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"And the teaching of music is particularly apt for the young, for they because of their youth do not willingly tolerate anything that is not made pleasant for them, and music is one of those things that are by nature made to give pleasure."

--Aristotle

 
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archived writings on music: part one (Jan-June 2009)
current page / newer posts (Jul-Dec 2009) / Jan 2010-May 2011 / June 2011-     the most recent column is on the home page

contents of this page:  Mailbag (questions I've gotten from readers) / That reminds me of something (thoughts about quoting popular tunes in classical music) / Beethoven on Facebook (a romp through a parallel universe) / My Apologies (stress and predictability in music) / What's with all the Italian? (Why so much about classical music seems to be in a foreign language) / The rest is silence (how silence is important to music--and sanity!) / Know Your Limits (how Chopin's strengths and weaknesses helped him forge a unique musical career) / The 'F' Word (thoughts on Musical Form)

Mailbag
posted May 16, 2009

Hello again. This assemblage of words is brought to you for another month by one human being whom you may never have met and who conceived and executed thousands of tiny maneuvers with his hands at a date and time several weeks in the past, then posted them to a machine which is there to serve your need for reading material at any time of the day or night in whatever part of the world you happen to reside.

It all sounds fairly one-sided. I write, you read. But as it happens, I sometimes hear from you guys regarding things Iíve posted on my site, and this monthís effusion is about that phenomenon. Even when you donít write Iím listening. But Iím getting ahead of myself.

Being a creative artist can be a lonely business. You might spend all day working on your craft, in solitude (which is necessary to most of us) and then, as most methods of distribution aside from live concerts are pretty anonymous, you still have no idea what sort of impression you are making. But a while back, my web tracker informed me that the site was getting a few thousand listeners a month. Most of them are from China, and it appears that they donít visit the site, they simply hear the music provided by an MP3 finder. They might not have a clue who I am or care, but they are apparently listening. The most popular musical selection on the site is usually one of the Satie Gymnopedies, a set of three short piano pieces written in 1888 by the unusual Frenchman.

This is sort of embarrassing, actually. The recordings where made some years ago in somebodyís living room and the recording quality is not that great. I was out of practice at the time too, although that doesnít seem as much of a crime under the circumstances. I have vowed to make professional recordings of these pieces and the others on the site, and now that people are listening, I might feel guilty enough to do it.

I have listeners from all over the world, and while China is topping the list pretty consistently these days the list also includes Germany, Austria, France, Taiwan, Belgium, the Netherlands, the Russian Federation, the Czech Republic, and a place called Old Style Arpenet. Ever heard of it? (I looked it up and it actually refers to an archaic organizational scheme on the world wide web; it is not a country at all, except in the minds of nostalgic codgers.)  Most of these folks remain anonymous, but I have occasionally heard from them. My music often seems to pop up on Spanish-language blogs (often uncredited), and I was practically knocked over when one fellow wrote to ask my permission to link to some of my recordings on his blog. We had a polite exchange, during which he lamented his poor English and wrote that "language divides us." I still havenít brushed up my Spanish, though I tried a little by reading his blog for a few days. Meanwhile, we have music in common.

One day, someone wrote in about a strange little piece that was wildly popular with amateur pianists in the 19th century that I posted on my site (the article and the recording can be found here). It is called the "Battle of Prague" and the silly depiction of war has found many mentions in the literature of the period as well, since it was so pervasive. As far as I am aware, mine is the only recording of this piece on the internet, although it was dashed off on my living room piano one morning before breakfast. I ought to make a better recording of it, too, although the music hardly justifies it. The person who sent me the email told about his ancestor playing the piece in their old country house in the early 1800s and his excitement in finding a recording of this now elusive piece which he could play for his relatives, fresh from my Yamaha. It is nice to feel you are doing someone a service now and then. Apparently the houseís old ghosts also got to hear it again after more than a century.

Since I can sometimes track "referrers" to my site (the sites that direct traffic to mine) I can find out sometimes who (in general, not in particular) is listening to my files even when they donít introduce themselves. Once a selection of mine was on the website of a college run radio station in Montana. I donít know if my recording made the air. The piece in question was Handelís Chaconne in G, which is a good choice, since it is from a live recital on a nine-foot Steinway in a nice concert hall and recorded by pros. The performance is also decent. I am glad it is currently in the number two spot in popularity.

I notice that some of my recordings have also been accessed by home-schoolers, which is pleasant, since Iíd like to support education any way I can. If any of you feel like dropping me a line about your endeavors, feel free.

Of course, it isnít just the music that finds an audience. There is probably the equivalent of a small novel (400 or so pages, Iíd guess) on Pianonoise. While it isnít generally of the dry, encyclopedic nature, people with questions still seek definitive answers on the site. They donít always get them, Iím afraid. One person wanted instructions about how to build a hotdog stand. I still havenít obliged.

There seem to be a lot of questions about Beethoven lately. "Did Beethoven worked for a government? (sic)" I have no answer to that one besides, "no." Someone queried "Beethoven and paying attention." "What did Beethoven look like?" Iíve got a whole article on that one. Some years ago some inspiration-seeking soul wanted to know "how Beethoven overcame his deafness." Iíve finally decided to answer that one.

He didnít. He went deaf. He stayed deaf. What he did with his deafness is what is instructive. He thought about killing himself, but he didnít. Instead, he kept on doing what he was doing before he went deaf, which was to write the best music he knew how. He could do that, because like many musicians, he knew what the music he was writing sounded like without having to physically hear it. If you can hear the words you are reading you can get some sense of what this is like. Since Beethoven began to go deaf in his early thirties, he had to live with this problem for nearly three decades. He had plenty of time to rail against God, curse his fate, and write masterpieces. He did all three. If you are looking for a saint, it isnít Beethoven. If you are looking for easy feel good stories about overcoming all odds, itís not here. Sorry. But Beethoven managed to do more for western musical civilization in those years than most of those who had two good ears. What role did his affliction play in this, for good or ill? Who knows? If someone is suffering from something and needs a role model, just keep this in mind. He didnít throw in the towel. He didnít give up. He kept at his mission in spite of everything. It wasnít picturesque, but it was a miracle. Just not the sanitized versions you see on television. Maybe he kept at it because he had no acceptable alternative. Nothing fell from the sky, though. He just kept working. It wasnít fair, and he knew it. And did his best with what he had left. Which turned out to be plenty, we can say in easy retrospect.

