Sunday, September 26, 2021

You Never Know

After an orchestra rehearsal yesterday morning, I found myself in a lengthy parking-garage conversation about music with a young man who had recently decided to augment his musical life as a freelancer and teacher by doing music-related things involving technology.

I really enjoy being able to talk with younger musicians (people younger than my own kids, even), and find myself deeply impressed at how capable, enthusiastic, and dedicated so many of them are to the this activity that we pass, torch-like, from one generation to the next. When we get the opportunity to make music together, the result is often, as in the concert last night, a big emotional and artistic bonfire, fueled by a lot of attention and concentration. It seems that as an orchestral musician, age really doesn't matter. And at sixty-two I still have a lot to talk about with people thirty or forty years younger than I am. I also learn a great deal from sitting with truly capable young stand partners, some, in the case of this concert, with remarkable bow arms.

At any rate, I mentioned at some point that I wrote music. My new friend asked me what my last name was, wondering if he had ever heard of me. I told him that he probably hadn't, but when I mentioned my name there was a moment of recognition. He reached in his bag, took out a notebook of orchestra music that he was helping a student with, and produced the bass part of "High Speeed Rail," a piece I wrote about ten years ago.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

String Theory, the Mind of God, and Phrasing

While listening to a podcast conversation today between Michio Kaku and Alan Alda, I got an abstract glimpse of what string theory is, how string theory works, and how string theory relates to music. At any rate, I want to share the link here, just in case it is an interesting subject for anyone who reads this blog, and so I can be sure to know where it is in the universe of the internet when I want to listen again.

Here it is.

I started getting little awareness "pings" that relate to the way musical phrases are curved like physical space is curved, and how what I might have to rethink what I sometimes think of as "gravity" in phrases. And I can't stop thinking about Johann Sebastian Bach's curved beams.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Back in the Orchestral Viola Saddle

I played a family-friendly pops concert yesterday with the Champaign Urbana Symphony. It was a Covid-safe space with everybody in the orchestra vaccinated and with all the string players and the audience members masked.

In rehearsal we had to explore logistics, like coordinating bell covers along with trumpet muting and wind instrument changes, but otherwise it felt like a normal and well-organized couple of rehearsals.

It has been a long five hundred some-odd days (some odder than others), and I found that playing as a masked ensemble for a masked audience was perfectly comfortable.

Nobody could see the smiles coming from everyone's mouths, but we could feel them.

It was so inspiring to be sitting in the middle of excellent orchestration--hearing and feeling the brass players behind me, the winds, to the right, and the excellent strings all around.

I was concerned in the middle of the first piece, a Sound of Music medley, that I was going to start crying and get my mask all wet. I know that I wasn't alone.

And when it came time to go to sleep after such a stimulating day, I had one piece after another going through my head, just like in the old days. And I am still having spots that pop up here and there.

The next time I get to play, with another orchestra, is only two weeks away. And I get to play Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony for the first time as a violist, so I have two weeks to practice. I was so excited to find all the musical material that the violas get to play.

I wouldn't say that this aspect of life is "back to normal." I would say that I am experiencing orchestral musical life with a new sense of joy and purpose.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Beethoven's Kol Nidre

This is beautifully described in a 1971 letter to the editor of the New York Times
Joseph Roddy's piece on the Guarneri Quartet (“The New ‘In’ Group Is the Guarneri,” March 7), refers to the adagio of Beethoven's Quartet in C minor, Opus 131. Michael Tree, the group's violist, in response to some friendly joking about his playing “Jewish” in this movement, is quoted as saying, “Look, this is the Jewish movement. Beethoven took this from a synagogue... It is very well documented.” Since neither Mr. Tree nor Mr. Roddy indicated what this documentation is, may I point out that what one hears in the opening bars of the adagio is the 1,300‐year‐old “Kol Nidre” melody which is chanted in all or most synagogues on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) Leo Tolstoy, I might add, once described the “Kol Nidre,” which he had heard in a Russian synagogue, as the “saddest, yet most uplifting” of all the melodies he had ever encountered, ethoing, as it does, “the story of the great martyrdom of a grief‐stricken nation” According to Abraham Idelson in his book, Jewish Music In Its Historical Development, Beethoven's use of the melody is probably related to the request by Viennese Jews in 1825 that he compose a cantata for the dedication of the new Reform Temple. Actually, Idelson points out, Beethoven was considering the request, but somehow never got around to it. Then, a year later, Opus 131 saw the light. Undoubtedly, in earlier times, members of such outfits as the Joachim String Quartet and the Budapest String Quartet must have noticed the remarkable similarity between the Jewish melody and the opening measures of the Beethoven adagio, but the first to call attention to it in print was Emil Rreslaur, in Leipzig in 1898 in his book on the ancient origins of synagogue and secular Jewish song.
There it is, abstracted and contracted, in the very short (twenty-eight measures long) sixth movement of Opus 131:

Monday, September 06, 2021

A Tale of Two Cities

In 2017 a new used bookstore opened up on the Charleston square. The owner, who owned the largest used bookstore in Chicago, moved to Charleston (by way of Arkansas) to raise his family in a more rural place. He had also gone to college in Charleston, and had fond memories of the friendly and intellectually offbeat community he encountered here.

I stopped into the bookstore shortly after it opened. Joe, the owner, told me how much he loved the college radio station when he was a student, and that he was having difficulty finding it. All he could get was a "top 40" station.

The radio station he remembered was the one that I worked at during the 1980s and 1990s. It turned into a "hit mix" station right after I left. Sometimes we think that the fixtures in a place will remain there after we leave. But places change, and too many of the fixtures live only in our memory of a place.

Joe's bookstore (called Bob's Books, after his father) made a huge impact on the community. Before it got filled with books, there was space large enough for our Collegium to play a concert there. We even gained a new member that evening because a recorder player from Germany, who had just moved to the area, stopped into the bookstore that evening, and heard our concert. It was such a moment of serendipity.

Joe had to move from the square because of safety issues, but he found a great new location accross the street from the university. After a couple of years the owner of the new building suddenly forced him to move, and he found a new location just off the square in a shaded building adjacent to a coffee shop. It was a perfect location. He moved during the first several months of the pandemic, and was eventually able to open up the store to people who wore masks.

I just learned that Joe has suddenly moved his family to Chicago, and is in the process of moving his bookstore there. I imagine it is because of the people who live around here who refuse to wear masks. I imagine that with all Joe's best intentions to try to give something of value to a city that existed, in part, in his nostalgic memory, it became a full-time job for him to have to deal with people who thought they had a right to go into his store without wearing masks.

It is astounding to me that despite a state mandate for masks, and signs on doors of businesses requiring masks, so few businesses are willing to enforce mask-wearing.

We will miss Joe and his bookstore, and I trust that he will be successful and will be safer and happier in Chicago.

After our first visit to Charleston in 1985 (we came here from Boston in order to look for a place to live), we made a list of a hundred things to like about Charleston. Michael was welcomed by a lively English department, and I was welcomed by a musical community that was happy to have me. Michael put in a good thirty years of teaching before the governor-assisted decline of the university and its enrollment (to put things politely), and I was able to create a baroque ensemble (back in my flute-playing days), work at a radio station, help form a string quartet, go to graduate school, help form a Renaissance consort, and help form a summer string orchestra. Together we live in a house that we really like (after doing a lot to improve it), and enjoy the natural beauty of the area.

