Saturday, March 21, 2015

Birthday Greetings to JSB

Dear Mr. Bach,

I'm writing this letter in the form of a blog post so that it can be seen everywhere in the world on the same day. That concept might seem odd and impossible from where you lived during the 17th and 18th centuries, but that is nothing compared to the number of musicians in every country of the world who spend much of their lives playing the instrumental music you wrote for Prince Leopold, the keyboard music you wrote for your children, and the choral and vocal music you wrote for your church.

Your music for solo violin and for solo cello has been in my ear since I was born. During my infancy and the chaotic years of my childhood, I became grounded by the direction of the phrases in the cello suites that my father practiced on the viola, the transcriptions of your music that my mother played on the flute, and the preludes and fugues that my brothers played on the piano. Your flute sonatas and flute obbligatos from the cantatas, passions, and masses that I played on the flute sustained me through my teenage years, and then they taught me how to play the baroque flute (the instrument you wrote them for). Your Brandenburg Concertos taught me how to play the recorder, and your obbligato arias served as a doorway for the cantatas, masses, and passions as whole works. Through those awe-inspiring works I have learned (and continue to learn) how infinite and esoteric music can be.

Your music for violin taught me (and still teaches me) how to play the violin, and your Cello Suites (which I play on the viola) teach me daily how to get more from music and how to give more through music. I never tire of playing them, and I play them daily. They have helped me to teach students of all ages and experience about the infinite possibilities contained in a single line of music. They have helped me to express my feelings in times of sorrow and in times of joy. Even though I play them by myself, they help me feel that I am communicating something. They keep me company, and they help me recall one of the greatest joys of my childhood: listening to my father play your music on the viola. Once in a while I sound a little like the way he sounded in my idealized memory's ear, and that makes me feel wonderful.

Your Preludes and Fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier are my piano teachers. The incipient pianist in me goes through them methodically, and the composer in me marvels at how you get from one point to the next. The student in me climbs carefully through the musical landscapes filled with double sharps, and the teacher in me understands why you put some of your very best music into those rugged landscapes, making the difficult journey through well worth the mental gymnastics. Hearing accomplished pianists, organists, and harpsichordists play your keyboard music brings me great joy because I can step outside and marvel at the architecture.

This year musicians all over the world are celebrating your birthday by playing your music in public places. Any city dweller reading this who does not know about Bach in the Subways should see what is happening in their city right now.

Mit herzlichen Grüßen aus Charleston, Illinois,

Elaine Fine

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Seymour Barab's Complete Philip Marshall on Vimeo

Margie King Barab just let me know that a video of Philip Marshall, Seymour Barab's Civil War opera, is available to watch on line. This work would certainly be appropriate to revive during this Sesquicentennial observance of the end of the Civil War. Here's an excerpt from E. Thomas Glascow's review in Opera News of the first performance in 1974.

ON JULY 12 came the world premiere of Seymour Barab's Philip Marshall, a timeless, engrossing drama (libretto by the composer) about a Civil War veteran who, on returning home, finds life irrevocably altered by the conflict. Sandwiched between a spoken prologue and epilogue (Mrs. Hannon's visit to the doctor of the mentally crippled hero), the opera unfolds as flashback in the minds of Philip and Mrs. Hannon; a single, functional set served through the two long acts, with blackouts and prop changes behind one of the spotlit characters carrying on a sort of memory trip. The opera seemed tailor made for television.

Barab's lyrical, tastefully orchestrated score (with arias and ensembles) got sensitive treatment from the large orchestra under Wolfgang Schanzer. In the role of Maritha--the naive impetuous girl in love with Philip--Julia Lovett proved herself a singing actress of the highest caliber, with a soprano voice of exceptional purity and range. The other roles were well filled, from Theodor Uppman's sympathetic, war-weary hero to tenor David Griffith's war-dodging prodigal son, Jonathan Hannon. Soprano Suzanne Blum sang a passionate Rosellen (Philip's fiancé-turned-madam), and as Lucius, baritone Ronald Holgate developed from sinister bordello owner to heartsick, jealous lover...

Here's the first act:

Philip Marshall part one from Ronald Blumer on Vimeo.

. . . and here's the second act:

Philip Marshall act two from Ronald Blumer on Vimeo.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

"More Greek Myths" on YouTube!