By the way, if you happen to be deaf, there are a lot more options available than there were to Beethoven. Everything from hearing-aids to cochlear ear implants, for starters. That is assuming you want to stop being deaf. Beethoven probably would have pursued any treatment available. How would that have changed his life and the course of musical history besides giving us one less Romantic myth to drown out the music itself? Another unanswerable question.

While I may get a bit testy regarding questions which seem designed to find easy answers to lifeís most painful realities, I confess to being downright perplexed about this one: "Why do people have fingers?"

At present, in my best objective, unbiased, perfectly formed opinion, it is to be able to play the piano. Throwing a baseball could probably be done with a few fins on the end of each arm, but Iím not a medical expert.

Do you have any ideas?

You know where to send your answers. Youíll need your fingers to formulate them, most probably.

 

michael@pianonoise.com

 

That reminds me of something
posted April 25, 2009

Back in high school I was getting my first real education in classical music. I was listening to Mahlerís First Symphony for the first time when, part way into the first movement a popular klesmer (or Jewish folk) tune asserted itself. I didnít know what it was until years later when a friend of mine, who is in a klesmer band, happened to be playing it one afternoon and I recognized it from the symphony.

Even though I didnít recognize the tune, I could tell it was a quotation of a popular folk tune by the way the style of the music changed. I was a little shocked. This was a symphony. Were symphony composers really allowed to do that?

One reason for this attitude was surely the one that I had been cultivating nearly since I had first becoming acquainted with such music. Classical music is supposed to be hermetically sealed off from the other kinds, the more ívulgarí or Ďpopularí musical styles since it would only dirty itself by the association. I imagine I absorbed that attitude by osmosis from the people who were playing the music on the radio or talking about it on record jackets.

Another reason for the separation, besides being too holy to commerce with other styles, is the baggage that popular associations bring into an original composition. There have long been people who believe that music can only be approached as music, and cannot have any meaning apart from the notes that make it. Referring to something outside the piece itself may mean that the piece is trying to position itself in dialogue with some other tradition or ideology, or that it is trying to tell a story or set a scene or say something socially, and that very notion bothers some people to the core.

While it is understandable that the idea of Ďextra-musical associationí should be treated with some caution, since it can certainly be abused, Iíve always found myself bothered by the absolutism in the notion that music means nothing but itself. If it is not to be connected to any other human activity, how much relevance can it have?

Arguments about purity aside, however (and they have existed in regard to everything from music to human beings, often with the ugliest possible results) there is still the thick line which needs to be crossed between high culture and low culture, a line that many disciples are making sure remains indelible.

I donít mean to suggest I am a fan of the current crop of experiments in fusing hip-hop with opera or making the symphony rap a little to attract customers. Hybridizations like that can be done well, but they usually arenít. Maybe they are harmless, but they are probably not going to have much of a lasting impact.

But symphonies and sonatas have been doing commerce with folk and popular styles for quite a long time, and most of classical musicís recognized masters have been responsible for at least occasional dabbling, if not a more studied approach.

Particularly in the 20th century, quotations Ďfrom the peopleís musicí have become part of the symphonic vocabulary, for a variety of reasons, from composer to composer. American composer Charles Ives made it a particular obsession to snatch tunes from the musical world around him, and rarely invented one of his own. But even the champion of absolute music as his defenders thought of him, Johannes Brahms, engaged other musics even in his symphonies. He did it more subtly, so that it was simultaneously part of the musical fabric of his piece, and he usually chose other Ďart musicí to quote from.

Bela Bartok took a more scientific approach, cataloguing and arranging many of the tunes from his native land, capping a popular trend in the 19th century to take interest in and make Ďartisticí settings of traditional songs from oneís own country. It was a time when what made your own land unique was no longer something to be embarrassed about. I donít recall whether Bartok actually used any of the tunes in his symphonic works the way Ives or Copland did.

Use of these tunes can set up a Ďthird dimensioní in the music, A way that the artist can use common property, or a shared tradition to comment on it in a new context. Often these songs have a kind of Ďauthenticityí about them, since, whether they really originated from the people en masse or not, nobody knows who wrote them anymore, and thus shorn of any Ďtaintí of having been written or created by a professional, they are now on everybodyís lips and by use and custom and context they have been invested with meaning. Perhaps many meanings, not the least of which may be a national or group pride in being who you are (or think you are). And even though we 21st century Americans love to exult the individual, we still feel it safer to hide in numbersóDemocracy, after all, is about the rule of number, and capitalism is all about catering to that mass. Something that can be sung by everyone will seem to belong to everyoneóand a Mahler symphony certainly does not belong to that category, even if a few bars could be made into a hit song, and I donít know if anyone has tried. Someóprobably most, Ďclassicalí themes are largely immune to being translated into popular music, since they would have to be tortured beyond recognition to fit into the scheme of the popular song. A few have undergone this surgery anyway. During the middle of the last century it was more fashionable to be a proponent of Ďgoodí or Ďclassicalí music, which created a demand for Ďdifficultí music that could be Ďmade easyí by stripping it of most of its artistic properties so that it could pass for a valuable antique you could get at Wal-Mart.

Quotationís cheaper cousin, appropriation, is fond of these experiments in taking things out of their original context so that the perceived value of the old object benefits the new one, or for no other reason than that it sounds cool. Such streams of consciousness are easier than the discipline of formal cohesion. The question when confronting an artistic use of quotation is how it functions and what layers of resonance it adds to the piece.

