = Bass

This order lasts until page 41, when he starts using 16-stave manuscript paper. Here's a shot of page 42, and you can see that he has a new number-for-instrument code (this page has a couple of corrections).

From what I have been able to tell through the sources available to me, Beethoven didn't use this system for any of his other symphonies. I would love to know what people of the logic behind his numbers. I'm pretty baffled. I do like the fact that the timpani is number 1. I wonder if it has some special significance?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Celebrate Spring with Frank Bridge

And you can also celebrate Spring (and Bridge) in its original cello version here. ("Spring Song" begins at 3:10, but the "Meditation," which comes first in the video, is also wonderful.)

Ward Shelley's Map of the Avant Garde

There is so much to learn from the graphic (hand drawn on graph paper) map called "Who Invented the Avant Garde" by Ward Shelley. If you click a couple of times on the image on his website it will be enlarged so that you can read and follow everything on it. You may need to wait for a while for the whole thing to load, but it's well worth the wait.

Unfortunately Shelley seems to have circumvented what we call "classical music" in his work, so I have to fill in the blanks.

I'm off to spend time exploring more of Shelley's work!

Playing in Tune on the Viola and Saving Gas?

Driving a Prius has completely changed the way that I drive. Through the various displays on the dashboard that let me see how much gas I am using at any given time, I understand the contours of the various roads I travel, the advantage of coasting, the amount of energy that it takes to get moving from a full stop, and differences that wind, cold, and speed make in my overall gas mileage. It makes the actual process of getting to rehearsals a lot more fun than it was during our pre-Prius days.

So what does this have to do with playing in tune?

I have long poo-pooed the notion of using a tuner to play in tune. I remember one time--oh it must have been in the 1980s--when I was playing one of the piccolo parts of Mahler's Third Symphony, and one of the other flutists brought a tuner to a sectional rehearsal. It is virtually impossible to tune two piccolos. Really. Somehow it's possible to have three piccolos sound like they might be in tune, but two piccolos always have bumps and potholes when they play together (that driving analogy was not intentional, but I'll keep it anyway). I suggested that we try to listen and make note of the extreme adjustments we would need to make in order to sound less than horrid, and he suggested we just follow the tuner. That experience turned me off from tuners completely.

The metronome I have been using of late is a combination metronome and tuner. Being a relative Luddite, I didn't know exactly how the machine functioned as a tuner, and I certainly wasn't planning to use it as such, until I turned on the "tuner" function by accident. I actually thought that the device wouldn't be able to "hear" me unless I plugged in a microphone, but I was proven wrong.

I decided to try the thing out--just to see if it could "hear" me. I was surprised that when I played scales on the violin it could tell me what pitches I was playing, and it could tell me whether I was playing them in tune. When the little green light is lit, the pitch is making the exact number of vibrations it needs to make to equal the mathematical expectations of the device. There is a "safe zone," and then there are areas that are way out. I was surprised to find that I was "way out" much more often than I could ever have imagined.

My tuner doesn't "hear" pitches in the ledger-line regions of the treble clef, so it isn't incredibly practical for violin practice, but it hears the viola register very well. It is particularly useful for viola practicing because the intervals on the viola are not fingertip-width natural like they are on the violin. Even with broad fingertips, there is a degree of adjustment that violists must make. Perhaps the main thing that separates violists from violinists who play the viola is the "default" to adjust that violists have, because we can't depend on anything being "where" we think it is. People who get a kick out of that sort of thing (like me) prefer to play inner voices in chamber music and in orchestra because that's where adjustments are always necessary. It's part of the fun. That's why I'll always be a violist who likes to play the violin, and not the reverse.

Practicing slowly with the tuner, and adjusting the pitches carefully to remain in the "safe" zone, or to get a succession of green lights over a span of a passage or a phrase makes practice time extremely rewarding. It is my belief that once you get in the habit of playing in tune (and we all allow less-than-in-tune notes to pass undetected when we practice without "supervision") that becomes the default. In the case of playing the viola, the speed of adjustment as well as the response of the instrument improves with awareness, and the little tuner device provides "supervision" and increases awareness.

The various contours of the road and the various contours of the music we play require constant awareness. I'm so happy to have devices that enhance my awareness of both.

