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.