Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Always Modern Composer

I just found this wonderful post about Haydn by Kenneth Woods. I could say that we should have a Haydn "Renaissance," but it would not be necessary because his music has never gone out of style. There is something about Haydn that is always fresh, new, and challenging--even in pieces that I have heard and played dozens of times.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Speaking of Film Composers

Terry Teachout's challenge to find significant comedy film scores for Hollywood movies has really been bothering me. Chaplin's City Lights is the only comedy movie score that compares with the the dramatic film scores that I love.

This challenge led me to the Film Score Monthly Poll Archive where I was unable to find much more about high-quality comedy film scores, but I was able to find out some odd poll results. A poll that asks "Who is your favorite female film or TV composer" comes out with Wendy Carlos (!) as the overall favorite, and very few other choices. (Didn't she write the score for A Clockwork Orange when she was Walter Carlos?).

Here's the poll result for comedy film scores. These are just two of 215 polls about film music. I could spend far too much time looking at all the poll results.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

All I Know is What I Read in the Paper

Musical America reports that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is planning to eliminate music and art reviewers from its staff.

When classical music reviews and art reviews stop appearing in the newspaper (any newspaper), the people in the potential audience for music and for art will think that these forms of entertainment and cultural stimulation either longer exist in their communities, or are not worth bothering with. If music and art reviews are written by writers who do not know what they are talking about, the newspaper is doing almost as much damage to the overall state of the arts.

Please read this eloquent statement at Dial M for Musicology by Jonathan Bellman. I certainly hope that someone on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution board understands the extent of the damage that can be done to the musical life of a community by eliminating positions that report on the arts. I also hope that the decision-makers on the board might realize the large amount that they contribute to their community simply by reporting intelligently on what goes on in the arts.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Armando Aguirre sings Barrio de tango

My favorite recording of "Barrio de tango" is by Roberto Goyeneche, but this performance by Armando Aguirre singing in the style of Goyeneche (while sitting at his computer so I can watch and listen while sitting at my computer) is also great.

While spending time at the tango site that has the link to Goyeneche, I found this collection of scores. For a real treat, look at Horacio Salgan's "A Fuego Lento." You can listen to a great recording of it here.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Carlos Gardel

I love Carlos Gardel, and I was thrilled when I stumbled upon a treasure trove of film clips of him on youtube. Even though I do not understand very much Spanish, I believe every word he sings, and I absolutely love his diction. You will too. Here he is singing "Por una cabeza," and here he is singing "Volver." There are more videos of him over at youtube, and each one has its own particular charm.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Musical Form

When I was a kid my brothers used to talk about musical form, but they also used to talk about chess openings. I thought that they were the same kind of thing: formulas that were of little use to me. Boy, was I wrong. My little brother had piano lessons and studied the classical repertoire. My older brother just seemed to know how classical pieces were put together without really studying. I never had piano lessons and didn't make it far enough as a violin-playing kid to play anything in any of the big classical forms. Most of the flute repertoire I studied was either baroque or from the 20th century, and none of the teachers I studied with ever mentioned the concept of the form of a piece having something to do with interpretation.

I recognized patterns, but I never knew that there was a whole tradition of writing music in a way that set forth themes, developed them, and followed patterns of modulation. I could play classical concertos from memory, but I had no idea when I was in the exposition or the development section of a movement, or, for that matter, what a development section actually was. Maybe everyone assumed I knew.

At Juilliard our "Literature and Materials of Music" course might have included the formal analysis of a few songs, but I believe we spent most of our time on harmonic analysis. What good is harmonic analysis if it is not taught in a musical and preferably formal context? Maybe the people who designed that course assumed that everyone knew about form already.

I thought I knew a lot about music when I was in my 20s and 30s. I know that I played a lot of music when I was a student and when I was in the working world, but I feel like I missed out on a great deal of the experience of listening and playing because I was unaware of what was actually happening in the music. Somehow my music history courses at Juilliard managed to skip over the idea of teaching anything about classical forms. I know that the 1970s was a time when it was "hip" to consider non-formal aspects of music, but I believe it is really a disservice to music students not to teach the basic tools for interpreting music intelligently (and that's what most students are in music school to learn) in theory and music history classes.

