Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Subspecies of the Blue Bird

[The music player that was embedded in this post no longer functions; needs updating. Apologies. Will try to fix some time...UPDATE: Fixed, more or less!]

After posting yesterday's piano version of Stanford's The Blue Bird, I wondered what readily available recordings might be out there for the curious reader who'd never heard it sung before. I already pointed to the fantastic Cambridge Singers' version, downloadable via iTunes, but, wondering if some might prefer not to invest the $0.99 required, I wandered over to Wikipedia and discovered that Stanford's bio page features one audio file - and it is, of course, The Blue Bird. This is good, I thought. Then I listened and, well . . . it's not really the blue bird I've come to know and love.

There turns out to be a reasonable explanation for this - the performance is a multi-track recording in which a single countertenor performs all the parts. I mean, it's an impressive accomplishment, sort of (actually the "sopranos" sound much better than the tenors and basses, but there's some sketchy intonation and some frightening vowel sounds), but I kind of resent that Wikipedia allows this to be the aural representative of Stanford's little masterpiece. I snooped around the Wikipedia page history a bit and discovered other complaints, but apparently the Wikipedia reasoning is that 'tis "better to have something free and bad than nothing at all." [UPDATE: As of March, 2013, this recording was finally removed from Stanford's Wikipedia page, but you can still hear it here.]

So, seek that out at your own risk. Coincidentally, another recording I've run across also features just one performer in a multi-tracked performance. The English cellist Matthew Barley has recorded an entire CD of himself as cello orchestra, and the results are much more professional and seamless than the countertenor's - in fact, it's quite remarkable how well Barley has pulled this off, although I'd like it better if his bluebird didn't slide so often. It's fascinating to compare this ultra-rich version with my little barebones piano account.

I've mentioned many times that I love all the complex identity issues involved when considering a "work" in various transcriptions/ translations. Below, you can sample the way in which these wildly different sonorities and settings depict the same little bird. I even threw in a sample of the multitracking countertenor, plus a schmaltzy version by Charlotte Church's apparent heir apparent. Still, I think the simplicity of the piano really holds it own, biased though I may be.

Cambridge Singers
MMmusing Piano
Barley's Celli
Multipled Countertenor
New Age Celtic Teen Chanteuse

Speaking of impressive multitrack performances, you should check out Doug Yeo's one-of-a-kind recording of The 1812 Overture, with Doug playing all parts on the serpent, that crazy, half-forgotten instrument. Doug is the bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony, and I've gotten to know him a bit, although I've never heard him play the serpent live. The Tchaikovsky is something else, but I'm just as glad he didn't try doing this with The Blue Bird.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Songs Without Singers #6

Grades are done! They have been turned in! They weren't due until tomorrow morning at 9am! To celebrate the achievement, I went into the empty recital hall on a blissfully abandoned Memorial Day campus and crossed a new frontier in the Songs Without Singers series. Whereas the first five songs I'd recorded (Chausson, Strauss, Poulenc, Schubert, Hoiby) were voice/piano pieces without the voice, this is an a cappella choral piece without the chorus - and a very slow-moving piece at that, with lots of floating, sustained harmonies. In other words, it necessarily sounds a lot different than C. V. Stanford intended, but we pianists can't help falling in love with the black and white piano sound. Sometimes I know that I deceive myself, because the piano sounds that I actually hear are augmented internally by a halo of imagined sounds, in this case John Rutter's flawless Cambridge Singers. But, although this is really a topic for another day, the fact is that we're always hearing with an internal halo of associations, memories, etc.

Anyway, that doesn't help you if you don't know Stanford's The Blue Bird, but then you really should know it because it is THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PART-SONG EVER WRITTEN. Here's a sample of the Cambridge Singers' version, available at iTunes here. And here is my humbly submitted version, a Steinway trying its best to sustain Stanford's sumptious series of sevenths sonorities. (Specifically, the magical minor seventh chord is the primary sonic source material. In fact, the song is a wonderful study in the sound of that chord.) You can also find my version in the jukebox over in the margin and at the brand-new MMmusic.

Recording this also brought back memories of all the wonderful years I spent accompanying choruses. In fact, the whole Songs Without Singers concept brings back memories of voice lessons and coachings in which a singer or teacher asks me to record a song on tape, melody included. I've always gotten a kick out of trying to make those little recordings satisfying, so it's fun to be doing it more purposefully, although I hasten to add that I'm still trying to do this in the spirit of impromptu piano blogging. Speaking of which, let the piano speak. I'm off to watch the Celtics. (By the way, no, I'm not looking to start a little kiddie zoo, in spite of the fact that my last two posted songs are the lamb and the blue bird.)
UPDATE: See also Subspecies of the Blue Bird

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Second Thoughts

I don't love my last post, mainly because I myself get tired of blogs that focus on what others are doing wrong. I led off by saying how much I'd enjoyed going to see a taping of From the Top, and then pretty much picked it apart - not very gracious of me. I'd like to reemphasize how much fun we had seeing the show and how difficult I believe it is to pull something like this off. (That's why I invoked Leonard Bernstein's name at the end of the post - there aren't many who've shown his ability to talk about music meaningfully, but unpretentiously.)

So, although I suggested I find the format a bit forced, I'd also like to reemphasize how much I admire Christopher O'Riley's abilities. He does have a winning stage presence, and I suspect if he were given more freedom to be spontaneous, the show would benefit. I'd like to think that an advantage of taping for future broadcast is that they could take more chances and then edit out things that don't work, but I may just be naive about the production challenges involved.

I also can see how the following that I wrote could be misinterpreted: "[the young performers] sit and play music that has the power to transport us - and then transport us immediately back to the banal with talk of little personal idiosyncrasies, favorite bands, etc." I can just hear Greg Sandow saying, "see, there goes another classical snob saying that popular bands are trivial and banal." Well, the imaginary Sandow would have a point - there is potentially something to be learned from hearing about the wide range of musical interests young musicians have, and I was wrong to dismiss it so lightly. I can't help feeling that these interests are often highlighted more to make a point about "cool kids" than about wide-ranging musical values/connections, but I could be wrong about that too.

Finally, I suggested that I'd like the show to tell us more about the music - and especially what the performers think about the music. (For example, I'd love to know if any of the Dvorak quintet players melt the same way I do during that section I cited.) It's true that many highly gifted musicians aren't that good at articulating such things, but that's where one would depend on the skills of a good host, and I think O'Riley would be up to the challenge. Still, maybe I'm in a minority when it comes to the whole "what to listen for" question.

When I taught a senior seminar that focused on writing program notes, I asked my class what they found useful in program notes they'd read. I was assuming they'd like notes that helped them "follow" the music (like what I try to do here), but many tended to prefer anecdotal information about the composer's life, reason for writing the work in question, etc. Perhaps some audience members would get more out of the Grosse Fuge by getting to know the performers informally rather than knowing how it's structured or what happens in the music or what passages are most moving/thrilling to the performers. Perhaps. I think a lot of the challenge is in doing the "what to listen for" thing judiciously and winsomely, but that's a topic for another day.

At any rate, From the Top is to be congratulated, not only for supporting and showcasing this talent, but for giving lots of generous scholarships, promoting educational outreach efforts, etc. I should probably listen to the show more often before being too sure of my own reaction, and maybe I'm just too much of a music geek to be in the center of the target audience. By the way, when I mentioned that some performers played cut versions of their pieces, I didn't mean to imply that I'm against cuts in principle, although I would have loved to hear more music at the taping. I'm a big believer in the durability and flexibility of great music, even when it gets chopped up, and some contexts make shorter versions desirable. I can see why the narrative aspect of the show could suffer if there's too much uninterrupted playing - people can get uninterrupted playing from CDs. But that's also a topic for another day.

And speaking of all these topics for other days, I'll have my grading finished on Tuesday, so perhaps more regular blogging will commence. For now, back to grading . . .

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Normal Geeks?

[UPDATE: See Second Thoughts on this post here.]

I saw my first live taping of the From the Top radio show a couple of nights ago - it was a thoroughly entertaining evening, in part because my date (my 8-year old daughter) found it so engaging, and it surely didn't hurt that Hilary Hahn was the special guest artist. I have to admit I've never been that taken with what I've heard of the show on the radio or with the couple of episodes I've seen of the TV version, although it's certainly a well-intentioned enterprise. In some ways, the show encapsulates some of the problems (see Sandow, etc.) that classical music faces in the cultural marketplace. Here we have these extraordinary young performers who can do wonders with their instruments, but in a way and at a level that only a small percentage of the general public can really "get."

