Sunday, April 28, 2024

Waiting for Brood XIX

In 1998 we had a huge convergence of Brood XIX with another brood of cicadas here in East Central Illinois, and our yard, with its now dead and long gone ash tree, was cicada central. Now the 2024 emergence is big news, but the scientists at the University of Connecticut tell me that they won't be singing in my town this year.

This makes me sad in some ways (it is awesome in the true sense of the word) and happy in other ways (like being able to have outdoor concerts).

But those people who are able to experience it might enjoy knowing that a piece of music was written in honor of brood XIX, which emerged in our town in 2011, so I will share it here.
You can listen to the piece here, and get the score and parts for the set of four dances it is in on this page of the IMSLP.

And you can read my various cicada posts here.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

A Little Step

It's a little step
from one to two
and then
from two to three
The step
from nothing to one
can be

Milly Morganstern's words continue to resonate deeply for me.

And the little step to press "publish" for this post, which I keep putting off, seems like an eternity.

Monday, April 22, 2024

End of the Concert Season Thoughts

I played the last concert of a very busy "Spring" season yesterday. I had lots of hard and interesting music to learn, and many places to be. There were also a good many recitals played by students and professional musicians where pieces I wrote were on the programs. I had to opportunity to talk via Zoom with a handful of people who gave these performances, and the opportunity to watch and listen to livestream recordings.

After years of feeling relatively invisible as a composer and as an arranger I have suddenly come to find that I am not invisible, which is kind of a shock for me. I am proud of the work that I have done, and am really pleased when it is useful as a means of creating community or as a vehicle for personal expression.

Perhaps because I spent so much of my childhood feeling invisible I have learned to associate a feeling of safety with invisibility, but as an almost sixty-five-year-old woman I have come to understand that being invisible is not something that makes me particularly happy.

I have written a few posts over the years (decades!) about invisibility that I can magically make visible to you through this link.

Perhaps the highlight of the last Champaign Urbana Symphony Orchestra concert of the season for me had to do with words, actions, and coincidence. 

We played the Arutiunian Trumpet Concerto with John Hagstrom the other night. After playing a really marvelous performance of that piece, John addressed the audience and spoke about his childhood musical awakening happening on that very stage. He was rather specific about the spot, and he identified the place he was seated as where the second stand of violas was located. I was sitting, as usual, in the second stand inside seat (the best seat in the orchestra for hearing and communicating because it is in the middle of the viola section, in the middle of the strings, and as close as you can get to the wind section without playing a wind instrument).

The Arutiunian Concerto was written smack dab in the middle of the twentieth century (started in 1943 and completed in 1950), and the hall we play in, which embodies the essence of both "mid-century modern" and a personal connection to a particular place for John Hagstrom (and so many others), was built in 1969. The concert, originally intended to be a celebration of its long-time conductor Paul Vermel's hundredth birthday, ended up being a concert in his memory. Paul Vermel died on February 14th, five days before his birthday. And as a memorial piece we played Puccini's Chrisantemi, a piece Puccini wrote in one night in memory of a friend who died.

Michael and I lost our friend Norman Spencer this week. Another of Norman's many friends from his days studying at the University of Illinois was in the orchestra, and we talked about Norman's life and death during a rehearsal break. We both had Norman in our hearts during the performance.

The program began with Brahms Variations on a Theme of Haydn, a remarkable piece, and it ended with Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis. The experience of orchestration just doesn't get better than having those two pieces on the same program. It was also a program with great viola parts which we played with a section that was one violist short due to a fall (she will be ok). We all made up in expression and sound for the member we were missing. And we had a really great section sound to bring those great viola parts to life.

John Hagstrom also talked about the fact that nobody gets anywhere in musical life without help and support. He talked about the people who watched over him as he was trying to make his way in music. And he made a plea to the audience to be the kind of person to give encouragement and support to people, particularly young people. Musicians do spend a great deal of time alone working on their craft, and young musicians can get discouraged without community support, particularly in a world that does not prioritize what we refer to as classical music. Some young people have family support, which is great, but some need to find their support, for a variety of reasons, outside of the family.

Then he played an arrangement by Joseph Turin of George Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me" with our conductor, his friend since their freshman year at Eastman together, Stephen Alltop.

John doesn't have a soloist's presence on social media, but he is present there in order to help people make connections, and as a vocal advocate for music education. He was also a supportive voice during the time of the pandemic, when musicians were unable to rehearse and perform. You can read about him here, on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s website.

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!