Sunday, June 17, 2018

Espressivo, Cantabile, with Feeling

Four of my relatives got together and gave me a tape recorder for my Bar-Mitzvah. I used to attach wires with clips to the input of the loudspeaker on my parents' high fidelity system (I don't remember whether it was even stereo back then) and record broadcasts from WQXR. Once I happened to record Stravinsky's ballet, The Soldier's Tale, which I am listening to now, as I write, a version without the narrative. I was enthralled and listened to it again and again, while my contemporaries were listening to Elvis Presley. (I was proudly out of it as a teenager.)
I remember reading that Stravinksy didn't mark his scores with emotional directives like "espressivo." Actually, what I remember is that he argued against using them, but, in fact, he did put them in his scores. But I agree with his argument, whether or not he practiced what he preached. Why would anyone play any way except expressively? Why would anyone play in a non-singing way? Why would anyone want to play any other way except with feeling?
I recently joined a wind orchestra with a dynamic, young conductor, and the rehearsals are fun and challenging. Last week he had us rehearse a piece with complicated rhythms (less complicated than Stravinsky's) and told us not to try to play it musically. "Just play the notes."
He's definitely right, because if we can't play the notes right, in the right rhythms, we'll never be able to play it musically. I wonder whether, once we do get the notes right, we'll play it musically in spite of ourselves. I expect so.
Now and then I have written music on notation programs. Unless you write in crescendos and diminuendos, ritardandos and fermatas, the computer plays the music back entirely without expression at the same dynamic level, with absolute rhythmical regularity and perfect pitch, without responding emotionally to the notes it's sounding. Nevertheless, it's often hard to hear the music that way. Our ears - my ears, at any rate - supply a lot of the emotion that's lacking in the electronic monotony.
I couldn't play like a computer if I tried (which isn't to say that my playing is as musical as it should be), and when I'm learning a piece, and a third of the way in, the composer writes, "espressivo," I think to myself: Was I supposed to be playing without expression up to now?

Thursday, June 7, 2018

He Don't Got Rhythm, and I Think I Know Why

Last night I heard Roberto Tarenzi an Italian jazz pianist play in a private home, a wonderful house concert. Parenthetically and surprisingly, this being Jerusalem, which sometimes seems like a city of five hundred. I barely knew anyone there, a pleasant change. The pianist was a thoroughgoing professional, knowledgeable about jazz and an imaginative improviser. His main influences were Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner, two giants of jazz piano.

Image result for bill evans imageEverything was there except swing.
If you listen to Bill Evans (this is a picture of him), you'll hear him play a lot of dreamy stuff, but he can also play with swing, and I don't think Tyner can play without swing. However, to my ear, at any rate, Tarenzi doesn't swing.
I think the reason for that is that his native language is Italian. Unlike English, and many other languages, including Hebrew, which have very strong stresses, Italian flows melodiously, as does French, for that matter. Listen to this bombastic clip of Vittorio Gassman talking and then reciting Dante.
There are plenty of stresses in Italian, but they aren't the regular, constant stresses of English. It doesn't quite have a beat.
Rhythm is always an issue in music.
One of my problems in playing flute is failing to get the sixteenth notes up to speed, and, when I play them slowly at a tempo I can manage, I tend to rush and trip over my fingers. My teacher, at my most recent lesson, told me that music is not an extreme sport, that if I feel the adrenaline in my veins, I should snooze. Better yet, I tell myself, I should feel the beat.
Yet, part of the drama of listening to music is feeling that the performer is playing at the upper limits of her ability, that adrenaline is pumping through her. The ultimate goal is to be totally relaxed and confident that the notes will fall into place, and totally intense about making them fall into place. Trying as hard as you can and making it sound as if you don't have to try.
That, as I understand it, is swing, as demonstrated by Fats Waller, who rushes a lot in this clip, but whose swing is fantastic.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Stars and Mediocrities

