Monday, March 30, 2015

Two historical re-enactements of Kotzwara's "Battle of Prague"

If you happened to catch last Monday's blog, you know that I spent it introducing one of the silliest pieces in the piano literature, a piece called "The Battle of Prague." And while it is not, shall we say, one of those pieces that will have a lasting impact on your soul, or that will make a rewarding musical travelling companion through life, nonetheless, I ought to at least let it speak on its own terms, and in this respect, I think I may have given you the wrong impression. You see, I am a professional pianist, and...

I professionalized it.

Having spent all of those hours practicing scales and arpeggios, learning to play quickly and cleanly, tackling thorny passages with ease, naturally I gave the "Battle" the kind of treatment it would get from an experienced soldier of the piano. But that isn't how you would have been likely to hear the piece played in its day.  Most of the people who bought the music were amateurs, and probably not even very gifted ones at that. They would have struggled over the repetitive left hand figures and rush through some of it, only to drag in other places. The worthlessness of those figures, taking many notes to say very little, got short shrift in my account, where I flew past those bits of formulaic triteness so that your ear may not have had enough time to sufficiently digest the complete lack of musical nutrition. In other words, I may have inadvertently oversold the piece.

My Battle was over in 12 minutes, and I actually enjoyed it. Perhaps you did also. But I think you will enjoy this entry as well. It is from a gentleman in Poland, on an upright piano in his home. The tempi are much slower, although since he skips the repeats, his version is only a minute and a half longer than mine. He misses notes, gets tangled up a few times, and makes the piece seem more daunting generally. But I'm not linking to his video to make fun of him. Far from it. I think you will enjoy his version. For all the "battle fog" it's really much better than most of the performances you would have heard in the 19th century even from a technical standpoint, and it will give you a more genuine sense of what the piece would have sounded like in the hearing of most people, since, I am sure that most concert professionals never played it, and most people don't own seven-foot Steinways, to say nothing of their complete non-existence in 1790. All the more, having visited this gentleman's Youtube channel, complete with videos of his grandchildren and snow and holidays, I couldn't help getting a warm feeling from this fine family man who enjoys life--family and food and music.

What's more, he has taken the trouble to label each of the parts of the score so you can see what is written there as he begins each section. This is much less intrusive, I think, than yelling them out in performance.

At the complete other end of the spectrum is a video from a professional ensemble, performed impeccably by strings and piano. Several passages have had additional parts added to them which is quite an improvement. You'll want to listen to the piano in this recording--it is a real "fortepiano," the kind of piano that would have been around in 1790, before pianos got steel strings, metal soundboards, and grew to such proportions. It has a very different sound.

If you happen to survive all three performances, mine and the other two, you will have invested over a half-hour doing battle with this strange piece, which is still much less time than someone who was actually in the Battle of Prague itself, and I'm sure the results will be much less fatal.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Chaos Sunday

I call it Chaos Sunday. Its real name is Palm/Passion Sunday.

The chaos comes from the fact that dozens of children whom we have not seen in a while descend on Faith church for the express purpose of being sugared up with donuts, then lined up, given palm leaves, instructed not to hit each other with them, then paraded down the aisle of the sanctuary and made to sing a few hosanna-related songs in front of the congregation. This is at the start of the service. It has the appearance of off-off-off-Broadway, meaning it could use a little more rehearsal (any at all, really). Our choir director has to physically pick some of the kids up and put them in their spots because they have no clue where they are going or what they are doing (or singing).

It's over soon after, to be repeated again at the later service. Meanwhile, I will have been experiencing the event as a kind of liturgical "Groundhog Day" because once the palm parade dissolves into the passion narrative and ends with the crucifixion, I go across the hall and start the process over--three times!

It is perhaps the most challenging Sunday of the year. More than Easter, I think.

For obvious reasons, our choir director would like to get the children on and off as soon as we can, so she always asks that I keep my opening voluntary as short as possible so the kids don't have long to wait.  This year I completely did not do this.

But in order to honor her need to start the parade on time and also to make sure that the first service does not run past the time I need to be at the second service, I am starting it ten minutes before the service, ala the old days, when people talked over the organ music and half the congregation missed it completely, so that it will end in time for the announcements and the children. In case you are someone who didn't know the music was starting early this week (for some reason it didn't get into the church email) I'm sharing it with you here, along with anyone else who wants to listen in. It is the first movement (the majority) of the Third organ sonata by Felix Mendelssohn, which, for reasons I explain below, seemed entirely appropriate for the nature of our service; it functions almost like an overture for what is to come during worship on this unique Sunday of the church year. Here are my notes from the bulletin:

"Mendelssohn's sonata begins with a processional, as we would expect on this Palm Sunday. But a minute later the mood shifts. Now in a minor key the voices enter one by one building tension and drama. It is, for our purposes, foreshadowing: imagine Jesus on his donkey setting his face toward Jerusalem, in the midst of his triumph, knowing the tragedy that was to come. As the voices whirl above, Mendelssohn quotes a psalm tune in the pedals: "Out of the Depths I cry to You, O Lord." This section is the longest of the sonata; it culminates with a dramatic pedal solo which rises to the top of the pedal board, only to sink to its depths. But as it arrives at the bottom, the processional returns, grander than before. The premonition is gone; we are returned to the start of the service. There are tiny reminders of the psalm tune interleaved with the majestic phrases, but a final shout of acclamation carries the day. At least for now."

Here is the music. Happy Chaos Sunday!

Mendelssohn: Sonata in A Major: I. con moto maestoso

A while back, someone noticed that Protestants don't go to church during Holy Week, thus hearing the Palm parade into Jerusalem part of Jesus' story and the Resurrection from the Grave part of the story the next week, and entirely skipping the part in between where he gets arrested, tried, and crucified. Since it lacks integrity to go "from triumph to triumph" and only get the "happy" parts, the church has attempted to cover both the readings traditionally given to Palm Sunday, and the "passion" narrative that follows, the portions that ought to be read during the week that follows, on Thursday and Friday. Since our church also has a service on Thursday, we go over the passion story twice (or in my case, four times). but since only around 100 of our 400 active members usually attend, the remaining three-quarters get their dose on Sunday, whether they like it or not!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

sellout (part two)

Last Thursday I went to see Cameron Carpenter in concert. In last week's blog I mentioned that Mr. Carpenter is probably the most widely known organist today and that most organists do not like his unorthodox methods. Also I noted that the phrase "do not like" is a severe understatement.

To that list of vehement critics I should add organ builders. I met one of our local builders before the concert and he reminded me that whenever Mr. Carpenter plays an organ in the wild he likes to complain about it publicly during the concert. This, for some reason, does not endear him to the people who design, build and maintain these incredible instruments.

Most of the time, however, he does not play a pipe organ at all. He has custom made his own electronic organ and takes it with him wherever he goes. It consists of multiple sets of sounds sampled from organs all over the world, including a theater organ or two combined with French Romantic and German Baroque organs--a kitchen sink of organ possibilities. It is a massive setup, consisting of about 12 or 14 very large (12ft?) speakers and several smaller ones (not much taller than myself) and a five manual console with hundreds of stop knobs. This allows him to play the same organ every night, which is one reason he does it. Another is that he feels that the organ's lack of portability is one reason for its unpopularity. He says he wants to be able to take the organ to places it can't already go.

