Friday, February 03, 2023

Accidental Doorways

Steven Millhauser's stories always involve imagination, and sometimes they involve explorations of rooms, pathways, rabbit holes, and doorways that lead from room to room.

While teaching a lesson yesterday, with Millhauser on the brain, after reading "Alice, Falling," one of the stories collectd in The Barnum Museum, I stumbled upon a way to help my eleven-year-old student understand the accidentals that kept popping up in her Vivaldi concerto.

It suddenly occured to me that sharps and naturals are like little doorways that lead us into periods of another tonality, not unlike the doorways that lead from room to room in a house (or museum) with many rooms. They even look like little doorways. And in this case the B-flat in measure 77 functions like a window you can pop your head through for a moment, and then go back to the path.

A piece of music, particularly a piece of common-practice music with a tonal plan is a little like a house or a self-contained world of its own, isn't it?

Thursday, February 02, 2023

Musical motion

Everything about this "Ask Augustin" episode is worth thinking about every day while practicing, while playing with others, while listening to music, while composing music, while walking around, while doing household tasks, or while doing anything at all that involves either motion or stillness.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

A Watched Pot . . .

Observation for the day: a watched pot may never seem to boil, but an unwatched pot always boils over.

I would consider the magic of crossing the top of the pot with a wooden spoon as a kind of "pot watching." It is like engaging a pot watcher while you are off chopping vegetables, grating cheese, cleaning counters, washing dishes, and other multi-tasky, kitcheny things.

I have been thinking about the way this observation could apply to things in musical life. Those of us who practice an instrument diligently tend to "watch the pot," hoping for all of the physical work we do to amount to some kind of fluency in a passage over a matter of minutes. But I find that after practicing a passage carefully for a while, and then taking time away from it, I can come back to the passage at hand with a refreshed sense of physical balance and a less-cluttered mind. And then I wonder why it was once so hard.

Those of us who were in a hurry to grow up as children or as teenagers felt that time moved slowly. Perhaps because we were so busy "watching the pot." But time progresses at the same rate whether you are watching or not. And in musical terms "boiling over" is not a bad thing at all. Unlike water, which has a specific boiling point, musical expression, in all its varieties, is limitless.

I wonder if some of us "watch the pot" when it comes to relationships with friends, students, and young people in real physical time, wondering where a relationship might "go," if a student will "get it," or waiting for a child to grow into a pair of shoes that were still too big. And is the anticipation of a future event (a birthday, a party, the beginning of school, graduation from school) an act of "pot watching?"

I find great joy in filling time paying attention to details when reading a book, writing music (or blog posts), playing chamber music, listening to a concert, or talking with friends. It would be nice to employ the time-altering features of pot watching to give certain moments lasting weight, but time flows on, and consciously preserving moments in is not something I can control.

Sometimes when I am writing music I am able to create an illusion of a pitch or phrase lasting longer than it actually does in measured time. When that happens I celebrate, but I don't actually know how to make such moments happen. Minimalist-style repetition is one tool (trick), but it doesn't work in every musical context.

With our electric stove we need to during the dial to "high" to start the burner "burning." Then you can turn it down (unless you forget). Fortunately life itself doesn't always have to be propelled by high heat. We have the option of turning down the flame to keep things at a nice simmer, which can help us to savor special moments.

I have found that one of the benefits of age is the ability to appreciate moderation in some things, including savoring slow progress. I used to be in such a hurry, and I missed a great deal because I wasn't paying enough attention. I'm trying to do better.

But now, in the age of the internet, it is challenging to keep the heat low, to pay full attention, and to feel comfortable with moderation.

The saying goes, Dance like no one is watching." But when the dance floor is on line, it is hard to dance as if no one is watching, because our hope is that someone might be watching. And when it seems that nobody is "watching" (reading, listening, playing, or even caring) it is disheartening.

I remember during my years at the radio station I wondered if anyone was listening. In the mid 1980s our station was the strongest public radio station (for forty miles in all directions) in the small area of the FM dial allotted to non-commercial radio. (That was before a local Christian radio station started broadcasting with a strong signal that made our signal harder to get.)

