Wednesday, November 28, 2012

John Simon's Search for the "Soul in Music"

I would love to visit a museum (or two) and/or go to a concert (or two) with John Simon because what seems to move him emotionally when considering works of music and art is so vastly different from what moves me emotionally when considering works of music and art. I have great respect for him as a writer and as a thinker, and find that he makes his case for "his music" eloquently in this recent blog post. I followed his suggestion to look at his book, John Simon on Music, which I could browse by way of Google Books. Rather than taking issue with anything in the book, I must make the observation that poor Mr. Simon's tastes seem not to have changed in 30 years. 30 years is one third of a hefty lifetime, and half of an adulthood.

In his blog post he dares the reader to define what "soul in music" might be:
But define it? I defy anyone to do so. I can only say that it is what moves me, stirs up my insides, would make me sing or hum it if I knew how. What, in a Hungarian phrase, crawls (caressingly) into the ear. What makes me forget my worries, my inadequacies, my mortality. What makes me want to hear it again and again.
Since I can't resist a challenge (and the only way to get the question out of my mind is to answer it), I'll give it my best try.

I would say first, given the context of this question, that the music that moves Mr. Simon is music that he knows and has known for a long time. He is a self-described music lover, which means to me, in this context, that he loves the music that he knows, and doesn't have much room for learning to love the music he doesn't know.

Perhaps it is a generational thing. Mr. Simon grew up at a time when there was very little in the way of "early music" around. His music-related writing from the 1970s seems to be uninformed by what we now call historically-informed performance practice, and it also seems to be focused on musical rarities and music that might have been considered on the fringe at the time. Why would someone who developed tastes off the beaten path want to trod the beaten path of Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn? How can somebody dismiss Vivaldi when recent discoveries (within the past 10 years or so) show what a multi-faceted composer he was? And I wonder why Mr. Simon finds Haydn preferable to Mozart? Does he know everything by Haydn and by Mozart? Could he identify the Haydn influences in the Mozart "Haydn" Quartets, or the Mozart influences in Haydn's Opus 76 Quartets, or the Mozart influences in Haydn's London Symphonies? These kinds of comparisons need to be made on a piece-by-piece basis, and through making these kinds of comparisons most musicians and music lovers begin to learn more about what makes both of these composers great. Enough about this.

I'll go back to Mr. Simon's question about the "soul in music." My answer is simple: I don't think that there is "soul" in music. I think that everyone's musical experiences are singular, and everyone's musical loves are singular and very personal. Some of us have unconscious "libraries" of musical references that compel us to relate one piece to another, and some of us don't. Some of us appreciate structure (structures of all kinds) in the music we respond to, and some of us respond emphatically to music that defies the notion of structure. There are people who hate chocolate (I know two of them), and there are people who love chocolate more than anything in the world. Almost everyone loves their mother's cooking, regardless of how good (or bad) a cook she was (or is). Is there a soul in science? Scientists have always been on the lookout for some kind of truth, and they even constructed a really good method to do so, but there is always more knowledge that can throw a wrench into what we like to call "laws." Once in a while someone gets lucky in science or in math and comes up with something that really holds water. Once in a while someone gets lucky in music too. Composers we consider great usually have had (and those that are living have) technique, knowledge, resources, and luck.

I don't believe there is a "universal musical truth," but I believe that within a particular musical endeavor, whether it be a performance or a composition, there are periods of insincerity and periods of sincerity. There are also constant periods of success and lack of success in composing and performing. I can listen to a recording of a performance a few days after I played a concert and hear only the flaws. I can hear the same recording five years later, and the flaws might just fly by my ear, unnoticed (they flaw right by!). I can spend weeks writing a short piece of music that engages my imagination and keeps me happy while I am at work on it, and I can hear it five years later and wonder what the hell I might have been thinking. Or I can hear a terrific performance of something I that I didn't think much of after I wrote it.

Everything is subjective. Music is vast and entirely personal. People who disagree on everything from politics to chocolate can find common ground in music that they both love, and Mr. Simon does have some excellent music on his list of "fourteen sublime works by thirteen composers."

Roger Bobo

Roger Bobo, one of the greatest tuba players that ever lived, is no longer playing. But he is still with us, and keeps a blog. I just came across this blog post about what he misses and does not miss about life as an orchestral musician (like traveling with two tubas and a suitcase).

