Friday, August 31, 2007

Duerme, Duerme

The bird built her nest from the skins of green walnuts
And at night she counted, counted the feline stars
Then flew, she flew, above the green dawn

How does a bird drink?
No one thought to ask

And in the absence of rain,
a lion served her flutes of bittered, salted dew

The skins of green walnuts seduced the lion--
some turned Moorish brown, others aged more pale--
A mottled confusion, but with scents of home

The lion ate the nest.
Tears dessicated the bird.

Now the bird sleeps, sleeps
Duerme, duerme, for a century (or five hundred, or two)

One green dawn, you will see her
Perched again on a stalk, and counting
Counting the pride's last feeble stars

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Soundtrack 20

Joe Jones, "You Talk Too Much"
Schumann, Kennst du Das Land?
Wolf, Kennst du Das Land?
another splash of 2005 St-Joseph, Domaine Coursodon (w)
Teddy Thompson, "Don't Ask Me to Be Friends"

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Monday, August 27, 2007

He Said No

For fifteen years, piano was pretty much a “yes, yes, yes” affair for me. As a child, I made friends not with kids in my classes at school but with each new piano piece my teacher assigned to me. I progressed easily from simple songs with playground titles to Inventions, Sonatas and, finally, Fugues. The winter and spring seasons culminated in recitals, and I took pride in showing off my friends, friends I’d been polishing and forming relationships with over the course of months. Memory came easily. A confidence and flair for performing complemented my otherwise bookish life.

Then I met Brahms Op. 117.

I fell in love with the Three Intermezzi at a time when all other pianists my age were playing Op. 118, No. 2. I fell in love with the folk simplicity of No. 1 and how it gives way on the second page to something awful and yearning. I fell in love with the ornate filigree of No. 2 and considered myself cultured and sophisticated when I played it. (Now I hear it as pure old Vienna, permeated by the casual lilt of a waltz and as gilded and decorated as Freud’s favorite cafe.) I fell in love with the overwrought intensity and—though I had yet to acquire a very strong knowledge of chromatic harmony—gorgeous mercurial cadences of No. 3. These twelve pages of music contained all I needed. The deal was done. I had fallen in love. We would be friends, lovers, for life.

And then the second intermezzo broke my heart.

In performance the piece became elusive, evasive, surprisingly out of my grasp. The design of the main motive—spun as if by a tiny frightened spider—fits right under the hands, but the constant chase up, down, and around all registers of the keyboard is counterintuitive. I would return to the piano after a day of practice, and whatever I had filed away as “learned,” was gone, vanished, like a blue moon lover. Practicing seemed for nought as I wrestled for the first time with major memory issues. I couldn’t pin this piece down! Now, looking at the score and the markings I made over ten years ago, I wonder if my muddled understanding of its harmonic structure did us in. Hesitant pencil scratches (“kind of a sequence?”) over three bars of music reveal my insecurities, even though the analysis is correct: V7 of V, V, V7 of IV, IV, V7 of III, III. But in three bars? That was hardly enough time to hear the progression as dominant/tonic, new dominant/tonic, newer dominant/tonic. I comprehended the harmony, but that didn’t seem to help me put the piece to bed.

Now, or, now that I too have a few grey hairs, Brahms and I are more in accord. One can fill the page with Roman numerals, one after another, new harmony, new harmony, new harmony—it’s frightening how fast he drives through the hairpins!—but parsing and labeling is not the only key to understanding this music. There is a greater scope to the piece, a scope that is broadly, melodically, derived, and it is Calm and Certain if you can hear it that way. The interior is still a wild combustion of chromaticism, but the exterior is suave and pulled presentably together. This duality was too much for me to comprehend when I was twenty. I loved it, but I couldn’t reconcile it. And so the piece slipped away. It slipped away from my memory in more than one performance and perhaps caused the first doubts about pursuing a solo career.

I am not through with Op. 117, No. 2. We have a sublime rekindling of things every now and then. The piece is on the piano right now, and I understand it better than before. Its motives and harmonies operate at a micro-level that I can analyze, but the true effect of the piece relies on a magnification that blurs and extends beyond the periphery of perception. I must accommodate and yield to its design, but at the same time, I must not over-think it. I can imagine Brahms advising this. Hearts can be broken, but with the Intermezzi, all I have to do is pick up the score, and I am still in love, again.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Friday's Program Note

August 24 at The Giorgi Gallery, Berkeley
Heather Heise and Anne Hege present

The Children’s Hour (2007)

Opening ragtime music by James Tenney. I remember talking with Jim at a friend’s birthday party: we rhapsodized about Felix Mendelssohn, and at one point exclaimed simultaneously, “unappreciated genius!” (The irony?) I admire someone who can rewire a telephone and discuss the Variations Sérieuse. Jim died one year ago today.

