The Casual Blog

Tag: Chopin

The Eno at the end of fall, meditating, a piano lesson, and a list of thought-provoking books

With a big winter storm on the way, on Saturday I drove over to Durham and hiked along the Eno River on the Cole Mill trail. The colors were muted, and I was reminded of that melancholy tune by the Mamas and the Papas:  “All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray.”  It was quiet, except for the noise of the fast-moving water.  

I’d brought along my camera equipment, planning to make some landscape images, but struggled to get inspired.  Things didn’t seem at all scenic, and in fact seemed kind of sad. But after a bit I slowed down and started noticing spots of unusual energy, like tree roots and branches, decaying stumps and pale lichens on boulders.  The shots here are what developed.

Taking in smaller wonders is one of the lessons I’ve taken from my efforts at mindfulness meditation.  Over the last few months, my 15 minutes of daily sitting have helped with managing stress, and also has given me some meaningful, though humbling, insights into my own unruly thinking processes.  I’m looking forward to learning more.

On Saturday afternoon I had a piano lesson with Olga Kleiankina over at the N.C. State music department.  As I’ve noted before, I usually think of my piano playing as music therapy, providing personal balance, flow, and happiness, without many connections to my professional or social life.  But Olga always reminds me that piano playing is also a serious undertaking, with long traditions, deep musical questions, and technical challenges that are not easily surmounted, as well as the potential for personal expression, communicating feelings, and transcendent beauty.  

This week I played a well-loved Chopin waltz (c# minor, Op. 64, no. 2).  I arrived with a good mastery of the notes and a decent understanding of the architecture.  She wanted me to incorporate some new gestural elements to improve the sound, and explained to me how she uses the legs and core for fine keyboard control.  I also played Debussy’s beautiful Bruyeres from Preludes, book 2. We talked about varying tone colors and voicing (both horizontally and vertically), and specialized pedaling challenges.  The lesson was almost two hours, and I was exhausted at the end, but also inspired.

Last week I was telling a friend about rereading (actually, re-listening to) Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari.  He noted that in the last couple of years I’d mentioned several books that relate to his interests in evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, and philosophy, and asked if I’d mind making a list of favorites.  

So I looked over what I’d read involving science topics and other big ideas in the last couple of years, and realized, it’s a lot!  For whatever it’s worth, here is a selection of books I found worthwhile and would be happy to discuss with other readers. I have not attempted to rank them, but they are roughly grouped by major subject.  

Science matters, mainly in the areas of physics, biology (including neuroscience), and psychology

The Greatest Story Ever Told — So Far:  Why Are We Here? By Lawrence Krauss

Origin Story:  A Big History of Everything, by David Christian

The Big Picture:  On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, by Sean Carroll

I Contain Multitudes:  The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong

The Moral Animal:  The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, by Robert Wright

How Emotions Are Made:  The Secret Life of the Brain, by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Behave:  The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert M. Sapolsky

Before You Know It:  The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do, by John Bargh

The Knowledge Illusion:  Why We Never Think Alone, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins, by Jonathan Balcombe

Other Minds:  The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith

The Hidden Life of Trees:  What They Feel, How They Communicate, by Peter Wohlleben

Half-Earth:  Our Planet’s Fight for Life, by Edward O. Wilson

Assorted Other Interesting Ideas

The Patterning Instinct:  A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, by Jeremy Lent

The Shape of the New:  Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World, by Scott Montgomery and Daniel Chirot

Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

On Tyranny:  Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder

The Doomsday Machine:  Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, by Daniel Ellsberg

Why Buddhism Is True:  The Science and Philosophy of  Meditation and Enlightenment, by Robert Wright

Muted fall colors, Ax’s piano recital, Crocetto’s Norma, and some thoughts on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi

It’s definitely fall, but we’re not seeing much of the fall colors that usually come to the forests of piedmont North Carolina this time of year.  On Saturday I went to Lake Johnson, where the trees were shedding leaves, but not brightly. It was pretty quiet, and about to rain. I experimented with my neutral density filters, and enjoyed the lake and the trees.

That night, Sally and I went over to Duke for the first concert of its piano recital series.  We ate at Watts Grocery, which we’ve enjoyed in the past. Unfortunately, that night there were no vegetarian entrees on the men. When we raised the issue with our server, he didn’t seem much concerned, and the resulting food was undistinguished.  

