Monday, February 27, 2006

In Defense of Pastiche

"I can not stand pastiche." He laced the word "pastiche" with such contempt that I cringed. Once upon a dinner party, he had chosen "postmodern" as the evening's derogatory term. Others at the table had laughed when he mock-snarled, "I hate it: postmodern," but I couldn't help retorting, "A word! How can you hate a word? Postmodern is just a word, and you can't hate the word." So now, today, it's "pastiche." At least his aesthetics show some consistency. This time, however, not feeling particularly feisty, I could only peep like a tiny bird, "I like it. Pastiche. It's how...I think." [peep, peep]

Pastiche is not satire. Pastiche is not homage. Pastiche is a matter of preference, a way of making and creating. Pastiche combines elements of like and dislike: by placing my personal tastes, my favourites, with and against material that I might otherwise avoid, I perceive counterpoint and contrast and am often forced to reevaluate. The annoying sometimes becomes likeable while something I love dearly appears boring.

Pastiche is sitting at grandma's huge kitchen table choosing fabrics for her next quilting project. Though she prefers classical patterns, the "crazy" quilts always fascinate me. I love tracing my finger from the scrap of a first-day-of-school dress to a dirt-colored piece of corduroy (mom's bachelorette bell bottoms) to oddly shaped filler pieces of old black velvet. Had this come from one of the daguerreotyped relatives' dresses? Had she worn it while playing piano at a parlor concert, while wooing a beau at a ball, while mourning a love lost to war? Curious as the quilt makes me, I can put aside thinking about all the references and evocations as I dive underneath it: the function of the new form is definitely not lost on me, compulsive snuggler.

Pastiche could care less about the pedigree of what it steals and borrows. It is cooking coq au vin one weekend, with a Hoffman Hen Farms Chicken, wild mushrooms from the coastal forest near Mendocino, Pretty Patsy’s Organic Pearl Onions, and a bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir. [the francophiles gasp] Each ingredient is singularly spectacular: as independent stories of location and farming practices and deliciousness, perhaps they deserve solo performances. But in the end, no one argues at my combining and reducing the components into a viscous velveteen gravy. To think: this is pastiche—a wonderfully rich and savory gravy!

These are "crafty" examples of pastiche, and yet they illustrate how active a practice it is for both the creator and the appreciator. In pastiche, one disentangles a jumble of meanings and inferences; the many beginnings and ends demand constant investigation. One makes sense of the structure in a wholly different way than in a symphonic or sonata allegro or other classical form: the activity of putting together and figuring out a pastiche, or simply stepping back to appreciate the whole, personalizes the interpretation. There is no one, textbook way of "making sense." At the heart of pastiche is an individual's engagement.

In that way, I understand my composer friend's irritation. He admires pure music and probably prefers being engaged in a more ... cerebral way, in a way that fits comfortably into discussions and lectures that use widely recognized and agreed upon terms, whereas I lean towards pastiche because I like music that activates my imagination and reflects my unique reality. The trick is drawing the outsider into that reality with me. Performers know this because we put together recital programs, and programming, in its best form, is essentially a pastiche composition. The selection of pieces, the order in which they are performed, the breaks between sets, the placement of the intermission (or choice not to) and even the flavor of the encore are all materials, durations and key regions requiring proper arrangement.

From thinking "compositionally" about classical recital programs, it's an easy leap to a more innovative way of working with existing repertoire and pastiche. Splicing and dicing the old grand warhorses of the piano literature, and then combining and performing them with electronic snippets, beats, and environments, elicits skeptical outcries ("what are you, a satirist?" "copyright infringement!") as well as sincere curiosity. People wonder if I* can get away with mixing some measures of Webern with a Gershwin refrain, all against the sampled sounds of an orchestra tuning, mousetraps springing, and tree branches breaking. The result is not meant to spoof or ridicule those composers, nor does it aim to elevate itself through the use of their masterpieces. Rather, it’s a formal rendering of the music I hear in my head all day long, whether waiting it out in a traffic jam, dropping mail into the mailbox, or carefully considering a shelf of great wines. (I definitely record the clink-clink-clink of bottles being restocked behind me onto a second track in my musical mind.)

What I love about pastiche, and why I think it is a valid compositional form, is that it reflects reality but, when handled with great finesse, it invites sleuthing. It keeps everyone engaged, from composer to performer to listener, in multiple ways. Yes, pastiche runs the risk of being campy or gimmicky, but done well, it can rise above that and present the old in new and interesting ways. The purists may never be convinced, but ... I’m ok with that. For now.

*One of the perks of creating this way is that I am a collaborator as much as I am a solo pianist.

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Monday, February 13, 2006


For the High Mass on Sunday, I played only plainsong, harmonised or not according to circumstances; for the eleven o'clock Mass on Sundays, classical and romantic music; for the Mass at noon, I was allowed to play my own music; and finally for the five o'clock Vespers, I was obliged to improvise.

--Olivier Messiaen, describing his work at La Trinité where he served as organist for sixty years. (Six-zero. 60.)