We have raised two children, developed some strong friendships, and have participated in many community activities. But it seems to me that most of what we have done for the community is of our own making. We have given more than we have taken, which in most circumstances seems like a good formula for happiness. But so much of what was here has gone away, leaving some shared memories (some good, and some not so good).

And after thirty odd years (some odder than others) this is still home. And I still hope that things can change for the better, even if there is nowhere to buy books in town.

Saturday, September 04, 2021

The Beholder's Share and Music?

I just learned about Alois Rigel's idea about the importance of the viewer when considering the "life" of a piece of art. He calls this the "beholder's share." Here is an excellent video that explains the idea in visual terms.

Here is an article by Anne Sherwood Pundyk that discusses the work of Erik Kandel, the person from whom I learned, via Alan Alda's "Clear and Vivid" podcast, about the whole idea.

The question of how music, a thing that happens in time, relates to this stuff is complicated, and it is really difficult to delve into it without encountering a great deal of the kind of philosophy I have trouble understanding. But I did find this paper by Robert Williams that I would share, simply because I brought up the question.

Can we each bring our individual life experiences into listening to a piece of music the way we can when looking at a piece of visual art? Do we only bring our musical experiences into the experience of music, or does the music itself bring experiences to mind that we hadn't been conscious of?

Some of us do not feel the need to interpret what we hear (allowing it to function as background sound), while others are incapable of listening without paying full attention. And then a whole barnyard of interpretive tools come into play from each of our lives as musicians and as listeners for each listening experience.

Then there is the difference among performing musicians between what one person sees on the page (which itself contains lots of visual-art-related information, along with language information) and what another person sees on the page, and how that person chooses to apply her or his own sense of phrasing, grouping, gradations of tonal color, gradiations of dynamics, gradiations of articulation, and a whole slew of other factors to play a given piece to any number of "beholders," both seen and unseen. If the beholder happens to be a recording device, does it render the player and the beholder one, or does it split the player and beholder into two distinct parts. So many questions.

Friday, September 03, 2021

Viola or Cello Adoration

My violin and piano transcription of Florence Price's Adoration can certainly be played on the viola or the cello, but it is far more viola-or-cello-friendly when transposed down a whole step to C major. Hannah Barton and Michael Finlay put a beautiful video of this version played on viola that I would like to share here.

You can find the viola part here, and the piano score (with the cello part) here.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Evening in Paris

This is the first piece of "Two Places in Illinois." It is a nostalgic look at the Paris of the past.

I got some of these images from a 1908 City Directory that I found by way of I also found a short history of the city, which was once a booming railroad town during the days when you could get almost anywhere by train.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Coles County August 2020 and 2021

The natural world of Coles County, Illinois comes to a bright crescendo in August: everything is blooming, hopping, and buzzing. I wrote an optiminstic piano piece last August to celebrate the physical beauty of the place where I live. Writing it helped to offset the omnipresence of the pandemic. Oh those innocent days of the early virus!

Revisiting the piece in August of 2021, now that vaccines have FDA approval and are freely and readily available to everyone over the age of twelve, could have been rewarding and kind of triumphant.

But the virus is now much more infectious, and too many of the residents of Coles County choose to remain unvaccinated. Many of the adult residents of the county still will not wear masks in public indoor spaces. They still don't believe (for whatever reason) that Covid-19, particularly in its strengthened Delta state, is something to be concerned about.

But the flowers are blooming, and the trees are rich with bird life, bird songs, insect life, and insect songs.

My friend Marjorie takes beautiful photographs during her daily walks, and shares them with her friends. Yesterday I made a video using my "Coles County August" piece and photographs from some of Marjorie's August 2021 walks.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Atlas Moth

This is the first piece in a forthcoming book of scale pieces in first position that will be published by Mel Bay later this year or in 2022. Like "Weights and Measures," this set goes through all the major and minor keys, moving stepwise with repeated pitches that happen only at the unison or the octave. Working this way gave me a some sense of structure during the first wave of the pandemic, and now making videos is giving me some structure during this Delta wave, where it is more like a sunami here in the lower parts of Illinois.

I call this collection "Scale Tales," because each scale corresponds to an animal that has scales like moths and butterflies, birds, fish, lizards, turtles, and flying squirrels (!!!).

The second volume (again with scales in all the major and minor keys, but using the full range of the violin) will probably carry the title "Advanced Scale Studies," but it is structured the same way.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Bruch Four Pieces from Opus 84

This recently digitized recording from a Boston Symphony Chamber Players concert given on December 1, 1974 somewhere in Boston (Jordan Hall or Sanders Theater, possibly) of four of Max Bruch's eight pieces for viola, clarinet, and piano (published in 1910 as Opus 84) is incredibly beautiful. We get to hear clarinetist Harold Wright, pianist Gilbert Kalish, and violist Burton Fine (my father) play chamber music the way I remember chamber music sounding when I was growing up. In the course of adulthood I thought that I might have had an inflated nostalgic memory of how beautifully my father and his colleagues played these Bruch pieces.

Now, when I listen with the ears of an adult musician as well as with the ears of a violist, I find that their playing is even more beautiful than I remembered it to be.

I imagine that you, my blog-reading friends, will share my enthusiasm.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

An Afternoon with Doktor Faustus

My Four Pieces from Doktor Faustus was included in a program celebrating the viola d'amore music mentioned in the Thomas Mann novel.

I am happy to share the recording of my piece from this July 11th, 2021 performance by Gertrud Schmidt (viola d'amore) and Gero Körner (piano) that was given in the Saal Hütten in Roetgen-Rott in Germany. You can listen on the IMSLP Page (where you can find the music) or through these links:

1. Abendmusik
2. Hetaere esmeralda
3. Interlude
4. Echo

You can also read all about music in the novel in this open-access book (in German) by Anna Maria Olivari.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Alan Alda's Seven Questions

Michael and I have admired Alan Alda's work for a long time, but we only recently found out about his Clear+Vivid podcast. We are now faithful listeners.

At the end of each interview/episode Alda asks his guest a set of questions. Michael has answered them on his blog, and he suggested that I answer them here on my blog. So I will

What do you wish you really understood?

How ever-so-slight changes in the way you look at a situation or problem can change your relationship to that problem or situation completely and permanently.

How do you tell someone that they have their facts wrong?

I try to be direct and gentle. I don't back down, but I try not to argue.

What’s the strangest question anyone has ever asked you?

This one? I really never think of questions as strange, though many questions that I get from people who don't already know me personally involve accidentals, which could be considered strange out of the context of someone who writes music. I do remember that once, when I was a teenager, someone asked me if I wanted to scramble (meaning to leave wherever we were), and I thought it was an odd question because I had never heard "scramble" used in that context. I can't remember my response.

How do you stop a compulsive talker?

By trying to lead the conversation to a place s/he knows nothing about, and keeping it there.

How do you strike up a real, genuine conversation?

By posing direct and specific questions at first, listening, and responding with more questions. Eventually the conversation involves questions that I respond to, and when all goes well the conversation goes into a series of "dances" that do not involve questions or answers.

What gives you confidence?

I feel confident when there is a flowing ease--in music or in conversation. I feel confident when I know someone is listening and not judging, arguing, or preparing what s/he is planning to say next. The inverse of this destroys my confidence.

What book changed your life?

