Book Review

Mar. 2nd, 2015 08:59 pm
kenjari: (piano)
The Cambridge Companion to the Piano
by David Rowland (Editor)

This book, like all the Cambridge companions, consists of a series of essays written by musicologists (primarily British ones). It is a very solid volume, covering the history of the piano, its acoustical properties, piano repertoire, and performance styles. I especially liked the discussions of performance style and repertoire, as those chapters brought together a lot of new and old information in a coherent and engaging form. The chapters on piano history were good, too, but did not include anything that I didn't already know. The only disappointment was the chapter on popular music and jazz. The author only gave a cursory view of the piano's role in popular music, and completely missed the subtleties and complexities of race in American popular music.
kenjari: (piano)
Marguerite Long: A Life in French Music, 1874-1966
by Cecilia Dunoyer

This short biography covers the life of Marguerite Long, one of the most important pianists of the first half of the twentieth century. Her career coincided with that of the major French composers of the time: Faure, Debussy, and Ravel. She had close friendships with each of them, which allowed her to become their foremost interpreters. The only real flaw in this book is that Dunoyer sticks mainly to reportage, with very little analysis. She concentrates on the events of Long's life without probing deeper. Nonetheless, the book is a very interesting look at the interactions between performers and composers and at the French music world of the early 20th century.

Book Review

Mar. 2nd, 2014 07:59 pm
kenjari: (piano)
A Natural History of the Piano: The Instrument, the Music, the Musicians--from Mozart to Modern Jazz and Everything in Between
by Stuart Isacoff

This book is a breezy look at the history of the piano, clearly written to appeal to both musicians and non-musicians. It makes a nice counterpoint to Arthur Loesser's book Men, Women, and Pianos: A Social History" in that it is far less sexist and takes the piano's role in jazz and popular music more seriously. I particularly liked the attention paid to non-classical music and musicians. Isacoff includes a lot of good and often fun information and he has a pleasantly casual approach which made this book a very enjoyable read. I kind of wished for more depth, but that is not really Isacoff's aim.
Isacoff did have an interesting framework by which he divided piano music and pianists into four types which crossed genres and periods: Combustibles, Rhythmatizers, Alchemists, and Melodists. While this framework did have its limitations, it did provide a structure that prevented the book from becoming too much of a laundry list or timeline.
kenjari: (piano)
Chopin
by Jim Samson

This book combines both biography and musical commentary into a wonderful whole. Samson approaches Chopin's life in a way that is refreshingly free of sentimentality or hagiography. He is even-handed in his descriptions of Chopin's personality and his complex long-term relationship with writer George Sand. He does a lot to counter the overly romanticized image of a delicate and soulful musician tragically dying of tuberculosis in the midst of the 19th century Parisian arts world. Instead we see musician who forged his own unique career and life in France while maintaining his Polish identity and ties.
The best part of this book, however, is the way Samson writes about Chopin's music. He gets right to the heart of Chopin's craft and art without getting bogged down in overly technical language. Samson is especially good at exploring how Chopin invoked, defined, and re-defined genre in his works, which I found very useful and illuminating as someone who plays a lot of Chopin.
kenjari: (piano)
Mr. Langshaw's Square Piano
by Madeline Goold

This book was precipitated by the author's interest in and purchase of an early 19th century Broadwood square piano. While her piano was being restored, she used its serial number, 10651, to research its provenance and history, as well as the history of the square piano in the British Empire.
Mr. Langshaw's Square Piano thus explores the history of early pianos and piano-making, the life and activities of piano 10651's original owner, John Langshaw, and the cultural changes that the first pianos brought about. Goold's book is more of a slice of life than an exhaustive scholarly study, but it is quite interesting and informative nonetheless. I always find it fascinating to learn the details of everyday musical life in a particular time and place, through the experiences of regular musicians rather than the great and celebrated figures we usually focus on.
kenjari: (piano)
I think that Baroque music has a reputation for being a bit on the cerebral side, an intellectual pleasure, with its orderly counterpoint and harmonic clarity. This seems especially true of Bach, no doubt aided by the somewhat stern and formal portraits of him. While there is certainly truth to this, I have always heard another side to Baroque music in general, and Bach in particular.
What I hear is passion. It's a quality more commonly associated with 19th century music, but I think Baroque music is just as strongly permeated with it. It's a different way of expressing it, but I do hear it very clearly. I hear it in the forward propulsion of the pieces in faster tempi and in the rich lingering quality of pieces in slower tempi. I hear it in the intricate flicker of the ornamentation and the caress of the rapid passage work. I hear it in the depth and clarity of the harmonies. I hear it in the contrasts that are sometimes stark and sometimes more subtle. And I don't think it's just a product of my own personal lens. One of the elements of the early development of the Baroque style was an impulse towards expressing a wider range and greater intensity of emotional content. Composers strove to represent an affekt, or emotional state.(1)
Perhaps some of my perception of Baroque music as passionate comes from playing it, first as an organist, and now as a pianist. Playing Baroque music can be a surprisingly and deeply sensual experience. You have to let yourself be swept up in the forward motion of the faster pieces, while the slower ones demand that you attend to and savor each note. Then there are differences in touch required of the fingers, from an intense focus to the fluttering and flickering of fast runs and delicate ornaments. Sometimes the lines of counterpoint converge so that your hands are brought intimately close together so that they are very nearly intertwined, as in certain passages from the d minor prelude in the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2.
Baroque music is rightly admired for its craft, but there is also a depth of feeling in it that should be celebrated.



(1) From Grout and Palisca, A History of Western Music
kenjari: (piano)
I finally got around to calling the piano tuner, because my piano had not only gone out of tune, but had also developed some very annoying key noise.
The tuner came today and ended up spending over two hours with my piano (a routine tuning takes around an hour). Although having to listen to 2+ hours of piano tuning is not exactly pleasant, I am incredibly glad that my tuner is the type to stay as long as it takes to make sure that the piano is completely right. Alas, my piano will not be completely right until January, since it is broken, but only a little. A small part in the damper pedal mechanism is broken, as well as a small plastic part elsewhere. The tuner is ordering new parts. Luckily, I can still play in the meantime. The damper pedal still functions, it is just noisy, and the tuner was able to glue the plastic bit back together so it will hold until the new one arrives.
My piano is nearly twenty years old, and I play it almost every day. Plus, I've moved it twice now. And the vagaries of the New England climate probably cause a slight amount of additional stress on it. The instrument has had its share of key noise, pedal squeaks, and sticky keys, but this is the first time any part of the mechanism has actually broken. It's a good piano, though, and I expect to have it with me for the rest of my life. (I plan on purchasing a baby grand at some point, but I intend to keep this piano, too. Because two pianos are better than one.)
kenjari: (piano)
I've been playing piano for nearly twenty years now. Every once in a while, I get into a kind of slump where my piano playing doesn't go well at all. Luckily, these times happen rarely.
Lately, though, my playing has sucked, so I guess it's one of those times. My concentration is off, my fingers are clumsy, my expressiveness is shot, and I'm not having any fun. It's frustrating. However, I've learned the the best way to deal with it is to just play right through. Keep up with the daily practicing, don't give up, relax, and don't worry about it. Everything will come right soon enough.
kenjari: (piano)
This evening I was practicing the left hand of the last movement of Beethoven's Sonata in Eb when a helicopter flew overhead. It approached as I was playing the cadence on Eb. The frequency of the helicopter noise was just slightly off from the Eb. I kept playing the Eb (Eb-2, if you're curious), listening to the dissonance. As the helicopter came closer, it got more in tune with the Eb, then dissonant again as it faded away. It was very cool.
kenjari: (piano)
A couple of people mentioned that today is Ludwig van Beethoven's birthday. It's funny, I didn't remember that until I saw other people's posts. I have had an extensive musical education, but I'm not really up on the details of most composer's biographies. I tend to know plenty about their music, though. So here are some of my thoughts on Beethoven.
Beethoven has always been one of my favorite composers. Possibly The Favorite. I love his music - listening to it, playing it, studying it. I never get tired of many of his pieces - Dr. Bell once said that was one of the chief criteria for the greatness of a work. Certainly, I never get tired of the 9th Symphony - the third movement is like being held in warm comforting arms as you drift off to sleep, and the fourth movement never fails to make me feel joyful. Back when I was suffering from depression, I used to listen to the 9th to relieve the pain. If I could take only one piece of music with me to a desert island (in both a recording and a full score), Beethoven's 9th Symphony would probably be it.
Learning to play Beethoven piano sonatas is always a major project for me. First of all, they are very demanding technically, and I am not a professional-level pianist. There are sonatas (e.g., the Hammerklavier) that I will never be able to play, because I just don't have the physical chops to do it. Beethoven always takes enormous physical and mental effort. But his music never fails to reward that effort. And that's not true of every composer (Schubert comes to mind).
A co-worker once asked me if Beethoven was really as great a composer as everyone thinks and says he is. The answer is yes. Even if I didn't like his music, I would have to say so. He was both a master of the classical style and a great innovator within that style. He extended sonata form in both length and conception. He achieved unity between both the larger design and the details of a work. In many of his mature works, for example, the first interval played mirrors the motion of the first harmonic modulation. This may sound simple, but it's very difficult to do well. Plus, Beethoven's music sounds wonderful, IMHO. If you don't believe me on the technical points, check out The Classical Style by Charles Rosen. And if you just don't like Beethoven's music, you're entitled to your opinion. But that has nothing to do with whether or not he is a great composer. I have never been able to like Haydn's music, but I can't dispute the fact that he was a great composer.
However, I have to admit that some of Beethoven's perceived greatness has to do with his personality and life and how they mesh with some cultural concepts about great artists. Beethoven fits very well into the Romantic vision of a great artist: something of a loner, a tragic figure, etc. I'm not sure Beethoven himself would have seen himself this way, but he certainly fits the profile. Despite originating in the 19th century, this concept of the great artist is still very much with us, and I think still holds a lot of attraction for many people. Luckily, his music stands on its own, in all its greatness.
