Saturday, January 30, 2016

Piccolo World

I imagine that I am one of a relative handful of people who had a "windward" musical path of self-taught recorder to violin, and then to piccolo before settling into a decade-long (is that all it was?) monogamy with the modern flute.

I remember a few distinct episodes. One happened in seventh grade. In our English class we were instructed to set a poem to music. Our teacher meant, of course, that we should choose recorded music to play as background for a poem we would read aloud. I suppose I didn't understand the assignment properly, because I chose a poem (from our anthology) that was musical in itself, and immediately set it as a song with instrumental background.

I had stopped playing the violin at the beginning of sixth grade, and recorder playing was horrible at the time (I hadn't practiced since I was five or six). My mother offered her old (and broken) F.O. Adler piccolo to me, and I found that it had exactly the "cool" sound that I wanted as background for my poem. I even remember the poem (by Carl Wendell Hines, Jr.)
Yeah here am I am standing at the crest of a tallest hill with a trumpet in my hand & dark glasses on.
Bearded & bereted I proudly stand! but there are no eyes to see me. I send down cool sounds! but there are no ears to hear me. My lips they quiver in aether-emptiness! there are no hearts to love me.
I also remember the way we changed it (nobody told us that we couldn't change it) in order to make it more musical.
Yeah here am I, standing at the crest of the highest hill, with my trumpet in my hand, and dark glasses on.

Bearded and berated am I, but I have no eyes to see with. I send down cool sounds, but I have no ears to hear with
Of course I remember the melody, but I'm not sharing it here.

We worked in pairs. I worked with my friend Debbie who read the poem while I played the piccolo. While we were working on this project Debbie told me that the two of us should play recorder in the band (she had heard that was a possibility). I had the use of this piccolo, so I joined the band with that. During the summer I taught myself to play my mother's Haynes flute, and then I entered eighth grade with an Armstrong flute of my own (purchased used from the Rayburn Music Company down the street from Symphony Hall in Boston). I practiced and practiced, and by ninth grade I was using my mother's Haynes and taking lessons with a flutist in the Boston Symphony.

The Powell flute company stopped making piccolos some time during the 1960s, and my mother had an order that they were unable to fill. When they started making piccolos again in the 1975 they contacted my mother, who could no longer play because of a botched hand operation, and I became the proud owner of the first of the new Powell piccolos.

That piccolo served me well. I ended up playing much of the standard orchestral repertoire on it at Juilliard, in Hong Kong, and in Boston. I eventually sold the instrument to buy a violin bow.

In 2007 I wrote a sonata for piccolo and piano that I called "Piccolo Sonata," because it is a little piece (11 minutes long) and it is for the piccolo. This Tuesday I am going to hear it performed for the first time. I am very excited.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Youth: A Warning

Michael and I were both enticed by the trailer: a conductor/composer named Fred Ballinger played by Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel in a movie other than Smoke (a movie we both love) and a young boy violinist staying at the Swiss vacation spot, who just happens to be practicing a piece the Michael Caine character wrote.

We were both excited to see the movie yesterday. We had to drive another to another town to see one of the limited showings offered by the art theater there (the name of the theater is actually the "Art Theater"). The place was packed with people our ages and older. It was a good sign.

I gave it the benefit of the doubt for the first 20 minutes (it seemed like there were 20 minutes before the film's title appeared). In those few minutes I developed some sympathy for Fred, but I also had the slight suspicion that the film makers didn't know what they should about music and musicians. The guy was the music director at the "philharmonic" for 29 years, and (like all music directors, I suppose) he was a composer.

The Queen of England sends her emissary to the vacation spot to ask Ballinger to come out of retirement and conduct a performance of his "Simple Songs." She also wants to knight him, but Fred refuses on both counts. There is a piece of red cellophane in his fingers that he moves rhythmically. Absurd dreams spiced with nudity pop up here and there, and it is sometimes hard to tell which sequences are dreams and which sequences are reality.

I started looking at my watch seriously about 50 minutes into the movie. I started thinking about the time (what's left of my youth) I was wasting in the theater. I started thinking about the horrible script and the lines these fine actors were asked to deliver.

Michael and I agreed that it was kind of like Wes Andersen meets Fellini, but the result didn't carry the merits of either.

Shall I go into musical details? Why not. I hope that nobody reading this will waste the time or money to see this movie in a theater. The movie begins with someone singing a pop song. Later there is a music video with a pop star who is the new girlfriend of Harvey Keitel's character Mick Boyle's son (who was in the process of divorcing Fred's daughter). The Swiss vacation hotel has musical entertainment outside on a revolving circular stage that is set in the middle of a pool of water. Various novelty acts appear, all musically uninteresting.

