Friday, October 26, 2018

It is a dark and stormy night

I'm writing this on a night when the weather is most fowl, dark, and Novemberish, with more than a hint of gloom; wet, and cold. Fit for contemplation from a distance.

Fit for tales from the beyond.

Here's one I like to bring out for Halloween--a musical tale. It was written by someone long dead, and unidentified, intended to be played on the organ, that thunderous instrument that inspires terror in so many who dare not approach any building in which it may be housed, awe in those who do. Be prepared for the former reaction.

Reduentes in La (anon.; from the Buxheimer Orgelbuch, 15th, century)

Its connection with Halloween is tenuous; I mostly put it there because the opening note sounds like another, more famous composition also associated with the spooky occasion (and also speciously). And, it is old. Very old.

We often find old things to be frightening.

Whoever wrote this piece is long dead. Their bones may be lying in the ground somewhere, all the flesh long eaten away. What they thought, and how they lived and whom they loved and what they did with their spare time if they had any, and what they thought of the king and how they died, is all a mystery that they carried to their grave.

But such speculation may be overshooting the mark a little. Most of us probably find old things frightening simply because they are unfamiliar.

I spend much of my time these days in the French, Gothic building pictured above. That photograph is a little dramatic: taken from an angle certain to make things intimidating, and of a part of the architecture that frowns more than some parts of the building; nevertheless, I fear it not. But then, it is part of my regular rounds. I don't fear the sounds of the organ, either, though an occasional thrill still runs through me during the performance of some compositions, no matter how often I play them. I should probably try one of them on Halloween with the lights off.

I might have lost something back there, before I became too well acquainted with history, and architecture, and the plots of scary movies that are actually fairly predictable much of the time, and have lost the thrill of the unfamiliar. But I hear the strains from that piece from so long ago and can't help thinking about the Black Death. Is that too pedestrian because it is real? I'm sure it frightened many persons in its day. It could again.

Maybe our mystery composer was among them.

I wonder what that person experienced. Was the church cold? Was the ink runny? Was there an interruption between measure three and four, and 14 and 15, or did the work flow pleasantly on a warm spring afternoon by the churchyard. In solitude or harassed by parishioners demanding things constantly? Were there cares at home? Were they proud of their work? Was it borne of inspiration, perspiration, some of both?

Which is more frightening: that we will never know the answer to any of these questions, or that the vast bulk of humanity really doesn't care in the least. We are all too busy hurrying to our own graves to care about someone we'll never meet who inconsiderately beat us to it.

Sleep well, my friends. It is a dark and stormy night.

Friday, October 19, 2018


I didn't want 2018 to get too far gone without taking note of some of the composer anniversaries. There have been plenty of Leonard Bernstein celebrations in the US, of course, this year being the 100th anniversary of his birth. Bernstein didn't write a great deal for the piano, and I don't play what he did write. Also, it's all under copyright so I can't legally record any of it. But you have probably gotten plenty of Bernsteinania elsewhere so I don't feel too bad about the omission.

There are some deathiversaries as well. Claude Debussy's is the biggest. He died in 1918--I haven't posted much about him, either, though there are a few short piano pieces in the archive.

But since the internet doubtless has him covered, it is worth mentioning a couple of smaller figures that might not be getting the blanket coverage.

One is Cesar Cui. I wrote about him in the spring, I think, when I discovered a little organ piece which I recorded. You can read the blog and listen to the piece here.

There is one more from the archive, though, and it stands right at the top of the page of piano music. The page is listed alphabetically by composer, so this fellow gets to be right at the top, even pulling rank on venerable Johann Sebastian Bach.

I'm talking about Felix Arndt. He didn't live very long, and the flu epidemic of 1918 didn't help. What he did compose would be classed as novelty piano, which I don't really specialize in. But a few years ago I was playing a concert in an old vaudeville theater and a short post-intermission crowd pleaser seemed in order. I chose Nola, a piece he wrote for his fiancee, the eponymous princess of his heart, a person, not a city.

Over the Christmas break I remember practicing the piece in the living room of a distant relative (I was really throwing this thing together fast--the four days between Christmas and New Year's Eve were about all the practice I was getting and I was learning this piece from scratch). My host thought she remembered some words.

