The sheer wonderfulness of this cannot be communicated in mere words.
Between this and YouTube, I may not sleep for days.
I’ve been avoiding talking too much about my own musical experiences here with the exception of some discussion of my family’s love of opera. Opinions yes, but not first-person experiences. But — and perhaps this is midlife crisis talking — I’ve been getting nagged lately by a little voice in the back of my head that’s telling me that it’s time I had access to a piano again.
My entire way of looking at and listening to music seems to have changed lately. I seem to have become aware of the fact that I can love music and love its theoretical structure at the same time. I know that sounds silly, but the only way I can think of to explain it is to describe what I’ve only just realized about my own experience as a musician.
I took lessons as a child, starting at age 10 or thereabouts. It wasn’t a terrible experience, and I enjoyed it. I certainly didn’t hate it. My parents were proud and supportive, and I know my father loved the fact that I played. But the music itself seemed to exist as nothing but a set of spatial relationships between the keys, and it was my job to make the correct shapes with my hands. The music was nothing more than the means by which I knew I had done this. I had my favorites out of the pieces that I played — I liked Clementi’s 5th sonatina more than the 4th, but not for any really emotionally engaging reason. Part of why I liked it was probably because I was better at it, although the third movement was a bit of a bugbear for me in terms of timekeeping. I would always try to rush it. I detested anything written in B or Bb, mostly because the shapes it made in my head and on my hands were so off-balance and ugly. It’s a sadistic key for any piano composer to use.
But I don’t think I felt anything for the sound, really. I wouldn’t listen to piano music for pleasure, with the exception of Scott Joplin or Billy Joel, and I didn’t find a trove of Joplin’s sheet music until I had been out of lessons for about two years. Until then, I simply played what my teacher set in front of me. It never occurred to me to sound out anything I heard and liked on the radio with the exception of “My Life,” nor to take emotional ownership of the music I played. It was a series of shapes in space that my fingers had to make, and the music was just the feedback mechanism that told me when I had done it properly.
Neither I nor anyone in my family listened to classical piano music very often for fun. Orchestral and opera? Sure, tons of it. Tons of voice. Voice, voice, always the voice. I could be transported by Luciano or Beverly Sills, or Art Garfunkel. But, as much as Vladimir Horowitz was always held up as something to attain, I can’t even remember having listened to him once. Not once. If I did, I can tell you now, it must have left me stone cold. He was a machine to be emulated and absolutely nothing more.
The music I listened to and loved was something else. Opera was something else. Styx, Foreigner, Billy Joel, Journey, and Queen was music for fun. So was Beethoven’s orchestral work, Mozart’s works, Rossini, Puccini, Verdi, Leoncavallo. I smiled spontaneously at Beverly Sills singing “Una voce poco fa” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Horowitz clicking and blinking his way through anything with machinelike perfection? Not one blood cell would move faster. There probably is a great deal of feeling and emotion in his work, but I never felt it. Again, the sound the piano made was nothing but the way I knew I had moved my hands properly.
I never had any real discussions with my music teacher about theory — and I hasten to add that I remember her with great fondness. I never really chose what I wanted to play, and when she informed me that I had reached a level of proficiency that demanded that I begin specializing, I said Chopin for no reason other than that it was expected. Chopin was “pretty,” and simply what you played if you had big hands.
I never actually thrilled to the noise that came out of the instrument until that day when I propped “The Maple Leaf Rag” up on the piano and heard that sound come out when I started to play (although Billy Joel came close!). That was the only time I ever sat back in surprise and laughed. It was the first time I ever liked the sound for its own sake instead of simply hearing it with satisfaction as an indicator that I had made the correct shapes in space with my hands. The piano had been like a power tool for me. I made spatial objects with it, but the noise was almost incidental. Like hearing the water pump grind on a car, it was just feedback to let you know when things were going off.
It wasn’t until that day about a year ago when I was listening to music through YouTube and realized that Steve Perry was hitting a clean, solid Eb above a tenor high C — clean, solid, and with a lot of headroom over it — that I realized that the stuff I listened to and liked was the same sort of stuff as what I was supposed to have been playing.
Effectively, I realized I could take emotional ownership over not only the music I chose to listen to but the music I might choose to produce. What came out of that piano when I was a child should have been mine, and it wasn’t. It was an incidental waste product.
