22 May 2009

Take Me Out to the Ball Game: Stadium Chamber Music & Sam Beckett at the ‘Organ’

 Jumbotron, text-voting your choice for organ performance at end of 3rd inning

T    ext to #24609 ...

A) Buxtehude Prelude, Fugue, and Chaconne BuxWV 137
B) Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor BWV 565
C) Laurin Prelude and Fugue in F Minor 44.”
  —  Jumbotron.
S    am Beckett plays the organ at Kauffman Stadium. Nine innings a game; eighty (or so) games a year. ‘Charge’ and ‘Mexican Hat Dance’ and a little bit of Usher. When the pitching coach is talking the pitcher down, maybe Beckett will play ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ with two-handed jazz chords. When the first baseman hulks into the box, maybe a crazy ‘Nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh...Batman!’ Everything is played live, including the grace notes after a crisp double play and the percussive tap-tap-taptaptaps that make you clap without thinking, along with the thousands of people around you.”
  —  Alan Scherstuhl, The Pitch, 10-JUN-2004.
T    here’s a rhythm to it some find boring, but I don’t need to fill every hole. There’s enough jock-jam music and advertising [in sports stadia—] already. I want to do something tasteful that gets people tapping their toes, enjoying it... It’s the fabric of the ballgame... it’s the froth on the cappuccino. It’s like ice cream and apple pie. Breyer’s vanilla ice cream, with homemade apple pie.”
  —  Kansas City Royals’ keyboardist Sam Beckett, interview by Alan Scherstuhl, The Pitch, 10-JUN-2004.
I  t’s cool to figure out what song Sam Beckett just played a bar or two of, in—What the heck?!?—some sort of obscure salsa beat... Some wry, permuted musical allusion—a tongue-in-cheek innuendo as to what just happened on the ballfield. And it’s great that, in an era where opera orchestras are being subbed by recordings and electronics, live keyboardists are still employed in professional sports stadiums in this country. Great, too, that artists like Sam Beckett have such fun, impromptu senses of humor. More than ‘miniatures’, these are micro, nano, pico, femto, atto pieces... 2 or 3 bars long at most. Six seconds, tops. Tiny, improvised ‘chamber music’ in a very, very big chamber...

 Sam Beckett

 Taunting the clumsy opponents

 Sam Beckett


Isaac Albéniz and Automythology: Chants d’Espagne, Chants des adieux, Chants biographiques

 Guillermo González, photo © Naxos

N    umerous accounts of Albéniz’s life have been written... Even a cursory examination of any half-dozen of them soon reveals, however, that they are all plagued by inconsistencies and contradictions. This one says he was a stow-away on a Steamer in Cádiz and traveled to Cuba when he was twelve; that one says that the steamer was bound for Buenos Aires, not Havana; another says that it left from La Coruña, not Cádiz. This one says that he studied for nine months in Leipzig; that one says 18 months; another, 3 years. This one says that he studied with Liszt in Weimar, Rome, and Budapest; that one says that he studied with him for a year but only in Italy; another says that he played for Liszt but once, in the summer of 1880. And so it goes, throughout his life.”
  —  Walter Clark, Guide to Research, p. 3.
T  he birthday of the brilliant, prevaricating, self-mythologizing, perpetually leave-taking Catalan-emigre composer-pianist Isaac Albéniz (29-MAY-1860 – 18-MAY-1909) is today.

[50-sec clip, Guillermo Gonzáles, Isaac Albéniz, ‘6 mazurkas de salon, Op. 66: No. 5. Christa’, 1.6 MB MP3]

[50-sec clip, Guillermo Gonzáles, Isaac Albeniz, ‘Souvenirs de Espagne: Asturias’, 1.6 MB MP3]

A  t age 7 Albéniz passed the Paris Conservatoire entrance examination at the Paris Conservatoire. Bored following the exam, he took out a ball from his pocket and broke one of the Conservatoire windows while he was ‘playing’ with it. The authorities denied him Conservatoire admission on account of this incident. By age 12, he’d run away from home at least 9 times... Clark’s and others’ biographical writings about Albéniz are a delight—full of wonderful enigmas. Hell on wheels.

I  n fact, it’s fascinating to read these biographies in parallel—read one for fifteen minutes, then switch to another, then switch to another, and another.

I  think this is the best way to do it, and probably the way that would please Albéniz most. You should never allow the apparent veracity of any one of the accounts to win your devotion. Each one should remain at most a mere semblance, a sketch only, as good or shaky as any of the others. Read the biographies while you listen to recordings of Albéniz’s music, multiple performers’ multifarious interpretations of the same pieces... many excellent new recordings have recently appeared—including the ones of performances by Guillermo Gonzáles, who is himself very capable of Albénizian mythologizing.

