Category Archives: Music

More on the joys of live music

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Barely a week after feeling unusually compelled to write something on the joys of live music after hearing the choir at St Martin-in-the-Fields, I found myself in a similar position after watching (and listening to) Hans van Manen’s Adagio Hammerklavier performed by English National Ballet at the Sadler’s Wells (Thursday 30th March performance). 

I was interested to see what I would think of it now, 20 years after we did it at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, where I was a company pianist. I say we did it, but it’s truer to say they did it, because I was just a tape-op in rehearsals, pausing and playing a reel-to-reel tape of Christoph Eschenbach’s 1970 recording of the adagio of Beethoven’s  Hammerklavier Sonata.  Given that I’m not a fan of Beethoven, slow music, pas de deux, or operating a tape machine. It was like watching paint dry, though I did not, to be honest, watch the paint much. I took a book, and listened with half my attention for instructions from the front of the studio. 

It’s a commonplace now to talk about the way that we listen through things like surface noise on discs, distortion on tape recordings, hum, interference on telephones and so on, to the voices or music beyond ; , but in this case, however good those Berlin dancers were (and I’m sure they were brilliant) I couldn’t get beyond the noisy facts of that recording to either the music or the dance. It was like listening underwater, or gazing through the side of a grubby fish-tank. All I remember of it in performance was the vast stage of the Deutsche Oper, and that interminable Beethoven. Although the sound booth was behind soundproof glass and several metres away, as soon as the music started, I began to mentally hear the click, hum and whirr of the tape machine. 

The reason we did it to tape, despite the availability of several pianists who could have played it live, was apparently historical, aesthetic, choreographic: van Manen had choreographed to that recording precisely because it was so slow: Adagio Hammerklavier was a study in balletic adagio, and Eschenbach’s Beethoven had the right quality. Clive Barnes said that the work was “set to” this specific recording , and as I understood it in Berlin back in the early 1990s, we weren’t allowed to do it anything else; the recording was integral to the piece. I say “apparently,” because re-reading Stephanie Jordan’s Moving Music, I realise this can’t have been entirely true. Antony Twiner explains in an interview that he’d had to copy the Eschenbach performance when he played for the piece: 

I took the record home, and I listened to it, and I played along with it, memo­rized it, and marked my own copy as to how long this or that note was held by this man . . . I said, ‘Well, it’s not impossible. It may not be my personal inter­pretation but if that’s the way you want it played, it can be done.

When ENB did it last week, they didn’t use the recording, it was played (beautifully) by Olga Khoziainova, perhaps under similar preparatory conditions. I was astonished at what a difference it made. It helped that Tamara Rojo’s pas de deux with Emilio Pavan that night happened to be, in my view, one of the most breathtaking ballet performances I’ve ever seen, but even without that, I could have watched Adagio Hammerklavier for another 30 minutes and not been bored.  I had never noticed that gently rippling backcloth before, but I could have watched that alone and been entranced. One of the biggest differences is the feel of the sound in the air. You can sense the upper notes bouncing off the roof of the theatre, whereas the recording makes you feel like you’re listening to a room, not a piano; hearing the atmosphere, rather than living in it.

With the music played live, time seemed to unfold only in the present moment, the movement and music together drawing you into some tiny point of light on the stage, like following the tip of a pen as it writes. This brought together in my mind both Ingold’s thoughts about lines  and Stern’s on the present moment  .  A recording, by comparison, is already dead in the water, a hard-edged lump of music whose outcome is known in advance.

I usually spend a lot of time defending recorded music in ballet: live music for the sake of it is not intrinsically a good thing, recorded music not universally a bad one.  If you make extravagant claims for live music based on ideology dressed up as transcendent values, someone will eventually call your bluff. and all live music, however legitimate the claims for it, may suffer as a result.  Ironically, considering that Adagio Hammerklavier was inspired by a recording, it is that recording that kills it in my view. Played live, the thing that van Manen was after seems to shine from the stage from moment to glorious moment.

Once again, I find myself taking issue with Liveness. On the surface, this anecdote about the Eschenbach recording illustrates Auslander’s point that live performances are mediated by,  predicated on, or constrained by recordings, and thus liveness isn’t a simple condition: it’s all mixed up with mediatizations as well.  Perhaps it is the inclusion of ballet, so precarious, so much hostage to the present moment that makes the particular difference here. In an interview with the critic Edmund Lee, van Manen differentiated between slow motion, which he said is based on “total balance,” and adagio, which for him is “like a wheel that you push—and that moment where the wheel is still moving, just before it falls.” . Watching Adagio Hammerklavier with live music retains that sense of danger on another plane, whereas with a recording, the wheel is not only not falling, it isn’t even moving. 

