Sunday, December 9, 2018

Tail wagging the dog? Of improvisations and codas

Here is this morning’s piano improvisation, based on two tunes that were to be sung later in the service: Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, and Bereden vag for Herran.

Key of A. I went into it with a vague notion of aiming for rondo form.

It begins with Nun komm, pretty much straight up and then with variations to the 2’43 mark. Then Bereden vag in the dominant (E major), likewise with variations.

At 4’03”, Nun komm returns, in combination with bits of Bereden vag. At this point, I started thinking “Sonata form, maybe?” and allowed it to become a Development section rather than the full-fledged return of Nun komm that would have been more characteristic of a rondo form. This goes on for about two minutes, until it slips into a Recapitulation at 6’02” with Nun komm in the tonic (I was pleased with how this transition turned out). At 6’40”, Bereden vag returns, likewise in the tonic (as it must be if it is to be sonata form).

7’58”: Coda. Time to wrap things up, or it should be in terms of the music. Still a lot of time on the clock.
8’50”: Musically, it should have stopped somewhere around here, but I still have over two minutes to cover. So, a “second coda.” At 9’44” it takes off in a different direction, and by about 10 minutes, I am thinking “big ending” and work in this direction with the last phrase of Bereden vag to the 10’50” mark.

But it wants to be soft, after all, so the texture settles down down to the 11’08” mark, and a “third coda.” Out of balance to have four minutes of coda(s)? Tail [Italian = “Coda”] wagging the dog? Possibly. But I think it ended up making the piece as a whole more interesting. And it was functional music; I am expected to end the prelude precisely at 9:00 am. Not 8:58 or 8:59, not 9:01 or 9:02. I do my best each Sunday to fulfill this functional need while creating a little composition that has a semblance of form to hold it together.

My preparation this week was simply "knowing the tunes" - playing around with them as I described here. I used to go to considerable pains to lay out a structural plan of key centers and thematic material. I rarely do that nowadays. Usually I have a vague notion (as I did today), which may or may not be how it turns out. Most of the time I will have formal ideas in mid-stream (again, as I did today). Sometimes it is no more than a feeling, an urge: “Time for the other tune,” or “It needs to go to the dominant” and it is only in retrospect, listening to the recording, that I can discern a structure.

One other thought: More and more, when I am working with a multisectional form such as sonata or rondo or what I call "overture form" (stringing several tunes together, one after another), I tend to make each of the sections out of variations on a tune rather than just the tune itself. The larger sections are then delineated by change of key center and tune-with-variations.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Advent, hymn-playing, and the AGO exams

Tonight was our Service of Advent Lessons and Carols. I could say much about this, not least that the choir sang with strong connection and beautiful phrase-shaping, but upon review of my reference recording, one comment:

I am playing the hymns better than I used to.

And I did not put a large amount of preparation time into them, not directly; two hours perhaps. But indirectly – yes. I could not have played tonight as I did without my work on improvisation, intensively in recent years, but in other ways for twenty years and more, often with little or no audible progress for years at a time. Improvement in hymn-playing was not my intent with this work; I did not even consider it as a possibility. But that is what happened.

From time to time, the AGO talks about revising their professional examinations to make them more relevant. I gather that such revision may currently be in progress. I do not think this is a good idea.

Many of the musical skills one must develop for the exams seem thoroughly irrelevant on the surface. Why does a modern organist need to sight-read in open score with C clefs? Or transpose? Or write a fugal exposition for string quartet? Or read the “square” plainsong notation and engage in modal analysis of chant, and write a short unaccompanied motet?

It took me a long time after I had completed my exams (AAGO, ChM, FAGO) to understand better how the various skills interweave and bear fruit in unexpected ways. Tonight’s hymn playing – and the singing of the choir, for that matter – are an example. All that time wrestling with plainsong and the modes laid the groundwork for being comfortable with playing in the modes, such as my improvised accompaniments for the three plainsong hymns in the service. Reading C clefs is a gateway to transposition (which I found exceedingly difficult and still do), which in turn is groundwork for improvisation.

In short, any work you do as a musician helps all of the other aspects of your playing, singing, and conducting. Any skill that you take the time to develop will pay dividends, most often when you least expect it. And there is hardly anything in music that comes on a straight, direct path; it all happens indirectly, a little at a time.

I came into this day, the First of Advent, hating the season, wishing it would go away. A look at my December calendar fills me with dread. And it is not unreasonable; I have lived through many Advents and know well what is involved. I do not want to do it for yet another year.

But tonight’s music, and the choir’s singing of the spiritual “Steal away to Jesus” in this morning’s service, saved me. I hope that the music may have had similar effect on others, for I am not alone in dreading this season, this month of darkness and cold and despair.
Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming
As seers of old have sung.
It came, a blossom bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When half-spent was the night.
(German hymn, 15th c.. tr. Theodore Baker)

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Howard Riley: an aesthetics of imperfection

I would argue that improvisation as an art is informed by an aesthetics of imperfection. On this view, improvising musicians exploit the contingencies of the performing situation – the instrument, the acoustic, and their own capabilities – creating something out of apparently unpromising as well as promising circumstances. Age and infirmity are among these contingencies. (“Howard Riley,” by Andy Hamilton, International Piano Nov.-Dec. 2018, p. 89)

We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. (II Corinthians 4:7)

Riley is a jazz pianist, a “giant of contemporary piano improvisation, with a highly personal musical vocabulary” (Hamilton, p. 88). Now in his mid-seventies, he began experiencing symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease in 2011. Hamilton writes that since then, “Riley [has] pared down his approach, playing very beautifully and minimally” (p. 89).

