Friday, January 21, 2011

a little gig

In my piano studies, both independent and formal, I have struggled a great deal with choosing repertoire. There are so many factors to consider - It is important to play to your own strengths as well as to your weaknesses. It is good to play music in a style that you do not excel in, as well as playing music in a style you know and love. It must not be too easy, and it must not all be too hard. And, as a relatively mature musician who performs from time to time, I consider it important that the the pieces can cohere as a program. This consideration, how a program, both in its individual selections and as a whole, appeals to an audience, how it must take them on a journey through different moods and styles, is the one I give the greatest weight, and the other considerations, while essential, have to fit into a scheme of programming a recital. Other factors such as preparing auditions, working on an etude, having a "party" piece as my teacher calls it, I think all fall under this heading of programming.

I played a gig today for the Pasadena Women's Club, with my excellent violist friend Camille. (Unclear? No worries, she is both an excellent violist and an excellent friend.) In choosing what to play, and the order in which to play it, I was inspired by the French composer Alkan's opus 76 - three etudes, the first for the left hand alone, the second for the right hand alone, and a grand finale for the hands united. We each would play a solo piece before delivering the coup de grace together. I got more inspiration from attending an LA Phil concert conducted by Salonen - a program of Hindemith and Wagner. The second to last piece on the program was the Magic Fire Music, which is grandiose and deeply moving to the point of leaving the listener feeling quite spent. By the time singer Bryn Terfel returned to the stage for the third round of applause and the audience began to stand in appreciation, Salonen realized he had to reign us in, and launched into his clever preparation of an entr'acte from Lohengrin, which was delightfully light, but being Wagner, not a complete non sequitur. It was a very pleasant way to come down from the emotional heights of the Fire Music.

So that experience helped me develop the form of today's thirty minutes of music: Camille opened with the first two movements of Bach's G major cello suite (transposed up an octave for the viola, of course), I then played the Impressionistic "Jeux d'Eau" by Ravel, then we joined forces in the centerpiece of our performance, Telemann's viola concerto in four movements. After the rousing, joyful Presto finale, we closed the concert by bringing them down with Saint-Saen's The Swan. Then we were treated to one of those pleasant moments when the applause continues longer than you, as an performer, were expecting, and the realization dawns that your listeners feel they've been treated to something special, and we bowed a second time. It was a brief moment, lasting less than the time I took to write this paragraph, but it felt good.

Now what remains will surely be a fulfilling weekend - Pasadena Symphony tomorrow afternoon, LACO tomorrow night, and chamber music at Caltech on Sunday!  I'm starting to think Los Angeles might be an acceptable place to live after all.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

It finally happened

It was bound to happen eventually, as I've already tried, and been foiled by the locked door. Saturday night I got into the wrong Prius, belonging to a stranger. "Hey, the seat is farther forward than I left it... Huh! Did I leave the car unlocked? Let me check and see if my stuff is missing. Oh cool, not only is my stuff not missing, I have extra stuff! Oh."

Monday, January 10, 2011

Psychosis and the problem of metaphorical violence

This weekend, a young man opened fire at a public event hosted by Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords at a Safeway in Tuscon. Giffords was shot and is in intensive care. Six are confirmed dead, including a federal judge who just happened to be stopping by, and a nine year old girl who had just been elected to her student council and wanted to meet Giffords.

The shooter, Jared Loughner, is clearly mentally deranged, as evidenced by the weak grasp of basic reasoning he displayed in five text-only youtube videos, mostly consisting of syllogisms with weird axioms. Many on the right wish to insist that this disturbing ad has nothing to do with Saturday's events. Same for this.

I think that there is evidence supporting a connection between them. It is at least clear that he wanted to target Giffords, as it was a "Congress on Your Corner" event she was running, and he was aware of the number of his Congressional district, unlike most Americans, so he probably knew who his representative was, unlike most Americans.

I think it is also clear he identified more with the American political right than with the left. He clearly picked up several words from the media, using them frequently without displaying any understanding of their actual meanings, in particular I note "currency" and "unconstitutional". He complained that people in his district did not know "English grammar". He declared that he would not use a currency that was "not backed by gold and silver". These are conservative positions on the gold standard and apparently on immigration.

Objectively, it appears that he was unsuccessful in life and did not know who to blame. He made a cryptic remark about being "unable to find the subject" - in light of his disdain for his non-English speaking neighbors, it seems he was bitter about his own inability to understand grammar at the technical level; he quickly followed it up with an observation that "most students can't find the subject". He was upset about paying fees at a community college, and insisted that charging fees to students at a public college was unconstitutional. Perhaps he thought that by changing money, he could somehow fix his money problems. He seemed to have a cognitive error which many if not most people fall prey to - seeing agency in self-organized, bottom-up systems. It's an error magnified by the conspiracy theorist, and running rampant in a schizophrenic.

How his station in life, which he perceived to be imposed on him from outside, rather than due to his mental illness and how it hampered his ability to benefit from his education, led him to the attempted assassination of his representative in Congress, I doubt can ever be fully explained. But the behavior of psychotic people doesn't admit of consistent rational explanation. Reportedly he is being "uncooperative" in custody, i.e., he is not talking. Perhaps he was satisfied that his act would draw attention to his videos, which are barely comprehensible, but which are, in his mind, revolutionary.

I do not claim that his political views and SarahPAC's ad constitute a smoking gun that should legally implicate Sarah Palin in Saturday's shootings. But I do claim that the rhetoric of violence as metaphor is a problem. People like Jared Loughner do have access to guns, as libertarians and political right want to ensure that they do. The ability to read violence as metaphor is something that a sane person with a grasp of cultural and social norms brings to the advertisement; it is not found in the advertisement itself. For this reason, different metaphors must be used, and I am concerned that we accept the imagery and language of violence as a norm, and that lobbyists and lawmakers as of yet see no need for a legislative solution.

If Sarah Palin and her PAC see no connection between their actions and Loughner's, why was it necessary to quickly remove the ad from their site after the shootings? Why do they suddenly feel the need to expedite the disappearance of violence-inciting tweets into the memory hole?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

top ten?

Camerata Pacifica's Facebook page recently drew to its followers attention an - ostensibly incomplete - article by New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini, concerning how one might tabulate a list of the top ten greatest composers of classical music. While I do see the point of such an endeavor, it is one which I would be neither qualified for, nor particularly interested in attempting. Surely Bach and Beethoven would be near the top of the list. But to make such a list I'd have to set aside personal taste, and approach the matter from a purely academic perspective. And the primary reason I listen to music is for emotional stimulation. Certainly, greater understanding of style, form, and theory has informed and enhanced that enjoyment, but I would be terribly bored to spend much time trying to use that angle to share my love of music with a fellow human. (And if the goal of such a process, undertaken by a connoiseur, isn't to share, what would be the point at all?)

But I could make a list of roughly ten composers I most enjoy listening to, which is quite another thing than a scholarly perspective. I love music from the Romantic period, and I mostly like solo piano, chamber, and orchestral music. So, something like Chopin, Schumann, Sibelius, Brahms, Dvorak, Saint-Saens, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky. That's nine. Bach and Beethoven can fight it out for the tenth spot, but the places of the other nine are secure.

I note that I love art song in English and I like a lot of 20th century music that I've heard, but I'm not well-versed enough in these areas to include an important composer of either among my favorites, besides Ravel. This must be remedied.