Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Three Cheers for Charlie!

Six days from now my Ives-Cd will be released on Mode Records. Ives has been a fascination-bordering-on-obsession for much of my adult life, from the cataclysmic first hearing of the Concord Sonata at age 18 until now. I'm happy and proud to present this new CD.

An excerpt from the liner notes:

Responses to Ives, by Heather O'Donnell

The project "Responses to Ives" was conceived in 2003 as a way to acknowledge the 50th anniversary of Charles Ives's death (May 19, 2004)

The project had humble origins. I approached a handful of composers known to have strong affinities for Ives and asked them to write a "musical reflection" on the presence of Charles Ives in their lives and work. Impressed by the enthusiastic responses from these composers and encouraged by the powerful sense of identification they felt with Ives (musically and personally), I invited more composers to participate- the project grew to proportions more worthy of the composer of grand projects like the Universe Symphony or The Celestial Country, and finally premiered at the MaerzMusik Festival in Berlin in 2004 in the midst of a twelve hour extravaganza of Ives and Ives-inspired music. In the months following repeat performances took place in South Africa, China, the Czech Republic, Germany, and the US.

The issuing of the CD in the summer of 2009 presents an opportunity to speculate on the lingering presence of Charles Ives in contemporary life and culture. Ives would certainly have experienced fascination and dismay, hope and concern by our times. Perhaps the son of an old Yankee abolitionist family would have been deeply moved by the election of our first African-American president. He would have certainly had much to say about contemporary issues such as the endangering of our natural environment, globalism, the erosion of basic constitutional principles, a non-regulated free market, military ostentatiousness and preemptive doctrines, as well as irresponsibility and rampant greed in business culture. He may have been fascinated by the Information Age with its democratizing implications and educational potentials, and would have certainly had at least one remedy for his involuntary artistic isolation in having a MySpace page.

The task of trying to sum up a soul as magnificently and maddeningly varied, conflicted, and all-encompassing as Charles Ives can be daunting and often leads to painfully shallow and incomplete caricatures of the man and his outward eccentricities. Enough attention has been allocated to the image of a Yankee crank with a spiteful tongue and explosive temperament, this writer prefers to focus more on the mystical pragmatist in Ives, the enormously successful insurance executive who cared to spend his free hours in the deepest searchings and strivings for a universal musical language that could serve as an awakening agent for humanity on the cusp of realizing its transcendental potential.

Charles Ives, a man who embodied the Emersonian call to self-reliance, found his voice in personal and artistic seclusion, maintained his enthusiasm for music by never subjecting it to earning his keep. Instead of scraping together a meagre subsistence as a music teacher, free-lance composer, or full-time church organist, Ives made a comfortable living in life insurance. This allowed him to devote himself to composition on weekends or holidays, free to pursue his musical imagination without needing to worry about existential issues or public taste. A deeply spiritual person capable of discerning divine elements in humble forms, Ives was divided between a spirit of generosity in supporting and encouraging fellow composers and a penchant for acidic and irascible denunciations of composers who he felt threatened by. He was a beautifully and brazenly flawed man who had little concern for reaching the sterile perfection of classical form, but instead strove with great zeal and untiring investment towards the dizzyingly ambitious aim of reflecting through music a totality of human experience, divine and profane. Ives lived Transcendentalist ideals of spiritual awareness , intellectual independence and idealism. His political orientations were progressive, optimistic about human nature and the innate goodness of the majority, he was an active and exemplary citizen, sacrificing his time and health for aiding the war effort in 1918. At the same time, he maintained a watchful and critical eye on the Wilson administration. His music was also progressive, ever-expanding the tonal system within an aesthetic universe in which dissonance was an indication of strength and honesty, reflecting the motley multifariousness of life’s experiences. He effortlessly combined wildly divergent musical expressions into a unified whole, eradicating hierarchical notions of "high" as opposed to "common" music. He elevated the local to the universal, and brought universal themes back to his Yankee homestead. He began an experimentalist tradition which continues on to today by playfully challenging musical dogma in the areas of tonality, rhythm and form. He adhered to a strong and reliable inner compass of decency and virtue, and lived and worked uncompromisingly towards his ideals.

This disc is intended to be a celebration of Charles Ives, through his own works as well as reflected in the work of contemporary composers who admire and love him.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Elephant on the Table (or Piano)

I've been procrastinating writing this blog for some time now. I knew I wanted my next blog to be on this certain topic, but it's a big one, and a hard one. And pianists don't wear their injuries on their sleeves with any small degree of grace, or as a badge of honor. Otherwise we might know more about the physiological reasons behind Horowitz and Gould's extended breaks from concertizing, and Fleischer may have not responded to the early onset of focal dystonia by "practicing harder and longer".

