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What gives value to a work of art is its authenticity; and to create that authenticity, above all, conviction and belief.  This needs to be kept in mind if one is to welcome new masterpieces; it is necessary to desire, to facilitate, to encourage and to love enthusiasm.

--Jean Wiener, in a defense of composer Olivier Messiaen

 
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archived writings on music: Part three (Jan 2010-Jan 2012)
(Jan-Jul 2009) /
older posts (Jul-Dec 2009) / current page (Jan 2010-Jan 2012) / newer posts (Feb 2012-present)

the most recent column is on the home page

 

Music of the Future
posted January 7, 2012

"Of the arts necessary to life which furnish a concrete result there is carpentry, which produces the chair; architecture, the house; shipbuilding, the ship; tailoring, the garment; forging, the blade.  Of useless arts there is harp playing, dancing, flute playing [also piano and organ playing?] of which, when the operation ceases, the result disappears with it.  And indeed, according to the word of the apostle, the result of these is destruction."

--St. Basil c.329-379

The above quotation from one of the early fathers of the church has been grinning at me from atop one of the pages of this website for some time. This is just the tip of a rather uncivil iceberg; a few other examples of persons of eminent standing thinking of musicians as generally low quality people can be found on these pages, culled from a vast mine of such writings. Not that musicians, despite a long history of being disparaged, are alone: probably someone can be found who thinks of your own profession (whatever it is) as completely useless, and possibly destructive. Of course, when you add a religious dimension to that, you get personal opinions to the 3rd power. One of the things I find funny is how Basil ends his diatribe. Not only is musical activity of no use, but it leads ‘to destruction.’ And it isn’t just his opinion. St. Paul said it. Case closed.

Actually, I haven’t combed the epistles lately looking for the source of this epithet, but my suspicion is that Basil is doing the usual religious-commentator/church father thing of taking what was in the text and adding some additional steps to it. In other words, Paul probably sums up one of his ‘sin lists’ by saying ‘the result of these is destruction.’ Maybe ‘sloth’ is part of the list. Basil figures playing music is a slothful activity, therefore music=sloth (according to him) and sloth=destruction (according to Paul), therefore music=destruction. Paul didn’t say it but that is surely what he meant, right?

I’ve including the quotation at the top of one of my pages on which there are several recordings. According to Basil, the reason music is a ‘useless’ activity is because as soon as you stop playing ‘the result disappears.’ I wonder what he would have thought if he had known that, some centuries hence, we would be able to capture the sound and therefore the result would not disappear. The sounds I made last June can still be heard for an indefinite period into the future. I think this is pretty cool.

There is no longer anything new about this and therefore I am supposed to take it for granted, but I still like to be grateful for it anyway. Brightens my day a little, and the rainy, gloomy day on which I am typing this needs a little brightening.

But human inventiveness doesn’t stop there. These days, it is even a question whether you need to make the recording at all--or, at least, how you make it.

A few months ago I mentioned the wide world of virtual organ sounds. There are a number of websites and Youtube channels devoted to recordings made on virtual organs, some of which feature recorded sounds from the famous organs of the world. One of those enterprises is called Hautpwerk, and it was created by the husband of the previous organist at my church, interestingly enough.  Some of them appear to originate from a human being playing a keyboard with virtual software to simulate the sound of those world-famous organs; however in some cases I suspect (this is rarely made clear) the music is chiefly programmed in (this is not really that new--MIDI files started allowing this about, what, 20 years ago?). Can you tell the difference? There was a time when anybody with a decent ear (which was already sort of a problem for a professional because a lot of people don’t have one and therefore would not notice) would be able to tell if a ‘robot’ was playing the music. A human being would have a clear advantage, because a ‘robot’ would do absolutely none of the phrasing or make any of the scores of interpretive decisions that are absolutely necessary to even the most apparently objective approach. Even the most diehard ‘let the music speak for itself’ reading does not hold literally to the exact relationship of every quarter note to every half-note on the page without pausing a bit for air between music phrases, and to inflect the more important notes slightly so that there is a sense of musical syllabification, and a sense of goal. Tension, relaxation, overall meaning, expression of various kinds: you don’t get these without imposing something that isn’t among music’s diacritical marks. You have to bring something to the music.

And people are doing just that: these days, software is sophisticated enough to allow human beings to make enough decisions to make the recordings sound more human. Hear that slight prolongation of the bass note (for emphasis)? That wasn’t just scanned in; a human being put it there, for a musical reason, even if he or she programmed it in rather than playing it. Add to that the fact that the virtual instruments sound a whole lot more realistic than they used to, and you have a whole new ballgame.

I’m not particularly well versed in this area, since I make my recordings the old-fashioned way, by pushing my digits against the plastic levers of a mechanical instrument and recording the resultant sounds with microphones, but the way some of these popular programs work seems to eliminate one thing: the need to learn how to play an instrument. And that seems like it might be a bit of a concern. I mean, I went to school for years to do what I do, and you are getting more or less the same result without needing to learn any of that?

Making things all the more complicated is the fact that many of the recordings made on 'virtual' organs were actually played by human beings--in some cases, some very good ones. But then, there are some which were programmed in, and did not require a musician at all. How long until you can scan a score and the machine will play it? My Finale composition software will already play what I've written simply by hitting a button, but it's not very convincing. Ditto to some of the virtual recordings on Youtube. They sound like they are being played by machines. But the machines are getting a lot better. Sometimes it is not so easy to tell the difference. As if organ manufacturers didn't have enough to worry about these days! The new ways of doing things facilitate a whole lot of interesting, and sometimes great, things (I recently heard a stellar performance by a terrific organist in his livingrom on a virtual organ, but then, I've heard a whole lot of junk, too). But they make it harder on the craftsmen as well. Virtual organs are much cheaper, and who but the most discriminating ears can tell the difference? Virtual organs are cheaper, and so are virtual organists!

I imagine that in some ways this encroachment upon another’s area of expertise is somewhat like my running this website without knowing very much about html code or java script, or my putting recordings on the web without being a recording engineer, or putting my compositions into printed form without needing a publisher. I can see how this represents a problem on several levels for the professionals in many areas. And, since I’m on the other side of the argument in these areas, the amateur side, I can see how not needing to know all these things can be liberating. It appears that, as the world keeps on turning, we are all destined to be amateurs in more and more things, and, miraculously, can get results that are not too far removed from the ones the professionals are getting, or at least, close enough that most of us won't be able to tell.

But if the performer is starting to lose his unique status in bringing a musical composition about, what about the composer?

If you haven’t noticed this already, people are training computers to write music as well. This isn’t a new idea either (actually, I spent a couple of unproductive afternoons as a child trying to teach my little home computer to make up tunes on its own, but the results stopped well short of Cole Porter), but, just like on the performance end, it is starting to improve. The last demonstration I saw of this, however,  still sounded like a machine trying to be creative, despite the claims of the inventor. I’ll grant that it is many steps superior to what came before, but I still didn’t get the sense that the computer had mastered the finer points of structure; to be fair, a lot of human beings aren’t doing a whole lot better. But suggesting your computer is the next Tchaikovsky is an over-reach, though again, there may be a lot of members of the public who couldn’t tell.

I expect it to take longer for a computer to be able to duplicate intelligent creative work than re-creative work. But some of that depends on the direction our creative philosophy takes us, and much of 20th century creative philosophy has indeed paved the way for machines to make their mark. Who could blame them for seeing their opportunity and capitalizing on it? If art is to be more of a mélange, without an overarching guiding principle, than who says a computer can't randomly generate something that humans themselves are striving mightily to randomly generate?

In the middle of the last century, John Cage and others were divorcing human will from the act of composition. Allowing art to be whatever is around us rather than imposing ourselves on our environment may be a useful--and liberating—idea in lots of ways. And although it has never caught the public fancy, exactly, or rewritten the definition of art except among a minority, these ideas continue to spawn compositions.

One of the composers who works in this area is on the faculty at the University of Illinois. I had a conversation with him in which I asked what sorts of styles young composers were writing in these days. Are they tonal? He said “We don’t encourage this.” If you are out of the loop, the vast majority of the music on mine, or anybody else’s website feels like it has a center, and a series of relationships among the notes: predictable ones, generally. “A-tonality,” which was largely the invention of Arnold Schoenberg in the early 20th century, flourished around the middle of the century, and then saw hordes of composers return to music ‘in a key.’ There are many—perhaps most—of us for whom it is now atonal music that is the historical cul-de-sac, rather than all of the previous ‘tonal’ music which the disciples of this new way of thinking said was outmoded and, in so much academicese, so ‘over.’

After our conversation I thought I’d read up on some of the interesting computer-involved music he talked about, and I came across a magazine article in which he roundly declared that the very act of predetermining (i.e., planning) a composition was part of the ‘old way’ of doing things. I had to laugh, because it occurred to me that the very act of putting down a phalanx of words in a particular order, making choices about their use and placement, was what allowed him to communicate his ideas in the first place. Why is music to be separate from other forms of communication? (unless perhaps it is not to be viewed so at all).  James Joyce may have stretched grammar and punctuation a bit in some of his work, but I don’t know any novelists who toss coins and put letters on a page accordingly (maybe I just need to get out more).

At any rate, human beings have had to make a lot of adjustments In the last two centuries, and it is hardly considered even proper behavior to lament that the ‘machines are coming’ (except in reactionary sci-fi movies; get with it guys, that’s been done). But every so often we do look back and they seem to be gaining on us. In new and unexpected ways. And at the same time helping us to do things we could never have done without them.

I figure at least part of my gainful employment is secure: as a church musician, I have to make so many adjustments, play in so many styles, make so many quick decisions, that I imagine it will take a while before a computer can do what I do in toto. There’s an organ in town that will record what you play and reproduce it at the touch of a button (and others that will play downloaded midi files which can be purchased like a recording and may or may not have been performed by a human being to begin with). But put everything together that I do and it still takes a human being. So far they aren't making accompanists that can adjust to the soloist, skipped beats, held notes, dynamic changes, and all, though they seem to be working on that one too (and there is some software that will do this to some extent). And just in case you feel like going to a live concert, you will probably want or need a person to play the music. Lip-syncing scandals in the pop world aside, I doubt the New York Philharmonic could get away with playing a recording. I think we could say the same for piano soloists, too. We may not get most of our music live anymore, but we still want to think it originated with a human being. Even when we don't really need one, I think we still want one anyway, right guys?

Right?


(Don’t make me nervous.) In the meantime, I’ll just keep practice and playing and recording as much as I can, and keep being a part of this enormous conversation. I’ll get back to you in 50 years about how the world has changed. If I’m still around then. You know what, make it 20. We probably won’t recognize it by then, anyway. Till then I’ll just keep doing what I do, human, technology and all. And if my fingers fall off before 2061, I probably won’t need them by then anyway.

 

 

You better not cry...
posted December 13, 2011

I've been wondering what would happen if I circulated a petition to do something about Christmas. I'm not trying to go Oliver Cromwell on it, just some kind of Christmas Reform. Maybe something Congress could chew on when they aren't busy fighting over our national spending habits. It seems to me that this time of year has gotten seriously out of hand. Everybody is overstressed, overbooked, and just trying to keep up with a holiday that I used to associate with peace and love and those sentimental gooey Christmas moments with the candles and the Silent Night and all that. Well, we still do that, of course, if the getting there hasn't killed us in the meantime.

I'll bet I could get a lot of signatures. That would be the easy part. People love to complain about being too busy, but that's part of legitimizing yourself in our culture. "How are you?" "Oh, busy" you say, shaking your head. You are supposed to be. And you are supposed to complain about it. But if you aren't really busy, you aren't really doing your part, right? Extend that to Christmas. Running around to all the parties and concerts, driving your kids everywhere, doing all the shopping, writing the cards, getting the tree out, and the lights (which, end to end, would go to Jupiter and back twice). Whew! I'm tired just thinking about it.

Christmas is a lot like the weather. As Mark Twain observed, "everybody complains about it, but nobody does anything about it." We've been complaining about the overcommercialization of Christmas for a long time, but the merchants aren't listening to our rhetoric. They are listening to the people who do their Christmas shopping the week after Halloween. People like me, who spend November fighting off Christmas ads on television and Christmas songs on the radio, who don't do any Christmas shopping until the middle of December, partly on principle, and partly because we are just too doggoned busy with Christmas concerts the first two weeks of December, don't count.

Maybe the problem is that I'm not much of a consumer. Christmas is certainly built for the consumer. Firstly, for the person who buys things, and secondly, for the person who sits still and allows Christmas music, Christmas movies, Christmas atmosphere, to soak into his or her head. It is for passive spectating, for taking it all in, whether your idea of Christmas is the adoration of the mystery of the Divine Incarnate, or the fun of reliving the legend of Rudoph the Red Nosed Reindeer for the 85th time. In recent years I've begun to be more and more in the company of the people who are putting on the show for the rest of consumer mankind. And we are pretty stressed out about it, I've noticed.