His music is new to me and I haven’t heard much of it yet. There are some tracks on YouTube; most of them are from long ago, the 1960’s and 70’s, and the few of these that I have sampled so far are well worth a listen. I find only one that is fairly recent:

Piano solo @ Brookes, 29 Nov. 2012

Especially at the beginning as he walks to the piano and gets settled, one can see that he has become old. But much more than that, one sees and hears that he is still playing.

I love Hamilton’s phrase “an aesthetics of imperfection.” It is entirely foreign to the carefully manicured perfection of commercial recordings, pasted together from multiple takes. It is equally foreign to the world of piano and organ competitions, where one wrong note in your performance means that you are done.

Church musicians know about “creating something out of apparently unpromising” circumstances. For most of us, it takes a long time to figure that out. In my experience, some of the finest music-making has come by surprise – a congregational hymn that takes wing, an anthem that was shaky right up through the final warmup but goes right in the service, and much of my playing at the organ and piano.

Today is the Feast of All Saints. The glorious company of patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, saints of all kinds, known to us and unknown, is a kaleidoscope of personalities, gifts, peculiarities (and some of them are quite peculiar), weaknesses and strengths. But they have this in common: none of them was perfect, not in this life. It seems that God works precisely through their imperfections – and ours – to manifest his glory to the world. Thus it is no surprise that Real Music happens in a similar manner.
Almighty God, with whom do live the spirits of those who depart hence in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful, after they are delivered from the burden of the flesh, are in joy and felicity: We give thee hearty thanks for the good examples of all those thy servants, who, having finished their course in faith, do now rest from their labors. And we beseech thee that we, with all those who are departed in the true faith of thy holy Name, may have our perfect consummation and bliss, both in body and soul, in thy eternal and everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP p. 488)

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Isometric Rhythmic Practice

My organ and piano practicing is based on modified rhythms, which I described here and here, and demonstrated on YouTube here.

Today I learned a name for it: Isometric Rhythmic Practicing. The magazine International Piano’s regular column “Key Notes” by Murray McClachlan is an excellent focus on one or another aspect of piano technique, which of course applies to organ as well. In the current issue’s column, “Clarity,” McClachlan writes:
One of the most common methods for developing clear, strong articulation which many tutors have traditionally recommended over generations of pedagogy is ‘isometric rhythmic’ practicing… (International Piano, Nov.-Dec. 2018, p. 49)
McClachlan then describes the method, with an example from a Bach WTC prelude.

Armed with a name, I eagerly launched a DuckDuckGo search for “isometric rhythmic practicing” and found… almost nothing. References to isometric rhythm as a medieval compositional principle. Medical references of various sorts. Lots of references to Harold Blomberg’s “Rhythmic Movement Training.” Further down the list, materials about Rhythmic Gymnastics. Keyboard practicing references? Nope, though I found one reference to guitar finger exercises.

The name was not as useful as I had hoped. And if this method is so common as to be traditional “over many generations of pedagogy,” why is it that I have never overheard anyone else practicing this way, other than one of my students?

But in some further looking around, I turned up this:

It is a web page maintained by Chuan C. Chang, which includes a link to a free download of his 300-plus page PDF book, “Fundamentals of Piano Practice.” His approach, based on the teaching of Yvonne Combe and behind that, her training at the Paris Conservatory in the early twentieth century, is not the same as isometric rhythms, but he does discuss “segmental practice” as an aid to overcoming what he calls “speed walls,” which are “conditions in which you can’t go above a certain speed, no matter how hard you practice. SW [speed walls] form when you practice incorrectly and create bad habits or build up stress” (p. 29). Segmental practice is helpful “because the shorter a segment, the faster you can play it without problems.” The shortest segment is two notes, and that is the basis of isorhythmic practice. If you can play a two-note group quickly and with ease, you can extend that to four-note groups and beyond.

Chang’s book looks to be fascinating. Besides the material on piano practice, he devotes space to choosing a piano [he shares my views concerning the digital pianos and their superiority over acoustic uprights, but not over the best of the acoustic grand pianos: pp. 184-195], and tuning your own piano, including discussion of historic temperaments. He recommends Kirnberger II for the beginning tuner because it is easier than equal temperament, and he notes that “once you get used to K-II, ET [equal temperament] will sound a little lacking or ‘muddy.’” (p. 227). He gives the “recipe” for Kirnberger II on page 228. Chang concludes with a long and well-annotated bibliography for further study.

I am going to enjoy reading this book.

