Showing posts with label music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label music. Show all posts

Monday, February 6, 2012

life and tragic death of recorded music, part 2

Recently I read this lovely article (subscription required, unfortunately) by pianist Jeremy Denk in (but what else?) the New Yorker, and it reminded me to follow up on this post about recordings and music. In the article, Denk describes how the process of recording is inherently stressful and tortured, more so than performance, because of the finality of the product, as well as the expectation and possibility of perfection (in some sense, at least!).

A while after writing that last post I realized a somewhat surprising fact about the recorded music that I love and cherish: it is, almost without exception, all recorded before 1985.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

authenticity and performance practice, part 1?

To follow up on the earlier post about my recital.....Here are some thoughts expanded from this short introduction I gave before playing Mozart, which you can see here.

Authenticity is a problematic concept when it comes to all art. In the world of classical music, the problem is especially important to address because most of what we do as musicians is reproduce the music of others. We don't typically own, at least in a strictly philosophical sense, intellectual property over our performances, since they're written by someone else. Unfortunately, as the classical music scene struggles with evolving standards of intellectual property involving the internet and duplication, it simultaneously struggles to evolve out of an antiquated and damaging mindset involving all that music in the public domain!

It's one of those things that, if you operate outside the world of classical musical performance, you'll probably say either "huh?" or "who cares?!", and maybe you're not totally wrong. But maybe you would care more if the world of classical music performance weren't so bogged down in its silly performance practices!

Before writing anything more witty about it, I feel I have to lay down the groundwork for what I want to say.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

new pieces

I recently played a recital at the Levine School of Music in Washington, DC. On the program were many of my own pieces. I had to learn them a bit too quickly for my liking, so the performances aren't exactly polished, but representative enough of the compositions that I hope you'll give them a listen if you weren't there! Here they are, with the notes I wrote for them.

Notes on the original works performed tonight:

I've been trying to compose music, on and off, since I was very young. I wrote quite a few “model” compositions—works modeled specifically after the styles of past composers—in college, but I was only ever satisfied with one of them. It wasn't until just over a year ago that I managed to compose with any consistency—or any general success (though I suppose the jury is still out in that regard). The Silent Night fantasy, which you will hear tonight, was cobbled together in two days, one year ago, in the run-up to my recital in this same hall last December, and revised this fall. The Fugue from the Prelude and Fugue in D major, after Bach was written in 2007, when I was a junior in college. The Star-Spangled Banner Fantasy was written in the last week of June, just before this year's 4th of July, while the rest of the pieces were written from September onward.

These pieces were written obsessively and unpredictably, in fits and starts. At times, I would sit down, intent on working on them, and nothing would happen at all. At other times, needing sleep, I would stay awake as long as the ideas kept flowing. All in all, (too) many of them came together in their final form about two weeks ago. You may believe that since I wrote these pieces, they should be easier for me to play, when in fact, the very opposite is true. Because these pieces have in many cases been through multiple revisions, it has taken extra time and care to delete the past versions from my memory and muscle memory, and replace them with the new ones. Accordingly, I put aside my originally ambitious plan to complement my own pieces on this program with other pieces that were new to me, in favor of some music that I'm more comfortable playing.

When you hear my music, you might miss the influence and inspiration of one “composer” if I didn't give her due diligence. Gabriela Montero is not only my favorite living pianist, but a truly brilliant composer, though her “pieces” are all improvised. Since I discovered her improvisations two years ago, they've been a revelation for me. She improvises with the skill of a jazz player, but in a huge range of styles. She can take any tune, from any time, and turn it into something completely different, all seemingly instinctively and almost without conscious thought or foresight. Her playing was critical to making me realize how rhythmic and textural variety can add so much, can indeed completely change the character, of a simple melodic or harmonic idea. She made me realize also that composing is just as much a physical act as a cerebral one. So much of the music I've written came about not from thinking, but just from putting my hands on the keys, seeing what came out, and then refining it.

The “style” of these compositions, if I may claim have the authority or perspective to comment
on them, is eclectic, but they share a conservative outlook, a debt to past styles that is extremely uncommon in modern “classical” music. A good friend of mine heard another one of my pieces (not being performed today), which I wrote and performed in June, and criticized it on the grounds that it “sounded like a hybrid of Mozart and Schubert.” My immediate thought was, that's a criticism?! But at the same time, I feel such a need to justify the existence of this music, that I suspect deep down, at least a part of me shares his criticism.