That may be give him a purpose, and to judge by the photo of him in lofty profile in the banner above the stage next to the claim "The World's First International Touring Organ" he takes it seriously, but it was probably the novelty of the instrument that brought out the crowd. Curiosity tends to do that. He also likes to offend people (see his remark that he has always found that idea of the organ as a religious instrument "comical") which will also bring people out in droves to see what all the fuss is about.

What did they see when they got there? Well, what I saw was a fellow who can really play the organ. Technically he can't be accused of faking anything. Unlike showmen pianists like Liberace or Yanni who made careers out of pretending to be technical giants when they weren't, this fellow can really get around the instrument. He is able to take on the most challenging literature as well. You can't accuse him of not having the chops. You could accuse him of having poor taste.

Carpenter addressed that during the concert. To his critics who think he is all style and no substance, he responds that "style IS substance." I don't agree. The two are not mutually exclusive, however. I think style and substance are interconnected, and overlap, but they are not identical.  His is a rather Liberace-like answer.

It is not an unexpected answer, either, for one who has flair in abundance. And perhaps in order to impress organists in the audience, he went farther in the direction of substance than I had been led to believe he would. On the first half of the concert he played actual organ literature, twice. One was a hefty piece by Marcel Dupre that organists like to play to show what they're made of. The other was a piece by Bach, his prelude and fugue in A minor (Bwv 543). These must be from his student days at Julliard.

As if to prove the oppositional equation between pleasing a mass audience vs. playing nutritive music, my companions said after the concert that they had enjoyed the second half--which began with one of Bach's flashiest pieces and then spent the rest of the time in a medley of Gershwin tunes and other popular hits--much more than the first half, which had included the more substantive music (and thus been more challenging to the audience).

Those forays into the real literature did convince me that he has taken up residence right in the crack between substance and style, trying not to turn his back completely on the heritage of great music while also trying to wow an audience by doing something ostensibly new. His interpretation of Bach, though, would not please any Bach lovers.

For one thing, it was too fast. So fast that the pedal passages during the prelude were inaudible mud. For another, he enjoyed "orchestrating" the piece by introducing theater organ sounds seemingly at random in the midst of passages which, historically, would have remained in a monochrome. Not only is it unorthodox to change sounds like that, it is pretty near universally assumed that Bach would not care to have xylophones and celestas intrude themselves into his fugue. Perhaps this is Mr. Carpenter thinking he is doing something new. Or he is merely suffering from Restless Mind Syndrome.

My historian wife asked whether he really is doing anything that new. And it may well be asked just how innovative he really is. Taking someone else's music and adding a few unusual sounds to it may get notoriety as a controversial interpretation, but it is creativity with a small c. He does also compose, apparently--the first piece on the program seems to have been his arrangement: it was in the watered-down Chopinesque idiom you hear a lot these days--but I didn't get the sense he has his own voice. At least yet. But let's start with the instrument.

As fascinating as it must have been to the assembled multitudes, this "first of its kind" is really the type of instrument that you and I could have in our own living rooms if we had the money and the desire. This is because it consists of sounds recorded from organs all over the world and digitally available through electronic keyboards hooked together. The husband of my predecessor at Faith UMC started the company that does this, and many persons have purchased the sounds of many of the world's fine organs and can sound as if they are playing them right in their own homes. Many of them have posted videos on Youtube. Notice if the videos used "Hauptwerk" sample sounds (that's the German term for the main keyboard, by the way). Rob Steffanussen's Youtube Channel comes to mind--he has a very nice setup he designed himself.

What is different about Mr. Carpenter's instrument, mainly, is that there is a lot more of it. He has taken I don't know how many sampled sets from all over the place, including different types of organs that wouldn't normally be compatible--I'm not even sure whether it would be physically possible to have theater organ stops and church organ stops together in a real instrument, since the wind pressure is so much greater for the former--and put them all together with some purely synthesized sounds. What this gives him is a lot of sounds to work with, a lot of buttons to push, and since he is always in motion and able to negotiate this organ with swift, economical movements, he commands a gargantuan lot of effects in a single program. It is very entertaining to watch, and since we know people will want to watch, the instrument is center stage where you can see everything he does with his hands and feet; in addition he is projected on the "jumbotron" above, larger than life. Contrast this with a regular organ concert where the instrument is up in the balcony somewhere or positioned so the organist is invisible to the congregation (usually on purpose).

What does he play on it? Some organ works, largely transcriptions (which is the only thing mentioned in the paper but when is the newspaper ever right about everything?) and plenty of re-arranged tunes with plenty of effects thrown in. And just as his electronic organ does not have an original voice, but consists of a number of other instruments put together, the musician himself seems to favor music he can re-process, re-imagine, re-invent. How interesting this all is depends on the listener. My wife thought it would have had more of a punch if one knew the original sources. Others simply revel in the sounds and assume what he is doing is new because he says so. After all, he is using the latest technology, and in a profession as bound to the past as that of organist, it is not so hard to appear unique.

In the long run this will probably not earn him a niche in musical history. There is a long tradition, actually, of virtuoso instrumentalists showing off the latest musical innovations and stunning crowds but not leaving a permanent mark. If his art remains strictly derivative this will happen to him also. And the technology he uses--will he have a major influence on the evolution of the instrument? perhaps, though it is just as likely that he is riding the wave as making it. I do admire him for his bravery and for his virtuosity and for standing out in a profession of conformists. After the concert our friend wondered what had become of the other 150 people who went to Julliard with and admired his ability to fashion a career for himself and on what seemed to be his own terms.

Meanwhile, he continues to draw a crowd. Outside of Europe I've never seen more than 50 people (maybe 30) at an organ concert, the single exception being the concert I gave last fall that filled the sanctuary with maybe 250 people. That was because we advertised this concert as something different and new, I know a lot of people in town, and the heaviest piece of organ literature on the program was Lefebre-Wely's Sortie in Eb. I did not invite the other organists in town. I didn't figure they'd like it. You might say this was my own Cameron Carpenter experiment. Folks loved it; I had to improvise an encore.

I enjoyed myself too. I wouldn't mind having those folks back to play a little Bach for them, but it probably wouldn't be so acclaimed. Nevertheless, I do it anyway (especially in church). Cameron Carpenter does it as well--who knows exactly why?

Like his instrument, he is a hybrid. And very interesting. Very active, very densely layered, restless in the extreme, perhaps not very original, yet striking out on what, at least in some contexts, is a very original path. I was afraid I'd have to hold my nose when our friend got us tickets last fall. But I'm glad I went.

Monday, March 23, 2015

This is how little girls got to play soldiers in the nineteenth century

I started programming my upcoming piano recital with a serious question in mind: what are the merits of "program" music, and how does a composer draw inspiration from something besides the interplay of notes and phrases? But things shortly began to veer off into the ridiculous.

That, obviously, is one risk of trying to make music tell a story; it is like unto concretizing metaphors, double entendres, bad puns, and all manner of linguistic tricks that start to wear thin after a while because the focus is on the language itself and not on what it is trying to point to beneath its dazzling surface.

And if Erik Satie's little escapade didn't warn you of that (though Satie was clever enough to recognize it), let's dive into a little Kotzwara.

