Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Symmetry: Two Ways

"Phillipe Manoury, huh? His music is so complicated."

I tipped my head, "Really? You think so?"

I did not venture over to CNMAT last week under that impression, and I did not leave Manoury's lecture there thinking any differently. I had hoped that he might reveal and demonstrate some of the inner technological (Max/MSP) processes in his compositions, but alas, the patch would not work. And so the room of brilliant minds had to fall back on a more traditional format, listening, following scores, and asking very proper questions. (Here, for you, is a primer of "proper" questions: "Could you tell us about the structure of -----?" "How is the orchestration a reflection of the structure of the piece?" "Did your selection of dynamic markings follow a structural process?" Or, "How did you determine the structure of the music in relationship to the text?" Yes, "structure" is a foolproof invocation over at my beloved Arch Street.)

Manoury was a good sport about the questions, parsing the structure and explaining where he had taken a melody and inverted, augmented or otherwise subjected it to techniques that seem akin to both basic species counterpoint and Schoenbergian serial procedures. Much of this melody manipulation occurs around a "center" tone, a single pitch that threads cleanly through the musical texture. Like a drone, but not a drone... like harmony, but not traditional functional harmony... it was at least easy enough to understand (and also to hear) how Manoury uses a sustained tone center as an axis of symmetry for the other musical events. There was just enough glue and just enough glitter.

Some of his compositional processes in On-Iron, a recent work for chorus, orchestra, electronics and also video, struck me as intensely game-like: Manoury quickly and simply mapped out some pitch, interval, voicing or rhythmic information and showed how he systematically transformed those parameters, adding numbers from one column to another, across, up, down, etc. all presumably in accordance with thematic or structural ideas contained in the ancient Greek texts used in the piece. The sketch on the board looked not unlike a Sudoku puzzle: difficulty level, challenging. Though there is a severity to his method, Manoury was quick to admit that ultimately, he allows his imagination to tweak the process to his liking. The pieces I heard were both rich and dense, complex at heart--in their method and in the fact that they require virtuosic performers--but wholly accessible as a fabric of sound and texture. Complex, yes. Complicated, no.

Manoury's talk made me think about "structure" and "game," and it reminded me, somewhat tangentially, of one of the voice samples left at the Audible Memories installation (Stanford University, December 2006). The sentiment, at once so candid and spontaneous, is also a singular, centered "tone" around which these other words just fall into place, begging, perhaps to be mixed up, rearranged, augmented, diminished, or transposed. I've been haunted by the voice--by the phrase--since I first heard it, not so much for its meaning, but for its structure. It is simple but ripe with potential for variation, development and return. There is music here, the blueprint of music, though I have yet to parse it out:
I miss someone that does not miss me, and someone misses me that I do not miss.
I must go, and think about it some more. And I must listen to more Phillipe Manoury. My first assignment? Pluton for piano and live electronics.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007


"That's not a present." Willa Jean looked cross. "That's Kleenex."

"But it's your very own," said Ramona. "Sit down and I'll show you what to do." She broke the perforation in the top of the box and pulled out one pink sheet and then another. "See. You can sit here and pull out all you want because it's your very own. You can pull out the whole box if you want." She did not bother telling Willa Jean that she had always wanted to pull out a whole box of Kleenex, one after another.

Willa Jean looked interested. Slowly she pulled out one sheet and then a second. And another and another. She began to pull faster. Soon she was pulling out sheet after sheet and having such a good time that Ramona wanted to join the fun.

--Beverly Cleary, Ramona and Her Mother

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Friday, January 26, 2007


"He wakes up musing on the beauty of the major scale and its unique multiplicity."

A friend of mine just began taking piano lessons (though not with me) and he called on Wednesday night, frustrated but oh-so-curious, and a little nervous to ask me the big question. "My scale! Do I have to use these fingerings? I don't know...could you show me? Would you show me, before my next lesson?" As I held the phone away from my laughter (honestly, it was laughter over the intensity with which he posed these questions; there is nothing like an adult beginner student) he interpreted the silence: "Oh. Probably the last thing you want to do this weekend is talk about the C major scale. You're so far away from all that." But I replied, "Not at all. To be honest, there's nothing I love more than talking about the very fundamentals of piano playing. The scale: now that's a beautiful thing."

It truly is. Later I thought about how talking about the piano--about "thumb under" when practicing scales or, more elaborately, about desperate attempts to render some sort of satisfying performance accompaniment from the piano/vocal score of the Chichester Psalms--shows that the instrument, and the music, is my blood. If I didn't want to meet my friend in the hour between ballet class and mass at the church, even if to show him "1, 2, 3, thumb, 2, 3, 4" then I should STOP. And ask myself what I'm really about.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Dance Card

This spring, my dance card is full! I'll be the one dancing toute seule down the aisle to my seat.

