Thursday, April 09, 2020

Looking through the magic mirror: a ramble

I remember watching "Romper Room" as a kid on Saturday mornings, and I remember wondering if Miss Jean would ever look through her magic mirror and say my name. There were not enough people named Elaine around to make saying my name worthwhile, I guess. She never said it. Ever. And it was through that experience that I learned that the television screen only goes one way.

If I talked, Miss Jean wouldn't hear me.

Groups of kids (like Cub Scouts and Brownies) would go to be part of an audience for Boomtown (which I watched) or Bozo (which I also watched, not knowing that the guy who played Bozo was the father of one of my eventual high school classmates). I used to look at the audience and see if there were kids I knew in it.

Who knew that a mere fifty years into the future those screens could go both ways, and that you could carry them with you? Who could have imagined that everyone throughout the whole world would have a period where they would have the majority of their daily interactions through a screen because of a virus that came from a bat? That was the stuff of "Twilight Zone," The Outer Limits," or maybe "Star Trek."

I have a history of being an anti-technologist. The first personal computers for home use came out in the early 1980s. I used a Displaywriter for work, so I did not have the fascination that Michael did for having one for his own use. We bought a computer for him, and a baroque flute for me. I needed to grow musically more than I needed to grow technologically. And growing musically for me meant going back to basics.

We had to return the computer because something about it didn't work, so we ended up with an electronic typewriter that had a pretty nifty memory feature, where you could store a few lines of text. Michael used that until we got an Apple //c.

I have still been on my quest to grow musically, and that growth is a slow process. I spend my practice time trying to get from one note to the next in a satisfying and meaningful way. I spend my teaching time asking my students to do the same. When they listen to what I tell them to do and do it, they sound pretty good. I think.

I say, "I think," because I can only hear them through the microphone on their phone, tablet, or computer, a signal (that is often too weak) that is transmitted up to a satelite, and delivered to me through the speakers of my iPad. But all I can really give them is feedback about their intonation and their rhythm. I can see (and hear) if their bows slide on the string, and can ask them to concentrate. I can help the beginners learn to read music, and I can advise more advanced students about playing the correct notes.

Most of all, particularly with beginners, the parental involvement in a student's practice has increased a good deal.

And that's a good thing.

I have thought, from time to time, that in this period of isolation I might consider making a musical video, playing something on violin or viola, or learning to do the split screen thing, and doing both. But after doing all this "through the two-way mirror" teaching, I find myself to be more self critical than ever. And I fear that the main thing that would project across the screen would be that self criticism. Sometimes, when I use the iPad to record a passage I'm working on, I see how my eyes look so critically at my bow. When I do something right, it sounds pretty good, but watching and listening it is not a musical experience. It is a working experience. I don't find joy in sharing the dirty laundry of my working experiences with anyone, particularly people I don't know.

Playing actual concerts for and with actual people is different. It is a chance to get out of myself, and trust that all my preparation will come together in the service of making music with people and for people, who are equally engaged in what is happening in the music during the very moments that it is being played. I am unable to imagine the psychic reactions of a hypothetical audience for an online concert (though I can, strangely, imagine a person reading what I write on this blog, or playing a piece I have written).

I applaud people like Augustin Hadelich who can make meaningful music on the videos they share in isolation. Actually, there are no "people like Augustin Hadelich." He is unique. I imagine that when he practices he uses great powers of scrutiny, and when it comes to playing for people through his videos with his in-house pianist (himself), he gives both parts of himself the luxury of playing in a way that is totally musically driven. Under normal circumstances he is used to maintaining the divide between practicing and playing, because he plays so many concerts. Maybe that is why he is able play so beautifully for the camera even without an audience of breathing and listening humans in the room. Or maybe it is because he is simply a giant: the kind of complete musician we should all aspire to be.

So, my blog-reading friends, I'm going to practice now.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Liebesfreud! Caprice Vennois!

Passover Music

This prelude, from the set of 12 calendar Preludes ("depicting" the months of the Jewish year) I wrote in memory of my brother Marshall, is for the month of Nisan, which is the month of Passover, which begins this evening. It is a little suite of Passover songs. If you want to play it for your own private celebration, you can find the music here. It's easy to play.

Why is this first night of Passover different from all other first nights of Passover?

Because all over the world people will be celebrating in their own private spaces, unable to share the meal and the ritual with family and friends. Because our connections in isolation are made possible through the magic of the internet and cell phones (who could have imagined this a few decades ago?), we can reach out to one another (around the world!) and communicate asynchronously or in real time. We can all share the pain of the plagues, both physical and psychological, that are literally (and I mean literally) infecting different parts of our world at different times, and with varying degrees of acuity as they move from place to place.