And now I don’t want it to be. I want to try finding a piano (a Clavinova sounds lovely, but will require no small saving on my part to obtain), sitting in front of it, and just going where I want to go. Headphones, too — this will belong to me and only me, and if I choose to share it with anyone else, it will be by my own damned choice. I’m not interested in making anyone happy but me.
Perhaps all along I should have sang. Perhaps then I might have loved both the sound and the experience of getting it right. But singing in front of people scares the hell out of me, and besides I loved and still love using my hands too much, and adore the idea of shapes in space. Perhaps I just had to reach this point in my life where that realization had to be made. Perhaps when I was 15, this was simply awaiting me, nearly thirty years in my future, and I just had to walk the path to arrive at it.
Whatever the reason, bless that glorious high Eb for prodding me into this realization even if it will mean that I’ve got to shovel some three grand into my savings account before I can get started on it. But at least now, with everything I hear, I’ll be thinking about what I can do with it when I have the wherewithal. Freddie Mercury and Handel had both better watch out.
If I don’t get to see it someday, I may explode. I’ve never encountered it anywhere since, like “Porgy and Bess,” it’s challenging to put on and for the same reason: most opera companies simply can’t stage something with a cast and chorus of that size with all-black players. But someday …
This opera holds a great deal of emotional currency for me. My father, as I’ve observed before in these little articles, was a working-class opera lover and lover of classical music, but he also had a very open-minded approach to music in general — more so than most non-classical/opera lovers of his generations. At the age of 35, established and married with two small children, he watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show at his mother’s house in a room full of his brothers and sisters. They laughed at the silly hair and clothing while my father tried to insist that if you tuned out the screaming girls and the funny hair, their music was quite good.
Nevertheless, although it was all-classical-all-the-time in our house until I was about 13 and discovered “outside music” in quantity, a few bits and bobs of things like the Real Thing (steel drum band), the Tijuana Brass, and the Hollyridge Strings were mixed in with all the Rachmaninoff, Verdi, and Virgil Fox’s Bach recordings.
And Scott Joplin. (Thanks to “The Sting” of course, the score of which my father fell in love with.) As a result, I also developed strong opinions about Joplin’s work, one of which is that no one who isn’t Joshua Rifkin should be allowed to get near it because they all play it too fast. (Unknown to most people, almost all sheet music of Joplin’s rags, of which I’m happy to have a complete collection, state at the top quite categorically — and in order of increasing annoyance: “Not fast, “Not too fast,” “Do not play this piece fast,” and “DO NOT PLAY THIS PIECE FAST. It is NEVER right to play ragtime fast. — The Composer.”)
Well, when my father learned that Scott Joplin had written an opera, he was thrilled, to put it mildly. He purchased the Deutsche Grammophon version of the 1975 staging by the Houston Grand Opera with Carmen Balthrop and Betty Allen in the two leading female roles. I still have the album set. Some of my strongest musical memories from childhood are of the opening overture and the final splashy showpiece in the opera, A Real Slow Drag. I’ve never forgotten the names Zodzetrick and Luddudd, nor Zodzetrick singing about his bag o’luck — in a deep basso of course. (This is still opera, and as always the lower the voice, the lower the motivations.) Nor did I ever forget the pictures in the album sleeve of the wasp nest into which Treemonisha was to be pushed in punishment for her denouncing the two magicians as superstitious and backward before being rescued by her beau Remus and brought back to lead her people.
Joplin’s music, like other many unorthodox forms, has never been given the respect it deserves nor assumed its proper position in the classical canon. Both lyrically and technically — and as a pianist, I can speak to this personally — his music is almost identical in style of play to Chopin’s. One can always tell how large and strong the hands of a given piano composer were by playing his music; Liszt and Joplin obviously had strong hands with an enormous reach, Chopin had the reach and a bit more delicacy, while Debussy’s had to have been smallere.
Joplin was definitely in the first category, and given the lyrical and powerfully melodic nature of his music, it’s natural that the technique would be so similar to Chopin. Any good pianist familiar with a polonaise could slide into one of the less challenging rags with no difficulty. The more athletic ones, such as “The Easy Winners,” the brutal “Elite Syncopations,” and some movements even of the better known rags, are the piano equivalent of Wagnerian opera, and playing them with all repeats in place will leave your forearms numb even if you can pass all the way through the Polonaise Militaire without breaking a sweat.
