Déjà entendu

A few weeks ago I played the Keyboard 1 book at the Broadway production of Les Miserables for the first time…for the third time.

I’ve been subbing in Broadway pit orchestras for twenty years now; I’ve played for about twenty-five shows. The original production of Les Mis was one of the first I played for, back in 1997 when it was still three hours and twenty minutes long. In 2007 I learned the Keyboard 2 book for the first Broadway revival, with its new orchestration. And now I’m on the sub roster for Les Mis 3.0.

So playing Les Mis is a pretty familiar experience—hence the title of this post, déjà entendu, already heard(by analogy with the more frequently used déjà vu, already seen). What’s interesting, though, is how different it is this time.

Tempos  and pacing are different. The orchestrations are based on those from the 2007 revival, I am given to understand, but not the same. Because the physical layout of the orchestra is different, my experience of those orchestrations is different. In 2007 I was playing Keyboard 2, and could barely hear Keyboard 1; now I’m playing Keyboard 1 and can barely hear Keyboard 2. The conducting styles are different (I’ve played the show under nine different conductors now). When subs are in, you can hear very plainly how playing styles differ from player to player.

This has got me thinking about how the same music can be different to us at different times in our lives. I have grown very fond of Les Mis over the years, from my sporadic perch in the middle of the pit, and I always enjoy playing the show now, although I vividly recall it being a chore to be gotten through twenty years ago. I played a regional production of The Fantasticks this spring, a score whose record album I nearly wore out as a child (those being the days when recorded music had a physical medium), and which I’d played two previous productions of more than twenty-five years ago; the experience was like a kind of double vision.  I was simultaneously experiencing the show as a child, to whom the music was sheer magic, and as an adult and professional musician, who knew how the trick was done.

Sometimes one’s life simply takes you to places where music has different meanings. I wrote a lullaby for soprano Karen Jolicoeur for her CD “The Dream That You Wish,” recorded shortly after her first child was born. My own son was a few years old at the time. She did a lovely job with the song on her CD—but I heard her sing it again a few years later, when her son was about the age mine had been when I wrote the song. The piece obviously meant something completely different to her than it had when she’d recorded it; the performance was transcendent.

Thus far I’ve been talking about the experience of performing music; what about simply listening to it? (As if there were such a thing as “simply listening.”) For me, anyway, the question only applies to music that you know inside and out—that you’ve worn out the record of, whether literally or figuratively—and then for some reason not heard for several years. Sometimes it turns out your memory is wrong, and that’s not how it goes. (A literary digression—I reread Watership Down after a hiatus of decades, and one of the scenes I remembered most vividly was simply not there. WTF?) Sometimes you’ve simply outgrown a piece; in my case, a lot of the Beethoven piano sonatas I  loved as a kid seem overwrought and/or sentimental to me now. And sometimes the memories of liking the music get in the way of actually listening to it again. Human beings are complicated.

The difference between playing music over and over and listening to music over and over is that I’ve never had anyone offer to pay me to listen to the same music repeatedly. For that you have to be a sound board operator; maybe that’s why they turn everything up so loud…

Oh, the noise, noise, noise, noise, noise, noise, noise

In the tropics, the year is divided into the dry season and the rainy season. In my New York apartment, it’s divided into the quiet season and the noisy season.

We live on a major thoroughfare that is a) a truck route and b) downstream from a fire station. We’re on the first floor, on a corner a few yards away from a kosher supermarket and a really good Italian restaurant. The former gives us trucks idling while they unload; the latter, large parties of diners saying their goodbyes before heading home for the evening. With the windows closed, all of that becomes an easily ignorable susurration; when the weather is too warm to keep the windows closed but not hot enough for air conditioning, however, all of those noises are in the apartment with us. In the quiet season, my wife and I can carry on a conversation between rooms; in the noisy season, that’s often only possible if we shout. When an emergency vehicle goes by our building, sirens blaring, conversation literally has to cease until it’s a few blocks away.

