Tuesday, July 31, 2007

pulsoptional: It’s Not Chamber Music (is it?)

A recent New York Times article from June (“Music That Thinks Outside the Chamber”) raised what I thought was perfectly valid question: is chamber music performance, as we traditionally know it, dead?

Many classical musicians might resent the idea that one of our most hallowed, enjoyable, and deeply satisfying artistic experiences is being given the “doomsday” treatment. Well, part of me is sensitive to this, but another part says, “Tough – deal with it!” Sometimes we performing musicians need to have our mental wiring shocked into accordance with present-day reality. The truth is, many people who otherwise like live music are not coming to (or supporting) the traditional, formal chamber music concert as much as they used to. (Take a look here for some thoughts on redirecting chamber music events towards the more informal.)

This is not to say that there is something wrong with traditional chamber concerts. Here’s a great example of a wonderful program for a typical chamber concert (this is taken from a program offered by the St. Lawrence String Quartet at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in November 2007):

Ernest Chausson, Chanson perpetuelle for Soprano and Piano Quintet, Op. 37
Cesar Franck, String Quartet in D major
Robert Schumann ,String Quartet in F major, Op. 41, No. 2
Roberto Sierra, Songs from the Diaspora for Soprano and Piano Quintet (CMS Co-commission, NY Premiere)

It’s a really terrific program: plenty of meaty classics from the Romantic era, a little variety in the instrumentation through the inclusion of voice and piano, and the obligatory new piece which lends the program contemporary resonance. OK, great for CMS; these established programs involving performance institutions like the St. Lawrence Quartet can bring in people who appreciate great chamber music. But what if there are simply too many of them, with too much of the same thing, in the same venues, with all of the same people on stage and in the audience? People will begin to yawn if this kind of event is replicated over and over again, which, with some notable exceptions, is precisely the situation anywhere chamber music is active. And sometimes people are just simply intimidated by chamber music culture. Don’t musicians who are armchair-administrators always talk about bringing in NEW and FRESH audience members? What about contemporary relevance, too? How can we bridge that gap – gain wider audiences, balance tradition with innovation, and most important, just get interested parties more excited about hearing live music in an intimate setting without fears of feeling inferior?

Into this arena walks a group like
pulsoptional, a composer-collective outfit that operates in and around Durham, North Carolina. A good friend of mine, composer Marc Faris, is a member of the group (the rest of the members are Sydney Boquiren, Jennifer Fitzgerald, Todd Hershberger, Thom Limbert, Caroline Mallonée, John Mayrose, and Carrie Shull). He was kind enough to give me a copy of their debut album (self-titled pulsoptional) which was just released this year. pulsoptional is a great example of a group of self-sufficient musicians too busy to think about these issues because they are doing something about them instead. I wish the NY Times article author, Anne Midgette, could have known something about this group before she wrote the article. Though the groups she mentions (such as the Chiara String Quartet) are indeed exploring some valid ways of circumventing the often overbearing conventions of chamber music practice, pulsoptional goes much further in terms of “thinking outside the chamber”.

Here’s a description from the group’s own website:

pulsoptional, Durham, North Carolina's Band of Composers, challenges and enthralls audiences with its innovative new music programming. Since its inception in January of 2000, the new music ensemble and composers' collective has developed a diverse, devoted audience and continues to attract listeners new to contemporary music with its boundary/genre-defying, high-energy concerts. pulsoptional creates and performs new experimental works for its eclectic instrumentation, commissions new music by emerging American composers, and maintains a repertoire of experimental "classics" with an emphasis on the American experimental tradition. pulsoptional has performed in music festivals, rock clubs, dance spaces and other non-traditional venues, as well as prestigious concert halls. pulsoptional's commitment to performing in non-traditional venues has attracted audiences of diverse ages, ethnicities, and social and economic backgrounds. pulsoptional is a non-profit organization dedicated to presenting high quality performances in the Triangle area and beyond, especially music by young and/or lesser-known composers. By charging no more than $8/ticket, pulsoptional remains accessible to audiences.

They consider themselves a “band of composers” first and a “new music ensemble” second. Right away there is an acknowledgment of the terminology issues (and its concomitant PR consequences) raised in the NY times article. Second, they write AND perform their own music and seek out alternative venues for their performances. In other words, they are truly blurring the hard distinctions between the traditional notions of the chamber music group and the idea of a sophisticated rock band of musical innovators. Some of the members also function as the band’s public relations and development personnel. Third, there is the completely unique instrumentation of the group: electric guitars, electric bass, piano, bassoon, alto saxophone, percussion, violin, and oboe/english horn. Simply put, there are going to be sounds not heard before due to the diverse instrumental canvas. They are also versatile performers who explore improvisational settings, create live music for silent films, and are willing to submit to amplification.

