Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Blogging Year in Review

Michael had a nifty idea for an end-of-the-year blog meme: take the last sentence of the last blog post from each month of 2009, and put them all together, one after another, in a blog post. Since the resulting blog post would be the last blog post for December of 2009, the last sentence would need to be repeated.

Here's my blogging year in review. It was a good one: both my 50th birthday and 25th wedding anniversary came at the end of a month.

After the piece was over, the announcer told me (and the rest of the listening audience) that the performance was by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Daniel Barenboim. He also has a whole gallery of odd violins, along with soundclips from the various fences he has played, and a bunch of videos. I'm hoping that someone reading this post will be able to "talk me down," tell me that I am wrong, and then assure me that there an increasing number of performances of music (orchestral, chamber music, and operas) written by women, both living and not living, out in the larger world.

So this 50th birthday present I have given to myself (and to share with whoever might be interested) of a piece for viola d'amore (another implausibility) marks the day, and celebrates the fact that with enough desire and enough hard work (one day at a time) it is possible to do what seems to be impossible. This article by Andrew Clark is well worth reading. You can download a PDF of the music here, if you want. Now I'll go and compare what I did to what Melissa did (if the recipe is up now). A lot has gone down these past 25 years, and in the process both of us have certainly grown up.

Easy-Ass Pie! They are playing a concert next week. They are playing a concert next week.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Odd Instruments: the Csakan

I just learned about the Csakan,
a keyed recorder that was popular
during the middle 19th century and
into the 20th. It has a rather large range,
and from the music I have heard
written for the instrument, probably
has a very flexible high register.
It was invented by Anton Haberle and
championed by Ernst Krämer, who
wrote a bunch of nifty music for it.
Unfortunately the instrument seems
to have fallen into obscurity. You can
read all about it here, and try to imagine
the instrument playing this.
There are bunch of odd instrumental
treasures attached to the above link.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Peace for the New Year

I'm such a creature of habit. Even though I don't really think about it, I always seem to write a piece during the last two weeks of December, and it is usually finished by the first of the next year. It would be dishonest to date this piece for viola d'amore and piano for Friday, especially since I finished it this evening. I need to be done with it in order to move on to other things, so I'm releasing this piece into the ether of cyberspace, and then I can have some peace for the new year.

It amazes me how much time can go into a writing piece that lasts a mere four minutes and thirty seconds. The act of getting rid of the notes that need to be eliminated, and making sure that the remaining notes are in the right places takes a vast amount of time. Hours and hours. Days. Weeks, even.

You can listen to it here.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Bit of Christmas Cheer from 1932

(There are a few racist elements which are best ignored. Perhaps we can view them as a part we would prefer to forget about the humor of the time. We have come a long way socially, I suppose, but as far as the art of animation is concerned, these were great days.)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Unjustly Neglected Composers: Amanda Maier

While seeking out material for our annual March concert of music written by women, my pianist friend randomly came upon a sonata for violin and piano by Amanda Maier in the World Cat. After the first two measures we both agreed to postpone our previous choices for this year's program for another year, and spend a few wonderful months with Amanda Maier. I set out to find out everything I could about her, which led me to corresponding with her great grandson, and locating the rest of her music.

Amanda Maier was born into a working-class family (her father was a baker), she became the first woman to get a music degree from the Stockholm Conservatory of Music in 1869. She continued her studies from 1873-1876 with Engelbert Röntgen, the concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, at the Leipzig Conservatory. Like many of the other violin soloists of her time, she wrote her own music. She wrote her B-minor Violin Sonata while she was in Leipzig (around the time of the above picture, taken when she was 20). It was published in Stockholm in 1878, and it is possible that Amanda included this work in her extensive tour through Sweden and Norway during the spring and summer of that year.

She met her future husband, Julius Röntgen, in Leipzig. He was the son of her violin teacher. They married in 1880, and entertained guests like Johannes Brahms and Edward Grieg in their home. Both Brahms and Grieg admired Amanda's ability as a composer, but the ethos of the time prevailed, and when Amanda became a mother, her main musical outlet became teaching her sons.

She contracted tuberculosis after the birth of her second son, and she died at the age of 41 in 1894. Her superb violin sonata probably went unplayed until 1994 when it was recorded for the first time. Here's the first movement, the second movement , and the third movement. This recording, and this excellent series of performance videos beginning with this one miraculously appeared on YouTube at about the same time that we first read the music (just a few weeks ago).

The Stockholm State Library houses her manuscripts and published editions of her other music. There are also diaries in old Swedish, and an exchange of letters with Johannes Brahms. I have written to the rare manuscript people there, requesting that they contribute scans of these works to the Petrucci Library, but I would seriously appreciate it if anyone in Stockholm with access to the library could help make a case for making Amanda Maier's music available to musicians everywhere. The B-minor Sonata is the only piece available through interlibrary loan, and the paper, from 1878, is growing weak. There are only two copies in circulation in the United States. One is at the Loeb Library at Harvard, and the other is at the University of California, Riverside. There's a copy in Copenhagen as well as the one in the copy in Stockholm.

In manuscript there are 25 Preludes for Piano (1869), a Violin Concerto (1875), a piece for cello and piano (1880) that she wrote with her husband, a couple of songs, and an E-minor Piano Quartet (1891). Her Six Pieces for Violin and Piano (1878) were published, and are available at the Haag in the Netherlands.

I hope that someone (or everyone) reading this will share my enthusiasm for this unjustly neglected composer, and share in my quest to make her music easily available to anyone who would like to play it.

UPDATE: There are more photos of Amanda Maier here.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Map of Civilization

This 1850s attempt at mapping the flow of world civilizations as rivers emerging from the flood is fascinating. You can have a really close look here. There is a bit of a question about the Adam and Eve thing, which this artist solves by extending the ether surrounding them, and adding civilizations as references to them appear in history or in literature.

It is a simply stunning way of organizing history. Thanks again to Pecay at BibliOdyssey for brightening up my day!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christmas Music

It isn't even Christmas yet, and I have played more Christmas music (in public that is) than I thought even possible, and there is still more to come. For me it all ends on Christmas day at the Hilltop Convalescent Center, with our family (it is always a pleasure to play there).

The commercial radio stations have Christmas music going all the time. I haven't spent too much time in stores, but when I go to one, there's yet another arrangement of yet another seasonal favorite. And then there's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," the most obstinate ear worm ever. Yes, it is a successful song (probably for that reason), but at times I feel that enough is simply enough.

For the past few years I entertained the idea of writing a Christmas song, but something always seems to stop me. Perhaps it is not wanting to add to the din, perhaps it is because of serious intimidation (so many of the most popular Christmas songs are simply really successful songs), or perhaps it is because there would be a certain element of insincerity in my endeavor, and insincerity is something that I try to avoid whenever possible.

