Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Politics and Music

I learned early in my musical life that the popularity hierarchies that happen among children in grade school are not very different from the ones that happen in junior high school, and that those are not very different from the popularity hierarchies that happen in adulthood, except that children are relatively powerless, and adults have access to as much power as they are capable of seeking (and by whatever means).

When my father was thinking about leaving his position in the Boston Symphony for a position in academia, he made a remark about trading orchestra politics for university politics. He decided to remain in Boston. University politics involve a greater number of people and a greater number of players, and in university faculty life people do not (usually) come together with a common goal several times per week. University life is often fragmented (or factionalized), while musical life has constant benefits that keep its participants believing in the greater common goal of the organization. Both environments can be fiercely competitive and can involve tremendous egos and tremendous sense of privilege, and both environments are highly selective. Both environments do beneficial things for people who participate in their "product" (audiences and students), but teeming under the surface of both kinds of institutions is a layer of very thick politics.

People talked about how Juilliard was "so political" while I was a student there. I didn't see it at the time, but I was young and naïve. I was also the daughter of an important musician, so people were often nice to me because of that fact.

There were people who hung out in the orchestra manager's office, and I noticed that those were the people who got the better orchestral placements. I wondered if I should hang out in his office too, but I didn't like the orchestra manager, and I didn't particularly like the people who hovered around him. I didn't get the best orchestral placements. I actually got the worst ones. I thought it had something to do with my playing, so I tried practicing more. That didn't seem to do anything.

One thing I learned at Juilliard was that if you wanted something you had to go after it, as though it was your right to have it. My time at Juilliard coincided with a time in my life where I was trying to explore much larger issues like truth, beauty, and the "why" of music in addition to the "how." I am grateful for the library and am grateful for my college-educated friends who introduced me to poems, plays, and novels that were appropriate in my quest.

Just like a child wants to find people to play with (and when I was a child I wanted to find people to pretend with), musicians in conservatories want to find people to play music with. They want to have a "group" that serves as a kind of an island of "we" amid a sea of "I"s. String players could break out in groups of four and be completely happy. Wind players, not so much.

Don't get me wrong: I did find some wonderful people to play with at Juilliard, and I did have a few excellent musical experiences, but for whatever reason (in retrospect perhaps a mixture of lack of awareness and disgust), I didn't fit into the political hierarchy.

Now, at a distance of 40 years, I see that many of the people I knew who had the ability to play the political games necessary to find themselves in positions of power and influence in music are in positions of power and influence (I'm not naming names). A few made it there by virtue of excellent playing and teaching, and others made it there by other means.

I find myself wondering about my voice in relation to the political part of the musical world and how little input I have in it. And then I wonder about my voice in relation to the politics of the university in my small town, and I realize that I can certainly say what is on my mind, but I ultimately have no bearing on what happens. I have one vote which I have every reason to believe is counted accurately in my city (I know the people who work at the polling places, and I have every reason to trust them). Having a minority opinion in a rather conservative congressional district gives me the satisfaction of having my voice heard, but it doesn't do anything, at this point, to change anything.

I find myself questioning why national politics should be any different from the Juilliard-level politics I witnessed around the orchestra manager's office. The stakes are different, but the attitude towards using favors to pool power is the same. In the political world people are rewarded for going after what they feel they deserve, even if they are despicable people. Consider most of the high-profile sex scandals that people have gotten away with in political life.

(People have gotten away with similar behavior in high-profile musical life as well, but it doesn't make headlines. Notice that this only appears a parenthetical statement at the end of a post on a blog devoted to music. I'm not naming names, but I could.)

Friday, June 24, 2016

Musical Family Fingerprints and Marginalia

Yesterday I went through a pile of music that my father gave to me. Most of it was viola d'amore music, but there was also music for a Concerto by Benda that I remember my father practicing when I was a teenager.

The Benda family was full of musicians and composers, and in 1968, the year the F-major Viola Concerto was published by Schott, the prevailing wisdom was that this Viola Concerto was by Georg Benda. The IMSLP doesn't have a listing for any of Georg's viola music (even under his Bohemian name of Jirí Antonin Benda), so, on a lark I looked at the pages for the other members of the Benda Family. It turns out that Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Benda (son of Georg's famous and prolific brother Franz who worked for Frederic the Great) was the Benda that wrote the viola concertos.

Ah, but the plot thickens.

I played through some excellent cadenzas that my father wrote for the F Major Concerto, and thought that it would be nice to share them on the IMSLP. I put them into Finale, and noticed that my brother Marshall had also written cadenzas for the same concerto. I also noticed that he essentially copied almost note-for-note the first nine measures of my father's cadenza for the first movement, and the first two measures of his cadenza for the second movement. After his "borrowings" from my father, he then jumps into the stratosphere of the viola's A string and proceeds to make his cadenza a technical tour de force. He must have used the same music I was using, because it was 1984 and Benda family scholarship of the time hadn't separated the music by Friedrich Wilhelm from that of his uncle Georg.

You can find both cadenzas on this page of the IMSLP.

