Saturday, June 13, 2009

Ojai Envy

I guess I'm not going to the Ojai Festival. Didn't know until yesterday whether I would or not. The marathon concert for tomorrow sounds magnificent. They'll be playing both Steve Reich's masterpiece Music for 18 Musicians, which I've never heard live, and his new, un-recorded, Pulitzer-prize-winning Double Sextet.

And I'd really, really wanted to see the new piece with Rinde Eckert on Friday. I've had the good fortune to see him perform Slow Fire twice, and he is truly an amazing performer. The set design, wherein he makes the most out of a few simple props, was equally impressive.

But, alas, I couldn't quite make up my mind to drive all the way down there.

Reading all the descriptions and reviews, I'm getting mighty jealous.

I'm even still uncertain whether I'll go to the Cabrillo Festival this year. That is a lot closer, but hotels in Santa Cruz are ridiculously over-priced.

On the other hand, I have made firm plans to go to a few performances of the Santa Fe chamber music festival this summer. The main concert I'll be seeing should be good, but I also decided to go because it corresponds with the big Indian Market ™. I should finally get to meet Sheldon Harvey, who is one of the few artists from whom I've ever bought a painting. He won best-in-show at last year's market in both painting and sculpture categories, so people should be closely watching what he turns up with this year.

I'm using frequent-flier miles, and I was planning to use a gift certificate for the hotel, so it wasn't going to cost much at all. But the hotel has gone out of business, so I had to scramble to find some other place to stay!

I drowned my Ojai-missing greif by cruising YouTube for Rinde Eckert performances. I also stumbled-upon this lovely concert (which is not by R.E., but so what?):

Saturday, May 23, 2009

About last night...

... with a little remixing, some of this could be kinda good!

Last night, I got to go see a new piece by local composer Mason Bates. I've written before about a performance of his lovely Sirens, written for Chanticleer. And I've seen two of his pieces performed at the Cabrillo festival in years past. (One wonderful, the other "just a[lr]ight, dawg!")

This one, too, was just alright for me, though I'd like to hear it again. Here is a bit of the last of five mostly-unrelated movements, performed by the YouTube orchestra:

Though there is no evidence of it in that video, the percussionists really got a workout in this piece. They played all sorts of things, including a typewriter and a broom. My favorite bit was when a xylophone, a marimba, and a glockenspiel were all playing at the same time. You don't see that everyday!

In the pre-performance talk, Bates talked about the differences between performing in a club (as DJ Masonic) and writing for the symphony. He said he feels that a strong beat, greatly appreciated in a club, gets tiresome in a concert hall. To some extent that is true. I don't want a constant disco beat with my symphonies. At least not usually. But the after-intermission piece, Prokofiev's 2nd Piano Concerto, has a pretty constant beat throughout each movement, and it is invigorating.

Yuja Wang (Wáng Yǔjiā) was the pianist. And it was a fiery performance. It really got the audience on their feet. So much power in such a little body. Oh how I wish I could play like that! Or even play like she could probably play at age 5.

Yuja Wang - Prokofiev Piano Concerto 2, Mvt. 4.

After the show, they turned the top-floor lobby into a little club with DJ Masonic spinning his platters and seamlessly (so they said) segueing into acoustic performances of pieces: Call by Berio, The Light Within by John Luther Adams, Calm like a Bomb by Jesper Nordin, and ending with Steve Reich's classic Eight Lines. The keyboard part in that looked much harder than it sounds!

As with the other pieces, they began playing Eight Lines while the DJ was still spinning. The effect was something like this:

Remember how when I wrote about Sirens, I got May and June confused? Well, this time I got the Sibelius 4th confused with something else. I went to this show in part because I thought the Sibelius 4th was one of my favorites. It isn't. I was confusing it with one of his others. The 4th is odd. The pre-performance talk, program write-up, and MTT's little intro all basically said the same thing: not very many people like this one because it is slow, depressing and goes nowhere. Actually, it isn't bad at all, but certainly isn't the one I thought it was.

Incidentally, the first person I ran into at the show was my neighbor R. I had no idea, but she apparently has been working there for 20+ years. She said that if I ever need a ticket I should just ask her. So perhaps there will be more posts like this to come, provided, of course, that they offer more programs like this one.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

One of the fun things for me about playing Hovhaness' 12 Armenian Folk Songs, which I introduced in my last missive, is that the scales and rhythms are out of the ordinary for me. So, along with sharing a few more of my (very non-professional) renditions, I'd like to give a bit of info now on what is going on with these scales. A later post will address the meters.

