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We live in a world that’s largely chaotic, often very sad, rarely matching our hopes, and we have to impose some order, we have to wrest some order from this sad chaos of the universe, and we do it by imposing regularities from inside our head; the mind is a pattern-making machine, it doesn’t do well with the randomness out there…we’re always trying to find pattern where it doesn’t exist, so to me that is a pure example of human foibles, human motivations, human needs, and to that extant it’s very interesting.

--Stephen J. Gould

Interview with Charlie Rose in Oct 1997

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

Contents of this page: They Laughed When I Started to Play... / Bless the recording stars and the children / Civil War / Dialogue with a Steinway / I'd Like to Thank the Academy / Precedent / An Exercise in Creative Ignorance

They Laughed when I Started to Play
posted December 2, 2009 

They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano, But when I started to Play!~
--
famous ad for U.S. School of Music, 1926 by John Caples

A couple of months ago, during a performance, I had one of those moments onstage where everybody was laughing at me. You've probably experienced something similar in your nightmares, only this was actually happening. And I loved it.

The piano recital is a strange institution. Most people have never been to one. It may seem stern and forbidding. Somehow the idea that you are supposed to sit and listen to something you can't sing along with causes people to stay away in droves. And it is not easy to get people to be quiet and listen to music. Darwin was mystified why we had music at all since it does not seem to be a survival skill. The other night at a special church service I attended we were asked to listen to the organ Postlude rather than getting up and conversing with one another. It nearly killed some people to do it, judging from the fidgeting in the second row.

I've always imagined that the reason for such solemnity wasn't the solemnity. It is a simple matter of respect. If someone is talking to you, you listen. If that somebody is a piano, you also listen. But if someone says something that makes you want to react, you react. Civilly, of course.

Hence my amusement at the performance. I was playing a splendid piece by William Albright called Grand Sonata in Rag, which is basically a fusion of classical and ragtime elements, or, as I called it at the time, high-octane rag. During the last movement there is a little joke in the music, and--they got it!

You need to know your Wagner to get the whole point of the joke, but even if you can't quote Das Ringen Der Nibelungen chapter and verse, the way the music suddenly shifts from ethereal, cathedral echoes to pedestrian street banter without a bar's warning is self-evidently very funny. Suddenly, the introspective, contained world of the quasi-religious prayer from the world of opera is shattered by a wild return of the boisterous rag, and, just as suddenly, the genie is back in the bottle. For a phrase, anyway.

Several times during that section the audience gave forth torrents of healthy laughter. I wish I had a recording. You could tell they were in the same room, and that they were enjoying the proceedings. It was very communal!

At another concert recently I mock-apologized to my audience on behalf of all us concert pianists who force the audience to sit still while playing music that makes them want to dance. It is another case of having to reign in our instincts. It is also too bad, because, like many of life's conundrums, we set the rhetorical bar too high. Several pianists I've read or heard from have spoken up recently in favor of being more audience friendly. It seems that artists have spent so much time trying to get the audience to behave decently (often by bullying them) that what results is a culture of fear, rather than respect. Keeping quiet because you want to understand and communicate with the music is not the same thing as being quiet out of the fear that if you dare to make a sound, people will look at you like a leper with hemorrhoids. Unfortunately, some of that rests on the ability of the audience to know the difference, and they just don't seem to get the memo. Just how do we get people to shut up without clamming up? To recognize the need to let other people listen (and that requires unanimous participation) without feeling like we have to hermetically seal the experience?

For a moment during the performance it didn't matter. Mr. Albright told a joke, people laughed. Of course, the delivery helps a little, and the set-up. I had a theory professor who did that very well. She could have people laughing at a Beethoven string quartet. And why not? What people think of as serious music was usually written by people with great senses of humor. Bach? He could be very funny sometimes. Beethoven? Quite the jokester. True, when he is serious he is profoundly serious. But that is hardly always the case. Mozart? Well, we know he could lay on the silly on many occasions. Brahms? Well, he may actually be the most serious of the lot, by and large. But even he had a lighter side.

Once at a lecture given by my theory professor she had the audience laughing during a piece by Samuel Barber that I played (I was 'illustrating' the lecture, ie., she was talking about the pieces and I was playing them). It wasn't because Barber announced that the piece was meant to be funny--it was because, at that musical moment, something happened that we'd been led not to expect, and happened with a vengeance! Having been given permission to laugh by something she said earlier, the audience interpreted this musical misdirection the same way they would have interpreted it had it been in English. The same way being surprised by a pun or hit between the eyes with a comic misunderstanding between two characters in a joke causes us to break into laughter. Musical syntax can work the same way. The way the unexpected breaks into the routine can either be a revelation, or it can be risible.

It's just that we are afraid, sometimes, because we think that art is sacred. And sacred isn't funny. I'm not sure where we've gotten that idea but I know it is basic to a lot of us. Several years ago I played the same Albright piece before an audience of undergraduates at my school. They seemed to be maintaining a respectful silence. It was one of the most depressing performances of my life. It turns out they were laughing, but the concert hall was so large I couldn't hear them. Afterward I got an ovation, and lots of enthusiastic compliments. One of my students said I was 'Da Bomb,' which I really ought to have in my publicity material. Newspaper reviewers are really too polite (even when they are exaggerating their praise).

