Friday, January 31, 2014

Making Connections

One of the difficulties I've always found with liturgy is that it tends to be very local. One short musical response followed by a prayer or a reading, then another short musical response. In the best of situations those responses have something to do with one another, the elements coalesce, the service itself seems to be about something, to have a particular mood, message, occasion, reason for being, but at other times, the service wanders, shifts gears constantly, not sure whether to celebrate or beat its breast, proclaim, meditate, confess, or try to do them all in no particular order.

This is because, in the long running battle of form with function, form has always dominated the church service. All the same elements in the same order, week after week, because that's the way we are supposed to do it, or we like it that way, or it is just easier not to have to make new decisions, or we think God likes it that way, or something.

There are ways, though, myriad ways, to draw connections between the elements, between themes and ideas and positions. Ways to play the opening hymn or the prayer response differently from week to week so that it seems meant not only for the long procession of worship occasions past present and future but on this one occasion particularly intended for this one. 

The last couple of weeks I've been doing that with the transition to the doxology. Between the offertory and the closing hymn in our service sits the celebratory doxology. It is always loud, always majestic, and sometimes of a completely different character than the offertory that immediately precedes it. I submit for your ears the offertory I played on Baptism of the Lord Sunday this year. It's five and a half minutes--if you are in a hurry you can just listen to enough of it to get the idea.

Right. Now, as soon as that ends, it is time for the doxology, which, at our 10:30 service, sounds like this:


(Better, if I don't miss that pedal note at the beginning!)

If you have difficulty imagining how those two things fit together, that makes two of us. So here is what I did about it. After the offertory concluded, I played this (or something like it) as an introduction to the doxology:

That last phrase it designed to get people to stand up, and it works.

The following week we had a classical guitar solo for the offertory. The musical selection was the lute suite in E major. Since our soloist needed a little time to move his equipment back, I made a longer introduction to cover the sound and give him the necessary time. Also, I hoped, to preserve the character of what we'd just heard and move it into the doxology. What I actually played was improvised at the service, and it was more inspired than what I dashed off for the microphone late last night. But it was something like this:

That also meant I took the doxology up a half step. I hope the sopranos in the choir didn't mind. I didn't ask!

The net effect of this is, I hope, to help the service to flow better from one moment to the next, and also to say that in the long parade of weekly services, THIS day matters enough to get the elements to cooperate with one another and make one effective statement out of, to build on the enthusiasm, or the introspection, of a particular moment in time, and not to simply break into it with our regularly scheduled bits of stuff we have to do every week whether it derails the effect or not. 

This is something over which I could write many a blog (and perhaps will one day). It is not intended to subvert the liturgy but to enhance it. And of course it requires imagination and improvisational skills, and much practice in making quick decisions, taking risks (often I have not planned this out ahead of time) and trusting that somehow things will go well. Better than well, one hopes. But then, there is always next week. In a curious way, for a learning musician, church is an excellent laboratory in this respect. On the other hand, every experiment matters. Which is why you live and learn, and yet why I so often will not leave well enough alone.

Because it isn't "well enough."

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Blogger, interrupted

There have been those times when after merely typing the title of a blog entry I am called away by some unexpected obligation. Does this happen to you? You have just settled in to make use of some stolen bit of time to go on a creative jag when some other member of the animal kingdom, on two legs or four (such as the one currently out to steal the milk from my bowl of breakfast cereal) makes a demand on your time which may only take a few minutes, a few hours, or perhaps change the character of the entire day. This poses a difficulty for creative artists trying to concentrate on something they are trying to produce, compose, write, bring forth, et cetera.

There are known obligations aplenty as it is, and it is often hard to negotiate productivity around these. Sure, I'll think crossly, Dmitri Shostakovich wrote 15 symphonies, but did he have to mow his lawn?

The answer: no. Dmitri Shostakovich lived in a high-rise apartment and never had to work in the yard. He lived in a building with all the other Soviet artists, surrounded by the noise of instruments and in fear of being disappeared  by the Stalin administration for saying or doing something unpleasant to said comrade. But he had no yard work to worry about. Which also means no snow shoveling in the driveway in winter.

Domestic duties can, of course, suck up plenty of time, which is why many of our most celebrated composers not only did not own houses, they were also unmarried and had no children. Brahms, for example, or Beethoven. Beethoven, however, had a habit of moving frequently, which must have been a major time suck. He wrote 32 piano sonatas and moved some 67 times. Some of the can be accounted for by the fact that everybody moved out of the city in the summer to avoid the heat, and back again in the fall, usually to a new apartment. Of course, moving in those days wouldn't have been quite as complicated an affair, with less furniture for a bachelor and a lighter piano that did not take three linebackers to get up the stairs, though by the end of his life the piano was already starting to become the unwieldy monster it is today.

Bach, as you know, had 20 children, but he did not have to drive a single one of them to soccer practice. He also lived in an apartment and had no yard work. And his children actually served to copy out parts for him. If he had had Finale, he could have done it himself, which would have freed up his children to fight over who got the X-box and could have kept poor Johann Sebastian continually refereeing their squabbles.

Mozart only had one child, no yard, and could compose while playing Billards, according to the movie, though he seems to have been his own worst enemy when it came to physical fitness.

Anyhow, creative work tends to take long periods of concentration, and tends to suffer if it has to proceed in occasional snicks and snacks. Not to mention that that method can get a bit irritating.

Now what was it I was going to write about?

Monday, January 27, 2014

No reason it couldn't be done on skis, I suppose

With the Winter Olympics coming up next week, I've been making bizarre comparisons between the world of sports and the world of the arts. Last week it was all about bigger, faster, stronger...well, mostly faster and louder. This week it's time to focus on those fascinating sports you used to never see broadcast anyplace except once every four years at the Olympics, though now you can tune and catch them all in perfect ubiquity, 24 hours a day, if you've got ESPN 7.

