Monday, December 31, 2007

Greatness ramble

Thanks to A.C. Douglas for a link to this article from the Times that reminds us all that it is really difficult to find greatness when there are so many places where it could be found.

I think of the difficulty I have finding a pair of socks in my laundry basket and three drawers filled with odd socks (from many members of the family). If I really took care of my socks and carefully put them into pairs after washing them, I could keep track of them. Maybe one of these New Years days I will.

It is still far easier for me to find a pair of socks than it is to keep up with everything that I should be reading and listening to that has been proclaimed "great." How many times have I read a line in somebody's biography saying that he or she is the "greatest _______ of her or his generation?" It is rare that I have actually heard something that I would consider "great" from a person who has used that line in a biography.

I have my stable of musical "greats." Most of them are no longer alive. Those who are alive are mostly in their 60s, 70s and 80s, and many no longer play or sing, at least in public. A few of them are young and are active, but so many of the younger musicians I know have never heard (or heard of, even) the people I hold as musicians of real importance. Those people managed to make it into my pantheon by playing really well all the time, writing wonderful music, much of which people didn't proclaim as great when it was written, and doing what they could (and still can, if they are alive) to keep their legacy moving forward. They, after all, learned what they know from a lifetime of experience.

Now that we have so much in the way of musical choice, there is relatively little room for all that we are capable of mentally and aurally digesting. There is also, with all the stimulation we have in our lives, too little time to give due contemplation to what we hear (and by extension what we read and view). Even if we take time, there are so many elements that get in the way of actual concentration.

It's hard to know what to do with it all.

In my radio station days, when I spent four hours every day for 13 years listening to recorded music very intensely (that way I knew that there was at least one attentive listener), I used to play recordings of Gian Francesco Malipiero, who I always thought a tragic musical figure because he seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledege of music, which he put into everything he wrote. He was a composer without a specific voice because he was a composer who knew the voice of at least every Italian composer who came before him. He never made it to "greatness."

With so many resources at our fingertips, we are all in danger of becoming like Malipiero. I wonder if he wore matching socks?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Playing "at" and playing "to"

Back in my "know-it-all" twenties, surrounded by accomplished musicians of all kinds, both at Juilliard in New York, and in my own home, and playing an instrument that did not give me what I wanted, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what made listening and playing music pleasurable for me. I assumed that my feelings were universal, but time has proven that I was both young and, for the most part, wrong.

One thing that kind of stuck from my "lab" experiments was that there are people who play in a way that seems to be playing "at" an audience (no matter how small), and there are people who play "to" an audience. It kind of boils down to the relationship of a note being played to the meter of a piece. It also has a lot to do with the subtle contours of a given phrase, and its relationship to the piece as a whole, as well as the way a person responds to the acoustics of the playing environment and the responsive energy of the audience.

I believe that a good and well-prepared player is a person who presents a "finished product" to the audience. There are good players who present their finished product "at" an audience, much the same way a person can make a sales presentation "at" a captive audience, or an uninspired teacher can lecture "at" a class. I believe that a great player is a person who brings his or her own energy to the "stage," and allows that energy to interact with the energy from the audience--making every member of the audience feel a part of the performance; making every audience member feel connected to it, the composer, and to one another.

The difference is one of personality and intention, I suppose, but I don't know many musicians who want to be perceived as salesmen and saleswomen or as dull and uninvolved lecturers. There are ways of manipulating rhythm to make "playing to" an audience easier. It is similiar to the way an actor (and I use actor to mean both men and women who act) uses diction and timing to direct a phrase in a meaningful manner. A great actor manipulates rhythm in order to make the audience believe the text.

I have noticed, through practicing with a metronome and a tape recorder that rhythmic playing (playing evenly and holding notes for their full value) has, believe it or not, more potential to be connected with "to" playing than "at" playing, and truly rhythmic playing (understanding a particular note's place within the written meter or the larger meter of a piece) has the potential to go beyond accuracy and onto to the musical world that lies on the other side of precision. That's where musical freedom can begin, and that's the point where the real work for an interpretive musician begins. It is what happens on the other side of precision that is both wonderful and frightening. It is then that it is possible to take interpretive chances.

"To" playing is, for me, connected with taking interpretive chances, while "at" playing is safe. "At" playing is playing to impress, while "to" playing is playing to express. "To" playing is always involved with the music itself, while "at" playing is usually involved with the the performance. It is possible to observe "to" playing and "at" playing in solo work and in chamber music, but it is also possible to hear it in orchestral playing, particularly in solo situations. There it is the responsibility of a conductor to gesturally insist on the "to-ness" of an interpretation.

I have always wondered if anyone else has noticed this kind of thing.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Square-keyed Alto Flute

I was really excited to find this slide show that shows the process that Leonard Lopatin goes through in order to make his nifty square-keyed alto flute.

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

From the guy who gave us the metronome

There's a treat on BibliOdyssey today: drawings and this photo reconstruction (the original was destroyed in a fire in 1854) of Wolfgang von Kempelen's automatic chess player, which (I guess I can't say "who") was exploited to the fullest by Johann Mälzel, the friend of Beethoven's who got the patent on the metronome (he stole the idea from Dietrich Nokolaus Winkel). This machine played against Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte, and was one of the greatest hoaxes of the 19th century.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The most unwanted song

Michael sent me this article in Design Observer that has a link to and a description of what they call "the most unwanted song," made of elements that I guess people in a survey group said they didn't like in songs (atonality, bagpipes, accordion, banjo, etc). It's 22 minutes long, and is a kind of "rhapsody" of stitched-together elements, a musical collage, if you will. It certainly is annoying at times, but I did enjoy the the atonal parts, especially the singer's voice.

You can read more about it here. I guess I am one of the 200 people in the world's population (mentioned in the above link) who would like this: I'm partial to the accordion and the banjo (which my son practices all the time, and distracts me from my work because I really love listening to him play), I enjoy well-performed and well-written atonal pieces, and I don't have a problem with music that lasts more than 25 minutes.


Where music comes from

Roger Bourland has once again reached into the collective compositional unconscious and speaks eloquently for those of us who like to spend our time stacking and pasting together the notes and rhythms we find lying around the house.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The muse is not always female

I believe very strongly in the concept of the muse, but my muses are many, and they are rarely female, unless I am writing something for a female singer, or setting a text that was written by a woman. I do find it odd that in Ancient Greek culture, a culture that had very little regard for women in actual life, the inspiration for creative work was so often assigned to women, and each imaginary woman had exclusive charge over a particular domain. You know them well.

Calliope is the muse of epic or heroic poetry
Clio is the muse of history
Erato is the muse of love and erotic poetry
Euterpe is the muse of music and lyric poetry
Melpomene is the muse of tragedy
Polyhymnia is the muse of sacred song and rhetoric
Terpsichore is the muse of choral song and dance
Thalia is the muse of comedy and bucolic poetry
Urania is the muse of astronomy (I have never quite understood the need for a muse of astronomy, but I guess back in Ancient Greece the study of the cosmos was more artistic than scientific)

Plato named Sappho the tenth muse, and several others have named tenth muses (why are they not eleventh or twelfth muses?).

