Thursday, August 31, 2023

Discipline and Intuition

I was struck by an idea that Alan Alda presented during one of his "Clear + Vivid" podcast interviews. He was talking with his guest about stand-up comedy, and his guest mentioned a very strict kind of form for improvisation that he learned back in the early days of stand-up comedy. It involved using a phrase suggested by the audience, and that phrase had to occur at a specific time in the improvisation.

Alda added the notion that when you need to use discipline to organize something it stimulates the part of the brain associated with intuition.

This struck many nerves for me, both as a practicing and performing musician and as a composer.

I find that when I record myself practicing something while paying attention mainly to musical flights of fancy (like dynamics, expression, vibrato, sound), it never sounds as musically interesting as it does when I focus mainly on rhythm, maintaining an efficient bow stroke, and concentrating on the physical aspects of the left hand.

When writing a piece of music or making an arrangement I always get my best ideas when I am forced to stay within certain guidelines. Sometimes those guidelines involve avoiding instrumental difficulty, and sometimes those guidelines involve an external organizing force like a piece of film or a particular time frame. Sometimes those guidelines involve making my way from one tonality to another, and sometimes they involve staying within a given form (sometimes of my own creation, and sometimes not).

Twelve-tone music may not be great to listen to (at least the twelve-tone music written by mere mortals), but it is really stimulating to write. All that structure releases a lot of whatever chemical is associated with intuition. But writing scale-based pieces, working out species counterpoint problems, and writing fugues seems to do the same thing for me.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Violist's Shirt Syndrome

Yesterday I repaired my favorite linen shirt. It had gone threadbare in the strangest places: figures 1 and 2 show the patches I put on the back part of the left shoulder (shown from the inside and from the outside of the shirt), and figures 3 and 4 show the patches I put under the right arm (again from the inside and from the outside of the shirt). I made my patches from material that I cut from the length of the shirt (which was really too long for me anyway).

Today, after I donned the shirt and saw myself practicing in the mirror, I finally figured out why these areas were worn so badly. The shoulder is where my viola sits, and the stress under the right arm is from the motion of bowing, which pulls ever so slightly at the fabric, but does so constantly.

Monteverdi's Zefiro

One of the first recordings I pilfered from the tiny collection (maybe twenty) of records that my parents had was Noah Greenberg's 1954 recording of vocal music of Monteverdi with the New York Pro Musica. I was fourteen, and had just gotten a record player for my room (a KLH reconditioned from summer use in the Tanglewood music library--maybe a model 19 because it had a 16 r.p.m. speed). It was, as I recall, the first year that we had a working record player in the house (my father got one too--his was an AR). My love affair with Monteverdi has been going strong for half a century. "Zefiro" was the first piece on that record.
Ten years ago I posted a video of a wonderful performance of this piece by L'arpeggiata Ensemble, and this week I made an arrangement of it for strings.
[August 28, 2023]

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

Monday, August 28, 2023

Nobody in the orchestra is looking at Lennie!

I guess that he is doing his "thing" for the people singing in the chorus, but I find it amusing that nobody in the orchestra is looking at Leonard Bernstein. The presence of two harps and the two female soloists tells me that this is Mahler's Second Symphony, the sky and the white orchestral attire tell me that this was a Sunday afternoon concert at Tanglewood, and a quick search of the Boston Symphony Archives tells me that the year was 1970. I can name every one of the musicians playing, even from behind.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Oy! I have been AI'd

I just found out that some non-living entity created a profile of me that has nothing to do with reality. I'm not putting the link here, because I don't want it to register any page views. But I can't resist sharing the fact that in its most generic spewing of gobbledygook this "entity" didn't get anywhere remotely close to whatever it is that I do or have done. And the pieces this bot randomly picked up off the beaches of the internets that it claims are my "notable works" are not the names of pieces that I have written.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Alla Nazimova

I just finished writing music for Salomé's dance in Alla Nazimova's 1922 or 1923 silent movie Salome that is based on Oscar Wilde's 1891 play. My setting of the dance is for a collaborative project that will be finished in March, so I can't share my work now, but I will share it here eventually.

As is my custom, I tend to jump feet first into a project like this, going for the emotional substance of the film without doing any research. So now, unable to really let go of the music (which still runs through my head), I'm learning something about Alla Nazimova, who made the film (she was the producer and co-director as well as the star).

Fortunately there is an Alla Nazimova Society website that is full of information about her.
I love the article I found there concerning one of the wigs she wore in the film.

Nazimova seems to be an inspiration for Norma Desmond's character in Sunset Boulevard (made by Billy Wilder in 1950) since Desmond refers to portraying Salomé on film (you can watch that clip here). I don't think that Theda Bara's portrayal would have come to mind since her 1918 film was lost (except for a two-minute highlight reel that only came to light recently).

Alla Nazimova was born in Yalta (in Crimea) in 1879 as Adelaida Yakovlevna Leventon, and died in 1945 in Los Angeles. Once billed as the world's greatest actress, she is also (posthumously) considered the "founding mother of Sapphic Hollywood." She was also a violinist.

Alla's father hid the fact that the family was Jewish, and would not let his daughter perform as a violinist under her family name (her father was a merchant, and having his daughter perform as a musician would damage his reputation), so she took the performing name of Nazimova after a character in a popular novel (Children of the Streets). She went to Moscow when she was seventeen to study acting with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, who was associated with Konstantin Stanislavski.

Nazimova left Russia for New York in 1905, met an agent, and became a star on Broadway (and a customer of Caswell-Massey, which has a beautiful tribute to her). She made her first silent film in 1916, and then headed off to Los Angeles to make more.

Salomé is extremely rich in visual and dramatic content. The (slightly edited from the original) dance section that I set starts about forty-one minutes in, and lasts for about ten minutes. I find (for obvious reasons) the music that goes with the version of the film that I linked to above distracting, so I prefer watching it with the sound turned off. Maybe some day I will set the whole film.

The Wikipedia article about the film mentions that it was the last film that Nazimova produced, and may have been the first "art" film made in the United States. It was not associated with any studio and was considered a failure at the time. The benefit of that kind of "failure" means that it can have a life as one of the treasures that remain in the public domain. You might enjoy following the links in the Wikipedia entry to learn about the film's cast (I certainly did).

Unlike Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Nazimova had a vibrant career in sound films and in the theater after her life as a silent film actress and producer.