If you are the right age, you might, too. I think I played the piece slowly enough that you might be able to sing along. Apparently, Liberace made a thing of playing the piece really fast and virtuoso, but I like the elegance of a more stately tempo. Here is my recording, which I made a day after we got the piano back to its environs from the theater to which it had been moved (I don't always take my own pianos when I play on location, just some times!). It might have been some moisture on my shoe, but the pedal squeaked a bit. If you have the recording turned up super high you may notice it. If you notice it, turn it down!

And enjoy the music. Here's Nola:

Nola by Felix Arndt

Friday, October 12, 2018

The Hunt for mid October

Persons from points elsewhere may not have heard, but in Pittsburgh this year the seasons are on the Julian calendar. It snowed through the middle of April, and on Tuesday we had a high of 86F.

It seems wrong to complain about such warm weather, though if you and I have not gotten acquainted, jawing about the calendrical wrongness of the weather is one way to do it. You don't have to email; you can just imagine us agreeing with each other for as long as you want to forestall doing something useful.

A delay in the onset of rotten fall weather (of the rainy November variety), or at least the crisp arabesques of a biting, non-raining October eve, the kind that reminds you of your mortality (which is why they put Halloween where they did), seems like something to laud, and yet the calendar tells us that things are amiss, paradisical atmosphere or no. Besides, it is a little hot out. I could do with some 70s.

There is something particularly grounding about the character of the various seasons. Of course, I am speaking with the bias of someone who grew up in the temperate part of the northern hemisphere, where it is supposed to snow at Christmas and bud at Easter. Halloween is when the trees are supposed to get scraggily, and the earth cold and dark. If it doesn't, we won't have an excuse to put up our Christmas lights by the middle of next week. Though I should point out that the darkness is keeping its part of the bargain.

Having a website has helped make me more aware of the world at large, and the world at large doesn't do anything in harmony. In Australia, everything is starting the bloom. And in Alaska, it's probably been night for a month. I am aware that I have readers from many locations where the situation is very different. I celebrate what I know, sometimes with a vengeance. And I hope you'll forgive my parochialism.

This week I've had visitors from Australia, France, South Korea, Botswana, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Nigeria, Norway, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine. Actually, that was just Wednesday.

Only about half of my readers come from the United States. Actually, a while back I tried checking the box that says google should emphasize the U.S. I wasn't doing it to be isolationist, but it seemed that since everything is in English, it might make more sense to advertise to an English speaking audience. It didn't help. I switched it back, and my user numbers are back up.

Recently I figured out that I could see which cities peopled had logged in from. On Tuesday, the first part of the list reads: San Antonio, Adelaide, Allentown, Azusa, Barcelona, Burgdorf, Camano Island, Cebu City, Chichester, Closer, Colchester, Dallas, Dickinson, Ellensburg, Fairfax, Ghent, Hartford, and Hazen. The app won't let me see the rest. It's fascinating to see things at the city level, particularly when there are places I've never heard of. Where's Burgdorf?

Probably Germany.

It is also possible to see which networks people were using. That doesn't often yield anything interesting, but if someone is using a University computer I can see which college. On Monday I had somebody from the Nevada system of higher education. And the Moscow local telephone network. Also, Carbon Lehigh Intermediate unit 21. A shout-out to my peeps in the 7th grade.

Universities and schools interest me because I have a hunch students are using pianonoise to do their homework. This is mildly depressing because it probably means that most of my readers aren't really having a good time and don't want to be here. I entertain this hunch because my numbers always go down on weekends and holidays.

What, you don't think listening to Mozart or reading about Beethoven is great entertainment for the weekend?

That's cold.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Mr. Rogers

They're filming the Mr, Rogers movie with Tom Hanks in Pittsburgh now. At least, I think that was what was happening as we drove past WQED this morning. That's where he used to work.

There's a statue built to honor him on the banks of the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh. A man who hosted a kid's show on television. So many people, remembering him and what he did, sound so grateful for the influence he had on them. Mr. Rogers stories abound. Even among people who were adults when his show aired. Meeting him was a privilege, they all say. And he was every bit as nice in person. They all say that, too.

His show began airing nationally 50 years ago at a station in Pittsburgh, so we Yinzers are doing a lot of celebrating. There's even a documentary on his life that came out this summer. We went to see it a while back. My personal Siskel and Ebert said it came with "all the feels."

But into every life some rain must fall. He wondered after a while whether he'd made any kind of positive difference at all. He was hard on himself, And, though it seems more than a little bizarre, he had his detractors.