Patrick J. Smith, the writer of The Tenth Muse: a Historical Study of the Opera Libretto has a far more modern take on the concept of the muse. He gives credit to the scores of men who wrote excellent opera librettos from the 17th century through the 20th century, and served as muses to their composers.

My current muse is a gift from my daughter who knows that I am making a musical setting of a Hans Christian Andersen story about a teapot. Working on the piece makes me want to drink tea, so the teapot, which holds and pours inspiration into my cup, acts as my muse.

My teapot, which doesn't have any gender, has the name "Chantal" stamped on its bottom. "Chantal" means "stone" and "singer," so I think that it is a highly appropriate muse.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Happy Birthday

(Thanks for this one, Michael!)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Name That Tune

Tom Myron is at 33 of a series of 100 pieces in a contest to name various pieces from fragments of their scores. I know that I'm, pardon the expression, going to stay "tuned" to play (or watch other people play) the game. Today's was a real doozy: no key signature, G major (or G minor--or for that matter G flat major or G flat minor) chords being sustained by divisi strings, with a drop in the bass to octave Cs. Identifying the copyist's hand was probably the best clue.

Schoenberg Spricht

Thanks to Alex Ross for posting a link to the Schoenberg spricht archive of the Arnold Schoenberg Center. The texts from all of the recordings--even the long ones--are clearly transcribed. Someone put a lot of work into this, and I intend to put a lot of time into reading the transcriptions.

By the way, the date that Alex Ross calculated as the 100th anniversary of atonality, December 17, 2007, is also the 237th anniversary of Beethoven's baptism, though his birthday is celebrated on December 16th. I guess, like the actual birth of atonality, we really don't know exactly when Beethoven was born. But it is interesting to have some kind of measuring device, like a dated manuscript (which could have been written on the 16th, or even earlier, but was dated on the 17th).

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Before reading Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia, I thought that everyone heard music in pretty much the same way. I knew, of course, that some people could hear with greater degrees of structural understanding because of experience, and some people could hear with a greater degree of pitch sensitivity than others, but I never knew that there were actually people who "see" music in colors. I thought it was just something that people talked about in abstract terms, but in Sacks' chapter about synesthesia he writes at length about people who actually experience music in color the way I experience the world that I see in color.

I had a difficult time reading his chapter on musical hallucinations because every time Sacks would mention a piece of music I knew, I would hear it in my head. I can't say that I "suffer" from musical hallucinations, because I really enjoy having them. People often comment that I seem happy when they see me. It is probably because when I am out and about I always have something wonderful going through my head. I often dream about pieces of music, or I work out problems with something I'm writing by playing passages over and over in my head until they are fixed. I guess I am pretty lucky because I can control my musical thoughts and auditory hallucinations pretty much at will. There are people who cannot.

This book is a great companion to This is your Brain on Music (Sacks quotes Levitin often), because it explains to the non scientist in clearly-explained physical and neurological terms what actually happens in differently-wired people's brains when confronted with musical situations. Sacks writes as a neurologist, but he also writes and as a passionate music lover as well as a skilled amateur musician.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Musical Mountains

Last night I played a performace of the entire Handel Messiah in the German re-orchestration by Mozart. Most violists would agree with me that the original orchestration is not much fun for our section. Handel (or maybe one of his copyists, who knows?) gave the violists little to do on many of the solo numbers, and the parts we do play are filled with awkward passages and annoying string crossings.

Mozart not only gave us a viola part (and a challenging one at that), he even gave us divisi parts once in a while. We get to accompany the duet "O Tod, wo ist dein Pfeil" ("O death, where is thy sting?") in the third part of the work by ourselves--the violins get the number off. Clearly Mozart was thinking and acting with the mind and heart of a violist. Mozart also added parts for winds and brass, simplified some of the alternating tutti and concertino exchanges, and updated the voice-leading. The result is kind of like the way someone would modernize an old house by putting in indoor plumbing and electricity: making it easy to live in, and making it easier to appreciate the brilliance of the work.

It is like two having two musical mountains rolled into one.

After my Haydn Seasons experience of last weekend, I feel as if I have been creeping around at the feet of giants, and because I have been able to play the viola parts, I have been able to look at the inner workings of their musical minds.

And now I am in the process of writing program notes for Verdi's Otello, a mountain that is just as high, and kind of similar to the Mozart Messiah since it is a translation and an operatic re-thinking of a play by Shakespeare.

Needless to say, I might not be posting for a while.

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Friday, December 07, 2007

Wolfgang Windgassen in the final scene of Verdi's Otello

While thinking about writing program notes for a performance of Verdi's Otello, I found myself at a completely drained emotional loss by this performance by Wolfgang Windgassen, a tenor who is best known for his Wagner roles. I thought I'd share the experience here.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Composer as "he" sightings: #1 in a series that I hope will end soon

This article by William Kraft deserves 3 "he"s: one for Bernard Holland, whom he takes to task, one for himself, and one for President John F. Kennedy, who Kraft quotes at the end of the article.

What is the plural of "he" anyway?

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world

Like many people who grew up during the 1960s, I was privileged to witness the great expansion of opportunities for women in all fields of study and in every profession, particularly in the field of music. I saw the Boston Symphony grow from an orchestra that had only one female member into an orchestra with a string section that has an equal balance of men and women. I have seen serious change in the gender balance among well-respected solo instrumentalists and international competition finalists. There are still musical organizations that refuse to accept the musical gender equity that came about during the second half of the 20th century, but they are a distinct minority and their hiring practices are not respected in the larger musical world.

The International Music Research Centre's Music Gender Identification Survey asks the person taking it to determine whether a performer on a variety of instruments is male or female. After making a few guesses I realized that there was no way for me (and probably for anyone else) to determine the gender of an instrumentalist without seeing the person play. Even the kinds of inflections that I thought might characterize male and female speech were covered up by the inflections and nuances notated in the music.

What about the person who put those inflections, nuances, pitches, and rhythms in the music that was being played? Is it possible to determine the gender of a composer from hearing a piece of music that s/he wrote? There may be qualities in music that could be referred to as distinctly feminine or masculine, but are those qualities connected to the gender of the composer? If it is not possible to identify the gender of a composer from hearing a piece of music, should women who write music be referred to as "women composers" while men who write music are referred to as simply "composers?" I believe that using the world "woman" as an adjective is as archaic as feminizing endings of professions in German. "Lehrer," for example, is the word for teacher, and "Lehrerin" is the name for a female teacher.

By the same rule "Musiker" is the word for a musician, and "Musikerin" is the word for a female musician. We can't do anything about the structure of the German language, but we can decide which words should remain gender neutral in a culture that is on a path towards gender equity. Ludwig Wittgenstein's famous statement, "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world" unfortunately applies to the way that some very intelligent (but also limited) people write about composers these days. In most academic situations the term "chairman" has been shortened to "chair," the words "professor," "artist," "painter," "director," "choreographer," "senator," "dentist," "conductor," and the words to describe instrumentalists like "violinist" and "cellist" are all gender neutral. I believe that "composer" should also be a gender-neutral term.

