seventeen windows

On Failure

Last week I attempted to scuba dive for the first time. It did not go well.

I’ve gotten to snorkel a few times in my life, and always found it fascinating. If I’d grown up a couple of decades later, amidst the burgeoning amount of underwater photography and video of recent times, I’d probably have gone through an “I want to be a marine biologist when I grow up!” phase, as so many kids today seem to. So the one-day “resort course” in scuba seemed a natural way to use a day on a recent family vacation. The course consists of a two-hour class and then a short dive.

The class starts with a video with basic information and safety rules: Don’t touch the coral. Don’t EVER hold your breath. You’ll need to pop your ears on the way down to equalize the pressure in the air spaces in your head, but it’ll take care of itself on the way back up. Here’s how you adjust your buoyancy, but for this short course you’re not going to do it yourself, the instructor is. Did we mention don’t ever hold your breath?

Then into the pool for the practical part of the course: put on a wetsuit. Get strapped into the harness with the air tank. Practice breathing through the regulator. Learn a few of the underwater hand signals: thumbs up means go up; thumbs down means go down; waggling a hand as if to say “only so-so” means there’s a problem; the okay sign means everything’s okay. Practice clearing water out of the face mask by blowing out hard through your nose. Practice retrieving the regulator if you lose it. (This was the biggest surprise of the class to me: you have to keep the regulator in your mouth by clenching it there. I’d have thought it was strapped on somehow.)

All of that successfully concluded, we went to lunch, and reconvened at the dock a couple of hours later. We were only one of several dive groups going to the same spot on a local reef; as the beginners, we’d be the last ones off the boat. We’d also be descending by rappelling (more or less) down the boat’s mooring rope, so that the instructor knew exactly where we’d be.

The moment comes. Giant stride off the back of the boat, while holding the mask in place, just like in the movies. Swim around to the front of the boat where the mooring line is. Start down the rope; the underwater vista maybe 30 or 40 feet below is breathtaking and tantalizing. Hand over hand down the rope, popping my ears. Popping my ears: pinch the nose and force air into the Eustachian tubes. Wait, it’s not working. My ears aren’t popping. What the hell? Every time I try and blow into my ears, the air just comes out my mouth. I can’t just stop and figure it out; the rest of the party is halfway down the rope. The instructor looks up at me; I waggle my hand and point to my ear. He swims up and surfaces with me and “suggests” I head back to the boat. I do.

Drying off and waiting for the rest of the divers to come back, I figure out that, having internalized the instruction to never, ever hold my breath while scuba diving, I  somehow convinced myself not to close my glottis while trying to pop my ears, which of course made it completely ineffective. Glumly sitting wrapped in a towel, I decide that if I can somehow make an analogy to something musical, I can get a blog post out of this, and it won’t have been a complete humiliating waste of time.

So here’s the analogy: The pool portion of the course had us practice everything required for the dive—except popping our ears, because there’s no way to do that in the pool. And who needs training for that, anyway? It comes naturally, right? This reminded me, without too much forcing, of music school, where we who trained as composers were taught an awful lot of skills—but not how to build a career. Networking comes naturally, right?

For some people it does. Composers, like other types of writers and like many performing musicians, tend to be people who are very comfortable alone in a room for long stretches of time, and possibly not as comfortable, say, approaching strangers at receptions. This has certainly been my experience. However, networking turns out to be the primary ingredient in getting all the way underwater to an actual career.

I didn’t get another chance to dive and salvage my pride—the weather turned nasty, and there were no more opportunities on that vacation. Perhaps there will be others later. Chances to network come more frequently, though, and the definition of success is blurrier. If you see me at a post-concert reception holding my nose, chances are I’ll be trying to pop my ears.

(Speaking of success: one reviewer so far has recommended my CD Seventeen Windows, which was released last month by Albany Records. You can read the recommendation here. (The CD is also available from Amazon.com and iTunes.))

Compromise

I’m middle aged.

That means, among other things, that my eyes are not what they once were. Mind you, my eyes were never what they once were; I got my first pair of glasses at the age of eight, and have since taken them off only for sleep, hygiene, sex and eye exams. But three years ago, in a rite of passage, it became inescapably evident that I needed near-field as well as distance vision, and after trying progressive lens (which made me seasick when I tried to play the piano) and alternating two pairs of glasses (which was a royal pain in the butt), I settled on executive-style bifocals with an extra-high dividing line, so I could see a whole page of sheet music through the bottom lens.

This last month, though, I got myself a pair of Superfocus glasses. These are high-tech glasses with an adjustable focus—you move a little slider on the bridge of the glasses and it actually changes the focal length. Slide to the right, and your computer monitor comes into focus. Further to the right, and you can read the tiny print at the end of the contract. To the left, and it’s long-distance vision—you can read the sign in the window of the store across the street. More importantly for me, at the right position on the slider I can see a whole page of sheet music on the music rack of a grand piano without having to crane my neck to get the bottom part of the bifocals in the right position. It sounds miraculous. And it is. …but.

