Wednesday, March 7, 2018

On Keys, Do Re Mi

On Keys, Do Re Mi
by Claudia Schaer

or, nq,

No Jdxr, Cn Qd Lh
ax Bkztchz Rbgzdq

For A = 440Hz, G# (at a just ratio of 15:16) = 412.5, and at an equal-tempered ratio of 12√2 ( 1.059463) ≈ 415.3
Current standard “Historical Performance” pitch is A=415.

Therefore, A = G#.

... by this standard, poor Clara, most famously immortalized in Robert Schumann's music with her theme, C-B-A-G#-A – would become B-A#-G#-Fx-G# ...

(And, Happy Daylight Savings Time! Since the clocks move ahead ... Ibqqz Ebzmjhiu Tbwjoht Ujnf!)
Imagine, if the word “Clara” were written in a really strange font, maybe some kind of wingding, in which each letter looks like the following letter in a more regular font, say Garamond. If you can read the new font, you'll see “Clara,” but if you read it in Garamond, you will read “Bkzqz.” My name would appear as “Bkztchz Rbgzdq.” (Perhaps it's akin to “seeing” 3D stereograms: the physical position of pigment on the page is one thing, and the way we make the connections between them is another.)

With an ability to recognize exact frequencies – that is, having developed one's sense of “absolute pitch” (aka “perfect pitch”), one can hear the difference between 415 Hz and 440 Hz and tell you which is which and sing either at any given time. In my case, it is very strong: 440 sings “A” to me, and 415 “G#” (or “Ab,” depending on the context). I've been honing this skill subconsciously since age three, for which my family members deserve some credit: after my piano teacher figured out that I could recognize the pitches, they took delight in playing various piano keys to quiz me.
Being strongly steeped in one definition of A, suddenly renaming all of the frequencies feels like a translation – like a geography exercise in which each city takes the name of the one just eastward, so while the proportionate distances between cities stay the same, the names change: eg. Calgary becomes “Vancouver”, Saskatoon becomes “Calgary”, Winnipeg becomes “Saskatoon” and so forth. For those with a less developed absolute pitch and a greater sense of relative pitch, the shift is an unproblematic one-step process (rotate the globe a little, change the font a little, shift the Hz up or down a little). For people like me, it becomes a complicated two-step transposition: “Now named 'A', is the pitch formerly known as 'G#'.”
How shall those of my ilk deal with wandering definitions of “A”?

After playing the Bach solo Sonatas and Partias countless times in concert on modern violin, I was enthralled the first time I played a little of them on a baroque violin, tuned to my normal A, at the Geigenbauschule in Brienz, Switzerland. The soft quick responsiveness of the instrument lent itself to delicate, nuanced, intimate expression, and invited quicker tempi (with less power necessary for tone generation) – which keeps the harmonic rhythm moving and is thus how I've always heard the works in my head. The experience influenced my recording of those complete works, on modern violin, at A = 439.
The “A” we choose to play Bach's solo violin works is somewhat arbitrary. Heinrich Hertz, after whom the Hertz (Hz) “cycles per second” unit of measurement is named, would be born more than two hundred years after Bach; during Bach's time, measuring pitch was an inexact and comparative business (just like measuring a units of length such as feet), and A's varied from valley to valley, along with the length of organ pipes expanding and contracting in heat and cold. There was no absolute way to measure how many times per second a membrane vibrates. (Here is an excellent video explaining this in more detail.)
The current trend standardizing A=415 for Baroque playing is only minimally based in history, but is practical in some ways: players performing with various ensembles know what to expect wherever they go, instruments can settle in at one pitch, and harpsichords and organs can be tuned at the agreed-upon frequency. In a pinch, a player can even take a modern instrument tuned at 440 and transpose down a half-step to get the same effect. (More info here.)

And so, when I decided to revisit my baroque-violin experience and interest in New York City just recently, it was no surprise that the baroque violin I picked up was tuned to A=415. I tried play some solo Bach. I have rarely felt so inept in my life – stupid, incompetent, frustrated, tangled up: I could hardly play half a measure without mistakes. I could play no more than two measures in a row.
Actually, I do remember when I last felt so gibberished: when I was ten years old, I played as part of the Calgary Fiddlers in the Calgary Stampede Parade. Our hay-wagon blasted our recently-released recording, we fiddled along with it. The stereo was playing the cassette tape (!) too quickly, and everything was a half-tone too high. All the other fiddlers re-tuned their violins up and played their normal fingerings, just fine. I was hopelessly lost, and embarrassed that the crowds lining the street were surely thinking that I, the youngest player there, couldn't really play.
(By contrast, I once had a dream of playing Paganini's first Caprice, the one with the arpeggiated ricochet bowing, with a butter knife instead a bow – and that was perfectly successful.)

Using sheet music, playing at A=415 is not so difficult for me – seeing the notes, I can transpose down a half a step quickly enough that, after a little practice, and writing in 0's for open-strings over pitches sounding to me as Eb's, for example, I can manage the task. But the Sonatas and Partias, which I can sing with letter-names in my sleep, became a laborious exercise. Yes, we have to agree on something to play in ensembles; playing violin solo, however, theoretically gives me the freedom to agree with no-one, so why bother with this difficult task? Well, it became a matter of pride to be
able to – at least, for more than two measures - am I really hearing music so differently from everyone else that I cannot perform a task that is easy for almost everyone??
In Juilliard's ear training classes, we followed a solfège tradition of singing music with fixed-Do syllables, which is the same as singing with “A B C D” note-names, except in French. (I'll note that my strong ear placed me into the third and fourth year courses my freshman year.) We completed “memory projects”: conducing and singing with fixed-Do syllables repertoire of our choosing, essentially re-creating the score by memory in real-time. I still use this system for any pieces I am learning and playing, especially anything I memorize: I know that if I have the score clearly in my head, along with the fingerings and bowings, and can think/feel it through in real-time, I have great mental security to share it with the violin in hand. I have no doubt that I would be able to sing all of the Sonatas and Partias for you in my sleep, where I often practiced them too!
In my personal theory of music, the meaning of the notes comes from the relationships between them, or the relative pitch (and rhythm). Thus, for example, the sequence of notes “A
4-D4” takes its meaning in the form of a rising fourth. O-oh! Most musicians whose relative pitch is stronger than the perfect pitch, will hear the interval (the fourth), first, and then perhaps be able to pin-point it to being A-D. For me, it is the opposite, I hear the notes “A-D” first, and then recognize them as a rising fourth. Movable-Do solfège practices relative pitch, and putting syllables to the scale-degrees (numbers would work too): the tonic, or first note of the scale is called “Do”, the second note is “Re”, the third note is “Mi”, and so on. Movable-Do solfège is very useful, but gets very complicated for any music that modulates (changes key) frequently, or is not clearly in a key. Thus, singing the Sonatas and Partias in movable-Do would require pin-pointing exactly where modulations occur, which is not always unambiguous. Movable-Do also has limited use for corresponding to physically playing the violin, which standardly has G D A E strings regardless of what key one is playing in, and so fingerings do not transpose exactly from key to key. Nonetheless, for me, the feeling, emotion, meaning of a piece is expressed in connections - the motion in time between frequencies (which movable-do highlights) – a rising fourth expresses something, whereas the notes A-then-D are simply frequencies, facts.
This brings me to the oft-posed question, “Are keys and tonalities, imbued with particular characters, personalities, characteristics?” (You can find countless essays on this online, and even wikipedia weighs in.) How mysterious a subject - but is it really?
I would answer simply, “It's in the ear of the beholder.”
First-off, there are clearly several empiric factors to this question; three main categories are:
1) Instruments and their tuning - violins resonate more on the notes the strings are tuned to, normally G D A and E, and thus keys using those notes more sound more “open” - or cheerful or upright or ... . The same goes for wind and brass instruments, and the notes they are tuned to.
2) Intonation of keys - prior to well-tempered tuning, some keys would sound in tune, and others would be rather more suspect.
3) Our experience with keys – on the violin, G+ D+ A+ are the easiest keys to play and the first ones we learn, and the ones all the fiddle tunes are in and all the easier pieces. On the piano, the same is true for C+; on the saxophone it's Bb+. The more difficult keys become, the more complicated we find them. Something that is written in G# minor on the violin better have good emotional reason to use so many sharps. Ab minor – too many flats, forget about it. And who would play a note as special and rare as Fb with an open (E) string ... (pardon my bitterness as I wrestle with A=415!)
To put a wrench in the argument – or perhaps a pitchfork, or a tuning fork, or a pitchpipe, into the mix- consider the following conundrum: if I listen to a concert at A=415, and thus hear A minor as G# minor, including with all the associations G# minor has for me rather than A minor – who's to say which interpretation of the character of the key is more “correct”? Recently, I heard a 415 concert with pieces mostly in A D G (or G#, C# F# for me), but one piece in Eb major, so D major for me. “Ah,” I felt, “At last, open, simple, resonant, bright, cheerful.” Meanwhile, the performers were likely experiencing, “Heroic, special, unconventional” and other Eb associations.
Take the thought experiment a step (or half-a-step) further, and imagine the same piece played on a well-tempered harpsichord in A minor, then G# minor, at A=440, then in A minor at A=415. How would the 440 G# minor be different from the 415 A minor to any ear in the audience? Would the strongly-relative-pitch ear pick up on more sonorities and colours in the sound than the strongly-perfect-pitch ear, which might not hear a difference? Would those who know the piece enjoy the A-minor-ness one way or another, or be jarred by the G-sharp-minor-ness, if having a strong perfect-pitch ear?
And going even further - which colours would a synesthete (think Scriabin) with perfect pitch, see in either case? If A is, say orange, would orange be 415, or 440, or could it move??

