Monday, April 29, 2013

The Beauty of Interpretation

This is part four of a four part series, all concerned with Robert Schumann's
"Of Strange Lands and People" from "Scenes from Childhood." The first three parts can be accessed here, here, and here.

It's astonishing what one can discover in one short, simple piece of music. For the last three Mondays, that piece has been the first movement of Robert Schumann's "Scenes from Childhood." If you're getting a little tired of it, I promise we'll move on to something else next week! In fact, last week's third installment in what has become now a four part series was supposed to be the last one. But something odd happened last week while I was posting the last one and I had to talk about it.

Things didn't quite work out the way I had planned.

I ask people to use their ears on this blog, at least on Mondays (and sometimes Fridays) which is a dicey business. Some folks probably think they can't hear anything with their untrained ears, and, sure enough, as soon as they can't hear what I'm talking about it confirms them in their notions. Obviously all ears aren't created equal and it certainly takes practice to be able to hear well. That's point number one. Point B (as people like to continue) is that there are plenty of strengths and weaknesses in all of us: things we would be good at hearing and things we aren't. So if you can't follow the argument one week you can always stick around until either you get it, or I explain it better, or we go on to something you can pick up on with more ease, or just music you happen to like. Music is a mighty ocean, not a small pond.

And then there is the self-defeating example I posted last week. The point I was trying to make is that Mr. Schumann did something rather strange, even barbaric sounding, by omitting a particular note (the third of the chord) in one place. But when I listened to my own music example, I couldn't help thinking, well, that doesn't sound all that rude after all.

I have a busy schedule like all of you, and sometimes I record things weeks before I get them posted. And frequently, I make those recordings without taking the time I would like to to live with the music and interpret it in a way that convinces me, and hopefully you. Instead, I have to parse the musical contents on the fly. And apparently, what I decided to do in that spot, when I heard Schumann's "barbarism" was to soft pedal it. I made it as pretty as I could. I slowed down just a bit, and resolved the chord with as much finesse as I knew how. It worked rather well. Except it wasn't supposed to, not after I changed my mind about it!

This is the fascinating world of interpretation. A musician plays a passage the way it seems to him or her. And then the audience feels the passage the way the musician conceives it. Which might not be the way the composer felt it; for that matter, maybe the audience doesn't end up feeling it the same way, either. But the reason no two pianists play something exactly the same way has a lot to do with these myriads of tiny decisions that pianists make every moment about how every phrase contributes to the whole, and how it strikes them in the moment. Sure, the composer leaves plenty of instruction on the page, but they can't cover everything--not nearly.

So, in the moment, that rude chord (why did Schumann put it there?) became gentle just because I decided to be "musical" (which, I am afraid, is code for making everything sound pretty). I wonder if I betrayed the composer a little.

Leon Fleischer has a phrase, "support the composer," which means not to shortchange features in a composition: if anything, exaggerate them slightly (can you do that? Anyway, that unfortunate cataract of words is my own, not his). Don't cheat on the long notes, or the sudden dynamic changes--let everything have its full effect. Maybe I violated this rule.

Then there was the second musical example. I noticed afterward that I hadn't really put the fermata (that musical "full stop") in the right place. Schumann holds on to the pretty G major chord first, and only then pollutes it with an A that doesn't belong, on its way to a passing C that doesn't belong either. The effect might be one of poise and repose which is then slowly exploded, but just before it manages to get out of hand, order is restored in the next phrase. The question is, how messy is that moment?

That's an interesting question for me because I imagine a lot of pianists saw a lot of ugliness in many early 20th century compositions, and that glaring "modernism" (or were they just supporting the composers? :) might have helped audiences tag them as pieces they'd rather avoid from now on. And yet, some of those same ugly harmonies, when finessed by today's jazz pianists, don't sound that shocking at all. Obviously, interpretation has a lot to do with how one perceives a piece. And that gives the interpreter a lot of power.

Mr. Schumann also asked that the tempo be slowed down at that point so that whatever chaos has crept in can do it in slow motion, but, true to form, he never actually tells us when to resume the regular tempo. Is it because he assumes any idiot will know to get back into the regular tempo when the next phrase begins (standard practice, but most other composers put the "a tempo" in anyway at that point)? Or was he thinking something else. With Schumann, who knows?

(aside: Fleischer once dodged the issue when I asked him a question about some dynamic marks in a Schumann sonata by putting it to the whole class, rhetorically of course!)

Anyhow, by the time I get a chance to record the whole set later this spring I hope to spend enough time with it to come up with my own definitive (provisional) answers to some of these questions. Posting a bit of it untimely ripped helps in the process of figuring these things out. And now you know the kinds of things that keep some of us up nights.

Hey, whatever I can do to make you feel normal!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Seriously. This is what I am playing in church this weekend.

The church secretary called me yesterday morning to inform me that I was playing the prelude, the offertory, and the postlude at Sunday's service and to ask if I wanted to list anything in the bulletin.

Uh, oh, I thought.

Now ordinarily there would have been nothing odd about that. As the church musician (organist and pianist/keyboard player), I provide those three pieces nearly every week at our "traditional" services (save for the rare occasion when somebody else takes one of the slots). But this week we aren't having our usual slate of four services. Instead, there is only one, taking place in our Worship and Life Center, which is home to our contemporary service, and has a grand piano but no organ. It's time for our annual Children's Musical and Confirmation service, when our teens join the church. I'll be around to play a song with the band, and a hymn or two, but our children's choir director is playing the piano for the musical, so it is practically like having a week off. At least, that's what I thought was going to happen. For the last couple of years there has been so much music in supply from the kids that they sing the offertory as well, as part of the musical. Change of plans this year, apparently.

Hmm. Could I think about it for an hour and get back to her?

At which point my wife, wanting to be helpful, asked if I had anything under my fingers from the concert I am planning to give this summer. Not yet, I told her. Besides, I can't think of anything that would be even vaguely appropriate for church.

But then a light bulb went on. You are going to think this is a really bizarre idea for a Sunday morning offertory, but I think I'll just let you listen to it first and then do my explaining.


