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.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Still here?

Yes; but I couldn't really see the point of blogging - I am convinced that only three people read my blog (you know who you are!). But actually, I write the blog for me. So I might as well keep going, since what else am I going to do?

So, what's new? Pushed kicking and screaming into solo work - don't throw me in that particular briar patch! I am learning to take more risks, experiment, and especially to forgive thyself. And to try to remember the epiphanies of yesterday or last week. Not easy to avoid falling back into the same habits, but that is all so boring. Every day is a breakthrough, really; it's hard to keep it all straight.

So what did I do today? I played straight through Brahms Op. 21#1. I listened back to it. A little stiff in variations 1 &2, but ok. The theme, apart from mistakes, excellent. 1 and 2 should be faster and more flexible. I loosened up a bit later on. The finale perhaps the most satisfactory yet - an intense left hand cadenza followed by a much lighter touch in the coda, which does not need to be as intense as I have been doing. Var. 3 should be faster and more flexible, or at least lighter. Var. 4 pretty good, but too much volume, maybe less pedal would help. Var. 5 is really getting there. The 2/3 figure is very important. Var. 6 should have more abandon, and again, a little less dense - not easy to do, I know. Var. 7 puzzlingly unsatisfactory. Maybe it's too fast and too loud - I'll listen to an earlier version where it is more ethereal. I finally got Var 8&9 pretty much where I want them, a feat of which I am proud. Var. 10 moves in and out of focus - an earlier version felt a little better. Var 11 and the coda do not leave me unsatisfied, which is more than I could say for most earlier versions. I posted the recording on the web as part of a new practise diary. I think it will be helpful for reference.

Also, I posted the 1st and 2nd movements of the Stravinsky Sonata. It is getting more and more fun to play.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


"Students stand next to a giant mural of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 at their school in Manila."

Sunday, February 16, 2014


Carl (and Marilyn),

I think in offering thanks and appreciation for other things to both of the performers, I neglected to say how much I appreciated the program itself, particularly the recent composition (Marne) and of course the Piazzolla, which drew me in the door in the first place!  Really appreciated the passion of the musicians for the music and for offering it to the lucky audience in an intimate venue at low cost and with great hospitality (gorgeous fireplace upstairs, BTW).

Count me a regular member or future audiences!


James and I will be back for this.  Check will be in the mail.  Wonderful evening last night—enjoyed it from beginning to end! Many thanks to you and Marilyn

Sue—and James!

Hi, Carl and Marilyn,

That was a wonderful concert and evening again last night.  Thank you.

Julie, Zak and I LOVE your concerts. Can I score 10 tickets for March 8?



Carl -- Marilyn -- Sat night was spectacular... really a
wonderful concert and fine mix of people in your warm,
lovely home... 
Hugs, Many thanks --
M (and H)