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)