Friday, December 26, 2008

The Musical Canon, Pachelbel, that is

Several months ago I put a link to a PDF of an easy-to-play transcription I made for string orchestra of the Pachelbel Canon on my thematic catalog blog, and I am rather astounded by the number of new people who go to it (and only it) every day. It is rare that I play a wedding that does not include the Pachelbel Canon as a processional (it is very useful as a processional because it can be tailored to fit any number of processing people). I imagine that many people think that it has been part of the wedding repertoire since it was written--a tradition as durable as wedding rings or wedding cake, but it first hit the public ear in 1968, when Jean Francois Paillard put the Canon on a Musical Heritage Society recording (MHS 1060). The performance was re-released on RCA (65468) and on Erato (98475).

A few years ago (has it been ten already?), I wrote an article about the Canon for the Listener's Guide to Classical Music, a source book about recordings, which (instead of repeating myself) I will quote.
Paillard uses an edition by Kistner and Siegel and plays an arrangement that gives the three violin parts to three violin sections while a harpsichord provides a simple harmonic outline. An added viola section plays a pizzicato filler for most of the piece (near the end the violas finally play their ostinato figure with their bows--it is a very beautiful moment). In this orchestral arrangement the piece is expanded in length, and in order to maintain clarity with the added voices, the tempo is rather slow. He achieves wonderful dynamic and textural contrasts.

Pachelbel was the teacher of Johann Christoph Bach (1671-1721), who was in turn the teacher of his brother Johann Sebastian Bach, and was one of the most important German composers of his time. His current representation on CD is limited to many recordings of his Canon and Gigue in D and only a few recordings of his other music.

The remarkable canon was written in 1680 for three violins and continuo and has a two-measure bass line or "ground" that repeats 28 times during the 57-measure piece. It is written with one violin part that is played in canon by three violin voices that enter at two-measure intervals (when the bass begins its pattern again). The piece works very well as background music for events that require flexible amounts of time, like wedding processions and television commercials, because it can be resolved and stopped at any time. It also works as "pop" music because of its repetitions and the fact that it is instantly identifiable by its eight-note ground.

After Karajan recorded it in 1970 for DGG, the Canon became even more popular, and the piece soon gained its permanent place on the top of the wedding charts.

I remember the first time I heard it. It was at Tanglewood during an early afternoon of the early summer in the early 1970s. I heard it coming from the music shed through speakers (evidently someone on the shed's technical staff was testing out the audio system). I was transfixed by the piece, but I had no idea what it was. A few years later, in 1976 to be exact, in a fellow Juilliard students' apartment, I heard a recording of the Pachelbel Canon. It was my friend's "discovery," a piece he found on a Musical Heritage Recording, and he told me was that it was his favorite piece of music.

The Musical Heritage LPs, as you can see, were the dowdiest of the dowdy: mysterious European ensembles played baroque pieces that nobody ever heard of on white LP recordings with black lettering.

The dowdy MHS covers might have been a reaction to the psychedelic covers that Nonesuch (another budget label) was using, or a reaction to the otherwise "hip" (not to be confused with HIP) covers that graced other labels, or it simply might have had something to do with money.

There is nothing substandard about the Pachelbel Canon. It is a fine piece of music that I admire for its durability, usefulness, and simplicity. I can't help thinking, however, that in a more just musical world people would the Canon as a kind of gateway drug to the stunning catalog of Pachelbel's other works, many of which, in the ten years since the publication of the Morin Guide, have been recorded.

I'm very proud of the arrangements I have done of this piece. You can find the arrangements for solo viola, solo violin, and solo cello through this link, the one for string quartet here, and the one for string orchestra here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Maybe That's All She Wrote

Perhaps the worst fear that any creative person has is the fear of repeating herself. Or repeating himself. Perhaps at any given stage of life we all have only so much to say. Or maybe it's just me.

I spent the last ten years in a whirlwind of creative activity. I could barely keep up with myself. All my inspiration seemed to come from inside, and new music poured out of me, regardless of whether anyone was interested in playing it. I got inspiration from everyone and everything, and writing music served, in part, as a way of coping with the isolation that I so often feel as a result of the limited contact I have with what I perceive to be the great musical world at large.

Lately I have come to realize that nobody can really be creative in a vacuum, and there is only a limited amount of self-stimulation that any given person can fabricate. Like any other group of creative people, composers need to know that we are wanted and needed; but I guess for the most part, we are not. There is far more music being written than will ever be played.

I had a brush with the 21st-century commercial musical world last week. I went (as a guest of a friend of a friend) to a huge musical-industrial convention, and I spent an hour or so roaming through the booths of vendors who were displaying their musical wares. I didn't know where to begin, so I simply did not begin. Intimidation set in, and I left the convention with the realization that the 21st-century musical marketplace has very little to do with my musical world.

Heading towards my conventional destination on the train (and I love traveling by train) I read a large chunk of Charles Ives' Memos, which I hadn't previously read. When I was a teenager Charles Ives, along with Brahms and Bach, was my favorite composer. Reading his curmudgeonly (and often blog-like) writings, I once again became excited about the idea of living in a musical world on the outside of convention and expectation. But then I realized that one of the major problems composers face in this new century is that the very musical expression that is "outside of convention" has become convention. The act of trying to write something that is even a little bit meaningful so often gets mangled with gimmickry or with "process."

Perhaps this public statement (read perhaps by dozens of people) will help me to get out of my current state of musical funk. Maybe it won't.

I will leave you with an exchange between Charles Ives and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who grew up to be a kind of "godmother" of new music. Harmony Ives, who was married to Charles, was the niece of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge's father, which would make her Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge's first cousin.
Either in he summer of 1913 or 1914, Mr. Sprague (Harmony's Uncle Albert) and Mrs. Sprague, with the daughter, Mrs. Coolidge, stopped to see us at Redding on their way to Pittsfield. After dinner (before going) daughter says to writer, "Are you still keeping up your music?" Writer says, "Well, yes." So former asks writer to play some of it, and came to the little room with the piano, behind the dining room. I happened to have on the piano the score or the sketch of the Black March (The St. Gaudens). I started to play a little of this--daughter's face grew sour. "Do you like those awful sounds?" she said. So I stopped and played something that I thought might be a little less rough on her, which was the first part of Washington's Birthday. That made her walk out of the room. In getting into the car, headed toward Pittsfield, she said, "Well, I must say your music makes no sense to me. It is not, to my mind, music. How is that--studying as you have with Parker--that you ever came to write like that? You ought to know the music of Daniel Gregory Mason, who is living near us in Pittsfield--he has a real message. Good-bye!"
And to think that she grew up to become the most powerful force in the course of 20th-century music! (You can read about her accomplishments as a patron here (on this blog) and here.)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Monday, December 15, 2008

Making Christmas Cookies with Frau Schultz

I can't recall Frau Schultz's first name, but I'll never forget the afternoon in September when she invited me to her house to help make Christmas Cookies. Now, I admit, I'm not much of a Christmas person, but I have very fond memories attached to the Christmas I spent in Schladming, Austria in 1981.

Frau Schultz taught recorder and accordion in the Stadtmusikschule Schladming. She was the senior member of the faculty, with so much experience that she could identify wrapped Christmas presents that the students would give to their teachers. She insisted that all the teachers in the school have a coffee pause put into their schedule, and she always made the coffee and brought the treats, which she often baked. Frau Schultz, who had grown children who had moved away, was always very maternal towards me.

