Speaking Chinese

09/30/2015

 
Thinking about how removed Westerners are from the vitality of tone, I wonder whether the reason so many Orientals are showing up in our music schools is that their languages are intoned -- for them, pitch is never abstract, but always connected to direct inter-personal interaction.
The studies that Westerners do about perfect pitch and the Chinese are, in a way, off-mark.  Rather they should be studying the connection between intoned speech and visceral response to tone minus speech.  I am thinking of Gregorian and Hebrew chant:  In the days and cultures where there was daily exposure to intoned prayer response to tone would have come from and spoken to a completely different level of reality/experience than it does for most modern secular Westerners.
 

Chasing Vibrations

09/28/2015

 
I am fascinated by time - aren't we all?  Sometimes it seems to rush past, sometimes to drag interminably (it's for the latter occasions that I take up needlework).  But no matter how "it" seems to move, it is really we ourselves who are doing the moving, isn't it?
Music is a great way to keep track of it, on many levels:  First, is the level of music's own time, the tempo.  It moves quickly or slowly, hopefully taking us along with it.
But that quick or slow are illusory, in fact.  Beethoven pondered this in many compositions in which he increases the speed only to plunge without preparation into the slowest imaginable tempo, as if to prepare the mind for awareness of the fact that vibration is always fast, faster than we can consciously grasp, even in adagio tempo.  
That is why I describe my life as a musician as chasing vibrations.
 
 
In the post that was published Thursday I quoted Yogi Berra, unaware when I wrote the post that he had died on Tuesday evening.  This morning in the NY Times an article about him cited the following dialogue:  A young girl visiting the Yogi Berra museum in New Jersey asked him which was his favorite game.  "Baseball." 
People often me who is my favorite composer.  I would answer the equivalent of Yogi's reply, "the piano."
 
 
The notes are not the music.  Music is the magic of sound.  As such, it defies analysis, despite what theorists maintain.  Magic makes it real.  Nothing short of magic will do.
Whatever the source of magic you experienced as you first were aware of music hopefully matched your experience when you first encountered music notation.
Otherwise, it is just notes.  Just notes.
 

Up Close Matters

09/24/2015

 
Let's say it is the same as the difference between shouting and talking person-to-person.  Not at all the same, right?  Yet children learn the piano as a shouting instrument.  In fact, I was once basically fired for encouraging a young boy to play softly -- at least, for not insisting that he play louder.  "We can't have little boys playing like that," the music school director said.
Why not?  
I think the answer is that music is not supposed to be for one's own pleasure, but to be held up for the judgmental listening of others.
If that is what it is, count me out.
 
 
Yogi Berra had a famous expression: "It's deja vu all over again." He might have been describing classical music as most of us experience it.  We've heard it already; we know how it goes. Ho hum.
But what if we haven't really heard it?  What if the performance was lackluster, but not the music itself?  Are we willing to give it a second chance?
Sometimes I tune in the radio at random, just to test my capacity to pay attention objectively.  Often I am surprised by what I hear.   Wow!  That's interesting playing!  I wonder who it is?  When it turns out to be an artist whose work I have admired in the past it confirms my initial impression.
Sometimes I chance to hear the announcement of what is about to be played:  that is a real test.  I recall once hearing that it was to be Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" string quartet.  Yikes, I thought.  Anything but that!  But, instead of turning the dial I gave it a try.  It took no more than the first two bars to proves that this was an extraordinary ensemble.  I never heard the piece played like that and it firmly fixed the Balcea quartet in my universe among the best in the business.
 
 
Listening to a young adult listen to Beethoven is like observing the mind of the composer at work, making choices of this form of an incomplete triad vs. another, of this octave position as opposed to one lower or higher.
As I listen to him responding to these seemingly infinitesimal details I am moved, as is he, by the complexity of what, because it is easy to play, seems simple.
 

I Don't Like It

09/20/2015

 
I have heard this before: People come to a performance, tell me quite emphatically that they did not like it, then confess, sometimes to their surprise, that they listened to and heard every note.  In other words, I had succeeded in compelling their attention.
That is all I aspire to do.  If I wanted to agree with anyone else's reading of a Mozart or a Brahms piece I would study their interpretation and imitate it.  Easy as pie.
What I always wanted to do was to hold the audience's attention the way mine had been held -- riveted, actually -- by Mozart sounds on the piano, and then by the playing of Horszowski and Rubinstein.
 
 
I have been experimenting with this:  Having made recordings of Bartok, Haydn, and now also Rameau, I am fascinated with what happens to my own hearing as a result of listening back to what I have previously heard.  It is a challenge to find in music always new things to hear.  If a composition is good there are always signs that, indeed, there is always something new to hear.  Sometimes it is a new way to process articulation.
In Mozart, for example, there are many occasions in which what seems at first to be a pickup is not that at all, but rather a weak ending to what has gone before.  He gives ample evidence of this.  One must only be on the lookout for it, though it is hard to miss, being remarkably difficult to pull off.
 
 
Being young and impressionable, many young children exposed to 18th-century music assume that it embodies a state of perfect equilibrium that must have existed at that time.  Indeed, the music theory that we learn is all about stability: one moves from one stable tonal center to another via a process called modulation.  And the structural concepts, too, connote states of equilibrium: ABA implies that two two appearances of A are the same, balancing the central B section.
But I never perceived it this way.  To me the introduction of a black key into the otherwise stable white-key universe of C major on the piano was a major intrusion, as it threw off balance whichever tones were a fifth above and below it.  The major scale in disarray was simply not discussed.  
The longer I live with these events the more convinced I am that imbalance is the essential experience, not the balance configured in the structural models.