I only began to understand form when I started writing music, and I only started writing music seriously when I was close to 40. When I read Edward Cone's Musical Form and Musical Performance and Donald Francis Tovey's The Forms of Music, I started to understand what I wish I had learned as a child or as a young adult. Maybe I should have asked my brothers what they were talking about.

This will certainly make you smile

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Music and Healing

Thanks to Jessica Duchen for posting this wonderful article about Maxim Vengerov playing at the Neuro-disability hospital in London.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Something New Every Day

I have made it a practice to always listen to something I have never heard before (or haven't heard for so long that I don't remember anything about it) every day. It can be a piece I know by a new performer, it can be something old (from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque Period, the entire Classical Period, the Romantic Period, the Twentieth Century), or it can be something written more recently (from one of the great collections of recorded performances on line). It can also be something I find on YouTube, or something that I read through for the first time on the violin, the piano, the recorder, or whatever instrument I might have in my hands.

The whole point of this practice is to keep expanding my mind and my experiences and remind myself that music is vast and that there is infinitely more that I do not know than what I do know.

I'm lucky. I get most of my CDs for free because of my CD reviewing jobs, so I almost never actually buy one. One of the benefits of my work for the American Record Guide is that I get to pick "extra" recording (ones I don't have to review) from a list or mystery recordings of varying quality a few times a year.

I guess that If I weren't in this position I would go to the library and take out CDs or LPs. That's what libraries are there for. The under-use of the music section of our university library always amazes me.

One of my violin students, a college student who has been playing for a year and a half, showed me a method book (in facsimile) with a series of violin etudes by Geminiani that he was very excited about finding in the local university library. I told him that I took it out of the library some years ago and worked through it. The last check-out date was 1991. Yup, that was me. I was shocked that in the 15 or 16 years between 1991 and now nobody checked out this extremely valuable treatise.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Pineapple Right Side Up Cupcakes

Imagine how happy I was to come home today and see these cupcakes in the refrigerator. While Michael and I were out of town watching a three-hour-long unnarrated and overrated documentary about Carthusian monks called Into Great Silence, our daughter Rachel made a fantastic vegan dinner for our family. She made these Pineapple Right-Side-Up Vegan Cupcakes from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World for dessert. The cookbook doesn't have a picture of them, so I snapped this one. Of course the four of us ate the whole plate in one sitting. Who wouldn't?

By the way, if you are even thinking about making the time investment for the movie about the Carthusian monks (in our case it was five hours: three for the movie and an hour's drive each way), read Michael's review first. If you do go, I suggest getting a cup of strong coffee at the concession stand.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Piccolo Sonata

The piccolo used to be a large part of my life when I was in my 20s. I really enjoyed playing the piccolo parts various orchestras for the some of the big piccolo pieces, particularly Beethoven's 9th, Mahler 1st (and the 3rd and 4th), and Shostakovich 5th Symphonies.

After spending a lot of time writing for the contrabassoon and the euphonium this year, I have been drawn towards the upper partials of the woodwind spectrum. I finally finished a sonata for piccolo and piano that I started early in April. For those piccololy-inclined (could that actually be a word?), I have put a computer-generated recording recording on my New Music Jukebox page.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Pleasure of Practicing

My son wrote a speech about multitasking that won first place in the category of special occasion speeches at the all-state high school speech tournament earlier this year, and last night, while he was giving his speech at the local school board meeting, I understood something about why I get so much pleasure from practicing, and why I feel lousy when I don't really practice.

It's all about dopamine squirts. When the brain has a lot of information to process at the same time, it secretes dopamine, making the combination of processes that are involved when playing the violin a pre-frontal cortex pleasure festival. There is the pleasure of getting the hands and fingers to work together, the pleasure of having good form and a good hand position, the pleasure of figuring out exactly where the fingers need to go to play a passage easily, the pleasure of being able to do a bow stroke, and then there is the pleasure of hearing something that actually sounds good. The "actually sounding good" part of the experience has everything to do with the developed mechanics of playing, and the real reward is that once the dopamine wears off the music is still there.

