Sunday, March 27, 2005

Poem for Easter Sunday


It is noon on the Tube.

Schoolchildren squirm
in seats across from me
Cartonned like eggs
but warm, alive, awake:
Their smooth curving faces uncracked
by the angularity of adulthood.

In the speeding car
rhythms rise to my feet
Irregular clatter that finds a beat
a brusque pulse
a marching meter that snaps
like a snare drum, rappitty-tap.

I watch those children in their uniforms
of wonder and wide eyes;
The tracks rattle--fast, fast--
I am afraid.
They will break.
Scrambled eggs.

Not like the eggs I ate
breakfasting in Britain
Brown and boiled. Nested
in a solid hollow--
a well-cut gem on a porcelain plate.

The oval egg becomes a face
I put down my spoon.
The car comes to rest.
Doors open (shells broken)
The kid chicks holding hands
deny growing up.


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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Gesture: She Practices

When we are young and first learning an instrument, our training focuses on the tangible: reading lines and spaces, identifying notes on the page, playing the corresponding key, string, or position, using specific fingers, identifying dynamics, articulation, and phrase markings, incorporating the pedal, discovering our head or chest voice, etc. Even learning about composers, their works, and stylistic conventions is a matter of concrete study. Teachers easily assess "right" from "wrong" and guide us to correct the mistakes, and, perhaps because we are young, we do not question the severity of this approach; maybe we even like it. There is no mystery, and no argument, when "this is middle C" and "this is not middle C." "Yes" or "no" is kind of satisfying. Until later.

So...what I am about to tell you must remain our secret.

In my mind, gesture is the most powerful performance technique a musician possesses. Like "being musical," gesture is an elusive element, difficult to teach, and sometimes hard to comprehend. I wasn't that highly aware of my own use of gesture at the piano until my friend Michael Lowe (a top-notch choreographer and former Oakland Ballet dancer) commented on it, every time he saw me perform. He first compared how I used my hands to Uma Thurman's "Bride" in Kill Bill Vol. 2, specifically, the scene where she frees herself from the buried coffin. Ouch. But Michael enthused, "it's all about the intention of movement! Even when you're not playing the keys, your gestures make the music...somehow...continue." He gestured, "like the Zen master whose death jab kills you three days later!" I didn't know how to take this "Zen master" analogy, but later I accepted his observations as high praise; that my unplanned choreography communicated the musical performance to a dancer was maybe something I should be more conscious about!

When I teach, I find myself referring over and over again to gestural actions. I watch students type out their scales and rub their aching wrists and hands, and I say, "try making one gesture, like this, instead of tapping the keys individually, finger by finger." My favorite gestures (the ones I neurotically contemplate while in line at the coffee shop or driving around town) include the rotational "turning the broken Victorian doorknob" gesture, useful in Alberti bass lines or any sort of rapid tremolo between the thumb and outer fingers, and the constant, tensile, "as if sewing with yarn" gesture, applicable to both the meandering lines of John Cage's In a Landscape and the slow back-and-forth left hand in Satie's Gymnopedie No.1. Then there's the gesture to turn those froggish, computer-keyboard influenced scales into beautiful legato lines. I say to my students, "you know those big inflatable balls that you see everyone carrying around under their arms these days?" (Ok, ok, I spend a lot of time at a dance studio where this is not an uncommon sight!) "Imagine there's one right here, under the piano keyboard, and you just rest your whole palm on the enormity of the sphere and roll it from side to side. Now try playing the scale, kind of like that, from side to side." For a more baseball-sized image there's the decisive "throw" or relaxed forward snap of the wrist that sends a focus of energy to the keys and easily produces staccato or other released articulations but, more challenging for me, can also give sustained chords a big, full resonance. Yes, to sustain; that one's still hard.

The thing is, while I could ramble the day away going through a whole catalog of gestural imagery (and a whole catalog--a range--of physical motions is as necessary as an extreme range of dynamics or articulations), I am regularly confronted by the fact that many people prefer a concrete musical practice. Images or concepts of the physical action need to be personally conceived, unlike accepting the universal "it's the second line of the treble staff; it is G." Many of my students say, "yes, yes, those are nice images, very expressive, but at this point I really just want to learn the right notes." Then I crawl home not liking teaching at all and wondering how I grew from my star-stickered ("yes, correct!") theory and musicianship books to this strangely nebulous approach.