The occasional sonically violent interruption (like sirens) interrupts composing or practicing, although mercifully not for long. More disruptive is the occasional ongoing noise: one of the stores across the street power-washed their awning for a couple of hours last week. A couple days later, our super did the same to the sidewalk outside our building. In each of those cases I simply had to stop what I was doing until the work outside was done; it was impossible to concentrate. Making recordings in the apartment is usually not a good idea, obviously. What’s more, listening to recorded classical music, with its wide dynamic range, is also not usually particularly satisfying, as the quiet moments are swallowed up by the background noise.

I’m not writing this just to complain (although it kinda feels good to get it off my chest), but to bring up the question of what impact noise has on us as musicians and composers. City dwellers, in particular, are surrounded by high levels of unwanted sound on a daily basis (I doubt that composer Alex Shapiro, who lives on an island off the West Coast, has these problems as regularly).

Even if your apartment is more fortunately situated than mine, you’re going to be assaulted the moment you step outside. There are only a few of the major streets that ban trucks. Take the subway? The sound of a train roaring into a station exceeds OSHA safety levels. Motorcycle engines are even louder in city canyons than on the open road, as the sound bounces between buildings and comes at you from all directions. And that’s not mentioning the bizarre sociopathy exhibited by those who install concert-caliber speaker systems in their cars and drive them around vibrating innocent peoples’ innards.

Many city dwellers seem to cope with this by surrounding themselves in a cocoon of their own music, with earbuds or headphones glued to their skulls. Of course, to be able to hear the music over the ambient noise, it has to be turned up to a volume that is certainly damaging their hearing—on many occasions I’ve heard music leaking from someone else’s headphones that was loud enough to listen to on its own.

You can treat all this as a particularly raucous extended performance of John Cage’s 4’33”, of course, and sometimes I do. Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned here somewhere; distractions are rampant for those doing creative work, and this is just one more type. Keeping distractions from mushrooming into taking over our lives is the challenge of being creative in the real world.

Besides, noise is in the ear of the beholder. I leave you with this old, old joke: Two friends were sitting in the park. It was a lovely evening, and the lusty sounds of birdsong filled the air. One friend said to the other, “Aren’t the birds lovely?” The second replied, “I can’t hear you over all the damn birds!”

A Matter of Style

When I was a baby composer, just entering the Cleveland Institute of Music, one of my primary musical ambition was to learn to write music in “all different styles.” As a budding musical theatre fanatic, I had noticed that many of the shows by my heroes had songs in different styles—a tango here, a hoedown there, a bossanova, an Andrews Sisters-type song, a waltz—and I wanted to be able to do the same thing.

The composition department at CIM was all about art music, though, and, being a good student, I instead threw myself into those challenges. The word “style” did not apply to individual song types; instead it was a matter of finding one’s own individual style, one’s own compositional voice. That process begins with imitation of composers and pieces one admires; the idea is that one then explores out from there to eventually claim a little piece of stylistic turf to plant a flag on.

Even at the time (the early 1980s), one had to look awfully hard to find a stylistic patch that didn’t already have someone’s flag planted on it. In the subsequent thirty years, as the number of composers has increased, it’s become well-nigh impossible. The analogy with our nearly-fully-explored planet seems pretty accurate to me; it’s not that there aren’t unsettled areas, but they’re either extremely hard to get to or not any place you’d want to live.

It’s pretty much guaranteed that any music a composer writes now will be derivative of something; the only question is what. Some composers are turning to open assimilation of disparate influences. Mashing up two different styles that no one else has thought of mashing up before is the functional equivalent of finding your own turf—your music will sound different than everyone else’s (for a while). Some have avowed that the entire world of musical style is their oyster, and they can and will pick and choose musical style elements from anywhere. Even the ironic distance that used to be de rigeur for such quoting seems to be no longer necessary. Perhaps this has been influenced by the rise of sampling in pop music—it’s been okay to base your music on someone else’s for a couple of decades now.

So I guess I was just a few years early wanting to become a master of pastiche (the craft of writing in a style not one’s own). I’m left wondering what the difference is, if any, between the approach I grew up admiring in the musical theatre scores of the 60s and 70s and this post-postmodern globalization of musical style. Certainly the questions of colonialism and the ethics of appropriation that one sometimes hears “classical” composers fretting over never seem to have made it onto the radar in the world of musical theatre, so maybe there is some difference behind the scenes, as it were.

