Saturday, August 30, 2014

Rhythm First?

Standard pedagogical practice gives primary importance to bar lines and counted beats, usually quarter notes.  By emphasizing this visual convenience much is lost -- so much that no one has bothered to tally the resulting destruction.

The student is bound to lose interest as soon as he or she can count to three or four.... What else is there to do?

Arithmetic, in other words, is not the point.

This loss of interest is coupled with lost curiosity about entire centuries full of magnificent music rendered unbearably tedious by predictability.

When tone comes first rhythm is enlivened the way the hand of the sketcher is enlivened when producing a rough draft.

Let's hear it for rough musical drafts rather than starting off with the student painting, as it were, eyelashes.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Out of Sync vs. In Sync

Today I was recalling with someone what it felt like to be out of sync with my surroundings when I grew up.  Granted it was in the 50's when a lot of things and people were out of sync due to the all-too-urgent recent experience of war and, in cases of my parents' generation, memories of the Great Depression.

None of this was known to or knowable by a child, to be sure.  Only in retrospect can I have the slightest inkling of what it must have been like to raise a family at that time.  In addition to those greater historical realities, medical care was incredibly primitive in comparison to our day, and social mores infinitely more rigid, especially along lines of race, class, and sexual orientation.

What I knew about that time was from the general taste in pop music.  Crooning of the most syrupy sort seemed to me the worst waste of time imaginable.

I found companionship in sounds composed by Mozart, of all people, of whom I knew nothing and whose music was completely unknown to me except through those single, isolated tones I found in the book of sonatas I was fortunate to own.  Like some signal from Mars, this indicated the presence somewhere in the universe of a like-minded spirit.

Nothing small either to a twelve-year-old or to a woman in her seventies.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Production Production Production even in the Nursery

I was shocked out of my senses this morning to discover in the discard area outside my kitchen door a bin full of CDs, apparently being discarded by the family soon to move out of the apartment across from mine.  On closer look they turned out to be CDs of bedtime stories, bedtime music, etc., you get the picture.

That picture dismays me no end.   Where would the essence of the story be if heard on a CD?  Where is the remarkable closeness of story-teller/-reader to the listener?  Isn't the act one of mutual involvement, deep interpersonal imaginative union? 

These children are being raised to participate in the production culture.  Poor things.

Poor culture.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Hearing and Vulnerability, cont.

Last night I played one of my piano conversation evenings for a professional musician: the subject was beats, regular or not.  I am fascinated that so many of the jazz musicians whom I have taught over the years are more tyrannized by the beat than most classically trained musicians, and I wanted to test the waters with this woman, a klezmer drummer.

I asked her to choose what composers she thought would be most interesting for our purpose.  Chopin, Brahms, Grieg were her first choices. 

So Chopin.  I played for her the E-flat minor Polonaise, an early work not often played.  Her reaction matched mine when first I heard it almost fifty years ago -- an experience I will never forget.  She couldn't believe what she was hearing.  The piece begins with a fragment and then a pause.  Next comes a series of very quiet chords, no melody, and ritardando (getting progressively slower).  In other words, not at all like a polonaise or any other dance, not even like a piece of actual music.  This introduction builds and builds to an explosion of emotion before the actual dance begins.  The contrast is almost terrifying.

This is exactly the experience I had when I first heard Rubinstein play it in Carnegie Hall.  Even when the introduction repeated later in the work I couldn't believe what I was hearing.  So unlikely, so powerful.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Rhythm: In Youth My Weak Point, Now My Strength

If keeping the beat (whatever that is) were really the most important element in music I would never have persevered to become a musician.

As a young player dealing with notated music of other eras I simply could not keep a beat on the piano.  (It was a problem I never had on the organ, interestingly.)  When I was playing music written in my time, by Gershwin or Morton Gould, for example--music that corresponded to what I heard on a daily basis--there was no problem.  So what is happening here?

I have grown to understand that the inherent tension between sonority and duration is so dramatic that it defies notation or theoretical explanation.  An example:  I play a chord in Beethoven that sounds absolutely wonderful.  I love it and want it to last forever.  But Beethoven specifies that I must let go of it, after a mere eighth-note duration.  But why should I when that goes against all my instincts? 

That is the drama I am talking about.  It could be that the essence of rhythm in classical style is better conveyed by dealing with release than with attack.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Hearing Incorrectly

The sound that most people call music is so filtered by the time we hear it that I question whether it is actually music and whether it is possible, in fact, to truly hear it.

Listening implies a kind of vulnerability, openness to whatever it might turn out to be.  Music is too often a fait accompli:  it's already been done; I know how it goes; it does not require my attention in order to unfold.  (Been there; done that.)

We need to relearn how to hear incorrectly.  Tonal Refraction gives permission to do exactly that.  This freedom has been life-changing for many people whose vulnerable hearing was never given room to develop within the context of music.  Such people may actually develop negative responses to that restrictive approach: stage fright, muscle tension, even focal dystonia.

All it takes for most people is three private sessions to unlock the floodgate of unfiltered hearing--so profound is it within us.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Virtuoso Improvisation

A week ago at St. Ignatius of Antioch on Manhattan's upper West Side, the communion antiphon had me literally transported into a realm I experience only rarely.  A new voice in the choir, Ruth Cunningham, was improvising on the chant as was James Kennerly, the parish's brilliant young organist.   Sounds you cannot imagine coming from two consummate musicians who are inhabited by a music spirit that is rare in any place at any time.

Go out of your way to be part of this extraordinary moment in the history of music.  Who knows how long it will last! 

The church has a website on which will be posted the music schedule for the year.  Do not miss it.