12 Thoughts on Music Making

Sage advice from cellist Colin Carr:

  • Listen with your whole soul.
  • Be true to the composer in every respect.
  • Be true to yourself in every respect. In great music these two have to coexist.
  • Don’t play the music — too controlling — but let go enough to allow yourself to be played by it.
  • Develop the perfection of the inner ear. In other words, know exactly what you want to hear before you try and play it. “Nothing has ever grown from the exterior to the interior. The interior is the basis for understanding. There is the desire, the force, the gift.” (Schnabel)
  • Know the score. Its secrets are there to be discovered, often in the notes we don’t play more than the ones we repeat endlessly — and often mindlessly — when we practice. Orchestras and pianos provide harmony and rhythm for our single lines and they, more than anything we play ourselves, are what determine the subtleties of direction, emphasis, and shape. This leads to the next one….
  • Practice away from the instrument. You hear better!
  • In the words of the late Mr. Bill Shankly, former manager of the Liverpool football [soccer] team “Football — music — is not a matter of life and death; it’s a lot more serious than that.”
  • Nothing matters and nobody cares! This is Anner Bylsma’s lesson. This is not meant in a cynical way, but more as a compliment/antidote to the previous one. It’s amazing how liberating this approach can be on the concert stage. Carefree, not careless!
  • Without enthusiasm nothing genuine is accomplished in art.
  • “One must be in love with the raw materials of music — single notes, chords, melodic shapes, intervals, cadences, etc. — just as a sculptor must be excited by the feeling and the possibilities of unformed clay.” — Peter Norris, Menuhin School
  • Think twice, play once, instead of playing badly without having thought at all.

Full interview here.

Especially interesting for cellists.


Live Thrives – Radiohead and Prince lead the Way

Whoever says things in the music business are just getting worse (Sandow, Lebrecht: you know who you are) should take a look at today’s bombshell of good cheer. The band Radiohead (a favorite if mine, of course) are releasing their newest album themselves – for any price determined by the buyer, even none. There is so much to look forward to with this news that I don’t even know where to begin.The article goes through the obvious benefits of a band releasing their own album, the repercussions of which admittedly demand a “wait-and-see” attitude, and after some very surprising quotes by two industry executives (Radiohead IS the best band in the world, but I would never expect music industry executives to actually recognize that and admit it in print, not in a million years), gets to the real point of all this at the end:

“In July, Prince [another personal favorite, by the way] gave away his album Planet Earth for free in the U.K. through the downmarket Mail on Sunday newspaper. At first he was ridiculed. Then he announced 21 consecutive London concert dates — and sold out every one of them.”

What this points to obviously is a welcome reversal of the traditional model for musicians and their work. For decades, live performance has served to get people to go out and buy the record, since that is where the higher return was – at least for the record label. This practice started to creep into the classical world as well, especially in the US (though not exclusively) and usually in promoting soloists. This was perhaps even more workable with classical music than with popular music – if you shelled out the substantial dough to hear a popular music artist, then you probably already had their record. You don’t need to be sold on them. But with classical music, with so many more people in the hall not knowing what to expect at the start of a concert (maybe they are unfamiliar with the composer or soloist, or have only heard the work being performed once – and a 40 minute symphony or concerto is a lot more to retain than a 3 minute song), the desire to make the experience last by buying a recording of the composer or artist afterwards can be much stronger.

I’ve always felt that recordings are a poor substitute to live performance, especially since so much of the art of a performance – spontaneity, danger, ecstasy – is lost in the recording and editing process (though here one could say it is replaced by another art, but I don’t buy it, as much as I respect the skills of good sound engineers. And yes, Glenn Gould’s recordings are fascinating, even stimulating in so many ways, but they are still just recordings). It is encouraging to see that a lot of music fans perhaps feel the same way – a record is fine, but the intensity of the live experience is worth so much more. Both mediums serve a different purpose, you don’t have to have one without the other, but if you have only time (or money) for one, live performance has no substitute.

What this points to for classical music is of course anybody’s guess, but to see an increased respect for the superiority (the artistic as well as the financial benefit for the artist) of live performance by popular artists is encouraging. At any rate, those who years ago feared that recordings would keep listeners out of the concert hall can take heart at this latest news.


Well. Now that we’ve seen what a hopelessly lazy blogger I am, I can get on with things…

A number of interesting topics have come up in the intervening third of a year since the first post – many fascinating (and some downright silly) articles in the NY Times on music that I thought about responding to, other bloggers to echo, commend or pounce upon, a few events in my own life to air out … but then I never did – probably for the best. To be honest, I haven’t been reading many of my favorite blogs myself lately.

Anyways, if you haven’t seen it already, there was a very timely (and a bit pussy-footed in my opinion) article in the NY Times last week tackling the ever pressing topic of the gradual fading of the value of memory in the digital age – a rather obvious if neglected consequence of storing more and more of our information on computers instead of in our heads. Being a conductor demands rather muscular memory skills, which sadly I don’t possess, but I’m working on it. Nevertheless, I’m of the camp that thinks any challenging memory task is beneficial for the development of not only memory skills (crunch those abs!) but also for one’s healthy intellectual conditioning – for what its worth.

I’m reminded of a story I heard while living in Budapest a number of years ago about the (genius) pianist Zoltán Kocsis and the exceptionally sensitive and individual cellist Miklós Perényi: According to the person who told it to me (and, having worked with Kocsis, it seems totally in character), the two would challenge each other by seeing who could memorize the most names (in sequence) from a page or three in the phone book. As there was no clear winner, it was a game they played many times – usually at parties… Kocsis has an amazing memory any way – while in his early 20s he walked into the Liszt Music Academy exhausted, leaned his head on the wall and said to a friend, “I’ve finally done it!” “Done what?” asked the friend. “I’ve finally memorized every major piece in the piano repertoire…” A bit melodramatic perhaps, but probably true. What amazing places to go to from there!

Enter the Labyrinth

It took me long enough, but I guess its finally time to get this thing started. SO this is il labirinto armonico – the harmonic labyrinth – the place where I’ll rant and ramble for the public or the yawning electrons. Mostly I’ll be talking about classical music (the last 300 years worth, with a stress on the two ends of that spectrum – the parts that interest me most), the arts in general and their role in society and hopefully leave it at that, though I won’t promise anything.
The name I’ve borrowed from the Concerto grosso Op. 3, No. 12, by a baroque composer I’ve become fascinated with recently,  Pietro Antonio Locatelli (1695-1764). If you don’t know Locatelli, run out and buy something – Vivaldi is the poor man’s Locatelli. Seriously. I don’t why he’s been neglected for so long: his music is highly personal, emotional, exquisitely crafted and virtuosic for the violin. I suggest starting with his Concerto gosso, Op. 7 No. 6, subtitled “Il pianto d’Arianna”  (“The Tears of Arianna”). There are 3 recordings currently available, my favorite is by Il giardino armonico on their fantastic disc “La Casa del Diavolo” on French label Naïve: Poetry. Nothing less. Besides that, the labyrinth (now a cliché, I know) analogy applies well to our field.
Here’s hoping the updates here come more frequently then I fear.