Friday, April 3, 2020

Infinity Plus One

I spent an awful lot of time in first grade standing in line. The teacher would line us up to go out to recess, and then, tragically, insist on the lot of us being silent before she would dismiss us to the bedlam of the school yard. But a moment of order imposed on young humans is far too much to ask. Our young are endlessly fascinated by every syllable that comes out of their own mouths, and it was simply impossible to expect them to realize that 30 seconds of silence meant 30 minutes of play time. Instead, we stood in line for 20 of those thirty minutes nearly every day until some of them got the message.

I didn't realize then how the rest of life was really just an extension of first grade. The bad kids got all the attention. Everybody got punished for the behavior of a few. The dumb kids won every argument by saying "I know you are but what am I?" over and over in an effort to irritate the ones who could think. Now they call that "owning the Libs." Back then it was just being a jerk. Eventually their opponent would just get tired and give up. So much winning.

This week we started to find out that not being able to discipline ourselves in the short term could actually get people killed. Most of us have been under some kind of shelter-in-place order for at least the last two weeks. Some of these orders, which are largely voluntary, full of exceptions, and kind of vague, have been periodically supplemented with more stringent orders which turn out also to be largely voluntary and vague ("hey kids, I'm really serious this time!").  Some of us are taking these directives seriously. Sometimes I actually feel like I'm quarantining so hard it might even make up for three other people. Can you hear the sound of me quarantining?

Didn't think so. But you did notice the kids who crowded the beaches for spring break. Already dozens of them turn out to be infected with Covid-19 and are spreading it all over the U.S. I can see you are thoroughly shocked. The virus is also spreading wildly through nursing homes. I cancelled a gig I would have had in one a month ago so don't look at me. Then there are the politicians who insist that our freedom and our economy must be protected from having to give up massive profits for a few weeks so large numbers of people don't die. Is there a real price for quarantining? Sure is. Does our economy matter? You better believe it. But not so much when everyone is dead. It's a balancing act. Last come the preachers who insist it is religious persecution not to let them hold services to spread contagion to everybody in their church. Just like Nero told the early Christians to gather on line for a few weeks until they'd flattened the curve. Lots of martyrs came out of that period in ancient Roman history.

There's been a pretty serious failure of leadership at the top as well, which is truly unfortunate because regular people are not going to suddenly, of their own volition, behave themselves any better in times of crisis. Now lots of them are sorry, which is always good to be when it is too late and the history books are looking for a slight variation on the same old story of people not seeing any good reason to put enough life boats on the Titanic until it actually sinks. We are coming up on a time when you no longer have to believe what the scientists and medical experts were telling us for months and can just look out your window and see it for yourself.

Over a thousand people died yesterday from Covid-19 in the United States. That's not really as bad as it sounds, although it is twice as high as the number who have ever died from the flu on a single day. The real problem is that it's just the beginning.

pianonoise Radio: Music in a time of plague

Friday, March 27, 2020

Time Shall Be No More

There is a verse from the Book of Revelations that, slightly mistranslated, includes the phrase "Time shall be no more." Oliver Messiaen used this verse as the epigraph for his Quartet for the End of Time, composed during his time as a prisoner of war during the Second World War. It is hard not to imagine a certain autobiographical resonance in this; though Messiaen often experimented with very slow tempi and enlarged time schemes, it should be clear that being a prisoner would change one's daily experience of time considerably.

Those of use sheltering in place these days may feel a certain kinship, though I would advise caution in our application. A few hours ago someone on facebook was telling us that maybe now we knew how zoo animals feel, and while I can understand the desire to arouse empathy (which is usually a doomed quest), none of us are incapable of leaving our dwellings. Our imprisonment is voluntary, and our notions of hardship are a bit underdeveloped.

Actually, I was having some frustration making a recording from my home piano this afternoon because we live near a busy intersection and the noise of so many people "sheltering in place" at high speed was quite intrusive to my zen. This might explain why Pennsylvania is currently tenth in terms of Covid-19 cases and deaths. We are just too important to stop what we are doing, even for a few days (never mind several weeks).

