Friday, September 26, 2008

Henry David and Sarah

Here's a lovely article from Paul Theroux about what Thoreau thought about moose hunting.

and... from The Maine Woods, Henry David Thoreau

We soon began to meet with traces of bears and moose, and those of rabbits were everywhere visible. The tracks of moose, more or less recent, to speak literally, covered every square rod on the sides of the mountain; and these animals are probably more numerous there now than ever before, being driven into this wilderness, from all sides, by the settlements. The track of a full-grown moose is like that of a cow, or larger, and of the young, like that of a calf. Sometimes we found ourselves travelling in faint paths, which they had made, like cow-paths in the woods, only far more indistinct, being rather openings, affording imperfect vistas through the dense underwood, than trodden paths; and everywhere the twigs had been browsed by them, clipt as smoothly as if by a knife. The bark of trees was stript up by them to the height of eight or nine feet, in long, narrow strips, an inch wide, still showing the distinct marks of their teeth. We expected nothing less than to meet a herd of them every moment, and our Nimrod held his shooting-iron in readiness; but we did not go out of our way to look for them, and, though numerous, they are so wary that the unskilful hunter might range the forest a long time before he could get sight of one. They are sometimes dangerous to encounter, and will not turn out for the hunter, but furiously rush upon him and trample him to death, unless he is lucky enough to avoid them by dodging round a tree. The largest are nearly as large as a horse, and weigh sometimes one thousand pounds; and it is said that they can step over a five-feet gate in their ordinary walk. They are described as exceedingly awkward-looking animals, with their long legs and short bodies, making a ludicrous figure when in full run, but making great headway nevertheless. It seemed a mystery to us how they could thread these woods, which it required all our suppleness to accomplish, — climbing, stooping, and winding, alternately. They are said to drop their long and branching horns, which usually spread five or six feet, on their backs, and make their way easily by the weight of their bodies.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Listening through the Piano

From « Loving Schumann » by Roland Barthes:

Schumann is very broadly a piano composer. Now the piano, as a social instrument (and every musical instrument, from the lute to the saxophone, implies an ideology), has undergone for a century a historical evolution of which Schumann is the victim. The human subject has changed: interiority, intimacy, solitude have lost their value, the individual has become increasingly gregarious, he wants collective, massive, often paroxysmal music, the expression of us rather than of me; yet Schumann is truly the musician of solitary intimacy, of the amorous and imprisoned soul that speaks to itself…

Listening to the piano has also changed. It is not merely that we have shifted from a private, at the very most a family, listening to a public listening -- each record, even when listened to at home, presenting itself as a concert event and the piano becoming a field of achievements -- it is also that virtuosity itself, which certainly existed in Schumann's time, since he wanted to become a virtuoso equal to Paganini, has suffered a mutilation; it no longer has to match the world hysteria of concerts and salons, it is no longer Lisztian; now, because of the record, it has become a somewhat chilly prowess, a perfect achievement (without flaw, without accident), in which there is nothing to find fault with, but which does not exalt, does not carry away: far from the body, in a sense. Hence, for today's pianist, enormous esteem but no fervor and, I should say, referring to the word's etymology, no sympathy. Now Schumann's piano music, which is difficult, does not give rise to the image of virtuosity (in effect, virtuosity is an image, not a technique); we can play it neither according to the old delirium nor according to the new style (which I should readily compare to the "nouvelle cuisine" -- undercooked.) This piano music is intimate (which does not mean gentle), or again, private, even individual, refractory to professional approach, since to play Schumann implies a technical innocence very few artists can attain.

Finally, what has changed, and fundamentally, is the piano's use. Throughout the nineteenth century, playing the piano was a class activity, of course, but general enough to coincide, by and large, with listening to music. I myself began listening to Beethoven's symphonies only by playing them four hands, with a close friend as enthusiastic about them as I was. But nowadays listening to music is dissociated from its practice: many virtuosos, listeners, en masse: but as for practitioners, amateurs -- very few. Now (here again) Schumann lets his music be fully heard only by someone who plays it, even badly. I have always been struck by this paradox: that a certain piece of Schumann's delighted me when I played it (approximately), and rather disappointed me when I heard it on records: then it seemed mysteriously impoverished, incomplete. This was not, I believe, an infatuation on my part. It is because Schumann's music goes much farther than the ear; it goes into the body, into the muscles by the beats of its rhythm, and somehow into the viscera by the voluptuous pleasure of its melos: as if on each occasion the piece was written only for one person, the one who plays it; the true Schumannian pianist -- c'est moi

Excuse the long quote I just hijacked from Roland Barths. That’s not very scholarly of me. I should have at least made a comment here or there in between.

