Lost in a Dense Fog

When I first learned to play the piano, it was a challenge to master the weight of the keys. Weighted keys allow the piano’s sound to be louder or softer depending on how hard you press them down. Since fingers vary in size and shape it takes practice before the index and ring fingers (for example) generate the same volume on the keyboard. In hindsight, if I’d chosen the theremin over the piano I could’ve developed the technique much faster because this instrument makes its music without weighted keys. In fact, the theremin makes music without any touch at all.

I should’ve posted about the theremin closer to Halloween because it produces one of the eeriest sounds you’ll ever hear.  Click the red preview button on this list of Theramin Sound Effects and tell me if you disagree. Doesn’t your mind conjure up a ghostly apparition floating in the darkness of a haunted house?  The theremin provides the perfect soundtrack for all things scary. New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg once described the theremin’s wail as “a cello lost in a dense fog, crying because it does not know how to get home.”  I like that (and it’s much classier than “pig squeal”).

How the theremin creates its unique sound involves too much science to keep your attention today (and more words than I want to type).  Suffice it to say, the instrument has two antennae; a looped one to control volume and an upright one to delineate pitch.  The player’s darting hand/finger movements – touching nothing but the air in between – create its spooky music. 

Now watch the following performance.  Seeing the theremin played is almost as jaw-dropping as listening to it.

I find the theremin to be a fish out of water next to traditional orchestra instruments, yet there are several other weirdos out there.  The bassoon features a tiny mouthpiece attached to a massive piece of black pipe and requires a deliberate overbite to create its nasal tones.  The glockenspiel (which gets points for a fancy name) is really nothing more than a metal xylophone.  The tam-tam is a giant gong, lucky to be struck more than once in a performance.  And the hand saw doubles as a musical instrument when you warp and release the blade (and sounds pretty darned close to the theremin).  But each of these outliers requires physical touch to make their sounds.  The theremin sings with mere jabs of the air.

[Author’s aside:  Every time I write theremin my brain wants to override with Theraflu, the over-the-counter cold and flu medicine (“Discover the Powerful Relief!”)  You don’t find many thera- words in the English language – therapy being the only other one I can come up with.  I’m happy to announce I need neither Theraflu nor therapy at the moment.]

The theremin was invented in the 1920s by Russian physicist Leon Theremin (whose life story involved a lot more than science).  RCA picked up the commercial production rights but the musical instrument never really developed a following.  Instead, its soprano voice showed up randomly in music and movies.  If you recall the Beach Boys’ hit, “Good Vibrations” you should also recall the theramin solo at the end of the song.  You’ll also hear its moan in the opening bars of Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies”.  But the theramin seems a more logical fit in the soundtracks of horror and science fiction movies like The Spiral Staircase, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing from Another World, and more recently, Monster House.

My favorite account of the theremin (and with this I close) is a collection of melodies recorded and blasted into outer space back in 2001.  The effort was an attempt to communicate with other worlds, including Gershwin’s Summertime and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.  The name of this collection? First Theremin Concert for Extraterrestrials.  Seriously?  We chose the theremin?  Wouldn’t these classics have sounded a whole lot smarter on the instruments they were originally written for?  No wonder the (more intelligent) races out there haven’t stopped by our little planet to say hello.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Child’s Play

When I dove into piano lessons at the tender age of six, I learned the piano is “foundational”; a good place to start if your future destination is another musical instrument. The piano teaches concepts like keys, chords, and “Do Re Mi” in a straightforward way. My son learned about foundational instruments when he started the sax – it’s best to spend time on the clarinet first (the fingering is easier). But today I want to talk about real foundational instruments; the ones I dabbled in even before the piano. I can think of at least six (and one honorable mention).

My granddaughters – ages 2 and 4 – already attend weekly music classes (which brings me no small amount of joy).  They’re learning to sing and play simple rhythm instruments like drums and tambourines.  So I shouldn’t have been surprised this past weekend when the older one pulled out a kazoo and began “playing” for me.  Not a formal song or even a melody; just a handful of notes from what is technically a wind instrument.