Michael pointed me to this Op-Ed in the Times by Michael Feinstein which gives me a bit of courage.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Music Appreciation: A Note to All Students

I'm probably not the music appreciation teacher you had this past semester. I probably don't know the music appreciation teacher you had during the past semester (or in semesters past), but I can tell you that I share his or her absolute joy in bringing people who have never had any real exposure to classical music to the point where they can evaluate performances, recognize eras, and sometimes even identify national styles. Some of you have learned some history and geography along the way, and some of you have made improvements in your ability to write. Some of you have learned that the internet has tremendous classical music resources (which is one reason you might be reading this blog).

You are now equipped to begin a life-long adventure exploring the world of music. After taking your music appreciation class you can never again say, "I don't know much about classical music." If you have been paying attention in class, you do know something about classical music. If you have been going to class and haven't been paying attention, you still know a lot more than your fellow students who have never even approached the shore of what is a great ocean. You have been in the water, and though you are probably not an Olympic champion, you now know how to swim.

Visit some of the blogs and sites on the sidebar. Seek out concerts in your community. Remember that tickets to a concert make a great (reasonably priced) gift, and going to a concert together is a great way to get to know somebody who interests you. There is nothing wrong with impressing your friends with what you know. And they will be impressed.

Now that you have (what some of you know shouldn't be called) classical music in your life, your life will never be quite the same again.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Stop, Plop, and Pop

My father used to refer to people who played really well as playing like "gangbusters eating rice krispies." Perhaps that might have influenced three of the most important words that I use in lessons with students (both violin and recorder students) and in my own lessons with myself (in other words, when I am practicing).

Stop refers to a momentary stopping of the bow, which I find useful when thinking about plopping and popping: making sure all the necessary fingers are in place before the bow sounds the next pitch.

Plop refers to what the fingers do. In order to have a Milstein-like left hand, I try to always plop as many fingers down as possible. "Drop" might work for some people, but plop gives me a far more secure feeling. You can "drop" something by accident, but you "plop" on purpose, and you usually do it with a great sense of security.

Pop is what the fingers do when they release notes. When I have three fingers of the left hand down, and I pick up only the third finger, that lifted finger "releases" the note that the second finger is going to play. When I do this action with a feeling of "pop," there is a clarity to the released note. The word "lift" implies work. The word "pop" implies play.

The way it works on the recorder involves a momentary stop of the tongue before the fingers plop or pop.

He makes it look so easy!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Perry Mason Mystery Solved

Load up and listen to this clip from Wozzeck at 3:40, and now listen to this. I find the homage extremely appropriate, considering that this particular music happens right after a murder in the opera, and a large number of Perry Mason episodes begin shortly after a murder.

The Berg-emulating composer? Fred Steiner.

Orrin Hatches a What?

I'm not amused about the hype over this seasonal ear-worm, which I just heard on the TV news, that seems to be making major news-lite this week. The music for this song (it always strikes me as something strange to refer to the music of a song as something secondary in importance) comes from Madeline Stone, a Nashville songwriter who is very big in the commercial music field, particularly the lucrative Christian music field. She isn't given much in the way of credit by the news sources, and when she is given credit, it is not necessarily correct. CBS news refers to her as "a Jewish woman from New York who writes Christmas songs."


Update: Here's a Hannukah Song for 2009 that I wrote in response to this one.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Sound that Says Love

I have been spending my weekend with my viola d'amore, finishing a set of three dances for five violas d'amore, and finally figuring out how to make a plausible multi-track recording. I haven't quite figured out how to edit individual voices, so there are flaws here and there which I hope are not too apparent to people who don't know the music (which, at the moment I am writing, includes everyone in the world outside of my immediate family).

The images come from the remarkable Amore e Simpatia: alla scoperta della viola d'amore. The score and parts are available to download (for free) here.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Sign Hallelujah, come on get happy!

I laughed and laughed when I watched this performance (thanks to my friend Martha), but was disappointed to see that it is actually a movement-by-movement copy of this rendering from last year, and this one too. This one is from December 2007 (the music starts halfway through the video), and has some nifty creative twists, and this one from September of 2007 might be one of the first.

Does anyone know of an earlier performance? I wonder who had the original (brilliant) idea?

Friday, December 04, 2009

A Breath of Fresh PBS Air

What a great surprise and delight it was to hear Jim Lehrer read this set of PBS NewsHour principles on television this evening. It is the perfect antidote to my recent off-topic rant, and a great set of guidelines to help me to improve the integrity of everything I do (although, unlike Mr. Lehrer, I suppose I am in the entertainment business).

Do nothing I cannot defend.

Cover, write, and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.

Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.

Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.

Assume the same about all people on whom I report.

Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.

Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories and clearly label everything.

Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.

I am not in the entertainment business.

(Thanks to Michael for finding the list on line and posting it here.)

Repeating myself: a few thoughts on minimalism

A.C. Douglas set forth a mini rant after listening to a maximal amount of minimalism on WQXR Q2. Too much of anything (especially repetition) can get on anyone's nerves. Staying in the same key for too long can make a few minutes seem like an eternity. Minimalism is a good tool for messing with our sense of time, kind of like repetitive patterns used in decorating can mess with our sense of space.

I have used minimalism, but only in context and for specific purposes. In the case of this moment in my Snow Queen opera, Gerda, while en route to find her friend Kay, is stuck for what might be eternity in a magic garden. The concept of eternity looms large in the opera, and the above excerpt happens in the opera's temporal center. The text comes from a passage in Richard Jefferies' The Story of My Heart, which was published in 1883.
It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the sunshine; I am in it, as the butterfly in the light-laden air. Nothing has to come; it is now.
The idea here is to make a minute and forty-four seconds seem like a huge amount of time: to mark the moment of now in music that, by its very nature, consists of a series of events that take place over time. This is, of course, distinctly different from the real (or imaginary) moment of actual "now."

Minimalism can be hypnotic, and minimalism can be abused. Repetition can be effective, and repetition, if it isn't used in a context where it serves a purpose, can be downright boring. Repetition, however, has always been a part of the heart and soul of all music. Consider (in Western music) the song forms from the Middle Ages, dance forms from the Renaissance and the Baroque, the major classical forms, and dance forms (from all over both Eastern and Western Europe) used in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Ostinato was (and still is) an important element in music of the early 20th century (consider Bolero and the Rite of Spring). Perhaps ostinato might have even spawned the technique of minimalism, at least in Western musical practices. Perhaps minimalism, which could be viewed as a kind of hyper-tonality, was an appropriate reaction to the dominating dodecophonic music (which restricts repetition of pitches) that only a few composers have had actual musical success with. Many composers have had huge amounts of success (deserved and otherwise) with minimalism, so I believe it is best not to throw the musical baby out with the musical bathwater.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Svengali: Soprano and Flute duet

Go in about six minutes for a real treat!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Take Heart: another off-topic rant

For those readers who are disappointed in President Obama's decision on Afghanistan, have a look at this, and keep an open mind. Most of us are ill equipped to make any kind of intelligent evaluation concerning the situation in Afghanistan. Most of us do not have the necessary information to even begin to make an informed military decision. And even if we had all the necessary information, very few of us would have the courage to take the responsibility for making a decision that has so many far-reaching consequences.

