Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Cadence Podcast: Something New for Musicians to Ponder

Indre Viskontas, the neuroscientist-soprano who hosts the "Inquiring Minds" podcast about science in our lives, has started a new podcast devoted to music and the mind called Cadence. It looks (and sounds) promising, so I thought I would share information about it here. I have listened to the first of three new episodes. There will be many more to come.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Spring Dances for Two Violins

In celebration of the season! You can get the music (for free) on this page of the IMSLP.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

My Brother, My Self

I have been contemplating the "why" of composition lately. After years and years of addressing the "why not?" of composing music, I find myself at an interesting point of pause. And today, after a rather busy few months spent in navigating the hows, whys, and wherefores of music written by other people (with a lot of emphasis on the hows lately), I realize that almost every piece I have written has been a "working out" of something.

I suppose that I have always thought of pieces of music as a way to work through thoughts and work out ideas. Sometimes those thoughts are veiled representations of people, places, stories, and characters. Sometimes those thoughts involve interaction between abstract ideas using instrumental voices. Sometimes those thoughts involve the behavior of characters in history or fiction that do their interacting without words, and sometimes those characters work out their "stuff" with the help of a text.

I used to think that everybody who wrote music did this, but now I am beginning to think that doing this might be a family trait.

My brother, Marshall Fine, wrote program notes for his music. In those program notes he gives explicit details of how he wove the contradictions and concerns in his personal and professional life into the music he wrote. His Rock Etudes for Solo Viola, for example, concern specific events in his life that he connected with particular rock songs from the 1960s and 1970s. (You can read the notes in the IMSLP listing.) I believe that he used a logical organization of things musical to try to work out personal frustrations and experiences in his life that he could name but could not understand.

Every person on the autism spectrum has a unique set of challenges that make interpreting the workings of the world difficult, but because of Marshall's particular make-up, his particular "off-the-charts" set of musical gifts, his outspoken nature, and the relatively small size of his communities (the community of violists, the community of classical musicians in Memphis and Branson), he loomed large.

He certainly always loomed large in my world (and still does). Understanding something of this brother-sister bond through our shared attitude toward creative work gives me strength. My perception of the world is (as far as I can tell) that of a "neuro-typical" person, but the musical "working out" of interactions and ideas is nevertheless the reason that I like to write music.

The Italian violist Daniele Colombo's recording of Marshall's Rock Etudes will be coming out in the Solitudes label in the not-too-distant future. Daniele plays them spectacularly.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Creative Changes

I guess that creative outlets change from time to time. For years and years I put a great deal of creative energy into composition. I found a crazy fulfillment from writing. It was the first thing I wanted to do when I woke up in the morning, and I would put off other tasks in order to work out ideas. I even enjoyed working out ideas and then discarding the product. I did put time and energy into trying to become a better violist and a better interpretive musician, but not having to attend to the physical production notes on an instrument in real time is a great "ladder of escape." When you write a piece of music it is usually another person's responsibility to make it sound good. It is also another person's responsibility to determine what it "means."

Lately I have been getting intense enjoyment from playing old notes and old phrases written by people I probably never would have met had I been alive when they were alive. I really get a kick out of figuring out how I want phrases to "go." It is as if some switch has been turned. I still have the skill to write, but lately I prefer to devote my time to listening more carefully and becoming a better player. The music running through my head these days is mainly music written by other people (sometimes it is music that I am arranging, but more often it is music I am practicing). And I feel oddly at peace.

I sometimes ask myself if I am still a composer when I am not in the process of writing something. I also wonder if I am less of a composer because I tend to neglect the business-related things that composers have to do in order to have my music played. The answers to these questions don't matter at all.

It is simply a pleasure and an honor to be able to be a full participant in musical life, even when it is physically exhausting. I can't think of a better way to spend my days.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Concert of Music for Viola and Piano by Women



John David Moore and I play two concerts a year. One has music written by women and one has music written by men. We can honestly say that we play as much music written by women as we do music written by men. Or we could say that we play as much music written by men as we play music written by women.

Our program for this March has two transcriptions and two pieces originally written for viola and piano. Mel Bonis’s Sonata for Cello and Piano works very well on the viola. I believe my transcription, which I just uploaded into the IMSLP, is the first viola transcription (though I would be very happy to learn that I am not alone in my viola adventure with the piece). The original was published in 1905 with a dedication to Maurice Demaison, a Paris art critic.

Mel (Mélanie) Bonis (1858–1937) entered the Paris Conservatory at the age of sixteen, where she studied organ with César Franck and Auguste Bazille, and harmony with Ernest Guiraud. Her more than 300 works include nine volumes of music for solo piano and piano four hands, music for organ, vocal music, orchestral music, and chamber music.

