Saturday, October 14, 2017

You can call me "grandma" now!

Meet our granddaughter, Talia Ivy Raab. She was born on October 12 at 1:48 p.m. Pacific Time.

Thursday, October 12, 2017


I got a notice today telling me that Musical Assumptions is one of the top 100 music education blogs on the planet. Any attempt to resuscitate the musical blogosphere is a good thing, so since I have earned the right to display this badge, I will:

I also got a badge last week from my orchestra to commemorate ten years of membership:

And no list of badges would be complete without posting pictures of my swimming buttons. These are not my actual swimming buttons, which disappeared during the last half century. But I did work hard during my childhood in the 1960s to earn buttons that look exactly like these. I still remember how difficult it was to learn to float in order to get the "beginner" button. I also remember the solemnity of the button-giving ceremony.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Early Autumn Ramble

I suppose that autumn is a collecting time. And this autumn, while I'm waiting for a magnificent event (the upcoming birth of our first grandchild), I have been busy collecting my thoughts.

Mine is a rather consistent musical life, so I find it stimulating when I find myself among young (and not-so-young) ambitious and optimistic musicians who hope to make a mark on the world. I suppose that at age 58 I should be one of the people who has already made her mark, but as a person who started her string-playing life rather late (in my early 30s), I sometimes still feel like I am finding my way around the fingerboard. I sometimes bite off just a little more than I can technically chew, but I feel fortunate never to feel like I am "stuck" at a high technical level, as I was with the flute, with no way to grow musically and nowhere to go.

At this point in my life I am happy to be included in the dance, and I am happy to be able to play with young people who don't seem to have any trouble getting around their instruments at lightning speed. I can play in tune, make the kind of sound I want to make, and more often than not I like what I hear when I put notes together in phrases.

I am relieved that I have not become that kind of an older colleague who exudes a sense of authority and superiority. When I am physically too old to play, I would like my legacy to be that of a good section player and a welcoming colleague who does not judge younger colleagues, except to compliment them when a compliment is in order.

I also never want to project an air of superiority over musicians who play the music I write. As youngsters we are taught to think of the composer of a given work as an authority figure, and we dutifully follow the "rules" that are set out for us. Too often we think of "the composer" as a judge. I would rather be thought of like a tailor who offers attractive practical clothes that fit well, wear well, and are comfortable in all kinds of weather.

The more music I write, the more music of other composers that I arrange, and the more music I play, the more I understand that composers and players are collaborators, even if the composer is not in the room, or is no longer alive.

Dynamics are the essence of musical relativity. My friend Seymour Barab once said that he wished he could just write piano and forte and be done with it. Composers often indicate tempo markings that are too fast (I know I do). Nobody performs with a metronome, so we find our own tempos and allow the composer's indications to act as guidelines. Sometimes slurs, like rules, need to be broken. We all break them from time to time, and for all kinds of reasons.

The idea of success in musical life seems to go hand in hand with ambition and recognition. In order for music to be played, people have to know about it. There are composers who devote vast amounts of time towards promoting their work themselves, and there are composers who devote serious financial resources towards having other people promote their work. Making a living purely from composing commissioned music and having various residencies at festivals and with orchestras seems to be a goal for some composers. It seems to be a measure of success not to have to have a "day job," even if that "day job" is one connected with music. And then there's the pie-in-the-sky idea of being a household name.

(I have to put in a joke from Seymour Barab. He told me, jokingly, that he once thought of changing his name, and he had the perfect one picked out: Leonard Bernstein.)

I used to feel ashamed about not having the skills or the drive to promote my work so that I too can "compete" in the "marketplace," but I no longer feel ashamed about it. Even in my relative obscurity I have come to understand that it is mostly a waste of my time and energy. Thanks to this blog and my Thematic Catalog blog (see I can do a bit of informational self promotion), I make my work available to people who are interested. I also share work for string quartet and string orchestra that is not published and cannot be put in the IMSLP (i.e. arrangements of pieces that are not in the public domain) with people who want to play it (just send me an email message). That's enough for me.

Given the past 500 or so years of published music, there is a lot of music to play. There is also a lot of new music to play, and there are many more composers writing now than there were before computer technology made the physical nuts and bolts of the composition process easier. I think that it is a good thing, because I think that the act of writing music does a lot to help people grow as musicians. It helps musicians to understand what to value in music by great composers from the past like Joaquin, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms, and sometimes contemporary composers get lucky and write something of real value.

There is a lot of music that we may play but do not necessarily perform. Consider the Bach Cello Suites and the Sonatas and Partitas. String players devote much of their lives to them, but only a relative handful of string players perform them. We still get a great deal of pleasure out of working on them. The idea of people getting together to play chamber music, and getting pleasure from interacting with one another musically while playing something that I have written is truly the best response I could ever hope for from my (still growing) body of work.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

The Creative Imperative Video Project

Marcia Butler (the writer of The Skin Above My Knee) asks the individual musicians of Orpheus about pieces of music that influenced their creatives lives, and what it feels like to perform. These interviews are very casual, and there is someone practicing in the background, but it adds to the feeling of being backstage during a rehearsal break.

