Wednesday, February 25, 2015

First Mozart

These days, I am having the privilege and fun of supporting a piano student in his first serious efforts at engaging with Mozart. He has played two or three Beethoven sonatas and done so rather well. A couple of lessons into his Mozart experience, he initiated a thoughtful conversation about how playing Mozart is distinctly different from playing Beethoven.

In Beethoven, there are many details to which the pianist must constantly pay attention. The type of change that occurs in the music is characterized by many different types of detail that create an expressive type of beauty from one moment to the next. The first movement of the Pathetique Sonata is a clear example of this.

The beauty of Mozart, on the other hand, is a matter of aesthetics - a matter of pattern, balance, and proportion. (Dr. Kaplinsky taught me this comparison many years ago.) What this means for the pianist is consistent emphasis on clarity and phrasing. This requires getting your ears around all the turns of Mozart's melodies and disciplining your hands and feet so that you can keep your listeners deftly moving along those melodies, too. Solomon's playing of K. 576 gives an idea of this.  

Playing either composers' music is demanding. In Beethoven, you have to keep up with the pace of change. And you're performance will never rise to the level of the goodness of the music. In Mozart, you have to stay in that focused Mozart mode I just described. It has been likened unto an act of musical hygiene. Your playing of Mozart will reveal, pretty much in every moment of the performance, your commitment to good planning, your responsiveness, your sense of legato, and your ability and willingness to serve the composer by applying the parts of your brain and heart his music requires. Exposure in the pure light of Mozart's genius will illuminate the true state of your musicianship.        


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Diversity

These are the remarks I shared this afternoon at the beginning of our departmental concert "Diversity: A Celebration of the Power of Music to Move Us." It took place at the Polk State College Lake Wales Arts Center. The program is listed at the bottom of the post.


Good afternoon. My name is Charles Hulin and I am the chair of the Department of Music at Southeastern University. On behalf of the students and faculty whose performances you are about to hear, I would like to thank the Lake Wales Arts Council and Polk State College for the invitation and the opportunity to be heard.

As you can see from the printed program, the emphasis of our concert is on the power of music to move us as an expression of diversity. As an aspect of cultures around the globe, music reminds us of what we share and of how we differ. Sometimes this delights us, and sometimes it distresses us. With that said, I would like to take a few moments to frame our time together.
   
We come to you as members of an Assemblies of God institution, a Pentecostal school. As such, we hold dear the belief that on the birthday of the Church, diverse peoples were gathered from the far corners of the known world and the Holy Spirit poured out rich gifts upon them. Diversity has been a key element of our faith from its very inception.

Beyond this religious conviction, we celebrate the role diversity has played in making the United States a great nation. Whether we assimilate in the proverbial melting pot or maintain customs of our home cultures as ingredients in a tremendous salad bowl, we continue to fulfill our original motto, “Out of many, one.”

With these things in mind, we will begin today’s concert with music from the first Americans as transcribed and transformed into piano pieces by Arthur Farwell who was a pioneer in the idea of American music. We will follow that prelude with a series of songs that spans cultures and continents while witnessing to universal experiences of love. We will conclude our first half with fresh sounds of percussion that have potential to lead us beyond the words that sometimes limit our thinking.

After intermission, we will shift our focus to the sounds of strings with a work which the Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak, dedicated to his own country. Then, we will return to American soil as my friend and colleague, Emile Hawkins, recites words of Martin Luther King, words that are relevant to all of us since, as author Chris Sunami writes, “King . . . saved the nation as a whole . . . (by charting) a peaceful way forward from an intolerable situation (that was) descending into violence.” I invite you to reconsider that peaceful way forward as you listen to the musical reflection that follows, a reflection based on the spiritual “Deep River.”

Finally, we will turn to the quintessential American musical style.  It was here in the complexity of our social landscape that the cultures of Africa and Europe came together to create jazz. That intermingling, that diversity, has changed and invigorated music the world over.  

Thank you again for this opportunity. It is our prayer that you are inspired by these musical offerings.


                       Diversity - A Celebration of the Power of Music to Move Us

Impressions of the Wa-Wan Ceremony of the Omahas                  Arthur Farwell
            Receiving the Messenger
            Raising the Pipes                                                                              

Allqamari Kanki!                                                                                  Quechua Song
The singer compares her love to a dove.

