Monday, July 28, 2014

Truly Difficult

Yesterday I heard two quite different versions of piano playing, polar opposites, one of the other.

First I heard a radically developmentally challenged, blind young man struggle to get a tune in one hand while playing off-beat chords in the other.  He so much wanted to do it:  he had tried many times in previous lessons without success.  Now he was clearly determined to get it right, so determined that he was willing to play wrong notes in order to master the off-beat impulse, which is difficult for anyone but supremely difficult for someone with his learning disabilities.

It was moving in the extreme to watch him try.  Once, twice, three times.  Then he got it.  Not only is the physical coordination demanding, but so is the amount of time required to pursue such an elusive goal.

I was deeply moved, as was he, and as was his sister, who was observing the lesson.

Later in the day I heard by chance a recording of a fine virtuoso pianist playing the Fountains of the Villa d'Este from Liszt's LesAnnees de Pelerinage.  Sorry, it left me cold.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Leveling of Listening

One of my many unprovable theories about the history of music in our mechanized culture concerns the ear: what happens to it when it does not receive proper nurturing.  Like every other living thing it atrophies.

I believe the trouble started with the piano.  A new invention, a radical departure from every other extant keyboard instrument, it made puzzling sounds because of its acoustic-mechanics.  Key leverage directly affected resonance causing dissonances to sprout up in all the wrong places.

Unable to tolerate this chaos piano teachers devised ways to mask the effect.  First, let's equalize all the fingers so that we aim to hear uniformity in whatever notes we play with whatever finger.  That solves the problem of unpredictability while, at the same time, erasing all hope of touch-sensitive playing, i.e., real expressivity.

Second, let's encourage mindless repetitiveness in our students so that the parents know they are getting their money's worth in terms of piano lessons guaranteeing healthy life habits.  (Good luck with that one!)

Then we have the recording industry applying its rules of acceptable resonance, cleaning up all extraneous vibration.

And now we even have piano builders making instruments that do not have this extraordinary characteristic: the keys are weighted so that they all sound the same, no matter what.

Know what?  You can have it.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Tonal Refraction: A Process

As I complete the written text of the second book in the Tonal Refraction series I am struck by the dynamic nature of the method: It is more a process than a method.  It arouses awareness that will not sit still but must continue to grow and develop.  The irony is that I have committed to putting the work into book form.

The work in question now is Schumann's Waldszenen, Op. 82: A late work mystifying in the extreme even in the titles of some of the nine pieces of the cycle.  What could they possibly mean: Cursed Spot, Isolated Flowers, Prophet Bird--I have no way of relating to such imagery, especially not as Schumann presents it in pianistic terms.  All I know for sure is that I play the notes recognizing that they do not behave as I expect them to.

Early on in the development of Tonal Refraction I used color to decode this work, finding its central unifying tone and tracing its structural influence through eight of the nine pieces.  In one it is conspicuously missing, but that is the one piece whose imagery is clear: Hunting Song.

How, almost twenty years later I recognize that I have not taken seriously enough Schumann's implicit invitation to treat a structural tone as an essential mystery.  How does he achieve this?  Ah!  You will have to read the book to find out.  It will be out in the early fall.  I won't keep it a secret.

Meanwhile visit the website; learn about the process.  Get in touch.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Crossing the Barrier from Notation to Real Sound

A woman scientist -- my oldest surviving student (i.e., I have taught her for several decades) --  has been determined to find "the music part" in piano playing.  This morning she made a huge breakthrough in Chopin's Prelude in F# major, responding to the essentially consonant wash of black-key harmony rather than to the printed notes as unrelated, separately-attacked, therefore either right or wrong notes.

It was stunning because it was so fluid -- and this is not an easy texture to achieve.

It was stunning, also, in that it revealed the possibility which I have long suspected that one of Chopin's gifts was to create melodies out of the resonance of the left hand, as Beethoven does in the "Moonlight" Sonata.

Too many piano students are brought up on the formula of right hand melody / left hand accompaniment, even though that often does not apply, it merely palls for both player and listener.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Tones as Imagery

Drawing to a close my work on Schumann's Waldszenen, I recognized my reluctance to trust the extent to which I believe in tones as capable of transmitting imagery.  I knew it to be the case in this mysterious cycle, but was at a loss to penetrate the degree to which it is at the very heart of the  music.

Then I took a lesson from my own work on the emotional complexity of Mozart's G minor Piano Quartet, the book I published in 2013, and struggled to find colors to correspond to the elusive emotional message I discern in Schumann's piano work.

First conundrum: What color is mystery?  From there:  What color is the opposite of mystery - especially given a forest setting.  Once having selected these two I was on my way.  Lo and behold! as I worked out the color schemes of each of the nine pieces the colors of nature are the fundamental givens in all of them, with mystery at the center in most cases.  Altering those tones yields spottings of wildflowers amid the shadows.

Two days ago I thought it couldn't be done.  What gets in the way is schooled hearing.  Too many times we hear two tones of the three that make up a triad and we simply supply the missing tone -- the one the composer artfully left out.  It is a Mozartean device, leaving questions of major vs. minor to be negotiated one moment at a time.  It is highly dramatic.  It is also hard as can be to listen that way.

Today I am elated.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Singular Works by Singular Composers

Brahms wrote one Trio for Natural Horn, Violin, and Piano.  None of his other chamber works come even close to this one in terms of pitch specificity.  It is unique in every respect.  This uniqueness accounts for its tempos, its depth, its humor.

It occurs to me that players do not know what to do with uniqueness, so they shy away from it.  Accepting it, dealing with it would, after all, require matching that quality to some degree.  Better to pretend that it doesn't exist by playing the piece with modern French horn so that, superficially at least, it resembles other trios by Brahms.  The trouble is that this doesn't work.  It only leads people down the fast path.

I know a composer who is fascinated with sound in very much a Brahmsian way: Ursula Mamlok.  She composed a cycle of pieces for the chamber ensemble I founded in the 1980's, in fact for our debut recital in 1986 she wrote Alariana, scored for violin, recorders, clarinet, bassoon, cello - a most unlikely combination.  To write this she had many sessions together with the recorder player, as it was the first time she had composed for this instrument.

Well-meaning scholars who want to further her reputation as a serious composer suppress this work, entirely without justification except that it is not mainstream.

Well, I am not mainstream.  Are you?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Another Presto Agitato

This extraordinary indication is how Beethoven describes the third movement of the "Moonlight" Sonata.  It is how Brahms designates the last movement of his Op. 108 Sonata in D minor for Piano and Violin.

Reading it in the light of having thoroughly worked out a definition of what makes the music truly agitated, as opposed to frantically fast and never fast enough, the Brahms movement becomes elegant, playful, inviting, rich in contrasts that recall those in the Beethoven movement.

May I remind you of the not-quite-definition of agitato in Koch's Musiklexicon (1802) which states that, there being plenty of words to designate fast, agitato must mean something else.  I take it to indicate beats against beats, usually three's where least expected.

So, too, presto means more than fast: It means that the smallest note value in the piece is the beat.  Thus, here, in 6/8, instead of two relentless-never-fast-enough beats in the bar, there are 6, a number far more conducive to internal turbulence.  Try it.