Friday, July 13, 2018


One morning my wife was doing something at her computer and said across the room, "they're having a 5k here in town. Why don't you sign up?"

Five kilometers? Are you crazy? I've jogged to the mailbox and back on a rainy day, but...

How far is that in miles, anyhow?

You might get the impression from the foregoing that I was not a world class runner. Heck, why did I just use the past tense?

I decided to give it a try, and spent the last week of March and the month of April trying to get into shape. This was my killer regimen the first week: I would go to the park, which was about a mile. Since I couldn't keep up a run for more than 45 seconds without running out of breath, I would slow to a walk until I thought I could handle another short spurt of running. Run a little, walk a lot, run a little...

Later I found out that can be an actual technique for getting through long races. I don't use it. I run the whole time. But this is now. Back then I had a limited capacity and I also didn't want to have a heart attack.

I was in my late thirties and hadn't done any running as an adult. I didn't do a lot as a child either, because I was asthmatic. I was a fast little kid in short spurts, but those 600 yard dashes they had in elementary field day games--I bombed out on the first turn, wheezing like mad.

The typical thing for a person resolving to hit the gym in the new year is to work out really hard the first time and be really sore for a few days. I  didn't want to be that guy. I didn't push it very hard. It felt a little pathetic only going a short distance and breaking it into tiny little runs, but I reminded myself of an important lesson I'd learned in piano. You work a little every day, and eventually your capacity increases. You improve with time and continual effort. That's the secret: consistent work. It happened with the piano. Once I couldn't play chopsticks and several years later I was on stage with an orchestra playing a huge solo piece from memory. It didn't happen overnight.

By the third week I went to a different course. I had figured out that 5 kilometers was actually three miles, not two, which my vague concept of the metric system had led me to assume the first time (it's about half as many miles as kilometers, and go one direction or the other!). It was exactly one and a half miles from my house to the church where I worked. If I could run all the way there, touch the wall and come back in one straight run I'd have it.


That was me thinking how ridiculous it was to imagine running all that way in one fell swoop. They'd have to come along with a spatula and scoop me off the sidewalk!

Nevertheless, I tried running to church. I ran and walked, and once I got there I stopped to practice for a couple of hours. I was the organist, so it made sense. Then I'd run back home. One day I actually managed, for the first time, to leave the church running, and not slow to a walk all the way home.

That was a pretty good day. And the start of something bigger.

Friday, July 6, 2018

The Ives Festival

Last week our local classical station online feed didn't week for a couple of days. That meant I had to go elsewhere to listen to the radio before bed. I have a radio, but it makes an annoying buzzing sound with the headphones in and the connection is very sensitive and anyway---it just works better that way.

For some reason I thought I'd catch up with some Ives Symphonies. Charles Ives. It was practically the 4th of July anyhow, and what better way to be patriotic than to listen to an insurance salesman who wrote music on nights and weekends that people thought sounded awful. And he kept on writing it anyhow because, you know, individualism. Of a most rugged kind!

Actually, three of Ives' four numbered symphonies are pretty tame, tonally. They are plenty quirky, and two of them quote from a lot of hymn tunes and fiddle tunes and marches and things, but the man on the street wouldn't get TOO offended if I played him a few bars. Once in college a roommate heard me listening to the Ives Fourth and thought the guy was a nutcase. If you've never heard it imagine a sonic representation of a Jackson Pollack. The kind of art people think their six-year could create. I played him something from Ives' First, which is fairly conventional sounding and my roommate decided maybe the guy knew what he was doing after all. This is the way it is with abstract artists. They have to convince Joe Public they really could draw a straight line if they wanted to, and also a nice landscape.

Anyway, I spent four nights listening to the four numbered symphonies--a miniature Ives Festival. The first night I listened to Ives's Second. Bernstein was doing it. It was a vibrant interpretation, even if it featured a few kitchy bits. Bernstein couldn't quite get what Ives was up to even if he did have more insight into him than most of his contemporaries. This was particularly apparent the fourth night when I listened to the Third. This rendering was extremely metronomic. There was something about it that didn't breathe at all. The tempos all felt wrong: the first movement was too slow, the second was too fast, the third also too fast--but the real problem was that it didn't sound like nostalgia, it sounded like virtuosity and precision. I generally like Lenny, but he ruined my favorite Ives symphony.

Hunting around Youtube, though, you can find some interesting things. For a performance of Ives's First Symphony, I came across an orchestra in Russia. There wasn't any English translation so I don't know who exactly. But they managed to make Ives sound like Tchaikovsky.  The angst was palpable. The tempos were slow, and the aching melodies, which Ives wrote in college for an assignment, were quite profound. I don't know how they found a hugely depressed Russian in the writing of a teenaged American at Yale trying to pull his conservative teacher's leg, but they did--admirably. And they really sold it, too. I was impressed. I found myself ruminating on how Ives really had stolen bits of the Russian symphonist, along with Brahms, Dvorak, and the New England School. And how a translation of a translation doesn't always get you back to where you started, and how people can really misunderstand each other, culturally, but...this was really marvelous. And really wrong. But, hey, why not?

Maybe the most useful thing was when I found the premiere broadcast of the Fourth, conducted by Stokowsky and the American Symphony, complete with twenty minutes of interviews and shmoozing about the piece and how interesting and difficult it was to put everything together in rehearsal. Then I got to see them trying to deal with the gargantuan score, and watch three conductor simultaneously conduct parts of the orchestra at different tempi. Like Ives's music, there were several layers involved here: one was appreciating the way in which the people who put the program together were trying to reach a presumably wary, and uninitiate public.

Ives will probably never be loved as a composer, which is too bad. He did write some good tunes, besides all of the fascinating ways in which he put pre-existing tunes together. I still can't get the Second symphony out of my head, and that was several days ago. Ives was an interesting man, and his music makes me nostalgic for a part of America I never really knew--at least, not entirely. We have some of it in common, though. I grew up singing some of the tunes, in a small town, and watching the marching bands, organists, and other civic music makers. I probably have an inside track.--At least an appreciation for rurality that cosmopolitan orchestral conductors don't always seem to be able to get their heads around. And maybe a sense of humor that doesn't come naturally to them either.

But a "gifted primitive?" Please, Lenny!

as usual, there is more to enjoy this week at, including a recording of Gottschalk's "Union."

Friday, June 29, 2018

About the Alligator

For the past month, something reptilian has been nestled atop the homepage at I didn't want you to think he was a stock photograph. You need to know what kind of danger I put myself in to bring you this picture.

While the usual method of securing banner photos for pianonoise is to disperse our awesome staff around the world, capturing pianos and organs in the wild--sometimes even in the very act of giving concerts!--we occasionally deviate from this practice to include objects that are not music-making, and are more likely to make you their lunch.* Actually, this is the first time for that last bit.

Back in March, my wife and I spent a week in Florida. It didn't take long for the lack of snow and commutes to make her feel quite zen about the experience:

 The first day, we visited the aquarium, and saw all manner of fish and fowl native to the area, behind glass. The next day we went canoeing in a state park and saw the same creatures all around us. We were in the tank with them this time.

There was plenty of lovely flora and fauna, too, which was originally the point of the picture above, except that, on zooming in to observe her handiwork, my wife discovered a friendly reptile hiding himself among the lilies. This is the source photo for the banner at pianonoise this month, except that I've cropped it so you can more easily see our new buddy.

He'd brought along about five of his friends, too, who could be seen more obviously sunning themselves on both banks of the river. It was mid-afternoon, and none of them seemed interested in going for a swim. We didn't encourage them, and kept paddling. Just smile and keep on going, that's my motto.

(this fellow had gone missing on our return trip. He sends his regrets.)

Now that you are acquainted with my inner Steve Irwin, I'd just like to assure you that this month was an anomaly. Next month I have some man-eating skyscrapers from Pittsburgh to share with you, and in August, the beautiful organ from Heinz Chapel, where I played a concert in May. Of course, while you are gazing upon all of this death-defying photographical legederdemian, you can enjoy the articles, too.
*I have never heard of anyone being eaten by a piano. I'm not saying it has never happened, just that I've never heard of it. --ed.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Our new roommate

This is Rosie. She is the newest member of our family. On May 22 we found her at the Humane Society shelter. She was really scrawny, and had mange from fleas. She spent the first week in our basement, hiding behind boxes.