In the winter Olympics, our fascinated attention is drawn to exotic outliers like Curling and the Biathlon. The way the biathlon works is that two great sports that have nothing at all to do with each other are mashed together, such as skiing and shooting. First you have to run on skis really hard and fast, then you have to stop and hit five targets. It's something that was first invented by college students very early one morning surrounded by empty pizza boxes and formerly alcoholic beverages.

A similar sport with a musical twist was invented by yours truly one spring when training for a 5k. Having made the pleasant discovery that the distance from my home to the church where I work and back was exactly the same distance as a 5k, I devised a sport where I ran to the church, practiced for a couple of hours, and ran back. In those days that was about all I could handle. But I think it would be a great way for organists to compete in the Olympics.

The way I envision such a sport working is that the competitors will run a mile or so to their respective instruments, and discover, upon getting there, that a particular Bach chorale prelude has been placed on the music rack. These Chorale Preludes will have various difficulty ratings, of course, and a hefty computer formula will have to be invented to reward points based on technical perfection at a given difficulty rating. There will be no points for musicality, historical awareness, or style, naturally, though points will be deducted for missing notes and going over the allotted amount of time, which will reward persons who can play faster and roboticly but have no imagination. Otherwise we would have to bring in judges and there would be scandals, which would draw more attention to the sport than we want if we want it to comfortably remain on ESPN 7.

Having to play one of the more contrapuntally complex and faster chorales would be a challenge if all the blood were flowing to your legs which naturally rewards sheer consistency and practice. And of course having technical perfection being so important not only mirrors contemporary societal values in art, it would give the announcers a chance to grimace and shout brilliant things like "oh no! He missed the E-flat! That's an automatic tenth of a point deduction."

The music finished, the competitors would get up and run to the next station, where a piano would be waiting for them and they would launch into a Beethoven sonata. Sound like something you'd watch? You and at least four other people in the country? I have to know before I pitch it to the IOC.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Getting a good return in the long run

Performing musicians: Today I'm going to talk to you like I'm your financial advisor.

You need to diversify your portfolio.

It's a complex, competitive world out there, and if you want to be able to survive as a musician--I'm speaking here to people who want to do music for something other than a private hobby--you have to be open in the first place to the fact that you will probably end up doing some things that have nothing to do with what you thought you'd be doing, even in the field of music.

In the second place, however, it is almost certain that even in your specific vision of what you've got in mind you will find that the logistics, deadlines, and uncertainties of day to day operations make it necessary to really on every skill you've got in your arsenal. Unless you've just got the one, then--look out.

It's become sort of a joke around here lately that I like to play the piano with one hand while taking pictures with the other, but I've actually been cultivating my skills at multitasking a lot these past few years. When you perform with ensembles, particularly amateur ensembles, you generally need to be able to help them while helping yourself at the same time. And on Sunday morning during a church service you never know what will happen and how you will need to deal with it. I've been learning to perform distracted--and to consider that what I'm hearing and how to deal with it is an important part of music making, and not something I need to screen out.

On the other hand, I've also been honing my concentrating skills, which is the complete opposite. I used to tell my students that even if the Blue Angels flew overheard during their recital they had to ignore it and keep going. I once kept on playing through a fire drill, so I think I've got the cred. I figured if things were really on fire they'd come back for me anyway.

Anyhow, the important thing is I'm still here.

The other important thing is that, in a given week, I do plenty of sight reading, plenty of playing by ear, plenty of making things up on the spot, composing, and especially problem solving to figure out how I'm going to get everything done and done well. This week I did all my recording on Monday because I knew it was going to be 4 below zero the rest of the week and I like to record with the heat off temporarily so there is less hum on the recordings, and at those temperatures you can't maintain any semblance of heat for more than a couple of minutes. So I've spent the rest of the week composing three pieces a few weeks ahead of their deadlines, and jamming in rehearsals as needed. Basically you have to size everything up, figure out when your opportunities present themselves, and do what you can do when you can do it. I've gotten better at that over the years.

It's a pretty diversified life, and I like the challenge. Which is another skill you'll need. Challenge-loving. Along with discipline and hard work, it means you'll always get better at what you do, because what you are doing is always dealing with challenges. You can only improve what you practice, and the more you see something as an opportunity to practice it, (instead of complaining about it) the faster you'll improve.

Monday, January 20, 2014

speed records

The Winter Olympics are coming up in a couple of weeks and I thought I'd opine on what would happen if they would let pianists compete along with the other athletes which is, of course, to set speed records.

Bigger, faster, stronger? Of course. In every human endeavor. The longest and hardest piano concerto. The loudest and fastest interpretation, and so on.

Really, though, it is just a chance for me to sit here comfortably while the snow falls outside and the wind threatens to blow my face off if it gets the chance, and go over some of my past recordings rather than braving death to go make a new one.

We'll start with something pretty recent. I mentioned, at a recent concert, that Scott Joplin had a rule about not playing ragtime fast and that a lot of pianists didn't care to hear it and that that was what set up the curious conflict in the first movement of Bill Albright's Grand Sonata in Rag that I played. On that concert I also played a little novelty piece called "Nola."

In the course of some internet research (such as to see if I had spelled the composer's name correctly) I found some other recordings of Nola online and happened to notice that they are about a minute or so faster than mine. That's a pretty wide gap. Now as it happens I had only played Nola  for a perilously short time before I played it on stage and got no practice right before the recording so I thought it would be wise to take a conservative tempo. However, I also felt that the piece had a certain elegance and suavity that way, and I didn't really see any need to play it any faster anyhow.  Obviously some other pianists don't see it that way. I'm going to stick by my tempo, and put up a sign "slowest recording of Nola on the internet" and see if I get any takers.

