Tag Archives: music

Rehearsing with Stravinsky

I know what it’s like to rehearse Stravinsky’s music, because I’ve played in some of it—most notably The Rite of Spring a year or two ago. It was hard work and involved learning a lot of tricky rhythms.

What would it be like to rehearse with Stravinsky, though? Here are some videos which perhaps give some idea. In all of them, Stravinsky comes across as someone who absolutely loved music and the process of making it.

First, an extract from a 1967 TV programme in which we see Stravinsky rehearsing the Troronto Symphony Orchestra in the Scherzino from his ballet Pulcinella (without a baton, I notice):

A 1955 film from Columbia Records, showing part of a rehearsal and recording session for The Soldier’s Tale:

(By the way, if anyone knows of a version of this video in which “Enter your text here” doesn’t pop up several times, please let me know.)

The final clip doesn’t actually have any video, only sound and some still pictures, but for me it gives the clearest idea of what it would be like to actually experience one of his rehearsals as one of the players. It’s a 1962 rehearsal of his Symphony in C with the CBC Symphony Orchestra in Toronto (also including a rather entertaining exchange between Stravinsky and the recording engineer):

“Greatest Hits of the Second Viennese School”

Recently I came across this. It’s . . . Well, what it says. A spoof advert for atonal music. Much of the humour comes from picking out entirely the wrong feature of a musical passage for comment—e.g. commenting on the tunefulness of a passage which consists entirely of harmony and orchestral colour, or the tenderness of . . . Watch it and see.

As a violinist, I particularly like “the virtuoso violin writing of Alban’s Violin Concerto In case you don’t know, the concerto starts with the soloist playing the four open strings. (By the way, you can see someone performing the concerto here. Oddly, the vibrato in the audio seems not to match his hand movements in the video.)

Actually the video is rather unfair to Schoenberg. And I quite like atonal music. So, here to redress the balance is a more serious one: an interview with Schoenberg about his paintings and his music, recorded in 1949.

Follow the “related video” links for more material, both serious and otherwise.

The urge returns

No appetite

Some readers will know that I started this blog quite soon after my father died in June 2008. I had been using Twitter to keep friends informed about the progress first of his health, and then of our funeral plans, and after a while I felt the need to start a proper blog.

I think every bereavement is different and each person is affected by it differently. In my case, my energy for playing music was greatly reduced; it simply felt like emotionally the wrong activity. I dropped out of a number of concerts, reduced the number of amateur orchestras I was playing in, abandoned some violin lessons I had been having, and took a break from my usual amount of playing.

The feeling when I tried to play was that the playing was trying to use the same mental and emotional resources which were being used on adjusting after the bereavement. So the energy wasn’t really there, and any energy that was there was needed for that.

As the months passed, I gradually felt able to do more playing, but its nature was basically to agree to play in something, then do the minimum practice required to play adequately. Nothing that involved pushing myself to practise hard.

A dream

Just over a week ago, something happened. I had a dream, in which a number of us were at some kind of party at the house of my violin teacher (who I also know through orchestra). Maybe it was an after-concert party or something. In the dream, it got to about 5 am (it was a good party!) and the teacher said “Tim, do you fancy a violin lesson? … I could do one at 8 o’clock today if you like”. I said that the idea of having one soon sounded quite good, but that I really thought it was time for me to think about going home and getting some sleep rather than staying up even longer in order to have a lesson.

Next day, back in the real world, it got to about 9:30 pm and I felt a strong urge to practise my violin. Well not exactly an urge—more a hunger or a need. A need which had probably been brewing for a while, but which I’d not really been aware of until it came out in the dream.

Hungry again

So I got my violin out. For about an hour, I practised some Sevcik exercises then a Rode study, quite intensely. Then I got out the Bach Chaconne—which I’d worked on before my father died but not played since—and played through it to see how much of it I still knew. (Answer: I still know most of it, but it’s not as fluent and there are places where I now stumble which were fine before.)

