Friday, June 25, 2010

A concert and a film

Last weekend, my husband and I went to New York for a quick vacation. On Friday night, we went to Le Poisson Rouge, which is a club in the Village that presents all kinds of music, from classical to avant garde whatever. The event was a 4+-hour tribute to the composer and saxophonist Anthony Braxton for his 65th birthday.

I had never heard of Braxton until I met my husband, who loves this kind of thing (he -- my husband, that is -- is really much more appreciative of music in and of itself than I am). His music sounds a lot like other free jazz I've listened to, but I have been totally mystified by his opaque presentation of it. His compositions all have titles that are numbers, or equations, or little drawings, or diagrams that look like flow charts or math puzzlers:

His liner notes do not clear things up, either:

Pulse track horizontal structural systems have increasingly become 'a way of life' for my quartet music - and this has been a gradual attraction -- starting with composition 23G [diagram here] (which emphasized sound point attacks or quarter note based rhythmic stresses -- in the sound space of the music -- as a basis for extended solo improvisation). The concept of pulse tracks in this context refers to the use of extended structural devices (moments) that are approached as fixed metric sound events in the same sense as in vertical harmony (i.e. be-bop) -- but directed instead at the 'forward space' of the music -- that being structural events which are positions into the space of the music -- to be repeated as a continuum that supports (and defines) the nature of the unfloding invention (music). The reality of this context seeks to establish a unified open and controlled sound space (environment) that hopefully allows for fresh experiences to happen (and there's nothing complex about that intention).*

Then you put the record on and scratch your head for a while (or at least, I do).

This event we attended has served to make me appreciate Braxton a lot more. First, his devoted protegés of all ages and career stages were there. The show included I think five sets (beginning with a solo bagpiper who marched slowly around the room three times) with a variety of instruments, and they played a mixture of Braxton pieces and their own music. At least one person from each group made a statement about how he had influenced/mentored/nurtured them as musicians. It was interesting listening to all of these different groups. The grand finale was a 14-piece group that included strings, winds, brass, reeds, and percussion. A lot of the people playing were young. The music actually sort of started to make sense to me.

Before this last set, Braxton got up and made a speech, and in his own professorial style was lamenting the increasing vulgarity and commercialization of music in the world. He commended all of his students for making the sacrifices necessary to work as musicians in this world and to carry on for art. It made me feel a little guilty, somehow.

Then, this week, we are taking in some of the films at Silverdocs. This is a fantastic documentary film festival that takes place practically in our backyard (or a five-minute drive away from it, anyway). This year, the first film we saw was "Bill Cunningham New York," about the venerable 82-year-old New York Times fashion photographer. He lives the life of an ascetic. From the 1940s until this year, his home was a small studio in Carnegie Hall with a bathroom in the hall and no kitchen, crammed with file cabinets filled with his negatives.** Though his interest is fashion, he wears the simplest functional clothing and repairs his plastic rain poncho with duct tape. He travels around New York on a basic bicycle, including to fancy parties, where he refuses to eat anything to avoid being influenced.

It's not a life most people could enjoy or even tolerate, but he seems to thrive on it. And it struck a certain chord with me. I have to confess that I used to fantasize about living that kind of life -- modestly but persistently pursuing an artistic vision, eschewing any material possessions that don't relate or enhance. But alas, though I have the frugality and even the vision, I don't have the true modesty or charm to make it work -- not the way Cunningham does, anyway. And I think I'd get lonely.

*From "Anthony Braxton: Four Compositions (Quartet) 1984" (1985, Black Saint label).

**The Carnegie management finally evicted him, along with a few other elderly residents, this year, providing them with what is really much nicer housing in the neighborhood for life. He's now at Central Park South in an apartment with a view of the park (though according to the film makers, he had them remove all the appliances and cabinets from the kitchen so he could store his file cabinets in there). Here's his narrated slide show about leaving Carnegie Studios (from the New York Times website:   Goodbye

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Checking in

I realized it's been a while since I posted here. I'm not sure what I've been up to is all that interesting, from a musical standpoint, but I'll share a few things.