But don’t think that they are completely turning chamber music on its head. They maintain a subtle link to the tradition by performing modern “chamber” pieces by established composers (such as Daniel Lentz, Steve Reich, and Alvin Curran), and they also arrange twentieth-century classics for the group’s instrumentation. See this page for more information on their current and past performances and programs.

I wanted to share all of this because I think that we can learn something from pulsoptional’s approach to re-defining the roles of composer, arranger, performer, and arts marketer in the twenty-first century. They certainly provide a great example for what varied skill sets modern concert groups need to incorporate to achieve progress in this field. And they are contributing to an ever-widening definition of what chamber music is, which is a net positive from my point of view. Chamber music certainly isn't "dead" when it gets enlivened by new ideas through a group like pulsoptional. (I hope the group’s members don’t mind me considering their activities as a more modern and accessible version of chamber music practice, so I certainly invite comment and discussion of this aspect.)

Since this post is getting a little on the long side, I have written about the music on pulsoptional's debut CD in another post. You can hear some samples of their music by clicking here. The CD is also available for purchase from that page.

Image from the pulsoptional website.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

Pollini plays "Feux d'artifice"

Legendary Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini performs Debussy's Feux d'artifice (fireworks) in Japan. This beautiful and exciting work is the last of the French composer's twenty-four preludes, which were finished in 1913. The video is completely out of sync with the audio for the first forty seconds, but appears to be more on target after this point.

Pollini's playing is completely economical here. Notice how his hands always display impeccable technical poise, and how often the fingers remain in contact with the keys even in the most agitated passagework. Particularly impressive is the delicate quality of sound during the soft glissandi in the middle of the piece (around 1:55 into the video).

Did you catch the distant-sounding fragment of "La Marseillaise" at the end? Remind yourself of this tune (it is the national anthem of France) and then watch again.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Blogging as a Tool for Activism

See anything questionable about the cover art shown below?

It is the cover art used on a new CD released by the label Calliope of music by the Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799). If you are at all disturbed by this depiction of a musician of African heritage, please read William Zick’s recent post on why this cover art might not be in the best taste. (William Zick is the publisher and webmaster of AfriClassical, a great site I wrote about recently. He also just started the AfriClassical blog, which I think presents a unique opportunity for the advancement of musicians of African descent.)

You can read the email I wrote to Harmonia Mundi USA (the US distributor for Calliope) by clicking here. (Mr. Zick was kind enough to present my letter on his blog.) Maybe others would also like to write a letter of concern to Harmonia Mundi? Their email is info.usa@harmoniamundi.com

(My suggestion would be to keep letters respectful and polite. Since I am anti-censorship, I hasten to add that Harmonia Mundi/Calliope has a right to use whatever cover art they want. But they might want to think more carefully about the consequences this art choice could unintentionally generate.)

UPDATE 7/29/07: Check out the valuable, wide-ranging, and honest discussion about this cover art at On An Overgrown Path. (Yes, as you might expect, yours truly wrote one of the comments there.)

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Informal Chamber Recitals: After Effects

This is a follow-up to my post about a recent chamber music event I performed on Sunday, July 22 in Dayton, Ohio. This first post generated at least a little buzz in the music blogosphere (see Jason Heath’s comments on this post and my response, and Chris Foley linked to me), so I figured I should write a little bit about the post-performance scene.

Sheridan Kamberger Currie (principal violist of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra), John Kurokawa (principal clarinet, DPO), and myself (as newly instituted principal keyboardist of the DPO) performed a well-rounded program of varied chamber music in a private home for a crowd of about twenty-five donors, board members, and other patrons and staff of the DPO. Executive director Curt Long and music director Neal Gittleman were on hand to give brief talks before the performance, which certainly lent the occasion some higher significance. (In fact, Neal graciously turned pages for me during the performance. No pressure there!)

The performance went very well. John spoke eloquently and instructively about most of the pieces on the program, and I talked a little bit about my piano solo. This is another skill that classical musicians of the twenty-first century need to cultivate: public speaking in front of audiences. Communication skills are becoming increasingly important in this business, and young musicians today avoid honing theirs at their peril.

