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.