The talking heads (as we call them in our house) feel obliged to evaluate this military decision on a very superficial level. They are required to do so in order to entertain their viewers and keep a lot of people watching their cable channel so that the people who buy commercial time will continue to buy commercial time. When it comes to situations like this one, their comments are as meaningless as mine are. I imagine that even with their inflated egos they know how meaningless and how pathetic their evaluations are. Perhaps we should pity them.

Those people are entertainers. All of them, left, right, and center. President Obama is not. He is an extremely intelligent person who is willing to do the most difficult job in the world, and I believe with all my heart that he is trying to do what is right, what is fair, and what is just. Say what you will (but not here, please), but don't dismiss the hope that so many of us had during the election and during the inauguration.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Who Could Ask For Anything More?

The only thing better than hearing this (played so well), seeing the score, and seeing its graphic interpretation would be playing it myself. For my 60th birthday (which is in 9 1/2 years), I want to play this piece. Opus 60. Get it?

I'm not kidding either. I missed the boat on Opus 25 and 26, because I didn't play any of the requisite instruments.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Finding My Own Kind

Back when our kids were little, we used to get a book out of the library that had, as one its characters, a bird that would fly far and wide searching for its own kind. My family knew that I identified with that bird, and they even used to kid me about it.

While I was growing up I never "fit in." I wanted to find people who shared my interests and attitudes, but I was often disappointed when they thought of me as "odd" or "other," or simply too difficult to deal with. Perhaps that is why I stopped doing facebook: it is too personally painful to look back and, once again, feel like an outsider (though, in retrospect, I imagine it was often by choice). It is not that I am a snob. I am functionally social, and have conversations with neighbors I meet in the store and people who go to concerts. I also try to keep up with local and non-local happenings, both musical and non-musical. I do have friends, but, perhaps out of self-preservation (and also out of impossibility), they tend not to be like me. They also tend to live in other places.

When I was a young adult I had the opportunity to leave my life and language behind and build a whole new life from scratch in a new country and speaking a new language. The first several months were filled with wonderful adventures: even the most mundane tasks were fascinating, and even the most uninteresting people were fascinating because everything I talked about with them was in my unschooled German. The excitement faded, however, when my German became functional enough to say pretty much the same things I would say in English. I was faced, once again, with myself.

Dragging that self along with me through the various stages of my life that I have enjoyed since I stopped living it in German, has finally become kind of fun. I have come to like the person I have grown into, and, perhaps, I would be really freaked out if I were to meet someone now who happened, in this world of zillions of people, to be just like me. Still, occasionally, I find myself on the lookout for another of my own kind.

While casually moving through the internets, I happened upon a person who shares my name. She is a painter in England, and her paintings seem to share some of the properties of some of the music I write. My own kind? I highly doubt it, but it is still interesting to contemplate the idea.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Things I'm Thankful for

Thanksgiving used to be a horrible holiday for me (those who were close to me in my younger years know why), but now, and particularly this year, it is my favorite holiday. I love the idea of having a day to give formal thanks for all that I have and all that I love. Here's my short list:

1. My husband and children (and we are all here together this Thanksgiving)
2. Music (something the four of us share in its--and our--various combinations)
3. Health (something never to be taken for granted)
4. Happiness (the product of points 1, 2, and 3)
5. Our little town, which is rather pretty this time of year, and very quiet on Thanksgiving
6. The ability to live life in a way that is virtually free from compromise
7. The chance to cook and share really good seasonal food
8. Having a day with nowhere to be except at home
9. Good wine and
10. Good pie

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Vibrato, not just a good idea

From a post on the Vocalist by David Kastrup:
Vibrato is caused when the air flow exceeds the resistance of the folds. The Hagen-Poiseuille Law references that when the airflow becomes greater than the resistance of the conduit, laminar flow is terminated and turbulent flow begins. The trachea terminates as a conduit when the vocal folds come into play. Please understand there is a difference in the definition of the gas law and the physiologic application of the gas law.
So much for not using vibrato in baroque music, huh? Vibrato is not just a good idea. Like gravity, it's the law.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Corolla Deluxe

Last night Michael and I were driving through the East-Central Illinois fog, listening to the syndicated radio program "Radio Deluxe," hosted by John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey. The program presents the aural illusion of being broadcast from a penthouse on Lexington Avenue in New York (though the program is produced on the west coast), and claims to feature what people like to refer to as the "Great American Songbook." The hosts sure spend a great deal of time making sure the audience knows who they are, but last night they neglected to give what would have been some much-appreciated information about the music they were playing.

They played, among other things, a recorded performance of "Oh Well" from Leonard Bernstein's On The Town (the 1944 stage production--the song never made it into the movie) by Tony Bennett and Bill Evans. Michael noticed that Evans was substituting the chords from his "Peace Piece" in his accompaniment (the chord progression is also used in "Flamenco Sketches" on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue). I knew the song as a Bernstein duet, and appreciated Evans' extended harmonies, but didn't recognize them as belonging to another piece (or two). Michael knows a lot of things that I don't know (so reader, I married him), but he didn't know that the song was written by Leonard Bernstein.

Though Pizzarelli and Molaskey waxed on and on about what a well-written song it was, they didn't even mention the name of the composer, or that the lyrics were by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Pizzarelli and Molasky also mentioned nothing about Evans' harmonic interpretation of the song.

With all the information available at the touch of a button, why do these people (who are musicians themselves) feel that it is acceptable to give so little information about the music they play? Who do they think their audience is? Perhaps Michael and I should start broadcasting radio programs from our 1996 Corolla. We could call it Corolla Deluxe.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Two Gnomes of (G)note

György Cziffra's performance of Liszt's Gnomenreigen is really sensational, but today, on a lark, I also shared this performance by the eight-year-old Umi Garrett (who has been playing the piano for four years) with my classes. Unlike many of the very young pianists I have heard play "big" repertoire, this one really has something far beyond precision and cuteness. It won't be long before she has the strength of Cziffra, and I intend to keep an eye (and an ear) on her. I thought I'd share this video here.

You can see and hear more here.

Playing the Fool for Hundreds of Years

La Folia, that is. This website gives information about every known setting of the famous tune, and even goes out on a limb to suggest that Beethoven stuck a Folia between measures 166 through 173 of the the second movement of his Fifth Symphony. The page is certainly worth exploring, particularly the nifty chronological map.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sketching (or rather rambling on) the Trajectory of Classical Music

There has been a lot of blog-talk on the internet concerning the ebbs and flows of what people call "classical music," which is really more a reflection of the business of classical music as reflected in ways of measuring its popularity in financial terms. Writers look at the musical world from where they sit, and watch it march by and change, while they, either seeking to participate in the moments of "upswing," or trying to make their case for viable alternatives to "tradition," attempt to find something that resembles temporary truth.

