Sunday, September 30, 2012

Moving Forward, for Better or for Whatever

I have thought about it, and I have asked about it, both privately and publicly, and nobody seems to be able to come up with a parallel in the non-musical world to the idea of music (the stuff you listen to) moving from being a service that a person pays for to a good that a person would buy. Perhaps that means that music is making a pioneering move that will only be followed by other services that will become goods.

Our friend Van Dyke Parks told a story about Lillian Gish (when he was a child actor, he had the privilege of working with her) saying that when the idea of sound was introduced to movies, the actors always thought it would be pre-recorded music and not dialogue. Anyone familiar with the film The Artist knows about what happened when actors were required to speak in order to continue working, and anyone not familiar with the film should see it.

Who would have imagined that the post office would be eclipsed by electronic mail, and who would have guessed that most of the calls that come to land-line phones (at least to our land-line phone) are sales calls and scams. Who would have imagined that it would be possible to instantly publish a personal newsletter that can be read by anyone anywhere with an internet connection, that can be instantly translated into hundreds of written languages with the touch of a button.

I wonder if on-the-spot real-time translation (or interpretation) will be the next service to become eclipsed by an automated product. In diplomatic situations and in international corporate conversations it is necessary, or order to really know what someone is saying, to have an interpreter present. If machines take over (and with voice recognition software, they just might) and do a reasonable job, there would be no professional application for people who speak many languages to earn their livelihoods as interpreters. They would need to work as translators who work with written documents, and the product of their work would be a "good": the written translation. Sure, they could interpret for free for their friends and family, and be entertaining at social gatherings. They could enjoy reading literature in the original languages, never need to read subtitles, and they could have nice full lives conversing with people from all over the world, but I imagine that many of the polyglots in our world who are not fortunate enough to land a steady translating job would have to find other things do in order to pay the bills.

Teaching would be an option, but foreign language programs in many of the smaller American universities are shrinking or disappearing, and high schools seem to be having difficulty teaching students to understand and use the grammar of English, the language that the majority of American school-age people speak. I believe a handful of public high schools still teach Latin, but I don't know of any that offer Ancient Greek. Perhaps private schools and charter schools offer these language options, but I imagine that a newly-graduated American polyglot with a Ph.D. would have to wait a long time for a foreign language position to open up in one of those schools. He or she would also be standing at the end of a long line of equally-brilliant and overqualified polyglots. The American polyglot would be forced, out of circumstance, to live elsewhere, either as an expatriate or as an immigrant on a track towards citizenship in a country that values his or her skills.

There is no going backwards. Our technologies are improving much more quickly than our skills, and there is scarcely any time left in the day to work on real-time skills unless we live lives of relative leisure (like me--I have time to practice and write because I am woefully under-employed, and have the great fortune to be married--28 years today--to a wonderful person who can also pay the bills).

We will never go "back" to a time when the only way you could hear music was to be within earshot of it.

We will never go "back" to a time when in order to communicate in writing to someone, you had to do it by making marks on a piece of paper (either by pen, pencil, or printing press) and delivering it to its reader (either within an envelope or within a book cover).

We will never go "back" to a time when ice covered most of the Arctic. And we (whoever "we" is) are physically unable to "freeze" it back up again.

But we do need to move forward and figure out how to make this a better world.

Saturday, September 29, 2012


I was really pleased to find this entire 42-minute-long documentary about the violinist/performance artist Thoth available to watch on YouTube:

Michael and I watched it last night on DVD, and we both found it fascinating. Thoth is the son of Elayne Jones, a great timpanist who was fired, for reasons connected with racial discrimination, from the San Francisco Opera Symphony. I recognized her as soon as her face came on the screen, and was pleased to see that this multi-talented man is her son.

How this man can sing, dance, and play (while keeping the bow on the string) boggles the mind. This film, which was shot using sound that was generated from his instrument naturally, and enhanced by the natural acoustics of the tunnel in Central Park, depicts a person fully dedicated to his art and his craft, who can project the world of his (admittedly odd) imagination to total strangers and brighten their lives.

Compare the film above to this segment from his audition for America's Got Talent:

He sounds like a fish out of water amplified among the lights. The panel dismisses him immediately. The scorn on their faces shows the shallowness of their enterprise.

The Tiniest Jewish Congregation in the Country, in the Tribune

The article about the Mattoon Jewish Community Center (my little shul on the prairie) is on the first page of today's Chicago Tribune.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Yom Kippur with the Country's Smallest Reform Congregation

The Mattoon Jewish Community Center has the distinction of being, according to Reform Judiasm magazine, the smallest reform congregation in the country. A tiny item in the magazine caught the eye of a reporter from the Chicago Tribune (though nobody in our tiny congregation seemed to notice it), and a photographer came to photograph our service on Wednesday morning. I had no idea he was taking video, but now my shofar playing is documented for all the world to hear. The photographer wasn't planning to stay for the evening service (the shofar is only blown on Rosh Hashanah and at the very end of the last Yom Kippur service), but we thought it would be nice to have a photo of the shofar in action, so the shofar blowing was a staged shot. If I knew he was filming rather than taking a still picture, I would have played one of the appropriate motives.

