Monday, November 30, 2015

potatos and anvils

Pardon me while I ignore the holiday season for one more week. It's Music Monday, when I assume for my audience anyone, musician or not, who wants to listen to some interesting music, and perhaps find out something about it.

In this installment, I finally get around to playing a rather famous piece by Handel which, for some reason, despite being in my 40s and having absorbed gobs of piano literature for a quarter of a century, hadn't been on my radar. Fortunately, it only took a couple of days to rectify the omission.

The piece in question bears the laconic title "Air" (with variations), but it has since, courtesy of the Department of Posthumous Publicity, earned a nickname, and now goes forth under the title "The Harmonious Blacksmith." Look all good nicknames, nobody is sure how it came by its name. The Wikipedia has some good stories, said to be bogus, with one more likely to be less bogus. One of these fragments concerns the oft-repeated B natural in one of the variations (starting at 2:02 in the recording below) which is said to be the smith hammering on the anvil. Well...sure...

An aside: I once gave a concert which included Beethoven's Eroica Variations, which includes several prominent Bbs that the composer insists on drumming on, and someone had forgotten to tune the piano. That #%*& note was one of the worst offenders. Then I had to follow that up with one of Prokoffiev's War Sonatas, the one in Bb, which also makes use of that same drunk-sounding note on a regular basis--and loudly. That was some 20 years ago and I still haven't completely recovered.

Where were we? Something more pleasant, like a nice set of variations by Handel.

There are people, of course, who believe that the entire purpose of music is to be pleasurable and/or relaxing. In which case, it is hard to beat one of these sets of Handel variations. The piece made me feel very satisfied and bourgeois. I couldn't help but think of 20th century American composer Charles Ives' comment about everybody breathing their own symphonies while they were in the fields, harvesting potatoes. Potato symphonies aside, though, this tradesman, blacksmith or no, seemed very in tune with the universe.

Since I was playing the piece on the piano (I don't have access to a harpsichord) I found myself focusing on and then enchanted with the beauty of the sound. I was also playing the piece more slowly, which seems to contrast with the standard approach of pianists when they know they are playing something written for the harpsichord, which is to play very fast and fleetly, bringing out any virtuosic properties, as if that is all that a harpsichord may do. As a result of ignoring this edict, mine may one of the slowest recordings you hear of this piece. It doesn't bother me any. I enjoy its leisurely approach.

Unfortunately, the recorded sound doesn't adequately capture the atmosphere of the live performance. This is because I was doing some experimentation with something that I never do--putting a microphone inside the piano. Nobody actually sits inside a piano during a piano recital, so I've resisted putting the microphone there. But I've been experimenting with the recorded sound at intervals, and last month I put the near mic almost inside the piano and got a pretty nice sound. The other mic sits at a comfortable distance and picks up the sound in the room; then I can balance them.

However, the gain (recording volume) in the near mic was up too high and I couldn't get a nice blance per the usual methods, so I tried adding a synthetic microphone, which is to say I duplicated the far mic in post production and panned it in the other direction, to allow a stereo sound from afar and also to allow it to be turned up in relation to the close up sound. The result is curious: it seems to have a third dimension, and reminds me of several professional recordings I've heard. On the other hand, it disorients my ears slightly, because I seem to be listening to the piece from several places at once. I suppose as an amateur recording engineer I could be experimenting with cubism.

A few days later I played the piece for an audience for a Thanksgiving celebration. Whether you celebrated this American holiday or not this past weekend, I hope you enjoy some of the fruits of it. I am grateful for being able to share it with you.

Handel: The Harmonious Blacksmith

Friday, November 27, 2015

coming soon

Here we go again.

This weekend begins another year in the church calendar. It is time for Advent.

As I've observed before, in American consumerland we are already well into the Christmas season. This is largely because we just can't wait.

I usually spend November trying desperately to fend off Christmas commercials and Christmas music. I love the season. I just don't want to be tired of Sleigh Ride before the leaves even fall off the trees. Last year I heard "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" six times before Thanksgiving, and that was just by going to the grocery store once a week. If we had television I'd have to wear out the batteries on the remote control just hitting the mute button (and hiding my eyes) every time a Christmas commercial came on. I don't want to be so sick of the holiday that by the 25th of December I just desperately want it to go away--yet that seems to be the feeling of people around me. Christmas starts after Halloween and goes on and on and on and on....

Which is the price of gluttony, I suppose. You get tired of it.

I'm not Catholic, but I admire their approach to the season. Advent is a season of waiting. It is not a feast, it is a fast. It is a time of discipline, even a time of scarcity before the feast. Then, at the appointed time, jubilation, celebration, rejoicing, for the entire 12 day period from December 25th to January 6th. If only society knew how to wait....

Salespeople don't want us to wait, obviously. They want us to HURRY HURRY HURRY to get the lastest bargain. And they are listening to the people who want to shop till they drop, not to the ones who won't go to the mall until the middle of December.

The church, by contrast, often seems to want to put the brakes on. They are the most conservative element in society. They shun innovation, serve as a collective for people who oppose change, and look suspiciously on the rights of individuals, which is to say they aren't very progressive. At the same time, they stand for virtue and discipline, continuity and respect. Sometimes the church seems like the weary adult in a world of four-year-olds. And it seems about all they can do sometimes is look on judgmentally as the kids tear into all their Christmas presents in 30 seconds in a frenzy of gratification, and then have a meltdown five minutes later because they are out of stuff to open and they can't handle all the surging emotions.

Pace yourselves. The joy will come. The feast will arrive. Prepare yourselves for it. Don't just revel in every good thing you can find--share it. Live inside it. Don't expect it to make you delirious. Happiness isn't a mind altering drug. It is a state of being.

Does it seem curmudgeonly to all the societal kids? Of course it does. Sometimes it even feels like it. But behind it all is a joy that those kids will never understand. Unless you wait for it. It will come.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Organ registration survival tips (part three)

I got a call to play at a funeral home a few weeks ago and found this waiting for me at the organ:

Do you see that some of the stop tabs have little blue stickers on them? I assume this is because whomever plays there regularly (or did) decided which stops they wanted to use and was afraid someone (like me) might come along and mess them up so they marked them.

This is a bit like marking the note names above the keys. It is useful at first but you'd better learn them as soon as possible. And it is the same with the stops.

I've been writing for pianists who are starting to play the organ in church who find that the organ has a lot of knobs and buttons and aren't really sure what to do with them all. If you have someone to teach you then all the better, but many don't. I got a quick tutorial from an organist as a teenager, but not much more, so I had to figure much of it out myself.

So will you. And in a way that is the best method for doing it--continuing to experiment with the various stop knobs to see which sound combinations please and which do not. But experimentation comes with bravery, and at first I will assume you aren't very confident about it. This is, however, why I've been insistent that while I limit you to the handful of stops that are "safe," and show you how to avoid calamity, that you don't simply leave the same grouping of stops on for an entire service, but change them regularly. Start to notice groupings that you like, but keep searching for others. And know what the basic types of organ stop are and what they sound like. Eventually you should be able to sit down at a strange organ having never even heard it before much less played it, and make a pretty good guess as to which stop combinations to use just based on your knowledge of how organs work.

