VIDEO PODCAST: Women Composers - Our special hour-long illustrated feature on women composers includes contributions from Diana Ambache, Gail Wein, Hilary Tann, Natalie Artemas-Polak and Victoria Bond.
Life alone can be difficult at the best of times. Thanks to our mammalian heritage, humans do need companionship. With the arrival of the Corona Virus and the lock down of some countries (with more to follow most certainly), people are quarantined in their homes.
Many are not used to this. They were free to come and go, and indeed, most spent their days out of their homes. Now, they have to stay in.
In Italy, spontaneous street concerts are going on as people open their windows and sing to their neighbours. That's a wonderful thing, but evening comes and it's time to go to bed - or, we would all like a bit of quiet.
So, what do you do in the enforced solitude?
For some, solitude is a source of pain because troubling thoughts enter their minds - going out and living a life was part of dealing with those troublesome thoughts.
[The Desert Fathers knew all about this, though they erroneously called the thoughts bad demons. They had a few suggestions for dealing with them. Only a few, and most are encumbered by a religiosity that we do not share].
Back to the question: What do you do?
I will offer a few suggestions, and if the editor likes them, I will offer a few more every day while quarantines go on.
Musicians' Quarantine suggestions:
[Crucial Aside: Many musicians are ensemble musicians. Only pianists and the like get to play music not needing any other assistants. They have an advantage here. Other musicians are less fortunate - conductors least of all, because the music does not exist until they have an orchestra. I will offer suggestions for ensemble musicians in a moment].
And now for you ensemble forlorn musicians:
There. Ten suggestions. We'll see if the editor likes it and I can continue with three more every day.
Here are Gordon Andrew R's latest musical suggestions :
18 May 2020
17 May 2020
Perhaps combine with several musicians to create a set of variations on a theme. Baroque performers may take the bass line, turn it into figured bass and improvise upper voices freely. Add a jazz player. It could be done on Zoom in an electronic version of trading fours.
Definition of trading fours: 'A technique in which musicians consistently alternate brief solos of pre-set length. (For trading fours, four bars; musicians may also trade twos, eights, and so forth.) Trading fours usually occurs after each musician has had a chance to play a solo, and often involves alternating four-bar segments with the drummer.' Definition from the University of Virginia.
But, if you think film music is something of a creative backwater, then remember that some of these composers wrote for film: Erik Satie, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Dmitri Shostakovich, Sofia Gubaidulina and John Corigliano (Altered States). By the way, it is not a creative backwater - just to be clear.
So: Watch a film!
16 May 2020
Rae suggests four elements that will undergo change in his approach: Tempo, Meter, Dynamics and Pitch order. Rae then gives a melody:
He then proceeds to alter one of these four elements from its performance. It is best just to see his thinking in operation:
Suggestion: Take a melody from your repertoire and subject it to these alterations.
Suggestion: Take a melody from your repertoire and subject it to these sorts of alterations. What freedom do you feel?
15 May 2020
The study of Early Music essentially focusses on music from Europe. I believe other terms are used to describe other music traditions and their performance practice. Most often we think of Gregorian Chant, but there are other traditions from that time as well. For example: Byzantine Chant.
The remarkable scholar and indefatigable researcher Henry Farmer was detailed in his analysis of the influence of Arabic Music on Europe in the medieval era. His ideas do not have a great deal of 'street cred' these days, but I suggest it is hard to argue with the library's worth of facts he collected. How's that for stirring a hornet's nest? Just remember the word 'lute' is probably derived from the Arabic word 'al-'ud'.
Where are the oldest surviving pipe organs in Europe? Try hunting them down.
I believe we have wrongfully forgotten the hurdy-gurdy and its music from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance. If you look up 'How to build a hurdy-gurdy' online you will actually find information. Find your hammer, chisel and saw and get going!
14 May 2020
I have not made enough of suggestions for musical activities with children, or the young at heart.