All these years later, when I do write musical theatre, it tends to be pastiche of various pop styles (see the demo for the musical All About The Kids that I’m slowly working on with Erik Johnke, if you’re interested). And while I don’t overtly (at least consciously) borrow stylistic elements, I’m not above borrowing a tune from somewhere else. Later this year Margaret Leng Tan will be performing her terrific dramatization of my piece for toy piano and toys Twinkle, Dammit! An Obsessive Variation on a Well-Known Children’s Song on a music festival in Singapore. Here’s the video of her premiere performance of the piece on the 1st International Toy Piano Festival in New York a couple of years ago:

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Good Night, Sweet Theatre

Tonight is the opening performance of The Fantasticks at the Music Theatre of Connecticut (MTC) in Westport, CT. I’m the music director of the show; I’ll be playing the piano.

It’s another opening of another show—but it’s the last show that will be performed in this rather unusual space. In the fall MTC will be moving to larger quarters a couple of miles away. Larger? How much larger? Well, the new theatre will seat 120. The current one seats: 45.

Kevin Connors and Jim Schilling, who run MTC, have been putting on shows in that space for 25 years. (I’ve music directed eleven of them.) Despite the fact that it’s a black box carved out of the basement of a bank; despite the fact that there are only two rows of seats, and in some of them you have to turn your head sideways to see the stage; and despite the fact that the room is irregularly shaped, so that not all the stage is visible from all the seats, it’s a theatre, a real theatre. It has the feel of a theatre; it’s something that soaks into the walls somehow. It’s a kind of a sacred space. If you’re lucky enough to be the first one into an empty theatre before a rehearsal or show, you can feel the presence of audiences, of performances, of emotions, of stories. Please note that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool secular humanist godless atheist liberal skeptic—but I’ll make an exception in the case of empty theatres. Just because I don’t believe in ghosts doesn’t mean they’re not there.

This show actually has a ghost light onstage as part of the preset. (A ghost light is a light bulb in a cage on a stand, placed on an empty stage overnight so that the first person onstage in the morning can find his or her way around.) For me a ghost light makes this sense of presence tangible; it’s the genius loci of a theatre.

I was music director for the first production in that space, in 1987. It was Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. The director (who shall remain nameless; it wasn’t Kevin or Jimmy) thought it would be an effective idea to have the cast sing “The Desperate Ones” in complete darkness. I learned to play the song without being able to see the music or the keyboard, and that’s how we performed it. At least until one claustrophobic member of the audience one night complained about the fact that there was no “Exit” sign above the door. The Westport fire department came visiting, and discovered that, in addition to the lack of an “Exit” sign, there were numerous other fire safety violations about the new facility, including the lack of an additional fire exit from the building. Kevin and Jimmy were given a choice: cancel the rest of the run, or pay to have a uniformed firefighter in the lobby for each of the remaining performances. That’s what they chose; and then the subsequent production was postponed while they hired a contractor to construct the new fire exit.

That was the beginning of that space’s life as a theatre; besides Jacques Brel, I was present to add to the memories with revues on the songs of Rodgers & Hart, Sondheim, and Cole Porter (twice!); Yours, Anne, the Anne Frank musical (really); a stripped-down version of Cabaret with eight actors; Kevin’s own Mothers and Sons; Pete ‘n’ Keely; The Story of My Life; and Next to Normal, for which I led the world’s quietest rock band. (The drummer played with brushes most of the time.)

We’re doing 15 performances of The Fantasticks; we’ll be entertaining a maximum of 45 x 15 = 675 people. Those performances will be added to the walls, and then—the theatre will be turned into something else, we don’t know what. Will the ghosts stay on? Who knows? I’ve never been in a former theatre before (that I know of). The new space will have to start accumulating its own in the fall. I hope to be there.

It’s the performer, stupid!

Music isn’t what composers make. Music is what performers make.

Even the score to a proven crowd-pleaser like, say, Ravel’s Bolero isn’t very entertaining all by itself. (Piles of paper rarely are, unless they’re on fire.) What you’ve got there in that pile of paper is a blueprint for music. Even those composers who create fixed-media works are in the same boat, even though it’s a mechanical or electronic player that does the performing: watching a CD sit on a desk is flat boring, and watching an mp3 file sit on a hard drive even more so.

