Monday, December 24, 2007

Divinum mysterium

It's Christmas Eve, and this will likely be my last post of the year. Time to take a break - and get my grading finished! Yes, it's an annual holiday disaster that grades aren't due until the very end of December. This year I'm in much better shape than in the past, but there's still work to do. Oh yeah, and tomorrow it's Christmas.

Tonight, I'm playing with my wife and 8-yr-old daughter for our church's Christmas Eve service. This is only our second time performing as a trio; once before we played a movement of a Mozart trio in an otherwise solo recital for me. However, this is our debut as a violin/cello/cello trio. We're playing an arrangement of my favorite Christmas hymn, "Of the Father's Love Begotten." Not only does the hymn feature a beautiful plainchant-style melody, but it lends itself to a young violinist without a fulltime vibrato. As parents, you don't want to force your kids to love what you love, but we hope there's a lot more chamber music in our future. (And if you think it's never occurred to me to make a wishful connection between the Brahms and Schubert quintets I just posted about and my own family of five, well...it's too soon to know where we're headed, but maybe - although I'd need to work on my cello skills for the Schubert.)

Perhaps the most persistent of Christmas traditions in my extended family is to make extended disclaimers about gifts, just to be sure too much is not expected. I'm going to try not to disclaim much about this recording - except to remind you that the violinist is young, that I only play cello two or three times a year, that we're still working on it, that I don't have a very good microphone, and the mic placement wasn't very well planned in this 'rehearsal' recording. That's all.

So here it is. And here are the lovely words:

Of the Father's love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the Source, the Ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore.

Oh, that birth forever blessed
When the Virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bore the Savior of our race,
And the Babe, the world's Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face,
Evermore and evermore.

O ye heights of heaven, adore Him;
Angel hosts, His praises sing;
Pow'rs, dominions, bow before Him
And extol our God and King.
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Every voice in concert ring,
Evermore and evermore.

Christ, to Thee,
with God the Father,
And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee
Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
And unending praises be,
Honor, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory
Evermore and evermore.

(many other verses available here)
MMerry Christmas

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Best Christmas Party Music Ever

At the end of my last post, I suggested that the appeal of a family-produced, amateur movie is analogous to the appeal of playing chamber music at home. Just to be clear, I wasn't saying that my Christmas Carol movie is on the same artistic level as the Brahms and Dvorak quintets I'd played recently. The intended analogy would be:

DickensBook : MyDickensMovie :: BrahmsQuintet : PlayingBrahmsAtHome

Here's a little more background on the right side of that analogy. My psychiatrist wife, who just happens to be an excellent cellist, was recently invited by a fellow psychiatrist, who happens to be an excellent violist, to spend an evening playing string quartets with a cardiologist and an astrophysicist. (I know, sounds like the beginning of a joke. How about, "Note that all these highly intelligent people chose not to become professional musicians, not for lack of ability but...well, because they're all highly intelligent.") I was a little jealous...not that she was spending the evening with three gentlemen much smarter than I, but that she was getting to play chamber music for sheer pleasure.

However, a week ago we were both invited back and got to spend a delightful evening reading the Dvorak and Brahms piano quintets. These are difficult works and, naturally, not every note landed in the right place, but what a thrill to play them just for thrills - straight through each work (with repeats), with no fussing about how to interpret this ritard or that articulation. Not that such details are unimportant, but as fuss-worthy as this great music is, it's also intended to be played spontaneously. (As I should have said to the astrophysicist, "Hey, it's not rocket science." I'm sure he's never heard that one.)

If the evening accomplished nothing else, it reminded me that the Brahms quintet is one of the all-time great works, maybe even deserving of a place in the MM Top 10. At any rate, I've been listening to it over and over since that night. Of course, I'm glad I have recordings that were rehearsed and edited to be mistake-free, but my interaction with those recordings has a lot to do with having interacted with the actual notes, free of the pressures of performing for a formal audience. I had rehearsed and performed the Brahms years ago in grad school and even coached it with members of the Guarneri Quartet, but it was kind of nice that I didn't remember all the details. The slow movement, especially, has many sublime moments that I'd forgotten about until my fingers ran into them. How ever much I manage to broaden my musical horizons, I suspect this 19th-century chamber music rep will always be the most important to me as a musician.

Last night, the leader of these throwback salon sessions had a big Christmas party to which we, our three children, and the cello were all invited. It was a fantastic party all around, the kids all had a great time (and got presents!), and, after dinner had been served, the instruments came out. I figured there'd be some lighthearted carol-playing, but then I noticed someone pulling out a part for the Schubert C Major Quintet (string quartet + cello). These folks are serious: this is one of the longest, most profound of all chamber music creations - unquestionably part of the MM Top 10. I do play a little cello on the side, but in this event I was on baby-holding duty while my better half spent the better half of the party reading the entire thing - with repeats, of course. Yeah, I was a little jealous, and I had thoughts of jabbing my son in the side so that he'd wake up, need his Mommy, and let me take over, but I'm sure Schubert's glad it worked out the way it did. (The other cellist was terrific, too - I'm guessing she's a neurosurgeon.)

Anyway, it was an unforgettable experience to hear this impromptu Schubert, surrounded by my three children, who all behaved (or slept) miraculously well. Yes, we had a few "are we there yet?" moments along the way (that "heavenly length" thing), but it was a blissful scene. Here's the best part: this morning, my 8-year old was spontaneously humming the so-beautiful-it-hurts 2nd theme from the 1st movement. She may have heard the music before, but definitely not lately; Schubert's heavenly length (and the exposition repeat, no doubt) did the trick. It's so satisfying to know that she was captivated by this theme, which is treated by Schubert in the most unforgettable way, maybe the most beautiful music ever - or so it seems today. In the end, there wasn't time for any carol-singing, but I'll definitely remember this "Christmas" music for a long time. True, I've still got Matthew Guerrieri's Bring Us In Good Ale stuck in my head, but if my children are humming the Schubert cello quintet, that's a great Christmas present.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Christmas Carol


[Now available at YouTube in 2 parts: Part I - Part II.]

I'm going the easy route with my final Christmas special of the blogyear - cute kids, classic story, singing fish. Like my other two holiday posts, this one draws on something from my past (and I'm pretty much out of clever Christmas creations, so next year the MMmusing stockings will be empty if I don't get to work). A Christmas Carol is my first "movie," filmed in 2000 and edited together in 2002. I'm mainly posting it because it's fun and makes me happy, but there are aesthetic points to made, as always.

The backstory is that I'd just gotten a computer powerful enough to import and edit video (remember when that wasn't routine), so on the drive down to see our large assortment of adorable nieces and nephews that Christmas, my sister and I hatched the plan of making a movie. Dickens' tale seemed the obvious choice, and somehow the casting all worked out pretty easily too. Since many of the actors were under the age of 6, the basic process was to feed lines one at a time and shoot. I made all sorts of videoing mistakes, such as not realizing that when I stopped (not paused) and then restarted the camera, I'd lose the last few seconds of the previous take. This, and the realities of shooting the whole thing in a couple of days with young children (and those annoying child labor laws) meant that the editing task that followed presented some . . . challenges. Although it took me almost two years to brave the task, I had a great time working within these rather tight constraints.

