Category Archives: Music

Don Sebesky R. I. P

I first heard Don Sebesky play piano when he was a Rutgers undergraduate and I was still in high school, visiting a former band member up there.  If you’re any good as a musician, you should be good enough to be in a band when you’re fourteen.  So I was in a high school band as a freshman with a drummer in the junior class, and a sophomore trumpet player.  It was assumed that I’d go to Rutgers as my father and 2 uncles went there.

Sebesky was playing piano and I’d never heard anything like it.  Although I liked jazz, the local radio didn’t have much of it, just Brubeck and Shorty Rogers and his Giants.  Unfortunately Sebesky passed away and the Times obit had nothing about piano or Rutgers —   I was amazed to find out that his main instrument was the trombone, which goes to show that if you’ve got musical talent you can play just about anything.  As I write this I’m listening to the great trumpeter Arturo Sandoval play the piano on one of his CDs.

I was staggered at how very much better Sebesky was than anything I could ever hope to be, even though he was just 4 months older.  This is typical for musicians, we instinctively know how we stand talentwise.  I found it amazing that Sebesky’s first instrument of choice was the accordion.   He probably came to it through polka bands as his father was a Polish steelworker.

He worked with everybody, not confining himself to jazz.  If you want to hear just how good he was pick up his album “I remember Bill: A tribute to Bill Evans”.  Evans grew up 17 miles away in Plainfield NJ.

Faure was doing jazz before there was jazz

My friends and I were playing Faure’s only piano trio a few days ago.  It was Opus 120 written toward the end of his long life (1845 – 1924). The second movement was nice and slow starting with the piano just playing Bill Evans 60’s and 70’s chords under the melody.   It really should swing gently, something beyond the ken of a purely classically trained musician.  Example: Jean Pierre Rampal trying to swing the Claude Bolling work for piano and flute —   Spoiler alert: despite being a fabulous flutist, Rampal just doesn’t swing.

Some jazz musicians can do classic — see Michaela Petri and Keith Jarrett  on the Bach flute sonatas —

Jazz in the 20’s was about dixieland, the blues and big bands, so Faure was really influencing the jazz that came later.  Here’s a link to Evans playing Pavane for a dead Princess among other classics –  I have the album, and Evans doesn’t muck about with the chord structure (he doesn’t need to)  although being jazz the Pavanne isn’t played entirely straight.

Afterwards, I remembered another very jazzy part in Faure’s first piano quartet (premiered in 1880 !)  It’s only a few measures long, but with chord shifts every quarter note, augmented fifths, major 7ths and a great descending base line, all under a 3 quarter note melody, which repeats 4 times as the chords shift under it.  Pure jazz.  Unfortunately my score doesn’t have measure numbers but if you happen to own the International Edition, it occurs just before K in the first movement on page 14.

If any of you know of further jazz in Faure’s work add your comment to this.

Chamber music at last !

Last night I played chamber music with two friends for the first time in over a year. It was glorious. The string players wanted the Dvorak Dumky trio. It is a very deep, beautiful and rather dark work. I wanted something joyous, and convinced them to play Beethoven Op. 1 #2, which is one of the happiest pieces he ever wrote.  It’s great fun, particularly the last movement.  

If you’re a string player, imagine being unable to tune your instrument for a year, while you played it daily.  Such was my lot, until my piano tuner got vaccinated last month.  

So, if you’re able, get out there and play some music with friends.

The solo piano literature is enormous yet, given a choice I’d rather play chamber music.   The interaction with another musical mind, particularly in the hands of a great composer, just has to be experienced.   Leonard Bernstein said something to the effect that if you could capture music in words, you’d never need to listen to it. 

God only knows how many professional musicians were lost or gave up in the past year.  Even so, I’m not ready to go to concerts.

The death of amateur chamber music playing

Compared to the death, bereavement and economic pain of the pandemic the end of music making by amateur chamber musicians is a small thing.