Here's Nola

I've made up for it, however. About a year ago I recorded Bach's "Little" Fugue in g minor at what is apparently at least 45 seconds faster than any of the other recordings I noticed on the web. It was a Tuesday evening right after choir practice and right before I had to drive across town for another appointment and I had about twenty minutes free to set up the equipment and do a couple of takes. I was tired and full of manic energy and I had just had enough time with the piece to be able to play it fluently and not yet enough time to play it comfortably. Which meant I played it quite fast. Given the miniature organ registration I used, however, I think it works rather well. I'll try it sometime again with an alternate approach. In the meantime, do I get a medal?


Often, as a professional, I'm likely to take a faster tempo than would an amateur. I can, given my technical facility. But it doesn't mean I always want to.

I remember a teacher at the conservatory who had a maddening obsession with tempo. The first week my chamber music partner and I would come in for a lesson on a piece we'd only been assigned the week before. Naturally it was a little on the slow side--we could play it, but weren't really comfortable enough to just let it fly, yet. She'd get out the metronome right away and give us the speed she wanted. The next week, having seen the piece for twice as long, and having really assimilated all the runs and jumps, we'd have that piece up much faster than it needed to be. By the third week it was just right. Given that "Goldilocks" phenomena, I've always noticed how the tempo of a piece can change, from too slow to too fast to settling in once you've gotten comfortable with it artistically. Most of the pieces in the pianonoise archive were recorded on precious little practice so one could consider this when listening to the artistic approaches, tempo and all. I've often thought of them as beta versions of the pieces that I simply don't have time to perfect given the eternal demands of next week. But I don't think the tempi would be all that different; I can usually get what I want, more or less.

What I want turns out to be variety. Each piece speaks to me differently and calls for a different tempo and mood. And this is where art and athletics differ. You don't see races to see who can be the slowest, or the most middle of the road. Most sports don't give points for style or individuality, and the ones that do have the most controversy and judging scandals and angry fans. You can argue over those because opinion matters in a sport like that, and everyone's is different. And right.

I'll leave you with one more recording, of one of J. S. Bach's Schubler Chorales, a piece called "Wake up! A voice calls to us" (though generally translated as "sleepers, awake"). I took this one on the quick side. I can still remember comments from disgruntled Youtubarians over a Cd recording of this piece by a famous organist. They thought he was in much too much of a hurry. Probably used to the grand registrations and broad tempi of the middle of the century when everybody was playing Bach that way, they just couldn't fathom somebody being in this much of a hurry.

Except for three reasons. One is that it is fashionable to take Bach faster and to play with more articulation and less heavy texture these days, which isn't necessarily a great reason except that the researchers in this area have reason to think this approach is more authentic. Another is that the Chorale tune itself is the slowest part of the piece (the nasally reed stop you hear about 45 seconds into the piece is playing the hymn that Bach's congregation sang) and at this speed you might not only recognize it, you can probably sing all the way through a phrase without collapsing. Also, the point of the hymn is to get people to wake up and stay vigilant (in anticipation of Christ's coming), not to relax and luxuriate--which also argues for a quicker tempo.


Those are my reasons. But I won't guarantee I won't slow down a little bit some time the next time I make a recording of "Wake up!" It was a hot day in July, after all.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The World is My Parish (part two)

Last week I spent quite a few words on my attempts to understand a piece of music that I was playing in church. Your take away on all that could have been a) I think too much, or b) I struggle with musical issues just like you do. I'd prefer B, though I have always been aware that people don't have patience for lengthy discussions of what appear to them to be minor points. On top of all that, I never actually posted a recording of the piece itself which I had promised! So here it is.

[listen to Flowing Water by an unknown Chinese composer]

It is, I think, very beautiful, and you might be wondering what all the fuss was about. I had mentioned that I didn't feel like the piece cohered very well in some places. Given that many people don't listen for the connection between musical moments, only things like the beauty of the sound and the interest an idea has for them at that very moment, a number of you wouldn't have shared my apprehension. But I found it worth the discussion. And, I should report, that part of the reason you might feel reasonably satisfied with the piece's construction is that I figured things out. During the recording session, on the third and last take, I felt as I was playing a passage on the last page that bothered me the most, that my ears had finally understood how to play it so that it made sense. In essence, the first phrase and the second phrase had to be understood as near repetitions of one another with richer harmonies on the end of the second phrase. (the section starts at 4:10) For some reason, probably in all the details, I hadn't heard it before, and the harmonies, while interesting in and of themselves, (with a kind of Lisztian revelation) stuck out too much. But when my ears found their focus, the harmonies seemed to rhyme with the ones that came before. And I didn't need to suspend my assumptions about harmonic progressions, either.

I'll give you an example of what I mean. Suppose we are listening to a baseball game. The score was 5 to 2 with the home team winning. Now the visiting team scores a run. The score is now 5 to 3, and the announcer, to my mind, should emphasize the 3 because that is how the score has changed. Sometimes an announcer puts the emphasis on the 5 and it bugs me because the 5 is the thing that is still the same and it is not important. A person just walking into the room assumes that the home team has just scored and that a moment ago it was 4 to 3 or something like that. Or suppose you are reading this blog aloud. Halfway through the last paragraph, I began a sentence "...I should report, that part of the reason..." and if, because of the comma, perhaps, you emphasized the world THAT instead of the word PART, you would be temporarily confused about the sense of what I wrote. That's what I mean. A good pianist has to parse the musical contents in a way that cannot be accounted for by simply following the expression and tempo marks on the page anymore than I can (or would want to) tell you exactly how to read this text.

I've written about this before. What made it interesting this time around was that I was dealing with music from a very different culture. People naturally tend to assume that when they don't understand something it is the fault of the material, not themselves, but I was considering whether the impasse was the result of cultural considerations I would not be able to grasp with my intractably Western ears, or simply because I hadn't understood the piece yet, or if the composer was at fault. I turned out that the bulk of the issue resolved itself given enough time and play-throughs to hear that structure. There is still one place where the composer tried to do something really ambitious, namely modulate through about three keys in the same downward run (1:40-1:154) and I don't think that really works and I'm blaming that on the composer. But otherwise, the music and I seem to understand each other.

