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.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Two Conversations with Maurice Sendak

Here's one with Pamela Paul in the New York Times, and another (just aired yesterday) with Terry Gross.
"There's something I'm finding out as I'm aging--that I am in love with the world . . . It is a blessing to get old. It is a blessing to find the time to do the things, to read the books, to listen to the music . . ."
Sendak's new book, which deals with ideas of aging and mortality (not wanting to turn ten, for example), grew out of a piece he wrote for Sesame Street:

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Secret Life of Pronouns

I just heard a radio interview with James W. Pennebaker, the writer of The Secret Life of Pronouns, and immediately, before even putting my groceries away, went to the website for his book to look at the various tests he offers.

I found virtually every statement he made to miss the mark as far as determining what our use of language, as analyzed in computer terms, says about us and how we communicate. There are a bunch of tests on his website, and I took the one that required the least amount of time. The test analyzes a chunk of text written by two people, and then determines the quality of the relationship that those two people have based on the compatibility of their language style. I put a chunk of text from this blog (to represent me, of course), and a chunk of text from my husband's blog into the analyzer, and the computer determined that we had little in common language-wise. Then I put the same chunk of text from my blog in with a different chunk of text from his blog, and the computer determined that we had a great deal in common language-wise.

I became skeptical when Pennebaker used a double "is" ("The thing is is . . ") multiple times in the course of his interview. Someone who does that repeatedly can not be very self aware when he speaks.

I just compared this blog post (minus this paragraph) with some prose from Pennebaker's website, and the computer analyzed it as .77 (the average is .68). Then I compared it to one of Michael's blog post. The computer gave that .81. Four points difference between me and a person I just heard speak on the radio, and me and my husband of nearly 27 years? I think that this method of analysis needs some serious work.

Now I'll put my groceries away.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Museum of Music Printing

This online museum will tell you just about everything you always wanted to know (and a whole bunch of stuff you didn't even know you wanted to know) about the technologies of music printing between the Middle Ages and the computer age.

Sturm, Drang, and Stress

I recently learned that the word "stress," as used in medical and psychological terms, was coined in the 1940s by the Austrian endocrinologist Hans Selye. He got it from the often-used word "distress" (bad stress), which comes from Middle English. In 1950 he coined the word "stressor." In 1975 Selye coined the rarely-used word "eustress" (good stress), that he got from the presence of stress in biology. Clearly the translation of "Sturm und Drang" as "Storm and Stress" is a misnomer because before the meaning of "stress" as a psychological term or an emotional state wasn't used in the middle of the 18th century. Haydn certainly didn't use it to describe his contribution to what music historians called (and still call) musical "Sturm und Drang."

The term "Sturm und Drang" comes from the title of a 1776 play by Friedrich von Klinger, who died in 1831. It didn't make its way into general use (in other words people using it not to talk about the play) until 1845. Klinger, incidentally, worked for Grand Duke Paul in St. Petersburg. It's a small world.

[The term is kind of like the use of the term "Ponzi scheme," named for Charles Ponzi, or the casual mention of "red tape." Following links in Wikipedia can induce a sort of eustress, I suppose.]

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Queer Fiddlers and Queer Fiddling

There are some great end of the 19th century fiddle stories in this little book by Wallace Sutcliffe.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Rites of Passage

I am convinced that the writers of Genesis must have been male, because the punishment that Eve gets for eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge (and the privilege of being a woman) is to have pain in childbirth. Many modern women get around this problem through medical procedures, and women who don't participate in the act of childbirth, for whatever reason, never experience their punishment. I believe that if Genesis were written by a woman, the punishment that Eve would get for acquiring wisdom would be to have hot flashes when she reached her fourth or fifth decade, because they are a fact of every woman's life. Most of us suffer in silence. I have never been the silent type.