What we really mean when we call art music 'serious music' is that our aims our high. The composers were trying to do more than simply entertain us, simply pander to our current notions of what is good and what is not good, but to engage us. To stretch our boundaries, to get us to see and hear more than we did when we entered the room. That doesn't mean that levity is not in order. Because this, too, is an essential part of what makes us human. Ignore that, and you've left part of your soul at the door.

 

Bless the recording stars and the children
posted October 31, 2009

Everybody has to be a star.

In the spring it's usually the birds. They don't have to start from scratch every year like some other critters, and, like star performers, they come prepared to sing their favorite arias almost immediately. They are quick studies, and they know it, and they want you to know it. And to know they know you know it. And they sing loud.

The reason this is an issue is that I have my own recording equipment, and will often drop in a recording I've made myself on this website. It loses something in sound quality, particularly if I haven't figured out where to put the microphone, but it gains something in not having to book studio time or be especially prepared with a piece I'm just learning (if it's no good I can throw it out and haven't lost anything). I'll probably replace most of the amateur recordings on this site with professional ones sooner or later, though every once in a while I get lucky and the results aren't too bad. But do those darned birds have to be in it? It is solo repertoire, after all. I tried explaining that to them, but they don't seem to care.

From about mid-July through October, it is the crickets. There is one that takes up residence just outside one of the windows in our church sanctuary, and likes to keep time. Actually, it's more like one of those avant-garde experiments with going in and out of phase that was popular in the 60s. Cricket-phase, I think.

You can hear the resident cricket most prominently in a recording of a strange little piece I made four years ago of Erik Satie's Prayer For the Health of My Friend from Mass for the Poor. I imagine many of my friends could use prayers for their health these days, as do I. That virus (not the flu) that seems to be the very thing these days (all the kids have it) has given me a lot not to be able to talk about.

Besides that recording for piano and obbligato cricket, there is that prelude I played earlier this month by Michael Praetorius. I started the month by playing 400 year old organ music from Germany. More recently, I've been posting ragtime (without much comment from my supporting cast of creatures). On the Praetorius recording you can hear birds chirping about 5 minutes in. This is partly because I positioned microphone in the back of the church, because up front it was getting sounds from the organ's playing mechanisms that was disruptive. The sound seems to be better in the back. I guess the birds think so too, which is why they've got a nest back there.

Not that the birds or the crickets completely drown the organ; they are not really that much worse behaved than the average symphony audience. For real disruption, though, you can't beat the experience of one of my teachers while recording a CD professionally in Cleveland. They chose Labor Day weekend for the event, which is, if you are trying to record something in Cleveland, a very bad idea. Cleveland likes to host a little thing they call the Air Show every year at that time. I don't know whether everyone concerned realized this before or after the Blue Angels made their first pass over the recording studio. But it did cause some stoppages in the sessions.

I guess I shouldn't get that worked up, then, when somebody drops a pile of lumber in the sanctuary during a recording (in case you wondered what that loud noise was near the end of Summo Parenti Gloria. That recording also dates from my first year in Illinois, when we were having the roof replaced. One of my first times practicing the organ in our sanctuary featured some tiles being dropped on the roof right above the organ. It sounded like Armageddon localized directly over my head. Particularly since I didn't even know they were up there (why couldn't I get a still, small, voice?).

By the way, I should mention that the Champaign/Urbana area has suffered a plague of ladybugs recently. I don't mind them that much, really. They are well-behaved, meaning they don't make any noise, and they generally go about their business, which is a pleasant mystery to me. They actually seem like they are in town for a convention rather than plotting a blight on humanity. Currently they are just having meetings about it. If I were Pharaoh, and Moses gave me a choice of plagues, I'd go with ladybugs. We've had gnats already this year, and they are far more of a nuisance.

Winter is coming, and with it the lesser challenge to recording sanity. The crickets will stop chirping--even they have grown tired of meditating on the same note night after night. The birds will be at their time shares in Florida; the only sounds will be the constant humming of the heating system, filling in the awful void that actual quiet might create. I have a way to filter that out in recordings, though, but if I have to do too much of it is distorts the sound. I'm not complaining about the heat, though. I used to have to play in winter with a heavy coat on. I can still attribute the missed notes in an early recording to the stiffness of the coat I was wearing at the time. Of course, there was that recent recording I made with a fly buzzing around my head (that takes concentration!)--one of my sessions was interrupted by a couple of guys coming in to change a light bulb (twenty feet above the floor). Life goes on, in endless variety.

Some days incidents like this are just funny, but we are taught to be goal-oriented in this society, and there are times I just want to make a decent product and not spend all morning trying to get it to go. I'd prefer to record without the constant comments from nature's peanut gallery, just as I'd prefer not to miss notes. But I'm reminded of a Muslim quilt maker who intentionally mars each of his creations because it reminds him that only God is perfect. I don't have to try, usually. The mistakes happen, and the crickets want to be backup singers, and it provides an interesting diary of what time of year it was and what I was doing with my life at the time when I listen to it later. I've noticed several of the recordings I made while in Baltimore have sirens in the background, because you couldn't go thirty seconds without an ambulance screaming down the street. Humanity puts out a lot of noise, particularly when its members are in trouble. But the birds and the crickets go on singing whatever their lot. Come to think of it, so do we.