After the performance, we musicians mingled with the guests over drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Here are paraphrases of some of the things I heard attendees say:

-We can’t wait to have another event like this. This should happen more often.
-I prefer this kind of private performance to seeing the full orchestra. (I heard this more than once.)
-It is incredible to see up close how musicians interact with one another during a performance to keep the music flowing and accurately timed.
-Can you show me that part in the music where (insert dramatic playing technique, such as tone clusters on the piano) happens?
-Welcome to the DPO family! We’re happy to have someone like you here.
-Where are you from? Where did you go to school? When did you begin your music study? What other roles do you play in your career as a musician besides being a DPO member?
-We really enjoyed hearing something different by (insert composer name). I think I’ll look into getting some more CD’s of that particular composer.
-It’s great that this event introduces you to people who enjoy funding the arts. It creates possibilities and connections. How do you feel about this kind of interaction?

Though these are paraphrases wrought from my own inevitably biased memory, I hope that the reader is getting a sense of how involved these people were in the music-making they witnessed and the curiosity, gratitude, and support they were expressing to the musicians. I certainly hope to participate in (or even help organize) more exchanges like this, and it would be useful for other artists and administrators to take note of what good can come from smaller-audience, socially interactive performance events. It's also just plain fun.

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Thinking about Practicing - 8 Ways (Plus One)

How do you think about practicing, as a student or a teacher? There are a number of ways to view the "practice" of practice, and Ed Pearlman supplies eight over at Music Teacher's Helper Blog. He lists some pros and cons to some of these approaches, which just goes to show that our purposes behind practice need to be fluid, dynamic, and in a state of constant rediscovery.

I would add another point of view to this list: Practice as a developer of self-reliance. This relates to Ed's #5 (practice as a mirror of lesson work), but I think it is important to clarify self-reliance as an important motivator and signifier of true independence in students. It is especially desirable to develop self-reliance in students when it comes to the realm of problem-solving.

There's not much more satisfaction to be gained from teaching than when a student comes to a lesson with a problem (technical, rhythmic, interpretive, etc.) fixed. For example, if a student can play that crescendo in her Beethoven Bagatelle without speeding up the tempo unnecessarily, I'll say something like, "Great job on that crescendo there! How did you keep the tempo from rushing in your practice this week?" Invariably, the student will supply me (and in her own words) with a descriptive practice technique that gets good results. Usually it will be one I've been trying to inculcate over weeks or months (such as using the metronome at a slow practice tempo, or counting aloud steadily as you play, etc.)

In other words, you will rarely hear a response to "How'd you do it?" that reflects a bad practice technique. The student will be actively realizing that she is internalizing better practice habits that get real-world results. The satisfaction I can see on a student's face when this happens is a big part of what makes teaching applied music rewarding.

I think the trick is to take advantage of a great psychological set-up: I put the student in a position to express her own competence without any preachy interference from her teacher. If a student is getting tangible results on her own, that student will veer away from bad habits and continue to explore self-reliant problem-solving with more confidence. Simple, right?

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Jason Heath comments on informal recitals

Blogger and bassist Jason Heath has written a nice response to my recent post about short chamber music recitals given in private, small-audience settings. He offers some additional observations and convictions about these events from his own experiences that support my original thesis: These events are a “win-win” for everyone involved. Jason makes some positive points about interacting with audience members, increased engagement of the audience during performances, and the thrill audience members can get hearing (and seeing) musicians do their thing up close and personal. My experience this past Sunday performing for one of these informal  events certainly confirms Jason’s statements. 

I should mention that Jason and I participated in one of these private events together in Memphis for the benefit of the IRIS orchestra. (We are both "traveling" members of the IRIS orchestra.) The theme for that event was to honor the host-families that collectively put up dozens of musicians from around the country throughout the season. That event involved a number of different ensembles so that more of the entire orchestra was represented. It was yet another way small recitals (complete with receptions afterwards) can “give back” to communities that support arts institutions, and to continue, in Jason’s words, “to establish audience/performer relationships and create strong bonds of patron loyalty.” Thanks, Jason, for the additional  insights.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Music Teachers UK

Music Teachers UK is another great website that I learned about via Chris Foley. The "Resources" page is probably the most useful section from my point of view; it contains links to many interesting PDF documents on sight-reading, piano teaching, perfecting practice, and other topics of interest for students, parents, and teachers. You can also download manuscript paper for free in both portrait and landscape formats. I will provide a link to this page in my sidebar under the "History - Literature - Pedagogy - Theory" link list.

By the way, if you have not seen Chris Foley's amazing site (The Collaborative Piano Blog), please do yourself a favor and link/subscribe to it. I have done a lot of research on piano blogs over the past few months, and I firmly believe that Chris's site is still the BEST place to find relevant resources for pianists of all persuasions.

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Some thoughts on short chamber music recitals

Here’s the repertoire I will be playing at a chamber recital for Dayton Philharmonic donors on Sunday:

Max Bruch, No. 2 and No. 6 (Nocturne) from Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano, Op. 83.
Malcolm Arnold, Sonatina for Clarinet and Pianoforte (1951).
Camille Saint-Saëns, Movements II and IV from the Sonate for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 167.
Gabriel Fauré, Barcarolle No. 4 in A-flat Major for piano, Op. 44.
W. A. Mozart, Trio (Kegelstatt) for clarinet, viola, and piano, KV 498.

The recital is a private event that will be presented in a patron’s home. (Apologies to any local fans who would have liked to attend!) A reception will follow so that everyone can mingle in the (hopefully) golden afterglow of a good performance. Now why do I bring all of this up?

I think this kind of more informal event is a really good idea for performing institutions like orchestras and chamber music societies. I have done a few things like this in the past for other institutions or groups, and it is always educational, fun, and eye-opening all at the same time. Here are some of my reasons for why this is important today:

1) Audience/donor/musician connections. Today it’s all about breaking down that wall between the stage and the first row. Events like this let musicians get to know their audience members, and audience members get to know the musicians they see week after week on stage. It is also important for musicians (or any other artists) to learn about the people in their communities who can financially support artistic institutions. Those connections can lead to new endeavors or programs that enrich the arts scene of any town or city.

2) Special musical opportunities for working musicians. There are not too many people in our field who would turn down the opportunity to play some chamber music for a small, appreciative audience. Most professional musicians (especially those who play in an orchestra) appreciate the chance to express themselves in intimate settings through chamber music. Orchestra administrations are beginning to address this need in more creative and beneficial ways these days. A good-quality chamber music program that involves many musicians over the course of a season can also be a huge morale-booster. Higher morale = healthier artistic environment.

3) Unique programming. These small, short, informal recitals can withstand a more
bricolage-like approach to programming. Formal big-league chamber concerts can get a little stuffy sometimes with their emphasis on lengthy and dramatic string quartets, piano quartets, etc. These private events can feature more varied, shorter, and lighter works, including even some compositions of questionable merit, simply because it is a little more about entertainment than deep structural listening. Our program above includes many styles that span centuries and three different types of instrumentation (clarinet-viola-piano trio, clarinet-piano duo, and piano solo). An astute observer might also notice that we are actually performing an incomplete work (only two of the four movements from the Saint-Saëns clarinet sonata)! Well, before the program police rant and rave about how terrible this is, let me just say this: It is a matter of historical record that common performance practice in the nineteenth century involved the presentation of single movements from larger works, as well as a wide range of styles and instrumentations. At a concert back then one could have easily heard a single movement from a Beethoven symphony, a couple of arias from Cosi fan tutte, and then maybe a big virtuoso piano solo (something like the Spanish Rhapsody by Liszt), all in one half of an evening’s program.

Well, I think it is right and appropriate to try this kind of thing again today. After all, there is nothing to lose (except stuffiness) and everything to gain. Besides, presenting shorter works lets the guests refill their drink glasses more often.

Let me also say that much of this lighter music really should be played in a living room or smaller performance venue (that’s why it’s called chamber music). There is a time and place for the larger concert hall, but also a time and place for the small, intimate setting. Both situations can reap meaningful rewards for receptive audiences.

If anyone would like to offer additional thoughts on the topic of this post, please feel free to leave a comment.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

"Stargazer" - Recording with Trumpeter Alan Siebert

Last summer I recorded a piece of music for trumpet and piano that has now been released on CD. The trumpeter is Alan Siebert, who is the trumpet professor at University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. The piece is on Alan's new album Stargazer (produced on the Equilibrium label) and it introduces a lot of new music for trumpet.

Most of the works have never been recorded before, which I think is admirable. In the twenty-first century it is much better to do something like this rather than make a record of hackneyed repertoire that has been put on disc tons of times already. It’s a chance worth taking for the sake of demonstrating that concert art-music is alive and adaptable.