I wrote about him nearly ten years ago, shortly after moving to Champaign-Urbana. An item in the news stirred him from his deserved slumber. Some folks were upset that a cellphone ringtone was topping the charts in England, and I wrote an article that suggested that this was hardly a new low in the annals of public taste. What I dredged up to support my argument was a piece of piano music called "The Battle of Prague," published in 1790, which went on to become a huge bestseller for half a century, and even got mentioned by name in two of Mark Twain's books, so embedded in the culture it was.

Kotzwara's battle piece was an early entry into a genre that was to glut the market for years after--the idea that the noise and glory of a great an messy enterprise could be represented by one only moderately talented player was an idea that sold a lot of music. Trumpet calls, canons, guns, were easy to imitate on a piano. Canons, particularly, didn't take a lot of practice. Mr. Kotzwara's piece turned out to be disappointingly polite: many of the other entrants into this kind of piece wrote loud, low clusters for the flat of the hands, the kind of thing that two-year olds naturally produce once they can reach the keyboard.

Then there was the fog of war. I have a book entitled "Men, Women, and Pianos" by Arthur Loesser, in which one section is devoted to a description of this literature. It is very entertaining. In referring to such effects, produced mainly by random notes with the sustaining pedal to the floor, Mr. Loesser reminds us that "a good deal of young lady battle fog was probably quite unintentional."

What makes the piece really ridiculous, besides the trite musical material itself, is that everything is supposed to represent some aspect of the battle, and is captioned accordingly in the score. When I play this in recital I'm thinking of having persons hold up signs, maybe two at a time, pointing to each hand, as indeed, sometimes the left hand represents galloping horses while the right hand is busy being people hacking each other with swords.

The real Battle of Prague was, of course, no laughing matter. And what it had to do with the English piano music buying public I have no idea. But they loved it. And as silly as it is I intend to have a good time playing it in recital in a few weeks.

here it is:
The Battle of Prague  by Francisek Kotzwara

Friday, March 20, 2015

Meet Locutus, your new organist

I've been having some fun with our church organ's new playback system this year. Around Christmas, I pre-recorded the introduction to the doxology. The piece the choir was singing for the offertory ended quietly, with a melting phrase for solo saxophone. Wanting to preserve the stillness, rather than having to rush pell-mell from my seat at the piano which was in the choir loft thirty feet to the organ bench, past the altar, toss on my organ shoes and hope they stayed on, or to allow plenty of dead space which I would destroy even by walking through the front of the church, I decided to buy some time by way of the playback system. I asked my liturgist wife to press a button which began my pre-recorded introduction to the doxology. After about five seconds of silence, the music began softly and over the next 45 seconds swelled to the majestic proportions typical of the doxology. That gave me time to saunter through the sacristy instead of rushing past the altar, and get my shoes on and laced up with plenty of time as I slid onto the bench. The introduction concluded, I played the last phrase live, during with the congregation is trained to stand up, and the doxology proceeded as usual.

This spooked a few members of the choir, who had either not been at my organ recital to see a demonstration of this system, or had had six weeks to forget about it. It was not intended to be a prank, but apparently it had that effect for those who noticed that I was not at the organ when it began to play.

I've done the same thing a time or two since, always to buy time when moving from one instrument to another, and to preserve the mood of the service. One thing I haven't done yet is to play an organ duet with my pre-recorded self. I'll get to that after Easter when the atmosphere is more jovial.

On Thursday I recorded the offertory I'll be playing this Sunday. It is a short choral-prelude by a German composer 20-years older than Bach. I came across it this week on Vidas Pinkevicius' Youtube Channel, which was quite useful for me, since I've had a busy and stressful month or two (as has the entire staff of our church) and didn't really have any idea what I was going to play this week. The piece was easy enough to learn in the half-hour before staff meeting on Tuesday. By Thursday morning I had practiced it less than an hour altogether; enough to feel comfortable with the notes, but not necessarily so that my interpretation would have time to settle.

Here it is:  [listen]

Since my first chance to listen to it without also playing it was after I made the recording, I got to second-guess it after the fact, which is often the problem I have when I am making recordings of pieces for church every week: there doesn't seem to be enough time to really think through something interpretively. It seemed to me at the time that I was playing the piece too fast.

Interestingly, when I went back and listen to Vidas' interpretation, I noticed that the time it took me to play the piece was virtually identical, as was the tempo. But I think he has a better sense of rubato and fantasy (not to mention I like the ornamentation). My rendering is too robotic, and thus, even though it is the same tempo, it seems too fast. So I thought I'd slow it down.

There is something very useful about feedback. I hadn't realized the tempo was that fast when I was playing it (being too preoccupied with getting all the details right, no doubt). How would I feel about a new tempo? And how could I experience it without being too busy playing it myself ?--just listening could help me decide. As I listened to what I had played I could wander around the sanctuary and hear the organ as somebody else might.

Using the playback system I was able to do something new. I took the exact same performance I'd recorded at the console and played it for the microphones again. Since it is all MIDI data, there are ways to affect the tempo that I hadn't tried before. In this version the same performance of the same piece is about 30 ticks slower than it was previously. I wanted a chance to listen to it at that tempo and see if it worked.


It seems to work, though at this point I am still wandering between the two and we'll see which one prevails on Sunday. Now, artificially slowing down the tempo is dangerous for the recording. Speeding it up can hide all kinds of faults; slowing it down does just the opposite. There is one spot with a late pedal note which is exacerbated in the slower version. Otherwise, the attacks are still together and the articulation is still pretty good. Not bad, I think! It tells you something about my rhythmic accuracy.

It may also make some of us uncomfortable about distorting the human element in a recording with post-production technology. I haven't done this before and don't plan to "cheat" like this again, but it is not an irrelevant tool to have as it turns out. The organ is also equipped with transposer buttons I'll never use (I've got a story about that sometime) which are conveniently not located where they can accidentally be depressed when you are going for a registration setting and miss.
The title refers to an episode in "Star Trek: The Next Generation" when Captain Jon-Luc Picard is kidnapped by a race of half-machine, half-organ beings called The Borg (as in cyborgs) and becomes one of them. His name is "Locutus." My reliance on a machine to manipulate the second performance suggested the interesting relationship.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


Since I consider this a family site, and since I don't like to resort to strong curse words on the internet, I suggest that any sensitive pipe organists who may be reading skip the next sentence in which I will use the "C' word--twice.

Cameron. Carpenter.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way I shall explain my choice of topic. You must have gathered by now that Mr. --uh, you know, is himself an organist, and in fact is a pretty hot topic in the organ world--that is, all five of us discuss him regularly. He is not, shall we say, loved by his colleagues.

On the other hand, he appears to have made quite a noise in the wider world, at least for someone who plays the organ. Now since only about 1 in 200 or so people in the United States regularly listen to classical music, and I would have to guess that only about 1 in 200 of those people regularly listen to organ music, those of us who happen to like classical organ music can feel pretty lonely. We are a pretty small group. Some of us would not mind it at all if more of you found what we find interesting interesting; a number of us feel like we are an endangered species. In this world of stereotypes the organ is often thought of as yesterday's instrument; irrelevant, stodgy, and no fun at all.

Enter Mr. C-word to try to change all that. Kind of.

