Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Lenten Confession

Just by sheer force of habit, I accidentally clicked over to the Boston Globe sportspage and -before I could avert my eyes - I saw that the Celtics had actually won a game. Against a good team! Talk about a Narnia moment. Seeing that the Celtics had beaten the Rockets was more surprising than running across a run-of-the-mill faun. I actually have had no trouble so far with avoiding sports news, but I'm starting to wonder what wonders will have happened by the time Easter rolls around. Will the Celtics have won yet another game? Will the Yankees be poor and winless? Will people care about hockey? It's going to be exciting to find out . . .

Music & Narnia

Another great post from Jeremy Denk trying to articulate what it is that can make a bunch of notes (in this case, Beethoven's last violin sonata) so captivating. The funny thing is that in describing a particularly magical passage, he likens the experience of experiencing it to finding an entrance to Narnia. This made me kind of mad because I'd been working on my own less insightful Narnia analogy the past few days in the more general context of various entryways into the world of loving music. As I mentioned in my previous post, for me it was listening to Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini that sent me through the wardrobe. It's not a great analogy, because the wardrobe has no obvious logical connection to Narnia whereas Rachmaninoff obviously IS a logical way to discover music. I guess I just mean that there's something magical about the experience of suddenly hearing music differently - it's been there all along, but the Narnia moment is when you're drawn into it unexpectedly. I'm going to stop babbling about that, but I highly recommend Denk's more profound babbling. (And, yes, the fact that he let's himself babble is one of the things I like about his writing. It feels more honest than structured analysis. Maybe in another post I'll try to articulate why I'm becoming more skeptical of overly structured writing in general. It actually connects to what I like so much about the Sports Guy's writing. End babble here.)

Bye-bye, Sports Guy

One of my inspirations for starting this blog has to do with my choice of Lenten discipline for this year. In past years, I've generally tried to give up whatever variety of bad food held me mostly tightly in its grasp. I remember during my grad school years that I had found myself eating at a certain convenient Burger King about 1-2 times per day and it's possible that I'm only here today because of giving up BK for Lent that year. Anyway, although I still have generally poor eating habits, I decided this year to go after junkfood of the mind. For me, it had become clear that sports was the whopper with cheese value meal that had become more daily sustenance than treat.

Now I wish I could say that the problem was actual participation in sports (which might help offset my poor eating habits), but the two big addictions for me were reading about sports on the Internet and listening to sports talk radio. I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with either of these pastimes, but I knew things had gotten out of proportion for me and I was also realizing more and more how little free time I spend thinking about and listening to music. Of course I spend a lot of work time doing those things, but I had let myself buy into the notion that I didn't want to be bothered with music in my free time. Now, as I find myself encouraging students to attend as many concerts as possible and to do lots of listening, I realize I've been robbing myself of the very thing that made me want to be a musician in the first place. Growing up in south Arkansas, I can't say I got to attend a lot of live performances but I listened to records all the time. Interestingly, I have the same sort of off-kilter exposure to sports; growing up I saw very few live sporting events but I watched them on TV all the time, to the extent that I still in many ways prefer watching the Red Sox on TV to going to all the trouble of seeing them at Fenway Park without the benefit of replays, commentary, good sightlines, etc. I do much prefer live musical performance to the canned variety, but I used to learn so much by listening. I remember once driving halfway across the country and back for Christmas break with a big suitcase filled with CDs in the back seat. I still have very specific aural memories of driving through the South listening to Bizet's Symphony in C, lots of Poulenc chamber music, etc.