The final product is quite charming, and even features some special effects that tested the limits of the bargain-basement software I used. Of course the cute kids carry the film (my then 1-year old daughter makes a tiny cameo walking through the party scene), but the aesthetic point to be made here is that the constraints become a part of the language of the work. I wrote about that (and another family movie) in a past post, how certain flaws that would be unacceptable in one context are actually positives in another. (I was thinking something tangentially related the other day listening to Kermit the Frog sing on a Christmas album; that goofy, shaky voice would not be acceptable from just any singer, but our associations with Kermit's persona make it meaningful. Maybe the same could be said of Bob Dylan's voice, although his sound isn't as polished as Kermit's.)

Even though I'm now presenting this to a wider audience, I'll cheat and remind all that it was mainly designed as a family thing. Inevitably, there are inside jokes and an appearance by a singing fish that had been gifted and regifted a couple of times that year. There's also sadness: my then 2-year old niece, who has a small part as Mrs. Cratchit, lost a battle with cancer a few months after that Christmas. We still miss her terribly, but it's wonderful to be reminded of her, and we can't wait to see her again.

This is quite obviously amateur filmmaking (let's just say Industrial Light & Magic was not consulted for the FX), and I make no pretenses of being a real director. (Speaking also as the editor, I can say I wish we'd had a more experienced director!) On the other hand, I think it's wonderful that technology has opened up the possibilities for this new kind of art. I spent an amazing evening last night reading Dvorak and Brahms quintets with my wife and others, and although those works are certainly masterpieces by any standard, I was reminded that the joy of the chamber music experience is as much about creating art on an intimate, spontaneous level as it is the works themselves - I think homemade family movies tap into some of that same unpretentious joy and satisfaction that only art on a local scale can provide.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Snowed Under . . .

The combination of digging out from snow/ice and the giving of a final exam tomorrow means I'll be postponing Part III of the MMmusing Holiday Spectacular until Tuesday, when it will arrive without fail. (I know you're all waiting with bated browsers.) For now, I'm just trying to avoid having the MMmaison and the MMmobiles be encased in the layer of ice predicted for the morn. However, once the MMexam is over (Survey of Musical Masterworks, you see), it'll be clear sledding. (um...except for grading). At least some in my family are thrilled about winter's onslaught.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Rite of Springtone

Here's the basic chronology: way back when, Russian pagans celebrate the arrival of Spring with barbaric ritual sacrifice; time passes . . . Stravinsky and Diaghilev immortalize these pagans with a fantastically primitive ballet, featuring music that turns its back on the sort of refined Western art music that had arisen since those prehistoric times; as more time passes, this barbaric music becomes the ultimate test for an orchestra, a highly civilized sort of group for which Stravinsky's primitivism is routinely realized by having a hundred or so immaculately trained musicians collaborate with stunning precision; finally, it all comes together as technology improves to the point that I may be summoned from a sitcom via this odd blend of the primitive and the cultured:


Yes, I recently got a new cellphone; the pre-loaded selection of ringtones is horrible, of course, because "the man" wants me to buy new ones, but the bluetooth connectivity means I can finally get my own homemade ringtones onto a phone with minimal effort and at no cost. I see now that Boosey & Hawkes will sell you all sorts of classical ringtones, but there's no reason to throw good money at something that can be created so easily. In fact, I think my rite is much better than theirs; actually, this is the Stravinsky I'm now using as my default ring. It's pretty much the perfect ringtone. (Back in primitive times, when cellphones didn't play mp3s, I had to create my own MIDI-like ringtones note by note - the best was the opening of Bach's first cello suite.)

By the way, since the new phone also takes pitifully bad photos and video, my original meta-plan for this post was to use the phone to film itself (using a mirror) talking a call, but it turns out not to be that smart. When it's taking a video, an incoming call just crashes the system. Maybe things are still more primitive than I'd hoped . . .

[Part III of the Holiday Spectacular is coming on Monday . . . Don't miss Parts I and II.]

UPDATE: See also 24 specially created ringtones (including some Stravinsky) in this 2011 post.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The 12 Composers of Christmas (2.1)

[UPDATE: now available on YouTube as well]
[UPDATE 2 !: New version, with singing,  available here.]


It was a Christmas miracle. You see, in the previously posted version of The 12 Composers of Christmas, I'd chosen to interpolate a recording of Don Giovanni singing the beginning of "Là ci darem la mano." However, in my arrangement, the tune quotation needs to begin a minor third higher than in Mozart's original; as it happens, I've been playing around with pitch-shifting on some recordings to make some mash-up medleys, so I figured it would be a breeze to get Bryn Terfel to start on C rather than A. Electronic Bryn was more than willing, but he emerged from the procedure sounding much more like a tenor than a baritone. You can compare the two here: bariterfel - tenorterfel.

And then the miracle - a fine baritone walked right into my studio yesterday, quite unexpectedly, and within minutes I'd captured him singing from C in true baritone timbre. He'd never even sung the duet before - from now on he'll find it a breeze, of course, in the easy key of A. By the way, the other odd thing about my quotation is that, though the intervals are exactly the same as in Mozart, they occur on different scale degrees, so the tonal context is a little off-kilter. (Basically, the tune should start on the first scale degree [do], but my context requires it to start on the fifth scale degree [sol].)

It only qualifies as a minor miracle because this very baritone was due to arrive for a coaching 24 hours later, but I still enjoyed the spontaneity of the impromptu recording session. So now, you'll no longer have to be vexed by the wrongness of a tenor singing Giovanni. (I'd still like Stickman Beethoven to get to the downbeat a little sooner. There could be a 2.2 in the future.)

['Works cited' list available here.]

[UPDATE: Google Video is turning out to be unreliable, so I'll put this on YouTube tonight (12/12). [Done!] For the record, I've avoided YouTube, because I hate that they superimpose their name in the bottom corner of embedded videos, but that beats videos that suddenly become unavailable, as has been happening with Google the past few days.]

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The 12 Composers of Christmas (2.0)

[Version 2.1 is now available with authentic baritone sound!]



[UPDATE: A quick list of the 12 'works cited' is now available here.]

For my second "holiday special," I'm again bringing back something from my past, albeit in a new version. I first created The 12 Composers of Christmas two years ago for friends and family; last year, although I didn't yet have a blog, it got a wider audience thanks to a Geoff Edgers mention. This year I decided to enhance it a bit - there's always the danger of diminishing returns doing this, and I predict that next year I'll go too far when I add CGI animation, the London Philharmonic, and a Burger King tie-in, but I think the 2007 edition is a positive upgrade. It certainly builds on Edger's description of the song as "deliciously weird."

I liked the elegance of last year's web version, but the synth clarinet drove me crazy, and I always thought it could use some visual aids. In terms of audio, I had visions of putting together a live recording with singers, etc. this year, but I ended up relying on various electronic resources, including a cameo by an unrecognizable Bryn Terfel, whose rich baritone had to be transposed up a third to fit my arrangement. (I may yet enlist a live baritone to fix that.) There's no singing of the text, so you'll have to provide that yourself, which of course is part of the fun; but the animations are all brand new.

Maybe it's not too late to use this for that music appreciation review session you have coming up. I'll definitely be playing it for my class, which means I can justify the time I spent working on it. Actually, unlike most computer projects, this one came together pretty fast, mainly due to my commitment to letting the animations be as unpolished as possible. (Mission accomplished.)

In case you missed it, be sure to check out this year's first holiday special, The Vertical Christmas Medley. And, hopefully, there's one more seasonal surprise to come . . .