But every once in a while, a good twenty plus years since I stopped my life as a "radio broadcast professional," people in town tell me how much they enjoyed my radio programs. And every once in a while I get a note or a recording from somebody who has enjoyed playing something I wrote, and I find that my cup is full and even overflowing.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Telemann Fantasias Transcribed for Viola

The IMSLP has a very nice autograph of George Philipp Telemann's 1735 Fantasias for violin. After spending years correcting the errors in the 1955 Barenreiter edition made by Günther Haußwald (which can be found in the above IMSLP entry), and years working with viola transcriptions that have those errors plus new errors that crop up when making new engravings, I have finally devoted the necessary time to making a transcription that works for me.

The people over at cellofun put engraving files in the IMSLP for their cello transcription. I adjusted those files to fit on letter-size paper, and made corrections and additions using Telemann's manuscript as a guide. Before beginning I compared Telemann's manuscript here with other autographs of Telemann, and became convinced that the manuscript in the IMSLP is indeed in his hand and not the hand of a copyist.

My transcription (which you can get on this page of the IMSLP) is not an "edition" because I haven't included fingering or bowing suggestions, but I have included all the dynamic markings that Telemann put in the manuscript, and I have included the articulations that he indicated.

I learned a great deal about the music while working on this transcription. I noticed, for example, that the end of Fantasia #8 doesn't resolve! Look at that elaborate double bar at the end. This was not an oversight. I consider it a window into Telemann's musical personality.
Another nifty moment is the end of Fantasia #10, which can function as an infinite loop:
(Notice the double bar at the end of this. That is a normal Telemann double bar.)

Now I can just play these on the viola and think about the music instead of thinking about making a version that is easy to read and (hopefully) free of errors. But if you happen to find an error (or two) I might have missed, please let me know, and I will correct it.

UPDATE: I uploaded a revised version already (with page numbers), and put a version for solo violin (the original) in the IMSLP.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

"My" Fugue

I remember when the two books of J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier made their way (by means of a visit my father must have made to a used music store) into my childhood household. They were intended for my piano-playing younger brother, but my older brother Marshall claimed "ownership" of the E minor Fugue in the second volume. He said that it was "his" because it had the longest subject (for that reason it was played at his memorial service).

I claimed the D minor Fugue of the second volume as "my" fugue because I loved the chromatic scale in the subject, and perhaps because it was in D minor, and though I do not have absolute pitch (like both my brothers), I do have a sense of key, and D minor has always been special for me.

When, as a non-pianist, I claimed this fugue, I had no hope of ever being able to play it fluently. Yesterday, after a good decade of dedicated adult piano practice, I was able to do it. So I am just marking the moment with this post.

The fugue begins two minutes in. The prelude is as remarkable as the fugue.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Two Passages from Moby Dick

My friend Daniel Gianola-Norris loves Melville, and he particularly loves Moby Dick. I wrote this piece for two trumpets for him early in 2022, and today he uploaded a beautiful video to YouTube, and as a bonus he reads the passages from the novel that "inform" the music. If you have not yet read Moby Dick, now is a great time to read it. Now is always a great time to read Moby Dick. Thank you for making this video, Dan!

Monday, January 09, 2023

Feet and Hands

I always assumed that having painful knees was just a manifestation of achieving a certain age. I recently learned (from our daughter) that having painful knees is a manifestation (whoa--what a good word for this post!) of wearing rigid shoes that discourage your toes from having the feeling of contact with the ground when you walk.

Michael and I are in the process of getting rid of shoes that we thought were good for our feet (like Dansko clogs), and are replacing them with shoes that are wide enough in the toebox for our toes to move, and narrow enough (and nicely padded) in the heel to stay put while walking. The basic idea is to feel as comfortable in shoes as you would be without shoes. And the solution to knee pain, at least for me, is involving my toes in the way I walk, so that my big toe is the last thing to leave the ground. Zero drop "barefoot" style shoes make it possible for me to feel the way my toes interact with the ground.

Now that I am paying so much attention to my feet, I have been wondering if the parts of the brain that are allowing me to focus on my feet and toes might also be helping my hands and fingers as I navigate my way around the fingerboard and the keyboard. Since paying attention to my feet when I walk (and when I sit, and when I stand) I feel that I have more connection with my hands and fingers when I play.

I have never been comfortable wearing heels, and have been particularly uncomfortable wearing heels for concerts, because the idea of carrying my instrument while standing on my tiptoes has always been frightening.

