Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I Is a Workhorse

In between my professional duties, I am making progress refining the 'D' Section of my personal Aegean task, The Entertainer. For the past few days I've been ironing out pauses between the various phrases--I call these fragmentations--in order to make that lovely up-and-down movement do just that: flow up and down like water (or Ale, I suppose, considering the time and place the composition was conceived) . I've made considerable progress. And predictably took a couple of steps back on the first sections. This happens to me. Perhaps it happens to everyone. It seems when I upset the dynamic of a piece it takes a little while to re-establish the equilibrium. But the end result is a more solid construction.

According to the meter at the allergy clinic, mold spore and weed pollen is very high, so I feel tired and feverish, the curse of the allergy-prone. But the good news is I feel a thousand times better than I did this time last year, thanks to good meds and allergy inoculations. So that witch-doctory works after all.

In other news, good news too, my weight reduction efforts are paying off, I've dropped about twelve pounds.

Monday, August 29, 2011

First Upload for you Happy Listen Fun Joy

I finally recorded a practice session and it was, for the most part, horrendous. But I captured a snippet of The Entertainer that wasn't half bad, if a little heavy on the pedal. Here is an upload of the first section as played by me. I spared you the ear-torturing second section, as I haven't quite got it up to speed yet--but will soon. Not to mention third and fourth section, on which I am, yes indeed, working with laser-like diligence. So here is my very first audio upload, and despite a little overcaution and some hesitation here and there I thought it was coming along quite nicely for a chap who a year ago was practicing scales.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Attack is a term which describes how you hit the keys. It's a macho word intended to make us foppish piano guys feel like real men as we daintily pluck away at our effete pursuits, hoping we won't succumb to ferocious bouts of nosebleeds or consumption. I'll comment in my snobby way that in most Rock n' or Roll attack doesn't matter, because most of those guys flail away at the keys like Bobby Brown going after Whitney Houston (ouch) but when you actually play with consideration toward expression, you have three things to consider: pressing the key, holding the key, and releasing the key. Each moment of contact affect how the tone sounds.

If you hit the key quickly, and release immediately, this produces staccato--a short burst of sound. If you begin the next note before the last note ends, this smooth, liquid transition is legato, and a seamless legato is hard to master, but oh, so desirable an effect to attain. A rising inflection is a crescendo; a descending inflection is retardato.

Complications arise when you realize musical compositions are constructed of complex arrangement of notes. Chords can consist of three, four or five tones. Sometimes a chord may sound better if different notes receive more emphasis than others.

I recently realized this about the first section of The Entertainer.

Yes, just when I thought I had it licked. it occurred to me the upper note of the octave, the key played by the little finger, needed more emphasis. So I began "leading" with the fifth finger instead of the first (that's the thumb for regular human beings). Of course, this threw off the entire dynamic and I had to slow down to reorient. But it did sound a lot better. Brighter, happier.

But my litter finger aches.

I'm working on the D section of Joplin's brilliant little work, a section so different from what went before in mood-- even a different key, the key of F Major--it might have been excerpted from another composition. It seems simpler and easier to play so I hope to learn it quickly. Section "C" is coming along, even the second iteration which is an octave higher. By Christmas I think I'll have something to cheer about.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

I'm Going to the Opera

I decided it was time to take care of the second item on my "To Do" list (the first being the very reason this blog emerged from the quantum fog of imponderables: my decision to study music). I made arrangements to make a Spirit Quest to New York with my son to the Metropolitan Opera. To be more specific, we're going to the November 19th 2011 showing of Phillip Glass's opera Satyagraha, a lovely work honoring Mahatma Gandhi. I'll embed a music file you can listen to as I relate my tale.

My involvement with this work goes back almost thirty years. I first heard parts of it on NPR, and I knew I had to have it. The opera premiered in 1980, the year my son was born, and it seems to me I heard it around that time, but I could be mistaken. It was, after all, a while ago. Perhaps the broadcast I heard was the 1984 performance by the New York City Opera Orchestra and Chorus, which was released as a boxed record set. At that time there was a record store which carried Classical music and they had ordered albums for me in the past. I recall the manager's name was Andy, and once he had obtained for me the complete Khachaturian Gayne Ballet from Russia. You could not at that time purchase the complete Gayne anywhere but Russia because of Soviet proscriptions concerning the exportation of native music. I recall the boxed set of Gayne, which I still have, cost the outrageous sum of $30 (1980 dollars at that).

So Andy, known to me and my friend Donahue as The Insomniac for reasons too lengthy to go into here--but mainly because he had eyes like a lemur which never blinked and who spoke at a data rate rivaling DSL--obtained for me the boxed Satyagraha. I made a condensed jam tape of highlights on cassette tape for my car and it accompanied me in my journeys.