Let’s call the kazoo Child’s Play (CP) #1.  The kazoo starts my list of six because it’s undoubtedly the easiest to play.  You simply hum into the mouthpiece and the kazoo takes care of the rest.  The kazoo’s buzzing sound is utterly annoying and after a few seconds you wish it would just stop (unless your granddaughter’s playing, of course).  The kazoo rides a fine line of the definition of a musical instrument.  To be honest, I’d rather just hear a person hum.

CP #2 – Triangle.  The triangle has often been described as “having no musical function and requiring no skill to play”.  A brutal (and fair) description to be sure, but consider this: the triangle is the only instrument on this list to earn a spot in a formal orchestra.  You’ll find the little guy in the orchestra’s percussion section (alongside the drums and other rhythm instruments).  The triangle also outclasses the kazoo since it’s cast from fancy metals (ex. beryllium copper, brass, bronze).

CP #3 – Xylophone.  The xylophone tops the triangle because it’s a percussion instrument that can also carry a tune.  There’s nothing more inviting to a small child than a set of colorful bars you can whack with mallets, and they make music!  Sure, you can hum “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” on the kazoo but it’s much more fun banging it out on the xylophone.  The xylophone gave birth to the vibraphone (an electronic version) and the marimba (a wooden version), both of which generate rich, warm, beautiful-sounding notes.

CP #4 – Recorder.  The recorder ranks a close second to the kazoo on the annoyance meter.  A child can pick up this woodwind instrument (the cheap plastic kind, not the fancy wooden one), blow into it, and instantly produce a note.  The same child then realizes he can change the note by covering/uncovering the recorder’s holes.  Now he can produce many notes.  And what’s wrong with many notes?  It just sounds like so much wailing.  Watch the video (if you can stand it) and tell me if you don’t agree.

CP #5 – Harmonica. The harmonica, another wind instrument, is also known as the “French Harp” or “mouth organ” (I prefer the former) and it comes in all shapes and sizes.  A child will find his first harmonica in the same section of the toy store as the kazoos and recorders – where you find anything made of cheap, colored plastic for less than a dollar.  Here’s what a child learns about the harmonica very quickly: he can fake it.  If you hum into the harmonica instead of just blowing, you’ll create a pretty good imitation of what it’s supposed to sound like.  You won’t fool anyone who really knows the harmonica but as a kid (that would be me), you thought it was pretty cool to whip out your harmonica and pretend you could play it.

CP #6 – Autoharp.  The autoharp made its first appearance at my elementary school choir classes.  It was the coolest instrument I’d ever seen.  It’s like playing the guitar (pick and all), only you press down bars to create the chords instead of using your fingers.  One kid would be chosen from the choir to strum the autoharp while the rest sang.  Playing the autoharp wasn’t cool, but being chosen to play it?  That was pretty special.

CP Honorable Mention – Hand Flute.  The hand flute is a fancy name for whistling through two fingers or through the hands.  I can’t remember when I learned to whistle (with just the lips) but I was certainly inspired by my dad, who gave the family a distinctive two-note greeting every time he walked through the door after work.  But I never learned to whistle through my hands.  The hand flute not only sounds cool (a lower note than a mouth whistle, like the cry of a nightingale) but it looks like you have a built-in musical instrument when you “play”.

Wrapping up this topic suggests I pick a favorite instrument from the list above, but the choice is impossible.  Each one is bonded to special memories from a long time ago.  If I had more space here I’d add others to the list (like the tricky piano horn).  Instead, let’s just agree the foundation of my piano play is a team of smaller, less-appreciated musical instruments.  Child’s play?  Hardly.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Let’s Make Music!