Yesterday and today, I again had the desire to practise, and did about 1½ hours each time. And last Tuesday, playing for a Messiah concert, I found myself talking to one of my fellow players about what aspects of technique I’d like to work on if I book a lesson or two.

Is the energy beginning to return? Maybe. It’s about 18 months since I last felt this way, so I think it may well be a good sign. Will I book a lesson? Maybe. I’ve already got as far as texting the teacher to ask what she charges these days.

Unconscious musical memory

There’s a weekly programme on BBC Radio 3 called Discovering Music. It involves a studio, an orchestra, an audience, a presenter, and a piece of music. The presenter talks in depth about the piece and how it works, illustrated with extracts played by the orchestra. Finally, after the talk is finished, there is a full performance of the piece discussed.

Today, the programme startled me with a phenomenon which seems to happen quite regularly, so I thought I’d blog about it. It’s about time I wrote something about music.

I spent the afternoon upstairs, NOT listening to any music but preferring silence and space. When it came to teatime, I went downstairs, where the radio was on, playing what I thought was some quite unfamiliar music. I didn’t pay any attention to the music, since I still wanted quiet. By the time I got to the radio, ready to turn it off, the music had changed to speech. I wasn’t listening to that either, but a “tune”—well, a snatch of Violin 2 orchestral part of something—was going through my head. Some symphony I’d played in years ago. Maybe ten years, maybe more.

Then I heard the word “Prokofiev”, and thought “Oh! Well I think this tune in my head IS Prokofiev! I wonder . . . ” and started listening to the radio instead of turning it off. After about half a minute, the radio presenter stopped talking so the orchestra could play their next extract. What they then played was almost exactly what had been in my head: the same tune, but from a different part of the movement. What was in my head was in fact part of Prokofiev’s 5th symphony, and it they happened to be discussing it on Discovering Music.

The point is that I didn’t think I knew what the tune in my head was, if you’d said “Sing a bit of Prokofiev 5!” I wouldn’t have had a chance, and if you’d said “Sing another part of the music that’s just been playing!” I wouldn’t have been able to do that either—but nevertheless, the right tune presented itself.

The next extract they played was from the last movement. That hadn’t been in my head, but my instant reaction to it was “Oh, good grief, I remember how fiendishly difficult that was!”, together with a vague feeling that I needed to go and practise that passage some more.

A few other fragmented memories of the piece surfaced: handwritten music on large, rather yellow paper; inaccurately-spaced leger lines, so that notes which at first sight appeared to go up or down actually went down or up; and a bizarre situation at one point where a correctly written pair of notes actually moved in the opposite direction to the way they looked. There were a few bars’ rest between them, and I can’t remember the precise notes, but it was similar to this: play a B sharp, then after the rest, start again on a C flat, which looks higher but is actually a semitone lower. Or it might have been a B-double-flat going up to an A sharp. Something along those lines.

I find this happens quite a lot: maybe I’m talking to someone, a composer’s name or a piece of music is mentioned, and shortly afterwards I realise that music by that composer, or an extract from the piece mentioned, is going through my head. Often if you asked me to consciously remember how the piece goes, or to think of a tune by that composer, I wouldn’t be able to. Or if you asked me what a particular piece of music was, I wouldn’t know. But it seems there is a part of my brain which does know, and gently presents it to me almost without my noticing.

A related phenomenon happens when I’ve been rehearsing a particular piece at orchestra, then find that what’s going through my head isn’t what I was rehearsing, but tunes from another work by the same composer.