So, I've come to realize how silly it is that I teach music but don't listen to it on a regular basis, especially since I spend over an hour on the road most days. It reminds me of that great character (Tom Townsend) from Whit Stillman's Metropolitan who reads literary criticism but doesn't bother with the actual literature. So, it's not that I think there's anything wrong with reading about sports and I'll definitely go back to it, but I was just giving too much time to that brain candy. For example, not only did I read ESPN's The Sports Guy unfailingly, but I had gotten to where I'd fill the days between new SG columns by reading really bad messageboards where readers critiqued those very columns. I'd do the same thing with Gregg Easterbrook's Tuesday Morning Quarterback column - ironically, I'd grown not to like it but, rather than simply not take the time to read it, I'd read it religiously (it's always notoriously long) and then head over to footballoutsiders.com to enjoy reading all the comments slamming the column. I'd do the same thing with Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback column on SI.com, and I never really like his work. Hmmm. Of course, I won't be missing any Tuesday Morning Quarterback at this time of year since it's his offseason. However, missing out on the Sports Guy will be sad. He's a truly gifted and unique writer, but he's popular enough that he can do without me for few weeks. I'll put him in my links just to be a good sport (how many blogs link to the Sports Guy and the Lied & Art Song Texts Page?), and it will probably do me good to read less about gambling and other unhealthy SG obsessions.

I'm not sure I'm missing out on anything of value by giving up sports talk radio, but I may be putting myself (and others) in more danger by replacing WEEI with music. The advantage of listening to sports talk radio is that it only requires about 1.72% of brainpower to enjoy, leaving the rest of the brain available for little matters such as driving. Now that I'm actually trying actively to engage what I'm listening to, there's no telling where the car might end up. The Prokofiev 3rd Piano Concerto is definitely dangerous listening. As for other radio options, I have to say that after about a week of this, I'm still not sure I can convert to NPR. I try listening but the pretentiousness level is a little high for me (says the guy who brags about listening to Prokofiev in the car). So, I'll be relying on a steady diet of CD's. For now, I'm finding it fun to work my way through the warhorse piano concerto repertoire. Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was probably the first piece that really drew me into wanting to be a musician and, although now I'm sophisticated enough to know how to pretend that showy piano concerti are kind of lowbrow, it's fun to return to that for recreational listening. I got through four straight commutes listening to the Ravel Concerto in G over and over.

Definitely, the big sports sacrifice will be to give up March Madness, but my 14 years of living in Boston have pretty much converted me to the typical Bostonian nonchalance about college sports - and besides, nothing will ever top 1994 when Scotty Thurman's rainbow 3-pointer brought my beloved Arkansas Razorbacks their first title. The fact is I don't keep up with college basketball much during the regular season so, although I could easily get myself up to speed enough to take in 10-20 tournament games, it will be an interesting experiment to just let that all go by without me. I'm always amazed how once you put a little distance between yourself and something that seems indispensable, it suddenly becomes dispensable.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Hooray for Hatto

Here's the funny thing about the Hatto scandal. Although it's pretty clear that her husband is simply a scam-artist who is probably incapable of being truly honest, this remarkable scandal has really been a good thing. Not just something fun to write and blog about, but really a win-win for the classical music industry. Who has really been hurt, other than a few enthusiastic reviewers who are probably embarrassed to have been taken in? Even they need not be embarrassed because they seem to have been responding genuinely to fine piano playing and an inspiring story. The scam was so brazen that they logically assumed it to be too brazen to be a scam. Whether Joyce Hatto or her husband, W. H. Barrington-Coupe, have been damaged by this is hard to say; she's now getting more attention for the apparent real career she had (such as the much talked about recording of Bax's Symphonic Variations) than she otherwise would have. He seems to have had his little moment in the sun and he doesn't give the impression of being the type who experiences a lot of shame.

Meanwhile, the classical piano world is in the news! Recordings of little-known pianists have been discovered! This also brings attention to some of the smaller labels and we're all reminded that there's a lot of talent out there. Remember when George Costanza pretends to be a tourist from Arkansas to impress a travel guide. He convinces her that he's already managed to get an apartment, a job with the Yankees, etc. and says, "You know if you take everything I've ever done in my entire life and condense it down into one day, it looks decent." Well, if you condense the work of all these pianists into one, we discovered that their accomplishments were really worth something. They just needed a galvanizing force to get recognition. That's where Joyce Hatto comes in. It's a timely reminder to the classical music world that great music-making goes on all the time all over the world and it's not only made by the superstars.