A performance of "More Greek Myths," a piece I wrote in 2007 for Susan Nigro, is now on YouTube!

Here are some program notes:

I. Apollo (begins at 0:01)
II. Artemis (begins around 2:15)
III. The Labors of Heracles (begins around 3:45)
IV. Aphrodite (begins around 5:56)
V. Dionysus (begins around 8:09)

The basic idea of this set of pieces is a progression from the Apollonian to the Dionysian. Apollo, the god of the sun, represents the ideas of individuality, critical reason, the artistic possibilities of human beings, and the concept of perfection. He is cerebral while Dionysus, who ends this set of pieces, is ruled by passion and instinct. He is the god of wine and is associated with intoxication, pleasure, loss of individuality and dissolution of boundaries. He is the god of excess, while his brother Apollo (both are children of Zeus) is the god of self-control.

After Apollo we get Artemis, who is Apollo's twin sister. She is the virgin huntress. The meter of her piece is 6/8, the usual meter of hunt music (Mozart's "hunt" quartet, etc.), and the ascending arpeggios are supposed to be like arrows flying into the air. The music is kind of self-contained: Artemis is content with her life on her island (where she prefers to live alone with the animals). Before Dionysus comes Aphrodite, the goddess of love. She represents everything that Artemis is not. The image that I had while writing this piece was that of Aphrodite (represented by the sexy voice of the contrabassoon) rising up from sea foam, as represented by the piano's rhythmic ostinato.

In the middle of the set we get Heracles. He is the only mortal in the lot. While all the gods around him get to bask in tonality (and Aphrodite gets all kinds of rich 7th chords), Heracles labors with a tone row, made more difficult by irregular meters, dotted rhythms, and a relatively slow tempo.

The title "More Greek Myths" came about because this is the second set of Greek Myth pieces I have written for contrabassoon and piano. The first set is called "Four Greek Myths," and "illustrates" the stories of Hades and Persephone, Icarus and Daedalus, Pan and Syrinx, and Echo and Narcissus.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Marshall's Memorial Service

It was a beautiful service. Organist Joseph Fort, who is also a terrific pianist, played a bunch of pieces from the WTC and finished with the E-minor Fugue from the second book, which was Marshall's fugue (he claimed ownership, and nobody else was permitted to play it). My father and I played the slow movement from the Mozart g-major duo (the only other time I have played the violin part was with Marshall playing Viola), and Susan played a Celtic harp piece at the end. Grethen Grimshaw gave a most personal and moving account of her experience with Marshall, and my mother, father, and I each spoke about Marshall. My mother's friends were there, and I got the distinct feeling that everyone left the church feeling somehow changed. It was a transformative experience, and a service that Marshall would definitely have approved of because everyone spoke directly and honestly, and because the music was good.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Charlie Parker With Strings

The English Horn player definitely looks like Mitch Miller, and the violinist looks like David Nadien. The violist looks like he might be William Lincer.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Marshall Fine's Tango in a Time of War and his Train Ride

A friend in Memphis is uploading my brother Marshall's manuscripts into the IMSLP, and his most recent addition is an orchestral piece that Marshall wrote for the IRIS Chamber Orchestra in 2002. As we prepare for a family memorial service in Newton, Mass this coming Friday (St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Walnut Street in Newton Highlands at 4:30) it seems appropriate to let people who read this blog know that this music, which is in the public domain, is available for anyone to play. Michael Stern conducted the first (and only) performance of the piece, and I can email the recording from it for anyone interested in hearing it.

Rather than putting a page of score here, I include a couple of excerpts from the first violin part. Marshall's hand, as you can see, is clear and crisp. The piece is too.

You can get the score and all the parts here.

Another manuscript that violinists might find interesting (and challenging) is Marshall's Train Ride for solo violin. I think I'll take out my violin and give it a try right now!

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Music Makes You a Better Reader

Everybody reading this post knows that music and reading are connected from the get go, but here is an article written as a result of a pretty good study involving two groups of high school students that might resonate with people outside of the musical blogosphere.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Recorded Music

Unlike most of my peers, I came to the world of recorded music late. We had a stereo cabinet in our house, and we did have a few dozen recordings, but the stereo in the cabinet didn't work, and the recordings were all very old. I got a stereo of my own when I was 13 or 14, and I enjoyed listening to recordings a lot, but I enjoyed listening to concerts more. I used recordings mostly for my education rather than for entertainment.

