Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ira Glass Interviews His Cousin Philip

This interview on today's Fresh Air (it was actually recorded in 1999) threw me for a loop. Here's a section where Philip Glass (who celebrates his 75th birthday today) talks about studying with Nadia Boulanger:
GLASS: You know, I find, I tell you, I'd finally after I'd been there about two years I finally figured out why I was there. We were having a lesson and I had come in with my harmony. We came to a place in the music and she said, it's wrong here. And I said, Madame Boulanger, it's correct. I cited the rules of voice leading and said that all these things are correct and there's nothing wrong with this. And she said yes, she said, but if Mozart had done it he would have done it like this. And she plays it the correct version, which was that perhaps the soprano was in the - the third was in the soprano instead of the root of the chord was in - whatever I had done I'd done it wrong. And I looked at her and I said but look, the rules are right here. And she said yes, but it's still wrong. I was astonished. And I - it was at that moment that I understood what she was teaching me. I realized that she was teaching the relationship between technique and style.

For example, now let's put the question another way. If you listen to let's say a measure of Rachmaninoff and then a measure of Bach, you know which is which without, you know immediately. And the question is well, why do you know that? They both are following basically the same rules of harmonic, of voice leading. But what happens is that you have in your, the course of your listening, you have taught yourself - you've recognized that Rachmaninoff will always solve a certain problem in a certain way. You may not say that to yourself, but your ear will tell you that. And that Bach will do it in his way. And you say, oh, that sounds like Bach or that sounds like Rachmaninoff or that sounds like Stravinsky. And what you're hearing is let's put it this way: You're hearing the predilection of the composer to resolve a technical problem in a highly personal way.

So in other words, now let's...

GLASS: And from that point, how hard is it to design your own personal way to solve it?

GLASS: Well, this is the point. The point is - and this is the other thing which she didn't say in words that day, but which I understood totally, was that in order to arrive at a personal style, you have to have a technique to begin with. In other words, when I say that style is a special case of technique, you have to have the technique.

You have to have a place to make the choices from.

GLASS: Yeah.

GLASS: If you don't have a basis on which to make to make the choice, then you don't have a style at all, you have a series of accidents.

GLASS: Looking at your career from the outside, one of the things that's striking is the number of different collaborators that you've worked with and I wonder if part of it is because you had the seminal experience of confronting somebody else's work.

GLASS: Well, that's exactly - that's exactly what happens when you find your place, yourself in a place of total ignorance of that kind. And that's the place where you can begin again, you can begin learning again. You know, the difficulty with any - well, it's not just artists or musicians but with anybody in any ordinary part of life - walk of life - the difficulty we have is how we continue to learn.

I mean, this is - everybody has this problem. Because you get what we call our training and education to a certain point and we spend the rest of our life changing gears in the same way. And the biggest - this is particularly true of composers, they pick up a style or way of working a certain way, but the real issue, I've always said to younger composers, it's not how do you find your voice but how to get rid of it.

Getting the voice isn't hard, it's getting rid of the damn thing. Because once you've got the voice then you're kind of stuck with it.

GLASS: You've said to Terry Gross - in fact, she's asked you - do you ever try to compose so it doesn't sound like Philip Glass?

GLASS: I do it all the time and I fail all the time.
You can listen to the interview (or read a transcript of it) here.

Dancing about Architecture

There is a bit of tizz concerning Jonathan Biss's piece in the Guardian concerning how difficult it is to write about music. Biss's article is difficult to read, and I imagine that is E-Book about Beethoven is equally difficult to read. It is probably as difficult to read as it was for him to write.

The problem with writing about music is that our relationships change with pieces of music as we grow and change. A piece of music is not a static thing. In order to live it must be interpreted, and that interpretation, if it is successful, grabs our attention and inspires us to follow new ways of hearing a piece of music. It is difficult to hold onto a feeling, and it is difficult to name it adequately. Casting the "feel" of a moment is very hard to do in retrospect, because that feeling immediately becomes only a memory of a feeling.

Writing music can have the same issues. A phrase comes into your head. You write it down, struggling to make sure that all the rhythms are just as you thought of it. Later you play the phrase on the piano, and it's totally unremarkable. Then you try it on another instrument or in another register, and it sounds better. You bat it around, change it, give it harmony (change that harmony), and write it down anew. Perhaps it is something worth keeping, so you stash it away somewhere and hope that you can use it.