I’m thinking a lot about public and private spheres of music reception lately. I’m thinking about utopic music, music that cannot really be conveyed by most tools of transmission - concert, radio, CD, LP, Ipod etc. Music that slips through the cracks of contemporary perception, because there’s no appropriate means that can enter into the sphere of its essence.

Any pianist will tell you about the gratification inherent in being able to «shake hands» (literally) with the composers that first grasped the potential in a box of strings stretched to 20 tons of tension, specifically Schumann, Chopin and Liszt (the latter being the single greatest influence on the codification of the modern piano) . I want to avoid overly-poetic and self-gratifying musings on my profession, but I’d also like to write a little bit about the tactile component of listening to a composer like Schumann, as well as the intense pleasure of music in solitude.

I agree with Barths, that there’s an undeniable and irreplaceable element in «listening» to a composer like Schumann through the fingertips. This may sound overly sensuous to a «non-tactile listener», or especially to a «non-tactile listener of puritanical descent». But it would, I imagine, be immediately understood and confirmed by any pianist, professional or amateur, who has been privileged to confront this topic first-hand (pun intended). The hands, first of all, are great transmitters of information, being among the most sensitive tools we have at our disposal. The neuroscientist Wilder Penfield showed that the hands occupy an abnormal amount of our brain activity, and if we would be designed in proportion to amount of energy used up in our brains by all of our various activities, then we would look like this little guy.

A tactile involvement brings one in closer contact all music, but for certain composers it's particularly urgent to get to know the music «hands-on». In Schumann's case, it's like building up a republic of ten fingerdoms that are encouraged to align themselves in a dynamic and ever-changing web of inter-fingeriary (I'm fond of made-up words) hierarchies. A group of fingers relegated at one moment to a subsidiary role of harmonic support can suddenly stand up and demand attention as a potential contender for the melodic main role. The social categories are continuously challenged, and musical paradigms can be instantaneously toppled, leaving the fingers the role of picking up the lost rubble and organizing it into a new system.

And on to the issue of solitary music, it’s difficult to describe the intense gratification of sitting in a small room and bringing an over-sized instrument into full swing, trying to resuscitate a fantastically and heart-breakingly beautiful edifice that seems to have been created for this one individual - the player - at this one time (like the ancient murals in Fellini's Roma that disintegrate immediately upon first been seen by modern eyes), in an experience that is perpetually recreated by thousands of solitary players in solitary practice rooms throughout the world. A composer like Schumann seems to be sustained not by his societally and musicologically perceived "greatness", but more by the undying enthusiasm of music practitioners, as Barthes calls them, who have experienced these kinds of intense personal Schumann-experiences strongly enough to weather the absence of appropriate means of transmission for this utopic music.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Whadda you know?! Yer just a piahnist."

Winter 1994 in Boston. I'm sitting in a classroom at the New England Conservatory of Music. I've taken an elective called Microtonal Singing with the legendary Joe Maneri, a wonderful improvisor, as well as an incredibly fascinating person. Joe Maneri, a generously sized man, brings several sandwiches into the class room which he eats, one by one, throughout the course of the class. The classes always go as follows: Joe takes a bite of his sandwich, and sings a tone, his voice wavering with microtonal inflections influenced by the consistency of whatever sandwich filling he's grappling with at that moment. We sing after him. He then sings the tone a microinterval higher or lower, which we then try to emulate. Inevitably after an hour of these exercises, a singer crashes his forehead on his desk and moans « I can't take it anymore ».

I loved this class. Joe would often intersperse stories into the singing exercises, like when he played at a nursing home for a man who was doubled over and couldn't sit up straight anymore. Joe lay on the floor and played into the man's face, looking up into his eyes. Afterwards, a nurse came over to Joe and said that she wanted to make sure he knew that the man he had played for had played with Benny Goodman's Orchestra, and how touched the man was, that Joe Maneri had played « just for him ». One day Joe got off on a tangent about the music of Milton Babbitt, a composer I've never quite been able to warm to. We got into an argument about the disputed merits of Babbitt's music, and then came an outburst in Brooklynese- "Whadda you know?! Yer just a piahnist. You just spend yer whole day practicing yer Rackmaaahninoff ". Feeling challenged, I opened up my satchel and dumped the contents on the floor, in order to prove that there weren't any Rachmaninoff scores in there, and that there was actually a lot of contemporary music that might inform my opinion about a composer such as Milton Babbitt. After this display, he calmly said with a smile « I like that, I like how you threw your books all over the floor and stuff. »

A long preamble to a larger topic... « Whadda you know?! Yer just a piahnist. » I just started this blog today. This is my second post. I've always wanted to be a political blogger, and I love reading the New York Times online. Is a concert pianist in any way qualified to offer any information of worth on a blog about politics?
Isn't everyone talking about politics these days? The fact that too many of us know who the designer of Sarah Palin's glasses is might indicate that too many of us are too deep into the fringe elements of the 2008 US election.