The other transcription is from the Dutch composer Henriette Bosmans (1895-1952), considered to be one of the most important Dutch composers of the early twentieth century.

Bosmans wrote her Impressions for Cello and Piano for the French cellist Gérard Hekking, the principal cellist of the Concertgebouw Orchestra from 1903 through 1914. Like much of her cello music, these pieces were written for the upper register of the cello, so they can, for the most part, be played on the viola in the intended octave.

The rest of the program has works written for viola and piano by the British composers Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994) and Kalitha Dorothy Fox (1894-1934).

Maconchy spent her childhood in Ireland. She studied composition with Charles Wood and Ralph Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music. Dame Elizabeth (thanks Lisa) was a prolific and highly decorated composer. She wrote her Viola Sonata in 1937, but it remained unpublished until 2015.

K. Dorothy Fox is one of the sixty-three women with entries in Corbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music, and was a member of the Society of Women Musicians (SWM), which was affiliated with the Royal College of Music. We know about her death (a suicide reported in the minutes of the SWM), but nothing of her life. Fox’s Sonata for Viola and Piano (which is in the IMSLP), one of ten pieces in her catalog, was published in 1925 with a dedication to G.H.B. Fox. There are mentions in various periodical publications of a G.H.B. Fox who played chess and cricket, but it is unclear whether he was a musician or how he may have been related to the composer. We do know that this Sonata was once broadcast on the radio from Bournemouth, and that it was part of a concert on July 12, 1931 concert celebrating the twentieth anniversary concert of the SWM. That concert also also included a piece by Elizabeth Maconchy.


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Thinking About Spring

Once again we have a tease of spring sandwiched between bouts of winter. Yesterday we were putting salt on the ice on the front step (so that the mail carrier wouldn't slip), and today, with the thermometer reading 61 degrees, I'm wearing a summer dress and am tempted, after doing some hefty practicing, to go dig in the spot in the back yard that will be our garden once official spring arrives.

Michael and I finished 1984 today, and I found a reference to "Some Thoughts on the Common Toad" in the introduction (I always read introductions last). I thought I would share a bit of it here.
As for spring, not even the narrow and gloomy streets round the Bank of England are quite able to exclude it. It comes seeping in everywhere, like one of those new poison gases which pass through all filters. The spring is commonly referred to as ‘a miracle’, and during the past five or six years this worn-out figure of speech has taken on a new lease of life. After the sorts of winters we have had to endure recently, the spring does seem miraculous, because it has become gradually harder and harder to believe that it is actually going to happen. Every February since 1940 I have found myself thinking that this time winter is going to be permanent. But Persephone, like the toads, always rises from the dead at about the same moment. Suddenly, towards the end of March, the miracle happens and the decaying slum in which I live is transfigured. Down in the square the sooty privets have turned bright green, the leaves are thickening on the chestnut trees, the daffodils are out, the wallflowers are budding, the policeman's tunic looks positively a pleasant shade of blue, the fishmonger greets his customers with a smile, and even the sparrows are quite a different color, having felt the balminess of the air and nerved themselves to take a bath, their first since last September.

Is it wicked to take a pleasure in spring and other seasonal changes? To put it more precisely, is it politically reprehensible, while we are all groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird's song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money and does not have what the editors of left-wing newspapers call a class angle? There is not doubt that many people think so. I know by experience that a favourable reference to ‘Nature’ in one of my articles is liable to bring me abusive letters, and though the key-word in these letters is usually ‘sentimental’, two ideas seem to be mixed up in them. One is that any pleasure in the actual process of life encourages a sort of political quietism. People, so the thought runs, ought to be discontented, and it is our job to multiply our wants and not simply to increase our enjoyment of the things we have already. The other idea is that this is the age of machines and that to dislike the machine, or even to want to limit its domination, is backward-looking, reactionary and slightly ridiculous. This is often backed up by the statement that a love of Nature is a foible of urbanized people who have no notion what Nature is really like. Those who really have to deal with the soil, so it is argued, do not love the soil, and do not take the faintest interest in birds or flowers, except from a strictly utilitarian point of view. To love the country one must live in the town, merely taking an occasional week-end ramble at the warmer times of year.

