Thursday, January 29, 2015

Five Times is The Charm

I have made my way through 45% of sixth grade math over at the Khan Academy, and now things are slowing down quite a bit. I'm still putting in the same amount of work and time, but my progress is now moving in centimeters rather than in feet or even inches (I have completed 47% of sixth grade math, and from the average number of problems I answer correctly, I would give myself the grade of C so far). In order to show the algorithm that you know a skill, you need to get five problems in a row right. When you can get five problems right, you move further along in your quest towards completing the sixth grade. Each percentage point is hard won at this point.

There is certainly something about being able to do something five times in a row correctly. It is my new yardstick to assure me that I know a difficult passage in a piece of music. If I can repeat something five times in a row correctly (at the arrived-at tempo marking), I could probably repeat it correctly a hundred times.

Perhaps five times IS the charm.

Five times what? You ask.

Monday, January 26, 2015

How Classical Music Changed my Life

This piece of paper, a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, spent the past 30 years in one of Michael's bookcases. The photocopy of the original came from my harpist friend Carrie Kourkoumelis, who, armed with a Xerox machine, used to send random clippings through the mail to people who might appreciate them. I did. I saved. And I am now sharing it here.

I am also transcribing:
The other day at Ma Maison, as I was waiting for the attendant to retrieve my chocolate brown 450 SLC, the Saudi prince I'd been noshing with said, "Say, Bill, how did an unassuming guy like yourself come to be so rich, so trim, so . . . sexy?"

My eyes grew misty. "it wasn't always this way, Ahmed, old buddy . . ."

My mind raced back to the Bad Time, before the investment tips, the real estate empire, before Dino bought my screen play and I bought my Columbia 50 . . .

Once I was a lot like you.

Working at a nowhere job, hitting the singles bars, watching situation comedies in my free time. I tipped the scales at a hefty 232, but my bank balance couldn't have tipped the bus boy at the Midnight Mission.

Finally, I hit bottom. . . picked up by the Castiac police for barreling my old heap the wrong way over some parking lot spikes.

My last friend in this lonely world, Hardy Gustavsen, set me straight while he was driving me back to L.A.

"Bill, get hold of yourself! Start listening to KFAC!"

"Gosh Hardy, don't they play classical music? I'm not sure I cotton to that high brow stuff!"

Aside from a couple of summers at Tanglewood and Aspen, and one semester in Casals' Master Class . . .

I knew absolutely nothing about classical music.

"Bill, who would be wrong if you got better?"

Looking into his steely blue eyes, I realized Hardy was right. I resolved to give KFAC a shot.

At first, it was quite painful. Listening to all those 100-piece groups was confusing--I was used to having the drums on the right and the bass on the left and the singer in the middle. All those semidemisemiquavers made my head spin.

But I started to feel the beneficial effects of classical music listening in just one short week.

In no time, I was using napkins with every meal, I switched from Bourbon to an unpretentious Montrachet and I become able to hear sirens even with my car windows rolled up.

Soon I was spending every night with KFAC and a good book, like Aquinas' Summa Theologica.

I realized that some of the wealthiest, most famous people in this world listened to classical music--Napoleon, Bismarck, George Washington, Beethoven. . . and many others who are yet alive today.

Then I met Marlene. The first girl who knew there was more to Also Sprach Zarathustra than the theme from 2001. And I fell in love.

Today, I'm on top of the world with a wonderful wife, close friends in high places and a promising career in foreign currency manipulation.

Can classical music do for you what it did for me?

A few years back, scientific studies showed that when dairy cows are played classical music the quantity and quality of their milk dramatically improves.

Now if it can do that for plain old moo cows, imagine what it can do for you!

Can you afford KFAC?

Is lox kosher?

Even though marking surveys show that KFAC's audience is the most affluent assemblage of nice people in Southern California, yes, you can afford KFAC! Thanks to their Special Introductory Offer, you can listen FREE OF CHARGE for as many hours as you like without obligation!

Begin the KFAC habit today.

Remember, the longest journey begins by getting dressed. Don't let this opportunity slip through your fingers. Tune to KFAC right NOW, while you're thinking about it.

And get ready for a spectacular improvement in your life.

Warn your family and friends that you may start dressing for dinner.

You may lose your taste for beer nuts.

and the next time you're on the freeway thinking of playing with your nose, you'll find yourself asking:

"Really. Would a KFAC listener do this?"

