There are many untold stories to share about the monumentally important pianist Rudolph Serkin, who would have celebrated a birthday today. But one that very few people know is that he gave one of my formative violin teachers, the late Mitchell Stern*, the down payment to buy a rare Guadagnini violin. Their relationship had been fostered at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, where Stern had been a student who'd won many awards, including the Leventritt Competition. *(I once told a story on NPR about how Stern had helped me through illness while being ill himself.)
At any rate, here's a video of the great, generous Rudolph Serkin playing Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. --Adam Baer
Thoughtful piece up on NPR about how to become a music journalist. It just leaves out the most important thing: learn the nuts and bolts of music, as a performer and in the classroom. Then, get good. Last thing we need are more "music journalists" who have not trained in making music. Controversial subject, I know, but it's my stance. The writing, the networking, it will all come, if you have something to say.
Tomorrow is Serge Koussevitsky's birthday, but I want to celebrate him today, get a jump on the festivities --I can link to his recorded performances tomorrow.
Who was he? Pictured above, next to the taller (!) composer Aaron Copland, he was the commandingly sensitive Russian-born conductor who, along with Copland and others, taught the young Leonard Bernstein, and who created much of what the Boston Symphony's Summer home in the Berkshires, known as Tanglewood, became.
Tanglewood is where my family was forged, and so there's more than simple lineage there for me as a music lover.
I wrote about this subject for NPR last year when Tanglewood turned 75, but as my family would visit the festival at least once each summer, so shall I celebrate it annually.
I have Koussevitsky to thank for many things, including that piece, and I'm not the only one. (See this link for a letter from Bernstein to Koussevitsky that I quote in the NPR piece.)
To think of what life was like for the young Bernstein, learning from the master Koussevitsky, and from Copland, some 70 years ago: All that I can say is that it's not just one film but a series of them from many perspectives that could never tell the stories well enough.
Koussevitsky, who led some of the most important live concerts of his day (some preserved on record), commissioned among other works Ravel's Piano Concerto, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, and through his foundation had a hand in the creation of Copland's Third Symphony (including the famed Fanfare for the Comman Man), as well as Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra and Britten's Peter Grimes, to say nothing of other staples of modern concert music.
A lot of people think of Bernstein and Copland when they think about Tanglewood, but the main music shed, where big concerts are held, is named after Koussevitsky, and sometimes I think that the whole 20th century in concert music could be named after him. Or at least include his name prominently, along with others.
Koussevitsky was driven by gratitude for music, for composers, and for those who loved making and listening to music. I'm grateful simply that he existed; in a practical sense, I might not have seen the light of day without him.
I was recently in New York, spending time with family, when I learned of my baby nephew's seemingly natural affinity for Lee Morgan. His father, my brother, would keep it on in the car as we drove around the city, and then in his home. I'd missed listening to it while watching New York, or any east coast city, roll by. The playing, clarity, stands alone. Morgan sadly didn't make it past 33, and he would have been only 75 today. But he's still very much alive for many of us, including the newly born.
Can you learn to love music you just don't jive with? I tried to find out by trying to find out, and I wrote up my experiment in an essay for this Sunday's Los Angeles Times. (Note: In no way does this piece attempt to satirize experiential critical journalism. Not at all...)
The piece also discusses the fact that dissonance is not just an objective term but a subjective, personal issue (i.e. I find some Offenbach awfully dissonant). The essay's headline was actually "Dissonance" when I last signed off on the piece, and I would have loved to discuss this issue more--you can say that piece is coming soon.
At any rate, here's a resource page for those interested in trying out the "potentially horrific" playlist that I used for my terribly scientific experiment.
**I should also note that I first read reports about the Australian study on the websites of NPR Music and The Atlantic (first report here). I noted these reports in my original final draft, and I would have liked it if those sources were kept in the text, but they were edited out. The online version of the piece also has pretty much the same headline as the NPR blog's piece; before it went to print, when I last saw it, my piece's headline was "Dissonance." In print now it's "A Resonance in Dissonance," which is great and shows us why editors often make pieces much more enticing.
*Lastly: I wish I could have written more about the music specifically. (I'd even included a bit in the original draft before cutting about some tonal music that I can't stand, and how I consider that personally dissonant.) Relatedly, this morning, I received a constructively critical note from one of the aforementioned composer's family members that initially implied that I'm closeminded and/or undereducated, and that I would like a lot more of the man's work if, and I'm paraphrasing, "I had ever listened to it." (And this was one of the nicest notes I've received.)
But here's the thing: A) I've listened to about 97% of it in my lifetime, and I did say that I love certain pieces, as well as that this composer is important. And B) If anything, people should know that articles like this cannot run longer than a certain length, usually, and that I wasn't allowed by space constraints to get into any one musical piece or composer with much depth. I also included references to other great works by this composer that might get people interested in him. I hope that they listen to them, just as I love to listen to much Dissonant music.
The most important motive behind an essay like this -- which is, to be sure, light fare, with a few chuckles about music, research studies, itself, and its author, for that matter -- is to get people to try and listen to more music that they think they may not like. I appreciate reader notes like these, though; I know that it's hard to understand how things work behind the scenes for writers.
