Paul Cantrell’s music blog & podcast
Piano music old and new from a devoted amateur,
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As regular readers of In the Hands know, I’ve been working through my older recordings and applying my up-to-date mastering process — making them sound better, in other words. As I went through the list, I found that these two recordings make a nice pair. Arranging nice little transitions like this is one of my favorite parts of doing a concert. It’s the same little pleasure as assembling a mix CD or playing DJ: even the simple act of ordering songs is a kind of composition, and carries the joy of being creative.

The keys of the two pieces (E flat and A flat) are related and make for a smooth transition, but beyond that, it’s hard to pin down what exactly connects them so well. The deliberate, thoughtful way both unfold? The way both of them seem to talk? Their sense of intimacy? Those are all getting warm, but none of them really pin it down. It doesn’t matter, though — it is fine to be musically confident on intuition alone, and I say they fit. Phooey to the 20th century and its obsession with having a conscious rationale for everything in music!

When something musical works well, it’s natural to wonder why, and we learn a great deal in the process of trying to come up with explanations. But our musical explanations (like all models of reality) are always incomplete; good music remains half-submerged in the unknown, and thus always carries the magic shared by all mysterious things. This is the dilemma of a performer and, even more, of a composer: constantly dissecting, looking for order, developing explanations and rationales — and at the same time never losing sight of the incompleteness of these explanations, but embracing the unknown and holding on to the magic. The skill of smoothly changing frame between reasoning and intuition, known and unknown, dissected part and organic whole, is a core part of both composition and computer programming. Those are two things I spent a lot of my time doing, and I claim they overlap a great deal in the brain, in large part because of this “frame shifting.”

Oh, right, I had a recording to share. Enough philosophizing. On with the music!

Sinfonia No 5
Paul Cantrell, piano
Bunte Blätter No 6
Paul Cantrell, piano

These both come from wonderful sets of pieces — Bach’s two- and three-part inventions, and Schumann’s Albumblätter (“Album Leaves,” which is a subset of Bunte Blätter, “Colored Leaves”). I’d like to learn more of both sets (and improve my Bach playing in general, because it’s very weak). Too much great music and not enough time! What’s a fellow to do?

Perhaps it would have been better if I’d just admitted to myself (and the world) that I’d be taking the summer off from In the Hands. But where’s the fun without the suspense?

Here’s what I currently have in the pipeline (not necessarily in this order):

  • Some newly composed pieces of my own.
  • A new recording of at least some part of The Broken Mirror of Memory, my bass clarinet / piano work.
  • A fine new recording from Don Betts.
  • The remaining remasterings of my older recordings.

…And that’s my autumn of music pretty well booked up right there.

First, however, is the last of the three songs by Todd that Kim and I recorded last spring. This one is a setting of a poem by local poet John Minczeski, Questions, which sits somewhere between Zen koan and children’s book. It is a single poem, but Todd has split it into four separate little songs, zooming in on each each question and giving it its own character. I think they’re quite marvelous. It’s a wonderful way to read a poem — as the Internet makes us more accustomed to reading text fast, the music makes it possible to slow down and give each line of the poem its own space and weight.

Kim Sueoka, soprano
Paul Cantrell, piano

This is the last of Todd’s songs Kim and I have recorded together; it’s back to solo piano in the next episode. Be sure to also check out Northwoods Police Report and First Autumn Night if you haven’t already!

Last weekend, I lead a session at MinneBar in which I talked about my experiences producing In the Hands, my sense of the past relationships between art and society, and my wishes for the future. The audience joined in, and it was a very interesting 40 minutes of discussion.

Tim Wilson has very kindly made an audio recording of the session available on They Savvy Technologist. He did a good job of capturing a very interactive session with only a single mic in a noisy room. Well done!

If any of you want to follow along with the session, here are slightly cleaned up versions of the two “idea map” diagrams you’ll hear me producing on my Powerbook during the session:

Note that these are rough, still in process, and entirely up for discussion. I’m still figuring all of this out, along with the rest of the world!

It was a pleasure doing the session, and a pleasure attending the conference. I’m grateful to all who planned and sponsored it! If there’s a BarCamp in your area, I highly recommend checking it out.

After a cold (which left my voice in bad shape for podcasting) and MinneBar (which was a great pleasure), it’s back to In the Hands! I’m continuing from last time the series of recordings I made recently with soprano Kim Sueoka of songs by Todd Harper.

For several years, Todd has been writing songs full of the sort of jazz changes that are his roots, but as much in the tradition of lieder as anything. He always makes them short, sweet, and very focused — haiku-like — and when he’s setting a text longer than a few lines, he’ll often break it into a chain of very short songs, each only a few words long. I don’t know of anybody who does anything quite like it.

The four songs of this short cycle are almost a sort of “found haiku” — the text is from actual police reports in an unnamed northern Minnesota town. Yes, they are real. No, Todd will not tell you which town it is.

