Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Re-mixed Multimedia Musing Machine

I've spent the first part of my 'Thanksgiving Wednesday' being thankful there are no classes today and updating the 'ol MMmusing Multimedia Musing Machine over there in the margin. It hadn't been tweaked since March, so there was lots to add, which puts the number of possible random outcomes at well over 100. I'm quite proud of this little homemade widget; it's not as automated as I'd like, but refilling it is a fun way to revisit various topics from the past months and to remember that I have posted a lot of material in spite of not blogging as frequently as I'd like. George Costanza once said, while trying to impress a NYC tour guide who thought he'd just moved in from Arkansas, "You know if you take everything I've ever done in my entire life and condense it down into one day... it looks decent." To paraphrase, "if you take everything I've ever done in my entire blogging career and condense it down into one looks decent."

There are lots of terrific music blogs out there, but I think mine can at least claim to have a higher-than-normal number of self-generated multimedia creations, for whatever that's worth. Yes, the MMmMmMM does link to some content created by others that I merely cited to make a point, but I can still take the blame for most of what you'll land on if you take it for a spin. And the great thing is, if you don't like where you land, you can just spin it again. Hopefully, you'll land on something interesting. Next step: update the Index.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Webern in Mayberry

In our last episode (aka, earlier this afternoon), I posted a quick comparison of a short Webern piece (Op.6/3) with some soundtrack samples from The Andy Griffith Show. Then it occurred to me that it would be interesting to see/hear the Webern itself in the Mayberry context. I think anyone who's seen the show very often will concur that this fits right in.

This is from the AG episode, "High Noon" - if I'm not mistaken, the man who appears at the door is a mysterious Mr. Schoenberg...


I left off my last post remembering that a perceptive student once told me a little Webern piece reminded him of underscoring from The Andy Griffith Show - I haven't watched the show in years (Don Knotts just doesn't make me laugh), but the comment made immediate sense to me. Suddenly the mysterioso sounds of Webern transported me back to the B&W outskirts of Mayberry, criminals lurking nearby. So, I couldn't resist using my lunch break to search for more evidence of the connection.

Even though Google is not yet equipped with a feature that lets you input "SEARCH YOUTUBE AND LISTEN FOR: Andy Griffith underscoring that recalls the Second Viennese School," it didn't take long to find a couple of telling samples. I'm sure there are better ones, but I intentionally limited myself to lunchbreak time, so here's what we've got. First, Webern's Op. 6, No. 3, as conducted by Leonard Bernstein. (see previous post). Then, two separate fragments from the Andy Griffith Show episode, "The Big House." (starting at about 5:15 of this clip, and about 2:46 of this clip.)


Andy Griffith

All those muted trumpet chords are especially Webernesque. Next task: figure out who's responsible for bringing Klangfarbenmelodie to Mayberry. Were these just stock studio cues or did this guy dream them up while whistling?

UPDATE: See what the Webern sounds like in Mayberry.

Hearing Through Different Ears

Our daughter started studying with a Russian violin teacher this summer. A very Russian violin teacher. The most important thing is that she’s a fantastic violinist, musician, and pedagogue, but there’s also something wonderful about stepping into that Old World tradition - a world in which no one frets about the death of classical music, or questions the way we think about it. I’m not saying questioning is a bad thing – I do it all the time, probably too much. My only point for today is that you can learn a lot by seeing/hearing music from this unskeptical point-of-view.

One could argue that skepticism is the most consistent barrier when it comes to getting people to embrace new kinds of music. I’m more and more convinced that when the mind is conditioned to want to like something, it will generally find a way – and vice versa. Obvious, maybe, but extremely important in understanding the challenges that face us in finding new audiences. Note that the skepticism can come from many different directions. For today, I’ll focus on two opposites: 1) Skepticism of something that is seemingly too simple, too hackneyed, too derivative, and thus boring. 2) Skepticism of something that is too complex, too forbidding, perhaps too elitist, and thus probably not really liked by anyone.