Alan and I have played together before and I jumped at the opportunity to record a relatively recent piece for trumpet and piano. It is called Cloud Peak Fantasy and was written in 1990 by award-winning composer John Drumheller. (He is on the faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder.) The music requires all sorts of extended techniques for the inside of a grand piano: I had to pluck strings like a harpist, play on the strings with my palms, and produce sound effects by scraping coins along the length of a piano string. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I got asked to do the piece in the first place. I seem to be the one who gets the call if a pianist is needed to do something a little “off the wall.” But I certainly don’t mind it; I love to do this kind of repertoire. I've actually been playing inside the piano innumerable times since about 1992!

The piece is written in what I would call an “accessible” atonal idiom. The listener will hear the typical twelve-tone row techniques that are still quite popular among academic composers in America. But the musical gestures in the music are easy to grasp and the formal ideas are well-articulated. A lot of it is written in a percussive toccata-like style that grooves with great rhythmic drive and virtuosic flash. Broader and more lyrical gestures are interspersed throughout the piece in clear-cut contrasting sections. The composer's note tells us the piece is inspired by the crags and peaks of Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains. Alan and I had a great deal of fun playing and recording it, even though we never made it to Wyoming.

I am only featured once on this album because the rest of the tracks that require piano are covered by the incredibly gifted pianist Sandra Rivers. She is also a professor at CCM. It is an honor to share a recording credit with her on this disc.

Unfortunately I cannot provide a link to an audio sample right now. But maybe in the future it will show up somewhere (probably at Amazon.com) at which point I will update this post with a link. For now the album is available online and can be ordered through this webpage at Equilibrium.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

The Three Pedals of the Piano

The three pedals of the piano are some of the most intriguing devices piano students encounter at the instrument. Playing the piano with authority requires thorough knowledge of what these pedals do and why we use them to alter the sound.

There is a nicely detailed overview of the functions of these pedals at Jeffrey Chappell’s website. I also inserted a link in my right-hand sidebar to the same page for future reference (located under the “Information on Pianos and Piano Repair” link list).

Read these brief clarifications about piano/keyboard pedals and then head over to Chappell’s article to get more details. (I actually do give a bit more information on the sostenuto pedal below. I also give some indications of how pianos and digital instruments may have different or missing pedal functions.)

The Damper Pedal (aka Sustain, Loud, Forte, or Right Pedal)

Regardless of the type of piano one has, the right-hand pedal is always reserved for the production of sustained sounds that reverberate within the framework of the piano. All of the dampers are lifted from the piano strings so that any played piano tones ring freely and resonate. When the right pedal is pushed down, the keys do not have to be held down to sustain the tones. It is the most commonly used pedal and its use is required in virtually all piano music.

If you buy an electronic keyboard, it is absolutely necessary that you get an electronic footswitch that functions as a sustain pedal. On most of the larger electronic/digital pianos the pedal comes attached in exactly the same place it would be on an acoustic piano. (See an example of the Yamaha Clavinova.)

The Soft Pedal (aka Una Corda or Left Pedal)

This pedal is only found on acoustic pianos and a few of the electronic models. Located on the left, it is used to change the quality of the piano tone to a more muted and veiled timbre. Una Corda means “one string” and tells you how this pedal works on a grand piano. When depressed, the soft pedal will move all of the dampers (and the keyboard!) slightly right so that only one or two of the strings assigned to each note are struck when you depress a key. This results in a different tone quality (or “color”). It is usually employed for extremely soft passages, though it is often overused by pianists who lack the technique to play softly. (OK, I can admit it, I’ve been known to “cheat” myself…)

The soft pedal works a little differently on upright (console) pianos. In these pianos pushing the soft pedal moves the hammers closer to the strings. This makes the key action produce a softer strike than when the pedal is not engaged because the hammer has less distance to travel (and thus less overall force).

The Sostenuto Pedal (aka Middle Pedal)

The sostenuto pedal (located in the middle) is often confused with the damper pedal because we also call the damper pedal the sustain pedal (which is what sostenuto means). Confused yet? I wouldn’t blame you. The point is that it has a completely different function from the damper pedal. You can selectively sustain specific notes while leaving the rest of the keyboard “dry”. For example, if you play a C major chord on middle C (the other tones being E and G above that C), and then press down the sostenuto pedal, only the dampers for C, E, and G will remain off of the strings. As long as the pedal is held down, those specific notes will ring freely when they are played. If you play any other notes on the keyboard, they will not ring freely (in other words, when you let go of the key the sound will be damped). It can be used by a skilled pianist in conjunction with the other two pedals. You can sustain as little or as many notes as you want with it. It is a stunning piece of mechanical engineering.

