Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Kill the Accompanist!

Last week I said that the most important thing about being an accompanist was being able to defer to an external source--for rhythm, for phrasing, and so on. Sure, you've got your internal metronome going, but the 2nd beat of the measure doesn't really come until the soloist, or the conductor, or your collaborator, or the orchestra, or the choir, says it does. You don't get to decide that. If you are trapped in your own little world, counting off in your head and not paying attention to the proceedings around you, you aren't going to be able to stay together even for a few measures. Anybody with any real musical sense is making constant adjustments to the way they feel the pulse, and the phrase, and you have to go with that.

The simplest apparent way of doing this is to look at your conductor or soloist for the visual cues they provide. But looking up every once in a while isn't nearly the half of it. In fact, it is considerably less than half. Most of it is listening.

There was a fellow in the Ken Burn's Baseball series who talked about umpiring. He mentioned that he never really thought of vision as the most important qualification for being an umpire. He went on to explain that a more accurate way to decide whether the base runner got to the bag first or the ball got to the first baseman's glove first was to listen to the distinctive percussive sounds each event made and determine which one came first. It made sense to me.

Nevertheless, most people would never have believed him--at least until he offered the explanation. What is the first thing people always yell at an umpire? "What are you, blind?!" Which is followed by the old classic, "Kill the ump!" We're a bloodthirsty species.

Several eons ago, when I was at the conservatory, someone noticed after a concert with my violinist partner and I that we never looked at each other. And yet we always managed to stay perfectly together. Odd, they thought.

I thought about it. The music was always in a different direction than the violinist, so I would have to swivel my head, and he would have to nearly turn around; nevertheless, that is how most duos keep ensemble. But I realized that I could hear the sound of his bow being raised, (and probably see it out of the corner of my eye, too, for that matter) and know just where the down-bow was going to come just by listening for it.

A few years later I was accompanying a church choir at the organ and the choir was between me and the conductor. I absolutely could not see the conductor's upbeat. And this was one of those anthems where the organ and choir begin exactly together. But we started just fine. How could I tell when to begin? I could hear the sound of two dozen people breathing in unison, taking their first breath a beat before the start. If that isn't enough, it takes a few fractions of a second for a choir to form their first consonant, which give you a little more time to be sure you have it right. By the time they've accelerated to the vowel, and the sound envelope of a group of singers has opened sufficiently, you've have at least a tenth of a second to think about it. That's enough time for a martini, practically.

I stress the importance of listening, and of knowing how to listen, even though it seems evident that music is all about sounds and listening to them. And yet, sight seems to be our primary sense and our first and sometimes only focus. I have never in my life heard anybody yell at an umpire, "What are you? deaf?" You expect, therefore, non-musicians to have a surprisingly unappreciative role for the ear in music, particularly if they haven't had much experience in using theirs. But musicians have the same difficulty. There's a world of breathing human beings out there rhythmically sucking in air, bows being drawn against strings, key actions making little clicking sounds, trucks driving by during recording sessions, conductors grunting, the sound of postures being reclaimed on hard-backed chairs, all of it leaving a signature. And cues. Listen for it.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Polite Syncopations

During my copious amounts of spare time lately I've been recording a few Joplin rags. Well, actually, I've been practically sight reading them into the microphone because that's how copious my time is, and my energy. It's the end of the semester, after all. Still, with the ability to do a few takes and some light editing, some of the playing isn't too bad. I've gotten used to playing music well on very short notice these past several years.

While I'm doing things on the fly, I'm also trying out some creative interpretations of the Joplin classics. Maybe it's my classical training, but some of the interpretations are rather expressive, and I'm doing some unusual things with the tempi as well. But today I thought I'd let you listen to one of my favorites, and point out one salient feature.

When ragtime was new, the public (well, the white public, anyway) didn't know what to make of it. Amateur pianists, who bought most of the sheet music, couldn't really play it because of the complex rhythms. In some cases, those rhythms were taken out, so the pretty little heads that bought the music wouldn't get too frustrated with it.