The climax comes after Fred, in a scene that might have been left on the cutting room floor, decides to accept his knighthood and agrees to conduct "the philharmonic" in a concert of his "Simple Songs." The concert hall is a European traditional hall with gold-leaf and balconies. The men in the audience all wear black tuxedos with white shirts. The orchestra (which looks like a bunch of real musicians, and has an impressive-looking viola section) sits on a white stage with a white background and no walls (green-screened in as far as I can tell). The violinist Viktoria Mullova comes onstage (at least they had the decency to hire a real--and good--violinist), followed by a singer and an apathetic-looking (part of his character) Fred Ballinger. It's clear that Caine has no idea how to conduct, but, thankfully, the camera doesn't spend much time on him in this scene. The violin playing is good (particularly the off-camera arpeggios), and the singing is good (after the first few words of the text I was happy not to be able understand her diction). The audience is mesmerized. No one even claps at the end.

I know that I didn't fall asleep. I was paying attention. I somehow managed to miss the most important gesture in the film, and was left wondering why the previously overly-made-up and carefully-pasted-together Jane Fonda character was lying on her back screaming hysterically. Oh well. At least the movie ended.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

New Year's Greeting for 2016

Here's a link to a PDF of the music and a recording.

Rimsky-Korsakov writes about Alexander Borodin in 1916

This article from the January 8, 1916 Musical America gives a very personal look into the life of Alexander Borodin and the friendship he had with Rimsky-Korsakov. [A big thanks to Anne Heiles for this.]

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Postcapitalist Musical Economy and the IMSLP

Paul Mason's lengthy article about Postcapitalism in The Guardian got me thinking about the way the new musical economy functions in a world where digital exchange of information has relatively few "real" costs associated with it.

Anyone who knows me knows that I "play" by my own rules. Basically my practice boils down to personal contact. If I show up to play for someone's concert, I expect to be paid. If I decide to donate my services, I consider it a personal gift to the person or organization. If I write a piece for someone, I happily accept payment and consider the payment as something to insure that the person I write the piece for will be the person to give the first performance. Once the piece is performed I like to make it available on the IMSLP for anyone to play.

I no longer send my music to the publisher who holds the copyright on 77 of my pieces because I cannot depend on that publisher to do anything in the way of promotion. My pieces are, for the most part, files on their computer. When a musician buys a piece of music from this publisher (or most publishers) it is printed (nicely) and mailed. The publisher keeps 90% of the asking price (set by the publisher), and I get a royalty for 10%. Sometimes people buy a "mechanical license," which means that they have permission from the publisher to record a piece, if they choose to. Believe me, it rarely amounts to much.

The only measure I have of how many people play my published music is my yearly (sometimes) royalty statement. That measure does not take into account the people who take the music out of libraries (the now-deceased former owner of the music that is now controlled by my current publisher made sure that everything in his catalog made it into the stacks of major music libraries). I like to imagine that those 77 pieces are being played once in a while, but I have no way of knowing if they are, outside of the occasional YouTube video.

Once something is written I do not think of the music itself as a product to sell. It makes me rather nervous when I think of a piece of music being "worth" a set amount of money. When I look at the stats from my Thematic Catalog blog, I see that there have been 7864 visits to my transcription of the Pachelbel Canon. When I follow the link to the IMSLP listing, I see that there have been 19,686 people who downloaded the score.

The value that this IMSLP listing contributes to people who want to play the Pachelbel Canon with their string orchestra or string quartet is pretty great. The value that knowing that people can use the arrangements I make and the music I write (here's the page that has links to the original music I have in the IMSLP) is great for me. It helps me to know that what I do with music is useful and brings people pleasure. I get a great deal of pleasure out of writing and arranging music, and it is great to know that people (thousands of them) get pleasure from playing it. I'm happy to contribute to the musical economy by making accessible music (accessible for people who like to play music that isn't ridiculously difficult to play and to hear) easily accessible to all musicians for free.

But even a post-capitalist musical mindset involves money. The IMSLP, an organization run by a dedicated crowd of volunteers, has to use money to pay for its bandwidth. They have, like every other entity that uses bandwidth, started a fundraising campaign. There is a simple way to become a member (around $20 bucks a year if you make it a multi-year membership), and there are more creative ways. You can even sponsor a composer of your choice (maybe someone will pick me!).

The value of the IMSLP to me as a contributor and as a frequent user is immeasurable, and I'm proud to have done my part to keep it viable.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Sally Ann Performed by The Vinegar Flies

[The banjo playing singer is, of course, our son Ben.]

