I was awakened last night by a sound that has baffled me for years, the sound that, in fact, helped give rise to a whole new way of thinking about tone-relatedness: the opening sound of Schumann's Waldszenen (Forest Scenes).  (This is the subject of the second book of Tonal Refraction, due to hit the press any day now.)  What awakened me was the realization that if I were to write down in standard notation what I hear when I make that sound on the piano it would not correspond to the printed notation.  What I hear is a B-flat and two D's.  But only one of the D's is a played key, the other is a clear overtone one octave higher.  The B-flat reinforces the D overtone that so confuses me.  

The forest is Schumann's world of piano sound.  It is confusions of all sorts, some real, some imagined, some menacing, others trite.  Nothing simple about it.

 
 
I am delighted that someone noticed how different my YouTube Rameau clip is from what one usually hears.  Perhaps the most damning feature of our current culture is that everything/everyone sounds like everyone/everything else.  This is true no matter what the genre.  I can't stand to listen to most of whatever it is.  Just because someone has a recognizable name does not excuse her playing all the notes in a Mozart sonata as if they were composed for a machine.  Just because some just-like-all-the-rest pop number is being delivered by a pop icon does not make me feel like listening to it.  

Is that what listening has come down to?
I do everything in my power to get people to hear things that they would never otherwise give the time of day.  For some people that's Bartok, for others, it's obscure Brahms, or W.F. Bach.  This time it's Rameau.   
 
 
A musician/composer/theorist colleague whom I know only via internet music theory chats thus described my new YouTube clip (Rameau Conversations with the Muses).  He didn't know what to make of it.
His comments are quite astute: yes, it is another civilization, perhaps another planet.  It required an interplanetary time-warp trip for me to get even remotely interested in this piece, which I would never have taken the trouble to do were it not for my new concert format, Mixed Bag: I tell you the composers but not the pieces, then make up a program that freely associates piece to piece as I want you, the listening-only partaker, to taste what is happening.  Afterwards I distribute the printed program.  
To make this piece engaging I had to shed all notions of notation as "Do This Now! Stay In Time! No Deviations!  Behave Like the Dots on the Piece of Paper!"  
But Rameau's principle output was vocal; why couldn't he have written an essentially vocal piece for a keyboard soloist who is potentially an entire opera cast?  So I play it vocally, which means the tones inform themselves as to when and how they might respond one to the other.  That means that the rhythms are as varied as the voices moving independently invite them to be.
Incidentally, I realize I mistranslated the title: Entretiens des Muses, I mistranslated as Conversations WITH as opposed to OF the Muses.  First I had to figure out how to overhear their conversation....thus the WITH.  I stick to my error.  Blame it on the rocket fuel that got me to that other time and place.
 
 
So much of piano instruction is concerned with expectations: Having dutifully practiced, the student shows up with some idea of what the teacher expects to hear, usually prepared to be told that whatever he or she brings to the lesson is wanting in some critical area.  
If the teacher expects always only to hear evidence that the student has prepared the lesson, then the student is not getting his/her money's worth.  If, on the other hand, the teacher is willing to listen for and substantiate whatever original response the student injects into the playing, ah!  fortunate are they both.
It is not easy to do that kind of listening.  
 
 
One of the most unlikely things I have ever done is to continue after 17 years to work with a student despite (because of?) the fact that he does not practice - not only does he not have time, but he is rarely around a piano except when he comes for his lesson first thing of a Saturday morning.  A computer animator by profession, he has always had one of the most responsive and accurate ears of anyone I have ever taught.
So what do we do, since he doesn't practice?
First of all, I pay attention to every single sound he makes in the Beethoven sonata of the day, currently the E-flat, Op. 7 - not an easy piece.  Most of all I pay attention to the sounds he clearly does not like and to the wrong notes.
Today, again, a significant connection between the two clarified for me what the sonata is really all about: It is about imbalance injected by unwelcome black keys into what would otherwise be a stable, or at least bearable environment.
He gets it every time.  He leads me into Beethoven's brain.  It is nothing technical, nothing theoretical, just pure ear-based responsiveness.
A position of privilege.
 

Musicalocavore

02/23/2015

 
An acquaintance suggested this morning that he and his partner take up a strict regimen of only live music and plays:  no radio, no CDs, no television, only live concerts and plays. "Imagine what a difference that will make!"  said he.
He went on to talk about the intensity of live music, what a difference it makes to be one of a large number of people enjoying the sounds together at that moment.   How unlike listening to a recording -- at which point I threw in that the playing one hears on that recording was certainly not addressed to living creatures but to some equipment with an engineer attached, keeping score, ready to fix.
Make a difference!  Listen live!
 
 
Not in the earthquake, not in the wind, not in the fire.  In the still, small voice Elijah knew God was on the mountain.  

I love that passage, so did Mendelssohn.   It is essentially what music is: not just the symphony, not necessarily the chorus of thousands, but awareness of a stop-time stillness in which contact is made between composer, player, listener.

What could be better?  What could matter more?
 

Sit Still!

02/21/2015

 
How many times have you heard that in your lifetime?  As I recall I was incapable of doing that as a child - probably still am.  That's probably why I do music: It doesn't sit still and seems to want me not to, either.
Written down "music" seems to me the essence of sitting still.  The symbols literally sit there waiting to be identified, analyzed, appreciated.  
I recall once playing a recording of a Schubert work for some young school children, ages maybe 7 to 10.  The younger ones especially got up and started moving around, to the dismay of the teacher in charge.  It struck me they were doing just what the music intended them to do: Not sit still.
 
 
Being no longer am in the least phased by video camera and/or recording equipment, I just posted a new video on YouTube, a short Rameau work called Conversations with the Muses.  Watching it for the first time I was somewhat astonished as how much my hands move, playing this incredibly small, intimate work.  Would I ever describe to anyone what, why, or how it is to move like that?  
That would be like trying to describe how I think or feel.  It happens simply as a function of being alive, not as a result of anything planned or intentional.  If anything it reflects the speed of what I hear as I play.

So, where did I learn to move like that?  I must have been paying attention to someone, something, some impulse, perhaps.  
You can see the video on the About NG page on this site.
 

Does Tone Move?

02/19/2015

 
Most likely you would say no, it doesn't.  But a lot of composed music and, for that matter, jazz, is based on the proposition that it does, indeed, move.  Otherwise why would it be so interesting?  
It moves the way color moves.  That preposterous notion was given life by Josef Albers in Interaction of Color, in which he uses simple demonstrations of juxtaposed colors to show how volatile color is, how unstable, how mobile.
Sometimes this freaks musicians out who maintain that they know for sure where a note is.  My reaction: Really?  
Then how can it be that a highly experienced artist comes into my studio and begins a rehearsal by announcing that there is a note in the work which he has played and recorded dozens of times that he has never been able to play in tune:  What note?  A specific  A on the cello.  Hmmm.  Could it be that Dvorak had caused that very central tone to move around before bringing it back in that highly specific setting?
The book that inspired all my work with tone is called Sound and Symbol, in which Viktor Zuckerkandl demonstrates that, unlike the symbols we use to "read" music, tone does move.  He was right.  Maybe that's why he had to do his teaching in the liberal arts environment, where one can say things like that out loud.