Some people will be participating in seders through computer apps like Zoom. We prefer to celebrate in our own way at home. I'll share some additional thoughts here for my celebration of Passover this year.
The virus itself would be enough to bear. Dianu.

Knowing about the federal officials (in various places) who tried to cover it up would be enough to bear. Dianu.

Hearing, seeing, and reading about the federal official who called the virus a hoax would be enough to bear. Dianu.

Seeing the people who believe that federal official, and hearing they say that it is just a flu, and that everyone is going to get it anyway would be enough to bear. Dianu.

The Florida governor who ignored advice about closing beaches during spring break would be enough to bear. Dianu.

The university students who spent spring break in Florida passing the virus to one another, and then bringing it back to their communities would be enough to bear. Dianu.

The federal offical who is making the simple act of getting personal protective equipment to health care workers nearly impossible would be enough to bear. Dianu.

The supreme court voting against a state governor who wanted to postpone an election for reasons of public health in a pandemic would be enough to bear. Dianu.

The federal official who tells people that he is not going to wear a protective mask, thereby giving the message that his supporters don't need to wear one either would be enough to bear. Dianu.

The people who believe that the virus is God's punishment for holding gay pride parades would be enough to bear. Dianu.

The people who continue to hold religious services during a time when social distancing is the only way to prevent the spread of the virus would be enough to bear. Dianu.

The obscene number of people who are dying every day from this virus would be enough to bear. Dianu.

The obscene number of health care providers who die from this virus would be enough to bear. Dianu.

The obscene number of people why are dying because the polluted air in the communities they live in has compromised their lungs would be enough to bear. Dianu.

The tragic number of people who cannot grieve properly after losing people they love because of the virus would be enough to bear. Dianu.

The obscene number of people exposed to the virus who do not have health insurance, and, by the actions of a certain federal official, can't enroll in the Affordable Care Act would be enough to bear. Dianu.

The number of victims of domestic abuse who are unable to leave their homes because of the virus would be enough to bear. Dianu.

The number of elected officials who refuse to put the health and safety of the people they represent over their own political ambitions and desire for more wealth and more power would be enough to bear. Dianu.

The economic and psychological toll that this (at this point endless) period of fear is taking, and the extraordinary burden of (eventually) recovering from it would be enough to bear. Dianu.

Once this pandemic has run its first course, and once we have a vaccine to prevent it from ever returning, will the experience of it change the way we live our lives and run our government? Will the professions of public sevice ever progress (at least in the American Republican party) towards something akin to what the words are supposed to stand for?

When we say, "Next year in Jerusalem," I hope that we, in America, will we be looking forward to a politically reorganized country involved in the complicated process of healing.

Monday, April 06, 2020

From Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet

I'm trying to find ways to distract myself from the (still expanding) sickness that is killing too many people far too quickly. I'm trying to distract myself from the dull and constant certainty that the level of infection could have been slowed significantly (if the Chinese government hadn't tried to repress the truth about the spread of this disease in their country, and if our federal government could have intervened immediately, like they did in the case of Ebola). But it is not productive to look backwards. The reality of now is that too many people are still getting sick, and too many people are dying.

There are people who try to see an upside of being isolated during this pandemic. I too have tried to see an upside, but the only upside I can see is that there are people I care about who are not infected, and that there are people I care about who have recovered. What I mostly see is the growing gravity of now.

I rejoined Facebook. I needed to have some personal contact with the world outside my household. My old Facebook friends are as active as ever; some of them posting uplifting things which actually do lift my spirits from moment to moment. But the feeling really only lasts a moment.

I like to imagine a future where we can play music together again, but I fear that the changes that will happen in the musical world after the virus has been eradicated will be lasting. It took more than ten years for musical life in my part of the country to recover from the audience loss that happened as a result of the recession. How can we be sure that people who like to go to concerts will have the money to support performing organizations, or even buy tickets, once we are able to play concerts again?

The online professional musical possibilities for musicians are expanding, I guess. More and more people are figuring out how to teach through various video platforms. Some people boast of their great success. What if this becomes the new normal after the virus is gone? What will happen to the profound kinds of musical interactions that happen between students and teachers when they can play together and make one another's instruments vibrate because of resonance. Not being able to really hear what is coming out of a student's instrument because of the lack of high-quality reception means that I am not able to accurately tell if a solution I suggest is really working. Do other people experience this as a frustration, or am I just a fish out of water, a relic of an older kind of musical life.

