In these crazy days (and as an antidote to the crappy popsongs I seem to have endured today)… Schubert.
Here’s one I prepared earlier.
It’s been an musically emotional few days for me… Am feeling a tad overwhelmed with it all.
First there was the experience (twice!) of hearing people perform something that up until that time was just dots and lines and squiggles on a page. Both times there were tears, no word of a lie.
Then there were the two young students I worked with yesterday, who both miraculously seemed to have the same breakthrough on the same day (though they might not have realised it) i.e. genuine emotional connection with a piece of music, translated through the instrument into abstract collections of sound. Very moving performances by these teens. I had a few tears in the privacy of my studio after they left.
Today I rehearsed a song I co-wrote with my dear, dear friend about a very personal issue of loss and grief and, well, yes, tears. We’re going to record the song tomorrow. I predict yet more tears.
And this evening in a choral rehearsal… it was the Agnus Dei from a Mass, i felt that familiar sting behind the eyes. Perhaps it’s just that all these moments have suddenly added up into something bigger somehow?
Will I embarrass myself again tomorrow in rehearsal??! Am I now one of those soppy over-emotional middle aged ladies I used to laugh at???! I think I might be. It’s OK. I’m embracing it. It’s just like Tom says… “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things”.
A pianist’s lament…
I love intimate performance spaces. As an audient, I love being close to the performers, to be up close and personal, to really see the effort of playing and to hear lots of the detail. As a performer, I love being able to see the faces of the people to whom I play. I like to see them smiling and relaxed and happy to be moved by some music. I don’t even mind if they’re enjoying a quiet beverage at the same time, though I do mind if they chat with their friends whilst I’m playing.
There was an article in the Sydney Morning Herald about how great the intimate venue live music scene is these days in Sydney. The City of Sydney council has helped the scene a lot by making it much cheaper to get a liquor licence, so all these new groovy small bars have opened up, run by people who love live music. There’s a great deal happening, and it’s all a very happy story.
However there’s one group of musicians very much left on the edge. Pianists. Not one of the venues mentioned in the article have a piano. I don’t know if I’m the only one who’s upset about this, but given that there are a number of bigger pop stars who play the piano very well (Ben Folds, Tori Amos, Rufus Wainright, Regina Spektor) and even ones who play mainstream stuff that doesn’t interest me (Missy Higgins, Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys… even Taylor feckin’ Swift!) you might think that it’d be a more popular instrument to have around again. But apparently not.
The expectation from venues seems to be that you’ll bring your own ‘piano’ i.e. keyboard. Newsflash, dear venue owners; a keyboard is not a piano. They are two different instruments. I prefer to play the piano, with occasional forays into keyboard when I am required to make sounds that cannot be made on a piano, actual electronic sounds, not something imitating a piano. The solidity of a real piano contrasted with the flexibility of it,. The dynamic range not only in terms of volume but more importantly in terms of colour. A good pianist uses the weight of their entire body to create a resonant sound. Some flimsy little keyboard stand is never going to cut it, even under the weight of someone as small as yours truly. The natural resonance of hammer on string setting sail in that enormous steel framed wooden ship… Lemme tell ya, there’s nothing that can imitate that!
The only venues outside of concert halls and opera houses that seem to genuinely value the piano as a worthy contributor to the music world are cabaret and jazz bars. Jazz world and classical world are reasonably comfortable bedfellows in this, with the quality of the instrument being utmost in our minds. Cabaret venues are less good with that but more often tend to have one because they like it as a piece of furniture. There’s at least one cabaret bar here in Sydney that insisted on the cheapest white piano they could find to match the light up disco floor on their stage. It’s a terrible instrument. Terrible, but kinda pretty. Ah well, at least they have one.
One really special Sydney venue got left out of the article and I’d like to give them a bit of a shout out. Foundry616 are pretty new kids on the block, but have a fantastic piano and book musicians who really, y’know, play it. Ok, disclosure time, I’m biased cos I’m gonna play a gig there in the not too distant future. But my colleagues and I chose the venue on the strength of the instrument available. If any of those other venues would like to book this multi ARIA Award winner, they can get an instrument for me first. Not just for me, but for all the fine piano playing musicians of the world. Truly, it will open more of the scene up to a whole lot more excellent music making. Truly.
Have been trying to put my creative trust in the universe a bit more lately (Gawd, I am such a hippie…) but I think it’s actually starting to pay off. Got asked to write some more chamber music today. Yay!
by artist Vivian Martin.
