Thursday, July 31, 2014

Don't try this at home!

In the early 1930s Nicolas Slonimsky stayed at home to take care of his baby daughter Electra while his wife, Dorothy Adlow, was writing art columns for the Christian Science Monitor. Mr. Slonimsky would speak Latin to his daughter at home. To ask for milk he taught her "Da mini lac," and he taught her the Latin names of the items in their household. He sang her to sleep with songs in Latin, and when it came to teaching her music, she learned the Latin names of the pitches as well as the modes. When she entered school she announced to her father that other kids didn't speak Latin at home.

[I can't find extensive biographical information on Adlow in the usual internet places, but you can read about her on this page].

Slonimsky tried to condition Electra to like dissonant music, and in Perfect Pitch he quotes a story that Henry Cowell was fond of telling:
When Electra would demand a bottle, I would sit down at the piano and play a Chopin nocturne, completely ignoring her screams. I would allow for a pause, and then play on the piano Schoenberg's Opus 33a, which opens with a dodecaphonic succession of three highly dissonant chords. I would then rush in to give Electra her bottle. Her features would relax, her crying would cease, and she would suck contentedly. This was to establish a conditioned reflex in favor of dissonant music.
Electra did eventually survive her unusual childhood. Here's an interview with her that might be of interest, and another which is much more personal, and certainly would be of interest to anyone who has read (or is reading, or is planning to read) Perfect Pitch.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Preparing Music

A headline in the musical blogosphere tells us that our obvious problem is that there is too much classical music. If you were to magically remove electronically-generated music from the world, there would not be too much. There would probably not be enough to satisfy and entertain all the people who have come to enjoy music as part of their daily lives. People would have to go about making it themselves and with their families and friends. People would really learn to appreciate the people who have talent and ability, and really learn to understand all that goes into becoming a professional musician. People would have to go out of their way to arrange to have concerts in their communities, and would have to hire musicians to liven up celebrations.

[I know that I am communicating through an automated medium, and that I have learned a great deal about music through automated media, but lately, unless I am listening to recordings to review or watching a movie that has a musical soundtrack, I mostly "consume" music that I generate myself (either alone or with friends), or hear played in real time.]

I know that I am not alone when I mention that I enjoy eating good food. I enjoy eating food that I make myself, and I enjoy eating food that other people make for me. I really enjoy eating in restaurants, particularly when I can eat food that I would have difficulty making at home. Since I re-entered the world of the omnivore, every single meal is a celebration.

A few days ago I discovered a podcast called The Splendid Table, where the brilliant host Lynne Rossetto Kasper talks about food with people who grow it, cook it, and write about it. She also answers call-in questions from listeners, and gives them terrific ideas about what to make and how to prepare food. She often does it on the spot.

[Yes. I know that it is through the gift of automation that I can take this podcast on my walk with me.]

While listening to one of Ms. Kasper's podcasts today it occurred to me that if people thought about food the way they think about music, very few people would be interested in preparing food themselves. They would occasionally to restaurants (good ones and not-so-good ones) but mostly they would buy ready-made meals to eat at home.

If people asked questions about music the way they ask questions about food, with the intention of going home and "making it" themselves, we might have a very different kind of musical culture. It would be a culture where nobody would be in a position to say that there is too much classical music (or any other kind of music).

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Rambling on about the Future of Music, Again

Nobody can predict the future. We can, however, look around at our present and read about our past, and we can think about what we can do in order to preserve the good things we have living our lives in music.

Here are a few facts:
It has never in the history of the world been so easy for people to instantly access music they want to listen to (thanks to recordings and computers).

It has never in the history of the world been so easy for people to acquire musical skills (thanks to instructional videos and a large number of well-taught teachers who live outside of major cities).

It has never in the history of the world been so easy for people to acquire sheet music (thanks to the IMSLP and interlibrary loan).

It has never in the history of the world been so easy for people to learn about composers who could have been forgotten (thanks to the blogosphere and Wikipedia).