[Edited 12/5/18 to add: Chang briefly dismisses my practice method as follows: "The literature lists numerous methods for improving technique such as the rhythm method (change the rhythm or accented note), tapping, etc. The biggest drawback with such methods is that they waste time because there are too many rhythms, etc., that you need to practice." (p. 58)

As expected, I am thoroughly enjoying the book. I disagree with quite a bit of what he writes, but have taken a few ideas from it, notably a reminder of how helpful it can be to practice short segments hands separately. Some of my disagreements stem from differences between playing the organ and the piano, and the literature for the respective instruments. Practice techniques that would be helpful for Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff might be less useful for Bach and Buxtehude, and the coordination issues that one dodges by hands-separate practice are increased when one adds feet as well as hands, so (in my opinion) an organist needs much more work with hands/feet together than would a pianist.

I thoroughly agree with what he states is the thesis of the book: "If you don't make any progress [on a new piece being learned, or a specifically difficult passage] after a few days... it is time to stop and think of new things to do... if you don't make progress, you are doing something wrong -- that is the basic principle of this book." (p. 51-52)]

Unrelated Afterword: Fear of Red Ink

I have been listening to some of my older organ and piano improvisations recently. Some are horrible; some are not so bad. But one thought that these improvisations provoked is worth mentioning, because I think it is a major obstacle to the musician who wants to improvise. I call it the “Fear of Red Ink.”

Back in undergraduate theory class, my harmony exercises were returned with lots of red ink, marking my mistakes. Lots of them. Dozens on every page. All circled in red ink, often with caustic remarks from the teacher (likewise in red ink). Most of them were parallel octaves and fifths which had entirely escaped my scrutiny in writing the exercises. Parallel octaves and fifths are Against the Rules, and rightly so in pre-twentieth century styles. The rule goes back at least to Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum, which I revere, though we were not told that in beginning theory.

So, the pianist launches into an improvisation. Before the first phrase is done, a parallel fifth appears. The improviser stops, horrified that he has committed such a sin. He is more careful the next time, but this time a parallel octave shows up. Fear of Red Ink ensues, with painful memories of those first-year harmony exercises. The would-be improviser is likely to say “I can’t do this,” and gives up.

But with the broadening of horizons brought by harmonic and post-harmonic developments in the twentieth century comes greater freedom in the use of parallels. Vaughan Williams is filled with parallel fifths; it is a hallmark of his style.

So, my rule of thumb:
Ignore the Red Ink.
You can notice parallelisms when they happen, and if you wish, seek to do less of them, for in many styles they do genuinely weaken the contrapuntal structure. But you must not let them stop you or derail your improvised composition. You must press on.

One little trick that I use: when I accidentally play a parallel octave, I might turn it into the beginning of a passage in parallel octaves, doubling the melody an octave below, and similarly with fifths. Even though the initial parallelism was accidental, it sounds more or less like I planned it that way.

Cheating? Probably. But you must press on.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Spark Joy

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (2014)
Spark Joy (2016)

(Both books are by Marie Kondo, or "KonMarie," her nickname and how I think of her.)

I’ve done it. Close to a year of KonMarie, of decluttering and organizing. The last bits were this morning, and I am taking a few hours to celebrate.

The essence: surround yourself with things that spark joy. That means keeping some things, and disposing of a great many things – for me, somewhere between half and two-thirds of my possessions. Junk. Old files. Several hundred blank 3-1/2” floppies. CDs and cassettes that have been a part of my life, but no longer spark joy. Books. Lots of books.

I did it by the book, or rather books: I read the first one (frugally, from a library copy), then the second (likewise, a library e-book in this case – twice, once when I began and again in the last fortnight to gather courage for the Final Steps).

Here is a summary from her website:
Rule 1: Commit yourself to tidying up.
Rule 2: Imagine your ideal lifestyle.
Rule 3: Finish discarding first.
Rule 4: Tidy by category, not by location.
Rule 5: Follow the right order.
Rule 6: Ask yourself if it sparks joy.

Three of the categories:
Clothing, because it is easiest. For me especially, this was a no-brainer. I don’t have a lot of clothing and wear most of it regularly, so the whole process took less than an hour.

Books. This was scary. As per instructions, I took down all of my books. Every one of them. I piled them in the middle of the floor; this pretty much filled two rooms at home, and my office plus two tables in the choir room when I repeated the process at church. My wife was about ready to pull the plug on the whole enterprise, for she doubtless had visions of walking around piles of books for weeks and months, if not forever. But she has been after me for years to “get rid of some books,” as I reminded her.

Pick up a book. Hold it in both hands. Sense whether it sparks joy; if so, it goes in one pile. If not, the other pile. Sheep and goats at the last judgement. Like many people, I had trouble grasping the concept of “spark joy,” so (as per instructions) I started with something for which there was no doubt: my Ballentine paperback edition of “The Lord of the Rings,” which I have read maybe a dozen times. Joy flooded my soul as I held these little volumes, along with “The Hobbit,” given to me by my sister.
The Road goes ever on and on;
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone
And I must follow, if I can…
I got the idea.

From there it went quickly, more or less: two ten-hour days at home, one at my church office. Plus the physical labor of boxing up the discards and hauling them to the conveniently-timed Shelter House Booksale, three trips with my little Prius C filled to capacity.

