Monday, July 31, 2017

Eleanor Roosevelt and Frank Sinatra

We all need a little bit of Eleanor Roosevelt these days. And she almost sings here.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Musical Thoughts from the Vegetable Garden

I don't spend a lot of time in our vegetable garden, because the plants that live there do their growing by themselves, but the time I spend there is always meaningful. I observe the way the plants relate to one another, and I observe the way they compete for light and space within the confines of our two 4 X 8 raised beds.

And I can't help thinking about the whole thing in musical terms.

The plants have leaves that take up ample space. The leaves take in energy from the sun, and, as long as there is water, good soil, and something to do the pollinating, they use that energy to make fruit. The plants get more efficient at making fruit as the season progresses, and the fruit the make tastes better once they have figured out the most efficient way to make it.

It is my job, now that everything is planted and flourishing, to make sure that the cucumbers don't strangle the tomatoes, and that the pole beans don't cast a shadow on the eggplants (heh heh the former pole beans . . . I have my priorities). I am the master of the garden.

Building an instrumental technique and becoming a musician is not that different, and I am the master of my technique.

You need good "soil" (a good teacher, good material to work on, and a decent instrument). You also need "rain," which could be analogous to consistent and intelligent practicing. Then, like any good plant, you learn to convert energy as efficiently as possible into what becomes the fruits of your labor, which other people can enjoy.

In order to produce "fruit," you have to gather musical energy from the stuff around you that is not given to you by your "soil" and "rain." This means doing a lot of listening (to your teacher and to your inner teacher) and a lot of observing in order to learn the ways other musicians manage to build technique. This comes from going to concerts and playing with other people. It also comes from reading, and thinking about the things you read. It comes from learning about the music you practice, and about the way that music relates to the time and place where it was written.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Concerning Transcriptions

In the early 2000s, I thought about getting my string quartet arrangements published. The publisher I worked with did not publish transcriptions, so I contacted some publishers that did. I was told that it would be at least five years before the people who were interested in my transcriptions could publish anything. I considered self-publication, but I didn't have the physical space in my house for equipment and inventory, and I lacked the skills necessary to run a business.

I am good at writing music. I am good at making readable scores and parts. I am good at making arrangements, and I am good at playing music. I am also pretty good at writing about music, and teaching. As a person in my 40s, I preferred to spend my time doing the things I could do, and let my "learning" happen in my musical work.

In 2007 I started a blog to "advertise" my compositions. Raoul Ronson, the owner of Seesaw Music had died, and his inventory went to a company that did not do the kind of promotion that Ronson did (which really was exceptional and involved a great deal of personal contact). I used the internet-based tools I had at hand to try to point people to my 79 pieces of published music.

I was an avid user of the Werner Icking Music Archive, so I decided to contribute my transcriptions of public-domain pieces there. I posted a link to the WIMA listing for each transcription on my Thematic Catalog blog. I hoped that people would come to my Thematic Catalog blog for transcriptions of well-known pieces, and then stay a while and look at my published music.

When the curator of the WIMA invited me to contribute my own music, I gladly accepted. The WIMA became absorbed into the IMSLP, and I contributed to contribute. I encouraged other people to contribute as well. I believe wholeheartedly in the mission of the IMSLP.

Thousands of people have gone to my Thematic Catalog blog in search of transcriptions of well-known pieces. Here's screenshot from my blogger "stats" page.

I am very happy to share my transcriptions with people who want to play them, and I am happy to share my own music with people who want to play it.

There are people who use my quartet arrangements to play weddings and parties. That's what the transcriptions are intended for, so it makes me very happy when people let me know that they enjoy playing them. I'm glad to know that my arrangements add something to the commercial value of their musical endeavors. I am happy when young people play my arrangements, particularly when they play my string orchestra arrangements, since school music programs rarely have the financial resources to buy new music that is both interesting and accessible for young people.

But the real reason I share my transcriptions is to promote my work as a composer. I don't know any other honest way to promote the work that I do.

So I am making a plea to people who play my transcriptions: look at the music I have in my Thematic Catalog. Every post has a page example and a link to an audio file. You might want to buy the pieces that are available from publishers (they are reasonably priced, and you can buy them online).

Look at the music I have in the IMSLP (and there are audio files there too). Play it with your friends. Play it on concerts (and please let me know when you do)! Let your friends know about it. Make recordings! Leave comments! Come back!

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Done (a ramble)

I just finished listening to a particularly engaging episode of the Crushing Classical podcast called "Fireside Chat #20: Pondering the Myth of 'Done' and Your Legacy." The host, Tracy Friedlander, is a horn player who plays with the North Carolina Symphony (but makes it clear that she is not a member of the orchestra). Eileen Gordon, her conversation partner, is a musician from Tracy's past who followed a career in business rather than one in music.

As part of Tracy's struggle to figure out where she fits in the musical world, she created a podcast to interview musicians who have created ways of working as musicians other than the orchestral path that music schools claim to prepare their students for. The naked truth (that we all pretend to ignore) is that the number of highly prepared orchestral musicians far exceeds the number of openings for professional orchestral jobs that pay enough money to live a comfortable life. In order to make a living as a musician you really need to consider enhancements and alternatives to the traditional orchestral path.

I started listening from the beginning of the podcast (it has been going for about a year), and have enjoyed hearing how it has gotten better from a technical standpoint. But I appreciate the fact that Tracy Friedlander has kept the "blemishes" (moments that could have been edited out) in the earlier conversations. It keeps the whole thing honest.

There's enough deception in the workings of the professional musical world, and a little honesty is a breath of fresh air.