Eight of these twelve songs are in Dorian mode. Take number 1 as an example.
Armenian Folk Songs #1

The most common scales (or modes) in Western classical and folk music for the last few hundred years have been the Major (Happy Birthday To You) and the Minor. (Blues and Jazz are a whole 'nother story.)

But Dorian mode is not uncommon, even in European and American folk music (e.g., Yankee Doodle). To understand why that is so, suppose you had an instrument that could only play a diatonic scale (like the white notes on a piano) over the following range:

The dashes represent the black notes on the piano, which you don't have on this instrument. The dashes also show that the distance (frequency ratio) between D and E is larger than the distance between E and F. This is an imaginary instrument, but there are real instruments (simple flutes or harps) with similar restrictions.

If you want to play a piece in Major you've got two full octaves to work with.

If you want to play a piece in Minor, you can use A Minor, but you are limited to one octave with some bits and pieces above and below.

Minor sounds different from Major because the distances between the notes are different. Most importantly, the distance from the first note to the third note is 5 semitones for Major (CDE) and only 4 semitones for Minor (ABC). Why this smaller distance makes the Minor sound sadder than Major is a complete mystery to me, but most people agree that it does.

If you want to play a song with that sad, Minor sound, you get a lot more room if you switch to Dorian mode. In fact, you get two full octaves.
Note that the spacing of notes is pretty similar to Minor. The distance between the first and third note is identical; only the distance between the first and the relatively-unimportant sixth note is different:

12345678 (Major)
12345678 (Minor)
12345678 (Dorian)

Enough theory. Here's another piece in Dorian mode.
Armenian Folk Songs #2

Now, if you have an instrument like the piano, with access to all 12 semitones (the black and the white keys), there is no reason you have to play Dorian mode starting on the key D. Both of the pieces 1 and 2 above use the Dorian mode starting on A, which looks like this on the piano:

Piece number 7 also uses Dorian mode, but starting on G:

They look very different on the piano keyboard, as well as in Western notation, but they sound very similar:
Armenian Folk Songs #7

I can not simply look at or listen to a piece and immediately know what scale or mode it is in. I often have to do a bit of research. The piece that gave me the most trouble was number 12. It is interesting both for the scale and the meter. I'll talk about the meter later, but for now just consider the scale: "E F G# A B C# D E".

I had to do lots of digging-around on the web last week to find out what scale this is. It turns out to be the "Harmonic minor inverse", which I'd never heard of. That is the Western name, but I'm sure it is called something different in Armenian folk music. In Arabic music, this appears to be called Maqam Zanjaran (Zankulah), and in neighboring Turkey it seems to be Makam Hicaz (video musical example). Of course Turks and Armenians don't really get along.

So here is number 12. Notice how very unusual the scale sounds to a Westerner.
Armenian Folk Songs #12

For me, this is a fascinating sound. Hope you enjoy it, too.

Since I did my digging last week, a new toy has become available called Wolfram Alpha. With it, my search for scale names could have gone a lot faster. All I would have had to do is type in "e f g# a b c# d e" and it would spit-out the answer "E Harmonic minor inverse scale", along with pictures and a button to let you listen to an example.

In summary:
  • 1-2 are in Dorian on A;
  • 3-5 are in Dorian on C;
  • 6 is in Mixolydian on A;
  • 7-9 are in Dorian on G;
  • 10 is in Phrygian on D;
  • 11 is in Full Minor on F;
  • 12 is Harmonic Minor Inverse on E.

(PS: The copyright issues around Happy Birthday To You are both fascinating and disturbing, so be sure to follow that link.)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Cinco de Mayo

It's "Cinco de Mayo" today. In honor of this special occasion, I thought I'd offer you a few Armenian folk songs.

Armenia is in South America, right?


These pieces are by the very prolific Armenian-American composer Alan Hovhaness, from his collection 12 Armenian Folk Songs (Opus 43).


While this is among the easiest of his piano works, it does offer some challenges to me. Unusual scales and meters, for instance. I have no doubt I've totally botched some of these.


Nonetheless, I've had great fun learning these. I'm sorry I neglected Hovhaness for so long!


The rest of the collection is coming soon, along with some commentary. But I really need to go watch American Idol now!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Miracle of Easter

For years I've been having a problem with my mailman. First off, it isn't the same person every day. My real mailman, who is good, has been on reduced shift for about 5 years now, and there is always some new temporary flunkie walking my route.To reach my mailbox, it is necessary to climb 2 steps. Most of the time, that is too much of an effort, so they just walk on my flowers instead! I call this the Killing Field.

