No elaboration is needed, really.
I should start doing the uppercase == major, lowercase == minor thing. One fewer keystroke.
But it’s really getting to me. It is just not coalescing in any way, shape, or form. I have started getting back to the Ginastera to prod that back into shape again and have begun yet another go at “Bethena” as well, just knocking the next level of rough edges off. I am this close to just relegating the stupid C#m thing to the compost bin, or shrugging and figuring that if it’s not going to go anywhere, I might as well just keep piling crap onto it. Just sort of release myself from any responsibility for the quality of the outcome. When I have enough crap, then I can start to massage it into a decent shape. Like the sculptor who chiseled away anything that didn’t look like an elephant, I will throw out whatever doesn’t smell too bad. If it ends up sucking, oh well, I kept plugging away at least. Like Elizabeth Gilbert said in her TED talk, let the record show that I showed up for my part of the work.
It just won’t assume a real shape, no matter how many times I try to turn it over and look at it a new way. When you write something you can generally tell where you are: I’m establishing the conflict here, setting up each of the characters, now I’m telling some backstory, now things are starting to get moving, oh there’s a big reveal there …
With this? It’s like flying in a fogbank. I have no coherent emotional story in it, and no sense of the large-scale structure of the thing, something I’ve been moaning about since I started working on it. It’s like a mouthful of farina. Yuck.
This is truly annoying. I suppose I’m just going to keep hammering because for good and for ill, I’m like that. But I’m not enjoying this stinking thing. I don’t even have a name for it, unless one counts “Lousy Goddamned Piece of Crap in C#m.”
I have learned my lesson painfully. I will never again go into a piece of music without at least a vague idea of what the overall structure is going to be. Ever.
Afterword: Gilbert’s not far off. I don’t take that metaphor; I have another. However I do recall, when I first started working with that little bit that became the main theme of the Fm, getting a bit psyched out because I felt it was too beautiful a fragment to come to a schlub like me who had zero experience at writing music, zero real experience anyhow. I knew it was good. I knew it was a wonderful fragment, and I didn’t think I could do it justice. I ended up just slugging away, and I think I turned out something that I’m pretty happy with. But it was hard to suddenly dig up this beautiful little thing and have it glittering up at me, expecting me to do something with it that would really do it justice. I just kept slugging at it. I need to keep doing that with this fucking thing.
I’m serious — people often don’t think about this. If you really want to “make it” as one of the top-tier performers in any discipline (classical, rock, dance, whatever), you really do need more than just talent and training. If you are a brilliant musician and you lack anything listed below, it either won’t happen or it won’t end well.
- The ability to function well on little sleep. If you revert to subhuman primate on anything less than 9 hours of sleep a night, you will not cope with that life. This alone would completely disqualify me from touring. Completely.
- The ability to handle money like a CPA and function hand-to-mouth without freaking out from stress or acting like a bumpkin with a winning lottery ticket. You will not have a guaranteed monthly salary check with a predictable number on it. And if you think the 1040EZ form is scary, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Welcome to Paperwork Hell every tax season. Health insurance? What’s that? If for any reason, this all freaks you out (all this is probably the scariest stuff in the list to me), you aren’t going to make it. And if you start living ghetto, you will discover that $34 million dollars doesn’t buy what you think it will.
- The ability to remain sane despite total lack of “alone time.” Top-tier musicians are often constantly surrounded by people and also lonely. If you need peace and quiet and time alone, you will not do well as a touring top-tier performer. I mean, we’re talking about people who have often spent their entire childhoods willingly sitting in their bedrooms messing around on musical instruments instead of socializing, and who are suddenly dealing with a life wherein no matter where they turn, someone is constantly tugging on their pant leg trying to get their attention. Many of them don’t adjust well to it.
- The ability to maintain good personal relationships despite being surrounded by constant activity, noise, and temptation. This one routinely shoots people in the ass, and in the most tragi-comic ways. The world is littered with well-known artists whose personal lives are an unraveled mess because of this. If you need close relationships to function but can’t keep a level head in the midst of chaos, your life is going to rapidly turn into a Jerry Springer episode. You know the one: “My Man Done Screwed the Babysitter,” part 648. Congratulations: you spent your entire life learning how to play that instrument and all you have to show for it is that your kids won’t talk to you.
- The ability to judge character well. You’d better be able to tell a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and keep yourself surrounded by a strong core of people you can trust. This is closely related to #4. If you piss off and screw over all of the people who are closest to you, you will be left with nothing but wolves: the guy who wants you to try heroin because he just happens to sell it, and the tabloid hanger-on who wants to marry you for your money almost as much as she wants to divorce you for it. Good luck.