I’m quite tired at the moment and don’t have the energy to start getting all analytical about this, or even all editorial about it, so I’ll just present it to you as it is. I’d be really interested, though, to hear whether other people have similar experiences of “uncoonsiously remembering” things which you thought you didn’t know, or unexpectedly remembering little details about a piece of music. So if you’ve read this far, feel free to comment! 😉

Books I ought to finish reading

Just for fun, here’s a list of them. As it happens, they’re also books I want to finish reading but keep forgetting to, or doing something else instead. In no partcular order (actually, the order in the pile):

Books to finish

  • Miles Kington, How Shall I Tell The Dog?
  • Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain
  • Stephen Fry, The Book of General Ignorance
  • Stephen Fry, The Book of Animal Ignorance
  • Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals: the origins of music, language, mind and body
  • Robin Dunbar, The Trouble with Science
  • Seth Lloyd, Programming the Universe: a quantum computer scientist takes on the cosmos
  • John D Barrow, Impossibility: the limits of science and the science of limits
  • Rodney Huddleston, English Grammar: an outline
  • Barry Green, The Inner Game of Music
  • Andrew George (trans.), The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • Eknath Eswaran (trans.), The Upanishads
  • Stephen Fry, Stephen Fry’s Incomplete and Utter History of Music
  • Roger McGough, Collected Poems

Some of those are books I’ve started, some I’m half way through, some I’ve nearly finished . . . and maybe some aren’t exactly for finishing, since really they’re for dipping into.

Actually, one of the most interesting of those is also one of the most demanding to read: the grammar book. It’s not, as you might imagine, a guide on how to write; it’s a very concentrated analysis of how English grammar works, and I see that on the next page I have a section which starts

Constructions involving a non-finite as complement of the predicator exhibit a great deal of diversity and complexity; they present formidable problems for the analyst—and it is not surprising that widely varying accounts are to be found in the literature. One problem is this. The prototypical complement is an NP, which is why we speak of the occurrence of non-finites in complement function as involving nominalisation.

All of which does in fact make sense, but it’s not the kind of material that effortlessly goes into the brain, especially if it’s a few months since you were last reading the book and need to remind yourself what a predicator is and what is or isn’t being nominalised, i.e. being treated like a noun. Let’s just say that once we start looking at how English grammar actually works, it makes languages like German with nice, rigid, clearly-defined rules start to look a lot more straightforward than English.

Maybe I’ll focus instead on the Miles Kington book, which has stuff like this coming up (see, I can’t help reading ahead):

Dear Gill,

People are making a lot of money out of self-help books these days, and I would like you to be one of those people.

By helping to promote my new self-help book.

Which would be about self-pity.

Did you notice in my first letter that I referred to the jumble of self-pitying thoughts I first had when I was diagnosed with cancer?

My immediate response was to be apologetic for this stance, because we are always taught not to be sorry for ourselves, as if there were something dreadfully feeble about it. There are no nice words in English at all for ‘self-pity’. There are lots of disapproving ones. Whingeing, sulking, moping, etc., etc.

(Personally, I think we are entitled to indulge in a little self-pity when we are told we have cancer, as long as we disguise it as something else. Shock, a nervous breakdown, long sobbing fits. Something like that.)

But self-pity is so common that it earns no respect at all, only disapproval, as in phrases like: ‘Sitting around all day feeling sorry for herself,’ or ‘You’d think he was the only one who had ever had leukaemia.’ Which quickly leads to phrases like: ‘Why doesn’t she just pull herself together?’ and ‘Cheer up dear—it’s only bi-polar disorder!’

My brilliant idea would be to turn it all round and treat self-pity as a potentially positive force.

This certainly seems to be a brilliant book, from the 40% or so that I’ve read in its intended order. Miles Kington wrote it in the last months of his life, when he knew that he did in fact have cancer and might well die from it. It takes the form of supposed letters to his literary agent about ideas for books he might write about the situation, but is really a humorous but heartfelt look at attitudes encountered and so on. Very entertaining, but also thought-provoking.

But that’s just one list of books. Here’s another:

Books to start

The main reason I haven’t started the books in this list is that I don’t have them. They’ve been recommended, or mentioned, by other people:

  • Paul Davies, About Time
  • [I don’t know the author], The Universe is a Green Dragon
  • Peter Bernstein, Against the Gods: the remarkable story of risk
  • Daniel M Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will

Now that’s a much shorter list, but I’ve a nasty feeling that’s simply because of having forgotten to make a note of them all . . . Oh dear. I wonder what’s missing . . .