On this page is an archive of my past “What’s New” entries. If you haven’t read my current What’s New, click here which will bring you to the right spot on my home page.
about playing Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, a bird encounter, a tour of Korea, new jazz tunes, and a musical trip to the West Side
about playing Mozart’s Concerto no. 25, thinking about the crowd noise music in Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, discovering the early 20th century composer Arthur Lourié, an all-Bach concert, writing some jazz lyrics, and preparing for a big celebration for a round-numbered birthday of mine
musings on playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 in A, K. 488, understanding two pieces by Olivier Messiaen through listening to the song of the wood-thrush here where I live in Vermont and considering how things grow in Nature, the premiere of a new collaboration improvising on the piano simultaneous with the creation live on stage of visual art, and some thoughts about the similarities between painting and music, and why perfect fifths have become my favorite interval these days
a chronicle of a tour I made to Europe with a jazz quartet, a story from a past tour of Russia, a little bit about getting to play with Pete Seeger, and some thoughts on my experience being the subject of a documentary film
2015 Starts Big
2015 began for me in a very exciting way, with my first time ever performing a concert program of Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, op. 109, 110, and 111.
For many pianists, performing all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas (usually presented over the course of a single year) is the ultimate challenge – and a remarkable experience for both performer and audience. Starting back in 1989 I began my own project to gradually perform all 32 of the Beethoven sonatas chronologically, but with a bit of a twist – matching up my age as I perform the various sonatas with Beethoven’s age as Beethoven composed them.
I divided up the 32 sonatas into 8 concert programs and began the project in 1989 when I was 26 years old, the same age Beethoven was when he composed his first four sonatas. These lively early sonatas are full of energetic, dynamic music and it was my hope that I performed these first sonatas with the spirit of my own then-youthful nature.
As I have grown older, I have gradually tackled Beethoven’s famous middle-period works such as the Waldstein and the Appassionata, and have delayed until now, when I am 52 and hopefully more mature, to perform the late, transcendent final sonatas, music Beethoven wrote when he too was 52, near the end of his life. So instead of performing all the sonatas in one year, it has been for me a 26-year long odyssey.
In many ways, the series of eight concerts was meant to be a study in the psychology of aging and development: audiences hear how Beethoven developed as a composer, how I develop as a pianist, and the intersection of the two processes.
After 26 years, I have finally reached the end of my journey: 2015 will mark the culmination of the project with this final concert in the series, Beethoven’s sonatas 30, 31, and 32. I am sure you can appreciate that with the 26-year build-up, my going out on stage to perform this program was for me a very special, personal moment.
We all know these last three Beethoven sonatas are widely regarded as perhaps the finest, most spiritual pieces of solo piano music of all time. Yet I was unprepared for the depth and quality of audiences’ reactions to hearing this amazing music. More than a few people told me the experience was so strong emotionally it moved them to tears. If you click on this page, you can read some excerpts from some very interesting mail I received from audience members who were present at my recent Beethoven concerts, testifying as to the extraordinary spiritual power of this one-of-a-kind music.
I did my first performance of this program on February 8 and all tickets sold out a week in advance of the concert. I decided to offer a second performance of the sonatas later the same day, which also drew a nice crowd.
At the first performance, a very interesting thing happened in the “life imitating art” category. The final movement of Beethoven’s Sonata no. 31 in A-flat, op. 110 begins with a slow introduction which includes some freely rhapsodic, improvisation-like music not in a structured rhythmic meter. In these passages are some cryptic tied pairs of identical 32nd notes, repeated over and over again. As two 32nd notes tied together could be more cleanly notated as one 16th note, the consensus has always been that each note is meant to be struck despite the tie, but perhaps the second one of each pair might be quieter, as in “swallowed” notes in jazz. These tied pairs have been dubbed “bebung.” I call them cryptic, because it really is difficult to decide how to interpret them – the best I could come up with was to think of the lub-dub rebound of a heartbeat.
However, an interesting thing happened to me as I was performing this sonata. At the very end of the preceding second movement, I suddenly heard a bird outside the building where I was performing the concert, making bird calls. I had this aha! moment where I realized that perhaps these “bebung” were akin to the asymmetric, unbalanced two-note bird calls Beethoven might have heard while on one of his daily nature walks. My luck was in: the bird calls continued as I started to play the finale and I was able to “duet” with the real bird calls as I played Beethoven’s two-note pairs at that moment on the piano.
In many ways this final concert in my Beethoven project is the culmination of a lifetime of work, and so I am naturally eager to perform it to as many audiences as possible. I have some more concerts of this program scheduled for later this year and 2016, but if you have any ideas for additional places I can perform this program, feel free to let me know. I can be reached through the contact link at the top of any page on this site.
In the spring of 2015 I have two trips planned. In May I will be travelling to Texas to perform a piano concert as part of a physics symposium on dark matter and cosmology in honor of my father Richard Arnowitt, who died last summer. My father was a theoretical physicist who led a long and productive life enlarging our understanding of the universe, with over 300 published papers on a variety of physics topics. As part of what I will perform at the conference, I will be premiering a new composition I am working on, “Dark Matters.”
