Saturday, March 30, 2013

"Vulnerability is our Most Accurate Measurement of Courage"

This is from Brené Brown's TED talk about vulnerability and shame. What she has to say is well worth paying attention to and taking to heart, particularly if you, like me and like most relatively sane people, have occasional bouts of vulnerability.

Brené Brown hits several nails squarely on the head. She answered many of my innermost questions about why I do what I do. I always feel vulnerable when I write music, and I always feel vulnerable when I play concerts, but I really need to both play and write because getting from "want" to the other side of "can't" is one of the things that I feel makes my life worth living.

Brené Brown really opened up my eyes today. I hope her talk opens up your eyes too (whoever and wherever you may be).

Speaking of concerts, I'm playing one this coming Thursday: Music for violin, viola, and piano (in various combinations) by Poulenc, Vierne, and Jongen, featuring a performance with narrator of Francis Poulenc's Histoire de Babar.

Here's an announcement. If you happen to be in the area, please come! Admission is free, parking is ample, and you might just win a free Babar book at the end of the concert.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Value by the Numbers or is Enough is Enough?

With the exception of the call from our son, every phone call that we got yesterday was from an earnest person sitting in a calling center who was trying to raise money for something having to do with the problems we have with our government. I find it difficult to understand why those of us who benefit least from the "free market economy" (like musicians and teachers) are called upon to finance attempts at achieving some kind of social justice in this country. Perhaps my memory is a bit clouded, but until recently nobody asked for money to support issues that the people we pay through our taxes are supposed to work for. These were not pleas to contact people in congress. They were pleas for cash.

What is this world coming to when everything seems to have some kind of "bottom line?" How is throwing money at a problem going to actually solve the problem, particularly when the root of problem clearly involves the basic greed of an entity over which, even in a supposedly democratic society, the voice of the people doesn't seem to matter? Do corrupting people have a "price?"

I have slowly watched our world move from one in which quantity is really replacing quality. A television show's ratings do not come from critical commentary. They come from how many millions of people watched it. The value of a pop music recording comes from how many millions of people have either downloaded it or have bought it. Then there are twitter followers and facebook likes. Those quantity ratings are more a product of marketing than of actual worthwhile matter.

A relatively small number of people care about the general stuff that "classical" musicians care about. It was once part of popular culture, but that was back in the days when popular culture consisted of a far smaller number of people competing for attention. Symphony orchestras didn't have to make themselves look slick and robust in order to compete with the "Ice Capades" (which once also employed musicians), or whatever shows happened to be in town (like, say, the circus). Now, in cities where there is fierce competition for the leisure dollar, they do. And once they do, they are still mainly judged by the number of people who buy tickets and not by the quality of the performances. Critical professional reviewers are getting rarer and rarer. Bloggers, in some cases, have taken their places, but the word of a non-paid blogger is not valued nearly as highly as a reviewer who draws a small salary from a well-known publishing entity.

Then there's the matter of money. The other night there was coverage on the PBS New Hour about the San Francisco Symphony strike. It tried to be unbiased, but the numbers they used made the musicians look like they were asking for too much (the numbers they used averaged the principal salaries in with the non-principal ones). A person who didn't care much about music, or didn't appreciate the quality of the San Francisco Symphony might wonder what the fuss was about. The "media" celebrates the large amount of money that people in the entertainment and business fields make, but when it comes to musicians, who matter to a small segment of the population, the numbers look disproportionately big.

In reality, factory workers (when there were factory jobs) make more money than most orchestral musicians. If you interviewed a bunch of people on the street and asked them if they would like to hear a concert played by a bunch of musicians they never heard of who made less money for their work than factory workers, do you think those people would spend money ($20-50) to hear them play?

[I should add that for each of those + or - $30,000 per year orchestral jobs (in the rare case of a vacancy), there would be hundreds upon hundreds of highly skilled applicants with advanced degrees from major music schools competing for a single seat.]

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Two Must-See Documentaries about Carlos Kleiber

Carlos Gimeno (a very kind person) put this excellent 2010 Carlos Kleiber documentary, Traces to Nowhere, on YouTube last month, along with the not-as-well-translated documentary I am Lost To the World.

Snows of Yesteryear

I love walking in the snow, bundled from top to toe. The snow, as you can see above, is thick and wet. It's the kind of snow that makes you want to stay out all day. While I walked, I listened to a podcast from Los Angeles that had a brief segment about Leroy Anderson (so I was walking in the early spring to the tune of "Sleigh Ride"), a segment devoted to the Charlie Brown Christmas Special (with that "snow" music), and Dylan Brody telling a story about Christmas at his childhood home and his memories of listening to the recording of Dylan Thomas reading "A Child's Christmas in Wales." All snows of yesteryear.