This year, it got pretty bad. I went out one morning and found 3 of my iris had had their heads chopped off. The next day I found another 4 stalks broken. To save my remaining flowers, I ripped the mailbox off the wall and hid it. I also considered investing in a pitchfork. I left the dying stalks lying around on my porch for a week before finally throwing them in my compost bin.

On Good Friday, a few of my remaining flowers started to bloom. I was glad that some survived and that I got to see them before my vacation.

But when I went to empty my compost bin, lo! and behold! three of the decapitated stalks were showing sings of blooming, despite having been cut off from the plant for more than a week. It is a miracle, I tell you!

Adding to the miracle, these iris always bloom on Easter, no matter what time in the year that occurs. Last year, Easter came very early. Only one stalk bloomed; the rest decided to hit the snooze button and wait for an Easter at the appropriate time of the year. I would have done the same thing.

Friday, April 10, 2009


The cruel taskmasters at the office have finally allowed me some time off.

I've always wanted to spend April in Paris, so I'm going to Nice instead!

With the economy in decline and the fact that it isn't high season, incredible deals are available. I couldn't resist.

Unusually for me, I planned in advance this time. Almost 2 whole weeks in advance!

Somehow, that almost wasn't enough time. After buying my non-refundable ticket, I realized that I couldn't find my passport. I looked everywhere for it, even in the place where it was supposed to be. I turned my whole house upside down for two days looking, with no luck.

I had to quickly research the shady world of passport expediting services. If you happen to live close to one of the passport-issuing offices, you should be able to get an emergency appointment for a renewal when you are traveling within two weeks. If you don't live nearby, you can hire one of these services to stand in line for you, for a big fee.

Fair enough. That serves a legitimate need. The problem is, these guys get priority treatment at the passport offices, and they scoop up many of the appointments. When I tried to get one for myself, there was no chance. So I committed myself to using the service, and started getting all the paperwork in order. Luckily, I still had an old passport to prove my identity. (Otherwise it would have been a major ordeal.)

I had a day off last Friday, and I wanted to get it done that morning. Plus, I realized that Thursday was the absolute last day to get my smog check without paying a fee, so I took my car in for that around 4, and headed off for passport photos. First I had to get a haircut, another thing I've been too busy to do; can't have bad hair on a photo I'll be carrying for 10 years.

When I got those pictures back, man I was speechless. I knew I was ugly, but come on! I was wet (from the cheapo haircut), pale and puffy like a corpse dragged from a lake, with big raccoon-like bags under my eyes.

I almost canceled the trip just to avoid using those photos.

Started again Friday morning. Got new photos, not quite as ugly, and went to the post office to get my forms "observed" by the agent. I'm trying to rush so I can get the forms sent to the expediting service on time and still have some time to enjoy my day off. No luck. The lady at the post office explained to me that the lady who does the passport papers is off that day, and that while there was a temporary replacement for her, I'd be a fool to let that lady come anywhere near my paperwork. So I took her advice and looked for another place to take my papers. I discovered I could go to the clerk's office in Albany. But I had to hurry. Due to budget cuts, they'd be closing early.

Once there, though, things finally got better. A very competent and helpful clerk told me there was no need to pay through the nose for an expediting service. She could call the passport office manager and get me an appointment for Monday, and she did. (She also told me that the professional passport photos I'd paid for, both the ugly and the less ugly sets, didn't actually meet the specifications and might be declined.) Of course, that meant I had to go to the city on Monday to deposit the forms and then go again on Wednesday to pick it up, but finally it was done!

(So, if vacations are supposed to relieve stress, why are they so stressful?)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Rubato, ma non troppo

Today a cool toy called the Echo Nest BPM Explorer was released. As discussed here and here, this makes it easy to analyze a piece of music to determine whether the performer used a click track or metronome.

Since my last post on music in 5/4 included one track with and one without a metronome, let's give it a test.

Here is a BPM chart for my rendition of the Bartók piece.
There is some variation around the beat, but not much, because I was sticking close to the metronome. (Something I rarely use.) The scale bars show that this variation is confined to a narrow range. The green line is a smoothed-out version of the instantaneous BPM, shown in white.

Here is the BPM chart for my rendition of the "Serenade".

There is much more variation going on there. Some of that is intentional rubato, though partially subconscious. But there is also a gradual increase in tempo from beginning to end. That is not intentional, but is probably common when I make recordings. Near the end I start thinking "Hey, this take seems ok! I'd better hurry and finish it before I goof up."

