Friday, December 26, 2014

Mistakes and Disputed Points in Music

Mistakes and Disputed Points in Music, by Louis C. Elson, was published in 1910.  I've written before about my liking for old music books, and this is another fascinating find.  It's not a long book, but Elson manages to cover a large amount of territory, from acoustics, through orchestration, conducting, teaching, notation, tempo and rhythm, language and pronunciation, history, form, and several other matters, including a discussion of musical mistakes in literary works of various kinds.

The main thrill with a book like this is realizing that it came out in the same year Samuel Barber was born.  Charles Ives was living in New York, selling life insurance, playing the organ, and writing his Fourth Symphony (among other things).  Mahler was conducting in New York; 1910 was the year his Eighth Symphony premiered in Munich, and he died after returning to Europe the following year.  Amy Beach was at the height of her powers, soon to embark on a three-year European tour.  Arnold Schoenberg wrote Harmonielehre that year.  I doubt this book was on the bookshelves of any of them, but it certainly might have been bought by people who heard them.

Another source of interest is comparing the recommendations to more modern practice.  Some of the advice is still good.  Elson recommends using an up-to-date orchestration text, which is wise, though of course "up-to-date" for him meant Strauss's expansion of Berlioz.  He also suggests that composers mark accidentals if there's any possibility of a question, regardless of whether it would technically be required; still a good idea.  But piano pedal markings have changed considerably since those days, and understanding of 18th-century signs for ornaments has undergone revision.

Elson talks about the supposed emotional characteristics of various keys, pointing out that, since the standard pitch has risen, the keys whose characteristics Berlioz listed wouldn't be the same in Elson's day, when the standard pitch was 435 Hz.  The argument has become even stronger since that time, as the standard pitch has risen still further.  But Elson doesn't seem aware of the Doctrine of the Affections that preceded Berlioz, though he does quote a 1724 music dictionary (which he doesn't name) regarding tempo markings.
But there's much more here than musical technicalities.  There's an anecdote about a test made with three cornets, one of silver, one of brass, and one of papier mache, which showed that it wasn't possible for a blindfolded listener to tell, from the sound, what material the cornet being played was made from.  Elson puts an end to the myth that composers are generally short-lived, though he only mentions one composer who lived into his 80's (Verdi).  He deals at some length with a novel, "La Vieillesse de Guillaume Du Fay", which appeared in a Paris magazine as early as 1837, and purports to tell the story of the discovery of counterpoint.  The author plays fast and loose with history, but the story sounds interesting anyhow.

I'd never heard of Ouida before I read Elson's book; now I've read about the musical mistakes in some of her novels.  You didn't know that Palestrina wrote "airs", or that Mendelssohn wrote masses?  In her books, apparently, they did.  Another author has a character play a Sonata in A-sharp major by Mozart.

This is a section that would be fascinating to update, though it might have to become an encyclopedia.  Thinking only of fantasy and SF novels I'm familiar with that deal with music brings up a long list; if other novels that were written since 1910 were included, to say nothing of poems and short stories, I'm guessing it would be a nearly impossible job even to read them all, let alone discuss them.  Elson, of course, doesn't pretend to be exhaustive; he only mentions a few of the more notable instances of literary license that had come to his attention.

Louis C. Elson was professor of Music Theory at the New England Conservatory, and wrote several other books, including a music dictionary.  Right now that's all I know about him, but as this book shows, he had quite an amazing mind.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Reading/Performance at Centro Español/La Nacional

Before the memory fades too much, I'd like to write a few words about the reading/performance with Juan Navidad last Tuesday, December 2, at Centro Español in New York City.  This came about on very short notice; the space had become available a bit less than a week before.

There is currently no piano in the space.  While I do have a traveling keyboard I sometimes use for situations like these, I had other obligations earlier in the day that would have made it difficult to lug a keyboard, stand, and other assorted equipment all over the city.  So I decided, instead, to arrange two of the pieces for violin and backing track, and write a third piece to go along with them.  The results turned out well.  The performance was not recorded, unfortunately, but subsequent ones surely will be.  Playing violin in front of people again felt really good!

