I hope you explore and enjoy this great music which is too often unheard–feel free to download and make your own playlists–soundcloud (a great new discovery for me) is free!
Adam Kirsch writes in last week’s NYT Book Review, “For the truth is that there is something in the act of creation that presses forward into the public realm, whether the artist goes on to seek publicity or not. To write a poem or paint a picture is to translate inner experience into outward form and presence; it is to objectify sensation, and the definition of an object is that it can be passed from hand to hand, its shape fixed for everyone. To want to be an artist without creating such an object is a contradiction in terms. And once the object is created, it wants to be seen. […] Art is a form of communication, and communication cannot be totally autonomous, just as there can be no such thing as a private language.”
I did not include the Beethoven Sonata op. 109 because I did not think, hearing it, that my playing did it justice. One thing I have learned through the often-painful process of listening to my recital is that 1) I need to perform more so that I become more comfortable with it and 2) that I need to listen to myself while practicing. For that purpose, I have discovered that my phone has an app for that! And starting in the fall, the Conservatory will hold monthly opportunities for adult students to play for each other.
And, for those of you who have been waiting for the latest, corrected edition of my book of poems, The Beautiful Unnamed, it is available here.
I am in the process of choosing new music–Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Chopin–as well as a contemporary and a 17th-century women composers–Rachel Grimes and Anna Bon. It is such a pleasure to find new music.
So far I have not been writing, but feel the waves building up there too.
I will be back!
Thanks again to everyone who came to my recital on June 6, and who contributed to Jazale’s Art Studio. I was able to hand over nearly $200 to Darren Hill (co-founder) immediately after the recital. If you did not receive my book The Beautiful Unnamed at the recital you may order it (or additional copies) here. Again, all royalties will go to Jazale’s.
Other nice things have happened. As some of you know, I was awarded third place as well as an honorable mention in this year’s poetry contest sponsored by Wisconsin People & Ideas. The issue will be released, online and in print, next month, but if you want a preview of one of the three poems of mine that will appear there, “The Self-organizing Universal Nail Salon,” you may click here.
“The Nightly Dances of Madame de Loynes” is now up at Zo Magazine. You may remember my entry last August 16 about entering the contest based on connections between art forms: in this case, writing about a famous painting by by Luis Jose Estremadoyro, a contemporary Peruvian painter. The painting is called “The Nightly Unfolding of Madame De Loynes,” and is a fascinating hybrid of realism and, I guess, surrealism. You will have to scroll down the page on Zo Magazine (above) to see my poem, but while you are scrolling, take a look/listen at the other wonderful collaborations among poetry, art, and music!
After a long-anticipated event like a recital, there is often a kind of let-down after, but four days with active young boys—my two grandsons—grounded me quickly!
Another antidote to letdown is to start something new. The original purpose of this blog was simply to chronicle the experience of preparing my book and recital. But that doesn’t mean that ideas don’t still come!
Looking for new music on the internet last week, I was immediately taken with the music of Rachel Grimes, British composer and pianist whose album Book of Leaves I immediately purchased. On it are many short, arresting pieces, including this one: Every Morning, Birds, which I include here for your listening pleasure.
It reminds me of an article in last Sunday’s NYT’s Review section called “Birds of New York: A Soundscape” by Jeff Talman, a sound artist. If you play the embedded video, you will get a sense of what Talman means when he says, “Flight and music both represent freedom from earthbound restraint. But music is even more intangible; music is made of the air, the medium of flight, the ether between us. Music is made of the sky.” Talman composed by “time-stretching birdcall samples, or extending passages with extra tweets, peeps, and other song elements, I made them ‘fit’ with one another musically to create phrases, harmonies and orchestrations.”
He notes that these sounds are an “astounding part of our [everyday] soundscape.”
This morning, before I got up, I listened to a crow starting a rhythm in the backyard. Soon it was joined by the sound of a lawn mower, and then those of the next-door children laughing before getting into a car that then zoomed away. But below it all was the sound of that crow (one of the most intelligent birds, they say, and ones I greatly admire.)
The experience reminded me of an interactive poem (you need to roll your mouse over the images to hear the crows and the music) that I wrote over ten years ago, “Bird Calls.” It is still in the New River Journal archives here.
And so life goes on. And I guess this blog will too, at least for awhile, even if it has only a small audience! If you want to be notified of when a new post appears, sign up for the RSS feed at the top of the page. The RSS symbol will then appear on your browser, and you can more easily check for updates.
Thanks for being such a good audience!
This particular journey is nearly over for me. I want to thank each and every one of you who has read and/or commented on what I have been exploring here over the past ten months.