Why do I say this?  You can hardly do better than the following link —

Here is a quote from it — “Indoor spaces, with limited air exchange or recycled air and lots of people, are concerning from a transmission standpoint. We know that 60 people in a volleyball court-sized room (choir) results in massive infections. Same situation with the restaurant and the call center. Social distancing guidelines don’t hold in indoor spaces where you spend a lot of time, as people on the opposite side of the room were infected.

The principle is viral exposure over an extended period of time. In all these cases, people were exposed to the virus in the air for a prolonged period (hours). Even if they were 50 feet away (choir or call center), even a low dose of the virus in the air reaching them, over a sustained period, was enough to cause infection and in some cases, death.”

Does this sound like amateur chamber music to you?  Particularly at summer festivals where hordes of the most vulnerable age  groups get together, eat together, play together, socialize together.

Is there hope that this will be transient?  Yes.  Here’s why.

First some background.

I’m sorry to keep putting this in, but I don’t want to leave anyone behind. Finding the actual genome (RNA in this case) of a virus in an individual  is like seeing a real bear up close and personal.  This can do you some damage.  In contrast, antibodies to the virus are made by an individual who has been infected by the virus in the past.  Antibodies (proteins) and genomes (RNA) are completely different chemically.      Antibodies are like seeing the tracks of the bear without the bear itself. You can’t see tracks without the bear having been present at some point in the past.

Well we’re in that situation in the USA.  Based on many studies now (California, New York State, Prison systems) the number of people who’ve been exposed to the virus enough to develop their own antibodies to it, is anywhere from 10 – 100 times greater than the number of people in whom the viral genome has been found.  This means that the vast majority of infections with the new coronavirus are asymptomatic.

So that’s the good news (but only if 3 things are true)

l. The antibody tests are accurate

2. Having the antibody means you won’t get sick if exposed to the virus

3. Having the antibody means you are free of the virus and can’t possibly transmit it to other people.

As of 10 May none of these are known with any degree of certainty, but if antibodies to the pandemic flu are like all the antibodies we’ve studied in the past they very likely are true.   It will take several months before this is all sorted out.

Things to watch out for in press accounts.

The number of known infections is certain to rise.  Officially we have currently tested around 500,000 people for the virus — way less than 1% of the population.  As more people are tested more cases will be found.

The important figure to watch is how many people have been made sick by the virus, not the number of people in whom the virus has been found– the technical term for the disease (not the virus) is COVID19.

Fortunately, I’m an amateur pianist with a huge literature for solo piano to explore (48 Bach Preludes and Fugues, 32 Beethoven sonatas, 60+ Haydn sonatas, 500+ Scarlatti sonatas, 16 Mozart sonatas).  My string  and wind instrument  playing friends aren’t so lucky.  But I miss them.


Musical dyslexia

Back in the day, we were all shocked that the worst reader in our class, a girl who’d been left back, picked up a spelling mistake in our high school yearbook “The Lighththouse”.

Which brings me to the Ravel Piano Trio where I’m having the same problem she did. It’s probably one of the hardest works for piano trio in existence, and even with an hour a day on the first two movements I’m only making slow headway at best.  Even the violinist, a conservatory graduate, finds it difficult.

Normally when a pianist  looks at a score, chords and scales leap out, and you don’t have to look at every note in a Beethoven sonata to know what key he’s writing in.  Not so with Ravel.

In the second movement there is a sequence of 15 chords in which the right hand plays 4 notes, the left 2 or 3.  Here’s the first chord

left hand f double sharp, c sharp e – right hand f double sharp, a sharp, dsharp fsharp (the fsharp is about an octave higher than the the lower f double sharp).

You can’t look at that and know what to play — you’ve got to finger every note in order and hope that your brain will remember it the second time around.

All 15 of these chords like this must be played in about 10 seconds or less.

This is what life must have been like for the dyslexic girl back then (the diagnosis didn’t exist in the 50’s).  No wonder she was left back, if she had to figure out every word had letter by letter.

Like me probably after figuring out what one word (chord) was, she probably forgot what the multiple words of the sentence were trying to say (the music in the chord sequence).