The show wants to build a bridge on the human level, by showing us how "normal" and down-to-earth such kids can be and connecting everything with amusing banter - except that the kids really aren't normal, and the banter isn't generally very amusing. The talk always sounds pretty forced and contrived on the radio, so it wasn't a big surprise to see host Christopher O'Riley reading from a script most of the time. As for the normality of the kids, well, sure, some of them may like sports and hip bands and cool fashions, etc. and there's nothing wrong with that, but it remains a pretty countercultural thing to spend the hours necessary to be so skilled as a musician. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with a classical kid being conventional in lots of ways, but let's face it, they're on the show because they're extremely good at something unconventional.

What I feel tends to be curiously underemphasized is the music itself (the stuff they're good at!) - we hear marvelous performances (though no mention was made that a couple of works were shortened significantly), but the performers don't really talk much about the music, and there's virtually no attempt to help the audience know what to listen for. I'd love to hear the young musicians talk about what passages they love, or demonstrate what makes the music difficult or exciting. Instead, they sit and play music that has the power to transport us - and then transport us immediately back to the banal with talk of little personal idiosyncrasies, favorite bands, etc..

There was an astounding young string quartet from the Boston area that played Beethoven's Grosse Fuge (abbreviated) - the playing was thrilling on multiple levels, and while there was some talk afterwards about how this was a particularly audacious undertaking for a new quartet (this was the first piece they played as a group!), there was no talk about why the music is daunting or intimidating, and yet still worth learning. Imagine if the musicians were given a chance to demonstrate favorite passages or tricky ensemble moments. (There's a reason why instant replay of critical moments is so appealing in sports.) I even think the audience would love having a student describe why a particular moment might have gone awry. Talk about getting to the humanity of it all.

Still, such a show is not an easy thing to pull off, and I'm glad they're trying. And anyway, Hilary Hahn was a fantastic guest; I could not have been more impressed with her graciousness and humility - she comes across as remarkably down-to-earth and also fully comfortable with being a music geek. I believe at one point she said something along the lines of "music geeks are cool" - the show is desperately trying to tell us these kids aren't geeks, but Hahn knows better. She's also not a bad violinist. We got to hear her and O'Riley in the kinetically frenetic 2nd movement of Ives' third sonata and playing a movement from a Schubert trio with a young cellist. But, the highlight was the concluding performance of the scherzo from the Dvorak quintet with Hahn, O'Riley, and three members of the amazing young quartet. Everything about the playing of this piece was great, but I especially love that moment in the trio when the hyperactive dance mode quietly mellows into a simple, walking viola melody. The simplicity of that kills me every time. (Here's that passage played by Joyce Hatto and the René Köhler String Quartet.)

But getting back to the basic tension of such a show - they're presenting incredibly sophisticated music and performers, but trying to pretend it's all lighthearted and normal, just like teens hanging out at the mall. And strangely, amidst the blatant pandering (ooh, O'Riley watches South Park!; (not that there's anything wrong with that, but its mention felt like an affectation)), there are many moments of insider talk that would completely confuse the uninitiated. The name Curtis was thrown about as if this music school were as well-known as Harvard; O'Riley pointedly congratulated Hahn for her latest album that proves the Schoenberg haters wrong, yet he seemed to assume everyone in the audience would know that Hahn just released a widely praised recording of the Schoenberg concerto, and he further assumed that the audience would understand the historical tensions at play in audience receptions of Schoenberg.

Still, I feel kind of guilty for being critical - I find the O'Riley hosting act to be forced and mostly unfunny, but I'm not saying I could do better (or as well), and he's a fantastic pianist. Also, seeing him reminded me that he's maybe the best model for piano blogging* that I know of, even though his website isn't maintained as a regular blog. He's been posting free recordings (often from the radio broadcasts) for a long time now, including quite a few Songs Without Singers (my recent obsession)! In his case, he's making the piano solo case for songs of Radiohead, The Bad Plus, etc. He played an abbreviated version of one of his TBP songs at the taping and, though I found it kind of meandering and unappealing at the time, I've since enjoyed hearing his longer version posted here. The man has also posted for free an entire album of his Stravinsky piano recordings.

One last parenthetical bit - I don't really "get" the live radio show thing. Being a radio show, the listening audience is, in theory, the primary target, and yet my sense is that these things are much more fun in person, and designed to be that way. I always get bored listening to "A Prairie Home Companion," but I think being there would be fun - and at least those are more or less broadcast live (I think). From the Top is fun to watch because they make it a fun live show, but whatever spontaneity there is in the hall tends to get lost when edited for later broadcast. Maybe they just need a Leonard Bernstein to lend a hand.

* I've been defining "piano blogging" as: "informally recorded performances that are posted in the same spirit as written blog posts - more about making a point than perfection of execution." (e.g. the piano isn't always tuned; the music isn't necessarily rehearsed, etc.) In other words, a pianist blogging via the 88 keys, not the QWERTY keys.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


It's time for a little redecorating here again at MMmusing - perhaps you've noticed the new menu buttons above for MMtube, the MMguide, and a new outpost, MMmusic. This is all part of an ongoing effort to make archived blog content, especially multimedia, more accessible. As I mentioned recently in a comment over at Dial M for Musicology, I find that the typical blog structure emphasizes the ephemeral nature of blogs by always focusing on the latest post. YouTube has made it easy to set up a dedicated page for most of my video/animation creations, but I wanted an easy way to archive some of the audio that's appeared here. The little jukebox over at the top of the right margin [UPDATE: no longer there!] was created with that in mind, but I decided a longer playlist belonged on its own page; thus, MMmusic, a more diverse jukebox that currently has 23 tunes at the ready. It begins just like the one on this page - a sort of virtual piano recital - but then things get odder. Hopefully, the playlist will get longer and more interesting in the months to come.

I have to admit that part of me just likes tooling around with these blog layouts and getting Blogger to do all sorts of things it's not necessarily designed to do. (I have a subversive side, even if it's rather subtle; don't forget about those crazy Songs Without Singers over at MMmusic.) The Guide to MMmusing is also worth checking out if you're curious about what's been going on here (although that index is already getting a little dated): Tune Theft, Joyce Hatto, Christmas Specials, etc.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Songs Without Singers #5

Installment #5 of Songs Without Singers was recorded in true piano blogging fashion - a spur-of-the-moment chance to get into the recital hall on a rainy graduation morning (today) provided the opportunity. I had to pull out two 9-foot grands to get my hands on the right one, and it was a race against time before faculty began showing up for the robing, etc. I wanted to get this recorded last weekend in honor of my son's baptism, which took place on May 11, but lack of access to in-tune pianos proved a hindrance. (Not that it kept me from recording my first two SWS!) Speaking of intentions: dating back to the baptism of my oldest, I've had the idea of bringing in a soprano to sing Lee Hoiby's The Lamb for the service, but I never made it happen. Oh well. So, this is for all three of the little lambs who make my life so delightful.

I think this is pretty much a perfect song - yeah, the musical language is a little sappy, but this is where we invoke that important law of aesthetics that says "Who cares? It's beautiful." I like a lot of Hoiby's songs, but none more than this, and, unlike what I've suggested about some of these songs without singers, I think the sentiment of the music is inseparable from the sentiment of Blake's poetry - so much so that the poem is worth printing as a companion to this piano version. The SWS version can be heard here or in the MMmusic jukebox.

Little Lamb, who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed,
By the stream and o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I'll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I'll tell thee:
He is callèd by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild:
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are callèd by His name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!

William Blake, Songs of Innocence

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Songs Without Singers #4

Today's entry features my first foray into Schubert, a good time to re-emphasize that my goal here is somewhat different than what Liszt had in mind when he turned Schubert songs into piano pieces. My performances are less new creations than they are realizations of the piano-vocal scores as piano solos. With this presentation of Schubert's Nacht und Träume, I'll make the scandalous revelation that I did not consider the original text at all - this ravishing music may have been inspired by verbal poetry, but it stands on its own as musical poetry. In fact, I'll make the even more embarrassing admission that, for years, I loved Schubert's setting of Der Erlkönig with little more than passing concern for its dramatic story. Of course, that song is even more remarkable when understood as musical drama, but it's hardly surprising that Goethe was skeptical about how Schubert had served his poetry - the music is so captivating that one can easily not care about the artistry of the words. And, no, I'm not going to be posting Erlkönig as a "song without singer" any time soon; I'd need to contact my HMO first, and many pianists have already recorded the Liszt version (easier than Schubert's accompaniment!) anyway.

So, here is Nacht und Träume, unadorned by vocalizing. It's also now part of the MMmusic jukebox over in the margin.

[P.S. Somehow I managed to avoid the obligatory superlative in describing this song; let's rectify that by noting that it is probably my favorite of all Schubert songs (of which there are more than a few) and mentioning that it features the most heartstoppingly perfect modulation in the history of humankind. I don't care what Greg Sandow says, to bask in that modulation is to experience art at the deepest and most meaningful of levels, even though I have no idea of what that experience means, and I don't really care what it might reflect about German Romantic poetry or life in the early 19th century or nights or dreams or Schubert's inner life or romantic relationships or key relationships or modulating techniques or whatever. It's just awesome.]

