Category: Personal

The Sad Decline of My Absolute Pitch

I have a love and hate relationship with my ear.

For a person with absolute pitch, it is often the case that each individual key (C Major, C Minor, C# Major, etc.) has its own special character and aesthetic, which strongly colors any music that I play or listen to.  What I don’t know is if others with perfect pitch experience the same thing, and perhaps more importantly, whether the character or aesthetic of a particular key matches those of mine.

I learned that I had absolute pitch in gradual stages.  When I was about three years old, I would listen to my older bother play pieces from “For Children” at his lessons.  I knew enough to know that there were qualities about each piece that didn’t vary from one time to another, and that these had to do more than with the particular notes and their sequence.

It was many years before I understood what absolute pitch was and that I possessed it.  Actually it was my friend Jeffrey Rothenberg who discovered it for me.  We were in Mme. F’s French class in our junior year at high school.  I remember two particular events in that class that year.  The first has nothing to do with absolute pitch but is just nice: in the middle of a class meeting, Jeffrey got up from his chair, said somewhat ecstatically “Spring is here, and the cherry trees are in blossom in the quadrangle”, at which point he drifted, almost floated, out of the classroom.

The other, was when my friend Jeffrey was trying to discover if he had perfect pitch.  He would lean over to Edward Goldstein on his right, sing a note into his ear, and ask him to sing it into my ear (I was to Edwards’s right) , and whisper into my ear: Jeffrey wants to know if you think this is an “A”.  The fact that I could do that somewhat surprised me.  I thought: so I guess I must have absolute pitch.

About one out of ten thousand people in the world have perfect pitch.  Most are not musicians and probably do not realize that they have perfect pitch.* I figure they just assume that everyone else in the world hears sound the way they do, and that includes a merger of the effect of the up and down-ness of pitch with the effect of a changing coloration to the sound.  Only if these people study music they will learn, perhaps to their surprise, that every time they hear a note, they are able to give it a name.

In  school I began a phase of showing off my absolute pitch.  I wasn’t good at sports, so this was my way of being “macho”.  For instance, I got a telephone call from my friend Linda who said.  She said: “Do you hear the piece I’m playing in the background, what is it,  I can’t identify it.”  I listened for a few moments.  I that point in my life I had never heard it before, but I knew it was by Bach, that it was a concerto, that there were two pianos playing,  and that it was in the key of C Minor.  So I said to Linda: Well I’ve never heard this before, but I would say it is the Bach Concerto for two pianos in C Minor, the first movement.  We hung up.  Ten minutes later, when they probably announced the piece over the radio, I get a call again from Linda.  She said, “show off!”.

One of my favorite spots during my High School years was the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.  I probably spent more time there than in classes.  I even had one teacher who would ask one of the students: when you walk home would you look for Joe in the Botanic Gardens.  He is probably sitting by the stream.  If you find him, would you give him the homework assignment.

Yes, I was by the stream, bent over, listening intently to the gurgles of the water, and trying to figure out what the pitches were of this sound.  I never could get them right.  I would notate what was in effect a chord of many notes and would then try it out on the piano when I got home.  There was no similarity (even after allowing for the difference in the sound quality of a piano and a brook.   It wasn’t until another year or two that I learned what “white noise” was.   That the reason I could not notate the brook was because there were so many pitches, all at once, that there was no way for the ear to untangle them each from the other.  Additionally, at every moment the interval pitch make-up of the white noise would change slightly change, but in such tiny degrees that were measurable only in microtones.  Microtones are the unlimited number of pitches that exist, for instance, between a C and a C-Sharp – or a ‘distance’ called a half step or semi-tone.

My experiences at the brook awakened my interest in microtones and today I am using the computer to compose microtonal pieces.   I’ve even trained my ear to detect a difference of two hundredths of the distance between a C and C-Sharp.   But they had to be isolated tones and not in a mixture or hundreds or thousands of tones all closely ‘spaced’.