 

 

Beethoven on Facebook
posted April 3, 2009

Step with me into a parallel universe. Technology got here a little faster, or art didn't--anyway, it is 1828 and this blog was just posted on the internet. By the way, the incidents mentioned below are based on actual episodes in the life of Beethoven:

Itís been nearly a year since one of musicís most fascinating people passed away, and we are all still really bummed out about it.

I first met Beethoven one night when I was surfing for some cool videos on Youtube. He was on some list of people with crazy hair. They had a clip of him yelling at his landlady. It got a lot of hits. I favorited it. So did all my friends. It was about a year later that I found out he was on Facebook. I had no idea he was into writing music. Apparently it is the kind that nobody listens to because it is really long and you canít dance to it. Some people started a Ďfans of Beethovení page and tried to get him to interact with them, but he was kind of snotty and reclusive. I think this was just after he had uploaded several of his early works and discovered that the one that was getting the most hits was the Choral Fanatasy, and that it was probably because it had the word "Fantasy" in it, and a lot of guys were hoping it was pornography. As a result, they only listened to the first three seconds and quit after they found out it had some not very sexy violins in it. He posted a nasty letter about it one night when he was feeling angrier than usual, but he later confided to me that he had learned something valuable from the whole experience, which was that if you want peopleís attention you had better grab it fast. He played for me an arresting little idea of four notes that he was hoping to use at the beginning of a symphony. da-da-da-DAHHH! I wish I could remember it better than that. Unfortunately he never got around to finishing the symphony.

I think he was kind of busy with all the stuff on Facebook. He was a really lonely guy and he kept friending people all over the place, but he lost them faster than anybody. I donít think it helped much the time he posted the Heilegenstadt Testament online. This was a rambling document about how he was going steadily deaf and how depressed and isolated it made him feel. He was even thinking about committing suicide. Several people wrote what a downer he was being. But, he decided, he needed to keep composing, because he had lots more stuff to write. He put some of it on Sibelius.com, but nobody really liked it much except for this one guy who kept going on about how great it was, I think he was called longhairedfreak9746@gmail.com, and he struck us all as a little weird. He liked to talk about details in Beethovenís orchestrations and his use of sudden modulations like he was all that, which I think ticked Beethoven off a little. But then some theory professors started getting into it with him. He must have spent hours posting nasty things on their walls and throwing sheep at them. They were convinced that he was doing horrible things to music and he needed to just kill himself in a particularly grotesque way, because thatís how people talk online, you know? I donít think they actually meant it. I mean, other than that they hated his music.

After a while Beethoven only posted in all caps. I think he felt like he was shouting at the world to overcome his deafness. But believe me, you didnít want to get into a discussion with him about art. He seemed so depressed, though, that we tried to take his mind off of it. We kept sending him links to viral videos and dancing hamsters and saxophone playing walruses and guys fighting each other with mattresses and stuff. I suggested he set some of those to music, but he wanted to work on some ballet about Prometheus. Still, it seemed to help. Sometimes he would spend all night with us in chat rooms goofing around. I think after awhile he was writing less music.

This was probably a good thing because I think that was what was making him depressed in the first place.

One time he wanted to rent a theater and have a concert of a bunch of things he had written. I told him that it would be much cheaper to just make MIDI files out of all of it and post it online. That way, nobody gets sore at you for making them sit through a long concert in a cold theater, and you donít have to pay the musicians. He grumbled about it, but he posted the files. I donít think they got many hits. For one thing, the titles were not that interesting. Consirto and so-notta were his favorite titles. Somebody wrote in the comments section to his blog "that is so-not-a piece of music!" He really went off on that guy.

That was before he got the webcam. He used to stream his musical improvisations. They were pretty popular for a while, but mostly because people wanted to laugh at his hair. He really could have used a comb once in a while. Then he got a page on Myspace. The thing I remember about that was how loud the music came on when you opened the page. Everybody was just yelling.

One night he wrote on my wall that he was working on a Symphony about Napoleon. I donít think he got very far with it. He used to start a lot of things and then wind up in chat rooms and answering posts from people. There was this time he was walking with a student of his in a garden and he kept humming this wild series of notes that he had come up with, but when he went to write them down he noticed his laptop was open and some guy wanted to chat with him about how his music really sucked or some other sophisticated observation like that and he forgot what he was doing for eight hours. When he got to the piano the idea was gone. I guess that must be why he only wrote eight piano sonatas, which is a lot less than Mozart.

Besides the two symphonies he wrote, the eight so-nat-as and about half a piano concerto, he left behind a lot of pieces he complained werenít finished yet, although they have enough music in them for several television commercials, which is what we think he really should have been doing. We are going to try to upload as much of his music to Youtube as we can if his estate doesnít stop us.

Then there is this guy Schindler, who is a real pain in the ass. He calls himself a friend of Beethoven and he is a real control freak. He is not very kind to the online community as a whole and he doesnít care who knows it. Iím afraid heís going to find a way to shut down Beethovenís Facebook page. That would be too bad. A lot of people are leaving notes about how much they miss him, hair and all, and I think itís safe to say the internet wonít see anybody like him in a long time.

 

 

My apologies...
posted March 29, 2009

It appears that, in these days of turmoil and anxiety, while recklessly and heedlessly pursuing my vocation, I have been unduly stressing you all out. Mea culpa. Also, I should apologize for doing it in Latin. Bad form.

The reason for my rather late apology is the epiphany I had while reading the paper last week. While in transit from Indianapolis to Champaign, I stopped in a small town and picked up a small newspaper to go with my side of fries. The opinion columnist had written about stress in the age of recession, and illustrated one of her points with a discussion of a famous laboratory experiment involving rats and electric shocks. There are probably, at this writing, a number of students in the sciences who, on the basis of the good old days, would like to major in rats and electric shocks, and are displeased to note that things are being done differently these days. I hope so, anyway.