I remember watching Yura Lee play in the Indianapolis Competition in 2006, and noticed that she wore slippers. They were elegant slippers (not fuzzy ones), and they allowed her total freedom of movement. Not wearing high heels for women is not new, but until only recently it was not considered a possibility for being "properly dressed." High heels are so often associated with female power, but they are, as far as I'm concerned, a tool of oppression. If your feet hurt but you think they make your legs look good, you give a lot of mental energy to ignoring your feet while you are in the process of "looking good." Combine this with using your hands, arms, and back to play an instrument, and you are giving your body mixed messages.

Since I have spent a lot of time online looking at Zero-drop shoes, ads for shoes that fit into the comfort profile have been popping up in my email, and in my Facebook and Instagram feeds. You can get inexpensive sneaker-like shoes that resemble the PF flyer sneakers I wore as a little kid:
I remember when "girl's" PF Flyers started getting more narrow. Big kids (like the five-year-old me and my seven-year-old big brother) didn't wear round-toed shoes (like our three-year-old little brother). Sneakers for "big" girls were narrow, to mimic the narrowness of the 1960s adult woman's shod foot, and I remember that sneakers for "big" boys were called "basketball shoes," and had a more pointed toe than the sneakers that little kids wore. All of them gave you blisters, and there was nothing you could do about it except develop callouses.
The new era of healthy adult shoes are designed for adult feet (more in the way of laces and nice padding at the heel so that you don't get blisters).
These are considered "beginner" shoes, which I think means that they are inexpensive, but they will draw you into a world of higher-end barefoot shoes, and can send eventually lead you to briefly consider the idea of spending hundreds of dollars on hand-made vegetable leather shoes made by shoe artists in remote villages in Sweden.

I wonder if wearing high heeled shoes will eventually become a thing of the past, like the way foot binding fell out of fashion in China.

Thursday, January 05, 2023

Paying it forward

People do things for others for various reasons. Some people do things for others in a transactional way, with the understanding that a favor will be returned, and some do things for others out of a sense of obligation. Some people do things for others as an expression of their faith, and some people do things for others because it simply makes them feel good.

Some people do things for others out of a sense of pure love, or out of a sense of gratitude.

What is often called "paying it forward" is my underlying motivation for just about everything I do. I have been extremely fortunate to have encountered some remarkable people during my six decades (plus a few years), and they have given me far more than they know. As the translator of the psalms in the King James Bible so eloquently puts it, "My cup runneth over."

So this new year I feel the need to express my gratitude to Daniel Morganstern, who I met when I was nineteen. He was thirty-eight. (He remarked that we were an octave apart at that time.) I was a flutist with a lousy relationship with my instrument, a lousy relationship with my teacher and the institution where I was studying, and a great love for music (but not necessarily flute music). Danny embraced me as a friend, and showed me what real teaching was. He and his wife June took me into their household as a daily visitor (at least during the hiatus between the ballet season and the opera season), fed me, and taught me a lot about the basics of life--things I hadn't properly learned when I was a child or a teenager.

Danny listened to me play all the time (something that most people in my life didn't do), and he listened with the ears of a great musician who held Paul Dunkel as the pinnacle of great flute playing. He did his best to try and get me to play like Paul Dunkel without knowing a single thing about playing the flute. He also introduced me to Heifetz, and together we listened to the entire Heifetz collection (at least all the LP recordings that were available in 1978).

Our friendship has lasted for decades, and it has influenced everything that I have done as a musician. Through my friendship with Danny I was able to get off the flute-playing path (which for me was a path that was paved with good intentions, but led nowhere), and become a string player. His encouragement inspired me to encourage other people on their musical paths. And no matter how much help I give Danny with the things I can help him with, there is always more to give. It is and has always been a true friendship.

I share his friendship with many other people. We all know a lot about one another, though most of us haven't met one another. Danny's friends are my friends, and will always be.

He taught me how to be a friend. He taught me how to really be a teacher. He continues to teach me how to be a better person and a better musician. And he understands my concept of "paying it forward," because he taught me how through the way he lives his life. I could never "repay" Danny for what he has done for me, but I can pay it forward.

When I returned to life as a string player in my small college town, and after twenty years away from my time as an unremarkable child violinist, my community helped me in incredible ways. As soon as he heard of my return to violin playing, Donald Tracy, the cello professor at the university and the conductor of the university's orchestra, brought a folder of orchestra music to my house. He brought his violin too, and took the violin that I had just purchased from one of the students at the radio station to St. Louis to be worked into playing shape. I barely remembered how to play, but I threw myself into the "fire" (which was The Firebird). 

