Sunday, August 02, 2015

Just play it

Here is a video clip from the recent house concert. Marilyn recorded Var. 5 of the Brahms. Interestingly, this variation had been something of a thorn in the side for some years. It is complex in its counterpoint, with the theme in contrary motion and 2 vs 3 rhythm, over a bass line, and with a little harmonic decoration. One worries about relative volumes, rhythmic intricacy, the extreme inwardness of sentiment, blah blah blah. Finally, I concluded, just play the darn thing. That seemed to solve the problem. Maybe there is a lesson here.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

mazurkas ad nauseam

Some new or recycled I don't know but it doesn't matter ideas, mostly about Chopin but with larger relevance I think. Also, found Stravinsky's recording of his piano sonata on youtube and it confirms my ideas only suggests that I have been overly timid about implementing them. Yes! I can actually play along with the master, although his tempos push me a little. Never mind.

Pedal is like reverb. It hides and exaggerates and suggests grandiosity, blows up your sound bigger than it needs to be. It is a crutch and a screen. Don't use it unless you know specifically why in each circumstance, and what it would sound like without it. Yes, Chopin wrote in ped markings, but have you ever heard an 1840 pleyel? And his was an upright in Majorca, I think. Anyway, i think creative transgression is a good approach, no sacred cows etc, and who cares what little hints the score tries to give a performer, they are just that. listen to a composer play their music, wait a minute, didn't you write fortissimo, but you are playing piano, is that chord a seven or diminished, why Ab when you wrote a natural, etc. And where did you get all those accels and rits, etc etc. Someone once complained to chopin that the piece was a waltz but he was playing it in four.

Rubato is just jazz, staying a little ahead of or behind the beat, working with the drummer. Chopin wrote it out occasionally for us timid folk.

Yes, I'm back to the Mazurkas, oy vey. Which reminds me, I am Polish. My ancestors may have lived there for 800 years. Some of my ancestors may have been polish or cossack soldiers who raped the jewish women during pogroms. I own this music as much as anyone in the world.

It is an illness with me, these mazurkas, i am sick with it. Until i play and record and perform them all i will be obsessed without relief. it's time to get over it. The mazurkas are sad, sometimes gay in the old sense, but rarely happy. sexy, yes, but dark at least in the background. that is why they speak to me, it is ancient sadness.

Another thing, a phrasing mark does not not not not not mean legato. Legato should be abolished from the lexicon of piano pedagogy. Variety for texture and grouping, ok. hand contortions to hold a note - are you kidding?

The bass or an inner voice is often the most important feature to focus on. If your attention is on the unmoving sound, the treble can be a kind of filigree, decoration, freely graceful commentary.

I wish I had words for every melody, at least inwardly.

Friday, July 10, 2015

from my journal, 2014

In real life, you often don't know where you are or what's going on.

Lately I'm taking a friendlier approach to myself.

When not pursued by furies, memory is a gift, inexhaustible, a playground, a treasure chest.

Discipline is not a dadism - it is innocent and practical.

Playing for the real family, though they may be in the other world. Maybe we are playing for the dead.

Suppose I were to give up - I would still have to please myself.

Can you imagine being free of momisms and dadisms?

I'm getting so tired that even flogging is not getting the usual response.

Nothing needs my attention.

I am part scientist, part mystic, part romantic.

Wasting time and being lost is usually a good idea.

Try regarding the treble as descant.

A note should not overstay its welcome.

Just look at our world leaders. Doesn't that prove that we are not doing our job as artists?

Safety - the one thing I never had.

When you open your computer screen, do you feel like a lot of eyes are watching you?

Dream: I am in line for a consultation with a Washington arts guru. He sighs and says why did you wait until you were old?

This human incarnation has some glitches.

There are articles of mind that may not be communicated directly - hence art.

Music is the road by which I found my way back to life.

Music laughs at greyish days.

Reverb is to make you sound more important than you are; it is a crutch and a sign of weakness.

How many ways can I do nothing?

The bass drum makes my heart skip.

The sirens are crooning in my ear, with horns like Claribel's.

Fuck you, death.

"Time is the pool in which I go fishing." Thoreau

The cardinals here imitate our local sirens.

With earplugs, my heartbeat is like the distant oompah of a car woofer.

Children see what is self-evident.

The trust in our institutions is unfounded.

What relief from the unidirectionality of time?

If you are in a lot of pain, it's convenient to be a masochist.

Sometimes what you thought was least important is really most important.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

From the Anchorage Museum

The Raven Drum now has come back.
We can hear nothing but its large voice.
It is like a great brightness.
The great voice of the Raven.
The cawing Raven all covered with pearls
is ahead of me.
We can hear nothing but its large voice.

