Monday, October 31, 2011

Don Juan and the Jews of Spain

"Concealed in its puppet-theater plot is a Jewish joke: Don Juan exists to prove by construction that a devout Christian can be a sociopath, and by extension, that the Christian world can be ruled by sociopaths. The Enlightenment’s most insidious attack on Catholic faith, then, came not from atheists like Voltaire, but from a Spanish monk with buried Jewish sensibilities."

". . . [Don] Juan is not an archetype of legend: He is a metaphysical construct unique to his time, and to the tragedy of the Spanish Jews."
Go to Tablet Magazine and read this most interesting article about Mozart's Don Giovanni by David P. Goldman.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Variations on the Obvious?

I'm playing a concert tonight with a really wonderful program: Dohnanyi's "Variations on a Nursery Song," Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," and Elgar's "Enigma Variations." The Britten is, of course, not unrelated to the Elgar, but what I found going through my head between dreams last night was the concurrent juxtaposition of the theme that Dohnanyi uses and the variations of the Elgar. And then I realized that the "mystery" theme (one that everybody knows, yet nobody knows because it is absent) is the theme of the Dohnanyi. Pay special attention at the 3-minute mark of this video, and then consider the first Elgar Variation as a variation of this theme in the minor mode. The harmony is Elgar harmony, of course, and the relationship is obtuse, as the best variations on themes tend to be.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Maslow's World and How it Applies to Music

Would you believe that I just recently encountered the work of Abraham Maslow? As musicians we apply his "Four Stages of Competence" in everything we do. I know that I go through the path from conscious incompetence to unconscious competence with every piece I write, and if I'm lucky I make it from conscious incompetence to conscious competence with almost every piece I learn. If I'm lucky I make it all the way to unconscious competence. Sometimes I find myself going through the cycle many times with the same piece, if the piece is strong enough to take it. With a lot of music, like solo Bach, going through the cycle again and again is actually part of the fun.
Unconscious Incompetence

The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

Conscious Incompetence

Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

Conscious Competence

The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.

Unconscious Competence

The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.
If you wade through all the primitive "pseudo-psychedelic" pop-ups on this page, you can read all of Maslow's Religion, Values, and Peak Experiences on line. Or you can just look at the Wikipedia summary. Perhaps what we are doing when we practice has something to do with trying to replicate the idea of a peak experience for ourselves (once we are able to get close to unconscious competence), and perhaps when we are performing our goal is to share that peak experience with others. Perhaps when we are writing music, our goal is to write stuff down that makes it possible for people to have and share peak experiences.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Musical Cycles: An Optimistic Rant

People talk and write about how the development of writing as a way of communicating ideas caused a certain amount of skepticism and stress back in the Ancient world, particularly in Ancient Greece. It is kind of refreshing when you think about how much communicating with the written word--or written symbol--had been going on in the relative "neighborhood" of Greece before 370 B.C.E., and how little people like Socrates were able to know about it mainly because they didn't communicate in writing. Writing in Asia is even older.

Writing has going through various phases, has used different kinds of materials and machines, but people still find it worthwhile to communicate using written language.

This information helps me to feel a little bit better about where "we" are in the grand scheme of all things musical. Notation for music is far younger, as far as we know, than the notation systems used for representing words. There are a great many musicians who have no need for it, and even people who read music are sometimes crushed by its limitations. We have benefited from musicians who could use musical notation to full advantage and could give us great art, and recently, through the work of the volunteers participating in the IMSLP/Petrucci Library, we have been able to have a glimpse of just how many excellent composers wrote and published music during the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. For a long time notation was the only way of recording musical ideas, but musical ideas could only be recorded by people who could use the system to their advantage. Musical ideas could only be recorded by people who had the inner tools and the discipline to take down their own "dictation."

After 1860, the year when people started making the first primitive recording devices, it became possible to record and reproduce musical ideas without having to translate them into notation. A mere 150 years later it is possible to record and transmit musical ideas across the world instantly without real-time sound production made by a physical friction-producing object (in the case of electronically-generated music).

In between these two technologies (1860-2011) we have, through around five generations of the technical approaches of playing and singing handed down from teacher to student, a world where many pieces of music that were once thought virtually unplayable can now be played by children. Thanks to the technological advances that have helped students learn (like electronic metronomes, phonograph records, CDs, tape recorders, video cameras, computers, PDF score libraries, and the communities fostered by musical bloggery), we probably have more excellent instrumental and vocal musicians per square mile than anyone could have dreamed possible in 1860. Musicians still make up a small percentage of the world's population, but there are enough of us (mostly concentrated in metropolitan areas) to supply live music everywhere it might be wanted.

