Thursday, June 30, 2005

Relationships Continued, part 1

Sometimes the musical score likes to play matchmaker, "introducing" performers to composers and stepping back to let a virtual relationship run its course. Performers become strangely attached to the ghosts of composers, loving them, cursing them, even arm-wrestling them. The delusion--that the composition represents the composer--is harmless enough, but the emotional affections are a little misguided, no?

The real (and undeniably physical) relationship occurs between performer and score, sans composer. Sordid or not, affairs with particular pieces color a performer's past. Whenever I hear Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto, for example, I remember my own silly summer fling with the piece. I learned it impossibly fast, took it to a piano competition, didn't win but thoroughly enjoyed competing, then dropped it and moved on to other repertoire. It was time well spent and an experience worth smiling back on, but nothing more. I've endured a much more tortuous relationship with Mozart's "Batti, batti." The damn piece borders on cute but too quickly turns annoying, and it has a way of turning up again and again when I least expect it. Zerlina's pleading nonsense interests me for about forty seconds; then I have to paste on a grin and bear my way through the clumsy-ugly accompaniment. I vow to write my own before the next "Batti" encounter, to rearrange the orchestral score and rid the reduction of its boxed-in registrations and pointless doublings. (Either that, or I will start playing it on a toy piano!) But demanding such changes and wanting to "fix" all the quirks seem, somehow, not quite fair, and so after a round of auditions or a studio recital, I usually just tuck Don G back into its spot on the bookshelf.

The string of musical relationships seems endless and it only gets more humorous, as when outsiders--friends and relatives with the best of intentions--tend to blow particular performances out of proportion. I certainly enjoy playing Debussy's Reflets dans l'eau (and, more recently, John Cage's In a Landscape) and am quite comfortable with this sort of gauzy, moody, evocative style, but these pieces are not the source of my most gut-wrenching relationships. Rather, like Bach Inventions or Bartok Mikrokosmos, or any number of French or German art-song accompaniments, I think of these pieces as the "good friends" who check in on my chops and keep me happy and motivated from day to day. When listeners remark on my "special connection" to the Debussy, or the "obvious intimacy" with which I play In a Landscape, I have to graciously accept their complements and tell myself that friends being perceived as lovers is really a much better situation than being head over heels for pieces that are obviously and completely wrong for me. The Webern Variations and Dallapiccola's Quaderno Musicale di Annalibera? I wince, remembering. Only now, years later, do I admit to my very clouded judgment regarding those pieces. (The puzzle of the Webern still intrigues me, but for some reason I could never establish a "feel" for the piece as a whole. We were like oil and water, the Variations and I.)

But of them all, I most cherish the unique continuing relationship, the one where, over months or years, I develop a very special understanding for a particular piece. The process, often far from straightforward, encourages discovery that yields a highly personalized performance.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Practice Perfects Intuition

"When he was fourteen he manipulated series of continued fractions the way a pianist practices scales." He developed "an intuition for the translating of formulas into physics and back, a feeling for the rhythms or the spaces or the forces that a given set of symbols implied."

--James Gleick, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman

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Thursday, June 16, 2005

Exeunt: the Pilgrims

peyote rattleToday I depart for a week in Mexico City to visit holy shrines and sing lovely songs with the Basilica Choir.

(The Randall Thompson Alleluia?
God Have Mercy.)

It shall be quiet on this stage
...and in the wings.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Philosopher Queen

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Beautiful
  1. Complexity is most intriguing when it juxtaposes the simple.
  2. I prefer solving mysteries to being lectured by the head detective.
  3. I prefer a child’s intuitive wisdom to the academic’s schooled analysis.
  4. I prefer the kaleidoscope to the periscope.
  5. I prefer abstraction (in art, music, dance, or theatre) that jests and riddles and playfully reveals its irreverence.
  6. I prefer leaving emotion at the door: form, color, texture, and dynamic are beautiful in and of themselves.
  7. I often prefer the Components to the composite Greater Meaning.
  8. I prefer a cross-pollination of genres to absolutes.
  9. I prefer prose that is poetic.
  10. I prefer a suggestion of narrative to the straight-jacket of a specific story.
  11. I prefer the myth or the fairy tale to the instruction manual.
  12. I prefer performance that convinces with an easy physicality yet is capable of risking a spontaneous detour.
  13. But, with a secret prejudice for strange imperfections, I often prefer the puppet over the prima ballerina.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2005


I am thinking of Achilles' grief, he [Frost] said. That famous grief...that terrible grief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Maybe it only really exists in form. Form is everything. Without it you've got nothing but a stubbed-toe sort of cry, sincere maybe, for what it's worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance, but you don't have grief.