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Math, Music, and Intuition

In my last post about math I mentioned that I didn't think that math and music had much to do with one another, but now that I have spent the past week spending at least an hour a day on sixth-grade math (I'm 39% through the 6th grade over at the Khan Academy), I can honestly report that doing math and understanding what I am doing when I am doing it has a positive influence on the way I practice and the way I think when I'm playing.

I have had a physical aversion to math since the sixth grade. Part of the physicality of my aversion had, no doubt, to do with the fact that I had become near-sighted and had to strain to see the blackboard in my sixth-grade classroom. I struggled until I got glasses some time in the seventh grade, and by that time I chalked up my inability in math to pure inability. The eye strain was gone, but the residual brain strain of having missed developing significant skills remained.

That's about the time I started relying on my intuition. Intuition has done me well. Avoiding anything having to do with numbers and quantities allowed me to develop a startlingly high degree of intuition. But intuition doesn't help when you are counting measures rest, and the very numbers themselves give rise to confusion. As Stevens Hewitt so beautifully put it, "The most difficult part of playing the oboe (or by implication any other instrument) is knowing exactly when." Gradually learning to accept numbers as friends has helped me to keep my place when counting rests. I noticed the results in less than a week of doing sixth-grade math.

I notice tendencies in my math exercises that I notice in other parts of my life. I sometimes "see" numbers that are not there. I sometimes transpose numbers. I sometimes don't read the whole problem, and leave out the most important part. The problem of attention is easy to get around when there is not a correct answer that needs to be found.

My intuition has allowed me to estimate sizes and distances, and for the most part I have been very lucky. The times when I have not been lucky have caused me to waste a lot of time (and sometimes resources, like paper). There other day I needed to use Finale to convert a passage written in flats to one written in sharps. Normally I would guess at the size of the margins I would need, but this time I located the "ruler" feature in the program, and I used a physical ruler to measure the width I needed to match on the page. I grabbed the ruler before guessing. I trusted that the ruler would be right. I got the passage to fit perfectly. (And I could also actually play the passage, weeks after hitting my head against the previous notation.)

After spending time with graphing, I have started to think of the positions of my fingers on the fingerboard as points on a graph. I have started to think about the distances between my fingers just a little bit differently.

Perhaps the most revealing thing about doing sixth-grade math is the fact that there is a right answer to any problem I encounter. When I get that right answer I am as right as anyone else doing the same problem. I belong to a small community of "right-ness."

Speaking of math, it's time to do a few more problems.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Concert in Rhinebeck, New York

I was very excited to learn this morning that some musicians (flutist Eugenia Zukerman, pianist Babette Hierholzer, and soprano Kimberly Kahan) will be performing one of my pieces in Rhinebeck, New York this Sunday. Here's a screen shot of the article, and here's a link to it. I imagine they will be performing either "Asleep in the Deep," "Bird in a Gilded Cage" or "In the Gold Room." These are pieces in a series I refer to as "new tunes for old songs."

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


By the time my children reached the sixth grade I could no longer help them with math. Sixth grade was that time in my life where I tried to "fit in" with the kids around me, and I lost a lot of ground making stupid mistakes. I stopped playing violin, and I no longer took the academic work of school seriously. I suppose that you could say it was a time of rebellion, but I recall that prior to the beginning of sixth grade, most of my interest in things having to do with learning and music was self directed. Nobody made me practice or made me do homework. When I did do homework, I used a crutch. When I stopped practicing violin it was simply assumed that I did not have any interest in playing, and when I did poorly in math, it was probably assumed that I didn't have any aptitude. My low SAT scores didn't matter, because I was going to music school. I had to wait until taking the GRE was not required before I was able to get a Master's Degree.

When I realized that I really needed to play an instrument somewhere in the middle of the 7th grade, the violin was something I didn't feel I could go back to. As a result of not playing attention in sixth grade math class, I was lost when it came to 7th grade math. I never thought to ask for help. All I really cared about during jr. high school was music, and my teachers were all impressed with my dedication to music. Perhaps they bought into the myth that music and math are pretty much the same thing. I am living proof that they are not. The fact that I graduated from high school (there was not much of a math requirement, and "easy" math counted as part of it) proves that intuition can get you far enough to fool people. For some odd reason I do remember something about geometry, and I do recall finding it a lot of fun. I never understood algebra.