The biggest challenge, once I got started, was avoiding the temptation to sit down and read. No matter how tempting, put it down and pick up the next book. Otherwise my wife and I would still be walking around piles of books on the floor.

And on it goes: Papers, with multiple trips to the recycling center. “Komono” (Japanese for “Other Stuff”) – a day when I almost filled the apartment complex’s dumpster all by myself.

Last of all: Sentimental Items. Personal letters, keepsakes, photos. It was for this that I re-read “Spark Joy,” for I have lived long and gathered many such things over the years. KonMarie suggests that this step is last because it is the most difficult, and one must hone one’s discernment before attempting it.

She is right.

But she is also right about the benefit: working through such things is a way of coming to terms with one’s past, and it is powerful. The recital program from my musical debut: a piece called “Off to Camp” in my first year at the piano. Working my way down the page of the annual programs from little pieces with the beginners to Beethoven sonatas as the finales of the group recitals my last two years of high school, and the senior recital with three of my friends. An official-looking paper from the county Board of Education, certifying me as a Third Class Musician (this in the eighth grade; there are many who would still give me that label). More recitals at college, in churches, at graduate school. Academic things that dangerously sparked pride, such as a National Merit Scholarship and later a perfect score on the GREs, which doubtless helped my admission prospects at the Choir College – as I wrote elsewhere, the dean who interviewed me was extremely dubious as to my prospects, since I was self-taught as an organist. He said so in my letter of acceptance, which I kept. Notes from choristers young and old. Going-away memorials when I moved from one place to another. The one that brought tears to my eyes most of all was a sheet of paper I had quite forgotten from the little Baptist church I served after undergraduate school, where I began as a pianist and left as an organist, and discovered Choral Conducting. I will quote part of it:
The following people send you $451.00 worth of good wishes as you move further in your music career. We have a few requests:
- That you never forget us
- That you send someone in the church your new address.
- That you will come back sometime. Remember the latch string will always be outside.

It was then signed by about sixty persons and groups (such as “The Choir” and several of the Sunday School classes), which was pretty much the whole congregation.
I mused on the fact that $451.00 was a lot of money for those people in that time and place, and how much they loved me.

If that doesn’t spark joy, nothing will.

KonMarie tells us that we must thank our possessions before discarding any of them. That helped, especially with the books. I thanked each of them individually for what they had taught me, what they had meant to me. We should thank the things we keep as well, such as thanking our clothes as we hang them up at the end of the day or put them in the laundry. We should take care of the things we have, and always put them back into their proper place.

I get a little nervous about the theology of thanking the spirit(s) that reside in created things, and would prefer to thank the Maker, but I think of it in the way one considers the Holy Icons – in this sense, every created thing is a window into the divine and deserves an appropriate degree of respect. I have started greeting my little Prius with a bow every morning before I begin my commute and thanking it at the end of the day.
[The cellarer of the monastery] will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected. He should not be prone to greed, nor be wasteful or extravagant with the goods of the monastery, but should do everything with moderation… (Rule of St. Benedict 31:10-12)
I believe that KonMarie would be in full agreement with this. One final quote:
If you are uncertain whether to keep it, ask your heart.
If you don’t where to put it, ask your home.
Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (St. Matthew 6:21)
Be not overly attached to the things that "spark joy" in your heart. Respect them, use them well and with care, even love them. Above all, be thankful for them. But do not set your heart on them. That is not the path of life.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Sweet Hour of Prayer

It has been a long time since I have posted any music online.
Here is a piano improvisation on the Gospel song “Sweet hour of prayer,” from September 30. I played it twice that morning, at our 9:00 and 11:00 services: this is the earlier (and better) version. I considered posting both of them so that the listener could see how two improvisations on the same theme, played only a couple of hours apart, differ. But one is enough, and my (free) SoundCloud space is limited.

Singing the hymn elicited a lot of feedback, about equally divided between positive and negative. For some, it was profoundly moving, healing. For others, it was “like being in the Baptist church” (not usually a compliment from Episcopalians). One woman, who generally supports my musical choices, simply said (with disgust in her voice) “Please! No more of this!” She was no happier when I followed up by selecting “Jesus loves me” for the next week. For that one, she said afterwards “I almost walked out.” But the positive responses from others to both songs were equally strong.

I do not know if singing these two songs was the Right Thing To Do, given the divisions they awakened. In their defense, they did fit the lessons for the day, which was my primary reason for choosing them. Both of them appear in Official Episcopal Songbooks (though not our main book, the Hymnal 1982). And they represent a musical style almost never heard in this parish, a voice that in my opinion is worthy of our attention.

I can offer only one thought: with songs like these, both of them with simple three-chord harmonies, it is essential to respect them. The musician can easily trivialize them, which is fatal. With the piano prelude on “Sweet hour” (and the next week’s prelude, which included “Jesus loves me” alongside two other hymns), I wanted to establish the idea of taking these songs seriously.


Yesterday I spent close to an hour at the music store, improvising on their Casio GP-500 hybrid piano, with headphones as I will mostly be playing in retirement. I enjoyed it every bit as much as playing the Steinway at the church (the one heard in this and all of my piano recordings). The session with the Casio brought clearness to me: given all the considerations involved, this is my piano of choice. I am ready to write a check and buy it. Except there is no place in our current living arrangement to put it, and I would have little time to play it.