You did notice the misspelling didn’t you? If not here it is — lightHThouse.  Most readers just look at the first few letters, recognize the word and move on, just like a pianist playing Mozart or Beethoven.  Not the poor girl back then or me with the Ravel.

Clark Gesner R. I. P.

Clark Gesner Princeton ’60 was an incredibly creative individual who wrote at least 2 shows for the Princeton Triangle Club, which includes Jimmie Stewart, Josh Logan, Jose Ferrer and Brooke Shields among its alumni.  When I was there, club traveled by railroad to NYC, Albany, Cleveland, Chicago, Cincinnati etc. over Christmas vacation.  Quite an experience for a 19 year old who’d never been west of Allentown.

Despite his talent, Clark’s  musical chops weren’t that good and as a piano player in the pit band accompanying the show, I could play his stuff better than he could. We were housed in the homes of alumni for the most part, and Clark after shows would sit at the piano and play his stuff.  The girls would gather around and say “Clark, you’re going to write a broadway show some day”.  Cynical me thought they’d been watching too movies.

Well he did, writing “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown”, and never had to work past his late 20s.

Which raises several points.  The first is that amateur musicians usually agree who is better (not so much in terms of their chops, but in terms of their ‘musicality’ a term like jazz of which Louis Armstrong said –“If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”  This unlike composers, visual artists etc. etc.  Even chemists.  Who was the greatest chemist of the 20th century — Woodward, Pauling?  You’d get an argument.

2 years at Triangle cured me of theater.  The stage performers  never really left the stage, acting most of the time in ways that said ‘look at me, look at me’.  It became tiresome after a while.

We had real pros helping us put the shows together — Director Milt Lyon, Choreographer Peter Hamilton.  They weren’t perfect and 60 years ago Milt was always saying that ‘the unions are killing the theater’.  Milt was always in the back during performances as we traveled, leading the cheers.  Another quote –‘audiences want to clap, you just have to help them’.

There were a lot of gays in Triangle, but they were the obvious ones, florid, histrionic, effeminate.   That was the image of the gay male in the late 50s, and today’s gays owe a huge debt to the normal appearing gays who came out in that era and later.  Clark was gay and kept it well hidden, and a lot more classmates have come out subsequently.

For some, there were excellent reasons to remain in the closet.  A psychiatrist classmate from med school knew of people being thrown out of psychiatry residencies because they were gay — look at the early DMSs when homosexuality was thought to be a psychiatric disease.


The cold dead hand of the academy and classical music (US division)

For how the higher music criticism nearly strangled classical music in the US look no further than Roger Sessions —  He was the eminence grise of the Princeton music department when I was an undergraduate

Purely by luck, I decided that music was one of the few things I knew something about (having had 8 years of piano lessons through High School) so I had nothing to do with the department.  So while Roger was saying things like “I’m a specialist writing for other specialists” and “The English Department doesn’t teach typing, why should the Music Department teach performance” — this according to someone from the class of ’75, I was hitchhiking down route 1 to NYC listening to Basie at Birdland, and other jazz musicians creating a new art form (Village Vanguard etc. etc.).   I was actually able to hire Coleman Hawkins to play for a dance at our Eating Club (Princeton’s version of fraternities).

So think of some music coming out of an academic music department from that era that you want to listen to.  Bartok doesn’t count.  He was supported with grants when he got here  in 1940, but was already a very well established composer.

For more on these points, see the previous post –

So jazz, rock, country and western musics will take care of themselves.  They exist independently of what is written about them.  There still is a problem for people like me.  I’m not creative enough to make my own music, but classical music being written down allows me to explore and experience the great musical minds of Bach, Mozart etc. etc.  I want more stuff written by today’s people that my friends and I can play.  The difference between listening to music and playing it, is the difference between you know what and sex.

Some thoughts on music

I’m leaving for what one of my friend’s grandsons calls “Band Camp for Adults”. Mercifully we usually all agree to allow the world to spin on its axis without our help, meaning we talk only about music leaving politics behind (thank God).

