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.