The larger issue, however, is the most important. It is easy for someone to claim that "the world is my parish" or to sing "the world to Christ we bring" and assume that what that means is that the rest of the world needs what we're selling, culturally, spiritual, economically, technologically, linguistically, and every other way you can think of and that we have nothing to learn from them. It is easy to remain mired in our little bit of the woods, doing the same old same old, and thinking that's the way it is and the way it ought to be--for everybody else, too. It is harder to engage with the unfamiliar and to try to understand it, which is one good reason that I try to choose music that reflects a broad range of times and places.

I've mentioned before that I come across a lot of vitriol about professional musicians in the church--often complaints that they are just snobby know-it-alls with oversized egos and that things would be a lot better if amateurs where running things. One of the best reasons I can think of for having a "so-called expert" in the church, besides the observation that things usually run more smoothly if there is someone who really knows what they are doing at the keyboard, is that sometimes that "so-called expert," with his or her broad knowledge of music and practices, is the only one keeping the congregation from singing the same favorite five hymns every Sunday.  It is not easy to do battle with natural human prejudice and practices of exclusion. But this is one way to try--a little bit of understanding at a time.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


A month ago I wrote about a nearly disastrous page turn during a concert. Now, to balance the universal chi, I'll mention one of my favorites. (Favorite page turn? You are strange. I know that. Just listen.)

It was another holiday concert, a year ago last month. I have a strong desire not to leave out any notes on a page turn if I possibly can--besides, publishers like to put the piano interludes on the page turn so it is particularly obvious if you are leaving out one hand in order to get the page turned. Their theory is that the people with the free hands can't sing and turn pages at the same time, so the one person employing both hands to make music has to give up one of them to turn their page. I try to pretend I have a third hand and play everything on the page AND get the page turned. In this particular case I remember only wanting very badly to play the full chord on the next page. The next thing I knew, my left hand hand played the chord in the bass and instantaneously leapt two octaves to capture the right hand notes. I look down at my hand and grinned sheepishly as if to say "I didn't know you were going to do that!" This was also the concert at which I realized that if I put my music on both sides and left a spot open in the middle of the music stand I could see the reflection of the conductor in the brightly polished wood without the need to keep turning around to see the conductor who was off to my right and behind me. I put that one in the observation and problem solving category. The page turn is just a matter of will.

Things like that don't just happen, however. I practice page turns for efficiency and impossible hand jumps at every rehearsal. I never stop the choir if I play wrong notes, get lost, or my music falls on the floor, which is one reason why I was able to get through last month's debacle. Instead I pretend it is a performance and try to get out of any tight spot the best I can, learning to minimize mistakes and get back on track so fast there is hardly time to notice something was wrong in the first place. This explains why I am so tired after a rehearsal. It also explains why I can deal with adverse situations well--I get as much practice dealing with them as I can. Which means every chance I get.

I have to chuckle when I read exhortations from piano teachers about practicing slowly and fingering everything. It isn't because it isn't important. I've had teachers who insisted on that and I'm grateful. It's just that these days I can't possible do it anymore. There just isn't time in the (what is it? 60-odd pieces of music per week?) mass of material I have to deal with, all the concerts and rehearsals and church services and compositions, to sit down and studiously write in all the fingerings. Instead, my fingers have to think on the fly. They can do that, however, mostly because they've absorbed scale and arpeggio patterns, and thousands of other patterns from pieces I've played and memorized in the past.

In other words, I couldn't do what I do without a firm foundation. But for a professional musician there comes a time when you have to be so fluent that you can "leave out" those steps and still fly. It isn't a matter of choice, really. You just don't have the time anymore. Play a piece through once and it's time to hit the stage, practically. Your fingers better know what they are doing!

One of my teachers at the conservatory told me that I had a real luxury of time to prepare and that I should enjoy it while I could. Now I know what he meant.

Will power isn't a substitute for training. But here is what is interesting. It will often get you through a concert for which you were unable to adequately prepare. It will help to make your performance more interesting musically if you are so engaged in the moment that nothing can get in your way. It allows your instinct to have something to say, even if your premeditated, along the ground self hasn't had time to catch up yet. It is often improvised, the result of just wanting something to come out, and it focuses on the end result rather than on process. And yet, though the method is inconsistent, it is practiced. Just wanting it real bad isn't going to get you there. And yet, that may be what drives you to practice hard in the first place.

Monday, January 13, 2014

New Year's Eve at the Virginia (part seven)

We now return to our regularly scheduled rag sonata, already in progress.

The last of the three movements of William Albright's "Grand Sonata in Rag" is modestly entitled "Ragtime Behemoth" and it is certainly a monster. Mr. Albright lets us know that right away, with this reference to Liszt's "Dante" Sonata. Dante's story of obsession obsessed 19th century composers, particularly the bit about making a pact with the devil (turns out to have been a bad idea; who knew?), and Liszt begins his sonata with a musical illustration based on the tritone, an interval so bizarre to Medieval minds they referred to it as "the devil in music."


It gets the point across that something sinister is going to happen, doesn't it?

Now for Mr. Albright's version, which is simultaneously more diabolical and more fun at the same time:


We can tell right away we are dealing with something a bit on the wild side. A Behemoth is not really a very nice animal, after all.

Then the composer takes us on a wild ride through something that sounds like it was made for the vaudeville stage. It starts out nicely enough; then it turns into this:


Writing at least 75 years after ragtime began, Mr. Albright has the luxury of mixing, matching, and generally amplifying various influences and voices that we now know as ragtime, stride, jazz, novelty, even various references to Hollywoodish entertainment. I present for your inspection this little number from later in the piece, which somehow reminds me of the Dick van Dyke show:


This is a long way from Scott Joplin's idea of dignified ragtime--clearly he's lost control, here! As entertaining as it is, The Monster seems to have won. This may be a "Ragtime" sonata, but ragtime purists will have started scratching their heads a long time ago.