In a week or two I will show you some basic principles behind organ registration--typical patterns organists use. This will assume that you know all the stops. At this point we've only covered the ones with whole numbers like 8 and 4 on them--the flute stops, the foundation (or principle) stops, and the string stops. We've also talked about the couplers, and the crescendo pedal.

On the stop jamb at Faith those stops are on the bottom half of each division (the great or the swell). The stops toward the top are the color stops--they make the organ sound more interesting, but these stops can also be unfit for typical hymn singing or some pieces or organ music. The general principle behind them is that they do not always do well by themselves--you should first have on at least an 8 foot stop or two (which is, remember, normal pitch) and then put one of them on in combination.

The stops at the top of Faith's stop jamb represent the three remaining families of organ stops: mixtures, reeds, and mutations. I'll leave the second two for later. Right now, let's talk about mixture stops.

Mixtures are compound stops. When you play one note, you are listening to air rushing through multiple pipes at once. How many? Look below the term "mixture" or "scharf" or whatever they're calling it. You'll see a roman numeral. That is how many different pipes are grouped together. The one on our Great says "IV" which means that four pipes are sounding each time a note is played.

Those multiple notes consist of the note you played, a fifth higher, and perhaps an octave higher and also an octave-and-a-fifth higher (if you've got a four-note mixture like we do).

On the swell, our organ has a three-note mixture, and so does our pedal division (which I haven't talked about much because I am assuming you aren't playing the pedals at the moment anyway).

Mixture stops sound pretty bizarre by themselves (try it!). But in the right combination they contribute to a really full, rich organ sound, such as you haven't had yet if you'd been following my method.

Try this: start with the 8 foot principle, the 4 foot principle (probably called "octave") and any 2 foot stops (ours is the "super octave"--apparently it has special powers or something). THEN add your mixture stop to that. You have just built your first "principle chorus" from bottom to top and added a mixture to that. This will give you a nice majestic sound for playing the doxology, or any loud verses of a hymn. I would recommend, however, that in playing that hymn that you take the mixture stop off for some of the verses. It can get monotonous if you keep it on all the time. Just as capital letters can be GREAT for occasional emphasis, BUT REALLY IRRITATING IF YOU USE THEM ALL THE TIME!

Just saying...

on to part four

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Turn of the Page

It was a few days before my organ concert and I was doing what you'd expect me to be doing to prepare for an organ concert. I was standing in the middle of an aisle at Home Depot.

"Do you need any help?" Said a friendly guy in a bright organ jacket.

"I think I may be beyond help," I joked. Then I explained my predicament. I was trying to create a special effect for a Halloween concert. It involved page turning (that again?!?)...

One night, seated at the organ, having pretty much given up on finding that  @$!%#& lost chord, and attempting to instead practice for my upcoming concert, my mind started to wander in search of logistics. By custom and conservatory rules, pianists must memorize their music, and organists often do not--curiously, I had memorized the piano piece on the program, and one of the organ pieces, too, for convenience, but the others I thought I'd use music for, even if the notes were about the size of gnats in some of them.

(I should explain. Organists sometimes shrink down their music and put large numbers of sheets into these behemoth double decker productions that allow maybe 10 pages of music to fit on the music rack at once so no page turning is necessary at all. I had seen this before but never actually made one myself, before that last concert...)

But by the second-to-last piece on the program I was using three great rolls of music, 5 pages each. And I hit on the perfect person to help me unroll them when I was finished.

The Grim Reaper.

Early in the concert we'd had some fun with an incompetent page turner, and the idea that our newly digitized console has a GPS system (last year's revelation was that it now has a playback system and I thought I'd up the ante by making up this bizarre musical-navigation feature). Then, when it was time to play the Bach I spent some time telling the audience about the "dance of death" chapel in Lubeck and the enormous painting on the wall of death carrying everyone away. That turned out to be a nice setup for my page turner.

The audience didn't know he was there to turn pages at first. He stood at the organ long enough looking menacing that it looked like it was my time to go. Then he captured the roll of pages, held it victoriously aloft, and carried it back to the nether-regions from whence he came.

He did this a second time a few minutes later, emerging from his lair to traumatize the organist yet again. The third time, he thought he'd scan the audience for any likely candidates.

"Grim" was quite an effective page turner. I would like to thank Steve Shoemaker, who audience members might have noticed was about the same height as the Mr. Reaper, (Steve's one of the tallest guys in town), but he was seen conspicuously sitting in the audience before the concert, so the reaper must have actually been played by...


In any case, as I mentioned last week, the middle section of the Guilmant sonata movement I played at the end was too major key and songlike for the Reaper, so he skulked off to his lair. Imagine, I thought, if the final page turn of the concert could occur without anybody to do it, if it just floated off of its own ghostly accord!

I mentioned this to my wife, who is in the middle of residency interviews around the country this year and wouldn't be able to attend the concert. She didn't think it would work. Neither did a couple of other people I told it to.

But, I'm happy to say, it came off rather well. The helpful fellow at Home Depot found a couple of wooden dowels (because they didn't have clear plastic) and a very low budget solution (worthy of Hammer Films, no doubt) ended up looking rather spectacular, don't you think?

All this occurred at the end of the start of the repetition of the opening theme, the so-called "recapitulation" which is a very important spot to notice if you are trying to follow the structure of a piece of music. And I'm pretty sure the audience didn't miss it!

You can listen to this spectacular piece of music below: I'm still working on video from the concert itself. While I'm at it, I'd like to thank videographer Doug Abbott for all his time and expertise, and Michelle Wellens, who was the spirit behind the page turn! and also the voice of "Siri" in the aforementioned GPS sketch, along with Shane Smith, who played the hapless page turner (I'm so hard on my page turners!).

Guilmant: Sonata no. 1: III. Allegro assai (very fast)

(the page turning effect, and the start of the third section, occurs at  4:47-5:02)

Friday, November 20, 2015

Authorized fire?

I figured if I looked hard enough I could find it. But not yet.

Somewhere in the Old Testament I am pretty sure there is a passage which describes a man who brings an offering to the Lord. And not just any offering, but an animal he has raised himself from birth. The kind of home-made, time-intensive, give of yourself kind of offering you would think God would prefer over the sort of I'll-just-pay-for-this-one-over-here ready made kind that didn't take much time or thought. But it's just the opposite. God rejects the offering because it didn't come from within the temple. Apparently you weren't allowed to bring your own animals into the temple long before you couldn't bring your own food into the stadium.

Am I remembering that right?

When I tried to look up the reference I was beset with a number of contradictory references to offerings. Many of them were indeed concerned with when and where; stern reminders abounded that God would punish persons who failed to make the appropriate offering at the appointed time; one rival Israelite tribe managed to avoid internecine strife (ie., slaughter) by agreeing not to use a competing place of offering so that the one in Jerusalem could remain the only legitimate one.