Finally, a more interesting example from Candlefire.

There is the same gradual speed-up as before. I often have that problem with Nyman, because his tempos are absolutely glacial in some cases. But the more interesting thing is the way the white line wiggles up and down regularly. As I explained before, this piece shifts back and forth between 3/4 and 4/4 in an interesting way which gives the impression of speeding-up and slowing-down. It appears that Echo Nest is fooled, just like a human listener would be. Though I'll need to study this more closely to figure out where it really thinks the beats are.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


It's the fifth day of the fourth month. What better time is there to celebrate songs in 5/4 ?

About a year ago, when I was 100% determined that I was quitting my job, the song of the moment for me was When Your Minds's Made Up, from the movie Once.

(My mind truly was made up. Why I didn't actually quit is another story, but at this moment I'm glad I didn't, because things got better there and got worse elsewhere.)

That song plays a central part in the movie, and we get to see it built up bit by bit through a long recording session. Though the 5/4 signature is rare, and has a reputation for sounding odd, when it is done well it can sound just as natural as 3/4.

Since it is a rare meter, it is rarely done well, especially by non-professionals. To prove that point, here is me doing Serenade by Emma Lou Diemer. (MP3)

I don't know much of her work, but the piano scores I've looked at look right up my alley, but mostly too hard for me. Very rhythmically interesting, with what appears to be an influence from Khachaturian.

The first piece I ever learned in 5/4 was In Mixolydian Mode from Bartok's collection Mikrokosmos. I had a hard time learning this one. For a long time I thought that was because it was in 5/4. I understand now that it was really hard because Bartok was making it hard on purpose. Though it starts out with a strong 5/4 feeling, very soon he starts playing with the stress, hiding the downbeats and subverting the rhythm so much that it is very hard to keep the feeling of 5. This is one of the very rare times I recorded with a metronome. (MP3)

If that doesn't sound good to you, you are not alone. I think Mr. B was thinking more of challenging the piano student more than making something that sounds good.

A few more famous examples of 5/4 actually done well are, of course, Take 5 and the theme to Mission Impossible.

Less well known, but good, are:
Science, by Sevish.

All I can say is, I'm glad this isn't the 7th day of the 8th month, because it will be a good while before I can play Hovhaness' Macedonian Mountain Dance at the right speed!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Stuck inside of Berkeley with the Macaron Blues Again

Macaroon day is finally here. Why am I not in Paris! Damn my lazy, non-planing-ahead ass!

This year the selection of Pierre Hermé includes the same-old same-old "Chocolate and Foie Gras", two different kinds of rose, jasmine, avocado-banana. Boring! But he's also started copying me by making one with safron and one with Campari. I'm sure his will be OK, but I did it first!

I'm still ahead of him, though. I'll be he's never made lavender-flavored, mardi-gras colored macaroons (with fleur-de-lys on top.) So there.

And oh, I just whipped up another batch for a French party tonight. Can you guess the flavor? Vanilla!

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Tuesday, I know I was supposed to be getting drunk on green beer, but somehow I took myself to a Chanticleer concert instead.

They are definitely great singers, but their normal repertoire isn't really my cup of tea. But this time they were serving up a three-course meal of young (only 30!) composers. There were pieces by Tarik O'Regan and Shawn Crouch, and they were fine, but still not getting me all worked up. And then the piece I was waiting for, Sirens by Mason Bates.

I've heard his work before twice at the Cabrillo festival. (One I loved, and one I didn't.) Both of those pieces involved electronics and orchestra. This one was pure voices. And lovely it was. There were bits with clusters of close-spaced pitches, like Ligeti's Lux Aeterna, for example:

and pulsing bits that reminded me of Reich's Desert Music

Then the movement in the Quechua language came from some other place entirely, with maracas and a bit of extended vocal technique. Overall, it was most enjoyable and I hope they record it soon!

Although the first piece was entirely in English (with text by Samuel Becket), I couldn't understand a word when I wasn't looking at the program. It could have been in Martian. I did only a little better with the second piece. But Bates set his text so clearly that I had no trouble at all understanding the English parts, and for the parts in other languages I could at least tell which language it was in. (Except, naturally, Quechua.)

I thought I might be able to go to an SF Symphony concert this Friday combining a work by Bates with the Sibelius 4th (a nice pairing), but I'm confusing March and May again!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Compuers Scare Me: part 2

I got an e-mail from e-music this morning asking me to check-out the new album by he group 0.43888888888889. What? It turns out the group is actually called 10:32 (don't ask me why) but the computer has interpreted the number wrong.