I picked the A minor Solo Sonata to slog through, in what to me is clearly G# minor, with F# C# G#, and D# strings. I realized after a frustrating while that I was engaged in a complicated two-step process: 1) transposing the sonata to the new notes, 2) re-fingering the pitches. After about a week of wrestling with the A=415 violin, I could do it when playing with the music, but not so well in-my-head/by memory yet. As I repeated it often enough for mental and sonic associations to take hold, I gradually came to a better solution, which requires more brain gym but is a one-step process: I transpose the Sonata to the unheard-of key of A-flat minor, thinking the “A” loudly and the “flat” as a bend in the pitch. (When I sing with note-names, or solfège I leave off the flats and sharps anyway, and just think them in my head.) Thus my strings are Gb, Db, Ab, and Eb, and I am often playing F-flats and C-flats. Thus my fingering can correspond to my usual fingering, with special attention to open strings and first fingers. I intentionally equate the different resonance of the baroque violin with the extra “flat” in my pitch names, so that garamond and wingding can unite.
Will I ever be able to make it sound as natural (pun intended) as A minor is?

After about three weeks, I've solved the problem to the satisfaction of my wounded pride, and can play through more or less three movements of the Sonata by heart at A=415. It is still much easier at A=440, and I think I'll go back to my old ways, and rather explore questions of sonority: is it possible to achieve a similar resonance in an A=440–tuned Baroque violin as in an A=415-tuned Baroque violin ... does this require string thickness and length adjustments? Perhaps that difference is minute enough not to be worthwhile. And perhaps that difference of 35Hz just doesn't even half-matter for non-ensemble pieces. And who's to say which pitch Bach would have picked, in the twenty-first century?
Dear readers, thank you for having half-a-heart – 1/2-Herz – and letting my ears maintain their impressions, and characters too, with the specialness of sharps and naturals and flats Claras and Bkzqzr.
In my next dream, I plan to record a cassette at A = 415, and then play it too fast, so that 415 goes to 440 ... then tell me the character of the keys, please!
Until next time - Ah!
Tmshk mdws shld - Zg!

* (Although the pitch for romantic music is currently set closer to A = 425Hz, that is still low enough to sound like G#/Ab compared to 440).

Friday, July 8, 2016

My Brother, Schubert: Death and the Quintet

This blog post was initially about a concert on February 22nd, 2016. I wrote it in the style of a concert review, with personal experience mixed in, and subsequently did not post it because somehow it did not balance authentically. As the 10th anniversary of my oldest brother's passing approached, I realized that the post was really about him, and that very personal experience, with a focus on the music involved. Today is that 10th anniversary, and today it feels right to post, in his memory.

On February 22nd, 2016, the Juilliard String Quartet presented their New York retirement concert of Joel Krosnick, who was their cellist of forty-two years, as well as a beloved Juilliard faculty-member. Naturally, it was a stirring and emotional concert, and, as has become the customary when passing the proverbial baton from outgoing to incoming cellist, it ended with the Schubert two-cello quintet, the instrumentation of which gives both cellists a momentary opportunity to play side-by-side. After the concert, Juilliard President Joseph Polisi presented the Juilliard Presidential Medal to Mr. Krosnick, who accepted it with a heartfelt and moving farewell speech, in which he also wished his successor, Astrid Schween, “I hope you have as much fun as I did!”
The audience was one of the most caring and enthusiastic I've ever been a part of in New York, with many of Mr. Krosnick's current and former students present, some having travelled across the country to be here. I happily ran into many of my former classmates, colleagues, and teachers, including Earl Carlyss, a former violinist of the quartet, who shared with me the story of how Mr. Krosnick joined the quartet: prior to him, there had been another candidate who was perfect on paper and essentially a shoe-in, but when they all played together for the audition, the chemistry just wasn't there, which the candidate felt too, getting up and thanking the others for their time. Then with Joel Krosnick - “there it was!"
Having studied at Juilliard, and having friends in the quartet, it would never be my place, nor could I offer an unvarnished vantage point, to write about how anyone played at the concert or how the interpretation was. In that department, suffice to say that the audience loved it, the concert was a success, and the playing was honest and expressive; the feeling that all were giving their best clearly came across.

My experience during the quintet was also intensely personal, although perhaps there is something about the quintet itself that has this effect. It is widely regarded as one of the most sublime works in the chamber music repertoire, and is Schubert's last chamber work, written in 1828 at age 31, just six weeks before he died. In the program notes for tonight's concert, James M. Keller writes of the Adagio movement that legends such as pianist Arthur Rubinstein, cellist Alfredo Piatti, and novelist Thomas Mann “were among those who expressed the desire that when their time arrived to pass to the great beyond, they might do so while listening to this movement.” Perhaps Schubert too, while writing it, felt his transition from this life to the next, and perhaps we sense this possible influence. The Adagio is not afraid to weep, amid hope and beauty. I hear in it love and recognition of what's been, while welcoming that which is to come. It sets the stage for quartet-cellist-transition not just by virtue of using two cellos, but also through its profound, intimate, expansive, and songful expression. (In this wonderful video, Joel Krosnick speaks at length about the quintet, describing the piece as "one of the great monuments" in which "Schubert is speaking to God".)

