Monday, January 21, 2008

My own past history as a musician

I thought I would give a little more history of my own pre-career with music. As best I recall, I started piano lessons at age 8 in February 1952 after the purchase of a Kimball console piano. The piano deteriorated over the years (with many household moves around the nation) and was donated to a charity in Minneapolis in 2003 before I moved back to Virginia.

I started composing some, probably at around age 12. Some of the manuscripts are lost. I can reconstruct some of the music easily, of course, as I pretty much remember every note, even at 64. This sketch shows the themes from an A Major Sonata (about age 14) and an earlier Sonatina in F called “Inspiration.” The A Major starts with a perfunctory theme simply based on the A Major scale, rising and then falling, note by note. Below that is a sketch of what I recall of a piano concerto that a friend in the dorm (Brown Hall at William and Mary) claimed that semester to have composed. He played it for me once in piano in a practice room at Ewell Hall. It was about 25 minutes long and like a Hummel concerto. The work was in E-flat. The work starts with a scale-like theme a bit like mine, but has a secondary motif that reminds one of some counterpoint that occurs in the first movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. That particular student thought that “real music” ended with Mozart, and that no one should play Beethoven before age 30. (That’s a contradiction.) The second movement was a lamentation in G minor with a theme based on repeating the node D and then answering with a descending tetrachord from G. He claimed to have “memorized” the A-major and played it for an audience at home in California during Christmas break (he came to visit me in January after the expulsion – below). He said that when the heard the perfunctory tune, “he knew.” That’s how things were in those days.

I liked the Rachmaninoff-like "big tune" in major at the end.

At 16, I entered a D minor Sonata in a contest. I had become impressed with Rachmaninoff, especially the Third Piano Concerto.

After my infamous William and Mary Expulsion in November 1961 (explained in detail elsewhere on my books, blogs and websites – look at Nov. 28 2006 in my main blog) I lived “at home” and started school again at GW in February 1962. My father had a mild heart attack (ironically on a business trip to the Williamsburg, which had become a city of discontent for the family) and rested at home a lot. In the mean time, at 18, I composed a “Third Sonata,” about 50 minutes, in four movements. The first is in C (non-committal as to major or minor), a second movement as a scherzo in A-flat, the third movement an “Elegy” in E-flat minor, and the finale a rondo in C. I actually didn’t finish the sketch of the finale until 1974. In the first movement, I tried a scheme of making the second theme the natural minor of the home key, and the development section starts by making the main theme a twelve-tone row. In the third movement, although it has atonal center, the main melody is supposed to have all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, but they are harmonized to gravitate toward E-flat minor.

Elsewhere on the blogs I talk about the six-month reparative "hospitalization" at NIH in the latter half of 1962. My music -- not just my "record collection" but also my composing -- came up as a controversial matter.

The psychiatrists said this about my music: "He learned some composition and began to compose a series of piano sonatas based on a 12 tone scale. There were compositions that he did not hear in his head but rather were worked out on a prearranged formula." It's interesting how "professionals" in judging people by naive about music get things wrong, as this is not a correct statement about what I had done, or about what dodecaphonic ("expressionistic") music is all about.

I recorded this sonata on a grand piano (Baldwin) at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC in February, 1991. I have a DAT tape of it, but the performance isn’t good enough to make it worth putting up, and it would take too much bandwidth. I’ve had Cakewalk and an old Yamaha midi, but never gotten it working too well. I think some of the music has promise, but I would have to make an effort to get set up to have it entered and edited in an automated fashion. I have Cakewalk on an older computer that busted, but saved the work files off. I have to decide whether to work with Cakewalk, Finale or some other product.

I also took organ lessons for a while at the University of Kansas while in graduate school for Mathematics (1966-1968). I actually had taken some at FBC from an organist who at the time went to Peabody in Baltimore, and who worked at FBC, St. Matthews Cathedral in Washington, and a Lutheran church near Baltimore.

Why didn't I follow music as "Life's Work"? I think I would have had the talent with enough practice and diligence. I think there was an element of cold feet. This was a time of the Cold War, with a looming draft, and a belief that scientists and mathematicians would be better treated (to put it mildly). Collective need really matters.