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Unchained Medley

If you had trouble picking out all seven songs from the Vertical Christmas Medley, help has arrived. You may now click on the individual pianists to hear the different tunes highlighted; but don't give up too soon. It's an interesting exercise to see what your ears can pick out of the equalized morass. Even knowing the identities of all the tunes, I find it challenging to see how many I can tune into at once - kind of like one of those magic eye puzzles. I'm always trying to get my music appreciation students to hear textures; this might be an interesting way to train ears to isolate textural components. Kind of like the Great One does in this great Canadian scene.


Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Vertical Christmas Medley

Soho the Dog's not the only one recycling holiday specials on his blog - although I agree with Matthew that there's no topping his top from last year. But hey, you can't watch Wagnerian dreidels all day long. Anyway, I'm opening the season by bringing back an old, pre-blog creation of mine. I used to call it "Sing Along with the Ives Family," since it was designed as a tribute to Charles' love for smashing tunes together. However, I'm not sure he ever set seven going at once, and if he had, he would certainly not have set them all in the same key. (Maybe I should call this "Christmas In C.")

So, in the spirit of medleys that I established last post, I'm going to call this a Vertical Christmas Medley. It's just right for our busy, modern world when no one really has time to hear seven carols in succession - now, you can have them all at once, and still have time to do a little shopping. If your ears are sharp, you might be able to pick out all seven, but I'll post the names of the tunes . . . in a day or two. I'm sure Charles himself would say it's not about the intellectual game of naming tunes, it's about letting the simultaneity envelop you and become its own melodic mass.

(click above)


As ever, I can't resist a postscript. We've been talking about Stravinsky in one of my classes, and I always enjoy breaking out the "Heart and Soul" in-two-keys-at-once party trick to illustrate polytonality. [UPDATE: See this 2008 post.] However, I've been playing it that way for so long that it no longer sounds whacked to me - nor do Stravinsky's Petrouchka clarinets or his Le sacre chords, etc. In the same way, I've been listening to my little vertical Christmas medley for so long that it sounds right. I love the way it illustrates the tendency for tunes to be more rhythmically active in the middle of measures/phrases; there's this sort of frenetic undulation as the rhythmic activity quickens and then slows. It definitely puts me in the Christmas spirit.


More MMholiday fun to come . . .

Monday, December 3, 2007

Medley-Go-Round

After reading in my last post that some Strauss made me think of Rachmaninoff, my Dad emailed to say that the intro to the last movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto always has him anticipating Mendelssohn instead. Make it so!

While putting that together*, I couldn't help but think about how my sisters and I used to love to make melodic medleys by switching midstream from one tune to another. We did this with all sorts of songs, and I can't seem to remember many of them offhand, but what I can remember is that there's a particular bridge section from a particular Broadway show that always seemed to make nice medley glue. Now I'd never tried this bridge on anything classical, so I wanted to start with something by a lesser composer, so as not to offend anyone. Make it so!

* No, those concertos aren't in the same key, but that's not gonna stop the MMmedley machine.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Metamorphosis of Don Juan?

A Bold, New Discovery
(which probably isn't new, and which certainly involved no boldness)
I've written twice before about my experiences with "found music": 1) once, when I was entranced by the strange, loopy experience of hearing works by Mozart and Handel simultaneously; 2) later, when my iPod shuffled logically from Stravinsky to the Beatles, due to an odd coincidence of sustained tension and a connecting pitch. The connection I just stumbled on tonight is much less random than either of those and may well have been observed by many before, but I haven't Googled any mentions of it. In fact, it's quite startling given its implications.

Here's what happened. I was listening to Richard Strauss's Don Juan on iTunes while doing some work at the computer (if "surfing the net" can be called work). Don Juan is a brilliant orchestral showpiece, but it ends quite solemnly, as described here by Alex Ross in The Rest is Noise: "an upward-scuttling scale in the violins, a quiet drumroll, hollow chords on scattered instruments, three thumps, and silence." (14) I don't actually know Don Juan all that well, but I slowly realized the music playing had ceased to be Don Juan - in fact, iTunes had segued right into the next work on the playlist, Strauss's Metamporphosen. I skipped back to the end of Don Juan and discovered how seamless the transition had been: LISTEN.



So, Don Juan, written in 1888, one of Strauss's earliest successes, a youthful work about a famous rake, ends on those "three thumps," - in E Minor - "and silence." It's an expectant silence to say the least because the music hardly seems resolved. In fact, the silence before the final thump is long enough to make us suspicious of the final silence. Tonight, before that silence had had a chance to be convincing, however, Metamorphosen had dawned with its opening chord on E Minor! This is one of Strauss's final works, from 1945, and it is very much the reflective work of an artist at life's end. Of this period, Ross writes, "The composer was musing in some deep way on the course of his life, perhaps questioning the philosophy of individualism that had long guided him." (337)

Two works that reveal their composer's extremes, and yet the one flows into the other as if it had been planned that way - as if Don Juan (and the youthful Strauss) had not really died, but rather entered into some sort of . . . well, metamorphosis. In fact, the sudden shift to a new harmony after the opening chord of Metamorphosen is arguably less jarring when preceded by Don Juan, because the E Minor has a context. I'm no Straussian, and I don't really know either work well, but I'll never be able to think of them separately again. Again, maybe the connection between these works has been remarked upon by others, though a quick, and admittedly unscientific Amazon search has yet to turn up an album on which the two works appear back to back. Curiously, I have managed to find references to a 1959 (?) book by Leo Weinstein called The Metamorphoses of Don Juan. However, that book doesn't seem to have anything to do with Strauss.



One little postscript. As anyone who follows this blog would know, I'm fascinated by connections that my mind makes from one musical work to another. The lingering trill in the low strings that happens about 18 seconds into the Don Juan clip above immediately reminded me of something else, and I couldn't think what, which of course is insanely frustrating - like seeing the slightly familiar face of some actor and not being able to place it. I spent about 30 minutes obsessed with that trill, playing it over and over in my mind to find the link. Frustration aside, it's a fun process and an amazing journey into how the mind and memory work - just a matter of trying to hear the Strauss trill and then letting memory search for what comes next. Finally, I started hearing an oboe finishing a phrase . . . and then . . . yes, one of the slow variations from Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Here's the Strauss and Rachmaninoff trills, back to back. Now I'll be able to sleep tonight.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Piano as Orchestra, Part 1 of ?

I wrote yesterday about wishing that Copland had created a better piano reduction for his Clarinet Concerto. It's especially frustrating because the music lends itself well to piano - piano is even prominently featured in the original orchestration; however, the version he created looks more like a study score. The other two works I'm playing on tonight's program, Debussy's Premiere Rhapsody and Lutoslawski's Dance Preludes, were originally written for piano accompaniment, although each was later orchestrated by its composer. Curiously, as wonderfully as Debussy usually writes for the piano, I don't think this is his most idiomatic piano writing either - I would have guessed it was an orchestral reduction if I didn't know otherwise.

I've always been fascinated by piano reductions. Back when I was languishing in ABDdom, I had the ongoing, though unwieldy idea of writing something called "The Piano as Orchestra." (The subtitle would have to be "Fake Your Tutti.") I still hope to tackle it some day, although the book I'd like to write would have a much broader focus than a dissertation. Basically, it would be a way of looking at all of my favorite music & meaning topics: translation, identity, faking, constraints. More specifically, it would allow me to explore one of my favorite musical activities - the sometimes Walter Mitty-like experience of pretending that 10 fingers and 88 keys can do what a full orchestra can do.