At that time I worked at the State Mental Hospital (I ain't making this up) while I was in school, and I worked with a chap named Mark who was fascinated by my unusual musical taste. I had introduced him to Frank Zappa, who Mark probably liked as much for the racy lyrics as the blistering guitar solos. So I brought my new acquisition to work with me to play on the turntable in our breakroom. Esther, who was a very funny redneck lady who weighed in at around 400 pounds, was horrified by the sounds issuing forth. "Jesus Lord Mary and Joseph," she declared, "That sounds like Communism." She delivered this verdict in a honeyed Southern drawl nuanced with smoker's rasp and conditioned with obesity-induced apnea. She goggled at me like I had lost my mind for listening to such cacophony, a look to which I had grown inured since age twelve and my initial infatuation with Wagner, as related on Page One of this self-indulgent spew.

Knoxville in the early 1980's was not ready for the music of a visionary like Phillip Glass. I suppose there was a cultural cadre of fops huddled together away from the drunken mobs of UT Football fans stumbling around like moonshine-fueled hyenas, listening to John Adams and Phillip Glass and possibly even John Cage and Henryk Gorecki, stroking their beards, nodding sagely, and muttering, "Hrmm....Indeed...." at perfectly appropriate intervals. If such an Underground Cabal existed, I had not as yet discovered the key to admission.

Anyway, I found the music beautiful, and my wife of that era found it maddening. Literally. She said it drove her insane. Satyagraha is a composition without brass of any kind, performed entirely by strings and woodwinds, with Glass's trademark repetitive compositional style; and this seems to irritate some people. My son grew up listening to Zappa, Wagner, Glass, Gregorian chants, my weirdo friends and I discussing philosophy and theology, me levitating off the ground and pulling my eye from my skull; not your normal East Tennessee upbringing. Eventually I overheard him listening to the very music he heard as a toddler. I had corrupted him. Sometimes I think in this society where "music" is Lady Ga-Ga, and grunts and profanity accompanied by electronic noise, it may not be doing your kids a favor instilling a love of good music. I know most of my life I have been partnered with lovers and spouses who didn't share my love of theater and music, and this isn't something I would bequeath my descendents. I envy people who can go to concerts and sit hand-in-hand with someone who shares their interest in the Great Masters. When I go to the Opera, I sit alone, or rather it's just me and the composer. But it's enough. Probably the only times in my life I'm truly happy is when performing before an audience who truly gets it, and when I'm listening or watching opera.

So New York is on my itinerary. I have bought the tickets, two seats behind the conductor, and booked the flight. So devious is my plan is that I bought tickets for the performance which will be broadcast in HD in theaters, so I can watch MYSELF watching the opera when it goes into encore presentation two weeks later. And the most beautiful part of this master plan is that when Satyagraha comes out on DVD my great moment will be captured forever. My son and I, in New York, looking out at the world, closing a cycle that began thirty years ago--or in my case, forty years ago with a two-dollar purchase of Das Rheingold purchased from a discount book store--saying, "Suck it Knoxville." And the Fops in their secret underground cabal will stroke their chins, nod and say, "Hmm.....INDEED."

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Beat Goes On

I have been giving some thought (a dangerous practice) to the subject of tempo, because The Entertainer has a notation at the beginning--by the composer--Not Fast. Music of the Night is to be played Andante, which means "at walking speed." My problem is I tend to walk at a rapid clip, so slowing down for these pieces is problematical.

With the aid of our trusty friend, the Metronome, we can keep to a certain tempo without committing the sibling sins of rushing or dragging, and through steady practice learn to play at a smooth, even pace. Of course, andante for one performer may not be as leisurely as for another, and much of music is subjective. So I have different versions of--for example--Tchaikovsky's Third Symphony which differs by as much as seven minutes in duration.

Weary of this madcap anarchy, along comes Beethoven, who was the first to actually instruct us seekers exactly what tempo he required of us. His compositions have notations at the top telling us to set the Metronome at 120 beats per minute, for example, and by God you'd better do it or he'll rise from the grave and scream "Nein!" while you're trying to master the Tremolo at the beginning of Appassionata. Although come to think of it, an enraged German specter screaming at you while you practice may be quite beneficial for your Tremolo.

And what does one make of the heretical Gustav Mahler who not only made tempo notations in polylingual form--mixing Italian, French and German-- but also in paragraphs. For example, the second Movement of his Symphony No. 9 is marked Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers, etwas täppisch und sehr derb: "a slowish folk-dance–like movement, with some awkwardness and much vulgarity in the execution." Mahler would also sometimes combine German tempo markings with traditional Italian markings, as in the first movement of his Symphony No. 6, marked Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Heftig, aber markig "Energetically quick, but not too much. Violent, but vigorous."