At the request of several readers, I’ve decided to bring you along on the adventure of building the Lego Grand Piano my wife gave me for Christmas. I’m hoping this music-making journey amounts to a pleasing “concert” instead of an arduous one.  More akin to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy than Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee. No matter how difficult this “piece” ends up “playing”, I can assure you of one thing.  It’s gonna take me a while; likely beyond when the snow stops flying in Colorado. 3,662 Lego pieces won’t snap together by my next blog post, nor the next one.  I’ll give brief updates at the bottom of my other topics as I progress. Movements if you will, instead of the entire piano concerto all at once.

And with a tap-tap-tap of the conductor’s baton, the performance begins!

To start, we have an elegant 23″ x 15″ x 6″ cardboard box containing our unassembled piano.  The box advertises the piano in three languages: English (Grand Piano), French (Le Piano a Queue), and Spanish (Piano de Cola).  The box cautions I should be over the age of 18 and batteries aren’t included. Batteries? In a grand piano?  But I digress…

The photos on the sides of the box tease the finished product.  First and foremost, the piano really plays once I assemble the several thousand pieces.  I don’t mean “play” as in a hidden music box with a digital soundtrack but “play” as in pressing the piano keys.  And speaking of piano keys, Lego provides only 25.  A real piano has 88.  In other words, the beautiful music my grand piano plays will be more Chopsticks than Chopin.  Makes sense because my Lego Grand Piano is only 12″ wide and 14″ deep.  Suddenly my fingers feel fat.

When I remove that elegant box top, here’s what I see inside:

As expected, the Lego pieces are divided into small plastic bags. (On the left, that is. The right is a smaller box-within-the-box looking like a square piano. We’ll get to that in a minute.)

If I organize the bags so you can see them better, I come up with this:

   

The audience gasps, in awe of the complexity of the performance unfolding before them.

Okay, NOW I have concerns.  First, the bag numbers start with “10”.  Hey Lego, what happened to 1-9?  Second, Bag 5 showed up among the double-digits like an orphan looking for a family.  Pretty sure Bag 5 belongs securely in that black box to the right.  Maybe Bag 5 was trying to escape.

At this point in the show, the phrase “missing pieces” tickles the pianist’s brain (but not the ivories).

I also find the set of bags in the photo to the right.  I assume they pair with their partner-numbered bags when I get to that part of the concerto.  But maybe they don’t.  Maybe each of them is a little project unto itself.

Little beads of sweat populate the pianist’s forehead.

Yes, I’m nervous. I hastily put the bags back into the box (which suggests I’m already going backward with this project).  But I do want to see what’s inside that black piano-wannabe box to the right.  Have a look:

    

Well hello Bags 1-9! I also found a few more of those partner-numbered bags.  But check out the disarray in the photo on the right.  Here we have three more orphan bags and, shockingly, a few pieces that escaped their bags.  What’s going on here?

The audience shifts uncomfortably in their seats as the pianist hesitates.

Finally, way at the bottom of the box, we have the pièce de résistance (Spanish: plato fuerte; English: main dish). Well hello, Mr. Instruction Manual.  Weighing in at a hefty 2.2 pounds and boasting 532 pages of mind-numbing steps, Mr. Instruction Manual is easily the heaviest item in the box.  He’s the equivalent of the phone book of a mid-sized city.  Furthermore, the plastic bag he came in included a little slip of paper shouting, “WARNING: To avoid danger of suffocation keep this bag away from babies and children.” Listen Lego, I’m not worried about babies and children; I’m worried about me.  I might be tempted to use that plastic bag to suffocate myself if I can’t complete my Grand Piano.

The pianist makes it this far into the performance without any faux pas’s (English: significant mistakes), but then I choose to open Mr. Instruction Manual to a random page. Terrible decision! Have a look:

Is this not an intimidating drawing? (Why yes, Dave, it is.) Does it look anything like a grand piano? (Why no, Dave, it does not.) Furthermore, you’re looking at Page 221, so we’re not even halfway through the build here.  I’m edging towards terrified, Lego.  Those pieces look small.  Those pieces look many.  And who’s to say the numbered bags make the one piece I’m looking for (amongst 3,361 of its plastic pals) any easier to find?