Sally and I disagree on the best approach to addressing the problem of restaurants with low appreciation for vegetarians.  She favors talking to them and encouraging them to raise their plant food games. I’m inclined to boycott them, and spend my dining out money where I can wait for my meal with high confidence that there will be food I can enjoy.

The piano recital was by Emanuel Ax, an extremely distinguished concert artist whose recordings I have always enjoyed.  I was very familiar with some of the music from having played it myself (Brahms Op. 79, Chopin Op. 62, No. 1), and found his interpretations of these pieces intelligent and tasteful, though not revelatory.  I very much enjoyed hearing for the first time a set of short contemporary pieces by George Benjamin, which was highly pianistic, with varying textures. Ax used the sheet music for this work, but relied on his memory for the rest.

Ax’s playing was altogether musical, but I really didn’t get swept away until the last piece on  the program, Chopin’s Andante spianato and grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22.  Ax is no spring chicken — getting on and off the stage didn’t look easy for him — and I wondered how he was going to meet the intense physical demands of this highly emotional showpiece.  But he did it. It was magnificent, and thrilling.

On Sunday afternoon, we went to the N.C. Opera’s presentation of Bellini’s Norma.  It was superb! The leads were all very fine singers, the chorus was good, and the orchestra, conducted by Antony Walker, sounded particularly rich and full.  But Leah Crocetto as Norma was beyond superlatives. When she sang the famous aria Casta Diva, I nearly lost it, and managed, just, to weep quietly. She sang, and Maestro Walker accompanied, as if this were the first performance ever, and might be the last. Her singing was technically brilliant and musical, but also truly transcendent.  It penetrated and illuminated the extremities of human emotion, from love to fury to despair

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, apparently by order of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has been much in the headlines, and provoked leaders around the world (with the U.S. president, as usual, a sad exception) to condemn the Saudi government.  Needless to say, it’s a heinous crime. But I’ve been puzzled at such a strong reaction to one killing, while the Saudis’ mass atrocities in Yemen, including blowing up thousands of civilians, rarely make the news.

Addressing this puzzle, Max Fisher wrote a piece this week in the NY Times that’s well worth reading.    Fisher noted that journalists commonly use the device of a single individual’s story to cast light on a larger problem.  I’ve tended to think of this as an inherent weakness of ordinary journalism, but Fisher makes a case that it’s unavoidable and even necessary.  

It’s not just that readers can more easily relate to stories of individuals.  People are wired to understand and feel compassion about a single death, but they can’t do the same in reaction to mass death.  Psychologists have found that people switch off their emotions in reaction to large-scale slaughter as a self-protective measure, which is called collapse of compassion.  

This theory may explain a lot of moral inconsistency and inaction.  It’s really hard to think about the deaths of millions or billions as a result of global warming or a nuclear accident that starts a nuclear war.  Talking about these topics is not something anybody really likes. It’s hard to get them on the political discussion agenda.

The prospects admittedly are not good.  But I was a little cheered by an interview on NPR this weekend with a climate scientist who had a good understanding of how bad an environmental disaster we’re likely to have with a 1.5 Celsius temperature rise.  She pointed out that however bad things get, they can always get worse. A 3 degree rise is not a bad as a 4 degree rise. There is no point while we’re still here that the struggle to prevent a worse disaster is pointless.  

Getting some lessons

On Saturday morning I had another swimming lesson with Eric and worked more on my butterfly stroke.  It’s a very different way of moving through the water, and not easy to get your head around.  It surely does get the heart rate up.  I can now do intervals of 50 meters without being disqualified or dying, which I consider an accomplishment.

While figuring out the butterfly, I’ve been working with Eric on refining my freestyle, breast stroke, and back stroke, which are all by comparison quite relaxing.  It recently came into focus that swimming has always been for me a struggle  — at bottom, a thing to do to keep from drowning.  And now, finally, through the struggle to be a butterflyer,  I’m finding it can actually be fun.  

I’m sure I couldn’t have gotten even this far without a skilled teacher helping me.  I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating:  if you want to learn a complex skill,  find a good teacher.  There’s no substitute for having a guide in difficult unknown terrain.  You may get to where you’re going without a teacher — now and again people do — but you’d have to be more-than-ordinarily lucky.   