The ones among us who are taking these quasi-orders seriously are currently experiencing time in a completely different way. It is much harder to know what day of the week it is now. And many of the deadlines and appointments that made up the weigh stations of regular life have disappeared. This could be terrifying, but since I happen to know what to do with vast quantities of time, it made me quite calm for a few days. Since my spouse happens to be in the medical field, and still has a job to go to each day, while I have been locked out of mine, I stayed home and practiced music not too differently than usual, spending my time on an art that is itself chiefly concerned with the passage of time.

In the last few days, interestingly, some of that calm has left me. It is natural for human beings to feel stressed, and, given new projects to work on, whether there is an upcoming performance or not, always seems to presuppose a deadline because my mind is never satisfied to make a reasonable amount of progress every day, but continually expects more of itself. Stress feels more natural anyway. It is useful to remind myself of this natural trick of the mind, however, or I could be easily overwhelmed. There is always so much music to learn--oceans of it. And never enough time, even when you have all that is available.

And there are still demands on my time anyhow, from a job that hasn't completely gone away but is trying to resurrect itself online, to persons with requests, mainly small, but occasionally even the easy things take far too much time due to device malfunctions and the like. It is curious how time, or the pressing demands of it, seem to be reborn out of the ashes, like a petulant phoenix. Time shall be no more? Eventually, but not this time. Not the time I know.

It may have slowed for a moment, but people still have things to do, and a pressing envelop in which to do it. Time will not stop for them until the next person kills himself at our intersection, and then, and only then, time shall have ended its tyranny.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Interesting Times

I don't mean to make light of a terrible situation, particularly in Italy, Iran, and China, but so far the United States is more in a state of tension that tragedy, and if we can't laugh at our fears a little we will succumb.

There was a drawing going around on a Facebook organist's group last week showing an organist protecting himself against coronavirus. He wore what appeared to be a plastic wrapper from head to foot, and was totally encased in protective fabric as he sat on the bench, save for a drinking straw (helpfully labelled "breathing tube") coming out of the top. Actually, he looked a little like a banana.

The British members of the group thought this was pretty funny, despite having several deaths to the disease already. The Americans, living in a country where few people have yet died, were offended.

My first thought, frankly, was how could I play the organ in that thing? I have enough trouble enmeshed in your standard robe.

Anyhow, the Google must not have thought it was funny either, because I can't find it. And the members of the Facebook page, after getting several nastygrams about it, seem to have taken their posts down. So you'll have to use your imagination.

If laughing at something is a substitute for action, or if it woefully underestimates the seriousness of a situation and thus causes irresponsible behavior then we certainly would not want to encourage it. There are, however, some of us who can both laugh at our fears and realize why caution is necessary.

It is not impossible that I acquired the disease myself, travelling through LAX two weeks ago. At the time there were a grant total of 6 reported cases in California, which has 40 million people. I thought it was highly unlikely we'd contract the disease. What we learned since was that cases have been severely under-reported, given that tests were not available, and after I got back I read that two health care works came down with it at LAX while screening passengers in late February. I've also read that 80% of the people who develop Covid-19 only experience mild to no symptoms at all.

One of the most pernicious aspects of the illness is that it takes upwards of a week to become obviously sick, during which time its host is unwittingly spreading the virus to others. I developed a slight tightness in my chest last week, which is only enough to be moderately annoying, and would be a great way to develop anti-bodies for the future with a minimum of suffering, but I would not want to pass the thing on to others who might have a much worse time of it. My symptoms are so mild I won't be getting tested so may never know if my hunch is corrected.

This morning I read about attempts to develop a blood test to check for the presence of anti-bodies to the disease which would of course indicated that a patient had contracted the virus, which would be helpful to medical experts to determine the scope of the spread and check for herd immunity. It would also answer my question.

