Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Truths (In a Glass of Wine)

It all goes back to the major and minor scales. To really understand the piano, one must know its scales, simple as that.

scales (piano)Beginning adult piano students pose the question(s) all the time. Do they have to learn scales? Do they have to learn particular fingerings for the scales? Do they have to play hands together? It’s the word "have" that bothers me the most. I’ll lean forward in my teacher chair, elbow perched precariously on top of two crossed knees, and throw the questions right back at them, "But don’t you want to learn these scales, these fingerings, the hands together?" I, of course, benefit from retrospect. The piano teacher who presented me (oh so ceremoniously, when I had just turned thirteen) with her grid-like checklist of scales--the columns consisted of major and minor key names while the rows tracked the metronome settings for quarter, eighth, or sixteenth notes; in parallel or contrary motion; in thirds and sixths, etc.--deserves my first born. That checklist, and its weekly assignments, kept me honest: it demanded daily attention or else. (Or else it shamed me ruthlessly on lesson day.)

Not long after I had immersed myself in a daily scale regimen, my teacher "assigned" me to pencil in the fingering for a Bach prelude. Every note. The following week, she reviewed my fingerings and offered corrections. At first, I did not consciously realize that these assignments were actually an extension of learning the piano scales, but the passages that called for a quick "thumb under" or textbook stepwise ascent were always the ones that I penciled in first. Figuring out fingerings in the repertoire--as derived from the major and minor scales--eventually became an intuitive skill, and even then, I never tired of imagining ways around and through the topography of various keys and their modulations. The g-sharp minor prelude and fugue from book two of Bach’s WTC? What a bitch! Yet trying to think of ways to route my fingers through that terrain as easily as its relative major (B) never fails to entertain my imagination. (Attention, adult beginners! Do you see that a working knowledge of scales is both fun and useful?)

A month ago I resolved, among other things, to make 2006 the year of learning about wine. At what amounted to my first serious "lesson," (a line-up of syrah--three from the Rhône and one from California) a friend suggested, "If you want to understand wine, you must first know and understand the grape." Learning to distinguish one grape from another allows one to raise the glass with a certain expectation, with an informed idea about what it might or might not have to offer. Expectations may be met (or not) and are sometimes even surpassed; weighing those assessments is the fun part of the study, and eventually the responses become more and more intuitive. When I sit down to a piece of music, I bring a developed awareness for the idiomatic patterns, twists, and turns of each particular key. The terrain under my fingers is completely familiar thanks to years of practicing scales; I know what to expect but can also navigate the unexpected fairly well. Understanding wine is, perhaps, no different; it's a subtle study, more subjective, but one that can always return to the fundamental truth, to the grape. The grapes--syrah, pinot noir, or viognier--and the piano scales (G, f, or C-sharp)--are all revelations of truth.

drink (like fish)Forget the rhapsodic, romanticized approach to wine tasting. "I’m not going to tell you what you should be smelling or tasting--what’s important are your own opinions, whatever those may be." Such methods are as amusing as a beginning student who waves aside the fingering chart, "I’ve come up with my own fingering for this scale, so that I don’t have to cross my thumb at all." Why reinvent the wheel when concrete truths exist? These are the fixed guidelines from which to measure (and sometimes laugh at) our own opinions and strategies. There must be wine instructors as thorough and methodical as my childhood piano teacher. We all deserve as much.

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Friday, January 27, 2006

The Soundtrack 14

Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime"
Francis Poulenc, "Hôtel"
Alberto Iglesias, music for the film Talk to Her
Gerolsteiner in a glass near the bed. 4 a.m.

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Thursday, January 26, 2006


After too many months, it has arrived. All mine.

my piano

Guess who's practicing day and night?

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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Endings & Beginnings, part II

I love the idea that the finish mimics the preparation, not just in ballet class but in music and life and the calendar year, but I admit that the end of a piece of Classical music is rarely a literal transcription of the beginning. Chords are revoiced or reorchestrated or placed in slightly different rhythmic configurations, yet tonic will be tonic, and as such, dutifully signifies (particularly to the casual listener) the end as beginning, the journey made complete. With more "modern" compositions, of course, the ear accepts that a piece might end somewhere far removed from where it began, nowhere near tonic (whether tonic is a pitch or a harmony or a rhythmic motive). Bartok walks the line, often leading the ear far afield but then returning, clearly and distinctly, to some evocation of where he began. He’s Classical that way. The Mikrokosmos, even with all their irregular phrase lengths, quirky dance rhythms and piquant harmonies, illustrate traditional compositional methods: formally, they cadence and conclude logically, almost always giving a nod to the opening measure. They are teaching pieces, of course, so the straightforwardness makes sense, but sometimes the endings do surprise, and what is "traditional" almost seems tongue-in-cheek.

