It’s both

First, a few notes on the progress of the DYHWIH project….I am thrilled with the reception of it. Based on several reader comments, I think there might be the real makings of an online community devoted to loving and talking about music. My suggestion, though, is that you make your comments here! On the blog! Making them to me directly leads to single conversations and my master plan is to start lively discussion. If you’re afraid that people will judge what you say, sign up with an alias: WHO CARES (and get over it). Also, it helps if followers are willing to sign up by email or create a wordpress account. A few readers have asked if I have posted new entries; the best way to be part of it is to receive notifications that new topics are here.

A listener approached me after the recent concert at the public library and noted that, after I spoke about what I heard, he could only hear what I described. He wondered what it would have been like had I not put “blinders” on the experience. I have asked myself the same question since college and often wonder about advantages of reading reviews or criticism of music books or art in advance.

Josh Roman, cellist, is playing an expertly curated program on Saturday night at the Mary Anne Rennolds Chamber Concert series at VCU (which is absolutely one of the best deals in concert-going maybe anywhere). I can hardly wait. Choosing a topic for discussion was difficult so the excerpt below is a little longer than I would normally post — and for heaven’s sake, hit pause when it’s over before you are drawn in by the next movement and have spent the day getting nothing else done. Or, just spend the day getting nothing else done. But here it is without my commentary:

What of this? I can imagine a variety of responses from “mesmerizing” to “yawn” to “what-the-….??” All are believable. I chose the piece and so had some context in which to place it, although did not originally remember that it was part of a whole. Some might recognize it as one of the movements from Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time; if you did, then you are already prepared to go off on your own and recover somewhere.

I noticed a few things on this hearing. As I tried to isolate a few moments to discuss, I found that there is almost nowhere to stop. The lines are broken into a few phrases but they seem to get longer as they go. We are more in the land of Baroque “through composition” (continuous unfolding) than Classical balance and proportion (natural, satisfying breaks). Good for Messiaen! I find the creation of a sense of forward, uninterrupted motion to be one of the remarkable things about well-written music. What magic is it that takes us to the next moment? and the next?

I may now have heard the entire quartet five times and this movement ten. Whether good or bad, I cannot recall my original impression. I think of it now as peaceful and elemental and universal, yet cannot manage to describe it as uplifting or reassuring or mournful — it’s above all of that. Any emotion that it stirs in me from moment to moment somehow manages to rise and converge. So I took pen to paper to Youtube and noted the following in the first half of the piece:

Moments where the notes seem to be…(dare I suggest it?)…”wrong:”

0:37-44, 1:38, 2:14, 2:26, 2:34, 3:01, 3:41

Moments where the notes seem to be….(who do I think I am?)…”right:”

0:21, 1:23, 1:55-2:10, 2:31, 3:35, 3:51

Speaking of getting over oneself, I feel a little out on a limb for suggesting that a canonical composer might have assembled an artful and revered piece of music interwoven with wrong notes. But that’s the way it sounds to me, as the lines pass over perfect underpinnings with occasional jarring discomfort — like when the sun appears unbearably bright all of the sudden on a mixed and partly cloudy day.

How are we supposed to take this in? As an element of wrong in the middle of right? As right in the middle of wrong? I think the answer is: it’s both. My black-and-white brain would love a clean interpretation of one or the other but I ultimately must reconcile my hearing to their coexistence.

Would it matter if I mentioned that the piece premiered in a concentration camp in Poland on January 15, 1941 outside in the freezing cold and rain? (wrong). And still holds listeners’ attentions seventy five years later? (right). Written by an incredibly gifted young man who was encouraged to be creative and contribute to the world from an early age? (right). Who was himself imprisoned in the camp? (wrong). Who composed for his fellow imprisoned musicians who used their personal power to bring happiness to others? (right). In the most horrible of circumstances? (wrong, wrong, wrong). Like much in life, things are sometimes both.

What do you hear?



The scherzo movement from Schumann’s Piano Trio in d minor is a textbook example of pieces where I want a do-over. From the opening, it seems somehow ahead of me, like perhaps it was already going before I started listening and now the volume has come into human range. I hear the opening chords and, as is our luxury in this day and age, reach out to reverse the track to its starting point again. That is cheating, by the way. The Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia will be performing the piece at a free concert at the public library this Saturday afternoon and you can rest assured that I will not stand up and wave my hands at the fifteen-second mark to plead, “wait! Start over!” (I hope.)