Yeah, right . . .

Joyce Hatto's husband has finally admitted to the fraud that everyone already knew was a fraud. This confession is just about useless, filled as it is with more unverifiable explanations about his beginning by only borrowing small sections of other recordings to cover moment's when Hatto's playing was marred by "grunts of pain." The cancer, remember. Obviously, it's tragic that she suffered from this cancer, but her husband is clearly still playing that card to elicit sympathy and build what is almost certainly a fraudulent sob story to excuse what he did. Conveniently, he seems to have destroyed all the evidence and hopes the world will just believe he started out with the best of intentions, just covering a little grunt here and there, and somehow ended up stealing entire performances. I hate it when that happens.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

one more perspective (for today) on musical meaning

I spend a lot of time in classes trying to talk to students about why certain musical works are important. Not so much why a work is historically important - that can usually be established with some dates and a simple narrative. The much more interesting and challenging question is why the particular sounds of a work are meaningful to listeners. How do notes communicate? I'll probably spend the rest of my life chasing that around, but this meditation by Jeremy Denk on a movement of a Schumann trio shows the way. What I love is how eloquently he gets across the experience of the listener/performer feeling the music unfold. I especially like the line: "I think this is the sort of 'melody' that could not exist before musical notation." It suggests that the music is not just communicating as a mass of sounds, but that it is composed in a way that expects involvement from the listener - in other words, the listener's experience of these unfolding events is crucial to what the music means. That doesn't mean the listener needs to see the score or be able to follow all the analytical detail that Denk provides, but it does suggest that a real immersion in Schumann's language is an essential part of hearing what's there.

Virtuosity can be funny!

As I wrote below, the Joyce Hatto story is partly based on understanding that much music isn't just about the musical sounds; it's about the performer and our appreciation of his/her efforts to scale mountains of notes. This is more humorously illustrated in this wonderful bit from two musical comedians I'd never heard of. Never was a big fan of Viktor Borge, but these guys make me laugh.

Anyway, the idea that this pianist supposedly needs extensions to get all the notes covered in Rachmaninoff's most famous piece shows us again that as listeners we 're interested not just in the musical sounds, but in the technical gymnastics that the performer must go through to make the sounds. Although this particular piece doesn't really require huge hands, its appeal is partly based on the way that it exploits the full sonority of the piano and gives the audience the sense that the pianist is swallowing the instrument whole. I can still remember looking at this score for the first time and being overwhelmed by the sight of four musical staves bound together as one. One could even say that the visual of the score is part of the meaning of this music and certainly the visual of the pianist reaching back and forth across the keyboard is part of the meaning. We simply wouldn't get the same effect if two pianists played this work with four hands.

It's an interesting idea, this concept that a physical constraint changes the way we hear music. Like many other piano teachers, I often find myself telling a piano student to feel a large melodic interval the way a singer might feel it because of the physical sensation a singer experiences when reaching for a note an octave or more above. The assumption is that a good listener will also feel the vocal expanse of the interval if the performer suggests it effectively, even if the reach for a pianist is trivial. Although the humorous performance linked to above isn't intended as a real interpretation of the piece, I found it quite interesting just to listen to it without watching the silliness as the pianist waits for each new chord extension to be handed him. Hearing those excruciating pauses actually communicates something real about this supposedly hackneyed piece. The physical struggle matters in music such as this.

Tip of the Hatto

I decided to start my blogging career by musing about the irresistible Joyce Hatto story that popped up within the past week. The basic plot goes like this: Joyce Hatto, a fairly obscure British concert pianist whose career had been cut short by cancer in the 1970's, began recording much of the enormous classical piano repertoire in the 1990's and had left behind well more than 100 CDs when she died in the summer of 2006. Although the recordings were all privately issued by Hatto's producer husband, they had already become somewhat legendary because of the astounding quality of her playing of an almost impossibly broad range of demanding music. It now turns out to be likely that most, if not all, of these recorded performances were simply lifted from the CDs of a wide variety of pianists, some famous and some fairly obscure. You can catch up on the details all over the web; the remarkable Wikipedia is a good place to start. (Say what you want about Wikipedia, but it turns out to be a very useful clearinghouse for an emerging story such as this one. Every time I go back to the Hatto page on Wikipedia, there seems to be new information. There's certainly never been an encyclopedia that could function at all like this.)

Anyway, I think the story is a useful starting point for looking at how the classical music world functions and for thinking about how it is that we interact with music. First of all, it's a reminder that our reaction to a given musical performance isn't just about the music; it's not just about the notes on the page and it's not just about the sounds that result. There can be little question that one of the things that drew reviewers to Hatto's recordings in the first place is the sheer awe-inspiring size of her discography. That, coupled with her compelling biography (fighting cancer and age) would only naturally color one's listening. After all, so much of the virtuoso piano repertoire is of interest partially because we marvel at those who can play all those notes well. Part of the meaning of such music comes from our assumption that the performer has followed the rules and met the challenge fairly. When the subject in question is a pretty much unknown woman who is recording at a virtually unprecedented pace while fighting cancer and entering an age at which technique often begins to falter, well, that's bound to change how one hears. If it were just about the notes, no one would care if a pianist performing a Chopin etude had a pianist friend nearby who'd occasionally jump in and help out with an awkward leap. I've often joked with page-turners about having them help out with a few hard-to-reach bass notes when I'm playing difficult chamber music repertoire. If all that mattered was the musical sounds, it would be completely logical to have a page-turner help out in this way at times.

Likewise, we wouldn't care if we learned that some intricate counterpoint in a Bach fugue had been overdubbed in a studio. Although the degree to which edited recordings have affected our hearing and expectations is an important discussion for another time, the fact is that we listen to most of the classical repertoire with an important accounting for the human factor. So, almost all those who sat down to listen to Hatto recordings for the first time almost certainly brought with them the knowledge that she had an apparent command of virtually the entire rep. Think how different it would be to receive a recording of, say, the Goldberg Variations and learn that the pianist had devoted 20+ cancer-stricken years to that work alone. The biography would still be important as the listener would be more inclined to believe that the performance sprung from a certain intimate knowledge of that work, but the assumptions about the pianist's technical equipment would be quite different.

Of course, whether or not the early Hatto enthusiasts were biased by her bio when listening, there can be little question that the unique bio and discography helped bring attention to her in the first place. One of the great ironies here is that she is now much more famous because of the uncovering of fraud, and by strange extension, there are many little-known pianists who might now more receive more attention than they otherwise would have ever gotten. Think of it: there are now these pianists whose recordings came out years ago who have lucked into fresh and incredibly enthusiastic reviews of their work. Of all the conspiracy theories that have been floated, here's a particularly crazy one I've come up with. What if a group of pianists decided they could get more attention for their work by having reviewers listen to all their different recordings as if they were by the same person? Because of the superstar name-recognition fixation that afflicts the classical music world as much as the world at large, this would have the effect of letting many performers benefit from the superstardom of one. It's kind of the equivalent of having all of their performances hooked up with a big movie, except here the focus is entirely on their performances and they get attention from many serious pianophiles. Then, once the hoax is uncovered, all the performers still benefit by association with this mythical figure. Their playing made the myth work. Now, I don't believe this theory for a second and it would be extremely difficult to pull off without getting caught, but notice that the effect is not that different than if someone had planned things this way. Maybe Joyce Hatto and her husband even envisioned this as a way to bring credit to performances that they thought to be the best of the best. Doubtful, but that's about as optimistic a spin as one could put on this whole thing.