Imagine what simply changing "he" to either "she" or "s/he" when writing about the people who write music would do to expand the way people think about the gender balance of composers in the 21st century. The limits of my language do define the limits of my world, but my musical world (and everyone's musical world) is growing in new ways, so we need to use language that can keep up with that growth.

As I was entering the age of musical awareness in the 1970s, I heard the names Amy Beach, Lili Boulanger and Rebecca Clarke whispered among groups of musicians who seemed surprised that a woman could write music that was actually good. I remember my surprise when I found out that Cecile Chaminade, who wrote a flute piece that every high school flutist studied, was a woman. I had a firm image of a composer as a man, much the same way I think of a roofer or a train engineer as a man. I devoured music history books, but it was a long time before I read anything about Clara Schumann being anything besides "Schumann's wife." Fanny Mendelssohn was mentioned here and there, but nobody had access to her music. It was a time when most composers were referred to as "he," as well as a time of atonality, serial writing, electronic music, and other forms of experimental writing. Those "feminine" qualities in music (certainly not only used by women) like expression, emotion, and tonal beauty seemed to be on a kind of hiatus in music that was to be taken seriously, and "masculine" qualities (certainly not only used by men) like mathematical organization, experimentation, virtuosity, and bold orchestration, were the respected qualities found in composers of new music.

Though I wanted to start writing music when I was a teenager, I was put off by the gulf between the values I held for the music I practiced and the values that seemed to be important in new music. Serial music had its uses and charms, but I wanted to be able to write music that I could really hear, play, sing, and enjoy. When tonality made a re-appearance in new music in the last decade or so of the 20th century, I felt that it was finally time for me to start writing the music that had been swirling around in the abstract part of my mind for the past 20 years.

I was inspired by the music and lives of women who lived in less friendly (yet more tonal) times like Germaine Tailleferre, Louise Farrenc, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, Pauline Viardot, and Nadia and Lili Boulanger. I have often wondered if the return of tonality as an acceptable component of new music might have had something to do with the general approach to gender equity that started to come about in music after the end of the 1970s. I also wonder if the trend to embrace the more traditionally "feminine" components of music might also be due, in part, to the musical and artistic community's acceptance and celebration of diversity in sexual orientation.

I was encouraged from the start by musicians (both female and male) who were thirsty for new music that would allow them to be expressive on their instruments, particularly on instruments and instrumental combinations that were in need of serious repertoire. Once I had enough technique and confidence to do so, I wrote piece after piece. I have slowed down a bit since the "chain writing" days of my relative youth, but I still almost always have a piece in the works. I try to write in a way that makes the instruments and voices I write for sound strong and resonant, and I like to write music that is rewarding and comfortable for musicians to play. I also try to write music that is accessible, entertaining, meaningful, and interesting for audiences.

I can't imagine that my approach to writing music or my reasons for writing music differ a great deal from my male colleagues who, writing in the 21st century, also embrace tonality and strive for direct and meaningful communication with performing musicians and audiences. I believe that on the practical side of music, the side that includes performers and composers, we are making progress on the path towards gender equity. I am dismayed, however, at the lack acknowledgment in the mainstream commercial musical press, where I do not believe the progress that the musical world has been making towards gender equity has been properly discussed.

I am very happy with my life as a composer. Nearly all of my work is published, and I get the opportunity to write music for wonderful musicians to play. I hope that the higher-profile people in the world of music criticism will take a serious look at the number of women who enjoy the kind of life as a composer that I enjoy, and consider the power that their use of language has to encourage us all on the path towards true gender equity in the world of music.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Rite of Spring and Petrushka

These films of two of Stravinsky's superb ballets are just too good to only share with the students (and assorted other people) who go to my class blog, so I'm linking to them here: The Rite of Spring is performed by the Joffery Ballet with the original Nijinsky choreography, and Petrushka is performed by the Bolshoi Ballet.

Rite of Spring, Part 1
Rite of Spring, Part 2
Rite of Spring, Part 3

Petrushka, Part 1
Petrushka, Part 2
Petrushka, Part 3
Petrushka, Part 4

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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Exalted Reigns

Last night I had a wonderful Haydn experience. It was a performance of the whole Seasons with a large chorus, some fine soloists, and a very small orchestra (a viola section of two). I was unable to go to the single rehearsal, but I spent some serious time wrestling with some of the many difficult passages, wondering what some of the more seemingly obtuse harmonic situations would be like with all the voices. I listened only to the "incipits" I found on Amazon, but otherwise knew nothing of what was going to happen. I have played the viola parts in many Haydn quartets and in a few symphonies, but this was was also my very first time playing the viola part (or any part, for that matter) in an orchestra for a Haydn oratorio. I knew my part, and was excited about the experience.

I call this post "Exalted Reigns" because of the passage "He sole on high exalted reigns" from The Creation. "Exalted reigns" is a "term" I use to describe Haydn's glorious choral contrapuntal writing. The Seasons is filled to the brim with exalted reigns. It is also filled with harmonic puzzles: surprising dissonances with even more surprising resolutions. Because I was hearing the piece for the first time, I felt like I was both audience and performer. Because the piece is performed relatively rarely (nobody in the orchestra had ever played it before), I felt myself part of a small community (or viola section, if you will) with members that had a similar ear-opening experience to mine, through the whole of the 19th and 20th centuries, and all over the world. It felt like a piece of "new music" because of its boldness, its invention, and its surprising ability to be conventional and unconventional at the same time. Haydn also manages to put a little Mozart in (some Magic Flute and Figaro), while still sounding like himself. There are hundreds of details I missed the first time: I have to get my hands on a score!

The oratorio is probably performed (in its entirety) so rarely because it is three hours long, and it requires constant playing (and constant attention) on the part of the string section. My section-mate and I split the recitatives (which were played by solo strings): she played the first two seasons, and I played the last two. The person who plays the recitatives plays and concentrates constantly for an hour and a half, so I can understand why she wanted a break.

We took a brief intermission while the conductor changed scores. I told him (meeting him for the first time) that I was really enjoying the performance. He was, of course, tired. Here's part of our exchange:

Me: I guess a year is a long time.
He: That's why I prefer The Creation: it only takes 7 days.

Clever man. Clever composer.

I was physically worn out by the end, but I was emotionally giddy, filled with exalted reigns. After The Seasons, the two Messiahs I'll be playing next week will be a relative piece of cake, but I would love to play more Haydn.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Kivy's Codetta

I love the "codetta" that Peter Kivy puts at the end of his "Opera talk: A philosophical 'phantasie'" chapter in The Fine Art of Repetition.
Strange creatures these operatic people, worthy of the wildest of science fiction imaginations. What bizarre transformations they have undergone to have become able to speak in song and move as disembodied orchestral sound. O brave new world that has such people in it. How remote they are from us and our prosaic and bodily lives. And what is the Countess to me that I should weep for her? Is it enough to say that we have both acquired the art of expression, but that she has got a little ahead of me? "Little" is hardly the word for it. She has Mozart's powers, and I only my own. Yet there must be common ground. Or so at least I assure myself, somewhat doubiously, each time I go to the opera to believe the impossible.
Kivy writes about operatic characters as being composers of their own music, and here he refers, by the way, to these "fantasy" composers as being both women and men.

