Saturday, July 30, 2011

Thinking in Unison


                ^^ The space in between the parentheses above phonetically expresses the sound I was able to make after hearing three works by Schumann in the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s “Schumann/Schumann” concert on Wednesday night. And trust me, I mean that in a good way.
                One of the most obvious equations in classical music is the interaction between composer and performer. Lots of the time, the performer doesn't know the composer personally. Sometimes, even when the two do know each other, the separation between these two positions can be obvious and unsettling. One can always tell when a performer is only following what they see on the music in front of them and doesn't have a connection with the piece. But there are sometimes those rare moments when these positions are invisible and all that is evident is the music. The composer and performer are subconsciously working together instead of for each other; in cases like these, the audience feels like they are in the presence of an event. When music can so easily become a predictable action, phenomenon like these are crucial. I'm definitely not saying performers should start composing for their composers and composers should start performing for their performers (whew). But sound is almost always heard by more than one person; when the ideas of the composer are identical with the performer’s ideas, that’s when the magic happens. I was lucky enough to witness this at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

                The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival was founded in 1972 with the cellist Pablo Casals serving as its honorary president. In its 39th season, the festival has attracted some of the biggest names in classical music during its lifetime. Composers such as Aaron Copland, Steve Stucky, and John Harbison have been commissioned by the festival. This season includes performers such as Joyce Yang, Anne-Marie McDermott, Felix Fan, and Cynthia Phelps and many more, with Dawn Upshaw as the artist-in-residence. Upshaw is an American soprano who has established herself as one of the great 20th and 21st century performers. Not only is Upshaw a wonderful performer, but she is an ambitious one—Osvaldo Golijov (the down-to-earth, moody Argentinean composer), Kaija Saariaho, John Adams, Alban Berg, and George Crumb are just some of the composers of the works she has performed/premiered. She is a MacArthur fellow and has won four Grammys. Plus, she’s won a spot in the heart of blogger Opera Chic. I mean, just look at those titles.

How about those Schumanns?
                Before Upshaw, Clara Schumann’s “Three Romances,” Op. 22 for violin and piano, an intensely romantic piece, was performed. Something admirable about the composition is the individuality of the two parts, especially in the first romance—played separately, they would still have a beauty, even though that beauty would be more subdued and two-dimensional. The piece is also dotted with almost contemporary-seeming elements. In the second romance, the violin, after some ascending trills, slows to a two note phrase while the piano ascends in (what sounds like) thirds against the rhythm of the violin—it feels like a relaxed yet important inhale. Actions like this are small but pull the listener out of the saturating pool of romanticism that could become monotonous in different hands. Those touches are what make Clara Schumann’s music charming; even though her composing wasn’t always encouraged by the society she lived in, one can tell she loved it by these small, careful intricacies. The violinist Jessica Lee and the pianist, Inon Barnatan, worked together easily despite the fact that Gilbert Kalish was the scheduled pianist. Body language might not be scientifically proven to make you play better, but Barnatan’s movements made me feel included in the music, like he was inviting the audience into his home with a freshly cooked meal on the table.
                Then came the Lieder, and the phenomenon really began.  
                You know those moments when you’re a child, and you enter a room that makes an impact on you? Looking back on that moment, the room seems many times bigger than it is in reality. Scientists say this is because we take in more information about a space when we first visit it, and it therefore expands the actual size of the room in our minds. Well, this is what Dawn Upshaw, Inon Barnatan, and Robert Schumann together did for the Lieder. In reality, the piece, which consisted of seven separate songs, lasted maybe around 20 minutes. In terms of size, the piece was minor compared to perhaps a fully orchestrated piece. However, in the midst of the work, I felt as though I was listening to the intensity and power of a long symphony. I believe this was due to the ideas of the composer’s and performers’ ideas being in unison. Fully memorized by Upshaw, the piece flowed naturally out of her, and her and Schumann's roles didn’t matter. Schumann didn’t compose for Upshaw, and Upshaw wasn’t just performing Schumann, but they were an in-the-moment team. They transcended the obvious equation. I began to note in my program moments in the concert when I thought one or the other was leading the train. In the second song of the Lieder, “Er ist’s,” Schumann had written a fiercely flexible vocal challenge that Upshaw conquered.  Her attack on the first note of the song was so strong, it made my friend sitting next to me jump in her seat. She stayed with it throughout the song, like a bull rider accomplishing a full eight seconds. However, in the song titled “Jemand,” Upshaw seemed to be leading. Once, in that section, Upshaw reached the syllable “eee” resting on a high note. She delicately nudged the note, and the sound was delivered with such grace that I wish all my “e’s” sounded like that. Inon Barnatan, the pianist accompanying Upshaw, stayed hand-in-hand with her voice and blended seamlessly. His ideas were clear and not overshadowing when they didn’t need to be. Schumann’s involvement in the piece didn’t end when he wrote that double bar—it never ends. But it takes the right performers to make that involvement come alive again.

