Friday, July 6, 2012

Cooking, Cuisine, and Iberia

Katie (my fiancee) and I watch a lot of cooking shows--not necessarily shows that give you recipes and show you how to make certain dishes, but rather shows that tour around specific areas and show their local cuisines--culture shows, really.

One of my pet peeves in watching these shows is when they (the show and its host) go to a area known specifically for a particular food. Classic examples, as far as the United States is concerned, are Chicago pizza vs. New York pizza; Philly cheese steaks; Kansas vs. Carolina barbecue, etc. Internationally I'm less familiar with the purported exclusivity of cuisine, but no doubt there are manifold examples from across the pond.

Occasionally, when a chef discusses a recipe they'll say something like "if you're going to make this dish you have to get you [insert ingredient] from [insert country/region of origin] to experience it authentically." Or a chef in one area of the country will insist on importing ingredients from another area of the country (for example, a chef in California insisting on importing the olives for his antipasti from New Jersey).

This is absurd.

There's nothing about the area of Chicago or the ingredients or the chefs making the pizza that render anyone else in the country flaccid in their attempts to reproduce an authentic Chicago deep-dish pizza. Ditto for New York. There's little about specific regions of the world that make a basil grown in this particular region supremely superior to basil grown in this ever so slightly different region of the world.

(I will grant that with certain ingredients that there are certain particular conditions--soil types, air currents, rainfall--that can contribute to certain characteristics of a particular ingredient. I, however, reject the notion that such characteristics are un-reproducible, or that no substitute is feasible.)

It's absurd and it makes me cringe every time I hear someone say anything of the sort and I thought my irritation was exclusive to the domain of cuisine until last night.

Last night I read an article in a music magazine reviewing different recordings of Isaac Albeniz's "Iberia." Albeniz was a Spanish composer and this point was of monumental importance to the articles author, who took every opportunity to comment on the various performers' performances of the work--noting with palpable disdain, seasoned from time to time with a certain maniacal relish, the short-comings stemming from the lack of "Spanishness" in the performances.

What, pray tell, does a Spanish performance sound like? Can you reduce it to certain qualities? An improvisatory approach, reflected in the fluid alterations of tempo and dynamic, perhaps? A sternness reflected in the rigor and attention given to the occasional appearance of a dance rhythm (the dance being Spanish, of course)? What exactly do you mean when you say a performance is "Spanish"?

Can you articulate it in some sort of objective terms? If you cannot, why should I give a damn?

If you can't, it would seem to me that your evaluation of the performances is based solely on your own inability to separate yourself from your prejudice that a Chicago deep-dish pizza will never taste good outside of the city limits of Chicago.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

2012 Ideas

I've been spending a bit of time tossing around things that I might try to tackle in the coming year. My goal for last year went--I think--considerably well. I didn't make it through the entire list of pieces I had set out to play, but I did make it through the bulk of them. With the forthcoming work to be done on my piano, I feel motivated to finish out the list of repertoire of 2011--so that's very likely for 2012.

But I'm also looking at new things to tackle...

Gyorgy Ligeti has written a set of 18 etudes for piano.

Pascal Dusapin has written a set of 7 etudes for piano.

I have found both sets of these etudes listed progressively (that is, not in numerical order, but in order from easiest to hardest). So, I'm considering working through as many of these etudes as my fingers will allow. Several of them are well within my technical grasp, several more will be challenging but possible, and a few of them are likely out of my grasp.

But I'm finding the prospect of the out-of-grasp-ness compelling and motivating. It's been a while since I've had to drive myself crazy working on something that is REALLY that hard (not because my technique is so consummate, it's not. I just haven't taken up the challenge in a while).

So, this will be a way for me to ease into this music and really push myself...potentially to prepare myself for more difficult works in 2013 (Boulez 2nd Sonata, Barraque Sonata...things like that!--ha!).

Boulez 3rd Sonata was on the list for 2011, and I had made it through most of the parts of the 2nd Formant before I abandoned working on it due to the disrepair of my piano. I want to resume work on this sonata once the repairs are made to my instrument.

Relatedly...

I've been in contact with Gilbert Amy. He has a piano sonata which he has described to me as "too experimental for programs nowadays." He was writing his sonata at the same time that Boulez was writing his 3rd sonata, Stockhausen was writing his Klavierstuck XI, and Bussotti was writing his Pour Clavier--all important aleatoric works of the 1960s.

My local music shoppe is looking into the availability of the score for Amy's Sonata. Depending on the availability of the work I might take it on later in the year. It's got a hefty price tag, but I'm really fascinated by this era in music and even if I don't play the work I'm very interested in studying the score.