Here's my stash of books from the library. My plan is to start learning 6th grade math now, and then I plan to make my way through the subsequent levels in order to become math literate.

I did it with the violin, I did it with writing music, and I am doing it with the piano. Any guidance from readers who are sympathetic to my cause would be highly appreciated.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Scenes from EMMA will be Performed in New York on May 13, 2015

I'm very excited to let you know that Leonard Lehrman and Helene Williams will be performing some scenes from my 2008 opera EMMA as part of a seminar about Jewish Opera. The seminar series, which begins next week, will be held at the Community Church, 40 East 35th Street, in New York City.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Four Pieces from Doktor Faustus

Karlīna Īvāne played my "Four Pieces from Doktor Faustus" a couple of days ago, and put the performance on YouTube. I am happy to share it here. If you know the Thomas Mann novel, you should recognize the references. If you haven't read the novel, I recommend reading it!

The first movement is based (loosly) on the song "Oh How Lovely is the Evening," which is discussed at length as one of the pieces that Leverhuhn and the narrator sang together. The second movement is based on the Hetaere esmeralda row and incorporates the Tristan chord. The third movement represents the encounter with whatever it is that the narrator (who is a viola d'amore player), says that Leverkuhn (the composer and main character) encounters, be it a daemon or a hallucination of one, and the last movement is a "portrait" the little boy called Echo.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Henry Miller on Writing

I spent my 20s reading everything written by Henry Miller, and I spent my 30s reading most of the books he mentions in "The Books in My Life." I know that I must have read this list of "commandments" concerning writing, because I tend to follow them (unconsciously) when writing music and while practicing, when I have had the leisure to do so. Seeing this list again is like having met an old friend, so I thought I'd share it here.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Apple Amaretto Cake

It's not the world's best photo, but it may be the world's best snacking cake. Here's the recipe:

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F, and butter a rectangular baking dish.

Peel and finely dice two apples.

In one bowl mix 2 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon

In another bowl mix 1 cup slightly warmed milk
1/4 cup melted butter
2 eggs
2 tablespoons Amaretto.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry, and mix in the apples. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan, and cook it for 25 to 30 minutes (27 worked for me).

You can, of course, use brandy instead of the Amaretto. Or you can use vanilla or almond extract.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Yehudi Menuhin on Holding the Violin

I was so happy to hear this discussion on the 8th DVD of the Bruno Monsaingeon Edition devoted to films about (and of) Yehudi Menuhin. The first thing I teach my students about holding the violin or the viola is to place the top of the instrument on the collarbone, because it's what I do. Balancing the instrument on my collarbone reminds me of the way a cellist uses the endpin for balance on the floor. Here's what Yehudi Menuhin had to say about it in 1994:
I was the victim of the type of thinking which to me now is anathema wherever I see it; whether in violin playing, in diplomacy, in habits, whatever it is. It is the rigid: the idea that to establish an order you begin with the motionless. You begin with what doesn’t move, then you add movement.

You begin with the first position on the violin, and then you don’t explain it. Because it’s called the first position, you begin with the first position. And you press fingers down; you don’t know how to hold the violin. And then afterwards you will add motion, instead of realizing that the world began with motion.

People begin with the solid, they begin in their minds with something secure . . . either all men are terrible or all men are equal or some theory, something that is rigid, whether political theory or religious theory, it’s that rigidity . . .

Now, it’s idiotic to begin in the first position because it’s the farthest away from the body; the violin is heaviest there. It’s also bad to begin near the shoulder of the violin because you are inclined to hold the violin and support it. So you begin in between, and you don’t begin in a position, you begin with motion right away . . .

One of my main motives in life seems to be to correct for myself, first of all, and then for as many as I can reach, a false notion of thinking, basic idea of thinking, as if the body were a statue and then you breathe into it motion. . . .

* * *

If you are dealing with something that has to vibrate, as soon as you hold it tightly you inhibit the vibrations. As soon as you squeeze, as soon as you oppress a human being, you destroy the opportunity of dialogue, of giving and receiving. And the same with the violin.

The violin is said to rest on the shoulder, because that’s obvious; anyone can see a shoulder. But few people can see a collarbone, and all the most crude and obvious approaches I was subjected to during those first eight months of study with that teacher in San Francisco, an old-fashioned teacher who got results (you get results: you can run a country with slave camps, you get results—they work) but my feeling is you can’t become the kind of violinist that I admire, and which exists today more than before because people are more evolved in their thinking than before. Before it took a genius to be a Paganini, or perhaps a Corelli, or maybe not . . . maybe those people played just like that.