Not an original or even a new idea, but I have been thinking about this since seeing a stunning performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s song cycle Pierrot Lunaire last night by soprano Sara Paar and a very fine group of instrumentalists. Pierrot Lunaire is the piece that introduced sprechstimme, a half-sung, half-spoken version of vocal performance that derived from German cabaret. It is on everyone’s list of the most important pieces of music of the 20th century, but it’s more respected (and studied) than it is beloved. At least, that was how I felt about it—until I saw Sara perform it.

The only other performance of this I’d seen live was, seemingly all about counting. Others I’ve heard on recording seemed to emphasize the strangeness of the music, as if to say, “See how good I am, that I’m performing such complicated, eerie, obscure music!”  Sara, however, committed to the material totally, face, body, voice and soul, as did her ensemble, and it was absolutely riveting. It was a fantastically rewarding experience, and I’d have to say that whatever time and effort Arnold put into writing the thing a century ago was well worth it for this performance alone. For me, this is now what Pierrot Lunaire is—not the score, but this performance, which the score made possible. Rather than Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, as performed by Sara Paar, it’s now Sara Paar’s Pierrot Lunaire, as composed by Arnold Schoenberg.

This notion that a piece of music “belongs” to the person who wrote the notes down on paper is a peculiar legacy of the 19th century, still alive in our little corner of the arts world, but almost nowhere else. I’m happy to have my name on the piles of paper—but I try not to pretend I’m making music when I put the little dots and lines down.

Last spring I wrote texts and music for a miniature (5-minute) song cycle, Escape/Delete/Space/Enter/Home. I was writing very much with the performer in mind; it has a limited vocal range, easy, totally transposable piano parts, and texts written to be applicable to nearly anyone’s personal experience—ready to be filled in with the performer’s own subtext. I performed them recently with baritone Andrew White. If you like, you can have your computer perform for you Andy’s and my performance of the pile of paper I put dots on.

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Scandal!

It’s not often that we get a full-blown scandal involving a classical-music composer, but the strange revelations about Japanese “composer” Mamoru Samuragochi (as reported recently in this New York Times article) definitely qualify. Apparently Mr. Samuragochi, a well-known and even beloved figure in the Japanese music world, admitted that most of his music for the last couple of decades had been composed by someone else. It turned out that this was because this ghostwriter (ghostcomposer?), Takashi Niigaki, had told his story to a tabloid. The ostensible reason? One of Japan’s Olympic figure skaters is skating to one of…their…pieces.

This is far worse than a plagiarism issue, such as the one that briefly roiled Osvaldo Golijov’s career a few years back. It’s an entire career that’s being exposed as misattributed, not just one piece. Adding to the shock, Niigaki let drop that Samuragochi has only been pretending to be deaf (the comparisons with Beethoven had not been lacking, apparently).

As reprehensible as all this is, I find myself wondering about the music. Obviously, it’s pretty good stuff—or, at least, a lot of people like it. (I’m not going near that question with a ten-foot pole, at least not today.) To what extent does our knowledge of the composer influence our reception of the music? If it’s a good piece of music, it’s a good piece of music no matter who wrote it, right? We still hum “Brahms’ Lullaby” to our kids, even though it’s pretty common knowledge now that Brahms probably didn’t write it. Somebody wrote all those pieces in Haydn’s catalog now labeled “doubtful.” Most of the world thinks of pop songs as having been written by the people who sang them, rather than the people who wrote them. If it were to be proven, as I’ve heard asserted, that the “Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach” was actually written by Anna Magdalena Bach rather than J. S. Bach, it would still be a pretty good bunch of easy piano pieces, wouldn’t it?

Why do I think, though, that rather than all of Samuragochi’s music being reissued with Niigaki’s name on it, the music will just be…disappeared? Why do I think that, rather than being hailed as the real genius composer, Niigaki will be reviled? The issues of authenticity will completely overwhelm any questions about the value of the music, and I find that kind of sad.

Another interesting aspect of this story is: wait, Japan has a superstar classical composer? Such a thing still exists? The online comments on the Times article were really reaching to try and find comparisons; one imagined Philip Glass revealing he hadn’t written his own music, another Stevie Wonder adding to a similar revelation the fact that he wasn’t really blind. I can’t really think of a living American composer working in a classical idiom who has the kind of visibility the Times article implies; John Williams might be the closest thing.