Rhythm can be a tough thing to notate, particularly if things are syncopated--that is, if they are not on the beat. If everything is between the beat you end up using a lot of ties and sixteenth notes and so on. A lot of ink is spent on what is really a pretty simple concept if you just listen and feel it. But on the page it looks daunting.

Then there are rhythms that aren't on the page. A row of eight notes might just be a row of eighth notes, or they might be swung. In that case, the first eighth note is longer, and the second is shorter, in what is pretty much a 2 to 1 ratio (you might say they are really triplets, with the first note getting the first two-thirds of it). On the page all the notes look equal. But they aren't. This concept actually existed in European music back as far as the Renaissance. But it also crops up in American jazz styles. Ragtimers probably did their fair share of it, too.

In this recording, I do a certain amount of it. Since Joplin repeats each section, on the repeated halves of two of the sections I do some swinging. There's nothing in the score that says to do this, and I don't know whether Joplin would have approved. But I'll bet you anything I'm not the first person to do this! In fact, I'm probably about a hundred years late.

Now in the second section of the piece, which starts at :48, I play it straight the first time, and swing it the second time (that repeat is as 1:09); after the opening section returns, there is another section, similar in nature to the second (it is more lyrical and melodic than its bouncier cousin, the first section) and this time I swing it the first time (1:49), and play it straight the second time (2:09). It sounds so polite and contained the second time! I love it. Sometimes an even passage of notes can sound syncopated--or at least give the same effect-- if they follow a group of notes that are syncopated. In that case, it is the sudden contrast between the syncopation and the unsyncopated notes that make the effect. Putting everything suddenly on the beat after several measures in which nothing is on the beat is a sudden rhythmic shift, just like your body experiences going around a tight turn in a roller coaster. It's a neat trick Joplin himself employs in the bass line near the end of the piece when, after a bit of unpredictable oom oom pah pah ooming he suddenly restores the old predictable oom pah oom pah in the bass (at 2:41 and on the repeat at 3:01). And, with the uneven notes becoming even notes when I repeat that earlier section I'm doing something like that as well.

Anyhow, have a listen. It's a fun piece.

Elite Syncopations   by   Scott Joplin

Friday, April 25, 2014

Woa, Nellie!

If you've been reading this blog you already know that I often like to deal in small things--small, that is, unless you are a performing musician. Then you are ready to fight to the death over them. They're only small for everyone else.

I recently re-posted my blog about the Widor Toccata from last year, which involved a discussion of the appropriate tempo--from the composer's own point of view, and then also from that of the organists who frequently make a blurry mess of it trying to impress girls (or boys) or hoping to make it to their next gig, which started five minutes ago, on time. If you haven't heard my impression of the Widor Toccata as played in Prague for tourists a couple of summers ago, here it is (just the opening).

There is some risk associated with eschewing the hyperspace hurry of notes and instead taking a more relaxed tempo as the composer himself may have wanted. It is the same risk cereal manufacturers take when they only put five times the recommended daily amount of sugar in a single bite-size portion of their product, or when restaurants do the same dastardly thing with salt, making it necessary to nearly eat half the meal if you want a week-and-a-half's worth of the tasty rocks in one sitting. We love the stuff! down with the food police! booo!

Similarly, an artist who takes a less blazing tempo than the next guy is probably going to seem less impressive. The guy on the street is thinking: sounds like he can't play the piano as well.

Still, I cleave to my principles--sometimes. And when it comes to a Mr. Scott Joplin, another "cranky" old fellow how actually scolded his public that "It is never right to play ragtime fast!" on many of his published works, I try to give him what he wanted. I myself have been scolded by some smug listeners for playing Joplin too fast. But as I mentioned in passing in a page on my website from years ago, how fast is actually too fast might not be as simple as you'd think.

While Joplinesque speed-bumps adorn most of his rags, actual metronome markings are rare. Most of the time we are instructed to take them "march tempo" which is a little harder to gauge unless you live in a culture where marches are heard frequently and most people agree on how fast most of them should go most of the time. But the other day I sat down to play (and record) "Pineapple rag" and stumbled upon what, so far as I can tell, is one of only two metronome markings in his published solo rags. Since this is a reprint from the first edition, there's a pretty good chance Joplin put it there himself. Maybe.