Meanwhile, I, like you, am staying home and avoiding contact. I am keeping up on the latest covid-19 statements from everyone I've ever known at any level. So far my dentist, my eye doctor, and my gas company have seen fit to issue emails about how they are dealing with the disease. My grocery store, the library, my congressman and my landlord have followed suit. Also my gym. I am not making any of these up. I am kind of peeved that my mailman has not come out with his own statement about covid-19. Nor have I heard from the gas station down the street. How are they dealing with the spread of this contagion?

While we all hunker down and try to adjust to a completely different lifestyle, remember to wash your hands, for 20 seconds. Every time you are stuck for something to do, go and wash your hands. Some day, some young person is going to wonder why the old dude keeps washing his hands all the time, and for so long. It will become the weird thing that is part of my experience, the way my grandparents hoarded money under their mattress because of the depression, or my parents hide under their desks whenever they hear a civil defense siren (I think they stopped doing that a while back, actually). And I, like Lady Macbeth, will keep washing my hands. It's not such a bad tic to have, actually. And now I know what interesting times I will have seen when I am old enough to share stories of the times I survived. I just have to survive them first. And so do you.

As Edward R. Murrow used to say*, "Good night and Good Luck!"

*I'm not old enough to remember when he used to say that, I just know some history! working from home edition is available today. The PianonoiseRadio program, "Music in a Time of Plague," should be ready Sunday.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Reflections in the water

I'm putting together a PianonoiseRadio program for next week entitled "Music in a Time of Plague" and in the process of looking for recordings stumbled across one I had nearly forgotten about. The piece is based on the hymn tune "Shall We Gather at the River?" and its appropriateness is suggested in the following remembrance by the author of both its text and tune (which is unusual), one Robert Lowry, as found in E. W. Long's "Illustrated History of Hymns and their Authors:"

On a very hot summer day in 1864, a pastor was seated in his parlour in Brooklyn, N. Y.  It was a time when an epidemic was sweeping through the city, and draping many persons and dwellings in mourning. All around friends and acquaintances were passing away to the spirit land in large numbers. The question began to arise in the heart, with unusual emphasis, 'Shall we meet again? We are parting at the river of death, shall we meet at the river of life?"  "Seating myself at the organ," says he, "simply to give vent to the pent up emotions of the heart, the words and music of the hymn began to flow out, as if by inspiration."*

The piano piece based on this hymn by my friend Marteau is simply titled "River" and I made a recording of it in late February 2016. This makes it one of the 'tumor' recordings. At the time I had a very large tumor in my chest. I felt unwell, had trouble breathing normally, and tended to cough every time I exhaled, which made it miraculous each time I was able to get through an entire take without coughing. The tumor would be discovered a week after the recording was made, after which I had the better part of a month to contemplate my own imminent mortality before receiving a much more positive diagnosis. At the time, however, I already knew something was very wrong.

It was my own personal plague, though in this case, all of my friends who were not dying around me; in fact, the lingering cough they'd had all winter had finally gone away and only mine remained. But it does lend an interesting additional layer to the recording I'll share with you next week.

The program includes pieces which were written during and about times of rampant disease, but also music of comfort as well as grief. It is a reminder that the music many use to escape life (i.e., as pleasant noises in the background to make us feel better) actually deals with the whole of life, giving voice to a variety of human expressions on a panoply of subjects, the music itself written during daily harrassments and dramas and threats to our existence.

It may be a little dark for some; I've been hearing from you folks all my life, including my favorite comment from the time we did a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (!) in which the king dies of grief at the end. A handwritten note delivered after the play said "We prefer happy endings." Using music as a way to constructively deal with negative emotions rather than suppressing them has its analogue in the real world where denial can often lead to a lot of damage. In fact, one can lead to the other, as music which dares to be negative can lead to emotional growth. That isn't really the point here, but it may be a nutritive side effect. It may also somehow contain a message of hope in dark times, of which there have been many on planet earth and of which many wise composers and authors have left us records of their experience.