This pedal is found almost exclusively on the larger grand pianos. It is the least used of the pedals and the most misunderstood. The sostenuto pedal did not become incorporated into the grand piano until the late nineteenth century. It is used chiefly in more modern music and for special effects. Piano composers are beginning to use it more, which of course requires that performances occur on adequately functioning grand pianos.

On some smaller grand pianos the middle pedal acts as a bass sustain, whereby only the dampers below a certain note (such as bass C) are released from the strings. In other words, it acts as a kind of half-sustain pedal.

To make things even more confusing, sometimes upright or console pianos also have a middle pedal with yet another different kind of function. Usually the middle pedal on these pianos acts as a “silencer” by moving a piece of felt cloth onto the strings. This mutes the sound to such a considerable degree that one can play the piano without disturbing sleeping neighbors, disgruntled roommates, etc. The piano will often have a sideways slot at the bottom of the pedal’s movement so that the pedal can be locked into down position without needing to hold it with the foot. (I’ve always thought it would be interesting to write music specifically for a muted piano. Maybe I’ll do it someday…)

For additional information check out the pedals section for the Wikipedia entry on pianos.

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Richard Alston performs "Troubled Water"

Here is a video of pianist Richard Alston playing “Troubled Water” by composer Margaret Allison Bonds. This selection relates to a post I wrote a few days ago about musicians of African heritage, where I linked to William H. Chapman Nyaho’s excerpted recording of the same piece. The performance here is really solid, but I’ll have to concede that the video’s sound quality is not too great. Nevertheless the piece is presented in its entirety. Don’t be fooled by the relatively calm groove set in the opening; the water reaches quite a rockin' boiling point in this virtuosic reworking of the spiritual “Wade in the Water.”

Richard Alston is Assistant Professor at Essex County College in Newark, New Jersey.

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Sounds from "The White Diamond"

I’m going in a slightly new direction here reviewing and presenting some music that is not necessarily piano-related. Why? Because, honestly, all of us musicians (regardless of the big meta-genres of classical, jazz, rock, electronica, folk, etc.) live in this crazy postmodern era and we’re all vying for attention in one way or another from audiences. In the interests of considering all working musicians as colleagues on some level, I’d like to begin writing about some of the neat stuff being created and performed today. After all, the music world in the 21st century is richer, wider, and more accessible than at any other point in history.

So I’m starting a new category at my blog called “Music Reviews” and this will be the first post in that category. The posts in this category will be my forum to bring some attention to new music, obscure repertoire, good soundtracks – basically whatever is floating my boat at the moment. Maybe it will be piano music, maybe not. Today’s pick is indeed a soundtrack album: the dreamy and colorful music from Werner Herzog’s films THE WILD BLUE YONDER and THE WHITE DIAMOND. The album is called Requiem for a Dying Planet (on the Winter & Winter label; a link to the album at Amazon is provided below the post text).

I was quite taken aback by the eclectic yet thoroughly organic nature of the music I was hearing when screening The White Diamond a few nights ago. Herzog is one of my favorite directors and he has been on a creative tear recently with no less than six movies produced since 2000. Who knows, maybe there could even be a seventh by the time anyone reads this post! For anyone who likes movies about redemption and atonement, The White Diamond is a poignant must-see documentary. But I am here to discuss some of the music I heard, so you can read about the movie here and here if you want to find out more.

The musicians gathered for this soundtrack include cellist Ernst Reijseger, Senegalese singer Mola Sylla, and a vocal group from Sardinia called the Tenore e Cuncordu de Orosei. It would be correct to assume that this improbable assembly would produce a new and different kind of sound combination. The style reached by these musicians is ultimately reflective and calming; yet it also seems provocatively ancient and authentic despite the clash of cello sounds meshed with two different vocal traditions.

The track “Sanctus” (listen to an excerpt at Amazon.com here) combines all the musicians together in a kind of haunted, lonely hymn that sways with just a hint of gospel styling in the harmony. Upon close listening whenever the tenore are singing together, it is possible to detect multiple tones being produced by some of the singers. This is a feat usually heard in traditional Tibetan throat-singing, but the technique has obviously reached other cultures and peoples.