I have long held the Mikrokosmos (especially vol. 5 & 6) in high regard, and I’m itching to perform some of these miniature piano exercises in a collaborative situation. They are witty and clever--mentally and technically. bartok begins In "Alternating Thirds," for example, the pianist must master the trick of playing the entire piece, a mouvement perpétuel consisting solely of thirds, with only the second and fourth fingers. No cheating! Once one surmounts that technical feat, the joyfully obsessive qualities of the music become apparent. As with Debussy’s Mouvement, the pianist should have a lot of fun playing this dervish of a piece. The end of "Alternating Thirds" is reminiscent of the Debussy, too: the final seven measures scale their way up three octaves, fading away to pianissimo and slowing down by virtue of the best written out* ritard ever. bartok ends Bartok, like Debussy, is not satisfied to fade away into the stratosphere and so punctuates the piece with that low E, a soft punch that clarifies the e phrygian tonality. (You weren’t fooled into thinking the little piece was in C, were you?) All of this--the final note, the two (four) digits hunting-and-pecking--makes me laugh.

"Alternating Thirds" is just one of the many Mikrokosmos that begs for choreography; the pieces are short, each one complete, yet they group together well, thus inviting an exchange of solo, small group or ensemble dancing. The dancers could have as much knowing fun as the pianist (live musical accompaniment--pick me pick me pick me) by mocking or poking fun at the "classical" way that each piece cadences. Just like in ballet class, definitive ending and beginning positions might mirror each other and punctuate the whole with playful irreverence. Some modern dancer is going to seize upon this idea and shake it all up--from ballet to folk to modern--and I can hardly wait. Wait--to begin? Or to end? Ah!

*A footnote for composers: some people can get away with poetic performance indications; others are better served by textbook techniques. I allow M. Satie to tell me to "continue without losing consciousness," or "slow down good-naturedly," but I prefer the rest of you to sort out your eighths and quarters, quarter note and half note triplets, more professionally, please.

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Monday, January 16, 2006

Endings & Beginnings, part I

Though a mere two and a half inches tall, she could hold my attention for extraordinary lengths of time. For years I carried her around in my pocket or in a girly purse, fidgeting my fingers around her steely (ok, pewter) tutu and trying to imitate her perfect fifth position feet or the way she held her head slightly over one shoulder. I wondered what she might be about to do--or what she might have done--but, being only a figurine, she refused to reveal an inclination either way.
That’s the neat thing about ballet. You end like you begin; a casual observer has no idea that you’ve done all that work. If you hold the finish--and I hate when students slump and slouch and start stretching out on the last count of music--you punctuate one sentence yet are ready to begin all new again.
These sentiments, expressed by Mme Edgren-Williams to the first beginning ballet class of the new year, reminded me of classical music, where harmonic schemes and formulae typically bring a piece to end where it began. So often, the tonic harmony--Big Roman Numeral I--asserts its position as formally as the dancer standing at the barre. In dance class, the movements of a given exercise, from the beautiful and expressive to the awkward and painful, are held (arms en bas) neatly and tidily between the preparatory count of "and" and the pianist's final cadence. Formulaic music harmony is similarly bittersweet, secreting away a symphony or sonata's pathways and developments in order to return to the home key. (Just ask Schenker!)

To be fair, Debussy and Bartok are not capital-C (Classical) composers, but they often adhere to the models and plans established by their predecessors. The other day, while shuffling through piano scores looking for something "minimalist, maybe motoric, lacking a recognizable tune, harmonically evocative of the early twentieth century (impressionistic?) and somewhat, even outright, virtuosic," I found two pieces that seemed to meet the criteria, including, also, the all important "jesting or wryly humorous, but in a contained—i.e. not because of strong musical contrasts—way." Though dissimilar in form (the Debussy is ABA; the Bartok is through-composed) I heard a comparable compositional cheekiness at the very end of each piece. In both cases, a deliberately placed low note--bomp!--acknowledges the beginning and sums up the whole, making a rather self-satisfied "point" of returning to the tonic. Debussy and Bartok, though...so impudent!

