Friday, December 16, 2005

Is my disgust showing?

A computer has been used to decipher the enigmatic smile of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, concluding that she was mainly happy.

The painting was analysed by a University of Amsterdam computer using "emotion recognition" software.

It concluded that the subject was 83% happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful and 2% angry, New Scientist magazine was told.

From the BBC. The story is here.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Recent shivers ...

Art thrives on metaphysical ideas, which I believe are as old as human consciousness. A great work of art, reflecting the powerful intellect and the compelling imagination of its creator, elicits from us a metaphysical shiver as it confronts us with a vision of ultimate reality.

--Stanislaw Skrowaczewski

Over the past couple of weeks, I've had some very good shivers.

Most profound shiver:
November 13th, Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory of Music in Boston

Pianist Gabriel Chodos played Schubert's A Major Sonata, D.959. I studied with him as a graduate student, and I tried to talk myself into feeling prepared for the heartbreak I knew was coming in the Andantino. When it came, everything changed. Stunned hush. We were all drawn in to Schubert's painful rocking ... the whole building itself fell into that relentless rocking. Something in Schubert exposes the truth about loss. The evaporation of love. Schubert doesn't get easier to take with age. And when this movement is right, it can undo me. And things get worse at that exquisite moment when the sadness is reduced to one single, luminous thread of sound -- the rocking finishes and there we all are, dangling high above God-knows-what realms of the heart, hanging on to one single homeless voice (and following it as if we'd never, ever heard it before)... until the madness sets in. Schubert writes the truth about madness. I wished it would end, and I wished it would never end. This was a metaphysical shiver.

Most astonished shiver:
November 7, Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts. The Worcester Music Festival.

Hearing the 29-year-old French violinist Renaud Capuçon. I stood with brilliant sound engineer Antonio Oliart dead center in the first balcony at the back of Mechanics Hall, to listen to some of the rehearsal an hour before the program. Korngold Violin Concerto (as lush as it gets). Dennis Russell Davies, conducting the Bruckner Orchestra Linz. When Capuçon drew his bow, the place virtually blossomed with a sweetness and richness of sound ... we both exhaled audibly. Gorgeous. Renaud plays the violin that Isaac Stern played for fifty years, and he told me that it makes him feel as if he has "different shoulders." This was a good-hearted shiver.

Most enigmatic shiver:
Friday, November 18th, The Regattabar, Cambridge Massachusetts

Front row table to witness a force unlike any I've heard before. Patricia Barber reaches into strange and artful territories with her voice. Her pianism is extraordinary. She is uncompromising -- a perfectionist with a nearly compulsive need to speak the truth. She never stops moving. She strikes bizarre open-mouthed poses. Her hands stab at the air, rub themselves with a kind of madness, then stir up a magic on (and in) the piano. She sets songs to the poetry of Verlaine. She is not to be missed. A mysterious and baffling shiver.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

"The wings of one's conception ..."

Back to the 'sphere from God-knows-where ...
smiling about Jeremy Denk's encounter with those who overhear him practicing Berg.

There's healthy blogger-anxiety over the New York Times article conjecturing about the health of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Vilaine Fille, Alex Ross and Steve Smith have touched on the tension between musicians and the media.

I have moved from address to address a number of times, and I carry with me a number of boxes of books. I've neglected so many of them that should I one day fall completely out of sanity, they will, I'm sure of it, plot a brutal and breathless attack on me ... I sometimes think I've heard them whispering about it already.
I'll occasionally, to ease the ache, violate them with random openings (they must hate this).

One book which I've dragged along from house to house for decades yields marvels with every violation. Written by Agatha Fassett, it is a poetic account of Béla Bartók's American years -- the last five of his life. The Naked Face of Genius is a 1958 publication of Houghton Mifflin:

These last five years, as they slowly unfolded before me, attained in an unrelenting cycle the roundness of a lifetime, as massive and preordained as a Greek tragedy. And his wife Ditta, linked in the same chain of circumstances, inevitably shared in her own way the anguish of Bartók's destiny.
Bartók remained permanently lonely here, since he was not the kind to transplant well, and every step was made harder -- for although he did not know it, soon after he arrived here the seed of his fatal illness, leukemia, was within him, and wherever he went he was followed by the doom of his tightly numbered years.