The first time I heard it, I noticed what I described then as an absence of content (after the opening chords). I think I was expecting an identifiable melody, dashing and romantic. It took me a few times through (with cheating) to articulate what it brought to mind. It is not this but it is like this:

Am I crazy? Is there any way in which it sounds like the performers might riding out of 19th-century Germany and into a Western movie through a hole in the space/time continuum?  We get some swirling supporting lines closer to the ends of the phrases, which round them out and make them sweeter, but they seem to wrap around the “absence” without filling it in. And then (I AM SO SORRY), we’re right back in the saddle again.

The nice thing about repeats is that it gives the audience an opportunity to place the initial outlay of events in context. Yes! A do-over! I know what to expect but still can’t settle in somehow. Each anticipated point of arrival pivots as another of departure. Its constant forward motion is both exhilarating and exhausting — and a sign of good writing.

The contrasting section at 2:05 offsets the bookend sections of racing around and they throw each other into relief nicely. As I listen, I imagine someone finger-painting and swirling both hands all over the paper, which is relaxing. And restful. Again, however, I sense an absence of something: by the conclusion of the finger-painting session and its repeat, the music has gone around and around but not taken me anywhere. A recurrence of something wrapped around something absent, like a cardigan on an empty hanger or (gasp) an empty cannoli. Before I’ve had much of a chance to wonder about it, the trajectory of the beginning section re-emerges and there’s no looking back.

In no way do I mean to suggest that the scherzo lacks musical value. On the contrary, I am amazed that a piece without a few elements that I thought were indispensable would still sum up. With more time, I may find more of an explanation. But for now, I will just go on Saturday and listen.

What do you hear?


At first

I will restrain myself for apologizing for what I perceive to be a little unwieldy about my first entry. Instead, I will honor the advice of a few of my coaches, who I can hear in my head saying: “done is better than perfect.” I hope for this project to be akin to a musical book club and I am still working with the ways in which to make the material easy to access — YouTube seems the best way for now but please let me know if you have better suggestions.

Philip Glass turns 80 today and the celebration of a living, reasonably famous, successful composer in an age where audiences are dwindling and funding grows shorter seems as good a place to start as any. The University of Richmond is hosting a concert in his honor this weekend (with a pre-concert talk with Glass himself) and I’m going. Several years ago, Brooklyn Rider played a concert at VCU where I discovered (yawn) one of Glass’s string quartets anchoring the program. “Boys,” I thought to myself, “you’d better take me there.” They did. (A link to one of their performances of Glass appears at the end below). That was when I began hearing Glass’s music.

And now to the unwieldy part. I originally searched YouTube for some material to link and the first thing I opened has some copyright problem or another. I can’t post it but you can go here and type “philip glass etudes.” Look for Etude No. 2. Listen. Repeat.

At the first hearing, I was shocked to hear the similarity between Glass’s piece and the first Bach Prelude —

— not because I imagined that Glass wrote his music in a vacuum, I suppose — but because I just didn’t expect it. Was Bach minimalist before his time? When I try to describe the two pieces, is it odd that I end up using mostly the same words?

Then, at about 1:07, Glass adds a musical idea above the floating, continuous line. Wait — I think — doesn’t that sound like this?

At about :21, the cellist (it seems weird to call him “the cellist” but it’s not like I know him to call him Yo-Yo: Mr. Ma) enters with the melodic line of Ave Maria added by Gounod, which sits above the music that Bach wrote. And I’ve always wondered about that piece too — why? Why bother? Was the Bach prelude not enough (or, who did Gounod think he was)? Was the first Glass melody not? Does the upper line become accompaniment to what was happening in the first place? Is it a distraction? Or does it give meaning to the first line that wasn’t there before? It doesn’t sound like a distraction but it also feels like the first material was complete. I’m perfectly happy hearing the Bach again without Ave Maria. I’m also happy to hear it there. Is it just the difference between being single and being in a relationship?

On the next listen, I realize that Glass actually added an “under”-line before he added an “over”-line (at :34). Which is kind of nifty.

Holy bananas, I’ve asked all these questions and I am about seven minutes into what will be the full cycle of the etudes to be presented on Saturday night. And it’s not like the first etude is dull. So the music goes on but this post has been enough so far (I hope.)

What do you hear?


P.S. I find this totally absorbing: