Sunday, October 23, 2016

Donald J. Giovanni

An article in Slate lets us know that yesterday that a live a Metropolitan Opera performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni aired on movie screens across the country. There's a repeat movie theater broadcast on Wednesday at 6:30 Eastern Time.

The similarities between the two Dons abound. The Met is making an excellent statement by broadcasting this opera at precisely this time.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Finally! A Composition Contest I Can Enter

[You'll have to click the image to read the text without glasses.]

Thank you Michael Kurek for creating the above piece of art for this fine contest.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Trio for Clarinet (Violin), Viola, and Piano

Thank you to the members of the Nexus 3 Trio for this excellent performance!

You can find the music here.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Kol Nidre

[The person taking the video started a few measures in . . .]

Happy New Year to all!

You can find the music here (look under "transcriptions").

Monday, October 10, 2016

Preparing to Inhale

Three of my violin students happen to also play the flute. I consider it tremendous fortune to be able to teach them because I find myself identifying all sorts of "flute brain" things that happen that can hamper good violin playing. And then sometimes a violin-based observation can identify a flute problem.

For instance, one student has the habit of picking up all of her fingers when she lifts her bow. My sense of flute reflex (which has been activated of late because I have been practicing the flute every day) made me think of the way I tend to lift my fingers off the flute keys when I take a breath. She told me that she does the same thing when playing the flute.

While practicing the flute the other day, I noticed how often I pick up my fingers when I take a breath, and how much better everything sounds and feels when I keep my fingers on the keys while taking in air. Perhaps the process of inhalation is more complete without lifting the fingers because the only muscles that are working are the ones that control breathing, so all the energy goes to the task at hand.

I'm excited to talk about this with my recorder student (who will be here soon).

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Waiting to Exhale (or Blow, or Bow, or Move the Air)

We had a discussion about air during yesterday's Renaissance consort meeting. A new person to the group, a professional oboe player in civilian life, mentioned that she felt out of breath playing the alto recorder, to which two members replied that their shawm teacher tells them not to "blow," but rather to "exhale" through the instrument.

My thoughts waited a day or so before they collected themselves, so I'll share my observations here.

When I play the recorder or the flute I think about using the tongue to move the air through the instrument and out into the world. Exhaling is too passive for me, and blowing without using the tongue to move the airstream feels like a waste of air. I find that exhaling by itself lacks purpose and direction, because it doesn't take the all-important tongue into consideration. I always use the tongue to push the air, and then I use it to move the air stream through the instrument. A certain amount of "blowing" does happen, but it only happens once the air column has been set into motion.

When I play viola or violin I begin my bow stroke with a combination of right-hand fingers and wrist. I find that they function together much like a tongue functions when playing the flute or the recorder. Then I use a combination of my fingers, hand, wrist, arm, and shoulder to move the bow and regulate its speed and pressure. The movement starts (or keeps) the string vibrating, which in turn sets the wood and the air inside the instrument into motion. When I move the bow, I push or pull the air (up bow is the same as push and down bow is the same as pull) out of the instrument. It's nothing like blowing, though once the bow is in motion, it feels a little like exhaling. It particularly feels like exhaling when I actually exhale while moving the bow.

We inhale and exhale while playing a stringed instrument (because we can, and because we have to in order to live). It feels both life-enhancing and music-enhancing. The act of inhaling and exhaling when playing strings does not make sound or prepare to make sound. What happens inside the body (what you cannot see) has little bearing on the way notes are produced. When playing a wind instrument the outside of the body (the part that you can see) remains relatively still. Physical movement (aside from the fingers, the breathing mechanism, and the occasional combination of lip and cheek) is superfluous; it does nothing to improve sound quality or musical expression.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

We Are Still Far From Eradicating Gender Bias in Music, Folks

I like to believe that in the field of music we are making serious progress towards eradicating gender bias. Blind (internet) tests have shown that nobody listening to a performance of a piece of music can tell the gender of the person performing it. But in spite of the fact that everyone agrees that the quality of a person's playing matters far, far, more than the gender of the person playing, and the fact that orchestras are often populated by more women than men, and that some of the best 21st-century conductors around happen to be women, gender bias is still lurking under the surface of the world where I swim. And even though women composers have been given a small share of prizes and such, the real proof is in the concert programs.

This article by Max Moran pokes at some nerves.
The notion that someone can objectively determine quality assumes that they are “living in some patriarchy-free universe somewhere,” Curtis added.

“We all know that gender bias exists, and even those of us who work every day against it can never be free of it,” she said, sharing an anecdote about seeing conductor Susanna Malkki walk on stage and thinking, “Who’s the soloist?”

