Friday, April 3, 2020

Infinity Plus One

I spent an awful lot of time in first grade standing in line. The teacher would line us up to go out to recess, and then, tragically, insist on the lot of us being silent before she would dismiss us to the bedlam of the school yard. But a moment of order imposed on young humans is far too much to ask. Our young are endlessly fascinated by every syllable that comes out of their own mouths, and it was simply impossible to expect them to realize that 30 seconds of silence meant 30 minutes of play time. Instead, we stood in line for 20 of those thirty minutes nearly every day until some of them got the message.

I didn't realize then how the rest of life was really just an extension of first grade. The bad kids got all the attention. Everybody got punished for the behavior of a few. The dumb kids won every argument by saying "I know you are but what am I?" over and over in an effort to irritate the ones who could think. Now they call that "owning the Libs." Back then it was just being a jerk. Eventually their opponent would just get tired and give up. So much winning.

This week we started to find out that not being able to discipline ourselves in the short term could actually get people killed. Most of us have been under some kind of shelter-in-place order for at least the last two weeks. Some of these orders, which are largely voluntary, full of exceptions, and kind of vague, have been periodically supplemented with more stringent orders which turn out also to be largely voluntary and vague ("hey kids, I'm really serious this time!").  Some of us are taking these directives seriously. Sometimes I actually feel like I'm quarantining so hard it might even make up for three other people. Can you hear the sound of me quarantining?

Didn't think so. But you did notice the kids who crowded the beaches for spring break. Already dozens of them turn out to be infected with Covid-19 and are spreading it all over the U.S. I can see you are thoroughly shocked. The virus is also spreading wildly through nursing homes. I cancelled a gig I would have had in one a month ago so don't look at me. Then there are the politicians who insist that our freedom and our economy must be protected from having to give up massive profits for a few weeks so large numbers of people don't die. Is there a real price for quarantining? Sure is. Does our economy matter? You better believe it. But not so much when everyone is dead. It's a balancing act. Last come the preachers who insist it is religious persecution not to let them hold services to spread contagion to everybody in their church. Just like Nero told the early Christians to gather on line for a few weeks until they'd flattened the curve. Lots of martyrs came out of that period in ancient Roman history.

There's been a pretty serious failure of leadership at the top as well, which is truly unfortunate because regular people are not going to suddenly, of their own volition, behave themselves any better in times of crisis. Now lots of them are sorry, which is always good to be when it is too late and the history books are looking for a slight variation on the same old story of people not seeing any good reason to put enough life boats on the Titanic until it actually sinks. We are coming up on a time when you no longer have to believe what the scientists and medical experts were telling us for months and can just look out your window and see it for yourself.

Over a thousand people died yesterday from Covid-19 in the United States. That's not really as bad as it sounds, although it is twice as high as the number who have ever died from the flu on a single day. The real problem is that it's just the beginning.

pianonoise Radio: Music in a time of plague

Friday, March 27, 2020

Time Shall Be No More

There is a verse from the Book of Revelations that, slightly mistranslated, includes the phrase "Time shall be no more." Oliver Messiaen used this verse as the epigraph for his Quartet for the End of Time, composed during his time as a prisoner of war during the Second World War. It is hard not to imagine a certain autobiographical resonance in this; though Messiaen often experimented with very slow tempi and enlarged time schemes, it should be clear that being a prisoner would change one's daily experience of time considerably.

Those of use sheltering in place these days may feel a certain kinship, though I would advise caution in our application. A few hours ago someone on facebook was telling us that maybe now we knew how zoo animals feel, and while I can understand the desire to arouse empathy (which is usually a doomed quest), none of us are incapable of leaving our dwellings. Our imprisonment is voluntary, and our notions of hardship are a bit underdeveloped.

Actually, I was having some frustration making a recording from my home piano this afternoon because we live near a busy intersection and the noise of so many people "sheltering in place" at high speed was quite intrusive to my zen. This might explain why Pennsylvania is currently tenth in terms of Covid-19 cases and deaths. We are just too important to stop what we are doing, even for a few days (never mind several weeks).

The ones among us who are taking these quasi-orders seriously are currently experiencing time in a completely different way. It is much harder to know what day of the week it is now. And many of the deadlines and appointments that made up the weigh stations of regular life have disappeared. This could be terrifying, but since I happen to know what to do with vast quantities of time, it made me quite calm for a few days. Since my spouse happens to be in the medical field, and still has a job to go to each day, while I have been locked out of mine, I stayed home and practiced music not too differently than usual, spending my time on an art that is itself chiefly concerned with the passage of time.

In the last few days, interestingly, some of that calm has left me. It is natural for human beings to feel stressed, and, given new projects to work on, whether there is an upcoming performance or not, always seems to presuppose a deadline because my mind is never satisfied to make a reasonable amount of progress every day, but continually expects more of itself. Stress feels more natural anyway. It is useful to remind myself of this natural trick of the mind, however, or I could be easily overwhelmed. There is always so much music to learn--oceans of it. And never enough time, even when you have all that is available.

And there are still demands on my time anyhow, from a job that hasn't completely gone away but is trying to resurrect itself online, to persons with requests, mainly small, but occasionally even the easy things take far too much time due to device malfunctions and the like. It is curious how time, or the pressing demands of it, seem to be reborn out of the ashes, like a petulant phoenix. Time shall be no more? Eventually, but not this time. Not the time I know.