Amor . . . Dolor                                                     Rosa Mercedes Ayarza de Morales
The brokenhearted singer sends her love away.

“Lenski’s Aria” from Eugene Onegin                                            Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Of the eve of duel, Lenski sings to his wife of their life together.
  
Red Bean Song                                                                                            Xue’an Liu
The singer considers a token of love.

Under the Silver Moonlight                                                            Chinese Folk Song
The singer wonders where her love is hiding.

“Sevillana” from Don Cesar de Bazan                                                 Jules Massenet
Maritana, a street singer, celebrates the beauty of Seville.
  
Pure Imagination                                                  Leslie Bricusse & Anthony Newley                                                                                                      Alex Stopa, arranger

Gymnopédie No. 1                                                                                        Erik Satie
(vibraphone)

INTERMISSION 

Quintet in G major, Op. 77                                                                 Antonin Dvorak
            Allegro con fuoco


“I Have a Dream” Speech                                   Words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Psalm of Brotherhood                                                                            Charles Hulin
A musical memorial to King, based on the spiritual, “Deep River.”

Jazz Selections                                                  Southeastern University Jazz Combo
                              Take the A Train, My Funny Valentine, St. Thomas

Monday, February 09, 2015

First Beethoven

Every classical music blogger ought to write at least one Beethoven post a year. This is mine.

For fun, I did a search of my blog and discovered that I've managed to write several most years since 2008. The only exception was 2010 when I appear not to have mentioned Beethoven at all although I did lots of blogging.

Here's the series of those Beethoven posts, just in case someone (other than me) wants to peruse them.

Last week, I had the great privilege of introducing a piano student to the world of playing Beethoven. This excellent student had not yet played any Beethoven and wanted to. Opus 109 had appealed to her but we agreed it probably wasn't the best first Beethoven work to try to play.

Our discussion of Beethoven turned to the attitude with which it should be performed. In general, the pianist needs to realize that this music comes from an overall  environment of struggle and effort that gives it its strength. In addition, it should engender a mood of profound reflection, deep understanding, and sympathy typical of German Romanticism.

Its greatness is not primarily in the beauty of its melodies, the novelty of its harmonies, or the compelling quality of its rhythms. No, as Bernstein put it, its greatness springs from its sense of inevitability.

This is not to say that Beethoven was not a fine melodist, a harmonic genius, or a composer of highly propulsive gestures. All those things are true, but they are so well-integrated into the intention of the music that they rarely draw attention to themselves.

Indeed, Beethoven's music strikes us as having only one way of existing and that is as he composed it. The lines are so incisive and the textures so clear that there's never a moment when the listener can really imagine an equally likely alternative path for the music to follow. (A particularly muddily textured passage by Arthur Farwell was also on the music rack as we discussed the first two pages of Beethoven's "Pastorale" Sonata. We could both imagine several other options for Farwell's measures - measures that Beethoven would never had written.)

As Dr. Falby taught back at Peabody, Beethoven's music is incredibly end-oriented. From its first note, it lets us know it's on its way to its ending. At any moment in the music, you can, without question, tell which way it's going and how far it is to home. This focus, which is so very western, makes the music singularly arresting and affecting, and it powered Beethoven's works to the very highest ranks of the canon.





Sunday, February 01, 2015

Spiritus

Hands are a bit tired and a concert is coming
but I want to get these thoughts out tonight.

Spiritus -
our trio's name.
A good name for a trio
and a trio at a Pentecostal school in particular.

Why?

Our music and our faith are conversations.
We listen for each other
and for the Spirit.

That said,
I now consider music -
that so-called "universal language."

In all honesty,
music has some of the aspects of language
and lacks some of the others.

Within a given culture,
it communicates some things pretty well.
Adverbs,
for instance,
but it's not so good at nouns.

Really,
music is universal like language is universal.
We all have some.

But it's no Esperanto.

And as it turns out,
neither is Esperanto.

Last Saturday,
we played our program for the first time.
The evening's masterwork:
Mendelssohn C Minor. 

I was well-behaved.
Basically,
I whispered politely
so my very fine string colleagues could converse unimpeded.

Whispering in this context is pretty good.
It says you listen.
It says you embrace being part of a community.

Whispering is also tricky.
You have to always listen for the cello.
And it helps if your violinist is careful not to get too quiet.

You have to keep decrescendoing.
You have to find opportunities to decrease,
opportunities you would never notice in solo playing.

And you have to pedal carefully.

Better said,
you mostly have to not pedal.

When you do pedal,
you have to pedal creatively.
Add just a bit when you want a swell
but don't play louder with your hands.
Or hold the notes longer in your left hand
but play the right hand staccato
for a combination of clarity and sustaining.
(In that situation,
your left hand is the pedal.)
Or pedal short segments after beats
to tie things together without building up lots of sound
so your colleagues want be drowned.

Next time around (Monday night)
I want to contribute a bit more.
Mendelssohn deserves it
and I would like it.

In that music "speaks" to us,
it is a language.

And we can always learn to speak it better.

I have a heart language.
I'm speaking it when I play my own compositions.
I don't have many questions about how they should played.
And if I do,
it's probably that I haven't yet made up my mind
about how I want something to sound.

I've also explored that big language group "classical" for a long time.
A lot of its words and phrases feel almost as familiar as a mother tongue.

But it is,
as I just said,
a big language group.

In Brahmsese and Schumannian and Mendelssohnglish
the same sounds are employed in different ways
implying subtle differences of meaning.

As students
and professionals
we spend a lot of time learning vocabulary lists:
the right notes and effective technique.

Even if we master those,
we're not yet dealing with grammar.

Grammar involves functions and purposes:
What goes with what?
What's the trajectory of the line?
Is this a beginning or an ending,
a fulfillment of expectations or a surprise?
Is excitement building or is energy waning?
And to all of the above  - why and how?

Here's where music theory meets the road.
Analysis lets you know all of these things.
Once you have some good ideas about them,
your performances are likely to make sense.
You'll be speaking the language
and you'll be understood.

But there will still be tell-tale signs
that you're not a native speaker.

A funny accent always lets people know
you're not from around here.

Perhaps your accent adds a bit of charm,
but you'll still be pegged as an outsider.

Most likely,
for the sake of some sort of authenticity,
you'll want to learn to inflect the sounds
with a greater sensitivity to the richness of the language.

How do you do that?

You listen a lot.
You listen as you practice.
And you listen to your instincts
as you listen to what's coming from the instrument.

You'll discover that
you're doing the wrong things
or too much of the right things.

But with lots of time and attention,
you'll find lovely ways of shaping the music
that reveal its true grace and joy.

That's what I want.









 



Sunday, January 25, 2015

"Trouvering"



We composers and teachers of composition do well to understand ourselves as trouveres. "Trouvere" is one of the oldest words for "composer" and I think, at its root, it tells us more about what we do than our word "composer."

The newer word "composer" tends to wash over us as simply meaning someone who writes music. We add to that whatever mental images or baggage our individual knowledge of composers brings along with it.

However, the word "composer" actually has layers suggesting one who arranges things into a whole. That already speaks much more of the real composing process. We are almost always assembling and organizing. That's what our creating involves. We never make something from nothing and the most exalted composers in the classical tradition - Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven - never seem to have created so much as a new chord.  Instead, their monumental compositional efforts consisted of profoundly moving, ingenious new applications of what they inherited.

"Trouvering" (my word), on the other hand, addresses something even more fundamental. It references an earlier phase in the compositional process or at least a more basic disposition of those who excel at the discipline of composition. The etymology of "trouvere" involves an Old French word which also means "to find."

To me, this information is very liberating. It is also very grounding. It cuts through all of the romanticizing, all of the agendas and personalities, and all of the hyping accretions that paralyze us when we start down a creative path. Behind their studio doors, composers are trying to find things: arresting sounds, fresh juxtapositions, compelling lines . . . They are all there to be found, and we're looking for them.

Until you realize you are on such a search, the process can be frustrating, to say the least. Imagine a toddler alone on the edge of a great wood. This little one has no concept of path or thicket, clearing or stream, let alone county line or the ocean beyond all of it. The grasp and ability to differentiate are not yet developed enough even to be overwhelmed. Instead, there is a nebulous lost-ness and probably a panic if a trusted hand is not felt soon.

