Spiegel im Spiegel

new-york-city-ballet-hed-2013You may have seen New Beginnings, the short film released by New York City Ballet on September 12. It features a moving performance on the 57th floor terrace of 4 World Trade Center at dawn and is intended to be “a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, and a tribute to the future of the city that New York City Ballet calls home.”

The music is Spiegel im Spiegel (mirror in the mirror), written in 1978 by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b.1935). Here is a recording of the piece by violinist Nicola Benedetti and pianist Alexei Grynyuk. As you listen, consider how the music is flowing and what effect it has on your sense of time. Is there a process unfolding throughout the piece? Why do you think it’s called Spiegel im Spiegel, or “mirror in the mirror”?

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If you hold a mirror in front of another mirror the reflections become infinite. You probably noticed a similar process happening musically. The violin keeps returning to the pitch, “A.” The piece develops slowly as pitches are added, one at a time in perfect inversions below and above this “A”. Consider how this incremental development influences your sense of expectation.

Spiegel im Spiegel evolves outward, filling up musical “space” and giving us the sense of time flowing through music. This might remind you of the additive process we heard in Steve Reich’s Different Trains in the last “Listeners’ Club” post. In the late 1970’s a handful of American composers such as Reich and Philip Glass were experimenting with minimalism-circular, repetitive music which flowed in a fundamentally different way. Around the same time Arvo Pärt, trapped behind the Iron Curtain and cut off from most outside musical influences, discarded atonality and began writing similar music. Pärt’s meditative minimalism is rooted in mysticism and influenced by early music, especially Gregorian chant.

This episode of the BBC series, Soul Music explores Spiegel im Spiegel and its effect on listeners. Listen a few more times and share your thoughts on the music in the thread below.

[quote]I could compare my music to white light which contains all colors. Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener. -Arvo Pärt. [/quote]

Practicing is Problem Solving

Take a moment and think about your last practice session. Did you take time to imagine how you wanted the music to sound before you started playing? How attentively were you listening to yourself? Did you stay mentally alert? What did you do when you encountered a musical or technical hurdle?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of playing through a difficult passage slowly until you “get it right.” This is often counterproductive because it relies completely on luck. Without first identifying the problem and finding a solution, you may find yourself ingraining the bad habits you’re trying to eliminate. Remember, whatever we repeat becomes a habit, good or bad.

Productive practicing requires problem solving. It requires your mind as much as your fingers. It’s about visualization, audiation and evaluation. To avoid aimless practicing remember the motto “Stop…Think…Play.”

Whether you’re an older student practicing on your own, or a Suzuki parent guiding your child through a practice session, here are a few things to keep in mind:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Identify the Problem[/typography]

Listen carefully. Are you matching the sound that you have in your mind? If you’re a violinist the challenge could be anything from a string crossing to intonation (correct shape of the left hand and finger placement) to a difficult shift. Maybe there are a number of challenges that need to be isolated, as in the Bach Minuets in Suzuki Book 1. Take one problem at a time and work patiently.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Unit Practice[/typography]

Unit practice involves isolating a small group of notes and repeating them. Use your time effectively by practicing only the problem spot. For shifts start from the preceding note, memorizing the distance visually and physically. Focusing on small units helps your brain absorb new skills quickly. Start by repeating small units and then begin adding and combining other units. If you’re confronted with a run of notes (as in La Folia in Suzuki Book 6) it’s helpful to isolate all the notes on each string, stopping for each string crossing. In Witches Dance the triplets can be isolated into rhythmic units.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Isolate the bow and the left hand[/typography]

Reduce a passage to open strings to practice string crossings and bowing. For co-ordination between the left and right hands, stop the bow in between each note to set each finger carefully. Long slurs can also be practiced with stopped bows.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Tempo Adjustment[/typography]

Practice slower and faster than the tempo you intend to take. Feel the inside beats to maintain a sense of pulse. Use the metronome to gradually build up speed for fast music.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Make up rhythms[/typography]

For straight eighth or sixteenth note passages, practice with a variety of rhythms to increase finger co-ordination and improve evenness, quickness and strength.

These are just a few strategies that might help you overcome technical challenges. For more thoughts on practicing read The Most Valuable Lesson I Learned from Playing the Violin and Don’t Just Learn-Overlearn! Next time you take out the violin try to listen with your teacher’s critical ear. Challenge yourself to become your own teacher and remember that good practicing requires problem solving.

