Monday, October 29, 2012

Tickling the Ivories

It has become rather popular to assert at the end of a movie (perhaps because it is a legal requirement?) that "no animals were harmed in the making of this film."

As it happens, our friendly neighborhood Steinway B, site of most of the piano recordings you'll hear on this blog, turns 101 this year, which means it is old enough to have ivory keys. But since the elephant that gave its tusks for our sadistic musical enterprise has long since passed from this earth I can tell you that no animal was harmed during the actual playing of today's musical selection. I am, however, tickling ivory.

That turns out to be especially relevant with regard to the second part (theme) of the piece. Today's piece is short--perfect if you've got places to go. It would be shorter if I didn't repeat both sections.

The first section is 30 seconds long. If you break it down into its component parts, the first of these is only eight seconds long. Don't blink your ears, you'll miss it.

But it's the second part of that first section that has my attention. The first could, almost, maybe, function like a melody. If it were slower maybe you could sing a bit of it before it gets too difficult. After a slight pause (these are important) we are treated to a finger-flexing whirl of notes, up and down the short range of the octave. Now I am not given as much as some are to feats of pianistic derring-do, trying to impress people with flash and dazzle. It works, though. People are always interested in watching how fast a pianist's fingers move.

Still, I don't mind having some fun. Like a lot of instances of high density in the notes-per-square measure variety, this part doesn't really have much to say musically except "see how fast I can go." But it all goes by pretty quickly. Even faster, given that this section is broken up by a curious little musical phrase, in a minor key, that seems to ask midway (as I do) "is this alright? or is something wrong here?"

But as usual, after that unsettling bit of questioning our motives, the answer turns out to be "Yes! Everything is fine, here! And I am moving my fingers very fast and having a good time!" No great metaphysical questions on the state of humankind. In fact, it only took three seconds to ask the question, so if your ears blink, you'll miss that part, too.

You'll get to hear this fun little sequence four times by the end. That 30 second portion repeats; then the second section, which contains a little more wandering away from home (but maybe just around the block) returns to do the same thing, this time in the home key. And you'll hear all of that over again, too.

The piece comes from an early Haydn piano sonata (the fourth movement) and is marked "Allegro molto" (very fast). Whether Haydn himself, or anybody living in the 18th century, would have played it as fast as many of us do today is a good question. It's not as though people weren't spellbound by an accomplished virtuoso back then. On the other hand, notions of speed may have been quite different. And besides, you wouldn't want your wig to come off!

It probably took you as long to read this as it is going to take to listen to the music, so listen to it again whenever you're in the mood. Have a great rest of your day.

Haydn: Sonata in G: Allegro molto

p.s. for pianists out there, this is the fourth movement of Sonata no. 13 (Landon numbers) or 6 (if you're using Hoboken numbers, like my Dover edition)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Secret Knowledge

Good morning. What if I told you I had an elixir to keep you young and vibrant for three easy installments of $29.95? Or that I'd throw in a couple of pills to regrow your hair and a garden hoe that doubled as a Swiss Army knife and had a built in Television and internet access? Now what would you pay for all that?

It isn't just physical objects that are subject to that sort of incredible sales pitch; we mortals can do the same thing with knowledge. In fact, what got me thinking about all that is a set of three curious little pieces by their even more curious creator, Erik Satie. They are called Gnossiennes, which was a title quite unheard of in the piano literature until Mr. Satie made it up. Can you imagine somebody just making up a word like that? (::cough:: Pianonoise)

Now there are two theories about what this word means. One is that it is a reference to a secret society known as the Gnostics. Originally an early form of Christianity which stressed being able to acquire a secret knowledge known only to its practitioners (and only after a period of study and earning the requisite privileges), it was considered heretical by the orthodox church, which tried to stamp it out, though it went underground. Some minds have always considered it attractive, which is why we find it again in 19th century France. Satie himself seems to have belonged to such a group at one point. Usually they clustered around a charismatic leader who knew things others didn't. The root Gnos- means knowledge.

The other theory is that it is actually a reference to an ancient city on the island of Crete (Knossos) which had been the site of several excavations shortly before the pieces were written.

Satie doesn't let us in on which theory is correct. In fact, he is pretty tight lipped about a lot of things, including how seriously to take what he's written, musical and otherwise. But, if you stick with me (the charismatic leader) I can tell you a few things that you probably don't know (secret knowledge) about these fascinating little pieces.

There are several interesting directions in the score. I'm not really supposed to tell you about those, but I think I'll let a few slip. While most composers have helpful hints about manners of expression or speed or dynamics, Satie's directions read like you are having a piano lesson with a Picasso painting. One of my favorite instructions from Mr. Satie is to play "like a nightingale with a toothache" (that's in another piece we'll get to some other time). At one point in the Gnossiennes the direction is to play a passage "very shiny," and in another place "with the tip of your thought." One passage in the last of the three pieces is to be played as though "very lost." I'll leave you to guess which one. .....

Then there are the tempo instructions. With most composers it would some variation on slow or fast or in between. And indeed, the first and third of the set are simply marked "slow." But the second one translates to "with astonishment." I wonder if that's the only piece that's ever been marked that way.

For some minds, this kind of approach only presents confusion, or is at best considered childish nonsense.  Give us some practical instruction! How loud? How Fast? Should I speed up, or slow down? Emphasize certain notes? ...Things I can get behind. But to "postulate within yourself"--how do you do that? And can any passage of music really be played "with great kindness?" Far from practical, many of these markings seem to inhabit a parallel universe, and could not possibly be carried out in any way that would affect the musical interpretation. Or can they?

Gnossienne 1
Gnossienne 2
Gnossienne 3

Monday, October 15, 2012

Why So Serious?

I hope your Monday is going well. If it's not, say, if it's too dignified, here's something that might help. It's a piece by Mozart, a set of variations on a children's tune. It was originally written for the piano but I've committed sacrilege by playing it on the organ. The whole thing happened rather suddenly when I was seated at the organ the other day and someone told me about a wedding in which the couple asked that this piece be played for their recessional. Kind of an unusual choice, I thought, and promptly started trying out different combinations of organ stops on the various variations to see what kinds of things one could do with such a piece. The recessional is actually going to be played on the piano, but I still had to have my fun. So did Mozart, apparently.

Mozart could be quite a serious fellow, at times, but he could also be the patron saint of composers with ridiculous senses of humor. He was also known to enjoy bathroom humor. There, I've said it, ok?! The great Wolfgang Amadeus liked fart jokes. (Boy, this blog is going downhill fast.) If you are similarly inclined, you can skip directly to variation ten.

The other eleven variations aren't bad, either. I've actually grown to like number 11 because, being the obligatory slow and expressive variation, it has such an ennobling character, yet all the while we know what theme he's developing... Anyway, have a listen. What's your favorite variation? And, do you think they'll take away my musician's license for this?

Mozart: Variations on "Ah, vous, dirai je maman" for piano, as played on the organ by yours truly
Variation 1
Variation 2
Variation 3
Variation 4
Variation 5
Variation 6
Variation 7
Variation 8
Variation 9
Variation 10
Variation 11
Variation 12