But it isn't as if Bill Albright doesn't know his history--in fact, he's practically giving us a pellmell rundown on the whole thing in just a few minutes!

One of the trends in ragtime was for a pianist to take a well-known tune and "rag" it. Making even classical tunes, popular songs, whatever you could find, sound like ragtime. I recently demonstrated this at a party to general laughter when someone called out the tune for "Amazing Grace." Being able to do this on the spot was kind of a way of demonstrating your "chops." Another thing that ragtimers and popular entertainers ever since have done was to make fun of serious music by ragging it. And so, for the second time in the same evening (the first was when the writers of "The Girl in 14G" worked in a reference to "Tristan and Isolde") on the program was a bit of fun at Richard Wagner's expense. Richard Wagner was a composer so serious that even other serious composers like to make fun of him, which tells you something!

Anyhow, listen to this bit from Wagner's "Ring" cycle--an ethereal progression of just four chords, followed by an outburst of horribly uncouth ragtime:


This happens three times, and the third time Mr. Wagner appears to be very upset!


In the end, a fairly jaunty, Joplinesque tune has us heading for home, and we get there with a bang!


One of the problems with writing a long series that runs well into January is you have to get on with the rest of the schedule. Which means this is the end of the line, even if it could have used a little more of a wrap up. Thank you for reading!

Friday, January 10, 2014

The World Is My Parish

It is "Baptism of the Lord" Sunday this week, and as we usually emphasis water as a visual aid and a theme, I often play pieces of music having to do with water. This year I've finally gotten around to a piece from one of the books I was given while playing concerts in Taiwan some 12 years ago. The title of it was translated for me as "Flowing Water." I'm going to play it for you in a moment.

I've been struggling with the piece all week. It isn't that the piece is all that technically difficult--it isn't especially easy, though, so I had been wondering, coming out of a very busy Christmas season and generally exhausted for about 4 days after the New Year's Eve Concert, whether I'd be able to make a start on it soon enough to be able to play it. I found after a few days that the piece would probably be ready just in time, and the snow and extreme cold we've had in Illinois at the start of the week provided a chance to stay home and practice in a relatively stress-free environment.

The struggle has been more philosophical. I've been wondering whether the piece really works. The opening is beautiful, and some of the later ideas are wonderfully atmospheric, and grand, but I'm not so sure about the coherence. The harmonies, in particular, don't go where I want them to go, and, given the strange state of discontinuity between them, I've had occasion to wonder if this is simply a bad piece, and if I should simply not waste time practicing it. It may be beautiful in places, but if it doesn't hang together it won't get past my ears, or those of anyone else who listens for musical sense.

But there is the question of culture. The music was written by a Chinese composer. We don't know who because the individual names aren't listed in this "collection of Chinese tunes piano." Recall the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic games in which one could see how important it was to be a cog in an immense and well-synchronized wheel, and where individuals are not important on their own. When I was given the book I was told this is a part of the communist philosophy. Of course, that position was represented to me by citizens of Democratic Taiwan. The two countries (or one, depending on who you are talking to) do not have a cozy relationship.

It is not especially desirable to be critical of a culture you do not understand very well. And I have been wondering, given the sheer foreignness of this very Eastern piece to the ears of this very Western gentleman, whether the fault is with the piece or with me. It is certainly possible that this particular book does not exactly represent the high water mark of musical composition in China, and that, just as there are plenty of composers in this country who are able to compose pieces for the piano that sound pretty but don't go anywhere, that have ideas but are not able to develop them, or maintain their musical focus long enough to create a line, explore more than the most obvious possibilities, and ultimately create something that will engage the mind as well as the senses, there must obviously be a talented few in China and a number of also-rans. Not possessing more than a few books from this enormous cultural storehouse, how would I know?

In the other corner there is that possibility that I just don't get it. For the most part, my questions are about harmonic continuity. But is this of value in the culture in which it was written? Or do the ears perceive this differently?

Consider this: how different Mandarin is from English. In the first place, it is a language which is constructed of vast numbers of quasi-pictorial, labor-intensive characters, rather than an assemblage of 26 letters which are simply strung together in combination to make sounds. Mandarin is also a very musical language, in which the speaker often changes pitch to indicate difference in words which might otherwise be identical. Obviously the cadences in Mandarin are very different as is apparent to anyone who has heard a Chinese person speak English. But it is also, I think, not a property of Mandarin speech to necessarily fall at the ends of sentences, the way speakers of Romance Languages tend to do, causing a cadence (the verb "cadare," to fall) which indicates finality.

Those already represent some radically different fundamental assumptions about the way in which communication ought to happen. Consider how they might be carried into music. The pentatonic scale, which I am told is only a partially accurate representation of the notes used in much Eastern music, is, to Western ears, "missing" two notes that are not only an important part of a lot of Western music, they virtually drive most of it. It is those two notes which cause tension and which call for harmonic resolution. Our experience of having a need and driving toward a musical goal is not a universal assumption, nor a universal philosophy nor a universal experience of life.

This is not simply an "academic" question, for if I understand the piece differently, I will play it differently. It may be that if I am able to "resolve" some core issue at the heart of the piece's construction, I will do a better job of making it successful for my audience. It often happens that at one moment music seems muddled and poorly written, and the next, through a change of emphasis, perhaps of not overstating unimportant details, or of making a clear, bold announcement of the music's essential line of thought, that the same piece of music has suddenly been granted a much better position, as if its composer had instantly gained a great deal of mastery in the art of composition!