Before his retirement, one of my dearest friends longed for a yacht. I think he wanted to live on one. As it came to pass, he was denied that wish by health conditions, but I think the dream helped him make it to the finish line of his career.

And so it is for me: the piano has become a symbol of retirement and freedom. Some days it seems so far away. But I recall the Word that came to me through a friend over a year ago: “You still have work to do here.” I believe that is still true.

Good services on Sunday: good choral singing, good hymn singing (yes, even “Jesus loves me”), Choral Evensong with Wm. Smith (which all by itself is enough to make my day). I played the organ well enough, including two pieces by Bach, one of them being a piece where I had fallen apart with the “yips” a year ago. I could feel them coming on in one passage, but by God’s grace it did not fall apart.

It was especially good to practice the big C minor prelude and fugue (BWV 546) over the past fortnight and play it for the evensong. I am glad that it is granted me to keep doing this sort of thing.

I will sing to the LORD as long as I live:
I will praise my God while I have my being.
(Psalm 104:34)

Friday, September 21, 2018

an Unequal Temperament

The clavichord needs to be tuned every two or three weeks, and it doesn’t take long to do it. I have taken this as opportunity to experiment with unequal temperaments.

Back in piano tuning school, we were taught to always tune in equal temperament, which has many advantages. It makes all of the keys equally usable, and is almost universal nowadays for everything except early music (up through J. S. Bach, maybe a little further – some extend the use of unequal temperaments on into the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart.)

Hermann Helmholz in his nineteenth-century book “On the sensations of tone” speaks ill of equal temperament, especially for the training of singers (see chapter 16 for an extended discussion of tempered intonation). For example: “The singer who practices to a tempered instrument has no principle at all for exactly and certainly determining the pitch of his voice.” (p. 326)

So when I tuned the choir room piano about six weeks ago, I decided to apply one of my clavichord tunings and see how it sounds. So far, so good: none of the choristers have yet complained, and I think that I prefer it to equal temperament. The “good” keys (C major, F and G major, etc.) are cleaner than they are in equal temperament, and the keys with two sharps or flats are almost as good. The keys with three and four flats and sharps are about like they are in equal temperament. The others? Not so much. The crunchiest is G flat major, as described below; it is barely usable, with D flat major about as bad. Is that too great a price for the improvements in the other keys? That is an open question.

For those who might be interested, here is my tuning plan, such as it is. On the clavichord, I don’t follow a plan, beyond making the fifths and thirds increasingly “noisy” as they move around toward the back side of the circle of fifths (that is, the G flat to D flat fifth, or maybe the D flat to A flat). The details differ every time I tune it, depending on whether I am in a mood that day to favor the sharp keys or the flat keys.

Tuning a piano is a bigger undertaking, so I was more careful:

The Foundation

Tune the A-440 from the tuning fork, then down an octave to the next A, the one on which you will base the tuning.

Tune the following intervals:
F-A pure (no beats. This is a considerably smaller major third than equal temperament)
A-E pure
C-E pure (that is, tune the C based on the E that you have just tuned)
Check F-C; should be about one beat
Check F-A-C triad; should be almost pure
Check A-C-E minor triad: should be pure or almost pure

Tune C-G pure
Check C-E-G triad; should be pure

Tune G-D, about 1 beat narrow
Check D-A (down a fourth from the D), should be about 1 beat wide; adjust D to balance the D-A fourth and the G-D fifth

Tune G-B pure
Check B-E, should be about 2 beats
Check G-B-D triad, should be almost pure
Check G-B-E minor triad (first inversion), should be clean but not pure.

Tune the F to F octave.

This completes the white notes for the temperament octave.

The Balancing

Now for the fun part: the black notes, which are a matter of tradeoffs.

Tune the following intervals:
F up to B flat, about 2 beats wide
B down to F sharp, about 2 beats wide
A up to C sharp, about 1 or two beats wide

Check the intervals from F sharp to A sharp, which will be fairly clean, and F sharp to C sharp, which will be noisy, 3 or 4 beats. Check the F# - A# - C# triad. This will be the worst in the temperament because of the fifth.

Adjust these three pitches (F#, A#, C#) to your satisfaction, checking the major and minor triads (most of them in one or another inversion) that they complete: B flat major, B flat minor, B minor, F# minor, A major, F# major. They will have varying degrees of cleanliness; which of them are better is up to you.

Take a deep breath.

Tune the B flat up to E flat (interval of a fourth), about 1 beat wide.
Check B-D#, should be fairly clean. Check B major, likewise fairly clean.

Tune the E flat down to A flat (interval of a fifth), about 1 beat narrow.
Check the A flat-C-E flat triad. It should be fairly clean. Adjust E flat and A flat to your preference.

Check A flat-D flat, compare with the F# - C# fifth, adjust the C#/D flat so that these two intervals beat at about the same speed, about three beats, checking the thirds from A to C# and A flat to C so that they are both acceptably clean (they will not be pure). This is a point where you could choose to favor the sharp keys over the flat keys by making A-C# cleaner than A flat – C, or vice versa if you would prefer to favor the flat keys. That may depend on what music you plan to play on the instrument before its next tuning. Check the other triads that include A flat and D flat.

