Monday, April 15, 2024

Music in Anatomy of a Fall

Michael and I watched Anatomy of a Fall last night, and I was deeply impressed by the unusual way music was used. (I am being vague in this description because I don't want to offer any spoilers.) But for people who do not know the Chopin Prelude that weaves its way through the film, my observations might enhance the experience of watching.

At the beginning of the film a boy who has seriously limited vision is working on Asturias, the fifth section of Isaac Albénez's Suite Española, Opus 47. The boy uses a tablet which blows up a PDF of the music so that it is large enough for him to learn the piece one measure at a time. It might be the very same PDF as this one that I found in the IMSLP.
His progress on the piece is used to show a year's worth of time passing.

A little later in the film there is a scene where the boy and his mother play Chopin's E minor Prelude, Opus 28, No. 4, as a three-handed piece. The boy plays his version of the harmony with both hands, and the mother plays the melody. He is clearly a developing pianist, and she is clearly not a pianist, but the way they play together reveals some really intimate communicaton.

The film's denouement begins with only the right hand of the Chopin Prelude, and once everything becomes clear to the boy, the Chopin is heard with both hands (played by one pianist). The credits offer an elaboration of the Chopin Prelude, with added figures and voices.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Revising old arrangements

'Tis the season for revision! Last week I played a string quartet wedding, and the couple requested Beethoven's Für Elise, a piece that is familiar to just about anyone who has ever taken piano lessons as a child. It is really a fine little bagatelle, but it is a true bear to translate into a piece for string quartet. I made my first stab at it about fifteen years ago, and, thinking that I was paying Beethoven the highest respect, I used only the notes in his original.

The result was extremely repetitive as well as precarious. There is nothing less satisfying to me than treading on figurative eggshells when playing something that sounds repetitive.

So I revised it by filling in pitches, changing textures, changing voicing, changing octaves, and changing articulations. I put the arrangement in the IMSLP, where I hope it might be of use to string quartets who are asked to play it by well-meaning brides and grooms to be who studied piano as children.

Revising old arrangements is extremely satisfying for me. And I have a good many that need revision, so I might be occupied for quite a while.

Sunday, April 07, 2024

A Lassie Story in Celebration of Tomorrow's Celestial Event

Johannes de Sacrobosco’s 13th century description of a solar eclipse.

You can read the story here.

(Did you notice the dogs in the picture?)

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

The Magic Garden

I remember the day in third or fourth grade when my teacher read The Secret Garden aloud to our class. I wanted to read ahead, so as soon as I got home I went up to the attic and looked through a big box of my mother's books, and found The Magic Garden by Gene Stratton-Porter. I figured that it must be the same book, so I brought it downstairs and started to read it. I supposed that my teacher must have skipped the beginning part, since this book was so very different, but then I found myself forgetting about the neglected and unloved girl in India, and becoming deeply attached to the neglected and unloved American girl named Amaryllis in this novel. I was completely hooked by the introduction of John Guido Forrester, a boy who imitates the sounds of birds and sheep on his violin.

Hmm. Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote her novel in 1911, and Gene Stratton-Porter wrote her novel--her last of dozens--in 1926. I imagine that there could have been some influence. The Magic Garden was recently digitized (2022), so I am very happy that I can share the whole text (the link is above).

Finding a physical copy of this book was nearly impossible for me in the days before the internet. Michael somehow managed to find me a copy in the late 1980s, and gave it to me as a present. He read the whole book to me out loud, and his very John Guido-esque gesture really did help soothe my "hungry heart."

Here's the section (it begins on page 47) where John Guido is introduced:
Then she heard something. Something coming. It seemed as if it were coming down the brook, and yet it could not be coming down the brook, because what she heard was music. Amaryllis knew about music. She had seen people play pianos and harps and violins. She had heard bands and orchestras. She knew about the instruments that you blew in one end and wonderful tones came out of the other. Her governess played tunes on the piano for her to dance to. She knew what this music coming toward her was. Times when her mother had been having a party, men, or sometimes women, had played on violins standing beside the grand piano in the music room. She knew a violin, but she had never heard a violin played the way this one was played. This violin played like sunshine and flowers in bloom. Sometimes it stayed in the same place quite a while. When a bird up on a branch very carefully said, “Pee-a-wee! Pee-a-wee!” right over after it the violin said the same thing. When a lamb across the meadow said, “Baa-a-a ah!” the violin said, “Baa-a-a-ah!” too. That was a joke making a violin talk like a bird and baa like a sheep.

