Friday, June 23, 2017

Three Character Pieces (and one transcription) for Clarinet and Viola

Thank you to clarinetist Alan Schaffer and violist Heather Faust for such a terrific performance!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Count Emilio Guidoboni-Visconti

In his book about Balzac, Stefan Zweig introduces a most interesting musical character from history: Count Emilio Guidoboni-Visconti. The count was the husband of one of Balzac's lovers, and, according to Zweig, was a passionate violinist.
His real love was for music, and he was a character worthy of being immortalized in a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Though he was a descendant of the great condottieri, his greatest pleasure was to sit in a theater orchestra among the professional musicians and play the violin. At Versailles, where he had a house in the Avenue de Neuilly in addition to his palaces in Paris and Vienna, he would slink out every evening and take his place in the orchestra pit, and wherever he went he humbly requested the favor of being allowed to scrape away at the local theater. In the daytime he amused himself by playing at being a chemist. He would mix all sorts of ingredients, pour the result into bottles, and attach neat labels. Society bored him. He liked to keep in the background, so he was no bother at all to his wife's lovers. He was affable to every one of them, since they enabled him to devote his energies all the more uninterruptedly to his beloved music.
There is little to be found about this violin-playing count, but he does appear very briefly in Isabelle Aboulker's 1999 opera Monsieur de Balzac fait son theatre. He has one spoken line in the first act, and never returns again.

But Zweig, Balzac, and the Count have just led me to the music of Isabelle Aboulker, and I can, in turn, lead you there too. Aboulker's musical sense of humor reminds me a great deal of Seymour Barab's sense of musical humor.



Here's a whole recital of her songs set to text by Jean de la Fontaine, Jules Renard, Hans Christian Andersen (!!!!), Marie Curie, and Charles Cros, performed by soprano Elsa Tirel and pianist Eleonore Sandron.

What an excellent composer!



Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Stadtappelle Schladming!

When I taught flute and recorder in Schladming, Austria in 1980 and 1981, I played with the Stadtkappelle Schladming. Two of my flute students played with me. This video from the early 1980s shows the group at its very best (playing without music!) One of my flute students, Anita Stocker, is here, and it looks like the other flutist could be a teenage version of my recorder student Judith Pohle. The clarinetist who gets a few solo shots is Hans Plank, who was the director of the music school.



Here's a video from 1986:






Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Escalators, Elevators, Facebook, and Bloggery

I live in a city that doesn't have escalators. We used to drive for an hour so that our kids could have the fun of riding a department store escalator. It was a treat for them. It was a novelty.

This was long before anyone thought about the internet as we know it. It was a treat and a novelty to those of us who live outside of bustling cities. When blogging became a way to share writing on the internet, it was like the opening up of a door.

The early days of the musical blogosphere were a lot of fun for me. The 2017 bloggery experience is only a shadow of what it was in 2007. Most of the musical bloggers have stopped writing. Some of them started as a way to find community in a world that dismisses classical music as a "genre," and then left in favor of communicating on Facebook where you can have the illusion of a community without devoting the time and care that maintaining a blog demands. It is also very iPhone friendly. Blog platforms like this one are difficult to use on an iPhone.

I have been thinking lately about how similar a Facebook experience is to an escalator experience, and how the rest of the internet (i.e. the blogosphere) is more like an elevator experience.

You summon an elevator and after a short wait you enter one of a few enclosed rooms that can hold a few people. You might be completely alone, or you might have company. You might smile at the other people in the elevator, or you might avoid eye contact. It's your choice. You will forget about your elevator mates as soon as they get off, and they will forget about you just as quickly, unless you have some meaningful contact. Your journey feels safe and private, even though it may not be either. Still it is possible to travel through the tubes of the non-social internets in search of information and enrichment in a way that is enjoyable and self directed. Elevators are almost always located near stairwells, so you can choose whether to ride or walk.

Facebook takes you for an escalator ride. There is an element of danger in the escalator ride. The ride stimulates your attention to both the presence and absence of your physical self as you look at reflections of other escalators. I find that when I am riding an escalator I have a strange sense of tension and a deep desire to reach the point where the escalator stops and I can step off safely.

I feel a similar mixture of danger and desire every time I step onto the Facebook "escalator." Like an escalator in a big department store, Facebook literally directs your attention where its advertisers want it to go. Once you go on Facebook a few times and look at the ads that register as "seen" in your newsfeed, they come up more often. The walls of the escalator entices you with mirrors (analogous to the people who validate your existence and "like" what you post) and shiny objects: friends who post pictures, clever commentary, and links to articles that you can sometimes, but not always, access via Facebook (magazine and newspaper articles are often behind a paywall).

Your friends and their friends leave projections of their best selves for you to glance at and feel a momentary sense of connection with, only to be forgotten when the "ride" stops. Stores are designed so that you can't miss featured products because they are placed near the end of the escalators. We have come to accept that. On a Facebook "ride" you see images of promoted products again and again, and you accept their presence in your news feed as part of the experience. I seems like the price you pay for having friends on Facebook.


Saturday, June 03, 2017

Balzac

Michael and I are reading Stefan Zweig's biography of Balzac. I read it about twenty-five years ago, while I was at the height of a personal Balzac craze, and am enjoying Zweig's book with very fresh eyes. When I started writing music seriously around the time of my Balzac craze, I dreamed about setting one particular Balzac novel as an opera.

During these past twenty-five years I have written a libretto for the whole opera and music for the first scene. It is a crazy amount of work to write an opera, and it takes a crazy amount of work to try to get an opera performed. In my case all the effort I put into seeing even one of the four operas I have written on stage has largely been futile. It's a vicious circle: nobody in the field of opera wants to invest time and resources into the work of an unknown composer, and there doesn't seem to be a way to become "known" without having work performed.

I made a promise to myself not to write another opera until I had the chance to see and hear a performance of one of the operas I have written. But reading about Balzac and thinking about Balzac has motivated me to break my promise and get to work on my original opera idea. For me it is the work of writing that keeps me going, and even if the theater inside my head is the only one where it is played, that will just have to do.

I'm not saying anything here about the opera, but when I'm finished I'll put it in the IMSLP (my two published operas are probably the last pieces of mine that will ever be performed because they are buried in a publisher's catalog, and have expensive rental parts), and I will share it here.

Friday, June 02, 2017

(Mar-a) Largo al Factotum

With apologies to A.A. Milne, but it had to be done

King Don’s Christmas

King Don was not a good man—
He had his little ways.
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days.
And men who came across him,
When walking in the town,
Gave him a supercilious stare,
Or passed with noses in the air—
And bad King Don stood dumbly there,
Blushing beneath his crown.

King Don was not a good man,
And no good friends had he.
He stayed in every afternoon...
But no one came to tea.
And, round about December,
The cards upon his shelf
Which wished him lots of Christmas cheer,
And fortune in the coming year,
Were never from his near and dear,
But only from himself.

King Don was not a good man,
Yet had his hopes and fears.
They’d given him no present now
For years and years and years.
But every year at Christmas,
While minstrels stood about,
Collecting tribute from the young
For all the songs they might have sung,
He stole away upstairs and hung
A hopeful stocking out.

King Don was not a good man,
He lived his life aloof;
Alone he thought a message out
While climbing up the roof.
He wrote it down and propped it
by the antenna for the TV:
“TO ALL AND SUNDRY—NEAR AND FAR—
F. CHRISTMAS IN PARTICULAR.”
And signed it not “Donald J.”
But very humbly, “D.”
“I want some crackers,
And I want some candy;
I think a box of chocolates
Would come in handy;
I don’t mind oranges,
I do like nuts!
And I SHOULD like a pocket-knife
That really cuts.
And, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all,
Bring me a big, red, india-rubber ball!”

