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.