This sort of thing happens all the time with computers and it freaks me out. They control so much of our lives.

Even at this very moment my screen is blinking in and out.

Let us clear our heads with some music from a simpler era. Here is the B minor Prelude of Chopin.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


I knew it would happen sooner or later. Obama has disappointed me. At least it happened later that I thought. He sure lasted longer than Clinton, who disappointed me almost from his first day.

Despite claims that he wants to make government more open, he is refusing to release details of negotiations on an insane copyright law extension by claiming that to do so would endanger national security! Even if the proposed treaty made sense, and it doesn't, the appeal to national security is ludicrous.

Copyright is a useful concept, but it gets ridiculous at times. People who had no part in the creation of a work can fight for years over who can get paid for its use. Relatives of a deceased celebrity get to say who can or can not perform one of his pieces or can stick his name on a can of spray cheese, as may soon happen to Bob Marley. While at the same time living celebrities can do next to nothing to stop their image being plastered all over the place, and products like "Obama Fingers" can be legally sold. (I'm not sure why there were never any "Bush Nuggets" or "Clinton Balls".)

Now, for no particular reason, here is me playing "A Doll's Complaints", by César Franck. IMSLP claims it is in the public domain, if there still is such a thing.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Missing something?

Is your music missing something?

Well, if that something is cowbells or Christopher Walken, help is on the way. Through the miracle of modern technology, you can add cowbells to any song! Here, give a listen to Friend by Legendary Pink Dots.

 Make your own at 

This is seriously cool. Because before adding anything to the song, it has to be analyzed to find the beats and the sections and so forth. There is now an open-source api called EchoNest Remix that lets you do that sort of analysis. It is almost enough to make me want to learn to program in Python!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Repetitive Stress

This is a long post. Your listening assignment for today, Metamorphosis 4, is also pretty long. So you may as well download the mp3 now and listen while you read.

I'm all excited because Monday I finally get to hear Philip Glass' Music in 12 Parts played live.

This is a massive work. The concert will last 5 hours, including a one-hour dinner break. I was a little nervous about buying a ticket and committing myself to sit in a chair that long. I've never even listened to the whole thing at home. In the end, I couldn't pass up the only chance I'll likely ever have to hear a complete, live performance. Though written in the early 70's, this is one of the few times it has ever been performed in its entirety, and the first on the West Coast.

The effect of his early music, whether Glass likes to admit it or not, is to put the listener into a trance. It can be sheer bliss for those who enjoy it, or a maddening hell for those who don't.

Up to this point, his music really was "Minimalist", though that was never the point for him. Yes, he had removed lots of things that we had come to expect, like melody, harmonic tension and release, and big emotive gestures. But the point was never what was taken away, but what was added in rhythmic complexity, with simultaneous meters as well as abrupt sequential changes in meter and rhythm. Melodic motifs were very short, but would gradually add and remove notes, disrupting our expectations of a smooth pulse.

This piece was a comprehensive index of all those rhythmic techniques created up till that time. For ever after, he has been gradually adding back all those things (except serialism!) that were thrown away before, beginning with harmony in Another Look at Harmony. His recent film scores seem conventional enough that most film-goers hardly notice them. I've overheard lovers of more conventional opera surprised by the "normalness" and "hummability" of Appomatox. The CD Songs and Poems for Solo Cello has won rave reviews for its overt romanticism, while also being compared to Bach.

I've often heard fans of "old" Glass music lamenting the changes and complaining that he has gone too conventional. Not so! Other composers have incorporated some of his ideas, as well as ideas from Reich, Riley, Adams, and others who once wrote mimimalist music, so that such music now is pretty conventional. But nothing has been lost in Glass' music. Everything good in 12 Parts is still there today. But so much more has been added, and the changes come faster and faster.

Performing such a work presents many challenges. There is a great deal of repetition, so it is easy to get lost and forget what you have or haven't played yet. Parts are very fast and relentless, with no stops for breath for the soprano or winds and no rests for the keyboards either.

Back in the 90's, when I was at university, I got a copy of the music for Metamorphosis for piano. Even though this is not one of my favorite Glass compositions, not by a long shot, it was one of the few for solo piano, so it was all I had to work with. I played it over and over and over, trying to get it right.

I was also playing lots of Hanon exercises at that time, as well as some other highly difficult music. The end result was, I very much damaged my hands. I'm not sure whether it was simple repetitive stress injury, or the onset of focal dystonia. But I would get pains in my wrists, and my fingers would simply refuse to obey my commands.