Now the book of poems, The Beautiful Unnamed, is available in a format I would never have foreseen. Ten months ago I had never heard of Jazale’s Art Studio, which now will reap whatever royalties the book yields.
My fourth recital in the past ten years will take place day after tomorrow, 2 pm, at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, 1584 N. Prospect, in Milwaukee. If you have not yet received an invitation, this is it! I owe great thanks to my teacher, Stefanie Jacob, for being by my side as I have prepared this music. Do I get stage fright? Well, yes, but less so than I did years ago when I returned to taking lessons. It is true, as I tell my own students who must make speeches, that the more you do it the easier it gets. It will never get TOO easy, however. There seems to be some cosmic rule of performance about that.
Sara Solovitch shared some of her forthcoming book Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright, in last Sunday’s New York Times (another source for which I am thankful). In the article, she talks about how she battled her recurrent stage fright as a pianist returning to the piano at the age of 59 (which was about my age when I returned to lessons). She had a history of terrible anxiety around performance (so did I). She says, “In the year devoted to the conquest of stage fright, I explored every tool I could find—from deep breathing techniques to biofeedback and cognitive behavior therapy.” She worked with a performance coach and consulted psychologists. She developed talismans. She took lessons in the “Alexander Technique, a system of body awareness and movement that helps relieve old patterns of stress and is favored by musicians.” She took beta blockers, which cut adrenaline and thus minimize some of the more troublesome aspects of stage fright such as shaking. (Stefanie recommends a banana before performing—their potassium and magnesium are said to have much the same effect.)
For me? The only two methods that have consistently worked for me are 1) taking every opportunity that comes my way to play before people—it DOES get easier—and 2) preparing the music to the extent that I no longer dread particular passages. This latter method never works completely because there are rarely–if ever–passages that become completely unproblematic.
What also helps is the reminder that live performance is very different from the perfection of recordings to which we have become accustomed, and that such lack of perfection is what makes performance most human.
These reassurances I will carry with me into the recital hall on Saturday afternoon, but that does not mean that I will not be nervous. Hopefully I can channel whatever nerves there may be into excitement.
Solovitch concludes her article by saying that, finally, she “cared less about the mistakes and more about communication, about creating a connection with people. That’s what any good performance does; it connects with its audience on an emotional level. I’d spent so many hours behind closed doors, practicing and practicing, and now I wanted to share.”
And that shared exploration has also been the impetus behind my book of poetry and behind this blog.
An audience’s appreciation (in the original meaning of the word, which is to increase) enlarges what is offered.
And for this, my deepest gratitude.
I visited Jazale’s Art Studio with my friend Judith yesterday. Darren Hill and his wife, Cookie, showed us around the new space that already is drawing in kids from the neighborhood and from other neighborhood organizations. Darren has just received his degree in Educational Policy/Communications from UWM, and his brother, Vedale Hill, is a graduate of Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. Vedale credits Judith, a professor at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, for his success at the school, where he developed both his artistic and writing talents.
As we walked into the building that houses the studio, the poster “Put the Guns Down” was prominently displayed on the wall. This was not the usual “no weapons allowed” sign that is on most public Wisconsin buildings now since the right to carry concealed was passed by our legislature last year. No, it was a home-made plea from the neighborhood.
In today’s Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel is an article called ‘Put the Guns Down’ by Gina Barton, recounting the shooting of Debra Hopkins, who was attending a vigil for her son, Kendrai Walker—Milwaukee’s 59th homicide victim this year, shot May 15 in an alley near 28th and Auer. The next day, gunmen opened fire on a vigil in his memory, wounding five people, including his mother. From the hospital, Kendrai’s mother says, “I just hope people start waking up and…start doing for each other like we used to do instead of hating on each other. Put the guns down and pick up a Bible or book or something. Pick up a phone and say, ‘Hey, how you doing? Let’s go to a show or something. Let’s go to the park and play some ball.’”
Last Friday evening, her friends and neighbors came together for another vigil. The Rev. Erik Rodriguez said, “It’s watching out for each other. It’s knowing something is not acceptable and saying something about it. We can’t be afraid.”
As our daughter, Jessi, a public-health nurse in Madison, notes, violence is a public health issue that can only be solved by community-building.
How do we do that? Another article, from today’s New York Times , Why Do We Experience Awe? by professor of psychology and social behavior Paul Piff, says that research provides strong evidence that activities which often produce “awe,” like “collective rituals, celebration, music and dance, religious gatherings and worship,” shift focus from “narrow self-interest to the interests of the group to which we belong.” He goes on to suggest that our culture is “awe-deprived.” We spend less time outdoors in nature; we attend fewer live arts events; arts and music programs in schools “are being dismantled in lieu of programs better suited to standardized testing.” Even brief experiences of awe, research shows, “redefine the self in terms of the collective, and orient our actions toward the needs of those around us.” He goes on to echo Ms. Hopkins’ plea: “we suggest that people insist on experiencing more everyday awe, to actively seek out what gives them goose bumps, be it in looking at trees [how many trees are in Kendrai’s neighborhood? how safe are the parks?], night skies [how much can be seen past orange sodium street lights?], patterns of wind on water [how many kids in Kendrai’s neighborhood have actually seen Lake Michigan?], or the quotidian nobility of others—the teenage punk who gives up his seat on public transportation [how many have mentors who have told them to do so?], the young child who explores the world in a state of wonder, the person who presses on against all odds [yes, there are still those].”
Darren, Judith, Cookie, and I bemoaned these realities in Jazale’s Art Studio. We can’t change everything, we decided, but we can support small pockets of awe-inspiring places like Jazale’s where kids can have access to some of these experiences, including the support to ‘put down the guns’ and to see that there really are alternatives out there for them.
The Wilhelm version of the I Ching speaks, in Hexagram 16, “Enthusiasm,” of this effect of the arts:
When, at the beginning of summer, thunder—electrical energy—comes rushing forth from the earth again, and the first thunderstorm refreshes nature, a prolonged state of tension is resolved. Joy and relief make themselves felt. So too, music has power to ease tension within the heart and to loosen the grip of obscure emotions. The enthusiasm of the heart expresses itself involuntarily in a burst of song, in dance and rhythmic movement of the body. From immemorial times the inspiriting effect of the invisible sound that moves all hearts and draws them together, has mystified mankind.
On June 6, I hope that you will be moved to talk with Darren or Vedale after the recital to find out more about what they are doing to bring the possibility of awe to a new generation of kids, and perhaps to contribute some support.
My book, The Beautiful Unnamed, is now available on amazon.com. As I’ve said before, all royalties will go to Jazale’s Art Studio.
After a period of “being still,” things are definitely in motion!
I am working hard to get the last four or five Rachmaninoff variations in shape for performance with only 15 days to go!
I have ordered 100 copies of The Beautiful Unnamed (finished!) to be given away at the recital!
I have ordered eight variations of the Classy Girl Cupcakes that we had at the recital in 2013. This year, they do not all look like roses (I played “The Rose Sonata” by Elizabeth R. Austin that year); in face the variations (you may try all) are:
- · raspberry truffle
- · salted caramel fudge
- · strawberry champagne
- · raspberry zinger
- · lemon pound
- · coconut angel food
- · orange cream
- · gluten-free whatevers
Invitations have been sent out. If you didn’t receive one, it’s because I don’t have your email. Consider yourself invited (Program Notes are below).
My morning glory seedlings have been planted. Though I still have to cover them up with burlap at night, they seem to be thriving. Hopefully they will bloom before August, though they rarely have.
It’s a challenge.
Here are the program notes. Come if you can!
Variations of Beautiful
Piano Recital Program—2:00, June 6, 2015
Wisconsin Conservatory of Music
1584 N. Prospect Ave.
Kathleen Dale, student of Stefanie Jacob
- · Toccata (Beata E Golec, 2007)
- · Toccata in E Minor, BWV 914 (JS Bach, 1712)
Un poco Allegro
- · Secret & Glass Gardens (Jennifer Higdon, 2001)
Intermission (ten minutes)
- Sonata Op. 109 (Ludwig v. Beethoven, 1820)·
Vivace ma non troppo, Prestissimo
Theme (Tema) (Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo)
Var. 1 (Molto espressivo)
Var. 2 (Leggiermente)
Var. 3 (Allegro vivace)
Var. 4 (Un poco meno andante ciò è un poco più adagio come il tema)
Var. 5 (Allegro ma non troppo)
Var. 6 (Tempto I del tema)
- ·Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42 (Sergei Rachmaninoff, 1931)
Var. I(Poco più mosso)
Var. II(L’istesso tempo)
Var. III (Tempo di Menuetto)
Var. IV (Andante)
Var. V(Allegro (ma non tanto)
Var. VI (L’istesso tempo)
Var. VII (Vivace)
Var. VIII (Adago misterioso)
Var. IX (Un poco più mosso)
Var. X (Allegro scherzando)
Var. XIII (Agitato)
Intermezzo (A tempo rubato)
Var. XIV (Andante come prima)
Var. XV (L’istesso tempo dolcissimo)
Var. XVI (Allegro vivace)
Var. XVII (Meno mosso)
Var. XVIII (Allegro con brio)
Var. XX (Più mosso)
thanks to Mark Franke, page-turner extraordinaire
Refreshments and signed copies of Kathleen’s new book, The Beautiful Unnamed, will be available in the dining room after the recital, where donations may be made to Jazale’s Art Studio. Jazale’s provides after-school art education to Milwaukee children without easy access to the arts. Donations can also be made directly on their website – www.jazalesartstudio.org
Toccata, Op. 1, No. 1, by Beata E.Golec
As I have done with other contemporary women composers over the past ten years, I found Beata Golec on the internet. Her 2007 CD entitled simply Beata E. Golec; pianist and composer , offered samples of her work. I was immediately taken with her “Toccata” written sometime in the early 2000s.Golec was a student of Judith Lang Zaimont, whose work I have also played.
