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.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Highbrow Humor

. . . and some words of wisdom from Peter Ustinov, taken from this page.

Children are the only form of immortality that we can be sure of.

Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.

Critics search for ages for the wrong word, which, to give them credit, they eventually find.

Her virtue was that she said what she thought, her vice that what she thought didn't amount to much.

I was irrevocably betrothed to laughter, the sound of which has always seemed to me to be the most civilized music in the world.

In America, through pressure of conformity, there is freedom of choice, but nothing to choose from.

It is our responsibilities, not ourselves, that we should take seriously.

Love is an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit.

People who reach the top of the tree are only those who haven't got the qualifications to detain them at the bottom.

The point of living and of being an optimist, is to be foolish enough to believe the best is yet to come.

Unfortunately, the balance of nature decrees that a super-abundance of dreams is paid for by a growing potential for nightmares.

Contrary to general belief, I do not believe that friends are necessarily the people you like best, they are merely the people who got there first.

Monday, September 24, 2007


I have always liked Schubert (who doesn't?), but for some reason I have found myself obsessed with Schubert lately, especially since I have been listening to this live concert recording made from performances in 1958 through 1969 of Sviatoslav Richter playing some of his piano sonatas and his "Huttenbrenner Variations." For me, listening to these performances, particularly the C minor (D. 958) and the B-flat major (D 960) Sonatas is like taking a vacation: it is highly-valued time spent away from normal reality and responsibility. Sometimes listening to them puts me into an altered state, where all that matters is the musical landscape, and every twist and turn of natural wonder comes as a kind of surprise. Sometimes listening to them is like a musical therapy session that allows emotional issues that may have been buried for a long time to come to the surface of my consciousness. At any rate, while they last, and as long and as satisfying as they may be, these pieces of Schubert that are brought to life by Richter always end too soon. Tags: , , ,

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Take me Back to Manhattan

This post by Dick Strawser took me right back to the Manhattan of the 1970s, when people (as I remember) developed friendships because they found one another interesting.

Dr. Dick mentions Richard Thomas' ballet dancer friend who made his film debut in "The Turning Point." I remember the absolute splash that "The Turning Point" made in everyone's life in New York in the 1970s, and I particularly remember the 45 or so seconds that I shared with Mikhail Baryshnikov (and a few other people) in an elevator while traveling vertically through the Juilliard School of music one afternoon in 1978. I don't think that anyone in the elevator actually took a breath for that whole ride. When Baryshnikov got off on the third floor and the elevator door closed, we mortals all inhaled, looked at one another, and knew that we shared a moment we would remember for the rest of our lives.

I only knew Richard Thomas from the TV as John Boy Walton, so it was wonderful to read about the actor behind the make-believe and his connection with music, dance, and literature.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Musical Memory: true confessions

Oliver Sacks' fantasic article on amnesia and musical memory in next week's "New Yorker" magazine addresses something that I have always wondered about: playing music from memory.

Clive Wearing, the subject of the article, is able to play and recall pieces of music he knew years ago, even though he is not capable of remembering what he did a few seconds ago. He is able sightread at the piano or the organ, speak and write in several languages, dance, and perform hands-on tasks like making coffee and dressing himself elegantly, because he somehow physically understands what to do.

I have always had a hard time memorizing music. If I were pressed to learn to play a piece from memory, I don't think I could do it, yet if I were to have a modern flute, an instrument I haven't practiced in twenty years, in my hands, I know that I would be able to play a series of about ten orchestral excerpts, a bunch of etudes, and scales, and a bunch of repertoire, including pieces that I won't remember until I have the instrument in my hands and I am prompted by the first two or three notes.

If I have a fiddle in my hands, I can play parts of a handful of pieces that I know from muscle memory and by ear due to 15 years of practice: a page or so of solo Bach, a page or so of a Mozart concerto; but if I were to try to play the Beethoven Sonata I am working on right now (that I practiced carefully not an hour ago), the only way I could call it into my mind would be by visualizing the music on the page. The hard parts--the parts that are hard to both decipher and to physically play--won't make it into my visual memory for at least a month, and I know that I will never be able to play it from memory (though my goal is to be able to simply play the piece).