It's a piece called "The Banjo" by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a pianist from New Orleans who lived from 1829 to 1859, and toured the United States during the Civil War. If you are wondering why on earth it would make sense to play it in church, here's why:

The kids are doing a musical called "Down By the Creek Bank." Most of the pieces sound like they were written for banjo, even though they'll be played on a piano. The folks in this musical would use words like "crick" and "holler" (as in "down by the")--it is an evocation of the Appalachians or the Ozarks or someplace in the southeastern United States. The offertory has been placed right after the musical ends.

In other words, I chose the offertory as I was thinking about the nature of the musical and the tradition from which it, broadly speaking, sprang. This is second nature to me, being used to doing this, but I know it is not for many organists: this idea that whatever music you select for a service should somehow belong to the particular service for which it was intended, should somehow match it, in spirit, mood, style, tradition, or whatever. You may think that on this occasion it lead me to a rather bizarre conclusion, but I want to stress how important this idea is.

Besides being a useful discipline (meaning that I don't just play whatever I feel like playing on a given Sunday) it also sends a signal to the other persons in charge of worship that you are taking your cue from their efforts as well. Every pastor I have worked with has at some point been pleasantly surprised to discover that what I choose to play frequently has something to do with the sermon topic or the scripture.

Sometimes that means I go outside accepted norms with regard to church repertoire, which isn't hard to do because somebody's tradition or personal inclination has outlawed practically anything (even music itself, in some cases), or because liturgical instrumental music has usually been pretty narrow in focus, i.e. organists don't think they can get away with much (with reason). Within my own tradition, the rules seem comparatively lax, although people are free to complain about anything they wish, such as playing the piano one week instead of the organ (God's chosen instrument, apparently), or not basing your selections on familiar hymns (these days that's called "diluting your brand"). In our educated university town, however, people seem to be relatively tolerant of a wide range of music. Including gospel and jazz, and--Oliver Messaien. Were I to behave as befits my training, and as many of my colleagues would like to behave if their congregations would let them, I could almost get away with, although I know it would not be the majority taste, playing major classical repertoire every week, scouring the canon of great literature as if on a parallel lectionary schedule. But I think that misses something. For one thing, it is too autonomous. A cycle of Beethoven sonatas would be great (that has been suggested to me, before, by the way) but it kind of misses the larger picture. I can do that in concert, where there isn't anything else, no message, no presenters, no participation, to think about. Or to engage, collaborate with. To cause me to do something I wouldn't have done otherwise.

And then there is this...Paul wrote, right before that endlessly read scripture about love in the 13th chapter of Corinthians that he wanted to "show [us] a more excellent way" which was an attempt to get the members of the church in Corinth to stop going at each other and get along for a change. Love, it turns out, starts with an attempt to actually get along with people, even to recognize and affirm their contributions, their ideas, their tastes, their standards of value. It does not insist on its own way. Which is why I let the service, the contributions of others, have a say in what I play, rather than sticking to the classical organ or piano repertoire I was taught to value. It may be great music. But it isn't the only music.  And my way isn't the only way. My classical canon can get stretched a little. I don't have to play everything on the organ. Everything doesn't have to have been written in the 17th century by some fellow named Bach. And maybe--perish the thought--it really is ok to let people tap their toes to an offertory some of the time. And even more radical, maybe it wouldn't cause almighty wrath to come crashing down on our heads if we actually had a banjo in church. As it is, we'll be getting it second-hand.

There is, finally, something about this selection that might be even more important, particularly if it doesn't sound like church for many of us. It is this: music is a cultural product. Though we claim to worship a creator of everything around us, most faith traditions are pretty exclusive about what they think belongs in a worship service. Some will make arguments relating to quality (including the composer of the present selection, who might have been as shocked as anyone to find his piece in a church bulletin). These arguments are fraught with human relations peril. Often that music which is "quality" just happens to be music from one particular culture, for instance, all dead white European men. Now, I play healthy quantities of Bach and Buxtehude and plan to keep on doing it. And I find the music of high quality as well as spiritual uplift. But shouldn't we be careful about excluding music that doesn't fit our supposedly objective sense of quality? I think of so many people from the Evangelical tradition who have been quite disdainful of rock music, gospel, syncopation, back beats--all things they claim have no place before God, and all things which just happen to have come into our musical vocabulary by way of African Americans. It would be unfair to say (as some do) that any discussion of musical quality whatsoever is snooty or even racist. But I think as human beings with a long history of treating each other pretty poorly we can never be free of this evil possibility. Excluding music is also excluding people.

And so, even though I never would have thought of a piece like this for church before, on this day and in this place, it seems a good match. Besides being a day to celebrate the entrance of several of our teenagers into membership in the church, and the songful contributions of our children, there is also an evocation of the rural southeast, and the culture of a people who are our neighbors from several states over. Is it ok to go on mission trips to build houses for them but not to allow them or their music in our church?

I'll grant you that the children's musical isn't exactly great art. And it's cheesy. But it's a children's musical--what else would it be? The kids enjoy it, and it helps them contribute to our community. And if it happens to stretch our boundaries a little, maybe that's not the worst thing that's ever happened in a church. To which my little offertory says "I support that. I agree with that. Yeah that."

Or in liturgical terms, AMEN.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


Music making should be a creative act, not just when composing or improvising, but also when interpreting the music of others. Even playing the notes on the page is more than just playing the notes on the page.

Notes are, after all, very tiny packets of musical information. They are important, but a composer doesn't just put them there in isolation, any more than a novelist puts letters on a page without forming them into words and phrases and sentences and paragraphs. And those have meanings often far beyond their immediate sense.

A couple of months ago I mentioned a performance that I had when I was barely recovering from the flu and had had no time to practice. One way I was able to virtually sightread in front of an audience was that I was constantly thinking in larger patterns, rather than having to think about every note I was playing.

Another reason was that I was practical enough to call in Mozart for my little emergency. Music from the classical period (c.1750-1810) tends to have fewer things going on at the same time, and to have these fall into more predictable patterns. There are, for example, more scale passages in classical music than in Baroque or Romantic era music.

Let me give you an example.

Suppose there is a passage like the following:

What it is important to recognize is that the initial downward sweep consists of part of a D major scale. The bottom note is simple the lower chromatic neighbor of the A at the bottom. Then, having reversed course, we continue playing a D major scale until we arrive at the F natural, at which point the pattern becomes a chromatic scale. Now, if you are able to see all that right away, in your mind the passage looks like this:

Now there are only a few things to notice--the remaining notes, which are all important because they introduce changes in direction or changes in pattern. The rest, all prefabricated standard musical patterns,  should be on autopilot.

