The Casual Blog

Tag: Debussy

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

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.

Surviving political disappointments, and a note on my piano

For those like me whose political views face in a progressive direction, this has been a tough week. It’s really difficult to comprehend how so many people can get so bamboozled. Right-wing crackpots have beat the drum loudly for lower taxes for the rich, less of a health care safety net, punishing hardworking immigrants, smaller “government,” and assorted “moral” causes. The messages don’t seem to me to have much content, reasonable basis, or persuasive power, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

I can see how going along with the right-wingers accords with the self-interest of the wealthy few. And I can also see how people who’ve lost their livelihoods and face economic hardship are desperate, angry, and susceptible to demagoguery. But there are lots of others — sincere, well-meaning folks who this week voted against both reason and rational self-interest. This is hard to figure. It seems that Churchill was right: democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the known alternatives.

But we survived the Homer Simpson-like sunny nuttiness of the Reagan years and the fear-mongering ignorance, cynicism, and sheer dopiness of the Bush years. As bad as the situation looks at the moment, as painful as it is to think of the triumph of organized corruption and the huge problems that will not be addressed any time soon, most of us will likely survive for a good while. People will continue to be born, grow up, get married, have kids. People will continue to fall in love with each other, with ideas, with art, and with the beauty of the world. It’s good that this is so.

So I’ve been doing a little work on my cocoon. My most prized possession, my Steinway A grand piano, needed tuning this week. For many years I wanted a Steinway, and managed to buy mine by selling my Yamaha grand and adding money I inherited when my mother died four years ago. My mom was the first person I ever heard sing or play a piano, and she sang constantly as she did housework or ran errands throughout my childhood. Along with the words of every funny camp song or show tune she ever learned (dozens or hundreds), I got from her her love of music — a great gift. I think of her with love when I think of my piano, which is every day.

My regular piano technician for the past few years, Phil Romano, has also been working as Paul McCartney’s piano tech for his concert tours. This is cool — I like having a practical musical connection to Sir Paul — but has limited Phil’s availability. Phil was headed out of town for that gig when I called him a couple of weeks ago and couldn’t work me in, so I scheduled a tuning with Richard Ruggero. Richard has a great reputation as a piano dealer and technician, and turned out to be a very nice guy. He plays the piano himself, and quickly noted three or four keys that had minor shortcomings that he could improve. I was happy with his tuning, and agreed to get him back over to work on the nits.

It is one of life’s great pleasures to play on a freshly-tuned Steinway grand. That evening, I played some of my favorite Chopin — a couple of waltzes and the etude op. 10, no. 3. Also, some of my favorite Debussy (the first arabesque) and Liszt (Sonnetto del Petrarca No. 47). I also worked a little on two current projects, Schumann’s arabeske op. 18 and Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau. All of this music is gorgeous, and some of it so transcendent that it gives me goosebumps. I felt happy.

A musical dinner party

We had a small dinner party on Saturday night for some old friends. Sally put a lot of thought and work into the food, and I organized the music, including both recordings and some of my own piano playing. I’ve come to think that a musician’s work is inherently social. This isn’t completely obvious, since so much of the work consists of individual, solitary practice. It is possible to enjoy music alone, although even this has a social aspects, since it involves interacting with the musical ideas of others (composers, editors, previous performers).

But a musician’s conception that doesn’t get communicated is not quite complete. It’s like a meal prepared with infinite care which no one tastes. Listeners complete the musical circuit that runs from abstract idea to human emotion. Just as a meal is just an abstraction if it isn’t eaten, a musical conception isn’t really music until someone listens.

So I was happy that our friends let me share with them some of my musical ideas regarding Chopin and Debussy. I played the Minute Waltz, the D flat Nocturne (Op. 27, No. 2), and Clair de Lune, and managed to make some beautiful sonorities. There were some memory lapses, which I was not pleased about, but I recognized them as minor and didn’t get discombobulated.

Having listeners always changes the musician’s mental processing. It can cause greater inspiration and concentration, but it also causes greater stress, and sometimes system failure. The possibility of losing one’s grip and falling is part of the business of climbing, and the possibility of losing one’s place is part of the business of musical performance. It is strange, though, when it happens. The keys suddenly look completely unfamiliar, and the hands are paralyzed with uncertainty. It’s a terrible feeling. But it happens, and the only thing to do is move on. Despite the problems, I was glad I made the effort, and grateful to my listeners for completing the musical circuit.

Sally’s cooking was delicious, and there was plenty of laughter and lively conversation. Tony Judt, the historian and author of Postwar (a great book about the aftermath of WW II) who died of ALS last week, once said that talking was the point of adult experience. It certainly is a great pleasure to talk with kindred spirits about things we care about passionately.

At work last week I took a short class on the subject of “crucial conversations,” which was about how to communicate better when stakes and emotions are high. The class included a little film by a middle schooler who replicated Solomon Asch’s conformity experiment. In the experiment, the subject is told that there is a test of visual perception, and asked to compare the length of one straight line to another. The subject hears several people who are secretly in on the experiment give answers that are clearly wrong, and then, most often, agrees with the clearly wrong answer. The point is, most people go along with the group, even when they think the group is wrong. Those who are willing to trust their own perceptions and buck the group are a minority.

Why does this happen? Is it intellectual insecurity? The fear of being ostracized? It’s possible to imagine a certain evolutionary advantage might accrue to those that maintained stable groups with uniform, though wrong, ideas, so that their band was more effective in hunting, say, the woolly mammoth. But it’s also possible that a huge evolutionary disadvantage from group think that prevented admitting and addressing such global problems as the disastrous war on drugs or global warming from CO2 emissions.

Whether we admit it or not, we all struggle with the pressure to conform to the group, but some of us put up more of a fight than others. Our friends would probably be in the minority of Asch’s test subjects that was willing to go against the grain and voice their true thoughts. It makes for much more lively conversation. Before we knew it, four hours had flown by, and it was time to say good night.