So it was probably a good thing that when I moved to California, I had to give up my piano. (I still found one to practice on; just not as often.) I eventually bought a digital piano, but by then I'd learned my lesson. I listen to my hands when they tell me they can't take any more, and I stay the hell away from Hanon. Plus, after a year of jazz piano lessons, I'm much better at seeing notes as parts of chords, rather than just as individual notes, and that reduces the stress on my brain in those fast bits.

A few weeks ago, I started playing Metamorphosis 4 in the morning. Through some miracle, I actually made it through the whole thing with no significant mistakes, except some accidentally skipped repetitions near the 10 minute mark. Because of my experience with injuring my hands before, I will not attempt it again trying for perfection. This will have to stand as my last word on this piece for some time.

In fact, I shortened the piece for the web to about 7 minutes, so you won't even get to hear the part where I skipped a bit, not that you would likely notice it anyway. Even so, this is almost at the file size limit that my host will accept!


If you want the effect of the full piece, you can play it twice in a row! The full version has the form xAyBxAyBxAx, which I shortened to xAyBxAx.

Parts x and A are nominally in 4/4, while y an B are in 3/4. I think a certain ambiguity is part of the point of this piece, so I intentionally do not emphasize the first note of each measure. As there are distracting other rhythms going on, you won't likely notice that change from 4 to 3 explicitly. But you will notice that the center section seems much faster than the rest, though the pulse is constant throughout.

Although this piece takes 7 pages in normal notation, I was able to compress it comfortably onto two hand-written pages, though I use some unconventional notation. (See image). When I first realized that was possible, I was dismayed to find there is seemingly so little there. But there must be something there, since I'm still enjoying playing 15 years later!

Thursday, February 12, 2009


I was at a wine tasting this weekend. When I went for my refill, I got to hear the pourer give a long talk on proper pouring technique to someone. Why I had to listen to this, I don't know. That lady's glass was full and mine was empty. Shouldn't the pourer have been pouring for me rather than yakking away?

Any-hoo, apparently proper technique dictates that you fill only to the widest point of the glass so as to maximize the aroma.

Well, la-ti-da! I know what kind of glass I'm taking next time.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Colored Music

I've just spent the last few hours reacquainting myself with some obscure, compact, rhythmically and finger-twistingly complex pieces of Hindemith. But I'll save those for another day....

We've all see movies where musicians go into a studio and spend hours and hours playing the same song over and over until they finally get it right, or at least good enough. (If you haven't, then go rent Once right now!) Coffee is consumed. Nerves get frayed. Yelling ensues.

Well, that is just what I went through to record these little pieces. But no amount of effort is too much for you, dear readers! It is precisely because they are short and fairly easy that I become such a task master. For the long, difficult pieces you will just have to take what you can get!

So here, without further ado, are two pieces by Robert Starer from "Sketches in Color". One of them actually sounds interesting, though I won't say which one.


These are the only two pieces from that collection I have, though I'm just dying to know what some of the other colors sound like.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A little night music

We now consider the curious Nocturne of Benjamin Button. I mean Benjamin Britten. I always get those confused! But so, apparently, does Susan Sarandon.

Here is my performance (mp3) of the Nocturne from Britten's Sonatina Romantica.

Britten apparently rejected this composition. But, it isn't so bad. It is odd in parts, and seems too load and fast for a Nocturne, but it sure looks pretty as a piano roll.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

My Private Dance

I had a big weekend of high culture.

First, I went to see John Vanderslice at the Great American Music Hall.
John is an SF musician, and a great song-writer. He runs the tiny telephone studio in SF. What made this concert special was that he played along with a 30-piece orchestra comprised of members of the Magik*Magic Orchestra.

They're a local groups trying to shake-up the music scene by including contemporary classical music and rock music in the same concerts. I'd already seen their first concert at Herbst theater, where they played Johnny Greenwood and John Adams, and at a show where they did some modern miniatures and then backed-up 2 Foot Yard.

I have no video of Friday's concert, but here is a clip of Sufjan Stevens doing something similar in Berkeley a few years ago. It is one of the few songs of his that I really like. The rhythm in this piece is pretty complex, borrowing ideas from Philip Glass and others.

Instead of a video clip of the show, I give you an mp3 of They Won't Let Me Run. This song worked really well with the orchestra. (The mp3 link is from JV's website. He's remarkably open about sharing his songs.)

Going to a concert alone can be tricky, but I got lucky. I found a perfect seat in the rear balcony, and had a nice long conversation with a composer from Berkeley who shares many of my musical biases. (No, not John Adams.)