Even the children, who are getting sick again, and can't be at rehearsals because they have other productions to rehearse for. Every group in town has a Christmas show. There is money in that, and plenty of Christmas traditions to uphold on the stage and in the concert hall. Somehow, even if you only have one production a year, it has to be at Christmas. Some of the rehearsals are at the same time as some of the other concerts, so, although I am used to being double-booked, this time of year always sets records.

Now, complaining about Christmas is not something you do out loud. It makes you seem like a grinch. Even if you are complaining, as I am, not about what Christmas actually stands for, but what it has become, which seems like the complete opposite of what it was intended to be. We might have legions of like-minded zombies silently nodding their heads in agreement, but when the rubber hits the road this is supposed to be a season of peace and joy and how can you have a season of peace and joy when you are complaining about things? Cramps our style, doesn't it? So here we are instead, just hanging on until it all blows over--those of us on the production side, particularly.

I guess I ought to be thankful for some of it. Our staff at church is certainly being tested by more conflicting schedules, more stress, and more chaos than any other time of year. And yet, to my knowledge, nobody has yelled at anybody, blown up at anybody, or started a feud. We are just rolling up our sleeves and trying to do our best, respecting each other--venting in one way or another--but getting the job done. It's a testament to what a terrific staff we have.

I could say the same thing about every group I work with. We've all been here before, and we know the siege is here, and we just roll with it. Even though half the people can't make it to the dress rehearsals because they are across town where half the people aren't at that rehearsal, either--or they are home sick, or present, sick. Mostly it is the children who are getting sick right now, I've noticed. The parents are just going around with the usual glazed look in their eyes hoping for an eventual relief from the taxi duty.

Maybe the real message of Christmas is that we are stilling managing not to kill each other despite the gallons of stress coursing through us all at this festive time of year. That, somehow, it at least appears to the casual observer that Christmas is still on schedule, with multiple matinees of peace on earth good will to men. If so, it is a perverse message. At least we are rising to the challenge. But why the challenge in the first place?

It reminds me of that story about the coming of the first vacuum cleaner to a small town. It was supposed to be a labor saving device. And yet, by the end of the story, everyone had to have one, so they had to build a coal plant to power them all, everyone had to work long hours to afford one, and everyone's houses were dirtier than before because of the soot. A classic case of unforeseen consequences of what seemed like a good thing at the time.

Like I said, I'm in one of the more stressful industries for this time of year. I hope you are having a calm, beautiful season. Or that at least parts of it are. Sometimes an interlude of peace pokes out from among the insanity, like a host of angels suddenly appearing out of the blue sky and singing to the shepherds in the fields (which actually must have scared the shepherds out of their minds--ok, bad example!). But it looks to me like this season of peace on earth has become anything but. And I’m not so sure how appropriate it is to complain about stress to people who are spending this Christmas season with real problems like starvation and war, so  I’ll just wrap this up.

But I did get around to getting you a Christmas present. On the radio page at top left I’ve left some recordings of some pleasant seasonal music. I always like to do that, though these last few years I’m usually too busy during the Christmas season to practice for my own ends. Some of these recordings were made in August, or June, in an attempt to be ready when the snow flew and we could all sip cocoa and have a few moments to just be when the day was over. I manage to add a few memories every year at this time, to have a few ‘Christmas moments’ in spite of everything, so that if the ghost of Christmas past visits me one of these years we’ll have something to watch. You too, I hope. Have a good Yule. And, peace.

 

 

Mix Tape
posted November 8, 2011

Now that the euphoria has worn off, it is time to ask an important question.

If you missed
last month's installment, the gist was that I am now able to make some fairly decent sounding recordings for post here at Pianonoise, courtesy of regular access to a nice 7-foot Steinway B, and stereo microphones at the back of the church for the organ recordings. There is a lot less background hiss, and the instruments pretty much sound like they do in the room, which isn't bad. But since you aren't me, and you may have just wandered in here from some completely different part of the world, just looking to kill time, or for some specific bit of information it is looking unfortunately unlikely that you are going to get in the next five seconds, the question you are asking might very well be:

So?

So what if I can now make my very own recordings of the complete Beethoven sonatas. Aren't there about 5 billion other pianists doing the same thing right now?

Good question. Painful, too. Which is why I beat you to it by asking it of myself. I'm hard to live with sometimes.

One answer to the question close at hand would be passion. It is a mighty fine word to have in your psychic vocabulary because when you are truly passionate about something, you usually don't care about niggling questions like what other people think about the worth of what you are doing or whether you ought to be doing something else, or about whether what you are doing is truly bad. You just go for it.

Youtube is a good example of what I'm talking about. The first thing you might have noticed about Youtube is that it is not necessarily the place to go if you have quality-control issues. An extraordinarily fine performance might be one click away from somebody who could form calcium deposits by singing in the shower.

One night a man was shown one of Mr. Edison's new recording machines, and said "I can only say that I am astonished and somewhat terrified at the result of this evening's experiment. Astonished at the wonderful form you have developed and terrified at the thought that so much hideous and bad music will be put on records forever." That social prophet was Sir Arthur Sullivan, way back in 1888.

I think we can agree that even Mr. Sullivan probably had no idea just what a staggering volume of stuff--the poor, the ridiculous, the ridiculously poor, would wind up being committed to recording a century hence. But remember, at least he gets to say, "I told you so."

The vast amount of things that people who would never have had a chance at an audience outside their own living rooms are posting in places like Youtube, or, in the case of composers, showing off their wares on sibelius.com or finale.com, has added quite a clutter to the world of audio recording. Now, whenever you are looking for a recording of a well-known piece of music, you may have to sort through lots of people seated at their uprights and apartment keyboards, barely able to keep up with the notes, never mind a convincing interpretation. Usually they know that. It doesn't stop people from leaving comments about how they missed some notes at 2:14, or that they are playing too fast. Some of these folks are trying to be helpful, some of them just like to be nasty (maybe they're even jealous), and some of them simply have nothing better to do. Although it wouldn't hurt of folks would show a bit of restraint before they post something--it is for the world to see, after all. And, as some of them have had to retort, "As I said, this isn't perfect. Why are you picking it apart? Didn't you read what I said?" (On the other hand, some people claim to be concert pianists and don't play much better.)

But it isn't just amateurs being amateurs that has made Youtube such a popular item. Some of them go for the big guns. I find it amusing that somebody thought that a good slogan for Youtube would be 'broadcast yourself,' because it turns out that a lot of people would rather be broadcasting other people.

This is where the competition can get really fierce. Let's say Bob486 decides to post his entire CD collection. Not legally, of course, but that isn't stopping anybody these days. If you are a musician trying to discover new repertoire it is really nice not to have to get out of your pajamas to hear just about anything on the planet before you decide to buy the music--or just download and print the music. If you are a musician trying to earn a living through recordings it has to be petrifying to live in a world where, thousands of dollars and a year's investment later, some clod from who knows where decides to broadcast it to the world free of charge. It is really nice of them to be generous, but then, they aren't helping with your bills, are they?

Not that I'm helping any. My recordings are free. They aren't invested with professional staffs, and I don't spend nearly as much time making them, but I did spend a few decades learning to play the piano so there's a pretty good chance I'll outplay jill326 in her bedroom with her Casio. On the other hand, I haven't got a chance against a professional production staff or somebody who has spent all year learning one concert program to play around the world because, frankly, I'm not investing that kind of time on anything these days. I can learn pretty fast, and I have a pretty large accumulated repertoire, but still.

So when you sort all that out, what is worth your while here at Pianonoise? I hope there are a few things. One of them is that the recordings are pretty decent, even if they aren't likely to outduel Pollini or Argerich. And there are a few things that I think they might have in their favor. One is that they are legal. Another is that they are posted by the artist who played them, who also writes commentary about the music, and about the life of a pianist/organist so you might get more than the music alone. If you feel like you are perpetually on the other side of the apron unable to understand the music or the impulse behind its creation or recreation I hope to be able to help. (We also try to have an ounce of civility around here which is unfortunately all too rare on many sites) On the other hand, I'm busy. I have big plans, I go in thousands of directions, it may be months before I post commentary on the music I recorded (or vice versa), so if you are in the kind of hurry everybody seems to be in these days, I guess I should anticipate your response by saying 'why, you're
welcome for nothing!'

At any rate, we are all busy trying to outpost and outpopular each other, and it is not much of a surprise that the way most people do it is in terms of redistribution of other people's recordings. It is in the selection and combination of the various recordings that many of us try to distinguish ourselves, I guess. Back in the 80s they called it a mix tape--when you took songs from various albums and put them together like a DJ to give to your girlfriend. Now its called a playlist and everybody is invited. On the other hand, there are at least a few of us posting our own recordings of other's music, and, sometimes our own recordings of our own music. True, you have to search long and hard to find quality from a lone impresario, but maybe it's out there. After all, Bach had to pay for his own publication of the partitas, which suggests that self-publishing doesn't always suggest lack of talent. So far, though, I haven't found any great talents on those sites.

I've often wondered what would have happened if Bach had had a website. Would he have posted recordings of the cantatas at St. Thomas? Would you be able to buy sheet music of the Musical Offering by downloading it through Paypal? Would he have just assumed that his art was too elevated for bulk human beings and not bothered to set up a website in the first place? Would he have felt the need to blog occasionally, and would we have a whole lot more of his written expression to go on than an underlined Cavlov Bible and a few letters? (Of course the site would be in German, so most of us would need Google translator to help.) Would Scheibe leave some nasty comments about the supposed 'artificiality' of Bach's art, and would the whole acrid debate have unfolded online? Would Bach's sons steal some of his recordings and post them on their websites under their own name (I only suggest this because they actually did this, 18th century style, by scratching out dear old dad's name and adding their own)? Who really knows? The past is a mystery. The present isn't much less confusing, sometimes. Such an explosion of information and opportunity means you can find practically anything, if you're lucky. As to you and I, we can only do our best to post things of value to share our enthusiasm with others, and hopefully enlighten them a bit, whatever the source.

We're trying, aren't we?

 

Bring on the Noise!
posted October 1, 2011

Beginning this month,  a batch of new and improved recordings will start populating the archives at Pianonoise.com. It feels like the site's Grand Opening.

First, a bit of history.

When I started this website back in the deepest reaches of time--2002--audio files where not readily available. I don't know when the technology made it possible, I only know that most of the sites I visited back then used MIDI files, which are electronic representations of notes, stored as data, and played using the sound card in your computer. Pushing a note down counts as one event, lifting it up is another. In between, not much happens, MIDI-wise. The sound of the imitation piano, usually created by sampling--that is, actually recording--one note and then extrapolating by mathematical manipulation to arrive at the rest, leaving one uniform tone regardless of how the note is struck and ignoring multitudes of other variables that a pianist knows how to command--the sound is pretty lousy. I thought so in 2002, but I didn't really know any way around it. So I tried posting literature that didn't sound quite as God-awful as the rest when subjected to this sonic artificiality. Some of the earliest composer profiles owe their existence to this selectiveness. Gottschalk I thought wouldn't sound so bad. Or Joplin. But now that I can, I repent of that position.
(actually, MIDI has come a long way in recent years, due to some very nice sampling programs)

One night I was trolling the web and discovered an actual recording of an actual piece of music. Back then I had a dial-up connection and it took about an hour to get the thing to download. And my thought when I saw it claimed to be a live recording of a concert was 'Sure it is. Right.' I assumed it was just another kind of MIDI. But it wasn't. And I spent the next year knowing that such a thing as an actual recording on the web was possible and wondering if I could do that myself.

Which was good, because after posting about a dozen MIDI files in the summer of 2002 I really wanted to try some classical literature. I tried recording some Bach at my keyboard, and no matter how nice I tried to be about it, it just didn't make it. Being able to fix a wrong note by going into the program's data set and typing a G# in place of the G-natural is convenient, but it just sounds like a robot, even if you do use plenty of rubato.

By the summer of 2003 I had figured out what I needed. This wasn't easy, because devices that played back mp3 files were all over the place, but, as usual, there wasn't nearly as much noise being made for things that helped create, rather than redistribute someone else's, files. And these folks want to make money as fast as they can, so they naturally are going to put their advertising into what sells to the most people.

But between plenty of research and the advice of a friend, I found a digital recorder. It worked pretty well, although it took me about 6 months to figure out how to use it. I made plenty of mistakes--using the wrong kind of microphone cable, which not only wouldn't record anything, it fried the microphone. Nothing about that in the manual, of course. I actually read those things when I don't know what to do. Then when I plugged it into my computer I found out that the sound was too low, and it took a while to figure out how to boost the volume. Once I did that, the room noise was too high, so I had to employ noise reduction, which distorted the sound something fierce. But with cheap desktop speakers that isn't quite as aurally heinous as it is when you are using headphones, so I got by for a few years without completely losing my mind.

I could stand the organ sound I got through such methods more than the piano sound, so, as a result, Pianonoise has, for the last eight years or so, been the home to far more organ noise than Pianonoise. I find that ironic, don't you?