A fascinating side issue here dealt with by Auslander in Liveness, is that performances (in the sense of the characteristics of a particular interpretation) aren’t subject to copyright. It would be a breach of copyright to copy the actual recording, but not to mimic the details of Eschenbach’s performance in your own playing (and then record it, if you wanted to). Given that, as in this example, a particular performance can be a person’s trademark in the metaphorical sense, it is strange that it can’t be in a literal one. 

References [just because I love generating them automatically with Zotero and  Zotpress] 

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Diamond fairy variation: new piano arrangement

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My new version of the Diamond Fairy from Sleeping Beauty. Click to download free piano reduction.

I had to play this yesterday at a competition, and surprisingly, it’s the first time I’ve had to do it in public. It’s vile to play. Nowadays, if I’m faced with something like this, I go back to the orchestral score to see if there’s anyway I can make the job easier for myself, or better for the audience. Click here for my new version

Siloti’s pianistic homage versus a workable ballet reduction

The first thing I noticed about the difference between the orchestration and Siloti’s arrangement is that while Siloti’s hovers up the top end of the piano within the span of two hands, in the orchestra, those left hand Gs are in fact octaves, an octave lower: forte bassoons, arco bass and celloThe cost of his accurate representation of detail in the flutes and clarinets is the loss of the off-beat chords played by oboes, cor anglais and three, sometimes four, horns. 

Siloti's arrangement of the Diamond Fairy

Siloti’s arrangement of the Diamond Fairy from Sleeping Beauty (Act 3 No. 23, Var. 4)

Siloti’s transcription works both as a piano piece, and as a credit to what is most compositionally interesting about Tchaikovsky’s work here. But as the accompaniment to a variation, and for the dance accompanist, so help me God, it doesn’t work at all. You feel so utterly ungrounded, and so focused on the wrong things: to accompany a variation you first of all need a beat that is so strongly and safely grasped that if you need to change it, you can. Without it, it’s like trying to throw a pot with one hand; trying to steer your way out of a skid with only one hand on the wheel. 

The flutes and clarinet figure in the Diamond Fairy reduced to a manageable handful.

When I make arrangements like this, I do a constant accounting exercise: how much is lost if I take this out, how much gained? What’s the trade off between having a bass at the right pitch, and hearing the clarinet? I’m fairly convinced that you could get away with reducing it right down to the example on the left, and no-one would be any the wiser. Then it’s literally safe in your hands, rather than your hands being preoccupied with precarious detail, and you can use the other hand to play the bass at the right pitch, or give an impression of the horn chords; give it some weight, some “floor” in the music. 

Forget the clarinets: that’s a pretty thumping offbeat accompaniment in the oboes, cor anglais, bassoons and horns.

Less is more—except when it’s not

Considering how many times pianists around the world have to play the Tchaikovsky ballets in rehearsals and at vocational schools, it’s astonishing that we are still stuck with the first piano reductions, with all their inadequacies and problems and unsuitabilities. To my knowledge, my version of the Black Swan variation is the first publicly available reduction of one of the most famous solos in the repertoire. We all struggle along in our corners, doing our own ill-informed thing, assuming the score is right or the best possible, and only thinking about alternatives when problems occur.

Galina Bezuglaya, head of the Vaganova Academy music department is one of the few people to have committed anything to print about this   Amongst other things, she points out that it’s mainly other pianists rather than composers (or ballet accompanists) who make arrangements, which will bring a particular perspective to the reduction; Glazunov piano reductions are difficult because he tends think orchestrally, not pianistically (on the other hand, sometimes less is less: in the Raymonda Act 3 Hungarian coda, you really want to hear a good thumping bassline in the correct (low) octave); Tchaikovsky spent half a summer simplifying Taneev’s piano reduction of The Nutcracker, because—as he said in a letter to Ippolitov-Ivanov—”Taneev’s is so difficult that it’s impossible to play” [сделал облегченное полное переложение балета, ибо С. И. Танеев настоящее сделал до того трудно, что нельзя играть]. I’ve been typesetting a lot of Nutcracker recently for a job, and every time I go to put back in something that Tchaikovsky took out of Taneev’s arrangement, I end up taking it out again when I try it out on the piano.  Piotr Ilich knew what he was doing. 

Tchaikovsky and Franco-Italian hypermeter once again

On a different point, what continues to flummox me (which I can do nothing about) is trying to find the harmonic, melodic shape of the opening phrase. If you place the centre of it in the wrong place, you can wrong-foot yourself badly, and be tempted to miss out a beat. I am increasingly convinced that what’s happening here is a factor of Tchaikovsky’s tendency to write in what Rothstein calls Franco-Italian hypermeter . There is a very subtle interplay here of meter and grouping that will fall apart if you try to think only of a single metrical accent. There are (at least) two, and they are in counterpoint with each other (see also this post and the one’s branching out from it). I still haven’t worked out a fail-safe way to think of this phrase, I can only get through it safely by not thinking about it. All offers of advice gratefully received. 