Amaryllis stepped from the shoal and started up the stream to find the violin that sounded like magic. It was rather rough going. Some of the stones that looked so perfectly nice to step on were not nice at all. Something slippery was on the tops of them that tried to throw her down, but soap had been good practice. She never fell once. The pebbly places were the safest, but there were not always pebbly places to step on, and sometimes she just had to step on the slippery rocks to get ahead. The bushes and shrubs were coming more thickly willows and elders and button bushes and all sorts of things that Amaryllis never had seen before, not to be right up to them and to touch them with her fingers. But because she was going up stream and the violin was coming down stream, it was not so very long before she found it.

Amaryllis’s mouth fell open and her eyes grew very wide because, when she found the violin, she found something else she had not reckoned on. She had thought maybe it was a magic violin that was floating through the air and playing tunes all by itself the way the water sang gay tunes, and the birds sang glad notes, and the flowers made little waves of colour music. So when Amaryllis got her first sight of the violin, her mouth fell open the widest it ever had, and her eyes grew the biggest and roundest they had ever been, because that violin was right out in the middle or the brook, and that violin was in the hands of a boy, and the boy had a head as black as the blackest wing on the blackest blackbird that came down to the brook to bathe and drink. He had eyes big and round and wide open and almost as black as his hair, while his cheeks were a soft, creamy colour, and there were splashes of red in them. His mouth was red and his teeth were even and white. He was tall and slender. He must have been three or four years older than [Amarylis's brother] Peter. He wore a gray shirt and gray linen trousers rolled up above his knees and held with a belt at his waist. His feet were bare and he was standing in the water.

He was looking up at the sky and all around him, and every note that a bird sang, and every “Moo-o” that a cow called, and every “‘Baa-a”’ that a sheep made, he repeated on the violin. Sometimes he would look down at the brook and make the violin laugh and chuckle and leap down a steep place and whirl out into a shallow pool and chuckle between stones and warble over pebbles. It was the funniest thing. Nothing like it ever had been done before in all the world—-not in any pictures in all the stacks of picture books of which Amaryllis was dead tired.

Then, standing there in a pause, when the birds had forgotten and the sheep were quiet, the boy began to play his own music. But Amaryllis did not like what he played then, because the notes he made were the thoughts that were in her brain spoken on a violin, when worst of all she wanted to sit on somebody’s lap and lean her head on somebody’s breast. Amaryllis had gotten to the place where she did not care the least little bit whose lap she sat on, or whose breast pillowed her, just so it was someone that wanted a little girl, someone who loved all little children. So when the notes grew so lonesome and so hungry that they told Amaryllis that this boy wanted to sit on someone’s lap and put his arms around someone’s neck and kiss someone with those soft red lips of his, Amaryllis started bravely through a rather deep place right up Roaring Brook toward the boy.

When he heard her and looked down at her and took the violin from beneath his chin and smiled at her, Amaryllis walked up to him and held up her hand. In a rough little voice, because of the hard spot in her throat, she said to the boy: “Aren’t you got anyone to love you, either?”

The boy looked down at her and said: “Not today.”

Amaryllis looked up at him and said: “Then I’m worser off than you, cause I haven’t anyone any day.”
I started thinking about John Guido while using my violin to try to communicate with a bird who lives in our yard with a song that the Merlin app fails to recognize. It comes back year after year singing the same three-note song. My bird-wise friend Ruth has suggested that it might be a bluebird with a singular song. I love the idea of a unique bird who knows s/he is being "heard" in our yard. All the better if it happens to be a blue bird!

This is a piccolo rendering of it, though it seems to sound an octave higher. And here it is as recorded in another part of our neighborhood.

Anyone with an ear for birds reading this who might have some idea how to identify our bird friend, please leave a comment!

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Unconditional Love and Fish Love

The other evening I found myself in a lively conversation with a mother of young children. After discussing many of the difficulties (lack of sleep being one) of being a new parent, I heard myself say that the real benefit of the parent-child relationship is the opportunity for the parent to feel unconditional love by giving unconditional love. And it is an opportunity.

I realized afterwards that I try to feel that way about all of my functional relationships; as a parent, a life partner, a co-worker, a teacher, a friend, and even as a member of a community, though in a community relationship, conditions often apply. It is also the way I feel about sharing music I write, because I like to believe that it will be accepted in the spirit that it is being offered, even when the person who receives it is someone I don't know. It doesn't matter if it is ignored, disliked, or discarded; my giving part of the musical relationship is still gratifying.

I also like to believe that every performing musician who faces an audience experiences a flash of unconditional love, even if it only lasts for an instant. But my concept of unconditional love sometimes feels out-of-step with "institutional" unconditional love.

The other day I came across a video where Rabbi Abraham Twerski discusses something he calls "fish love":
Love is a word that, in our culture, has almost lost its meaning. Let me tell you a story about the Rabbi of Kursk. He came across a young man who was clearly enjoying a dish of fish that he was eating, and he said, "Young man, why are you eating that fish?" And the young man says "Because I love fish!" He says, "Oh you love the fish, that’s why you took it out of the water and killed it and boiled it." He said, "Don’t tell me you love the fish; you love yourself, and because the fish taste good to you, therefore you took it out of the water and killed it and boiled it."

So much of what is love is fish-love.

And so, a young couple falls in love, a young man and a young woman fall in love. What does that mean? That means that he saw in this woman someone who provide him with all that physical emotions and needs, and she saw in this man somebody she feels that she can wed. And that was love. But each one is looking after their own needs. It is not love for the other: the other person becomes a vehicle for their gratification. Too much of what is called love is fish-love.
It is a nice story, but I really wish Rabbi Twerski didn't minimalize what a woman might want in a love relationship. Don't woman also look for someone to fulfill her physical emotions and needs? And how limited it is to reduce a woman's love for a man to someone she can marry!

[Are there still women around who see the institution of marriage as a way to get away from their parents (like in my mother's day and case) or simply an opportunity to have the "elevated status" of a wife in a community?]

I guess if this statement by Rabbi Twerski helps some men think about how poorly they treat the women they are married to, it could serve a purpose. But he offers a view of love from the perspective of someone who doesn't seem to think the emotional needs of women are comparable to the emotional needs of men.

And what is all this "self love" stuff? I often hear this passage from Ephesians when I play weddings:
 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body . . .
I have known many people who feel love for their spouses that would also fall under the "hating their own body" category. And not all of them have been women.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

On Praise and Value

Everything in any way beautiful has its beauty of itself, inherent and self-sufficient: praise is no part of it. At any rate, praise does not make anything better or worse. This applies even to the popular conception of beauty, as in material things or works of art. So does the truly beautiful need anything beyond itself? No more than law, no more than truth, no more than kindness or integrity. Which of these things derives its beauty from praise, or withers under criticism? Does an emerald lose its quality if it is not praised? And what of gold, ivory, purple, a lyre, a dagger, a flower, a bush?
From Book Four of Marcus Aurelius Meditations

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Etudes

I have always loved practicing etudes. I cut my flute teeth on Andersen, Altès, Berbiguier, Bitsch, Bozza, Castérède, Jeanjean, Moyse, and Schade. And I cut my violin and viola teeth on everything I could get my hands on by Dont, Fiorillo, Kayser, Kreutzer, Mazas, Rode, Ševčík, and Wohlfahrt.

One early dream I had as a composer who was also building up technique as a performing musician (and helping other people to build up technique by teaching) was to write etudes myself.

It seems that I have done quite a bit of etude writing over the past several years, and I have collected posts about those books here.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

The Ecquinoctial Pleasures of Gaius Valerius Catullus

Iam ver egelidos refert tepores,
Iam caeli furor aequinoctialis
Iucundis Zephyri silescit aureis.
Linquantur Phrygii, Catulle, campi
Nicaeaeque ager uber aestuosae:
Ad claras Asiae volemus urbes.
Iam mens praetrepidans avet vagari,
Iam laeti studio pedes vigescunt.
O dulces comitum valete coetus,
longe quos simul a domo profectos
diversae varie viae reportant.

Translated by Leonard C. Smithers (1894)

Now spring brings back mild breezes without cold, now heaven's equinoctial fury falls silent at Zephyr's pleasant breezes. Let the Phrygian meadows be left behind, Catullus, and the teeming fields of sun-scorched Nicaea: let us fly to the glorious cities of Asia. Now my palpitating soul longs to wander, now happy in their zeal my feet grow strong. O sweet band of comrades, fare you well, whom various roads in different directions carry back all at once setting out far from home.

Translated by Kate Rears (2000)

Now spring brings back unchilled warmth,
now the rage of the ecquinoctial sky
grows silent with the pleasant breezes of the west wind.
The Phrygian fields should be quitted, Catullus,
& the fertile territory of sweltering Iznik:
let us fly to the bright cities of Asia.
Now the mind trembling in anticipation yearns to roam,
now the happy feet grow strong in their pastime.
Be well, o sweet company of friends,
who having wandered far from home together
return in different ways to a route headed in a different direction.

Translated by A.S. Klein (2001)

Now Spring returns mild and temperate,
now the wild equinoctial skies
are calmed by Zephyr’s happier breezes.
The fields of Phrygia will be forsaken,
Catullus, rich farms of hot Nicaea:
we’ll flee to Asia’s bright cities.
Now restless minds long for travel,
now the glad feet stir with pleasure.
O sweet crowd of friends farewell,
who came together from far places,
whom divergent roads must carry.

Translated into English by Someone Else (who can lead you to more poems by Catullus)

Now spring is bringing back the warmer days,
Now the rage of the equinoctial sky
Falls silent in Zephyr's pleasant breezes.
Catullus, leave behind the Phrygian fields,
And the rich land of sweltering Nicaea:
Let's fly off to Asia's glorious cities.
Now the anxious mind is wild to travel,
Now the happy feet come alive with zeal,
O dear band of comrades, fare you well,
Who set off together from our far-off home,
But different roads lead back in different ways.

Can I Have a Little More?

Shifting on the viola or the violin involves the fingers 1, 2, 3, and 4, so you can appreciate (or groan about) the motivation for the title. This piece is part of Dancing on the Fingerboard, which is available, in versions for both violin and viola, on this page of the IMSLP.

Monday, March 18, 2024

The Musical Fruit

My salad . . .
has three states of "bean-ing": sprouted (mung), raw (green), and cooked (garbanzo).
And after it has been (!!! if you say that with a British accent) eaten, you get "Beaning and Nothingness." (Thank you, Michael.)

The rest of the salad is made of parsley and scallions, and the dressing is white balsamic vinegar and olive oil. The garbanzos were marinated in soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and salt. I should have put some quartered grape tomatoes in, but there wasn't room in the bowl (what you see above is about half of what was there at the start of lunch).

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

"The Collar" in Spanish!

So far this piece, based on a story in Danish by Hans Christian Andersen, has been performed (as far as I know) in English, Finnish, Italian, and now in Spanish. This video has a transcript of the script in Spanish that you can follow.



You can also follow the script in English (original to the music) here. (The transcription tab has the bassoon version.)

One thing that I find nifty about "The Collar" as a bassoon piece is that there is a part of a bassoon reed called a "reed collar."

Thursday, March 07, 2024

Italo Calvino, guest blogger

A person's life consists of a collection of events, the last of which could also change the meaning of the whole, not because it counts more than the previous ones but because once they are included in a life, events are arranged in an order that is not chronological but, rather, corresponds to an inner architecture. A person, for example, reads in adulthood a book that is important for him, and it makes him say, "How could I have lived without having read it," and also, "What a pity I did not read it in my youth!" Well, these statements do not have much meaning, especially the second, because after he has read that book, his whole life becomes the life of a person who has read that book, and it is of little importance, whether he read it early or late, because now his life before that reading also assumes a form shaped by that reading.
This passage comes from Mr. Palomar (written in 1983 and published in an English translation by William Weaver in 1985).

Tuesday, March 05, 2024

Diane Chaplin Concert Tonight

My friend Diane Chaplin will be playing my Sephardic Suite in an online Facebook Live concert tonight at 8:00 p.m. Central Time (6:00 Pacific, 9:00 Eastern). I'm copying the link here which I hope will get you "there," wherever and whenever "there" might be.

And here it is archived on YouTube:

Monday, March 04, 2024

The Clarinet Quintet: A refrence tool for string quartet with clarinet

The Clarinet Quintet is an exhaustive catalog of music for clarinet quintet (i.e. clarinet and string quartet), that opens a portal to a world that I have never before explored.

Donald L. Oehler, the creator and keeper of the catalog, has over nine hundred meticulously organized entries representing music written between 1750 (a few decades after Johann Christoph Denner reworked the clarinet so it could spring forth from the limitations of its chalumeau days) and the present day.

Go forth and explore! Here's the way in.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Inventions and Creations

I made a couple of short videos using music that I wrote in 2004 and things I saw on a walk I took this morning.





Monday, February 26, 2024

In Preparation for Women's History Month

As February draws to a close, and we are all wondering whether March will come in as a lion or as a lamb, I like to enjoy the fact that March has become a month to celebrate the contributions to culture that women of the past have made.

I have gone through the Musical Assumptions archives and "curated" a list of posts that concern women in music.

You can access the list through this link, which also appears on the sidebar.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Schubert's "Nachtviolen," now for Four Violas

Somebody had to do it! Imagine my surprise when I noticed that both the vocal and piano parts of Schubert's "Nachtviolen" (D.752) sit perfectly in the viola range.

And imagine my surprise when I found how beautifully it can work as a piece for four violas. (I like to think that the idea might have crossed Schubert's mind as well.)