The question he raises is a serious one, and gets at the heart of what we consider the value of art. Is it, at its core, an aesthetic experience, or do we care about authenticity, about the meaning behind the experience? On the one hand, I believe that music is just music, and all that matters is how it sounds. If it sounds good, it is good, and if it sounds vaguely like Mozart or Schubert, then it's probably really good. People like to say there's no point in writing music in Classical style (capital c-Classical denoting a system of form and harmony in common practice in Europe from roughly 1750-1830) because we already have the music of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. But if, tomorrow, we discovered a trove of previously unknown, mature works by any of the above, is there any doubt that they would

dominate concert programs all over the world? That if Mozart had lived another 30 years, he wouldn't have written hundreds more works that we would still be playing today? Perhaps this is an irrelevant thought experiment, mostly because I don't claim to be capable of writing music that could be mistaken for that of any of these composers. But that doesn't mean that music that sticks to old styles has to be strictly imitative. Each of the above found a way to express himself within a set of rules that gave his music structure and definition, and I think that's what all composers, indeed all artists, strive for.

That being said, only one of the pieces you'll hear tonight was conceived specifically to sound
like music from a by-gone era (the prelude and fugue that opens the second half). I haven't set out, generally, to write music in any specific style, but rather to play only that which I find good enough to be worthy of repetition. Still, the things I write have a habit of sounding as if they were written for another century, , which, at least superficially, defies the idea that music is a reflection of the culture and the times in which it was conceived. I think people who would make this claim confuse the normative with the positive, the idea that music is inevitably looking back, a reflection of its time, vs. the idea that it must be, in a predictable way, reflective of its time. Nobody in 18th century Europe knew how Classical style was especially suited to its time and place. All I can reflect on in my own music is my own philosophy regarding music; if I am so lucky, perhaps one day people will see some connection to the world in which I lived. But to me, it doesn't much matter.

Sam Post
December 20th, 2011

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

the life and tragic death of recorded music

I've already decided on an early New Year's resolution: listen to music. Seems so simple, right? In truth, it is deceivingly difficult, maybe impossible.

I mean, does anyone listen to music, for long stretches at a time, without undertaking any other distracting task, except in a concert setting? Put on a CD or turn on your ipod or other cloud-playing device, sit down and just listen with no other short-term goals in mind?

I suppose maybe most people never did this; certainly very few people, if any, do it today. But I used to do it all the time.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

music, recordings, Goldberg Variations

I wrote this for a magazine a while back, but as of right now, it still hasn't been published. I was reminded of it again by a recent conversation I had about recordings: are they gateways to musical enlightenment, joy and ecstasy, or destructive pieces of crap that ruin music for everyone? These are, of course, the only two choices. Anyway the article is about Glenn Gould, Goldberg Variations, and me, but gets at the question of recordings too....naturally, my answer is: it depends! Recordings can be great, but their influence, proliferation, and the way we listen to them, makes them terrible too.....follow-up to come? At any rate excuse the excessive non-bloggish style of the post below.

The lights dim, the audience grows quiet, and the film begins. It starts so simply, so innocently: two tones, two octaves apart, ringing purely, seemingly alone in a dark room. The camera turns and the scene reveals their source, as the music unfolds slowly, methodically. At first from a distance, we see a man, aged beyond his years, crouched behind a piano, head scarcely visible rising above it. As we approach, we see him seated about a foot above the floor, arms bent unnaturally, his gargantuan glasses nearly touching the keys as he sways back and forth, appearing to speak each note as he articulates it with his long, spindly fingers. The scene is somewhat unsettling; the music, divine.

Thus began my visual introduction to Glenn Gould, at a “concert” screening of his 1981 Goldberg Variations film at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, in honor of the twentieth anniversary of his death.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Nothing brings out the inner blogger in me like Atul Gawande. I just finished his latest New Yorker piece on expertise and coaching, and as usual, it was illuminating and extremely relevant! Its lesson is one that is all-too-easily ignored: even true experts in a field are easily blinded to their own shortcomings. Even after eight years as a surgeon, Gawande needed a "coach" to point out his weaknesses and help him improve, even if he could spot the very same weaknesses in other people. People are so invested and so involved that when it comes to our own weaknesses, we lose perspective, and the ability of unbiased judgment along with it.

