Thursday, December 29, 2005

Coffee & Clarinets

We knew him when...

...we used to drive down the great California coast highway to Monterey for clarinet lessons with Rosario Mazzeo. Even this morning, over that other roaster’s coffee, we smile and nod our heads and remember bits of Mazzeo wisdom: “Don’t go planning a program of wind quintets when you’ve got a fabulous pianist in the next room and two great string players for neighbors!” Then he’d wrinkle his face like Yoda and growl inquisitively. (We can’t help but try it, and at nine in the morning, our falsetto “hmmphs” almost sound right.)

We knew him back when we still loved Brahms, when we played all that chamber music as if we were kids on the playground, fearless and with total abandon, stubbornly insistent that, of opus 120, the E-flat ranks above the f minor; that the trio demands more of the pianist than the cellist; and that the e minor cello sonata can be transcribed, if not for clarinet, for French horn. (Uh, no.)

We knew him when, one Christmas Eve, the mailman delivered a package containing an Opperman barrel and mouthpiece, making it “the best Christmas ever!” We couldn’t wait to boast about the workmanship and the sweet, smooth tone (not to mention Opperman’s name scratched in the grenadilla) and we played carols all night, forgetting about the by-then-dessicated vegetables in the oven.

We knew him before focal dystonia turned practicing into an overtone stew of multiphonics and missed notes, (keys left up when they should have been pressed down) before the fierce physical fight to restore our technique, before Alexander lessons and all the mind-bending riddles: “Let the shape of the cup dictate how your hand should open and close around it.” Huh?

We knew him when we dated each other and when we married each other off; we knew him when everyone just called him, “Jim.” We knew him before we became parents and professors, before we masqueraded as organists and accordion players. We knew him before he learned to make a “damn fine cup of coffee” for farmer's market fanatics, years before he sold that coffee to our very favorite restaurant. We attribute his success to the years spent in the clarinet geekdom, where an obsessive indulgence in obsessive behavior is par for the course.

The parking meters scream, and so we finish our coffee and raise the empty cups. To James.

continue reading...

Friday, December 23, 2005

Meme! (The Soundtrack)

According to mykissing in a cemetary
daily informants,
the time has come
to meme again.
Consider this a holiday puzzle
from me to you...
kiss, kiss.

Occupational Music
Joni Mitchell, "Real Good for Free"
William Bolcom, "Surprise!" and "Song of Black Max"
Notre Dame fight song (go Irish!)

Movie Music
Henry Mancini, Breakfast at Tiffany's
Ennio Morricone, Once Upon a Time in the West
Cat Stevens, Harold & Maude
Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace, Dumbo

Lived Here Music
Percy Grainger, Country Gardens
Scott Mckenzie, "San Francisco"
Mr. Bungle, California
Christine Lavin, "Nobody's Fat in Aspen"

Television Music
Laurie Johnson, The Avengers
Geoffrey Burgon, Brideshead Revisited
Gunnar Madsen, Sex and the City (season 2)
Angelo Badalamenti, Twin Peaks

Vacation Music
Billie Holiday's "April in Paris"
Campana Sobre Campana (traditional Mexican carol)
They Might Be Giants, "New York City"
Tenting Tonight (campfire song)

Music to Eat
Leonard Bernstein, La Bonne Cuisine
I. Plum Pudding
II. Queues de Boeuf
III. Tavouk Gueunksis
IV. Civet a Toute Vitesse

I'd Rather Be...Music
Rachmaninoff, The Sea and the Gulls
"The Christmas Song" (roasting
Charles Ives, Memories A - "Very Pleasant"
Luc Ferrari, Presque Rien No. 1

continue reading...

Monday, December 19, 2005

Music, Interrupting

I like to interrupt. Musically inclined friends, perhaps particularly empathetic, accept such behavior unflinchingly; it's the Puritanical folks who find it necessary to reprimand my rudeness. "A good rule to follow," began an interrupted acquaintance, "is to wait four to eight seconds after someone finishes speaking before offering your own ideas. You tend to jump right in, cutting off a person's train of thought. That's not very considerate, because someone may have more to say." After looking around for the three year old, I realized that he was directing this rule of etiquette at me. All I could think was, "oh damn! I can’t take you to the opera, now can I?”

An opera, from the sublime duet or heated quartet to the grand ensemble number, is full of various kinds of interruptions. What would opera be without the argumentative interjections and exuberantly conjoined conversations? Imagine the singers politely making space for each others’ entrances (shaping every phrase with perfect hairpin dynamics) and waiting four to eight seconds between each declaration of love, revenge, liberty or longing. [one, two, three, four] Such stilted courtesies would not only bore an audience cold but rob the art form of its true hallmark, that of reflecting life in a heightened and intensified way. The intertwining, dovetailing musical articulations, an impassioned mix of nonsense and general conniving, are not so far removed from our routine patterns of communication, as any opera fiend can surely attest!

