Friday, April 19, 2019

Bread of Affliction and Technology

I had a burst of insight the first time I made Matzo for Passover. It must have been around twenty years ago, a time when there was no Matzo to be had in my town during Passover (not to mention no internet for guidance). So I decided to make some myself. I knew the ingredients: flour, water, and salt. I knew that the Matzo had to be thin, and I knew the oven had to be hot, but I didn't know much else.

What surprised me that first time was how quickly the dough would try to rise even though it didn't have yeast added to it. I understood at that point that before the Exodus making Matzo probably wasn't a matter of not having enough time for bread to rise, as we have been led to understand. It was a matter of preparing the best road food. The people who wrote the first set of Passover instructions were probably not bakers. They probably didn't know the ways of dough.

In order to make Matzo work you have to be fast. You have to have the very hot oven ready. You have to handle the dough minimally: just enough to be able to roll it out so it is very thin. You have to have something (I used two forks) ready to make the perforations in the top that keep the Matzo flat. You have to pop it in the oven, watch it (listening to the hiss of the steam as it escapes through the holes), and take it out before it burns.

I read that the natural yeasts start doing their work at about eighteen minutes. In our house the natural yeasts in my Prairie Gold white whole wheat flour start doing their thing instantly. I would say that making one sheet of Matzo, including cooking, took about eight minutes.

If I were to go on a family trip through the desert I would certainly want to strap a lot of Matzo to the family camel's back. It is light and rigid because all the water has been cooked out of it. It also doesn't spoil or get moldy. You can have it with hummus (another good road food made of bulk dry ingredients that can be carried by camel) thus avoiding the need to carry plates and eating utensils. [I am fond of the Sephardic tradition of not excluding beans from Passover.]

I documented this morning's Matzo making:

Monday, April 15, 2019

Mystery Composers Photo!

Number four is Arthur Bliss
Number five is Paul Hindemith
Number seven is Ethel Smyth

Number eleven in the back (with the glasses) is Egon Wellesz
Number twelve (front) is Anton Webern.

Please help identify the rest! And while I have your attention, here's another post with another photo of Hindemith (from many years later) with a bunch of composers (his students at Yale). A few still need to be identified.

And HUGE thanks goes to Steven (in the comments) for finding the answer!

and finding a very useful bonus photo:

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Musical Community

I like to think that I am part of a large musical community, but, even though I play with several ensembles, teach (or have taught) a lot of students, and write music that is, more often than not, played by people I do not know, I am mostly a person who works alone. I imagine that there is an enormous community of composers, writers, visual artists, and inventors who work in isolation. We live in imaginary worlds where our subjects, characters, themes, and widgets relate to one another inside of our individual heads. In my opera-writing days I used to think of it as the theater inside my head.

But we isolated dreamers like to share our stuff with the insides of other people's heads. Coming together to make music is a real joy. But it takes work to arrange to come together, and it sometimes involves personal risk. Sometimes it involves personal friction.

I have, over the decades, been in organized musical situations that I have had to leave. I had to leave my teenage musical community because we all went our separate directions once school was over. I had to leave my Juilliard/New York musical community for personal and professional reasons. I had to leave my musical community in Schladming, Austria because I could not work under the psychological realities of that small town, and I had to leave my musical community in Vienna because, as a woman, a flutist, and a foreigner, I could not get adequate work there. I had to leave my musical community in Hong Kong because I could not extend my work visa, which ended up being a good thing both personally and logistically because the Hong Kong I lived in no longer exists.

I did not have much difficulty leaving my musical community in Boston because, upon returning after my years away, I didn't have time to establish a strong musical community there. Besides, I was excited to go off on a Midwestern adventure with my new husband.

The musical community in my new town was welcoming and vibrant, but, being a university town, people I grew close to would leave. And then, since we are all human, people I grew close to would die. Now I only know a few members of the music faculty at the university. I still make music with a healthy handful of friends, but I feel a distance from the organized musical communities that have developed in my town. I have spent decades building my own musical communities, but I know that if I do not do the work to promote and sustain them, they might cease to exist.

When Facebook came around I had a magical way of pretending that I was still a member of all those musical communities: the musicians I grew up with, the musicians I went to Juilliard with, the musicians I knew in Austria, the musicians I knew in Boston, and the musicians who used to live in my town. I thought that I might retain some of the connections to people I interacted with "there," but I haven't. I don't have email addresses or phone numbers for people I used to "know" "there." I wonder if any of the people who I was "friends" with on Facebook read this blog?

[If any of you are reading, please consider this an invitation to send me your email address so that we can keep in touch!]

I recently had to leave an organized musical community in another town that I loved being part of. I had to do it because of an embarrassing and insulting situation regarding a dear friend. I had no other choice than to put long-term friendship over organized musical community. I do not regret my decision, but I feel a great deal of sadness.