I started taking lessons with Tom LeVeck, the father of one of my previous flute students, the husband of one of my doctors, and a member of the St. Louis Symphony. After several months of intense and obsessive practicing I had a rudimentary understanding of the violin, and had the luck to buy a good viola for $100 that I found at a yard sale in my neighborhood.

Tom and I had the idea of trying to assemble string quartet. One of the students at the radio station was an excellent cellist (a student of Don Tracy, mentioned above), and my good friend Terry Coulton, a violinist who had just given birth to twins, was somehow willing to play. Terry brought her twins to Tom's house, and we read quartets. They were all so kind to me. I didn't know my way around the alto clef, and didn't know my way outside of first position on the viola, but the three of them were happy to be able to play music together with me faking my way through the viola part.

They were willing to teach me how to play string chamber music without really knowing how much I didn't know. And with a few changes in personnel, we are still playing string quartets together.

I have great compassion for the adult beginner, and have spent a great deal of time making arrangements for string ensembles that adult beginners can play in. When I started my life as an adult beginner there were very few orchestral pieces that had a physically easy enough second violin part for me to feel that I could really contribute to the music making. So when Terry and I started our Summer Strings orchestra, I made arrangements that could be played by adult beginners as well as beginners who were not adults.

My most recent endeavor in the "paying it forward" department is playing in a string quartet that sprang out of a Summer Strings season. As the resident "professional" at string quartet playing, but sitting the first violin seat rather than the viola seat, I get the chance to work with people new to string quartet playing, and figure out how to help them sound better as an ensemble. It sometimes involves a little work. It sometimes involves a lot of work. But it is always rewarding. 

With every meeting of this ensemble I feel that I am paying forward the kindness that my first string quartet friends showed me. And my reward is in the moments of real music making that come from the work we do, and learning how to be a better composer through the great music we play.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

We know we dream, we dream we know

My New Year's greeting for 2023 is a song set to a 1917 poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Here's the text:
What can be said in New Year rhymes,
That's not been said a thousand times?

The new years come, the old years go,
We know we dream, we dream we know.

We rise up laughing with the light,
We lie down weeping with the night.

We hug the world until it stings,
We curse it then and sigh for wings.

We live, we love, we woo, we wed,
We wreathe our brides, we sheet our dead.

We laugh, we weep, we hope, we fear,
And that's the burden of the year.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox was an extremely popular American writer during the early years of the twentieth century, and I only just learned (while writing this post, actually, because I was too caught up in working on the music to do any research at all on her life and work) that a good number of her poems have been set to music.

But not this one (as far as I know).

You can find the music for medium voice here (there's also a version for high voice). You can listen to the medium voice version here, you can find the music for both on this page of the IMSLP.

The cover image (which I chose simply because I love it) is "A Masque for the Four Seasons" painted by the British painter Walter Crane between 1905 and 1909, at the height of Ella Wheeler Wilcox's fame. Walter Crane was born in 1845 and died in 1915. Ella Wheeler Wilcox was born in 1850 and died in 1919. I had no idea that Walter Crane was a poet as well as a painter, and that he and Ella Wheeler Wilcox were published side-by-side in many magazines (Crane made illustrations for poems by James Russell Lowell in The Cosmopolitan). They were also both socialists.
It tickles me to see these people I could never have known (but maybe I dreamed I knew . . .), and only recently learned about, tied together in both a blog post and a piece of brand-new music as we approach the new year of 2023.

Happy New Year.

Monday, December 26, 2022

Two passages from Nabokov's Pale Fire

She kept trying, as one quietly insane, to mend a broken viola d'amore or sat in dolorous attitudes comparing two ancient flutes, both sad-tuned and feeble.

He asked Fleur as she turned to go with the Disa orchids if she still played the viola. She shook her head several times not wishing to speak without addressing him and not daring to do so while the servants might be within earshot.

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Two Elaines (one fictional, one real) with the same lamp


Today I have the unusual feeling (for me) of having enough. After what seems like a lifetime of not having enough of one thing or another, I am filled with the unremarkable feeling having and being enough. Normally I would have felt restless if I didn't have a project, an idea, of something to work for. Now (at least today) I feel fortunate to have done the work I have done, and to have developed the necesary skills to enjoy making music in whatever form I feel like making it in.

I write this while smelling the delicious smells of what Michael is cooking for tonight's dinner and tomorrow's lunch, which we will be having with (among other people) our daughter and two of our grandchildren.