For this reason, I’ve continued getting lessons on the golf swing from Jessica at GolfTec, and had another this weekend.  We talked about hips, shoulders, and wrists.  Jessica knows a lot about the swing, and she also has helpful technology tools — sensors, computers, and video. I’m seeing improvement, both in my measurements and in how the ball flies, and I understand a lot more about how a good golf swing works.  But it’s hard to change ingrained habits.  When you fix one problem, you may create another.  I’m starting to understand that although there is improvement, there is never perfection.

I was hoping to also have a piano lesson this weekend, but Olga said she was too busy.  With a new baby, a full teaching load, and concert commitments, that’s understandable, but I was disappointed.  Among other things, I’ve been working on Chopin’s famous Nocturne in B flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1, and I’m eager to get her take on it.  Recently I had a minor epiphany that there would never be a point when her response to my playing would be:  that’s perfect, and there’s no way it could be improved.  In the great classical tradition there are always new possibilities and new things to be explored.  

Processing a hand problem, Shen Wei dance, and The Unpersuadables

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It’s been more than a year since I injured my right hand in Dominica, and though it got better for a while, it still does not feel right. I was trying to play Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu recently, and just could not get the loud, fast parts to go loud and fast. I made an appointment with Dr. Edwards at the Raleigh Hand Clinic, with a view to getting a referral to an occupational therapist I’d heard about, and getting some helpful exercises to fix me up. I saw him on Friday, and got some bad news.

Based on X-rays (which he showed me on his iPhone), Dr. E quickly diagnosed osteoarthritis. This is one of those things that don’t get better, and generally get worse. He could not say how quickly it would progress. The doc recommended Aleve for pain. He mentioned that if it got a lot worse, I could eventually be a candidate for finger joint replacement surgery. Yikes!

As a youth, I tended to view intellectual pleasures as superior to physical ones, but eventually I came to welcome the physical side of life as a glorious thing. I’ve taken great satisfaction in dexterous use of my hands, on the piano keys, the computer keys, the camera buttons, and many other places. This diagnosis will take some time to process. Though, of course, life will go on.
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On Saturday we met up with some friends in Durham and had fine dinner at Rue Cler. Then we walked over to DPAC and saw a modern dance program by Shen Wei, the first show of the season at the American Dance Festival. The first SW piece, Untitled No. 12-2, started slowly: the curtain came up to reveal gray fog, and there was silence and blankness happened for a surprisingly long interval. Then we saw projections of abstract paintings by Mr. Wei. Eventually the troop began a slow traverse of the stage, with accents by individuals. The music was sparse percussion sounds. I found the piece overly spare and intellectual and underly physical.

The second piece, Map, was much livelier, with music of Steve Reich and large helium balloons. The choreography seemed well atuned to the energetic music, with sweeping gestures and twists, and small groupings moving in and out of phase. We liked it.

Afterwards, we walked over to 21C, the new luxury hotel in the former SunTrust building, and looked at their bold and brash collection of contemporary art. It’s open to the public, and free, and fun. Afterwards we stopped in a new place, Bar Lusconi, for an exotic beer.
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Today I finished reading The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, by Will Storr. Storr narrates his encounters with intelligent people who believe crazy things, such as Holocaust deniers, past life regressionists, alien abduction experiencers, climate change deniers, and young earth creationists. In interviews, Storr challenges these folks, and confirms that they are impervious to reason and facts. Nothing can shake their beliefs. By way of partial psychological explanation, he draws on the work of Kahneman, Haidt, Ariely, Gazzaniga, Tavris, and Aronson regarding the inherent flaws in our mental processes, such as cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, and unstable memories.

Storr is a journalist rather than a scientist, but he incorporates good source material and has genuine insight into the powerful illusions of consciousness. The book is also surprisingly personal, as Storr unflinchingly addresses his own biases and weaknesses. He recognizes that scientists can at times be highly unscientific, engaging in groupthink and suppression of evidence that doesn’t fit their world view. Perhaps most amazingly, as he engages with individuals who construct bizarre and odious theories, he manages to subject their ideas to fair scrutiny and at the same time respect their humanity.
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How to touch a piano key, and enjoying some dissonant music

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Last week I had my first piano lesson of the new school year. Olga was back from concertizing in Moldova and serving as artist-in-residence at a piano camp in Tennessee, and ready to get to work.