It has never in the history of the world been so easy for people anywhere to buy high-quality instruments (and some made by living makers are affordable).

It has never in the history of the world been so easy for people to buy good quality instruments for students of all ages and sizes.

It has never in the history of the world been so easy for people to evaluate themselves and their playing (thanks to recording technology).

It has never in the history of the world for people to present themselves in a way that makes them seem musically more competent than they are (thanks to free computer editing programs and auto-tune).

It has never in the history of the world been so easy to find like-minded musicians and communicate with them.

It has never in the history of the world been so easy for composers to hear a good approximation of what their notated music sounds like (thanks to Finale and Sibelius).

It has never in the history of the world been so easy to listen to traditional music from every corner of the world.

It has never in the history of the world been so easy to acquire affordable replicas of instruments from previous centuries and to learn how to play them from people who are expert players.

It has never in the history of the world been so easy to distribute music (thanks to PDF files and computers).
But there are things that aren't easy these days for professional musicians, and because of the very things that make our musical lives easier, I fear that the profession of music (at least the classical kind) will continue to atrophy from its 150-year heyday that lasted from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. But because of these technologies there is a great deal of room for amateur music making (and amateur music making at its highest level) to grow and continue to enhance our lives. It's just that because of technology it is becoming increasing difficult to make the kind of living where a person can own a house, raise children, own a car, and retire in old age by depending on music making as his or her livelihood.

When I was growing up I thought of paying money to study with someone as an investment in gaining enough technique and musical insight to do well in the profession of music. Now it seems that the money exchanged between student and teacher in a lesson has more to do with gaining inspiration, gaining a sense of confidence on an instrument, finding a sense of purpose in life, and acquiring the ability to express emotion through music than making an investment in succeeding in the profession.

I believe that the profession of teaching music will continue, and even thrive in some cases and in some communities. But people fortunate enough to be tenure-track members of a university faculty are finding that more and more people using their college "dollar" to pursue professions other than musical ones. This eventually causes music departments to shrink substantially or be eliminated altogether.

Perhaps we are entering a new age concerning the profession of music. At first professional musicians were supported mainly through the church, and then by various monarchs (who also subsidized church musicians). Publishing music was also a big business from the 16th century through the 20th century.

And there were concerts. Some people went to concerts because they were an enjoyable form of entertainment. Some people went to concerts because they wanted to hear music (much like the way people go to art museums because they want to enjoy looking at art). Local businesses advertised in concert programs, and wealthy people in communities gave money to keep orchestras going (much like the way wealthy people give money to art museums).

Around the middle of the 20th century, particularly in America, universities were the places to find music. Colleges and universities, often funded by industrial moguls like Eastman, started having faculty string quartets, concert series, artists in residence, and composers in residence (some well-endowed schools still do). Serious portable automation along with cultural shifts have caused the general college-age population (with the exception of students who were either exposed to classical music during childhood or participate in musical activities themselves) have changed the entertainment priorities of many campuses. A lot of non-musical faculty members in their 30s and 40s don't take advantage of musical activities on college campuses. From where I sit it seems that most of the people who attend university concerts are either retired (or older) faculty members, young people who are taking music appreciation classes, or friends of the people performing.

Wouldn't it be nice if our next musical age could involve communities themselves as centers of musical activity rather than evangelical institutions or institutions of higher learning? Wouldn't it be nice if wealthy people could consider giving money to musical organizations that continue to promote community music and if there could be music-related jobs created so that musicians could subsidize their musical "habits" by getting paid to work for the cause of community music? Wouldn't it be nice if people from all walks of life understood (from experience) about the life-enhancing value of listening to music played by human beings rather than by mechanical reproduction? Wouldn't it be nice if people in positions of influence in city governments could place well-deserved value on what a community has to offer musically to its members and do its best (through all the media) to get the message out that classical musicians are an asset to a community?

Summer Strings Concert

This year's Summer Strings concert on July 22 was a lot of fun for everyone playing, and the audience enjoyed it as well.