Which brings up the clarinet.   I had been playing the B-flat clarinet since the fourth grade.  The clarinet is a “transposing” instrument.  When it plays the note which the clarinetist identifies as  a C on the clarinet, it does not match the C on other instruments.   A C on the clarinet was a B-Flat on the piano.   Though I didn’t know it until I was a Junior or Senior in High School, I had developed unconsciously two separate but parallel senses of perfect pitch, one that names the notes as they were called on the piano, and one for the notes as they were called on the clarinet.

In my twenties and thirties, if I was scheduled to teach a lesson, and I felt like I was coming down with a cold, I would protect the student by sitting on the other end of the room from the student.  It somewhat freaked out the student when they noticed no difference in my interaction with them, as when I would say something like: “Irving” you just played an F natural instead of an F sharp” (yes Irving existed even back then).

So, everything was going along swell between me and my absolute pitch, until the  invasion of original instruments.   The difference is: why listen to a clarinet play, in tune, the solo in the slow of movement of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, when we could hear it played out of tune on an instrument created during the early 1800s.    I grant that this is just a humorous way to describe the early music movement, but there was something more sinister for people with perfect pitch.   The orchestra tunes the “A above middle C”.  That ‘A’ would vary in pitch through the centuries.  In Bach’s time, the A was almost a half step below normal today’s concert pitch.  Thus began a process that was sully my pristine world of pitch.

At the beginning, when I heard a performance on original instruments, I would say “this is a piece in B Major”.  The piece had all the aesthetic qualities of that were characteristic of the key of B Major.  At the end of the performance I was of confused to hear that it was a piece in “C” Major.  Sometimes it was even a piece I knew but which I suddenly could not identify because it was in a different key.  However the worst thing was that after decades of original instrument performances, my “B” started sounding like a C.   And I was too old apparently to develop a second sense of perfect pitch to go along the first.   Talk about being confused.  I could not really tell any more if the piece I was hearing was in C major, tuned down, or C as I grew up with it.

And so performances on original instruments spread like a virus over my entire nexus of absolute pitch.  This was the beginning of the sad decline of my perfect pitch.

But the next step in this sad story totally befuddled me.  I was in San Francisco giving a lesson over the phone to a student in Oregon.  I did a lot of long distance phone lessons in those days – now I use skype.  She was playing the C-sharp minor fugue from Book One of the Well Tempered Klavier.  I got tired of holding the phone to the same ear (my right ear), so I switched quickly to my left ear.  And lo,  the pitch of the piece dropped by about an eighth tone (25 cents).  At first I thought I was imagining the difference, but wasn’t, on further experimentation the difference persisted.

I wondered whether the ears, like the eyes, consist of a dominant one and non-dominant one. I knew that with my eyes, if I closed one eye and then the other, an object in the near ground or mid ground, would change its alignment with the objects in the far ground. When I used both eyes, what I saw was what I had seen through my dominant eye.   I splendid musician I know, Wendy Loder, has confirmed having the same experience, with an even larger pitch difference than I experience.

Now I was faced with something similar with my ears.  Two pitches, one in each ear, but the higher of those two pitches was the one I head when I was hearing with both ears.  In my case the pitch that I heard through my right ear alone was the same as the pitch I heard with both ears.  That was freaky because I wondered where did the other pitch go.  It must still be in my brain somewhere.

I was offered this explanations.  The cochlea, in the inner ear, shrinks as one ages.  The cochlea in both ears might be aging at different rates.  Analogous single nerve endings in the two cochlea, that had always responded to a middle C still, in a sense did so, but now responded to pitches near middle C, but not exactly at the same.

As I write this, I am seventy-one years of age.  My original perfect pitch has survived through the years in only one case: notes coming from the piano.  Only occasionally for the other instruments of the orchestra.  But at least I’m never off my more than a semitone.

So, things couldn’t get too much worse – right?