When I came to her house to make Christmas cookies, I was given a huge bowl of hazelnuts and a mechanical device used to crack them. We cracked the hazelnuts, and then ground them into a meal. We mixed them with the other mystery ingredients to make the teig. I had never cooked in Austrian before: everything was measured by weight and not by volume. After everything was mixed together, we put the dough into a container, and Frau Schultz brought it down to her basement to cure for what I imagine would be a few months.

I imagine that Schladming was a town very much like the town where "Silent Night" was written, especially at night, and especially in the winter. Unlike the glittering lights of American Christmastime, there was a softness and a lightness to the Austrian celebration. For an officially Catholic country, the celebrations in Schladming were remarkably secular; and they were filled with remarkable food. Everything was quiet that Christmas, and really kind of magical.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Fantastic Vegan Chili

The only thing that this recipe has to do with music is the fact that beans are considered by some to be the musical fruit.

(Beans, beans, the musical fruit, the more you eat, the more you toot.)

The "fantastic" part of this recipe came from grabbing the wrong can.

2 or 3 T olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 green pepper chopped
2 canned chipotle peppers, drained and chopped
2 15 oz. cans of Dei Fratelli petite diced tomatoes
1 can of Dei Fratelli pizza sauce (The can looks very much like the diced tomato can, so it is easy to mix them up, which is why this became the unexpected ingredient in this chili.)
1 large can of black beans, drained and rinsed (I think I used a 20 oz can--but you can use two 15 oz cans and have a few more beans.)
1 cup meat substitute crumbles

Cook the onion and garlic in the oil for a few minutes, and then add the chopped green pepper. Cook it for a minute or two. Add the chopped chipotle peppers, and cook for another minute or so, until the liquid around the onions and peppers looks a little pink. Add the rest of the ingredients, cover, and simmer for 10-20 minutes. Take the cover off, stir it up, and cook it uncovered for a couple of minutes, and serve.

I guess you could use other tomatoes and other pizza sauce, but nothing comes close in taste to Dei Fratelli. Heck, you could even use ground beef as a meat substitute substitute.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Very Good Idea from the Fidelity Investment Company

Finally an entity in the financial sector is trying to do something to help struggling school music programs!

This is what the program is all about (the contents of the e-mail that was sent to me):
FutureStage was created to help empower under-served high school students by funding educational opportunities in the performing arts. This year, MMB has worked with FutureStage to create a holiday focused, free e-card that is fun, timely, and features some great classical-music elements the audience from Musical Assumptions might enjoy.

These electronic cards are designed so that for each one sent, Fidelity gives a donation. More, each holiday ecard features music provided by and distributed on behalf of select regional orchestras. For every ecard sent, Fidelity Investments will donate another $1 to buy new musical instruments for students in under-served schools in the same area as that orchestra.
I think it is a great idea, which is why I'm sharing it here.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Charles Ives Singing "They are There"

This is a WWI protest song that still rings true.

"There's a time in many a life
When it's do, though facing death,
When our soldier boys
Will do their part that people can live
In a world where all will have a say.

They're concious always of their country's aim,
Which is liberty for all.

'Hip, hip, hooray,' you'll hear them say,
As they go to the fighting front.

Brave boys are now in action!
They are there, they will help to free the world.

They are fighting for the right,
But when it comes to might,
They are there, they are there, they are there!
(You bet they'll be!)

As the Allies beat up all the war hogs.
Our boys'll be there, fighting hard,

And then the world will shout
the battle cry of freedom,

Tenting on a new campground,
Tenting tonight, tenting on a new campground,

For it's rally round the flag of the People's New Free World, shouting the battle cry of freedom!

When we're through this cursed war,
All those dynamite-sneaking gougers,
Making slaves of men (God damn them),

Then let all the people rise
and stand together in brave, kind humanity.

Most wars are made by small, stupid,
selfish bossing groups,

While the People have no say,

But there'll come a day,
Hip, hip, hooray,

When they'll smash all dictators to the wall!

Let's build a people's world nation, hooray!
Every honest country free to live its own,
native life!

They will stand up for the right,
But when it comes to might,
They'll be there, they'll be there, they'll be there!
(You bet they'll be.)

Then the People, not just politicians,

Will rule their own lands and lives,
And you'll hear the whole universe
Shouting the battle cry of freedom,

Tenting on a new campground,
Tenting tonight, tenting on a new campground,

For it's rally round the flag
of the People's New Free World,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

Dowdy Song Contest

In these dark days of winter there is really nothing quite as snug as a dowdy song. Let's see what we can find on line to share during the sweatpants and slippers days when we all turn a little bit inward and enjoy the comforts of home, when we can. Please feel free to grab a cup of cocoa and indulge.

My entry is part B of Charles Ives' "Memories." I think that the Ives song is even more homely than Moreland's My Mother's Old Red Shawl, (which Ives makes reference to in his song) particularly when sung in this lively arrangement by Shirley Thoms

. . . and the list begins:

Richard Tauber singing Love's Old Sweet Song from Michael.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Barenboim, Carter, Levine, and Charlie Rose

The Charlie Rose interview I just saw this evening with Elliot Carter, James Levine, and Daniel Barenboim is available on line. I don't know if I have ever enjoyed a television program as much as I enjoyed this one. I have always preferred Carter's early music to his later music (I love his woodwind quintet, and I especially love his Eight Etudes and Fantasy for woodwind quartet), but hearing him speak about his newest work has really piqued my curiosity.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Artists Corps? Sign me up!

Barack Obama is planning to have classical music performances at the White House, and, according to Clef Notes, his National Arts Policy Committee suggests an "Artists Corps" to work with students in low income areas.

I have always considered it a personal obligation to do what I can in my community to help introduce people to classical music. I have found that adults can sometimes resist, but if you catch people when they are young enough, and you don't require them to have talent in order to participate in the process of discovering it, classical music can be a comfort, a source of stimulation, and a life long passion. If anyone from this incipient "Artists Corps" finds her or his way to this blog, drop me a note and let me know how to sign up.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

YouTube Symphony Orchestra

I put a post up about my take on the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, and then promptly removed it when I realized that when I wrote my post I wasn't quite on point. I left the following comment on Lisa Hirsch's excellently-articulated post on her Iron Tongue of Midnight blog:
I pity the people who will be listening to the auditions--having to choose a wind section, for example, from submissions by thousands of students who believe that their future in music might be through cyberspace.

For my (very small amount of money), I would prefer to use publicity and prestige to improve the musical education out in the non-glittery world of the provinces (like where I live), and to encourage audiences for live performances of good and varied music outside from the major cities of the world.

I feel that YouTube helps do that by making it easy for musicians to broadcast performances from their remote locations. It becomes a window to the world for me. This kind of thing becomes a kind of reverse telescope. 100 people will be flown into New York at YouTube/Google's expense and be made a fuss over. What does that do for the future of music? Very little.
but I have more to say.

A few years ago our son and his friend made a short (30 second) advertisement as part of a YouTube contest for Heinz Ketchup. You can see his entry here. It seems to have been seen by 364 people since it first went up. We all followed the contest closely, watching hour upon hour of 30-second video ads about catsup (and I imagine that 100 of those 364 views came from my household and the household of our son's project partner).

Like all contests there is one winner. The winner of the Heinz contest was Heinz: if they did air the winning ad on television, I didn't see it, but the company got the winning ad at a bargain rate because they didn't have to pay a professional price for it. And for a while, Heinz was on the public's mind, which is what promotion is all about.