--Tobias Wolff, Old School

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Sunday, June 12, 2005

Baseball to Brakhage

Lucky girls are born to a Baseball Dad, to someone who takes her to opening day, patiently explains all the rules, and now and again asks a simple question to see if she’s picking up the nuances of the game. That was not my dad, but somehow I still acquired the baseball bug. The sound of baseball is like nothing else: the crack of the bat, a fastball caught solidly in the dead center of the catcher’s mitt, the cheering fans, and the not-quite-human voice of the stadium announcer...all of it ideally heard in the wide-open acoustic of summertime air. Listening to the game on the radio is another kind of music; the practiced cadences of the announcers’ voices make way, at times, for the distant sound of the game itself. Baseball, more so than other games, retains an auditory appeal on the radio partly due to its pacing and partly because it is like a palimpsest revealing its own multiple layers.

Saturday, after an hour spent listening to the dueling counterpoint of Kruk and Kuip's broadcast (Giants vs. Indians at SBC Park), I reluctantly turned off my radio and sauntered over to the Jewish Community Center for a different sort of duo-ing: Rovate 2005’s juxtaposition of the films of Stan Brakhage and the compositions of Larry Ochs. Ochs is one-fourth of ROVA, an...improvised-music informed...saxophone quartet, and though his The Mirror World is a composition, it leaves the field wide open for the game of improv. The quartet coached guest musicians through form & structure, texture & orchestration, and solo & ensemble playing with a rehearsed sign language. Thumbs up, thumbs down, or cranking a wheel around, the deftly delivered gestures were not unlike those between catcher and pitcher at the ballpark. And the excitement of improvised music, like baseball, relies on the interplay of familiar actions (called for by coaches and by the structured rules of the game) and the surprising--sometimes stumbling, sometimes magnificent--reactions of the performers.

I could hear in Saturday's first presentation of The Mirror World (with ROVA backed by percussionists Gino Robair and William Winant) a strong correlation to the Brakhage films. Fast and noisy, loud and messy--this was virtuoso, high-energy improv, a speedily streaming aural collage. And though I could appreciate the contrasts of color and articulation, and the sensitive ways that the players created musical space for one another, a Saxophone Dad would surely have pointed out the finer techniques and subtleties ROVA’s playing. (Oo, the fingerings, the breathing, the impossible register changes!)

The second version of The Mirror World brought a familiar cast of bay area improvisers to the stage but delivered nothing of the frenetic intensity of the first set. The more atmospheric second "take" paralleled the Brakhage film (The Wold Shadow) that preceded it, in which a frame of aspen trees is viewed repeatedly in various exposures of light and contrast until the trees became scrawny scratches against a headache-inducing white-out. The opening duet between trumpet and alto flute recalled the lean lines of those trees and foreshadowed what would become a characteristic of the piece: interesting solo "licks" intertwined with everyone else's contribution of light and shadow. Ultimately, the droning, sometimes drugged-out backdrop lost steam in its aimlessness, though it allowed me to fall hard when I heard something with more distinction. Ben Goldberg provided two memorable clarinet/bass clarinet solos, each played with classical clarity in tone and projection. In comparison to the wild, unabandoned playing in the first set, the large ensemble version seemed contained. But, given the more controlled and languorously paced conducting and cueing, the tendency towards static ambiance made a little more sense.

Whether listening to baseball or a quartet of saxophonists, one can be entertained and excited even when the terminologies and rules of the game are a mystery. With improvised music, for example, I look in from the outside; sadly, it is just not my language. But a lack of insider knowledge doesn’t detract from the music's vitality, and vitality is the true measure, really, of the quality of the performance. I can't help but wish for the enthusiastic tutelage provided by a loving statistical freak (a Baseball Dad, a Saxophone Dad) and the ears thusly trained to the specific beauties of the game.

p.s. The Giants lost. Sigh.