Then of course there are the prophets who question whether burnt sacrifices are necessary at all; maybe God would much rather we behave ourselves for a change, or show mercy to others rather than wiping them out because they aren't doing things to our liking.

But those are the prophets. The priests, who control the church, also control the sacrifices. And there are rules. Oh there are rules. Aaron's own sons got killed, not because they didn't offer anything to God, but because they did it with unauthorized fire. Whatever that means--probably they did it on their own without consulting the proper chain of command. Throughout the Bible, and throughout the history of the church as well, there is a definite anxiety to make sure that the authorities have control over the rites of the offering. As David Plotz observes in "Good Book," the Bible clearly comes down on the side of the minority control of religion. When the Korahites want to know why everybody can't be priests, why Moses gets to be in charge, they are put in their place (killed).

And for the last 2000 years the Catholic Church has taught that there is "no salvation outside the church." Martin Luther notwithstanding. Especially him! And if you thought that spiritual copyright claim had lapsed with time and a little ecumenical understanding, recall that a few Advents ago, when the church changed the Mass a little (horror!) they made clear that the passage "peace to men of good will" meant you had to be Catholic to be of good will.

And on it goes. Protestants have plenty of strict regulations too, much of the time, and often will find ways to assert that you have to be a member of their particular brand or it doesn't count: you aren't saved. The very word religion means "to bind" and it doesn't really matter if that concept bothered Jesus not a little; we do it in His name anyhow.

I bring all this up because I think it might be the solution to the mystery I posed in the bulletin last week as I played an offertory by Francois Couperin. His "Mass for the Parishes" is one of only two large organ masses he wrote, but he is still regarded as a major composer for the organ. I've been working my way through this little epic. It is patterned like other French organ masses of the period. I suspect that is because, in order for it to be used in the mass at all, it had to follow the stipulations of the church at that time and place.

The organ portion of the mass here has five kyries, nine glorias, nothing at all from the credo, one offertory, a couple of sanctus verses, two from the agnus dei, a benedictus a deo gratias (thanks be to God).

The only piece that seems to get regular play from organists is the offertory. And, strangely, that is the longest piece in the mass. I mentioned that in my notes to the congregation. Since it was stewardship Sunday this seemed like a good time to emphasize the offertory. The pastor joked afterward that we could have passed the plates twice!

But why is the offertory the longest piece in the set? In the mass, it is the credo that is by far the longest; a thorough statement of beliefs that many composers have made much music over (not always the best music) and which often stretches to incredible lengths, particularly if you make an entire piece out of each clause.

And yet, in Couperin's mass, the organ is silent. This is apparently because the organ was not permitted to alternate with the sung portions of the mass here. In other sections of the mass it gave the chanters a break to breathe, to meditate, and the organist could provide contrast and majesty of a more voluminous kind to balance the serenity (or boredom) of unrelieved plainchant.

And then, just as the Gloria is suppressed during Advent, or the Alleluia during Lent, the organ is released from its 'season of penance' and given a chance to speak fully during the offertory. Apparently, this is why Couperin lavished the bulk of his art on this part of the mass. Because he was allowed. It was authorized.

It took me a bit of online searching to find anybody who wanted to take up this question. Most organists just play the piece because it is a great piece and don't wonder about things like this, and I don't know the musicological literature well enough. But I did ask. And, fortunately, my offering last week in church was authorized. I am lucky to have supportive pastors who did not assume I am trying merely to show off by playing a long offertory. Besides, I'm not sure my congregation enjoyed it as much as I did anyhow--which is just as well. Some weeks I would prefer not to have everyone speak well of me (but that's another biblical reference for another time).

I can imagine a lot of religious traditions where what Couperin wrote would not be welcome. A French overture, concluding with a gigue, in a church! Too dancelike, or too grave, or both! And too French! We all seem to have rules--preferences that we often ascribe to the Divine--for what is and is not authorized as an offering. And then we often say the best gift is ourselves, but as we've seen, often that falls afoul of religious regulation as well. Our species has a long history of that--rejecting each other's offerings, often claiming that God has rejected them, too. I wonder what He thinks of Mr. Couperin.

I mentioned that Couperin only wrote two masses, one for the parish churches, and one for the convents. Both of these were published when he was twenty. He doesn't seem to have had much interest in religious music after that, at least for the organ. Do you suppose it was all those rules? Or was religious music just not fashionable enough to sustain Mr. Couperin's interest? I'll have to do some reading. In any case, he was organist for 55 years, and never published another piece of religious music for organ. Hmmm.

Couperin: Mass for the Parishes -- Offertory 


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Organ registration survival tips (part two)

Part one here.

I'm going to introduce you to the string stops, now. They are the only kind of stops left with 8s and 4s on them. Eights and fours are important, remember, because you will be playing the notes you've asked for (the 8s) and an octave higher (the 4s). The remaining stops have things like fractions and roman numerals on them, and for now I've chosen to avoid these. If you'd rather be safe than sorry, you'll find you can't get into very much trouble as long as you don't use these at first. But in a couple of installments, we'll learn about these, too, because these are your more colorful and interesting stops.

There are also some whole numbers that we've left out--16 and 2. These are the lowest octave, and the highest octave. We'll leave these aside for the moment, too.

String stops are among your softest stops, and they sound vaguely like stringed instruments. They have names that often contain the word "viol" in them, which is your giveaway, or, interestingly, the word "celeste," which in the orchestra is a bell-sounding keyboard instrument that Tchaikovsky likes to use every December to dance in the sugar plum fairies. On the organ it is a sweet-sounding string stop. Dulciana (from dulce, or sweet) is also a string stop. So is unda maris. Since there is a little more variety among string stop names you may just have to try them to find out which ones on your organ are string stops. They will have whole numbers on the stop tabs, and they won't be flutes (ie., with names like "somethingflote" or foundations--"principle" or "octave"), so by process of elimination you can make a pretty good guess already. At Faith, our very symmetrically designed organ has two of these on each manual as well.

Our very symmetrically designed organ is also configured so that the "friendly" stops I've introduced so far are all at the bottom of the stop jamb. The more adventurous ones are all at the top. If you use any of the bottom six in combination you can't get into too much trouble. I'll explain why later on.

the "safe zone"

We've been treating each "division" of the organ separately, but now I want to introduce you to a way to combine them. This is the first thing that could invite trouble, but I am doing it so that you can prevent having an accident it by knowing how it works.

A coupler is a way to combine sounds from one keyboard (manual) with sounds from another. On our organ (and on most organs) the upper manual is called the "swell" and the lower is called the "great" (the Germans, and the French, have different names for them). If you happen to have a third it will probably be called the "choir." In any case, there are tabs, usually in the middle of the console, that say things like "swell to great" and "choir to great" on them. These, when used, will put all of the stops you are using on the first manual and add them to the second manual. So....

Let's start with that general cancel button I taught you to love.

Now deploy a flute stop on the upper manual. Press the "swell to great 8" tab. Now play something on the upper manual. Play it again on the lower manual. The sound should be identical.

