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.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Diminished Things

A conversation with Michael O'Brien brought up the content of the work I am going to present in Korea in a couple of weeks, which has to do with the difference between a visual experience used to preempt spontaneous listening (read, music notation subjected to theoretical analysis) and a visual experience open to inter-personal exchange, therefore supporting spontaneous listening (Tonal Refraction).

He told me of a Robert Frost poem in which the poet evokes a diminished thing. 

I brought up the question of boredom: How can people stand being bored by over-repetition of the pre-explained, almost pre-fabricated experience of something as vibrant as music.  His reply: "It's safer."

Incidentally, the poem to which I have referred several times on this blog as being by Emily Dickinson is not by her, but by Frost.
"We dance around in a ring and suppose
But the secret sits in the middle and knows."

Apologies for the misattribution. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Reading Lesson

Back to Clementi C major Sonatina, third movement: Vivace in 3/8:
I asked the young woman to pick the easiest measure in the movement.

She chose a perfectly plausible easiest bar; in fact, the one I would have chosen.

Then we both began to notice how difficult it is to articulate the note values and articulations according to the rules about vivace rhythms - mostly that you don't run one note value into another.

It turned out to be an extremely difficult business to coordinate the two hands properly.  We had a good laugh over it.

This is a most amusing reading exercise:  Find what you think is the easiest bar; take a good strong look at it and see if you can plumb its depths with a straight face.  Go from there to the bars adjacent to it and then you are off and running.

Starting always at the beginning is for sissies.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

I Accept Mozart's Invitation to Have as Much Fun as Possible

Having now, at last, discovered the secret to that pesky G major Piano Sonata K. 283 I will never again want for things to search for and point up in my playing, whether or not there is an audience.

Wolfgang Amadeus is always there, listening, that I know for sure.

To F# or not to F# that is the perpetual question in that piece.  How many ways can you do it? Or not do it?  Can you possibly keep track without losing your bearings?

Try it and let me know how you fare. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Invitation to Hilarity: Count the Notes

I just had the incredible experience of testing one of my theories of musical composition and ending up in a state of absolute hilarity, imagine that.

Mozart K. 283, his only Piano Sonata in G, fascinates me because it drove me to nightmares as a child.  The question of how and why is not a small question.  Today I think I found the answer.

I have long suspected that it had to do with his exploration and exploitation of the single contrasting black key (F#) with the predominantly white-key consonance of G.  If that be the case, I said to myself this morning, then he must have intensified this by presenting F# in the vertical company of all 11 other possible tones.

So I counted them as they occurred:  I got all six white keys of the G scale easily enough; then came the accidentals:  C# E-flat G# A#  - something's missing.....must be E#, I surmised.  I looked harder and there it was, within the final cadence of the first movement:  F natural, loud and clear.

Why hadn't I noticed it before?  Good question, when it contained the clue to the whole procedure. 

Not only that, but at the very end of the movement, when I had all but given up hope of deciphering the riddle.

Who but Mozart would play such tricks?  Answer:  Any of the generations of composers who have sought and still seek to emulate his approach to the splendid art of listening.  For that must be why it works to the extent of causing a child to have nightmares:  that sense of something missing, something elusively tantalizing, a riddle to be solved not just a piece to be played.