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Monday, November 26, 2007

Authenticity Again

Or maybe I should call this "Authenticity and Innocences"

I have been reading an excellent book of essays by the philosopher Peter Kivy called The Fine Art of Repetition: Essays in the Philosophy of Music that is, fortunately browsable by way of Google Books. Though I don't agree with everything Kivy says, and there are some glaring "innocences" in the chapter on the concept of "historically accurate" performance, like a reference to the Mozart Clarinet Concerto having been played on the clarinet and only the clarinet (we know now that it was written for the basset clarinet), and his reference to the term Adagio as a tempo marking rather than an indication of character, I really enjoy his writing and the spirit of his arguments.

You might notice that Kivy always refers to performing musicians and musicologists as "he or she," but he only refers to composers as "he." Hmm. I guess that is another "innocence."

Thursday, November 22, 2007

But what does it mean?

Imagine my surprise when I found this image on this BibliOdyssey post today. Even though my first initial and last name appears at the end, I promise I didn't write it. I don't even know what it means! Can anyone translate it?

Musical Paleontology

For the past several days I have been reconstructing a cantata written by someone who died recently. I never knew this person, and I barely know the person who asked me to notate and "flesh out" the melodies that he wrote for his texts. Since the melodies are notated only with letter names of notes (everything is in C major), there is much left to the imagination, but it is surprisingly easy to understand what his musical intentions must have been. The rhythms and harmonies are almost implicit. I don't know if it is from the handwriting, the texts, or the physical way the pages look, but I have been able, without question, to come up with plausible musical material.

It reminds me of the first project of this sort that I ever took on.

One of the perks of being a violist in a rather rural area is that it is relatively easy to find people to play chamber music with. At least it was for me when I started playing. I was so grateful to my chamber music partners for keeping musical company with me, a rank beginner, that I started making arrangements to kind of earn my keep in the ensemble. The viola seat in a string quartet is kind of like having the "answer key" to a puzzle. You can hear, see, and feel how a composition is put together by looking at it from the inside, from its inner voices. It was rather easy and really quite a bit of fun to make arrangements of pieces to play at weddings and parties, and it gave our quartet a certain caché to have our own unique arrangements. I must have made 50 or 60 arrangements before even thinking of myself as possibly becoming a composer and writing music of my own.

The turning point for me came when a local business owner named Gene Hoots, who owned a restaurant called the "Burger King" (named before the chain copyrighted the name) asked one member of my quartet if he could make arrangements of some of his songs for our string quartet. Of course this request was forwarded to me since I was the in-house arranger. The project (for which I was actually paid!) ended up being huge. Gene gave me a whole case of cassette tapes of him playing the piano and singing his country songs, along with piano pieces that he thought of as being "classical." I painstakingly notated the ones that I thought had some musical value, and I arranged them for quartet. After working for a while on these pieces, I realized that there was often a lot of "me" in the arrangements, and I realized that, whether I liked it or not, I had a "voice" as a composer. After completing the project I began writing some music of my own. It was then that I decided it was a good time to learn something about composition. I was very lucky to find an excellent teacher who was able to teach me what I need to learn, while incorporating what I had already taught myself through my experience as a performing and arranging musician.

Our quartet ended up recording the songs, and Gene put them on the jukebox (yes, there is still one) in his restaurant. He also sold the CDs at the counter. I imagine that there are several hundred copies (I think that he made a thousand of them) sitting around in pick-up trucks around the state. We also performed them a few times, sometimes with Gene at the piano. I guess the recording never made Gene famous as a composer, but it certainly made him and his friends and customers happy.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Contrabassoon Recital in Downers Grove

I'm very excited today to head up to Downers Grove, a western suburb of Chicago, to hear a contrabassoon recital played by Susan Nigro this evening. She will be playing a program that includes the two pieces I wrote for her: More Greek Myths and the Harlequin Sonata with pianist Mark Lindeblad. The concert is at The Chicago Piano Superstore (click on today's date when you get there), starts at 5:15, and is free, but you should RSVP to reserve a seat.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Wise Words from Alex Shapiro

Composer Alex Shapiro has wise words of advice for all musicians.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Why I'm the luckiest person in the world

I felt like the luckiest person in the world while playing my concert on Monday night because I finally felt like I could express myself musically on the violin. It has taken years, and my path has been filled with twists and turns, many instruments, and several dead ends (I played violin from 7 to 11 and then took it up seriously at the age of 31).

As a violinist I am an amateur in the purest sense of the word. I play viola professionally (for money), write music professionally, teach professionally, and write reviews and program notes professionally, but I play the violin for myself. I have nothing to "prove" as a violinist, which is what makes the whole process of playing and practicing so fulfilling. I don't think that I will ever be able to play like the great violinists--both alive and dead--that I admire (or even as well as the ones I don't admire), but it really doesn't matter because now that I have enough technique to actually express myself on the violin, getting close to the essence of the music I play is enough. And there's a lot more to learn.

I practice the violin because I love to practice the violin, and I play violin recitals twice a year because I love to really work on repertoire with my pianist friend John David, who plays music for pretty much the same reasons that I play music. I wasn't nervous on Monday night. I was excited to share the "stuff" that John David and I love about the music we were playing with the audience, and I'm looking forward to the next time we get a chance to do it. It looks like the main "dish" of the next concert will be a sonata by York Bowen.

Friday, November 09, 2007

David Nadien

I should be thinking about other things, but since listening to this recording of violin chestnuts played by violinist David Nadien and pianist Boris Barere, all I can really think about is how absolutely beautifully this man plays the violin. You can listen to some sound clips and then you will understand.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

A wordless setting of Amy Lowell's "Lilacs"

Here is a performance of Lilacs for flute, clarinet, cello, and piano that I wrote a few years ago, as performed last April by the Arcadia Chamber Players.

You can read the poem here.

Musical Times

In addition to the item that Michael posted from the November 1940 Musical Times, I thought I'd share this set of "Musical Notes from Abroad."

The notice about Chopin's music being banned in Poland is what caught my eye first. Going back in the musical time machine we get to read a notice about Bartok starting his US tour, Wittgenstein's commission for a Left Hand Concerto from Britten, a concert in Zurich of music by French, Italian, English, and German women, a performance of a new set of Poulenc songs, and lots of "early" music in Berne.

Monday, November 05, 2007

More Tonality and Atonality Talk

"Haydn makes you think that what goes up must come down, but then shows you that what goes up may turn left."

From Kenneth Woods' Tonality and Surprise

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Long Tones

These examples are here for the benefit of string players who have never been exposed to the two best long tone warm up exercises from the world of flute playing. They kind of serve as exercises and meditations. I love to get completely lost in the complicated acts involved in sound production and really clear intonation, and forget about what notes I am playing or where I am on the fiddle. On the flute I used to practice these at 60 to the quarter note. I like to practice them without a metronome (it distracts from the meditative experience) but I like to stay strictly in rhythm, filling out every note as completely as possible.

Spending quality time in the high register of the violin is kind of like re-connecting with what I always wanted to do as a flutist: make the flute sound like a violin. Now I'm trying to make the upper register of the violin feel and even sound like the upper register of the flute!

Go figure!