 

 

"Civil" War
posted October 5, 2009

A few months ago, while writing an article about Schubert, I flippantly presumed that there was no book called ‘musical composition for dummies.’ I was making the point that a creative act does not lend itself to having an answer key in case you get stuck. It is not like 2 plus 2, with an answer that is knowable and identical for anybody who bothers to find out. The way you get out of a creative jam is you figure out what the answer is yourself, because each piece is different. There will, of course, be traditions to which you can refer, and great composers of the past whose works you can study; no piece exists in a vacuum. But any truly artistic effort will succeed on its own terms—the shape of the piece determined by what you are trying to say through the contents of the notes, and vice versa.

But I thought, while I was at it, I’d better look and see if somebody had indeed written a book called ‘Composition for Dummies.’ Turns out, they had. Somebody had written a review of it, and they weren’t all that pleased. I haven’t read the book, but I imagine it does contain some of the simple, recipe-like formulas that I stated were not what creativity was really all about. The sorts of things that could allow just anybody to write music by learning a couple of simple ideas and then basically coloring them in. It is, after all, for self-identified ‘dummies.’ You don’t start a course on ‘Math for dummies’ with long digressions on Differential Calculus. First you have to be able to add.

The reviewer focused on some things that he felt were just plain wrong factually, and suggested, that if the book contained so many errors in things he knew, what else might be wrong in things he didn’t? These things probably will strike most non-advanced-degree holding musicians as picky, but I think they hold water. The first had to do with the book’s definition of the development section in sonata form. Quoting from the book (on page 148) he wrote:

"The development often sounds like it belongs in an entirely different piece of music altogether -- it is usually in a different key and may have a different time signature than the exposition."

A little definition may be in order here. Most Symphonies, Concertos, Sonatas, and so forth, contain several ‘movements.’ To the uninitiated they may seem like merely a group of pieces, though they are usually related in a number of ways. The first of those ‘movements’ usually is cast in ‘sonata’ form. This means that it contains three sections, the first of which contains the composer’s melodic (and perhaps harmonic and rhythmic) ideas for the piece. The second, development section, attempts to expand upon, transform, pit ideas against each other or in other ways deal with the materials given out in the beginning section. It is not, in some respects, that different from a musical essay. Having told us what the composer intends to discuss in notes and phrases, the composer goes on to discuss it.

Our reviewer was unhappy that the book gave the impression that the development section was in fact not related to the opening section at all. It is after all much too easy to just string ideas together without any attempt to make them relate to each other. Did you see the end of that football game last night?

Just kidding.

Mr. Reviewer wanted to get things straight, terminology-wise, but he put his views online, which means they get equal time with anybody else, regardless of their manners or knowledge. A couple of folks rose to the book’s defense. The first tried to use a specific piece to refute his idea of sonata-form development in general—Beethoven’s so-called ‘Moonlight Sonata’ has, he thinks, three parts which don’t sound related to each other at all, at least to his ears (it also happens to be a bad example of textbook sonata form; Beethoven knew it, too, which is why he labels the famed ‘Moonlight Sonata’—which was not Beethoven’s title, by the way--a ‘Sonata like a fantasy’ which is another way of saying that this is a Sonata that really behaves like a piece from a completely different genre, let’s say a science-fiction murder mystery. Or a fictional historical novel.)

You can tell from the post that English is not this fellow’s first language. Nor is music. He is polite, but he thinks that because the 2nd and 3rd movements sound, in his opinion, completely different from the first, that makes the first fellow’s case unfounded. He is confused about what sonata form is. As I said above, it refers to different sections within a single piece, or movement. The different movements are, in effect, separate pieces of music, which belong in a group, all under the title Sonata. The first movement is what usually contains a development section in the middle. Our reviewer tried to patiently explain this, and that was when he came under attack from some jerk who was probably trying to pick a fight by being as condescending as he knew how and telling the reviewer that he obviously didn’t know what he was talking about, using words like ‘foolish and pathetic’ and ‘idiot’ to describe him. It is not worth dwelling on his comments, since he used most of his time to deride his predecessor and none trying to make the case (except in the grossest generalizations) that he knew anything of the subject himself.

Let’s go back to the quote again. The reason I found this worth posting is the question it brings up when writing about music for laypeople, or amateurs.

"The development often sounds like it belongs in an entirely different piece of music altogether…"

I’ve italicized those words above because, on careful inspection, it doesn’t appear that the book’s authors are necessarily suggesting that there is no relationship between the opening section (the exposition) and the development (which, by definition, develops what came before), just that it might seem that way. Why would they say this?

