Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"Being" a Composer, and Birthday Piece #6

When I turned 50 I decided to celebrate by writing a "Birthday Piece" for viola d'amore and piano to mark every birthday to come. This year's Birthday Piece came a bit early, partly because I needed an escape from a self-imposed opera project that I have been struggling with on and off for more than ten years. I somehow got the idea in my head a couple of months ago that since I had ample time I was now capable of making the opera work, but my constant need to escape from working on it gives me a clear sign that it's time to go onto other things. I have, after all, already written three operas, and none of them has ever been performed.

Sometimes I wonder what it means to "be" a composer. Am I a composer when I'm not writing? Am I a lousy composer when someone politely doesn't respond to a work I have written for him or her (even a commissioned piece)? Money is an easy exchange, but human contact is not. Who is to judge the quality of a piece anyway? The people playing it? The audience? A critic? If I were to stop writing today, would I still be a composer?

I get great pleasure from making things, and that includes writing music when it comes from a deep creative place. That deep creative place used to be like a lake of musical experience. For years and years all I needed to do was "go" to it, and I every time I would draw up something unique. But things seem to have changed of late, and I fear that I have gotten everything from my figurative lake that is available to me. Every time I try something new these days it seems that it is a restatement of something that I have already written. Perhaps it's time to hang up my composing hat for a while and make other things, like hat bands.

This one matches the dress I made the other day.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Education of the Senses

My friend Norman Spencer (who has told me over and over that music is not one of his areas of real knowledge) put this post on Facebook where he made reference to his fondness for the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. He included a picture of Linus (of Peanuts fame) sitting next to a radio on top of a caption that reads "Happiness is a Sad Song."
I think I've said before that I am intellectually a pessimist, but emotionally an optimist. People without a tolerance for ambiguity might find this to be a paradox, but in combination they result in a wistful melancholy, like music in a minor key. However much I am cheered, even exhilarated, by Mozart's Singspiele, I am comforted by the Allegretto movement of Beethoven's Seventh, the greatest piece of music ever written, in my opinion, because, because like me, it is both major and minor.
Here's my response:
Some of the most uplifting and exhilarating pieces of music happen to be in the minor mode. And that fine line between the emotions can be crisscrossed constantly and imperceptibly by a composer who has the sensitivity to understand how complex the human animal is. I don't really understand why people (who do not prioritize music) divide it between major and minor, reflecting merely happy and sad states of being. We have areas of our tongues that taste bitter, sweet, salty, and sour (not to mention umami), and most of us see a wide swash of the color spectrum in three dimensions. We feel a wide range of temperatures and textures with our skin, and we experience smells that allow us to recall times and places from our most deeply buried memories. Composing musicians and performing musicians offer us those kinds of experiences in organized sound (though too many people hear only happy and sad, loud and soft, or fast and slow). A good performance of the slow movement of Beethoven's 7th (not to mention the whole Symphony) can stimulate and challenge the senses of people hearing it partly because it stimulates and challenges the senses of the people playing it. It is one of the handful of pieces in the orchestral repertoire that instantly allows the people playing it and the people hearing it to become one.
Then I started thinking about my own sense of sense in relation to my recent gastronomic expansion and the pleasure that it has given me to eat from the whole "repertoire," not just from the foods that grow in the ground.

The first piece of meat I ate in a decade was a piece of chicken I had at our daughter's wedding two weeks ago. Surprisingly the chicken itself had little in the way of flavor for me, but it gave me energy and kept me full. Meal by subsequent meal during these last two weeks I started to notice complicated and pleasurable flavors that were in my food. It was not instant. It was kind of like a negative developing, or like a distant radio signal becoming more clear. Now that I am eating meat regularly I have a much more acute sense of the various flavors in the plant foods that accompany it. I simply get more pleasure from the various (and they are now really various) flavors that are in my food. I wonder if eliminating a whole category of food (or two categories if you include dairy) eventually began to dull my sense of taste.

I wonder if people who have only had the experience of listening to music through a recorded filter suffer unknowingly from the same kind of passive sensory deprivation that I had during my decade of eating only plant-based foods. I wonder if people who only listen to music played in a few keys (you know, C major, G major, D major, and A major and their relative minors) don't happen to notice that there are all sorts of harmonic possibilities beyond three sharps. And young brass players who live in the keys of F, B-flat, E-flat, and A-flat might not realize the possibilities available in the worlds of sharp keys. Pianists get used to the tempered tuning of their instrument, and they may not really notice that when they hear vocal music or string music that the musicians are often using a natural (or pure) scale when they are singing or playing.