Check all major and minor triads. The best way to do this is by going around the circle of fifths, starting with the C major triad and moving either direction (C-G-D-A etc. or C-F-B flat-E flat etc.). The triads should get increasingly “noisy” in a smooth progression up to the G flat major triad, then gradually smoother as you go on back down the other side toward C major. The minor triads should do likewise, starting with A minor.

It is up to you as to how extreme you make the temperament, and you can favor the sharp keys over the flats or vice-versa; the above is only a guideline, especially the latter part of it on the black notes. It is all a matter of tradeoffs.

The Rest of the Piano

From here, tune pure octaves as usual, up to the top and then down to the bottom. The one wrinkle for me was that the octave check intervals I normally use in equal temperament – chains of chromatic tenths in the treble, which should gradually increase in beat speed as one ascends – do not work at all. The chromatic thirds even in the temperament octave will have radically different beat speeds. Same for the low bass, where I likewise check with the interval of the tenth, also the minor seventh (or rather, minor fourteenth – the seventh plus an octave) which in the low bass beats slowly enough to be useful). But with the unequal temperament, about the only way to check the octaves is with the fourth and fifth that lie within the octave that you are tuning; are they what one would expect, given the degree of beating in those intervals in the temperament octave? Remember that the beat speeds will be faster as one goes up and slower as one goes down.

For further study

If these matters are of interest, you might look in a library for Owen Jorgensen’s book “Tuning the historic temperaments by ear” (Michigan State Univ. Press, 1991) which appears to be out of print.

Here is a discussion of the book in the excellent forum “Piano World.” Notice in particular the remarks by Bill Bremmer, an experienced piano technician. He gives a very different “recipe” for an unequal tuning, based on the Thomas Young Well Temperament (1799), which leaves the F-A and C-E thirds somewhat impure, but would make the more distant triads (F# major, C# major) significantly cleaner than the plan outlined above.

Also, here is a website that discusses historical temperaments, giving a good overview of the subject. The author (Kyle Gann) gives the pitches in cents, which shows the difference of each pitch from its equally-tempered equivalent (in equal temperament, each half step is 100 cents, with 1200 cents to the octave). This would be more useful than tuning-by-ear accounts such as mine if one is tuning with the use of an electronic tuner.

But I leave you with the lesson I have learned from all this: the precise details of an unequal temperament are of little importance, especially on instruments such as the clavichord and harpsichord which are easily re-tuned. I have tried to suggest some basic principles, and encourage those interested to experiment freely on their own instrument.

The details matter somewhat more on a piano, and quite a lot on a pipe organ, for which a change of temperament is a multi-day operation and definitely not to be undertaken lightly or as an experiment.

[Edited 12/18/18 to add: Here is an article from the excellent (and free!) online journal "Vox humana," describing one of the oldest extant pipe organs in the world. It is in the village of Rysum in North Germany, built some time around 1450 and little modified since then. Of interest for the topic of my essay is a playing of the triads of the circle of fifths in the organ's temperament, quarter-comma meantone. It is a brief sound file, 32 seconds, and a good demonstration of unequal temperament on an organ; the "distant" keys at the backside of the circle of fifths are quite dissonant. There are weeks when my off-the-cuff clavichord temperament is almost this extreme, but I would not do this to the choir room pianoforte. The whole idea of temperament is to make these "distant" triads and keys either equal to all the others (equal temperament) or cleaner in varying degrees than they are in meantone (unequal "well" temperaments).]

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Hybrid Pianos, revisited

Two years ago, as I was exploring pianos with the idea of purchasing one for retirement, I concluded that I would probably end up with a hybrid piano rather than a traditional acoustic piano. But some questions remain. I wrote:
Can the best of the hybrids be the solo instrument for a piano concerto with the top-level orchestras of the world, and the top concert artists? Can they do the job for chamber music, again with world-class performers? Can they satisfy pianists whose career is on the line, and their fellow musicians, collaborators in music such as Schubert’s song cycle "Winterreise," the Brahms violin sonatas, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time?

Here is a partial answer: a Casio hybrid piano in a Mozart concerto with chamber orchestra at the Berlin Philharmonie, one of the world’s great music venues. The clip includes some side-by-side playing, with one pianist at the Casio, another at the (acoustic) concert grand, trading off Mozart phrases. And an audience in the room to hear it.

Some observations:

- The Casio holds its own quite respectably, in my opinion. One can find disagreement with this in the comments to the YouTube clip.
- It is different in sound from the acoustic, but no more different in my opinion than two acoustic grands might be from one another.
- This was, of course, a made-for-YouTube commercial message from Casio. Not a real concert. One should remain skeptical.
- The Casio retails for around $5,000. A concert grand will set you back closer to $150,000-200,000.
- According to the Casio rep speaking at about the 1:20 mark in the video, it was the chamber orchestra's idea to do this. From earlier in the clip, it appears that the Casio was the piano in their smaller rehearsal hall. Casio rep: "[The orchestra] said 'You've got a wonderful instrument there. We want, together with you, to show it on the stage, and show our grand hybrid as a completely acoustic instrument, with all the other acoustic instruments in the orchestra.'" Very interesting, if all of this is true.