Recently, the next nail in the coffin of my absolute pitch occurred in the form of how I was hearing octaves.  I used to object to the “stretching” of octaves that many tuners did when tuning the higher range of the piano.  I used to hate tuners who would tune the high octaves sharper than the mid range octaves.  Suddenly, though, I was now experiencing a distortion in the pitch of the high notes of the piano that made me wish I could stretch the octaves.  If I played a lower C, in the octave of middle C or an octave lower, together with one of the highest C-s on the keyboard, the higher C sounds a half step lower than the lower C.  It was like hearing a C and a B.  To be honest, this phenomenon had been creeping up on my over the years.  At first it was a curiosity.  Now it was intolerable.  The string for the higher C would have to be stretched tighter, almost up to a C-sharp, for it to sound like the same note as the lower C.  Now i know why some tuners stretched octaves.**

To be honest, I would have much rather had my absolute pitch go away entirely rather than in agonizing stages.  But there was always enough left of the absolute to know that something was amiss in my perception.  It was a more benign form of when a patient is consciously able to trace the course of her illness.  Now I am starting crave the bliss of ignorance of not having absolute pitch at all.  I can sense that my ability at relative pitch is asserting itself in situations where absolute pitch made relative pitch unnecessary.

I can now sit and contemplate what might be the next stage in the sad decline of my absolute pitch.

* Research at the University of California in San Diego found that while many may be born with it, discovering the gift is likely more the result of nurture than nature.Sep 18, 2012 (from a Google search)

** About ten years earlier I was offered another more ‘scientific’ and objective reason for stretching octaves.  In physics the string is often considered as a one dimensional object.  This allows the math to be simpler.  But a string is three dimensional.  It has length, width in a horizontal plane, and width in a vertical plane.   There is a “nodal” point at the half way point along the string   which as result divides the string into two parts, each part sounding an octave above the string at full length.   A nodal point is a place along the string where, under certain circumstances no vibration takes place.   But if the nodal point is three dimensional, rather than a nodal ‘point’ we have a nodal ‘sphere’.   This causes each of the remaining, vibrating halves of the string to be slightly less than half the length of the full string, and thereby have a pitch that is slightly higher than one octave above the pitch of the string vibrating as a whole.

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Harmony in Late Brahms

Harmonic wonders in Brahms’ Intermezzo Op 117 No 3 in C# Minor

#1: The key

What is so compelling about C Sharp Minor?  Perhaps it is due to the effect of certain pieces that were written in that key: the opening fugue of Beethoven’s late quartet, op 131; the 5th prelude and fugue from the first book of the Well Tempered; and, Brahms’ Intermezzo Op 117 No 3.

The spell of this key is both obvious and subtle.  Tragic but not overly so.  Deeply reflective of the human condition, but without overstatement. or wallowing.   Notes that enter this solar system of retain reveal the opposite effects of stoicism and great sympathy.

#2. The theme.

As in many of Brahms’ his late pieces, the motivic material out of which the piece is woven are themselves terse and simple.  Nothing startling in itself.  In Op 117 No. 2, just two notes, descending in a step, suffice to create the entire varied panoply of music effects heard throughout the piece.  In the case of Op 117 No. 3 it is woven out motives of three notes, rising in pitch by the steps of a scale.

Sometimes the distance between the second and third note is enlarged to three half steps.  Sometimes the middle note stands as a passing tone between the other two notes which are chord tones.  Sometimes the middle note stands as a lower neighbor note connecting two identical chord tones.  Out of these motives a long theme emerges which takes most of the entire first line of the score.

Every time the theme returns it does so in one way – invariable: exactly the same sequence of pitches (C# D# E …).  There is a growing sense of ineluctability about it, an effect that is progressively offset however by changes to the chords that set the notes of the theme.  No matter how these chords lead us away from the tonic, C# minor, all eventually leads us back to that tonic.

At the beginning the theme appears without simultaneously sounding chords.  When it appears again there are implications of triads (chords having just root, third and fifth).  At the next statement, the chords embracing the theme have become 7-chords.  And even later they have become 9-chords.  This is done is such a way that, a particular note of the theme, let us say the third note, E natural, sounds first as the third of a chord, then as the seventh of a chord, and ultimately as the 9th of the chord.  This means that the chords, rather than being built on the same root note, are built on changing root notes: a more revelatory way of enlarging upon the chords, so as to be always expanding the harmony.