I did manage to get a good recording, and I am sharing it through this Dropbox link. There is no need to join Dropbox to listen. You can also see a program there.

Remember when listening that this is a community orchestra made of people ranging from around 4 or 5 to their later 70s (I'm not sure of exact ages). The violin 2b section is mostly made of people who have only been playing for a year or two. There are a lot of adults in the group: some are "late starters," some are people who studied seriously but do not play professionally, some are college students, and a few are professional musicians (who also teach many of the people in the group). We only meet during the summer (Tuesday evenings in June and July for 90 minutes), and not everyone comes to every rehearsal. This year we had three conductors, and they were flexible enough to "cover" for the times when one or two of the others could not be at rehearsal.

All the arrangements that I made (Ka-Wai Yu and Nina Woodgate made some of them) are available for free through a dropbox folder I share (just send me an email message, and I'll send you a link).

[The picnic that we had before the concert was fantastic, by the way. It was my first pot luck as an omnivore in years and years and years, and I was one happy eater.]

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Sam I Am Eggs

I was talking with my father about making deviled eggs with Avocado for the picnic before our Summer Strings concert this evening, and he suggested I could make "Sam I Am" eggs.

So I did.

I also drew this nifty little sign, and made a few extra eggs to have for lunch with Michael. He liked them a lot, and he suggested that I should put the recipe on my blog.

So I did.

Here's a close-up shot to click on so that you can see the details.

I can't give you exact amounts, but I don't think that exact amounts really matter in a recipe like this.

I cooked eggs in a steamer (which makes them easier to peel) for 20 minutes, and let them cool completely. Then I cut the eggs in half and discarded half of the yolks. I mashed the remaining yolks with a whole avocado, and then added some lime juice, a tablespoon or so of cilantro paste, a generous amount of finely-chopped red onion, and a bunch of finely-cut-up, thinly-sliced smoked ham. I then added a bit of salt and pepper (to taste), and spooned the mixture into the egg-white shells.

So there you have it.

Nicolas Slonimsky on Val Rosing

[From Perfect Pitch]
In concert recitals Rosing could get away with anything as long as he was confident that his accompanist would follow him through all his vagaries. But a real disaster befell him when he undertook the lead role in an Eastman School production of Gounod's Faust. He knew the arias, but the recitatives were beyond his power of retention. He sang in French, and as usual was not sure of the words. For safety's sake he planted scraps of paper with words written on them in the scenery for the garden scene, which had a lot of recitative in it. At the last moment, a misguided stagehand removed the crucial scraps from the trees and bushes. Rosing began his recitative, went to a corresponding bush, fumbled around and found nothing. He had no other recourse but to keep repeating the first line from his aria, "Salut! refuge chaste et pure!" It was only thanks to his supreme self-assurance that he pulled through.
More on Val (Vladimir) Rosing here.

Monday, July 21, 2014

When You Open it to Speak (or Sing) are you Smart?

Amoeba Music in Los Angeles had a Thomas Quasthoff section. I knew that he had retired from singing a few years ago, so I just bought all of his recordings including "The Jazz Album" (from 2007). Quasthoff's Bach is superb (but I knew that), and so is his German Lieder singing (naturally).

I'm pretty discerning when it comes to German diction, but as a native speaker I feel that I have some expertise in American English diction. Quasthoff's American English is excellent. It might even be idiomatic to a fault, incorporating the colloquial pronunciation of a word like "sister" as it would be sung by, perhaps, the Beach Boys. In Charlie Chaplin's "Smile," Quasthoff allows himself a few rich shadows of ever-so-slightly German-tinged vowels when he really gets expressive on sustained notes, but it seems appropriate (Chaplin, after all, did not speak American English). Vocally Quasthoff can do anything, but he doesn't use the music here as a way to show off his voice. Rather he uses his flexible and formidable voice to bring out all the expressive and interpretive possibilities that are in these wonderful songs.