Inspired by the eponymous song by Charles Ives and featuring pieces from William Walton's Façade (an "entertainment" for reciter and instruments) The Children's Hour is Sidecar's third major collaboration. The work sets art songs and piano pieces by Ives, Hanns Eisler, Jim Tenney, and Arnold Schoenberg within a completely original audio and visual design by Anne Hege and Heather Heise, and invades all the corners--past, present and future--of restless imagination. The Children's Hour is that magical, unmeasured span of time "between the dark and the daylight" where curiosity and investigation, dreams and nightmare, sense and nonsense are all to be found.

Eisler’s To the Little Radio will likely linger hauntingly in ear and in mind, and in fact, its sweet melancholy is the heart of the show. Butterfly collections and clapping games and twinkling music boxes, so pretty and nostalgic, are fairly standard evocations of childhood. The radio, on the other hand, is a technological object that elicits quirky and playful behavior, particularly when we are young. In what other context is one able to wield such magical power, "tuning in" and giving clarity and life--life!--to voices in foreign languages, music of various styles, news reports from unknown countries? Don't all of us, at some time or another, feel that the radio speaks "just for me, just to me," "because I tuned it in!" The game ends when we grow up: we figure the radio out, we learn how its circuits work, and rather than thinking we're a medium between here and myriad etherworlds, we simply (mindlessly) flip and skip through the channels.

To the Little Radio, and our performed play with radios, runs not only as a poignant thematic element throughout The Children's Hour, but as a counterpoint to the more classical moments of opera, art song and sing-a-long.


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The Back Page


James Tenney (1934-2006)
"Raggedy Ann" and "Milk & Honey" from Three Rags for Pianoforte (1969)

Charles Ives (1874-1954)
"The Children's Hour," "Two Little Flowers," and "The Side Show" from 114 Songs

Hanns Eisler (1898-1962)
"To the Little Radio" and "The Little Wind" with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht

William Walton
"Daphne," "Through Gilded Trellises," and "Old Sir Faulk" from Façade (c.1920s)
with text by Dame Edith Sitwell
plus...historic 1922 recording of Sitwell performing "Old Sir Faulk"

Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951)
Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19, No. 2

Heather Heise
"Ladybugs" and "Butterflies" (video & audio) (2007)

Anne Hege
Maybe the Monolith will Just Calm Down (2007) with poetry by Colleen Plimier
Grey and Spectral (2007) with text by William Burroughs
original Children's Hour soundtrack compositions


Sidecar's newly added performances!
Sunday Sept 2nd 12-5pm
on “NPR” in The Project Space
Marin Headlands Center for the Arts
3rd floor, Building 944

Saturday September 22nd 7pm
The Woodstockhausen Festival
Glen Alba Gardens--12250 Alba Road
Ben Lomond, CA 95005

Nov 4th - 11th
dates and times tba
Princeton, NJ and New York City

Sidecar is Anne Hege & Heather Heise. We perform art songs for the modern day audience. Our cabaret is for those who love Charles Ives.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007


Art thou troubled?
Music will calm thee,
Art thou weary?
Rest shall be thine, rest shall be thine.

Music, source of all gladness,
Heals thy sadness
At her shrine,
Music, music, ever divine,

Music, music...calleth
With voice divine.

--G.F. Händel, air from Rodelinda

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Sidecar Wrap-up

Four performances of "The Children's Hour" this month!

Monday August 20th, 8pm
The Monday Night Marsh Series
1062 Valencia Street, SF
Sidecar shares the bill with three other artists and thus will present only an excerpt of "The Children's Hour." Located across the street from Aquarius Records and just down the block from Ritual, the tiny black box theatre has a certain musty charm. I even found a dead mouse under the piano last time we played there! That's so in keeping with this summer's show--I can't even tell you...

Friday August 24th, 8pm
Giorgi Gallery
2911 Claremont Ave, Berkeley
Sidecar presents "The Children's Hour" in its entirety. This will be the grand culmination of our work this summer: all the songs, as much time as we need, and an audience comprised of dear friends, loved ones, and hopefully more than a few curious strangers. I love the space, although acoustically it's quite bright. We may dress up. We are undecided about video. I may put out the brandy snifter (er, tip jar) and play ragtime prelude music. You just never know...with a Sidecar show!