It may have slowed for a moment, but people still have things to do, and a pressing envelop in which to do it. Time will not stop for them until the next person kills himself at our intersection, and then, and only then, time shall have ended its tyranny.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Interesting Times

I don't mean to make light of a terrible situation, particularly in Italy, Iran, and China, but so far the United States is more in a state of tension that tragedy, and if we can't laugh at our fears a little we will succumb.

There was a drawing going around on a Facebook organist's group last week showing an organist protecting himself against coronavirus. He wore what appeared to be a plastic wrapper from head to foot, and was totally encased in protective fabric as he sat on the bench, save for a drinking straw (helpfully labelled "breathing tube") coming out of the top. Actually, he looked a little like a banana.

The British members of the group thought this was pretty funny, despite having several deaths to the disease already. The Americans, living in a country where few people have yet died, were offended.

My first thought, frankly, was how could I play the organ in that thing? I have enough trouble enmeshed in your standard robe.

Anyhow, the Google must not have thought it was funny either, because I can't find it. And the members of the Facebook page, after getting several nastygrams about it, seem to have taken their posts down. So you'll have to use your imagination.

If laughing at something is a substitute for action, or if it woefully underestimates the seriousness of a situation and thus causes irresponsible behavior then we certainly would not want to encourage it. There are, however, some of us who can both laugh at our fears and realize why caution is necessary.

It is not impossible that I acquired the disease myself, travelling through LAX two weeks ago. At the time there were a grant total of 6 reported cases in California, which has 40 million people. I thought it was highly unlikely we'd contract the disease. What we learned since was that cases have been severely under-reported, given that tests were not available, and after I got back I read that two health care works came down with it at LAX while screening passengers in late February. I've also read that 80% of the people who develop Covid-19 only experience mild to no symptoms at all.

One of the most pernicious aspects of the illness is that it takes upwards of a week to become obviously sick, during which time its host is unwittingly spreading the virus to others. I developed a slight tightness in my chest last week, which is only enough to be moderately annoying, and would be a great way to develop anti-bodies for the future with a minimum of suffering, but I would not want to pass the thing on to others who might have a much worse time of it. My symptoms are so mild I won't be getting tested so may never know if my hunch is corrected.

This morning I read about attempts to develop a blood test to check for the presence of anti-bodies to the disease which would of course indicated that a patient had contracted the virus, which would be helpful to medical experts to determine the scope of the spread and check for herd immunity. It would also answer my question.

Meanwhile, I, like you, am staying home and avoiding contact. I am keeping up on the latest covid-19 statements from everyone I've ever known at any level. So far my dentist, my eye doctor, and my gas company have seen fit to issue emails about how they are dealing with the disease. My grocery store, the library, my congressman and my landlord have followed suit. Also my gym. I am not making any of these up. I am kind of peeved that my mailman has not come out with his own statement about covid-19. Nor have I heard from the gas station down the street. How are they dealing with the spread of this contagion?

While we all hunker down and try to adjust to a completely different lifestyle, remember to wash your hands, for 20 seconds. Every time you are stuck for something to do, go and wash your hands. Some day, some young person is going to wonder why the old dude keeps washing his hands all the time, and for so long. It will become the weird thing that is part of my experience, the way my grandparents hoarded money under their mattress because of the depression, or my parents hide under their desks whenever they hear a civil defense siren (I think they stopped doing that a while back, actually). And I, like Lady Macbeth, will keep washing my hands. It's not such a bad tic to have, actually. And now I know what interesting times I will have seen when I am old enough to share stories of the times I survived. I just have to survive them first. And so do you.

As Edward R. Murrow used to say*, "Good night and Good Luck!"

*I'm not old enough to remember when he used to say that, I just know some history! working from home edition is available today. The PianonoiseRadio program, "Music in a Time of Plague," should be ready Sunday.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Reflections in the water

I'm putting together a PianonoiseRadio program for next week entitled "Music in a Time of Plague" and in the process of looking for recordings stumbled across one I had nearly forgotten about. The piece is based on the hymn tune "Shall We Gather at the River?" and its appropriateness is suggested in the following remembrance by the author of both its text and tune (which is unusual), one Robert Lowry, as found in E. W. Long's "Illustrated History of Hymns and their Authors:"

On a very hot summer day in 1864, a pastor was seated in his parlour in Brooklyn, N. Y.  It was a time when an epidemic was sweeping through the city, and draping many persons and dwellings in mourning. All around friends and acquaintances were passing away to the spirit land in large numbers. The question began to arise in the heart, with unusual emphasis, 'Shall we meet again? We are parting at the river of death, shall we meet at the river of life?"  "Seating myself at the organ," says he, "simply to give vent to the pent up emotions of the heart, the words and music of the hymn began to flow out, as if by inspiration."*

The piano piece based on this hymn by my friend Marteau is simply titled "River" and I made a recording of it in late February 2016. This makes it one of the 'tumor' recordings. At the time I had a very large tumor in my chest. I felt unwell, had trouble breathing normally, and tended to cough every time I exhaled, which made it miraculous each time I was able to get through an entire take without coughing. The tumor would be discovered a week after the recording was made, after which I had the better part of a month to contemplate my own imminent mortality before receiving a much more positive diagnosis. At the time, however, I already knew something was very wrong.