Quasthoff treats Alan and Marilyn Bergman's superb lyric to "What are you Doing the Rest of your Life?" (the music is by Michel Legrand) with the same reverence that he treats Heinrich Heine's poetry. Pianist Alan Broadbent made the smaller ensemble arrangements, and Nan Schwartz made the adventurous (and very impressive) orchestral arrangements, which she conducts.

Summer Strings Concert Tomorrow Night!

It's had to believe that we have been doing Summer Strings for ten years. What started as a way to give students a way to play music together in the summer has grown into something that string players around here look forward to all year. This year's concert has a little less in the way of pop music than previous years, and it will open with the first performance ever (a world premiere, if you will) of my "May Day Overture" a piece that I completed on the first of May. All of the other music on the program that I have either written or arranged I have already made available through the IMSLP and Dropbox, and I will upload the Overture after the performance on Tuesday. This year's program will also have two arrangements by Nina Woodgate (who has left Illinois for Michigan, where I hope she will start her own Summer Strings orchestra one day), and two arrangements by Ka-Wai Yu.

The people who play in this group range in age from about 4 to their later 70s. Some people have been playing all of their lives, and some have only been playing a year or two. Some people travel a few blocks, and some drive for an hour or more. Some people come to every single rehearsal, and some people only come to one or two (we are very flexible about attendance since it is summer, and people tend to go away from time to time). It is a community-supported organization, and the string teachers and conductors that run the program all volunteer their time, so we do not charge tuition of any kind.

The concert is free, and the weather looks like it will be beautiful.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Music of Gratitude: Beethoven

Last night's concert was a wonderful experience. Before we played Beethoven's Sixth Symphony our conductor Kevin Kelly mentioned to the audience how grateful he was to have enjoyed 18 seasons of the Prairie Ensemble in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. The orchestra's response, prompted by Beethoven, was one of collective musical gratitude (felt by everyone in the room) in this Symphony that is really "about" gratitude. I had never thought of the piece that way before, and after last night I will never think of it without feelings of extreme gratitude for being able to make music in this most pastoral of prairies.

[I will even forgive Beethoven for the viola passage at letter K of the last movement, which last night happened to go pretty well.]

I'm grateful that we could put such a difficult program together on three three-hour rehearsals (and the last run-through of the Beethoven during the last 45 minutes of the rehearsal on the morning of the concert on a collective empty stomach). I'm grateful for the chance to fret and sweat over difficult passages and to have wonderful people to play with who bring an equal amount of integrity to the rehearsal process.

It was the last concert for the Prairie Ensemble, but the tradition of this kind of music making goes backwards and sideways in time in all directions. We know it when we find it, and, with hope we will find it again.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Prairie Ensemble Final Concert

Tomorrow night's Prairie Ensemble concert will be the final concert of an 18-year "run." I have enjoyed playing in the ensemble for nine or ten of those seasons.

I will miss the musicians, but I will (hopefully) see many of them around town in other musical configurations. I will miss the collective effort to make orchestral music feel like chamber music. I will really miss the music. Kevin Kelly always made interesting and worthwhile programs, and introduced music from the more obscure corners of the repertoire. The audiences and the players found the music we played (and, for the time being, play) delightful as well as challenging.

Tomorrow night's program is typically atypical. The Nielsen Flute Concerto juxtaposes (and sometimes superimposes) music that is lyrical with music that is decidedly argumentative.

The piece didn't make much sense to me when I dutifully learned the solo part as a teenager. It didn't even make sense to me when I listened again and again to the recording by Julius Baker and the New York Philharmonic. But now that I understand some of the workings of the world and a little bit about the way Carl Nielsen reacted personally and musically to 20th-century life, it makes a great deal of sense. It also makes more sense to think of the piece as either a kind of concerto for orchestra rather than a typical solo concerto written to focus attention on the virtuosity of the soloist.

I should mention that Mary Leathers Chapman, who is playing the solo flute part, sounds spectacular.

I will miss our core audience (I know their faces and some of their names). They are people who know that the Prairie Ensemble is something truly special.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Putting the Fiocco "Allegro" in a Proper Context

The brilliant keepers of the IMSLP tracked down the origins of the well-known Fiocco Allegro. It is number 10 in a set of Pieces de Clavecin he published in 1730.

There are eight lovely character pieces written in a very French manner, but after just a quick look at number nine, the piece that precedes the famous Allegro (made famous by its violin transcriptions), it is clear (to me, at least) that Fiocco was imagining an Italian violin concerto (to be played on the harpsichord).

The last movement is so violinistic that I couldn't resist making a full-fledged transcription to use for next year's Summer Strings.

The deed is done, and the music is available through this link in the IMSLP.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Re-tooling as a way of life in music

I didn't choose to have a career in music. I entered the world at a time when music (and culture in general) in America was on the upswing, and because my family was made of musicians and all my friends were involved in music, I saw no other path for my life. I did have intellectual and literary passions as a child, but I always embraced them as a potential amateur.

I wanted to play the violin and the piano as a child, but I never had lessons on the piano, and I stopped playing the violin at 11 for stupid reasons. Perhaps I wasn't any good at it, or perhaps it wasn't something "cool" to do. When I was 13 or so I "retooled" as a flutist. Then, after graduating from Juilliard I added the recorder and baroque flute to my "toolbox" since there was so little in the way of professional work for flutists in America during the 1980s recession, and the "early music" boom was just beginning here. After moving to downstate Illinois and realizing that there wasn't any way I could play any of my instruments professionally, I began working as the classical music director at a college radio station and soon thereafter started writing CD reviews professionally. Then I learned to play the violin again, and soon added the viola (the viola d'amore came later).

Voila! In relatively little time (and relatively much practicing) I had string quartet jobs and orchestra jobs to play. I had a promising musical life. I started arranging pieces for my quartet, and then began writing my own music. I kept going (and keep going).

Around 14 years ago the radio station changed formats, and the classical music portions of the day were replaced by pop music. Being a constant re-tooler, I began work on a master's degree in composition, and upon completing it I immediately began teaching a music appreciation course at a community college. I also had a relationship with a publisher, and spent a good five or six years preparing music I had written for publication.

The community college teaching began in full force. First there were three classes to teach, then two, and for the last couple of semesters, because of lack of demand for music appreciation courses, there was only one. There's a good chance that for this coming semester there will be none.

In my darker moments I feel like I am all musically dressed up with no place to go.

But life goes on, and so does music. I still practice every day, and though the orchestral work is diminishing for me (there are younger people around who play better than I do), I still have some work to do. I have amassed loads of useful musical skills, and am very comfortable with expressing myself in words as well as in music. I'm getting to be a better pianist, and I continue to learn more about music every day through my favorite keyboard composers. I also have my Collegium, where we play Renaissance and Medieval music, my duo with my pianist friend John David, and our community-based Summer Strings orchestra.

Fortunately I have time to continue to do what I love because Michael and I have relatively little in the way of expenses (we make our own culture as well as our food, and have access to a good library), and he has a job that keeps us both comfortable in our relatively quiet town.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Remembering Seymour Barab

. . . as a young man, and through his life:

and as a string quartet player.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

New York Times Obituary for Seymour Barab

Margalit Fox wrote a beautiful obituary for Seymour that is in today's New York Times.

You can read it here.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Mozart Hunt Quartet Picture

I found this in an old sketchbook from 2000. It was mixed in with pictures by the 9-year-old Ben Leddy. We used to draw together all the time, and he always inspired me to draw from whatever happened to be on my mind. The Mozart "Hunt" Quartet, K. 458, must have been running through my head, like the small animal scampering in front of the hunter's feet.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Aaron Rosand writes about Isaac Stern

I am sometimes dubious about things I read on Norman Lebrecht's blog, but Aaron Rosand simply wanted a highly visible place to share his very honest account of the sabotaging role that Isaac Stern played in his career.

Read Rosand's account here.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

The Kindest Man in the World

One of the best things about going to graduate school as a composer is the number of musicians (people on the faculty as well as students) who are willing and able to play the music we write. I was rather worried that the end of graduate school would mean that most of the music I would write would sit in a drawer in my non-cosmopolitan town, but it happened that my friend Susan Teicher's mother (who happened to be named Elaine) was in town, and she suggested that I contact her friend Seymour Barab for advice about what to do about my work. She said she would tell him to expect a letter from me.

I knew one piece by Seymour Barab: a duet for viola and harp that my father used to play with his wife during the early 1980s. My half brother (who was a baby when they were working on the piece) used to say "Ba-ba" whenever they would practice the Barab.

I wrote Seymour a letter and I included a couple of scores and a few recordings. He called me a week later, and told me that he would talk with his publisher about looking at my work. We talked about all sorts of things, and it turned out that he and I both had written operas that were settings of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. We decided to exchange scores and recordings so that we could see what the other did with the story, and began a great phone friendship and many more score exchanges. Seymour invited me, Michael, and our kids to visit the next time we were in New York, and ever since that first visit, high points of our yearly trips to New York were the afternoons we spent with Seymour and his wife Margie having lunch at 3 Guys at 96th and Madison and hanging out at their apartment.

[Margie King Barab, Michael Leddy, and Seymour Barab looking at Labonfam abeber, a nonsense book by Jean Dubuffet filled with erotic drawings.]

Seymour and I continued to exchange scores and recordings, and he always went out of his way to try to get people he worked with interested in the music I wrote. Whenever anyone asked me to write something to play on a recital, I would suggest putting a piece by Seymour on the program too. Once I even got an oboe player (John Dee--a terrific oboe player) to commission a piece for oboe and string quartet from Seymour. It felt really good to reciprocate some of Seymour's kindness to me, but there was just so much to reciprocate. He wanted to hear recordings of every recital I played and every performance of something I wrote, and he would always call to talk about them.

Seymour's name came up while I was working with Bernie Zaslav on The Viola in My Life. Seymour and Bernie played together for many years in the Composers Quartet and hadn't been in touch since Bernie left New York in 1968. I got them back in touch with one another a few years ago, and Seymour read through a draft of Bernie's book and made many excellent comments (and corrections).

Seymour died on June 28th at the age of 93. The last time Michael and I saw Seymour was on Wednesday, May 21. We had lunch at 3 Guys. He brought me a couple of books: a memoir of Harold Coletta, and Nicholas Slonimsky's Perfect Pitch: A Life Story. I found a card inside the Slonimsky book written to Seymour from a person I do not know (it looks like the person is named "Don," but I can't be sure).

He or she writes,
"Happy Belated Birthday dear Seymour--
You are a national pleasure. Oops! I meant treasure."
On the inside of the book is written,
"Dear dear Seymour--
It is a joy and a privilege to know you--
Bless you!
Happy Birthday all year."
I couldn't agree more.

Seymour Barab January 9, 1921 - June 28, 2014

I'm too sad right now to write anything coherent, but please read the posts I have written about my dear friend Seymour over the years.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Why Should I Write an Orchestral Piece?

Lisa Hirsch linked to a clever flowchart made by an Australian composer that poses (or really spoofs) the question of whether a composer should write an orchestral piece.

Writing a piece for orchestra takes a lot of time, and there are a lot of things to pay attention to. The chance of actually hearing a humanly generated performance is rare, but sometimes writing for orchestra (even a small one) is the only way for me to say what I need to say musically.

Contrary to the intended spirit of J. M. Gerraughty's flowchart, answering his question (and cringing at the end point of each path being the phrase "shut up,") might have actually prompted me to finish a chamber orchestra piece that I have been working on (well, on and off) for 14 years. The piece earned its title this past weekend while I was working on it at 3:00 in the morning during a bout of insomnia. I have had a few things on my mind these past weeks that can only be best expressed musically.

You can listen to a computer-generated recording of it here, and see the score and parts here.