Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Four Pieces from Doktor Faustus

Karlīna Īvāne played my "Four Pieces from Doktor Faustus" a couple of days ago, and put the performance on YouTube. I am happy to share it here. If you know the Thomas Mann novel, you should recognize the references. If you haven't read the novel, I recommend reading it!

The first movement is based (loosly) on the song "Oh How Lovely is the Evening," which is discussed at length as one of the pieces that Leverhuhn and the narrator sang together. The second movement is based on the Hetaere esmeralda row and incorporates the Tristan chord. The third movement represents the encounter with whatever it is that the narrator (who is a viola d'amore player), says that Leverkuhn (the composer and main character) encounters, be it a daemon or a hallucination of one, and the last movement is a "portrait" the little boy called Echo.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Henry Miller on Writing

I spent my 20s reading everything written by Henry Miller, and I spent my 30s reading most of the books he mentions in "The Books in My Life." I know that I must have read this list of "commandments" concerning writing, because I tend to follow them (unconsciously) when writing music and while practicing, when I have had the leisure to do so. Seeing this list again is like having met an old friend, so I thought I'd share it here.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Apple Amaretto Cake

It's not the world's best photo, but it may be the world's best snacking cake. Here's the recipe:

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F, and butter a rectangular baking dish.

Peel and finely dice two apples.

In one bowl mix 2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon

In another bowl mix 1 cup slightly warmed milk
1/4 cup melted butter
2 eggs
2 tablespoons Amaretto.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry, and mix in the apples. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan, and cook it for 25 to 30 minutes (27 worked for me).

You can, of course, use brandy instead of the Amaretto. Or you can use vanilla or almond extract.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Yehudi Menuhin on Holding the Violin

I was so happy to hear this discussion on the 8th DVD of the Bruno Monsaingeon Edition devoted to films about (and of) Yehudi Menuhin. The first thing I teach my students about holding the violin or the viola is to place the top of the instrument on the collarbone, because it's what I do. Balancing the instrument on my collarbone reminds me of the way a cellist uses the endpin for balance on the floor. Here's what Yehudi Menuhin had to say about it in 1994:
I was the victim of the type of thinking which to me now is anathema wherever I see it; whether in violin playing, in diplomacy, in habits, whatever it is. It is the rigid: the idea that to establish an order you begin with the motionless. You begin with what doesn’t move, then you add movement.

You begin with the first position on the violin, and then you don’t explain it. Because it’s called the first position, you begin with the first position. And you press fingers down; you don’t know how to hold the violin. And then afterwards you will add motion, instead of realizing that the world began with motion.

People begin with the solid, they begin in their minds with something secure . . . either all men are terrible or all men are equal or some theory, something that is rigid, whether political theory or religious theory, it’s that rigidity . . .

Now, it’s idiotic to begin in the first position because it’s the farthest away from the body; the violin is heaviest there. It’s also bad to begin near the shoulder of the violin because you are inclined to hold the violin and support it. So you begin in between, and you don’t begin in a position, you begin with motion right away . . .

One of my main motives in life seems to be to correct for myself, first of all, and then for as many as I can reach, a false notion of thinking, basic idea of thinking, as if the body were a statue and then you breathe into it motion. . . .

* * *

If you are dealing with something that has to vibrate, as soon as you hold it tightly you inhibit the vibrations. As soon as you squeeze, as soon as you oppress a human being, you destroy the opportunity of dialogue, of giving and receiving. And the same with the violin.

The violin is said to rest on the shoulder, because that’s obvious; anyone can see a shoulder. But few people can see a collarbone, and all the most crude and obvious approaches I was subjected to during those first eight months of study with that teacher in San Francisco, an old-fashioned teacher who got results (you get results: you can run a country with slave camps, you get results—they work) but my feeling is you can’t become the kind of violinist that I admire, and which exists today more than before because people are more evolved in their thinking than before. Before it took a genius to be a Paganini, or perhaps a Corelli, or maybe not . . . maybe those people played just like that.

But then came this oppressive approach where you only got results by whipping, and that has been against my whole attitude to life.

Then I looked for the truth and I found some truths. For instance, probably knew the truth, and everyone who played the violin already did it beautifully, but I had to find these things out for myself against a very strong environment of security, false security, and against my own ambition, or with my own ambition to play so that finally I realized that the violin does not rest on the shoulder. It rests on the collarbone. The bone which, connected to the violin communicates the vibration, the bone which is a harder substance than the shoulder. Besides, as anyone can see, as soon as you raise the shoulder against the chin you have a crazy kind of diagonal, and it lifts the elbow away from the violin.