We go on to trace in somewhat more detail these changes of harmony, changes that are always put held in check by the constancy of the theme notes:

– At the beginning we hear the theme as unisons, amplified by sounding in three octaves once at once, an effect made starker by the absence of vertical chords.  The harmony is there. but remains adumbrated by just the melody notes (which are sensed as chord tones and which as tones of embellishment.

– When the theme appears again at the end of measure 5, it is almost as if Brahms wants to keep the harmonic implications as Spartan as possible.  There is a hint of the tonic chord (C# minor) and a dominant chord (G# major).  The third is missing in the dominant chord, though, so we hear it as major only through the implication of the melody notes.   The effect here is one that when I played the piece today I described to myself as tragic inevitability tempered with patience and nobility.

– The next statement of the theme occurs after a Spartan interlude.  This interlude begins with an inexorable march notes of equal value (eighth notes) to which, at the end, sixteenths are added so that there is a sense of reprise of the rhythm of the main theme (which uses the rhythmic germ of sixteenth, sixteenth, eighth.   The measures of the interlude repeats, but with the magical addition of an extra voice appearing in the left hand which creates a rhythmic counterpoint to the steady eighths, but whose beauty is largely the result that these attempts at rhythmic variation are still imprisoned by the constant eighth notes.

As the theme occurs throughout the piece, it does so unaltered in terms of pitches (a series that always begins with the notes C# D# E.  However the chord that is woven around theme has expanded into a 7-chord, an F# Minor-7 chord.

The piece is in three broad parts, the first of which is brought to a close with a statement of the theme that retreats into its initial harmonic simplicity: there is a tonic chord, there is a dominant chord, but but the two are blurred together by the retention in the dominant chord of the C# from the tonic chord, an effect added to by the absence of a third in the dominant chord.  We are being reminded, though subtly, that we are in C# Minor, so that we more fully appreciate the modulation to A major in the second part.

The second section of the piece a contrapuntal and harmonic miracle brought down to earth from the celestial harmony of the spheres.  I want to hold off describing what Brahms does there until we have followed the remaining statements of the main theme which occur in part three.

When the theme next appears in its entirety is at the beginning of the third section.  The 7-chord has been expanded by a D#-9 chord (the ninth being a minor ninth above the root note).  It is as if Lear asked the of his three daughters: “what {harmony} can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.”*.  Unlike Cordelia’s answer, which is most understated and matter of fact, Brahms’ answer is a 9-chord compared to the previous “sisters'” ‘5’-chords and 7-chords .

In the coda, at the penultimate entrance of the theme, the melody is accompanied by a chord whose root note is now A# which, with the other chord tones in the melody, forms an A#-half-diminished 7 chord.

At the very last, we hear the theme one more time and, as if surveying the field of a great harmonic battle which has taken place over just a single day, and which now looks deserted and barren: the original theme returning one last time accompanied by just a tonic and dominant chord, bringing the piece to rest on the C# minor chord, which, which for the first time in the piece is heard alone, complete in time and unencumbered.’

#3. The middle section of the piece

The middle of the piece deserves special analysis.  Let us start by trying to “uncover” its ‘main theme’, or at least that, which by default acts in the place of a principal voice line.  In itself it is not the most melodious of note sequences,  it is devoid of any rhythmic personality, and moves seemingly randomly from one note to another – sometimes in skips, sometimes in steps, and sometimes in capricious jumps: seeming somehow in between insipid and random.  However, this seemingly undernourished melody is is able to usher in, with each new note, a new “chapter”, a new harmonic vista, allowing us to see further and then further to the harmonic horizon, as if from higher and higher vantage points.

In its most stripped down form, which we never get to hear literally, the theme consists of the succession of the notes E F E B G# A C.  Upon this Brahms performs a series of transformations and eventually metamorphoses.

The first transformation seemingly makes things worse rather than better:  a random yanking around of the melody notes from one octave range to another.  In its base form, all the notes would sound in the octave of middle (we shall call this octave number “4”).  But this remnant of pitch stability is dislodged so that the first E sounds just in octave 4; the F simultaneously in octaves 4 and 5; the following E just in octave 5.  This is followed by B in octaves 5 and 6 simultaneously, G# in one octave only – octave 5, and the last two notes, A and C, each heard in two octaves (octaves 4 and 5).  What began as uninspired is now wonky** as well.  It is like being on a roller coaster and leaving out the parts that connect the low points and the high points.