On my Kol Nidre list for next year? Asking forgiveness for not warming up my lips for this (now) highly-public moment.

You can watch the video here.

There's going to be an article about us in Sunday's Saturday's Chicago Tribune.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Music's Gradual Change from Being a Service to Being a Good

We are all currently witnessing something that traditionally was thought of as a service transform, through the magic of technology, into a good. And it seems that the trend might render music as a person's livelihood into something truly rare, and something reserved for the relative few.

We didn't think it would happen with 78 records, LP records, or tapes, but the transistor radio and the Walkman made it extremely enjoyable to listen to recordings while being out in the world (i.e. not at home), and listening to music became something private and personal. The quality of the CD and the quality of the technology that has gone into recording music on one end, and "spitting it out" on the other end has come to the point where rendered "readings" are even preferable for reasons of balance and of accuracy to natural ones.

The change has sure put a lot of musicians out of work over the past hundred years or so, because in places where musicians once provided the desired ambience, recordings do it for a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of the price.

You can buy a CD for $15.00, and play it a thousand times without paying a cent more to anybody (and you can download the files for even less). The guests at your party, the people eating in your restaurant, or the people shopping your store will be bathed in its ambience, and the people who made the recordings, if they are still alive, will never even know. If you sell enough of these to enough people, the world will be flooded with electronically-generated sound with nary a musician attached to it. Oh yes. It already is pretty much that way with the "classical" kind of music.

I have been wracking my brain, and haven't found anything in current life or in the life of times past to compare this transformation of service to good with.

Can you?

UPDATE: I finally found one on-line discussion about this matter, and then another discussion about the question of whether music is a product or a service. If Jeff McDougall (the person who wrote one of the articles that started the discussion) happens to be reading this, I would love to have his take on this question.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Nice Music for this New Obama Ad

I wish there were a way to find out who is writing some of the music used in the new Obama Ads.

I particularly enjoyed listening to the music in this one from just a few hours ago.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Musical "Marketplace" Is Changing Too Quickly

During the 1990s it seemed like there were hundreds and hundreds of brides and grooms in our area who wanted to have string quartets play at their weddings, and my quartet had pretty much as much work as we could handle during the summer months. Before the internet, there was the telephone, and when it rang it was almost never a sales call from some entity somewhere I have never heard of. Often it was a call about a wedding to play, or a party.

The internet and e-mail have certainly made it easier for people who are getting married to contact our quartet, but it has also jettisoned the practice of pairing up brides and string quartets into the territory of bidding and bargaining, which is not a healthy "place" for musicians to spend time.

I blame organizations like Gig Master. Gig Master seems to make its money from charging a fee for musicians to join and be part of their mega listing. They flood the search engines with links to pages for their musicians, and make it easy for "clients" to find possible "vendors." The "vendors" can "bid" for jobs, and the "client" will usually pick the "vendor" with the lowest price. This practice pits musician against musician, which does no good for building and maintaining a respectful society of working musicians.

Our quartet tried Gig Master, but we let our membership lapse after a year because we did not get a SINGLE wedding from being part of their network. We got inquiries, but, since there are four people in a quartet, and since we are all professionals and provide a consistently high-quality "product," we probably have a higher fee than those clients were willing to pay.

In the "market" for everything besides live music, the higher price "good" is usually considered the better "good." People imagine that a $150.00 pair of shoes will be better than a $20.00 pair of shoes. We are often encouraged to buy good things that won't wear out. High-quality cookware should last a lifetime. So should high-quality furniture. A high-quality musical performance lasts for as long as it takes for a musician or a group of musicians to play it.

It's hard to quantify music. If you go to a concert where the tickets cost $50.00, will that concert be as "good" as a concert where the tickets cost $20.00? Consumers want to know if what they are spending their money on is worth the price, and sometimes, when they lack the skills to tell the good from the great, they will convince themselves to enjoy less-than-enjoyable performances because of the price they paid for their tickets. Most of the concerts I play are not so expensive, so, when the concert is good, the people in the audience feel that they got a bargain: a lot of good music for relatively little money. Unfortunately the practice of newspapers paying critics to write honest and timely reviews of concerts is fading before our very eyes, so there is little in the way of post-concert "discussion" beyond talking with the people you happen to know in the audience.

