Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Monday, December 28, 2020

Swann's Way and Proust's wisdom

Today we finished Swann's Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. I'm eager to start the second volume tomorrow, but I just want to leave a little souvenir here before moving on. This is from the last few pages, and is not any kind of a "spoiler." For people intereted in the idea of spending the remainder of the pandemic reading Proust, I would consider this little tidbit a nice appetizer.
But when a belief disappears, there survives it--more and more vigorous so as to mask the absence of the power we have lost to give reality to new things--a fetishistic attachment to the old things which our belief once animated, as if it were in them and not in us, that the divine resided and as if present lack of belief had a contingent cause, the death of the Gods.

Friday, December 25, 2020

In Search of Lost Tune

The usual contenders for the Violin Sonata tune that runs through Proust's In Search of Lost Time are French or Belgian violin and piano pieces of the period (i.e. Franck, Fauré, or Saint-Saëns), but now that I am actually reading the first volume of the novel, I have had the subversive thought that the piece may not be French at all.

Proust refers to specific pieces of music by Liszt, Chopin, and Wagner, Gluck, and Beethoven, but he never mentions Mendelssohn, at least not in the first two volumes.

After reading the passage on page 362 of the Lydia Davis translation of Swann's Way
When, after the Verdurin evening, he had had the little phrase played over for him, and had sought to disentangle how it was that, like a perfume, like a caress, it encircled him, enveloped him, he had realize that it was to the closeness of the intervals between the five notes that composed it, and to the constant repetition of two of them, that was due this impression of frigid and withdrawn sweetness . . .
I knew I had found a clue. An odd set of circumstances followed. At least odd for me. I thought of the usual suspects from the French Violin Sonata repertoire, and couldn't think of a “stand-out” tune that would fit that description. But, when I reached for my copy of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (you can listen to the whole piece here), which I only thought of practicing today because of some technical things regarding shifting and bowing I have been working on lately, I found that the tranquillo theme in the first movement that gets developed through all three movements fits the bill.

Here it is in a higher register which further illustrates this description, “What had happened was that the violin had risen to a series of high notes on which it lingered as though waiting for something, holding on to them in a prolonged expectancy, in the exaltation of already seeing the object of its expectation approaching, and with a desperate effort to try to endure until it arrived, to welcome it before expiring, to keep the way open for it another moment with a last bit of strength so that it could come through, as one holds a trapdoor that would otherwise fall back.”
Further evidence of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto as the model for the Venteuil Sonata comes from these passages in Swann's Way:

“It was the andante from the Sonata for Piano and Violin by Vinteuil.”
[The second movement of the Mendelssohn Concerto is marked “Andante.”]

“He would begin with the sustained violin tremolos that are heard alone for a few measures, occupying the entire foreground . . . ” “But they fell silent; under the agitation of the violin tremolos which protected it with their quivering . . .”

“The beautiful dialogue which Swann heard between the piano and the violin at the beginning of the last passage” has to refer to this statement of a variation of the melody in the last movement, which is an emotional high point of the piece:

At any rate, I think that in pages 362 through 366 Proust describes the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto as accurately as he describes the depths of the human heart. I will leave you with this. It's time to make some coffee and read more Proust!

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Paul Hindemith’s Art!

I never knew that Paul Hindemith was such a good cartoonist!

Christmas Eve einmal anders

It is unusual to think of Erik Satie's Gymnopedie No. 1 as being an appropriate piece for Christmas Eve, but in this most unusual of unusual years this matches my mood exactly. Thank you to my friends in Lithuania for making such a beautiful distanced video, and putting it on YouTube this evening.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Jingle All the Way!

Last week I made a simple arrangement of "Jingle Bells" for my beginning violin students to play, and then I dressed it up with a few more voices, and made a version for viola. I shared the music with a few Facebook groups, and I am really happy to have found these "return greetings" on YouTube! Here's one of the version for viola

And a video of the version for violin:

Here's a festive video with percussion from Judith Ingolfsson,

and further arranged as a duet:

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Now is the time of monsters

Heather Cox Richardson's post for today, written about yesterday in the wee hours of this morning, begins with a quote from the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, "The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters."