The first time in my life that I ever felt a sense of "enough" was after the birth of our first child. I felt at one with the past, present, and future of the universe. I felt like I was a full participant. For me being a mother, in many ways, is enough. And when I spent time with our grandchildren it is enough. And being part of a partnership with Michael is enough.

I write this after having spent some really enjoyable time at the piano with Haydn and Bach. That time was made even more enjoyable for me because a small cold mist humidifier provides enough humidity during this really dry and cold time to keep the piano in tune.

I like the fact that I have been getting enough sleep, enough good food, and enough exercise, and I enjoy the fact that I have enough warm clothes to be able to enjoy taking a walk even when the temperature is below zero.

I suppose I'm sharing this bit of "enoughness" here because my Christmas wish for anyone reading would be to feel (at least for a moment) that you have, have done, and simply are enough, because "enough" is a not a measurement of quantity or even of quality. And I know the feeling of being or having or doing enough might not last, because "enough" is not a measurement of time. But having it might contribute to a state of mind. I hope that this feeling will continue to keep me company.

Friday, December 16, 2022

My Friend Beth Orson

I just learned that my friend Beth Orson died yesterday. I do not know the circumstances, and if she had been sick I didn't know about it because we have only had casual Facebook contact over the past few years. Her posts were mostly about her dogs (whippets), and their races.

Beth joined the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in 1990, and began teaching at the University of British Columbia School of Music in 1993. I last time I saw her was in New York in 1984 or 1985.

I first met Beth when I was a teenager in my second to last year of high school in a youth chamber orchestra at the New England Conservatory. We began the academic year with the Robert Schumann Piano Concerto, and I sat next to Beth, a senior oboe player who drove into Boston from Providence, Rhode Island.

I was impressed by the fact that she drove all the way to Boston by herself, pleased that she was a really kind and friendly person, and totally blown away by the authority in the way that she played the opening woodwind passage after the piano entrance. The flutes don't play that passage, so I could listen with full attention.

While we were waiting for the first woodwind sectional to begin, Beth sat down at the piano and played the opening of the Schumann Concerto. After the sectional she told me that she had spent the past summer at Fontainebleau, and studied there with Nadia Boulanger. Beth was the most grown-up high school musician I had ever met, and it was such a thrill for me when we became friends. I visited her in Providence, and met her twin sister Diane, who was a terrific violinist. I remember Diane practicing the Bruch Violin Concerto in the basement of their house before breakfast, and I remember their younger brother, Ted (who they affectionately called "turd"). I remember their actress mother who had starred in Peer Gynt. I had to look that play up when I returned to my home in Newton.

The next year Beth went to the Oberlin College Conservatory, and I stayed with her when I went there to audition. My SATs weren't good enough for me to get accepted to the college (I thought I could sneak in a regular education on the basis of getting admitted to the conservatory, but no soap). So I went to Juillard, where my test scores wouldn't matter.

But Beth came to New York after graduating, so I did get to see her again. And Beth had fortunately met my friend Liz (while I was out of the country) and they became roommates, so I got to spend some time with "adult" Beth, who was the same Beth as teenage Beth.

There is a series of videos of Beth teaching. She is exactly the same Beth. I'm so grateful to have known her, and am so grateful that these videos are available. And I feel honored to share this post and these videos here.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Michael, reading Garner's Modern English Usage (fifth edition)

Michael was a member of a panel of critical readers for the fifth edition of Garner’s Modern English Usage, which just came out from Oxford University Press. (The first printing sold out in only two weeks, and a second printing is in the works.)

You can see photos of the other critical readers here.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Film Noir for Piano Trio

Michael and I spend a lot of time watching film noir movies together, and consequently I spend a lot of time paying attention to the music in films noir (to use the pretentious plural). I have spent the past several weeks writing a fifteen-minute-long piano trio that explores what I believe to be the musical essence of film noir. And I made a collage this morning while listening to it.

You can listen to a computer-generated recording here, and find the music on this page of the IMSLP.

And if you want some guidance in your journey through films from the 1940s and beyond, Michael writes four sentences about each of the movies we have watched (with no spoilers) in groups of twelve. You can start here (that's his most recent set of twelve), and then you can find more groups of twelve movies by searching for "twelve movies" in the search box. You will not be disappointed (by the capsule reviews or by the films he rates highly).