More and more things in current culture seem to be quantified mainly by money. People pick expensive private colleges over state schools because they think the education they get at the more expensive college will be superior (forgetting, of course, that the real price for getting an education has to do with how much time and effort students put into their coursework). Some people make restaurant decisions based on price, and somehow believe that a $500.00 dinner for two would be "better" than one that costs half the price. People who can afford it make the same kinds of decisions about wine (Michael and I like the "house" brand of wine at a grocery store we frequent because of the variety. The wine varies from bottle to bottle, and it is always well worth the rock bottom price.)

I believe that music is not a thing you buy. Music (and that would be Music with a capital M) is played by people, and it happens in real time. Music is something that is different every time it is played. Music is written by people for people to play for their own enjoyment or for other people, and the price of admission that you pay at a concert should cover your part of the fee that the people playing are being paid and part of what it takes to manage a hall and all the workings behind putting on a concert. You are paying for the privilege of taking part in the Music that is happening.

The slope becomes slipperier and slipperier when people talk about buying music the same way they talk about buying a "thing." (I'm not talking about sheet music now, because I would classify that as more of a tool than a thing, though it is, actually, a thing.) When you buy a CD you are paying for the printing, design, engineering, and all the business-oriented stuff that is connected with making anything for publication. The sound stuff that is printed on the CD to make it something you can listen to should remain viable for a certain amount of time, but it is not something that can store recorded music permanently.

"Buying music" in current terms often means downloading an electronic "picture" of a performance or a rendering of several recorded musical fragments onto a device.

Let's hope that the musical "marketplace" will cycle back again, and Music will be thought of as something to experience rather than something to own. And maybe our quartet will get a few more weddings to play.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

How Playing the Viola (or any stringed instrument) is Like Playing with a Yo-Yo

I really enjoy listening to the How Stuff Works podcast. I always learn something I never knew before (or even really thought about), like how a yo-yo works. In the podcast I listened to yesterday, the banter concerned the way the spinning motion of a yo-yo gives it gyroscopic stability:
1. The yo-yo is held up in the air, giving it the potential to fall to the ground.

2. The yo-yo has string wound around it, giving it the potential to spin as it unwinds.

When the yo-yo is released, both forms of potential energy change to kinetic energy. The yo-yo spool falls straight to the ground, which builds a certain amount of linear momentum (momentum in a straight line). At the same time, the string unwinds, and the spool spins, which builds angular momentum (momentum of rotation).

When the yo-yo reaches the end of the string, it can't fall any farther. But, because it has a good deal of angular momentum, it will keep spinning.

The spinning motion gives the yo-yo gyroscopic stability. A spinning object resists changes to its axis of rotation because an applied force moves along with the object itself. If you push on a point at the top of a spinning wheel, for example, that point moves around to the front of the wheel while it is still feeling the force you applied. As the point of force keeps moving, it ends up applying force on opposite ends of the wheel -- the force balances itself out. This phenomenon keeps a yo-yo's axis perpendicular to the string, as long as the yo-yo is spinning fast enough.
I do not have the vocabulary or knowledge of physics to explain why sometimes it feels like pulling and pushing the bow perpendicularly across a string feels like using a yo-yo, but the above explanation does a good deal to illuminate the feelings of opposing forces that seem to be at work while I'm doing it. It is a helpful image to use in order to try to keep the string vibrating (or to minimize the gap in vibration) between bow changes.

The Colbert Violin Bump

What a thrill it was to tune into the Colbert Report and hear yet another few minutes of terrific music. This time it was Itzhak Perlman playing Kreisler, and for no other reason but to play Kreisler on the TV for millions of people to enjoy. I was shocked to see that this morning, when I went to hear the extra web "song" (as Colbert jokingly called it), only 30 people had been there before me.

It was a very enjoyable Liebesfreud.

Here's the whole episode. Perlman plays Kreisler's arrangement of a piece from Falla's La Vida Breve near the end of the program.

These are pieces that every violinist knows and loves, and pieces that Perlman (and Fritz Kreisler) knew would tickle the inner violinist in anyone listening. One of the most exciting violin moments I have had happened at Juilliard during the first orchestral rehearsal for a performance of La Vida Breve. When the entire violin section (made of the violin stars of our present day who are now in their 50s) got a chance to play this tune, one that they all knew so well from this Kreisler arrangement, it felt like the walls had broken and music was flooding the room. There was such an outpouring of surprise and delight that I still feel it today. Perlman reminded me of that feeling last night.

Thank you Stephen Colbert for inviting Perlman to play on your show.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Colbert Report Cellist's Identity Revealed!

The kind people at the Colbert Report just told me that the cellist who played such elegant Bach last night was Maria Kitsopoulos. Here's her fresh-from-Naxos biography:
Maria Kitsopoulos, cellist, has been a member of the New York Philharmonic since 1996. She has traveled throughout Europe with the Ensemble Intercontemporain, performed with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the New York Chamber Symphony, and her own four-cello ensemble “Cello”. Solo orchestral engagements include the Phoenix Symphony, the Westfield Symphony (New Jersey), the Graz Orchestra and Athens State Orchestra. Her recordings include portrait discs of Nikos Skalkottas on BIS. She has made prominent appearances with Continuum and is soloist on Continuum’s Naxos Portrait of Leon Kirchner.