Different Trains

Steam locomotive running gear

One of my fondest early childhood memories was visiting the Arcade and Attica Railroad for a summer afternoon train ride. Nestled in the rolling Western New York countryside east of Buffalo, it’s one of a handful of places where visitors can get up close and personal with a steam locomotive. Beyond the soot and flying cinders, the sound of a steam engine may be the most memorable aspect of the experience. It huffs, puffs and breaths as if it’s alive. It laboriously chugs up a hill with a persistent rhythm. If you’ve never been close to a steam engine these clips from Arcade, Stockton, California and the Railroad Museum in Strasburg, Pennsylvania will give you some idea.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Pacific 231[/typography]

Swiss composer Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) found musical inspiration in the steam locomotive. Honegger wrote Pacific 231 partly as a musical experiment. His goal was to create music which gave the impression of increasing rhythmic momentum and a simultaneous slowing of tempo. Here is how Honegger described the music:

[quote]I have always loved locomotives passionately. For me they are living beings whom I love as others love women or horses. What I sought to achieve in Pacific 231 was not the imitation of the noises of the locomotive but rather the translation of a visual impression and of the physical enjoyment through a musical construction. It opens with an objective observation, the calm respiration of the machine at rest, the effort of the start, a gradual increase in speed, ultimately attaining the lyrical stage, the pathos of a train 300 tons in weight launched in the dark of night at 120 kilometers an hour. For my subject I selected a locomotive of the Pacific type, bearing the number 231.[/quote]

Listen to Pacific 231 and enjoy the sense of motion and raw energy. Can you feel the pressure building in the opening? Can you hear the train gaining speed, working to get up a hill, slowing at the end of the trip and ultimately finding a final rest?

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Music is all around us-even in our machines. In the eighteenth century composers were influenced by brooks, pastures and birdsongs. By the industrial twentieth century the world had become louder and more dissonant. What kind of music is being produced by our increasingly wired, information saturated twenty first century world?

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]From Chicago to New York[/typography]

Growing up during World War II, Steve Reich (b. 1936) frequently traveled by train between New York and Los Angeles to visit his separated parents. A Jewish American, Reich later realized that European Jews were riding trains to concentration camps during the same years. This realization was the inspiration for Different Trains, written in 1988 for string quartet and tape. Reich constructed the piece around fragments of recorded voices. For the first movement, Reich recorded his former governess and a long retired railway porter reminiscing about the trains of the 1930’s and 40’s. In the second and third movements we hear the voices of Holocaust survivors. Here is a clip of Reich talking about Different Trains.

Listen to the first movement, America-Before the War, performed by the Kronos Quartet. How does the music unfold? Is the motion fast or slow? Can you sense the recorded speech developing in any way? Do you hear anything “musical” or expressive in the voices?

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When I listen to this music I notice that I have a heightened sense of awareness of the moment. I find myself  becoming one with the sound. Repeated musical phrases take on a unique power. While Different Trains has a fairly fast pulse, it evolves slowly. Did the music change your perception of time? Did we just turn up the volume on something that has always been there and will continue into infinity? You probably noticed a gradual additive process in the recorded voices. As each fragment is repeated and enlarged, more musical “space” is taken up. The instruments imitate the pitch inflection of each spoken fragment.

Something was in the air in the 1960’s which led Steve Reich, Philip Glass and others to begin writing repetitive, circular music. This new direction in music, known as Minimalism, was partly a reaction to the complexity of atonal or 12-tone music. A similar movement occurred in the art world slightly earlier. Think about the endlessly repeating chorus of your favorite Pop song-anything from Disco and Techno to Phil Collins or Joe Jackson. How are these songs similar in flow to the Minimalism of Steve Reich?

[quote]Time is a train…Makes the future the past…Leaves you standing in the station…Your face pressed up against the glass -U2[/quote]

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Zoo Station[/typography]

Zoo Station is the opening track of U2’s 1991 album, Achtung Baby. The song was inspired by Berlin’s Zoologischer Garten railway station and Europe at a crossroads in the early 1990’s following the fall of the Iron Curtain. After a night of Allied bombing damaged Berlin’s zoo during World War II, animals were found wandering freely in the streets amid the rubble. Bono viewed this story as a metaphor for Eastern Europe’s liberation after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

With this album U2 went in a new direction, using recording techniques such as distortion in the drums and vocals. Interestingly, you may be reminded of the additive process of Steve Reich (the opening of the song and around 2:44):

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Short Ride in a Fast Machine











[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Excitement on the Edge of Terror[/typography]

There’s something exhilarating about testing the limits…knowing that you’re on the verge of losing control but never crossing the line. This is the thrill of downhill skiing, roller coasters, jumping out of airplanes or taking a short, harrowing ride in a friend’s Corvette. In each case, it’s about motion. Motion is also an essential element of music. All music flows through time, although it can unfold in dramatically different ways, depending on the piece.