It is 100 to the quarter note. These days I have a nice little metronome app on my smartphone so I punched it up to see how fast it was. "Oh, you've got to be kidding" is the sanitized version of what I said when I realized my assumptions about Joplin's notions of speed were a little off.

100 to the quarter is pretty darned fast.

To give an idea, the recording you are about to hear, the one I made that afternoon, is a little bit slower, actually. I checked it later and found it is around 94 beats per minute.

There is a letter in a museum someplace in which the governor of some state complains about early locomotives going at the "break-neck speed of 15 miles an hour!" I saw it a few decades ago when on a trip with my family as a child. Many things of that era (late 19th-early 20th centuries) were much slower than they are now--news, transportation, the half-life of the attention span--but not everything. Human beings could move their fingers on keys pretty fast. So fast, apparently, that even the guy with the reputation for wanting people to slow down a little wasn't as stately as you might think.

Of course, I am basing this on two metronome markings which might possibly have been done over Joplin's objections, though some research suggests 100 bpm is actually consistent with the ubiquitous "march tempo."

Still, I can conscientiously say I have done a little homework, and that it actually matters to me what the composer might have thought about his own music. Sometimes, of course, I like to try different tempi to see if it brings out different aspects of the music, or makes me discover over things in it. My previous recording, made 10 years ago on a smaller piano with a single microphone (which is why I'm not getting it back out to play for you) is about 34 seconds slower.

If you were keeping track.

listen to Scott Joplin's "Pineapple Rag"

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What makes a good accompanist?

What does it take to be a good accompanist? I'll start with with an accompanist is not: a timid soloist. Unfortunately, sometimes in school it looked like pianists who weren't assured enough to be soloists (meaning they got too nervous about being listened to by themselves) were made accompanists, the way violinists who couldn't quite make it sometimes were given violas. Neither situation works very well.

In fact, I recall much complaining about how some of the pianists in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition weren't very good at the chamber music round because they weren't much for playing in an ensemble. In this case, we are looking at the reverse of the idea in the paragraph above: that it is soloists who are in fact inferior accompanists!

Neither of which ought really to be true. What makes a person a good accompanist is really the very same thing that makes a person a good soloist, or just a good musician, period. In a word, it is this: listening.

A soloist listens to him or herself--for balance between the voices, for the acoustics of the hall, and the clarity of the pedaling, and is constantly adjusting to that external feedback. An accompanist is doing the same thing, only now the task includes notes that they are not playing as well as notes they are.

In the case of an accompanist, particularly if you are working with a conductor, this means surrendering your own inner metronome, while at the same time having a good sense of rhythm so that your playing is clear and rhythmically precise--but the moment the conductor makes an adjustment to the tempo, you have to make that adjustment yourself. In other words, the 2nd beat of the measure only comes when the conductor decides it does, not when you think it ought to. This is probably the thing that causes most people to be poor accompanists, because it means constant attention to a force outside of yourself. I'll give two examples of what I mean, both from the Cleveland orchestra.

When I was in college, back before the turn of the century (I'm now an ancient 42), I used to get to hear the Cleveland Orchestra for free every weekend because at the Cleveland Institute of Music if you were one of the first 40 students to sign up you got free tickets. I learned a lot watching one of the great orchestras of the world and its excellent music director, Christoph von Dohnanyl.

One night an insufficiently prepared soloist did something very rare on the stage of that august hall. He skipped two beats in the middle of a solo section. The conductor reacted instantly. Having been trained in opera, he gave a very fast four beat pattern, smaller than the usual beat pattern, in the manner that a conductor might do if a soloist were singing a recitative portion of an opera to tell the orchestra that the downbeat of the next measure could come at any time without counting out the regular four beats in sequence. Without any ceremony he therefore rushed through the next measure's beat pattern in time to give the downbeat to the following measure right in time with the soloist. This meant that within one measure of the pianist's skipping those two beats, the orchestra was right back with the soloist. The entire orchestra, watching their conductor like 70 well-trained hawks, nailed the sudden change, and I doubt whether anyone in the hall who didn't just happen to be playing the very same concerto with another orchestra later that month (such as myself) and thus know the piece really really well, would have heard anything wrong whatsoever. Amazing!

