Thursday, July 31, 2008

Who are you and what are you doing?

I will not remember where I heard this so I apologize in advance for stealing this story without attribution.

Once upon a time in Czarist Russia, a Rabbi was out walking when he was ordered to stop by a young soldier who shouted, "Who are you and what are you doing?" The Rabbi looked to the young and without hesitation asked in return, "How much is the Czar paying you today?" Startled, the young man answered, "In return for guarding the city this day I will receive 20 rubles." Then the Rabbi said, "Young man, I will pay you 40 rubles each day if you will stop and me your questions again, Who are you and what are you doing?"

I was thinking about this today in connection with two rather disparate ideas. 1) In working to market myself, my performances and the rest of my professional work it has become very clear a fundamental starting point is a clear answer to the question, "Who are you?" Far too often the quest for language to describe myself and my work has been absolutely paralyzing. Right now I am working though Ariane Goodwin's book Writing the Artist's Statement in order to refine the language I use to explain the contributions I intend to offer the world. 2) I have been using Twitter for several weeks. In my brief time using the service I have enjoyed connecting with people around the globe who share some common interests with me. The interesting thing to me is that the basic premise of Twitter is one of the same questions from the Rabbi's story--"What are you doing?" While there can be a lot drivel that spews forth from this and other social media, an earnest accounting of how I am investing this moment remains a most valuable exercise.

So today as I rush from task to task, these two questions are still worth at least 40 rubles each day.

John Adams on Route 66

For the past few days I have been soaking in a collection of John Adam's works written for smaller media than his more well-known orchestral and theatrical pieces. Road Movies includes music for solo piano, two pianos and violin/piano duo that evokes an atmosphere steeped in Americana akin to movies, such as Easy Rider or Thelma and Louise. In in its sound there is still the perpetual rhythmic motion in much of this music that has been the hallmark of Adams, Glass, Reich and others who created the minimalist path more than a quarter century ago, but there is a whole lot of morphing going on here. Harmonic colors and melodic fragments melt from one to another with prismatic hints of a stylistic reference or quotation peeking through in glimpses. The second movement of the title composition begins with passages that are eerily reminiscent of the Copland violin sonata but out of the desert heat mirage images dance fleetingly before fading back into the stark vista of open space. The disc concludes with the rambunctious American Berserk for solo piano that romps its way in loping, disjointed rhythms. At times this music reminds me of Ives' Three Page Sonata crossed with ragtime and boogie-woogie. There is a a fine video of pianist, Izumi Kimura, playing this piece on YouTube here.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Making the Earth Move

On Tuesday morning I was in Encinitas playing some Chopin on a friend's piano. Just as I was approaching a loud climax, my friend who was sitting nearby said, "Paul, stop playing!" At first this seemed oddly out of character for her because I thought I was playing rather well at the moment. But then a split second later I noticed the mirrors shaking on the other side of the room and felt the floor rumbling beneath me. Since moving to southern California 18 years ago we have had very few earthquakes, and most go unnoticed by me (deep observer that I am). Still the this was an amazing, even if unsettling, phenomenon to experience. The weird thing about this trembler was the close synchronization of the vibration with the music I was playing at the time. For a moment the shaking did not seem incongruous to me at all, but rather that it belonged as part of the composition. A short while later the story of the quake was leading news coverage and we learned that it had measured 5.4 (rather mild) with no significant damage or loss of life. Later in the day I had a rehearsal at the church where I will be playing tomorrow evening. When I got to the moment in the music where I had been interrupted earlier in the day by the quake I had to laugh at myself when I wondered if I would ever play well enough to make the earth move again.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Moving Farewell

On July 9, 2008 a dear friend and colleague, Willo May Beresford, passed away at the age of 91 after being diagnosed with a brain tumor 27 days earlier. Her obituary from the San Diego Union Tribune is here. This past Saturday a memorial service in the Crill Performance Hall of the Cooper Music Center afforded a joyous opportunity to celebrate her rich life that was marked by dedication to her faith, her family and her many musical involvements. Pictured here is a quartet performing Victor Labenske's arrangement of her favorite hymn, "O Thou in Whose Presence," on four nine-foot concert grand pianos. I am privileged to have Victor as a piano faculty colleague at Point Loma Nazarene University and he is numbered among the many who studied both piano and music theory with Mrs. "B" as an undergraduate student.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Osvaldo Olijov, Oceana

Osvaldo Olijov's Oceana has been on my shelf for a few weeks now and I have listened to it more than most new recordings in my collection. The CD features superb performances by Dawn Upshaw and Kronos Quartet among many others. Especially noteworthy is the voice of Brazilian bossa nova singer, Luciana Souza, whose pliant phrasing is featured prominently in the disc's title composition. Throughout the recording, Olijov's music juxtaposes elements of folk musics from both South America and the Middle East in ways that are surprisingly effective. The rhythmic precision of the choral singing in Oceana's fifth movement, "Third Wave," teems with life and stirs me deeply. The recording also includes an achingly poignant, Tenebrae, in two movements played by Kronos Quartet and then a set of three songs performed by Dawn Upshaw.