I also really want to get back to making videos for my youtube channel.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

My Piano Stopped Me

I love my piano. Though, lately we've had a very one-way relationship (she sits in my studio and I neglect to play her). This isn't because I haven't been practicing--I have (though not as much as I should--as usual). It's because my piano has become in poor repair, some of which is routine maintenance I've been neglecting and some which is on the manufacturing end.

When I bought my piano I wasn't terribly well-learned in the fine matters of the inner-workings of the piano. I knew how I wanted it to feel and how I wanted it to sound. I knew a few typical issues encountered with pianos that I was looking out for. But I didn't know the really fine details like, strings level, hammer angle and bleeding dampers.

So, my piano needs to be tuned (it hasn't been in the three years that I've owned it, and it's a new piano so tuning should be regular--shame on me), it needs to be regulated, it could use a bit of a voicing...and I have strings that aren't level, hammers that don't hit the strings level and my dampers bleed--particularly when the sostenuto pedal is in use (the middle pedal, that is). The strings, hammers and dampers are not problems I caused through neglect and had I known then what I know now I might not have purchased the piano I did--or at least I would have made the tech fix them before I bought it.

I do like the sound and feel of my piano (when it's properly regulated!), so it's not as though I bought a lemon or anything...but I digress.

So, these issues--particularly that of the dampers while using the sostenuto pedal--have inhibited some of my goals for the current year.

When the year began (some of you may recall) I had a rather large list of repertoire I planned (hoped) to get through before the end of the year. With the end of the year quickly approaching I have come to accept that I will not fully reach my goal. Contributing to my failure are the repair issues with my piano.

Luciano Berio was on the list of repertoire for the year. The malfunction of my sostenuto pedal directly contributed to not getting through ANY of the Berio I had planned. Likewise, Boulez's 3eme Sonata makes extensive use of pedal effects which I was unable to accomplish.

The majority of what I could get through, I did get through--with a handful of pieces that were simply my lack of motivation.

One of the things I had hoped to do was record all of the Morton Feldman piano works I was working on this year. This was not accomplished because of the current condition of my piano. Indeed, all of the recording that I wanted to do this year was not done because of the condition of my piano.

So, today I made an appointment with a highly recommended tech to have my piano tuned and the rest of the "damage" evaluated for future (immanent) repair.

With any luck, come the beginning of 2012, I will spend the first couple of months recording the Feldman and possibly much of the John Cage and Earle Brown works I spent the year on.

I'm also looking forward to projects for 2012...but that will be for another post.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Early Morning Encouragement

I wake up early (5:20), have a bowl of cereal, brew some coffee and sit down to watch the morning news, catch up on emails, read a few blogs, etc. Then I exercise, shower, putz around, have lunch and then practice until I teach (usually starting 3:30 or 4:00).

This morning, amid the tweets that awaited me was a tweet which linked to a brief blog by pianist Steven Osborne. In the blog, Osborne discusses his fears leading up to his project for Hyperion Records to record Ravel's complete piano music. Specifically, Mr. Osborne confesses his apprehension at the prospect of grappling with Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit.

"Gaspard" is well-known among pianists as one of the most difficult works for piano. Typically, the fiendish difficulty is associated with the last movement of the work, Scarbo. Mr. Osborne, though, confesses that passages which were quickly manageable were the minority--that the work, as a whole presented more challenges that it did respites.

That was encouraging.

What was encouraging about this wasn't that a great pianist, whose playing I admire (his Messiaen is incredible), struggled with one of the hardest piano works in the repertoire--any pianist is going to struggle with that. What was encouraging about this was the remind it gave me.

I often have this misconception about musicians I look up to--that there is little if any struggle. That learning a piece for them really amounts to figuring out how they want to interpret certain passages. That the technique, the figuring out how to do it, is but a brief moment in their encounter with a piece of music.

I have a friend who is a concert pianist, whom I've heard play several times and with whom I've discussed struggles and problems in performances, so you would think I would have it solidly in my mind that all pianists struggle.

What we do is hard and it's nice to be reminded that we all start one note at a time--even the best of us.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

C'est la Vie and Appreciation, Ex Post Facto

This post is a bit of a reminiscence.

I've taken a bit of a hiatus from the large list of avant garde music to get through this year.

When I told Paavali about the list, he suggested that every now and again I play something conventional so my fingers don't forget...

