Thursday, July 30, 2009

How to Have Fun on a Summer Night

This is the final piece of our Summer Strings concert, which was earlier this evening--before it got dark. Michael took the picture. I made the arrangement. Everybody had fun.

Here's a recording of the Fiocco Allegro from the same concert, and an arrangement of a Latvian folk song.

Summer Strings is a program that a couple of friends and I run every summer. Because of the kind sponsorship from some East Central Illinois entities, we can offer the program for free. This year about a third of the members of the group were playing in an orchestra for the first time, and this concert comes as the result of about seven 90-minute rehearsals. We play without a conductor, and we rely on the leadership of members of the group who choose to take leadership positions. There are no auditions, people can sit where they want, and mistakes are expected.

I find it wonderful to be able to write arrangements for this group, and I feel proud to play the arrangements made by other people in the group. We have a wealth of resources out here in Downstate Illinois.

Steven Staryk Mini Recital

And then there's more, with a Locatelli Harmonic Labyrinth that will take your breath away! And there is even more here.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A new tune for an old song

Here is a new tune for Arthur J. Lamb's words to a song that he wrote in 1900 with fellow early tin pan alley composer Harry von Tilzer. I learned from Glimpses through the blog, that Tilzer was really named Harry Gumm, and happened to be the uncle of Frances Gumm, who became famous under a pseudonym of her own.

You can listen to my reinterpretation of "Bird in a Golden Cage" (with a obbligato flute), as well as download a PDF of it here.
The ballroom was filled with fashion's throng,
It shone with a thousand lights;
And there was a woman who passed along,
The fairest of all the sights.
A girl to her lover then softly sighed,
"There's riches at her command."
"But she married for wealth, not for love," he cried!
"Though she lives in a mansion grand."

"She's only a bird in a gilded cage,
A beautiful sight to see.
You may think she's happy and free from care,
She's not, though she seems to be.
'Tis sad when you think of her wasted life
For youth cannot mate with age;
And her beauty was sold
for an old man's gold,
She's a bird in a gilded cage."

I stood in a churchyard just at eve,
When sunset adorned the west;
And looked at the people who'd come to grieve
For loved ones now laid at rest.
A tall marble monument marked the grave
Of one who'd been fashion's queen;
And I thought, "She is happier here at rest,
Than to have people say when seen:

"She's only a bird in a gilded cage,
A beautiful sight to see.
You may think she's happy and free from care,
She's not, though she seems to be.
'Tis sad when you think of her wasted life
For youth cannot mate with age;
And her beauty was sold
for an old man's gold,
She's a bird in a gilded cage."
It seems that tin pan alley was just loaded with pseudonyms, more pseudonyms than people, actually.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

House of Music

Musicians, professional as well as non-professional, are extremely sensitive to interpersonal relationships that enter their musical lives. The contact that we have with one another is extremely intimate, even if we do not particularly get along with one another personally (and even if we barely know one another). In most places, even in cities, the people we play music with are limited to a certain circle. In higher-population areas, it is limited by musical caste, which is in turn limited by schedules and logistics, and in lower-population areas it is limited by the proportionate number of musicians to non musicians. We all have to learn to either get along or make due, as we watch interpersonal situations loom large in musical life.

I was talking with a friend last week about a sensitive interpersonal situation in an ensemble, which left her feeling demoralized, and made it impossible for her to practice. When I saw her again, she thanked me for my advice (she had to remind me what it was--advice for me often flows out, leaving my figurative pitcher empty), which I will share here.

I told her that music-making was like a house, and when you play with people, it is like letting them into your house. They are your musical guests. But when they leave your house, it is still your house.

The act of practicing is like the act of each of us taking care of our own musical house, so that we each can live comfortably and happily, and welcome guests in from time to time.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Monday, July 20, 2009

Talking With Steven Staryk

I feel very fortunate to be able to share the transcript of an extended conversation I had with the great Canadian violinist Steven Staryk. After (or before, or even during) this conversation, be sure to go to Steven Staryk's web page, where you can hear extended excerpts from his recordings, and watch video recordings of some of his performances.

EF: Do you think that it is possible to maintain a kind of musical innocence while still doing everything you need to do to make a solo career? Is there a way to preserve innocence and honesty in this very non-innocent and highly dishonest musical world?

SS: If one is fortunate to have a smooth-sailing life, one is likely to wallow in the success--it’s another great day, and everything is going your way; however, if one is struggling with the day-to-day mundane problems, or worse, one is very likely to stay “Earth bound.” It depends when the sweet smell of success arrives. If it’s too late, it will be jaded.

Much is a matter of basic character. If you’re a realist, and have lived long enough to witness the inequities of life, the “pie in the sky” is fiction, and the success, just temporary. You continue doing what you did, whether by choice or necessity.

EF: I suppose everyone has to do things like take care of bills and brushing your teeth.

SS: Or taking out the garbage. I saw a wonderful cartoon of Johann Sebastian Bach and Frau Bach. He’s busy at the organ, the kids are all over the place, and she’s standing at the door with a bucket yelling, “Johann, the garbage!”

EF: And maybe the garbage had some of the things he wrote that he didn’t like.

SS: Could be.

EF: I find a real disconnect between the way people perceive of musical life and the way musical life actually works. Some people think it is romantic and very dramatic.

SS: Some people play that part very well, and fit into it very well. It’s what I call the “artiste,” who does nothing else, and always has an “entourage” around. You know, like Beecham used to have, with everybody running around and making sure they are happy about everything. And then the others who come in and do whatever is supposed to be done and don’t have this “up on the clouds” attitude. The ones that interest me are the ones that are well grounded.

EF: As a musician you spend your time with a composer’s best work. Like Mozart, really getting rid of all the wrong notes, the lies, and the affectation. It is really music that, once completed, embodies purity of thought. And then this purity of thought gets thrust into this arena of artifice. There’s a real disconnect there.

SS: The most amazing thing is when you have a group coming off the stage after what you felt was an exceptional performance, and your colleague thinks it was just another night. He doesn’t know what you’re talking about. I have found this happens even in large groups, like an orchestra: divided in so many ways. Some will think it's wonderful, and some not. I suppose it is very subjective and has to do with how few wrong notes each individual played.

EF: How do you keep the "why" of music and the "how" of music in perspective? In obsessing over the "how," it is easy to forget the "why."

SS: The “why,” I would say, is primarily emotional, subjective, and genetic. For example, in the fiddle lands of the gypsies, it is second nature to vent all of the expressions of sadness, tragedy, happiness, and joy. But equally the “why” is economic, playing in order to put food on the table. The “how” is primarily by osmosis, and not Auer, Flesch, or Galamian. Hearing and seeing constantly, copying by acute hearing, and feeling and repeating while developing the tactile sense to the highest degree. I choose the music of the “Tzigane,” as this is natural raw material, as is jazz and music from other ethnic cultures.

I would say much is similar in approach to western classical music, with the intellectual ingredient added. I believe that one should intellectualize as much as possible without becoming paralyzed or professorial about it; reading as much as possible about the subject, and researching to an understanding level. One does not have to read The Musical Symbol by Gordon Epperson, but I applaud anyone who does. I also believe providing one has the technique, one should gamble. But the gambling needs to be very calculated. The “why” for the classical fiddler, in my opinion, is the need to just play; bending the rules, and exploring, but, in the more traditional style and not the more personal style.

EF: What are your thoughts about keeping the “why” of music in balance with a healthy musical ego?

SS: The need to play is for self-satisfaction: to relieve oneself of the pent-up emotions within. Music is personal and as such, is most rewarding in a controlled manner. This naturally includes the ego, but in an idealistic sense. The satisfaction in surprising yourself with the beauty of sound, or impressive facility is like stroking the ego. Needless to say, if the beauty of sound and impressive facility continue, the ego will expect rewards. This is only normal, however, at this point matters get rather vague. I like to quote Igor Stravinsky, who was critical of the excesses of performers in his own time in the Poetics of Music.
“These are just so many practices dear to superficial minds forever avid for, and satisfied with, an immediate and facile success that flatters the vanity of the person who obtains it and perverts the taste of those who applaud it. How many remunerative careers have been launched by such practices! . . . Exceptions, you may say. bad interpreters should not make us forget the good ones. I agree--nothing, however, that the bad ones are in the majority and virtuosos who serve music faithfully and loyally are much rarer than those who, in order to get settled in the comfortable berth of a career, make music serve them.”
EF: I know that your first ensemble playing was in a traditional Ukrainian orchestra in Toronto, but when and how did you start playing "real” gypsy music?

SS: I started by being really, really infatuated by the music itself. My step-father was Yugoslav, so I had contacts with Macedonian, Greek, and Yugoslav musicians. I played mandolin and violin. Much of the Hungarian, Romanian, and Balkan music is Gypsy music. You'd find rhythms and all kinds of harmonies that you never heard before.

EF: Do you remember the physical act of learning this music? Kato Havas writes about gypsy musicians learning without actual teaching: simply by playing. Was this your experience?

SS: My experience was learning by osmosis, by listening and copying, hearing it as much as possible, and, of course, it is in your blood--genetic. But then I had plenty of Ševčík behind me! Suzuki gypsies, it's all in the family, or related family; or from the same tribe. I don't believe, unfortunately, that this music is as universal as classical Western European music (not to mention Michael Jackson). There was a period when Zamfir playing the pan pipes was catching on, but it was a short period: the pipes just faded away.

When I was older, attempting to follow the gypsies here and in Europe, I found that there were not so many around, but I did manage to run into some in New York and in Toronto, and I collected some priceless recordings. They don’t explain, they feel. It’s a totally subjective thing.

EF: You were kind of a pioneer at this. Now it is rather common for young Western fiddlers to play around with alternative styles of music.

SS: Alternative, cross-over, pop-over, whatever--I would call it primordial style. I have not yet heard anyone who is well known in classical fiddling have an effective take on gypsy playing. The people I have known to be successful with it are not known--colleagues of mine, and such.

I remember Menuhin playing with Grappelli, but it had nothing to do with Grappelli and Jazz: it was Menuhin and Menuhin. He sort of looked as if he had changed something, and he had changed nothing. Perhaps he changed a fingering, or put in an extra slide, but I guess I missed it if it mattered at all!

EF: There is a difference in approach to sound in the western tradition. The aim of western playing is always to make a beautiful sound, and in traditional playing there are other things more important than sound.

SS: Or the sound is used to create all kinds of feelings. Beauty is not always the primary thing.

EF: Or the quality of the fiddle. Some of these guys were playing on boxes.

SS: Or Del Gesus . . . with the varnish removed.

EF: Stolen from somebody, somewhere.

SS: Actually, the violin known as the Sacconi-Steinhardt, was probably a gypsy fiddle. It was found somewhere, and all the varnish had been removed, which then, of course, blew all the arguments for the secret of great violin sound being in the varnish. All that was left was the underlay--the filler. And then Sacconi (that’s why it was called the “Sacconi”) re-varnished it, and it was sold to Arnold Steinhardt. But the fiddle sounded incredible: dark, typical of a Del Gesu, and the varnish did not take any of the sound away. I played it for years with great pleasure.

EF: Did you ever read The Violin Hunter? The book about the guy who found old Italian fiddles everywhere--in farm houses and barns?

SS: Is that the book that talks about the Muntz? Where Stradavarius wrote on the label that he made the instrument at the age of 93 without assistance from his sons?

EF: Yes, I think so.

SS: I owned that Strad for a number of years, and it was an absolutely beautiful instrument. You wouldn’t believe it was a Strad because it looked so brand new. Nobody wanted to play it because it hadn’t been broken in, and that was the problem with it.

One of the people who played it, somewhat, was Jacob Krachmalnik when he was concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, as it belonged to a doctor in San Francisco. Jake's comment to me at the time was, "It feels like the back fell off." When I let it be known to the violin dealers that I was, once again, looking for an instrument, it just, by coincidence, came up, and I got that fiddle. We battled for about a year, and the Muntz fiddle finally became much more flexible--probably the greatest fiddle, in every respect, that I’ve ever played. But it had this one personality flaw that you just couldn’t change.

EF: What was that?

SS: It was a little bit like Francescatti’s, but more neutral. It wasn’t at all nasal--it was very beautiful in that respect because it was not dark, and wasn’t really bright; well it was more bright than dark. I played that instrument for about three years, and people in New York, like Jacques Francais, who knew the fiddle were just amazed. Eventually Jacques made a deal with me, and I let him have the Muntz. It was when I moved out of America, so I had to do it for tax reasons. The Muntz is now in Japan.

But I’m not sorry, because the last one that I did finally end up with, the Barrere, was a really special fiddle because it had a back and sides which were from 1727, and a top that was from 1719. It was put together by Hill's years ago. That made quite a unique difference in being able to get even more colors in the sound. I was able to do things that I didn’t dream were possible.

EF: I have only played on one fiddle--it was made for me, and was one of the maker’s last fiddles. It has taken me so long to learn the ways of the instrument that I can’t imagine having that kind of relationship with another fiddle. It would be sort of like adultery. Have you ever felt that way?

SS: Yes. Where one has so much personality that it is almost unto itself. Even though it has flaws, you’re used to it, and you know how to deal with it.

EF: I have listened to you play nineteen fiddles on your recordings, and what I basically hear is you.

SS: And the recording thing, the sound engineers, the "dying" tapes, the hall, and "your humble servant, Primas Stefan." I know of only two violins that I could hear in a hall and almost tell who it was, and those two violins were the McMillan of 1721, the instrument that Spivakovsky played, and Franciscatti, with his 1727 Hart. Those two violins I’ll never forget. Like the Muntz, these instruments would cut through--no matter what kind of hall, or if the orchestra forgot it was only an accompaniment aside from the tuttis!. I don’t know if you agree with me, but sitting in a normal orchestra anywhere behind the first desks, it is very difficult to tell if the soloist is projecting.

We did quite a number of experiments with good Italian fiddles and good modern fiddles, and we found that the projection in the hall was better with the modern fiddles, but the closer you got to them, the quality lacked the "magic" and vice versa. The old Italian fiddles didn’t have the projection of the modern fiddles, but when you got close to them, there were magical things you heard, providing the player contributed to some of the magic.

Fiddles can take up all your time.

EF: I suppose the quality has to do with the Italian wood, and real knowledge.

SS: Yes. And the period, and the geography. It reminds me of the great Dutch period in painting, with all those paintings that were quite similar. With the violins there is a kind of similarity to this puzzle, even when you hop from Strad to Del Gesu to Bergonzi to Amati, in the same extended period and the same geography. Then there’s the odd one that’s got so much personality like the 1610 Bartholony Maggini, which is too dark--like a viola. I had to go out of my way to make it sound more like a violin; but it was so great--it was really quite impressive.

EF: Then there’s the vocal quality in Italy during the 17th century: a purity of sound. How do you get a purity of sound on the violin that will cut through by its purity rather than by force?

SS: You have to have the core. It relates directly to the temperament of the player. An intense individual will generally create an intense sound. A narrower vibrato is closer to a pure sound than a wide and wobbly one. My own experience has confirmed that intensity is created by intensity; equalized tensions. I think Thane Lewis describes it best in Fiddling with Life.
There is a cord-like tenacity to Staryk's tone, and a conception of line and phrasing in his musical thought, that forms a silvery, sustained spinning-out of sound. The current trend in modern-instrument playing runs counter to this Apollonian aesthetic, leaning toward thickness in the sound, drama in its portrayal, and a degree, more or less, of sentiment.
The music should always dictate the physical approaches of both arms, a simple age-old, totally misunderstood, naive, and bad example is the “relax, relax, don’t tense up, let go, let go” approach, which applies, I suppose to the sforzato fortissimos, fortissimo staccato, fortissimo tremolo, and similar examples that you might find in Bruckner’s symphonies, and other music that requires this type of musical tension. I would say the “relax-relax” rule would apply to perfume-salon vignettes, and similar music requiring triple pianissimo, which is also found in Bruckner’s symphonies. It all amounts to how much total music has been experienced by a particular player, and on what level.

A Beecham pianissimo has you bowing above the string. I used to call it “phantom fiddling.” A Solti fortissimo has you sawing through the fiddle. There is a lot of physical intensity required in concertos by Sibelius, Brahms, or Tchaikovsky, because it is difficult with the orchestration to really project--not on record, of course, but in a hall. It requires a lot of physical intensity, and a lot of physical pressure, both in the left hand and in the bow. Tension in and of itself is not the point. It is the demands of musical tension that can only be created by physical tension. It’s a question of minimal bow movement, and maximum pressure, as close to the bridge as possible without breaking the sound. It's much easier to demonstrate than to explain. Then, of course, we get to the bows themselves. A great bow will change the sound of a fiddle. Period. I’ve had that happen, and it is an incredible experience.

EF: And a good bow will make your left hand work better.

SS: Yes, in many ways. There’s that aura around the sound which vibrates more freely. A good bow will not crush the sound. That’s what I’ve noticed with Tourtes particularly. And a Tourte, in my experiences, whether it’s well-rosined, or whether it’s been rehaired years ago, does not produce any extraneous sound--you don’t hear the normal sound of the hair and the string: the contact. It just flows.

It does have its drawbacks: you wouldn’t want to use it to play Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, or a very modern work which requires tremendous pressure. I prefer to play music from the Baroque Period, Mozart, and Beethoven sonatas with a Tourte because all the slightest little inflections you want to make, the bow will do it. It is almost like “you think it--the bow does it.”

EF: I have just recently discovered the “sounding point” when playing double stops, which has been a revelation to me. Do you have any specific thoughts about playing double stops?

SS: One component to consider when playing double stops are the strings themselves. There are people who use a set of strings, which generally doesn’t give too much of a problem with pitch because all the strings are of the same “family.” When you start mixing strings--strings from different families, made of different materials it is different.

Tossy Spivakovsky left me all his A strings, which were made by Kaplan and have a steel core wrapped around in silver, not surprising for the unorthodox Spivakovsky. When you put that string on, you definitely have to find other strings that will match it, because it’s an incredible string. I went for it because of him, because of him, his sound--and the fiddle. Then he was going to sell the fiddle, and I had it for six weeks, but I couldn’t stand it. It’s amazing how personal these things are.

When the Soviet Russians first came across, most of them used steel strings, and so I decided there must be a reason, and I don't mean because they couldn't get any other. The top names had some choice. I tried gut strings earlier in my life, and found there are some great things about the gut string too; but the Kaplan silver A, which has been discontinued, just opened up a world for me in sound. And it worked on all fiddles.

Spivakovsky would buy them directly from Kaplan, and he would test each string by drawing the string between his forefinger and thumb to make sure there were no imperfections. Sometimes it doesn’t matter with these strings.

When he retired, he phoned, and my daughter answered saying she knew who he was, his response, "Is that so? Spell my name backwards!" And she did. He sent me his whole box of strings.

EF: What about all the new makes of strings available today?

SS: Basically one needs only to look at a Shar or another catalog to discover what is new. A few examples are Pirastro synoxa, Pirazzi, and Tonica (all gauges), the Dominant silver wound Ds, Thomastik's two types of Infeld, Tomastik's steel, all gauges of Zyex with silver-wound Ds (not steel), the 27 1/2 gauge (thick) Westminster E, and the 27 gauge (medium) Westminster, which has, in my opinion, not had any competition since my last playing in 2004.

It’s much better now. I was amazed at the quantity and quality of the new brands, and the improvement of the old standards. I used to play on a mix. I kept the Westminster E and the Kaplan A, and the fluctuations were the D and G strings. The correct tension is extremely important, and it varies from one fiddle to another.

EF: Speaking of release of tension, can you talk more about your criticism of the “relax, relax” school of thought?

SS: Well, people who have never performed in the business or the profession are the people talking about this “relax, relax” way of thinking. Once you are sitting in an orchestra, playing a Brucker symphony, where you are trying to suddenly play pianissimo while your arm is still shaking from playing fortissimo tremolo, you think differently. And that is more or less 90 percent of professional violinists. They either give all, or they fake. You can’t create musical tension without tension. It’s a very simple physical thing.

EF: A lot of people who have the technique to play Paganini and Wieniawsky Caprices play them like either showpieces or etudes (which they are in part). When you play Paganini and Wieniawsky Caprices they sound like beautiful musical miniatures.

SS: I would say, providing one understands this incredible total exploitation of the violin harmonically and technically, and assuming one has the technical equipment, a refined musical imagination is all that is required. I look at some of the Paganini Caprices as program music. Some were already nick-named, like the “Devil’s Laughter” (number 13), “La Chasse” (number 9), the “Love Duet (number 21), and “La Militaire” (number 14). I think of number 20 as a peasant dance with a doodle-sack in the distance. I just listen to these and envision the pictures that come up. Some versions have pictures, and some versions don’t have pictures.

Wieniawsky can be expressed for me in four words: Chopin for the violin. However, the Polish angels have more cupid arrows, whilst the Italian witches are more stinging.

EF: It seems necessary for violinists who aspire to have any kind of a solo career to enter competitions. While it certainly increases the technical level of playing and the technical preparation to reach the necessary technical level to make it through the first round of a competition, it seems to have taken a toll on the overall variety of violinist's voices. It seems that nearly everybody plays the same way: individuality can sometimes cause judges to react negatively. It is the same way in preliminary rounds for orchestral auditions: individuality is shunned. It is, however, something to be desired in the final round, but more often than not the people who play with any kind of individuality have already been eliminated.

SS: I do believe that initial rounds, either in solo competitions or orchestral auditions, require impeccable technical preparation. The right notes in the right place, at the right time, with the right dynamics, in an acceptable tempo. In an orchestral audition I would say with minimum individuality (they will all have some differences of sound, as this is inevitable in all individuals), but coloring the sound and inflections to suit the period and style of the music. We have to remember that they must fit into a section. Needless to say, eve this varies geographically in spite of our more universal mix.

When I sat on juries just before the end of the Cold War, it was East versus West. If the competition was in the East Bloc, and there was more of an Eastern Bloc jury (and vice versa), to break through this "tradition" a person had to be really exceptional, like Van Cliburn (at least at the competition!). As we all know, there were not too many years of tours that followed. I could write a book on this subject, but enough on competitions.

EF: It seems that the most popular violin concertos among young competitive violinists are the the Bartok and the Shostakovich. I suppose that it is healthy for young musicians to relate to music from a time period closer to their own, but how can you influence a Shostakovich-minded fiddle player to find interest in a slow movement of a Mozart concerto, which is far more difficult to play well, and far more revealing of a musician's "core"?

SS: I have seen that. I have been there. Developing musically in a total sense, with Bach, Shostakovich, Mozart, Beethoven, and Bartok is by far the greatest challenge. It is a matter of hearing the best Bartok performance, the best Shostakovich, and the best Mozart. And for this one should search at the source: perhaps technically it may not be the best, but the style and inflections may be much closer. When listening, for example, to goulash, borscht, or sauerkraut, you remove some of the overdone ingredients, and you purify it and distill until you get the core of the music without either idiosyncrasies or personalities intruding.

As I mentioned in Fiddling with Life, one can even express verbally the type of sound and approach desired. Mozart, for example, requires tight rhythm, but loose sound and attacks. It should not sound like Rossini. Beethoven would be described as lean, with great emphasis on dynamics. Bartok would require some of the goulosh, and in fact one can listen to the same authentic performances that Bartok and Kodaly recorded of the peasants of the area, and was available years ago on Folkways Records, Bartok Records, and Supraphone. I also have a tape from Hilversim of the premiere of the Bartok Concerto with Zoltan Szekely and the Concertgebow Orchestra with Mengelberg. Another example: the Hoedown by Copland; Boston Pops or Vienna Philharmonic?

The popularity of the Bartok and Shostakovich concertos among young violinists is, in my opinion, superficial. Pretense, unless we have heard them in an acceptable and beautiful Mozart. Yes, they have also suffered and instantly matured. In the vast majority of cases, its hiding behind the notes, of which there aren't that many in Mozart.

I had these feelings as well in my youth, and kept them to myself; knowing that I did not know, and having heard a lot more Mozart and Beethoven than Bartok and Shostakovich. I continued to listen to a lot of contemporary music, and in my orchestral periods went through a musical education with great conductors and orchestras.

I would advise any serious violinist to strive for a position in a good orchestra, and gradually work their way into a major group. This will be far more rewarding in every way than the solo competitions. All music cannot be seen through the f-holes of a violin.

There is no better musical experience than playing the passions of Bach, and, if lucky, the operas of Mozart (and there is nowhere to hide in Mozart). In an orchestra serious violinists will play the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, the Divertimenti, and if they are anxious enough or curious enough, they will even delve into the six quartets. The same would apply to Shostakovich, who not only wrote 15 symphonies, but 15 quartets. Very few people know that this man wrote 15 quartets, and the material is absolutely fantastic.

In Fiddling with Life I quote Nikolaus Harnencourt, who offers a concise solution.
The more musicians familiarize themselves with the specific style characteristics of historical periods, various nationalities in western music, the better they will recognize the profound inter-relationships between a given type of music, and its interpretation, both then and now.
And then there is a jingle I like to quote from Kipling:
I keep six honest serving men,
they taught me all I know.
Their names are what, why, and when,
and how and where and who.
I encourage active curiosity in all matters to supplement talent, aptitude, and industry. Practice inventively, and solve problems by creating exercises that approach the problems in a variety of ways; but with the music always dictating the physical motions of the arms and body. In conclusion, I am more interested in hearing the composition (as indicated in a score) than hearing the inventions of a performer where and when they are not required.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Free Mind

I love taking a walk and listening to music because it frees my mind. Sometimes my concentration goes directly to the music, and then it bounces around from foreground to background, from thematic material, to lyrics (if there are lyrics), to structure, to sound, to sound production, and to various other musical associations, like the relationship of the piece at hand to something I listened to at another time. Sometimes the music becomes background to my thoughts, while I fly off on tangents, follow various lines of thought, plan, fantasize, observe, and react to the world around me. (Somehow when I listen to Mozart I tend to become acutely aware of things like the shapes and states of leaves and flowers.)

And then I bounce back into what is happening in the music.

It is an inner world devoid of external responsibility: I know the parameters of my walk, and can think what I want in the time I have. The rhythmic physical movement of my walk is rarely in time with the music. It is as if the life of my body and the life of my mind are separate entities that coexist for the hour I spend on my walk (as opposed to the time I spend practicing, where the mind and body are constantly interacting in both conscious and unconscious ways).

When I am listening to something that I am going to review, I have to listen critically. The habit of free association that I have developed on these walks allows me to be honest in my assessment of the recordings I review, translating the fear of not having something worthwhile to say, into a free-flowing safety zone, where all thoughts are acceptable, and all thoughts are equal.

But listening without having to write a review is kind of like a vacation.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Look and Listen

I just came across this drawing on Nathan Ables' Minutiae, and realized that if you were simply to change the word "look" to the word "listen," in the first panel, you would find that music might be taking the same detour that art seems to be taking.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Fun with Life

The Life Magazine photo archive has pictures of some unlikely violinists. Here's Jayne Mansfield playing for her dog, Rudolf Serkin, looking extremely uncomfortable with a violin, Jascha Heifetz playing for Helen Keller, Marlene Dietrich playing the saw (with a violin bow), and many more treats (tons of Heifetz bow arm "light impressions," Alexander Schneider, Jack Benny, and Fritz Kreisler pictures, to name only a few).

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

UC Bjoerling?

I never met Roger Lebow, but I knew his mother, Marcia Lebow, very well when I lived in Boston, so I knew a great deal about him. You can imagine! I also followed his son Theo's career, by way of Marcia, from diapers to child stardom.

Anyway, today I came across his name (and a video of a celebration of his 60th birthday) on Mixed Meters. A look at his biography (see the above link), shows that the apple did indeed not fall from the tree of family humor. Incidentally, I first met Marcia when she was 61. With measurements like these, times does indeed fly.

Perhaps the Bjoerling joke is an old one, but it was new to me.

UPDATE: Marcia Lebow's Obituary in the L.A. Times

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Amazin Ewazen

What a treat it is to see Eric Ewazen's picture on the cover of the upcoming Fanfare magazine, and to read this article about him.

I knew Eric at Juilliard. We both started there at the same time (he was in the doctoral program as a composer, and I was a freshman flutist). I always thought of Eric as a kind of good-natured version of what Brahms might have been like, though I don't really didn't know why at the time. Perhaps it was because Brahms was my standard for greatness (and I suppose he still is).

Like most of the other young composers working in "serious" music during the 1970s and 1980s, Eric wrote serial music. His music, or what I knew of it, had nothing to do with tonality. It was difficult for me to understand intellectually, but, under the organized mask of the times, there was a huge amount of emotional substance, exuberance, lyricism, and a total lack of pretense. I always thought that if atonality was to be the "classical" medium of the future, Eric would be its Brahms. I always believed that Eric would be, above all the composers I knew at Juilliard, the person who would have his (they were all men at the time) music played and enjoyed by the most people.

I remember the satisfied thrill I got in the early 1990s when I read a review of one of Eric's brass pieces that had been recorded, and I got even more of a thrill when I heard his post-Juilliard music. It was all tonal. It was tonal, yet it did bear some resemblance to his atonal music: the same face, but wearing different clothing, perhaps. A lot of Eric's music was (and is) accessible for college-age students to understand, challenging for brass players (of all ages and levels of experience) to play, and very exciting to hear. Here is a movement from his Trumpet Sonata, and a trio for the unlikely combination of violin, trumpet, and piano, and this fantastic marimba concerto.

Little-by-little Ewazen pieces started popping up on brass players' recitals at my local university. Soon it was almost impossible to attend a brass recital without an Ewazen piece on the program. I have since learned that this happens at a lot of other universities. Though he is most popular as a composer for brass and percussion instruments, he writes music for all kinds of instrumental and vocal combinations, and has been commissioned (and is being commissioned) to write music for some very high-profile soloists and orchestras.

It is great, in this world of hype and pretense, to have such well-deserved success come to someone who is made of substance and integrity. The exuberance in his music is real: it simply reflects and projects who he is. He is, as we used to refer to him back in his Juilliard days, "Amazin Ewazen."

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Monday Waltz

Here is a link to a PDF and an audio file of Monday Waltz a brand new addition to the waltz family.

The piece has nothing to do with Monday. It began as a monody a few months ago, grew a few more voices, and started dancing. "Monody Waltz" looks a lot like "Monday Waltz," so there you have it.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Classic Cartoon Classics

Thanks to Michael, I can link to the Ten Best Uses of Classical Music in Classic Cartoons. Michael found this by way of the Coudal Partners website.

While my mind is on musical cartoons, I'll share one by the Czechoslovakian animator Zdenek Miler.

Nifty Notation

Imagine my surprise today when, while at the library, I opened up a copy of Couperin's Pieces de Clavecin and found this:

(Heeding the copyright violation warning on the published volume, which had some outrageous doodads attached to ties in many of the preludes, I decided not to do any illegal photocopying. Instead, I searched for a public domain image, which appears to be a photograph of the manuscript.)

Monday, July 06, 2009

Cooking as One of the Performing Arts

It wasn't really that long ago that the term "Performing Arts" was used to refer to music, dance, and drama. Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, for example, covered those three disciplines. The term "Fine and Applied Art" or "Fine Arts" referred to painting, sculpture, print-making, and drawing.

Now that we have all kinds of new media that fall under neither the "Performing Arts" umbrella or the "Fine Arts" umbrella, like film, video, and all kinds of multi-media installations that combine the "Fine" and "Performing" Arts, we call the whole thing "The Arts." The term "Artist," the the term "Art," has come to be used far more loosely than it has in centuries past, or even in decades past.

Julia Child might have been the first to refer to cooking as "art" in the title of her 1961 Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and she certainly was one of the pioneers in the world of cooking on television. But it is the Food Network that has really turned the act of cooking into a performing art. The Next Food Network Star is an odd kind of performing art competition, because the actual substance of the "art" (the thing that is made) is evaluated not only on its substance, but on its presentation.

We in the television audience cannot eat the food that is made, so we are put in the position of having the "food" experience by evaluating the personality and performance of each finalist, and having the actual result (the taste of the food) reported to us by someone we do not know personally. It is tough. Food preparation is judged as a creative art, a performing art, and as a "plastic" art: what it is and how it looks is as important as how the chef relates to the audience and the camera. The judges for The Next Food Network Star are people who take the business of "food performance" seriously, and would be the equivalent to well-seasoned soloists (I couldn't resist the pun) and highly-experienced teachers in the field of music.

I think that The Next Food Network Star is a very smart show. I learn a great deal from the comments that the judges make, and I draw inspiration from the challenges the contestants have to meet, especially when I am faced with the daily challenge of making meals. Most of the contestants have to draw upon skills that they never had the chance or reason to develop, either in cooking school or in professional cooking life. Those who have performing skills from extra-food-related experiences have certain advantages over those who have ideas and experiences only informed by the world of food preparation.

Perhaps the future will hold performing arts academies for cooks. Who knows. There could be classes in diction and elocution (in several languages). There could be classes that concerned posture, focus, and movement, as well as style, make-up, and persona-building. Students could study the video record: Kerr, Child, Ray, Flay, and they write papers on the difference between stoic "Iron Chef" focus, and the almost-too-personal Nigella touch.

Food, like music, has no permanence, but it does touch some of the senses in a way that remains, and even lingers. As music does with time and sound, cooking as an art takes the mundane and necessary (eating and food preparation are both necessary), and turns it into something special. A meal, served in courses, could be likened to a sonata or a symphony that is served in movements, or a play, ballet, or opera that is served in acts. It is visually appealing, like dance, and the experience of it can even momentarily involve sound (consider the crunch), but on television we have to rely on third-party reporting to have the sensual experience that the food is designed to have: taste.

Music can be transmitted over the airwaves (or now, over the digital media) almost intact, but food can not. Digital reproductions of two-dimensional visual art can come strikingly close to the real thing. Camera work (which has also become an art in itself) is so fine that the experience of dance on a video screen can be as exciting as seeing it on a stage. We can all evaluate these arts in their intended form by way of media, but try as we may, we just can't do it with food.

Imagine composers' works being evaluated only on what we say about our music to a camera, because the people who might be interested in hearing it would not be able to. Imagine if performing musicians had to talk to the audience and look at a camera while performing, but no sound could from their instruments or out of their singing mouths. Imagine if sculptors and painters had to have their work evaluated purely on what they had to say about it on camera. And how would a dancer or a choreographer speak effectively about movement without making any kind of a gesture?

So many choices!

I have been thinking a lot about Michael's "No idea what to do" post quite a bit these past few days. We talked about the fact that we always told our kids that they could be what they wanted to be, and wondered if we did the right thing. Perhaps one of the problems has to do with the difference between "doing" and "being." I believe we concentrated on the being part, which is much more essential than the "doing" part. The idea of being has to do with the world within, and the idea of doing has to do with the ever-changing world without--a world that we can only understand partially and subjectively.

I remember an assignment we had when I was in third grade. We were asked to draw a picture of ourselves as "what you want to be when you grow up." Being the 1960s, most of the girls in the class drew teachers and nurses, and most of the boys drew firemen, cowboys, and, perhaps, garbage collectors. Everyone drew themselves in some kind of profession, taking the "be" of the question as meaning the phrase "do for a living." I drew a picture of a genderless, pants-wearing army officer, walking down the street and whistling, with a little dog. My tomboy dream was to be in the army, at least while I was in third grade. I was also rather athletic, and was tantalized by the idea of getting a President's Council for Physical Fitness patch. Perhaps I was a tad patriotic as well.

Eventually these things faded with time. I knew I'd never have a dog. I knew that I would never grow up to be a man, or to even look like one. And I never got one of those President's Council for Physical Fitness patches. Perhaps it was because my school didn't offer them.

I stopped getting my hair cut at the barber shop (I didn't have a whole lot of guidance in those days), and eventually embraced my girl-hood with its proscribed (gasp) future in teacher-hood, mother-hood, and nurse-hood. Once I could wear pants to school on non-gym days, the door to a productive future seemed to be a little larger than the doors to the elementary school gym, or the school playground, where I spent hours climbing on the jungle-gym.

Eventually I slipped into music, the family business, because I was good at it, because I liked it, and because it was the only thing I could do. I felt kind of envious of my female classmates, empowered by the sudden surge of the women's movement, who seemed to look towards their futures with a newly-minted element of choice. I was particularly envious of the people who wanted to be doctors, because I could not understand the lure of the profession. Perhaps many of them also went into "the family business."

Nobody told me that I could be anything I wanted to be, professionally or otherwise. If somebody had told me, I wouldn't have believed them anyway. One by one the things I thought I was good at seemed to slip away, like math, science, and athletics, and a future in music seemed like the only path for me. I had no idea that the musical world was so big and so populated with people like me; and I had no idea that the actual number of musical opportunities for someone like me was so small. I also had no idea that I would be doing the kinds of things I am doing in music, or that music would be one of the ways I would define who I am.

Our kids, now in their 20s, are good at a lot of things. And they have (or are in the process of getting) an education. They have both had jobs that they would not consider "professions," jobs that you do in order to make money in order to live. But they both know that they can "be" whoever and whatever they want to be, and I think it gives them strength and hope.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Muslim Magomov

Otherwise known as Муслим Магомаев, this Baritone from Azerbaijan is simply remarkable. I don't understand much Russian, but I believe every single word he sings. His voice has such flexibility and such an array of colors. It was difficult for me to decide which recording to put here: they are all great, and some are truly outrageous. You need to wait for a while before he makes it over to the piano, but it is indeed worth the wait. After you hear this one, paste the Russian spelling of his name (above) into YouTube, and enjoy your day in style. How is it that I have never heard of this man before? And how did I find him anyway? Must be fate.

He also has a personal website, which is well worth exploring. I particularly like the "hobby" section.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

America First Day 1924: We've come a long way

The people who made this poster back in 1924 had a certain vision for an ideal American society. Many of the ideals are still viable, and many simply cannot be attained. Abolition of caste and class? Not likely. And religious liberty, to be reinforced by "patriotic religious services" in West Virginia? And what's this about "womanhood" as something to "regard" like childhood and old age?

Perhaps this July 4, 2009, we can consider how far we've come, and how far we have to go as a nation and as a society.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Regional Culture

Not that you personally knew every man, woman, and child who walked down the street in Jersey City. But you knew them well enough, could immediately see down into their dusty souls. You knew they had eaten hot dogs at Boulevard Drinks, had gone to the matinees at the Loew's, had relatives who worked for either the Parks Department or Public works and had paid that 85-cent toll on the New Jersey Turnpike a few too many times. You knew what their wardrobe looked like, what their dates looked like, and the kinds of teachers they had--what they had learned or, more important, what they had failed to learn at a place like OLC [Our Lady of Czestochowa].

From Helene Stapinski's Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History.

Change the specifics, and you have my town, and maybe, with another change of specifics, you'd get your town. Wouldn't you know it, Stapinski also wrote a book about being a musician!

Having Your Cake

There weren't any cellists at Summer Strings last night, so I played the cello parts (on the viola), which was a new and interesting treat. We were playing this arrangement of the Fiocco Allegro, where the melodic material is divided between the first and second violins, and the lower voices spend a lot of time as continuo players.

The violists, being new to continuo playing, needed a bit of guidance. I suggested a way for them to use their bows that would not sound too plodding, and still be rhythmic and directional--a way that would make it possible to support as well as hear the interplay between the upper voices.

I told them it was like cake. The fiddles are the frosting, and the rest of us are like the cake. The frosting is pretty, and it is what you see and pay attention to, but it's still called cake.