Feedback

If you’ve suffered at the hands of the Diamond Fairy variation before, I’d be interested to know what you think of my arrangement. I deliberately didn’t post this until I’d actually done it in performance. It seemed to work for me, the best proof being that I felt able to adjust the tempo from the corner of my eye, something that I’d not been able to do with Siloti’s. Don’t take the notes in the right hand too literally: anything that approximates the harmony will do. You can steal and copy some notes from the harmony in the left hand, leave things out. I have no idea what I really played in the heat of the moment. 

References

 

 

 

 

 

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Turning up and the joys of live music

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St Martin-in-the-Fields

St Martin-in-the-Fields, taken last week.

It’s not often that I write much about my PhD research on my blog. Part of that is a nervousness of opening the oven door before the cake is cooked, part of it a feeling of responsibility to hone my AHRC-funded research into well-formed work before letting it loose. But last night I experienced something as a punter, so to speak, that changed all that, and caused me to think about my research in a different way. It also made me realise why I have quickly grown to love St Martin-in-the-Fields so much. 

It was the day of the terror attack in Westminster, and I was due to go to St Martin’s for the 6.30 service, and then to a Lent group that I’d joined as something positive to do in addition to my self-imposed 40-day exile from Facebook. I was having a frustrating day working on my thesis: I just looked at the last draft that I’d cut and pasted together months ago, and despaired. The enthusiasm I’d felt for going to the Lent group when it first started was waning, because I was having a bad day—maybe I’d be better off staying at home and working. St Martin’s is only walking distance away from Westminster. Maybe I shouldn’t go. Maybe there’ll be chaos. Maybe it’ll be dangerous. I’m not so gung-ho about going out when danger is imminent; you won’t find me saying I’m not scared. But I’d committed to the Lent group, that was the whole point. Turning up was important.

So I turned up. And during the distributing of the bread and wine, the pianist started playing, and I recognised within a few beats that it was Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine. Or rather, I recognised that the music was Fauré before I realised that it was the Cantique, because the introduction does what Fauré does so characteristically—to insert tiny melodic detours into an otherwise normal accompaniment, tiny burrs in the harmonic texture. You don’t notice the detail itself (unless you have to play it; then you notice it because it takes care and expert attention), you only notice its effect, like those pictures made up of thousands of smaller pictures that you cannot see unless you go up close.

The introduction to Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine. Those little passing minor seconds make Fauré Fauré.

I could hardly believe my ears. Surely they weren’t going to sing that, here, now, for us? But they did. I know every bar of that music, not as a performer, but as an enraptured listener. I first heard it when I was about 17, playing bass in the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra. We were going to accompany a choral society, and Gary Holmes, the conductor, told us a bit about the music: it was a lovely piece that people often chose for weddings. When you’re seventeen, and you’re playing this music in a full orchestra, with a large choir, it envelops and enthrals you in a way that rarely comes again, but the effect is lifelong. I have loved this music ever since then, and last night. I gave thanks inwardly for all the chances that made that happen, including the casual remark of a conductor that shaped the way I greeted the music then and forever after.

The Choral Scholars of St Martin’s in the Fields, barely more than a handful of singers, performed this with such warmth, breadth, commitment and unmannered beauty, I could hardly contain the joy it gave me. At those Bread for the World services on Wednesdays, you gather for the eucharist  in a circle near to the altar. I was standing just a few feet away from them, amazed that people just like you and me, dressed in normal day clothes (no choir robes, no ceremony, no fancy outfits) can stand there and produce this miracle of sound. I’m a musician myself, and maybe for that reason  it’s actually very rare that I perceive it as extraordinary, or can enjoy it.

But last night was different, and I suddenly wondered whether I understood, after all, one of the things that has mystified me about the people I’m writing about in my research. I have interviewed many dancers and teachers, and had many ad hoc conversations about music. There is something a bit strange about the ballet world: she shall have music wherever she goes, I often think to myself. In a world where it would be so easy to use recorded music like everyone else, you still find pianists used for class. It’s expensive. It’s difficult, and yet they still do it. Sometimes teachers nearly bankrupt themselves by paying for pianists when there are only a few people in the class, and as you walk past the studios, you think, why don’t they just use a CD? And when I ask them why, they say things like I don’t know. It’s  nice to have a pianist. I don’t know why. It’s just nice.  One of the things I’ve had to consider is whether to elevate this remark into something meaningful like Dora’s “it depends” in Antoine Hennion’s  article on taste , or to wonder whether pianists are a kind of luxury that doesn’t bear scrutiny easily, like having a butler.