It was my own personal plague, though in this case, all of my friends who were not dying around me; in fact, the lingering cough they'd had all winter had finally gone away and only mine remained. But it does lend an interesting additional layer to the recording I'll share with you next week.

The program includes pieces which were written during and about times of rampant disease, but also music of comfort as well as grief. It is a reminder that the music many use to escape life (i.e., as pleasant noises in the background to make us feel better) actually deals with the whole of life, giving voice to a variety of human expressions on a panoply of subjects, the music itself written during daily harrassments and dramas and threats to our existence.

It may be a little dark for some; I've been hearing from you folks all my life, including my favorite comment from the time we did a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (!) in which the king dies of grief at the end. A handwritten note delivered after the play said "We prefer happy endings." Using music as a way to constructively deal with negative emotions rather than suppressing them has its analogue in the real world where denial can often lead to a lot of damage. In fact, one can lead to the other, as music which dares to be negative can lead to emotional growth. That isn't really the point here, but it may be a nutritive side effect. It may also somehow contain a message of hope in dark times, of which there have been many on planet earth and of which many wise composers and authors have left us records of their experience.

*from John Julian's "A Dictionary of Hymnody" (1907) as found in Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (1993) p. 592

Friday, March 6, 2020

What it was like

Greetings from the west coast.

Not that it really makes any difference where I am. Or where you are, for that matter. We're both here now. Sort of.

I've always found it interesting that we are a species that can communicate over vast distances. I may be playing the piano right now for people on the other side of the world. Or they are reading something I wrote several years ago when I was in a very different spot on the planet myself.

We can bridge great distances in time as well. Most of the people whose music I play are dead (some just live thousands of miles away) and many of them have been dead for several centuries. And yet their music is still having an effect on somebody somewhere.

On Tuesday night we attended a concert at Disney Hall in Los Angeles. It was a chamber music concert consisting of the music of Ives and Dvorak. They started with Ives. I've always felt like maybe I had something of an inside track with the gentleman from Danbury. I also grew up in a small town that was becoming much larger as I reached adulthood. My family attended a white wooden Presbyterian church with a steeple and we sang many of the same hymns the Ives knew and used in his works. When I was in graduate school and an academic pointed out in a dry, informative way that Ives quoted this particular hymn tune in the 5th measure and extended that one as the bridge to the second theme I already knew it because I recognized the tune and had maybe even sung it or played the organ for it the previous Sunday. My cultural upbringing and Ives's milieu had some things in common, even if I was born a hundred years later.

This seems important for another reason. Ives wrote in words, too (Memos and Essays Before a Sonata being two important sources) and often spoke of trying to capture his boyhood experiences in sounds. For him music wasn't about the expositions and the modulations to the submediant--in fact, he liked to make academic procedures and analyses a target. Instead, he used musical quotations in a very different way: to conjure up not only the musical memories of his time and place, but to record the way those musical sources made him feel. That's why snippets of tunes drift in and out, veer off in unexpected directions, flow contrapuntally, or get extended in surprising ways. Ives employs a host of useful compositional procedures to make symphonies out of tunes that just want to be tunes, but the effect explores the psychology of the composer in a way that is not so obvious with other composers. It may be the closest thing we have to Freudian composition.

I wondered how much of that would translate to the stage of Disney Hall. Already, in her opening remarks, the violist for the Dvorak piece that was to come later had introduced the Ives and informed us that the quartet wanted us to know that the place where Ives is in two meters at once is supposed to sound a little sloppy so we shouldn't think it was their fault. This is virtuosity anxious that it is being undermined by something that isn't. I don't think Ives would have been happy.

The performance was quite correct, of course. And more, I think. It was lively, and not at all sterile. But I wonder how much the performers knew about Ives and his world and whether they wanted to enter into it. It must have been very different from what they knew: A world of constant practice and perfection meeting a world of experimentation and scoffing at boundaries. They made a fine performance out of it, but was the result really Ives or some other fine composer borrowing his notes?

The audience was enthusiastic. They may have been a bit too enthusiastic. I don't want to be a snob here, but it would have helped if they waited until the movements were over to being clapping loudly. I am not much of a purist regarding not clapping between movements; in fact, some of the time I think it is perfectly appropriate, and other times not so much. But after the slow movement, which is really an unusual time for a major display of enthusiasm, parts of the audience which had been set on hair-trigger applause all night burst into raptures before the group could resolve the final chord. It would be as if I told you that

You can tell that sentence isn't finished, right? It needs more words to finish the thought. Music works the same way, only people don't speak music, and some of them can't tell when a musical sentence is over. I wish they could. One of the most wonderful moments in the entire concert got interrupted by the sound of many limbs smashing together because several people couldn't wait for everyone else to know how much they were enjoying themselves. I hope it was at least genuine enthusiasm, but it may have been because they wanted everyone to know how cultured they were, in which case it backfired.

In any case, it was an enjoyable concert. I don't mean to interrupt your cheery Friday, but if we aren't brave enough to consider where we may be falling short we will never grow. An immature spirit will naturally assume that playing the notes on the page means communicating the intention of the composer. A more courageous sort is strong enough to ask whether that is really the case.