(* The character's name was Rick Blaine, hence the name of the nightclub: Rick's Café Américain.)
13 May 2020
But, we now have devices that we may remember, but can't use, or can't access. For example:
A couple of years back I sent some cassette tapes of the pianist and composer Gunnar Johansen to the pianist Michael Kieran Harvey in Australia. Johansen released his performances and compositions in this format in the 1980s, but so far very little has been transferred to any more modern format. The problem? Dr Harvey did not really have a cassette player anymore. However, his old Diahatsu Handivan did. So, there he sat. In a car. Using a cassette player. Listening to Gunnar Johansen.
Now that is jurassic technology at its best.
There are 78s, cylinders, cassettes, and LPs, VHS, Betamax and DAT tapes that probably store hours of music and performances. Maybe even a Super 8 film camera? Do you have some of these? Do you have a machine to play them? Can you listen to, or watch them?
(My use of the term is not quite in accord with these articles, but, I keep to mine for my own uses.)
12 May 2020
I really believe that playing a musical instrument is akin to a sport. There's an excellent book called The Musician as Athlete by Dorothy Bishop. When I was a teacher I always recommended that my students do something physical. Some kind of training, movement therapy, some kind of activity. What that was depended on the student (and the age and their personality and character). Young children might clearly be excepted - they just need playgrounds.
But, for the rest of us: something.
- Alexander Technique
- Feldenkrais Method
- Tai chi
Quite a few can be practiced (at least at the start) with online videos. Others require teachers.
I hesitate to suggest some of the martial arts, as there's more hitting than musicians' hands require in something like King Fu or Karate.
There are other methods. Do you know them?
There have been a few body builder pianists. Leon Bates (born 1949) is one. Know any others?
Xaver Scharwenka published exercises for the pianist back at the beginning of the twentieth century. The article I saw had photos of the elderly but spry Polish-German pianist. I seem to remember a large moustache in the best late nineteenth century manner.
11 May 2020
There's lots of comedy around, though I find the use of profanity an often lame replacement for a lack of wit.
Need I tell you there are jokes about musicians? Here's one about a conductor I heard thirty years ago.
A very aged conductor had led the orchestra for decades. Before every rehearsal, and before every performance he stood on the podium and while looking down at the score on the music stand before him, removed a small slip of paper from his left hand pocket. He read its contents, put it away, and then began the rehearsal or performance in earnest. He was a fine conductor. No one ever discovered what the little paper said. It was old, frayed and battered from years of use.
But, age and time had its effects and one day, the conductor on arthritic legs slowly mounted the podium before a rehearsal, went through his small routine, and raised his baton to begin work. Suddenly, he collapsed and died there on the spot from a massive heart attack. The musicians rushed to his aid as fast as they could, but the first responders to his stricken form already found him dead. In shock they looked up and around at each other. Then, the assistant concert master nodded in the direction of the conductor's pocket. 'What about that?' she asked. She meant the little slip of paper in his pocket. The musicians huddled around were dismayed. 'We can't bother with that! My God, he's dead!' But, curiosity got the better of their scruples and the first cellist rummaged in the coat pocket to remove the tattered and folded shard of paper. He unwrapped it and read its complete contents aloud to his colleagues:
'Violins on the left. Cellos on the right.'
What about telling jokes to each other? Leave no musician alone.
10 May 2020
Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)
Johann Christoph Graupner (1683-1760)
J S Bach (1685-1750) - I believe only half of his cantatas have survived.
Carl Czerny (1791-1857) Some 800 or so opus numbers.
Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892-1988)
Carson Cooman (born 1982) His webpage lists Op 1352.
On the other hand there are composers who have not written that much music.
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849). Only to around Op 70. (It depends how you count, I suppose.)
Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) - I believe he only wrote some one hundred compositions.
Anton von Webern (1883-1945). He spent much time polishing his gems of music, as someone said.
Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997). I rather think the enormous time involved in hand punching the piano rolls slowed his productivity.
Sadly, some women composers fall into this latter category for various reasons beyond merely creative fire or fastidious production. Many were discouraged, many of their works are lost, many died early (often in childbirth).
There are also many composers these days who have created large numbers of works, but they are sadly not yet widely recognized. Time may tell ...
Can you add any other names? Who wrote too much? Who wrote too little?
9 May 2020
I have completely neglected ballet. Well, the reason is simple: I always feel uncomfortable in a situation where I have to watch people dressed in very tight fitting clothes engaged in varied, sometimes sensuous movements. (This is true of dancing in general for me. The most embarrassing moment I can easily recall was a Greek restaurant enlivened by a dancer. My wife was sitting across the table from me.)
Therefore, I don't actually go to ballet. But, I'm sure others do. I know that the music for it is of the highest quality.
So, put on some ballet music and dance, dance, dance!!!!
For those who took ballet and are a bit rusty, there are many sites with ballet terms and movements described in great detail. Lessons can be found as well. Of course, all the great ballets are online, as are films of the greatest stars of dance.
8 May 2020
If you need time filled up, then here are suggestions for long songs:
Sleep by Max Richter (about eight hours)
Various works by Kaikhosru Shapurgi Sorabji. Some are eight hours long. Learn more at The Sorabji Archive.
Stimmung (1968) by Karlheinz Stockhausen. Certainly not the longest of his works - as a set 'Klang' might count as one of the longer, but, Stimmung is takes one hour or so to perform.
The Well Tuned Piano by La Monte Young. About six hours.
Try looking up 'long Tibetan chant'. You will find three hour recordings in various places ...
Sources: https://theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/articles/the-10-longest-pieces-of-classical-music/ and my own experiences.
These long works are not on recordings, but must be experienced in person:
Ra by R Murray Schafer: 'RA is a multi-sensory experience, including an elaborate array of perfumes, incenses, food rituals and other participative ceremonies involving the initiates.' If I'm not mistaken it is a 'dusk to dawn' event.
And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon, also by R Murray Schafer: 'The work, which takes the form of an elaborate ritual performance in wilderness forest, lasts for eight days. The same participants return each year to camp in eight clans at four campsites.'
Source for Schafer quotes: http://www.patria.org/arcana/arcdrama.html#Music%20dramas
I once heard of a composer working on an oboe concerto that was to be seven seconds long. I must have missed the recording or performance. About ten years ago I wrote a '42 second Symphony' (in three movements). It remains unperformed. Do you know of any other mercifully short compositions?
7 May 2020
In one of Friedrich Nietzsche's books he spoke about how to philosophize with a hammer. According to one commentator, he did not mean smashing things, but something else. He meant to strike an object gently to see how it rings, what sound it makes, and if the sound is true and good. He was thinking of this as a metaphor for considering ideas and what they 'sounded' like, but the method applies in real life, with real objects.
Take a small beater - a soft one so you don't dent anything - and go around the house giving the lightest tap to various objects and see what they sound like. My computer has a solid, but dead sound to it. The desk has an interesting resonance if struck on the edge. The sound lingers just ever so much. I can get a hollow sound out of the cookbook that is on the bed next to the desk. What sounds lurk silently around you waiting a light touch in order to awaken? Make Nietzsche proud.
6 May 2020
One music critic of great fame once tried to play the piano for a famous pianist. It didn't go well. There is the big issue with critics - they can not do what they critique. Perhaps they can write, but perhaps they can't.
There have been many critics. As a musician, ponder the good and bad critics you have encountered. What did they get wrong and why? What did they get right, and how?
Doris Lessing recounts how she was warned about music critics by Philip Glass, her collaborator on an opera. She was amazed at the cruelty, which she felt far exceeded literary critics. I'm not sure that's true, having read some pretty harsh reviews of books.
Here are some famous music critics from the long ago past up to something like the mid-twentieth century.