Saturday, I went to see a ballet at Zellerbach.

Back in grad school, I would always sit very near the stage for ballets. At that theater, those were the cheap seats! The idea was that you couldn't really appreciate a ballet if you were too close. At Zellerbach they don't do that. This was a full-price ticket. I thought I was getting a fifth row seat, but it turned out to be front row (because of the orchestra pit.)

Imagine my shock when the lights went down and this is what was right-up in my face:

The video shows the girls wearing shorts and tops, but this piece starts with them spread-legged in nothing but bra and panties. And only 10 yards from my face! I felt like I was getting a private dance I hadn't even asked for. Well, it was worth it to sit through that because then the men come out in their tighty-whiteys and do the same thing. But, sadly, on the other side of the stage! It was a dance full of simulated sex of all sorts, becoming a bit more sedate as they slowly put on clothes and prepared for a wedding. (The music was Stravinsky's "Les Noces".)

As exciting as that may sound, I much preferred the two pieces after the break, both set to music of Ravel. The first, set to "La Valse", goes back to Ravel's original meaning of the piece, to show the decadence of Vienna before the war. It was great. I'll never be able to hear that piece again without seeing it in my head. Then there was a great, mostly abstract, dance to "Bolero". It is amazing how that piece, while apparently so very simple, never loses its power.

I haven't sat that close to a ballet since grad school. But it was great. I'm going to try to do that again whenever I can.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Next up for your enjoyment, my recording of Candlefire by Michael Nyman.

Yes, it is supposed to be that slow! Slower, actually. It should be one beat per second, but I like it a bit faster. With many Nyman pieces, I have to be very careful to go slow enough at the beginning because he will often double the tempo once or twice before the end. Not this time, though, so I can speed it up a bit.

Nyman is most well-known for his scores for the films of Peter Greenaway, but they had a falling-out. This song was written for a Japanese anime version of the Diary of Anne Frank, called Anne no Nikki.

The bass line is block seventh chords, one per beat, descending stepwise through the F minor scale. The melody is simple, but is made interesting by constantly switching between short notes (written as 4/4) and long notes (in 3/4). There isn't much emphasis on the downbeats, and the right hand often avoids the downbeat, so it doesn't feel like you are switching meters so much as just slowing-down and speeding up.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

This is a waltz?

Next up for your audio pleasure (?) is my rendition of Philip Glass' Modern Love Waltz.

This brief piece was written for The Waltz Project, a set of short, contemporary piano waltzes by a variety of composers created in 1978. It was made into a ballet in 1981. I saw that performed many years later in Berkeley.

Although the piece is indeed in 3/4 time, Glass makes you struggle to hear that! The basic rhythm is simple, but ambiguous. Then he adds every trick in the book to disguise and distract you from that rhythm.

The left-hand line is a short basso ostinato, repeated constantly throughout. It consists of two measures of six eighth notes, grouped into 4 sets of 3. Already that does not sound like a waltz! It is ambiguously in 3/4 time or 6/8 time, but sounds more like four beats (two per measure). The chord changes from A to B♭ and back again over and over, giving an additional impression of two slow beats.

On top of that, the right hand bounces along trying one rhythm after another. Sometimes reinforcing one of the possible interpretations of the bass rhythm, and other times confounding them. In this two-measure example, the right-hand is playing 4 beats per measure, with each beat divided in three.

Lots of composers have created pieces with much more complicated poly-rhythms or poly-meters. To keep my sanity, I keep my distance! At any given time in a piece by Glass, the tempo ratio between the beats in any two voices is rarely anything other than a simple 1:2, 2:3, or 3:4 ratio. But there can be four or more of those voices and the time signature and the relationships between the tempos of the voices can change suddenly and frequently.

It isn't important for the listener to be aware of all that is going on at each moment. In fact it may be better to just let it wash over you.

This is a pretty early piece for Glass and not one of his best. But it is fun to play, and I hope it isn't too hard to listen to!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Give me my red envelope!

The new year finally begins today. And not a moment too soon!

This is a year of the Ox.

Obama is an Ox.

So lets consider the attributes of an ox:

The Ox is the sign of prosperity through fortitude and hard work.

Damn, I was hoping it was gonna get easier.

[Photo by Li-Ji.]

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Dirty old man

The Magus The Magus by John Fowles

Update to my post on the bookshelf meme. I have actually managed to finish "The Magus".