I should mention in passing that the Disney Hall organ, which some have compared to a pile of french fries or pick-up stix, is actually far more chaotic looking in real life than in 2-dimensional pictures. I rather wished I had brought my organ shoes and persuaded the management to let me play Ives's Variations on America at the intermission.

This week Marches on.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Winter Carnival continues

There is something to be said for a winter celebration. When the atmosphere is forbidding, we who have to live in it like to find ways to make it more bearable. That's what many of our holidays are really about. Winter carnival season fits perfectly into the month that I like the least. That may not be exactly why it's there, but it works for me.

Lent began on Wednesday for most of the Christian world. Somewhere in the distant past, the church decided to have a period of fasting and self-examination to prepare for Easter, a little fast before the feast, which is an important part of each year's psychic sculpting. We can't feast all the time, and having to do without for a while should make it all the sweeter when the feast finally arrives. That theory works for some people, but not for the party-all-the-time crowd, who, however, lacked the discipline necessary to get themselves into power and thus effect the rules very much. But probably due to their overwhelming numbers, they were still able to make some impression. When Lent was introduced, many people's first reactions must have been: oh dear, this sounds like it calls for too much self-discipline. When exactly does it start? Because up to the last possible minute before it takes effect I want to party my brains out! And thus Fat Tuesday was born. And people created pancakes so they would have something to eat on said festival day. Doesn't my little history sound authoritative?

I can understand the need to make things a bit more cheery during these cold and dark winter months. I have need of it myself. This year I found a couple of fun musical selections to take my mind off the month. Last week I shared with you some variations on Yankee Doodle. This week, I thought it would be interesting to take one of Antonin Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, originally written for piano duet and then orchestrated, and translate it again for organ. I was planning to play it as a duet by utilizing the playback system, but then I decided to just try my own on-the-fly arrangement of both parts, which mostly meant having the secondo part in front of me and playing the upper part from what I could remember.

It's my musical version of a winter carnival. Took my mind off the immediate circumstances. Had nothing at all to do with what music needed to be prepared for anything. A little boisterous for all that, actually. I'll be playing some nice, restrained Bach for church this weekend. But in the meantime, here I am having some fun with an  ad-hoc organ transcription. Enjoy!

Dvorak: Slavonic Dance in g minor, op. 46 no. 8

the last weekly edition from the infernal month of February is at right now!

Friday, February 21, 2020

Your February Musical Doodle

I may have mentioned a time or two that I have no great fondness for February, a month everyone else seems to enjoy greatly when they aren't complaining about the snow and the cold. In the popular estimation, January is the great villain, and lasts inordinately long, particularly when the Christmas tree is on the curb by the 26th of the previous month. I will, however, stick up for its successor as a legitimate claimant for the title of suckiest month, at the very least on the basis of inertia, which is what happens when one's defenses are all gone after three months of cold and dark and all of the good holidays have been squandered by a society in too much of a hurry to wait until we actually need them.

It can also make you grouchy.

In the past, I've survived the worst weeks of the year by finding something cheerful to occupy me. I will customarily by a box of kid's cereal each February, like Fruit Loops or Lucky Charms (I abstain the rest of the year). I also make a cheery pie or two.

Then there are musical pursuits, which can be charming in their own right. This year one thing led to another and I came across a set of variations by a living Italian woman named Carlotta Ferrari on the old American tune "Yankee Doodle." It's a doozy. She's a very prolific composer, and she likes to use various synthetic (newly created) scales to put the tune into different guises.

It just so happens that all of her music is available at the International Music Score Library Project, and it is under a Creative Commons License, which means I don't have to worry about getting sued for sharing her music with you. All I have to do is tell you who wrote it, and, as a bonus (which is technically not required of me), where you can find the music if you want to play it yourself.

I spent a couple of days learning and recording this piece, which did make a positive difference in my mood. I hope you have a sense of humor so that it can act positively on yours.

listen to   Carlotta Ferrari: Yankee Doodle Variations

Friday, February 14, 2020

It's not you, It's us

I may have been a little hard on Fred Chopin a couple of years ago. I shared a little waltz of his, which has since become a Valentine's Day staple around here, and suggested that he had written it in order to break up with his girlfriend--actually, to break off their engagement. It seemed better than a text message, but still.

I'm not sure now where I got the information that led me to that conclusion, but a Chopin biography I read more recently says that in fact Chopin very much wanted to marry the young woman, but her parents didn't think Chopin was marriage material, and they made her break it off. It was a distraught Chopin, then, that wrote that little waltz, not an irresponsible one.

When you are dealing with human motivations and behaviors you have to be careful. It is easy to deify persons of genius, and to think they can do no wrong. Scholars today general do not fall into that trap as they did in centuries past, and will often remind us, as Malcolm MacDonald did in his biography of Brahms, that regarding Brahms's emotional life "like most of us, he tended to make a mess of it." They are human, after all.

But it isn't all about individual choice, either. There are always powerful prejudices over which we have no control. One of them was that for centuries anytime a girl's parents saw a musician coming they presumed he was no good. Artists in general don't tend to swim in money, at least not their own. Some of our greatest have made piles of the stuff for subsequent generations: Mozart has spawned an entire industry and created who knows how many jobs by now, but it took awhile to take off: this was paying it forward two centuries before dot coms were not expected to turn a profit for a decade.

