Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Learning by Watching and Listening

Now that my mind has started to calm down after an intense four days of listening, watching, playing, rehearsing, and talking about music with my new-found soul-mates at the viola d'amore congress, I can begin to process the experience.

The congress began for me with a rehearsal of the trio for recorder, viola d'amore, and viola by George Hunter, that began as soon as I arrived in Evanston, Illinois on Monday, and the first concert of the week began at 8:00 that evening. It was two hours of violin sonatas and triosonatas with viola d'amore expertly performed by the Trio Settecento. Part of the fascination of this concert was that, except for the Corelli Sonata, Opus 5, No. 6, everything on the program was new to me.

I had a rehearsal at 8:00 for the first daytime concert of the congress, which began at 9:15 the next morning. There were concerts and lectures (mostly concerts) running daily from 9:15 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. with a two hour break for lunch and rehearsals, and then another concert every night at 8:00. We're talking about 6 to 8 hours of viola d'amore music a day!

My father warned me that I would begin to tire of D major: the instrument is usually tuned with a low A on the bottom, a D above that, another A, a D-major or D-minor triad above that, and a final high D. D major was the favored key of the later 18th-century music, and D minor was often used during the earlier 18th century. Luckily many people played in baroque pitch, which is a half step lower than modern pitch, making a lot of the music fall into the sounding key of C-sharp major or minor, and there were a surprising number of pieces that used other tunings, including music from the 19th and century and not necessarily tonal music from 20th century (and 21st if you include mine--but I used the D-minor tuning). I managed to keep my total attention on the music and the playing for the entire congress: there were very few moments that I wasn't in full emotional and musical "vacuum mode."

There was a whole evening of Vivaldi and Graupner concertos with the Baroque Band, and members of the viola d'amore society from all over the world showed just how clever and flexible Vivaldi was as a composer for the viola d'amore. I was also thrilled with the many Graupner pieces I heard this week, especially his Concerto for Viola d'amore and Viola that shared this Vivaldi program.

Highlights from the 19th century included music by Markus Leo Goldis, and highlights from the 20th century included Sonatas by Paul Hindemith, and Irving Schlein, a Caprice by York Bowen, a 1980 Sonata "Balletto Solenne" by Gordon Tonson (who plays viola under the name of Maxwell Ward), a Serenade for flute, viola d'amore and strings by Richard Lane, some preludes for viola d'amore and harp by Henri Casadesus, a Sonata da chiesa with organ by Frank Martin, the Hunter Trio, a Sonatine for Viola d'amore and Harpsichord by Wolfgang Hofmann, and music by Carl Wunderle.

I returned home, and took out my "normal" viola to play a wedding yesterday (I hadn't practiced a stringed instrument since playing my Birthday Pieces on Tuesday morning). I was surprised that I could play with far more freedom and strength than ever before, and could even play better in tune. I found that I was far more aware of my connection to the other people in my quartet. The act of listening so carefully and intently to so much string music played by such excellent musicians did more for me and my playing than hours and hours of practicing. It also really stimulated my imagination.

I now have a slew of projects lined up to write for the viola d'amore, and feel terribly excited about the future, partly because there is just so much to learn about this instrument and its many musical possibilities.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Their world creeps into ours . . .

"We're all teen moms--and musicians."

"Everyone in this program?"

"The program . . . it's for teen moms."

"So I didn't get here on my own?"

"Of course you did. You're the world's greatest French horn player, and I'm Yo-Yo Ma."

Watch the clip here.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Birthday Pieces from the Viola d'amore Congress

I have been spending the past couple of days in Evanston, Illinois among viola d'amore players. We have three concerts a day, with workshops in between, and the concerts have been enlightening and thrilling. This recording came from this morning's concert. I'm playing viola d'amore, and Hsaio Ling Lin is playing piano. There will be more to come!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Friday, June 18, 2010

Generation Eeyore

Like many people of my generation, I grew up around pessimists. It seems to me that my generation was simply filled with Eeyore parents (other people's parents seemed almost as pessimistic as mine seemed to be). There was so much wrong with everything in the larger world: drugs, hippies, racism, crime, communism, the Iron Curtain, Middle-Eastern terrorism (particularly the Iranian hostage crisis), the energy crisis, antisemitism, political corruption (particularly Watergate), and pollution.

While I was growing up I was very much aware of the phoniness that goes with "importance," so I never trusted people in power. I still don't, but now and then I make an exception. I have noticed (she mentions optimistically) that some of the people in power who have an idealistic world view (and are willing to work to make it real) tend to be a few years younger than I am.

I always thought that music could be a way to transcend all that was horrible in the world, and that if my musical intentions were "true," I could do something of value and, perhaps, make the world a better place, at least while the music was happening. (My family nickname when I was a child was "Pooh.")

I don't know if that kind of idealistic view of improving a corrupt world is practical (as in the Hirschmann sentence I quoted yesterday), but idealistic music making can make it possible for chunks of time to be pure and true. A few minutes of beauty and idealism can be more meaningful than a whole day of ugliness and doom.

Writing music is itself kind of like idealism in action: there is an ideal balance for a piece of music, there is a "right" organization of pitches and rhythms, and there is an ideal performance in a composer's inner ear. With a lot of skill and a certain amount of luck, it is possible for a composer to put together phrases of music that can saturate chunks of time with the feeling of idealism. With more luck, it might even be played by musicians (perhaps musicians the composer doesn't know personally) that share his or her idealism. And maybe it will allow a few minutes (or hours) sometime in the future a bit more idealistic for someone playing or hearing the music.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Nothing is more practical than idealism

I have a piece of paper in my viola case that has a quote from Ira Hirschmann that says, "Nothing is more practical than idealism." It comes from his memoir Obligato: Untold Tales from a Life with Music that I read years ago, and passed on to a either a friend or a family member (I can't for the life of me remember who). Perhaps it is about time to get myself a new/old copy because, once again, the practicality of idealism is being challenged in a big way.

Hirschmann tells the story of how classical music concert broadcasts first hit the radio waves. The story also appeared in The Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Winter, 1949-1950) on pages 683-684, which I will paraphrase:

During the 1920s, when Hirschmann was working in the advertising department at L. Bamberger & Company, the department store that hosted the newly-minted WOR radio station on its sixth floor (so that they could sell more radios), he got a idea to broadcast New York Philharmonic concerts directly from Carnegie Hall over the radio. The Philharmonic’s manger, Arthur Judson, agreed to a price of $15,000 to broadcast the Thursday evening concerts for the whole season, but when Hirschmann approached Felix Fuld, the co-owner of Bamberger's and WOR (and, along with Mr. Bamberger, was also a subscriber to the Philharmonic concerts) with the idea, he insisted that most American people did not want to hear symphony music. He went on to say that they didn’t know what it was.

When Hirschmann invited ten girls from the bookkeeping department of the store to come in to his office and asked them (right in front of Fuld) if they would listen to symphony music if it were played on the radio, every one said that she would. Mr. Fuld still thought that $15,000 was too much money to take out of the advertising budget, and that was that, until the next morning, when Hirschmann got a call from Mrs. Felix Fuld who said that she would contribute the money as long as nobody knew where it came from. She said, “Men have no imagination” before hanging up the phone.

Hirschman added at the end of the article, “If I am violating a confidence of Mrs. Fuld's, who ten years ago passed away, I may be forgiven on the grounds of adding a historical footnote to a pivotal point in the musical culture of our time.”

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bloggery ≠ Vanity

Kyle Gann's deeply honest post and its comments (one is mine, which I will not reproduce here because it would be kind of vain to do so) in today's installment of PostClassic is well worth reading.

It brings up a lot of important stuff about the basic "why" of blogging.

UPDATE: I think that Kyle's subsequent post, Success is Just Another Form of Failure, is required reading for all musicians.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sing it, Sister

Anne Midgette just noticed that people in her city (and the other east coast cities in her neighborhood) enjoy making music themselves. People have been doing it consistently in other parts of the country for a good long time. In places where there isn't a lot of live "classical" music to be had, grown-up people who care about music make it themselves.