El Timón de la Suerte ("The Rudder of Fate") works very well on the violin; better, in fact, than on the piano.  While the middle section still needs a bit of tinkering, the outer sections definitely came across very well during this performance.  I was worried about El Reloj de la Impaciencia ("The Clock of Impatience"), but after some serious wood-shedding it turned out much better than expected.  It's still basically a piano piece, but the violin version is worthwhile.

The third piece of the evening was Diamante Crudo ("Rough diamond").  The sentence points out that every diamond starts as an ugly piece of rock, and the music begins with a rather ungainly set of pitches and rhythms, which are gradually refined into something beautiful.

One of the highlights of the evening for me was hearing Juan talk about his experiences.  He became a writer because he was upset at the misinformation he found in the popular children's books he grew up with.  Real life stood (and stands) at a respectable distance from the way things were portrayed in those fictional universes!  Juan spoke about his passion for encouraging people to pursue their dreams, and, where possible, putting tools into their hands to allow them to do so.

We'll be in the same space again on January 21, so mark your calendar!  My current plan is to play violin, have a few more pieces to perform, and get at least some of it recorded.  We'll see how things develop.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Juan Navidad and the latest news

When I walked into the Hispanic Latino Book Fair a month or so ago, I had no idea what I was getting into.  I heard some worthwhile talks, and walked out with more books than I originally planned, but more importantly, I made the acquaintance of Juan Navidad.

Juan is, in a word, amazing.  He's a poet, writer, and publisher (more informative page in Spanish here), and he's constantly promoting both his own work and that of the writers he publishes.  He's constantly exploring new possibilities, and when we started discussing ways to work together, it didn't take long to come up with ideas.  Collaboration is his mission in life,

He just brought out a book of his own, Frases para crecer en positivo, and for a reading on Saturday, Nov. 21 at the Church of the Mediator in the Bronx, I created a set of four short pieces inspired by his work.  El delantero del fin de semana (The Weekend Forward) takes off from a sentence about how, when we practice a sport, we are grateful for healthy bodies and the time to enjoy them; El timón de la suerte (The rudder of fate) was inspired by a statement that that rudder is held, not only by the Goddess Fortune, but by each one of us.  An observation about clocks and impatience motivated El reloj de la impaciencia (The Clock of Impatience), which is about a ticking clock as processed through a brain that keeps wishing it would go faster, and Intencion y fuerza (Intention and Force) derives from a statement that those two things are what we need to be happy: clear intentions, and the strength to bring them to reality.

I'm hoping to get recordings up soon, and there will be another similar event next week, on Tuesday, December 2, at Centro Español, on 14th St. in Manhattan, at 7 PM.  The music this time will be violin with (likely) backing tracks, and I will be the violinist.  El timón de la suerte and maybe El reloj de la impaciencia will be arranged for the occasion, but there will be some newer material as well.

For those who prefer a bit more advance notice, there will be another event at Centro Español on January 21, 2015, which will include a showing of artworks.  More news as it happens!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Updates, and lessons from home recording

It's been a long time since I've posted, so here's an update on some of what's happened and what's going on right now.

It's been a fairly busy year so far, including the premiere of some of a set of ten new pieces I wrote for euphonium and piano, as well as two concerts (one in White Plains, New York and the other in Goshen, Indiana) celebrating the 300th anniversary of the birth of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.  I performed at a benefit for the Afghan Child Education and Care Organization, and at the first-ever Azerbaijani Novruz celebration in Philadelphia.

Another thing I've been working on is recording.  This is a fairly unambitious undertaking; the music will include at least two sonatas by C.P.E. Bach, as well as some J.S. Bach, and maybe a few other things according to taste and whim.  It springs naturally out of the home recording I've been doing for many years.  Recording and listening to myself have been two of my most powerful tools to keep growing musically, and from there it's a simple matter of asking two questions: what would make this worth sharing, and how do I get there?

One of the first things musicians learn after starting to make recordings is just how bad they sound.  The microphone (or its digital equivalent) is pretty unforgiving.  Mistakes and problems that you could sort of ignore while you were playing suddenly stand out and become unbearable.  One of the first questions you'll have is how to improve the situation, and the first and best answer is, improve your playing.