Perhaps in an attempt to be friendly with the book’s readers. People often do not hear the connections which musical ideas have with each other, particularly over long pieces. We aren’t taught that in school, and it does not seem to naturally occur to people in music, although in another medium, say a Seinfeld episode on television, in which getting the joke depends on remembering something that happened ten minutes earlier, people seem to be able to pick up on it fairly easily. Most people usually listen to music that doesn’t function on this level because it simply repeats the same musical ideas again and again without changing them in any way, therefore there can be no relationships between various parts of the piece because they are either identical, or completely disjointed (like when it is time for the chorus, which then repeats its phrase several times). "Popular" music generally assumes you aren’t interested in connections between musical thoughts; so-called ‘classical’ music challenges you to find them. With a little help from your friends, perhaps.

Last months’ Music From the Yellow Room selection, incidentally, was deigned to do just that. The commentary and sound file examples there will help your ears pick up on the connection between various sections in the piece. Perhaps over time you will develop the ability to understand the musical narratives of many ‘difficult’ pieces because your ears have been trained to understand what to listen for. This is no different than the fact that you can understand this article because you can read it, and decode the various words and word-relationships. You had to learn how. It didn’t just happen.

But if you are a self-described ‘dummy,’ with a low opinion of how much you can learn with a little patient effort over time, or you are an author anxious not to appear too much of a snob by using terms like exposition and development, and want to relax your worried audience by making jokes and being entertaining, and by not dwelling on technicalities that perhaps can be saved for later, you might look at such a line as a good way to connect, never mind whether it’s accurate. Of course, the reviewer only quoted this one sentence. If the book’s authors went on to refine their statement, explaining that there really is a relationship between the exposition and the development (otherwise it wouldn’t be a ‘development’) than perhaps our reviewer is being a bit of a nitpick after all.

The book’s other reviewers were unilaterally lavish in their praise. Perhaps it is the very thing for the people who need it: speaking to them where they are, not shutting the doors to the halls of art or driving people away with too much technical precision or jargon. The question, though, is whether the book is playing too fast and loose with music as it is, or as it could be, sacrificing accuracy for entertainment, or truth for simplicity. I don’t know. The reason I want to bring this up is not limited to this particular book. Writers on the arts for lay audiences always come up against this issue. I often find myself wrestling with the same problem. This website was not designed for experts, but for those willing to discover something new. It (hopefully) doesn’t presume a lot of technical knowledge. Terms are defined, or left out, and jokes and generalizations are aplenty. Is that going too far?

I’ve read several things on the web and in books that I think do go too far. Trying to draw in the uninitiated always risks diluting your delivery, betraying your substance. Does it always? Can we have it both ways? Can we who know much about art and we who know very little but are willing to find out cut each other a little slack? If someone wishes to correct our statements, should we thank them, even when we think they are being annoying? Can the rest of us tolerate a few slips on the parts of those trying to learn, so long as they don’t fall in love with their own ignorance and tongue-lash anybody who tries to help them out of it?

What do you say: truce?

 

Dialogue with a Steinway
posted September 15, 2009

Sometimes you play the piano. Sometimes the piano plays you. If you are lucky, maybe there is a little space in between.

A month ago I went into the recording studio to visit a 7 foot Steinway. I like to keep those things company every so often so they don't get lonely. Steinway makes a nine foot piano which is the constant companion of every conservatory teaching studio and concert hall wherever they can afford them, but the seven foot model will do in a pinch. Size actually does matter in a piano--more on that some other time.

When I went in I had some pretty definite ideas about how I wanted my pieces to sound. I'd planned my interpretation of each piece, sculpting every phrase; I like spontaneity, but it is risky because, either on stage or in a studio, if the muse doesn't show up, you wind up with a lot of useless notes milling around with no idea why they belong together. I figured, 'tis better to plan your attack, then, once the tracks are recorded once, you can be spontaneous as the mood strikes in the time that is left. Spontaneity has value, however, particularly in conjunction with its close cousin 'adjustment' which is what quickly becomes necessary when all of your plans go awry.

The first thing I realized about this piano was that the action was quite a bit different than the action of the pianos I have been playing recently. This called for some rapid adaptation since I had never met this piano before and I wanted to get some things recorded right away.

This piano had a stiffer action, meaning I was going to need to use a little more muscle to push the keys down. Some of my more subtle key strokes weren't even going to sound if I didn't gauge them accordingly. On the other hand, the ones that did make the grade were louder than I had imagined. This was because we were in a small room with a big piano. I'd like to say I can adapt to these situations instantly with no muss or fuss, but that is overstating the case a little.

Pianists are aware of this problem. You can't take your piano with you, so unlike the bassoon player, or the violin player, or the accordion player, or the guy with the kazoo--practically anybody short of an organist who makes a musical noise, actually--part of the game is always adjusting to the piano that is available on the premises. Including really bad ones. Or the ones with whom you personally happen to have a pretty serious difference of opinion. For example, there are some pianists who like to have a piano that fights back a little, and occasionally, but very occasionally, I number myself among them. Usually I prefer a lighter action.