But then came this oppressive approach where you only got results by whipping, and that has been against my whole attitude to life.

Then I looked for the truth and I found some truths. For instance, probably knew the truth, and everyone who played the violin already did it beautifully, but I had to find these things out for myself against a very strong environment of security, false security, and against my own ambition, or with my own ambition to play so that finally I realized that the violin does not rest on the shoulder. It rests on the collarbone. The bone which, connected to the violin communicates the vibration, the bone which is a harder substance than the shoulder. Besides, as anyone can see, as soon as you raise the shoulder against the chin you have a crazy kind of diagonal, and it lifts the elbow away from the violin.

Then you have those violinists who play with their thumbs right above the fingerboard, the neck of the violin. And instead of the shoulder feeding the flow into the fingers, you have it inhibiting. And so they get over it. You can get over so many things, so many obstacles, and still play the violin very beautifully and make it communicate. Its extraordinary how badly you can play the violin and still communicate if you really want to. But even so, the feeling of continuity in motion, in other words: the economy of motion consists in not allowing any motion to be wasted. If there’s already a motion, don’t push it. You don’t say “now I’m going to do something” if it’s already there. The same in walking. . .

That fact that if you play with everything balanced, and you can move each joint: you can roll the violin between thumb and finger, you can feel that this [the elbow] is a pendulum, that the shoulder can move, so that the farther the hand goes away, the lower and backwards the shoulder goes. You don’t do that [he leans forward]. You always do that [he leans upwards and backwards]. One of the first exercises without the violin, after I’ve made the children walk on all fours, is to raise the collarbone and lower the shoulder. It’s perfectly possible. One becomes gradually aware: (I can feel that [the collarbone] rising, I can feel that [the shoulder] lowering).

That’s one of the first exercises. And then the ease of the neck so the neck just touches, it doesn’t clutch the violin, it touches it, and in such a way that it can slide on the chinrest, and that it can compensate the motion of the hands [he demonstrates a pulling back motion with the hand loosely moving up and down the imaginary fingerboard].

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Portable Swan

Here's a performance from Tel Aviv by the Pizzicato Quartet playing my string quartet arrangement of Saint-Saens's "The Swan." I get a kick out of a group named the Pizzicato Quartet playing this arrangement because the viola part is played totally pizzicato. I call it a "portable" swan because it is a lot easer to travel around with a string quartet than with a harp or a piano!

You can see the arrangement here.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Finding a Voice: Musings on Creativity

It occurs to me that so much of what becomes popular culture (in other words, culture that catches on with a large casual audience) has to do with imitation. Take Christmas music, for a seasonal example. Many of the enduring classics of the Christmas season, like "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer," written by Johnny Marks, are pretty much variations on the same formula, much like what we think of as candy bars are variations on pretty much the same few formulas. There is popular Christmas-season music that doesn't follow the Marks formula, like descendants of "Sleigh Ride," selections from the Nutcracker, and the ever-popular Schubert "Ave Maria," but there is a lot of exquisite Christmas-specific music that people in stores and shopping malls would never identify as Christmas music.

Here's one example, and here's another.

I heard an interview with Audra McDonald the other day where the interviewer, who was not a musician, asked her who she used as a model for her voice. Her elegant response was that when she was young she tried to imitate singers she admired, but she failed miserably, so she understood that she had to live with her own voice. The current assumption, I suppose, is for "lay" people to imagine that musicians must model what they do on someone else's creativity. Some of us, like Audra MacDonald (or perhaps I should say unlike Audra McDonald), fail miserably when we try to imitate another person's voice.

I don't know about you, but I would prefer to fail as an imitator than succeed as an imitator.

Monday, December 01, 2014

"Having written"

Before I started writing music, I had a talk with a composition student about writing music. He told me that he enjoyed having written music, but did not particularly enjoy writing it. Once I started writing music myself, I found the process itself far more interesting than the satisfaction of "having written." There are some pieces that I am happy to have written, many, in fact, but the real creativity and the real satisfaction comes in the putting of one note after and against another.

I suppose that we are all wired differently.