Last night, however, as I looked across at the singers, I found myself thinking the same: This is nice. I thought of all the things that made this experience difficult: they need to rehearse, they need to turn up, they need to be present for other people not just as musicians, distanced from their audience, but participating with them in these rituals. I thought of all the organising, the structures, the planning, that had to be in place for this to happen, right down to getting the scores to sing from, and putting them away afterwards. There are multiple performances going on, and they have to do all of them well. In that sense, there is something about being there and singing that is caring. It’s being there for someone else, doing your thing, and doing it well, and perhaps not even being appreciated properly (though in fact, the vicar did thank them at the end, and you could see that they were delighted to have been acknowledged). I’ve also been quietly in awe from week to week, as another musician, of the improvisations of the pianist as he closely watches the progress of the eucharist, playing appropriate, thoughtful music to ease the transitions and cover the gaps. It’s familiar territory for me, however different the context.

I wondered to myself whether this is something of why live music in ballet classes means so much to people. It’s not even about what the pianist plays, though that can be part of it. It’s about the fact that they’re there, they turned up, and they did something for you. It might in truth be not that difficult for them, but for you it was magic. Or they may have struggled against lethargy or competing demands to get there, but you have no idea of that; it made your evening. You can’t explain these things in terms of music, or Philip Auslander’s  “liveness” , much as I admire and refer to his work. Why you can’t is what I’m grappling with in my thesis, as I discuss the way that dancers and teachers think about these things, and now I find that I am no more able to explain my own joy than anyone else’s, but I don’t want it taken away from me. 

As the service ended, they sang Verily, verily I say unto you by Tallis, like an afterthought, as if it was nothing at all,  though of course, it was everything. There was a brief pause, and then they left, and the congregation began to disperse and talk. I looked over, and noticed one of the singers adjust her brightly coloured trainers, smile, turn and go. Just another Wednesday in London. It was the kind of moment that Daniel Stern describes in Forms of Vitality ,  where a whole world is contained in a moment that we know in all its complexity, instinctively, immediately, but could spend a lifetime trying to put into words. I guess I should know by now, considering how long I have been trying to write about music in everyday life that it might be the everydayness of some musical experiences that makes them special, but it took Fauré and those trainers to make me realise it. And as it happens, that moment also captures just something of what  I love so much about St Martin’s. 

References

 

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Music theory for (ballet) dancers, the last word for now? Grant’s “Beating Time and Measuring Music in the Early Modern Era”

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I’ve just added Roger Grant’s Beating Time and Measuring Music in the Early Modern Era as my top choice for books on music theory for those interested in music-dance relationships (see my metre and rhythm page for a brief bibliography on  that topic). I don’t want to say too much, because it figures largely in a chapter in my PhD, and it’s too detailed and scholarly a book for me to summarize hastily. Suffice it to say, if you want to know what think about time signature and meter and movement, it’s all in this book. I’m glad I hadn’t read it when I was writing How Down is a Downbeat?, a journal article on music, ballet teaching and time signature that I wrote a few years ago; it would have tempted me to rewrite the whole thing. On the other hand, I wish I had read it when I first started teaching music for dance teachers back in 2000. However, some of the significant books and articles that Grant refers to in building his theory were published some years later than that. Is theory even the right word? I’m not sure: it’s history, but in order to understand the history, you have to change your ideas about what you thought was music theory. It’s amazing that in the 21st century, we’re still solving the problems unexamined or hidden by “rudimentary” music theory, e.g.—to name but one— why is a 6/8 called a compound time signature? What’s compound about it? 

The biggest problem with what is conventionally called “music theory” is that it presents as simple and straightforward (a matter of counting two or three) something which is exasperating in its complexity, not least because “time signature” as a subject leaves out the people who use it and the way they interpret it, but it is virtually meaningless without the (changing) practice in which it is embedded. I’ve hinted at this in many of my more recent postings on triple meter and Rothstein’s theory of  “Franco-Italian hypermeter.”   Grant discussed the way that the meaning of beat as movement has gradually disappeared, morphing into the concept of time as a endless stream of motionless, durationless ticks. This in fact was exactly how I used to teach music theory and meter, without realising the entailments or history of my own beliefs about what meter or musical time was. 

I am in awe of the way that Grant makes sense of such a complex assemblage of notation, musicians, practice, ideas, primers, teachers, and so on. It’s only when you’ve struggled to sort out some of these problems yourself that you realise how courageous and hard-working someone else has been at grappling with similar issues.  

 

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What is a mirliton? The best link so far

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The mystery of Tchaikovsky’s mirlitons

If you know my site, you’ll be aware that I’ve been trying to find pictures of and information about “mirlitons” the title of one of the divertissements in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker (see earlier posts). 

Now today I’ve found a great page on the mirliton on the “Bard of Cheshire” site that is one of the best so far. It brings together pictures and reliable information about the instrument called the mirliton.  I still like the possibility that Tchaikovsky was referring to the cake, the Mirliton de Pont-Audemer, rather than the reed-pipe as an instrument, given that the divertissements are supposed to represent sweets (and that was always the biggest mystery—why are these reed-pipes in a bag of sweets? (see also this page on the topic from a recipe book) And “candy canes” make even less sense, until you’ve seen a picture of a 19th century mirliton that’s decorated like a barber’s pole). 