As it turns out, there are some significant drawbacks. Chief among these is the fact that I, at least, switch my focus from near to far or vice versa far, far more than I had any idea I did. Sit at the computer, get up to walk across the room (slide slider), go to look in the fridge (slide slider), look at the clock across the room (slide slider), read the newspaper while you’re eating your snack (slide slider)… and on and on. Every time I look at my smartphone it requires an adjustment of the slider if I’ve been looking at something else. Every time I get up from a near focus task and walk across the room to do another near focus task, I have to adjust my vision twice. With bifocals, that’s automatic.

Besides that, there are several situations I’ve found myself in where these glasses simply do not work at all. In rehearsal: I need to shift rapidly between my sheet music and actors across the theatre. In the classroom: I need to shift rapidly between my notes or a score and the teacher. On the couch: I need to shift rapidly between the remote and the TV screen.

I have four days left on the thirty-day money-back guarantee on these. I’ve been waffling pretty badly; on the one hand, inconveniences listed above; on the other, all the inconveniences of bifocals that led me to try the Superfocus glasses in the first place (the line in the middle of your visual field, the conversations with people who stand too close to you to look out of the bottom lenses but too far away to see using the top lenses, the need to move reading material to the exact right distance from the lens). Nothing’s perfect. I can keep both of them (and probably will), but then I’ll have all the inconveniences of having to switch between two pairs of glasses!

In the last couple of weeks I’ve also finished mixing my upcoming CD (Seventeen Windows for solo piano and Sonata for Cello and Piano, performed by Jenny Lin and Laura Bontrager), and played for the film version of my short operaMaya’s Ark. Each of these processes has involved similar decisions between imperfect solutions. For the CD, the take with the best rhythm has the pitch a little off. For the film, the take with the best visual has a big honking wrong entrance by one of the singers (or a big honking missed note by yours truly on piano, to be fair). On the CD, those decisions are done, for better or for worse; for the film, they’re still to come. For the CD, I was making them myself; for the film, I’ll be sharing the decisions with two directors. It makes me wonder whether every CD, every movie, has compromises in it that only its author is aware of.

Perhaps my projects would be perfect too, if only I had a bigger budget and more time. More likely, they’re like my aging eyes: the best they can be given the resources I have.

Listen Different

I’m in the midst of mixing and editing the recordings of my Sonata for Cello and Piano and Seventeen Windows for solo piano that will constitute my first commercially released CD, coming out from Albany Records next spring. Jenny Lin (piano) and Laura Bontrager (cello) are the tremendous performers.

All this is happening at PPI Recording Studios, in collaboration with the knowledgeable, highly-skilled and extremely patient Chip Fabrizi, PPI’s owner/engineer. I’ve been recording and mixing with Chip for nearly twenty-five years; we’ve done dozens of demos, both of my music and others’, a couple of full-blown cast recordings and handful of other projects of various sorts. Probably the strangest was the production of my tracks for a big-headed-costumed-character show that played at a now-defunct amusement park in Massachusetts called Riverside Park. The show was called “Country Critter Jamboree,” and to this day, Chip greets me when I enter his studio with a hearty “It’s Mr. Critter!” (Those tracks have, alas, been lost to posterity.)

The only people who have heard the mixes-in-progress are Jenny, Laura, Chip and myself. In the course of soliciting their feedback on the mixes, I have found myself marveling at how differently each of us listens. Jenny and Laura’s ears are drawn to imperfections in their playing, which makes sense. Most of what they’ve pointed out I can hear, once it’s been identified for me. But occasionally I sit stumped, listening to measure 148 over and over again, trying to hear what’s wrong with with the pitch of the cello or the precision of the piano.

But it’s Chip’s ears that I’ve found it hardest to get inside. (That makes me sound like a Q-tip, but you know what I mean.) Not only can and does he distinguish among minute variations in reverb, compression and EQ settings, which I can generally hear after a couple of passes, but he listens to the durations of sounds in a way that I’m just beginning to be able to appreciate.

As a pianist, it’s probably understandable that I have this deficiency. By all my training and decades of habit, what happens after a note is sounded is Not My Problem any more. There are lots more notes to play—concentrate on those! But string players, wind players and singers all obsess about what happens between the time the note is started and time it’s ended, and so do engineers. And I’m learning. Who knew that the length of the reverb “tail” affects the sound of the sustain of a long note? Who knew that the width of a stereo pan affects the sensation presence of a high, legato cello line? Who knew you could hear the differences these tiny tweaks make, not just on the beginnings and ends of notes, but on the middles?