                This trend continued when Robert Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47 was performed by Soovin Kim (violin), Choong-Jin Chang (viola), Peter Stumpf (cello), and Inon Barnatan (piano). One can tell when the players of a work are truly contributing to the music itself, and this was one of those instances. The piece begins with warm chords from the strings slowly opening the doors to the work’s personalities. However, the first movement quickly establishes itself as one that needs involvement, and the SFCMF performers did that. They weren’t just outputs for Schumann’s composition, but clear components of the path to the success of the work. Again, they were on a team with Schumann and were not just his minions. The very last notes of each of the movements were some of the most satisfying passages of the concert as a listener, and they were carried out with confidence—the second movement’s closing is that oh-so-familiar resolving pizzicato that makes the entire audience chuckle silently to themselves, creating a slight vibration just above the crowd (don’t you love those moments?). The only “flaw” I could pick out was the cellist’s obvious tuning in the middle of a movement—and I’m not even sure if that’s a flaw or an opinion of stage appearance.  
                 According to Plato, equations such as the circumference of a circle are part of the “world of ideas” and are therefore permanent. But, in the world of music, equations that can seem permanent are often proved beatable. The familiar timeline of composer to performer to listener is an exhausted one, and when a listener is treated to a performance where this timeline is transcended, it’s a privilege. The performers of the “Schumann/Schumann” concert of the SFCMF weren’t just involved in their separate parts, but were involved in being a part of the ideas of the Schumanns. Instead of being simply performers, they were creators and team members. Of course, Schumann wasn’t standing backstage physically shouting commands and “helping out.” But he wasn’t just two-dimensional notes on a page, either. I could feel his cloud of ideas floating around in the room, and it was a welcome presence. But, if he was backstage, that would have been pretty cool.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

La Misma Lengua

                There are most likely lots of “inspirational” tee shirts and what not that proclaim a smile, laughter, or (maybe in a less “inspirational” sense) math is the universal language. While I certainly don’t disagree with the fact that these three things have no rigid differences in specific cultures, I’m going to have to be stubborn here. If the UN was for some reason choosing an official universal language, I would have to put my foot down and declare the obvious candidate: music. Sure, that might seem a little bias, seeing as I usually write about music. But in my opinion, nothing is more universal than the effects of music and rhythm. The response to infectious beats and melodies is ingrained in all of us. And here’s the thing: I have proof.
                A few weeks ago, I left the country for an amazing trip to Peru. My friend that I’ve known since kindergarten and I had signed up for a community service trip with a high school organization, and we were packed up and ready for long days, lots of Spanish, and an overwhelming amount of potatoes. While there, we and the 14 other students stayed about three hours south of Lima in a small village called Catapalla, part of the Lunahuaná Valley. We spent our time restoring a building of the village’s school, river rafting, zip lining, eating (a lot), and hiking. In the mornings, we would walk over to the school and spend around three hours with the young kids, teaching them English, math, games, and even yoga. Though this sounds pretty care-free, it could get quite stressful—try getting a class of 12 eight-year-old kids to settle down in a barely comfortable language with no official teacher in sight. On the first day of teaching, we walked into the classroom empty-handed, ready to improvise. We attempted to teach lessons right off the bat but found that we needed to water these down heavily with games. My friend and I had talked the night before about doing some sort of dance/music lesson, but everything we tried to come up with got too complicated to translate. I was a little nervous, but we jumped into it anyway.

Lunahuaná Valley 
                I had brought my iPod and hooked it up to some speakers just to get things going. We decided to match certain movements like jumping or walking like an Egyptian with certain colors. When we called out the color, everyone had to do that movement. I put on some upbeat music (I’m pretty sure it was this song), and we got going, not sure how it was going to turn out. The beat started, and my friend called out, “Amarillo!”
                Soon enough, all the previously skeptical-looking students were alive and jumping around the room. Everyone had grabbed the hand of someone else, and there weren’t any kids without a smile on their face. It didn’t really matter if the kids were doing the correct movement, because they were moving with the music and were playing with us newcomers like longtime friends. At the time, it seemed like any normal group of young, dancing kids. But when I think about it, it was pretty amazing. It was late in the lesson, and my friend and I were tired from explaining lessons in yoga and English, and we honestly didn’t explain this dancing game that greatly. The kids probably got the general gist of it, but it was the music and the effects of the dancing the brought everyone together, not the words we spoke to them. That was the game that worked the best with the class all day.