I'm desperately hoping for Barack Obama. I've lived outside of the US since the fall of 2000 (with the exception of late 2001 to 2002), and watched US politics from the outside, at times fanatically, with a sinking feeling of not being able to do anything at all to change the course of things aside from sending in my absentee ballot, which I wasn't 100% certain would be counted anyway.

I need America to be healthy again. I caught the Obama bug via YouTube early this year, watching his 2004 Democratic convention speech, his speech about Race in America, and countless spots on David Lettermann and Jay Leno. My husband and I have had countless conversations about the multitude of his merits... « how graceful are his gesticulations with his hands ! » I say. « He would make an excellent cellist » he says. (On Facebook it does say that the Bach Cello Suites rank highly in his musical favorites). Or « How intelligent he is » he says. « It's just hard to believe that an American politician can get away with talking like that! » I say (time will tell). We stood in the 200,000-something crowd when Obama spoke in Berlin, not very close, but close enough to enjoy the atmosphere. I had to leave shortly after he began (the speech started later than expected) because I had a dress rehearsal across town, and I cursed my profession vehemently that would tear me from that golden summer evening listening to Barack present his vision of European-American cooperation and partnership. Do I need to clarify my reasons for hoping that Barack Obama wins ? In this divided world, I have the feeling that anyone who stumbles on this blog and reads it (perhaps through an errant google-search for Rackmaaahninoff) will probably know the reasons why I want to vote for Obama, and will probably share my convictions. Finding people who don’t vehemently wish for Obama to be president is getting harder and harder. It may be nearly 50% of the US population, but perhaps only .000003% of the world population (not a scientific figure). I recently spoke with a Berliner who said that if Obama doesn’t win the US election, he can always come to Berlin and be mayor here, or even chancellor ! He will always be welcome here.

I will not use this blog to contribute to the choir from Hell (singing Orff's Carmina Burana, and Ligeti's Requiem simultaneously (although I love the Ligeti!)) of talking head politicos that are flooding the net with dizzyingly abstruse commentary. This will be my first and last political blog entry, promised. I will not write more about this subject, because I will be much too busy in the coming weeks reading other people's blogs, as well as my beloved twice-weekly Maureen Dowd in the New York Times. This one's hillarious.

I would like to end this entry with a guide to music mentioned in the previous paragraphs.

Ligeti's Lux aeterna (not the Requiem, but close)

Rostropovich playing the Prelude of the G-major Bach Cello Suite

Rachmaninoff's 3rd Concerto (Rachmaninoff, pianist)

Lagniappe by Milton Babbitt, Robert Taub, pianist

and last but not least, the Joe Maneri Quartet at Barbes Brooklyn

A Musician in Berlin

Last night I went to hear the Berliner Philharmonic play at the massive Hangar 2 at soon-to-be-shut-down Templehof Airport, the only airport in the industrialized world that is a short walking distance to all major tourist destinations and downtown hotels and restaurants. On the program was the massive Gruppen by Karlheinz Stockhausen (played 2 times) as well as the massive (and massively titled) Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum by Olivier Messiaen. It was one of those evenings that brings into focus why Berlin is Berlin, and why despite the early onset of fall, with its accompanying grayness and dampness that will span deep into April, as well as the general visual poverty of crumbling soviet-style architectural atrocities stripped of their summer foliage, Berlin can be one of the most enchanting and inspiring cities on earth. It has become a cliché to wax enthusiastic over the attributes of the musical life in this city, and I will try to refrain from contributing to platitudes such as « The scene in Berlin now is like Paris in the 20s (or Berlin in the 20s if one wants to be extra exuberant) or New York in the 70s ». One is sadly aware that if there is indeed something magical in the air here, greater than the sum of a city full of enthusiastic but underemployed artists, once this « thing » is perpetually admitted, fêted, made fashionable and subsequently marketed, it will sneak away in the middle of the night, seek out a grayer and more crumbling city farther in the east to enliven , Minsk or Bratislava, or maybe Ostrava, with its heart of steel. If there’s anything special happening in Berlin aside from a relentless self-affirmation of the artist-residents there (that make up approximately 83% of the population), then we should ignore it completely, lest it wither up and die away.