Nice Bach in a Totally Unexpected Place

Scroll over to 10:04 of last night's Colbert Report, and you'll hear a very nice performance of Prelude from the Bach G-major Cello Suite. The cellist isn't named, but I would love to know who she is so that I can tell her how much I liked her playing. Now what was the guy in the hat saying, anyway?

[By the way, we covered some Bach instrumental music in my classes yesterday, and I played my students a recording of the Courante from the Sixth Suite. My secret hope is that someone might have been watching this program with his or her friends, and that person could say "I bet that piece is part of a Bach cello suite."]

Monday, September 17, 2012

One Difference Between Fine Art and Mass Market Culture

"But I believe we do a disservice to the music and its audience by oversimplifying, demystifying and dis-empowering the magic of complexity in order to lure in possibly unreceptive or unwilling listeners. We rob them of the opportunity of discovering, when they are ready and without bias, the difference between the wondrous ineffability of fine art and the everyday barrage of mass market culture."
You can read Martin Perry's whole post here.

One Reason, Perhaps, That So Many Jews Love Music

In 2008 I blew the shofar for Rosh Hashanah morning services for the first time. I got to do it again today. My experience then was quite profound, and my experience today was profound in a different way. A lot has "gone down" in my life since 2008, particularly if you look at some recent blog posts, and the doubts I have been having concerning the importance of what I do (and by extension, who I am) in relation to my community.

Today I realized the idea of having a religious service where a sound is approached with the same reverence as reading a sacred text is rather unusual. The sound itself is set up with a series of prayers, and is then communally consumed. Because it comes from the most ancient and most unstable of instruments (particularly the one I was playing, and particularly with my non-brass-player's embouchure), the sound feels like the result of some kind of miracle. By the teki'ah gedotah, the final note that is held as long as it is possible for the player of the shofar to hold it, I was able to put all of my heart and soul into that little piece of ram's horn, and I did so until all my air was gone. My feeling of uselessness seemed to go away with that expulsion of air.

(I should add that the service was in one of the most wonderful acoustic spaces I know.)

After playing, I had the thought that each time any of us makes a sound on any instrument we happen to be playing, it is kind of like the playing the shofar for Rosh Hashanah. The day comes but once a year, but the act of making music (and hearing music) fills in the time between Shofar blasts.

The notes and instruments change, but the music functions much the same way.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Echolocation and Music in its Natural State

I just learned that echolocation can be developed in humans (i.e. people) to such a great extent that blind people can learn to "see" objects from the way that they reflect sound.

Here's an article that describes the matter in scientific detail, and here's an interview with Brian Bushway that describes how it works for him.

After listening to the Bushway interview on my walk today (through an electronic device, of course), I went out into the natural world of my back yard to pull some weeds (my latest way of being useful). I noticed that once you remove the headphones, hearing sound in the real world is truly multidimensional. It is possible to hear how far one bird is from another (generally speaking), and to hear how directionally we really are able to hear. (You can't hear weeds though: separating them from the grass takes a sharp eye and a ruthless spirit.)

I began to understand why the fact that most people experience music only through electronically-generated media bothers me so much. Very expensive recording equipment that is operated by very experienced engineers can come close to simulating the experience of a multidimensional world of surround sound, but the difference between close and real is huge when it involves listening with your whole being. Also, the difference between close and real can involve some serious manipulations on the part of the engineer that render the sonic "image" in ways that "improve" the sound of the original raw material. It's kind of like what you can do in the darkroom of you are adept at photography, or kind of what you can do with photoshop if you are adept at using computers.

Too many performance venues (new concert halls and churches in particular) are constructed with the idea of projecting amplified sound, which is, after all, simulated sound. I have played in some of these halls. The sound that bounces off the walls (if there is anything reflecting the sound at all) tends to be brittle and unfriendly. I have played in churches are "wired" so that all the amplified sound goes through a board that is manipulated and balanced by a board operator. I much prefer the experience of walls (particular old ones made of plaster), and balances that are manipulated by the people playing the music.

Of course I listen to recordings, and I have learned to love a lot of the music I hear on them. I also really appreciate being able to hear things I otherwise wouldn't be able to hear (because the people playing are no longer living, among other obvious reasons). But I do not believe that a musician develops the ability to hear him or herself play (and therefore improve) without developing the ability to listen in 360 natural surround sound. You can hear what is wrong when you use a recording device to play something back, but figuring out how to make the music have real meaning in the larger world of sound bouncing off stuff has to be developed by bouncing your sound off stuff (and stuff, of course, includes the sounds of other musicians playing in the same physical and acoustic space).