Some of the overly-adorable kids helping us paint part of the school.
                Speaking technically, music is a universal language. Except for some note name differences due to motifs in Germany, there aren’t any major notation differences for particular countries that I know of. Hand the same sheet of music to a Belgian bassoonist, a Brazilian bassoonist, and a Malaysian bassoonist, and they would all be able to play it. But the concept of music’s universality is more evident in examples like this classroom one—even to kids who didn’t study music (I asked most of them if they played music, and they all said no), dancing and being infected with the rhythms was like second nature. It was easier and less stressful than the previously-played “duck, duck, goose,” (also known as “pato, pato, ganso”), which is pretty stress-free. This experience reminded me that even though I was in a different hemisphere, a different culture, and speaking a different language, we had the same minds as these kids. We all looked stupid shouting out colors and jumping around, and we all loved it. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

What a Glockenspiel and E Minor did for Harry

Thursday night, or, technically, Friday morning, I felt like my childhood was over. Melodramatically, of course. No, I didn’t turn 18 or go through some Salinger-esque loss of innocence. I saw the last Harry Potter movie.
I may not be a die-hard, spell-casting Potter fan, but I did feel a large era of my life come to a close when that movie ended. I used to play Harry Potter on the playground in kindergarten. The Chamber of Secrets was my first midnight premiere of a movie. The Prisoner of Azkaban was the first book I read in a day. Due to these deeply planted roots, these following words could easily spin out of control into a phonetic scrapbook that 99% of the world most likely doesn’t want to hear. So I’ve decided to focus on something that is probably a major reason we all love those movies, and it goes like this:

This may as well be the universal sound for “wizard” since 2001. First composed by John Williams, “Hedwig’s Theme” is the music associated with Harry Potter. Though the eight movies have had different composers, this theme has been used in every movie. Just like the Harry Potter franchise itself, “Hedwig’s Theme” will probably be one of the most immortal pieces off a movie soundtrack in the 21st century. In the last movie’s trailer, the notes of the iconic music are chopped up like a skipping CD and are paired with blinks of ambiguous clips from the film. It’s been made into ringtones, arranged for practically every instrument and ensemble, and seems to represent more than just a book series. Harry Potter has been said to have “taught a generation how to read,” and has infected the lives of millions. “Hedwig’s Theme” is to Harry Potter what “I Have a Dream” is to MLK.
John Williams, the composer of “Hedwig’s”, is a legend in film music. Not only did he create the Academy Award-winning score to “Star Wars,” but he also scored music for the films “Jaws,” “Indiana Jones,” “E.T.,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Schindler’s List.” Though I am not a huge fan of Williams in terms of his symphonic music, his talent really blossoms in the scores of these legendary movies. They’re movies that need music like his.  
So what makes the Hedwig motif so iconic? For one thing, it’s a basic melody that can be remembered and hummed, unlike an ostinato or long, drawn-out accompaniment. It is in a familiar key, E minor, and, like most catchy melodies, doesn’t pull a Schoenberg and stray off of that key too much. The melody clearly follows a steady pulse (I think it can be thought of as either a more playful waltz or, in a darker way, a slow 4/4), but it subtly winds around it, like a wire wrapped around a pole. But the motif goes beyond the tangible aspects. To place an E minor theme on a glockenspiel juxtaposes two different moods—darkness and playfulness. It’s slow yet suspenseful, calm yet foreshadowing. It works equally well on that small glockenspiel or with a full-sized orchestra. To strike a balance like this is, in my opinion, the perfect way to embody something grand, for the theme can apply to the many different aspects of whatever that thing may be. You may not be a fan of Harry Potter, but you have to admit that it has gained a place in this world where it has to please millions of people, in terms of the necessities of art. If the music to the film series didn’t measure up, the movies would not have the impact they do to parallel the books. Even if the music was commendable, if it didn’t have an iconic theme, there would be much less to latch on to. “Hedwig’s” is like a burr in your sock.
Then, does this mean all movies need an infectious theme? Most definitely not. The Harry Potter franchise is one whose success is largely due to the small details in the books and movies such as wizard candies, spells, and dozens of minor characters. This is almost a formula for creating a cult series. Harry Potter certainly has themes and characterization, but not as much as, say, “The King’s Speech” or “The Social Network,” films that were nominated for the Best Score Academy Award in 2010. “The King’s Speech,” a film about King George VI and his stammer, needed music that added a time-appropriate mood and wasn’t too overly present. Alexandre Desplat gave that to the score. “The Social Network,” whose score I have written about before, was about loneliness and the conflicts between humans. It therefore needed an internal, lonely, buzzing soundtrack. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross accomplished that, and it won them the well-deserved Academy award. Harry Potter is a franchise that infects the childhoods of teenagers like me because of the fact that it has so many memorable aspects. We can dress up in hundreds of different costumes, play Quittich, and cast spells on each other. We can become so familiar with the main characters we feel like family to them. This is why it needs a piece like “Hedwig’s Theme.” Without that magical, slightly dark glockenspiel that blossoms into a full orchestra, we would have one less, large thing to latch onto.