Chopin himself seems to have made a decent living by the end of his short life, mostly be selling his compositions (his unique brand of piano playing didn't fit the contemporary fad so his performing career was not very successful). That seems hard to believe given that there could not have been many who could actually play them, but it worked, apparently.

Still, in a capitalist economy, the people who create things can never really compete with the people who distribute them. Better to marry a merchant, a man of business. Or at least a musician who, like Clementi, went into business manufacturing piano so he could play them on the side.

Chopin spent most of his adult life in exile in Paris, away from his native Poland, and apparently without his early flame. The scholar who wrote the article for the New Grove dictionary thinks he barely even missed Poland, perhaps in order to counter  earlier writers' descriptions of an eternally homesick composer who turned out native dances as a source of ethnic pride and grief management.

The image of a composer seems to change with every generation. New evidence emerges, new writers see themselves or their era in their subject, reputations have to be made challenging the status quo, so that the more one reads the less sure one can be that they've gotten it right. And this is all before the era of fake news and bots.

But I'd like to apologize to Mr. Chopin. I think there is a very good chances that he was dealt with unjustly in this case. He may not always have been the easiest fellow to deal with, and his subsequent relationship with George Sand was stormy enough, but I'll let him and his frustrations rest in peace and not assume he had any more control over his destiny than most of us.

And in any case, he left us a very nice waltz.

see what I got you for Valentine's Day on

Friday, February 7, 2020

The not-so-great divorce

I just sent away for Quentin Faulkner's book "Wiser than Despair," a book whose existence I just discovered despite it being published some eight years ago. In it, the university professor will, as I understand it, share a number of observations, quotations, and thoughts about the church and the arts. I've been a sucker for books like that for at least a decade, because it seems rare that anybody would wish to discuss an amalgamation of the two areas.

The church and the arts seem to have parted ways three or four centuries ago, although even then they had a tenuous relationship. Now most serious artists practice their craft outside the walls of the church, frequently on a purely secular basis, even though art by definition asks the great questions of existence, which, according to some theologians, is exactly the point of religion. Only the church doesn't like the questions; it is more about giving the answers, and keeping people under control. Artists, like prophets, tend to get in the way of that. Experience with the arts can provoke strong emotional responses, which are frowned upon in many Sunday meetings, and cause one to think, which can also be a danger to an institution that often insists it has already done your homework for you.

Inside the church, there are arts with a small a. Music is generally allowed, although organists recognize that anything instrumental is often banished to before and after the service, while people are talking over our efforts. What is welcomed as a part of worship is mass participatory music, which has to be simple and repetitive, though sometimes a choir, still the subject of controversy because its anthems can be complicated, will be in the mix. The visual arts make minor appearances in only a few churches, and very occasionally even dance is allowed. But this is rare. And in any case, simplicity is the rule. It is probably just as well the Creator hid some of his stranger creatures thousands of miles under the sea--we don't seem to warm to the idea that diversity and complexity might actually be a part of the created order.

Hiding the arts from people may have been one of the wiser things the church did in terms of seeking mass popularity, which is clearly the aim here. Some of us will feel that a great deal has been lost in the process, but we would be in the minority.

The book should arrive in about a week. Most of its predecessors have, while interesting, not changed my life in any measurable way, but at least the authors have been interesting traveling companions. There have been sketches about Christian art, though eventually each has to admit that not much of it is practiced inside the walls of the church.

We are an interesting species. We have to have rituals, and a sense of predictable security. The arts tend to rouse us outside of that comfortable slumber. Occasionally we will respond positively--at a safe remove. The rest of the time it is the artists who had better be at a safe remove, like the mystics and the thinkers that the church has always found a place for behind the walls of their own institutions where they can't hurt anybody.

Still, they are there. I wonder how people can sleep at night.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Glenshaw? Glensha!

Last week I set up shop at a friendly little pipe organ north of Pittsburgh in the community of Glenshaw. Today I'm going to let you hear something I recorded on it, entirely gratuitously. I had just decided a day or so earlier it might be worth learning and recording a festive little piece by Samuel Scheidt known as Bergomasca (named for a region in north Italy whence came a rather addictive chord progression and a dance based on same). Since I like to let the voices of the various organs I come across in my travels speak for themselves whether I give a full concert on them or not (as in this case), I suddenly realized that this might be a nice test piece for said organ. So rather than playing the whole thing on a pleasant four-foot flute stop, I thought that each of the 21 very short variations should have its own sonic combination.

Now given that I had barely even learned to play the piece (I think I'd practiced it for maybe two days) it was an additional challenge to deploy the stop tabs every 8 seconds (I told you the variations were short!) but I took the challenge with no premeditated plan. Also I played the piece three times for even more variety. I was going to post them all, but then I decided that you have places to go and that even one listen is pretty indulgent of you.

So here it is. I realize a video would have been much more entertaining, but if you listen really carefully you just might be able to hear little blips between the sections when I am hastily depressing the stop tabs while thinking "hmm, this looks like a good combination"--like I said, I did not do a whole lot of preparation. Enjoy!

Scheidt: Bergomasca

and for additional stimulation, this week's edition of awaits.
*the title is a weird reference to a Dr. Who episode. If you were thinking I'd lost my marbles, why yes I have, thank you.