From May 30 through June 15 I will be in Korea. I am very excited about this trip as I am half-Korean, and frequently feel that I am by nature some mixture of East and West. I have an interesting musical connection in my family as my mother’s uncle was Lee Hung-Yul, a composer, conductor, and pianist who was well known in Korea in the mid-20th century. I am really looking forward to meeting his son (my cousin) Lee Young-Jo, who is a noted composer. I hope to combine giving some performances with tracking down some of my relatives - I have not been to Korea since I was 12 years old.
In addition to my time in Korea this June, I would like to plan a lengthier multi-country tour in eastern Asia for September and October of 2016. If you have any friends in eastern Asian countries that you think might be helpful in making connections for me for possible performances on either of these tours, please contact me.
Over the past year, I have written some new jazz tunes. The latest are “Midnight Forest,” “Elegy for Richard” (in honor of my father), “Sandy’s Song” (for my longtime friend Sandy Morningstar), “Searching,” “October’s Muse,” and “Still I Rise,” a song I wrote upon the passing of Maya Angelou last year. I am also currently trying to write lyrics for my jazz tunes “Street Strut” and “The Crying Candle,” the latter taking place in a future utopian world looking back empathetically to the sufferings of our time.
Two of my older originals, “The Crossing” (inspired by the Langston Hughes poem of the same name) and “Medium Message,” will be published in a forthcoming regional real book of original jazz tunes, a project being organized by Patricia Julien that I think is a wonderful idea. I am hoping to do soon a recording of my original jazz compositions. I am still in search of a recording studio with a first-rate piano, so if you have a suggestion, let me know.
I have also been concertizing with my “Jazz Suite from West Side Story,” an extended suite of eight sections based on material from Bernstein’s classic musical transformed in what I think are creative ways into jazz forms. I have been performing this program around the northeast with a wonderful jazz quartet of Dan Silverman, trombone, Robinson Morse, upright bass, and Caleb Bronz, drums.
That’s all the news for now. Thanks for your interest in my music!
My 2011-2012 season included two performances of a Mozart piano concerto, which would automatically make it a good year, but especially so as it was my favorite Mozart concerto, his no. 25 in C major, K. 503. It would be easy to say this is a beautiful piece of music, but perhaps saying that alone is not enough. In today’s world, where beauty is sold and presented as something to greedily possess, Mozart gives us beauty of a different sort. This is beauty you cannot “have.”
The piano entrance (after the orchestral introduction) is one of the most non-dramatic ever in a concerto – the orchestra finishes strongly, and the piano starts modestly with a short phrase of gentle, soft music high in the instrument; the strings alone then respond at medium loudness, to which the piano replies a little more bravely; the strings then do a graceful soft bowing-out gesture, and the piano takes it from there on its own, building gradually from soft strands to full soloist strength. The entrance as a whole is this amazing, beautiful cinematic dissolve, the orchestra gradually fading out as the piano soloist fades in and grows from nothingness to full life.
In one of the early soloist passages, the piano enters playing shimmering sixteenth notes that begin in the highest part of the piano, then descend bit by bit. In the middle of this downward cascading, the notes subtly shift from major to minor figurations. The basic note shape reminds me of a baroque Vivaldi violin bowing pattern, but the sound itself has a Chopin imagination, and the two ideas put together create something very striking.
As I have done with my past performances of other Mozart piano concertos, I improvised my soloist’s cadenza near the end of the first movement. Perhaps half-improvised would be more accurate, as I had some preconceived notions of how I might get from here to there, but left many of the smaller note details open to be different at each performance. I’ve always felt these cadenzas should remain in the style of Mozart; it seems disruptive to me when a concerto soloist suddenly brings you into the land of Liszt or Rachmaninov, then back to Mozart again when the cadenza is done. That’s never made any sense to me.
In the slow second movement, I found many fascinating moments: some of the large melody leaps and occasional big, open spaces between the left and right hands reminded me of the similarly innovative textures in Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata which I performed last year.
I also noticed that a long, captivating descending line in the first violins in the introduction to the movement becomes an even longer line when done in the piano later. Each string instrument has a limited range, but the piano here is like a violin, viola, and cello combined into one super-instrument, and the descending line goes lower and lower, deep into the bass, so much so that Mozart brilliantly drops out the cellos for a moment and has my left hand be the fourth member of a string quartet, playing intense harmonies with the violas, second violins, and first violins alone.
These are just some of the beauties of this remarkable piece, so often overshadowed by the more famous earlier Concerto no. 21 in the same key. When I begin to play this piece, I feel the magic of connecting with one who lived over two hundred years ago. It is as if Mozart is in the room with all of us – the audience, the orchestra, the piano – the music is so astounding and so alive. When the last note has rung out into the hall, you feel a better person for having touched this little bit of Mozart – this piece cannot help but leave you with a smile on your face.