And now is as good a time as any for a passage of Pessoa:
I'm like a playing card belonging to an old and unrecognizable suit--the sole survivor of a lost deck. I have no meaning, I don't know my worth, there's nothing I can compare myself with to discover what I am, and to make such a discovery would be of no use to anyone. And so, describing myself in image after image--not without truth, but with lies mixed in--I end up more in the images than in me, stating myself until I no longer exist, writing with my soul for ink, useful for nothing except writing. But the reaction ceases, and again I resign myself. I go back to whom I am, even if it's nothing. And a hint of tears that weren't cried makes my stiff eyes burn; a hint of anguish that wasn't felt gets caught in my dry throat. But I don't even know what I would have cried over, if I'd cried, nor why it is that I didn't cry over it. The fiction follows me, like my shadow. And what I want is to sleep.
[Section 193 of "A Factless Autobiography" translated by Richard Zenith]

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Friday, April 03, 2020

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Masks and Small Accomplishments

No matter how jolly the fabric (thank you Jean Petree), or how sturdy the design, these (now washed and hanging to dry) masks that I made give me little in the way of pleasure. Making them was challenging, and I do enjoy a challenge. I used two layers of cotton lawn and two layers of cotton T-shirt material, and made a pocket where we can insert further filters (I hear that vacuum cleaner filters work well). We will certainly use these to go to the grocery store next week, and they are sturdy enough to last during many other (well-spread-out) visits.

Small accomplishments yesterday:

After an on-line lesson with a student with a G-peg stuck on F sharp that wouldn't budge, his mother came for a "drive by" tuning. She handed the case to me through the passenger side of her van. I muscled the peg and tuned the instrument. Then I handed the case back, and she cleaned off the case and the pegs. I washed my hands.

Mission accomplished. Now my student has a chance for a better week of practice.

I finished helping a friend with some preparatory notes for an edition he is working on.

Michael and I finished watching yet another Netflix documentary. This one was "Wild Wild Country," and we both recommend it highly. Watching documentaries about insanity from the past can temporarily take our minds off the insanity of the present.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

April Fool from Four Spring Dances for Two Violins

In celebration of the day . . . [the music is from 2011, but the video is new]

Monday, March 30, 2020

Viola Quote of the Day (from Monkey Business)

Groucho : Ah, 'tis midsummer madness, the music is in my temples, the hot blood of youth! Come, Kapellmeister, let the violas throb. My regiment leaves at dawn!

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 Finale for String Sextet

[click for a larger view]

A friend in Italy who lost his father to the Coronavirus asked me to arrange the last movement of the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6, his father's favorite piece, for string sextet.

Working on it has been quite an emotional experience for me, and I hope that having this arrangement helps my friend and his mother in their grief. Not being able to grieve in conventional ways is one of the many tragic consequences of this pandemic. This movement of this particular piece sings of the essence of what we are all living through now. Remember that Tchaikovsky wrote this symphony during the cholera pandemic (1881-1896), and he didn't live to hear the premiere.

You can find the score and parts on this page of the IMSLP, and you can also find it here.

If you would like to listen to a computer-generated midi (it is rudimentary, and some of the tempo changes didn't make it through) you can listen here.

Does anyone reading this have skills to put together a video of six people playing this from their different places in isolation?

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Augustin Hadelich, Augustin Hadelich, and Sergei Rachmaninoff

Berl Senofsky told me the story of the time, as a boy, he was having a lesson in New York with Ivan Galamian on the Rachmaninoff Vocalise, and it happened that Rachmaninoff was in the building. Rachmaninoff knocked on the door and asked if he could play it with Berl. Rachmaninoff wanted to play it over and over again, and he told Berl and Galamian that it was his favorite piece.

This absolutely amazing reading reminds me of what it might have been like to have been in that room with Rachmaninoff at that time. Thank you Augustin for letting us into your room, at this time.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Ode to Joy in this time of social distancing

You can find more music played by members of the Colorado Symphony in isolation on their YouTube channel.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Family Twitter Fame

The other day I saw a post on Twitter by a person who was trying to help her child with some Kindergarten schoolwork. Since school is closed now because of the virus, parents are trying to keep their kids up to speed at home. Kindergarten work should be child's play, right?

Not true at all.

I was curious about what the worksheet was trying to teach, so I sent the tweet to our daughter, who is a Kindergarten teacher. She figured it out instantly. She didn't have to think about it twice. Her Twitter account is private, so her response couldn't be read by the person posing the problem. A few hours (and a few dozen confused answers) later, I thought it might be a good idea to share Rachel's answer, which I quoted from her private tweet.

During the next day or two we watched the response get dozens, and then hundreds of "likes", and then the number of "likes" reached 1,600!

[I refuse to use that "v" word to describe what was happening.]

And now the whole discussion has made it to a post on Distractify. "Twitter user Elaine" is me.