So I'm using this space to share my feelings, and hopefully I will be able to get to a place of closure.

Meanwhile, I guess I have scales to practice . . .

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Sixty Measures for Sixty Years

I have a big birthday coming at the end of the month. I started a series of "Birthday Pieces" for viola d'amore and piano when I turned fifty. The first piece has fifty measures and lasts about a minute. Every year around this time I write a new birthday piece for viola d'amore and piano, and I add one measure for every year. This newest edition (which you can listen to here) has sixty measures, and it lasts about four minutes.

I have noticed, during my almost sixty years as a human being, that I'm a creature of unconscious regularity. This multi-year project provides me with some conscious regularity. It also provides viola d'amore players with some new repertoire. The series will continue as far into old age (or second youth) as I do.

Here's the first page (you have to click on it to bring it into focus):

Here's a link to the music in the IMSLP.

And, if you are interested, you can find all eleven pieces here.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Tablet Tales

I am very excited that I can use my tablet and pencil to clean up PDF files I find in the IMSLP (and then submit the clean copies). Today's clean-up was the viola part of the Bantock Viola Sonata Number 1. Here are my "before" and "after" shots:

My practicing is always better when I have a clean piece of music to work with.

You can find the whole part here

Monday, March 25, 2019

Dora Pejačević Cello Sonata transcribed for viola

I used this lovely painting by my mother for the cover of my viola transcription of Dora Pejačević's Cello Sonata, and have loaded it into the IMSLP. I think my rebellious mother would have liked the (possibly) equally-rebellious Pejačević, so their work is now joined together in the unusual ether of an on-line music library that is freely accessible by all.

For people unfamiliar with Pejačević, here's a short biography cribbed from the program for our upcoming performance of this piece:
Maria Theodora Paulina Pejačević’s father came from a noble Croatian family. Her mother was a Hungarian countess. Pejačević was born in Budapest, spoke many languages (though not Croatian), and identified culturally as German. She played violin and piano, and began writing music at the age of twelve. She had considerable success as a composer in Germany, and after the First World War she reacted strongly against her class, and was left socially alienated. In 1921 Pejačević married Ottomar von Lumbe, a German military officer; two years later she died from kidney failure, just a few weeks after the birth of her only child. Nearly all of Pejačević’s fifty-eight known compositions (vocal works, chamber music, piano music, and orchestral music) are housed in the Croatian Music Institute in Zagreb, and some have been published by the Croatian Music Information Center.

Her music is catching on, and there is now more Pejačević on YouTube than is practical to link to in this post. Her Symphony in F sharp minor is a good place to start.

And you can find more of my mother's work here.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Bach and Chaos Ramble

Yesterday afternoon I was listening to the radio while driving to hear my seven-year-old student play a Bach piece at a local beauty pageant. She was the reigning 2018 Little Miss of our town. She won her title last March, and she started playing the violin in September. This was her first public performance. Ever.

There was a person on the radio talking about how the laws of physics showed that there is no past or future, and that in some parts of the universe time could even go backwards. Interesting. This was all spoken over a performance of the Prelude of Bach's Second Cello Suite. I wondered if it was supposed to prove a point about Bach and time or about time and music, but I was disappointed to realize that the Bach just served as background.

Then this person started talking about chaos and order. He said that there are many kinds of chaos, but only one order. He said something about the laws of physics backing up that claim. His example was that if you clean your house it inevitably gets messy again.

He then went on to explain that conditions had to be just right for the big bang to happen as it did, and he mentioned something about the original smoothness of the Earth that I didn't understand. Then he used the word "design," so I then suspected that his argument might have had something to do with trying to put the geological record of the big bang into a religious creationist's worldview.

I tuned him out, and started thinking about the Bach cello suite (another movement from a different cello suite was playing in the background this time) and that the greatest gifts Bach gave to musicians are the many "right" ways his phrases can be played. His music is a gateway to infinite musical possibilities. When we play solo Bach, every experience (musical and non-musical) can inform the way it sounds or feels to play any phrase at any given moment. The counterpoint inside each of our heads while we are playing Bach's pitches and rhythms is always different.

For the Ancient Greeks the word "chaos" meant emptiness, which eventually got translated into the King James Bible as void. It was first used to mean disorder by the 16th-century English satirist Stephen Gosson, and then much later became used to name a branch of mathematics.

When we write music (or anything for that matter) I don't believe that order comes out of chaos in either sense of the word (I don't know enough about mathematics to weigh in on that meaning). There is no "void" because we are living and breathing people with senses, experiences, and ideas. And writing is effectively lining up ideas so that they make sense. I don't think of putting ideas together as creating order out of disorder, though I sometimes create disorder when I put ideas together.