Getting back to Daughter of MMmusing, she was recently assigned the well-worn Accolay Concerto in A Minor. This is one of the most commonly played of student concerti, and I’ve accompanied many an intermediate violinist playing it in the past. I have to admit I was disappointed by the assignment – I’m anxiously awaiting personal favorites such as the Bach A Minor, maybe some Mozart (though, please, no Haydn – his violin concertos are really not “good Haydn”), entertaining chestnuts like Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro, etc. The beginning of the Accolay has always sounded to me (and many others) like a pale imitation of the opening of the Bruch; it’s lyrical second theme always sounded to me like something dispensed from the “Lyrical Second Theme” vending machine.

But here’s the thing – I’ve now heard this Russian teacher rave more than once, in her quiet, heavily accented Old World way, that: “This is very beautiful concerto.” [sic] And there’s no question she believes it, more than with many other works she’s assigned so far. If there’d been any doubt, it was erased when she picked up DoMM’s half-size violin and made it sound like a Strad while demonstrating the first two pages. She wasn’t demonstrating “how the notes go” – well, yes, she was, but what she really did was show how much she loves the music. First of all, it’s amazing anyone can make a little violin sound that good, but what struck me is that she played it with such affection – not a highly sentimentalized affection, but with serious attention to everything beautiful that I’d never bothered to notice.

Yeah, this is partly because I’d mostly heard immature players playing it, but I think it’s more because I’d never bothered to give the music a chance – I’d always approached it skeptically. Just another student concerto. However, having been struck by the sincerity of the simple words “this is very beautiful concerto,” I found myself listening through different ears and it was suddenly a different piece. Perhaps this just reflects badly on me – maybe I’m too hard-hearted and skeptical by nature and should stop pre-judging works, but it’s a pretty human thing to do. Anyway, an important factor in all this is that I’d already developed a kind of respect for this teacher’s honesty that made me believe her. If she were to talk this way about every piece, my Accolay moment probably wouldn’t have happened. And, by the way, I’m still not ready to put this piece up there with Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky – but I believe in it much more than I ever expected to.

Skepticism Brand #2 is more common. Just about everyone has the experience of hearing a piece and being bewildered that anyone could really care about what might seem incomprehensible, or too intellectual. My most vivid conversion experience in this respect happened when listening to Leonard Bernstein, that most persuasive of musical evangelists, talk about one of the pieces (#3) from Webern’s Op. 6. Here are the words he speaks to a Young Person’s Concert audience before and after conducting it – all 50ish seconds of it.

I can’t honestly remember if I’d heard the piece before or not. I suspect I had, but given that I trust Bernstein as someone who’s genuinely passionate about what he does, I feel certain that some sort of aesthetic-response switch went off in my brain that turned me from guilty skeptic (“I know that, as an educated musician, I’m supposed to get this, but…”) to curious seeker (“I want to feel what he’s feeling.”). Rather than questioning the ways in which this music goes against what I want music to be, I found myself hearing the fragile bits of beauty he alludes to. It’s become one of my favorite 50ish seconds of music, even though I’m still not a big Webern guy. Maybe I’m weak and just need LB to talk me through the rest of Webern's output (and Haydn's), but the point is that I trust Bernstein's care for audiences and genuine communication enough to believe him when he says something moves him.

I might mention that my daughter's violin teacher and Bernstein could not be more different - she, quiet, humble, even guarded; he, a veritable Pied Piper. Yet what's important is that I respect each of them enough for their basic musical honesty that I want to try to listen through their ears, and suddenly I find myself more open both to Accolay and Webern. Surely one of the greatest strengths of Alex Ross's recent book is that he manages to make the reader believe that he (Ross) really is fascinated by all this wildly divergent music - and he has a way with words that makes the reader want to hear what he hears. More and more, I feel like that's my most important job as a teacher - to make students want to hear what I hear.

Two Quick Postscripts: 1) I wrote a few weeks back about how much I enjoyed Jeremy Denk's performance of Beethoven's forbidding Hammerklavier Sonata. I'd by dishonest if I didn't admit that I was partially inspired by Sarah Palin's mavericky take on the work. Not only did that "interview" make me aware of Denk's upcoming performance; hearing it through Gov. Palin's ears provided a refreshingly unforbidding way of approaching the piece. 2) Not long after I had the little conversion experience with the Webern piece, I played it for a student who made the curious, but quite perceptive comment that it reminded him of some of the stock soundtrack music from The Andy Griffith Show of all things! And, although I hadn't watched TAGS for years, his comment made immediate sense to me - I could quite easily hear the Webern playing as aural backdrop to one of those suspenseful moments when a dangerous criminal is on the loose. It's well-known that atonal music found a home in Hollywood in a variety of ways, but I'd love to investigate further who wrote those unsettling cues for Andy, Barney, Opie, and the gang.

[UPDATE: Further investigation of the Andy Griffith-Webern connection here and here.]

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Stolen Salieri!

[This post needs updating, because the embedded music player I'd used has been sold to another company and no longer works. Apologies. Will fix some day. - FIXED]

Poor Antonio Salieri. Yeah, he had some success in his day, but let's just say you don't run across his works quite as often as some his contemporaries' these days. However, a soprano recently brought in a genuine Salieri aria from that big hit of 1785, La grotta di Trofonio. The aria, "Un bocconcin d'amante" is a two-parter; it starts with a very simple, stately tune and then concludes with a bouncy 6/8 section. As we were reading through it, about halfway through the fast section I found myself playing a little orchestral passage (with little interjections from the soprano above) that sounded suspiciously familiar. It took a few more minutes of rehearsing and mind-sifting to come up with it, but I finally made the connection. You can hear this brief excerpt by choosing the first item from the little custom-made player below. The second version there is just me playing it on the piano - and the third version is what I finally realized I was remembering. (Don't play the third one if you want to guess for yourself - spoilers below.)

It's not the most scandalous as tune thefts go, especially since it only occurs as a little orchestral transition in the Salieri - although, who knows, maybe this passage is referencing a tune that's more prominent elsewhere in the opera? I'm not planning to sit through this to find out, but maybe someone else knows more about it. Anyway, we know from watching Amadeus that Salieri attended a certain performance of a certain musical theater piece about a certain high-pitched wind instrument with certain magical powers. (Even the more reliable Wikipedia confirms that a Mozart letter places Salieri there.) That wasn't until 1791, six years after Salieri had premiered his little work about Trofonio's grotto.

Now, as you'll remember from the movie: Mozart faints, Salieri takes him home, and pretty soon we've got a dead composer on our hands. (Apologies if that spoils the movie for anyone.) Could it have been that Salieri noticed the moment (Track 3 above) when a comical birdcatcher sings about taking his own life - and takes a bit of Salieri's music to make his point? Maybe it was just an homage from one composer to another, maybe it was just a coincidence, but these are the facts of the case - and they are undisputed.

[Don't forget, Mozart's been known to steal from composers even more obscure than Salieri.]

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Do not adjust your speakers!

I don't know why my world is suddenly all about violas, but I have an upcoming concert where I'll be playing Brahms' two heavenly songs for contralto, viola, and piano. It's been about 15 years since I last played them and I'd forgotten how beautiful they are, even if the viola steals all the good stuff the pianist might otherwise get to do. The only recording I owned turned out to be disappointing, in spite of its historical promise. It features the legendary Marian Anderson along with the legendary William Primrose on viola and the legendary William Kapell on piano. Well, they say William Kapell is playing the piano, but the recording is mixed so badly that the piano is barely audible - meanwhile, the 1941 audio technology does nothing to flatter Anderson or Primrose, each of whom sound much more strident tonally than they could possibly have really sounded. The performances are also on the stodgy side for my tastes. [Confession: I have trouble hearing through the limitations of historic recordings. I rarely like them as much as other enthusiasts.]

So, I went searching for something more helpful, if less historic, and ended up downloading recordings by the wonderful Angelika Kirchschlager, with Helmut Deutsch on piano and the highly regarded Yuri Bashmet on viola. It's pretty much just what I wanted, but you know there's a viola joke in here somewhere, right? As it happens, just at a moment when I'm playing part of the second song for my wife to show her how beautiful it is, Bashmet suddenly makes a remarkably inelegant landing on what eventually becomes a F-sharp. On repeated listening, I have to admit it's not as bad as it first seemed, but the point is that we both reacted immediately - and my wife had never even heard the song before. Just one of those inevitable viola moments that apparently even state-of-the-art engineers couldn't hide.

Downloading Kirchschlager's recordings of Brahms' Op.91 songs: $1.98 on

Downloading the Sheet Music: $0.00 on

Hearing a world-class violist play like, well, a violist: priceless!

[NOTE: The "priceless" moment occurs about 10 seconds in on that mp3, p.13 of the score. Meanwhile, as you can see, I've been inspired by Rivinus - and Bashmet - to do a little viola distorting of my own. UPDATE: If you click on the viola above, you can watch the distorting in action.]

[Oh, and don't forget this little bit of
viola humor that features Primrose himself.]

Monday, November 17, 2008

Do not adjust your screen!

All right, now that I've potentially offended liberals by coming out of the closet, and then perhaps offended conservatives by being all "give peace a chance" and asking them to be nice to liberals, it's about time we got back to more appropriate business. No more offending liberals or conservatives. Let's offend violists! (Sorry, Elaine!)

Actually, the above is such an "insert viola joke here" picture that I'm going to resist temptation and stick to the facts. It is, in fact, an unPhotoshopped viola, made by David Rivinus who, if you'll forgive the expression, clearly knows how to think outside the box. (Since I skipped the viola joke, may I suggest that, by having one of my students learn some Couperin pieces instead of the more conventional Baroque options from the WTC, the French and English Suites, etc., I can thus claim to be "thinking outside the Bachs.") I'm sure many string players have seen Rivinus's surrealistic violas before, but I'd never heard of them until I caught a little feature about a violinmaker convention on NPR a week or so ago. These violas are designed to allow for a bigger sounding box while making an instrument that feels like a violin in length, thus helping out violists who get fatigued from reaching for first position - and do violists ever really get beyond first position? (Whoops...)

But seriously, I would love to see/hear one of these instruments in action, and they are apparently already being played by professionals here and there. Meanwhile, violists, do not try this at home. Melting your viola will not produce one of these instruments - although it might still be a good idea. Call Mr. Rivinus.

By the way, just to try to make amends here, I'd like to mention that I've recently been rehearsing the first of the Bach viola da gamba sonatas with a violist, and I've rarely found anything so satisfying to play. I mean that in the most literal way - I don't find that they even need rehearsing; I'd be happy just to play all four movements over and over. I don't want any of the movements to stop. It's amazingly satisfying to let my fingers bounce through those fast movements, even when they bounce the wrong way every now and then. The funny thing is that I've known these sonatas for years, and have always thought of them as cello pieces, since I'm a sometimes cellist myself. They're fantastic pieces any way you slice them, but I've been surprised to find myself thinking that they're even better on the viola than the cello. Of course, it goes without saying that I think they're better on the piano than on the harpsichord, so I'm not in a hurry to dig out my old LP that features an actual viola da gamba and the inevitable harpsichord. Look, I'm a closet conservative, how politically correct do you expect me to be?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

In which MM peeks out of the closet to comment on politics - but I'm not staying out for long.

UPDATE: 11/18: As had always been suggested by the post title (which is unchanged), I'm putting the original version of this post back in the closet, which means it's going offline. (If you're curious about it, just let me know by email.) This is both because I don't really want to write a political blog, but also because the experience of commenting on someone else's blog (which prompted my post in the first place) has taught me something about the problems with online discussions. The lesson I've learned is that, at the end of the day, I wish I hadn't posted what I did on the other blog - or at least that I had presented a more positive perspective in commenting, not because I think it's wrong to have disagreements, but because it's so easy to become divisive in this faceless arena. I love to argue, but I think it's generally more productive done face-to-face. As it happened, I took some shots at someone I don't really know well at all just to make my own points - I should have just made my own points and not gotten into the strawman business.

I meant what I said at the end of my response to some commenters when I said I'd found surprising inspiration in this kooky talk given by Leonard Bernstein. I expect musical inspiration from LB, but he's hardly on my ideological wavelength; yet, I was really moved that he chose to end that talk with a bit of confession and self-reflection, basically admitting that he'd undermined his own ideals by the way in which he'd pursued them. I think I may have done the same, so hopefully I'll learn something from that. However, it's still open season on Haydn and violas on this blog.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

In which MM goes off on an obnoxious rant about obnoxious audience behavior...

Went to hear the amazing Jeremy Denk today. His blog is, hands down, the best music blog out there - in fact, it may well represent the best music writing out there, period (that includes you, music journals). I certainly find more inspiration per word there than anywhere else. Thus, it's quite annoying to confirm that he's also a remarkable pianist, managing to excel in every way in a program Matthew Guerrieri rightly referred to as an Evil Knievel undertaking: Ives' Concord Sonata and Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata.

I'm not gonna try to give a blow-by-blow rundown of the afternoon, although I generally found it more and more thrilling as it went along. It's not that the Ives wasn't successful; in fact, I honestly arrived more excited about hearing that than the Beethoven. Unfortunately, as transcendent as Denk's Ives was, there was no transcending the micro-carnival that surrounded me. Ah, audiences - can't have recitals without'em, can't voir-dire'em. Honestly, I wish I could manage to be less sensitive to this sort of thing, and I really don't want to be one of those horrible elitist music snobs who looks down at noisy neighbors. Really, I don't. I suppose it's just one of life's many intractable paradoxes. One doesn't want a comatose audience, and it can be uncomfortable and physically stressful to sit quietly for long stretches. Come to think of it, Denk could well have been describing the Gardner Museum's Tapestry Room when he wrote the following:

Often these days, I look around those grand, gilded rooms with the rows of chairs all tidy and neat, and childhood urges come back to me: a preschool dining table, and the beautiful desire to upend everybody’s plate and have the king of all food fights. I think splattering a major orchestra with banana creme pie would be an excellent start, for something. But what? Could this irreverence, paradoxically, prevent people from thumbing their Blackberries during the slow movement of Beethoven’s 4th Concerto? Because despite the flying pie I want music still to reign; I want there to be decorum and disorder, ecstatic chaos and reverent awe, all at once.
The problem is, all things being equal, it's best to listen to this sort of program without extra noises. For me, the problems started less than 3o seconds into the Ives when the guy right in front of me started slowly jamming his program into his jacket pocket. Crinkle, crinkle... Crinkle.... crinkle. Then (...crinkle...), not long after, there was a "boing" and something went flying out of his pocket. I heard it land with a metallic doink on the hard stone tile to our left (he and I were both on the aisle, definitely the place to be since the Gardner jams those hard little straight-backed chairs much too close together), and I then spotted the insides of a ballpoint pen on the ground about six feet over. I didn't have to spend too much time being anxious about whether he'd be content to leave the pen be - no, he looked around and then unceremoniously stood up and walked over to get it. Nice. Then, as far as I could tell, he spent much of the next few minutes trying to reassemble the pen. Nice. I'm telling myself to relax, forget about him, and just listen to the music, but it's a losing battle. Fortunately, the guy in front of the guy in front of me finally delivered the inevitable dirty look, and it seemed to help. You know, classical audiences get a lot of bad press for delivering these dirty looks, but this guy had it coming in spades.

If I may just spin off on a wild tangent, WHAT IS IT WITH PEOPLE? We're living in a society here. Your actions may affect the welfare of others. It's like the person who stops his/her car in the middle of the road to check directions - or makes a traffic-defying U-turn when a turn has been missed. Yeah, that might be a more convenient choice for you, but in the meantime you're driving people crazy - you're making us suffer for your mistake. Anyway, Pen Guy behaved better for the remainder of the first movement.

