Thursday, July 31, 2008

Nam Prik Pao

Now what was it that was bothering me today? Here is a recipe for a Thai chili paste that will cure what ails you, both physically and psychically. It is labor intensive. The chilis let off an almost toxic smell when they roast (I use a cast iron skillet rather than the hot coals suggested in this recipe), and the shallots are forbiddingly expensive. Everything is gloopy, requiring many spoons, and it is a pain to find some of the ingredients, like tamarind. An hour later, Michael and I are still coughing.

(Sorry Michael. Wait until you taste it.)

Still, it is worth it. None of the Thai restaurants around here (which means within a hundred miles of here) make this paste without using shrimp. Many restaurants don't even have "prik" dishes on their menus. I imagine it might have something to do with the cost of shallots and the cooking smell from the roasting chilis, which could drive away customers. If you are lucky enough to live near a Thai restaurant that does have dishes with "prik" in their names, order one. You will understand.

I was having a lousy day, but one tiny taste of this chili paste seems to have readjusted all my negative feelings into relatively positive ones.

I was going to write a rant about globalization of music, and how small and insignificant it makes composers (like me) feel. But I guess that the very fact that I can make this delicious Thai chili paste in my small Midwestern town is also due to a kind of globalization. And I can also write a blog post about it and share the love, so I'll just carry on as usual.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Orovela sung by Hamlet Gonashvili

Can there ever be anything more beautiful than this! I am so grateful that someone taped this from the television. For a recording with less distortion (the resonances that these men make are so great that the confound normal television microphones--especially Georgian ones from the 1960s or 1970s) I would suggest getting this disc and listening through great speakers or headphones. The whole recording is remarkable, but there is something special about this particular piece (and I prefer the ending on the recording). You can also listen to it on Last Fm, but I can't seem to get it to play more than the preview.

Here is Cincaro, another piece that Gonashvili and the Rustavi Choir sing on the above-mentioned Georgian Voices CD, that is recorded in higher fidelity.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Summer Strings and Sesame Sauce

We just finished our fourth summer of Summer Strings in our small Midwestern town (a town that doesn't have a string program in its school system or in any school system within an hour's drive). We had around 40 string players take part in a program that my partner in string "crime," who teaches most of the young violinists and violists in the area (three of my students played this year) offer as a service to our community.

One of my father's "laws" (having a scientific mind helps him to map out the ways of the world, musical and otherwise) is that no matter how little rehearsal time you have for a given performance, it is always enough. He's right. If a group of musicians have a month or two to put something together, they will use all of the time, and a group has two days to put together a whole program, its members will use the allotted time to get the job done. It just takes a lot more concentration to do so, as well as a lot of personal practice time outside of rehearsal.

Our Summer Strings group put together an hour-long program of pieces in a variety of styles and from a variety of eras without a conductor in eight two-hour-long rehearsals (with breaks for cookies), four of which were used to read through music. It took a lot of work to get the six and seven-year-old children to remain focused and physically alert for two hours, and it took even more work to get them to count, remember where they were in their music, and listen to what was going on around them (it was my job to sit in the beginner section and corral them in--my bow acting like a lasso much of the time). Our final "product" was a concert that sounded really good. The whole was far more, in this case, than the sum of its parts.

Perhaps that is what I like most about ensemble music. Young people, especially string players, tend to be quite competitive when it comes to playing music. There is always someone who can play something that you are unable to play. There is always someone younger than you who can play something faster and cleaner. There is always someone who gets more attention and praise for what s/he does than you do. String players also tend to evaluate themselves by where they are seated in orchestras. It is a fact of life, even if it has no bearing in reality. Ideally members of an ensemble, particularly a string ensemble where there are several people playing the same part, should let down the walls of their individual egos and realize that what they contribute to their section is more valuable when they act as musical emulsifiers, allowing the oil and water of each person's sound to blend into a paste that can become a delicious musical sauce.

Now I have to insert a recipe that proves my point:
Take a tablespoonful or two of sesame tahini and add a tablespoon or two of lemon juice (always use more sesame than lemon). Mix them together for a while, and you will eventually get a very thick paste. Add some soy sauce or tamari (just a little bit) and mix it in. Then slowly add water, bit by bit. You will notice that the sauce will turn white and will remain thick (unless you add too much water--so be careful). You will find it delicious with just about anything.

The same magical thing happens with mustard and oil:
Mince some garlic, and put it and some olive oil in a glass. Add about an equal part of Dijon mustard to the oil, and put in a little salt. Mix it for a while, and you will notice that it will eventually form a jelly-like paste. Add vinegar and spices, and then add some water, a little at a time. The oil and water components of the salad dressing will magically remain mixed together.