Now add a stop to the lower manual. Let's make it a string stop. Play something. You should now be listening to both the string stop on the lower manual, and the flute stop from the upper manual together. Pretty cool, no?

You can now review everything from our first installment--using the flute stops, the principle stops, and now the string stops, separately and in combination--but this time you aren't limited to the stops on a single manual. You could, say, use the two stops available on the lower manual (assuming your organ has the same number as ours) but this time you can combine them with both of the flute stops on the upper manual, by using the "swell to great" coupler, which adds the two flute stops you've deployed on the upper manual (the swell) to the lower manual (the great). Now by playing the lower manual you are hearing all four flute stops at once. The sound may be richer, fuller--and possibly more out-of-tune (one of the hazards of pipe organs and weather changes)!

Now that you know something about the couplers we can create a routine for the start of every organ piece. There is nothing worse than starting to play and getting an entirely different sound out of the organ than one you expected (especially if it is five times as loud). Much the same way as you check your mirrors before pulling your car out of the driveway, I want you to scan the console before you start to play each time. It will take some time at first but soon you will be able to do it in under five seconds.

First check for the blue lights that indicate the crescendo pedal might be on. No blue lights? Good. We won't be using this feature for a while.

Then check the couplers. Are they off unless you intend them to be on?

Now just like we learned to cross the street (in America, anyway) look left to right. The knobs on the far left are usually the pedal. I haven't talked about that yet because I am assuming you aren't using them. Make sure none of those stops are on. Then check your SWELL--the upper keyboard is generally on your left also. Make sure you've got the stops on that you want. Then look to the right and check the stops on the GREAT. Are we good to go? Then go!

Remember: Crescendo, couplers, pedal, swell, great. Then play.

It may take you some time to master this, but, I urge to you keep at it. If you do this every time you play something--scan the entire console--and if you choose your registration deliberately before the start of each piece--you'll get a lot of practice in a short time and not only will you know what you are doing, your fear of the organ console will go away!

Now you know enough about the organ to sound like a competent organist. Your playing will still be bland--we've still got about half the organ to discuss! But already you know about all the basic features.

And though I've tried to limit the information, any amount of information at first may seem like too much, but you can certainly go back and read these two blogs again (and again) and expect that, if you are playing regular church services, it will probably take a few weeks to gain comfort over all the stuff on that console. But keep at it! It is certainly worth the time to learn, and with knowledge will come an increase in confidence. And you are already setting the seeds to sound like a "real organist" in a relatively short time rather than a pianist who sets some inoffensive stops and leaves them on the whole service. There is nothing that more obviously says "I'm not a real organist" than somebody who uses the same organ sound the entire time. Learning to use the pedals will take longer, but using creative organ registration can come more quickly. And it will make you sound like an organist! And feel like one, too.

on to part three

Monday, November 16, 2015

The goblins are back

Around the fire, at the party after my organ concert a few weeks ago, she told me she really liked my comments about the muttering goblins and she'd been able to hear them.


As I've mentioned a few times this year, the absolute music folks aren't going to be happy that I brought ghosts and goblins into a perfectly good organ sonata, and probably cheapened the dignity of some highly regarded classical literature into the bargain. But here's my defense: it is useful as a guide to the listening experience. In fact, it obviously made a connection as evidenced by the woman's comments after the concert.

Alexander Guilmant probably was not thinking about goblins when he wrote his sonata movement. There is nothing programmatic about it--well, maybe we should back up a little. A dictionary definition of absolute music (was it from Harvard's?) called absolute music that which "has no program, or no program the composer wishes to advertise" because you never really know what was in the composer's head at the time.

Being a composer myself, I can tell you that while I do not often use imagery or narrative as part of the formative process of writing a piece, there are times when some sort of emotional impulse leads to a specific choice of melody or harmony--times when a feeling prompts me to play a particular chord on the piano. In that moment, I'm not thinking that I'll put an A major seven flat nine here--I'm not thinking in terms of the names of the chord or the procedure, I'm thinking, or feeling, something not in words, and basically that impulse leads to a chord because I am expressing that thing with the chord the same way our needs to communicate something inside us lead us to make particular word choices, or figures of speech, or speak in long or short sentences. We are translating something that is not words into something that is. The impulse leads to the clarification of that impulse, with music just as in words. Other composers have clearly found inspiration in words and ideas; some are best at setting texts and show little interest in music that operates without some kind of companion for inspiration.

What I'm suggesting is that I don't think simply in terms of compositional procedures--in fact, that is probably only a small (but necessary) part of my thinking. Of course, those impulses can't always be translated into words, or, if they are, the point is that they have to be translated, because English isn't their native language either.

I can't say that all composers everywhere have this type of thing built into their system, but as a creative human, I can say with safety that some people, some times, must be familiar with it.

It is not the analytical language of transition, retransition, exposition, 2nd theme, and so on. Although it is useful as an anatomical language for composers and theorists, it frankly bores me. And I suspect it bores the audience, so when I talk about what to listen for in a piece of music, while I usually key in on the piece's architecture, I seldom use it.

Instead, I'll try to attach something, emotional, experiential, active, or something to the parts of the music, making the necessary disclaimer that this is not a view necessarily endorsed by the composer, nor is it (as I suggested with the Brahmsian ghost story last week) the only way to negotiate the listening experience. It is one useful way among many, just as the piece's meaning, if it is a meritorious piece of music, is hardly exhausted by a single explanation.

So back to the goblins. I had hinted that the opening idea had a rather Halloween, goblinesque association. It was a Halloween concert, after all, and it made sense to connect the ideas. But after the first section ended (2:36), there was something very different waiting for the listeners. The something was a beautiful, hymnlike-melody in a major key. There is nothing odd about this--many composers have contrasting sections in the middle of their pieces. And there is nothing odd about what Guilmant did next, either.

Most composers like to connect their ideas somehow. It seems amateur to simply drop one idea and forget about it, the way people often discuss politics: "and another thing....and that reminds me...they all should just...." tossing disconnected ideas into the ring every thirty seconds without developing any of them. Instead, Guilmant will find a way to work his way back to that first theme, but before he does that, he finds an ingenious way to connect them as well.

Enter the goblins, or rather, let them forget to exit. What I told the audience was that if they listened carefully they could hear, between each phrase of the hymn, the goblins muttering to themselves and biding their time. In just a few seconds, this imaginative shorthand enabled the audience to notice something that very few would have heard otherwise. It is that very rapid pedal figure that flits by at the ends of phrases starting at 2:44.

In anatomical terms, this is a leftover from the first theme, in rapid notes, which contrasts with the slow moving second theme. In a minute or so, Guilmant will begin alternating the themes with more regularity and gradually giving the stage more and more to the first, preparing its return. This is, from a procedural standpoint, pretty basic.

But it's not very alive, then, is it?

Dare I connect an emotion, an image, even a slogan from a horror move (...they're baaaaack!) to describe the hair-raising way in which Guilmant accomplishes this basic architectural feature of a sonata movement? (complete with spectral page turn!)