My concluding thought? Musicians need to play with one another in order to get better at what they do. They also need to play for people (as in audiences) in order to understand that what they do has meaning that goes beyond their own enjoyment. Eliminating or reducing either of these is a recipe for serious musical decline.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Being Useful

I have always thought of what I do (and have done) in music as being something useful. But I notice, as the world around me changes, many of the ways I thought I was being useful are, frankly, not of much use to as many people as they used to be. People used to ask me to write music for them all the time. It still happens, but now it happens only rarely.

I find it very difficult to write something when I know that it will never actually be played. That's why I stopped writing operas. I certainly have operatic ideas, but it is too daunting a task to put the time and effort required to write an opera if there is no chance that it will ever get produced. From experience (and from a lot of time, effort, photocopying, and postage trying to get performances), I know that I am right. I would love to be pleasantly surprised (who wouldn't), but I'm tired of trying to keep my hopes up. What I have done in that medium may just as well not have been done. It's of no use to anyone.

Nothing kills inspiration like apathy.

I try to be useful in my community. I try to give my students as much as I can give them (though the numbers are seriously down these days), and I try my best to contribute something to the ever-dwindling musical life in this town with an ever-dwindling number of people who care about what I do. It used to be much easier.

So, since I have to work, I have been busying myself with what I consider the musical equivalent of knitting. I usually spend the spring making new arrangements (of music written by other people) for our Summer Strings orchestra, but this year, for want of other projects, I started last month. I have been going great guns making arrangements that I hope will amuse the people who will be playing them next summer (most of them are not my students). My hope is that they will help those people find a sense of usefulness and purpose as growing musicians.

I know that on the other side of this window (that I am typing in right now) there is a larger world where there are people who use my arrangements to amuse and inspire their students (a few people send me videos, which I enjoy a great deal). I hope that some of those people can find some use for the original music I have written over the years. Occasionally bits of it pop up when I put my iPod on shuffle, and I realize that there is some music of quality in the body of work I have written. It is very easy for me to forget what I have done and what I am capable of doing, when the kind of support that I need (and that all creative people need) is lacking.

My Thematic Catalog blog is kind of stuffed with arrangements right now. People regularly go to it looking for what I think is a pretty good arrangement for string orchestra of the Pachelbel Canon, but I do have a little bit of hope that somebody might look for some of the original music I have written. Perhaps there might be something there that somebody can use.

Related Post for people who work with string players and need music.

Charles Mills

Last night Michael and I watched Lionel Rogosin's 1956 film On the Bowery. Here's the trailer.

The music for the trailer is but a snippet from Charles Mills' score. The oboist Harold Gomberg is listed as the conductor, but since there are never more than three people playing (oboe, clarinet, and cello, a few measures of flute, and a bit of prepared piano), he must be listed that way for reasons that have to do with the conventions of film making. The vibrato-laden flute sound that comes in somewhere towards the end of the movie must come from John Wummer, the cellist and the clarinetist are both excellent. Perhaps someone reading this might recognize one or the other by his (or her--though not so likely in 1956) sound.

Anyway, this is the first I have heard of Charles Mills (1914-1982). The music for this film is not listed in his list of works on his American Composer's Alliance page, and the bit used in the trailer is only a little taste.

I like this photo, partly because of the alto and tenor recorders he has on his desk, and because it looks like he might be transcribing Renaissance music from part books.

It's not easy to find out much about this particular Charles Mills. He's not one of the people in the Charles Mills entry in Wikipedia. The composer there, Charles Henry Mills, directed the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, and had a music library named for him. This is a different (and younger) Charles Mills. A search in Google Books points to a book written by Elinor Rogosin, who was married to the film maker. She mentions Mills (in only one paragraph) as an occasional dinner companion and the composer of the score for On the Bowery. My guess is that Mills must have been a friend of Harold Gomberg. There's a Mills Concertino for Oboe and Strings from 1957 (one year after On the Bowery came out) that Mills might have written for Gomberg. Who knows?

Does anybody know?

Here's what I have found out: Mills studied with Copland and Sessions, and taught at the Manhattan School of Music. Most of his chamber music (a lot of it from the 1950s) seems to have been published by the American Composers Alliance. Some is available from various libraries by way of the World Cat.

Here's a 12-minute film about Greenwich Village in the 1960s where you can hear more Mills music, and you can hear him play recorder (OK, it's not the most in-tune recorder playing, but the film is a great peek into the past).

Friday, September 14, 2012

Thought for the Day

Playing (and writing) music is a lousy way to try to make a living, but a terrific way to make a life.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Oh, Oh, Oh, Okra!

