Paul Cantrell’s music blog & podcast
Piano music old and new from a devoted amateur,
all free to listen to, download, and share.

I’ve added a two new things to my web site that may be of interest:

New Music-Only Podcast

For those of you not up on all the tech-y stuff, this site has a “podcast” — a feature that lets your computer automatically download the music and save it to your music library or portable music player.

Until now, the podcast has featured a spoken version of the written commentary that goes with each piece. This works well for people listening, say, at the gym or in their car. However, while you might want to listen to the music over and over, I really doubt you want to hear my introductions all that often. (My voice is just not that exciting.) Because the podcast always included the commentary, people who wanted just the music still had to manually download each track. Aaron wisely suggested that I do a music-only podcast as well. It’s a great idea, and I finally got around to doing it.

So now, over on the right (under the “Syndication” heading), you’ll see two links: one for a podcast with commentary, and one with only the music:

  • If you are listening on the go, and want a radio-show-like format with spoken commentary, subscribe to the podcast with commentary.
  • If you want to automatically download just the music to add it to your listening library, subscribe to the music-only podcast.

And heck, if you want the spoken commentary for the first listen and the music for future listening, well, subscribe to both!

Recording Method Explanation Updated

I finally updated my description of how I make my recordings to reflect all of the work I did last year to improve the mastering process. Although I made revisions throughout that whole area of the site, the bulk of the new information is in the section on mastering.

This is primarily of interest to others making their own recordings, but may also be of idle interest to anyone who is curious what goes into producing the finished product you hear.

Ahoy there. It’s been a while! I’ve been busy. It’s a sad fact of life that I have bills to pay, and in spite of the tremendous generosity of some of this podcast’s listeners, a whole year’s worth of donations to In the Hands don’t even cover a month’s rent. So, I’ve been working — which is not entirely a bad thing: it’s a good job, I like the other people, and I’m working on interesting stuff … but it’s just amazing how much time a job takes! Forty hours a week is a lot.

Anyway, having settled in to the new schedule of this job, solved my car woes, completed another successful Keys Please, and done some traveling (I went to Québec and practiced my French!), I’m now turning my attention back to my poor, neglected site. To get things started again, here’s an old recording freshly remastered with the new process.

This is a late Brahms intermezzo. (Regular readers know how much I love that!) As I wrote before, it’s a wonderfully ambiguous piece. I suppose not everybody might think of ambiguity as being a compliment or a desirable thing, but I do. One of music’s magical abilities is to be ambiguous in the way that life is ambiguous, that the moment-to-moment experience of consciousness is ambiguous. We have a very natural desire to understand music, to try to figure out what it “means” and what we’re supposed to think about it. Music, however, doesn’t like to be pigeonholed that way. In real life, we don’t experience emotions one at a time, or in black and white — we usually make sense of them in retrospect, finding names and narratives only as we look back on experience. Music works that way as well, and gives us a way of distilling and becoming comfortable with all the confusingly multiple moment-to-moment ebb and flow of our minds and hearts. It is a way of looking back on our own experience without flattening it the way ordinary words can. It’s often hard to say even whether a piece is basically happy or sad — and that is a wonderful thing if you embrace it.

Certainly embracing it is certainly necessary in this piece. It’s hard to say exactly what it is, or what it’s about, or to name how it feels, but the raw experience of it — if we don’t try to name it — is wonderful.

Intermezzo Op 117 No 2
Paul Cantrell, piano

Next up, I’ll be sharing some excerpts from February’s Keys Please, which will be a fun change of pace for In the Hands. There will even be instruments other than piano; brace yourselves!

In the Hands will come back to life soon. I’m getting settled into my new job (which is a good thing: nice people, interesting problems), and I’ve sorted out the “sudden car death” crisis that’s been eating up lots of time lately.

In the meantime, if you’d like a sneak preview of the two Chopin nocturnes I’m planning to record, come to my concert this weekend:

Keys Please: The Untold Story
Saturday, February 4 - 8:00 PM
Janet Wallace Concert Hall
Macalester College, St. Paul, MN
$10 at the door / all students free

It will be a grand time!

And, to whet your appetite: MPR’s excellent Marianne Combs did a wonderful interview with us about Keys Please. You can read the text of story on the site, but I strongly recommend listening to the web audio if you can — the sounds add a great deal.

The interview sounds so natural as I listen, it’s easy to forget how rare this is: an interview that the interviewee likes, that captures what is important and hones right in on the essence of the subject. That’s hard enough in world news, harder still where art is concerned. (True, she pronounces my last name wrong, but she did such a great job capturing the spirit of Keys Please that I’ll forgive her ten times over.) We musicians should always be so lucky. Thanks a million, Marianne!

Sorry for the long hiatus. It’s been a busy time: my latest sabbatical is running to its end, I’m broke, and back to job hunting. So I’ve been having to put aside the music and be all practical lately.

Still, I have not left In the Hands completely neglected. Listening to some other podcasts — and some of those old school … what are they called? … oh yes, radio shows — I noticed what a difference a really nice audio logo or theme song makes. It functions as an announcement, of course: “Pay attention! Your show is on!” And it’s a cue to get in the right frame of mind to enjoy what’s coming next. But most of all, I realized I love the ritual of the theme song, the anticipation and cozy excitement that comes from the conditioning of hearing the same theme again and again. It’s amazing how deep that conditioning goes: though they are from my single-digit years, my heartbeat still involuntarily quickens when I hear these unmistakable sounds! (Yay for Delia Derbyshire.)