Happy Birthday, Ludwig van Beethoven.
"Do you fall prostrate, you millions?
Do you sense the Creator, world?
Seek him above the starry vault,
he must surely dwell above the start!"
-Schiller
(from the Ode to Joy, of course)
kenjari: (piano)
I had my piano tuned this morning. It had been about a year since its last tuning, which is longer than I like between tunings, but it's been that kind of year. The piano sounds wonderful now, so of course, my playing sounds great, too, even when it isn't. And I can now play "China Gates" by John Adams without feeling disoriented. The harmonies in that piece are such that it almost sounds like a different piece if the piano is too out of tune.
I am filled with such warm fuzzy feelings towards my piano that I am almost thinking of throwing it a party in two years, when it will be 20 years old.
kenjari: (piano)
On Wednesday I spent the whole day at work with Richard Goode's performance of the Beethoven sonata I'm learning going through my head. But that night I skipped practicing (for reasons that had nothing to do with practicing itself). Goode plays the sonata a lot faster (and better) than I can currently manage. The funny thing is that yesterday when I was practicing the sonata, I could play it noticeably faster than I could on Tuesday when I last practiced.
kenjari: (Default)
I have recently had a growing interest in playing Baroque music on the piano, after resisting doing so for years. See, I studied organ until I graduated from high school. And playing organ involves a steady diet of Bach, with a little Buxtehude or Pachelbel. Not much organ music of note was written from the end of the Baroque period until the end of the 19th century. Despite the resurgence of interest in the instrument at the close of the Romantic period and during the 20th century, the core of the organ repertoire is still largely music written before 1800. Thus, throughout college, I had very little interest in playing Baroque music, having had my fill. I concentrated instead on Romantic music.
But now, more than ten years since I stopped playing organ, I really want to go back to the music of Bach and Scarlatti. So I have. Yesterday I got a volume of Bach's keyboard music and a volume of Scarlatti to supplement the edition of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier that I already own. I sight-read through some of it during practice yesterday and today and I'm finding myself completely enchanted by the elegant counterpoint and insistent momentum of the rhythms. I particularly like the way the Baroque style sounds in the minor keys. And despite the completely tonal, common practice harmonies, Baroque treatment of dissonance can produce some rather pungent and surprising sounds. The figuration and ornamentation also just plain feels good to play in a purely physical way.
kenjari: (Default)
I have been having the best time playing piano lately. Even when my playing isn't particularly stellar, I've been really enjoying it. But I think that in a way, it's my lack of a need to be the greatest pianist ever that makes playing so much fun. In general, I'm really glad that I decided to go into composition rather than piano performance. Sure, I'll never be amazing, and I'll never be able to play the Hammerklavier sonata, and I'll never be up on stage doing a concerto with a world-class orchestra. But that's okay, I'm satisfied being a pretty good pianist instead of a really great one. Sure, it would be nice to play better, but I don't feel that it's a real lack in my life. I can play well enough to be able to do the things with it I need and want to do.
And there are benefits to not being a concert-pianist type. I don't have to be competitive about my playing. There are plenty of better pianists out there, and that's cool. I can buy there recordings and go to their concerts; I don't have to be one of them. I don't have to compare myself to any of them. I get to play for myself. I learn and play whichever pieces I happen to like. I stop playing pieces that I no longer like. I practice because I want to, and because I love to play. The only requirements I need to meet are my own.
Best of all, I really can just enjoy the whole experience. Playing an instrument is such a wonderful mix of mental and physical activity. Not only does music sound good, but it often feels very good to play it. I think that's why so many pianists love Chopin. There's a certain quality to the physical sensation of playing most of his works. Even when the music is difficult, there a certain satisfaction to the way it all falls underneath the fingers, a certain rightness. Chopin's music truly was meant for the piano, and I think for the performer as much as for the listener. Chopin's music is also very beautiful. It's very emotionally rich, warm, and satisfying. The player can really put a lot of themselves into it, and the music not only lets you do that, it rewards you for it. It's the kind of music that allows the listener to really hear what the performer is putting into it not just from a physical standpoint, but from a psychological and emotional standpoint as well.

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