His lesser known pieces, like “Solace” or the magnificent concert waltz “Bethena” are even more familiar to any student of piano or classical music, and can stand aside the greatest and most lyrical classical pieces shoulder to shoulder.
For any reader who is curious, I can strongly recommend not only the HGO recording of “Treemonisha” but the platinum-selling Nonesuch recordings of Joshua Rifkin working his way through the Joplin catalogue. Do not purchase another one; I can almost guarantee that it will be come across as the musical equivalent of a powder-blue polyester tuxedo with track shoes as the “pianist” attempts to arrive at the last bar quickly enough to break the sound barrier. Rifkin alone seems sensitive to the proper way to interpret Joplin’s music, and he will open it to you in exactly the way it should be seen.
I’m not a massive ballet fan — I much prefer music, and I tend to view ballet with mixed feelings, knowing how brutally the dancers are treated and how unhealthy many of them become in later life after demanding far too much of their bones and bodies on insufficient diets. (I will however come clean and admit that one of the most fun performances I’ve ever attended was the glorious Trock, wherein the Dying Swan proceeded to … molt … all over the stage.)
However, “The Nutcracker” at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia is a bit of a city tradition, and the music — and the dancing — are lovely, of course. I very much enjoy going into Center City (we don’t say “downtown”) over the winter holidays, even taking the cold weather into consideration. Somehow, it doesn’t quite seem like Christmas until I’ve crossed Broad and Chestnut at least once and bought a cannoli from Termini’s Bakery at the Reading Terminal Market.
I’m happy to say that I have bought tickets to see it in one of the lower-level boxes. As with David Daniels at Disney Hall and Andreas Scholl at the Lobero Theater, I’ve made a conscious decision to get the best tickets I can for all performing arts events from now on. I’m also planning to get the best possible tickets for “Tamerlano,” although that will have to wait until I get another paycheck under my belt.
I’m also looking forward to seeing the Academy of Music as well, since I can’t even remember the last time I’ve gone inside. It’s a glorious building with the typical shady acoustics of the old-style opera houses, but there comes a time when you just want to go to a proper Victorian opera house, with a pit and boxes laid out in the traditional horseshoe shaped layout, and a thirty-five hundred pound chandelier hanging over your head. (At least they call the pit the “Parquet” nowdays, though.)
So that should be a lot of fun, and with that and “Tamerlano,” I’ll have made four excellent arts performances in one year! I’m pondering going back up to Santa Barbara at the Granada to hear Andre Watts next year, and if I don’t get tickets for Madame White Snake with Michael Maniaci, I may be inconsolable. I simply must hear him live!
I should also state that I’m a bit annoyed with myself for missing Heart at the Orange County Fair this past Friday. Ann Wilson’s voice is a bit pungent for me, but brilliant nonetheless. Definitely one of the best of the rock voices, and one that deserves more respect both from rock and from the world of fine voice than she’s gotten.
I’ve begun working my way through a lot of the Lyrichord CDs that I purchased now that they are available in CD format. My motivation was to have as complete a collection of the published work of Russell Oberlin as possible, but it’s led me down the merry path to a lot of early music that I’m finding fascinating.
I remember an experience I had more than ten years ago (possibly fifteen) where I was attending a “Kaleidoscope Festival” at my graduate alma mater. This was a multi-cultural festival, and given that it took place in southern California, it was pretty wide open and leaned heavily toward the Asian subcontinent and South America.
One of the events was a performance of Indian classical music that stuck with me for some time. Not for the music or the musician; I’m embarrassed to say that I can’t even remember the main performer’s name. However, it taught me something about how we listen and how we learn to listen that I’ve never forgotten.
The main performer was introduced as a well-known and accomplished graduate of several prestigious music programs in India, who had published a number of very well-received CDs of work. He walked onto the stage, sat among a large number of drums (not the standard backing drum set, but skin-covered roundish south Asian drums with that hollow doop-doop quality) and began to play, backed up by a woman on a sort of concertina something like a medieval positive organ.