Monday, November 26, 2012

Mary Todd Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln at the Opera in the Movie

I just learned that Mary Todd Lincoln is talking over "Laisse-moi contempler ton visage," an aria from the third act of Gounod's Faust in this scene:

[Alas, the credits in the IMDb do not give the names of the singers.]

I enjoyed the Spielberg Lincoln movie (which I got to see in grand Los Angeles theater) a great deal, but I wish that the John Williams music during the action was not so deliberately evocative of Copland's "Lincoln Portrait." When I am watching a film I want to feel like I am in the film, not looking at it retrospectively, and there's nothing about the Lincoln Portrait that is not retrospective. I imagine that the Lincoln-Copland connection was exactly what Spielberg wanted, but for me it felt distracting.

I would suggest staying through the credits because that music that accompanies them is beautifully written and beautifully played by the Chicago Symphony. It also leaves the shadow of Copland once in a while. The trumpet playing is remarkable.

I find it also interesting how Sally Field, a woman of 66, can play the role of Mary Todd Lincoln, a woman of 47, so convincingly.

Adventures with Seitan and Pea Protein

The vegan restaurants in Los Angeles are so good that people who are not vegan eat there. I sampled a wide variety of faux meats, each more satisfying (and mystifying) than the last. I noticed that Native Foods listed pea protein as one of their ingredients, so this morning I decided to experiment with pea protein, gluten, and nutritional yeast, just to see what would happen.

I wouldn't be writing about this experiment if I were not so intrigued by the results.

Here's my simple recipe. 1/2 cup gluten, 1/4 cup pea protein, 1/8 cup nutritional yeast, 1 tablespoon garlic powder, and one cup vegetable broth (I used "better than bullion," and next time I think I'll use a little less than one cup broth, and a smaller amount of pea protein). I mixed all the dry stuff together, ladled in the broth, 1/4 cup at a time, and kneaded the dough for a while. I separated the dough into four pieces and simmered the pieces in more broth on very low heat for a little over an hour.

I was surprised (and disappointed) to find that the patties were gloopy, but was relieved that they still held together. I plopped the un-named things on a plate, thought about it for a second,

and then I heated some olive oil in a non-stick pan, and dropped two of the gloopy patties in, where they cooked up all golden brown. After a few minutes and some turning and flattening, their gloopiness transformed into an almost veal-like tenderness.

They tasted delicious. Really.

I'll let you know how they reheat, because I'm having some more for dinner!

These creations have an almost Latke-like quality. Perhaps I'll try adding some potatoes to the mixture, and see if I can make some vegan latkes that taste good and don't fall apart!


[This recipe is much better NOT reheated! The outside is fine, and the flavor is fine, but the inside gloopyness is kind of amplified in the reheat. I tried making this again, omitting the nutritional yeast and reducing the pea protein to a mere tablespoon, but they patties were too chewy, and they wouldn't flatten. Next time I'll try using one tablespoon of nutritional yeast, and using 1/4 cup of pea protein (which I think gives it the good flavor). I'll keep you posted . . . right here.]


{{{This works GREAT as a basis for latkes.}}}

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Notes From Los Angeles

This is my last day in Los Angeles. It wasn't supposed to be, but our flights were first delayed, and then changed to a four-hour-long night flight that leaves at 10:00 p.m. Four hours from LA to Indianapolis: amazing!

So I will use This bit of extra time, time that I had already set aside for reflection, to muse a bit. I'm not at the airport. I'm in Rachel's comfortable apartment with sweet LA breezes rarely cooling the air below 72 degrees. Such comfort is something I could get used to.

I wonder if I could ever actually get work done without elements to fight; elements harsher than crawling in traffic and searching for adequate employment, that is. I set my query about composing in Los Angeles out into the easy breezes of the internet, and found this fascinating article by Mark Northam about writing film music in Los Angeles. It's from 2010, but I believe it is still current. I found the comments as interesting as the article.

There have been lots of musicians who have thrived in this environment, but many of them, like the great film composers of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, had the stress of constant activity to keep them on their toes. They were stimulated by the imaginations of the people they worked with, including excellent studio musicians. They also, for the most part, made good livings. Many of them had endured enough harshness in Europe to last a lifetime.