One Morning in Maine. It was the first multi-sensual reading experience for me, where even the color of the ink helped me to feel sensations of taste and smell, of sea and air, of ice-cream and clam chowder, and the sensation of having a loose tooth. I could say it changed my life because it changed the way I read.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Jacques Barzun, Guest Blogger (again)

This comes from Music in America Life (1956). It still rings true after 66 years. I have reinforced it with links, which I'm sure Barzun would appreciate.
Music in the literary fallacy Neither composers nor listeners nor—reprehensibly—the critics seem to appreciate the extent to which their convictions depend on the deceptive charm of words. "Absolute" music gives comfort, "pure" art gives nobility, by the mere name on the label—just like a patent-medicine. Writings about music are weighted down with traditional errors embodied in familiar phrases. All references, for example, to musical logic, to its kinship with mathematics, to its suitability as a universal language, to its total separateness from other arts, to its immateriality and meaninglessness, are old catchwords with no shadow of validity. They are repeated, however with unanimity of a flock of crows on a telegraph wire by all the educated men and women who address themselves in speech or in print to the delicate particular questions of modern and classical music.

The contrasts of music with literature are especially absurd, in that they show the speakers have never given a moment‘s thought to the questions: what is the literary effect, what is the pleasure of literature? before they contrast that art with their notion of the pleasure and effect of music. They assume that literature does not differ from what they experience in reading the morning paper or the instructions on the bottle—whence their views about meaning in words and in music, and mutatis mutandis, meaning in pictures, dancing, etc.

The one important difference between literature and the other art is external and consists in the fact that literature has developed a fairly rich vocabulary of criticism, whereas the other arts flounder about in technicalities mixed with bad metaphors. The music critic’s second pressing task is therefore the development of an adequate, precise, non-technical vocabulary for describing without sentimental or fanciful imagery what happens in music, as well in as in his mind while he listens. This is a continuing obligation which carries with it the duty of criticizing the question-begging, fallacy-breeding vocabulary now in use.

To date, the most encouraging attempt to fashion a proper speech for discussing music is Mr. Robert Erickson’s The Structure of Music (Noonday, N.Y. 1955). But in speaking of this desideratum to the literate connoisseur in one’s circle, one encounters great resistance to the idea that any need exist. When the need is shown, the second lot of resistance is that a language of criticism for music is an impossibility. When fragments of such a language are pointed to as already in use, the third entrenchment of the stubborn is that talking about music destroys its essence and robs the listener of his enjoyment. One must then give assurances that the intention is not to make critical talk a substitute for attendance at concerts, but simply a means of greater pleasure before an after—it being obvious the talk (and writing) about music is already a massive occurrence which nothing is going to stop.

The distinction between sound criticism and "music itself" is no different from that between intelligent discourse and any other activity. The distinction applies to life itself which is meant to be lived and talked about. People read about painting and baseball and old silver without failing into the error of supposing that a paragraph is the same thing as a canvas, a home run, or a teapot. The fact, then, that music lovers fear words is not the result of greater devotion but of a more muddled mind.

This would harm none but themselves if our acceptance of a high art were unself-conscious or, as we say, traditional. But as we just saw, it is highly self-conscious and demanding. Like Lydia in The Lady of the Aroostook, the interested public "wants to know." It wants to know whether something is atonal or surrealistic or Native American or expressive of dialectical materialism. And this is what justifies the criticism of criticism. Unguarded, the public takes in but little more than homeopathic doses of newspaper reviewing and program notes, and only adds to its own confusion when it makes an effort to escape it.

The use of words can lead to over-intellectualizing and desiccation, no doubt. But this is a danger chiefly to the composer and performer, who are often ruined by "getting ideas." The point of a fit critical vocabulary is not necessarily to increase anyone’s stock of ideas; only to put better order among those he has, so that they will not stand in the way of intelligent perception. The most articulate critic will willingly join the great inarticulate creator in keeping absolutely quiet while music unfolds its meaning in its own medium; and afterward both may be disposed to approve of the words of Lowell Mason when, having found the first Academy of music in this country, he prepared a teaching manual:

Music is almost the only branch of education aside from divine truth whose direct tendency is to cultivate the feelings. Our systems of education generally proceed too much on the principle that we are merely intellectual beings. . . . Hence we often find the most learned the least agreeable.

As we cry "Here! Here!" and echo Mason‘s conviction that vocal music "tends to improve the heart" one mentally measures the distance between his pioneer call to song in the mighty answer it has received. One thinks of his indefatigable colleagues and successors who labored for a century before seeing results in keeping with their enthusiasm, skill, and patience: Mason‘s contemporary old Anton Heinrich, who tried in vain to acclimate Beethoven in Kentucky; Sidney Lanier, the Southern poet-musician who wrote so justly of the two arts; Theodore Thomas and the Damrosch family to whom we owe the founding of our orchestral eminence; William Henry Fry, journalist and composer and gadfly; Jerome Hopkins, the heroic organizer and critic, who yet managed to composing voluminously; MacDowell and Griffes, who still speak to us in their native tongue; Victor Herbert, the born entertainer who also fight for the creator’s rights; T. W. Surette and Archibald Davison, who revolutionized the school repertory; and Koussevitzky who made Boston the trying ground for modern American music. Often isolated and misunderstood and and even misguided, they none the less brought us where we are.

It was a hundred years ago this year that Whitman told an unheeding world: "I hear America Singing." If he returned today, he would find this hopeful baseless metaphor turned into a living truth.

Jacques Barzun July 1955

You can read another passage from this book here.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Friday, August 06, 2021

This Pandemic August vs. Last Pandemic August

Last August it felt like we were all in this together. "This" meaning, for musicians like me, that none of us, no matter where in the world we lived, were playing concerts. Some of us, used the time to develop more technique, write music for people who were in need of ways of connecting to others, and make amazing videos answering burning questions about the "how" and "why" of violin playing (like Augustin Hadelich).

I was incredibly productive (that link goes to the pieces in my catalog from 2020, minus a bunch of pieces not listed that are still awaiting premieres or publication), and incredibly fortunate, because there were people all over the world posting videos of the solo pieces I wrote, as well as posting videos of pieces I wrote for two or more instruments (some assembled remotely, and some made with real-time partners at home). It did help me feel unusually connected to the musical world outside of my town, my area, and my country.

There was also, in the absence of concerts to play, perhaps, a hightened awareness of how blatant and omnipresence in American society racism is, which propelled a great many musicians into learning about how non-racially-diverse the usual "classical" repertoire is, and how few women have music that makes its way into orchestral concert programs. I got to see stabs at remedying this problem. In July I started learning about performances of my string orchestra transcription of Florence Price's "Adoration," and new performance videos continued through the remainder of the academic year. It was tremendously exciting.

Things are different this August. Vaccinated people are playing concerts again. Most of the musicians I know in the world outside of our area of downstate Illinois are vaccinated, and they are able to engage in performances for a masked and vaccinated audience. The Delta variant of Covid is frightening, but we do know that being vaccinated and wearing masks when sharing indoor air with people who may or may not be vaccinated will keep us safe until it is time for a booster.

While the rest of the musical world is getting on with their lives as usual, and living their musical lives less online (which is certainly a good thing), I am feeling more and more like a remote and forgotten composer. I suppose that is the way of the world. I'm proud of the work I have done, and I'm proud to have made my music so easily accessible, but composers are now kind of a dime a dozen in these musical internets, and I'm starting to understand that composers who are female may have had a brief moment of acceptability during this past year, but musicians (of all stripes) will more than likely default to thinking of composers to take seriously as being men. I'm not the squeakiest of wheels. I do what I can, but it is not in my nature to promote myself like many other living composers.

