Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Postcapitalist Musical Economy and the IMSLP

Paul Mason's lengthy article about Postcapitalism in The Guardian got me thinking about the way the new musical economy functions in a world where digital exchange of information has relatively few "real" costs associated with it.

Anyone who knows me knows that I "play" by my own rules. Basically my practice boils down to personal contact. If I show up to play for someone's concert, I expect to be paid. If I decide to donate my services, I consider it a personal gift to the person or organization. If I write a piece for someone, I happily accept payment and consider the payment as something to insure that the person I write the piece for will be the person to give the first performance. Once the piece is performed I like to make it available on the IMSLP for anyone to play.

I no longer send my music to the publisher who holds the copyright on 77 of my pieces because I cannot depend on that publisher to do anything in the way of promotion. My pieces are, for the most part, files on their computer. When a musician buys a piece of music from this publisher (or most publishers) it is printed (nicely) and mailed. The publisher keeps 90% of the asking price (set by the publisher), and I get a royalty for 10%. Sometimes people buy a "mechanical license," which means that they have permission from the publisher to record a piece, if they choose to. Believe me, it rarely amounts to much.

The only measure I have of how many people play my published music is my yearly (sometimes) royalty statement. That measure does not take into account the people who take the music out of libraries (the now-deceased former owner of the music that is now controlled by my current publisher made sure that everything in his catalog made it into the stacks of major music libraries). I like to imagine that those 77 pieces are being played once in a while, but I have no way of knowing if they are, outside of the occasional YouTube video.

Once something is written I do not think of the music itself as a product to sell. It makes me rather nervous when I think of a piece of music being "worth" a set amount of money. When I look at the stats from my Thematic Catalog blog, I see that there have been 7864 visits to my transcription of the Pachelbel Canon. When I follow the link to the IMSLP listing, I see that there have been 19,686 people who downloaded the score.

The value that this IMSLP listing contributes to people who want to play the Pachelbel Canon with their string orchestra or string quartet is pretty great. The value that knowing that people can use the arrangements I make and the music I write (here's the page that has links to the original music I have in the IMSLP) is great for me. It helps me to know that what I do with music is useful and brings people pleasure. I get a great deal of pleasure out of writing and arranging music, and it is great to know that people (thousands of them) get pleasure from playing it. I'm happy to contribute to the musical economy by making accessible music (accessible for people who like to play music that isn't ridiculously difficult to play and to hear) easily accessible to all musicians for free.

But even a post-capitalist musical mindset involves money. The IMSLP, an organization run by a dedicated crowd of volunteers, has to use money to pay for its bandwidth. They have, like every other entity that uses bandwidth, started a fundraising campaign. There is a simple way to become a member (around $20 bucks a year if you make it a multi-year membership), and there are more creative ways. You can even sponsor a composer of your choice (maybe someone will pick me!).

The value of the IMSLP to me as a contributor and as a frequent user is immeasurable, and I'm proud to have done my part to keep it viable.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Sally Ann Performed by The Vinegar Flies

[The banjo playing singer is, of course, our son Ben.]

Friday, December 18, 2015

Music, Medicine, and Trust

I find this video interesting on a number of levels. Clearly the doctor is a fine violinist, but I imagine that the "Tennessee Waltz" is not one of the pieces in his usual repertoire. I also imagine that he is not as comfortable playing by ear as the guitarist/singer/patient (who has to jump octaves when attempting to sing because of the key). Observe at the 46-second mark, when the violinist/doctor, following the form of the song, goes into accompanying mode, and the two musicians "dance" awkwardly for a verse, making connections with one another here and there, exposing personal and musical vulnerabilities and strengths along the way. When it's the violinist's turn to improvise, the guitarist seems happy to accompany/support him as he tentatively searches for plausible variations on bits of the tune.

The music may not be within either of their usual idioms, but it functions as a plausible middle ground, and they share some special moments of musical communication with people like you and me who are touched by seeing and hearing the spoils of an unlikely bit of music-making by people who might never otherwise come into musical contact.

There is more to this patient/guitarist/singer that meets the eye (pun intended). And Dr. Sloan, who works on violins in addition to playing them, is very generous with his collection of instruments.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Train Ride

Today would have been my brother Marshall's 59th birthday. Daniele Colombo (a person I do not know) made this recording of Marshall's 1988 "Train Ride," that I thought I would share here to celebrate. It really "sounds" like Marshall. Thank you Daniele!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

"A-List" Music and Other Music

Among musicians there is always dialogue about favorite composers and the like. Almost everyone has the same "A" list, and that "A" list intersects extensively with the "A" list of people who spend more time listening to music than playing it (or do not play at all). I do not need to list those composers here: you know who they are.

During the 12 years of my professional life programming music for a radio station, I made a serious effort to treat A-list composers as equals to the rest of the "pack" that was available on recordings. That self-appointed task became rather easy when Marco Polo, a subsidiary of Naxos (a small budget label during the early 1990s) started offering really fine CD recordings of non A-list composers. It didn't hurt that I had been friends with the founders of that label in Hong Kong, so I received the whole library gratis. The Naxos library and the obscure small-label releases I got to review for the American Record Guide moved our library to the cutting edge as far as non-A-list composers. During the late 1980s and through the 1990s NPR stations spent a lot of time playing "greatest hits" by Rodrigo, Pachelbel, Gershwin (non A-list composers) many times per week, and single movements from larger works by A-list composers. I couldn't turn on an NPR station and hear anything I couldn't identify in the first couple of seconds, but my station, which had a library of only excellent performances of music by composers who were often new to me, offered listeners a challenge to listen to all kinds of new music (particularly "old" new music).

It is very easy to hear something that sounds a bit like (Robert) Schumann or Brahms, for example, and consider it "second-rate" Schumann or Brahms. It is very easy to write off that non-A-list composer as someone unworthy of your attention, and in the same breath write off the piece at hand as something less valuable musically than a piece that is by the A-list composer. If you hear it on a recording it is even easier to make that kind of dismissal, because the performance has been reproduced, and will always sound the same. It doesn't get better, though you may become a better listener. When evaluating something negatively we often decide that there is something wrong with it rather than something wrong with our evaluation of it. (In relationship terms it is kind of like the phrase, "It's not you, it's me," which, of course, usually means the reverse.)

I believe in performing well-written music by composers who never made it to the A list (and never will, since the A list is firmly set in the past). I love to practice music by A-list composers because doing so compels me to grow as a musician in order to meet the A-list composer half way. I love to study, play, and listen to A-list composers, but I feel that my "job" performing good music by composers who never made it to the A list is to make the experience of the music as meaningful as possible for the people listening to it, and, in the case of chamber music, for people playing it. If I have to reach a little more than half way in order to "sell" the immediate experience, and to eradicate the necessity for people listening to resort to comparisons with what the piece is not, I have been successful. Perhaps I have to "believe" even more deeply in the music I am playing than I would have to when playing something familiar, but I feel that it allows music to happen in original and unusual ways.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Status Update

I have been keeping my thoughts to myself lately, and I really don't see much harm in doing so, but, if I have faithful readers (it is really difficult to tell who they are, even with a stat counter) who might be wondering what is going on with me, never fear. All is well in my private life.

Last week I took one of my brother's violas out of the closet and put fresh (though not new) strings on it, and I have been using that instrument to play the Nutcracker (two performances down, four to go). The instrument has a longer string length than the Italian viola I normally play, and it has a very different kind of sound. I'm having a great time exploring the differences between the instruments. My brother's instrument is Welsh, and it has a lower register that speaks remarkably quickly. It would fit right in a chorus of miners in Wales, perhaps singing a baritone part, because it can.