Friday, January 24, 2020

On location

One of the joys of playing the pipe organ is that each one is unique. That is true for pianos to some degree as well: each well made piano (particularly Steinways) have a unique sound. Last summer I had a chance to play the "Mr. Rogers" piano when it was still at WQED across from the studio where the show was taped. As I sat down at the piano I thought I'd play a little Mozart, but then suddenly "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" and the trolley theme came out. It was surreal, because it sounded so much like what I'd heard coming through my television as a child. It was the same piano, playing the same music. It was like recognizing a familiar voice.

Pianos aren't always that easy to adjust to, however. The action can vary considerably, meaning it might be a lot harder to get the keys to go down. In other cases, you can practically just breathe on them. One of the scariest moments of my career was sitting down at an unfamiliar piano on which I had had no opportunity to rehearse and having to begin the concert with a very very very soft chord which I had to calibrate just right by sheer guesswork. I am happy to report that on this occasion I got it right, and the atmosphere was set for a very nice recital.

With the organ there is an entirely new dimension, however. The very sounds the the organ makes can be different. There is that standard family of sounds: foundation stops, flute stops, string stops, mixture stops, mutation stops, and so on, but they may be grouped differently on each manual. There may only be a few of each type, or a whole lot, depending on the size of the organ. The logic behind grouping those sounds, and getting the organ to do its best for you will change as well, dependent on the builder and their philosophy of sound, as well as the era in which it was built or the country of origin.

That can make things a challenge, but it is also a great deal of fun if you like variety. It will also mean that certain pieces sound best on different organs.

Today I paid a visit to Glenshaw, which is a small community northeast of Pittsburgh. I'll be playing on Monday's chapter meeting of the American Guild of Organists. The theme this time is "free and easy" meaning stuff that you can find online at the International Music Score Library Project (, and that can be played on next to no practice. I didn't really need to go up there to practice for such a simple performance--about a dozen of us are playing one piece each--but it was an excuse to get to know the organ and see what it could do. I got to spend an hour with it this morning. I also made a recording of the piece I'm playing on Monday so you can hear it as well.

Ashford: Postlude for Festival Occasions

I had already recorded this on my "home" organ (at the church where I regularly play), but this organ, while smaller, really holds its own. In fact, I suspect this is closer to the kind of "harmonium" instruments that would have been a part of the composer's 19th century America, and most often performances would have taken place on a similar sounding instrument in a similarly dry acoustic. Hurrah for authenticity!

Next week I'll post something else I recorded that really puts the organ through its paces and shows what all of the stops sound like.
to see what else the "pianonoiser" has been up to this week, go to

Friday, January 17, 2020

How to get your student to actually remember the G sharp

There's a meme going around among piano teachers which shows a cat with an extremely surprised face, and the caption indicates that it is the teacher's reaction when the student is playing something in the key of A Major and "actually remembers the G sharp!"

It's a big hit with teachers, of course, because teachers like knowing that other teachers are just as frustrated as they are about the same issues. And the cat is really cute.

That isn't going to stop your student from continuing to abuse the G natural, though, and you might be wondering if there is a better way to go through life than to pleasantly remind them every time they do that. I thought I'd offer a few observations. The first is that the primary way I was taught to do this, by playing scales, is largely a waste of time.

Memorizing key signatures often seems irrelevant to the student, much like asking what happened in 1858. Scales can be the muscular equivalent of that. If you are going to have the student start every lesson with scales, which students almost universally hate, why not try something different?

Your approach can depend largely on the personality of the student: a few times I have actually taught all of the scales in one lesson, rather than parceling them out a week at a time and trusting the student to remember what A Major is supposed to feel like when it is needed. In these cases I go all the way around the circle of fifths and have the student play each scale while explaining how the system works. And the students actually enjoyed it. In fact, they had fun! This avoids the problem of parceling things out a bit at a time and making scales into a thing that you just have to do at the start of every practice, which have nothing to do with the music you want to play, and are an inviolable pattern of boring notes.

Understanding the entire system of keys is something you can try (mainly with older students, I think)--not to mention that it will seem like a challenge to do them all at once, and that can be exciting!, but if you are stuck on one scale a week, then don't let that scale remain an unthinking up-to-the top down-to-the-bottom routine. Change up the fingerings. Have the student try 1 2 3 2 3 4 3 4 5 4 5 6, etc. or 1 2 3 4 2 3 4 5 3 4 5 6 and so on. If you have an engaging personality you can get lots of things to sound fun that aren't if you don't. The idea here is that the student has to learn to think in A major rather than just put it on auto-pilot and cruise up an down in a familiar pattern that, even if mastered, does not guarantee that G sharp is going to seem a preferable alternative to g natural in measure 7 of their new piece, in the right hand. There needs to be a connection.

And here's where it gets weird. The one thing that has helped me the most, I think, has nothing to do with scales. I learned to improvise. Make up my own tunes. Quite a useful skill when you have a deadline and no time to practice, or suddenly have to fill time with music at a party or a church service that you didn't know about beforehand. If you have to create something in A Major, you think about it more. Have the student make up melodies using A major. The G# has to be reinforced every time you need it, randomly, in the wild, on demand, and while thinking about other things (like how I want to melody to go) rather than as a thing that happens near the top of a pattern I don't want to play.