In early April I performed Stravinsky’s “Three Scenes from Petrouchka” as part of a larger concert of Slavic music. In the ballet, we have an inanimate object, Petrouchka, a rickety wooden puppet, magically coming to life and becoming imbued with human traits. The deeper theme of Petrouchka is, I think, the relationship between mechanical things and humans. One hundred years ago, when Stravinsky wrote this music, scientists were unveiling to the world one landmark technological invention after another, but how was this going to affect people?
Petrouchka himself is a sad clown-hero of Russian tradition, a symbol of unpredictability and irrationality, qualities hailed by the Surrealist and Expressionist artists of that time who felt this was at the heart of what makes us human. Others of that era felt there was something admirable in these new machines, that we should not regard them as repulsive. A century after Stravinsky composed Petrouchka, we are in another period of major scientific invention. One of the central questions facing today’s generation may well be grappling with the nature of technology and deciding what divisions there should be between machines and humans.
The concert’s theme attracted quite a few Russians to the audience and I was extremely pleased when some of them complimented me after my performance. One of them was moved to tears and another said it was a very soulful experience for her. Stravinsky’s music has a reputation for being dry and mechanical, or at best, people will say pieces such as Petrouchka are brilliant and energetic. But souldful and moving? Perhaps my thinking about the humanism of the Petrouchka figure had produced this sort of interpretation that really resonated with the Russians in the audience.
I have played this piece at various points in my life, but the cliché is true that one keeps discovering new things when revisiting a great piece of music. For example, I noticed for the first time that the chords that evoke the accordion’s in-and-out wheezing are, transformed, the same ones Stravinsky uses to impressionistically depict the background crowd noise at the country fair where the action takes place.
Back in March, I did an all-Bach concert – 4 partitas (nos. 1, 2, 3, and 5) and some of my favorite selections from the Well-Tempered Clavier, books 1 and 2. I suppose this is a bit technical, but the fluidity and flexibility of Bach’s phrase lengths and textures continues to be a lifelong pleasure for me. I am hoping in the not too distant future to learn the remaining two partitas (no. 4 and 6) so I can perform, and/or possibly record, the complete set.
Asking people in the audience afterwards which partita was their favorite made me realize this would be a great personality test – no. 1, friendly; no. 2, intense; no. 3, eccentric; no. 5, extroverted/humorous.
I’ve also been performing in 2011-2012 my new program “From East to West,” a concert of Western classical music influenced by points East: Turkey, Iran, China, Indonesia, and the Far East. The composers represented on the program were Debussy, Mozart, Mahler, Scriabin, Peter Feuchtwanger, Fazil Say, Toru Takemitsu, and Nikolai Kapustin.
I’ve had a lifelong personal interest in Asian cultures, partly as my mom grew up in Korea (surviving two wars), but also the more delicate sensitivity of Asian art and music have just always resonated with me. On a trip I made to Korea in the 1970’s when I was young, I found out that my mother’s uncle was a well-known pianist, conductor, and composer in Korea in the mid-20th century. I even have an unofficial Korean name, which I think my mother told me means “Happiness from the East.” Of course my daily life is spent playing for many hours every day this very Western instrument, the piano. I think of myself as some mixture of East and West. I hope to have some additional opportunities to perform this intriguing program, perhaps through multi-cultural efforts at colleges and elsewhere.
In recent months I completed constructing a program “1913,” seven pieces of music all written in that single year a century ago. The early part of the twentieth century is my favorite period of both arts and world history, and I think this program of expressionist, mystical, post-impressionist, futurist, and pre-surrealist music should be quite fascinating.
1913 was a true crossroads time between the old and the new. The first decade of the twentieth century witnessed an unparalleled creative explosion in all the arts. The world situation was equally rich in change, with the end of aristocracy, the birth of new technologies such as the car, the airplane, and electricity, and mass social unrest over the issues of rights for women and factory workers. Tensions were further heightened by a series of diplomatic and military crises that ultimately led to the outbreak of World War I the following year. In 1913, the world was truly a world on edge.
The major pieces I’ve selected for this program are Alexander Scriabin’s Sonata no. 9 (“Black Mass”), a powerful exploration of the supernatural, Sergei Rachmaninov’s lush and nostalgic Sonata no. 2 in B-flat, and my piano transcription of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Adoration of the Earth,” the first half of his Rite of Spring which so famously (or infamously) premiered in Paris in 1913.
Shorter pieces on the program will be Charles Ives’ “The Alcotts” from his Concord Sonata, “Dwarfs at Dawn” and “Suicide in an Airplane” by Leo Ornstein, the most controversial and important figure in American music in the 1910’s, Claude Debussy’s “Ondine” and “Mists,” and Erik Satie’s “Embryons desséchés,” modestly comic and gently whimsical pieces about sea cucumbers and crustaceans.
Well, readying all this music for performance should definitely keep me off the streets, and I am very much looking forward to learning the pieces on this program which are new to me. For some pianists, nothing makes them feel better than to return to a piece or composer they’ve played many times in the past; on the contrary, nothing stimulates me more than trying to learn a new piece, particularly by a composer I’ve never played before.