Actually, Mr. Carpenter doesn't seem to be much of an ambassador for the organ at all. For one thing, he is short on the diplomatic language. He thinks the world of organs and organists is pretty dreary. He doesn't mind saying so. In an interview in our local paper he said that he finds the very idea that the organ is a religious instrument is "comical" so you know he doesn't mind offending large numbers of people. In fact, I think he thrives on it. He wears a Mohawk and earrings and plays his own custom built electronic [can you hear organists shrieking in horror?] instrument everywhere he goes. He doesn't try to mend fences between audiences and the establishment; his line is that the reality is "even worse" than the stereotypes, and, presumably, he is the cure. He is the bad boy of the organ. This week, trying to sum him up for people I knew I compared him to Lady Gaga.

He's playing in Champaign tomorrow and we're going to hear him. I was a little surprised, actually, that  the handful of people I told had never heard of him. He's got to be the most easily recognized organist in the world at the moment--but then, again, we are still talking about an organist.

What's interesting about Mr. Carpenter's approach is that it isn't really that interesting. At least, it's not new. He is seeking mass appeal, and as far as I can tell, he's getting it. And the way to do that has never been to sit behind your instrument and play great music. The way to do that is to be a big personality; to stir up controversy, and to convince regular folks that you don't like musical stuffiness any more than they do and that you, and you alone, are going to show them a really good time. Every generation has had a few of these showmen whom the public thinks are the greatest ever, while the other musicians gnash their teeth and complain of the gimmickry and silliness that is their nemeses stock-in-trade, certain that they could play these frauds under the table.

But as far as I know, Mr. Carpenter really has the chops. I guess I'll find out tomorrow night, but I know that he studied with Paul Jacobs at Julliard, and it certainly sounds as if he has quite a technical capability. There have been some who haven't. Liberace, for instance, really wasn't nearly as able a player as he could get the average person to believe. Paderewski, with his shock of red hair, could spray the air with a few false notes. Those are pianists. I don't know much about Virgil Fox, though I heard him once on Youtube. He missed a few notes, playing the Gigue fugue extremely fast, and much of the time you couldn't hear what he was playing at all for the pandemonium in the audience (he was trying to get them to clap along with the music). These folks could communicate with their audience and get them to like them, and not come off as pretentious or ask too much of them as listeners. Since speed and derring doo is a big plus for a lot of us, that technical virtuosity is always a big part of a showman's equipment. But there have always been a lot of people who could play things very, very fast. It doesn't make you a phenom.

As for poetry, musical interpretation--well, that tends to take a back seat, usually. So, of course, does any choice of repertoire that might tax the audience's patience. As Liberace said "I have to know just what my audiences will stand for." Then he elaborated on how he abridged everything and didn't bother with the profounder parts of the music, no matter what the composer had written. I haven't seen much of him yet, but I would imagine our dear Mr. C indulges this tendency to some degree.

He has the pedigree, however, and it appears he does play at least a bit of Bach on his concerts. Also, Chopin, and others whose works he transcribes for the organ (Virgil Fox and E. Power Biggs were also big on transcriptions), probably in a way that makes them look fiendishly difficult. He clearly has one foot in the classical world.

His publicity described him as a "boundary breaker" which is just how I remember Yanni being described and is code for "unlike all those boring old classical fellas, you'll like this guy." I didn't think Yanni did anything boundary breaking myself, but I can at least think of a few boundaries that Cameron Carpenter is breaking.

Sure, he likes to play Bach and rock on the same program. Big deal. So do other young organists. What seems to have made more waves is that he brings his own organ with him because he thinks that the organ's biggest problem is that it isn't mobile. Which is interesting, because it is also what makes the organ unique. Alone among instruments, the instrument itself and the building it is placed in together determine the character of the unique experience of playing that particular organ. Sometimes the two are designed together. Some organists like the challenge of a unique experience with each instrument. Not Cameron.

That seriously honks off a lot of organ builders, and disagrees with every organist I know, which is why I introduced Mr. Carpenter as if he were a swear word. He is to a lot of organists. They think he is going about things all wrong, and worse, he is grabbing a lot of attention doing it.

He gets a lot of attention precisely because he is doing something against the grain, and because he is quite vocal about it. You might say he's a bit of a drama queen. Only he wouldn't qualify any statements the way I just did, which is why he's famous. He may have the chops, and the talent, but that isn't the way to get mass appeal, and he knows it. Lady Gaga apparently has quite a bit of talent too, but until she started wearing that meat suit or going naked in her videos (I'm not getting her mixed up with someone else, am I? I honestly don't try really hard to keep track of all these important people) she was just another singer.

If there are any professional musicians in the audience tomorrow night, I imagine they'll be scowling, or nodding at each other knowingly. There is a part of me that thinks we need guys like Cameron just because the community that he is poking at really needs to lighten up. But I also know that he's making a bargain. You can't get around it. If you want to be famous, it has to be on the public's terms. Sure, you can get away with a little Bach, but not much. You have to do what the public wants you to do. Tempers, controversy, extra-musical intrigue, all of that. And you have to turn your back on what classical musicians regard as a steady diet of the best music. Classical musicians call this "selling out." Liberace, when confronted by this age-old criticism, responded that it made him cry "all the way to the bank." He gave the audience what it wanted--entertainment, which, given what some of us go through in life, isn't all bad, even if it isn't everything. In return, they gave him sold out houses. I hope he thought that was a good bargain.

Mr. Cameron is young; he'll have plenty of time to ponder the choices he makes now. Maybe he'll look back on them with regret, maybe with pride. I don't think right now even he knows. There's room for him at the table even if the establishment doesn't like it. There always have been a few. There are others on their way to Parnassus, trying to scale a musical Everest, who have their own reward, even if it doesn't make news.

Then again, maybe you've heard what's happening to Everest...

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Tasty Science

Here's something like a Scud missile in the world of controversy:

I have definitive musical proof that Shostakovich loved to play tennis.

That statement amuses me because it contains some properties that should make it a big hit out in the wide world. It is quite sure of itself, which is important when you want to stir up a lot of notoriety, and it is so bizarre that it ought to provoke curiosity.

On the other hand, it involves someone whom most people have never heard of (Shostakovich) and a game most people regard as dull; therefore it is pretty irrelevant, popularly speaking. Hence as an attempt at publicity it is about as effective as a scud missile, where said missile is the butt of American jokes because they belonged to our enemy, and were, apparently, less effective at killing people than our own. My apologies to the people who actually died from these projectiles.

But if you'd still like to know how I came to my doctrinaire thesis (which I've already saved my colleagues the trouble of discrediting, having proceeded directly to step two and done it myself) read on.

On our church organ currently sits a volume of music by Sweelinck. Notice the title: "Samtliche werke fur Tasteninstrument" which I've incompetently translated as "collected works for tasty instruments!"

Of course it means no such thing. But through the strange quirks of the evolution of language, the terms for touch and taste seem almost reversed. Here the term for keyboard instrument, which is something you touch to make sound, ("tasten") seems to refer to one sense in Dutch, and another in English. If you have nothing better to laugh at, it can be at least mildly amusing.

Personally, I would hate to have to deal with the ramifications of such a conclusion. A nine foot Steinway might provide food for several months, but it would be a horribly expensive way to dine.

When one is looking for connections, this is a reminder that there are many pitfalls. But connections are the very food of thought and so we press on.

Etymology is one of many fields which fascinate me but for which I have little time and will never be an expert. But languages like English aren't alone in containing "words" which have both subtle and obvious connections to other words. Music does as well. In the most obvious cases, composers have deliberately inserted groups of notes that serve as code for something. One popular form of these is the composer's name. Which is how we get tennis into all this. Don't you just love it?


Not really.

One of those musical names belongs to Dmitri Shostakovich, who used the notes D-Eb-C-B to spell his name in some of his compositions.

Wondering how that works? It helps if you are German (which he wasn't) because that gives you a little more flexibility in the musical spelling department.

D is for Dmitri, obviously. But the note Eb is pronounced "ess" in German, hence the start of his surname. Then, C (for C; duh!) and finally B natural, which is actually "H" in German (Bb is "B") thus, D. "S" C H--D. Shotakovich.

So imagine my excitement when I heard Shostakovich's name being used by someone else. That someone else is Erik Satie. It is heard twice, as the first four and next four notes of the last member of his "Sports and Recreations." I give you "Tennis."


Now right away I was thinking "come on, now, that connection's not possible." Shostakovich would have been too young to be known in France, and how the heck would Satie even know Shostakovich, who didn't travel outside Russia, never mind that he liked to play tennis. It's not like they could have played doubles on weekends (not that I wouldn't pay money to see that).

So, a mere week later, late one night, when I had nothing less important to do, I finally spent a whopping 30 seconds with the Wikipedia to debunk my excitable theory. Basically I looked at his dates: Shostakovich was only eight years old when Satie wrote "Sports and Recreations." He become known to the musical world first through his First Symphony, which premiered in 1926, the year after Satie died. Prognosis: a complete accident. Also the Shostakovich estate can't retroactively sue the Satie estate. (If he ripped off Marvin Gaye that would be different.)

It's too bad, now that I have no sensational paper to publish. But apparently there is still such a thing as coincidence; it just doesn't sell that well. So....did Satie know something about the leisure habits of a famous Russian composer yet to become known? on earth did he know that? Or did he?

You decide.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Empty praise?

"Riches I need not," goes the well known hymn, "nor man's empty praise." That seems like a phrase worth thinking about.

I can't tell you how many times I've been in any number of musical situations, some rather informal (like being invited to play on some sort of program or for a church service) and someone will come up to me afterward and tell me how much they enjoyed my music. Frequently this is followed by the assertion that I am much better than some other musician who was on the same program. Sometimes I will hear that I am a better organist than somebody else, or even the best organist in town!

Which may not be total baloney. I'm pretty good at what I do; still, there is at least one organist in town with an impressive competitive pedigree, and a few others associated with the university who are either established organists or young hotshots. So while I have some professional pride, I imagine it is always better not to get your nose in the air too much. That would apply even if I was demonstrably the best organist in town, never mind that there are always at least a few phenomenal musicians around in any university town or large city who can at least give you a run for your money no matter how accomplished you become.

Besides, excellence, besides being in the ear of the beholder, is a product of many things, some of which are probably less tied to ability than others. I regard a good portion of my frequent success in piano competitions as an undergraduate to the choice of repertoire. I often played a rather flashy concerto and it often took the prize. It was a frequently lamented observation among competitors that poetic pieces did not often win, never mind the skill of the pianist. My mother once noticed the judges during a performance of mine, bobbing their heads rhythmically, clearly enjoying themselves. It couldn't have hurt--judges, I've heard, are human. Which means that any number of things may impress even a musically trained person which may not in themselves have to do with the skill of the musician.

Other factors that were said to sway judges had to do with whether you got to perform after the lunch break, or toward the end, where you could be more easily remembered among the 30 odd pianists performing back-to-back. That did seem to carry some weight.

A church service, of course, is supposed to be a thousand miles from all of this competitive hoopla. The only obstacle in the way of a total separation is that there are humans at both events, and human beings judge constantly. This is why I am often being compared to other musicians. In my hearing it has virtually always been at the expense of another musician, but I feel pretty certain that there have been times when somebody has sidled up to somebody else out of my hearing and told them that they were clearly better than me.

Should it matter? I am not sure that I take compliments as well as I should; they make me a bit uncomfortable, and getting one at the expense of somebody else even more so. However, I do find it somewhat amusing.  Such compliments may well be undeserved anyway, and they are simply the (possibly untrained) opinion of the person who uttered them, rather than some objective standard which is the equivalent of God's inviolable stamp of eternal approval. In some ways they may be worth about as much as a confederate dollar.

Now the religious evangelical part of my upbringing tells me that the next sentence here ought to read something like this: Besides, the Bible teaches us that we ought not to seek the approval of men, but of God, just as it says in the hymn quoted above. But I'm not quite comfortable with that pious cliche, either. In fact, at the risk of being a gadfly, I'm going to suggest that the praise of people should matter even to a church organist, up to a point. When we get to that point I'll argue the reverse. But first, the pro-praise position:

When someone offers a genuine compliment I assume that the reason for it is that they felt some kind of joy in hearing the music. Joy begets joy; they are remarking upon the pleasure they experienced in the listening. Is it of no consequence to give some measure of happiness to our fellows?

There are, of course, straight-laced religious folks who like to put a chasm between God and man; to remind us that the whole point of praise of God is that there is an "audience of one" and that it is only God (and emphatically not people) who should be the object of our desire to please. But there are some problems with that:

One is that it is a nice defense mechanism for people who are not getting the appreciation they would like from their neighbors; if nobody seems to like what I'm doing, I don't have to care (or at least can try mightily to pretend I don't) by telling everyone loudly and longly that I am only there to please God and NOT their pathetic selves. But there is no guarantee that your efforts are pleasing to God, either. And it is most likely not pleasing to God to have us fail to care about our neighbors. Jesus linked the two loves: love of God AND love of neighbor, as if the two are not only unopposed to each other, but should be linked. Expression of God's love can (and should) take place in love of neighbor. And the reverse. ("For if you do not love your neighbor, whom you have seen, how can you love God, whom you have not?")

If our music is not pleasing to people it is probably because it is failing to connect with them, which is not likely to either cause them to want to return to church, or to help them while they are present. If they are connecting in some way, they may be getting inspired, finding beauty in creation, feeling closer to their neighbors, and experiencing pride in an enterprise larger than themselves.

Or, they may just be feeling entertained. But we'll get to that.

Further, if the music is not pleasing to them, it might also be because the poor technic or erratic tempo or frequent missed notes of the organist are making it harder to participate, which doesn't help with the larger mission--not if we are too busy being distracted by all sorts of little perturberances. My point being that we should not use the idea of pleasing God alone to cover the fact that human beings are not pleased with our efforts for what may well turn out to be good reasons.

Even pride may have some value here. People like to be proud of their organist; it gives them one more reason to feel good about their faith community, and one more reason to invite friends. Pride gets pretty universally beat up in historical writings by persons of faith, but the church, which has been none too subtle about the good and bad in human beings, ought to try to practice more of it. In large doses, particularly if the organist has imbibed too much, it can cause an excess of ego, which can be destructive. But it can also give purpose, and energy. If you are good at what you do, and persons who have no cause to be jealous of that notice and are thankful for your efforts on their behalf, then the body is built up. Surely this is a good thing.