These are her responses to my little concert series In Her Shoes - music by women composers. You know you’ve done a good thing when an artist feels compelled to respond to something creatively. I’m so touched!
I’ve been playing this piece since my teens (over twenty years now) and I never grow tired of it. Am still making discoveries about, but today that discovery came about care of a young student. It was just a music nerdy thing about a chord progression, but it totally made my day.
"Keep politics out of music," he said. "The hecklers have no interest in music just in spoiling others’ enjoyment. They should take their protests elsewhere, leaving others to perform and others to enjoy the music-making." - a reader comment on this Limelight Magazine article about people protesting Valery Gergiev’s support of Vladimir Putin’s inhumane anti gay laws.
Keep politics out of music? Really?!? We’re artists and i think we should be at least entitled if not sometime obliged to work through current issues within our chosen expressive medium.
Mine is classical music, in this case choral, and I’m pretty frickin’ proud of actually saying something through my music. It doesn’t happen very often, but I intend to do it more often in the future.
Steam trains and box kites.
I am so thrilled to be performing this weekend with Sydney Children’s Choir. The concert is the culmination of a partnership with the Powerhouse Museum involving all the kids and composer-in-residence Luke Byrne. He has composed some really wonderful works inspired by the exhibits in the museum. I’ll let him explain in his own words…
"I have a very clear memory of going to the Powerhouse Museum not long after it opened in 1988, and the image that stood out in my mind is of the two artefacts that grab your attention as soon as you walk in: the big green train (which as a seven-year-old boy meant Henry from "Thomas the Tank Engine") and the box kites hovering high above it. It probably comes as no surprise that when given the opportunity some twenty-four years later to write pieces of music for other children to sing, my imagination was once again captured by these same exhibits.
Kites and The Number One Train are the results of this abiding fascination. Kites begins with four chords falling from the top of the piano to represent Lawrence Hargrave’s innovation of stringing four box kites together to fly, followed by the children’s choir singing “from idle daydreams come soaring visions”, which is effectively a theme for all of these pieces. The Number One Train documents (in a deeply serious fashion) the first official train journey in Sydney, which if historical records are accurate shows us that some things about public transport really haven’t changed since 1855.
I wanted to write something with a more emotionally ambivalent narrative for the older choir, something that encapsulated the un-documented side of scientific innovation, namely the great graveyard of failed and superseded inventions. In the furthest corner of the Powerhouse are replicas of the Sputnik and Vanguard satellites from the Cold War Space Race, and the image of these and many other “deep sea creatures” (I always thought many satellites looked like angler-fish and similarly exotic creatures from the deep ocean) circling the Earth in a kind of suspended ballet gave rise to the core music of Travelling Companion, which is after all the meaning of the name “Sputnik”.
It gives me great pleasure that these pieces are to be performed in the very place that gave birth to them, and for those who know the excellence in children’s musical performance that the Sydney Children’s Choir embody, or even for anyone who just hasn’t been to the Powerhouse in too many years, I look forward to seeing you there.”
So I’m performing this piece again with Acacia Quartet tomorrow. Such a wonderful piece and not as famous as it should be because it’s by a woman composer. I’m attempting to redress the balance by performing works by women composers as often as I am able.
I’ve had a few choral conductor/educator type colleagues ask me recently what choral music I listen to, if I could provide a listening list of sorts. Well, admission time: for someone like me who works in choral music a lot, I don’t actually listen to very much choral music at all. But I do listen to all different kinds of vocal music, like this chick Like a Villain. She has a genuinely adventurous way of telling the stories she tells, both as narrative and in abstract form. I feel her music very deeply.
"What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic." - Carl Sagan.
This applies to music notation too. Before there were audio recordings, there were notes on staves.
“Because I have conducted my own operas and love sheep-dogs; because I generally dress in tweeds, and sometimes, at winter afternoon concerts, have even conducted in them; because I was a militant suffragette and seized a chance of beating time to The March of the Women from the window of my cell in Holloway Prison with a tooth-brush; because I have written books, spoken speeches, broadcast, and don’t always make sure that my hat is on straight; for these and other equally pertinent reasons, in a certain sense I am well known.” ― The very feisty and wonderful Dame Ethel Smyth.
Look at that. A dyke-and-her-dogs. It’s splendid. I’m practising her cello sonata for a concert next weekend. It’s a completely splendid piece. Wowsers.