During the above podcast episode, Tracy and Eileen contemplate the idea of musicians who play classical music obsessing about the idea of being done. When we learn etudes as young musicians, some of our teachers will even write "done" on the etude. When we go through books of pieces, we often talk about them in the past tense: I played that, I finished that, etc. When we play a run of Nutcrackers, for example, we talk about each performance being "done," and then the season being "done." Maybe it has something to do with having a double bar at the end of every piece, but musicians seem to be obsessed with getting to an end point.

Tracy mentions early in the discussion that she always thought that once she "won" an orchestral job she would be "done." I know that she is not alone. Many people feel that way. I told myself in my 20s that as soon as I had established myself in a steady job, I would return to playing the violin. And I did.

Composers talk about "finishing" a piece of music when we feel it is finished. For me it happens when all the notes are where I want them to be, when all the expressions I can indicate are written into the music, and when the parts look the way I want them to look. A piece is finished when I have no more work to do on it, but I don't think of it as being "done," because I don't think of music as being real until it is played (and hopefully more often than once, and hopefully by different groups of musicians). Perhaps a composer's greatest fear is that a piece of music should be "done."

Eileen Gordon talks about an alternative way of looking at "being done" as coming to a point of arrival. She talks about those points of arrival as times where you need to double down on your efforts towards your next goal.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Measure of a Musician: Family Matters

I have always found that people respond differently to people who have, for whatever reason, achieved "status" in (or preferably outside of) the musical community. I grew up as a person perceived to be of "status" because of my father's position in the Boston Symphony. That status (my father did not intervene) got me into a youth orchestra that I had no business being in. I believe that status got me into Juilliard (again, my father did not intervene) because my teacher was impressed by my parentage. My sense of musical self worth was really screwed up, so I actually longed to be judged for what I could do. I actually envied people who got their positions in musical life without having grown up in a known musical family.

While I was at Juilliard there were four students who were daughters of principal violists of major orchestras: Two daughters of Sol Greitzer (Debby and Jody, a bassoonist and a flutist), the principal violist of the New York Philharmonic, and the daughter of Abe Skernick (Linda, who was a harpsichordist), the principal violist of the Cleveland Orchestra. I thought it would be fun to form an ensemble.

At lunch time in the Juilliard cafeteria, my teacher would always introduce he to his friends as my father's daughter. They all respected my father, even if they didn't know him. I met some interesting people, and had some wonderful conversations. I became friends with Paul Doktor who talked with me about his famous father.

After my last year of Juilliard I was accepted at two summer festivals: Tanglewood, and the American Institute for Musical Studies in Graz, Austria. I chose to go to Graz partially because I felt that in Europe I could test the waters and see if I really had what it would take to be a musician as an anonymous person. I will never know whether I was accepted at Tanglewood because of my family status or from my playing. From my European (and Asian) experience I learned that there is no such thing as anonymity in the international community of musicians. My family status followed me like a loyal dog, and it wagged its tail even when I wasn't paying attention.

When I moved to Illinois, my family status followed me. I had instant acceptance and respect from my new community because of it. So I made the most of it, and arranged for my father to come to Illinois and play concerts with me, first when I was a flutist, and later when I became a violist. It was great to introduce him to my friends and colleagues, not to mention the people who liked to go to concerts. Dinners were held in his honor. People came to the concerts.

My father is now retired from the Boston Symphony, and he gets a kick out of it when concert-goers from the neighborhood recognize him when he is in line at the pharmacy. He is enjoying his well-earned status as musical elder statesman, and I enjoy the fact that he is enjoying it.

Partially because of the natural generational shifts that have happened in the musical community, my father's name is no longer a (musical) household one. And I have had many affirmations that the work that I do, both as a violist and as a composer, is acceptable on its own terms.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Substance: A Rant

I have always tried to make my musical life one of substance. I have always tried to make the phrases that I play and the phrases that I write reflect the statement attributed to Coleridge, "Nothing can permanently please that does not contain within itself the reason why it is so and not otherwise." In 2012 I wrote a post about it that you might like to read. Five years is almost a lifetime in the digital world.

The idea of substance still makes sense in what I call the "real world" (as opposed to the digital world) but I am far behind the times, and I guess I have been for my whole life. The "digital world" is now a serious part of the "real world," and I have observed that it is nearly impossible to navigate musical waters (i.e. have a career in music) without doing so through digital pathways. And the problem with using digital pathways is that surface appearance becomes everything. And if you don't keep "repaving" those digital pathways, everything you do vanishes into less than thin air. It seems to take more effort to promote a musical "brand" (whatever that is) than it does to do the work of building and maintaining a musical vocabulary and the necessary technique to express what you need to express.

My first experiences of life with the internet had to do with finding like-minded people. It was truly thrilling to communicate with people who shared my (sometimes rarified) musical interests. Back in the glory days of newsgroups and email, I often had several serious correspondences going. Now I have to wade through (i.e. delete) scores of solicitations in order to find the work-related email messages that come into my inbox.

Another sad truth is that most of my email correspondence partners are no longer living.

But oddly through all of this, the music I love remains the same. Yesterday I had a rehearsal of the Haydn "Kaiser" Quartet. Every phrase of the music, written 220 years ago, retains the same set of possibilities for intimate interaction, and it holds the same surprises, cyclical references, treats, and rewards. And they are there every time you play them. Everything in the piece contains within itself the reason why it is so and not otherwise.

As individual people there are substantial things that we seek out and recognize when we find them (absolute emotions like love and hate). I wonder, however, if as a larger culture we have become more superficial and less substantial in the way we face the world. I wonder if the speed and ease with which news comes to us (both big news and small) dulls our senses, and makes it more difficult to give the weight of our feelings the time they deserve.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata for Viola published by International

Three editor's copies of this new viola transcription of the Rachmaninoff Sonata in G minor that I made for International Music greeted me in today's mail!