On the other hand, people are so inclined to think their organist is terrific that they may overlook a few things; besides this is all up to the judgment of the beholder. No matter how terrible someone is you can find someone who thinks they are just wonderful. Notice Youtube videos. Somebody thinks a video posted there is the "best thing ever posted" about nearly everything. And conversely, even the most acclaimed virtuosi, after their recordings have been illegally posted by a third party, are subject to people who think that their playing is rubbish. Such vast differences of opinion do not mean that we should cover our ears and never listen to another human being ever again, but it does suggest that we ought to at least be careful where the praise or blame is coming from, and not to get too wrapped up in it, either way.

A more important question is what this does for our motivation. If we are choosing our music in an effort to impress we are more likely to play things which are fast and loud, with ear-titillating passagework, or, if a pianist, things which can be played tenderly and which make the piano sound attractive. This is often not the best music, which does not gain human praise so easily. Often this music is a challenge to our ears, and though it will hopefully lead to the expansion of our souls, it is not as likely to excite in the short term. It is like feeding children something with a lot of sugar in it. They will love you for it, but if you value their health you will make sure they get a balanced diet even if they wrinkle their noses. It is the same way with a congregation.

This week I am playing something that will likely be popular. Next week, I am not. Both pieces were chosen with regard to the sermon. One is from this young century; the other from the 17th. I know that the first would easily beat the second in a run-off popularity contest. The funny thing is that you know that if a visitor attended just one of those service they would walk out thinking I was an amazing organist or just a mediocre one based entirely on whether what I played that week happened to be impressive sounding.


(I am reminded of an anecdote concerning baseball player Joe DiMaggio who was asked why he always played so hard, to which he responded that there might be someone at the game who had never seen him play. I would like to think , however, that this did not cause him to dive for routine fly balls and try to make everything look difficult even when it wasn't. I am sure that when the opportunity presented itself in the form of a difficult play he did what he needed to do and the fans loved it.)

Taken together they are a contemporary voice and part of the larger tradition; based on a 19th century Methodist hymn and a Lutheran chorale. An American piano piece and a German organ piece. Both with something to say, and in very different ways. This  week, I know I will get compliments. Next week, that is unlikely. In the aggregate, it doesn't matter. There is a higher calling, but it goes through, not around, the current circumstance.

If you aren't challenging your congregation, you aren't doing your best. But your neighbor's voice matters, too. You will want to not only take him deeper in his faith and his understanding, but meet him where he is. If you never get a compliment from a member of your congregation, you are probably doing something wrong. But if you can't get through a week without getting a compliment, you are also doing something wrong. Beware the compliment!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Time Change (part two)

Last week, we learned that time signatures only function to tell us how much "real estate" exists in a measure of music. For example, 12/8 time means 12 eighth notes or their equivalent will fit in there. The time signature itself contains no clue as to how those notes group into larger pulses, although it is customary in most compound meters (3/8/, 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, etc.) to group them in threes.

Nevertheless, taking such an eyeball-only approach to the meter can be very helpful when it comes to changes in the time signature. If you have a piece of music that constantly bounces around between 5/8, 2/4, 7/16, 3/2 and the like, you may have trouble deciding which rhythmic end is up, and, frankly, that is where we often need to cut ties with our gut and go use our brains. Vague notions of speed and relation don't cut it anymore.

Many of us still feel that a 16th note must be pretty fast, and a half note pretty slow. or that a measure with four quarter notes in it must have four beats. That isn't true in our era, though several centuries ago it was thought of that way. It isn't true that the earth is the center of the universe and doesn't move, as we all found out a while back, and it isn't true that a quarter note is always slower than a 16th note. It's all relative--thanks to Einstein, and tempo markings. For example, a sixteenth note in a largo tempo is probably slower than a half note at presto. A piece in "cut time" will have two pulses in a measure even though there are four quarter notes. Things like this trip people up constantly. But today, let's worry about one thing:

How to get from 4/4 to 6/8. The two meters, one simple, and one compound, one generally consisting of four beats which split into two eighths each, the other of two beats which split into groups of three eighths, represent opposite ends of the rhythmic universe. How do you get from one to the other?

One item will have to change. Either the pulse will no longer be the same size, or the note values will have to change. In most cases, the note values remain the same. If the composer or publisher has any sympathy, they've printed a little equation at the top of the first meter change, to the effect that eighth note=eighth note. The old eighth and the new eighth is the same length. What you need to do then is make sure that your eighth note remains constant throughout each time change.

Musically, that means you need to keep a constant eighth note pulse in your mind, or in your fingers. At choir rehearsal, I often drum eighth notes through these passages because if we are singing long notes that pulse can get lost. Next we need to do a little math, in which meters are rewritten so that the bottom number is the same.

4/4 is the same as 8/8 (it isn't in every particular, but for our present purpose it sure is).

This means that the first measure contains eight eighth notes, and the second one, in 6/8, has six. Thus we would count

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 1 2 3 4 5 6

where every number comes at the same temporal distance from the next--you have to keep those numbers even, in other words. In terms of pulse, respecting the 4/4 meter, we are likely to count

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 1 and uh 2 and uh


1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 1 2 3 4 5 6

But while either of these gives us a better sense of how the overall scheme of accents changes, it might mess with our heads when we are trying to make a smooth and even transition from one to the other, which is why I am suggesting the first method, where there are no uneven subdivisions between beats (no uhs and ands). This way we know exactly how one meter becomes the next.

So for 4/4 to 7/16, we would have to make sure we have even divisions or 16th notes.

4/4 = 16/16, thus

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

However, at this point, this method might be more tongue twisting than we would like, so if you will promise to give every sixteenth its due, I'll let you say

1 e and uh 2 e and uh 3 e and uh 4 e and uh 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

The key is to keep each one of those items exactly even so we don't speed up or slow down from one to the other, or, heaven forefend, crash completely because we can't figure out how to make the transition.

When I was learning to read, we were told to break each word down into its smallest parts, and "sound it out." This was known as "phonics." It is too bad more people are not taught rhythmic phonics. Instead, we go through life with a vague notion of how rhythms on the page are related to others. And this only gets us so far, particularly when we are confronted by a 20th or 21st century composer, who assumes we've all "gotten the memo" and are able to fluently decode the component parts of the language of rhythm rather than just relying on what seems right. The same is true, of course, for harmony since the 19th century. You can't be sure you know what the composer meant, because as music gets more advanced, it doesn't rely on stereotyped ideas like sentences you can finish because the outcome is always the same. Instead, you have to rely on problem solving skills, which often means breaking the problem area into its smallest components and then putting it together carefully, and consistently.

Monday, March 9, 2015

It's not what it sounds like

Does this sound like an octopus to you?


If you said yes, you may want to see a doctor. Or you are already familiar with Erik Satie's "Sports et Divertissments" for piano. In which case, your answer still should have been "no."

Last week, we examined some of the pieces from this collection that Satie wrote for such activities as "fishing" and "yachting" which, if you were given the title beforehand, and maybe in a rare case even if you weren't, you might get the impression captured the events musically. But I warned you, assuming a one to one relationship between a story, picture, or event, and a musical composition, is probably oversimplifying, and oversimplifying is certainly not something that applies to Erik Satie.