I feel that playing this instrument is a way of honoring my brother. It is a very intimate and special experience. An instrument is not simply an object. It is an extension of the body and the mind. Sometimes it even feels like Marshall's "voice" is coming out of the instrument.

I have writing projects underway, but most of them are arrangements for Summer Strings. I also have a Bachian counterpoint project happening, which is rough-going at times. Original musical thoughts don't distract and obsess me the way they once did. I'm confident that they will return when I am ready, and hopefully I will be able to work with them in new and interesting ways.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Going up in Space and Playing Music

I have never had the desire to travel outside of the Earth's atmosphere. I never really understood why anyone would want to do such a thing until I heard an Inquiring Minds interview with Cady Coleman. She describes life and work in a space station kind of like the way I would describe playing a Mozart String Quintet.

Then again Coleman IS a musician.

I wonder what you would have to do in zero gravity to keep a bow on the string?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Local Culture

Last night I went to an excellent piano recital at a local university. The program was difficult and impressive, and the pianist, who had been an undergraduate student at that university, is on his way towards what I am certain will be a brilliant career (and I "know from good").

When this pianist was a college student his recitals were filled to capacity with members of the university community, students, friends, townspeople, and people from his home town. He was the pride and joy of the music department and the community at large. Last night's concert had an audience of ten or twelve people, and I spied only three members of the music faculty in attendance. I feel (and have always felt) privileged to hear him play. I imagine that everyone who was in the audience last night felt as privileged as I did.

Perhaps more people would have come to the concert if the university (or the music department) had publicized it adequately. Or maybe it is the fault of the local paper. Like many smaller cities in America, the once local newspaper, which runs out of a central corporate office in a distant state, does not understand the value of printing press releases about recitals. The people who make editorial decisions are not involved in the communities they are "serving." One "event" is just as important as another "event," I guess (unless it is a sporting event).

I like to believe that local culture is necessary for the health of a community. We are now, because of technology, closely in touch with one another through email (though fewer and fewer people write email message--or even read their email) and Facebook (where friends who live elsewhere feel as close as if they lived nearby, and friends who live nearby may as well be elsewhere). Perhaps all this access to things "elsewhere" makes keeping culture in a small community more difficult than it should be.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Off the Beaten Path

Back in my flute-playing days I learned an interesting metronome technique that involved off-setting the clicks of the metronome so that the clicks would sound on the off beats. I start my off-beat "machine" kind of like the way you start a game of jumprope (when someone else is doing the turning). In simple meter (divisions of two or four) I set it up so that the clicks happen on 2 and 4, and then feel the emphasis on the silent 1 and the silent 3. It sets up a nice even groove (as it should).

I often use this method to "notch" a passage from a slow tempo to a faster tempo. On the slow end of the tempo spectrum it feels kind of like ironing. You can almost watch groups of sixteenth notes become more even. As you "notch" up the tempo it's easy to see and hear the exact configurations of pitches that need attention. On the slower end of the notching experience it is easy to concentrate on how the bow or the tongue need to behave to insure that the notes are even. The places that rush become immediately apparent as you notch up the off-beats.

It is difficult, at first, to play more than a line or two of constant sixteenth notes without creeping into "downbeat" mode, but with practice, observations, patience, and forgiveness, practicing this way is really rewarding.

Last night I decided to practice a slower lyrical passage that was giving me trouble using off beats. The passage in question actually has off beats in the piano part. My challenge was (and still is) to play the on-the-beat notes with enough oomph and gusto (not to mention vibrato) to allow the music to ebb and flow the way I wanted it to. I found myself having trouble beginning held notes with vibrato because I had gotten so used to depending on the on-beat impulse to propel the vibrato. I also noticed, at the slower tempo, that concentrating on off beats and playing sustained double stops are difficult things to do simultaneously.

So I "notched" the passage down, doing just the opposite of what I would do if I were practicing a passage that I wanted to play fluently at a faster tempo. Doing this proved to be a sort of clean window into the body of the sustained notes, and after about half an hour of frustration I was able to have better control over the whole span of any given note in the passage, not just its beginning and its end.

We so often forget that the duration of a note is where the music happens. And our awareness of that fact is something that we face anew every day.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Viola and Piano Recital November 15

The composers on our program were contemporaries of Johannes Brahms. Theodor Kirchner (1823-1903) was Brahms's preferred arranger (he arranged Brahms's songs for piano solo). Kirchner also courted Clara Schumann during the 1860s (they kept their relationship secret from Brahms). Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) also knew Brahms well. He served as a pallbearer for Brahms's funeral.

We don't know if Friedrich Kiel (1821-1885), one of the founding faculty members of the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, knew Brahms personally, but we do know that Brahms knew Kiel's violin music.

It's great fun to practice and rehearse this music, and I'm sure that we will have a great time performing it.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Plastic Trumpet

I was really surprised to see this video of Alison Balsam playing a red plastic trumpet:

Wow. An instrument that really plays for under $200.00! And they are light weight and come in many different colors. What kid could resist?

Now we get to see and hear Alison Balsam teach:

What a treat!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Steven Staryk Plays the Schumann, Walton, and Mendelssohn Violin Concertos

Steven Staryk
A Retrospective: Volume 7
Centaur CRC 3366

I rarely write about CDs in this space, but this recording on Centaur, which will be available this November 13th is really something special and worthy of your attention. I got an advance copy from Mr. Staryk, and I resisted the temptation to listen to it until the month of November was in sight. Now I just have to write about it.

Joseph Joachim's will stated that the Schumann Violin Concerto could not be performed until 100 years after Schumann's death (Joachim and Clara Schumann did not understand the piece and were therefore unable to understand its value). In 1937 Yehudi Menuhin got permission, after Joachim's granddaughter located the manuscript, to violate the will, but the Nazi authorities would not allow Menuhin to premiere the Concerto. It was performed and first recorded by Georg Kulenhampff, but was not given the performance it deserved. Staryk's performance with the Toronto Festival Orchestra (1983 or 1985) with Pierre Hétu conducting IS the performance this piece deserves. (I find the Kulenhampff recording unlistenable now. I just have it here for reference.)

The Concerto had a slight resurgence in the last decade, and there have been some very good recordings of it, but this concert performance is really remarkable. The recorded sound of the orchestra is not pristine (it was probably recorded using a microphone placed in the audience), but it is rich, commanding, and beautifully phrased. Staryk plays the solo part on the Barrere Strad, which has a fantastically complex sound. His eloquent elocution in the opening declamatory passages continues with absolute focused attention throughout the piece.

Because of Staryk's commanding musical "vision," there is no way to listen without becoming completely involved in the music making. Staryk has such integrity as a violinist that every single one of the difficulty arranged notes sounds clear and clean (even through some of the recorded fuzz, and the occasional bump--like the big one at around 8:30 of the first movement).

The crystal clear scale passages in the last movement are certainly impressive:

But what is most impressive to me is the way they operate as fine filagree in the musical texture rather than as pure foreground. I have heard recordings of the piece where the passage work in the last movement feels like pure torture. Here it feels like pure pleasure, albeit the kind of pleasure you get from watching high-wire artists perform death-defying acrobatics.