That is soon to change, although in the intervening years I've grown more and more interested in the music for the organ, and better at playing it. This summer, as two innovations converged that allowed me for the first time to finally make piano recordings I could live with, I had one of those times when I was so enamored with the organ I paid little attention to the piano. I don't have a problem with that. I think the two instruments can share this site just fine. There are some thrills that only the organ provides. But you can say that about the piano as well. They are different instruments with a world of great music written for each of them. But the pianist in me is back now, renewed, reinvigorated.

One of the innovations was that I finally overcame my cheapness and bought a second microphone. If I had known just how much of a difference that would make I would have done it earlier. On the other hand, I had been making attempts to record in stereo for years, but it had never worked out. For one thing, it's got to be done exactly right. For instance, I now know that you have to plug the one that runs on phantom power into the first input or it won't record anything.

The other innovation is in the direction of the piano. Our church now has a seven-foot Steinway (model B). Last year I tried recording our Yamaha Conservatory grand in stereo with the new microphone. It was an improvement, but I still couldn't get on board with it, and I never posted the recordings (by the way, if I posted all of those recordings I've made in the intervening years at different pianos with different microphones the Pianonoise catalogue would be up over 300. Right now it stands at #178.) Classical pianists overwhelmingly prefer Steinways, and there is a reason. The kind of control you can get when you play one, and the variety of sound 'colors' makes them an entirely different kind of piano. Most of other pianos, by contrast, make you feel like you are playing in back and white. People in our church have been astonished at the improvement in sound. One asked me if my playing had improved! It's too bad the folks who sold it to us wouldn't let us rent it while we raised the money--fundraising would have been a whole lot easier. But after the fact, people have noticed a big difference.

During the months of October and November, a new series of recordings will roll in. The first step is to replace virtually all the old recordings with new ones, though a few of the old pieces will not be making the jump, at least at first. It's hard to make 100 recordings in one summer while trying to be gainfully employed and pursue other activities. They'll be coming. There are some new ones as well. I don't seem to be able to complete a task at hand without wandering off and trying something else for a while. Given all the projects I've had in mind for several years I've got plenty to keep me busy. The second stage is to finally provide all those composer profiles with selections of music down the left hand column so that you can listen to their music instead of just reading about them. That will take longer, but I'm working on it also. By this time next year there ought to be a decent aggregate of musical choices on each page. Then, Pianonoise will finally be doing what it was meant to do in the first place: share music and writings about music. It has grown to do a lot of other things in the interim; when I couldn't expand one way, I grew the site in others.

And then, we will keep going, and growing. Pianonoise is a work in progress. Like its creator.


 

Thoughts Upon a Toccata
posted September 6, 2011

I've recently made a recording of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which you can hear by clicking the blue title at the bottom of this page. You'll recognize the opening: it's one of the handful of classical pieces that everybody knows, or rather, that they know the first ten seconds of, anyway. It will probably also remind you of something right away, too. I'm thinking of a certain autumnal holiday coming up next month. This isn't because Bach wrote the piece with that in mind, it is because somebody in Hollywood thought the piece sounded scary and decided to get some yardage out of it. It's been making the rounds of the scary movies ever since, and poor Bach doesn't get any royalties.

Then again, there are some people who don't think he even wrote the thing in the first place, so why should he? Now, when I first played the piece as a teenager I assumed what I was supposed to assume. The piece was Bach's and that's that. I was also introduced to a group of little preludes and fugues that it turns out Bach didn't write either and now that I am older and know something about Bach's music and have a more developed sense of musical quality I can certainly see why people have their doubts because the pieces aren't really that good. The pieces are pretty slight anyway, so what does it really matter?

But to cast doubt on the Toccata? Now that's shattering. Particularly since, as far as the general public is concerned, this is Bach's most famous piece. Not to have even written the piece you are best known for seems a little bit like a scandal. Although, I've been around long enough to appreciate ironies like that. I've seen a few.

For example, I've come across the assertion several times on the internet by prominent atheists that Jesus never even existed. Not that he isn't the son of God, or that the miracles didn't happen, or that the gospels stretched the truth, starting with a mere mortal and adding legend upon legend until creeds were born and a massive religious institution came out of it, but that there wasn't even a human life behind all of it, that the disciples simply made him up. Normally I at least check out strange claims that don't seem credible to give them a chance, but this one sounds about as realistic as the claims of the Flat Earth Society.

Relative to that, the idea that the Toccata should be credited to someone else shouldn't rock your world so much. But it still is rather odd. And, a few days ago while working on the piece, I still felt like the piece, odd as it was in many ways, and out of step with much of Bach's known music and stylistic habits, was Bach's. But now I'm less sure.

There are, and will have to be, several assumptions behind any conclusion that we draw because there isn't much evidence. Here's about all we really know: there is no manuscript in Bach's hand. The earliest manuscript we have comes from a man named
Johannes Ringk who claimed it was Bach's. According to one (dubious?)internet source this fellow had a habit of ascribing things to master composers that weren't theirs--he wouldn't have been the only one before or since who realized it is easier to get a piece noticed that way. Several fellows have put their foots in their mouths declaring works to belong to masters when it later turned out they didn't. For example, Spitta, an early Bach biographer, didn't think much of Telemann, and roundly declared his work to be inferior. He compared Telemann's cantatas to some of Bach's, which he said were much the better--except, it later turned out, some of those were actually written by Telemann!

This is perhaps one of the factors in my thinking: Bach was a composer of genius. So, the likelihood that you will ascribe the piece to him has a lot to do with your appraisal of its merits. Is it good enough for Bach to have written it? Or is it something somebody else, a lesser mind, let us say, could have written and fobbed off on a genius?

One of the reasons I was pulling for Bach' authorship was the form of the piece. Making a piece structurally satisfying is a difficult thing to do, and most composers who are not among the best don't usually pull it off, even if they do good work in other areas. The work has the character of a loose conglameration of musical passages at the outset, but these are really pulled together well, and the drama builds right to the end, despite all the stops and starts. Listen to the very opening notes--now listen to the beginning of the fugue (2:47). Doesn't the fugue sound just like a slowed down version of the toccata's opening salvo? It would be an exact quotation, except for the repeated A's between each of the other notes. That kind of close resemblance between the various sections of a piece requires a composer who is really paying attention. Although Bach himself generally does not create that kind of similarity between the themes of his preludes and fugues, so maybe our mystery composer was being a bit
too clever. Still, despite various details that may seem less than masterful, the looseness of the fugue seems a perfect answer to the toccata opening, and vice versa. Whoever it was was having a good day.

Some of the details bear watching. Bach was a strict contrapuntist--in his pieces there are usually at least two or three things happening at once, melodious lines weave in and out, and they don't stop so that some bit of melody can have the floor all to itself. But in the episodes to this fugue, that is exactly what happens. At 3:20, for instance, one voice continues to sing, and the others stop and plunk chords beneath it. Or at 4:55 where there is an intense dramatic build up of only one note at a time for several measures while all the other voices are silent. The same thing happens at 7:02 except that the pedals have a repeated, insistent D on the first and third beats of every measure. And I can't imagine Bach repeating the fugue theme all by itself with nothing else going on anytime after the opening statement, nevermind as late as 6:44 (though the passage that follows is a nice example of 'Bachian' counterpoint). All in all, this sort of simpler semi-counterpoint is the sort of thing Handel might have done, or Telemann; but Bach? Never!

Except, perhaps in one instance. There is another theory that the piece does actually go back to Bach, but that he didn't actually compose it. Instead, he took someone else's piece, written for a different instrument (probably a violin) and rearranged it for the organ. Bach did this sort of thing a lot in order to study the works of other composers so the theory makes makes sense. In that case, it has to be said, he had a really fine idea, as the piece sounds like it was made for the organ. There are some who say that the
violinistic nature of the piece is evident in the awkward passages for the organ, but I think the piece fits under the hands very well, and is not particularly difficult for two hands and feet, particularly if you are not using your feet much of the time (which is another odd thing for Bach to have done).

Given the predominance of single-note passages, from the famous opening, to the episodes in the fugue, it is quite possible that the piece was written for violin and that not many notes were added. It doesn't explain all of the stylistic oddities, such as the ending, or the rather (overly) dramatic nature of the tense harmonic suspensions in the beginning. If a composer from the more hystrionic 19th century were trying to pretend to be Bach, this would be our first clue. On the other hand, wouldn't such a composer try a little harder to fill in some of the counterpoint? Did he not understand Bach's style very well, or was he just not very good at faking Bach (I could believe that; rarely do I notice composers convincingly imitate geniuses of the past, try as they might)? Anyhow, our earliest surviving manuscript dates from the 18th century. Mr. Rink was a younger contemporary of Bach. There goes that theory.

The more I think about it, the more sense a transcription of a violin piece makes. If the piece is not Bach's (if he was not transcribing his own violin piece) then who was the composer? I don't know the styles of every minor composer of the period well enough to be able to comfortably explain the plagal cadence at the end--a favorite device of Brahms' though apparently not at all common in the 18th century. In fact, I've still got plenty to learn about Bach himself, and his influences, so I wonder if my opinions on this question will continue to change with more information. I also can't say I view the Toccata quite the same way. When I was a teenager it was the coolest thing going. Now I actually prefer the Passacaglia and Fugue, which is just as frightening and thrilling and awesome, and dramatic--moreso, and has Bach's trademark richer counterpoint. The last time I made a recording of it I decided not to post it, partly because the organ was out of tune and partly because the room noise was too loud and it effected the recording quality. I'll try it again this fall. These are some great pieces for people who like the hair to stand up on the backs of their necks when they listen to music.

listen to the Bach? Toccata and Fugue in D Minor

 

Birthday Party
posted July 10, 2011

My birthday ends in a zero this year which probably means this entry should be an extended meditation on death and the grim reality of getter older and/or falling apart.

Don't worry. I'll save that for my insurance company. I'm expecting a letter in the mail any day now beginning "Dear sir. As you know, forty is typically the age at which your limbs begin to fall off, which is why we are pleased to double your premium." While I wait for that letter, I'm throwing myself an unusual sort of birthday party. Actually, it's more of a piano recital.

Yeah, I know. Another one of those. Why does
everybody  (and his dog's fleas) feel the need to give a piano recital on their birthday, I mean, really!

Well, you know, I guess I'm just out of ideas....

Actually, the idea for this strange confluence of events probably goes back to my mid-twenties, in graduate school, when I discovered the music of Charles Valentin Alkan.

Go ahead, I won't call you stupid. Say it with me: Charles Valentin Who?

I was reading a biography of Brahms and the author declared that one of Brahms' piano sonatas was one of the three most important of the 19th century. The two others, of course, being the Liszt (got it) and the Alkan (the what?). I had never heard of the latter, which bothered me a bit, being a student of the piano. It seemed like I ought to have heard of one of the three most important sonatas during perhaps the biggest century for the piano, or at least have heard of its composer. But I didn't, so off to the library I went. I used to do that a lot. Go ahead. Call me a nerd.

What I discovered was the biggest, most intriguing, most unique, most maddeningly difficult piece of music I had ever laid ears on. I was hooked. I determined to play it immediately.

Well, if immediately is fifteen years later. Real life has a way of interrupting your schedule a little. Seven degree recitals later, (also a battery of tests and a thesis), and a whole lot of professional responsibility, marriage, a different city, a new job--you get the idea. It's been on my 'bucket list' for a while. Still, the idea of playing it on my fortieth birthday seems about as perfect as you can get. Here's why:

The sonata is subtitled 'The Four Ages.' Its four movements are labeled '20 years' '30 years' '40 years' and '50 years.' Apparently Alkan didn't think he'd need any more. I intend to have a bit of fun with that at the recital. Each movement is a kind of musical illustration of the state of being, or the psychological makeup, of an individual that age. Twenty is out to conquer the world with speed and bravado (also there's a love theme). Thirty is a midlife crisis in music. It is by far the longest, most harrowing of the four. But forty, forty is the peaceful, nostalgic, serene song of a very happy person in the bosom of his 'happy family.' Which makes it the perfect musical advertisement for wanting to be in your forties. Fifty is--well, we won't go there. Alkan didn't seem to think he'd live very long.

He actually made it to 75, but in later life he kept to himself. Professional disappointments seem to have done that him. His sonata (or rather "Grand Sonata") was published in 1847. It did not get much notice. Usually the reasons given for this are that Europe was kind of busy being in political turmoil at the time; among the musical reasons are that Alkan's Sonata is just a bit too unusual. The reason for this is that every movement loses a step (ie., slows down) which means that there are two slow movements next to each other at the end, which is not very attractive listening.

We'll see how this goes over on the audience. We are all pretty much in uncharted territory. I don't know whether this sonata has ever been performed in our city, or even in our state. (sidebar: if you like the idea of hearing music you probably wouldn't hear anyplace else and you live in Champaign Urbana, try Faith United Methodist Church. This year I've played pieces representing every major school of the 20th century--even atonality (or jazz). I've played organ music going back 400 years and from last week. Various continents have been represented as well)

Just it case this all seems like a bit much we're keeping it pretty informal. I'll be taking the microphone between pieces (even between movements!) to make my colorful observations on things (at the last such concert I was told I had missed my calling as a stand-up comedian) so the event promises to be a combination between a very serious undertaking and a lot of fun.

