Hurdy-Gurdy Sounds

In elementary school I was loaned a CD-ROM from our school librarian that was a virtual tour of the musical instruments of the world. Searching by continent, by instrument family, or alphabetically, I explored an interactive encyclopedia that introduced me to the sights and sounds of the Arabic qanun, Native American plains flute, Chinese bianzhong, and European flageolet. It was MIM in computer form. And then I found the page on the hurdy-gurdy: It sounded like a pugnacious cross between a bagpipe and a harpsichord playing a raspy folk tune while accompanied by a sort of buzzing/barking/beat-boxing. What's not to love?! Needless to say, I was smitten! #instrumentcrush My infatuation with the hurdy-gurdy has been rather one-sided all these years, and despite my intense feelings I have not taken our relationship to the next level... Until now! That's right! Early next year yours truly will be in possession of his very own, custom made, genuine hurdy-gurdy, lovingly built by the good people at Altarwind Music in Oregon. I'm so excited!! (Don't worry, my wife knows and is cool with it.)

So in preparation for my instrument adventures next year, here's some info on the hurdy-gurdy that focuses on the wide range of sounds that it makes and the contexts in which these sounds had cultural capital.

Particulars and Generalities

What is a hurdy-gurdy? That seems like a good place to start. The hurdy-gurdy is a musical instrument with regional variants appearing across eastern and western Europe. Here are a few monickers to give you a taste of its breadth: hurdy-gurdy (English), vielle à roue (French), Drehleier (German), tekerő" (Hungarian), ghironda (Italian), vièrlerète (Belgian), zanfoña (Spanish), sanfona (Portugese), brenka (Basque), viola de roda (Catalan), ninera (Slovakian), lira korbowa (Polish), колёсная лира (Russian). 

As implied by several of these names (#etymologygame) this instrument has something to do with a "turning wheel". In basic terms, the hurdy-gurdy is a pear- or guitar-shaped resonating box strung with tunable melody and drone strings and fixed with a hand-cranked, rosined wheel that acts like a never-ending, circular violin bow while the melody strings pass through a tangent box where pitches are raised or lowered by means of keys. The following section has descriptions of some of the instrument's different sounds and historical contexts. Be sure to click on the links to hear/see some sampled YouTube videos. It's easier to see it in action than read a description about it!

Apocalypse jam session depicted in 12th century cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Apocalypse jam session depicted in 12th century cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Organistrum: The Two-Seater

According to evidence preserved in manuscripts and carved into the walls of the cathedrals, the Ur-ancestor of the hurdy-gurdy was called an organistrum and emerged around the 11th century. As seen here played by two of the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse, this massive instrument took two people to operate: one to turn the wheel and the other to lift tangent pins. (The tangent box was eventually inverted, allowing an individual finger to push up a key, rather than require a whole hand to pull up a key.) Apparently these pins altered the pitches of all three melody strings simultaneously and produced parallel harmonies. This made the organistrum the perfect church instrument, particularly for playing organum, a technique used to thicken chant texture by coupling the melody at a given interval. By the 14th century changes in liturgical polyphony would require a more complex and polyphonic instrument, a need that was answered by the organ, and the organistrum ceased to function as a church instrument. Clips: 1) the organistrum in concert in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, 2) French reconstruction with good closeups of the mechanism, and 3) the most adorable demo couple I've ever seen! I'll let you know how the congregation at the Presbyterian church I work in handles next year's all-hurdy-gurdy Easter service... :)


Buzzing Bridges and Barking Dogs

Illustration by Jacques Callo from circa 1624. Demonstrating the lifestyle choices of the devoted hurdy-gurdy artist/mendicant.

Illustration by Jacques Callo from circa 1624. Demonstrating the lifestyle choices of the devoted hurdy-gurdy artist/mendicant.

One of the hurdy-gurdy's most distinctive features since the Renaissance is the buzzing bridge. (It's first visual depiction seems to be from Heironymous Bosch's (ca. 1450-1516) Garden of Earthly Delights.) The way it works is that there is a drone string supported by a specially constructed bridge (called the "chien" or "dog" in French terminology) that is uneven, only connected to the instrument by a single foot. Changes in wheel velocity set the dog "barking" with a characteristic buzzing sound. (Sometimes I think it sounds like a scraping cabasa.) Two examples of this in action should clarify: 1) An Italian ghironda with slow motion and 2) demonstrations of how wrist action effects crank velocity and leads to various patterns. This adds a completely new dimension to the music because the rhythmic buzzing of the right hand operates independently of the left hand's manipulation of the key box and they can interact in so many different ways. To give some context of this happening in a piece, check out 1) Eric Raillard playing a Morvan traditional tune with various chien patterns, 2) Nigel Eaton playing a dance piece that adds the chien around 1:09 to great effect, and 3) TOMO playing a French folk melody with chien and what I assume is a kick drum.

Female aristocrat rocking her vielle à roue. Probably painted by Donatien Nonotte (1708-1785).  Link

Female aristocrat rocking her vielle à roue. Probably painted by Donatien Nonotte (1708-1785). Link

French Aristocratic Hipsters

By the 18th century the hurdy-gurdy had a well established reputation as a low class instrument fit for peasants and beggars. But around this same time the French aristocracy developed an intense enthusiasm for pastoral diversions (just without the dirt and poverty). Operas and ballets depicted idealized shepherds and shepherdesses, rococo art emphasized stylized tendrils as design elements, and folk instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy (vielle à roue) and bagpipe (cabrette) found themselves in vogue with the highest echelons of society. (Here is an example of Sean Folsom playing a folksong that includes the vielle and cabrette together. Now that I write that sentence, I'm not sure how that's humanly possible...) Aristocrats actually took the time to became skilled at playing this instrument, multiple treatises appeared giving detailed instruction, and court-sponsored composers wrote substantial and serious pieces. Check out Robert A. Greene's The Hurdy-Gurdy in Eighteenth-Century France (1995) for all the info on this period you can handle. Listening to this music I notice the importance of dance as well as lavish ornamentation and emotional nuance. Clips: 1) some pièces de charactéres by Jean-Baptiste Dupuits (1715-1758), 2) a movement from a trio sonata for two vielles and basso continuo by Jacques-Christoph Naudot (1690-1752), and 3) Antonio Vivaldi's (1678-1741) beloved Seasons arranged for vielle à roue by Nicolas Chédeville (1705-1782) because why not?


Schubert's Romantic Numbness

Minstrel  (1876) by Hippolytus Lipinski (d. 1884). I wonder if Müller's mention of growling dogs could possibly have to do with the hurdy-gurdy's buzzing bridge...

Minstrel (1876) by Hippolytus Lipinski (d. 1884). I wonder if Müller's mention of growling dogs could possibly have to do with the hurdy-gurdy's buzzing bridge...

The nineteenth century developed a Romantic view of folk culture with conflicted, nostalgic, and nationalistic overtones. While in many ways this was the age of the piano (where Industrial Revolution met the Age of Sentimentality), the hurdy-gurdy continued to have a symbolic and emotional association and operated as a musical trope. For instance, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) set poems by Wilheml Müller (1794-1827) for a song cycle for piano and solo voice called Winterreise or Winter's Journey. It's a painfully tragic song cycle for solo voice and piano which ends with Der Leiermann or The Hurdy-Gurdy Player.  

Over there behind the village / Stands a hurdy-gurdy man / And with stiff fingers / Turns over what he can.
Barefoot on the ice / He rocks back and forth / And his little plate / Always remains empty.
No one wants to hear him, / No one wants to look at him, / And the dogs growl / Around the old man.
And he lets it happen / Everything turns as it will / And his hurdy-gurdy / Never stands still.
Wonder of the ancients / Shall I go with you? / Would you play my songs / On your hurdy-gurdy as well?

Schubert sets this icy text very starkly by evoking the hurdy-gurdy's drone and repeating a spooky melodic fragment. For a cycle that has traversed so many emotions, this concluding piece falls deep into emotional and musical numbness. Here's a clip of Thomas Quasthoff and Daniel Barenboim performing it. Interestingly, Matthias Loibner arranged this composition for solo singer with hurdy-gurdy accompaniment which makes for a very different sound world. It makes me aware of the emotional flatlining that awaits the narrator at the end. Here's Der Leiermann accompanied by a Leiermann!