Many of the tracks feature cellist Ernst Reijseger’s never-ending creative vocabulary: He plays harmonics, fiddles around and below the bridge, and creates myriad effects with arpeggiando, pizzicato, and tremolo techniques. Some of these effects can be heard in isolation on the tracks “Intro Dank Sei Dir Gott” and “Bad News from Outer Space.” I get a keen sense of improvisation as I listened throughout the film, and indeed Reijseger is a seasoned improviser. It is never readily apparent when improvisation meets hard and rigorous composition, and in this case it is a magnificent blur.

It is interesting to note that the soundtrack album is subtitled “Sounds for two films by Werner Herzog.” (The emphasis is mine.) These tracks are certainly among the sounds found in the films, but there is a deeper suggestion of fragility and fragmentation by not calling them songs or pieces. A further evocation is the idea of the ephemeral moment; perhaps we are merely lucky to have captured on a disc such rarified instances of beauty created by human beings flung together through the whims of the visionary director Herzog. I, for one, wouldn’t mind another foray into additional “sounds” from this specific group of musicians. That guy Herzog is on to a good thing.

Requiem for a Dying Planet

(at Amazon.com)

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Problems with "Expandable posts"

UPDATE 7/14/07: I think I have the expandable posts feature working again. This feature is actually a hack I got from Ramani at Hackosphere. The problem was one of exceeded bandwidth. Every time someone clicks to expand a post, a script over at his site is accessed. Ramani has been gracious enough to supply the actual script itself, which is now in my blog template. Problem solved!

Now, when you click on “Read More….” the actual post page will appear. This is better than before because now readers will also be able to see comments and any post links via a single click.

For some unknown reason my expandable posts feature is not working properly. I'm referring to the little hyperlink text at the bottom of most of my posts that says “Read more.” When you click on it, the rest of the post text should appear. But that’s not happening right now.

If you’re surfing the blog and want to read an entire article, just click on the post title. (For instance, the title for this post is Problems with "Expandable posts".) That will take you to the specific post page and you can read the full article/post there, complete with any available comments and links.

If anyone out there in blog-land had the same problem and knows a solution please let me know! It would be a long and tedious job to tear this feature from all of my posts, something I’d obviously rather not do.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Resource on Musicians of the African diaspora

(via On an Overgrown Path)

(Update 7/11: This post was quoted in its entirety at On An Overgrown Path, an important UK music blog I’ve admired for months [and from which I got the original idea for this post]. It’s awesome to get some link love from such an established site of the arts blogosphere. Thanks to “Pliable” for the recognition! Most importantly, though, this "re-blogging" will foster broader awareness of musicians who merit more attention - it makes the blogging project so much more meaningful.)

AfriClassical.com is a wonderful resource that presents information on classical composers and musicians of African heritage. It includes men and women from diverse populations around the globe, including Africans, African-Americans, Afro-Latin Americans, and Afro-Europeans. A broad historical range is covered from the 1700s up to the current day.

Many people do not realize the breadth of these contributions to the concert music tradition. It is true we often focus quite heavily on the “Dead White Guys” of the European art music tradition such as Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, Mahler, etc. But all through this history non-whites have been composing, conducting, and performing music. Sometimes their art got noticed, many times it did not.

Today it is becoming increasingly important for the concert stage to present and embrace more diverse programming from outside the standardized canon. I’ve felt quite strongly about this since I decided to become a professional musician and am happy to see that performance institutions are evolving towards inclusion of quality musical products from lesser-known composers and musicians. AfriClassical serves as a great introduction to some of these musicians. There are biographies, audio samples, and links to other pertinent sites and information. (As an example, check out an excerpt of the cool performance of Margaret Allison Bonds' "Troubled Water" by William H. Chapman Nyaho,pianist.) For future reference I have put a link to AfriClassical in the right-hand column under the "History-Literature..." link list.

Not least important is the fact that many of these composers wrote great piano music. Over the years I’ve played some terrific pieces by African-American composers George Walker, Duke Ellington, William Grant Still, Scott Joplin, and Hannibal. Even though some of these are household names (like Joplin and Ellington), their solo and ensemble concert music is often unfairly overlooked. (Who knew Ellington wrote a piano concerto?) It is great that AfriClassical is out there to help raise awareness about their repertoire as well as the music of more (unfortunately) obscure black musicians. Many audiences would appreciate more attention paid to it.