The problem is that there are so many exceptions to all rules in the world of creativity, particularly musical creativity, that it is impossible to see the musical world from one spot. We live in a world where people try to chronicle history as it is happening, and that same desire to chronicle events that might one day be considered historical, is at play in the people who write about music.

I'm just as guilty as the rest of the bunch. I see musical history through a slightly different lens from anyone else because of my experience. You see musical history through a slightly different lens from anyone else because of your experience. Norman Lebrecht sold a lot of books because of his observations from his insider position, and falsely (but eloquently) pronounced classical music dead. He was talking about the classical music business as he knew it.

Classical music as I know it is not dead. It is something that takes up the majority of my time, heart, and soul. There are just as many young people who have feelings about music that are similar to the feelings I have as there were when I was a young person. The fact that there are now exponentially more musicians than there are jobs for them doesn't seem to deter them from being musicians, even if they don't end up doing it for their livelihoods.

I used to bemoan change. I used to insist that people don't play "the way they used to." Now I entertain the idea that maybe people who try to play the way "they used to" are, perhaps, not being true to who they are as people. We have been fortunate as a culture (and I do believe that it is correct to talk about the musical culture in the collective sense, even if not everybody participates in it) to have recordings and films that show us music making that is truly great. It is certainly possible (given ample instrumental technique) to try to imitate what we experience as musical greatness--to attempt to capture the surface of what Milstein does, or what Heifetz does (I say does, because while we listen and watch it is happening in the now for us), what Richter does, what Arrau does, what Fritz Wunderlich does, and what a long list of other great musicians do. What is not possible is to imitate the life experience and the particularly musical intelligence, hard won through discipline and struggle, that serves as the backbone of what blooms on the surface.

I personally don't want the struggles of the past. I don't want to deal with the narrow-minded attitudes and loss of personal as well as musical freedom that musicians who were Jewish had to contend with during the first half of the 20th century. I don't want to deal with attitudes that women, both as performing musicians and as composers, were inferior to men (with a few exceptions held by the more generous). I don't want to deal with narrow-minded attitudes towards race that still get in the way of cultural development, but have improved a great deal in the world of classical music during my lifetime.

There have always been people who know how to treat classical music as a commodity. There are recording companies like Naxos that have taken advantage of the global market for classical music, and have done extremely well--expanding far beyond even their wildest dreams. I watched it from the beginning. I have seen it change. I haven't heard anybody complain.

There are people who buy their classical music recordings the way they buy designer clothes, shoes, or purses. It all has to do with the promotion. Those people have always been there: buying Rampal and Galway flute recordings in the 1970s and 80s, buying well-marketed recordings (sometimes even "crossover" recordings) of Yo-Yo Ma and Thomas Hampson, as well as a whole stable of attractive and competent (and often very good) performing musicians who make a lot of money from appearing as soloists. There are always people who will go to the "symphony" for the enjoyment of the whole experience: dressing up, going with friends, hearing something they might know, or something new, and seeing other "like-minded" people to schmooze with. Audience schmoozing is one of the side benefits from going to concerts, and I believe that it always has been. And there are audiences everywhere--not just in big cities, where many of the cultural critics live.

So where am I going with this? My contention is that "classical music" isn't making a comeback because it never died. My contention is that "classical music" is getting better because we have more access to more music than we ever had before, and we have more access to it immediately and for free, thanks to the internet. The self-discipline that goes into "growing" musicians of merit is something that not everyone has, but for the people who have it and have the desire to learn everything there is to know about music we have resources that were unimaginable to previous generations. The Petrucci Library is now up to 43,000 pieces of music (I just noticed that the Suk Meditation of the Old Chorale, Opus 35a was just added, and just in time too. My old copy has practically turned to dust)). There is also a 104-page book on singing by Pauline Viardot that I am excited about reading. Thanks to YouTube, we have, among other more obvious applications, a way to listen to traditional music from parts of the world that I never knew had extremely musical cultures. It is even possible to find musical inspiration in a post office in Ghana! (thanks, Daniel)

I could go on, but I have a rehearsal. This morning we are reading a pile of new-old music for a concert in March of music written by women. There is enough music available now (from many eras) that we get to pick and choose! Now that's progress!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Felix Mendelssohn: his feelings of inadequacy aren't like your feelings of inadequacy

I have been reading a bit about Felix Mendelssohn's inadequate feelings about his Fourth Symphony, and how they mystified critics, like Donald Francis Tovey, who considered it a most perfect piece of music. I think that the answer is that Mendelssohn's feelings of inadequacy are simply on a higher level than the feelings of inadequacy enjoyed by most composers and most critics (particularly people like Tovey who were both). It is a little bit like the charming intel commercial that has been circulating on line.

Mendelssohn was a conductor who held Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven as his ideal composers. But Mendelssohn was working in a different time, and his music demanded different harmonic configurations. Some of his harmonic configurations and modulations are difficult for an orchestra to get the first time (or the second, or the third), and some of his string parts (particularly the viola part of this piece, which I am playing) are downright uncomfortable to play for those same harmonic reasons. As a conductor/composer, and as a gentleman (which we knew he was), and considering the fact that he was working with the finest musicians in Germany, he knew that he couldn't blame the musicians for playing that was less expressive or less pristine than what he had in mind. He also knew from conducting the works of Beethoven and Mozart that it was possible to write music in such a way that everything could be a total pleasure for all the musicians to play.

Playing through this piece from the standpoint of a violist, and keeping Mendelssohn's ideals in mind, I can understand his pain, but before playing the viola part of the piece (I have played the flute parts), I had no idea why he would feel the way he did about the Symphony, which he never published during his lifetime.

It is interesting to contemplate the relationship of this Symphony to Fanny's "Das Jahr" cycle of piano music that I love so much. These few sentences from a letter that Felix from to Fanny make me wonder if he might have been inspired to write an Italian symphony by the quality of her musical impressions of her year in Rome for piano.
“The ‘Italian’ symphony is making great progress. It will be the jolliest piece I have ever done, especially the last movement. I have not found anything for the slow movement yet, and I think that I will save that for Naples.”
There is something about the relationship between Felix and Fanny that makes me very sentimental. She was his older sister, and she was his very closest friend, and probably his greatest constant living musical inspiration, from very early childhood, and into their very short periods of adulthood.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Kitchen Girl, Restless Corpse

This is from a concert that our son Ben and his friend Claire played last night. The first song is traditional, and the second is one that they wrote together around the time of Halloween, hence the name.

Arcadia Chamber Players Concert

Needless to say, I'm very excited about this concert, which is coming up this Friday! What an honor it is to have a piece on the same program as Fanny Mendelssohn, Libby Larsen, and the great 19th-century composer named Beethoven, who happens to have been a man.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Joke's on Them

. . . a few members of the audience, that is.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fanny Mendelssohn's Das Jahr!