Keeping all of this in mind, let’s listen to Short Ride in a Fast Machine by American composer John Adams (b. 1947). This musical joyride was written in 1986 as a fanfare for the Pittsburgh Symphony. What elements in the music remind you of a traditional fanfare? What image or “inner movie” comes to mind? Do you feel a physical sense of motion as you listen? Does the music come close to spinning out of control at any points? The piece begins with a straightforward pulse played by the wood block. Listen to what happens rhythmically around this pulse as the music progresses. Here is Britain’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle:

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If you’re like me, your sense of expectation was heightened from the beginning. In this piece, there’s no way of knowing what’s around the next corner. You probably noticed points of arrival in the music (1:11, 2:42, 3:04), but they could hardly be called goals because we didn’t hear them coming. These arrival points are like shooting out of a tunnel, hitting a sharp curve and suddenly seeing a dramatic view unfold in front of you. In this case the joy of the ride is more important than the destination. John Adams talks about the Lamborghini ride that inspired him to write Short Ride in a Fast Machine here.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Quiet Fanfare[/typography]

A year earlier, John Adams wrote a different kind of fanfare for the Houston Symphony. It’s called Tromba lontana or “distant trumpet.” Listen to all the musical layers from the solo trumpets to the strings to the pulsating piano, harp and percussion. Consider this piece’s flow. It’s moving through time, but where is it going? What feeling do you get as you listen? This recording is by Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony:

There’s something slightly ominous and unsettling about this piece. The sparkling bells and high strings establish a glistening, almost innocent pulse. Then the lower strings enter, adding something darker to the mix. We have the sense of the pulse propelling us forward into infinity while the other voices search aimlessly. The piece develops slowly with an underlying sense of building anxiety, but does it ever find a resolution? Listening to Tromba lontana is like floating through some kind of deep, subconscious dream space where a thought or landscape emerges, becomes fixed in the imagination and then inexplicably disappears.

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Red Barchetta[/typography]

The rock band Rush was also inspired by the speed and excitement of a fast car. The song Red Barchetta is from their 1981 album, Moving Pictures. It was inspired by the futuristic short story, “A Nice Morning Drive” by Richard Foster (published in a 1973 issue of Road and Track magazine). Here, the car becomes a symbol of freedom and rebellion against intrusive government regulation:

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Now go back and listen to this week’s music a few more times. Share your thoughts in the thread below. How do these three pieces flow and how do they influence our perception of time? Next week we’ll continue to explore motion with music inspired by trains.

An Orchestra and Its Community

Great orchestras gradually develop a unique sound and style of playing. This process takes place over time as conductors come and go, leaving their mark and new players are gradually assimilated. In the days when I was traveling between many orchestras as a free-lance violinist I could sense the “soul” of each organization. The ongoing lockout at the Minnesota Orchestra is tragic and frightening because it may ultimately show how quickly a great orchestra with a 110 year tradition can be destroyed. If you’re not familiar with the situation, take a look at this list of recent blog posts:

[box]The Minnesota Orchestra cross-blog event is a collection of more than a dozen bloggers, musicians, patrons, and administrators writing about the orchestra’s devastating work stoppage. You can find all of the contributions in the following list and the authors encourage everyone to participate by sharing, commenting, or publishing something at your own culture blog.[/box]

Managers and board members should view their orchestras as cultural treasures which belong to the community. They are entrusted with the sacred responsibility of nourishing the organization and investing in its future. This takes passion, determination and creativity. For a few thoughts on the importance of the management-musician relationship in regards to organizational success, read my 2006 article, Moving Beyond the Music: Why An Orchestra Musician’s Job is Not Over After the Last Note.

In honor of the great tradition of the Minnesota Orchestra, here is the orchestra playing the end of Stravinsky’s Firebird suite:

The Last Rose of Summer

Red rose 00090

It’s hard to believe but Labor Day weekend is here, marking the official end of summer. Leaves are beginning to change color. The days are getting shorter and a chill is creeping into the night air, reminding us of the inevitability of what’s around the corner. Let’s bid summer a fond farewell by listening to one of the most technically demanding pieces ever written for the violin, Variations on “The Last Rose of Summer” by Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst. Ernst (1812-1865) was a violinist and composer who followed in the footsteps of Paganini, touring Europe as a rock star virtuoso and expanding the technical possibilities of the violin.

This clip is from Midori’s extraordinary 1991 Carnegie Hall debut. She played the sold out concert four days before her nineteenth birthday. The excitement and electricity in the air and the sense of occasion are palpable. This interesting New York Times piece featuring Midori came out in the days following the recital.

Notice the combination of dazzling violinistic effects employed, from double stops and left hand pizzicato to harmonics, up bow staccato and spiccato bowing. Watch closely, because there are moments when this piece seems like a magic act. Is one violin really playing all that? Listen to how many variations can spring from this beautiful melody:

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And now, for a final ode to fading summer, here is the original melody, sung by Renee Fleming: