Monday, February 28, 2011

Do you really want to experience it all?

Here's an excerpt from an interesting post that Frank Oteri put on NewMusicbox today:
I've spent most of my adult life voraciously trying to hear everything that's out there and to experience as much as I can of sensory realms other than music in the time I can squeeze around listening. I've frequently attended five concerts in a week, and I've accumulated books, scores, audio and video recordings, spices, liquors, teas, and perfumes to the point that most of the walls of my apartment are covered from ceiling to floor. I travel as much as I can within my own limited financial means and have made it to six continents; every time I come home with a huge pile of materials that will inevitably consume even more of my time. I've also tried to do my best to avoid filters that limit the ability to experience it all—e.g. taste. My own compositions have often taken a back seat to this all-consuming passion to encounter everything I possibly can, although it has had an impact on what I do wind up actually composing—many of my works have been based on the notion of exhausting permutational possibilities, that is to say, they've been about attempting to hear it all.
I suppose the act of wanting to experience as much is possible comes from the hope that somewhere it might be possible to encounter some element of truth in something from the outside that might stimulate or resonate with those truths that we want to have confirmed inside of ourselves. I used to look for truth on the outside, but in my voracious youth I was far too young to recognize truth when I saw or heard it. Now, after living in a place where most of my stimulation comes from my own creativity and the creativity of the people in my immediate family, I find less of a need to seek out "truth" in the outside world.

It's a good thing too. I live in a vastly unstimulating place. When I reach out along the internets to find the kind of "truth" I looked for in the pre-internet world, I find far too much material that is far too disposable to be connected with any kind of truth. I also find that much of what goes on in the world has almost nothing to do with me, and I have found myself of late polishing the small amount of material that does have something to do with me (like practicing, writing, and teaching). I find that there is a lot more meaning in real experience of a world that has its limits and flexible boundaries than one that is inaccessible and remote. I also find that it is far too easy to fall into the vast abyss of "not me" on the internet, and mistake that for experience.

At one time I was like Frank. I wanted to know everything. I had the goal of reading all the books in my elementary school library (I really only read the ones I found interesting), I wanted to speak several languages (I really only learned two), and I wanted to read all of Balzac (I only read a healthy handful of best books). When I decided that I really wanted to learn to play the violin as an adult, everything changed. I found that the only way I could accomplish anything of any value was the slow and steady way. It really made me rethink the quests I had during my overstimulated former life as a flutist, and I think that I have benefited a great deal from choosing my experiences wisely.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Thornton Dial Retrospective Exibit

"If there is one thing that you can do, leave something for somebody else . . . You can work for somebody else’s freedom. You can leave something for somebody else’s child. This is life."

Thornton Dial
If you live anywhere close to Indianapolis, make sure to visit the Thornton Dial Retrospective Exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. It will blow your mind. The 70-piece exhibit will be in Indianapolis until May 18th, and then will travel to the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Whither Intelligent Film Music Commentary

I'm glad that I finished my breakfast by the time I heard this segment of Weekend Edition on the radio.
His budget here allowed for a full-sized orchestra, and Powell knows how to use it.
[Full orchestra plays unison passage]
He's something of a fearless orchestrator, as well: In one spot, he combines a penny whistle and dulcimer
[Full orchestra plays celtic-ish film music]
At its core, this film is a romantic adventure, and in John Powell, the directors found a composer who could convincingly deliver a grandly heroic theme.
[How novel!]
You have to love Desplat's sinewy melodies. This music was recorded at EMI's Abbey Road studios, where they found and used three vintage microphones owned by the British royal family.

Who writes this stuff?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Musical Pagentry and the New York Times

I am continually surprised at how the New York Times doesn't "get it" when it comes to music. First there was an article about the Petrucci Library that calls it "a boon to garret-living, financially struggling young musicians."

All musicians benefit from this library. It offers pieces of music that haven't been in print for hundreds of years (yes hundreds of years) for musicians young and old, experienced and inexperienced, financially struggling and not financially struggling. Where do they get the idea that it's only young musicians who struggle financially? And what's this thing about living in garrets? They quote a G. Schirmer manager complaining that the library hurts sales, which seems to be the point of the article.