And the music left me puzzled. The woman was playing the melodic instrument and the man drums. The drums were wandering all over, while the woman on the concertina played the same notes over and over.
I thought it over for several days. The man had attended some of the best music institutes in India and was very well-respected. He also played music that many people liked or loved — and with nearly a billion people in India, many is many. Clearly, the music couldn’t simply be “boring.” Something else was wrong — and after a few days of mulling this over, it became clear to me that I simply had no idea how to listen to this music.
In Western music, the drums are a rhythmic anchor. They may introduce a flourish from time to time, but they generally keep time in a clever and engaging way. The melody is what one listens to. The melody is the skin of the music, the surface that one sees first, while the drums are the skeleton, the scaffolding that holds it up and gives it its structure, flexibility, and mobility under the surface.
So I was in effect paying attention to the wrong thing. The “melody” here (a word that means nothing outside of a Western musical context, really) was four or five notes over and over, not even the scrap of a song. The drums, on the other hand, weren’t keeping time at all. My attention, it ended up, was rotated 180 degrees from where it should have been. The concertina was the time-keeper, while the drums were the main course. I was listening, for want of another way to put it, incorrectly.
This then led to the realization that Western music, and actually all forms of music, are only enjoyable to an audience that has absorbed its grammar, often unconsciously and over a lifetime of listening. Like any language, one picks it up without realizing it, and one learns to listen according to rules of which one is not even aware until confronted by another language that doesn’t follow those rules.
Which brings us back to the New York Pro Musica, the In Nomine Players, and Russell Oberlin. Medieval music is, like the Indian music that left me so bemused fifteen years ago, written according to different rules. It is written for an audience that, its composers and performers could have assumed, knew how to listen to it and where to put their attention. Everyone was on the same page.
Major and minor key distinctions meant nothing. Rhythmic distinctions were far more significant in medieval music, with different rhythmic types of music seeming as distinct to audiences as major versus minor keys do to us. This is the difference between tonal and modal music, where modal music is a bit more like rhythmically defined poetry, while tonal music is categorized by key and type of scale (A Major versus Eb minor, for example).
Listen to a Shakespearean sonnet read aloud, then listen to a higgledy-piggledy poem, then a limerick, and then Edgar Allan Poe’s “Bells.” Your ear will pick up the differences handily, because while we like a rhyme at the end of each line in English-language poetry, repetitive rhythmic measures are what you’re supposed to pay mind to. DAA-dit-dit, DAA-dit-dit, DAA-dit-dit. Ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM. That sort of thing. We categorize poems by the type of rhythm in each measure, and how many measures are in a line (although they are called “feet” in poet-speak.) Troches, double-dactyls, iambic pentameter, and all those words we remember from high school English classes. Other languages’ poetries often don’t function that way.
Oh, many do incorporate rhythmic features, but they may not be the main focus. Chinese poetry is sometimes visual, with the written characters on the page being placed relative to one another in evocative ways. It can also be highly punny, where one syllable can be repeated multiple times with different tonal contours to create a complete poem or multiple interpretations of the same poem. Japanese is a highly syllabic language, and its wordplay can depend on creating a sentence the words in which can be syllabically divided in more than one way, giving two meanings that may play off of one another. Its poetry can depend on syllable count, as in the haiku form that occasionally is used in English as well, although the best haikus also play the dividing-line game as initially described.
French poetry also depends a great deal on puns, with multiple words that sound very similar. Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese poetry are highly melodic, given the very clear quality of their vowels. Welsh poetry focuses on repeated groups of consonants according to extremely precise rules, since that the language plays with and shifts its consonants around in some complex ways. Poetry in that land isn’t grouped by rhythm but by the ways in which these consonant reflections take place and the vowels that interleave with them. English, given that it is a rhyme-poor language but a very drumbeat-rhythmic one, concentrates on rhythmic features and syllable stress.
Music is the same way. Learning to listen in a new vein, to focus on repeated rhythmic features rather than seeking out a melody with a highly variable rhythm within each measure for example, is a chore for someone confronting medieval music for the first time. Similarly, it’s hard to listen to Indian music without working at it for someone used to Western music since it requires a constant realignment of attention to let the melodic instrument just keep time in your mind while paying close mind to the drums. One must learn to release something one is used to grasping, while holding fast to something that doesn’t appear to be able to support the weight of one’s attention.