Why not? It worked. And it took far less time to expound than this blog. It made a connection. Somebody heard something they wouldn't have heard otherwise. Something very interesting a composer did that went by in an instant, but made the piece much more than mundane.

That's what images and ideas do. They help us form our own maps, our own connections to music. They interpret form and structure, as well as local ideas, melodies and rhythms. They are the stuff of us, just as our music is. They are not to be confused with the music itself, and they are not more than the temporary interpretation of it.

But they help us to connect, to relate. And that's significant.


Friday, November 13, 2015

Back to the Organ (part two)

Friday, November 13, 2015

Dear Andy,

My name is Michael. Yours is, too. One of the things that will happen to you in a few years is that you will decide to stop fighting the school computer, which insists on calling you by your first name, and adopt that instead of your middle name as your standard form of address.

I'm from 30 years into your future. I am you--sort of. And I have no intention of showing you this letter, which I hadn't gotten around to composing until a couple of weeks after my return to 2015, which shows I haven't changed all that much--I still procrastinate sometimes. Although these days I have better excuses for it.

I was hiding behind one of the pillars watching you practice on October 26, 1985. When Doc Brown traveled to October 21, 2015, I hitched a ride back to 1985. You know what I'm talking about because you've just seen the movie where they travel back to 1955 in their time machine. What you haven't seen yet is the second part which won't come out for four years which involves them traveling 30 years into the future. I'm there now. I didn't get there in a Delorean. My journey took a lot longer. Let me describe some of it.

You are just a freshman in high school. Already it is assumed you will be a musician, because, in the small town in which you live you have been playing as well or better than the adults around you for years already and are being treated like a child prodigy. You don't realize how much you are going to have to learn to catch up to the standards of the larger musical world, although you have a vague unsettled feeling about this, and no resources to help. Fortunately, your mother will realize this in a couple of years on the recommendation of some teachers from the summer music camp you are going to attend in the summer, and you will leave the elementary school music teacher you are studying with and enter the world of the conservatory where you will start with a student who will teach you enough to gain admission to the conservatory, then with several concert pianists, and in four years you will make an astonishing amount of progress technically and musically. You'll end up winning some piano competitions and playing with some orchestras. You'll even win a prize at the conservatory. None of this will seem realistic when you arrive. But you'll practice your butt off and take everything your teacher tells you and eventually make something out of it. It's really astonishing what you'll manage to do in four years. But you won't be herded around to a little bit of everything anymore. Your time will be your own and you'll use it to eat sleep and breathe music. And to practice about 8 hours a day. Six when you are taking the day off. You really weren't much of a party animal in college. But you sure got a lot accomplished.

I'm going to pause for a minute to recall those humble beginnings. In the first place, we both know your music teacher was doing her best, and that she was surprisingly able for an elementary school music teacher. For one thing, she was the only one in the district who could play the piano with two hands--and she could play some fairly advanced stuff, too. She was also able to see that you needed a grand piano, which your mother thought was pretty funny, but turned out to be true. Life in that little town was pretty good, but they didn't have the resources. Remember when you didn't think Beethoven's music was available to regular people? It is, just not in small town music stores. You have to go somewhere bigger.

Which you did. And for a couple of years it was heaven. Music everywhere. Those Cleveland orchestra concerts--free for students! The library, where you could listen to all that music you should have already known, and a lot besides. Picking up all manner of things musical, taught and untaught, and all that underground repertoire--the stuff your teacher didn't assign, but you learned anyway. Gobs of it.

Eventually you'll sour on the conservatory. I won't get into that, but you should know that life gets rocky sometimes. A lot of it is out of your control, and you won't even understand half of what is going on. But you'll hang in there. It turns out not all schools are that way.

You'll end up in Baltimore for a while. At a school with a very different in atmosphere from the one you left. And you'll stay for a number of years and learn a great deal more. And be more sociable this time and have a little more fun.

You don't wind up as a concert pianist. You won't want to--although, since that is your major, and the thing that everybody associates with glamour and talent, you'll feel a bit guilty about that, but you'll wind up doing some things that allow you to express yourself more fully, including all of that creative stuff that didn't get much airing in school. It's still there. You'll use it, too. To compose, to improvise, and to educate. And you do wind up giving several concerts, some solo, some with various ensembles. You are still a performing artist--one of the lucky few who are actually using their degree the way it was intended. And you will actually manage to make your living in music. You will be right not to take that dean up on his offer to do "anything else" because music is an impossible career. It is--but it's working somehow.

You had a couple of goals growing up. They didn't necessary make sense--mostly they were what you felt you ought to be able to do because it was a fulfillment of your talent, like climbing a mountain. One was to play Carnegie Hall. You did that, about 15 years ago. The other was to get a Doctorate in Music. You did that, too. It is debatable, since you aren't in academia at the moment, whether that was really necessary, but you made the decision before you knew how specialties worked and with no help from people who knew about these things in preparing for any kind of specific musical career (they've since started counseling for music students and more comprehensive career preparation at the conservatory). And even if the degree itself wasn't really that important, the time spent earning it made a big difference.

For one thing, it kept you in Baltimore long enough to meet your wife.  She'll turn out to be really something, but you'll have to wait a while to find that out, too. By the way, her name starts with a K. You remember that time somebody told you that if you twist an apple stem one turn for each letter of the alphabet it will come off when you get to the letter of the person you are going to marry? Pretty silly stuff. You tried it and wound up with K, which I recall seemed impossible. Plus the only K name you could think of was Kathy which you didn't really like for some reason. Well, her name's not Kathy.

Those first few years in Baltimore will be tough--you won't know if you will be able to pay for school the next semester. Hang in there. You'll manage it, with some help. Then you'll wind up in--Champaign, Illinois. I know, pretty bizarre. Never would have thought of it. That turns out to be pretty good, too.

I was thinking , while I was listening to you "practice" from behind the post--which was pretty brutal, by the way--that I ought to jump out and introduce myself, tell you I'm from your future and see if I could get you to make any decisions differently from what you did the first time. But since I don't own the DeLorean and can't just go back and forth in time, experimenting with the timeline at will, I didn't want to chance it. I like how things have turned out. Other than some occasional curiosity (I'm always experimenting, you know) I wouldn't want to risk it.

It's not what you thought it would be, of course. A lot of that was what the people around you were telling you it should be like. Being famous, playing the piano on television (which you did, by the way, and I'm pretty sure nobody from your home town saw it), and so on. No, you're not famous. And you don't go around the world paying concerts, although you have played a few concerts on the other side of the world.

Actually you spend most of your time making music in the Methodist Church. You won't get your first job yet for a year and a half. It's going to help you learn to improvise as well as learn music faster. You may be overqualified, but you are also very appreciated and have a lot of artistic freedom you probably wouldn't have gotten with an agent and a concert schedule.