Then we get the Walton Concerto. This recording comes from a 1981 radio broadcast, and the recorded sound is better than the recorded sound in the Schumann Concerto. It is charming and brilliant, and you really get to hear all the colors Staryk gets from the Barerre Strad and the way the orchestration reflects those colors. I actually prefer this recording (with Mario Bernardi leading the National Arts Centre Orchestra of Ottawa) to Menuhin's recording with the composer conducting, but I tend to prefer Staryk's playing to Menuhin's playing in general.

Staryk uses the Muntz Strad for his performance of the Mendelssohn Concerto with the University of Victoria Orchestra conducted by George Corwin. The balance between the solo violin and the orchestra is often a problem in performances of the Mendelssohn Concerto, and one would imagine that it would be a problem during this outdoor public performance in 1973, but the commanding sound of the Muntz Strad can be heard clearly even in pianissimo passages, and even when the occasional breeze causes the sound to waft away from the microphone.

I love the brisk tempos, particularly the tempo of the slow movement (which is not slow).

You'll have to wait for a few weeks before this recording becomes available, so in the meantime, particularly if you are unfamiliar with Staryk's playing and career, you might like to read this interview I did with him in 2009. And I'm sure you would certainly enjoying hearing the recordings on this YouTube channel devoted to films of Staryk playing recitals, concertos, and even donning a red wig and playing the part of Vivaldi in a film.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Pianists Speak and Move

Two film clips from 1953: Yves Nat demonstrates how to play Chopin to a class of students (notice the subtle way everyone begins to move once he starts to play), and Alfred Cortot gives us his "inner text" while he plays Schumann's "The Poet Speaks."

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Pachelbel in Prague!

What an honor it is to hear this beautifully played violin-only adaptation of my string orchestra arrangement of the Pachelbel Canon. The performance was part of The Prague Music School's 55th anniversary concert, which took place on October 18th in the Martinů Hall of the Lichtenstein Palace.

The entrance of the youngest performers at the end is just priceless.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Something Musically Wonderful Near Cincinnati

I just read about a school in Winton Woods, Ohio, where the principal, Jeremy Day, who has recently started playing the viola, is a member of the fifth grade orchestra.

Congratulations to everyone involved!

Monday, October 12, 2015

More About Plato and Music

I don't really buy this claim that Plato's works were arranged to correspond with the 12 notes of a musical scale, but I do like the idea of "not revealing doctrines that would threaten the gods of Olympus." This is something worth reading, particularly for musicians who would, like me, have a bone to pick with Jay Kennedy's musical claims.

Here's some food for thought:
Positive concepts are lodged at the harmonious third, fourth, sixth, eight and ninth "notes", which were considered to be most harmonious with the 12th; while negative concepts are found at the more dissonant fifth, seventh, 10th and 11th.
Given a 12-note chromatic scale, which was more than likely NOT generally used for the music of Plato's time, the third degree of the scale would be a whole step from the root, the fourth degree, would be a minor third away from the root, the sixth degree would be a perfect fourth from the root, the eighth degree would be a perfect fifth, and so on. It doesn't make any musical sense to me.

If the degrees of the 12-note chromatic scale have particular qualities when they sound by themselves, then Plato would have to have had absolute pitch mixed with a kind of synesthesia. What respectable synesthete would divide notes simply between pleasant and dissonant. If that were true Plato would probably have written a lot more specifically about music. I believe that when he discussed modes he was commenting on the linear harmonic nature of a set of pitches going from "tonic" to "tonic" on instruments that did not have the ability to alter themselves chromatically (the lyre vs. the pedal harp, for example).

Sunday, October 11, 2015

More on The Visual Physicality of Violin and Viola Playing

I have been jumping back and forth between practicing string, wind, and keyboard instruments a lot lately, and have consequently been thinking about music, movement, and vision.

String playing requires a lot of functional body movement, but, when playing the flute or the recorder, functional body movement is restricted to the breathing mechanism in the horizontal and vertical center of the body, the mouth cavity (also central), and the fingers. In the case of the recorder (or I guess with any wind or brass instrument) the hands, arms, and fingers oppose one another in a relatively still position at the center of the body. Wind players have the luxury of reading music head-on, so the music is always in the center of a wind player's physical field of vision.

The flute is different from other wind instruments because the hands and arms are off to one side, though their function is pretty much the same. The mind's eye of a flutist has to be taught to visualize to the right, because that's where the fingers of both hands contact the keys. The hands and fingers are "over there," and they are impossible to actually see them when you are playing. All wind players must use their inner vision to pay attention to the inside of their mouths and the interior components of their breathing mechanisms. Nobody can really see that stuff without fancy imaging equipment.

Both hands function the same way when a musician plays a wind instrument. The fingers of both hands work like levers, and ideally make the same motions, rising to and dropping from the same height, and landing in various combinations at the same time. Sometimes the little fingers and thumbs work actual levers, but that doesn't change the basic function of the fingers. The hands stay still, and they make sure the fingers function efficiently.

A string player's fingers and hands do different things while being totally interdependent. The fingers of the left hand work like levers, and the left thumb works like a flexible fulcrum. The left hand fingers, powered by the arms, generate some elements of expression, and that expression is generated by constant efficient motion. The right hand fingers are both firm and flexible, and the thumb acts like a stable fulcrum, but the joint still bends when it needs to bend. The fingers sometimes pull and push the bow, and are sometimes pushed and pulled by the arm. They do millions of unseen and impossible-to-articulate unconscious things (not unlike the ideomotor phenomenon) that unlocks the subconscious mind.

Unlike wind playing, there is no actual physical contact between the components that set the musical vibrations into motion. String players have to feel the music through sticks, hair, and wire (or gut). The music we make exists outside of the body, yet we cradle the instrument in the most intimate part of our neck (or lap) and use the bow to make the instrument feel like it vibrates the way a voice vibrates. We sometimes have the mental illusion that we are singing when we are playing.

How the left hand looks has a huge amount to do with playing efficiently, and how the right hand steers the bow in order to keep parallel to the bridge and make efficient string crossings has everything to do with the sound. Violinists and violists have to constantly visualize left, right, and center, paying constant attention to all parts of that semi-circle we occupy. We have to use our inner eyes the way we use our peripheral vision while driving (but, thank goodness, we don't need to know what's happening directly behind us).

My flute-mind "training" has taught me to visualize right when I am looking at music, so I can easily look at music and "see" my bow hand. But there is a whole world of "left" that violinists and violist also have to keep in the mind's eye. The mind's eye has to be taught to visualize a full 180 degrees (and even more, considering the fact that the tip of the bow extends another 20 degrees when playing up-bow on one of the lower strings) in addition to looking at the music. The violinist's or violist's mind's eye has to imagine a wider span than a pianist's mind's eye.

Visualizing the whole half circle (and more) is always a challenge for me. I understand the challenge more acutely when I spend time practicing the recorder, which is like a vacation from peripheral visualization. Even practicing the piano involves less than 180 degrees of vision (even at the extremes of the keyboard, I can see both hands). Practicing with a mirror (or two) is really useful, but once you take the mirror away the mind's eye is on its own.

I always enjoy sitting to the right when I share a music stand because my real vision is "aiming" to the left, and my left hand can be "visually louder" (by physical default) than my right hand. The conductor is also easily in view at the center. This orchestral season I will be sitting on the left side of the stand, so I will have to work harder at left-side awareness because I will be looking at the music towards the right. I'm looking forward (right and left) to the challenge.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

A Conversation with André Previn

I really enjoyed reading the transcript of Frank Oteri's July 31st conversation with André Previn (which includes Molly Sheridan's film--I'm not sure who did what). I also enjoyed reading No Minor Chords, Previn's 1991 memoir about his days in Hollywood (that you can buy used for 1 cent on Amazon).

