Thursday, July 28, 2005

At Home with J.S. Bach

for T.T.

The ruby slippers snuck out of the closet the other day and hinted that they wanted to return home, musically speaking. Then three scores decided to tag along, too: J.S. Bach's two- and three-part Inventions, and books I and II of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Ah, Bach. I learned my musical manners from the old master; his pieces trained my fingers, taught me to hear the musical phrase, and showed me how to see the architecture in a written score. Encouraged by my piano teacher, I combed the score for subjects and countersubjects, labeling each entry with a voice part: bass, tenor, alto, or soprano. Then, with pencil tucked behind ear, the mental exercise evolved into finger strength, a sure-fingeredness that in turn allowed me to indulge in the musicality of the (annotated) lines of counterpoint. Ear, fingers, eye. Eye, fingers, ear. The synthesis of the mental, physical and psychological is the beauty of Bach, simple enough for the beginning student to recognize and complicated enough for the trained professional to "keep at it" decades later.

The influence of "home" is unshakable, regardless of how far one journeys from it. The pianist who spends years practicing the dozens of keyboard works by Bach might seem ready-made for a solo, concert career; Bach unquestionably trains pianistic pianists. I strayed from that path and spend a majority of my time accompanying singers and dancers and playing in ensembles, but Bach was the best upbringing I could have asked for. Playing through some of my favorite preludes, fugues, and inventions--pieces in which I have lived and been molded by--reminds me of this and is, indeed, very much like walking "in total darkness from one end of my mother's house to the other without bumping into anything." We should all put on the magic slippers now and then and return home. It's the comfort of the past, yes, but also an interesting mirror on the present.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

In the Pencil Box

The elementary school students arrive with cardboard cigar boxes, their pencils, safety scissors, and square brown erasers tucked neatly inside. By mid-term, the pencils live free in the interior of the desk, and the pencil box is home to a colorful band of squatters: stickers, an "illegal" candy wrapper or two, model glue, bottles of glitter, friendship bracelets, and unused milk coupons. My own pencil box hid precious corners of paper on which I had scrawled various goals, schemes and wishes. Dreams. Nowadays the "pencil box" is a computer desktop folder with notes neatly compiled from the scraps of paper I still keep, and already it gapes open, smiling with dreams for the coming arts season:

Richard Tuttle at SFMOMA
The Overcoat at American Conservatory Theater
PICA's TBA Festival in Portland, OR
Dr. Atomic at the San Francisco Opera
Piccolo Teatro di Milano at Cal Performances
a handful of performances by the SFCMP
Bay Area Now 4 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble at San Francisco Performances
Ives, Webern and Mahler (!) at the Symphony

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Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Soundtrack 11

Chopin, Etude in A-flat major, op.25 no.1
Cole Porter, "In the Still of the Night"
Laurie Johnson, music for The Avengers (the '60s tv series)
White Stripes, "We're Going to be Friends"
Handel, Allegro from the Organ Concerto "cuckoo"

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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Uncomfortably, in Skinny Jeans

Pulling the dresser drawer open, she gasps. [!] A lone pair of jeans grins mischievously at her. She realizes that, between the overflowing laundry basket in the corner near the bed and that half-unpacked suitcase of clothes out at the "summer house," only one pair of jeans is ready for the wearing. She silent screams ----- "Not the skinny jeans, oh noooo!" and begins throwing open closet doors and other drawers. Clothes fly across the room. Brown corduroy skirt? No. Ragged, paint-stained khakis? No, no-no-no, no. The bottom half of her dress-black concert attire? Ha! Absolutely not. She looks again into the drawer and tentatively pulls out the jeans. They unfold crisply--once, twice--in Jacob's ladder fashion, and seem to want to stand on their own: they have not been worn since their last washing. Howling to the empty apartment, she reluctantly pulls them on and proceeds to put her hair up and make her lips pretty. She leaves the apartment in an exaggerated goose-step, attempting to rediscover herself in the old jeans.