One of the most challenging times I've had in this regard was a time I was accompanying a voice recital during grad school. We were scheduled to have a dress rehearsal in the concert hall, as is customary, but some bureaucratic snafu kept us from actually getting the chance (which was also customary). Oh well, I though, I've played a dozen recitals in that space this year (I was working as a grad assistant in accompanying at the time) so I can adjust. When the recital began, and I walked out on stage and sat down on the bench, I noticed from the fall board (where the brand name of the piano is written) that they had gotten a new piano in there, one which I had not played. I had never seen this piano before in my life and now it was my job to strike the first chord of the concert---as softly as possible. If I misjudged it would be pretty embarrassing. I took my best guess and, fortunately, the result was wonderful. So was the rest of the concert, actually. A good memory!

I have developed a sort of vocabulary of experiences with pianos over time which helps in various situations. In this case, I told my recording engineer that the piano reminded me of a particular piano in a particular practice room at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Room L, I seem to remember. Yes, if I close my eyes I can still remember the pianos. I spent hours every day operating them, so why not? Room C was a particular favorite. Or E. I did not care to get stuck in room R. Room J required I be in a particular mood for it to be enjoyable. I could tell you the same thing about the Peabody Conservatory. If you go there, I recommend room 243. I spent a very nice afternoon with the Goldberg Variations once. Of course the pianos and their actions have probably changed a lot by now.

But beside the action, there were a few problems to contend with. One of them was that the una corda pedal needed some adjustment. This is a pedal that moves the hammers over very slightly so that instead of striking three strings for the higher notes, they will only strike one, making the sound weaker. This is the grand piano's 'soft pedal.' However, if the pedal shifts the hammers over too much, they may strike a string from adjacent notes. This is what is happening on the recorded example here. I did not miss that high note--the piano did. However, once I found out about it, I made sure to play that passage again, without holding that pedal down. When I get around to posting that recording you won't hear the glitch. It only affect a few notes which is why I discovered it only as I was playing the piece you just heard part of--about 10 minutes into the session.

It is curious to discover, while you are recording, that the piano has planted little landmines for you to come across every so often. I should mention, however, one problem that I did not have to adjust to. The pedal was no problem at all. A couple of years ago this studio had a nine-foot Baldwin, which was an alright piano (and in fact recorded better than it sounded; the strange relation between what you heard in the studio and what the microphones thought they heard is another odd part of the recording process. Some of my least favorite chords or takes sound pretty good when you hear them later, and vice versa.). It did, however, have some wheels (casters) that were a bit large and which made the pedals a little too high off the ground. We resolved that situation on the second day by raising my heels with some kind of mat. But the pedals were also noisy; I spent some time during editing getting the pedal noises out of there as creatively as possible.

In theory the very best pianos will allow one to do anything with ease and comfort, just as the best interpretations will immediately size up the strengths and weaknesses of the individual instrument and, without apparently sacrificing any of the substance of the music, play to its particular advantage. There is nearly always something to adjust to, especially as the family of pianos, even the good ones, is so eclectic. The sustaining power, singing tone, attack, relative strength of the bass and treble, all can vary tremendously, and can mean that every note, every phrase has to take the differing conditions into account.

This is another sign that music does not exist in a vacuum. It is always characterized by the time and place of its birth as well as the personality of its creator and the limitations of the musical vocabulary then in existence; melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, what kinds of symbols were available to use in writing it down, and what instruments were available to make it sound. And whenever it is recreated, the same applies. The understanding of the player, and the limits of each instrument insure that it will not sound exactly the same way again, that no other performance will be precisely the same. Even in the age of recorded sound I find that the sound can change radically depending on the playback equipment. And then there is the mood of the listener. What will they hear and how will they hear it? All factors that swirl around this phenomenon we call music, and keep it ephemeral, and mortal, and alive. Each moment unique in a practically infinite chain.

Sort of gives that B-flat a bit more grandeur to think of it that way, doesn't it?

 

 

I'd Like to Thank the Academy...
posted August 18, 2009

I owe some people a thank you. Most of them are too dead to receive it, but I thought I’d pass it along anyway. The first is the fellow who came up with the idea for a piano. His name was Cristofori. In about 1700 he invented a new kind of machine that allowed the touch of the player to determine the volume of the tone produced. This was a new thing for a keyboard instrument. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, either. Sure, it looks easy. Push a key down and it the other end goes up and hits a string causing its little ouch to vibrate at a predetermined pitch. But if you’ve seen the inside of a piano, you may have noticed that it is in fact an extremely complicated process. So complicated that Cristofori couldn’t think of it all himself. He had plenty of help. In fact, when you start taking the instrument apart piece by piece you start to wonder what he really did invent, anyway.

For one thing, we already had keyboard instruments, like the organ or the harpsichord, or the clavichord. In fact, the idea of striking keys to produce sound goes back to antiquity. All kinds of neat variations on this scheme were tried, including one that used waterpower to operate something that sounded like a pipe organ.

The idea of vibrating strings wasn’t new either. Besides violins and guitars and musical bows and arrows (less musical if you are on the receiving end), the harpsichord already combined the idea of a keyboard with struck (or in this case plucked) strings. So Cristofori’s invention didn’t even look new. It sounded new, though. Bach didn’t like it.