 Guillermo González, Albéniz, Vol 3, photo © Naxos
G  onzález, born in Tenerife, is one of Spain’s leading artists and a prominent champion of Spanish music. A professor at the Conservatorio Superior de Madrid since 1975 and concertizes throughout the world, he has appeared in Spain, France, China and around the world. His many recordings include releases of music by Scriabin, Hallfter, de Falla, Antón Abril, de la Cruz, Carlos Cruz Castro, Turina, and Teobaldo Power, for which he received the Premio Nacional del Disco in 1980. Since 1990 he has presided over the Concurso Internacional de Piano de Jaén, receiving a gold medal for his work with this organization. He is a member of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes of Tenerife (Canary Islands), Granada and Cádiz, as well as Honorary and Extraordinary Academician of the Conservatory of Santa Cruz of Tenerife. In addition, several music schools have been named after him in his native Spain. In 1994 he was awarded the gold medal of the Island of Tenerife and named ‘Favourite Son of the Lagoon’ and ‘Adoptive son of Garachico’ (Tenerife).

A  lbéniz’s ‘6 Mazurkas de salón’, Op. 66 date from 1885. The 25 year-old Albéniz composed them for a brace of his well-to-do girl piano students. Each is inscribed with a florid, worrisome dedication... ‘To my adorable little friend Christa Morphy’ (daughter of Count de Morphy, private secretary of King Alfonso XII and Albéniz’s patron). The No. 5 (MP3 clip above), dedicated to Christa, is the longest and most enigmatic insofar as it is a delicate presto that requires a player capable of rapid, masculine filigree. The last mazurka, No. 6, entitled ‘Maria’, is more Chopinesque.

G  onzalez is an enthusiastic exponent of Albéniz’s music and a faithful interpreter of the music’s implications—even the slippery, noncommittal, dionysian, raggedy, perennially leave-taking ones.

 Isaac Albéniz

[John Williams, Isaac Albéniz, ‘Asturias’]

19 May 2009

One-on-One ‘Chamber Music’ with Mom: Music Therapy for Sensory-Sensitive Kids

 Kranowitz book

A    ny suggestions on how to deal with a toddler who is terrified of certain sounds? Just the mere mention of the word ‘vacuum’ has her falling on the floor, face in her hands, yelling ‘No!’ Not only is she freaked-out by the vacuum but also by certain toys, by the opening song for the ‘Barney’ TV program, the hairdryer, the blender—and also, just recently, by thunder. Any advice would be appreciated.”
  —  Anonymous#1.
I    had the same problem with my kid, starting around 2 and still somewhat an issue at 5. Not sure if being ‘overly sensitive’ is a possibility with your daughter, but my son kept getting his feelings hurt and would cry at the drop of a hat... not like throwing a fit, but instead like someone had broken his heart. A slow process waiting for this phase to pass!”
  —  Anonymous#2.
P    lease don’t make me go hear that sad, sad music again,’ my son said. He was so frightened about it that we eventually said, ‘Okay, you don’t have to go.’ After that, my husband and I took turns going to Mass vs. staying home with our son.”
  —  Laura Heneghan, quoted in Miller & Fuller, p. 15.
I  was just such a kid myself, and I still have some features of it even today as an adult. I am oversensitive to certain sounds; I cannot maintain a pace to tell a joke; I have lapses in tactfulness when I am inordinately ‘jumpy’; I over-react to certain sonic stimuli. Can’t seem to help it.

F  or example, music played very quietly—what the people who are playing it say is ‘just background music’—just makes me go ballistic. And their dismissiveness: their saying that such tiny, innocuous sounds as they are making with their soothing, nondescript, scarcely-audible ‘background music’ can’t possibly be annoying to anyone at all—‘It’s inconceivable!’—aggressively asserting that I have no legitimate basis whatever for complaint: this naturally makes me even more angry. My sonic defensiveness must be ‘all in my head’, ‘not real’, ‘invalid’—is what their denials mean. Only ‘loud’ music could possibly be objectionable—is what their refusals imply.

W  ell, in the immortal words of Mandy Patinkin to Wallace Shawn, “I do not think that word [‘inconceivable’] means what you think it means.”

I  n fact, any monotonous background sound pattern that is too quiet to be heard in detail infuriates me, drives me mad. And yet sitar music and traditional Chinese music and ‘minimalist’ compositions that have just the merest, subtlest hints of variations in notes’ attacks and releases—and which go on and on, for 30 minutes at a time or more—all of these are pleasantly, peculiarly fascinating to me. Maybe it is this way, too, for others who have SPD-type symptoms?