I can play many of the Bach cello suites by ear on the viola because I used to hear them practiced every day when I was a child. When trying to actually play them from memory, unless I am not paying attention at all and happen to make it further, I pretty much crash and burn after a page or so. Playing a whole suite or even a whole movement of solo Bach from memory is something that I know I will never do. It's a good thing that I have the music.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Judith Tick on "Generation 38"

Here's an eye-opening and really enjoyable essay by Judith Tick about the individual experiences of a group of composers who were born around the year 1938. It is the first of three essays that were printed in the program book for the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood this past summer.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Playing the violin without a chinrest: one solution

I was surprised to see the concertmaster in this Vivaldi Lute Concerto video has a white scarf tied around his neck and through the top of the tailpiece of his violin. I don't think I would ever try this myself, but it is an interesting solution to keeping the fiddle in place without a chinrest.

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thoughts about music from a shrub

Does anyone have any idea why people applauded when he made that stupid response to what was a perfectly good question that should have been easy to answer? Is the audience as musically clueless or musically phobic as the president? I don't get it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Right Notes

When I was a teenager I read The Tenants by Bernard Malamud. As I remember there were some heavy-handed elements in the novel, but I really enjoyed reading it. What I enjoyed most, though, was a phrase by Coleridge that one of the characters quoted:
Nothing can permanently please which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise.
Before the days of the internet I searched for it in every bit of Coleridge I could get my teenage hands on. I eventually gave up the search, imagining that maybe it was just something Malamud attributed to Coleridge, but only today I discovered that it is from Chapter XIV of his Biographia Literaria.

I had my brother translate it into Latin, and I used to keep it in my flute case, written in my teenage calligraphy. When I stopped playing the flute those words remained etched in my brain.

The right notes are the ones that are there because they are the best notes for the purpose at hand. The best composers always used the right notes. One thing that puts Mozart in the highest compositional echelon for me is the fact that you just can't make anything he wrote "better." If you play a wrong note, even if it is in the chord, even if it is the same pitch but in a different register, it is never as good as the one that Mozart picked for that musical moment. When you come across something strange in a piece of Bach, the solution that follows always makes the moment that was strange make sense. It always shows why it is so and not otherwise.

Dames du Bois de Boulogne

Jean-Jacques Grunewald's title music for Robert Bresson's 1945 film Dames du Bois de Boulogne seems to be an exact hybrid (if an exact hybrid is possible) between the Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde and David Raksin's music for the 1945 film Laura. I really enjoyed watching the film (it is part of the Criterion Collection), particularly because of the music.

The plot is not simple, but to simplify it (without "spoiling" it) I will say that it includes two people: one is evil, and the other is naive. A remarkable scene begins with the evil one playing a fugue on the piano, which happens before you (or me--the viewer) realize that she is indeed weaving an evil web around the naive one. As each voice enters, the web becomes clearer and clearer. The evil one talks while she plays, but the fugue says it all. When the subject of the fugue returns as wedding music for the naive one, it is clear that the wedding is riddled with "webbing."

Monday, September 10, 2007

Eyes that hear, ears that see

I always tell my students (violin, viola, recorder, and flute) that musicians have eyes that hear and ears that see. We forge unusual cross-sensual connections when we practice, and we often use our "mind's eye" to "see" our fingers and hands in relation to the instrument we are playing.

Developing a visual sense of the piano keyboard is hard and takes time and "brain space," especially for someone like me who only started trying to do it properly in her forties. Unfortunately the forties are the years when our eyes change. I have always been nearsighted, but I had to start wearing double-duty lenses a few years ago. I have progressive lenses, and boy do they mess me up when I'm trying to play the piano. The brain has to direct the eye to the "sweet spot" in the lenses, and I guess it must take a lot of brain power to do it. It takes a lot of the fun out of playing, and tends to create a lot of tension for me in my back and my jaw.

So today, on a whim, for the first time in my glasses-wearing life, I played the piano without glasses, and it felt fantastic. Without dealing with the changes in focus that the progressive forces me to make, it felt like I had a whole bunch of brain space to spare. My interior visual imagination had space to move around, and I could actually see a whole page of music without having to fuss and fidget. I also didn't get lost while looking for stuff with my ears, or if I had to (yes, I have to ) look at the keyboard. I could even listen better.