Continuing with thoughts about Eric Clapton, what percentage of people who play guitar reach his level of virtuosity and stardom? One in a million? Then there's the level just below the stars, the people who play in their bands but who aren't famous. They're also sterling musicians. Then there are the people who play in the kind of band that never gets to make a record, but plays in clubs and bars and at parties - and many of them are excellent.
And so on, down the line.
When I go to hear a violin concerto, I often wonder how much separates the soloist from the musicians in the violin section, who have to be superb to get a job with an orchestra. Is it a matter of raw talent, of the willingness to work harder than anyone else, or of personality (not everybody wants to go into the risky business of solo performance)? I can only speculate.
We have often held concerts in our home. Sometimes the musicians who perform are on an international level, and we are flattered that they're willing to play for a small audience on a piano that could be better. But sometimes they are just very good. For me, the privilege of hearing live music, in an intimate setting, compensates for the less than supreme quality of the musicians. If we could get Andras Schiff to play our piano for our friends we would be in heaven, but once a student at the Rubin Academy asked to practice his final recital for some friends in our living room, and that was memorable.
I am not good enough to play a solo recital in our living room either on flute or on saxophone, though I have played jazz with a pianist friend for his family and mine, and I have played here in a sax quartet for friends, and that was a huge success. I play baritone sax, a low, kind of clumsy instrument, that usually doesn't have much of a chance to play the melody, and I enjoy putting down the floor of a piece, so that higher instruments and build on it.
Last night, for the first time I played in the rehearsal of a small concert band and had a great time. I'd been thinking of joining it for a while, but the time and place were a bit too inconvenient for me. I'm glad I went. It was fun, even though I was sight-reading, making a lot of mistakes, and getting lost now and then. For me, playing in a group, even a group of two playing duets, is what it's all about.
It would be nice if every musician were great, and they could all put their egos on hold and collaborate, but it's okay if you're just good enough to get by.

Monday, May 28, 2018

I Admit there's Something Wrong with Me

Image result for eric clapton imageI am indifferent to most popular music.
On Saturday night, in Tel Aviv, we saw the documentary about Eric Clapton, "A Life in 12 Bars," and before seeing the film, I wasn't completely sure who Clapton was - remembered he is a virtuoso blues guitar player, but I couldn't specifically recall listening to any track of his. Now, at least, I know who he is.
A troubled English teenager, he discovered the blues of Muddy Waters, B. B. King, and other great American black musicians, learned how to play by listening to records and copying what he heard, and brought it to England. The popularity of English groups like the Cream, where Clapton played lead guitar, opened up white American ears to the musicians they had ignored.
No one who talked about him in the film failed to say that Clapton is obsessive, and, musically, it paid off. I would never be one of the tens of thousands of fans who cram stadiums to hear him, but I wouldn't deny his genius for a minute.
The movie followed three directions: Clapton's musical development and career; his troubled relationships with women; and his struggles with drugs and alcohol. A lot of people have trouble with intimate relations, and a lot of people fall prey to cocaine, heroin, and alcohol. But the number of musicians who achieve what Clapton has done is quite small.
Early in the film Clapton describes what it was like to be the warm up band for the Beatles, whom he admires. In fact, when the Beatles played, despite all the amplification, you couldn't actually hear them, because the audience was screaming so loudly.
Clapton listened hard to everyone, and learned. I was impressed by how generous his admiration was for other musicians - and by the generosity of their admiration for him. (Of course, the filmmaker wouldn't have put in the words of a detractor).
I've played in orchestras and groups to pretty big audiences, but never as a soloist. I can't imagine what it would be like to stand up with a few other musicians and turn on a crowd of thousands. Clapton didn't talk about that, but he did say that he would just as soon sit at home and jam with friends as play to a vast audience, if he didn't need the money.
After I got home, I tried listening to some Clapton, but I like jazz and classical music better. Nothing rivals the high intensity of a great rock 'n roll concert. The energy is cosmic. I'm susceptible to it. No question. But all my life I've resisted what's popular.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

High Culture in Troubled Times

On the evening after Jerusalem Day, we attended a wonderful free concert at the First Station in Jerusalem: songs about Jerusalem from many Oriental Jewish traditions. I have misgivings about Jerusalem Day, because it brings out highly chauvinistic behavior - marching through Arab neighborhoods with Israeli flags, for example. On the other hand, I am very glad to be living in a unified city, with many Palestinian citizens, and only wish that it could be run inclusively so that the Palestinians would have a stake in it.
But what does politics have to do with music? What does a concert have to do with the killing that went on on the border between Gaza and Israel? How can a country that sends thugs and demagogues to the Knesset also produce fine musicians? How does high culture coexist with a brutal occupation?
And there are other discrepancies. What does Neta Barzilai (I might be the only holdout in Israel, who has never heard her song) have to do with what I regard as music?
Of course, these questions aren't relevant only to Israel. Almost all the fine art we admire in museums was produced in abhorrent, oppressive regimes.
One of the most enjoyable things I do is playing music with other people. I'm a member of a fairly decent saxophone quartet. We try to play together regularly, and we have performed in public several times. Last night only three of us could make the rehearsal, but we decided to go practice together anyway, and it was a productive, enjoyable rehearsal. Should we be playing music when our country is in crisis? If we didn't play, would the crisis be less acute? Getting back to an earlier entry, should Louis Armstrong and his fellow musicians have refused to play until black Americans got full civil rights?

