Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Frog Prince

Sometimes you can find a handsome prince in an unlikely place. The other day, while our son Ben was trying out banjos at Elderly Instruments up in East Lansing, Michigan, I had some time on my hands. They do not specialize in bowed stringed instruments, but they do have a small room filled with inexpensively-priced violins and violas. Some are pretty good, and some are not. I suppose as far as violins and violas go, they sell whatever people bring to them to sell on consignment.

They had a few bows, so I grabbed this one, and tried the fiddles. I fell in love with the bow. It is probably a hybrid. The person who made this frog in the 1920s probably didn't make the stick--particularly since the stick is stamped with a generic "Germany." The frog is stamped with the name of someone obscure: the only reference I could find for it on line was the listing for this bow.

Inspired by Bernie Zaslav's chapter on bows, I bought it. The price was about 1/6 what I would expect to pay for a bow that plays as well as this one. And I just couldn't bear the idea of anyone else using it but me.

The moral of the story? When looking for usable violins or bows, don't overlook highly-reputable guitar shops. This one even had a couple of violas and a violetta.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Viola in My Life--in My Life

I spent the last couple of years helping Bernard Zaslav write The Viola in My Life: An Alto Rhapsody, and a copy of the book finally arrived in today's mail.

I have been a musical memoir junkie for most of my life, and a deep-seated goal of mine has always been to help someone write a memoir. Now I have done it, the book is in print, and everyone can enjoy Bernie's stories as much as I have enjoyed them. I feel very proud for having served as sometime editor and sometime muse for this project.

Bernie began his musical life as a violinist. Immediately after graduating from Juilliard, he made the permanent switch to viola when he got called to play in Raymond Scott's band for the summer. He studied viola for a year, and landed a job in the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. Eventually he returned to New York, and after a nine-year hiatus (selling plumbing supplies!), he began playing in Broadway shows. In the late 1950s he began his career as the violist of a series of important American string quartets, including the Composers Quartet in New York (sort of a prototype for the Kronos Quartet), the Fine Arts Quartet, the Vermeer Quartet, and finally the Stanford String Quartet.

Bernie describes the personalities of many iconic musicians (mostly conductors, composers, pianists, and string players), and he also describes the personalities of the luthiers he knew in New York (he hung out at their 57th street shops between gigs). He gives the surprisingly entertaining details of his quest for the perfect instrument (which he finally found), and elaborates on his obsession with bow collecting. His "fermata" (he calls some of his digressions "fermatae") called "Fiddlesticks" (my personal subtitle is "confessions of a bow nut") makes for wonderful reading. In addition to collecting bows during his adventures and travels, Bernie collected lifelong friends (including me). His life as the middle voice of many string quartets has been full of all sorts of wonderful musical and personal joy, and I think this "view from the middle" will resonate with other people (like me) who love to play the viola in chamber ensembles and orchestras.

The book comes with two terrific CDs that are tucked into each of its covers. One has viola and piano music, and one has string chamber music. There is an excellent index, a thorough discography, and lots of pictures. You can get it from Amazon.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Summer Strings Concert

Susato Bass Dance

[Photos by Michael Leddy]

The Summer Strings concert last night had the usual chorus of insects, and the crickets were particularly active (it must have been in the upper 80s), but I did manage to get a recording. If you would like to hear more, please send me an e-mail and I will send you an invitation to the cloud (the dropbox folder) where the whole recording resides.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Toneballs on Display

What a treat it was to see this display on the wall of the lower level of Elderly Instruments in East Lansing, Michigan!

Notice that each toneball (they invented the term) is pinned and numbered:

And here's where each one comes from:

The article in The Fretboard describes the project, and it has far better photographs than my cell phone camera could take.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

On Handwriting

"Penmanship is dancing; keyboarding is just walking fast."
This comes from my friend Joanna Key's post about handwriting.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Telemann Partitas (Kleine Kammermusik)

I found these wonderful pieces in the Petrucci Library that can be played by just about any treble clef instrument in C (violin, viola, soprano recorder, flute, or oboe) and continuo, and I thought I'd share them here because I have never encountered these pieces anywhere else. They are extremely interesting pieces that Telemann clearly wrote for the pleasure of musicians. They work perfectly well as two voice pieces (I like playing them as a soprano recorder and violin duet).