Composers often have the task of writing new material for new occasions; performers, however, often select from existing repertoire for concerts and occasions, thus not expressing our feelings directly, but rather channeling them through music that someone else has already written. Audience members too bring own experiences to hearing pieces, as I strongly did at this concert. Though Schubert did not write the quintet for the occasion of Mr. Krosnick's retirement, the match between the feelings of empathy for what Schubert wrote with the feelings of a retirement concert commemorating forty-two years, two hundred eighty-eight years later, surely influenced the meaningful performance that we heard. Doubtless the piece acquires a new strong personal connection to all quartet-members who have played it, as both a farewell and a welcome.
As promised, this post is about my brother, and the quintet is the thread that takes me write about him here, and about the day he died ten years ago today. The piece is perhaps more deeply woven into my life-story than it is even for the Juilliard quartet, and reliving the intensely personal experience largely eclipsed other emotions at the concert for me. I believe there is something about music that is especially powerful this way – the way a song at a wedding is special always, as are songs we learn in childhood.
My brother Matthias was fourteen when I was born, and all my life I looked up to him as a deep-feeling, smart, funny, loving, important, beloved person-in-my-life. Emotions came first with him, sometimes defying logic and reason, a streak I too have, and felt comfortable sharing with him. (Perhaps it's this streak that most drew me into music.) He worked nights and was there for me for late-night phone-calls when I went through romantic heartbreak in my early twenties. We didn't necessarily talk about the events that happened, but could share the emotion we felt at a given time in whatever it was we were talking about. For both of us, it was ok to be in whatever emotional state we were at the time, talking about whatever else was going on.
When his wife of seventeen years left him in February 2006, he had less support and ability to handle his major heartbreak than I had for my minor one, and at fourteen years his junior I could be there as much as I could, but could only imagine what it must feel like. He spun out of control, a tailspin into depression, hopelessness, substance abuse, and finally, stress-induced schizophrenia. He showed up at my parents' doorstep one day and checked himself in; they worked out a system with his other parents (his father and step-mother, whom our mother and my father had not had contact with in a long time), to split caring for him daytime at one home, and nighttime at the other home.
This continued for a few months with medical help and also that of friends looking in on him when possible, with an interim time in the hospital. He remained unstable and distressed both emotionally and physically. I flew to our hometown after finishing a school-year in a Doctorate of Musical Arts program in New York and sorting out my working visa renewal (the latter a headache all foreign musicians know too well about). I was shocked to see the change in him: he was afraid of daylight, of his own cats, the weather, and believed cameras were hidden under tables and chairs and in corners. Having lost his instinct, there was nothing and no-one he could trust, his medications maybe helped or maybe harmed, but he did not see a way forward.
A few days after I arrived, on the morning of July 7, and we'll never know how aware or not Matt was at the time, I awoke to a terrible scene: he had hung himself on his fancy exercise machine in the basement, my dad had found him and taken him down, the EMS had arrived and were moving him from the carpet, next to a few drops of blood, onto a stretcher, he was still breathing but unconscious and our mother was watching, helpless. After having breakfast, he had just gone to the basement, pulled the door shut and --
In such a moment, there is a flood of emotion and I nearly passed out, but the importance of doing what needs to be done takes over. I put an arm around our mother and said he was still breathing, both of us hoping there might be hope. We followed the EMS to the hospital by car, and his other parents joined us there. We waited for news in a small waiting room, our mother pacing the hallway. No-one knew what to say and the clocks ticked loudly.
And the piece I had last played poured through my brain: the Schubert 2-cello quintet. I cannot stop the music in my head, and I didn't know if I wanted to, but I knew the piece would never be the same for me again. It comes back as I write now.
Eventually news came: Matthias had no brain activity, but had been put on life-support in case a little might return. Hope existed, perhaps, but barely; even if he were to live he would be severely disabled for the rest of his life.
Our sister flew in from Vancouver, and we visited again in the evening. The machine made him breathe artificially but otherwise he showed no signs of life. Still, during silence, I heard Schubert in my head.
In the morning of July 8th, the doctors advised us that hope was unwarranted – and a sad, bleak hope it would have been – and the decision, almost a relief then, was made to take him off the life-support. In my head, he passed away to the quintet.

Could his spirit hear me hear it – as he lived on in my thoughts and prayers and dreams – could he hear the music I heard and be consoled? (Could I imagine he experienced Rubinstein, Piatti, and Mann's dream and found the solace they thought it brought?) And when he became an organ donor and his heart saved another man's life, is it conceivable some of the experience became embodied and passed along? Or is it all but my dream and experience? As you can see, the music is not consoling to me now, for it brings back these vivid memories. Yet it hasn't lost its beauty and import, especially the second movement, and its requiem-like quality, a memory of deepest love and beauty, through tears.

Will I be able to play this piece again sometime? I don't know. As a professional, I'm sure I will do it when there is the occasion, and I'm sure it will stir these feelings again strongly. I can say that playing the Ciaccona of the Bach D Minor Solo Violin Partia has similar connotations for me, as I first played it in the fall of 2006. I played the heartbeat movement, the Andante, from Bach's A minor Sonata for Solo Violin at Matt's funeral, and always remember that too.

I do know that life continues, and that new performances and new experiences constantly change the narrative and meaning of what we play and present. Including my experiences, I was grateful to be at the meaningful and beautiful Juilliard Quartet/Quintet concert. As a musician, one can never know what memories one's playing brings back for our audience, but if we can touch the soul, then it is how it should be.

Matthias was not much into classical music, and his tape collection included Billy Joel and non-classical artists I didn't know. Would the quintet have been meaningful to him? He was always really supportive of me, and I know it would have meant a lot to him for it to mean a lot to me.
As much as my worlds come together, or don't, I miss him still, think about him often, and honour his memory and spirit in music, in words, and with the others who knew and loved him.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Stepping Into Another's World

This past summer, 2015, I had the opportunity to be both a tourist and a pilgrim, visiting the homes, now museums, of Mozart, Liszt, and Bartók, in Salzburg, Vienna, and Budapest. My experience was especially magical in Budapest, where I felt truly welcomed into the heritage of that rich culture. I arrived into Budapest via Keleti station, quiet and empty at the time, since then of course in the international news for the refugee crisis. I can be grateful that my journey took place for the happy and peaceful reasons it did, and truly hope that the warmth and hospitality shown me on my travels may extend further to those who need it desperately - in Budapest, and around the world.

As a performer, my role is to bridge the worlds of composer and audience, by playing the music, through which I share my feelings about it. This may be obvious, but my more philosophical writings deal with question such as, can music speak for itself? How much, if anything, do we need to know about the composer in order to appreciate and interpret it? Can patterns of sounds inherently move us, whether we know anything about the composer or not? In my travels and museum-visits, I explored the opposite end of the spectrum: how the closeness of stepping further into the composers' worlds might offer insight into their compositions, how my perspective might become more enlightened through pure increased empathy with what they felt and experienced.