Heifetz and his "crowd" lived here too. I imagine his stress was internal, and this climate might have worked as a perfect kind of balance. Likewise with Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

The historic buildings and houses are fascinating, partially because nothing historic really looks old (aside from the 1818 house downtown, the oldest building in the city). The sidewalks look like they were poured last week, but they have stamps that reveal that they are from the 1920s. The mix of the old and the new, the kaleidoscope of cultures, and the cornucopia of foods (including apples that taste like apples, and avocado on every salad) add a great deal to this dreamscape.

I wonder what Los Angeles in actual retrospect (once we return to the Midwest in the wee hours of the morning) will feel like.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Eine Kleine Thanksgiving Music

Here's a little Thanksgiving music from Rachel and Ben (pre dinner, that is). I'm so thankful for my family!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How To Be Rich

Yesterday's visit to the J. Paul Getty Museum was a great adventure, partly because of the experience of the architecture (the physical museum is a work of art), the location (atop a small mountain overlooking the city of Los Angeles as viewed from the west), and the exhibits (a nice selection from the permanent collection and a exhibit about Giotto and his influence on Florintine art during the first half of the 14th century). Admission is free, and parking is modest and efficient.

Like the Griffith Observatory, which sits atop a mountain to the east of the center of the city, it is a gift from a wealthy industrialist to the people of the city (and the world) that offers a chance to look at the world from a totally different perspective from the norm, whatever that may be.

I knew nothing about Getty before this adventure, so, after enjoying my day with his gifts, I bought a copy of his well-titled book, How to Be Rich. Sandwiched between chapters about how to work hard, make good investments, respect the people who work for you and respect the labor unions they belong to (it was first published as a series of articles in Playboy Magazine between 1961 and 1965), are chapters about the importance of education, music, and art in our lives.

Here's a taste:
The "anti culture" bias appears to thrive at most levels of American society. . . . Only a tiny percentage of the population reads great books or, listens to great music. It's doubtful if one in ten Americans is able to differentiate between a Doric and an Ionic column.
Do you know the difference between a Doric and Ionic column? Sure, you can look it up. But do you actually know, or care?

The book is really an interesting look at the times, which, in many cases, if we are to believe the state of art and culture an America during the early 1960s through the eyes of Mr, Getty, have indeed changed for the better. I like to think it has changed, in part, due to his posthumous efforts.

A parting thought from Getty's penultimate chapter called "The Art of Individuality":
The conformist is not born. He is made.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Looking Both Ways

I have been dismayed, of late, by a general avoidance of what I like to call "things right," so I have taken action. I now try to balance my position relative to people I walk with (not just Michael this week because we're visiting Rachel in Los Angeles) and talk with, and am learning the hidden wonders of developing a more panoramic approach to life.

Yesterday this practice of looking both ways really came in handy while we were at LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I came to really appreciate the individual experience it is possible to have with a work of art when you look at the whole thing at the same time, and on the right scale, i.e. artwork to human. I'll write about the Kubrick exhibit in detail at another time, but seeing an exhibit about film making and film directing (and everything else about what Stanley Kubrick did to make his films) made me realize just how much what you see on in a film (no matter how great a film it might be) is limited. The person who put it there is sharing not only his or her vision but his or her process of seeing it. The director is directing you as we'll as directing the actors. Perhaps this is why we go to the movies: to escape our thoughts and allow ourselves to be "directed."

This is not the case with art work. You can see a piece of art differently every time you look at it. It all has to do with the way you see it. You become, in essence, the director. But you are equipped with "camera equipment" that is vastly superior than any box fitted with lenses, no matter how sophisticated or expensive.

The better the piece of art, the deeper the experience can be.

Today we visit the Getty Museum!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Goldman Fantasie

I wrote an opera about Emma Goldman back in 2005, and, simply because I really should have been doing other things (which I will get to right away), I decided to organize some of the music that popped into my head and wouldn't leave into a stand-alone piece for clarinet, violin, cello and piano.

You can listen to it here and see the music in the Petrucci Library.

I did toy (for just a second) with calling it the "Goldman Variations" (before actually working on it) but I scrapped the idea because this piece is not a set of variations, and is also not worthy of such a reference, even a punny one (nothing is).