*from John Julian's "A Dictionary of Hymnody" (1907) as found in Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (1993) p. 592

Friday, March 6, 2020

What it was like

Greetings from the west coast.

Not that it really makes any difference where I am. Or where you are, for that matter. We're both here now. Sort of.

I've always found it interesting that we are a species that can communicate over vast distances. I may be playing the piano right now for people on the other side of the world. Or they are reading something I wrote several years ago when I was in a very different spot on the planet myself.

We can bridge great distances in time as well. Most of the people whose music I play are dead (some just live thousands of miles away) and many of them have been dead for several centuries. And yet their music is still having an effect on somebody somewhere.

On Tuesday night we attended a concert at Disney Hall in Los Angeles. It was a chamber music concert consisting of the music of Ives and Dvorak. They started with Ives. I've always felt like maybe I had something of an inside track with the gentleman from Danbury. I also grew up in a small town that was becoming much larger as I reached adulthood. My family attended a white wooden Presbyterian church with a steeple and we sang many of the same hymns the Ives knew and used in his works. When I was in graduate school and an academic pointed out in a dry, informative way that Ives quoted this particular hymn tune in the 5th measure and extended that one as the bridge to the second theme I already knew it because I recognized the tune and had maybe even sung it or played the organ for it the previous Sunday. My cultural upbringing and Ives's milieu had some things in common, even if I was born a hundred years later.

This seems important for another reason. Ives wrote in words, too (Memos and Essays Before a Sonata being two important sources) and often spoke of trying to capture his boyhood experiences in sounds. For him music wasn't about the expositions and the modulations to the submediant--in fact, he liked to make academic procedures and analyses a target. Instead, he used musical quotations in a very different way: to conjure up not only the musical memories of his time and place, but to record the way those musical sources made him feel. That's why snippets of tunes drift in and out, veer off in unexpected directions, flow contrapuntally, or get extended in surprising ways. Ives employs a host of useful compositional procedures to make symphonies out of tunes that just want to be tunes, but the effect explores the psychology of the composer in a way that is not so obvious with other composers. It may be the closest thing we have to Freudian composition.

I wondered how much of that would translate to the stage of Disney Hall. Already, in her opening remarks, the violist for the Dvorak piece that was to come later had introduced the Ives and informed us that the quartet wanted us to know that the place where Ives is in two meters at once is supposed to sound a little sloppy so we shouldn't think it was their fault. This is virtuosity anxious that it is being undermined by something that isn't. I don't think Ives would have been happy.

The performance was quite correct, of course. And more, I think. It was lively, and not at all sterile. But I wonder how much the performers knew about Ives and his world and whether they wanted to enter into it. It must have been very different from what they knew: A world of constant practice and perfection meeting a world of experimentation and scoffing at boundaries. They made a fine performance out of it, but was the result really Ives or some other fine composer borrowing his notes?

The audience was enthusiastic. They may have been a bit too enthusiastic. I don't want to be a snob here, but it would have helped if they waited until the movements were over to being clapping loudly. I am not much of a purist regarding not clapping between movements; in fact, some of the time I think it is perfectly appropriate, and other times not so much. But after the slow movement, which is really an unusual time for a major display of enthusiasm, parts of the audience which had been set on hair-trigger applause all night burst into raptures before the group could resolve the final chord. It would be as if I told you that

You can tell that sentence isn't finished, right? It needs more words to finish the thought. Music works the same way, only people don't speak music, and some of them can't tell when a musical sentence is over. I wish they could. One of the most wonderful moments in the entire concert got interrupted by the sound of many limbs smashing together because several people couldn't wait for everyone else to know how much they were enjoying themselves. I hope it was at least genuine enthusiasm, but it may have been because they wanted everyone to know how cultured they were, in which case it backfired.

In any case, it was an enjoyable concert. I don't mean to interrupt your cheery Friday, but if we aren't brave enough to consider where we may be falling short we will never grow. An immature spirit will naturally assume that playing the notes on the page means communicating the intention of the composer. A more courageous sort is strong enough to ask whether that is really the case.