On a more austere musical level, (i.e. minus the glamorama) the carefully rendered effusions of a Renaissance motet strike me as another model for modern conversation. Renaissance counterpoint adheres to its own complicated etiquette but is capable of sounding wildly out of control. Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus and Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium are two motets that demonstrate all the best qualities of interruption. The singers spend the majority of each piece mulling over (initiating and imitating) one germinative idea, a simple three or four note cantus. Within that given constraint, however, the individual vocal parts are remarkably independent; they fly free from each other. Being in the midst of this tangled conversation—that is, singing and hearing the other parts as they echo, confirm, or present a variant on what has been and is being sung—sends chills down my spine. Renaissance counterpoint is polite, but it revels in interruption, in cutting each other off and then coming together. This, too, is my kind of music.

Interruption allows one to make counterpoint of conversation and to hear music in the words too frequently tossed around just for their meaning. Turning banal small talk into melodic and rhythmic fragments creates an intricately structured conversation, one punctuated by dramatic give and take. Those conversations satisfy and please, not so much for their content, but because they flow naturally, musically. As Alan Belkin's guide to composition suggests, interruption is:
an interesting way to make a transition. [It] leaves the first idea incomplete. Instead of fulfilling the gesture, the music is stopped in midstream, often by some percussive sound. This suggests to the listener that change is afoot. By leaving the first idea incomplete, tension is created. This method also has the advantage that it tends to suggest that the incomplete idea will return later, and thus can be useful in creating larger scale unity in the form.
I'm hardly so technical, yet I agree that interruptions, especially the heedlessly passionate ones, help create unity in the "form" that

continue reading...

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Hospital Corners

Professional baseball players often carry out pre-pitch routines with vaudevillian finesse: some thump the bat against their shoe--one, two--while others swing it (and their hips) in luckily numbered arcs across the plate. Performance likewise brings out the tics of professional musicians, from the guitarist who kicks off his shoes to the vocalist who downs a final shot of whiskey glycerin warm honeyed tea just before taking the stage. Others indulge their quirky habits right up to the raising of the baton, like the squirrelly percussionist giving thorny passages one last “silent” run through or the lone clarinetist chancing a swab even as the conductor bows--one hand artfully placed at the edge of the music stand or tucked into his waistcoat--to the audience. (Let’s not get started on brass players’ elaborate spit decantations in the middle of movements.) These habits are not always necessary, but they comfort and, as such, are prone to exaggeration. My ritual of making “hospital corners,” for example, began as a matter of practicality but too quickly evolved into an act fit for comic caricature.

Pianists who accompany and play chamber music read from scores that almost always include all the vocal and instrumental staves of music in addition to the piano part. Though accustomed to, even dependent on, this concession, a pianist must turn pages four to five times more often than an instrumentalist reading only a part score. Never caring for the hovering presence of a page-turner, I long ago learned the trick of rumpling the bottom right hand corners to facilitate speedy turns. Now, however, I obsessively crimp and ruffle those corners--one flat, one folded, one flat, and so on--in the final seconds before having to play. Yes, I could tend to such matters backstage, well before the performance, but something about the eleventh hour handling of each page best soothes my nerves and preps my mind. Apparently I fidget and fuss over the pages of music with a seriousness that disguises the compulsiveness; recently, a well-wishing audience member swooned over my meticulous method of putting all the music in its place, “and you never forget those corners!” Notes, dynamics and phrasing? Nah, it’s all about me thumbing through the score.

Perhaps long ago, and similarly seeking comfort within her chosen profession, a busy nurse devised a system for keeping patients secure in their beds. Making hospital corners became her tic, the last little thing she had to do to successfully perform the rest of her job. With every bed sheet drawn taut and tucked just so, she eliminated the possibility of anyone “falling out of bed” and could then calmly direct her attentions on more urgent situations. For me, turning up and dirtying the corners of my music for the hundredth, thousandth, time eliminates the possibility of “falling out of the music,” of getting lost or dropping notes. In contrast to true hospital corners, my silly tic allows the “real” work, the playing, to tumble forth playfully and uninhibited. Fold, flatten, fold and flatten. Unless someone devises the reel-to-reel score, I do not intend to alter my habit of fretting over the page. It’s a ritual to which I’ve become too committed.

For the record, I refuse to make my own bed with hospital corners. After all, who wants to feel folded, pressed and sealed into some business envelope of bedding?

continue reading...

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


You can do something that you're not very well equipped to do, but that's...just a mismatch. Everyone's good at what they love to do. Everyone. If they think they love it, and they're a little bit fumbly, they'll get better at it. If they think they love it, and they're not good at it, then maybe they should think about whether they just love it because it's supposed to be lovable.

--Laurie Anderson

continue reading...