My student played very well. The person doing the announcing introduced her piece as being by Jonathan Sebastian Bach, but very few people in the audience noticed.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

WHAM Concert March 31, 2019

We are playing a viola transcription of a cello sonata by the Slavonian composer Dora Pejačević (1885-1923). It is one of fifty-eight pieces that she wrote in her short lifetime. Pejačevic died a few weeks after the birth of her only child.

The song of the wood thrush (the bird on the concert announcement) is represented in two solo piano pieces by Amy Beach. And the piece of mine that we are playing is a traditional sonata made from interspersing frog songs and songs about frogs.

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Soundscape of Our Late-Boomer Lives

Sometimes I wonder if reruns provide an unconscious soundscape of late-boomer's compositional lives. Could the music for "Star Trek," "Lost in Space," "Bonanza," "Lassie," "Mission Impossible," "F-Troop," "Gilligan's Island," and "I Love Lucy" function the way the songs of birds did for Messiaen, Dvorak, and Sibelius, or pub songs functioned for Brahms?

Past posts from a (still-recovering) CD reviewer

I started thinking, once again, about how rarely I listen to CD recordings and how much I enjoy NOT listening to them in order to write reviews for publication. But then I realized that I have nothing new to say, so I bundled a bunch of posts together from the past ten years or so. Some come from a time when I was still reviewing recordings, and some are from after I stopped. If you ever wonder what might go through the mind of a record reviewer who is also a musician, here's your chance!

Here they are.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Who is the music for anyway?

I was working with a teenage student on a Handel sonata the other day. While trying to get her to make things musically exciting during periods that did not have fast-moving notes, I mentioned that Handel wrote the piece for her enjoyment and as a vehicle for her to express herself. Of course Handel didn't know my student, but he knew the "audience" for his published music would be musicians looking for music to play with their friends and families. He was writing this music for people just like her.

[I also told her that I think of the notes on the page as my slaves. I can choose the tempo and the spirit. I can line the pitches up they way I want. I can decide which notes are more important, and which notes have less importance. I can also change my mind.]

Lately I have heard teachers try to inspire students to play with expression by telling them that it is their job to project the composer's intentions to the audience. There is nothing really wrong about this way of thinking, but there is something odd about it. People do write music that is concrete and programmatic (Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, Vivaldi's Four Seasons, for example). Instructions can be given as text, or pieces can be written in genres with certain expectations (nocturnes, waltzes, marches, lullabies, etc.) Programmatic references are necessary when writing music for opera, ballet, and movies, because the music needs to support what is happening. It also serves as a practical way to maintain the pace of the narrative. I suppose music with a text (a song, a song cycle, or a choral piece) or a tone poem would fall into the programmatic category.

I believe music for the stage is written for the benefit of the audience (as well as the benefit of the composer). A person watching a drama ideally wants to "turn off" the drama in their own lives and "escape" into the drama of the production. Sometimes composers do too.

It is different when the music at hand is not programmatic. When I write non-programmatic music I don't think about the specific emotions I want an audience to feel, but I do think (constantly) about how I want the people playing the music to feel. I want them to feel comfortable expressing themselves, and I want them to feel comfortable interacting with one another. I find that when passages do not sit well on any instrument, a lot of expression is lost, so I strive for physical comfort. I also work to organize the music so that the people who play it remain interested and engaged.

In the case of non-programmatic music, the melodic and harmonic material, tempo indications, rests, slurs, articulations, and dynamics can be written into the music. All the stuff that remains (i.e. the music making itself) belongs to the people playing the music. People listening can decide what to pay attention to. If a performing musician wants to call special attention to something in the music and people in the audience notice, that can be a good thing. Or not.

[Music involves all the senses: the sense of sight in both the mind's eye or the physical eye, the sense of hearing in the anticipatory inner ear or the physical outer ear, and the sense of touch. I think the sense of smell mixes with memory. I remember the smell of the euphonium I played one afternoon in elementary school, the smell of the pitch pipe that my elementary school music teacher gave me as a present, the smell of my flute, and the smell of the closet where I practiced in junior high. I remember the smell of deteriorating music paper, and the cigar-smoke-infused mud floor of the music shed at Tanglewood. I remember the smell of the Tanglewood practice cabins too. I remember the smell of rosin, and the way the inside of my 3/4-size violin case smelled. Taste is musical taste, of course. But it is still a sense.]

We often listen to music to be entertained, and we often play music to entertain ourselves and share with others. If a professional musician has had a lousy day, his or her negative feelings and pesky "self talk" are imperceptible to the audience. Nobody can hear the words that are in your head while you are playing, and nobody who is playing can "hear" the thoughts of the audience. Imagine the distracting extra-musical cacophony that would happen if you could.