I’ll be performing this program in 2013, naturally, for the centennial effect, but perhaps even beyond that year as well. I think this “1913” program will offer a window into the past, a musical chronicle of that vibrant, intense time. Looking back a century later, it is so striking how this extraordinary music foreshadowed the hundred years of music to come.
In connection with that research, I recently discovered for the first time the compositions of Arthur Lourié and have been fascinated by his music. He wrote many piano pieces I am trying to track down and I’m excited by the prospects of adding his music to my different concert programs in the future. It’s amazing that you can play piano for so long and still discover an amazing composer for piano you had not even heard of before. One thing about Lourié’s music I liked right away was that each piece is different; this shows he really was driven to create something new each time instead of simply repeating a past good idea. Lourié also plays with the subtle boundary between tonal and atonal music, which was an idea I’ve thought from as far back as my teenage years would be fertile ground for composition. In my own adolescent efforts, I was never able to pull this idea off well, but Lourié sounds like he has created some music going artfully back and forth through that dividing line, from the familiar world of tonality to alternate worlds and back again.
My jazz activities have included working on creating some lyrics to two of my tunes, The Crying Candle and Street Strut. The Crying Candle is a ballad, and I think I have a good idea for a twist on the model of the jazz standards. It seems many of the older tunes are set in the present, with the mournful narrator nostalgically thinking back to the past when the romantic relationship had been going so well. For my song, I will be shifting the time frame and have the narrator be in the future, a happy and easy-going time, looking back on a past difficult world (the current present) full of conflict. So this song could end up being an antidote to the dystopias in vogue today. I am also working on an instrumental progressive jazz version of the Tennessee Waltz in 4/4 time. Some of the lines in this song just seem be-boppy to me and I think I’ve come up with some good ideas for my arrangement.
I’ve also been busy giving my lecture-demonstration presentations on the subjects of “Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the Music of 1911,” “The Life and Music of George Gershwin,” “Beethoven’s Sketchbooks,” and “The Music of Poetry,” a new talk looking at the musical aspects – the sound and time elements – of poetry, song lyrics, and literature. I think I found some interesting parallels between the creations of great writers and the music of classical composers and jazz and pop songwriters.
My big future project will be a gala concert of piano and orchestra music to celebrate my 50th birthday. I remember reading in Arthur Rubinstein’s autobiography how he would sometimes play more than one concerto with orchestra on a single evening’s program; this has inspired me to throw caution to the winds and try to do the same, performing an entire concert of piano and orchestra music. (Well, I’ll be more able to do this at age 50 than 60 or 70.) I will not be revealing all the details to the general public quite yet, but encourage you to click on the mailing list sign-up link at the top right of the header to keep in touch and be on the inside track for receiving information about this exciting concert. I’ll probably need to fundraise about $18,000 to pull off this musical fantasy, but feel reasonably confident (on most days) I can do this.
I can reveal now that the date of the gala will be Sunday, January 6, 2013 and that the concert location will be the Barre Opera House, in Barre, Vermont. The orchestra will be a professional one conducted by my good friend Scott Speck. The program will have music by Brahms, Prokofiev, Bach, and ... Arnowitt.
Help will be needed in all aspects of mounting this gala concert; please do let us know if you’d like to help out in any way.
As an outgrowth of my interest in Ligeti’s piano music, I have been thinking about making a music video of his Étude no. 2, “Cordes vides” (Open strings). Ligeti wrote, “a Chopinesque melodic twist or accompaniment figure is not just heard; it is also felt as a tactile shape.” In this beautiful étude, Ligeti weaves together long lines of chained open fifths, each line entering on a new note like a differently colored yarn in an evolving tapestry. I would like to create some atmospheric story-line perhaps and literally use strands of yarn in the visuals of the video. I think this particular piece of Ligeti’s would be a perfect choice for a music video, but naturally I have no idea if the publisher would give me permission to do such a project: different copyright owners hold quite different positions on these matters, and I feel I should put a little more thought into the concept before making the request.
A future performance idea that is also in the works is something I am calling “The Dream Project.” My plan is to perform piano solo improvisations while an actor reads accounts of my dreams. I have been occasionally writing down my dreams upon waking up for the last few years and need to get to work on turning them into something more poetic and finished. If you know of any professional actor willing to tour who has some musical sensitivity, feel free to let me know their name. As the actor would essentially be representing my internal voice, I would prefer a male in the 35 to 55 age range, but would consider any actor. I wouldn’t perform this in my own area (one’s dreams are just too revealing), but I think it would be relatively easy to organize a tour of this sort of a performance. I’ve been told my dreams are very beautiful; they are surprisingly pictoral, a little unexpected given my visual disability.
Finally, I am still interested in trying to do a tour of Asia. This keeps getting pushed back, but it still is something I would love to do. I have only been to the Far East once, to Korea, to visit some of my mother’s relatives when I was a teenager. There are so many Asian countries I would love to travel to, particularly in eastern Asia. At the moment, I am just trying to write down a list of potential connections so if I ever get critical mass for a tour I may have a better chance to make things happen. So, if you have any friends or contacts in Asia who might be willing to help me in any way, please let me know.