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Monday, July 9, 2007

New BlogRoll list

I've decided to stop relegating my list of blogroll sites to a single post and finally created a BlogRoll link-list in the right-hand column. However, I do think it is good to have a brief description of each one so my BLOGROLL post is still online. 
You'll notice that it is also in the blog category list.

Here are some recent additions I made to my BlogRoll:

Don’t drop the piano
A piano and songwriting blog with a pop/rock perspective.
UPDATE 10/3/07: This blog was deleted by its author(s) and is no longer available.

Hugh Sung
An extensive site about using music technology to augment the classical musician’s bag of tricks. Cutting edge hardware and software are presented and explained by Hugh Sung.

Music Teachers Blog
Community blog for the MusicTeacher’sHelper.com site, this focuses on pedagogical issues and studio management. (There is a fee for the use of its online studio management software, but not for the blog itself.)

Vana Jezebel
Pam Igelsrud, one of my good friends from school days at Eastman, writes a personal blog about life in Boston. She is a talented singer and a fearless interpreter of contemporary vocal music.

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Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Nixon In China via Cincy

I’ve been incredibly lazy in my lackluster support for local performances recently, perhaps due to a little burnout from the long performance season that finished for me in late May. But now I’m pretty excited about Cincinnati Opera’s production of Nixon in China! This important opera was written by renowned American composer John Adams in 1987 and focuses on President Richard Nixon’s diplomatic mission to China in 1972.

Surely Cincinnati will be the cultural beacon for the mid-Atlantic area on the two performance dates of July 12 and 14. This is a rare chance to see a large contemporary concert music phenomenon in the Cincinnati area. (You would usually need to travel to places like New York, Chicago, or London to see something like this.) If you are close to the city and available to attend I would urge you to go see it, especially if you are a history/politics junkie. I’m probably going to see it on Thursday evening. If you have problems with opera because you often can’t understand what the characters are saying, there will be projected titles even though the opera is in English.

The music is poly-stylistic and incorporates plenty of popular music genres in its unique vocabulary. John Adams’ musical language has a rather Romantic sensibility that is well balanced with more challenging harmonies and textures. The  stage production by James Robinson features multi-media techniques and choreography by Seán Curran.

Tickets available here.

Photo from the White House Photo Office (1969-74) Source: archives.gov (ARC Identifier:194759)

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Monday, July 2, 2007

Quality music programs improve academics

(Via Chris Foley)

Yet another study supporting strong music education benefits has been produced this summer by the NAMM foundation. (There’s also a good summary here.)

Many current music education studies are pointing to strong correlations between better academic performance and some kind of musical study. What is interesting here is the emphasis on instrumental study. If you read the article carefully you will note how much better students perform in English and mathematics when they are participating in “top-quality instrumental programs”.

Well, what does “top-quality” mean when it refers to an instrumental program? Here are a few attributes that come to mind for me (I am leaving out choral programs on purpose for now):

--Dedicated, talented, and knowledgeable teachers and directors who can communicate well with students and display a passion for artistic integrity.
--A well-supported budget that can attract those high-level candidates from the music education community.
--Good choices of repertoire and programming that promote musicality and knowledge of many styles.
--A variety of ensembles including orchestra, band, jazz band, etc.
--Standards of proficiency on all the instruments involved in the program. (Often the schools with good music programs will be able to supply qualified private teachers to students at the school.)
--Accomplished performances that convince administrators, colleagues, and the public that students are growing and improving in their study of music.

Other educators would be able to list many more positive attributes than this, but it’s a start. The important point that I get from the article is how the quality of the musical training really plays a role in getting the maximum benefits. It is clear that standards in music education are absolutely necessary for the general health of a given student body, but there are no specific standards set for music education by the No Child Left Behind Act. High standards and expectations should apply not just to the students but also to teachers/directors and the program itself. Lower standards in music education might even unintentionally undermine other parts of the curriculum. (Note in the article how “deficient” music programs are related to poorer general academic performance.)

While this is an article with a positive viewpoint, it is unfortunate that the American educational system is cutting arts programs or allowing them to stagnate. (See a recent report on arts education in California as well a 2004 statement by the Department of Education.) Hopefully those of us who are involved in music education can help spread better awareness of the need for good school music programs in the US. That’s all I’m trying to do with this commentary on the subject.

Update 7/15/07: See also Jason Heath's post on this study, then check out his terrific related post on Hard-Wiring the Musical Mind.

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