On that subject, there is also a postcard of an artiste at Les Mirlitons, the cabaret opened in Paris by Aristide Bruant, which has a woman in candy-cane stripes with what look like mirliton pipes in her hair. Probably just a coincidence, but it adds a lovely confusion to the story. 

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A year of playing cards #5: An operatic adage by Dvořák

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"Song to the Moon" by Dvorak

Click to download

The curse of the operatic adage 

I think I only have about three of these in my repertoire, which is why it was high time I got another. The way that some ballet teachers mark adages, you’d think the world was just full of voluptuous music that went “and one and a two and a.” I guess my worst fear is when you’re thinking of what to play, you settle on something fairly plain that will work, and then the  teacher does that inclined head thing, gives you a knowing smile, and says “Something inspiring.”  You have to hope they don’t add “…for a change”. This is the stuff of nightmares, because it usually wipes out what you’d decided to play (which is another reason not to decide what to play until the last minute. You never know what tempo or adjective is going to hit you in the few nanoseconds before you play the first note of the introduction).

This aria from Rusalka is just about perfect. The tune really does go “one and a two and a” so there’ll be no fumbling about while the class finds the beat, and half way through, it goes all Maria Callas. I’m afraid I’ve had to do inexcusable metrical surgery on the first part, leaving out a whole 8 bar phrase in order to make it regular, but it’s hard to hear the joins unless you know the aria really well.

Playing tips

You have to have heard this before trying to translate it into piano music. The opening muted strings are hard to reproduce on a piano, and you have to do a lot of work to get the tune out on top, but If you’re lucky, you won’t have to fill it out with semiquavers, though that’s a possibility if you don’t have a very good piano or nice acoustics.

Watching this video is a rather fascinating lesson in how to play for adage well. Listen to the elastic, free, fluid vocal line in the “chorus” bit, and look how the harp accompanies it with almost metronomic rhythmic precision. It must be really precise, because in fact, the last semiquaver that you hear in the bar (part of a single group in my piano reduction) is not the harp (which is silent on the last semiquaver of the bar), but the last note of the pizzicato string figure (quaver, quaver, semiquaver semiquaver) that accompanies the harp.

Pianists tend to be “expressive” and pull the timing around in the bar, but for adage you need to choose your moments very carefully. To provide the right kind of support for a dancer who is doing the equivalent of the vocal line, you have to be as rhythmically solid as that harp and those strings, but at the same time hint at the elasticity of the vocal line. It’s something like the Chopinesque rubato where the accompaniment remains steady while the right hand floats free, but somehow conceptually different. Hard to put into words, but easy to see in this clip.

Metre issues

I’ve put this in “Spades” (Adage) because it’s quite definitely an Adage (see here for an explanation), but on the other hand, it’s about as truly triple metre as metre gets, which is common in some Czech music. Yet more proof that “three” is a big subject in music: so many ways to be triple.

 

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A year of ballet playing cards #36: A triple meter ballad by Tárrega

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Tárrega's song "Lagrima" arranged for piano

Click image  to download the score of Lagrima and ¡Adelita! by Tárrega

A Tárrega ballad, the perfect plié music?

When I say “perfect” what I mean is that this music somehow meets precisely the expressive, metrical model that you often need for pliés: something in 3, that has precise demarcations of the beat and sub-beats (so that the movement can be carefully measured) yet avoids being metronomic. It is also in the 2+2+4 phrase pattern (demi-demi-full) that so many plié exercises require. It has breath and space at the end of the phrases for changes of position, or what I like to call forgiveness in the design.  It’s simple and “quiet” rather than complex and bombastic. For the first exercise of the day, it opens the door softly and whispers “come in!” Although the dynamic markings are mine, they indicate how the pitch contour and the dynamics can contribute to the gentle up-down-squeeze movement  of the exercise.

When I say the perfect plié music, I don’t mean that this is what all plié music should sound like (and I like to go all out sometimes, with a big song like Tonight from West Side Story) but that it’s the proof in musical form that somewhere in the musical universe, there is something that sounds like the thing the teacher marked. It’s taken me about 30 years to find it. The song from Jeux Interdits used to do it for me, but I can’t play that anymore, ever since I put it in a syllabus, and ever since I heard someone say “And she played that song for god’s sake!”

I’m calling this a “triple meter ballad” because I have no idea what else to call it, but I hope it makes sense as a category.

Guitar playing as a model for piano playing

I could have walked straight past this music, had I not heard Per-Olov Kindgren play it in this Youtube video.

Listen to this, and see if you ever dare play a single note on the piano without thinking about how you’re going to place and time it. The trouble with the piano is that it’s so easy to play. What makes music sound like music is often the sense of effort or skill that it takes to do something difficult like play a high note. On a piano, it makes no difference whether the note is high or low, it takes the same effort. Likewise, when notes fall easily under your fingers, they can come out with no more expressivity than typing. It’s a keyboard, after all. But on a guitar, you can’t do this. There are ergonomic challenges, affordances that lie between the human hand and the construction of the guitar, that give rise to nuances of timing and expression.

