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Simple Gifts  

A brief guide to the various things musicians do

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a column about the music of people's lives
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These are some of my former piano students from Baltimore. Can't see them? sorry about that.
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This week's featured recording:

Le Rappel des Oiseaux  by Jean-Phillip Rameau

Taking a cue perhaps from his non-buddy Francois Couperin, Jean-Phillip Rameau liked to adorn some of his harpsichord pieces with colorful titles. This one is an imitation (rappel) of birds (oiseaux). Musical attempts at birdsong have always had some popularity; despite the woodenness of these Baroque birds, however, I thought we in the Northern Hemisphere could really use a reminder of what our avian friends sound like in anticipation of their eventual return. It's only a few weeks away, right?


New on the Blog  
Monday 2/23
The music around here is clearly going downhill

but it's a hill as short as the one in my childhood backyard

Don't let a wall of snow hit you on the way out

Good riddance to February

Holding forth at the organ
on making the moment last

upcoming performances....
-- house concert April 17 -- by invitation -- I get to invite about 15 people so if you email me quickly you might get on the list! (posted Feb 20)
      in Champaign, Illinois  (michael @ pianonoise.com)
--concert with "The Chorale"  Sunday May 10, 7 pm. Craig Jessop and Julie Beyler conduct music of John Rutter with chorus and orchestra
Articles from around the Pianoverse....
(one "new" article every week)

Onward and up--well, not this time, actually...

I felt like just having a little fun today, so if you're in a similar mood, this is for you. It's a bit of Joplin. I've been thinking about having a go at some Jelly Roll Morton, actually, but probably won't get around to it until after Christmas. At the moment, just not being sick and too busy is a good start. So let's have a bit of Joplinesque cheer...

The Cascades by Scott Joplin


The piece is called "The Cascades" and it is exactly halfway through the Joplin catalog. If you don't mind one nerdy observation, since I spent a month in 2009 working my way through the first half of Joplin's rags, I find this one interesting for one particular reason. The ideas are great, the tunes, the rhythms, are catchy, and, by the way, the second part of the piece, a little over a minute and a half in, when the 'trombones' come in in the left hand--that's the trickiest thing Joplin ever wrote, I think--but if you're a composer you know that after a while, cranking out piece after piece, you struggle not to keep doing the same thing. And for Joplin, it wasn't easy to stay fresh, since rags have a pretty set formula. The odd thing here isn't that there are four sections, all of which repeat (and each, conveniently 45 seconds long in the recording!): no, what's odd is that, after the first two parts, it's time to change keys. Nothing new there. But for some reason, Joplin decides not to go where ragtime composers nearly always go, which is four steps up; instead he decides to go one step DOWN. What made him do that, I wonder?       More





Simple Gifts

People have always been curious about the nature of certain artistic gifts, and, having been blessed with some of them, I thought it would be fun and enlightening to share what I think I know about musical talent and what I've observed about popular beliefs regarding them.

There are such a myriad of different kinds of abilities that it is not easy to zero in on what makes an artist. One of the most mythologized aspects of the craft is that it "springs from nowhere." People seem to want art to be mysterious, and, although there are plenty of great artists on record talking about how much work goes into their profession, most people don't seem to want to hear them. Inspiration is the key, we are told. Hollywood keeps feeding us movies about "just believing" or "following your heart" and the heroes of such films are successful just because they want it real bad, despite their lack of training. This kind of thinking may be so enchanting because it lets the rest of us off the hook. If it either happens to you in a bolt of lightning or it doesn't, and it doesn't, well, that's just too bad. No need to try. The funny thing about workmanship is that some of the greatest Symphonies ever written start off with tunes that just about anybody could've come up with. Frequently there will be a masterful subtlety that makes something that seems so simple actually evidence of a rare gift, but sometimes the theme is about as basic as you can get, and it is the working out of that theme that shows the composer's genius. That requires extremely hard work. It requires the kind of discipline that few people have. Many of my students could be much more than they are if they would only work harder. There is nothing profound about this. And there is nothing mysterious about the young lives of the great composers, either. Somebody was there early to impose a rigid work ethic on the child, in every case. A few composers known to history had little early education and so had to scramble in later life to achieve proficiency. Some were able to go a long way on what seems to be the strength of their inspiration, but the way was not easy. These composers are generally known for only a few of their best works. The lucky accidents, perhaps? To some degree, yes, but notice how luck favors the craftsmen, those with training, who know what to look for, recognize a great idea when it rains down upon them, and are able to transform even a mediocre idea into something sublime.