I don't mind telling you I've sweated a lot over this lately. This past year has been particularly busy. With my wife in Germany all year I've been running the household by myself when I'm not going over to see her. I didn't get much of a head start on this piece, and only now, about a week and a half ahead of the performance, do I feel like I really know the notes. Talk about cutting it close. There was a time when I thought maybe I really shouldn't even try this. But something inside kept whispering that it would be a really unique event and that there was really only one time in life to do it--so here goes.

If you happen to live near Champaign-Urbana Illinois, come on by. Everybody is invited. The concert starts at 3pm on July 17th (Sunday afternoon) at Faith United Methodist Church, 1719 S. Prospect Rd. in Champaign. I'll also be playing some pieces by Claude Debussy--a couple from the "Children's Corner" suite to round out our life in music, and his "L'Isle Joyeuse," to give a rapturous finale to the proceeding and so we don't end with a funeral march (nuts! I gave away the ending to the Alkan). Debussy's idea of journey is based on a famous Watteau painting, known as "Embarkation for Cythera" though it is not really clear from the painting whether we are going or coming! It's also a bit of a fleshfest, which may have suited Debussy, who had his own little island for fooling around with his mistress. I'm including an alternative view of the matter. There is a picture in the concert program of a place known as Horaijima--something that translates from the Japanese as "the Island of Eternal Happiness." The banner picture on this page (top left) comes from the Chicago Botanical Gardens. There is no bridge to the island--one can only contemplate from a distance; it is not for mortals.

It should be a fine day--family, friends, good company, good piano music. And it probably wouldn't be authentically me if it weren't a bit of an odd undertaking. I'm going to have chairs on the stage for people who want to see the demanding choreography up close. I will be doing all my own stunts, as the music (especially of the '30 years' movement) requires--rapid-fire hand-crossings, daring leaps, legions of fast notes. The music is grand, exciting, beautiful--and strange. One commentator suggests that Alkan's inner life must have been a 'Freudian field day." Surely this is no commentary on the pianist with an affinity for it. In any event, a good time will be had by all. Besides, there's cake afterward.

 

Canonically Speaking
posted May 7, 2011

I've recently come in contact with a book I hadn't seen in about twenty years. It became a sort of bible during my teenage years, when I was just discovering this thing called classical music, a strange seductive force that nobody in my environs seemed to know or care to know about. But my parents, seeing my interest, and probably as a birthday gift, gave me this book. It is called "101 Masterpieces of Music and their Composers."

The title tells you something important about the nature of classical music. It has been canonized. Meaning, the music has been around long enough that people have managed to sift the wheat from the chaff and to preserve a relative handful of all that passed for musical noise in past centuries into a respected group of the best, most important, most necessary pieces. The ones that we as a culture just couldn't throw away because they are special.

People have been doing that since the premieres, of course, passing judgment, but time has finally called a halt to the more vigorous debate, and those left standing are, to a large degree, winners of the battle for long-term survival. They've had their childhood illnesses and managed to beat them. They haven't gone the way of the Edsel. They are more like this keyboard I am typing on. They won't be putting the letters in different places anytime soon.

Smart remarks aside, it seems to me that history, in a large measure, has a good sense of what to keep. But if I've given the impression that everybody agrees with a magical list somewhere in Vienna, with all the pieces that made the cut are written down, bound, and distributed by musical Gideons, let me correct the notion. The man on the street, the one who doesn't actually attend concerts, may know who the musical saints are--Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and company--and leave those constellations alone, but the ones in the industry itself love to argue about it.

There are, first of all, persons who argue whether there ought to be any canon at all. Living composers are not great fans of having to compete with a sacrosanct list of dead men and their music, pieces that the town orchestra plays every other year in rotation so that the new and untried have a tough time getting a hearing. It was Virgil Thompson who complained about the 50 standard pieces that get all the air time.

And it isn't as if the canon is really fixed. People argue about that as well, as if classical music were an endless council of Nicea. Who was the greater composer, Bach or Mozart? There are, of course, passionate defenders of both faiths. Why we have to rank two such outstanding musical minds in the first place is a mystery. But considering the uproar the year that the All-Star Game ended in a tie, I would have to say that the drive to have a winner in absolutely everything is pretty important to us. If we can't even let a meaningless exhibition baseball game end in a tie, you can pretty much discount anything else.

Both Bach and Mozart get to have works as part of the canon, though--there isn't any disagreement about that. The nine symphonies of Beethoven, the last three symphonies of Mozart, the B minor Mass of Bach, the Brahms Symphonies, all are pretty safely in.

But what struck me as I held the book in my hands for the first time in two decades was the different mental equipment I brought to the encounter. As a young novitiate, I had pretty much accepted the authority of the man who wrote the book. He was, after all, a critic for the New York times. And I didn't know much classical music. I needed to get to know those pieces of music because Martin Bookspan said they were masterpieces, and that settled it. Now I could find myself arguing.

He only included one of the thirty-two Beethoven piano sonatas, the "moonlight." Not even the best one, in my opinion, though the best known. I don't mind that it made the cut, I just want to know why some of its brothers didn't. And you mean to tell me that only one of Mozart's Viennese piano concertos is worthy of being in the top 101? Where' the A major? The c-minor? the B-flat? By the way, Bach's B-minor Mass isn't in the book either!

If I could argue on his side for a minute, I should point out that even with 101 pieces to choose, it is hard not to leave out some pretty deserving candidates. I don't violently disagree with the value of anything that made the list, it is more a matter of those that did not. It is interesting that, twenty years ago I found the idea of learning 101 pieces I didn't know overwhelming. There are little marks next to the pieces I had gotten to know. But now the number seems too small. There are still a few pieces in the book I barely know, but probably several hundred more that I do. I owe this to years of concerts, radio, and especially the hours spent in the library at the conservatory listening to everything I could get my hands on, particularly if I knew it was considered part of the 'standard repertoire.'

This was part of a curious impulse in me: if there was general agreement among the experts that a piece was worthy--canonical, if you will--then I felt a need to come to terms with it. I didn't just listen to whatever came on the radio and if I liked it I liked it, and if I didn't that was its problem, but, in a way that is growing ever more foreign in the age of Facebook likes and American Idol votes, I assumed that those who knew knew. I sought the piece out if it didn't cross my path. If I didn't like it the first time I heard it I listened to it again. And again. Eventually I grew to understand what was in the music that people found to be important. In some cases I may not have actually grown to love the piece, but I could see into it. And as my ears grew, so my understanding. In many other cases, I can passionately defend the mastery of the music, and feel a genuine love for the music and a gratitude to its composer. As a result of all this, I am a very different human being than the one who opened that book for the first time.

Another curiosity: Besides being a list of pieces, the book provides plenty of commentary about each piece and short biographies of the composers. I was embarrassed to find three mistakes in the first one I read, a biography of Bach. This is a reminder to me that music history is made up largely of anecdotes which probably never happened, and mistakes in fact which were committed by early musicologists which later ones struggle valiantly to correct. The book was written the year after I was born, which means a lot of Bach research has occurred in the meantime. Also, I have been to graduate school, which has changed my view on the reliability of a given source. But I still owe a lot of what I think I know to this book and ones like it, read during formative years. The narrative arc of a story, the interpretation of a composer's circumstances, his relations with society, and what the music tells us, I have these embedded in my brain. Some of the phrasing itself still echoes in musty recesses of yon brain.

It is an interesting way to come up against one's own past, as well as something to read again (now with 50 percent more skepticism!) The preface makes more sense now, in which he details the difficulties of the project, anticipates my own latter-day objections, mourns the transitory nature of the recording medium (there are plenteous references to tape recordings), and tries to lay bare his own sources. Somehow, it is not the same book it was twenty years ago!

 

 

Billions and Billions of Arpeggios Sold
posted March 12, 2011

Last month, the Metropolitan opera presented John Adams' "Nixon in China." If your idea of opera is that it has to be at least a hundred years old and sung by fat Vikings, you wouldn't know what to do with this production. People who attend operas regularly may not know what to do with it either. It was written within the last 25 years, and its composer is still alive. This means we all get to weigh in on it before it becomes a classic.

Well, sort of. Actually, the Met is acting like it already is a classic, which seems to play into their image. After all, the Metropolitan Opera wouldn't do anything risky and untested, would it?

That kind of narrative also suits the composer, or his publicist, who like the idea of operatic survival as a testimony to its quality. It came, it was criticized heavily by folks who didn't understand it, it stayed in the repertory, and it is still here. It was, and is groundbreaking, and it is also a great opera. That wouldn't be a bad deal if it turns out to be true, in a century or so.

So far it has had quite a number of performances, in several operatic venues around the world, which is highly unusual for a new opera. It has caused quite a bit of stir, too, but that's really par for the course. Unless Mr. Adams wanted his opera to be ignored, everyone and his neighbor would have to tell us what was wrong with it--or right with it. For starters, the opera is about a political event that happened rather recently. Opera plots don't usually do that, but John Adams has made a specialty of it in the years since. It is certainly an interesting concept. Potentially, that is going to date them rather fast, but we'll see in a few decades.

It isn't what everybody is row double-Z thinks that is important, though. It is about what the critics think. At least, those are the voices who go on record. When you want to find out who panned the premiere of some highly respected masterpiece by some great composer of a past era, some critic is on record, putting his retrospective foot in his mouth to tell us how terrible it is, how badly put together, how a slave to the latest fashion and won't last five years, and so on. There is quite a lot of that. Whenever I write my own program notes for a concert I do some research into the original performance. It is sometimes fun to trot out something short-sighted a critic said about a piece time has vindicated.

All of that is playing, like a pianist in a small room at the end of the hall late at night at the conservatory, in the back of my head as I read lines like the following, a little gem from Donal Henahan in the New York Times, commenting on "Nixon in China" for its first production. He didn't care for the composer's musical technique, something known as minimalism, in which a small musical idea is subject to a great deal of repetition, and a small, slow progression over the course of a sometimes lengthy piece. This is really not quite an accurate characterization of the Nixon in China music, but it is not too far from it, either: it is part of this composer's language, although it does not completely describe it, either. In "Nixon" there are a whole lot of passages that sound very much the same, bound by the same chugging rhythm and a bass line that keeps alternating between a C and an E-flat, or the same interval in another key. By the end of the first act, I felt like I'd heard the same measure quite few times, so I was amused to read this line, commenting about another musical idea that the composer used frequently, without developing it in any great variety:

“Mr. Adams does for the arpeggio what McDonald’s did for the hamburger”

Not a bad line, is it? I mean, I know it is meant to be nasty, but sometimes a good line is just a good line, anyway. It doesn't hurt if I agree with it a little, too.

One of the things that bugs me about minimalism is the sort of industrial-strength sameness of so much of it. It sometimes comes across as a kind of religious meditation, but can just as easily sound like the product of an automated, mass-produced value set, a symptom of a society that likes quantity but only pays lip service to the importance of the individual, who is, after all, an anonymous customer, and who generates value by being part of the hydraulic force of demand for a product. In other words, there can be a spiritual vacuousness about this kind of approach.

This would be quite a charge to lay at the feet of any composer, and is not really my point anyway. I am more interested in how the master narrative developed into 'see how this fellow thought this opera was garbage, and see how wrong he was about it' in a relatively short time. It seemed to be doing such a service for the composer, who obviously would have felt that he had to overcome a lot of unsympathetic sniping in order that his two-year effort live to see more productions, not to mention achieve a reputation for himself.

I'm glad I read Mr. Adams' memoirs before writing this, so I could get inside his head a little. The publicity blurbs on the back call the back very 'honest,' and after awhile I could understand why. He doesn't assume any grandiosity, and is candid about his own dissatisfaction with his music, failed experiments, and the like. Obviously he has much to be proud of, too, and lets that shine through, but he doesn't brag about it. I found myself liking the guy. It may be that I like his writing, or his personality, more than I like his music (of which I still know relatively little), but there is something important about making contact as human beings. Once you've done that, you don't really want his opera to fail. I might still end up writing the same line as the New York critic in a review, but I'd do it with less relish.

And, at any rate, I want to hear the opera again. It made a mixed impression on me the first time--I've always liked the 'Chairman Dances' and I found interesting bits throughout the opera, but the repetitive nature of those chugging chords really got to me after a while. But after reading the memoirs I want to hear 'Dr. Atomic,' another opera of his produced at the Met. I'm particularly interested in 'The Death of Klinghoffer.' There will be further review.

Sometimes, though too rarely, the critics will admit their need to do this as well, and that opening night isn't always enough to form a good judgment. But fair, honest, thoughtful reviews don't live as long as the music to which they react. If it is positive, it disappears into the dustbin of time. A vituperative review, with a few good zingers, will probably be quoted for the life of the piece, perhaps for centuries. It is a dubious thing to be known for. One would think reviewers would be a little more careful, knowing that it is only by looking foolish that they will be remembered to posterity. But bless them! The  inexorable drive to express strong opinions keeps us marching, ever forward, into the laughing arms of history.

 

A Night at the (concept) Opera
posted February 1, 2011

Kristen and I have been to the opera twice recently, once in Vienna and once in New York. Both of these stagings, one by a small company and one by the Mighty Metropolitan, have been what we'll call 'updates' of venerable old classics. What I mean is that they left the music alone, but the sets and costumes, and therefore the place of the story, were quite removed from anything that would have been part of the original production.

This isn't anything new. Updated Shakespeare--Hamlet on a motorcycle, Macbeth as part of a street gang in 1950s New York, anything to relieve the tedium of presenting the same works exactly the same way every time--has become quite the fashion for opera and theater companies for as far back as I remember (which is only a couple of decades, by the way!). Sometimes the production is simply moved, lock, stock, and barrel (to borrow a phrase from the distant past) into a new century and a new place. In other productions, the whole idea of time and place seems completely obliterated and fantastical and experimental elements take over the set, and the people who inhabit them. Once, a few years ago, Kristen was watching a very 'avant-garde' staging of Parsifal in Germany. She fell asleep at some point and when she woke up there were electric sheep on the stage! I don't know Parsifal very well, but I feel pretty certain that Wagner did not include any parts for electric sheep. (besides, the tenors wouldn't like the competition)

People weigh in all over the spectrum on the wisdom of such a thing, naturally, and my guess would be that most of them don't like it. The average opera-goer being much more conservative than your average creative artist. Particularly if they are in attendance for an opera that is a celebrated standard, known and liked by the multitude, hallowed by time, and sanctified by tradition, which means it is seasoned by the personas of those who have sung its major roles before.

But the production heads do it anyway, because they were born to be creative talents rather than slavish robots, and because they feel they have something to say. This usually means things are going to seem new.

Now I mentioned two productions. The first was properly termed an update, with a bit of license. The opera was by Haydn, not a recognizable classic, and a little creaky of plot. Meaning, a girl sang about the pain of unrequited love, her lover returned, she was reunited with him and oh by the way her younger sister got a go at the other fella and all ended happily, two couples veering off into the operatic sunset.

If you think that seems a bit saccharine for the 21st century you might have enjoyed this production. Any time a savvy, reality-bound person might have pointed at his or her open mouth and made gagging noises, the production was there to agree. This was done without changing a note of the music or altering the libretto (as far as I could make out.) At the end, when the big sis tried to hook up her little sis with the one available male on stage to provide the expected happy happy Baroque opera ending, things seemed a trifle forced, and the staging made that clear. It also looked as though her guy, none too happy about things (I believe there was gunpoint involved), was probably going to dump her five minutes after the curtain fell. You just can't force a mindlessly happy ending on singers these days!

Meanwhile, the heroine had sung most of her arias in her pajamas, in the shockingly unBaroque bedroom which we would never see in a period production, while her little sister played with stuffed animals. Message: these girls are too young to be messing around with love. They are pretty naive, even for opera characters. They need to get out and see the world a bit, like their romantic ideals, two World War One flyboys who kept dropping in on ropes.

The second production is likely to get more criticism. It has been in full view of a New York audience for a month now, and it takes the idea of time and place much farther afield than simply setting it a couple of centuries hence. Ironically, Verdi had hoped to have "La Traviata" set in his own time and place, to make the situation in the opera seem not so remote, but the censors of his day wouldn't allow it. Back then, the fashion in opera staging was to put everything at a two century remove.

Poor art! It is criticized for having nothing to do with real life, and then, whenever it tries to show itself relevant, it is pushed back down in the box and the lid clamped on!

Verdi may have gotten his wish this month, though I doubt he could have imagined this production. It features a mostly bare stage, a large curvaceous bench around the edges, and an enormous clock, to remind us of the time the heroine has left to live, not because of unrequited love, but from a terminal illness. "This opera" writes the head of the production, "is about death." And so, a minor character who is barely noticeable in the original but is Violeta's doctor, becomes a personification of death, silent, but continually showing up in the midst of revelry to remind her that she is running out of time. He is on the stage alone when the house opens, and he participates in the pantomime during the overture. Both productions, by the way, featured choreographed visual presentations during the overture, a piece of music that was once simply for listening and preparation of the opera to come. Now it is usually part of a multi-media presentation, a concession to the idea that we will no longer tolerate having only some of our senses stimulated at once.

Those senses certainly were. Convinced that "all eyes must be on" the star, the heroine was presented in a red cocktail dress, surrounded by a chorus in black tuxedos--as if people who had seen previous productions were ever guilty of looking elsewhere! And the minimal set pieces--a few couches--continue the trend of a few bold, simple strokes. The fellow in charge of this new production is convinced that he is not 'tampering' with the opera, but allowing it to reveal itself, its message. And he is good with the rhetoric. Audiences, he says, can tell the difference between allowing the opera to shine and using it as a vehicle to show off one's own ideas, and the mark of their appreciation is a guarantor of an authentic approach.

I'll disagree with him a bit here, but I found myself liking the production. And the Haydn as well. The curiously "Romantic" philosophy behind these new stagings--claiming to only reveal while heavily interpreting the contents--has been with us for a while and it isn't going away.  It is a philosophy in which analysis speaks loudly. But at least it is interesting. And I think Verdi, and Haydn will live. Operas this old and composers this respected  have works which are separate in our consciousness from any individual staging. The public can easily say, "well, I like the Verdi, but I did/did not like this particular version of it." In other words, no zealous interpreter can doom the opera by making it mean something it was never meant to mean. Next time it will bounce back--or at least in another direction.

This won't prevent some members of the audience from complaining that they didn't like it. Lusty boos and loss of ticket sales accompanied one such Metropolitan update last year. It is one of the things that give drama to the life of an artist. And it reminds us all to stay in shape. The New York audiences have been pretty civil, but you never really know when you may have to escape out of a window!

 

 

Apparently diamond-studded pianos aren't forever
posted October 21, 2010

They closed the Liberace museum.

I'll forgive you if you don't have any idea what that is. If you are young enough, it probably doesn't mean anything. If you are, shall we say, cultured, it probably doesn't bother you, either. In other words, the world of classical music isn't heaving a great sorrowful sigh this week.

But I have a few thoughts on the matter. It made me a little wistful to hear the news this morning on the radio.

When I was quite young, I was already playing the piano publically. Not being dragged around Europe or anything; my teacher was the elementary school music teacher, and she liked to show me off at assemblies and school programs and such. In the years since, I've often wondered why the other kids didn't beat me up for playing the piano, but they didn't. In fact, they really seemed to think it was cool. Some of them gave me knick-names like 'fingers.' And others said I was going to be the next Liberace.

Liberace who? I wondered. Why, he was the best pianist in the world, they told me. My parents even had a record of him, and they didn't have that many records of anybody, so he had obviously made an impact. He talked a lot between numbers, though. My father couldn't stand his voice, and wished he would just shut up and play the piano.

He had a classical music background, apparently, and could play scales and arpeggios, running up and down the piano with ease, and he did it just enough to let people know he could let the notes fly and to overwhelm their ears in small doses; then it was back to the tune, in octaves, nice and prominent. That was his MO (mode of operation). Not classical tunes, of course--well, he mixed in a few of them. But mainly popular tunes that everybody knew, and could whistle on the way home.

At some point the comparisons with this paragon of piano playing reached critical mass and convinced me that I would have to check out this phenom for myself, so, the next time he was in town, we went.

I didn't like him so much after that. The reason was that he didn't spend enough time playing the piano. I don't mean that I couldn't stand his voice either, it was that, when he talked, it was about how wealthy he was, and to show off all of his stuff. I was probably seven or eight at the time, but I wasn't much of a conspicuous consumption man even then. It just seemed really...tacky.

I had just been introduced to a showman. That's what Liberace did best, and that was why he drew such a crowd. It wasn't because he could play the piano so well. By the time I was in fourth grade, my teacher had made some crack about how I could probably play better then Liberace (which was probably still a bit of an overstatement considering my sloppy technique). But people weren't there to hear a great pianist. There were, and are, innumerable pianists who most people have never heard of who could have played the man under the table and then some. Liberace could relate to people. Average people. The ones who, frankly, don't want to hear something they haven't heard before or can't hum.

Liberace had decided that what he most wanted was to be famous; he wanted that more than he wanted to play great music--though perhaps he played it at home, on his own time. What he did in public was dazzle a little, and then offer the well-known favorites to please the ear. He did play the occasional classical tune, but he kept it short--"I have to know just how much my audiences will stand" he said. He knew that fame did not come by challenging the audience, so he 'skipped the boring parts.' I know what he meant. When I was young and just getting to know the classical literature, I had trouble with those in-between parts, between the really arresting climaxes, and catchy tunes. As my ears have matured along with my self, I have grown to appreciate these passages very much. Things are often in the process of becoming in classical music, and moving in and out of what they were and will be, and transforming into something else, like the great mystery of life. Popular music doesn't do that sort of thing. It just is.

Such an appreciation takes patience, and few have it. We would rather something please us right away than spend time trying to get to grips with it. I can't help thinking the world would be better off if we favored the second approach. It would help our own levels of education, but also aid understanding between us and our neighbor, and between cultures, if we spent more time listening and trying to understand. But large sums of money are not commanded by telling people what they ought to aspire to, but rewarding them for where they are now. Liberace got that message and wanted to be where the money was. And boy, did he succeed.

When he watered down great music, or spent half his concert showing off his fur coats and diamond-studded accoutrements, he was accused of 'selling out.' When he heard those charges, he said he 'cried all the way to the bank.' He was the king of kitsch, a merciless collector of jewel-encrusted pianos, and the embodiment of the American dream. Plus, he was the pianist everybody had heard of, which naturally made him the best. Even my shampoo bottle wants me to know it is number one in sales, hoping I'll assume it must be number one in quality. To think otherwise would be to imply criticism of the American public, and who wants to do that in an election year?

Liberace's fame grew into a museum which was with us long after he departed, probably from AIDS, a disease you couldn't discuss in the 80s, possibly contracted from a lifestyle that you couldn't talk about either, if you wanted to be beloved by legions of adoring fans, so, naturally, he didn't. He had to be what they wanted him to be. I wonder if, in the end, he thought it was a good bargain. It did bring with it an exalted status that few pianists enjoy in the public at large. And maybe, when it came to musical standards, he was like a lot of people. He knew about his musical vegetables, and he knew you were supposed to eat them, but he didn't really like them all that much anyway. Who knows?

His place in the world has since been taken by folks like Yanni and John Tesh (from a technical standpoint, Liberace could play both of them under then table), and now his museum is closing, 23 years after his death. It stands about two miles from the Vegas Strip, apparently too far for people to drive. Maybe he will soon disappear into the mists of time.

Well, most of us will, too. I just hope I'll have something to say before I go--more than merely tickling the ears of worshipful fans. But I'm jealous, too. On some level, he got to communicate with far more people than the rest of us Bach-playing-blokes will ever meet on any kind of musical level. Pandering, maybe. And maybe he inspired some of them, or made them feel better after a rough day at work, or gave them a nice memory of the time they got to see a lot of money in one place, owned by a guy who seemed just like them. Then they lined up to see all that fabulous stuff he had, the candelabras that gave him mystique, the diamond-studded costume and matching diamond-studded pianos. A piano is just a piano if you can't play it. But money--diamonds--that everybody seems to adore.

Me, I'd take the piano, without all the jewelry.  But I can't help being a bit curious. I wonder what they are going to do with all of those diamonds? I mean, it's Vegas. Do you think anybody'll want them?

 

 

Your Lucky Day!
posted August 20, 2010

Dear valued listener-reader, 

It is with great excitement that we inform you that Pianonoise has joined the Hammergroup family of fine websites. Over the next 218 months, as we  phase in the changes, you will continue to enjoy the same great service that has made Pianonoise an industry standard in our own minds and that you have come to know and value. All of the features that make our website such a standout will continue their excellent ways, but in the coming months several wonderful new features will also become available. Eventually you will nearly burst with enthusiasm and glee every time you visit your favorite website, which is now newer and more improveder than ever before. Take a few moments to familiarize yourself with these great new features:

--An expanded home page (note: offer does not apply if you are reading this on a PDA device or anything smaller than a wide screen  
   television)
--Great new feature articles whenever I get around to posting them that will vastly expand your musical
   knowledge
--The total High definition 3-D musical experience (which can mean whatever you like it to mean!)
--More flattery
--Superior arguments in the commentary sections that you can use to alienate your friends, and befriend   
   aliens
--More vibrant colors that practically jump out of your computer*
   (*you have to turn the brightness level up on your monitor to access this feature)
--Sound files that will practically melt your ears, especially if you accidentally left the volume up too high      
   after listening to something that was down too low.
--Good vibrations
--More moreness

In a few months, you will be rewarded with Pianonoise points for every mp3 file you listen to. You can redeem these points for fabulous prizes, included imaginary vacations to places where the actual composers once sneezed and the chance to send me valuable email. We think you will be knocked out of your socks by all of the exciting stuff that is happening around here, and we hope you are sitting down for all this.