One of the maxims in Stevens Hewitt's Oboe Method reads, "The only education is the education of the senses." This makes total sense (no pun intended) to me now. As human beings we are totally pleasure driven. If it were not for pleasure, we would not bother to procreate. If it were not for pleasure we would not form communities. We make music for pleasure and for the pleasure of others. We cook food for pleasure and for the pleasure of others. The experience of pleasure is what allows us to recognize it when we encounter it again. Teaching people to recognize the pleasures available in the world around them is a genuinely worthwhile activity, but, like anything worthwhile, it sometimes takes time and courage for relative novices to hear (and taste and feel) for themselves.

Here are some more of Hewitt's maxims (for your pleasure).

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Some Very Special Community Recognition

There's something special about getting recognition for what I do in the place where I live. Here's the article in the local paper about it.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Revisiting Old Things

I used to sew. I started doing it in earnest when Michael and I moved to Illinois in 1985. I found it very relaxing. I sewed dresses using Laura Ashley patterns, and I sewed maternity clothes. I sewed curtains for our house. I sewed things for Michael (he still uses one of the three robes I made for him), and I sewed baby and toddler clothes for our children.

My sewing machine broke around the time I started playing violin, and I forgot about sewing. The red-checkered kitchen curtains I made back in 1992 became so faded that we decided to replace them (with new red-checkered curtains, of course) about a month ago, and on a whim I decided to spend $100 on a new sewing machine so that I could hem them.

Then I found the fabric sites that the internet has to offer, and I bought several yards of lawn fabric (two different prints) and a dress pattern.

Yesterday I cut, and today I sewed. I couldn't finish what I was making because I misjudged the amount of fabric I needed, and I had to order more.

I used to think that arranging music (music written by someone else) was a lot like sewing. If you have great material to work with, your main charge is not to do anything that lessens the quality of the material. Writing music from scratch is a totally different experience.

While I was sewing I was thinking about my opera in progress (I have an introduction and about 6 minutes of music so far), and I was thinking about how much sewing is not like writing music. Composing is more like spinning the thread, weaving it, designing the pattern, and dying it.

Sewing from a pattern is satisfying because all you really have to do is follow the directions exactly in order to have your project come out properly. If you take extra care and correct mistakes, it can even come out looking nice.

Now that I am back in the "sewing" of things, I realize how difficult composing actually is.

I also ate beef stew for the first time in ten years this evening.

My life is a-jumble with returning sensations.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Orfeo by Richard Powers

I am not generally a reader of best-selling fiction, but I devoured Orfeo and savored every bit. It is a novel about music: the protagonist is a composer of avant-garde music who came of age in the 1960s. The novel is set in places I know very well (including Urbana, Illinois and Brookline, Massachusetts), and Powers describes them succinctly and accurately; even the small places and fleeting moments (including stops en route from Urbana, Illinois to St. Louis along I-70). He also describes places he hasn't been with great artistry, like the camp where Messiaen wrote and performed the Quartet for the End of Time and the first performance of HPSCHD at the Assembly Hall on the U of I campus on May 16, 1969.

Powers and I are contemporaries, and though his protagonist (in current time) is a decade and a half older than we are, he is able to vividly and realistically capture a sense of the cultural and technological "now" in contrast with the progressive "then" of the 1960s. He is able to switch between decades deftly and seamlessly. The reader instantly knows where and when time changes before the transitional sentence is finished. It's kind of like a tempo change or key change in a piece of music.

Powers has a deep understanding of music, and a deep understanding of musicians. Better than Thomas Mann, perhaps. And he uses a device for dialogue that I have never seen before (and didn't really notice until I was about halfway through the book). Dialogue is printed in italics, and the speaker is never identified. He writes so clearly that speaker doesn't need to be identified.

I bought an electronic copy which I read on the flight to our daughter's wedding in Los Angeles. One of the first things I did in town was go to a bookstore and buy a hard copy to give to my (musician/scientist) father. I'm excited to discuss it with him.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Franz Liszt was a Freemason!