She presents the events of the day (and I mean THE actual previous day) in a way that manages to distill and organize the confusion of what we read, hear, and see on the news, and she puts everything in true historical perspective.

Today's lesson in historical perspective involves Joe Biden's nomination of Representative Deb Haaland from New Mexico to be the Secretary of the Interior. She explains why having a person who was a tribal leader of the Laguna Pueblo people before becoming a member of congress in that position is a "recognition of 170 years of American history and the perversion of our principles by men who lusted for power," and "a sign that we are finally trying to use the government for the good of everyone." 

Saturday, December 19, 2020

In for the long haul: In Search of Lost Time and The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr

Since living in the present these days means looking ahead for an unknown length of time for a future when we can all interact safely, without the worry of unwittingly passing this Covid virus to people we know and to people we don't know, there is little better for me for me to pass that time with than a multi-volume novel. It gives this unknown length of time ahead a sense of structure.

Michael and I finished Robertson Davies's The Cornish Trilogy a couple of weeks ago, and then, because he knew I wanted to read it, Michael gave me (as a thoughtful gift) a copy of E.T.A. Hoffmann's The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, which figures prominently, along with E.T.A. Hoffmann, in The Cornish Trilogy.

Tomcat Murr (or Kater Murr in the original German) is an unwitting collaboration between a cat who has taught himself to read and write, and his master, who has (unknowingly) provided the reverse sides of some of the pages for a book he is writing about a composer named Kreisler. So we get two stories that break off and switch suddenly. Fortunately the editor, who happens to be one "E.T.A. Hoffmann," has indicated in the text where the breaks occur. I'm only about forty pages in, but I am confident that the rest of the novel will be as entertaining and engaging as the beginning.

And then there's the Proust. Michael has read the whole series of novels twice, and I have "read at" it over the past several decades, but never in this wonderful Lydia Davis translation, and never with the readerly experience I have acquired during my time as a "mature" adult.

Proust writes about music from the standpoint of a highly sensitive listener who is not a musician himself, which is always a good perspective for those of us who are in the business of creating and recreating music to keep in mind. Rather than write "about" what I am reading, I'll just leave a sample from the section called "Swann in Love" here.
He would find several of her favorite pieces open on the piano: the “Valse des Roses” or “Pauvre Fou” by Tagliafico (which should, according to her wishes, which she had put into writing, be performed at her funeral); he would ask her to play instead the little phrase from Vinteuil’s sonata, even though Odette played very badly, but the loveliest vision of a work of art that remains with us is often the one that transcended the wrong notes coaxed by unskillful fingers from an out-of-tune piano. For Swann the little phrase continued to be associated with the love he felt for Odette. He was aware that this love was something that did not correspond to anything external, anything verifiable by others besides him; he realized that Odette’s qualities did not justify his attaching so much value to the time he spent with her. And often, when Swann’s positive intelligence alone prevailed, he wanted to stop sacrificing so many intellectual and social interests to this imaginary pleasure. But as soon as he heard it, the little phrase had the power to open up within him the space it needed, the proportions of Swann’s soul were changed by it; a margin was reserved in him for a bliss that also did not correspond to any external object, and yet, instead of being purely individual, like the enjoyment of that love, assumed for Swann a reality superior to that of concrete things. The little phrase incited in him this thirst for an unfamiliar delight, but it did not give him anything precise to assuage it. So that those parts of Swann’s soul from which the little phrase had erased any concern for material interests, any considerations that were human and valid for all people, it left vacant and blank, and in them he was free to write Odette’s name. Moreover, where Odette’s affection might seem somewhat limited and disappointing, the little phrase came along to add to it, to amalgamate with it its mysterious essence. From the sight of Swann’s face as he listened to the phrase, one would have said he was absorbing an anesthetic that allowed him to breathe more deeply. And the pleasure which the music gave him, and which was soon to create in him a true need, did indeed resemble, at those moments, the pleasure he would have found in testing fragrances, in entering into contact with a world for which we are not made, which seems formless to us because our eyes do not perceive it, meaningless because it evades our understanding, which we can attain only through a single sense. What great repose, what mysterious renewal for Swann—for him whose eyes, though refined lovers of painting, whose mind, though a shrewd observer of manners, bore forever the indelible trace of the aridity of his life—to feel himself transformed into a creature strange to humanity, blind, without logical faculties, almost a fantastic unicorn, a chimerical creature perceiving the world only through his hearing. And since he still searched the little phrase for a meaning to which his intellect could not descend, what strange drunkenness he felt, as he divested his innermost soul of all the help of reason and forced it to pass alone through the sieve, through the dark filter of sound! He began to become aware of all that was painful, perhaps even secretly unappeased in the depths of the sweetness of that phrase, but it could not hurt him. What did it matter if it told him love was fragile, his own love was so strong! He toyed with the sadness it diffused, he felt it pass over him, but in a caress that only deepened and sweetened his sense of his own happiness. He made Odette play it ten times, twenty times, demanding that while she did so she should not stop kissing him. Each kiss summons another. Ah, in those first days of our love, kisses come so naturally! So closely, in their profusion, do they crowd together; and it would be as hard for us to count the kisses we give each other in an hour as the flowers of a field in the month of May. Then she would make as if to stop, saying: “How can you expect me to play if you hold on to me? I can’t do everything at once.”