In another decade there will be something called the internet. Ten years after that it will be developed to the point where you can put recordings on it. A few weeks ago you recorded that mighty Bach piece you liked to listen to on that record you got in--which year was it? Anyway, you've done that a lot. Pieces you are only listening to now become pieces you play in concert and in church and make recordings of. In a few decades you will be playing the piano--and the organ, all over the world, even if it's not in concert. People will also be writing to you from all over the world, asking questions about piano playing, telling you they enjoyed reading something you wrote, or found it informative, or hysterical (see, that humor column in the school paper even turned into something). It's going to be an interesting future. You won't enjoy every last minute of it, which is too bad, but it's the way we are. And all of it, good and bad, will take you to where I am. And that's not the end, either. I think I almost caught some guy with a stoop and a shock of grey hair spying on me practicing the other day. I let him go. I don't want to know too much.

You truly,
Michael Andy

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Organ registration survival tips (part one)

It's perfectly natural for a pianist asked to play the organ in church to be afraid of the instrument. I remember the look on the face of a piano student of mine when she first sat on the organ bench (at my prodding). A year later she was subbing for me in church, looking confident and in command. At first, however, when presented with such a plethora of knobs and buttons it is no wonder she was worried.

A couple of weeks ago I presented a real life example of an adventure I had with organ registration that I hope showed what an amazing and flexible instrument an organ is and what a wide range of sonic possibilities it has. That is all well and good, but of course if you are new to the organ the first thing you are worried about is not whether or not you are going to sound creative and interesting at the organ bench but whether you are going to do something really stupid and make a horrible sound that the whole congregation will hear!

Fear not. Let's back up the truck and start with a few things that are perfectly safe and will keep your playing from exploding unawares all over the church (don't I make this sound like fun!)

Let's make friends with the general cancel button right away. If you are sitting at an organ we want to make sure you are starting with a blank slate. There is usually a button that will immediately cancel everything that another organist has left on so that you won't be inheriting any extra sounds you didn't ask for. It's often located right here and looks like this:

Give it a push. If it causes a lot of stop knobs to dive back into their rest positions, and makes a loud noise, than it is a good thing we did it. Besides, it is a short bit of racket, and even on Sunday morning people won't be that perturbed if you do it once in a while.

Now the other thing I would watch out for is the crescendo pedal. You'll know your organ has one of these (some don't) if the large "gas pedal" on the right says "crescendo" above or below it, and it, when you start to push it down ("accelerate") blue lights start to come on, like this:

Some organs might have a bar that lights up or something. In any case, what the crescendo pedal is doing is gradually turning on stops, usually without making that obvious by physically pushing the knobs out as you would do when you are selecting them, and if it is still on, even though you haven't pulled any stops out the organ will still play--maybe even loudly. I recommend always scanning the organ console before you start to play and making sure those blue lights (or whatever they are) are not on. In American organs the crescendo pedal will override any stops you have or have not set yourself. (In some organs it will not)

Good! Now, when you depress keys or pedal notes you should get no sound at all. If you are still getting sound, call our tech support hotline at---just kidding, we don't have a tech support hotline. Although you could send a picture of the console and I could try to figure it out.

Now I'm going to introduce you to just two types of organ sound. The first are the flute stops. They are easy to find because they all have names with the word flute (or the german flote) in them. like spitzflote, rohrflote, chimney flute (which is the same thing as a rohr flote) or koppelflote (my favorite). The nice thing about these is that they aren't very loud and they have a pleasing sound. Your organ may have several. Play a piece of music using just one of them. Perhaps a verse of a hymn or a short section of something you are working on. Then push that one back in and try another. The idea is to try them one at a time and notice the subtle differences between them. Then try them together. There are two on each of the two keyboards on the organ at Faith. One of the them is called a Bourdon, which does not have the word flute in it anywhere, and is currently the only exception I can think of to what I just said. It means "covered" because the pipes are capped at the top and it makes a dark, mellow flute sound.

Flute stops will have whole numbers beneath their names like 8 and 4. Eight is your basic pitch--play a middle C, get a middle C. Four will give you an octave higher. If you put them together you have a nice blend. If you use a 4 by itself it may start to sound like a choir of chipmunks, but pleasant nonetheless.

The only problem with flute stops is that they are not likely to be loud enough for congregational singing. So if you have hymns to play you need to acquaint yourself with the foundation stops. These sound a lot like the flute stops but they are usually quite a bit louder. Foundation stops form the basic, fundamental sound of the organ. They are also marked with whole numbers like 8 and 4 and in most organs they are known as principles. Your organ probably has a stop marked principle 8. Try it out. It is likely to pair well with an "octave 4" with is also a foundation stop.

This would be a good way to start with hymn accompanying. It will be a bit bland, but it will be safe.

Do me a favor, though. Don't just pick one group of stops and leave that on the entire service. If this is your first week and you are trying to get through an entire church service, I understand that you aren't very comfortable with a lob of knobs. But at least do this: for preludes, offertories, and anything the congregation is not singing, use some combination of flute stops. When the congregation is singing, use the principle stops. That means you will have to pull out (to turn on) or push in (to turn off) a couple of stops before each piece you play. I want you to get used to doing that--be aware of those stop combinations--don't just set them to something safe and leave them that way forever.

Besides, as long as you are using stops with 8s and 4s on them, you won't be able to make any really unpleasant sound anyway.

on to the second article in this (5-part) series

Monday, November 9, 2015

Where the rabbit comes from

There are really two major differences separating persons of eminent ability and recognized genius and people who spent their lives on the couch watching television. One of those is the willingness to work, very hard, for countless hours at whatever it is they are pursuing.

The other is the ability to even believe in the utility of work to start with.

What I mean is that a lot of not very successful people don't even believe in work as being much of a factor. They tend to believe that people who are brilliant at something are just that way because that's the way they are. They may even think that those folks never have to break a sweat: it all comes naturally. And, of course, if you aren't one of those brilliant people you might as well not even bother because it either happens or it doesn't. no effort is required; none will make any difference.

It's a convenient little belief system.

What I'm about to do is mess with a closely related symptom of this mindset which is the thrill of not knowing where something came from or how it got there--the kind of astonishment that comes when a magician suddenly pulls a rabbit out of a hat.

The thing is, the rabbit had to come from somewhere.

In fact, great classical composers can usually be found to have had influences of one sort or another. Other composers. The works of other composers. Teachers. Mentors. Musicologists spend a lot of their time tracking these down so they can ruin everybody's fun.

No, really, they find it fascinating, and it is not meant to ruin anything. The astonishing thing is that when people find out something they somehow thought was completely original sprang from somewhere else, they find that disappointing.

Why is that?

Today's exhibit is the towering Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor by Johann Sebastian Bach. I played it on my organ concert just over a week ago. What you may not have noticed is that a few weeks before the concert a couple of little organ pieces quietly entered the pianonoise catalogue. These were a couple of passacaglie (what in heaven is the plural of passacaglia, anyhow?) written by a French organist who, while quite famous in his own time, has left barely a mark on musical history. His name was Andre Raison, and the reason for my interest in his music is that someone found an interesting similarity between his piece and Bach's. Basically, the theme is the same:


A passacaglia is a kind of piece in which there is a continually repeated musical idea in the bass, and each time that 'theme' is repeated, different things occur in the parts above it. It is a chance for a composer to pour his ingenuity into a form which, thorough the restraint of constant repetition, allows the composer to find as much variety as he or she can in the counterpoint of a single theme.