When I worked in radio as a young adult my goal was never to program the same piece twice in a six month period. I wanted to give the impression that listening to a recording was an event, and that the radio was a kind of a large concert hall. When I had recordings to review, I would usually listen to them twice, and then would either put them in rotation at the station or bring them home and put them on a shelf.

My collection or recordings outgrew shelves. I started taking the CDs out of their boxes and filing them in books. I organized the books by instrumentation and roughly by period. I would occasional listen to recordings again for comparison purposes, or play along with recordings of pieces I was working on in order to get "lessons" from the people who made the recordings. I also had to reference older recordings when writing reviews of newer ones.

After I stopped writing for the ARG I was free to file, give away, or throw away as many recordings as I wanted to file, give away, or throw away. I threw away the lousy ones. I gave a few hundred (taken out of their cases and put into loose-leaf books) to my mother, and I filed the rest in loose-leaf books that now fill a small (but wide) bookshelf. The process of filing the CDs took about three weeks. Looking at the recordings reminded me of where I was (perhaps on a walk) when I heard the recording for the first time. I usually remembered the season, the weather, and the route. I usually remembered what I liked about the recording.

Perhaps I am still in CD withdrawal, but I haven't even considered opening up the books to listen to a CD.

I noticed the other day that for the past month or so I have been getting all of my intentional music live, either from playing it myself or from listening to other people play it. And when I hear other people play music I REALLY appreciate it. (Unintentional recorded music would be musical soundtracks in movies, which are created to be automated.)

This makes me feel even more excited about playing the Mayer, Bauer, and Bonis concert tomorrow night, because every play through of every piece is a new experience, and having people in the room changes the experience in wonderful ways.

I'm off to rehearse . . .

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Gamut, Reconsidered

For as long as I can remember, I have begun my scales with C major. When I practice Sevcik, I typically begin in C and add sharps and flats. I have a feeling that lots of people have been doing this for a long time.

The word Gamut, as defined by Merriam-Webster, comes from the Greek letter Gamma plus Ut, and seems to be the span between G and C. Perhaps if Merriam and Webster were musicians they would have considered other possibilities.

Their etymology doesn't make sense to me, considering the French word for scale is Gamme, and the use of "Ut" as the tonic pitch of a scale goes back at least to Guido D'Arezzo (11th century).

The three-language scale books I used to enjoy reading while I played through my scales during my teenage years prompted me to think that the obvious meaning of "Gamut" was a scale that went from Ut to Ut, whatever that "Ut" might be, since "Ut" is the tonic pitch in a "movable Do" system. When the fixed "Do" came about (sometime before the days of Machaut), "Do" became equal to "Ut."

Why am I thinking about this? Because I decided today to break the cycle (or circle) and begin my journey through the tonal musical spectrum with G, adding sharps, and then subtracting flats. In other words, I played my scales backwards. The beauty of this is that if you go up and down you don't have to read the music backwards (though you certainly can).

What can be gained from this? It forces me to pay more attention to intonation, and it adds variety to my days.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Happy Valentine's Day Music

Last night Michael and I played love songs for a dinner at a local elder care facility. He captured the moment, and made this card, which I'm sharing here. Happy Valentine's Day everyone!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Musings Up and Down the Fingerboard: A Violin Ramble

[UPDATE: You can hear a recording from the concert here. There's a program in the folder as well.]

A few days after I finally had the chance to practice exclusively on the violin (rather than on the viola) in order to sound like a violinist for this forthcoming concert above, my instrument decided to develop a crack. Perhaps it was reacting to the extreme changes of temperature and humidity we have been having in the Midwest, or perhaps it was reacting to too much sudden "exercise." In the 20 years I have had the violin, this is its first crack. At any rate, I made the decision to use a different violin for the concert: my Grandfather's violin, which had been sitting unplayed in various family closets for a number of years.

I switched my new Larsen strings and Westminster E from my normal violin to it (if you are violinist who has never tried a Westminster E, I advise you to do so right away: it will change your life), and discovered bit by bit that it is a terrific fiddle.

Getting to really know a new violin is complicated. You have to instinctively learn the curvature of the bridge, and know what kinds of colors come from which unconscious combination of bow speed and pressure, not to mention the way the instrument responds to the weight and characteristics of different bows.

