Years later and I love all kinds of contemporary music, and I've listened to Dawn Upshaw singing all kinds of things, and I've discovered this incredible pianist Gilbert Kalish who has done so much for legitimizing modern music through a historical context. Last night, I was able to hear these two iconic artists together in recital.
I have been unable to put much on my blog the last several months, but given that this week I have 3 marvelous concerts I get to go to, and my performing obligations are winding down for the year, I wanted to reflect on some of this music that i'm hearing. I'm less interested in giving concert reviews, than turn to some short-form thoughts and impressions from these performances.
Rarely will I ever get to hear such remarkable artists live. The communicative effort of both Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish was clear from the very first notes either of them gave in the recital. Their collaborative partnership is clearly affectionate and respectful.
I was explaining to my Dad-who accompanied me-what it was that made someone like Gilbert Kalish a better pianist than me. It seemed that the best thing I could suggest was that he has such wisdom in his playing. He's able to communicate his interpretation so clearly and so naturally, that I feel no need to consider any other interpretive choices. I could fully entrust his musical decisions. I don't know how much of this comes from someone who has performed, recorded and taught as much as he has, and how much of it he had when he was my age, but I can only hope to gain such wisdom as I continue to work.
Dawn Upshaw...Well, it was a dream to hear her voice live. I'm amazed at her clear language: She sang (and memorized!) a set of songs by Bartok, and between her diction and acting, I might have convinced myself that I understood Hungarian, were I not following the original and translated poetry in the program. Like Kalish, the musicality and poetry are so present. She rarely had to use her full voice in this program, but that didn't mean every note wasn't stunning and expressive. For all our talk as pianists of having a 'singing tone', she was able to utilize such direct softness in her tone, which still filled the room.
himself probably heard these same bells. I like to at least think they were the exact same bells, but certainly he heard some very similar. And quite possibly they were rung the exact same way in his day as that day I heard them: by a rope pulled by a church employee.
Given how much the world has changed in the 200+ years since Mozart lived there, it was quite a wondrous realization that such a sound could connect myself to such a famous figure.
That moment, and that thought, have inspired me since, especially as I explore traditional repertoire again. This music, truly ‘classical’ music connects figures through time in the same way these bells did. In performing the music of Mozart, I have a direct connection to the artistic passions of a man who lived hundreds of years before, who history has decided to remember. But I’m also connected to people who have played this music since. Great artists who have turned simple notes on a page into beautiful, magical art in sound. The excitement one feels sharing a passion with a friend is amplified when you get to share it with a host of people through time.
I’ve been finding this concept inspiring, but also humbling.
This music has survived for so many generations for good reason, and I must try to do it justice. There is a certain amount of social capital involved by joining the tradition of performing classical music. So many beautiful artistic ideas have been cultivated with these scores and I have a responsibility to do justice to this artistry.
But the time which it has survived through is also present when I play it. These bells I heard in Salzburg rang during war, and were heard by all sorts of figures and events that history would rather forget. The music of Mozart has been played and enjoyed by contemptable people as well. The responsibility of playing this music and accepting the history it has is not just a matter of artistry, but also of reconciliation, of a wish to do good in and for the world.
This is one aspect of studying and performing music which contemporary works cannot share in. Non-canonical repertoire simply does not have the accrued temporal history to carry such baggage, both good and bad. As I stated in my previous posts, this is precisely what I was looking for in pursuing the study of contemporary music. But I don’t know a person who doesn’t have some curiosity to understand history. The classical canon gives performers the opportunity to connect through time with sound to history, to worlds long forgotten, and to try and change the world we live in.
I thought I should share how I was drawn to play music like this…
This situation is different. First, I’m drawn to the beauty of the music and text. The same holds true for the other crazy, abstract music I play, and the other spectacle-like performances I’ve done, such as ones on toy piano.
This was not always so!
I used to hate contemporary music. I remember when my college teacher assigned me this piece the summer before my sophomore year. Dutifully, I purchased the score but could not bring myself to work on it. Visually I was intimidated: there are sections without meter, sections with weird changing meters. Aurally I was insulted: there are chords built out of difficult collections of intervals and where was the tonal center? I had no idea how to grasp it. This isn’t even getting into the horror I later looked at the music of serial composers, like this one, with. What awful, kerplunkity music. How are you even supposed to know if I’m playing the right notes or not?