I think Casio has made their point: the instrument would be suitable for professional concert use. It would be even more suitable, and economical, for situations such as a choir room or the rehearsal room seen in the video.

Most aficionados of digital instruments would agree that the Casio hybrids are not the best of the bunch: the Yamaha AvantGrand hybrids are better, and Kawai has a new offering in the field that many people like; both of these are considerably more expensive. These pianos would surely do as well or better than the Casio in a similar side-by-side comparison with orchestra.

My thoughts have not changed from when I explored these things in 2016. Pending the circumstances in which we retire, I still hope to purchase the Casio, to sit alongside my clavichord.

[Edited to add: As soon as I posted this, I found a performance of Rachmaninoff with Casio hybrid and orchestra. It is another made-for-YouTube commercial message by Casio, but puts the piano in the situation where I doubted whether it could hold up: alongside an orchestra in "big" Romantic repertoire. I note that the piano is miked and amplified by a speaker facing out into the hall (you can see the setup briefly at the 43 second mark of the video). But it is a mike picking up the acoustic sound from the instrument, not a direct feed from the electronics. There is also a monitor speaker aimed toward the conductor. It is clearly a "real" performance, not something that has been heavily doctored up. My impression, best one can tell from the recording, is that I was right in my 2016 essay, that in this setting, a hybrid piano falls short of the "real thing." But not by much.

My question at that point was in regard as to whether a hybrid piano could accompany congregational singing as well as our Steinway, in the same manner in which the electronic organs all fall short of a good pipe organ in this task. I think that remains an open question. The hybrid pianos are designed to sound as closely as possible like a good acoustic grand from the perspective of the player, sitting at the bench. That is different from projecting sufficient sound into a large hall to balance an orchestra - or a vigorously singing congregation. You can always take a feed from the line out, send it into an amplifier and speakers, and make it as loud as you want. But that strikes me as cheating.]

Sunday, August 26, 2018

I was glad when they said unto me...

I was glad when they said unto me: Let us go into the house of the LORD.
Here is a three-hour YouTube video of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey, 2 June 1953, as broadcast by the BBC.

If you click the “more” button in the YouTube description, you will find a description of the musical forces – including twenty trebles chosen by audition from parish choirs by the RSCM, who spent a month in residence at Addington Palace preparing to join the choristers of the Abbey, St. Paul’s, and St. George’s, Windsor: 182 trebles in all. With the ATBs and orchestral forces: 480 musicians.

And you will find the music list. Of particular interest to my friends who attended this summer’s RSCM St. Louis Course, the Hubert Parry anthem “I was glad” (22 and a half minutes into the tape), in its proper liturgical setting. It comes at the end of a twenty-minute procession (accompanied by part of Handel’s Water Music) as the Queen enters the abbey, with the “Vivats” as she and her attendants pass under the Rood Screen into the choir and chancel. The quieter section “O pray for the peace of Jerusalem” comes as she kneels for prayer. Since this is a television broadcast, they unfortunately lower the volume for the announcer to speak during the climactic ending of the anthem, as the Crown and other regalia are placed on the Altar.

Following the Parry, a bit of high-stakes organ improvisation, by (I think) William McKie, organist of the Abbey. [Correction: I see in the comments to the video that McKie was conducting the combined musical forces during the service; Sir Adrian Boult had conducted the orchestral music before and after the service. Osborne Peasegood (1902-1962), sub-organist of the Abbey, was organist for the service.] There is a bit of Parry’s hymn tune Laudate Dominum (O praise ye the Lord) near the end of it, and additional improvisation at various points, most notably near the end as the retiring procession begins, leading up to the fanfare and the National Anthem (God save the Queen). First-rate playing in the grand English cathedral manner.

There is much more of musical interest: first performances of anthems by Herbert Howells, William H. Harris, George Dyson; a newly composed Te Deum by William Walton, and anthems composed for the occasion by Healey Willan and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

RVW has a large musical part in this service: it is his setting of the Mass which is sung (the Credo and Sanctus from his G Minor Mass), plus his setting of the Old Hundredth Psalm Tune, arranged for this occasion (1 hour 53 minutes into the tape). This is a great masterpiece, one of my favorites of his works – but the greatest gem is a bit later, during Holy Communion: a short motet which RVW wrote for the occasion, “O taste and see” (2 hours 17 minutes). After all of the loud music and grandeur, an unaccompanied treble solo (sung by a small group of trebles, it sounds like), then the choir, quiet and unaccompanied. Ninety seconds and it is done. The effect in this context is stunning.

There is more even than this: some Stanford, and Samuel Sebastian Wesley, the Tudor anthem “Rejoice in the Lord alway,” an Amen by Gibbons, and “Zadok the Priest,” which has been sung at every coronation since Handel wrote it for George II. It is as essential to a British coronation as “I was glad” has become.