The beginning composer might be good at finding things intuitively or at least at knowing where things are in the immediate setting. Another might have a knack for grasping big shapes but have no sense of how to fill them. Whatever the case, there must always be work for the teacher of composing to do along the lines of trouvering. The student simply hasn't spent the time on these paths that the teacher has. And so the teacher can move the process along for the student by pointing out possible ways forward. Then, the student can respond, "That's what I was looking for." or, "No, that's not quite what I'm hearing on the inside."

As I was looking around for things at the keyboard last night (improvising), I caught myself in that same old unhelpful and unrealistic dialog against which I am constantly campaigning in the lives of others. My fingers found their way over some bi-tonal things that were reminiscent of Prokofiev. "Ah!" I thought, "I could write something using those sorts of sounds." And then I said the following to myself, but I didn't put it into words until now. It was more of a feeling. If I had "languaged" it, I would have immediately realized how stupidly I was short-circuiting my own creative process. "But the music in which the mature Prokofiev uses these materials is so much better than what I can imagine myself making up off-the-cuff that there's really no point for me to even try to compose."

Obviously, I need to remember that I'm a trouvere and a composer. Keeping that perspective allows me to enjoy the processes of seeking, finding, and arranging into a whole.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Articulating Life


If you’re like me, you’re probably leading your life somewhere between the unreality of multi-tasking and the impracticality of single-tasking. Due to cultural demands, we are unable to totally single-task, and we are constantly, often unwittingly, drawn into attempts at multi-tasking that seem to have some bad side effects.

Perhaps we musicians have something to offer this personally challenging scenario and potential step in the evolution of the human race.

In music, as in life, we deal with numerous layers of happenings that are somehow coordinated and contain any amount of details of varying natures and significance. Raising our consciousness of the presence and functions of these elements can greatly enhance our performances.

When doing the discipline of music, we regularly and comfortably handle that range of organizations within a rich overall texture. How do we keep those layers enlivened and purposefully unified? We practice the art of articulation.

In one way of thinking, articulation determines everything in music. Our sense of phrases is created by various articulations, and phrasing is the name of the game if you want to be a clear, elegant, and moving player. So I am hopeful that processing the activities of one’s life through the concept of articulation might provide some wisdom for leading life with clarity and meaning.

///

We like to play and live in long legato phrases. Those phrases and that articulation provide concentration and continuity. I bet they really warm up the brain and soul like extended periods of true single-tasking. My hope for you and for me is that we spend most of our time moving along those strong lines.

But to phrase well, we need to be aware of many aspects of the phrase at hand.
 How long does it last?
How do we need to prepare for it?
What is its shape and how wide is its range?
At what points does it require more energy and at what points less?
What will be the impact after the fact?

Many times, we need to engage with a series of phrases as a more macro-unit. And there are even bigger projects that happen in stages over days or whole periods in our lives.  

Some projects are so big that they need to be laid out like a musical form. We need a schedule or an outline of what is to be achieved and when – a score.

///

While we’re traveling with the overall flow of phrases and groups of phrases - the flow of life - lovely nuances come along that we can express well if we recognize and understand them.

There are the staccato moments: social media posts that give friends a glimpse of how we’re phrasing right then, quick phone calls than lend a bounce for a second, or thank you notes that incisively assert spiritual realities . . .

Then there are accents. Conversations in which we engage with real personal investment are one of my favorite types of emphatic gestures. Such accents are even nicer when they come in a syncopated way like an unexpected talk in the hallway that turns to profound things and gives both participants goose bumps and a new perspective.

///

Maintaining harmonic support is an ongoing concern in a rich texture. It usually doesn’t work to drop the chords suddenly and leave the melody out there alone.

There are lots of background activities that support our phrasing: labor in the practice room, spiritual study, prayer, getting rest and basic nutrition, and all the behind-the-scenes work that gives things a good chance to go well and stay healthy.

And then there are those end-of-the-day activities that don’t need a lot of mental engagement but do require repetition. Musicians save physical drill for the end of the practice day when attention is waning. In life, there are activities like that - physical exercise, for instance – activities that only really benefit us when we return to them regularly.

