Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Four Pieces from Doktor Faustus

Karlīna Īvāne played my "Four Pieces from Doktor Faustus" a couple of days ago, and put the performance on YouTube. I am happy to share it here. If you know the Thomas Mann novel, you should recognize the references. If you haven't read the novel, I recommend reading it!

The first movement is based (loosly) on the song "Oh How Lovely is the Evening," which is discussed at length as one of the pieces that Leverhuhn and the narrator sang together. The second movement is based on the Hetaere esmeralda row and incorporates the Tristan chord. The third movement represents the encounter with whatever it is that the narrator (who is a viola d'amore player), says that Leverkuhn (the composer and main character) encounters, be it a daemon or a hallucination of one, and the last movement is a "portrait" the little boy called Echo.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Henry Miller on Writing

I spent my 20s reading everything written by Henry Miller, and I spent my 30s reading most of the books he mentions in "The Books in My Life." I know that I must have read this list of "commandments" concerning writing, because I tend to follow them (unconsciously) when writing music and while practicing, when I have had the leisure to do so. Seeing this list again is like having met an old friend, so I thought I'd share it here.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Apple Amaretto Cake

This may be one of the world's best snacking cakes.

Here's the recipe:

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F, and butter a rectangular baking dish.

Peel and finely dice two apples.

In one bowl mix 2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon

In another bowl mix 1 cup slightly warmed milk
1/4 cup melted butter
2 eggs
2 tablespoons Amaretto.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry, and mix in the apples. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan, and cook it for 25 to 30 minutes (27 worked for me).

You can, of course, use brandy instead of the Amaretto. Or you can use vanilla or almond extract.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Yehudi Menuhin on Holding the Violin

I was so happy to hear this discussion on the 8th DVD of the Bruno Monsaingeon Edition devoted to films about (and of) Yehudi Menuhin. The first thing I teach my students about holding the violin or the viola is to place the top of the instrument on the collarbone, because it's what I do. Balancing the instrument on my collarbone reminds me of the way a cellist uses the endpin for balance on the floor. Here's what Yehudi Menuhin had to say about it in 1994:
I was the victim of the type of thinking which to me now is anathema wherever I see it; whether in violin playing, in diplomacy, in habits, whatever it is. It is the rigid: the idea that to establish an order you begin with the motionless. You begin with what doesn’t move, then you add movement.

You begin with the first position on the violin, and then you don’t explain it. Because it’s called the first position, you begin with the first position. And you press fingers down; you don’t know how to hold the violin. And then afterwards you will add motion, instead of realizing that the world began with motion.

People begin with the solid, they begin in their minds with something secure . . . either all men are terrible or all men are equal or some theory, something that is rigid, whether political theory or religious theory, it’s that rigidity . . .

Now, it’s idiotic to begin in the first position because it’s the farthest away from the body; the violin is heaviest there. It’s also bad to begin near the shoulder of the violin because you are inclined to hold the violin and support it. So you begin in between, and you don’t begin in a position, you begin with motion right away . . .

One of my main motives in life seems to be to correct for myself, first of all, and then for as many as I can reach, a false notion of thinking, basic idea of thinking, as if the body were a statue and then you breathe into it motion. . . .

* * *

If you are dealing with something that has to vibrate, as soon as you hold it tightly you inhibit the vibrations. As soon as you squeeze, as soon as you oppress a human being, you destroy the opportunity of dialogue, of giving and receiving. And the same with the violin.

The violin is said to rest on the shoulder, because that’s obvious; anyone can see a shoulder. But few people can see a collarbone, and all the most crude and obvious approaches I was subjected to during those first eight months of study with that teacher in San Francisco, an old-fashioned teacher who got results (you get results: you can run a country with slave camps, you get results—they work) but my feeling is you can’t become the kind of violinist that I admire, and which exists today more than before because people are more evolved in their thinking than before. Before it took a genius to be a Paganini, or perhaps a Corelli, or maybe not . . . maybe those people played just like that.

But then came this oppressive approach where you only got results by whipping, and that has been against my whole attitude to life.

Then I looked for the truth and I found some truths. For instance, probably knew the truth, and everyone who played the violin already did it beautifully, but I had to find these things out for myself against a very strong environment of security, false security, and against my own ambition, or with my own ambition to play so that finally I realized that the violin does not rest on the shoulder. It rests on the collarbone. The bone which, connected to the violin communicates the vibration, the bone which is a harder substance than the shoulder. Besides, as anyone can see, as soon as you raise the shoulder against the chin you have a crazy kind of diagonal, and it lifts the elbow away from the violin.

Then you have those violinists who play with their thumbs right above the fingerboard, the neck of the violin. And instead of the shoulder feeding the flow into the fingers, you have it inhibiting. And so they get over it. You can get over so many things, so many obstacles, and still play the violin very beautifully and make it communicate. Its extraordinary how badly you can play the violin and still communicate if you really want to. But even so, the feeling of continuity in motion, in other words: the economy of motion consists in not allowing any motion to be wasted. If there’s already a motion, don’t push it. You don’t say “now I’m going to do something” if it’s already there. The same in walking. . .

That fact that if you play with everything balanced, and you can move each joint: you can roll the violin between thumb and finger, you can feel that this [the elbow] is a pendulum, that the shoulder can move, so that the farther the hand goes away, the lower and backwards the shoulder goes. You don’t do that [he leans forward]. You always do that [he leans upwards and backwards]. One of the first exercises without the violin, after I’ve made the children walk on all fours, is to raise the collarbone and lower the shoulder. It’s perfectly possible. One becomes gradually aware: (I can feel that [the collarbone] rising, I can feel that [the shoulder] lowering).

That’s one of the first exercises. And then the ease of the neck so the neck just touches, it doesn’t clutch the violin, it touches it, and in such a way that it can slide on the chinrest, and that it can compensate the motion of the hands [he demonstrates a pulling back motion with the hand loosely moving up and down the imaginary fingerboard].

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Portable Swan

Here's a performance from Tel Aviv by the Pizzicato Quartet playing my string quartet arrangement of Saint-Saens's "The Swan." I get a kick out of a group named the Pizzicato Quartet playing this arrangement because the viola part is played totally pizzicato. I call it a "portable" swan because it is a lot easer to travel around with a string quartet than with a harp or a piano!

You can see the arrangement here.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Finding a Voice: Musings on Creativity

It occurs to me that so much of what becomes popular culture (in other words, culture that catches on with a large casual audience) has to do with imitation. Take Christmas music, for a seasonal example. Many of the enduring classics of the Christmas season, like "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer," written by Johnny Marks, are pretty much variations on the same formula, much like what we think of as candy bars are variations on pretty much the same few formulas. There is popular Christmas-season music that doesn't follow the Marks formula, like descendants of "Sleigh Ride," selections from the Nutcracker, and the ever-popular Schubert "Ave Maria," but there is a lot of exquisite Christmas-specific music that people in stores and shopping malls would never identify as Christmas music.

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

I heard an interview with Audra McDonald the other day where the interviewer, who was not a musician, asked her who she used as a model for her voice. Her elegant response was that when she was young she tried to imitate singers she admired, but she failed miserably, so she understood that she had to live with her own voice. The current assumption, I suppose, is for "lay" people to imagine that musicians must model what they do on someone else's creativity. Some of us, like Audra MacDonald (or perhaps I should say unlike Audra McDonald), fail miserably when we try to imitate another person's voice.

I don't know about you, but I would prefer to fail as an imitator than succeed as an imitator.