She remembes Bartók's description of his first public appearance as a nine-year-old pianist:

"It seems to me that I always played the piano, and always seriously ... that I always dug up fragments of music I considered my own; and it was never anything else but an intensely consuming occupation ...
"What I remember most distinctly from that occasion is the awareness I had of being confined within certain uncomfortable boundaries, and how I tried to console myself with the thought that this was just a temporary condition, an obstacle caused by my limited knowledge, and that it only rested within myself to break through these boundaries into a greater freedom. And the desire to do so filled me with an impatience so unbearable that it was almost physical pain.
"Nothing could speak more eloquently of my innocence at this time than the belief that I could make my boundaries disappear. For only much later comes the discovery that one remains confined, to a lesser or greater degree, forever, and the wings of one's conception are always clipped."

Fassett remembers her walks with Bartók through the Vermont countryside. He would poke at cow dung, digging into it with his walking stick:

"There is life in this dried-up mound of dung," Bartók would say. "There is life feeding on this dead heap." And he would crumble it apart with his cane. "You see," he would say, scrutinizing it intently, "how the worms and bugs are working busily helping themselves to whatever the need, making little tunnels and passages, and then soil enters, bringing with it stray seeds. Soon pale shoots of grass will appear, and life will complete its cycle, teeming within this lump of death. Once in a mound like this I found a tiny shoot of an apple tree growing, springing up with so much confidence -- a long time ago, in Hungary. It could be bearing fruit by now, but more likely its life was crushed out almost as soon as it started, for Nature takes life as abundantly as she gives it."

The author tells story after impossibly poignant story, with genuine, tactile detail:

... Bartók, huddled in his old flannel robe, reminded me of a chestnut vendor bending over his tiny stove. He would be working on his Romanian collection, spread all around the room, and he needed only a glance at these single pages to place each one on the pile where it belonged. Every featherlike sheet added still one more link to the complicated system of classification, where every small variation of rhythmical pattern played a part in revealing relationships between peoples and places.
Perhaps for Bartók these notes, like pressed flowers in an album, still retained traces of their original fragrance, potent enough to draw him back to the land where he first found them and releasing him from the shadows of the room where he sat.

The story of Bartók and Ditta playing with Fritz Reiner and the New York Philharmonic is astonishing. The first performance of the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra is described by the author who, from the audience, sensed that Bartók suddenly somehow broke away from the rest of the musicians onstage ... he was playing something entirely unknown to her, "something that had an immediate and bright existence of its own but still seemed an integral part, inseparable from the rest."

She remembers the conductor's reaction after the performance:

"What on earth came over you, Béla?" Reiner said in a voice that was cold, but somehow compassionate too. "How could you endanger everything, risking disaster for a momentary whim? Didn't you realize what an impossible task it was, trying to follow you through your wanderings? For all of us, not to mention Ditta!"
Bartók looked up at Reiner and did not say anything, and seemed to remain detached and undisturbed.
He held his brooding silence in the taxi on the way to Riverdale, and we were already going up the hill when he sat up straight and turned to Ditta.
"The tympanist," he said, "the tympanist is the one who started everything. He played a wrong note, suddenly giving me an idea that I had to try out, and follow through all the way, right then. I could not help it -- there was nothing else for me to do."

I'll either hyperventilate, or read the whole thing ... Look, I've gone and typed a good chunk of it already ...

Friday, October 14, 2005

Piano Trips

Bart Collins offers the usual tour of fascinating piano destinations on his Well-Tempered Blog, including a trip to Maison Erard, and a look at this 1803 piano of Beethoven's, thanks to a link to Stephen Birkett's web page. There you'll find the bright, near-giddy sound of an 1822 Erard. And Bart gets you to the Chopin Competition, mp3 breast implants, and Beethoven's newly unearthed four-hand manuscript of the Grosse Fuge ...

It often happens that I'll be stunned by music while doing the broadcaster's dance (taking transmitter readings, signing logs, searching for that pithy segue)... Today pianist Randall Hodgkinson's resonant and genuine way with the first three Moments Musicaux of Schubert drew me to a place far, far, far from the relentless clock (the one that wags its merciless finger at every soul who sits in front of a microphone) ...
The thing to do when such a sweet, inspired moment arrives is to crank up the studio speakers and get the ON-AIR light glowing at every door ... so no one dares to interrupt.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Good Doctor

"Any musical value heard [in the cylinder recording] can be charitably described as the product of a pathological imagination."