from the department of Godmusic:
Truth or Dare

About a year ago I had an interesting conversation with some friends regarding the book of Jonah. They had attended a sermon called ‘Jonah: God’s Truth or Fish Story?” I’ll leave you to guess which side the pastor took.
I happen to think that it is more likely that the book of Jonah is a work of imaginative fiction: my friends do not. In fairness to the other ‘side’ of the argument, I cannot say with absolute certainty that any or all of the events described in the book never happened, just that it seems highly unlikely. And probably not only for the reasons you are thinking.
If you aren’t familiar with the book of Jonah, I highly recommend it. It is very short, and easily one of the most intriguing books of the Bible. A prophet is told by God to go preach disaster to the citizens of a great city unless they repent; they do, and the prophet sulks about it because he really wanted God to wipe them out, since he didn’t like them very much--the reason being that they are Israel's arch-enemies (and real-life conquerors). In fact, Jonah was so reluctant to take the assignment in the first place because he was afraid they'd repent, and God, being merciful, would let them off, a motivating factor of Jonah's that is buried in the last chapter of the book. Instead, without fully explaining itself, the narrative races ahead from the opening sentence with one strange development after another. The book opens with God's command to go preach to the city. Jonah refuses God's assignment and runs away aboard a ship bound for the opposite end of the known world (the only prophet in the Bible to outright refuse God's call) whereupon God sends a storm at sea to the stubborn prophet, the sailors throw Jonah overboard at his own request, he is swallowed by a large fish, prays to God from within the fish, is vomited up on dry land, God repeats his orders, and Jonah decides to take him up on it this time. All this may be crazy enough, but I want to get to what really makes the book interesting as we go along.
First, though, I want to discuss something about bias.




With Friends Like These... pals dish a little gossip about Modeste Mussorgsky

They were known as 'The Mighty Five.'  Or 'The Mighty handful.'  I think after this article you'll incline to the latter interpretation. Then there is always 'The Mighty Fistful,' my personal favorite.

At any rate, there were five of them. Russian composers all, from a time before the Petersburg (1861) and Moscow (1866) conservatories systematized musical education in Russia (or were in their infancies), or the Soviet State mechanized it. They met together to play their compositions for one another, give and receive opinions and criticism about their music, and perhaps get moral support.

Reading their letters to and about each other, though, it is hard to imagine much truth in that last phrase. For, like many people who are friendly enough to your face but willing to let fly with all kinds of rudeness behind your back, these composers were more than a little unkind to one another at times. They could also be effusive in their praise, even sometimes when the other composer was not in the room.

But you've never seen a composer cut down his peers with such efficiency as you will in this letter from the group's spiritual head, Dmitri Balakirev, to a fellow named Stasov, a music critic who was not a member of the group. Balakirev manages to cut the legs out from under three members of the group in as many lines. Only Borodin is for some reason omitted (maybe he hadn't joined the group yet):

"...please write me, I have no one but you.  I don't count Cui, he is a talent, but not a human being in a social sense; Mussorgsky is practically an idiot. R.-Korsakov is as yet a charming child, of great promise, but by the time he blossoms into full light, I will already be old and will be useless to him.  Besides you, I can find no one whom I need..."

You'll note that Balakirev isn't exactly condemning them all artistically, it's just personal. So far, anyway.        more