We do, unfortunately, have to compete with music that comes from boxes, headphones, and screens, but I can imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when people might turn their backs on recorded music and seek out musical experiences that involve a live person or a group of living and breathing people playing music on instruments that generate their sounds as a result of friction rather than electricity. They might even pay for the privilege of listening. The closer virtual reality comes to the real thing, the more pronounced the differences become. And everyone reading this knows what those differences are.

Perhaps we're all participating in a large musical cycle, and due to the speeding up of progress that computers afford, we can kind of see part of the curve. Maybe we might even see a change soon. I'm not holding my breath, but I'm going to keep practicing, just in case an exciting change comes during my lifetime. I figure that at 52 I have about 40 good years left.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Lilia Skala

Last night Michael and I watched the film Roseland. He was interested in it because of Teresa Wright, but that was all he knew about the film. What a thrill it was to find the actress Lilia Skala, the actress who played the Mother Superior in Lilies of the Field, in the role of Rosa.

Now THIS is acting. Here's a clip from the film where the character of Rosa begins with an impression of Marlene Dietrich, and after a bit of Puccini, contemplates a proposal of marriage.

Encountering acting like this echoes the line that the character of Arthur, played by David Thomas, says at the end of this clip: ". . . but gee wiz, I know it when I see it. The real thing. When I see that, something in me goes "bang, bang" instantaneously. Never fails."

and here's another very short clip:

Acting like that does not come without brains. Skala was the first Austrian woman to get a degree in architecture. She had to go to Germany to get one because in the second decade of the 20th century Austria wouldn't accept women in the university (at least in technical fields).

Skala's granddaughter, who is also an actress, wrote and performed a one-woman show about her grandmother a couple of years ago, and Libby has generously put some clips from it on YouTube:

Slow Learner
Never in Love

Here's part one of a four-part interview with Libby about her grandmother.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Szell's reorchestration of Beethoven 5!

I love Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. It's one of my nine favorite Beethoven Symphonies. The new edition of the textbook we use at my community college replaced the 1987 Concertgebouw recording with Haitink with a 1964 recording by Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, and that is the version I played for my classes today. Imagine my surprise when the transition motive that is played by the horns during the exposition wasn't played by the bassoons in the recapitulation. Szell must have decided to replace the bassoons (or enhance, perhaps) with horns. I find the doubled bassoon color there such a fine example of Beethoven humor, and I'm shocked that Szell took it out. You can hear it at 5:32 of this film.

[Unfortunately the film is no longer on YouTube, but it might be available elsewhere in the future.]

Have a look at the score!

There are other bold Szellisms in the 1964 Cleveland recording, like the slow tempo and heavy quality of the Scherzo, and the way the microphone seems to be trained a single violin during the pizzicato section near the end of the Scherzo (to give the illusion of absolute cleanliness, perhaps?).

Here's a wonderful clip of Szell rehearsing the first movement of the 5th. Unfortunately Szell doesn't make it to the recapitulation in this rehearsal, but he does say "that's good" to the brass who play the motive in the exposition. A complement from Szell? I have heard that is rare indeed. Perhaps he was playing for the cameras.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Possible Guest Editorial for a University Newspaper

This is an editorial I would like to send to our local university paper, eventually:

When I first moved here in 1985 I was surprised to find a town with a remarkably lively musical community. I was welcomed by scores of people who were thrilled that an experienced musician from the East had come here to live. I found people to play with right away (a baroque triosonata group, no less), and started giving concerts that were quite well attended by members of the university community and members of the local community. A surprising number of faculty members from departments not connected with music would come to concerts regularly. They came because they liked listening to music.

During the ten years that John David Moore and I have been giving concerts together, we have watched our audience dwindle from a healthy crowd to just a handful of individuals. A number of people have retired and moved away, and a number of people have died.