Anyhow, the rats were divided into teams, and the first group received warning signals before the shocks were administered, while the second got no such preamble. The second group developed stomach ulcers  of greater size than the first, which led the scientists to conclude that not being able to predict the onset of such scientific outbursts was stressing the second group of rats out more. Ergo, predictability makes life easier to swallow.

Which is why, predictably, my mind went to music, and to the fact that most popular forms of music are eminently predictable, being made up of vast amounts of repetition, whereas the styles in which I specialize, most of them lumped under the umbrella term classical or jazz, are not so predictable, because once a composer or improviser has said the same musical thing a few times, he or she decides to go and say something else, often for what the listener may feel is a very long time.

There are various ways to combat this anxiety producing tendency. One is to listen to the piece enough times that you become thoroughly familiar with the contents--assuming recordings are available and you have one. Or you can go to a lot of recitals. One year I noticed that every pianist who came through town was playing the same Beethoven sonata on his or her program. I imagine a dedicated concertgoer could get that piece memorized by the end of the season at that rate. Then there would be no surprises, even in a piece a half hour long. Even in a piece by Beethoven. The man does like sudden changes in volume, after all.

Essentially, you are reducing a long complex piece of music to the same kind of narcoleptic that a popular piece provides by this strategy. But your mind does have to work harder. The average piece on the radio these days has about 10 seconds of different musical information in it, with the rest being repetition. That means you can shut off your brain pretty fast and have a stressless good time not having to adapt to anything new. I wonder if anyone has done a study relating classical music to the risk of Alzheimer's. My guess would be that it helps fend off the disease, since it helps keep the brain limber.  How many other secrets to the good life are available to those whose brains function at higher baud rates?

But if you really want to eliminate stress, you'll have to enter into a kind of conversation with the music. It might seem like the long way, but then, memorizing every piece of music you ever want to know can't be much shorter. By learning the ways in which music is put together, you'll have a pretty good sense of what to expect, and what is really a surprise. Not having any way to understand a stream of notes other than that they sound pretty means pretty much everything is going to be a surprise. That would be the goldfish approach to classical music. Goldfish are said to have about a three second memory, so they can swim around the same bowl endlessly and not get bored. 'Hey!' they say with glee. 'What a fascinating rock formation. I hadn't noticed that before. Hey...'

There are a lot of things to come to know about this. There are as many approaches to music as there are composers. Many more, even. But there are common tendencies. Grammars, spellings, rhetorical flourishes, three-point sermons. You can, for instance, have a pretty good idea when you hear certain chords what chord is coming next. Or what melodic fragment or rhythmic idea is likely to follow. You can learn to anticipate important places of repetition and learn to cherish variety more and more. If you'd like a hand in this, I'm starting a series of ear-opening experiences in which I'll take a piece of music and discuss things to listen for. Building on such experiences means your ears will learn how to deal with music much the same way they deal with English. You certainly don't know every word of this essay, nor are you planning to memorize it. You don't need to. You know what I'm saying and you can boil it down to its essentials.

However, this presupposes that you want to make a sustained effort, much the same way that people who write music in this genre make a sustained effort to create their music. If you don't, I guess all I can do is apologize for making your life so complicated. But I imagine most of you to whom this really applies have stopped reading this blog a long time ago. For the rest, all I can promise is an adventure. These things seem very basic for me, but they may be a shock to you. Recently I've been reminded of this by posts on the internet expressing: 1) surprise that musical style has actually evolved over time  and 2) the thrilling epiphany that composers don't just string notes together until they get tired of it, but actually plan their compositions. I'll do what I can to make these notions seem not quite so bizarre. You can bring your questions. I'll do my best to answer them.

 

What's with all the Italian?
posted March 15, 2009

Classical music seems like enough of a foreign language to most people without having to throw an actual foreign language into the mix. Unless you speak Italian, the names of pieces: Sonata, Symphony, Concerto-- instructions about how fast to play them: allegro moderato, vivace, largo, and like-- and a whole host of markings within the pieces: ritardando, espressivo, allargando, staccato, arco, fortissimo, and on and on, might have you saying with Mozart in the movie Amadeus "basta! basta!" (enough! enough!)

So what is up with all of that Italian? Did the guardians of the sacred tradition of 'good music' decide to put everything in Italian so the rest of you guys wouldn't figure it out? Seems like it, but no. However, the real reason for all the Italian is equally stupid. Read on:

There are several things about humanity that should not be underestimated. One of these is the power of rivalry. On a small scale it is known as 'sibling rivalry'; widening the lens a little it is known as war. Countries and cultures have been colliding practically since the days that Pangaea got a divorce.  But there is an interesting little variant of this; if you can't wipe them out, you can show you are just as good as they are.

We've always had people who have told us who in the world is the best at something; these are the people in the know, and what they know is that they don't want to take a backseat to anybody. You've probably heard France is the best place to get wine, the Swiss excel at watch making, if you want engineering, for God's sake, go with the Germans.  Aspen is a pretty good place to go skiing, unless you live near the Alps. The list could go on and on. Egypt is the place for pyramids, if you are in the market for one. They are probably going cheap, these days.

Now if you can't beat them, you don't have to join them, but that would require inventing your own thing to be good at, and that is a later stage in the development of both people and civilizations. In Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries it was still the epitome of taste to imitate the epitome of taste; the rich and powerful are never makers of things, but they are astonishing collectors. In luxury, the fellow who set the tone was the biggest king on the block, which at one time was Louis XIV. The Germanys at that point were divided up into about 300 little kingdoms, and they all tried their best to be as luxurious and ceremonially wasteful as the court of France, with, I'm imagining, some pathetic results.