Then you have those violinists who play with their thumbs right above the fingerboard, the neck of the violin. And instead of the shoulder feeding the flow into the fingers, you have it inhibiting. And so they get over it. You can get over so many things, so many obstacles, and still play the violin very beautifully and make it communicate. Its extraordinary how badly you can play the violin and still communicate if you really want to. But even so, the feeling of continuity in motion, in other words: the economy of motion consists in not allowing any motion to be wasted. If there’s already a motion, don’t push it. You don’t say “now I’m going to do something” if it’s already there. The same in walking. . .

That fact that if you play with everything balanced, and you can move each joint: you can roll the violin between thumb and finger, you can feel that this [the elbow] is a pendulum, that the shoulder can move, so that the farther the hand goes away, the lower and backwards the shoulder goes. You don’t do that [he leans forward]. You always do that [he leans upwards and backwards]. One of the first exercises without the violin, after I’ve made the children walk on all fours, is to raise the collarbone and lower the shoulder. It’s perfectly possible. One becomes gradually aware: (I can feel that [the collarbone] rising, I can feel that [the shoulder] lowering).

That’s one of the first exercises. And then the ease of the neck so the neck just touches, it doesn’t clutch the violin, it touches it, and in such a way that it can slide on the chinrest, and that it can compensate the motion of the hands [he demonstrates a pulling back motion with the hand loosely moving up and down the imaginary fingerboard].

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Portable Swan

Here's a performance from Tel Aviv by the Pizzicato Quartet playing my string quartet arrangement of Saint-Saens's "The Swan." I get a kick out of a group named the Pizzicato Quartet playing this arrangement because the viola part is played totally pizzicato. I call it a "portable" swan because it is a lot easer to travel around with a string quartet than with a harp or a piano!

You can see the arrangement here.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Finding a Voice: Musings on Creativity

It occurs to me that so much of what becomes popular culture (in other words, culture that catches on with a large casual audience) has to do with imitation. Take Christmas music, for a seasonal example. Many of the enduring classics of the Christmas season, like "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer," written by Johnny Marks, are pretty much variations on the same formula, much like what we think of as candy bars are variations on pretty much the same few formulas. There is popular Christmas-season music that doesn't follow the Marks formula, like descendants of "Sleigh Ride," selections from the Nutcracker, and the ever-popular Schubert "Ave Maria," but there is a lot of exquisite Christmas-specific music that people in stores and shopping malls would never identify as Christmas music.

Here's one example, and here's another.

I heard an interview with Audra McDonald the other day where the interviewer, who was not a musician, asked her who she used as a model for her voice. Her elegant response was that when she was young she tried to imitate singers she admired, but she failed miserably, so she understood that she had to live with her own voice. The current assumption, I suppose, is for "lay" people to imagine that musicians must model what they do on someone else's creativity. Some of us, like Audra MacDonald (or perhaps I should say unlike Audra McDonald), fail miserably when we try to imitate another person's voice.

I don't know about you, but I would prefer to fail as an imitator than succeed as an imitator.

Monday, December 01, 2014

"Having written"

Before I started writing music, I had a talk with a composition student about writing music. He told me that he enjoyed having written music, but did not particularly enjoy writing it. Once I started writing music myself, I found the process itself far more interesting than the satisfaction of "having written." There are some pieces that I am happy to have written, many, in fact, but the real creativity and the real satisfaction comes in the putting of one note after and against another.

I suppose that we are all wired differently.

The big problem comes when you have written a lot of music, as I have, and have little motivation to engage in the process of self promotion, which has been elevated to the status of an art in itself. A person gifted in the art of promotion can make anything seem appealing, no matter how useful, beautiful, or worthwhile it actually is. But a person without the drive or the means to promote his or her music this way can feel the act of "having written" as something negligible.

In the years before the internet, composers had music festering in drawers and files. Now it can fester in plain sight on publisher's computer hard drives or in online libraries, amid hundreds of thousands of perfectly good pieces that other composers have written.

Mild success can give a person hope, but success always seems relative. Seymour Barab always felt let down when his efforts to promote his excellent work (and it remains excellent work) proved unsuccessful. The fact that his Little Red Riding Hood was performed constantly didn't mean much to him, but the fact that his more recent theater work could not get a run in an off-Broadway theater did. Fortunately during the very last year of his long life he got some of the acclaim he deserved. When we talked about this his reply was, "I wish it hadn't taken so long."

Seymour was always most interested in what he was working on at the moment. At the end of his life he was working on a set of songs that he wasn't able to finish. It was a set of songs about New York, and the last time I saw him he described the texts as being racy jokes. I remember when he ran out of the specially-sized music paper that he liked to use for songs, and how I found some PDF score paper that could be photocopied into a size that would work for him. He was very happy to be able to get back to work.

Now that Seymour Barab is no longer writing, we have the music that he has written. And there's a lot of it.