We do not learn how to gesture in the way we learn the order of sharps and flats, but for high-level players, gesture is inseparable from other technical matters. Reading notes and counting rhythms, so audibly assessed as "right" or "wrong," is almost easy compared to a practice of movements, movements that often arise intuitively. Perhaps I never thought consciously about my own gestures because of that intuitive element; the theatrical flight of my hands might have been the easiest way to play or the only way to make the passage smooth and pretty--musical. Is it only after many years of concrete learning that one realizes that a great deal of imagination--some choreography--at the keyboard is not just superfluous but necessary? Maybe that's the big secret, and now I've gone and revealed it.

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Saturday, March 19, 2005

Act I: Curtain

Thank you, thank you, thank you for the enthusiastic welcome from the webloggers of music, arts and culture! I write with a new sense of responsibility.

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Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Soundtrack 7

"O Danny Boy"
Claude Debussy, "Mandoline"
Steve Reich, Nagoya Marimbas
Velvet Underground, Velvet Underground
spring training: batting practice

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Wednesday, March 16, 2005


I find myself wondering about the composer's "voice." How is it that, on overhearing a strain of a symphony or chamber piece, I am able to say, "oh, that's Beethoven" or, "definitely Schumann" or, "no way is that Brahms!" particularly when the snippet is just generic, just strings? For a few hundred years or so, composers worked with basically the same instrument (orchestrally speaking, strings and give or take a few brass, wind or percussion instruments) yet managed to make their works personal and identifiable. At the turn of the twentieth century, composers such as Mahler, Ravel and Stravinsky introduced more unusual instruments into the orchestra and experimented with orchestral voicings to a point where I recognize the music more for its orchestration than its musical motives or structure. (Castanets and tambourine? Do I smell Ravel?) While motives and structure may present themselves for consideration, as listeners we have developed a sweet-tooth for certain orchestral colors--the ear-candy of saxophone, banjo, celeste, or bass clarinet--and settled into a particular (and not so wholesome) habit of listening to much contemporary music.

I hear accordion and piano, shofar and violin, marimba, vibes and miscellaneous percussion, and I think: Alvin Curran. I hear car horns and metronomes, and I think: Ligeti. I hear a basic Pierrot ensemble plus clinking glassware, BBs, bird calls and rustling tree branch and I think: John Zorn (ahem, his "classical" music, anyway). I fixate on the instrumentation, and am impressed or bored by the way the instruments are written for or played, and sort evaluate the music for theme or structure, motive or development. Zorn, Ligeti, and Curran are masters in many ways beyond orchestration, of course; there are others, however, who seem content to just stop at color, stop at the orchestration, and let the surprise of an "unusual" instrument seduce our ears and distract us from structure and form (or lack of it).

Concerts of new music tend to be cleverly programmed with orchestration foremost in mind. A guitar quartet might show, visually, some superficial relationship to a string quartet on the same program but, because strings are rubbed, amplified, grated, or left to feedback, actually pays homage to the meandering electronic track in another piece. The string quartet, meanwhile, full of strong pizzicatos or tappings of the bow on the instrument's body, might seem companion to creative percussion writing elsewhere on the program, especially when that involves bowing cymbals and striking woodblocks with fingertips. It's color, color, everywhere!

If you asked every composer in a given school's graduate program (and I'll be the first to admit that our Ravels and Stravinskys are probably not lurking in the halls of some graduate program) to write a dozen piano pieces, or a "symphonic movement" for thirty-two strings and timpani, and then you sat and blindly listened to all those pieces, would you be able to hear distinct voices? (I imagine you'd hear a fair share of derivative voices: ghosts.) If prevented from assembling a select and unique instrumentation, is a composer still able to assert a personal voice? How does one differentiate oneself if the parameters are reduced? How is it that I can distinguish Mendelssohn from Schumann when they speak through the same medium, when it's just the piano that I hear? How is it that sometimes I take meaning from what people have to say--their words, sentences, and whole ideas--and sometimes I can only hear the expression of their pitch, timbre or inflection?

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Sunday, March 13, 2005

And Beethoven Makes Cocktails


This morning I woke early with only one thing on my mind: Beethoven. His Op. 14 No. 2 to be precise. A few recent, intense, musical conversations and last night's improv concert had crammed my brain with too many ideas, so I dashed to my studio and read through the whole sonata. Ah. Clarity. As though my safely-skull-kept sponge had been soaked in lemon juice and given a good squeeze. I am partial to the simultaneously alerting/relaxing properties of a pre-dinner Lillet, and after reading Beethoven at 9 a.m., I felt as though the master himself had poured me a drink.