This approach is fundamentally different from that of past centuries. When Methodism's unintentional founder, John Wesley, said "The world is my parish" he may have reflected a concern for people far beyond his own piece of real estate. It was also an ambitious proclamation. And for years before and after, whenever Christians had dealings with China, or any other exotic foreign lands, they tended to assume that folks there were in need of what Westerners could bring them, because theirs was a superior culture with a superior understanding, not just in terms of having the correct religious notions, but with more developed ideas about industry and economy. Such an arrogance would not bother to consider whether, when at an impasse, the fault lay with the Westerner or the Easterner or both, or whether there was a lack of understanding involved, it would naturally be for the Easterner to adjust to the Westerner's views of the matter. Bred in such an environment, one should unquestionably assume that any standard of musical integrity to which a "foreign" piece of music did not cleave was the music's fault, not one's own. Thus, the lack of harmonic coherence must be because the composer doesn't know any better. Let us teach him (and add paternalism to arrogance).

It is, however, tempting to want to see a lack of harmonic sophistication at work here. One need not be limited to potential generalizations of other cultures. There are examples closer to home. I can't help thinking, for example, of pieces by Michael Praetorius, in which the final chord has nothing at all to do with the tonal framework but simply reflects local considerations--in other words, if the final note of the chant is an E, that is the piece's final harmony, no matter whether it was prepared in advance. Melodic and harmonic inflection in pieces of the Renaissance often do not go where our modern ears would like--and these were the professionals of their era. It is easy to think them crude by our standards. Popular musicians often think in chords, and allow several notes to move in the same direction, not thinking of the various notes individually, as with a polyphonic texture in which each voice moves separately. This is much harder to do, and there are few examples of composers who did it well, almost all in Europe, several of them named Bach! Most indigenous music throughout the world moves in blocks of parallel harmony. It can be argued that a knowledgeable composer with the ability to think in multiple voices might at times choose to composer in blocks of parallel harmony (Debussy) but it is just as likely that much music eschews this because it is just too hard for the untrained.

And supposing it is a lack? What then? Is there a way for me to play the piece which will cover up this shortcoming? Even if it is really no fault of the composer within their culture, if my ears cannot accept it, what then? As of writing this blog I am playing some passages such that I bring out the melody greatly, and leave the harmonic filling out much less, so that there is a larger dynamic difference than there would be otherwise. The harmonies are closer to overtones under this scheme. It seems to work.

It is a kind of musical transliteration, I suppose. But then, the composer has already modeled a bit of that. The music was written for a Western instrument--the piano was invented in Italy. While the title is in Chinese the musical expression markings are all in Italian. Beside the standard "Andante cantabile" and "molto riterdando" there are a few (from other pieces) that are quite amusing. My favorite features one of several terms that are completely made up--this one is also redundant: "allegro fastoso." I get the point, however.

I'll never meet this person and I'll never know how the music sounded to him or her, or how they played it. Although you never know. Youtube can be a glorious thing. In the quest for understanding, and for overcoming the natural parochialism of human beings, one frequently encounters things tantalizingly out of reach of one's understanding. The important thing, I think, is to keep asking questions.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

New Year's Eve at the Virginia (part six)

I forgot something in my rundown of the concert on Monday. It's a little piece called "Nola" which I played after the intermission.

"Nola" was written in 1915 by Felix Arndt and dedicated to his then fiancee Nola. I first ran across the piece on the internet a couple of months ago and was considering it as something to play on the concert which turned out to be a very interesting choice.

Over the holidays I had the usual problem a pianist has when he is on vacation and there is a concert coming up: where to practice? (someone once wrote to me to ask about this, and my answer is here)

That somewhere turned out to be at a relative's house nearby. My wife has several members of her family in close proximity and one of them graciously offered her piano for my daily use, without which I definitely would not have been able to make this concert happen: I simply had not gotten more than a few days of practice on some very demanding pieces before the holiday. Even if I had played most of them before, three or four days of practice is not enough, not to mention what can happen if you don't touch the piano for a week leading up to the concert!

As I told the audience at the concert, my host had only one request: that I play a certain piece for her before I left. That piece turned out to be "Nola."

After I played the piece for her, I learned that the piece had been outfitted with words (not so unusual for a piece of that era), although she could only remember a few. I relayed this to my audience and suggested they sing along if they happened to know them; if not, they could just join in the part I knew: "I'm in love, so in love with NO----LA!" which I sang for them (you're lucky if you weren't there; you missed my singing). I told them they must be in fine voice after the singalong we'd just had: they laughed.

And then I played--this--for them:  (Enjoy!)

Nola    by Felix Arndt

And now, the exciting conclusion.

Monday, January 6, 2014

New Year's Eve at the Virginia (part five)

The annual New Year's Eve concert at the Virginia Theater in downtown Champaign, Illinois, isn't like anything else that happens all year. This year's concert packed itself into a trim two-and-a-half hours and contained choral and solo singing, instrumental solos and accompaniment, colorful commentary and jokes, audience participation, a pretty full house, and plenty of time to go celebrate the New Year afterward unless you just wanted to go home and sleep.

Before the show begins I play the Wurlitzer for 15-minutes. The Virginia is an old Vaudeville Theater which was built in the early 1920s and boasts a theater organ dating from the same time. Like the Theater itself, it had fallen into disrepair and been kept going on wings and prayers, or in the case of the organ, rubber bands and duct tape. The organ owes its continued existence to two gentlemen, the last of whom, Warren York, played the organ at this concert until the year before I started doing it. He was a beloved figure in our town, along with Dan Perino, who led the second half singalong into a couple of years ago. Both gentlemen have passed away. Warren York used to always wear red socks, which is why I wear them every year in tribute. Last year after he died the entire men's section of the Chorale wore them as well!

Unfortunately I can't seem to find any pictures of the Wurlitzer. I tried taking one myself--at the concert--you can imagine it didn't look like anything! The Wurlitzer has recently been restored by the Buzard Pipe Organ company of Champaign, Illinois, and looks and sounds great.

The concert is bookended by the 70-voice Chorale singing sets of a half-dozen pieces. In between, guest artists fill in with songs and instrumental music, and the audience gets to join in with the popular sing-along.