Michael and I joined a farm cooperative this summer, and one of the constant products we found in our weekly box was a bag of okra (even during the dog weeks when the temperature was constantly in the 100s). I have always avoided okra because I found it slimy (and it is). I ate it "ingrediently" in gumbo, of course, where I only thought of it as a thickener. It didn't, as far as I was concerned, have any merits on its own. I dutifully (and carefully, because of the slime) cut up our weekly stash, and threw it in the freezer for winter gumbo.

The other day I decided to bite the bullet (or the pod), and try it on its own. I sauteed it in olive oil with some garlic and a bit of salt, and found it delicious. The picture above is some okra I roasted with garlic and tofu, and ate with some kamut (wheat berries). Again, it was delicious.

I sure hope that the box of vegetables we get today includes some okra.

It is also some kind of super super food. Here's some of the stuff it can (ostensibly) do for you (you can find the whole list here).

It protects against trans fats, stabilizes blood sugar, gets rid of cholesterol, prevents constipation, feeds good bacteria, helps fight depression, heals ulcers, lubricates joints, treats lung inflammation, sore throat, and irritable bowel syndrome, helps with asthma, helps support the structure of capillaries, lowers the risk of cataracts, helps prevent diabetes, and is good for your skin.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Worst Exploitation of Innocent Musicians I Have Seen To Date

Make sure to read the comments on this post, so you can truly understand the kind of outrage this woman in generating among musicians. I sincerely hope that either no musicians show up at her concerts (where she is offering them a opportunity to play back-up for her for free), nobody shows up to witness the concerts, and the people who donated the million dollars to Kickstarter sue to get their money back.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Late Quartet

Look! A mainstream movie (with big actors) called A Late Quartet premiered last night in Toronto. Playing second violin we see Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken is the cellist, Catherine Keener (with her hand in what looks like second position) is the violist, and the first violinist is Mark Ivanir. Here's the trailer.

It looks like these actors spent enough time learning how to hold their instruments and bows to make plausible playing motions (at least left-hand-wise, and in first position, playing open strings). The bow arms are not so great, but I don't think that they would offend the general non-string-player audience member. But the movie is indeed enticing, the instruments are lovely, and you can't beat the soundtrack (the Brentano String Quartet is doing the actual playing).

I wonder if it will ever make it to a theater near me!

Here's one review, and here's another.

Here is the IMDB listing of the whole cast and crew.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Nobody's Fool: Henryk Szeryng plays a fantastic La Folia

This brightened my day, so I thought I'd share it here!

Saturday, September 08, 2012

A Violist's Guide to Electoral Politics

I feel the need to write these fresh-from-the-shower thoughts (that have nothing to do with musical politics, a field that I find perplexing, subjective, and complicated) and share them. I should let you know that all I know about business is what I learned from a year of word processing at Bain and Company back in the 1980s.

There is no such thing as a free lunch, so the big money that corporate donors are giving to the current Republican campaigns (and they are broadcasting their donations far and wide) really can only be thought of as investments. These are shrewd business people who got to their positions by selling stuff to people and then selling shares in their companies to people who want to profit from the fact that they are selling more of the stuff than other companies. They also got their wealth by having their stuff made in the cheapest way possible, so they have it all made in places where people will work long hours for very low wages and will work in conditions that may be unsafe or unhealthy. The laws of the lands where the workers that make this stuff live dictate the working conditions and the wages, and the companies that own the factories profit from the advantages of having an eager and competent bunch of people who seem to be happy to do piecework at an hourly rate that amounts to pocket change for most Americans.

These heavy-hitting corporate donors promote candidates who will weaken (or destroy) unions and candidates who will reduce (or remove) government regulations. They will do their best to keep the corporate executives who make gobs of money from having to pay taxes at a rate appropriate for their income level. The Representatives that made it to congress in 2010 made sure to block any job creation bills that happened to come through the house in order to keep the jobless rate a level they could criticize in the 2012 election. Those people promise more jobs if they are elected, but the won't tell anyone exactly how. Or what jobs (outside of the oil industry). Or where. Or even when.

Here's what I think. If Romney were to get elected, and if he proves trustworthy to his supporters (not the ideological ones, the corporate ones), those companies will build new factories in America (using American labor). They will "create" part-time jobs (for which they plan not to provide the health benefits to their employees required in the Affordable Care Act that they will insist Romney repeal, even if by executive order), pay wages as low as they can get away with, and then claim (honestly for once) that America is "getting back to work again." They would make sure that the path toward unionization would be blocked, kind of like the way Walmart does it (a good model for this kind of thing). Those workers, even the ones with low-paying jobs, would still pay taxes. There would be a lot of them, so they would shoulder the burdens of running the government. There would, of course, be managerial jobs here and there, and those people would probably be paid well to keep the costs of running the factories down and keeping production up using whatever means possible.

