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Framed

“Good things come to those who wait,” and sometimes good things come in the form of obscure Welsh films that are worth waiting for – in this case, the adorable little movie Framed. In order to save precious art from a flooding London museum, the curator has all the paintings moved to a carefully guarded cave in a Welsh mountain. The town at the base of the mountain is tiny, and word travels fast. Through a series of misunderstandings, the young local schoolteacher arrives at the cave with the entire school, expecting a viewing of the famous works. The grumpy curator, once convinced to even let them in the cave at all, refuses to take the art out of its packing boxes. This sparks the foundational controversy of the rest of the movie – is art for everyone, or is it just for the elite?

One piece at a time, one person at a time, the art is seen anyway. Each person is inspired in a different way to create their own art, and the town slowly revives and comes together. The curator, seeing all this (and, incidentally, falling in love with the schoolteacher – duh) realizes the error of his thinking. Art can change the world one person at a time, but some art needs guardians; however, it is not the privilege of these guardians to know who will be inspired by the art they control, or in what way, so in order for art to continue, it is their duty to make it available to as many people as possible. So the curator’s lofty but misguided ideas about the purpose of art are shattered, and the whole town continues to benefit from his newfound kindness long after the paintings return to the museum.

Framed is such an innocence, unassuming movie that its timely message of arts advocacy packs all that more powerful of a punch. It is well worth an hour and a half to marvel at how many different layers of meaning can be crammed into the story of one big-wig art curator and one quirky town.

A Moral Imperative

I’d had to go to the bathroom for about an hour. It was my longest class of my longest day of the first week at a new school. There were only eight of us in there, and we were mostly strangers to each other.

But suddenly none of that mattered. We all became so zoned in on the professor that the room went totally silent. Nobody moved, we barely breathed, and I wasn’t worried about the bathroom any more. He had gotten quieter than he had been the entire class.

“Teaching is a moral imperative,” the teacher was saying. “It’s about giving people something, whether they want it or not.” (“Whether they know they need it or not. Like grace,” I added in my head.) He went on to explain that even though he tends to be a glass-half-empty kind of introvert, even he feels an urgent need inside him, pushing him to give to people through his teaching. Teaching is like giving life.

More than ever, I was extremely inspired to do the same – to be that kind of teacher for others. Our attentions were all riveted on him. I almost cried. The music education lady beside me DID cry. The class was over almost immediately afterwards. We all quietly and reluctantly stood and left, floating out of the room in a daze. “God is good!” another lady unashamedly stated in the hall as we walked away.

I don’t know how the teacher did what he did in the last few minutes of that class. But I intend to find out.

Teachers, never give up. Spiritual experiences can happen in classrooms, too.

 

Three Books

I firmly believe that an understanding of history is incredibly important to every aspect of music study. Whether it be literature, performance, theory, pedagogy, or what have you, if you don’t know the backgrounds of the people who composed, performed, theorized, and taught, the music means nothing beyond the notation on the page. It is the history of the musicians themselves and their environments that breathe life into music. I try to stock up on biographical knowledge with that in mind.

In the pursuit of that, I recently read three books (accidentally in a row) that covered World War II. The first was called Alice’s Piano and was about Alice Herz-Sommer, a Czech Jewish pianist who was deported to a concentration camp with her husband and son. While I did not think this was a particularly well-written book, its lack of certain detail actually spared me images of the camps which I did not want running around in my head. Otherwise, it was an easy-to-read description of Alice’s life through her upbringing, her beginnings as a performer, her marriage, her survival of the concentration camp, her rehabilitation afterward, and her life into very old age. It also provides a brief overview of Israel’s development into a nation and its struggles in its first few decades.

I’ll admit I wouldn’t have read the second book had I understood it was about the exact same time period, but I’m so glad I did. Lina and Serge: The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev follows the life of Serge Prokofiev’s wife. In a way, it was like reading Alice’s Piano over again. There were key differences of course, such as Lina was a vocalist, lived in the shadow of her husband, and seemed to have a conniving streak. But the women were very much the same. Both struggled to protect their children in the horrible economic conditions of war. One dealt with the Soviets throughout World War II, one the Nazis. One was sent to a Soviet gulag for crimes she did not commit, one was sent to a concentration camp for the crime of being born. Some similarities were even more eerie, such as both owned Forster grand pianos which were confiscated but later restored to them. I would never have noticed such things had I not read the books back to back. Doing so also put into perspective what was happening in Russia, Europe, and Israel simultaneously.

