Monday, October 31, 2022

Stretto Holder DIY

A Stretto is a partially perforated plastic humidification device that holds a small envelope of gel that you saturate with water from time to time and keep in an instrument case. It sticks to the inside of the case by way of velcro, and some cases have material that the velcro hooks can stick to. My violin case does not have that kind of lining, so I have to figure out an alternative way of securing my Stretto.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Perception, extra sensory and otherwise

I have a vivid visual childhood memory (a cinematic one, filmed from above) of sitting in my closet with a pack of Zener cards and testing my ESP (extra sensory perception). I hoped that if I worked hard enough at it, I would be able to "see" the images on the cards before turning them over. I knew nothing about random success rates, and was unable understand why I could sometimes be right, or that I could "visualize" something that ended up being wrong. I was still at an age of magical thinking. I also, thanks to a Tarot card reading given to me by my aunt, had no reason to believe that there wasn't something special about that deck of brightly-colored cards that could see the relationships of past and future events in my young life.

I still appreciate the intuition that can happen during a Tarot card reading (or an astrological chart reading), but in adulthood I have come to understand with full conviction that the future is something that we encounter step by step, and not something that can be reliably predicted. We can do our best to prepare for events that we know are coming (like rehearsals, concerts, interviews, tests, meals, or competitions), and being prepared for those events helps us be prepared for other future events. We can make the most educated of guesses about the future, but there is no way of really knowing what will happen. And no matter how much we want it to be possible, time travel to the future isn't possible, because the future isn't there yet. There's no there there.

We can use our senses to figure out that it might rain. It can smell like it's going to rain, it can feel like it will rain, it can look like it might rain, and the activity of the birds can even sound like it might rain. (You can look at the weather on your phone, but that's cheating.) We can use context clues and and our understaning of human nature to make guesses about the future, but uttering the phrase, "I knew it" is very often the result of having put conscious and unconscious sensory clues together.

There are five physical senses we know about, and each works on a continuum. There are also "senses" that use combinations of the physical senses like sense of direction, sense of time, sense of security, and sense of rhythm (I'm not sure that there is a physical basis to having a sense of purpose or a sense of humor). And then there are things that don't make sense. We talk about sensitivity, and explore the sensual. We talk about good taste, bad taste, and questionable taste, while we rely on the physical sense of taste to determine whether something we eat is appealing or deadly. "It left a bad taste in my mouth" is almost never used literally.

Some people have such an acute sense of smell that they can use it to identify disease, and some people have no sense of smell. Some people have such an acute sense of pitch that they can identify notes in a cluster, and some people cannot hear anything at all. Some people have very little connection with what their hands might be doing ("I'm all thumbs") and some people have developed enough sensitivity in their fingertips to read Braille, allowing their sense of touch to compensate for lack of vision.

Some people who do not have the physical ability to with their eyes have the ability in their brains to visualize, and some people who do have the ability to see are unable to "see" images in their brain. Some people have photographic memories that they can rely on in circumstances that call for attention to detail, and some people (like me) only have a vague visual memory of where something might be on a page. 

Through practicing musicians develop eyes that hear and ears that see (connections between the senses). We use our eyes to allow our mind's ear to hear what the next note is going to sound like. We also make connections between our eyes, ears, and sense of touch to measure the distance our arms and hands need to travel to produce the pitches that our eyes tell our ears to "see."

Some people "see" letters as colors, and some people hear musical pitches or musical keys as colors. I, being neurotypical in this regard, have never experienced this, but I do find that I can react emotionally to colors I can see as well as to colors that I imagine. Musicians often talk about the "color" of a voice, or about changing the "color" of a note when we try to describe the way we shape the sound waves with our instruments or voices. Perhaps we use "color" because we imagine that most people would be able react to that word, and understand what we mean when we try to use words to describe timbre.