Friday, November 02, 2007

Full of Air

A few weeks ago, when Tim Fain played his Kevin Puts encore, I noticed that when he played all alone in the upper register I could hear a huge amount of air in addition to the pitches he was playing. His fiddle is probably the best fiddle I have heard played all alone in a hall with acoustics like the hall in the Krannert Center's "Great Hall," and he is probably one of the best violinists I have had the pleasure of hearing sustained in the high register, all alone.

Since I am preparing to play a violin recital that happens to have many sustained notes up in the ledger-line register, I decided to switch into flute mode when I was practicing today. When you play high in the flute register, the air is part of the sound. It is, after all, what you use to make the sound. It was only today that I realized that when I play the violin in the highest register, and I listen for the air in the sound, the sound is far richer and better in tune that it is if I don't listen for the presence of air in the sound.

So I played long tones today, and I used the Moyse Sonority Etude #1, which was my first warm-up of the day for all the years that I practiced the flute. Rather than starting on B above the staff and going downward to C chromatically, I started with high B, and made my way down to open G, listening all the while for air. I was able to keep the air going for a long time, even onto the G string. It was really fun, and after practicing this exercise I even felt a little bit lightheaded. I guess I was doing the kind of breathing that I do when playing the flute, which proves another point: how you breathe affects the way you play.

I tried it on the viola, but I couldn't hear any air in the upper register. The brightness and body of the sound must cover it all up. Maybe this is one reason that it is difficult to play both violin and viola well: you have to listen for different things in the sound and adjust your physical equipment accordingly.

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Steve Hicken's 5x5

I can't resist a quiz, especially since I should be doing a few other things at the moment. But Steve Hicken put this on his blog, so I'll make it fast.

1) What five operas would you most like to see performed?

This is a trick question for opera composers. I have written three operas and one intermezzo, which I hope to see performed while I'm still alive. You can read about them here. The other two would be Hindemith's Sancta Susanna, which was performed for the first time in New York a couple of years ago (and I only knew after the fact), and, though it is not an opera, I would love to see and hear Richard Strauss' ballet Schlagobers, a ballet that has various desserts as characters.

2) What five pieces would you most like to hear performed?

besides a few of mine . . .
Richard Peaslee's "The Devil's Herald" for tuba, four horns, and percussion
Anthiel's Ballet Mechanique
Bach's whole St. Matthew Passion
Some of Machaut isorhythmic motets
Rameau's Dardanus

3) What five living performers would you most like to meet?

Leif Ove Andsnes
David Nadien
Bryn Terfel
Michala Petri
The Leipzig String Quartet

4) What five living composers would you most like to meet?

besides Steve Hicken and some of the other composers I feel I know through the composerly blogosphere:

Garbriela Frank
Lera Auerbach
David Matthews (the British composer, not Dave Matthews)
Daniel Nelson
Deborah Drattell

5) What five living musicians (composers, performers, writers, scholars, etc) would you most like to play three-on-three basketball with/against?

I would hope to have Richard Taruskin on my team. I'm not sure if Alex Ross would be happy about playing basketball with a short woman composer. I think it would be fun to play anything, including basketball, with the members of the Liepzig String Quartet.

Please Don't Smoke

My husband Michael, in a response to an odd Google query asking for a song for seven-year-old children about smoking, presented me with lyrics for a song for me to write with him to answer the query.

Be careful. It's kind of catchy.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Musica Reservata

Richard Taruskin tells us that music is essentially entertainment. He is absolutely correct, but it is, and always has been, entertaining on many levels for many different types of listeners. There is music for the public, music for the performing musicians, and music for the entertainment of heady fellow composers who want to share an elite musical language.

Take the isorhythmic 14th-century motets of Machaut, which are carefully put-together musical puzzles that take a great deal of study to even begin to understand. Many of Machaut's pieces are quite beautiful, but many, especially the ones that have multiple languages and multiple meters, are extremely difficult to perform correctly. And when they are performed correctly only a well-trained ear would know. All of his motets were recorded for the first time in 2004.

It is more difficult for me, as a listener, to find my way through an isorhythmic motet than it is to find my way through a piece of well-written 12-tone music. It is certainly far easier for me to play a piece of 12-tone-music than it is to sing an isorhythmic 14th-century motet.

In defense of the dodecophonists who have been so vilified of late, 12-tone music is kind of fun to write. When the rules of consonance and dissonance are reversed, making dissonances the desirable intervals to use, all kinds of new musical relationships and new musical hierarchies just seem to appear. It is very liberating, at least for a while, to mess around with atonality, as long as you let yourself break the "rules" once in a while. And then it is exciting to play some music by Schoenberg, Berg, or Webern, and see (and hear) how well the system can be used. It is also really interesting to listen to how effectively atonality has been used in films, like "Planet of the Apes," and in television shows like "The Twilight Zone."

But, taken out of its functional context as film music, 12-tone-music is musica reservata, and has always been. I think the big problem with atonality in popular culture (and I mean highbrow popular culture) is that people were led to believe, perhaps by the huge ego and personality of Arnold Schoenberg and the importance of people in his circle, that every intelligent person who had any kind of musical taste should fall under the spell of 12-tone music. This, of course, never happened. It is not something you just fall under the spell of like you do with 19th-century music. It is something, like reading philosophy, that you have to seek out and devote a great deal of time and study to in order to even begin to understand your way around it. You usually have to want to like it.

I remember my first exposure to 12-tone music. It was when I was 10. I sang in the children's chorus for Wozzeck. We had to sing an atonal melody, but not knowing what an atonal melody was, I just thought it was strange and awkward because of the large intervals. I was in the company of other clueless children, and the people who taught us how to sing it taught us in such a matter-of-fact way that we were able to do a really good job. I remember that the orchestra shuffled their feet after we sang in the first rehearsal. Erich Leinsdorf was the orchestral conductor, and Michael Tilson Thomas was our own personal conductor.

Although it scared me a lot (the knife, the water, the unhappy people), I thought that Wozzeck was an extremely cool opera. It was actually the very first opera I ever heard. A few years later, when I considered myself more musically aware, I heard my father practice a rather strange piece. He practiced it every day for weeks, and the tune stuck itself in my head and would not go away. It turns out it was the viola part of the Schoenberg Trio, only he was practicing it at about one quarter of the tempo. But, after all that exposure I was able to hear it in context. I can still sing it.

But is there any 12-tone music on my music stand? No. Would I be willing to give up my beloved Beethoven in favor of Schoenberg? No. Would I go out of my way to hear a performance of a 12-tone-piece by Schoenberg, Berg, or Webern played by a professional ensemble? Yes. Would I ever consider learning and performing a 12-tone piece? Yes.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Copying Beethoven

I just finished watching Copying Beethoven, which suffered from being historically inaccurate, having a horrible script, and having actors and actresses who spoke in a stilted style to suggest that the film was set "back then" in a "foreign" place. The costumes and sets were excellent though, as was the camera work. Ed Harris, the actor who played Beethoven, even managed to look plausible playing the violin. He was shirtless (he was for a good chunk of the movie), and if there were a set of other arms and hands playing the subject of the Grosse Fugue on the violin, I didn't see them. The piano he used sounded pretty authentic, but the representation of him as being someone who could not hear was very inauthentic.