I’ve begun doing Twitter, tweeting some thoughts about music, frequently related to the pieces I’m currently practicing for performance. You only get about two sentences so it is a little bit like writing mini-prose poems, but I hope some of you will find my tweets thought-provoking.
You can see a sample of the tweets I’ve done so far on these pages.My general Twitter music page Piano_MA
I also plan to use Twitter in some different ways, for pre- and post-concert chats with the public, interviews, and piano audio clips from my home (after learning some more of the technology).
My fall began in a very pleasant way as I had the good fortune of having some performances of one of the very best piano concertos ever written, Mozart’s no. 23 in A major, K. 488. I had a great time practicing this concerto over the summer, refamiliarizing myself with this extraordinary music that I hadn’t played since my teenage student days. In particular, I discovered so many sensitive touches in the orchestration, surely the most underappreciated aspect of Mozart’s genius. Of course, every set of liner notes about the piano concertos of Mozart will mention his talents in handling the woodwind instruments, but as they say, “God is in the details.” For example, Mozart will sometimes present a 4-part choir hymn sound with 2 clarinets and 2 bassoons in perfect close harmony and counterpoint, but elsewhere he will carefully omit certain winds, so he might drop out the clarinets and you will hear a more open sound with the flute and two bassoons alone (the space in the middle either left empty for the bassoons to resonate up into, or occupied by melody notes in the piano or violins) – at other moments, Mozart subtly brings in the French horns to play an extremely soft, sustained octave behind the piano as a supporting sound-bed. So simple, yet it has an amazing effect to provide a warmth and a radiance to the total sound, similar to a master painter casting a reflective, diffuse light to one portion of a canvas.
As I studied the music more, I realized Mozart takes the same care with the string instruments’ orchestration as he does with the handling of the woodwinds. While sometimes the strings play as a block, at other points only the two or three upper-most or lower-most string sections will play, and sometimes a portion, but not all, of the strings will join a predominantly woodwind texture to create new color combinations. In many ways, this chamber music-like approach to orchestration foreshadowed the exquisite sounds Mahler created in his pieces for voice and orchestra the Kindertotenlieder and Das Lied von der Erde over a hundred years later.
As I have done with other Mozart concertos in the past, I decided to perform the solo piano cadenza at the end of the first movement (where the orchestra is completely silent) as an improvisation. I tried to do this improv as much as I possibly could in the exact style of Mozart (as he would have done himself at a performance in his own time, as all classical musicians were able to improvise back then). Many pianists perform souped-up big Romantic cadenzas, and it has always seemed to me to be disruptive at best, and egotistical at worst, to suddenly change gears to Liszt or Tchaikovsky-land in the middle of Mozart’s unique sound-world. So as best I could, I tried to improvise something Mozartean. Perhaps one advantage to improvising cadenzas, particularly in classical-period concertos, is that it gives the performance a moment of freshness and spontaneity, a little extra life that might stimulate the listener not only during the cadenza itself but for the rest of the piece. The concerts went over very well and I received a lot of positive comments about my improvised cadenzas from both members of the orchestra and people in the audience.
After the Mozart concerto, my next major performances were of two pieces by Olivier Messiaen. The first piece, “The Robin,” is from a set of six “Little Bird Sketches” he composed in 1985 near the end of his life. The robin is in the thrush family and many of the musical phrases Messiaen wrote reminded me of the enormously varied song of the wood-thrush I hear where I live in Vermont. The challenge of performing this piece is how to group and pace all the mostly short bird-song fragments into larger structures. Fortunately, I had done a fair amount of listening to birds earlier in the year and had some sense for their style of rhythm, dynamics, and articulation. I noticed there was a short two-note motif that would repeat at different places in the piece, and I decided to consider these to be section-ending “amen”-like cadences. I was able to memorize some of the harmonies by thinking of them as jazz chords with an added minor ninth dissonance or two, or as a poly-chord where two chords from different tonalities are juxtaposed on top of one another.
The second piece of Messiaen I performed was the sixth piece from his Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (20 Views on the Child-Jesus), one of the most imaginative piano compositions of the twentieth century. This is an exciting, thrilling piece on a huge scale (about 15 minutes long) on the subject of the creation of the universe. Messiaen said he was inspired here by things as diverse as the shape of spiral galaxies, thunderbolts, and stalactites, and at the final climaxes he brings in both his beloved birds, emiting a few joyful squawks in appreciation of the creation, as well as a superb evocation of a cathedral carillon, the chords resonating in the unique, slightly out-of-tune colorations of those gigantic bells.