One of my favorite iPod playlists is full of various tracks that fall under this "piano as orchestra" umbrella: Beethoven symphonies arranged by Liszt; many other works, including The Rite of Spring, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Bolero (!) arranged for two pianos; Alkan's unbelievable Concerto for Solo Piano, meant to imply piano vs. orchestra (I have to write about this piece soon); Glenn Gould's astonishing La Valse, etc. It's not that I don't like orchestral color, but sometimes the B&W version provides a nice change of pace. When Strauss orchestrated his most perfect song, "Morgen," he logically handed the melody from the original piano accompaniment to a solo violin. And yet, to me, the effect is sickly sweet and no more satisfying than a colorized version of a film classic. The way that melody floats in the piano version can't be improved. (Although it's an interesting philosophical question to wonder how I'd feel if the orchestra version had come first.)

I'll close with an example that is both clearly not an ideal transcription and that also reminds me how much fun I have faking my way through a reduction without really trying to be perfect. I wish I could improvise like a jazz musician, but this video kind of illustrates what improvisation means to me, a good sight-reader who doesn't always like to practice. For my daughter' 4th birthday party several years ago, we decided to have a puppet party in which the children would make little stick puppets. Somehow, at the eleventh hour we decided also to put on a puppet show of Peter and the Wolf; my wife, my sister and I constructed the puppets the night before and then performed an abridged version of Prokofiev,with the two of them working the puppets and me at the piano.

Now given that this work is designed to show off the varied colors of an orchestra, it's obviously odd to pianocize it, but Prokofiev's music actually holds up pretty well that way. The tunes themselves are so good and full of character, and Prokofiev's music is just naturally pianistic. I'd like to emphasize that I did not practice much, so not every note goes where it's supposed to go, but I did have fun. The version below was actually shot after the party with just my daughter as the audience - we wanted one more crack at it, although there are still some technical snafus, especially with the annoying rope that appeared too early. (I tried to edit that out in the video, not always successfully.) Unfortunately, the balance is a little heavy towards the piano, so the narration gets drowned out occasionally, but you probably know the basics of the story. Honestly, I enjoy this as much for the amusement provided by the puppets and the puppetry as by Prokofiev and the piano, but polished it's not.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Coping with Copland

First of all, thanks to Alex Ross and Kenneth Woods for mentioning MMmusing recently. Ken eloquently defends Haydn's honor against my ongoing skepticism - I want to believe, I really do, and I find his kind of passionate advocacy encouraging. We'll see where I stand when the "Oxford" symphony reenters my life again for the Spring semester music history class.

Anyway, it's looking like a slow blogging week for work-based reasons. Among other things, I'm accompanying the Copland clarinet concerto in a recital tomorrow night. Nice piece, but one of my least favorite reductions to play (sorry, CS) because Copland apparently decided he needed to make his own reduction and yet not make any logical accommodations for the piano. I generally love playing piano reductions; pretending to be an orchestra is one of my favorite things about my life as a musician, but this one needs a lot of work. I have several pages that I've already re-notated to make them more workable, but I don't understand why Copland wouldn't have wanted to produce something more effective. The biggest problem is that he seems intent on keeping as much of the orchestra material as possible rather than reimagining the music in piano terms.

I'd love to write more about it, but I really should be practicing...

Monday, November 26, 2007

This makes sense...well, not sense, but...

I've been straining to find a good music-based reason to post this video.



I guess I could say it's not hard to imagine this sort of music instruction. "I just have no concept of the meter you're playing. Maybe you should take time at the barline there...well, don't take time, but stress the downbeat. Well, don't stress it, but, I mean, let us know it's there. I mean, not really there, but in your mind. I mean, you shouldn't fixate it on it; just thinking out loud, maybe imagine the barline is a favorite pet - I mean, not that, but something like that - like, say, a dog that you love - well, not love, but one that's always reliable and on time..." Not that I ever witnessed such instruction in all my years of accompanying lessons; I did catch myself telling a singer in a coaching today that she shouldn't worry about being a little bit extreme in her interpretive approach to a cadenza-like passage. After all, it's good to be extreme, but not to an extreme.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

MMmakeover

Two things drive me crazy about blogs: 1) they tend to look cluttered and inelegant, and 2) material that's more than a few days old tends to get lost in the shuffle. The stupidest little post may occupy the front doorstep while brilliant old posts languish unseen. Of course, the easiest solution to problem #2 is to avoid writing anything brilliant. As for problem #1, I've always tried to keep my blog template simple and tidy, but I'd grown quite weary of the dull, yellowed look.

So, just in time for the holidays, I've added some color and even some wallpaper to MMmusing. (And let me tell you, it took awhile to figure out how to get Blogger to let me slap up wallpaper using this template.) The Bachian background was actually something I put together for my very first website back in the late 90's - it's kind of nostalgic to see it back again. (Speaking of which, I just took a peek at some offline remnants of the old site and found one of my first GIF animations, a little graphic imploring readers to send me an email - back in the days when it seemed desirable to get email. Anyway, I've brought Email Man back. You'll find him at the very bottom of this page, still checking away.)

More importantly, I've also finally gotten around to creating a sort of index to the material I've posted in the past 9 months. It's pretty informal (as is most of the material), but still a more inviting way to dip into the archives than just blindly leaping in. There's a permanent link to the guide at the top of the right margin, or you can just go here and see what you might've missed. Or, you can just spin the wheel.

Friday, November 23, 2007

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

I've never been the biggest fan of Thanksgiving - too many memories of hectic travel, a seriously overrated menu, ridiculous shopping rituals, no presents, etc. But, I'm not against being thankful, and what I'm most thankful for about Thanksgiving is that its passing means it's time to break out the Christmas tunes. Yes, it's that magical time of year when the likes of Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis, Maurice Chevalier, Percy Faith and John Denver become part of the family, even though they know I'll want nothing to do with them on Dec. 26. [UPDATE: How could I have left The New Christy Minstrels off that list?]

Most of these ne'er-do-wells get in the door because they were prominently featured on the many Goodyear "Great Songs of Christmas" records that my family wore out when I was growing up. I lovingly transferred about eight of those LPs to CDs a few years back, and even the crackling of the old, scratched surfaces is comforting. John Denver actually makes it in by way of the improbably perfect Christmas album he made with the Muppets. ("A Baby Just Like You" kills me every time.)

But, definitely, my all-time favorite album of the season is the John Rutter/Cambridge Singers' Christmas Night. It's notable for having almost none of the most famous carols, but just about every track is a jewel, and the singing is painfully beautiful. Say what you will about Rutter, he knows how to handle this rep; the few selections of his own works also find him at his best as a composer, which is to say they are simple and direct. OK, "Candlelight Carol" is borderline, especially when a few of those easy-listening flute lines float by. By the by, if you've never heard Michael Crawford and Neil Diamond cover that song, then click their names and run for cover. I think those snippets are punishment enough for Rutter's flirtations with the easy side of the street.

Anyway, he redeems himself over and over again with the disc at hand, and the best of the best is the performance of Patrick Hadley's "I Sing of a Maiden." If you don't know it, those three minutes alone are worth the price of the disc - or certainly of the $0.99 download from Amazon. (Quick Note: I've been a big iTunes Store user, but I can't think of any reason to download anything from iTunes that's also on Amazon. Let's see: higher quality files, no annoying DRM copy-protection, and seamless integration with iTunes, at least on my computer. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out.)