Clothing and closets aside, everyone must, at times, wear their skinny jeans. The opera diva singing an art song recital. The high school principal teaching tenth grade history for a year. The M.D. mixing chemicals in a laboratory. The sous chef waiting tables. The improvisor reading music and the "collaborative pianist" giving a full-blown solo recital. We often play roles that, even if distantly related to the work at which we're most adept, fit awkwardly. Taken from our familiar comfort zone, we wiggle and squirm and watch our sincere efforts amount to a sub-par performance. (Who knew that teaching tenth graders could be so damn hard, right?) I thus find it puzzling--in music--when the purists seem so eager to slap the wrists of those who experiment with multi-media.
Everyone is into multi-media, and if you ain't got "visuals" or at least 2 DJ's it can't be music! ... We are seeing a decline in pure concert music, simply because the other forms of pleasurable intellectual entertainments are so many and so overwhelmingly promoted. Art always needs a gimmick, or a hook, but that all there is?
No, I gently remind my dear friend, that's not all there is. Virtuoso soloists still give recitals, and symphony orchestras still present programs of pure concert music. But those models, so long held up as measures of greatness, don't fit everyone. People shouldn't wear jeans they really don't want to wear. I admire the musicians who've found a way to work--a niche, a comfortable fit--that gives life to their creative instincts. Who cares if it's "pure" or "multi-media" as long as the work "fits" the performer! When a performer or composer or tech assistant finds the best fit, they will excel; though sometimes finding what fits is as difficult as finding that perfect ass-kissing pair of jeans.

And she realizes, too, that it is worth putting on the skinny jeans now and then. Waiting with her friend at the bar, a young gentleman behind her murmurs, "nice ... jeans!" a confidence-boosting comment that amuses her and her friend throughout their dinner. The confidence lingers until the next day when she returns to her tree-shaded practice retreat and slips into her soft, old-favorite pair of jeans. The day is productive and satisfyingly creative, a very good day.

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Friday, July 15, 2005

Clipped Wings

The pianist Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm in World War I. After the war, he continued to perform, commissioning works for left-hand alone from several prominent composers. (Ravel and Prokofiev, for example, offered full-fledged piano concertos.) More well known, perhaps, is the story of Leon Fleisher who, because of a debilitated right hand, kept his career as a concert pianist alive by conducting and teaching, and by performing works from a growing repertoire for solo left hand. (Recently, Fleisher began performing again with both hands; but to have maintained a foothold on the performance stage through most of the late twentieth century...with just five fingers...well, I am in awe.)

Wittgenstein and Fleisher surely put their south paws through the workout of the wonderful Brahms/Bach d minor Chaconne, a piece to which I will freely admit using both hands to read through--and clumsily at that! Once I would have laughed, the Brahms is merely a study, a joking test, right? To play "serious" piano music with only one arm involved is just too bizarre. Incomprehensible. Well now I must eat my words. In the past few days, an annoying ailment has rendered my right arm into a rigor mortis arm. The nerves are, preoccupied, and the fingertips wiggle slowly, lazily. Like a bird whose wing is clipped, I feel as though I'm hobbling along. Aimless. Playing with such an emphasis on the left upsets my sense of balance; I am unable to take flight. The weight on my sitz-bones is all wrong, and even playing scales is awkward; I am returned to beginning piano student status. Pianists are not meant to be tripods, I think. We balance best on four legs. I stare at my right hand--wiggle, wiggle--and sigh, and my admiration for the left-handed virtuoso, for Paul and Leon, increases fivefold.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

In the City

Salvador Dali: The Master and The Mentor
Christopher-Clark Fine Art
377 Geary Street, San Francisco

Puppets from Around the World

Museum of Craft and Folk Art
Fort Mason Center, San Francisco

"Music from Other Minds"
Hosted by Richard Friedman
Peter Garland's Coyote's Bones and Stephen Scott's Vikings
Friday July 15, 11pm
KALW 91.7 FM, San Francisco

The Best of Youth
(Marco Tullio Giordana's Italian epic)
Now through July 27
The Balboa Theatre, San Francisco

See you there!

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Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Soundtrack 10

The Books, Lost and Safe
J.S. Bach, prelude to the first Partita
Oskar Sala, filmscore to Hitchcock's "The Birds"
John Adams, China Gates
Les Reines Prochaines, Alberta

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Friday, July 08, 2005

Ayurveda at the Barre

The practice of Ayurveda seeks to provide health and well-being through holistic understanding. As a philosophy of medicine, Ayurveda focuses on an individual's physiological and mental conditions and attempts to balance (rather than cure) the three main "doshas"--pitta, vata and kapha. This morning in ballet class, I could see a certain parallel between the principles of this eastern healing tradition and the rudiments of western classical dance: as the teacher punched buttons on the cd player and enthusiastically chirped, "ok! Let's work on pique turns for the rest of class!" I politely fled the room. Peeling off my ballet slippers and stretching my legs in the studio upstairs, I had to laugh at my "doshas," so out of balance! In terms of dance, though, I realized that particular steps do indeed reveal one's constitution:

Jumps--Those with a disposition to jump tend to make decisions quickly and easily. They manage their lives with a precision that borders on self-absorption. They are not group oriented and, typically, are not compassionate listeners. Their fierce independence manifests itself in a quirkiness that attracts other people. But flames and moths rarely meet for more than mere moments, and jumpers must likewise beware of superficial relationships. Their sense of clarity is nevertheless enviable, and "having to choose" never weighs long on their conscience.

