Month: October 2006

L’audace impresa a compiere / Io ti darò valore (liquido)

Lest you think composers only expend their creative energies on boring old music, here’s a concoction for the weekend (name courtesy of my Shakespeare-loving wife).

Dark Lady

2 oz. gin
2 oz. tart cherry juice
1/2 oz. kirschwasser
1/2 oz. cassis

Shake with cracked ice and strain into a large martini glass.

While you drink, treat youself to the thermonuclear Shirley Verrett as Shakespeare’s darkest lady of all (via Verdi).

Out of Time

So now two of the singers I’m accompanying this semester are singing Samuel Barber’s “Sea-Snatch,” which means I’ve been working it up again. (I swear, repertoire leaves my fingers in a matter of minutes.) You can hear Leontyne Price sing it here; it’s only thirty seconds long, so the entire song fits within most online retailers’ sound clips.

“Sea-Snatch” isn’t technically that difficult, but it’s tricky for me, because I have to turn my accuracy monitor off when I perform it. If I start to listen for right and wrong notes, it’s all over, because the piece goes by so fast. So I have to figure out how to psych myself up to just plunge in and hope for the best. The way I do this is to pretend that what Barber was really doing was writing a rock and roll song. Now, I don’t know that Barber even knew what rock and roll was (he probably must have heard some of it at some point), and I certainly have no evidence whatsoever to claim that “Sea-Snatch” was written with that sound in his ear. But in this case, a completely unfounded stylistic assumption makes the piece work for me.

I don’t know if other performers do this, but I do it a lot. And often the stylistic choices are wildly off-base. The easiest way for me to get the phrasing right in “Parto! ma tu ben mio,” Sesto’s aria from Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, is to imagine that it’s gospel music. I finally started to get the hang of Joseph Marx’s “Marienlied” by playing it like a Cole Porter ballad. For me, baroque music and bebop have an odd affinity. (It works in chronological reverse, too: I often think Stephen Sondheim to be Schubert reincarnated.) And the list goes on and on.

I think I first started doing this when I was an undergrad. I remember playing Schubert’s “Shepherd on the Rock” for a clarinetist friend’s recital. At the time, I had been listening to a lot of Schubert on the fortepiano, and I thought it would be neat to try and emulate that delicacy and transparency on a modern instrument. We had a coaching with my friend’s teacher, John Bruce Yeh. John would have none of it. “Play it like Wagner,” he said. He was right.

And then there’s Exhibit A in why I think musicians need to know as much music as they possibly can (not to mention how I often miss the painfully obvious). I had the good fortune to study piano with Dmitry Paperno, who studied with Alexander Goldenweiser, who studied with Alexander Siloti, who studied with Rubenstein and Liszt (making me by far the most unlikely and wayward pianist of the great Russian tradition ever). Paperno was no slouch when it came to contemporary music; he had played Shostakovich for Shostakovich, he was friends with Shchedrin, and he knew brilliant Ukranian atonalists I had never heard of. But he had never played or taught Schoenberg’s Sechs kleine Klavierstücke when I brought it in one day. I had been fascinated with Schoenberg since high school, but I had never quite figured out how to get the notes from the page into my fingers in a convincing way. Paperno figured it out in about ten seconds: it’s Romantic music. Play it like Brahms.

Well, duh. Not the first or the last time I’ve walked through a room without seeing the elephant in it. But what if I hadn’t known anything about Romantic style? (Not unlikely; given my teenage preferences, if it hadn’t been for the piano, I wouldn’t have learned about that repertoire until much later.) What if no one had come along with the patience to prod my dense self into seeing the connection? What if I had stubbornly insisted that Schoenberg was Schoenberg, and to interpret his music in light of an “outdated” tradition was anachronistic and heretical?

I’ve become convinced that, after a certain point, a big part of music education just becomes a daily effort to apply what you already know. (Every time I do a Chopin piece, I still hear Professor Paperno scolding me into a legato line: “All your friends are singers. How can you play this so badly?”) With all the stylistic balkanization going on in the classical world, all the specialization, all the concern with performance practice, I run into a lot of performers who think they “don’t know how to do” early music, or Baroque music, or (especially) contemporary music. Yes, you do. If you know Bach, and it reminds you of Bach, play it like Bach. If you know Broadway, and it reminds you of Broadway, play it like Broadway. If people tell you it’s inappropriate, screw ’em. I’ve heard far too many concerts in which the performers were so concerned about being stylistically “appropriate” that they forgot to make music. If you’re convinced, the audience will be convinced, at least for the duration of the piece. Maybe they’ll pick apart your choices after the concert. But that’s infinitely better then them falling asleep while it’s going on.