N.B. Double stops with a tuner are strange. Playing any kind of D minor chord, for example, makes my tuner tell me it "hears" a B flat. It would be interesting to know why.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Augustin Hadelich Playing Schumann Opus 105

What a treat it was to find this today. Perhaps he'll record and film the rest of the Sonata one of these days!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Cary Grant "playing" harp in The Bishop's Wife

It is always a treat to see a Hugo Friedhofer/Gregg Toland film (the composer and the cinematographer, respectively). The Bishop's Wife also has great stars (like Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven), and it is a true feel-good feast, complete with ice skating sequences (done with body doubles), and harp playing (what else should an angel play?). The hands in the close-up shots are those of Gail Laughton, who you can read a little about here. Biographical information about Laughton seems to be absent from the internet (and that includes historical newspapers). If you know anything about him, please let me know. Or better still, leave it in a comment!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

There's No Excuse for Not Practicing Ševčík

At least his Opus 1. You can download Opus 1 books 1-4 from Open Source Music onto any electronic device. Opus 1 is also available from the Petrucci Library, along with the school of bowing, and this fantastic tutorial for the Mendelssohn Concerto. There's one for the Brahms Concerto, the Tchaikovsky Concerto, Paganini's 1st Concerto and Wieniawski's 2nd Concerto too.

What? You don't have time for Ševčík? This stuff will save you oodles of disorganized (and often wasted) practice time by allowing you to focus your attention on the matters that are most important--like getting from one note to the next confidently, in tune, comfortably, and with a good sound. It is only once those things are in place that it is possible to aspire to (and sometimes even achieve) higher musical ideals.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Women on the Margins or "If she's worth my time, why haven't I heard of her?"

Judging from the response I got to my last post offering a chance to listen online to performances of some terrific music written by 19th and early 20th century women who had been either marginalized or ignored by the general musical public during their lifetimes, I fear that unless major changes happen in the musical landscape, most of these women and most of their music will remain in a marginalized underclass. I simply can't pretend it isn't so.

Their underclass status has nothing to do with the quality of the music these women wrote, and it has nothing to do with the acclaim their work gets from unimportant critics (like me) or well-prepared performances by hard working performing musicians (like me). I think that it has a great deal to do with the fact that people are afraid to subject themselves to something that they have been quietly led to consider "inferior" music for much of their lives. Some people believe that if they encounter a piece of music from the 19th century or the early 20th century written by someone they "never heard of," that piece of music and that composer must not be worth hearing . . . unless that composer happens to have been a man.

Related posts:

More (or less) about music by women
The rest are women
The Rest is Men

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sticky Concert Situation

I thought I had exhausted the possibilities for things that can go wrong with a concert venue, but today’s topped them all. Our program this afternoon had been rescheduled twice, and moved to a time to assure the smallest possible audience--the Sunday before a college’s Spring Break. On top of that there was a chance that the building wouldn’t have light and heat because of a scheduled (and then rescheduled) power outage on campus. Never mind. I came armed with stand lights, a sweater, and a sense of adventure.

What a surprise it was to hear the sound of the heating system, and to feel that the building wasn't cold. It was even a bit toasty inside. We thought all was well until John David noticed that one of the piano keys was sticking. It was sticking because the inside of the piano showed evidence of something sticky having been spilled on it. Nobody wanted to reach in and taste it, but it looked like pancake syrup to me. It was all over the hammers and the strings, causing some notes not to sound at all. We couldn’t figure out how something like this might have happened, and certainly couldn’t understand why anybody would spill syrup inside a baby grand piano.

We had to find a new location for the concert. Luckily we had an understanding audience, and everyone waited patiently while we tried to contact university administrators (who were mostly out of town) to see if we could find another hall with a piano on campus.

Suddenly our page turner came to the rescue. Her father happens to be the pastor of a local church, and the church happens to have one of the better pianos in town. She called him, and everyone hied over to the church. We began the program only 30 minutes behind schedule: a triumph of music over syrup.

Oh the struggles of trying to arrange performances of music by women.

