Friday, May 27, 2005


Obit: The beautiful young pianist had just picked up her most recent CD purchase from the trusty p.o. box when she was broadsided by a meme.

Now, lying on a gurney in the emergency room, she looks longingly at the jewel case: Anne Sofie von Otter & Bengt Forsberg: Folksongs by Dvorak, Kodaly, Britten, Grainger, Larsson and Hahn (purchased for the Grainger, nacht). Reading through the glossy booklet, she has a brilliant idea and scans the emergency room: someone must have a CD player. A laptop?

A laptop. Her eyes roll back in her head. If only she had her beloved laptop, with its 963 songs (8.48 GB). What would she listen to first? Her usual daily pick-me-up, the overture to Marriage of Figaro? Or maybe, she clenches her teeth thinking of that damn little meme, her favorite Dylan tune, "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," so full of pessimism and bile. She realizes she will not be able to drive in to the city for mass this weekend and will miss KPFA's weekly airing of the duet from Bach's Cantata number, number...oh god, the accident has jarred her memory. She chokes back a little sob and wishes that someone with a sense of humor would play either the title track to Once Upon a Time in the West or Fantomas' version of "Charade" over the hospital P.A. system. As it is, the entire day passes without a single song; her audio experience is a miserable attempt to pastiche some kind of musique concrete from the beeps of the intercom, the opening and closing of elevator doors, and what must be someone's ventilator in a nearby room.

The nurse comes over with forms for her to sign; they want five names, insurance, a ride home, some such nonsense. It is becoming difficult to think. She scrawls Willie, Steed, and Anne, and her hand twitches. The nurse mumbles something about nerve damage. Don't they understand? She is a pianist. Who will play Once Upon a Mattress next week? Think Denk. Her whole arm jerks. Her gaze rests on the still to be heard von Otter disk and she manages to scribble Anne Carolyn Bird across the bottom of the form. Though she feels it beginning to wind around her neck, she can not do anything about the drool. She is embarrassed. Then, gratefully, everything fades away.

A memorial service will be held. Please eat chocolates.

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The Importance of Being Beautiful

Kids are never afraid to speak their minds, as a group of eight-year-old choristers will remind you: "The Debussy is not a fun song! Why don't we sing fun songs?" "It has too many weird notes. I don't like it." "Yeah, we don't really like accidentals; they're not pretty." Such bold comments give their conductor reason to smile and say constructively, "This is the great thing about music. Everyone has different likes and dislikes, which is one reason why there are so many different kinds of music! The fact that some people think the Debussy is a fun song, while others don't, gives us something interesting to talk about, right?"

Right, and as certain philosophs have recently mused, one's personal biases and preferences lie at the heart of all this interesting talk.

Having spent a few days mulling these ideas over, I ventured to the Hemlock Wednesday night (finally meeting the enchanting M.C-) and put my ears, and my aesthetic criteria, to the test with two sets of electronic music. Surprise! My main tenet--for all its arbitrary vagueness--was confirmed: what I want from performance, whether music, theatre, dance or art, is something...beautiful. Listening to Blevin Blechdom's piece, for example, was like opening box of beautiful sounds: multi-toned metallic bell sounds, birds screeching, emphatic rhythmic beats, and even the occasional chatter of white static. Bevin (she of many monikers) built a horizontally moving collage from a varied sonic palette, full of contrasts, and she gave each soundscape time to develop in the mind before colliding in something new. The block-like structure (one foot, then the other) of so much electronic music usually fails to hold my interest--I long for the contrapuntal subtlety of Renaissance vocal music which, as layer-upon-layer of fiercely independent lines, seems a plausible (if odd) parallel to what people today are creating on their laptops--but Bevin's sense of timing and pacing made the focused linear motion somehow satisfying. Led like a child through her land of samples, I could (for the most part) appreciate this electronic music--from the sounds to the structure--as beautiful, captivating.

In contrast, as I listened to the next performer, I fell into my usual electronic music mode, the one where I swear a voice is whispering to me, "you are starting to get very sleepy..." Nearly devoid of contrasts, the limited tonal palette forced my attention to details I might not have noticed otherwise. Where was the beauty? I could not find it in the way he manipulated the computer, nor in the way he strummed the guitar or angled it in for feedback. With Bevin, I journeyed without question, rode along as a wide-eyed passenger; with Chris, I got fidgety. I needed "something beautiful" to obsess over; I needed to wonder if a certain sound might return, to wonder at its transformation, to mourn it as a memory. Instead, I found myself wondering if M.C- and I could sneak away and gossip.