Then the Times put this article on the fashion page about a 22-year-old fiddle player who wears odd Lady-Gaga-like costumes and strange masks when he performs. They don't say anything specific about his playing, and the article would lead the uninformed (like me before reading the article) that Hahn-Bin is probably not a very good violinist, but he has a rather good technique as you can hear. It's not my kind of playing, but the repertoire he plays is not the kind of stuff that calls for much in the way of introspection (he holds Andy Warhol and Mozart in "equal esteem" and thinks of them as complementary). With or without the bird mask, Hahn-Bin's performing is musical pageantry. His outrageous hair, clothes, makeup, and antics take the focus away from what is missing in his musicianship (though he is a technically good fiddle player). It is clear that his main intention is to perform and impress. I don't see myself buying his recordings or going to his concerts, but I suppose there are people who like this sort of thing.

Others have done the musical pageantry thing before, but during the 1950s through the 1980s opulence and decadence was more about musical men emulating Za Za Gabor than musical men emulating Lady Gaga.

I can't resist including this:

Musical Drugs

Here's a little bit of comic genius from DMV Classical.

This list demands expansion!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Scott Walker caught with a Koch impersonator on Tape

Scott Walker took a call from a person pretending to be David Koch, and this brilliant person (Ian Murphy, editor of the Buffalo Beast) taped their conversation and put it on YouTube. Listen here, and here, and pass it on.

This was posted on Salon an hour ago. (I removed the embedded links because I really don't like seeing either one of their faces on my blog.)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Winter Conversations for Two Violins

The blogosphere is a great place to meet like-minded musicians. It is through blogging that I have been able to establish a warm friendship with Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi (I have posted several links to her memoir "Frantic" and her Magic Moments). After finally getting up the nerve to talk in real time on the telephone (we hail from the same place, but live far away from one another) I decided to write a set of "conversations" for two violins for her to play with her husband Ilkka Talvi (who also keeps a blog). Marjorie and Ilkka have been busy recording these conversations, and even though the set is not yet completed, I thought I'd share this fourth conversation with you here.

The pictures are from the horrible (yet beautiful) ice we had during the first week of February in Illinois. Michael took the opening close-up photos because I was too afraid to walk outside.

UPDATE: Here are three more
Winter Conversation One,
Winter Conversation Two,
and Winter Conversation Six.

Uri Geller and the Weeping Chopin Death Mask

First, I would like to share this timeless classic of Uri Geller being debunked by the Amazing Randi:

On page 182 of Chopin and Beyond, Byron Janis tells a story about the death mask of Chopin on his piano that began to weep salty tears in the presence (and at least one hand) of Uri Geller. I imagine that Geller might have used a gimmick, like a little cellulose bubble filled with salt water, to make this illusion.

Janis mentions that his Chopin death mask was "one of three originals in the world." I thought that Auguste Clésingerone made only two, along with a cast of Chopin's left hand. I think that Janis might have been "had" more than once.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Byron Janis talks about playing with arthritis

I'm in the middle of reading Byron Janis' memoir Chopin and Beyond. His career itself as a young pianist was "paranormal." The pinkie on one of hands (I'm not sure which one) had its nerves severed when he was 10, and he continued to use it--playing without any feeling in it. He managed to, without ever paying for lessons, study with the greatest piano teachers and pianists of the 20th century. He seemed to waltz through life, surviving three near fatal car accidents through acts of serendipity, piano keys jumped off his piano three times while playing three different concerts, and various other seriously "not normal" things happened to him. My rational and post-Freudian analytical (and unschooled) mind would say that he has a penchant for "magical thinking" because of the events that happened in his childhood. There was no "Tiger Mother" here--just a love for music, inborn talent, good looks, and a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He was also taught the right things by the right people. I could be proven wrong about not attributing events in his life to the paranormal (and I don't know what to make of the weeping Chopin death mask), but Janis makes a pretty good case for the ability to transcend the physical world we all believe to know by way of music.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

There are Worse Things than Being a Tiger Mother

Like this man, for instance.