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Handwriting and the Bow Arm

Isn't it interesting that we all have personal ways of expressing ourselves through handwriting? Some people who grew up in the middle of the 20th century keep the classic models handed (oy--no pun intended) to them by their early training, some evolved through the stylized fads of adolescence, and some have morphed into a scrawl that can only be understood by a select few. Some people have very small handwriting, and some people have very large handwriting. People use their fingers to hold writing instruments in different ways: one grip doesn't work for everybody.

Penmanship often depends on the quality (or type) of pen (or pencil) we use. For some handwriting geniuses the tool doesn't matter. I only write well when I use one of a few specific fountain pens or one of a few specific kinds of pencils. Everyone has a spectrum of neatness. Some people (even the very young) can be both neat, quick, and elegant without appearing to think about it, and some adults simply cannot write in a hand that looks "grown up."

As the title of this post suggests, I think there is a direct correlation to the way a string player uses the bow. With bowing there is a also continuum of neatness. It is possible to bow mindlessly, paying attention only to whether the bow is going up or down, and it is possible to bow with extreme mindfulness, using microscopic differences of speed and pressure to make nuances and generate efficient musical energy. The bow itself also matters a great deal. A great bow can offer worlds of musical motivation simply by the way it moves, the way it contacts the string, the kind of sounds it can produce, and the way it feels in the hand. A pen or pencil can offer a similar kind of motivation for expression: the way it moves, the way it contacts the paper, the way ink flows from it, and the way it feels in the hand.

The best bow arms look and "feel" like they are generating Spencerian script.

Habits of good "bowmanship" can be taught to very young children (but they can still play mindlessly), and extremely mindful use of the bow can still result in playing that is less than elegant if the motions are not yet integrated into a player's musical physiology. It takes time and work to develop the muscles that constitute a good bow arm, and it takes constant attention to keep that developed bow arm behaving properly.

Then there's the question of having something to say!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

A Pope Who Loves Music

This American visit of Pope Francis seems to bring joy to a great many people, but I think that the Pope must be taking great personal pleasure in the music that he has been hearing during this visit. I loved seeing the look on his face (through my television screen) while he was listening to the very end of the performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony played by the Philadelphia Orchestra (in the finest of Philadelphia form) earlier this evening. I also loved the way he greeted cantor Azi Schwartz after his tremendous singing of El maleh rachamim during the interfaith service yesterday morning. What a great honor it was to be present, if only through electronic media, for these moments of musical affirmation.

Paradigm Shift

I had a little time in the library before meeting with my Medieval/Renaissance ensemble yesterday, so after browsing among the new titles I came across a book by Katelijne Schiltz about riddles in Renaissance music. I did not have my library card with me, so I was only able to read a little bit of it.

Normally, after reading the descriptions and catalog of various riddle canons (you can see some of the catalog here) my mind would have instantly gone in the direction of writing a riddle canon.

Come to think of it, until just a month or two ago nearly everything I read would inspire me (and sometimes even compel me) to express myself musically. But something has changed.

From the time I began writing music seriously about 20 years ago I have always had a composition project going. I don't know where my compulsion to write music came from, and I marvel at the amount of music that I managed to write while doing the other "stuff" of life. I'm very proud of what I have written, and I know I could write something if I were asked to, but I no longer feel compelled to write music.

Now that I have reached a technical level commensurate with the repertoire I want to play, I get a great deal of satisfaction out of playing the viola (and occasionally the violin). After about 25 years to string playing, I finally feel free to really be creative with my playing. When I hear recordings of myself playing I sometimes even like what I hear.

The newest addition to my musical menagerie is the piano. I started practicing the piano for a few reasons, the first being to improve as a composer by studying Bach's Preludes and Fugues in the Well-Tempered Clavier. My second reason was to adequately accompany my students in lessons, and be proficient enough to be able to concentrate on their playing while playing with them.

I am nearly through my third "cycle" of the WTC, and this time around I am spending more time with each prelude and fugue. I consider my daily meeting with Bach sacred time. I am also finding myself feeling expressive when playing the piano. I dabble in other music too: Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, in particular. Approaching this great music with the ear of a composer is a treat. Not trying to produce something of similar quality is, frankly, a relief.

Maybe this current state of affairs comes from reading Nabokov. Michael and I just finished Speak Memory, and are now reading Ada. Even though he was a descendant of Carl Heinrich Graun, and his son grew up to become an opera singer, Vladimir Nabokov didn't care much for music. One of his particular dislikes was "kudos, kudos vy udalilis" from Tchaikovsky's Eugen Onegin. [Here's a translation of the aria.] I find it an interesting idiosyncrasy that anyone could dislike this, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, but Nabokov certainly was a singular human being, and an extraordinary writer. Perhaps he had so much to his life, literary and otherwise, that he didn't have room for music.

Maybe things will change. I'll let you know when we finish Ada.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Note to Self: Paying Attention

Most adult musicians (and many student musicians) know exactly what they need to do in order to get the best sound out of their instruments while moving from one note to the next. We teach techniques to our students, and we practice them when we play our own scales and etudes.

We strive to pay attention at all times so that the things we need to do in order to sound good all the time become nearly unconscious. There is a point, however, that those bits of technical know-how become so unconscious that we no longer give them the attention they still need.

The act of playing well is the act of constant attention. If we don't pay attention to the way we sound in passages that are naturally less resonant (we all come across pesky passages that are difficult to play because of physical and/or harmonic reasons), the less-than-ideal sound we make becomes a sound we accept and sometimes even ignore. It's kind of like the dust that accumulates in corners, on Venetian blinds, and on the tops of books. You clean them once, and somehow, while we are not looking, the dust returns.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Beethoven and Sanders

When was the last time Americans had a presidential candidate (or any other kind of candidate) who would use a whole movement of a Beethoven Symphony to frame an argument? I confess that sometimes I was distracted by the Beethoven (I always get distracted when people use intact pieces of music for background), but by the development section I found common ground. I really appreciate the way the coda frames the coda of the argument, and the way the people who made the film allowed Beethoven to close the argument.

I have heard that both Democrats and Republicans have responded strongly in favor of what Bernie Sanders has to say and how he says it. I can certainly understand why.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Rare Teaching Opportunity

Yesterday I was working on a minuet with a beginning student, and when she came upon one of these

her immediate response was, "What is THAT?"

[The student's name is a diminutive of Grace, and I knew that this was a rare and golden opportunity.]

I told her what it was, and she laughed. She suggested that maybe I told her older brother, who also studies with me, that that kind of note had his name on it. We consulted the dictionary, and she knew that I was not fooling with her.

I told her that since it had her name on it she could play it as long or briefly as she liked, as long as the combination of the grace note and the main note added up to the value of the main note. She liked that.

Monday, September 14, 2015


I believe in Bach. I believe that Bach wrote his non-contrapuntal unaccompanied string music for musicians to play with imaginary accompanying voices (that do not need to be notated). I believe that every string player has a different set of accompanying voices to the violin partitas and cello suites, and I believe that those accompanying voices change as we grow as musicians. Perhaps those silent individual and personal accompaniments are what make each individual interpretation unique.

Of course the word "Credo," has religious associations. I think about Bach and the concept of God often. You could even say that when I play Bach or hear Bach played I feel connected to the concept of God. I could even go as far as saying that I feel the idea of God within the music of Bach. Sometimes it seems to be present in between the lines of counterpoint in the Well-Tempered Clavier, kind of like those phantom voices that lurk below and above the cello suites and the violin partitas (that I get to play on the viola).