For some people this is a kind of torture. Other people find it fun. I find it fun. I also find it fun to write about music. I would rather write about music than just about anything. I find that the best way to really learn something about a piece of music is through writing about it. (I also find that the best way to understand a poem is by setting it to music.) It doesn't matter if an observation is "right" or "wrong," and it doesn't matter if by learning something new I invalidate a hunch I had before. I enjoy correcting myself. In my world being "right" is not the only way to interpret a piece of music.

I am in the fortunate position of not being an authority figure, and of not having anything to protect. I go with my carefully-thought-out hunches and take all sorts of risks by voicing ideas that I know nobody has thought of before (or at least written about) to my students, friends, and colleagues (and driving my family crazy). I do it when I write program notes, I do it when I write reviews, and I do it when I write blog posts. I don't have to worry about protecting my "image" in the musical world. I do not have an important position or a solo career. What you see is what you get with the music I write (there are no secrets except for the vast mysteries of music itself), and I take it upon myself to be honest when I write reviews.

When I was Jonathan Biss's age (he's 32) I was a very different person from the person I am today. I worked at a radio station, and had what some would consider an encyclopedic knowledge of music from all the liner notes I had read, but I had only really experienced music from the standpoint of a wind player who always played the upper voice in an ensemble. I mainly listened from the top down, and managed to miss a huge amount when I listened to music. I was an avid reader of reviews, but I had never written one. I knew a lot about baroque music and 20th-century music, but didn't really know much about classical forms because studying them had little to do with the music I played (the flute repertoire). In other words, I thought I knew something, but I really knew very little.

My real education began when I became a string player. Then everything changed. Now I hear everything differently, and I think very differently about everything I play. Every experience is a new experience.

Perhaps Jonathan Biss will, at some point, have the opportunity to step outside his position in the musical world, and maybe then it might be easier for him to write about music. If he still wants to.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Jean Dujardin (the silent star of The Artist) Sings

Yesterday Michael and I saw The Artist. I can't recommend a better way of spending an afternoon or an evening. It is a particularly moving experience to see it in a theater. Don't wait until it comes out in DVD, unless you have to.

While looking around the internets for stuff about Ludovic Bource, the film's composer, I found this nifty clip from OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, which is another collaboration (2006) between Dujardin, Michel Hazanavicius, Bérénice Bejo, and the composer Ludovic Bource. Sure, the instrumental playing is faked, but the spirit is wonderful.

UPDATE: I saw OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies last night, and learned that the music for the above link was not by Bource! It is an Arabic version of "Bambino," a Neopolitan song that was made popular in France in 1956 by the pop singer Dalida:

The original Neopolitan song, called "Guaglione" doesn't have the words "bambino." It was written by Giuseppe Fanciulli (the pseudonym of Mastro Sapone, who lived from 1881-1951), with words by Nicola "Nisa" Salerno.

* * * * * * * * *

Here's the trailer for The Artist:

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Apollo the Violist!

Is that a viola I see strapped to Apollo's belt?
[from this post on Bibliodyessey]

Friday, January 27, 2012

Grocery, Grocer-ah, Grocery, Grocer-ha ha ha ha ha ha

It might be difficult for readers of this blog to understand exactly the kind of town I live in. Our kids used to describe it to their college friends and urban colleagues, and the usual response was disbelief, because there is so little to do here. It is no longer the cozy and somewhat vibrant town we moved to around 25 years ago, and from tales I have enjoyed from our plumber (one of my favorite people in town), it is not the same town it was when he was growing up.

Our town used to have a courthouse square as its hub, and a small university a mile down the road from the square. The square is situated at the highest point in town, just a little south of the railroad tracks, and it used to be the epicenter of local activity. It had all kinds of shoe, clothes, and food stores, a department store, a hardware store, a drugstore with a soda fountain, car dealerships, and restaurants. According to Rick (the plumber) there was nothing that you could even imagine needing that you couldn't buy on the square. It was a bustling center of commercial activity, particularly on weekends and evenings.