Another early lesson is that it's necessary to be really detail-oriented.  How, exactly, will that ornament be played?  Where are the dynamic changes?  How loud, and how soft?  The more you know, and the better you know it, the higher the odds that, when you are performing, it will come out as intended.

Which leads to another question, with its attendant lesson: when is it time to stop?  It's possible to work on a recording forever, honing smaller and smaller details, and never quite attaining that magical state of perfection where it's time to stop and release the results.  In normal studio recording, of course, the budget, and a good producer, will put strict limits on the amount of reworking that can be done.  It's always possible to find something wrong with a performance or a recording, and even more so when using a digital keyboard for Baroque and pre-Classical music.  A digital keyboard is not a piano (organ, clavichord, harpsichord, etc.), and while it can have worthwhile qualities of its own, it can never satisfy someone who expects to hear an acoustic instrument.

So the question is, when is it good enough?  When does it fairly represent what I can do right now?  And perhaps most importantly, when is it time to release this, and apply the lessons learned to the next project?

Because there will be next projects, and other recordings, and my most important reason for undertaking this one is to improve those.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

300th Anniversary of the birth of C.P.E. Bach

This post was created in specific response to James M. Keller's article in Chamber Music about the 300th anniversary of the birth of Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach.  The article, "A Tricentennial Nod to C.P.E. Bach", points out that the anniversary is likely to go "largely uncelebrated", and easily makes the case that this lack of attention is unjustified.

As it turns out, there are celebrations taking place, but perhaps not in the U.S.; this blog entry is an attempt to spread the word and give some ideas about how to get in on the fun.

Piano teachers and students, if they know nothing else about C.P.E. Bach, know him for the "Solfeggietto", H. 220, W. 117.  Here are two tutorials on the piece.  It has been transcribed for other instruments, as well.  He also wrote several pieces included in his father's Notebooks for Anna Magdalena Bach.

But he also wrote for many other instruments, in many combinations.  His works for chorus and orchestra include a Magnificat and oratorios, such as Israel in the Wilderness and Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus.

So how can you celebrate?  If you play or teach the flute, piano, and/or other instruments he wrote for, it's easy: simply study and teach C.P.E. Bach's works, include them in recital programs, and mention the anniversary in your publicity.   If you study an instrument that he didn't write for, why not transcribe or arrange one or more of his pieces?  While there are a number of recordings of his work on Wikimedia Commons, there is still plenty of room for contributions; why not upload a recording of your performance (being aware of these guidelines)?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Alones Together: Concert coming up Wednesday, Feb. 5!

Alones Together: An Evening of Music for Unaccompanied Solo Instruments

Cellist Caroline Stinson and saxophonist Javier Oviedo will be featured in a concert of music by Jon Liechty and poetry by Andrew Kreider, on Wednesday, February 5, 2014 at 7:00 PM at the Bloomingdale School, 323 West 108th Street in New York City. The program will include Strength and Beauty, a set of pieces for unaccompanied cello, the world premiere of Sonata No. 1 for tenor saxophone, and works for piano solo performed by the composer. The concert is free and open to the public, but seating is limited. Donations will be gratefully accepted.

Strength and Beauty was inspired by the portraits of Li Ming Shun, whose art focuses on the Asian male nude. Its four movements are both lyrical and uncompromising, reflecting some of the many contradictory emotions the body can evoke.

The frank melodies of Sonata No. 1 defy easy classification; even those that seem simple at first prove to have unexpected twists and turns.

Poetry by Andrew Kreider is the inspiration for the piano pieces that will round out the evening, and the variety in the music matches the wealth of expression in the words. From the Azerbaijani-influenced “Keepsakes” to the mad dash of “What Won't Wait”, Kreider's verbal adroitness pairs well with Liechty's lush harmonic imagination.