I'm still pondering on whether enrolling in the music program at the community college is a good idea. It seems to be a fairly casual sort of program. I called the music office a couple of days after I went in there to find out what I needed to do next, and the person I talked to said I just had to register for my classes (which I can do online) by August 25, and they would assign me to a teacher. I got the names and phone numbers of all the piano teachers anyway, thinking it might be a good idea to contact them to see if anyone is particularly simpatico, but I haven't done it yet.

I'm torn between two desires.

One: to keep the piano a pleasant hobby that I can pursue on my own terms. To keep my life simple and not stress myself out too much. To practice for five minutes one day and three hours the next, if that's what I feel like doing.

Two: to push myself to a higher level before I get too old to do it -- really, purely to see what it will be like, and to see if I even can improve that much.

My thinking at the moment is that maybe I'll try it for a semester, and if it proves too difficult or unpleasant, I'm not committed to continue. If it turns out to be worthwhile -- if I'm learning a lot and feel engaged in the process -- then I can press on, though I know I'd need to make some major adjustments to the terms of my day job.

In the meantime, I've been struggling along slowly with my practicing. For some reason, I've been having trouble finding large blocks of time for this, which does not bode well for the school idea -- or maybe it does, in the sense that if I had something riding on it, I would make the time.

The Bach prelude and fugue I chose this time, WTC I/19 in A major, are possibly the most difficult I've tried to learn, and it's been frustrating. The fugue is loaded with stretto (when the fugue theme overlaps in subsequent voices), and the accompanying voice lines are not pointedly melodic, so it's hard to memorize them.

I'm making some progress with Brahms Op. 118 No. 3. The form is a simple ABA, and I have a good chunk of it memorized.

The Beethoven sonata (Op. 2 No. 3 in C major) is making a lot more sense and is getting more under my fingers, at least the first movement.

The cello is sitting lonely in a corner.

And that's where things are with me this week.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Food for thought

I had my interview/audition yesterday at the community college. The person I met with is the head of the department and also teaches piano. His office was stuffed with two grand pianos (Kawais) and a desk, with a tiny path to get to each. I introduced myself, and then he asked me to play something. I played about two pages' worth of Brahms Op. 118 No. 2, and then he stopped me and said it was fine. I believe this was my very first piano audition! (Even though I think they do this just to see if you can play at all.)

I explained what I want to do, and he understood and expressed support for the idea. He even mentioned perhaps having the theory teachers devise some sort of exam so that I wouldn't have to take basic theory again. Without needing theory or any of the basic general classes (which I took back in 1974), all I'd have to take would be four semesters each of piano lessons, what they call "applied music lab" (basically a performance class, where you learn to play for and listen to others, three hours once a week), and large ensemble. Most pianists take chorus, which actually kind of appeals to me, but because it's held twice a week at noon, and the college is a pretty long trek from where I work, that's really not an option.

So it looks like if I want to do this, I'd have to play in the school orchestra, which meets once a week on Monday nights and gives four concerts a year (on Tuesday nights). This would work well from a scheduling standpoint, but my first thought was, gee, do I really want to pay to play in a community college orchestra? My second thought was, maybe it would be fun. Or not. But I imagine it's probably on par with the other gigs I've been playing, particularly because some of the same people are in it (this is also a community orchestra, so there are a lot of people who are not students).

Anyway, I'm accepted at the school and have now had the required advising session, so if I decide to go ahead with this, all I have to do is register. I do have to audition for the orchestra before the semester starts, but I'm guessing that won't be a problem. The only other issue is figuring out which piano teacher to choose and then coming up with a good lesson time.

My husband asked me why I can't just take private lessons instead of jumping through these hoops. I have been asking myself the same question, and if the infrastructure -- the school, the performance classes, the juries -- really is that important. Well, in my own experience, simply taking private lessons has never been enough. Maybe it is if you happen to have a great teacher, but I have never been that lucky, or maybe I never worked hard enough or was in the right mental place to get the most out of it. I was always so passive, lying on the beach of lessondom waiting have wisdom imparted to me, like a suntan; I didn't realize you need to wade out there and grab it. Really, the most important element of developing one's playing is practicing -- practicing enough, practicing the right way -- and that's something a teacher can only guide. Sometimes the environment can be a big part of the learning process.