Musically speaking, the movie had some excellent performances. The Kecskeméti chorus and orchestra played a great "hearer's digest" version of the 9th Symphony, but the addition of the pseudo-love interest copyist, who reminded me a little of Tinker Bell, sitting in the middle of the orchestra showing Beethoven what he should be doing as a conductor, made it hard to appreciate the excellent camera work and enjoy the performance of the piece.

I wish that the DVD had larger print in the credits so that I could have read that the excellent string quartet was the Takács Quartet (I had to consult Amazon). The IMDb lists all the drivers, gaffers, and boom operators, but they neglect to list the real stars of the film, the Takács Quartet.

Beethoven for Novices

There are times when I am really grateful that, as a community college instructor (which I am on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:00 until 2:15, with breaks for practicing and lunch), I get to teach a course that has material that cannot be "dumbed down." I do incorporate certain elements of "history lite," "analysis lite," "theory lite," and "musicology lite" in my highly generalized commentary, but most of the class time (75 minutes) is spent listening to music. That means that the students who have come to all of the classes so far have listened with guidance to between 1000 and 1200 minutes of music, or 18-20 hours. And the music is not "music lite." It is the real thing. There are no cliffs notes. There is no way to "skim." When a performance is successful it goes "in" to the prepared mind, like wine goes "in" to the flavor of prepared vegetables when de-glazing a pan.

By the time we reach Beethoven the students have had the maps of classical forms outlined for them so many times that they can begin to follow the structure of individual movements. They can also, in a small way, understand the fact that every Classical ("Classical" with a capital "C" refers to the Classical Period) piece they hear deviates in some way from what we might call the "norm." They also have a small-but-functional vocabulary of musical terms, so that when I point out something that is fugal, for example, they understand what I'm talking about.

I like to introduce Beethoven to my students by way of his string quartets, outlining circumstances in his life and work from Opus 18 through Opus 135. Then, in the next class, we go on to his piano music. We usually start with the Pathetique Sonata because it is in the textbook (at least the first movement is, but we listen to the whole thing), and then we usually listen to a couple of songs, and a few excerpts from piano concertos, violin sonatas, and other chamber music. Since I found this performance of the first movement of Opus 111 played by Sviatoslav Richter, I thought it would be nice to follow the structure of the String Quartet class and let them hear Beethoven's last piano sonata.

Listening to this performance is like reading (and understanding) Faust in the original, or watching a great performance of King Lear. And then we followed it with this wonderful performance of Coriolan conducted by Carlos Klieber. I felt a little guilty about filling my students' hearts and minds with such substance (particularly the students in the 8:00 class), but I did wonder if during the rest of the day some of them--or even one of them--might have had the fugue subject of Opus 111 pounding in his or her head and heart like it did in mine. And maybe yours.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Rest Is Men

I suppose I was a bit hasty with my last post about Alex Ross' book. I finally found some women composers in The Rest Is Noise, but the list (on page 516) is followed by a disturbing statement:
A comprehensive list of significant voices in contemporary music would include Franghiz Ali-Zadeh of Azerbaijan, Chen Yi of China, Unsuk Chin of South Korea, Sofia Gubaidulina of Russia, Kaija Saariaho of Finland, and Pauline Oliveros of the United States. Composition has also ceased to be exclusively male; the preceding six composers are all women.
Ross must know that composition has never been exclusively male. What was he thinking when he wrote that statement?

Since Ross doesn't say anything in the book about Ali-Zadeh, I'm putting a link to her here (this is also the first I have heard of her). Unsuk Chin is named on Ross' list, but like Ali-Zadeh her only reference in the index is to the list of women on page 516. Kaija Saariaho made it onto two lists: one of women and the other of Finns, but there is nothing in the book about her music or the music of Chen Yi.

To his credit, Ross does have part of a sentence about Pauline Oliveros on page 492, which she shares with Morton Subotnick, and he does write a bit about Sofia Gubaidulina, though mostly in relation to the circumstances of Shostakovich's life in Soviet Russia. He does, however, devote nearly a whole paragraph to Gubaidulina, and in it he (very briefly) describes two of her pieces.

Aside from a few references to performing musicians (Billie Holiday, Björk, and Bessie Smith, for example), all the rest is men.

For another review of the book I would suggest Charles Shere's view from the Eastside.

This review set my ear's mind reeling

If you have the time, and you'll need a lot of it, read this hefty review by Richard Taruskin that is in the current issue of The New Republic.
"What draws listeners to music--not just to classical music, but to any music-- is what cannot be paraphrased: the stuff that sets your voice a-humming, your toes a-tapping, your mind's ear ringing, your ear's mind reeling. And that is not the kind of response anyone's books can instill. It is picked up, like language, from exposure and reproduction, which eventually lead to internalization."
I think it is time to head to the library and take a serious look at The Oxford History of Music.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The rest are women

The people at Farrar, Straus and Giroux deserve a huge round of applause for promoting The Rest is Noise so effectively. Subsequent encouragement from the musical blog world led me to buy the book on Amazon, though I was planning to wait until it came out in paperback. It is very well written, and makes a lot of cultural connections. I believe that this book will increase the awareness of music's presence in the history of the 20th century.

I wish that Ross had given a little more than a paragraph to Nadia Boulanger. I wish he had mentioned Lili. There are a couple of paragraphs on Ruth Crawford Seeger, with a reference to her biographer Judith Tick, and there is a paragraph about the Princess de Polignac, but there is no mention of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. Important 20th century composers like Louise Talma, Joan Tower, Lucia Dlugoszewski, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich are also overlooked in Ross' 20th century. Germaine Tailleferre's name is mentioned as one of "les six," but Ross does not write anything about her or her music.

I know that there is not space in a book like this for everything, but it would be nice for intelligent people who are new to what I also don't like to call "classical music" to have a sense of the gender equity that started in music during the 20th century, and it would be nice to have the kind of public cultural recognition that will help it to continue.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Recordings: museums of music

While visiting the St. Louis Art Museum yesterday, I was struck by the thought that contemporary music has finally "made it," as far as the record (literally, I suppose) goes, into a realm where it is as accessible as visual art. Pieces of 20th century art that are a part of a museum's permanent collection can be visited again and again. For example, a 15 or 20-year-old sculpture in the St. Louis Museum that is made mostly of broken glass moved from an inner gallery to the museum's foyer, but it is still the same. Its material hasn't changed. Its "meaning" (according to the artist) hasn't changed. But I have changed and grown since the first time, and even the last time I saw it (along with all the other works in the permanent collection). Whether I like it or not, that sculpture is a part of my life.

It is the same with recordings, particularly recordings of music written in our own time. Now that we all have so much current music accessible to us on recordings, those recordings become the unchanging "sculptures" that measure who we are. Various styles of 20th-century music vie for position in what will eventually be called "posterity." As we hear more and more recordings of music by the many lesser-known composers of the 20th century who went about their business without trying to be radical, we realize that atonality, serialism, electronic, and chance music could be thought of simply as experiments in musical organization that composers used (and still use) as mediums for expression. Performers, just like performers of music from previous centuries, use contemporary compositions as vehicles for their own self expression.