After I made the decision to use this instrument for the concert, I decided to spend about an hour per day playing scales and arpeggios slowly in every key. At 60 beats per minute for each note, there is enough time to pay attention to what by bow arm needs to do in order to keep the bow perpendicular to the string, particularly during string crossings. There is also enough time to pay attention to shifting properly (I'm concentrating on "old finger" shifts these days), and actually thinking of the names of those notes with multiple ledger lines up on the E string. There is enough time to make sure that everything is in tune in every key, and there is time to fix it if it is not. The whole three-octave gamut, as outlined by my friend Hřímalý, takes me about an hour. It is an hour I know my bow has behaved, my vibrato has been free, the sound has been vibrant, and I have made it comfortably from one note to the next through every bit of step-wise and tertian musical terrain. It is always an hour well spent.

At 60 b.p.m. there is even time left over to use as a sort of "free brain" state which is a sort of meditative state for me. While I was navigating the key of F# major (again with the F# major!), for example, I was thinking about the seasonal cyclical nature of these scales and arpeggios, which begin in C major and add flats until no more can be added, and then bloom into sharps, dropping one at a time until the cycle of fifths has come to an end. I was thinking about the bird I heard singing this morning: a steady pitch that seemed to serve as a warning that it may look bright outside, but it is terribly cold. The fact that the birds are singing means that spring will come eventually. They have not been defeated (and there are a good many singing outside my window as I write).

I started thinking about the 12 tonalities we have in western music, and the 12 months we have in the year, and then I switched to Kreutzer and started thinking about the violin again. Then I took a break and decided to write this post.

The program, you ask? Who are these composers?

The German composer Emilie Mayer (1821–1883) wrote six symphonies, several concert overtures, a great deal of vocal music and piano music, and a considerable amount of chamber music (nine violin sonatas, thirteen cello sonatas, eleven piano trios, seven string quartets, three string quintets, and two piano quartets). She studied with Carl Loewe, Adolf Bernhard Marx, and Wilhelm Wieprecht, and worked hard to see that her music was published and performed. Mayer was well respected during her lifetime, and in 1885 she was (posthumously) made an honorary member of the Munich Philharmonic Society. After her death, performances of her music stopped. Most of her music is housed in the Berlin Staatsbibliothek, and remains unplayed.

The American composer Marion Bauer (1882–1955) grew up in Walla-Walla, Washington, moved to New York in 1903, and traveled to France, where she traded lessons in English for lessons in composition and analysis with Nadia Boulanger. Bauer was the first of Boulanger’s many American students. When Bauer returned to New York, she helped found the American Music Guild, the American Music Center, and the American Composer’s Alliance. She and Amy Beach were founding members of the Society of American Women Composers. Bauer taught composition, analysis, and music history at New York University from 1926-1951, and she taught at The Juilliard School from 1940-1955. She was a mentor and teacher to Ruth Crawford (Seeger), Aaron Copland, and Milton Babbitt.

The French composer Mel (Mélanie) Bonis (1858–1937) entered the Paris Conservatory in 1877. She studied organ with César Franck and harmony with Ernest Guiraud, but her parents made her withdraw because they disapproved of her romance with fellow student Amedee Hettich. In 1883 Bonis’s parents arranged for her to marry Albert Domange, a businessman twenty-two years her senior, and she set music aside in order to raise a family. In 1893 she rekindled her relationship with Hettich, who helped introduce her music in the salons of Paris.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Prelude and Fugue in F# major from Book II of the WTC

I just made it through the 13th Prelude and Fugue from Book II of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, and I feel like I have been through all kinds of secret doors to leading to secret corners of an uncharted harmonic world. Those six sharps are kind of like a chain of sharp rocks or some barbed-wire fencing, but once you face your fears and make your way in, there are all sorts of harmonic cushions that pull you forward in spite of the double-sharp-filled rough terrain.

And then there's the fugue.

I have to play it relatively slowly, and I have to be careful of every step, but the journey has rewards and resolutions that boggle my imagination.

This wasn't my first time through. My first encounter was this past August, and I found the twists and turns in the piece mirrored much of what I was going through at the time. I dragged myself through determined to get to the other side. This time the journey was different. I found it exhilarating.