Many of the people who join choruses for fun are people who sang in a chorus in elementary school, middle school, and high school. Many of the people who play instruments for pleasure now are people who had orchestra and band programs in their schools. With the rise of the new musical "systemae" that are enhancing some urban public school systems, there is bound to be a great upsurge in participatory classical music making in the next wave of urban adults (at least those in Los Angeles and in Baltimore), but with the disasters in state budgets, music programs are being cut (or severely reduced) in a large number of no-so-urban public schools. There is bound to be even more of a decline in participatory classical music in rural areas (where the "praise band" is becoming the gold standard of participatory music making).

Let's hope that by the time those musically-enhanced east-coast children grow up to be musically-enhanced (and hopefully well-educated) adults, they might be able to convince school systems in rural parts of the country that music making is a vital part of life, and that the benefits of well-guided music making early in life last for a lifetime. Gee. It might even generate a few more jobs for the many highly-qualified musicians that have to find work in other fields.

It is the "teach a man (or woman) to fish" story in musical action. It does make a difference.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

What's in a Name: Music to the Nth Degree

I find it interesting that before the coining of the term atonality, the word tonal was not a word that was used to describe Western music from the Middle Ages until the first decades of the 20th century. The term "classical," when referring to music, is very broad. It's relative neo-form is just as broad, or even broader, considering the amount of water that has gone under the bridge since it was coined as a term.

is a term that tends to refer, at least at this point and in a musical context, to works that take their inspiration from pieces in the "canon." Now, because of all of the previously-unknown composers who have come to light in this era of musical information sharing (particularly the on-line music libraries here, here, and here), we see that the old "canon" is only a drop in a huge bucket of the excellent "canon-quality" music that has wafted through rooms, concert halls, and houses of worship all over the world for the past 500 or so years.

Many of the 20th and 21st century words in our collective musical vocabulary are really just names for techniques. Minimalism is a technique that incorporates a lot of repetitive ostinato, and serial writing organizes its pitches in sets. 12-tone music uses rules to organize a series of 12 pitches in a way that avoids repetition (the opposite of minimalism, perhaps), but it is also possible to write music using rigid sets with fewer than 12 pitches. We also have many different ways of constructing and describing harmony: tertian harmony is based on stacks of thirds, and quartal harmony is based on stacks of fourths. Atonality is simply the absence of tonality (see above), and, though it is incorporated in a great deal of music, we have finally gotten to the point where its organized 12-tone form is no longer the "rule" when it comes to writing new music. It is very strange that the ear can tell the difference between polytonality and atonality, but I suppose our natural urge to organize music tonally helps us identify the necessary patterns, even if we do so only subconsciously.

Thinking in general about the musical seas that contemporary composers swim in, with species of every ethnic and popular variety pulling us this way and that, with electronic possibilities that boggle the mind (including keyboards that can divide the octave into as many equal or unequal parts as anyone could want), and with instrumental virtuosity like we have never seen before, we probably need a less relative term than "neo-classicist" to describe the current new-music practices.

When people ask me what kind of music I write, my usual response is that I write "enharmonic music." I say that it is "enharmonic" because I often need to figure out whether the "black key" pitches are sharps or flats, and it sometimes drives me batty. Because the music that I write tends to move rather chromatically from tonal center to tonal center, the handy-dandy key signature doesn't capture that many pitches for very long. The term "enharmonic" pushed its way to the front of my brain this morning (while I was listening to Grieg), and appeared in large letters as "n-harmonic music."

Yup. That's what I write: n-harmonic music. It might be what you write too. Perhaps it should be written as n-harmonic music. I don't pretend to understand the n-related math, but I imagine that there are many composers who do.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

WWBD: Bach G Major Prelude BWV 1007 for String Quartet

Adventures in arranging are always interesting when it comes to arrangements of music by J.S. Bach! Here are two possible solutions to quartet settings of the perennially-popular Prelude from the G major Suite.

Friday, June 11, 2010

You're the Cream in My Coffee

Never in a million years did I expect to see Silk PureAlmond in my rural Wal-Mart store. I am a long-time devotee of Silk Soymilk, and a passionate almond lover (still crazy about them after all these years), so it's no surprise that I liked what I found, but just how delicious it was in my iced coffee was a surprise. This almond milk is pure white, thick, and, unlike some of the other brands I have tried, not overly sweet.