This year I was one of the guests. I played about half-an-hour of piano solo music of the lighter variety. In addition to the Grand Sonata in Rag which I've been discussing in other posts in this series, I played Gottschalk's "Union" and a little novelty piece called "Nola." One of our former college scholarship winners, Caitlin Caruso-Dobbs, returned to sing Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "My White Knight" from  The Music Man, and "The Girl in 14G." I was also the accompanist for her.. Since I double as The Chorale's regular accompanist as well, that meant that I was on the stage or in the pit for the entire concert, playing everything. Since the concert began at 7 and finished up at 9:30 (minus the 20-minute intermission plus 15 minutes before on the Wurlitzer and also 5 minute before the second half also at the Wurlitzer) I spent 2 and a half hours in concert. No wonder I'm still a little tired! I told someone backstage that I had set a new record that I wasn't planning to beat.

The Chorale usually goes "American" for this concert, and this year was no exception. We began with a very intriguing arrangement of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" by David Dusing, which was introduced by real-life radio man Jeff Bossert (who sings with us). We were then joined by a fellow named Josh on the harmonica, the first time either of us had collaborated with the other instrument. The occasion was Mark Hayes's arrangement of "Home on the Range." We then sang arrangements of "the Lonesome Dove" before concluding with a Gershwin pairing of "I've Got Rhythm" and "The Real American Folk Song is a Rag" which introduced Caitlin's rendition of the Berlin and the Rag Sonata. Fade to intermission, complete with a harmonica player strolling the lobby and later some more grand sounds from the Mighty Wurlitzer.

The sing-along always features music from the 30s and 40s, which was a little before my time, and the words are projected on glass slides that date back to the early days of the Theater. Sometimes they also have wisecracks on them.

Eve Harwood leading the singalong

I often have to go to Youtube to familiarize myself with these songs. This year I was at the airport waiting for my flight home from Dallas, listening to them through headphones from my Android and writing them down on a stray piece of staff paper. I notated the melody, hinted at the chord structure, and away we went on Tuesday night!

I should mention here that I had my second pleasant sing-along experience of the holidays season (the first was at the 7 o'clock Christmas Eve service) where a large gathering of people know the tunes well and are obviously enjoying singing them. The first thing you realize as organist is that you don't have to play the melody very much, and that you can even not play at all for a few beats here and there, creating a real accompaniment part under the congregants because they really don't need any help from the organ to sing out and even if you use a healthy selection of stops you are only going to be the junior partner in the proceedings, which allows for more creativity as you simply soak up the sounds and add a little pizazz at intervals. It was terrific! (I also remembered not to look down from the hydraulic lift!)

On the second half, after Caitlynn's singing and my other two numbers, the Chorale came back to sing more Stephen Foster--Oh! Susanna, attractively arranged by our friend Alice Parker. Then came a haunting version of "Poor Wayfaring Stranger" by Michael Richardson (I think he has Illinois ties). Ed Harris's arrangement of "Bound for the Promised Land" uses the original minor key version of the tune. Then we finished off with rousing renditions of "Who Are the Brave?" and "America, the Dream Goes On."

We finish the concert every year by holding hands (both out in the audience and on the stage) and singing "Auld Lang Syne." We sing it through once, then the organ modulates up a half-step (although this year I discovered a small cipher on the low f#--that's when a note won't stop sounding--so I went up a whole step instead. I hope Warren York's spirit won't mind!). This year the ceiling at the Virginia has been refurbished so there wasn't any "snow" as we got to the final chord. And yes, I managed to get a picture of the warm and fuzzy moment, even if I had to play 8 bars with one hand to get it:

It's not much of a picture, but the moment was pretty special.

This year one of the funnier moments occurred when the Chorale had just finished singing their first set. The curtain came down quickly and our director, who was going to introduce the singer, was trapped on the wrong side of it. There I sat at the piano, alone in front of the curtain, while a pregnant pause threatened the production. So I played the moment a little, looking wistfully into the wings and giving signs of being very alone at the piano with nobody else on stage. The audience laughed and the show went on after a few seconds. Apparently it was convincing because I was asked later if that was part of the show! Somebody else told me they realized that I am really a ham!

onward to part six, which, I believe, is nearly the end. Thanks for reading this far. Seriously.

Friday, January 3, 2014

New Year's Eve at the Virginia (part four)

I've been telling you about the piece I played at the concert this week. Let me interrupt the flow of my narrative for a bit to tell you about the concert itself.

The Chorale is a community choral organization that began over thirty years ago as a handful of persons cobbled together to sing Christmas carols in the town of Mahomet, north of here. Still under their founding director, Julie Beyler, they've since transmogrified into a group of about 70 rehearsing every Sunday night and giving three major concerts a year (with occasional additions). The first of these is always the first weekend in November; the second is on New Year's Eve at the Virginia Theater in downtown Champaign.

I should see "us" instead of them, because for nearly six years now I've been part of the group. I serve as the accompanist.

The New Year's Eve concert at the Virginia is an experience like no other. Read on, I'll show you!

To start with there is the dress rehearsal the evening before. It helps if you have done a few of these before because they require some patience. There is no tech rehearsal except at the dress so everything is being done at once. The Virginia is a pretty dry theater so the singers have trouble hearing each other and the piano, I have trouble hearing myself, and the monitors are very far away. The piano is generally overmiced at first so you have the impression that if you were to suddenly strike a loud chord you would blow up the stage! There is occasional feedback. Eventually they get the levels set and the feedback mostly goes away. We have to try to ignore all this and just get on with the business of rehearsing.