A  t any rate, these are the sole remaining remnants of what was, for me, undoubtedly SPD. Except that SPD did not exist as a diagnosis back when I was a kid, and nobody knew to do anything about it. Except immerse the kid in music, methodically, gradually...

I  just recently received the two SPD-related emails (2 blockquotes) above. I do intermittently browse the research literature, just out of curiosity in light of my own history and situation, to see what the current status of SPD and its clinical treatments may be—and, I thought it might be helpful to post some links (below).

T    apping tunes:
‘I’m going to tap out the rhythm of a song that you know... Listen and tell me what the song is.’ [When the child guesses correctly, sing/tap/play the song together.]
Benefits: Listening to rhythms improves auditory discrimination and aural awareness. Connecting rhythmic patterns with words promotes auditory association and memory. Using hands to tap or beat a rhythm provides tactile and proprioceptive stimuli to associate with sound and to diminish the degree to which acoustic input is 'dissociated' or frightening.”
  —  Kranowitz, OOS, p. 159.
M    atching sounds:
‘Ten identical containers, such as small opaque plastic bottles; five different kinds of small familiar objects, such as rice, paperclips, pennies, buttons, toothpicks. Shake a container and guess what's inside. Then find the other one of the other 9 containers that has the same thing in it. Shake the two containers at the same time, to be sure they match.’
Benefits: Listening to and differentiating the sounds of containers’ contents improves auditory discrimination, auditory memory, and integration of sonic expectations.”
  —  Kranowitz, OOS, p. 161.
S    cale songs:
‘Franz Joseph Haydn’s mom used to play seven tones of scale to get him up in the morning. She would play 7 notes of scale but not play the octave. Franz Joseph couldn’t stand it. He had to run downstairs and play the top ‘C’ to finish the scale. I will do that now. You cover your eyes while I play some notes, and then when I tell you, uncover your eyes and come and play the note that will finish the scale, just like little Franz Joseph and his mom Maria used to do.’
Benefits: ‘Scale songs’ reinforce rhythmic and sonic awareness. Moving while seeking to find the note that will complete the octave that mom didn't finish helps to integrate muscular/motor/vestibular systems. Pitch training makes sounds less disorienting and frightening. Pre-attentive preparatory efforts improve skills in attending to sounds and lower the threshhold for awareness of sounds.”
  —  Kranowitz, OOS, p. 162.
F  irst identified in the 1960’s by the late A. Jean Ayres (1920-1988), ‘sensory processing disorder’ (SPD) is a developmental disorder in:
  • neurological processing and cognitive organizing of sensory information;
  • assigning meaning to what is experienced;
  • acting or responding to situations in an adaptive, purposeful manner;
  • also known as Sensory Integrative Dysfunction (DSI).
S  ensory Processing Disorder does not ‘go away over time’ without therapeutic intervention. Kids don’t ‘out-grow’ it. And, in many cases, SPD doesn’t ‘go away’ even with the best available interventions and treatments. The child simply learns to cope with it, practices ways to make the symptoms less frequent and less severe, and structures her/his activities (and eventual career/profession) to take advantage of the sensory-cognitive gifts and sensory-cognitive deficits that she/he has.

T  LP listening sessions—which have been pursued with some success by a couple of the nurse-moms who I interact with at work and have known professionally for 6 to 20 years, for their own SPD kids—are typically fifteen minutes in length, done once or twice a day, five days a week, using stereo headphones that cover the ears. The efficacy of TLP, Tomatis, and other sensory-stimulation occupational therapy/music therapy programs has not been proven in clinical trials yet (see systematic-review articles and meta-analyses published by Sinha and others, for current status of scientific evidence), but neither have these therapies been shown to be ineffective.

Y  et, qualitatively and anecdotally, I do know from the two nurse-mom-friends that these therapies yielded noticeable improvements in their kids’ behaviors and level of stress.

T  he triggers of the symptoms or sensitivity leading to fright or acting-out seem to be multi-factorial and idiosyncratic: the child’s level of fatigue or stress, the time of day, the situation or social setting where the sonic stimuli occur. The interventions that can blunt or extinguish an over-sensitive episode are just as idiosyncratic.

F  or me, Sarabandes and Courantes are the best medicine—and other calming dance music, preferably Baroque… Sitting in a backyard swing on a sunny summer day and auto-stimulating my differently-abled vestibular system by twisting the swing clockwise, holding still there for a few seconds, and then reversing the swing to un-twist it, anti-clockwise... listening to Bach medium-loud, watching clouds overhead!

