At the Piano: Academic and Performer

Here's a little story to illustrate the richness that comes of melding scholarship with performance:

To crush my comprehensive examinations in the upcoming academic year I am spending some time this summer nose-to-book, building mental monoliths of specialized knowledge. (In case you don't know, comprehensive examinations, or "comps,"* are the last hurdle a budding musicologist must climb before they can start writing their dissertation. Imagine becoming an expert on five enormous topics, feverishly scribbling essay-length answers in an examination room for days on end, identifying scores and audio examples, withstanding oral questions from a panel of experts... Kinda fun!?) While focusing my research on one topic a month, June has been spent exploring something that particularly interests me, piano character pieces of the Romantic era. A collection of essays entitled Nineteenth-Century Piano Music edited by R. Larry Todd gives a great overview of key issues and concepts from a variety of intellectual viewpoints. This topic touches a variety of intellectual buttons for me (history, historiography, genre, technology, performativity), but it also speaks to me in practical terms because of my history and training as a pianist.

James Ensor's  Russian Music  (1881) Looks like either a very comfy carpet or a very uncomfy one.  Image source

James Ensor's Russian Music (1881) Looks like either a very comfy carpet or a very uncomfy one. Image source

For the past two years I have played piano at a retirement community here in Santa Barbara called Samarkand, specifically in the skilled nursing facility section of the complex. Performing on the piano is nothing new to me and I am grateful for the opportunity to keep up my chops, but there are undeniably unique challenges in playing for a room of retirees, the majority of whom labor under some form of dementia. I've played in the midst of roving wheelchairs, inchoate audience outbursts, impromptu audience participation (good thing I can sight-read), and all manner of alarms sounding from doors, medical machinery, or loudspeakers. The number of listeners fluctuates within a half hour span as some are taken off for check-ups or to physical therapy sessions, while it is often quite difficult to ascertain who is awake or asleep or somewhere in between. Once I even gave a concert to an empty room, due to the fact that none of the residents could be in such close proximity to each other because of a flu quarantine, although I was told they would still love to hear the music wafting into their individual rooms. It is impossible in this setting to insist upon the pious, silent, respectful, and meditative reverence that we usually associate with classical music concerts. (Thanks a lot, A.B. Marx!) Rather than see this as a failure, I look at these performances as wonderful opportunities to make classical music a life-affirming rather than life-conforming activity.

I have found that the most simple and sincere way of doing this is to attempt to share your true self with your audience: talk to them, look at them, share what you enjoy about the next piece, show them how the sheet music you have is from your grandmother's library and was $2.00 back in the 1950s, invite them to participate by imagining a picture in their minds, ask them who has ever been to Poland before, play a hymn and welcome any sing-alongs. The other day I found myself diluting some of the thick, academic research I had just read in an essay by Jeffery Kallberg on the music of Frederic Chopin. Contemporaries of Chopin were struck by the "otherness" and "strangeness" of Chopin's music, especially the mazurkas, but were able to stomach it in large part by appealing to his "Polishness." The stop-and-go melodies, dynamic disjunctions, and haunting, hymn-like middle section of Mazurka in A-flat Major op. 7, no. 4 for instance find a sort of justification in this nineteenth-century interpretation of cultural difference. Right after Chopin I took out Kinderszenen op. 15 by Robert Schumann and suddenly recalled Anthony Newcomb's essay on the stylistic ambiguities and compositional contradictions of that composer. Contemporaries also heard Schumann's pre-1840s piano strange, but couldn't explain the effect through a paradigm of cultural difference seeing as the composer was German like them. Schumann's strange disjunctions and rhythmic complexities stemmed, rather, from the writings of Jean Paul and E.T.A. Hoffmann, German authors that by the 1830s and 1840s were largely considered old-fashioned, mannered, and bizarre. As a result, Schumann's early works remained little-known to the public, an economic fact that probably helped prompt a change in the composer's style once he became a financially responsible husband and father. (At the same time, today the pieces heard in concerts today are the early, bizarre ones, praised for their forward-thinking complexities. The pendulum keeps rocking.)

In my attempt to speak honestly and clearly to my audience I found myself making an interesting connection between two academic arguments while presenting it in an understandable and succinct manner to nonspecialists. I felt as though it breathed new life into my research by revealing its usefulness and accessibility through public speaking and performing. It also enriched my performance by giving me the opportunity to genuinely share of my intellectual and emotional gifts with a group of people in great need of human connection and empathy.

I find performing to residents of a skilled nursing facility very rewarding, but, again, not in the traditional sense. It is with a heart-wrenching combination of frailty and strength that an individual bent with Parkinsons straightens up at the end of a piece to clap twice before settling back into their wheelchair, or that someone slowly and repeatedly shares the highlights of their career as a touring concert pianist in the 1930s, or that a woman dressed in a snowy-white nightgown drifts ethereally into the room and kisses me on the cheek after a final cadence only to shuffle out of sight.