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Musical Labels

Arnie Lawrence once told me he didn't like playing "I Can't Get Started," a great standard by Vernon Duke (whose real name was Vladimir Dukelsky), because the lyrics (by Ira Gershwin), were self-defeating (and Arnie was not a man who had trouble getting started with women).
I myself strongly dislike "Love for Sale," by Cole Porter, a song I just heard on a streaming site for big band music because it romanticizes prostitution. Though objectively, as it were, I have to concede that it's a great song, a classic jazz standard (and it can also be performed straight, as the show tune that it originally was).
This morning I was in the mood for big band music, which has evolved from strictly dance music to a serious composer's idiom without losing it's drive. Old classical music would never be labelled "jazz," but a lot of contemporary classical music is influenced by jazz, and some of the great jazz musicians and composers, like the Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin collaboration, have definitely produced music that is classical, meaning long-lasting, complex, original, influential, and of perennial interest. Does it help to call it jazz?
Last night we went to a classical concert of the Carmel Quartet, entitled "The Magic Flute" (kind of a cliche, but who cares?), featuring three of the members of the quartet (Yona Zur and Rachel Ringelstein playing violin, and Tami Waterman playing cello) and a fabulous flute player: Roy Amotz, who was the reason why I was so anxious to hear the concert.
One of the themes of Yona Zur's explanations (the Carmel Quartet's concerts feature commentary by the musicians) was that the classical composers who rebelled against late baroque, didn't think of themselves as "classical," but as "galant." I wonder when we started calling them classical?
Classical music can be a narrow or a broad term. Narrowly, it means European art music between the baroque and romantic periods, broadly, everybody more or less knows what it means, but most people would find it difficult to provide a watertight definition of it. I guess we need labels, so that when we log onto a streaming website and have to chose what music to listen to, we can get what we want. But that doesn't always work.
Once I made the tactless error of asking a young pianist what kind of musician he was, and he said, simply, that he wanted to be a musician, unrestricted by a definition. But obviously, musicians do get to be better at playing one kind of music rather than another, and listeners have legitimate generic preferences, for which they need labels.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Not So Dead Black Musicians

Image result for louis armstrong hot fives imageSometimes, when I feel depressed - and who can fail to be depressed at the current state of the world? - I remember to listen to Louis Armstrong and his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. That music is so lively, it has to pick a person up. Of course, all the musicians who played on those early records are dead by now, though their vitality lives after them in their music.

Image result for mingus ah um cover artThe other night I was thinking about other dead black men while I was ironing a pile of long-sleeved shirts, in preparation for taking my summer clothing up from our cellar. (I let my shirts pile up until there are more than an hour's worth of ironing to do, to make it worthwhile to takeout the ironing board.) I set myself up in our living room and put a CD on our stereo. Ironing is a perfect task for listening to music. The music puts the ironing in the background of my mind.
This time I listened to a disk I am quite familiar with, though I haven't listened to it for a long time: "Mingus Ah Um," one of the greatest jazz albums I know of. As I listened, I started thinking about the feminist, post-colonial, etc. objection to filling the humanities curriculum with works by "dead white men," and about that disk, which, like the Louis Armstrong recordings, immortalized dead black men. I have always wondered how people as oppressed as Negroes were in the 1920s could put so much joy in their art.
As to "Mingus Ah Um," I knew that Charles Mingus himself died of ALS, and I imagined that all the other people who played on that disk were also black and dead. But when I checked, to my joy, I discovered that John Handy, who plays alto sax, clarinet, and tenor sax on the disk was born in 1933 and, unless Wikipedia is misinformed, is still alive, as is Shafi Hadi, born even earlier, who plays tenor and alto. I hope they are both lucid and in good health, with happy memories of their contribution to music.
Moreover, not all the musicians were black - so much for that stereotype.