Eluveitie's Anna Murphy.

Eluveitie's Anna Murphy.

Gothic Nostalgia in Folk/Medieval Metal

Much has happened since the 19th century, but it's interesting to note an enduring strain of nostalgia for folk culture that continues to utilize the hurdy-gurdy. Recently this has surfaced in various sub-genres of heavy metal. Sometimes known as folk metal or medieval metal or German folk-rock metal, this 1990s European fusion melds together the guitar, drums, vocals, and head-banging of heavy metal with traditional instruments like tin whistles, violins, harps, bagpipes, and hurdy-gurdies. Here are some examples: 1) Swiss band (pronounce it el-VAY-tee) Eluveitie's song Inis Mona, 2) German band Subway to Sally's song Besser Du Rennst, 3) Belgian band Ithilien's song Blindfolded, and 4) German band Saltatio Mortis's song Hochzeitstanz. If you think about all the abrasive and edgy sounds the hurdy-gurdy is capable of, it makes sense that it would find a place in this type of music. I personally find it difficult to pick out the sound of the hurdy-gurdy through the thick textures. But there's more to heavy metal than just the sound and I would venture a guess that the hurdy-gurdy lends a lot of visual interest. It comes across as a medieval contraption and, because it is less well known than the bagpipe, its marginality has an air of mystique.

The hurdy-gurdy also plays a part in more intimate settings. Here the theatricality is toned down, but the strange sound and sight of the instrument keep a toe in the world of heavy metal. Two examples are 1) Anna Murphy playing A Rose for Epona and 2) Patty Gurdy (that's right) of the German pirate folk metal band Storm Seeker (that's right) playing a cover of Sweet Dreams.


Experimental Virtuosity

Matthias Loibner making sounds with plaid pants and astounding virtuosity.

Matthias Loibner making sounds with plaid pants and astounding virtuosity.

As the example of the buzzing bridge shows, the hurdy-gurdy, already a pretty complicated machine, can become even more complicated. Just take for example the Full Montey hurdy-gurdy by Altarwind Music that has all the add-ons: dozens of strings, buzzing bridges, capos, on/off switches, sympathetic strings, amp hookups, fretboards, cup holders, bells/whistles, spinning hubcaps, etc. (Disclaimer: I cannot guarantee the accuracy of this description. See Altarwind website for details.) These possibilities have caught the imagination of various composers/performers seeking new and experimental sounds. Matthias Loibner (b. 1969) sums it up well when he states in this recording at an aCentral Folque concert, "I will start somewhere and I will end somewhere, but I am not sure about it." Ben Grossman considers the hurdy-gurdy an "acoustic synthesizer" that has much to offer for "early, traditional, experimental, and ambient" musics. Here he is with an improvisation and explanation for TEDxWaterloo. Stevie Wishart (b. 1969) sees the hurdy-gurdy and other marginal instruments from the forgotten past as having greater potential for innovation because of the lack of present-day conventions, which opens the door to improvisation. She teamed up with Fred Frith (b. 1949) and Carla Kihlstedt (b. 1971) to record a series of improvisations: here's one called Aller Retour with the hurdy-gurdy entering around 1:27.

I'll see you in January for the unboxing of my hurdy-gurdy!

Goetz's Piano Quintet: Gotta Have That Bass

The term "piano quintet" actually designates a variety of five-person ensemble combinations. As mentioned earlier, by far the most standard group involves piano + string quartet or piano-violin-violin-viola-cello. However, other groupings are possible: piano-violin-viola-viola-cello (Paul Juon), piano-violin-viola-cello-cello (Henri-Jean Rigel), piano-oboe-violin-viola-cello (Théodore Dubois), piano-flute-clarinet-bassoon-horn (Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov), piano-clarinet-horn-violin-cello (Zdeněk Fibich), piano-oboe-clarinet-bassoon-horn (Beethoven), etc.

The standard ensemble of piano + string quartet has the advantage of matching the piano's wide range with four instruments that cover the same tonal space... almost. Truth be told, the piano actually goes more than an octave lower than the lowest note on the cello. A handful of composers have apparently felt that the strings should match the piano in the lower regions, and so have written piano quintets for piano-violin-viola-cello-double bass.