Today is Rosh Hashanah, and I had the honor of blowing the Shofar during services this morning. In light of my Bach musings, the Gates of Repentance passage, "The Psalmist affirms: God stands revealed amid acclamation; the Lord, amid the sound of the Shofar," really resonated with me today.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Celebrating Wild Garlic

The bees and butterflies have done their work, and our wild garlic harvest is rich this year. I use wild garlic in everything that isn't sweet, and even though it has nothing to do with music (besides inspiring it), I'm offering this little set of portraits. If you see this stuff growing in meadows and along roadsides, pinch it to make sure it smells like garlic, and try cooking with some yourself.

I like using it at every stage. I use the stems and closed buds when they first appear in July as chives, I use the flowers (they are nice raw in salads), and then I use what I call the "berries" at the end of summer.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

A Film About Meadowmount From the 1960s

Perhaps we can all put our heads together and identify some of the musicians in this short film! Please send the link to this post to your friends in their 70s (contemporary with Itzhak Perlman, who is easy to identify) and 80s (I will too). Put your identifications in the comments, and make sure to give the time location in the film. Ready, set, go!

UPDATE: I have some identifications! The "headless" coach is Josef Gingold. James Buswell is the first violinist in the quartet (the one with THE BOW ARM), and Sarah Johnson (sister of BJ Johnson) is the violinist playing the Mendelssohn.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Sleeping Beauty Waltz

The New Jersey Korean American Youth Orchestra recently put a video of my transcription of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty Waltz on YouTube. I made the transcription for string quartet, but it sure sounds great as a piece for string orchestra.

[The Tchaikovsky transcription begins at the 2-minute mark.]

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Who Should Be Paying for the Music?

Perhaps my mindset concerning the economics of music is a bit odd, but I feel that it is one worth sharing because it informs everything I do with music.

I was born into a musical family, and string playing was pretty much "grandparented in." Both my grandfathers played the violin, my grandmother played the piano, my mother played the flute, and my father made his living as the principal violist of the Boston Symphony. I grew up in a city that had a thriving music program with peers who were serious about music. While most kids were doing teenagerly things, my friends and I practiced and played in orchestras and wind ensembles that had charismatic leaders.

There were enough of "us" in the greater Boston area to make a small culture.

In the beginning of my "career" as a music student my parents paid for my lessons, but I somehow became friends with a few great musicians and teachers who wanted to teach me for free. I guess my willingness to try their musical and technical suggestions provided adequate payment for what they had to teach me. After I graduated from Juilliard (paid for by my father) I found myself in school situations (like the Hochschule in Vienna and graduate school) where tuition was covered by the state. I have had close friendships with older and wiser musicians who have served as mentors, and I have a brilliant father who can answer any question I have about the things I encounter in my travels through the orchestral and chamber music repertoire.

I have always had excellent instruments, and most of them have been given to me as gifts. I married a great guy who supports me in all my musical endeavors, and I have not had to work at a non-musical job for 30 years. I have had time to practice, and have been able to follow new musical passions as they have presented themselves. I have also been able to play chamber music with wonderful and patient colleagues who are also great friends. Many of them live close by.

My musical "cup" overflows. Sometimes that overflow takes the form of original music, and sometimes it takes the form of arrangements and transcriptions.

So much of the current musical culture involves making the practicing, studying, or performing musician into a customer. Publishing companies and recording companies think of composers and performing musicians as revenue sources. When a publisher makes 90% of the price he or she puts on a piece of music and pays a 10% royalty to the composer in exchange for essential ownership of a piece of music, that composer is only being well served when the publisher puts great resources into marketing. For most non-pop and non-religious compositions written by composers who are not already household names, marketing doesn't seem to pay off. I have 77 perfectly good pieces published by a reputable publisher, and I rarely see a royalty check. I also do not have the power to move the published music into the public domain if I choose to do so.

With all the musical gifts that have been handed to me over the years, I hate the idea of marketing the music I write to musicians. I hate to think of musicians as potential customers. Most musicians are poorly paid for the work they do. Many musicians have to take out loans to buy adequate instruments. Many musicians work very hard and do not make a lot of money.

I have always considered a thoughtful performance of a piece of music I have written is adequate payment for the work I put into it. I really do write music and make arrangements for my mental and emotional health. If it was something that I felt was a chore to do, I might think differently. If I were a different person with a different life situation, I might think differently. But I don't.

I do think that musicians who perform for audiences should be paid to play. A musician can make the choice to give a performance as a gift, but it should be acknowledged as a gift. I believe that the people who haven't put the time into preparing (or are unable to do) what performing musicians do should be the people paying for the musical experience.

I find it extremely satisfying (even rewarding) to make the music I write available through the IMSLP. Since it is impossible to pay back the kindnesses that people have shown me through my life (many of my kind friends are no longer alive), sharing the music I write and the arrangements I make is my way of paying the kindness forward. I cannot sell arrangements of songs that are not in the public domain without getting into legal trouble, so I share the arrangements I make with people who want them. You write to me (I need to know that you are a serious musician looking for music to play), and I give you access to an on-line folder. It's a simple exchange that doesn't require postage or printing (on my part). Everybody is happy, and people have music to play.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Music in Willa Cather's The Best Years

Though there is not yet any direct mention of music in Willa Cather's The Best Years, which can be found in the out-of-print set of Cather stories published in 1948 as The Old Beauty and Others (Michael and I read half of The Best Years today), there is such music in Cather's prose. Here's one example:
The horizon was like a perfect circle, a great embrace, and within it lay the cornfields, still green, and the yellow wheat stubble, miles and miles of it, and the pasture lands where the white-faced cattle led lives of utter content. All their movements were deliberate and dignified. They grazed through all the morning; approached their metal water tank and drank. If the windmill had run too long and the tank had overflowed, the cattle trampled the overflow into deep mud and cooled their feet. Then the drifted off to graze again. Grazing was not merely eating, it was also a pastime, a form of reflection, perhaps meditation.
Here's another that mentions sound:
If they turned in early, they had a good while to enjoy the outside weather; they never went to sleep until after ten o'clock, for then came the sweetest morsel of the night. At that hour Number Seventeen, the westbound passenger, whistled in. The station and the engine house were perhaps an eighth of a mile down the hill, and from far away across the meadows the children could hear that whistle. Then came the heavy pants of the locomotive in the frosty air. Then a hissing--then silence: she was taking water.
Willa Cather worked for a time as a tutor for the Menuhin family, and remained a close family friend after the Menuhin children grew up. You can see some interesting passages about the relationship from a Cather-based perspective here, and from a Menuhin-based perspective here.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Practice Mirror "Hack"

Practicing with a mirror is extremely helpful for string players. My ideal practice space has a large window that takes up much of the wall. When I hang a mirror the normal way, the hook makes the mirror tilt towards the floor. I decided that the best remedy for this problem would be to prop the bottom of the mirror up so that it tilts ever so slightly towards the ceiling, which allows me to see the position of my bow in the space between the fingerboard and the bridge.

I made a set of two tilting "machines" from things I found in my desk drawer:




Sunday, August 16, 2015

Rambling Onward

I have always worked my way through grief through cleaning and through playing Bach. I made it through the grief I had during the time of my brother's death last August by organizing his music and the paintings and family memorabilia from my mother that he was transporting to his home in Memphis. I also spent time every day playing Bach on the piano.

I have been making my way through the grief I feel for my father-in-law by getting my own house in order. Marie Kondo refers to cleaning and de-cluttering as "tidying," which is a nice tidy word for a new way of thinking creating order with the things we like keep around us, and getting rid of the things that do not give us joy. Jim Leddy was a very "tidy" man, and my act of tidying is a mindful way of honoring him.

Our daughter sent a message to Michael about Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which she had been reading on the plane en route to the hospice in New Jersey. She thought Michael, who is deeply attracted to the idea of organizing things (and has a lot of things to organize), would like the book. We left the hospice for an hour or two, and went to a fine Barnes and Noble store in Paramus, New Jersey. Michael bought the Kondo book, and I bought a Hal Leonard piano collection of piano music.

The hospice where we were staying had a piano, and I really needed to play in order to work through all of the emotional intensity we were experiencing while Michael's father was in his final days. The piano at the hospice was missing a handful of notes, so I had to use my imagination to fill in the missing pitches. I usually play the piano behind closed doors. Not having all the notes available took the pressure off playing the piano in a public space.

I need to play music in order to feel like a human being. It is just the way I am wired. Years ago, before I started practicing the piano conscientiously, I wondered what it would be like if I were somewhere where the only instrument I could play was a piano. I found myself in such a situation, and I happened to be prepared. Being able to play for an hour or so made all the difference for me. After that I was able to keep myself on track.

We have been home for almost a week, and all my clothes are now folded in the Japanese way. Even though I cannot see into my drawers, I know that they are nicely packed and that everything is accessible. I can now open any drawer and see every item of clothing in it. I also feel that my mind is cleaner when I practice: my playing has magically become more "tidy." Really.

Michael jokes that our house is now a "Kondo-minium." When making the space you live in tidy feels like a pleasure rather than a chore, life feels much more harmonious, even during difficult times.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Exhibit at the Library of Congress Website

I believe that Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge was the most important American patron of chamber music performance and chamber music composition in the 20th century. The exhibition devoted to her life and work at the Library of Congress website has letters, photographs, compositions, and recordings that I have never seen or heard before.

You can read some Musical Assumptions posts about Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge I have made over the years here.

Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge was also a composer. You can find her "Mother Goose Songs" on this page of the IMSLP.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

August Is the New April

August is the cruelest month.

I haven't posted for a while because my husband lost his father last week. Michael wrote a beautiful eulogy for him that I think anyone who reads this blog would enjoy reading. My time and mind have been taken up by family things these days, but I will post about things musical at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Why Playing the Piano Is Like Riding a Bicycle

The other day I saw a video about learning to ride a bicycle that has been adjusted so that the front wheel turns left when the rider turns it to the right. If you haven't seen it, it is well worth 8 minutes. If you don't have 8 minutes, the gist of the film clip is that learning to ride a bicycle is an activity that requires a specific set of left-right balances. Once you learn those specific balances, they become unconscious. The person in this film clip taught his young son to ride a backwards-engineered bicycle, and he did so with the same degree of difficulty he would have learned to ride a conventionally-engineered bicycle. The grown-up person (who had learned to ride a conventional bicycle as a child) had a great deal more trouble. After he finally got the hang of the backwards-engineered bicycle, he could no longer ride a conventional bicycle.

After watching the video I became acutely aware of my left-right balances when playing the viola. When I would move myself from one side of the music stand to the other, the (very familiar) music felt and sounded a little bit different. A lot can be gained by changing our position in relation to the music stand when we are reading music.

But my real understanding of how the left-right balance bicycle problem relates to music making happened this morning when I was practicing the 10th Prelude from the first book of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV 855) on the piano.

Since I spent the plastic years of childhood NOT learning how to have both hands do similar yet sometimes opposite things on the piano in order to make music move forward in a balanced, deliberate, and speedy way (particularly in the Presto section), I find this Prelude particularly difficult.

Perhaps adult pianists who try to play this Prelude with crossed hands might understand something about what the beginning adult pianist goes through concerning left and right balances.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Gilligan's Hamlet

These were the original words as far as I was concerned, because it was on Gilligan's Island more than 40 years ago that I heard these melodies for the first time. I saw this episode only once and somehow all the words have remained vividly etched in my brain (though the images were only in black and white). I had no idea what Hamlet was, or why this would be parody. I thought it was just a nice treat for those of us who faithfully watched the show.

Summer Music, Einmal Anders

I wrote Summer Music for violin and piano in June of 2009. My friend Jennifer Paull asked me to make a transcription of it for oboe d'amore and piano, and yesterday I came across this recording of it on YouTube played on electronic instrument called the EW1.

This performance by Gorden Gunzelman is so expressive that it is hard to believe it is being played on an electronic instrument (or two electronic instruments, since there is also a piano part). Since the world of electronic wind controllers is new to me, I had to do a bit of investigation. I learned that these wind controllers have been around for almost 30 years. They make it possible for people to make the sounds of instruments that require specialized techniques and hard-won embouchures easily, and can be wonderful vehicles for expression. Expression is, along with imagination, syntax, timing, and contextual awareness, one of the human components in music making. I write music for people can be use as vehicles for expression, and I write music so that people can communicate musically with other people. I am pleased as punch that Gorden Gunzelman chose "Summer Music" as a piece to demonstrate how beautifully it is possible to play using an electronic wind controller.

These instruments could, if they can "run" string sounds, also make it possible for anyone who can read music and understands basic recorder fingerings to experience the great body of string chamber music from the 18th and 19th centuries. It certainly isn't a substitute for a string instrument (and probably should be considered an instrument in its own class), but using these instruments in unconventional (or perhaps conventional) ways could open up a vast repertoire to players of wind (and brass) instrument that they otherwise would not be able to experience personally and intimately.

The instrument Gunzelman is playing is an EW1 4000s, and it is made by Akai. The practitioners of the instrument call it an "ee-wee," but if you search for it online, make sure you use a numeral 1 for the "I."

Monday, July 27, 2015

Imaginary Venn Diagram: Sewing Intersecting with Composing

I have dismally failed at making a Venn diagram to illustrate the phenomenon I have been experiencing these last few days, so words will have to suffice.

A couple of weeks ago I made a post about the "Supreme State of Sew," and since that time I have been alternating between sewing and writing a piece for string quartet. The piece for string quartet is a set of variations on a theme that I wrote many years ago (at least 10), and have used before, but not in a piece for string quartet. The sewing I have been doing is similar in spirit. I have been taking old pieces of clothing that no longer fit me (or never fit me properly), and turning them into useful pieces of clothing. A huge Indian dress from the 1990s that has the label "one size" has become a comfortable and size-appropriate skirt, and a skirt from the 1990s that was always too long and had an elastic waist that has lost its "spring" has turned into a shorter skirt with pleats and a waistband. Another dress that lost its elastic has become a skirt, and I have one more "one size" dress to convert.

The whole process is kind of thrifty. I don't need to make room in my closet because the items at hand are already taking up space there. I also don't need to spend any money (except for the occasional fastener or package of bias tape which is useful in making waistbands).

I always have repeating musical figures that run through my head when I sew. This time, because I was busy at work on a piece of music, the music I was working on was running through my head. While sewing I would work things out in the music I was writing. While I was at work on my piece, I would occasionally get a solution to sewing problem. This is the first time that my "state of sew" has intersected so intimately with my extended "state of bow." It's been a great couple of weeks!

Here's a computer-generated recording of the piece.