There would certainly be a bunch of high-paying jobs, particularly in the fields where people make stuff for warfare. Romney declared that he would strengthen the military. I'm curious about what he really means by a strengthening military beyond increasing contracts for the people at Halliburton (who also make stuff for digging for oil). I kind of thought our military has been running very well. Romney must mean putting money into stuff, and then waging war so that we have an excuse to use it, or trot it out to show how powerful we are.

Where does it leave people like me and my family (made of musicians and teachers)? I am afraid to think about it. We all try to instill a love of learning, literature, music, curiosity, and community responsibility into our students. Another generation blighted by the problems we saw during the Bush administration (those are the students Michael and I teach), with the added problems of increased gender inequality, religious intolerance, racial intolerance, homophobia, and lack of adequate health care (with all its implications) scares me.

I want the children our kids teach (all who have come of school age during the Obama administration) to have the kind of future they have been promised: that you can accomplish anything if you work hard and play by the rules. I want to be able to teach those students when they get to college, and I want those students to be the leaders of the future. Maybe the Republicans want most of those people to be the workers of the future rather than the scholars, scientists, historians, and philosophers (and musicians, artists, and writers) that would give us a more civilized world.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Ann Romney: "I Won't Talk, Don't Ask Me"

I couldn't resist messing with this old Fred and Ginger chestnut after reading this bit of news.
"Here in Iowa, as you know, same-sex marriage is legal. Do you believe a lesbian mother should be allowed to marry her partner?" David Nelson, a KWQC anchor asked. "You know, I'm not going to talk about the specific issues," Romney responded, adding that "hot-button issues" distract from the economy.
Here's my take on it: DAVID NELSON: Think of what you're losing 
 By constantly refusing
 To talk to me.
 You'd be the idol of the airwaves with me. And yet you stand there and shake your foolish head rheumatically 
While I wait here so ecstatically.
 You just look and say emphatically: ANN ROMNEY: Not this season. There's a reason. I won't talk. Don't ask me.
 I won't talk. Don't ask me.
 I won't talk, about these issues with you.
 My Mitt won't let my mouth do things it should do. My apologies to Dorothy Fields, Oscar Hammerstein II, Otto Harbach and Jimmy McHugh, who wrote the original (and immortal) lyric, and to Jerome Kern, who wrote the music that is now in your head. Feel free to add to this little bit of madness. Who can resist?

Thursday, September 06, 2012

The Stationery Stores of Alexander King's Viennese Childhood

[This passage will be particularly resonant for Sean and for Michael.]
I cannot resist telling you something about those stationery stores of my Viennese childhood. Plastics had not yet been invented, so everything in those magical shops was real. Wood was wood, paper was paper, and all the toys were made out of real substances and painted by hand. When I think back on my early visits to these places I often fall into reveries so profound that they practically amount to protracted nostalgic seizures. I remember all the blond, the brunette, and the dark pencils, neatly stacked in their boxes, from which emanated the decent reassuring odors of cedarwood, and I tell you that even the smell of the real organic glue that held all those clean, virginal pads and books so firmly together used to give my young heart such a thrill of expectancy, such a feeling of unutterable joy, that the mere recollection of it all is like a benign immersion in a health-giving stream.
Alexander King, Is There Life After Birth? (1963) page 22.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

(Terre) Haute Cuisine

Around 20 years ago I met a man named Jeff in Morton Park in Charleston. I was there with the very young Rachel and Ben, and he was there with his daughter Delaney. We both had spouses who taught in the same English department, so we had a lot to talk about. He told me that he moved to Terre Haute, Indiana (a town an hour away from our town) from Chicago and had recently opened a Kosher Deli (!) called Rosenberg's (named for Julius and Ethel in the town where Eugene V. Debs and Theodore Dreiser were born). We made the trip to Terre Haute often, visiting the Children's Museum, and eating fantastic deli food at Rosenberg's. We rarely made the trip to Terre Haute after the deli closed several years ago.

A friend sent me a link about a restaurant called Harry and Bud's European Cuisine in Terre Haute, and as soon as I realized that it was run by Jeff (of Rosenberg's fame), we made immediate plans to go there. Plans involved calling to inquire if they had any vegan food (yup, we can do that), and making reservations.

We went there yesterday. We were the only people in the restaurant. He made an extraordinary meal just for us.

The restaurant is as close as I have seen in America to a French country inn (with a prix fixe menu--$25.00 per person for lunch), and the decor is highly eclectic, but very comfortable. Jeff brought us plate after plate of rich and tasty vegan food that included clever adaptations of traditionally-prepared French provincial dishes. He uses garlic so liberally that it almost acts like a vegetable, but he balances his spices in such a way that the garlic doesn't "stick out." He mentioned an obscene number of heads of garlic that had given their lives for the sauce he put on the stuffed cabbage (you can see it above). We didn't bring any wine with us (you can bring your own wine), but the meal was thoroughly intoxicating without wine.