So, we learn to listen based on the ways in which a single “chunk” of a song (called a measure) is divided up, and which instruments are in the foreground or background. It doesn’t even stop there. One of the most fascinating CDs I’ve ever purchased is one recommended by a friend of mine by a composer named Easley Blackwood and called “Microtonal Recordings.” I strongly encourage any (hypothetical) readers to visit their favorite music website and purchase a copy.
The vast majority of music — including everything most people have ever heard unless one has a specialist taste in this sort of thing — is written on a scale that uses twelve m-m-m-more or less equally spaced notes in every octave. (There’s some wiggle room in there, but we’ll ignore it.) Between the middle C and the high C on a piano keyboard, counting the first note, you will find twelve little black and white levers corresponding to the twelve notes between them. Each is a half-tone apart.
But this isn’t set in stone, really. Oh, it is for a piano — you can’t cram an extra lever or three between the middle and high Cs, and you can’t remove any or retune the ones that are there without major contortions. But for music itself, and as any guitarist worth his or her salt knows, many stringed instruments, you don’t really need to have twelve notes in an octave.
And it turns out that there are many forms of music that didn’t — ancient Greek music used 15- or 17-note tunings at times. What Blackwood was able to do, using a synthesizer, was to write pieces of music, one for each, for every division of an octave between 13 and 24 notes. Since fretted stringed instruments can simply be tuned to match octaves at different frets, he also wrote a short suite for 15-note tuning on guitar.
It wasn’t easy. Some divisions like 15, 17, and 19 made for pleasant music, while others like 13, 18, and 24 were hideous. It turns out that there are definite reasons why 12 works well (and is almost the only even number that does), permitting for pleasant-sounding thirds, fourths, and fifths, and halfway decent combinations of pretty much everything else excepting half-tones, which always sound terrible when played together. But on the whole, 12-note equal tuning permits for a lot of workable combinations. Even a diminished seventh has its place!
Nevertheless, even the musical alphabet that we take for granted while listening to our favorite music is arbitrary. It’s a bit like counting in base-10. We have ten fingers, so it feels natural to us, but computers prefer base-2 and programmers often prefer base-16, while time is kept in units of twelves, sixties, and twenty-fours.
And just like listening to music that swaps attention between drums and melody, listening to music that works according to a different “base” system can be challenging. Initially, non-12-note music comes across as simply confusing, out-of-whack 12-note tuning. Only after multiple passes does the ear begin to learn to distinguish the new vocabulary (and only for certain tunings, like 15, 17, and 19; many of the others remain jarring no matter how many passes one takes).
And of course, it is difficult to use only one piece to judge the potential of an entirely new tuning. It’s as if we were all expected to judge the potential for a 12-note tuning by Stephen Foster’s “Oh, Susanna” and nothing else. Twelve-note tuning permits multiple pleasant sub-groups of such notes, giving the seven-note major and minor scales that we have all heard, and other more esoteric combinations.
There are even more esoteric variables in music — how a measure is divided up, how the instruments function together, and how many notes are “contained” in an octave are only a few of the ways in which the building blocks of music are defined. There’s scales (major versus minor versus others), the arrangements of melodies, and how harmony is judged, plus more. And we recognize this only through repeated exposure, most of us. Listening to music, it turns out, is an active thing demanding mutual understanding between composer, performer, and audience. Each of us must learn to make it and hear it, and like absorbing the rules of our mother language, we don’t even realize we’ve done so until a new set of rules forces us to adjust.
This is a very, very complete book, and a fascinating look at the castrati as singers, as religious creations, as social phenomena, and as human beings. It’s engagingly written (and well translated I hope although not having the original version, I can’t say for sure) and treats the subject in a very accessible fashion.
The book begins by answering the basic questions. What, strictly speaking, is a castrato? What did the operation consist of? When was it performed, and how? Was it as openly advertised as myth would have us believe today? (No). Was it as dodgy and uncertain as we would believe today? (Yes.) Was Naples actually the “castration capital?” (No.) What effect did it have on the body? What did this strange custom actually create? How was it regarded in society, and by the castrati themselves?