The article talked a lot about schoolteachers and musicians, of which I am now both. Both examples are interesting for me in very different ways. No one will admit more quickly than I will to the value of having a coach for schoolteaching, and yet, teacher coaches are relatively rare.

My feeling about musical coaching is more nuanced.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

emily howell, cont'd: essentialism

Okay then! Before I start rambling on about essentialism, let me just say that I've now listened to a bunch of music composed by David Cope's programs. Most of it is terrible (the older stuff, where EMI is trying to imitate composers of the past). But the newer CD is intriguing to say the least, and certainly worth listening to if you have any interest in the future of music. To argue that the Emily Howell project and artificially composed music isn't at least a worthwhile venture, or that it doesn't have the potential for making beautiful and powerful music, is absurd.

Anyhoo, I've recently made the claim that humans' natural inclination toward essentialism distorts our perception of art, and indeed, lots of stuff.

Essentialism, roughly defined, is the idea that things have intrinsic properties that go beyond their more obvious external, analyzable properties, and that these intrinsic properties are in some sense or another irreducible and essential to the things themselves. The classic example is a species like a tiger: there is some essential "tiger-ness" to every tiger that has nothing to do with the way any individual tiger looks or behaves. Rather, "tiger-ness" is an invisible but necessary property that all tigers share, and that all non-tigers lack.

Psychologists have shown how people--cross-culturally, and from very early in life--believe this idea of species essentialism despite the fact that it is, strictly speaking, false.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

what is music? a debate sparked by emily howell

Over the past year or so a performer-turned-scholar musician friend and I have debated on and off about our various philosophies regarding what we call "art music" or "classical music." I think I've written a little bit about the matter at hand a few times before, but given his conversion to scholar, I can no longer shrug off his ideas. Here is my initial attempt to organize my own thoughts thoughts, with the ultimate goal of perhaps putting them in some more tangible form, as a rebuttal to my friend's crackpot theories (don't worry, the mutual respect runs deep).

Emily Howell, for those who don't know, is a computer program created by computer scientist and composer David Cope. David Cope's previous program, Emi, analyzed music in a given style and was then able to compose music in the same style. Emily, however, purports to write music in her own style.

The reason Emily Howell is such a controversial figure--well, at least in the world of art music--is that she (it?) makes us question what music is, why it's important, and ultimately, why we value it.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Meter, ct'd

A friend of mine wrote me this long email discussing the philosophy of music. I wrote back, telling him the discussion was arcane, and sent him the link to my meter post, below. He accused me of irrelevance.

I remembered this piece I heard last year. My friend plays in a wind quintet. They played this piece, "Aires Tropicales." I heard it twice, once in a masterclass scenario, and then in their concert. Now listen to the beginning of the second movement. Where's the downbeat? Now when I first heard this movement, in the class, I heard it, as I'm sure you did, as the first image shown above. It's the only way anyone would ever hear it! After the bassoon goes on for a while, the other instruments join, but if you'll listen through to the youtube video, the rhythm just doesn't sound right for the entire movement. Then, in the masterclass, they projected the score on screen, and it all made sense. The bassoon ostinato is actually written as the second image above. But once you get it in your head the first way, it's impossible to get rid of it. Every time I heard it, for the rest of the class and then again in the concert, I tried really hard to hear it the right way, in this case not just because it was right, but because the whole piece sounds so much better the right way. But I couldn't do it.

(Apparently, neither can the clarinetist in that youtube video, who keeps tapping his foot on the faux-beats.)

Anyway, the point is, the metrical tension should be one of the most important aspects of this music, but it's completely lost when it's impossible to hear it the right way.

My suggestion: the basoonist should stomp at the start of the second movement to signal the downbeat, or at least breathe to the downbeat. I don't know if that would solve the problem, but it couldn't hurt. I mean, he's got to do something, right??

Point is: this happens all over the place. It's far from irrelevant!

Monday, November 1, 2010


Something's been bothering me for a while, and that something is meter. Meter is a fundamental attribute of most music, something so basic we're usually completely unaware of our effortless perception of it. But I get it wrong all the time. Is it just me, or are you all in the same boat? Quick survey: How do you hear the following excerpts? At 0:29 here, is the strong beat on a) the triplet, or b) after? What about 7:20 here (strong beat with a) the winds or b) before) or 2:13 here [beats on a) the first of the three note motif or b) the second]? (This kinda thing happens all over the place in Brahms...please also note the ridiculous-looking, yet absurdly effective conducting in the first link). But it also happens in Bach (are the 8th notes here grouped in a) 3's or b) 2's?) What about this one? Go to the end of Variation 25 (maybe 5:10 on)....where are the downbeats? Or where's the beat in this one [with a) the bass notes or b) just after? Don't peek at the score, not that it will really matter!]. Just a few examples of the thousands available!

