Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Creature Feature

I just realized how many of my pieces seem to incorporate (or be) portraits of animals! There are multiple pieces about frogs, various lizards, crocodiles, butterflies, moths, snakes, birds, fish, turtles, squirrels, pangolins, and snails. I have also written pieces featuring a single cricket, a camel, a rabbit, a reindeer, a condor, a dog, a raccoon, an armadillo, a whale, and a musky rat-kangaroo.

And, of course, there are mythical creatures like a unicorn, a dragon, the bird phoenix, and a grelling (a Millhauser-imagined creature).

You can find 'em all here. (Don't forget to click on "older posts" at the bottom off the page).

Monday, May 27, 2024

More Musical Greetings from Cicada Illinois

When I learned that cicadas only travel fifteen meters (about sixteen yards) during their short lifespans, it occurred to me that the thirteen-year cicadas in our yard would have to be the offspring of the ones that emerged in 2011. I wrote a violin duet "about" them (back in 2011) as part of a set of four spring dances. After writing my piccolo and violin duet last week, I took out my violin duet and realized that it would work well for string quartet. So the "children" of 2011 get this portrait.

It is sad to think that cicadas don't have any kind of childhood. They do all their growing underground, and, unlike the deer that live in our yard, never get to meet their parents.

You can hear a computer-generated recording below. And to get the sense of the constant noise that the cicadas make, try it on repeat. I'm excited to play it with my quartet friends on Wednesday.

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

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Joke of the Day

(You've never heard this one before, because I made it up last night.)


Before going to bed Michael and I usually watch "The Eleventh Hour" on MSNBC. And then Michael, needing an antidote to all the high-profile crime committed by people who shouldn't be in positions of authority in government, suggests changing to the Hallmark channel to see which "stars" are appearing on reruns of "Murder She Wrote."

I came up with this joke between MSNBC and "the stars" (half asleep, walking up the stairs heading for bed).
What do you call celebrities who get lifetime jail sentences?

Stars in stripes forever.
Remember, you heard it here first.

I can't think of any other time in history where the scenario of this joke could even be plausible.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Mad Hot Cicada Spring

Here's a little piece written from what feels and sounds like the physical epicenter of the double-brood emergence of 2024. We are a few days in, and each day seems to be louder than the last.
You can listen here, and find a PDF on this page of the IMSLP.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Polina Nikolaevna in Chekhov's "Three Years" modeled on Pauline Viardot?

In the story "Three Years," one of the characters sings a line from a song, "My friend, my tender friend." He sings it in reference to the character Polina Nikolaevna, who is a pianist. Of course I had to find out what the song was. To my surprise and delight it is the final line in "Nochju" by Pauline Viardot (set to a Puskin poem). You can find the transliterated text and an English translation here.

It suddenly dawned on me that the character of Polina Nikolaevna, an independent, hard working, brilliant, and decisive woman, who was anything but beautiful, who made her living by teaching piano lessons, might have been inspired by the very famous opera singer (and composer) who was connected by a long-term friendship and perhaps romance with Ivan Turgenev, a compatriot of Chekhov (and a writer who Chekhov certainly read, but may not have admired).

I haven't finished the story yet (Michael and I are reading it together as part of the Four Seasons Reading Club).

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Finding Gaia, on this Mother's Day

I realized from an early age that my mother identified far more as a daughter than as a mother. My grandmother was a figure larger than life for all of my mother's life. I don't know if my mother had the chance to forgive her mother for the various injustices that my grandmother inflicted on her (possibly in the way of trying to be a good mother) after my grandmother was no longer alive. I like to think she might have.

I feel grateful that I have been able to identify, and by tangible means and actions, work my way through the various injustices (mostly neglect, perhaps to "spare me" from having a hovering mother) involved in my own childhood.

Through various measures of "self care" (mostly musical) I have even gotten to the point, little by little, of forgiving my mother for her human shortcomings.

To compensate for not having piano lessons as a kid (piano is an instrument that is riddled with inborn difficulties for me), I spend time every day at the piano teaching myself to play, as if I were my student. I put a lot of energy into identifying the right/left coordination problems that seem to be wired into my brain and fingers, and little by little I make little steps towards my goal of really being able to play the instrument. My progress is very slow, and with every little achievement I slay dragons.

In my family of origin talent was inborn. Nobody really worked at anything. My brothers were naturally gifted in many ways, and both my parents were naturally gifted to the extreme. I was not. I scraped by not having to work for anything until I reached the point when I realized that my "gifts" had expired. It happened around sixth grade.

At that point other people all seemed to be far better at the things I wanted to do, and I had no idea why.

After thinking that I had failed at playing the violin and could not return to it, my next desire was to sing, dance, and act. I went to a performing arts camp where I had drama and dance classes, but I never got picked for parts in plays and shows in school. I had no idea that you had to work at these things.

I actually never worked at anything until I started playing flute. I only started playing flute because I loved music, and because my mother could no longer play her flute. I felt that my only path forward was to take her place.

I was far behind my peers. I studied my peers, though, and in every case I noticed that their parents  (who I also studied) instilled a work ethic in them. I did not have any kind of work ethic instilled in me, so I had to instill it myself.

That self-generated work ethic sustained me. And it still sustains me. Perhaps what my mother taught me (without actually teaching me) was the value of being self sufficient. It sure made growing up difficult, but here we are.

Now I understand that my mother, who had to reinvent herself many times because of various physical disabilities, valued her ability to work and grow as a visual artist, even when her vision was failing.