It had taken our former feline, Erasmus, a while to make the adjustment, so I mostly let her alone, except for an hour each afternoon when I would go downstairs and talk to her gently, reach my hand in and pet her a little. Then she would come out and we would be pals for a while until I left and she hid among the boxes again.

Rosie started spending time on my lap, but was still scared to go into the rest of the basement, as if I were a safe island she couldn't leave.

After a week and a half I got her to go upstairs with me. We have two floors, so it took about three days for her to get up the nerve to ascend the last staircase with me. I had to coax her a lot even though I know she spent the nights exploring the house. I think she was afraid we didn't want her upstairs. Also, when we were gone, dogs could come along, you know?

Eventually she started just hanging around the house. I would come home and she would come out of the upstairs closet (at least she's now hiding upstairs!) and recently she just lays in my chair when I'm not there. That's right; the chair wars have begun!

And she is behaving like a cat now. She attacks cords on the blinds, and things she finds on the floor. She even ate a fly last weekend that I couldn't manage to swat. I congratulated her. I hope it tasted ok. I chose not to eat the one I killed.

Now she even sleeps in our bed. When my wife came home for a late shift at the hospital, there was Rosie in her spot in bed.
I hope she's not jealous! Anyway, it seems to me what the internet needs these days are a few more photos of cute cats. So Rosie and I have done our best to meet the need. Thank you for hanging with us.

Remember to check out It's not all about cats. There are even articles about music, from an interesting variety of angles this week. Thanks.

Friday, June 15, 2018

As seen on Wikipedia

From time to time I do some checking into the sources of some of my web traffic and discover that it is being referred by wikipedia. Maybe you've heard of them. For the last decade they've been the new almighty online encyclopedia with all of the answers for people who want quick answers to things. Someday an entire generation will grow up without knowing that there were once actual books you could buy that were written by specialists in their fields and took years to assemble. Maybe they are already here.

Anybody can write, or edit, an entry in wikipedia. Anybody can decide they want to have a little fun and make something up out of their nether-regions and see if anybody else will notice and put it back the way it was. There is a risk to assuming the information you get is truly accurate. Surely you know this.

And if they are using me as one of their sources, well...the thing is, I am old enough that I still feel a certain obligation to accuracy before I post something that ostensibly the entire computer-owning world can see. Getting a footnote on a wikipedia article makes me feel like I probably ought to make a reasonable effort to get it right, so that they will also get it right. I don't know how many people get too worried about that anymore, but it still bothers me.

My site is now over 16 years old. I can't remember all of the sources I used, and I know that my research methods have improved over the years. I don't footnote anything because I'm trying to write for a lay audience, anyhow. I'm writing to be informative, yes, but largely to be entertaining. I've always assumed people who wanted in-depth information from specialists would be reading books on the subject instead of perusing a short internet article. My target audience is everybody, and I hope I can get the non-initiates interested in what I do, so I'm not going to go on for too long and get into too many weeds--usually. I didn't think, when I wrote most of these articles, that I'd be quoted in something that calls itself an encyclopedia. Suddenly I feel like I have to stand at attention.

When it comes to accuracy, though, there is no end of trouble. It turns out that a very large fraction of what I think I knew about music and musicians has at some point been called into question by somebody else. The more I learn the more I have to unlearn, or at least be skeptical about.

I'm doing some reading about Mozart this summer. There are any number of ideas about this man, legends that have grown up, stories that have been told, and many of them originated in the biographies of people who were not entertainers but musicologists. Some of them were even in positions to view their subject close up, or knew people who had. And yet, they often seem to created, or passed on, inaccurate information. Some of it may have been more gossip than evidence, and in some cases the sources for the material had pretty strong agendas of one sort and another.

It is easy to dismiss the supermarket tabloids as fiction, and to distinguish the out-and-out gossip and entertainment and hearsay as dubious, but when even the scholars are passing bad information it can get pretty difficult to know when you are on firm ground. Some people have even written books about the literature itself, tracing the growth of the legends, the likelihood that something would be true, the agendas of the writers, and the nature of the evidence. This can be fun reading, if you don't mind using your brain while you read.

For the rest of the world, though, it won't fly. We want short answers. We don't want probably and maybe and this guy had an agenda so who knows and I really wouldn't trust that fellow unless its Tuesday and the moon is full and why do you ask?

Anyhow, for the people doing their homework out there, your teacher is probably less interested in whether your facts are facts than if you adhered to all of the proper punctuation, number of words, stylistic and formal guidelines, and so forth. Mine always were. For the rest of you, this website is an ongoing adventure. Like its author it is a work in progress. Don't assume more than you have to. Contents are subject to change. The facts and the opinions. I know that is small comfort to some of you. But to the rest of us, it's part of the adventure.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Dissatisfaction theory

I play a pipe organ with four manuals and a hundred stop knobs. Lately, I've started to become unhappy with it.

Oh, boo hoo, you in normalville are pouting at your computer. So sad; here's the world's smallest pipe organ to play a sad song for you. This is partly because if you ask for sympathy for anything whatsoever on the internet it is a big mistake, and in the case of my present instrument, there is more organ than most people get to play with. Confessing unhappiness under those circumstances is like a rich person complaining to a poor person that they don't have enough money.

And then I have to go and make it worse by telling you that I'm excited to be this unhappy.

There are two reasons for this perverse interpretation. One is that, despite the multitude of resources that are already present on the current instrument, there are over 5000 pipes in the rear gallery which are waiting to be restored. So when I realized rather uncomfortably the other day that there are way too many stops of the string variety on an organ that already has its own large floating string division, and generally only one 8 foot flute stop per manual, which seems kind of obscene for the Cathedralesque size of the organ, and is making getting the kind of rich but quiet sound I'm after for a piece I'm working on difficult, even after all possible coupling combinations have been exhausted--then, I look longingly at some of the other 75 stops that will be available some day, and realize that some of my problems will be solved.

Nobody can help me with my other problem, which is a constitution that most people will think is certifiably crazy, but I find to be the prelude to a period of discovery and growth. What I mean is this:

If I were tootling along, happy and comfortable with what I was able to get out of the organ already, I would continue doing what I'm doing. Since I'm not, I am asking questions, trying to find new and creative ways to use what I have available to get what I want. It does not surprise me in the least that I want more than I can get; my standards have gone up. Artist's standards always do. The last time I began really trying to maximize the potential of a pipe organ, I had custody of a much smaller organ. Over time, that organ began to sound better and better. At first I didn't think a lot of it, but as I began to probe the mysteries of organ registration, I managed, I think, to get a great deal out of 30 stop knobs. Eventually I could play virtually anything in the literature, and there are, I think, in the catalog on pianonoise, some really interesting examples of what you can get an organ to sound like--hundreds of sounds which are not your stereotypical full blast, and range from tender to comical. When I moved to Pittsburgh, some of the congregants at churches where I played told me that the organ had never sounded like that before. I think they meant that in a good sense.

Such a thorough knowledge of organ registration takes a lot of study, and careful attention. One fellow who is said to have achieved a superior knowledge of organ registration, and employed combinations of sounds that nobody else thought would work until they heard it is a guy named Bach. Maybe you've heard of him. I think, therefore, I'm in good company.

The path will be hazardous, of course, There are hundred of tutorials on basic organ registration (including my own), but when you start dealing, as I have recently, with different organs on which you are playing concerts, with very different personalities, and you are trying to make sense of the tonal philosophies of the people who designed those organs, you are in very different territory. One method is to simply spend time trying different combinations based on what I already know about how organ stops behave, and keep my ears open. The other is to read as much as I can about the art of organ registration from the library, and online, and to talk to knowledgeable organists and builders about the subject.

The point is, I am unhappy. Which means that something is brewing. Good things should result. Satisfactory things. Then....sigh...I'll just have to start all over. Happiness can be overrated.

Anyway, you can have some of mine if you were in search of some. I'm going off on an adventure.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Keep it together

My longtime choir director and friend from Illinois retired a couple of weeks ago. I was looking at some pictures on Facebook which reminded me of the trip I made in April and how I substituted at my old church. For the prelude I played one of her favorite organ pieces, Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Prelude on 'Rhosymedre.'" Afterwards, I looked up and saw her wiping her eyes in the choir loft. I note this was at the conclusion of the piece because the whole time I was playing I was keeping my head down, focusing on the music, and trying not to think about how she was probably crying in the choir loft. Performances can be challenging on their own merits, but when there is an emotionally charged situation it is particularly important to keep those emotions from getting in the way of what you have to do.

