Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On hearing Rautavaara's "Cantus Arcticus"

Cantus Arcticus is a three movement symphonic work which makes extensive use of birdsong recorded in the Arctic. This piece is not merely a charming experiment. It illustrates that while we think of nature as containing music, the sounds of nature are either not truly music in and of themselves, or calling them music requires a redefinition of the word "music" itself. Unlike the oeuvre of John Cage, who seems tickled to make a significant percentage of his output more a commentary on how far it is possible or not possible to stretch the definition of what we call music, while producing mostly sounds that no one wishes to hear while in the mood for something recognizeable as music, Cantus Arcticus is indeed wonderful music in its own right. But what it also does is illustrate that while we frequently refer to birdsong as being musical, anyone can quickly recognize that without the orchestra, we would not call this music. The sounds of nature are beautiful, but wild. Music is primarily a human concept, and symphonies are highly ordered, being designed rather than emergent.

When the birdsong is sparse, the harmonies of the orchestra are not apparently strongly tonal. Rautavaara thus expresses the wild beauty of nature. When the birdsong is thick and sonorous, the orchestra reduces to simple, tonal harmonies, since it is no longer needed to express nature's wildness; the birds do it themselves. Indeed, some of the tweets towards the end of the piece would probably be interpreted as electronic noise if one were to hear them in some other piece on the radio, a CD or MP3.

Rautavaara went beyond Messaien's use of human-designed instruments to evoke the sounds of birds, instead going directly to the source itself, and produced what he calls a concerto for birdsong and orchestra. And it seems much less pretentious, with his technique for incorporating the two letting birdsong be nature's beautiful noise, and human music be human music.

A side note, the conductor was Finnish composer and conductor Leif Segerstam, who I had the privilege of hearing when he visited Chicago in 1997. He loves making a big deal of Sibelius' dynamic techniques for brass (e.g.: sforzando, subito piano, then a big crescendo), and incorporated them strikingly in Sibelius' youthful and patriotic opus, Finlandia.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

First post

This is a blog. While I do not expect millions of people to read it, my fiancee probably will, and I'll be thrilled. All readers and commenters are welcome, although I have unfortunately already attracted one insane religious troll (pardon the layers of redundancy). I'm going to write about my adventures studying the piano, playing chess, and playing poker, and probably occasionally write about atheism and related topics, views on current events, and a little of my personal life. The prose may frequently be quite dry: I can write well, but that is a time-consuming process for me, and I am a *very* busy person, so to save time this may sometimes read like a list of facts. Fortunately, those sentences will describe events which I find interesting, so it's not a total waste.

I am a classical piano student at Pasadena City College with an eye on USC or the Colburn Conservatory, I am a USCF expert, and I supported myself successfully for three years playing poker, mostly massively multi-tabling low stakes SNG's on PokerStars. I've been an atheist since age 16, but it took me a while before I realized that was the proper word to describe my lack of superstition.

Woke up this morning and worked on three songs from Winterreise, on which I am collaborating with a baritone, Nate. We have a rehearsal Tuesday. We meet every other week. This is our second rehearsal, and the last one was very short (15 minutes ish?), and I was not very prepared, so this is like our first real rehearsal. I worked out fingerings for Erstarrung (Numbness) and Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree), and worked on touch, articulation, dynamics, and voicing in Tränen (Tears). I worked with the metronome on some parts of Erstarrung, but some things still need to get clarified. I am doing a little redistribution in a couple measures to avoid the quick arpeggio B-flat, B-flat, D in the bass; I'm adding the D to the right-hand figuration instead. I worked the first two pages of Der Lindenbaum with the metronome. So I must do the same with the longer dramatic D minor section in sixths in Der Lindenbaum, and I still need to slowly work out some of the tricky rhythmic interaction in a couple measures in Erstarrung. I have been studying the texts since Thursday. Erstarrung is deeply moving for me, enough to cause tears. My favorite of the songs we're working on.

I am rehearsing with a violinist, Rebekah, for the first time, at 8:00 this Monday morning, then we are meeting together with the coach (Stivers) for the first time on Tuesday as well. We also meet every other week. The first movement of Saint-Saëns' violin sonata no. 1 is on the menu for our Monday get-together. The first two movements have no break, so eventually we will work on the Adagio together as well. This is a virtuosic piece and I am glad we both like the tempo on the Sarah Chang recording, because I doubt I could credibly play it much faster. I need to work some of those sixteenth groups with practice rhythms to get them cleaner. I have trouble with synchronization when I get them up to a quick tempo. I think we should shoot for around dotted quarter = 108.

My private lessons are on Wednesdays, but in California, this Wednesday is Cesar Chavez day, so I have two weeks to prepare to play some Beethoven for the first time for Dr. Petitto. She is expecting the Sonata in E-flat opus 7, but I have decided to work on "Les Adieux" Sonata in E-flat instead. I think she will be okay with that. I like it a lot more. I believe Brendel thinks the opus 7 first movement is the most difficult Beethoven sonata movement. While I'm not sure I agree with that, there are certainly some parts in it that are quite awkward. And I love the music of Les Adieux, all three movements. It's more romantic, less classical. More my style. And it has a properly rousing last movement, so a good recital work.