Praised for her vibrant lyricism, fresh interpretations and expressive performances, cellist Caroline Stinson’s solo invitations include the Museum of Modern Art's Summergarden Series, Poisson Rouge and Bargemusic in New York; Cité de la Musique Strasbourg and the Lucerne Festival in Europe, and the Centennial Centre and Winspear Halls in Canada. As a soloist she has performed with the Banff Festival and Cleveland Institute of Music Orchestras, the Alberta Baroque Ensemble, and the Interlochen World Youth and Syracuse Symphonies. A champion of contemporary music, Ms. Stinson has commissioned concerti from Steven Bryant (Cornell Wind Ensemble) and Andrew Waggoner (Syracuse Symphony), works for cello with electronics from Canadian composer Patrick Carrabre, in addition to chamber music with the Lark Quartet and her new music and improvisation group, Open End Ensemble. Performance highlights include Elliott Carter's "Triple Duo" with conductor Pierre Boulez in New York and Europe, the premiere of Paul Moravec's Piano Quintet with Jeremy Denk and the Lark Quartet in New York, and performing Esa-Pekka Salonen's "YTA III" for solo cello at the composer’s recommendation at Scandinavia House in New York in 2011. Caroline's début CD, Lines, was released in 2011 on Albany Records, and she has over a dozen other chamber music recordings to her credit on labels from Bridge to Naxos. Her teachers were Alan Harris (Cleveland), Maria Kliegel (Germany), Joel Krosnick (Juilliard) and Tanya Prochazka. Caroline is co-Artistic Director of the Weekend of Chamber Music in NY State and teaches cello and chamber music at The Juilliard School in New York City in the Pre-College Division and as Assistant Faculty for Joel Krosnick.

One of the brightest soloists of the classical saxophone world, Javier Oviedo is acclaimed for his lustrous tone, sensitive musicianship, and formidable technique. He debuted at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in New York City last June performing a newly commissioned work for saxophone and orchestra to thunderous ovation.
As a soloist Javier Oviedo has appeared with orchestras in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Texas. He has also appeared with the Orchestre Lamoureux and L’orchestre à cordes d’Ariége in France. In spring 2011 Oviedo appeared with the National Orchestra of the Republic of Moldova and later that year with the State Philharmonic of Oryol in the Russian Federation. This performance was hailed by the local press as “a triumph of a concert.”
An accomplished chamber musician, Oviedo has performed in recital on many of New York’s most prestigious stages such as at Carnegie Hall and The United Nations. He was a founding member of the Elision Saxophone Quartet in his native-born Texas. The quartet will celebrate its 25th season in 2014. Oviedo was also a founding member of The F.R.E.D. Chamber Players which explored new or under-performed chamber music, theater pieces, plays, dance, and art from centuries old and new.
In 2008 Oviedo recorded his debut recording, The Classical Saxophone A French Love Story, which featured original music for saxophone and orchestra from around the early 20th-Century. The American Record Guide said of the disc,
The music is rich, lush, and colorful, and one is tempted to praise repeatedly Oviedo’s gorgeous sound, which fits these pieces perfectly.” -American Record Guide
The disc was recorded in Paris with Orchestra Pasdeloup under the direction of Jean-Pierre Schmitt and released on the MSR Classics label.

Jon Liechty's compositions have been performed in New York’s Weill Hall, at An Die Musik Live! in Baltimore, at the Midwest Composer's Symposium in Oberlin, Ohio, at the Indiana Contemporary Music Festival in Terre Haute, Indiana, at the Sound in the Land festival in Waterloo, Ontario, and at the Escuela Nacional de Música in Mexico City. He is the recipient of grants from Meet the Composer, and from the Honors Division of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in music composition from the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington, Indiana, where his teachers included Donald Erb and Claude Baker.

Liechty has appeared as a pianist at An Die Musik Live! in Baltimore, at Symphony Space in New York City, at the SummerKeys festival in Maine, at the Lotus World Music and Dance Festival in Indiana, at the American Composers Alliance festival in New York City, and on Azerbaijani National Television. He gave the world premiere performance of Andrew Nishikawa's Piano Concerto No. 1, written especially for him, at the Boston Conservatory. He is the Associate Music Director at the New York Society for Ethical Culture.