We started with Debussy’s Second Arabesque. I learned the flowing First Arabesque a few years back and continue to discover new aspects of it, and thought it would be fun to add the Second, which is ripply and jumpy, to my repertoire. Here’s a link to an interesting recording of the piece by master himself.

Olga thought there were some fundamental problems. We ended up working for perhaps forty-five minutes on how to touch the keys and play a single short phrase. It was difficult! Not difficult to make the basic tones, but rather to play them with exactly the right weight and color.

For starting the sound, we talked about leaning in with the body, the action of the wrist, the positioning of the elbow, the role of the index finger and the middle finger, the role of the thumb, starting to sink into the key, finding the bottom — all with exactitude. We also discussed ending the sound with similar precision. It was daunting. You might have thought, as I did, that I should have learned the best way to touch a piano key long ago. But then I had a minor epiphany: it takes years to get the foundational physical and mental skills to play one note on the piano really well. So I’m finally really getting started.
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We also worked on a section of Rachmaninoff’s Elegy, a hauntingly melancholy piece, and began Chopin’s famous Fantaisie-Impromptu. The FI is a show piece, with a fast beginning section based on a 6 (left hand) against 8 (right hand) polyrhythm. The slow middle section is one of Chopin’s most luxurious melodies. Here’s a link to a performance that I liked by Horowitz. I got Olga to play it for me to get some new ideas of the kind of rhythmic flexibility that might be possible.

Later in the week I read a piece by my friend Michael Tiemann on opensource.com (where I am also a moderator and contributor) promoting open source music. Michael is passionate about music and open source, but I didn’t think his analogy to open source software really worked. Music in the great European tradition has always been open, in the sense that anyone can get the score and fashion their own interpretation. Each musician has access to the composer’s code. It’s hard to get much freer (in the sense of liberty, not beer).

In other musical news, for months I’ve been filling my ears with Mozart’s operas when I travel and each morning when I exercise. But it’s good to try new things. Recently my friend John G gave me a CD of Arnold Schoenberg’s piano music performed by Pollini. Schoenberg was a pathbreaking modernist with his 12-tone system that largely eliminated conventional melody and assured extreme dissonance, which I have always found more interesting in theory than in listening.

But I really liked a lot of the piano music. It is dissonant, but also very expressive – not completely different from Debussy’s later work. Here’s a link to Pollini playing Op. 11, No. 2.

In fact, I ordered the sheet music for Drei Klavierstucke Op. 11, and read through some of it. It would take a lot of work to really play this music, and even after that, a lot of listeners would hate it. I’ve got plenty of other musical projects at the moment, including Liszt’s gorgeous Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude, to keep me busy, but I may take on some Schoenberg one of these days.
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Sharing piano music, buying a painting, and going to a new ballet

Stuart is not overly excited about our new painting

What does art mean to life? I’ll take a strong position, and say, simply, everything.

My brother, Paul, and sister-in-law Jackie were passing through last week, and we convened for dinner at Zely and Ritz. But first, they came up to our apartment to see the view and have a cocktail. I wanted to play some piano music for them, but hesitated to propose it. Sharing serious music just isn’t something people normally do in these modern times.

I also recognize that for some people it would be an imposition. I think my playing is thoughtful and nuanced, but it isn’t perfect. Even if I were a seasoned professional concert artist, it would still be true that my nineteenth and early twentieth century repertoire would not be to the taste of everyone. Although it amazes me, I understand that some people find it bewildering or boring. I hope this is mostly because of lack of education and exposure — which is one reason I think it’s important to share it.

Fortunately, Paul and Jackie studied music in college and enjoy various genres. And so I played for them some Chopin (the Nocturnes in c-sharp minor and D flat) and Debussy (the First Arabesque). They sounded good, though maybe a little stiffer than when I play for myself alone. Playing for someone else dramatically changes the sensation of making music. Perhaps it’s from adding adrenalin. Things that seemed settled can become unsettled. Sometimes new beauty emerges, and sometimes things fall to pieces. This is one of the reasons I was happy to have these family listeners — without listeners, it’s impossible to learn how to communicate the music. Paul and Jackie seemed to enjoy it, and were very gracious.

At lunch time on Wednesday, Sally and I met at the Adam Cave gallery to look at some paintings. Sally had followed up on a review she’d read with investigation on the Internet, and come up with some works that might work for us by Byron Gin. Adam, the proprietor of the gallery, had agreed to pull together his stock of Gin works, and told us more about the artist. We both felt excited about Three Birds and a Cup, and discussed it more over a lunch at the Remedy Diner (great veggie sandwiches and rock music). The next day, we decided to take him up on his offer to take the painting home and see how it looked before committing.

Three Birds and a Cup, by Byron Gin

I think it’s a touching, slightly funny and engaging painting. The house sparrows look like quizzical house sparrows, but the space looks vibrant blue and gold paint. The yellow cup looks like a cup. The eye and mind shift back and forth between the birds and the cup, and the natural and human world. I find it nourishing and stimulating.

Friday night, we ate at Buku before going to the ballet. It was unseasonably mild, so we sat outside at dinner. Buku has increased its vegetarian offerings, and the ones we tried were good: baba ghanoush, arepas, and lentil wat. I also had the flight of three half glasses of Chilean wines, which were quite delicious.

At Fletcher Hall, we heard choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett speak on the new work to be performed that evening, The Little Mermaid. We’ve liked many of LTC’s works, including Carmina Burana and Carolina Jamboree. She’s a very engaging personality, and articulate and down-to-earth about what she’s trying to do.

She didn’t put it this way, but The Little Mermaid seems designed for ballet newcomers and kids. This was somewhat true of her The Ugly Duckling, but I found Duckling more elegant and touching. Jan Burkhard as the mermaid was lovely and girlish, and fun to watch, and Randi Oseteck as the sea witch was a great villain. And I particularly liked Lindsay Purrington as the sly village girl who tricks the prince. She made the part more sympathetic than the story might have suggest, so that I was sorry when she got her comeuppance. The costumes were mostly delightful. But I found the music intensely cloying, and the narration at times plodding.

The second half of the program was duets of a serious and more classical nature. I particularly enjoyed Lara O’Brien in an intensely tragic Weiss pas de deux with music by Gustav Mahler (one of the true greats). Peggy Severin-Hanson and Marcelo Martinez were powerful and delightful in Le Corsaire pas de deux. It was great to see this significant chapter in ballet history brought intensely to life.

I recently finished reading Apollo’s Angels, a history of ballet by Jennifer Homans. I found some of it heavy going, particularly the early stages, but it was worth it all for the last couple of chapters, including her writing on Balanchine, which was full of insight. It’s unfortunate that she ends the book on a sour note in which she opines that ballet is dying. From where I sit, there’s still a lot of life. I just checked the repertoire list of the Carolina Ballet, and noted that they’ve presented versions of many of the works that Homans discusses and treats as high points of the art. I’m so glad they’re here.

My latest piano lesson, a new Indian restaurant, and some good news in the Sunday Times

At home with Stuart and the Sunday New York Times

On Saturday morning I had my first piano lesson with Olga in several weeks. I played the second Scriabin prelude, Debussy’s Reverie, Chopin’s etude in c minor op. 25, no. 12, and Liszt’s Un Sospiro. We continued to talk about subtle aspects of touch and tone. In slow lyrical passages, she asked me to keep listening closely to tones as they decay all the way to the next note — a more intense kind of listening. She got me focused on my elbow as a tool in shaping a long melodic line. In the etude, she coached me on how to make it really loud and fast. After I played the Liszt for her last time, she was inspired to learn the piece, and this time she taught me some of the tricks she’d developed for the tricky places. By the end, I felt exhausted but inspired.

That night Sally and I had dinner at a new Indian restaurant in our neighborhood called Blue Mango. I usually like Indian food as food, but as a restaurant dining experience is often lackluster. Many dishes that I like arrive in the form of brown goop; the emphasis is not on the presentation. Mantra, another Indian restaurant close to us that opened a few months back, departed from this stereotype and presented food that was pleasant to look at as well as to eat. Blue Mango’s dishes were not as pretty, but the restaurant had a cool vibe, and the food was very tasty. Service was friendly but still getting the kinks out. The veggie samosas were excellent.

We ate early with a view to seeing an 8:00 movie at the Blue Ridge, a second run theatre where tickets cost $2. We who are normally so lucky were not so at the Blue Ridge. Every parking spot in the place was taken. We drove around for 10 minutes looking, and finally came home. We ended up watching Trading Places with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, which was kind of funny.

Early Sunday morning is the time to get a paper copy of the New York Times and a cup of coffee, and start with the front page. With the sections properly sorted and ready for perusal, I find spending some time with the paper soothing, even when the news of the day involves various disasters. The Times makes mistakes, but it never gives up, and from time to time it is enlightening. Also, it is a sort of barometer of ideas that are getting solidified in public consciousness, and thus a leading indicator of possible social change.

Today I was happy to see a front-page story on solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. Erica Goode writes that the supermax prison model that has grown in the last three decades and kept prisoners in nearly complete isolation has resulted in increased prison violence, increased recidivism, and, for the prisoners, increased mental illness — all at enormous expense to the government (i.e. your and my tax dollars at work). There was an excellent piece on psychological costs of solitary confinement by Atal Gawande in the New Yorker some months back. Anyhow, Goode reports good news: several states have been reducing the numbers of prisoners in solitary confinement. The motivation appears to be more cost savings in tough budget times than humanitarian concerns, but still, progress is progress.

On the cover of the Sunday Review section is a piece by Mark Bittman on the problems of eating chickens, and alternatives to doing so. Bittman asks, “Would I rather eat cruelly raised, polluting, unhealthful chicken, or a plant product that’s nutritionally similar or superior, good enough to fool me and requires no antibiotics, butting off of heads or other nasty things?” Or putting it another way, “If you know that food won’t hurt your body or the environment and it didn’t cause any suffering to an animal, why wouldn’t you choose it?” According to the story, there are new fake chicken products that are perfectly fine. That sounds like good news for the chicken species, and for humans.

Also in the Review section, Tom Friedman writes about the greatest non-natural resource a country can have — a good education system. He cites a recent study comparing the wealth of countries according to their natural resources such as oil and metals and the education level of their citizens. More oil resources do not lead to higher levels of knowledge and skills, but knowledge and skills are tied to countries’ economic success. Friedman is surely right that education should take pride of place as a societal focus.

One story I expected to see in the Review section, but didn’t, was the report earlier in the week that the televangelist Pat Robertson had spoken in favor of legalization of marijuana. My comment on Twitter (see @robtiller) was: Pigs fly! Robertson’s positions are generally consistent with the “conservative” “Christian” “family values” camp, and I would have guessed that even if he privately concluded that prohibition was a failure, he would be the last person to speak out on the subject. But he has acknowledged that the war on drugs has failed, after enormous expenditures and a huge toll of imprisoned victims. He proposes that we treat marijuana like we treat alcohol. It pains me to say so, but for once, I strenuously agree with the man. The important question, though, is will his followers?

The Nutcracker and a piano lesson

We went to the Carolina Ballet’s new production of The Nutcracker last week. Over the years, I’ve seen many Nutcrackers, from student productions to the NY City Ballet’s. In days gone by we used to listen to the Tchaikovsky music when we decorated the Christmas tree. I’ve never actually gotten sick of it, but a few years back I started to worry that it could happen. With the ballet music, just as earlier happened with the Brahms symphonies, I decided that I needed to be careful not to get so familiar as to lose the great joy of the thing. And so we hadn’t gone to the Carolina Ballet’s Nutcracker for the last couple of years.

I’m glad we returned. The CB production was substantially upgraded with new sets and effects. I enjoyed the upgraded magic tricks in Act 1, and thought the costumes in the ball scene were opulent. Act 1 is the children’s act — with magic tricks and children playing, but not a lot of dancing. Act 2 is more for the grown-ups, with a variety of virtuosic classical dance. The leading female roles in the performance I saw were wonderful, including Lilyan Vigo as a regal Sugarplum Fairy, Jan Burkhard as an outgoing Dewdrop, and Lara O’Brien as an unusually poignant, melancholy Tea. The men seemed especially athletic (gravity-defying) this year, including a particularly impressive Richard Krusch and Nikolai Smirnov.

Before the show, we agreed to celebrate the occasion by relaxing as completely as possible and just drink in the production — that is, clear the mind of everything except the beauty in the moment. We mostly succeeded. There were a couple of rough spots with the props, including the giant book with the false back that didn’t quite get closed in time. The sound quality from the live orchestra coming through speakers was less than excellent. But mostly we were swept away to a beautiful, magical place.

We met up with Lola and her boyfriend, Rodrigo, after the show, and learned that she’d had to switch roles at the last minute and, due to another dancer’s health problem, perform in a position she’d never done before. She said it was one of the least enjoyable shows of her life, because it took so much work, and was very far from solid. Of course, none of that was visible to us — she looked great. It was good, though, to be reminded of how hard the performers work to create the appearance of effortlessness.

At my piano lesson last week, Olga touched on this point. I’ve been bringing at least some memorized music to our lessons, and from time to time memory glitches occur. To fix this, part of her approach is to minimize dependence on muscle memory and build security through harmonic analysis. At the same time, she recommends thinking about the movements of the arms, wrists, and fingers as choreography — that is, gestures that have beauty separate from the beauty of the sound (but contributing to it). Planning the gestures and getting them ingrained is part of learning the piece.

At the lesson I began with Chopin’s mazurka opus 63, no. 3 (c sharp minor). (It’s unfortunate that great composers of the Romantic period passed on giving their works names. With 51 published mazurkas, it’s hard even for musicians to keep them straight by number. I generally try to think of a name for the ones I learn. I think of this one as: Sharp Longing.) It has unusually strange, sad harmonies and dissonances. I managed to play it coherently, and was pleased that Olga noted some interesting and lovely things. But, she noted, there was still a lot of work to do.

It is daunting to face Olga’s listening powers. At one point she perceived, correctly, that I was not carefully listening to what I was doing. “You’re faking it,” she said. Note, I was playing the right notes, but not balancing them in a considered way. This is a high standard — not just playing right, but playing with deep understanding. She acknowledges that there are many possible ways to play a phrase, but it is not acceptable to just play the notes without understanding and feeling.

As best I can tell, she does not draw a sharp line between the physical, intellectual, and emotional aspects of playing the piano. She recommended that I think about touching the keys as though I were speaking, which I found helpful. She also forced me to consider carefully about how my thumb moved to contact a key as opposed to the other fingers. We also talked for a while about the role of the elbow in certain situations. Not to mention the wrists! And that’s before we even get to the form or the music, or what it is trying to say. After the mazurka, we worked on the Etude Op. 25, No. 1, and Debussy’s Reverie. At the end, I felt tired, but inspired: there’s so much more challenging, beautiful music ahead.

Work, Pilates, Bjork, and musical play time

Nocturne in D flat major by Frederic Chopin

It was another busy week of many meetings, calls, and issues, with business dinners almost every night, and my email backlog continuing to pile up. But interesting, always interesting. On Friday I was scheduled to go to the coast for two days of wreck diving, but bad weather arrived and the trip was cancelled. I was not heartbroken. It was good to get some down time.

On Saturday morning it was cold and rainy. I thought of taking Yvonne’s open level Vinyasa yoga class at Blue Lotus, but learned from the web site that someone else was filling in for her. I check for alternatives, and found an early Pilates class at the Y. And so it was that I had my first Pilates experience. It was similar to yoga, with its emphasis on breathing throughout a series of exercises with unusual stretches and contractions. I found this particular class less strenuous than my normal yoga classes, and also less serenity-inducing. Still, I would do it again, especially if there’s no yoga available.

Other new things: earlier in the week I read a news story about Biophilia, the new multimedia production of Bjork, the Icelandic singer-songwriter, and downloaded the work to my iPad. Biophilia is in part a collection of songs about nature and science, but rather than being an album, it’s something we don’t have a word for yet. Bjork worked with scientists and artists to make interactive productions that allowed the listener to participate actively in the music by adding notes and altering images. After a few minutes of experimenting, I could make a bit of music with the tools provided, and participate in some of Bjork’s visions of microscopic, geologic, and celestial phenomena.

The idea of sharing a vision this way — not just providing passive entertainment, but inviting participation as a way of inspiring and teaching — is exciting, and the NY Times story took the view that it was ground breaking. For me, the experience was intriguing but not really thrilling. I liked being allowed to work with Bjork’s electronic instruments and play with her, but the musical possibilities were narrowly circumscribed and not expressive enough to satisfy me.

For example, by using the touch screen, in various songs you can add to Bjork’s fairly simple musical backdrop more harp notes or more synth notes, and play faster or slower, but so far as I could figure out without taking any new harmonic direction. The videos were in some cases beautiful, but the songs themselves were more performance art than either art music or dance music. Still, I liked the ideas, and I will probably play some more with Biophilia.