To this Brahms adds a single bass tone, A, modestly appearing at the beginning of each measure of 2/4.  It is a first attempt at establishing a tonal center for all the meandering of the theme.

But the stability is further broken by shifting each melody note (which lasts a quarter note, or four sixteenths), to the “left” so that each note comes in a sixteenth too early, just before each beat.

So far in this analysis we see how octaves have been changed, almost capriciously, melody notes brought in ahead of time, one modest note in the bass to remind the listener of where the first beats of the measures actuakkt are.  Not a good state in which to leave things.  There is however one more step to the transformation,  Each melody note is accompanied by an voluptuous figure of four sixteenths that swoop down and then soar back up.  Somehow this makes everything else make sense to the ear.  If we examine these four note groups, by making chords out of their notes, we get this succession of triads: e-cs-e, e-b-d, e-cs-e, e-d-f, fs-d-fs, forming just by themselves, as it were, a single “thick” melody.

There are still other startling details before this section finishes***.  But it is the last one that is the most stunning.  Something that the ear believes and disbelieves at the same time.   It occurs after the second double bar, where the key signature changes back to 4 sharps.  In other words a point when we would expect either a return to the original theme, or first, some transitional passage linking the the end of the second part, the one we have just been discussing, to the beginning of the third part.  What happens instead a polyphony worthy of the forty-voice Renaissance motet “Spem in alium” by Thomas Tallis.  Little, nascent, voices, appear and then disappear into the overall harmonic firmament, each one living just for three notes, each modeled exactly on the first three notes of first statement of the theme at the beginning of the piece.   Moreover each ephemeral voice makes its appearance in such a way as to partially obscure (or perhaps “occlude” is a better word) the end of the previous one.****  This process continues in a cascading fashion working its way through an elaborate dominant-like (G#) harmony that barely succeeds in stabilizing the whole affair.   I say barely because it is intentionally destabilized  by coercing a cadence to end it based on a B Minor-7 chord.   And then, to completely throw the listener off, a similar cascade begins, seemingly without reason or preparation, tracing over the first cascade but with each note two half steps above the similarly placed note in first cascade.   The first was built around the dominant of the original tonic key of the piece.  That seems to make sense if we looking for a transition back to the original C# minor key.  The second is just ‘quasi-dominant’ in nature, but its root note is A#!   Now this unexpected A# turns out to be the dominant of D#, which is the dominant of G# which is the dominant of the original C#.  Thus it only becomes clear why this shift of two half steps had occurred between cascades when the original theme comes suddenly comes back in its full form (starting with the usual notes: cs4 ds4 e4) but this time surprisingly surrounded by a D# Major (9) chord.   This chord then transforms itself until, in a fairly short amount of time, we are clearly back in the original C# minor.  Thus the previous six measures have prepared two separate but parallel things: the longer range goal of an eventual return to the tonic key of C# Minor, and a shorter term goal of preparing the D# chordal sonority that will underlie the return to the original theme.

#4. The end of the piece

In the last two measures of the piece we have a stable, lasting C# Minor chord.  So, in the end, all is drawn back into this tonic key, which may have been at times out of mind, but which never lost its grip on the piece.  At the end there is only the solace that no matter hard we try to get away from fate, we never free our self completely from its somber embrace.  As is the case with Brahms – perhaps the greatest worker of harmony – for all the restless harmonic movement towards or away from the tonic, no note, no chord, no modulation is ever away from the tightest control of the original key.  There is never a chord, be it ever so remote from the tonic, that is not perfectly clear to the listener as to its relationship with the tonic, in spite of as many as several key regions that we would have to travel through to get to it from the tonal center of the piece.

These are just some of the harmonic and thematic wonders of Brahms’ Op. 117 No 3.

* King Lear, Act I, Scene I

** Searching google produced this definition for wonky:

– (of a thing) unsteady; shaky…                – synonyms: wobbly, unstable…                                        – not functioning correctly; faulty.