Yet the labels “women composers” and “men composers” still have a place in this discussion, Curtis concluded. “We need these labels to point out the presence of men without women and the lack of women and the lack of inclusion,” she said. “We both need special events that celebrate women, and we also need more women in the mainstream.” She added that orchestras are making some progress, especially smaller orchestras playing women composers, but that there is still more progress to be made.
I'm pleased to notice that Emilie Mayer is among the "common practice" composers Moran mentions. And though he doesn't mention her partronymic homophone, Amanda Maier, this is as good a place as any to let everyone know that an excellent edition, with orchestral parts and a piano reduction, of her Violin Concerto is available for free in the IMSLP. I find it terribly sad, given the quality of the piece and the importance of the composer, that it only seems to have been downloaded around 35 times. If any piece should be played by major symphony orchestras that feed their audiences a diet of 19th-century music, this one should. And the score and parts are available for free.

Not available for free, but very much worth paying for, is an excellent edition of Amanda Maier's Piano Quartet (another GREAT piece). I can't help myself from thinking that if these pieces had been written by a man they would be hailed as great 19th-century discoveries.

Gregory Maytan, a great champion of Amanda Maier's music, made a soon-to-be-released recording Maier's Violin Concerto and her Piano Quartet. Keep your eyes on this spot for a review.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Spread Ahead

Beginning violin students often have a hard time being sure where their fourth fingers are going to land, particularly after playing a note with a lowered second finger (in the case of C natural on the A string). Here is a sample pattern.

The open A string that begins the sequence notes tells the student what the stopped A at the end of the measure needs to sound like, so if the fourth finger note is out of tune the student knows it immediately, feels frustrated, and then tenses both hands.

My solution? Spread the hand during the open D so that the fourth finger can simply drop into place.

Yesterday, while I was teaching a lesson, I wrote the words "spread ahead" on my student's music. I was amused by the rhyming catch-phrase-ness of the words, and when she walked out the door I realized that I had forgotten the exact words I had written on her music. I figured that I would see them the next time she had a lesson, so all was not lost.

Fortunately my next student found herself in a similar situation. It involved a shift in position, an open string, and the need to spread the hand. The phrase came to mind immediately, so I wrote it on her music.

Then I forgot it again.

So I'm writing the story of my new catch phrase here. I hope that it is useful to other string players, whether they be teachers, students, or both.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Musical Pioneers

From Willa Cather's O Pioneers!
"Yes, sometimes, when I think about father and mother and those who are gone; so many of our old neighbors." Alexandra paused and looked up thoughtfully at the stars. "We can remember the graveyard when it was wild prairie, Carl, and now --"

"And now the old story has begun to write itself over there," said Carl softly. "Is n't it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years."

Friday, September 09, 2016

What Helium Does to Clarinet Playing!

This demonstration will lighten up your day. Wonder what it does for other instruments? Here is a recorder player using helium bagpipe style. He is a scientist, so he is not about to do anything to mess with his brain cells. He also compares helium-driven recorder playing with carbon-dioxide-driven recorder playing (did I hyphenate that properly Michael?).

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Beverly Cleary on Procrastination

This is not advice from Beverly Cleary about how or how not to procrastinate, but reading this bit from My Own Two Feet gives me courage. The creative process is rife with interruption and insecurity, and, in Cleary's case, rich in the everydayness of what it means to be a child. Reading her books helps adults remember what it was like to be in the third grade, to be a fifteen-year-old girl (even if they had never been a girl of any age), or to be part of a family.

This passage comes from the end of her memoir. Beverly and her husband Clarence had just bought their first house. She had been through college and library school, and had worked in a few libraries. She always had the desire to write children's books, but had never written anything longer than a 24-page paper for a college English class.
We had discovered in the linen closet a ream of typing paper left by the former owner. I remarked to Clarence, "I guess I'll have to write a book." My ambition, refusing to die, was beginning to bloom again.

"Why don't you?" asked Clarence.

"We never have any sharp pencils" was my flippant answer.

The next day he brought home a pencil sharpener.

The trouble was, I couldn't think of anything to write about. Besides, I was busy turning our house into a home. We bought dining room furniture to go over the braided rug. I braided another for the living room from my army uniforms, Clarence's wedding suit, and other memories.

* * *

On January 2, 1949, I gathered up my typewriter, freshly sharpened pencils, and the pile of paper and sat down at the kitchen table we had stored in the back bedroom. Write and no backing out, I told myself. In all my years of dreaming about writing, I had never thought about what it was I wanted to say. I stared out the window at the fine-leafed eucalyptus tree leaning into the canyon and filled with tiny twittering birds. I looked out the other window at a glimpse of the bay when the wind parted the trees. There must be something I could write about. The cat, always interested in what I was doing, jumped up on the table and sat on my typing paper. Could I write about Kitty? He had a charming way of walking along the top of the picket fence to sniff the Shasta daisies, but children demanded stories. A daisy-sniffing cat would not interest them. I thought about the usual first book about a maturing of a young girl. This did not inspire me. I chewed the pencil, watched the birds, thought about how stupid I had been all those years when I aspired to write without giving a thought to what I wanted to say, petted the cat, who decided he wanted to go out. I let him out and sat down at the typewriter once more. The cat wanted in. I let him in, held him on my lap, petted him, and found myself thinking of the procession of nonreading boys who had come to the library once a week when I was a children's librarian, boys who wanted books about "kids like us."
After that Cleary started thinking about the kids in her neighborhood when she was growing up, and then she started thinking about plausible story lines and characters, and then, after several interruptions, she came to the realization that writing for children was the same as storytelling, which she had done a lot as a children's librarian, and she was on her path.

