Friday, April 29, 2005

Techie Talk

3 against 4. 2 against 5. Polyrhythms, yes. But dissonant? Today, when informed by a resolute young chorister that four sixteenths against an eighth note triplet "won't work--it's a clash," I had to smile. Rhythmic dissonance? Cross-rhythms? Rhythms that just plain make me cross? Where does one make the distinction? Is it rhythmic dissonance if I cringe at the thought of practicing, of hearing Dr. Beat shout her militant counts, knowing how cranky I'll be when I finally emerge from the practice room?

3 against 5. That's the rhythmic dissonance in my life right now. Ouch. I've yet to satisfyingly solve the spacious opening of "Natural Music" (oh, the irony is not lost) where the micromanaged subdivisions of a seemingly unheard 4/4 meter for some reason turn my hands into dumb stumps. Would these "waves lapping against a shore" come more easily if notated in broad, over-the-bar-line threes and fives? I doubt it. If I faced that notation, I'd probably pencil in the rhythm as it would appear in 4/4. Just for kicks. But, tomorrow. I'll figure it out. I hope. The composer hears it next week.

Techie talk. I warned you. And to whomever thinks that at quarter note=44 this is easy: do you really hear the two separate lines, the three against the five, or are you just cheating it into 4/4?

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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

From the Ether


Certain pieces announce their intentions within the opening measures of music. Most of Beethoven's symphonies, for example. Mozart's Magic Flute. Even, I would argue, the prelude to Tristan and Isolde, or Steve Reich's Clapping Music. The initial "hello" contains the whole composition. Though musical development and departures unfold, (and in fact, the listener almost expects something unexpected) on subsequent hearings we knowingly recognize the entire work, in its distilled or condensed form, in those opening chords, rhythmic motifs, or outlined intervals.

Other music begins from the ether, with little suggestion of what lies ahead. Even after years of knowing and having performed a particular piece, one might say, dumbstruck, "Oh! It starts like that?" Every time I see that first line of Chopin's Second Ballade, for example, I do a double take. From such simplicity--a moment of minimalism on C, way before its time--the lullaby begins. The first phrase is almost enough--more than enough--to build a pleasant piece of Romantic parlor music. Yet not too many bars later, Chopin launches into a tirade, cuts short the lullaby, and lets the fun begin; the fine finger muscles of the technical pianist tell the ear of the voicing artist to move over, and we leave the parlor for the concert hall. Music literature offers numerous examples of such compositional design, of course, but for some reason the Ballade never--never--fails to tip me off my seat, whether I'm playing or listening to it.

People are like this, too, no? Some put it all out there (call it openness or honesty) from that first handshake, while others, a friend you've known for ten years maybe, can surprise the pants off you with an out-of-character action. I find both types equally likable and infinitely frustrating. I often want more from the obvious ones (surprise me! give me steak when I'm expecting chocolates!) but find that the outbursts of the more kept ones throw me off guard or make me feel I've been led on. Those are the rewards and challenges of socializing, I guess. So too with music: it takes all kinds, from the familiar to the freak, to make life fun.

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Friday, April 22, 2005

She Gasps!

A news morsel collides with blog post.

"Recitalists are storytellers, not actors." Oh my!

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Bolcom & Morris in Berkeley

"Set" with a Turkish rug and a small table supporting a disproportionally large flower arrangement, UCBerkeley's Hertz Hall attempted to pass as a living room this past Monday night, and from this stage, William Bolcom and Joan Morris delivered their lecture/performance on an American Cabaret Style. The only deviation from a rather conventional song-recital format was Bolcom casually introducing each song with a brief commentary, usually calling attention to the witty, wry, or "smart" lyrics of cabaret song and attempting to differentiate it from popular song. Bolcom enthused that this deliberate emphasis on text--text with an incisive narrative element--elevates cabaret above most commercial music and appeals to a particularly educated audience. Indeed, the wild party of words in Michael John LaChiusa's "I'm a Fraud" delighted listeners as much as they frustrated Morris. But stepping confidently into the roles of strange and dramatic characters (in "Surabaya Johnny" and "Tamara, Queen of the Nile"), Morris sold many of the quirky stories (Bolcom's own "Black Max" and "George") for much more than face value. Listeners perhaps realized that a larger cultural context, be it critical or celebratory, lies at the heart of the cabaret song. Ah yes, the "smart" Berkeley audience could appreciate this: one sport-coat-wearing gentleman remarked with supreme confidence to the lady next to him, "This's for the brain."