I learned Debussy’s Mouvement over a decade ago; at the time, it lived in the shadow of Reflets dans l’eau and Hommage à Rameau (its antecedents in the first book of Images) and never received the knowing [wink, wink] performance it deserved. The opening pages of this etude are a grand joke on the piano’s Pentateuch, on the first notes most pianists ever learn, the five white keys from middle C up to G. Teasing and noodling on this simple five-finger pattern eventually leads to more intricate harmonic motion at the beginning (m.67) of the development. Here, my fingers actually enjoy moving from the snowy topography of C D E F G to the awkward tangle of overlapping major and diminished triads--the difference feels good. Mouvement is still all about C, however, a fact that is nowhere more apparent than in the dramatic climax (m.89 – 114) built entirely around F sharp, the pitch that parses the octave, C to C, exactly in half. (C becomes conspicuous by its absence.) The whole thing is so silly, isn’t it, and as the recap takes its obligatory detour by way of whole tone scale—up, up, up—one might think a fade out ending the most appropriate way to finish. (Fade out endings are so carefree and noncommittal.) But no, in case you didn't "get it," Debussy writes the very lowest C of all in the last measure, bringing the piece emphatically 'round to its beginning. What a sassy pose. (I find it all wildly humorous, but then again, today I am an ultimate piano geek.)

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Saturday, January 07, 2006

Act III: Erik Satie

We meet on a sidewalk one day in December and after four-and-a-half (or so) minutes, he tells me that I am drôle. I blush, immensely flattered, for I aspire to be nothing less. He and I share a low tolerance for mediocrity--in art, life, music, wine--and I remember that he once critiqued a young artist for her self-effacing diminutiveness. [Elargissez votre impression!] My own aesthetic took deep root after I heard that. (It became independent.) Though he wears a white cap, white stockings and a white waistcoat, I think nothing of it (devils wear white, you know) and invite him over for dinner.

He sits at my little table while I prepare the meal: pasta with coconut and camphorised sausage; a certain kind of fish (without the skin); cotton salad with grated bones. He eats "only white victuals," so I must tease him with a simple question, "Which do you prefer: Music or Ham?" He [with great seriousness and courteous gravity] responds, "In Art, I like simplicity; the same goes for cookery. I am more inclined to applaud a perfectly roasted leg of lamb than a subtle concoction of meat concealed beneath the clever make-up applied by a master of sauces--if you will permit the image."

He speaks spaciously, almost arrhythmically: the drawn-out silences before he begins a sentence are neither inattentive hesitations nor deliberately calculated thoughtfulness. I see my questions and his responses punctuated by the dashes and ellipses I used to pen erratically in sixth grade, sometimes .......... or ----- or ...... (my teacher ringed them in red again and again) but very rarely the proper ... [arrêt] I worry that he is bored but then decide to learn him like a piece of music, his music, where the phrases meander and dovetail and--interrupted by bizarre texts and fantastic performance indications, even cubist pictures--cadence in completely irregular and unpredictable ways. I soon realize I've never been more engaged in a conversation. Together we lament the lost art of reading aloud and then [en un souffle] disagree like old friends: "I am not a café man; I prefer Brasseries." "No!" "Yes." The conversation segues easily from talk of Debussy's piano pieces (how they strike "fairy-like poses at [the] finger-tips") to open admiration for Stravinsky's orchestrations (never "woolly," never "fog"). Another bottle of wine is opened [very white, he insists] and I boldly demand that he explain his [pale and priest-like] superstitions. White food, white wine, what else?