The music is in the IMSLP.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

"You Never Know."

Here's a great NPR piece about Stuart Canin, a 19-year-old violinist who brought his instrument with him when he went off to become a rifleman in WWII. Here's a link to a site that includes Canin playing a 2014 concert of the music that he and Eugene List played for Truman, Churchill, and Stalin when they met in Potsdam.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Marshall's "Memphis" Sonata Played by Daniele Colombo

Marshall's "Memphis" Viola Sonata played excellently by Daniele Colombo:

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Keyboard Adventures

I think the same exact thought every time I come across the measures on the left (from the Second Prelude of the first book of Bach's WTC), so I'm finally sharing it here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Supreme State of Sew

Michael made a post the other day about Simone Weil's statement, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” I feel that the sheer act of being extremely attentive to something in motion (like nature, dance, music, poetry, prose) is both stimulating and calming. That's probably one reason I love to sew. It's also one of the reasons I love to write music.

I have often made analogies between sewing and music (though not in this blog). Both involve material that begins in a pure state and gets manipulated (cut up, and put together). Both involve adjustments, corrections, and brief periods of examining a small part of a whole through a strong magnifying glass. Both involve measuring and taking risks. Both involve making something for practical use that is both durable and expressive.

A good theme, subject, or harmonic progression is kind of like having a few yards of a good fabric. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out what to make of it. Sometimes the fabric works for a particular pattern that I know fits, wears well, and usually looks just fine. I have one dress pattern that I have used for six dresses. (I think that the dress I made yesterday will be the last one I make with that particular pattern.) I have more material in the closet, but I will just need to wait to see how to use it. I also have musical material scattered here and there that I know will find its way into one piece or another.

While I am sewing I find myself in what I call the "supreme state of sew." It's sort of like the "supreme state of mow," which happens when I mow the lawn, because musical figures loop through my mind over and over again (last night it was a snippet of "Poor Wandering One" from Pirates of Penzance). There's also the "supreme state of bow," which (see the link above) happens when practicing slow scales.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The 100-year-old Randolph Hokanson and Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi Play Mozart

I can't think of a better way to celebrate your 100th birthday!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Relative Relevance Ramble

I remember the first time I got something published. It was a magazine article that I spent a great deal of time researching and writing. I expected that the publication of that article might cause some kind of reaction somewhere, but it caused no reaction anywhere. None.

The editors of the magazine added several paragraphs of material to one of my subsequent articles, which made me very angry. Copies of the issues that contain my articles are sitting on a shelf somewhere in my house. I'm not mentioning the name of the magazine here. I also won't mention the names of other music magazines that routinely changed the copy I gave them into something unrecognizable.

I did spend more than 20 years writing reviews for a magazine that treated me fairly, for the most part. I learned that the reviews I wrote mattered a lot to the people who made the recordings, particularly if there was a sentence that could serve as a "blurb." One or two people noticed my occasional mistake, and my father always called to discuss the recordings I reviewed that were interesting to him. Now that I no longer write for that magazine I no longer talk about my reviews with my father. That's really the only thing I miss.

The first time I had a piece of music published I did feel like something changed for me. The publisher I worked with routinely sold new music to libraries, and he was thrilled that so many people wanted copies of the music I had written. I believe he used the term "hotcakes." He said that he would publish anything I had. That first year I made serious royalties, and they continued for the next few years. He called often to tell me how things were going, and he made comments about each piece I sent him. He even commissioned me to write something. When our family came to New York he took us out to dinner.

That publisher is no longer alive, but the music he published is still in libraries all over the country. And it is all available as print-on-demand from another publisher who never calls, and doesn't seem to do anything in the way of promotion.

So where is this all leading? Nowhere, actually. It is a wonderful thing to do creative work. It gives me a sense of purpose, but when my creative work is not received in the spirit with which it is given, there doesn't seem to be a sense of purpose for doing it, or at least sharing it.

In the early days of the Internet, before Facebook, Twitter, and monetizing (which I refuse to do), I felt like I had a place of relative relevance, both with this blog and with the music that I make available through the IMSLP. With so much new music available at the press of a button, I feel that my contributions are becoming less and less relevant. I know that I have a unique "voice" as a composer (just like I have a unique face, a unique speaking voice, and a unique set of personality traits), but it seems that through all the hustle and bustle that "voice" is no longer as relevant as I used to feel it was.

Friday, July 10, 2015

A Gliss May Just be a Gliss, but a Concert is Never Just a Concert

Last night Kara Huber came to our town to play a benefit concert for the Oakland-Hindsboro Charitable Foundation. Oakland, Illinois (population 880) is kind of a "suburb" of Charleston. During the late 1980s and 1990s there were a bunch of dedicated and talented young musicians living there, and many of them drove the 17 miles to Charleston to take lessons and play in ensembles.

I got to hear Kara play at various stages of her young life, and I am very pleased to hear the kind of pianist and musician she has become in her young adulthood.

It seemed like the whole town of Oakland came to the concert. I believe we got the last parking space in the lot (we probably should have walked), and all the seats on the keyboard side of the church where she played were taken, so we couldn't see what her hands and feet were doing during the four inventive Etudes by David Rakowski that she played. I was very happy to find Kara playing them on YouTube, so I'm sharing two of them here.

You can hear more on Kara's YouTube channel.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

The Summer Reading Club

Michael and I have formed a summer reading club. We usually meet after lunch on the sofa, and we read the same section of our current book together. It is a wonderful way to spend time together, and it is a real treat to be able to talk about what we have read. It is also really convenient to live within walking distance of a university library, so having two copies of any given book is never a problem.

We began with Moby Dick (Michael put a few posts about various passages on his blog) and enjoyed the voyage tremendously. We enjoyed looking at a book of artwork inspired by the novel, and enjoyed watching the 1956 film, which is very true to the spirit of the novel, has excellent acting, and is inspired a great deal by the great artists who have illustrated the book, especially Rockwell Kent.

Next came Willa Cather's A Lost Lady, which reminded me a lot of the work of Emile Zola, a writer I love. Cather's portrait of Mrs. Forrester, a character we only get to know through her relationships with various men and boys, inspired me to write a musical portrait for viola and piano.

Today we started Cather's Death Comes to the Archbishop, and I have started reading Proust's Swann's Way (we both have books going on the side). When I have read a sufficient amount of Proust, I can make my way through Michael's blog posts.

After the summer we might change the name to the "Four Seasons Reading Club."

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Another Addition to the Viardot/Garcia School of Natural Singing

"Why do people always want to prescribe laws for Nature, when she herself is the great Lawgiver, and we are the ones who must conform to her?"
It is interesting and enlightening to read John Sheridan's new English translation of Louise Héritte-Viardot's Die Natur in der Stimmbildung für Redner und Sänger, which Daniel James Shigo put on yesterday's installment of Voice Talk. Everything she writes about pertains to speaking as well as singing, so it would be of considerable value to anyone who speaks (or breathes, for that matter).

Thank you James Shigo for all the Viardot, Malibran, and Garcia posts on your blog.

Friday, July 03, 2015

The Farmer's Evening Entertainment

I came across this gem in the IMSLP, and thought I'd transcribe Solomon Howe's "Miscellaneous Observations" from 1804 and share them here.

Miscellaneous Observations on Music

VOCAL Music is the easiest of all Arts, if the Performers have an accurate perceptions in distinguishing the semitones, and are favor’d with seasonable and careful instruction. Tho’ Music appears mysterious to a beginner, yet the difficulties soon vanish after trial. They, who wish to sing gracefully, should observe the following Directions, with care, viz.