I recall other performances in such circumstances--playing at my brother's wedding. Or my grandmother's funeral. My grandmother had left cookies in her freezer which someone thawed so we could have grandma cookies at her own funeral. I didn't know that at the time. I just thought it was interesting that someone had made cookies that tasted remarkably like grandma's. I suppose it might have been nice to know that at the time. You can get emotional when you are eating a cookie. A performance is a different story.

Funerals can be a challenge. Usually you don't know the deceased that well, if at all, but once I recall playing the Widor Toccata for a fellow I was really going to miss. While some organists make enormous towers of music out of pieces like this so they can get all of it on the music rack and not have to turn a page (which you can't do because you never have a hand free), I generally play all but the first and last pages from memory. On that occasion I blinked and asked my wife to turn pages because I was afraid I'd have brain failure. It was one of the toughest times getting through the Toccata.

Another challenging Toccata was the service on Easter of 2016 when, unbeknownst to the congregation, a large tumor had been found in my chest and I was having trouble even breathing. I had spent the last few weeks still waiting for a diagnosis and imagining this might be my last Easter. It had even occurred to me to hit the record button on the console so the piece could be played at my own funeral, which might strike you as macabre, but I was hoping would be one last gift to the congregation. After Easter it turned out I had a "friendly" and "curable" kind of cancer, and while the aggressive chemo that followed was far from fun, I eventually played the Toccata again, two years later, in another city at another church. This time it was pretty easy, despite the euphoria of officially being resurrected.

Memories can accumulate and fellowship with one another: another memory of the choir loft at Illinois involves looking over during the second verse of "How Great Thou Art" after I had just added some birdsong to the line "and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees" and seeing a soprano laughing. I kept right on playing, with a smile on my face.

Because there is a time to mourn, and a time!

And to be a little goofy.

don't forget to take time to read the homepage at And don't let that friendly beast atop the page this month scare you away. He's just a friend we met in Florida in March. He didn't move and we kept on paddling!

Friday, May 25, 2018

Hail, Cesar!

You may never have heard of him. If so, don't feel bad.

Cesar Cui, one of the "Mighty fistful" of Russian composers in the 19th century, is mostly known for his invective. He had a day job as an army officer (military engineer). The one place you are most likely to run into him is in the program notes at a concert in which Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto is being performed. The reason is that, prior to writing that work, Rachmaninoff had been in a depression for two years and hadn't written anything. This was caused by the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony.  Probably owing to a drunken conductor, the piece, which I've heard on recording and can testify is really pretty good, if not a masterpiece like his Second, went badly. Cesar Cui made a habit of writing strongly opinionated reviews in the newspaper. His famous line after that performance is that if there were a conservatory in hell, they would have given Rachmaninoff the prize, "so devilish are the discords he dishes up!"

Cui has had exactly a century to personally enter hell's composition competition, and doubtless is quite aware of the sort of discord its inhabitants prefer. He passed away in 1918. The world has not lacked for nasty music critics in the meantime, but it may be missing his unique musical voice.

If you were wondering what that voice was, I've got a recording for you. It is a very small piece Cui was commissioned to write for a magazine. I found it in an organ anthology which was edited by a person I've learned to find very annoying from previous experience. In this volume, the piece I wanted to play had been silently shortened by three lines, perhaps because the music got marginally harder there and the editor wanted to make it simple for amateurs. In any case, the piece did sound like it could have reasonably ended there; however, that is not what the composer had in mind, and it was not exactly ringing with integrity for the editor to chop out the ending without even telling us.

While I was looking over the collection I came across this little piece by Cesar Cui. I've never played anything of his and thought you and I might take a listen. I get the impression from some of the writing that Cui wasn't familiar with how the organ works (some chords that don't fit in the hands and/or feet and some balance problems). But aside from the general awkwardness is a nice, if melancholy, piece of music. It is just about the only thing he ever wrote for the organ (there might be one other piece, but now I can't remember).

While the rest of the world is celebrating Lenny's 100th birth year, there are some 1918 passings to take note of. This is one. We'll take the others in due time. Enjoy some Cui.

Cesar Cui: prelude in g minor

check out the homepage this week at Learn how musicians function on a busy schedule, and answer the important questions like: did Shostakovich play tennis? And it's your last chance to hear the organ recital from Heinz Chapel on Pianonoise Radio.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Goldfish Variations

Thinking, I've heard, is the art of connecting things.

If you want to be able to hear, to really listen to, classical music, it helps if you can make those connections. When the main tune comes back, or when it is altered, or when the subject of a fugue keeps coming around in different voices and guises, noticing those things helps us to acknowledge the structure, the musical argument, notice where we are in the story and guess what might happen next.

Bach is said to have articulated, upon hearing  a fugue subject, all the things that could be done with it, and then poked his son in the ribs gleefully upon having his suspicions confirmed. He must have been a pain in the backside to have as a father. (he was an active listener)

But the proverbial goldfish, with about 3 seconds of short-term memory, swims around its bowl, seeing the same rock over and over, thinking "what a lovely rock. I've never seen it before."

It isn't that a goldfish couldn't be soothed by Mozart's lovely noises, washing over the ear which it doesn't have, or that you or I could not put on some lovely string music in the background and be comforted by the sounds. But without some real understanding it is likely to bore if we try to give it our attention. This is, ultimately, classical music's problem. It isn't just virtuoso music. It needs a virtuoso listener.

This is a difficult thing on its own merits, but there is also a force pulling in the opposite direction.  Recognition of larger patterns, understanding the behavior of groups of notes--or people--isn't the coin of the realm. The ways of standard communication in this world are shock, and awe. If you are wise in the ways of clickbait you know what I'm writing about.

For instance, you might wonder why it is, if you are like myself, and are unsurprised by the current political situation in America, why the standard story among most media outlets is that nobody saw this coming. But the answer to that is that nobody is motivated to see it coming. Inevitability is boring. But if you are continually surprised by developments it gives you a chance to run another story next week in which you express your amazement at these surprising new developments, and take your audience along for the exciting ride.

In other words, the standard way to manipulate people is through strong emotional discharge. As in "you'll never believe number 5!" or "I was completely blown away by the surprise ending!" or "you'll be amazed" and thus want to watch the new series on television; never, "I saw it coming and you will, too, because you've seen plots like this before and if you are a skilled watcher you'll know what is going to happen next. Good for you. Now you can settle in and appreciate how the writer gets there." That would be reserved for a course in television appreciation, a course taught by an adjunct professor, not a person wanting to make money off of the attentions of as many people as possible--people who like to exercise their emotions, and their emotions don't appreciate being only a little surprised. They want to be maxed out. Nostradamus would not get a job at CNN. Or pretty much anywhere online.

Looking for large patterns, seeing things whole, and not being surprised by the local elements, is empowering. It fosters independence. And it is not something that people grasping for power and noteriety want to encourage among the rest of us. So Mozart will never become all that popular, unless the people selling him can convince you that your baby will become a genius by imbibing classical music in the crib. A few hundred points on the SAT? That's for suckers. It's genius or bust. Look how many ginsu knives I can get for 20 bucks. And they cut anything!

In his time, and since, Mozart, Beethoven, and all the people whose busts used to adorn music teacher's pianos, were accused of being too dry and intellectual. Even the ones we think of as having written music that has a high emotive content. Too complicated, folks complained. Even the educated ones. Even the ones who should have known better. These composers demanded a lot of their audiences. And, oddly, their music usually involves more emotional plot twists than their lessor known contemporaries. But they also force the mind to play a role. And that kind of ruins it for a lot of people.

It takes time to forge connections, and it is an uphill battle, against the properties of your own mind, against all the manipulative advertising of society, against the natural love of the brain for something it consistently refused to see coming. Our adrenal glands love being shocked and amazed, surprised by the same old eternal new. Even when its the same rock we've been circling for years.

If you were wondering why the symphony isn't making the charts that often, there is one reason. As transformative as the arts are, they can't match the continual thrill of feeling your existence threatened by loud explosions and bad guys at the movies, or the glee of seeing somebody wipe out on a skateboard in an internet video.