He leans in [it’s very hot] and brushes my knee with his hand,
The 'pleasures of the table' are far from displeasing to me--on the contrary; & for 'the table' I have a sort of respect--or even more. Whether round or square, I connect it with 'holy service' & it impresses me like a grand altar...I venture to say. Yes.
We sweep the dishes, the silverware, and the glasses--all of it--to the floor and make love madly [pleasurably, without shyness] on the tabletop. In the morning, when the perpetual tango finally finds an end, we drink the rest of the delicious white Bordeaux and amuse each other with absurd (we think them quite witty) remarks. "Last year, I gave several lectures on 'Intelligence & Musicality among Animals' ... Today I shall speak about 'Intelligence & Musicality among Critics' ... It is more or less the same theme, with modifications, of course." "A critic's brain is a store--a department store." "They are always very sweet to the Ladies--but keep the Gentlemen at a distance, calmly." [we laugh without anyone knowing]

Suddenly, he tells me that I am an awful lover [sec comme un coucou] but proceeds to smother me with ardent kisses anyway. [Il caresse son or. Il le couvre de baisers.] "Let us move on. I will come back to that." He has thus composed our time together like one of his unassuming musical fragments, riddled with mischievous nonsense and seductive poetry, all intended to remain strictly between the two of us. (I risk his curses revealing even this much.) At the door, parting, he leans over and whispers in my ear, "Behave yourself please: a monkey is watching you," and I have to smile. He, of course, turns casually on his heel and withdraws [plein de subtilité, si vous m’en croyez] into ... the snow ..........

A Work, Cited--
Ornella Volta, ed. A Mammal's Notebook: Collected Writings of Erik Satie. London: Atlas Press, 1996.

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Ballet Class Wisdom

Midway through second position plies--"other side"--Wendy addresses the entire class with one of her classic (half jesting, half serious) reprimands: "Use all the music! Don't think you can donate the counts to another part of class." This sends me into a fit of giggles, though the Chopin rambles on, undisturbed.

Wendy Diamond teaches Fridays at 11:30 and Saturday mornings at 9:30. She is an excellent--sassy and no-nonsense--instructor. (And some say that her pianist is equally fabulous.)

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Am and Am Not

There are only three syllables in the word, but oh, they are such dangerous syllables. Pianist. Do you say it pompously, snobbishly, in a way that emphasizes the first syllable as if the word were three sixteenth notes placed squarely on beat one? "You're a PI-an-ist?" This sounds haughty and condescending to my ears--I do not, after all, play a PI-an-o--but I always smile forgivingly and reiterate, "yes, I am a pianist," as blandly and evenly as possible. In "notational" terms, out of three sixteenths, I tend to make the first a pick-up, saying the word "piano" and yielding to the "ist" four-fifths of the way through. (Sixteenth - bar line - two sixteenths.) Bleating like a lamb through the middle syllable (essentially giving it the full value of an eighth note) is another sloppy mispronunciation; though when accompanied by rolled eyes and lots of laughter, it's also the perfect way for partying pi-AAN-ists to make fun of themselves. I have a soft spot for "pi-an-ISTE," in a faux French accent, because I hear in its flamboyant delivery some sort of giddy admiration. Stressing the end of the word creates a graceful rhythmic articulation--the final syllable just barely kisses the downbeat--and makes me feel as though I've been acknowledged with extra respect. [Curtsy.]

Accompanist, for the record, is NOT a five syllable word, nor should it contain that stray syllable that belongs, anatomically speaking, between the femur and tibia. These verbal transpositions occur all the time, from the galloping mouthful "ac-COM-pan-KNEE-ist" to the more condensed (almost but still not quite right) "ac-COMP-KNEE-ist." I have no hang-ups about the term (some pianists find it belittling) and prefer, particularly on choral music programs, to designate myself as "accompanist." The best accompanists are wholly integrated into the architecture of the music and the performance. Accompanying is not just "supporting." Rather, we have the opportunity to play the bas to the relief; to be audible, of course, but sometimes "invisibly" so; to completely intertwine ourselves with the soloist(s) and/or conductor. Accompanying begins with nuanced and artistically interpretive piano playing but ideally evolves into companionable collaboration. We're pianists who are able to think--dance, sing, gesture and play--outside the box. The accompanist who quibbles over terminology probably plays too subordinately; for them I might suggest we bring the word repétitéur back into vogue. (I have always had an issue with that one. On receiving the phone message: "We'll be needing a repétitéur for the afternoon and hope you can come in," I laughed out loud and promptly called back, declining. I had another gig! Really!)

The kids these days seem to have scrapped the term accompanist--in its all-encompassing definition--for the phrase "collaborative keyboard artist." Prestigious universities even award degrees in this field. I feel old, as though I'm looking in from a great distance, and I wonder what was wrong with "pianist" and "accompanist." Collaborative keyboard artist? Keyboard collaborative arts? Sigh. Of those, all I can say is, I am...not.

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