This last idea is demonstrably false. Medieval literature, for instance, including the popular ballads, is full of an almost Georgian enthusiasm for Nature, and the art of agricultural peoples such as the Chinese and Japanese centre always round trees, birds, flowers, rivers, mountains. The other idea seems to me to be wrong in a subtler way. Certainly we ought to be discontented, we ought not simply to find out ways of making the best of a bad job, and yet if we kill all pleasure in the actual process of life, what sort of future are we preparing for ourselves? If a man cannot enjoy the return of spring, why should he be happy in a labour-saving Utopia? What will he do with the leisure that the machine will give him? I have always suspected that if our economic and political problems are ever really solved, life will become simpler instead of more complex, and that the sort of pleasure one gets from finding the first primrose will loom larger than the sort of pleasure one gets from eating an ice to the tune of a Wurlitzer. I think that by retaining one's childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and — to return to my first instance — toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.
At any rate, spring is here, even in London N. 1, and they can't stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can't. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Haydn Quartet Project

After this past year's Summer Strings came to a close, some adult members of the ensemble thought it might be a nice idea to play some chamber music together during the other seasons of the year, and to play it in the dining room of the assisted living facility where the violist lives. This violist, who was my stand-partner in orchestra for many years, suffers from early-onset Alzheimer's disease. She has difficulty with practical life issues, but when the viola is in her hands she plays beautifully. The cellist is a late starter who never played in a string quartet before, and the second violinist is a retired teacher who, though she has been a life-long amateur, also never played in a string quartet before. And I'm playing the first violin part, which is a novel position for me since I usually play viola in string quartets.

I suggested that we play through all the Haydn quartets in order, beginning with Opus 1. We meet once every two weeks or so, read the designated quartet through, work on trouble spots, and then read it through again. We have an appreciative audience of residents who keep coming back. The quartet novices get better every time we meet, and I keep surprising myself by actually doing what a first violinist in a string quartet needs to do.

Tonight we played Opus 2, Number 2 in E major. While we were playing I thought about the generations upon generations of people all over the world who have played these quartets, which were written in 1775, while living under all sorts of less-than-ideal systems of government. The people playing these quartets might have had the same psychic need for escape that my colleagues and I had this evening.

I don't know what the future holds for the country and the world, but I do know that next time we will play Opus 2, Number 3, and I know that it will be a meaningful, refreshing, and rewarding experience.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Dance to the Music of Time, or Caesium the Day

I have been listening to a podcast from the BBC that devotes individual episodes to individual elements. Aside from Tin, which is used in organ pipes, tin whistles, and a drum in a Günther Grass novel, I have encountered little in the way of musical resonance, But today's episode on Caesium, which has been translated into this excellent article, makes me think of all sorts of musical things regarding time and measurement.

Now I understand what the atomic clock is. And I also learned that someone who studies time is called an Horologist, and the study of time is Horology.

I have always been amazed that we, as human beings, have the ability to divide beats into 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, and even 15 parts with enough accuracy to sing or play in unison with others. This article (and podcast) doesn't explain that phenomenon, but it at least provokes me to think about it. And then there's The Pajama Game.



With music's most famous Horologist!



And, of course, Messiaen's Quartet for the end of Time:


Sunday, January 08, 2017

Offbeat Afterthoughts

Last night, at the age of 57, I played my very first orchestral New Year's concert. The inspiration for most orchestral New Year's concerts is that of Willy Boskovsky and the Vienna Philharmonic, and there are usually Strauss Waltzes on the program. I have played quartet transcriptions of Strauss Waltzes, but last night was the first time I ever played the viola part of a true Viennese waltz as nature intended (as originally orchestrated).

At the first rehearsal my stand partner told me that one of her past orchestras devoted a whole year to playing Viennese music of all stripes, and the conductor was very meticulous about the way he wanted the after beats to fall. In Viennese fashion the second beat of the three-quarter-time measure falls a fraction of a bit sooner than it would fall when playing the second beat in a non-Viennese waltzes.

I had ample opportunity to experiment, and I found that if I simply let my bow drop to the string from above on the first of the after beats, and then allowed the second after beat to rebound gently on the up-bow stroke, I could get that lilting feeling that I understand to be stylistically appropriate. Since a mixture of gravity and Gemütlichkeit was at play, it seemed to require no effort. No effort is good when your evening is populated mostly by off beats.

Another day, another off-beat.

This morning I played a bunch of waltzes arranged for string quartet. One was Viennese, but most of the pieces in three-quarter time were not. I tried my dropping bow technique on the Strauss, and it worked nicely. Then I tried the dropping bow technique on some non-Viennese waltzes, and it made them feel mannered and awkward.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Musical Life and Loss

The loss of a musician who, due to age, has exhausted his or her productivity is still a profound loss because a direct link to a tradition has been severed. I accept death as a natural ending to life. When someone lives out their full lifespan, that life is something to be celebrated, and the works and deeds that a person accomplished and shared should always be cherished as pieces of their best selves. I feel that with my mother's art that hangs on my walls.

