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Consider helping a new composer

I received a request from Jeffrey Leiser to mention his Kickstarter campaign to fund a full orchestra recording of his new symphony, “The Summit”.  I’m happy to pass along the request, with no particular endorsement.  I don’t know Leiser, or other music by him.  But he’s a talented fellow, having scored and sound edited many films, and apparently won a Park City Festival gold medal.  Here is the link to his Kickstarter campaign  and the link to his website.

Preparing for performance (anxiety)

Some tips from a fabulous teacher and experienced performer – Polly van der Linde — on how to prepare for performance.  Polly runs a piano camp that has been in her family for over 40 years: summer camp for kids, and 4 and 10 day sessions for adults year round.

Pollini’s piano

A lovely, loving article about the beautiful tonal quality of Maurizio Pollini’s Hamburg Steinway-Fabbrini piano (which he takes with him on tour), with some history of the evolution of tone in concert grand pianos.  Makes me wonder wistfully if I should have searched longer for a rebuilt 1920s Steinway rather than get a factory new New York B a few years back.

Bach’s Crab Canon on a Mobius Strip

The first canon from Bach’s Musical Offering, BWV 1079, illustrated cleverly as a Mobius strip (wait for it to come about 2/3 of the way through the video).  A crab canon is a form in which the notes are first played forwards, then in reverse order, then forwards and reversed against each other.  Cool!

Denk: a musician with a brain

A few years ago my friend Marnie introduced me to Jeremy Denk’s piano performances, and his writings.  I’ve fallen in love with both.  But especially the two together: there are other great performers to listen to, and other great writers on music and life to read: there are few who are both.

Another friend sent me a copy of Denk’s review of Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach, from the New Republic (PDF copy below in case link breaks).  To Denk the book review is an opportunity for a wonderful essay F Minor Violin and Keyboard Sonata, BWV 1018, and reading scores.  He opens with “The only two things missing in Bach’s music are randomness and sex”, and then he offers what the thinking musician can offer, sitting at the keyboard to explore and then share the experience with us (warning: long excerpt):

I found myself in a zone too far away, reading someone’s ideas about someone else’s ideas about Bach’s ideas, and so I sat at the piano to play, with the dubious motive of purifying myself. I started in on the opening movement of the F Minor Violin and Keyboard Sonata, BWV 1018, because it has an extraordinary snuck-in entrance, like the one Elie describes, and it is a perfect example of Bach’s way with truth, logic, and musical metaphor.

The piece begins with a keyboard solo. The violin is nowhere to be found, silent for a good while: this silence is a mystery to be solved. We are in a slow triple time, and the main idea of the piece is exactly three beats long. Each time that we hear the melody, another bar has gone by, another unit of time, another moment of our lives. The keyboard plays the main idea once in the top voice, then travels lower into the middle voice—it is measuring out two units of time, pacing them out. At the same time, however, the harmony is static; we are treading water. (Music is especially hospitable to nuances and paradoxes of motion and stillness.) Then comes the crucial change-up: three bars where the harmony is allowed to move. This happens because—everything in Bach happens because!—the melodic idea continues its journey downward, and ends up in the lowest voice. It’s as if something from the sky moves underground, and shifts the foundation under your feet. Bach is all about the beauties of consequences.

Now that the melody has moved down to the bass, there is room for something new in the upper voices. But Bach doesn’t have to invent something: why would he? He fills it with the most obvious thing at hand: he extracts the first two notes of the existing melody, elongates them, enchains them. He fashions a gorgeous long melody line out of them so that they interact dissonantly—even a bit painfully, you might say—with the faster melody in the bass. Bach demonstrates a thing interacting painfully with itself.

It’s as simple as A and B: two bars of consonant stasis, then three bars of dissonant flux, in which the possibilities of the idea presented in stasis are now seen in motion. This is the kind of basic contrast, a glimpse of two kinds of musical possibility, two temporal states, that Bach is able to wring our hearts with. In fact, at the end of the three moving bars the keyboard reaches the most pained and disturbing of the dissonances. And here comes the magical elided solution to the mystery of the silence of the violin: Bach leaves this last dissonance unresolved, and just at that ambiguous moment—at the end of an unsettling motion that has not quite found a resting place—the violin at last enters, playing an unmoving held note, C. Though not a resolution, this note appears in the guise of one. It doesn’t resolve the unresolved thing; it substitutes a different solution out of nowhere.