So I hope that the musical sauce we made this year at Summer Strings will make our corner of the musical world a bit warmer. I am encouraged by the experience and am excited to spend time on more arrangements for next year.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


What a pleasure to come across such a fine and refreshing blog totally by surprise!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A enlightening (and intimidating) performance

How can something that looks so simple and is so satisfying to watch be so difficult to actually do?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Musical Prodigies

Every once in a while I explore the musicians under the age of 8 or so who have parent-made videos up at YouTube. Here's a little tour of the spoils of the day. The operative word here for many of the posting parents on YouTube is "genius." I prefer to think that musicality is something that is normal, particularly in a very young child who spends most of his or her time using sounds to label and explore the ever-expanding and always-interesting world of life before school and socialization.

This video of Nini's first lesson offers great insight into how really young children learn to play. Notice the Nini's mother is singing in solfege while she is playing. Nini seems genuinely pleased with what she can do, which makes this one of my favorite videos. Then we have Emily Bear who is certainly adorable and accomplished. She has remarkable stage and camera presence, and has already, at the age of six, made her way (by way of her parents, no doubt) to television and even the White House. She already has her own commercial website and has already made recordings of her own music that she sells there. I will be playing a Mozart concerto with her in April, at which point I imagine that she will be seven.

This violinist who was fearless at four has served as an inspiration to many of my beginning students. Now she is seven and seems to be equally fearless, though the musical excitement of her four-year-old crescendos may take time to get back. Her progress is preserved on YouTube for all to see. I imagine that we will all be able to follow the progress of this four-year-old pianist who gets his mature sound with the help of a nifty underfoot pedal-extending device.

I suppose that in order to "make it" in the competitive musical world of the future a lot of current parents of young children seem to think that getting an early cyber leg up is the way to go. Only time will tell.

Call me old school, but I think that growing as a musician is a kind of private matter--something to be shared with family, friends, teachers, and immediate community. The kind of musical sincerity that a lot of children enjoy (because they are young, musical, and sincere) is usually something that they themselves grow out of. Many of the teenagers and young adults I know, who were small children not too long ago, long for the innocence and irresponsibility of childhood. Many of us spend our "mature" adult lives trying to find that spark that some identify as our "inner child." Maybe that's the root of adult fascination with child prodigies. Childhood, musical or otherwise, is something that none of us can regain. It is something that slips away before our very eyes and ears.

Monday, July 14, 2008

My Own Public Radio

A couple of years ago I wrote this post about my experience working in classical radio.

Back in the 1980s the trend in public radio stations was to play music that was "scientifically designed" to appeal to the suspected audience, and stations tended to play music that was familiar as well as music that was not too long. Back in my radio daze in the 1980s, fresh from Boston and New York, where I cut my teeth (or should it be ears) on the best radio known to man or woman, I built up a library of eclectic music written by relatively little-known composers. All the selections that I programmed for the 30 hours per week of classical music on our radio station were pieces and performances that I really cared about, and towards the end of my radio life we had a large enough library to keep all of our music in about a six month rotation. It was wonderful when people stopped to talk with me in the grocery store to talk about some piece or some performance that had been on the radio that morning. Unfortunately too many of those people are no longer alive, or they have moved away. But I digress.

Since the elimination of classical music from the radio station in my community, I have been listening to the two public radio stations, one to the south, and one to the north, that we can reach in our area. I have been rather impressed over the years with the number of pieces that I have heard that are new to me, even though some of the newer announcers drive me a bit batty with their, misinformation and sometimes unwelcome comments. Then again, I have devoted a good deal of time being critical of radio announcers, both professionally and as an informed and educated musician.

I was particularly struck by one quick comment this morning that an announcer made between pieces and PSAs (which are NPR ads) stating that everyone knows that orchestral musicians make good salaries, particularly in larger cities, but many of them are out of work or have other jobs. Then the announcer pressed a button and happily played some more music. Why did she just drop a statement like that without any further discussion? Was she talking about our area of Illinois where professional musicians have to piece together a living? This may be news to many public radio listeners, and it might be the source of serious emotional turmoil for others. She might as well have said to a different radio audience that steel workers make good salaries, but there are a lot of steel workers who are out of work. I steamed about it for a while, and then drove off to get a headlight replaced (which was why I was in the car in the first place).

The electrical system had to be turned off in order to replace my headlight, so I had to re-set the car's radio buttons after the headlight was replaced. I noticed that both radio stations were playing the exact same Chopin waltz, but at different intervals, which got me excited for a moment. Then I noticed that it sounded like the same performance, which the announcement confirmed. I spent the rest of the drive home trying to figure out who was broadcasting live and who was using a feed--maybe someone was on vacation. Then it dawned on me that those people who I thought were living in one or the other community and were broadcasting the classical music on the NPR stations might be broadcasting it from somewhere else entirely.