One of the fascinating aspects of this piece is how Messiaen depicts the creation’s Big Bang through musical lines that truly undergo a growth process of organic development. For example, he will take a group of say 11 notes and repeat them a number of times: on each repetition, he keeps certain notes stationary (pitches unchanged each time) – say notes numbered 1, 4, 5, and 11 – while he moves notes 2, 3, 9, and 10 up a half-step with each repetition of the sequence, and moves notes 6, 7, and 8 down a half-step each repetition. As the section progresses, you do feel this irregular expansion of the shape, sort of the way human bodies or plants grow (or galaxies, I suppose). I’m not too confident my three live performances this fall came out too well but I do have a good recording of this piece on one of my early CD’s, “Constellation.”
In the jazz and improvised music part of my life I have had a good year. Over the summer I had my first taste of realizing an idea I have had for a long time, to improvise piano simultaneous with the creation live on stage of visual art. I connected up with some local painters to try this, my friends Maggie Neale, Janet Van Fleet, Cully Renwick, and Missy Storrow. We had some technical issues trying to figure out how best to set up the performance space so that both the audience and I could see the art as it was being created (as the painter’s own body can block line of sight to the canvas) but on the whole I feel our performance was a good first attempt at the concept.
I put some thought into what might be analogous elements in painting and music. Both types of art have line and texture, and the different micro-regions of the piano’s 88 keys, each with its distinctive sound quality, could parallel different sections of an artist’s canvas. Musical harmonies, major, minor, and otherwise, could be seen as analogous to a painter’s choice of color. I was interested to learn that many painters of the early twentieth century (my favorite period of music and art history) were really in to the connections between painting and music, even trying to create a sense of rhythm in visual art. I have been reading a book about Paul Klee by Hajo Duchting titled “Painting Music,” which is all about the artists of that period and their interest in music. Many of Klee’s paintings have intriguing titles that refer to classical or jazz music.
In jazz, I’ve been trying more and more to write my own tunes, and I had a burst of creative energy earlier this year. I’ve gotten some compliments from fellow musicians about my new songs, and I’m pretty sure I’ve made a major step forward from my earlier efforts. My largest recent composition was “Rogue Cloud,” a long multi-section piece; some of the other tunes I wrote this year that I like are “Medium Message,” “Bulgarian Hoedown,” “The Crying Candle,” and “Migratory Mood.” This past summer and fall, a jazz quintet I am in had a series of performances featuring almost exclusively my own originals. I’m definitely grateful to these musicians for all their work learning my new compositions and putting them into the air for the first time.
I also recently made a suite of jazz arrangements of music from different parts of Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” The best jazz arrangements, I think, don’t follow slavishly to the original, and since West Side Story is such familiar music, especially to people of a certain age, I definitely got a few “I don’t remember it going this way” comments from musicians. I think most of what I did in the arrangements came out well, especially “A Boy Like That,” whose raw abrupt energy made it a good vehicle for a Coltrane-like approach, and “Maria,” which I turned into a slow, bossa nova in which I lengthened the number of measures of certain harmonies to create more of a suspended feel, a floating sensation that is really at the heart of the bossa nova. (OK, I know Maria was Puerto Rican, not Brazilian...)
What am I working on now? In classical music, I’m learning for the first time Bach’s Partita no. 4 in D major. The six partitas of Bach are some of his best pieces, and so far in my life I have performed no. 1, 2, 3, and 5. I hope in the not too distant future to have all six learned, as I think a performance of the complete partitas would make a great program. Another piece I am learning from scratch is György Ligeti’s Étude no. 8 from Book 2, Fém (Metal), a bright piece based on perfect fifths, which have sort of become my favorite interval recently: I think it is interesting that they are tonal without being major or minor. I’m also re-learning Beethoven’s Sonata no. 27 in E minor, op. 90 for some upcoming performances and am beginning to face the reality that I have to perform Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata starting later in 2010. Well, it took Beethoven about a year to compose it, and it might take me almost that long to learn it, so I better get cracking.
On the jazz front, I am hoping to finish a song I started a while back called “Zombie Banks Breakdown.” It’s about Wall Street and the financial crisis, which hasn’t exactly proved to be the easiest subject matter for a jazz tune. I tried to combine some bebop strains with more free-jazz oriented depictions of big, teetering skyscrapers and Morse-code like rhythms and other strange sounds to evoke computers gone haywire. So far, the elements aren’t gelling, so it’s still unfinished, and once in a while I fear if I don’t get it done soon the financial companies might actually get their act together, end their corruption and greed, become solid citizens and thereby make my new song less topical. But ... so far, little chance of that. I am also hoping in the not too distant future to release a commercial recording entirely of my own jazz compositions, but have been a little undecided on personnel and where to do it (the lack of a good piano rules out a lot of studios).
One of the things I’ve been doing recently that I’m very excited about is a new lecture-demonstration called “The Music of Poetry.” This is a talk about the musical aspects – sound and time – in poetry, song lyrics, and other literature. I think I’ve come up with a great set of examples from all sorts of different literary sources and I am currently searching about for places such as libraries, colleges, or writers’ workshops that might be interested in sponsoring me to give the talk. I’ve written a short description of the presentation which you can read by clicking here.