The big problem comes when you have written a lot of music, as I have, and have little motivation to engage in the process of self promotion, which has been elevated to the status of an art in itself. A person gifted in the art of promotion can make anything seem appealing, no matter how useful, beautiful, or worthwhile it actually is. But a person without the drive or the means to promote his or her music this way can feel the act of "having written" as something negligible.

In the years before the internet, composers had music festering in drawers and files. Now it can fester in plain sight on publisher's computer hard drives or in online libraries, amid hundreds of thousands of perfectly good pieces that other composers have written.

Mild success can give a person hope, but success always seems relative. Seymour Barab always felt let down when his efforts to promote his excellent work (and it remains excellent work) proved unsuccessful. The fact that his Little Red Riding Hood was performed constantly didn't mean much to him, but the fact that his more recent theater work could not get a run in an off-Broadway theater did. Fortunately during the very last year of his long life he got some of the acclaim he deserved. When we talked about this his reply was, "I wish it hadn't taken so long."

Seymour was always most interested in what he was working on at the moment. At the end of his life he was working on a set of songs that he wasn't able to finish. It was a set of songs about New York, and the last time I saw him he described the texts as being racy jokes. I remember when he ran out of the specially-sized music paper that he liked to use for songs, and how I found some PDF score paper that could be photocopied into a size that would work for him. He was very happy to be able to get back to work.

Now that Seymour Barab is no longer writing, we have the music that he has written. And there's a lot of it.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Bloch on Bach

From Essays on the Philosophy of Music, translated by Peter Palmer (Cambridge University Press):
. . . . He cherishes his theme, in which he as no other composer compressed what was to come, tension and the sharpest outline of tension. He goes on lovingly considering the theme from all angles and prospects until it blossoms forth and until, in the great modulations of the fugue, it has become an unlocked shrine, an internally unending melody (`internally' meaning within the context of the theme), a melismatic universe in respect of the developed individuality of his theme. For precisely this reason, Bach's layout is not purely diatonic, however clear its flagrant nature. Obviously the harmonic clement in itself becomes irrelevant with Bach insofar as it is manifested in a fortuitous, pleasantly meaningful simulultaneity of the parts. But it is surely not irrelevant to the extent that the pertinent motions and their framework, which is to say the counterpoint, are now also the paramount factor and, as such, emphasized. To the extent that it represents a complete horizontal transparence, it is certainly the essence of Bach more than it is of Beethoven and Wagner. And yet, even in Bach, there is in the layout an active desire. There is the pervasive flow of a succession of themes rich in associations, a twofold thematicism already inherently rich in tension which finds itself far less strongly dependent on the constant polyphony's non-decisive part-writing than on the transitional, turning and corner points, but above all the rhythmically stressed anchor-points in the harmony. And as we can see, this is not straightforwardly homophonic but a different, deliberately chosen harmony, one that underlines, that emphasizes by virtue of its mass. The one reflects upon the other, even though Bach remains the master of the single voice, multiplying the old homophony by two or by five, the intrinsic master in the spinning to of lines and in this procedure's seemingly unlyrical, supra-lyrical domain. The blending, harmonic-rhythmic element still has an influence: it prevents a revelling in the mechanics and the formal aspect of counterpoint even where Bach's wide gaps between parts play an important role in preventing a vertical blending, i.e. the being and changing of whole columns of notes or hosts of chords, no matter whether rhythmically diminished or caught up by and released from he dominant. But it is only the song, the theme, that seeks to become extensive and unending within th fugue melody which is, as it were, internally unending. It is by virtue of this above all that the element of diatonic counterpoint is reduced to a mere means, to something reflexive, permitted only because the lyrically flourishing melismata acquire a sharper profile from the juxtaposition. For it is in the contrapuntal or, rather, dailiness system of balances that they can best represent their protected, unbroken simultaneity, that lyricism of theirs which no longer has any individual relevance but simply means soul, developed soul. And that lyricism, in spite of all the dramatic community choruses, is the core of Bach's Church music. Where this balance is self-supporting, it is easy to recognize, within the framework of Bachian counterpoint, the hidden, connected, multi-layered lyricism of he Passions, built into the niches of three-dimensional counterpointing. It is akin to the uneven surface of the bas-relief, where we can feel the presence of air, the arrangement of figures in the landscape and, in fact, the whole actual landscape that is set in the rise and fall of the uneven background.