Thursday, November 15, 2012


I was poking around through the guitar method books on the IMSLP yesterday, and came across this print.

Notice that the fingers P, I, M, and A are all given their full names: Pollire (thumb), Indire (index), Media (middle), and Anulare (ring); but wait! The little finger also has a name, and that name seems to have something to do with ears. Could it be the finger you put in your ear?

Knowing Stuff About Music

Yesterday an acquaintance introduced me to a person who was visiting our fair city. She told him (wanting to give a good impression of our town) that I had an encyclopedic knowledge of music, to which I replied, "What I know is rivaled only by what I do not know."

I'm kind of proud of that statement, because it is true, and I am confident that it will continue to be true for the rest of my life.

I used to think I knew a lot about music, and I did know a lot of stuff about a relatively small amount of music when I was a teenager. I knew the flute repertoire inside and out (and would study the 1967 Frans Vester catalog of flute music to strengthen my knowledge).

I read Grout and Lang, knew most of Brahms' chamber music by opus number, and could identify most of Bach's instrumental music and some of his cantatas. I knew much of the standard symphonic repertoire from going to concerts and from listening to the radio, and I read the books about music that were in the house. When I re-read those books now, and re-visit music that I used to think I knew really well, I can see how shallow my understanding of music history (and of music and musicians) once was. I appeared to have learned enough in the process of reading and listening to give the impression of being far more knowledgeable than I was.

Now, thanks to our friends at the IMSLP, thanks to 13 years of working at a radio station, thanks to 20 years of reviewing recordings, thanks to escaping the confines of the pre-1967 flute repertoire, and thanks to the musical arm of the internet, I am pleased to say that I now know far less about music than I ever have known in my life.

It makes life exciting when every day can be an adventure.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Using an AED Machine

This, of course, has nothing to do with music. But a musician friend sent it to me, and I watched it, and now I know that if I were in a public place like a shopping mall, and someone were to collapse from a heart attack, I could feel confident about hopefully keeping that person alive until the paramedics arrived.

Here's the video.

You never know when something like this might happen, so it is good to be prepared.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Marlene Dietrich as You Have Never Seen Her Before

Margie King Barab writes all about her first encounter with Marlene Dietrich!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Dot and the Line: Music by Eugene Poddany

This wonderful piece of classic animation, with music by Eugene Poddany, came bundled with "The Glass Bottom Boat," a Doris Day movie that Michael and I found funny mainly for its large helping of prop-related double entendre. Doris Day, who was 40 at the time, plays a young widow who catches the eye of a big shot rocket scientist where she works (NASA). He asks her to be his personal biographer. Hmm.

I won't mention anything about the CIA director who has an important part in the film, but I will mention that Paul Lynde appears in drag.

Charles Gounod on Composers and Society

The society of artists is dying on its feet. . . . Each member pivots around his neighbor. There is no progress toward an avowed purpose, toward a clearly perceived end. . . . This anarchy is a sad spectacle; time will put an end to it, but when will that time come? I think it will be when the masses develop a tendency of some kind to opinions of their own. . . . The public accepts an infinite number of productions, varied and even opposed to their points of view; and they enjoy the very contradictions. They split their affection and their sympathies, and necessarily divide the effectiveness of their stimulus to such a degree that they no longer even give an impetus to artists. . . . It seems to me that the principle of evil lies in this absence of a universal need. I believe, in a word, that the artist's growth stems from all the power and all the moral, intellectual, and religious energy of the epoch to which he belongs, and that society expresses itself through him in proportion to the vitality and activity it transmits to him.
This is part of a letter that Gounod wrote to a friend in 1847 when he was living in a Carmelite monastery. [Translated by Mina Curtiss and published on page 29 of her 1958 book, Bizet and His World. I find the contradictions very interesting, and I find it particularly interesting to think about what Gounod says in relation to life in the 21st century.]

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Thoughts on Art and Entertainment

As I've said a million times, there has been an attempt, largely successful, to confuse what you might call art and what you might call entertainment. I think there's a very simple distinction, and it doesn't diminish entertainment in any way, because we all want it and we all enjoy it. Entertainment is that which you receive without effort. Art is something where you must make some kind of effort, and you get more than you had before.
Charles Wuorinen said this in a 2005 New York Times interview.