I’ve agreed to play the Brahms horn trio with an excellent violinist and an equally excellent french horn player.  It’s scary. Brahms must have had enormous hands, asking you to play an octave with your right hand while trilling with the fifth finger.  He must also have had a huge technique, asking you to jump about playing octaves with your left hand.  Adding to the anxiety, is that the other two have performed the piece despite the fact that we’re amateurs.  They want to perform it as well, something that gives me the yips (they’re both very good).

I asked one of last year’s coaches to note whether the hard headed scientific types (mathematicians, physicists, computer programmers) play any differently than the touchy feely types (who are scared of ‘chemicals’ etc. etc.) both invariantly present in about equal numbers among amateur chamber musicians.  I don’t think so, but we’ll see what she says.  Probably she forgot, chamber musicians having to be extremely precise  when they play, leading them to be sloppy about most other things.  We’ll see.

There are excellent faculty concerts most nights and hopefully they won’t have much ‘eat your spinach’ contemporary work on the program.  You all know what it is, contemporary music with no rhythm, melody or structure and usually hideous sound, that you are supposed to sit through because it’s good for you.  A few years ago, there was a concert with no intermission where they literally locked the doors and played an awful Elliot Carter string quartet.  It wasn’t announced on the program so we couldn’t bail.

Which brings me to another point.  People who say they like all music, really like none of it.  To really like music there must be music that you hate.  I hate Shastakovich (which is tough as a cellist I play with has cats named Shasti and Kovich), my cousin hates Ravel.

Which brings me to another point — how musical criticism has brought classical music low (see the bit about Adorno later).  Classic composers if they want to be played and heard have to bow to current elite critical opinion.  Fortunately this seems to be ending.  There are several people composing in the area whose music has melody, rhythm, structure, tonality and is good to listen to.

One is Zeke Hecker — — whose wife is an excellent violist that I played one of the Faure piano quartets with.  He’s written lots of stuff in classical form (symphonies etc. etc. ) which is musicly interesting.

Another is Scott Slapin — — and we recently went to a concert where he wrote some very interesting music for 4 violas.  He has a sense of humor and since he lives in South Hadley Massachusetts, he wrote a 12 minute piece for 4 violas called the South Hadley Mass.

Now to the dark side — an article in the New Yorker described how a critic, Theordor Adorno, singlehandedly nearly destroyed the magnificent German musical tradition —

Here’s a quote from the article — “Implicit in his assault on mass culture is the belief that any work of art that attracts large numbers of people has no value.”  So the music he champions certainly doesn’t attract hordes.

Here’s more.  “In 1949, it worked: “The Philosophy of New Music” wowed the confused young minds who were seeking new certitudes, new laws, new gods. Adorno, together with his comrade-in-arms Boulez, probably succeeded in frightening more than a few composers of the neoclassical type into thinking that their music was not just bad but criminal. It is instructive to look at the names of works that were played at Darmstadt from 1946 on. In the first few years, you see titles such as Sonatine, Suite for Piano, Chamber Symphony, Scherzo, and Concerto in E Flat. After 1949, the year of the “Philosophy,” neoclassical titles dwindle and are replaced by phrases fit for a “Star Trek” episode: “Music in Two Dimensions,” “Schipot,” “Polyphonie X,” “Syntaxis,” “Anepigraphe.” There was a fad for abstractions in the plural: “Perspectives,” “Structures,” “Quantities,” “Configurations,” “Interpolations.” Audiences enjoyed “Spectogram,” “Seismogramme,” “Audiogramme,” and “Sphenogramme.”

How did such an idiot gain such power?  It’s worth reading the whole article in the link (although it’s pretty depressing)

Well there is a human urge to listen, play and create music and it’s coming back. To hell with the higher musical criticism.

For the pianists in your life

Shopping for a Christmas gift for that hard to please pianist on your list?  I have just the answer — The Complete Bach Concerti for solo Keyboard and Orchestra in Full Score ISBN 0-486-24929-8.  No it won’t take a truck to deliver it.  It’s just in the Dover series of music.  7 concerti, 206 pages and only $20.00 or so.  Such a deal ! ! !