On another note, there is a bit of marginalia inscribed on the first page of my father's music:

27 Salome
28 Rigoletto

I pondered this for a while, and then I remembered that in February of 1973, when I was 13, my father took me to New York to see an opera at the Met. I vividly remember my father telling me the story of Salome (which I found extremely creepy) and Rigoletto (which I also found creepy, but perhaps a little less creepy than Salome), and asking which opera I would like to see. I chose Rigoletto.

We took the train to New York, and it was so crowded that I remember standing up for some of the ride. I seem to remember the transporting of a cello involved in the trip to New York. I remember watching the opera, and I remember not understanding much about what was going on (it was in Italian and I was a teenager). I remember the bright blue dress that Guilda wore, and I remember the darkness of the set. I remember what I was wearing too.

We took the train back to Boston. When we arrived at the Route 128 Amtrak station late at night and in the snow, we found that someone had stolen the drive shaft from the car. A very nice lady with a Volkswagen Beetle packed us into her car and drove us home.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Alex, Vladdi, It, and the Egbert Flute Concerto

When my mother was in college, she and her best friend Dolores Humberg created male flute-playing personae. My mother (in the plaid shirt) went by Alex, and Dolores went by Vladdi. My aunt Jeanne, who took most of these pictures of their backyard antics, appears in the tableaux as "It," the page turner. In order to dress herself as "It," Jeanne decided to wear her gym suit, the most non-gender-specific item of clothing she could find. Notice all you grammar people that one caption referring to "It" does not use "whom" or "who" to refer to It's (and I guess that the apostrophe is in the right place there) lateness, but rather uses "which."

Jeanne grew up to be a high-school English teacher (her student Scott Simon quoted her in a recent Teacher Appreciation Day tweet), Dolores grew up to be a flute teacher, and my mother, who began her adulthood as a professional flutist, gradually moved her creative life to painting.

Monday, June 13, 2016

My Musical Kingdom

There are all sorts of things in life that I can't control. Some of the things I can't control affect me directly, and some of them affect me indirectly. There are tyrants in the form of government officials, media moguls, and people with whom I have direct contact.

Within the larger musical world there are gatekeepers (both near and far away) and people who have to operate while carrying around excessive ego baggage (which must be fed). I am largely ignored by most gatekeepers, but I try not to let it get me down because when I am practicing I am the complete master of my own musical kingdom.

I choose what music I want to play, and I choose what I want to do with it musically, phrase by phrase. I often have control of the "when" I choose to play, and can decide on what instrument I wish to play. It is then that I get to visit musical kingdoms (many from long ago) that open up their wonders as I expand my possibilities of expression and gain a gradual mastery of technique. I also have, through the IMSLP, an enormous library of music to explore, much that hasn't seen publication since the 18th century.

When I write music I enter into the inner sanctum of my own musical kingdom where I play around with the pitches, rhythms, and textures of music itself. When I am "there," it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks is right or wrong because I am the only person of authority. In the instances when I encounter something "right" it feels truly "right." Nobody can take that feeling of "rightness" away from me, and that "rightness" is the fiber of the music that I write. Or have written. Unlike playing, which vanishes into the ether, the pitches, rhythms, and textures of written music remain to be experienced again and again, and to be interpreted by people with entirely different musical personalities.

The traditional image of a kingdom, with a castle fortress (to be defended), and a moat to keep away strangers doesn't apply to my kingdom. I have nothing to defend, as, as far as I know, I do not have any enemies. But my musical kingdom sometimes feels like an island because it is rather isolated, both physically and "spiritually" from much of the world. In order to interact musically (or otherwise) with other people in the world, I often need to leave my island. I really like it when people come to visit (either by reading this blog, playing some of my music, playing music together, or coming to take lessons), and I appreciate it when they let me know that they enjoyed the time they spent "here."

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Dual Screen Sheet Music Device!

Six years ago I made a post about what I would want in a music-reading tablet (I called it a "notebook"), and this proposed Gvido dual screen device seems to be the answer to my request!

My additional "wish list" item (that I would add to my wish list on the 2010 post that I linked to above) would be that the device could be used for PDF files of any kind, and that in order to use it you wouldn't be at the mercy of a music subscription service. I hope that this one will allow people to download music from free sources like the IMSLP.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Traverso Lessons with Herr Quantz

One of the reasons I stopped playing baroque flute 25 years ago was that I no longer had people to play with (my instrument is pitched at A=415). A new pianist-friend with some experience in harpsichord playing (and access to an instrument that could be tuned to A=415) asked if I would like to play something together. I took out my baroque flute the other day to see if I could still play, and, to my surprise and delight, everything returned except for a few odd fingerings (which I had to "find") and my endurance.

When I taught myself to play baroque flute (traverso) back in the early 1980s, I used a Buchlein attributed to Frederick the Great. I always suspected that Johann Joachim Quantz wrote it as practice material for for his most important student. Yesterday I started exploring the Quantz page of the IMSLP in search of the Buchlein, and I came upon this manuscript of Solfeggi for Flute. Here are some examples from the 80-page book, which seems to be a compendium of difficult passages, exercises, and ideas.

I'm looking forward to working on a page a day for the next 80 days.