The result:


You can find the score and parts on this page of the IMSLP.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

When it's time to move on, in memory of Eric Larsen

February 19, 2024

I wrote this piece for voice, cello, and piano in memory of the pianist Eric Larsen (1952-2024), who was a dear friend and chamber music partner of my very dear friend Daniel Morganstern. The poem, written by Danny's mother Milly (1913-2000), is one that he shared with me only recently, and a poem that was at the very front of both his mind and my mind during Eric's last days. Danny told me recently that Eric met Danny's mother before he met Danny, and that Milly loved listening to them practice together (in her home) extremely slowly, because that way she could hear every detail in the music.

You can listen to a computer-generated file here, and find the music here. The music is also available on this page of the IMSLP.

We are single threads
intertwined
in the fabric
of each other’s lives

We are words
in each other’s stories

We are notes
in each other’s songs

When it’s time to move on

We step
over the edge
into a new space
where we are transformed
as color
in the thread
as meaning
in the word
as overtone
in the note

We continue
intertwined
through life, death
and transformation

On our journey

--Milly Morganstern

Friday, February 16, 2024

Ozawa

I went to a great many concerts conducted by Seiji Ozawa when I was coming of musical age in Boston. I even got the chance to sing with him once. It was a performance of the Haydn Creation on July 8, 1973. I was so impressed by the music, the soloists, and the experience in general, that all I really remember about Ozawa as a conductor was that he sang everything very quickly in solfege (I was impressed by that). John Oliver, the director of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, told us in that Seiji Ozawa was very particular about diction. I was surprised by the fact that Ozawa never mentioned diction in the rehearsals we had with orchestra.

I always enjoyed hearing the Boston Symphony conducted by its guest conductors, paricularly Leonard Bernstein, Colin Davis, Bernard Haitink, Klaus Tennstedt, and Erich Leinsdorf (I got to sing in Wozzeck under him in 1969) more than I did when Ozawa conducted. And I never understood, during "Beethoven Week," why Ozawa's Beethoven always sounded less meaningful than I hoped it would have sounded.

I do remember enjoying Ozawa's performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé, but I still have trouble wrapping my brain around the absolute adoration I read in these internets now that Seiji Ozawa is no longer alive.

I do have something Ozawa-related from 1963 to share that might be new to his younger fans, as well as his older fans.

The Price is Wrong: Excellent article in VAN Magazine

Thank you Sharon Su for this article, (and thank you to Michael for sharing it with me). It is certainly time for me to resubscribe to this magazine!

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Songs from Dorothy Parker's Sunset Gun

Sunset Gun is Dorothy Parker’s (1893-1967) second book of poetry. It was published by Boni and Liveright in New York in 1928, and entered the public domain in January of 2024. I am celebrating its liberation by sharing a group of four songs from the book that I set for soprano and piano here, and having the music remain in the public domain (It is now in the IMSLP).
You can find the music and computer-generated audio file on this page of the IMSLP

[“Sunset Gun” refers to a canon shot that is fired when the flag is being lowered in a military cermony at the end of the day.]

Sunday, February 04, 2024

SPEAK, MEMORY . . .

Yesterday I started work on a setting of a poem written in the voice of character in Homer's Odyssey, and last night I had a "working" dream that must have been influenced by Fred Hersch's dream that I wrote a post about yesterday.

In my dream I was attempting to do some kind of dance-related expressive movement, and was taken aback when I saw Augustin Hadelich, wearing maroon Dansko clogs, going up on pointe. And then I noticed a group of small children sitting on the floor. They were all listening with great attention to a six-year-old Augustin reciting (from memory) a part of the Odyssey in English.

I was so inspired by this dream that I got to work immediately after breakfast today, and have been at it all day. I might even finish the song tomorrow.

Saturday, February 03, 2024

Fred Hersch's Dream

Last night Michael and I went to a concert that featured the pianist Fred Hersch. It was a marvelous concert. I was particularly impressed by a story that Hersch told about the dream that inspired his "Dream of Monk," which you can hear him play with Esperanza Spalding here.

He told the audience about finding himself in a small cage, too small to fit in comfortably, and then seeing Thelonius Monk in another cage that was too small for him to fit in. A guard came in with some manuscript paper, and told them both that the first person to write a tune would be set free. Hersch scribbled out a tune as quickly as he could, and handed it to the guard. Then he saw that Monk hadn't written anything.

When writing the tune inspired by this dream, Hersch used a kitchen timer to give himself the kind of time constraint that he had while dreaming about writing it.

Interesting.

My armchair psychologist's take on this dream would be that the thing that most composers want most when faced with writing something is a set of constraints. A cage that you write your way out of is such a great visual image of this need. And it is a need. The world of pitches, harmonies, registers, tempo, meter, dynamics, instruments, voices, and timbre is vaster than vast. And finding a path through the possibilities for a creative person with some kind of an abstract feeling to express is really difficult without a good set of guidelines. I imagine that this is the case for any kind of creative person doing any kind of creative thing.