So did you botch the listening quiz like I did? (answer b is correct for all the questions). How much did it matter if you've played/seen the scores to the pieces in question? For me, the Brahms excerpts go in and out, often depending on how actively and engagedly I'm listening (see below). But I can't hear Hilary Hahn's Bach "correctly" no matter how hard I try (though I can play the correct auditory image afterward in my head). Ditto with the Schumann.

So maybe the composer's really botched it? Or the performers? Or is it us listeners?

Or is it just me.

Friday, October 1, 2010

goldberg variations, ct'd: cheating

So aside from the fact that I'm obviously really gung-ho about cheating in general at the piano, what does it have to do, specifically, with Goldberg Variations? As I talked about here and here, Goldberg Variations is unusual in that it was written specifically for a two-manual harpsichord. Indeed the piece is unusual, almost anomalous, for Bach's writing, in other respects: the multiple-of-three-minus-one numbered variations are virtuosic show-pieces with lots of hand-crossings. These hand-crossings often take the form of voice-crossings of the second type described here, and they present a unique challenge to the pianist playing on a single keyboard: when to respect Bach's part-writing, keeping a continuity of voicing with each voice in the "correct" hand, and when to "cheat" and switch voices to make the execution simpler? What makes GBV unusual is the added "visual element" of the performance. I am not referring to the mere spectacle of seeing someone play it, which is pretty awesome, but rather how the brain integrates visual information along with aural input in separating counterpoint into its different parts.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

And just like that....

A new blog is born with a little help from friend, colleague, and competent writer Alissa. Motto: "because there's more to life than soccer, science, politics, and the, New Yorker cartoon captioning."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

goldberg variation rankings, ct'd

When I decided to take my sister's advice and rank each of the Goldberg variations 1-30, I didn't really stop to think how difficult it would be after 29 and 30. They're all brilliant to start with, but from here on out they're, like, really brilliant. So we'll see how long I can keep up this farce.

28: Variation 19
27: Variation 8

Variation 19 (8:40) is a nostalgic break in the action from the charming, echoic canon on the sixth and the bustling, energetic variation 20. Two distinct motives are shared between the three voices throughout: a six-note sixteenths figure, and a syncopated eighth-note/quarter note figure. The genius here is in the tied notes that are suspended over the bar lines; these held notes give the variation its unique rhythmic and harmonic character. Beautiful indeed!

Variation 8, like variation 19, has two main ideas which are repeated measure by measure and passed between two voices. In the first four measures, the top voice plays rising arpeggiated sixteenths (with one sixteenth note "missing" at the end of each bar), while the bass plays four falling eighth notes, followed by three falling sixteenths. In the second phraselet (bars 5-8), both parts are inverted, or turned upside down. This is a common technique Bach uses, especially in GBV, to change things up within a variation while maintaining its rhythmic character and give the listener something to latch onto (it happens to a greater or lesser extent in variations 1, 5, 11-17, 20-21, 23, and 26-28 aka all over the place). Variation 8 is a doozy for pianists; look what GG has to do in the last measure (0:50)! Gah!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

goldberg variations, ct'd

Okay, enough "Handel-lambasting" (as Brett accused me of in his last comment). Let's do some Bach-lambasting instead.

Wha??? But I thought GBV was, like, the greatest? Well, it is....but Bach does some nasty things in there that just make it really hard to pull off, on harpsichord or piano. Especially on piano....but especially on harpsichord. One of the difficulties in performing, listening to, or understanding GBV is voice-crossing.