So, to review: Rutter's Christmas Night is a must-hear; Andy Williams has a month to croon about what he hears, sees, and knows; Michael Crawford and Neil Diamond (!) are only welcome for tiny doses of comic relief. Oh yeah, and the Charlie Brown Christmas album rules, but everyone knows that.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Classical Vanity


Driving home from Thanksgiving Dinner tonight (in our brand-new, mid-life crisis inducing minivan), my eyes were caught by a license plate that read: 387 ANO. It caught my eyes because, in spite of my ever deteriorating memory for such things, the 387 immediately declared itself to me as the Köchel number for one of Mozart's well-known quartets. I'll be honest and admit that at the time I thought it was the number for the "Dissonant" quartet, even though I'd correctly ID'd that as K. 465 in my last post. I now realize K. 387 is a different well-known quartet, one that showed up in a couple of classes I took way back when; like baseball fans for whom 56, 406, and 714 are immediate triggers, musicians inevitably find that certain numbers have strong associations.

After spending a little time trying to make sense of the ANO, my thoughts soon turned to other possibilities for classical music vanity plates. After all, what's more vain than a musician showing off his knowledge of catalog numbers and the like? I made up my own informal rules for this. Licenses that pair numbers and letters in the usual manner are best, and awkward abbreviations are a virtual must. (Anyone could come up with the likes of CARMEN or HANON.) I like plates that are just obscure enough to make someone feel smart for getting it, but I didn't want to get too random. (No references to the catalogs of Telemann or C.P.E. Bach.) The final rule was not to spend too much time on this, so here's a quick and informal list, in no particular order, of plates I'd like to see:



















[Most are pretty obvious, but clicking the licenses should answer any questions.]

[UPDATE: Since posting, I added the graphics, including the "authentic" plate you see up above. Of course, were I to try fleeing the scene with such a license number, I'd be making things much easier for the cops. "Yeah, officer, the plates definitely said EZK 545 - just like my kid played at last week's recital -I'll never forget - I could read'em 'cause first he started driving away nice and innocent, like he hadn't done nothing wrong. Two blocks of that, with me following along in my little Alberti ride - it's Italian - and then he takes off, starts doin' u-turns this way and that - I couldn't keep up - which is funny, 'cause my boy couldn't play those scales in tempo either. I lost'im when he hit G street, but I know that was the number, EZK 545 - and you can tell he's arrogant, driving so recklessly and calling that sonata easy. You expect that kind of attitude with a sports car, but he was in a minivan. Probably has kids of his own, poor things..."]

UPDATE 2: Sarah and Rob have suggested the following. (I hope I got them right.):



Monday, November 19, 2007

Saving the best for first

I mentioned in my Tools of Engagement post how much I love Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante, but as I've listened to it several times in the past week, I've also realized that my affection for this music has an odd little hangup: my very favorite part is the very first entrance of the violin and viola soloists in the first movement. In other words, the moment that I look forward to the most takes place about 2 minutes into a 30-minute work. It's not that I don't enjoy the rest of the piece, but that soloists' entry is the highlight for me - we get to hear it one more time during the recap and that's it.

As with so much sublime Mozart, it's hard to put into words (warning: feeble attempt ahead) what makes this so satisfying, although you can hear and see for yourself here. (The solo parts begin at about 2:14; note that in this case Fischer and Nikolic have been playing along with the orchestra from the beginning.) The first thing that struck me in thinking about this opening is that pedal tones are prominent; I've written several times in the past that I'm putty in the hands of a perfect pedal point passage. In a sense, the way a pedal point passage functions is a sort of stripped-down, elemental picture of how Tonality works. In tonal music, there is almost always the sense that a certain pitch acts as a center of gravity for our hearing - with a pedal point, we just get to hear the center explicitly. (Except when it's not explicit. In Mystislav Rostropovich's inspiring discussion of a dominant pedal in Bach's 3rd cello suite, he makes the point that he hears the pedal pitch sustaining for much longer than just the measures where it's actually sounded - the power of suggestion is so strong that, until that dominant is resolved, we hear it without hearing it.)

The entire 71-bar intro to the Sinfonia Concertante functions essentially like a tonic pedal, even though only about 40 of those measures have a sustained E-flat - the bars where E-flat is not omnipresent are generally short cadential patterns that are also reinforcing the tonic, so it's basically two minutes of building tension over an E-flat. (Curiously, perhaps the most famous of all pedal points is the sustained E-flat with which Wagner's Ring commences; however, that music could hardly be more different than this.) It might seem odd to say that tension is building since E-flat is the home pitch, but Mozart manages to achieve the sense of expectation in several ways, not least in the sfp's of the two opening bars. One of the many features I like about the Fischer/Nikolic performance is the way these opening bars are handled; in some respects it's a very formulaic fanfare opening, but it's also a good example of how much articulation can matter. First a full-measure tonic chord is struck loudly and immediately turns soft, followed by a half-measure repeat of this gesture, followed finally by a half-measure dotted figure which seems to explode from the sublimated energy of the first two chords.
[Click score excerpt to listen.]


Now we're on our way, but the tension really builds from 1:29 to 1:49 with a series of trills rising in a chromatic pattern over the same E-flat. (Nikolic looks like a jack-in-the-box about to pop during this section, and he clearly loves playing the climactic viola section trills that follow.) Of course, in some respects the most important tension is our built-in expectation that the soloists need to begin soloing; in this case, however, rather than a grand entrance, the violin and viola appear unobtrusively over yet another pedal tone against the soft pull of dominant harmonies.

Mozart's flair for coloristic subtlety is quite in evidence here; the soloists are merely adding two more octaves of E-flat to the existing pedal, so for their first two sustained measures they add nothing melodically, harmonically, or rhythmically. Rather, they provide a wonderful registral expanse, as if these upper harmonics of the pedal have just naturally blossomed out of the texture, which literally rises up to greet them. They become more present as the orchestra thins back downward and finally cadences into a full E-flat harmony - the way in which Mozart subtly orchestrates (in the strict and broad sense of the term) the emergence of these octave e-flats is perfectly judged, and we're left with the impression that this sonority has existed all along.


And what a sonority it is, like some better-than-possible violin which can play octaves without the usual tension one hears in a single instrument. I'd never realized, until looking at the score recently, that the viola part calls for a scordatura tuning. By tuning its strings up a half-step (B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, D-flat), E-flat Major becomes a brilliant, sonorous key for the viola in which the open strings will naturally resonate much more often than with conventional tuning. Of course, this helps to offset the usual advantage of the more brilliant violin tone.

Even though the orchestra does resolve to an E-flat tonic chord after two bars, there's an inherent tension in those floating, emerging soloists' E-flats - a tension created by the fact that we still haven't gone anywhere, the opposite of the more normal dominant pedal effect where we're aching to get back to the tonic. The prolonged tonic tension has inspired a sort of wanderlust, so it's actually rather freeing when the "violinola" (Mozart still indulging in the sweet octave doubling) descends from its pedal perch with a liquid melody, really not much more than an ornamented scale down to the next set of E-flats. From there, the fanfare idea returns to signal the beginning of . . . well, the rest of the piece with it's expected back-and-forth between violin and viola, etc. But it's that first magical entrance that I'm always left remembering and wanting to hear again.

I know it's not unusual for the soloist(s) entry to be memorable in a concerto (dozens of examples come to mind), but it's striking when one's favorite part of a work comes so soon. Other such examples I can think of are also from the Classical period: the adagio entrance of the violin soloist in Mozart's A Major concerto fits the bill for me, but even more striking is the adagio introduction to his so-called "Dissonant" String Quartet, K. 465. I think that's one of the most extraordinary pages ever written, and I'm always left a little underwhelmed by all that follows. The same could be said of the wonderfully mysterious first pages of Haydn's Creation, after which it's pretty much all downhill, a few rousing choruses aside.