- Closely related to the above is the ability to keep your head around free alcohol and drugs. And it’s not just pop and rock musicians that have to worry about that.
Most top-tier performers, whether we’re talking about Sarah Chang or David Bowie, are impromptu self-starter businesspeople. They essentially run themselves as a business. And the above skills are all desperately needed skills for musicians who want to make a living off of their art that have nothing to do with good technique or training. Yes, your ability to play a three-octave Db scale on that cello actually matters less than your ability to navigate the weirdness that is a 1040 form and all of the various schedules for a self-owned business.
And yet these skills — the ability not only to play your instrument better than any mere mortal but to run a business in the process and stay sane — are not often found among traditionally artsy personalities. How many CEOs do you know of who can execute a perfect trill? Even the ones who “make it” as top-level artists often end up imploding because of the stress of the life — they have the talent, training, and ambition, and they even have the ability to get on stage and do it, but they don’t have the ability to stay grounded and sane in the midst of a very haphazard life. Or they can’t handle money and end up frittering it away on stupid things (like solid gold Rolexes and $11 million marble floors for their bathrooms, or simply heroin). Or they get scared of the contract they are expected to sign and don’t know how to decipher it, and so are either taken advantage of or run away.
I think that’s partly why so many highly trained classical musicians love the idea of working in an orchestra. You get to just play, plus you have a stable paycheck that comes every month, you tour under a comparatively sane schedule (no 180 road performances a year like some pop or rock acts), you have a union behind you so it doesn’t get too crazy. It’s like being a session player — you get paid to play beautiful music with some brilliantly talented people, plus you get to go home and sleep in your own bed at night.
Welcome to today’s episode of F&A’s Musical Sore Points. Sit back and get comfy, it’s a long one.
Yes, the Meditation from Thaïs is a courtesan’s moment of religious conversion.
However, that does not mean that it’s a Lifetime Movie about, “Then the slut found Jesus and was cured. The End!” This is a far more complex piece of work here. Let’s just say that it’s written by a Frenchman and hence demonstrates a more complicated attitude toward sex than the typical General-Jack-D.-Ripper attitude found in American works.
Sure, it ends with, “Then the chick dies.” Unfortunately. When a cartoon rabbit makes fun of your cliche, it’s long past time to do away with it.
However, the end of that opera is a lot more ambiguous and morally undefined than, “Then the slut found Jesus, The End.” By the end of the opera … the monk who badgered her to convert regrets what he has done and apologizes to her, telling her that he was wrong, and that she was right when she argued that love is the only real religion.
Let’s whip through the story a bit, shall we? Here you go: “Thaïs” in thirty seconds.
She’s a beautiful pagan free spirit, and a monk named Athanaël becomes obsessed with getting her to convert and give up her freewheeling ways. His boss warns him off of doing so, recognizing that Athanaël is actually simply in love/lust with her. “Don’t do it, you’ll regret it,” he says, knowing that the guy won’t listen. And Athanaël doesn’t listen, and goes to find Thaïs.
He argues with her, using all of the old cliched arguments about how sex is evil and the flesh must be renounced. She concedes that she was too careless in her life, but argues that she sinned against Love and not through Love. Athanaël disagrees and keeps arguing.
And he successfully converts her, after she takes the time for a period of reflection. This is where the “Meditation” comes from. She joins a convent. Athanaël departs, victorious but deflated because now he’ll never see her again.
However, he can’t keep his mind on his own business back at the monastery, and confesses to his boss — who guessed what was going to happen from the start and pretty much tells him, “I warned you this would happen, you jackass.”
Athanaël abandons his vows and runs off to the convent, only to find that Thaïs is — gasp of shock — dying of consumption (see Cartoon Rabbit Theater above). Before she dies, he tells her that everything he said and believed was a lie, and that she was right. Love is the only religion that matters. She is too far gone and doesn’t hear before she dies.
Not quite “Then the slut found Jesus, The End,” now is it? Who’s the Bad Guy? Is religion the answer? Is a nun better off than a free spirit? What is the moral conclusion to be drawn when a monk is revealed to be merely a man, but a courtesan becomes a saint? For the sake of a religion that was revealed as a lie?
So there’s the first part of my little diatribe — why it annoys me when people misunderstand that piece of music. Now, for the second — why it annoys me when violinists consistently misunderstand that piece of music.