It is bit like making a zip file on a computer, in which vast amounts of data are condensed into much smaller files that can be stored and moved more easily by getting rid of all the unnecessary zeroes--blank space.

Or, you might think of it like being a conductor. The conductor doesn't play every note of the oboe solo--he or she merely cues the oboist about when to come in and how to conceive the passage, giving tempo changes and interpretive clues when necessary, and then leaving the player to do the rest, which is important because now it is time to direct attention to the cello section, and so forth.

In other words, you are the conductor, and your fingers are the orchestra. They shouldn't need you for everything, and conversely, you should know what to tell them to get them started.

Many people seem to want to avoid this way of thinking about the music they play, preferring simply to see the notes and to play the notes, without thinking in larger units, and, indeed, other skills have to be cultivated in order to be fluent in recognizing gestures rather than blindly playing an Eb because Beethoven said so. Creative skills like writing and improvising one's own music have enormous benefit here, so does a study of music theory, although I'm afraid that as it is usually taught theory tends to stop well short of any cross-fertilizing benefits. Perhaps it is because people enter music schools so deficient in theory, but my experience suggests that students learn just enough not to be able to see why they learned it. It would be like getting just far enough to know what nouns and verbs are and then turning you loose to be a writer.

Being able to write music, improvise, analyze, and to think in music  isn't just a benefit to the people who specifically do those things, it is critical for the learning and performing of written scores as well.

Monday, April 22, 2013

That doesn't really work, does it? Have you tried....

We've been discussing G major chords and the first movement of Robert Schumann's "Scenes from Childhood" for the last two weeks on Mondays here on Pianonoise: the blog. It's more intriguing than it sounds.

I'm not a big fan of unmitigated hero worship, so I should warn you Mr. Schumann will be on the hot seat today. We've already seen him avoid the obvious by pulling a diminished chord out of his pocket in our first blog, and then find a way to affirm it in a way that made it more than just a musical nicety in part two. Today, we have to answer the question, "when is a chord not a chord?" Or worse...

First, let's listen to the whole piece again. By "whole piece" I mean about 90 seconds, paying particular attention to the start of the second half, which begins at :37. and the first phrase of which ends right at :45

Schumann: Of Strange Lands and People from "Scenes from Childhood"

In case you didn't notice anything odd about that, I'm going to pull it out for you and we can listen to that single "chord" by itself, together. (You know what I mean.) Actually, I'll start with the chord right it, because the way it leads into that next chord is part of its "charm."


So what is this, the Middle Ages? That attempted G-Major chord is actually missing its middle member, the note that tells us it is a major chord, and not just an open fifth, G and D. This isn't just the musical equivalent of bell-bottom pants we are talking about; open fifths were the in thing about four hundred years earlier, not just four decades.

It certainly is a crude sound, and for those with "period" ears it really sticks out, missing note and all, but is this just another example of a composer making us first want something and then giving it to us? The next phrase ends with the melody rising to the very note that was missing from the chord at the end of the last one. Ah, 19th century bliss! A full chord! (What hath man wrought!)

Well, sort of. Actually, Schumann sort of steps on that Nirvana too. Listen to what actually happens where that next G-Major chord should be:


Now, in Twenty-first century pop music this might pass for a polite/cool conjunction of tones, a little "GMAJ sus 2" chord, or something, but keep in mind Mr. Schumann is about two centuries early for that, and besides, with the sustaining pedal on he's got a G, an A and a B all sounding at once (with a bit of C showing up at the end, along with the D in the tenor--that's a five-note cluster!), which is not only a little spicy, it practically destroys the musical syntax completely. Even if the composer hadn't written a ritard there I would have to slow down to look at the musical accident. And then he caps it off with a fermata to hold on to the dissonance longer.

After that, of course, the music returns to normal, and beatified innocence prevails. But it has been an interesting look at the musically alien; not everything about those "strange lands and people" has been Romanticized.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Bored in Church?

We had barely gotten back from San Francisco (the hard way) when I discovered some correspondence sitting in my email inbox. Our pastor is preaching a sermon series on "The Witness of the Prairie Poets" which refers to poems by some of Illinois' most revered poets. And interesting idea, and this week turns out to be quite an event.

One of the poems, "General William Booth Goes to Heaven" is supposed to be accompanied by a bass drum, flute, tambourine and banjos. No one seriously thought we'd get a bass drum in our sanctuary on short notice--I like the idea of it, though. Probably Charles Ives would have liked the idea, too. He set the poem to music, as a solo song for male voice and piano. A member of our choir made some attempts to get a well respected voice professor at our university to sing it, but he's out of town for the next couple of Sundays.

Instead, two gentlemen are reciting the poem, and the choir is helping out with some portions by singing the refrain to "Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?" I decided to track down Ives' piece and interpolate bits of it during the recitation, which will occur during the sermon. I'm also playing the "Dead March" from "Saul" by Handel, which was played at the actual funeral of William Booth, who, if you are wondering, founded the Salvation Army.

Besides that poem, we have another, "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight," also by Vachel Lindsay, our poet for the week, and it has given rise to the anthem, a stirring rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which was borrowed by another of our choir members on short notice from our community choir. We are also singing "God of the Ages" and "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood"--two more unusual selections for this congregation. Not that we don't cover a lot of ground anyway: there is a good bit of variety in our repertoire, and one Sunday might very well not be much like another at our church. This one will be particularly festive, and particularly 19th century American.

In addition to all that, a woman from our congregation, now in her nineties, who has been playing the piano for our church since she joined it practically at the church's inception over fifty years ago, is joining me for three piano/organ duets. Fortunately, we chose a fanfarish rendition of a hymn to open the service, even before we knew the contents of the rest. Things worked out fairly well in that regard.

I predict I will be very tired when all this is over (twice).

There is an alternative to that, which is not to work any harder than necessary; not to track down (difficult) pieces at the university library at the last minute, or to protest fatigue from travel harrangues, and just keep things as simple as possible. But that would be dull.