Update: Feb. 11, 2008

I looked over some of my hand manuscripts some more. Here is what I have
(1) Sonatina in F (1956) 4 movements 12 min (needs reconstruction)
(2) Sonatina in A (1957) 4 movements 12 min (needs reconstruction)
(2.5) Minuet in E (Bartok's "Courtly Key") (1958) won a contest, intended originally for Sonatina, "neo-classical"
(3) Sonata / Concerto in d minor (1959) 3 movements 30 min romantic needs revision
(4) Sonata / Symphony C major-minor (1962; 1974) "post-romantic to modern" 4 movements 50 min needs orchestration (some atonality as "development" device)
(5) "Symphony" "C" 5 movements 50 min (1972-1974) (Variations; Dances; Songs; Adagio; Rondo) "post-romantic to modern" needs counterpoint, harmony, orchestration (some atonality, tonality often ambiguous)
(6) Symphony e minor (1960, 2000) 4 movements "romantic" 40 min needs completion, orchestration, considerable form work in last movement

I'll look into fixing the computer setup (Cakewalk or Finale, etc) and see what I can do with this over time. I'd like to make into something performable out of some of this.

By the way, I don't like to hear works transposed up a half-step. Think of Brahms 's four symphonies. They must be played in C min, D maj, F Maj, e min, exactly. The Second really sounds like D major, the third really sounds like F Major. And the Brahms Violin Concerto really sounds like D Major (just listen to the end credits of "There Will Be Blood"). Keys have personalities.

Below is my "movie trademark" theme (my own, intended for doaskdotell) from the first movement of the 5-movement "symphony." My favorite movie musical trademark is Lionsgate (the "Metropolis" theme).

Try this courtly Minuet (around age 15).

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Eclipse Chamber Orchestra Dumbarton concert

Last night, Saturday January 12, 2008, The Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, directed by Sylvia Alimena, selected from the National Symphony Orchestra, presented an important concert at the historic Dumbarton Methodist Church in the Georgetown section of Washington DC, about a one mile walk (uphill) from the Foggy Bottom Metro. The website is this.

Let’s deal with the bookends of the sandwich first. The opening work was Sir Edward Elgar ‘s Serenade in E Minor. I’ve haven’t heard it as often as Tchaikovsky’s or Dvorak’s (or even Wilhelm Stenhammar 's), and it really sounds laid back when I’m used to the Elgar of the Enigma Variations (which are about “people”), the Cello Concerto, and the two massive symphonies (the first of which does curious experiments with modulations over the tritone interval, from A-flat to d minor).

The closing work was Gustav Mahler ‘s “orchestration” of Franz Schubert ‘s “Death and the Maiden,” D. 810 / 790 string quartet. This seems like another attempt to create another big Schubert “symphony,” the motives for which I’ll get to below. The performance was robust and melodramatic, particularly the song variations in the second movement, that rose to climaxes like those in Mahler’s own slow movements. The piece stays in minor at the end and is not triumphant. The tragedy and vigor of the piece stimulated the 1995 political thriller Roman Polanski film by the same name in which "Ripley" Sigourney Weaver stars (and I dreamed about that film last night) and talks a lot about Schubert’s personal life, as if a parallel to events in the movie.

But the real main draw of the concert has to be the world premiere of a new suite by the 19-year-old Dumbarton composer in residence, Tudor Dominik Maican, who presumably made a quick hour plane trip from Indiana University to attend the premiere and bring the flower bouquets to the conductor for the applause afterwards. The composition is called "Solaris", and it is a three movement string dance suite of about twenty minutes. (Besides all the baroque examples, dance suites have been common among Romantic and modern composers: Grieg ("Symphonic Dances"), Dvorak ("Czech Suite"), Tchaikovsky's four suites, Bartok (as such), Rachmaninoff ("Symphonic Dances" and indeed a curiously effective late work). Each movement is based on a Romanian folk dance. Maican himself, while raised in the United States in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, has family roots in Romania and Germany. His succinct program notes describe a moving weekend trip to the (Carpathian?) mountains where he observed the folk dances, an experience that sounds a bit like one of my two trips to the (New Mexico) Lama Foundation in the 1980s. The name of the piece refers to the setting sun illuminating the dancers. He writes about their joy as if “it was the last evening of their lives,” a curious paradox that makes me wonder what is happening to them. Does if refer to the reign of Ceau┼čescu (but before 1989)? The Wikipedia entries on Romania and the Romanian language are quite interesting.