    …Mourning Song sung by Kweenu (Gitskan Tsimshian) 1924

Secure eyes look at me
from a century old face
with a million lines pressed by age.
Our youth look at me
with pressured faces.

  …Nora Marks Dauenhauer (Tlingit)

In our tradition there is a saying. "If a person is able to do things, let him start," and that is how it begins.

…John Phillip, Sr. (Yup'ik)

When I am out there berry-picking, I have a picture
in my mind of my ancestors -- we don't know
how many thousands of years back.
I see their clothing and I see them
picking the same kind of berries…
It's something that our grandmothers have done forever.
And you feel protected, knowing that you're still walking
the path that they walked ahead of you.

… Martha Demientieff (Sugpiaq)

What you do not see, do not hear, do not experience,
you will never really know. 

There were the blue tops of endless mountains, everywhere the eye could see. Mountains, people, reindeer and the huge sun seemed as one at that moment. I stood there stunned by the beauty of my Motherland. How beautiful are the reindeer, the people surrounding me, this endless world! I'm proud that I'm an Even! Proud that I'm a small part of this huge beautiful world! Proud that I'm among the reindeer people, that I hear and understand the voices of nature!" 

-Anatolii Alekseev (Even)

Wisdom from Seward AK

From the Ranting Raven gift shop:

Balint Vazsonyi and other youtube discoveries

Balint Vazsonyi has put much thought and practise into the Brahms Op. 21, and I love what he does with these variations.

I also like this 1906 piano roll recording of Brahms Op. 76#8 by Florence Basserman:

Other interesting items: Theodore Leschetizky plays Mozart (also 1906 piano roll):

Wilhelm Kempff Brahms Op. 76 no. 6:

Heinrich Neuhaus Brahms Op. 76 #3:

Several of Neuhaus' recordings on YouTube are worth returning to:

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Beethoven crazy

Beethoven's op. 78 has always fascinated me. I think it's very loopy, especially the 2nd movement, (well, the first is pretty far out as well). I captured a little of the spirit of the thing in this practise reading. Beethoven asks, can you be as silly as I am here? Well sir, let me give it a try.

I listened with M to a very fine recording of this by a well-known pianist. Actually, I liked it and she did too. It was beautiful, almost elegant. I'm pretty sure M liked it better than my practise attempt - she said something like mine sounds choppy and arhythmic. And of course, that's true. But the conventional reading is too smooth for me, pretty much devoid of all that makes me like the piece. Makes me want to go to sleep, whereas mine with all it's crudeness and rudeness makes me glad to be alive.

I am beginning to conclude that for my taste, B cannot be truly played without some kind of violation or transgressive posture. He lived after all in a revolutionary period.

Now the thing will be to keep the crazy, and get to performance capable in some way.

By the way, here is a digital version of the 2nd that I prepared a while back (2011). And here is a practise runthrough of the first movement. It will be improved of course, but it has something new in it that pleases me.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Weird logic

My own mind is of course my greatest adversary, among other things. One piece of unuseful logic goes something like this: oh my, this is so beautiful, if only could play it, but I am playing it, but it is much too beautiful for me and I don't know how I am playing it, I must be doing something wrong, and it will take a lot of work and anyway I am not Artur Rubinstein, and really I should put it away for a couple of years until my technique improves so I can play it flawlessly, effortlessly and faster.

And I put the score away for a couple of years, and the cycle repeats. Until, miraculously, one day it does not. Like ripping off a veil, I say, wait, I know you! And I know this music, and don't you ever ever dare take it away from me again.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The news

Sometimes I think the news does not get to me. But then I find that unaccountably I cannot play the piano - music seems pointless. But here is some amazing music:

After hearing that, I picked up Bartok's Suite Op. 14 - that speaks to me right now.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

On practise

What have I learned from practise? In a word, hope.

There is a very long way from reading through a new piece of music to performing it; at first there seems to be no way from here to there. A history of practise simply cultivates faith that, though there seems to be none, a path can be found by putting one foot in front of the other. No matter how insurmountable the problems appear, they can be solved. It is slow, like growth. It may even take decades! And truly, one is never finished - that is the delight of art.

The first halting take on a piece of music is very precious, with all its mistakes. It bears the germ of everything that will come, in its absolutely freshest form. It is all discovery!

Practise has by now become so familiar to me that as soon as I photocopy a score and paste it up on cardboard, I feel that I am halfway there.

So how does this relate to life? Isn't it obvious?

Uncertainty principle

There seems to be a kind of Heisenberg principle involved in my practise: there are things I cannot record. In fact, I can't even pay attention to them. I am better off playing with the radio on, or my attention elsewhere, and then everything just naturally falls into place. If I have the recorder on, or am thinking about counterpoint, articulation, harmony, or anything, I seem to be working against myself. Maybe it is just Zen, the head on top of a head, etc. But I must remember to balance periods of recorder on, and recorder off.