It would be nice to think that what we call art, in any sense of the word, requires a person to somehow, for better or for worse, give something of himself or herself to the material at hand. We all know that a person listening or looking at or reading or even touching art can become somehow changed by it--even in a very tiny way--if he or she makes a certain effort to "meet" it. Unfortunately, without that effort (and the media through which we now experience art doesn't always require effort), even something intended to be experienced as art can be, at best, experienced as entertainment, and if it isn't entertaining enough to be absorbed without effort, it is sometimes ignored completely, or immediately forgotten.

Friday, November 09, 2012

What am I? Chopped Liver?

I use this phrase from time to time, but I only recently learned what it means. According to Jewish culinary tradition, chopped liver was served as a side dish and not as a main dish, so the meaning of the phrase was obvious to everyone who ate. But these days chopped liver is a far cry from your normal side dish, particularly in America, and particularly in the non-urban mid-west. I would actually have to drive three hours north to the Chicago suburbs, or two hours west, to Indianapolis, to even order chopped liver as a side dish at a restaurant (but someone else would have to eat it).

It turns out that I have been using the phrase incorrectly anyway. Most of the time I feel like I should be saying, "I'm not even chopped liver," because more and more it feels like what I do doesn't even classify as a side dish in the dinner party of life. But that doesn't sound as good. I'm hoping that the feeling will pass, like the indigestion and heartburn that would eventually pass after eating real chopped liver.

It is possible to make mock chopped liver out of cooked lentils, sautéed onions, ground-up walnuts, a bit of soy sauce, a bit of miso, and a bit of broth. There's another recipe I found that uses sautéed, chopped mushrooms rather than lentils.

Eternally Young Elliott Carter

I never thought I would fall into the Carter obituary vortex, but here I am.

I find this video so interesting. Alisa Weilerstein, who is quite young, has the kind of guarded "grown up" affectation (and diction) that I often observe in successful string players in their 20s and 30s (perhaps she was nervous). Elliott Carter, who is quite old (103 in this video) actually seems young and free in comparison.

He is so physically IN the music when he talks about it. The way he speaks is never guarded. It is expressive and honest, both when he is talking with Alisa, and when he is coaching her.

Carter Eight Etudes and a Fantasy

I'll never forget the day that a woodwind quartet from the California School of the Arts came to my high school on a recruiting trip, and played Elliott Carter's Eight Etudes and a Fantasy for us. The piece, written in 1950, was a revelation to me back in 1975, and it still continues to be extremely and eternally inspiring, particularly because you can hear the obvious joy Carter had during the process of writing it.

I could describe how the piece works in more detail, but Jeremy Grimshaw has already written a fine analysis.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Our President Thanks the Young People who Ran his Campaign

This is great to watch for more reasons than I can articulate:

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Building Listening Skills

I find so often that my community college students (many who are grown-up products of "no child left behind") have a great deal of trouble listening. There is not that much of a problem during class, when the visual help of a study guide (and a study guide guide, like a teacher) can help them keep on track while listening to a piece of music, but left to their own devices, many of them are at sea.

The problem affects every subject.

It is difficult for many people to keep "stuff" you hear in a class in the foreground, and it is easy to let constant internal chatter drown out what a teacher might be saying. It is also easy, in a world where music is mostly thought of as "background" to simply tune it out.

Thanks to the popularity of video games, children are quite visually sophisticated these days. When they play video games, they respond to visual stimulation immediately and physically by moving a mouse or pressing buttons on a touch screen. They make strategic decisions based on what they see, and have a great deal of fun doing it.

I wish there were some compelling and sophisticated games that all children, regardless of musical aptitude, could use to learn to practice listening to patterns attentively without the aid of visual stimulation. There seem to be so many children and young adults who can identify visual patterns with ease, and, it seems, there are relatively few young adults who can follow arguments, or write a compelling ones themselves. Very small children love language. They love rhythm, they love rhymes, and many love singing. Why should they lose this when they become old enough to go to school?

Following a piece of music is not that difficult when you know what to listen for. There are repetition schemes that help you keep your place, if you pay attention to where you are. Following an argument (in any discipline) takes similar skills. When you write an argument of your own, you need to know where you've been, where you are, and where you are going in order to express your point successfully.