Post-Hemlock I attempted to attribute some specific criteria to the "it was beautiful; it was good" theory, just in case I ever become pinned on my aesthetic premise. Like the young girls assessing their Debussy song, I can tend to behave simply. I am swayed by the superficial (accidentals in music, a change of lighting in a theatre production, the unbelievable photo-realism of a Bechtle) and often prefer design over meaning. Holding tight to the first impressions, I know I can always savor meaning in the morning. My interests and prejudices thus become clear retrospectively, after I've seen a show or heard a concert. It's time, though, to grow up, and so I shall put together "a list." Look for the post Monday or Tuesday.

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Sunday, May 22, 2005


When did music last make you pull your car to the side of the road and sit there, and listen, and wait for twenty minutes for the back announcement? When did music last tease you along, neverending, and make you inexcusably late for your call time? When did music on the radio last bring out all your Good Studious Intentions and cause you to summon your superpower ears: is that cello, violin, or double bass? All three? And what percussion!

At home later that night, you remember to look it up (of course the hip college radio station posts playlists) and you find out: it was Sun Ra. Wow. The car stopped, twenty minutes lost, all because of Sun Ra.

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Friday, May 20, 2005

Being New, Being Old

Giya Kancheli, Diplipito (ECM Records, June 2004)

Some contemporary music is not afraid to come back 'round to being pretty and poignant. Is Kancheli's beautiful and simple tonal palette too derivative, or is it a real direction in current musical thought? Is it both? Diplipito and Valse Boston seem to wallow nostalgically in late-Romantic endless moodiness, but I hear hints of the twentieth century in the writing, too. I like it, even if it sounds "old," and hope that subsequent listenings will reveal Kancheli as an innovator of some kind. Today, just the one word must suffice: pretty. Certainly there's no harm in that.

Sunday Update: Listening. Still listening. And, but this is just not as good, not as sexy, as Jerry Goldsmith! (Hope no one's fainted dead away.) It's the eerie piano gestures, sometimes leading, sometimes recalling, sometimes seamless--but then dramatically punctuating--the string writing. Kancheli as Goldsmith sans sexiness.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Soundtrack 9

Francis Poulenc, "C"
J.S. Bach, "Agnus Dei" from the b minor mass
The Rolling Stones, "You Can't Always Get What You Want"
Ennio Morricone, filmscore to Vatel

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Monday, May 16, 2005

Im wunderschönen Monat Mai


Tom will saw for you while I am practicing. The concert season is almost wrapped up, and I look forward to writing more frequently. Until then...go listen to some Schumann.

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Sunday, May 15, 2005

Speaking of Speaking in Tongues

Scene I: The hairstylist stopped snipping, shifted her weight to one hip, and looked at me in the mirror, "Conductors, huh? What's up with them? They don't really do anything, right? I mean, I've gone to concerts and thought, 'wow, the conductor has the easiest job!' They just sort of stand there flapping. And they don't even have to practice, right? They must have so much free time compared to the musicians." I smiled and tried to sound as if I were somehow agreeing with her, "Well, they do try to get everyone to see the big picture. There are the musicians, of course, and then audience; they actually have a lot of people to worry about." (Yes that's it, Heather, expand on her definition but elicit some sympathy; everyone can relate to the challenges of being "worried" and stressed-out.)

Scene II: At choir practice, while working on a portion of Handel's Messiah, the director attempts to correct our sluggish dotted-eighth, sixteenth note figures. He instructs, "What you need to do here, chorus, is a practice of double-dotting. It might sound funny to you--very extreme--but in the end the rhythm is perfectly placed. Nothing sounds like a sloppy triplet when you double dot." Curious stares. Skeptical eyebrows. Blank faces. A brave question, "Wait. So how long exactly do you count a double dot? Is that 'one-two-and-ah-ah' or..." The director and I look at each other, amused, perplexed. To us, the solution requires no further discussion. "Just...double dot. Hold the first note longer." He sings alternately some drunken triplets and hyper-caffeinated sixteenths so that the distinction is clear. The chorus seems unconvinced. The director isn't sure what else to say, "Trust me."