We are the choices we make. One choice I tend to make over and over is not to take the simplest way out. Frankly, one reason for that is I hate being bored, and, whatever you can say about giving all your energy to something is that it is seldom boring. There is something about Sunday mornings at Faith that usually isn't. Sometimes it is in overcoming an emergency where someone got sick and we've got to cover, or the amount of last minute coordination that is virtually always necessary for a multitude of reasons. Or trying to employ multiple and opposite skills: sightreading, improvising, and playing concert quality music on the organ are just three of them. One involves meticulous planning; the other two involve no planning at all, but can be further subdivided into one requiring the eye and the other the ear. Or it may be that each week is somehow different than all other weeks. THIS is the day the Lord has made. Sure, he made yesterday, too, but that isn't the point now, is it?

Anyhow, this week is decidedly a group effort, even more than most weeks. We have a lot of folks who have stepped up to employ their talents, tossing around emails all week to plan the best way to do that. If I'd been doing all the planning I probably wouldn't have thought of half of it.

It's certainly going to fun.

Hold my tongue--fun? in church?

Forget I said that.

Make it, piously joyful instead. That'll make it past the censors!

Anyway, it adds up to the same thing.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Pardon me while I punch that up on my abacus

You might be surprised how many organists are posting their performances on Youtube these days, the stereotype being that we are all cave dwelling technophobes who think that Bach was the last guy to write music that was any good and we thumb our noses at any electronically enhanced instrument in favor or purely mechanical workings.

I have to admit to being a little surprised about this phenomenon myself when I found out about it a couple of years ago. Organists also use the internet to gripe about their jobs, try to find music and resources, and ask colleagues for advice.

Pianists, a tribe of which I am also a member, also have a strong online presence, which, somehow, I would expect more readily (is this because the piano is a technological newcomer?). Still, a classically trained musician spends a considerable portion of his or her time with technology from the 18th and 19th centuries in the case of the piano, and largely from the Middle Ages in the case of the organ, which is probably not something that can be said about too many other professions, unless you think baseball players are just using clubs to hit rocks, in which case I will grudgingly award them the prize instead. But how many of you spend any portion of your day, work or leisure, using a device that has roots that go back before the 20th century? Even your office chair has been technologically improved, though I'll grant that the concept of sitting on your butt (and trying to avoid work) has been around for a long time. The rest of your equipment is probably much newer.

It is a strange thing, as a musical artist, to be surrounded by this multi-century inheritance. It keeps expanding, and I keep trying to keep up with it, though with a bit of annoyance, sometimes.

Earlier this week I started a Twitter account. That means, just like CNN, I am now one of those cool people with both Facebook and Twitter accounts. I don't use Facebook very much, and it's not because I don't use the latest technology. I run a website, which, unlike a blog, requires me to make many formatting and cataloging decisions as well and contains hundreds of sound and video files. This blog, by comparison, is a piece of cake to run. You just write stuff and hit the publish button.

Suppose I want to post a recording of a piece of music I wrote on pianonoise (the website). First I write the thing, possibly using pencil and paper (although sometimes I prop my laptop on the piano and just enter the notes directly), then I put it into a music software program so that it looks legible (and professional). That used to be the job of the editor and the publisher. Next I learn how to play the bleedin' thing. Then I get out my recording equipment, make a recording, then upload the results onto my laptop, then do all of the processing required to make a finished product, import it into my web site software, do a lot of housekeeping with the file name, the cataloging, the uploading and lots of other details, hit some buttons, and walla! That only took a few years.

The piece makes its journey from composer to publisher to pianist to recording engineer to website administrator, and they are all me. And yet I don't have a smartphone.

So when I spent most of yesterday sitting on the tarmac at SFO, trying to get home from San Francisco, I couldn't Tweet all my snarky remarks in real time. Instead you'll have to wait until tomorrow.

I know, it makes me look like a real troglodyte, having a phone that only makes phone calls.  I'm pretty lucky: I suspect that I am one of the few people who graduated in my class who is actually making a living as a musician. Added to the fact that this way I am pretty well inoculated against wealth and power. Combine that with a conservative sense of spending, and you can see why I spent a few years fending off the latest and greatest of mankind's technological achievements. But I know I'm going to have to buckle soon, and it looks like the time is near. It's hard to have a Twitter feed on your website if you have to get to a computer every time you want to tweet something.

It would have also been useful for taking pictures if I had had one when I was jogging across the Golden Gate bridge the other day. I didn't feel like stuffing a camera into my running shorts; maybe a smart phone wouldn't have been such an imposition.

Is there a takeaway from all this? Not really, except that I do sympathize with people and their struggle with technology, from people who try semi-successfully to own the latest greatest thing as soon as it comes out to people who don't even know how to use email. The avalanche of new ideas from the last two centuries is overwhelming: even San Francisco's storied Cable Cars were the latest thing from about 1890 to 1910, a mere twenty years. It reminded me of how long CDs were king. Every format, every invention, has its very short day in the sun--that is, the few that have one at all.

I'll get that phone. It will be the cheap version, but it will take pictures and get online, even if it won't make me coffee (don't drink the stuff anyway). And soon I'll be able to blog from my phone, snap pictures without remembering a camera, check my email 700 times a day like everybody expects--the question is, how much is that going to improve my life? Because the last part of the equation, and the last reason I haven't gotten one of these things earlier, is that I'm trying to control the amount of daily trivia that vies for my attention. Twitter has already sent me a dozen emails trying to get me to follow all kinds of people. Apparently I just don't make enough "friends" every day to suit them. And, try as I might to keep up with my friends on Facebook--boy, there are a lot of them--I'm just not able to. I've only got about 150 at the moment, which is small potatoes for most of you. And I have a strict rule: in order to be your friend on Facebook, I actually have to know who you are in real life. That puts a limit on things, except that I estimate that I have about 150 relatives, and meet or in some way connect with (through choirs, church, concerts, and the like) between 500 and 600 people a week. It's hard to have real conversations with more than a handful of them.

It's hard enough to have real conversations with anybody. And that reveals another prejudice of mine, a preference for less quantity and more quality. For thoughtful transmissions rather than ephemeral tweets about whatever happens to annoy you at the moment. I'm going to try some of that and see if it expends my outlook on life. But I don't want to lose the reflection, the solitude, the time to think and be and create that practically defines the life of a creative artist. Maybe I'm caught in between them right now and a smartphone would help me take care of the short and the quick shorter and quicker and leave more time for the reflective and the deep.