When we moved to town the square was still a little vibrant, but the vibrations were dissipating. There is still some commercial activity on the square. There's a shoe repair shop that repairs zippers for $3.00 (cash), and a great health food store where the proprietor knows all her customers by name and nutritional need, but most of the square is now dedicated to nostalgia and "antique" stores.

Over the past 25 years stores a bit closer to the university have claimed most of the local day-to-day business, and many stores that flourished on the square back in the day re-located to a west-side strip mall that was near the town's three grocery stores.

A grocery store know as "Eisner's" predated us. By the time we got here it had been bought by Jewel, but local people still called it "Eisner's." Jewel was then taken over by the IGA, which was formerly located down the street a bit (Michael likes to quote me as saying that they even moved the cigarette butts to the new location). Across the street was Wilb Walker, another local grocer that was in direct and friendly competition with Eisner back in the day. Wilb's (we called it Wilb's, but some people called it Walker's) was the cheaper store. Ten years ago we got a "Super Walmart," (one with groceries) a mile or two down the road to the east, and Jewel closed its doors. Wilb's remained the only west-side grocery store.

When Wilb's was taken over by County Market, we still called it Wilb's. The same people worked there, and it still looked pretty much the same. The prices were a bit higher, but socially-responsible people shopped there because it wasn't Walmart. I would still see "socially-responsible" people at Walmart though.

The big buzz in town last spring was that County Market was getting a new building. This meant that Wilb's would be torn down. Wilb's was cold, and it was kind of dreary. It was also kind of limited compared to the supermarkets that Michael and I visit when we go out of town. The new prefabricated building, complete with a vast parking lot and a second story coffee area, went up really quickly, and the grand opening was scheduled for Tuesday at 5:00.

Michael and I had the evening free, so we decided to go and see the store. We didn't go at "Grand Opening" time, but we went a bit later in the evening. We did hear that people were lined up outside. A local first.

The vast parking lots were full, and we barely found a parking space. I have never seen so many people in cars turn out for a local event that didn't have something to do with sports or country music. The place was packed, and to add a bit of the surreal to the situation, there was live music. The uncle of a harpist from another town manages the store, so he asked her to play for the opening. It added a certain panache to the occasion. Surreal panache. When have you ever seen (or heard) a harpist in a grocery store?

The people I saw in the "organic" area ("I'm not here to buy anything, I'm just looking around") agreed that the prices were higher than the prices at the health food store on the square. They would have been in the old County Market as well. That brief moment of having the harp-charged air filled with eager people who had just entered the store's produce area (and it is a nice looking produce area, complete with a tractor) was rather exciting. On top of all the excitement were free gifts: the choice of a free plastic lemon juicer or a plastic zester. And they were giving away ballpoint pens too.

The harpist stopped playing about 15 minutes after we arrived, and the muzak and white noise took its place. Then it became just a store.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Marion Bauer, Guest Blogger

Marion Bauer (1882-1955) is no longer alive, but her music (when I am not practicing it) lives in my head. The more I practice and rehearse her Viola Sonata, the more I admire her as a composer. She was once an important force in New York musical circles as both a composer and a teacher of all musical subjects, before she was relegated to the margins of music history by luminaries like Virgil Thomson. In the 1980s he said that she was not any part of a modern movement, and that she should not be grouped with Boulanger or Copland, and that was that. He obviously didn't know that Bauer was Nadia Boulanger's first American student and that Copland's success in New York had a lot to do with Bauer's influence. The following excerpt from the first pages (4-5) of her book, Twentieth Century Music: How it Developed--How to Listen to it, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons in 1933 (and hailed as "the first important contribution to new music" by the New York Sun) has particular resonance for me.
Most listeners, regarding present-day music as harmful to the continuance of a traditional lineage, dismiss it as the work of fanatics. By avoiding the discomfort of exploring unknown territory, they do not retard progress but only their individual development. the race of the swift and the battle of the strong continue, but they are out of the running and blame modern conditions instead of their own intolerance and short-sightedness. We have experienced unbelievable development in radio, aeronautics, architecture, painting, and scientific research. Why should we not expect music to follow in the footsteps of its fellow-arts and of invention? It is the usual story of the vision of the few, which is gradually tolerated, then generally accepted, and finally superseded by a new vision. the natural procedure is from the know to the unknown, and the right of way to the New is contested at every step. Opposition to innovation has made history. We never profit by the experiences of the past. We do not seem to realize that we repeat what other ages have gone through, and never seem to understand the secrets the past would reveal. We are not inventors and innovators but merely pawns used by a force which is a composite of the accumulated needs, beliefs, desires, ambitions, inspirations, and inhibitions of each age. This gigantic force is the cause behind the ever-changing effects. Religion, politics, economics, social conditions, art, all act and react upon each other in response to this "spirit of the age," and in turn help to create it. . . . No matter how beautiful, how satisfactory, or how scientific the art of a period may be, we know that it encloses seeds of its fruition, and, at the same time, of its destruction. At the height of perfection, decay begins. The spirit of beauty caught in a net, subjected to a microscope, and preserved in alcohol becomes a museum specimen. Nor can art flourish in the strait-jacket of standardization. And so we see throughout the centuries three inevitable stages in every art epoch: youth, maturity, and decay. The fact that epochs overlap creates friction. The New is seldom welcome; it breeds alarm and distrust. In time it proves its right to a place in the sun, becomes overconfident and arrogant, and, finally, after a life or death struggle, is supplanted by an upstart, a usurper. And the cycle begins again!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Slow Practice

My father used to always practice music slowly. It was always a great comfort to hear him practice when I was a kid (perhaps my greatest comfort) because everything always sounded so beautiful. It didn't matter what he was practicing (perhaps therein lies my fondness for scales and etudes) and it didn't matter whether it was tonal or not.

12-tone music was the new music of choice in the 1960s and early 1970s, and I still feel kind of goofy when I tell people about the comfort it brings me to hear Schoenberg played well. I also feel a little goofy telling people how much I enjoy practicing the viola slowly. I guess that slow practice is one way to make sure that all the string crossings and shifts that you need to do, and all the pitches that you need to hear find their eventual path of least resistance. It may be "making slow progress," but in the long run slow practice accomplishes the ultimate task of playing well (when it really matters) far quicker than any other kind of practice.

I distinctly remember one week in the summer when my father was practicing a slow passage that I could not get out of my head. I also couldn't identify it. I sang it to every violist and every string player I could find (and at Tanglewood there were many), and nobody could tell me what it was.

Here it is.

I later heard it in context. The passage below comes at the 19-second mark.

One of these days the piece will fall into the public domain, and I'll be able to give you more than this image from an article by Milton Babbitt about certain remarkable measures from the Schoenberg String Trio, Opus 45. I guess this bit stuck in Babbitt's imagination as well, huh?

Street Signs: Spoils from My Walk

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Complete Works of Purcell

It's so difficult to decide on which pieces to link to because they are all so wonderful. I can't tell you how long I have waited for a catalog like this. All the Purcell works have score images from the first printed editions, and are all given excellent performances. Listen to this part song in praise of the Viol, and then bookmark this portal to the whole channel.

If you just want to graze a bit, listen to Pox on You, Young John the Gardner, If Music be the Food of Love, and There's Nothing so Fatal as Women

Sunday, January 15, 2012

From a 1913-1914 Boston Symphony Program

How many composers in this ad are women? I count four. My latest challenge/project/obsession is Marion Bauer's EXCELLENT sonata for viola and piano. It's only been recorded once, but it is in print and available (though not in the Petrucci Library).

Friday, January 13, 2012

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Reconsidering Norman Lebrecht

Over the years, and in these pages, I have been critical of Norman Lebrecht, but after listening to his interview with Thomas Quasthoff, I have a fresh opinion of him. The interview is mostly Quasthoff, but Lebrecht seems to have helped him feel comfortable enough to be honest and forthcoming about all sorts of very personal subjects. That is a talent in itself. I look forward to hearing the rest of Lebrecht's BBC interviews.

I think that bloggery is better for Lebrecht's purposes than bookery (though I haven't read his fiction), and he seems to be very successful in engaging people in dialogue concerning the ever-changing (and clearly not dying) world of music.