Moral: It is so easy for the career musician to forget that the musical language encompasses more than what might be learned from a wild weekend with the first three volumes of Practical Theory. The mastery of that technical language is one thing; a familiar sense for the whole world of music--a fluency--is another. Recently, a groupie at a rock concert reminded me that my worldview is not a shared worldview. Her bright voice emerged from the fuzzy neon-pink tendrils of a wild wookie jacket, "YoYo Ma? Oh, now what does he do?" "Ah, well, know, he's kind of...he plays cello." "Oh really! Wow! You know I'm looking for a cellist for my band! Let me give you my card." It's good to be pushed from my pedestal, to see the layperson's perspective. Music is a foreign language, an easy one to "put on" but a difficult one to speak well, for a thorough comprehension demands appreciating and understanding certain nuances, from the characters and players to their shoptalk of instrument repair and venue etiquette. For those of us used to this particularly music-laced vernacular, it is good to speak in a "common" tongue...every once in a while.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Wonder & Delight

As a source of theatre and visual spectacle, a symphony concert runs a distant third place behind the opera and the ballet. The canvas is plain (musicians in formal attire), the staging seldom varied (conductor front and center, percussionists and their toys relegated to the back row), and the "choreography" is more functional than dramatic. But when attentively perceived as a whole, and not just as a backdrop to the sound of the music itself, these visual elements provide a fusion of sensory delights, a characteristic that never fails, for example, to capture the attention of a child or first-time concert-goer. Where a seasoned symphony patron takes for granted the synchronized motion of the horns readying themselves for an entrance, a newcomer thrills at the sudden splash of gold across the back of the orchestra and the consequent sound of the brass. It's pure magic, a painting brought to life.

I remember the "o" my own mouth formed the first time I witnessed the bows of an entire string section moving perfectly together: uuuup, dooowwwn, up-down, uuup, down-down. I was as entranced by the orchestra in motion as by the sounds surrounding me, and a little disappointed when the musical texture changed and the firsts began bowing differently from the seconds and the violas placed their instruments on their knees. A pianist (lacking the insider's viewpoint of someone reared by youth orchestra) might offer a particularly sophomoric critique of the symphony, yet simple, childlike observations are not without merit. I began to recognize the picture of the musicians onstage as a blueprint of the music itself, and thus learned about the score, about orchestration and compositional elements, through observation. For the ears, the great orchestras offer creative programming and rhythmic vitality, exemplary intonation and first-rate soloists and section leaders: they sound good. For the eyes, there is the supporting evidence, the complete picture of sound.

A chorus (lest we forget) is also like an orchestra and, though lacking the flashy instrumental props, similarly provides visual cues to the aural experience. Volti is an exceptional bay area chamber chorus that last weekend captivatingly delivered a performance of twentieth century American choral music. There is a sense of drama in the group's exploration of extremes (in Bob Geary's conducting, in impressive fortissimos, in singing authoritatively "let there be light" or smooching unsingable kiss sounds), and watching the singers perform revealed a synchronicity of technique and sound. Alternating between absolutely inaudible breaths and a full spectrum of vocal tone, mouths formed exactly the same shapes and jaws opened and closed precisely together. Volti's precision of vocal technique was as obvious as it was audible; at one tragic moment in Virgil Thomson's Seven Choruses from Medea, it seemed those mouths could only be controlled by some master puppeteer above. I giggled, not out of amusement (not during that piece!) but from sheer wonder. How'd they do that?

The unexpected moment of wonder or delight, particularly when it stems from this synthesis of the observed and then heard, makes an "absolute" musical performance as compelling as the grand spectacles of opera or ballet. To approach the symphony or choral concert in the way that one might view a great painting is unconventional. It tweaks the usual mode of perception (from ear to eye). Whether you take a friend (pick me! pick me! pick me!) or just yourself to an orchestra (or choral) concert this month, go as if it were the first time. Go as if it were the theatre. Be ready, visually and aurally, for that which might cause the mouth to form a little "o" and hands to flutter together involuntarily, sincerely, at the most inappropriate moment. If you smile because you couldn't help yourself, because you realize that you what you saw (all bows on the lap) is what you're hearing (pluck, pluck, pluck), you might, kid, experience delight.

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Thursday, May 05, 2005


For authorities whose hopes
are shaped by mercenaries?shell
Writers entrapped by
teatime fame and by
commuters' comforts?
Not for these
the paper nautilus
constructs her thin glass shell.

Giving her perishable
souvenir of hope, a dull
white outside and smooth-
edged inner surface
glossy as the sea, the watchful
maker of it guards it
day and night; she scarcely

eats until the eggs are hatched.
Buried eight-fold in her eight
arms, for she is in
a sense a devil-
fish, her glass ram'shorn-cradled freight
is hid but is not crushed;
as Hercules, bitten

by a crab loyal to the hydra,
was hindered to succeed,
the intensively
watched eggs coming from
the shell free it when they are freed,--
leaving its wasp-nest flaws
of white on white, and close-

laid Ionic chiton-folds
like the lines in the mane of
a Parthenon horse,
round which the arms had
wound themselves as if they knew love
is the only fortress
strong enough to trust to.

--Marianne Moore, "The Paper Nautilus"

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Monday, May 02, 2005


Humbled. Inspired. "To the piano in pajamas." Does life get any better than that?

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