Oh how naive I have been! A quick search confirmed that everyone seems to be broadcasting their classical music by way of Minnesota Public Radio. Maybe that radio announcer could have said something about classical radio announcers being out of work. Nah. That would only happen in my own private radio.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Money, Music, and Value

It always amazes me that people tend to value something that has a high price on it, and they tend to assume that if something is offered to them for free it must be something of little value.

I remember a conversation I had several years ago with a distant cousin of mine who was connected with an important opera company. I had just completed an opera about Emma Goldman that was an adaptation of a play by Howard Zinn. It was a real treat to work with Howard Zinn on the libretto, and it was a joy to fulfill my long-term fascination with Emma Goldman in a most musical and personal way.

My cousin, who thought that the subject of my opera was very interesting, told me that I should put a high price on it in order for people to consider it a work worthy of their consideration. I thought that it would be best to be true to the spirit of Emma Goldman, and along with Howard Zinn, I decided that it would only be right to offer the PDF files of the music and the performing rights to anyone who would be interested in performing the opera for free. We gave the work to the Emma Goldman Papers project, and they sent a lovely limited-edition framed photograph of Emma Goldman to express their gratitude for our gift.

Maybe my cousin was right. I know now that I will be lucky if I ever get a chance to hear the opera performed at all, which makes me rather sad. I would love the chance to see and hear its flaws, and fix them while I am still able (alive, that is), thus increasing the real value of the opera.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


That stands for "what would Bach do."

Because the world of viola d'amore players is relatively small and rather scattered, I would like to share my self-initiation into this brother- and sisterhood here, with anyone who might be interested.

After about three weeks with the instrument, I finally mustered up the courage to try may hand at some Bach cello suites on the viola d'amore. On a lark I decided to try playing the C minor Suite (Number 5), one that really never sounds as good on the viola as I would like it to, in D minor. Then I discovered that the original version of Suite was actually for the lute, BWV 995 in the key of G minor. I have pretty much finished an urtext transcription (without slurs or dynamics) of the whole suite, which lies beautifully on the viola d'amore.

It was a wonderful experience to compare the cello version, BWV 1011, written for an instrument that has the ability to sustain, with the lute version, written for an instrument that does not have the ability to sustain. It is also interesting to compare J.S. Bach's handwriting to the more-familiar hand of his wife Anna Magdalena. I wonder if Bach, who did write music for the viola d'amore (he probably knew how to play the instrument, and may or may not have actually played the lute), might have used the viola d'amore to write this Lute Suite. (A special thanks to Harry Wimmer for putting these manuscripts on line!)

A PDF file of my viola d'amore transcription of the whole Suite is available on this page of the IMSLP.

Listening to a performance of the piece on the lute really helps to understand the tempo that Bach probably had in mind when he wrote the piece. I really admire Andrea Damiani's reading of the Prelude and the two Gavottes.

Meet My friend Martin Perry!

One of the rare benefits for me of participation in the musical blogosphere is when a person I have admired for a very long time makes his or her way into the large and animated discussion of music in a place that I like to call "here," but it is really also "there," "then," and everywhere.

I first met Martin Perry in an academic class at Juilliard (of all places), and we became fast and lasting friends. Now, through his appropriately-named Con Spirito blog you will get to know him too!

Monday, July 07, 2008

And Never Stop Dancing

Gordon Livingston's Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart is a rather visible book that can be found easily in the self help sections of many chain book stores, but his sequel, And Never Stop Dancing, is much harder to find in the "real world" (though it is easy to find on line).

I usually don't go out of my way to read self-help books (unless they are cultural relics from another time), but this is a book that kind of transcends the concept of the quick-fix, follow-the-book approach to solving the universal problems and concerns that we all have. Livingston does not offer faith-based solutions, and he doesn't go out of his way to give advice. He does, however, go out of his way to tell the truth, which I really appreciate.

So why am I writing about this book here? In a chapter about fear, Dr. Livingston offers the following story:
A patient told me the following story: In 2003 she was at a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concert. they were playing the Brahms Violin concerto when suddenly the light went out. In the utter blackness of the concert hall her immediate thought was the Baltimore was under terrorist attack, a fear no doubt shared by many in that audience. She is uncertain how long they were in darkness before the dim emergency lights came on --probably only a few seconds, though it seemed longer. What amazed her was that the orchestra kept playing. Sitting in the dark, unable to see the conductor or their scores, the musicians played on, flawlessly. No one in the crowd made a sound, though she remembers the ovation at the end of the piece as especially heartfelt.
Of course I wonder who the fiddle player was, but then again I know that it could have been any one of the hundred or more regular soloists on the major American violin soloist circuit in 2003. That kind of action (playing if the lights go out) is basically standard practice for a professional orchestra with a professional soloist (particularly when it is a piece of standard repertoire), but to the audience it becomes a heroic moment--a moment where the soloist and the orchestra defy the greatest and most immediate fears of each audience member.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Freeway Philharmonic

Here's Jay Shulman's review of this eye-opening film about the on-the-road lives of freelance musicians in California's Bay Area. The film was made when the price of gas was a good deal lower than it is now. The price of being a commuting musician just went up a great deal.

I dream of having fast commuter rail systems all over the country with stations near concert locations (or concert locations near the stations) that would make it possible to play orchestral jobs without the physical stress and the actual cost of driving after performances. The trains could be used by audiences as well as by musicians, allowing the cost (both in dollars and in carbon emissions) of transportation to and from performances to be reduced for everyone. You could throw in time for dinner before the concert, and serve after-concert wine, coffee, and dessert on the train. Musicians and audience members could schmooze in the dining car.

The rails could be used for other trains as well, for people who carry on other business (yeah, I know, "everything else). Maybe there could even be increased commercial activity around the concert hall hubs because of the larger number of people who would be using the trains. How about a music store or two, some vegan-friendly restaurants, some book stores, and maybe even a stationery store. I know it's far-fetched, but it is a nice dream.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Sign of the Musical Times

Thanks to Steve Smith for telling it like it is!

Work in music compared to work in the "real world"

There's a post over at Anesthesioboist that has a lively discussion about what people (mostly MDs, it seems) would like to do as alternative professions. This started me thinking about my experience as a working musician and my experience in what I used to call the "real world," or think of as "everything else."

Not that I ever got to the point where I made more money than it took simply make ends meet, but I was able to work exclusively in music during my years at Juilliard and a couple of years after graduation, when I lived outside of the U.S. The early 1980s was a time when musical work was really scarce here. When I returned to the US in 1982, shows in New York were saving money by using synthesizers rather than musicians, and the very small amount of flute work was held onto by a few people who spent many years developing the kinds of relationships that flutists need to develop in order to get work. The work situation was even worse in Boston, where I went to typing school, and decided that I would try to get work in "the real world." In order to get a job with a temporary agency in Boston in the 1980s, you had to be able to type if you were a woman. In order to learn how to type quickly, I had to learn how, and, like anything else, I had to practice daily for a while. That was not unusual in my experience. I understood how to practice, and I learned quickly. Intelligence and education didn't matter in typing school. I was functionally bi-lingual when I went to typing school, and I wasn't the only functionally bi-lingual person in my class.

I passed my typing test, and I went to work for a temporary agency. Unfortunately I wasn't able to use my typing skills for my first job. The job was a filing job, and me and my Ph.D. in economics candidate filing partner set out on our huge task with dedication. I noticed that none of the people, particularly the "support staff" in this engineering firm seemed to be very dedicated to their work. They arrived late to work, and they left early. They didn't seem to care that their filing system was totally screwed up, and the engineers didn't seem to care either. My first dose of the "real world" was that people, for the most part, don't take their work as seriously as musicians take their work.

Musicians (at least those who work) always show up on time. If a musician doesn't show up on time (which usually means a little early) for a rehearsal or for a concert, the other musicians fear the worst: an accident, terrible sickness, or maybe death. Musicians who want to continue to work always come to rehearsals with their music prepared. That usually means that in order to prepare for a 2.5 hour rehearsal, that musician has put in anywhere between 4 and 60 or more hours of practice (over several days or weeks, and sometimes over a professional lifetime), depending on the difficulty of the part or the familiarity with the piece.

String players can be covered up if they make mistakes or if they play a few notes out of tune. Wind, brass, and percussion players cannot. They can have a bad day, but they still have to count and come in at the right time, and they have to play the right notes in tune. If they don't, even in rehearsal, everyone knows it. Their reputations are always on the line. Good wind, brass, and percussion players carry a lot of pressure on their shoulders, but they often do their best not to let on how hard they work, or how much it matters to them to play well.

Even though the pay is often pretty low, musicians cannot afford to lose work. The phrase "change jobs" was one that I heard among my support staff peers around Boston. Musicians don't change jobs. They do look for more work, and some people are lucky enough to play great auditions and get better-paying jobs with better orchestras in exciting cities, but your run of the mill "rank and file" (yes, string players who are not in leadership positions are referred to as rank and file players) musician who is not motivated to take difficult auditions is going to stay pretty much where s/he is, if there is work. That means that musicians have to get along with their co-workers, and their team of co-workers remains pretty much the same, with "new blood" thrown in as people graduate from music schools and enter the working world of music.

In my neck of the Midwestern woods, most of the musicians have "day jobs." Some are teaching jobs in music, and some are jobs further out in the "real world." Some people (like me) rely on their spouse's job to pay the bulk of the bills. Most working musicians don't complain about their lot in life, because it is their life of choice.