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Sunday, September 09, 2007

A Sense of Place

This morning while I was listening to Richard Tauber sing "I'm in Love with Vienna" in English, I believed him when he sang "I was born in Vienna," though I learned from reading the liner notes that came with the recording that he was born in Linz. I believe every word that Tauber sings, because he believes every word he sings. Of course Richard Tauber could not stay in Vienna because of the Nazis, so he started a whole new career in England, singing mainly in English.

This started me on a train of thought about place. Growing up outside of Boston I always felt like an outsider because I spoke like a person from the midwest, and try as I did, I could never even imitate a Boston accent. I was born in Cleveland, and when I was growing up I always held some kind of mythological connection to Cleveland in my heart. As a young adult I sought out friends from Cleveland. I guess it was from one of them that I heard that the street that held my home from birth to four-and-a-half was demolished in order to put in a highway or something.

When I left Boston for New York, Boston felt like "home" for the first time, but only for a year or two, and only when I wasn't there. It also began to change, and it is no longer the place I remember. I used to feel at home at Tanglewood, and then it changed. When I lived in New York, I never quite felt like a New Yorker (that pesky midwestern accent again), but I felt somewhat comfortable in a place that was filled with a lot of misplaced people and a lot of history. I also had good friends. I felt out of place in Schladming, the town in Austria where I lived for a year, but I felt at home in Vienna. Unfortunately I didn't have a real place to live in Vienna, and I couldn't find any work. It is not surprising that I never felt at home in Hong Kong.

It is surprising that I really don't feel at home in the little town in the midwest where I have lived for the last 22 years. Most of the things I have liked about it in years past are no longer here, and so many of the people I have grown close to have either moved away or died. Once I felt like a vital part of the musical life in town, and now I feel like a stranger, or maybe a guest. Sometimes I even feel like a ghost.

Oddly I always feel at "home" sitting in an orchestra--anywhere. I always feel "at home" going through stage doors. I have always been able to go to any stage door and walk into the hall. For some reason I look like I belong there: people have even told me so. (I have gotten into a lot of concerts for free that way.) I feel at home in my house with my family, and I feel at home when I'm teaching, when I'm playing chamber music, and when I'm practicing.

Today I started working on the Bach B-flat Partita (on the piano), and I felt oddly "at home." My younger brother used to practice it when we were kids, and I always wanted to be able to play it. I think that music, particularly Bach, is a wonderful constant to have, especially in a world where there are so many physical changes that rob us of continuity and mess around with our memories and our sense of place in the world.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Life and Death

I got the news about Luciano Pavarotti and David Hobbs dying at around the same time. It is really funny how the death and very public grieving over the death of a musician who lived musical life in a big way (perhaps the biggest way) pales to the deep sadness that comes with the death of a musician who lived his musical life primarily in the service of helping others achieve their musical goals.

David Hobbs was a piano professor at Eastern Illinois University, the university in the town where I live. He was a wonderful man: always excited to talk about nearly anything, able to gossip without maligning anyone, and always interested in everything musical. I feel very fortunate that, in addition to knowing David as a person, I was able to know him as a teacher. As an adult without childhood piano lessons I always thought that playing the piano was just one of those things I would never be able to do. David removed the mystery from the process, and now I can play the piano (not well enough to perform, mind you, but well enough to play for myself). Through lessons with David I began to understand more about the violin, and more about chordal and polyphonic playing in general.

I feel grateful for the friendship we had over the past 15 or so years. I feel fortunate to have had to the chance to work with him as a colleague, and to hear him play. I feel fortunate to have heard his consistently excellent (especially after a few years with him) students play over the years. I feel fortunate to have know such a truly good person.

Pavarotti's death at 71 from cancer is very sad. I enjoyed hearing his lovely voice and exquisite diction from a great distance, both in time and in space. David Hobbs' death from cancer at 53 is more than sad. This disease he had (and it went into remission for a time before the final assault) took away one of the finest human beings I have ever known. A great tenor voice like Pavarotti's is rare. A great human being like David is just as rare, and being one of the lucky people to have known him as a friend is a great gift.