[UPDATE] Das Jahr is no longer in the WIMA, (it is now available commercially) but there's a some other free music by Hensel in the Petrucci Library.

I regularly troll around the various on-line music libraries in search of this piece or that. Lately, or at least for the past two years I have been hoping for a PDF edition of Fanny Mendelssohn's (or Fanny Hensel's) Das Jahr to pop up, and I can barely contain my excitement that the music for Das Jahr is in the Werner Icking Music Archive. The very kind person who did the computer engraving began with the month of June, which is one of my all-time favorite 19th-century piano pieces. It even sounds remarkable in a midi. I'm sending links to it to all my favorite local pianists, and sharing this "gem sighting" here.

Mad Music Director: Don Draper's Guide

Drew McManus hit the nail squarely on the head with this.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Frances Shrand: The Most Beautiful Voice on Radio

I knew Frances Shrand as the mother of my friend Joe (who was one of the original members of the cast of Zoom), and as the reader of The Wind and the Willows on a Boston-based radio program called "The Spider's Web," a program I mentioned in my last post about Brother Blue. Joe was also on the program, playing the part of the rat.

I just found out that she died this past March. I also learned from her obituary that she was born in Brooklyn.

I was once at a party at the Shrand house when I was a young teenager. Some of the young teenagers at the party had gotten into a bit of trouble, and Frances insisted on calling the parents of all the people who were there. When my father got the call from Frances, he practically melted. Whatever humiliating (to me) reason she called was meaningless to him. He was tickled to hear her voice--the one he knew from the radio, and admired greatly.

You can listen to her (and Joe) read the The Wind and the Willows here.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Brother Blue

I suppose that I must have met Brother Blue near the beginning of his life as a public storyteller. I met him at a concert in New York, sometime in the later 1970s, somewhere downtown, in a loft. Percussionist Gordon Gottlieb and his pianist twin brother Jay invited me to their concert of improvisations with a storyteller they thought I would like. Shortly afterward I heard Brother Blue tell stories on the NPR program "The Spider's Web," (broadcast from WGBH in Boston), and it was only when I returned to Boston in 1982 or so that I actually saw him in action as a storyteller in Cambridge.

There was a jazz band playing on the street in Harvard Square, and Brother Blue was there. I said hello to him, and mentioned that I met him in New York, and he took my hand and we started dancing. It was tremendous fun. He was an extraordinarily musical person, and an excellent dancer.

I would encounter him from time to time, and would listen to him tell stories, usually to a rather large crowd of people, and the next time I talked with him was on a bus in Cambridge.

Last summer Michael and I believe we saw him walking down Harvard Street in Brookline. He was not wearing Blue, and looked like an elderly gentleman. He even walked with a cane. Neither of us could believe that Brother Blue could be as old as this man who walked with a cane and shared his face. But, at 87 or 88, I suppose he was.

What will Cambridge do without Brother Blue?

Off topic, and off the top of my head

We just got a new roof. It is kind of like getting a haircut that will last for 30 years. I did the math. If I were to pay $25 for a haircut every six weeks for the next 30 years, it would cost as much as the roof.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

English Pop in an Alternate Universe

Alternative Instrument Case

The absurd implications of this sign on this store display always make me smile.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Cui the Cuitic

“If there were a conservatory in Hell, and if one of its talented students were to compose a programme symphony based on the story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff's, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell. To us this music leaves an evil impression with its broken rhythms, obscurity and vagueness of form, meaningless repetition of the same short tricks, the nasal sound of the orchestra, the strained crash of the brass, and above all its sickly perverse harmonization and quasi-melodic outlines, the complete absence of simplicity and naturalness, the complete absence of themes.”

When I heard the recording of the performance we gave the other night of Cui's violin sonata, I instantly realized that the first and last movements of the piece were not worth forcing my family or my closest friends to listen to. The second movement, however, being an imitation of Tchaikovsky, is really quite nice.

Anyway, had I known that Cui was such a nasty "Cuitic," I would have thought twice before putting so much effort into playing his sonata. Perhaps I was wrong to put so much stock in Cui (hoping that by working on his piece diligently enough I could make it worthwhile), but I certainly know that Cui was wrong about Rachmaninoff.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Satyric Viola d'amore!

Normally the head of a viola d'amore is a blindfolded cupid. You see the occasional animal head, and the occasional un-blindfolded woman, but it is very rare that you see a male head, and even more rare to see one with horns! This instrument was made by Devin Hough for Daniel Geiger. You can see more detail here.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Why I Could Never be a Soloist

I suppose it is every young musician's dream to have a career as a soloist: to be able to travel from city to city playing concerts, sometimes playing with orchestra, and sometimes playing recitals. I suppose that soloists are "wired" to have a certain repertoire that they play over and over again, honing and improving their interpretations from concert to concert, delving deeper and deeper into the pieces they play. It is a fulfilling (but often lonely) life for a select group of people.

I am not wired that way. Actually, when I play a recital it is kind of like an information "dump." I work and work (and work and work) on a group of pieces, and then the performance is like a release. I do everything in my power (technically and musically) to make the experience meaningful, sometimes working for months and months to acquire the technique to play the music at hand; and then, after the concert, I am free to forget everything and move on. I can still enjoy the music while it runs through my head, or even my fingers, but I appreciate it from a distance. It is no longer my responsibility to bring it to life. Perhaps I might return to a piece or two in a number of years, but it would only be for a visit, not for a performance. There is much great music to learn and perform, and the practical lifespan of a musician is finite.

There are, of course, pieces of music that I will never perform, but I practice all the time, like solo Bach, a handful of concertos, and an array of etudes and caprices. These are like members of my family, and my experience with them is extremely special and private.

I prefer to be monogamous in my personal life, and to practice poly-whatever (is there a term?) in my recital playing (and, I suppose my musical life in general) than to have to endure life the other way around. Perhaps I am a musical equivalent of a Don Giovanni, and infinite possibilities await me after my evening with Bach, Bantock, and Cui. There is even space to write music now.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Ten Things to Love about Brass Playing

I just discovered Tine Thing Helseth's brass ensemble called tenThing. I'm thrilled that these Norwegian women are taking the brass world by storm, making it clear, once and for all, that gender isn't any kind of barrier for any instrument. It is simply remarkable how beautifully brass instruments can be played.

Bach, Bantock, and Cui

The heading of this post looks a little like the masthead of a law firm, but these people are the composers who wrote the music for a concert I am playing tomorrow night at Lake Land College in Mattoon, Illinois, to which you are invited.

It is very easy to get to Lake Land College from I-57 (it's about an hour south of Champaign--take the Route 45 exit and turn left). Once you get on campus, look for signs for the Administration Building on the south side of the campus. Here's a map that may help.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Easy-Ass Pie

I was shocked, shocked, I tell you. I couldn't find a single use of this phrase through google, so I have put a photo of what is left of today's very-easy-to-make pie that I call "Easy-Ass Pie" here for all the world to enjoy.