As a matter of fact, my much too-wordy attempt above to summarize the beauty of 10 Mozartean seconds reminds me of reading this fine blog post by Kenneth Woods. In it, he rhapsodizes at length on the subtleties of the introduction to Haydn's Symphony No. 92. When I read the post, I was struck by two things: 1) I know that symphony well, having been taught it and taught it several times, and while I agree that those measures are beautifully written, they're not quite as awe-inspiring to me as they are to Woods. 2) That said, it's by far my favorite part of that whole 4-movement symphony. I'm sure I'm guilty of a 19th-century aesthetic bias here, but it's as if these Classical composers put some of their best drama right up front, followed by nice, elegant comfort music. (Hideous simplification, I admit.) Of course, the Romantics took that flair for mysterious scene-setting and built entire scenes out of such mystery, and I guess I'm a hopeless Romantic.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Killing me softly

I'm a well-trained musical snob with an embarrassing ignorance when it comes to all things pop. I've been sitting here working on a pretentious post in which I try to explain something beautiful and subtle in Mozart, but a little channel-grazing led me to the long-playing version of this:



The YouTube version is a disappointing 4 minutes long, the one that I'm currently watching is 30 minutes long, but the truth is I could probably watch it for hours. I can't explain it, but I find these bizarre people endlessly fascinating, much to the dismay of my longsuffering bride. The Mozart post isn't going to make it up tonight, but I thought I'd share this little piece of myself.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Minimal Engagement

So I wrote before about having ponied up $8.99 to download an album of Mozart double concerti based largely on the inspiration of a promotional video. Now, as if to prove that video hasn't killed the classical star (was he/she dead already?), I've dropped another $8.99 on an album download, based again on the appeal of a promotional video. In my half-hearted, sort of ongoing quest to be up-to-date, I decided to invest in that big hit of 1976, Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. (I'd like the title better if it weren't so obvious. Wouldn't Music for 18 Anesthesiologists be more compelling? (And in the spell-check shock of the year, it just turned out that I spelled anesthesiologists correctly on the first try.))

I think this is my first financial investment in Minimalism since I let the Columbia Record Club send me Glassworks back in the day. I used to enjoy putting that record on and sort of letting it groove over me; actually, come to think of it, I also paid something like $0.25 for an eMusic download of Terry Riley's In C, that 46-minute track being the greatest of all my eMusic bargains (unless you're calculating value by chord changes per dollar). So why the sudden interest in Reich? Well, I saw some Internet buzz about the Grand Valley State New Music Ensemble's Reich project, and when I watched the 4-minute promo video, I was hooked, even mesmerized.

Whereas the Mozart video had me listening with renewed engagement to the entire audio download of that 30-minute work, at this point I find myself preferring the tidy little 4-minute Reich video trailer to the full 1-hour audio. I know this isn't completely fair; first of all, I have much more experience listening to Mozart than to Minimalism, and I don't doubt that the Music for 18 Musicians loses something when not experienced live. At any rate, it's not my point to be negative about the achievement of the Grand Valley State ensemble; one reason I downloaded the album was as a token gesture of support for their accomplishment, and as far as I can tell, the playing is quite successful. (Actually, I prefer their sound to the samples of Reich's group playing that you can hear here.)

I'm not surprised that I haven't suddenly become a Minimalist believer, but what interests me is how much I like this music in the brief trailer, accompanied as it by distinctly non-Minimalist images. Whereas the music is repetitive, the video consists almost exclusively of quick, rhythmic cuts from one rehearsal/performance excerpt to another. Thus, there's hardly a shot that lasts more than a couple of seconds, and the jumps are always timed to fit the lively metrical accents of the music. The pulsing energy of the music does a great job of implanting the message that these humble Midwesterners have worked with devoted diligence, and it doesn't really matter that what we're hearing doesn't literally match up with the musicmaking we're seeing.

So I guess I'm saying this music works well as soundtrack (a soundtrack to itself?), and though I don't really know all that much about Reich, it's clear how influential his sound has been in pop and film music. (As much as anything, I'm struck by how much the music sounds like it could be produced entirely by synthesizers - if not in 1976, certainly now.) Maybe the best summary of my experience so far is that I like this music as background more than foreground; again, I don't mean that to be as negative as it sounds, but I wonder if I'm not ready yet to listen to this music on its own terms. I'm sure there's a certain satisfaction in participating in a performance of such a work, but it doesn't really tap into what I'm wired to want from music.

I'm also mildly amused by the canny marketing of the Grand Valley State gang - the way they embrace their country mouse status. There's no question that the idea of a group from a low-profile school in Michigan taking on this big city music makes the whole project engaging. They even flaunt this by putting a photo of flat, flyover farmland on the CD cover. It's a great image that both underlines the group's outsider identity and suggests that maybe people in these rolling, repetitive flatlands know something about finding energy in the midst of the humdrum.


Monday, November 12, 2007

Tradition!

An inevitable downside of being a slow blogger of late is that one of the many potential blogging ideas that's been floating around in my head was just beautifully articulated by someone else. It's possible that the ultimate meaning of this is that everything I want to say will eventually be said by someone else if I just wait long enough. Anyway, Dial M for Musicology's Jonathan Bellman recently made a point I've been meaning to make about Gustavo Dudamel and the dazzling system of Venezuelan youth orchestras - namely, that this system is unapologetically grounded in The Canon of Western art music. As Bellman notes, the poor Canon has taken quite a beating in the last few decades with more and more concern that it's too past-centric, and masterpiece-centric, and Euro-centric, etc. In fact, the postmodern mindset has done well to remind us that much of how we look at the past is colored by tradition, cultural bias, etc. OK, fine.

On the other hand, sometimes it's worth remembering that these very traditions (how we think about the past) can be as important as the foundational masterpieces that comprise them. Ways of thinking about cultural objects become cultural objects themselves. Yes, there are entire schools of thinking about music that distort music history - the legendary Russian schools of piano and violin playing, for example (see below) - but at some point, these traditions and some of their handed-down distortions become invaluable as well, and that includes very strict and disciplined ideas about how to become a good orchestra musician. No, there's absolutely no reason why a Central American musical training program should be aiming to produce orchestras which excel in the music of Beethoven, Mahler, and Shostakovich - but, clearly, many non-Western cultures still find this to be a compelling and inviting tradition that isn't remotely dead.

Trying to argue for cultural superiority on behalf of the Western tradition may well be a dead-end street - or at least an invitation to have Richard Taruskin lay the smack down. Still, there must be something special about this tradition, because getting to be that good (El Sistema good) at it takes a LOT of hard work. Does the evidence that so many people will devote so many hours to mastering the intricacies of so many difficult instruments mean that Western classical music is better than other types of music? Well, that's hardly a satisfying proof - people put unimaginable amounts of energy into all sorts of things I don't care about. Still, it's something.