The trick with playing this piece on the piano is to hold back, to place the notes with the same care and precision as if you were having to pick them individually by a combination of movements in both hands, even when there is only a single line to play. I’ve found that Lagrima enables you to find moments in plié exercises where you can be very free with timing in a way that feels totally right. Teachers don’t have to hold you back, or tell you not to hold back when you do. The more you can keep the teacher quiet, the better, so it’s perfect in that sense too.

The second piece, ¡Adelita! is a little mazurka. You have to be even more careful to keep the slow three going in this. If you maintain the same tempo as you set up in Lagrima, you can use it to extend and vary the music during the plié. Of course, it would also work for port de bras, ronds de jambe etc.

About the arrangement

I’ve changed the bass line in a couple of places because otherwise it would sound a bit exposed on the piano. I’ve added in some notes that maybe Tárrega would have done, had they been easier to play on the guitar. Sometimes when I’m playing this, I also go down an octave. Once you’ve got the general idea, you can play around with dynamics and pitch to add interest. With ¡Adelita! I meant to add some octaves in the bass, and maybe bring the melody of the first half down an octave, but I forgot. I’ll play around, and maybe upload a new version.

I’ve over-notated the score with dynamics, phrasing and articulation, just as a kind of warning not to let the notes fall out of your fingers too easily. What I was aspiring to was the kind of finger-by-finger dynamics that Percy Grainger does in some of his arrangements, that informed much of the way I play now. There’s almost nothing to this piece at all – it’s all in the articulation and dynamics, but there’s no need to take them as directions, more as an idea for how to approach it.

Where have I and my 52 cards been? 

It’s over six months since the last update. It’s been a hell of a year, most of it entirely good, but everything (including my PhD which I had to interrupt for 6 months) had to take a back seat. I’m hoping to resume better (if not normal) service from now on!

 

 

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Inventing Tradition: The Chestnut Tree Dance

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Dancing your country back

The Chestnut Tree Dance is a bizarre bit of British dance history. It seems worth remembering for a moment in the current atmosphere where some English have been printing  “I want my country back” on badges and t-shirts, and Sarkozy wants to reclaim France “for the French.” If you got your country back, and “reclaimed it” in some way that meant you got the right to impose national dress and culture on people who happen to share the same nearby landmass, what might the dancing look like?

Well, maybe a bit like this. In her article [1]  on social dance in interwar Britain, Rishona Zimring quotes contemporary accounts of nightclubs and rhythm clubs (mainly from the Mass Observation project of the time) that demonstrated the novel diversity of social dance habits of the time:

These were places where races mixed: the interviews reveal that club-goers were highly conscious of this mixture, in some cases attracted by it, in others, uncomfortable. Places where social dancing occurred or where dance music was played were locations of everyday “cosmopolitan modernity.” They displayed a hybridity hard to discern elsewhere (say, at Cambridge) but highly significant as a challenge to English xenophobia and a harbinger of a new, multicultural society. (p. 715)

Those who were uncomfortable with this hybridity wanted something that could reclaim social dancing for the English. The dance halls in comparison to rhythm clubs were a bit dull, and couldn’t compete with the novelty of jazz. As Zimring explains:

The dance halls’ monotony arose in confrontation with the multiculturalism of jazz, which for some in the music business was a problem, a threat to English identity as revealed and bolstered by native traditions in music and dance. The solution was to invent a tradition. (p. 715)

Inventing tradition: The Chestnut Tree Dance

The result was the “Chestnut Tree Dance,” invented and marketed in 1938 by a dance hall impressario, C. L. Heimann. As a press bulletin of the time stated, this dance was a conscious revisiting of past epochs (they wanted their country back then, too).

“The musical basis . . . is an old-time melody—this and the Dance itself is severely ENGLISH. So many of the new and short-lived dances that have been introduced in recent years have been American, and based upon Negro rhythms that have not been suited to English temperament.”

What could be more English than a chestnut tree, what could be more unlike a nazi Salute than raising both arms to symbolise it’s branches? And of course, if you did this in a dance hall, you’d be reasserting your national identity through the medium of dance.  Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can see what it looked like:

You can imagine how well this might have gone down with people already in thrall to new rhythms, nightclubs, jazz, and a change from the Lambeth Walk:

The Chestnut Tree”’s flexibility as a symbol made it especially resonant as a potential icon of social coherence to counter the hybridity of jazz that threatened the dance halls. Mass-Observation assiduously collected responses from volunteers about “The Chestnut Tree”; it was the dance whose impact they most doggedly pursued (to discover, through interviews, that the majority of dance hall attendees found it fairly silly). (p. 716)

How I found the Chestnut Tree Dance

I’m delighted I found this article. I wouldn’t have done so, had it not been for this beautifully written review of the video game Bound by Farah Rishi. She quotes a journal entry about dance written by Virginia Woolf in 1903, which I found also referenced by Maria Popova at Brainpickings (Party like it’s 1903: Virginia Woolf on the Ecstasy of Music and Dance). That led me to Zimring’s article, and to the Chestnut Tree Dance.  A few months ago, I would have read this and thought “how quaint.” Now, with Trump, Sarkozy, and Farage all circling round what Billig calls banal nationalismit would hardly surprise me if something as bizarre and loopy as the Chestnut Tree Dance surfaced again.

References:

  • Zimring, R. (2007). “The Dangerous Art Where One Slip Means Death”: Dance and the Literary Imagination in Interwar Britain. Modernism/modernity, 14(4), 707–727. http://doi.org/10.1353/mod.2007.0096 [currently available here]

Zimring has also written a whole book on the topic:

  • Zimring, R. (2013). Social dance and the modernist imagination in interwar Britain. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ballet pianists and sacred cows: a correction

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What a difference a sub-clause makes

In the latest issue of Dance Gazette (“Don’t shoot the pianist”, Dance Gazette (2) 2016, p. 44) I’m quoted as saying this about live versus recorded music in ballet training (in answer to the question, do I think live music for ballet training is a dying profession?):

“I think a lot of it is based on tradition: the pianist is almost like the sacred cow.” 

I did say that, but that’s only half of what I said. “Sacred cow” in English is a rather pejorative expression, used  to imply that a thing or an idea is venerated and beyond criticism, as a result of an irrational belief or tradition. The further suggestions is that if we were to subject these unconsidered beliefs to reason, we might save ourselves unnecessary grief.

But that’s in fact the opposite of what I meant,  which would have been clear had the rest of  what I’d said been included.

Ballet pianists, sacred cows and anthropology

When I said that pianists were maybe like the sacred cow, I followed it up by saying that as with sacred cows, there’s maybe a very good reason why they’re sacred.  As I said it, I had in mind a particularly memorable section in Catherine Bell’s Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions (1997), in which she discusses “neofunctional systems analyses,” in particular the work of anthropologist Roy Rappaport (1926-1997).

Ritual, Rappaport argued, not only regulates the interaction of one human community with another but also can regulate the interaction of humans with local materials, foodstuffs, and animals—especially pigs in the New Guinea case, since they are an important component of the diet and the economy. […] Rappaport described how the Maring-speaking peoples of New Guinea slaughtered domestic pigs only under special circumstances and within a ritual framework. For example, a ritual killing of pigs is organized if the number of pigs multiplies to the point that too much labor and food are needed to feed them. (Bell, 1997, p. 29)

Bell goes on to discuss the work of Marvin Harris (1927-2001) in regard to cow worship among Hindus in India:

Harris pointed out that the cow was an indispensable resource for Hindu farming families with small plots of land, not only enabling them to plow and plant but also supplying them with milk for food and dung for fuel. If in times of severe crisis, such as an extended drought, people were to butcher and eat their cows, they would lose the one resource they needed to get back on their feet later. Hindu cow worship, the religious obligation to show the greatest respect to cows, ensures that people do not eat their cows in times of crisis —at least not short of total desperation. Hence, the ritual attitude toward the cow guarantees the maintenance of a basic level of economic resources and does so more effectively than any economic argument would. (Bell, 1997, p. 30)

Although I didn’t quote all that, that’s what I meant when I said pianists were like sacred cows—i.e. maybe behind the unthinking veneration of the presence of musicians in the ballet world there is a logic, a vital ecology that  we won’t see until the rational economic arguments have got rid of them: by the time we’ve figured out the reason we used to venerate live music, it might already be too late.

Live versus recorded music, a dangerous framing

So what I meant was in fact  the opposite of what came across: I was defending the apparently irrational valorising of live music in ballet training. It’s often the case now that people in schools and companies have to justify their expenditure on music to accountants who are looking for “efficiencies.”  You can’t. To frame the argument as “live versus recorded music” misses the point: it treats music as nothing more than a sonic object that emanates either from a clattering cabinet of keys and strings, or a box of electronics.

As soon as you start trying to apply “rational” arguments to the question, you risk losing them.  Live music is better than recorded? What about terrible pianists? You hear teachers all the time saying “better a good CD than a bad pianist. What about the thrill of dancing to an orchestra on CD, rather than an out-of-tune upright piano? Does having live music speed up the process of training a ballet dancer? No.

The worst part of the argument about live versus recorded music is that if you view musicians as an alternative way of achieving the same thing that you get from your iPod, then there’s almost no argument. An iPod wins on almost every point, starting with the financial. But music is wrapped up in everyday life in ways that are much more complex and relational than this, and in a ballet class, with good teachers, the music is neither in the pianist or in the teacher, it’s something woven between them (if you’re familiar with the work of Tim Ingold, you might recognise some of his ideas there).  I could write a thesis about that. Oh wait….