As with many a musicological argument, I've gotten there in the middle, but it seems that there are some folks who admire Mr. Satie for his tone-painting in this work. In particular, for the way his music relates to the illustrations that accompany each of the pieces. But in a blog I read recently, the author points out that Mr. Satie never actually saw any of the drawings that accompanied his music, and that he wrote the music first anyhow. That pretty much only leaves his music as a generalized portrait of the activity in question, which, given that they are Satie's own titles, is a fairly safe bet.

That is, it is a safe bet that he could have written his pieces with particular reference to the events of the title. Whether he chose to actually do so takes us into the world of Erik Satie.

Satie liked to work on different levels, and frequently allowed those levels to collide, or, most often, to have no relation at all to one another. In his scores he will often keep up a running dialogue with the performer. There is nothing unusual about a steady stream of tempo and expressive directions in a musical score, such as telling the performer to slow down in one spot or to play tenderly in another. But how does one play "like a nightingale with a toothache" or "very lost"? Those are just two of the endlessly descriptive, very funny, and possibly useless instructions to the performer so common to his pieces. Sometimes Satie will weave these instructions into a narrative as he does in the Sonata Bureaucratic. The running gag about a dull-witted office worker has apparently nothing at all to do with the music, which is itself a parody of a Clementi sonatina often massacred by students.

In the second movement of his collection "Dried Embryos" (yik!) Satie refers to a musical quotation. There it is a group of animals having a funeral, and the quotation is actually the famous funeral march by Chopin, only Satie tells us in the score that it is a quotation from a "famous mazurka by Schubert" who, incidentally never wrote a Mazurka, famous or otherwise. Is Satie pulling our leg?

This is why there is really nothing unusual about the instructions at the start of the movement "Yachting" from Sports and Recreations, except that it is impossible (and that hardly qualifies). Satie has clearly marked the left hand in quarter notes followed by quarter rests. Nevertheless, in the written instructions directly above this line of music he instructs to play "in half notes, the octaves of the bass" and then, to drive the point home, the quarter notes, disconnected by the intervening rests, are to be played "legato." It would be enough to drive a literal-minded, traditionally trained classical pianist to despair. After all, are we not taught that the composer's intentions must be respected to the last pen stroke? And here is something deliberately contradictory, and impossible to execute. It is either one, or the other. Satie knows this, and he knows we know, and he knows we know he knows, and....there it is. One set of instructions completely at odds with what is plain to see on the page.

Satie is also well known for never using bar lines or giving meter or key signatures, even though it is usually apparent from the music what these ought to be. Another bit of annoyance for our good re-creationist, the ever-conscientious concert pianist.

This is largely because Satie himself stood outside the establishment. He didn't get along with the pianists at the conservatory, nor they him, and his music was championed not by the respected artists of the time, but by the underground. He had friends among reputable musicians (Debussy, for one) but they didn't really take him seriously. Satie's "Sports" is subtitled "20 short pieces for piano" but there are actually 21. The set begins with an "un-frivolous" preface, called an "unappetizing chorale" which Satie has written "for those who don't like me." It is, he says, "a serious and proper chorale....I have put into it all I know about boredom."

So back to the octopus. Satie has written a little story about him. It is not to be read aloud. Satie would be piqued at violations of his edict, though it often happens in performances today. A recording available online has a narrator reading all of the comments aloud in French, while the pianist has to adopt a slow tempo and pause between gestures so she can get them all in.

The story concerns an octopus who swallows a crab and it goes down the wrong pipe. More absurdities follow. The music might mimic the rapidity of the octopus, but the repetitive, motoric gestures that dominate nearly every piece in the set sound much less evocative of nature, or people, and more like machines. There seems to be a mechanical obsession among French composers of the early 20th century, and that appears to be a reflection of the pace, and priorities, of the society around them. Short, repetitive bursts follow each other in hurried profusion which remind more of the speed of the silent movie, the dominant entertainment of the era, and which provides a key for our next installment.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Scene in a Sanctuary

Fellow church organists: do you have the doxology memorized?

It is such a small bit of liturgy, and yet I have often noticed, particularly because I was trained as a pianist, that organists say they never memorize anything. I would think that if you played the same liturgical response every week you might want to commit it to memory.

For one thing, there is no grabbing the hymnal between the offertory and the closing hymn, possibly forgetting to get the page open, having little time to do it because of the music before and after: it saves fumbling around. One of my organistic predecessors had taped the Gloria Patri to the music rack so it was there permanently, although you would have to remove the other music to see it.

But there is another reward for committing the piece to memory beside being able to play it at the drop of a hat, without a hymnal, or taking the time to find it, and that is the joy of the distracted.

I have a tendency to look around during the doxology. I am not focused on the notes, and I can play it backward in the dark in my sleep whistling the retrograde inversion of another hymn in a different key while drinking coffee. Or something similar. So I look around. What I see is the congregation singing. Some of them look bored. Some of them are really putting their hearts into it. I will see someone looking beatific with their eyes closed. Another face full of passion. A teenager whose parents dragged them to church who just can't wait for it to be over. I see the choir, full voiced, leading the congregation in song. I see the ushers bringing the plates forward, parents and children on their best liturgical behavior. I see somebody holding a conversation or exchanging a joke. I see the pastor getting ready for the next bit which is a prayer.

I see the people I am serving. I am always listening to them; during hymn playing I am both leader and accompanist. We are in this together. But some of the time, and particularly during the doxology, I watch them. Try to take in the whole service at once. Get out of my little corner and let my gaze, and my spirit, roam abroad. I do that often, but the doxology has become a custom; my place in the service each week to check in with the bigger picture of the church singing, or to be amused at how all the little characteristic pieces add up to the whole.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Time Change (part one)

One of the problems with getting older is that you have to unlearn virtually everything you were taught when you were young. This is true of every subject, and when it comes to music, a good deal of the bad intel centers about rhythm.

Nearly everyone that I know who has had piano lessons learned very early on that 4/4 time means that there are four beats in a measure and a quarter note gets one beat. This last bit of information was really pretty useless as you probably spent the first year and a half playing music in 4/4 time or 3/4 or 2/4, so that the bottom number never changed at all--it was always and forever a 4, and thus knowing why it was there was unnecessary and more than likely you completely forgot about it.

It is also, unfortunately, wrong. If and when you got around to playing a piece of music in 6/8 time, you might have assumed that there were six beats in a measure and the 8th note got the beat. That is simply to apply the same logic to the explanation of 4/4 above. But you would be wrong, because most of the time, when someone is performing a piece of music in 6/8 time, there are really two beats in a measure, so that the eighth notes by themselves are only parts of a beat.


The rhythmic universe is actually pretty simple, but only if you view it from the right angle. Pretty much everything in music can be split into either groups of two or groups of three. A time signature with an 8 on the bottom is likely to have a multiple of 3 on the top, and the eight notes are going to be grouped into sets of three, added together to make one beat. A time signature with a 4 on the bottom is going to be counted in groups of two eighth notes, which together form a beat. Thus time signatures are either simple (with a 2 or a 4 on the bottom) or compound (with an 8). On the page you can see the difference by whether eighth notes are grouped into set of two or three, and whether there are dots after the long notes, making them all divisible by three.