Raison managed to get about 90 seconds out of his; Bach decided maybe it would yield around seven or eight minutes, and then attached a fugue that added six minutes more. But there is another difference.

Raison's theme is four measures long. Bach's is twice that. Assuming that the young Bach started with Raison's theme in front of him, he appears to have extended it, which was a very wise idea.

Where did he get the extension? There is a theory that what he actually did was to combine two of Raison's themes from two different pieces. The one you just heard furnished the first half, and the second, despite being in a major rather than a minor key and being pitched a step down, can be shown to have the same notes as the rest of Bach's theme, provided you take both themes and transpose them to c minor.


At this point someone always puts up their hand and asks "couldn't Bach have just come up with the tune on his own?" We are nothing if not suspicious of a little scholarship. And I would have to say that the theme seems so natural, and Bach so clever, that it does seem possible for Bach to have simply thought of the tune himself. But it is quite likely that he took it from somewhere as well.

I haven't had a chance to check the musicological literature as I was preparing for the concert. It may be that someone has established a definitive link between the pieces. It is possible (but not likely) there is even a copy of these pieces in Bach's hand. Often, though, that is not the case and all we can do is make a good guess. What we do know about Bach is that he often used the works of other composers for study and imitation. There are, for example, several organ transcriptions Bach made of concertos by Vivaldi and others (I played one a few years ago). Bach was aware of composers all over Europe and often wrote pieces in the 'French' style, or the 'English' style, or in imitation of some kind of piece that was popular in one of those places. This practice was hardly limited to Bach: composers did this frequently. You learned from others, and then you tried to surpass them.

The most obvious point of contact between Bach and another composer is Dietrich Buxtehude. We know that Bach spent three months with Buxtehude when, as a young organist, he took a 250 mile trip to visit him at his church in Lubeck. Perhaps it was Buxtehude who showed Bach the Raison pieces. Buxtehude himself wrote several passacaglie (there's that darned plural again) and when I get a chance I'll be looking for similarities between his and Bach's to see if there were more influences.

This is hardly a disappointment to me. I find it fascinating to trace the connections. It doesn't make Bach a two-bit plagiarist with no compositional genius. Even if we posit that he "stole" the theme (and if Raison found out and reacted the way Clementi did when Mozart cribbed a theme from his piano sonata for use in the "Magic Flute" overture then we have to admit composers didn't always encourage such borrowing)--even then, he did something quite amazing with what he found. It is as if Raison was sitting on a gold mine the whole time and didn't realize it. And Bach did.

But then, Bach was Bach. Ask any organist. See if they don't sound in awe and enthusiasm just saying the name. I'm not saying it might not seem a bit over the top. But it's true. The man could write music like nobody else.

Listen for yourself to the great

[Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor]

Friday, November 6, 2015

The speed of scary (part two)

Organist can be a cranky lot.

If you go listen to any of the numerous videos organists have posted on Youtube and scan the comments, there be invariably somebody there complaining about the tempo the organist took. This seems to be unique to organists. Pianists will complain instead, when confronted with some outstanding recording by some great pianist of their time, that some OTHER great pianist played the piece infinitely better. Pianistic partisanship is a cult of personality; for organists it comes down to the metronome.

I don't usually post to Youtube (I have my own index of nearly 500 mp3 files on my own site without an accompanying comment board) so I am not often eaten for lunch by fellow organists whenever I put up a recording, but the other week when I posted a short piece in preparation for last Friday's recital, I imagined what they would say.

It was just too darned fast.

Actually, it probably was. I had a teacher in college (I was a piano major) who would get out her metronome the first week my violinist partner and I brought in a new piece and tell us it needed to be faster. Since we'd only been playing the piece for a few days at that point, that was natural. It was also natural that, given a little more time, the notes would become gestures, and our comprehension of the piece would allow us to speed up. Her strategy may have made that natural acceleration process worse: the second week when we brought the piece in it was always too fast! By the third week even baby bear would have enjoyed it.

I often have a very narrow window to record pieces before I have to turn my attention to something else. The Toccata by Gigout was not a particularly difficult piece, so about 3 days into the process I made my first recording, by which time I was just able to play the piece competently, but was also pretty nervous, and, I will maintain, didn't know the piece well enough to slow down.

This argument flies in the face of what every teacher ever told me (it probably belongs with the old "this sounded better at home" which I usually answer by telling my students "of course it did" and then explaining why that is entirely likely but ultimately won't work as an excuse during a concert) which was to play everything slowly and gradually speed up, or that, if you can't play the piece slowly you can't play it quickly, to which I say, nonsense.

You have to be a pretty advanced musician for the "nonsense" to stick, however. Most amateur musicians play too fast and too sloppily. You'll notice that the recording I'm about to share with you is pretty articulate. The reason it is so fast is that I was thinking in gestures. For me, whole groups of about eight notes played in one hand position often feels as if I am standing still. They are not eight distinct bits of information, they are like eight syllables in a sentence in my native language which I can spit out in a unit without thinking about it (so can you). Like a major league hitter, who can slow down a fast pitch in his mind in order to key on it and hit it, there is very little effort required to execute groups of notes taking up a beat or two of space; they are all part of one grouping. This allows me to go very fast. It actually takes more effort to slow everything down and think in terms of individual notes.

I tried that a week later, unsuccessfully. I found that the tempo wasn't completely constant because as of yet I couldn't accurately maintain a complete evenness of notes, and at the slower speed, any slight variation would jump out at you. The tempo speeds up at times, particularly toward the end. This is too bad; I might have been able to highlight some of the majesty of the grand sonorities at the slower speed, and, given a few more days to get used to it might have worked.  I've posted it below anyhow to compare it to the others, and so you can hear that I don't get things right all the time (consider it an outtake!).

Just days before the concert, I tried again, and this is the recording that made the catalogue. It is probably still too fast for many organists, but I think it is just about right. The challenge of finding the right tempo, for me, is to find something that is just slow enough that the long notes have time to build, and that the crescendi are suspenseful. It takes time to anticipate; if you deliver right away the impact is gone. But some of the recordings I've heard sound too much like finger exercises, a symptom of too slow a speed.

Organists, being a group of people, tend to be very doctrinaire in their pronouncements; they don't seem to be willing to entertain a real discussion about the proper tempo rather than just passing judgment and quitting the field. But I find the subject far more interesting. There are many things to consider, like the acoustic environment or the mechanics of the organ. What will it permit in terms of key action, and is a church with a 20 second reverb going to reward the same tempo as one that is completely dry? Not likely.

And then there are philosophical considerations. How does the piece unfold; how does it speak to us? I've often found great performers can find very different tempi and yet still make the piece very much alive.

And in that sense, we all should aspire to the words of Dr. Frankenstein when we play a piece. The words, and, of course, the results.

It's alive!

Gigout: Toccata in b minor (too fast version)

Gigout: Toccata in b minor (too slow?)

Gigout: Toccata in b minor (just right?)