We'll find out.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The power of the obvious

Famed pedagogue Nadia Boulanger would tell her composition students, "Never strain to avoid the obvious."

I've always felt the key word there is strain. Despite getting bombarded daily with all the advice to keep things simple and to "just be yourself" (which might not be the same thing) and not to use 50 cent words when a penny word will do just as well because otherwise you are necessarily being pretentious, it seems to me a composer who only deals in the blatantly obvious ought to be writing greeting cards or making chitchat about the weather at parties, not stringing musical cliches together. We won't remember them anyhow.

But there is something effective about telling us what we already know, grounding us, reminding us of something obvious and important, if it is done well.

Last week I spent the entire blog post discussing the first movement of Robert Schumann's Scenes from Childhood. I noted how he took this melody and harmonized the first upward leap in an unusual and effective way. Schumann's fifty cent musical word turned out to rescue what would otherwise have been a serviceable but rather dull opening phrase, and instead turned it into a psychological portrait.

That is only half the story, however. Schumann managed to avoid harmonizing the high G with a plain old G major chord, but he didn't do it for long. The curious thing is that this short musical idea, with the opening leap to high G, occurs three times. The first two times the composers gives out that surprising diminished chord, full of tension. But the third time, he resorts to the perfectly obvious G major chord.

It is an odd strategy. You might expect a composer to do something obvious at first, and then save the musical surprise for later. Or if he starts with something we didn't see coming, to serve up something even more interesting once our ears had adjusted to the first wave. (Schumann builds the climax of the famous Träumerei, later in this set, on a chord that few composers would have even thought of.) Instead, just as the accumulated energy of three musical entreaties demands something really special, Schumann "settles" for the most obvious thing at hand, a garden variety tonic major chord.

It works. Here's why: the diminished chord Schumann uses the first two times is full of tension, such that the major chord on the third iteration comes as a glorious release. The other reason is that, as Theory 101 as that chord is, Schumann didn't actually use it the way it comes out of the box, with another G on the bottom. Instead he used a B, which means two things.

For one thing, he's dropped the bass lower, which means there is more distance between the top note and the bottom note. It is like a swimming pool getting deeper. The surface of the water stays at the same level; the bottom drops. The effect of this is a musical illusion: it sounds as if Schumann's melody note has gone higher, which is what you'd expect. If you are going to say something three times, ordinarily, on the third time, your upward leap will expand, not stay where it was. Schumann leaves it right where it was and moves the bass down instead. He hasn't moved the characters, he's moved the scenery!

The other thing that results from choosing a B in the bass is that it keeps the piece moving forward. Theory students learn about notes called "tendency tones" which set up musical incompleteness that needs to be fulfilled by moving to another note. It is as if I had said "I am going to the." The sentence isn't over. You expect a noun like "hospital" or "bodega" or "avocado farm" to complete the thought.

Schumann completes the thought by finally changing the melody, and giving us an important structural, load-bearing C major chord, which turns the phrase homeward and makes this little piece work so well.

Schumann may have experienced all of this as a flash of insight, but he wasn't unaware. The difference between genius and the ordinary isn't that one feels while the other thinks, as popular as that notion is, but that genius processes all of that decision making much faster. Unpacking it can take hours!

Next Monday we'll probably spend one more week with this fascinating little piece, and then I'll give you more music and less analysis for a while. It's not easy to slog through, I agree. But it does give us an idea of why some music is worth remembering long after the demise of its composer.

Schumann, Scenes from Childhood: Of Strange Lands and People

Friday, April 12, 2013

A bit of listening for the C and E crowd

The other day while making sure my link for the most recent sound file posting worked, I stuck around and listened to the piece ahead of it in the catalog for old time's sake and had an idea.

The following links will allow you to listen to two organ pieces by Michael Praetorius, one of which was written for Christmas, and the other for Easter. Both come from a collection he published in 1609 of seven organ settings of hymns for the church year. They happen to be two of my favorite pieces of his, particularly the Christmas one. They might also be illuminating. If you aren't familiar with the organ works of Praetorius, listening to both of them might help you get some sense of the composer's musical personality. It's pleasing sometimes to be able to say, oh yes, that sounds just like him, the way you might say about an old friend.

But it isn't just Praetorius speaking through these pieces. In fact, back during the Renaissance, many a musicologist will tell you, individuality in composition wasn't so treasured as it is now, so much of what you are hearing has more to do with how everybody was doing it than just how he was doing it.

I wonder about that; I don't know vast quantities of music from the period myself, but he does seem to have his own musical methods. Maybe it's just me. Perception is an interesting thing.

Anyhow, Christmas and Easter are, by general acclaim, the two highlights of the church year. One curiosity you might notice about these selections is that they are both in a minor mode, and have a certain amount of solemnity about them. Not that all of that was the composer's choice.

Both of these are based on ancient hymns of the church. The hymns themselves occur in the bottom voice, and move more slowly than the parts up above, which is a good way not to really notice them (and get lots of complaints from clergy!). And they happen to be in minor themselves. Church holidays tended to be dignified affairs. Note that Christmas wasn't yet about Santa Claus and presents, and the Easter bunny wasn't hiding eggs.

Still, there is enough joy in the proceedings. Notice how Praetorius likes to shoot up and down the scale, particularly toward the end of both pieces. In true Renaissance fashion, they both tend to start with longer notes, and accelerate note values so that they save all of their rushing around for the finale. Praetorius doesn't tend to do this much in the remaining pieces in his hymn settings for the organ; these are particularly joyous occasions.

Happy Christmas and Merry Easter.

Summo Parenti Gloria

Vita Sanctorum

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

It's just another term for awkward

Rowan Atkinson had a sketch where he played the devil welcoming a new batch of recently deceased to the friendly confines of hell. First, he explains, he has to split them up into groups. He begins by asking for "thieves, murders...and bank managers."

I imagine quite a few college freshmen would like to add theory professors to that list. I've done some teaching of that august subject myself and have felt the love of a couple dozen sleepy frosh at 8 in the morning. Nothing like it.

Part of that equation is that most people who are forced to study it don't really see the point of having the subject in the first place. It's just a bunch of silly rules we all have to follow for no reason, right? I mean, real composers wouldn't let things like avoiding parallel fifths and hidden fifths and cross relations improperly resolved sevenths cramp their style. Besides, Bach broke the rules all the time, we've all heard somewhere (He did, once in a while. But's that's for another time.).