As always, the keys are to make one have to think about it--often, and to reinforce the idea--often, rather than the make that G sharp something that exists out there in the ether that I have to do because teacher reminds me to do it once every six weeks when I have a piece with a G-sharp in it. Then I don't remember because: who needs to know? If it's part of a system I understand, it it is a challenge I like to undertake, if it is a pattern I use frequently, if it is just plain fun because I like the feel of a raised fourth finger, things are quite different. Ultimately success motivates and carries the rest of it along.

Of course, if the student never sees a piano between lessons this will be less effective. Eventually you should make room in your studio for somebody who does notice an instrument once in a while.

But in the meantime, give them a reason to know their g-sharps. Eventually it will seem natural. Pardon the pun.

Now get out there and look sharp!

Friday, January 10, 2020

The Lighter Side of the Organ

This month's PianonoiseRadio program features pieces that are tuneful, fun, and light for an instrument that many of us think only plays for solemn occasions. Although the repertoire does tend in a theater organ direction, there are no actual pieces for theater organ, nor did I record anything on one. The accompanying, picture, however, shows me sitting at the console of the Mighty Wurlitzer at the restored vaudeville theater in Champaign, Illinois, for a New Year's Eve concert with The Chorale, trying not to look down, or to knock the elevator switch off of the bench (it was not attached!). I know, it doesn't look like I'm up very high in the picture, but the pit is about 10 feet below the stage, so there is some height involved if you look straight down from the bench.

The first piece on the program is something I discovered last month on an organist's online group. The Postlude for Festival Occasions was written by Emma Louise Ashford, presumably to be played at the conclusion of a church service, and quite likely on a harmonium, or pump organ. I recorded it at my church on a large Allen using the Skinner sample set. Everything sounds more theatrical when you employ the tremolo.

Louis James Alfred Lefebre-Wely seems to have had the same attitude toward church music as Ms. Ashford, because the Sortie that follows (French for "exit" meaning a postlude for church) is just as light and fun as the previous selection. Lefebre-Wely was frequently badgered by colleagues who didn't think he was taking his vocation seriously enough.

In case we need a pause after all that festivity, the next piece is slow and peaceful. Charles Marie Alkan was a child prodigy who spent most of his later life in self-imposed isolation. His 13 prayers were probably written for the harmonium (ie, the pump organ) but I again played it on a full-blooded church organ. This second of the set was sufficiently melodious to make the cut. And again I made use of the tremolo.

Edwin Lamare was a virtuouso English organist who spent a couple of years in Pittsburgh as the civic organist (back when they had those); the organ he presided over is currently in disrepair and unplayable. I recorded his pastorale a couple of years ago. It is also a pleasant little piece, not too difficult, except for the part where he insists on making one hand play on two manuals at once (thumbing down).

We are back at church, which I admit is a strange place to spend half a program dedicated to just having a little fun and relaxation, but some organists have approached their task with more solemnity than others. Domeinco Zipoli wrote this ditty for the place in the service when the priest is cleaning up after the eucharist.

A few years ago I played a house concert (it had a large ground floor; about 50 people managed to get in) and I included a piece by Jean Phillip Rameau to begin. While I had a volume of his pieces with me, I recorded a few others, including this little gem, which was intended for harpsichord, but I thought it would sound nice on the organ. I was right.

The first thing I remember about the Mozart Rondo all Turca, which I recorded as part of a set of sonatas on the organ because our piano was out of tune at the time, is how exhausted I was the afternoon I recorded it. If I hadn't told you you wouldn't have known; such is the magic of recording. I am rested and feeling much better a year later!

The year I had cancer I remember hearing this Lemmens Pastorale on an internet radio station devoted to the organ 24/7. It sounded like a nice little piece I should play once I was feeling better. And indeed, it is now associated in my mind with my first Christmas in Pittsburgh. The part in the middle with the weird sounds may have caused the comment from a parishioner at a church where I subbed one Sunday that "the organ doesn't normally sound like that." No, I'm sure it doesn't, but when the composer asks for something unusual, you can either lock him up, or---give it to him!

We'll conclude with Lefebure-Wely's other most famous piece (depending on who you read it is the most famous or it is the other one). This one was recorded in 2014 in Illinois at an organ rededication concert and is from the period of my first discovery of this interesting man and his music. I've since played it at Heinz Chapel here in Pittsburgh (but did not record it), and this year finally got around to the other postlude/Sortie, the one in Bb which you heard earlier, eminating from the lovely Austin at Westminster Presbyterian whence I concertized this past summer.

For those of you who enjoy reading the manual, thanks for lending me your eyeballs. Now you can join the rest of your fellow listeners and enjoy the music!

and of course, there is a whole lot more this week at

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Gospel according to Herod

Apparently the garbage dump at Oxyrhynchus continues to disgorge its secrets. After giving us unknown gospels and new copies of canonic scripture, another bombshell find has emerged. This fragment, from the 1st century BCE, has been waiting patiently for an English translation for several years, and now, at a liturgically opportune time, it has been released to the public, where, I imagine, it may raise a few eyebrows, but it will certainly add to our knowledge of Roman rule in ancient Palestine. And, given that its subject has never been known to speak for himself, it will help us form a more complete picture of the events surrounding the birth of one of history's most famous figures and the founder of a major religion. As Mark Twain observed when introducing some letters that he claimed were written by the devil himself, we never get to hear his side. So, just to be fair and objective and give equal time to all sides, which rarely happens with this story (so much partisanship!), here are some lines from the Gospel According to Herod....