We call these two kinds of meter simple and compound. 4/4 is simple meter, and would be counted

1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and

whereas its compound meter cousin, 12/8, would go like this:

1 and uh 2 and uh 3 and uh 4 and uh

(if you counted each eighth note that would be 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12, but as you can hear, that's a bit cumbersome; hence the approach above, where the second and third eighth notes or a group lose their numbers and become simply ands and uhs)

That's pretty much all there is to it, except for mixed meter, which is a combination of the other two. A bar of 5/8, for instance may feature a group of two eighth notes followed by a group of three. Before mixed meters came into prominence in the last century there was very little fraternizing between the worlds of simple and compound meter; it was either groups of two or groups of three, never both in the same measure, or for that matter, even the same piece. If that rule was ever violated, it was announced with a special number above the unusual grouping (like the 3 above a triplet). Also, once the time signature was announced at the beginning of the piece, it didn't change. That's not always true anymore, and there is where things can get difficult, especially if you don't have a clear idea of what time signatures really mean.

What time signatures look like on the page and how they are performed may be two very different things, as we've already noticed. 12/8 doesn't mean there are twelve beats. 5/8 doesn't mean there are five. What it really means is an indication of rhythmic real estate. How much space exists in each measure? In the case of 12/8, you can get 12 eight notes, or the equivalent (like 6 quarter notes) into one measure of music. That's all. The pulse is an entirely different matter, and it may not be represented in writing at all! The time signature doesn't tell you how to feel the piece.

So what's up with that, anyhow?

A lot of folks would like to think that one sunny day in the storied past, a nice old chap with nothing to do that afternoon sat down and single-handedly drafted the entire system of rhythm that we have today, and, since he got to define every bit of it himself and since he was obviously a bright fellow, everything should be consistent and easy. But that's not what happens, ever.

Instead, various people try various things, and what eventually happens is a collision of various systems governed by various rules, which may in themselves be consistent, or have made sense at one time, but now we're stuck with them.

Exhibit a: the English language. How is it that the letter f is pronounced like an f, and the letters gh are also (sometimes) pronounced like an f, and so is ph, although sometimes gh is actually silent and of course, c and k should get downsized because at least one of them is redundant, I mean, S can do the job in the first part of the word circle, and k can do the rest and don't get me started on homonyms.

Basically, what's happened is that different groups of people, speaking various languages, have had useful words exported to English, and some of those different rules for pronunciation, including some of their letters, went with them. Usually they got corrupted along the way. It has led to a confusing set of exceptions to the rules that we were taught as children--first the rules, then the exceptions, which nearly outnumber the rules. And nobody really has the authority to clean it all up and start over.

By contrast, musicians have a much easier road. For the real definition of a time signature, simply as a measure of space, and not as an indication of number of beats or who gets the beat or whatever, has no exceptions. It does have the disadvantage of not telling us very much, but at least it is never wrong. 16/8, you want to know? Why, you can get 16 8ths notes in there. Don't see that one very often. how about 5/2? Five half notes, or the equivalent. 19/3? Doesn't exist. There is no 1/3 note in music.

Remember how that bottom number is supposed to represent a note value? Some 20th century composers began writing time signatures with a note on the bottom instead of a number, so that 4/4 would have a 4 on top and a quarter note on the bottom. 12/8 would have a 12 on the top and an eighth note on the bottom, although that was often replaced by a 4 on the top and a dotted quarter on the bottom, which is a truer indication of the way you would actually play the piece, and finally makes your piano teacher sound like she's telling the truth--the number on the bottom at last really does function as an indication of what note gets the beat. No word yet on whether this is going to catch on universally. My money is on forget about it. Numbers are too entrenched, as are many customs, long after we have the slightest clue what they are about.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The thrill of distraction and the agony of the absurd

Care for a game of tennis? How about a round of golf? Later, we could even go dancing, all in just a few minute's time, all set to music, courtesy of Erik Satie. Or is it?

In 1914, Satie was approached about a strange assignment to create a series of short piano pieces detailing various human activities: sports and recreations. The pieces were to be accompanied by illustrations of those activities, and the whole, beautifully bound and featuring not only the eye-catching illustrations but the composer's own impeccably attractive penmanship, would be sold as a kind of coffee table book to rich art lovers. What a plan! Stravinsky was asked to do it, and he turned it down, saying the fee was too low. Satie was then asked and thought the fee was too high. But he did it anyway.

Those are the bald facts, but they don't give one much insight into the music itself. It is just those insights that I'm trying to plumb away at; in fact, this will drive much of a concert I'm preparing to play later this spring. Are these pieces musical depictions of something, or not? And of what use is music if it is simply imitation of something which is fundamentally not musical, like a game of tennis?

Most writers on music don't seem particularly concerned with questions like these, in fact, I often get the frustrated impression that they aren't too curious about anything. When you ask,you'll get the bare facts about a composer's birth, death, and important musical contributions. They'll tell you about the structure of the music, sometimes in quite a bit of detail, but if a piece of music bears an unusual title, they don't seem concerned about where the composer may have gotten it. I've had that experience this week when learning a piece by Jean-Phillip Rameau, which is called "The Simpletons of Sologne." Now there's an odd little title; where did he get it? Nobody seems to know, or, in most cases, care.

Given that we know very little about Rameau's life to begin with, I could understand if we simply didn't know. And, frankly, when I began the search, I assumed that the prosaic reason for the title was that the composer was simply using a pre-existing folk tune with that same title, not that he was going out of his way to portray simpletons in music. But if he is, I haven't found anyone willing to tell me that. So far, I've only come up with one program writer who speculated that it had something to do with the wandering melody. This is not only a stretch, it is fairly weak as an insight, although I still admire her making the attempt, or at least her being curious about it in the first place.

Rameau did like programmatic titles. What can the musicologists tell us about this phenomenon? They can give you antecedents. Couperin did it too, and he got there first. Must be a chain of influence. No reason as to why, but we know who Rameau may have gotten the idea from. Sometimes I think musicologists and lawyers have a lot in common. They sure can quote precedent! But, for either gentleman, why? Was it just good advertising? A way to avoid having to call everything a sonata or a gavotte?

Back to Satie. Clearly there are extra-musical intentions being explored here. And it is just that very thing that embarrasses many writers on music, so that they ignore it. But in this case, apparently, some have extoled Mr. Satie for ably capturing these portraits in music. Does he?

I don't know about you, but this piece doesn't remind me at all of a game of tennis. On the other hand, if you told me that the previous piece was about fireworks, I'd buy that. You'd probably have to reveal the title first, but I can certainly hear things associated with fireworks: there are explosions, and I can definitely hear a rocket going off at the end, even if it does turn out to be a dud!

Satie's best match of music and program is probably in the water pieces. It's easy to hear someone going down the "water-chute" but I was thinking more about the piece entitled "fishing" which is a delightful little narrative beginning in stillness. Then a couple of fish swim up and have a conversation. "What's going on?" one fish wants to know. "It's a fisherman" says the other. "Thanks [for the warning]" says his friend, and they swim off, leaving the scene as serene as before.

Water is easy to suggest musically, which is one reason why you can really get into the waves in a piece like yachting, which follows the one with the fish. This is all very nice, and lets out imaginations image while we listen. But it's also a bit simple, and Erik Satie is one composer I'd never associate with the word simple. So let's muddy the waters a bit next week in part two.....