Friday, December 18, 2015

Music, Medicine, and Trust

I find this video interesting on a number of levels. Clearly the doctor is a fine violinist, but I imagine that the "Tennessee Waltz" is not one of the pieces in his usual repertoire. I also imagine that he is not as comfortable playing by ear as the guitarist/singer/patient (who has to jump octaves when attempting to sing because of the key). Observe at the 46-second mark, when the violinist/doctor, following the form of the song, goes into accompanying mode, and the two musicians "dance" awkwardly for a verse, making connections with one another here and there, exposing personal and musical vulnerabilities and strengths along the way. When it's the violinist's turn to improvise, the guitarist seems happy to accompany/support him as he tentatively searches for plausible variations on bits of the tune.

The music may not be within either of their usual idioms, but it functions as a plausible middle ground, and they share some special moments of musical communication with people like you and me who are touched by seeing and hearing the spoils of an unlikely bit of music-making by people who might never otherwise come into musical contact.

There is more to this patient/guitarist/singer that meets the eye (pun intended). And Dr. Sloan, who works on violins in addition to playing them, is very generous with his collection of instruments.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Train Ride

Today would have been my brother Marshall's 59th birthday. Daniele Colombo (a person I do not know) made this recording of Marshall's 1988 "Train Ride," that I thought I would share here to celebrate. It really "sounds" like Marshall. Thank you Daniele!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

"A-List" Music and Other Music

Among musicians there is always dialogue about favorite composers and the like. Almost everyone has the same "A" list, and that "A" list intersects extensively with the "A" list of people who spend more time listening to music than playing it (or do not play at all). I do not need to list those composers here: you know who they are.

During the 12 years of my professional life programming music for a radio station, I made a serious effort to treat A-list composers as equals to the rest of the "pack" that was available on recordings. That self-appointed task became rather easy when Marco Polo, a subsidiary of Naxos (a small budget label during the early 1990s) started offering really fine CD recordings of non A-list composers. It didn't hurt that I had been friends with the founders of that label in Hong Kong, so I received the whole library gratis. The Naxos library and the obscure small-label releases I got to review for the American Record Guide moved our library to the cutting edge as far as non-A-list composers. During the late 1980s and through the 1990s NPR stations spent a lot of time playing "greatest hits" by Rodrigo, Pachelbel, Gershwin (non A-list composers) many times per week, and single movements from larger works by A-list composers. I couldn't turn on an NPR station and hear anything I couldn't identify in the first couple of seconds, but my station, which had a library of only excellent performances of music by composers who were often new to me, offered listeners a challenge to listen to all kinds of new music (particularly "old" new music).

It is very easy to hear something that sounds a bit like (Robert) Schumann or Brahms, for example, and consider it "second-rate" Schumann or Brahms. It is very easy to write off that non-A-list composer as someone unworthy of your attention, and in the same breath write off the piece at hand as something less valuable musically than a piece that is by the A-list composer. If you hear it on a recording it is even easier to make that kind of dismissal, because the performance has been reproduced, and will always sound the same. It doesn't get better, though you may become a better listener. When evaluating something negatively we often decide that there is something wrong with it rather than something wrong with our evaluation of it. (In relationship terms it is kind of like the phrase, "It's not you, it's me," which, of course, usually means the reverse.)

I believe in performing well-written music by composers who never made it to the A list (and never will, since the A list is firmly set in the past). I love to practice music by A-list composers because doing so compels me to grow as a musician in order to meet the A-list composer half way. I love to study, play, and listen to A-list composers, but I feel that my "job" performing good music by composers who never made it to the A list is to make the experience of the music as meaningful as possible for the people listening to it, and, in the case of chamber music, for people playing it. If I have to reach a little more than half way in order to "sell" the immediate experience, and to eradicate the necessity for people listening to resort to comparisons with what the piece is not, I have been successful. Perhaps I have to "believe" even more deeply in the music I am playing than I would have to when playing something familiar, but I feel that it allows music to happen in original and unusual ways.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Status Update

I have been keeping my thoughts to myself lately, and I really don't see much harm in doing so, but, if I have faithful readers (it is really difficult to tell who they are, even with a stat counter) who might be wondering what is going on with me, never fear. All is well in my private life.

Last week I took one of my brother's violas out of the closet and put fresh (though not new) strings on it, and I have been using that instrument to play the Nutcracker (two performances down, four to go). The instrument has a longer string length than the Italian viola I normally play, and it has a very different kind of sound. I'm having a great time exploring the differences between the instruments. My brother's instrument is Welsh, and it has a lower register that speaks remarkably quickly. It would fit right in a chorus of miners in Wales, perhaps singing a baritone part, because it can.

I feel that playing this instrument is a way of honoring my brother. It is a very intimate and special experience. An instrument is not simply an object. It is an extension of the body and the mind. Sometimes it even feels like Marshall's "voice" is coming out of the instrument.