Sunday, July 24, 2011


You probably thought you had better hearing?? You were wrong!

The highest frequency you can hear is: 12khz
Check your hearing, download the Ultra Sonic Ringtones and hear it for yourself!

I have a slight headache after not hearing the frequencies above 12khz. I wonder if what you can't hear can hurt you?

Friday, July 22, 2011

All That Matters (really) is the Music

I am an extraordinarily lucky person because every Friday from 3:00 to 4:45 I have the opportunity to play Medieval and Renaissance music with a group of musicians who play recorders, crummhorns, and other buzzing instruments like racketts and cornamuses. I often play the viola d'amore in this ensemble, and I particularly enjoy it when I have the chance to play the bass parts. We play for the joy of playing great music, and every week we explore the inner and outer limits of the repertoire. My deepest wish is that somehow through playing this music some of its beauty might "rub off" on me.

Today, while we were playing some four-part "chestnuts," it occurred to me that there were a whole bunch of lousy things going on in the world during the decades when Josquin Des Pres and Heinrich Isaac were writing. In spite of political problems, wars, the Inquisition, and the outlandish practices of their employers, they still wrote beautiful and meaningful music.

For musicians all that really matters is the music--whatever music it happens to be. And when it is really great music, it can reach across centuries and into remote locations. Perhaps one of the purposes of writing music is to let other musicians know that music IS important, not that it once WAS important. Playing music allows music to BE.

It's easy to get swept up on the workings of politicians, particularly when it is on the computer, on the television, on the radio, and on everyone's mind. One thing I do know it is impossible to sway or influence politicians with the truth, reason, and the beauty found in Renaissance consort music, but it is possible for me to escape all that is not right in the world around me by surrounding myself with and participating in something that is so completely right. It serves as a kind of protection. It re-establishes my sense of sanity and balance. It makes the rest of the world seem less hostile and daunting.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty

Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty
University of Rochester Press (Boydell and Brewer)
616 Pages
Available in October 2011
(You can pre-order the book here or here.)

Gunther Schuller's music has always been important to me. It was everywhere at Tanglewood during the summers of the 1970s (the place and time of my musical coming of age). I connect the sounds of Schuller's music (his brass music, in particular) with the mud, the tall trees, the lawns, and the creative musical activity and energy of the Berkshire Music Center. Gunther Schuller's presence also dominated the New England Conservatory, where I spent many of the evenings and weekends of my adolescence during the other three seasons of the year. I always wondered what lay behind Gunther Schuller's rather quiet and deliberate exterior. Now, after reading these 616 pages, I marvel at how a single person could fit what he did, saw, read, wrote, played, heard, knew, and knows into a single lifetime.

Autobiography is a flawed mode of expression. The tidal waves of suppressed memories that seem to overtake the sleepless octogenarian brain bring forth a wealth of unexamined circumstances that demand examination and consideration, but not by the octogenarian himself (who might have repressed many memories for good reasons). The task of interpretation is best left to analysts and biographers; making true sense of a life is not possible for the person who is living it. The amateur psychiatrist in me considers Schuller's overbearing and physically-abusive mother and his philandering father. I shudder when I think of almost-three-year-old Gunther being in the room while his mother was giving birth (at home) to her second child, and shake my head when Gunther is sent off to German boarding school alone (without his parents) on a week-long journey over the Atlantic, at the age of six.

Still, Gunther Schuller got what he describes (rather cinematically) as an excellent education. It was a time of long days filled with glorious natural, interpersonal, and educational experiences (though oddly not musical). Everything came to a halt when the Nazis took over the school in 1936, and Gunther was forced to become part of the Deutsches Jungvolk, the junior branch of the Hitlerjugend. After an accident with a Swiss army knife and a wire-wrapped Christmas present caused Gunther to lose an eye, his parents brought him back to New York and enrolled him in St. Thomas Choir School (which I presume exchanged the duties of professional singing for tuition). Gunther, who stayed at the school as long as he had a soprano voice (from 10-15), got an excellent musical education. In addition to singing what seems like the entire sacred choir literature, he learned to play the flute and the French horn, learned theory and harmony, edited the school newspaper, and began to compose seriously.

