Link

Advice for Music Students (click link)

This is definitely worth the read.  Click the link above for Karl Paulnack’s Welcome Address to the students of the Boston Conservatory. The future of our music schools take a positive turn with this sort of guidance. Here’s a sample of Mr. Paulnack’s address:

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do.

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Barefoot Conducting: Embracing The Silence

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“We must have the patience to allow the sound to emerge”

That was the gist of my last instruction to the orchestra as we finished our dress rehearsal last Thursday.  The evening’s concert was well played by the Utah Philharmonia, and I feel we presented the Brahms 4th Symphony with poise and commitment.  For many of the students, it was their first experience with a big Brahms masterpiece.  Performing his music usually makes an impression.  I sincerely hope the concept of patience will stay with them as well.  It is an important aspect of music that warrants frequent reminders.

We tend to think of music as sound.  When you learn to play an instrument the production of tone is the basis of instruction.  Look at any beginning method book, though, and you will see pages filled with notes AND rests.  The rests are preparing you for other things.  Soon, you learn to articulate, breathe, and count.  All of these things provide an element of space around the notes.  It may be that that space, the silence, gives the music it’s meaning.  It may even be the key to the life of a composition.

This concept of silence in our environment has been a hot topic for everyone from philosophers to sleep scientists.  I am particularly fascinated by an emerging field called acoustic ecology, led by Gordon Hempton and Bernie Krause.  Both are involved in important work, driven by the desire to “hear” what is there, without extraneous (i.e. manmade) noise.  Hempton’s One Square Inch of Silence is an interesting quest for a spot of the world without human noise pollution.  Krause’s work in sound ecology centers on a theory of a “biophony,” a sort of natural symphony, that is present in a healthy ecosystem.

Hempton and Krause have found that even with the absence of human-produced sound, a sort of music is found everywhere in nature.  Animals, plants, even rocks are involved in the production or transference of sound. The elements too–water, air, fire, earth–all produce sound.   All combine to create a fascinating pattern of reverberation.  Natural sound structures have both elements of tone and silence, just like music.  This is one reason why I enjoy Krause’s concept of nature’s symphony.

As a conductor, I sometimes find space and silence to be the biggest challenge in assembling and rehearsing a piece of music.  Working with musicians to phrase and to prepare and release the notes is an exercise in attention—awareness of the quiet that is imbedded in the music.   And understanding the composer’s intent of a rest, pause or hold can be very deep indeed.

Brahms wasn’t just wasting ink when he wrote those rests in his music.  (or staccato marks, phrase indications, etc.). They are meticulously notated and quite consistent.  Intent and possibility are written into the score–you just have to know where to look.  In silence we see the potential…if we are patient and allow the sound to emerge.

Copyright, 2012 Robert Baldwin

For more on Gordon Hempton’s work see:

http://soundtracker.com/

http://onesquareinch.org/

For more on Bernie Krause see:

http://www.wildsanctuary.com/

Off the Podium Playlist

As a conductor, listening is an important component of what I do. Interestingly, I am often asked what I listen to for pleasure. I’m not sure why what I listen to should be considered more interesting or important than others. Certainly it is not. For the curious though, here is my playlist from the past month or so of non work-related listening.

1. J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio. (Dresden Kreutzchor); Musical Offering (Concertante of London); Art of the Fugue (Emerson Qtet) ; 6 Suites (Callas, viola).
2. Tin Hat/Tin Hat Trio–every album I could find. AMAZING stuff!
3. Spock’s Beard: Octane; X
4. Yo -Yo Ma and Silk Road Ensemble: Journeys; Enchantment
5. Paul Simon: Graceland
6. David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
7. Frank Sinatra: Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session
8. Lou Harrison: In Memory; The Music of Lou Harrison; Gamelan Music; Lou Harrison for Strings.

Eclectic, huh? So, what are YOU listening to for pleasure?

Barefoot Conducting: Negotiating the Terrain

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When I go hiking, I am always aware of the terrain. The very act of walking takes on new meaning.  But while the trip may take some advance planning, the act of hiking rarely requires much extra thought once I start.  I use the instincts of a life on my feet to negotiate the rocks, tree roots and elevation changes.   

But remove the hiking boots and it is a different story altogether.  If you have ever tried walking in nature without shoes, you know what I mean.   Even if you are not a barefoot hiker, you may have experienced this while wading in a creek or lake.  (also afterwards as you gingerly step back towards your shoes).  Every step is a new experience of negotiating the terrain.  Your feet are much more aware of the rocks, sticker bushes and rugged ground, even before you fully step on them.  That’s why you go slow.  Amazingly, the bare foot responds remarkably well to the challenge.

There are many types of terrain for a barefoot musician to consider.  Remember, we are talking from the ground up, so we need to plan ahead a bit. With a little scanning and awareness we can avoid most problems and even have a new sensual and meaningful experience.  In classical music, these elements are written down by the composer, which also makes them a visual element. We must remember, though, that music is essentially a sonic art form.  In the end, we must consider these elements as sound terrain.

Types of musical terrain include:

  • Dynamics (altitude)—the loud and soft of music and the changes in “audible elevation.”
  • Texture (landscape)—the specific combinations of instruments or voice and their relationship to each other.
  • Articulation (terrain changes)—how short or long notes are.  Also how they relate to other notes.
  • Range (vistas)—the sweep of a melody.  Can be relatively smooth (plains) or quite jagged with many leaps (mountains), and everything in between.
  • Harmony (flora and fauna)—the chords underlying the piece and the pace at which they change. Also the regularity with which they occur or surprise us. 
  • Tempo (heart rate)—The speed and variations.  The pulse of the music.
  • Meter and Rhythm (stride)—the “time factor.”  How notes relate in a myriad of ways to each other.  Of utmost importance to the “barefoot conductor.”

These elements make up a topographical, living map for a piece of music.   And like a good field guide, none of these elements have meaning without relation to the others.  The more time you spend with a particular composer or style, the more you will begin to see commonalities, just like hiking many times in the same region.  It’s like knowing the terrain elements in the Grand Canyon, even if you are hiking a different trail.  (Brahms 4 is this week’s Grand Canyon, by the way).

That brings me back to the concept of hiking.  I’ve mentioned, and you may have experienced, that walking barefoot requires us to slow down.  Often when we hike, there is a destination in mind–the top of the mountain, for example.  We motor on through, perhaps missing quite a lot.  But if we slow down, we might see more elements and with deeper meaning.  We might see the forest and the trees.  If we take off our “boots” we may realize that sauntering is more useful that hiking.  I’ve come to resonate with this quote of John Muir:

Hiking – I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, “A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.

I’m enjoying my saunter through Brahms 4th Symphony.  The concert is in about 10 days.  Then we will present this particular holy land.  Discoveries are possible every step of the way.

 

Copyright 2012, Robert Baldwin