--Unless you're bored with that by now and want another way to cope with existence. Maybe it's not so outwardly exciting. Perhaps. But then, I don't know about you, my adrenal glands could use a rest. And just maybe, we'll discover something deeper and more brilliant among the inevitable but never quite knowable familiarity of the great works of art.

That's all for this week. Stay tuned for the next thrilling twist!

don't forget to check out this week's edition of for more articles and recordings.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Keep it simple?

I know what you're thinking. He's writing about salad dressing again?!?

Actually, you don't need to worry because this isn't really about salad dressing. It's about advertising, which, honestly, I write about slightly more often than I do about foodlike elements, both being close to zero until today.

I mention it because I had an emotional response to something that, for some reason, I didn't see coming. Which naturally made we want to share it with you, because that's the sort of creature I am. I remember emotional reactions and want to opinionate about them. You too? How odd.

The commercial in question was for some salad dressing which is supposed to contain only natural ingredients. Now imagine you are the advertising agency and you want people not to snooze through your commercial. Do you tell people that it is better for them to consume natural ingredients because natural ingredients are less likely to corrode their stomach lining and cause you to glow like Three Mile Island on a very bad day? Wrong! Try again. Do you tell them that natural ingredients tend to actually biodegrade in landfills sooner than the middle of 2085 and are more likely to allow some life to continue to exist on planet earth past next Tuesday afternoon? Bzzz! Boy, you don't get humans at all. Try this: it's simple that way.

Why I didn't see that little non sequitor is beyond me. It isn't a new trick. Many years ago an ice cream company did the same thing in a commercial featuring a befuddled customer trying to read the multi-syllabic ingredients from a rival ice cream container. These feats of pronunciation culminated in a confused stare as she read out the words "locust beans?" and then had to repeat them to assure herself that something so bizarre sounding and apparently foreign was actually in her ice cream.

This has been a major advertising strategy before and since, which is why the company in question decided to take a pass on the benefits of consuming their product being that it's healthy or responsible and decided instead that you'd like to keep things simple. Their rivals would like to do the same and have simply decided that artificial ingredients are cheaper and will make them more money. A suitably honest slogan for them would be "artificial ingredients--cheaper for us" only the first rule of advertising is that you never tell them what's in it for you. The best way to get rich quick has always been to promise to tell other people how to get rich quick, and then to sell them the method--in easy installments.

This creates a bit of a problem for the world of art. It isn't an accident that the words art and artificial are conjoined. There is an irreducible complexity about trying to get people to more fully experience the reality of existence with their hearts, souls and brains. The Symphony tries to get around this by their alliterative concert titles--Bravo, Beethoven! and Mostly Mozart. They tell you how exciting going to a concert will be. Last year in Pittsburgh it was Saint Saen's "Thunderous" Organ Symphony, which is only thunderous in a few places and features a few long chords on the organ only in the final movement. Some people that had actually gone to the concert felt cheated.

But these little twist-a-plots are at work every day, circumventing logic, and making us think that somehow buying a bottle and then pouring it over our salad will be easier if we get the one with the natural ingredients. Not better. Simpler.

What a relief to hearken back to the old days when everything was better, when we could mill around our personal Edens without a care in the world.

When we thought everybody was telling the truth.

this week on we're featuring the organ (mostly) but there's a nice recording of a piano piece by Louis Moreau Gottschalk and a curious story about how music came to be written down. It's all true! Also, the organ is a perfectly nice instrument. Trust me.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Have piano, will travel (the piano, I mean)

This afternoon I have another gig at an area home for seasoned citizenry. I recently signed up for a Pittsburgh program that does this, and played my first program last month.

You may have noticed I don't line my website with testimonies or a biography. You know, the kind of biographies that usually begin "so and so is one of the leading voices of his/her generation" and include adjectives like "in demand" and "active" or, if the pianist in question is writing for more general audiences (you did know we generally write our own bios right? Well, the secret's out now), phrases like "has dazzled audiences around the world from an early age." Or testimonies from excited customers who bought the product and it transformed their lives.

But here are a couple of things I wanted to share from my program two weeks ago. When I showed up, the piano was shoved into a corner so it wouldn't get in anybody's way. It was also going to be difficult to make myself heard from the rear corner of the room so I asked if I could move it. I could, and I did.

One member of the audience said gratefully, "nobody has ever moved the piano out of the corner of the room before!" 

Now maybe that doesn't go up on the wall with the kinds of pretty adjectives critics in newspapers string together when you've given a laudable concert, but I didn't think it was half bad. Besides, there is a time for "boldly and surely" and "wonder to behold"  and then there is the utility of just moving the piano so people can hear you better, see you better, and feel like you are trying to connect with them even if it requires the gargantuan step of moving furniture.

And when it was over, I was apparently voted "excellent" and the residents hoped I'd come back. I know because a gentleman sent me an email and told me the news and how much he appreciated the concert.

In ten days I'll be playing the organ for a room full of doctors. Before that there are a couple of church services. First I have this afternoon's gig. I have to go print out the program for it.

Maybe I'll include a bio. Starting with the line "Michael Hammer likes to connect with his audience so much he's willing to move furniture."

I don't much like to be repetitive, and I'll bet that's not something you'll see in many biographies.

But in its own way, it's pretty cool.

Friday, April 27, 2018


Last week it seemed like a good idea to play one of the nastiest pieces in the organ literature for a bunch of organists on an unfamiliar organ after sitting on my hands (and feet) for an hour. Like I said, that was last week.

At any rate, the performance this past Monday went fairly decently, occasional mishaps aside, and, since it was a meeting of the American Guild of Organists in Pittsburgh, there were people to talk to afterwards. I'm still fairly new to Pittsburgh, and this pretty much counts as my debut as far as most members of the organ playing community were concerned. Most were impressed. Then there was the professor at one of our universities who had studied in France with the composer in question and wanted me to be aware that I wasn't approaching the piece properly. Which brings up the conundrum.

Marcel Dupre, and as far as I can make out, most French organists of the 19th century, loved legato. Long limpid lines of unbroken sounds. It was, you might say, the fashion. Dupre didn't mark that in his score because he didn't think he'd have to. It was the way it was done.

My approach was much more staccato. You might explain this as a result of my pedigree. For instance, when asked who my teachers were, I give out names like McDonald, Hahn, and Fleischer, teachers at the Peabody Conservatory were I got my graduate degrees. All pianists. This is usually an interesting development for the organist asking the question because I have no background on this instrument at all. However, I do plenty of reading so I should point out that when the professor made her observation I was not unaware. I knew what I was doing. I knew it was not the norm.

That clear, articulate, staccato-esque approach seems to be my natural accent. It may be a result of simply being a pianist. It might have something to do with the Fleischer school. Although I didn't take that many lessons with the man himself, I spent four years studying with a student of his who took so much of his teaching from his master that the first time I had a lesson with Fleischer I felt an enormous case of deja-vu. So I think it is safe to say that his system is embedded in my system.

This puts my natural accent and Dupre's natural accent at odds with one another. And the question might be, should I adjust? After all, he is the composer. The professor naturally believed that I should, and that one should play a composer's music the way the composer himself played it.

It occurred to me that I could actually resist and be quite blunt about it. In fact, if you know the ways of the world, you know that this is a far better way to build a career. You want to be noticed, and that means being controversial. The thing to do is to double down, insist you are right, insist on doing it your way, whether or not you want to admit that it is your way being optional (Wanda Landowska famously insisted she alone was playing Bach HIS way), and after you've gotten enough people talking about you in tones of both outrage and admiration, you found your own movement and change what is fashionable. Then everybody else has to do it your way. Strong personalities do this. Maybe this is where the legato came from in the first place.

The irony being that Dupre's generation, when it came to playing Bach, applied their same natural musical accent, and in the process played his music in a manner which we know today to be completely inaccurate historically. One wonders to what extent they knew they were misrepresenting Bach. But I had a theory for the professor, having to do with succeeding generations almost being impelled to take a different approach, and it should be noted that Dupre and his colleagues were about as far removed from Bach (about a half century more, in fact) than I am from the early works of Marcel Dupre.

The reason I did this is that I am that rare self-reflective type, and also one who does not like to be irreversibly certain about anything. I took the harder path, not to defend my position, but to consider it from many angles. I will admit, first of all, to knowing that my approach is not the composer's own. I will also submit that this bothers me, because, as a composer myself, I would like persons playing my music to consider my wishes for the music that I wrote. Not only does the composer assume authority in our tradition, it is also bad form to simply remake everyone else in your musical image because you can't, or won't, consider anything from outside yourself. It also inhibits growth. Striving requires you to become more than you already are, rather than trying to shrink the universe down to what already appeals to you.