- Charles Burney (1726-1814) (I include him because of his first-hand descriptions of musicians.)
- Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) (A great composer consigned to writing reviews to pay the bills).
- Robert Schumann (1810-1856) (ditto)
- Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904) (An influential critic who has supporters and detractors even today. I find him mean-spirited.)
- John Sullivan Dwight (1813-1893) (A very influential American critic and publisher.)
- Corno di Basetto (aka George Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950) (He took everything that is serious and made a jest or witticism of it. In the vanity-soaked exhibitionism there is a great deal of interest.)
- Harold C Schonberg (New York Times critic and author, 1915-2003) A very influential pundit.
- Colin Wilson (1931-2013) (His music criticism is always from an existential view - how the music makes us better - or worse. Not everyone agrees with this approach.)
5 May 2020
There was a time when epics were recited, or what we might call sung. Here's The Epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Sumeria.
Take a few lines of Homer, Ariosto, etc, etc, and sing your own epic poem.
Achilles' baneful wrath resound, O Goddess, that impos'd
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls los'd.
- Iliad by Homer, translated by George Chapman
Ariosto - well, I doubt the poem was sung as by a bard, but, it has made for a few operas ... :
Her face was such as sometimes in the spring
We see a doubtful sky, when on the plain
A shower descends, and the sun, opening
His cloudy veil, looks out amid the rain.
And as the nightingale then loves to sing
From branch of verdant stem her dulcet strain,
So in her beauteous tears his pinions bright
Love bathes, rejoicing in the chrystal light.
- Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto
Do you know the operas based on this poem?
Speak, sage ! the praise of wisdom and rejoice
The hearts of those that hearken to thy voice,
As God's best gift to thee extol the worth
Of wisdom, which will comfort thee and guide,
And lead thee by the hand in heaven and earth.
Both joy and grief, and gain and loss, betide
Therefrom, and when it is eclipsed the sane
Know not of happiness one moment more.
- The Sháhnáma of Firdausí (translated by Warner and Warner), 'The Prelude'
There are many other epics out there. Wikipedia (bless its heart) has a list. This is many lifetimes of reading ... or singing.
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(This is the story as I tell it, based on Richard Johnston's version which he told me thirty-five years ago. My memory is that of an old man. So was his. He did not witness it, but probably heard the story from one of his fellow students, for Richard Johnston studied with Boulanger - and indeed gave the premiere with her of Stravinsky's Sonata for Two Pianos in Madison, Wisconsin. Take the story with whatever grain of salt you would like.)
18 April 2020
17 April 2020
'I was out today!'
'Did you wear a mask?'
'Yes, I did!'
'Were there many people at the store?'
'Yes, and all had masks, many gloves and all stood back like they were prepared to battle for the toys and games and tissue on the shelves.'
'Oh, woeful times that it has sunk to this.'
'But, nice that as we stand back, we do not smell each other, for many people seem to have forgotten that they need to wash more than just their hands.'
16 April 2020
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7 April 2020
Can you imagine the sound of the drunkard in the bottom left guzzling wine? What other sound sources are there in the engraving?
6 April 2020
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1 April 2020
Gordon Andrew R: Most of the ideas I have so far suggested are for musicians, using some aspect of music to keep them going. But, some musicians might say 'Enough! I want something that isn't my daily job.' Okay. Here are some non musical suggestions that focus on visual mental efforts.
1 April 2020
Earlier suggestions from Gordon Andrew R :
31 March 2020
30 March 2020
29 March 2020
28 March 2020
27 March 2020
26 March 2020
25 March 2020
24 March 2020
23 March 2020
22 March 2020
21 March 2020
20 March 2020
19 March 2020
The editor does like this idea, and has some additional suggestions of his own:
18 March 2020
Extra suggestions from the author and from anyone else who has any, will be added in the boxes above, so please feel free to get in touch with your ideas, and come back to this page to read others' suggestions.
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