Even Louis knew where to get his music, and it wasn't France. Somehow word had gotten around that the Italians were doing some hot stuff musically. Probably their civilization allowed for a greater development of the arts--remember that little thing called the Renaissance? An Italian thing (1400-1600). While the Italians were still basking in the afterglow, the rest of Europe was just getting the memo after two centuries. England had been too busy fighting France for a hundred years and trying hard to stay poor and disease-ridden, the German states were riddled by wars and reformations--but in the southern climes the arts had been given a better chance. Now if you want to impress people, you need to find out were the best stuff is, and steal it for yourself. Once Louis figured that out, everybody in Europe had their own music masters (the kings and princes, I mean) and they were all Italian. Meanwhile, Italians were streaming out of Italy trying to find work in the newly created job market were there was a bit more room to stretch your arms without poking another Italian court composer.

Not all the Italians got all the hot jobs; some non-Italians changed their names to sound like they were Italians. How that fooled anybody I have no idea (I guess Puck was right: 'Lord, what fools these mortals be!'). At any rate, the Italians were dominating music at a critical time, because it coincided with the birth of several forms of music, and the idea that you could write more on your page than mere notes; a few remarks in a language that people could understand more easily might help with important things like how fast you wanted the music to go, or how loud. These were also items that hadn't been subject to flux a few short centuries previous, at least in the minds of those who believed they knew the eternal principles they called music to be, and of course, what it wasn't.

If you were Italian, you naturally wanted to write these instructions in your own language. If you happened to be an English composer (hiding under an assumed name) and you wanted the music to slow down for a minute, you could, after all, write 'slow down' but that would mean you were an imbecile who didn't realize that Italian really was the thing this century. If you wanted to argue that it was better to be able to understand something than be fashionable, you obviously didn't know much about humans.

Fortunately for those too lazy to learn a few words in another language, a counter-trend soon materialized, which was the idea that one's own country was just fine, thank you. Eventually it lead to more wars, but for a while it merely excited people with the notion that they could in fact use their own language to communicate musical instructions in. Beethoven, in the early 19th century, was one of the first to make the change. One of his late piano sonatas has the instruction 'Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung ' (singing, with inner expression) which is a mouthful in any language (and pretty lonely; virtually all the other instructions in the piece are still in Italian). The fact that Mozart had already written an opera that was not sung in Italian was a hopeful sign in that direction.

When it came to marks like ritardando (slow down) or crescendo (get louder) Beethoven kept the Italian. Old conventions die hard, particularly if they are easy to use. When it came to expressing thoughts which did not have ready Italian words hallowed by tradition it was easier to dispense with the old custom. Some of my scores are a similar motley of languages, two centuries later. One of my piano pieces has a passage marked to be played 'like a pair of angry bassoons' and I have no idea what the Italian equivalent of that phrase is, nor would I wish to translate it. It is no longer necessary to keep up appearances, but it is still difficult to make a complete break.

I tell my students that they are going to have to learn the standard Italian markings, but if they are composers it is not necessary to always use them. I don't think it is a bad idea to have to adapt, even if it seems like too much trouble to learn all of those 'funny words.' Being an English speaker does not make you the center of the universe. But then, Italian isn't the only thing going either. Many of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin's markings are in French--and some very interesting ones at that. Into the 20th century the elite in Russia thought the French were pretty keen.

Cultures have a long history of imitation, appropriation, influence. Until the 20th century America tried to pretend it was Europe, for musical purposes. Today most of our classical canon consists of German composers--Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms--all Germans (Mozart was technically Austrian). This has long frustrated the heck out of our own native composers, and our country isn't alone in this German domination. For a long time it was fashionable for our composers to go to Europe to learn their trade and then come home and show us what they'd learned. It could, of course, imply a respect and and interest in another culture which, added to our own arresting musicality (it took a European composer to complain to us that we were neglecting it!) would make for a very intoxicating musical brew. But I overestimate ourselves. We are too busy keeping up with the Joneses, or the Jonesos.

But the next time you are listening to your German music with its Italian name, sipping French wine and propping your feet on an Ottoman, just think of all the cultures that have contributed to your entertainment. Even the Sun King didn't have it this good.

 

 

 

 

The Rest is Silence
posted March 1, 2009

 

Hear that?

Iím hoping your answer is, "Hear what? I donít hear anything."

Donít go adjusting your speakers. This page isnít making any sounds. I wanted to call your attention to that fact. Itís silent. The impression I've been getting from hopping around the internet lately is that this page is one of the few ports of entry to a musical website that doesn't dish out unsolicited sound (often at high volume) before you know what hit you.

Now, you may have some sounds going on in the background. Maybe some other tabs are open and they are making sounds. Maybe the television is on, or the stereo. In fact, it would be a safe bet that there is noise in your environment. I feel confident that if I bet a $20 on it with every reader of this column, I would gain more money than I would lose. But do us both a tremendous favor and turn it off for a minute. And listen.

I donít mean to scare you. I know some of you canít handle silence. It has become so rare, so unusual, that many of us just donít know what to do with it. And yet for others it can be a precious gift. Or both, probably.

It may seem odd for a musician to talk about silence. Music is about sounds, after all, right? My mediaplayer seems to think so. The instant a piece of music is over, it automatically loops around to the beginning so it can start making the same noise it did the first time. Generally, the sonic effusions begin right away. We canít have any space between plays, can we? That would be, as it is known in the world of radio,  Ďdead air.í Over in radioland commercials butt right up against each other, and the host makes sure to fill every second with some syllabic noise, even if it is Ďummí or Ďand.í Just like at the shopping mall, or in restaurants. Whenever the live musicians go on break they fill in with canned music. Some of the patrons might get the shakes if there werenít musical vibrations smoothing our path through the airís rude molecules. Or we might find out what mood we are really in.

Iím not alone among artists in my passionate defense of dead silence. In fact, the first thing we ought to do is call it living silence. Does that change your perspective any?