I do hope someone eventually turns this into an opera. It certainly sounds like an opera plot. Apparently Samuragochi kept Niigaki continuing with the fraud by threatening to commit suicide—what an aria that would make!

For anyone wanting to hear the music, here’s Samuragochi, I mean Niigaki’s Symphony #1:

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Something Borrowed

A very interesting article by Alex Temple on NewMusicBox.org (and the vigorous discussion that follows it) deals with the questions surrounding “borrowed” musical materials. The point is made pretty early on that all musical materials are borrowed, particularly at this late date. Whether you’re writing European modernist music or neotonal music, or just plain tonal music, or borrowing from a non-European musical culture, or pop music, someone else used those vocabularies first. The frenzied quest for the creation of a completely personal idiom seems to have been largely abandoned, and no wonder—it’s like looking for undiscovered territory in Manhattan. There actually are a couple of spots in Central Park from which you can’t see buildings, at least in the summer when the trees have leaves, but there are still gum wrappers on the ground. Someone has been there first. It’s the combination of influences and materials that makes the individual voice these days.

This article was fresh in my mind when I went this afternoon to a concert by Max Lifschitz’s highly esteemed group North/South Consonance. It included a couple of tonal works by young composers. The vocabularies used were extremely familiar, and, frankly, the pieces were not very interesting. The first on the concert was by a composer for whom the use of tonal materials was apparently a major departure, and it reminded me forcibly of the type of piano pieces I used to write when I was in high school; the same chord progressions, the same innately repetitive and overly repeated theme. The second sounded like an excerpt from a film score—I’m sure someone more versed in film music than I could have pinpointed the influences. (The two other pieces on the concert, both more dissonant and by older composers, were much more successful.)

Neither of the tonal pieces made use of the full textural palette of the instrumental forces playing them. Neither of them had much in the way of surprise. It made me wonder if the use of too-familiar materials makes it more difficult to engage the audience, in that the balance between recognition and surprise so central to the experience of music is skewed as soon as the piece starts. Of course, we’re engaged by familiar materials when we hear a piece of 18th- or 19th-century music we haven’t heard before, so perhaps there are questions of authenticity in play here as well. But it’s as though these composers, having decided to write music in tonal vocabularies, thought that that would take care of making their pieces fun to listen to. Unfortunately, if you’re going to write tonal music, you need to find some other way to surprise your audience other than with your harmonic materials.

I’m not attempting to be prescriptivist here; I draw from familiar tonal vocabularies a lot. Seventeen Windows, my suite of short piano pieces (available, ahem, on CD or for download from Albany Records), does it often quite consciously; Window XI is marked “Rock and Roll!” as the tempo marking, and the opening rhythm was stolen from a Queen song. Windows V and XV are both based on my memories of playing Chopin as a kid. Window XIV is a tribute to big band jazz. My piece for string orchestra and soprano, Deep Woods: The Unicorn Sings to Memory (on a text by Peter S. Beagle), is as tonal as it gets.

While I’m a big fan of the crumbling of the hegemony of dissonance and “difficult” idioms in concert music, I think it may even be harder to write a good, interesting, memorable 21st-century tonal piece than it is to write a dissonant one. If nothing else, there are far more cliches to steer clear of.

 

 

Once

Once.

That’s how many times any given member of an audience will hear any given piece of new music. Not twice, not three times, and four times is right out. Once.

Many, if not most pieces of new concert music are played exactly once. If the same performers do play the piece again, it will likely be before a different audience; new music ensembles don’t tend to recycle the same material—they are, after all, new music ensembles, and their audiences come to hear something new.

The reason I bring this up is that it’s the holidays again, and venturing out into a public place means you’re going to hear holiday songs, the same holiday songs that you’ve been hearing every December since you were a kid. Not only the same songs, but usually the same recordings. You know the ones I mean. How many hundreds of times have we heard these songs? We know every vocal inflection, every chord change, every orchestrational flourish. And they are sticky. They are to regular earworms what the giant sandworms of Dune are to regular terrestrial worms. No matter how good the tunes are, after the three-hundredth time they lose a lot of their appeal; to (ahem) some of us, they lose so much their appeal seeps down into the negative numbers.

