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The People’s Artist

I doubt there will ever be a more thorough examination of Sergei Prokofiev’s life than that written by Simon Morrison in his book The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years (Oxford University Press, 2009). I greatly appreciate the attention to detail and the phenomenal amount of dedication and work a book of this scope must have taken. It is unquestionably the definitive catalogue of Prokofiev’s work during his life in Russia.

But I’m not entirely sure such meticulousness is a good thing. The depth of scrutiny makes the book dry, not because Prokofiev himself was dry, but because that amount of detail about anyone or anything inevitably leaves a feeling of sawdust in one’s mouth—or brain. Specifics of musical scores, revisions, performers, conductors, editors, copyists, official reviewers, and performance dates are just a few of the things listed about many of Prokofiev’s works. Details involving Russian names are perpetually confusing. This, however, is not necessarily the fault of the author (except where Russian nicknames are included in primary source quotes without explanation). Similarities between Russian names and the constant rotating of authorities in political offices during the Stalin regime make following the timeline of most of Prokofiev’s colleagues almost impossible. The same thing is true of the names of various Soviet organizations – one falls out of favor, a new one rises in its place, and the names are so similar that only by paying scrupulous attention will a reader be able to follow exactly what is happening and to whom.

Having said that, gems sparkle here and there throughout The People’s Artist. Descriptions of Prokofiev’s working relationships are thought-provoking, such as with composers Kabalevsky and Shostakovich, film director Eisenstein, pianist Richter, cellist Rostropovich, and lyricist/mistress-turned-second-wife Mira Mendelssohn. Morrison also makes the point that throughout Prokofiev’s life, he struggled to remain an individual and not succumb to Stalinist pressures to keep compositions simple, folk-based, and people/worker-friendly, an elusive concept that changed definition with the whimsies of the dictator. Prokofiev seemed to live in fear that according with these demands would turn him into a second Tchaikovsky.

Prokofiev tried to keep his own voice to the end, making him the easiest standard to uphold in music history today as the contrast to Shostakovich—fighting for artistic freedom while Shostakovich folded to pressure. I’m not sure either label is deserved; Prokofiev had his fair share of submissions to political demands (a struggle with almost every large-scale work), and Shostakovich had his share of rebellions. To brand Shostakovich as a coward is perhaps less fair and less truthful than it would be to brand Prokofiev as obstinate, demanding, and whiny when things didn’t go his way.

And yet this image of an artistically courageous Prokofiev has been romanticized. Despite my opinion of him as a person, a quote near the end of the book describing Prokofiev’s funeral (he died the same day as Stalin) still touched me. Alfred Schnittke’s words bear repeating in full: “Along an almost deserted street that ran parallel to the seething mass hysterically mourning the passing of Stalin, there moved in the opposite direction a small group of people bearing on their shoulders the coffin of the greatest Russian composer of the time…. I regard this picture as symbolic. To move against the tide in those days was hopeless. Yet even then there was—just as in earlier ages—the possibility of a choice between two decisions, only one of which was right.” (pg. 389)

 

*For a much more readable example of Morrison’s biographical work, read Lina and Serge: The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013). It brilliantly tells the story both of a heartbroken, lonely wife and of the discomforts and terrors of a high-profile foreign woman abandoned in Soviet Russia. Much of my opinion of (and distaste for) Prokofiev’s personality comes from this book.*

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Words Without Music

I recently reassured a musician friend that when Philip Glass ran out of money doing music, he felt no shame in driving a cab or being a plumber to make ends meet. Having worked in a chicken house myself, I found this a very comforting piece of information. If Philip Glass, one of the most famous living modern composers (I would say along with John Addams and Steve Reich), wasn’t ashamed to make money in ways other than music, then other musicians should definitely not be embarrassed to do what it takes to make a living while doing what we love.
Since I already knew this tidbit, when I got Philip Glass’s autobiography, Words Without Music, I read it almost immediately. I found it fascinating and very well written. Surprisingly, large portions were not about music. But considering what I already knew about Glass, is it really that surprising? Glass is a man with other interests and hobbies besides music, and he obviously enjoys writing about them.
Like any good autobiography, Words Without Music starts with Glass’s early life, tracking influences on his later career. By college age, Glass already kept company with such greats as Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar. His description of Boulanger’s teaching method is the best I have ever read. His list of well-known friends throughout his life included dozens of other cutting-edge authors, musicians, artists, and actors. His wife JoAnne was an actress, involving Glass by association in avant-garde theater in both France and the U.S., creating important friendships and avenues of composition for the stage which otherwise would have been unavailable to him. His inundation in modernism of all kinds encouraged his experimentalist style all the more.
Some of the best parts of the book include Glass’s descriptions of his trips to India, the creations of his operas (especially his “portrait operas” of Einstein, Gandhi, and Akhnaten), and the cultural climate among artists throughout his life. The most fascinating observation, perhaps in the entire book, is about the effect of AIDS on the artistic community in the late 1900s. Glass implies that through the deaths of both homosexual and heterosexual artists due to AIDS, modernist talent was decimated. His own development was affected by this, since he lost friends and acquaintances repeatedly to the disease. Glass tactfully causes readers to mourn this lost talent and wish for a better world.
This book is well worth reading for anyone interested in 20th century music history, the culture of New York City post-1950, or Indian spiritualism. One might think that a book exploring so many topics would be disjointed, but Glass weaves it all together as artfully as a minimalist piece.