Some music written using these techniques is genuine and engaging, and some of it, like what we sometimes see when one visual artist dabbles in a technique foreign to his or her customary style or medium, can sound out of place or downright phony. Also, people with little musical talent, like visual artists with little artistic talent, can have easy access to the materials necessary to create something that can pass for music (because it operates in an aural medium) and make a big sound (with amplification) or a big impact. This wasn't something "available" in the days before recording technology.

Still, like a visit to a museum, listening at various intervals of our lives to recordings of contemporary music helps us to measure our growth as listeners and recognize our limits, likes, and dislikes in a way that no other inhabitants of any previous century, who were not musicians themselves, have had the chance to do. Because of this always-accessible "aural museum," contemporary music is finally attaining an equal status to that of contemporary art.

Friday, October 19, 2007


I grew up during the age of awareness about early music, and as I started to learn more and more about "correct" baroque articulation in the 1970s and 1980s, and developed a reverence for the "urtext" as the best source and the best path to musical truth, I developed a kind of disdain for most of the editions of baroque music that were available during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. It might have been because the flute editions were often filled with thoughtless articulations and dynamics, particularly when the editor was Jean-Pierre Rampal. I assumed that violin editions would have the same lack of insight, but last night I proved myself very wrong.

I am working on the Bach C minor Sonata for violin and harpsichord, BWV 1017, which I am performing with piano next month. Rather than try to pretend the piano is a harpsichord, and that I am playing a baroque violin, our approach is to play the piece as well as possible using modern equipment. I have been futzing with the bowings of the opening Siciliano, seeking out alternatives to the printed bowing, which I imagine is not Bach's since the edition we are using is not an urtext.

Last night I decided to tape record myself, and to my horror and shame I found that I was making all sorts of false accents, and I failed to sustain dotted rhythms properly when I applied bowings that I thought were "stylistically correct." I tried bowing the passages in question in several different ways, and my tape recorder revealed glaring errors with each bowing alteration. Then I tried the "inauthentic" printed version, and my false accents and rhythmic instability disappeared. My guess is that this part was edited by a very smart violinist who knew how to make the violin do what the music asked it to do.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Fugavergnügen, or the love of counterpoint, is a term I thought up when I was writing a review of some chamber music by Roy Harris. Bach had it, and so did Mendelssohn, Glazunov, and Reger. Schubert had his Fugavergnügen cut off: he had unrealized plans near the end of his short life to study fugue writing.

Hugo Kauder, the composer I quoted below, had serious Fugavergnügen. People even referred to what he liked to write as "Kauderpoint." When Kauder moved to Vienna from Moravia in 1905 to study engineering, he spent most his time studying newly-published scores of Josquin and other Flemish composers of the Renaissance that were in the Imperial Court Library. He kept writing counterpoint while his Viennese contemporaries were becoming famous for abandoning tonality. Kauder kept writing counterpoint after he moved to America in 1940.

In 1960 he wrote a textbook on counterpoint that I am eagerly awaiting to arrive, along with a bunch of his music, by way interlibrary loan. For those of you who, like me, have Fugavergnügen (either as listeners, practicing musicians, composers, or all three) I'll let you know all about my Kauder experience.

Just for the record, the only professional recording of Kauder's music (so far) is by the Euclid Quartet on Chandos. If you look at the worldcat you will see music for all kinds of instrumental and vocal combinations.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Last night I played in the orchestra for a really satisfying performance of the Barber Violin Concerto with Tim Fain as the soloist. After the concerto Fain played a stunning encore by Kevin Puts: an excerpt from "Arches" for solo violin. During intermission many of the violinists in the orchestra asked Fain about the piece.

Playing a newly-written piece as an encore after a familiar concerto is really a great way to expose the audience to the newest part of the ever-expanding repertoire, but there is a hidden perk in the experience when the members of the orchestra get excited about the piece, and want to learn it themselves.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Paying Attention

Sometimes it seems that I need to jump backwards through hoops in order to get my community college students to pay attention to what they are listening to, but I have finally learned that getting someone to pay attention for the length of time that a movement of a piece might take is not the same as having that person (or those people, in this case) get into the habit of paying attention. It is the habit of playing attention that ultimately allows people to get the most out of life and to appreciate the wonders of the world around them.

One naive hope I have is that listening to music carefully as a group might make a kind of "light bulb" go on for my students; but I am resigned to admit that it is only through practice and freedom from distraction that people can learn to pay attention to what they are doing when it is necessary to do so. My other naive hope is that through listening to music with an ear pointed towards its emotional content, people who ordinarily would not let themselves be connected to deep and complicated emotions would find comfort and freedom in "feeling" through the emotional expressions of great composers and performers.

So many of my community college students seem distracted and removed, both intellectually and emotionally. I often wonder if they will ever think of the content of their music appreciation course as anything more than material to study the day before an exam. I guess the rewards from having taken a class like this might come later in their lives.

I know that I can always help my private students pay attention to what is required, even if they don't always do things correctly all the time. Paying attention to what is wrong (when they make mistakes) is just as valuable as paying attention to what is right. They are eager to close the window on the rest of the world and, when prompted and encouraged, listen to their intonation, listen to the quality of their sounds, observe the function of their hands, arms, and fingers, and count. I think that they actually like being asked to focus their attention on the tasks at hand, and they seem to be pleased that I care about their progress.

Then again, the are not being graded, and the only reward they get (besides an occasional sticker for the young ones) is the satisfaction of making music.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

A Musical Feast

I'm not a music historian, but I tend to read a lot of books about musicians and composers, and I indulge in thinking (some would say obsessing) about particular composers and their relationships to the world around them, particularly the situations that have "produced" their best works.

The world of music-loving patrons asking people to write music, while it must be alive somewhere, seems to be reserved for a small segment of the composing and performing part of the musical population, and seems to be concentrated around major cities. Much of the financial part of the process is clothed in foundations and 501c3 organizations, and has moved from being a personal kind of interaction to being a public one.

Back in the 19th century, Franz Schubert had a circle of friends who read poetry together. He happened to be the composer of the group, so his friends were delighted to see and hear what he "did" with "their" poetry. He kept popping out piece after piece because he was in a circle of friends who appreciated what he did, and wanted more. His song writing was as much a service to the medium of poetry as it was to a gift to his friends. He also had a group of friends (men and women) who were students of Salieri who were particularly interested in each other's music, and they were all living under the shadows of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, who were only inaccessible because they were dead. Thankfully there were a few people in the business who recognized his gifts as a composer, but what really ran his musical motor was the knowledge that people wanted what he could produce, and producing it made him happy.

Alexander Glazunov was part of a circle of composers who were all students and friends of Rimsky-Korsakov. Every Friday Glazunov and his friends would go to the home of Mitrofan Belyayev, a businessman who made his fortune in lumber, and play string quartets (Belyayev usually played the viola) by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven until the wee hours of the night, and then they would eat. The composers who took part in Belyayev's Fridays were expected to bring pieces of their own, and they would be played. Glazunov wrote fantastic chamber music as a result of these Fridays. Belyayev started a publishing company to showcase this newly-composed Russian music. He did it because he loved music, especially Russian music, and he had the financial means to share this love for music with people outside of his circle of friends, outside of Russia, and into the future.