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Williams--Photo by TishTash
After the last shot of Daniel Radcliffe’s face faded off the screen, I just knew that I was surrounded by crying audience members. Yes, they will miss Harry, Ron, and Hermione. They will miss the rush of going to the next premiere. But they will definitely miss hearing that familiar “B E, G G flat E, B A, G flat” in a new setting for the first time. They just might not know it. 

Sunday, July 3, 2011

I'm not sure if this is a blog post or love letter

                The musician is getting a little sleepy. He drinks his nightly cup of coffee, brushes his teeth, and gets into his pajamas. He turns off the lights and climbs into bed. Then, a sinking feeling overcomes him. The musician glances frightfully towards the closet. His mind goes nuts as he frantically keeps his eyes on the door. He can’t get to sleep—he knows something is in there. Eventually, the musician tip-toes to the closet and creaks open the door. There sitting is no monster or creature from the average person’s nightmares. No, it’s a nine-foot, pitch-black, 800 pound, vicious… piano.

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DA DA DAAaaaaaa...
                Perhaps that scenario is overkill. Actually, it’s definitely overkill. But the idea is not. The instrument that we all grew up being familiar with, the one that almost every person on earth has sat down and clunked around on, is also one that frightens many. I recently read Alexandra Gardner’s article on NewMusicBox titled “Piano Baggage" (all of her articles are worth reading). The article talks about the piano being the most challenging instrument to write for because of its massive amount of repertoire and the fact that many people grew up playing it. It got me thinking—the piano is probably one of the most intimidating instruments in general—to play, to study, to compose for, or to buy. As a pianist there is a sense of responsibility to sight read well, to have a large repertoire, and to have a vast knowledge of genres and composers because of the large area the piano spans in multiple sections of the music world. However, I’ve found (after experimenting on some other instruments) it’s also one of the most satisfying instruments to play and is easily the best instrument for studying theory on.  Through all the stress it has created throughout its 300-and-some year existence, it’s all out of good intentions. And, even with that stress, it’s created a countless amount of wonderful things, too.
                If this were a stereotypical biography, I would say the piano we know today was born in 1709 in Padua, Italy and had a father named Bartolomeo Cristofori. Cristofori was an instrument maker and had created other types of keyboards during his lifetime, such as the spinettone (a sort of harpsichord). However, the problem Cristofori encountered with harpsichords and the like had to do with volume control—since a harpsichord’s keys are connected to devices that pluck the various strings, it was very difficult for the musician to create phrases and different dynamics in their playing. The clavichord was able to do this (by striking its strings with a metal blade), but wasn’t loud enough for performances.  While the harpsichord had the structure that proved best for a piano and the clavichord had the correct idea for sound production, both had major downfalls that led Cristofori to create something new. 

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He decided that this new instrument needed hammers that struck the strings but did not remain in contact with the strings (like a clavichord). His inventions eventually made up the fortepiano. The fortepiano used hammers to strike the strings like a modern piano, but the strings were very thin and harpsichord-like as was the overall structure of the instrument.  Bach endorsed a later version of the instrument, and composers like Beethoven and Mozart wrote for it. Throughout the years the range of the fortepiano grew as is evident in Beethoven’s music. In the 1820s, many improvements were made to the piano, such as the invention of double escapement action, which allowed for a key to be played in quick repetition because of the repetition lever. Felt hammer coverings, now standard in many pianos, also emerged, allowing for wider dynamic ranges as the weights of the hammers increased because it was a more reliable material than the previously used leather or cotton. Iron frames were developed and sat above the soundboard; these plates helped pianos be able to sustain thicker, heavier, and larger amounts of strings. Throughout the years these gradual adjustments led to what we know as the piano today.

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The man who did it all
                How could an instrument with such understandable backgrounds be so intimidating to musicians?  In the NMB article, Gardner wrote, “Composing for piano can be wildly intimidating because of how much we know, both in terms of what and how much piano music came before this moment and in terms of our own ‘muscle memory.’” This is completely true. Many composers grow up playing the piano or end up studying the piano extensively to become better composers. It is also the instrument that claims a category of many composers’ bodies of work more than any other. Mozart wrote 27 piano concertos and 18 piano sonatas. Beethoven wrote 32 (38 if you count some stray ones) piano sonatas and five piano concertos. Chopin wrote almost 200 pieces for the piano, Liszt wrote around 130, and Mendelssohn wrote almost 100 solo piano works. Even with those large numbers, those composers only make up a microscopic amount of piano music out there. Like Gardener mentions, it must be scary to sit down with a blank score in hand, thinking of all the knowledge we have of how to compose for the piano correctly and try to do the best possible job.  
                But not only is the piano intimidating to compose for. When searched, the piano comes up on every list of “most popular instruments.” There are countless pianists out in the world, and there is always a feeling deep inside many pianists out there that someone is better than me. Pianists are expected to have large repertoires and be able to sight-read well (and we have to read two clefs at once!). It’s also a scary place to be in as a pianist because of the solidarity of the position. Orchestras don’t have 15 piece piano sections. Music pieces don’t often call for four pianos. Unfortunately, politics often invade music, and competition is part of that; because the ratio of professional piano positions and pianists is probably one of the lowest ratios in the world of music, that leaves a lot of musicians cringing at their benches. It's easy to feel trapped if our vision gets clouded with these politics. 
                Maybe the piano’s intimidation factor also has to do with the celebrity of the instrument. Even with the seemingly long history mentioned previously, the ideas that comprised the inventions of the piano have been present for ages. Simple stringed instruments were some of the earliest instruments, and since when has percussion not been a part of music? African mbilas, or thumb pianos, were present in Mozambique in 1,000 B.C. The medieval instrument called the dulcimer was a trapezoidal stringed instrument that was struck with hammers in the player’s hands. The clavichord is even the instrument depicted with St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music itself! The piano isn’t only a sound-maker, but a legend. It sits on its (most often) three legs, holding in the air a chamber filled with enormous potential that everyone is aware of. What child, in one way or another, hasn’t heard the infectious melody lines and bright, refreshing arpeggios that can come out of that mysterious thing that sits in their grandparents' house? It’s scary to attempt magic on a legend like that.

Cecilia, probably not practicing etudes by the man above her, due to that serene expression
                Despite all the daunting aspects of the grand instrument, the piano, like I said, is easily the most satisfying instrument I’ve ever played. As a child, it’s exciting to sit down in front of those 88 black and white keys, even if it took a little coaxing to get to that point. Unlike, say, an oboe or a viola, a piano can sound magical to anyone who attempts it. This is not only a motivating characteristic, but it can kindle a love for music in a child early on. When I was little, I always wanted to play my newest learned piece for my music class at school, and I could often be found performing for dinner guests. Growing up learning the piano allows me to have a stronger sense of music theory even if it is something I never took formal classes for or spent lots of time on. Like a sheet of graph paper for math, the piano is the perfect instrument for understanding theory—it’s all laid out for you. Because so many composers write for the piano, I learned about key composers and styles of music at a younger age due to my attraction to anything containing piano. I learned about the importance of storytelling in pieces since the piano so often is a solo instrument. If I ever want to pursue a career in composition, I have already learned the fundamental instrument!  And, even though my devotion for music was kindled by my local music community and my own venturing greatly, the emotions that are brought out so naturally by playing the piano most definitely planted the seed of loving music.
                So what about those composers and professional pianists? Well, for them, the piano serves as a source of motivation. Composers, you can conquer the all mighty beast. Though scary at first, it probably feels like finishing a marathon when a piano piece is done being written! As for pianists, we just have to remind ourselves why we love playing piano--for the music. We are the ultimate accompanist, and despite the scarce amount of solo positions out there, there will always be an open position for a piano in a chamber ensemble. Plus, there's nothing that will ever stop us playing. I was sitting at my little 6 foot the other day, thinking about all the man-made politics that surround music, when I played a chord, sustained it, and stuck my head over the fallboard and near the pegs. I felt the vibrations of the clear sound in my skull, pulled my head out and thought, “That all comes from this?” Maybe all that stress really isn’t necessary.
                So, perhaps that same musician is getting a little sleepy. He drinks his nightly cup of coffee, brushes his teeth, and gets into his pajamas. He turns off the lights and climbs into bed. He goes to sleep, and in his dreams is that beautiful, legendary, motivational, and loving piano. 

Photo by Thomas Huxley