But there is a personal connection that can't be seen, and can't truly be felt only through a person's works. (Usually words come easily to me, but now they don't.)

It has taken a while for me to truly accept Bernie Zaslav's death. I know that his body was failing. I know that he put in a good 90 years, and spent the last several months in physical discomfort. I know that he was ready to go, and that he was proud of what he accomplished during his life and his career as a musician.

Now I think of Bernie every time I play string quartets. And I believe that is the "place" he would have liked to be best remembered. In string quartets all over the world. There he is, mingled in with the Haydn. Celebrating sequences. Embracing dissonance, and rejoicing in resolution.

Now it's time to play some scales, while I look forward to playing quartets on Sunday . . .

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Bernard Zaslav: A Special Violist in My Life







Bernard Zaslav, who was born in 1926, died yesterday afternoon at the age of 90. He holds a very special and a very permanent place in my heart. I got to know Bernie extremely well, first through his recordings, then through the internet viola list, and later while working with him on his memoir, The Viola in My Life: An Alto Rhapsody.

Shortly after I began working with Bernie on his book I began to wonder if he might know my friend Seymour Barab, who was active in New York at the same time. I casually asked Seymour if he knew Bernie, and Seymour got very excited. He told me that they were in a string quartet together during the 1960s, and that they hadn't been in touch for 50 years (Bernie left New York for Milwaukee in 1968 to play with the Fine Arts Quartet, and Seymour remained in New York for the rest of his life). I gave each the other's phone number, and they renewed their friendship. Seymour read through a draft of Bernie's memoir and made many excellent suggestions. (Michael enjoyed Seymour's comments so much that he used to show pages of Seymour's editing to his college students.)

I have written a lot on this blog about Bernie. He was a remarkable man who, through his playing, his wit, and his kindness, brightened American musical life for much of the 20th century from sea to shining sea (peppered with many concert tours abroad).

You can find the posts I have written about him here, and you can get a copy of his memoir from Amazon, where he tells true tales about the marvelous musical world of the 20th century from the standpoint of one of its brilliant inner voices. The book comes with two CDs that give a musical overview of a remarkable career.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

What It Takes to Feel Good: The Nickolaus Technique

When I was a student at Juilliard I was often wracked with physical tension due mostly to constant practicing and always carrying a heavy shoulder bag filled with music and instruments. This was before people carried ergonomic backpacks. This was before the idea of ergonomic anything. Walking around the city in shoes that did not offer adequate support didn't help either.

One day in the winter 1979 a friend brought me to an exercise class that involved a brand new way of exercising developed by a dancer named Richard Nickolaus. The series of exercises, known as The Nickolaus Technique, was based on principles of Yoga and isometrics, and gave attention to all the moving parts of the body (including the feet). It involved controlled breathing, stretching, and strengthening, and it made an amazing difference in my life. There were studios all over the city, and if you were a member of one studio, you could take as many classes as you liked at any studio.



I took classes for around a year, and then I bought the book by Benno Isaacs and Jay Kobler so that I could keep doing the series of 30 exercises on my own when I went on my post-Juilliard travels. I somehow managed to misplace the book, but I still did the exercises. Well, some of them.

Last week, while I was out of town, I was showing a Yoga-minded friend some exercises from the Nickolaus Technique, and used my phone to search for it online. I couldn't remember the spelling of "Nickolaus," and was therefore unsuccessful. I tried again when I got home, and found a used copy of the book at Amazon for one cent. It arrived in the mail the other day, and I have been doing the series of 30 exercises after practicing.

What a great series of stretching and strengthening exercises it is! And it is particularly good for musicians of "a certain age" who are not as flexible as they once were.

Here's the cover:



And here's the Amazon link. I'm going to order a few more copies to give to my friends.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Trumpet Sonata Recording by Thomas Pfotenhauer and Vincent Fuh



A mystery package from Minnesota showed up in my postal mailbox. Michael opened it up and said, "You're on this CD!" We immediately put it in the CD player, and I am pleased to report that the playing is just great. I found a link to it here, and ordered some more copies.

I knew something about this recording, but I had no idea what the timeframe for it was!

Today's New York Times Includes a Piece about Music Written by Women

Maybe the New York Times could make "A History of Classical Music (The Women-Only Version) a column with weekly installments (with audio clips). Alice Gregory has started something good here.

For future columns, here is an incomplete list to work from. (And then there is this blog . . . )