Musical Reverse Engineering

I gave each of my young students a book of manuscript paper as a holiday gift this year. Hal Leonard sells a cheery one that has a nice plastic spiral binding and a nice notation guide (I also got one for myself, which I use all the time). I didn't give my students assignments involving the manuscript paper, but I told them that if they need manuscript paper to write something of their own, it is there.

Yesterday one student presented me with a short piece of music that she wrote using the manuscript paper. She told me that when she got the book she didn't know what to do with it, so she put it on her shelf. Suddenly, as she was practicing, she had an original musical idea, so she got out the manuscript paper and did her best to write it down. She told me that she wrote the first part on one day, and the second part a little later.

We spent the first five minutes of her lesson figuring out the key and meter, figuring out what the note values were, and figuring out the articulation (she was extremely particular). Surprisingly it turned out to be four logical measures of 5/4 time in E minor. There were two repetitions of one motive, a new motive, a further statement of the original motive, and a concluding motive. It all made perfect musical sense, and it was entirely original.

The process of doing this heightened her awareness of what Handel was doing when he decided to have a dotted quarter note followed by an eighth note rather than two quarter notes. She felt a deeper understanding of what it is that a composer does when s/he writes a piece of music.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Found in an Old Magazine

Although the mindset sounds like it could be from the 1930s (or earlier), the magazine this appeared in was published in the middle of 1999.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Mirror-Touch Synesthesia and Music Making

Invisiblia, one of the newer NPR podcasts, has a fascinating episode that you can listen to or read the transcript from about an extreme case of Mirror-Touch Synesthesia. It occurs to me that development of this extra sensory sensitivity is extremely important for musicians, and it explains a lot about how musicians function.

There are people who develop it very early in their lives, and there are people who only develop it when a sensitive teacher shows them how to clue in to the other people who are playing. There are musicians who are highly developed in many ways (perfect pitch, high intellect, excellent memory, multiple degrees) who lack the ability to be physically aware of who they happen to be playing with, and there are absolute beginners who innately understand how to blend and move with the people they are playing with.

I developed my musical mirror-touch sensitivity through necessity. Julius Baker, my flute teacher at Juilliard, never used words to describe the physical technique involved in playing the flute. He only demonstrated. And he also taught mostly in a group setting. In order to learn from him I had to imagine what was physically involved in making the kind of sound he made, and I had to intuit his musical choices from studying his physicality when teaching other students. I say that I studied with Julius Baker, but actually I studied Julius Baker. Through my studies I learned to understand the physicality of people I heard play concerts and I learned to understand the physicality of people I played with. I always thought of it as highly developed intuition.

When I teach I try my best to spell out exactly what I am doing physically with my instrument(s) and intellectually and emotionally with the music, but it seems that the way most students learn best is through emulating the physicality I demonstrate. I do find that my "training" helps me figure out the way a student is thinking and feeling musically. Through studying Julius Baker I taught myself to study students and figure out what they are doing, how they are feeling, how they are thinking (or not thinking) about the passage they are playing.

That's one reason I believe that it is difficult to become a competent musician without having a lot of real contact with other musicians in real space and real time. I have never tried teaching anyone by way of a computer (using Skype or Face Time), but I imagine that the contact might be compromised because of the two-dimensional aspect of the image and the microphone delivery of the sound. Not being in the same room might also compromise the intuitive aspect of the experience. It makes me wonder about computerized instruction altogether. For some things that do not require sensual involvement, computer communication can deliver useful information (I'm thinking about videos that show how to do something or videos that show how something is made), but all of the attempts I have made at learning something by way of a computer have proven unsuccessful.

When I told my son, who teaches 6th grade, about my failure with 6th Grade math through the Khan Academy, he suggested that a good teacher could help me through my difficulties. I believe he's right. If I ever find myself in a position where I absolutely need to use numbers in a functional way, I will seek out a teacher who might be able to use intuition to help me with my deficiencies. I tried to learn Spanish through Duo-lingo (another free resource on the computer), and though I passed through levels and levels with flying colors, I remember nada. I learned to communicate effectively in German in a matter of months when I lived in Austria.

Note: Since I have never taught a lesson via computer, I would be interesting in trying for the sake of the experience. Send me an e-mail message, and we can see what works and what doesn't (we could do violin, viola, recorder, or flute). Maybe I can write about it.