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Beethoven's 250th

I was just listening to a Radiolab podcast from this past May that concerns Beethoven's metronome markings. You can read the transcript here, if you like. The discussion concerning the speed at which Beethoven indicated his symphonies should be played (yawn) has been going on continuously for at least a century. My ambivalent feelings about Beethoven's metronome markings have to do with my belief that all composers hear music in their head too quickly. They want to make their way from the beginning of a phrase to the end of a phrase, and without the physical sensation of touch or friction, which is very difficult to imagine in a satisfying way. In the musical space in our inner ears there is nothing to prevent difficult combinations of pitches and rhythms to make their way clearly through even the most difficult topography. It just doesn't happen as easily in actual physical conditions.

I found a very interesting dissertation from 2016 by Marten A. Noorduin from the University of Manchester that discusses metronome markings in published editions of Beethoven's music (including his string quartets and piano music) that were added by his contemporaries Karl Holtz, Carl Czerny, and Ignaz Moscheles. I have only browsed through it, but I do intend to read it carefully (which is one reason I'm putting it here, a far easier place to find it than on my computer desktop).

What I did learn from it was that Beethoven didn't retroactively indicate metronome markings for his string quartets or any of his chamber music involving strings the way he did for his symphonies. I imagine it is because he knew that the tempo of a string quartet is always flexible, and he had the skill to write the music in such a way that the correct tempo would be inevitable. Four string players with the laws of physics in play will find the tempos that work best for them. Knowing these pieces rather intimately, I can't imagine any way that tempo indications could improve them. They are already masterpieces. All they require is to be played by thoughtful and skilled people, and the tempos take care of themselves. His symphonies, on the other hand, require a conductor. And that conductor may or may not be as thoughtful or as skilled as the people doing the playing.

My project during what was to be a year-long celebration of Beethoven's music before the pandemic made it impossible to play or attend concerts, was to learn the first violin parts of all the string quartets. I have played the viola parts of many of them, but not the violin parts. In order to do this I really had to improve my skills on the violin, particularly navigatigating the upper parts of the E string where the first violin lives a lot of the time. Acquiring the technical facility to play the Opus 18 Quartets took me several months, and learning to play the first violin parts well enough to play along with my favorite recordings (and the Colorado Quartet's recording is still my favorite) took me many more months. Now that I have the technique I need, the Opus 59, 74, and 95 quartets are within reach. Though I did try, I imagine that being able to play the late quartets with my favorite recordings with any sense of comfort and fluency will probably take another year.

What I have learned about Beethoven from this experience is that he really understood the violin. He understood everything that the violin could do, and he understood what kinds of gestures feel good on the violin. I enjoy playing his viola parts, but I enjoy playing his violin parts more. And from Beethoven I am learning what the violin is, and what it is capable of doing.

Once we are able to play chamber music again, I imagine that my Beethoven Quartet playing (which I really hope will be able to happen in non-performance situations) will be from the viola "chair." But that's fine with me. The private experience I am having with Beethoven's first violin parts is very special and very personal, and knowing the "territory" will help me to understand more about his quartets when I approach them again from the inside.