I suppose that most people on the faculty are busy with obligations and commitments, and some might consider "going to hear someone perform" just another commitment. I am surprised that people who devote their time to the study of English literature and/or History are not excited about the mini concert series that John David and I are playing this Fall. Who wouldn't want to hear music written by British composers on either side of World War I? Do they fear that British 20th century music would be discordant or too intellectual for them to understand? Are they afraid that they won't like the music because it is music written by composers they have never heard of? Are they afraid that they will be bored? Are they afraid that the music won't be played well (after all, the people playing live in this community, and they're offering these concerts for free)? Would they feel ill at ease, and not know what to do?

Never fear. The British composers working during the first two decades of the 20th century did not embrace the progressive musical developments that were gaining popularity on the European continent. Nobody British wrote anything atonal until the 1930s, and even then it was rare. Most British composers saw nothing wrong with doing what they could with traditional melody and traditional harmony--with a few lush extensions. Because the British composers were considered backward by people on the European continent, most of them have been ignored by music scholars (aside from Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Holst, who are extremely popular--go figure).

We are eager to share this music because it is beautiful, interesting, and closely connected with the literature that John David is teaching this semester in his senior seminar. It is music that was current (and very much in the air) when many of the great pieces of 20th-century English literature were being written.

British music from the early 20th century has never held an important place in the general academic musical canon. It still doesn't get the recognition it deserves. I can assure you that nobody in the audience will have heard any of the music on this program (recordings are rare and mostly no longer available), so you will be sharing a unique experience with your fellow audience members. After the concert you will know the music. You will have experienced it in real time and in real space (about an hour and a half, including intermission). It will be a part of you.

I can promise you that John David and I will do our very best to make sure that the music sounds good. We hold ourselves to very high standards, and we put a great deal of time and effort into preparing our concerts. Music is our vocation. We play these concerts in order to create fulfilling lives for ourselves, and to share what we do with our community.

It is easy to be anonymous at a concert. A concert is not a designated social occasion, and you don't need to talk with anybody, unless you want to. Everybody will be listening during the concert anyway. If you're afraid that you won't know when to clap, just follow the lead of the other people in the audience. Hopefully there will be more than just a handful.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Gesualdo Effect!

The Gesualdo Effect: Child begins each sentence on one topic, then shifts unexpectedly to a new, unrelated topic. Grows up to be a serial murderer.
Go here for more. Make sure to scroll beyond The "established" list for Sarah's other contributions.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Looking at Art, Listening to Music

Whenever I leave a museum I see the world differently.

When I look at art in a museum I am always selective. Some pieces grab my attention, and some do not. The pieces that do grab my attention do so for various reasons. Some stimulate my imagination and make ME want to paint, sculpt, or draw. Some fill me with absolute wonder as I try to imagine the amount of knowledge about composition, understanding of materials, and simply the pure technique that goes into making a work of art that can pull me in and "speak" to me.

I always go to concerts in evaluative mode, whether I am there to review it or not. I place extremely high demands on the people performing, and more often than not they do not live up to my expectations. When they do, or when they exceed my expectations, the thrill remains with me. Sometimes it remains for years. If the concert, for whatever reason, doesn't do much for me, I still learn from the experience. As an eternal student of music, I always question what it is that makes something work, and I question what it is that makes something not work. I appreciate the visual aspect of a concert, and I appreciate the way the sound operates in the room. I appreciate witnessing the tensions and releases that are always active in high pressure concert situations, and I appreciate the level of dedication that the performing musicians demonstrate. After most concerts the way I think about music in both the general sense and in the specific sense has been changed, even if only slightly. That feeling of change rarely happens when I listen to recordings.

Sometimes I like to pretend, in the case of a concert recording, that I am listening in real time and real space, but much of that experience is enhanced by my imagination. The experience of listening to recordings (for me) is a very different kid of experience from that of listening to concerts--being in the room while the music is being played.

Many people have come to think of either analog or digitized "impressions" of music (including videos) as the real thing in much the same way that many people have come to believe that a photograph of a work of art is just as good as seeing the real thing. I have certainly enjoyed looking at many photographic reproductions of pieces of art, and I have certainly enjoyed listening to recordings of pieces of music.

When I look at a photograph of a piece of art, I am looking through the lens of a photographer who tries his or her best to get the colors right, and tries to replicate the textures of the art in two dimensions. When I listen to a recording I am listening through the audio equipment and the ears of an engineer who may or may not be able to capture, for technical reasons, as much of the music as he or she would like to.