Some people liked to make fun of him for seeming just plain too good and too nice. Sometimes there would be a parody on TV or the radio. I saw some of them. A couple of them were kind of funny, the rest--not. Some adults couldn't deal with that kind of persona on a children's show, apparently. With cartoon characters it would have been ok (as long as they beat each other occasionally), but not with a human being.

At one point he became the poster man for all that was wrong with America. The cranky old person's movement was just gearing up back in the 90s, and their complaint was that what was wrong with America's youth was that they all thought they were special, and the guy who told them that was Mr. Rogers. It was his fault for making them think they didn't have to work a day in their lives, or be anything other than a drain on society because he already thought they were terrific and once somebody has a case of the self-esteems you can't get a thing out of them, productivity-wise.

It's a shame that those of us who know this to be a load of manure can't convince the rest of you that it is a load of manure.

In the first place, Fred Rogers, who went to Seminary to become a Presbyterian minister, was basically just telling people what their Sunday school teachers were telling them--that their worth came before their accomplishments. That you don't have to win the race in order to matter (not that you shouldn't try, that is not the same thing). That you aren't a loser just because you lost a game. It is, in fact, possible for everybody to matter. To be special. That doesn't mean everybody gets the gold medal. But the 999 thousandths of humanity that never will doesn't have to feel like total failures all the time because of it. I think I heard somewhere that God loves you no matter what--from some of the same people who thought Roger's exercise in empathy was a weakness of the first order. And some people's parents try to model the same thing. What was so awful about a guy on television saying it too? Were they afraid this time we might take it seriously?

It's traditionally been in  the best interest of the rich and powerful to make sure people only see their self worth in terms of what they are doing for their bosses. If somebody gets the idea that working hard is important but that their very image doesn't depend solely on that aspect of their lives--those bosses fear-- you may not get them to stay all weekend and all night, forget their marriage and their children and their health and just go until they burn out and burn up and destruct. Exploitation doesn't want well-adjusted people. It wants addicts. It's greatest worry is that the only way you can get people to do things is when they are empty inside and try to fill it with work. If their most basic needs are already satisfied--if somebody goes around telling them they can be loved whether or not they show up on Monday, maybe they won't do it, because why else would they? And if you are a crappy boss at a crappy outfit, maybe you have reason to worry. Maybe you have nothing else to offer but fear and dependence.

Meanwhile, despite the participation trophies and all the encouragement (horrors!) it turns out Xers and Millenials are doing some pretty amazing things on this plane. Some of them are working pretty doggone hard, going out and getting what they want and not assuming the world owes them everything. But you can sit on your own butt and complain about them if you want. They are passing you by.

Mr. Rogers wasn't about the corporate bottom line. His point was that you matter first and foremost before anything else. And that life is a marvelous thing to be savored rather than a long frenetic ride through a land of continual anxiety.

The other night I was talking to my brother. My niece is on two sports teams. In one of them the coach encourages everybody, is positive, and works hard to see that everybody is motivated. In the other, the coach yells at everybody all that time. Guess which team is not doing well this season?

Yup. And the one where the coach "coddles" everybody won the state championship last year and looks like they have a shot at it again this year.

I had some teachers in high school who would never have believed this. They thought life was hard, and they wanted to make sure we knew it, too. They treated us like dog turds. I'm familiar with the stories of the teachers that people thought were rough on them at the time and then later realized were doing them a tremendous favor by making them work really hard. These folks were not like that. They were just jerks. I've had the kind that were purposefully tough on me. I could usually tell at the time that through all those high standards was a person who basically liked me and wanted me to excel. These folks knew not only how to set the bar high but to do their own jobs to make sure we were equipped to jump high enough to get over it--and to give us the encouragement to try.

I'm afraid a lot of people have lost the distinction between making somebody work hard and being abusive. Seeing someone else's worth as no more than what they can do for you is a distinct sign of the latter. And  fretting that anybody who thinks they might derive their worth as a human being independently of anybody else's estimate is some kind of godless commie is ridiculous--and one sided We are all responsible to each other, and for each other. That was in Fred Roger's bible, and he preached it, without his little flock ever knowing it.

It seems like America these days has a major case of "get off my lawn!" in more ways than one.

Fred Rogers didn't make anybody lazy, or make anybody feel entitled, or lose their zeal for hard work just because they had it mixed in with a joy of living. Mention of his name still brings smiles to all of the children of his neighborhood. Some very motivated children, I might add.