The telling thing for me is that Hersch saw Monk, one of his heroes, as not being productive in a cage.

Perhaps it was because Hersch was looking for perameters in order to begin the song he wanted to write (inspired by the title of Monk's Dream). Perhaps it was because Hersch used Monk as his "cage" in real life (given the musical language of the song), and believed (at least in his unconscious mind) that Monk didn't benefit from any kind of artificial constraint when he wrote.

I wonder what kind of dreams Thelonious Monk had?

Thursday, February 01, 2024

Growing Up Female, 1971

This post is not about music. It's about a forty-nine-minute-long documentary film about being female in the 1970s. The film begins with small children in preschool and their social behavior being described by their teacher along strict gender lines. I never went to preschool, and the household I grew up in was far from typical, so my socialization began in Kindergarten and in the neighborhood. Everything this teacher says sounds like something out of a textbook (maybe to "impress" the film maker), and everything she says about children has since been proven wrong.

But the stuff about eleven-year-old girls (as described by their teacher) really rang true for me and for my experience. As the film progressed a larger truth about growing up female in the 1970s came clearly into focus.

I remember the 1970s as a dark time that was lit up by compelling pop music. I remember the 1970s as a decade when girls couldn't wear pants to school, and then we finally could, but it wasn't until later in the decade that clothing companies made pants that were comfortable to wear for women who were not skinny. I remember the idea of womanhood in the 1970s being a scary series of beauty parlors, pointy bras, magazines that showed us girls how we were supposed to look if we wanted boys to like us. And here it is, unscripted in glorious black and white. Watch only if you dare.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Geoffrey Seitz shows how stringed instruments are made

Geoff Seitz's shop in St. Louis is one of my favorite places on earth. Geoff has never steered me wrong when looking for instruments for students and friends. He is a wonderful violin and viola maker as well as an expert repair person. And he is really kind and honest, characteristics that are of real value to me in the (sometimes not particularly kind or particularly honest) world of instrument business.

I'm so glad that the people of the St. Louis Home of Education and Culture filmed Geoff playing (something I have never seen or heard in the nearly thirty years I have known him), and caught the ambience of his shop (he does know where everything is).

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Fantastic 30-minute post-practice routine

All of Rachel Lawrence’s (The Girl With the Pilates Mat) classes are great, but this one is particularly useful to me after practicing because it strengthens and stretches my violin and viola playing muscles.

Michael and I have been taking part in Rachel's classes (i.e. following her YouTube videos) for a few years now. We do them several times a week (more when the weather is lousy and walking is either less of a pleasure or an unsafe impossibility). Rachel is delightful. Working with her videos really helps me understand the way my arms and legs move and reach in the space around my body. I find this so very important in string playing, because all the important important stuff happens when the arms and their various parts are out of my field of vision. Pilates also helps to establish, strengthen, and challenge the sense of balance, and that helps us both in every way, musical and otherwise.

Rachel has Pilates-based videos of every shape, size, length, and focus on her channel, but this recent video has become a family favorite, which is why I am sharing it here now. There are one or two ads at the beginning of each video, but once they get going the sessions are never interrupted by ads.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Who Could Ask for Anything More?

The other night, while I was in a rehearsal of William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony, I couldn't help but notice that Gershwin's song "I Got Rhythm" was part of the material used in the second movement. I quickly noted that the Still was published in 1935, and found that Girl Crazy, the show that housed "I Got Rhythm," opened on Broadway in 1930. I imagined that Still might have incorporated the Gershwin motive into his piece, so I forgot about it.

This morning I learned that Still wrote his symphony in 1930, and after its premiere by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1931, it became wildly popular. Since music takes time to write, and the date of publication or premiere is not necessarily a true timeline of the writing of either Still's work or Gershwin's work, it might have been a case of Gershwin incorporating Still. Zillions of notes and four-note motives were bantered back and forth in the musical and musical theater worlds of the 1920s and 1930s, and all we have to go on are newspaper reviews, the occasional interview, or the occasional family story.

I'm glad that Elliott Forrest noticed the similarity, and am happy to share his article about it with links on the WQXR website.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

In response to the perennial question

In a "contemporary classical music" Facebook forum the question of the value of music written by women comes up often. This time I felt compelled to answer. Facebook doesn't allow paragraph breaks, so I kept the discussion "as is."