Monday, December 01, 2014

"Having written"

Before I started writing music, I had a talk with a composition student about writing music. He told me that he enjoyed having written music, but did not particularly enjoy writing it. Once I started writing music myself, I found the process itself far more interesting than the satisfaction of "having written." There are some pieces that I am happy to have written, many, in fact, but the real creativity and the real satisfaction comes in the putting of one note after and against another.

I suppose that we are all wired differently.

The big problem comes when you have written a lot of music, as I have, and have little motivation to engage in the process of self promotion, which has been elevated to the status of an art in itself. A person gifted in the art of promotion can make anything seem appealing, no matter how useful, beautiful, or worthwhile it actually is. But a person without the drive or the means to promote his or her music this way can feel the act of "having written" as something negligible.

In the years before the internet, composers had music festering in drawers and files. Now it can fester in plain sight on publisher's computer hard drives or in online libraries, amid hundreds of thousands of perfectly good pieces that other composers have written.

Mild success can give a person hope, but success always seems relative. Seymour Barab always felt let down when his efforts to promote his excellent work (and it remains excellent work) proved unsuccessful. The fact that his Little Red Riding Hood was performed constantly didn't mean much to him, but the fact that his more recent theater work could not get a run in an off-Broadway theater did. Fortunately during the very last year of his long life he got some of the acclaim he deserved. When we talked about this his reply was, "I wish it hadn't taken so long."

Seymour was always most interested in what he was working on at the moment. At the end of his life he was working on a set of songs that he wasn't able to finish. It was a set of songs about New York, and the last time I saw him he described the texts as being racy jokes. I remember when he ran out of the specially-sized music paper that he liked to use for songs, and how I found some PDF score paper that could be photocopied into a size that would work for him. He was very happy to be able to get back to work.

Now that Seymour Barab is no longer writing, we have the music that he has written. And there's a lot of it.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Bloch on Bach

From Essays on the Philosophy of Music, translated by Peter Palmer (Cambridge University Press):
. . . . He cherishes his theme, in which he as no other composer compressed what was to come, tension and the sharpest outline of tension. He goes on lovingly considering the theme from all angles and prospects until it blossoms forth and until, in the great modulations of the fugue, it has become an unlocked shrine, an internally unending melody (`internally' meaning within the context of the theme), a melismatic universe in respect of the developed individuality of his theme. For precisely this reason, Bach's layout is not purely diatonic, however clear its flagrant nature. Obviously the harmonic clement in itself becomes irrelevant with Bach insofar as it is manifested in a fortuitous, pleasantly meaningful simulultaneity of the parts. But it is surely not irrelevant to the extent that the pertinent motions and their framework, which is to say the counterpoint, are now also the paramount factor and, as such, emphasized. To the extent that it represents a complete horizontal transparence, it is certainly the essence of Bach more than it is of Beethoven and Wagner. And yet, even in Bach, there is in the layout an active desire. There is the pervasive flow of a succession of themes rich in associations, a twofold thematicism already inherently rich in tension which finds itself far less strongly dependent on the constant polyphony's non-decisive part-writing than on the transitional, turning and corner points, but above all the rhythmically stressed anchor-points in the harmony. And as we can see, this is not straightforwardly homophonic but a different, deliberately chosen harmony, one that underlines, that emphasizes by virtue of its mass. The one reflects upon the other, even though Bach remains the master of the single voice, multiplying the old homophony by two or by five, the intrinsic master in the spinning to of lines and in this procedure's seemingly unlyrical, supra-lyrical domain. The blending, harmonic-rhythmic element still has an influence: it prevents a revelling in the mechanics and the formal aspect of counterpoint even where Bach's wide gaps between parts play an important role in preventing a vertical blending, i.e. the being and changing of whole columns of notes or hosts of chords, no matter whether rhythmically diminished or caught up by and released from he dominant. But it is only the song, the theme, that seeks to become extensive and unending within th fugue melody which is, as it were, internally unending. It is by virtue of this above all that the element of diatonic counterpoint is reduced to a mere means, to something reflexive, permitted only because the lyrically flourishing melismata acquire a sharper profile from the juxtaposition. For it is in the contrapuntal or, rather, dailiness system of balances that they can best represent their protected, unbroken simultaneity, that lyricism of theirs which no longer has any individual relevance but simply means soul, developed soul. And that lyricism, in spite of all the dramatic community choruses, is the core of Bach's Church music. Where this balance is self-supporting, it is easy to recognize, within the framework of Bachian counterpoint, the hidden, connected, multi-layered lyricism of he Passions, built into the niches of three-dimensional counterpointing. It is akin to the uneven surface of the bas-relief, where we can feel the presence of air, the arrangement of figures in the landscape and, in fact, the whole actual landscape that is set in the rise and fall of the uneven background.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thanksgiving Music

Many people know this traditional Thanksgiving Hymn as "Come, Ye Thankful People, Come," but you might not know that its original name was "St. George's, Windsor." It was written by Sir George Job Elvey (1816-1893) who was the organist there. The Hymn works very well as a duet for violin and viola.

You can click on the images for a larger view, and a PDF is available on this page of the IMSLP. Here's a note about the piece from the Psalter Hymnal Handbook
George J. Elvey (PHH 48) composed ST. GEORGE'S WINDSOR as a setting for James Montgomery's text "Hark! The Song of Jubilee," with which it was published in Edward H. Thorne's Selection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes (1858). The tune has been associated with Alford's text since publication of the hymn in the 1861 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern. ST. GEORGE'S WINDSOR is named after the chapel in Windsor, England, where Elvey was organist for forty-seven years.

This serviceable Victorian tune is held together by the rhythmic motive of the opening phrase. Sing the opening stanzas in parts, but sing the prayer of stanza 4 in unison. Use of the descant by C. S. Lang (PHH 253) with stanza 4 may suggest a foretaste of heaven's glory.

Here are some settings of that other Thanksgiving favorite, "We Gather Together" that can be played by any combination of instruments. The melody comes from the 16th-centuiry popular song "Hey wilder dan wild" (wilder than wild), and this setting from 1626 by Adrianus Valerius is called "Wilt heden nu treden".
You can download a PDF of this arrangement here.

UPDATE for 2020: I have made versions of "Come, Ye Thankful People Come" for string orchestra, bassoon quintet, and trombone quartet with bass trombone that you can access through this link.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Some Cookies

I haven't posted a recipe for a while, so in honor of the upcoming food holiday I'm sharing the recipe for the very best batch of oatmeal raisin cookies I have made to date. I futz around a little with the recipe each time I make them, and after a few months of making them at least once a week, I hit cookie perfection tonight. These cookies are not too sweet, not greasy in the least, very satisfying, and actually probably healthy to eat. [The photo makes them look a lot bigger than they actually are: the wooden board is only about 6 inches long.]

People who have come here from Michael's blog will certainly get the reference in the title, but for those who have found their way to this post by other means, you can get some context here. But don't forget to come back for the recipe!

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Find two mixing bowls, a set of measuring cups, and a set of measuring spoons.

Cream 1/2 stick of softened unsalted butter with 3/4 cup brown sugar. Add 2 eggs and 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract.

In another bowl mix 1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour with 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon baking soda, and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt. Mix the dry ingredients together and add them to the creamed mixture above. Once everything is incorporated, add 3 cups old fashioned rolled oats (not the quick-cooking kind) and 1 cup of raisins.

The real secret to cookie baking is using the right pan. The right pan is made by USA Pans. Mine is called a "Half Sheet Pan," but it is pretty much the same as the jelly roll pan in the link above. You flip it upside down and use the bottom as a cookie sheet. I also just noticed that they now have an actual dedicated cookie sheet in their inventory, which I bet is just as good as their half sheet pan.