From James Huneker's 1911 book about Franz Liszt:
On the 31st of July last one of the greatest artists and men departed at Bayreuth for the eternal east, who had proved himself a worthy member of our brotherhood by his deeds through his whole eventful life. It is Brother Franz Liszt, on whose grave we deposit an acacia branch. Millions of florins Franz Liszt had earned on his triumphal career—for others. His art, his time, his life, were given to those who claimed it. Thus he journeyed, a living embodiment of the St. Simonism to which he once belonged, through his earthly pilgrimage. Brother Franz Liszt was admitted into the brotherhood in the year 1844, at the lodge 'Unity' ('Zur Einigkeit'), in Frankfort-on-the-Main, by George Kloss, with the composer, W. Ch. Speyer as witness, and in the presence of Felix von Lichnowsky. He was promoted to the second degree[390] in a lodge at Berlin, and elected master in 1870, as member of the lodge 'Zur Einigkeit,' in Budapest. Since 1845 he was also honorary member of the L. Modestia cum Libertate at Zurich. If there ever was a Freemason in favour with Pope Pius IX it was Franz Liszt, created abbĂ© in 1865 in Rome.

Joan Manen's "Garbo"

I just discovered the music of Joan Manen and thought I'd share this delightful tidbit:

and this one for guitar:

Monday, April 14, 2014

Here's what happened Saturday!

Michael and I walked Rachel down the aisle.

Rachel and Seth got married.

After Rachel's first dances with Seth and Michael, she sang with us. Ben played banjo, Michael played (Seth's) guitar, and I played (Rachel's) violin.

Everyone had a great time. Then we all flew away from Los Angeles, including Rachel and Seth. It was a wonderful wedding. It was a wonderful weekend.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Totally Distracted!

With our daughter's wedding coming up this weekend (is it time to go yet?), Michael and I are both totally distracted. Somehow listening to this fabulous recording from 1967 of Anshel Brusilow conducting the Chamber Symphony of Philadelphia in Haydn's Symphony 60, "Il Distratto," is excellent medicine.

If you are new to this piece (and don't know what to expect) make sure to listen all the way through the last movement. Surprise and delight await at every turn.

Here's a roster of the orchestra from 1966:

Friday, April 04, 2014

Jodi Levitz Talks About the Why of Playing the Viola

"All emotion comes from memory." I like that.

Good Hair Days, Bad Hair Days

Anyone with wavy or curly hair knows that there are good hair days and bad hair days. There are days when my hair simply droops, and days when it seems to keep itself in place. I'm convinced that it has a lot to do with the degree of humidity in the air, and the relationship of that humidity to the temperature.

I have found, through careful research (the hair on my head and the horse hair on the bows that I use), that good bow hair days and bad bow hair correlate to good head hair days and bad head hair days. It is on the good bow hair days that I enjoy playing the most. On the bad bow hair days I tend to reach for the rosin and scrutinize everything in my bow-drawing anatomy (I also avoid looking in the mirror).

Too much humidity in the air causes the hair to relax, which makes the stick bear a different kind of burden from the burden it bears when there is a moderate amount of humidity in the air. When the air is too dry (like in some concert halls I know quite well), the hair bears more of a burden. The problem is compounded by the fact that sound travels more quickly through moist air that it does through dry air. Mathew Abraham gives an excellent explanation:
The density of dry air is more than that of moist air (Wonder why? Just answer me – which is denser – skimmed milk or fresh milk. The cream is lighter and when removed from milk, we get skimmed milk and therefore skimmed milk will be denser than the fresh one with cream content. Just like that the water vapor is lighter than dry air. When moisture is removed from air, its density increases). The speed of sound in a medium is inversely proportional to the square root of its density. Therefore, the speed of sound in moist air is more than that in dry air.
Years ago, when I was deeply into the practice of making bread, I read an article in Gourmet magazine about the way humidity affects the wheat crop, and therefore affects the bread that is made from it. In order to have a consistent "product," bakers have to either have consistent ingredients or compensate for the inconsistencies that crop up from time to time. [Bad pun, but I'm keeping it in because it wasn't intentional.] String players, like bakers, have to come up with a consistent "product," regardless of what physical environment we happen to be in at the time.

Perhaps we should embrace the daily changes in the temperature and humidity (and they are daily these days) because they connect us more with the natural world and its inhabitants. And as "long hair" musicians that is something that we should strive to do.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Spoils of the Day

Here we have a mouse that has grown Beethoven's ear thanks to DNA from Beethoven's hair.

I'll use this opportunity to post a (now-chached) link to the great La Folia website that lists and links to settings of La Folia from the early 17th century through the 21st century.