Bolcom's points were insightful and supported by Morris' gritty performance, but the comparison to popular song seemed rather arbitrary. If one wants to make comparisons, why not cabaret song's relationship to the classical art song? How is it that the classical art song is so elevated above the cabaret song? Both genres unite singer and accompanist, giving equally virtuosic opportunity to word and music (proof: Sondheim's "Uptown, Downtown," which Bolcom played to the hilt). Are the lyrics of art songs somehow too mundane, too concerned with love, romance, and the natural world? Well then, what about Wolf's "Der Rattenfanger" and its creepy tale of the rat-killing, kid-chasing pied piper (a great match to Black Max, oo, what if the two dastards met)? Are art songs too beautifully sung, too concerned with proper phonetics and vocal tone? What of the first part of Ives' "Memories," which must be sung as fast as possible and in a less-than-beautiful, childish tone? On paper, in simple, lecture-seminar note format, one can draw many parallels between the two forms, yet the art song recital, formally presented in the concert hall, is rarely punctuated by audience laughter, and the cabaret act, more casually enjoyed as entertainment, rarely receives the attention of classical music elite. (Bolcom, at one point searching for an elusive detail of musical history, queried, "Is Richard Taruskin here?" The audience murmured, glanced around, but produced no Taruskin. Bolcom grumped good-naturedly, "Well, he should be!")

When all was sung and done, Bolcom lamented the wickedly commercial demise of Broadway (which, for a moment with Sondheim, showed possibilities of a new and developing cabaret style) but acknowledged the transition of musical theatre, and even opera, into an exciting, hybrid-cabaret form representative of modern times. This form, he mused, is likely to captivate the attention of young classical composers and performers whose skills extend far beyond the fundamentals of music, voice or piano study and include working knowledge of electronics/computer music programs as well as video. That he looks forward to observing a new generation tackle these developments reveals Bolcom's cabaret sensibility: whether as composer or performer, being aesthetically open-minded and technically flexible allows one to integrate genres. That melting-pot quality, in addition to an amplified dramatic delivery, points to a definition of cabaret as an arena of possibilities. From living room or concert hall stage, electronic or acoustic, Weill, Wolf or Ives, it just might be "American" cabaret.

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Monday, April 18, 2005

At Play


To think I wasted half of April before finding a day-by-day way to celebrate. Fantômas' new record, Suspended Animation, is almost more fun to play with than listen to, tangible evidence of ephemeral music's desire to wear visual art's superficial permanence. The cuter-than-cute, spiralbound-calendar features artwork by Yoshitomo Nara (whose show I missed last year at the San Jose Museum of Art, but if you saw it, you've got yourself another reason to run down to Aquarius and buy a copy) and provides just the right sugar-coated antidote to 2003's tummy-turning Delirium Cordia.

This month's WIRE magazine offers an insightful and thorough (if heavy on the name-dropping) interview with Mike Patton to which I have little to add, though its tone of awestruck admiration (pretty much universal in any review of Patton's work) bothers me somewhat. Yes, Mike throws his creative efforts into numerous and varied musical projects, with the whole gamut of "famous" people, but maybe it's more interesting to view and critique him commonly, as one of those stuffy old composers (you know, like the ones whose little busts sit so hideously on the mantle) rather than to mythologize him as a total enigma, a pioneer (almost) without compare.

A test: listen for the track on Suspended Animation that uses some of the same electronic samples and rhythmic elements from the song "Charade" (a very fun cover of Mancini's tune on the Director's Cut album). Ok, here's a hint: cheering, and that sputtering, vocal percussion pattern. That's called: composer recycling. Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, they all do it! Alvin Curran: master recycler. We like to think we demand "new" material and an "original" voice from our composers, yet I don't think any less of a master composer who reuses themes or motifs from one work to another over many years time; quite the contrary, I'm almost comforted by such echoings. It's how I am reminded that Beethoven's Beethoven. And as soon as I put on Suspended Animation, I smiled and thought, hey, Patton's still Patton. I even hear riffs from the last record (supposedly this one's antithesis). Mike's compositional process, including his idiosyncratic decisions of orchestration, sampling, and part writing, are worth talking about (and a true fan could probably trackback/cross-reference seventy percent of the samples used on the album), yet magazine articles like to talk about who's associated, associating, or going to associate with whom.

[Shrug.] Let them talk. I'm going to go play.

Friday April 29, 9pm
The Fillmore, San Francisco

See you there!