Make tablespoon-sized balls and flatten them out onto the un-greased cookie sheet. I aim for getting 20 onto one cookie sheet, which is about half the batch, and then I put the remaining dough in a covered container, which I pop into the refrigerator to bake in a couple of days. Or the next day.

Bake the cookies for 12 minutes. Take them out of the oven, but leave them on the cookie sheet for a minute or two. Then transfer the cookies to a cooling rack. They will be crispy in about five minutes. Let the cookies cool completely before storing them in a covered container.

Here's a final noble portrait:

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Musical Intelligence and School Music Programs

In this article for the new (just up today) magazine CreateSir Anthony Seldon writes about the value of music for children in state schools:
Research shows that self-discipline is a better predictor of success in life than IQ tests – and it has further shown that good character and resilience can be taught at schools, with lifelong benefits. Work at the University of Birmingham Jubilee Centre for Character and Values shows that an undue emphasis on exam passes robs young people of the broad education that schools should be providing.

The argument has been put succinctly by the distinguished educationalist Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard. He says the question that schools should ask is ‘not, how intelligent is this child, but rather, how is this child intelligent?’
As much as I appreciate school music programs, I really believe that it is the teachers and not the programs that make all the difference. Like general education programs in colleges, musical education programs often attract students who are adequate at applying methods to what they teach once the find themselves in school positions, but some are not necessarily good teachers. I have seen too many music teachers make school musical activities uninteresting and even annoying. I have also seen teachers who are excellent musicians themselves turn neglected abused music programs around.

Studying music, particularly the classical kind, is not a way out of economic poverty. Someone who practices like crazy in high school and sets out to make a living in music these days has a good shot at life at or below the poverty level unless s/he acquires the skills necessary to get a day job to support a musical habit. On the other hand someone who has private lessons from a good (and affordable) teacher can bring the values of musical experience into adult life while following a non-professional or semi-professional musical path.

Like everything else in the business of education, what matters most is the ability of the individual teacher to reach the individual student. It can happen in a classroom or in a private studio. This is a slow and steady process that involves commitment on both sides. It is also something that cannot be quantified in any way, because success is different for every single student.

Some students have a lot of intelligence, but they don't pay attention to what they need to do physically on the instrument in order to make a beautiful sound. Some students make lovely sounds, but have difficulty with rhythm. Some students have difficulty opening up emotionally through music. Some students don't have the patience to listen to themselves. Some students don't practice. Some students practice, but hold a lot of tension in their hands. Some students have good enough ears to get away with not reading music. Some students read music well, but have a difficult time thinking beyond the notes and rhythms.

The journey is different for every musician at every stage of the game.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Empowering Musical Thought for the Day

There's much that I cannot control in the world, but I know that when I am practicing I have the ability to control the beginning (including the when and how) of every single note I play, as long as I pay attention and take the time and care to do so.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Russian Music for Viola and Piano Concert November 16th

It's not just Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) who is "neither fish nor fowl." Everyone here has influences from outside of Russia's borders. Even Reinhold Glière (1875-1956) who was born in Kiev, died in Moscow, and spent his entire career in Russia, became immersed with the folk music traditions from Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. The four Preludes for piano (from Opus 30) are right at home (or perhaps would be better to say appropriately far from home) in this cosmopolitan program.

Alexander Winkler (1865-1935) was born in Besançon, a city near the German border of France, studied law and piano at the University of Kharkiv, and taught at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He wrote his Viola Sonata in 1902, and dedicated it to Auguste Joung. The final movement is a set of musically-cosmopolitan variations on a song in Breton, a Celtic language spoken in the lower part of Brittany, near the region where Winkler was born.

Paul Juon (1872-1940) was born in Moscow to Swiss parents. After studying with Arensky and Taneyev at the Moscow Conservatory, he left Russia to study in Berlin. He wrote his F minor Sonata, Opus 82 for clarinet and piano in 1923 and dedicated it to the clarinetist Ernst Orlich, who served as the University Rector at the Berlin Technical High School. He probably made the viola transcription for his own use.

Most people who read this blog live far away from Charleston, Illinois, but anyone within driving distance (or walking distance) is welcome to come! We plan to make a recording, so if you can't come would like to hear something from the concert, just let me know.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Supreme State of Bow

Remember the Smothers Brothers and the "Supreme State of Yo?" This video below is set at the right place, just in case this state is new to you.

I have experienced the trance-like state that sets in when I am in the Supreme State of Mow (while mowing the yard, something I actually enjoy, as long as I'm not mowing up hill). When I practice scales or Bach in the morning, I find myself immersed in the Supreme State of Bow.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Rehearsal Rules

"I never trust rules that tell me never to do something." This came blurting out of my mouth during a rehearsal today, and I thought I'd share the sweet irony.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Music Theory for Musicians and Normal People

I just came across a great book in PDF form by Toby Rush that explains the ways of means of musical notation, harmony, counterpoint, modes, and the forms used in the common practice period. This book is witty, but it is also correct, complete, and straightforward. I'm planning to use these pages with my violin students, and I thought I would share them here.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Meet the Composer II

A while ago I made a post about WQXR's Q2 Podcast called Meet the Composer, and now that I have listened to a few episodes beyond the interview with Caroline Shaw, I'm starting to have issues. I could stew about these issues, or I could write about them. I choose to write.

Nadia Sirota, the host of the show, is a far better violist than I am, and a far better radio host than I was during my time on the air (broadcasting 40 miles in all directions from a college station in a small town in downstate Illinois during the last century). I certainly appreciate what she is doing for the composers she works with in New York, and for new music in general, but I fear that the music she presents on this particular program (at least this year) sounds kind of the same to me. It seems that everything I have heard so far (with few exceptions) is minimalist in nature, and much of the string music seems to exploit the natural harmonic series.

I listened to a great deal of new music when I was a teenager in the 1970s. My first opera was Wozzeck. The first piece I sang in a professional chorus was Stravinsky's Canticum Sacrum. I have a special fondness for the sound of 12-tone music because it reminds me of Tanglewood, where I spent summer after summer attending the Fromm Festival concerts. I wanted to be a composer during the 1970s, but I knew that writing in the 12-tone idiom was not any kind of true expression of who I happened to be. I had no interest in electronics, and never wanted to use rock music as the basis of the music I imagined writing (like my brother Marshall did). As much as I would like to have embraced it, I found minimalist music repetitive and boring. I wanted to write music that meant something to me, and I wanted to write music that would be as moving to me as the music that I loved from the whole of the history of notated music. I couldn't wait for minimalism to die out. By the time I turned 40 I had lots and lots of music to write, so I just started writing.

When I was in my 20s I thought I knew a lot about music. A lot of people thought I knew a lot about music. Through working at the radio station and reading scores and scores of books about music I learned more about music. I eventually learned that I knew very little, and that my narrow-minded views were ridiculous. Perhaps they still are.

I don't believe I really started to learn about music until I reached my 40s and started writing music seriously. Now that I am 55 I feel like a kid in a candy store, because with the hopes of a career behind me, I have the leisure to keep learning new things about music. My experience of music is far deeper than it was when I was in my 20s and 30s, and my understanding of how important it is to get from one note to the next in a meaningful way sometimes yields real results. Sometimes I get, whether writing or playing, from one note to the next in a way that I feel is a true expression of how the music should go.

I do hope that Nadia Sirota ventures out of the envelope she has drawn around her new radio program and finds composers of note (no pun intended) who write in ways that don't simply reflect her personal love of extended techniques, minimalism, the harmonic series, and their spectral sisters. There are a whole lot of people in her parents' generation (like me) and even in her grandparents' generation who are indeed interested in hearing interviews with living composers who write in other ways, even in traditional ways.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Noonday Witch (for Halloween)

When I hosted a radio program that ended at noon, this was my usual selection for the last quarter hour on October 31.

Here's the score.

Here's a synopsis of the story (courtesy of a good Wikipedia article)

A mother warns her son that if he does not behave she will summon the Noon Witch to take him away. He does not behave, and the witch arrives at the stroke of noon. The witch, described as a horrible creature, demands the child. The mother, terrified that the witch has actually come, grabs her son, and the witch begins chasing them. Finally the mother faints, grasping her child. Later that day, the father arrives home, and finds his wife passed out with the dead body of their son in her arms. The mother had accidentally smothered their child, while protecting him from the witch. The story ends with the family's lament over the terrible event.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Weighing in on Suzuki

The latest discussions about whether or not Shinichi Suzuki fictionalized his credentials as a violinist make more sense after watching this film clip:

Here's the blog post that started the current ruckus, and a response from 2013 to O'Connor's earlier blog post.

I should mention that there are many excellent alternatives to the Suzuki method, and there are excellent ones that are available for free in the IMSLP. I have always believed that it is the teacher and not the method that makes for a successful musical experience.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Rant on Immortality

My mother, who painted the above watercolor, is very much alive, but she no longer paints because she can no longer see. When I told her that I wanted to put her paintings on a blog so that her friends and acquaintances could see her work, she remarked that she wasn't able to get much money for the paintings she sold because she was a living artist. I wonder why is it that after someone dies their work becomes more valuable. It is because there is a finite end to their output? My mother's finite end to her work came when she could no longer see lines and colors, but I believe talking about her work with people enriches her life as well as the lives of people who are able to see it.

Why is it that people so often wait until someone is no longer alive to voice appreciation for a body of work, be it musical, literary, or artistic? Much of our human culture seems to be obsessed with the idea of some kind of afterlife and/or some kind of immortality, but not being a person who believes in an afterlife or immortality, I know that will not derive any pleasure or benefit from having a posthumous career. Many people struggle to get their work known beyond a small circle of friends, but more often than not it isn't until an obituary hits the newspapers or the internet that people in the "outside world" pay attention.

Writing music is only part of music making. A piece of music, no matter who wrote it (or Whom) only comes alive when people play it. A good composer tries to make an interpretation inevitable through the writing, but the composer's input really stops once the music is notated and distributed or published. A piece of music is a gift to musicians of future generations, but once the composer's life is over s/he will never know where it is played, or by whom.

Recordings give an illusion that a person who is no longer alive is somehow present. The larger the musical personality, the more convincing the illusion will be. But it is still an illusion. Recordings give the illusion that someone who is alive but not within earshot is present. Writing is similar. I still find it miraculous that someone's "voice" can be transmitted into another person's head centuries upon centuries after the writer put pen to paper (or knife to tablet). A writer can also transmit his or her written voice instantly to just about anywhere in the world.

A visual artist can capture an image (moving or still) of a time that can never be revisited, but it is just an illusion because no time can be revisited. We move on and unconsciously filter our memories so that we have room for new thoughts. We need visual art to remind us of where we have been, or not been.

All we really have is the present, and we can use the powerful tools of communication we wear on our faces and carry in our pockets to communicate with people we care about in real time. I think that it is important to celebrate the work of the living. They (and we, as long as I am here) are trying to make the present matter.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Using a Product Logo as a Teaching Tool

My violin students need to be constantly reminded to keep their left arms under the violin while they are playing. Today, while I was (once again) reminding a pre-teen student to keep her arm under, I noticed that all her clothes had the "Under Armour" logo on them. I drew it in her music to remind her to keep her arm under. Under Armour = Arm Under.

We both laughed. I told her that I would share this idea with other violin teachers on line, so here it is. Remember that you read it here first!

Friday, October 17, 2014


While I was slowly and carefully playing through the last of Bach's English Suites until a few minutes ago, I kept thinking about how many rules of counterpoint Bach breaks, and how often he breaks them. Then it occurred to me that Fux (1660-1741), the guy who wrote the rules of counterpoint as we know them, may have predated Bach by a generation, but he didn't write his Gradus Ad Parnassum until 1725, and by the time Bach could have even gotten his hands on a copy he could no longer see.

I have nothing against Fux. I cut several sets of teeth on Gradus Ad Parnassum. I just had a sudden realization about Bach today, and appreciate his deviations from what is to be expected even more than I did yesterday.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


I used to enjoy teaching music appreciation classes at our local community college. In the early years of the 21st century I had students in my classes who were genuinely interested in the material. Some were adult students who had returned to college after having children, some were adult students who were trying to make a new start by getting an education after unproductive early adulthood, and some were students who had served in the military. I had extremely smart students of normal college age who were using community college as an inexpensive way of taking courses that could be transferred to a four-year university. I also had students who had very little in the way of reading and writing skills, because the college had an open admissions policy. Some of these students found that they were genuinely interested in music (some, of course, were not). I even had a composer one semester, and I had to keep him stimulated while trying to get novices to understand the rudiments of listening to form in music.

During the past five years we have been suffering from some kind of a shift in our university community, and for various reasons college enrollment is down. I watched the abilities of my students slide downward, and found that very few students were able to get by with more than a passing grade during the last two semesters. Too many of them couldn't pass. Now most of the music appreciation classes have been cancelled, and mine, which met at 8:00 in the morning, was one of the first to go.

For a while I really didn't know what I would do.

Thanks to the kindness of one of my dear friends, and the departure from town by another friend who taught a handful of violinists, I now have eight new violin students who range in age from 9 to 14. It's been years since I worked with this many young people, and it is really refreshing to teach people who want to learn to play just for the sake of playing.

Everyone seems to be making progress, and I am making progress as well, because I make a point of practicing what I teach.


Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Meet the Composer Podcast from WQXR

I listened to an interview with Caroline Shaw today on "Meet the Composer," the new podcast from WQXR's Q2 station. I was impressed with the way Nadia Sirota conducted the interview, impressed by Shaw, and impressed with her music and the way she explained the extended vocal techniques used by Roomful of Teeth, the vocal ensemble she sings with and writes for.

I plan to listen to this podcast regularly.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014


When I taught flute students I would often observe their throats getting tight when they found themselves in the musical land of many sharps. I noticed it in myself as well, and always had to work to counteract the tendency.

Lately I have noticed the tendency of my bow arm to stray from the optimum sounding point when I find myself crossing strings in musical landscapes that have many flats.

Hmm . . .

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Honour Bound: The Exile of Adolf Busch

I have spent the past two days being blown away by the beauty of Adolf Busch's bow arm and his overall musicianship, but this film, a kind of animated graphic novel with Busch's Opus 40 String Sextet as its soundtrack, increases my admiration for this tremendous musician even more.

The String Sextet was never published, and the manuscript is in the Brüder-Busch-Archiv in Karlsruhe. Perhaps an administrator for that archive might find a way to scan the score and parts and add it to this page of the IMSLP.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Tipping Point (Cyber and Otherwise)

On the bottom of my blogger screen is a little tab that reads "Complaints," so I'm using this moment to register some of my complaints about what seems to have turned into a life as a targeted consumer.