And now, here in "Covid," Illinois, where only a third of the population of our county is vaccinated, and only half of the people I see in the grocery store wear masks, there are big spikes in cases (don't get me started on our US representative--the 15th district of Illinois for the curious--I don't want to sully this blog with her name or even a link to her). Coles County has the same daily average that we had last August, before we had vaccines available.

I'm sorry to have made such a lousy post, but there isn't that much that can offset the general lousiness of this particular time for me.

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

One Song, Two Ways

I just learned that a particularly "iconic" song, with lyrics written for Frank Sinatra in 1969, originated in 1967 as a popular French song that was acquired (i.e. bought) by an English-language lyricist. This lyricist transformed it into a song offering a sentiment that is the polar opposite of the original.

So, as is my habit, if I were to set this song as an instrumental piece without text (for personal non-commercial use only), can my setting combine the two "faces" of this song and still please the person interested in hearing it "her way?"

I offer a summary of the original text:
You don't wake up when I do. I cover you so that you won't be cold, get up, get dressed, drink my coffee, and quietly leave the house. As usual I am late. It's grey outside, and I'm cold, so I raise my collar. I will pretend during the day that everything is fine. You are not home when I return, so I go to bed alone, hiding my tears, while I wait for you. You will come home, and you will lie down. We will kiss, and make love, and we will pretend, as usual.
And here is a summary of the "rebranded" American lyric:
I have lived a full life, and during my many travels I planned everything carefully. I have only a very few regrets, and faced every challenge. I laugh at the things that I have lost, considering how much I have done. I have said what was on my mind, and did everything according to my rules.

Sunday, August 01, 2021

Modern Music for New Singers: 21st Century American Art Songs

It is such an honor to have my setting of Robert Louis Stevenson's "My House, I Say" for tenor and piano included in this brand new anthology from North Star Music that is coming out in print today, August 1, 2021. You can visit the North Star Website and read all about it here.

Friday, July 30, 2021

This Was Toscanini

This Was Toscanini: The Maestro, My Father, and Me by Samuel Antek and Lucy Antek Johnson Brown Books Publication Group, 2nd Edition; August 17, 2021 184 pages

This is a reissue of Samuel Antek's This Was Toscanini that was posthumously published in 1963. The 2021 second edition is clothed in a memoir written by Antek's daughter Lucy Antek Johnson, who offers a beautiful portrait of her father's life as a violinist in the NBC Symphony, the conductor of the New Jersey Symphony, and an excellent writer and keen observer of all things musical. Lucy Antek Johnson offers a beautiful prelude to the book, gives an introduction to each of Samuel Antek's chapters, and provides an excellent coda that follows the abrupt end (not an ending) to her father's book. Antek never finished the book because he died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of forty-nine, when his daughter was just twelve (in January of 1958).

I have read many memoirs that tell stories about life in the NBC Symphony, and I have heard countless stories about Toscanini (some, from second-hand experience, not terribly flattering; and some, from second-hand experience, lauditory). When the opportunity came up to get a review copy of this book to write about, I jumped at the chance.

The book arrived yesterday afternoon. It is beautifully printed on heavy paper, and is filled with beautiful photographs. I recoginized the candid in-rehearsal photographs of Toscanini taken by Robert Hupka from seeing them on the walls of my friend Anne's house. Anne got them from her father, Mischa Mischakoff, who was the concertmaster of the NBC Symphony, and one of Arturo Toscanini's closest associates.

This book is unusual. Samuel Antek does talk about Toscanini as a man, but only in the context of music. Antek's observations come from sitting in first violin section of the NBC Symphony from Christmas 1937 until April of 1954 (the entire run of Toscanini's association with the orchestra), being on tour with Toscanini in South America and in the United States, and being invited to Toscanini's house to discuss the Verdi Requiem, a piece Antek was preparing to conduct with the New Jersey Symphony.

The book is generously peppered with Toscanini's Italian outbursts (particularly Non mangiare le note! and Vergogna!), enhanced with stories told to Antek by Toscanini about working with Verdi, and specific discussions of dynamics, phrasing, balance, and articulation that make me want to pay more attention when I am practicing. Antek devotes an entire fascinating chapter to Toscanini's interpretation and preparation of Weber's Oberon Overture.

It seems that the "magic" of Toscanini was to strive tirelessly for his personal ideals in music making without ever compromising. He was extremely demanding of himself in his humble service to the music at hand, and to music in general. He demanded (by example and by direction) that the people he was making music with be dedicated to the details that he wanted to hear, and in doing so he could come off as emotionally volatile and even tyrannical. But despite all of the tantrums, the insults, the repetition, and the shaming (Vergogna), the musicians in the orchestra loved him, and became better musicians because of working with him.

After finishing the book (I think I read it in three sittings over the course of two days), I realized that most of the Toscanini stories I had heard over the years from musicians who did not know Toscanini personally must have come from the first 1963 edition of This Was Toscanini. I'm so glad that Lucy Antek Johnson has expanded, contextualized, and illustrated this beautifully written portrait of a singular man and an extraordinary time in American musical history.

Times have indeed changed. But just because this document comes from a period in American musical life when big city professional orchestras were "manned" mostly by male players and conductors (some who behaved in ways that are intolerable today), this book should not be ignored by people striving for a more equitable musical future. It is a beautifully written and beautifully produced document that offers us a glimpse into a golden age in American music making.

Lucy Antek Johnson's coda includes a statement from George Szell, "Toscanini was a truth seeker. . . . There was before Toscanini and after Toscanini."

I'll end this post with a little taste of text taken from the chapter "Playing with Toscanini":
It was an arresting experience to sit on the stage facing him. His face was broad and muscular, its bone structure bold. Standing on the podium, he seemed almost tall. But I was someewhat surprised every time I spooke to him to realize how small he actually was. The most outstanding feature of his unusally handsome face was his eyes, which had a strange and enigmatic expression. Toscanini was, of course, very nearsighted, but in spite of this, on the podium, he never wore his glasses. When he had occasion to refer to the score, he brought it up to within an inch of his face, as thought smelling it, or bent down to the music on the stand. But though he seemingly had poor vision, he could spot the slightest bow movement of a bass player thirty feet away or the movement of a violinist at the back of the orchestra. The actual expression on his face closely resembled that of a blind person; his eyes had that vacant, staring quality of somehow not being focused. When he addressed himself to a section of the orchestra, he seemed to be looking through it, not at it. At times this puzzled the players, particularly when he lashed out at one of them with a venomous comment. We were never quite sure at whom he was looking, for his unfocused, angry stare seemed to be accusing us all.
I think that this book would make a great present to give to friends who are musicians, friends who love music, and maybe it would be a great present to give to yourself.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Amanda Maier: Tranquillamente from "Six Pieces for Violin and Piano" transcribed for string orchestra

I have been spending some time during the past couple of days with Amanda Maier:

The score and parts for the transcripion (as well as for the violin and piano original) can be found on this page of the IMSLP.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

In Theory, In Practice

The word "theory" gets passed around often in online string teacher discussions. Suzuki-informed string teachers talk about it as something other than playing (like note reading) to include in their lessons. Piano teachers, at least from my experience, use it to analyze the music that students are playing. In my high school Music Theory class (where you could earn as many credits as you could taking a math class or a chemistry class) we were taught functional harmony, which would, in the 1970s, be considered "common practice." My teacher taught it functionally and rather dryly. I remember at the end of the semester, when he informed us that we now knew the whole harmonic vocabulary in music, I asked him (in all seriousness), "What about the harmonies that Brahms used?"