He also made some knock-your-socks-off gnocchi, some of the best polenta I have ever eaten, a delicious lentil and red kale salad, and stunningly-delicious French bread. Michael, who eats everything, had lamb (above) seasoned with, among other things, lavender.

What you see above is a portion of our leftovers (and everything tasted great with wine when we had some for dinner this evening). We brought home four containers of food that provided today's lunch and dinner, and will certainly provide at least one meal tomorrow. It was a Thanksgiving's worth of leftovers.

If you happen to be travelling through Indiana on Route 70, give Jeff a call (812-237-0400 and call ahead so he has time to plan). The website has only lunch hours posted, but Jeff will certainly make you (and your friends) dinner as well.

You can read Michael's post about our meal, and you can read what people we don't know have said about the restaurant on Yelp. It's all true.

Edward Ward's The Phantom of the Opera

This is, of course, the 1943 version of The Phantom of the Opera normally referred to as the "Claude Rains version" (which you can watch on YouTube). You could also call this the Nelson Eddy version or the Susanna Foster version, because they are also featured actors (and terrific singers).

What I loved most about it was the use of lavishly-orchestrated music by Chopin for a faux-opera. It makes a double whammy because the Chopin pieces (his best-known hits) would certainly have been familiar to 1943 audiences, and because it makes a reference to the friendship between Pauline Viardot and Frederick Chopin. Viardot, who was a huge international opera star during the middle part of the 19th century, worked with Chopin on French vocal settings of 12 of his Mazurkas. I believe that Edward Ward, who won an academy award for his Phantom score in 1944, made the best of all musical choices with using Chopin here, because Chopin never wrote any vocal music, and his presence would have been well-felt in Paris during the time the movie was set. (When Martha , translated appropriately into French for this movie, was a brand new hit!). Liszt is also featured in the film, complete with his priest's collar (which is hard to see here).

For the grand finale opera of the film (what a repertoire and what resources this fictional opera company had!), Edward Ward and librettist George Waggner used themes from Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, for an opera that they sang, naturally, in Russian.

Some of the music was original: the main theme of the movie, Ward's own "Lullaby of the Bells," bears occasional (and highly appropriate) homage to Camille Saint-Saens.

The only thing that I object to in this movie is its use of a fictionalized version of Ignaz Pleyel as a publisher who refused to even consider publishing the piano concerto (that features the "Lullaby of the Bells" as its main theme) written by the man who would become the phantom. They used Pleyel's name because Pleyel was a well-known Parisian publisher, but they clearly knew little about him.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Luck Favors the Prepared Mind

As luck would have it, while I was listening to a podcast of "The Story" called Hellbender and Vipers, Paul Auerbach let this phrase drop while talking about being able to recognize the physical signs of a person having been struck by lightning. His book, Wilderness Medicine, sounds fascinating.

I committed the phrase to memory (no easy task for me), mused upon it, and found out, after I returned home and consulted the oracle (the internet), that it is actually a common English translation of a statement made in 1854 by Louis Pasteur, "Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés." In other words (and I mean that literally), that use of the word "luck" seems to be a comment on an entirely different matter.

What we call "luck" happens, I guess, because most of us interact with our environments, both in our day-to-day walking lives and through media. I can read a little French, so I am able to understand that Pasteur was talking about things that are possible to miss if you are not aware of the possibilities that may be right in front of your eyes. I would not say that it's lucky I took French in high school (something that did make it possible for me to read Pasteur's statement in his own words), but I would say that it is fortunate that I have been able to remember some the French that I did happen to learn. I would not say that it's lucky that I happened to be listening to that particular podcast, thus making it possible for me to write this blog post (what would Pasteur, I wonder, make of this sentence?), but I would say that it is fortunate that I noticed one particular phrase, and was able to amuse myself (and you) by thinking about it.

So what does this have to do with music? Practically it means that if I practice and remain in good playing shape, I will be able to make the most of any musical situation. Intellectually it means that I am able to recognize the way standard techniques are used by really great composers, and can compare the use of those techniques in the works of composers who were (or are) not as great. I can learn from the examples of excellence that we have in our vast musical repertoire, and begin to understand why some composers are/were more successful than other composers (independent of achieving fame or money). If, while writing a piece of music, I happen to write a note I didn't intend to write, and it ends up changing the whole direction or feeling of a phrase, I guess I would call that a case of luck favoring a mind prepared to explore all options.

If I come across a new piece of music that I love, I do consider it a bit of luck. A person without my particular set of musical experiences might not be able to recognize its exceptional qualities (I have also noticed that there are people who really don't care about stuff that interests me). There are also a whole lot of musical experiences embedded (or sometimes hidden) in pieces of music that I know really well. It is important to always keep our ears and eyes wide open, and ready for the next musical experience to reveal itself. Perhaps my version of Pasteur's statement would be that music favors the prepared mind.