The Casual Blog

Tag: Liszt

Our new floor, Liszt, and some ants

At Raulston Arboretum, September 3, 2017

They finished installing our new wood floor, and so we said so long to the Hampton Inn and moved back home on Friday.  There’s still a lot of unpacking, reconnecting, and rearranging yet to do, but the worst is behind us.  The new flooring is American walnut in wider planks and a more textured surface, and we really like it.

We had a special sound absorbent underlayer put under the floor, in consideration of the neighbors situated under my Fazioli 228 grand piano.  The instrument can put out a lot of sound, which I hope isn’t too annoying for them.  I was very happy to be able to play it again.

The new floor under the Fazioli

Among other things, I’ve been working on one of Liszt’s songs for piano, Oh! Quand Je Dors, from the second Buch der Lieder fur Piano Allein.  It’s so beautiful!  At times it feels a bit lonely caring about Liszt, since my friends generally don’t seem to like him nearly as much as I do.  I suppose loneliness often comes along with a passion, since caring intensely about something will separate you from others.  Of course, it also connects you to others, but they may not be close by, and may even belong to generations long gone.

My teacher lent me a book by one of Liszt’s piano students, August Gollerich, which consists of diary notes of master classes Liszt conducted in 1884-86, the last two years of his life.  The format of Liszt’s master classes was just like those today, with a series of students playing works, and then getting critical comments from the master.  Liszt was very direct about what he liked and didn’t like, but he also had a sense of humor. He mixed practical instruction on tempo and volume with notes on the animating emotions, and frequently played to demonstrate his points.  How daunting and amazing it must have been to play Liszt for Liszt! For his part, the master, nearing the end, seemed happy to be surrounded by adoring students, and still passionate about music.

Speaking of lonely passions, I heard a radio interview with Eleanor Spicer Rice, an entomologist who truly loves ants.  She pointed up their under-appreciated contributions to the environment and some wonderfully quirky behaviors.  She was so sweet and excited about these tiny creatures that I ordered and started reading her book, Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants.  For each species, she writes three or four pages about their habits, customs, and talents, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

Music therapy, and looking for new bugs

umstead-bugsbug-1-2
My work days are often nonstop meetings, calls, and electronic documents about new technologies and difficult problems, and for several hours my left brain is going at full throttle. I like the intensity, but there are a lot of stress hormones. Without a dose of classical music after work, I’d likely redline and blow up. Playing the piano, even for just a half hour, is like a warm, soothing bath.

untitledbug-1-4

One of the pieces back on my musical workbench is Liszt’s famous Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude. (There’s also some Schubert, Chopin, and Debussy.) I’ve been infatuated by the Liszt piece for a long time, but discouraged from committing to it by two things. First, it has some daunting technical demands, including reaches and stretches that are awkward and even painful. Olga, my teacher, suggested a (to me) non-obvious way of refingering to avoid the worst stretches, and I’ve been working out the details of the new approach.

The other blocker is the length. Most of the piano music I try to master and embody is on the short side by classical standards – under 6 minutes, which I view as pushing the limits of attention spans for most non-specialists. Benediction comes in at around 16 minutes. But what minutes! It’s very lyrical, elaborated by Liszt’s rich harmonies, and conceived with the piano’s singing qualities in mind. Here’s a couple of good and interestingly different performances from YouTube here and here
untitledbug-1-2

We’ve been particularly enjoying listening to music since we had our stereo system reworked last week. This was not entirely optional. Our former system involved in-wall and under-floor connections, which ceased working properly after our new floors were installed. Dr. Video, who installed the system, advised that fixing it would be quite expensive. We eventually decided to reposition the speakers on the large bookshelf, and powered them with a Yamaha R-700 receiver tucked in an adjacent closet. The speakers – two NHT Class Threes and a subwoofer – sounded good before, but with the new position and more power, they sound excellent.
untitledbug-1-6

We inaugurated the new sound set up with Harmonielehre, a piece for orchestra by the contemporary American composer John Adams. This is one of my favorite orchestral pieces of all time, and that’s including all the symphonies of Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler. It manages to cover an enormous emotional range, from a bouncy and cheery to fiery and fierce to wistful and contemplative. The harmonic language is mostly tonal, but with piquant dissonances, and the rhythm manages to seem propulsive and natural, though it is anything but simple. It takes you on the journey of discovery, much as Mahler does. I have the version by the City of Birmingham Symphony, but various other are available on Youtube and Spotify. I highly recommend giving it a listen.
untitledbug-1-7

Another great stress reliever is a walk through the woods and around a lake. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, I went to Umstead and Lake Crabtree parks and moved slowly, looking closely in the grasses and bushes for interesting insects. Most of the little creatures I saw did not hang around long enough to have their pictures taken, but I got a few shots I liked.
umstead-bugsbug-1

No illusions, but not disillusioned

DSC_0034
At my post-surgery eye checkup on Thursday, after being scanned, poked and peered at, I was happy to hear Dr. Mruthyunjaya declare, “I like what I’m seeing.” My retina was back where it was supposed to be. This doesn’t mean everything will be just fine. Vision in my left eye is quite blurry now, and it will be some months before we’ll know how much there will finally be. The likeliest answer is substantially less than before. But as Dr. M’s fellow, Dr. Martell, pointed out, even if there’s a lot of blur, it could still help with peripheral vision, and serve as a backup in the event of a right eye catastrophe.

Anyhow, it is what it is. The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe died this week at age 82. I have not read his work, but the Times obit made me think I might like it. It quoted Nadine Gordimer as saying he was “a writer who has no illusions but is not disillusioned.” A good way to be.

I was also happy that Dr. M cleared me to resume exercising, though he suggested I wait another week before my next killer spin class. So early Friday morning, my usual spinning day, I happily did a functional fitness routine and a half hour on the escalator stairs. The stairs are a relatively new machine at O2 Fitness, and they are remarkably effective at pushing up your heart rate. As usual, while sweating away I listened to some opera (the incredible second act of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro) with my MP3 device and read on my tablet device.

I reread some on the ideas of Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics, whose name is pronounced “Hite,” as I learned this week when I heard him give a lecture at Duke. My earlier thoughts on Haidt’s theory are here, but I’m still processing his big ideas, which point dramatically away from traditional political theory and its reliance on rationality. His TED talk on the differences in ethical systems between liberals and conservatives is a nice introduction to his theory.

As Haidt observes in the TED talk, there are two types of people: those who like new ideas and experiences and those who prefer the safe and familiar. He notes that the latter are the people who like to eat at Applebee’s.

On Thursday Sally and I tried for the second time to eat at a new restaurant in our neighborhood, Dos Taquitos, and again failed. The place was cheerily hopping but the wait time was too long for us, so we went down Glenwood Avenue to the uncrowded Blue Mango for some Indian food. We had a delicious meal featuring masaledar allo gobhi (cauliflaur and potatos) and eggplant bhartha. We couldn’t finish it, and I asked for a take-home box, which I carefully prepared and then accidentally left on the table. Darn!

For more new musical ideas, I had a piano lesson with Olga on Saturday morning. It was invigorating! I played Liszt’s Liebestraum (Dream of Love) No. 3, a famously beautiful piece (here played wonderfully by Evgeny Kissin). She gave me a massive compliment, and I quote: “Wow!” She thought I’d vastly improved, and was getting a richer sound. But of course, it can always be better. We worked on getting a more stable connection between the body and the instrument, including not just the fingers, but also the back and the core. She showed me on a type of touch involving a very relaxed hand with mostly arm movement. She also gave me some new ideas on pedaling, including using a slow, slightly delayed release. As she noted, it makes magic.
DSC_0039

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?

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.