A hidden gem among the sonatas, Op. 14 No. 2 is neither virtuosic nor possessing of a popular ear-catching melody; it just represents the clean, classical style at its best. Things I love? The happy cascade of descending thirds on the opening page. The "I'm not really going to take myself too seriously today" set of variations (2nd movement). The rhythmic cartwheels of the third movement. This effortlessly dashed-off exercise in motivic development doesn't need to be anything more. No deep spiritual metaphors lurk beneath a surface of notes. Instead, fingers marry keys (the piece lies almost perfectly under the hand) and provide the delight of a not-too-exhaustive physical conquest. Maybe it's the sonata only a pianist could love. For me, a perfect wake-up call.

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Wednesday, March 09, 2005

All Together Now

Iron & the Albatross
Thursday March 10, 9pm
Bruno's (2389 Mission St, San Francisco)

Piano Geeks Unite!
A cozy private screening of "The Competition" (1980)
Friday March 11, 8:30pm

A Concert of Improvised Music
Sylvie Courvoisier, Ikue Mori, Fred Frith, et al.
Saturday March 12, 8pm
Mills College Concert Hall

VOCI Women's Vocal Ensemble
Sunday March 13, 4pm
Fundraiser Concert (182 Estates, Piedmont)

See you there!

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Sunday, March 06, 2005

Paws or Claws?

Rachmaninoff's handsAh, Rachmaninoff’s hands. Pianistic hands? People’s hands fascinate me, from quick fidgeting hands to hands folded calmly (“make a bird’s nest in your lap,” a mother once advised me), from absent-minded strumming fingers to palms splayed out jazz-style. Hands can turn me on and just as quickly turn me off. (Note to date: nothing reveals your nervousness more than idly picking up, twirling, and rearranging the tableware!) My own hands receive their share of commentary, all delivered, probably, with good-natured admiration but which causes me to fret nonetheless. ”Oh look at those long fingers!” “My what piano hands you have!” “What’s your span?” “Your hand looks like a fast little crab when you play scales.” Many great pianists do not have my hands at all; theirs are fat, giant mitts with dangerously pudgy fingers. (Dangerous? Yes. Think of all the extraneous notes you might hit!)

Though I’ve never heard him play a lick of repertoire, Chris Brown always inspires me with his piano playing. Now known more as a composer and computer-music pioneer (and professor of music at Mills College), Chris trained seriously at the piano in his formative years. He utilizes his knowledge of the instrument by incorporating it in many of his interactive electronic pieces. I have heard him in that context two or three times and also as an improvisor, both solo and with others. Because he plays in this free improvisation style (even, I presume, when he is reading his own notated scores), he is a very different pianist from me, yet I learn so much about technique when I watch him play. He sits completely at ease at the keyboard and uses his whole hand, elbow, arm, shoulder, and back. The knee-jerk spontaneity of these broad physical gestures translates into seemingly effortless pianistic passagework that is musically delivered, with no pinched off ends. Does his hand look “like a crab” scuttling up and down the keyboard? Or is it more like a paw? A big, plodding, soft paw that, contrary to its design, somehow elicits precise tones and delicate filagree. I look at my narrow, surgeon’s fingers and worry that they might cut a musical idea short or clip what should be a perfect hairpin. Snip, snip. I play as if with little claws, a nimble but rather dicey affair. Hmm. Disconcerting.

Do people with paws have the advantage at the keyboard? Are the best musicians more flesh than bone? Mack McCray and Paul Hersh, two of my teachers at the Conservatory: fleshy hands. Fats Waller and Thelonius Monk: fleshy hands. Fred Frith and William Winant: fleshy hands. Rachmaninoff’s hands: legendary, statuesque. They are huge. They shaped his music (and much piano music written since) and cracked open the true symphonic sound that a piano is capable of producing. Big, huge, fatness of sound. Of course, one ought not agonize over genetic structure. Sometimes I tell myself that claws can articulate where paws can not, and that even by visualizing a pair of soft, plodding paws at the end of my arms I can find a tone production on the other side of my natural inclination. Visualization is essentially the practice of the imagination, a practice beyond mere notes, rhythm, technique and musicianship but just as important. So I must go practice, thinking paws or claws, claws or paws?

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