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The speed of scary

What makes something scary?

One of the great ironies from last week's concert is that by far the most reaction-grabbing item on the program was the first: the famous Toccata and Fugue in d minor by (perhaps) J. S. Bach. This was the item I just HAD to play. And it isn't a surprise that it went over well. People know it. And most people like what they know and know what they like. Even the music streaming service Pandora has been party to the phenomena. Put the entire world of music in all its infinite variety merely a click away and most people are still not curious enough to try something new. When I post something off the beaten path it can go all week at the top of the pianonoise homepage without a single click. Something famous on the other hand might get a lot of attention. Despite most people knowing very little of the classical literature, those same people will naturally assume that if they don't know it it must not be that good. Which means they'll never find out they were wrong.

But fear, one reasons, ought to be another thing altogether--or perhaps the reason for the avoidance of anything new. Fear is something you experience in the face of the unknown. Not simply because you might not like something but because it could genuinely harm you. Fear is not the guise of the familiar; it is the costume worn by the thing without a face, or even a recognizable human form. It is unknown, unnamed. It is a force, a concept.

In other words, it is a little strange that people came out to a concert that was supposed to be scary in order to experience the familiar; the part where the guy in the phantom costume launches into the Toccata and Fugue on a gothic sounding pipe organ. We all know that image and that sound. There isn't anything scary about travelling a path well lit in the mind.

Then again, that is part of what makes Halloween what it is, I argued. It is a chance to be afraid in a safe environment, to laugh at our fears. And for many of us, it isn't really a scary holiday at all. It is more of a carnival.

Afterward, there was plenty of chance to be afraid. The rest of the concert consisted of pieces that most people did not know. These were all pieces from the organ repertoire. All of them deserve to be heard, all could qualify as "scary"--mainly just through being in minor keys, really--and all offered a chance to experience something new and be changed by the experience. And several people found that they really enjoyed that. Which made being "your host" for the evening really gratifying. After all, as an organist, I am a keeper of a very impressive crypt full of some amazing music, and most of the year it is behind several layers of rock and a fence with a mental KEEP OUT (you might not like it) sign. It isn't easy to access, even for the intrepid traveler. Even our classical radio station doesn't play organ music. Where would you go to hear some if you wanted to?   (::cough:: pianonoise)

We do have a small group of organists in town, with their own chapter of the American Guild of Organists, and they do give concerts sometimes (attended usually by 30 to 50 people). Friday night was a full house (200-250?) and some of them (I could tell from the comments afterward) made a real connection with some new music. That is about as rewarding as it gets. And if others were merely entertained--well, it's not so bad, either. I'd like to think Friday was pretty entertaining as well. Usually after one of these events, which feature about 45 minutes of music and a half hour of commentary, someone tells me that I missed my calling as a stand up comedian.

I was also told that my talk was informative. This is a good combination, it seems to me. I'll try posting it by next week so you can make up your own mind. Stay tuned.

Monday, November 2, 2015

A Brahmsian Ghost Story

One of the things that I learned before last week's mostly organ concert is that I can play the piano in very low light, including pieces with leaps and hand crossings. Hopefully the audience found out, if they didn't know it already, that they would like to hear more from that Brahms fellow.

The only piano piece on the program was a Brahms rhapsody, specifically the second one in g minor. I was practicing it a few years back and decided it might not be a bad selection for a Halloween concert. So with a little help from the resident Steinway and Mr. Brahms, I told them a ghost story.

Brahms's disciples would shriek that what he wrote was absolutely music and music alone, which meant it should be completely independent from any ideas or narrative. Making a ghost story out of it would certainly be sacrilege.

But as Schumann, who had to be considered in the anti-programmatic camp, complained, composers shouldn't provide programs for their pieces because the audience is robbed of the chance to determine one for themselves. This is hardly the same as saying there should be no such ideas inspired by the music, rather it is saying that the audience should be allowed the freedom to create it, rather than having the composer insist on one interpretation himself. This is an interesting proposition. Schumann's response to the person who asked what his etude meant, therefore, (which was to sit down and play it again) does not necessarily mean that the music meant only itself, but that he couldn't, or wouldn't, explain it in words. I would group his response with that of Aaron Copland, who said, if asked if the music meant anything, he would say yes, and if asked if he could explain what it was, he would say no. There is a deliberate vagueness there.

On Friday, I told the audience that I had a ghost story, but I didn't fill in any details (other than suggesting the Black Forest as a possible backdrop). This could have been a useful listening exercise.

Now in any piece of classical music, particularly one that is seven minutes long, the structure of the piece is very important. If you can't follow the musical argument for several minutes, you are likely at some point to get bored or confused. And yet it is unlikely that most members of my audience had such listening skills. Traditional analytical terms like exposition, transition, 2nd theme, development, recapitulation and all that only go so far anyway. I am conversant with them, but frankly, they make the musical process sound rather dull. I am also likely to zone out when program notes consist mainly of a musical blow-by-blow description of a piece, particularly when it is limited to musical procedures--the sort of thing 21st century composers often write about their own music ("it is based on a four-note motive which is then played backwards against a descending scale derived from the first three notes transposed up a third set against the remaining notes in the brass..." sheeesh.)

Using one's 'romantic' imagination can be a nice corrective (or rebellion) against that sort of thing, but it is also a way for the mind to attempt to find a coherent structure for the piece. The part where they are walking happily into the forest, the place where it grows dark, the part where they see a lonely house in the distance and make for it... as naïve as it might sound to an academic or a professional musician, making a "story" out of a piece of music takes the music out of passive sound absorption and into the realm of raw material out of which sense--and form--is derived. At least, that's the hope. And as story, there ought to be some narrative continuity, which is just what the audience needs to find. All the better if they find it themselves.

Framing the piece as a ghost story did something else, too. I had an interesting conversation with a pianist after the concert in which I pointed out that pianists of today tend to maintain consistent tempi and minimize dynamic contrast. We are still, it seems, in reaction against Romantic "excess." This is one case where the recent authenticity movement fails to be authentic at all. The irony is that we are so busy rescuing the Baroque and Classical periods against Romantic 'vandalism' that we fail utterly to realize that when we are playing Romantic music, that those very discards ARE authentic. Brahms's score is full of places where the music goes from piano to fortissimo in just a beat or two, and while the tempo fluctuations are not similarly marked, those pianists who survived into the early 20th century showed us that in the 19th tempo was much more fluid, and that the net effect was far more dramatic. Pianists of the time may have been more technically sloppy, but they played with far more emotional impact. Even if we find that embarrassing.

With any luck, telling my harrowing tale from the keyboard the other night made me approach the piece more like Brahms himself would have. Unfortunately, only one wax cylinder of his playing survives, and it is so distorted that it is hard to know how he played. But at the very least, I got to run an interesting experiment, which may have gone against the grain of many a modern pianistic approach, a good deal of which in the end is as much a reflection of fashion as authenticity.

And if that thought scares some of you, well, BOO!

Brahms: Rhapsody no. 2 in g minor, op. 79 n. 2