So this mother's day I offer this painting by my mother in celebration of her love of painting and nature. And I humbly remember that we all do what we can as mothers and as children with the hope that each new generation will be an improvement on the last generation(s) if childhood was difficult, and an equal to the last generations if childhood was wonderful.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

A conversation with Larry Schoenberg (about his father's music)

What an interesting conversation about Arnold Schoenberg's legacy and his family life. How interesting to hear about him as a father and as a human being!

Sunday, May 05, 2024


I'm currently reading Eve by Cat Bohannon (a birthday present from Michael). I got the sudden urge, about 130 pages in, to write to Ms. Bohannon and tell her how much I am enjoying her book. So I found her email address and wrote her a short note. Then I went back to reading.

I have always enjoyed the opportunity to let living writers know when I have been particularly moved by a piece of their work. During the twentieth century, in the days before the internets, I would write letters to people through their publishers. But now a quick "connect" link on a webpage works very quickly.

I still do write to writers I admire through the postal system, if I can, and I love it when I get a written response.

I always enjoy it when musicians (particularly young musicians) who are playing something I wrote get in touch with me. Some people write to clarify an accidental, and some use clarifying an accidental as an excuse to write. I try to make everything that I write as free from ambiguity as possible, so the accidental question comes up less and less.

Still, this whole music thing is about communication, and I appreciate any communication that comes my way. It helps fill the void that comes with publication, which offers so much in the way of hope, but often results in having music sit on a publisher's shelves or on files on a publisher's hard drive.

I suppose it is different for books because there is a greater "audience" for books than there is, for example, for people who want to play twenty-first-century music for contrabassoon and piano.

Unfortunately there are composers that I cannot connect with. If I could write a letter to Haydn, I would thank him for the constant joy his music brings me. If I could write to Mozart I would tell him how much his piano music teaches me about playing the piano.

If I could write to Bach I would thank him for the solo violin and cello pieces he wrote, and assure him that I know that he hoped one day they would all be played on the viola, which was his bowed instrument of choice. There are also a few pitches in his music for keyboard that I would love to have him explain functionally to me.

I would write to Saint-Saëns to thank him for his violin music, his piano music, and his prose, and I would write to Hindemith and tell him that he has a true friend in the twenty-first century, and how he is a constant inspiration as a composer and as a writer about music. I would write to Beethoven, but I don't believe he would take me seriously. I don't think Brahms would either. I know Tchaikovsky wouldn't.

Saturday, May 04, 2024

The Juilliard MAP Concert tonight includes my "Adoration" transcription

The string players of the Music Advancement Program at Juilliard will be including my transcription of Florence Price's "Adoration" on their Alice Tully Hall concert tonight. MAP is a tuition-free Saturday program that serves local (to New York City) students. MAP reminds me of the Settlement Music School which began in early twentieth-century Philadelphia.

In addition to the Price, the string ensemble, conducted by Catherine Berke, will be playing music by Mendelssohn, Giddens, and Shostakovich.

The concert is at 8:00 New York time, which means 7:00 for me. The performance will stream live through this page on the Juilliard website, but it will not be archived.

Friday, May 03, 2024

Heart-based Singing

Agatha Carubia and I became really close friends during our first few months together at Juilliard, and remained friends until geography parted our ways. She was my first singer friend. Before knowing Agatha I thought that being able to sing well had everything to do with being able to find pitches, and having an inborn gift of a beautiful voice. Young Agatha had so much more than a beautiful voice. She had a deep physical and emotional connection to the essence of the music she sang, and was a truly kind and loving person (a rarity at Juilliard). She was from New York (Queens), and spoke with a strong New York accent, but when she sang her diction was pure and clean, and her vowels were beautifully Italian, German, or French, depending on what she was singing.

I came to learn that Agatha's young artistry came from a lot of serious study. One of my first memories of her was when she described the whole narrative of Robert Schumann's song cycle Frauenliebe und Leben in a most personal way. I had never known any singer to take her music so personally, especially at eighteen.

We spent many months working on a program together that included Ravel's La flûte enchantée from Shéhérazade and Bach's "Schafe können sicher weiden" from Cantata 208. Agatha brought me to visit her voice teacher Madame Freschel, who she still worked with (on the side) while studying with her "official" teacher at Juilliard.

Actual technical instruction in the physical aspects of flute playing were not anywhere to be found in my lessons with Julius Baker, so I tried to build a flute technique based on what I observed in Agatha's singing. And then I translated much of that into string playing when I became a string player again. In adulthood Agatha became a great voice teacher, combining her traditional bel canto training with a life-long practice of yoga, and teaching singers in all areas of music (including pop music and jazz) to use their voices in ways that are naturally expressive, physically healthy, and that draw upon location-specific sources of energy in the body.

Her 2015 book is short (eighty-eight pages), beautiful to look at, beautifully written, and incredibly practical. It offers advice that can be used by all musicians, whether they are singers or instrumental musicians. And Agatha addresses little things (which are big things) like dressing up to sing because it is fun, and learning the text by heart before you sing it as a song. She organizes body awareness using the chakra system as a model. It provides a set of body images that focus attention on parts of the face (the brow, the nose, the lips, and the chin) in addition to the parts of the body below the head. I find these images really helpful since string players can compromise expressiveness by holding tension in their faces.

She writes about vocal technique as "an inner dialogue on the mental plane, flexibility and coordination on the physical plane, and an opening in the emotional plane." On support: "If you were not sure you were supporting by consciously using your air, you weren't." One of my favorite statements is about vibrato: "Vibrato happens naturally when you stop pushing your voice and let your vowels spin freely on your breath. . . . You do not make vibrato, you allow for it to happen." This translates directly to string playing and wind playing, and is true for singing and playing music from all times and from all places.

Fortunately Agatha's book is available in many places online, but if you go to her website you get to hear her sing.