Gunther had to enter public school after his voice changed. He also did double-duty as a horn student at the Manhattan School of Music, and by the time he was 16 he had no use for high school. He was already several years ahead of his classmates because of his education in Germany and at St. Thomas, and was a good enough horn player to begin freelancing. How he managed to keep a full life of teenage activities (including playing in a high-school jazz band, exploring Long Island on bicycle, reading a great deal, and composing) and still found enough time to practice the horn and learn the whole orchestral and operatic repertoire is beyond the limits of my imagination.

The exact timeline of events is difficult to discern from the text. Schuller never really gives an exact age when he began playing the horn, but he does mention that it was a very natural experience for him to learn to play it. In 1943 (he was 18), after auditioning for openings in orchestras in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, and being offered all three jobs, he settled on a two-year appointment as the principal horn in Cincinnati. While playing the famous solo in the slow movement of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, he spied Marjorie Black, the woman who turned would be the love of his life, sitting on the balcony (he tells the story very cinematically). Hundreds of pages of courtship (informed by thousands of pages of letters and diary entries from both Gunther and Margie) pass before the two of them eventually move to New York and finally get married. These diaries and letters make it possible for Schuller to recount what seems like every date, every movie, every concert, every walk in the park, every museum visit, and every concert experience. Eventually Schuller became the first horn of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, where he remained through the 1950s. Composing and conducting gradually took over his life, and in 1963 Schuller stopped playing the horn.

The book includes detailed personal and professional analyses of many conductors Schuller worked under. I really appreciate the extensive candid critiques (some of them scathing) of Leopold Stokowski, Fritz Reiner, and George Szell, and the pages of praise for Pierre Monteux and Wilhelm Furtwängler (with whom he shared a train compartment during one of his many post-war European summers). He discusses the Darmstadt composers of the 1950s in great detail, and presents a lucid and accurate picture of the people and movements involved in 20th-century music on both sides of the Atlantic.

Gunther Schuller devotes a great deal of space to his musical and personal relationships with the musicians in New York's jazz world as well as in its opera, symphonic, and freelance world. I find it interesting that Schuller confesses to never feeling truly comfortable as an improvising musician. It was his superior ear (he could transcribe complicated scores from recordings--even 12-tone scores), his abilities as an arranger, and his flawless horn playing, that earned him the respect of his jazz colleagues. He demonstrated the importance of having a conductor, something his jazz colleagues eventually understood, and he contracted many of New York's stellar freelance musicians (i.e. classical musicians) to play in many successful jazz recording sessions. He was very close to Bill Evans, who used to come to his apartment to read four-hand transcriptions of the entire Wagner Ring (and Parsifal too). Charlie Parker, who was interested in the music of Bartok and Stravinsky, asked Schuller for lessons. Schuller writes in great detail about his relationships with, and influence upon, dozens important people in the jazz world.

Rather than being merely the person who coined the term "Third Stream," he was the cog in the wheel that made the whole thing work. Without someone like Gunther Schuller coming on the music scene exactly when and as he did, the paths of jazz and new classical music might never have crossed in a meaningful way. Certainly the dominant role that jazz plays in the music departments of universities around the world is, in a large part, due to the influence of Gunther Schuller.

The book is not without its flaws. There are times when Schuller repeats himself and re-introduces people and places. The timeline is confusing, and sometimes it takes a good ten pages (and they're big pages) for him to get to the matter that a chapter title suggests. There are long periods of travelogue, and long listings of films (how he had the time to see all those movies is a mystery) that prompt me to skim, but as a person who has accomplished more during his first 85 years (only 40 are represented in this first volume) than three or four musicians combined, he's entitled to a bit of fallibility.

This is an important book for anyone interested in the cultural life of the twentieth century, and for anyone interested in contemporary music. I'm looking forward to the next volume.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Summer Strings 2011

Come hear the premiere performance of High Speed Rail on Thursday evening, July 28th at Kiwanis Park in Charleston, Illlinois. The concert begins at 7:30 p.m., and admission is free. The program will also include in-house (made by me) transcriptions of pieces written in the 13th century ("When I see Winter Return" by Musset), the 16th century (one of Susato's Bass Dances), some Mozart, some Martini (G. B. that is), some Janacek, Schumann, Gershwin, Dvorak, and a bunch of film music and "classic" pop songs, including an in-house arrangement of the Macarena, made by Nina Marshall.

Here's a map. Our arteries to the larger world are Route 57 (on the left), Route 130 (on the right), and I-70 (which is not on the map, but connects to both routes) is about 15 miles south of Charleston.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Hopscotch Schottische

While I was working on my set of Summer Games for Two Violins, I was at a loss with what to do about Hopscotch, one of the two-player games I really wanted to include. I happened to listen to a (fabulous) recording of Tainwa Yang playing Sarasate's Muiñiera, which begins with the violin playing a Scottish-sounding G-string drone and a Scottish-sounding tune in double stops (you can see the music here), and thought immediately of using a Schottische, a dance in 2/4 meter for the piece. I thought, as I imagine you think, that a Schottische might have its origins in Scotland, but it actually comes from Bohemia. There is a Scottish version of the Schottische, but it's just one of the many versions of the dance used in any number of partner-dancing cultures in Europe. The etymology is fascinating.

There is no listing for "Schottische" in the Petrucci Library, but there is one for Écossaise. I found a perfectly usable set by Schubert which I found almost eerily appropriate. When I looked up the etymology of the word "Hopscotch," and found that the two words "hop" and "skoč" are Czech words that mean "hop" and "jump," I understood why the music was so appropriate.

I suppose that the two entities, Hopscotch and the Schottische, may indeed be related. I was thrilled to find that I am not the only musician to have made the connection. This recording is from 1909. I wish I could hear it!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Frank Film

Tony Schwartz provides the sound for this amazing 1973 film by Frank and Caroline Mouris.

Little Squares and Rectangles

I went off on a walk today, carrying my little square container of music and information (my iPod nano), bemoaning the fact that I spend too much of my time getting information and experiences through squares and rectangles, and how it is like squeezing something not rectangular or square, like me (though my husband might disagree) into something square to write a book, write a piece of music, or even make a blog post (I'm typing into a rectangular box that is projected into another rectangle, which itself is sitting on a rectangular surface).

Taking my square device out into the world today was a surprisingly un-square experience. I listened to an installment of The Story about Tony Schwartz (1923-2008), an agoraphobic pioneer in the field of recorded sound, who made "field recordings" of his neighborhood in New York (10019), which provided the physical parameters of his physical world.

Three years after his death, I could carry Schwartz's collection of found sounds into my walking area, nearly a thousand miles away. You can access the Library of Congress collection of Tony Schwartz's recordings here, although they are in a format that my computer can't access.

The companion piece is equally exciting for me. It's an interview with Ignacio Varchausky, a tango musician in Buenos Aires, who talks about his discovery of tango music and his project to make a digital archive of Argentina's tango history.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A self-tuning piano!

Not really. Fred Patella the piano tuner is only a trump d'oeil illusion.

This painted piano, called "Homage to Fred," is in the final hours of being auctioned (the proceeds go to Sing for Hope). You can watch a video about it (and Glasser) here.

Sign a Petition to save the New York City Opera

My friend Lucy Morganstern, a member of the New York City Opera Orchestra, sent me some information about a move to send the New York City Opera out of their newly-renovated theater in Lincoln Center. You can go here to read about the New York City Opera's situation, and sign a petition to help make their case to stay in Lincoln Center.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Name that Game: Six Summer Games for Two Violins

Listen to this computer-generated recording of my brand-new set of violin duets for summer, and see if you can guess which game is which. The whole piece takes about eight and a half minutes.


The answers are here, along with a link to the music.