I also know that I am often listening through the evaluative post-recording-session ears of the performing musicians, who choose only the best "takes" to be preserved for "all time." I may be listening to a set of strung-together compromises rather than a performance when I listen to a recording, and in the case of musicians who are no longer around or are otherwise inaccessible to me, there's no way I will ever know.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ice Music: Chillingly Awesome

The harp looks like it has a wooden frame that is dipped in water and frozen, and it seems that everything needs to be amplified to actually be heard, but the concept is nifty.

This video has violins, guitars, and a flute, in addition to percussion instruments. A huge amount of effort and energy goes into putting these temporary and temperamental instruments together, but it does create quite a spectacle.

Nifty Arpeggio Exercises That Really Work

When I first started playing the violin as an adult, my father gave me his book of 36 Studies or Caprices by Federigo Fiorillo: a Ditson Edition that cost 1.00 back in 1920 (you can download a PDF here). My copy has handwriting in it that I imagine must be Galamian's because I have seen it in all of my father's "student" violin music.

For years and years the etudes were simply too difficult for me to play or even to understand, but now that I'm working on music that requires me to spend a vast amount of time in the upper positions, I find the Fiorillo studies extremely helpful. The last etude (above) is a bowing etude that I found very enlightening. I have practiced arpeggios for years, but for some reason, as if by "default," I tend to practice them from the bottom up and not from the top down (like in 3, 12, and 15). Thinking of them as chords (someting I have always known, but until today have really never KNOWN) really opens up loads of possibilities. You could, for example, apply these articulation patterns (or similar ones) to any chord progression in any position on the violin. You could also apply the concept to any instrument, actually.

Going backwards through the book (the way I sometimes read magazines), I realized that exploring and exploiting the violin as an arpeggiating instrument is pretty much Fiorillo's whole schtick. Number 36 certainly worked to improve my control of my schtick (the bow schtick, that is), so I thought I would share it here.

If you look at Fiorillo's page on the IMSLP Petrucci Library, you will see that he also wrote flute music. Interesting.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Worldwide Accent Project

I grew up in Boston, and many of my friends and teachers had Boston accents. I always wanted one, and wondered why I never acquired one (or simply couldn't). I can spot an authentic one instantly, and I feel a real sense of familiarity and a bit of nostalgia when I hear someone speak with a Boston accent.

I love regional accents, and I can usually identify them. I can often even tell the language of origin for a person who speaks English as a second language. I once guessed (correctly) the language of origin of a person I met in our local library many years ago. Her English had a vaguely Slavic tinge to it, but it reminded me vaguely of the way people I knew from former Yugoslavia spoke German. Then there was this bit of French in the way she pronounced the letter "D." I guessed that her first language was Serbo-Croatian, but that she might have learned English from someone who was French. I was right on both counts: she was from Serbia, and her family moved to Toronto when she was a teenager. It kind of freaked her out.

It occurred to me that with all the people I knew when I was growing up in Boston, and later when I lived there as an adult, I never met an African American person with a Boston Accent. While searching online to see whether anyone else noticed this linguistic phenomenon, I came across the "Worldwide Accent Project", and have decided to contribute my accent-less voice to the project.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Dr. Beethoven, assisted by Drs. Gingold, Oistrakh and Oborin

I must confess that seriously underestimated how personally important it is for me to keep this blog, and am humbled to know that it has meaning for people who read it. Thank you for your comments, e-mails, phone calls, and concern. I had a rough few days. I learned that abandoning this connection to the collective you (anonymous and otherwise) is not something I want to try again.

It's worth remembering that the process of going through emotional rough spots allows us to understand the breadth and scope of music. Somehow Beethoven came along just in time to remind me that honest and personal experience with the full spectrum of emotions is as necessary for us to grow as musicians as practice and study. We are thermometers and barometers of emotion, whether we perform music or write music, and whether we want to admit it or not. Perhaps it is the only reason that we do what we do.

This morning I listened to a fantastic 1963 recording of Josef Gingold playing the Violin Concerto with a university orchestra, and then I taught a class about Beethoven's sonatas (piano sonatas, violin sonatas, and cello sonatas). I feel almost like new.

I thought I'd share this almost complete film of Oistrakh and Oborin playing the "Spring" Sonata to help brighten up your day. Oistrakh's bow arm is a wonder of nature.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Epilogue Fermata

UPDATE: OK. I'm calling it a Fermata, but I'll spare you the details, and will write when I have something positive to say about the state of my world--musical and otherwise.