***

In measure 4 and 5 of this middle section there are two flowing voices, one in eighths, and one in sixteenths, that chime with each other in the presence of a D# followed by an F#, and a B followed by an A.   This all occurs as the ‘main’ melody settles down to rest on a long C.

In the fourth and fifth bar of the section that follows the next double bar, the simplest kind of canon is utilized, but with ranks closed, the imitative voice starting but one sixteenth after the imitated voice, but also with the imitated voice sounding a sixth lower than the imitative voice.  A simple idea structurally but one which has the effect of creating near chaos with where the principal beats are supposed lie.  The ear wants to be thrown a lifeline, and Brahms does so, but with the least clarification that will still shed some light on the situation.

****

The first such contracted theme motive is on the notes bs4 cs4 ds5, snd when the ds5 occurs, it is hidden in the middle of a triad, whose bottom note is the beginning of the next, furtive, momentarily flickering motive entrance (whose notes area4 bf bs4).

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A Thanksgiving Fantasy; Thank you to all my Followers

I had one lesson today in the early morning.  The ubiquitous “Irving” was over and played the Scriabin Etude in C-sharp minor (Op. 2, No. 1).

My mind was running at a very fast pace dreaming of turkeys with enormous thighs and having visions Japanese sweet potatoes drowning in Vermont maple syrup.  The result was that I gave, let us say, a ‘rambling’ lesson, one in which I let my imagination loose, which caused me to use a lot of mental imagery, flights of fancy and outre analogies.  It definitely wasn’t a very ‘literal’ or scientific lesson.  But it worked.

Here were the main points we covered.

#1:

Irving spent a long time sitting at the piano and figuring just how to play the first chord.   I interrupted the process and said: too much time spent in preparation – just “evoke” the sound out of the piano.  Feel like a magician who casts a spell or waves a magic wand and a beautiful, resonant, soulful, balanced, chord emerges from the piano.  Then I said: and  incidentally, do this over and over again for every sound that wants to come to birth out the womb of the instrument.

#2:

That had an immediate and positive effect on the sound quality, both within and between the chords.  But we weren’t there yet.  It wasn’t the sound I had in my memory and imagination.  At that moment Irving happened to be doodling around with the B key on the middle line of treble clef, playing it -then listening to it.   This inspired my next flight of fancy.  I said: when you play that note, hear it crescendo after it starts.  Every note grows while it sounds.  There is no such thing as ‘decay’ or getting softer.

The great French philosopher Henri Bergson wrote: “What philosophy has lacked most of all is precision. . . (philosophical systems) are too wide for reality.  Examine any one of them . . . and you will see that it could apply equally well to a world in which . . . men . . . born decrepit . . . would end as babes in arms.”

Or, if you remember the TV series “Mork and Mindy” with Robin Williams:  they have a son together, who hatches out of an egg fully grown, looking surprisingly like Jonathan Winters.  Mork explains to Mindy that their son from this point on will grow younger and younger over the years.

I mentioned both of these things just to say that others beside me have had fantasies in which things defy the ‘arrow’ of time, or in my case, that a piano string, once set into motion and left on its own, will vibrate more and more strongly rather than less and less so.

You can also imagine a group of billiard balls, all in motion, which grow closer and closer to each other over the next bunch of seconds, until at the last moment they have come together in a triangular arrangement.   And other such ‘entropy’ defying feats.

#3:

At this point we were getting close to the desired sound.  The sound had been transformed, was lush and lasting.  One more thing was necessary, which had to do with mechanics of playing each chord.  Each time there was a chord to sound (which was pretty much every eighth note in the piece) create the chord out of its lowest note which then, figuratively speaking, opens up to the entire chord – only this has to occur simultaneously.

This is how we approached.  We began by taking one specimen chord and played it, with the pedal down, as a very slow upwards arpeggio.   We did the same again to the same chord only the arpeggio moved a little faster.  Then a little faster…

If I remember my calculus aright, if “delta t” represents the time duration of each note before adding to it the next note of the arpeggio, then, we simply let “delta t” shrink gradually to zero, at which point, though we still feel physically that we are arpeggiating, all the notes of the chord begin at the same instant.

At this point there is no longer a distinction between a simultaneous chord and an arpeggio of notes of a chord.  It is a physiological feeling in the body that the lowest note is played first and that our energy then shifts rightwards.   The listener hears the notes start simultaneously, but notices a richness to the sound.

The player has now been able to make ‘simultaneous in time’ identical with ‘sequential in space’.   The simultaneous chord retains the imprint of the note by note arpeggio.  In the calculus analogy, it like the straight line that connects two separated points on curve, which line, as those two points made to approach each other, changes its slant until, when the points converge, and the line looks like the tangent to the curve at that point.

Part of the retained ‘sequential’ physical experience is that each individual finger will feel totally in control physically of its note and each note sounds with an individual intent.   The bonus is that this is not the result of trying to coordinate the actions of different fingers.  For the feeling of the arpeggio remains, so that the body still feels a rotational change from one note to the next in the chord.  The more notes in the chord the more this rotation seeks its origin and energy from the shoulders and the arms.   In terms of our consciousness, something magical happens, it is as if the single instant at which all the notes start sounding has been expanded into lived duration.

#4:

We turned our attention next specifically to the contrasting section (when it switched from sharps to flats) where utmost anguish is suddenly replaced with great calm, as removed as possible from the original mood.

I made an analogy with a garden hose with a sprayer at its end that is held in the person’s hand, which sprayer contains a lever that makes the spray get stronger and stronger.  There is usually a strong spring in the lever that progressively resists squeezing the handle further, so that if one wants a steady and strong flow. and squeezes it for too long, the hand may grow tired and need to relax, even if just for a moment, before returning the water to the same pressure.  Without those moments of easing off the steadiness of the stream would not remain as continuous.

I wanted to have Irving feel this in relation to the keys going up and down.  The goal in this section is to act like the keys always stay down, but with every eighth note the hand needs to release and retake the keys.  The release of the keys has barely begun when a force from the arms and hands returns the keys to the depressed state.  It’s almost like when having to play the same note over and over, legato, without any use of the pedal.   We learn to strike a balance between there being just one continuous sounding note and the notes separating too far apart.

Looking around for a piano-key-like object, I seized on a pencil (it was the best I could find).   I said: this is a piano key, and, not only is it a piano key it is “Every-key”, in reference to “Everyman” (the 15th century English morality play).  I held one end of the pencil fixed, made the length of the pencil horizontal, and then manipulated the other end of it up and down.  It is like, I said, we are manipulating the same key over and over, imagining the piano keyboard as having just one and not eighty-keys, and that all we were doing was, when playing, was raising that same lever up and down.   And that made all the different pitches and rhythms.

Another way I described it was that part of the magic control that we have over time, when it came time to make the next chord sound, the keys were already down – even, already sounding.

Happy Thanksgiving and thank you to  all, and especially to Sawyer Fuller, our web master.   Save me a piece of dark meat!

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My friend Roy Doughty at Drake’s Bay

I wanted to share this recent poem (and photos) from a friend of mine, poet Roy Doughty.

Fair Fortune #59
At Drake’s Bay
4 – 8 May 2018
Roy Dean Doughty

Even on the brightest and bluest of days,
When one has the leisure to be by the sea,
And to walk by epochs of linguistic driftwood —
Those skeletons of trees, and flames, and broken ships —
Even here, where all is as it must be, because
No will has willed it to imperfection, one finds oneself
Forever keen to follow the most primitive of voices.

Down the long curve of the beach,
Where humans cease to be, is an alcove,
Enriched by the grunts of the monstrous Elephant Seal.
They remind one of what one would forget.
They present the windy spirit
With the impossible physical weight of a planet,
Which spins beyond any human ingenuity,
And silences him who would claim an angelic image.

Ah, even here, even now,
When the bay water is as calm as a pastoral mill pond,
And when the wind — mild, but keen — weaves serpentine
Patterns of sand-mist that lift the sparkle
Of the sea into the air, exhilarating the lone walker,
Even as they sting his face and eyes,
And levitate his hair.
Yes, even now, even here,
One realizes that it is not the hostility of Nature
Or the internecine battles of society,
Which most challenge one’s steadfastness.
It is not the primitive and its primordial fears
That makes one cower in the heart’s
Most prudent fortress.
It is oneself, oneself,
That cruelest and most faithful of enemies,
Oneself,
That most primitive of mysteries,
Who would kiss the lips of the sea
With molten words.

The sounds of waves, of winds,
Of the great sea mammals,
And of the squalling ocean birds
Reverberate against those golden cliffs,
Which hear without listening,
Which re-echo without comprehension.
And these, even these, even now,
Prompt those inner words, which have the power
To melt the mirror’s rainbow,
And to enervate that captain, who murders comfort,
People, animals, and peace,
Yet is addicted to the grandiose idea
Of his own angelic immortality.

Tell me,
You desperate wanderer by the sea,
You, who fears to brave the depths,
Why do you pit your derelict intellect
Against this atavistic human, the one who sees
The sparkle in the sand as his own primary face,
The one who always belongs to the blue bright day
And to the cool bright sparkle of the bay,
Yet has no will to command them?
Why do you abdicate the spirit of Nature within you?
Why do you insist upon being the one X-ed nullity,
Which tries to thrive beyond all death and time?

With his Memory Theater, Guilio Camilio,
Could place the entire imaginal universe
Into one small wooden room, and the patriot pirate,
Drake, sailed into this bay, which bears his name,
To repair and to refurbish,
This pale ring of cliffs reminding him
Of friendly, grandiose Dover,
His small wooden ship the one hope
His mortal body had to survive immortal enmity.
Ah!
I am enamored of these things,
Which draw and quarter my poor un-doG’s body,
Pulling its too-weak flesh and weaker spirit
To the far corners of the cardinal compass points.
I am enamored of the distance between the human and the inhuman,
Between the human and the fundaments of life.

So tell me, tell me, oh sweet enemy mine,
Of what splendor do you dream, of what glory
Of galleon riches, of what artistry of thievery
And rapine?  Why do you long to give your talk
This force?  Just down the beach, your enormous siblings
Throw cool sand on their scarred and blubberous bulks.
They bellow against the reverberating cliffs,
Their warring and mating barks,
Fetching from time,
And from the cold, dark coffin of the sea,
And from the anonymity of lives spent
Pursuing an embattled fertility,
A causeless, deadly ritual of erotic violence.
Tell me, oh enemy mine, captain of history,
And of that which seethes much deeper than history,
What profit do you covet
When your thick tongue convulses,
And makes these grunts defiant of civil speech?
What solitary gain does your art seek?

 

Drake's Bay, by Roy Doughty, joebloom.com
Photo at Drake’s Bay by Roy Doughty
Photo at Drake's Bay by Roy Doughty, joebloom.com
Photo at Drake’s Bay by Roy Doughty
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The seminal aesthetic influences in my life

The seminal aesthetic influences in my life have been:

  • Fritz Reiner (conductor)
  • Henri Bergson (philosopher)
  • Merce Cunningham (dancer and choreographer)
  • Ingmar Bergman (film director)
  • Prospect Park (Brooklyn)

My musical self is a product of all of these,

Reiner: for me, the greatest of the great conductors.  After God,the great composers, the great conductor is the next link in the great chain of being.

Bergson, the philosopher who made me understand what time is, and therefore what music is (the art of time).

Cunningham: the dancer who showed me that abstract motion in time, articulated in space, without help of music or any other art, can by itself, reveal a profound and integrated aesthetic structure,

Bergman: for me the greatest of all film directors.  The timing and rhythm of changes in camera angle, the spatial composition of a frame, the ability to stir the greatest depths of the soul with a chance, understated motion.  I think he is one of the several greatest artists of the twentieth century.  My favorite films: Persona, Wild Strawberries, the Seventh Seal, Through a Glass Darkly.  My second favorites – well it’s a long list.

Prospect Park: the only place rather than a person on my list.  For me, during High School, it was my Walden, where I sat and wrote juvenile philosophic thoughts in imitation of Pascal’s “Pensées” and learned the depths to which nature could stir me.

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