What I hope a piece like this does is show that someone with a background in serious concert music can like a lot of other genres of music, that young people also care for concert music (and for advocating for it), and that one should open his or her ears, give everything a fair shot, and then, after much listening, feel free and unfrightened to be human and open and vocal about what he or she likes.
I'm always proud to stand up for Billy Joel. He feels like a relative, a guy from our anti-genre musician family who just chose to live more than us, sometimes in some crazy, silly ways. Sure, I fit the profile: I'm from NY/Long Island, I like the Yankees, I'm Jewish by genetic design, I grew up with a piano in the house.
But more important, I believe Joel's honest, eloquent songwriting will survive the naysayers because of what's under the hood. I can't change dated instrumentation, production, and interpretation (or, for that matter, the comical "Downeaster Alexa"; as "The Stranger" says, "everyone goes south, every now and then"). But strip the songs down, and a good 80% of the time, It's there. Substance.
(I'm sorry if it seems elitist, and I know that it takes all kinds and that taste is subjective, but I believe that if you can't hear why Joel's songs are for the most part excellent you need to learn more about, or at least rethink, the craft of songwriting. Call him annoying, call him cheesy. It won't change the material.)
Of course, Billy Joel never would have happened without The Beatles, Dylan, and Ray Charles, among others; he's an interpreter, and a sponge. But that's what a performing and composing musician is, and he'll be remembered on more days than his birthday (today, May 9) for outstanding contributions to the American songbook and concert life. (And now there's news that he may tour again.)
Here (above) is an interesting find on the still-free YouTube: outtakes posted from "Songs in the Attic." This will appeal to you, especially if you know and appreciate the Nassau Coliseum live show that made the final version of this album. "Nowadays, You Can't Be Too Sentimental." Or sincere.
Recently, I published a VQR piece on the future of sheet music, including a bit on new apps and notation literacy. In related news bloggers are pointing out a new music notation system called Hummingbird (depicted above). I looked it over, tried it out. It borrows its method of displaying rhythm from piano rolls, showing us the amount of time a note should be held, like GarageBand and other music software. What's more, it points up for sharps and down for flats, which a demanding violin teacher might do with a pencil. Aside from that, it's deceptively complicated and requires learning different symbols. How much easier it would be for someone who has never learned music, or lacks a teacher, is questionable.
New systems (and apps) are best when they solve problems, but learning to read Western music notation isn't a problem that requires a solution. It's not easy. But like learning to read English, it's eminently doable, and fraught with fewer variables and exceptions. Reading Western notation—and there have of course been many precursors to what we use now, as well as many alternatives, including Braille and an integer-based system—has also proven to be good for your brain, and we don't need to simplify it. The current sharp and flat note symbols work fine; you just have to remember them.
Hummingbird appears to be a nicely designed dumbing-down, and not an especially noteworthy one in an age of design-fetish and how-to videos. Shortcuts—like guitar tablature—should really be shortcuts. This new system basically just makes reading music different, and it doesn't seem to allow for new ways to notate sounds that we cannot yet notate. I'm in favor of new music technologies and notation systems, but Hummingbird should first show me why Western music notation is a problem, and why Hummingbird is a necessary alternative. For now, especially given our abundance of online music-education resources, it's not.
For more information about alternative music notation systems that may solve what some perceive to be standard notation problems, check out The Music Notation Project.
In 2004, when I first wrote about digital sheet music, for the New York Times, pre-iPad, new gadgets were just being sold to display it for traveling musicians like David Bowie's bandmate Mike Garson and violinist Izthak Perlman, both of whom kindly spoke to me for the story. But sheet music has always been a weirdly tense topic, full of salespeople and schemers: Back then, Harry Connick, Jr. (who, of all technologists, has a patent on a digital sheet music reader), had chosen not to comment on the topic but the way my editor had re-arranged my reporting on his lack of interest angered his representative, enough to insinuate legal threats (so, basically sheet music made friendly Harry Connick want to sue me). Then there was the CEO of one of the companies who claimed repeatedly that he had nothing to do with another, which we only found out after digging through his lies to us after the fact. The story -- its subtext, anyway -- turned into a piece about two companies suing each other. Not our intention.
Sheet music should not inspire fights and deception. Or should it?
In my new Spring 2013 VQR piece, "Sound + Vision," I argue that sheet music is literature (a method of storytelling), and I try to explain how it functioned that way for my family as well as discuss its future and some advocates' fears that fewer people seem able to and interested in reading it now more than ever. Is that true? It's hard to know, and I hope that my guess is wrong. What I do know is that a lot of people are creating innovative sheet music solutions for the digital space, and that despite music-budget cuts, plummeting keyboard instrument sales, and music store deaths, a lot of kids and adults want to play music. It's no surprise that the world is always changing, but notated music is in fact coming along for the ride. And thank Life that it is. I want more children to grow up being read to from the piano, or some kind of instrument, and being able to read that way themselves.