Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Simon Holt a table of noises NMC

Simon Holt is one of the really big names in British music, highly regarded by those who listen live and read scores, so this release from NMC, specialists in modern British music, is particularly welcome.  A Table of Noises follows on from A Book of Colours, Boots of lead, feet of clay and Era Madruaga, all from NMC. Eventually, more of Holt's work will be readily available on disc because it rewards repeat listening. Holt's music isn't noisy. Like good poetry, it reveals itself in quiet, unhurried contemplation.

The title piece, a table of noises, (2007)  refers to the table at which Holt's great uncle Ashworth worked, where he kept tools readily to hand, meticulously organized.  Ashworth was a taxidermist who stuffed birds and small countryside animals. There's something surreal about taxidermy.  It brings the woodland under the control of the parlour.  But can you be decorous with a dead badger in the living room, staring at you thru glass eyes, lifelike but immobile ?  Taxidermy is  fiddly, messy work and quite unnatural, but strangely obsessive. Great Uncle Ash was disabled so he kept his tools together within easy reach, meticulously organized.  Picture that table in your imagination.  It's a metaphor for Holt's  music. It's strictly defined but the very confinement generates resourceful adaptation. 

Simple means are used for maximum effect. Colin Currie, for whom the piece was commissioned,  plays a variety of small instruments, played in groups of three.  The sound is pared down to essentials, very methodical and down to earth.  Hence the jaunty rhythms and unpretentious sounds. Do we hear a tin whistle in the mix ? Or a squeaky toy ?  Currie plays fairly conventional instruments like glockenspeil and xylophone, but the effects are decidedly quirky.  Hammers and chisels clattering as if in a workshop, interspersed by silences and odd rhythmic progressions.  a table of noises is wacky but tightly organized.  It feels like a solemn but vivacious dance. Clog dancing springs to mind. Them rhythms are jaunty yet "grounded" since the dancers are possibly drunk and club-footed, and wear heavy boots. Why should athletes have all the fun ?  Holt turns rough and ready into art form. 

Flights of fancy. like the piccolos calling above the ensemble inject a wayward spirit of eccentric freedom.  Why did Victorians preserve dead roadkill and pose them in anthromorphic positions ?  Perhaps we are in the lab of a mad scientist whose inventions seem bizarre but might have an inner logic. As Currie hammers away, the orchestra produces equally inventive effects - booming bass trombone and tuba, like the pipes of a funeral organ gone mad. Some of the ten sections have descriptive titles, like "Skennin' Mary", a neighbour whose glass eye spun when she became angry, which would have fascinated a taxidermist who kept collections of glass eyes for his specimens.  Four sections, though, are simply "ghosts", reminding us that what we hear might not be what we assume. Holt's inventive use of sound also reminds me of Third World musicians who make music with whatever comes to hand, like sticks and rocks.  Percussion may be the most ancient form of music.   That's a compliment, since a composer who can work with humble sources understands innately what makes good music.   Holt's a table of noises is also fun. The exact background doesn't matter, since we can feel the sense of adventure in its inventive sounds, and relate to the good natured, if oddball, sense of humour. 

Macabre humour, too, in St Vitus in the Kettle (2008) a brief but tightly structured miniature which begins as a wild dance, whipped by insanely high piccolos,  haunted by dark, sepulchral block chords.  For a moment silence descends but the manic, energetic rhythms return with even greater force.  Do we hear in these bubbling rhythms the sound of  boiling water ?  St Vitus in legend was a child was martyred by being boiled in a kettle but leapt unharmed and intact, being saved by faith.  Medieval peasants found cathartic outlet by dancing orgies in his honour, hence the term "St Vitus Dance" to describe derangement. 