Of course, it means that a corollary is: one cannot record the best stuff; but I have known that for awhile. After all, "live music" is what we are all about.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there was a nest of ospreys. Three osprey chicks had hatched from 3 large eggs. But one of the chicks was weak and smaller than its brothers, who pecked at it mercilessly. The osprey parents turned a blind eye - what could they do? The little osprey chick died. Osprey souls go to a kind of intermediate place where each may ask a question. This soul asked, what justice for the weak? As if in answer, it returned to earth as a human baby. The baby was held and nursed for a little while, long enough to feel love and comfort and hope. But pretty soon, for reasons we cannot know, the parents began to neglect and even abuse the baby, who was a little boy, and life for it became almost unbearable. Ultimately he was given to a pair of strangers, who although not cruel, did not know love. Life seemed gray and pitiless for a long time. Years went by in great unhappiness. The little boy asked himself, why had he been born? And yet he had known love, though briefly.

So as soon as he was grown, he left his house and went out in the world in search of love and meaning. Sometimes he wondered whether his true family had somehow been lost, and that perhaps he would find them again. Maybe there was a loving brother or sister, old parents, uncles, aunts, or cousins, who deeply cared about him and each other and were happy. For many years he wandered about the world, often regretting his birth, but comforting himself with memories of happiness, though they became increasingly distant and faint as he grew older.

One rainy night he was walking in an unfamiliar town. The streets were dark and empty. A river flowed to his left, crossed by a rounded bridge. To his right, he was drawn to a light in the window of a row house, one among many. Feeling desperately unhappy and lonely, he climbed the steps to the front door, and to his surprise, turned the handle and opened the door. He saw a warm and cheerfully lit room, simply furnished. An old man and woman were sitting quietly at the table, and around the room were some younger people, maybe with a baby. They were eating supper. They looked up silently as he walked in the room. He knew that they were expecting him, and that he had finally returned to his true family. They were very glad to see him, there were many tears, and all his years of unhappiness melted away like a dream.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Chopin Ballade

I have posted the Chopin Ballade #2. I am pleased with the work I have done on it. Things are beginning to fall into place. It is no longer the mysterious enigma that it used to be, and I have found the natural relation between the two opposing blocks of material. The hardest thing was going against the tide of virtuosic approach that has contaminated the traditional performance of this piece. "Play faster, faster, more brilliantly!" - that is the message that has come down to us, at least through my teachers. This misses the point (duh) of the music completely. Yes, stormy and chaotic. No, not dear me, how fast can you get around the keyboard.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Bach fugue

Posted practise of Bach WTC II Fugue Eb. It is probably too fast; it should not sound glib. Sounds like I wanted to slow it down here and there. Harmonically it is not as bland as I used to think. There are a few really interesting modal notes. Passing tones are really passing in this fugue - there is a wonderfully rich harmonic context for everything. The little things that bothered me yesterday bother me less today. I would say acceptable.

Couldn't salvage the Stravinsky for posting, even though I like it. Too much struggle and repetition to edit the recording. Try again today?

Reading Rockwell Kent's Alaska memoir. He was unique, but as crazy as any other artist, even me.

Also, almost forgot: edited the Kinderszenen runthrough.  It always surprises me what works and what doesn't. Some of them are reliably ok - there are 13. Some of them often stump or frustrate me, but not always. This was perhaps the first piece of music I mastered - at 13. I have made my own translation of the titles:

Foreign Lands and People
Funny Story
Perfectly Happy
Important Occasion
At the Hearth
Sir Broom-Horse
Almost Too Serious
Ghost Stories
Falling Asleep
The Poet Speaks