Also this year, I’ve been trying to start my own blog. It’s called “Sweet Spontaneous” and I am still figuring out some of the technical aspects of how blog sites work. So far I do have up a few short fun lists such as my ten best classical pieces of the past millennium, my ten favorite jazz recordings of all time, and similar confections to tide you over until the blog is in full swing (hopefully by early December).
I recently went on a very enjoyable concert tour of Europe during the month of February, giving a dozen performances in four different countries. Most of the concerts were with a jazz quartet (the other three musicians from elsewhere in New England), but I also gave three classical solo piano concerts along the way. The best part of the tour was undoubtedly the extremely friendly people we met at the different concerts, especially in our stops in Hungary and France.
We started the tour in Prague and after two engagements there we took a train out to Teplice, a smaller city in the Czech Republic near the German border. Our quartet played at a jazz club there and produced what I would consider to be our best concert of the tour, in large measure thanks to the audience, who seemed genuinely excited by our music. I was impressed that their roars of approval frequently came in response to our original compositions, which showed that they were truly focused and open to the musical experience of the moment, not simply thrilled by the pleasure of hearing a familiar tune.
We then spent four days in Hungary, mostly in the fantastic city of Budapest, whose active cultural life, organized equally by all generations young and old, I have always appreciated. The Hungarian people seem to have the most sincere love of music. In addition to our time in Budapest (where we played in two cafés and a concert hall), we also made a side trip to the town of Eger where we performed at a magical auditorium, the Ceremonial hall of Eszterhazy College. To say the hall had “powerful” acoustics would be an understatement, as even a fairly modest drumstroke sounded like a cannon-blast! Normally this is the sort of over-resonant space jazz musicians tend to dislike, so I was really proud of our group’s rising to the occasion and figuring out ways to turn the resonance of the hall to our advantage.
After a solo piano concert in Ghent, Belgium at one of my favorite music centers, the Rode Pomp, our travels took us next to France, both to Paris and to the southern and south-western parts of the country. Everything they say about southern France seems to be true. It has a most relaxing atmosphere with small towns and an amiable climate. One of the high points of the tour for me, being a “foodie,” was a great luncheon served to us in the southern town of Congénies of soup, vegetables, and all sorts of amazing French cheeses. All told, the concert tour was a nice experience, and three of the places said our concert was the best music they had ever had, which is always a nice compliment. Before going back to the USA, I treated myself to a few days in Barcelona, where I attended an interesting concert by an older Catalanian singer. The crowd was obviously deeply enthusiastic about the music, but I didn't find out why until a few days later when a cabbie driving me to the airport told me that the singer, in his younger days, had taken some positions against the Franco dictatorship which resulted in the government imposing travel restrictions on him and even imprisoning him for a time. This certainly cast a new light on the music I heard at that concert.
I kept a diary during my tour, chronicling many fascinating people I met - some real characters - while travelling through all these different countries. I hope, with the permission of the people I encounter, to turn journal writings from my various tours of Europe into something readable. This travelogue should offer a bit of a glimpse into the world of the touring artist, plus provide me with a vehicle to write some personal observations and cultural commentaries.
Once, when I was in Russia, I was interviewed on Russian television, and the reporter asked me if it felt different to give a performance to a Russian audience compared to an American one. What a great question! I have to admit I was expecting a string of “fluffy” questions, especially from a television journalist, and this one really made me have to think quick on my toes, partly to keep the conversation flowing, and partly as this interview was taking place right before I was to go on stage. My response was to say that people are people the whole world around. After the audience is seated and the hall becomes completely quiet before the first note of the concert, I can’t see how it should really make too much difference what country you’re in at that moment: in our cores, we all have a lot in common.
If you have any ideas for places I might be able to perform classical music or jazz in Europe, or know of people who might be interested in lodging touring musicians, please contact me at the telephone number listed in the contact information section directly above. I am also contemplating organizing a future tour in the Orient, where I have a special interest as my mother grew up in Korea.
The documentary film about my life and music, “Beyond 88 Keys,” was premiered at a film festival in March, 2004. The film, by Susan Bettmann, was two years in the making and contains footage from live concerts both in the United States and in Europe, along with excerpts from talks I have given about music at colleges and interview segments with myself, musical colleagues, and audience members.
The film has been screened at various film festivals and other venues such as arts centers, museums, and libraries. “Beyond 88 Keys” has been broadcast twice on public television, and received its European premiere in October 2005. The film was recently released in VHS and DVD formats for home use. For further information about the film or to purchase a copy, please click here.
I went through quite a complex of emotions during the course of the making of this film. When I was first approached by the production company with their request for me to be the subject of this documentary, I was quite surprised. A little while later, I began to feel flattered by it all. Finally, both of these emotions passed and were replaced with occasional feelings of embarrassment. It’s hard to be natural and relaxed when one’s every slight move is the focus of the constant attention of lurking camerapeople, eager to capture a candid moment. The exploration of certain episodes of one’s past one regards as best forgotten can lead to more than a bit of blushing when seen on the big screen, and when the film was completed I was quite relieved when the line between one’s public and private lives was re-established. Most people who have seen the film really like the way it came out, and I feel sincerely fortunate the documentary was under the control of such a sensitive filmmaker as Susan Bettmann.