I take back my suggestion that it should be made into a film. Apparently, it already was. Woody Allen is claimed to have said:

If I had to live my life again, I'd do everything the same, except that I wouldn't see The Magus.

Here is my book review.

Audio Torture

I've finally got myself set-up to record songs from my piano to my computer. So you'd better watch out!

To test this out, here is a fairly simple and inoffensive lullaby by Alfredo Casella.

Click to download: Berçeuse.

This is from his collection Undici Pezzi Infantili. My Italian is rusty, but I think this translates to "The Idiots Guide to The Toy Piano".

Seriously, this is a set of pieces for "children". Some pieces in this collection actually could be played by children. But, in the world of classical piano music, any piece not intended for a virtuoso is labeled "for children". Quite a few sets of "pieces for children" are near the limits of my abilities.

This piece not only allows, but actively encourages the use of every lazy pianists favorite trick: hold the pedal to the floor. So if it sounds all run-together, that is, in this case, the composer's intent. This lullaby should sound somewhat like a celesta.

Monday, January 19, 2009


I watched a good bit of the innaugural concert yesterday.

HBO really came through for us. They unblocked their channel to let us see this show, and really topped it off for me by pairing it with "I Now Pronounce you Chuck and Larry".

It was very slickly produced. Almost scary, in a propaganda way. I felt like it was shouting "Hey everybody, try some Kool-Aid!". Pep-rallies of any sort make me feel that way. Since I like Obama, and am hoepful that things will turn out well, I allowed myself to get swept up into it a good bit.

The theme of the show seemed to be "coming together". The performers were paired off into "diverse" groups. Jon Bon Bovi with Bettye Lavette. Sheryl Crow with Will.I.Am. James Taylor with John Legend.

Notice a trend? That's right, they all come from backgrounds in different musical styles. Soul plus Rock. Crap plus Rap. Opera plus military band. Everything the young people will enjoy.

Just about the only combo they didn't have was Free Jazz plus Chinese Opera. (Maybe next time....) [Oh wait! That does exist! I wish I didn't know that.]

They over-did the Copland a bit. "Fanfare for the Common Man" - perfect. "Lincoln Portrait" - too long for this event.

On an unrelated note, does anyone want a used calculator? All the buttons work perfectly, except "equals". (It is the exact opposite of the one in the picture (by OndraSoukup).

Friday, January 16, 2009

You Go Girl!

I just found out today that Bettye Lavette will be performing at the innauguration of Obama this weekend! And supposedly HBO will be unblocked on comcast for the show!

That should be a pretty good show all-around. I did notice that no American Idols were invited to perform. Do they have something against voting?

Anyway, I'm so happy for Bettye!

I went to her show at Yoshi's back in November, and I almost posted about it then. The 8pm show was almost full, but the 10pm show wasn't, so they let me sit through both shows! Which is great, because she didn't do my favorite, "Little Sparrow", until the second set.

She'll be singing "A Change is Gonna Come". I just know she's gonna tear it up!She's had lots of hard times through her long career, which is sad, but maybe that is what lets her get so much emotion into her songs. A great change has come to her career recently, so she should be able to really feel the song.

Another great performance, of a Who classic, is here.

The only thing more I can say is:
You Go Girl!

Monday, January 5, 2009

It hurts already!

I did not want to get up this morning.

I've had 11 glorious days off work for the holidays, but I had to start back again today.

It doesn't matter that I work from home. Getting up that early just ain't right!

After only one day sitting at the computer, I have a back-ache already!

Christmas better come again soon! Hurry Christmas! Don't be late!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Happy New Year

I hope all are expecting a happy new year.

I don't eat black-eyed peas, or make top-ten lists. I'm incapable of singing Auld Lang Syne. But there is at least one New Year's tradition I can't skip.

In Berkeley, New Year's Day marks the start of the great calendar sale at Pegasus books. The whole town shows up at 10 am sharp to start the brawl.

I managed to find an acceptable calendar fairly quickly, and only had to spend two hours in line. The clerk was shocked to find that I also bought some books at the same time. (Some cheesy-looking 1960's Sci-Fi paperbacks.) I didn't think of it 'till later, but I'll bet I was influenced to buy those because the calendar I picked was of movie posters of old cheesy Sci-Fi movies.

2008 will go down as the year when I finally made a perfect macaroon! I wish I could say I learned how to make a perfect macaroon, but the truth is I still have no clue. It is just hit and miss. These lavender ones were scrumptious, though.

Last year I resolved to finally purchase a cell phone. Didn't happen! So this year, my resolution is this: "I will waste more time on the internet!".