Like all promotional projects, the YouTube Symphony Orchestra contest serves to promote a product, and in this case the products are Tan Dun, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Carnegie Hall. There is already more buzz about this project than any concert in recent memory. The public relations machine has really done its job, but, as I said above, it does little for the advancement of music or musicians, really. There will be 100 "winners," and I'm afraid that the thousands of people who are not winners will really feel like losers. We can't really afford that kind of win-lose situation with music because music is a totally different kind of game: it is the kind you play to play, not to win.

This project even got a mention on the popular culture section of the Rachel Maddow show, where Rachel and her popular culture adviser made fun of the idea of having classical music connected with YouTube. I guess they don't have a clue about the absolute treasure trove YouTube is for classical musicians and people who enjoy listening to classical music.

I applaud what YouTube is able to do for classical musicians and for classical music, but you are not going to see me playing any part in this on-line orchestra.

Update: Abu Bratsche, a viola blog I just encountered, has an excellent post about this

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Original Tunes for the Big Bassoon

You could knock me over with a feather right now. This recording of Susan Nigro and Mark Lindeblad playing two pieces of mine for contrabassoon and piano just came in today's mail. I am one happy composer listening to this recording. I thought that I'd share my moment of suspended bliss in the very, very, very low register here.

Now that I have made my contribution to the commercial world of recorded music, I'll even make a link to a place where you can buy the recording!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Musical Postcards

Michael sent me a postcard from this wonderful postcard site. I thought I'd share the music pages here.

The image on the postcard above was drawn by Harrison Fisher, and it does indeed reflect the musical song of the soul. I wonder who the model might have been.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008

Sonata for Euphonium and Piano Performance

Charley Brighton and Malcolm Stowell gave the first performance of my Sonata for Euphonium and piano a few days ago in England. You can listen to a recording of it here.

Emma Goldman Opera

I have always admired Emma Goldman, and every once in a while I come across something that re-kindles my obsession with her. My first encounter, like the first encounter for many people of my generation, was the portrayal of her by Maureen Stapleton in the film Reds. When I found out that my great grandfather Israel Blume, a man I never met, was part of her "circle" in Chicago (my grandmother told me that he was the person who always picked up the tab), I became more and more interested in her, reading everything I could get my hands on written either by her or about her.

I was thrilled to find Howard Zinn's play Emma in the library one afternoon in 2005 (purely by chance), and was even hapier when I got permission (and enthusiastic support) from Howard Zinn to "extract" a libretto, and turn the play into an opera.

You can now see, hear (as midi files), read, and download the whole thing, parts and all here. My inspiration for putting it all on line comes from reading the graphic novel A Dangerous Woman by Sharon Rudahl that came in the mail from my friend Kenneth Ring who shares my admiration for Emma Goldman. Rudahl's drawn characters look and act exactly like the characters in the opera theater inside my head!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Games People Play

The game boards on Bibliodyssey are simply awesome.

Thumb Tension

Have you ever noticed the way bending the thumb causes the muscles in the whole hand to become ever-so-slightly more rigid? This rigidity is highly useful for a violinist's or violist's bow hand, because a strong and gentle bend encourages the other fingers to do the same, giving the bow hold some structure and support. The left hand is a different story. If the thumb bends a little too much on the left hand, the resulting small amount of rigidity can get in the way of achieving fluid efficiency, and can lead to cramped fingers and poor intonation.

Have you ever noticed that the thumb is kind of the "leader of the pack" as far as the fingers of the hand go? Have you ever noticed how much mobility the thumb has compared to the other fingers? That means it can get into more trouble if it isn't carefully monitored! Where is thumbkin?

A Seven Dollar Seating Solution for String Players

A chair that is engineered so that the person sitting in will sit back on the seat is the worst kind of chair for string playing. After an hour or so of rehearsing in a chair that throws my weight backwards, every muscle in my upper back and shoulders starts to rebel, and If I cannot really put my feet on the floor, rehearsals can be painful.

Last night I was sitting in such a chair at a rehearsal in a church. I noticed that one of my fellow string players had the back legs of her chair propped up on a couple of hymn books, and she seemed not to be the least bit unhappy or uncomfortable. I made a mental note to grab a couple of hymn books for the next rehearsal. Then I thought about what might happen if me and my chair were to leave some kind of dent in the book. I definitely needed to find another solution.

I entered the hardware store in search of something useful, and I found some PVC pipe caps that were the right size. I bought some anti-skid material to stick to the top of the cap, and made a little lattice of anti-skid material over the open part, and they work like a charm. The make conventional chairs so much more comfortable.

PVC is light, so I can keep these in the pocket of my viola case. It is also cheap (always a plus for musicians), and can be decorated to go with any decor. I think I'll paint mine concert black.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Meme of Seven

Oh dear! Lisa Hirsch's Iron Tongue tagged me for the meme of seven.

The rules:
1. Link to your tagger and list these rules on your blog.
2. Share 7 facts about yourself on your blog - some random, some weird.
3. Tag 7 people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blog.
4. Let them know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.
5. If you don't have 7 blog friends, or if someone else already took dibs, then tag some unsuspecting strangers.

Here goes:

1. I chipped off half of my freshly-grown permanent left front tooth on the bathtub faucet when I was seven, and it grew back completely within a year.

2. I love the Smothers Brothers.

3. I was friends with the original cast of the PBS show Zoom when I was in junior high school.

4. I can count to ten in Cantonese.

5. I shared my "puzzle theory" about the continents being connected at one time with my third grade teacher. She thought I was crazy. I still love geography, especially since I found out later that science had proven my theory right.

6. I spent several of my kids' elementary school years as an "art lady." I came into the classrooms once a month and discussed works of art with them. The kids loved it when I turned pictures upside down. We had a blast. I imagine that one of those kids will end up in one of my college classes one of these days.

7. I was the parent-in-charge of "The Junior Cartoonists Society" when my son was in 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. We met in the basement of the library with a bunch of like-minded kids, and drew cartoons. We made four books and sold them in a local book store. They are available through interlibrary loan on the worldcat.

I'm tagging Michael, since I'm pretty sure he has not been a part of this meme. All the other bloggers I read have seem already to have revealed their seven deep secrets. I hope that my penalty for breaking the meme chain won't come in multiples of seven.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Friday, November 14, 2008


I think speed is over-valued in music. My flute-playing youth was tarnished by a desire for speed: everyone around me coveted it. My sense of self worth was often determined by how quickly I could play particular excerpts and etudes. Many of the people around me (in the hallowed halls of Juilliard) seemed mesmerized when someone could play particularly passages really fast. Speed was the currency of the flute world. Consider many of the recordings made by Jean-Pierre Rampal and James Galway.

The not-so-news is that it is really not that difficult to play fast music on the flute. It is far more difficult to play slowly and evenly. Slow-moving phrases (on any instrument) expose every cent of less-than-perfect intonation, and they require far more control and far more air (or bow control) than fast-moving phrases. It is also difficult to phrase in multi-measure units at a slower tempo, because you need to concentrate on where you are, where you are going, and where you have been. Playing music at high speeds obliterates the need (or the chance) to see or hear much of anything along the way. Sure, fast playing can be exciting (when the music calls for it), but for the most part music that is played as fast as possible ends up sounding too fast.

Playing baroque music on period instruments or replicas of period instruments can send musicians down a slippery slope, and onto the path of superficiality. These are instruments that, by their very design, speak quickly, and simply do not make large (or even medium-sized) sounds. The kind of sustaining quality that musicians work for on modern instruments isn't really possible on baroque instruments, especially if musicians play without vibrato. (We are so duped by recordings.)