The third book was a tiny little gem I found on my shelf. Living With Music by David Barnett was written in the U.S. in 1944, before World War II was even over. It is mainly a short discourse on how music should be included in school curricula as a matter of course. (Having been raised that way myself, I see the wisdom in this approach.) He briefly discusses other things, such as his own invention which he called an enharmonic pianoforte keyboard, the success of his music program in getting parents involved, etc. The whole point of the little book (which takes barely any time to read) is stated a few times and runs as an undercurrent throughout its pages, essentially: World War II is in full swing, and the author sees music and the continuance of music education as extremely important, even necessary, to the rehabilitation of returning soldiers and the rebuilding of the world as a whole. Poignancy and philosophy are sprinkled through the whole book – really the entire thing is quotable, but it is so short that to quote more than a few things would be to practically rewrite it.

So try reading books about different aspects of the same era consecutively – maybe these three. They gave me a very broad perspective about three different aspects of a single era, two from women who thought two different people groups would kill them, and one from a man who was in no fear for his own life but feared for the future and for those who had experienced horrors he would never know. I would recommend buying all three of these books, especially Living With Music if you can find copies of it.

Grad School and the Deconstruction of Music

I have a friend who graduated with her master’s degree in English who complained about the emphasis on deconstruction in her graduate level English classes. I’d only ever heard of deconstruction in a postmodern sense of the word, so I looked it up. Merriam-Webster said this: “a theory used in the study of literature or philosophy which says that a piece of writing does not have just one meaning and that the meaning depends on the reader.” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/deconstruction) While this is pretty much the definition I was expecting, I now believe this definition can be expanded. If grad school has taught me anything, it’s that music can be and is constantly deconstructed as well. (Don’t let this be confused with the terrible joke about Mozart decomposing…. Decomposing and deconstructing are two very different things!)

Multiple times throughout my college career, in various theory classes or even theory-heavy history classes, we have picked apart entire pieces to the point that programmatic titles no longer mean anything and we have forgotten what the theme even sounds like. Sometimes to get to these points we do absurd things. This starts in freshman theory with Roman numeral analysis and just gets worse from there. At least in undergrad we were frequently reminded to go back and listen to the original piece to keep a good grasp on the big picture. But sometimes in grad school, the entire point of the course is to pick music apart, and the reminders to listen to the music as music become far more needed but even more rare.

A perfect example of advanced analysis came early in my piano performance master’s degree. We took an entire class about variation form and technique in which (among other things) we learned how some of the variations actualize tiny hidden aspects of the theme – an odd interval here, an accidental there. It was suggested that without those revealing variations, the piece would be far less meaningful if not practically incomplete. Never mind the beauty in themes or the poignancy in minore variations. This was just one example of minute details that became very important. And I jumped into this with both feet. I’ll be the first to admit, it can be very interesting and fun. But it’s all very objective and seems to be brought into being more by the interpreter than the composer.

But then things got really wild. The Schenkerian analysis class came along. The main conclusion of Schenkerian analysis (masqueraded as a joke) is that the melody line of an entire piece can be reduced to scale degrees ^3-2-1, and that the bass part can be reduced to I-V-I chords, or sometimes even just the I chord. Also, when the Schenkerian analyst picks the notes they perceive as important and designate those in his or her graph, it is extremely subjective. You could have as many arguments for stem length of one note as you have people in a class. We are taught that usually no one is more right than anyone else. If we hear the music or see the notes in another way and back it up with evidence, no one can tell us we are wrong. So many different possible interpretations make us doubt who is composing the piece – the original composer or the analyst.

Now, I am a huge nerd, and I enjoyed most of the process of getting to these deeply analytical points. However, in so many cases, these tiny details in many theory classes have prompted either I or others to ask the question, “But how do we know if the composer meant for us to interpret it this way, or did he just write that because it sounded good?”

And of course, the answer is always, “I don’t know.”

So I have two exhortations. For those of us who are teaching or will be teaching someday, always remember to remind your students to listen to the music and hear it AS music and not as homework or an Urlinie. The second encouragement is this:  listen to music that way yourself! The root of the joy of music is not in seeing pages full of analytical scribbles, but in hearing and reveling in the sounds and emotions that caused us to love music in the first place.

“Singing for Life in a Crypt”

I was thrilled to come across a unique performance on NPR’s Twitter account, and I’ve been obsessed with it for the last few days. Opera singer Lawrence Brownlee’s collaboration with jazz pianist Jason Moran makes a very moving, almost improvisational-sounding piece of art. Listen to this!

http://www.npr.org/event/music/466209900/singing-for-life-in-a-crypt-in-harlem

I was a fan of Jason Moran already, whose album Artist in Residence is conveniently on my iPod. My favorite track off that CD is “Cradle Song,” a creative spin on an old classic. But Lawrence Brownlee’s work was new to me. A quick Spotify search revealed that he is quite active. His “Deep River” is beautiful.

