Album Release

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Winter's Eve

It’s winter’s eve, the last day of autumn. 
Winter’s eve and the Christmas tree was bought and decorated today.
Winter’s eve and a new baby was born in the village last night.
Winter’s eve and the close of my first full season back in France, a new chapter of life in many ways. 
Winter’s eve I’m feeling the weight of time around me, around people I love. 
Time... an instance, a pattern, and the indefinite continued progress through existence. 
Seasons... one way we figure and observe time passing before us. 
Autumn... the season when crops are gathered and leaves fall. The season after the long days of warm summer and the season before winter’s rest. 
“... Unless a seed of grain goes into the earth and dies, it is still a seed and no more; but through its death it gives much fruit...”
Seeds must die to continue living... 
The Earth must settle itself slowly into winter’s rest... 
What begins as a lively and active time of harvest becomes a spectacle of color, dancing itself slowly to sleep. Autumn Dances... Danses d’Automne. I think this is what the project will be called. 
Thank you, whoever you are, for reading. Thanks for letting me ramble about these Autumn pieces. There’s still so much to discover and write about. One piece in particular, Danses d’Automne by Bernard Andres, is going to wait a few months to appear in the blog, as I am planning to meet him and play this piece for him for his feedback and insight in the coming months. So excited!
The ideas keep coming, of which I’m glad. 

But for now, Autumn is slipping to sleep. 
Winter’s eve. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Tchaikovsky: Autumn Song

Coldness in Berlin last week during a visit to my friend Ari and her sister (and baby Max). Christmas Markets, glüwein, tons of sugary temptations, coffee, and snow. I think I came out one too many for wieners consumed. 

Short visit to Berlin last week... it is NO LONGER Autumn there, wow. No leaves on the trees. Fresh snow every morning. Buuurlin. Lots of Christmas markets, Glüwein, sleds, mittens, and sugary snacks. 
There are, however, 6 remaining leaves lingering on the tree outside my bedroom in Cabris... and two more autumn pieces I’ve been wanting to blog about. I’m going to try to get them in before this chapter closes and winter officially begins... going by the books, that would be December 21st. 
This blog entry looks at Tchaikovsky’s “October: Autumn Song.” 
It’s amazing to me how some composers are able to start and finish a work in one single sitting. It happens in different ways in all kinds of music. Beck created the entire album “Sea Change” in one week. Mozart apparently composed the Overture to Don Giovanni in 3 hours. This piece is a taste of the same.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikowsky (Russia, 1840-1893) wrote a piano solo for each month of the year, each one  of them created in a single day (as the story goes). He was commissioned for this cycle by a monthly musical journal in Saint Petersburg, Le Nouvelliste (Why is this in French?) for 1876.
There’s a great quote about this commission from his friend and colleague listed in the Urtext preface:
“Tchaikovsky accepted the commission and carried it out with his habitual punctiliousness. He himself found the task very simple and inconsequential, and in order to maintain the prearranged delivery schedule he instructed his servant to remind him about the commission on a particular day each month. The servant followed this order to the letter and reminded him each month on a particular day: ‘Peter Ilyich, it’s time for your shipment to St. Petersburg’. Peter Ilyich then sat down, wrote the piece in a single sitting, and sent it off. Despite the obvious nonchalance of its creation, the cycle of piano pieces cam off magnificently.”
I imagine him finishing up his coffee, sharpening his pencil, sitting down to the piano, and quietly searching within him for the inspiration to produce these short pieces. 
The original publisher/editor was the one that added the subtitles and threw in little epigrams by Russian poets... “October” has the subtitle “Autumn Song” with an epigraph by Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy:
Осень, осыпается весь наш бедный сад,
Листья пожелтелые по ветру летят...
Autumn, falling down on our poor orchard,
the yellow leaves are flying in the wind...
I can see that image when playing this piece- an orchid being tossed around by the autumn wind in slow motion. “Andante doloroso e molto cantabile,” with a dose of lament and sorrow. 
I first came across this piece when searching for Autumn tunes long before this project became official. The intention was to transcribe it for harp and publish it in dedication to one of my students back in West Texas- Katherine Kappelmann. She’s been gracious to bear with many drafts and editions over the past months. 
It’s such a transparent and expressive piece--- and lays so well on the harp! There were only 2 notes that had to be nixed somewhere in the B section; I was a dollar short in the C natural category.
Full moon tonight, and clear skies here. Making out a moonlit orchid in my mind. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Automne by Marcel Grandjany