The expressive alternative is to use articulation to musical advantage, and create a hierarchy of emphasis based sometimes on where notes fall in a measure. And then there are notes that you just throw away. The other alternative (the one that I don't like) is to play everything as quickly as possible, thus avoiding the concentration problem that comes up when musicians try to sustain a musical idea for a considerable number of measures, and making any kind of hierarchy meaningless. That means, as far as I'm concerned, that all the notes are thrown away.

I used to think speed was cool. I even thought it was exciting. I used to prefer baroque music and even classical music played at high speeds. Now, as a recovering exclusive period-instrument-only musician, I tend to think differently. Now I prefer Allegro playing that is even and rhythmic. I find a musicians who have ample sounds far more exciting than people who play music (from any period) made of strings of "thrown away notes" that are played with less-than-beautiful sounds at speeds that are too high.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Rule of Seven: Analyzing Barack Obama's Victory Speech

I'm so happy to have stumbled across David Crystal's blog!

Early Music: Choosing an Instrument

Recorder was my first instrument by default, not by design. It just happened to be around (thanks to S&H Greenstamps) when I happened to be sick one day and wasn't able to go to Kindergarten. I thought nothing of it, but it was the instrument that taught me to read music. When I started playing violin at around 7, I already knew how to read the treble clef.

When I got my first real job teaching at the Stadtmusikschule Schladming (a big name for a small school in a very small Austrian town), I found that I was required to teach about four flute students and about 40 7-year-old beginning recorder students. There was a recorder in my desk drawer, and I scoured around to find a copy of the method book that the students would be using. I was very new to German, hadn't touched the recorder since I was 5, and was terrified at the prospect of teaching something I didn't know anything about in a language that I could barely speak.

The Stadtmusikschule Schladming had a system where all the entering students took soprano recorder lessons. After a year of recorder they could choose a "real" instrument: clarinet, trumpet, trombone, piano, violin, cello, accordion, percussion, guitar, flute, or alto recorder. There was no "playing by ear" or "playing by feel." The students learned how to read, how to count, and how to play with one another in groups. To my shock, it was absolutely painless and was a great success. All the students had a year to figure out what instrument they wanted to play the next year. Everything they learned as beginning recorder players could translate to their new instrument, and they could make their way into the Stadtkappelle Schladming as full-fledged members within a year or two, as long as they were wind or brass players.

When I left that job I headed straight to Vienna to study recorder. I had fallen deeply in love with the instrument.

What strikes me as remarkable is the chance to study music while being given a grace period to decide what "grown up" instrument you want to play. Choosing an instrument has everything in the world to do with personality and temperament. Here in American we are kind of at the mercy of a Darwinian survival of the fittest system when it comes to music, and the survival rate is terribly low. In my Midwestern town, that has a band program in the schools but does not have a string program, kids are given aptitude tests to determine what instrument they should play in the 5th grade band. The "smart" kids are always assigned to the oboe, because the band directors seem to think that it requires more brains than other instruments. (I like Blair Tindall's story about getting assigned to play the oboe in her school because her name was late in the alphabet, and all the cool instruments were taken by kids with last names that started with letters that came earlier in the alphabet.) I only know one survivor of the "smart-kid" system, and she might actually have chosen the oboe on her own.

Musical natural selection comes into play through success and failure. If one person's lips, tongue, or facial muscles are not ideal for making a good sound on any particular wind instrument, other people with more appropriate physiology will be successful at that instrument. No matter how musical or expressive Person A is, s/he will feel like a failure, and might give up music altogether.


In my ideal music school, I would start 7-year-old children with recorder, and I would expose them to the repertoire of all the orchestral instruments during that year. I would explain the personal requirements of being a wind player, brass player, or percussionist: being able to count rests, being able to figure out who to tune to at what time, being able to deal with pressure and competition, being able to play solos without getting too nervous, showing up on time, and being able to deal with knives, cane, and frustration. I would explain what is necessary to succeed as a string player: being able to play people sitting next to you and all around you, being able to blend, being able to deal with coordinating both hands and arms, being able to pay attention to bowings, being able to read more than one clef, and practicing a whole lot more than wind players when it comes to orchestral music, because string players have so many more notes to play.

I would also discuss repertoire. People who want to play wind instruments should be warned that there is little in the Romantic solo repertoire for them, unless they play the clarinet. Flute players had better like baroque music and 20th century music, because the pickings are slim during the 19th century. Brass players should know that their Classical Period music is restricted mainly to orchestral music and a few concertos. People with a deep desire to play classical chamber music should think carefully about being brass players, unless they play French Horn.

I would also make it a requirement at my school for everyone take a few years of piano lessons, and I would require that everyone spend a lot of time singing, thus increaing the number of pianists and singers without lowering the numbers of local orchestral musicians.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sam Zygmuntowicz's violin secrets

There aren't actually secrets here, but in a fascinating short film on the NPR website, Sam Zygmuntowicz shows how the design of the violin's f-holes allows for the top of the violin to be flexible enough to actually move when it is being played.

(Click on the "watch a video clip about the violin-imaging study" box.)

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Nifty Viola d'amore blog

This is but one of the treats to be found on this great viola d'amore blog.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Making a Connection

Yes, we did. Last night "we" saw a new "we" in America. We felt a new "we," and it was a "we" that we could see and measure. It was a triumph for all of us, but it was a particularly important triumph for our family because we took part in Barack Obama's campaign from the time of his Illinois senate race. And now he has been elected President of the United States of America, and we know that we helped. We all know that our voices and actions matter, and by contributing what we can in time and in resources to a collective effort for good, we can do anything.

I haven't felt a connection like this since the moment after giving birth for the first time. It was a odd suspended kind of moment. A moment when I felt a kind of "sisterhood" with every women who had ever lived who had given birth. That sisterhood faded a bit after a few hours of facing the challenges and responsibilities of actually being a mother, but this brother-and-sisterhood with my compatriots doesn't seem to be going anywhere. If anything it seems to coming into a clearer focus.

I was overcome with emotion last night, and now, after sleeping peacefully all through the night, I feel a new sense of calm and a well-informed sense of hope (expressed by the first movement of Beethoven's Opus 111 Sonata that has been ringing triumphantly through my head all morning).

Yes. We did. Yes. We will.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Musician's Guide to Having an MRI

Jennifer Paull appreciates the benefits of musical synaesthesia while having an MRI:

A white-clad person may offer bromide earphones oozing recordings of the above. One may even have been informed that bringing one's own CD is acceptable. On the other hand, depending upon the country/health service or amiability of all concerned, there may be no soft option. Good! None is required by the musician.

Here, for a change, we have a most decided advantage. I must admit that having synaesthesia I, perhaps, have a tad more luck on my side. However, I promise you that sans the latter blessing, the musician is well prepared for the mini Channel tunnel and what could be a claustrophobic hour or two.

The magnetic resonance imagery settings come in series (ranging from two to seven minutes), each having a different sound, pitch(es) and rhythm depending upon the particular machine and the specific examination. An American impressionist tone poem is not the same thing as an architecturally correct German fugue after all. Neither are these multi-million, cylindrical, wide-bored, electronic instrumental treasures from their respective countries. In fact, only a quartet of makers/countries is represented in this advancement in diagnostic technology. (The other two being Japanese and, originally, Dutch, drawing musical parallels would render me even more obtuse than usual.)
. . . continue reading here

Friday, October 31, 2008

Electronic Underscoring

Because we left at the intermission, I'm not in a position to write a review of the play Michael and I saw last night, but the reason we left is worthy of commentary. Actually it is worthy of complaint because it ruined what might have otherwise been a worthwhile production.