My travels were quick, and I had time only for whirlwind tour of the Mozart's birth-house and residence in Salzburg, and then Mozart's residence next to the St. Stephen's cathedral in Vienna. I remember most the in-depth descriptions of the artifacts in the birth-house, along with a tremendously playful and witty letter on display from Mozart to his father (in which he signs off using words beginning with every letter of the alphabet), and then the immensely informative audio-guide in Vienna, (though I was surprised that almost all of the music on all the audio-guides was played 20th-century-style, rather than on period instruments), as well as how the houses were situated: in Vienna, when he wasn't touring, Mozart had no commute whatsoever! (Given my experiences on the New York City subway, I am slightly jealous.) There were many other tourists, and it was all very interesting. 

In Budapest, I found a much more “everyday” atmosphere – I felt as though at home in New York, despite staying right next to the Liszt Ferenc square with its oversize sculpture of Liszt – history and modernity seem to coexist seamlessly.
It was a grey Saturday afternoon when I wandered to the Liszt Memorial Museum, which is part of the building of the Old Academy of Music, in use today by the current Academy of Music. Liszt founded the Academy in the late 1800's, and, rather than taking a salary for teaching there, he occupied an apartment in the building, which served as his residence in Budapest between tours. I felt as though I were going to visit him, and having been an ardent teenage groupie from the moment I came across the Transcendental Etudes one fall when I was thirteen (around the time I fell in love for the first time, however haplessly), to the point of wanting to become a pianist rather than a violinist – well, I took an extra walk up a side street and back to settle myself for the object of my pilgrimage.

I was greeted by a sign reading, “Franz Liszt ~ At home Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday from 3 to 4 o'clock” - his office hours. It was Saturday slightly before 4pm, and the only thing that would have made my visit even more memorable were if he had indeed been personally present. I happened to be the only visitor at that time (an hour later, a very few other people trickled in), and for less than 1300HUF (less than $5USD), plus a small charge to be permitted to take pictures, I was admitted to reverently take in the beautifully-organized three rooms. I was supplied with a truly well-created audio guide, complete with descriptions of all of the artifacts and audio samples of performances on many of the pianos, altogether lasting about an hour and a half, in a tone that matched the insightfulness, respect, and informativeness of the museum.

I could detail many of the items, but this is already well-done on the museum website, at What I was most impressed by was simply the ability to imagine what it might have been like for Liszt to live there (something I missed most in the Salzburg Mozart residence, where I had the sense of glass cases being placed inside the building, rather than having a sense of entering Mozart's home). In the large bedroom, Liszt's composing-desk occupies one corner: a combination of a writing-desk and a keyboard, it was a gift to him from Ludwig Bösendorfer. A modest bed takes another corner, next to which stands his prayer-desk. Wooden bookcases, filled with scores, abound. Pictures and artifacts are carefully organized so as to tell an educational story, while at the same time respecting the living-quarters feel of the room. Only his death-mask was missing from the display; I believe it was on loan elsewhere.

In the salon, one section is devoted to Liszt's furniture, and the walls are decorated amply with copies of his most famous portraits, and pianos of all kinds abound. I was especially struck to see Liszt's experimentation with instruments, such as his piano-orgue (piano-organ) with two keyboards, one for the piano part of the instrument, and the other for the harmonium part of the instrument. The audio guide helpfully plays part of his composition Jeanne d'Arc for this dual-instrument, highlighting the layered aspect of the composition. (The experimentation seems to be contrary to today's trend of standardization in classical music: if wikipedia is a measure, one cannot search for the composition by instrument, as Liszt is listed to have composed for piano, organ, and never the hybrid.) I was also struck by his three-octave travel-keyboard, and other artifacts such as his travel-lamp (a special kind of candle-holder), totally foreign to modern times. On a more spiritual level, offering a glimpse into subjects Liszt took for inspiration, one wall exhibits a painting of the legend of St. Francis of Paola crossing the ocean on his coat – a gift to Liszt by his friend the painter Doré. The audio-guide plays an excerpt from Liszt's composition on the same subject, the left hand evoking the wild waves of a turbulent ocean in tremendous detail – how quickly must Liszt have written to embroider his staff paper so richly, given the enormity of his total output?
Paying tribute to his musical heritage and inspiration, Liszt's bust of Beethoven is near the entrance of the room, and the last item on the audio-guide, which plays a Liszt transcription Beethoven – a joyous, recognizable one – but which piece was it? As the museum closed, I discussed it with one of the two knowledgeable staff members at the front desk – David Spischak, a performer/musicologist and ardent Liszt friend – I knew it was from a composition with an overture, he gave me a list - Creatures of Prometheus? No, Ruins of Athens, the Turkish March, of course. I bought the (very reasonably-priced) museum book and a wonderfully informative CD of Liszt's pianos, had a quick look at the rest of the building, and chatted with the staff as we left.

Across the street is the Museum of Terror – dedicated to the victims of communism and fascism in Hungary – I felt compelled to stop by the door, paying respects in a way, and still was grateful that they were closed.

The next day, a sunny and hot Sunday, I set out for the Bartók Memorial House, a three-quarters of an hour journey across the beautiful blue Danube and by bus up into the country houses of Buda. From the last stop, it was still a five-minute walk further along a tree-lined street with large houses and sprightly greenery. When I arrived at the cheerful entrance of 29 Csalán Road, I rang the bell, and the property gate opened mysteriously.

I ascended steps through plentiful bushes and trees, taking in the fresh country air, arriving at a tall wrought-iron statue of Bartók, and then the house's entrance. It had a modern wing built onto it, housing a wide staircase, and the interior of the entrance also had been renovated, which felt especially spacious as I was, again, the only visitor at that time.
I was warmly welcomed by the receptionist, and for 1500HUF, or a little over $5USD, granted an admission ticket, which did not include an audio guide, but rather, an in-person guide. My jaw must have dropped. My guide, Viki Dolnik, was a student of history and indology who not only was passionate and knowledgeable about Bartók, but explained everything in clear and articulate English. No photo-taking was permitted inside the galleries, and so I stayed at length at each item, asking her many questions and drinking it all in. (Many beautiful photographs are, however, available on the museum website.)
As a child, my piano teacher had given me Geza Anda's recording of Bartók's For Children, a two-volume set of short pieces young pianists can play. The cassettes served as my lullabies for some time, and started my life-long love of Bartók's music. Though I've read a fair bit about him, and played many of his works, being in Bartók's own house opened my eyes to things I hadn't known about his lifestyle, habits and personality. For example, the living room and dining room hold elaborately hand-carved furniture, decorated in colourful folk-motifs in intricate workmanship, which Bartók had personally obtained from craftsman György Gyugyi Péntek, who became a friend. I had also never seen a picture of Bartók smoking; here I could see his ashtrays and the guide informed me that he was indeed a chain-smoker. Bartók's phonograph and transcription equipment was displayed: now I could see how large and heavy it really is! Travelling with it in rural areas, as he did to collect folk-songs, must have been an endeavour requiring a great deal of planning and cartage. Bartók's love of nature was evident in flower-patterned garments, dried flowers and seashell and pebble collections, and was mentioned many times by my guide, and his affinity for the sounds of insects is of course embodied in his night-music works – the museum also showed his insect-collection, which, while meticulous, also horrified me as I've never understood the attraction of studying a living thing by impaling it (or causing it any other awful death).
As we were finishing the tour of the upstairs room, I admiring the shoes, glasses, collections of folk-garments and ceramics and other things, the receptionist came upstairs to let the guide know there was another visitor at the entrance. 
We wrapped up the tour gently, and the guide took me downstairs. I had been very impressed by the depth of her knowledge, and how she had internalized what it was likely like for Bartók to live in this house, an experience which I had now glimpsed too. 