Jordi Savall Interview

Yesterday I listened to a 2008 pre-concert interview with Jordi Savall on an "Overgrown Path" podcast. You can get the link to the (free) interview here. I have transcribed a few of Savall's statements.
Music is the art of the dialog, and I think it’s the best training, the best school for everybody to learn to establish a dialog with other people with other cultures, because when you are doing music you do music with people with [whom] you have a sympathy. Normally then you have to respect them. You have to tune in the same tuning, you have to listen to them to make music. And this is the best school for all the situations in the life.
[For] many hundred years there was thinking the music was in evolution, even Stendhal in the 19th century, says while now Haydn and Mozart are really great composers, and they have advantaged all the other ancient composers. This is a mistake. I say it was the quality of the music that brings the emotion. And you can be so much touched by a simple voice combined by a lute or another instrument so much emotional as you can have with a big vocal ensemble from a hundred singers, and a big orchestra from a hundred musicians. The quality of the emotion, the quality of the art, has nothing to do with the strongness of the sound, with the bigness of the orchestra, and with the complexity of the music.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Hope for High-Profile Music

I guess it isn't really appropriate to call the music that Esperanza Spalding writes and performs either "jazz" or "pop music," but she was given recognition as "best new artist" by the Grammy Award committee for what she does. I heard a snippet of her playing and singing on the TV news last night, and was enchanted.

There's a great disconnect between all the fantastic new "classical" recordings I hear every year, and the choices made by the Grammy classical people, but obviously there is someone on the committee that handles "best new artist" who has good judgment and musical taste.

It wasn't possible for me to load the CBS YouTube piece about her (probably because of too many people trying to access it), but I did enjoy reading the comments.

Here she is playing at the Nobel Peace Prize celebration:

Monday, February 14, 2011

Brandenburg 2 with Sopranino Recorder

Here are two joyous performances of the last movement of Bach's Second Brandenburg Concerto. Michala Petri uses an alto recorder, as is the general custom. After substantial applause, the ensemble plays the last movement again, but this time Petri uses a sopranino recorder.

The rest of the soloists are violinist Giuliano Carmignola, trumpet player Reinhold Friedrich, and oboist Lucas Macias Navarro. Claudio Abbado conducts the Mozart Orchestra Bologna, and makes a great case for playing Bach with modern instruments.

. . . and check out this Brandenburg 3!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

How the Tiger Mother Relaxes

At the end of this article the "Tiger Mother" reveals a great deal.
"I love classical music," Chua says. "But for my own relaxation, I listen to country music. That's what's on my radio."
She also mentions that the reason her children (and by her "rules" all children) can only play violin and piano is that those are the instruments she played. Played is the key word here. She obviously didn't continue playing into adulthood. Perhaps she didn't see the point.

Providing the necessary environment for a person to connect music (any kind of music) with true self-expression is the mark, in my opinion, of a successful music-oriented parent or set of parents. I guess the Tiger Mother's use of country music radio stations for relaxation shows what being raised in a pressure cooker can do for the soul.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Noted Violinist Fails to Attract Street Audience

November 28, 1930
Associated Press

Artist Who “Packed them In” with his $40,000 Strad Plays in Disguise and Collects $1.27.

BOSTON, Nov. 27

The other night Jacques Gordon, noted Chicago violinist, “Packed them in” at a local concert hall to hear him perform on his 200-year-old Stradivarius violin, valued at $40,000, and be jeweled audiences held their breath lest they miss a single note.

Today, disguised as an old man, Gordon took this same violin and played on the street corners of Boston. Many of those in the same social circle as those who had paid top prices to hear him indoors, walked by “the little old man” without second thought.

His first stand, near one of Boston’ s fashionable churches, brought him a few pennies.

“He may be hungry, and besides, it’s Thanksgiving,” one woman said as she sent her little daughter over to the curbing with a quarter.

Playing the same selections that his indoor audiences heard “the little old man” finally landed in Scollay Square, where one-armed lunchrooms take the places of fashionable churches and much of the feminine jewelry would not interest an appraiser.

