Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fluid Piano

Below is a video clip of the first performance last year of a new instrument. dubbed a "fluid piano" by its inventor, British composer Geoff Smith. The piece is Fluid C composed and performed by Matthew Bourne.

Many pianists and composers have lamented the fact that a piano can't be retuned easily. Equal temperament is the default and most instruments are just stuck with it. Electronic keyboards offered some alternatives, but they are ... um ... electronic. They don't have the life and the soul of a fine acoustic instrument.

Over the centuries since keyboard instruments rose to prominence, others have tried their hand at modifying the design so that it could play microtonal music or variable tunings. By far this strikes me as the simplest and most practical effort to date. It has the further advantage of being entirely mechanical--no electricity needed at all to make the thing work. The design could play standard piano music or any number of alterations.

Part of its charm, but also it's greatest limitation, is that it uses a standard piano keyboard. That means that should you want a scale of, say, 21 notes in an octave, and you're going to be using more than 12 of those at any one time, then it's not going to be playable on this instrument. On the other hand, a little bit of creative planning on the part of composers and performers could overcome that limitation (retuning with one hand while playing with the other, for instance, as the performer does here).

The instrument shown here has a thinner, harpsichord-y timbre. That is entirely charming in its own right, but I imagine it has more to do with the instrument's prototype status than any limitation in the design.

In short, I'm really excited about the prospects for the fluid piano. I would love to try one myself. I anticipate many composers of many nationalities taking advantage of this instrument's flexibility to create a whole new genre of keyboard and ensemble music.

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sunday Concert at Puffin

Classical Sundays at the Puffin this week features the Israeli Chamber Project, a new group that features various combinations from a young collection of performers in traditional and contemporary work. Below is a video of the group performing a commissioned work, Night Horses, by young Israel-born composer Matan Porat.

The group for Sunday's performance will be Itamar Zorman, violin, Assaff Weisman, piano, and Sivan Magen, harp. The exact program is unavailable at the moment.

The place is 20 Puffin Way, Teaneck, NJ 07666. The concert is 4 p.m. Suggested donation at the door is $10. Reservations are recommended. Call 201-836-2499 for more information, or visit The Puffin Foundation website, http://www.puffinfoundation.org.

Matan Porat: Night Horses from Israeli Chamber Project on Vimeo.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Conductor Walks Out Hours Before Concert

This article highlights some interesting aspects of the social and political challenges every orchestra conductor faces. We don't know the whole story--and probably never will. What we can say for certain is that she shouldn't have walked out. But it appears she may have been in some ways justified. And given the remark (by the former conductor of the ensemble) that some members were resisting her leadership because of her gender, we can probably assume there was significant unprofessional insult aimed at her beforehand.

It's important to remember that the success of an orchestra requires a very delicate balancing act on the part of the conductor--a firm, gentle hand and a supreme confidence--as well as the complete musical skills set. As with captaining a ship, poor leadership on the part of the conductor or strong resistance from the members of the orchestra can easily sink the whole enterprise. Sounds here like the players allowed themselves to head down a dangerous path of not trusting their leader--until, finally, as a direct result of that conflict, the ship ran aground.

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Springsteen Class

I was MIA in this blog for most of October as a result of a convergence of personal and professional demands. Most lovely among these was substituting as instructor for two weeks in a freshman seminar at The College of New Jersey. I already am teaching one freshman seminar class (on the topic of "Music and the Natural World"). Here though, I was asked to fill in for two sections of the course, "The Lyrics of Bruce Springsteen as Literature." I live in Asbury Park and have followed Springsteen's progress since "Born to Run" hit the charts while I was in high school, so this assignment was a natural fit.

Freshman seminars are designed to introduce students to the work involved in real scholarship at more advanced levels. Ideally, they would pick something that interests them and be guided through detailed study, modeling the experience of upper-level undergraduate or graduate school courses. The reality falls somewhat short of that: The students are forced to choose from a list of predetermined courses and asked to balance their course selections across from categories designed to cover the whole of the liberal arts. Then they have to shoehorn those choices into a daily schedule. As a result, every class will have some kids left wondering why they are there. But still, the goal of the program is to engage the freshman in individualized research--very different from my first years in college.

Considering Springsteen's lyrics as literature isn't a stretch. We've seen presidents, politicians, authors and commentators quoting from his songs. Albums recorded in the 1970s and '80s still have currency, finding new audiences and influencing young musicians. Subjecting those lyrics to a semester-long course of study might seem over the top--until you actually start the research. Then it becomes clear there's a lot to say. So much has been written about Springsteen's music--thousands of books and articles--but much more could be.

In the classes I taught, for instance, we spent a good bit of time on the political ramifications of the song "Born in the U.S.A." (1984) and how the deliberately patriotic album cover and the upbeat, anthem-like music seemed to contradict the lyrics' portrait of a beat-down vet. That contrast alone is worth a ream of paper at least (especially since Springsteen recorded an earlier, much more subdued version of the song). We noted the way the words succinctly capture complex social issues surrounding the Vietnam war, ("I had a brother at Khe Sahn, fighting off the Viet Cong/They're still there; he's all gone"). The narrator is not Springsteen himself, but one of the many working class joes that populate his songs. That character is celebrating his rough birthright with all the joyous fervor of a good barroom brawl. He challenges us to accept that this is his America, too.

Is it OK to celebrate failure? Is it patriotism to write about things as they are? Great questions for freshmen to try to answer.

Every album since the 1975 "Born to Run" is full of similar, if less obvious, conflicts--challenges to societal norms, provocative blends of good and evil within a single character, jabs at political issues, difficult personal relationships worked out through characters and rhymes. You don't have to be a die-hard fan to mine the rewards of these stories.

But for me the best part of teaching these classes was not Bruce. It was, as always, simply being able to talk to the freshmen, to participate in the flow of ideas and insights that are shaping who they will become. Open faced and newly vulnerable to the robo-assembly line challenges slamming them every second, they give me a reason to believe in a future less horrorshow; a hope that somehow together, taking a careful look at meanings--almost regardless of where we find them--we can help put humanity to rights.

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Saturday, November 6, 2010

10-String Guitar Recital

My friend Stanley Alexandrowicz will be playing a guitar recital 8 p.m. Saturday Nov. 13 at the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, 102 Witherspoon St., Princeton. The program consists of half 19th Century music and half more recent works. One of the first things that interested me about Stanley when I met him over 20 years ago was his rigorous scholarship, a seemingly fathomless curiosity and knowledge of guitar repertoire and classical music history in general. Performing with him--either in historical or newly written music, sometimes even my own--is always a thrill.

In this concert, he'll be using a 10-string guitar favored by many 19th century guitar virtuosos. I had never heard of such thing until he brought it up recently. He sent me an explanation that he had prepared for other curious musicians and I'm including some excerpts here:
By the mid 1830's MOST of the virtuoso guitar composers were adding a string or two for enhanced harmonic/sonic possibilities. … By the END of the Romantic period, nearly ALL of the great virtuoso guitar composers had found that ten strings would serve their needs. … As I explored the 19th C. repertoire, I realized that MANY of these pieces just don't "sound right" on the modern guitar. For example, one piece I found ONLY needed a low D as part of its structure—but if I tuned the sixth string [normally tuned to E] TO low D, the fingerings to get the low E were impossible! So with ten one can have all the options.
Stanley goes on to talk about how this style, used by guitar builders of the "Viennese/Russian" school, was overshadowed by the popularity of the Spanish style guitar, largely due to the influence of world-acclaimed virtuoso Andres Segovia.
Even the SIZE of the guitar fingerboard was influenced—Segovia had big, FAT fingers, so a wide … fingerboard became standard.
But with the rise of interest in historical accuracy, guitarists are rethinking the reliance on the 6-string model and finding that some of the 19th Century compositions really require the extra low strings. He also implies that the interior construction, and thus the sound of the instrument generally, is better than the Spanish model.

Composers on Stanley's Nov. 13 program include Ivan Padovec, Napoleon Coste, Witold Lutaslowski, Vaclav Kucera and Manuel Ponce. For more information call 609-924-8777 or visit The Arts Council of Princeton website.

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