Preheat your oven to 375, and peel, core, and slice 8-10 small apples (or 4-5 bigger ones). Put them in a bowl with:

1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
a few generous shakes of cinnamon
a half teaspoon or so of nutmeg
1 quarter teaspoon (or less) of ground cloves
a dash of ginger, perhaps,
a dash of salt,
and a tablespoon of flour

Mix everything together.

For the crust all you need is a half a package of frozen filo dough, but you need to thaw it in the refrigerator overnight, so plan ahead. You also need a spray can of canola oil.

Spray your pie pan. Put on a layer of filo, and spray again. Keep layering and spraying until you have 10 or 12 layers (or half the number of layers in the half package). Pour in the apple mixture, and layer and spray more leaves of filo dough until you run out of leaves. Put the pie into the oven. Take it out in 45 minutes to an hour.

Share it with your friends while it is still warm. I felt very fortunate to be able to share it with my friend Martha this afternoon, and was happy to have more with Michael this evening.

Easy-Ass Pie!

Friday, October 30, 2009

What a Czardas!

Then, you have to hear Aleksandr Hrustevich play the last movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto! Who needs a violin or an orchestra when you can have an accordion?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Thomas Quasthoff and Daniel Barenboim

. . . in collaboration with Franz Schubert and Wilhelm Müller are sensational.

You can start the cycle from the beginning here.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Most Efficient Scale System I Know

I have been spending a good deal of quality time with the scales that live in the back of the Sevcik Opus 8 book of shifting exercises, and I thought I would share them with other people who take pleasure in building technique. These two pages, I believe, contain everything any string player (or any player of any other instrument able to make its way through three octaves) might need in order to be comfortable playing passagework in any key, in any meter, and at any tempo.

If you practice these scales with a metronome, they work wonders. I think that they are beautifully set up and extremely economical: you get hours upon hours of really worthwhile practice out of just two pages. But, most of all, you have to think while you are practicing these scales. It is so easy to let your mind drift off when practicing "normal" scales. These modal scales keep you on task, particularly the minor scales in keys with a lot of sharps and flats.

I set my metronome at the quarter note in a conservative tempo (96-104), and practice the scales with sharps on one day and with flats on the next day (the Julius Baker approach). I vary the articulation (the bowings to string players), and I try to do it mindfully and deliberately.

The images will appear full size when you click on them.

Happy practicing.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Dedicatee of Haydn's Opus 33 Quartets

This is Paul I of Russia, who served at Emperor of Russia from 1796 until 1801, when he was assassinated. He was the son of Catherine the Great and the father of Alexander I, who, it turns out, was a violin student of Anton Ferdinand Titz. If you think Titz was an odd duck, look at this article about Paul.

In 1781 Haydn dedicated his Opus 33 Quartets to then Duke Paul, who spent 1781-1782 in the West. I find it unusually interesting that the set of quartets Titz wrote in 1781 also used the kind of equality among the four voices of the string quartet that Haydn used in his Opus 33.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Cooking with Mozart and Haydn

I made an interesting analogy in my music appreciation class the other day (it was off the cuff and on the fly, as many of my better analogies tend to be). I told the students that Haydn, as a composer, was the kind of person who could come over to your house and make a fantastic meal out of what you thought was a refrigerator and cabinets full of nothing. He would put usual things together in unusual ways, and make a feast for the imagination as well as the palate. Mozart, on the other hand, would come to your house loaded with all sorts of fresh produce (that he grew himself), and he would put those fresh ingredients (lots and lots of them) together in seemingly ordinary ways, but they would taste completely out of this world.

It would boggle the mind to even try to reproduce either of their meals.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Doesn't this make you curious?

I admit that my original interest in this CD was because of the composer's name, but I also was intrigued by the idea of this person, who lived from 1742 until 1810, being a composer for the Imperial Court of St. Petersburg. Up until this morning I thought that "western classical" music in Russia began with Glinka. Knowing about Anton Ferdinand Titz changes everything completely, especially since the music is terrific. This is definitely not the milquetoast Viennese Classical music that people come across from time to time when doing research for dissertations. This is forward-thinking music in the spirit of Haydn and Boccherini, but with a completely original compositional voice. Although Titz was not Russian by birth, he was the first Viennese Classical composer to write in Russia. That he used Russian folk material in his quartets is just a little more icing on the cake of historical re-thinking.

Here's his biography from Grove:
(b Nuremberg, c1742; d St Petersburg, 25 Dec 1810/6 Jan 1811). German violinist and composer, active in Russia. He was orphaned at an early age and was taught painting in Nuremberg by Johann C. and Barbara R. Dietzsch, his uncle and aunt. By the age of 16 he was a violinist at St Sebaldus’s church there. After an unhappy love affair a few years later he went to Vienna, where he played in the opera orchestra and may have studied with Haydn. In 1771 he became a member of the Hofkapelle in St Petersburg; Catherine the Great paid him the highest salary of any of her court musicians. He also taught at the theatre school, gave the future Tsar Aleksandr I violin lessons, directed a court chamber orchestra (which included the clarinettist Joseph Beer and other outstanding musicians), and performed publicly, for instance in 1782, but most of his performances were at court, as a violinist and viola d'amore player. Later in life he suffered a mental disorder that sometimes prevented him from working, but he was encouraged and protected by Senator A.G. Teplov, a St Petersburg amateur musician. He dedicated three string quartets to Teplov and three more to Aleksandr I.

Titz was particularly admired for his sensitive playing of adagio passages, but by the time Spohr met him in St Petersburg in 1803 his technical assurance had gone. His compositions are mainly chamber works in the Viennese Classical style; his string quartets strive for a large dramatic compass and the three upper parts have considerable independence. He also wrote some small vocal works (now lost), including Le pigeon bleu et noir gémit, a romance that was popular in Russian salons until the mid-19th century. He has often been confused with the Dresden violinist Ludwig Tietz.