I have writing projects underway, but most of them are arrangements for Summer Strings. I also have a Bachian counterpoint project happening, which is rough-going at times. Original musical thoughts don't distract and obsess me the way they once did. I'm confident that they will return when I am ready, and hopefully I will be able to work with them in new and interesting ways.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Going up in Space and Playing Music

I have never had the desire to travel outside of the Earth's atmosphere. I never really understood why anyone would want to do such a thing until I heard an Inquiring Minds interview with Cady Coleman. She describes life and work in a space station kind of like the way I would describe playing a Mozart String Quintet.

Then again Coleman IS a musician.

I wonder what you would have to do in zero gravity to keep a bow on the string?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Local Culture

Last night I went to an excellent piano recital at a local university. The program was difficult and impressive, and the pianist, who had been an undergraduate student at that university, is on his way towards what I am certain will be a brilliant career (and I "know from good").

When this pianist was a college student his recitals were filled to capacity with members of the university community, students, friends, townspeople, and people from his home town. He was the pride and joy of the music department and the community at large. Last night's concert had an audience of ten or twelve people, and I spied only three members of the music faculty in attendance. I feel (and have always felt) privileged to hear him play. I imagine that everyone who was in the audience last night felt as privileged as I did.

Perhaps more people would have come to the concert if the university (or the music department) had publicized it adequately. Or maybe it is the fault of the local paper. Like many smaller cities in America, the once local newspaper, which runs out of a central corporate office in a distant state, does not understand the value of printing press releases about recitals. The people who make editorial decisions are not involved in the communities they are "serving." One "event" is just as important as another "event," I guess (unless it is a sporting event).

I like to believe that local culture is necessary for the health of a community. We are now, because of technology, closely in touch with one another through email (though fewer and fewer people write email message--or even read their email) and Facebook (where friends who live elsewhere feel as close as if they lived nearby, and friends who live nearby may as well be elsewhere). Perhaps all this access to things "elsewhere" makes keeping culture in a small community more difficult than it should be.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Off the Beaten Path

Back in my flute-playing days I learned an interesting metronome technique that involved off-setting the clicks of the metronome so that the clicks would sound on the off beats. I start my off-beat "machine" kind of like the way you start a game of jumprope (when someone else is doing the turning). In simple meter (divisions of two or four) I set it up so that the clicks happen on 2 and 4, and then feel the emphasis on the silent 1 and the silent 3. It sets up a nice even groove (as it should).

I often use this method to "notch" a passage from a slow tempo to a faster tempo. On the slow end of the tempo spectrum it feels kind of like ironing. You can almost watch groups of sixteenth notes become more even. As you "notch" up the tempo it's easy to see and hear the exact configurations of pitches that need attention. On the slower end of the notching experience it is easy to concentrate on how the bow or the tongue need to behave to insure that the notes are even. The places that rush become immediately apparent as you notch up the off-beats.

It is difficult, at first, to play more than a line or two of constant sixteenth notes without creeping into "downbeat" mode, but with practice, observations, patience, and forgiveness, practicing this way is really rewarding.

Last night I decided to practice a slower lyrical passage that was giving me trouble using off beats. The passage in question actually has off beats in the piano part. My challenge was (and still is) to play the on-the-beat notes with enough oomph and gusto (not to mention vibrato) to allow the music to ebb and flow the way I wanted it to. I found myself having trouble beginning held notes with vibrato because I had gotten so used to depending on the on-beat impulse to propel the vibrato. I also noticed, at the slower tempo, that concentrating on off beats and playing sustained double stops are difficult things to do simultaneously.

So I "notched" the passage down, doing just the opposite of what I would do if I were practicing a passage that I wanted to play fluently at a faster tempo. Doing this proved to be a sort of clean window into the body of the sustained notes, and after about half an hour of frustration I was able to have better control over the whole span of any given note in the passage, not just its beginning and its end.

We so often forget that the duration of a note is where the music happens. And our awareness of that fact is something that we face anew every day.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Viola and Piano Recital November 15

The composers on our program were contemporaries of Johannes Brahms. Theodor Kirchner (1823-1903) was Brahms's preferred arranger (he arranged Brahms's songs for piano solo). Kirchner also courted Clara Schumann during the 1860s (they kept their relationship secret from Brahms). Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) also knew Brahms well. He served as a pallbearer for Brahms's funeral.

We don't know if Friedrich Kiel (1821-1885), one of the founding faculty members of the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, knew Brahms personally, but we do know that Brahms knew Kiel's violin music.

It's great fun to practice and rehearse this music, and I'm sure that we will have a great time performing it.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Plastic Trumpet

I was really surprised to see this video of Alison Balsam playing a red plastic trumpet:

Wow. An instrument that really plays for under $200.00! And they are light weight and come in many different colors. What kid could resist?

Now we get to see and hear Alison Balsam teach:

What a treat!