[ the first part of the scroll is lost] administration in the history of Palestine. And we're building. So much building. People have never seen anything like it. First we built the biggest fortresses. You can't attack these places. They're impossible. Even the Roman generals said we wouldn't even try to get into one of your fortresses. They should have your fortresses in Rome.

Then we built a temple. Some temple. huh? When I got here the temple was a total mess. They didn't know how to build a temple. People said it wasn't as good as the first one. They called it Zubbel's rubble. What a dump. He wasn't born here, you know. A lot of people don't know what. He wasn't born in this country. He's from Persia. That's what you get with a guy from Persia. Don't let the Persians build anything. They don't know. But we're making the temple Great again.

And our economy is booming. It's the best ever. When I took office Lebanon was ripping us off. Total rip off. I said, what do you want? They said Cedars from Lebanon. I said done. Now we have so many Cedars, and the metal for the nails is the best. Before they said we can't get the nails into the wood because they're too short. By the time you pound it through a guy's wrist there's no room to get it into the wood. I said, you want longer nails I can get you longer nails. It's easy. Hundreds of years, nobody could get longer nails. I got longer nails. Now they can't put the crosses up fast enough.

And crime is down. I put Herod Jr. in charge of crime. Hasn't he done a great job?

But they're still not happy. You know who I'm talking about. You know who I'm talking about.

The Jews.

They're trying to get rid of me, folks. They've been at it for a long time. They are very bad people.

The other day these guys came to me from the East. I said, where are you from? They said we're from the East. That's what they said.

I said, what are your names? And they had these funny foreign names. They were talking and nobody could understand them. I said its because they're speaking another language. They had to get a translator so everybody knew what they were saying. They have people listening in, did you know that? Not me. I don't need one.  If you're a genius that's how it works. But they couldn't understand these guys. I said, Why can't everybody just speak Roman? And you know they were up to no good. That's how you know. I said to the palace guards, nobody can pronounce these guy's names. They said not even you? I said, well I can pronounce some very difficult names. Nobody else can say them. The last king couldn't have done it. He wasn't very smart. Total puppet.

But these guys were from the East. That's all they said. And then they gave me these weird names that nobody would recognize. They wanted to fool everybody. But they weren't fooling me, not for a second. I said, these are not very nice people.

And they said, we're looking for a king. I said, I'm a king, are you looking for me? They said no, there's another king. Can you believe that? Another king. It's crazy.

And they were looking for him. They came to me asking where the other king was. How stupid do you have to be to look for another king in front of the first king? I said I'm right here. They said we don't want you. We want the other guy. I said what guy. They said the one who is to come.

How stupid is that? They're an embarrassment.

And by the way our poll numbers are better than anybody ever could have predicted. They didn't think we'd last for a second. But here we are. The best king in the history of Israel. David was OK, too, I guess. But people say to me, you know you are better than David and Solomon combined. That's what they tell me.

And these guys wanted somebody else. They said there's a prophecy. I said what prophecy. They said there's going to be a king over Israel. I said what do you need a king for, you've already got a king. The best king. Everybody says so.

They said there is going to be another one. And he hasn't been born yet. And we don't know where he is.

This is how stupid they are. They're trying to replace me, folks. And they can't even find a guy who is actually alive to do it. They want to do it with a baby. He'll come along eventually. A baby. Nasty people.

So we got our people together and they said the king is going to be born in Bethlehem. Bethlehem. It's a total dump. What a shithole. Nobody goes there.

But you know, it could have been somewhere else. I mean, who knows? What if it's in Samaria [Sebastia]? Or Galilee? They don't know.

So we sent them to Bethlehem. I said, hey, if they're in such a hurry to go to Bethlehem let them go to Bethlehem.

Then I called my people together and said let's kill all the children in Bethlehem. They said everybody? I said everybody. What do you think we're gonna do? knock on the door really nice and ask are you plotting to replace the king? What are they going to say, yes we are, come in and kill us?

Prophets, you know, are not very bright people. I'm much smarter than my prophets.

So we had them all killed. But I hear people say, but Herod, your visitors from the East got away! They didn't get away. I know where they are. I know where they are. And I want them to tell us who they really are. I have a right to know that. Everybody has a right to know that. Don't you want to know that? But I know where they are. You'll see. Trust me.

Then they told me you just fulfilled a prophecy. I said, our administration has fulfilled more prophecy than all the previous ones combined. We keep setting records for the most prophecy. It's really amazing. It's one of the best things that ever happened in the history of Israel. You'll see.


So this low-ratings loser evangelist wrote about us. Tried to make us look very bad. Very bad. Matthew is a nasty guy. Fake gospel. Nobody reads it. Mean Matthew. He's even worse than Loser Luke.

He says we did something terrible, folks. Does he not understand sarcasm? It was sarcasm. We didn't kill any children. It was all the Pharisees, folks. Really bad people. They killed everybody. I didn't want to kill anybody. They said, we're going to do it. I said why would you want to kill all those kids? They said we're going to do it. So, you know, that's the way that went. And now they're out there trying to make it look like the most horrible thing ever. They want to embarrass me, but it's the best thing that ever happened in Israel. But I'll tell you, with all the negative press co[the rest is missing]...