When I listened to Golec’s cd selections on the internet, I was immediately drawn to her “Toccata.” When I wrote Dr. Golec and asked for the music, she generously provided it. At the same time I was playing another Toccata—Bach’s—written some 275 years earlier. Both toccatas were written when the composers were relatively young, and express a youthful energy.
The word “toccata” comes from the Italian toccare, which means “to touch.” Wikipedia tells us that a toccata is generally a virtuoso piece of music typically for a keyboard featuring fast-moving, lightly fingered or otherwise virtuosic passages or sections, generally emphasizing the dexterity of the performer’s [generally young!] fingers.
Golec was born in Glicwice, Poland, where she studied at the Karol Symanowski Academy of Music. She completed her graduate studies in piano performance at Eastman School of Music, and now teaches at SUNY in Geneseo, NY. According to her website (beatagolec.com) “Her first compositions were written at age 13, but the official recognition for her as a composer came three years later in 1997 when she received an award for ‘Fantazja Polska’ for piano and cello at the . . . All-Polish Composers Competition for a piece dedicated to Pope John Paul II.” Since then she has won several international piano competitions. Several of her compositions have been premiered at the annual Women in Music Festival in Rochester, NY (2005- 2011).
Toccata in E minor, BVW 914, by J.S. Bach
Complete disclosure: in my youth I associated Bach’s music with the gloomy organ music that was played before our dreary church services. However, thanks to my teachers, who wisely insisted that I learn to play at least some of his work, I have discovered the joy to be had playing Bach, even–perhaps especially–his works composed in minor keys.
In this unverified portrait of Bach, ca. 1712, about the time he wrote this Toccata, we see a man who was rapidly becoming known throughout Germany as one of the country’s greatest German organists. Organ pupils came to him from far and wide, and he was asked to test or dedicate many organs in various towns. One contemorary states: ‘His fingers were all of equal strength, all equally able to play with the finest precision. He had invented so comfortable a fingering that he could master the most difficult parts with perfect ease (using five fingers instead of the then normal three). He was able to accomplish passages on the pedals with his feet which would have given trouble to the fingers of many a clever player on the keyboard’. (baroquemusic.org)
The Toccatas BWV 910-916 date from Bach’s youth, during his earliest period of composition during the transition period out of youth into maturity. These toccatas do not have the formal structure of Bach’s later works, and instead are representative of the young musician’s imagination given free rein, coupled with his passion for writing in contrapunctal complexity. inkpot.com/classical/bachtoccatahans.html
Despite its joy and energy, in this music I also find emotions that would stem from Bach’s “frequent and painful encounters with death, which scythed through his family: neither of his parents lived beyond the age of fifty [Bach himself lived to be 65], and he lost twelve out of twenty of his own children before they had reached the age of three—well beyond the average, even at a time when infant mortality was ubiquitous” (John Eliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, 2013).
Bach became perhaps “newest” for me, and the most emotional, in the “Adagio” right before the “Fuga” in this Toccata. The practice of “recitative” was unfamiliar to me: a style of delivery (much used in opera—to which I have also come late) in which a singer is allowed to adopt the rhythms of ordinary speech. Recitative does not repeat lines as formally composed songs do. It resembles sung ordinary speech more than it does a formal musical composition (Wikipedia). I greatly enjoyed playing this section, especially, with the feeling, imagination, and passion I had never before associated with Bach.
Secret & Glass Gardens by Jennifer Higdon
Of this piece, Higdon writes, “A journey of wonder and discovery, this secret garden reflects the paths of our hearts. It is a place of magical colors and brightly hued glass, where all is in view. The plants that grow there are like no other, in color and shape, and every turn of a corner brings new discoveries. The garden sweeps the viewer along amidst small, delicate details and full, grand shapes, carrying magic through all corners and at every step.”