“Beyond 88 Keys” was shown in September at The Anthology, a nice theater in New York City on 2nd Street in the East Village. A week and a half after the film was shown, I performed two live concerts in New York City at Hunter College on the Upper East Side. I gave one concert of solo classical piano music entitled “Reflections on Time’ and one of improvisation with the jazz tenor saxophonist John McKenna. Both concerts went really well musically, and I also enjoyed re-connecting with many old friends I hadn’t seen in years.
I have revised and greatly expanded the written material on this site about my jazz performance programs. If you’re interested in what I’ve been up to in the realm of improvisational music, I encourage you to click here to read descriptions of my latest jazz program ideas. I am seriously considering making a recording of my original jazz tunes; I recently wrote up little descriptions of my originals, which you can read on this site by clicking here.
Other news: My piano playing has been recently used as music beds for two DVDs of visual art. Some of my Beethoven playing, from a recording I made of the “Pastoral” Sonata, is the soundtrack for a DVD by the veteran Vermont photographer Daniel Neary, Jr. entitled “VisioNEARY: Vermont in Black and White.” The disc’s 66 exquisite images, shot between 1994 and 2004, are grouped by the season of the year. These visual scenes marry well with the Beethoven piano music, and since I live in Vermont, I”m naturally quite partial to the landscapes of this part of the world. You can order the DVD for $23 (includes shipping and handling) directly from Daniel A. Neary, Jr., 170 Perkins Rd., Montpelier VT 05602.
The unique art of Janet Van Fleet’s recent exhibits based on buttons and other real-life circular objects is the subject of two short DVDs utilizing my piano recordings. “Quantum Entanglement,” a short art film by Gail Schwartz using photographs of Van Fleet’s exhibits as the visuals, contains my playing of the first movement of Anton Webern’s reflective “Variations for Piano,” while “Circular Statements” is a brief three-part document of the art shows, with voice-over interview segments with the artist and music by Orlando Gibbons and William Byrd. The Webern, Gibbons, and Byrd music in these DVDs are material recorded in London, Ontario that will eventually be released on a commercial 2-disc recording entitled “Homage to Glenn Gould.”
In recent years, I have begun a collaboration with the author and photographer Marjorie Ryerson. Her new book, “Water Music,” contains her photographs about water along with written thoughts about water from over sixty wonderful musicians such as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Mark O’Connor, Taj Mahal, Midori, Renée Fleming, Pete Seeger, Carol Maillard (of Sweet Honey in the Rock), Brad Mehldau, and Bobby McFerrin. The book has been receiving a lot of attention from environmental organizations, arts groups, and government officials interested in this cultural look at water, our planet’s most essential element.
Our collaboration presents a live performance where I play water-related piano music interspersed with her reading excerpts from the book, while some of the water photographs from her book are projected by a Power Point CD onto a screen as a visual backdrop to our live readings and music, making this a true multi-media performance. I play compositions of Debussy, Chopin, Ravel, Rzewski, Britten, plus some jazz improvisations. Click here for more information about this program. We most recently performed Water Music at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida, where we added Native American flutist Mary Youngblood to the program. This concert was specially broadcast simultaneously on the internet where people from many countries from around the world viewed the performance on-line.
I am on two tracks of a new compact disc entitled Garden of Delights by the Canadian percussionist Beverley Johnston. We play arrangements of compositions by Astor Piazzolla. I also play piano on the song “Checking In” as a duet with the guitarist and songwriter Jon Gailmor on his new CD of the same name.
New thoughts: I am wondering if it is possible to do a performance where I improvise piano music simultaneously with an artist painting or drawing art spontaneously, with both performers reacting to each other. A year ago, I wanted to do a related idea with music combined with poetry improvisation, but I couldn’t find any poet willing to improvise poetry live in public. I don’t know if any good artist might feel that to do art so quickly might be similarly embarrassing.
Another idea I have for a future project is to create an educational video about a piece of music with some interactive content so the viewer can control the depth and direction of exploration of each educational point presented. Possible pieces that might be good candidates for the subject of the disc are: Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, Chopin’s 24 Preludes, or Bach’s Goldberg Variations. If any of you know of someone with experience doing the computer programming for such an educational product, please contact me.
Two years ago I had the thrill of playing a tune with Pete Seeger at a memorial event for a mutual friend at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. As always, his wonderful, lively sense of rhythm and phrasing got everyone singing with true feeling.
This past summer I worked on a program of music of Beethoven and Chopin (which always brings back memories of the old student days at the music conservatory). Over the fall and winter months I will be continuing to learn the piano études of Ligeti and also some pieces by Ferruccio Busoni and Joan Tower. I am also working on a new lecture-demonstration entitled “The Music of Poetry,” about the rhythms and sound qualities of classic poems through the centuries.