Citius altius fortius

flagpole sitterWhat’s it going to take to get you people out there to respect musicians? World records or something?

How about an ensemble of 8,000 drummers?
(Not impressed? How about 11,000?)

What about 105 consecutive hours of deejaying?

How about putting on a concert 994 feet below the surface of the North Sea?

230 banjos, anyone?

Alas, the 2,500 harmonicas didn’t quite pan out. But I’m guessing that Bad Brad Wheeler doesn’t give up that easily.

How it’s done

I’m no journalism critic, but this morning’s Globe has a classical review by freelancer David Perkins that reads the way I wish all classical reviews read. The lede is particularly sparkling:

Brünnhilde made a guest appearance Friday night in the middle of J.S. Bach’s joyous Cantata No. 51 (“Jauchzet Gott!”), a piece usually sung by lyric sopranos of the Kathleen Battle mold. On the word “Alleluja,” a remarkable high C came out of the mouth of Barbara Quintiliani and, parting audience members’ hair on the way, blazed out of Faneuil Hall into the night sky.

That might have just made my day.

Where you’re terrific if you’re even good

A few days ago, while thinking over the latest chapter of Greg Sandow’s book-in-progress in performance, I remembered a great comic riff on avant-garde music. It’s from the 1964 movie of “The World of Henry Orient,” featuring Peter Sellers in one of his early Hollywood roles. He portrays a lecherous concert pianist who’s a) having an affair with a married woman, and b) being stalked by two teenage girls who have engineered a rather unlikely crush on him. (It’s actually a pretty innocent and sweet movie—it’s 1964, after all.) The film establishes Henry Orient’s musical bona fides with a set piece in Carnegie Hall: he performs a “modern” piano concerto (during which he gets lost, and only gets through the cadenza with hints from the conductor). If I recall it correctly, the climax of the piece involves an on-stage steam whistle.

Shockingly enough, YouTube, normally reliable for flagrant copyright infringement, was no help in finding this scene online, and nobody else seems to have uploaded it. (A DVD is available, but I’m cheap; you can watch the trailer here.) But you can at least listen to a portion of the concerto on the website of its composer, Ken Lauber. Elmer Bernstein scored the movie, but only after David Raskin was fired from the project, which left the concerto uncomposed at the time of filming. Lauber, a 23-year-old assistant in United Artists’ publishing division, got the nod. As he puts it:

The dialogue went something like this…

Mike Stewart [Lauber’s boss at UA]: “Hey kid. Can you write a 7 min. piano concerto and record it in three days? We need it for playback for a shoot with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.”

KL: “How much do I get paid and do I get credit?”

Mike Stewart: “You’re already getting paid so forget the money. If they use it, I’ll see what I can do to get you credit at the end of the film somewhere.”

I’ll go out on a limb and say that this is the best 3-day, 7-minute avant-garde piano concerto ever written. It’s quite entertaining, and, at least musically, a pretty knowing and affectionate pastiche/parody of “modern music” as it was in the 60’s (visually, I remember the orchestra members being portrayed as rather eye-rollingly jaded about the piece).

Lauber has gone on to have the kind of career I would probably enjoy, never quite breaking through to wide recognition, but keeping busy on an unusually wide range of projects as a composer, arranger, orchestrator, producer, etc. (He also just started a blog.) Any CV that includes studies with Gene Krupa and Vincent Persichetti, arranging backup choirs for Lieber and Stoller, and scoring everything from avant-garde independent films to TV mini-series to Playboy videos is my kind of résumé.

Minor Threats

In which musicians do their part in contributing to the climate of fear.

It seems one of the Vercotti brothers has joined the Seattle Symphony. (Via ArtsJournal.) See, my standmate is a little clumsy. It’d be a shame if he were to break something. (I’m happy to see that Seattle is so quiet and peaceful that would-be terrorists can’t find a better cause than Gerard Schwarz. That’s like going after a bakery because their bread isn’t white enough.)

Update (7/22/09): There used to be a link to a story about George Spicka here. However, per this statement from the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA):

“The MdTA advises the public that it has no information connecting George F. Spicka with any illegal activity including an alleged event of October 11, 2006, at Thurgood Marshall Baltimore Washington International Airport (“BWI”). MdTA sincerely regrets any damage to Mr. Spicka of Baltimore County, Maryland, which may have been caused by any prior MdTA statement or press release inconsistent with this present statement.

We are requesting that after making this posting, any prior information or records in regard to this specific event about George F. Spicka be removed from your web site and/or search results.”

OK. Anybody actually still reading back this far?