I recently learned of a condition called Aphantasia, which is the inability to create mental images. I learned about it from Neesa Suncheuri, a violist with the condition, who is interested in exploring musical posibilities that relate to her experience. Since I am always looking for ways of extending my vocabulary as a composer, I was very excited to write a piece for solo viola that, in my inexperienced-with-the-inabiity-to-visualize mind's eye, might resonate with Neesa's experience. I have done a lot of reading about Aphantasia (there's even a very active reddit group), but I haven't found discussions of the condition among "classical" musicians. The study of this is very new, and I hope that my piece will help promote some discussion among musicians.

I named my piece "Aphantasia and Fugue State" because I find it really difficult to resist a musical pun (or two).

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Timothy Taylor, such an interesting musicologist!

I just learned about Timothy Taylor, a practitioner (i.e. professor) of musicology, and thought I'd share this video interview with him concerning the commercial music (as in music for commercials) in twentieth-century America.

I'm certainly interested in reading some of his books.

Friday, October 21, 2022

When I want a melody . . .

I bought this book of Strauss Waltzes in Graz, Austria in summer of 1980. I spent my hard-earned playing-on-the-street money on it, because I was asked to play a wedding reception at some point in August. I really needed a place to stay after the festival I was with was over, and before the flute competition I was attending in Budapest began, so I bartered a place to stay in the interim in exchange for playing. I found an American violinist in my orchestra who was staying in Europe (and also needed a place to stay), and we played these waltzes as flute and violin duets.

A good time was had by all.

I carried this volume from place to place in my travels, and it ended up sitting in a file cabinet at my home in Charleston for many decades. Sometime during the last week I decided to vary my piano-playing practice, and plunked this gem on the piano. I love playing these waltzes, and I love what playing these waltzes does for my piano playing. I also love the way they inspire my imagination, and compel me to improvise (in three-quarter time, of course).

I understand what inspired Gershwin. I understand why Brahms lamented that he hadn't written "An der schönen blauen Donau."

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

I'm very happy with my new tools

The Musgrave News pencil is very dark and very soft. It is hard to keep a point, but, somehow, when writing while this pad of Clairefontaine paper is standing upright on a music stand, it works perfectly. I was originally attracted to the Musgrave because of the name (the composer Thea Musgrave, who doesn't seem to be from the same family as the pencil company Musgraves).

I bought the pad of paper at an art store a few weeks ago, and now that somebody has asked me to write something, I can put it to good use.

I'm happy to share this review of the notebook. Having really good tools really makes musical ideas flow more smoothly.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

A whole lot better than beer and skittles

After reading a review by John Frayne (who is a retired English professor at the University of Illinois) of a concert I played last week that included the Brahms First Symphony, Michael started thinking of "A Man in Blue," a poem by James Schuyler that makes reference to Brahms.

Michael played me a recording of the poet reading "A Man in Blue" (you can listen James Schuyler reading it here), and then I played him some of this recording of Bruno Walter conducting the Brahms in a live NBC Symphony performance from 1940.

Schuyler might have been responding to the 1940 recording in his poem, or he may have been responding to this 1953 New York Philharmonic studio recording. Isn't it great to have access to both?

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman talk about music

What a wonderful surprise to hear these two historians talk about the importance of last month's "Lizzo and the Crystal Flute" moment, and so much more.

You can listen through this link to this episode of "Now and Then" called The Meaning of Madison's Flute: Who Owns Music?

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Dvořák Opus 100 in Beijing!

I love this performance by the Beijing RMO Chamber Orchestra of my arrangement of the first movement of Dvořák's Opus 100 Sonatina!

Progress and Regress

Is a certain amount of regress necessary in order to make progress? Does working really hard at things that are difficult involve more failure than success? Does the inner critic grow on its own, when we are (or I am) not paying attention? Should I show her the door, or should I endure her presence until she tires of me and leaves on her own?

I have read that repetition in play is more effective for learning than repetition in work. But a state of play is really difficult to generate when you are hard at work trying to teach your brain to connect itself to the movements of your hands and fingers on an instrument that you didn't learn to play in childhood.

Saturday, October 08, 2022

Changing the feed for this blog

For anyone who likes to read this blog via RSS (which means "really simple syndication"), I'm changing the feed (so it will work). Please add

to your reader. Thank you.