Of course, most people, when they see the title of the piece, will think of the sensational sci-fi novel by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, which generated the monumental Russian film in 1972 (actually spelled Solyaris) about a space mission to a distant planet that seems to be alive as a conscious entity. The film was remade (and unfortunately simplified) in 2002 by 20th Century Fox (as "Solaris"). The New Age concept, behind a recent book by “The View from the Center of the Universe” by Primack and Abrams, seems like an interesting concept for a musical tone poem. But that is not the case, according to the notes.

With any new composer, one likes to place the music in relation to other composers he knows. On the surface, the suite reminds one of Bartok, especially the early “Deux Images” (or perhaps Bartok's "Dance Suite" itself). The middle movement, as played in the concert, had a little bit of Viennese schmaltz, as if to remind one of Samuel Barber’s famous (string quartet) Adagio, or even the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. But here, even the slow movement is a dance, with motion and a sense of coming change, rather than mere memorial reminiscence of beauteous times. The first movement, especially, has an uptick motive that drives it; had the tempo been taken a tad faster, it could have almost worked on a disco floor. (I’m serious: the most radical “acid” music on disco floors these days –driving all the “break dancing” (I use a moderate term) could be repackaged as serious concert music, perhaps to become a “scherzo” of a traditional symphony.) The meters seemed to be duple or quadruple, but with a lot of syncopation, strettos and the like. Maican’s music seems to be built on simple motives that become the building blocks of melodies the way atoms build molecules; this feature of composition may help listeners learn and recognize his music and style quickly. From an economic point of view, that’s good. His talents could work in film, and his music reminds me of the background scores of some recent dramatic and horror films, particularly “There Will Be Blood” (original score by Jonny Greenwood, from the UK – although the closing credits collapsed on the finale of the Brahms Violin Concerto), “The Orphanage” (original score by Fernando Velazquez, Spain), and “The Host”, (original score by Byung-woo Lee (S. Korea)). (Sorry, the score of “Atonement” (Dario Marianelli, Italy) is of a different mold, mesmerizing as it is.)

Some of Maican’s music is on the Internet (as at NPR’s website, here -- some of the music from the finale of the Second Quartet has motives and rhythms similar to those in Solaris), and there are elements of Bartok, Ravel, maybe even d’Indy or, in another direction, Boulez. It’s a synthesis of post-romanticism with expressionism and impressionism, a synthesis of all the major European styles. But that’s pretty much the case these days. The music scores in the movies I mentioned above have similar styles with the composers from very different countries. Music has become globalized. Leonard Bernstein probably started this trend with a style that embraced post-romantic symphonies, modern expressionism, and Broadway, all in one vision. Composers today don’t seem to have the clear-cut personalities of “modern” composers of the early to mid last century – say Britten, Brian, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, the list goes on.. Instead, the assimilate.

We’re used to thinking of composers in contemporary pairs, and we learn to distinguish them. It’s usually easy to distinguish Mozart from Haydn, very easy to separate Beethoven and Schubert – but it is those last symphonies of Schubert (and quasi-symphonies like the String Quintet) that provided the building blocks for Mahler and Bruckner – and Mahler would go on to inspire Schoenberg, Berg, Shostakovich (especially the 4th and 8th Symphonies) and Britten (in the War Requiem, the Sinfonia da Requiem, even Billy Budd), and even Hevergal Brian (the Gothic Symphony), and of course American Leonard Bernstein (the Kaddish Symphony). They say that modern music started in 1909 with the first movement of the Mahler 9th, a movement that played in my head all summer long before that lost first freshman semester at William and Mary (search for this in my other sites). That all started with Schubert more than Beethoven (no wonder Sigourney Weaver’s character has such a fixation on him in the aforementioned movie). Then you compare Brahms and Schumann. While the Brahms Violin Concerto got mishandled in the movies, I can see the finales of the Second Symphonies of both Brahms and Schumann working in the closing credits of a movie I would make. No cuts, please. Closing credits music these days is awful; bring back the days of “All about Eve” or even “A Canterbury Tale” where the music score takes us to the very end.