Like visual artistís use of Ďnegative space,í composers of challenging music have often written silence into their pieces as an essential element. Since, when we write music down, we have a whole variety of symbols (called 'rests') that allow us to represent exact quantities of this 'musical nothingness,' it isn't impossible to call for silence before, during, or after a musical gesture, or a whole piece. All it takes is the willpower, and, apparently, an unusual imagination. One of the first places I remember noticing this was at the end of Beethoven piano sonatas. After all of the notes were over. The last measure of these pieces is frequently the following:

whole rest with fermata

That rectangular blob up there is a whole rest. It fills the entire measure, and it is compounded by the little Ďbirds eyeí or fermata, up above, which tells the performer he or she can hold it out for however long they desire. It guarantees several seconds of silence. The piece is not over until this Ďborder of silenceí has been achieved. Perhaps it is time for contemplation, or simply to digest the foregoing contents. Silence often speaks loudest after it has surrendered the floor to an unfolding musical drama like that. Maybe some of you will want to print that picture out and put it on the wall of your office as a reminder that you can hold the metaphysical silence as long as you want to. While the world around you rages on!

Beethoven gets a nod for beginning a work with silence, too. One of the most famous musical utterances of all time is the opening of his fifth symphony. Iíll bet you donít know that it actually begins with a small amount of quantified silence:

eighth rest

That little item is an Ďeighth restí and it means the downbeat of the first measure is silent. The notes donít begin until the second eighth note, and cause that little motive to sound, not like a complacent little triplet, but a driven, rushing motive that practically falls forward into the next measure. The difference between putting a rest at the beginning and not putting a rest in the beginning is huge. Even though the rest itself doesnít make a sound, it causes the musicians to think differently about the sounds they DO get to make. And to pay attention to their conductor, who will beat that opening downbeat so that the orchestra can bounce off of a specific moment in time that they canít hear but must therefore see represented with certainty, and sometimes a bit of flourish, by their leader. I call this a very loud rest. Sometimes rests are used in pivotal places to rend the musical fabric open with shattering silence, particularly if you weren't expecting it. In this case, silence is very dramatic. The terms 'peace' and 'quiet' don't always go together!

The point here is that silence is an important part of music. It isnít easy to achieve, however, since it requires a conspiracy on the part of everyone in the space where the music is being performed.

One thing that silence and music have in common is that they are both purposeful. In between is noise, whose function is chiefly to hold off silence, but not necessarily to provide purposeful music. It is basically aural clutter. I used to hear my elders tell me Ďif you donít have anything to say, donít say anythingí but noise doesnít think that way. Its primary goal is to say something, anything. It is there to provide content, no matter the quality. So many things in life seem to require this, that at regular intervals, something has to be said or played, something written, or filmed, or recorded. It doesnít matter whether it really has anything to say; we arenít listening anyway.

Do you think if we had more silence, we would listen to the music we do have?

I think so. When you are surrounded by something that intrudes on you constantly, it is hard to see any purpose in it. And if we donít see any purpose in it, we think about it (if that is the way to put it) differently. We probably even live differently.

Even quiet isnít silence. Soft, soothing music is still sound. It may be relaxing, and I recommend it as a stress reducer. But like many of today's drugs, it has some drawbacks. Serious side-effects may include forgetting to imbibe the sounds of the world around you, or to have the courage to face no sounds at all. Having built our artificial society until it closes in on every side, it is easy to forget there is a world out there that we didn't create ourselves. Meanwhile, it is too easy to indulge in Counterfeit Silence. The real item, by contrast, is often dramatic, unexpected, uncompromising. Try achieving some this week and youíll find out. Now, if youíre like me you are probably 'hearing' the sounds of the words on this page as you read it Ďsilentlyí to yourself. So Iíll shut up now, and you can take a moment to remember what silence actually sounds like.

 

 

 

 

Pretty interesting, huh?

 

 

Know Your Limits
posted February 19, 2009

My mother, an ordinarily sage woman who has given me plenty of good advice over the years, also threw out this adage on occasion: know your limits. Iíve always thought that this was the worst piece of advice she ever gave me. The reason for it had a lot to do with the context. Whenever I wanted to try something I hadnít done before, particularly if it was in addition to what must have seemed to her like an already full schedule (this was before everybody was on 8 soccer teams and judo and ballet and piano and a travelling baseball team or two or three and the debate team and the swim team simultaneously; I was probably in marching band and the tennis team and that was itóbesides piano lessons, of course) she would trot out this bit of advice and I would invariably grumble Ďwell, how am I going to know my limits if I donít get to test them?í

In other situations, this advance bit of caution would be a good idea. But it is seldom allowed to really interfere with our decision making process. So often in life we donít really get to know what it will be like to have the job, the house, the marriage, the career path, the kids, until weíve already taken them on. It would be helpful to have something besides a little bit of advertising to go on before we commit to something that we canít really know until we are in the thick of it. It would be helpful if people gave us more of a clue. I remember thinking that a lot when I was young. "So, what do you want to do when you grow up?" the adults would ask glibly, and I was supposed to just know without really having much in the way of role models, real life examples, dataóI couldnít even go to a web chat room to see what people were saying about the things I didnít know anything about. I suppose in the absence of real data a certain amount of blanket caution isnít all bad. But there is another reason we donít always need to worry so much about what our limits are. Other people will tell us!

I have a bad habit of reading biographies of musicians. In some respect this is useful, because I am getting real information about different responses to circumstance in the real life choices that some of the greatest musicians in history have made. In contrast to those gee-whiz thumbnail biographies of Ďthe great composersí that get foisted on kids, where some incredibly talented fellow springs from nowhere and his life is an uninterrupted succession of triumphs which is why we are exhorted to practically worship our hero, real biographies written for grownups that explore their subject with depth and subtlety can reveal all kinds of fascinating things about the lives and circumstances of some very different people. But they are, invariably, depressing.

