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.