Monday, May 12, 2008

Popcorn Post

You can't eat just one piece of popcorn, and it turns out that having just broken a blogging silence with the least substantive of posts, I suddenly have the urge to blog again. Where was that urge the last 10 days?

Anyway, putting aside the larger and more complex issue of the classical music world at large and looking at my own aesthetic tendencies, I'm struck by something my "Songs Without Singers" posts may say about my reactions to Greg Sandow. Whereas Sandow just posted a critical takedown of a classical song recital that he found to be too safe and distant from the dark and uncomfortable world of the Baudelaire poetry that was being sung, I've been posting recordings of songs for which I find the words entirely superfluous. I don't mean that the words aren't an important part of these songs as artworks, but rather that the songs can stand on their own as piano pieces appreciated entirely for their musical qualities. I think it's wonderful that music can say things external to itself, but whereas Sandow seems to think that the connection to external meaning is essential, I'm probably most deeply drawn to the music for its own sake. I love to talk and think about meaning in music (thus, this blog), but I became a musician not so much for what music tells me about this or that, but because of what the music itself means to me. Sandow has challenged me on just what this sort of meaning might be, so hopefully I'll be able to come to terms with it in posts to come.

A blog reader we'll refer to as MMmom recently pointed out to me that my "Songs Without Singers" sort of do the reverse of my visualization projects. Whereas my videos/animations add imagery to help follow the music, the song recordings subtract verbal imagery. However, note that my experiences in visualization have the goal of focusing the listener more closely on the music. Just as I've suggested that the typical music visualizations (such as the Fantasia films) tend to divert our attention from the music, my singerless (and word-less) songs are also intended to focus on the music for its own sake. The truth is, there are art songs that I loved and played for years without ever really caring about the texts that were being sung - I'm not saying I've been right to feel that way or that I've never felt otherwise, just that the heart of my attraction to music tends to be in the sounds, not the stories.

The Sounds of Silence

Sorry for the silence here - it's just the whole end-of-semester crush as much as anything. Also, I put some of my blogging energy into some comments over at Greg Sandow's blog. I really like his blog and the questions he's asking about the future of classical music, even though I find his conclusions problematic at times. However, I don't have time to flesh all that out right now - there are so many intersecting issues and, though to some degree I think he and I just want something different from music, I think there's a lot to be learned exploring the challenges he's put out there. I've probably multiplied enough words at his place, so I'm hoping soon to tackle some of the same issues here, especially regarding meaning in music. For example, this kind of Sandow statement drives me crazy: “The classical music business, as we know it today, is among much else a glorious basking pool. We can love that, if we want, but we shouldn't confuse this with art.” So much to say about that!

My far-from-polished comments on Sandow's blog can be found here (one short and one long comment) and here, although you'd have to trace your way through many months of his posts to get the full context.

[Oddly, comments to his posts are presented from new-to-old, which is a little confusing, since often the comments are commenting on comments below. In other words, read the comments from the bottom up.]

Friday, May 2, 2008

Songs Without Singers #3

For the third in my voice-less song series, I'm not quite piano blogging; instead, I've posted a recording from a recital I gave a few years back. During the intermission for that recital, I was thinking about the fact that I didn't have an encore prepared. I pulled a Poulenc volume off the shelf, opened to my all-time favorite song, played through it and decided it would be just right. (I was inspired by a suggestion the late Dr. Robert McCoy once made in vocal lit class about this accompaniment being satisfying on its own.) So, after toiling through Brahms' Handel variations, I walked onstage with book in hand and played Fleurs sans singer. It was at least as impromptu a performance as the Chausson and Strauss songs I posted earlier this week.

{Listen here or in the new MMmusic jukebox.}

In other blog news, perhaps you've noticed the new little MMmusic jukebox over in the margin. It now includes the three singer-free songs, plus the Poulenc mouvement perpétuel I recently videoblogged about; to add a little weight, I also decided to tack on two Scriabin sonatas from a 2006 recital. They're live performances, so they're far from perfect, but these are such crazy wonderful works. They each begin as quietly and contemplatively as the other pieces on the list, although they don't stay that way. All in all, a pretty quirky jukebox recital.