First a few bootblacks sidled up. The some former actors who were in quiet search of a free Thanksgiving dinner, somewhere. And the old men who couldn’t drip in any pennies for the simple reason they had none.

But all of them seemed to know music when they hear it and appreciated it.

“Know Your Music.”

“Sorry I can’t help out but you sure know your music,” one of the Scollay Square audience ventured. And another vouchsafed the opinion that “you ought to give lessons.”

A Newspaper critic passed, cocked his ear and started back. But his fair companion was of another mind, so he continued on his way.

Then a few snowflakes began to fall. The concert was over. The “old man” seemed to get enjoyment out of playing to his nondescript crowd, but snow and a valuable Strad do not mix.

Back in his hotel, Gordon counted out $1.27 as Boston’s contribution to his day’s work. He turned it over to a charitable society.

NB: Here's a photo to prove it! Since the photo is from June, 1930, his concert in Scollay Square was obviously not Gordon's first time out. The linked-to photo (now property of Getty Images) was taken on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, and appeared in the the Olean Herald. He made $5.61 that day.

What Bel Canto is all About

I have just discovered Edita Gruberova, and I want to share:

Friday, February 11, 2011

Grammar and Sin Tax

Read Bill Madison's parody of the English class of the not too distant future.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Lend Me Your Ears!

I suppose my first exposure to the fact that people have different inborn listening abilities came about when I realized that I didn't have perfect pitch. In most families the odd person with perfect pitch is considered the exception, but in my family I was the only person who, without a relative measuring pitch, couldn't tell a G# from a G, or pluck one or the other out of thin air. My father claims not to have perfect pitch, but I believe that his perceived lack of perfect pitch is only "relative." He is right most of the time. I have never known him to be wrong. My mother, all my brothers, and the two grandparents (one maternal and one paternal) I knew all had absolute perfect pitch. I tried for years to develop it, even going to the extreme of waking up before my alarm clock sounded its electric B-flat buzz to sing what I thought was a B flat, and see if I was right. Somehow that pitch remained in my brain, but only in its electronic voice. On an acoustic instrument or a voice a B flat could be any one of its chromatic neighbors to me. Developing dependable pitch memory would be equivalent to the task of trying to be taller than five feet one (and a quarter).

My vastly imperfect pitch has come in handy from time to time. I don't have any problem playing baroque music at A=415 (on any instrument), and transcriptions never bother me.

I assumed that anyone who wrote music had to have perfect pitch, and I assumed that anyone who wrote the complicated music that was new when I was young could hear all the pitches, separately and in combination. The people I spent time with, particularly the composers who were at Tanglewood during the 1970s, could hear everything. They were kind of superhuman, but I thought they were normal. There was some new music (in the 1970s and 1980s) I could grasp, like music by George Crumb and Olivier Messiaen, and most Ligeti, but it was really difficult for me to claim that I really could "hear" Sessions, Carter (music he wrote during the 1960s through 1980s), and Babbitt.

I have no ear for microtones either. None. As much as I like Ben Johnston's ideas, rhythms, textures, and sonorities, I just don't get the microtones. My imperfectly-pitched ears tell me that microtonal music is out of tune (while my objective mind tells me that the playing is correct).

Just because I can't hear microtones doesn't give microtonal music lesser worth in the grand scheme of things, and just because I don't have the vocabulary to evaluate the quality of one mid 20th-century serial piece against the quality of another, doesn't mean that there isn't quality to be evaluated. I don't understand the stock market, politics, or mathematics beyond arithmetic, and I know that those things have serious merit and enjoyment for those who do.

I would love to have perfect pitch for a day, or a week, or a month, so that I can have the serial music and microtonal listening experiences that many mid-to-late 20th century composers intended their audiences to have (I suppose I would have to have perfect polyrhythm as well in order to really understand Babbitt). Perhaps my beloved tonal and regular rhythmic world would be tossed on its ear, and perhaps I would never be able to enjoy its limits again.

Perhaps I'll just keep the ear I was born with.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Frank Oteri writes about Ben Johnston

Frank Oteri has a fine piece about Johnston in the NewMusicBox that embeds a fine recording by the Kepler Quartet playing some of Johnston's Tenth Quartet, but Oteri makes only anonymous reference to the Composers String Quartet's recording of Johnston's Second Quartet (c. 1967), which was the first recording of the piece. Just for the historical record, the Composers String Quartet predates the Kronos Quartet by a generation.

The original members of the Quartet, Matthew Raimondi, Anahid Ajemian, Bernard Zaslav, and Seymour Barab, along with their forward-thinking manager Gunther Schuller, are all still around. These are people who deserve a great deal of recognition. They are the ones who first championed the American string quartets written during the middle decades of the 20th century, and I hate to see only an anonymous reference to their contributions. They devoted years of work to rehearsing, premiering, and commissioning scads of difficult (but ultimately worthwhile) music.

Much of what they did was not commercially recorded, because only the most progressive record labels saw the value of mid-20th-century new music when it was new. Perhaps there are non-commercial concert recordings of the Composers Quartet playing "old" new 20th-century music an office or two, somewhere.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

NPR Documentary on Milton Babbitt

This full-length documentary by Robert Hilferty and Laura Karpman is well worth watching.

[Thanks for the link, Bernie!]

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Musicians

These flights of partially-informed musical/biographical fancy by the Illinois-born Elbert Hubbard are a great joy for people (like me) who enjoy reading the works of 19th-century and early-20th-century American eccentrics. As you will see (and read), Hubbard was one of a kind. Volume 14 of Hubbard's Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great from 1907, has character portraits of Wagner, Paganini, Chopin, Schumann, Bach, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Beethoven, Handel, Verdi, Mozart, and Brahms (an example of a hundred-year-old "top ten list" (I know, there are 12). At 359 pages it is a lot to read, but I'm putting a link to it here so that when times get tough you can dip into it. The other volumes in the set are also available on line. I particularly like reading his Love, Life & Work: Being a Book of Opinions Reasonably Good-Natured Concerning how to Attain the Highest Happiness for One's Self with the Least Possible Harm to Others.

Ice Goblin

This morning everything is covered with snow, and this "ice goblin," from yesterday, which is now only a memory (and an image), has softened.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Ice Pictures from February 3, 2011

Five days after the first storm, and the ice is still clinging to the trees in Illinois. It is impossible for me to capture the brilliance of a panoramic view with a camera, so close-up photos will have to suffice. The panorama is simply breathtaking to behold, proving once again that "being there" offers a greater experience than looking at photos (I'll make a quick analogy to the experience of hearing live music recorded music within these parentheses, and then I'll go back to my "rhapsody on ice"). The bright sun creates little dots of color when the ice on the branches refracts its light, like millions of prisms.

[The top photo shows ground level, and the bottom photo looks straight up into a tall tree that is covered entirely in ice.]

UPDATE: Our local paper has a breathtaking collection of ice photographs.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Eric Edberg Hits a Big Nail on the Head

The thing that is so stupid about current classical music training, and one of the cancers that has eaten away of the vitality of classical music, is that we’ve made composers and performers into different species. -- Eric Edberg
Granted, when you're busy writing something, it is difficult to keep in performing shape. Bach, Liszt, Paganini, Chopin, Clara Schumann, Mozart, the younger Beethoven, Fritz Kreisler, Benjamin Britten, and a whole slew of others managed to do it, but others like Paul Hindemith, lost whatever chops he might have had once he put more time into writing than practicing.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Colgrass Variations for Four Drums and Viola

As you can see, I'm quite fond of Michael Colgrass' music. Perhaps it is because I grew up listening to my father practice this wonderful Colgrass piece. He recorded it with Everett (Vic) Firth in 1968 for RCA, but I don't have a copy of the LP set. Perhaps someone will consider re-releasing that set (LSC 6184) on CD one of these days.

The violist in this performance, Andre Cameron, was one of his students--more than 30 years ago!

More Thoughts about New Music

I have been listening to a bit more mid-20th century American music than usual of late, and have been following (and participating in) discussions about some of the various musical values that composers embraced during the last decade. I have a couple of very close friends who acted as pioneers in the New York new music scene during the 1960s and 1970s. They commissioned and performed pieces of new music (sometimes without the exchange of money, and sometimes using funds supplied by third-party backers) for audiences of people who were interested in expanding their horizons.

These audiences weren't ready to do any kind of evaluating, but they were living through some of the huge extra-musical cultural shifts that were happening during the 1960s, and they were curious and open to new things. Some of the most revered and admired composers of the time were indeed charlatans, and some of the competent ones were a whole lot smarter (intellectually speaking) than most mere musical mortals. Some were interested in developing and using technology to generate music electronically, and some were interested, because of what they learned from working with electronic music, in finding new ways that acoustic instruments could make sound, which often provided great challenges for performing musicians.

Some performing musicians, who were parts of established ensembles, performed this music because they had to. My father used to refer to the new music he often performed with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players as "Mickey Mouse Music." But then there was new music that was not "Mickey Mouse Music." The big question (and challenge) for musicians was really to find the music in the music, and finding the music in music that is not organized tonally, and is not organized in 12-tone rows or is a mixture of tonal material and tone rows, takes a great deal of creativity.

In other words, it takes a great deal of emotional and intellectual voltage to glue an array of seemingly-random pitches together horizontally (and sometimes vertically) in a way that makes some kind of sense, and a successful performance is truly a mixture of the performer(s) and the composer in at least equal proportion. Depending on the piece, it can even be a 70/30 (or greater) split between the performer and the composer, favoring the performer.

Some composers tried to remedy this situation by writing very specifically-notated and complex music that would keep them in control, but the performing musicians who commissioned their music would still figure out ways of inserting their particular creativity into a performance. This fight (or dance) between composer and performing musician can be fascinating and exciting, and I believe that part of what we respond to as listeners is the dynamics of that relationship. Unlike performances of music in the usual canon of the time, these 20th-century composers were not only living, they were often at the performances.

New music has certainly changed in the past 50 years or so. Now some composers tend to tailor their compositions to the "playing" of a particular musician (we have seen this in a few recently-commissioned high-profile violin concertos), because composers have finally figured out that the best way to gain commercial success is to have a connection with a hot soloist. Hot soloists have also figured out that they can increase their public profiles by commissioning music from hot composers (who will tailor their work to fit the particular qualities of the soloist). These relationships are often born in high-level conservatories, which makes the high price of admission something to take into serious consideration for both composers and for people interested in playing new music.

I could easily be proven wrong, but I believe that this kind of "hot" soloist playing new music during the 20th century was still more about the music than the soloist.

I have certainly tried, but I have never been able to write much in the way of meaningful serial music. But the lessons of the 21st century tell me that new and meaningful music does not need to be limited to the abstract and obtuse, just like new and meaningful visual art does not need to be limited to the abstract and the shocking. I'm happy to relinquish control of what I write to whoever performs it, and tend to give very little in the way of performance directions (though I use pitches, rhythms, articulations, and dynamics, and make sure that the phrases are obvious, logical, and self-directing). Some new music people (who cut their musical baby teeth listening to the huge array of what was new music in the 1960s) might consider what I write to be uninteresting, because it doesn't compel them "connect the dots" in order for the music to make sense, but there's really nothing that I can do about that. I guess they have to figure out how to apply their creativity to the music I write the "old fashioned" way.

Michael Colgrass Teaches Kids About Graphic Notation

Without the innovations of the middle to late 20th century, normal old (or young) kids would never consider the possibility of writing music as a series of graphic sonic events. Now they do.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Hey Jude Flowchart

[I would give some attribution, but nobody seems to know the source of this brilliant bit of fun.]
[As Bertrand Russell said, "The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time."]
[I guess I should get off the computer and practice, huh?]


Everything is covered with ice today, so much of central Illinois has come to a standstill. Since I don't have to go out to teach today (classes were wisely cancelled), the furthest outside I ventured was the front step, where I snapped this picture. I'm told that soon (very soon), a frozen deluge of "biblical proportions" will enter Illinois from the southwest.

We have lots of food in our house, and I have I new project to work on, so all is well.