Three impressions:

It is hard to overstate the impressiveness of the choir’s initial entrance in “I was glad,” the first vocal music of the day. Most of the congregation had been there for hours. A long prelude of orchestral music had preceded the procession. Already the leaders of church and state had walked down the aisle, the archbishops of York and Canterbury among them, and the Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth, followed by the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill, one of the heroes of the twentieth century. A brass fanfare, then the majestic introduction that begins the Parry. And then the choir sings.

The Coronation is above all else a sacred liturgy according to the use of the Church of England, in essence an Ordination, complete with Gospel, Creed, Offertory of Bread and Wine (handed to the Archbishop by the new Queen), Eucharistic Prayer, Confession, Communion. I wonder whether the next coronation will include such things, given the multi-cultural and thoroughly secular nature of modern Britain.

On this day, Elizabeth is a very serious and determined young woman. She came of age during the Battle of Britain and a war where it seemed that Britain might be destroyed forever; she knew that the post-war world was changing in ways that were unknowable, and that it was her responsibility to lead her people through it.

From her Christmas Message the previous December:
At my Coronation next June, I shall dedicate myself anew to your service. I shall do so in the presence of a great congregation, drawn from every part of the Commonwealth and Empire, while millions outside Westminster Abbey will hear the promises and the prayers being offered up within its walls, and see much of the ancient ceremony in which Kings and Queens before me have taken part through century upon century.

You will be keeping it as a holiday; but I want to ask you all, whatever your religion may be, to pray for me on that day - to pray that God may give me wisdom and strength to carry out the solemn promises I shall be making, and that I may faithfully serve Him and you, all the days of my life.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Scales (with an afterword on Modes)

My piano student figured out on her own how to play a C major scale. We had introduced the concept of thumb-turns in the context of something she was playing, and she took it from there. It showed up in one of her improvisations (complete with the correct right hand fingering, which I did not teach her). I pointed it out to her and told her it was important. We then worked out the left hand fingering; I emphasized that for now scales must be SLOW and steady, thinking about good tone and hand position; we added them to her practice routine, which now (I hope) begins as follows:
Other Stuff
She returned for the next lesson with C major, one octave, hands separately, played slowly and accurately.

So far, so good.
For as long as she is a musician, she will be playing scales. As will I.

But I got away from them for a number of years in midlife. I was bored with them, and focused instead on the pieces I was trying to learn. Insofar as I was doing technical work at all, it was more from the Brahms “Fifty-One Exercises” than anything else.

Then I began to improvise.

Dupré’s course on improvisation begins with the harmonization of the major scale, then minor. I spent a long time with this, in all keys. Scale in the soprano. Scale “en taille” (in the tenor). Scale in the pedals, or the left hand bass. It was a grind, but over the years since then it has proven increasingly worthwhile that I spent the time on this.

After Gerre Hancock published his book on improvisation, I found that he too began with scales, in a considerably freer approach. Unlike Dupré, Hancock encouraged creative harmonization in any style that takes your fancy in the moment.

That finally made it fun to play scales. When I am practicing free (non-hymn-based) improvisation, I often begin with a few scales – harmonized or contrapuntally oriented (or best of all, both), and let them lead me in whatever direction the ensuing music wants to go. Even when the work at hand is preparation to improvise on a specific tune, I might begin with the scale for the keys I hope to use in the improvisation before beginning to “learn the tune” (playing it in unison, and taking it from there).

Much more could be said about scales. I content myself with a final observation:

Play in and with the Modes.

Work with them in the same manner as major/minor: the scale in the soprano, chords harmonizing each note of the scale, up and down, slowly. Later, the scale in an inner voice or the bass. Do it in as many keys as you can. This remains for me a work in progress. If you ask me to knock out a quick harmonized scale in F sharp Mixolydian with subsequent improvisation, the results would likely be less than professional. But I am working on it.

The secret is to think “Where is Do?” In the above case, Mixolydian has the keynote on Sol, so Do is on B. Five sharps. It also helps – a lot – to notice that Mixolydian is Major with a flat seventh degree. So I can think “F sharp major” and play E naturals. All four of the Modes have near neighbors that are helpful in this manner:
Dorian – like natural Minor, with raised sixth degree
Phrygian – like natural Minor, with lowered second degree
Lydian – like Major, with raised fourth degree
Mixolydian – like Major, with lowered seventh degree
A benefit of this sort of work is that one soon gets a feel for the mode. What chords make a good cadence? What chord combinations work well, which ones not so much? What chords work well with specific scale degrees?

And: What is the characteristic ethos of the mode? Mixolydian has a sober dignity to it that I love: Lydian is the most joyful of modes, even more than Major: Dorian is like Minor but with greater strength and a yearning that comes from the raised sixth degree: Phrygian is strange, something all its own. To explain it I commend to you the magnificent Third Tune of Thomas Tallis (the Third Mode being another name for Phrygian), and the Fantasia on this tune by Vaughan Williams.

That brings me to another benefit of work with the modes: you might start sounding like Vaughan Williams. Or Herbert Howells.

I suspect that these composers got their “sound” in part from long exposure to the Modes – for RVW, it was his work with folksongs; for Howells, his work with the Tudor Church Music project. I can imagine them playing around at a piano with these things, finding the characteristic harmonizations and melodic patterns.