UPDATE: You can hear the Tailleferre here:

Tailleferre Allegro non troppo
Tailleferre Adagietto
Tailleferre Allegro

and the Pejacsevich here:

Pejacsevich Allegro
Pejacsevich Andante
Pejacsevich Allegro molto

and the Boulanger encore:

Boulanger Nocturne

If you would like to hear a recording of the whole concert, send me an email message, and I’ll send you an invitation to a dropbox folder with the a recording of the rest of the concert and a PDF of the program.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Concert of music by Farrenc, Tailleferre, Hensel, and Pejacsevich March 13 at 3:30

I don't believe there are that many Musical Assumptions readers in my immediate geographical area, but if any of you who might be in the area are free, I guarantee that you will be impressed by the music on this program.

Here's a map, and here's some information about the composers:

Louise Farrenc
Germaine Tailleferre
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel
Dora Pejacsevich

Friday, March 11, 2011

Ah! fuggi il traditor!

Pay special attention to the recitative between "La ci darem la mano" and "Ah! fuggi il traditor," and see if it doesn't recall the antics of a certain politician.

Leave her, thou vile seducer!
By heav'n I'm sent, thy perfidy to witness;
And to prevent thee
From deluding this poor girl's inexperience
With thy treacherous language.

I wonder says she truly!

Cupid, inspire me!
softly to Elvira
Can you chide, dear Elvira,
A little harmless pastime?

Harmless pastime? Indeed, Sir!
Harmless pastime! Deceitful man
I know too much of your pastime.

But, my lord, please to tell me,
Has she the right to say this?

She's so infatuated!
But I must treat her kindly,
She cannot bear from my side to be parted,
Unfortunately I am too tenderhearted.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Fritz Kreisler and the Musical Ethic of his Time

When asked to give an evaluation of his best work, Fritz Kreisler speaks volumes
"When I’m judging other artists it’s easy for me because I judge them by the standards. . . present standards: by the beauty of their tone, by their musicality, and by their technical achievements. With me it's different. When I play I always try to achieve a certain ideal, and I have never been able to achieve it. When I came near it, and when I advanced in age, well, the ideal had progressed too, so that I came never near it."

Perhaps it might be fair to say that Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) helped mold the musical ethic of his time. He exuded humility. He understood that music is, at its very core, a humble art. Bach understood this, as did Haydn and Schubert.

I wonder if the world of music will, once again, put someone with the humility and humanity of Fritz Kreisler in an influential position. Current standards are very high, and musical ideals are still there, but I feel that more value has been placed on grabbing and holding onto the "brass ring" than on the act of reaching for it. Many people don't quite understand the difference. The proof is in the playing.

Streaming Summer Strings

Last summer the local television station made a portion of a documentary film about our Summer Strings program in Charleston, Illinois. It aired this past Sunday, and now is capable of streaming all over the world. Around nine minutes into the program there is a piece about my friend Nina Marshall (one of the co-directors of Summer Strings) making harps with her father. The Summer Strings portion begins at around the 16-minute mark, and lasts around eight minutes. [If you are reading through a reader you will need to click through to the post to see it.]

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Violinists' Speaking Voices

This WQXR radio interview from February 2, 1955 was part of a celebration of Fritz Kreisler's 80th birthday. Before the Kreisler interview begins there are audio birthday greetings from Mischa Elman, Yehudi Menuhin, Nathan Milstein, Erica Morini, Joseph Szigeti, Ruggiero Ricci, and Isaac Stern. What an ear-opening experience it is to hear the speaking voices of these violinists, particularly after being so familiar with their violinist voices. I had no idea that Isaac Stern's voice could be so rich and mellow, and I noticed that Menuhin's voice sounds significantly more American than it sounded when he became older. Don't you just love the way Kreisler pronounces "works" as "woiks," and "first" as "foist?"

Seymour Barab's La Pizza con Funghi

This hilarious parody of Italian opera by Seymour Barab is performed here (in its one-hour entirety) by the Greensburg American Opera.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Enhanced Digital Metronome

There's nothing quite as satisfying to practice with as a truly loud and precise metronome. I used an electric bakelite Franz Metronome for years and years. It had a great sound, but it also had a few drawbacks. It was heavy, and it needed an outlet for its permanently-attached power cord (that didn't always remain permanently attached). After a few falls (the Franz would sometimes vibrate itself to the edge of a table), my Franz no longer worked, and I couldn't find anybody who could repair it. The succession of metronomes that accompanied my practicing since the 1980s have been more portable, but none of them had the volume of the Franz.