I asked for a photograph with her and Bartók's statue, before she left to give the new visitor the same level of attention.
I thanked the receptionist as well – it turns out she is the guide's mother. We chatted a little, about concerts taking place in the renovated salon, and so forth. Again, I bought the two very reasonably-priced museum books, one with artful photography of the house and artifacts, the other, a thin biographical volume featuring a chronology of Bartók's life with pertinent photographs, and essays by Bartók's sons Béla and Péter, his second wife Ditta Pásztory, the poet András Fodor, and museum-director János Szirányi. The latter writes of the museum, " [...] it is a memorial site that attentively guards Bartók's personal belongings and regularly evokes his spirit through music.” I felt just a little closer to his spirit through my visit.

As I read the books now some months later, I see that Bartók's son Béla writes of other guests who had been in the home: the family took in three Polish refugees following the collapse of Poland at the outbreak of World War II. When Bartók Sr. emigrated to the USA, Béla Jr. remained behind and eventually had to give up the house, but ensured that the Poles were well re-located, and that his father's belongings were adequately stored. One hopes that the current flood of refugees may fare as well. Bartók's humanist aesthetic rings as true now as they did in during WWII: “My true guiding principle...which I have been fully aware of ever since I have come upon myself as a composer: the ideal of the brotherhood of peoples, brotherhood created despite war and all conflict. It is this ideal which I work with all my power to serve through my music; this is why I do not avoid any influence, be it from Slovak, Rumanian, Arabic, or any other source. The only that that matters is that the source be pure, fresh and healthy!”

In the evening, a Hungarian violinist friend, Eszter, guided me on a true fairy-tale tour through Budapest.
Here one photo, from Fisherman's Bastion.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Concert Review: Evgeny Kissin @ Carnegie Hall, May 4, 2013

What is the magic – what is the spell, the art - that invites an audience to clap ceaselessly, continuing long after an artist has indicated a desire to conclude the programme, begging for another encore, and another, and another? Is it solely the effect of the concert, is it the audience's historical connection to the artist, is it simply the choreography of the bows, the reluctance of the artist contrasting with those who dash out on stage at the appropriate moment to ensure the opportunity to play an encore or two? The organizers of Evgeny Kissin's brilliant Friday-night recital at Carnegie Hall, clearly knew what to expect: the concert was scheduled for 7pm, leaving ample time after the two-hour programme for the enraptured audience to request more, and more, and more.

From the moment I tried to get tickets for this concert, I sensed something special in the air. I had become Kissin's fan after seeing his encore from his famous BBC proms recital on youtube, Beethoven's Rage Over A Lost Penny. (I had been searching for a video answer to the question, “What is a song that makes you laugh?”) As we all know, youtube's quality of sound is certainly missing splendour, but the videos offers front-row seats, and give the contours of the music very well nonetheless. In Kissin's fingers, the delightful humour of the piece in all its drama  the making of a mountain from a molehill, and again a molehill from a mountain – sparkled with sincerity and life. In early March, I looked up his upcoming concerts, found this recital, and was baffled by Carnegie's quixotic message instead of ticket prices: "Limited Availability, Please Call CarnegieCharge.” I called CarnegieCharge, learning that tickets had sold out immediately upon their release in August. My chance to attend would mean lining up on the day of the concert, when a number of “public availability” tickets would go on sale at the box office for $10 each. The box office opens at 11:00am; the time to arrive is a free-for-all.

What stardust drives people to line up at 5:30am, to wait in line for 5 ½ hours, beyond the wish for certainty to hear their artist of choice? I too arrived early, at 9:30am, the first time I have stood in line for tickets since my student days. I chatted with my neighbour, a very nice Russian Carnegie Hall tour guide, and we took turns saving the other's spot in line, while I stood in the nearby sunshine to warm up, while she went to get us hot tea. The line wasn't long, but the stack of tickets was shorter. The 5:30am people received them, as did everyone up through the 8am crowd. The remaining thirty-odd people were out of luck. 

... Except me. - ! By some oxymoronic fluke of fate ... I continued to wait in line for the ticket window after my neighbours had already given up and gone home, to inquire about when stage seats become available, so that I would know for next time – whereupon the salesperson looked up tonight's seating availability and found exactly one free stage seat. Of course I bought it! (Clearly, it was meant for me! I was quite jubilant.)

I was excited for my seat's youtube-like closeness, as well as to, ahem, share the stage with Evgeny Kissin! - yet I was happy when it mysteriously turned out that my ticket was actually for a balcony seat, and on the left side too. It feels a bit like I'm dreaming, to recount that; I cannot yet explain how, with solely one ticket's availability, its location could have been non-unique. But no matter, the sound in my part of the balcony was ideal, exquisite. Perhaps I had the perfect nearness to the beautiful arcing of the ceiling, which gently invited my eyes to wander along it to the gilded columns of the stage, in complementary repose.

I was surrounded by Russian-speakers, most of them old enough to have witnessed the exceptional rise of Kissin's career, and who speak of Genya (or modernly, Zhenya) the nickname by which he is affectionately known, very much as one of their own, almost as a young family member. The level of perfume in my row may have been more than I am accustomed to, but it did not eclipse the palpable anticipation. When Kissin sat down to play his first encore, my neighbour confided to me excitedly, “Last time he play five!” Tonight, he began with Melodie from Orfeo ed Euridice (Gluck-Sgambati), almost too simple after the powerful Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody preceding it, but a poignant farewell to the dedicatee of the concert, Kissin's father Igor, who had passed away nearly a year ago, honoured by a picture and the dedication in the programme booklet.

The programme notes aptly noted the 50-year span of tonight's recital: Haydn Sonata no.49 in Eb major, Beethoven Sonata no.32 (Op.111) in C minor, 4 Schubert Impromptus, and the Liszt 12th Hungarian Rhapsody. Even though I may well have been the only violinist in Carnegie tonight, I have heard this quintessential piano repertoire many times, for I grew up playing the piano too, and love its gems dearly. (Not seeing any familiar fellow “highly-strung” players tonight, would never happen to me at, say, a Frank Peter Zimmerman concert, for I've been living in New York for a long time now. Perhaps these absent violinists accounted for the surprisingly many empty seats, which I can only imagine were bought in August before patrons had finalized conflicting plans this 3rd of May. Someone ought to tell them about the 5:30am people. And about how much they missed out!

The Schubert Impromptus, like the Gluck Melodie, work beautifully as an homage, and stood most gracefully on this programme. To my ear, they give a balm to loss, an understanding but a hope, they console without reference, communicate of life worth living, even with tears. Kissin played them truly exquisitely; their souls lived and lit the hall with extraordinary grace. 

The Haydn Sonata, a late work, was perfect, characteristically witty yet upright, beautiful but never indulgent. Perhaps because I was least familiar with this Sonata, I occasionally wished for a shade more improvisatory nature, a little more time between phrases, to make me guess what might be next. Had Kissin decided to apply his great compositional talent and improvise on the themes in a completely different direction, I could well have been fooled, and I think Haydn would have enjoyed it! Sadly, as I learned from youtube interviews, Kissin stopped composing already in his teenage years, perhaps overwhelmed by all the great already existing repertoire, the shadow of history too strong. His early pieces, however, clearly show his great inventiveness, and ability to speak wittily and interestingly in his own musical language. One can only hope he'll pick it up again someday soon.

The Op.111 is the last piano sonata Beethoven wrote. It treads the finest of lines between the feelings of almost, almost touching the stars, and falling in an endless precipice. The greatest extremes, and everything connecting them, of Beethoven's most mature temperament are embodied here. One theme that constantly permeates is the faith and philosophy written in his Heiligenstadt testament: emerging from the depths of despair, and contemplation of suicide, a reaffirmation of faith in life, hope, and joy. In Kissin's interpretation, and I feel it is greatly to his credit, I did not know how the story of the sonata would end. The variations lingered in their sunny moments, but just as much might have remained forever lost in their searching and inconsolable ones.

How does a performer – never mind the composer – maintain self-preservation, in light of the constant close proximity to these deepest of emotions? One pianist friend of mine has said that feeling everything in these most profound works would require being carried out on a stretcher after the performance. There is certainly an element of pure concentration on execution that happens with repeated practice and performance, but nevertheless, our job as performers is to communicate the humanity of the piece to the truest and fullest degree we can, which means feeling it all. Thus I will always be moved, weeping internally, when I play Bach's Ciaccona. With Kissin, one has the feeling that he never holds back – and in fact, it is this sincerity that drew me so strongly to his playing in the first place. What struck me in particular was how present, contemporary and relevant his interpretive language is. He spoke guilelessly, as himself, to us. Especially in the Op.111, I had the feeling that Beethoven's life is here now, that Phillip Glass exists in the just barely tonally-directed variations, that there is no boundary between today, and inflections from two hundred years ago. Time in all its cliché stood still. And that is true artistry, to savour the proverbial moment, to let us feel this moment most intensely, most vibrantly, most alive.

After this immense two-hour programme, I was impressed at Kissin's energy to play a second encore (Liszt's Transcendental Etude #10 in F minor), and, upon ceaseless clapping, a third: Liszt's transcription of Schubert's The Trout, both of which I enjoyed very much. (I had not heard the Trout transcription before, and found the rhythmic changes between it and Schubert song and quintet interesting, if odd.) It was the perfect mood to end on, and yet the audience kept clapping, well after I'd stopped, certain it had crossed the point of bad manners. Perhaps they were egging him on due to expectancies fuelled by his great generosity previously - his Carnegie record appears to be twelve encores in 2007 - for even the NY Times review lists him as having played a “mere” three encores. 

Regardless, it had been a wonderful evening. He bowed in his unique manner, waiting a long time before a full but sudden bow: slowly, to the house, and then to his stage audience, and then – he exited as politely as was possible without fulfilling the desire for a fourth encore. 

His fans will just have to try to make it to Carnegie again for his concert this Sunday, May 19 at 3pm, with the MET orchestra. That concert has also long been sold out. Anyone have an extra ticket?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Reflections on Being a Star

John Cage's Atlas Eclipticalis; Carnegie Hall, Oct. 22, 2012 S.E.M. Orchestra

2012 is a stellar year for John Cage performances, his centennial sparkling with a veritable myriad of concerts in his honour. The largest scale of these, at least in terms of performers, is the production of Atlas Eclipticalis in its most expansive version, which took place in historically star-studded Carnegie Hall, on Monday Oct.22, 2012. The “Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble”, which premiered this version twenty years ago, played it as part of their "Beyond Cage" festival, to its maximum duration of 100 minutes, with its maximum instrumentation of 86 musicians, simultaneously with Winter Music in a two-piano version, as per the signature optional directions of Cage.

This concert witnessed a veritable conglomeration of New York City new music freelancers, including players from Argento, Absolute Ensemble, Alarm Will Sound, Talea, FLUX Quartet, Composer's Concordance, Either/Or, 20-21, Yarn|Wire, Signal Ensemble, Talujon, Loadbang, American Composer's Orchetsra, ACJW, Ensemble Moto Perpetuo, Guidonian Hand, North/South Music, The Knights, Ljova, and - the list goes on. As one of the performers, I enjoyed the opportunity to interact with so many of my colleague-friends all at the same time.
I also enjoyed the reaction of many of my non-musician invitee-friends, who before the concert said, "Wow, that sounds intriguing", and after expressed, "What an amazing experience!" Old new music is still fresh, even if its rays of light take longer to reach us now. tells us that Atlas Eclipticalis was composed as follows: “Cage used the Atlas Eclipticalis 1950.0 (an atlas of the stars published in 1958 by Antonín Becvár (1901-1965), a Czech astronomer), superimposing musical staves over the star-charts in this atlas. Brightness of the stars is being translated into the size of the notes in the composition.”
The score consists of 344 pages of music, which are divided up among the 86 musicians, hence we each play 4 pages, at 25 minutes a page. The dots on the page, are organized into clusters connected by lines, according to chance processes. There is a nice link to pictures of all of this here:

We play the notes in each cluster in whichever order we wish, following instructions for each cluster as to how many notes shall be as short as possible, and how many shall have “some duration”. The only parameter around “some duration” is that each cluster should be completed more or less according to its positioning on the staff, as the piece is spatially notated, meaning that each line of staff is to last for the length of one cycle of the conductor's, or clock's, arms – which in our version is five minutes (there are 5 lines of staff per page). Petr Kotik, founder and conductor of S.E.M., and the driving force behind this performance, did his yogic work well, conducting the twenty cycles like a Tai Chi exercise. Slow movement, especially for such a long time is not easy. The audience was privy only to the movement of his arms, which started above his head, and continued slowly in a circle, liked the hands on a clock. Occasionally, time stood still, as the score allows for; perhaps once or twice it backtracked slightly. We players could of course see his serious yet humourful (might one say, universal?) expression.

Star-gazing is a meditative enterprise. Re-creating the dots of light is no less so. While the instructions provided by Cage stop short of specifying “attempt to sound as you might imagine the stars do”, the analogous parallel between light and sound is woven inherently into the score, and appears as such in the sound. The task of performing the dots on the page, with specific instructions, yet with freedom with respect to their timing and length and balance, over the course of 100 minutes, also sets the stage for a zen-like focussedly unfocussed state of being.We started sounding really good by the third page. Our egos had disappeared – each dot was no longer a solo in Carnegie Hall, but a twinkling with the others in the orchestra; we'd gone from being stars to connecting the – galaxies.