I have been spending most of my time this past week working on writing a piece of music, and the time I have spent with my violin has been rather superficial and Sevcik-less. After two days I started finding it difficult to play in tune, and I felt my newly-trained thumb try to slide back into its old position. Now that I'm finished with the piece, Mr. Sevcik has come back into my life, and I'm back in the violin saddle again. I feel much better. Hmm. Maybe I'll try a little Dounis now.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Like a mouse in a maze, I followed Matthew Guerrieri's link to, where I will be sure to go often (I have added it to my list of links). I got this friendly message of welcome from them:
Thanks for registering, and welcome to, the website that brings you the sounds of revelationary new music and the voices of the revelationists themselves.
What are revelationists anyway?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Invisible Composer

Thinking about a video-blogging story told by Daniel Wolf on Renewable Music made me think about my first experience in composerly invisibility.

When I was a graduate student I got a call from a dance professor in the physical education department of my university. She was interested in choreographing a dance piece to a piece of new music, and I guess somebody told her that I would be a good person to contact. I was, of course, thrilled. It just so happened that I recently had a recital of a bunch of chamber music (maybe she heard about my stuff from someone who was there, you never know). I sent her a recording from the concert so that she would know what kind of music I wrote, and I waited to hear from her.

I waited to hear from her for a long time, and then, after several months passed I decided it was best to forget about the whole thing. I was, of course, very sad to miss the opportunity to write for dancers. Somewhere near the end of the academic year I got a call from the person who had originally contacted me. She told me that she was using several pieces from my recital for the featured piece in the final dance concert of the academic year, which was happening at the end of the week. She asked me if I could get people together to play for the performances. How could I get the dozen people who played on my concert to play on such short notice, at the end of a semester, and without compensation? What about rehearsal time and rehearsing with the dancers? What about getting a good piano into the gym where the performance would be?

This was not the situation that I imagined would be connected with this experience. We agreed that the dancers would use the recording they practiced with.

The big evening arrived. I went alone and I sat in the balcony (I guess my family must have had other things to do). I sat through an hour or so of what college people refer to as "dancing." These are groups of people wearing satiny matching outfits, dancing to a wide variety of contemporary and popular musical styles. I guess the style of dance seems to be determined by the shoes they wear and the "style" of music they dance to.

Then the big moment came. The title of the piece was "The Wall." There was a set, and there was lighting, and the piece, which used three or four movements of various pieces, lasted 20 minutes or so. It was a serious piece that told a kind of abstract story. I was really quite taken in by the whole thing, and was surprised at the way the dancers brought out aspects of the music that I simply hadn't noticed before. It was also odd to hear these pieces of chamber music played through powerful speakers at a relatively high volume, but I liked the "largeness" of it. The experience was overwhelming for me.

I guess the people in the audience liked it (though I think that they preferred the rest of the stuff on the program), but I'll never really know because nobody who was there knew who I was. They were mostly family members and friends of the dancers. As far as they were concerned "The Wall" was a strange dance set to some modern music that was on a recording. For the first time in my life I felt completely exposed and completely invisible at the same time.

Friday, May 11, 2007

High Fidelity: the death of classical music?

I have never owned an ipod. I never will own one because I prefer to use my portable CD player when I want to listen to music--either through headphones or through speakers. I used to kind of want one, until I heard someone play a baritone aria (I think it was from Faust) from an iPod on one of those "speaker docks." The sound had no depth. I couldn't hear any of the inner string voices, and I couldn't even recognize the voice of Bryn Terfel, my favorite living baritone, because the "stuff" that makes his voice interesting for me was compressed out of existence.

Young people seem to be perfectly happy to listen to popular music on their iPods (they also, I have been told, are happy to watch movies on tiny ipod screens). I imagine that pop recordings are engineered to work with the qualities of iPod-type-sound the way that country music recordings are engineered to sound clear and strong when driving down a highway at 60 miles an hour. (Did you ever notice that the tempo of most country music songs also seems engineered to go with the rhythm of the "road?")