Friday, March 22, 2013

World Peace, Hummus, and The Long-Handled Spoons

One of my favorite books of childhood was one called The Long-Handled Spoons. I can't find reference to a copy of it anywhere on line--not in a library, or in any of the specific search sites that have worked for me in the past. I remember the story well: It was about a French army regiment that was starving. They had delicious soup to eat, but all they had to eat it with were long-handled spoons. They bent their elbows to try to bring the spoons to their mouths, but it didn't work (oh how I loved those illustrations that had soup spilling all over the place). The solution to this regiment's problem (suggested by a child, I believe) was to feed one another with their long-handled spoons. By doing this they learned that in order to survive with the tools we have, we need to cooperate.

This made me think of Hummus, the favorite food of Daniel Barenboim, and a food that has been popular all over the middle east since at least the 13th century. The ingredients are simple: chickpeas, lemon, sesame, garlic, and spices, and there are as many variations on the theme as there are variations on the theme of bread (flour, water, yeast, salt).

In my utopian Hummus-fed imagination, I think it would be nice to replace Hamas with Hummus, and have with some friendly (or even not-so-friendly) competition over who makes the best Hummus (not who owns the rights to it!). Perhaps some day peace in the middle east could involve people celebrating their similarities and differences, and feeding one another rather than trying to eliminate one another from their small but important corner of the world. Perhaps the solution to peace in the middle east would be easier if Hummus were not a food that you eat with your hands.

I used sprouted chickpeas for the last batch of Hummus I made. You soak the dried chickpeas overnight, drain them, rinse them once or twice a day, and allow them to grow little tails (it takes 2-3 days, but you don't need to do any labor aside from the occasional rinse). The act of sprouting causes the chickpeas to convert their starch into sugar. You can eat them raw, if you like, but if you want to make them into Hummus, you need to boil them for half an hour or so. They mush up very easily, and they make far better Hummus than the cooked chickpeas you buy in a can, and it tastes far better than anything you buy in a grocery store.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Acts of Unconscious Influence

Did you ever notice how similar the beginning of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht is to the opening of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony?

Mozart, Haydn, and J.J. Rousseau

I have always been fascinated with the relationship of Mozart to Haydn, and Mozart to Rousseau, and Mozart and Haydn to Freemasonry, so in graduate school I jumped on the opportunity to write a paper about it. I recently installed Microsoft Word on my MacBook, and yesterday I was finally able to see a nifty timeline that I made as an appendix to the paper. I must have given my only paper copy to someone, and until yesterday I thought it was lost forever. Now I can share it here with anyone who might be interested. If you click on the pictures they will be easier to read.

If you want a PDF, you can download one here, and if you want to read the paper, you can get it here.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Lure of the Superficial

It gets more and more difficult to get music appreciation students to even try to understand Beethoven. Year after year I find fewer and fewer students really care to engage in Beethoven beyond a melody or two. In Daniel Barenboim's "Beethoven and the Quality of Courage" that just appeared in the New York Review of Books, he mentions that Beethoven was unable to write anything superficial. Perhaps the problem lies in the undeniable fact that our young people are being bombarded with so much superficiality in their lives (much of it technologically produced) that some of them never learn to separate the superficial from the essential. Perhaps Beethoven's "in your face" substantialness is too much for many of them to deal with.

I fear that the gradual and deliberate "on-lining" of education will not teach students how to separate the essential from the superficial. After learning how to separate the superficial from the non-superficial the old-fashioned way, it is possible to derive value from anything, but people first need to learn how to learn in order to be able to do the self-directed type of learning that is necessary when studying something solely by way of a computer. That kind of learning is certainly not being taught in the high schools that are suffering from years and years of teaching "to the test."

When it is difficult to engage people in learning material that isn't necessarily going to be "on the test," how can you expect them to move forward and become truly educated.

I have never been able to "do" being superficial with any degree authenticity (irony intended). I also don't recognize superficiality until after the fact.

Now it's time to share a poem by Hughes Mearns:

Yesterday, up on the stair
I met a man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again today,
I wish, I wish he'd stay away . . .

When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn't see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don't you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don't slam the door . . . (Slam!)

Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Carlos Kleiber Conducting Beethoven 4 and 7

Music making rarely gets better than this!

