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 Archive.org. 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.