Herman Goetz (1840-1876)... I'm drawing a blank on some sort of beard-related joke. Come up with your own!

Herman Goetz (1840-1876)... I'm drawing a blank on some sort of beard-related joke. Come up with your own!

Herman Goetz was a German-Swiss composer who wrote such a quintet. Take a listen to the opening of the first movement. Throughout the sombre, moiling introduction, you may be able to detect the double bass grumbling along down below. Then, at 1:34, the mood changes... (I'd suggest listening at least until 3:41, when we hit the repeat sign.)

The drama promised and forewarned in the slow introduction, bursts from its proverbial dam and flows along "Allegro con fuoco", lively and with fire! Weeeeeee! In those downward, scalar gestures that begin the section, you can really hear the double bass go. To my ears it adds serious "heft", a word I use for the sense of weight being heaved about, but also for the sort of raspy, onomatopoeic quality you hear when the double bass bow digs into the strings. This instrument reminds you that bowed string instruments make their sound by rubbing or scraping wires, hairs, guts, or other strings perpendicularly against each other, a fact that the melodiousness of the violin, viola, and even cello seem to mask.

One more example: here's the last movement, a sprightly yet still hefty sort of dance. The double bass has some great moments, adding some weight to the section marked "pesante" or ponderous at 0:37 (which is an interesting juxtaposition of weightiness and dancing rhythms), doubling the cello at the octave in the fugal section (starting 1:33, bass in at 1:41ish), the weird, trembling fade out at 2:55, and of course, the killer dash to the ending starting at 4:40.

Check out the other movements as well! Have a grounded, bass-heavy day!

Arensky's Piano Quintet: [BONUS] Creepy Waltz

I didn't do anything for Halloween this year. Penny, while adorable in her owl costume, is not big on knocking on strangers' doors nor on eating candy with her baby teeth. Plus, Jess and I consider the day only an annoying, loud, orange-and-black stepping stone to Thanksgiving, Fall's real holiday. #hewentthere #nohalloweenspirit #oldfogy

Hocus Pocus  (1993), a movie that may have inspired me to love books with unhealthy intensity.

Hocus Pocus (1993), a movie that may have inspired me to love books with unhealthy intensity.

However, I'll give a nod to Halloween with this little "trick and treat" (see what I did there?): a spooky waltz from Arensky's Piano Quintet. Now, I already did a post on this composition where I talked about the fugue theme from the final movement. But I couldn't pass up this fascinating moment in the midst of the second movement. This movement is a Theme and Variations, meaning, you hear a theme at the beginning and then the rest of the piece is reiterations of that theme varied in a variety of various ways. It's like someone trying on different costumes, one after the other (not unlike a picky Halloween-er).

Press play. Listen up to 0:31. That melody in the first violin is the Theme. (It's actually a French folk song from maybe the 1400s called Sur le pont d'Avignon, j'ai ouï chanter la belle.) If you keep listening after that, the piano enters, playing the theme quite clearly and prominently, and constituting the First Variation. Et cetera. Et cetera.

Now check out the Sixth Variation. It starts around 3:16. The meter has now changed from duple to triple, as heard in the "oom-pah-pah" accompaniment in the piano and pizzicato cello. Meanwhile, the piano's upper part gracefully glides about like a solitary ballroom dancer. The effect is actually rather pleasant...

But then, the other three string players enter. In unison. In long, drawn out notes. And so quietly you might not notice it until it's been happening for a while. And then you wonder how long this sighing specter has been looking over your shoulder. Eeeek!

But it gets a little creepier. Because the piano waltzer doesn't seem to realize that they aren't alone. It doesn't acknowledge this austere presence and dances on, oblivious to the ghostly melody wafting in like a chilly breeze from the other side. Double eeeeek!

And then, with a bone chilling gasp, you realize that the unison strings are actually playing the original Theme, but with the duration augmented (that is, elongated) to the point at which it's almost unrecognizable. That sweet and sad melody that you just got to appreciate from 0:00 to 0:31 appears here in ghastly form. The situation is punctuated by the continued presence of the unsuspecting (or is it complicit?) music-box dancer. Triple eeeeeek!