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Friday, April 15, 2005

In the Morning

Scene: a very elegant room, perhaps a suite, in an exclusive metropolitan hotel; a grand piano seems out of place near the French windows; other furniture crowds away from it; Evgeny Kissin sits at a small table set for breakfast; another cup of strong black coffee is stealthily poured for him; on the table, a music score or two peeks from beneath various foreign newspapers; Kissin balances one on his knee and seems to study a particular article with great intent.

[Enter Kissin's manager, excitedly waving dailies.]

MANAGER: Good reviews, great reviews! They all still love you! From Washington to New York, you're still it! [Reading aloud various comments, ad lib] "stunning," "a marvelous Chopin interpreter," "great sensitivity and organic development," "an ironclad technique."

KISSIN [unfazed]: Hmmm.

MANAGER [taking a seat]: To have [he gestures like a pianist] "a technique that serves a greater musical idea" [trailing off and then, a PAUSE.] It makes me think [happy expression wavering for a split second] about next season. Maybe... well... [clears throat, peers a few times into an empty coffee cup] I think people--critics, too--would love to hear how you play something other than Chopin. Just for a season, of course.

KISSIN [with brows slightly furrowed]: Hmmm.

MANAGER: Sophia Gubaidulina, for example. She's got a Sonata, some short pieces, a Toccata, I think. You'd be a natural at her style, and performances of her music are rare. People would be excited, no?

KISSIN [sips coffee]: Hmmm.

MANAGER: Or the North American Ballads of Frederic Rzewski; they're really an extension of Chopin, of that sort of romantic piano writing. To hear you dig your fingers, your interpretive talents, into something so "American," it could be really interesting, give the critics some new lines. C'mon, I'm not suggesting Boulez or, god forbid, Bussotti.

KISSIN [finally looking up from the paper]: Yes, I too was thinking. Of the B-flat minor sonata. Of Chopin.

MANAGER [trying not to frown]: More Chopin? Really? [Hums the famous "funeral march" theme with dramatic exaggeration.] It's just that, [breaking a buttery croissant into shards and setting the pieces down, unwanted] do you ever think that maybe you have a responsibility to venture beyond this repertoire? With your abilities, your [reading aloud] "star appeal," you could reshape, reinvent the classical piano recital, break down some stereotypes.

[Kissin arches one eyebrow.]

MANAGER [continuing undeterred]: I just hate to think of you in this pigeonhole, of going down in the history books as [reading] "the last great Romantic virtuoso." Chopin in practice, sure, a place for you to continue refining your skills. A sort of exercise, right? But in performance? It's so a hundred years ago, [even more excited, with a growing sense of conviction] it's holding you back! What about your time? Right now? And the future? What speaks to and of you, now, in 2005?

KISSIN [in a tone that could level buildings]: The B-flat minor caused a critical commotion, you know. It wasn't what everyone expected from a sonata. That word, "sonata," had for some become just a predictable template, a [with a scolding glance] pigeonhole, with certain arrangements of notes and movements, and opus 35 did not fit. It surprised. I find that conflict--between the piece itself, and its reception--interesting. And then to find in the musical conflict, in the notes and harmonies, moods and evocations, the forward vision. Chopin, using the model, relying on it, but not trapped by some mere definition. I appreciate that [pausing] irony. People will not "get it." It is difficult.

MANAGER [not getting it]: Riiiiight. [There is a PAUSE.] Chopin. Sure no Rzewski? Gubaidulina? [Taking great delight in a mouthful of vowels] How 'bout Ustvolskaya? [With voice deepening, then puffing up] certainly there is some of those works as well.

KISSIN [pulling the score from the pile of newspapers, stands up and walks toward the piano]: Chicago. I was thinking I'd like to play Chicago, maybe Prague. Chopin wrote the piece in France, in the countryside one summer. Perhaps Paris in June...the Paris audience is always such a challenge.

MANAGER [morosely pushing at the pieces of croissant]: I'll get on that right away. [He stands abruptly.]

[Exit the manager, with a lingering glance at the newspapers on the table. As the scene dims to a close, someone can be heard humming "Down by the Riverside."]

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Thursday, April 14, 2005


The pastor's sister, Hannelore Beier, was a woman in her thirties with crippled hands. Her fingers over-lapped and drew themselves toward her palms, birdlike claws which she refused to hide. When she taught...she moved them gracefully, those stiff extensions of herself, weaving the texture of her words into our hearts.

[At dinner one Sunday] the young teacher watched her hands fly across the white linen and polished silver with a beauty he'd never believed existed. They were like young birds, those hands, poised to fly off independently, and he wanted to reach out for them, hold them briefly in the cup of his palms before releasing them.

