Saturday, December 30, 2006

musical short stories

Speaking of short fiction, the past couple of weeks have brought two great stories in The New Yorker, both about musician couples. Actually, in both stories the couple is half musician and half non-musician, and that is the source of a good deal of the tension and interest behind the stories. Last week's story was "The First Sense" by Nadine Gordimer, and this week features "On Chesil Beach" by Ian McEwan.

Thinking about the relationships and tensions in these stories, I suppose that all couples have dimensions where the two people cannot participate equally. Often it might be a consuming hobby, a sports addiction, or a religious devotion. We allow our partners to pursue their interests, even when they separate us, or make us feel alien and inferior. In the long run, those inequalities can possibly help a relationship, giving us a space apart and a way to assert our own identities. I love Nadine Gordimer's description of her office worker married to a cellist:
She was so much part of the confraternity of orchestras. The rivalry among the players, drowned out by the exaltation of the music they created together. The gossip—because she was not one of them, both the men and the women trusted her with indiscretions that they wouldn’t risk with one another. And when he had differences with guest conductors from Bulgaria or Japan or God knows where, their egos as complex as the pronunciation of their names, his exasperation found relief, as he unburdened himself in bed of the podium dramas and moved on to the haven of lovemaking. If she was in a low mood—the -bungles of an inefficient colleague at work, or her father’s “heart condition” and her mother’s long complaints over the telephone about his disobeying doctor’s orders with his whiskey-swilling golfers—the cello would join them in the bedroom and he’d play for her.
There is certainly an upside to having a one-musician marriage - not only does each partner have a separate outlet, but you don't need to fight over practice space. At the same time, it seems unfortunate to not be able to share in that "exaltation" of creating something together, those moments on stage which are the most profound of a musician's life. It's hard to imagine how a couple that does not share such a passion could ever function, as in McEwan's story:
Edward had never cared for classical music, but now he was learning its sprightly argot—legato, pizzicato, con brio. Slowly, through brute repetition, he was coming to recognize and even like certain pieces. There was one that she played with her friends which especially moved him. When she practiced her scales and arpeggios at home, she wore a hair band, an endearing touch that caused him to dream about the daughter they might have one day.
Both of these stories are very much about sex, and musicality seems to become a symbol for emotional intimacy and even sexuality - in Gordimer's, the cello's voice traces the arc of an extramarital affair, while in McEwan, the violinist Florence's "sinuous and exact" playing seems to promise sensual affinities which she doesn't in fact possess. McEwan writes probably the most horrifying description of a kiss that I've ever read.

You could say that neither of these stories is really about music - but they both use the symbol for the beauty and complex awkwardness of a human relationship. In a musical performance hundreds of people can hear the same sounds and interpret them completely differently - horror and ecstasy can coexist, just like in a relationship, even in those precisely, wordlessly rendered notes.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

very locals

....He also watched people walk on Lincoln Road, past the cafe. He could distinguish the Europeans from the South Americans and the Americans. The French traveled in pairs, usually couples, burnt from too much sun. The English came in small groups of pale and rowdy young men. The South Americans spoke softly and examined the menu carefully. The locals were easy to spot too. They left the best tips. Then there were what he called the very locals, the beautiful young people who lived on South Beach. They were tanned and fit and wore few clothes. They always had their cell phones out, talking into them or thumbing messages. There were others too--performers, pamphleteers, a man who sang the 1958 hit "Volare" in different keys, a juggler, and a one-armed crazy....

- from "Nothing" by Gonzalo Barr, The Last Flight of Jose Luis Balboa, p. 95
Gonzalo Barr writes stories that make the familiar seem strange, and the strange familiar. I read them this weekend in a state of astonished discovery, recognizing so many people I've watched or walked past on Lincoln Road. Like the bar manager in the story "Nothing", trying to please his customers, keep the orders coming, and fend off the crazies. I'd never thought much about who he was, what his life might be like - I would just walk past, cringing at those expensive drink prices. Reading Barr makes me regret how lazy my imagination has been, how little I bothered to wonder about all these people and their stories.

I think that like that bar manager, I tend to classify people quickly - tourist, local, sunburnt French couple - and then promptly forget about them. Partly it's a function of the volume of people around to see, and their willingness to be categorized. I'm not sure if I'm a proper South Beach local - I'm certainly not one of those 'very locals' with their cell phones and few clothes! Reading about this bar manager, Roig, certainly might lead me to tip him better, if only in sympathy for all he has to put up with. So local or not, Barr's stories brought me into the inner lives of people in Miami, which in composite could represent the inner life of the place itself.

In a NY Times review of another book I read recently, Dave Eggers' "What is the What", Francine Prose writes,
The liberties and devices of fiction (dialogue, voice, characterization and so forth) enable the writer to take us into the mind and heart of a person not unlike ourselves who talks to us from a distant period and place, and so becomes our guide to its sights and sounds, its sorrows and satisfactions.
I think it's a very good observation, and an explanation for the paradoxical way that fiction can be truer than memoir or non-fiction. Prose's description is just as relevant for a book set in one's own city and time, though - it seems to me that the great boundaries between people today are often not time or place but indifference and failure of imagination. When we can't fully understand or sympathize with our own neighbors, it's difficult to do so for Palestinian or Sudanese people. Still, I think great stories like Barr's can be a cure for indifference, and a way of entering into others' lives without harrassing or annoying them.

Gonzalo Barr appears today on WLRN's "Topical Currents".

Friday, December 22, 2006

exorcising audition demons

Lately I've been reading the blog Dragons and Princesses, written by a violinist under the name E.C.D. She has begun a series of posts chronicling auditions, leaving out any incriminating details: so far there is a Part One and Part Two. The big discovery here for me is not so much that violinists can be absurdly, maddeningly manipulative - playing mind games with eachother in the warm-up room and the waiting room, games which E.C.D. does her level best to resist entering. I probably already knew about these types, though hearing them in action is kind of astounding. Even more surprising, though, is that anyone could write about her audition experiences with so much grace, wit, and clarity - even without naming names.

Most of my audition experiences, I'm afraid to say, I've either blocked out or overdramatized in my memory. I think it's a great exercise though, or maybe exorcism is the better word - laughing at the insidious audition demons, so they can't take possession of your own mind!

In the meantime, I want to borrow an element from E.C.D.'s blog, a list on the sidebar of things I've been reading. I'm usually obsessed by some book or article, which infiltrates all my thoughts and even my writing - speaking of possession - but often I don't get around to mentioning these. So if you are ever curious what might influence me to write such odd things, a glance at the "What I'm reading" list might help shed some light. And if you would like to learn more about something I list there, please feel free to e-mail or comment, and I'll try to answer as best I can!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

the elephant in the room

Classical pianist and blogger Jeremy Denk wrote an incredible poetic ballad, Mighty Contests, on his blog "Think Denk" this week. If you visit to read it, do yourself a favor and listen to Denk's reading, offered as a an audio link, and follow along. The whole seem might seem excessive and silly, but musicians really do devote this kind of painstaking thought, argument, and hand-wringing to restaurant choices. I've sometimes wondered how much more we'd all accomplish if we could all just stop obsessing over such things - then again, so many of the best musicians I know are also very dedicated foodies, and maybe there is some kind of correlation there. We live and die by our taste, I suppose.

Another story of life on the road appeared this past weekend on NPR's All Things Considered, with a piece on bassist Gary Karr's various travel disasters: "Karr's Double Bass Find Biggest Threat at the Airport." Two of Karr's basses suffered neck snaps on flights, which may partly explain why he quit touring. My bass also cracked at the neck on a flight - the date was September 4th, 2001, so my little tragedy didn't draw much sympathy. Still, ever since then flying has been an awful, stressful, and expensive ordeal. I get the sense that things are only getting worse.

Karr tells how back in the day, bassists took their instruments with them onto the plane. Then, when seating became more cramped, he had to buy two first class tickets, but at least got to choose two meals, and eat both. (What an epic might Jeremy Denk have written in such a situation!) These days, I feel lucky if I manage to get my bass on at all. Airline counter agents are ever-more vigilant about the weight limitations, no more than 100 lbs. for any piece of checked luggage. This sounds reasonable, but it is quite difficult to pack a bass securely in a hard-shell trunk at that weight. If the agents choose to weigh mine, it usually tips the scales at 108-112, triggering a long round of refusals, pleading, phone calls to supervisors and baggage handlers, etc. My trunk is hardly the worst offender, either - the Kolstein trunk shown here weighs nearly 150 lbs. with a bass inside.