Pirouttes--Confident and self-assured, those with the inclination to piroutte usually "know what they're about." They are as aware of their own "center" as of the space around them. Methodical but also moody, turners throw themselves into intense, but often surprisingly successful, partner relationships. Prone to constant movement, they must learn to still their minds and unwind their inner coils.

Adagio--Such slow, sustained movement can only grow from the ground up. Those comfortable with adagio deliberately build their presents and futures on the past. They lose themselves in time. Dancers of adagio may "get stuck" on things, however, never wanting to fully let go and leave what should be left behind. Basking in the beauty of line, they sometimes forget to see the picture in its entirety. They must temper their effusive expressiveness with sincerity, else their adagio rings false.

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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Desire for Parentage

Remember how, in the worst of adolescent tantrums, you'd scream at one (or both) of your parents, "Aaahh, you just don't get it! I must be adopted!" And then they'd laugh, they'd giggle, sending you in an infuriated storm to your room. [Imperative: with a good strong door slam.] Crying into a pillow, you might begin to imagine stories of your "real" parents. Could your dad be a prince, your mom a high-ranking political figure? Or the two of them together an amazing chamber music duo, touring around the world and making records? In full fairy tale mode, what mom and pop pair would I choose? Why, none other than Robert Wilson and Laurie Anderson, of course. Can you even imagine?

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Saturday, July 02, 2005

Relationships Continued, part 2

Fred Frith wrote a piano piece that refuses to let me go; ours is a relationship that continues. I find it charming, really, how "Seven Circles" shuffles its way, again and again, to the top of the "must-program" pile of music near the piano. Our casual introduction in the fall of 2001 was not accompanied by the suggestion of an immediate performance, and so I looked over the piece without urgency, without any grand intention or plan. I liked it. The piano writing is unusually sparse but occasionally motoric, melodic even in its awkward leaps from register to register. Definitely intrigued, but already committed to a recital program at the time, I set it aside. Shuffle, shuffle.

Months later, Fred "remixed" a movement, parsing the piano score into a trio. I performed this version (with flute and guitar) and heard it as a musical mobile: single tones hang in thin air, nothing happens...and then, as if cued from some internal source within the piece, a coincidental attack creates a small ripple of movement. I pursued this aesthetic idea--that a musical terrain might encourage one to listen forward, back, and sideways, rather than "one-way" as directed from measure 1--on my second graduate recital, learning three more movements of "Seven Circles" and programming it with pieces representative of "new musical landscapes." The individual movements of "Seven Circles" vary widely in style, moving from abstraction to a groovy, rhythmic groundedness, and Fred observed, surprised and humored, that I pulled off the former much more successfully than the latter. "You and that last movement," he laughed, "all I can say is, relax! With a little time, I'm sure the two of you will work it out!"

A performer's relationship to the score must start with intrigue and attraction, and it naturally develops through the learning process (you get to know each other), but after that point, any number of paths might be taken. To become constant performance companions? To part ways after a bad review? To defiantly play other repertoire in the name of "artistic growth?" To acknowledge the memory slips and consistently messy fingers and, giving up on intimacy, settling for strained friendship? To grant (shuffle, shuffle) a second chance? I can think of an example to fit almost every scenario, which perhaps explains why I am so compelled to personify my musical scores. With "Seven Circles," each interaction (however many months apart) reveals a new facet of the piece; its surprising quirks and pianistic challenges hint at other mysteries and keep our relationship lively...and continuing. But I hope that "relationship" is more than just superficial talk. Hopefully, the best sort of relationship manifests itself aurally in the richness and depth of performance. A relationship that works causes listeners to pay the highest of complements, recognizing and appreciating publicly what the performer feels as well: "No one plays that piece like you do. You two complement each other, seem to enjoy each other. What a good match."

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