And so, very occasionally on this blog, I like to point out how some of these arcane rules actually do matter in real life. And, as a practicing musician, you never really know where bad part writing is going to strike. Here's an example from yesterday:

I was rehearsing with a children's chorus. They are singing selections from Les Miserables. The measures above caused a bit of a problem. Here's why: it's a little thing called crossed voices. Now, technically, someone would love to point out, the music above isn't strict four-part writing, so all of these theory no-nos don't apply. I would beg to differ. The reason why is we spent five minutes trying to get the altos to sing the correct note, and that doesn't happen very often.

There are two things to note here. One is that the top line above in the first two beats of the first full measure outlines an Ab major harmony. The bottom voice, however, outlines an f minor harmony in the same place. Since it's Wednesday I'm writing for other musicians, who I imagine can read music. But if you can't, this is the takeaway: the top and bottom parts are outlining different harmonies, even though they are going at the same time. It reminds me of a lot of freshmen compositions I've seen. It usually sounds weird, among other things. And it's actually hard to sing because your ears are thrown off course by the conflicting harmonic information being sung by the other part.

The other reason it's hard to sing is that the third note of that full measure on the bottom line jumps up to an F, which is above the note the top voice was just singing, which was an Eb. The bottom voices want to naturally sing the Eb the top voices just left, but the arranger wants them to cross over that spot and jump above the upper voice to find their next note. It's called crossed voices, and you would get it marked in red in theory class.

Ok, fine. But is it really that bad? I mean, it goes by in a hurry. And it's just a two-part texture. And it's from the 21st century, not the time of Bach. On the other hand, the prohibition against murder goes back a lot farther and we still think that's a good idea. Still, music has evolved a bit, and doesn't a composer have the right to the occasional crossed voice if he wants to?

Really I don't want to give the arranger a hard time over what is a relatively small indiscretion. But it did take five minutes out of our days. And, dirty rotten truth be known, I work with several choirs, and, sometimes the reason people struggle with their parts is because they are just a challenge. But I'd say a pretty decent percentage of the time its because the composer is doing something awkward for no particularly good reason. If your choral music says it was written by Bach or Faure or somebody like that it's probably you that need to come to terms with the music. But if it was arranged by somebody who writes for middle school choirs, there's a strong possibility that the part writing is actually behind some of the "challenges" that you are facing.

That's because theory teachers don't just get together and make rules to harass composers. A lot of these little infractions are what they are because they make things awkward and unnecessarily hard on the ear and on the performer trying to execute them. They were "invented" by people who happened to notice that what happened when you did some of these things was to cause just a bit of musical havoc.

Which is what happened when just the latest in a long series of little rule-bending excursions came across my rehearsal experience. I wouldn't fail the guy just for one little oddity. It even sounds kind of cool in a way. On the other hand, one note, five minutes.

Sometimes getting it right is a lot harder than getting it wrong. And doing what comes naturally and easily isn't always the best way. On the other hand, awkward is awkward.

Boil away a lot of technical terms, rules, and annoying little red marks on your theory homework, and that's what it often comes down to. Doing it well can actually be a time saver, too, in the long run.

Because as a performer, I can tell you, this stuff actually matters.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Sound of Nostalgia

Sometimes on Listening Mondays we listen to an entire piece and I only say a little about it. Other times, we hone in on just a few small details, rather than a broad concept, or try to trace one from the other. At times, it is the broad sweep of the piece, perhaps its overall scheme that interests us.

Today's installment is about a single chord.

Let's listen first to Robert Schumann's Scenes from Childhood, a collection of 13 short pieces. Today I'm going to play for you the first piece, sometimes translated as "of strange away lands and people."


It's a lovely piece; kind of wispy, perhaps, maybe sentimental. I don't know how well it captures childhood--it may have a bit too much of the adult-trying-to-remember-what-it-was-like quality, or rather, that latterday romanticized view we have of those glory days when we were small after the fact. Well, this is music from the Romantic Period, after all!

But how you hear, and what you hear, depends quite a bit on a very hard to define but powerful thing: the psychological, or emotional impact it makes on you. And for me, one powerful ingredient in that is that second chord.

Schumann's melody is very expressive; particularly that upward leap between the first two notes.


But that isn't all of it. If Schumann had had all of the imagination of the average conservatory student in first year theory, he probably would have stuck a good old G major chord under that second melody note. It is, after all, a G, and the most obvious thing to do is to harmonize a G with a G chord.


But how wrong would that be! Gone is the tug at the heart, the happysad pull of a memory you can't get back but remember with fondness, and a bit of pain because you are now and forever outside of it. And he does this all with one diminished chord.


Diminished chords were rather popular during the 19th century. The tension they created, and the ambiguous nature of their component parts (you can make them go in several directions quite easily) made them almost the musical discovery of the time. Later on these ineffable harmonies were vulgarized and made to provide cheap melodrama whenever the heroine got tied to the train tracks in silent movies. Someone is always trying to overload the senses the easiest way possible.

But Schumann isn't trying to play with our pulse. Instead, with a simple musical brushstroke, he reminds us at once of a moment of pleasant reminiscence and of its attendant pain. You can't go back; but you can remember.

Friday, April 5, 2013

...And then he died.

Sometimes people can be funny without meaning it; or at least you and I can derive humor from their serious efforts (shame on us). That can be said even of the Bible, specifically parts of Genesis and other places strewn about the OT in which genealogical lists are (slightly) amplified by a short description of a person's accomplishments (usually slaying a lot of enemy combatants) followed quickly by the phrase "...and then he died." If you are reading the list at even a normal speed, after the eighth or ninth repetition, that ultimate phrase can start to seem pretty amusing. It seems to indicate that the author didn't feel like saying any more (see also 1 and 2 Kings: "As for all the other interesting stuff king X did, is it not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel? Then don't bother me about it!") and it also puts into tragicomic perspective the brevity of our lives. Grim realities pile on until, by sheer repetition, you can't help laughing about it.

That phrase strikes a little closer to home this week, though, because, as a church organist, I couldn't help noticing a strange phenomenon a few years ago. It may be nothing, but the way it happened seemed to give it  importance.