Forum person:

"It is often said that classical music has a diversity problem. Which I think is correct in many ways. But my question is: to what extent recording albums or programming symphonies and concertos by, say, Florence Price or Grazina Bacewicz is a worthwhile gesture destined to correct historic injustices and expand audiences (as we are made to believe)? First of all: is the music any good? I'd say yeah, it's not bad, but also not remarkable or original. This is of course a subjective opinion, but let's suppose it is correct, just for the sake of argument. On the one hand, to program music that is admitedly not excellent can be perfectly reasonnable. One has to take chances in order to surprise and delight the audiences, and one can surely make the argument that mediocre music by dead white men is being performed often enough. But if you are used to, say, the level of achievement of Mahler or Shostakovich, I fear this inclusivity trend is going to wear thin pretty quickly. Yet no one will accept this publicly. Now to be fair, you can use the same argument to not program contemporary pieces by white dudes either, indeed any contemporary music whatsoever, in the (rational) fear that it will not hold up to scrutiny when compared to the greats. Yes classical audiences are used to the most wonderful experiences in concert and most music just won´t cut it. There's a lot to critique about that kind of mindset. But also: Are we trying to invent great female composers out of thin air? Is it not enough that there are actually great female composers out there, such as Gubaidulina, Saariaho or Unsuk Chin? Do we have to pretend that excellency is everyone's right and go through the motions of these concerts and clap in the end just out of fear of being elitist and out of touch? Is that healthy?"

My response:

Do we have to have this conversation year after year? Perhaps looking towards the future (a future where living composers who are women are taken as seriously by musicians as male composers who are living) is a healthier way of considering the idea of gender equity. Florence Price, for example, was a terrific composer. As a professional she was treated horribly by the people (men) in power. But her teaching pieces (teaching pieces were acceptable by women) that could make money for publishers were items of value. The story of her life is a sad one: she worked very hard, and got little in the way of recognition. Why is it, for example, that we only have a handful of photos of her? The music of the past written by people no longer alive is finite. The music of the living present and the future is not. And there are more women writing music (that is available) now than in centuries past. Our critical gatekeeping establishment is in sad shape, so musicians need to decide for themselves what is “good” and what is “great.” Publishers often rank work by what will sell, and orchestras and opera companies rank work by what will sell tickets. Ultimately (at least I believe) “greatness” has to do with how a piece of music at hand feels to play, and how musicians can connect to its emotional and intellectual substance. If musicians can project their love for a piece of music (written by any gender, age, nationality, race, etc.) it could be felt as “greatness.” Some composers are able to write accessibility into their music so that it is (relatively) easy to translate its pitches, rhythms, and phrases into something that can become a personal “voice” for a musician or a group of musicians. That kind of thing remains my only way of honestly judging anything having to do with a piece of music. It’s time, in my opinion, for a different kind of discussion when evaluating musical quality.

Friday, January 12, 2024

It's Grieg for Me

On this cold and rainy day I wanted to play something different during my morning practice. So I unearthed my red portfolio of violin music, and found the Grieg Violin Sonatas. I hadn't thought about these pieces for years, and when I last played them my sense of how to play the violin was completely different. When I played them last I was a violist playing the violin, and I was a violist without the kind of bow control and understanding of the left hand that I now have (the result of years and years of careful study).

This morning, accompanied by the sound of rain outside my window, I could really throw myself into the phrases of the F major Sonata, and feel that wonderful mixture of contemplation and release that is so valuable in music in general, and so present in Grieg. And when "Grieg weather" sets in I really need the inner light that allows for psychic cozyness. For me filling the room with Grieg feels like sitting by a warm fire covered with a blanket, and drinking something warm and tasty.

One of the most magical things about music is that the mixture of contemplation and release can be both experienced by the person (or people) playing, and can shared with anyone listening.

Here's a lovely performance of the F major Sonata by violinist Ivan Ženatý and pianist Antonín Kubálek with a score that you can follow. The notes for the video explain the relationship between Grieg and Ole Bull, who was the inspiration for this piece.

Thursday, January 04, 2024

Dr. Beethoven, my therapist

Like many musically minded people, I find solace, escape, validation, pleasure, release, and wonder in playing music. For a long time being able to play the violin parts of Beethoven's chamber music was an ambition. And now that I have the ability to navigate through the violin parts with a reasonable amount of fluency, Beethoven and his chamber music have a new place in my musical life.

Beethoven is not unique among people no longer alive who had to contend with life-long and ever-changing emotional difficulties. But he is unique in his particular ability to use time, melody, harmony, dynamics, articulations, touch, and timbre to express his tensions and resolve them musically (sometimes logically, sometimes whimsically, and sometimes poignantly).