In fact, after our conversation I was thinking that perhaps I ought to try a smoother inflection across the board. However, I have listened to others play it this way, generally taking the fugue slower than the composer's own tempo marking to boot, and I have to say I find the piece pretty dull this way. I also have trouble imagining that unbroken lines in reverberate churches sound like anything less than mud. I am left having to mostly wonder about this for the present, however. Perhaps in future years I'll find out. To me, an articulate touch (which does, by the way, include connected groups of notes) not only makes the music less muddy in a wet acoustic environment, it also helps the composer's ideas stand out in the mind of the listener, just as diacritical marks on a page keep our eyes from glazing over and having to work harder than should be necessary to extract the meaning of the words. Breaks are important. In my experience those who won't use them often indulge in sloppy playing generally, and show little understanding of the linguistic or structural properties of the music. Maybe that's another reason for my reluctance. Not that a good legato approach can't work, but that I have so few good role models among that "school."

I suppose the first thing I ought to do is to hear Dupre play it himself. These days that shouldn't be too difficult. Of, course, with all the qualifiers swimming around in my head I will want to know how old he was at the time and whether his playing changed over his lifetime. Whither could I find that out?

Most of us are simpler animals. There is correct, and incorrect. I'm willing to inhabit space between the two. And, considering the piece is fairly new (it was only my second public airing) and I'm still reasonably not-old, there is time to evaluate, re-evaluate, and, in any case, not to worry too much about wrecking Dupre single-handedly, even if people in general, and the organ community, find it distasteful. Actually, I don't think most of them cared. But that doesn't let me off the hook.

There are always torchbearers for tradition. I want to respect that, but also to leave room for the living. As if life really were an ever evolving process rather than a perfect sculpture, frozen in time.

And as long as we are able, that means...stay tuned.

The piece in question was Marcel Dupre's Prelude and Fugue in B major, op. 7 no. 1, which I've recorded last fall when the piece was even newer than it is now. Here it is.

Also, you should check out this week's edition of, which has more music and abstruse commentary like the ramblings above. Also, a recording of Mendelssohn on my old organ in Champaign which is where I'm hanging out this weekend. Cheers!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Mediocrities, I absolve you!

You can't get your history from Hollywood. Everybody knows that.

But we do anyway.

Drama is so much more memorial than history anyhow. Remember what year the Revolutionary War started? Anything about the Stamp Act? How about Washington flipping a coin across the Delaware River?

The last one didn't happen. Which is why that and some dubious arborcide are exactly what an entire generation knows best about our first president.

When it comes to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, everybody knows he was poisoned by Antonio Salieri. Which, of course, didn't happen either.

What makes the matter so much more intriguing, and fun, however, is that, if you believe accounts of an early biographer--Mozart's wife's second husband, who is supposed to have gotten the story from Mozart's wife--, Mozart did actually entertain the notion that he had been poisoned shortly before he died of rheumatic fever. Also, there was a rumor in Vienna, much later, that Salieri did the poisoning. That doesn't mean it happened, however, and neither was Salieri the man in the mask who commissioned the unfinished Requiem. But the Requiem? unfinished. And a guy with a mask? that story goes back to Mozart's widow also, and has to be at least partially true. Mozart was writing on order from an unknown patron. It wasn't Salieri, but it is still a very strange way to commission a piece of music.

At the intersection of myth and fact is a wonderful movie that was released in 1984 by the name of Amadeus, whose director, Milos Forman, died this week. It is hands down the best movie ever made that isn't really about the life of a composer. If it was a more careful biography it would have been a snooze, just like all of the bad Beethoven movies I've seen. But its writer Peter Schaffer, also deceased, was expert at sifting facts, legends, rumors, and just making stuff up in a way that makes Amadeus a fascinating film. It works wonderfully well as drama. As history, it should be approached with caution. And yet, the man did his homework into the real characters at the film's center so well that there are hundreds of true to life details. Things like Mozart's strange laugh, for which there are contemporaneous letters. Or his interest in fart jokes. Mozart's own letters give away his obsessions with this region of the anatomy. Or Salieri's love of sweets. Or the way Mozart composes while playing billiards. These can all be supported by letters and documents of the time, and by eye-witnesses.

The best parts, of course, the parts you remember, didn't actually happen. I'm still in the process of tracking some of this down, but I can tell you that there were plenty of people who thought that Mozart's music was too learned, too complicated, even if the Emperor himself never accused Mozart of writing "too many notes." And there was a real war going on between those who wanted German opera (which included the Emperor) and those who did "incline to the Italian," though it would be a stretch to paint Mozart as a guy who was striking a blow for democratic ideals in opera and against those stories of gods and goddess who were "so lofty they act as if they shit marble!" And then there is my favorite line in the movie, when Emperor Joseph is watching a bunch of dancers jostling about on stage silently because the accompanying music has been banned (by his own manipulated decree). Confused, he asks, "I don't is modern?" and nails the reaction of a large section of the movie's audience to the most uncompromising art of their own era. It isn't anything Joseph would have actually said, but it is the perfect joke/social commentary, and it says volumes about us.

I'll be participating (as organist) in a concert this weekend in which is presented Mozart's famous last work, the Requiem. It is filled for me with great memories of things cinematic that didn't really happen, such as the scene discussing the Day of Wrath movement, when Salieri's eyes grow wide when asked if he believes in the eternal judgement and wrath to come and he says fervently "oh yes!" turning the knife to torture the dying Mozart some more.

We all have our own interpretations of the movie, and of the Requiem itself. Tim Coles, the concert's conductor, says he find the piece "very honest." This is in distinction to later Requiems by composers like Brahms and Faure, whose music emphasizes comfort and solace, as if they were trying to engage in platitudes and to pull back from death's final punch. But it could be argued that Mozart's account is really colored by a pretty dark theology which was steeped in doctrines that persisted in Catholicism from the Middle Ages on through the Enlightenment, and that his music is really more about the standard grist from the flock-frightening mill than a personal cry of agony when facing grief and loss.

Whatever the case, Mozart did not finish his Requiem. Where he left off is still a mystery: trying to fulfill the commission and earn the money, Mozart's widow conspired with Mozart's student Sussmayer to complete it without letting anyone know who did what exactly. And the result is now anyone's musicological guess.

But judging from the quality of the music I've been practicing this week, I've a hunch that the movie (as well as at least one scholar) got it right when they suggest that Mozart left off during, or after, the Lacrymosa. It is, to me, the last truly gripping piece in the Requiem, right before the general quality abates and the repetition of (earlier) sections begins (my attention always used to start to wander at this point). And, cinematically, it is the perfect place to complete the story of Mozart's life because it contains one great big dramatic AMEN!, the only place in the entire work with such a close.

In any case, I don't find the ending very satisfying. Classical era composers didn't bring back entire movements to close a work the same way they began. Mozart certainly does not. And then, to have the entire piece end on a chord without a third, so inconclusively...

It could say something interesting about death, futility, frustration, knocking at the gates of what we do not know, but it would be borrowing from a vocabulary much later than that of the 18th century.

History does not seem to care about our debate. The movie, which does, chooses to end with that grand amen. And Salieri ends his beef with God by absolving all of the mediocrities who, like him, wanted to be great and just fell short.

Of course, in Salieri's day, he was a great success. And probably not that jealous of Mozart--he seems to have been very kind to him, actually. Mozart, on the other hand, was jealous of just about everybody, including, once in a while, Salieri.

...Salieri, who, it turns out, also wrote a Requiem. We won't be performing it. It is a bit dull, at least those parts I've heard so far. And do you know who he wrote it for?

For himself! For his own funeral!

Now isn't that just spooky? And a great jumping off point for a dramatist.....

Rest in Peace, Milos Forman.

Friday, April 13, 2018

It depends upon your point of audition, I suppose...