  • To the academic: Who is your research for? How do you communicate it? Do you seek to build bridges or build barriers?
  • To the performer: Who is your audience? What do you expect from them? What of yourself do you share? Again, bridges or barriers?
  • To both: Why do you not work in harmony together more often?
Kate Gasser's  Young Girl at Piano . And approachable performance.    Image source

Kate Gasser's Young Girl at Piano. And approachable performance. Image source

* In her book Get It DoneSam Bennett suggests overcoming the impersonal abstraction of large projects by renaming them. Therefore, in my own head, rather than call them "comps" I have dubbed them "Crossing Helcaraxë," a reference only a serious J.R.R. Tolkien fan would understand. :)

Books used:
Bennett Sam. Get It Done: From Procrasticnation to Creative Genius in 15 Minutes a Day. Novato: New World Library, 2014.
Todd, R. Larry., ed. Nineteenth-Century Piano Music. New York: Routledge, 2004.

"The Merest Set of Blocks"

It has been a while since I have written on this blog. The wonderfully fruitful collaboration with the Subverting Laughter Project as well as a little thing called "PhD musicology grad student, Year Two" have taken precedence over my time and creative energies. After such a hiatus, coming back to a project like this can feel a bit daunting: creative ideas need to be dusted off, intellectual tools taken out of the shed, logistical plans redrafted. To build and to rebuild is to strike off into the potentially frightening zones of the unknown. (But really, who would have it any other way?)

In the spirit of adventurous rebuilding, and in celebration of the imminent release of the Lego Movie to DVD (a veritable nostalgia-explosion for people of my generation), I present to you a meditative constellation. First, some sociology of childhood from Roland Barthes' Mythologies (1957). Here he is decrying the blatant socializing impact of toy culture in France. In his view, specialized toys (such as plastic telephones, model Vespas, or "diaper dollies") constrain children to passively and automatically reenact miniature versions of the adult world:

  • The fact that French toys literally prefigure the world of adult functions obviously cannot but prepare the child to accept them all... the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it: there are, prepared for him, actions without adventure, without wonder, without joy. He is turned into a little stay-at-home householder who does not even have to invent the mainsprings of adult causality; they are supplied to him ready-made: he has only to help himself, he is never allowed to discover anything from start to finish. [However,] the merest set of blocks, provided it is not too refined, implies a very different learning of the world: then, the child does not in any way create meaningful objects, it matters little to him whether they have an adult name; the actions he performs are not those of a user but those of a demiurge. He creates forms which walk, which roll, he creates life, not property. (Cited from Jenks The Construction of Childhood, 1982)

In a similar vein, C.S. Lewis, in an attempt to develop a theory of literary reception, highlights the importance of active and imaginative utilization in both religious ikons as well as children's toys. He states:

  • A particular toy or a particular ikon may be itself a work of art, but that is logically accidental; its artistic merits will not make it a better toy or a better ikon. They may make it a worse one. For its purpose is, not to fix attention upon itself, but to stimulate and liberate certain activities in the child or the worshiper. The Teddy-bear exists in order that the child may endow it with imaginary life and personality and enter into a quasi-social relationship with it. That is what 'playing with it' means. The better this activity succeeds the less the actual appearance of the object will matter. Too close or prolonged attention to its changeless and expressionless face impedes the play. (Lewis An Experiment in Criticism, 1961)
Retro LEGO add from  Fat Brain Toys

Retro LEGO add from Fat Brain Toys

Now to apply these criticisms and insights to the realm of music: How does music "literally prefigure the world of adult functions?" Does it have a "changeless and expressionless face?" I would say that both these questions bring up issues of canonicity. Any musical genre establishes its foundations as a socially meaningful activity or object upon some sort of musical canon, typically an established (changeless and expressionless?) and hierarchical list of (adult-approved?) exemplars, be they composers or artists or recordings or techniques or rituals. Consider Katherine Bergeron's chilling insights into the proscriptive implications of canon:

  • Indeed, once a principle of order is made into a standard, it becomes all the more accessible; translated into a "practice," its values can be internalized... [implying] a type of social control—a control that inevitably extends to larger social bodies as individual players learn not only to monitor themselves but to keep an eye (and an ear) on others. To play in tune, to uphold the canon, is ultimately to interiorize those values that would maintain, so to speak, social "harmony." Practice makes the scale—and evidently all of its players—perfect. (Bergeron and Bohlman Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons, 1992).
"Young Beckie" by Rackham. I'm sure the swarm of rats is only playing with that rascally rogue, Beckian...

"Young Beckie" by Rackham. I'm sure the swarm of rats is only playing with that rascally rogue, Beckian...

One the other hand, how is music about creating "life, not property?" How is it the activity of a "demiurge?" How does it "stimulate and liberate?" We do after all play music: homo ludens (see Johan Huizinga, 1937), ludus tonalis (see Paul Hindemith, 1943), prelude (see J.S. Bach, Frederic Chopin, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Vsevolod Zaderatsky, etc.). Is there room in canonical works by canonical composers for childlike play? Or are the barlines of a notated score literally prison bars that constrain both performers and listeners to proscriptive, ready-made conclusions?