The future of airline transportation with basses will apparently require massive alteration of all our instruments. A Canadian luthier has begun fitting basses with removable necks - ironically, after all those basses snapped at the base of the neck on flights, now they'll be coming apart by design. It's a brilliant solution, if an expensive one - not only is the case much smaller, but it even relieves the pressure and tension on the instrument, possibly even improving the sound. A belt of some sort maintains just enough tension on the body of the instrument to keep the sound post in place.

I don't have any pictures of this new system, and I am not quite ready to submit my own instrument to the knife. For now anyway, I'll just keep testing my luck with the counter agents.

Visit Jason Heath's Bass Page, which features several more horrifying yet entertaining tales of travels with the bass.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Eine Kleine Vibratomusik

All this week I've been rehearsing Mozart's Serenade in G, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik in a string quintet for a chamber music concert this Sunday. I guess it's fitting that in this year of overplayed Mozart, we should finish with one of the most overplayed Mozart pieces of all time. It's quite probable that, should a cell phone go off during the performance, it will play a ring tone from Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. It's one of those pieces you can hear so much you stop recognizing it as music. That's not to say it's a bad piece - like any Mozart work, there seem to be endless little surprises and miracles. It's up to us to make them seem that way, not overly familiar drudgery.

One of the things we've been talking about is vibrato. Apparently Sir Roger Norrington left a lot of us thinking about this subject; and while we're not ready to abandon it entirely, we're all trying to use it in a more thoughtful way. Probably this is something musicians alone obsess about - I've been trying to think of a similar conundrum in another profession, but haven't really come up with anything. Are there postal workers who feel a need to shake all the packages, or lawyers who can't stop palpitating their briefcases?

For musicians, the problem of vibrato is sort of the same as the problem of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik: they can both be so great and wonderful, as long as they are not done to death, or done in a perfunctory and boring way. One of the most interesting moments is near the end of the second movement, when the coda begins with a series of surprising modulating chords. We decided that we would make these chords most striking by using no vibrato at all, just playing them with a very fast and emphatic bow stroke. However, the danger is that they could still sound dead and dreadfully out of tune.

At our rehearsal today, coach Scott Nickrenz suggested that we "give those chords some life in the left hand" - which might sound like a euphemism for vibrato, but somehow thinking of it in this way helped. The sound had that shimmering resonant life, without the wobbly preciousness of a wide vibrato. Scott described this kind of active left hand as "salt and pepper", which conveys the size of the movement as well as its effect on the sound - a little can go a long way.

I think maybe semantics is a big part of the problem, since the word vibrato has gotten so loaded with sappy romantic connotations. Obviously we need in an infinite gradation of different vibrato sounds, from the slightest shimmer to the garish cafe vibrato that Sir Roger likes to joke about. Actually in his essay on orchestral vibrato, Sir Roger mentions Fritz Kreisler and the advent of continuous vibrato, writing that "listening to his recordings today one is struck by the delicacy of his vibrato. It is much more a gentle shimmer than the forced pitch-change one often hears today."

So maybe we need a thousand different words for vibrato, as the Eskimos allegedly have for snow. Next time Sir Roger comes around, we can say, "That's not vibrato, that's my vifructo!" And while we're tweaking our semantics, maybe we can call the piece tomorrow "Eine Kleine Nachmittagmusik", since we are playing it in the afternoon (the concert begins at 3 pm). Is there really anything nocturnal about this music? Who knows, it might make people sit up and listen with fresh ears - or at least silence the cell phone jingles!

Friday, December 15, 2006

everything is weirder here

The saying goes that everything is bigger in Texas, and if we have an equivalent I would say that everything is weirder in Florida. That weirdness might start with our climate and natural surroundings, but it definitely applies to the people, the politics, and the literature here as well.

One of the Florida authors my friend Kevin of hidden city raves about is Carl Hiaasen. His most recent novel, Nature Girl, is about a woman who lures a hapless telemarketer to her home in the Everglades, not only to punish him for his annoying vocation but to give him a fuller appreciation of the natural world. I heard a radio interview with the author on WBUR's On Point, a public radio show in syndication nationwide which unfortunately doesn't broadcast in Miami. I heard it online though.

It was strange hearing all the live callers, most of them Miami natives, who phoned in from New Mexico, South Carolina, Kentucky, everywhere but Miami. The host Tom Ashbrook at one point wondered aloud why all these people had left, whether it was the very weirdness and scuzziness of the place Carl Hiaasen depicts that had driven them all away. It's probably more because we can't hear On Point live, but it is remarkable how many former Floridians are still in love with the stories, the colors, and the overall weirdness of this place. Hiaasen pointed out that he sees Florida as a place of incredible wonders which people are quickly and senselessly destroying - in this sense his novels aren't so much satire, he said, but documentary.

Another native Miami author I've recently discovered is Karen Russell, whose debut collection is St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised by Wolves. Russell's stories also feature the glorious strangeness of Florida. Her stories are filled with human attempts to tame and control nature, which somehow only manage to turn everything weirder. We're placed in bizarre theme parks (Swamplandia!), school field trips gone tragically wrong, a program pairing young ex-cons with retirees living in boats, and a reformatory school for feral girls. Just like Hiaasen, her stories are hilarious and reveal human nature at its twisted extremes.

Maybe things wouldn't be half as weird around here if we didn't have so many people trying to straighten Florida up and turn it into a big Disney amusement park. The real amusement of Florida comes from watching all those plans go askew, seeing nature take its revenge, and our authentic, native weirdness winning out in the end.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

education and emphasis

So much of performing is a matter of emphasis - how to distinguish one note from another, which voice to bring out of the texture, where to culminate a phrase. One of the very wise observations Robert Levin made in his Mozart wind concerto class last week was that 97% of phrasing is renunciation - it's deciding what can be said without emphasis, so that every syllable is not accented, and each note isn't smothered with excess meaning. And the really important moments have the weight and impact to capture our attention.

The past couple of days we have been performing education concerts to large crowds of elementary school students. Each performance lasted about an hour, and our conducting fellow Steven Jarvi tried to squeeze a lot into that time: from the names of all the instruments and their means of sound production, to principles of orchestration; the transformation of Pictures at an Exhibition from piano solo to orchestral piece; how a concerto works; and how much instrumentalists need to practice(!) Of course you never want to bore kids, but I've been wondering about what these kids will be left with, after the sounds of the orchestra have faded and they've forgotten the titles of all the pieces we played.

I think focusing on mechanical principles can be a very nice approach, but it has to get to something deeper to really resonate. It would be like going to the art museum and being shown a bunch of paint and blank canvas. You get an understanding of the materials and the challenges of putting them to use, but then you're left with so many questions. How were all those decisions made? Are these composers gifted with some kind of amazing intuition, or was there a process of experimenting and rejection involved? And if these things are all so difficult to play, why bother?

Hopefully the sound of the orchestra and the brilliance of the music we played will answer that last question, since it's very hard to explain satisfactorily in words! Steve Jarvi handled a lot of these questions very well. He asked the kids to listen for some specific things, connect the sounds and colors of several pieces and predict how instruments might be used. Even though his talk began on a very basic level, the basic wood and metal that makes up the instruments we play, he got onto some fairly sophisticated ideas. Still, I found myself frustrated by how much was not explained.

I think my own tendency in talking to audiences is to offer all the facts, ideas, and speculation I can manage to recall, sort of like those essay tests I used to take in college. I would squeeze as much from my memory into the little blue book as I could within the time limit, and hope that most of it was correct and relevant! I'm realizing that the much more sophisticated way, the Robert Levin way, is to have a few deeply held ideas and points, and express those with the utmost passion. The rest you let the audience figure out for themselves, or maybe just wonder and be curious until the next concert.

Perhaps that's not just the more sophisticated way, but also the more respectful way. You trust the audience to create their own thoughts, ideas, and impressions, and not just absorb the facts you've prepared to recite to them. And you trust your own musicianship, so that you don't need to be that know-it-all.

I think if I could have added something to these education concerts, I would have asked the kids to notice and think about how an orchestra uses silence. While we were playing the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings, almost every pause and cadence seemed to trigger a burst of applause, which makes me think they not only didn't know what to expect but felt uncomfortable in their role as appreciative audience. Maybe some of these kids have never heard a work of music in which the sound stops for several seconds and didn't know how to react. I don't want to be the classical music ogre who glares at every misplaced clap, but to me it seems worthwhile to recognize that sometimes part of the canvas is intentionally left blank, and think about how that empty moment can affect us.