I usually look at my email first thing in the morning. I used to engage in lengthy correspondence with friends from near and far, but now my email experience consists of deleting sale notices from stores where I happen to have shopped once and notices about musical events far removed from my realm of interest and my location. Sometimes I find a message from a friend, colleague, or family member, and once in a while I get a notice about a comment to this blog, but it is always the exception. There are sometimes work-related email messages, which I always welcome. I have actually come to cherish those.

I delete between eight and ten messages before breakfast. By lunch time there are usually eight more. I always try to "clean house" in my inbox before I go to bed.

If I look at Facebook these days, I am bombarded by "posts" from people who have paid to have their "posts" reach me, along with ads from places where I might have shopped on line. I bought some socks on line last week, and ads enticing me to buy more socks popped up everywhere (and not just on Facebook). Facebook seems to have become the de-facto vehicle for personal communication, and I hate the fact that I have had to use it as such in family matters. "It" is kind of making "itself" indispensable (and in some ways it is making me feel dispensable). I have decided, for the sake of my health, to limit my Facebook time to 17 minutes per day.

[We used to have a "17 minute rule" back when all four members of the family lived under one roof and shared a single desktop computer.]

Today's US mail brought two letters. One was an official looking one from Washington, DC marked "Finance Department." It was, of course, a plea for money from a political organization. The other had a hand-written address (which, upon further study, I realized was just a very well-designed handwriting font). Then there was a card from a business that sends us catalogs, and a New Yorker magazine.

Somehow, around the time when the ads in my email inbox started increasing, the annoying robo telephone calls started decreasing. If the phone rings now (and it does rarely) it is usually from someone in the family, or an automated reminder from our HMO to get a flu shot (which just happened--while I was writing this very paragraph).

I have to say that thanks to technology I have NEVER felt so emotionally disconnected from the outside world, which appears from this end to be an endless stream of people trying to sell me stuff.

My patience is exhausted.

Thank goodness for music. End of rant. Time to practice and (thankfully) teach a few lessons later this afternoon.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

It was 30 years ago today . . .

Happy Anniversary, Michael!

[Michael actually drew this shortly before our wedding.]

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Humor (and Surprise!) of Music

Michael and I spent some time in the University library today. I love mindlessly and randomly pulling one or two books from the music section off the shelf and taking them home, because you never know what you might find you don't know (or wouldn't otherwise know). In today's handful was a slim volume from 1971 called The Humor of Music by Humphrey.

The title page told me it was by Laning Humphrey, who was the (sole) publicist for the Boston Symphony for decades.

Laning Humphrey (1896-1988) was also the father of my elementary school music teacher, Patricia Frederick who, along with her husband, runs the (fantastic) Frederick Historic Piano Collection housed in Ashburnham, Massachusetts (with lots of information about the instruments on line, of course). Some of the illustrations in the book are by Pat's mother, Martha Burnham Humphrey, who I remember as Mrs. Humphrey (Pat was Miss Humphrey when I was in her classes and chorus).

I settled down to read the anecdotes about the great and mighty musicians of yesteryear, and then I came to page 45:

That is a story about my father!

There is what I imagine to be a proofreading error. My father entered the orchestra as a violinist, and he became the principal violist of the Boston Symphony.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Elnora's Violin

Our fourth grade teacher read installments of The Secret Garden out loud to us during class. I wanted to read ahead (and I guess I couldn't find a copy in the library) so I went up to the box of my mother's old books in the attic and found a book by Gene Stratton Porter called The Magic Garden, and I started reading it. I soon forgot about The Secret Garden, and became obsessed with the Magic one.

The novel is about a girl who called herself "little hungry heart" because neither of her parents, who were very rich but no longer loved one another, seemed to love her. She did what any rich five-year-old girl would do, and got into her chauffeured car, tricked the chauffeur, and ran off into the woods. There she found a barefooted teenage boy playing his violin in the middle of a swamp, imitating the sounds of birds. A wonderful friendship began. It became my favorite book. Nobody in Boston or New York knew about Gene Stratton Porter. She was a part of the mysterious Midwest from whence the maternal side of my family came.

When I moved to the Midwest I began reading all of Gene Stratton Porter's novels and her writings about nature (they were in used bookstores all over Illinois). I particularly loved (and still love) A Girl of the Limberlost, particularly the chapter where Elnora, the protagonist, discovers a violin for the first time.

It turns out that Elnora's father, a man she never met because he died while walking through the swamp on the night she was born, was a violinist. She eventually gets his violin, and through playing it (which she takes to immediately and obsessively) is able to heal her mother's complicated heartache, and eventually repair their relationship. The need to play the violin was simply in her blood.

In 2005 I met Sharilyn Spicknall, an Indiana born-and-bred violinist who had never heard of Gene Stratton Porter. In my romantic eye and ear I considered her playing as the Indianaian essence of what Elnora would have sounded like (and I still do). I wrote a piece for her called "Elnora's Violin," a musical "illustration" for A Girl of the Limberlost.

I had a "Limberlost" moment the other day. My maternal grandfather had given Marshall a violin, and my paternal grandfather had given Marshall a bow. These instruments are now in my house. I decided to try the Chicago-made Grandpa Henry violin (Grandpa Henry shared certain traits with Elnora's father) with the Grandpa Nathan bow, and the experience felt like an explosion in my musical mind. Yesterday I got together the gumption to make a recording of Elnora's Violin with that violin and bow combination.

You can here a compressed version of it here, and a better-sounding uncompressed one that will take longer to load here.

People who found this post because of their love for the novel and for the Limberlost, might want to listen to listen to a recording of "Song of the Limberlost," a piece I wrote for solo harp that is based on more images from the novel. The harpist is Julia Kay Jamieson. The piece is in four sections:

Trees are harps in winter
The very essence of June
Elnora finds a violin
The song of the Limberlost

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Oh Dear!

From a post on Barry Lenson's Classical Music Blog with the title "A Very Smart Bluffer's Guide to Classical Music":
The Fifth Brandenburg Concerto is remarkable because Bach inserted a puzzling chord in the middle of the first movement. In common practice, a harpsichordist improvises a long cadenza around it and then the orchestra rousingly enters.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Three More Pieces

Here's a link to an updated Thematic Catalog entry for The Song of the Limberlost for harp, and a link to a set of six piano preludes that I completed at the time of the turn of the 20th to the 21st century, which makes these some of the last pieces of 20th century music and some of the first pieces of 21st century music.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Taking Care of Business

Back in the early "wild west" days of the internet composers were able to share recordings of pieces they wrote through the American Music Center library. I used it to share recordings of published pieces in my Thematic Catalog, and thought it was working just fine until I heard from someone outside of the country who was unable to download my recordings. I couldn't access them either.

Now that Dropbox has increased their "professional" package to what seems like an obscene size, I am taking matters into my own hands and directing links to recordings of my music there. I have 79 pieces of published music so it will take me a while to get links to everything.

I'm starting with concert recordings, and will then move to computer-generated ones. Eventually I hope to have real performances of everything.

Someday . . .

Here are the spoils of today: these links will take you immediately to the catalog entries, but you will have to wait for the links to download.

Duo for Clarinet and Piano
Sonata for Violin and Piano
Lilacs (for flute, clarinet, cello, and piano)

Friday, September 19, 2014

Determining Musical and Artistic Value

How do we know if the work we do as composers will have value for people of future generations? Who is really equipped to judge the value of a body of work, whether it be music or visual art? Who is equipped to judge the value of work that we do ourselves? Who is equipped to judge the value of work done by someone you love?

It is all so subjective. The first scribblings of a child are extremely meaningful to young parents and young grandparents. Michael and I saved boxes and boxes of drawings, books, and paintings that our kids made. Our children drew a lot, and because of it their personalities made their way into their art. Our son had an unusual eye for emotion, detail, and perspective at a very young age, and our daughter had a unique intimate style, a nice spatial sense, and a real eye for color. Some of Rachel's and Ben's art hangs on our walls, and when we see it Michael and I are reminded of their childhoods. Nobody can convince me that their work isn't great art.

Choice pieces of my mother's art hangs on our walls too. Since I know the large body of her work, I can separate her pieces into categories of excellent, good, and not so good. Because I know the "back story," I can also appreciate the technique she acquired over the years. Seeing her art serves a personal purpose for me, but I'm pleased to find that friends who see her work find their own special attachments to individual pieces.

Many years ago, in the early days of the internet, my mother made a website with photos of her work. Nothing came of it, and when AOL changed something in its format, my mother's website melted into the ether. My mother mentioned that nobody seemed interested in putting much in the way of monetary value on her work because she was still alive. Death puts a finite cap onto someone's creative life, and by doing so changes the monetary value of his or her work. Consider the artists of the past who were unable to sell their works for a fraction of the price that those works can command today.

Who is qualified to place monetary value on my mother's work? I am far too subjective to make any kind of judgement, and because she is no longer a working artist who can calculate the cost of materials into a work's monetary value, neither is she. All I have to go on to determine what is excellent, good, and not so good is my instinct. My mother's memory is quite good, but she doesn't remember every piece of art she did from 1970 to 2004. She is also just as subjective as the next artist, and probably equally critical. Blindness put a finite cap on my mother's life as a visual artist, but it doesn't ease her burden of those of us who can see when we are put in a position to evaluate her work.

Yesterday, a few hours before Marshall's memorial service, I went to his apartment and had a look at the condition of his manuscripts. They were in meticulous order: each piece was placed within a large envelope, and those envelopes were stored in appropriately sized boxes. Marshall kept a catalog of his works as a "Monument" (his word for it), and followed the format that we see in scholarly collections of composers' works. He listed everything by opus number, whether it was published or not. I was not surprised at all that everything would be in perfect order because his exceptional abilities and talents were bundled together with an exceptional sense of self-importance.

[I was surprised to find that his library of books about music mirrored my own almost exactly.]

I have always experienced Marshall through his thick curtain of self-importance, so I am unable to subjectively determine either the quality or the importance of his work. Marshall believed his work was of great value. Now the "ball" is in the hands of people outside of the family, and I wish them great success and courage in separating the excellent from the good and from the not so good. Marshall's absolute sense of self-importance (absolute "pitch" if you will) will certainly make the job of archiving and preserving his music easier.

Perhaps it is a "gift" (along with my neuro-typical makeup) that I do not feel compelled to tout the merits of my own work (or "toot" my own horn, as it were). Perhaps my aversion to the practice of self-promotion comes from having a brother who "touted" his horn loudly and often.

I do believe that what I do is useful (because it serves a need), and I do believe it has some value (because I take pride in my work, and I actually enjoy playing it and listening to it). I am, however, not in a position to judge its quality or its ultimate value. Nor should I be.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Accidental Archivist: a Ramble

By first week of August it became clear to me that I would no longer be teaching music appreciation at Lake Land College. The single course that I had left did not have enough students to warrant the meagre salary that I made as an adjunct. I could see that this lack of interest in music appreciation was not going to turn around, so I took the plunge and purged my file cabinet of music appreciation course notes. I thought it would be nice to use the space for something useful.

On August 9th I got the call about my brother's accident, and on the 10th Michael and I found ourselves in Horse Cave Kentucky emptying my mother's belongings and Marshall's belongings into our car. Marshall's mission was to remove our mother's paintings and family stuff from her apartment so that when the time comes to sell it we won't have to worry about getting things out in a hurry. Marshall did this all with our mother's blessing (she is in a care facility), and he told her that he wanted to arrange for her paintings to be exhibited. My thought was to use the photographs our mother took of her work (which she had previously given to Marshall) to make a blog.

Perhaps I inherited the gene for archiving from my mother. Before she lost her vision her files were beautifully organized. After she lost her vision all that organization was worthless. She is proud of her work as an artist, and took pains to preserve it while she could. In the set of slides she gave Marshall was also the work that she had sold.

I spent the endless days of Marshall's stay in Intensive Care going through letters and photos, and I distributed photos digitally to family members. I also went through Marshall's laptop and extracted PDF files from his Sibelius files, which I put into the IMSLP. It is oddly ironic (perhaps the height of irony, considering the circumstances) that in July a violist friend who is getting her doctorate in library science asked me about the idea of doing her dissertation on my music. I suggested that it might be more interesting to do something about our family, and I told her about Marshall's claim to being the second most prolific writer of viola music (Rolla is the first). Then there's my father; I'm always interested in getting people who don't know him to realize what a great player and musical thinker he is. My friend changed her plan, and opted instead for an admirable project concerning the viola music that people had written for Emanuel Vardi.

I became Marshall's archivist, at least for the music that was available to me digitally. I hope that some real archivists will take care of his manuscripts and make them available as PDF files in the IMSLP.

I am in the process of archiving my mother's work. I have photographed the paintings Marshall had in the van he was driving, along with paintings that we had hanging on our walls (which I have replaced with paintings of hers that I hadn't seen before). You can see all her work here. Some of her paintings are really nice, but all of them show her love of painting, and I enjoy seeing that love. I am grateful that I am "wired" to derive feelings of love from works of art and pieces of music. Archiving and sharing our mother's work has helped me through a lot of grief.

Tonight I take the overnight train to Memphis for Marshall's memorial service, and I will be bringing back more family stuff, including that box of slides of all my mother's work, which I will digitize and add to her blog.

Where am I in all of this? For more than a month I have felt like the center of a wheel, constantly reaching out in all directions. It has helped in some ways to expend my energy outward during this time of fresh grief, but ultimately it is emotionally unhealthy for a creative person to get into the habit of living through others. Unlike a real archivist, the work of archiving does not give me pleasure.

One thing has lead to another in our household, and I have been using the time I would be preparing classes and teaching to do some serious house cleaning (yes, it is a bit obsessive). The other day I spied a box in one closet marked "Elaine's Pre-1988 Files." The box contained an accordion file full of letters from friends I corresponded with during my years in Austria, Hong Kong, Boston, and my first years here in Illinois. There were hundreds of letters. I didn't organize them, but I did store them safely in high-quality plastic. There were other pieces of a life I hadn't thought about in a long time in that box as well.

Now I have finally started organizing my music. I did it once, back in 1985 when we moved to Illinois. I made some wooden window boxes with file hangers in them, and that's where I kept my music. A few years later we bought a nice big legal-sized file cabinet, and I blindly transferred those files to the cabinet. After I knew I would no longer be practicing my flute music (which I gave away), I organized my violin music in that file cabinet, but during the past 20 years my music has migrated into various camps all over the house. My father's music was still in the plastic crates I used to move it from Newton to Illinois. Too much of my music sat everywhere, and in various stages of disorder.

I love thinking about the fact that one of these days it will no longer be in disorder. I love the fact that once this is over I will have a clear path to get on with my real work, cleaning up intonation and articulation, and getting rid of wrong notes.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Orange Crate Art is Ten Years Old!

Happy 10th Birthday, Orange Crate Art!

Michael's wonderfully entertaining and often informative blog began ten years ago today.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The WTC and Me: My First Journey Through Both Books

Sometime during my childhood my father bought a Henle Edition of both books of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier. I imagine he bought it in England because its price was indicated in pounds, and I believe it was used because there is handwriting in it that doesn't look like it belongs to anyone in our family.

My younger brother Richard studied piano all through his childhood, and these books were always on the piano. My older brother Marshall claimed one of the fugues as his "own" (the E minor in the second book), so I picked the D minor Fugue from the second book as "mine." I plunked it out as well as I could at the time: my eyes bouncing between the music and my fingers. Richard didn't do much in the way of piano playing after he graduated from high school, so his music went into the music room of my father's house, which is in the basement.

The basement flooded in 1979, and I believe that the water damage on the covers happened as a result of that flood:

A few years ago my father told me that I could have whatever music I wanted from the basement, so, in addition to tons of chamber music, I loaded a few boxes with a lot of my brother's piano music. After my slow journey through Richard's books of Haydn, Mozart, some Chopin, and some Beethoven, I decided it was time to go through the Well-Tempered Clavier from beginning to end. I started sometime in June, and I finished this evening. It was a profound experience, and before I turn around and start the whole thing again, I thought I'd mark the event with some observations.

My friend Danny Morganstern is reading Jan Swafford's new book about Beethoven (I'm waiting until I can get my hands on a library copy). Beethoven's teacher, according to Swafford, was from Leipzig. He taught Beethoven to play the piano using the WTC so that Beethoven would be able to play in every key. That is sound teaching. That's kind of what I thought I would get out of it too, but I learned through experience that one of Bach's points seems to be to leave the home key as many times as possible, and go off into adventurous places before returning to the home key in extremely clever and highly rewarding ways. Double sharps abound even in keys that don't have many sharps in their key signatures. Every one of the 48 Preludes and Fugues is unique.

I think that Bach wrote these preludes and fugues to offer possibilities in music that were not part of the normal musical practices of the day. Most non-keyboard instruments were severely restricted in their key possibilities, even after tempered tuning was invented. The majority of pieces for violin, with or without keyboard from the 17th and 18th centuries (and even in the 19th, but that's past Bach's time) are in keys that stay within three or four flats and sharps. Wind music from Bach's time is also quite restricted. Three flats is pushing it for clear intonation and fast fingering on the baroque flute, and music with three sharps is both difficult to finger and get in tune on the alto recorder. I do not play the baroque versions of other wind instruments, but I imagine that without keys (or with just minimal keys) they suffer the same difficulties as the flute and the recorder. In this work Bach got gave himself the chance to explore the strange new musical worlds (and there are moments that are pretty strange) that happen in between the keys that all the rest of the world lives in.

My first journey through the WTC was filled with all sorts of emotional highs and lows. While we were all waiting to see if Marshall would survive his accident, I was near the end of the first book. The B-minor Prelude and Fugue that ends Book One is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written (even by the standards of its WTC company). Playing it helped me a great deal. By the time I reached the E-minor Fugue in the second book, my brother was no longer alive. It was difficult for me to play it. It was difficult because it is difficult, it was difficult because it was Marshall's "property," and it was difficult because my experience with Marshall as my brother was now something that could only exist in memory. It will still always be "his fugue."

I'm hoping that my next journey through the WTC will offer fewer reasons to seek out Bach for solace.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Sid Caesar "plays" the Grieg Piano Concerto

Part of the charm of this is the way Caesar responds to the musical shenanigans of Earl Wild, the pianist who is actually doing the playing, and the audience's response.

Friday, September 05, 2014

How to be a Successful Chamber Musician in the 21st Century

From a chamber music coaching session given by a very prominent (and very successful) 21st-century musician:
“Anything that sounds like melody, make it rhythmic; anything that sounds like harmony, make it rhythmic . . . anything that sounds rhythmic, make it melodic. Contradict all the traditional roles that any one of you may have.”
That just about sums it up.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

So much information, so little guidance

I was discussing the relative merits of the IMSLP with my non-computer-using father, and he pointed out that from what he has seen (i.e. what I have shown him), it has long lists of composers without any means of distinguishing the quality of one from the quality of the other. The library is excellent for looking up pieces by composers you already know or finding pieces for a particular instrumentation or from a particular country, but separating the great from the good in the IMSLP does indeed take considerable time, considerable knowledge, and considerable skill. Like any physical library, you really don't know what you have unless you remove a book from a shelf and begin to read.

Unlike a dipping into a physical library of books, reading music is a specialized skill. Consider the plight of a person fluent in a Germanic or Romance language or two being asked to separate the great from the good (or the lousy) in a library that only had books in Asian languages. That is akin to the plight of a person who is unable to read music trying to evaluate what s/he finds in the IMSLP.

The ability to separate the great from the good (and the good from the lousy) really requires a person to play pieces of music in real time. Keyboard music and songs with keyboard accompaniment can be played and evaluated by a single person, but many pieces can only really be evaluated by getting a group of people together and reading the music. That requires logistics, as well as the "carrot" of something wonderful like Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, or Schubert to get the most out of the experience of actually playing together.

I have found some great music in the IMSLP. I have tried to get people interested in music I have found in the IMSLP by way of my blog, or by telling friends about it. Some people follow through, and some people do not. I have a feeling that some people see no hurry to follow through because they understand that the music will always be available from anywhere for free. Sometimes not being in a hurry translates into never getting around to it.

I am very lucky that my pianist friend, John David, loves to read through lesser-known pieces he finds on the ISMLP (and through interlibrary loan). He has always been interested in off-the-beaten-path music, so the IMSLP is a perfect playground for him. We get a particular kick out of performing our "finds" for dozens of people who marvel at the fact that they never knew about any of the composers we "dig up" (with the press of a button or two).

There's the huge amount of new music being written every day, the difficulty of finding places to play (with a decent piano) and audiences to play for, and the dearth of musically-literate journalists to write honestly about what they hear increases the effort of playing new music. Dedicated music journalists (reviewers), along with publishers (from the days when publishers were the main way music was distributed), were the trusted musical "gatekeepers." I'm not exactly sure who the "gatekeepers" are these days, but I have observed that they are often associated with "legitimate" publications, both online and in print. When I say (or really write) something as a reviewer for the American Record Guide (and I have had several CD reviews in every issue during the last 25 or so years), people tend to pay attention. When I write something as the keeper of this blog (which will be ten years old in February), people tend to think of me as a potential buyer for one of their products or services.

Now that we have this unheard of amount of musical material at our fingertips (literally), and we have more people than ever with the technical ability to play it, we need more in the way of specialized music education to help organize it, and more people willing to devote resources towards performing it. But reality rears its ugly head, and college classes in music appreciation are being eliminated because students are not interested in spending their time and money learning about music that doesn't matter to them already. Those who do have an interest in such things will just have to learn on their own.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Surprise Bonbons from California!

There's more to Sonoma County than wine. The young people there make good music. What a treat it was to find this on YouTube!

California Summer Music 2014 Chamber Music Finale
Sonoma State University - Green Music Center
Noah L. and Darius Soo Hoo, Violins,
Sean O., Cello]

Monday, September 01, 2014

Marshall Fine's Musical Assumptions

As I learned music, I gradually observed that my experiments with alternate key levels and hierarchies, as basis for my own handling of tonalities and even tone-rows, lent themselves better to triple periods than double. It appears that I may have discovered a basic new truth, which all these examples demonstrate: that just as double periodicity was necessary to accommodate music based on an ascendant tonic and dominant (or dominant-substitute), triple or greater periodicity is the new wineskin for the fresh wine, music of expanded tonality and rhythmic scope. The chances are excellent that a phrase of modern music, that on the surface appears to lead nowhere due to a "free-flowing" character, or otherwise lies uncertainly or ambiguously, will come clean when considered a multiple period.

