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.