Getting to the heart of all of this would require something that damned few violinists are willing to do: they’d have to actually watch the damned opera. Far better to fall back on a stunted cultural cliche than to really penetrate the complexity of the music and the story it represents.
Yes, I’ve moaned mildly about this before. Yes, it’s a sore point with me. Oh, well. Violinists can irritate me sometimes. No, not all of them — and absolutely not the best of them. But an awful lot of them are really very superficial about music. It might be due to the way that they always play the melody and so often don’t dig deeper into the structure of the music itself. They can be moderately successful merely riding the surface, but only up to a point.
I might also say that the technical challenges of the instrument itself — just getting to the point where you can get a good noise out of it — are so daunting that they can be excused for being a bit shallow in their awareness of music, but violists and cellists don’t have that excuse.
Anyway. Enough pointless complaining for the day. In other news, the C#m is at least showing a glimmer at the end of the tunnel. It was just a matter of insisting on looking for it. I think I forgot just how damned much work the Fm was, and I expected the C#m to fall together more neatly. Maybe I expected it to happen more painlessly because I’d done it a few times before, once in pretty complex fashion. I think it’s just going to be a grind all the time, though. It won’t get easier. I’ll just get better able to cope with the grind — and I have to not expect it to get any easier. Just keep grinding. Like the man below says, the music’s in there. You just have to put in the time and keep pounding.
So I think I actually have some idea of what’s going on with the C#m. Finally.
I think I have a means to go back and revisit the first theme, those orphaned first four or so measures that intro-ed the thing and then vanished. I’m not sure if I want to use it as a punch line or not; I don’t think so. I think I want it to come in before the coda, with some bits and pieces of the middle bits to flavor it. But I definitely can see myself getting back to the first theme with more of a flavor of what things ended up nucleating around. Only this time, instead of starting and finishing up in C#m, it’ll start in F#m and then wander to the tonic. Maybe. Don’t hold me to that.
And again, no viola this weekend. All piano. Some more slow practice on “Bethena,” but mostly that damned C#m. When it’s done-in-airquotes, I’ll need to go back and start fixing it up, adding some ornament and seeing how I can transition from a more Baroque feel to … well, I’m not sure. But parts of it don’t feel too terribly Baroque in the middle. I should just call it postmodern and be done with it.
BTW, super-obscure Italian handwork is a great way to completely blow an entire day on a tiny strip of stuff about an inch wide and 8 or so inches long. Everyone needs a little autistic perseverating every now and again. And hey, I was listening to Brahms. Anything’s better with Brahms #4.
Wonderful little interview below. I should tag all of the “related to writing music” posts, but it feels unimaginably bizarre to tag DDY, Steve Perry, Neil Sedaka, and my meager efforts similarly.
Interesting also to see the differences and similarities between the men listed above as well. DDY starts with song first, then lyric as he stated. Sedaka appears to start with a general chord progression, and Perry appears to be the odd one out in that he begins with a very particular emotional message he wants or needs to get across and seems to develop music and lyrics both to support it. And here’s an interesting interview with Carly Simon, another songwriter known for her very thinky music. Among all the others already mentioned, her approach seems to have a similar “feel” to it as Perry’s.
Referring to this post. It’s been a good night, both for viola and piano.
The viola was pleasant, and I’m finding myself better able to have a nice bow hold and decent intonation, and to keep more than a few things within my sphere of attention. That will help tremendously. I don’t know why, but I seem to have gone up a level in the amount of “chunking” my conscious mind is capable of.
I’ve been doing slow practice on “Bethena” and “Moon of Memory,” which has been quite challenging on the first. Slow practice really does allow you to become aware of a whole new level of issues that can then be solved. It’s wonderful. I’m ferreting out things that were always problems, but that had always been in my rear view mirror by the time I was aware of them. I’d always go, “Damn! That again!” just after the nick of time. The slow practice really lets me become aware of these things in time to do something about them.
Something nice, but something that’s a little disorienting, and that has had a few effects on my attempts to play:
- I really do have to pay mind to more things simultaneously now. Just bowing straight isn’t all that I need to expect of myself now.
- I also have to pay more mind to bowing straight! Before, there were fewer variables at play in my hand and head. Now, with more going on in my bow hand, it’s tending to wander off. As I’ve said before about the piano, going up a level in understanding means that there are whole new vistas of mistakes that are now possible for me to make. Yippee, sort of.