The sad news that led me to write this post (which I read on Slipped Disc), is that Quasthoff is retiring from performing. He's only 52 (my age), and he's retiring for health reasons. The interview clearly shows that he is far more than "just a voice" or even "just a musician." He is a person of serious substance and serious intellect.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Happy Birthday, Seymour!

My dear friend Seymour Barab is 91 today. I have written about him and his wonderfully witty and beautiful music quite a bit over the years. I'm taking the occasion of his birthday to let you know about a brand new recording of his charming 1995 setting of Norman Rockwell's story "Willie Was Different" for flute, clarinet, piano, and narrator that was made by the trio@play.

Bird lovers take note!

Saturday, January 07, 2012

James Dean and Opus 111

From an obituary in the New York Times:
Earlier in life Mr. Hirshbein had taken up auto racing, as a consequence of his friendship with James Dean, a racing enthusiast. The two had met when Dean was an unknown young actor.

Dean was sitting on Mr. Hirshbein’s doorstep one day listening to him practice while waiting for a neighbor to return. When Jessica Hirshbein invited him in, Dean asked Mr. Hirshbein whether he could play Beethoven’s Opus 111 Sonata.

“That piece really swings,” Ms. Hirshbein recalled Dean saying. “ I love those syncopations."

After Dean was killed in an automobile crash in 1955, Mr. Hirshbein gave up auto racing at his wife’s insistence.
Who knew?

I imagine the syncopations Dean liked are the ones that begin at 3:33 and really start to swing at 5:13 in this recording by Wilhelm Kempff, one of the rare recordings on YouTube that has the whole movement!

What a treat it has been to graze through the Opus 111 offerings there.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Practice Mute Point

Actually, this is a practice mute tip, but I couldn't resist the pun.

I like to play with recordings, and I particularly like to play with recordings when I'm learning a new piece and I want to be able to hear and feel how my part interacts with the other part or parts. Sometimes I do it by loading music into my iPod and playing while wearing headphones, which works pretty well as long as the headphone cords remain behind my head, and sometimes I use speakers, which works pretty well as long as I'm playing violin. The viola is louder under my ear than the violin, so it is difficult to hear the sound of the recording unless I crank it up to an inappropriately high volume.

After a bit if frustration this morning, I tried using my practice mute to play along with a recording. It was a great success! The practice mute allows me to keep a recording at a realistic volume, allows me to physically "dig in" to the instrument and be as expressive as I like, and it lets me hear the sound of the violist I happen to be playing with (who is often playing well and nicely in tune) as well as the other musicians on the recording.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

I take no credit for this . . .

. . . but I had to share it!

[Click on the picture to make it bigger.]

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Composer's Datebook

I tend to let the Composers Datebook podcasts pile up for a while on my iPod (each one is only a couple of minutes long), and then I listen to a bunch of them. I always learn something.

The composers presented on Composers Datebook are all excellent composers, but listening to the podcasts end to end can be terribly intimidating, particularly when the American Composers Forum discusses current successful composers (and there are some that seem to come up repeatedly). I know that I lack many of the commerce- and commodity-related skills a person has to have in order to be a successful composer, and for most of my writing "career" I have measured success in terms of how pieces I write sound, and if they are vehicles for people to express themselves. I'm not good at selling myself (even if I try), and am not very good at doing the kind of networking that is necessary to get pieces performed. I could even say that I believe that one of my strong points is not to be intimidating. But that means, in this dog-eat-dog world, that I am a good candidate to be on the receiving end of intimidation: to be intimidated.

Perhaps it doesn't matter. Perhaps that podcast is geared more for consumers of music (i.e. people who don't write music themselves) than it is to composers.

Intimidation is different from inspiration. For me nothing inhibits creativity like intimidation.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Rake's Progress

Michael and I were both excited to find this item about Igor Stravinsky. I was particularly excited because I once owned (and lost) a Stravigor. I spent many years searching for a replacement, which was very difficult because the name "Stravigor" wasn't printed on the device. Unfortunately Stravinsky was not as good an engineer as he was a composer. You can see that the lines in Arnold Newman's photos in the above link are uneven. The Noligraph is a better tool.

Both of these are versions of the Rastrum, which, as I learned from Sean, the keeper of the Blackwing Pages, comes from the Latin word for "rake.”