But if the chatter in our heads is redirected towards the music at hand, people who are playing together can connect with one another in very intimate and inexplicable ways through the music. In doing so, they also connect with the other people who are in the room, and those people can feel connected with one another in the music.

And, for some people, their inner chatter might slow down. Or even stop.

These are the moments musicians live for. I aspire to write music that makes these moments possible. I imagine a lot of composers share that aspiration.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019


There's a Yiddish folk story about a couple with six children cramped into a one-room hut. When the father asked the local Rabbi for advice about how to get along in their small space, the Rabbi advised him to bring the family's chickens in the house. When the father complained to the Rabbi the next week that the chickens were not making things better, the Rabbi advised him to bring in the family's cow. The next week the Rabbi told him to let the horse in. This went on for a while. The father was in despair. The Rabbi finally told the father to let the animals out.

The next week the father thanked the Rabbi, and said that his house was now peaceful.

This is how I feel about no longer participating in Facebook. It has been ten weeks since I deleted my account.

I was worried at first that I would miss out on what was going on with our children, but we talk on the phone all the time. I worried that people wouldn't know about the concerts that I was playing. But I always let people know about concerts I'm playing by way of email. I have learned that I don't reach any "new" audiences through Facebook. I have often observed that an "event" on Facebook is often something people may show public interest in, but then they forget about writing down the information, and therefore don't attend.

I was worried that my social world would get smaller. It has. But I'm not unhappy about it. I tend to enjoy the time I spend interacting with people more. I can always reach my friends through email.

The best thing for me is the amount of time I now have to spend doing the things I love to do. Since leaving Facebook I have written some good music (I've shared some of it here), and I have completed the huge project of performing and engraving the Kunc Sonata. I have posted about it here, but somehow it does not feel like careerist self-promotion to post things here. On Facebook it does. I suppose that is because musicians so often use Facebook to promote their careers.

I remember listening to a podcast about musical careerist stuff where the "career advisor" suggested "friending" people on Facebook, and then "unfollowing" them. That way, she advised, people will see you, but you don't need to see them. I have come to understand that this kind of thing happens all the time. I'm interested in relationships that are honest. I like situations where I see you and you see me. I fear Facebook-based interaction is becoming more the norm.

As for careerist aspirations, I have none. I love playing music with my friends and colleagues. I love playing concerts, and I love playing "gigs." I enjoy getting paid when I play with professional musicians, and I enjoy playing for fun with amateur musicians. I enjoy getting paid to write music for people, and I love writing music that I can share in the IMSLP.

My greatest aspiration is for quality, both in my playing and in my writing. Measuring quality in "likes" is terribly unhealthy for me.

It is a trade-off. I suppose that if I worked the social media (and regular media) angles more, I could have more of a "career" as a composer, but I don't want to compromise my time. I want to spend the time I have doing the things I love, not the things I don't like to do.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Women's History Month

During the month of March people in the press start paying special attention to music written by women. But this March there seems to be a bit more going on than in previous years.

There's an article by Susanna Eastburn in The Guardian that presents the idea of dealing with the problem of underrepresentation by women in the larger landscape of concert programs through gender equality. She runs Sound and Music, the UK's national organization for new music. Sound and Music has made excellent progress, and aims to have 50/50 gender equality in their musical programs by March of 2020.

Things are slowly getting better for living composers who are female. Visibility helps. Orchestras and other musical organizations that take the "risk" of playing music by composers who are contemporary, living, and female show their audiences (and their musicians) that "classical" music is NOT only written by men from Europe who are no longer alive.

These internets are finally buzzing with excitement about Florence Price. There's a review of a Naxos recording with two of her symphonies, and Spotify has thirty tracks on their "Composer Weekly" page for this week. Price is also featured in an excellent New Music USA blog post by Douglas Shadle, which discusses her as both a female composer and an African American composer. Most of all Shadle presents her as a great composer, which she certainly was. Thank goodness her music is now getting performed, recorded, and written about.

These are not "baby steps." They are broad strides that are being taken by men and women that help enrich our musical world.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Training a New Voice

Very early on in my musical life a singer friend told me that she had to build her vocal instrument in much the way a violin maker builds a violin. There are people who are naturally gifted with beautiful voices, but to make a voice project requires serious training. I have always wondered how trans people who sing (and their teachers) deal with the vocal-instrument-specific changes that happen when taking hormones.

I was so happy to find this article by Joshua Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The article includes a clip of the Bass-Baritone Lucia Lucas. She trained as a baritone before going through transition, and was able to keep her voice and her career, now dressing up to play male roles. But I imagine that she has her challenges. I'm planning to read her blog, which I'm linking to here and on the sidebar. I found the post she made about how to learn a role efficiently particularly fascinating.