These "power surges," as one website affectionately calls them, have bee my constant companion for a couple of weeks. They call attention to themselves when I am practicing (and they tend to be partial to difficult passages in keys with lots of accidentals), when I'm trying to sleep, and at varying times during my waking day. They have no regard for what I am doing or what I am wearing, and they seem to want to keep company with me when I have a cup of tea or coffee, eat spicy food, or when I have a glass of wine (pleasures that I really don't want to give up). They especially like it when I'm feeling creative, like when I sit down to work on writing a piece of music. They haven't invaded my bloggery yet, except for the fact that I'm making this post.

The respect I have for musicians who are women in their 50s who make it through concerts with hot flashes figuratively running on stage and setting their heads on fire has gone up immensely. I'm trying to see some kind of way to be positive about their crazy presence. Perhaps they help make the experience of music making even more multi-dimensional than the experience of of doing it in a personally temperate climate. At least, unlike the weather on the outside, these "power surges" don't affect whatever instrument I'm holding in a negative way, and my personal "power surges" never quite make it all the way to my fingers. But they do blow my mind.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Bit of Fun in the IMSLP Petrucci Library

I came across a composer with the pseudonym of John-Luke Mark Matthews who is worth checking out for a laugh. His music (uploaded by "Picardy Third") includes a Concerto for Vuvuzela and this piece of eye candy. Don't miss the Hymn to Wikipedia!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

My Kind of Zapateado

And now for a dose of high inspiration:

Friday, September 09, 2011

Neon Panic

If I were writing a review of Charles Philipp Martin's Neon Panic for anything but this blog, I would probably not admit to knowing the writer, though I can honestly say that I haven't seen him for thirty years. I knew him mostly in Hong Kong, where this novel is set.

Aside from the mystery novels of James M. Cain (who was a musician), I normally don't like the genre. I enjoy mystery movies, but there is something about the heavy-handed way that many mystery writers describe places, people, and "special" cultural stuff in prose that makes for difficult reading. Mystery novels that involve music hold a special place in my reading experience, and figurative red lights flash on occasionally to signal "false notes."

You can imagine that the idea of a reading a music-laced mystery novel written by an old friend I haven't seen in 30 years would prove a daunting proposition.

Thank goodness Charles Philipp Martin is a wonderfully musical writer with a subtle sense of humor, an exquisite ear for voices, a careful eye for detail, and a welcome sense of economy. I knew him as a bass player who toyed with the idea of writing a mystery novel set in Hong Kong, and it seems that the past 30 years have turned him into an excellent writer (mystery and otherwise) who (I hope) still likes to play the bass.