But the collaboration between the two of them creates a fantastic new version of an old song. NPR’s title of its Field Recording, “Singing for Life in a Crypt in Harlem,” is the perfect title for the perfect acoustical setting for a weighty song and issue like this. About their chosen repertoire, the old spiritual “There’s a Man Going ‘Round Taking Names,” Brownlee said, “Jason and I chose this song because we felt it accurately captures a growing sentiment that’s in society today. So many senseless deaths of young African-American men.” He also said they chose the crypt because they knew “that the ashes of the parishioners of this church are here in this crypt. You can feel the weight of death, you can feel the sting. It adequately captures the atmosphere, the somber mood that we are trying to capture with this song.”

Jason Moran’s slowly-building original accompaniment is nearly completely independent from Brownlee’s vocal part. Brownlee’s voice fills the eerie room, and Moran’s piano swells very slowly and beautifully at first, sparkling at the beginning and murmuring through the middle section. It is really a wonderful arrangement.

But the best part is the climax. Brownlee is singing, “Death! Death! Oh, death!” at the top of his lungs so passionately that spit is flying. At the same time, Moran is beating his accompaniment like a death knell, first in the bass and the treble, and then karate-chopping the treble notes with a chilling effect. The song peters out ominously soon afterwards.

The music, as amazingly done as it truly is, does not leave much hope, and neither do Brownlee’s words about the crypt. But just think. Brownlee is following in the tradition of the likes of Marian Anderson, who fought for the acceptance of African American opera singers, and Moran is following in the steps of the likes of Teddy Wilson, one of the first and most lyrical African American jazz pianists. Those artists and others like them established a musical culture in the U.S. that makes it so NPR feels honored to record these talented African American musicians. So much has already happened for good in this country in that way.

And another ray of hope – despite death and tragedy, those who are in Christ Jesus do not need to fear the “sting” of death anymore. Instead, we can sing with Sarah Vaughan, “There’s gonna be a great day.”

Kandinsky Piano Trio

Anyone can sense the presence of mastery. Awareness of it shows up in various ways – goosebumps, shivers, a sudden vision of your own smallness. Any expertise can create these feelings, from sweeping architecture to Pixar animation. I am willing to bet that at least once this kind of awe touched everyone who attended the concert of the Kandinsky Piano Trio at the University of Oklahoma on February 5th. Such professionalism, precision, and tone quality stands out, even to people who are surrounded by good music.

Right before the concert, the violinist’s music was misplaced. The cellist stood and explained the dilemma at the beginning of the concert while the violinist and the pianist scrambled to arrange his newly-printed music. They were obviously flustered, and yet the first piece on the program, a short and somewhat ethereal commissioned work called “Burst,” was flawless, and the performers’ nerves seemed to disappear the moment they began to play.

My favorite part of piano trios is the exchange of the theme or of motives between the instruments. This was most obvious in the writing of the Mozart trio. The pianist is one of those musicians who put their hands down on the piano and heaven floats out in their tone. Some call those kinds of people a “musician’s musician.” Whatever they are, oh, the tone was beautiful. That and the precise exchange between the parts throughout the entire first sonata were the best aspects of this second piece on the program.

The next piece after intermission was a bit of an enigma. The audience’s attention was immediately caught by the title of this brooding contemporary work. Searching for razbliuto by Robert Pannell has two depressingly titled movements, “(or, I’ve slept on the couch since you went away)” and “(or, I want my skillfully stuffed memories).” A quote in the program notes by the composer explained this bizarre title somewhat. “Razbliuto is a word that describes the feeling one has towards someone they were once in love with but no longer love. It’s a word that is multifaceted for me. It’s got elements of beauty, sadness, nothingness and monotony. When I first heard of the word, I immediately thought of an e. e. cummings poems, ‘It is so long since my heart has been with yours.’ From the poem’s structure I gathered the initial pitch sets for the piece.” This music is definitely worth hearing.

But the most powerful music on the program was the last piece, Smetana’s Trio in G Minor, Op. 15. To ensure that the audience noticed the story of the music in the program notes, the cellist (apparently the spokesman of the group) told the story of how Smetana had composed his trio after the death of his first child, his daughter Bedriska. She was only four and a half and was proving to be a musical prodigy. It is tragic music, interspersed with funeral marches, snatches of children’s songs, and angry, sawing themes. The Kandinsky Trio expressed these emotions so well, so poignantly, so pristinely, that when the triumphant, optimistic ending came, the whole room felt uplifted.