One reason they are so depressing is that there is always a great deal of failure in the subjectís life. It could be that the public just isnít that interested in what they are doing, and if they depend on their vocation for money there is inevitably a lot of fiscal anxiety. It could be their critics, rivals, their own internal struggles, failing relationshipsósound like any human beings you know of? Most recently, my reading list included the pick-me-up story of Frederic Chopin, often called the Ďpoet of the piano,í one of the most played 19th century pianists in concerts today.

In the case of a biography sometimes the same issues, chapter after chapter, can seem almost as hectoring as they would have living through them. In the case of Chopin, what I remembered as something that was registered as a complaint in the few public concerts he gave began to seem like a faucet that wouldnít stop dripping. This was because Chopin gave more public concerts than I had realized.

The incessant refrain was that Chopinís tone production was lacking. In other words, he just couldnít play loud enough. In an age when cataracts of sound were the piece de resistance, this was a problem. But not one Chopin didnít struggle to overcome, apparently. Throughout the early part of his career, at intervals, he would appear on the concert stage. Every time, his reviewers would complain that he couldnít command the oceans of sound necessary to volley an impressive squadron of sound to the far corners of a large concert hall. So he would try again. Same result. After a while, he stopped trying.

Chopin had another problem too, which was that he was not interested in writing pieces that were simple enough for amateur pianists to play, or to understand. Despite his late-developed Polish patriotism, he didnít write any works that were obviously nationalist, which would have also made him a big star, at least in his native land. As a transplanted Polish national living in Paris, he didnít capitalize on the latest dance craze to rake in the cash (look at the wordóthe wordís very origins must have meant turning a situation into money!). Between his temperament, ideology, and limitations, he basically cut himself off from the concert hall and the role of popular composer. What did he have left?

What he had left were small, intimate gatherings of friends and music lovers who could appreciate his strange effusions. In a small room where his 31 flavors of pianissimo could be quite effective, and his horror of large crowds need not interfere with his muse. This was known as the salon, and it was also a rather popular movement in Paris at the time. Critics of the concert stage looked down on this music; it was considered a rather vulgar thing in comparison to the high art to which it ran parallel. But Chopin gave to it his best works, which classical pianists are still playing in droves and calling masterpieces. We play them most often in the concert hall, which begs the question of authenticity, but we still play them.

Chopin wasnít like the extroverted, larger-than-life Liszt, or the bazaar Berliozóhe didnít champion the Romantic gesture writ large with a huge orchestra and long, dramatic tone poems or tragic narratives. Despite what so many have written since about great composers touching every genre with their genius he wrote almost entirely for the piano. Rarely is anything more than ten minutes in length. There are shattering fortissimos (could he play them?) but there are many intimate moments that cannot be found in the music of anyone else.

Chopin carved out his own unique role in the history of music. Part of this was his own free will, and part of it was his choice, apparently, to accept what his critics were telling him, and to recognize that just because everyone else thought music had taken up residence in large halls with marrow-shattering orchestras and pianists of steel, didnít mean there werenít other ways of doing thingsóas if to suggest that the dominant trend need not tyrannize were it could not be used to advantage.

In other words, Chopin was formed both by his successes and his failures.

Arenít we all?

 

 

Music and Math
posted February 1, 2009

This article has been moved to its own page due to length

 

The F Word
posted January 20, 2009

There is a Christian pianist whose online lessons I was reading the other day who had some unflattering things to say about the importance of structure in a piece of music. He pointed out that there were in fact musicians who believed form to be the most important thing about a composition. This was in their eyes what made a piece 'good.' He was offended by this.

Well, he should be. [Would it help if I put sarcasm in italics from now on?] A fluent understanding of the problems of Form isn't exactly second nature to the majority of our Christian pianist hymn-arrangers these days. It is a difficult thing to master for anyone, and it requires much more than moment-to-moment attention to a piece of music. Most people don't know how to listen for it, either. If you are creating a piece of music, it is much simpler to try to make each moment as pretty as you can, and not worry about whether it really adds up to something in the long run. When this same strategy becomes a philosophy of life we call it hedonism. At least, when applied to a musical composition, it doesn't hurt anybody.

My mission here is not to give this gentleman a unilaterally hard time. In fact, if we give his remarks a little more context, I have a good deal of sympathy for his position. Between the two sentences I've already quoted was the characterization that these form-judging musicians think that if you don't like their music it is your problem because you wouldn't know good music if it hit you with a two by four. I've 'adapted' his comments a bit, actually. They weren't so colorful in the original.

But the reason I want to start out with a bit of sympathy is because there are indeed many people who feel that it is their job to sort out the ones who know from the rest of you bozos, the exalted initiates from the boorish mob. This musical Phariseeism is hardly limited to matters of form, but it is a considerable plank in their platform--or their own eyes. This topic is so depressing to me that it deserves its own article.

It was almost a given that a new piece of music during the 20th century would be criticized for its structure. Critics, who had one opportunity to hear something on the night it premiered, loved to savage a piece that they couldn't follow from beginning to end in the manner in which they were accustomed. If the piece had any surprises, the logical argument that they were expecting to be dispatched in so many notes would seem to be suffering, in their august opinions, from a poor treatment of form. To put it in a nutshell, anything new tended to throw these critics a curve. If that originality extended to the way the piece unfolded from moment to moment, or in terms of its long-term plan, these guys wanted you to know that their superior musicality could pick up on it. And more often than not, they did not appreciate these innovations. This is an illustration of a mindset which worships at the shrine of what was great in the past and does not welcome change. It is an outlook that can be found in people of all levels of intellect. But it also shows just how difficult it is to understand form.

Before I get too carried away I should define a few terms. First of all, every piece of music unfolds in time. It is not present to our senses in its entirety, but only as one part of the whole. That whole, therefore, it has some kind of relation between its parts, a structure. It might be a pretty poor one; if it were a house, the roof might fall in. But it is a piece of music and so nobody dies.

This essay is also unfolding to your consciousness in time. If you are asking yourself questions like: what is the main point here? or I wonder were he is going with this? you are asking questions which are related to the form (as well as the content) of this sea of words. Most people do not read essays to see how well the author connects what he says at the beginning with what he says at the end, just as they are not paying close attention to the form of the music as a separate element. But if I were to just start off talking about baseball right here, and in a few sentences get bored and talk about the weather, or just start typing gibberish, your mind would probably get very confused and your attention would wander. If the topic itself interests you and my writing is sufficiently interesting, you'll probably stay with me, as long as I seem to be going somewhere with this. My treatment of form does have something important to contribute to the success of this essay.

Indeed, some of my points are taking longer to develop than others. Some of the sentences you've read are key to getting the drift of the whole piece. Others are providing support for those sentences. Others seem to digress a bit and provide some local interest but could probably be taken out and you'd still get the idea. All of those things have to do with how well the words and the thoughts they express cohere. And they all have to do with form.

For some people form is essentially a recipe. If you put the right musical moments in the right order, you have an instant piece of music, and there is no need to worry yourself over whether the content or character of a particular piece might seem to require that its structure be approached in a different way. This formulaic approach to form is what you learned in music class. Remember the old letters: ABA? Some music happens, then some contrasting music happens, then we return to the first part and do it again. A formal approach no subtler than that means I probably could talk about baseball here if I wanted to, so long as I eventually wandered back to the idea of form again. This is called ternary (or three-part) form and its various cousins, like ABACA and ABACADA, are not variations on the killing curse from Harry Potter but types of Rondo form, which is a way of vivifying the idea that you can take a musical thought, wander away from it, come back to it for an encore, wander away from it again, locate it a third time--it is still there! and do this as many times as you think you can sustain interest (and if you want to challenge our attention spans do it one more time!).

There is a whole other, more complex, family of forms, which are closer to an essay. In these, the theme or themes, which are obviously groups of musical notes in this case, are presented, and then developed--transformed in a whole variety of ways which can either show off the composer's cleverness or reveal a whole range of emotional and intellectual possibilities for what may have seemed a trifling little tune at first. Usually these forms (referred to as Sonata forms) are also symmetrical, meaning they return to business as usual after the developmental section, a form of ABA in which B is not a contrast but a taking of A and running with it. This notion also gives rise to variation forms, which are usually self-contained sections featuring transformations of a common theme, one after another. I've never seen this done with prose, but it might be fun to try.

Even given this rather impressive menu, some composers are not happy. This is because we are creative troublemakers, although I repeat myself. While a symmetrical form suggests architecture (walls on both sides supporting equal weight from the roof), narrative or dramatic forms can also translate themselves into music, and these forms do not like symmetry. How would you like to read a novel in which the last chapter was an exact copy of the first, as though what had transpired in between had no lasting effect on what came at the end? This is why there is often vociferous disagreement about formal design even among people who very much know what they are doing. The vast difference in philosophy between forms which evolve and forms which are essentially static also, I hope, gives you a window into the near limitless variety of formal structures and ideas about how to create these musical blueprints, to say nothing of the immense challenges involved in satisfactorily molding a piece so that the form seems to come alive, rather than being imposed on it separately. If I were to do that, I might dispense with this paragraph after I had reached a certain quota of words, say the same number as in the last paragraph, whether I had concluded my thought or not.

The next paragraph may or may not pick up where the last one left off. Isn't this fun? Continuity, discipline, resisting a thousand temptations to just spew every remotely connected thought I have while I write this onto this page while I select the ones that are most likely to make my points and take me to where I want to go--but then this sort of architecture is probably of more interest to writers and composers than it is to the general public. I do think, however, that if people knew something about the ways in which music was put together it would at the very least keep them from getting bored so easily during a long piece. It helps to know where you are in the plot. Which is why, in my brave insanity I plan to devote several pages to various musical forms and what makes them interesting. I don't know anyone who has made the attempt successfully to talk form to the general public, at least beyond a few rudiments that make the whole inquiry seem as exciting as boiling water.

All of which brings me back around to the pianist I was paraphrasing at the beginning. While there were enough assumptions on his page to discuss in several more articles, the one most germane to the subject of form was when he advised pianists learning to improvise not to worry themselves about it. He seems to think that form is something that leads to imitation, something that is done out of a sense of duty--good music is supposed to follow certain rules, and therefore we must worry about such things even though we haven't a clue why. I quite agree that there is a danger in this kind of thinking. Either the result is in fact a lifeless concoction, not because the performer was worried about formal decisions in the first place but because he didn't really understand how formal design can be a living, vital part of a piece of music, or the piece seems inappropriate in its context (in this case, for worship) because the performer is under the impression that in order for his efforts to pass muster with the right people he must choose a formal plan that is wrong for the materials. He can't let his inspiration breathe because he thinks that the 'imposition' of form is supposed to reign inspiration in, and form is the master, the contents merely slaves, or at least dutiful servants. And he thinks that rules are something you get out of a book and do what it says to do. In such a world there is no creativity because there are no decisions to be made when the demands of form and content seem to be at odds. There is only one 'perfect' model, rather than thousands of uniquely interesting ways in which the various large-scale structures are used by a composer who is brave enough to experiment with traditions, not by ignoring them, but by assuming them to be living breathing things to which his contribution is yet another adventure in risk and reward. It is to this world, not the world of formality or formalism or the formulaic (all words that show a negative, and I would say, skewed, idea of how lifeless attention to form is), that I would invite the intrepid composer. I should note here that one of our dear pianist's colleagues once asked English composer John Rutter what was important in a piece of music, to which he replied "form, form form." I will assume he did not mean this as a way to kill musical interest, and neither did the person to whom it was addressed, who considered it an interesting remark, and part of his musical journey.

 

 michael@pianonoise.com