I know, now. And there’s lots more listening to do—we’ve done a second round of mixing only on two of the four movements of the cello sonata, with two more and all seventeen of theWindows to go. I also know, though, that when it’s all over the only things I’ll be able to hear at all are the tiny little things we couldn’t fix: an intonation that was slightly off in the same place in all three takes; the spot where I had to choose between a wrong note and and the players not being quite together; the spot where I should have asked for one more take during the recording session.

With any luck all anyone else will hear is music. I’ll let you know when the CD is available.

 

Hidden Treasures

I grew up in the 70s, when Pong was a novelty, and then was followed in quick succession by Asteroids, Frogger, Galaga and their brethren, all games that you had to go to an arcade to play, on a dedicated machine the size of a washer/dryer combo. I loved them. I was saved from addiction only by the facts that 1)I had too many other things I liked doing too and 2) I wasn’t very good at them.

My fourteen-year-oldson has neither of those handicaps, and so he spent large chunks of the summer playing a pair of computer games called “Portal” and “Portal 2.” Toward the end of August, he inveigled me into sitting down to play through it myself—with him beside me, so that rather than the wandering explorations that I understand are typical of the genre now, I had more of a guided tour.

This isn’t the place for a detailed explanation of or exegesis on the games; suffice it to say that they are involving, beautiful and narrative-driven. I was surprised at how much. They’re first and foremost puzzle games, so in between the narrative elements are long stretches of puzzles of increasing complexity. They’re not complex narratives compared to, say, a novel, or even a good dramatic movie. They reminded me more of Broadway musicals, where  plot has to be relatively simple to accommodate musical numbers (the puzzle sequences in this case).

But what stays with you are the characters, and the little touches, many of them only obvious only on repeat play (but which were pointed out to me by my helpful tour guide), which hint at a larger world outside the confines of the game, and tie its various parts together. These were plentiful enough and rich enough that they started to remind me of musical structures, where one aspect of a piece has significance only because you’ve heard it before and were not expecting to hear it again (or were). A hint dropped early on in the game turns out to be important at the end. A recurring theme is transformed into something unexpected, which drives the plot in an entirely new direction. The climactic scene is a recapitulation of an early confrontation (just like Beethoven!), and the denouement sequence (or coda, if you will) recalls elements from both games, including scenes that you would only see if you spent time exploring the gameworld off of the path that leads you to completing the prescribed goal.

As a time art, though, video games have the handicap that the authors can’t really control the flow of time, since they have to allow indefinite time for the player to complete the puzzles at their own pace. (In my case, that usually involved my character’s dying several times on each level and having to start over.) Still, if you take the time to get to know the game inside out, as my son did, and can hold the whole thing in your mind at once (as musicians do with a score they know well), it’s obvious that the appreciation of the game holds many of the same rewards offered by music, movies and and other forms as well (illustration? poetry?).

Speaking of holding entire pieces in your head at once, I’m having opportunities this fall to do something I Don’t Usually Do, which is perform my own pieces—excerpts from my solo piano suite Seventeen Windows. Here’s a video of Windows 6 & 5:

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I’ll be performing Windows 1-4 on Sunday October 9th at 1 pm as part of the Composers Voice concert series at Jan Hus Church (351 East 74th St, NYC). And at 3 pm that same day, soprano Karen Jolicoeur will include my lullaby Like Water on her recital “Turn, Turn, Turn – the cycles of life in song, from the Belle Epoque to the present” at Klavierhaus Concert Hall – 3:00 p.m. 211 W 58th St. NYC Call (212) 245-4535 to reserve your $25 tickets.

Woody & Buzz & Seventeen Windows

I’m undecided whether the inevitable tasks of promoting one’s own music are more or less difficult than the composing itself. Certainly I’ve found myself at various points using either activity as an excuse to put off the other. (Right now, for instance, I’m writing a blog entry (which I can justify as promotional because, um, people might read it and then want to listen to my music) rather than actually work on the libretto for my ten-minute opera. Although I do have a title for it—Maya’s Ark—and I know it’s for two singers, a tenor and (probably) a mezzo. And the plot. Sort of. But I digress.)

Last week, though, in the course of following up on a couple of possibilities for getting performances of my suite of short piano pieces, Seventeen Windows, two people asked for recordings of the pieces. Well, I didn’t have recordings; I’ve been holding out for getting a real live concert pianist to perform them.  I’m a pretty good pianist for a theatre pianist; put Sondheim or Jason Robert Brown in front of me at an audition, and I don’t even blanch. But it’s been a lot of years since I’ve actually practiced a concert piece. And while Seventeen Windows isn’t virtuosic by concert standards, and I flatter myself that it’s pretty pianistic, it’s not the kind of thing that falls naturally under my fingers. I didn’t write it for myself to play.