Those songs are a large part of why I do a lot of my holiday shopping online—you don’t have to hear the songs if you don’t go in the stores! (I wonder if anyone has done a study of whether the rise in online retailing has contributed to a drop in Bing Crosby-related violence. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.)

Pop songs are written to be heard once—or at least to be entirely comprehensible on the first hearing. Why isn’t new concert music?

There is classical music we’ve all heard dozens of times. Beethoven symphonies; Mozart sonatas. Verdi and Puccini arias. Most of us have had the experience of falling in love with a piece of music and listening to the recording over and over. (Today’s kids will never know the pleasure of playing a record so much that it wears out, or a cassette tape so much that it breaks. Try that with an mp3 file. Ha! But I digress.) The best music rewards that, whether pop or otherwise.

But I doubt there’s a piece written in the last 50 years that’s in the remotest danger of becoming a chestnut. (I’d be happy to be proven wrong!)

Composers listen to their work over and over as it takes shape, if only in their heads. Performers grow intimately familiar with a piece of music while preparing to perform it (hopefully). I wonder if sometimes both groups forget that the audience is going to hear the piece…once.

That’s not music! …is it?

A few weeks ago the vocal group Ekmeles performed a piece of mine on a concert of vocal music by Rutgers composers. (Yes, I am currently pursuing a doctoral degree in composition at Rutgers, so for the next few years, whatever other kind of composer I may be, I am also a “Rutgers composer”).

They’re an excellent group of performers, so when I got a chance last Friday night I went to hear them do a concert at the DiMenna Center here in New York. It was billed as a concert of music by 21st-century composers. I talked my friends Albert and Josephine (not their real names) into coming with me, having told them that the group had done a terrific job with the Rutgers composers’ music.

It turned out that the musical materials for most of the pieces on the concert were not actually singing, as such. These composers were working with mouth noises, breathing sounds, hissing, popping, and the like. What pitched singing there was was largely unmelodic: drones, pitched gestures of rapid gibberish. The one exception was a piece by Elliott Carter, most famous for his extraordinarily difficult string quartets; it says a great deal that the Carter was the most conservative piece of music on the program. This was more hard-core modern than I had expected, and some quick glances sideways told me that Albert and Josephine were…not having a good time.

The concert was about 90 minutes long, no intermission. Afterwards I greeted and congratulated the members of Ekmeles while Albert and Josephine waited, and then as soon as we had left the building I asked them what they’d thought. They were good-natured about it, but let’s just say I’ll be living down that concert for a long time; the word “bad” came up several times, as did the phrase “that’s not music!” Imitations of some prominent moments were attempted. Hilarity ensued.

My own reaction was different. While my own music is far more conservative in its materials—excuse me, stresses continuity with the European concert music tradition—I enjoy listening to the hard stuff, in this instance far more than the next guy. Ekmeles did a phenomenal job with these scores—they were energetic, precise and entirely committed. That said, I probably wouldn’t have programmed all five of those pieces on the same concert; I don’t care how avant-garde your tastes are, it takes more concentration to listen to something that makes its own language as it goes than it does to listen to something in a language you already speak. While the musical vocabularies common to classical music listeners may have crept up over the past half-century to include Schoenberg, Webern, maybe Messiaen, maybe Tan Dun, and of course Reich and Glass and all their children, this kind of music is still far over the border. By the last piece on the concert, my attention was flagging.

Interestingly, Josephine is from the dance world, and regularly sits through concerts featuring the music of John Cage and his cohorts. I would have figured that not much would faze her. Perhaps there’s something about the expectation of hearing singers that sets the musical palate differently than a pitful of electronic gear.

Music that’s a little different from what you know strikes you as new. Music that’s radically different from what you know strikes you as alien. With musical sub-cultures and sub-sub-cultures spread out along the spectrum in several different dimensions, how on earth could anyone possibly program a concert that “people will like”? Is it a good idea to try? By and large, audiences will self-select for the type of music they want to listen to; Albert and Josephine stumbled into a sonic world that was alien to them through no fault of their own. I will readily admit to having sat through concerts that left me similarly alienated, although on principle I would never say “that isn’t music.” That phrase has been wielded too venomously at too much music that is now revered. But it’s probably all right to whisper in the privacy of your own skull: “That isn’t music—to me.”