The Hong Kong Martin describes is the Hong Kong of 2003, five years after the British had to return it to the Chinese. The central character is an American bass player in the fictitious Hong Kong Symphony (not to be confused with the Hong Kong Philharmonic), and the story winds its way through every layer of Hong Kong society, as seen (mainly) from the standpoint of a Gweilo with perfect pitch. There's a cynical viola-playing character named Leo who describes his lot in life in a way that many violists can relate to:
"No one starts out with dreams of playing viola, Hector. That's all you need to know. You begin on violin like everyone else, and after a while someone--your teacher, your parents, the school orchestra leader--decides that you're not going to make it. They shove a viola in your hand and introduce you to a world of reduced expectations. . . Forget about the high passages, the solos. Most of the time you're covered by the fiddles or backed up by the cellos, since composers aren't stupid enough to inflict your naked sound on the audience. Forget about the main melody that brought everyone into the concert hall in the first place--you're allotted some crazy mirror image of it to fill out the harmony. You live your life as a noodle in the orchestral soup, sopping up the flavors around you and being swallowed along with them."
Another character named Chiu describes life as a horn player:
"When you play an instrument for enough years, it changes you. You become whoever your instrument needs you to be. The horn is difficult. When you play a note you never really know what will come out. So a lot of horn players spend the whole concert thinking about not screwing up their next entrance. When the notes come out right, they think they're hot shit. When the don't, they bitch about how hard the instrument is. Where's the music in that?"
Martin's narrator eloquently describes the essence of the expatriate experience in Hong Kong, and the problems with language:
Most Chinese in Hong Kong praise Westerners for the skimpiest accomplishments in the language, like a father complimenting his toddler for tossing a ball an arm's length. Hector loathes the implicit condescension, but he knows it's well-earned by the Hong Kong expatriate community, the largest group of functional illiterates outside Calcutta: thousands of adults who can only say "good morning," "coffee no sugar," and whatever taxi drivers need to take them to the office and back. Full-grown gweilo executives, journalists, administrators, and teachers who communicate with the residents of their adopted city on a level below that of a native three-year-old. What can Chinese think of the many-hued, multi-shaped kindergartners who mill among them every day?
Every observation about Hong Kong and the business end of orchestral life (all the business ends including the conductor, the music critics and journalists, the people who work in the office, the stage hands, and the musicians) is spot on. The book is full of gentle puns--puns on names in particular. The Chinese names are all believable, but the idea of a character named "Big Pang," gives me a chuckle every time. Pang, of course, draws a dotted line to Puccini's Turandot, which plays a supporting role in the novel.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book (and I read it in two days--when I should have been doing other things). The characters are all complicated and interesting (even the non-musical ones), and the story line, which becomes very complex, is compelling. Really compelling. I will reveal no more, but I encourage musicians in search of something truly enjoyable to read, just for the sake of reading, to find your way to a copy of Neon Panic. It comes out October 1. If you live in Seattle you can celebrate the event by going to a book signing.

Here's more about the book.

Monday, September 05, 2011

The Last Bees of Summer

This is for you, Martha! (We played an outdoor wedding yesterday, where several pieces ended up being in the "key of B.")

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Yefim Bronfman on Iron Chef

I tire of the "cookie cutter" (please excuse the pun, but no other expression will do) nature of the Food Network. What started as a great idea, has become a series of programs that have very little variety in their presentation, aside from the name of the host, the decor of the cooking space, and the "point of view" of the food the host is presenting. The basic script is mostly the same, particularly when you consider the way people describe the food they are eating.

Iron Chef is a little bit different, because the chefs don't say much, and the people on the panel of commenter/judges are not expected to follow the "recipe" for food description. Still, the Iron Chef always wins, no matter how wonderful the "challenger" is. I really don't watch the program enough to be any kind of expert, but I have NEVER seen anyone except one of the program's Iron Chefs win.

The panel of judges is usually made up of people I don't know who do things I don't really care about in places I will never visit, but yesterday I was surprised to see Yefim Bronfman, a pianist I truly admire, on the panel. I slept my way through the cooking portions of the program, waiting to hear what Bronfman had to say about the food.

A thought crossed through my mind. In the world of popular food culture and television, a person like Bronfman is a real anomaly. He is by no means a "personality." He gives off an air of humility (something that doesn't play well on the food network) and practicality. He mentioned that chefs and musicians were similar because they both worked under extreme pressure, worked at odd hours, and sometimes were prima donnas. I appreciated that observation, but I think the rest of the people on stage were a little baffled. Bronfman clearly enjoyed his food, and he had nothing but appreciation for the opportunity to taste it. He mentioned that if he were to go into a restaurant and have one of the meals, he would like to return soon to have the same meal. He described the cooking of one chef as "genius." One judge said that she was "confused" when trying to describe a dish she was eating. Bronfman said that was because she was a professional, and it's OK for a professional to be confused. He added that when he played, he was often confused.

I imagine he was talking about matters of interpretation, which can be confusing and complicated for the interpreter, but do not appear confusing to the listener, particularly when the person performing has humility, practicality, and a deep love for the music he or she is playing.

Perhaps the larger world doesn't see humility, true sensual appreciation, and practical honesty as the traits that an "artiste" like a solo pianist would put forth when asked to be on a panel of judges judging something for which he was, at best, a happy consumer. These traits are essential in interpreting a piece of music.