When I had a few minutes of rest, about an hour into the piece, I found myself staring at the floor of the stage. For some reason, I have always liked the particular colour of Carnegie's stage – a light, almost tan bare-hardwood. It makes me feel at home, and with the stage lights, it seems cheerful. But something appeared to me tonight: Carnegie's stage is a star-map in itself, marked by galaxies - hundreds, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of cello endpin holes, stabbed into history by the world's most famous, most revered, most renowned cellists. Jacqueline du Pré, Rostropovich, Yo-Yo Ma, generations of Berliner Philharmoniker and Cleveland Orchestras – well, the current stage is not so old (1995), but old enough to have seen every major orchestra in the world multiple times, and all the soloists too. Sometimes the cello sections sits at stage left, where I was, and sometimes they sit further inland; for contemporary works they could sit anywhere, and for large-scale youth orchestras and other non-Carnegie-Hall-presents groups, they also might be squeezed in anywhere. The stage is layered in endpinpoints, in months, as stars are layered in light-years. How often can we busy New Yorkers take a moment out of our hectic schedules, to contemplate such things, to star-gaze? A worthwhile reflection.

Needless to say, we were warmed up for the post-intermission piece, John Marclay's Shuffle – of which we gave a spunky and humourous rendition, and which, at 10 minutes, felt much too short.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Concert Review - Crested Butte Music Festival: Home Soirée "Hungarian Gypsy Jazz", with Cimbalogh Trio

     One of the main themes emerging from the Crested Butte Music Festival is that of cross-cultural connections, most strikingly, between the cultures of the music's origin, and the culture of the music's presentation. The music includes, yet also ranges far beyond, the bluegrass so home to Colorado. Looking ahead, the festival programme includes Mozart's Magic Flute, with a contemporary twist and English interspersions; as well as a "Beer and Beethoven" symphony performance, and "Gypsy Jazz in Paradise", all intertwining various cultural heritages.
     This cultural richness evident in the very first symphony concert, in which conductor and music director Jens Georg Bachmann aptly introduced a programme of classical Hungarian, Czech, and Austrian music, interwoven with traditional folk and gypsy music roughly from the same region, the latter performed by world music artists Kálmán Balogh on cimbalom, and his "Cimbalogh" trio with bassist Csaba Novák and violinist/violist Robert Lakatos. 
     In vernacular terms, the folk-influenced music had groove - and an addictive, inescapable one. In contrast to some of the classical styles on the programme, which tell a story in prose, and ask you to be very quiet and attentive to fully enjoy it, this music lures you in, seducing you to move with it until you are so engaged that it can dance with you in any direction, from sudden surges to slow and gentle slow-downs - an exhilarating feeling in many ways akin to the adrenaline the skiers and bikers in these mountains feel as they take a brilliant turn on a treacherous downhill.
     Although the folk musicians have signposts along the way, of where the harmonies change, or where there is room for improvisation, and while the groove is relentless, the melodies have an air of perfect freedom; they sound natural as in the blood of the musician, unaffected by Crested Butte's high altitude. The more I listened to the trio, the more I felt supported in my view that classical music, even art music, has its roots in the folk music of its time, and that we classical musicians have a great deal to learn about flexibility, imprecision, and even grit (true or not) in our sound and style and approach. After all, the music we've inherited as sheet music is just as much of a sketch of what we are to hear, as the words written on this screen are an indication of what you would hear if you read them aloud. The more natural, the more honest, and the more able to tell us about our humanity.
     I was so fascinated by the Cimbalogh trio, that I determined to return to their second concert, a "home soirée", in which they would be the only group performing. I was particularly interested as I have a great affinity for the composer Béla Bártok, who is also one of the first and greatest ethnomusicologists; he collected, analysed, and catalogued countless Hungarian, Transylvanian, Romanian, Serbian, Croatian and other folksongs. This deep study greatly influenced all of his compositions, and he continued his work fervently even when living in New York City near the end of his life during WWII.
     My head full of notions of modes and rhythms and melodies, I excitedly made my way to the soirée, expecting to be nearly late, and therefore to creep in quietly at the back of the audience, like a chipmunk to an errant peanut. I also expected to know virtually no-one there, as the soirée was priced as a fundraiser, meaning the likelihood of other musicians in the audience was very low, save for the festival's vibrant Artistic Director, Alexander Scheirle (who had graciously understood my excitement, and how this might be combined with the event being almost, but not quite, sold out.
     In any case, rather than at a performance in full progress, I found myself suddenly in the middle of hors d'oeuvres and cocktails, amidst some of the most generous donors to the festival. I had heard that they were lovely people, and I had met a few previously, who indeed impressed me as lovely people, and still it took me an instant to overcome my shyness, the comfort of musician mode, in which one simply takes for granted that music is precious and phenomenal and fascinating, and nerdiness can be fully appropriate. It is a shift to recognize, as a member of society, why we should and do value music so greatly, and why having a festival in which to present this great music is something to be profoundly grateful for, and proud of, at the same time. The arts are unfortunately a field in which mixing quality with a standard business model does not in any way guarantee financial success; for hundreds of years the fine arts have flourished only thanks to the patrons supporting the artists, and the stories of the greatest geniuses dying untimely as paupers, for lack of such support, sadly abound. In our own time, the news publishes many stories of a tug-of-war between rich and poor, and the resultant divisive stress on society.
      Whatever lifestyle differences may exist between artists and our patrons, we share a love of music, and, most especially at a concert, we are tied together with the common desire to be moved by it. We share something deeply human, a joy of experience and interaction. There are no boundaries between skiiers and musicians, between Arkansas and Hungary.
     This became intensely clear as Cimbalogh began to play. The music was irresistible. Not one person in the packed room could keep still - we found ourselves freeing fingers and feet from wineglasses and chairs to tap along, and many heads bobbed too. The group whirled us through dances and tales galore - Verbunkos, Hora, Gypsy Melodies, Jewish dances, Mosquitodance - fingers and hammers flying. The cimbalom's dynamic range was on full display (rendering clearly why Liszt was so inspired by this instrument); the violin and viola fiddling smoked brilliantly, and the bass kept us on a guided percussive course.
     Some songs were re-cycled from the previous evening, and some were new to us. A highlight for me was the "Tendl Pál dulcimer music", in which the melody features a classic Hungarian offbeat stress, which Kálmán Bálogh timed absolutely delightfully - the melody repeated often, and you knew to expect it, but you could never be sure just exactly when the jump would land. We were rapt. I was also very interested in the re-arranged melody from Bartók First Rhapsody for Violin and Piano, with which I am of course thoroughly acquainted - though perhaps because I know it so well, it struck me as the weakest piece of the programme. I prefer Bartók's harmonies to those the group chose, and the sound of the violin, to that of the viola, played tonight. Nonetheless, it was interesting to see which choices the group made regarding timing, and what freedoms they saw in the traditional melody, their differing interpretation of it therefore showing its intrinsic qualities from a new angle.
     The final piece on the programme was a decisive crossover - a mix of the Hungarian Verbunkos (recruiting dance) and the American Boogie-woogie with Yankee-doodle melody (recruiting melody?) The seamless interweaving of the two showed off the musicians' mastery of the styles and their similarities - true musicianship to the core.

The concert was a resounding success, and the standing ovation instantaneous. The concert's title, 
Hungarian Gypsy Jazz, had proven itself, not in any watered-down way, but in thorough enrichment.