I must confess that Olijov's music is new to me and that I have just begun to immerse myself into his sound. His web page is here and through it you can hear a broad sampling of his work. In the liner notes to the Oceana disc, Olijov says that he never wants the diverse materials that he weaves together to be heard as merely "eclectic," but rather as an authentic voice that flows out of his own personal journey. Throughout, Olijov's music is finely crafted and quite clear in its communicative intent. This is a quality that seems increasingly rare in the world of post-minimalist new music.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Full week of piano camp

Today was the fourth day of our week-long piano camp on campus. I started the Point Loma Keyboard Institute about 10 years ago and the thing just seems to keep on going. Jane Bastien taught the master-classes this morning, coaching some Chopin and Kabalevsky. In the past few days I played a solo recital and presented a series of lectures on the piano sonata across historical periods. Today we finished with a very respectable recital of the students playing solo pieces. Tomorrow is the conclusion with more classes, lessons and a concert of piano ensemble music. Fortunately, I have had a wonderful group of colleagues and graduates who have been helping with the teaching and otherwise keeping me sane.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Zo Concerts

For the past few years I have been playing concerts in private homes on a sort of an ad hoc basis. Sometimes they are concert series, as in Kathyrn Hull's Encore! series in Palm Springs or Colin McAlister's Synergy Concerts here in San Diego. At other times, I simply ask friends if I can try out a program for an upcoming recital on their piano in front of an invited audience. While the performance conditions are sometimes suspect on these occasions, the opportunity to develop a direct rapport with a small audience is tremendously satisfying.

I have recently learned about a pianist named, Paul Cantrell, who hosts concerts in his own home that he calls, Zo Concerts. The FAQ page alone is well worth the time it takes to read. The concerts are made available to the public "by reservation" which of course can be done on-line through his web page and has a price tag of $5 per seat. I have not yet investigated how often Cantrell schedules these salons or what sort of revenue they generate for the performer. Still, what an ingenious idea.

Maybe if I clean the living room and have the piano tuned. . .

Saturday, July 12, 2008

So yes, we were in Maui. . . Wanna see pictures?

So yes, we were in Maui. . .Listening to Rhapsody

Yes, it was as good as it looks and I have to say it was even better than I expected.

Now that we're home . . . We had a fun evening with friends last night where the question came up, "What's your favorite song of all time?" Now, some of us who were in the room are professional performers by trade and it is entirely impolitic to blurt out something about Bach's Goldberg Variations or Beethoven's Grosse Fuge in mixed company. Clearly, the communal expectation was to reference iconic or emblematic artifacts of popular music, with a strong preference for songs popular during the 1970's as everyone in the room was on the north side of 45 years-old already.

A harmless enough exercise so far, but the "cool" part happened next. Our host had his laptop open and had his subscription to Rhapsody fired up. One by one we took turns finding our songs and then listening to significant bits here and there. First came It'll Shine When It Shines by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. Then I pulled up Bruce Hornsby's Love Me Still. Some Elvis (Presley that is, not Costello) showed up and then jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut's recent cover of You Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dog. Eventually, the Beach Boys and Randy Travis were represented and now my memory fails what else made the cut. All of this spontaneous, eclectic mixing and matching was made possible by this fairly new distribution medium that is surprisingly easy to use, even for those of us who refuse to stand in line to get the latest i-phone.

As I listen to the daily handwringing about the death of the music industry as we know it, I see this kind of nearly universal access to music as something really powerful. To my mind, our contemporary culture values musical experiences as much as any who have come before us. Performers may take issue with audience preferences and tastes, but to an extent we have never seen before, people find deep pleasure and even comfort in music they have known from prior experiences. These emotional bonds with "my music" may sometimes make it difficult for new things to find sufficient space in the marketplace. Still, the love for music that resonates deeply at a soul level seems alive and well, even in these discouraging days.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Power of Bad Dancing

Further proof that a simple idea executed with creativity and joy can do powerful things. . .
click here to watch this video! I have no idea what it really means but it is fun to watch. For me, the work seems to make a universal populist connection in the manner of the Coca Cola "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" variety. And I am an absolute sucker for the whole thing. Frankly, I needed a teary-eyed-happy-good feel moment to start my day this morning. So quit your job, find some music that you think needs broader exposure and then travel the world with a video camera. Sign me up!

I found this when Lawrence Mortenson posted the link to this video on Twitter a short while ago. Incidentally, Vimeo claims that the file has been viewed 1.2 million times as of this writing. There is a Wikipedia entry about Matt Harding and his video projects here.