The Princess de Polignac was totally dedicated to music. She studied organ with Nadia Boulanger, and she had the financial means to support the composers she admired by asking them to write pieces of music to be performed for her in her home. I imagine that she felt like her "salon" could be sort of a like a court in the Renaissance, or the court of Louis XIV. She was equally devoted to what was then called "ancient music" (the first modern performance of Rameau's Dardanus was in her home, and she financed the first recordings of Monteverdi) as she was to contemporary music (she commissioned music from Stravinsky, Poulenc, Ravel, Satie, Tailleferre, Weill, and a slew of other composers), and helped the performing careers of people like Clara Haskil and the whole of the Ballet Russe. She had two quartets of Stradivarius instruments in her home, and invited young musicians to play them for her and her friends. She particularly liked Beethoven's late quartets. The musicians who came to her house were paid to play, and they got to play on fantastic instruments and eat great food.

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge began her life as a patron by holding a contest to increase the viola repertoire so that her son would have more music to play. She was more of a "professional" patron than a social one. She didn't really seem to care about the social aspects of music making, though she enjoyed having personal working relationships with the composers and ensembles she worked with. A frustrated composer herself (being an upper-class woman in the United States during the early part of the 20th century, she was not encouraged to continue her composition studies) she put her energy into promoting the work of composers she admired. She paid Gian-Francesco Malipiero to make the first modern editions of Monteverdi's madrigals (the ones the Princess's friends used to make the first recordings), and she started the chamber music series at the Library of Congress, requesting string quartets to play entire cycles of Beethoven quartets.

Following the example of Coolidge, perhaps, we now have people and ensembles who are looking for new music to play--particularly ensembles made of unusual instruments. Commissioning music seems to now be ensemble-specific, but it tends to be, as far as I can tell, initiated by performing musicians who ask organizations for money, rather than by individual people who are devoted to music, but do not play professionally themselves. Finding performance venues for new music is also difficult unless an ensemble has personal connections with a school or concert series, or the composer is extremely well known.

We also have academia, which should be (and I imagine sometimes is) a haven for social-musical and artistic-intellectual interaction. People in some schools must get together and talk about poetry, and there are certainly composers in groups like these who would want to set contemporary poetry to music. Unfortunately for composers, poetry that is published is protected by copyright, and setting it to music would involve legal complications with public performances. Publication, because it would involve permission, which often translates into money, would be impossible for most composers. The musical possibilities for our current literary culture are seriously limited.

Academic situations also offer a huge range of music to hear: music from all over the world, music that celebrates tonality, serial and minimalist music, music that incorporates technology, "scholarly" music that embraces a bunch of popular styles, jazz, and, in some places, music written by students and members of the faculty. What is new, as we can see from new music blogs on line, is both varied and plentiful. The shadow of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven is something that many people involved in new music encounter only occasionally. There just doesn't seem to be time for everything we have on our musical plate.

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Guest blogger, Franz Schubert

In 1816 Franz Schubert kept a diary, which he wrote in from time to time. He was very much in love with a woman named Therese Grob, but because he didn't make enough money as an assistant schoolteacher to get married (there was a law in Vienna that required a man to make a certain amount of money if he wanted to marry), they had to part ways.

Here are a few extracts from his diary, taken from Elizabeth Norman McKay's Franz Schubert biography:
"Man resembles a ball in play, subject to chance and passions. . . . He is like an actor on a stage who plays his part as best he can. If the part suits him, he plays it well; but his success in the eyes of others is of no matter, as their response is colored by their mood at the time rather than by the excellence of the performance."

"Happy is the man who finds a true man-friend; but happier still he who finds a true friend in his wife."

"These days matrimony is an alarming thought to an unmarried man; if he does not marry, he has to settle for misery or gross sensuality [one could read that to mean either being celibate or going to prostitutes]. Monarchs of today, you see what is happening an do nothing. Or are you blind to it? if so, O God, shroud our senses and feelings in numbness; but remove the shroud again one day without lasting harm."

"A light mind accompanies a light heart; yet too light a mind usually conceals too heavy a heart."
The drawing, by the way, was made on Schubert's 200th birthday in 1997 by our then eight-year-old son Ben.

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Saturday, September 29, 2007

More Greek Myths

After playing "Four Greek Myths" for contrabassoon and piano, Susan Nigro commissioned me to write "More Greek Myths." She and Mark Lindeblad played them in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, and I thought I'd share their performance here.

This collection of musical mythological characters travels from the Apollonian to the Dionysian, with all the Greek gods and godesses "dressed" in tonal material. Heracles, the only mortal in the group, is written using 12-tone material, and he is flanked by Artemis (the virgin huntress) on one side and Aphrodite (the goddess of love) on the other.

Harlequin Sonata

In addition to "More Greek Myths," Susan Nigro commissioned me to write "something Italian" for contrabassoon and piano so I wrote this Italianate sonata for her. Sue and Mark Lindeblad played it on the same program as "More Greek Myths" in Chicago a few weeks ago, and a recording of it is on my American Music Center page.

Here's a lovely description of Harlequin from Jean-François Marmontel (1723-1799) as quoted by Maurice Sand in The History of the Harlequinade that I think applies to the contrabassoon as well.
His character presents a mixture of ignorance, naïveté, stupidity and grace. He is like a mere sketch of a man, a great child visited by flashes of reason and intelligence, in all of whose capers and awkwardnesses there is something sharp and interesting. The model Harlequin is all suppleness and agility, with the grace of a young cat, yet equipped with a superficial coarseness that renders his performances more amusing; the role is that of a lackey, patient, faithful, credulous, gluttonous, always in love, always in difficulties either on his master's account or on his own, afflicting himself and consoling himself again with the readiness of a child, one whose sorrows are as amusing as his joys.
For future performances of these pieces this fall, visit Susan Nigro's performance page on her website.

UPDATE: Here's a performance from April 1, 2021 by Trent Jacobs and pianist Nicholas Phillips

Friday, September 28, 2007

More on Musical Memory

I think I have finally figured out something about musical memory, my nemesis. I just realized today that for me the process of playing from memory seems to involve getting from one note to the next note, or in the case of playing many voices at a time, one group of notes or one hand position to the next one. If this is true, memorizing a long piece of music should be pretty much the same as memorizing a short one: it simply involves physically, intellectually, and aurally knowing what comes next. It is kind of like knowing the way to get somewhere without having to refer to directions, but using visual cues along the road to remind you where to turn right or left. It doesn't "ask" you to remember where you've been, or even the contour of the "road." It only asks you to look ahead and proceed onward.

I was playing a movement of Bach today, one that I didn't think I knew from memory (I was simply too lazy to move the music from the pile sitting on my table to the music stand), and while I was playing it I paid attention only to the sounds of notes and the physical positions of my hands. I didn't think about the written music at all, and paid absolutely no attention to the names of the pitches I was playing. With the exception of one place where I "drove off the road," I was able to play the whole movement from memory, one note at a time, and sometimes even one group of notes at a time.