The next year I took counterpoint. We worked methodically through the Fux Gradus et Parnassum, and I learned a great deal. I didn't realize until decades later that the exercises we did were not written by Mr. Levenson, but I knew that they were corrected by him.

My next academic experience with music was at Juilliard, where we had a "Literature and Materials of Music" class, commonly known as "L and M," and informally referred to as "S and M." There were times where harmonic analysis was necessary. My theory experience in high school didn't help me much, so, regardless of how well I was taught, I was not able to identify harmonic progressions by theoretical names. It was not because I hadn't worked at it. It is because for me context is everything. I can identify most pieces of the "standard" repertoire within a measure or two (at any point in a piece), but I can't do an "on the spot" analysis of the harmonic progression. Some people can. I know many people who think of the harmonic analysis of something that they hear first, before listening for the things that I hear first, like voicing, instrumental or vocal color, and where the phrase has been and is going.

Perhaps it has something to do with absolute pitch. I know that my high school theory teacher had it, and I believe that the people I know who can do analysis on the spot have it as well. I wonder if context, for those people, is an afterthought.

Now that the roles I play in the world of music are pretty well set, I really enjoy the fact that my enjoyment of playing involves the delight of enjoying a harmonic progression without the burden of having to name it. As a teacher I also know that no matter how eloquently I explain tonality to my students, each student is on a personal path of musicianship, and each student will learn what is necessary to learn when they are ready.

And I have found that learning to understanding tonality through scale passages (and pieces) is the best tool. The other day a student was having trouble with a scale passage in a piece, and I opened up his "Weights and Measures" book to the scale piece in the key of the troublesome passage. He played some of the "Weights and Measures" (W and M, if you will) piece, and then went back to the passage he was struggling with. It was no longer a struggle because his ear could grab onto the tonality; and the hand, if all is clear in the ear department, can react in a relaxed way.

I remember back in the early days of the musical blogosphere there were a lot of people posting their unpublished writings concerning music theory. These people have moved their writing away from the general blogosphere and into academic spaces. I thought that I could find references to them in some of the posts I have made over the years about music theory, but I couldn't find anything specific. Here is my array of posts that mention "theory."

What I learned from my internet-based experience is that "Music Theory" as an academic field is now a far cry from analyzing form, voicing, and harmony, which are tools helpful to composers and performing musicians. It is now more a branch of musicology, and a person who writes about music theory is considered a music theorist.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Lift Every Voice (and give the composer credit)

I just finished listening to a Radiolab mini-series called "The Vanishing of Harry Pace," which I recommend highly. But I was struck that in the final episode, a history of the song "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," there was detailed discussion about James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the poem, and then it was (passively) mentioned that the poem was "set to music." There was no mention about the person who wrote the melody.

The melodic and harmonic setting of the text has always struck me as something written by an excellent composer, and I wondered if James Weldon Johnson was indeed a composer of music as well as a composer of poetry.

It only took me two minutes (even with serious wireless delays) to look up James Weldon Johnson and music, and learn that James had a brother who was the composer John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954). I also learned that John Rosamond Johnson set his brother's poem to music.

Why, with all the brainpower and investigative reporting skill that the Radiolab staff has in their operation, didn't they take the opportunity to give listeners this very important information?

Here's an article about the song from the July 4, 2021 edition of Good Black News, which is where I got the above picture (John Rosamond Johnson is clean shaven, and his brother James Weldon Johnson has facial hair).

You can read more about him here and here, and you can find more of his music on this page of the IMSLP.

The first installment of the podcast talks about how a lot of Black composers wrote (offensive to so many twenty-first-century ears) minstral songs, and the hosts even mention "Under the Bamboo Tree" by name. Just imagine how interesting an additional episode that actually considered the lives of the composers involved in Black Swan Records (rather than just the business people and the performers) would have been. It boggles my mind to learn (on my own) that the music for "Under the Bamboo Tree" and "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" was written the same composer.

UPDATE: I made an arrangement of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" for String Orchestra. You can get the music through this link.

Extra: The Songs of Cole and the Johnson Brothers (A lecture demonstration from Lisa Williamson)

Wait to watch this after reading the post right above!

Marked-up "Mole Unit" from "Weights and Measures" for Violin

One of my violin students suggested that I should make some tutorial videos for "Weights and Measures." I thought I could accomplish more (in less time) by marking up the first scale piece of the set. The beauty of keeping these pieces in the IMSLP on PDF is that teachers can print up multiple copies and apply bowings, fingerings, and dynamics of their choice. I find practicing this group of scale pieces a great way to warm up (on any instrument), and for students they provide a great way of actually hearing tonality (and its modal sisters) while they are playing. There is one one-page piece in each key-- first minor, then major.
[click for a larger view]

You can find the whole set, in the original for solo recorder, and set up as duets for any instrument to play with violin or viola, on this page of the IMSLP. The soprano recorder/violin set is particularly fun to play down the octave on the viola.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Haydn Musical Clock Fugue Hob. XIX: 16 for String Orchestra

I'm very pleased with the way that our Charleston Summer Strings orchestra played this transcription I made of the sixteenth of thirty-two pieces that Joseph Haydn wrote for Flötenuhr (musical clock), so I'm sharing it here.

The score and parts are available on this page of the IMSLP.

Saturday, July 03, 2021

Jacques Barzun, Guest Blogger

Jacques Barzun, is no longer with us. Music in American Life, a book first published in 1956, reflects on musical life in America a few years before I was born. It concerns music in American life when my parents were starting out in music. Here is what Mr. Barzun has to say about the role of managers in the business of American concert music:
The Manager's Handiwork

The first thing an intrested concert-goer learns is that the great musical artists are the creations and also the sport of managers, on the one hand, and the regimented citizens of the union on the other. "How can I get a good manager?" asks the young violinist fresh from prize-winning at the conservatory or perhaps fresh from a European success. There are two agencies and only two that can insure a top-flight career in the United States. Both regard their work as Marcus Aurelius did the maintenance of the Roman Empire. What lies outside must be vanquished or absorbed. The managerial circuits handle a limited number of performing animals who must jump through pre-established hoops. Fees, schedules, territory are not only set but irrevocably imposed, so that anything like a natural rise in fame or fortune is well-nigh impossible. Artists are sold to local groups in packages--one high-priced and several thrift-shop items. As a $250 number, it is not even possible after paying one's expenses to make a living, which means that a piano tuner is better off than the pianist he serves. New talent, regardless of merit, must wait till the machine offers a "slot."

The last bitter dose for the enterprising wayward is the need to make the program conform to the supposed tastes of the audience. The violinist must have a large repertory of "little pieces" for both the main course and the encores. The vocalist must be lavish with coy numbers, for the lieder program has all but disappeared. And the pianist (as Debussy suggested) must be able to lift the piano with his teeth. It was ever thus and the serious artist, even when managed to the hilt and presumably fulfilling his destiny, complains that he cannot introduce those modern works that have usually been dedicated to him--in hopes. If he is a native or foreign-born nationaliist he also regrets that American music is slighted in favor of European.