I'll just leave one by violinist Ronny Bauch here, to begin. There are many more I have yet to watch:

Friday, September 29, 2017

In which Amanda Maier's Great Granddaughter shows us Amanda's violin, and Cecilia Zilliacus plays it

Cecilia Zilliacus meets the violin Amanda Maier played as a teenager, and very likely used to write her B-minor Sonata in this video.

The video below gives a taste of Zilliacus's new recording of Amanda Maier's violin music and some of her songs.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Alex Ross writes about Willa Cather!

What a treat it was to open up the October 2 issue of The New Yorker and find this piece by Alex Ross about Willa Cather. It is excellent reading, as are all of Willa Cather's novels and stories (and I am proud to say that I have read all of them).

Friday, September 22, 2017

Half-step marking hack

Students sometimes don't always pay enough attention to the pencil markings that string players typically use to indicate half steps.

Yesterday, while I was teaching a lesson, I looked at my "supplies" and found a sheet of stars.

I grabbed some scissors, and I cut the triangle-shaped points off one of the stars,

and I pasted them in the places in my student's music that called for half-steps. It worked like a charm!

They come off very easily when you no longer need to have them in the music.

[N.B. This is not the piece my student was playing. It is a passage from the Mel Bonis Violin Sonata.]

Monday, September 18, 2017

Columbus (the movie)

It has taken a while for me to formulate an opinion on Kagonada's 2017 film Columbus. After looking at Kagonada's other work, I think that I understand a little bit more about him as a director, and can therefore be more generous in my assessment of this film than I was while watching it.

Ultimately I think that Columbus is a more a film about photographing architecture than it is about architecture, and more a film at looking at relationships from the outside than it is a film about getting to understand characters.

The characters themselves are enigmas (and I hope I am not spoiling anything for anyone by describing them superficially, which is pretty much all we get in the movie).

Casey is a bright young woman (we don't know how young) who has an unusual attachment to the buildings in her home town in Indiana. She works in the public library (which has a Henry Moore sculpture in front of it) and doesn't want to leave town to go to college because she feels the need to take care of her mother (for reasons I will not disclose here).

Professor Jae Yong Lee is an architecture scholar who comes to Columbus to give a lecture and falls ill (that's literally all he does in the film).

Jin is Jae Yong Lee's son, who flies in from Korea to be with his father. He is older than Casey, but we don't really know how much older. John Cho, who is 45 but could easily pass for 30, keeps his age a mystery. Casey and Jin develop a friendship, which provides most of the film's substance.

Eleanor comes to Columbus with the professor. She is American, speaks Korean fluently, and calls Jae Yong Lee "professor," but it is not clear what the extent of their relationship is. Over a glass of wine Eleanor tells Jin how much she owes to his father. Her relationship with Jin is also not clear, though and they do eventually reveal that they had some kind of intimacy in their past.

Casey's mother is named Maria (I missed her name in the film, but found it in the cast list). She has the same coloring, haircut, voice type, and build as Eleanor, and is probably around the same age--whatever that might be. She is a woman of mystery who apparently can't cook, can't drive, and can't tell her daughter the truth about where she is much of the time. In the beginning of the movie she is often shot from the side or the back in a way that obscures her facial features. I have a feeling that we are supposed to confuse Maria with Eleanor.

There are architectural features that act almost like characters, and there are shots upon shots of doorways and hallways that seem to jump from one interior location to another. The shots are set up to be asymmetrical, yet balanced, and there is dialogue that lets us know that asymmetry and balance are important to modern architecture. The photography is beautiful.

Not everything in this compendium of architecture in Columbus, Indiana makes it into the film, and some buildings are featured more than others. The film got me thinking about architecture (and about visiting Columbus, Indiana one of these days), which is, I suppose, what Kagonada would like it to do.

It occurs to me that architecture is at once the most personal and the most impersonal of the arts. Architects design structures that provide shelter and safety, and they design interior spaces that determine personal boundaries and allow for shared experiences. When we are inside well-designed buildings and look out we feel a sense of connection with the outdoors, and when we look at buildings from the outside, we see them as sculptures that punctuate and enhance the natural landscape. We imagine what they might be like on the inside, but we cannot understand the real character of a building unless we are inside it. Even if we are watching it on film.

Watching this movie is, for me, like looking at the characters from the outside. We get small "windows," here and there, but even during periods of personal and revealing dialogue, I feel like the characters are about as comprehensible as the buildings they enter and exit. I like to think that this the director's intention.

There is one scene where Casey is parked outside her high school at night. She is dancing wildly to music that is playing on her car sound system. Jin is sleeping in the passenger seat of the car, and the headlights of the car are shining on her. She could be dancing as a reaction to what happened in previous scenes of the film, or she could just be dancing about architecture.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Finding Piatti

I have been thinking about Boccherini lately.