I was asked to play for an upcoming meeting of the Pittsburgh Piano Teacher's Association for "American Music Month" (you may know it as "November"). I have elected to play Feldman's Three Pieces for Piano.

Thereafter, another teacher asked me to play for an upcoming meeting of Pennsylvania music teachers. Upon explaining who Feldman was and the general character of his music, the latter teacher became concerned and asked if I could play something "more traditional."

I obliged. Since, I've been working on Ravel's Miroirs.

Further, I've decided to work on Debussy's Images I and II (for reasons which may be elaborated in a future post).

Today I started looking at the first of the Images and it reminded me of a recital I attended a few months ago.

When I studied for my BA and Indiana University of Pennsylvania I studied with James Staples, a brilliant musician, a wonderful pianist and a great influence on my music making (much of his influence I'm only now discovering in my own teaching).

When I began my undergraduate work with Dr. Staples, I was not a technically proficient student--I hadn't started studying piano until I was 12 and from 12-15 was largely self-taught. Looking back, I don't think I was in a place in my development to fully appreciate his tutelage.

And I realized this months ago, at his retirement recital, listening to him perform selections from Debussy's Preludes.

If James Staples plays one composer with absolute authority and complete understanding, it is Debussy. And now that I've studied some of Debussy's bigger pieces (since my time with Staples) and am at the precipice of undertaking more, I am realizing the mammoth opportunity I missed during my undergraduate work.

My time studying with Dr. Staples is one of my if-I-had-it-to-do-over moments in life.

Maybe I'll give him a call when I have the Images ready.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Difficulty of Serialism

Apart from its challenges to listeners (resulting from the fact that it is so drastically different from conventional forms of music--at least on the surface), serialism poses challenges to performers as well. Yesterday, while getting my fingers around Boulez's 12 Notations (at least 11 of the 12), I came face-to-face with them.

From roughly 1730-1925 all piano music was built using the same materials. Scales and chords are the most basic elements of all tonal music and pianists are faced with several ways to play these two elements. There are 6 basic "shapes" or "gestures" in piano technique: scales, chords, arpeggios (a variation on chords), octaves, double notes (3rds and 6ths) and ornaments. All piano music from the "common practice period" is simply different combinations of these 6 gestures.

With only 6 gestures, there are (seemingly) only so many combinations and as a result composers created a series of standard elements--certain accompaniment patterns and certain ornamental figurations that constantly reappear in much music from the common practice period.

So pianists spend the better part of their lives studying and mastering these gestures and the music that employs them. The complexity/difficulty of a particular piece of music depends largely on how complicated the combination of these 6 elements. Enormous contributions to the technical pallet of pianists were made by Chopin and Liszt who found innovative ways to use novel and ingenious combinations of these gestures.

The game changed a bit when Debussy hit the scene. Debussy, by all accounts, was not a particularly skilled pianists--probably quite average in his technical prowess--but what he had going for him was imagination. Debussy's music is hard--even the easiest pieces will challenge pianists that are new to them. His music is hard because he reinvents the way the gestures of piano technique are constructed.

Before Debussy the gestures of piano technique were constructed within the context of the 24 major and minor keys (12 major, 12 minor). Debussy introduced new scales and new types of chords. Once you wrap your brain around Debussy's new context, and once you realize that the gestures are the same as generations before, you will be able to cope with Debussy's piano music without too much struggle.

When Schoenberg wrote the first piece of music using the 12-tone method he eliminated the efficacy of the gestures of piano technique. The music of the common practice period is limited to 7 different notes employed at any given time (with the occasional foray into related notes); however, 12-tone music uses all 12 of the chromatic notes. 5 more notes might not seem like a lot--but when every combination is slightly different it poses immense challenges.

So, here lies the biggest challenge with playing serial music (for the pianist): every piece is conceived with a different order of the 12 notes and (usually) those orders never resemble a "key" as in the common practice period and so every piece possesses entirely new shapes and contexts within which the pianist must operate.

In short, every serial work the pianists learns is essentially learning to play the instrument all over again.

Now, this is not to say that there aren't certain shapes and gestures that will recur within a piece or even within several different pieces--but the combinations of these gestures is almost inexhaustibly novel.

This is, of course, to say nothing of the musical challenges--making the combinations of notes in space and across time form a coherent musical utterance. This is (as far as listening is concerned) the more important challenge of this music and a concern that is appreciable (Schoenberg played by Glenn Gould, a pianists who understood and loved Schoenberg's music, and Schoenberg played by any less intellectually strong pianists is noticeably different).

I'm just hoping that this project gets easier as I go!