///

As we mature, we learn to recognize and articulate more and more large-scale organizations. Good mentors help us with this. We become tuned-in to multiple collections of phrases which, along with their harmonic support, make their way to great climaxes before subsiding in staves of diminished activity. Knowledge of these meta-progressions has implications for all the local level details. Those powerful events and major turning points require preparation and great attention over a sustained time so as to arise most profoundly from their contexts.

///

I wonder if it might not even be useful to see the phrases of one’s life, or at least of one’s year, as a work to be composed and then played. It’s bound to be some sort of multi-movement work and there will probably be aspects of sonata to it. How wonderful to settle into singing our lyrical slow movement or to dance our year’s refreshing minuet!

And then there’s return of material - sometimes wonderful, sometimes frustrating - but that’s how we learn.

///

When we are looking to interpret a year or a life, we are seeking to see and inflect the full array and meaning of its passages.

At some points, a leggiero touch is required and the material is communicated in mysterious fragments because those for whom we play are afraid to hear a full loving melody.

Other times, we must move slowly through repeated motives as the tune is hard to learn.

We discern the importance of slurring, of connecting certain moments to others and certain people to others.

We develop ease with tapering and dovetailing as we listen sensitively at transitions, transitions that require gentleness because things are tenuous.

///

In all of this, we are striving to be the best musicians we can be and the best livers of life we can be. To do so, we need to keep asking questions about how what we’re playing relates to the ensemble.

Which parts are most important?
How do the parts relate?
Who has the main melody?
Should it be a solo?
What’s the best balance of our part with the others?

And what needs to crescendo, decrescendo, accelerando, ritenuto?

///

In the context of the whole, our own music means so much more. There are beautiful phrases we want extended, and sometimes they are. But many times a cadence is needed. Along the way, we do well to place a tenuto on special happenings, arriving with great intention and lingering a bit afterwards to feel their full effect. Some of those special happenings turn out to be true structural tones that define us and the shape of our music from the deepest level: graduations, conversions, marriages, births, deaths . . .

Sometimes we modulate, smoothly or not. Sometimes there’s an incursion of a totally unfamiliar type of music. And sometimes we have to suspend all thought for articulation as we struggle to keep up with the rhythms as we’re forced to sight-read through some crisis in our lives. There are even situations in which the stakes are so high and the need for singular focus is so great that we must, for a time, truly perform our lives. Our audience depends on us.

But at the beginning and the end, and at a few resting points in-between, there is the tonic.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Christmas Carols - Audiences

Working on this morning’s post inspired me to sort through these carols in another way.

I find it instructive and edifying to consider who is being addressed by the texts we sing in church. While we might assume that we’re frequently singing to God, a lot of the time, we’re not. That’s part of the tradition. It happens in the Psalms.

And so I have taken the same carols that I sorted earlier by the Gospels from which they draw content and have sorted them according to their audiences. I’ve suggested a further layer of classification by trying to characterize how they are address those audiences.

Many of the exhorting carols contain aspects of proclamation, but if there was any aspect of exhortation, I listed them as exhortation, not proclamation.

It turns out that very few of the carols are addressed to God in worship. I included those that do at the beginning of the list.

A number of the carols address a complex of audiences from verse to verse and several seem to be built around rhetorical addresses to Bethlehem, stars, and nature. On second thought, the addresses to stars and nature are more than rhetorical: the star is guiding and creation is being healed.

Finally, it occurs to me that many of these songs are designed to put us in the scene. They unfold it well and we sometimes sing as the wise men or the shepherds. They are more than a video of the Christmas story. They are experiences in virtual reality.