How'd you do?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Past, the Distant Past, and the Present

I spent some of 1980 and much of 1981 teaching flute and recorder in a music school in Schladming Austria (I made posts about some of my experiences here and here), and every once in a while I search for Schladming on line.

It had quite a bit of tourism in 1980, and because of its location at the foot of the Planai and the Dachstein (an actual Alp), it was a kind of winter wonderland. I did go skiing once, but it was far too expensive an activity for my small salary to support, so I never went again. I really did like the off season (but it seems that there is no longer an off season), when interesting groups of people would come to town to have meetings. My favorite, by far, was when a conference of nuclear physicists came to town, and a group of physicists knocked on the door of the music school to see if some of them could use a piano to play chamber music. The person who knocked on the door happened to be Hans Grumm, my father's doppleganger. I showed him my father's picture, and Hans' response was, "I could shave in that picture." When my father came to Vienna with the BSO (and I was living in Vienna), I introduced him to Hans. It was a great moment.

This is what Schladming looked like in 1680:

The engraving is by Georg Matthäus Vischer. I taught in one of the buildings directly across from the church. The address was Pfarrgasse 1. Schladming had a fire in 1681, and the city was rebuilt sometime during the 1680s. Pfarrgasse 1 had certainly been renovated (or perhaps rebuilt) in the 17th century.

This is pretty much what Schladming looked like when I lived there (the rebuilt yellow church on the left is in the same location as the one in the picture):

Here's a more current shot from Google Maps:

The music school is now gone, and Pfarrgasse 1 is now CityHouse Apartments.

This could very well have been my teaching studio (which was in the center of the second floor, overlooking the street).

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Twelve Tone Tennis

You can listen here, and find a PDF here.

I'm in the process of writing a summer set of duets (I'm calling them "Summer Games") for Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi and Ilkka Talvi, and thought I'd share this bit of atonal fun, which can be played on any two instruments that have the range of the violin (I'm thinking that it might sound nifty on a pair of clarinets). It's not exactly strict twelve tone music, but it does use a row.

I made it by following a matrix that I made from a 12-tone row. The pitches all come from reading the rows from left to right (I made it to the beginning of the sixth line).

I was inspired by this image:

[Arnold Schoenberg and Lucca Lehner shaking hands with Gertrud Schoenberg and Felix Khuner in 1937.]

and this video:

Why do people still write 12-tone music? Because it's fun.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Vegan Blueberry Lemon Almond Milk Muffins

I bought a half gallon of Silk unsweetened almond milk last week (to use in a non-sweet recipe), and decided to try it in some baking. I am really excited about this recipe, so I thought I'd share it here.


Preheat the oven to 375, and line a 12-muffin muffin tin with cupcake liners (or muffin liners, I guess).

Dry Ingredients:

1 cup white flour (I used "better for bread")
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar

Wet Ingredients:

1 cup unsweetened almond milk
the zest and juice of one large lemon (I find it best to zest first, and squeeze later.)
1/4 cup canola oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup blueberries

Mix the wet ingredients, mix the dry ingredients, pour the wet into the dry and mix just enough so that everything is incorporated. Add the blueberries, fill the muffin tins, and bake for 25 minutes.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Uncommon Schools

The other day I watched a DVD with our son Ben, who will begin tutoring at a charter school next month. It was a demonstration DVD that came tucked into the back of Teach Like a Champion, a book that outlines the teaching philosophy embraced by Uncommon Schools.

It inspired me, so I thought I'd share some of the online content here.

This movement is all about building better teachers in order to have a better world. Everybody who teaches (or wants to teach) can benefit from these teaching methods.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Searching for the Truth

I have always tried to find some kind of truth in my life, though, like most people I have had moments, episodes, and periods of denial. Being true to oneself is really difficult. We spend a lifetime, it seems, trying to figure out exactly who we are and how we relate to the rest of the world, and some of that can involve a certain degree of fiction. Some of those lapses on truth can involve repressing painful moments, bad choices, and painful relationships. In my case there is a great deal of "forgive and forget" (and I'm particularly good at the forgetting part, which some people might call "denial").

When we try to tie our various episodes together and try to make sense of things that have happened to us, we tend to pad the forgotten transitions with elements that might not be exactly and totally true. We also might leave out details that might reveal something we would rather not reveal--either about ourselves or about other people. Most of our adventures involving something short of "the truth" are harmless, and many of us can take our secrets (if we even remember them) to our graves. People say that hindsight is 20-20, but I believe that people with a normal sense of recall tend to color events to fit into a plausible narrative. We like to believe that our lives make some kind of sense.

I have spent far too much time this Fourth of July weekend watching and thinking about the Casey Anthony trial. I see it as a phenomenon that questions the whole process of finding truth by asking reasonable people to "testify." The idea of a pathological liar taking an oath is kind of silly. If your life is constructed out of lies, what good is an oath?

It is clear that Casey Anthony comes from a family where the lie is the norm, and when it comes to testifying in court, denial is as much of a lie as a conscious lie. How interesting it is to have a case looking for truth when everybody, even under oath, is telling an alternate version of the truth. The people watching and the people on the jury probably believe that somebody must "know" what happened, but the sequence of events is so deeply buried under everybody's lies that even the people directly involved can't seem to even find the truth in the quagmire. There's also the possibility of people (Casey and her father) possibly being under the influence of some kind of substance (drugs or alcohol) to the extent that they might not have even been totally "present" at the time.

The lawyers on both sides are really brilliant, but each side of the case has to contend with the impossibility of squeezing "truth" out of a family of pathological liars, and presenting it as evidence on a witness stand. The defense did not pressure Casey Anthony to get on the witness stand because she cannot be trusted. The jury already knows that she is a pathological liar, and anything she would have said under oath would be suspect.

I did notice that the only time Casey cried real tears--streaming tears-- during the closing arguments was when her "network" of imaginary friends was revealed to the jury and to the millions of people watching on television. That led directly to her extremely public and highly-documented exposure as a pathological liar. And it was documented by using pictures without faces on a white board by the attorney who was defending her. I believe that the pressure to keep up a series of lies is the main preoccupation of a pathological liar (at least it seems to be for the ones I have known), and having that framework of lies exposed could be the deepest emotional pain that a pathological liar could know. Even greater, perhaps, than the loss of a child--by whatever means.

I don't believe that Casey is guilty of murder, as described by the prosecution, but I do believe she is guilty of neglect, and is therefore responsible for her child's death. She should have been watching her child, or she should have made sure that someone was watching her child. If there had been a drowning accident (which is certainly likely), Casey could have covered it up--even to herself--with a series of lies. That's the way she is.

The issue of "beyond a reasonable doubt" may eventually lead to a not guilty verdict for murder, because there is no actual motive for a murder. I don't buy the "party girl" hypothesis, because it isn't a plausible reason. Had Casey Anthony wanted some freedom from the burdens of having a child, she would have certainly expressed it during a time when her child was unable to walk and talk and play on her own. Nobody seemed to mention anything about Casey being anything but a devoted mother.

The prosecution is asking the jury to use "common sense," and the findings of a trial needs to be based on evidence and on testimony, and all the evidence and all the testimony is suspect.

UPDATE: I guess I was right about the verdict. Now for your moment of musical Zen. I have just dubbed one of the defense lawyers Mason non Perry, after Clemens non Papa. The name of the judge in this case is Belvin Perry, so we have a real life Perry-Mason case on our hands.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Spring Dances for Two Violins

Spring was cut short this year because of our local cicada domination, so what I planned to be a set of six duets ended up being four. The cicadas get the last word in this set of four duets. The movements are "Ecco La Primavera" (after Landini), "April Fool" (a setting of La Folia), "Now is the Month of Maying" (a setting of the madrigal by Thomas Morley), and "Magicicada (Brood XIX)."

You can download the music here. The above recording is computer generated. I'll post a violin-generated one when it's available.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

New way of searching through the IMSLP Petrucci Library

Trying to figure out where that tune in your head comes from? You can now search the IMSLP by melody, and it works like a charm!