This is musicologist Gregor Benko's remark about the nearly impenetrable noise on a very famous recording of Johannes Brahms playing the piano in 1889 at the home of Dr. Richard Fellinger in Vienna. Thomas Edison was sending emissaries to record the voices of famous people for use as advertisements. This wax cylinder was made for Edison by Theo Wangemann. Scholars have strained to analyze the rhythmic nuances of the recording's too-few measures of the 1879 arrangement of the first Hungarian Dance, and part of a paraphrase of Strauss's "Libelle". And many a lover of Brahms has gleefully imitated the introduction at the start of the cylinder:

"I am Dr. Brahms ... Johannes Brahms."

What a surprise! A strangely startling voice from the great, autumnal philosopher himself ...

But, perhaps not.

"The spoken text at the start of the cylinder recording has been wrongly attributed as belonging to Brahms. Numerous writers, scholars and amateurs alike, have presumed that Brahms introduces himself with the words "I am Doctor Brahms, Johannes Brahms". However a number of factors raise serious doubts as to who is speaking. The only mention of the recording by someone who was present (in the published memoires of Fellinger's son) states that Brahms was introduced. Considering the time between the announcement and the start of the music it seems improbable that the same person could segue from speech to playing so quickly particularly given the technological limitations.
The denoised excerpts reveals enough of the speech to suggest that the speaker (probably Wangemann) introduces Brahms as follows:

"...Dezember Achtzehnhundertachtundneunzig. Haus von Herrn Doktor Fellinger, bei mir ist Doktor Brahms, Johannes Brahms".

("...December Eighteen Hundred Eighty Nine. House of Mr. Fellinger, with me is Doctor Brahms, Johannes Brahms.")

Read about the playing and the talking, and the man who has painstakingly denoised the cylinder here.

Saturday, September 24, 2005


Over the past three years, he has hosted a small series of concerts at his home, which have featured acquaintances. "I have a lot of friends who are artists and who deserve to be heard, and I wanted to showcase them here," he says. His most recent performance, in April, featured a concert pianist-friend from Japan. The show, which drew around 65 people, began with the pianos on the first floor, with the pianist and audience working their way up to the second in order to match the pieces to the pianos best-suited for them.
--excerpted from The Boston Globe

Don't miss Wqan Ang's Boston Globe photos of a Boston psychologist's home, filled to overflowing with pianos.

P.S. I know he works with children ... but if he were my psychologist, I'd be cured.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A few chords short ...

I felt so behind in my preparation, anxiety set in with its cousin, insomnia. I began pathological bouts of list-making — the Chopin group, the Schumann group, the 21st-century music, the recital program, the lecture-recital. In the middle of telephone chats, I was apt to recite my columns to the vague discomfort of friends. For me it had become a ritual for the calming of runaway nerves.

So, naturally, just as I’m a few chords short of entering Bellevue for observation, the telephone rings and a conductor speaks. As any pianist knows, a conductor’s call has a special ring. The conversation: Do I know the Beethoven Third, can I play it in a month, we’ll speak again on his return from Europe, so yes, it’s a go. A few moments of pure elation. The anticipation of a concerto with orchestra is a sweet one. It gets the inner metronome beating faster. The Beethoven C minor concerto with a good chamber orchestra! Then panic. On top of everything else, I now need to reconnect with a great work and bring it to life as swiftly as possible.

Part of a diary entry and one of many articles that pianist Beth Levin has contributed to the online music review La Folia. In Beth's playing, her honesty, tenderness and fierce tehnique can stop your breathing.

She writes: “I live with my family in Brooklyn. I very much wanted children and was eager for the challenge of balancing a musical life with a home life. One of my favorite tasks is to pop a lasagna into the oven while doing some intense practicing, thereby fulfilling two roles at once — mother and musician.”

Saturday, September 17, 2005

There's No Place ...

Pliable offers more paths to important performances and astonishing productions ...

And while I was considering Edinburgh last night, McCoy Tyner was coaxing his Steinway into an ecstatic jangle in my living room ... a state of confident grace there on my television, raising money for New Orleans.

Danny Glover arrived to speak eloquently on Katrina:

"She has revealed a poverty of imagination ..."

Jessica Duchen writes a post about the marvels and the thrill of the Eternal City

and she imagines that Dorothy must have actually said

"There's no place like Rome."

It brought on a brutally tender memory of Judy Garland. My father loved her deeply as a friend, and as her agent near the end of her life. They had marvelous, hilarious times together. I was about nine years old when he brought me to New Jersey to see her perform (she collapsed on stage that night). Earlier, in her hotel suite, I remember playing for her on an upright piano. It was Ellfenreich's little "Spinning Song", a piece that has entered the lives of so many little pianists. I sat down next to her when I was done, and she took my face into her hands with a passionate, surprising suddenness, and kissed me on the mouth. When we went out to the Boardwalk, passing through crowds of admirers, I remember her telling people that I was her daughter. Now that I'm older, I'm able to imagine the loneliness that must have shadowed her all the time. Except from the stage. And that must have been where she found the life-saving intimacy that we all need.

Looking into the living room at McCoy Tyner, I thought I saw it there, too.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Piano flashbacking

Bart Collins in a recent post features an article that touches on the strange and indescribable connections between music-making and memory, and it's prompted me to think again about a recurring condition of mine. It's a strange, occasionally eery and consistent flashbacking (best verb I can think of) that happens nearly every time I practice the piano. These are astonishing, out-of-the-blue, instant transportations to forgotten moments ... (as a 9-year-old walking past a swing ... as a 28-year-old sitting a certain way in a certain house ...) Mundane and tiny they often are, yet they are perfect recollections. Little virtual realities that arrive with an absolute suddenness. Absolutely unpredictable. Always when I'm involved in playing. And it always feels as though I'm reliving the moment for the first time.

This happens so regularly that I've just folded it into the library of the everyday. But over the years I have tried to think scientifically about the cause, as if I were trying to narrow down the triggers of an allergy, or a headache. I've imagined that it might be certain measures of certain music (can't find any evidence of that) ... or a certain exactly re-struck piano-playing pose that my muscles somehow remember (but there are such an infinite number of them) ...

In the end I've left it all in the unsolved mystery files, but I really think that it has got to have something to do with the place that music naturally occupies in our mind's blueprints. Bart quotes Paul Robertson, the founder of the Medici Quartet: "Music is the underlying structure of communication.”

It's a big thing to say.
But it strikes a chord (as they say).
And helps to emphasize the poignancy of a saying whose source I'm still trying to find ...
We danced before we walked and we sang before we talked.

(I'd love some help on that one.)

I did an interview once with Mikko Nissinen, the Director of the Boston Ballet. He told me that he immediately knows when he's watching a good dancer because it seems as though the dancer is the source of the music.
That thought has never left me.

In any case, I've long wondered whether any other pianists go flashbacking like me ....

Thursday, September 01, 2005 has begun an emergency online national housing drive to help victims of Katrina who desperately need shelter.

And the Red Cross has made it simple to donate.

Every moment counts.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Relevance and Music ...

The word relevance keeps cropping up in posts, conversations and essays on programming music. Composer Ned Rorem was compelled to write to the New York Times about it today. And many are bristling with the first breezes of the oncoming Mozart storm, wondering about the relevance of his music in our time.

Ned Rorem's letter paints a dismal scenario of highly practiced, empty-minded virtuosos playing to score points with incurious audiences. Both are apathetic toward the new. Both have a disdain for the relevant. And they have developed a comfortable distance from the exuberance and freedom that comes with the intriguing shock of the unfamiliar.

The complaint is complicated. It begins with the problem of selling. Marketing music can mean working in the Devil's workshop, or at least setting up office just a couple of dangerous doors away.

The ongoing and furious experiment of using irrelevant visuals to lure a profitable number of ears is not working. While there is great fantasy and possibility in the visual realm, and while that realm is now astonishingly easy to pass on to thousands of people, the thing being marketed is not a thing meant for seeing. It's a thing meant for hearing.

In radio broadcasting, there are often stories of really marvelous intersections of the visual and the aural realms, confessed by listeners. A driver drenched in Mozart navigates a crowded city street in the fall ... a solitary soul with Messiaen in his earbuds shuffles through a snowy campus at dusk ...

The driver, stuck at a stoplight, is compelled to focus for a moment on the pulsing, longing gestures that are unfolding in the clear air of a Mozart slow movement. His eye catches the tempo of some perfect and oblivious cloud crossing silently above the chaotic throbbing of the crowd in the crosswalk ... and he has a moment of altered perception. Elevated sensibility. An inexplicable tenderness pours through him ... a feeling of oddly removed involvement -- of being human.

I would say that this is relevance.

The solitary walker, pushing through the wind, feels the brittleness of ice under his feet, and as he plods, the bright whistle of Messiaen's piano birds fills the blue air of his consciousness. His eyes scan the shapes of the naked trees and his perception of them changes ... he sees their shapes as hauntingly beautiful. He has an inexplicable sense that he and the landscape belong together.

In these cases, the listener's perception of his own, real world is dramatically altered by music.
It's not using visuals to lure the listener.
Rather, the listener has listened, and the world has changed.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Mostly sky ...

Sam and I walked briefly yesterday on a beautiful beach. It is the paradise of my young summers, and on that rocky point stands a miraculous house which is no longer in the family. And while there is still, decades later, a visceral pain of nostalgia, I still squint at it, admire it and imagine my smaller feet giddily exploring the temperatures of its vast wooden floors. I noticed when I got home yesterday that I'd taken a picture of the house ... but barely.

It's mostly sky.

And now I'm wondering whether that's perhaps a sign that, as time goes by, I've found a certain wisdom that compels me to see a broader picture ... (this seems unlikely). Or perhaps I'm still denying the loss, and pushing the house out of the picture ... (and photographing the wrong thing).

If the first were true, then I'm inclined to run to the piano and get at, say, the Schumann Fantasy, which is so full of smaller, internal intrigues. Maybe, with this new wisdom of age, I'd get the broader picture ...

On the other hand, I might focus only on its "clouds" -- and leave the elemental things to fend for themselves (I've done that before). I suppose that, as in the photo, the "clouds" would be interesting and enjoyable to consider ... but I'd still have it wrong, wouldn't I?

Sam's just turned thirteen. And I can see now that the photo that she took is the wise one:

Monday, August 22, 2005

"When I am playing well, I feel as if warm oil were pouring through my arm."

Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe tells the story of an astonishing and little known pianist of our time. Now 76, she has 119 recordings (including the Chopin/Godowsky etudes, which she's been practicing since she was thirteen!). She's worked with Cortot, Richter, and Haskil. No public performing in the past 25 years because she is living with cancer, and was once told that it is "impolite to look ill." She's still recording and has major projects planned. Read about Joyce Hatto.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

High-heeled piano

One of the Schimmel pianos.

The Wyner/Levin encounter

The post below should have included this link to an hour spent with pianist Robert Levin and composer Yehudi Wyner just prior to the world premiere of Wyner's piano concerto. It was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and dedicated to Levin. During the show, Levin plays music by Wyner and Mendelssohn, and Wyner exposes some of his creative process at the keyboard, including the unleashing of a riotous song called "The Florida Express." Both offer insights into music, friendship and life.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Revolutionary relaxation

It was a deep pleasure to spend the evening with two major musical forces based here in Boston. The delicious dinners that they create are famous in the music world. This composer/pianist and his wife, a conductor and former world-class soprano, are the warmest possible creatures. Midnight arrived, and there'd been so much wordplay, so many stories, and such a volley of hilarity-and-profundity, that I left feeling like I'd taken a vacation.

They told us that soon after they'd finished converting their garage into a composition studio, Susan one day discovered a number of curious neighborhood women who had descended upon the composer to find out exactly what he was accomplishing in there. Yehudi fell mischievously into a brash display at the piano, beginning with Chopin's Revolutionary etude, followed by choice bits from the Tempest sonata, and more. The women exhaled in unison, and Susan heard them oohing and aahing. Finally one of them exclaimed, "Oh, that is so relaxing!"

As a classical broadcaster, I realized, while laughing, that I've developed a bristle which happens automatically when I hear the word relax in the context of art music. It has been for some time the talk of the industry (and not only broadcasting, certainly). I've come to believe that it is symptomatic of a problem of vocabulary.

God knows that music, by nature, resists explanation. Like poetry, it works its magic at levels we will never be able to name. But what would cause someone to call the dangerous and unstable blowing, rushing winds and waves of a Chopin etude "relaxing?" I imagine that it must be the first word that springs to the mind when the music has done its generous clearing-out. It is a sweet required focus that it demands. The dozens of needling daily stresses that bark and yelp for attention are forced to fall away when these exquisite waves come crashing into the foreground. That, perhaps, prompts the word "relax". It is similar to focus ... to a higher kind of attention.

I remember the pianist Russell Sherman telling me that he is a "great fan of tension." But, he said, it must be elegantly ... elegantly distributed throughout the body.

What can we possibly accomplish without tension?

Saturday, August 06, 2005

The strength of tenderness ...

I stole an hour from myself on this bright blue summer afternoon to practice the tenderest of things ... the first of the three Opus 117 Intermezzi by Brahms, and the warm ache of the second movement of Schubert's "little" A Major sonata.
And I was struck by the unique kind of strength required to sharpen the perfect limbs of those melodies ... to keep them focused and poignant, ringing, and singing, while the background blushes and sighs in a focused haze of color.

This is what the eyes do when they focus on little Samantha in this picture I just recently developed (after it languished for six sad years in a drawer). Her shapes, her fingers, the sun in her hair, all become sharp enough to melt the heart when the eyes admire her. That little body looks ready to turn and walk contentedly, heart-breakingly, away ... and with the eyes fixed on her, the lush greens of southern France blur into the sweetest and softest of hazes.

This effect I fought for in my stolen hour with Brahms and Schubert. And when I caught it, I was sure I'd come closer to knowing the meaning of tenderness.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Humor envy ...

I develop an occasional paralysis... a blogging block ... and large chunks of time go by without posting.
This is the opposite condition of Lance Mannion, who can blind you with his sheer blogging virtuosity.

He's quick ... funny ... and boy, he's just got LOTS of time to post.
I've got Lance fixed in a kind of Mozart category. Mozart's hyper-achieving defied the normal passage of time. There must have been a "Mozart minute" which adhered to none of the rules of earthly science.

Or maybe Mr. Mannion's a little like Art Tatum. I learned recently from a brilliant
scientist/pianist that psychoacousticians (I also learned that there are psychoacousticians) have a unit of speed called a Tatum, indicative (I hope I've got this right) of the maximum amount of audio information that the human ear can take in in one second. It's named for Art Tatum, who could play more notes in one second than any other human.
And he was blind ...
Which probably, somehow, helped.
They could have called it a Paganini ...
but Tatum's hipper.

Here's where to go to hear an interview I very much enjoyed doing with scientist/pianist Michael Hawley. He describes the life and magic of Art Tatum, and plays transcriptions of Tatum's recordings with astonishing prowess. He also plays Bach/Busoni, Chopin, and Guastavino. click here

And here's a little afternoon toast to Lance -- whoever you are.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Landing on the Moon with a 12-year-old ...

I was recently invited to the press opening of Robert Lepage's "The Far Side of the Moon" at the American Repertory Theater.
Desperate as I am for magic, and desperate as I also am to help my children to appreciate a desperation for magic (or something close to that), I took my youngest one along ... not knowing the degree to which the thing unfolds with a kind of elegant, exquisite desperation of its own.
Desperately innovative.
Desperately poignant.
Desperately symbolic.
And desperately beyond her.

Theater can do such magic. I'm so sorry I'm so rarely in its grip.
This is a virtuosic one-man show with Yves Jacques playing two brothers, both desperate, really ... one a gay weatherman in love with money, the other a kind of sweet, depressed misfit obsessed since childhood with the space race. And he is constantly, constantly failing at everything. He's really not able to connect with other humans, and his only success is a sad home-made video of his own tiny, luckless world. The video wins a contest and is chosen to be sent into space.
He deeply loved his mother, who ages and dies (it's discovered later that she killed herself), and in one scene he becomes her ... with green pumps and a dress ... dancing slowly and lovingly with a small, alarmingly expressive three-foot-tall astronaut-doll.

Effects through projection and trompe l'oeil took my breath away. I remember feeling physically excited by their elegance and cleverness.

The final scene used the enormous mirror that had tilted and twisted to astonishing effect throughout the play. In the end it took on an angle which allowed the actor to writhe around the floor of the set and perfectly, perfectly! create another reality in the mirror. There he was -- floating, weightless, without gravity ... slow somersaults and exquisite tumbles ... and he was perfect. A contented astronaut finally in his element.
The first movement of the "Moonlight Sonata" accompanied his floating, and it worked amazingly well.

In fact, I imagine I'll never hear those triplets in the same way again.
All of it was a gorgeous thing. I was feeling that I understood every decision ... every symbol ... every delicious metaphor for life and its absurdity. Every bit of humor was marvelous.
I wanted to kiss the actor.
At the end the theater was up on its feet, and I asked my 12-year-old if
she liked it ...

And she said she really didn't like it at all.

Of course she didn't. How could she?
She found it strange.
But it had an effect ...
The other night she told me that she's writing a short story at school about a daughter and father who discover, when rummaging through the basement, that the mother had killed herself.
(I can imagine what her teachers are thinking.)

And so up again sprang a recurrent little distance-of-mothers theme that just keeps knocking inside me. Being the reader for Earl Kim's piece "Dear Linda" the other day didn't help to make it go away, either.
Anne Sexton's love letter to her daughter is pretty damn hard to pull off: "I'm in the middle of a flight to Saint Louis ...." "I was reading a New Yorker article that made me think of my mother" ... "I love you 40-year-old Linda" ... "I wrote unhappy, but I lived to the hilt ... you live to the hilt, too Linda ...." etc. etc.
All with hauntingly sad piano sounds and flute sounds ... and cello sounds ... percussion sounds ...
It's one thing to rehearse it in a basement practice room in Harvard Square. But put the damn thing in a large, darkened concert hall, add the strange intimacy of a microphone that gives you the odd and sexy power to make huge your most whispered voice so that it reaches the exit signs ...
Well, then the thing, even when it is at its most musically cliché, becomes a thing of power ...
When you are asked to deliver: "I too was 40 once, and with a dead mother who I needed still" ...
and then think of your own mother (dead when you were 40, of course) ...
Then it gets a little surreal.
At the end: ("x, o, x, o, x, o x, o .... Mom.") the pianist and percussionist were so understated, and my x's and o's became so small, and so big ...
The audience was so very, very quiet, that the decay of the last sounds (after "Mom") went on interminably, and my eyes grabbed onto a distant corner of the room and couldn't blink, or see. Everyone's breathing seemed to have stopped. It was such a very big relief to lower my hands in a slow signal that the thing had ended.
Thank God.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Suburban Doughnuts

Found the poem below scribbled in a badly-kept, well-wrinkled little notebook ... written in honor of suburbia's inspired gathering places (Dunkin' Donuts). I found in that same notebook the autograph, with an Italian phrase I cannot read, of Carlo Bergonzi ... must have grabbed the sad little wrinkly pad while on a musical tour of Tuscany, drinking too much wine in an attempt to prolong the dream.

I also found verses in praise of a train -- one which muscled its sleek way past all types of elegant graffiti, and husks of inexplicably burnt cars, and manicured lawns ...
a train which hustled me straight to the miraculous playing of the inspired keyboard navigator
Marc-André Hamelin ... who arrived at the piano, reached forward, and generously melted away the walls of the Miller Theater -- in order to let in the exquisite light of Albeniz's Ibéria.

Click here for an interview/performance with Marc-André Hamelin.

I also found notes scribbled during a financial aid information session at a potential college for my oldest girl.

All badly scrawled, and separated by many, many blank pages ...

I don't keep notebooks well.


This is where fluorescent dreamers
gulp their milky
caffeine --
Chew at their
sourceless bread --
And pretend that the walls
offer comfort ...

Looking downward.

And just outside --
Beside the glass --
The sky is ravishing!
Blushing ...
Bright ...
A sweet, fiery sun
between the sad single trees
And the unending turnpike ...

Here ...
Cold clumsy cars made of
Keep dancing and
blinking --
Women in tired heels
Look downward --

From the ceiling,
At a careful slant,
A television
To keep our pupils
shrunken ...

The ravishing sky
deepens and
No wide eyes
to sparkle at ...
No poets to gleam for.

So the sunset dies.

And the fluorescent ghosts
pay no attention
to the

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Visions ... and hearing loss ...

Sex sells.

Musicians are offered up as sensual visions.
Chosen ones with secret breezes that blow their locks just so.
Bearers of the torch of beauty and light.
Tantalizing in their perfect understanding of shadows and curves, with eyes wide (or shut) to signal their thrilling arrogance.

They are pictures.

I wonder. When they are bought ... if that moment of purchase is just a lusty
grab ...
Then what happens after that?
Does the music pour forth and a divine path become suddenly cleared to take the trip from lusting to listening?
And then from listening to loving?
And then from loving to ...

Are these glossy visions meant to symbolize sheer
commanding power?

Like elegant strippers?
Specially made bodies fueled by the irresistable essence of

Am I being reminded that it is the musicians who control those secret breezes which tickle my most private of places?
That from the ideal face flows the perfect phrase ...
From the shapeliest shoulder, the most truthful vibrato ...
From the highest-heeled ankles, the most exquisite pedalling ...
From the roundest bosom surely must come the most insightful, devastating, inspired unleashing of the layers of life that
throb and throb
in the greatest of fugues.

What nasty business, the business of selling

Friday, January 07, 2005

Stuffing my pockets at the bookstore ...

Last night's January twilight was glazed over with ice.

At the bookstore, I just couldn't spend that $35.00 on every last word packaged up so nicely into a new and attractive book
by Mr. Rosen .

So I spent $3.00 on a latte and strapped myself into these damn reading glasses (suddenly they're necessary) and began
stuffing his dry words into whatever pockets I could find in my over-burdened

Now on this brittle January morning I've checked my pockets and found that they must have holes.
I must have littered the parking lot with those well-chosen Charles-Rosen-words.

Maybe there are some in the car.

Some I still had. I found 1814-1819
and nephew
and suffering.
Opus 90 is caught up in that ugly time of deafness and mad desire to take ownership of the nephew.


It's the best of the words. It's always there in Beethoven. Imagine laying such careful plans to disintegrate. Imagine writing such beautiful undoings of beauty (that's not Mr. Rosen. He's better than that. And certainly more careful.)

I scrounged around and found that I still had Mr. Rosen's small and honest confession in one of my pockets. He admits that he's just not clear as to whether the end of the opus 90, having slowed, ought to gear up and move past its original tempo in that final cascade, and then retrieve the tempo in the last two bars ... or simply accelerate just enough to be back by the end.

It is a marvelous uncertainty set down boldly in a stern little font.
I found that reassuring.

And, as always, I again found my own confession. It kicks around in various costumes in virtually every pocket I own.
A nagging little ghost that scratches at the heart, claiming I've missed some elemental piece of knowledge.
Some essential wisdom which will prevent me from playing the music as they say it should be played ....

I just keep digging to see who they might be.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Small silver phones pressed desperately against the ear ...

Think of the depth with which we search the syllables, and each of their letters, and the nature of the breaths that surround them.
Think of the deep diving we do into the nuances of the vital voices that reach us by cell phone.

In a parking lot, perhaps, a call from someone deeply loved, whose voice comes but occasionally. A miraculous human.
I hear every inhalation ... each curl of the lip that darkens or brightens a vowel. (Might that be sadness? Could that slight sigh between words -- the one that teases my senses -- could that be some small resignation? a little motive that will develop later into difficult news? Is there a new distance? I clutch subtle accent, the audible smirk. Mundane words are given slightly new pitches and never-before-taken tempos. What are the secrets that motivate these punctuations?)

These, I thought, once I'd snapped the small silver phone shut ...
These are the questions I ask when practicing Chopin ...
When hearing a Schubert song ...
And while weeping through the ebb and flow of Schumann's Fantasy ...

How carefully we listen to our deeply loved voices on these small silver phones ...
What insightful listeners we are.

If only music could receive such attention.

Monday, January 03, 2005

The window and the Sarabande ...

It's changed.
It had been a darker affair. A single rectangle with a weakening sill and peeling paint. Brittle blinds with broken ropes.
(It seemed just as well ... only a cruel suburban crossroad to see. A house or two and a flagpole with its proudly clanging chain.)
There was, though, something right about
Its dimensions I think.
Maybe its darkness.
Its angle on the shrubbery below?
It did ignite a memory of me-as-child and my window back then, with its same proximity to the piano.

It's changed now.
Someone new has bought the house, and I keep renting the walls for the sake of the ceilings. And suddenly, here it is! A dramatic bay window. And there, too, is the sky!

Old men now walk at length. I can learn their gaits. I once followed the shuffle of an ancient man for the entire first page of the G Major French Suite ...
Now children in this sun-soaked frame have complete choreographies to unleash.
Bicycles float past ... I have light on my face and my hands.
I can see the seasons.
There is a tree, and I'm learning its branches.
Chickadees halt and stare in at my anguishing.

And I wonder.
Does this change the practicing?
Deeply in love with the random dances that waltz into this dramatic frame, I wonder ...
Does this change the practicing?
For me, who never imagines changing the space myself,
I admire the thinkers who envision these big panes of glass.
I wouldn't have thought of this.
I wouldn't have guessed it would cause this warmth.

But whether the French Suite is better ...
Because this bigger view keeps urging me to consider these unexpected dances, and allows me just enough time to absorb them.
The old man's arrival in the window frame ...
Strangely slow. Meticulous.
A purposeful trip across the glass. An elderly propulsion.
Never a change in tempo, but constantly new in his nearness to trees
and puddles of darkness and sunlight.
An occasional turn of the head.

Cruel suburban shuffle.
It's a lesson for a Sarabande.