Besides the shock of getting used to the sound and a new way to play the thing, there were a few ‘bugs’ in it. It was called the ‘soft-loud’ because that was the only way they could think to describe its unique contribution to the genus of musical instrument, but the marketers kept calling it a new type of harpsichord because they needed to reference it to something people knew. It wasn’t uniformly soft or loud across its register, and the sound was a little weak, though that wasn’t as much of a problem as long as it wasn’t asked to fill a large room. Mostly, it lived in drawing rooms and palaces for a while. Then they started changing the rules and asking it to give public concerts. New materials arrived, like iron, and tougher wooden casings. That gave the piano a chance to change its stripes.

Over the next century and a half an enormous number of things were done to the piano. Making the hammers come to rest so they wouldn’t bounce around after a heavy attack on the piano. Allowing them a temporary rest near to the string so the note could be struck again quickly. Reinforcing the strings in duple or triplicate so the sound would make it to row triple-Z. Making piano wire something sturdier so that that Beethoven guy wouldn’t keep breaking strings. Creating new kinds of pedals to add different affects to the sound, most of which, like so many ideas, died an early death. Building pianos into loveseats and curving the keyboard are just two more that didn’t last.

Each of these innovations cost somebody somewhere years of work trying to figure out the best way to solve a pianistic problem to improve the instrument. And some of those improvements were themselves improved by others following in their wake. The piano was most definitely created by a committee.

We don’t often think about it, but we are surrounded by things that people spent their lives working on—either to invent, or perfect. We don’t thank them; in many cases, we couldn’t. Their exchange with us is anonymous, their sometimes astounding influence on our lives unnoticed. Not that such innovations are always good. But for their benefit to humanity we hope they at least got some recognition, and maybe even got paid for it, which is humanity's anonymous way of making sure that people who have something to contribute feel the love, or at least that, no matter how self-interested they are, they don’t keep their thoughts to themselves.

If you need some light summer reading there is a book called "Men, Women, and Pianos" by Arthur Loesser which I read some years ago. It is filled with interesting characters and charts the various evolutionary additions and dead-ends with respect to the instrument itself and chronicles the people who played it. There have been an awful lot of folks who have shepherded this piano project down through three centuries, insuring that I’d spend a disproportionate part of my life seated at a box that makes noise. I ought to acknowledge them. Some of the results of this bizarre chain of causation are on your left, near the top (under the picture of the hands on the keyboard).

Enjoy!

[Note: those directions in the last paragraph above made more sense when this article was posted on the home page, but you can still access the site's recordings by going here.]

 

Precedent
posted July 18, 2009

There's been a lot of talk this week, during the Sotomayor confirmation hearings, about precedent. This is the curious process by which a court, in deciding a case, checks to see what other courts and judges have said about the same or similar issues in the past. Anyone who is studying to become a lawyer can quote mountains of legal precedents, and so it is no surprise a judicial appointee at such a high level (she was a lawyer once, you know) has had her thinking practically saturated with them.

I referred to the idea as a curious concept because, if all you ever do before rendering a ruling is to go see what everyone else has already ruled on the matter, your job has pretty much already been done for you. In this sense, we are operating under a kind of legal peer pressure in which nobody wants to do anything that hasn't been done before. Of course, strictly following precedent is a luxury even the most conformist judge can't afford in real life, not the least because if everybody merely followed precedent (if this were even possible) then there would be no precedent to start with. No--Sooner or later somebody slips up and we get the sense that we are working with a live person with their own opinion, whether it has been 'informed' by precedent or not.

In Ms. Sotomayor's case it is wise to use the issue of precedent as a kind of cover. If you don't want to make waves you'll be sure to be able to say that you were just doing what everybody wanted you to do, or had already done. You'll assure people that you are hardly acting on your own in any discernible way, and that you are a responsible part of the system whose own particular biases cannot be pinned down.

If, on the other hand, you want to gain attention, the best way to do it is buck precedent. People will love you, or they'll hate you, in large quantities all around, but your visibility will command attention. I bring all this up because we have the same thing in music. Art music, anyway.

This is because it has a long history. Whenever there is a long history, people have the privilege of arguing about what that history is. Or ignoring it. At one time musicians were less 'burdened' with a vast past repertoire, but those days are gone. These days the wind blows in the direction of something known as the authenticity movement, and musicians who are performing music of past eras are expected to render their interpretations in conformity to what a vast network of musicologists and educated performers believes to be the manner in which said work would likely have been performed or interpreted by the composer.

This is not the same thing as tradition, which may have grown up independently of any reference to past styles or scholastically informed approach, or have its roots in a time when people where more concerned with getting those problematic works of the past to sound more 'up-to-date.' Too bad Bach didn't have a 300-piece orchestra. Well, he does now! Thanks to Wagner and Strauss who arrived on the scene a century later we have these massive orchestras with a hundred brass players in them and we don't want them to feel left out when we do a little Bach, so we'll 'improve' the old master. We're sure he would have wanted it that way. This sort of orgy of late 19th century practice--rewriting the performance styles of any other historical period in terms of the here and now had its heydey in the early 20th century, and has pretty much died off under the withering glare of academic research and opinion.