What I always was interested in, however, was rarely heard music by older composers. I spoke a little more about this in my Influential Books series post on Kenneth Hamilton’s After the Golden Age. That book opened my eyes to this brand new way of playing the piano that I was so attracted to.
I tried to approach music with fresh ears in graduate school. I ran into some trouble preparing Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in Bb minor, from WTC 1. I came to the realization that I (and really anyone who plays it) was counting the Prelude in 8/8 meter, rather than the marked 4/4. Which is to say, I played it so slowly, that the eighth note, rather than the quarter, was the actual beat. This seemed wrong. So I moved to a slow quarter note pulse, which brought out an angsty, raging piece. It sounded fast, but in reality, I was just counting the piece in the proper meter. The dramatic moment near the end with a pause over a diminished 7th chord became an even greater moment of discord and emotion.
I was very lucky to have my teacher at the time who let me play that way, so different than anyone else has, and even helped me make my case a little more convincing, even if he himself wasn’t convinced! But I knew I wouldn’t always be lucky, and I knew that I had a lot to learn about being a convincing, artistic performer.
I realized that I needed to mature. But to get the best of both worlds, I found a solution: I could pursue the kind of playing I was after if I focused on music without an established performance tradition. Enter the Doctorate of Music Arts in Contemporary Music at Bowling Green State University.
I was honored to receive one of the limited spots in this program in 2011. I had learned to accept the accessible contemporary music by this time, and was eager to learn more. It’s a difficult program, full of academic work, which challenges your mind, and your time management skills. The program has high standards but is infinitely supportive of all the various projects the students are into.
I think the defining moment was when I was approached that first fall semester by a senior saxophonist, asking me to play Charles Wuorinen’s Divertimento for his recital several months away. That’s that jagged, ugly serial music I mentioned earlier! I wasn’t keen on the idea but I figured I had to give it a shot, I was here for that kind of music.
I agonized over the score for a couple weeks but inevitably we got together for our first rehearsal, on the slow opening section. I was astounded that, though not without coordination difficulties, it actually worked! The harmonies had logic and direction when played together, and these rhythms fit to create a brand new sense of time. I discovered that there is a cognitive appeal to this music and that playing it accesses some part of the brain that isn’t challenged in the same way through tonality.
From here it was an easy and enjoyable slope to discovering and appreciating all kinds of contemporary styles. There are some I love more than others, and a few I to this day dislike. But my love for the music led me to perform something as extroverted as the Rzewski, linked above. And, I feel much closer to my goal of having an established, mature sense of artistry.
Now that I’ve been a graduate of my program for 2 years, I’m making an honest effort to finally bring myself back to standard repertoire. I’ve played some canonical music over the last 6 years since I came to Bowling Green, whether collaborating, or revisiting solo repertoire I’d learned before, plus I learned a few new things here and there.
But this year is all about brand new, standard repertoire. I’ve had a difficult two years. Making money right out of grad school is a tremendous distraction. And just over a year ago my wife was diagnosed with cancer and we spent the next 10 months fitting our normal lives around her treatments (luckily all is well now!). It’s been difficult to actually focus on the joy of music, instead, music was a job.
I feel I am not alone. Real life is hard, and it's so easy to forget about the things you're passionate about.
I will expand more in the next couple months. This blog series I’m calling “Artistic Messages”, because I’m interested in surveying the artistry I’ve discovered, and the artistry I’m still after. Hopefully some of this will resonate with and inspire you. I am working on some exciting things, and hope to give some exciting performances yet this season which I will expand upon in the upcoming posts.
Who doesn't love a beautiful sunrise and sunset? Natural beauty that reminds us of the simple things in life.
How does a sunrise and a sunset sound in music? Olivier Messiaen, not just a lover of birds, also sought to show the sun rising and the sun setting in music in his piece that I'm preparing: La Rousserolle Effarvatte.
Here's the audioblog #2 to prime your listening!
I wanted to say a few words about the recent Richard Dare article that has popped up…It’s gotten some criticism but I’m a big fan. I don’t agree with everything, however. I don’t think we can justify people milling about the concert hall, or singing along, talking…that is, if we are to only present a typical classical concert environment.