It’s another drizzly morning here and I’ve got my coffee in hand, thinking about these last weeks of autumn. 
There have been a couple of blog posts so far that mention composers and artists that have created a work for each of the seasons- a series. This one describes a piece by a composer who wrote only for autumn...
Marcel Grandjany (1891-1975)
Automne... 1 movement/ 4 pages/ 3 minutes
Written (in New York I think) around 1927 for his student Barbara Blumenthal (never heard of her)
I love this piece because it’s a typical example of Grandjany’s writing: rich 7th and 9th-chords, haunting melody, COLOR through harmonics, glissandos... whether “simple” or “difficult,” Grandjany’s music is profound and pleasing. Never imposed. Gentleman-like. 
Grandjany was a French-born harpist and organist who spent much of his life in the United States. Words that I associate with him are:
Marcel Grandjany
Henriette Renie (his teacher)
Alphonse Hasselmans (his teacher)
Julliard (professor)
Montreal Conservatory (professor)
Manhattan School of Music (professor)
Sensuous (in performing and composing)
Spatula-like fingertips
American Harp Society (founder)
Carlos Salzedo (his “rival” colleague)
I’ve been reading a lot of Autumn poetry and came across this one. For me, it reflects the idea and atmosphere of this piece. Enjoy :-) 
My November Guest by Robert Frost
My Sorrow, when she's here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.
Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She's glad the birds are gone away,
She's glad her simple worsted grey
Is silver now with clinging mist.
The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.
Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

John Thomas' Autumn

Early Autumn became Mid Autumn and, judging from the quantity of leaves on the tree outside the bedroom, we are now in Late Autumn. 

Cabris has turned quite cold and frosty this weekend. It’s been windy and wet but the mood around town is cheery. Thanksgiving has just passed, and it’s nice to be reflecting on our loves. John Thomas’ Autumn seems a little of the same: frosty, windy, reflective, thankful. 

As guessed, this piece is part of his series on the seasons. :-D

Definitely not summer. Definitely not spring. If anything, it’s intruding a little on winter. Like four brothers trying to share a year. This is Autumn wanting to be like his big brother Winter. 

3 movements. 

Prefaced with a poem:
I love the moaning music which I hear 
In the bleak gusts of Autumn, for the soul 
Seems gathering tidings from another sphere, 
And, in sublime, mysterious sympathy, 
Man’s bounding spirit ebbs and swells more high 
Accordant to the billow’s loftier roll

The melodies could be hymns, in my opinion. They have a spirit of gratefulness about them. 

John Thomas was Welsh and lived from 1826–1913. He was a harpist and a composer. His piece “The Minstrel’s Adieu” is one that not too many classical harpists get away with not playing at some point. Crazy to think, but Thomas actually began playing the harp on a Welsh triple harp-  an instrument with three rows of strings that sat on your LEFT shoulder (a thought that makes me batty!). 

The timing and location of John Thomas’ life is significant because he was born around the dawning of the double-action harp that we know today to be the Classical harp. This kind of instrument was first patented in London by Sébastien Érard (French guy) in 1810. Érard eventually moved his business back to Paris, where the instrument began to really boom in popularity- compositions for solo harp, touring harp virtuosi, a new place for the harp in the orchestra... 

But. It began in London, which is where Thomas eventually ended up. He was introduced to the double action harp and studied at Royal Academy of Music. In 1810, Thomas was 16. 

And check this! (Sorry, I’m a geek) Thomas later became the harp professor at his alma mater, and eventually toured Europe and crossed paths with Hector Berlioz. Hector Berlioz was a French composer and officially the first guy to use the double-action harp in an orchestra. Could it be that Thomas was the catalyst for harp in the orchestra?

Of Thomas, Berlioz said: 

"Voilà comment on joue de la harpe… Il m'a charmé, fasciné, magnetisé."  “Il fait rêver et pleurer; un vrai barde inspiré.” 

“Voila, this is how to play the harp... he charmed me, fascinated me, magnetized me.”  “He makes one dream and weep- truly an inspired bard.”

This inspired bard was a key figure to the classical harp world, which is so French oriented but technically birthed in the UK. 

All this to say (whew) that of all the Autumn works for harp presented in this blog so far, Thomas’s is:

  1. 1.the earliest
  2. 2.the only one from the UK
  3. 3.the only one in 3 movements

Monday, November 22, 2010

Feuilles d’Automne by Alphonse Hasselmans

Hasselmans. The “Granddaddy of Harp.” 
His stats:
French (well, born in Belgium)
Composer for harp (50+ pieces), Harpist, Harp teacher
 Dad was a harpist (and his first teacher)
Mom dated Gabriel Faure at some point
 Studied under Gottlieb Krüger, Xavier Desargas, and Ange-Conrad Prumier (anyone ever heard of them? I hadn’t.)
Became the Head Harp Coach at the Paris Conservatories in his day.... he had many influential students who continued to shape the French harp world as he did (which is why I call him the granddaddy of harp): Henriette Renie, Marcel Tournier, Carlos Salzedo, Marcel Grandjany, Lily Laskin, and Pierre Jamet.
You can’t help but like the guy. His music sounds nice-sounding to non-harpists, and feels good to the fingertips of a harpist. His pieces are idiomatic and intuitive... writing in a way that totally suits the instrument and displays its capabilities in a friendly way. 
And, yes, as you may have guessed: he’s written on the subject of autumn.
Actually, three “easy improvisations” under the title “Feuilles D’Automne” (Autumne Leaves)...
Sérénade Mélancolique Op. 45 (Melancholy Serenade)
Crépuscule Op. 46 (Sunset)
Calme Op. 47 (Calm) 
They were each written for a different student of his, none of them of who made the earlier mentioned list of influential harpists. 
Gonna focus on only one of the three improvisations here, as it is my favorite: Sérénade Mélancolique. It’s just that: a sad song.
Kinda humorous: the dictionary on my computer defines serenade as “a piece of music sung or played in the open air, typically by a man at night under the window of his lover.” Combine that with dying leaves and inclement weather and you get “Sérénade Melancolique” by Alphonse Hasselmans. 
6/8 time, Adantino, g minor. 
I can visualize a man walking, talking to himself silently, singing, searching, schmoozing, reminiscing, feeling slightly empty. It’s a piece so simple yet so beautiful- first melody, second melody, interruption by a hefty autumn wind, recap of the first melody. Short and so sweet.
So, yes, Autumn can be sad and melancholy after all, according to Mr. Hasselmans. 
I find all three of these “improvisations” to be melancholy- very much the “sad” and reflective side of the autumn coin.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Otoño Porteño by Astor Piazzolla

The idea: there’s a series of something on the table and someone decides to create a piece that depicts the poetic character of that something, kind of like the imposed ingredient on an episode of Iron Chef. Parsnips. Go!

Years ago, there was a particular series of paintings at the Louvre that I remember hanging around for a while. It was “The Four Seasons” by the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo  (1527– 1593).

These puny pic pastings don’t do them a pinch of justice. But it’s the idea... a dude... with time and talent... thinking about the subjects “Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter” ...and creating something totally off the wall, as it were. Arcimboldo’s seasons are imaginative and beautiful.

It happens in music, too. Gustav Holst did the planets. Sufjan Stevens is working on to the United States.  Tchaikovsky did the months of the year. 

And then there are the composers that tackled the subject of the seasons, which ends me beating around the bush. 

Examples of composers who wrote a series on The Seasons are: 

Antonio Vivaldi 
John Cage
Darius Milhaud
Joseph Haydn
Astor Piazzola
John Thomas

Today’s focus: Astor Piazzolla

Otoño Porteño (translation: Buenos Aires Autumn) is a tango tune written not for solo harp but an ensemble of bandoneon, strings, electric guitar, and piano. Piazzolla (1921- 1992) was from Argentina, the “heart of tango” and this piece is among his 2500+ compositions for the genre of nuevo tango. Otoño Porteño was premiered in 1969. I guess Piazzolla’s Seasons weren’t conceived all at once,  but composed over the course of 6 years.

Luckily for the harp world, there is an Argentinean harpist who has transcribed a handful of Piazzolla’s works: Maria Luisa Rayan-Forero (b. 197???). I’ve seen and heard her live, but haven’t shaken her hand yet. In short: I’m a fan of hers. Her arrangement of Otoño Porteño is 1. difficult 2. doable 3. enjoyable. She took 6 chromatic instruments’ parts and concentrated them into one not-so-easily-chromatic instrument, keeping as much of the original color and mood as possible.  

Nuevo tango= a combo of  traditional Argentine tango, jazz, dissonance and extended harmony, and sometimes counterpoint. Melody is pointy. Rhythms are percussive and uncommon among the harp’s “normal” repertoire: end the the phrase with an accent?! Crazy crazy. 

I lived in Nice for a month, 6 years ago. It was just after I had arrived in France to study music, and I remember going home to the dorm one night very late. I had to cross Vieux Nice and a plaza that I don’t remember the name of, and as I came up the steps, there was a pack of dancers “getting down” to a loud boom box blasting tango music. I stopped, in awe. It was so beautiful- to watch how each couple interacted, the way the music altered their motion, the nice little ring they all made as each couple moved in the same direction, counterclockwise. It had to have been after midnight, and this tango club was enjoying their monthly get-together under the stars, and a very light rain.