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Organizing music for ballet class: problems and solutions

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Organizing music for ballet class: where to put stuff, and where to find it again?

I’ve had a blog post brewing for years  on the topic of organizing music for ballet class, but I’m glad to see that someone has saved me the job. Trevor Hewer’s The best way to organize music for free ballet class sums up the problems, but he’s also got a nice picture of a folder with coloured tabs. For the blog post I never wrote, I wanted to collect pictures of people’s folders and discuss their approach to categories and ordering. It’s a fascinating topic.

I agree with all Trevor’s points – memorization seems the best way to me, because sometimes things work for reasons that you can’t categorize. Conversely, once you start categorizing, you build boundaries around the objects you’ve categorised. As I’ve written about before, time signatures (for example) can blind you (deafen you) to the possibility of hearing something in 12/8 as a waltz, or a waltz as being effectively 12/8 or 4/4 with triplets. The other day I got myself out of two difficult corners when I suddenly realised I could use a tango instead of a slow march, and a tarantella instead of a quick one. The less you know in these circumstances, the better, because you don’t rule out things on the basis of their category.  I also found that as much as I like ForScore on my iPad, I find it very difficult and time consuming to catalogue my music on it – and it would take me forever to do it well; and as Trevor points out, “extreme ease of adding new music means less emotional connection with it” — quite. What I’ve found with my own “year of ballet playing cards” project is that the act of choosing, inputting, arranging and practising and blogging about each piece embeds it much better in my memory. You have to love your repertoire into practice.

None of this makes the problem of categorization go away, however. You still have to categorize your memory, or find ways to deliberately overrule it. Sometimes, when I’m stuck, I think of music titles beginning with a letter of the alphabet, or in a certain key; or I think of a word or word-type (songs about love, or food, or places). Sometimes, a particular teacher will get repertoire out of me that I’d forgotten about, and I couldn’t tell you why. Some miniscule difference in the way a teacher marks, or what you know about them, or the way they interact with you. More worryingly, some teachers seem to elicit the same narrow repertoire from me every time, and I have to find ways to avoid the rut.

The thing about memorization is that it potentially allows you random access, whereas a book requires you to think about order and category, titles, subtitles, genres, and so on. I had to make decisions about it several times in my previous job. One of the things I learned is that if anyone else is going to use your system, your plan has to align as best it can with the way that the user thinks about the topic, otherwise it will never get used, or will fail.

String and categories

It’s interesting to see how supermarkets deal with the same problem. For example, the other day I helped a woman in Wilkinson’s who couldn’t find a plain ball of string anywhere. She’d looked without success in “household” (where you’d think it might be), she’d settled for a ball of overpriced, fancy, “hobby” string in the toy section (for making necklaces and so on). I eventually found what she was looking for (plain string, 50p a ball) in the stationery area, on the packing and parcel materials shelves.  We had to try to understand the “mind” of the shop in order find it.

Categorizing music is no different:  what are the chances of someone else working out where you have put a piece of music? If someone else has devised the system, you have to be able to understand their mind and their culture in order to retrieve an object. Trevor makes a good point – you might as well put your repertoire in alphabetical order, since the thing you’re most likely to remember is the title.

Faceted navigation

But that only gives you one chance of finding it – if you don’t know the title, you’ll have to go through all your library piece by piece. The best chance you have is to assign multiple categories to each one, so that you and others  have several chances of finding what you want. On different days you might want the same piece for different reasons: because it sounds French; because it has a long anacrusis; because it’s in 3/4; because the teacher likes it; because you didn’t play it last week; because it’s in E flat and in a related key to what you’re playing right now; because you can adapt the rhythm and feel easily to the exercise (which is an affordance somewhere between you, your imagination, the music, what you’re playing it on, and the exercise – it’s not a property of a sound object). I have a piece in mind right now, the Petite Valse by Joe Heyne which has been all of those things to me.

I came across faceted navigation in Paul Lamere’s “Social Tagging and Music Information Retrieval” (article, free to download) when I was writing about similar issues in training ballet teachers to deal with music (given that the immediately relevant categories of music-as-heard and danced-to are not the same as the notational ones, how do you start talking about music, especially when the music can be categorised in various ways?).  Faceted navigation means being able to locate or select a piece of music by using any of a number of its attributes (“facets”) not all of which are “inherent’ in the sound at all, but cluster around the object through discourse, cultural conventions, use and personal experience.

I’m now writing about similar things in my thesis, but with the additional theme of boundary objects. Perhaps the strangest and most elusive thing about musical “objects” in the ballet world is in the context of use, a piece of music becomes “something I can do this to” where this is gestural, and does not become particularly musical (rhythmic, metric, dynamic, etc.) until the music is drawn into it. Try categorizing that.

 

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