I’m thinking that Higdon has read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 children’s book, The Secret Garden, about a hidden, locked garden, which, in its secret cultivation by three children, eventually heals them all. Indeed, I think of children when I play this piece: their tentativeness as well as, if allowed expression, their openness to joy and fun. Within the “walls” of the similar opening and closing, one travels a long way, just as Higdon describes.
But getting there: the piece is amazingly difficult. It has taken me two years to learn, even to the rather limited degree and speed with which I can now intepret its challenging rhythms and unusal chord combinations. One of her few pieces for solo piano, Higdon says that “Secret & Glass Gardens” “was composed on invitation from the Van Cliburn Piano Competition. I wrote this work, thinking that quiet lyricism is often as hard to pull off as the technically difficult music that all of these pianists would be playing on their recitals.” In addition, more recently, in March of 2015, it was one of five required pieces (along with a Toccata by Bach!) for the Hilton Head Internation Piano Competition for pianists 13-17 years old—which is truly humbling!
Higdon is a major figure in contemporary classical music, receiving the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto and a 2010 Grammy for her Percussion Concerto. Higdon enjoys several hundred performances a year of her works, and blue cathedral is one of America’s most performed contemporary orchestral works, with more than 500 performances worldwide since its premiere in 2000. Her works have been recorded on over four dozen CDs. Higdon is currently writing an opera based on the best-selling novel, Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, to be premiered by the Santa Fe Opera in 2015. Higdon holds the Rock Chair in Composition at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her music is published exclusively by Lawdon Press. (jenniferhigdon.com)
Sonata Number 30 in E Major, Op. 109, by Ludwig von Beethoven
I have an unfortunate history with this music. I once again thank my teacher, Stefanie Jacob, for having confidence in my ability finally to play this sonata, especially the sixth and last variation, which was nearly a deal-breaker for me, with its double trills.
After the initial “allegro/prestissimo” opening, this sonata consists of a theme and six variations. From the time I conceived the thought of this recital, I began writing about the significance of “variations” in my blog. See, for instance, http://kathleenanndale.squarespace.com/blog/2014/8/11/fooling-around-with-connections-and-variations-of-connection.html
Many composers have created variations on a theme, but then so have many poets. Why?
In her liner notes, pianist Zhu Xiao-Mei describes Bach’s famous “The Goldberg Variations” as being “like the water in a river. At the end of the work, the water continues to flow. It is at once the same and not the same. You have lived, you’ve understood something, everything is over and at the same time everything can start again. . . . It is the expression of life itself.”
Life consists of moments that embellish, magnify, and even change what we have come to think of as “the truth” about our lives. Beginning with one “truth”—one theme—artists of all kinds, as well as physicists and children, loosen it, play with it, shift it into a multitude of increasingly complex possibilities, freeing us from whatever is “stuck”or stagnant.
Playing the variations by Beethoven (in this sonata) and those by Rachmaninoff (see next note) makes me think of the famous lines from the end of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (themselves variations on a theme):
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
And, earlier in Eliot’s sequence, is this:
Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now.
When each set of variations finally returns to its theme, it feels as if the theme has been transformed, deepened, by all of the stretching that it has been through since its first statement. Can not we, who are older, say the same of our own lives?
Eliot was 54 when he finished Four Quartets; Beethoven was 50 (seven years before his death) when he finished Sonata Op. 109. Though by today’s standards, neither was yet an “old man,” Eliot spoke as if he were:
Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity….
During the last ten years of his life, Beethoven was completely deaf, and was involved in acrimonious family disputes, and yet he wrote much of his best work during that time, including this sonata, the ninth symphony (“Ode to Joy”) and the Missa Solemnis. How did he do it? Maybe because he did not get “stuck,” but kept exploring, reaching, as Eliot says, out “into the silence.”
Variations on a Theme of Corelli by Sergei Rachmaninoff
The theme upon which these variations are based, which sounds to me in its opening version like a sung prayer of petition, was not actually written by Corelli. Called “La Folia,” it was used by not only Corelli (1700) in HIS set of variations, but by other composers such as Franz Liszt as well. Its true origins seem to be unknown. (Wikipedia)
In a letter to a fellow composer soon after these variations were premiered in 1931, Rachmaninoff writes with sardonic humor, “I’ve played the Variations about fifteen times, but of these fifteen performances only one was good. The others were sloppy. I can’t play my own compositions! And it’s so boring! Not once have I played these all in continuity. I was guided by the coughing of the audience. Whenever the coughing would increase, I would skip the next variation. Whenever there was no coughing, I would play them in proper order. In one concert, I don’t remember where – some small town – the coughing was so violent that I played only ten variations (out of 20). My best record was set in New York, where I played 18 variations. However, I hope that you will play all of them, and won’t ‘cough’.”