Anastasia  (1997), and people say the Grimm Brothers are horrifying...

Anastasia (1997), and people say the Grimm Brothers are horrifying...

Wow. Maybe I like Halloween more than I thought... I will say that this musical interpretation could fit in well with Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the grotesque, a term he developed in the study of Renaissance carnivals and a time when weird festivals like Halloween actually had important cultural significance. (Check out his introduction to Rabelais and His World.)

Have a Happy November!

Arensky's Piano Quintet: The Little Fugue that Could

The last movement of Arensky's Piano Quintet made me laugh. When I first heard it there was something rather humorous about ending a grand composition with a movement half as long as any of the others that starts as a powerful fugue "in modo antico" (meaning "in olden style") that runs out of steam after less than a minute. What was Anton thinking?!

First off, to write music "in olden style" during the Romantic era usually means you're about to hear some fugues. (In case you don't know, a fugue is when a melodic theme enters one instrument at a time in independent layers. It gets very dense very quickly.) Fugues are difficult to write (and difficult to listen to unless you practice) due to the very real possibility of cacophony when more than one melody is sounding at once, requiring a composer of exceptional skill. (This is part of the reason J.S. Bach, the mind-bendingest fugue-o-phile of them all, was revered in the history-conscious nineteenth century, and has remained so to this day.) So all this "in modo antico" in the last movement had me primed to expect some major counterpoint!

But... That doesn't actually seem to happen. First off, just by glancing at the average length of movements, the final one stands out for coming in at around 3 minutes, while the first three of the quintet average 6.5 minutes. Secondly... well, go ahead and give the piece a listen. Note the powerful beginning and, also, when the mood changes. I'll wait...

Finished? Ok! It's a nice piece, yes? Bold at the beginning. Then lush. Then a scintillating and joyous ending. But, what about that "in modo antico"? It starts as a long-striding fugue with a strong, easy-to-catch theme. And then at about 45 seconds, it just stops. Fugue done! And what does the rest of the movement consist of, you may ask? The lyrical middle part that builds to a lovely climax is actually a second movement quotation of the theme that is put through variations. Then the joyous part at 2:08 is a first movement quotation of the main theme complete with identical ending.

It was as though Arensky said to himself, "For this last movement I will write a fugue in the grand style of Bach! [The sounds of writing, frustrated "humpfs" from composer, the crumpling of paper.] You know what? Forget it! I've got about 45 seconds of fugue; why not just get this thing done and bring back some of those sweet Romantic-sounding moments I wrote from earlier movements?"

Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861-1906), pictured here sporting identical mustaches as  Scriabin  and  Roslavets .

Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861-1906), pictured here sporting identical mustaches as Scriabin and Roslavets.

That's how I heard it at first. But I've actually changed my mind. The actual fugal part of Arensky's finale may be short, but the true significance resides in the theme itself. Because if you listen to the whole composition, you realized that you've heard that theme before. Check out the first 5 seconds of the piece, a salutation in the piano that bursts onto the scene without further elaboration.

It's the fugue theme!

Now listen to a grand climax that brings the Theme and Variations movement to a fierce halt. Start at 4:20. It's the beginning of the seventh variation with some galloping triplets in the piano with the theme entering staggered first on the viola, then violin 2, then violin 1. (It's not technically a fugue, but the effect is rather dense and contrapuntal.) The intensity increases to 4:48 where, in a fit of fortissimo, the piano plays some dramatic chords, that are answered by lunging runs in the strings before everything comes crashing down in a fortississimo haze.

It's the fugue theme!

This knowledge will change the way you hear. The appearance of this odd fragment in the first and second movements will be heard as presages of the final fugue theme. And the return of sections from the first and second themes in the last movements can then be heard as simply returning the favor. The stunted last movement becomes a matter of equilibrium and retrospection. You could even say that it reframes "in olden style" to draw attention to the temporal nature of the musical experience... #mindblown

De Castillon's Piano Quintet: Just Wonderful

That's right: just wonderful! I barely have anything else to say about it. Only that Alexis de Castillon was a short-lived composer whose Opus 1 truly touches my heart. The opening melody, heard many times thereafter, suggests to me that paradoxical strength that lies in fragility, a bold yet tender embrace.