Just being in the music building yesterday, thinking about being part of a community like that again, was invigorating, even though it was between semesters and hardly anyone was there, even though it was not some prestigious conservatory. While I was waiting for my interview, I could hear someone having a lesson on a Chopin prelude (very faintly -- the building was remodeled a few years ago, and they must have put some good soundproofing in). The last time I was part of a music school, I didn't even know what that piece was; now I do, and could learn to play it if I decided to do so. It's good to feel that I'm actually learning things instead of forgetting them.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Back to school, maybe?

It has been eight years now since I took viola lessons at a local community college. I signed up for credit (because my employer had a tuition reimbursement program) but as a nonmajor. Because I wasn't a major, I wasn't required to meet any particular standards or play juries, and that was probably just as well, because my viola playing was extremely basic. My teacher was an excellent violinist who also played viola, and I did learn a lot from him, even though his method included practicing the same scale for months on end (I also worked on Bach and Telemann). I probably would have continued, but he left the area, and I didn't know who they would find to replace him, so I then enrolled in a private music school for most of the following year. Sometime in the spring of 2004, I grew discouraged with how I sounded (my vibrato was, um, less than ravishing) and quit.

I was just looking through my papers to try to find some records of all of this, and I came across my evaluation from the teacher at the private school. He noted the repertoire I had covered (Bruch Romanze, Bach Fourth Suite, Hoffmeister concerto, Sevcik scales, Bruni etudes), and he said,

It will be disappointing to not have Harriet as a student next year. She has been my most advanced player and the one with whom I can go most deeply into the techniques of music-making and the music of technique.
This made me feel so guilty. Sigh.

Anyway, when I was going to the college, I picked up a booklet prepared by the music department that outlined all the requirements, courses, and policies for the various degree programs. Even though it was published in 1997, and some specifics have probably changed, I hung onto this booklet and have studied it from time to time, comparing my level on the piano with their minimum requirements for each of the four applied classes (four because it's a two-year program). I recently came across it and looked at it again, and I noticed that the piano requirements now seem very much within my capabilities, whereas before, I didn't feel they were. For example, for the first semester, you are supposed to learn all major and minor scales and arpeggios in two octaves, one etude (at the level of Czerny, Clementi, etc.), and three pieces (Bach, WTC or other; a sonata movement; a prelude or other short work), at least one memorized. This seems completely do-able to me now.

So I've been thinking that one way to move to the next level on the piano would be to get myself into the program at this school. With short- and long-term goals in place, and weekly lessons, I would have a sort of infrastructure that would help with motivation. I would also be required to perform on student recitals and juries. It would be formal but probably not overly intimidating. A decent teacher would also help with any technical difficulties and provide direction on the best ways to improve. That would be the plus side.

In the minus column would be the possibility of turning an enjoyable hobby into a chore. There's also the fact that I don't know what the teachers are like, and what if I ended up with a martinet who had me practicing with quarters balanced on my wrists? Or worse, Hanon in every key? And then, how will I ever find the time to practice enough? The booklet mentioned above suggests three hours a day, seven days a week.

I suppose this is a minus, too, but, you know, I already have a couple of music degrees. I've taken the courses in  theory, sight-singing, history, et cetera, and even passed comps in them at both master's and doctoral levels. I'm a bit overqualified -- though I certainly could benefit from studying these things again. But the people at the school might think I'm a wack job.

These are some of the things I have been weighing in my mind for the past year or so. I've also been cogitating on whether there's any possibility that I might be able to teach piano, which is something I'd like to explore. Topping it all off is the incontrovertible fact that time is passing. The longer I wait for inspiration, the less likely it is that I will be able to act on it.

Facing the prospect of another academic year slipping by, at the end of which I would be another year older and probably no wiser, this past week I finally called and set up an appointment to talk to the department head; I am also supposed to bring one piece to play. So here I go.