(I don’t play them all either; three of them are labeled “this variation may be omtted.” It makes me wonder why he did that, but I have skipped them!)
Despite his above apologia, Rachmaninoff was considered one of the most accomplished pianists of his time, in addition to being a composer. Yet, according to Wikipedia, Rachmaninoff was sometimes criticized for the kinds of risks he took with composition. At one point before he left Russia, he visited Tolstoy,”who took the composer aside and asked: ‘Is such music needed by anyone? I must tell you how I dislike it all. Beethoven is nonsense, Pushkin and Lermontov also.’ As his guests were leaving, Tolstoy said: ‘Forgive me if I’ve hurt you by my comments’; and Rachmaninoff graciously replied: How could I be hurt on my own account, if I was not hurt on Beethoven’s?’”
I wish I had said that to Tolstoy!
In 1912, Rachmaninoff quit in protest from his position as the vice-president of the Russian Musical Society, when he heard that a musician in an administrative post with the organization was to be dismissed on the grounds that the musician was Jewish. Sergei Bertensson writes that Rachmaninoff took his position in the society seriously, “and for Rachmaninoff ‘seriously’ meant with moral as well as artistic seriousness: these were really fused in him.”
In 1917 he emigrated to America, having lost his Russian estate and livelihood in the Russian Revolution. He lived in America until his death in 1943, but was homesick, so spent summers in Switzerland, where he not only wrote these beautiful variations, but regained some of the inspiration he felt he had left behind in Russia. He and his wife became American citiziens in 1943, right before his death at age 69.
As he grew older, Rachmaninoff was less concerned with pure melody than with what’s called “coloring”, which is sometimes difficult to define as it applies to music. According to, once again, Wikipedia, “His near-Impressionist style perfectly matched the texts by symbolist poets. …the player must see beyond any technical challenges to a considerable array of emotions, then unify all these aspects.”
There was apparently a definite compositional change into the early 1930s, when Rachmaninoff wrote these variations, which “show an even greater textural clarity,… combined with a more abrasive use of chromatic harmony and a new rhythmic incisiveness.” Because he apparently possessed extremely large hands , he is said to have been able easily to “maneuver through the most complex chordal configurations.”
From 1943 to the present day, themes from his compositions have appeared in American movies and as the bases for popular American songs, such as “I Think of You” (sung by Frank Sinatra). In one perhaps apochryphal story that I love for its ironies, Harpo Marx once had Rachmanonoff unceremoniously tossed out of an adjoining hotel room because “some pianist” was making “too much noise”!
According to listeners, Rachmaninoff possessed a tremendous ability to make a musical line sing, no matter how long the notes or how complex the supporting texture, with most of his interpretations taking on a story-like quality.
It is this singing quality that still makes me catch my breath at the beauty of each of these variations, which take us through marvelous twists, turns, and hidden surprises before delivering us, once again, to the “same” theme, now, to me, a prayer of gratitude.
One of my favorite places to do this is the Runway Dog Park on Rawson Ave., just east of Howell Ave. in Oak Park, WI. Elliot and I had it all to ourselves this morning—that is, except for the myriad birds—sandpipers, red-winged blackbirds, robins, goldfinches, woodpeckers, hawks—that were celebrating the new season and preparing for new life. There is a time in that process for quiet, waiting, filling. And this is what I have been doing as my teaching responsibilities come to an end this week.
Next week I will write the program notes for my recital, finalize the formatting for my book of poems, and of course, keep practicing—scrubbing at those tough spots that just don’t want to be smoothed away. They are there in my “garden,” as well—weeds growing inches a day while I don’t have the necessary energy to do away with them. New raspberry canes have decided that they want to grow in the middle of our back lawn. Next week I will decide what to do about them—often it’s the imperfections that make the beauty. Today I may get as far as soaking my morning glory seeds.
Today started with the dog park, a supportive piano lesson with Stefanie, and a very slow quarter-mile swim. Then Elliot and I sat out on the back deck, ate lunch and listened to the songbirds (which actually have to learn their music too. I didn’t know that until recently). According to the website at Cornell University, “Many songbirds keep learning even after setting out on their own as a youngster. The songs of a particular bird can change over time. During his first nesting season, for example, a young male Indigo Bunting sings an odd song unique to himself, and typically different from his father’s. “
But I’ll bet they don’t memorize their songs in order to win money. They’re out for something much more important!
Once again, I am thankful to my readers and other sources that have responded to my thoughts.
In terms of the content of my previous posting, one reader writes:
In terms of young people–with health insurance, with college loans, with the huge financial burden that’s on recent graduates, how much can the world let them become who they can be? How much can 20-somethings become (and stay) weirdos without huge amounts of effort? Maybe it’s always taken huge amounts of effort. I’m reminded of another quote: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” But not everybody is lucky enough to have this experience. That is why the weirdos are blessed.