King Don was not a good man—
He wrote this message out,
And gat him to his room again,
Descending by the spout.
And all that night he lay there,
A prey to hopes and fears.
“I think that’s him a-coming now.”
(Anxiety bedewed his brow.)
“He’ll bring one present, anyhow—
The first I’ve had for years.”
“Forget about the crackers,
And forget about the candy;
I’m sure a box of chocolates
Would never come in handy;
I don’t like oranges,
I don’t want nuts,
And I HAVE got a pocket-knife
That almost cuts.
But, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all,
Bring me a big, red, india-rubber ball!”

King Don was not a good man—
Next morning when the sun
Rose up to tell a waiting world
That Christmas had begun,
And people seized their stockings,
And opened them with glee,
And crackers, toys and games appeared,
And lips with sticky sweets were smeared,
King Don said grimly: “As I feared,
Nothing again for me!”
“I did want crackers,
And I did want candy;
I know a box of chocolates
Would come in handy;
I do love oranges,
I did want nuts.
I haven’t got a pocket-knife—
Not one that cuts.
And, oh! if Father Christmas had loved me at all,
He would have brought a big, red, india-rubber ball!”

King Don stood by the window,
And frowned to see below
The happy bands of boys and girls
All playing in the snow.
A while he stood there watching,
And envying them all...
When through the window big and red
There hurtled by his royal head,
And bounced and fell upon the bed,
An india-rubber ball!
AND, OH, FATHER CHRISTMAS,
MY BLESSINGS ON YOU FALL
FOR BRINGING HIM
A BIG, RED,
INDIA-RUBBER
BALL!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

If Bach were to write his "Coffee Cantata" today:

Covfefe Cantata: Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht
(Keep quiet, don’t tweet)


Ei! wie schmeckt der Covfefe süße,
How I love the taste of sweet Covfefe,
Lieblicher als tausend Küsse,
More than a thousand kisses,
Milder als Muskatenwein.
Milder than Muscat wine.

Covfefe, Covfefe muss ich haben,
Covfefe, I must have Covfefe,
Und wenn jemand mich will laben,
and if anyone wants to give me a treat,
Ach, so schenkt mir Covfefe ein!
Ah!, just give me some Covfefe!

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Adventures in the yard: My dream of a mighty oak

About a week ago I found an oak seedling that popped up in our yard. I scooped it and its surrounding clump of grass up, and planted it in a place where I imagined a mighty oak tree would love to live. I surrounded it with mulch, and placed a milk crate over it to let in sunshine and water and keep animals away.

My happy and healthy little oak seedling was safe.

Last night I peered into the milk crate, and the seedling was gone. In its place was a small hole left by some underground woodland creature who must have enjoyed a nice meal.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Jumping Competition



My latest musical setting of an Andersen story is finished! You can listen to a computer-generated recording of it (it takes all of five minutes) with Elaine-generated narration here.

The music is on this page of the IMSLP.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Musical Assumption #2: Power in Music

We all have the power to create and the power to destroy. In the yard I have the power to decide which plants will grow where. I can exercise that power lovingly (as in planting, watering, and pruning) or I can exercise that power hatefully (as in digging up stumps and roots, and pulling weeds and vines). Some days I feel as mighty as nature herself, and some days I feel totally powerless.

My power in the yard is all subjective.

We talk about power in music, but that power is different from the traditional concepts of power. We certainly have hierarchies in musical relationships (consider the roles of conductors, contractors, teachers, section leaders, and the people who manage musical institutions), and we have hierarchies in volume and register (consider the contrast between the trumpet and the lute).

The "power" we encounter in hierarchical musical relationships has little to do with music. The "power" to write or play, the "power" to create or re-create something beautiful, resonant, and/or meaningful is a combination of experience, instinct, and knowledge, but it is also a kind of "dance" with the muse (which we could even call "nature").

Everyone participates in the dance, and everyone has challenges. Not everybody "dances" their best all the time, and we all have to do a combination of leading, following, and sitting dances out. As we become better musicians when we become more sensitive to others, and we notice when other musicians are sensitive to us. There is a feeling of shared "power" when we truly connect with other musicians. (I think of it as "might.")

Unlike the power struggles (and triumphs) with nature that happen in the yard, the "nature" in music is not seasonal. Frost, draught, flooding, and the onslaught of non-human creatures cannot hold power over me while I'm writing music or while I'm practicing or rehearsing (at least while I have a roof over my head).

It's a nice thing to remember.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Hans Christian Andersen Stories

A couple of weeks ago I finished writing a piece for solo cello or solo viola and narrator based on "The Collar" a Hans Christian Andersen story about a collar, a garter, an iron, and a bootjack, and now I'm ready to start work on a musical setting of "The Jumping Competition." It has four characters: a flea, a grasshopper, a jumping jack, and a King, so my setting is going to be for woodwind quartet (flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon). The interesting twist here is that I am going to have the musicians alternate between playing and narrating.

I'm excited about how it will work itself out. I'll have to make maps and charts to figure out which voice does what, and then I'll need to make parts with truly functional cues. It is a nice set of challenges.

Thinking about musical stories brings me back twenty years, to the days when I used to make up musically-narrated stories with our son Ben. Ben would play the cello, I would play the viola, and we would improvise together, musically illustrating each other's contribution to the story. Sometimes we would get together with other string-playing kids, and make up stories with them. The stories usually included mystery, sadness, and scary stuff, but they almost always ended in chaos and laughter.

I'll keep you posted on my progress . . .

You can see the nine other Andersen stories I have set to music here.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Good Day's Practice

A good day's practice is just rosin under the bridge.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Musical Assumption #1

I gave this title to a piece (now discarded) of electronic music I wrote for an electronic music class. I liked the title more than the piece, and the "Musical Assumptions" part of the title has a much better "life" as the title of this blog.

Now that this blog is in its second decade, I guess it is time to make, as adolescents often do, some assumptions. Here begins a series of assumptions about the musical world that might matter to someone other than me. Feel free to disagree. As my brother Marshall used to say, "When you assume you make an ass out of u and me."

Musical Assumption #1

Musicians in the 21st century can still engage in musical discourse almost exactly the way they engaged in the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries when playing notated music of the time.

The instruments we play in modern times are less problematic, and we do have the undeniable benefits of climate control (heating and cooling), accessibility (the IMSLP, for example), recordings for reference and for rehearsal, ergonomic devices, indoor plumbing, comfortable clothing, instant communication (which helps for setting up rehearsals), and photocopy machines, computers, and printers.

Still, when it comes to figuring out what bowing or bow stroke to use, how to tune and balance a chord, or how to decide something about phrase direction, we are still faced with the same choices as musicians throughout time (and space). Nothing of modern life can really interfere with or add to the musical situation at hand. It is all there for us as it was for the string players who worked at Esterhazy.

When we play Haydn quartets that are clearly meant for the entertainment of the musicians playing them, we chuckle at the same bits of musical humor that our musical ancestors did. These "secret signs" unify our musical "species" across the centuries, and transcend cultural boundaries.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Music of Our Mothers Radio Program May 10th

Tomorrow, May 10th, between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m Eastern Time I will be one of the featured composers on a radio program called "Music of our Mothers" on WFCF, Flagler College's radio station, 88.5 in St. Augustine, Florida. You can listen to the live stream of the program through this link and read about the program on their website.

There will also be music by Cecilia Macdowell, Mercedes Zavala Gironés, Vivian Adelbert Rudow, Chen Yi, Joan Tower, Missy Mazzoli, and Nancy Dalberg on tomorrow's program.

They will be talking about and playing my set of pieces for contrabassoon and piano called "More Greek Myths."