When two separates lines of music "cross" pitch paths, we call it a voice-crossing; one starts out above the other in pitch, but ends up below. If one person started singing a scale up from below, and another person down from above, there would be a voice-crossing somewhere in the middle.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

goldberg variations, part 2

While I'm still on the theme of proof by contrast, those who know ol' Golby should listen to this Handel chaconne. Despite obvious differences from the Goldberg Variations, most notably length and, well, quality, comparison is just too easy given the superficial similarities. A chaconne is like a continuous theme and variations light, and Handel treats theme and variation as most composers do: the harmonic progression stays the same more or less throughout, but the melodic rhythm increases steadily, with more and more "flourish" as the piece unfolds. There's also, as is customary, a couple of variations in minor. It's just unfortunate for Handel that he had to write the piece in G (the same key as Goldbergs) and make the opening progression identical to the opening progression in the Goldbergs. Because although the piece is lovely and all, it's a perfect illustration, by contrast, of Bach's genius. This piece, by another giant of the Baroque era, is so vastly inferior to the Goldberg variations in every possible respect, it's astounding. No one could listen to it without feeling the repetition; the variations are different, but only incidentally and ornamentally; there's little fundamental difference of melody, counterpoint, and overall character. In contrast, each variation in the Goldbergs has its own identity, and could stand on its own if it had to (even variations 11 and 18).

Friday, September 3, 2010

vacation PLUS goldberg variations, part 1

Coming off the high of a long vacation isn't easy. For those who don't now, I recently spent a whole week "off the grid," by which I mean, "off the grid by virtue of sheer determination to avoid friends' smart-phones," in Utah, Idaho, and Montana. We were camping, hiking, driving, getting speeding tickets, taking precautions against bear attacks (by speeding), and eating lots of dried foods. Since every time I try to describe how amazing it was I use the word "amazing" a half dozen times per sentence, I will instead complain about various aspects of returning home, and you can infer how, um, amazing the trip was in contrast. Grievance #1: the lack of mountain scenery in Evanston, Il. Also, humidity. Yuck.

Okay, now that that's over with! Among the more comforting privileges of my so-called real life is that of playing the Goldberg Variations, which, if you didn't know, is the greatest piece of music ever. Well, at least it's up there! I generally divide music up into four categories: great, good, bad, and incomprehensible. More and more, I believe that all great music is more or less created equal, that it just takes someone to give it life and realize its potential. (Thus, why my favorite pieces used to so predictably follow my favorite recordings...and maybe still do a little). Bach's music, however, has always stood out above the rest. So while 11 of my favorite 12 composers are always jostling for position, based on what I've listened to in the last day, the top spot's pretty much a done deal.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

music, form, and perception, cont'd

Well, this post certainly generated a conversation! Okay, admittedly, one of the comments is mine and one is a repetition, but still. I feel delightedly compelled to address them.

Sarah says:
"ALSO, if there's one thing med school has taught me, it's that one study does not a phenomenon make. (also: spinal cord pathways)."

There's actually a surprising number of studies, all of which have their issues, but converge on the same basic conclusion. The one thing these studies seem to lack is repetition, mostly for understandable logistical reasons. At the bottom here I included a bunch of references I used in the paper I wrote about this last year. The studies can all be found on web of science with an academic subscription.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

living with pain

Time for a brief foray into something completely new—medicine!—well, sort of, at least. Really what I want to talk about is our society's approach to pain, suffering, and disease.

Whoa, that's a hefty topic! Well, there's a personal experience behind it, one that's affected me significantly over the last few years. Hopefully I can convince you that my story is relevant more generally.

Friday, July 30, 2010

shameless self-promotion, balanced by shame-filled self-criticism

A little more summer reflection, this time, in the form of self-evaluation of some of my performances from last spring. After a few months, I feel prepared to listen to them with open ears and resist the urge to instinctively cringe. Instead I cringe now as a real response to what I'm hearing! Just kidding...mostly...

Anyway, I start with what was I think my biggest over-achievement of the whole year: the Chopin Scherzo that closed the program of my recital.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

how do people really listen to music?

In my post-World-Cup attempt to find some other meaningful aspect of life, I'm going back tomy one tried-and-true blogging topic: soccer....wait, I mean, music! Life has indeed been hard the last few weeks, but it's time to move on and explore some new things musical and otherwise...For today, a quick reflection on some stuff I learned about music this year...

Going to school for performing "classical" music is rough, because it turns out most people don't really like classical music, at least not enough to pay me to play it for them. As a result, I spend a lot of my time wondering and trying to find out why people don't more closely share my taste--especially in an effort to understand my future audiences, but especially to see if their taste could be re-classified as some sort of medical disorder.

In all seriousness though, I discovered something this year that is at once completely startling, but also one of those things I kinda knew all along: people in general don't listen to, and are incapable of comprehending, form in music at anything but the smallest scale. In general, people listen to music moment-by-moment or minute-by-minute without making meaningful cognitive connections between larger segments.