Phoebe, Holtkotter lamp, and music technology

The idea of using technology to express new musical thoughts has interested me for a while. This past spring, I began playing with the instruments built into GarageBand (a Mac application), and eventually purchased a cheap electronic keyboard and a cheap auxiliary speaker to experiment with. One of my ideas was to translate early music (1500s) through synthesizer voices to see what new things emerged. The sheet music came with a lot of interpretive problems, so I didn’t get far on the vector. But I had fun improvising with various synthesizer personalities using various systems, like Greek modes and pentatonic scales. I thought of it as playing, in the sense of playing a game. It’s a different kind of musical outlet.

Bjork’s idea of engineering a collaboration with an unknown audience has a distinguished heritage. It’s what we do when we open a volume of Chopin nocturnes and start to play. Chopin left us the architectural drawings, which the pianist uses to create musical in real time, while at the same time personalizing the structure with thousands of unwritten details according to the pianist’s experience, intelligence, and feelings.

This system — master composer, written music, trained pianist — has worked amazingly well for a couple of hundred years. It does, however, depend on musical education — there has to be a support system for training pianists, and also listeners. For music with the harmonic complexity of the great Western tradition, you have to learn a lot before you can interpret it, and you have to learn a fair bit to get deep enjoyment from listening to it. It is worth the effort.

I sometimes worry that there is a long historic curve in which our music devolves from the complex and brilliant to the simple and sweet, and from there to the just plain dumb. The traditional system of classical music education and performance is not in good health. But perhaps humans are just getting started in discovering what music can do. Who knows where it goes? We have to keep experimenting, keep creating. That’s what Bjork is doing, and good for her.

A recording session at Manifold Studios with Michael Tiemann, John Q. Walker, and the ghost of Oscar Peterson

Last weekend I attended a recording session at Maniford Recording, my friend Michael Tiemann’s new recording facility in Chatham County near Jordan Lake. Michael’s been working on this project for four years, and it is clearly a labor of love. The setting is rural piedmont North Carolina, surrounded by farms and forest with lots of songbirds. (I heard a whippoorwill singing ardently for the first time this year or last.) The architect was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, and incorporated the golden ratio throughout the design. Michael explained his his purpose in terms of making great recordings with a total devotion to truthful sound. I noted that this is swimming against the tide of contemporary culture, which Michael conceded, but he noted that tides can turn.

The recording was done by software developed by Zemph, a company founded by John Q. Walker, who was also at the session. The objective was to reengineer a recording by Oscar Peterson (jazz pianist) and Ray Brown (bass) from 1949. A hundred-year-old Steinway that had once been at Carnegie Hall had been fitted out to play itself using Zemph’s software, and the Zemph folks had created a new instrument to reproduce the bass. The sound was uncanny. It was unsettling, but kind of moving, to see the piano keys moving, and the sound had authority.

I went through a long period of studying and really loving jazz. I still enjoy it from time to time. I particularly enjoy music from the big band era. But jazz sometimes gets more reverences than it deserves, based in part on the myth of improvisation. The non-musician perceives improvisation as a bold experiment, but it’s usually not. What improvisation mostly means is either variations on prior melodies or laying prefabricated riffs in various orders on top of fairly simple, repetitious chord structures. It can sometimes have energy and heart, but it can also be fairly boring. When I started to feel a little bored, I found my way back to the Western European musical tradition, in which composers wrote down ideas so rich that we still find, centuries afterwards, it interesting, and sometimes transcendently moving, to confront them. I don’t get that from Oscar Peterson.

John graciously allowed me try out the pianos after the session. I found the Carnegie Steinway a bit loose and diffuse, but the Hamburg Steinway was wonderful — brilliant colors and clarity. I worried that the reproduction equipment, including circuit boards attached to the keys, could affect either the sound or the action, but I couldn’t perceive any such effects. I played a bit of Chopin, including the Minute Waltz, and a bit of Debussy’s First Arabesque.

I enjoyed seeing the technology for recreating the performance, and the mixing session in the studio. And it was inspiring to see how passionate Michael and John were about the music. I have a soft spot for people that are absolutely passionate about art that will never win a popularity contest or make a dollar. It’s a reminder that art matters at the most intimate human level, and can inspire love so intense as surpass all rationality.