I think that the skills developed by listening attentively (and with guidance) to music that is written using dance forms, song forms, and the basic classical instrumental forms might enhance these skills.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Four More Years!

Large sigh of relief! Here's to a better world!

Trio for Violin, Viola, and Piano

Here's a link to new piece I wrote for this (sadly) often ignored kind of piano trio.


Vigo county, our neighbor to the east in Indiana, has always been a bellwether county, or, rather THE bellwether county, since it has forecasted the winner of every presidential election since 1956. Here, with 100% of the votes in, we can see how close this election really is. Obama won by a whopping 162 votes.

162 thanks!

Now I feel less anxious.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Lengthy Reflections on "A Late Quartet"

Now that the "A Late Quartet" is playing in a few major cities, I'll let free some observations that might be interesting to people who have seen the film (I wrote a "preview" review that had very few plot details a few weeks ago). If you haven't seen the film you might want to wait a while to read this post. I have read several reviews from its LA and New York showings, and have found very little written about details that make me STILL think about the film every day. Nobody seems, for example, to mention the props and the sets and they way they relate to the characters, so I will begin with those.

First, there are the households. Robert and Juliette Gelbart, the second violinist and violist of the quartet, clearly live on the upper west side of New York. Everything about their apartment not only screams "Upper West Side," but it screams of the Upper West Side I knew during the 1980s, and occasionally observed during the 1990s. My father used to call the Upper West Side "Piano Town," because that's where all the pianists he knew lived, but I learned (when I moved there) that it is populated by musicians of every stripe. The rents used to be rather cheap, the walls were thick (good for practicing), and it was easy to get where you needed to go to play or teach.

Their apartment is relatively small, and we see "Jules," as she is called, practicing in her bedroom. It's hard to imagine where Alex, their daughter, might have fit in that apartment, but when we learn that the Fugue was on tour for eight months out of the year, I imagine that the three Gelbarts didn't spend that much time together there.

The apartment of Daniel, the first violinist, has an area by a bay window where he makes bows. There are bow makers who play quartets, but I can't think of any quartet violinists with serious performing schedules who have the time to make bows. I suppose that his bow making shows that he doesn't have much of a life outside of music. He begins a bow around the time of the beginning of his relationship with Daniel and Juliette's daughter, and the relationship comes to an end after he presents a finished bow to her as a present. The making of the bow measures their relationship.

Daniel's apartment is austere, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and that bay window, which normally would give warmth to a living space, simply supplies light for his bow-making equipment. It could be anywhere in the city, anywhere where you could keep a car.

We see Daniel's car parked right outside Alex's apartment, which is probably in Brooklyn, because nobody could find that kind of "Doris Day Parking" in Manhattan. Everything about Alex is colorful and bright (and beautiful). She has a striped violin case and a really brightly colored apartment that she moves into after returning from what I imagine would have been four years at Curtis in Philadelphia (where the getting in isn't easy for anyone, and the tuition is free). Alex is presented as a serious violinist with aspirations to become a successful quartet musician herself, but she seems more serious about rebelling against her mother, who bears the brunt of everyone's "issues," in addition to coming to grips with her own life-long sense of loss. That's often the position of a violist in a quartet musically, and it's the position of many violists who are involved in musical life "à quatre."

The Fugue Quartet rehearses in Peter's house. It must be a house because it has two floors, and the whole downstairs seems to be panelled in wood. It's old-school (like him), and in nearly every frame taken in his house there is a framed picture of Miriam, his late wife. She died one year before the action of the film takes place, and her presence and absence in Peter's life is palpable. Peter, who is supposed to be in his later 70s or early 80s, seems to be surrounded by death. When he and Juliette (who love one another like father and daughter) go to the Frick together to look at Rembrandt self portraits, he sees them as living things that look at the people looking at them. Towards the end of the movie, we see him holding an LP cover and listening to a recording that the quartet made with his wife, who was a mezzo-soprano. He (and we) have a vision of her singing (it's Anne Sophie von Otter), and the piece she is singing is from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City).

