Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Some Very Special Community Recognition

There's something special about getting recognition for what I do in the place where I live. Here's the article in the local paper about it.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Revisiting Old Things

I used to sew. I started doing it in earnest when Michael and I moved to Illinois in 1985. I found it very relaxing. I sewed dresses using Laura Ashley patterns, and I sewed maternity clothes. I sewed curtains for our house. I sewed things for Michael (he still uses one of the three robes I made for him), and I sewed baby and toddler clothes for our children.

My sewing machine broke around the time I started playing violin, and I forgot about sewing. The red-checkered kitchen curtains I made back in 1992 became so faded that we decided to replace them (with new red-checkered curtains, of course) about a month ago, and on a whim I decided to spend $100 on a new sewing machine so that I could hem them.

Then I found the fabric sites that the internet has to offer, and I bought several yards of lawn fabric (two different prints) and a dress pattern.

Yesterday I cut, and today I sewed. I couldn't finish what I was making because I misjudged the amount of fabric I needed, and I had to order more.

I used to think that arranging music (music written by someone else) was a lot like sewing. If you have great material to work with, your main charge is not to do anything that lessens the quality of the material. Writing music from scratch is a totally different experience.

While I was sewing I was thinking about my opera in progress (I have an introduction and about 6 minutes of music so far), and I was thinking about how much sewing is not like writing music. Composing is more like spinning the thread, weaving it, designing the pattern, and dying it.

Sewing from a pattern is satisfying because all you really have to do is follow the directions exactly in order to have your project come out properly. If you take extra care and correct mistakes, it can even come out looking nice.

Now that I am back in the "sewing" of things, I realize how difficult composing actually is.

I also ate beef stew for the first time in ten years this evening.

My life is a-jumble with returning sensations.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Orfeo by Richard Powers

I am not generally a reader of best-selling fiction, but I devoured Orfeo and savored every bit. It is a novel about music: the protagonist is a composer of avant-garde music who came of age in the 1960s. The novel is set in places I know very well (including Urbana, Illinois and Brookline, Massachusetts), and Powers describes them succinctly and accurately; even the small places and fleeting moments (including stops en route from Urbana, Illinois to St. Louis along I-70). He also describes places he hasn't been with great artistry, like the camp where Messiaen wrote and performed the Quartet for the End of Time and the first performance of HPSCHD at the Assembly Hall on the U of I campus on May 16, 1969.

Powers and I are contemporaries, and though his protagonist (in current time) is a decade and a half older than we are, he is able to vividly and realistically capture a sense of the cultural and technological "now" in contrast with the progressive "then" of the 1960s. He is able to switch between decades deftly and seamlessly. The reader instantly knows where and when time changes before the transitional sentence is finished. It's kind of like a tempo change or key change in a piece of music.

Powers has a deep understanding of music, and a deep understanding of musicians. Better than Thomas Mann, perhaps. And he uses a device for dialogue that I have never seen before (and didn't really notice until I was about halfway through the book). Dialogue is printed in italics, and the speaker is never identified. He writes so clearly that speaker doesn't need to be identified.

I bought an electronic copy which I read on the flight to our daughter's wedding in Los Angeles. One of the first things I did in town was go to a bookstore and buy a hard copy to give to my (musician/scientist) father. I'm excited to discuss it with him.

Here's a link to the book on Amazon, and here's an interview with the writer (which is how I learned about the book).

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Franz Liszt was a Freemason!

From James Huneker's 1911 book about Franz Liszt:
On the 31st of July last one of the greatest artists and men departed at Bayreuth for the eternal east, who had proved himself a worthy member of our brotherhood by his deeds through his whole eventful life. It is Brother Franz Liszt, on whose grave we deposit an acacia branch. Millions of florins Franz Liszt had earned on his triumphal career—for others. His art, his time, his life, were given to those who claimed it. Thus he journeyed, a living embodiment of the St. Simonism to which he once belonged, through his earthly pilgrimage. Brother Franz Liszt was admitted into the brotherhood in the year 1844, at the lodge 'Unity' ('Zur Einigkeit'), in Frankfort-on-the-Main, by George Kloss, with the composer, W. Ch. Speyer as witness, and in the presence of Felix von Lichnowsky. He was promoted to the second degree[390] in a lodge at Berlin, and elected master in 1870, as member of the lodge 'Zur Einigkeit,' in Budapest. Since 1845 he was also honorary member of the L. Modestia cum Libertate at Zurich. If there ever was a Freemason in favour with Pope Pius IX it was Franz Liszt, created abbĂ© in 1865 in Rome.

Joan Manen's "Garbo"

I just discovered the music of Joan Manen and thought I'd share this delightful tidbit:

and this one for guitar:

Monday, April 14, 2014

Here's what happened Saturday!

Michael and I walked Rachel down the aisle.

Rachel and Seth got married.

After Rachel's first dances with Seth and Michael, she sang with us. Ben played banjo, Michael played (Seth's) guitar, and I played (Rachel's) violin.

Everyone had a great time. Then we all flew away from Los Angeles, including Rachel and Seth. It was a wonderful wedding. It was a wonderful weekend.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Totally Distracted!

With our daughter's wedding coming up this weekend (is it time to go yet?), Michael and I are both totally distracted. Somehow listening to this fabulous recording from 1967 of Anshel Brusilow conducting the Chamber Symphony of Philadelphia in Haydn's Symphony 60, "Il Distratto," is excellent medicine.

If you are new to this piece (and don't know what to expect) make sure to listen all the way through the last movement. Surprise and delight await at every turn.