An extra treat: In 1985 Beverly Cleary wrote this article for the New York Times.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Is Art Powerless Against Reality?

From Romain Rolland, as quoted by Stefan Zweig: "Art can bring us consolation as individuals, but it is powerless against reality."
This simple statement has been rattling around in my brain for the last 24 hours. Romain Rolland, who, in addition to writing novels, plays, and essays about art wrote a great deal about music. [The internet archive has some of his musical writings here, and you can find the text of his well-known book, Beethoven the Creator here.]

Rolland lived in France during a time when I thought that art (or Art) was considered a vital part of reality, but I am learning, little by little, that a general "reality" is something controlled not by the people who make art, but by the people who have a great deal of power. We have had, during the past few centuries, people of power who were consumers of art. The world is indeed indebted to the artistic tastes of Elizabeth I, Louis XIV, Frederick the Great, Ludwig II of Bavaria, the Princess de Polignac, and those three Americans named Henry: Frick, Huntington, and Higginson.

Cue Herman's Hermits for a bit of comic relief:

It seems to me that many of the people of wealth and power living in this century (the one percent, and the politicians representing them) aren't particularly interested in art, music, and drama beyond celebrity and investment value. I fear that art has lost even more of what little power it might have had when Rolland considered it powerless against reality.

I think I'll poke through those Rolland essays now. I'm hoping for a bit of consolation in them.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Notes on Reflections

I have spent the last couple of months working on a piece for flute and strings in memory of my mother, who died this past Valentine's Day. I finished the piece yesterday, and it is now in the IMSLP. I thought I would use this virtual "space" to write some notes about "Three Reflections for Flute and Strings."

The first movement has the title "Was will die einsame Thräne?" I began this as a setting of a Heine poem which I encountered, through a reference to it, in Willa Cather's My Mortal Enemy, one of the books Michael and I read earlier this summer. The poem has been sitting next to me all summer, copied onto a yellow legal pad.
Was will die einsame Thräne?
Sie trübt mir ja den Blick.
Sie blieb aus alten Zeiten
In meinem Auge zurück.

Sie hatte viel leuchtende Schwestern,
Die alle zerflossen sind,
Mit meinen Qualen und Freuden,
Zerflossen in Nacht und Wind.

Wie Nebel sind auch zerflossen
Die blauen Sternelein,
Die mir jene Freuden und Qualen
Gelächelt ins Herz hinein.

Ach, meine Liebe selber
Zerfloß wie eitel Hauch!
Du alte, einsame Träne,
Zerfließe jettender auch!
The poem from the section called "Die Hedmkehr," XXVII from Heinrich Heine's Buch der Lieder, and it has been set by at least 81 composers. Here is a link to a good English translation.

I didn't do a full setting of the song, but I used the lines of poetry to write the major thematic material of the first piece of the set, and allowed the music to reflect poetry. The artwork on the Soundcloud link is by my mother.

The second piece in the set, "The Silence," is from a group of songs I wrote in 2002 to poems by Federico Garcìa Lorca. I made an arrangement of some of the songs for flute and piano, but left "El Silencio" out of that set. It works really well for flute and strings. Here's the poem:
Oye, hijo mío, el silencio.
Es un silencio ondulado,
un silencio,
donde resbalan valles y ecos
y que inclina las frentes
hacia el suelo.

Lee todo en: El silencio - Poemas de Federico García Lorca

Here is the setting:

The third piece is a "Yahrzeit" tribute to my mother. I re-used and adapted material from a set of calendar preludes for piano that I wrote in memory of my brother Marshall for the Jewish year of 5775, the year that began right after his death. The time for my mother's Yahrzeit is in the month of Adar, so I used material from the piece I wrote for the month of Adar. Adar is the month of Purim, so the piano piece runs like a kind of story that is interrupted by explosions of noise (whenever the name "Haman" is spoken). For this setting I lightened the mood. I also reduced the number of "interruptions," and I turned them into trills. Here is the updated setting:

(For reference, and in case you are interested, here is a link to an audio file for "Adar.")

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Stefan Zweig on Fate

From the chapter "Bypaths on the Way to Myself" in Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday
It was natural enough for me to think that I was being persecuted by fate, since at the very start the theater had so temptingly offered me undreamed-of possibilities only to snatch them cruelly from me at the last moment. But it is only early in life that one believes fate to be identical with chance. Later one knows that the actual course of one's life was determined from within; however confusedly and meaninglessly our way may deviate from our desires, after all it does lead us inevitably to our invisible goal.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Note of Thanks

While recovering from the thankless task of cutting the overgrown weeds and invasive vines on the wall that separates our property from our neighbor's property, I am overcome with gratitude for having the time and physical ability to perform such a task, for living in a house with a yard to tend, for being able to drink and shower in fresh water after I have exhausted myself, and for knowing that I will be able to sit down for a nice lunch soon.