 

The Defense of Art (A Short Story)

The Plaintiff stood midway up the courthouse steps, hands in his pockets, staring at the inscription pounded into the marble above the entrance: “OF THE PEOPLE, BY THE PEOPLE, FOR THE PEOPLE.” He shook his head and went into the building.

The Defendant ran up the steps a few minutes later, almost late, pausing only to note the beauty of the edge of the white roof against the blue sky.

The courtroom was quiet. Only a few spectators sat in the pews. A bored stenographer and a dozing bailiff sat in opposite corners. Plaintiff and Defendant sat at separate tables, ignoring each other. Two lazy ceiling fans diffused the sunlight streaming through the windows.

The judge entered so quietly that the bailiff did not wake up to announce his presence. Plaintiff and Defendant stood, followed by one or two audience members. The judge sat. Everything about his appearance was spick and span, but there was a look of amusement on his face. “This court will come to order,” he whispered, then looking toward the bailiff, smashed his gavel down. The bailiff awoke with an upright jolt, glared at the judge, and slumped back in his chair.

The judge turned to the courtroom. “You may be seated,” he said, picking up the papers on his desk. “As you already know, my name is Judge Striving. I see here we have the Plaintiff, Mr. Purity, suing the Defendant, Mr. Scorn, for copyright infringement. Are either of you expecting representation?”

“No, your honor, we are representing ourselves,” said Mr. Purity.

“And for the record, your honor, I prefer to go by Mr. Nonchalant,” said the Defendant.

The judge looked down at his papers. “It says here your legal name is Mr. Scorn, and that is how you will be addressed in this court,” he said. Looking to see that the stenographer was ready, he nodded to the Plaintiff. “You may state your case.”

“Thank you, your honor.” Mr. Purity rose, buttoned his designer suit, and began. “Your honor, I am a composer. I write classical, high-brow music for competent, trained musicians. I have been extensively educated myself, and my career has encompassed many things:  professional performing and recording of classics, my own works, and other commissioned works; performances with eminent chamber groups; solo and chamber competitions (in which I always place highly); direction of radio and film orchestras; conservatory teaching at several prominent arts schools around the globe; and presentation of my original research and compositions at top tier venues, both domestically and internationally. I have spent my life being nothing but the best, always living up to other composers’, artists’, and authors’ intentions to the best of my ability. I believe that only with this level of perfection is any art truly Art.

“Six months ago, I hired the Defense to premier a newly published composition of mine at an important conference. I had put extensive work into writing it, and I was only willing to put it into the hands of a performer who would truly do it justice. I had heard good things about Mr. Scorn’s competency as a musician and about his interpretive abilities, and believed that he would best serve for the first performance of the piece. I got in touch with Mr. Scorn and asked him if he would be willing to play my piece at the conference. He said yes, so I sent it to him. Based on the recommendations I had received of him, I expected and trusted him to faithfully perform his duty to me, to the score, and to the artistic expectations of the audience.

“That is not what happened. Mr. Scorn sat at the piano and lived up to his name – he scorned the score in a reprehensible fashion. In fact, he performed with the score itself, which is an unheard-of breach of performance etiquette at that particular conference. I am not saying he was necessarily unprepared. Mr. Scorn had clearly studied the music and had made interpretive decisions. But the decisions he made, and the manners in which he executed them, were flippant. He did not at all live up to what I had heard about his expressiveness and artistry. Toward the end of the piece, he lost his place and briefly improvised until he found it again. Now, I understand making the occasional mistake. No one is perfect. But he all but laughed out loud on stage while desecrating my coda. He smirked, shook his head, even glanced at the audience in a jovial way. If he prefers to be called Mr. Nonchalance, truly, that seems appropriate; he didn’t seem to care about the integrity of or my intention behind the score. As this goes against every fiber of my being and every principle of my training, I am suing Mr. Scorn for copyright infringement based on misrepresentation of intellectual property.”