St Eulalia of Merida, the ostensible subject of Holt's Witness to a snow miracle (2005) was martyred by the Romans by being buried under hot coals. She rebuked her persecutors to the end, when snow miraculously descended, while her soul ascended to heaven.   Thus the cadenza with which the piece begins, with Chloé Hanslip with wild but determined frenzy.  Does this suggest religious mania or the equally fanatical mania of her persecutors ?  Either way, the violin expresses extremes of pitch and tempi, supported by screaming woodwinds  and contrasted with ominous brass and percussion.  Harps  and celeste sparkle, suggesting snowfall, and divine intervention. Eventually the violin soars upwards, as the pounding brass grows muffled. The heat of mania is silenced, under a blanket of snow.  As so often with Holt, textures are built up through meticulous process, every note clearly defined.  Medieval audiences adapted highly coloured, exaggerated tales like these to suit their own needs.  Simon Holt adapts them into abstract music, but music that connects to human passion and emotion.  

Original Content: Simon Holt a table of noises NMC

Sunday, 26 March 2017

The Immortality Pagoda

For Mother's Day NOT ! The Immortality Pagoda (長生塔) a Cantonese film from 1955, with a feminist message so strong that it still shocks.  In a not so distant past, Yuet Mei (Pak Yin) is happily married to Ping (Cheung Wood Yau)  eldest son of the Cheng household. Her mother Chan ka Lai lai (Senior Mother of Chan family) (Man Lee) comes to visit unexpectedly. In the courtyard, there's a pomegranate tree, which Ping planted. "Please stay with us until the fruits come", he asks mother-in-law.  A cryptic clue - pomegranates symbolize fertility.  Mrs Chan says nothing, but she's on the verge of a breakdown.  She has no sons, and her husband has deserted her for a "Wu lei Tsing" - fox spirit - an insulting term which shows how badly she feels about the concubine who has supplanted her at home, and borne sons.  Since Pak Yin hasn't had children after many years of marriage, her mother worries about her. "Ping loves me" says the daughter. But it's not up to them. That night, the Cheng family throw a big dinner party to welcome their visitor, but when she hears the elders discuss the importance of sons, she cracks up and starts screaming. Scandalous breach of manners, painful to witness even today! So Mrs Chan cannot stay in the main house and is exiled to an outhouse, because mental illness was a stigma.

Pak Yin is pregnant. The whole clan celebrates because having children means the continuation of family and all that represents.  Lo Tai Yeh leads everyone out to view the Pagoda, the "Cheung Sang Tap", which brought prosperity to the clan after a necromancer from far away Kwangsi told them to build it.  The pagoda used in the film is the Ping Shan pagoda, built in the 14th century, to harness good fung shui. It 's a listed monument, now fully restored.  Real pagodas were solid affairs. like this one, built to last. They aren't places of worship like western churches, but operate to channel the forces of nature, like ley lines.

When Pak Yin's mother hears her daughter is pregnant she resolves to return home. It's Ching Ming, a festival where people sweep graves, to honour their ancestors. The old lady is thus acknowledging her place in the system of continuing generations, while also respecting the future.  She's made clothes for the new baby but doesn't want to bring bad luck by being sick in her daughter's home.  Because the pregnancy isn't going well, the mother understands why it's bad luck to see her daughter.  She takes her leave, weeping, while her daughter sleeps, knowing they will not meet again in this world.   Wonderful acting, yet again, from Wong Man Lee who played the mother in Parent's Heart with Ma Tse Tsang, which I wrote about here.

Things go wrong with the birth, and the midwife can't handle things. A herbal doctor prescribes a drug that might kill the mother but save the child, Ping and his father fight: wives can be replaced, says the old man. No, says the son. Alas the baby is a girl. Why the "bad luck"   The Old Man blames the daughter in law and infant. He tries to revive the fung shui in the pagoda by burning offerings, but his brother loses the money gambling. Brother gets his son to take the blame, sending him away, even though he's just got married.  The bride gets blamed though no-one's told her why.   Two miserable women in the household now, Mei the eldest son's wife who cannot have more children and  Yee So, the bride of second  uncle in the hierarchy, who may never conceive, since news arrives that the bridegroom has been killed in an accident.. No prospect of sons.  The future of the Cheng clan lies in the balance.  The old man orders Ping to take a concubine but the son refuses. Ping goes away on business,