The play was written by (I hate to use this word, but I will anyway) arguably one of the finest playwrights in all of history, and the production was well directed and, with the exception of a few uneven bits of casting, well acted. The actors did not use amplification, and they projected their voices well in a decently-sized theater with excellent acoustics.

What ruined the production for me was an almost omnipresent electronic underscore. The first distraction was some Darth Vader-like breathing that served as a kind of "white noise" over which the actors needed to yell in order to feel that they were being heard. Then came some soft pseudo-recorder music under some quick exchanges of dialogue. I thought that it could have been someone's cell phone ringing on a low setting, or someone's child playing with a 1980s-style casio keyboard backstage. This distraction made it impossible for me to concentrate on the play.

Perhaps the worst moment of undermining underscoring came during a very famous soliloquy that was turned into a duet for synthetically-generated woodwinds (including an almost realistic flute) and obbligato speaking voice. The overwhelming presence of electronically-generated music coming from speakers in the hall dominated and controlled the actor. The actor was reacting to the music, and because the audience reacts to what the actor does on stage, the audience was forced to "re-act" to the music as well.

Maybe this trend in theater (if it is a trend) comes from the use of underscoring in film. It is important to remember that underscoring in film works because everything in a film is synthetic. There are no natural voices. The voices of the actors become a track to be mixed and balanced. In a stage play using electronic music as "underscoring" actually becomes overscoring. It is the synthetic nature of electronically-generated music that captures our attention when we hear it. In this case it succeeded in drawing my attention away from the voices of the actors, and in its abundance, away from the play as whole.

Don't get me wrong. I don't have a problem with music being used in plays (if musicians are actually present and playing their instruments in real time). There are many ways that music serves well, especially in plays by this particular playwright, but this just isn't one of them.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Same Old Song

"An alter nign," a song with a text by Leyb Kvitko and traditional music arranged by Emil Gorovets, is the title track of this recently-reissued recording by Jalda Rebling.

The text is an adaptation of an old Yiddish story that resonates on many levels:
"Go and buy a pair of oxen," says the master, and Nachman takes the money and sets out on his way. "How much does your melody cost," he asks the shepherds by the roadside, and they sell him their melody. Humming the melody, he carries on and meets a musician. From him he also buys a song. Nachman chooses two oxen at the market. However, when he tries to pay for them, he discovers that his purse is empty. He returns home empty-handed, and is flogged by the lord of the manor. While being lashed, Nachman sings his song.

Californians: Vote No on Proposition 8

And I'll add a resounding "Yes!" and loud "Thank You" to Itzhak Perlman for this:

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Musical Re-creation

It has been kind of difficult for me to put much effort into musical creation these days because I have been involved pretty heavily in musical re-creation (which is another word for practicing and rehearsing). I imagine that the creative process is kind of like the stock market: there are times when everything is flowing, and there are times when movement is a bit slower.

I don't do "slower" very well, so I'm putting my musical "eggs" into violin playing and into making music with a few composers who have been way out of my league for hundreds of years (Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart) with the intention of playing a concert in a couple of weeks. Here's your invitation, if you happen to be in the neighborhood.

One of the pieces we are playing is the Bach E major Sonata for violin and keyboard, BWV 1016. I actually performed it once before around 30 years ago (!) at Alice Tully Hall (!!!!) on the flute (!). I had a harpsichordist friend named Helen Katz who had scheduled a performance of the piece for a "Wednesday One O'clock Concert" (free concerts for the people in the neighborhood to attend) with a violinist who was a student of Dorothy DeLay. It seems that Miss DeLay was not happy about the idea of her student playing in "Baroque" style (which during the 1970s and 1980s involved a lot of experimentation with inegal or unequal note values, regardless of the style). Helen, who really wanted to play the piece, asked me on a Monday night (I remember it well because I played at a restaurant called "Ruskay's" on Monday nights) if I would be willing to play in place of the violinist that Wednesday (yes, I had about 36 hours to learn the piece). I agreed. What was I thinking?

All I can say is that it is a good thing Helen was such a good harpsichordist. She followed me through a landscape of rhythmic inaccuracies. I remember the stupid blue platform shoes (they must have been four or five inches off the ground) I wore, and the brown wrap-around dress with blue piping along the edges. I remember the speed with which we played, and I remember my pioneering and rebellious spirit. I was playing a violin piece on the flute in Alice Tully Hall, and I was playing all the eighth notes in the second movement as dotted eights and sixteenths, and all the sixteenth notes in the last movement as dotted sixteenth notes followed by thirty-second notes. I felt like I was on the cutting edge of creativity (and I know I was on the cutting edge of fashion). What was I thinking?

Now I'm playing the piece on the violin. The eighth notes in the second movement will be eighth notes, and the sixteenth notes in the last movement will be real sixteenth notes. Thank goodness.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Campaign Music: finally something from the non-pop world

Judd Greenstein wrote this nifty (and very catchy) piece of "new" music which is performed here by the NOW Ensemble.

I appreciate the fact that both the composer and the performing ensemble are credited for their work on this veritable earworm. The tax calculator is also an informative (and brilliant) device.

Drawing and painting music with young children

Bach E-major Partita Preludio by Rachel Leddy (c. 1990-91)
watercolor on paper

When our children were little, it was part of my job to monitor the university radio station during the classical music hours when I was not at work. The hours I spent at home were always spent with our two kids, especially when they were little. We spent much of that precious pre-schooling time at the kitchen table with crayons, pencils, and watercolors, or with materials for making collages, and the music on the radio (music that I programmed) simply became part of the drawing and painting experience.

Once in a while one or the other child would consciously paint or draw the music, and the above painting by the three- or four-year-old Rachel (who is now nearly 22) was a visual response to the Preludio of the Bach E-major Partita, BVW 1006, as performed by Nathan Milstein. She made it in the course of the three or so minutes that the movement takes to play. There are very few pieces of art in the world (in my mind) that approach the deep feeling and honesty of this painting. (The scan does not really do justice to the original, which has a grey circle behind the "eye" in the center.)

We often brought our children to concerts when they were little, and we always brought pencils, crayons, and paper with us. Our family archives are filled with the spoils from those events, and our children learned to involve themselves in listening to music by participating in it, even before they began to play themselves.

I know that there are many of parents with young children who would love to take their children to concerts with them, but they are afraid that small children would be distracting for other members of the audience. My advice is to find free concerts like student recitals at colleges, and community orchestra concerts, and bring your kids. Make it clear to them that their "job" is to draw the musicians so that everyone can remember details about the event that someone in the family or group might otherwise miss.

Drawing musicians, particularly string players, is very difficult for adults, but little kids seem to enjoy drawing challenges. And if the drawing becomes a little tiring, they can always listen to the music.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Creamy Potato and Mushroom Soup

Michael and I were so pleased with this soup that I made on the "fly" (making up the recipe as I went along) this evening, that we thought it would be fun to share.