Look, Ma! One hand!

For a little over two months, I was a one-handed man.

About two years ago I developed arthritis in the basal joint of my left thumb. Soon after that, my right thumb followed suit. Over the course of the next few months, daily activities and playing the piano became uncomfortable, and eventually painful. I saw doctors. I tried therapies: splints, ice, cold laser, acupuncture. And then, at the end of last July, all other options exhausted, I had surgery on my left thumb.

The jaw-breaking name of the surgery is “trapeziectomy with ligament reconstruction and tendon interposition,” arthroplasty for short. I have been assured that in another few weeks my hand will be back to where it was before the surgery, and in six months to a year I will have, as one friend of mine put it, “The left thumb of a 20-year-old.” I do have limited use of my left hand already, and I have even begun playing the piano again for a few minutes a day. I can tell that the joint pain is gone; the swelling and healing pain is in the process of fading away. I’m very much looking forward to having the use of both hands again — at least until it’s time to do the surgery on the other hand.

But in the intervening time — in the last 10 weeks — I have been living the life of a one-handed man. This has been a bit of an eye-opener. I was lucky enough (this time) to have the use of my dominant hand; and I was surprised how much I was, in fact, able to do once I got the cast off. It’s turns out that a great deal of what I use my left hand for, besides playing the piano, of course, can be accomplished by the heel of a hand, or a strategically placed elbow, foot, or knee. Gripping of an object so the right hand can work with it can be done with an armpit or between the thighs, or in desperate circumstances the teeth. It turns out that everything I keep in both of my pants pockets will fit quite nicely into one. Shirts don’t really need to be buttoned or unbuttoned all the way, and they can be taken off and put on like pullovers. The right pair of tennis shoes can become slip-ons. And so on. The one thing that I absolutely could not do turned out to be: rolling up my right sleeve. On days on which the weather started sufficiently chilly to be wearing a long-sleeved shirt but turned warmer later, you could see me with one sleeve rolled up and the other one, well, not rolled up.

Shortly after I came to New York a quarter-century ago, I got a job as the music director for a performance by the New York Theater Workshop for the Handicapped. The director of the group, whose name I unfortunately do not remember this many years later, was a one-handed priest; one of his arms ended just above the elbow. I remember wondering how he managed his life; even more than some of the wheelchair-bound or blind people in the group, his disability seemed fearsome to me at the time. Now I have some idea.

Strangely, there is no piano literature for the right hand alone as there is for the left, or I might have attempted it. As it is, my musical activities were confined to composing, arranging, and copying, all of which, insofar as they involve the computer, turned out to be more or less adaptable to my single-handed state. I was even able to compete in the Iron Composer competition two weeks after I got my cast off; as it turned out, I did indeed overdo with my left hand that day, even though I was trying to keep its use to a minimum. In the adrenaline of the competition, I apparently didn’t notice; the swelling had started to go down, but the next day it swelled right back up like a puffer fish. (It was worth it.)

I consider myself very lucky to have had a few musical things to do during my recovery period.  I suspect I’m not alone among my fellow musicians in feeling that my identity is somewhat bound up in my ability to play. But one group I work with hired me to lead rehearsals and actually hired a pianist to play for me; I was able to do an arrangement for a singer’s recording, using the computer one-handed; and I was able to copy a short piece for a fellow composer, with my ability to argue about notational questions intact.

I have a very vivid memory of one episode of the sitcom “M*A*S*H,” in which Major Winchester chooses to repair the leg instead of the hand of an unconscious soldier who turns out to be a concert pianist. When he finds out his error, Maj. Winchester somehow sends away for a copy of the Ravel left-hand concerto, in order to prove to the soldier that even though he no longer has the ability to play as he once did, he still has the gift of being a musician, to be exercised “through the baton, the classroom — the pen!” I will, in due time, be able to play again as well as I ever did, thanks to a surgery that did not exist as recently as 15 years ago. A moment of bowed heads for all my fellow musicians, past and present, who have found themselves unable to play and not as lucky as I.