It can't replace soymilk for me (there isn't much in the way of protein here, and there's nothing in the way of those necessary soy isoflavonoids), but what a thrill it is to drink it in iced coffee, or even straight.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Neo-Classicist Music Criticism

These are good words to live by:
A neoclassicist musical criticism might differ from modernism in several important ways. For one, the shibboleth of supreme originality would be discarded. The imprimatur of artistic validity in a new work would no longer be granted only on account of novelty. Musical culture would begin to be unafraid of music that is strongly connected to the past or to other contemporary works. Concerns about “plagiarism” and the shunning of the “derivative” would be muted. The music critic’s first criterion would not be, Is the work original? Instead, it would be, How beautiful and skilled is it? Where there is innovation in the work, the critic might ask, What good purpose does this innovation serve? Does it serve beauty, clarity, meaningfulness, or catharsis (the goals of classicism)? Or again, the critic might first ask, How is the message of this work made clear, while being beautifully rendered? The critic’s assessment of novelty would be distinctly secondary.

In this way, innovation would not come at all costs, and the highly skilled use of common materials would become acceptable and appropriately honored. Critics and audiences would not be taken aback by something that sounds similar to another new work—or even an old work. The real question would concern the meanings and possibilities involved and the skill of presentation. The old would be welcome as long as there is present within it a grain of the new. This new element might not at first seem very novel, but nonetheless might constitute the seed of things to come. It would be available to all as common material—something that could have meaning and be of use to other artists in a process of refining the art towards a common and beautiful and profoundly human purpose or goal.
From Webster Young's Can There Be Great Composers Anymore? from the Spring 2008 issue of The Intercollegiate Review.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Stranger things have happened

My life has been rather bucolic this summer, and my various projects are punctuated with some somewhat focused viola d'amore practice, in preparation for the viola d'amore congress that is being held in Evanston, IL two weeks from today.

Some music written for the viola works for viola d'amore, but most of it just doesn't. The sympathetic strings on the instrument (and there are seven of them that echo the seven strings: a bunch of As and Ds, and then a D triad--either major or minor--on the top) enhance some pieces, but they clash terribly with others.

Just for fun I decided to see if the Sonata for Viola and Piano I wrote in 2003 would work for the viola d'amore. I was stunned. It actually lies better (and sounds better) on the viola d'amore than it does on the viola! The odd thing is that I wrote this years before I even knew anything of the inns and outs of writing for the viola d'amore. I wrote it before I ever held one in my hands.

My Viola Sonata is published by Subito, and they kindly let me update the piece for Viola d'amore.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Simon Heffer Makes a Good Point about State Funded Music

From Simon Heffer's column in the Telegraph:
"I have always believed that private philanthropy is a more reliable way of ensuring quality, too, than the state is; it cannot be a coincidence that the era of private patrons in music produced people like Bach, Mozart and Wagner, whereas the mixture of art and welfarism has created a generation of mediocrities who will wait centuries for acclaim and still be disappointed."
You can read the whole article here.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Some Suggestions About Listening to Beethoven String Quartets

A lot has been said and written about the sublime nature of Beethoven's late string quartets, but it seems that some people interested in listening to them might not know how to begin to appreciate or even understand the qualities that make them great. Some people might find it intimidating when someone like Cornel West casually tosses his love for Beethoven's late string quartets into his discussions about philosophy. "Understanding" a logical argument is very different from "understanding" a piece of music, because music strives to organize emotion and emotional experience in time. It would be interesting to hear a discussion about Beethoven between Cornel West and someone like Maynard Solomon. West might end up appearing to those "in the know" like the way Leonard Bernstein appeared when he attempted to talk about linguistics.

For string players the Beethoven String Quartets are like what the Pentateuch is to theologians: a constant source of study and wonder. Each one is like a complicated person who becomes an intimate friend. We all know that the more you try to understand the people closest to you, the more of a mystery they become. When you throw love into the mix, it is nearly impossible to really "know" somebody. By the same reasoning, it is nearly impossible to "know" any of the Beethoven Quartets, but it is sure compelling to keep trying. My purpose here is not to provide analysis and insight. It is simply to make an introduction and suggest a listening order. It is similar to the order that I use to introduce his quartets to my students, and it is extremely personal.

The best way to "understand" Beethoven's later quartets is by becoming familiar with his earlier quartets. One thing to bear in mind is that the six quartets of Opus 18, Beethoven's first set of quartets, are not "less mature" Beethoven. They do use many of the 18th-century conventions used by Mozart and Haydn, and the Opus 18 Quartets do show Mozart's and Haydn's influence, but they are not, by any stretch of the imagination, imitations. Not being able to "better" either Mozart or Haydn, Beethoven re-invented the string quartet with his Opus 18. He began his string-quartet-composing life at the age of 30, and he ended it at the age of 56 with his final Quartet, Opus 135, six months before he died.

The six Opus 18 Quartets are all in four movements. They were written at the turn of the century (18th to 19th), and each one lasts about 25 minutes (following the conventions of the time). The fourth Quartet of the opus (not following the conventions of the time) has two movements in ternary form, a Scherzo and a Minuet, and the third Quartet doesn't have a movement in ternary form at all.

I would begin listening with Opus 18, but I would start with #4, the very intense Quartet in C minor. Next I would listen to Opus 18 #1 in F major, leaving the rest of the opus for later listening. I would next suggest listening to the third of the Opus 59 Quartets, but I would first listen to the Mozart Quartet K 465 (the "Dissonance Quartet"), the last of the six string quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn. Beethoven's Opus 59 #3 is an out-and-out tribute to the Mozart. Listen to the introduction of the Mozart, then listen to the introduction of the Beethoven. You may not know how to put it into words, or how to analyze it, but you will understand the relationship immediately.

The other two Opus 59 Quartets are a bit longer than the Opus 18 Quartets, and they incorporate some very exciting Russian folk material. I would listen to #2 before listening to #1, but that's just personal (it's the order in which I first learned them). Go on to Opus 74, the "Harp" Quartet, and notice how, like two of the Opus 59 Quartets, the line between the third and fourth movements blurs. The tempo changes, but there is no pause between movements. Go back and listen to the rest of the Opus 18 Quartets. You will notice a distinct difference in style from the Opus 59 Quartets and the Opus 74, but you will not notice a change in quality: all of Beethoven's string quartets are masterpieces.

Now it's time for Opus 95, the "Serioso" Quartet. Written in 1810, and clocking in at 20 minutes, it is the shortest of the quartets. It is also one of the most intense, because there is just so much packed into those 20 minutes. There is also a bit of shape shifting going on here, with a sudden connection between the second and third movements, several abrupt changes in key, and a final movement that seems to have several different personalities. We have now arrived in the world of late Beethoven.

At this point, I would advise people new to this to start from the "back of the book." Opus 135 is only 26 minutes long, it's in the key of F major, and, aside from the final movement (called "Der schwer gefasste Entschluss"), it follows the shape of the quartets in Opus 18. I would advise listening to it with the score. Even if you don't read music, you will appreciate having it for the last movement. Go back and listen to Opus 18 #1 (here's the score), and then listen to Opus 95 again.

Beethoven wrote the Opus 127 Quartet in 1824, after taking a 14-year hiatus from string quartet writing. This piece sounds like the polar opposite of the Opus 95 "Serioso" Quartet, the last string quartet he wrote before his hiatus (during which he wrote his later Piano Sonatas and his 9th Symphony). Opus 127 is as expansive as the Opus 95 is contracted, and for me it marks Beethoven's leap from the more concrete to the more abstract in quartet writing.

Now it's time for Opus 132 in A minor. It takes 42 minutes or so, and there are a lot of tempo changes, key changes, and even more changes of mood. Allow yourself to hold onto the reins of the movement segments that seem to follow the laws of gravity, and allow yourself to be suspended when the music suspends you. The logic behind the structure of this one is all Beethoven's. You can't second guess him (even if you are playing). Sometimes when listening to this piece you can't even remember where you have been.

Opus 131, in C-sharp minor, is a deeply serious work. Unlike anything we have heard in this particular order, it begins with a really long Adagio that serves as an introduction to a very short Allegro. During the piece's 37 minutes or so, it changes tempo thirteen times, and all of the movements are played "attacca" or without a pause between them, so it can be really difficult to keep track of where you are. The fourth movement, which is divided into several sections, and has the only repeat mark in the whole quartet, is almost a quartet within a quartet. You might recognize the fifth movement has a motive that Beethoven quotes in the last movement of his last quartet, Opus 135. If this quartet boggles your mind, you are not alone. You have generations of equally-boggled listeners. After repeated hearings, it often comes out as a real favorite.

Now we have arrived at Opus 130, which, complete with the Grosse Fugue, takes more than 50 minutes to perform. After listening to Opus 131 you should find this six-movement Quartet rather tuneful and easy to follow. It begins with a slow introduction (if you have heard any of the earlier Quartets of Mendelssohn, you will find it strangely familiar), and continues tunefully along. After the loveliest of Cavatinas, Beethoven tops this quartet off with a 16-minute fugue that is almost as difficult to follow by ear (or by score) as it is to play. This is one of the movements that scares listeners away from late Beethoven. I first heard it when I was in a class with David Diamond at Juilliard, and I didn't know what to make of it. Now I love it, but it has taken a long for that love to develop. It took me more than twenty years just be able to follow the workings of the counterpoint, so don't despair.

Beethoven's audience didn't like the Fugue, and his publisher suggested that the piece should be published with an alternative Finale. The Grosse Fugue was published as a separate opus (133). My preferred way of listening to this piece is with both the Fugue and the Finale!

I own many sets of Beethoven Quartets, so I can make a few recommendations:

The Borodin set on Chandos is one of my current favorites, as is the Alban Berg's set, which has also been recorded on DVD. The Leipzig String Quartet also has an excellent set. The Vegh Quartet's 1952 set is exceptional, as is the Quartetto Italiano's set. I like the Colorado Quartet's set a lot (they observe all of Beethoven's repeats), and I like the Eroica Quartet's set (they use 19th century instruments).

My favorite recording of Opus 130 (with the Grosse Fugue) is the 1984 Vermeer Quartet recording on Teldec. I don't know if it is still available on CD, but I did find an LP on ebay.

There are a lot more Beethoven Quartet performances on YouTube, and all the scores are available (for free) right here.

2019 UPDATE: Stephen Malinowinski and the Alexander String Quartet have made a complete cycle of Beethoven Quartets with graphical score animations (so you can see the score in colored animation as you listen) which is available on this YouTube page.

Thursday, June 03, 2010


I know I said that I would never become a "pod person," but the travel-oriented practicality of a device (the smallest of the ipods) that weighs less than one of the batteries it takes to run my CD player won me over. I have always liked the idea of chance working in counterpoint with cycles, so the idea of the "shuffle" option on the ipod was kind of appealing to me: it offers the chance to get a relatively random musical experience on my daily walk (always the same route, it seems) while working within parameters that I can set myself.

I loaded it up with all the preludes and fugues from the first book of Bach's Well-tempered Clavier (played by Richter), all the Bach choral motets, all the Brahms Piano Quartets, a few Beethoven and Mozart Violin Sonatas, a whole CD of songs written and performed by Carlos Gardel, some Schumann piano music (played by Richter), music from recordings I'm currently reviewing for the ARG, and various and sundry other pieces I normally don't listen to for pleasure, like performances of music that I wrote.

For some odd and random reason (though I know that there must be some kind of numeric order to the shuffling process), a Prelude or a Fugue from the WTC or a Gardel song always seems to pop up between longer pieces. The Gardel songs (which I normally love) sound monochromatic next to Brahms (which I always love). The Bach preludes and fugues (which I love deeply) sound extremely busy next to a movement of Brahms, but Brahms sounds overblown next to a movement of Mozart. I find myself clicking through movements that I normally would enjoy in context, and that really bothers me. It compromises my mechanical listening experience, and though I think I have left the house with "more," I come home an hour later feeling like I have experienced "less."

The random listening experience really doesn't lend itself to music that requires the kind of concentration I normally give. It also forces me to make comparisons between composers and pieces that, in real time and space, would never even be on the same program together, especially since their movements are broken up and scattered about. For me it is kind of like having an Italian pasta dish with spicy Thai noodles at the same meal. I end up tasting nothing.

Thank goodness the device also lets you listen to music in order!