Creamy Potato and Mushroom Soup (it's vegan, of course)

2T olive oil
8 small red potatoes (new potatoes)
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
16 oz. (one pint) Baby Bella mushrooms, sliced
a splash of sherry
2 stalks celery, thickly sliced
2 large carrots, thickly sliced
1 small zucchini, thinly sliced
32 oz. Swanson Organic Vegetable Broth (or any other broth)

Put the potatoes (with their skins on) in a steaming device. While the potatoes are busy steaming, heat the oil in a stockpot, add the onions, and let them cook on medium-high heat for 3 minutes or so. Add the garlic and the mushrooms, and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the splash of sherry, and then add the rest of the vegetables. Let them cook for a minute or two, and then add the stock.

At this point the potatoes should be done. Let them cool a bit, and cut them into quarters while the vegetables and stock cook on medium heat. Divide the quartered potatoes in half, and throw half of then into the soup. Remove a cup or two of stock and vegetables, and blend it with the remaining steamed potatoes. Add the creamy mixture to the stock pot, and let everything cook at a low temperature for 10-20 minutes.

Add salt and pepper to taste, and enjoy your soup.

It's on the bag . . .

. . . and hopefully in the bag!

Ladies and gentlemen, my purse:

Early voting started today in Illinois.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

My Myth of the American Musical Dream

Growing up as a child of a musicians who came from families of musicians themselves, I always understood the concept of "working" as practicing, playing concerts, and teaching. I knew that my father worked in a "lab" before he worked as a musician (he was a chemist for what was to become NASA before he started playing in the Boston Symphony), but that was during a time when I was too small to have really noticed. My youngest childhood memories of family life always involved a great deal of music.

My window to the world of work was always a musical one. My friends' parents (all of them, I guess) worked, but I never really understood what any of them did. I know my paternal grandfather made picture frames for a living, but he was a violinist. My maternal grandmother taught piano lessons, and I'm pretty my maternal grandfather (who was also a violinist) did something else for a living, but I never knew him. The only conversation I remember having with him was on the telephone, and in that conversation he told me that he wanted to give a violin to my brother. Oh well.

Anyway, when I started out in music I had every intention of working as a musician. Even as a flutist I had the "American Dream" mentality that if I worked hard enough, I would succeed. I got into Juilliard, which was a version of success, I suppose. I got a pretty good teaching job at a music school in the Bronx. I had pretty good social skills, and was able to get some lower-tier musical work in New York. There were mountains to climb as a musician in New York, but I had every intention of climbing them because I knew that I had the capacity for hard work and the desire to succeed.

Then the work in New York kind of dried up, and like many musicians trying to find work in the 1980s, I went to Europe to find a job. I was very lucky to find one (though the circumstances of the job made it impossible for me to stay in my little alpine Austrian town). Returning to America after my short stint in Hong Kong, I found myself faced with an economy that did not support professional musical life the way it had in the past, and I had to find a way to support myself.

I spent a summer in New York. I investigated the world of work, and applied for the kinds of jobs that didn't require typing (I didn't know how to touch type) like working in stores and restaurants. I did manage to get a part-time job reading to a blind stockbroker who liked employing musicians, and I found a few students, but (along with playing on the street and a little freelancing) I couldn't make enough money to pay rent in New York.

I used to ask musicians how they supported themselves. Some did it by collecting unemployment insurance for playing seasonal jobs like the Ballet. One person told me that he supported himself (seriously) as a small-time criminal. And there were always people who worked as "call girls." And then there was temporary office work, which involved knowing how to type at least forty words per minute. I decided that it was time to learn to type.

Typing seemed like an oasis of stability, but office work was a mystery to me. I found that people working in offices spent a lot of time on their personal social lives while at work. I also found that a lot of people who typed in offices did "other things." There were lots of visual artists typing around Boston, and there was a sharp line between "professionals" and "support staff." The professionals around Boston seemed to enjoy having "support staff" who were "cultured" and "educated." I think that it made some of them feel that their professional status (and salary) was raised by having impressive underlings.

I played jobs on the weekends, but had a hard time getting musical work because my "day job" required me to be at an office from 8 to 5 every day. There was also not enough time to practice, so I had to try to squeeze it in during my lunch hour, if I could find space somewhere to do it.

It was then that I realized that the "American Dream" for musicians is a myth, especially during tough economic times. We work hard, we practice, we write, we arrange, we teach, we reach out to new audiences, we create new and innovative ensembles, we make recordings through improved and cheap technology, and we drive great distances for jobs, but it seems that the idea of an "American Dream" just isn't something that could apply to "classical" musicians anymore.

Friday, October 10, 2008


Quick! While it is still the word of the day over at the OED:

muso, n. slang.

1. Austral. A musician; esp. a classical one.

1967 Kings Cross Whisper (Sydney) XXXIX. 9/1 (headline) Musos blow cold... Members of the Sydney symphony orchestra will work to rule. 1978 Melbourne Truth 18 Mar. 28/2 Davis ended up doing four numbers{em}and the musos backed him beautifully right off the cuff. 1993 Sunday Mail (Brisbane) 21 Nov. 141/2 Musos of the calibre of Eric Bogle and Jeanne Lewis joined a choir of talented high-school students and the result is a cheerful collection of ditties telling the story of the gumnut babies and their adventures.

2. Brit. A musician or music enthusiast, esp. (freq. mildly depreciative) one who takes himself or herself too seriously.

1977 Melody Maker 26 Mar. 10/5 Among the many musos who heard him at the Seven Dials in Covent Garden last Thursday was brassman Alan Littlejohn. 1989 Empire Sept. 108/3 It's hard to imagine many people, apart from die-hard musos and dedicated Gabriel fans, would want to listen to this in the comfort of their own home. 2000 Evening Standard (Electronic ed.) 1 Nov., This is in serious breach of his job description, viz, Slightly Dumb Cook. He is not a muso--he is not cool enough.

(Thanks Michael!)

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

I guess it shows

Yesterday, as I was walking to class, a student from the class asked what we would be doing today. I told her that we were doing good stuff: sacred music by Bach. To that she said, "I guess you're really stuck on Bach." To which I replied, "I guess you're right."

I like to introduce Bach's sacred music with the Crucifixus from the B-minor Mass. By this point in the semester the students can recognize the techniques that he uses in it, and they, like me, can be completely blown away by the emotional universe Bach shows us in just three short minutes.

I guess I am pretty stuck on Bach.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

It's a good thing she didn't try to go into music.

Listen for yourself.

Sacred Music

I got the chance to blow the shofar this Rosh Hashana. The shofar service is one that I always love: the overtone-rich sound of one of the most natural of sacred musical instruments has always represented some part of what could be the voice of God to me. I always close off my other senses and allow my whole inner being to take in the sound. It is a sound that has as much presence and importance to me as the air around me, and it is a sound that I always associate with new beginnings and new opportunities. This year, with the absence of a student rabbi in our (very) small rural congregation, it was up to me to blow the shofar.

The blowing of the shofar is preceded by a great deal of seriousness. The responsibility I felt as its player was great, particularly since I was not really able to practice it for very long: there are only a finite number of blows in this non-brass-player's lips. There are a few stable notes on the shofar, and I was worried that I would not be able to find a single one of them when the first "tekiah" moment came.

The shofar calls are immediately preceded by a reading of the shehekianu, prayer; a prayer that is only used for only the most special of occasions. It set up the collective mindset in our Jewish community that the notes that would (or would not) come out of the instrument were sacred.

They did feel special. An odd kind of special.

And when I picked up my fiddle to play the music for the rest of the service, the notes I played on it also felt an odd kind of special.