Here's a roster of the orchestra from 1966:

Friday, April 04, 2014

Jodi Levitz Talks About the Why of Playing the Viola

"All emotion comes from memory." I like that.

Good Hair Days, Bad Hair Days

Anyone with wavy or curly hair knows that there are good hair days and bad hair days. There are days when my hair simply droops, and days when it seems to keep itself in place. I'm convinced that it has a lot to do with the degree of humidity in the air, and the relationship of that humidity to the temperature.

I have found, through careful research (the hair on my head and the horse hair on the bows that I use), that good bow hair days and bad bow hair correlate to good head hair days and bad head hair days. It is on the good bow hair days that I enjoy playing the most. On the bad bow hair days I tend to reach for the rosin and scrutinize everything in my bow-drawing anatomy (I also avoid looking in the mirror).

Too much humidity in the air causes the hair to relax, which makes the stick bear a different kind of burden from the burden it bears when there is a moderate amount of humidity in the air. When the air is too dry (like in some concert halls I know quite well), the hair bears more of a burden. The problem is compounded by the fact that sound travels more quickly through moist air that it does through dry air. Mathew Abraham gives an excellent explanation:
The density of dry air is more than that of moist air (Wonder why? Just answer me – which is denser – skimmed milk or fresh milk. The cream is lighter and when removed from milk, we get skimmed milk and therefore skimmed milk will be denser than the fresh one with cream content. Just like that the water vapor is lighter than dry air. When moisture is removed from air, its density increases). The speed of sound in a medium is inversely proportional to the square root of its density. Therefore, the speed of sound in moist air is more than that in dry air.
Years ago, when I was deeply into the practice of making bread, I read an article in Gourmet magazine about the way humidity affects the wheat crop, and therefore affects the bread that is made from it. In order to have a consistent "product," bakers have to either have consistent ingredients or compensate for the inconsistencies that crop up from time to time. [Bad pun, but I'm keeping it in because it wasn't intentional.] String players, like bakers, have to come up with a consistent "product," regardless of what physical environment we happen to be in at the time.

Perhaps we should embrace the daily changes in the temperature and humidity (and they are daily these days) because they connect us more with the natural world and its inhabitants. And as "long hair" musicians that is something that we should strive to do.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Spoils of the Day

Here we have a mouse that has grown Beethoven's ear thanks to DNA from Beethoven's hair.

I'll use this opportunity to post a (now-chached) link to the great La Folia website that lists and links to settings of La Folia from the early 17th century through the 21st century.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Heard But Not Seen: A Memoir by Daniel Morganstern

My dear friend Daniel Morganstern, who recently retired as the principal cellist of the Chicago Lyric Opera, wrote a memoir about his 50-year career as experienced in large part from the principal cello "hot seat" of ballet and opera orchestras in New York and Chicago.

I proudly served as Danny's editor, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The 96-page book is honest, optimistic, and a lot of fun to read. You can order a copy here.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Some Great Comedy for a Rainy Day

While searching (once again) for the Spike Jones version of the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on YouTube, I came across this gem from January 9, 1954. It's live television, and is a half hour packed with a huge amount of comedic variety, musical and otherwise, with special guest Harpo Marx.

If you don't have half an hour, but need a quick laugh, watch this:

Monday, March 24, 2014

Es muss sein

This is from the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata, Opus 111 (his last piano sonata),

and this is from the last movement of his String Quartet, Opus 135 (his last string quartet).

Isn't it interesting that he incorporates and exploits the same motive?

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Thoughts About Intonation

I spent some time practicing viola with a tuner this morning. I am playing a piece that spends a lot of time in the rather unpopular key of B major, so I thought it would be appropriate to use my metronome/tuner to gauge whether I was playing my B-major scales and arpeggios in tune or whether I was missing the mark. I usually trust my ears, but in this case (and because of this key) I thought I would give myself a little bit of help.

I found that in order to play absolutely in tune with the tuner (and make the little needle stop moving) in B major (where there are no open strings), I had to play with a sound that was totally devoid of character. It wasn't fun, so I stopped using the tuner.

It occurs to me that much of the string playing I love is filled with both character and expressive intonation. In these days of machines we tend to think that "the tuner" is correct, much like the way we used to think that the piano was always correct (which, with tempering, it isn't, but we adjust). Sometimes, particularly when interpersonal situations become tense and we are under pressure to be another person's version of "correct," we have to narrow ourselves to achieve our "goal." Sometimes we forget about the music.

Because of the way the modern flute is constructed, it is sometimes very difficult to play the instrument in tune. When I played the flute I found it very difficult to accept the intonation that was built into my instrument. After consulting with a bunch of singers (including Eleanor Steber, who taught one of my friends), I devised a way to open up my throat, lower my diaphragm, and play with a wide supported stream of air that would "find" the center of the pitch by itself. With practice I found that I could simply listen and the pitch would go where I wanted it to go, as long as there wasn't any tension in my tone production equipment that would stop the pitch from finding its natural center.

String players can do the same kind of thing (and in tense situations I need to remember this). The bow arm is analogous to the diaphragm, the bow hair moving across the string is analogous to the air itself, the fingers of the right hand work like the flute-players tongue, and the fingers of the left hand, with their various degrees of pressure and place, can adjust themselves in minute ways to allow a pitch to find its center and sound in tune, as long as there isn't anything getting in the way of the tone production.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Happy Bach's Julian Calendar Birthday

According to the Julian Calendar (used in Bach's time), today is Bach's birthday, but according to the Gregorian Calendar the day marking his birthday would be March 31.

The adaptation of the New Style Gregorian Calendar was gradual. I find the whole thing fascinating.