Ultimately, all these grievances are chargeable to the public. The provinces mistrust themselves and one another, and all want the latest New York success; a reputation in Cleveland is of no use elsewhere: San Francisco won't listen. To obtain New York notices, the aspirant must give--at his own expense--a Town Hall recital. But even glowing notices will not open the doors of the managerial Kremlin and will not be read in the hinterland. The smaller New York managers and the local ones in the provincial cities can only compete on sufferance with the great circuits, because their constituents, the public, are ignorant, timid, and snobbish.
Jacques Barzun died in 2012 at the age of 104. Much of what he says is (sadly) still true, but I like to think that as a society, even in America (and particularly in the "provinces") we have made a little progress. It is interesting for me to reflect on "the old days," and understand the struggles that so many musicians faced during a time that many of us consider a kind of "golden age" of musicianship. Music in American Life is, unfortunately, not part of the rather extensive Jacques Barzun collection in the Internet Archive, but you can find a used paperback by way of Amazon. I borrowed my copy from a local university library.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Of Goats and Boats

When I was in the fourth or fifth grade, my music teacher asked our class to ask our parents for traditional songs that they might have grown up with. One friend brought in two songs, and those two songs were my favorites. My teacher assumed that they were both Latvian (only one was), so I have spent the past several decades scouring collections of Latvian songs looking for one that I remember as being titled "Where go the Boats." I have also shared this image with every Latvian person I have encountered:

I shared it with a trumpet-playing friend, and through the magic of his internet search he found that it was a Welsh song called "Cyfri'r Geifr"

Imagine my absolute joy hearing the melody and the words that have haunted my dreams during the past half century!

There's even a Wikipedia page about the song, and from that Wikipedia page I learned that the song is not about boats at all. It's about counting goats!

And here's an animated video to help kids in Wales to learn colors! You can learn your colors in Welsh too!

Monday, June 28, 2021

Garbage Day Life Hack

I have been meaning to share this "life hack" for a while:

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Augustin Hadelich's Bach Sonatas and Partitas

I have known these pieces all of my life. I developed the way I wanted to hear them early on. I couldn't help seeking the sound and interpretations I grew up hearing (daily, and played by a great violinist in his early thirties, and then--also daily--a fifth lower on the viola). In the recordings I would later hear as an adult (seeking to replicate the best moments of my childhood experience), Milstein came the closest.

As an adult I always have the violin original (in the Szeryng edition) and the Polo transcription for viola on my stand. I alternate runs of the Sonatas and Partitas with runs of the Bach Cello Suites, and pepper them with runs of the Telemann Fantasies.

Before listening to Augustin Hadelich's 2021 recording I thought I knew these pieces rather well. But listening to this set, which he plays as a cycle: moving from the darkness of the G minor Sonata, through introspection, periods of questioning, periods of pathos, periods of complexity, and through the deep contours of the soul (the over-soul, if you will), with a trumphant arrival in C major (the third sonata, the fifth of the cycle), and a light set of celebratory dances in E major filled with humor, shows me just how perfunctory my understanding of this music has been.

Hadelich makes Bach's phrases feel absolute. He allows them to follow a logical kind of argument, which makes each movement a fully satisfying "chapter" that holds my attention from beginning to end. And then each subsequent "chapter" builds and reflects on the previous "goings on." He does this in a way that is not at all tiring to the listener, because, like a great film director working with great material, Hadelich is doing all the work. Listening allows me the space to observe and enjoy lines of music and counterpoint that I have never noticed before. It is like a walk in the woods with an expert guide who knows everything happening underground, above ground, and in the atmosphere.

My first introduction to Augustin Hadelich was during the preliminary round of the Indianapolis Violin Competition in 2006. He played the first two movements of the Bach A minor Sonata, and I was dazzled by his interpretation. But now, fifteen years later, his way of playing that piece is just as dazzling, but it is different. It is different beyond being more nuanced and sophisticated. He has moved into that musical territory of Bach playing "occupied" by Dinu Lipati.

(He also has a new violin--one of the great Strads--and a baroque bow, which allows for the kind of connection between notes that is so difficult to achieve with a modern bow.)

Now when I put bow to string to play Bach, my musical world of possibilities has been changed. Bach's music has always been music of the present and the future (with a nod to the past, which Bach experienced as his musical present). Hadelich's Bach steps forward and reveals new musical possibilities to me. No other violinist I have encountered, either in person or through recordings, has had his particular generousity of spirit, tremendous intelligence (musical and otherwise), and freedom to reach beyond playing traditions and bring Bach to a place where his music should be: current, modern, and, like nature (when it is allowed to) ever renewing.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Dawn Chorus

I really love the chorus of birds (and frogs) that sing in the trees in our yard. It brightens my spirit every day. And despite the worries of the world (close by and far away) that can wear on me during the rest of the day, I seem to wake up each morning feeling hopeful.

I assure you that the quotation of any actual bird song you might hear in this chorus of piccolo, two flutes, clarinet, bassoon, violin, and viola is purely unconscious, and certainly accidental.
[June 24, 2021]
The score and parts are available on this page of the IMSLP, You can listen here (it's about five minutes long).

Florence Price's "Thumbnail Sketches" now for string quartet

A few months ago I was looking at Florence Price's "Thumbnail Sketches of a Day in the Life of a Washerwoman," a piece she wrote for piano, and I noticed that if I transposed up a half step it would work really well for string quartet.

The score and parts for my string quartet transcription are now available on this page of the IMSLP, and you can listen to a computer-generated recording here.

Please read what Michael Cooper has to say about this piece and this transcription. His post also has links to performances of three of the movements of the piece by pianist Kevin Wayne Bumpers.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Scott Tennant Guitar Recital at St. Marks in San Francisco

This concert is from November of 2020. The video is set to begin when Scott Tennant's portion of the concert starts.

-Campanas del Alba
Eduardo Sainz de la Maza (1903-1982)

-Preludio de Adiós - 22:14
-Floreando - 25:06
Alfonso Montes (born 1955)

Music from an Age of Enlightenment

-Les Barricades Mysterieuses - 32:44
F. Couperin (1668-1733) (trans. S. Tennant)

-La Fanfarinette - 35:45
J.P. Rameau (1683-1764) (trans. S. Tennant)

-Ouverture de la Grotte de Versailles - 38:51
J.B. Lully (1632-1687) (arr. R. deVisée/A. Dunn)

-La Muzette – Rondeau - 42:21
R. de Visée (tr. A. Dunn )

-Les Sylvains - 46:52
F. Couperin (arr. de Visée/A. Dunn)

-My Gentle Harp/Wild Mountain Thyme - 53:24
Traditional Irish/Scottish (arr. by G. Garcia/S. Tennant)

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Celebrating Juneteenth with Marian Anderson and Florence Price

This is the arrangement of "My Soul's Been Anchored in de Lord" that Florence Price made for her friend Marian Anderson:

Friday, June 18, 2021

Playing with my food

I haven't written about food for a long time. I enjoyed what I made today for lunch so much that I took a picture, and am making a post (so I don't forget about it in times when I might need a little lift).

In homage to my paternal grandmother, who I don't recall ever meeting, I am not listing exact quantities. I have heard that my grandmother was a great cook, but that she never used actual recipes, and never wrote anything down.

I used some cold cooked wheat berries (maybe 1/4 to 1/2 cup), a handful of chopped walnuts, some sprouts, a few grape tomatoes cut in half, and some steamed and cooled broccoli.

The dressing is made from the juice of a lemon and almost equal amount of sesame tahini. Mix them together until they form a thick tan-colored paste (it is magical the way they combine), and then add a little water until the paste is smooth and white. Add a little salt and a few thin slices of jalapeno pepper (I keep a jar of dried slices on hand).

Arrange the ingredients into an attractive circle. This plate could easily have served two people, but I ate it all myself.