It is tempting to think about the way the seven-movement structure of Beethoven's Opus 131 could correspond to the film's seven major characters. The members of the Fugue are the central four, and Alex, Miriam, and the Flamenco dancer all pull at the fibers that hold the ensemble together. Calling the ensemble "The Fugue Quartet" is a stroke of brilliance. (Quartets take their names from composers, cities, people, mythological characters, and musical expressions, but I can't think of another quartet that took its name from a musical construction). A fugue is, of course, made of four voices that are highly dependent on one another, echo one another's material in ways that good composers present in uncanny ways, struggle with one another (the stretto is a major component of most big fugues), chase one another around, and keep asserting their identity by stating the subject and countersubject in their different voices. Adding more voices to a fugue complicates things.

Beethoven's Opus 131 begins with a fugue. As far as I know, it is the first string quartet ever written that begins with a fugue. The first movement changes keys several times (also unusual), and when the fugue is over, both the meter and tempo change. We know that the second movement has started. The third movement is kind of an interlude (it accompanies the "interlude" between Robert and Pilar, the flamenco dancer), and the fourth movement develops and reverses the motive of the interlude. Director Yaron Zilberman uses the fourth movement as the background of the meeting between Juliette and Daniel on a bridge in Central Park, and bits and pieces from it (it is a very long movement with a lot of material and many changes in tempo and meter) punctuate other parts of the action. There are grand pauses between fragments towards the end of the fourth movement, and the fifth movement feels like a scherzo but behaves like a rondo. Then everything goes all ponticello, and all the members of the quartet start bowing on the bridge and making eerily ghostly sounds. The sixth movement acts like a slow introduction to the seventh movement, which seems to take many of the seemingly disparate themes and motives of the movements that preceded it, and present them with a sense of unity, as if byegons are byegons, and all is well, albeit in C sharp minor.

The last scene of the film happens during a concert. Robert has been living in a hotel room because Juliette kicked him out of the apartment. Robert reacted to Daniel's relationship with his daughter physically, and things are not good between them, but they still have the first concert of their new season to play and Opus 131 is on the program. Peter is really suffering from the early stages of Parkinson's, but has agreed to play anyway.

The Fugue Quartet plays the beginning of each movement (edited nicely), and we get the sense that in spite of all they have been through and how they may feel about one another, they can still do what they are there to do. After the beginning of the seventh movement, Peter suddenly stops playing. He stands up and tells the audience that everything is moving too quickly for him and that he cannot continue. Then he asks Nina Lee, the cellist of the Brentano Quartet to take his place. She walks on stage from the wings, cello in hand. Robert and Juliette have a brief, spontaneous, and tender reconciliation (perhaps it was the power of playing Beethoven together in concert), and Nina sits down to play.

Robert (the risk taker in the ensemble, who has threatened the unity of the quartet by suggesting that the two violinist take turns playing first violin) made it clear in the beginning of the movie that he has always wanted to perform Opus 131 from memory (a few quartets have done this, but it is not common quartet practice). After Daniel stands up to tell the audience that you can't "ride the horses" of the seventh movement without being prepared by the sixth movement, he spontaneously decides to close his music and play to the end of the piece from memory. Robert reacts by closing his music, and then Juliette closes her music. It looks like Nina might even have closed her music (she must have played the piece with them before). Since Nina is a real cellist, something kind of magical happens when she puts bow to string and plays. The non- (or novice) string player actors react physically to her physical presence on the instrument, and it made me laugh out loud, because they all became more physically engaged than they had in all their carefully-choreographed playing scenes from earlier in the movie.

There is one detail that I found quaint and rather of implausible. Robert and Juliette go to an auction to buy their daughter a violin. The instrument they are interested in is a Gagliano. Robert "plays" a single phrase of Ziegeunerweisen on the instrument, and decides it is good for his daughter. The bidding begins, and it ends with a guy in a business suit bidding $25,000 for it, and Robert and Juliette storming out after they were outbid. $25,000 for a Gagliano? Regardless of which Gagliano the instrument was made by, only in a fantasy world would it sell at auction for that little. $250,000 would be more like it!