Maican has already composed an unbelievable amount of music (so did Benjamin Britten in his youth). He is going to compose an opera from a house consecration in Romania. I have no idea what the subject matter is, but I can suggest a future project. "Smallville". The opera would tell the "DADT" coming of age story of a young man who has to hide his identity as an alien. The pilot of that series is a masterpiece, even as the CW series has slipped into comic book silliness in recent years. But the concept could generate a masterpiece. (Just rent the 2001 Pilot from Netflix and watch the drama build up. It's masterful screenwriting.) I’ve always thought that the Clark Kent as teen legend could make great opera.

The notes mention Maican as a presidential scholar. That puts him, according to imdb,in the company of actor Jared Padalecki aka level-headed brother Sam in Supernatural. He also is said to have a double major at Indiana University, with one of the majors bio-mathematics. Ashton Kutcher nearly majored in pre-med to go on and become a surgeon. How these career choices hang on a thread sometimes.

Dumbarton has a website for Maican now (4/2008), with this link.

There is also an announcement of a Maican concert at Strathmore in Maryland in 2009, here. Timothy Andres, another young composer, also preforms. Note 2009/05/01: There is a new development about the concert, here; anyone with more information is invited to comment. (End of note for 2009/5/1}.

Both of these references mention that Maican has been invited to compose an opera for the re-opening of the Cluj National Opera House in Romania. I posted a little relevant history about Romania on a discussion of the Bernstein "Freedom" concert in Berlin in 1989, on this blog later (Aug. 3, 2008).

The Dumbarton Methodist and Epsicopal Church appears to be a property separate from the Dumbarton Oaks, nearby (Wiki entry), for which Igor Stravinsky composed a famous chamber concerto in 1938.

Update: Jan. 21

This picture comes from a wall on Marquette street near the Minnesota Orchestra in downtown Minneapolis. The picture doesn't have good resolution, and I've never been able to identify the piano music. Ravel, maybe.

Update: Feb. 17, 2008

Check the CBS "60 Minutes" story "Gustavo the Great," (by reporter Bob Simon) about young Venezuelan conduction Gustavo Dudamel, who soon takes over as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He was shown conducting Beethoven, Mahler, and Bernstein. He now is only 26. Let me suggest some synergy, that he would conduct one of Maican's works.

Also tonight (Feb. 17), ABC "Extreme Makeover Home Edition" helped out another musician and composer (Patrick Henry Hughes) in Louisville, KY, see review here.

Update: March 4, 2008

NBC Nightly news reported a Massachusetts study on the beneficial effect of musical training on mathematical cognition in teenagers and younger, video here.

However ABC News has a bizarre story by Laura Viddy Darga on March 5, 2008, "One Woman's Struggle to Live in a World With Music; Music-Triggered Seizures Prompt Unusual Treatment," about a woman for whom music can start an epileptic seizure, a very unusual trigger. Link is here.

Update: Jan. 21, 2009

I heard Dudamel conduct the last movement of the Beethoven Fifth today on the radio, and he took the Finale extremely fast (like Toscanini) and bypassed the Exposition repeat.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Met broadcasts Verdi's Macbeth

Today, Jan. 12, 2007, the New York Metropolitan Opera broadcast by satellite a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth (1847), based on Shakespeare’s play (about 1605), with Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. The Met’s link is this and more details on the pdf file. The conductor was James Levine. Lado Antaneli is Macbeth, Maria Guleghina is Lady Macbeth, John Relyea is Banquo, and Dimitri Pittas is Macduff.

The stage edition was set as if in the early 20th century, with pistols and even AK-47s. The story imagines a coup in England that, of course, could not have happened. A history professor sitting next to me commented that Verdi wrote this opera to make a political statement about the eventual unification of Italy (with Giuseppe Garibaldi).