Friday, October 07, 2022

Squeaky wheels, and trying to move forward

All of a sudden, with musical life returning to a degree of perceived normal, I find myself looking "back" at communicating by way of the internets.

Musical life and musical tastes have changed since those rec music newsgroups organized themselves into free forums for discussion among musicians. In those golden days of text-only communication it was possible to develop correspondences and grow friendships with like-minded people who it would be impossible to get to know in normal place-bound and class-bound life.

Then the blogosphere emerged, and it was a kind of paradise. I loved reading blogs by the musicologists who posted their unpublished papers from graduate school. I also loved reading posts by performing musicians and composers who wrote about their experiences with certain pieces of music, their daily lives, and their personal reflections on things musical.

Everyone was Ned Rorem until many would-be diarists found that keeping up a public diary requires a lot of work and commitment, and is usually done without compensation, unless you are Ned Rorem, and had early success with publication.

I started this blog as a way to connect and communicate about things musical with people who lived outside of the forty-mile listening area of mostly-rural Illinois covered by the radio station I used to work for. I made my first post in 2005. This is my 2970th post. I have never monetized this space, and never intend to. I have made the occasional post linking to something I have had published, but I do it only rarely, and I do it without expectation. Most of the links I post for music I have written go to entries in the IMSLP.

I have written a lot of music and made many arrangements. To date I have made 344 entries in my Thematic Catalog blog. Some entries are for individual pieces, and some are for sets of pieces. I am happy with much of the music. Some of it seems to be popular among musicians, and some of it doesn't. I have heard that audiences like music that I have written, which is always nice to hear.

But I just don't seem to have the kind of squeaky-wheelness to promote my work that I see from composers on Facebook. And I tend to look at things realistically: there is more music of quality available now than there has ever been before. And I have resigned myself to accept that the standard solo pieces, etudes, pieces of chamber music, and orchestral music written by composers who happen to be men will always outnumber the standard solo pieces, etudes, pieces of chamber music and pieces of orchestral music written by composers who happen to be women.

Every once in a while a piece or two by a woman has made it into the standard repertoire (like the Chaminade Concertino or the Clarke Viola Sonata), but, try as I might (and try as we might), pieces written by women are still programmed more often because they are pieces by women regardless of their value as pieces of music.

There are young people (well, people younger than me) dedicated to maintaining a social media presence for Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn (or Fanny Hensel), and excellent pianists who specialize in only performing music written by women. But I fear that these are flickers of a movement that won't flame unless there is a constant bellows (and many squeaky wheels) keeping them in the public eye.

There have been some baby steps taken towards "legitimacy" for music written by women: Ethel Smyth has finally had twenty-first-century performances of The Wreckers that have been noticed, written about, attended, and enjoyed. It would be great if it remains in the repertoire. The same with works by Pauline Viardot, who many people have come to know during the past two years.

For two years during the pandemic, when I connected with musicians on Facebook again, I found that my work was indeed useful for musicians who needed new music to keep them occupied. I had time, energy, and a sense of purpose, so I wrote a lot of solo music and music that could help connect musicians who were isolated from one another before vaccinations and good masks helped make rehearsals and concerts possible again.

While I believe that I have done my best work, it doesn't seem important at all (anymore) in the larger world of music. There is so much music readily available that is so much better than what I am capable of writing. And while I continue to grow as a musician, and am able to understand and appreciate more fully the compositional strengths of Johannes Brahms, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Schubert, Franz Josef Haydn, and, yes, Georg Philipp Telemann (all men, all dead, all European, all white, all Germanic), the work I have done seems rather insignificant. And for that reason I don't have it in me to use the squeaky wheels of Facebook and Twitter to promote my work the way I see other composers promote their work.

I think it will be a while before I write something new. Unless somebody asks me to. But I'm not holding my breath.

Monday, October 03, 2022

More About Lizzo and that Crystal Flute

My experience with Lizzo is probably typical of people of my age that occupy my usual musical world. It is also atypical, since I spent quite a bit of time playing the flute.

I first encountered Lizzo in a DIY video showing how you can transform a Barbie Doll into Lizzo, but I had no idea who Lizzo was. I did learn a few crafty tricks, though.