Surreptitious, lacking in fanfare, deliberately hidden, the violin holds onto this single note for two measures, like an unblinking gaze. The sustained note has no relation to time, while the keyboard, on which every note decays, keeps marking time, seemingly unaffected. After two bars of this haunting dialectic, the violin leaves the held note to play one unremarkable measure of melody, then immediately, just as unexpectedly as it entered, returns to its earlier silence. This is Bach’s perverse, reverse masterstroke. The stage was beautifully set for nearly nothing. We are left listening to the keyboard again; time resumes. It was an ephemeral moment of eternity.

A month later, Denk showed up in The New Yorker, this time with a remembrance of Charles Rosen (PDF copy linked below).  It’s perfect (if maybe not a bit self-indulgent): Denk on Rosen’s intellect and writing:

Charles’s  obituaries  call  him  a  “polymath,”  a  “scholar-­musician;”  they  laud  his  “ferocious  intelligence,”  his  “all-­around brilliance.”  Behind  all  these  epithets  lurks  the  unavoidable  and  vexing  question:  Should  a  musician  have  a  brain?  I mean,  a  brain  over  and  above  what’s  necessary  to  move  the  fingers,  eat,  sleep,  make  charming  chitchat  at  gala  dinners with  sponsors,  etc.  We  say  “thinking  musician”  as  if  it  were  a  freakish  breed,  like  a  peacock  that  talks,  distracting  you from  its  glorious  feathers.  There  was  something  freakish  about  Charles  Rosen,  like  any  miracle.

I wouldn’t describe Denk as freakish, but I’m grateful for both his lucid writing and his thinking-yet-passionate pianism.

Bach’s Music, Back Then and Right Now

Remembering Charles Rosen, Author of The Classical Style: The New Yorker


pitch == rhythm

Duality is concept that was crucial — and somewhat magical — in my training as an economist.  I first encountered it when I learned linear programming, and then in my microeconomic theory classes, with the duality at the heart of the theory of optimizing behavior by both individuals and firms.

So now I’m kicking myself for not noticing the fundamental duality of pitch and rhythm, well-explained and demonstrated by Dan Tepfer.  What a wonderful observation!

I had noted before that in English we say a pitch is “higher” than another, when what is actually different is that the “higher” pitch is a frequency that fluctuates faster.  And the speed of the sound wave fluctuations is, of course, a rhythm.  We hear this in familiar settings: when something repeats a sound at a high frequency, we hear a pitch (e.g, a plane propeller).  But Tepfer focuses our attention on intervals and chords, created by polyrhythms.  For example, the familiar three-against-two rhythm generates a perfect fifth.

Makes me wonder: the current explanation for how “consonant” an interval is — with the fifth being the optimum optimorum if you don’t count the octave — is the simplicity of the frequency ratio, 3:2 in the case of a fifth. Is that why the three-against-two rhythm is the most common polyrhythm that is non-integral?  Or is it just because it’s easier to play than, say, six-against-five, which generates a minor third?

The duality between pitch and rhythm also shows up in how we talk about tuning.  When two strings are tuned slightly differently, we hear “beats” as they go in and out of phase.

Acquired musical savant syndrome

There’s a story on “Snap Judgment” on NPR about Derek Amato, who on his 40th birthday dove
into shallow end of a pool, hit his head, had a concussion. Afterwards, he
could suddenly play the piano, at a very high level, after never playing before.

Amato was diagnosed with “acquired musical savant syndrome”, and with
synaesthesia (he sees the music in patterns of black and white). He can’t read
music, just hears the tone, and without understanding how translates the
patterns he sees in his mind into his hands.

He says he’s been told there are about 30 AMS people in the world; he thinks he
may be the only one who got it through traumatic brain injury.  I have a slight connection to another AMS: Tony Cicoria.  Tony attends the same adult piano camp I do — Sonata, in Bennington, Vermont — though he goes a different month than I do so I’ve not met him in person.  He became AMS after being struck by lightning.

Here’s a link to the NPR story on Amato.

And to a Science HD video on YouTube, which confirms, he really can play, quite

Deliberate practice according to a professional

Noe Kageyama is a Juilliard-trained violinist who is now a sport and performance psychologist.  He discusses the famous work by Ericsson and subsequent scholars on deliberate practice — there seem to be hundreds of blog and popular press articles that do this — but then goes on to give specific advice with rich, sophisticated examples that will make sense to serious musicians, because Kageyama speaks with deep personal experience and authority.

Even a few years of music training benefits the brain

From Scientific American:

Scientific evidence suggests that even a little music training when we’re young can shape how brains develop, improving the ability to differentiate sounds and speech.

Christie Wilcox, “Even a few years of music training benefits the brain“, 21 August 2012

Inspiration from one-handed pianist

A bit of inspiration for all of us sitting long hours at the keyboard, struggling to make progress: Nicholas McCarthy, born with only a left hand, just graduated from London’s Royal College of Music (piano performance).