--Ursula Hegi, Floating in My Mother's Palm

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Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Soundtrack 8

Shostakovich, Piano Concerto #2
"Estas son las mañanitas"
"O Day of Peace" (hymn tune JERUSALEM)
Stevie Wonder, "Isn't she lovely?"
Tristan and Isolde (in Paris, bien sûr)

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Monday, April 11, 2005


Baby, I'm there!

Monday, April 18, 8pm, Hertz Hall, free

An argument for an American cabaret style, 1940-present.

Songs by Weill, Leiber & Stoller, Bolcom & Weinstein, Wallowitch, Sondheim, Rosenthal, LaChiusa and others. Lecture and performance by William Bolcom and Joan Morris.

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She Turns a Page

At the eleventh hour I was asked to turn pages for pianist Eric Stumacher at the Apple Hill Chamber Players' annual Playing for Peace concert at the Capp Street Community Music Center. The requirements for this duty are straightforward enough: make yourself invisible, make sure you never turn too early or too late, make sure you never turn two pages at once, make sure to turn back pages when repeats are taken, and make sure to turn ahead to codas. Considering how long I've been reading music, page turning ought to allow me the lucky opportunity to study the pianist's technique, from fingering to pedaling to words muttered under the breath, but really, my levels of attention and perception rise near to performance level when I take that seat. And damn but I forgot how fast the second and fourth movements of Faure's c minor piano quartet move! Stand up. Reach across. Flip. Sit down. Stand up. Reach across. Whew!

I dramatize (but only a bit). During the musically calm moments I did indeed observe Eric's playing (and I've turned pages for him before, so I knew what I was looking for) and quickly realized that my forming assessments derived not from watching but from hearing. That we should all appreciate music through our ears and not our eyes is perhaps an obvious enough statement, but my experience Saturday night was of something else: only aurally could I sense the best aspect of Eric's playing--his impeccable and artistic sense of timing--where the push and pull of time and tempo, both naturally and stylistically conceived, seemed completely unrelated to the physical means of sound production. Eric is not a clean player, but he shapes and paces the musical idea in such a way that you're never thinking about notes (missed or otherwise). He admits that this sensibility comes from years of experience, and I believe him. It takes years to let go of what you know so well, the notes, and direct your focus to something entirely non-notey.

The Players now form a piano quartet, which means they perform The Great Romantic Chamber Music Masterpieces, a rather beastly niche of repertoire. The best pianists always want to take their turn at these trios, quartets, and quintets, even though the writing is so unlike the best solo piano writing. The Faure is a perfect example: the piano part provides harmonic movement, bar by bar, in numerous embellished variations--arpeggios, rapid tremolos or trills, and undulating broken triads (triplets in the right hand and sixteenths in the left, of course)--and is thus the groundwork over which the other musicians dance in the spotlight. While string-piano chamber music demands a high level of pianism, there is a certain strangeness in playing some of these pieces; the piano suggests itself as the focus, and is in fact indispensible in that it binds the whole piece together harmonically, but that "star" quality is countered by odd moments of waiting out or commentatively punctuating the other instrumental lines. In the chamber pieces of Brahms, Schumann, and Dvorak, too, the music "flows" because of the synthesis of parts, even if the parts themselves are uncomfortably segmented and disjunct. Eric's style of playing reflects a thorough understanding of this paradox, of a chamber musician's ability to hear outside an often massive and challenging individual part.

With the move away from harmonic writing, contemporary ensemble music operates on completely different principles. I attend concerts and sense a great linearity of notes and fancy, soloistic nods to melody, of individuals' dramatic gestures and a specific player's precise technical playing. I don't tolerate "messy." Eric's playing reminded me that being the foundation (the harmony) and being a little messy (that it works to skim through a measure of rapid major arpeggios in order to bring out a more lumbering harmonic rhythm) allows you the freedom to hear the whole (not just your own part). Perhaps playing the Great Romantic chamber repertoire, with its almost attention deficit mannerisms, is the closest a steadfastly classical pianist comes to "being in a band." Contemporary classical chamber music, though seemingly built of oh-so-hip fits and starts and individual parts attempting to assert themselves into some larger picture, does not acheive the same synthesis--a satisfying, performed synthesis--as what I heard in Faure, Brahms, and even Turina Saturday night. So much modern music makes me (gasp!) want to hear with my eyes--with the page turner's magnifying glass--and not with my ears. Thanks, Apple Hill, for calling my ears to the task.