Sincerely yours,

Whatsisname, you know, that guy who runs Pianonoise.com, whoever he is.

 

Notes:

1On our about February 15th, 2011, you will have to log on to Pianonoise using a user ID and password. The password must contain at least 15 characters, 7 of which must be lowercase letters, 2 upper case, 4 numbers, and 3 special characters, but not # ^ @ & ^ * or ! We realize this doesn’t add up to 15, but that is just too bad for you. Lower case letters may not be consecutive, and your password cannot have a special character in an odd-numbered position. The Hammergroup is a division of Sixteen-Thirty-thirds Associates Limited Commercial Ventures Entrepreneurial Enterprises Incorporated, which is huge, and we mean huge, so when you decide to create a password you should plan to spend at least three days trying to come up with one that hasn’t been taken already. We aren’t going to tell you what’s left or provide you with a password, so you’ll just have to stumble across one on your own. The passwords “f$#% you” and its numerical equivalent have been taken already by an irate customer who was way ahead of you. Note: it is forbidden to create a password that even vaguely resembles something like a word or phrase that you might be able to remember for at least five seconds, or that contains some reference to the User ID. If you forget your password, we will ask you a security question to which only you know that answer, such as where Canada is, and if you successfully answer we will inform you that your new password will be sent to you shortly, just before you are inexplicably knocked offline.

We have a phone number, but we won’t tell you what it is, because then you would use it, and we want the online experience to be your final court of appeal. Studies show that persons who use the phone become flaming mad, particularly after they’ve been on hold for thirty minutes and had their listening experience interrupted 15 times to hear an electronic voice tell them that their call is very important to us. If you would like to simulate the effects of being on the phone with us, just take one of the mp3 files on our site, the one you really can’t stand and turn it up by a factor of 55 until it is really really distorted. Then cut into it every 45 seconds to tell yourself that you are a valued customer.

Your password must contain no more than 8 special characters and 12 capital letters. After June 18th, you will not be able to log one to Pianonoise.com without a password. 

If you forget your password, simply click on “I forgot my password” which will periodically appear in the vicinity of the log-in box, unless it is on page 9 because our server is in some kind of a mood. Your old password will be sent to you by email with the subject line “I am a moron who cannot keep track of my password.” You will then be able to log on and choose a new password, which cannot have any characters in common with the old password, and must be in Swahili, for security reasons. If you do not know Swahili you can download our Swahili app, which will teach you how to say ‘my cat has jaundice’ and other useful phrases. Certain side effects of the Pianonoise SuperProPlayer Deluxe Edition Swahili Maker 6.0.0.5 include not being able to think in English, and being under the delusion that the entire screen is blinking and that the words are running around in circles.

Valuable prizes may not be redeemed during a month in which the moon is full at least once, but no more than two, times. A period of several hours during which the entire moon is visible from some part of the planet consititues a full moon. No repeat full moons are permitted within the same 24 hour period; said moon will be considered for legal purposes part of the same full moon. A period of more than seven days is required before the same conditions may count toward the acknowledging of a second full moon. Offer is not valid if the second full moon appears orange. 

Your password may not contain any capital letters or special characters. If you are caught writing your password down somewhere that you will be able to find it later you will be shipped to a place that will not allow you to access Pianonoise, and that, trust us, is no place you want to be.

Offer of new posts is no guarantee that certain sections (or departments) of this website will be updated anytime within the present Millenium. Incidentally, Pianonoise just hit 88 web pages. Does that mean I'm going to die soon?

Finally, please note that your password cannot have any lower case letters. Grunts and sighs are not recommended, as they interfere with the Pianonoise listening experience.

 

 

Does Music Make you Rude?
June 11, 2010

The internet seems to have gotten friendlier lately. Of course, that is simply from my perspective, and it is mostly because in the last few months I've discovered a number of blogs and websites where people whose emotional maturity, intellectual sophistication, and respect for one another is of a higher order than the folks who posted to the comment boards in the other places. Still, as pleasant a revelation as this is, it does not erase the negative comments that I see in other places. Often, it seems, in places like Youtube or other places that deal in musical content, the discussions are at best uncivil, and more often than not, just nasty. In real life, we are told that people wouldn't behave like this; the anonymity of the internet allows for all kinds of rudeness. But the stereotypical musician, I am afraid, is considered a bit mean by the rest of society. That artistic type who goes around communing with his subconscious and can't be bothered behaving himself around the rest of humanity. And so I'm wondering if there is anything about being a musical person that causes a person to take leave of their manners on a regular basis. This might require a government study.

It's a pretty big question, all around. It hangs out in the company of some other big questions like "does religion make you a violent fanatic?" or "Does education make you unconscionably cruel?" Both of these ought to have answers in the area of 'of course not!' but if you've been around the block a few times you might begin to wonder.

Strident atheists will sometimes answer the 'religion' question with a decided yes. Of course, they like to say, in their delightfully (almost dogmatically?) simple-minded fashion, all religion ever does is poison people into doing cruel things. A number of people who have blown things up lately seem to have done so with religious promptings; somehow it is easy to ignore all the evidence of people doing noble and compassionate things in the name of what they, too, consider religious dictates (this human tendency to ignore evidence that runs contrary to your theory was once pointed out in a very entertaining essay by a fellow named Jay Gould, also an atheist).

As to the education question, a pastor once commented that Nazi Germany had the best education the world had to offer at the time, and yet it produced a society out of which came the Holocaust. I would challenge that perhaps what was passing for education in that regime was more propaganda. Obviously this was a society that did not encourage critical thinking. Still, it is obvious that a person might have all kinds of knowledge and it may not lead him or her to have any regard whatever for other human beings. A person may know an awful lot about a chosen field (or several fields) and yet have a worldview that says the world is a get-what-you-can-for-yourself proposition; too bad for the other players of the game.

These two items--religion, education--are supposed to make us better people. Not only to learn the hows and the whys of living on the planet, but to make things a little better for society as a whole. To learn to understand, and by understanding to be able to deal with the differences between people and ways of thinking. Or at least to memorize a few simple precepts about doing unto others or the importance of service and humility.

To those two items we now add a third: music. I could make this article very long cataloging all of the positive effects music is said to have on people. Calming the savage breast, expressing the inmost soul, or the inexpressible, or the ineffable, or the infinite, etc. etc. A stabilizing force for society, says one great sage. A giver of pleasure, says another. One of our founding fathers apologized for being forced to study the art of war by saying that the following generations would study other, more peaceable crafts, leading, eventually, to art and music.

And yet, here we are. And musicians often seem not to be the poster children of these efficacious effects, either. Not in the least. Somebody asked me recently how it is that instrumental musicians are often so nasty.

Well, I said, I've read that playing in an orchestra is near the bottom in terms of job satisfaction. I think sanitation workers are happier, on average. There they are, rows upon rows of violins chained together like highly trained galley slaves. The stress must be high. No mistakes are permitted. They get to play, but they don't get to decide what to play, or when to play it, or how to play it. The conductor decides that. Even though he doesn't make a sound (generally) he or she makes a vast number of decisions, from setting the tempo to spinning out each phrase, planning each attack, shaping each solo, cueing each accelerando or ritardando. There's a reason the conductor gets his or her name right there with the orchestra. Besides being a publicity hound. The way Andre Previn does Beethoven's Ninth is really the way Andre Previn does Beethoven's Ninth. It's his interpretation, including an unimaginable number of details that the average concertgoer never notices. The orchestra has something to do with it, too, of course, but they don't get to take the initiative; they have to put the notes where the maestro wants them to go. And that might be the reason for all the stress. Being attached to a conductor and 70 other musicians at the hip isn't easy.

But that only accounts for a few of the bile-producing musical set. And it shows that, as I often do, I'm taking the question far too seriously. Most of the folks with the axes to grind and the vile commentary to spew are probably not practicing musicians at all, they are frustrated musicians. They couldn't get the kind of jobs I've described. Perhaps they are working in record stores. Perhaps their lives are not making them happy. Maybe they wouldn't know how to be happy if happy hit them over the head. Or there is just something else in their lives making them angry. The point is, their acquaintance with music doesn't seem to be curing them of this.

I think we could all say the same thing about people who are very religious or very educated--or very rich. Somehow knowing you've got everything taken care of in this life and are guaranteed heaven in the next just doesn't do it for some people. And some people who don't have a thing are happy as clams. We've all witnessed this, and wondered why. And the same thing applies to music.

There might be a loophole, which is that people who aren't kind to their fellow men aren't really listening--to religion or music. "Men claim to be lovers of music" wrote Henry David Thoreau, "but they show no evidence in their lives or opinions that this is so. It would not leave them narrow-minded and bigoted." Maybe that depends on the music you are or aren't listening to. If music is a kind of communication, what is a particular piece communicating? Real understanding or just propaganda? "I should be sorry if I merely entertained them" said Handel after a performance of Messiah. "I wanted to make them better."

Ah, the idealism.

Of course, one more item--the most obvious, perhaps--should be mentioned when it comes to the internet. Some folks really are just disturbed. A religious blog I happened across yesterday had a lengthy disclaimer at the bottom which in included the phrase "we do not discriminate against the mentally ill." A few of the opinions about some verses from the Bible seemed to have been written by persons having some problems with reality (a few shades from 'here come the government helicopters!'). That did cause me to pause and remember that, even though as a relatively calm person generally, some comments on the internet can make me want to fire back, I have next to no idea who I'm firing at. If I can dispel some ignorance, great. But heated commentary seldom does this. And since I have no idea about the personality or abilities of the person who 'fired' at me/us, it would help to be careful about what you say in return.

What I mean is, maybe they can't hear the music. But we don't have to crank it up for them.

 

 

 

Do you Have Somewhere to Be?
posted May 5, 2010

He was going too fast, I thought. I couldn't help thinking that Mozart would have shared my opinion. I am guessing that based on a letter to his father in which Mozart complained about the speed at which some fellow raced through his piece, and another in which he complained about that practice in general.

But what it might really have come down to wasn't that actual speed, per se, but that he was playing the piece in a way that made it sound fast. And I began to imagine reasons for that.

I was in the car at the time.  As I pulled into the parking lot, a Mozart sonata had come on the radio, as played by some fellow who had won some international competition or other. Recently, I think. And I wondered whether that had anything to do with his treatment of Mozart.

You see, Mozart doesn't give us enough notes per measure to show off with by comparison to much of the music that came after him. At the time, his was the high water mark for piano playing prowess, but, like most measures of faster, higher, stronger, it was soon superseded by people in the next century who came pouring more and more titillating passagework into their pieces; artistic merit be damned, some of the time. And it is all the better for those who think lots of rapid runs are what constitutes artistic merit in the first place. But as Arthur Schnabel pointed out, adults are afraid to play Mozart sonatas precisely because there aren't very many notes (to hide behind). This unfortunate malady of Mozart's is often 'corrected' by pianists who want to win competitions, or just generally stun persons with their command of a piano, by keeping the tempi crisp, and the runs even crisper. Haydn, I think, has also suffered from many a prestissimo. In a world where it is possible to travel at speeds undreamt of by our forefathers, a world in which we all have places to go, what's the harm in shaving a few minutes off a sonata in the process?

Maybe the way to answer that would be to examine the motives of the pianist. Is it really about the musical intentions of the composer, or is it primarily about using the piece as a vehicle to show off?

As I said, his treatment made the piece sound fast. When I've played the same piece in the past, it is not really that much slower. A metronome tick or two, perhaps. And that might be, for me, what makes all the difference. And it brings up the issue of tempo, which is something that people argue about constantly, which makes it a great thing to discuss.

Not that the discussion always yields great insights. Once on a discussion of somebody's recording of Schumann, posted on Youtube, an irritated comment poster said: "he plays the piece like he has a train to catch." I don't recall thinking the pianist's choice of tempo was really all that out of line, but then, as the internet has made very clear to all of us, I/we am/are just one individual in a sea of wildly different opinions, often buttressed by shouting, or at least all caps, and occasionally, something resembling a good argument. When it comes to postings on say, Youtube, of some of the greatest pianists of the last century, there is no pleasing some people. They simply sniff and say that some other pianist plays the piece a thousand times better. It is really astounding how much shorthand erudition is out there--humbling, really. I went to music school for years and I am still not so sure of some of my opinions sometimes.

But I know enough to disagree with some people's choice of tempo once in a while. Why?