It's not as if everyone agrees with those assessments, however. There is plenty of debate about what constitutes historically accurate performance, and whether it is fair to assume that a composer would have passed up the chance to incorporate some more recent innovations in his performances. And that's where tradition, i.e. precedent, gets interesting. Just like in politics, there are people fighting over the proper way to interpret certain composers and styles, influencing one another in an attempt to gain the majority. Once a powerful and influential performance hits the market, it often becomes precedent. There is a power in that, and with a species that values herdthink, genuine risk in bucking that tradition, however it got there. But people do it, and they are usually the ones who end up getting the most press. Whether they are playing the music like they honestly feel it ought to be played or exercising their egos (or some combination), it is those players who end up setting precedent by being bold and different. Either that or the musical public and practitioners figure they are out to lunch and they don't make it into the record at all.

When I was a conservatory student I was often a captive of precedent. Sometimes my interpretation would be called into question because it could be shown I was violating the intention of the composer. If Beethoven put a crescendo beginning on the third beat and I begin to get louder on the second, I was just wrong. Any professor would have pointed out to me that Beethoven was a smart guy who knew what he was doing and exactly what he wanted to a T. He had authority--ultimate authority. But in a situation where there were no markings--say the tempo of a piece by Bach, or the articulation or phrasing--none of which was displayed on the page, I was also sometimes given to know that I was simply in the wrong. Often my professors did not feel the need to explain themselves; sometimes I did not push the issue. But I often felt that I was violating precedent. The current way to play a certain piece by Bach was different than the way I was approaching it. Some strong personality somewhere had set a trend and gotten lots of other folks to agree with it, whether that was based on the latest research, or a convincing sales job by an attractive personality, or seemed to answer an unconscious need in our collective psyche. It might have also been the professor's personal opinion, but if you've been at a conservatory you understand that there are certain norms that even the professors get in trouble for violating. If you want respect, you don't go out on your own. You honor the past, which is why a conservatory is so aptly named.

I think it was famed conductor Arturo Toscanini who said "tradition is nothing but the last bad performance." It seems safe to assume he wasn't interested in what everyone else thought you were supposed to do with a Beethoven symphony.

This seems to be where music and politics diverge, when a strong, charismatic figure decides to do things his way without caring what others think. It seems that way, anyway. But often, that individual is also appealing to precedent--if not to tradition, which may be as recent as yesterday or storied in the past, it is The Composer's Authority. That's because, like our political system, the assumption in art music is still very much that the composer is the final authority. One way to buck precedent without getting in as much hot water over it is to appeal to originalism, which is precedent raised to the third power. Bypassing the traditions that have 'corrupted' the original intent of the composer, the performer seeks to 'restore' (with or without the aid of a committee of historically informed musicologists) the true and proper way to approach the piece. On the supreme court, justices argue about who is realizing the intent of the founding fathers most accurately. But no one says they aren't interested in what the founding fathers think about the issue. They may find creative ways to justify what seem to be new interpretations, but justify it they do. And they accuse their opponents of being false to this tradition.

Much like the way harpsichordist Wanda Landowska settled an argument by telling a rival, "You play Bach your way, dear, and I'll pay Bach his way."

Precedent is a strange dance. There wouldn't be any precedent if somebody didn't create it in the first place. Once they do, it becomes a recognized authority in the age old attempt to check innovation by making it stand trial against its ancestry. Once it has been hallowed by time, its creators either develop reputations that can't be touched (what, are you going to try to tell me Washington was wrong?) or they are forgotten, and become that time honored, "they say..." and you know what they say...

Well, whatever it is, you'd better listen.

 

 

An Exercise in Creative Ignorance
posted July 1, 2009

I’ve been seeing them everywhere for years, so the cartoon strip this morning that featured some of them did not really surprise me. Here is a sample of what I mean:

empty-headed sixteenth notes

Now, a musician can tell by looking at them, that there is a small problem with these notes. And the small problem is that they are illegal. They don’t exist. There are no such notes that look like this. They are imposters.

But they do look sort of cute, don’t they? I mean, if you are not a musician, they do sort of look like they might be the real thing. Musical notes have circular heads with sticks attached, and those funny lines to join them together sometimes. And sometimes the head parts are filled in with black and sometimes they aren’t. So why not have some of those notes with the beams not be filled in?

It seems like it could work, except that it doesn’t. This is much the same, I imagine, as if somebody tried to invent a letter of the alphabet with various curves and lines in appropriate places and came up with something that wasn’t one of the current 26, or an Arabic number that looked like kind of like a 3 married to a 6 with a little 2 thrown in but wasn’t anything you could add with.

The obvious reason for this, of course, is that persons like the cartoonist, or makers of all manner of musical kitsch I’ve gotten as presents over the years filled with these impossible notes, is that the people drawing them have no idea about what they are drawing, and it looks ok to them, so why not?