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Tuesday, June 07, 2005


Saturday, June 04, 2005

Arm-Wrestling Mr. Feldman

for R.F.

The circumference of my upper arm is eight and a quarter inches, almost. Imagining me and Morton Feldman going palm to palm in an arm-wrestling match thus elicits much laughter. (Bets, anyone?) Performers quite naturally build physical relationships to the musical score--muscles must make memories--but sometimes the specter of the composer commands our attention, too. Such is the case with Mr. Feldman, whose music has long proven irreconcilable for me. I find mystery in the malnourished measures--staves of emptiness cued by soft directives--and I admire the lean lines of single notes. I appreciate the surprise of a delicate chord and the hilarity of grace notes with no antecedent, yet when I sit down to play I grow self-conscious, nervous, unsure of what to do. Nothing seems to indicate or predict, notes at the beginning are not harbingers of the end, and I am without direction. Is Feldman laughing behind my shoulder, lighting up a cigarette and shrugging indifferently, "you're the pianist, you figure it out. That's your job, eh?" What else is one to do but turn away from the score and attempt to make amends with the man himself?

But Feldman is not a man with whom to sit and discuss the big picture. A tone or chord in one of the piano pieces, for example, does not imply or hint at a future; it simply is what it is in that moment. The measures of silence, too, are not meant to be interpreted as expectant or impatient; they are just their own moments, love 'em or hate 'em, but let them go. Favoring the moment, however, is a less than straightforward approach; although the notes (even the quiet ones) sound with clarity, their meaning remains enigmatic. This is musically counterintuitive for someone who cut their teeth on piano repertoire 1720-1915 (from Bach's Inventions to Bartok's Sonatina). Countless lessons were spent discussing musical direction, developing a lengthened awareness of phrase structure, mapping formal plans and figuring out ways to execute an overarching sonic picture. In the best of performances, I proceed from measure 1 with self-assured confidence, guiding the listener from point A to point B. "Follow me, I'm the leader," is the role a classical player must assume.

Feldman avoids the obvious, childish game. A moment of delicate filigree might catch one's attention early on but does not indicate the path the music will take. Feldman does not aggressively "work things out" towards some predictable climax, and one cannot actively pursue what might happen, where the music is going, what it might mean. To experience Feldman is to let go; listen to a chord or single note, allow the silence to speak its own mysteries, and then ready those ears anew, without expectation. Does Feldman's aesthetic seem noncommittal, or unrequited? The sparse stillness does create a certain melancholy and breaks the heart easily. From the performer's perspective, however, playing so softly and delicately requires a deliberate and practiced touch. The pianist cannot be lazy or lackadaisical, cannot sit on the bench and casually deliver these "moments" of sound. Instead, controlling those fine finger muscles alerts all the senses and makes one acutely aware of the music taking shape without being pursued. The magic of that is as electrifying as any predictably schmaltzy, Romantic (capital "R") roll in the hay.

mr. feldmanI ease my grip and cease wrestling Mr. Feldman. Asking for direction, needing to attach meaning, seeking the master plan...those things are unimportant. Instead, we sit back and chat like old friends, with no expectancy, no assumptions, and no subliminal persuasions. We argue amicably, tentatively agreeing that living (and experiencing music) "for the moment" is challenging, sometimes not entirely satisfying. In some respects, a draw is the best a performer can hope for: whether engaged in a wrestling match, secret tryst, or worshipful state of idolatry, a performer needs to find their peace with the ghostly presence of the composer. Speaking more practically, trusting the composer and their music--whatever the style--comes with familiarity, with repeated practice and performance. Though I feel somewhat more prepared to begin to the process of learning (familiarizing myself) with one of Feldman's great works, he is no less a mystery to me. On that, Mr. Feldman and I are willing to shake hands and part.

Feldman's music is published by C.F.Peters. Although I own the scores I took pictures of, neither the images (nor the photographs of Feldman) are used with permission.

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Thursday, June 02, 2005

Hearing Aid

Without a new pair of prescription eyeglasses every [sigh] two years, my work as a pianist would be seriously compromised. The musician straining to see. I find this, somehow, ironic.

new peepers
Charles Ives, "The See'r" from 114 Songs and George Crumb, Five Pieces for Piano

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