-- from Marshall Fine's Phrasing Handbook
I am very impressed with my brother's Phrasing Handbook because of the concise way he contextualizes music from the Middle Ages through the 21st century. It is 77 pages long, carefully written, and makes a great deal of sense.

My brother did have the sharpest ears I ever encountered, even in a family full of people with absolute pitch (our mother, our maternal grandmother, our paternal grandfather, and three brothers), and near absolute pitch (our father). I did not inherit absolute pitch (and boy did I try to develop it). I really felt somewhat handicapped as a child because of my lack of absolute pitch. The very young Marshall, when asked, could play anything he happened to have heard on the piano: even something as complicated as the opening of Tristan. It was truly astounding.

It is really rare to read a contemporary "take" on music history from the standpoint of someone who hears at such a high level. Too much scholarly writing approaches music history from the intellectual side rather than from the practical side.

I think that this handbook might really be helpful to people who want to understand something about the "why" of phrasing.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

"Getting Better"

This is today's picture on my mother's art blog. She made it in 1992, and I imagine that the title "Getting Better" refers to her watercolor technique. But it also has a lot of personal meaning for me right now, and I imagine that it might have meaning for other people as well. Grief is a complicated process that seems to happen in dreams as well as in waking private dialogue (or, more correctly, monologue). But I am getting better, and my family is getting better.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

It Brings Me to My Happy Place

I had a magical day in Mattoon, Illinois, today. While waiting for some work to be done on our car, I went to the local mall and visited the new fabric store for the first time. What a pleasure it is to go into a store where everyone there is just brimming with possible ways of expressing themselves. It is a brand new store, so most of the people were there were also in it for the first time.

I sat down at a table covered with pattern books and remarked to the person sitting across from me (a woman around my mother's age) how nice it was to be in such a place, and to have it in town. Then we began talking about anything and everything for about two hours (it turns out that her late husband was a local band director, and she had been to our last Summer Strings concert). She drove me to my arranged coffee rendezvous (which was brief, but lovely), and then I went to play for a class of fourth graders at a local elementary school.

It was an exceptionally bright and engaged class of kids. I talked about the viola and played them some Bach. Then I opened the floor for questions, which turned immediately into requests: cowboy songs, songs from movies, themes from video games, Beatles tunes, and Christmas carols. They sang along, and some kids even got up and danced.

One girl asked me if I knew anything from Sleeping Beauty, so I played her the Waltz. After I was finished she said, "That brings me to my happy place, and I didn't even know I had a happy place."

Them's fightin' words.

Isn't that what it's all about?

I paid a little homage to my brother too. I read in a Facebook post from one of his colleagues that once during a demonstration of range on the instruments in a string quartet, Marshall went from the viola's open C string all the way into the upper reaches of the A string, far above where the fingerboard ends. I did that today. The kids loved it. One kid even gasped.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

My Mother's Art

My mother started to paint seriously around the time that she lost the ability to play the flute, and she stopped doing artwork when she lost the ability to see (I wrote a post about it in 2006). Rather than have it sit in her closets for nobody to see, my brother and I thought it best to bring our mother's paintings and drawings to Memphis (where he lived) so that they could remain safe within our family. The car my brother was driving on August 7th was carrying our mother's artwork.

Michael and I brought the paintings and other family items along with Marshall's laptop computer back from Kentucky (where the accident happened) to Illinois, and I spent much of the terrible two weeks that followed looking at albums of family pictures, our mother's scrapbooks, and our mother's artwork.

As a way to help our family and people close to our family with healing, I started a new blog with photographs of my mother's artwork. I'm adding a few pictures every day. You can see her work here:

June Fine's Paintings and Drawings

Friday, August 22, 2014

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Marshall Fine (1956-2014)

This a very sad time for our family and for Marshall's many friends, colleagues, and students. Memories of Marshall (which are ALWAYS interesting and colorful) are welcome in the comments.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Regarding Grief and Regarding Marshall

The modern way of computer-assisted grief is surreal. Because so many of my brother's friends communicate by way of Facebook, I found (and still find) myself in a state of having to deal with something that is deeply personal and deeply complicated in a public way. The constant stream of kind thoughts and carefully worded messages of condolence have helped me to feel very far from alone, so some of the attention has been most welcome.

I have also been stung by the occasional unintentional violation of boundaries by people I do not know. Everyone's family has its specific ways of relating to one another, and when a family is in the "public eye" of the community of musicians, perhaps people assume the right to have sudden intimacies because of the intimacy of a shared musical bond with someone who has died.

I wrote a "note" on my Facebook page so that people who do not know me might be able to understand something about my relationship with my brother Marshall. Here are some excerpts:

Growing up with Marshall Fine as my big brother was not always fun. He was indeed a musical savant as a child, and I was (of course) terribly jealous of his supernatural musical gifts (and they were supernatural). He truly did have the most accurate of musical ears and a great intellectual understanding of form and function in music.

He had serious social difficulties as a child and as a young adult, and it pleases me a great deal to know that he had such a large community of people who really valued what he did as a composer, a violist, a violinist, and as a conductor.

My relationship with Marshall was always riddled with sibling rivalry (Mom did like him best). We did not spend much time together as children, and when he was home (he went to a special-needs boarding school) life was difficult for everybody.

After we grew up we would sometimes go years, and sometimes go decades without seeing one another. I can count on one hand the number of times we have seen one another since he left Boston for Atlanta in the late 70s or early 80s.

We spent the past decade in (rare) phone and (less rare) e-mail contact, and during the past year we worked together helping our (blind and disabled) mother get out of her basement apartment and into a care facility. Our communications over these things had their difficulties, but the difficulties were challenges from the outside our family: people who acted in ways that gave our mother a great deal of grief and difficulty (don't get me started).

I was always bothered by Marshall's elevated image of himself and a whole slew of other things not worth going into here, but in his last six months I also got to know him as a person with a good heart. Perhaps my greatest feeling of grief comes from the fact that I felt that our relationship as brother and sister had really started to have some meaning, and then it was suddenly cut off.

For those people who never knew Marshall, he was indeed as brilliant a person as his friends present him to be. I joined Facebook last year because someone who played at a music festival with Marshall told me that he was on Facebook. I was indeed surprised when I "friended" him how many people loved and admired him. It does me proud as a sister to know that Marshall found his place in Memphis and that he had devoted friends.
Last night I got out Marshall's laptop computer (which I removed from the wrecked car he had been driving), and I sorted through the compositions I found on it. I converted his Sibelius files into PDF files, made a page for him on the IMSLP, and have started uploading his music. My father has manuscript copies of Marshall's violin and viola music that haven't been engraved. We will arrange to have those manuscripts scanned.

Marshall's music, like his personality, is intimidating. I spent much of my young childhood under the shadow of Marshall's enormous ego and intellectual brilliance, and the experience of going through his music puts me right back into "Marshall's sister" mode, something I don't remember feeling since I was a young teenager.

I began my professional musical life doing different things from the things that Marshall did, and now I find myself doing the exact same things that he did, only with a very different musical personality and a different purpose. I am learning through first-hand experience that musical ego does reach far beyond the grave, and it is strangely healing to be able to keep that musical ego available for musicians to enjoy (or fear) even when Marshall is no longer among the living.