A few weeks ago I decided to enter the 21st century and buy myself an inexpensive ($24.00) Korg digital metronome. It is very light, but it is also rather quiet. Yesterday, just to see (and hear) what would happen, I hooked it up to some old computer speakers that I plugged into an outlet. The result was metronome Nirvana. There's nothing quite like a digital "pop" and a good stream of real electricity to give a metronome the kind of power it needs to iron out my rhythmic inaccuracies.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Great post about Leon Theremin

If you know a little about Leon Theremin you'll want to read David Ocker's post about him. If you don't know anything about Theremin, you'll definitely want to read this post. Ocker has a picture of a "Trojan Seal," a link to a video of Theremin playing (beautifully), as well as a link to the superb full-length film, Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

David Munrow: Must-Hear Early Early Music on YouTube

For people who have heard David Munrow but have never seen him, here's a 14-minute film of Munrow and his fellow early music pioneers. The bagpipes at the beginning are really something, but the Saltarello at 6:35 is "something else" entirely. After some restrained quiet playing (by other people in the Early Music Consort of London) the insanity continues at 9:35 with a double pipe of some sort, followed by another kind of bagpipe, and the film ends with some wild and frenzied recorder playing.

After the Medieval madness, check out the Early Music Consort of London's film of Elizabethan music, their film of early 17th-century Italian music, and their film of 17th-century German music.

Winter Conversation #3

Here is the third of the six Winter Conversations that I wrote for Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi and Ilkka Talvi (the violinists on this recording). The images are from Olaus Magnus's History of the Nordic Peoples from 1555, but the subtitle of the Conversation is "Chopin and Wieniawsky talk about the Weather," (winter wind and wild horses).

Links to a PDF of the music will be available here soon.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

How Much is that Doggy on the Piano?

This one's for you, Moe!

(Thanks to Rachel for sending this.)

Winter Conversation #5

Here is a recording of Winter Conversation #5 made by Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi and Ilkka Talvi:

These are links to four of the other Winter Conversations:

Winter Conversation #1
Winter Conversation #2
Winter Conversation #4
Winter Conversation #6

Thursday, March 03, 2011

What are Emerging Composers?

Alexandra Gardner asks a good question:
And how does an "emerging composer" turn into a straight up "composer"? By finishing a doctoral degree? With a tenure track teaching position or other substantial music-related gig? Upon receiving a commission from a major orchestra or signing with a major publisher? A big award such as a Guggenheim fellowship or Rome Prize? I have no idea!
I keep forgetting my passwords to the various sites I read, so I'm posting my answer here.

The whole "emerging composer" thing is a construct. When my music first got published, I sort of thought of myself as something like an "emerging composer" (but that before the snappy term--that really means nothing--started being used). Now that I have achieved the level of recognition that I will probably have for most of my life (miracles could happen, I suppose), I am no longer an emerging composer. I'm just a composer. I know many older composers (older than me) who have had music performed and recorded by lots and lots of people and published by lots and lots of publishers, who have never "emerged" because their names have never become household words. They are just composers too.

The handful of composers who become household names in the classical music world are people who have excellent people doing excellent publicity work for them. Some of the people just under "household" status do an excellent job of doing publicity work for themselves. Some are affiliated with institutions, and some are not. There are composers who are able to raise money to pay publicity people (and there are composers who must have access to personal fortunes, but they never talk about it), and there are composers who have spouses or partners who do the necessary publicity work gratis, but money (in some shape or form) is still a factor in their "visibility."

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

21st Century Performance Practice

Ilkka Talvi compares a photograph of the Takacs Quartet with the Joachim Quartet in his post "Then and Now," and makes a truly valid point about the way high-profile concerts have essentially "devolved":
We seem to have gone back in time, as nowadays we unfortunately enjoy our musical encounters more with our eyes than with our ears, as if concerts were intended for deaf people. Everyone should enjoy a blind person's experience: bouncing around and madly waving bows or batons obviously would be of no use.
Talvi's "time travel" refers, of course, to the extravagances and showmanship of the 19th century. Now that we are a decade into the 21st century, I'm becoming nostalgic for the 20th century of my youth. I remember (with deep fondness) the experience of going to hear concerts rather than going to see concerts. I also remember (with deep fondness) when "classical music" was not "cool" and was not "sexy." It was about substance over surface--for the most part. The "stars" were often ordinary looking, and sometimes they were downright homely, but we loved them because of the way they played.