The pianist still hesitates, his hands shaking noticeably held just above the keyboard.

I wanted to finish this post with a photo of the first couple of pieces snapped together… I really did.  I wanted you to believe my music-making was officially underway.  But let’s be honest, my peek into the box where all those bags, orphans, and escaping pieces live, and the sheer size of Mr. Instruction Manual have me backing away from the keyboard (figuratively, followed by literally).  Sorry folks, tonight’s performance isn’t quite ready for prime time.  This pianist needs to change out of his sweat-drenched tuxedo into more comfortable clothing for now.  Let’s take an intermission, shall we?

The audience heads to the lobby.

Coup de Grâce

On my green and pristine back lawn, a solitary fallen leaf lies captive among the blades, a sure sign of the coming fall. A summer lengthened by oppressive heat is mercifully at its end. Fellow bloggers eagerly write about crisp mornings, cool nights, and college football games. But here’s a better nod to the upcoming season, a beckoning more sublime than anything “pumpkin spice”. Have a listen to Antonio Vivaldi’s violin concerto “Autumn”, from his best-known work, “The Four Seasons”.

Sure, I could bore you with the details of a classical composition written over four hundred years ago. “The Four Seasons” was cutting edge for its time because the music reflected real-life events: singing birds (“Spring”), soft breezes (“Summer”), and icy paths (“Winter”).  But today’s post is not really about “Autumn” and its drunken dancers.  It’s about the performance of the piece by Frederieke Saeijs.

Ms. Saeijs

I’d never heard of Frederieke Saeijs before I watched the eleven minutes of her violin solo in the video above but I must confess, I’m absolutely smitten.  Frederieke (pronounced exactly like it reads, unlike her last name), is Dutch by birth but worldly in every other respect, including her education, performances, and teaching.  Her list of accomplishments and awards suggests there is nothing further she can achieve with her instrument… and she’s only forty-two.

But I digress (and can you blame me after seeing her photo?)  Let’s get back to this performance of “Autumn”.  Here is what I found so captivating.  First, Frederieke’s eyes and her movements with her violin are unabashedly expressive as she plays, clearly one with the music.  She is a picture of grace with her slender frame, elegant hairstyle, and striking purple gown.  In other words, you could watch this video on mute and still be impressed.  But please don’t.  You need to hear the music, even just a few minutes of it.  I admit to distraction by some other things on my computer screen yet I kept coming back to this performance until I’d completed all eleven minutes.

If I haven’t yet persuaded you to spend a few minutes with Frederieke, consider this.  She plays the entire piece from memory (which, in ‘Autumn’s more furious moments, is mind-boggling).  Also, her performance – as well as those of the smallish orchestra around her – is captured from a dozen different angles.  This was a busy production, both in front of and behind the camera.

I kept waiting for something – anything – to bring this performance back to earth so I could describe it as less than perfect.  Except for a cough in the audience minutes from the end, I don’t see how the concerto could’ve been purer.  Seriously, have you ever wondered how a soloist of this caliber avoids a sneeze or a cough, or even slips a little on her high heels?  Perhaps this explains why Frederieke is a world-class violinist and I am not.

Finally, if you made it to the end of this performance like I did, you’ll find it interesting the video concluded before the audience applause (and standing ovation, no doubt).  I say “good call” to whoever posted the video.  The silent fade-to-black conclusion only makes the performance more powerful.

Mr. Vivaldi

A coup de grâce is defined as “a decisive blow”, and further, “one delivered mercifully to end suffering”.  I love the double meaning here.  The season of autumn delivers a merciful end to the suffering of a hot summer.  More to today’s topic, Ms. Saeijs’ violin performance speaks of force and grace as one.  In other words, she offers you a most sublime welcome to fall.