Note: CMT blog should not be considered as medical advice, and the remarks in these blog posts are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your physician, pharmacist, or other qualified healthcare provider because of something you have read on CMT. You should always speak with your doctor before you start, stop, or change any prescribed part of your care plan or treatment.

18 May 2009

‘Keys to the Future’ and Contemporary Piano Repertoire: The Critical Role of Festivals

 Keys to the Future festival

T    here is a huge range of new piano music being written right now, and a huge range of new pianists to play it. I am very impressed with the ‘Keys to the Future’ festival, which fills a giant hole in New York’s musical life. This festival is an explosion of piano music of all types, played by a new generation of virtuosi.”
  —  David Lang, composer and co-founder of ‘Bang on a Can’.
T    he ‘Keys to the Future’ [festival] is one of the most inclusive and thoughtfully curated piano series anywhere. The repertoire encompasses composers from ‘uptown’ and ‘downtown’; the U.S., Europe, and South America; and the worlds of jazz and contemporary songwriting.”
  —  Fred Hersch, pianist/composer.
T  he plight of new music for solo instruments is inherently and substantially different from the plight of other new music forms for ensembles. Solo piano music is particularly vulnerable.

A  s any repertoire ages, its impact on audiences gradually diminishes. In all the arts except serious music, audience growth is cultivated by new works. In principle, the sustainability of serious music (including piano music) must depend at least partly on the excitement and energy that a continual supply of, and performance of, new works provides. But these can’t be just any works. They must be new works that successfully stimulate and broadly resonate with the concert-going audience segments, both young and old. To alienate the existing bread-and-butter audience segments in a quixotic pursuit of new audiences is the worst of all possible worlds.

V    ery often I get the impression that audiences seem to think that the endless repetition of a small body of entrenched masterworks is all that is required for a ripe musical culture… Needless to say, I have no quarrel with masterpieces. I think I revere and enjoy them as well as the next fellow. But when they are used, unwittingly perhaps, to stifle contemporary effort in our own country, then I am almost tempted to take the most extreme view and say that we should be better off without them!”
  —  Aaron Copland, 1941.
F  or a professional pianist who is not primarily an academician, the market pressures to confine one’s performance repertoire to a relatively restricted range of well-known ‘war-horses’ exceed all bounds. Jeremy Denk has remarked several times about this in his blog, as he himself rails against those pressures. No instrument is more competitive than the piano, and this fact weighs heavily on every working pianist.

F  or a professional composer not primarily employed in academe, it’s similarly a question of going where the money is, where the greatest number of commissions and the biggest commissions and the highest-profile commissions are—and focusing your energies on those. The pressures are huge.

A  nd for both, there is the practical matter of disturbing the peace, for those performers whose personal living quarters are the primary place for practice or writing. In other words, if your innovations in composing or rehearsing new frontiers of pianism are too bold and aggressive, ordinary neighbors and family members within ear-shot will exert powerful ‘normative’ pressures of their own, long before the new work ever greets the light of day.

S  ponsors to commission new solo piano works are fewer in number than for other genres. Presenters who program solo piano series are a subset of the chamber music presenters in each country. All of these are strong ‘filters’ that effectively limit the rate of commissioning of new solo piano works.

T  he net consequence of all of this is that specialized piano festivals are the way to go, and KttF gets the multi-genre marketing ‘mix’ exactly right, to beautifully address all of the factors mentioned above. With regard to something like new solo piano works, festivals (and competitions) are the best way to connect all of the constituencies—the audience market segments of people who will subscribe to the program series; the presenters who can host such a program series; the funders who will financially underwrite programs of this type; the performers; the composers.

T  o a greater extent than most other instruments and ensembles, I suppose, it is difficult to compose music for solo piano without great proficiency in the instrument. Close collaboration with a concert artist may get you by for composing for other instruments or voice, but piano? Not so much! As a result, a large part of the new piano repertoire consists of works by pianist-composers who are pianists first and foremost or who are very strong pianists in any case.

T  he 1980s to the end of the century yielded a great deal of fine music, but piano music seemed to have remained alien to many of the composers of that period. Most of them composed only a handful of piano pieces, peripheral to the rest of their oeuvre. And solo piano music prior to the 1950s tended to be composed by composers whose main output was orchestral or otherwise very diverse, and whose main instrumental skills may have been on non-keyboard instruments. Since then, however, the solo piano literature has depended more crucially on composers who are themselves superb pianists. Frederic Rzewski is one such example.