Here's the first movement played by Timothy Kwok and the Romer Quartet. I hope you enjoy.

Medtner's Piano Quintet: Coloring Outside the Lines

Lately I have been enjoying some chamber music. Commuting to school or work in Santa Barbara rarely takes longer than 15 minutes, which is the perfect amount of time to listen to a favorite movement from an old standby or incrementally explore a new find.

Most recently the Piano Quintet in C Major of Nikolai Medtner has become something of an obsession. Even as I write this post there are fragments of melody spinning around in my head. I have been working my way through various piano quintets (for those unfamiliar, an ensemble usually involving piano + string quartet (2 violins, viola, and cello)). Perhaps in a later post I will share some thoughts on works by Schumann, Schubert, Shostakovich (hmm... I seem to be on a [sh] kick), Stanford, and Franck.

Nikolai Karlovich Medtner: 1880 (O.S. 1879) – 1951. Similar haircut to George Costanza in this photo. The similarity ends there.

Nikolai Karlovich Medtner: 1880 (O.S. 1879) – 1951. Similar haircut to George Costanza in this photo. The similarity ends there.

The Medtner stands out to me from these other examples because of his bold use of textures and colors. He has some very nice melodies (again, they are earworming my brain pretty strong right now), and I'm aware of some canonic or contrapuntal techniques, but the real interest lies in his textures, and especially in how he juxtaposes different sections.

Take a listen to the first minute of movement 1 below:

From the very first moments, the deep, arpeggiating piano punctuated by pizzicato strings has a striking effect. The oscillating harmony over a drone during this section has a modal quality that would make me want to use words like "epic" or "exotic" if my musicologist oath didn't prevent me. And just about when you get used to the sound, something different pops up: a descending figure in the piano, floating Zeus-like down on a cloudy bed of wavering strings. (To be fair, it is perhaps less Zeus-like than I thought a minute ago... If pressed, I think I'd change that to an Iris-like descent, the Greek rainbow goddess. Yeah, that fits. Nailed it! #hermeneutics)

After that interesting introduction (which comes back later, like at 6:44 and after, giving Iris a much more important role in the entire piece) the first real melody is passed around between some strings, building, subsiding, doing what a late-Romantic piece of music ought to. Then around 0:44 there is a sudden shift in harmony and the wavering strings come back in a moment that sounds like a fragment of a film score. The instruments seem unperturbed by this gravitational shift, and the piano takes up the opening melody.

Keep listening to that first movement and notice the constant shifts, especially those where the piano or strings or both lapse into shimmering filagree.

I want to highlight one more moment where the cool and calm of the piece is disrupted by a moment of utter perturbation and how the instruments find their way out of the problem. Start around 4:30 where an ecstatic and energetic chorale puts the piece in the height of self-possession. The melody starts to evaporate, flickering out with a tremolo until you are left in a rather uncomfortable silence at 4:57. The strings try to feel their way in the aural dark by striking some pizzicato matches. (It worked before in the introduction!) But this effort only rouses the piano, which strikes out in brutal gestures from the low register! The strings, giddy with fear, echo back the piano's declamation. It's hard to imagine how the music will recover from this derailment.

And then, BAM! a piercing shaft of light at 5:30! It's a brilliant moment of ornamental energy, completely shifting the harmony, reigniting the instrumentalists' focus, and returning to them their sense of unity as each take their place and set out anew. From there its pretty smooth sailing through glorious melodies until the pizzicato-punctuated ending.

For an interesting music-literature pairing, I suggest George MacDonald's  The Golden Key .  Light and dark and rainbows and opening doors. Illustrated here by Ruth Sanderson.

For an interesting music-literature pairing, I suggest George MacDonald's The Golden Key.  Light and dark and rainbows and opening doors. Illustrated here by Ruth Sanderson.

Very nice piece. I especially love "Musica Viva's" rendition here. Check out the other two movements when you have the time. Or take a 25 minute commute somewhere (down to Ventura to visit either of their two Target locations, perhaps?) and hear all three.


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.