Yeah, those airports can be scary places. Good thing the national no-fly list is on top of noted terrorists like Robert Johnson and John Williams. I suppose Robert Johnson’s alleged dealings with the devil might freak out the current administration, but I really don’t think you can hold John Williams responsible for “Stepmom” just because he wrote the music. (My favorite part of the story? They keep the names of actual terrorists off the no-fly list so terrorists won’t find out that they’re on the no-fly list. Our government has been infiltrated by a secret cabal of Oulipians!)

Of course, any activity can be turned to nefarious purposes. From an article in the USAF’s Air University Review, March-April 1972:

[T]here may be uses of music that might have military applications. To cite a rather grim example, certain frequencies can kill. Specifically, a sound wave at 7 Hz (much too low to hear) can penetrate the soft tissues of the body, cause them to vibrate sympathetically, and if it lasts long enough the result can be death. Another example: a 37-Hz tone, roughly D in the bottom octave of a piano keyboard, can crack a wall if it is loud enough. The military implications of these examples need not be mentioned.

Put your hands in the air, and back away from the accordion.

Talkin’ Blues

By a random coincidence, two explorations of language and semitonal pitch crossed my path this week. First, Mark Liberman over at Language Log had a long post on pitch analysis of everyday speech. A team of Dutch linguists analyzed recordings of volunteers reading excerpts from Winnie-the-Pooh—first, some dialogue of Tigger (the happy, hyperactive tiger), and then Eeyore (the pessimistic donkey). Their conclusion: the readers tended to use major intervals for Tigger and minor intervals for Eeyore. The results, needless to say, are highly sketchy; it’s a small sample and a rather suggestive methodology. But it’s a neat concept, the idea that people associate major and minor with happy and sad even in speech. (Go ahead and open up another can of nature-vs.-nurture over this one.) Liberman then took the next step and did pitch analyses of various other types of recorded speech, finding that most examples did tend to revolve around two or three approximate pitches. (I think that just might be a matter of the natural range of non-trained speakers. I’d be curious to see more results for really well-modulated voices.)

And then, by way of gracious commenter Valdemar Jordan’s long-dormant blog, I found Joe Monzo’s microtonal analysis of Robert Johnson’s “Drunken-Hearted Man.” Fascinating, especially his efforts to pin down the exact nature of the “blue” flatted third:

After analyzing this song, I believe I have found a possible reason for hearing the “halfway between” 3rd. Johnson sings a common blues figure in

Robert Johnson muscial example

in the second half of the first two lines. It gives an interval of 11/10 [= (2(2/12) – 35 cents) = 1.65 semitones] between G+ 111 [= 5.51 semitones] and F# 51 [= 3.86 semitones]. If G+ 111 is interpreted casually as the 12-equal G 2(5/12), it makes the F# 51 sound like it could be either F 2(3/12) or F# 2(4/12), or somewhere between.

Short version: the equal-tempered scale makes for a pretty clunky approximation of speech and vernacular singing.

But since my ears are more accustomed to music than speech, I think I actually tend to hear things the other way around. Here’s an example. Most American and British speakers tend to end their sentences on the lowest pitch of the sentence. You can hear this in newscasters: there’s a baseline “tonic” pitch; most of the sentence is pitched higher than that, but the full-stop punctuation is signaled by a return to that low tonic. (Peter Jennings, in particular, used to do a neat gloss on this: he’d deliberately undersell the final punch line of a story by putting the whole thing on the baseline pitch, like a closing tonic pedal point.)

My current favorite news voice, though, is a gentleman who’s been filing reports from India and Pakistan for the NPR morning news roundup. (I haven’t been able to catch his name, and the NPR website is useless in this regard. He was on two or three days in a row last week. Can anybody help me out?) His voice, which sits in a tenor-ish range, is very well-modulated: he uses a huge range of pitches, and, like a lot of Anglo-Indian and Anglo-Pakistani accents, the sound is quite melodic. What’s interesting, though, is that he finishes his sentences in what, to my ears at least, is a typically subcontinental way—his final one or two syllables are higher than the “tonic” pitch of the sentence, which instead comes on the penultimate or antepenultimate syllable. If I had to put it in equal temperament, it might look like this:

do, mi, mi-flat
I don’t know if this is a feature of Indian or Pakistani languages, or if it’s something that might have been picked up from indigenous musical style. To me, though, it sounds rather elegantly sly, and infectiously charming, regardless of context. Why? Probably because it reminds me of a jazz inflection—an ornamental blue note after the final tonic chord. It’s completely unfounded judgment—my favorable opinion of this man’s speech patterns is due to a totally unrelated and culturally irrelevant coincidence derived from my own idiosyncratic musical tastes. But we all form our impressions of people, at least in part, on the basis of the way they talk, and until now, I, for one, never thought very carefully about what that impression might be based on. I wonder how many other intuitive, snap judgments I’m making on the basis of my mental record collection?