When he was in his twenties, Luigi Boccherini wrote six cello sonatas for cello with an accompanying bass line. They were first published in London 1770 in an edition that was not authorized by the composer (you can see it, a later edition, and a transcription for violin on this page of the IMSLP). None of the early publications have figures below the bass line, which would indicate to me that Boccherini either intended them as works for two cellos rather than as works for cello and basso continuo, or that he didn't intend to publish them at all.

It seems that the first person to make a full piano accompaniment from one of Boccherini's bass lines was Alfredo Patti (1822-1901). Luigi Forino (1868-1936), an important cello historian and composer, who served as the director of harmony and counterpoint at the National Conservatory in Buenos Aires, also had a hand in the piano part that Pablo Casals used for his recording of the Adagio and Allegro of the A major Sonata in the 1920s. It was published in 1946 by the International Music Company (designating Piatti and Forino as editors), and it was published in 1948 (without designation) by Carl Fischer as the "Feuermann" edition six years after Emanuel Feuermann's death.

I came across a reference to Morton Latham's 1901 book Alfredo Piatti: A Sketch while trying to learn something about piano part of the Boccherini sonatas. I found a difficult-to-read copy in Google Books, and was thrilled to find a lovingly transcribed edition presented by Lonely Peaks Records in an appropriately illustrated format. There is a lot of musical history in this portrait. It is teeming with famous composers, famous performers, and famous instruments. I imagine that Latham would have gotten all the stories directly from the cellist's mouth.

Here's a story about Piatti and one of the Boccherini Sonatas (as an example):

You can start reading here.

Friday, September 15, 2017

A Set of Five New Songs

For years my friend Daniel Morganstern has peppered our conversations with quotations from his mother's poems. I finally asked him to send me some of her poems with the hope of finding one or two that I could set to music. I was really pleased that I found five.

It is difficult finding poems to set to music because many of poems I like are complete within themselves, and they simply don't need music. And then there are poems that sound like they were written with the idea of music not far away. Milly Morganstern's poems are full of musical suggestions, so setting them was remarkably easy.

I felt, in a way, like I was getting to know Danny's mother through setting her poems. I did meet her briefly once, around 40 years ago. But I was very young (twenty), and she was my grown-up friend's mother. Milly Morganstern (1913-2000) was, according to Danny, a great pianist and a person with excellent musical instincts. I tried to imagine how she might have heard her poems as songs, and had a wonderful time doing so.

You can see the music on this page of the IMSLP, and you can listen to them here.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Alan Schulman's 1970 Setting of Kol Nidre

This setting of the Kol Nidre just blows the Bruch out of the water for me.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Skin in the Game

The score, parts, and a computer-generated recording of Skin in the Game are now available on this page of the IMSLP.

Enter the curiosity shop if you dare!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Writing Music is Bliss

It really is. Particularly when it involves completing a project that I have been working on for nearly 20 years.

I get a great deal of enjoyment out of moving notes around on staves. That sort of happiness could never be accurately weighed against any amount of money. Being able to do the work (having the material, time, technique, and passion) is its own reward; and when the piece I'm writing is completed, hearing a performance is an additional reward.

Right now I am in the middle of writing a piece based on Balzac's 1831 novel Le Peau de chagrin, known in English as The Wild Ass's Skin. I originally tried to set it as an opera, and I worked for years on a libretto, but no matter what I did, it didn't hold a candle to the novel. During the past two decades I worked out musical ideas here and there, and this summer I finally decided to put my musical ideas together in the form of a six-movement piece for a ten-piece chamber ensemble (or a chamber orchestra) that illustrates a few choice parts of the novel.

What do I love about writing for chamber orchestra? I love the choices of musical color and texture. I love exploring the personalities of the various instruments, as well as the musical personalities of the people--some who are real--that play them in the theater inside my head. I particularly love the way that articulations and dynamics work to shape phrases. And I feel so happy when I have all the notes, rhythms, and dynamics in the best of all possible places.

After this little bit of bloggery I'm excited to get back to work. So that's all for now . . .

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Stone Guest

I tend to equate events having to do with people who have risen to positions of power and abuse that power with what happens to the title character of Mozart's Don Giovanni. I did it in these pages back when John McCain was running for president, but I never would have imagined there would be so much to compare with the character of Don Giovanni in the current presidential administration (including the name).

We seem to be close to the end of the first act, where the Don is tricked into an intervention by the characters we know that he has harmed.

But with this new addition of statues into the mix, I can't help hoping for something like this to happen:

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Mozart Requiem on BBC "Soul Music"

This podcast episode of the BBC Radio 4 series "Soul Music" demonstrates more about the "why" of music than I ever thought possible. If you have a spare 27 minutes, particularly if you are feeling discouraged or detached, it would be beneficial to listen.

One segment includes an interview with Michael Finnissy, a composer who was tasked with completing Mozart's Requiem for a performance at the school where he taught. I find it particularly touching that Finnissy decided to complete it in the style of Rossini, when you consider that Rossini was born 91 days after Mozart died.

Here is a link to a paper that I intend to read soon.