San Francisco Ballet Program 1
January 30 - February 10
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Cal Performances presents
The Forsythe Company
Thursday & Friday, February 22 - 23, 8pm
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Lines Ballet
Spring 2007 Home Season
April 13 - 15, 18 - 22

Cal Performances presents
Sylvie Guillem and Akram Khan
Saturday May 5, 8pm & Sunday May 6, 7pm
Zellerbach Hall

The Foundry presents
May 10 - 12, 8pm
ODC Theatre

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts presents
Joe Goode Performance Group
May 31 - Jun 2, Jun 7 - 9

See you there!

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Practice & Performance

She practices. And she loves performing. On Sunday she had planned to run her set three times before recording a full take. ("I will not allow myself to stop, no matter who calls!") Later, listening carefully to the recording, she would make notes about what to fix or tweak. I love that she talks about mistakes: "practicing today, I couldn't get through this one part without making a mistake! Then, three mistakes! But now I'm figuring out--thinking about--how to work through and with the mistakes, so that the performance is uninterrupted, so that the piece still flows." She has Method.

She is an electronic musician.

She is not concerned with costume or conceptual parameters, and I've never had that, "performing on laptop just seems boring and uncomfortable" conversation with her. When we talk about our work and current projects, she speaks mainly about the music and of her--her--responsibility to it. It is an intense and passionate approach, so fiercely personal and driven that I am reminded, oddly, of the famously neurotic concert pianists or those symphony-hopping, concerto-playing violinists. She has Focus.

She speaks my language, though: of hours of practice logged; of mistakes made, noted, and practiced away; of performances that are months off but for which she is currently preparing. The discipline of consistent and ongoing practice pays off on the day of the performance. She mingles with the audience before performing, cool, excited, maybe a little nervous, but still calm, and this attitude positively affects one's perception of her performance. I have never seen her panic (what do you mean, there are no extension cords? the projector light bulb is what? you're kidding...) in the eleventh hour. She has Fun.

She is an electronic musician from whom we all can learn.

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Monday, January 01, 2007

In Heaven, Meeting Old Ghosts

A ghost of mine lives at 50 Oak Street.

50 oak steetIn 2001 the building at 50 Oak was home to SF Dance Center, and occasionally I substituted as class accompanist. The relationship between ballet class instructor and accompanist never wants for drama, sometimes symbiotic, sometimes a power struggle, and sometimes something between Savior and Saved. On one particular day, I, er ... failed to meet the instructor's expectations ... and was kindly given the "we'll call you" boot out the door. Undeterred, I returned a week later with Michael Lowe, a friend, mentor, and well-known bay area teacher/choreographer, and together we delivered an exhilarating and exhausting advanced ballet class. (Ha! Beware of giving me the bootsie!) Over the next few weeks, I sat in on classes, sometimes with Michael, who analyzed the exercises in detail and offered musical suggestions, and sometimes on my own. I learned to tune out the music, finding more valuable inspiration for dance accompaniments in the rhythmic skip-and-swish of slippers and shoes against the floor.

I still play for ballet class, but I left that green accompanist at 50 Oak Street, a building where sunlight, too, determinedly found its way, fleeing the tortuous interior corridors and flooding the cavernous Beaux-Arts inspired dance studios. The San Francisco Conservatory of Music acquired the building a few years ago and took official residence there this fall, and in the week before holidays, a Conservatory alum and I made our pilgrimage to the new site, curious to see if any of our Ortega Street ghosts had made their way downtown. I jumped up and down when I saw The Light again, not to mention the gilded columns and their ornamental filigree, in one of the small concert halls. My friend whispered,concert hall
Can you imagine? For anyone who clocked hours on Ortega Street since the seventies --faculty and staff, even those students, you know, the ones who never leave-- they must feel like they've gone to heaven. The sunlight, these never-ending stairwells, all this beautiful wood, and the clean's too good to be true. Then, rounding a corner, you bump into all the familiar faces, the same cast of characters. What else can they think but that this must be heaven!
I had to agree. I like this new Conservatory. It feels hip and urban and offers step-out-the-door access to the symphony, opera or ballet. The building, taller and more storied than its rancho predecessor out in the sunset, also seems more serious. Forget the proximity to the city's best wine bar, a great wine shop, designer shoe stores and the place to be seen for late hours dessert, students can get down to work at 50 Oak, learning their Modus Novus, whittling perfect oboe reeds, juggling mallets, and practicing, gossiping, and then practicing some more. The library is still a disaster, and the "cafe" is less than adequate, but it's year one, and according to a professor, "part of this year is going to be about learning to use the building." (Ah, that helps explain these amusing postings.)

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