Let me take this opportunity to share another picture and recipe of a recent meal that brought me tremendous joy:

For this I sliced three or four mushrooms and cooked them in a little butter over medium heat in an omlette-sized pan. Then I added a little salt and half a bag of spinach. I let the spinach cook (covered) for a minute or so, and then I lifted the cover and slid on two eggs (which I had alrady broken into a bowl). I put the cover back on the pan, and let everything cook until the eggs were just done. When I slid it onto the plate, the mushrooms moved magically and attractively to the side. I ate it with Rye Vita, but any bread or toast would work just as well.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Watching violin videos

I seem to have a lot of violinists in my instagram feed, and sometimes I find myself scrolling through the (sometimes daily) videos they put on without sound until I see a bow arm that looks inviting. "Inviting" usually has to do with variations in bow speed, or a beautiful efficient stroke that makes it beautifully from frog to tip (or tip to frog), and connects the up-bow and down-bow strokes with intention.

Sometimes I find a bow arm that moves as though it is in slow motion. Itzhak Perlman's bow arm is a good example. His slow bows seem to move in a way that looks like he is pushing the bow against the air in front of it. Augustin Hadelich does it as well (or even better). It is almost as if these violinists are moving their bows like mimes through the defined space that is the length of the bow.

Then there are the impressive masters of the fast bow like David Oistrach (who also moves the bow at other speeds, of course), and Jack Benny, who, even when he is trying to play badly in order to serve the comedy, can't disguise his beautiful bow arm.

And speaking of comedy, I hope you enjoy this bit by Marcel Marceau from Mel Brooks's "Silent Movie."

Monday, June 07, 2021

Dystopia, Illinois

This is the congressional district where Michael and I live. The lightest blue is the area where fewer than a third of the residents are fully vaccinated, and only ten percent more of the residents have gotten a first dose.

I used to be frustrated by the political mindset of the people in this district, but that frustration looks small and quaint with Covid and 2020 in the rearview mirror for some areas of the state and the country, and with two thirds of the people in the district where I live and work thinking that masks and vaccinations are unnecessary, it is still a quagmire of dangerous intersections.

My earlier frustration has "morphed" into shame. I am ashamed to live in this district.
[Click on the picture for a bigger view]
You can find the source for the information here.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Lou Kosma on Muse Mentors

I first met Lou Kosma in a cafeteria in New Jersey. He was a friend of Michael's mother, and, once we got talking, it turned out that he played in orchestra pits for years and years in New York with my friend Danny Morganstern.

In 2015 Lou came to my father-in-law's memorial service, and he recognized my father from Tanglewood (where Lou had studied and my father had taught). Turns out they both grew up in the same neighborhood in Philadelphia, and had gone to the same high school (or was it junior high school).

I just listened to this podcast episode about and with Lou that I thought I'd share, because he gets to the "why" of music in such a direct and musically-driven way. The musical "illustrations" are fantastic.

The title of the podcast episode (clicking the link will take you to the episode) says it all: Lou Kosma: Mensch of the MET.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

American Discoveries

Since I started reading The Heart of a Woman, Rae Linda Brown's biography of Florence Price, I have come to realize that my knowledge of twentieth-century American orchestral music is not is comprehensive as I would like it to be (or thought it was). This could be due to the programming and re-programming of music by the same well-known (and accessible) American male composers alongside the same well-known (and accessible) male European composers, many of whom came to America to escape pogroms, Nazis, and totalitarian regimes.

In the case of Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, Paul Hindemith, Erich Korngold, Franz Waxman, Kurt Weill, Ernst Toch, and Arnold Schoenberg (to name some of the better known men), the direction of influence almost always went "back" to Europe, which is completely understandable.

The American-born composers who dominated concert programs during the twentieth century like Charles Ives, Howard Hanson, Vincent Persichetti, Irving Fine, Samuel Barber, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein gave us a set of lovely framed musical pictures that defined an American "voice" for many of us. 

Then came a set of American-born (male) composers like Roger Sessions, George Crumb, Eliot Carter, John Cage, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Milton Babbit that stretched the idea of new American music towards the experimental, the minimalist, and the intellectual. The music that these composers wrote sometimes scared audiences away, but orchestras still programmed them because they wanted to have some skin in the game regarding new directions in music.

I'm not passing judgement. I'm just reporting on the male-dominated (and white-dominated) musical landscape that we are all starting to look at through a rearview musical mirror.

There have been female composers who held a place of importance in American music. Or of relative importance. The best known American woman composer would be Amy Beach. I was surprised to see the small number of people on this Wikipedia list of female American Composers, and I was equally surprised to see the people who didn't make that particular list (like Marion Bauer). I hope to see this list expand soon. I might have to take matters into my own hands.

Not present on this list are the three composers that have music on this recording of newly-discovered orchestral music by women: Priscilla Alden Beach, Linda Robbins Coleman, and Alexandria Pierce. The project represents a great deal of care and work (during a pandemic year) by the Landsdowne Symphony Orchestra, its conductor Reuben Blundell, and the the librarians that take care of the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Priscilla Alden Beach (1902-1970) wrote "City Trees" in 1928, and Howard Hanson gave the first performance that year with Rochester Philharmonic. "City Trees" is a lush and romantic piece that brings to mind the paintings of the Hudson River School. The trees depicted musically here progress from rural trees to early twentieth-century urban trees. In scope, variety, and color it brings to mind Respighi's "Pines of Rome," but (and I wrote this in my listening notes before reading the liner notes) the trees here might be better associated with Rome, New York than Rome, Italy. Turns out that the composer, a descendant of John and Priscilla Alden of Mayflower fame, spent her childhood in Rome, New York!

Beach went to Smith College, and the studied at Eastman (I imagine with Howard Hanson), and had a fellowship at Juilliard. She wrote music for a series of silent movies that were shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and then disappeared from musical life entirely to write books about pets and work as a laboratory technician. 

I wonder if there is more of her music hiding in a closet or a drawer, somewhere.

Professional life as a composer has been far less difficult for Linda Robbins Coleman. She enjoys an impressive career, and the American heartland (she lives in Iowa) has been good to her. What she has given back is music that reflects her love of the nature around her.

I noticed that "For a Beautiful Land," which she wrote in 1996, is "informed" by the Americana of Copland and Stravinsky. This piece is episodic, and is filled with interesting textures. Overall the wind, brass, and percussion sections seem far more present and important than the strings, though there is some enjoyable playful interaction that involves the strings. The woodwind solos and duets (there are a lot) are engaging and beautiful. "For a Beautiful Land" is relentlessly tonal, and, after a brief nod to Ravel's "Bolero," comes to a bold and optimistic conclusion.

Alexandra Pierce was born in 1934 and just died this past February. She studied at the University of Michigan, earned Master's degrees from New England Conservatory and Harvard, and her doctorate from Brandeis. She taught at MIT and at Antioch College, and spent the bulk of her career on the faculty of the University of Redlands (she retired in 2001). 

Her 1976 "Behemoth" is a five-movement tone poem that explores ideas presented in the Book of Job. Pierce's use of orchestral color is typical of the 1970s, but I do not find it derivitive of any particular composer. Her technique at orchestration is excellent--as good as any better-known twentieth-century composer (see the list above).  She often lets her material travel in a hocket-like fashion around her very large-sounding orchestra. Like Coleman's "City Trees," Pierce's "Behemoth" is very wind, brass, and percussion forward, with the strings mostly creating atmosphere (they engage in a healthy amount of pizzicato and tremolo) and giving support. 