Prayer to Jesus
As with Gladness Men of Old
Away in a Manger

Exhortation to the faithful and the angels, then greeting and worship to Jesus
O Come, All Ye Faithful

Address to Bethlehem, exhortation to mornings stars, and prayer to Jesus
O Little Town of Bethlehem

Address to the star with the singers being the wise men
Brightest and Best
We Three Kings of Orient Are

Invitation/Exhortation to the Shepherds
Angels We Have Heard on High
Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow

Proclamation
Child in the Manger
How Great Our Joy (the singers are the Shepherds)
Silent Night
Sing We Now of Christmas
There’s a Song in the Air

General Exhortation
Go Tell It in the Mountain
Good Christian Men Rejoice
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Infant Holy, Infant Lowly
It Came upon the Midnight Clear (specifically to men of strife and those beneath life’s crushing load)
Oh Come, Little Children
Gentle Mary Laid Her Child
The First Nowell
What Child Is This

Exhortation to angels, shepherds, sages, and saints
Angels, from the Realms of Glory

Exhortation to heaven, nature, and every heart
Joy to the World
Hertford United Methodist Church in Hertford, N.C.  

Christmas Carols - Matthew or Luke

During this Christmas season, it has occurred to me that it would be a good devotional exercise to survey the commonly sung Christmas carols in terms of their Gospel content. That is, to take note of which carol is based on which Gospel narrative of the nativity. I’m sure may others have already done this, but I’ve enjoyed doing it for myself.

Sometimes we carry around a mental version of the nativity that is essentially St. Francis’s beautiful manger scene with everyone in attendance (Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, animals, shepherds, wise men, and angels). The cast of characters grows in the yards of neighbors as inflatable polar bears, elves, and dinosaurs join the scene. But that’s a different story.

The gospel writers, however, chose specific details to make their points about Jesus. (Don’t we all?) Their separate versions seem to have been written to stand alone and don’t particularly need to be combined.    

In addition to the fact that my little survey might enhance someone’s biblical literacy (mine, at the very least) I also think it is a valuable exercise for raising awareness of what is actually in these carols. Details of the familiar go by almost completely without notice and it’s possible that many of us had a joyful moment with “Joy to the World” or experienced a serene mood as we sang “Silent Night” without registering the richness of these texts yet again this year.

If you are intrigued by the whole concept, maybe you should undertake such a survey yourself before reading on. Or at least do a quick check of the carols you have in your head with your memory of the Gospels.

As I did my survey, I realized that the categories I thought I would use are not as clear-cut as I expected. That’s pretty much how these sorts of things usually go. For clarity’s sake, though, I’ve still basically sorted the carols as being based on Matthew, Luke, or a combination of the two.

That said, some carols seem to have an overlay of language that might be drawn from John 1. I didn’t try to keep track of that.  

Another potential subcategory would be the carol that is clearly about one Gospel but has some general reference from the other that colors it but doesn’t rise to the level that would make the carol a full-blown combination of the two.  For example, “Brightest and Best” and “As with Gladness Men of Old” both reference the manger (Luke) but they are primarily about the wise men (Matthew).  “O Come Little Children” and “Silent Night” both mention a star (Matthew) but are otherwise firmly rooted in Luke.

Yet another type is the carol that briefly references something from a Gospel but ultimately amounts to a theological discussion using that reference as a starting point. “It Came upon a Midnight Clear” and “Good Christian Men Rejoice” follow this pattern.

Here’s a brief summary of some features that differentiate the Gospel nativity narratives:

Matthew
Angel talks to Joseph
Isaiah reference to Immanuel
Guiding star
Wise men visit where the Christ child lives
Flight into Egypt

Luke
Angel talks to Mary
Angel chorus proclaims the birth
Shepherds visit the baby Jesus who is in the manger

John
Word becomes flesh

And now for my sorting:

Matthew
As with Gladness Men of Old
Brightest and Best
We Three Kings of Orient Are

Luke
Angels We Have Heard on High
Away in a Manger
Child in the Manger
Go Tell It on the Mountain
Good Christian Men Rejoice
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
How Great Our Joy
Infant Holy, Infant Lowly
It Came upon the Midnight Clear
O Come, All Ye Faithful
Oh Come, Little Children
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Silent Night

Combination of Matthew and Luke
Angels, from the Realms of Glory
Gentle Mary Laid Her Child
Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow
Sing We Now of Christmas
The First Nowell
There’s a Song in the Air
What Child Is This

Other
Joy to the World – Psalm 98

P.S. Those who worship in liturgical churches are probably pretty aware of all this as your services tend to follow one Gospel or the other in a given year.  Those of us who organize and play Christmas concerts might find an impetus for some new creative work in those liturgical traditions and present events based on one Gospel's version or the other.