They’re absolutely hilarious — Kim does a perfect deadpan delivery of their painfully earnest description of the mundane and mildly ridiculous things the police in a small town have to deal with. Audiences have different reactions to the humor: when we did them at an ACF Tuesday Salon, the very polite “high art crowd” audience murmured appreciatively at the humor, but seemed to be waiting for permission to laugh; when we did them shortly afterwards at Patrick’s Cabaret, the audience let out such an incredible stream of roars and guffaws, we were barely able to stay together!

There’s something in them beyond the humor, however: a sweetness, a tender love for the world of a small towns. Our sense of scale is relative in all things — space, time, what’s important — and in a little town, a disheveled stranger, a fence knocked down … these things matter. Todd lets the humor in, but it’s not mocking — it’s tender. He’s laughing about what he loves, I think.

Northwoods Police Report
Kim Sueoka, soprano
Paul Cantrell, piano

Here, for the first time in a long time, is something I wrote — but it’s not the music!

A couple of weeks ago, I recorded some of my friend Todd Harper’s songs with Kim Sueoka, a marvelous local soprano who sings with (among others) the Rose Ensemble and a first-rate voice/guitar duo called Voce y Cuerdas. She’s great, Todd’s great, and by golly, we had a wonderful time making the recordings!

Todd mostly writes voice / piano duets — and that’s mostly what we recorded — but he also did a lovely a cappella setting of one of my poems, and that’s what I’m publishing first. The poem is short, and so is the song.

First Autumn Night
Kim Sueoka, soprano
Paul Cantrell, words

The poem is a haiku. Syllable-counters in the audience may object that the lines do not follow the 5-7-5 pattern haiku are supposed to follow, but the syllable count rule isn’t important in modern English haiku, and many poets ignore it altogether. It only really makes sense in Japanese — English syllables are a very different ilk from their Japanese cousins. Moreover, the syllable count isn’t really the heart of the form.

What is the heart, then, you ask? A haiku is a direct experience, a single moment of perception caught before the mind has fully digested perception into narrative and meaning. It is typically tied to nature, often tied to a season*, but these are both optional in modern haiku. Perhaps most important feature is that the haiku has two parts: first a direct perception, then some second perception or mental twist that deepens the first part or casts it in a new light.

The separation between the two halves is a significant moment. In this song, Todd renders it ("halo") with the highest note, and the snaking, tonally shifting, rising melody of the first part (the autumn night, the moon) becomes sweet, diatonic, and falling (the illusion of the halo). Nicely done, Todd. And nicely done, Kim.

More songs to come!

* OK, I know it’s not autumn here in the Northern Hemisphere. You caught me.

Here is a second selection from this year’s Keys Please to follow Todd’s little musical rattlesnake adventure. This is an improvisation by Carei Thomas, the rattlesnake’s narrator, now on piano. I thought — and he said afterward — that there was a little nod to my own funny little improvs in this one, especially in the way it starts with a very low note and a very high one … but it’s definitely a Carei thing!

Some improvs have a definite form (head-solo-head, fugue, tala) or a definitely style (Dixieland, bebop, Ghanaian drumming) … but this is one of those that’s just completely spontaneous and organic, and grew out of silence in a completely organic way — like a spring daffodil poking its head up through the jumbled twigs and dead leaves. Todd and I actually murmured to one another during the applause, “Oo! Where did that come from?” Only Carei knows, I suppose, and maybe not even him.

The Usual Topic
Carei Thomas, piano

I took care of my girlfriend Paige’s pet parakeet Pegasus recently while her landlord did some emergency plumbing work, and Pegasus joined in one day while I was practicing the piano. It was not the standard chirping, but a complex mix of all sorts of sounds Pegasus doesn’t normally make, which followed the music quite well – louder in the loud parts and softer in the soft, somehow matching the texture and fitting into the spaces in a birdsong sort of way. It was like she was a soloing on my material — a really wonderful bit of inter-species improv.

I tried to capture it in a recording the next time I practiced, but she wasn’t as interested in the piano that time. Too bad! I did, however, manage to capture a bit of a human singer on the microphones, which I will share next time.

Things don’t look good for me to create more new piano recordings in my home studio in the immediate future, so I’m going to have to stall — but I figure I might at least stall with something good!

This is a piece from the most recent Keys Please! concert. It adds a nice little bit of variation to the blog: not only is it not Cantrell, Chopin, or Brahms, but … it doesn’t even have a piano in it! (Yes, I’m really going out on a limb.) It’s also stylistically different from what I’ve published so far, hopefully in a refreshing way.

It’s from my buddy Todd. He says of it:

[This song] I have to share credit for, because I did not write the words. I was at my mom’s at Thanksgiving, and I found some old articles my dad wrote when he was alive, for the newspaper, the Forest Lake Times — and they’re about snakes. … This is about an expedition he took, and I thought, “This would set really well for cello and voice.”

Todd uses some inspired bits of semi-improvised sound painting, beautifully performed by Jacqueline, to accentuate the miniature drama in Carei’s reading of this little story. I hope you’ll find it as charming as I do!

Rattlesnake Song No. 2
Carei Thomas, narration

Music lovers take note: Jacqueline plays in a wonderful cello duo called Jelloslave, and they have a new CD!