Friday, December 8, 2017

Ghosts of Christmas music past, part two (finale)

I've been sharing some personal memories of the music I've assembled for the holiday season that you can hear all this month on Pianonoise Radio. All of the recordings date from before our move to Pittsburgh, my cancer, and my job change. I have started to make recordings again, and some of them have begun finding their way to the web; however, it will probably be next year before I add any of them to the holiday program.

We left off right before the Liszt piece, "The Shepherds at the Manger" which is a little thing based on the tune "In Dulci Jubilo." I discovered its existence while reading a forum question posed by a piano teacher who was trying to find some "Christian" music for piano that he could stand, and while the efforts of the various (probably non-Christian) parties involved to find something classical and church-appropriate was fairly amusing, there were some suggestions that bordered on useful--at least this little guy could come in handy at Christmas. However, my efforts to record it were racked by even greater comedy, as you can read here. I think it may be one of my favorite blog posts.

The two books of Bartok carols were recorded the same year, the year that our church sanctuary got new carpet in the middle of Advent, which made things difficult, since in the busiest season of the year I didn't have access to the organ for nearly two weeks. Recording was also difficult since the better piano was also buried under a pile of debris for the duration. I managed to hack out this recording in such a hurry I think I might have only had one day to learn the piece, which accounts for a couple of mis-readings and one place where I left out a line of one of the carols! I still like the recording, though. Bartok gives me something very different to listen to during this most hackneyed of musical months, though I suppose the rest of the populace would rather listen to the same popular songs and occasional carols all the time. Oh well, it is my website, and you can skip it if you want. I like it, anyway, and since familiarity is nine tenths of the law in music, you probably will too if you listen to it a few times. Unfortunately I can't find the words to any of the carols.

Call it OCD if you will, or just rampant creativity, but the Tunder Canzona comes with special features, such as being able to hear it from different locations. I've explained it all in this blog.

Listening to the meditative beauty of Bach's next version of "Now Come, Savior of the Nations" it is hard to believe that I spent several minutes before the recording desperately trying to kill a grasshopper. It was hiding under one of the windows of the sanctuary and it would not shut up so that I could record in peace. Eventually it did, which is good; I never did find it. If the title seems a little familiar it is because it is based on an ancient advent hymn and Bach himself wrote four organ settings of the same hymn. This one is the most often played by a mile, being so peaceful. I'll be playing it next week in church for what I think is the third time. I try not to repeat selections very often which is why the last time I played it during a Christmas season was 2008. The present recording I think comes from 2011 and was made during the summer (hence the grasshopper). This is often the best time to record Christmas music as I am much too busy in December.

If we go back into the eons of time; that is, to my teenage years--I had a tradition of Christmas improvisations. I would take several carols, and make up my own arrangements of them in front of a tape recorder. They ranged from melancholy to ridiculous. I do less of that now, but one year, after continuing to struggle with the shrinkage of time during the holidays, I revived the practice, and several of the remaining pieces are improvisations. The good news is that after years of practice I can make up something on the spot that sounds reasonably close to a printed composition. The bad news is I was trying to sneak it in between rehearsals and concerts, and wasn't always at my best. I think five of these were made at once one morning just before a staff Christmas lunch. I've since written some of the them out for further use and even played one on Christmas eve from the (partially completed) score (not enough time!). Some of the meanderings and hesitations will disappear then. I also find improvisations can be a good starting point for an actual composition later--provided I can remember them, or happen to record them, which isn't likely except at Christmas. If you take delight in the "authenticity" that is the actual unfiltered moment of inspiration, then these last pieces are for you. I'll be bringing my recorded to church this year too, to capture the moment. I'll also be going back to some of the music I played during my college years, and graduate school, to remind myself of more Christmases past.

The funny, the bizarre, and the annoying, all are part of the history of these recordings, but while these words may give you a back stage glance into the messy reality that is a life in music, it is the music itself, evocative of peace, love, hope and joy, as well as melancholy, drama, and wonder--this is my Christmas present to you. This year and every year at this time as we examine ourselves we reckon with and see more clearly our passage through the portal of time. The music will be here next year too, I hope, but with some additions from this next chapter of my life, which is just beginning, in the building at the bottom of the page. Have a Merry Christmas, and if you don't celebrate Christmas (or even if you do), may you have peace, joy and love.

Michael Hammer

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