Regardless of your music of choice, these issues remain. Have you experienced either of these reactions? Let me know what you think!

Preludophilia: Stanford's 24 Preludes Op. 163

Around 1918, composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, aged seventy, was overcome by a profound case of preludophilia. Hailed as a member of the "English Renaissance" (he was Irish), his lengthy public career included honorary degrees from numerous institutions, international conducting repute, training such pupils as Holst, Vaughan Williams, Ireland, and Coleridge-Taylor, and almost two hundred opus numbers, consisting mostly of symphonies, concertos, vocal works, and chamber works. But during the last six years of his life, he wrote preludes for the piano, two sets appearing in 1919 and 1921. Perhaps he recalled his early training in Chopin. Or maybe he felt some influence from the recently combined set of Rachmaninov, a composer often compared with him on the grounds of stylistic conservatism/anachronism. Either way, the first set, Op. 163 (thank you IMSLP) forms the topic of today's post and provides us with an opportunity to explore what may be the first prelude set in the Chopin tradition composed in the British Isles. (Ireland's William Vincent Wallace [1812–1865] wrote Twenty-four Preludes and Scales [1855] which are just as their name implies and are more in line with flashy opening gestures à la Cramer.)

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924) wearing (and pulling it off) a brilliant pair of  pince nez  on a string. 

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852–1924) wearing (and pulling it off) a brilliant pair of pince nez on a string. 

Twenty-four Preludes, Op. 163 was published in 1919 in three series:

  • Series I - C,c,Db,c#,D,d,Eb,eb
  • Series II - E,e,F,f,Gb,f#,G,g
  • Series III - Ab,g#,A,a,Bb,bb,B,b

The use of Bach Order is somewhat unique at this time (the few instances of it before him are mostly German organists, Glière, and Bach himself) and could point to Stanford's German training. Seven of the pieces have picturesque titles including "In the Woodland" Prelude 13 in G-flat Major, "Carillons" Prelude 21 in B-flat Major, and "In Memoriam. M.G." Prelude 22 in B-flat minor; it is a noteworthy sprinkling of well-worn if not cliched titles in a collection of short, carefully crafted character pieces. The recording by Peter Jacobs (Priory Records 1996) takes just about fifty minutes.

Men's fashion in England around 1900. Hats are in!

Men's fashion in England around 1900. Hats are in!

I would describe this music as having "sensuous yet restrainéd grandeur." Texturally the opening C Major number has that clear, triadic, Bach-like character: a straightforward opening piece built of a texture of strong, pillar-like gestures. But by its layout and form we clearly see Stanford's lush, almost oozy harmony (lots of unexpected bVIs, unprepared modulations to far-off F#, and plenty of Gr +6s). The uniform blocks of sound become almost like bars keeping the Wagnerian superfluity at bay. Prelude 6 in D minor barely keeps itself together, hardly unified by a devious false recapitulation (in E-flat... that slips into D-flat before being mastered back into d by sheer willpower!). It could very well end anywhere and the final cadence feels a little forced, like a social formality. The last three measures of this piece do recall an important figure from Prelude 1 in C Major and could point to some sort of intermotivic relationship at work throughout the piece.

Apparently Stanford (as well as every accomplished lady pianist in Victorian Britain) grew up on a steady diet of Chopin Mazurkas, a fact that informs an appreciation of the Tempo di Valse Prelude 10 in E minor. Capricious changes of rhythm and metric emphasis, dramatic but simple melodies, and tempo fluctuations all recall the older tradition. This piece is ultimately playful, reminiscent of a salon or even a nursery tradition. Prelude 4 in C-sharp minor, one of my favorites, also has that capricious character, wreaking Puckish havoc on a 6/8 time signature, although with marked restraint. It reminds me of Mendelssohn's Songs without Words, and I am reminded that Mendelssohn held a special place in the hearts of Britain for quite a while. In that vein, I see and hear an inversion of the upward figuration of Mendelssohn's Prelude 1 in E minor Op. 35 (1837) in Stanford's stormy closing number, Prelude 24 in B minorPrelude 19 in A Major embroiders a slow and arrestingly simple hymn texture with florid arpeggios in a way that again recalls Mendelssohn (perhaps Song without Words Op. 38 No. 4, also in A).

I find these pieces to be a mixed bag. There seem to be clashes between a Mendelssohn-like conservatism and a complex harmonic language that do not always make for a rounded composition. This sort of dissonance is an opportunity to think about states of imperfection. It becomes easy to think of Victorianism: its social strictures, moral failures, imperialistic anxieties, and crumbling façades. Certainly that's just one way to hear it with cultural ears, but in many ways it makes sense and gives reason to some of Stanford's more "uneven" passages.

I leave you with a recording of Prelude 6 in D minor by Christopher Howell.