The opera is in four acts, and takes some liberties with the stage effects, using a women’s chorus of witches, and some rather cute effects with oversized Christmas-like ornaments as ghosts. The “snow falling on cedars” in the last two acts produces more like a WWII effect.

The broadcast showed a lot of the backstage maneuvering between the acts, including some of the computer operations and quick costume changes.

The story starts with a “Song of Solomon” like relationship between Macbeth and his wife, with true passion, the kind that social conservatives want to see in marriage. But then Lady Macbeth imagines being queen and drives her husband’s morally inappropriate ambition, leading to the eventual political rebellion and even revolution (as in 19th Century Italian history), and the protagonist’s demise.

The music seems lightweight for the subject matter, although there are many choruses, and a couple of them anticipate the “Sanctus” and “Offertorium” music of Verdi’s Requiem (1869). There are plenty of bel canto arias, and the orchestral music does not seem as adventurous as in later operas or as in more modern European operas. (I think Britten is an interesting comparison, because Britten’s complete musical personality comes out in the operas (I saw “Billy Budd” in Washington in 2004 – and “Mahler-like” War Requiem, which I saw in Dallas in the 1980s (along with Peter Grimes) -- more than in any of his other major works. Another interesting comparison is Boito, whose Mefistofele is rather heavyweight – I heard it at the Washington Opera in 1996). The opera ends triumphantly and boisterously, yet the conclusion is hardly symphonic. The one really substantial orchestral passage in the opera is the "ballet suite" that accompanies the coven of "witches," which is happier in tone (with the great brass ensemble) and not exactly a "witches' sabbath" as in Boito (or in Berlioz's Symphone Fantastique).

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Landless Theater Co: "A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant"

The Landless Theater Company in Adams-Morgan in Washington D.C. has been presenting a short musical satire “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant,” by Kyle Jarrow, directed by Andrew Lloyd Baughmn, choreography by Barbara Munday. The credits did not name the composer of the cheerful music. It ran about 55 minutes. The liner has the disclaimer, “This production is in no way affiliated with or connected to the Church of Scientology.” The cast comprises largely “The Kids” – what administrators call “middle school kids”. But, one says, every young actor or performer on IMDB started somewhere. This is certainly an excellent place to start an acting or dance career. Students who perform in public, music, drama, or in film (even with studio teachers) seem to do very well in school, and they learn the work ethic of the adult world quickly.

The full cast is here but most visible was Joe Haberman as the alter ego for Ron Hubbard himself. He has to make his case for Dianetics and the whole philosophy of the Church of Scientology. Now, I’ve seen the Church outside Metro stops, apparently offering mini-audits, and the musical went into all of that, with some fake toys that aren’t exactly designed for the “One Laptop for every Child” program. Some of the toys can’t be taken to the airport, in fact. There are hilarious caricatures of John Travolta (who did things to himself, especially to be in “Staying Alive” and then “Hairspray,” but not for “Broken Arrow” – he changed a lot since “Saturday Night Fever” didn’t he) and Tom Cruise Mapother (whose cultural contributions through film have always struck me as lot more substantial – “Eyes Wide Shut”, “Minority Report”, and “Lions for Lambs”, the last of which is really his own idea.

The main body of the farce does deal with the supposed thought-body or philosophy of Scientology, which was represented as knowing oneself and one’s individual purpose in life (not exactly what pastor Rick Warren means by "purpose-driven"). Hubbard, it says, wrote a lot of science fiction that developed the philosophy – because, after all, sci-fi is prescient for new philosophical systems. Although theologically very different from most “New Age” practices, it seems to serve a similar purpose. They talked about the auditing (demonstrating the mock E-meter on puppets), the electrodes, the mild intrusiveness, and so on, enough to have fun of it.

The performers wore white cloaks and rainbow headbands and socks. The stage was covered with a "board game" rug having an interesting, radially symmetric pattern of black, blue, beige and white geometric blocks.

Performers did dance up the steps into the audience seats, from what is a small stage in a small theater. No matter, though; I recall that in a theater in the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, performers in the show "Atlantis" back in 1997 danced and did acrobatics in the air over the audience in a couple scenes.