Blowing the shofar this Rosh Hashana somehow allowed me to think about the potential sacredness of every single note that I play. And it also helped me to realize the deep difference between a note that is sounded and a note that is sung, and it helped me to have a glimpse at the infinite musical possibilities available to me on the instrument(s) that I love to play. It also helped me to understand how much responsibility I have as a musician, and, in a population that otherwise does not seem to think of the music that I play as something beyond background sound, pleasant entertainment, or a way to get all the bridesmaids in for a wedding, how what I do can actually be, note-by-note, important and meaningful simply for its own sake.

Now, if I can only carry that sense of meaningfulness with me for another year!

Friday, September 26, 2008

More Shoulder Rest Thoughts

I never play with a shoulder rest. I never have. It is simply the way I taught myself to play, and I find that it has many tonal advantages because of the freedom of movement that it affords.

It dawned on me, however, in a sectional rehearsal the other night with a bunch of viola-playing kids who use shoulder rests, that it is certainly possible to lift the instrument to meet the bow while "wearing" a shoulder rest. The problem that I find is that a lot of younger players who use shoulder rests simply don't do it. They rely on the shoulder rest to hold the instrument up, and they make their sounds by applying their fingers and bows to objects that are almost stationary. This allows for a certain amount of control, I suppose, and it also allows, so I've been told, for a certain amount of physical relaxation, but for my musical purposes there is an awful lot more that I want to do when I play than relax and be in control (though being comfortable and having a reliable technique are both essential).

I find the process of making sound by applying the bow to an unmoving instrument is kind of like having one hand clap while the other one stays still (try it, and see how expressively you can clap). I find that using the energy of both arms (and hands) to allow sound to come out of the violin or the viola opens up a lot of expressive possibilities. It increases the size and depth of the sound, makes playing a lot easier, and can even be done with a shoulder rest attached to the instrument.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Da-da-da Dup Dum ba ba bum PAH

When I was a child I remember asking my mother why she always sang music with words like the ones that are in the title of this post. She responded by saying that it was the way that music sounded.

This always bothered me. There were subtle differences between the way a phrase could sound with one combination of vowels and consonants and they way it would sound with another. The end of a note with an "uh" vowel-type sound, for example, could terminate kind of convincingly with an "m," a "p," a "t," a "b," and not convincingly with an "s" (that hiss would add a bit of percussion to the end of the note), a "k" (because there would be an extra vowel sound after the consonant). We also have a wide variety of end vowel sounds (ah, ee, oo, uh, eh, and o in all their various positions of openness and closed-ness).

Then there are the opening consonants that wind players rely on for actual tonguing technique like "d," "t," "g," "r," and "k," and a whole range of "b," and "p," sounds that suggest percussion. The all-purpose "la la la" is sometimes used exclusively by people who are not deeply connected with the music they are singing. It can also be used as a syllable to suggest a very legato articulation in a soft, sustained lyrical passage. The exclusive choice of "duh duh duh" can suggest the lack of connection to a musical phrase, but sometimes it is the only syllable that will do when trying to imitate the sound of a brass section playing something martial.

Since all notes in a musical phrase are connected to those that come before them and come after them, the regular rules of spoken diction don't apply when singing music with nonsense syllables. The choices we make have everything to do with interpretation. I could sing a phrase with many different combinations of syllables, but ultimately, for each syllabic utterance of an untexted phrase, I must choose only one set of syllables, which I end up doing spontaneously and unselfconsciously. I know that the next time I sing the same phrase it may or may not have the same set of syllables, but I also know that nobody's keeping track.

I wonder if anyone reading this would have the same aural picture of the phrase in the title of the post that I have. I wonder if those syllables will mean the same thing to me tomorrow, or even in an hour.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Michelle's New Haircut

Update: A big welcome to everyone looking for a shot of Michelle Obama's real new hairstyle for February 2009, here's a lovely photo (I cropped Arnold out of the picture). If you are a person interested in classical music, have a look around!

Here's the content of the original post:

I'll take a moment away from musical discourse to voice my admiration for Michelle Obama's new haircut, and share it and her message with you.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The American Music League

In 1936 the American Music League (formerly called the Workers Music League) issued a call to "musicians and music lovers everywhere for the development of music as a people's art in America." Here is its mission statement (which I found in Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland during the Depression and War by Elizabeth B. Crist)
1. to encourage the development of the highest type of amateur musical activities among wide numbers of people; and to draw into active participation in these activities those who have been denied the benefits of musical education and culture.

2. to encourage the presentation of, and to create organized audiences for, concerts presenting the best music of the past and present at prices within reach of everyone.

3. to bring composers and other professional musicians into closer contact with amateur musicians and with working people who form the bulk of the potential American music audience.

4. to guide and further the development of an American music addressed to the people, reflecting their lives, interests, and problems.

5. to collect, study and popularize American folk music and its traditions.

6. to defend musical culture against fascism, censorship and war.
The people who created this mission statement were strongly against the idea of "big financial institutions and banking interests" (they wouldn't have been able to imagine a corporation like Disney) being in control of musical institutions. They couldn't have imagined the mess that copyright and "ownership" of musical material has become. They couldn't have imagined the pop music culture that we have today where music is equal to fashion and people respond to "artists" because of they way they look or what they wear, or the struggles that they represent in their crafted public personae.

The motives of the AML's founding fathers and mothers were quite pure. They wanted to hear America singing, and they devoted their lives to trying to make it happen by collecting, setting, anthologizing, and recording folk songs and getting them added to public school music programs. School systems that are lucky enough to have strong music programs have benefited a great deal from the work that the people of the AML did, but there are too many communities that do not have strong music programs in their schools. There are too many music programs that simply pander to commercial musical tastes that are "marketed" to children and teenagers.

It is tragic for me to think that people's "lives, interests, and problems" are best demonstrated by the commercialism of music, but I fear that this is where American music is headed. American Idol.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Musing on music for the times

I have been listening to a lot of Beethoven lately. When I need reassurance about the state of the country or the world, the string quartets give me the balance I need. His deep sense of tension and release from tension and his grasp on the musical truth (which is, of course, THE truth as far as I'm concerned) provide the energy I need to go on with my day, and embrace at least a part of humanity while I am listening.

Why is it that I never grow tired of Beethoven?

Think of the times he lived in. Some of the things that he was fighting for (and against) in his lifetime were, in a way, the same kinds of things that we are fighting for (and against) in our lifetime. They just have different names and faces. People wore different clothes, didn't bathe as often, didn't use indoor plumbing or electricity, and they made their way around Europe by horseback or by carriage instead of making their way around the world by way of a computer terminal. Of course women didn't have a chance to be in positions of any kind of authority (or have a voice in any kind of political process), unless they were very rich, titled, or both. Money talked in Beethoven's day, and it certainly talks today. Greed, deceit, lust for power, and the abuse of that power are still every society's greatest embarrassments.

Word got around slowly during Beethoven's lifetime, and likenesses needed to be drawn or painted. Because of this, people who wanted to capture a visual image learned how to draw, which took time and patience. Music needed to be played by people who were actually in the room, and there was always a need for new music, especially if it was good music, and there was always a need for musicians. There were, of course, people (like Napoleon) who were unable to tell good music from not-so-good music, but he was balanced out by people who knew exactly how lucky they were to have known Beethoven, and it is thanks to those people that we can still have Beethoven in our lives.

There will never be another Beethoven because there doesn't need to be one. I believe that we would have a better world if more people would take the time to listen to (and play, of course, if they can) the music that he wrote. It is medicine.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Searching for Sanity on YouTube

Here's a video that has some refreshing news from fed up Alaskans. And here's another, and another, and another.

