Monday, October 20, 2014

Amabamboozlzon

If you have any doubt what a ..com is and has been and ever will be (alas) up to: check out brainpickers.com.  It looks like the product of such as I, an independent, low-budget, writing and playing for the sake of keeping humanity properly nourished -- even to the point of inviting you / me / anyone / everyone to subscribe, to pay for the single newsletter, to donate.

Scroll to the very bottom of the page.  If that doesn't sicken please tell me why.

This has been their tactic for many years now.  They get away with it because -- well, you figure it out.

I, for one, and I know I am not alone, do not buy A N Y thing from them.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Improvised Listening

Last night provided an unexpected affirmation of how differently we listen to music without preconceptions of what we are going to hear.  One of the listeners to my first-of-the-series Mixed Bag concerts found that her favorite piece on the whole program was the second which was, lo and behold! the Fugue in E minor by W.F. Bach, the same fugue that I had newly discovered when imagining myself listening as she must have, without knowing what to expect.

When pre-judged according to fugues I have known (mostly by J.S. Bach, father of W. F., and a whole different generation) I had never understood the fugues of W.F.  Now I realize that this puts his fugues in the same category with the fugue in Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin, according to some people, the most beautiful of all the pieces in that suite.  Again, a highly atypical work.

More listening, less pre-judging, which is to say, prejudice.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

One Tone at a Time

The trouble with learning about music is that it gets in the way of just listening, as if "just" listening was not enough.
Each of the composers on The Mixed Bag, my current series of in-house recitals, was a master of composing for just listening, unafraid of the power of a single tone to generate, not so much a structure, as an excited sense of potential. This is particularly the case in their compositions for the piano.

The remarkable complexity of tone on the piano makes of every seemingly single pitch a composite mix of overtones and approximations, an infinitely variable mix because of the compromised tuning of the pitches known as equal temperament.

Without getting too technical: the pure intervals of the overtone series do not provide a practical basis for tuning keyboard instruments unless there are something like 32 keys per octave instead of the 12 we commonly have. The pure intervals are compromised to form bearable approximations of true resonance. But strings resonate as nature intended them, with pure overtones, close enough to the compromised frequencies to cause the tuned strings to vibrate sympathetically with them. The result is a magnificent haze.

Many powerful piano works begin with a single exposed note. We are so used to a sing-along way of non-listening that we often miss that opening note, considering the piece to begin only with the statement of the opening theme. But that first sound is the opening theme generating everything that follows.

Sometimes the less we know the better we enjoy. That goes for myself as player as well as for you, the listener.  The Mixed Bag is an experiment in letting that happen.

Friday, October 17, 2014

What If The Music Part is Part of You?

I hate to say it, but I have the feeling that our culture is breeding a sense of music as something clean, sterile, vacuum-sealed, quantifiable--anything but personal.

If personal, how?  I keep coming back to the same point: As soon as you catch yourself saying "I like it" or "I don't like it", even if you say whichever to yourself in silence, at that moment it has become personal.

But the rub lies in the words: "As soon as..."  My guess is that in the race to produce quantities of notes children are discouraged from noticing the qualities of particular sounds. 

The answer has to be "As soon as you make the first sound."

Alexandra Horowitz, in Inside of a Dog, describes the two-way transaction involved in getting to know a new dog.  Each creature reaches out to the other in a delicate exchange of sensations and expectations.  I think of her description when describing how we reach out to sounds, taking them in, as it were, before they actually reach us. 

In this way music is part of us before it even sounds.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Language as Singing

People are astonished that children of cultures where the spoken language is actually intoned -- China, most notably -- have a better sense of musical pitch than the children of "plain" spoken cultures.

Where is the surprise?  If you were the parent of a singing-culture baby that infant would have heard you singing to her from day one.  Thus the ear develops as a function of the everyday exchange with another human being.

Wow.  Are we getting far from that!

In my experience, by the time an infant is 3 months old it is already too easily distracted to pick up the auditory signal pure and simple.

It would be nice if more people believed me.  I can teach you how to teach your newborn to sing --  no kidding.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Taken Off Guard

Maybe it is not safe to be taken off-guard.  Maybe it's better to be always in control, to have a switch to turn off, an alternative channel to connect to, a way out.

Maybe sitting still to absorb whatever is happening is truly a thing of the past.  Hopefully not yet completely.

Once a week (sometimes more often) I find myself in an environment which is as formal as any I can think of in New York, a very high church Anglo-Catholic mass.*  I have been stunned, more than once, by awareness of the human complexity on the basis of which its rituals deliver their ultimate message.  What to an outsider might look like errors invariably are transformed into invitations to participate ever more profoundly in paying attention to the human realities, not merely to the prescribed formalities.

The person in charge, Andrew Blume, even occasionally pokes fun at his making it "as complicated as possible." 

It seems to me the best kind of ritual.

*St. Ignatius of Antioch

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

On the Newly Heard

Because we are so sure of what happens when we push buttons we are out of touch with the possibility that things happen in the interstices between touching and pushing those buttons.

We learn chord progressions.  Then someone comes along who has never learned chord progressions and introduces wonderfully off-beat details into what might otherwise pass for a standard harmony.
That off-beat detail grabs me.  I look for it every time I hear the live performance of the song but it always moves around, or is it that there were always several such details and I caught only one the first time and am now catching a different one? 

The great thing is that I'll never know.  I have to keep going back and listening for more.

That is what all good music making should be about, whether the piece was composed two days or two hundred years ago. 

Constant variation, no matter how "familiar."  Keep it (and yourself) moving.