You pianist friend need not have a full string orchestra at his/her disposal, the keyboard parts are often rich enough to stand alone.  This is particularly true of many of the glorious slow movements, where the strings aren’t really doing very much, and sometime are just doubling what the keyboard is doing with the left hand anyway.

It does look a bit intimidating to see 6 parts instead of the usual two.  The only problem with this is the frequent page turns, and I recommend getting it spiral bound at the local copy place (under 5$ where I live).

All the concerti are fairly famous (to pianists at least) and the whole point about Bach is that it’s mind music which you hear in your head.  That’s about all I played in med school having only PSOs (Piano Shaped Objects) to play.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year ! ! !

Back from band camp for grownups

While at band camp, we heard a fabulously intense performance of a piece which must be witnessed rather than listened to on the radio or on a CD while you’re doing something else.  It was Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. You couldn’t ask for a better audience — 150+ raptly attentive amateur musicians with all cell phones off and no program notes.  The piece takes an hour to play and is full of long silences.  In some parts just one instrument plays while the other players sit stock still staring ahead, so the piece really is part theater.

You can always tell when a string player or a pianist starts to play as something moves and your mind expects a sound.  No so with the many long silences of the clarinet solo.  Parts begin so softly that you can’t even be sure the clarinet is playing, as there is no motion to clue you in.  Then, suddenly you realize you’ve been hearing a sound for a while.   The piece ends with a violinist ascending slowly into the tonal stratosphere while producing a prolonged decrescendo.  She was in tears at the end.

The players (correctly) decided on no descriptive program notes (which were read aloud at the beginning) as they didn’t want to break up the intensity with rustling paper (or the spoken word).  Probably it’s better to hear the piece not knowing the background, but there’s a Wiki page for it which is pretty good if you already know its provenance.

Pianists don’t have to count.  When we get stuck we just stop and then start over.  Even with chamber music we have the score so we always know what the other players should be doing, so we can pretty much fake what we can’t play and keep things going.  Our only problems are the incessant page turns, sometimes with all the other instruments cutting out leaving us alone playing with both hands, turning the page and trying not to miss a beat.  All this was true until I got to play a piece with bassoon, clarinet, oboe, violin and cello by Martinu —, which had only the piano part, and long 9 and 10 measure rests which I was supposed to count.  I thought it would be a total disaster, but the coach conducted it, and shouted out numbers when I was supposed to play. I bought him a beer later that week.  An interesting piece with a tango, and a Charleston in it.

Participants at the camp decided that there would be no talk of politics, just music, and the world did manage to spin on its axis for a week without our help.

I spent 300 miles or so of the 1,100 mile drive back on backroads through the verdant midwest countryside.  I made it a point to pace off a mile or so every now and then in a particularly beautiful stretch of country and then get out and walk it.  Typical of the midwest, each time I did, someone would stop and ask if I needed help.

The many miles of the country I went through on the way back look very good.  The stores and  restaurants and malls were full, the campgrounds crowded, and help wanted signs were everywhere. Much better than the previous trips of the past 5 years.

So then I get back to Massachusetts and the alternate universe of the New York Times.  When the Times talks about the longest bull market in history, they note in the same breath that it is only for rich people, ignoring the fact that all pension plans, IRAs and 401k’s have been beneficiaries.  Also on the front page was a story about a payoff to a porn star, something of minimal consequence to the daily lives of those outside the bubble.

Paul Krugman, Nobel Laureate in economics, appears on the opinion page, despite having declared election night the stock market would never recover, and a few years ago informing us that we were at peak oil production.  At least no articles by Larry Summers (smartest guy in the room and former president of Harvard) about secular stagnation and the impossibility of 3% economic growth.

Linus Pauling was one of the great chemists of the 20th Century — electronegativity, the nature of the chemical bond, the alpha helix etc. etc.  Yet when he said vitamin C could cure colds and cancer, he was proved wrong and his pronouncements on the subject roundly ignored.  No so with political and economic pundits.

The disconnect between the bicoastal mainstream media and the center of the country is profound.  The November elections should be fascinating.  Help stamp our minority employment — vote Democratic.