(from Nigel Simeone, Paris: A Musical Gazetteer, p.170)

If forced to choose only one, which service would you attend? It is an answer that "tells all" about one's musical tastes and inclinations, no?

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Soundtrack 15

Epitaph of Seikilos for P
Debussy, Syrinx for J
Sondheim, "It Takes Two" from Into the Woods
The Beatles, "Birthday"
The Books, "Tokyo" from The Lemon of Pink (I left nothing behind)

in the wings welcomes Zachary Luke, born February 8, 2006

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Friday, February 03, 2006

The Pianist's New Shoes

shoesMy soxed feet inch towards the new shoes, hesitate, and then fold themselves snuggly back into my lap. "They are great shoes!" I say, "Who wouldn't want to wear them?" The soles of my feet frown back at me. They do this by scrunching the toes flush against the ball of the foot. Eventually, slowly, waiting for me not to watch, the toes let go and stretch free.

A few days ago I entered the studio not as class accompanist but as ... a composer. [picking yourself up off the floor] Intrigued by one of my uncharacteristic outbursts—"I'm not just an uptight classical pianist who loves playing Chopin for ballet class, you know!"—a modern dancer had invited me to watch a rehearsal. In the midst of preparing for an April performance, she has realized that she dislikes—or flat out can't use—some of the music in her current rotation. "I need less melody, more found sounds...more silence, actually." Working with someone sympathetic and attentive to movement, as well as open-minded to experimentation and free improvisation, seemed like a promising opportunity. [Enter moi]

Her aesthetic ("I do not want the music to 'go with' the dance") is familiar enough, and I have long admired music that supports movement but also exists in its own sphere. As I watched her dancers, the ideas began spilling out of my mind: with a gong here, some woodblocks there, and one excellently creaky chair, as well as an accordion, thumb piano, toy piano, a couple car horns and bells of various sizes--well, maybe I could create a suitable soundscape. The structure need not shy away from repetition, development or recapitulation (even I could read those elements in the dance) but the field of sound itself would aim towards a sparse, almost stark, simplicity ...


Is this composing?

I have never liked that word, "composer." Composers wear furrowed brows and trendy European eyeglasses. Composers sit at desks--mountains of mess or tidy studies in stacks-of-paper architecture--and shut their doors, some as content with windowless solitude as with a sweeping view of the bay and ocean. Composers engage in sordid, non-committal love affairs and think nothing of walking around collegiate halls with a pair of noise-reduction, chopper-pilot’s headphones over their ears. Composers are enigmatic freaks (on whom I always develop the hugest crushes).

The designation, "compositor," on the other hand, seems more suitable in describing how I would create music. The term, borrowed from letterpress and bookmaking arts, refers to the person who sets text in type. Compositors do not write the stories or poems, nor do they interpret or analyze the literature; they simply organize the letters and punctuation into words and form. The profession is not without creative license; books from the early era of printing often reveal the wry humor of devilish young typesetters. ("Mind your p's and q's," was as much a reminder as a reprimand.)

For a long time, I feared that composition meant creating something (a piece, a song; a sonata, a symphony) wholly original. From instrumentation to structure, through rhythm, melody, or harmony, to compose music meant to, gasp, invent. Now I see it as a process, more of a game, an experiment of measuring and proportioning, of weighing and balancing and organizing the universal givens (pitches or rhythms, instruments or durations) into a sonic landscape. The work is similar to the compositor who, setting letters in the case, always keeps a careful eye on the layout of the paragraphs on the page. Is that a stray single word dangling at the bottom of a paragraph? A good compositor finds a better solution, be it wildly creative or duly traditional, just as a good composer listens to and considers sounds as means to their musical ends.

When I began improvising as a graduate student at Mills College, my first (stunned, humiliated, determined) reaction was to sign up for counterpoint class at UCBerkeley. [laugh with great irony] In both situations, I felt less like a performer and more like someone setting type, that is, just a helpful someone arranging notes in musical space. From the hours I lavished on those counterpoint assignments to the enthusiastic curiosity that I brought to improv-ensemble rehearsals twice a week, it’s no wonder that I had a bit of an identity crisis midway through my studies in piano performance. Composition, for me, always serves a purpose, whether accompanying film or dance or allowing me to play with improvisors; my relationship to the piano, by contrast, extends far beyond that, fulfilling a basic need. Food, water, piano.

My piano feet still do not want to wear the new shoes. "But really," I tell them, "it's no different than when composers perform. C'mon, we can laugh about it later." (That happens all the time.) As for the dance project, it flirts with the potential to satisfy an emerging creative ambition but is nevertheless a daunting prospect. If nothing comes of it, there are other collaborative adventures on the horizon. Yes. New shoes are definitely a good idea.

[the toes, giving in, decide to grin]

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Bare Ass


TO: the next aesthetically concerned person who suggests that "there must be some way" to push the piano up against a wall: "It's too bad you have to see the back side of the instrument."

What would you tell her, her, or her?

The piano's back side is maybe not quite as lovely, but is it really such a problem?

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