Of course, in music as in life, as in blogging and so much else, you have to pick the right battles. Maybe my silence idea would work well with a Bruckner symphony, though I'm not sure a bunch of 2nd graders could sit through much of that. Lately I feel like I have so much to write about, and so much to think and read and meditate about, and so little time to accomplish it all! I think maybe if I write every day, and use my time well, I'll eventually catch up with all my good intentions - but then I just seem to open up more possibilities I can never follow up. I guess at times like these, I should take Robert Levin's advice and renounce all the excess clutter!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Robert Levin's class on Mozart

Last week I listened to pianist Robert Levin give a master class on Mozart's wind concerti, at which several New World fellows played. I didn't take notes unfortunately, but a few things stick in my mind.

First, he listed three books on performance practice that every musician should own:

Leopold Mozart's A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing

J.J. Quantz' On Playing the Flute

C.P.E. Bach's Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments

I haven't read any of these completely yet - I'm thinking of making it a new year's resolution. I did begin Leopold Mozart's book last summer, having found it in a university library. I really enjoy the stuffy old-fashioned language of pedagogical treatises, and the funny stories and observations about performing life that get told in passing. Leopold Mozart definitely goes on some silly tangents - even reading his chapter on basic notational principles was hilarious. It might not look like light holiday reading, but I'm pretty sure you'll find this stuff as amusing as it is worthwhile.

Robert Levin was constantly challenging the wind players to articulate the character of the music. I sometimes feel constricted in music of the classical style - even the word classical feels constrictive! But watching Levin sing, sigh, giggle, and hum through a Mozart concerto really opened my ears to some of the possibilities of this music. His whole body just seemed set free when he demonstrated a passage - demonstrations which were as often with singing and gestures as playing on the piano. On a few occasions I have seen Michael Tilson Thomas 'perform' an orchestral score in this way, acting as though he's been possessed by all those symphonic themes and rhythms.

One of the thoughts Robert Levin left us with was this: the problem with Mozart's music is that it's too easy for children, and too hard for adults! Lately I feel like one of those adults, furiously obsessing over all the complexities and complications of making music. Sometimes I wish I could forget all this stuff, and just go back to the child-like wonder of putting together beautiful sounds. Somehow a musician like Robert Levin balances the two, or finds a way around the paradox. He has so thoroughly analyzed all this music, and studied its history down to specific manuscripts and performances, and reached his very thoughtful conclusions. But then in front of an audience, or just a bunch of fellow musicians, he makes it come alive in a way I can't possibly convey in words.

Monday, December 11, 2006

checking back in...

It's been a busy and very enlightening week at the New World Symphony - conductor Roger Norrington was in town to conduct an all-Schumann program, along with pianist Robert Levin. Then the past couple of days, the bassist Paul Ellison has been giving lessons to our section. These might not be household names outside the orchestral world - I'm never quite sure how opaque my little bubble is! - but they are all brilliant and extremely thoughtful musicians, with a lot to impart.

So a lot of ideas have been fermenting in my mind (if that metaphor works.) I tend to think of my mind as a vat of swirling liquids, insoluble matter and mysterious gases. At some point, I always hope, some chemical reaction will transform it into a nice, cohesive solution, and all my confusion and doubts will dissolve and escape. Unfortunately, I'm not sure if this metaphor has any basis in chemistry, or in reality!

Facing reality seems to be a problem for me lately. I'm just sort of coming to the realization that I've been depressed for some time now - lethargic, unmotivated, just generally down. I have this friend, he's often very depressed, and whenever I ask him how he is, he responds "About the same." I never know how to answer that, whether it's a good thing or I should express sympathy! I know what he means though, in a sense, since I think most people's moods are calibrated to remain at a certain level. We might have good days and bad days, great victories or awful setbacks, but somehow we always return to our default mood. Within that, though, there are definite cycles, and for whatever reason lately I've been at a low point.

Depression takes different forms for everyone, and we all have our own ways of overcoming it. Still, it was inspiring for me to hear Roger Norrington talk about Schumann's depressions, and how studying Back and then writing his 2nd Symphony allowed him to recover. Schumann had two definite characters within himself: one energetic, forceful, masculine persona he called Florestan, and a reserved, pensive, feminine persona he named Eusebius. The whole symphony can be heard as a dialogue between Florestan and Eusebius, each imbalanced and destructive in their own way. Then there are these episodes of Bach-inspired counterpoint that seem to bring him back in balance, and to lead the two sides into a healthy synthesis.

I love the idea that creativity and work can make us whole and heal us. Maybe because I don't want to go through therapy or take medication, and work is the biggest and most pressing thing in my life right now! It's difficult to imagine reaching some cathartic breakthrough as in Schumann's 2nd - then again, that success story must have been short-lived, since later he returned to a deep depression and finally committed suicide.

At the concert the other evening, I sat in the audience to listen to Robert Levin play the Schumann piano concerto, which was spectacular. A man sitting next to me, as Levin was beginning his encore, noticed that I was a musician in the orchestra and began talking to me. "I sometimes wonder what you'll all do next, after being part of something so fabulous, whether anything else you do will ever compare." I didn't respond, since the encore had already begun, one of Schumann's virtuosic solo piano pieces. Still, I was thinking about his statement - how right he was in a sense, since we are all fortunate to be doing this, playing wonderful music together in a fantastic place. And yet for young musicians, or for any musician, I'm finding, it's never enough. We all have goals, hopes and dreams that we depend on to drive us forward to better things - while at the same time they threaten to crush us in failure. So there's this uneasy equilibrium, in which on any given day I might swell with hope or crumble into despair.

I didn't say any of this to my fellow audience member. I just listened to the rest of Robert Levin's brilliant encore, which overflowed with character. Then I turned to the man and said, "Thank you," and answered his questions about where I'm from and what I play, and went back on stage to warm up during intermission. Sometimes expressing all this stuff can be overwhelming and emotionally draining work, I guess - just like playing Schumann's big manic depressive Second Symphony!

Monday, December 04, 2006

Jason Heath's blog

It makes me happy to find several people rediscovering Hella Frisch, reading my ramblings here, and welcoming me back to blogging. I suppose I wasn't away all that long, but still I imagine the collective memory of the blogosphere tends to be short-term. So I'm eternally grateful to have regained a place in your browser window - or perhaps that you were too lazy to remove me in the first place. In any case, thank you for visiting!

I suppose my memory tends towards the short-term as well, but I've been trying to catch up on some of my favorite blogs, and discovering new ones. Today I want to mention Jason Heath, an old friend of mine who has created a great resource for all double bassists, as well as lovers of stylish writing, Chicago news, and cat pictures. I don't want to pile the superlatives on too high, but the Jason Heath's Double Bass Blog is what Hella Frisch aspires to be in its most wishful fantasies. Do blogs have fantasies?

Jason Heath also produces a podcast, featuring a lot of double bass performances you won't hear anywhere else. Honestly, the offerings on Jason's page sort of overwhelm me. (Apparently you can read it translated into Korean or Arabic, if you're so inclined.) But I'll definitely be reading Jason frequently, and then shamelessly poaching his content. You'll also find a link to his site on my 'blog roll', over there to your right.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

rethinking Frankenstein!!

I'm a little ashamed to have written so dismissively of the Gruber piece earlier in the week - after rehearsing it for a few more days, and performing the piece this evening, I think it's much more than just squeaky toys and nonsense poetry. I would probably need a lot more study and listening to understand the piece completely, but I think its intent is something quite profound. It's trying to create this whole world of child-like impressions, naivety, and wonder, and at the same time express a lot of dark and unsettling emotions. There are moments when it's really uncomfortable to listen to these bizarre sounds, grumbling and shrieking and all kinds of human noises which we're not accustomed to hearing in the concert hall. And so the audience has to laugh or react, to relieve some of this tension. As simple and fun as the piece first appears, it has this incredible way of calculating the audience's emotions, and pushing them just so far that they have to squirm, and then laugh.

After the performance I got to speak with Kevin Hall, who writes Hidden City, and a friend who writes sex and the beach (I think she may be semi-anonymous). It was very cool to see some familiar faces in the audience, and feel a part of this little cultural scene in Miami - I think part of my decision to suspend blogging for a while was the feeling of sliding into irrelevance. It now seems to me kind of a self-fulfilling notion: once you think you have nothing significant to say, it becomes the truth. But really, concerts like this make me feel music is very meaningful, and as a performer I'm right in the thick of all that meaningfulness. So the challenge is to find the sense of the music for myself, and then to make sure that the audience can find it as well.

If that's my goal, probably the first thing I should do is to admit that I'm confused and lost a lot of the time too. (Not in the sense of losing my place on the page, which I can usually find, but losing the larger message). When I first open a new score, there's all this unfamiliar notation, strange instructions, a weird title - the superficial stuff which the audience also struggles with. I try and cling to the things I can easily read, the pitches and rhythms, and at least have these organized for the first rehearsal. A piece like Gruber's Frankenstein!!, there is simply so much going on, I can barely keep up with the part on my stand, and a few important signals and cues which will help me keep my place.

But as the rehearsal period goes on, I gain some familiarity, as I start to remember and look forward to certain moments - a strange chord, a rhythm that makes me feel like dancing. I'm still not sure I understand what the piece is about, at least not enough that I could stand up and give a lecture about it. Somehow though, in the process of learning its gestures, blending myself into its sonorities and harmonic language, I think I do reach some unconscious grasp of its meaning. I feel like my body contains something essential about the piece, even if my brain can't distill it into words. At least I tell myself this, so that I can feel ready to perform it!

Often, like tonight, the composer has something fascinating to say about the piece right before the performance. Gruber said that this piece, as silly as it may sound, has some very serious purposes, and made it clear that he wasn't merely showing off toy sounds. Speeches like this are for the benefit of the audience, but of course he knows the orchestra is listening too - I wonder sometimes if the conductor has planned it this way, saving those words until the moment right before we play so that they will be foremost in the minds of the musicians as well as the audience.

And so I try and play with as much understanding as possible - tonight I thought some lovely things happened, as well as some strange and not completely expected things. Even in new music, we can quickly form a set idea of how things must go, and it can be unnerving when the performance strays a bit, as it always will. Gruber was fun to perform with, because he seemed genuinely open to whatever strange new features might appear in his piece - he kept referring to our run-throughs as "versions". So no single version can be complete and authoritative, I suppose, which makes both the hearing and the performing an adventure. I can't say I completely "got" the piece Frankenstein!!, but after performing tonight's version for a very appreciative audience, I at least got an experience of it.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

symphonic slapstick with H.K. Gruber

Most of the time a classical new music concert is a pretty serious affair - we all dress in black and our most solemn facial expressions. That might be a challenge at our New World Symphony new music concert this Saturday though, in which composer/conductor H.K. Gruber will conduct his own piece Frankenstein!!, and he'll also sing, dance, and play various kazoos.

At today's first rehearsal, H.K. Gruber had to tell us several times to keep a poker face - "be like Buster Keaton!" he said. (Who's that?) We might not have understood half of what he said, but the orchestra couldn't stop laughing. His piece seems to treat the orchestra as a big collection of toys, and then add some real toys into the mix just for more fun. There are slide whistles in the low brass, toy pianos in the bassoon and percussion, a car horn for the harp player.... All the winds stand up at one point and twirl noisemakers. In the bass section, we mostly just play the bass, but at one point we join the rest of the orchestra to harmonize on some nonsense poetry.

I guess we do sometimes treat ourselves too seriously as classical musicians. I'm pretty sure we're not humorless people though - we just don't want to compromise the composer's intentions. Most of the composers I've met, though, seem to have fantastic senses of humor, and I'm sure that Mozart, Haydn, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky did as well. Probably Beethoven never played a kazoo, but he definitely liked to surprise and shock his audience - and he was known to burst out laughing maniacallly during his own improvisations, from what I've heard.

So please come to the Lincoln Theater this weekend, but don't come expecting a lot of dour, sour new music posturing. At least for Saturday, you're more likely to find a whoopee cushion on your seat.

Monday, November 27, 2006

New Times' "An Uncertain Overture"

I've been thinking a lot about music journalism lately, having just told my own story at great length to New York Times reporter Daniel Wakin. This evening I came across the kind of story which I hope Wakin won't write: it's called An Uncertain Overture by Rob Jordan, and it appears in last week's Miami New Times.

Rob Jordan writes about an 18-year-old classical pianist named Xavier Spencer, clearly an incredibly talented kid who is struggling through a transition in his education and life. Jordan does a great job showing the frustratingly long odds a poor young musician faces, and the impressive achievements Spencer has already made. It seems to me that a profile like this also walks a difficult line: the reporter must get into the subject's head, to voice his thoughts and emotions. At the same time, he needs to be an objective critic of his playing and abilities. This is especially problematic with a young musician like Spencer - he hasn't had enough time yet to develop as a musician (he began at age 13); and he also seems to express himself much more eloquently in his playing than in his words.

So Rob Jordan relies for quotes and commentary on Spencer's mom, his main teacher Felix Spengler, and other teachers who have heard and encouraged him. We get a very warm view of his playing, as when Jordan writes "He had 'all the ingredients' to become a professional, according to one of his instructors. 'When you hear him play, you say, "Oh my God, he's a musician."'" (Sorry for the triple-quotes!) At the same time, Jordan keeps a kind of ominous drumbeat going in the background: "he wasn't sure he'd ever perform again", "in the months since Spencer's high school graduation, little had gone right..." The gloomy vibe fully emerges at the end of Jordan's story, when Spencer and his prospects seem literally to fade away: "'Maybe it's the thought that this might not actually work,' he said, his voice trailing off, little more than a whisper."

Spencer's story deserves to be told and read, but this strikes me as too much melodrama. Teacher Spengler has already given his verdict on Spencer's doubts, saying "He's just being a teenager." Jordan clearly sees it as much more than that, and makes sure we follow his tragic conclusions. Maybe Spengler is right though - maybe Spencer is just being a teenager, trying to put words to a lot of conflicted emotions. Not many 18-year-olds are 100% sure of their direction, and being a talented pianist doesn't exempt a kid from feelings of confusion and doubt. I'd argue that it's healthy to be dealing with those insecurities at Spencer's age. Success in the arts is rarely quick or easy, no matter how great the talent, and all the struggling and questioning can give us a better perspective on what we're trying to accomplish.

Reading the article definitely left me pulling for Spencer, and I hope he keeps working and developing as a musician. Really though, there's reason to be hopeful for this kid whether or not he succeeds in music - he's already accomplished so much, seen so many places, and created a great sense of pride in his family and in the people in his community. Maybe it's easier to see that hope in another person's life than in one's own. In any case, I'm much more inclined to Spengler's optimism than Jordan's pessimism.

By tracing the arc of Spencer's story, an article like this can provide further inspiration to an even wider community; I think it can also serve a function for Spencer himself, seeing his life formed into a narrative shape. But by ending the story with a pessimistic shrug, I think the writer hits a sour note himself. Hopefully others who read this article, and Spencer himself, will recognize that note as false, and will see that his success story is by no means finished.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


I have only good things to say about the Apple iPod. This past summer mine got wet and broke, but it was still under warranty so I got a new replacement, absolutely free. And all my music was on my computer, so nothing was lost. My old iPod was named "Mrkgnaaaooo!", but I named this new one "Terpsichore", after one of the Greek muses.

When I got my iPod replaced, I resolved to treat the new one better. I decided Terpsichore would not be coming along on any jogs or walks in rain storms, and I bought a nice leather cover so I wouldn't scratch up the screen. (It's made by Covertec, in case you're interested.) This past week or so I've been shopping iPod accessories again, because I managed to lose my headphones and also my USB cable and charger. The cable and charger seem to have gone missing from my checked suitcase after flying home yesterday; the headphones were stolen while I was in Buffalo, though that's a much longer story.

Anyway, this post is not about my recent penchant for losing stuff. Maybe I'll get around to that topic in another post. This one is about the astonishing variety of iPod accessories being sold. Covers, cords, headphones, there are so many of these, but they are only the beginning. I have no good explanation, though, for the AFT iCarta. This thing, as self-explanatory as it may seem, just leaves me asking rhetorical questions....

Do we really need an iPod toilet paper holder? Does this really enrich the bathroom experience, or can the toilet enrich the iPod experience? Can such an object have any real benefit, besides gag gift? And who spends over $100 for a gag gift?

One of my favorite things about the iPod is the simplicity of its design, the elegance of that single button right in the center. There's something wonderful about a gizmo that you can use without reading any instructions, that makes you forget that you're even operating a sophisticated gizmo. That simplicity not only makes it useful, it seems to encourage people to superimpose their personalities on it, to clothe and feed and accessorize their iPods. I'm just wondering if we've reached a point of ridiculousness, if the iPod has jumped the shark. I guess until I meet someone with an iCarta, and try it myself, I won't know for sure. For now, though, Terpsichore is staying out of the bathroom.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

LA in brief

Thanks for the welcomes, and I'll be back to writing more soon!

I've been in LA this week, visiting my brother and his dog. My brother works at USC, designing their website, and he also instructs yoga part time. He took me along to a couple of classes and I was thoroughly humiliated - I have to work on my headstands.

I also had a lesson with David Moore while I was out here. I've been meaning to write more about Mr. Moore, who is one of the most intelligent and perceptive musicians I've ever met. In fact, he's so intelligent and perceptive that my lessons with him tend to focus on minute and very fundamental concepts, stuff I maybe should have mastered many years ago. Like playing open strings, and holding the bass. I leave every lesson feeling very inspired though, and ready to apply these concepts to everything I do.

This evening we're driving to Las Vegas, to visit my mom and stepdad. Most people are shocked or amused when I tell them my parents live in Las Vegas - I didn't grow up there, they relocated when I was in college. My Thanksgiving itinerary is organized around the principle of avoiding traffic at all costs - and so we're planning on leaving LA at 10 pm tonight, when some of the I-15 chaos may have subsided. Realistically though, this is LA, traffic is unavoidable.

Best wishes to everyone and enjoy the holiday!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

more from Buffalo

For the past few weeks a New York Times reporter, Daniel Wakin, has been working on a piece about the New World Symphony. We've been told it will be prominently featured in The New York Times Magazine. NWS takes this kind of media exposure very seriously, as I suppose we should. Before he came, the orchestra brought in a media-savvy expert to brief the orchestra on how to handle reporters, lead the interview, stay on message, etc.

Her basic advice was, "Don't say anything stupid" - or anything you wouldn't be happy to share with millions of NY Times readers. It seemed improbable that a big-city reporter would even be interested in my humble life, but I definitely made it a point to come up with some talking points, some clever quotable blurbs, just in case I was one of those lucky interviewees. Then he left town, and I forgot all about it.

(all photos were taken today during my walk around Buffalo)

What I didn't realize, though, was that he was going to come back again. Dan Wakin's return was on the first day that we were playing mock auditions for Jeff Turner, principal bassist of the Pittsburgh Symphony. The other bass players told him that I was preparing for this Buffalo audition, and so why not cover my little audition saga? So when I went in to play that first mock, there he was, right beside Jeff Turner and Chris Adkins, principal cellist of the Dallas Symphony. Playing for those three guys was easily one of the most mortifying experiences of my life.

Strangely enough, Dan Wakin wanted to hear more, and he asked me all about my preparation for this audition. I quickly forgot the coaching about media handling and pretty much put my whole life out there for him to listen and take blindingly fast shorthand notes. I'm not sure I had anything very insightful to say, but I wasn't going to let that stop me from yakking away. Maybe what got me talking so freely was the way he was jotting it all down so quickly. Once in a while he would even ask me to repeat some phrase I had said. I don't think he really had to ask many questions, though. I just seemed to start spewing out every hope, fear, and dumb audition story I could think of.

Two days later I played another mock audition - it went better, but still not great. Dan Wakin was there again, and again he got an earful of all my audition neuroses. I travelled to Buffalo on Saturday, and he called me yesterday, after my successful preliminary audition. We talked on the phone for 45 minutes yesterday afternoon, and then again today, after my unsuccessful semifinal. Or rather, I talked profusely and heard him jotting down notes in the background. I'm not usually this talkative - by way of comparison, I had a phone conversation with my Mom on Sunday which lasted one minute, 35 seconds. All told I've probably spoken with Dan Wakin for almost 3 hours in the past week.

The thing is, I really have no idea what he might write, and I'm somewhat concerned that I'm going to sound like a self-absorbed putz. Actually, I'm almost sure of it. I don't think it's solely his interview skills - somehow the orchestral audition process itself seems to open up my emotions and disable my communicative inhibitions. Other people I've talked with shared this experience as well - though mostly they've found themselves opening up to a sympathetic friend or family member, not a New York Times reporter. Even though I honestly meant to stay on message, by the end of our conversation I was ready to tell him all about my traumatic experiences, career questioning, failed relationships - stuff I ordinarily wouldn't even share with you, my loyal blog reader(s)!

Which brings me to the point of this, my return to blogging: I realize I am rather badly in need of another expressive outlet. Music is surely the most glorious, expressive, and moving of art forms. However, there is a relatively narrow range of experience that you can convey in the bass part of Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice, just to choose a random piece. And I love that piece - I love listening to it and I love playing it. But I can't use it to express my frustrated hopes about auditions, my fears of abandonment, my concerns that my life may have shriveled to quixotic single-minded quest... Probably there's another piece that would work better, but sometimes it's easier to just get it down in words.

So I'm not going to shy away from the self-revealing blog entry, in this new incarnation of hella frisch. And though I'll try not to overwhelm you with embarrassingly personal stuff, I think there are certain occasions when it's better not to keep things to yourself. Unless you happen to be talking with a reporter from the New York Times. In which case, probably a little more self-reflection would have been helpful. Blogs are perfect for self-reflection, though, right? And you can even edit out the embarrassing stuff later, hopefully before too many people read it.

report from Buffalo

Few words can say much,
But sometimes more are needed.
So screw the haikus.

I'm in Buffalo this week for an audition; here's a picture I took of my hotel here:
It's somewhat cold and gray here, as is to be expected. Then again, I think I'm kind of better suited to a cold, gray environment than to hot, colorful Miami. There's something nice about shivers and drizzle, now and then.

I did advance to the semi-finals on Sunday, when that newspaper photo below was taken. But I didn't make the cut this morning. A lot of bass players I know also played in the semis, and I'm optimistic that one or two of them will win jobs here - they're auditioning for principal and associate principal bass. As for me, I think it's time to take a break from audition excerpts. I've been preparing for auditions pretty steadily since August, or even a little before that. It's great to have the opportunities, but I also feel like a need to get out of this track-meet mentality and get back to playing music for the love of it.

I'm planning to write lots more about music, auditions, traveling, and lots of other stuff soon. I should also take some more photos while I'm here, since this one of the hotel is pretty depressing. I might try and toss in a poem now and again, but I'll have to find some new forms. It's embarrassing to be out-haiku-ed on my own blog by one poetically gifted commenter. Or maybe that's just the track-meet mentality talking.

Monday, November 13, 2006

overexposed haiku no. 3

Woke up to find that
My picture made the front page
Of Buffalo News.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

pro-democratic haiku no. 2

"Miami Beach residents that vote early are eligible to receive 15% discounts at participating Miami Beach businesses and receive a free admission to the Scott Rakow Ice Rink during the early voting period."
Last week we voted,
Hoping to save our country.
Then go ice skating.

resumptive haiku no. 1

Three months with no posts...
The world has stopped visiting.
Why not write haikus?

Saturday, August 12, 2006

the whole blog

A blog, like many things, is easier to start than to finish. They all must end sometime though, and I've decided to put hella frisch to rest.

I've had a great time connecting with people and sharing memories in this blog - I don't pretend to be any sort of great writer, but somehow I've attracted many fantastic readers, and all of your comments, messages, and compliments have delighted and sustained me through the past couple of years. If I've annoyed, irritated, or squandered the time of some of you, I apologize.

The reasons I'm quitting the blog are several. The main reason is that I'd like to make better use of my own time. Practicing and performing on the double bass have always been my focus and greatest time commitment - if I hope to make a permanent occupation of it, though, I need to advance my career through even more committed work.

I've also been reading a book of essays by Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace. If anyone wants to read the book that killed hella frisch, this might be the one. (I don't know if that's a reason for praise or condemnation - probably the former.) It's one of the most eloquent and persuasive books I've read, and what Berry has to say about modern culture and economics should give everyone pause. I'll quote a rather long passage from an essay defending his abstention from computers, since it has so influenced my thinking:

Some of my critics were happy to say that my refusal to use a computer would not do any good. I have argued, and am convinced, that it will at least do me some good, and that it may involve me in the preservation of some cultural goods. But what they meant was real, practical, public good. The meant that the materials and energy I save by not buying a computer will not be "significant" They meant that no individual's restraint in the use of technology or energy will be "significant." That is true.

But each one of us, by "insignificant" individual abuse of the world, contributes to a general abuse that is devastating. And if I were one of thousands or millions of people who could afford a piece of equipment, even one for which they had a conceivable "need," and yet did not buy it, that would be "significant." Why, then, should I hesitate for even a moment to be one, even the first one, of that "significant" number? Thoreau gave the definitive reply to the folly of "significant numbers" a long time ago: Why should anybody wait to do what is right until everybody does it? It is not "significant" to love your own children or to eat your own dinner, either. But normal humans will not wait to love or eat until it is mandated by an act of Congress.

- "Feminism, the Body, and the Machine" by Wendell Berry, p. 78-79

I'm not sure if Berry's ideal of zero computer use is possible or desirable for everyone, but it struck me that I could at least reduce mine. The impact on worldwide energy use may not be significant, and I'm fortunate enough to not pay my own electricity bills; but in conserving time and energy, I can make a very positive impact on my own life. Writing this here is no doubt the height of hypocrisy; the last few weeks, though, I have cut down my computer use considerably, and the change has been a good one, I think.

I probably would not be writing this post if I didn't see this as cause for celebration, not sadness. Of course, there are many people who I wouldn't have met without this blog, and I hope we can continue to keep in touch. If anyone would like my phone number or mailing address, please e-mail me and I'll send them. I'm hoping to return to letter writing, having abandoned it the last few years. And so it would be wonderful to turn some of my blog visitors into pen pals.

Best wishes and thanks for reading!

Sunday, July 30, 2006

where's the frisch?

The last two weeks I've been delinquent here at hella frisch, but I've made a couple of contributions to the Big Bottom website: Who's your Gary Karr? and Eine Kleine Bassmusik? I'm not quite sure why all my titles seem to end in question marks - maybe I've got a little mannerism going. (?) Anyway, I'm still perfecting the art of double bass journalism. I need to get some work done on my double bass playing as well, though, which is why things here haven't been quite so frisch lately.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

headbutting etiquette

A week after the World Cup Final, soccer fans are still buzzing over Zinedine Zidane's crushing cranial blow to Marco Materazzi's chest. Why would a seasoned competitor like Zidane release his anger so impulsively, prompting his removal from the last game of his career? What could have provoked such a senseless act of violence? Has Materazzi even met Zidane's mother? Both footballers' parents apparently share a love for alliterative names - could they be related?

I don't have answers to any of these questions - but I do believe the world is sorely in need of a comprehensive grammar of head-butting etiquette, and I am ready to begin that conversation here. We need to decide when a violent forehead punch is appropriate conduct, when a sock to the sternum may be overstepping boundaries, and when it's just clearly out of line. I have provided a series of hypothetical situations to consider, and color-coded them to show my own opinions: in red where head-butting may be appropriate, yellow for borderline situations, and blue when you might want to just turn the other cheek. It may be too late now for Zidane, but I hope to spare others the pain and humiliation (as well as penalties) of any future head-butting faux-pas.

A vet calls your dog a bitch.
An Italian calls your mother a whore.
A senior administration official calls your wife a secret CIA operative.

A protester burns your nation's flag.
A Klansman burns a cross on your lawn.
An arsonist burns your house down.

Petty theft.
Grand theft.
Identity theft.

You're fouled but it isn't called.
Your doctor amputates the wrong toe.
You're sent to Guantanamo Bay without a trial.

I'm pretty sure there are countless other principles of headbutting etiquette to explore. Even with just these few examples, though, it's apparent that with a little thought almost any situation can be addressed productively without leveling the other guy. So I would just encourage everyone to think these things through; to pause and consider your options; to use your head, before you use your head.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Thom Yorke on the dodgy circus

I've just been listening to an interview with Thom Yorke, the lead singer of the band Radiohead who just released his own solo album. Yorke's conversational style is occasionally maddening - he says "blah blah blah" a lot, for instance. But one thing he said about playing an unsatisfying tour struck me.

Mostly it was just not interesting. It just got boring, which sounds incredibly selfish, but why would you just carry on playing these tunes? I mean, the trouble was that by the time we had done that record we were so sick of those tunes. And then you're faced with the prospect of having to play them for another year and a half. Which, you know, you've got to do because you've got to let people know what it's about and one of the things that we're good at is playing the tunes and blah blah blah. But there just sort comes a point where you're going through the motions, and as soon as you realize that "I am going through the motions, this is sounding tired," that's it. This is rock and roll, there's no point in you being there. It ceases to be rock and roll and just becomes some sort of dodgy circus.

Most of us have been there I'm sure - just not inspired or motivated. And the recognition that things aren't working sometimes seems only to make them worse. It's a trap we set for ourselves. The only real solution, I think, is to seek out new ideas, new inspiration - new tunes, probably.

Anyway, I know I haven't been writing much here lately, and I want to let you know I'm fine, I just haven't felt inspired to blog about anything much. And I'd rather not turn hella frisch into a dodgy circus. Thanks for visiting!

Saturday, July 08, 2006

one great loss, many links

The Standing Room has collected many tributes, stories, and remembrances of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, as well as a nice photograph by Richard Avedon. I'm only now finding out who she was and realizing what a great musician we've lost. On a Fresh Air interview which aired last evening she tells Terri Gross how she got her break from freelance violist to opera star - a very funny story which takes place in a prison. A 2004 New Yorker profile by Charles Michener, "The Soul Singer", also discusses that transformation:
[Emmanuel Music conductor] Craig Smith, whom she has known since her student days at the Boston Conservatory, in the early nineteen-eighties, told me that he regards her training ... as the key to what makes her so special as a singer. “A viola is a middle voice—it has to be alert to everything around it,” he said recently. “There’s something viola-like about the rich graininess of her singing, about her ability to sound a tone from nothing—there’s no sudden switching on of the voice, no click. And, like most violists, she is also self-effacing: without vanity as a singer. When we first performed the Bach cantatas, she just disappeared as a person.”
That she died without many knowing, at home with her family, seems only in keeping with her humble character. Even so, she is being missed keenly and will be remembered for a long time.

Friday, July 07, 2006

a bass by Gasparo da Salo

This is a picture from Raymond Elgar's book Looking at the Double Bass (1967). To read my commentary on the book, visit the double bass news site Big Bottom. I recently joined that site, reporting on classical bass topics. I never thought I'd call myself a Big Bottom contributor. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson

This past March the New World Symphony was to accompany Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the American mezzo-soprano, in songs by Mahler. Lieberson had to cancel and another singer took her place, a fairly common occurence in the world of operatic performers. However, I was sad to learn that she had died this Monday of breast cancer at age 52. We've surely lost a beautiful voice and a great artist.

NPR's Performance Today
features a recorded performance by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson today. She sings a setting by her husband Peter Lieberson of a poem by Pablo Neruda, which host Fred Child translated:
If your eyes were not the color of the moon
Oh my dearest, I would not love you so.
But when I hold you I hold everything that is,
Everything is alive so that I can be alive;
In your life I see everything that lives.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Bach off the interstate

The dog runs ahead, prancing and looking back, knowing the way we are about to go. This is a walk well established with us - a route in our minds as well as on the ground. There is a sort of mystery in the establishment of these ways. Anytime one crosses a given stretch of country with some frequency, no matter how wanderingly one begins, the tendency is always toward habit. By the third or fourth trip, without realizing it, one is following a fixed path, going the way one went before. After that, one may still wander, but only by deliberation, and when there is reason to hurry, or when the mind wanders rather than the feet, one returns to the old route. Familiarity has begun. One has made a relationship with the landscape, and the form and the symbol and the enactment of the relationship is the path. These paths of mine are seldom worn on the ground. They are habits of mind, directions and turns. They are as personal as old shoes. My feet are comfortable in them.

- Wendell Berry, from "A Native Hill," collected in The Art of the Commonplace, p. 14

Lately my practicing has been rather unstructured, casually wandering from Bach to Tubin, maybe grazing on an excerpt or two in passing. It's a pleasure to practice this way for a few days, to recapture the simple joy of filling a room with sounds. Though as Wendell Berry writes, we tend to set up habits even when we don't realize it.

At one time or another I've probably worked fairly intensely on each of the Bach cello suites, but just a few movements have made a place in my everyday routine. They risk getting worn and stale, and my excuses are a bit stale as well: audition preparation, the pressure to specialize, the fact that they're just damn hard. Yeah, and I guess I do pick favorites, even when it's all some of the greatest music ever written. (BTW, I read recently that a professor in Australia has hypothesized that the cello suites are Anna Magdalena's work, not Johann Sebastian's - though few scholars agree.)

There's nothing wrong with a well-worn habit, as long as it doesn't get too deeply fixed, and the path becomes a road (or a rut). Here's Wendell Berry again:

The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is littel more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around. A road, on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste. Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it; its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of the modern freeways, is to be a bridge; its tendency is to translate place into space in order to traverse it with the least effort. It is destructive, seeking to remove or destroy all obstacles in its way. The primitive road advanced by the destruction of the forest; modern roads advance by the destruction of topography.

- p. 12

And to continue the analogy, I guess a rut advances by the destruction of music, in our haste to get through it. Today is the 50th anniversary of the creation of the interstate highway system, and while we may love or hate our freeways - depending on how fast they're moving, and how much of a hurry we're in - no one wants to live on an interstate. Or make music that sounds and feels like one. So the challenge is to keep our practice like a path, comfortable and familiar, but always in contact with the landscape of the music, and ready to veer into the unknown when our interest and opportunities arise.

I decided to start some new paths through the Bach suites; yesterday I worked through all six preludes, and today I did all of the allemandes. I'm not sure what inspired me to do it this way, but I did uncover some interesting connections, even as I realized how different these pieces are (and how little I know some of them!) It felt at times like wandering through uncharted forest, searching for patterns and trying to avoid tripping over stray accidentals. At least my mind wasn't wandering too much though, and it made me want to form my relationship with these pieces all over again.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

ghost hotel

Okay, so it's not exactly "The Shining," but things are a little creepy here in our now-almost-vacant Plymouth Hotel. The Plymouth and the Ansonia are the residence halls of the New World Symphony, two stately old art deco hotels that have been slightly modified to house an orchestra of twenty-somethings.

Summer is the off-season for the orchestra though, so most of us are scattered all over the globe. The orchestra very kindly keeps the hotels open all summer, and the few of us here all seem to be doing laundry in preparation for going somewhere else. It's hard to keep track of everyone's festivals and family plans, so I find many conversations sounding something like this:
Friendly horn player: Hey Matt, how's it going? Good to see you!

Me: It's great to see you too! How was Ita- er, um Colora- no, I mean, um...

FHP: Oh, I just got back from Japan. But I'm leaving for San Francisco next week.

Me: Oh yeah, that's right. How was that?

FHP: Pretty good - hey, by the way, could I borrow some laundry detergent?
Other than the whirring of the air conditioning and the thumping of the laundry machines, the halls are eerily silent. You'll hear a trumpet call or a violin arpeggio every once in a while, or maybe someone will turn on a World Cup game and the disembodied roar of thousands of Europeans will seep into the lobby. Mostly these sounds just provide a reminder of what a strange and empty place the Plymouth has been lately.

There are nice things about staying in a ghost hotel - those of us who are around have more reason to keep each other company, make an effort to find and interact with one another. Last night I watched the first part of the PBS New York documentary by Ric Burns - a fascinating project, done in 1999, that points out how exceptional a place NYC has always been, and how complex and ambivalent its relations with the rest of the country and the world. It's narrated by a parade of historians, politicians and longtime New Yorkers, and the great variety of perspectives and stories illustrate some of the magical multiplicities of that city.

Taken in the long view, the city of New York emerges as a character in American history whose role has always been to tempt, provoke, rethink and inspire. It has attracted the greediest, the most ambitious, as well as the most imaginative and creative elements of society - it's startling to see just how Alexander Hamilton, Dewitt Clinton, and other early New Yorkers visualized the future and shaped the city in that image.

The documentary also reminded me how all the friction, argument, tensions and conflicts of city life can lead to great change, innovation and growth. As a city person, the peace and quiet of an empty building feels strangely threatening - much better to have a bit of noise and chaos!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

black and yellow gold

I just saw the global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth last night along with my friends John and Lydia. If anything could convince me of the necessity to reduce carbon emissions, it's this film, which combines science, anecdote, and some shocking images and graphs - A.O. Scott wrote in his NY Times review "I can't think of another movie in which the display of a graph elicited gasps of horror." Even though the movie is built around Al Gore's slide show lecture, and uses Al Gore's personal and political history to dramatize the science, the message is much bigger and more important than any one man. It's the kind of movie that instantly changes your priorities.

Among those changes, you'll probably find yourself reading the newspaper differently. That was my experience this morning when I went online to read the Sunday Times. Where I might have lingered on the music reviews or sports scores, I found myself gravitating to two big articles - one on the rise of ethanol and the other on the coal industry. Big corn and big coal are among our country's biggest industries, and they impact our lives - and planet - in crucial ways.

Here's a passage from the coal article, which is an excerpt from Jeff Goodell's book "Big Coal":
In fact, just the energy wasted by coal plants in America would be enough to power the entire Japanese economy. In effect, America's vast reserve of coal is like a giant carbon anchor slowing down the nation's transition to new sources of energy. And because coal is the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive of all fossil fuels-coal plants are responsible for nearly 40 percent of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas-a commitment to coal is tantamount to a denial of a whole host of environmental and public health issues, including global warming. When you're sitting on top of 250 years' worth of coal, an international agreement to limit carbon dioxide emissions, such as the Kyoto Protocol, is easily seen as a crude attempt by jealous competitors to blunt one of America's great strategic and economic advantages.
We don't have a choice when we flip on a light switch; we are almost certainly contributing to coal pollution. We can reduce our own energy use, though, support political changes, and purchase carbon credits to help fund alternative energy sources.

Goodell's article notes that President Bush and Dick Cheney have been great friends to the coal industry. They've also been supporters of the increased use of ethanol - as has every politician, concerned about the votes of Iowans and others in the farm belt. Ethanol in fuel can help to reduce emissions, though because corn is heavily subsidized and fertilized by petroleum, it's not the perfect solution we might hope for. Just like coal, it's a resource we have in abundance, but we would perhaps be best advised to use both sparingly. They only allow us to avoid the inconvenient truths longer.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

the staff of life

Yesterday my brother-in-law Elliot was describing the miracle that is bread - how these four simple ingredients (flour, water, salt, yeast) can create an endless variety of forms, tastes, textures. Elliot is an amateur breadmaker himself - he was finishing a loaf of flaxseed bread as he was telling me this - and he strongly recommended Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice. I read the first chapter, which is inspiring stuff. For the mind as well as the appetite.

I probably haven't got enough space in my kitchen or my life for a new hobby right now, but I do think there are some fascinating parallels between bread making and string playing. String players, like bread makers, work with four basic elements - the speed, weight, placement, and angle of the bow - to produce a multitude of timbres. The way those variables are combined, and the artful touch with which they are applied, make the difference between a tasteless lump of stale dough and the complexly grained, beautifully risen loaf of an artisan. If we were to quantify those variables, measure the difference between a novice violinist and Heifetz, we might not find a great deal of difference. Yet the same ingredients take on a whole different life in the master's hands.

Trying to quantify all the variables would probably tell us very little, about either bread or the sound - since the essence is something living, unquantifiably, in the air all around us. This is literally the case with yeast - it is in the air we breathe, collecting and growing where we allow it to (and sometimes where we would rather it didn't). The taming of this living, changing, complex organism makes bread an art as well as a science. It's a strange and mostly symbiotic relationship, since without yeast we wouldn't have the "staff of life."

Before yesterday I had never heard that proverb - I thought at first that it was a typo for "stuff of life." What this staff represents, I'm still not sure. I get the sense that it's older and more mysterious than some of those other food slogans (e.g. "it's what's for dinner," "got milk?", etc.) Maybe age and mystery are bread's unlisted ingredients - no other food seems to lend itself so easily to metaphor and ritual.

Maybe that's why I've been gnawing on this analogy to string playing. A clarinetist friend commented that we can see everything a string player does - our arms and fingers are in plain sight, unlike the clarinetist's lungs and air pathways. And yet it still strains the mind to account for the sounds those gestures produce; they really do seem to emerge from some kind of metaphysical alchemy rather than discrete physical laws of vibration. Returning from a few days without practicing, I'm sometimes astounded that the things I'm attempting are even possible. I suppose that thinking about the lump of dough majestically rising at least gives me a hopeful metaphor.

Friday, June 16, 2006


Happy Bloomsday, the holiday inspired by that most musical and most impenetrable of novels, James Joyce's Ulysses. If ever there was a novel that deserved its own holiday it's Ulysses. Not only does it chronicle the events of a single day (a rare distinction, in such a long novel), but it benefits greatly from being read aloud and enjoyed communally. It's also sometimes best appreciated in small doses, I've found. Here's a sample passage from Episode 4, known as "Calypso," for your Bloomsday enjoyment:
MR LEOPOLD BLOOM ATE WITH RELISH THE INNER ORGANS OF BEASTS and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod's roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

Kidneys were in his mind as he moved about the kitchen softly, righting her breakfast things on the humpy tray. Gelid light and air were in the kitchen but out of doors gentle summer morning everywhere. Made him feel a bit peckish.

The coals were reddening.

Another slice of bread and butter: three, four: right. She didn't like her plate full. Right. He turned from the tray, lifted the kettle off the hob and set it sideways on the fire. It sat there, dull and squat, its spout stuck out. Cup of tea soon. Good. Mouth dry. The cat walked stiffly round a leg of the table with tail on high.

-- Mkgnao!

-- O, there you are, Mr Bloom said, turning from the fire.

The cat mewed in answer and stalked again stiffly round a leg of the table, mewing. Just how she stalks over my writing-table. Prr. Scratch my head. Prr.

Mr Bloom watched curiously, kindly, the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes. He bent down to her, his hands on his knees.

- from "The Literature Network", an online resource where you can search the complete text of Ulysses and many other novels

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Desenne Bass Concerto premiered by Ruiz

Last weekend in New York, a new bass concerto by Paul Desenne was premiered. The soloist was Edicson Ruiz (shown here), with the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas under Alondra de la Parra. A New York Times review praised Ruiz for his "easy fluidity and a relative generosity of tone." The critic pointed out that the piece required amplification - in the world of bass concerti though, that's hardly a critique, since I don't know any that really projects clearly as orchestrated. You can read the review online (until Saturday): "A Conductor's Do-It-Yourself Project: Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas."

Not having heard the piece yet myself, I can only guess at its quality based on the review and Mr. Desenne's excellent website. I was intrigued though to hear Edicson Ruiz and Alondra de la Parra in a live radio interview on WNYC's Soundcheck, broadcast before last week's concert. Ruiz talks about the state of music education in Venezuela (apparently quite good) and his own precocious success: he joined the Berlin Philharmonic at age 17 and remains the youngest member at 21. He also played a short virtuosic piece by Bottesini, variations on a theme from "Carnival in Venice." He stumbled a bit in the live performance, with a little memory slip or two and some odd thunking sounds. Still, he plays with great character and style (and modesty: he apologizes for his mistakes at the end of the interview). I'm sure that he'll be heard again frequently, and hopefully the Desenne concerto will as well.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

symphonic sports

A charming little radio piece by Frank Deford, "The Most Wonderful (Sports) Time of the Year," equates sports with the sections of the orchestra. He uses excerpts from Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, accompanied with his own poetic descriptions of the sports.

The violins represent baseball (ubiquitous, virtuosic); basketball is the tuba and low brass (big, slippery); golf summons up the harp (quiet, refined); tennis soars with the clarinet (high, quick); ice hockey takes the violas (forgotten, unloved); while soccer is the percussion section (pounding, rhythmic). I might argue with some of his choices: shouldn't tennis be a string instrument? - and wouldn't soccer, with its long stretches of boredom and occasional flashes of cathartic brilliance, better represent the brass? But Deford's lyrical commentary, and his obvious love for the games and the associations they bring, make it a fun 4-minute listen.

I wonder what sport the lower strings could represent, though. Deford mentions horse racing, without assigning any instrument - maybe we would fit there, with our agile, athletic fingerings, and our occasional, crippling injuries? Maybe swimming, with our steady, supportive cushion of sound - or archery, with our plucky strings and need for uncanny precision. I just hope we don't get stuck with NASCAR racing, though perhaps it works in some ways: numbingly repetitive, needlessly loud, equipment-obsessed, and prone to occasionally horrific crashes.

Friday, June 09, 2006

one note performance

As you see here, I have only one note to play in the John Cage piece 23, to be performed tomorrow on the Spoleto Music in Time series. The other 22 string players have more notes to play, but not that many more. We each get to decide when to begin and end our notes - in my case, I can begin my mezzo-forte D any time after 1:00 but before 1:45. I could continue playing it for the entire length of the piece. Or I could play it for just a moment, and spend the remaining 22 minutes listening to everyone else. And probably wondering if I should have played a bit longer.

That was the case in rehearsal the other day. I ended a bit past 8 minutes, and spent the next 15 minutes in thoughtful silence. The magic of the piece, it seems to me, is in the constantly evolving sonority. It is often difficult to tell where a given note is coming from, with the instruments scattered around the space. And of course, the performance we'll give tomorrow can never be replicated, because of the hundreds of variables involved. Like other Cage pieces, the beauty is as much in the thought and philosophy as in the sound.

I'm hoping the audience will see that beauty. The other piece on the program, Philip Glass' Symphony no. 3, features a lot more notes, many of them quite difficult. Those I'm pretty sure how to end, though; with this Cage note, it's anybody's guess. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, June 08, 2006

small town gossip

No, I'm not the only one obsessed with pitch differences. Here's the opening paragraph of an article by Bernard Holland from last weekend's New York Times, "The Ojai Music Festival: Proud to Be Brief, Small and Eccentric":
IN Europe 300 years ago, one town's perfect A might have sounded like a G sharp to musicians just over the mountain; it depended on the tuning of your local church organ. But the bigger and more easily reached a place is, the less distinctive its music becomes. Not too long ago French, German and Russian orchestras sounded different; now they all sound pretty much the same.
The article laments that the Ojai's quirkiness may have gotten smoothed over recently, as it has gained in popularity. It's the same problem whenever a distinctive, special place begins to attract national attention. We all want to visit there, until it's beseiged by tourists, at which point we decide it's gone all crass and commercial - not realizing that people just like us have made it that way!

It seems to me that the trick of managing tourist interest is "taking away the punch bowl just as the party gets going," as a Fed chief once said about interest rates. In this respect Charleston does a great job, I think. Spoleto is like a big two-week punch bowl of culture, but afterwards the town quiets down and we all disperse, leaving with pleasant memories of quaint streets and enthralling performances. The whole thing has a travelling circus aspect, and in fact the festival regularly features a circus. Still, one of its great charms is that for three weeks or so this town makes all of us, even the freak sideshow performers, feel like locals.

I haven't written up too many shows here - tonight I'll be playing a repeat performance of Beethoven's 5th, excerpts from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, and a love scene from Romeo and Juliet. The Charleston City Paper, the local free weekly whose writers perform their own daunting displays of cultural ingestion and reportage, actually quoted a blog post I wrote here last week. Lindsay Koob, the author of that piece, is a very friendly fellow who also works in the classical room at Millenium Music, the local CD store. We've all learned to be a little careful what we chat about while browsing CDs. Small town gossip travels fast.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

an imaginary violin's sexy life

The last novel I finished was John Hersey's Antonietta, the story of a fictional violin. This was Hersey's last novel, published in 1991; a similar idea was done several years later in the film The Red Violin, with enjoyable results. At the very least, that film gave a whole new meaning to foreplay.

Hersey's book also does its best to make the violin sexy - its premiere performance at Antonio Stradivari's wedding sends the guests running home "in haste, inflamed, the men tumescent, the women moist" (p. 53). The author is an amateur violinist, and his novel struck me as an act of love, for the instrument and the great music that breathes life into it. Each "act" is a sort of love affair between the violin and a character: first Stradivari, then Mozart, Berlioz, Stravinsky, and finally a corporate raider named Spenser Ham. And as in a love affair, the Hersey's fantasies can spin a bit out of control, but they still bring great pleasure and charm.

The last act, in the form of a television script, is perhaps the weakest - its main character is not a musician nor is he particularly likeable, and certainly not worthy of such a fabulous instrument. Still, through him Antonietta manages to find her way into the hands of a talented young violinist named June, who displays an almost maniacal devotion to the music of Hindemith, Schoenberg, Webern, and Bartok. Her repertoire choices seem destined to bring only tragedy, but in the end the Schoenberg Violin Concerto (Opus 36) saves the day.

It's a bit far-fetched, but still there are winning moments. One is when June first sees the violin, in this stage direction:
Her cheeks glow; her lips are parted; her eyes dart from detail to detail. Awe shimmers on her face.... The viewer sees in her responses hints of what it means to be a gifted young person totally dedicated to a craft - traces of years of hard work; self-discipline, patience, stamina, physical endurance; a yearning for unattainable perfection; a generous empathy for anyone who may listen to her playing, a consequent urge to use it to excite and delight; a willingness to subordinate her tastes, when she plays, to a composer's will - but also a stubborn wish to be loyal to her own secret truths. (p. 260)
This clearly was not intended to be filmed - it would take quite an actress to show all of that through facial expressions. Still, these are all qualities that I've recognized and admired in musicians I've known. And that I hope to reflect myself, even if you won't see them in my face. I'm not usually prone to shimmer. This book reminded me of a great deal that I love about music, and musical instruments - the violin was my first love as well. First loves often don't work out I guess, which is why I came to play the bass instead. Still the violin has a special hold on my imagination, as I would guess it does for many music lovers. So it was especially enjoyable to read these violinistic trysts, even if purely imaginary.