Mad with grief, Yee So (played by Mui Yee),  walks out of the Cheng gardens, filled with spring blossom, and hangs herself in the pagoda. Serious bad fung shui.  Mei (Pak Yin) finds the body and faints. The LoTai Yeh tells Ping that his wife is dead and that he must remarry. Ping burns offerngs at what he thinks is Mei's grave, but the sound of insane laughter rings out. The truth must be told. Mei isn't dead. She's been imprisoned in the pagoda and has gone raving mad.  Ping enters the dilapidated pagoda and tries to save Mei, but she doesn't recognize him. She climbs further up the pagoda,. The Old Grandfather arrives, with men and torches., but Ping refuses to leave Mei. She falls, and he carries her body out, defying his father. The old system with its rigid superstitions has caused too much tragedy. Ping sails away in a junk to a new, unknown future. The pagoda is seen against the skyline. Maybe the "immortality" it represents means new life, elsewhere.

The film is shot with great detail - architecture, costumes and plants, and has an excellent soundtrack (traditional Chinese music).  The outside shots of the pagoda were done on site, but the internal shots in a studio.  Nonethelss, my father used to take us to Ping Shan, where we visited the real life pagoda, which in those days was still remote in a fung shui position, separated from the village by fields and canals.  One evening, at dusk, bats flew out as we approached. Nowadays, it's cleaned up and restored as a heritage site, in the centre of the new, prosperous city around it.  Perhaps the movie was right !   Heritage is people, not material objects in themselves.  We learn from the past and retain the good, exorcising the bad. But if we don't learn, we might make the same mistakes.

Original Content: The Immortality Pagoda

Saturday, 25 March 2017

The Benefits of Piano Lessons for the Aging student

Despite the raging battle on Capitol Hill over health care legislation that threatened the loss of insurance to millions if enacted, a particularly vulnerable population of SENIORS engaged in music study, found sanctuary in a daily connection to the piano. Their "escape" to a universe of loving immersion became a mental prompt at the start of many long distance lessons. With a redirection of anger and frustration into expressive keyboard channels, these "aging" pupils braved a difficult transition of power in Washington (D.C.) without skipping a beat.

From my hub in Liberal, activist Berkeley, while imparting instruction to a Kentuckian at the polar opposite end of the political spectrum, a common musical journey was forged that neutralized our differences within the safe boundaries of a Beethoven Adagio (Sonata Pathetique) As a result, a rapprochement played out despite a house pet's intrusion upon our conciliatory moments.

The following week, a "Make America Great" Trump rally moved into Louisville, triggering a lesson cancellation and temporary feelings of ill will.

Yet the fleeting relapse of relations was offset by Ludwig's signature outpouring that promoted an enduring peace over the long haul.


Musical sublimation to new heights of distraction from Fake News and attendant political shenanigans, are not the only benefits of piano study among the over 60 set. Tenacious seniors are awakened to improvements in short and long-term memory as a direct result of a carefully built, layered learning foundation that's composed of baby step advances.

Decisions and trials related to fingering, for example, tease neurotransmitters out of passivity, creating new "connections" that can have long-lasting effects–that is, if students stimulate them on a daily basis. For seasoned music travelers who fall into the advanced level category, analyses of a J.S. Bach Fugue within the woven texture of interactive voices, is equal to a brain massage generating convolutions to the exponential. Even mapping cadences, dynamic shifts, and noting rudimentary phrase markings, spark neurological gains that carry over from the practice room to life's many diverse activities.

A cognitive/affective/kinesthetic triad imbued in consistent MINDFUL practicing demands riveted concentration that chases away demons of fuzzy recall and forgotten names of friends who elude aging adults at the supermarket. In a struggle to make word associations in order to retrieve "tip-of-tongue" identities of concerts attended a few months back, or to dredge up the latest telecommunication breach on the Do Not Call list, tenacious, returning-to-the-piano seniors are thankfully assured that the piece placed on the piano rack is the one assigned to them from the previous week. This is a harbinger of promise, since a new composition that has acquired a sacred status among those previously tossed aside prematurely, will survive any *abortive attempts.
(*Right to Life, or Choice partisans, notwithstanding)


In conjunction with a senior's committed regimen of quality keyboard explorations, many self-labeled "troopers," will exercise their mind and body away from the piano, in healthful walks, or forays to the local gym.

("Gym…for the body machine…and Music for the soul is a good Duet.")–Comments attached by a Facebook friend.

In fact, social interactions in a musical context can transpire in chance meetings on the Yoga mat or in the locker room.

By way of a personal anecdote, I bumped into a NYC High School of Performing Arts ("P.A.") grad, class of 1958 (a bit before my time), who shot the breeze at the Downtown 'Y'- forgetting my name only the second time we met at the Gravitron. I returned the fuzzy favor at our third serendipitous encounter by the Universal Gender rest room. She happened to be looking for an able technician to tune and regulate her C3 Yamaha grand, so in a blink, I tapped into my memory bank with rhyme scheme assistance, and retrieved the name of one surviving practitioner who broke a chain of plundering assaults on my Steinway.

Upon my fourth run-in with the "P.A. alum at the Pull-Up machine, she had voiced gratitude for my sterling referral, but couldn't quite remember the fellow's name or what he did. In response, I urged her to practice more regularly given the activity's benign crossover effect on her brain and memory function.

(For most seniors, the cardiovascular effects of a Mindful focus, with attendant respiratory benefits, are enough to draw them back to the piano bench with alacrity and enthusiasm. It's a no brainer!)


The Aging piano student and Isolation

Loneliness, an associated cause of unhappiness in the life of a senior, is positively addressed in the sphere of music study. Students far and wide, not only find a human "connection" to the music of Masters, but they often join Piano Clubs to share their love for music. One of my pupils from Edinburgh who relishes the quality of her retirement, is eager to brief me on her latest play date in the convivial community environment of kindred pianists of all levels. Apparently, they listen with empathy and affection, creating enduring bonds that spill over into the Internet transmitted lesson environment. Dreaded "nerves" that might have been a curse in a former life, seem to diminish with each experience of benevolent camaraderie. And it's worth mentioning, that some retirees, still on detox from grilling, pressure-cooker corporate work environments find relief in an amateur music-making milieu.

Finally, the perks of studying the piano as we age are part of the totality of a life committed to beauty and personal nourishment. In pursuing creative development through patient, graduated steps of musical discovery, seniors become more OXYGENATED and alert, with a renewed appreciation for the bonds they make with friends and family during their reluctant breaks from the keyboard.


"The Relation Between Instrumental Musical Activity and Cognitive Aging"



Oliver Sachs: Thoughts about music and Alzheimer's disease/Dimentia



Musicophelia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sachs

Original Content: The Benefits of Piano Lessons for the Aging student

Morfydd Owen - Portrait of a Lost Icon

A new recording, made late last year,  Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.  Though she was not part of the male English Establishment, Owen needs no special pleading.  Her music stands on its own merits, highly individual and original.  Her work was published in the Welsh Hymnal even before she graduated and moved to London, where she moved in Bohemian, arty circles with the likes of D H Lawrence, Ezra Pound and Prince Yusupov, one of the conspirators who assassinated Rasputin.  What might she have achieved, had she lived longer, or continued to develop in an international milieu ? Tŷ Cerdd have produced an intriguing collection of her piano pieces and songs, performed by Elin Manahan Thomas and Brian Ellsbury.  Definitely a recording worth getting, for Owen's music is exquisite, enhanced by good performances.  Buy it HERE from Tŷ Cerdd, who also supply scores.

In his notes, Brian Ellsbury writes "One of the fascinations of (Owen's) compositions is the plethora of contrast, often simply between major and minor, melancholy and joy.....the juxtaposition of a self conscious  gaucheness and sophistication - the cosy homely feel of Welsh harmony suddenly layered with unexpectedly complex and deft modulations and almost modern jazz-like harmony,"
Owen's setting of William Blake's Spring (1913) is joyously energetic. "Little boy, full of joy, little girl, sweet and small"   Manahan Thomas's lithe, bright soprano perfectly captures the spirit of youth. In The Lamb (1914) Evans subtly underpins the deceptive innocence with richer, more contemplative undertones, never overloading the lines with pathos. Sophisticated, yet pristine.  In contrast, Tristesse (1915) with dramatic, exclamatory crescendi, very much in the surreal spirit of Maeterlinck,  though the text is Alfred de Musset. More hyperactive than Debussy, as exotic as Ravel, this is an unusually unsettling song that suggests not romance but fervid imagination.

A selection of pieces for piano, some like the Rhapsody in C sharp major and Maida Vale, discovered in unpublished manuscript. The miniature Little Eric (1915) is barely a minute long yet vividly idiosyncratic while Tal y Llyn (1916) is  confidently lyrical with a jaunty central motif - witty contrasts of tempi. Strong chords alternate with lively figures in Prelude in E minor (1914) , contrasting well with the early (1910) Sonata for Piano in E minor, which is more diffuse.

The Four Flowers Songs - Speedwell, Daisy's Song, To Violets and God Made a Lovely Garden  were written over a period of seven years, Speedwell (1918) being among Owen's last completed works.  A speedwell is a weed, but cheerful and perky, but here it dreams grand dreams. In a way, this song might encapsulate Owen's idiom, lending seeming insouciance with great inner strength.  God made a Lovely Garden (1917) reveals Owen's gift for melody, expressed with sincerity, not sentimentality.

A long, pensive piano introduction opens Gweddi y Pechadur (1913), the only Welsh language song on this disc. Although neither texts nor translations are included with this recording, the clarity of Owen's setting displays the innate beauty of the language, a "singing language" if ever there was one, and a good reason why non-speakers should study the song.  It exercises the tongue !  .  The song is a dignified lament, in minor key.  To Our Lady of Sorrows ((1912) is a miniature scena, in which the Mater Dolorosa contemplates the body of Christ.  Like Gweddiy Pechadur, its lines descend to diminuendo, but the last line packs a punch. Suddenly, the Mother isn't a religious icon, but an ordinary, human woman. A sudden leap up the scale, and passionate mellisma on the word "Baby" and an equally sudden hushed, hollow descent on the words "is dead". 

Photographs show that Morfydd Owen was a beauty with dark hair and eyes, to match what might have been an intense, passionate personality. She had love affairs, requited or unrequited, but after a courtship of only six weeks, married Ernest Jones, the psychiatrist, and acolyte of Sigmund Freud.  Perhaps Owen needed a father figure, despite her talent and acclaim: she wasn't independently wealthy.  Jones didn't encourage her career, and she seems to have been unhappy.  In September 1918, the couple went on holiday in Wales, where Owen died suddenly in uncertain circumstances.  This recording concludes with In the Land of Hush-a-bye, with words by Eos Gwalia "The Nightingale of Wales", aka Gaynor Rowlands (1883-1906), a Welsh actress who lived in London, who, like Morfydd Owen, died young from complications after surgery.  The song is simple, yet charming, and includes Owen's characteristic use of sudden leaps within a phrase. At the end, Manahan Thomas holds the last word for several measures until it fades into silence.  

 Please also see my article on  Morfydd Owen's Nocturne Talent  has No Gender

Original Content: Morfydd Owen - Portrait of a Lost Icon

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Ice cream and coffee

Quite a lively discussion in class this week, about how conservatories could change. One quick takeaway: That the Juilliard graduate students in my class would love to go to a school where the focus was on how students want to make music. And where music of all genres was talked about, taught, and played.

Here comes the ice cream!

But of the many ideas in the readings I gave them, and the videos I asked them to watch, there was one they most loved. An ideal music school "will have pour over coffee and ice cream readily available at all times. These things make people happy. Ice cream."

This came from a 2014 blog post called "My Pretend Music School," b y Ivan Trevino, a composer, percussionist, and drummer living in Austin. (Says his website.)

So why did my students love this idea so much? You could say it's frivolous, far less important than unleashing creativity, fostering student initiative, opening the doors to all the world's music. Or anything else that seems crucial.

But I don't think it's trivial at all. It cuts to the heart of what goes on at so many schools. Focus on work, focus on careers, focus on practicing. Pressure.

So if a school gives students ice cream, that's another message. Life is good! Have fun! Or, if you want to get formal, giving out ice cream strikes a blow for work/life balance, something all of us now are coming to understand is crucial for living well.

Giving out ice cream would say that the school cares for its students, loves them as whole human beings. And from that everything else could flow.

Elsewhere in the world…

As we talked about this, some of the students talked about tech companies, startups that make sure that working for them is fun.

One student had been in Google's New York office. She wistfully said they had game rooms there. And massages!

And, you know…conservatories really should offer massages. Everyone at these schools knows how physically demanding it is to play an instrument, how there's a danger (especially, I'd think, for string players) of repetitive strain injury.

So offer massages, all day long, to whoever might want them. Many students play for hours each day. Is this good for their bodies?

It's amazing…

What a revelation these simple ideas are. How much good they could do. How much they could relieve the tension many students feel, with all eyes on them to see how they d.

Thanks, Ivan Trevino!

And, to conclude, here's another idea he had. Open mic nights, where students can play. At Juilliard, as I'm sure at almost all conservatories, at least in the US, performances are formal. Produced by the school, following school guidelines.

How freeing, then — what a boost for students' creativity, for their pure love of music — to have performances the students themselves are in charge of.

Where anything could happen. Where students could make any music they wanted, including — of course! — things the school doesn't teach.

Here's the curriculum for my course, where you'll find the reading and videos I assigned the students for this class. Just scroll down to March 22.

And, related, because it's fun…an annual event at the Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory of Music, where as a complement to an annual Bach festival, there's also a Beatles festival. Where each year one the Beatles' albums is given a complete live performance, by conservatory students and others. Here's a video from a past year, with the school's trumpet teacher nailing the trumpet solo in "Penny Lane."

Original Content: Ice cream and coffee

For London, courage

"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear." - Mark Twain

Original Content: For London, courage

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The circle of art and commerce

Last week, in my Juilliard course on the future of classical music, one of my students asked about art and commerce.

Where do they fit in classical music's future? What roles will they play?

Questions like that often come up in my work. They're often asked — though not, I think, by this student — with some suspicion. Art is good, commerce is bad. Art is pure, commerce is, well;, commercial.

Or, as another student said in this week's class, often things that aren't so good succeed because they're marketed.

Which of course is true. Though it's also true that wonderful music can just as often go nowhere — meaning that hardly anyone hears it — because it's not marketed well.

The circle

Taking this question seriously, as it deserves to be taken, I said we could picture art and commerce as a circle. Art on the top, commerce below.

You start with art. You've got wonderful music you want to make.

But no one knows about it! Nobody knows who you are. How do you get people to hear what you do, to come to your performances? How can your art make some income for you, so you can start to make a living from it?

Enter commerce

That's where commerce comes in. That's where you (of someone working with you) needs business skills. That's how you generate interest in your work. If you're giving performances, that's how you sell tickets. That's how you generate income. So that, cross your fingers, someday you can make a living from music.

But now we go back to the top of the circle. Let's say you've got great business skills. You're getting known. People are paying attention.

So now your art has to be good! You can't let people down. Entice them to hear what you do, then disappoint them.

If they're disappointed, they'll come once, but never again. And maybe they'll take about you, tell others that you do bad work.

Back to art

And so now — now that you've got an audience — you work even harder on your art. Keeping it good. Making it better.

And then back down to commerce. While your art stays strong, your commerce has to stay strong, too, You want your fans to keep coming back. You want new fans. So it's commerce again. You can't slack off.

And now, again…

…back up to art. You've got new ideas. You want to do new kinds of music. Or you want to expand. Do more performances. Perform in more cities. Collaborate with other musicians, with people in other arts.

You want to do things that you've never done.

So back down to commerce!

Now, even more, you need business chops. To do more things — do new things, bigger things — means doing more business work. Selling more tickets, raising more money.

Which is especially true if you move into new areas, do things you're not known for. You're a performer, but now you compose. Your string quartet gives concerts, but now you want to do multimedia.

You'll need to attract new attention. Get your fans to try your new stuff. Find new fans, people who might like the new things, even if what you did before didn't interest them.

And your new projects might be expensive. Another reason for working harder on business.

Around and around

And that's how it works. Art needs commerce, commerce feeds art. You keep them both going, to keep your music alive.

Original Content: The circle of art and commerce