I happened to notice, a while ago, when reading about the great organist Marcel Dupre, that he died on Pentecost. In the afternoon. Played the service, came home, took a nap, and went to Divine Mass up close.

It wasn't more than a few weeks later that I purchased a recording by another french organist, Pierre Coucherou, who was known for his improvisations, and collaborated with his priest during Lent one year to improvise pieces to accompany scripture readings for the entire book of Matthew. His final improvisation was on Easter Sunday. On Monday night, he died.

Hmmm, I thought. Dupre died on Pentecost in the afternoon. Coucherou died the day after Easter. Is this part of a trend? After all, major church holidays can leave me feeling pretty drained. Maybe if you are old and tired to begin with, or in ill health, that last push can take what you have left. And then a voice whispers, "Christmas is over. You can go now." or "Easter is over. Take a rest. Permanently."

These are only two instances, whether or not I happened to hear about them within weeks of each other. So I thought I'd ask the interwebs if anyone else of note in the organist world had passed within days of a major church holiday. The first thing I found out is that (astonishingly) the internet isn't at all interested. I had to look up the date of Pentecost in 1971 to even confirm that I remembered Dupre's death correctly. All the articles would say was it happened on May 30.

I'd assumed that some ghoulish soul would have compiled such a list already, but I couldn't find it. So I looked up a few famous organists and checked their deaths against the calendar. Widor and Vierne both died in 1937 but not right after a big holiday. (Widor passed during Lent and Vierne waited until summer.) Both revolutionized the idea of composing for the organ. Widor was the first to call pieces for the instrument "symphonies" because of the sheer sound and scope of their conception. Sounds like quite the pioneer, right? But if Widor's death were in the Bible (no time for dallying here), it might read thusly:

"Widor was an organist. He wrote 10 symphonies, one of which is nearly an hour long! He lived to a ripe old age and had many pupils. And then he died."

Or, if you prefer the alternate ending..."as for all the other things Widor did and the compositions he wrote, are they not listed in the organist's guild magazine?" (or Wikipedia)

Charles Tournemire, on the other hand, passed on November 3rd or 4th (we aren't sure for some reason). That happens to be right around All Saints Sunday, so I checked it out. Sunday was on the 5th. Although, being Catholic, he may have already played services for All Saints Day itself (which is always on November 1st) and possibly All Souls Day the following day. I don't know--I don't know the customs in Catholic French Cathedrals well enough, and I haven't done the research. But it does make you wonder a little.

Eugene Gigout was organist at St. Augustine in Paris for 62 years. He died during Advent (how inconsiderate!). He was 81.

Everyone mentioned in this blog was advanced in years except Coucherou, who died of a brain hemorrhage at 59. And, you know, people die when they die. There isn't necessarily any logic to it.

Anyhow, I'm only just past 40. And it's Friday already. Easter was six days ago and I'm still here. So I'm not making celestial reservations. I was pretty tired on Monday but I'm feeling better now. I'm pretty sure I'll pull through. The grim reaper is going to have to wait.

No looking over my shoulder till Pentecost.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Obstacle Course

Many times the simple things in life turn out to be extraordinarily time consuming, and complicated.

On Friday I posted a handful of Chorales from J. S. Bach's enormous St. Matthew Passion. Our children's choir was involved in the performance which featured a professional orchestra, another pickup orchestra, a rather large choir that was comprised of I think two groups from the university, several soloists--at any rate, a cast of hundreds, led by a retiring professor from the university.

Since I was rather familiar with the Chorale, or hymn portions of the Passion, having rehearsed them with the children for the last month, I thought it would be a nice idea to record them on piano. There is nothing historically correct about this, but I thought it would make a nice, simple observance of Good Friday, and be a serene contrast to the large, difficult (and loud) things I had been playing recently. The piano sound would be beautiful, and the masterful harmonizations of Bach of these majestic Chorales would serve as a pleasant five minutes of music for that sober observance. And they would be easy to play.

Turns out it took three times longer than I thought it would. Thursday morning I brought the recorded materials home and discovered that one of the microphones hadn't recorded a thing, rendering my stereo recording mono, which is far less pleasant sounding through headphones. Friday morning, thinking perhaps a cable hadn't been connected properly, I tried again, and discovered the same buzz in the line but no music. Oh dear.

Since I had brought my laptop with me I discovered all this before I went home and could try again while still on the premises. I went to borrow a microphone from our church administration director in the equipment room next to our Worship and Life Center, which is where we hold our contemporary service; at which point I was asked by our associate pastor if I could rehearse a piece for Easter Sunday (I obliged), and, fortified with a bit of rock and roll, went back to the passion music (which made for a spiritually pleasing contrast. By the way, part of my job involves switching styles and traditions at the drop of the hat; one moment I'm in the Worship and Life center wailing away on some praise song with the band; a minute later I've run across the hall to rejoin the traditional service and am playing a Bach Fugue on the organ for the offertory--so I'm used to it).

I manage to go through all of this serenely, despite it being close to noon on Friday and I so far haven't recorded a thing and am planning to post them the same day. But I had developed a backup plan anyhow (while thinking this just wasn't going to happen); a Bach Chorale-Prelude I recorded last June and forgot about (!), and for some reason, even though it was Easter weekend and I am already exhausted  somehow it feels like there would be enough time for everything. Barely, but, if I keep at things, I thought, they will all manage to get done.

And they do. Somehow, I stay in character and for the third time in two days play these placid harmonizations, these miniature masterworks with their almost taize-like meditative quality as rendered on the piano at almost a pianissimo, download them from the recorder into my laptop, take them home (after seeing that the problem has been fixed, which might mean it's my microphone that is the problem), do all the mixing, choosing of takes, processing, importing, uploading, blog writing, and linking required, and get the post published late in the evening but still technically on the date advertised. (That's happened a lot lately. I publish late in the day, but so far it's been seven months since I started this blog and I haven't missed a self-imposed deadline yet, even when I was sick.)

The point is this: these pieces should have taken me fifteen minutes to record, and another hour to process and post. They should have been ready by Thursday morning with a day to spare. Instead it took me until Friday evening. I had to record each of the Chorales about eight or nine times (I like to do a couple of takes each time) and I still don't know if my microphone is mysteriously dead or not because I haven't had time yet to check. But somehow, the job got done. I had a plan B, which is important, and something I've needed to resort to a few times this year whether blogs aren't ready or music isn't ready for a performance. But sometimes, if you are prepared enough in advance, plan A manages to come together at the last minute if you keep at it doggedly and refuse to give up, using all the available time and every possible strategy you can think of. Or not. Scrambling, like all talents, is a skill that improves with use, and inventiveness can be its own source of satisfaction. Besides, you never know when you are going to need it. Just because something seems like it will be a piece of cake doesn't mean it won't turn into an adventure.

Often the victory doesn't go to the strong. It goes to the persistent.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Toccata minute?

Yesterday, Widor's celebrated Toccata, the final movement from his Fifth Organ Symphony, was heard throughout the land. It has been a tradition at our church, too, as the Postlude to our Easter services. So a few days ago I dusted the thing off and gave it another go.

The piece is probably one of the two most popular pieces of organ music in the world. This does not mean it is popular with organists,--I've come across several of them complaining about it recently online--but then, anything that popular with the general public is going to come into some irritation with the professionals, for two reasons:

1) it gets played entirely too often, and to the exclusion of all kinds of other great music
2) it is not the undisputed and far-and-away greatest piece of music in the world, despite what many people think.

The first reason is obvious. Anyone who plays the organ for a living is going to get tired of playing the same piece or handful of pieces again and again no matter how great it is; if a piece gets regularly requested (or demanded) for various occasions, it is probably going to wear thin after a while. Keep in mind that an organist is going to live with the piece while learning it (possibly an investment of hours, days, weeks, and months) and then keeping it under the fingers (more hours) and is going to have exponentially more exposure to such a piece than a person who only listens to it while it is being performed.

As to the second reason, there are certainly plenty of other fine pieces of music in the literature, and it is a shame many people don't know them, or care to know them. Widor's Toccata is, in my opinion, a very fine piece of music, though it is probably overplayed. I only play it once a year, on Easter, but I recently came across a comment saying that her organist played the piece four times a year.That seems a bit much, though I'll grant that as a listener you would still only be spending about 25 minutes a year listening to it, which doesn't seem at all excessive. It is a remarkable piece, though as an organist I know there are many others which I would like to share with people and would make their hair stand on end the way they do for me. But every year when I play the Widor I get an ovation; more compliments and more appreciation than at any other time of the year (and I am lucky: I have an appreciative and open-minded congregation); more people coming up to me with moist eyes telling me how that piece was played at their wedding, or a dear friend's funeral, or just thrilled that I am (so the legend goes) one of the few organists in the world who can play such a supremely challenging piece. I suppose I feel a little guilty and embarrassed about being such a celebrity for a day; on the other hand, what a privilege to be able to make so many people so happy with a single piece of music! I've had people suggest to me before that it just "makes Easter" for them. What is it about this single piece that makes it so loved while so many other great pieces never get the acclaim?

In the first place it makes an immediate impact. It does not require repeated hearings to figure it out, nor does it parcel out its mysteries over time with patient effort. Like a handful of other classical pieces that everybody seems to know, it gives a lot and makes few demands on the listener. It is loud and fast, which makes it exciting, and it delivers an constant stream of 16th notes which never changes for the entire course of the piece. The harmonies change--that is what makes the piece interesting--but the rhythmic pattern never does. The same thing happens with pieces like Bach's Prelude in C from the first volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier and Pachelbel's Canon in D, both mainstays of wedding ceremonies, pieces laypersons like and request frequently.

In a nutshell, the piece is both viscerally exciting and highly predictable, which is to say it soothes the mind and quickens the pulse. I might differ with some of my colleagues by suggesting that it is also a great musical achievement  and I certainly don't mind playing it a couple of times a year. One thing that none of us can deny is that it sounds very hard to play and earns many accolades from an audience. It is also used and abused by many an amateur organist as well as professionals trying to set land speed records as if it were the Widor 100 meter sprint.

The curious thing about it is that the composer, in the usually doomed but valiant attempt by a composer to keep his creation from being made into a vehicle to simply show off the performer, put staccato dots above every single note and it is really impossible to articulate each note and play the piece ridiculously fast at the same time.

I'll show you what I mean. Kristen and I were at an organ recital for tourists in Prague last summer, which of course concluded with this organ showpiece par excellence. Whether because the organist was tired of playing the piece 365 days a year or didn't think the audience could handle more than 3 minutes of Widor, he played the piece so quickly that he had to leave out several notes every couple of measures in the left hand because the organ (and/or his fingers) probably wouldn't respond fast enough. Then he cut the last couple pages and went straight to the final chords. This was in a real bathtub of a church, so to give you an idea of what it sounded like--begging your pardon--I added a "crap-ton" of reverb to this recording, which I played twice as fast as I usually do. It's only the first 45 seconds--or minute-and-a-half, depending.

Widor Toccata, tourist's edition

The odd thing about all that is, to my ears, at least, the piece doesn't sound all that fast anymore. It has gotten so close to warp speed that the stars aren't moving. All of which is delightfully ironic--in a bid to impress, it gets so impressive it isn't impressive anymore. But then again, my ears aren't your ears, or anybody else's. Maybe it does sound fast to you. For me, once those sixteenth notes lose their individuality and disappear in a hazy sound cloud the sense of motion gets lost and you have to fasten your ear on the much slower moving melody notes in the bass or the changing harmonies once a couple of times a measure. The effect is the same as being in an airplane and watching the ground beneath move ever so slowly even though you are going 600 miles an hour.

Last year, the day after Easter, I recorded the piece in a tempo that was probably closer to what Widor had in mind.  Widor often complained about American organists taking his piece too fast so I slowed it down a little. Now it turns out you can actually hear Widor himself playing the toccata online (probably a copyright violation but you can find it yourself) and his version is still about 30 seconds slower than mine. Then again, he was practically ninety at the time of the recording! And although his physical control suffers at times, and the staid tempo occasionally lapses into the banal, most of the time his interpretation is riveting, majestic--alive! On Easter, when the message is pure joy, this is its musical evocation. One is again reminded how this simple piece became a musical symbol of resurrection, of hope beyond the grave, one great glorious Easter shout.

Happy Easter!

Widor: Toccata from Symphonie no. 5