Friday, June 19, 2015

Krugman on the music biz

-->Krugman on the music biz, from Billboard:
Let's say you are made the czar of the music business. How do you ensure that artists are paid fairly?
Wow. I wish I had a lot of positive suggestions. When I did some homework for a South by Southwest panel, I was surprised at how little has changed for artists. Extreme superstars always have earned about the same relative to the mere mortals. If you look at Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, who toured America in the 1850s, and Elizabeth Billington, the star of London opera in the 1800s, and if you scale what they made by our best estimates of per capita income at the time, basically, they were Taylor Swift. It was always about the live performances. Artists have never made much money from royalties. Even in the height of the CD era, artist earnings from live performances were something like seven times that from their recording.
Has the Internet made it any easier for an artist to break through?
My colleague Alan Krueger at Princeton has done work on this stuff and claims that for top artists -- the 1 percent -- their share of live-performance revenue is still rising despite the Internet, despite the democratization. I would have expected the Internet to be a leveling force, because you don't have to be promoted by a major company to find your audience. But, so far, that's not reflected in the numbers. That may be because the algorithms at companies like Spotify are not democratizing the field as much as I would like. Or it might be that people are all pretty much the same -- and they all want to hear Taylor Swift.
In an interview, The-Dream suggested unionizing artists and songwriters. Is that a ­viable option?
If, say, we had to pay $25 for a ticket to see a band at Bowery Ballroom instead of $15, and the artist got paid a bit more, it's probably true that the great bulk of the audience would still come. So, I shouldn't knock it. Organizing could make the difference between not surviving and barely surviving.
The other thing that the arts benefit from is a strong social safety net. If you ask people in Ireland why so much music has come from there, one thing they'll say is that they don't have to worry about health care. The fact that Canadian musicians have publicly funded health care is not trivial. Policies that help low-earning workers, like health insurance and minimum wages, lead to somewhat better income for [them]. You don't usually think of musicians being like Walmart inventory people, but they have some notable common interests.
The majority of artists do not make a living, or they barely scrape by. They're not just working as waiters, there's also a pretty heavy dependence on the bank of mom and dad. How many wonderful talents do we never get to hear because they didn't pick the right parents?


Apparently it's tough for all of us. Personally, I have never made any money playing music. In fact, it costs me plenty, which is partly why I started the non-profit - after all, non-profits are supposed to lose money. Interestingly, raising my ticket prices to $20 had a noticeably negative effect on sales, so I am basically back to $15. And at that price I cannot really afford to pay the modest fees that classical musicians typically ask. Krugman also supports my visceral antagonism to Spotify - I hate it like I hate ITunes and Google.

"the algorithms at companies like Spotify are not democratizing the field as much as I would like. Or it might be that people are all pretty much the same -- and they all want to hear Taylor Swift."

Who is Taylor Swift?

contradictory ideas

Well, every day brings a new point of view. Yesterday was just play, don't think. Sometimes it's good to record, sometimes it's not. And to take the audience as a teacher, I don't think so.

It's a Hegelian process, leading to unfolding of meaning. Maybe I had to play it staccato before I could hear the right legato, for instance.

"Are you a composer?"
"Yes, but only for myself."
"And how exactly does that distinguish you from other composers?"

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

new ideas

We have been away (in Alaska) for a couple of weeks. I found that I could practise without a piano by playing the music in my head.

Best new idea: attaching syllables, spontaneously, meaningful or not, to the music, to reflect the syntax. Reminds me of King Pleasure.

Tried it with Brahms Op. 21 and Schumann Op. 15 while walking in the woods. That night I dreamt that I performed the Schmn for 2 or 3 people, actually vocalising while playing. Was this what Casals, Gould, and Istomin were doing? I loved it - it felt like Dylan; the audience was completely baffled and a little annoyed. So I called my musician brother to share my excitement. He didn't get it either; he said, but you are not a singer. I awoke upset, but shortly felt better about it - I really don't care what people think. Mar's comment: her adviser's warning about the potential response to her thesis show: he said she should know that her work was radical and unpalatable.

Today I tried the Schumann at the piano - not easy, but helpful. Also tried a Bach prelude and fugue with Hebrew prayer syllabification - wow.

Brahms Op. 5 4th motif something like "tiddly pum". That worked.

Nightmare last week about falling down an elevator shaft of a buried skyscraper. I feel that I have fallen to the bottom of things, but I am not dead.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Brahms Sonata #3 in f minor, Op. 5

Recent insight: the triplet-quarter figure (like Beethoven's 5th) is not triplet grace to accented quarter. Rather, it is two separate figures: the triplet, and the equal quarter. This applies to the figure in the 4th movement, and the second theme of the 1st. Symphonic conception means that it is just that, symphonic, not soloistic. It's like a piano reduction of a not-yet-orchestrated work. Has no one orchestrated it? It would be easy. So one stands back and enjoys the oceanic power of the 1st movement. I have posted yesterday's run-through here.

Recent idea: the 5th movement theme is related to speech, and should be heard syllabically (e.g., "He takes the train to Buffalo"). Which means, as in other figures in Brahms' music, it should be swung. This solves most of the problems in the movement. To play it precisely as written sounds too square (here is a computer realization).

Listening back to the Andante. Two sections in which pedal tones set the pace and focus: the Db in the poco piu lento, and the Ab in ending Andante molto. One wants to emphasize the tunes, but that is wrong, they are subordinate. Not easy. The interlocking sixths figure should be equals, like an echo - very unusual. 

The finale pedal is like a kettle drum. There are only a few parts of this composite rendition that are actually beautiful, but many are suggestive, and I hope I can use these to see through to a new idea or two.