     Following the performance, as Mr. Bálogh happily demonstrated the inner workings of the cimbalom, I too had a plethora of questions for the musicians - how do they notate their music? How much is free for improvisation, and how much decided in advance? How much Hungarian do you have to know to really understand it?
     As a devoted fan, recognized from the last concert, I secured myself some of this insider information ... and an invitation to chat more about it from the violinist. Still filled with questions (partially to inform this blog post, which was percolating in my head), of course I accepted. And I have to record some Bartók soon - how better to approach the subject of authenticity than ask someone playing folk music all about it?
     In speaking with Mr. Lakatos, I learned more of many curiousities about the music, of life bridging the folk and classical styles, and of life across the ocean. And once again, I gather that people are the same the world over - that the stresses he experiences are just the same as for anyone anywhere with long separations from family for touring/work, and the daily struggle to earn a living in a decent way. The trio had driven here from New York, and would be heading in that direction again tomorrow. Who drives? The violinist and bassist alternate, as the cimbalomist is prone to falling asleep at the wheel.

     - Though certainly not in concert. Tomorrow, before they leave, I'll read a few Bartók duos with Mr. Lakatos. Will osmosis transmit an authentic style? (I'm curious.)

     ... What it did was transmit the excitement of the music yet again, and show how the cultural understanding of it highlights it even more. Life is much better and easier with inspiration, and how lucky are we to be able to access it from such a vast array of cultures here in beautiful Crested Butte, whilst breathing in the natural mountain air and friendliness. As life and creativity is enriched, the osmosis is symbiotic (though my biology metaphors can doubtless use a tune-up). Through such a welcoming environment to share in, the festival enriches the lives of artists and audience alike, uniting us in all our many cultures. Come share in the fun ... this year, or next!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Article Discussion: Re: "Can One Hear the Sound of a Theorem"

Can One Hear the Sound of a Theorem?  Rob Schneiderman
Notices of the American Mathematical Society August 2011

In this blog, I believe I find myself generally having a positive tone. Normally I am writing about musicians and concerts, and have been having a great time, and, as I understand it, the general practice of critiquing music, perhaps more so in North America than in Europe, but nonetheless, is to acknowledge what has been given and achieved, and only then perhaps state which elements one might take exception to.

However, from my philosophical studies, I've learned also that the world of Acadamia is happy to enter battles of opinions rather more overtly, without mincing words.

Rob Schneiderman's article is of this nature, and my response to it is equally so.

I originally sent my response to the editor of the AMS, who wrote back to say I would have been invited to submit it for publication, but that I'd written too late. I blame summer/fall musician travels - the mind is elsewhere.

In any case, here goes. I will dig in. Oh, and yes, I include my credentials at the end.

Dear AMS Editor,

I am mystified as to what the point of Schneidermann's rather contrarian article "Can One Hear the Sounds of a Theorem" in the August issue might be, other than that it is very difficult to prove a rigorous correlation between mathematics and music. Certainly, his own examples don't hold up to his kind of scrutiny, any more than the examples of others he takes such pains to shoot down. The article reads more like a rant than a discussion or constructive criticism, and lacks a basic knowledge in the philosophy of aesthetic theory.
Take for example his attempt to distinguish between music/mathematics from other arts and sciences, via assigning "intrinsic meaning". Schneiderman realizes that this is a problematic concept (without a meaning-giver, ie. a person, is there actually meaning?) - and tries to get out of it by whittling down "intrinsic meaning" to "degrees of intrinsic meaning" ... but if a thing doesn't exist, how can you have degrees of it? As anyone who has studied the problems surrounding both formalism and hermeneutics knows, the concept of meaning is very difficult if not impossible to extract from human qualities and experiences. Equally problematic is his assertion regarding reference, that "both mathematics and music frequently do refer to the natural world". Reference, as philosophy of language tells us, is as troublesome a concept as meaning, and in taking the viewpoint that music and mathematics can refer, Schneiderman suddenly adopts a hermeneutic viewpoint that is completely unsupported by anything else in his article, and actually contradicted by his formalist stance elsewhere. Just as unsupported is his opinion that music is somehow more abstract than other art forms, which he defends solely on the basis of his own intuition, "I stand by the claim," and an attempt to describe his definition as "what is special to mathematics and music is that their content is capable of being expressed entirely in terms of their own raw material, namely, logical thought and audible sound". However, this latter sentence is merely a definition of abstraction, which exists in all the other art forms - painting as expressed in terms of interplays of light, dance as expressed in terms of motion, poetry as expressed in uniqueness of form, which may contain jibberish - the Jabberwocky poem of that great mathematician/writer Lewis Carroll comes to mind. Schneidermann tries to get out his dilemma by stating that abstracted poetry is music - but this is just an easy way out: "abstracted anything is mathematics or music", and takes us to a circular definition.
In the end, it appears that he is making the claim that "patterns that do not rely on sensory perception" are the core of his special categorization of mathematics and music. But again, this definition contradicts what he wrote earlier, having included "audible sound" as a "raw material" of music. Setting aside that discrepancy (and the floodgate of the artforms that the "raw materials" admission allows, as discussed above), it is unclear how he is establishing that there is anything that is especially non-sensory about music, other than his claim that it is somehow mathematical.

Another distinction he is missing is that between analysis and creativity, two opposites in terms of attitude. One similiarity between creating/discovering a musical piece and developing a theory along a branch of mathematics is that one sees how far an idea can go. The difference is that mathematical rules are less subjective, most will agree with what is proper or improper procedure, whereas in music one can decide at any moment to do anything - to create - and the result will be either more or less pleasing to various audiences, or up for argument. He dimisses all music that is inspired by mathematics - but where is the mention of some of the greatest "mathematical" composers, for example, Milton Babbitt, Iannis Xenakis, or even Pierre Boulez? There is a distinction between being inspired by and using mathematical constructs in musical composition, and creating new forms utilizing them (as so many 20th-and 21st-century composers do and with great success), and adhering to a rigorous one-to-one mapping between a mathematical concept and some (arbitrarily) chosen correspondence in the sound world, as appears to be the thing Schneiderman is railing against. The beauty and elegance of a composer's meaningful and convincing message using complicated mathematical constructs, is precisely that, on the basis of what appears to touch people, it need not be via one-to-one correspondence, and that we can feel a strong message even if the mathematical idea utilized is hidden. His example of Bach's crab canon is apt here - where the correspondence is too strong, the message we feel is that it is a little too perfect: it works, it tells us something, but there is something not entirely natural-feeling about it. And that is a difference between mathematics and music - we are supposed to be able to work out and understand mathematics to the last degree, and perfection of symmetry can be an end, but music is meant to leave something inexplicable, and also tell us something about ourselves - why do we find ourselves attracted to one form or another?

Perhaps his thesis is actually, that correlation between mathematics and music is merely metaphorical - for precisely the reason that mathematics does not take "raw material" to fill its place-holders, and music does. But if he wishes to claim that music is as pattern-oriented as mathematics, in order to support his claim that music is of an abstract nature, then he has again taken the leap of faith he criticizes in the other authors. Yet perhaps it is precisely this leap of faith that we must take in order to get the "what, if anything, do-music-and-math-have-in-common" project off the ground at all. That would be an interesting idea to develop further - and amazingly, would lead us not to need to reform the school curriculum anywhere as violently as he suggests, for his currently narrow view of what he considers "correct" in this regard would, I posit for the reasons I've mentioned above, open up to many more possibilities.


Claudia Schaer

Faculty, Bloomingdale School of Music, New York City

D.M.A. Stony Brook University, Violin Performance
Graduate Certificate Equivalent - Philosophy and Music
Aesthetics and Logic studies at Columbia University
MM, BM, The Juilliard School, Violin Performance