I kind of miss the days when I never worried about such things. I've recently been re-reading Gary Graffman's 1981 autobiography, I Really Should Be Practicing. It's a very lighthearted book, but I think one way it influenced my as a young pianist was that I completely bought into the world it describes of young pianists completely devoted to becoming great concert pianists in the grand old tradition. It never occurred to me as I leapt into training that the classical world wouldn't always exist as it did in the 1940s and 50's he vividly describes. It's a little off-topic, but my favorite story is how he insisted on playing a passage in Schumann's Carnaval as indicated in the score rather than as taught by Isabelle Vengerova, his great Russian teacher. She was outraged, insulted and humiliated. As Graffman tells it:
"Finally, she did admit that during my performance, when the shock of that scandalous moment had passed, [great Russian violinist, Efram] Zimbalist had leaned over toward her and whispered, "Is it really written like that in the music?" She confessed that she had then explained to him, "Yes, but nobody..." with exasperation, to me: "As you well know, Gary...nobody...nikto....ni kagda...personne jamais...IT JUST ISN'T DONE!"
That sums up so much of the teaching I heard in years of accompanying violin, cello, and voice lessons taught by important pedagogues. IT JUST ISN'T DONE! Obviously, it can seem silly to say that one shouldn't follow Schumann's clear directions because the cultural consensus is that it's better another way, but this kind of teaching is, for better or worse, an essential part of the classical tradition. Actually, Kenneth Woods recently took an excellent look at the negative side of this "secret handshake" way of teaching, and I agree with a lot of what he says. In fact, I agree too much because, as a teacher, my biggest fault is that I don't like to impose my will on students. Even when a student plays a wrong note, there's often a voice inside saying, "maybe he really feels it that way." Still, this opinionated, intuitive approach to music-making is an inescapable part of the music world - and part of me knows that my happiest musical memories have had to do not with worrying about what makes Beethoven relevant, but with being exposed to the evangelical zeal of the true believers who never worry about such silly questions.

And now I've sailed off course and am in danger of having another blog post sink to the bottom of the drafts folder. What's my point? My point is that there's nothing wrong with embracing not just the music, but also much of the culture of music-making that's been handed down to us. For example, I love the old yellow Schirmer 24 Italian Songs and Arias, which figures in just about every voice student's experience. Although most of the songs are from the 17th and 18th centuries, the collection is very much of the late 19th century, with wonderfully pianistic accompaniments. There are now competing editions that try to return these songs to their roots by filtering out all that Romantic interpretation, thinning out the piano textures, etc.

What's funny about that to me is that the songs have survived and been useful for more than a century because of their 19th century incarnations. If someone wants to dig up the old roots, that's fine, but there's nothing wrong with understanding the "yellow book" as it's own authentic source. The same could be said for some of the outdated editions of Vivaldi concerti that show up in the Suzuki repertoire. Which is the real Vivaldi A Minor, the one Vivaldi wrote, or the version played by thousands upon thousands of young violinists? (For the record, I prefer some of the more interesting passagework that shows up in the Suzuki version. I'm not sure of the source of that version. Future blog topic?)

Wow, I'm drifting ever further outward. I've really got to stop and I'm really tired of having no new posts, so to recap: The Western classical art music tradition ain't so bad; it's embraced by all sorts of non-Western, non-elite cultures and it's got it's own pretty lively, breathing internal culture. I like it.

Monday, November 5, 2007

A Little Narrated Music

Once again I've probably managed to bury something good at the end of an endless post, so just in case you never got there, I recommend listening to this narrated version of the famous slow movement from Mozart's Piano Concerto, K.467. The narration is by a blind student pianist, Yegue Badigue, and he tells his tale over a recording of his own performance of the piece. Not only do I like that the story doesn't take itself too seriously; I also like that this was put together rather informally, in just one take. Of course, it helps that Yegue is a natural storyteller and that he had a good sense of how the music and narrative tied together. It was quite a sight to watch his fingers flying over the Braille he'd prepared as he scrambled to stay on track.

Speaking of informality, not only did I enjoy the apparent nonchalance of Julia Fischer and Gordon Nikolic in that promo video, but I felt a twinge of sadness knowing that they probably had to go through some more tedious retakes to turn the performance into a professional CD release. It's not that I'd necessarily want an album with mistakes left in or that I disapprove of hard work (well...), but the little imperfections in the posted video help me hear the music as spontaneous. Curiously, the same night I first saw the Mozart video, I happened to run across Daniel Barenboim playing Beethoven on PBS. Maybe it was just that the works I happened to catch weren't my favorites, but I never did find myself engaged by his playing, and I don't think the ultra-serious presentation helped. Just to be clear, I'm not trying to argue for all casual, all the time. I'll pursue this "too serious" business at greater length some other time.

And, more on the Sinfonia Concertante and gospel Mozart to come . . .

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Tools of Engagement

Recently a couple of bloggers have drawn my attention to this video of violinist Julia Fischer and violist Gordon Nikolic recording Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante. There are, of course, countless recordings of classical musicians on YouTube by now; for whatever reason, I haven't been that interested, but I did find this video unexpectedly engaging, and understanding what makes music engaging (or not engaging) is a topic that has been engaging me lately.

Now Mozart would seem to be among those composers least in need of a matchmaker, but the truth is that his music, ever polished and elegant, doesn't always grab me the way I think it's supposed to. And I know I'm not alone here. I've been maintaining a class blog for a senior seminar I'm teaching, and a very fine music student recently "confessed" there to finding Mozart boring - and he got some sympathy from classmates. Hey, I've had these thoughts myself, at least with respect to parts of the Köchel catalog, although poor Mozart could hardly have expected that just about everything he wrote would be preserved and played over and over again. In fact, the specific complaint of another student was that she'd heard too many Mozart works too many times.

But, trust me, I haven't come to bury Mozart. Rather, the Fischer/Nikolic video managed, within a few minutes, to make me remember how much I love the Sinfonia Concertante, a piece I hadn't thought about for some time. The fine playing was certainly part of the reason, but I'd say the catalyst for my engagement was seeing the unpretentiously informal and joyful way in which they interacted with each other and Mozart. I'm sure it's a fault of my own that I need these little extra-musical nudges, but I find it easy to hear Mozart as superficial and to forget to tune into the inner life of the music. To some degree, this problem (which can happen with all sorts of music) is just an aspect of living in our over-stimulating world. There's so much to take in all the time, and we're so used to hearing this sort of music as background. It's not surprising that we can find ourselves listening without listening. What I find intriguing is that once the listening gets started, the external catalyst isn't really needed any more. In fact, I ended up paying to download the entire album (sans video), which is a good indicator that record companies are smart to post free videos like this. (You can watch the entire first movement at their website.)

Another recent example of an engaging catalyst came from a student who's preparing to play and conduct Mozart's Piano Concerto in G, K. 453. He's not my piano student, but I was working with him on the program notes, and I asked him how he might describe the "finale of the finale," when a playful set of variations kicks into high presto gear. (Hear here.) He mentioned that the music there reminded him a bit of gospel style - this not only immediately made sense to me, but it unlocked something in the way I heard the music. It's not so much that I believe Mozart was really channeling 20th-century gospel, but I suddenly heard an inelegant, earthy giddiness in the music that I too easily miss in Mozart. (Again, my fault more than his, but still.) I was engaged.

As I've mentioned before, encouraging this kind of engagement is my most important goal in teaching my music appreciation class. To that end, since most of the students in the class are not trained musicians, I've experimented the past few years with having students make their own "creative listening guides" for works of their choosing. The idea is that, although they may not have the theoretical tools to do a technical analysis, they can still develop enough of an affinity for a piece to find their own ways to communicate about what they hear. With these projects, I'm particularly interested in extra-musical connections, so I encourage them to work with narratives, images, video, etc. - whatever analogues to the music they can think of that might help engage another listener. I've gotten back all sorts of terrific projects, including videos, PowerPoints, storyboards, choreographies, puzzles (!), etc. Even some that weren't all that successful have managed to reveal some real engagement on the part of the student.