Then came the dreaded latecomer seating between movements. And, hey, I can be sympathetic here: parking in the vicinity of the Gardner is no picnic. I'd arrived in the area more than an hour early, but then spent about half of that hour looking for a reasonable spot. But here's the thing. There were (regrettably, given the appeal of this event) many empty rows of seats at the back of the hall, but this wasn't good enough for the latecomers, many of whom seemed intent on finding the very best available seat. Naturally, all such seats were in the middle of the tightly spaced aisles. Denk looked out with a bemused expression for what seemed like 2-17 minutes; finally, he gave up and dived back in, catching me by surprise. This was a fun time, because it took at least 30 more seconds for a pair to get settled into two seats right behind me. Nice.

Now I regret going where I'm going to go now, but the regrettable fact is that one of these newcomers had a rather pronounced hand tremor. Let me be clear: I don't envy anyone that situation, and that's a much worse problem than whether or not I have an ideal recital experience. Much worse. In the grand scheme of things, my complaint here is trivial. Nonetheless, this guy held his program for the remainder of the Ives, which meant there were many extended stretches in which paper rattling was a constant. Again, I tried not to be distracted, but it became a tortuous obsession. Much as I enjoyed the Ives, I remember it more as a series magical/astounding moments than as a continuous experience. True, to some degree that goes with the stream-of-consciousness Ivesian territory, but I wish I could have been more consistently tuned in than circumstances allowed. So many times, a whispered passage was accompanied by extra-musical sounds. (And don't tell me Ives would've wanted it that way.)

Boo-hoo, poor me. You know, it was frustrating, but this kind of experience just comes with the territory - there is no perfect solution for how to present this kind of music. As I've mentioned, I don't think the Gardner helps by stuffing us so close together in those somewhat severe chairs. I also sincerely wonder about the wisdom of handing people these stapled sheets of letter-sized paper - or any paper at all. True, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Mr. Denk's notes, and we're a few years away from a world in which everyone could just download notes to a portable reading device. So here's a suggestion. Politely ask that audience members put their programs under their chairs when the performance is in progress. If someone really wants to have notes out to follow along, then additionally request that they turn pages silently. Aside from the paper disturbances in my immediate vicinity, one could fairly often hear various "listeners" flipping pages over - or programs slipping off laps onto the floor. Of course, no one should have to be told any of this, but a lot of folks do live in their own little worlds.

At any rate, audience behavior was much better in the Beethoven. As much as I love the Ives, its stream-of-consciousness makes it less overtly compelling to the average audience member, whereas Beethoven's inexorable logic exerts a pull on even the least experienced listener. For me, the highlight of the afternoon was the extremely long, slow, even meandering 3rd movement of the Beethoven (only Beethoven can make meandering seem so directed); audience noise was never a factor there. Maybe I just didn't notice what noise there was because I was so wrapped up in what Denk was doing, but even though the Hammerklavier is not the easiest piece to listen to, I'm not surprised it's more likely to command rapt attention. The 4th movement was equally extraordinary - fingers flying, fugues exploding. It actually felt too short.

Given that Denk is on record as understanding that concerts can be boring and that listeners often fail to be engaged, it's notable that he's choosing to play such a forbidding program; but I suspect he's counting on a couple of things. First, the whole "event" status of such a program is the kind of thing that gets an audience excited. Second, rather than worry about stringing together a bunch of smaller pieces into a coherent structure, he's letting Ives and Beethoven take care of that. That's my own bias in programming as well - one of the reasons I so enjoyed the BSO's Mahler 6 a few weeks back.

On the other hand, I'm not going to worry myself too much about large-scale coherence with this post. Obviously, blogging's been a bit slow, and I'm somewhat distracted watching the Patriots right now anyway. I think I'll just post this, and hope you're not distracted by crinkling paper while reading it.