Coincidentally, I have recently re-read a book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde. Originally published (and read by me) twenty-five years ago, it has just been released as a 25th Anniversary Edition with a new Preface and Afterword by Hyde. Hyde’s initial premise was that art survives only as a “gift” that is removed from the world of commidites. To continue giving, it must continually recycle without ever being bought or sold.
In his new “Afterword: On Being Good Ancestors,” he explains his theory that, before the 1989 fall of the Soviet Union,
In the United States, the 1965 enabling legislation for the arts and humanities endowments spelled out worthy goals: ‘while no government can call a great artist or scholar into existence, it is necessary and appropriate for the federal government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry, but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent.’ This seems exactly right; the problem lies in the context of its expression, the long season of democratic-propaganda patronage during which, despite the well-put ideal, the arts and sciences were not supported as ends in themselves, but as players in a larger political drama.
Hyde then goes on to explain that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, support of the arts in the United States was no longer needed for propagandistic reasons and so governmental support of the arts fell accordingly, and drastically, to an all-time low. What can we do? Today, he notes, there is “ a necessarily limited sample of places where the commercial and the noncommercial are found in better balance. . . .Numerous projects on the WEB have the structures and fertility of gift communities.” But these are few and far between. When asked to “speak to the question of how we are to empower the [arts] in a world dominated by market exchange,” his solution lies in reinstating the circularity of the gift: e.g., funds for artists who then return the proceeds of their work to the fund.
It’s a beginning. And one in which I want to take part. In a wonderful analogy to the story of “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” Hyde expresses perfectly my reason for not charging for either my upcoming recital or new book: “A gift that has the power to change us awakens a part of the soul. But we cannot receive the gift until we can meet it as an equal. We therefore submit ourselves to the labor of becoming like the gift. Giving a return gift is the final act in the labor of gratitude, and it is also, therefore, the true acceptance of the original gift. The shoemaker finally gives away some shoes.”
Pass it on. And so this is what I hope to do. Keeping the gift moving in the form of funding for Jazale’s Art Studio refreshes the flow. Hyde says, “The passage into mystery always refreshes. If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labor is satisfied. We are lightened when our gifts rise from pools we cannot fathom. Then we know they are not a solitary egotism and they are inexhaustible. Anything contained within a boundary must contain as well its own exhaustion. . . .But when the gift passes out of sight and then returns, we are enlivened.”
This past weekend were the scholarship auditions at the Conservatory, where students compete for scholarship money for the upcoming year. Thus, instead of the “labor of gratitude,” one’s practice goes toward money-making, and, for me, the flow just stopped. Hyde explains why: “most of us have had the experience of becoming suddenly tongue-tied before an audience or before someone whom we perceive to be judging us. . . .the moral seems to be that the gift is lost in self-consciousness.”
Because of my own reaction, I have decided never to compete in such an audition again. Luckily, my teachers , Stefanie and Lewis Hyde, remind me of the huge difference between audition and performance.
Another reader, Sandy from Arizona, sends in this from the blog A Silver Fraction by artist Laurie Doctor (April 21). In it, Laurie and a few friends “went to hear a talk by a famous artist, who spent much of the talk stating statistics on how many thousand people saw his various exhibits. The talk was largely about numbers, places his work was in, and where his work wasn’t that he wished it was. . . .He made some important social statements, and actions, especially in the early work. There was a paradox of being socially active, politically concerned, and yet not one reference to another artist who influenced his work– or anyone else’s work. The puzzle was heightened by the artist describing the motivation of the work being to help other aspiring artists gain visibility– and when a young woman responded by asking for guidance on this subject, the response was essentially: Buy my book.”
“It made me ask myself again: Who am I making things for? What is the difference between being an artist and a social activist? Do I want my work to be grandiose? What is it that I have to offer?
But these questions answer themselves when I have forgotten all about myself and who I am making this work for, and am, as Sam said to Frodo, ‘inside the song’.
It brought to mind this poem, Clearing, by Martha Postlewaite:
Do not try to save
the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
until the song
that is your life
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself
to this world
so worthy of rescue.
Illness, other responsibilities, and self-doubt have keep me from the blog recently. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking!
As the dates for the scholarship audition and recital come closer and closer, I think that, hopefully, the piano practice seems about where it should be. Nothing is perfect, but the beauty of the pieces is slowly emerging, and the terror of the difficult places is receding.
Sharon, from my home town in Wichita (and coordinator of our fiftieth high school reunion), recently posted this on Facebook, and I am hereby borrowing it:
Such beliefs comfort me during times when I feel my art does not matter much. Luckily, there are those who have gone before who have faced similar doubts and have left a trail of letters out of that quagmire.
Patricia of Colorado reminds me of some of the “notes” Madeleine L’Engle left, quoted by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his 1996 book Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention. According to Csikszentmihalyi, L’Engle “aims to remind the reader of the world’s ‘grim realities’ but to frame them in a way that makes the possibility of overcoming them feel equally real, using storytelling as a ‘way to keep people from falling away from one another.’”
And Maria Popova in her essay “Kandinsky on the Spiritual Element in Art and the Three Responsibilities of Artists” quotes Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky, who said, “To harmonize the whole is the task of art,” and then goes on to quote others who felt something similar:
“Art is a form of nourishment (of consciousness, the spirit),” 31-year-old Susan Sontag wrote in her diary in 1964. “Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness,” wrote Alain de Botton half a century later in the excellent Art as Therapy. But perhaps the greatest meditation on how art serves the soul came more than a century earlier, in 1910, when legendary Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky published Concerning the Spiritual in Art (free download; public library) — an exploration of the deepest and most authentic motives for making art, the “internal necessity” that impels artists to create as a spiritual impulse and audiences to admire art as a spiritual hunger.
“Kandinsky’s words, penned in the period between the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the consumer society, ring with remarkable poignancy today. He begins by considering art as a spiritual antidote to the values of materialism and introduces the notion of “stimmung,” an almost untranslatable concept best explained as the essential spirit of nature, echoing Tolstoy’s notion of emotional infectiousness as the true measure of art. Kandinsky writes:
[In great art] the spectator does feel a corresponding thrill in himself. Such harmony or even contrast of emotion cannot be superficial or worthless; indeed the Stimmung of a picture can deepen and purify that of the spectator. Such works of art at least preserve the soul from coarseness; they “key it up,” so to speak, to a certain height, as a tuning-key the strings of a musical instrument.
David Brooks challenged me with his article “A Moral Bucket List: What kind of adventures produce goodness, rather than build résumés?” in last Sunday’s New York Time’s Review section. I recommend the entire article as an exercise in soul-searching, but the part I’d especially like to quote is in a section called “The Call within the Call.” Brooks writes, “We all go into professions for many reasons: money, status, security. But some people have exeriences that turn a career into a calling. These experiences quiet the self. All that matters is living up to the standard of excellence inherent in their craft.”
He goes on to note that, “Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But [some] people. . .do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my instrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?”
And, as the opening poster suggests, all of the arts meet deep needs. And it has been from that perspective that I have devoted so much time over the past weeks and years, despite sometimes wondering if the practice, the writing “did any good.”
It is my hope that the book and the music that I will bring on June 6 will travel some way toward meeting those needs that many artists before me have articulated.
It is also my hope that new non-profits like Jazale’s Art Studio here in Milwaukee will help to introduce the joy of making art to a whole new generation of young artists.
Stefanie, my piano teacher, has a button which she sometimes shows her students but, so far as I know, has never allowed anyone to wear. The button says, “I played it better at home.”
That’s how I’m feeling these days at my lessons. At home, on my spring-untuned piano, I have fewer problems than I do at her house. The reason is obvious: playing for any audience is more stressful than playing by oneself, and part of the reason I started to take lessons again was to overcome my terror of playing in public.
It is true that the more you do it the less terrifying it seems. I know this from being a seasoned teacher. However, just doing it often is not enough. You must have hammered out the difficult parts to such an extent that you no longer tense up when you know they are coming up in the music. And so, these days, I am still doing that “scrub work” on the parts that trip me up—even at home! As time grows short, I am working even harder on those parts.
But that still leaves the rest of the music to practice so that its overall pattern, grace and beauty can emerge unimpeded, at different levels.
In addition to practicing daily and teaching through mid-May, I have now committed to publishing my manuscript of poems through Create Space. Publishing this way is allowing me to retain complete control over the design of my book. It will also allow me to purchase finished copies at a price low enough to do what I initially said that I wanted to do: to give them away for free at my recital on June 6.
Through a series of interesting coincidences, I have recently become aware of a new enterprise by two young men here in Milwaukee that provides art instruction and help with academics to city students who otherwise might not have such access. Such a cause is dear to my heart, and I may offer my event on June 6 as a venue for donations. The details have still to be worked out, but publishing my book in this manner is giving me that option. Stay tuned!
Here is the cover I am currently working on. The image is of a fractal, which I find interesting: a book of related poems is fractal by nature, in that the poems are similar and connected, but at different levels. I am using Photoshop and having a lot of fun.