I wonder how the rest of the panel would fare trying to judge the finalists in a high-level piano competition? I wonder what the rest of the panel would make of the subtleties Bronfman brings out in the Schumann Arabesque?

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Frederic Rzewski Interview

I have been spending some quality time during the past few days looking at and listening to the music of Frederic Rzewski, while helping the good people at the IMSLP's Petrucci Library and the Werner Icking Music Archive with their colossal merging project.

(You can help too.)

Rzewski is a composer who never "crossed over" into using computer notation software. He never embraces fads or writes in a formulaic way, and, as far as I can tell, he never stops writing deeply expressive music. He's a fantastic pianist with a wonderfully sensitive touch, and his view of the place of the 20th century in the grand scheme of all things musical is illuminating. The passage below comes from an interview he did with Daniel Varela in 2003 for the online music magazine Perfect Sound Forever.
. . . I believe very strongly that live music, as opposed to recorded music, will continue to survive and recorded music will collapse. I think perhaps the 20th century will be regarded by future generations like the "recording century," which leads to confusion between a work of art and its industrial reproduction. In a way similar to the notion of the ancient Egyptians about life after death (a very strange idea), in the 20th Century there was the strange idea that it was possible to freeze the music into a piece of plastic which you could then buy it in a store. I think that we have had some kind of return to a more traditional view, namely that music is something that one does, not something that comes to you. It's some form of activity so I think that we'll find new forms of folk music, something that appears spontaneously.

One of the things that I'm personally interested in is writing- writing as opposed to recording, a form of projecting ideas potentially far into the future which is something that recordings cannot do. It's been said that recordings are forever and do not change, but maybe in the future, we will discover new means of recording. Today, we have CD ROMs and things like that but it seems that even they are very primitive means. They're primitive if we compare them to a simple page of music. One of the interesting things about writing is that it's possible to define structure very, very precisely and at the same time, by doing it in a such way, it is still capable of a multiplicity of interpretations all of which can be equally interesting. This is the reason to see Beethoven as a master. Beethoven could be interpreted in different many ways and we know that future generations will discuss how to play the "Hammerklavier" sonata.
You can visit the Rzewski IMSLP page (still in progress and growing every day) to have a look at PDFs of his music. You can also watch and listen to him play some of his piano music here, listen here, and visit his page in the Werner Icking Music Archive to hear more performances and see more scores.

Here's a piece for four violists to play while reciting Shakespeare called Fortune (the versatile violists are Leanne King, Dominic De Stefano, Michael Davis, and Sara Rogers). Here's the score.

El Grillo

Just before class today there was a cricket singing intermittently somewhere in the ceiling. I decided to entertain the students who were waiting for class to begin by playing this recording of Josquin's El Grillo to see how close Josquin came to the actual sound of a cricket.

Here's the text in Italian

El grillo è buon cantore,
Che tienne longo verso,
Dalle beve grillo canta.

Ma non fa come gli altri uccelli,
Come li han cantato un poco,
Van' de fatto in altro loco
Sempre el grillo sta pur saldo,

Quando la maggior è'l caldo
Al' hor canta sol per amore.

which Tinelot Wittermans translated to English as

The cricket is a good singer He can sing very long
He sings all the time.

But he doesn't act like the birds.
If they've sung a little bit
They go somewhere else
The cricket remains where he is,

If the month of May is warm
Because he sings out of love.
After the piece was over, the cricket in the ceiling was singing away--loudly and cheerfully, and far more quickly than it had earlier. It just wouldn't stop. I tried playing the piece again, and it kept chirping.

Eventually the cricket quieted down. When the final batch of students showed up a minute or two into the silence, I explained the nature of the experiment, and played a phrase to see if the cricket would start singing again. Nothing happened. Perhaps we exhausted the poor thing, or perhaps it was intimidated by Josquin's very accurate representation.