In addition to the sound, there is a visual feast going on as well--they are trying the lights. One moment the stage is all green, the next it is all blue, and then suddenly you can't see anything for a few bars. We've all gotten somehow adept at continuing to sing and play without being able to see anything. I think my favorite memories in this regard are from the year pianist Jacquieline Schwab was our guest. She has to be the nicest person I've ever shared a piano with, and in her polite New England way she kept jumping up from the piano bench with her arm in the air and addressing herself to the sound booth in the back of the hall saying, "um, excuse me,....ah, I can't see the keys!" I'll try to give you a vague idea of what all this looks like:

I didn't manage to take any with the lights out. The only reason for the existence of these is that I've developed a talent for being able to play with one hand while taking pictures with my cell phone! But I did get one with the spotlight on me. Like the others, it is a very tame-looking representation and in no way conveys the full sense of disorientation that accompanies this sensory burst:

Some of the other challenges include remembering not to look down when the Wurlitzer organ is at the top of the hydraulic lift, and not tripping on the stairs in total darkness while hurrying from the organ (which is in the pit) to the piano (which is on the stage). One also needs to have faith that there is indeed an audience during the two-and-a-half hour show as most of the time the theater is pitch black--only the stage is lit--and one is addressing total darkness.

I'll tell you about the performance next time.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year's Eve at the Virginia (part three)

When I took the stage last night at the Virginia Theater to play William Albright's "Grand Sonata in Rag" I was surrounded by memories. Those of you who live in the environs of Champaign, Illinois, and particularly those of you who don't mind that I'm here making music among you may be interested to know that you kind of have Mr. Albright to thank for that.

I was a struggling graduate student wondering where I was going to come up with the astronomical sums of money needed for school. At the time I was finishing a Master's degree during my second year and getting ready to audition for the Doctoral program. Despite loans and despite grants, I couldn't keep up with the remaining out-of-pocket cost of school. I had own some piano competitions the year before graduate school and I think the government looked at my savings account and decided that if they took all of it the first semester it would magically grow back in time for the next payment three months later. I came really close to selling my piano. It had never left my parent's house anyway--I couldn't afford the cost of moving it three states away.

That winter Bill Albright came for a visit. He told us to call him Bill. He was informal, funny, knowledgeable, and of course, a celebrity to us. A composer from the University of Michigan whose colleague, William Bolcom, visited the U of I campus about a month ago, the faculty arranged a concert of his works, and some students got to join the faculty in performing the works. My friend and roommate was a saxophonist, and he arranged for me to play Albright's Sonata for Saxophone and piano with him.

I found a performance of that recently on Youtube. It is a wild piece, very atonal and avant-garde. If you heard the "Grand Sonata in Rag" I played last night you would never think those two pieces were written by the same person. But the man had many facets.

We opened the concert with it and it brought the house down. In the cavernous St. Paul's church the applause was particularly thunderous. Some students told us that it was one of those performances they would remember for a long time. The composer was very complimentary.

I think I had been too nervous about the piece for too long to take it all in. We'd had to put it together pretty fast; it was difficult, and besides, I remember thinking, at your degree recital you don't have Beethoven sitting in the front row.

Perhaps I was a bit over worried. At the coaching we had the afternoon of the concert he seemed eager to just let us make music. I had looked at the score with all of those adjectives over practically every chord in the fourth movement and thought "what a control freak!" and feared I wouldn't get everything just right. My friend at one point missed several notes in a run and Bill said seriously that he needed "more information" which is one of the phrases we'll always laugh about until we die. I asked him a few philosophical questions about his music and he was evasive. And at the dinner afterward he was genial and funny.

The day after the concert the chairwoman of the voice department charged into the Dean's office and announced that she really wanted Michael Hammer to accompany her 20th century art song class. I overheard, not because I'm a busybody, but because I happened to be working in the office at the time. I did work-study for a couple hours around lunch every day, answering phones and questions when the staff was at lunch, and until then I was in a little cubicle on the other side of a wall and cut off from the hallway by the as yet unopened window, so she didn't know I was there. The Dean agreed, and after I was accepted into the Doctoral program, they cobbled together a Graduate Assistantship--one that didn't exist yet. It included my teaching a remedial theory class to two sections of incoming freshmen in the fall and spending the rest of the year accompanying lots of singers for their lessons and recitals, and, of course, that 20th century art song class. There wasn't a lot of funding for graduate students at Peabody then, and I had been trying to get one of a very few theory assistantships but having no luck. On the third try, they made one up and I got to stay in school at the eleventh hour.

That chairwoman was Phyliss Bryn-Julson, who knew practically every major musical figure of the twentieth century and premiered many of their works, and that dean was Steven Baxter. I owe them big. My Doctorate wouldn't have happened otherwise.

And if I hadn't stuck around Baltimore for a few more years I wouldn't have developed a relationship with a young woman at my church who thought I was kind of cute and who I married once she graduated college. At which point she and I decided that the program with the funding and the flexibility that she needed to become an MD/PhD was right here in Illinois. And now you know the rest of the story.

William Albright's role in all this was, of course, indirect, and unsuspecting, but he got the ball rolling. I can't help think of this episode in my life when I play his sonata. I learned it a year later after checking to see what else he had written that might prove of interest. Phyliss Bryn-Julson heard me play it in recital and suggested I send the tape to Mr. Albright but I didn't think I had played it very well. The composer never heard it. He died only a year after I encountered him for the first and only time, much too young. He had been an alcoholic and he died of liver failure. It was a shock to us. I heard that his colleague across the hall had some harsh things to say at his funeral.

Such is the nature of memories. They are not all pleasant. But they make up the story of our lives. Particularly the turning points. So if you are not in despair at my being here  in Central Illinois you know how it happened. I'm certainly not sorry about it. I'm lucky to be able to play such music for all of you, friends, neighbors, relatives (my parents were in the audience last night). Year after year we go to the Virginia for a night of fun and celebration and it feels like home. I hope those of you in the audience and on the stage know how special this is, and how many people, present and past, made this possible. And as we got to celebrate Scott Joplin's Victory over his critics and the New York school of velocity I could feel all of us enjoying the music, together. Including the ghost of Bill Albright, hovering close by.

part four, coming up!