I still have to decide which quartets to play on December 16th!

Saturday, December 05, 2020

Scottish Freelancers Ensemble Christmas Program

I am so happy to be connected with these Scottish musicians! This is such a beautifully put together (and played and sung) program.

And they used my arrangement of Holst's "In the Bleak Midwinter" for their intermission music (while you go refill your cocoa or your glass of wine). The music is wonderful, but I'm also loving the speaking. I get so emotional when I hear people from Scotland speak (and play, particularly when the music is traditional).

Friday, December 04, 2020

Dreidel Fantasy for Solo Cello

There seems to be a dearth of Hannukah-themed solo cello music, so, at the request of a friend in need, I wrote this. I hope it brightens up your holiday season!

You can find the music on this page of the IMSLP.

Thursday, December 03, 2020

Composing as a Craft

During one of the many conversations I had with Seymour Barab over the years, he referred to his composing as his "craft." I was kind of startled at the time, but now I completely understand why he used that term, because so much of composing is craft. The act of composing is, in essence, taking (or making) materials, and assembling them in a pleasing way. Part of the craft of composing comes from removing the stuff that doesn't work, and reassembling the stuff that does work so that it can work better. It involves moving pitches around, expanding and contracting meter so that the music at hand is easy to read and easy to play or sing, once you get the pitches and rhythms learned. It involves manipulating textures (articulation) and dynamics, so that the musical lines you or I have drawn have a map to follow. It is important to keep the journey interesting. Like any journey it should have a clean start, interesting experiences along the way, time for reflection, motivation to continue, and it should come to a satisfying end.

I have been assembling material (arranging music) for half my life now, and only started working with my own material in the last twenty five years. I must have had a "backlog" of material rolling around in my unconscious from all of my playing and listening experiences, because melodic and thematic ideas kept bobbing to the surface demanding that I play with them. At that point composing felt like art, and I was kind of intoxicated with inspiration. My life with busy with school (I was studying composition), work (I had a graduate assistantship which involved a lot of grading, and had CD reviews to write), family (Michael and our two growing kids), practicing, quartet playing, and orchestra playing, but I got up very early in the morning and chain-wrote a lot of music.

People seemed to like what I wrote, but I can't say that people took my work very seriously. I guess I was writing lyrical music during a time when minimalism and/or avant-garde looping were the new-musical fare. Or maybe it was because I was a woman working in a field that was so dominated by men. Maybe it was because I lacked craft (you can never have enough craft), or maybe it was because I didn't (and still don't) live in a cosmopolitan place, or that I never went beyond a Master's Degree, and therefore, other than teaching at a community college, I am not part of the academic hierarchy.

Being an "outsider" does have its perks, though. I have had to make my own way, and seek out my own challenges. But most of all I have had time to develop my craft. Now, at the age of sixty-one, I feel like I can rely on my craft to do just about anything I want. Craft has been a nice companion during this Covid-19 isolation. It has allowed me to be able to work out feelings through the music I write, and I feel like I have a larger community of musicians who live in cosmopolitan places, but are also isolated.

So I have been writing music for musicians to play and sing at home. People do need new music to play, and I'm happy that my craft is sufficient to write music that people like to play and sing.

In my virtual world of Facebook and Twitter, I see that a lot of performing musicians have been writing their own music during this isolation. Some of them create their own publishing companies, and some sell their newly-written music through their websites, which, for the business-minded musician is the only way to make any money from writing music. I put almost all of my newly-written music in the IMSLP because it is an easy way to get music to people who need it (or want it) now. It provides a sense of instant gratification and a feeling of connection with other musicians, so it works for me.

I do have eighty pieces of music published by commercial publishers (some of it forthcoming), so anyone who wants to buy my published music can. My published music isn't my property, and I only get royalty checks every few years, because ASCAP doesn't issue checks that amount to less than $25.

I have written a lot of music these past few weeks, and feel almost like the reverse of the way I felt during my first bout of chain writing between 1999 and 2005. Now I am intoxicated by craft. Ideas come, and I can write them down in a coherent form fairly quickly, and it is in the craft of working with them that I get my jollies.