1. The speed with which we play/sing a piece has a lot to do with the way we hear it. In this regard, professionals, or people who are highly developed musically, often take faster tempi than those who are not. This is because the perceived speed of the piece has a lot to do, not with how fast the notes are going by, but by the rate at which the musical argument proceeds; in the other words, the stuff that our ears perceive as important. Imagine you are on a very fast train, looking out the window, watching the telephone poles go by. If they are very far apart, they may not seem to be going by too quickly even if the train is travelling at 90 miles an hour. Shift your gaze to the gravel bed below, or to the railroad ties, and the picture is an absolute blur. Similarly, a person whose ears are trained on, say, the rate of harmonic change in a piece, may feel that the piece isn't really moving very fast, since an entire measure or two consists of the same harmony. It may also have a few dozen notes in it, but those are details like the railroad ties that are only noticeable as they contribute to the whole. Even if an entire phrase goes by in a second or two, and it is followed by another whose relationship to the first one is easily perceived by the listener, then that recognition of the larger pattern keeps the piece comprehensible at higher speeds. People who read well can do it out loud very quickly because they can understand what they are reading even faster. You can talk to your neighbor at high speed, and understand him or her just as quickly, but try listening to someone in another language and it quickly becomes apparent just how many varied sounds we are spitting out of our mouths every second. If you are listening for the meaning of the words, this isn't a problem. Lose the meaning, and the individual sound bits suddenly seem to have formed an army laying siege to your mind! Thus, part of our understanding of tempo is related to our understanding of the material. A sea of notes which turns out to be merely a scale can go by very fast without losing anything in intelligibility--for the player. There is no guarantee it will function this way for each member of the audience!

2. This is not to say that every gifted artist takes fast tempi. Some have been known to take extremely slow ones. The reasons may be philosophical, which is to say they are various. Sometimes an artist feels that more emotional intensity can be achieved that way; tension takes longer to build, and longer to dissipate. There are many who would tie the piece's perceived message or mood to the speed of various bodily activities, and these are sometimes rather slow. It is even possible for an artist to adopt a cantankerously slow tempo just as a reaction to irritatingly fast ones, or because it will stand out (again for competitive reasons). Glenn Gould, one of the last centuries most eccentric pianistic personalities, tended to play his pieces either very fast or very slow. Either way, they were out of the ordinary.

3. There is tradition, or custom. I learned rather quickly during my stint as a vocal accompanist in graduate school that every aria from every opera has a customary speed which may have little or nothing to do with what it says on the page. Some adagios seemed very lively, and a few of the prestos were a bit andante; this might have been due to the idea that the composers, most of whom were/are not singers, didn't have the requisite sympathy for the voice to know the appropriate speed at which one could get through a phrase without passing out. Vocal traditions in particular rely on a lot of unwritten knowledge, particularly in the opera house when every high note has an understood fermata on it, entitling the tenor to hang on to the note long enough to impress us all with his lung capacity.

4. I've often found that the speed with which I play a piece changes as I am learning it; on becoming reacquainted with it after some time away I may change the tempo as well. I am not sure always why I do it, only that it seems as if what the piece has to say to me comes through best at that speed. Certain passages stand out with more clarity in my mind. This change of tempi takes a flexibility that is not easy to achieve. One of the toughest things for some of the choirs I play for is to adjust to a new tempo. They get used to singing it one way and can't get out of that rut. Last fall some fellow caused a problem by conducting part of a piece much slower than our own conductor had prepared it; I suppose he thought he had some sort of a right just because he had composed the piece!

Tempo is dependent on meter and rhythm and these are but a series of relationships, not something fixed with absolute precision (unless you have metronome markings, and we'll have to argue about their accuracy another time). There are some composers, and performers who encourage changes in tempi, and others who do not, which is really no surprise. People are people, which means they hold opposite views on the matter.

Being of the school of cheerful adaptation, I would suggest that when someone takes a different tempo in music, or in life, rather than merely scowling at it, we see what can be learned from it. If the piece is familiar enough, there may still be something that can be discovered in that mysterious relationship of sounds that may not have been as obvious the last time you heard it, and the new tempo may have something to do with that little revelation.

 

 

Hit Parade
posted April 7, 2010

We were in a music store one day, my mother and I, and I noticed a record that had Beethoven's Fourth Symphony on it. Maybe I should get that, I suggested. My mother said something like "who's ever heard of Beethoven's Fourth? It's probably a loser." I was pretty young at the time (probably around 10 or 11) growing up in a small community where nobody I knew ever listened to classical music, including my parents. Like most people who don't listen to Beethoven, we'd heard of Beethoven's Fifth symphony, because it starts with that famous da-da-da-dummmmm!!!! But the opening of the Fourth wasn't so famous, and to my mother it sounded like an off-brand. A knock off. Something the record company was hoping you'd confuse for the real item.

It took a few years to learn that in the classical music community, among people who know about those sorts of things, there are no off-brand Beethoven Symphonies. Every one of the nine is considered a masterpiece, even if the Fourth has had to live in the shadow of its more famous cousin. It, too, has an arresting opening, though perhaps less assertive than the Fifth; in any case it did not make it into the general consciousness, which does not have room for more than a few famous snatches of history-making tunes.

There is quite a difference between the size of the repertoire as understood by a musician and what the general public has at least heard of. In some ways, it is probably a miracle that the guy on the street can whistle Beethoven at all, even though eight notes doesn't seem like much of an acquaintance with one of the most interesting voices in western culture. Maybe that's not so different than my half-remembered quadratic equation and a few postulates from geometry. We are required to learn a little bit of everything in school whether we choose to explore a subject deeply or not.

The other day at the bookstore I was hoping to buy a recording. As soon as I saw the size of the classical section I knew it wouldn't be easy to get what I wanted. The titles of many of them condensed even the narrow selection. "Mozart's greatest hits" one of them said. For those who just want the headlines and want to skip the article. A little bit here, and a little bit there, buffet style, catering to a short attention span, perhaps, or to someone who thinks it is unworthy of their ears to listen to something which is not a bestseller, a familiar piece which has added value because everyone else is buying it.

You might imagine this is a rather difficult attitude for a musician to swallow. First, because efficiency is so ruthless. If there is only room for a few voices and a few pieces at the top of the pyramid, and the rest has to struggle to be recognized, how likely is it that any of our voices, or those of our favorite composers, will even be heard? Art is about communication; it does not do well in isolation. And anyway, we aren't talking about leaving off some guy from a little town in Wisconsin who wrote a little piano ditty that has three chords in it and nothing vaguely original (don't worry; his stuff's on the internet now, he's got some audience). Even Beethoven can't get a hearing--from the non-specialists, that is. And sometimes, even from the professionals.

I used to complain about orchestras spending so much of their time every year playing Beethoven symphonies. Then I moved to a town where the orchestra played only Beethoven's Third every year. That one was a perennial favorite, apparently; they were afraid the others wouldn't sell tickets, I guess. Same with Mozart piano concerti. The guy wrote 27. Only one of them made the cut, usually--the same one, every year. People like what they knew, and they didn't seem to have room for wild, risky flights into the unknown like Mozart's other piano concerti. Yes, there's sarcasm informing that previous sentence.

Size is relative, in other words. How many tunes make it into the collective playlist? How large is that collective? Are arts organizations, fighting over a tiny audience, afraid to branch out into what the public doesn't recognize, and just how much do they recognize? Isn't that sort of non-risk-taking behavior in itself going to shrink the size of the repertoire?

What is strange about it all is that you can go online now and hear almost any musical noise in the known universe. No matter how risk-taking or unusual, or formerly obscure, somebody has put it online somewhere (if you can find it). Living composers have a chance to communicate with their public like never before, directly.  Works that were formerly unknown except to a very few experts are being recorded by the expanding number of highly trained practicing musicians.  The only thing that never expands is that sliver of widely known music that the general non-musical public will buy. Should we musicians care what the ones paying the least attention think? Does it matter?

It does matter, because the larger public has the hydraulic force of economics on their side. We live in a culture run largely by financial dictates. These, often, are a great enemy of quality. I say this while wearing tube socks I probably got at Walmart. Probably you did, too. Cheap is good; we don't need much in the way of quality.

The same thinking translated to art means that the journey will be short; anything functional, that makes a pretty sound, that was used in a movie, and makes it into the top ten of all-time classical utterances (it has to be short and repetitive) makes the list, the rest, as they say on TV, is 'out!'

So much for capitalism. It does not enlarge, it compacts. But it is only half of the American experience. The other half is Democracy. This freedom seems to work in reverse. It allows anyone who is passionate about what they are doing, and who doesn't care if their neighbor doesn't think it is worth the risk of encounter, to promote that which they love, that which they find to be of value, whether it will sell a bazillion records or not. So long as you aren't forced by economic considerations to create what will sell you have all the freedom the world has ever known to this point. Money, schmoney? Most people down through history never believed artists were worth supporting anyway.

But we're still here, and in greater numbers. The king no longer has his private orchestra; he must now share with the rest of us. And ever since, we must struggle for patronage. Is it really a surprise that only a few of the rich and dedicated make up most of the support? It has always been that way. Only, it doesn't need to be anymore. The arts have historically been for the appreciation of a few. But that could change. In some ways, it already has, and in some major ways.

It's no cheaper to produce Parsifal now than it ever was. But somewhere, somebody who will enter the pantheon of musical giants has a website, and you might be able to hear his or her works for free. Of course, if they are trying to make a living, maybe not! Artists don't get free housing or free utilities. And quality still takes dedication and a kind of work ethic of which most people are only dimly aware. You can't do that with one hand tied behind your back. Artists have been forced to try different economic models, though, and have proven just as ingenious about those sometimes as their music. They have to, if they want to find a public that will pay for their art, that will pay for anything, now that everything seems to be free. They have to, in order to find, and create, an informed public, that is willing to spend the time and energy walking down less well-worn paths; knowing and finding great art that doesn't have to say so on the CD jacket. A consumer confidant that something doesn't have to be a bestseller to be good. That what the artists have to say is worth a listen, even a little puzzlement. Even if you've never heard of it before. (Does that make it inferior?) And that it is worth taking the risk and the time to grow as people.

There are some of you out there right now...

 

 

Thoughts During a Concert
posted March 3, 2010

I don't go to many concerts, unless I'm playing in them. Mainly I'm too busy. Chances are that there is a rehearsal or something I'm supposed to be doing. So it was a bit unusual for me to show up on the other side of the apron for a concert by the local symphony orchestra a couple of weeks ago. We have a town music critic and I'm not planning to take his job, so what follows has less to do with the musical performance than--everything else that managed to flow through my head at the time.

The first thing I noticed on opening the concert program is that the program notes are now being written by Wikipedia. I am not making this up. Apparently, in an effort to save bucks, and on the theory that the people can do a more credible job than some self-proclaimed/highly educated musicological expert, the good folks in the front office gave the usual note-writers the month off. Unfortunately, that produced results such as the following:

"The most striking feature of La Folia however is that the theme is not well-known to a larger public although made lots of brilliant variations."

I was going to print all the errors I've found in that sentence upside down at the bottom of this page and have you find them yourself first, but let's just save time and mention the lack of comma, the lack of clarifying words toward the end, and the odd syntax in general. I think I get what the anonymous writer is trying to say though it is a strange way to say it, and would be even if the grammar were intact.

Let's just throw out a couple more of these bon-bons before moving on:

"In most literature La Folia ceased to exist in the middle of the 19th century with a revival in the 1930's with the variations by Rachmaninoff and Ponce."

"The variations have been compared to Ravel's Bolero." {seriously???}

"Dvorak stood his ground until the published doubled his price." (I know, it's a typo)

This is just to give the impression that I did not single out one sentence I could pounce on: these gems were all over the place. Some of them may have been caused by the fact that the symphony was actually using two sources for each of their articles: one Wikipedia and one from another website, or in one case a named author. Not combining these sources very well, say, by using the cut and paste option in the middle of sentences and failing to notice the lack of continuity, may have been responsible for some of the linguistic effusions. Others may be accounted for if we postulate that some of Wikipedia's authors are not native English speakers. Even in situations where the sentences made sense, there were often redundancies and strange turns of phrase that reminded me of papers I read in college from some of my English-as-a-second-language speaking peers.

And then, there was the occasional revelation, as when the commentary claimed that "Salieri...enjoyed a reputation for being among the more innovative composers of his time." I don't really know Herr Salieri's work well enough to comment on this, but the piece offered on that occasion did not seem to back up that statement. It was 26 variations on the well-known tune (but not well-enough for Wikipedia's authors) La Folia (meaning "the madness"). It may be that Salieri's experimentation with orchestral effects was what was innovative. The substance of the piece was fairly pedestrian, and I had had enough well before the madness stopped, 26 variations later. As you might imagine, 26 is plenty of variations, even if we are dealing with character variations, and these were strictly figurative.

What I mean is that, as befits a denizen of the classical era, each variation is basically a reiteration of the tune in dimensions, harmonic outline, key, and tempo: only the tune itself is altered to contain faster notes, or to shoot up and down scales or arpeggios, or is removed completely so that only the harmonies remain. Whatever the gimmick, by the time the first measure is over you can predict exactly how the rest of the variation is going to go, because it is a mechanical filling out of the opening gambit following whatever chords are part of the opening presentation of the tune, in the same order, and for the same length.  Character variations, which are mainly the property of composers who came later, would stray into different keys, different modes (say from major to minor), radical tempo changes (from very fast to very slow), and produce very different emotional effects by the combined uses of altered harmonies and rhythms, to say nothing of the melody. Some of these variations seem very far removed from the original theme and only a careful listener will note the relationship. By contrast, Salieri didn't change much of depth at all, only the figurations of the melody, and then played those out over all the chord changes with no surprises at all. Mozart's figured variations are far more interesting; Salieri didn't even engage in the few standard variation tricks that he inherited, never mind finding more.

