Sunday, August 16, 2015

Berg Sonata

Thank you, Mike, for your kind words about my practise log entry! I had not played the Berg since 1970 (my Buffalo NY debut), and when I pulled it out this year it looked quite daunting. But to my surprise it came right back to me. I think the music had very much spoken to the 22 year old Carl, and it seeped into my bones. Regarding the "ffff" and "pppp" etc: Whatever was he thinking? I had resolved to ignore those completely (composers are often their own worst enemies). But I played the piece for Marilyn, and her response was that there were some loudish spots that sounded shrill, and she did not understand them. I explained that the composer had micromanaged the score with molto accelerandi and over the top dynamics etc, and she said, well play it for me that way. So I tried, and she assured me that it made much were sense to attempt to do exactly what he says as much as possible. So my plan is to go over the top again, to the best of my ability, without hurting me or the Baldwin. Perhaps there will be another practise log entry of that sort.

As far as attitude, yes, a modest retreat from one's own emotions seems to be paying off. I can have feelings, but there is no obligation to display them. The score speaks for itself. Regarding the repeat, I will do it, was just lazy about it yesterday.

My old teacher's contemporary and St. Louis rival, Malcolm Frager, was said to advise his students, just play the notes, the rest will take care of itself. Of course this struck Zabrack has definitive proof that his rival was a fraud! I have my doubts - I heard a Frager recital once, and it knocked me off my feet.

Playing for Marilyn is great. She asks, what is this piece about? I say, think German expressionism, Nolde, Kokoschka, Schiele, Munch. Oh, she says.

Friday, August 07, 2015


When practising a piece of music like Ullmann's 7th Sonata, one must forget the origin, forget the composer, forget the century - just play the music, and it will take care of itself.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Counterpoint once more

So counterpoint is the ability to hear two (or more) things simultaneously. How does this work? Well, can you hear an Alberti bass and a treble melody together? It turns out, no, I can't, - at least not without difficulty. I could when I was a child, no problem. I had not yet learned that the bass should "follow" the melody, and that one accents the first note of each pattern in the "accompaniment", and probably other things equally wrong and confusing.

I think it is like racism: we have been taught somehow that the bass is not as "important" as the treble melody. Nothing could be further from the truth - you can't hear either of them without the other.

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.