The liner notes for this CD also include a quotation from the 60-year-old Ludwig Spohr.
"I also saw and listened to Titz, the famous mad violinist. We found a man of about forty with a glowing face and pleasant appearance. You could not tell he suffered from mental confusion. So we were all the more surprised when he asked each of us: 'My most gracious monarch, how are you feeling?' He then proceeded to relate to us a tall tale, containing very little common sense, and complained bitterly about an evil wizard, who was jealous of his violin playing and cursed his middle finger on his left hand so that he could no longer play, but he then said he thought he might be able to reverse the curse."
The music for the 12 quartets recorded by the Hoffmeister Quartet was discovered in the Academic Regional Library in Ulyanovsk by Andrey Reshetin. A modern edition has been made of the first quartet, and it was published in 2000. I hope that all the music will be made available for other quartets to play, perhaps through the Petrucci Library. I also wonder if Titz wrote anything for the viola d'amore?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Illustrated Van Gough Letters

I had no idea that Van Gough illustrated his letters. There is a beautiful selection with fascinating commentary by the artist over at BibliOdyssey.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Off Topic Grocery Store Moment

I was at the checkout counter of the grocery store yesterday--the express checkout, where they sell cigarettes. A young man was standing by the side of the checkout counter, and the person working the cash register, who knew the young man, asked him if he wanted something. He said that he didn't know. She asked him if he was there to buy cigarettes. The woman at the cash register suggested that he shouldn't buy cigarettes because he shouldn't smoke. The young man told the woman that he just wanted to buy them, not smoke them. He just turned 18, and could legally buy cigarettes. He said that he would just give them away. The woman mentioned that she was wary because he could give them to a minor. I chimed in. I couldn't help it.

ME: If you're 18 you should register to vote.

HE: I'm going there next.

ME: (to the cash register woman) You should tell him that now that he is 18 he is an adult, and that a responsible adult decision is not to smoke. (to the young man) Don't waste your money.

He stormed out of the store. The woman behind the cash register told me that he was mad at her, but she seemed grateful to have some support from the "outside world" (the young man was a store employee). I somehow doubt that he was on his way to the courthouse to register to vote, but it would be nice to think the the idea might have crossed his mind.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Visual Memory and Vision: Seeing Music

I could play music from memory when I played the flute, but I found that after about ten years of violin playing (and I started in my early 30s) I was unable to memorize much of anything. I attributed it to my relatively advanced age, instrumentally speaking. I always thought that my musical memory was dominated by muscle memory, because once I had an instrument in my hands, I could hold forth for quite a while. I used to think that my musical memory was a kind of limited dance between only the kinetic and the aural parts of my array of senses, but today I discovered that my musical memory is visual as well.

Those dang progressive lenses that I had been using for everything, including reading music, from about the age of 40 caused me to have to do so much "post processing" that my inner vision got itself all clouded up when trying to memorize music. Now, after only a month of using single-vision lenses for music, I can close my eyes and visualize specific passages of music that I am practicing as they appear on the page. I can even do it without closing my eyes.

This, to me, is a revelation.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

1582 Irish Melodies: The George Petrie Collection

I should have been practicing this past hour or two, but instead I have been spending some enjoyable time playing through some of the 1582 Irish melodies that make up the George Petrie Collection of Irish Music that Charles V. Stanford edited and published in 1903. You can download all three volumes from the Petrucci Music Library and have almost as much fun as I had (or maybe more, if you share some of the "finds" with friends and family). Here's the preface:

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Petrucci Music Library: The Queen of the Public Domain

As more and more great music slips into the public domain, and as documents move more freely than ever from person to person by way of the internet, the Petrucci Music Library grows larger and even more interesting by the day. The number of scores, as of yesterday, is 38,000. That's a lot of music.

This Library, which is part of the International Music Score Library Project, gets contributions from libraries, librarians, and musicians around the world. There are complete sets of orchestral parts to download, pieces of chamber music by well-known composers that I never knew existed, and a lot of music by excellent composers from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries that I have never even heard of before. There are forums (in four languages) that discuss everything from copyright to musical analysis.

There were so many scores published on cheap paper during the late 19th-century and early 20th-century musical feast in Europe. Many are in such fragile shape that they are not allowed to travel out of their isolated homes on a handful of library shelves that are scattered around the world. Thanks to the people who manage this project, they can be downloaded here, and you can print them on good acid-free paper, giving them another life. You can play them. You can record them. You can share them with friends and students. You can study them.

The eventual goal of the Project is to create a virtual library of everything in the public domain. Now if that is not a significant contribution to the musical world, I don't know what is.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Popularity, relatively speaking

All worlds organize themselves into hierarchies, including worlds that only exist in the very abstract, like the "classical" music blogosphere. It is a world explored by a self-selecting group of people, and, with the exception of e-mail, the local weather, YouTube, and a news website or two, it is where I spend the most of my internet time. I keep this blog for my own sanity, and, perhaps, for the sanity of readers I do not know who have some of the same concerns and interests that I have. The things that matter to me are, for the most part, rarefied. Every once in a while, for example, I click on my profile links with the hope that someone else in the blogspot blogging world has a serious interest in Maurice Maeterlinck. It has not yet happened, but, in this world of infinite possibility, it just might.

Every once in a while I come across a post that ranks blogs that come under the umbrella of "classical music," and every once in a while I find this blog somewhere towards the bottom of the list (I believe it was 47 in a list of 50 for a while). The ranking, of course, is a quantitative one: how many "hits," how many "links," how many "feeds," or how a blog is ranked by a search engine. Because I don't use social networking tools like twitter or facebook, or any of the other icon-like things that I see floating around on various blogs, I imagine that in the giant "cafeteria" of the internet, the relative popularity of this blog will continue to fade.

But I will always try to keep the content interesting, I will do my best to use the English language well, and I will never use this blog for any kind of commercial advertising. I interact with a rarefied bunch of people in my non-blogging world, and popularity has never really been something I have sought out. I am often impressed with people who do seek it out, and by doing so manage to have the world reaching out to them. I have learned that I can never be one of those people, partly because I do not know how to be one of those people, and partly because I do not want to be one of those people. The gift that keeps on giving after turning 50 is the realization that what you see is what you get: 50 years of being a certain way makes a good precedent to continue operating by the same set of balances that keep me happy and productive.

I feel like this free and ever-changing blogosphere, however, is fragile. Perhaps it will no longer be free in a few years. Perhaps some entity will find a way to profit from the self-expression and community-creating that it allows, and then everything will change. Until that time, I really appreciate the ability to play in this "playground," and to share my particular quirks and interests (and gripes, and criticisms, and music) with the people who care to read about them here, even if they just drop in by chance.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

A Sense of Audience

One great pleasure that I have during the High Holy Days is playing Kol Nidre for the Yom Kippur eve service. Every year my experience is different: some years I think of the experience as a very personal one, and I "use" the piece as a way of working out my various feelings connected with the text of the prayer, which basically involves the chance to relinquish "resolutions" made in one year in order to clean the figurative slate for making new vows for the coming year. Often some of my greatest misgivings come from not having practiced enough viola to make my rendition of the Kol Nidre as good as I would like it to be. I always vow to play it better the next year.

This year I thought less about myself (though I was certainly self-critical to a point), and I thought more about my audience. Not my audience upstairs, as it were, but my audience of congregants who have come to depend on listening to the Kol Nidre as a way of helping to release them from their vows. It is a great responsibility to play in a way that allows other people to feel. It also involves an interesting dance between various parts of the "self." If I include too much of my own emotional "stuff," I make the playing of the piece too much about me. There is no room for anyone else in the emotional space because it is all taken up by me. If I do not include enough of my own emotional "stuff," the playing is not engaging enough to welcome people in. Their minds wander, and the whole purpose of the prayer (even without the words) is lost. It is a very complicated balance.