As it happens, one of my favorite recent projects focused on yet another Mozart concerto movement. (That's three in this post, if you're keeping score.) This case is a little unusual. The student, Yegue Badigue, is a blind pianist from Chad who actually has a recording of himself playing the famous slow movement of Mozart's K. 467 with a local orchestra. For his project, he wrote a charming story that he brought into my office typed up in Braille. While listening to his own recording with headphones, he narrated the story into a mic (in one take!) and I mixed the two together to create this. What I love about the story is its casual, conversational tone. Yes, this is profoundly beautiful music, but listening to Yegue narrate it puts an unexpectedly lighthearted, improvisational spin on the music's familiar rhetoric. I'm not trying to claim that it lets me hear it as Mozart's audience might have, but rather that the newness of the perspective renews my interest in this music.

Of course, this project does relegate Mozart to the background in a way, although there are several amusing tie-ins with specific musical events. What makes it work as a tool of engagement for me is that I can return to the music alone and still find myself hearing it freshly. I've run across other engaging overlays that are a bit too sticky; they don't come off so cleanly. Sigmund Spaeth's ghastly words to the themes of The Great Symphonies are probably the best example. I'm not going to print even one dangerous example here, although you can find perhaps the worst in this comment I made on another blog. I love Phil Ford's response there that Spaeth is a "musical neuroweapon." Suffice it to say that once you've learned Spaeth's lyrics, they will never leave you.

I'm sure there will be some who object that music doesn't need this kind of help, but in our visually-oriented, over-stimulating world, I think there's a lot to be said for letting the power of suggestion help the mind to process music. The more I think about the Joyce Hatto "problem" of reviewers finding her purloined performances more compelling than when attributed to other pianists, the more I think engagement is the main issue. I don't believe the Hatto fans intentionally dropped their standards because of Hatto's dramatic biography, but I do suspect the story flipped an "engagement switch" that just tuned them in more closely. (I suggested much the same thing in a comment here.)

It's hardly a coincidence that the common advantage I find in the Fisher/Nikolic video, the "gospel" analogy, and Yegue's lighthearted story is that they all remind me not to take Mozart too seriously - paradoxically, I end up hearing the music more deeply. You know, that sums up the way Mozart's music works pretty well.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Sweets of the Many Outweigh the Bleats of the Few - or the One.

Wow, I just spent may too much time trying to improve a link for yesterday's post. There are seemingly dozens of YouTube videos that depict Red Sox fans singing Sweet Caroline, but they all suffer from the same affliction - someone standing too close to the camera stands out too much, and those someones always sound horrendous. If you haven't experienced it (on a good night - sometimes the fans are off), you'll just have to trust me. So I'm just leaving the link I used yesterday, but the larger point is that this experience can't be captured from one little cameraphone microphone - it would be like trying to record one of those monster piano concerts where 10+ pianos are played at once. Score one for live performance. Even more remarkable is how a consensus emerges in spite of so much tone-deaf singing, but you really can't get experience that on YouTube either. Score one for the miraculous filtering abilities of the mind.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Sweet Caroling Time

Since the classical blogosphere is preoccupied with nothing so much as the endangered status of classical music, and since I try to teach a history of Western art music to non-music majors, I find myself thinking a lot about engagement - what it is, when it is, why it is that music pulls (or fails to pull) a listener into its orbit. There's nothing I want more from teaching such a class than to have students be drawn in, pulled apart, tugged at, etc by what they hear. This also has me naturally thinking more about other engaging subjects, especially as I've been more preoccupied with box scores than Bach's scores at this time of year.

Last Thursday I was lucky enough to be at Game 2 of the World Series which, remarkably, is now over after the Sox finished the sweep last night. (Yeah!) The whole experience of being at the game was spectactular, largely because of the sense of occasion; but aside from the excellent game, a couple of things stood out. First, walking through a huge Fenway souvenir store before the game, it's astounding to see how many people who've already paid unimaginable amounts for tickets are deliriously looking for ways to part with more cash in order to get the latest team merchandise. I saw a kid who didn't seem too enthusiastic about the options have his father (already holding lots of other stuff) suggest that he pick up one of the $50 replica jerseys hanging nearby. The kid wasn't even asking for it - the father wanted to spend that money! I'm not saying classical music should expect exactly this kind of engagement from its fans, but it's extraordinary to see what happens when people feel like they're part of the the experience and not just passive viewers.

Speaking of not being passive viewers... It was a terrific game, and I remember a lot about the gameplay fondly, but the other thing that's stuck with me the most is the crowd's singing of Sweet Caroline. This is now a cherished Fenway tradition - to sing along with Neil in the middle of the 8th inning. (If Wikipedia can be trusted, this song is also a singalong favorite at other sporting events, including English soccer matches, but I think Boston's taken it to a new level.) It's not a great song, but it turns out to be perfect for this sort of situation.
The song begins in a lazy, low-key way and then features the simplest of melodic ascents ("Hands, touching hands, reaching out, touching meee, touching youuuuuu") that leads up to the big chorus. What's spellbinding is the way the song sneaks up on the crowd, especially if the crowd has been cheering wildly, and the infection spreads through the "hands, touching hands part" until probably more than half of the 36,000 fans are belting out "Sweet Car-o-line, Ah, Ah, Ah, Good times never seemed so good, SO GOOD, SO GOOD, SO GOOD." My ten years as a church music director reminded me again and again that we're not really a singing culture, so even when the music is SO BAD, it's fantastic to hear this many people singing together.
I don't get to that many games, but I remember at least once when the PA system shut off the music halfway through because the game was resuming, but the fans managed to keep singing several more lines a cappella. That was really amazing. So this time, caught up in the euphoria of a fantastic game (Papelbon had just picked Matt Holliday off first in a huge play), I even sang along. And let me emphasize again, I'm no fan of Neil Diamond. I mean, he did this! (John Rutter fans may be equally scandalized by this.) But, this is just another indicator of how music is not just the music - it's also what the performers/listeners bring to it and what the Red Sox fans do with Sweet Caroline is pretty sweet.
Two other quick tangential notes from the mouth of my 8-yr-old daughter. Last weekend she had a friend over for a playdate. I was talking about baseball, and the following conversation ensused:
DAUGTHER (to friend): Who's your favorite Red Sox player?
FRIEND: I like Johnny Damon. He's not on the team anymore, though. [Actually, he's been a hated Yankee for two years now, but girls still dig the long hair he sported when he was one of ours.]
DAUGHTER: (sympathetic tone) Yeah, I used to like Johnny Damon too; (voice brightens) but then I found Mike Lowell.
Somehow she managed to sound just like someone on a commerical for detergent. "I used to think spotless whites weren't possible. But then I found All-temperature Cheer."
Then, a couple of nights later, we were playing the ever-popular "Guess Who I'm Thinking About" at the dinner table. As it happens, the person I'd chosen was Mike Lowell. Daughter of MMmusing had already made several guesses to determine gender, grown-upness, famousness, etc. Then, she said, "Is he a composer?" I said, "No," to which she responded, "Oh, that's right. You said he's living. All the composers are dead."
And indeed they are, but meanwhile Mike Lowell came through again and again and was named MVP of the World Series, so my daughter knows how to pick'em. AND, true story, I looked for a Mike Lowell jersey for her at the game and I would definitely have dropped the $50 if I'd found one in her size. (On the other other hand, I was slightly relieved not to find one. They'll probably be a lot cheaper in the off-season, especially since Lowell might not even be back next year.)