I should mention in passing that the Disney Hall organ, which some have compared to a pile of french fries or pick-up stix, is actually far more chaotic looking in real life than in 2-dimensional pictures. I rather wished I had brought my organ shoes and persuaded the management to let me play Ives's Variations on America at the intermission.

This week Marches on.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Winter Carnival continues

There is something to be said for a winter celebration. When the atmosphere is forbidding, we who have to live in it like to find ways to make it more bearable. That's what many of our holidays are really about. Winter carnival season fits perfectly into the month that I like the least. That may not be exactly why it's there, but it works for me.

Lent began on Wednesday for most of the Christian world. Somewhere in the distant past, the church decided to have a period of fasting and self-examination to prepare for Easter, a little fast before the feast, which is an important part of each year's psychic sculpting. We can't feast all the time, and having to do without for a while should make it all the sweeter when the feast finally arrives. That theory works for some people, but not for the party-all-the-time crowd, who, however, lacked the discipline necessary to get themselves into power and thus effect the rules very much. But probably due to their overwhelming numbers, they were still able to make some impression. When Lent was introduced, many people's first reactions must have been: oh dear, this sounds like it calls for too much self-discipline. When exactly does it start? Because up to the last possible minute before it takes effect I want to party my brains out! And thus Fat Tuesday was born. And people created pancakes so they would have something to eat on said festival day. Doesn't my little history sound authoritative?

I can understand the need to make things a bit more cheery during these cold and dark winter months. I have need of it myself. This year I found a couple of fun musical selections to take my mind off the month. Last week I shared with you some variations on Yankee Doodle. This week, I thought it would be interesting to take one of Antonin Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, originally written for piano duet and then orchestrated, and translate it again for organ. I was planning to play it as a duet by utilizing the playback system, but then I decided to just try my own on-the-fly arrangement of both parts, which mostly meant having the secondo part in front of me and playing the upper part from what I could remember.

It's my musical version of a winter carnival. Took my mind off the immediate circumstances. Had nothing at all to do with what music needed to be prepared for anything. A little boisterous for all that, actually. I'll be playing some nice, restrained Bach for church this weekend. But in the meantime, here I am having some fun with an  ad-hoc organ transcription. Enjoy!

Dvorak: Slavonic Dance in g minor, op. 46 no. 8

the last weekly edition from the infernal month of February is at right now!

Friday, February 21, 2020

Your February Musical Doodle

I may have mentioned a time or two that I have no great fondness for February, a month everyone else seems to enjoy greatly when they aren't complaining about the snow and the cold. In the popular estimation, January is the great villain, and lasts inordinately long, particularly when the Christmas tree is on the curb by the 26th of the previous month. I will, however, stick up for its successor as a legitimate claimant for the title of suckiest month, at the very least on the basis of inertia, which is what happens when one's defenses are all gone after three months of cold and dark and all of the good holidays have been squandered by a society in too much of a hurry to wait until we actually need them.

It can also make you grouchy.

In the past, I've survived the worst weeks of the year by finding something cheerful to occupy me. I will customarily by a box of kid's cereal each February, like Fruit Loops or Lucky Charms (I abstain the rest of the year). I also make a cheery pie or two.

Then there are musical pursuits, which can be charming in their own right. This year one thing led to another and I came across a set of variations by a living Italian woman named Carlotta Ferrari on the old American tune "Yankee Doodle." It's a doozy. She's a very prolific composer, and she likes to use various synthetic (newly created) scales to put the tune into different guises.

It just so happens that all of her music is available at the International Music Score Library Project, and it is under a Creative Commons License, which means I don't have to worry about getting sued for sharing her music with you. All I have to do is tell you who wrote it, and, as a bonus (which is technically not required of me), where you can find the music if you want to play it yourself.

I spent a couple of days learning and recording this piece, which did make a positive difference in my mood. I hope you have a sense of humor so that it can act positively on yours.

listen to   Carlotta Ferrari: Yankee Doodle Variations