Monday August 27th, 8pm
The Monday Night Marsh Series
1062 Valencia Street, SF
Part of the deal of doing the Monday Night Series is that you perform your piece on two consecutive Mondays. This gives budding artists a week to tweak things and then run the performance again.

Thursday August 30th, 8pm-ish
The Jennifer Justice Show
San Francisco Comedy Club
50 Mason Street, SF
Jennifer has long been an enthusiastic supporter of Sidecar's work, and this year she turns the tables on us a bit. We appear on a portion of her program...but in an interview format. Sidecar will bookend the Q & A with brief performed excerpts of "The Children's Hour" and will also likely run some video or soundtrack throughout and around it. Anne and I hope that this will capture the mood and repertory of our show even as we sit there dissecting and discussing our artistic methods, choices, and processes. It should be surprising and interesting!

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Jim's Ragtime

I don't care what the fables say, the country mouse can live contentedly in the city. She will never forget the country, of course, and she will, on occasion, have to see the stars; she will have to skip around barefoot; she will have to hear her western meadowlark in the mornings. (In these times you will--lest you risk a melancholic mouse--return her to the country. Pronto. Do not worry: after five days, she will long for her high heels, a glass of wine, and her urban nest, and back you both will go--to the city.) Such is the dichotomous life of one citified country mouse that I know.

And it is precisely the sort of duality that I want to convey in two piano rags that I am practicing. Written by James Tenney in 1969, Raggedy Ann and Milk & Honey are surprisingly traditional in terms of form and harmony. Surprising? Tenney, recognized as a pioneer in the field of computer music, also contributed to 20th century music theory with his writings on form and tuning and acoustics, and he worked for a number of years as a research electroacoustician at Bell Telephone Labs. (I have always liked to imagine Jim surreptitiously creating electronic music compositions when he was supposed to be solving telecommunications conundrums.) With his musical interests equally balanced between synthesized sounds and live performance, one might expect Tenney to deliver some new-fangled interpretation of ragtime, but the Three Rags for Pianoforte sound quite Joplin (or quite Confrey!) and that got me--Little Miss Classical Piano--to thinking...

What sensibility do I bring to these rags? Who am I when I perform them? Ragtime is casual music; in one sense, I am just the pianist in the corner keeping a roomful of tarts and gamblers happy. I am the background music, the wallpaper, the playlist of the day. But tarts and gamblers are so 1897, and this is 2007. And I am a classical pianist. I do not want to over-concertize these works, but I would like to bring a clean, polished approach to my playing of them, and this desire (for the best of both musical worlds) has led to me having fun with the pieces in country mouse/city mouse fashion.

Can I play ragtime as concert music but not sound too "concert"? Can I shape phrases casually, drunkenly, but with an articulated clarity and a direct (forward motion! forward motion!) intention? Could the bass lines bounce along barefoot but--on the repeat--sound oh-so-well-heeled? Could the melodies gaze up at the stars and the Milky Way but enjoy cocktails at the hippest metropolitan bar until midnight? These things are all contradictions, things that are not wholly possible (the Milky Way is definitely not visible from the little patio of my favorite watering hole, not even on a clear night). And yet I want it both ways, and I think ragtime wants it both ways...there is elegance even in a silly piano rag. Tenney seems to call for a refined mode, too: at the head of each piece he indicates "not fast," "not too fast." Pianists do tend to play ragtime too fast and, because of that tempo choice, the music or performance can sound sloppy. A more draggy tempo suggests ... well, it suggests a city mouse who maybe grew up in the country. Refined and totally on top of things, but down to earth, never rushed.

It is an approach that might apply to all music, not just ragtime. Let's cross pollinate! Maybe Beethoven needs to bump clumsily along. Can't you hear parts of the Hammerklavier driving--oomph, ugh, boomp--down a single-lane, ragged gravel road? Then again, there are country mice who just cannot adapt to the city, and city mice who find nothing of any great appeal in wide open skies. They will want their classical, cosmopolitan classical--and they will want their dirty as the ol' saloon.

Me? I'm a country mouse. I mean, city mouse. No! Country mouse...

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

New York City Redux

Tickets purchased. The Children's Hour shall hit the east coast!

November 4-11, specific dates TBA.

Let's hear it one more time--New York City!--I'll sing, you sing. Then we'll dance. La la-la, la la...

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