R    zewski’s 70th birthday [occurred in 2008], but the occasion [was] not ... marked with the sort of fanfare previously bestowed on Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Corigliano. This is kind of instructive—Rzewski primarily writes for the piano, and is clearly the most important and influential composer of works for piano of the past 25 years. In the 19th century, if you wrote great piano music you were a titan. But in the 21st century, you’re ... some sort of a marginalized ‘cult’ figure.”
  —  Darcy James Argue, SecretSociety blog, 09-MAR-2008.
J  ouni Kaipainen’s ‘Je chante la chaleur désespérée’ (1981) and ‘Conte’ (1985) are quite wonderful solo-piano pieces. Also, Esa-Pekka Salonen's ‘Dichotomie’ (2000), say. Juhani Nuorvala’s ‘Viisi bagatellia’ or Veli-Mati Puumala’s ‘Fuga interrotta’ (1997) or ‘Hommages fugitives’ (2002). Hmmm...

J  ukka Tiensuu and his piano pieces ‘Solo’ (1976) and ‘/L’ (1981) make use of live sound-reinforcement, to color the piano sound as desired. Tiensuu’s ‘Prélude non-mesuré’ and other works also push the envelope. An essential aspect of Tiensuu’s music is that he is an accomplished pianist and harpsichordist, who performs works of the Renaissance and Baroque as well as contemporary music.

A  h, maybe that’s it! … At least one reason for the pre-2000 relative dearth of solo piano music that’s easy to find. In the present era of sensory overload, timbre has become a progressively more important element of contemporary music that can attract mass audience—audiences that crave more and more sensory overload. But what the piano offers to you as a composer in the way of ‘color’ is pretty subtle, and how to make the most of what piano can do is only adequately understood if you are tremendously proficient as a pianist yourself. Notes sounded with force are colored with many harmonics, while notes sounded quietly are more flutey, holding only hints of harmonic complexity… The biomechanics of what is practical and achievable on the keyboard can scarcely be taught in conservatory classes... And so on. Therefore, it’s monumentally difficult to devise virtuosic solo piano pieces that will be playable and be accessible to concert-going audiences and simultaneously be emotive/demonstrative enough to capture audiences’ tattered, overloaded imaginations—more monumentally difficult than composing virtuosic pieces for most other solo instruments. Can we infer that, lacking adequate pianist ‘chops’, many composers have followed a ‘path of least resistance’ and have therefore preferred to work with various chamber ensembles or orchestral music, or with other ‘celebrity appeal’ solo instruments? An issue for the educators/pedagogues to continue to work on, going forward!

A  t any rate, the ‘Keys to the Future’ festival illustrates just how much excellent writing and collaboration between composers and pianists, and commissioning is going on today, and over the past several years, as attested in the blockquote from David Lang above. Cool!

P  ianists who will be performing at this year’s KttF include:
  • Amy Briggs
  • Stephen Gosling
  • Manon Hutton-DeWys
  • Marina Lomazov
  • Blair McMillen
  • Lisa Moore
  • Molly Morkoski
  • Tatjana Rankovich
  • Joseph Rubenstein
C  omposers whose works will be represented include:
  • John Adams
  • Chester Biscardi
  • William Bolcom
  • Ryan Brown
  • John Corigliano
  • Daniel Felsenfeld
  • Philip Glass
  • Robert Helps
  • Fred Hersch
  • Aaron Kernis
  • David Lang
  • Lowell Liebermann
  • Andrew List
  • Henry Martin
  • Eric Moe
  • Nico Muhly
  • Doug Opel
  • Carter Pann
  • Arvo Pärt
  • Radiohead/arr. O’Riley
  • Steve Reich
  • Joseph Rubenstein
  • Howard Skempton
  • Elliott Smith/arr. O’Riley
  • Bruce Stark
  • Karen Tanaka
  • Lois Vierk
  • Mischa Zupko
F  ounded in 2005, the KttF festival is now in its fourth season. The program is curated by studio pianist/composer Joseph Rubenstein, DMA Yale 2001.

T  he festival runs from Tuesday through Thursday, 19-21 MAY, at Greenwich House, Renee Weiler Concert Hall, 46 Barrow Street. (West of 7th Ave. Take the "1" train to Christopher Street, walk south two blocks and make a right on Barrow. BHMS is about a half block down on the right.) Each concert begins at 20:00, but the Renee Weiler Concert Hall doors open at 7:30 on the evening of each concert. Seats are general admission, $15 per concert, and are not sold in advance, only at the door, first-come, first-serve. The events were entirely sold-out last year, so be sure to get there early if you can.

 Greenwich House Music School, New York, photo ©2005 Hubert Steed

F    avorite solo passage? The ending of the 2nd movement of the Schumann Fantasy, with all the right notes!”
  —  Jeremy Denk, , 27-MAR-2007.