Here's a link to all things Kleiber on YouTube.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Music and the Unconscious

There is nothing supernatural about the idea of the unconscious, though the feelings I hold (and share with Jung) about the collective unconscious might raise a few skeptical eyebrows. I suppose I draw upon that part of my (our) mind when I write music, and I also draw upon it when I play. That's just the way it is.

This evening I found this terrific article by Alan Walker that was published in the British Medical Journal in 1979, and I thought I would share it here. Walker discusses the possible relationship between the work of Sigmund Freud and Heinrich Schenker (though Freud wasn't big on music), and he tells other interesting stories about musical unconsciousness in action. In the article he quotes Blaise Pascal:
You would not have sought me unless you had already found me.
That about sums it up for me.

Here's a lot more from Pascal.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Dylan Brody Talks About Social Networking vs. Talent

A strong education in the arts, a love of the English language, the true joy I take in performing, have left me ill-prepared for a career in a world in which “likes” and “follows” are plural nouns and “friend” is a verb.
I just heard this segment of a podcast from KPPC's Off Ramp today, and thought I'd share it. Alan Brody, Dylan Brody's father, taught him that talent and persistence were all you needed to succeed. That is what I grew up believing as well, but the nature of success has changed profoundly. Social media is indeed the new main way success is measured.

At least in music, competence, mixed with luck, social skills, and location, can get you some of the small amount of playing work that still exists. As much as we complain and fret about the problems we have trying to carve out a living playing and writing music (the "classical kind"), the role social media plays when trying to have success in other fields of entertainment is much greater.

Monday, March 11, 2013

I Nearly Plotzed

Here are a few images from "The Night the Saints Lost Their Halos", an episode from the 1962 season of Naked City.

Plotz? It's a joke, of course. And who ever heard of Kopchunkas? Michael and I did notice that the character named Dr. Anna Chaloupka got her name from Hugh Chaloupka, the brilliant editor of the series. I love the music. Some of it is by Nelson Riddle, and some of it is by Billy May. Much of the music in the Billy May episodes consists of clever and beautifully orchestrated variations on the main theme (which runs through my head day and night). The images of New York are stunning, and the frames are packed with details: neon, drug store interiors, a booming furnace in the basement of a huge building in Washington Heights, lots of two-door station wagons, and images that remind us that Fifth Avenue was once a two-way street.

Friday, March 08, 2013


PERSON 1: "Conductors are like dogs: they all have different personalities."

PERSON 2: ". . . and some are real bitches!"

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The New Division (2013)

Daniel Wolf had the brilliant idea of asking 21st-century composers to try their hands at making new divisions for alto recorder on a selection of grounds found in John Walsh's 1706 The Division Flute. I am proud to have contributed two pieces to this eclectic collection that you can see (and download) here.

[You can also listen to recordings my Divisions through the IMSLP. This one of New Divisions on an Old Italian Ground is an attempt at multi-tracking myself playing recorder and viola, and this one of New Divisions on Green Sleeves to a Ground is computer generated.]

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Writing, Being, Playing, and Sharing

I find great comfort in reading Lewis Hyde's Common As Air, a book that discusses the history of the sharing of ideas, particularly in the America of the founding fathers. The world he celebrates is the world that I prefer to inhabit, which is why I like to make the music that I write available to anyone to play whenever and wherever they like.

I don't know if other composers feel this way, but after I have written a piece of music, and after whatever emotional and intellectual events that were going on at the time have faded into really distant memory, I no longer feel like I have any real "right" concerning how it should be played. Actually, when I write a piece for somebody else to play, I absolve myself completely of any interpretive authority beyond what is written into the music itself. When I play a piece written by another composer (whether s/he is dead or alive), I take the same kinds of liberties. I could call that an act of "common practice," I suppose.

It has taken me a long time to be able to interpret music that I have written. I used to get caught up in the way I wished that a piece could sound if it were played by someone who could really play well, and I would get kind of stuck between that ideal and what I was capable of producing from my instrument. Now that I have come to the point in my string-playing life when I like the sound that I make on the viola, like the face I see in the mirror, and find my voice (speaking, prose, and musical) familiar and acceptable, I feel like I can get closer to the way I want the music I play (including the music I write) to go. I also have come to accept that sharing what I do is a good thing, and not a burdon that I pass onto other people.

So, with that in mind, I invite you to listen to two short pieces I wrote in 2008 and played in public for the first time last night. I wrote them for Asli Gültekin Özek, a favorite stand partner of mine, and she played the first performance. I learned a great deal from hearing her play these pieces in 2008, and I learned only recently that I am capable of doing a decent job as well.

If the above link doesn't work yet, you can listen here.