Modern technology to the rescue! I practiced the pieces, three at a time, on my trusty, battle-scarred Baldwin upright, whom you can think of as Woody from Toy Story. Then I moved across the room to the AKAI MPK88 Keyboard MIDI controller (Buzz Lightyear), fired up Logic (my software sequencer of choice), and played them there, doing multiple takes until I got something acceptable. Move to the next three. Repeat.

Then I tweaked the hell out of the resultant MIDI files, making notes louder or softer, making them fall sooner or later, deleting all the tiny little notes I’d inadvertently hit for a tenth of a second on my way to the notes I intended to play. (Those tend to be really soft, and Logic colors soft notes magenta, so they’re easy to find.) In a couple of cases, I just deleted some time, as when I’d been a little hesitant searching for all the notes of a particular chord. Once I brought the tempo up.

The results are…well, hopefully they’re adequate. I didn’t use a click track, even for the pieces which have a steady pulse; it would have made editing a great deal easier, but I wanted to try and give the impression of living, breathing music. What I’ve been having trouble deciding is whether they are performances of the pieces or not. I certainly made interpretive decisions; I did play them, in real time; but those performances aren’t what you’re hearing. (Thank goodness.)

I think rather than performances, these would have to be called interpretations. Interpretation is an integral part of a performance, but it seems that the converse isn’t necessarily true.

If you’d like to listen to any of these interpretations, head on over to the Seventeen Windows page on my website. (If you listen to more than a few, you may get an error message when you try to load one; I’m working on finding out why this is so, but meanwhile, if you navigate away from the page and then back you can continue listening.)

Seventeen Windows Open

So Jenny Lin has “taken delivery” of Seventeen Windows, but confesses she doesn’t know when she’s going to get to perform them. She’s graciously waived her right to the world premiere, freeing me to go look for other performances.

I confess I’m a little ambivalent about this, seeing as how I’d been thinking of her playing them the whole time I was writing them. But okay—does anyone know any pianists who might want to give them a look?

Meanwhile, it turns out that writing music on an airplane is a lot harder than writing lyrics on an airplane. Or maybe my flight just wasn’t long enough…

On Being A Captive Audience

Despite the rejoice-worthy fact that I’ve finally finished the series of short piano pieces I’ve been working on for Jenny Lin for nearly a year and a half (newly titled Seventeen Windows)—despite all that, this week’s post is a cranky bit of ranting.

I’ve had lots of reasons recently to reflect on the experience of being a captive audience. Last weekend, I rode in a jitney to Cooperstown, NY, with the cast and creatives of the musical comedy National Pastime, which we were presenting in a staged reading at the National Baseball Hall of Fame (I was the music director). The bus had a DVD player, and the group enthusiastically endorsed the playing of movies to while away the four-hour trip. The movies weren’t bad—although a tiny screen in a noisy bus isn’t the best venue for a cinematic experience—but I was seething throughout, because the social niceties meant I had no choice but to sit through them.

Then there’s the not-infrequent sinking feeling when the subway car doors close and the musicians start playing. Subway car musicians (as distinguished from their more reputable brethren, subway platform musicians) wait until the doors close, and you’re trapped. Examples from recent memory are the male a cappella quartet, the trio of conga players, and the South American accordion and guitar groups. Sometimes they’re decent musicians; sometimes they’re even really good. (Sometimes, of course, they’re truly terrible.) But I have never given and will never give money to a performer in a subway car—whereas I will donate to, stop to listen to, and even buy a CD from a musician on a subway platform—like the Saw Lady.

Then there’s the humidity.

“What,” you ask, “does that have to do with being a captive audience? Simply this: I live in a near-street level apartment on a busy, busy street, along which fire engines race, trucks trundle regularly, and people of all persuasions like to stop underneath my windows and talk. The windows are open, because it’s warm; sound carries noticeably better in humid air; and suddenly the street sounds that been a faint and muffled background for the winter and the first part of spring all sound like they’re happening in the room with me.

I doubt I’d have been able to live in this apartment for 12 years—at least in the summer—if it hadn’t been for the literary works of John Cage, who got me to recognize that the difference between all of that and art is simply the way I’m listening to it. (See Kyle Gann’s blog for a description of his recent book on Cage’s 4’33”, the “silent piece.”)  So I’ve developed an appreciation for the finer points of sirens and truck idles, in particular, that I never would have anticipated.

And finally, there’s the music in my head. Don’t get me started about earworms.

One piece of audio for today: My First Popup Book of the Infinite Beyond, which is dedicated “in memory of John Cage.” It was written shortly after he passed away, in honor of the aforementioned influence.

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