The next example is even rarer: when the maestro himself made the only mistake I ever remember seeing him make in a rarely performed 20th century American symphony, the entire orchestra had a momentary (but oh so short) collapse--he failed to give a clear second beat in a single measure and the whole orchestra was depending on it. Now if they hadn't been that tuned in to their music director, and had all been operating on their internal metronomes and not paying him that much attention, that wouldn't have happened. Ironic that it was their greatness that caused their downfall! But, like I said, this miasma lasted for only a fraction of a second. So many other golden moments occurred because their own sense of rhythmic precision, as finely tuned as it was in the case of each individual player, was completely given over to the maestro. Where he put that second beat--slightly later or slightly earlier as he sculpted each phrase--that was were the entire orchestra put it, to a player.

I have plenty of my own stories about skipping beats are adding beats to accommodate soloists or choirs or conductors, most or which are not glamorous--but they are good training! The most training I ever got in a single evening involves a young woman who was not prepared for a school recital and kept skipping ahead or behind as her memory failed her: now a line ahead, now a page back--causing her nervous accompanist to have to find where she was in the music as quickly as possible. Now that's accompanist boot camp! (She failed the recital, of course.)

There are many situation that require being in sync with an external force. You can't be a good outfielder unless you put your glove is where the ball is, not where you'd like it to be. Until then you have to constantly track where it is headed. It is not dissimilar with the conductor's downbeat. You can find it if you are tracking the preparatory beats and making adjustments are needed. That requires a good deal of refined focus. It is being able to meet lots of little deadlines--only, they are not marked on the calendar, and they are continually subject to change.

Monday, April 21, 2014


Some time ago I observed that people tend to value the spontaneous because they believe that to be more sincere. As long as something appears to be not to have been particularly premeditated, it has more value for a large number of us than something that seems to be well artistically manicured. In which case, there are a number of recordings on Pianonoise right now that ought to get kudos for not having the pale cast of premeditated thought sicklied over them.

That's because I often just do not have any doggone time.

The present recording, presented for your listening pleasure, is something that I just set eyes on this morning [which technically was last Thursday when I wrote this!]. I sight read it once, then turned on the microphone and played it twice. Then I discovered that yours truly had brilliantly failed to connect one of the microphone cables to the microphone itself, which, as genius as that sort of nonconformity might appear, nevertheless does not give us very good stereo. The microphone does not appreciate genius, in other words. So I plugged in the cable and did two more takes the regular way.

By this point I was on play-throughs numbers four and five, which I suppose made me an expert, but I still hadn't known the piece for more than twenty minutes by the time I was finished. In circumstances like that, one's reaction to a piece of music is just that--a gut reaction. The interpretation has to be, well, nearly spontaneous.

Hoping that you have some sort of way to keep chronological time with this recording, I'm going to point out something that happens at the 27 second mark: a slight hesitation on my part, and a flagging of the tempo for the next few measures. This is because I found it a little odd that Mr. Telemann was taking this little harmonic excursion. It seemed as though the music were leading us in one direction and then, without really preparing us for it, he decided to look at some harmonic flowers by the side of the road. So I pointed this out by taking my time there also.

I could be wrong; also I could change my mind about it later. But I didn't have any time to reconsider, so, if you are into honest reactions to things you haven't had time to think about, here you go. And at the moment, I still think it was the right thing to do. The question, I suppose, is does this interpretive decision get the point across adequately. And was this Mr. Telemann's point to begin with. I can't ask him since he's been dead for 250 years.

Because of my sense of how harmonic language is constructed and what constitutes the normal and the abnormal, it seemed to me there was a little surprise on the page waiting for me when I got there. And for all of the words I'm throwing at it, the result is really more emotional than logical. It is, in a word: surprise! You weren't expected that, were you?

Which is one of things that makes life fun.