A few years ago, I heroically dragged my recording equipment up the long ladder into the pipe room to make a recording. The point I was making was that you could listen to the same piece--same performance, actually--from two points of hearing, the first from within the sanctuary, where you would normally be sitting, and the second from in the pipe chambers themselves, and get a very different sonic experience. If you missed that, here they are (90 seconds each):

Tunder: Canzon in G (sanctuary)
Tunder: Canzon in G (pipe room)

 I've been doing a bit of work on my website lately, trying to update, modernize, centralize, and generally improve vast amounts of material, and in the process it is necessary to see how it looks to the people using it. The difficulty here is that people have got multiple ways of accessing your site, and they all produce quite different results. For instance, if you are at a desktop computer reading this, you are using a browser, like Chrome, or Mozilla. I can't tell which one, but I can tell how many people are using which ones because the google tells me. Chrome usually wins for popularity. This is unfortunate, because my site looks so much better in Mozilla, which puts nice little defining borders around things, and doesn't shrink the pictures and diminish their sharpness and general quality the way Chrome does. But at least they are not too many yards apart. I have to check my pages in both of them to make sure something that looks good in one doesn't look positively stupid in the other. I've also found ways to fix the width of the presentation because, depending on the width of your display (some can be more than twice as wide as others) anything that you would like to display in some kind of relation to something else (like a caption that should be below a picture) could end up on the other side of the screen. Imagine something tall and thin (like a person) suddenly becoming short and squat. Now imagine the internal organs having to move around to accommodate, because this person is now three times as wide as he is tall. Now imagine them trying to get through the metal detector at the airport, and becoming tall and thin again. We can't perform those gymnastics, but a website can and does, without telling us.

Now that we are all using cellphones to browse the internet I have to account for the small screen, too. A lot of what I've been doing has to do with making the site more "cell phone friendly" even though the majority of my users still don't use them. (A sizeable minority does, however.) It's amazing how much adjustment needs to be made for the different situations. The traditional wisdom in these matters is to keep things simple, but then you are being dull across the board.

The same is true for recordings. I found years ago that the same recording could sound considerably different depending upon what you are listening to it on. Something that sounds good in headphones can sound poor on desktop speakers, or (more often) vice versa. Generally my recordings sound decent with good headphones because that is how I listen when I mix them. But even professional CDs are subject to the differences in players, boomboxes, car stereos, and the like.

This is all a very good metaphor for receptivity among people. How various people can react so differently to the same material depends greatly upon the kind of grey matter they have between their ears are well as the personal experiences they've had all their lives. Someone might find this terribly interesting. Somebody else hit the back button on their browser a long time ago.

The world is awash in advice for popular success. One of the formulas is to "be yourself." That only works if you are similar enough to most other people to catch their attention. If not, you can be yourself by yourself. It is also conveniently self-indulgent enough not to concern itself too much with other people. You obviously can't spend your life anxious about how they are going to react (particularly the nasty ones), but failing to care about their perceptions makes you pretty limited. In fact, being able to see things from other points of view is pretty much a basic hallmark of human intelligence. Being particularly good at it, though, is far from basic.

Over-accommodation has its problems as well.  If I were just out to get viewers, and keep them entertained, I would skip the classical music and go straight to kitten videos. Instead, I have something to say and I'm going to say it. I'll try to make it more interesting for a broad audience, but I'm only going to take that so far.

Thus it seems we must strike some sort of balance. And balance is something that is continually in danger of being lost. It has to be revisited constantly, reinvented, repurposed...

But at least it keeps life interesting.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Cave of the Organists

There's an intriguing little verse tucked away somewhere in the Book of Kings, I think, referring to the "cave of the prophets." Most of us would, I think, be surprised to think that they lived in caves, or that there were whole groups of them living together. The picture we get of a prophet is some lonely figure on a mountain with a swirling robe (sort of like Moses in The Ten Commandments). His message is clearly audible, though not popular. He is fearless, and certainly powerful, even if he sometimes has to run for his life to avoid the wrath of the king.

The reality, though, is that there were a whole lot of them, that they served more like political advisers than predictors of future events (although, in some ways those roles collide), and that, apparently, like any other trade, they tended to congregate in large numbers, perhaps learning from, and/or competing with, one another. Whether they generally lived in caves or were just doing that because the current administration was a little too friendly with Baal worship than was optimal for a prophet of Yawheh is a question for an ancient Realtor.

If you've ever seen Monty Python's Life of Brian, where there are many prophets trying to shout their messages into a crowd of walking and talking people who don't seem to care, you probably have a more realistic picture of the situation at large. One that more accords with human nature, anyhow.

I'm mentioning this because the figure of the organist might need some similar rethinking. At your church the organist is off by him or her self in a corner playing a loud instrument, but you might be surprised to learn that organists do have trade organizations (like the American Guild of Organists), do go to conferences and meetings to pry secrets out of one another, do have an impressive online presence featuring scads of Youtube videos and recordings of everything from the week's prelude to tutorials on how an organ works, and participate in online forums where they discuss all things organ.

If you knew this already than you know that organists are clearly not troglodytes (at least, not figuratively), and you may be wondering what organists have to talk about. And you may not be surprised to learn that much of it includes complaints about working conditions, such as priests and pastors who are, shall we say, less than supportive.

I recently joined a large group of organists online. I've read various forum pages over the years so I knew what I was getting into, which probably included a fair amount of such complaining. When you've been practicing your craft on a mountain by yourself, shouting into the prevailing winds, it is nice to come back into the cave and commiserate with your colleagues about how nobody seems to give a --well, you know.

Right out of the box it was a woman who was halfway through her Easter prelude when (would that I were making this up) the priest sent a note that said simply "NO MUSIC!" Now it would have been nice if the priest had mentioned this a little earlier. And it is rather strange that he should want no music on Easter. There is a custom in some churches in which solo organ music is not permitted during Lent, which is a time of fasting and introspection leading up to the celebration of Easter. But on Easter itself? That does seem a bit strange. Still, he's the boss. Albeit, a boss who, like so many priests, unfortunately, does not seem to know or care about music, nor have any training in dealing with people in general.

Sometimes that deluge of complaints in other forums can seem a bit much; still, organ forums must serve as safe zones for people who otherwise aren't getting much sympathy. It can be dangerous to express frustration online: not only are there multitudes who think of sympathy as a weakness, there are many others who think of it as a competitive sport (i.e., you think YOU have a problem. Well, it's nothing like mine. Also, how dare you!).

Although that sort of thing be grab the headline, there is a great deal more that goes on in this cave. Organists mentor other organists. Sometimes there are questions about where to find pieces of music, or about the reliability of various brands of organ (if their church is looking to get one) or postings of preludes, or pictures of where members have played recently. A little strutting may not be out of place sometimes.

And people are just people. Some of them probably exaggerate their problems to elicit sympathy, some are just jerks when confronted with young organists who don't know things, others like to get into fights with other organists over everything from musical style to whether electronic organs are a sign of the Apocalypse. Apparently, on this site, the term "toaster," which seems to be a dismissive term for electronic organ, is banned. One new member used it, and had to apologize.

Then there are the humorists, and the folks who just want to have fun. In short, it is just like your profession, whatever it is, only the technical information is different. The personalities, however, are not. And they go out, Sunday after Sunday, alone, to face a world of persons who are not like them at all, and do not know what it is like to do what they do. And then they come back into the cave to talk about it.

Friday, March 30, 2018

St. Michael of the videos

Some saints would lie on beds of nails, or live in the same tiny crevices for years, unable to move. Or in muck and filth. Or beat themselves with rods.

Then there are the ones who gave up chocolate for Lent. You know who you are.

I chose an even stranger path. Internet videos. So strange that it seems perfectly natural in this day and age. Except for them not starring kittens. Otherwise, what could possibly be Lenten about them at all?

Well, to start with, I had to get up early. The videos went live on Facebook every morning at 8 a.m., which meant I was up by 6:30 and out the door by 7:30. That wasn't all that big a deal, except for the every day part. Every day, for 40 days I improvised on some Lenten hymn or on whatever came to mind from the organ console at Third Church in Pittsburgh, the church where I am organist. Also, Lent takes a break on Sundays, but I didn't. I work that day and have to get up early. And on those days, Sunday mornings, I took a break from improvising to play composed Toccatas, pieces other than the Widor toccata of Easter fame, and to boost the posts to advertise our presence as a church to the people of East Pittsburgh. So, between the two pieces of the plan, Lenten improvisation days, and Sunday Toccata days, there were 6 and a half weeks of continuous getting up early* and going to church, and sitting at the organ, and playing whatever came out, sometimes with no warm up.

I don't think straight at 8 in the morning. That was a problem.

Going live to whoever is out there listening can also do things to one's nervous system, particularly first thing in the morning--Although it turned out that most mornings, nobody was listening, and that, as I saved the videos for later viewing, there might be at most about a dozen viewers--So if you were thinking I was mixing up a Lent discipline with becoming a celebrity, don't worry about it.

Later on, there might be upwards of 40 people (a Lenten number) watching some of the videos. I don't know whether they like them--some of the most watched videos were predictably the loud and fast kind, but more often I was not feeling flashy, particularly as this is Lent, after all. Most of these folks are friends of mine from the place I last lived. Which is really why I'm writing this.

I want to thank you for you encouragement, and for going on this strange Lenten journey with me. A few of year have watched and liked all of the videos, most have dropped in from time to time, but if you are hoping to experience something worth sharing (not that there is any guarantee when you are making it up) you hope that someone will be listening, and, if we are lucky, getting something positive out of the experience. At least I felt some connection to the people of Champaign, more than I have in a while, since a required move and the simultaneous disorientation of cancer treatment rudely removed me from your presence.

Saturday (tomorrow) is the last video. And then, live at the end of the Easter service, I'll play the Widor Toccata for anyone who wants to listen. I know that, due to the time difference, most of the Illinoisians who attend the 10:30 service will not be able to hear it live, unless it is on in the middle of Sheryl's sermon. Please don't. You can listen to it later. My friends in East Pittsburgh have the option of hearing it live, and in person if you would like to attend Third Presbyterian at 5701 Fifth Ave in Pittsburgh. You are very welcome. Come up to the organ and say hi afterward. I may be tired but I'm sure to be in a good mood. The last time I played the Widor Toccata after an Easter service I had an enormous tumor in my chest. I thought it might be my last one. But the Widor goes on. I was actually entertaining the heretical thought of playing a different Toccata his year (the Vierne that I played in last week's Sunday morning video and is this week's featured recording on the homepage) much in the manner that Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White after his near death experience, after cancer I wanted to change up the theme song a little, but I was told there would be much weeping and gnashing of teeth if I didn't play the Widor. So it lives on.

Again, my apologies for the awful sound quality of the videos. I'll get a decent camera one of these days. I did manage a tripod about halfway in, which solved some of my initial problems.

As for the future, I look forward to being able to sleep in just once in a month and half! But for those of you who have kept me company, might I suggest (because I often forget to mention this) that, my website, gets regularly updates with new recordings and articles to the homepage every Friday. All day.

See you around. Next year maybe I'll try the bed of nails. Then I won't mind getting up so early. I don't know about the muck, though.

Happy Easter!

*actually, we where on vacation in Florida one of those weeks, which meant I had to improvise an extra piece every day for a week and prepare them all to auto-post on the days we weren't home.

Friday, March 23, 2018

A Strange Love: or how I stopped complaining and learned to love The Palms

We have a tradition at our church. We sing The Palms as our opening hymn on Palm Sunday.

These are the bare facts. And, as this is a church which does not have that many traditions in worship, it is that much more obvious and important. It is one of the first things that come up when a new pastor wants to know what our inviolable customs are. Liturgically, we are pretty much Christmas and Easter. Ascension Sunday? What's that? Transfiguration of the Lord? Nope. Baptism of the Lord? huh? Pentecost we do. But there we don't do anything differently except sing different hymns-and none, I recall from last year, was specifically related to the Day of Pentecost, or even the Holy Spirit. We are more of a Sunday-go-to-meeting congregation, in which the procedure never varies, and there is a relatively small change in content except to reflect the message of the day.

There are, of course, those festivals in the life of the church. The annual Bazaar, the Rummage Sale, the Seasonal Mice. These things proceed apace every year, and they are sacrosanct. But in worship, there seems to only be one custom. That, and the organist is required to play the Widor Toccata on Easter. I'm used to that--it was the same at my last church. It doesn't bother me much--I like the piece, and I only play it once a year, so, unlike some of my colleagues, you won't get much invective from me.

But The Palms? "Les Rameaux" was written in 1891 by an operatic baritone named Jean-Baptiste Faure. I find it rather mawkish. Of course, mawkish translates to "much beloved" in the Dictionary of the Masses, and this tune has apparently been a part of the Third Church lexicon for some time. Perhaps this summer I'll go find the Old Bulletin Archive and see how far back it goes. The piece itself is not as old as the congregation itself but older than our present building (1903).

Naturally, there have been various attempts over the years to replace the piece with something else, but they have not been successful. Last year, our outgoing pastor thought perhaps it was time to retire it. As a substitute organist I was party to the daily drama of will we or won't we sing The Palms. It was quite entertaining. I threw my hat in the ring as not really a big fan, but when the pastor was overruled, probably by a sobbing (or threatening) parishioner, I played the piece. We sang. It could have been worse. We have a semi-pro choir and they not only can hit the high notes, they are not accustomed to hamming them up. The congregation at large doesn't sing too badly either--they just aren't very loud. But as I was very new last year, I may not have noticed. Perhaps they will sing this with extra enthusiasm. I plan to be on full gusto alert on Sunday to find out.

I hope when we sing the piece on Sunday that the portion of the congregation that can't live without it (I'm guessing they are mostly in their 80s) feel truly blessed and ministered to. And I hope we can minimize any side effect caused by younger persons or persons new to the congregation taking this as a symptom that we have our heads buried in the sands of time and are too hopelessly sentimental to have much to say to the world as it is.  And maybe if anybody who is young and hip (or on their first one) wonders, we can tell them that we do it because it's retro. You know, it's so uncool it is cool again. It's worth a shot.

Anyhow, there may be a virtue in loving things that are old and clunky.

Remember I said that in 30 years.

Friday, March 16, 2018

If you want to get to Carnegie Hall you have to catch a lot of pitas, apparently

It's been a pretty intense week of Pita Catching around here. 

I would have called it an intense week of practicing, but my phone, which knows all about these things, decided to auto-correct "practicing" to "pita catching" when I texted my wife what I was up to, so I've kind of adopted the term. 

Pita catching comes in a variety of forms. It helps to be familiar with all of them, because when you are on a deadline (and you are) you will necessarily experience all of them in a whirlwind of contiguous sensations which are emotionally and physically exhausting enough when you know they are coming. Not to recognize that the valleys of despair are just a normal part of the journey is to succumb completely. And remember, ain't nobody got time for that. 

Palm Sunday is just over a week away now, and for the occasion I've selected a complex piece for organ solo by Jean Langlais (Les Rameaux, or "The Palms").  I've never played it before, and because of my schedule this year so far I've been unable to get a head start on it; so Monday was my first chance to tackle it. I skipped what I call the "introduction phase" which is just looking the piece over, reading through it a time or two, spending 20 minutes practicing bits of it and putting it away for later, given the demands of the calendar. Given the size and difficulty of the piece--nine pages of complex French harmonies and not a single bar of repetition anywhere--my plan was to pounce full out and get as much of the piece familiar and under my fingers at a slow tempo as soon as possible. That first day I managed to practice the entire piece in about four hours.

This meant combining the steps of "discovery" and "the pain." Discovery is obviously fun because you are finding new things, hearing exotic harmonies, enjoying how the composer put the piece together, even sometimes puzzled. It was also mildly intoxication because it reminds me of the Resurrection movement from the Symphonie-Passion by Marcel Dupre which I played years ago in my first year in Illinois, and a flood of associative memories hovered close by without my invitation. The pain comes in when your brain, realizing it is a muscle, and that you have tried to assimilate 9 pages of notes in a single morning, begins to get very tired and bruised. At that point, repeating phrases and whole sections is a lot like bench pressing. Each one is a struggle and leaves you tired. Then you take a short break, brace your courage, and do it again. The longer you practice, the harder it gets. It is an enigma that sometimes practice seems to make a piece worse. This is mainly true in the early stages, and in the first days, when the brain is trying to catch hold of all that new information.

The despair sets in the next day, when, despite four hours of work the day before, you feel as though you have had never seen the piece before, and that nothing you have done is having any impact whatever. This is because it takes the brain a few days to build all of the neuron highways to put it all in storage. Knowing this, you keep practicing, waiting for that eventual day or hour when all of the sudden the piece starts to feel familiar, as if you HAD been practicing all this time.

 I was feeling like a goldfish on Tuesday, with the fabled 3 second memory. Repetitions did little to improve my comfort with the materials. Then I went through a stage where the passages would start to improve after several repetitions, but if I went on to something else and then came back to them I had to start as if from the beginning. On Wednesday the situation was no better--at the start. However, later in the day the piece did assemble itself fairly quickly and I was able to play it from start to finish--a phenomenon I have been aware of for a long time. No results, no results, then suddenly--whoosh. Progress. 

I once had a neighbor who wondered how I practiced and asked if I just played pieces all the way through over and over. Any good musician knows that is not how to practice; however, at this stage in a piece's practice history I will often play through. It gives me an overhead view of the whole, and what it is like to get there. Once I've gotten the piece assembled the first time I am able to see all of the parts that aren't going as well. If I have a close deadline, I also know at this point how close I am to being able to "fake it"--that is, get through it somehow, in case I run out of time to clean and oil all the details. I played through five times before I went to lunch. On Thursday I did more of that. I called it the "fast and sloppy" stage, because I am grasping the whole and even playing it not far from tempo, but am making mistakes. Next I took the piece apart again, and worked each section carefully.  That was Thursday. There was evening, and there was morning.

By Friday the piece is where I wanted it to be at the end of the first week--essentially playable, and in need of more repetition and reinforcement. I've gone from repetition that hurts to repetition that feels great, because my mind, like any mind, enjoys reinforcing what it knows already. My brain is now practicing on its own time, as well, which is a huge supplement. I am no longer afraid of being able to play the piece, having another week to work on it. The second week will be much easier than the first. And a lot more fun. It sounds like music now. I am using a full registration. I know why this man has such a reputation. It is an awesome piece of music.

I am still not done. I can play most of the piece once I've practiced for a while. I can't begin to play it cold, the first time. Nor would I want to do it under nerves, or after a lengthy choir rehearsal and a pancake dinner. This requires much more tightening, and a firm grasp of every measure. I've done this many times before, and I know what it will take, and how long. How a piece seems to accelerate as it is learned, so not to despair in the early days, but to get as much of a head start as possible, and let your head do its part. To work everything carefully, and then try to put it together, to take it apart again, lather, rinse, repeat. And all under constant diagnosis. Because even when a passage sounds fine to a listener, it may not be. If it took too much mental effort to get to a chord, even if there was no hesitation, that part will not withstand pressure later on. The better one can diagnose, the better one can improve. It also makes practice, with all of its ups and downs, much more interesting. I never look at a watch, count repetitions, or wonder when I can be finished. My brain is too busy for that.

 Speaking of which, it is a new day, and I've got more pitas to catch.

Friday, March 9, 2018

If you're just joining us...

I seem to be making a number of new musical friends lately, who may be new to this blog, so I thought I'd give a little introduction.

First, the basics. I'm Michael Hammer. I'm a pianist and organist, composer, teacher, and blogger, and I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This blog is attached to a rather involved website with hundreds of articles and recordings devoted to all kinds of things musical which I've been running since 2002.

When I started pianonoise, I was a graduate student in piano performance at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. Once I earned a Masters and Doctorate there, I started spending more time hanging out with the organ, which is why, as I write this, the banner picture at the top of the blog is a shot of me at the organ. It's kind of a running joke (inside my own head, anyway) that there is more organ-noise around here sometimes. I've been keeping a running tally of recordings in each category to find out.

When I started the website back in the Middle Ages, audio files on the internet were just beginning. For a few years I amused myself writing commentary about various things, and making about a hundred awful sounding recordings which I later repented of when I got a better micing system and regular access to a better piano. I spent about ten years in Illinois during this time. Eventually I started this blog (2012). It's mission is to engage regular folks in the experience of listening to and enjoying music--mostly for piano and organ. It also included blogs written for fellow musicians to sharpen their skills, and some blogs about being a church organist.

These days the challenge is to keep track of all of that.

The easiest way to experience Pianonoise is to check out the homepage every week. I update on Fridays with a batch of new articles and recordings. Some of the articles and recordings aren't really new--I recycle things from years past, but their currency isn't as important as it would be if I were writing about politics or the day's news. After all, Bach is still dead. And his music still lives.

The other thing to note is that while I lead a varied existence, at some point I'll shed light on all of the various sections of pianonoise, new and old, by linking to them on the homepage. Or, if you are intrepid, you can go exploring, by way of the site index, or the listening archive. I try to archive everything worth keeping. I can't promise you won't get lost, and as I happen to be in the middle of a major website renovation in 2018, you might not always find things in the same place.

The site is meant to be a digital extension of myself, and what I find valuable (which is often--but not always-- the thoughts and compositions of other people, and the study of our various traditions upon which I build). It can provide a useful counterpoint to a live concert, for example (i.e., you can often hear me play the music before, or after, the concert, right here).

Everything that you hear is something I have recorded myself, and some of it I've even written (or improvised). My thoughts are my responsibility, although, like everything else's, they are largely inherited. I do try to examine them before I give them back to the universe.

Keep an eye on the upcoming events at the top of the homepage when it is active. Or, you can get on my email list (send to michael@pianonoise: subject "email please") and I'll let you know when I'm giving a concert.

See you around the piano!

Friday, March 2, 2018

The organ: from enthusiastic students to tired instructor!

For the past five weeks, 44 of my best friends have gathered in the sanctuary at Third Church every Thursday afternoon to listen to me wax eloquent about the glories of the organ, and occasionally to let some of the instrument's finest composers take a turn. It's been one of the offerings of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute of the University of Pittsburgh, which I describe as a kind of college for seniors.

For nearly two hours each week I held forth about the history of the instrument, which begins in the 3rd century BC, demonstrated all the knobs, buttons, manuals, pedals, and special features of the unique instrument at Third Church, and played about a half-hour mini concert. It's been quite a bit of work to put it all together, but quite a lot of fun, too. And these folks have been really enjoying it, and, engaged, have been asking good questions. Alas, all good things come to an end. Yesterday was our last meeting. Five weeks is a short semester, though, given all the preparation, probably long enough for this particular course. Did I mention 30-some slides as well?

Also, I've been yearning to get back to the piano. In fact, when someone asked what I was going to teach the next course about, I suggested that while nothing has been decided yet, that it might involve the piano. In any case, our sanctuary seems to be a good place to meet, even though it is not on the official campus. It's on a major bus line so people can get to it easily, and our staff and congregation really like having it here. It gets people in the building on a week day afternoon, which, after the busy sewing mission in the basement on Wednesdays, means two days a week that aren't Sunday. That seems like a good use of space.

And while it lasted, THE ORGAN: FROM PORTABLE PIPES TO MASSIVE MUSICAL MACHINE, which title is a bit fanciful and alliterative, but don't knock it, it got 44 people to sign up for a 5 week class about the organ!--while it lasted, it was great fun to be able to share the wonderful music and to demonstrate the unique properties of the instrument. I've given organ demonstrations before, but having nearly 10 hours of class time spread over five weeks allowed a depth and detail that I've not been able to go into during those at best hour-long demonstrations. Since I proceeded historically, I could ignore all of the buttons and studs for a couple of weeks since Bach didn't have them, and really get into the different stops and sound families on the organ. We also spent time looking at different pipes and talking about how they are designed, how the pipes are tuned, and so on. We didn't actually go into the pipe room (slides) because that would have involved signing release forms longer than the phone book, but I've been up there and enjoyed describing its awe-inspiring and caution-inducing atmosphere while showing pictures of everything my camera could grasp.

Then electricity came along and the organ became a rather different instrument. We were able to discuss images of the organ in pop culture (more slides) as well as hone in on two major types of pieces written for the organ: fugues and toccatas. Of course I played some of the most familiar, but I also made time for some rarities that I particularly enjoy. And in addition to music from Baroque Germany and Romantic France, we heard music from Italy, Spain, England, and America, from composers living and dead. During the penultimate week we discussed the improviser's art, and I had a go at making the mysteries of making it up seem less unfathomable. There was some participation. We'll leave it at that! (smile)

All in all, a successful venture. Students were asking the next course offering by the second week, the church would like to host it again, and the administration seems pleased. So if I'm a bit tired this morning, it is in the best sense. It is time for a break, then on to other things. But, ah, that was fun. And my online "students" will also reap the benefits. See you back here next week.