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Sunday, April 03, 2005


They always wore the most flattering shades of lipstick and the sexiest, must-have-been-bought-abroad shoes. Their necks never without a prettily patterned scarf, they spoke of where to go for perfectly plucked eyebrows or fresh lemon wedges and curative cups of tea. Singers. So bee-yoo-ti-ful…but not without a bad rap: can’t count, can’t read music, and completely paranoid about the “health” of their instrument. Accompanying my way through their enviable repertoire of art songs, I developed a quick “like it” or “don’t” response to vocal quality, to the tone of individual voices, but I found it more difficult to articulate what, exactly, made one singer so musically convincing and another one just kind of fumbling to the end of the song. I allowed the superficial veneer of “being” a singer to entertain me for many, many years, but I think I’ve finally pierced through all that and begun to appreciate a key technical point of singing with intention, or, of not singing, intentionally.

Good singers, smart singers, will take their editing pencils to the scored notation, subtracting beats here and there and replacing those sounded moments with rests. Sometimes these rests indicate an actual physical breath, but at other times they simply give a precise, rhythmic finis to the sounded note and articulate a silence before the next phrase begins. The contrast between the articulated silences and a sung phrase of music, when well-executed, never fails to delight me. Like a Gothic cathedral’s stone carvings, a song can build its drama in the relief (or bas-relief) of singing and not singing: meaning and tension exist in the contours between what is sung and not sung. This sort of sculptural singing, sculpted by the breath, is a subtle technique that can be easily mangled. I’ve never heard singers discuss it as an authentic technique, but I hold in high regard the ones who can pull it off.

Consciously or unconsciously, art, music, theatre, and sport needs to breathe. A “good, solid” performance transforms into something memorable and electrifying when it breathes. Conversely, when the breathing lags or occurs in a “wrong” place, the performance loses its focus, becoming muddled or aimless. Attention to the breath is really a silly paradox, a tool used with great intention but which we hope goes unnoticed. Again I’m reminded of sculpture, but vocally, with the lifts and cut-offs shaping the overall musical vitality as much as the actual notes. Perhaps, too, in “being” a singer, the scarves and shoes punctuate a dramatic persona in artificial relief to the more natural acts of singing and breathing. There is sculpture and artifice, yes, but involuntarily, everything must breathe.

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Perfect Fourth: It Must Be Wednesday

"Today," the priest declared, "is the octave of Easter." Now that caught my attention and gave me a sufficient homily's worth of musings: the week as our western arrangement of whole and half tones, the days as scale degrees, the hours marking major and minor tendencies.

My dad never liked Wednesday, when "nothing's fresh and new, and nothing's quite yet ready to end." Now I can't help but laugh imagining my dad, a man of the fields, sharing some innate musical sense with those whose modes treated the perfect interval as a dissonance to be avoided. I dread Tuesdays; could that have cultivated my (indulgently) introspective playing of Schoenberg's Op. 11, with its constantly kaleidoscoping major and minor thirds? Measuring the days as harmonic intervals all depends on where you locate a tonic, I guess, whether it's Sunday, Monday, or Thursday. What sound is the hour when the damned parking tickets sprout from under your windshield wiper?

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Saturday, April 02, 2005

Cabaret: Closed

So I didn't get around to writing about cabaret as I had originally intended. The history and future of cabaret is a fascinating topic but vast and complex, a world not just of music, dance and performance but of political and social science. I realized, too, that I couldn't get excited to write about the ghosts of a form I wish were still thriving. People say "cabaret" and expect Parisian or Viennese bar-cafes and swirling tendrils of art nouveau decor; crass, scantily clad performers and the artists, composers, and writers holding court in their midst; enthusiastic conversations and debates about current events. But it's over. Nothing, not television, musical theatre, or the folk singer and her guitar at the Sunday afternoon open mic, comes close to the nostaligic idea of cabaret that lives in our minds. Today's composers run in and grab their lattes to go. In the same cafes, the writers bury their heads behind their laptops. No one is striking up a heated argument and tearing the arts section of the New York Times in half. Now wouldn't that be something?

Walking around Montmartre in January, I found the Lapin Agile (an historic venue where, oolala, maybe Satie mingled with Renoir and Eluard) with its door closed. Shut. Locked. Though the bright exterior looked well and recently tended, I saw no indicated hours of operation, even as a museum. I trudged up the hill towards Sacre Coeur thinking that time had put "cabaret" away and locked it behind a pretty painted door, just like that.

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