Friday, September 07, 2007


Roger Bourland writes:
"One of the most important patterns there is in the universe is gravity. Gravity manifests itself on a physical level in that we are all pulled to the center of the earth, which is pulled toward the sun, which is pulled toward the enter of the galaxy, which is pulled toward the center of a cluster of galaxies. Likewise, there is gravity in people, where “birds of a feather” will flock together. When a chorus works together for a year or season, there is a gravity that brings them together. If that gravity is working, the audience taps into this circuit and a wonderful spiritual and biochemical experience takes place. Therefore, music can bring people together. In that sense it reflects nature and society-working together toward a similar goal of trying to communicate a piece to an audience."

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Janet Baker Singing Dido's Lament

The Full Monteverdi

I just came across this trailer for a film that seems to be set to (or is the proper term against?) music from Monteverdi's Fourth Madrigal book. Boy, do I wish I could go to its preview screening next week.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Overtone Excitement!

I was practicing thirds on the violin in E minor this morning, and I noticed when I played (in first position and in tune) a D sharp on the A string and an F sharp on the E string, clearly by all measurements making the interval a minor third, it sounded strangely major. Then I moved my third finger down to the position of D natural, making what would, by all measurements be a major third--and a really "normal" one at that, and it sounded minor in relation to the previous interval.

I pondered this for a long time, and then I finally realized that the whole major-minor flip thing happened because of the excitement of a low B that happens in that register on the violin when the interval is really in tune, which made the minor third between D sharp and F sharp the upper minor third of a B major chord, and the major third between D natural and F sharp the upper major third of a B minor chord.

Overtone excitement is one of the perks of playing in tune.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Being part of an audience for recitals

It is concert season again, and for those new to the experience, particularly people who live in university communities, and particulary students who are required to write papers for music appreciation classes, I would like to offer a few thoughts that might help make the experience less daunting and possibly easier to write about.

One of the most meaningful musical experiences for the new concertgoer is to go to a recital. Many recitals on university campuses are free, and those that are not free usually cost very little, especially with a student ID card.

If the concert is a recital given by an undergraduate student at a college or university, the music on the progam was very likely chosen by the student's teacher so that the student would be able to devote a period of serious study to the music on the program with a lot of help and coaching from the teacher and perhaps other members of the music faculty.

What you will hear will very likely be the "product" of hundreds of hours of work and study, not to mention years of developing technique on the instrument that the student is playing. It is a big moment for the person playing. Linear time is measured by the proximity of the date of the recital. ("my recital is three months from today," or "I can't believe my recital is next week," or "oh my god, my recital is tomorrow.") A recital is a central moment in the life of the person playing, and you, as a audience member unknown to the person playing, are a witness and a part of the event.

Some of the most exciting moments of music making come in the form of undergraduate student recitals.

If the concert is a graduate student recital or a doctoral recital, the music on the program is probably the choice of the graduate student. As a member of the audience you should expect professional level playing. The graduate student will still have been coached on the repertoire s/he is playing, but it is likely that many of his or her musical ideas will be personal. The person playing has at much at stake (or more) as the undergraduate student, and measures time the same way, but his or her standards are higher (or should be), and having had the experience of playing recitals in the past, she or he will be more comfortable with the timeline of the performance in relation to life.

The level of playing at a conservatory (if there is one in your city) might be higher on the undergraduate level or even the graduate level than the level of playing at a university or college, but since some universities and colleges have excellent music departments, it is not really possible or even fair to compare without specific "data." You can make the comparison yourself, in your own city.

If the concert is a recital by a visiting professional or a faculty member at a college or conservatory, you should expect something sensational. If you don't, the performer, who does this for a living, is not doing his or her part. Professionals are paid to play well even if they are sick, exhausted, or in emotional turmoil. As a member of an audience for a professional recital you should appreciate the fact that the person playing is sharing a great deal of experience and knowledge with the audience, in addition to hours and hours per day spent practicing. You should expect, as an audience member, to be emotionally involved in the music, and you should expect the professional to be even more emotionally involved than you are. I have found that the more successful the performance is, the more deep emotional involvement and sense of ultimate dedication you will find on the part of the performer.

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