I think audiences should atleast occasionally have the chance to hear music in the environment it was conceived for—that is, chamber music is chamber music. A string quartet I admire on many levels, who I’ve had the pleasure of being coached by (the Chiara Quartet) has done tours of “Beethoven in Bars”. Why not? Let people take what they want out of it and leave the rest. Chances are it’s the people who are relaxed, and caught by surprise, not expecting to experience this music this night, who will be the most intrigued. Even “concert music” was performed in a social setting, and I’ve written about this tangentially in a past blog.
At the same time, though, a lot of contemporary music was conceived for a quiet concert hall, and should be performed as such. You won’t get much out of Wuorinen by listening to him casually. This stuff needs to be the center of attention.
I’ve said for a while now, and I will continue to say, anyone is welcome to clap anywhere and at any time during one of my solo performances. It might distract me—oh well, I’ll deal with it and it will add to the humanness of my playing. Perhaps a little discomfort on stage is what we need to relax and make enthralling music.
More than anything, I want to be able to react to a performance that I’m watching how I like to react to a performance that I’m giving. I used to be motionless when I played, and my playing was quite emotionless. I was self-consciousness embodied in sound. As I started to come out of my shell, I just let myself move, shuffle my feet, sway, sing, react facially to what I was trying to convey…And not only was my playing transformed but my enjoyment of music, my insight and my critical listening skills all grew immensely.
Thus I hope to experience music as a listener, the same way I experience it as a performer. I think non-classical musicians would feel the way I do about music if they were allowed to experience it how they tend to experience and enjoy their choice music. Perhaps Dare’s larger point is this: who is prescribing how classical music is ‘supposed’ to be experienced? It’s certainly not the classical composers, not performers from ages past. Why not relax arbitrary rules?…None of the critical comments I read address Dare’s points that the classical music environment is a wholly unwelcoming one. Why wouldn’t we want to change that, if at least to offer a continuum of concert experiences from the casual and social to the serious and formal.
My favorite performing experience of my career was this past fall when I played at the Clazel Theater in Bowling Green as part of the New Music Festival in town…I played, walked off stage to the bar and ordered a drink, then I mingled, took in the rest of the performers. People got a lot of my piece, I got a lot out of others, and I enjoyed myself socially…I’ve also performed this year in sock feet, I’ve kneeled on the stage to play toy piano, and I wore a plain blue t-shirt for my own solo recital. If you weren’t watching video, you’d never know. But I prepared just as seriously for those performances as the ones when I wore a tux. I can assure you that each time I was enjoying myself on that stage more than if I was performing under “traditional” concert situations; surely that showed in the quality of my playing.
I thought serialism was something that just wasn’t for me. Never heard a performance of a piece that particularly moved me. For every time I enjoyed the grating emotional overflow from Schoenberg (certainly his atonal works, even the serial works I can get through) or every time I felt a logical sense of relation and progression in a work by George Perle, I would also hear the maddening confusion from Milton Babbitt or Pierre Boulez. Serialism—it was dry, illogical, confusing, unaesthetic—would never be my thing. I got to a happy place having decided there was nothing wrong with serialism if people wanted to do it, I won’t say it’s ‘bad’ music, but I had no intentions of enjoying it.
Then I came to Bowling Green. And seeing as how I am in a program dedicated to the performance of contemporary music I felt obligated to give it a shot. Then an opportunity came—a saxophonist asked me to play a Wuorinen piece with him so I decided to suck it up and do it. I put off working on it until a couple days before our first rehearsal. Lo and behold, yes it’s difficult, yes the rhythms are nasty, the chords and pitches appear all over the place…but I could play it. I wrote out nearly every beat (often every subdivision) of nearly every bar, I tapped my foot incessantly, I counted out loud, I wrote in accidentals, note-names, fingerings and drew colored lines; whatever it took to cue my brain of what to play next. Come the first rehearsal, of course there were struggles, we did not lock in right away, yet it started to click much sooner than either of us thought it would. The second rehearsal was the same and I got more excited each time we broke down a passage and nailed it.
Once I got past the initial mental bewilderment, this music was exciting—it makes sense, it’s not so illogical, it was tickling something in my brain, in a similar but not quite equal way that “tonal” music did. I started to see the color in it, the subtle hues of sound and more than anything the brilliance of how motives weaved in and out of the texture throughout the piece. I guess I don’t mind serialism afterall.
I said this to my saxophonist and he said that indeed, he has found he enjoys playing it more than listening to it. I think this is very interesting—perhaps the intellectual element that draws some composers to it—can only be experienced if one is involved, otherwise it sounds only like an intellectual exercise. It made me think about the history of classical music, particularly chamber music. I would even include most piano music, up to but not excluding some of Chopin and Schumann, as chamber music—in the sense that it was not written to be concert music but written for a few people to enjoy playing together. Beethoven’s Hammerklavier and other works certainly pushed its way in to the concert sphere, but they were still written as chamber pieces to be played at home, they were not written to be concert pieces to be played by concert artists. I have long found Mozart and Haydn’s chamber music unendurable and boring. Both could write brilliantly in other genres but I never felt they brought their most appealing music ideals to their intimate works. I’d rather not hear a recording or see a recital of Mozart sonatas, but I could play through them all day.
Maybe there is more connection between early chamber music and serialism than what one hears on the surface. Haydn’s string quartets are surely important works but maybe not so important to be heard, just important to be played. I will never know because I have no intention of being able to learn a string instrument well enough to rehearse a Haydn quartet, but I imagine that I might enjoy doing so more than I enjoy listening to one. Perhaps that same tickle I started to feel actually playing through the Wuorinen piece is the same thing that attracts so many to this classical chamber music which I find so dull.
This blog title is certainly to be taken tongue-in-cheek. I don’t hate music but what I do hate—and what I think the Bernstein song that inspired the title was getting at—is the culture of what classical music has become. Stuffy concert-halls, egotistical performers, interpretations that must follow a standardized formula based on modernly-conceived “rules” of tradition. I hope to explore many of the contentions I have with the classical music world through this blog.
I did not begin to truly enjoy music until just a couple years ago. There are only a couple books that have changed my life: the Bible, Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, William Westney’s “The Perfect Wrong Note” and Kenneth Hamilton’s “After the Golden Age”. The last I read over Christmas break in the first year of my master’s degree and found it such a relief. I will surely talk about it a great deal later so suffice to say now: it addressed a side of making music that was lost in the 20th century. It inspired me to listen to the oldest recordings of pianists who studied in the 19th century. We have on record performances by people who were trained in the musical style of the time in which the great piano canon was created. These recordings sound bizarre but here are the performance practice of Liszt and of Chopin, of Brahms and Schumann, even of Mozart and Beethoven. And yet it is not the performance practice propagated by performers today, whether or not they claim to be authentic interpreters.
Music was openly subjective back in “the day”. Says Richard Taruskin (another hero of mine, though he certainly goes over the top on occasion, and his repulsion towards contemporary music is alarming) regarding music as museums and performers as curators: “In musical performance, neither what is removed nor what remains can be said to possess an objective ontological existence akin to that of dust or picture. Both what is ‘stripped’ and what is ‘bared’ are acts and both are interpretations—unless you can conceive of a performance, say, that has no tempo, or one that has no volume or tone color. For any tempo presupposes choice of tempo, any volume choice of volume, and choice is interpretation.” (Texts and Acts, page 150).
I have arrived at the point that anything claiming to be music is worth a listen. Popular, classical, why must we even make the distinction? I believe to tout the genius of composers of the past, or the inerrancy of a musical score is to do a severe disservice to our art and the satisfaction we can get out of performing that art. I used to be more close-minded, in music and all walks of life. I knew what I believed, that I was ‘right’ and I arrogantly defended my positions. Just a few years ago I would have openly shot down my two great music loves: Liszt and contemporary music. Now I could be satisfied playing both, or either, for the rest of my life. Music—in the most subjective and therefore true sense—should never be boring and it should always throw you for a loop once in a while.
Final thoughts go to Alex Ross in a great article in the New Yorker from a few years ago: “Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierarchy of values. The best music is music that persuades us that there is no other music in the world. This morning, for me, it was Sibelius’s Fifth; late last night, Dylan’s ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’; tomorrow, it may be something entirely new. I can’t rank my favorite music any more than I can rank my memories. Yet some discerning souls believe that the music should be marketed as a luxury good, one that supplants an inferior popular product. They say, in effect, ‘The music you love is trash. Listen instead to our great, arty music.’ They gesture toward the heavens, but they speak the language of high-end real estate. They are making little headway with the unconverted because they have forgotten to define the music as something worth loving. If it is worth loving, it must be great; no more need be said.”
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act