This relationship with the audience certainly extends itself into all areas of performance, whether religious, non religious (though, for those who would say their religion is music, there is no non-religious musical space), public, or private. Playing for people is a way of letting them into the music. By extension, writing music for musicians is a way of letting them into the music--allowing them to have a vehicle to use in order to express themselves, and, in turn, when they play it for people, to allow them to feel. No matter how you look at it (or listen to it) there is a great deal of responsibility involved with all parts of the musical continuum.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Granville Bantock

This photo, taken 100 years ago, tells a great deal about the music of Granville Bantock.

Real Music

I was very disappointed a handful of years ago when I overheard a musician I really respect advise a conductor not to bother with "x" kind of music and to program "real" music for an upcoming concert season. Perhaps my friend was trying to impress the conductor. I don't know, but the phrase "real music" has bothered me for years. I come across the phrase from time to time, spoken by both practicing musicians, and by those who do not play. It bothers me every time I hear it.

What is real music anyway? What makes it not real (whatever "x" kind of music might have been) as opposed to real?

Aside from talking about music, we rarely use the term "real" non literally. An example of real piece of art would be an original work, not its reproduction. An example of a real piece of real furniture would be an actual bed rather than a piece of foam on the floor. Real vanilla extract would be different from imitation vanilla extract. Real meat would be different from fake meat. A real friend would be different from a fair-weather friend. A real diamond would be different from a piece of cut glass. A real signature on a check would be different from a forgery. A real dog is very different from a toy dog. Real cheese is different from imitation cheese.

If I play a piece by Granville Bantock (and I'm working on one now), it is no less real than a piece by Edward Elgar, or Johannes Brahms, yet because Bantock is not a particularly popular composer these days (please leave a comment if you have even heard of him before looking him up on google), he could be dismissed as being an unknown composer (at least to most people), and therefore not important. His music could be dismissed as being "not real" because it is no longer part of the standard repertoire.

If Bantock pays homage to Brahms by using similar voicing once in a while, or if he imitates Bizet by quoting a motive from Carmen, does that make Bantock's music "imitation Brahms" or "imitation Bizet." If Bach imitates Vivaldi, does that make Bach's music "imitation Vivaldi?" I don't think so.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Happy Anniversary Michael!

It is hard to believe that our wedding was twenty-five years ago today! And who would have even imagined back in 1984 that we could celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary with our friends in anything remotely related to the idea of a blogosphere? A lot has gone down these past 25 years, and in the process both of us have certainly grown up.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Intervals: what happens between the notes

One thing that recorded music can never seem to reproduce is the stuff that happens in the air when you play resonant double-stops on a stringed instrument. A particularly good instrument (or a group of instruments) will excite a whole rainbow of vibrating resonances, that dance around like a group of excited atoms. A good set of speakers and a set of extremely sensitive microphones can come close to capturing what happens on the surface during a given moment, but the beauty of live performance (or live practice) is that each time you play--even the same written notes--the set of phantom rainbow resonances that happens inside of the intervals, inside of the double-stops, is different. The set of dancing rainbow resonances even varies over the duration of a double-stop, even if the double stop only lasts for a very short amount of time.

There is a universe inside of a perfect fifth, particularly because, in addition to all the magical dancing atomic rainbow vibrations, it contains implied possibilities that are sometimes filled in by the imagination of the listener (and player), and are sometimes filled in by the addition of a major or minor third, which throws those atomic rainbow resonances into a whole new hierarchy.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Darwin the Musician

While responding to a comment on a previous post I came across this bit of information which is too good not to share.
Nothing is known about Darwin's musical disposition as a child. There is no indication that he ever played a musical instrument, nor had an appreciation of music in general. As a young man Darwin acquired a taste for classical music while studying at Cambridge University. He often visited King's College there, and would sit for hours listening to the church choir.

What is interesting about Darwin's fondness for music is that he was tone deaf, and had a very difficult time recalling a tune he just heard the day before. Darwin was also unable to hum a tune properly, or keep time to music as he was listening to it. As far as specific composers go, he loved the symphonies and overtures of Mozart, Handel and Beethoven. In the evenings his wife, Emma, who was quite an accomplished pianist (she was trained by Frederic Chopin), would play for him on her piano forte as he reclined on a nearby sofa.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Crazy for God

I have been spending a significant part of these past two days of awe reading Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as one of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back by Frank Schaeffer, and found much more in this memoir than I expected to find.

I first learned of the book through an interview on Fresh Air back in December. I was expecting an expose of the inner workings on the beginnings of the Christian "Right" movement, and a detailed explanation of how relatively innocent people allowed it to mushroom into something that has become terribly ugly and powerful. What I found was a beautiful memoir about an extremely unusual childhood in a family with larger-than-life parents and larger-than-life freedoms in extraordinarily beautiful places, interspersed with vignettes involving personally-moving experiences with music and art.

Frank Schaeffer's father, was, in addition to being a self-taught theologian, a pure humanist with a great love and understanding for art, music, and the beauties of nature. He was also, by Frank's account, a emotionally uneven (perhaps bipolar) and often absent father who showed one face to his religious disciples and another to Frank's mother, who put up with a great deal of abuse in exchange for the opportunity to hold a highly important place in what was to become a superstar-studded world-wide religious movement.

It is rather riveting to read about being a child living in a religious-retreat-community in the Swiss Alps during the 1960s. Frank's childhood was unusually free. Everyone was always busy with their work (or rather "The Work"), and he tells wonderful stories about the mostly American guests that he got to know at the retreat.

Frank's undiagnosed dyslexia made it impossible for his homeschooling-minded family to teach him his basic subjects, so he was sent to a series of English boarding schools for much of his childhood. His coming of age (and his escape from a particularly unfair boarding school) coincided with the dawning of hippie culture. The religious community was visited regularly by young Christian pilgrims interested in finding some kind of "truth." They came to learn at the feet of Frank's father, while indulging in all the trappings that came with being a young person in the early 1970s. Frank's father bent with the times, and became a kind of "cool" Dad for a while, before eventually reverting to the staunch ideology of his earlier years.

Frank apologizes for his father again and again by mentioning at every opportunity just how much his father cared about art, music, and beauty. He draws a loving portrait of a flawed human being. There are also apologies for his mother, who talked very frankly (sorry--but there is no better word) about things that he really didn't need to know concerning her relationship with his father.

Frank grew up to become a "propaganda" film maker for the religious right. His father, who became an icon of the movement, was the star. They made lots and lots of money. There was (and still is) a lot of money to be made in the religious media business, and, as Frank points out, a lot of influence to be won. Eventually he left the religious media business and the evangelical movement altogether. This is both his confession and his apology. Every time this book is read, the apology is repeated. May it be read many, many, many times.