This performance made me thankful to go to OU and get the chance to hear this. I think lots of people walked away from this concert inspired. I know I did. And so, perhaps, did the little girl who sat in front of us till intermission and was crying when her parents and she had to leave. Who knows if that night a young life was set on a path of artistry? You never know who is paying attention to what you do.

http://www.kandinskytrio.org/

Shards: Piano Music of Jonathan Pieslak

A friend recently lent me three CDs of new American piano music, knowing my love of American music, new music, and of course piano. So he rightly guessed that these CDs would be perfect for me. The first one I listened to is called Shards: Piano Music of Jonathan Pieslak, and the performer is Robert Auler. It was released by Albany Records in 2014.

Four main pieces make up the recording. The title piece, Shards, comes first. It is very difficult, worthy to be included on any program. The liner notes say that in the pianist’s recitals, this work has held its own in audience opinion even when played along with classic, well-known pieces, and I believe it. It is a very interesting piece, with huge contrasts throughout, portrayed very well by Auler.

The second piece on the recording, Bhakti (1), unburdening, I did not like at all. Its implied Hindu words and motives combined with the pre-recorded, new-age style instrumental track just aren’t my style. If that is your thing, then this piece is for you.

The third piece, American Atmospheres, is a delightful series of eleven programmatic etudes, with titles such as “Solar flares,” “Vertigo wedge,” and “A waltz between the sun and the moon.” My favorite was number IX., “Cuban carnaval.” Its Caribbean rhythms immediately reminded me of Ricky Ricardo.

My favorite on this CD, however, was the last one. The title of Prednisomnia immediately caught my eye, mainly because I am allergic to prednisone. So what on earth did that title mean? The liner notes by the composer explained. “In the fall of 2010 I was diagnosed with a kidney disorder of unknown origin but well-known treatment. A very high dose of prednisone (a steroid) became my daily ritual and until September 2012, the drug dictated my lifestyle. In Prednisomnia (2011), I try to musically convey the sensation that one’s mind is forcibly controlled by a drug that permits one to witness his or her uncharacteristic behavior, but restrains one from being able to change it.” I was intrigued before even hearing the piece. Due to my recent struggle with hormonally-induced depression, I know exactly the feeling he is talking about – watching your behavior but not being able to change it. So I was fascinated to hear how a piece like this would sound. It delivered from the beginning. Erratic chords and rhythms combined with a constantly whirling string of oddly-accented sixteenth-notes, interspersed with pounded chords and tasteful glissandi really expressed what the liner notes discuss. When the dynamics and texture drop down, it creates just as much of a sense of dread of what is coming next as it does a sense of relief that the last mood swing is over. And sure enough, the loud hectic section returns. At about halfway through the piece, the mood changes to generally quiet and brooding. There is more hope in this section, perhaps portrayed even by some a few major chords. These are followed by some quiet but obsessive repeated notes and figures. One more loud section pushes its way into the piece, then it ends on a very soft, low note. The version I heard can be found here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8awl2rNZIs  The piece performed with its original scoring (bass clarinet, cello, violin, and piano) can be found here. It is even more fascinating, due to the extended techniques employed and the various timbres. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsMcgvi-GzI

Let it be known, however, that for the Christian struggling with depression or any mentality that this piece might represent, the fight doesn’t end on a quiet, low note of despair, but eventually in a shout of victory at the foot of the Cross.

“I just wasted my time on THAT?”

“So much music, so little time,” my high school piano teacher Noma Curtis always used to say. And she’s right. So much good music is just floating around out there, and between Spotify and Youtube and Naxos and the radio and live performances and online sheet music and libraries full of scores and more music being discovered and written and recorded every day, how on earth are we supposed to pick what we take the time to listen to or learn or study? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do that life is short. Every day, I am introduced to more and more music, performers, artists, etc. that the world needs to know about. But I also come across things that make me think, “Well, I just wasted my time sitting through that.” Based on the fact that life is short and there is too much good music to listen to, shouldn’t people be warned about the bad stuff and pointed toward the good stuff?

So that’s what I want this blog to be – a music critiquing blog. I am sure other things will creep onto it, but that’s what it will start as at least. As I learn and grow as a musician, I want to be constantly listening to new and varied music, and I know there are other people out there who want to do the same. So this will review all sorts of things – performances, old recordings, new recordings, classical, jazz, Christian, favorite composers, favorite pieces, books about music, what I heard on the radio – hopefully all sorts of things. Maybe even philosophical ramblings about grad school experiences. We shall see.

But mainly, let’s just enjoy the music.