Friday, November 02, 2012

A Level-headed Look at Musical Prodigies

Half the prodigies I studied seemed to be under pressure to be even more astonishing than they naturally were, and the other half, to be more ordinary than their talents. Studying their families, I gradually recognized that all parenting is guesswork, and that difference of any kind, positive or negative, makes the guessing harder.
This comes from a very sane article by Andrew Solomon in Sunday's New York Times Magazine about musical prodigies and the parents that raise them. It is interesting to note that many parents who find they have unusually smart children start them on music because it gives them something challenging to do that offers them constant stimulation and the personal rewards that only music can bring. It seems almost like the polar opposite motive of a "Tiger Mother" who tries to make her children smart and accomplished by giving them music lessons, and insisting that they excel in order to feel that they are loved.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Amateurish Ramble

When I was in high school there were three kinds of musicians. There were people who were equally good at music and academic subjects, there were people who did music as an activity, but put their studies and sports ahead of what they did with music, and then there were the people who didn't worry about their grades because they knew that practicing was ultimately more important. Music was what they were planning to do, and everything else was, well, everything else.

I, of course, fit into the latter category.

I grew up in a boom time for music, and had all the advantages of being a music insider in a boom town (Boston), which led me to feel very comfortable in New York. I never had any doubts that I would be able to make my living as a musician, but being a flutist I knew I had to work at least ten times as hard as a string player to get a job, and that the job that I would get might not be in America. I considered this a fair challenge, and met it with energy and enthusiasm. I was not equipped to embark on adult life as an amateur. I didn't have the skills.

I graduated from Juilliard in 1980, but I didn't want to get a master's degree (you could get one in a single year at Juilliard) and look for a university job (you only needed a master's back in the 70s and 80s) because I was well aware of the employment limitations for flute players and the competitiveness that they would encounter. I didn't want to be in the professional position of "encouraging" the next generation of flutists to major in performance and enter the competition for orchestral jobs. Orchestras only carry three or four flutists, and most of them hang onto their jobs for life. If I were teaching in a college and not playing in an orchestra, what credibility would I have with students anyway?

There were plenty of jobs for string players, and even plenty of jobs for pianists and singers during the 1970s, particularly in New York. The wind, brass, and percussion players who played really well and knew a bit about the politics of getting work had work to do. When I left New York in 1980 for personal reasons, I figured that I could always return and would always be able to find playing work. When I did return after the first Recession, there was very little flute playing work. There was still work for string players, so I considered the problem a flute-related one: New York had become, in my absence, overpopulated with good flutists.

When I returned I found that synthesized music had started taking over the Broadway pits. Now, in 2012, the very nature of music for the Broadway and Off-Broadway theater has changed entirely. Whatever studio work remains has been dispersed across the country (though not into my neck of the woods), and it is harder and harder to find an orchestra that can guarantee that it will continue to exist from season to season. There are more highly accomplished musicians (including string players) in America than I imagine there have ever been, and even if there were as many places for them to do professional work as there were in the 1970s and 80s, I imagine only a fraction of them would be able to make ends meet, particularly in an expensive city like New York.

Then there's academia, which was once a haven for musicians who were willing to, for better or for worse, encourage their students to make music their livelihood. The students that succeed need to have marketing skills that are as good as their musical skills. Youth, good looks, great social skills, and a financial cushion help, as well as the willingness to think and move outside of the "classical box." Meanwhile, tenure-track positions are rare, and people are lining up for whatever adjunct positions happen to open up. Anywhere. (And now in any discipline of the arts and the humanities, but that's the subject for a future rant.)

So the rest of us are now faced with playing for money once in a while, and making most of our living working at something else. Does that make us amateurs? If we are, we certainly don't fall under the usual definition of an amateur! Perhaps we can't support ourselves by our playing or our composing (I heard that laugh), but we can, if we are not beaten down by the greater culture, play and write just as well as if we were paid great sums of money. When the market economy (i.e. the private sector) tells us that what we are doing is essentially useless because it isn't popular with a significant part of the population, we can let it get to us, or we can rise above it, and keep practicing until things change.

Maybe, once this 30-year era of ridiculous greed has passed (and I wonder if Hurricane Sandy might have stuck a serious blow to it), more people will develop a relationship with music (particularly the "classical" kind), and will want to hear it played for them in real time and in real space rather than through electronic reproduction of a rendered performance delivered in mp3 quality directly into their heads, where nobody else can share the experience. Perhaps they will even want to pay for the experience, again and again. There are certainly enough musicians around to fill that kind of need.