Media sources have discussed a controversial "unauthorized biography" of Tom Cruise, with his reported close ties to the Church of Scientology, by Andrew Morton, to be published soon, a typical story here. Visitors might want to review the concept of "libel tourism" (as it applies to books not published in but sold in Britain) here, (see the Oct 14 issue).

The District of Columbia Arts Center in this space sponsored an exhibit "By Chance", a curatorial project organized by Lisa McCarty, and J. W. Maloney, Fen. 16-March 11, 2007.

Update: Jan. 18, 2008

ABC 20/20 did a spot "What Drives Me': Tom Cruise's True Mission: Assertions on Secret Tape and Unauthorized Bio Put the Star's Controversial Beliefs Front and Center," and showed a video of Cruise speaking at a Scientology Center. The link is here. Cruise's lawyer has called the unauthorized biography a "pack of lies."

Update: Jan. 29, 2008 has a story by Terrence O'Brien, posted on AOL, titled "Scientology Goes After Blog for Posting Video of Tom Cruise," link here. It looks as though right now the video can be watched again, although that could certainly change with time.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Met puts on "Hansel and Gretel" (Humperdinck), broadcast to theaters

Today, the Metropolitan Opera presented a most original interpretation of Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1891 opera “Hansel und Gretel” (“Hansel and Gretel”), sung in English, conducted by the young Vladimir Jurowski, with Alice Coote and Christine Schaefer as the siblings. The performance was broadcast by satellite to large screen theaters around the nation, including Regal in Ballston in Arlington. The projection was with a standard 1.81:1 aspect ratio but is still overwhelming on a large, slightly curved screen.

The broadcast showed a lot of the backstage work, including the awesome makeup required for many of the characters, especially the witch (Philip Langridge) and sandman (Sasha Cooke), as well as the gnomes and props, which include utensils for an oversized (relative to the characters) kitchen for the late scenes. The colors of the sets are often muted, especially in the beginning where light beige predominates; then the weird oversized characters take on the appearance of the gnomes in a Guillermo del Toro movie (like "Pan’s Labyrinth").

The music by Humperdinck contains several familiar melodies (including the prayer, which also opens the prelude) and tends to be somewhat episodic. There are a number of orchestral passages (including an extended prelude, which is improvisatory rather than being in a sonata form). It is a good example of a limited volume of music by a relatively obscure composer becoming familiar in the repertoire and often quoted. (What piano student hasn’t played the prayer theme early in lessons?) The style is German and said to derive from Wagner, but it seems lighter and an appropriate comparison might be to some of later Strauss, as well as some of Mahler’s Wunderhorn music (the opening of Act III could almost fit into Mahler’s Fourth Symphony). There is a bit of chromaticism in the prayer music, related more to Schubert than Wagner, with a tendency to shifts to the subdominant. Like many composers, Humperdinck's style became refined with age, and eventually he used "Sprechstimme" (spoken singing) as would Arnold Schoenberg, although not in this opera.

The story (the Met’s summary is here (pdf)is based on a Grimm’s Fairy Tale. To a modern audience, especially young adults, it probably comes across as social and political satire (in the spirit of Jonathan Swift). In the first Act, the two siblings parents chide them about not working hard enough for the good of the “family” and that food should not be taken for granted. As their “road trip” progresses (in a plot structure common in some horror movies), ironies develop. The witch wants to make Hansel fat, and casting Hansel with a female (so that there is no voice change) certainly affects his appearance anyway. There is a scene in this production where the witch tries to “tube feed” him in the kitchen, with some wicked irony. Then, we know, the kids put the witch in the oven, and the gingerbread children will return to life. In the end, they all have a feast with the roasted corpse, cutting off limbs. It’s like the last scene in “The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover,” and shows that cannibalism can indeed make a mockery of social injustices (just as in that movie).

Once, when I substitute taught an honors English class in tenth grade, the teacher had left an assignment for each kid to write a fairy tale. They had to follow the “once upon a time” format. One boy’s started “once upon a time there lived a banana” and went on to deliver a satire of the use of appearances for social and political power, with Pixar-like characters.