- As happened with my scroll hand wrist, my bow hand is indeed taking on exactly the shape that my teacher remarked on with time and relaxation. That funky rabbit-faced balanced hold with the middle and ring fingers working opposite the thumb, with pinky and index finger steering. Yes, yes, and yes. It’s made handling the bow near the frog much easier without crunching, although still not easy.
- String crossings are way smoother now.
- With my new awareness of my bow hand, my scroll hand and wrist are starting to wobble a bit and tense up. Tweak one knob, and the other will get out of whack. What I need to do is to continually tweak each in turn, trusting that the one not being tweaked at the moment will go less and less out of whack with each iteration.
I still don’t feel like a Real Violist™, I and won’t for some time. But I feel like someone who might someday be one. I very much love how the improvements in my bow hold have made it possible to just make prettier noises. If only the scroll hand wobbliness weren’t screwing with my intonation. It’s so hard not to concentrate more on intonation than I should. Out-of-tune noises are like fingernails on a blackboard.
I’m probably going to go through Suzuki v1 one more time, just to get full coverage — like I said, I’m like a bucket of cheap housepaint. Three passes gives full coverage. Then, we’re back to the Fitzpatrick Melodies (with appropriate repetition among them as well, and constant checks back to the Suzuki stuff).
Then, back to the beginning and I reiterate it all again, although by that time, I can probably work through all of them in one afternoon. In fact, I just moved back to the Happy But Unattractive Farmer again, and found that I could at least fumble my way through pretty trivially.
Then … I don’t know. I may call up my teacher again and see if I can’t manage a few months of intensive teaching for the next couple Melodies followed by another few months off to digest everything on my own. I hope we can do that and that he’s amenable to it, because I think it will work nicely for me. I also think that there’s no way in hell I can get used to shifting without some direct intervention from a teacher.
Also, I need to go through each and every piece I’m working on and write down all of the significant bits that I’ve confronted in each one, print them out, and interleave them with the music to make a complete lesson diary out of it, both the Suzuki stuff and the Fitzpatrick stuff. The Fitz stuff will be particularly good since I have them in PDF format and can interleave my text with the individual pages.
A lot to chew on in this post, especially when juxtaposed with Neal Schon’s statement in the “Escape” interview that I can’t stop talking about, where he mentions having written a much more intense and challenging solo for “Who’s Crying Now” and being requested by Perry et al. to ratchet it back.
His response was to purposefully (“I was feeling cocky”) play something that he considered “stupid” and too childish to be impressive. “We love it,” was the unanticipated response.
And it ended up being one of the most beautiful and most quoted guitar cadenzas in the literature.
There is in all arenas of music a big, fat land mine in the territory between “beautiful enough to go down like water” and “hard enough to impress people.” Do you want to appear effortless, or do you want people to appreciate all the hard work you’re doing? Do audiences appreciate just how hard it is to play something like Mozart (or Schon’s final cadenza) and appear to do so effortlessly? Do they understand that certain pieces of music are in fact brutally difficult precisely because any jagged edges are going to show instantly against that icy smoothness? Mozart, as the author of that blog post says, doesn’t afford you any place to hide. Neither did Schon’s solo, funnily enough. He had to get his nose rubbed in it, though.
And in fact … do audiences care in the end? Do musicians make too much of getting it right or bowling people over? Do they value kudos for successfully doing something hard more than kudos for making emotional connections? The feeling among some of the more technically deft musicians is that if they are going to be killing themselves up on that stage, then they want the audience to know exactly how hard they’re working, flying sweat drops and all. This means that music that is brutally difficult but doesn’t read as brutally difficult to an audience when performed correctly doesn’t give them the “food pellet” of recognition that they are after. All of the work, but none of the reward.
But is virtuosity something that should be consciously recognized or something that should be assumed tacitly? Is technique the pinnacle or the foundation? Is it both at different times, for different composers, in different situations, or to different audiences?
And is there a fundamental difference between playing for other musicians, who will notice that shit, and playing for lay people who simply want something moving? Is there a fundamental conflict between being acclaimed by audiences and being acclaimed by critics? Both pop/rock and classical music are stuffed to the gills with examples of composers and musicians who offended the second in pursuit of the first, and vice versa. It’s stuffed with musicians who, in the words of Philadelphia Orchestra trombonist Eric Carlson, “can play a mile a minute, can play 16-note chords … and there’s nothing there.”
Few composers and musicians can make both critics and audiences happy at the same time. Both Mozart and Tchaikovsky have been derided as mental lightweights — and still are! — for nothing worse than satisfying audiences with magnificent music that has more than stood the test of time.
There’s just a lot to chew on here.