I have decided to write a final post for take a hiatus from Musical Assumptions. I began this blog with the hope of having some kind of interaction with a greater musical community, but I feel that I have arrived at a point where I need to stop adding to the din. I will keep Musical Assumptions on line with the hope that some of the 1,301 posts (!!!) I have written during the past six and a half years (!!!) will mean something to someone.

I will continue to update my thematic catalog, and hope to spend my non-practicing time writing some worthwhile music rather than running the risk of repeating myself in public prose. I'm always happy to engage in private e-mail correspondence, by the way. One-on-one conversation, whether through writing or talking, is my favorite way of communicating.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Fish Story

Sometimes, when I wonder why such a small segment of the population (particularly the small segment of the population that lives in the small university town in my neck of the prairie) takes the time to go to concerts, I think of a story that an old friend used to tell about a man who talked about building a garage with space for a live box in it. When my friend asked this man why he wanted to have a live box in his garage, the man's response was, "doesn't everybody?"

Monday, October 03, 2011

Achieving New Balance

The phrase "Achieve New Balance" is printed on the bottom of my relatively new sneakers, and though I step on that phrase multiple times daily, it has taken quite a while for its impact to reach my brain, fingers, and blog.

When I began playing violin 20 years ago (it will be 20 years this Thanksgiving), I worked like crazy to make up for the many years I spent away from the violin. It has taken me 20 years, but finally all those bowstrokes, scales, and shifts have made paved passageways between my brain, fingers, arms, hands, and ears that I can actually rely upon.

I remember distinctly the first time I felt "it," that moment when playing something the way I want to play something happens effortlessly. It happened to me at Juilliard, in a practice room (with my flute), playing the Handel A minor Sonata. All of a sudden the process of getting from one note to the next had meaning. I could make phrases go wherever my imagination wanted them to go, and I could articulate the way I wanted to articulate. My biggest problem from that point on was to figure out what I wanted to do with a phrase, not how to do it. I had been playing for about five years at the time.

I figured that it would take at least five years to get to that point on the fiddle, but, because all the physicality involved in playing the violin as opposed to playing the flute, I didn't really find "it" until last week; twenty years in. Perhaps it's my age, perhaps its the instrument, perhaps its the fact that I haven't worked with a teacher (as a student) for ten of those years (for better or for worse). Perhaps it's the lack of strife and tension in my life, or perhaps it's just time.

I attribute at least 50% of it to my new bow. Its particular weight and particular personality has allowed me to find balance on my violin. Through finding that balance between the parts of my playing anatomy, everything is so much easier, even if the music I'm playing is difficult. My bow can (figuratively, of course) draw a straight line and a perfect circle freehand, with its eyes closed. It makes it possible for me not to waste energy, and it lets my instrument give energy back to me.

Yesterday, when I read Tom Burritt's post about Evelyn Glennie on Drum Chatter, and saw this video:

I understood that what I was feeling was real.

I don't think that this feeling is really possible to teach. Sure, you can demonstrate "it," as long as "it" isn't too much a part of your musical anatomy (many really good players are too immersed in "it" to identify its components). A teacher can notice when "it" is missing, but, from my experience with teachers, they are just as likely to miss the mark as they are to hit it. They can correct hand and arm positions, and they can correct intonation. They can offer strategies to avoid physical tension, and encourage students to breathe. They can even get a student to feel "it" during the lesson, but ultimately it must be the student who finds "it" in his or her own personal/musical space, because "it" is internal and personal.

Some kids get the physical "it" right away, and then their hands and arms grow, and the balance changes. Everything changes when they become adolescents. Some kids keep "it," and some spend their entire musical lives trying to find "it" again.

From my first experience if "it," or "New Balance" on the flute, I realized that personal musical demands and the ability to execute those demands are almost always in an imbalance. When the musical demands exceed a person's technical ability, the answer is pretty straightforward. It's a time to gather tools to address the problem (scales, arpeggios, practicing with a metronome, practicing double stops). The process is usually straightforward.

When technical ability exceeds musical demands, however, it produces a period of stagnation and sometimes boredom. Sometimes this can last for years. Solving that problem is never straightforward.

On a micro-musical (i.e. daily) level these factors are in constant play, and that's why we always need to look for balance in our musical lives, and, because everything is in constant flux, it's always a new balance.

Time for me to practice!