BUT, then there are those moments, and 90 percent of them happen during concerts or exhibitions, or dance-festivals or open-air alternative post-punk
organically-produced state-funded festivals celebrating cultural diversity. A few spring to mind… the choreographer Xavier le Roy’s dancer-less choreographies of the music of Helmut Lachenmann (he used the playing techniques of the onstage (and at times instrument-less) musicians as an aesthetic departure point for a very subtile and ingeniously simple and direct choreography), the relocation of Claudio Abbado’s presumably last Berlin Philharmonic concert to the enormous Nazi-built Waldbühne after the lovely Philharmonie almost inexplicably burned to the ground in June (with Pollini’s touching and sensitive playing of Beethoven’s 4th that was entirely out of place in these massive surroundings, as well as the über-massive (yes an adjective that is getting a lot of play in this blog today) Te Deum of Berlioz. And then the already mentioned Stockhausen/Messiaen at Hangar 2 in Germania-funpark Tempelhof Airport. I live 5 minutes away from Templehof. I rode my bike (a Berlin imperative) to the concert, which had been sold out for several weeks, and stood outside the gates of Templehof with a hastily scribbled sign « Suche- 1 Karte ». After a few minutes, a journalist gave me his extra ticket, and I discovered on my way into the hall, that there were at least a dozen other people holding their own signs, not the usual scruffy students, but distinguished white-haired patrons who had been negligent enough to not have purchased their Stockhausen tickets several months in advance. I recognized one of these cultural pan-handlers, a doctor who organizes a competition for amateur pianists in Berlin, and offered him my scribbled sign to help him find a ticket more quickly.

The concert… the Messiaen that borders on pomposity but makes one giddy through the sheer possibilities of instrumental combinations, not to mention the Chinese gong larger than the trampoline at the Neukölln Street Fair happening simultaneously 5 minutes away, that makes your teeth shake and tremble in your mouth with its intensity and raw acousticity (I made this word up- it’s the existential confrontation with an acoustic event that rivals the intensity of the now-defunct particle-smasher in Bern). After a short break, the much too infrequently performed Gruppen for 3 orchestras by the late Karlheinz Stockhausen, conducted by Sir Simon, Michael Boder, and the wonderfully intense and youthful Daniel Harding. The last time I heard this piece was at a concert at Tanglewood Music Center in 95, and I marveled at my change in perception now, as the music sounds romantically rhapsodic to me now, whereas before it was harder and rawer than a Jane’s Addiction concert. I leave critical commentary to the experts (including my neighbor, the very kind gentleman who offered me the ticket in the first place and who writes for Die Zeit, but will summarize the experience as simply mind-altering, and life-affirming. In short, a Berlin experience.

So what is it about Berlin ? My first reading as a resident of Berlin was an excellent but sobering city-history by historian Alexandra Richie, Faust’s Metropolis :

Many have tried to capture this strange, incomplete city, this unfinished metropolis. It has been filmed and written about in hundreds of works, the subject of a thousand paintings… All these works offer tantalizing glimpses of Berlin but none can truly capture the essence of a place whose identity is based not on stability but on change. Berlin can appear solid and secure at one moment, but its history has shown the dangers of taking the image for granted. It is a volatile place, and many have found to their cost that the veneer of normality can vanish as quickly as yellow Mark Brandenburg sand slips through the fingers. Berliners themselves have rarely appreciated their own unique qualities and have spent much of their history striving to emulate – or dominate- Paris, or London or Moscow, or boasting that they have more bridges than Venice, or that they are the Athens or the Chicago on the Spree.

Berlin is a city which has never been at ease with itself.
It is in its portrayal of constant striving without counting the cost that the legend of Faust can serve as a metaphor for the history of Berlin. With Mephistopheles at his side Faust embarks on a terrible journal of discovery, meeting vile witches and the griffins and sphinxes of antiquity, being thrilled by the science and art and politics of the world, and murdering and burning those who stand in his way. Berlin, too, has undertaken an extraordinary journey, and its persistent quest for change has left it either – as now- cautiously searching for a role [published in 1998], or indulging in overweening arrogance and aggression. Its chameleon tendency to follow each new great ideology or leader, or to lurch maniacally from one grand political vision to another, has left a mesmerizing but often tragic legacy.

‘So it is, when long-held hopes aspire’, Goethe’s Faust cries, ‘fulfillment’s door stands open wide when suddenly, from eternal depths inside, an overpowering flame roars to confound us’
This description presents a clear perspective into why Berlin is currently (as in many previous eras) a Mecca for artists, and why an overwhelming majority of those artists come from some place outside of Berlin, seeking their personal fulfillment in Berlin. A standing party-game at gatherings in Berlin is to identify the Berliners in the room, usually there are none, as all artists here are immigrants seeking the land of milk and honey. The lack of permanence, the perpetual temptation of possibility, constant Faustian striving, these are not just descriptions of the city of Berlin, but descriptions that artists can find a personal relevance in regard to their lives and their work. Berlin, the city of impermanence and striving matches and feeds the hopes and dreams of artists who thrive on impermanence and striving.

The Berlin experience. Mind-altering and life-affirming.