My hand problems have been gloriously multifarious, spanning 20 years, and encompassing a plethora of colorful diagnoses; carpal tunnel, tendonitis, overuse syndrome, neck injuries resulting from a falling-out-of-bed incident as a 5 year-old, weak eyesight resulting in ocular muscle-strain, muscular dystrophy, and most titillating of all, focal dystonia, the big Hog Daddy of musicians' injuries, one that mostly leads to complete abandonment of all musical pursuits. Doctors I worked with often expressed frustration with their inability to pinpoint and treat the problem, as I'd often come back week to week with rotating pains between various parts of my right and left arms and hands. When my right hand improved, my left hand started acting up, as if demanding equal rights for pain and discomfort. More than one doctor gently suggested seeking the aid of a psychoanalyst specialized in extreme cases of psychosomatic delusion. At the worst point, the structure (bridge) of my hands had collapsed, the whole right side of my body sagged lower than the left, and my fourth finger in my left hand shook uncontrollably whenever I put any weight on it. An unhappy conundrum.

And then there were the treatments... soaking my hands in warm wax (comfy! but completely ineffective), a daily hanging from a neck-stretcher (terribly alarming for unsuspecting friends and family members), homeopathy, osteopathy, chiropracty, neurology, hydrotherapy, massage, manual therapy, Feldenkrais, Alexander, muscle training, Yoga, fish-oil supplements, meditation, plain old Aspirin, and exercise (including the infamous episode where a doctor suggested jogging for improving overall condition, advice I followed religiously until I tripped and fell onto my hands the day before a concert and was forced to try to play the Goldberg Variations with what looked like a blessed dose of Stigmata. The audience gasped audibly during the many hand-crossings. This concert was not my finest moment at the piano.)

The problems lingered, sometimes flaring up to levels which paralyzed my playing for some time, but mostly staying at a bearable though immensely frustrating level. Pain has been an almost daily companion in practice and performance for much of the past 20 years. Rather simple elements in piano technique have been extremely difficult to grasp. I had the feeling of having to practice much more than my colleagues in order to maintain a professional level, this over-practicing in turn was a classic Catch-22 which only aggravated problems. There was an uncomfortable feeling of not being in control of my hands, not sensing their intricacy, and "making-do" with pianistic tools that seemed (and were) increasingly inadequate for the tasks they were asked to do.

The explanation for these problems came almost one year ago after a hospitalization for extremely low blood levels (something which also was connected to the health problems). The cause of this suffering is a strange but not uncommon one, though it was a condition totally unknown to me before the diagnosis. I was diagnosed with Celiac disease, an extreme gluten-intolerance that forces the body to react to the confrontation of gluten as a low-level poison, constantly building dangerous levels of antibodies that then turn on the body and attack it in various ways (internal organs, nerve-endings, muscles). The cure is simple, no more bread. Or cookies. Or cake, pasta, soy sauce, beer, chips, crackers, pizza, and most kinds of junk foods. Finding out the cause of these problems is at once an enormous relief but also produces a sinking feeling of having lost a lot of time dealing with the physical, psychological, and emotional effects of not knowing why things were not functioning well.

The pianistic cure is not simple. Deeply ingrained habits that were developed with a faulty physical system in order to find solutions to pianistic challenges must be methodically and pain-stakingly retrained. One example- I always relied on a quick thrust from the lower arms to produce loud chords, which was the only solution I could find at the time though it produced a brittle and ugly sound. Having used this 'solution' countless times over the past decade or so, it takes a lot of time and patience to introduce new ways of confronting a chord. I had to practice in a way that any Zen master would be proud of. Months and months of work went into single soft tones, using each tone as an opportunity to trace the connection between the finger and the back, with all of the various points in between. When I felt confident that I could play the single tones without immediately resorting to old habits, I could move onto 2-note chords, 3-note chords, etc. I had the great fortune to work with a pianist in Berlin with a deep knowledge of anatomy, neurology, and various pianistic ailments ( I'd be happy to share details with anyone... write me!) who encouraged me to find these kinds of connections. There was a feeling of having great gaping holes in my sensory perception that I had to fill through the strength of imagination (and images provided by this teacher) until the brain finally could confront, understand, and recognize these sensory "black holes". Practicing had to become non-musical for a long period of time, preoccupation with the physical components of piano playing very much took the foreground . Playing though pieces for enjoyment wasn't an option, as the hands would respond to this wild abandonment through several days of 'sulking' with the all-too familiar aches and pains. This kind of hyper-aware practicing is not always enjoyable, especially because it's often accompanied with uncomfortable sensations of pain, but it did introduce an element for me in being deeply tuned into the messages sent from within. I have gained through this experience a new humility in dealing with my body. I listen to it. I respect its signals. I don't trespass. I suppose this kind of self-awareness is something common to people who practice meditation. I'm emerging from this experience with a great sense of awe in the subtlety, fineness, and beauty of our capabilities as healthy human beings.