Tempo is usually suggested in Italian, since in the Seventeenth century the Italians pretty much had a lock on musical convention. By then, the Medicis had poisoned or exiled anyone who tried to challenge their idea of what looked or sounded good. You didn't screw around with the Medicis, especially Catherine. Catherine de Medici would poison you for failing to compliment her new bodice. Interestingly, during the Renaissance music was assumed best played at the rate of the human heartbeat, which at a Medici's gathering could possibly be zero beats per minute if you ticked them off. Even assuming you survived all seven courses of a Medici banquet without succumbing to painful death, this doesn't help the musician much, since the resting heartrate of a trained athlete vs. a morbidly obese and inebriated Neapolitan Libertine could vary quite a bit. To add further confusion to the musical historian's already befuddled pate, terms have changed meaning over time. Largo, for instance, which today means "broadly" used to mean "fast." Probably that heartbeat thing again. We're more conscientious these days concerning cardiovascular health.

Here is a list of sundry tempo terminologies:

  • Larghissimo — very, very slow
  • Grave — slow and solemn
  • Lento — slowly
  • Largo — broadly
  • Larghetto — rather broadly
  • Adagio — slow and stately (literally, "at ease")
  • Adagietto — rather slow
  • Andante Moderato — a bit slower than andante
  • Andante — at a walking pace
  • Andantino – slightly faster than andante
  • Moderato — moderately
  • Allegretto — moderately fast (but less so than allegro)
  • Allegro moderato — moderately quick
  • Allegro — fast, quickly and bright
  • Vivace — lively and fast (quicker than allegro)
  • Vivacissimo — very fast and lively
  • Allegrissimo — very fast
  • Presto — very fast
  • Prestissimo — extremely fast

Additional Terms:

  • A piacere — the performer may use his own discretion with regard to tempo and rhythm; literally "at pleasure"[3]
  • L'istesso tempo or Lo stesso tempo — at the same speed
  • Tempo comodo — at a comfortable (normal) speed
  • Tempo di... — the speed of a ... (such as Tempo di valse (speed of a waltz), Tempo di marcia (speed of a march))
  • Tempo giusto — at a consistent speed, at the 'right' speed, in strict tempo
  • Tempo semplice — simple, regular speed, plainly
I never bothered to memorize all of this; if I run across something I don't know I have a handy little book which I can consult. (What's that you say? The Internet? I have no confidence in this new-fangled Interweb. Probably the invention of the Devil designed to spread misinformation and Idolatry.)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Life Without Meds: Better?

For a number of years, probably more than a decade, I was on a couple of meds for my bipolar condition. These meds were also supposed to subdue my compulsive behaviors and improve my impulse control.

Did they work? Yes--or something did. However, there were side effects. The most prominent one, it turned out, was that many, many people experienced hair loss from taking one of the two meds I was prescribed. As it turned out, so did I. Male pattern baldness doesn't run on either side of my family, yet I have a shining bald spot leering at the word from the apex of my dome.

So I decided to wean myself from the meds, one at a time, slowly. I found my view of the world became clearer; in other words I could perceive with much greater intensity all the aspects of this crappy world I hate. I also found I didn't agonize over purchases, I just made them. Amazon's stocks rose 10% during this med-free period.

The one aspect of my impulse control I couldn't grasp has involved food. At one time, during the medicated period, I dropped down to 195 pounds. My weight has increased by about 25 pounds since I moved to Indiana and got married. I turn to food for comfort and self-reward, you see.

Of course I was sick all last year and couldn't breathe, so this has to be factored into the equation. yet 25 pounds is a significant weight gain, and as the saying goes it's a lot easier to put on than take off. I've been working out again, about 3-4 days a week, with my doc's approval. He said to do aerobics to improve my lung function. So I do; 45-55 minutes on a variable treadmill, which takes my up and down hills at a speed (so far) of 3 miles per hour. I intend to increase both speed and intensity over time.

Yet this exercise isn't going to accomplish much if I can't control my snack-attacks. I've reached the conclusion that without help, I cannot. I've always been obsessive-compulsive. I don't know what it's like not to be. Anything which is pleasurable and mood-altering becomes the seed of compulsive behavior. I admit it, I'm afraid I do need those meds to help control my compulsive eating habits.

Wonder how I'll look completely bald? Guess I'll find out.

Ah me. I thought I could fix myself but apparently I cannot.