1. That none continue to sing, who cannot, on sufficient trial, sound the half notes, exactly.

2. That all parts sing equally as to strength, or _____: and have all parts well proportioned.

3. That the Teacher be very careful, to get the highest and clearest voices, at 7, 8, or 10, year’s age, males, or females, for Counter; which should always be sung, with what is call’d; a child’s voice, viz. as little children naturally sing at 7, &c. before they learn to imitate a woman’s voice; for it spoils a tune, to have both Treble and Counter sung with feminine voices.—There should be (almost) inexpressible delicacy in pronouncing, accenting, emphasizing and cadecizing (?) Counter; A strong, harsh Counter, especially in glad key’d tunes, destroys the whole beauty of the Music.

4. Care should be taken to soften the voice, by all possible art, viz. by shunning colds, coughs and all occasions of hoarseness, which will be the case in winter, if people are not careful. N.B. To drink warm, sweet tea often, or sweeten’d water, while singing, will render the voice musical.

5. The Teacher, or Leader should be always watchful, that the parts do not overpower each other, by loudness, or fail in time, and he should proportion the parts exactly according to the height and depth of the voices.

6. When string instrument are us’d, the players should stop the sound exactly according to the time, by putting their fingers on the string, or otherwise.—There would be but little need of Instruments, if people would learn and practice music, in the early part of youth.

7. a large close chamber, is vastly the best for a school, as it frees from noise and tumult, and affords the best opportunity of instruction. N.B. The native bashfulness of children is oft so great that they expect freedom.

8. Accent is the general force of voice, with which we pronounce one word stronger in speaking and fingering, than the other intermediate words of syllables; and the music should always be composed to the words and not the words to the music; tho’ this is not always the case.

9. Emphasis is the peculiar stress which some important word requires, or the pitch and situation of the parts of the tune may properly admit. N.B. This must be judged by the leader.

10. Cadence is that softness and weakness of voice (united), which are necessary, in particular high notes of the Tenor, or other parts, which, if sung loud, would be injurious to the music, especially at the close of a flat key’d tune.

11. As Music is design’d to please; every one must watch himself and sing pleasantly, else there can be no satisfaction, in the performance.

12. The Master should never let his scholars sing a tune, by word ‘’til they can sing the Notes accurately by memory. N.B. Many masters ruin their schools by such foolish license.

13. Sobriety and solemnity, should be inculcated in a school; but the Master should, by no means, be austere, proud, or assuming; for pride and tyranny destroy music.

14. Let Master and Scholars remember, that Music is given us for our happiness, by GOD the infinitely generous AUTHOR of our faculties, and it is our duty to employ our voices to his glory, in this world, if we wish to be blessed in the next.

Solomon Howe 1804 (Greenwich, MA)

Monday, June 29, 2015

Enough Never Is

The poor have little,
Beggars none;
The rich too much
Enough not one
Benjamin Franklin (quoted above) was talking about money, but I think that we musicians suffer from a different kind of perpetual deficit. It would not be too much of a leap to assume that most musicians in the non-pop field are not in music mainly for the money. Music as a profession actually makes little economic sense since the amount of work musicians put in (practicing and learning music, building and maintaining technique, rehearsing, marketing) and the costs of the materials involved (the cost of buying and maintaining instruments, the costs of travel, and the costs of publicity materials) rarely make for a balanced equation when you consider the way musicians are compensated for their work (though some of us make more than others). Job security, particularly of late, is anything but secure.

But this post is not about money. It's about feeling validated for the work we do, which is something that I never seem to feel. Even after getting a great review (or rather a favorable mention at the end of a great review), I do not feel truly satisfied. Kind words from people I know (and people I do not know) help, but there never seem to be enough, because enough never is.

If I have a good day practicing or rehearsing, the rewards from that experience happen in real time. They happen while I am at work. Once the music stops, and the memory of it fades (which happens quite soon) they no longer apply. If I practice well, I play well. But if I don't practice for a day, I usually don't play as well as I did the day before. If I do, there isn't anything I can do to guarantee it could happen again. I guess that with practicing, enough never is.

I am in a state of constant assault and constant self-doubt when I am writing something, though the process is punctuated with feelings of exhilaration and stimulation. And when there is nothing more I can do to the music, there it is (and in the case of finishing a piece, enough actually is).

But I have to move on, because that feeling of "there it is" only lasts for a very short time. Perhaps it is that little sliver of satisfaction that we all live for and want to find again.

I did set some of Benjamin Franklin's words to music (and probably will again, because enough never is). The score, parts, and a computer-generated recording are in the IMSLP

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Marshall Fine's Music in Homage, Op. 69

Robert Patterson made a beautiful edition of my brother Marshall's Music in Homage (a piece that he wrote 1991 for violin, horn, and piano) and uploaded it into the IMSLP. Patterson, violinist Gregory Maytan, and pianist Maeve Brophy gave the first performance of the piece earlier in June, and there is now an excellent recording of it in the IMSLP.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

A Very Nice Performance of My Pachelbel Canon Transcription

I was really pleased to find this lovely performance of my Pachelbel Canon transcription by a string quartet in Japan (I think) on YouTube, so I'm sharing it here.

[You can find the score and parts here.]

Friday, June 26, 2015

Inside Out: A Movie for Grown-ups

Inside Out is about a "typical" girl who has a "typical" emotional response to moving from the place she spent all 11 of her childhood years to somewhere new. We learn about her from the "cocktail" of emotional functionaries inside of her brain. In the scene below we actually get to meet the emotional functionaries in her parents' brains as well.

Here are Riley's "controllers" for (in order) Disgust, Anger, Joy, Sadness, and Fear:

Here are Riley's father's "controllers" for (in order) Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust:

Here are Riley's mother's "controllers: for (in order) Fear, Joy, Sadness, Anger, and Disgust:

The marketing people for the film use the zany characters in Riley's head to attract children to the movie, but it seems that the real point of the film (which shows on four screens in our local mini-multiplex) is to help teach parents about what may be going on in the mind of their 11-year-old child during times of stress. It might also give teenagers a sense about how their minds might work, though from the response of the teenagers who shared the theater with us yesterday, I doubt it will have much of an impact. Clearly the target audience here is precocious little kids, 11-year-olds, and adults.

Michael went to the movie reluctantly, and he loved it. I can't stop thinking about it. (I didn't lose sleep over it, but now I have an enhanced understanding about how sleep works.)

Riley's controllers are male and female. Anger and fear are male; Joy, Sadness, and Disgust are all female. They are also all different shapes and sizes. Her father's mustachioed controllers are all male, except for Joy, which looks a lot like Riley's Joy. They are all pretty much the same size, except for Fear. The mother's controllers are also the same size (except for fear), and they bear a distinct family resemblance to Riley's controllers. Her controllers are concerned about Reily, and her husband's controllers are thinking about watching a soccer game.

Inside Riley's control room there would, of course, be many more emotions than the ones given roles here, but these five serve as an excellent cast, with Joy and Sadness in the leading roles. There are also other functionary characters we meet along the way, and we get to spend some time with her imaginary friend. Riley has "islands" of memory (memory palaces, if you will) like family, honesty, goofiness, and hockey. We all have our own personal islands of memory. I suppose the longer we are alive and the more memories we make, the more populated the sea of islands. If we grown-ups have continents in addition to islands, my map would have a whole continent for Bach.

My recommendation? See the movie. Watch the trailer.