I can now put worrying about technique (playing in tune, being able to shift properly, using the bow efficiently) into a more unconscious place when I play, and I can use my conscious mind listen and consider Beethoven's way of developing motives while participating in the experience. The same motive (or phrase) presented in a different kind of musical "light" has a different set of resonances, recalling one feeling or another from earlier in the movement, or in a passage from another movement of the same piece.  I am so happy that I can now physically "ride" through the musical progress of Beethoven's phrases.

I find elements of personality that are so blatantly Beethoven, and oddly think of them as "Beethoven-y" passages, even in the context of one of his pieces. And then there are phrases and passages that defy personality. Sometimes a chromatic passage sends me to another "place" entirely, and when the music returns to a familiar "place," I feel like I have returned from a journey somewhere. Maybe it is a return from the dream that I might have had (maybe last night), but cannot recall anything specific about it.

As much as I love Haydn, I do not rely on him for therapy the way I rely on Beethoven. Haydn is my mentor, my teacher, my entertainment, and my distraction from difficulties that like to take up space in my psyche. Haydn's music always provides me with escape. My concerns in life go on "pause" when Haydn is on my stand. But Beethoven has a way of getting into my head and organizing the shadows that have bothered and scared me for decades. The way he works with motives helps me observe and objectify those feelings. Playing (and listening to) Beethoven's music helps me on my path towards resolving some of them.

I don't think I would be able to appreciate Beethoven the way I appreciate him now without the technique I have spent years and years of careful practice developing. Thank you, Dr. Beethoven.

Monday, January 01, 2024

My Great Grandfather’s Cafe

 How I wish I could have known Israel Blume, my mother’s paternal grandfather, who was the co-owner of the Cafe Royale in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Chicago. I made a post about it in 2010, and thought I'd repost it with an updated photo:

CAFE ROYALE 3854 West Roosevelt Road

[Click here for a larger view]

From John Drury's Dining in Chicago

CAFE ROYALE
3854 West Roosevelt Road

Here is Bohemia in the true sense of the word. The Cafe Royale is an intellectual and artistic rendezvous of the west side Jewish quarter. Full of poets, musicians, actors, artists, radicals, intellectuals, and all night talkers. Founded and operated by Israel Blume, a poet, and Morris Mason, an actor, as a Chicago counterpart of the famed Cafe Royal on the East Side of New York. Saturday nights, beginning at 10, the Jewish cabaret, a sort of neighborhood version of the Russian Chauve Souris, is staged in the concert hall at the rear of the place. Harry Rosen and his orchestra are in Russian costumes; Mme. Maria Masheir sings gypsy ballads; Gregory Venetzsky and Joe and Edith Levinson entertain; playlets are performed; there is dancing after the show; and Jewish, Russian, and Roumanian dishes tempt your palate. The walls are decorated with rustic murals by the artist, De Vries. All is gay, garrulous. Continental, colorful and worth much more than the $1.00 you pay for it.

Always, the main dining room out front, unique with its modernist panels depicting the various arts, is crowded with lively bushy-haired men wearing hornrimmed spe'ctacles and carrying books under their arms; black-eyed actresses from the nearby New Yiddish Lawndale Theatre; visiting Jewish celebrities from New York; and gourmets who have a weakness for substantial Jewish dishes fragrant with garlic. The popular entrees here are rib steak, broiled in the Roumanian style, and gratchitze, or sweetbreads. The foods in general are wholesome and savory and not so expensive. Here, then, dine most of the local Jewish celebrities in the arts and allied interests -- Emil Armin, the painter; S. P. Rudens, the essayist; L. M. Stein, the publisher and patron of the arts; Todros Geller, the wood-block artist; Joseph Kriloff, the singer; Dr. M. S. Malamed and J. Siegel, the well-known newspaper editors; J. Z. Jacobson, author of "Thirty-Five Saints and Emil Armin"; I. Iver Rose, the painter and potato pancake maker; and a great many others of lesser note. Meyer Zolotareff, the newspaperman, edits his Yiddish literary monthly, Chicago, from a table in the corner. Here also have come such famous figures in the Jewish world as Abraham Raisen, the poet; Prof. Enrico Glickenstien, the Italian- Jewish sculptor; Molly Picon, the actress; Maurice Schwartz, theatrical director; Boris Thomashefsky, the actor; Alexander Kipnis, the opera singer and Morris Topchevsky, the painter. Politicians also come here -- Alderman Jacob Arvey, Ward Committeeman Moe Rosenberg, and their followers. We could go on describing this interesting place but the above information ought to be enough to arouse your curiosity. Don't miss it. Saturday nights are the best.
The proprietor, Israel Blume, was my maternal great grandfather. My grandmother told me that Emma Goldman used to go there when she was in town.