This sort of thing can be particularly amusing if you are watching a movie where the actor is trying to play the piano and is, let’s say, unaware which end of the piano has the high notes, so he is ‘playing’ the wrong end of the piano as the soundtrack music is gushing forth. Sometimes the finger strikes are simply out of sync with the music, or there is a completely exaggerated bouncing around on the part of the fake pianist--maybe the music is smooth and he looks like he is banging away at heavy chords. One cartoon I saw had a violinist holding the bow completely still on the string for all the long notes and only moving when the player changed from note to note. This is a physically impossible way to play a violin since you can’t get sound from a vibrating string without actually moving it across the string the whole time you want it to sound. As it happens, you don’t need to change the bow direction at all when you want a new note—only the fingering in your other hand.

Watching pretend musicians fake it on film can be quite funny—or exasperating. Occasionally, somebody either knows how to play or has taken the trouble to observe people do it and is able to give a convincing con. But not usually. And in the world of throw-pillows and musical stationary, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a line of music that didn’t contain a few errors.

The favorite, of course, being the unfilled-in eighth or sixteenth note, which is sort of a musical hybrid, like a griffin or a centaur. Since notes that aren’t filled in all come from the slower or longer-lasting end of the time-scale, and notes which hang around in groups and are beamed together are the shorter or faster ones, this is the musical equivalent of stitching the head of a turtle on the body of a cheetah.

Now I could complain about this for a while, but in these democratically vibrant times, it is considered mean-spirited to call ignorance to account, rather than join in its merrier attitude, and besides, part of creativity resides in ignoring, willfully or unknowingly, previous rules or customs to foster the creation of something new. So what I have in mind is to find a way to 'legitimize' these new notes so that musicians can use what the blanket and paperweight makers have already shown us. It will be a challenge for the musical establishment to accept this, but less of one than getting people who can’t be bothered to just copy some actual music into their designs to learn some rules. Besides, it will be fun. So here goes:

Right away I can think of three questions. What do we call the new note or notes, how does it/do they function, and what official body can we get to recognize our new creation(s)? I’ve worded the question in the plural because it looks like we may have to name at least two kinds of notes: the unfilled-in eighth and unfilled-in sixteenth (both beamed and flagged). Perhaps while we are at it we should add versions of the 32nd, 64th, and 128th notes as well.

Now to the name. Most of these notes are named after fractions (and tend to be halves of each other). You’ll note that only a few of them are taken. There is no such thing as a sixth note or a nineteenth note, though those names aren’t very catchy and probably come from those boring old guys from antiquity who thought everything in the universe was an expression of math. So while there are plenty of numerical names left, we don’t want to miss our chance to call them things like ‘Fred’ or ‘Bert.’ Or, now that mathematics has moved on from Pathagorous, we could celebrate its complexity by naming one of our notes after the Euler number, or the Arc-Tangent of the angle of the beam or something special like that.

The function of the note is where we really have problems. Not that the 20th century was any stranger to new musical symbols. Usually they were suggested by the composers themselves to cover musical pheonemena that couldn’t be called forth using the symbols they already had. For instance, this:

a written representation of accelerating notes

means to gradually play the notes faster (not suddenly to go from one kind of note to another twice as fast--this rather rigid series of 2:1 ratios is how the progression of traditional note-values developed). One reason this sort of thing works is because it is a combination of a crescendo, which means gradually get louder, and is represented by two lines diverging, creating more space for the expanded volume of the music (visually representing the concept!), and the traditional idea that the more beams you have, the faster the note value. A sign like this makes intuitive sense. Plus, the composers would explain what the new signs meant in a preface to the musical score so as not to confuse anybody.

Since as I’ve already explained, we have here two pieces of musical information that seem to contradict each other—a ‘slow’ note-head and a ‘fast’ beam—I'm really flummoxed as to what to do with this one. Could it mean to sustain one member of a group of fast notes (though we can already represent that with double-stemming or pedaling instructions) or to emphasize it (but we have accents for that)? Email me if you get any good ideas (michael@pianonoise.com).

Finally, if we want the note to have any kind of shelf-life, we’ll want to get it sanctioned by somebody with some musical authority. I’ve recently taken it into my head to see whether there is a musical equivalent to the Chicago Manual of Style and have not had any luck so far. As a composer and teacher, I’ve noticed that a lot of the ‘rules’ we were taught when young mask a lot of diversity or practice that goes unnoticed by music teachers and publications. I suggest that if we got our notes into an upcoming version of the Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, or the Harvard Dictionary of Music, we would be making some good progress. We will then want to trumpet our new symbols with all the fanfare that astronomers lavish on the finding of a new planet. It will be big news for a day or two throughout the land.

There may be those rare instances when someone trying to fake musical notes has not already stumbled onto our discovery. Cartoonist Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, used to use actual snippets of Beethoven Sonatas in his panels. They might have been missing clef signs or time signatures or have started mid-measure, but the notes were right, stem directions and everything, and it was fun to figure out which piece he was quoting from. I’ve heard some suggest that he even chose particular pieces as a kind of comment on that strip.

I don’t know if we’ll find anyone that care-ful again. Meanwhile, we can, like heartless pedants, mourn the laziness and lack of knowledge of the world around us, or we can use that ignorance as a spur to great deeds of creativity, and look upon it as a gift. And the best part is, it keeps on giving.

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