The next encounter was when she hosted Saturday Night Live, and played the flute. I rarely watch Saturday Night Live, and don't know most of the guest hosts, but I found Lizzo delightful.

When Lizzo played the few notes that the writers of the show allowed the audience to hear her play on the flute, she played them extremely well. I had a secret wish that she might use her celebrity to give a "traditional" flute concert somewhere, and let people know that there is something "there" in what consumers of popular culture often think of as an outmoded "kind" of music. I thought it would never happen. But earlier this week part of my dream came true. And it was all thanks to librarian Carla Hayden, who had the brilliant idea of inviting Lizzo to visit the collection at the Library of Congress when she was in town to perform.

You can see all the "specs" about this 1813 Claude Laurent flute as well as images of it on this page of the Library of Congress catalog.
"This flute was presented to Pres. Madison by someone in France (Lafayette) as inscribed. It passed to Madison's adopted son Payne Todd; it was willed by the latter to Cornelius Boyle of Washington, D.C. and passed to his five heirs. It was purchased from them (Miss Fanny G. Boyle) for this collection. It had been exhibited in the National Museum prior to 1903." However, a letter recently found in the Madison papers at the Library of Congress documents that Laurent himself sent the flute to Madison. Letter from Claude Laurent to President Madison, 25 Mar. 1815: “A Monsieur Madison, Président des Etats Unis d’Amérique. Monsieur le Président, J’ai pris la liberté de vous adresser, il y a environ trois ans, une flûte en Cristal de mon invention. Veuillez bien me permettre de vous témoigner le desir que j’aurais d’apprendre si elle vous est parvenue & si ce faible hommage de mon industrie vous a été agréable. Je vous prie de vouloir bien agréer l’hommage de la considération la plus distinguée avec laquelle j’ai l’honneur d’être, Monsieur le Président, Votre très humble et très obeissant serviteur Laurent Quai de Givrer N° 34 Paris, le 25. Mars 1815.” Translation: “To Mr. Madison, President of the United States of America, Mr. President, I took the liberty of sending to you about three years ago, a crystal flute of my invention. Please allow me to express to you the desire that I would have to learn if it has reached you and if this feeble homage of my industry has been agreeable to you. I beg you to please accept the homage of the most distinguished respect with which I have the honor of being, Mr. President, your very humble and obedient servant Laurent Quai de Givrer N° 34 Paris, 25 March 1815.”

- Instrument type: Flute in C
- Materials: Clear glass, silver keys and ferrules, safety locks. Clear glass faceted end cap with hemispherical silver reflector behind, held in place by a silver ring.
- 4 sections. Clear glass exterior of recessed diamond-shaped faceting except at embouchure.
- Key Holes System: 4 keys, round flat curved flaps, post and rod on silver flanges.
- Mark Maximum: Laurent / à Paris, / 1813. (cursive)
- Mark Additional: Mark on lower body. Mark on head: A.S.E. James Madison / President des Etats=unis.
- Condition: Safety bracket detached from head joint ferrule.
- Provenance: Estate of Cornelius Boyle, Miss Fanny G. Boyle, Washington, D.C., 6 Nov. 1923. - Location: Whittall. When not on display, belongs in M16, where box and catalogue card are located.
- In English. (language)
- DCM 0378 (dcm)

You will notice that this flute does not have modern Boehm-system keys. And I know that it takes a long time to learn the necessary fingerings to play a pre-Boehm-system flute. Most flutists would have a difficult time with the size and shape of the emboucher hole as well. I imagine that Lizzo prepared for her moment with the instrument by practicing a great deal on a flute with a similar fingering system.

A kind person put a cellphone video of Lizzo playing the tune and a variation from the Carnival of Venice on instagram.

In addition to learning a new fingering system, Lizzo certainly had to consider ways to make her signature nails work with the wide-bored glass instrument without keys.

I give special "props" to the designer of her nails for this experience. Not only do her nails match the flute beautifully, but they are raised above the tips of her fingers, allowing for the full pads of the fingers to cover the holes.