This incident stuck with me. I try to picture these little dancers when I attack the Otoño Porteño. The good and bad news is that there are many, many pedal changes in this arrangement (there’s no way around it), and the harpist’s feet are so active, moving the pedals in rhythm with the music. Every gesture and effect are intentional, just as the dancers’ motion is intentional and timed. It’s like the harpist is dancing and playing at the same time. It’s fantastic! But tricky.

To be honest, I don’t see how Otoño Porteño reflects the poetic nature of autumn. :-D I don’t see red leaves and harvest, but seduction and tension. And French tango dancers in the rain. Nonetheless, I’m glad this arrangement is on my music stand. Thank you, Astor, Maria Luisa, and the Nice Tango Club!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Two Tunes

‘Tis Autumn with Cy Todd, concert in Biot chez Terry, October 24, 2010

Two tunes here. Both written in the 40’s. Both inspired by autumn. Each in a totally different mood (heartbreaking vs. cheerful). Both lovable. Both lovely on the harp.
Les Feuilles Mortes/ Autumn Leaves
French lyrics by Jacques Prévert, English lyrics by Johnny Mercer, Music by Joseph Kosma
The falling leaves drift by the window 
The autumn leaves of red and gold 
I see your lips, the summer kisses 
The sun-burned hands I used to hold 
Since you went away the days grow long 
And soon I'll hear old winter's song 
But I miss you most of all my darling 
When autumn leaves start to fall 
Oh! je voudrais tant que tu te souviennes
Des jours heureux où nous étions amis
En ce temps-là la vie était plus belle,
Et le soleil plus brûlant qu'aujourd'hui
Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle
Tu vois, je n'ai pas oublié...
Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle,
Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi
Et le vent du nord les emporte
Dans la nuit froide de l'oubli.
Tu vois, je n'ai pas oublié
La chanson que tu me chantais.
C'est une chanson qui nous ressemble
Toi, tu m'aimais et je t'aimais
Et nous vivions tous deux ensemble
Toi qui m'aimais, moi qui t'aimais
Mais la vie sépare ceux qui s'aiment
Tout doucement, sans faire de bruit
Et la mer efface sur le sable
Les pas des amants désunis.
Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle,
Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi
Mais mon amour silencieux et fidèle
Sourit toujours et remercie la vie
Je t'aimais tant, tu étais si jolie,
Comment veux-tu que je t'oublie?
En ce temps-là, la vie était plus belle
Et le soleil plus brûlant qu'aujourd'hui
Tu étais ma plus douce amie
Mais je n'ai que faire des regrets
Et la chanson que tu chantais
Toujours, toujours je l'entendrai!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
‘Tis Autumn by Henry Nemo
Old Father time checked, so there'd be no doubt;
Called on the North wind to come on out,
Then cupped his hands so proudly to shout,
"La-di-dah di-dah-di-dum, 'tis autumn!"
Trees say they're tired, they've born too much fruit;
Charmed on the wayside, there's no dispute.
Now shedding leaves, they don't give a hoot -
La-di-dah di-dah-di-dum, 'tis autumn!
Then the birds got together to chirp about the weather
After makin' their decision, in birdie-like precision,
Turned about, and made a beeline to the south.
My holding you close really is no crime -
Ask the birds and the trees and old Father Time.
It's just to help the mercury climb.
La-di-dah di-dah-di-dum, 'tis autumn.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
This past weekend, my friend Terry hosted me in concert at her lovely home. It was so nice to try out some of these pieces I’ve been working on. Terry and another friend, Cy, sang Les Feuilles Mortes and ‘Tis Autumn. Several people shared poetry about Autumn. 
Most of the guests were native English-speakers from various parts of the planet. All of them had a different regard for Autumn... sad, colorful, cheery, or depressing, etc. That’s what I’m finding for each of the Autumn pieces- Autumn to one composer means something very different to another. Which makes this project interesting.... 
To Mr./Mrs. Composer: What does Autumn sound like to you? How would you express Autumn through the medium of music?’s a scientific-like research and dissection. But for fun, and definitely not sterile- I get to dirty my hands in my own interpretation of each composition.
It’s a coordination of:
Art = “The expression or application of human skill and imagination, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”
Autumn = “The third season of the year, when crops and fruits are gathered and leaves fall, in the Northern Hemisphere from September to November and in the Southern Hemisphere from March to May.”
Therefore, my confirmed hypothesis at this juncture is: um.