The poem which inspired Vivaldi’s “Autumn” concerto includes the line, “… And (by) the season that invites so many, many…”  After watching today’s video I feel very much invited.  I suggest you raise a glass of hot cider to the calm of fall.  While you’re at it, give thanks for the breathtaking talent of Frederieke Saeijs.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Hooked on Classics

If I am to believe certain lists, there are over forty different genres of music in the world today. The more common ones come to mind quickly: “Rock”, “Pop”, “Hip-Hop”. But now we have “Industrial” and “Tex-Mex” as well.  Indeed, definitions of music are becoming as diverse as the cultures from which they took flight.

Among music genres – the list of which inflates to hundreds if you include sub-categories – “Classical” looks a little lost. Classical music’s definition is broad and complicated, but most of us would acknowledge its “golden age” as the time frame between the lives of Bach and Beethoven (effectively, the 18th century). The volume of symphonies and concertos and sonatas created in that period is so vast, even those with no interest cannot deny a familiarity with the genre’s most famous compositions.

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The absence of orchestras (or music programs altogether) in today’s schools and universities is a tragedy.  Attendance at classical music concerts is down.  Even classical radio stations lack the advertising revenue to survive, depending instead on the generosity of their donors.  But here’s the good news: the genre still finds its outlets.

Consider the movies.  Year after year Hollywood produces fairly forgettable films, yet certain scenes are worth the watch if only to hear the accompanying classical music.  Some examples:

1) Ocean’s Eleven (2001). Danny Ocean’s gang of thieves finally completes the heist at the Bellagio Hotel, and gathers outside at the fountains for a moment of reflection.  The enchantment of that scene is as much about the fountains as it is in the soaring strings of Claude Debussy’s mesmerizing “Clair De Lune”.  Watch and listen here.

2) If I Stay (2014). Chloe Moretz’s character Mia performs “The Swan” (from Camille Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals”) on solo cello at a community concert, and the music continues through several more scenes.  “The Swan” is elegant and lullaby-soft.  Listen here (performance by Yo-Yo Ma).

3) Somewhere in Time (1980).  Christopher Reeves’ character’s obsession with the lovely Jane Seymour leads to a desperate time-travel effort to find her in her youth.  When the couple is finally reunited (in his dreams, of course),  we are treated to Sergei Rachmaninov’s powerful “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”.  This scene would be nothing without Rachmaninov.  Listen here.

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Hollywood once created an entire movie about classical music.  The Competition (1980) – an early film in the careers of Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving – explored the rigors of the real-life Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.  Watch the movie and you’ll hear excerpts of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 and Sergey Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3.  Listen to the glorious Prokfiev piece from start to furious finish and you’ll wonder how anyone can play the piano with that kind of speed and dexterity.

Even a child’s story can be uplifted by classical music.  In the stage production of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” Schroeder plays Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on his toy piano while Lucy accompanies him in song.  The lyrics are creative and work surprisingly well for a sonata created over 200 years ago.  Watch and listen here.

This post would not be complete without a begrudging nod to the album “Hooked on Classics”, created and performed in the 1980’s by Louis Clark and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.  “Hooked” is a mash-up of familiar classical pieces, attached to an annoyingly robotic drum track.  It’s a ten-minute audio nightmare for anyone who truly respects the genre.  Remarkably, the title track made it to #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1982 (alongside Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”).  If you must listen, go here.

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My campaign for the survival of classical music stems from years of childhood piano lessons, including a teacher who demanded strict adherence to the genre.  Thus I didn’t practice “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or “Frere Jacques”, but rather Bach’s “Solfeggietto”, Beethoven’s “Ecossaises”, and Albert Ellmenreich’s “The Spinning Song”.

Listen carefully the next time you’re at the movies.  Lend an ear to the classical strains of an orchestra or philharmonic.  Flip the radio dial to something instrumental every now and then.  Classical music lives, and still deserves a prominent place among the music genres.