Regarding the “mechanics” of the voice, I was intrigued to discover that my own impression of the endocrine castrato voice — that it is too bright, too limpid, acoustically uncomplex, and a bit like undersweetened lemonade — is indeed precisely what the resulting voice is, when testosterone is removed from the equation. (One listener of the time described it as “light, dry, and sour” yet very affecting. I’m more a fan of red wines than whites, though.)
Not only does the larynx remain youthful, as with a woman, but the position of the larynx in the throat also does not shift downward, as it does precipitously in adult men and moderately in women. This leaves it much closer to the upper end of the resonating chambers of the head, resulting in an excessively (in my opinion) bright and penetrating “ringtone”-like voice very different from the voice of a woman or even a child, factoring in the incongruous lung power of an adult man.
This, as it turns out, is precisely what I dislike about the voice as demonstrated by Jorge Cano, Radu Marian, and the very old recordings of the last castrato Alessandro Moreschi. The voice is so sharp, so thin, and so pungent as to strike like auditory ammonia. The other male voice often mentioned in this class, Michael Maniaci, consists of a youthful larynx housed in the body of an otherwise perfectly normal man, giving it resonance and acoustic complexity that the other voices lack.
The book then moves to the question of vocal training and what it consisted of, introducing the concept of the conservatories and the truly mindblowing amount of careful nurturing that the young boys were subjected to. A strange metaphor to use, but for children who had been handed to the voice factories of the time to fulfill one singular purpose in life from as young as seven years old, it must have felt like a subjection. Much of the castrati’s legendary vocal prowess and longevity, it appears, stemmed not from any otherworldly effect of their mutilation, but from the relentless training that could last up to fifteen years, for hours each day. Castration resulted in a high voice, but it did not create a genius. That took what it always takes even today: natural gifts, hard work, and luck.
The castrati are treated as an operatic and social phenomenon as well, with individual names brought up in a way that both illustrates the strangeness of the resulting phenomenon and shows the singers themselves to be very real human beings with all the failings and strengths that humans of any kind can feature. The individual personalities of each well-known castrato leap from the page, from the tantrum-prone but magnificently gifted Senesino, to the brilliant, quiet, and kind Farinelli, to Marchesi and Caffarelli, textbook examples of spoiled and adored superstars and prone to extravagant behavior that would leave the National Enquirer gaping even today. The book looks as closely as it can also at the private lives and opinions of these extraordinary people and doesn’t stint on illustrating their other issues, such as the deep resentment and suspicion with which many of them regarded their fathers — the people who had handed them over to be mutilated in pursuit of money and fame. The book also looks over the geographic variations in the acceptance (or not) of the castrati. Italy created and adored them. France, as it turns out, was outright hostile to them while England was alternately bemused and bewitched. And the book does not avoid examining their undeniable appeal to women as magnetic superstar singers possessed of titillating gender ambiguity, with whom a prurient dalliance would have absolutely no consequences at all.
Also treated is opera itself — the ultimate dazzling spectacle, created from the outset to leave audiences overwhelmed — and how it influenced and was influenced by the castrati, the divas of the day, and the other voice types that are so much more adored today, the tenors and bassos. Opera, it appears, was much closer to the idea of a rock-and-roll spectacle in the time of its creation, with raucous audiences and assignations in the private boxes in mid-performance, hecklers, drunks, gambling, and incongruous stage entrances that would leave Madonna green with envy. David Bowie descending from the ceiling riding a glittering UFO to the blare of trumpets would have been just about on par with Luigi Marchesi, it turns out!
The book concludes by examining the twilight of life for the individual singers and the gentle descent of the best of them into philanthropy and charity, and the twilight of the castrati as a class themselves with the final papal declaration that concluded at long last that mutilating children was an unacceptable alternative to welcoming women to sing in church. The fact that the best-of-the-best of the castrati are no more numerous than today’s litany of revered natural high male voices is a tragic irony left unaddressed, as the book was not strictly speaking a book on voice itself, but on the history of this one odd, brutal custom.
Many myths about the castrati are broken in two or illuminated more fully, and the entire book is a very attractive read into what often strikes people as the damned strangest period of music in the history of the world. It’s not terribly expensive in paperback form, and is not hard to find used in good condition. My copy was found from a used bookseller through