By the time the Salieri was over, the concert was about 20 minutes old, and the quality was set to pick up appreciably. I should mention that the program had opened with an occasional piece written for the Champaign-Urbana Symphony's 50th anniversary. After it was over I told Kristen that "well, it was only four minutes long." I should probably leave it at that, except to remark that the composer seemed to be having a lot of fun sampling various electronic sounds, playing with newly invented instruments, and writing a lot of in-jokes based on the orchestra's history, though the result was not something anyone need hear a second time.

Then it was off to the old standards. A Russian violinist was in town for Mendelssohn's violin concerto, which was done reasonably well. There were, of course, places where the ensemble didn't quite line up, or the intonation was a bit out the window, but this is not a large metropolitan area, with a large budget for drawing talent from all over the world to play 4th horn, so that is pretty much to be expected. Having begun to obsess more and more about compositional issues in recent years I actually found myself second-guessing Mendelssohn at one point near then end: should he have extended that harmony for an extra bar? But, unlike the previous entry, which the maestro had admit was not great music (during the time it took to get all the electronics off the stage after the first piece he made some remarks about the Salieri) this is a solid entry, and the only real problem I face is the prospect of hearing it so many times that it wears thin, regardless of the quality. Since I hadn't heard it recently, this was not a problem.

We had a bit of an intermission, and then the orchestra launched into the final piece on the program, Dvorak's Seventh Symphony. I have a recording at home, and I know the piece well, so part of the fun is in hearing different things from the orchestra: different instrumental balances, different tempi, different articulations, in short, a different interpretation than what I heard last time. I can argue with it, but at least it gives me something to think about.

A few nights before, when I went to get tickets, I heard the university's new music ensemble playing something for brass that was full of dissonance and generally the sort of crunchy noises that scare people away from the concert hall whenever they think something modern is going to take place there. (The CU symphony concert, by contrast, played it safe, which is more of an annoyance to me than it is to most of concert going America, which wants to hear all the old favorites.) I wasn't particularly in the mood for such 'trailblazing' sounds at the time of my unintended visit to this concert of new music, but maybe I'll make it to a similar concert in the future. It is interesting to read composers talking about their own music in the program (because they can't get Wikipedia to write notes for them) and it is nice to have to sort out the sounds for yourself and decide whether they make any sense. In most cases with symphony orchestras these days, the composers have been dead 100 years, and the work of sifting and sorting has already been done for us.

Do Not Disturb
posted February 12, 2010
my composer's hut
my "composer's hut"

There's a Beethoven movie, the one in which Gary Oldman is Beethoven--I think--where the master is all alone with a piano, pouring out his feelings at the instrument. He is already going deaf and he has his ear against the lid of the piano, playing so quietly that it would be hard to hear him in the next room--except that one young lady is not in the next room, she is right there. She has come to tell him how beautiful it is, and when she opens her mouth to deliver the compliment, he flies into a rage, feeling completely violated for having been spied on in that critical moment. What this cinematic Beethoven needed was absolute solitude.

Which isn't simply a dramatic, fictional gesture, as over the top as most Beethoven movies are. Some real life composers (Beethoven included) needed, as that Southwest Airlines commercial puts it, to 'get away' in order to do the intense thinking that results in a musical composition. And it isn't just the 'highbrows.' American song composer Stephen Foster composed in an upper attic studio when not being interrupted by a clueless wife. She, unfortunately, had no love for music, and thought she was doing a nice thing when she kept coming in with cookies and drinks. "Here you go, honey!" It would send him into a tirade. Let me just go on record as saying it helps enormously when those close to you have some concept of your working rhythms. Alas, those without active interior lives, such as Foster's wife, can be strangely oblivious (though I'll bet the women's liberation movement helped that a bit--if you train women to be domestic furniture what kind of discernment are you going to get?)

Edvard Grieg built a house, but it was apparently too confining for his artistic acts. Instead, he retreated to his 'composer's hut' for perspiration. Unfortunately it was drafty, which was not good for his health (he suffered from a lung ailment most of his life). Thankfully, science has made great technological strides in Composer's Huts in the years since. The only caveat is that you don't want to get yours a Walmart. It's cheap, but, the ones they are making in China right now have lead paneling. I think there is a division of Toyota that makes one too. You can insert your own punchline to that one.

This is not to suggest that all composers need solitude. Songwriter Richard Rodgers liked to compose in his New York apartment with the window open and didn't care who heard it. On the other hand, Irving Berlin liked to work at night, when he could get peace and quiet. I like Berlin's example because it counters the arguments of the morning people that anybody who gets anything good done in the world works in the morning. Mozart composed in the morning for about five hours every day before going out. Bach just sounds like a morning person. I don't know what time of day was his favorite, though from the size of his output you get the impression it was all day. I have a hunch that Beethoven liked to sleep in, but no research in that direction. Evidently, Leonard Bernstein composed in hotel lobbies and on airplanes whenever his hectic schedule permitted him to snatch a few moments whenever.  I can't imagine getting much quality work done that way--maybe he had already mapped out the piece and was filling in more of the mechanical details.

That is, I guess, where the nub of the argument lies. When you are actively engaged in creative decisions it can, on the testimony of musicians through the ages, be brutal, and it often requires a depth of concentration that few others seem to need to do their work, or are acquainted with. Bernstein described his ideas taking shape in a state that was pretty close to a trance, or a dream, some alternate state of consciousness. Which sounds a bit Romantic, and would probably be objected to by Aaron Copland, Bernstein's idol, who did not go around believing implicitly in the subconscious, but considered composing a craft, and a natural function, like eating or sleeping. A composer does it because he feels like doing it, he would say, not because he happens to be suddenly inspired.

Still, the way to trigger those ideas, whatever your mythological stance on how ideas come, seems to involve a lot of work. I'll borrow from the website of comic strip creator Stephen Pastis, who has a standard working method. It involves going to a coffee shop and sitting alone for hours. The first hour, he writes, is never good for anything. It takes that long to get to the point where his mind is focused enough to produce a good idea. Then it takes a few more hours to deliver on it. Then it takes the average reader about 8 seconds to read it!

An eyewitness reported that he saw Wagner pacing around upstairs for several minutes at a time before writing the next passage of the opera he was working on. Pacing around is a good way to keep the body from turning to mush while you are working things out in the all-important brain. I pretty much wore out the floorboards in the church I used to serve back in Maryland. Sorry, trustees!

All of this is, I suppose, an explanation for why I haven't blogged much recently. There is a mania for constant 'content providing' associated with this medium and sometimes I'm not anywhere close to that expectation. Regular 'customers' will already know that. For the newcomers, just have a look around. I'll probably be more verbose next month.

 

 

Skills I Have Acquired Recently
posted January 5, 2010

Here are a few things I'm going to have to put in my Curriculum Vitae when I get a chance. They probably all belong in the category 'flying by the seat of your pants,' which is a major life skill, no less for musicians then for everybody else.

They do a pretty good job teaching you how to make a highly technical racket on your chosen instrument in music school, but they don't tell you what to do when half of your instrument is missing. Recently some organs that I've been asked to play have fallen into that category. I mean that, in certain cases, the keys, when depressed, make no sound at all. In other cases, the pitch continues to sound well after it is time to practice discreet silence. This last category is called a cipher, and it can add so much to a concert in the way of unwanted drones, particularly if it happens to an obnoxiously loud tuba stop or something fun like that. One of those organs is in town and I'm playing it next week during a concert. The only way to get rid of these things sometimes is to turn off the entire organ and wait for the hubbub to die down (which can take several minutes). There is a downside to this strategy. (Note: by the time I got around to posting this the concert had gone off well--the organ was on its best behavior and I have no casualties to report)

One morning, practicing for the concert, I had a curious adventure with one of those infinite tones. Nobody else was in the theater at the time, so I attempted the fix myself, crawling into the pipe room and trying to locate the recalcitrant pipe. (Calling tech support probably wouldn't have helped, since they would just ask if you'd remembered to turn the thing on.)  I got the babbling pipes to shut up by simply putting my foot on the first rung of the stepladder I needed to get over to get to the catwalk in the near the relevant bank of pipes, find the offending pipe, and yank it out of its socket (rather subtle, don't you think?). I think it knew I meant business and promptly quieted down. I feel justified in saying that, as an organ technician (of the purely informal kind), I get results.

We are a society that loves to specialize, no less in music than in other fields. Someone recently registered surprise in my presence because a young lady is getting a Doctorate in accompanying, and she didn't know you could do that. I, on the other hand, have my degree in solo piano, which really means I was trained as a concert pianist rather than as an accompanist. Some of my gainful employment is now as an accompanist, for which I could reasonably have considered an alternate degree program. However, it is as a concert pianist that you are trained to memorize music--a requirement for all solo recitals. It turns out that this comes in handy sometimes, even when accompanying, which is something for which you are allowed to have the music in front of you.

Let us say that one of those silly octavos (choir music is printed in that format) has a page that isn't connected to the rest of the book (it's cheaper that way). In your haste to get the page turned, because the publishers always print the important piano interludes right on the page turn so as to leave no hands free for turning, the page falls into the space between the lid of the piano keys and the rest of the piano. At this point it is required of you to discover that you have that page memorized, particularly if it happens in the middle of the concert. As it happens, this recently happened to me during a dress rehearsal, but I went on anyway, because I have learned that you can never get enough practice trying to deal with challenging and unexpected situations.

That same evening, at another rehearsal, the technicians decided to test the lights during our rehearsal, which kept the stage alternating between shades of blue and red and pitch black throughout the run. This is also a time when you want to be able to play without looking at the notes, or being able to see the keyboard (if you are a fairly advanced pianist and still have trouble with this, a thorough acquaintance with stride piano literature should cure you). It is a requirement of church organists to be able to play "Silent Night" in the dark, for example.

Now to my most boring requisition. I am improving at being able to read open score, which means reading four or five staves at once instead of the two that the pianist usually prefers. I am improving in this area simply because I am asked to do it more often. I've often wanted to be able to play orchestral works from full score with ease, but my eyes don't take in the wealth of information fast enough. Well, some day, perhaps.

I am still making incremental progress toward playing with distractions. A couple of years ago, a fly spent the last piece on the children's Christmas Concert break dancing on the upper manual of the organ. His dying display began with the downbeat. (I have noticed that these days I can actually sense when a conductor is about to give the downbeat even when I am not looking or otherwise paying much attention. It is like a sixth sense. Perhaps, with enough time and practice, extra-sensory abilities will develop in other areas as well.) This year's fly was already dead when I got to the concert. It had positioned its corpse on top of the organ, as if rebuking me (staring at me with its thousand eyes)--'see, if you had had your concert a week earlier like usual I would have been able to keep you company. Instead, nobody sang at my funeral.' I feel sad for the poor disease-ridden thing.

Finally, I have recently learned how to play a new instrument. Now, generally one does not master an instrument in a few minutes, but I was really determined. At an annual Christmas show in town the band was rehearsing with the Children's Choir that I accompany. Apparently the sleigh bell player was missing. The guy playing the drums looked over and said, "you're on." After a 5 second consultation about my part (which was basically on every beat except for a spot in the middle) away we went. Now, I am a quick study, and am pleased to report that I have thoroughly learnt every aspect of sleigh bell playing and can begin giving lessons. For one thing, you have to bang away at the wooden knob at the top in order to get the four or five bells attached to the sides to jingle. This can get painful after a while, so during the short break in the song I switched hands which means I am capable of playing both right-handed sleigh bell and left-handed sleigh bell. I also experimented with the efficacy of using the palm of my hand, or my wrist, and discovered that if I angled the bell each time I played it I could amplify the sound somewhat. I am sure there is a fierce debate in the sleigh bell community over whether this constitutes authentic practice or merely showing off.

I can also tell you that the following night at the concert, the impresario produced two sleigh bells and asked me to play one of them, whereupon I immediately negotiated for the part of principle sleigh bell (after all, I clearly had more seniority than the other guy by now). I should be able to get elected union representative, based on my negotiating skills.

Life takes some pretty strange turns, but I had no idea I would get to fulfill every five-year old boy's fantasy--you know, the one where Ms. Smith is passing out instruments in music class and says 'Here Tommy. You get the one that makes the most noise, AND you get to play it will a full ensemble on a raised platform in front of an audience in a groovy theater for the big Christmas concert." So I am just saying to all of those small boys out there who where forced to play finger cymbals because Ms. Jones ran out of the really cool instruments to keep the faith. You'll get a turn, eventually.

 

 

michael@pianonoise.com