Here is a news item to give a bit of background about the rally, a post that has more about the rally, and some more pictures.

And she has become the stuff of song and story, which is where I hope she stays, gets old, and is ultimately forgotten. If you are still on the fence concerning what is true and what is not, please look at this common sense report.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A bit of insight on current events from the Montpellier Codex

Here's a bit of 13th-century wisdom, brought to virtual life by Anonymous 4:

Ne sai, que je die,
tant voi vilanie
et orgueil et felonie
monter en haut pris.
Toute cortoisie
s'en est si fouie
qu'en tout ce siecle n'a mie
de bons dis;
quar ypocrisie
et avarice, s'amie,
les ont si seurpris,
ceus qui plus ont pris.
Joie et compaignie
tienent a folie,
mes en derriere font pis!

I do not know what to say
I see so much villainy
and pride and evil
gaining high esteem.
Courtesy has utterly fled
before them so that in
the whole world there is
no more noble speech;
for Hypocrisy
and her friend Avarice
have captured those who are most prized.
They consider joy and fellowship
to be foolishness,
and behind one's back they do even worse!

From this recording of music from the Montpellier Codex

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Four things I learned this summer

1. Most people know what a 16-year-old gymnast looks like.

2. Most people who have been pregnant or have ever known anyone who was pregnant know what a pregnant woman looks like at 7 months, regardless of the strength of her abdominal muscles.

3. Before a musician understands what it feels like to play in tune, the concept of playing in tune remains simply an abstraction. Once a musician understands what it physically feels like, playing in tune becomes a life-long obsession.

4. Items 1 and 2 don't have anything to do with my life.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

If you happen to be in the neighborhood . . .

Cellist Erica Lessie will be performing my Sephardic Suite on a faculty concert at the Sherwood Conservatory, 1312 South Michigan Avenue, in Chicago, Illinois this coming Sunday, September 14, 2008 at 3:00 p.m. This is the first concert of a new group called Cherchez La Femme, and admission to the concert is free.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Seeing Red

While going through the YouTube links for medieval music that I use for teaching, I noticed that two performances from the Carmina Burana had been removed by Schott due to copyright violation. Is it possible that the long arm of musical copyright law has extended back into the days before the use of the musical staff? This is something I just don't understand. Karl Orff only translated and used a small amount of the famous (and important) "Red Book" in his popular work, which, thanks to beer ads and the like, has made Schott a lot of money. But how is it possible, by extension, for Schott to own performing rights for the whole book--even the stuff that Orff didn't use?

The Carmina Burana, as I understand it, served as a kind of musical "Rosetta Stone." Because its songs had catchy tunes and had spicy subject matter (sex and drinking among them), the songs in the book remained a part of popular culture for centuries. The melodies in the Red Book (not to be confused with the Libre Vermell, another red book filled with great music) were indicated in neumes--little squiggles used in sacred music that only those in the know could read, and by the time staff notation evolved, most of those in the know were long dead.

There were people who knew the tunes in the Carmina Burana, though, so it became possible to decode some mystery melodies of sacred music through the use of neumes in the Carmina Burana. I love the idea that access to "sacred" music (the quotes are there because I believe there is a lot of music that is not religious that is sacred) can come by way of knowledge gained from "profane" music.

It doesn't make sense for Schott to remove some of the wonderful performances of songs from the non-Orff Carmina Burana from YouTube. The people posting those performances only did so in order to share something exciting, and to give people a lively look and listen to the great and enduring melodies that were preserved and passed through the ages. The were given to us in a book that was in the public domain a very long time before the public domain was even invented.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Nora Ephron on Reading

"Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel I've accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it's a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it's a way of making contact with someone else's imagination after a day that's all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss."
From I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman

You can run, but you can't hide!

The longer version of this disturbing video has been taken down, but this video puts the problem of hunting wolves and bears from airplanes into its proper context. Why would somebody want to shoot wolves (or bears) from airplanes? Why would somebody offer a bounty for the left leg of a dead wolf? This is turning into something far uglier and far more disturbing than anything I have ever witnessed in politics.

Keeping the glass at least half full

I must have a great deal of resilience. It might be something in my nature (it certainly isn't a product of nurture). I always try to arrive a few minutes early, be prepared, and I like to keep my glass at least half full most of the time. Most of the people that I come into contact with are of this mindset when it comes to music, and many of the people who live in my area of the midwest share a kind of political mindset that I prefer not to link to at the moment because it looms too large on my television, in my local newspaper, and, frankly, in my face.

Yes, I'm still "fired up" and "ready to go," but sometimes it is difficult. I simply have to believe that my fellow countrypeople are intelligent and reasonable people who seek political leaders that are true public servants. I have to believe that the majority of people in this country appreciate people who do what they do because they want to make life better for people and uphold people's constitutional rights. What I see around me tells me otherwise. It tells me that equal rights and choice for women are things that too many people (both men and women) don't want to sign into law and protect. It tells me that religion in its most extreme form has some kind of place in American government (witness the Saddleback forum). I always thought that America had a system of government based on the idea of freedom of religion. That should also allow freedom from religion.

This past week has been like a circus, complete with distorting mirrors, charlatans, snake charmers, trained animals, creepy clowns (some wearing expensive dresses), and a bespectacled moose hunter in the spotlight on the high wire (she may or may not have a safety net, and lacks the experience to make it to the end). When the circus party in question packs up its tent and fades into the background of life instead of parading in the constant foreground, maybe I can start filling my figurative glass with something other than hard liquor.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Arts and the State

My friends at the Illinois Arts Council reminded me that we should all make sure to look at the way each of the candidates consider the arts. I really dislike it when anyone refers to music as one of "the arts," but it is something that I have learned to live with. I have come to understand and accept that these days (the days after the Kennedys, who invited musicians like Pablo Casals to the White House because they admired the man and his performances of music, music that the people in the administration actually ended up liking) playing background music for a reception or a dinner is probably the most state-like activity that a "classical" musician would be able to do--aside, perhaps, from going to North Korea and playing a televised concert for the sole (and that ain't Seoul) purpose of what I guess is "diplomacy." I still don't understand what that was all about.

I dream of a State where what I do and what I teach my students to do and to love is a viable way for a person to make a living, even if that person doesn't live in a major city. I dream of a State where music is considered a vital part of a child's education, and every school district is given ample funds to hire and retain excellent music teachers, buy and maintain instruments, and develop good instrumental and choral libraries. I dream of a State where tickets to concerts could be affordable to everyone, and musicians could also be paid well. I dream of a State that asks (that is a short way of spelling commissions) composers to write music for public functions (to be played by musicians who are hired for the occasion) in places other than major cities, and shows the citizens that new "classical" music is something that people still write and people still play all over the country. I dream of a State that values its local talent, musical and otherwise.

I want to believe the Democrats when they tell me that in America you can be anything that you want to be, but I find myself discouraging people, even people with talent and ambition, not to go into music in order to make a living. The opportunities (as I have written in previous posts) are too few, and the people who have success have to rely on a lot of financial support in order to study with good teachers and live the kind of life where they have ample time to practice. They also have to have a great business sense, and know how to market themselves. Good looks also help, and nerves of steel and a competitive drive are essential, because competition is the heart and soul of American success.

I don't think that any administration will change the reality of competition, but it could do its part to teach people that there is more to music than competition. There should be a place for all serious musicians, and "serious" music in what I hope will once again be a great society.