I particularly like the transparent and layered third movement that has a dialogue between the oboe and the horn that seems to travel over a foggy plain: ephemeral, questioning, and suspended. A bright flute glides above, and fades away. The percussion-rich fourth movement has a solo flute and a gauze-like color in the strings that reminds me of "The Dance of the Seven Veils" from Salome.

You can buy the album here. It is both inexpensive and rich.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Brood X Has Arrived!

Well, one of the brood has arrived. I think it might be a scout. I haven't seen another one all day, but there's a great deal of mole activity in our yard. There are few real molehills, but there's a lot of soft and spongy ground.

Cicada minded readers might enjoy the post I wrote ten years ago called "Kafka's Cicada."

Monday, May 17, 2021

Waiting for Brood X

This is music I wrote for another brood (the one that emerged in 2011), but it will have to do.

You can listen to a computer-generated recording here, and watch a fascinating film about cicadas here.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Price “Adoration” on Tuba!

It's so great that Cristina Cutts Dougherty, my new favorite tuba player, was able to use my transcription for flute and piano to play "Adoration" on Tuba! Sometimes it feels like this piece has grown into a "super organ" piece, with magnificent options for registration that Florence Price, as an organst, might have only dreamed about. And every performance is different, which serves as a constant reminder that as a composer (and arranger) I only play a small part in the whole dance of music making.

I only wish I knew where and when she wrote the piece. It was first published in 1951, and the copyright wasn't renewed. In short it was forgotten. Thank goodness the Sibley library entered it (along with their other public domain holdings) into the IMSLP, or it could have had a fate like "To A Wild Rose," if Marian MacDowell, according to legend, hadn't it fished out of her husband's wastebasket.

While I'm thinking about it, let me recommend The Heart of a Woman, Rae Linda Brown's new biography of Florence Price, which my husband gave me as a birthday present, and I am currently reading. I first learned about Florence Price from an article Rae Linda Brown wrote for an issue of the Maud Powell Signature, which she expanded into this excellent biography. The only thing that seems to be missing from the book is any reference to "Adoration"!

Dr. Brown is no longer alive. I bet she would love all the attention that "Adoration" is getting, even if she didn't know about the piece. Maybe some dedicated scholar will pick up Rae Linda Brown's trail, and maybe some day we will know a little more about "Adoration."

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

My transcription of Florence Price's "Adoration" on Decca!

What a surprise to find that Randall Goosby is including my 2013 violin and piano arrangement of Florence Price's "Adoration" on his forthcoming premiere recording (being released on June 25th) with Decca. He is a terrific violinist and certainly has a bright career ahead of him. Goosby is presenting "Adoration" here as a "calling card" for the larger recording.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

My Mother, Her Self

This painting by my mother spent several decades hanging in her mother's apartment. My aunt found it a few years ago, and decided to give it to me. Now it hangs next to my desk.

The girl, who does not have a face, has my mother's hair and my mother's posture. She seems to be young, and seems to be contemplating something beyond the white flowering plant next to her and the glowing obelisk beyond it. A scary-looking tiger-like creature sits in front of the marble pillar supporting the bench.

The lines are straight and strong, but the girl, the obelisk, and the flowers are impressionistly blurred. The tiger-creature (could it be a scary dog?) seems to be smiling, but in an ironic/evil sort of way. Except for the ironic and evil creature in the foreground, the painting is rather serene.

I think that Freud or Proust would have a great time talking about this painting.

Friday, May 07, 2021

Freedom and free stuff

As a child I was in an odd position of freedom to cobble together my own sense of what is right, moral, and true in the world. I did it mostly through books. One of my favorites was Arnold Dolin's Great American Heroines.
It was a beautifully written and beautifully illustrated book that was published in 1960. Through reading it I learned about Pocahontas, Anne Hutchinson, "Mad Ann" Bailey, Betsy Ross, Molly Pitcher, Barbara Frietchie, Dolly Madison, Sacajawea, Mary Lyon, Dorothea Dix, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Idawalley Lewis, Maria Mitchell, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Blackwell, Clara Barton, Emma Lazarus, Juliette Low, Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, Amelia Earhart, and Helen Keller.

The title above will take you to the Internet Archive entry, which will let you "borrow" it for an hour to read on the screen.

Another really important part of my elementary school childhood was the kindness I found in the parents of my various friends. I can still visualize the interiors of the houses my friends lived in better than I can visualize the interior of my own house. I also had a music teacher who used to let me hang out with her after school. Home was a place I slept, read, and practiced. I had a relatively safe childhood (with the exception of a few incidents), and learned to make my way around the various neighborhoods of childhood without any parental input (really). I envied the fact that the parents of my friends had rules and limitations. I had none. Maybe I was just a very good child (I doubt it).

I really wanted to do something important when I grew up, like the women I read about in Dolin's book, but I had no understanding of how to go about how to go about it because I was a child. I couldn't ask for help from my parents. In the material things department they were adequate. There was always plenty of food, and I could ask for clothes. They took care of me when I was sick. My brothers and I got presents for holidays which were often thoughtful and appropriate, but I have only sketchy memories concerning my emotional needs. And though my friends and their parents helped me to navigate the social world, I could not ask them for the kind of emotional support that I needed in order to grow into a confident adult (or even a confident child). Grown-up people often commented on how happy I seemed to be, but they had no idea that my happiness was due to the fact that they paid attention to me, asked me questions, and listened to my answers.

So what does this have to do with free stuff? Very early on I learned that I could give myself the illusion of being loved if I gave love. If I wanted to have a friend, being a friend was the way to do it. If I waited for friends to come to me, it just wouldn't happen.

This pattern continued for a long time, and as a teenager the friendships I pursued were not always the best. Sometimes, in the case of older friends who thought being friends with me would help them gain access to my father, those choices had lasting consequences.

Let me get back to the point of this post. My intention was to explain something about why I make so much of the music I write available for free in the IMSLP. The basic reason is that for me writing music is a kind of energized play with purpose. I set up a set of relationships, the instruments or voices being characters, I set a few boundaries (working with a text is one example of a boundary), and I introduce a set of problems that will need to be resolved. I wrestle with the beast, and I use my executive authority to remove or modify anything offensive that messes up the soup. I do my best to make sure what I write feels good to sing or play, and I do my best to make it easy to read. Then I release it into the world of musicians I do not yet know as a gesture of friendship, and when it is accepted as such I am deeply happy.

Perhaps if I grew up with more of a sense of entitlement, or if I had been given heartfelt encouragement from my parents when I was a child, I would feel more energized by having music published and would enjoy the whole song and dance of musical commerce, where composers are taken seriously only if their work carries a price tag. After nearly twenty years of having music published, I am finally getting royalty checks. It is nice when publishers see commercial value in the work I do, but what really matters to me is how the people playing the music enjoy relating to each other through playing it, and, in the case of solo music, how people enjoy navigating through phrases, and using their creativity to create a kind of a dialogue between themselves and me, through the notes and phrases on the page.

I wish that in the future more people (non-musicians in particular) will be able to appreciate the value of music that is written in the spirit of friendship rather than music that is written as an expression of ego. Sometimes I wish I could be a person who thrives on praise, but I'm just now wired that way. I never developed that particular habit. But I love hearing from people who play my music (and arrangements) and accept it as a gift of friendship.

Maybe, at sixty-two, it is now time to put the deficiences from my childhood behind me, and celebrate, rather than bemoan the way I have learned to compensate.