For me the iPod does not spell the death of classical music at all. Actually, as musical compression becomes more the norm, the difference between listening to live music and listening to mp3 files will become greater and greater, kind of like the difference between eating home-made soup or soup from a fine restaurant, and eating soup from a can. When the CD and the SACD started making the recorded listening experience more pleasurable (at times) than hearing live music played in real acoustics and in real time, I started to worry about the future of live music. I no longer worry about that. I predict that the ipod will eventually make more and more people crave the real thing in real time, when it comes to listening to classical music.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

It's the music that's important

Ned Rorem (one the most celebrated contemporary composers) is right when he says that performing musicians are more celebrated than the people who write the music that they play. Composers are, and have been for most of music history, invisible. There were a hundred years or so (if that) when more than a handful of composers of "art" music who were not virtuosos themselves could make a good living writing music. Still, many subsidized their incomes by conducting, some had positions as the head of this or that conservatory, and some had "invisible" patrons.

I always get excited thinking about the first half of the 20th century when the Princess de Polognac was doing her financial best to keep composers she liked producing high-quality music. The Princess de Polignac was actually an American (her father, Issac Singer, made his fortune in sewing machines), but she spent most of her life in Paris. Her completely American counterpart (and contemporary--I always wondered if the might have met: could they have been rivals?) Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge commissioned what some people might refer to as the rest of the important music from the first half of the 20th century.

I can't imagine what 20th century music would have been like without these two women, yet their contributions are rarely lauded. They did the what they did because they valued contemporary music and they believed (correctly) that composers would produce great work if they were paid to do so. What we have from their efforts is the music itself. In the end that's all that really matters.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Ned Rorem Should Know Better

I cut my teeth reading Ned Rorem's diaries, and in the process of these thirty some odd years that I have read his prose I have been alternately impressed with him, and downright appalled by him. Today, while reading the section about Louise Talma in Facing the Night, I became angry at him for his dismissive attitude towards women (I did give him the benefit of the doubt for many years). I always imagined that if I ever were to know him, Rorem might be a friend: we'd have lots to talk about. Now I know that friendship with him would be impossible for me. Here's the passage that irked me:
Musical composition is the one art in which, until lately, women have not shone. The reason is not mysterious. Writing notes, with its attendant chores of copying, orchestration, and the cajoling of the mostly male entrepreneurs who might bring these notes to life, simply takes more time away from child-rearing than, say, writing poems. Today there are perhaps as many women as men composers. But in today's world -- even in the elite intellectual world of this very Academy -- few give a damn. It's safe to say that indifference to female composers is no more evident than to males.
What on earth is he talking about?

Is it a claim that musical life is so dreary that all composers are treated like lowly women these days? Maybe he's trying to be funny. Or clever. Does he really believe that women who write music haven't been taken seriously by the musical powers that be (and that were) because the time they spend rearing their children cut into the time it takes for the grueling mechanical process of writing music? What kind of an incompetent gender does he think we are?

Me, I'll take anything by Ruth Crawford Seeger (who reared Pete, Peggy, and Mike Seeger) over anything by Ned Rorem any day.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Photo Mystery Solved

Boy has this been bothering me! I finally figured out that the Brahms imposter from my last post is none other than the conductor Hans von Bulow.

Motet Memory Moment and Ramble

I was listening to a recording of Bach and Brahms motets performed by the Ensemble Vocal del Lausanne with this odd picture labeled "Johannes Brahms" (that looks nothing like Brahms: the ears, nose, and hair line are all wrong) on the back of the booklet. I don't know who this face belongs to (if anyone reading this does, please let me know in the comments), but the exquisite singing brought back a flood of memories about my first real choral experience, and my first experience with some of this music.

I'm not exactly sure when my mother started singing in the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (it was formed in 1970--she might have been one of the charter members), but I do know that it was somewhere between the time that she had to stop playing the flute and the time that I started playing the flute.

I became aware of my mother's participation in the Chorus when I was in the 7th grade. I used to see her music on the piano, and was particularly struck by the motet Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227. I discovered that I could sing the alto part and play the other vocal parts, thereby hearing how all the voices worked together.

I guess my mother figured I was interested in choral singing, so in September of my 8th-grade-year, she brought me to a rehearsal. We sightread two-chorus music by Gabrielli and Schütz and music by Stravinsky (the Symphony of Psalms and the Canticum Sacrum). I had a short audition for John Oliver, the director of the chorus, where I sang a bit of the Canticum Sacrum. I had no idea it was hard: the excitement of the evening etched the tone rows in my spongy and fearless adolescent brain, and I was thrilled that he let me join the chorus as its youngest member.

We took part in one of the "Spectrum Concerts" in Symphony Hall during the regular season. The program, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, was Venetian: Gabrielli and Schütz motets with antiphonal brass playing from the Symphony Hall Balconies, the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms, and the Canticum Sacrum, which Michael Tilson Thomas always called the "Canticum Gesundheit." I still can't figure out why he called it that.

The summer season included a Friday evening "Weekend Prelude" in the Tanglewood Shed. We sang the Bach motet Komm, Jesu, komm, some Brahms motets, and some choral pieces by Hugo Wolf. We also got to sing the Haydn Creation.

I loved that summer. Because of my experience in the chorus, I decided that I wanted to be a singer. I asked Phyllis Curtin, the person who I most admired as a voice teacher, when I could start studying. She told me that at 14 I was too young to train my voice. She advised me to play the flute and start studying voice when I was a bit older. So I started playing the flute, and I fell in love with playing the flute. My vocal aspirations fell deep into the background, and ultimately vanished, and I threw myself, body and soul, into playing the flute.

The next Tanglewood season had music that John Oliver (correctly) determined was too heavy for my voice, especially if I had any interest in developing it (they were doing Mahler 8 and Beethoven 9), so I didn't sing in the chorus the next year. I discovered the Fromm Festival the next summer, and decided that I was doing the right thing by playing the flute because I could play lots of contemporary music. My 15-year-old reasoning told me that nothing atonal could really sound bad on the flute as long as it is played with a beautiful sound. I also started hanging out with composers that summer, and I decided that if tonality ever came back in style I would start to write music. It took another decade or two, but it was finally acceptable for people who wrote new music to use something other than atonal material and to organize it in a way that wasn't serial.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Copland Portrait

This is a special tribute to Aaron Copland from Hugh Downs program called "Over Easy," that includes some very interesting interview segments as well as Tanglewood footage from "back in the day."

Copland Part One
Copland Part Two

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Thumbthing in the way she moves...

I buzzed around youtube today looking at violinists' and violists' thumbs, and I thought I'd share some of the highlights. I have restricted my sample to people who play without shoulder rests. I was highly impressed by Primrose's thumb. Gee, do you think that it might be the secret behind his stellar technique?

Compare the way Perlman and Zukerman hold their thumbs. Perlman's moves around like a creature with a mind of its own. Zukerman's is almost always low, kind of like Primrose's thumb. I can't help but notice that Zukerman has the same kind of ease moving around on the viola that Primrose has. Thumb things aside, this Perlman-Zukerman performance of the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia is a thrill from both a musical and a hedonistic standpoint. Oistrakh's thumb stays low some of the time, but he does make an occasional bend here and there. Even the bends in his thumb seem to be deeply connected to the music. There is not enough footage of his left hand here to really analyze how he uses his thumb, but boy is his performance of Clair de Lune gorgeous!

I don't really care for much of what Anne-Sophie Mutter does in her interpretation of the Beethoven "Kreutzer" Sonata, but I admire her technique on the instrument, especially her thumb.

I guess that the only thing I have proven on my quest for finding the perfect thumb in action is that every violinist's and violist's hand is different in size, shape, and strength, and what works for one person might not work for another.

Enough of this. It's time for me to practice.

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