Perhaps Judge Striving smiled, perhaps not. But he put his glasses on and looked over them at Mr. Purity. “This is a bit unprecedented,” he said. “You are suing a fellow musician for not being perfect. There is no such thing as a perfect performance, Mr. Purity. You, as a musician yourself, must know there is always room for improvement.”

“No, I am suing him for not caring if he was not perfect,” replied the Plaintiff. “I paid him to represent my work as well as possible. I do not believe he tried.”

“I see.” Judge Striving fingered his gavel, stared briefly at Mr. Purity, and turned to the Defendant. “The Plaintiff has made his opening remarks. Please do so yourself.”

Mr. Scorn bounded to his feet, re-buttoning his suit over his small paunch as he did so. He was a lean man in all aspects but that, but this detail made the difference between him and his carefully tailored, exercised, and manicured opponent even starker. He pushed his hair out of his face before beginning.

“Thank you, your honor. I myself feel very attacked and misrepresented,” he said, a bit huffily. “I also am a classically trained musician. I had a wonderful piano teacher. She was well-trained, inspiring, and strict, pushing me to perfect adherence to any score I learned. But she also had a sense of fun, and we did not learn just classical music. We explored jazz, blues, pop, and hymn arrangements, even though classical music was our main focus. The variety was educational and fun, and kept me interested in piano. But she pushed for perfection in those other genres just as in classical music. She did not lower her standards just because the music we were learning was not as traditional as Mozart or Rachmaninoff.

“I have always tried to keep that sense of fun alive in my playing and composing ever since (yes, Mr. Purity, I compose, too). I practice every day but do not kill myself over it. I am a dedicated performer but do not stress about it. Because of these things, I am well-known throughout my community. This must be obvious, since Mr. Purity had heard good things about my playing and wanted to hire me. But I also have had my fair share of idiotic blunders on stage. Memory slips, pages of music flying off the piano, large bugs hitting me in the face at outdoor concerts. At first, these mishaps would shatter me. I would become extremely embarrassed and my performance anxiety would get worse for the next several performances. But one day I realized, ‘Why am I doing this to myself? It is just music –‘

A disturbed fluttering of hands and rolling of eyes from the Plaintiff.

“- and the point of music is to share it and have fun! To share it well, yes. But as you say, your honor, there will never be such a thing as a perfect performance (wise words, sir), so why beat yourself up when you do something that in fact isn’t perfect? Perfection, my dear court, is not possible this side of heaven.” Since there was no jury, the case being too low profile, he turned and looked dramatically at the tiny audience. “So why not make light of it when we mess up? I say, let music be about the fun of it!

“So yes, I practiced Mr. Purity’s music, and I played it to the best of my ability. When I lost my place, rather than stopping, I improvised till I found my place again. I won’t deny that. I would not so blatantly imprint myself on the work of another composer unless given express permission to do so, but I did it in an attempt to salvage the performance. And rather than beat myself up over the mistake (which was rather horrendous, I will admit), I chose to laugh it off and include the audience in the joke to put them more at ease. Audiences don’t like it when performers mess up, either. It ruins the moment for them and makes them uncomfortable and nervous. So I was just trying to keep the situation light, which I feel is my duty when sharing music with an audience. Even if, as in this case, the music is pitter-pattery, overly serious, twentieth century-style drivel.”

“Objection!” Mr. Purity yelled over the laughter from the audience. He sprang to his feet, his face extremely red.

Judge Striving banged his gavel, more because he thought he wouldn’t get another chance than out of necessity. The laughter had already stopped. “Sustained,” he smirked. “Mr. Scorn, no more low blows, please. Mr. Purity, do you have a response to the Defense’s statement that he did his best?”

“Yes, your honor. I believe if you are not going to play as close to perfectly as humanly possible, you should not play at all. I’m curious how much Mr. Scorn practiced my music. He says he practices, but how many hours a day? And did he practice my music enough? I clearly think not. If there was any doubt in his mind that he would be less than spectacular, he should have practiced it four, six, ten hours a day. He should have studied it while he ate meals. And he certainly should have memorized it, rather than using the score like he did. Besides, memorization would have improved his understanding of the piece and therefore his performance.”

“Objection,” said Mr. Scorn. “To suggest practicing ten hours a day seems unreasonable, both for practicality and injury prevention reasons, and because you were not paying me nearly enough to spend so much time on your piece.”

“I was paying you to perform the piece well. I am not responsible for how much time you have to spend to do that. You agreed on the fee.”

“Objection overruled. I agree with the Plaintiff in that case – you agreed on the fee. But gentlemen, this is bickering, not good court procedure. Please be more organized and civil. Plaintiff, continue if you have something constructive to say.”

“Perhaps perfection in the eyes of the performer himself isn’t achievable. As you say, there will always be something he knows he could have done better. But I believe the audience deserves to hear perfection. They will not know if you meant to make a certain forte a shade louder – they will simply hear a forte, which is correct in either case. I agree with the Defense that performing is indeed about sharing music – but sharing it exquisitely. We as performers should know the music so well that we master it, beat it into submission so that it can seem easy and seem to soar and float freely from the instrument – seem effortless to the audience. They should be able to hear the works of the masters and the beauty of music in all its glory, without hindrance. Mr. Scorn said he did not want the audience to be uncomfortable because he messed up, because that put audiences on edge. I agree with that also. But I believe we should be so excellently rehearsed, so carefully prepared, so thoroughly one with the music that the audience has cause to trust the performer explicitly with their aesthetic experience.

“To sum up, if we as performers and musicians will not see to it that audiences get a perfect and faithful representation of the music they came to hear, then what are we doing? Why bother to play at all if not to pursue perfection, no matter what the cost to ourselves? It is our duty to music and those who write it.”

“Does that conclude your statement?”

“Yes, your honor.”

“Then Mr. Scorn, please make your closing statement. It seems we will get to wrap this case up rather quickly.”

Mr. Scorn rose. “I simply wish to expound on some of my previous statements. I believe music is about sharing fun, and beauty, and art. What is the point of music if not to arouse emotions that speaks to the soul? And what speaks to the soul more than joy, or fun? I don’t mean to harp on that, but truly, shouldn’t the performer get to have fun as well as the audience? I never want my audience to be uncomfortable. But I don’t want to be uncomfortable either. I dare say there are other things in life besides practicing six to ten hours daily, and more to life than performance anxiety and regret when things go wrong, or not ‘perfectly.’ If the integrity of the score suffers a bit, so be it as long as performer and audience are having fun sharing music, sharing Art. If the composer’s intentions suffer a bit, so what? (And where, by the way, does my voice as interpreter get to come in? But I won’t be so self-involved as to develop this idea here and now.) The enjoyment of the music should be foremost in everyone’s minds. Reaching for unattainable perfection just stresses everyone out, and music should not be stressful. And that is all I have to say in my own defense.”

Judge Striving looked between them silently several times, then shuffled his robe and eased himself back in his leather chair.

“Well, sirs, I don’t mean to be offensive, but I think you are both being ridiculous.”

The audience snickered, and the stenographer glanced up at him. Such a personal opinion rarely escaped the lips of Judge Striving.

“Your honor, trying to pursue excellence is not ridiculous. It is….”

“You had your say,” the judge interrupted. “And I didn’t say pursuing excellence is ridiculous. I said YOU are being ridiculous. Pursuing excellence is a noble, worthy, lifelong goal. Neither of you are doing that, however. Mr. Purity, your problem is that you think you are already pursuing excellence. Perfection and excellence are two different things. You pursue perfection in your art. That is not possible – you yourself agree with that. But to pursue it is fine. But there is a delicate mental balance there when it comes to your attitude about your art and your performances. Humans control their attitudes. How do you respond when a performance goes badly, Mr. Purity?”

“I don’t let them go badly.”

“Nonsense. You agreed with the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect performance.”

“Well, I mean, I’m naturally unhappy about anything that goes wrong.”

“And how do you feel when you practice for eight to ten hours a day?”

“Driven. Motivated. Focused.”

“And? Do you ever feel desperate? Exhausted? Frustrated?”

“Well, sometimes. That just comes with the territory.”

“But it doesn’t have to.” Judge Striving poked the desk at every word. “Why torture yourself? That is not mentally healthy. That is not pursuing excellence or health in your personal life. How do you treat other people when you feel this way?”

“I avoid people when I feel that way.”

“That is not pursuing a well-adjusted social balance in your life. And surely sometimes you must see people while in such a mood. How do you treat them then?”

Mr. Purity folded his hands in front of him. “Probably not that kindly.”

“So you are not pursuing excellence in your manners or relationships. So my point is this:  you may be pursuing excellence – even perfection – in your physical art, but that is not the only aspect that makes art enjoyable. Your personal life affects your art. To pursue true excellence in those things, you might have to do what you find unthinkable and slack off on things that you think are necessary – like the excessive practicing.

“But that is only one side of the coin. Mr. Scorn, you seem to have gone too far in the other direction. In the attempt to hit the correct balance, you appear to have stopped pursuing true excellence on the art side. We don’t know how much you practice – you never specifically said. Maybe you practiced hard and did your best at the performance in question. But that is not really the question anymore. It appears you have done better than Mr. Purity at relaxing about your art, but you seem to have relaxed too far. Your attitude is definitely healthier than Mr. Purity’s. But if you are touting yourself as an artist and a performer, then you still have a duty to Art and to your audience to do your best to share the music truthfully with them, and you no longer seem to be doing this.

“You are both equally prideful about your position. Mr. Purity, you are proud of your determination to work as hard as necessary – to the exclusion of kindness, mental health, and your life in general – to achieve what you think of as perfection. Mr. Scorn, you are proud of your nonchalance (I can see why you wanted to be called that) about a job badly done, even though you say you like to do well. This court finds both types of pride unacceptable, and both in need of punishment.”

Mr. Scorn slammed his head dramatically into the table, but Mr. Purity leapt to his feet. “Punishment! I am the one suing, your honor!” His face was bright red. Mr. Scorn looked up and chuckled, realizing that at least he would feel some revenge against his opponent.

“Do you think I have forgotten that?” asked Judge Striving. “If you bring a matter to court, Mr. Purity, you are agreeing to abide by the court’s decision. Sit down and do not raise your voice again, or I will hold you in contempt of said court.”

Mr. Purity thumped back into his seat, satisfying some of his anger by glaring at Mr. Scorn.

“Gentlemen, you are both off the mark. You both seem to think, in your own ways, that aiming for the middle ground is a form of mediocrity. But there are some aspects of life in which striving for a middle ground is actually the opposite of mediocrity. You are artists and human beings; therefore you must strive to be the best you can be at both of those things. If that means passing up some practicing time so that you can graciously interact with friends, or help someone, or spend some time relaxing, then so be it, Mr. Purity. You must be both a human being and an artist. Mr. Scorn, perhaps sometimes you will have to pass up a socializing opportunity, or relax less, and spend some extra hours practicing your art with more discipline and focus. Frankly, you both need to learn something from each other, however distasteful you might find that.

“So here is the court’s judgment. Mr. Scorn, for six months you are to practice serious music three hours a day in a focused manner, and socialize on no more than four days out of the week.”

“Three hours? Four days??” wailed Mr. Scorn, truly thinking his life was over on both counts.

“You won’t die,” laughed Judge Striving. “It should teach you not to scorn your art, and yet not to take the fun part of life too much for granted. You will keep a log and turn it into the court at the end of six months, otherwise the length of the punishment will be doubled. Or if you whine about it here.”

Mr. Scorn’s mouth snapped shut.

“Mr. Purity, also for six months, you are to play popular music for three hours a day, and socialize on no less than four days a week. Also keep a log for the court.”

Having learned from watching Mr. Scorn’s complaints, Mr. Purity kept his raging opinions to himself. He simply whispered through white lips, “Popular music?”

“Yes. Rock, country, jazz, show tunes, Indie covers, whatever you want. Just not serious music. Form a band on your socializing days, record some music, I don’t care, just have fun with it. Or try,” he said, smirking at the look of complete distress on Mr. Purity’s face. “This won’t kill you either. I hope it teaches you to be more human and remember that art is meant to be a cause of joy, rather than torture for the artist. I think you will enjoy it in the end.”

Judge Striving sat for a brief moment, contemplating the looks of shock on both men’s faces. He shook his head and smiled. Tapping his gavel, he declared the court dismissed and rose. The bailiff, awake this time, jumped to his feet and cried, “All rise!” in such a raucous voice that he seemed to be making up for missing it the first time.

The Plaintiff and the Defendant left the building side by side, which only happened peacefully due to mental preoccupation. As if of one accord, they stopped on the courthouse steps and turned to look at the inscription:  “OF THE PEOPLE, BY THE PEOPLE, FOR THE PEOPLE.”

“I guess that’s what Art is all about in the end,” said Mr. Purity quietly.

“Guess so.” Mr. Scorn shrugged and left.

Mr. Purity looked once more at the inscription, noticing the beauty of the edge of the white roof against the blue sky as he did so. He sighed and walked away.

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.