The trick is, I don’t want a tune that’s so catchy it interferes with the music I’m about to play; my opening music needs to have a sort of palate-cleansing effect. I decided the thing to do was to make a collage of several different pieces, to get you in that piano mood without a piano tune in your head. Here’s the what I came up with.

This new audio logo won’t make much difference to those of you reading the text version, but for those listening to the podcast, here’s how it sounds as part of an episode.

(For those of you who didn’t even know there’s an audio version of this commentary, here are instructions for subscribing in iTunes.)

I’m doing something today that I haven’t done in far too long: sharing a recording of a new composition in progress.

I’ve been working for some time on a set of piano pieces, all of them dances in one way or another — and all of them, in one way or another, full of the feeling of entropy, full of things falling apart and things slipping away.

This particular one has much sweetness in it, but its main ingredient is ambiguity. Its different layers are centered in different keys, different places. They mesh so that a note which sounds unresolved in its own layer often harmonizes with what is going on in a layer above or below — and then when that note resolves within its own layer, it must move away from resolution with respect to that other layer it seemed to agree with a moment ago. This means that the layers are always pulling against each other, entwined but tugging in different directions, and the music is always simultaneously both resolving and unresolving.

Of course, this all happens quickly, and it’s hard to hear all these little individual motions. Instead, it all blends together to give the music a restless, floating, perpetually suspended quality. The music does eventually find a place to rest, but it’s fleeting — remember: falling apart, slipping away — ah, but I’m giving away too much! I’ll let the music tell its own story:

Song For Lost Things (slightly rough version)
Paul Cantrell, piano

I still haven’t fully worked out the interpretation, so I’m calling this performance “slightly rough:” as I live with the music for a while, I’m sure I’ll find that I want to play some things differently. It may come as a surprise, but even with the things I write, I still have to go through the same careful process of interpretation, figuring out how the music works, and how to play it just so.

There are nine pieces in the whole set, of which I’ve posted this one and four others in rough form: Entropic Waltz, Dance for Remembering and Forgetting, Cradle Waltz, and Disembodied Dance. Wish me luck learning the rest!

Update: Here’s the score.

I had a request for “MORE CHOPIN!” which made me realize that I’ve been neglecting the poor fellow — and he’s such a favorite of mine! I’ve been working on two new Chopin nocturnes, and I’ll hopefully be ready to record them soon. In the meantime, however, here’s one I’ve played for a long time, in a freshly remastered recording.

I like what I wrote about this piece when I posted this recording in its earlier, less acoustically pristine form, so I’ll say it again: It’s organic, and sounds almost improvised — except that it is impossibly perfect in every detail. Its soundscape is vast, deep, and richly pianistic, but look at the construction and you’ll see the spare elegance of Bach. It has a loving tenderness, and a longing, that’s unlike anything else, yet seems instantly familiar. And it’s gorgeous.

Nocturne Op 15 No 2 (in F sharp major)
Paul Cantrell, piano

There’s nothing quite like learning to play a piece of music to really get inside it. With this one, like many I’ve shared here, I knew it was excellent music before I started learning it — but once I’m inside it, once I’m feeling through the piece with my own hands and working through its many parts with the microscope of learning, once I really start to “get it” about the music … it’s just staggering how good it is. It just floors me. I don’t know how much of that comes across in my playing — certainly I’m only communicating a small shadow of that experience — but I hope you can share my sense of wonder that we have this music in our world.

The latest episode of the always-excellent Bowed Radio features a movement of The Broken Mirror of Memory. The whole episode is quite wonderful, well worth hearing (listen) — and the great sound of the other selections really makes me wish I had a higher-quality recording of Diana’s nice work on Mirror! Adrian graciously describes In the Hands as a “must-listen” for piano lovers, and gets big bonus points for pronouncing my last name right.

Uwe Hermann’s podcast featured one of my Chopin étude recordings. I was especially pleased that he didn’t shy away from including a classical piece — it drives me crazy how there’s this weird wall between classical music and the rest of the musical world, a wall which a lot of people on both sides work awfully hard to keep in place. I have a dream that one day my music will live in a world where it’s judged not by its categorization or its genre, but by the content of its character.

Kyle Gann tells me he’s added In a Perfectly Wounded Sky and Three Places to the playlist over at PostClassic Radio, which plays a fine selection of “weirdly beautiful new music.” The show seems mostly oriented to the credentialed circles, so I was very pleased with Kyle’s graciousness in including a small-timer.

And finally, Netherlands-based Robkast featured last week’s Brahms Intermezzo. I don’t speak Dutch, so I have no idea what Mr. Rob of Robkast is saying (listen) — but careful listening suggests that he may be announcing the name of the piece.

This is a very familiar piece (to piano aficionados, anyway) — but you’ll find Don’s performance a little refreshingly unfamiliar. It’s not a wild departure from custom, but there’s just a subtle tip in the balance in his performance that makes the feeling of the piece quite different.

In the last entry I mentioned the question of foreground and background. When most pianists play this piece, they put the right hand squarely in the foreground: what you hear is a series of speedy cascades down, a fun bit of finger gymnastics. But when Don plays it, he balances foreground between the left and the right, and what emerges is the slower underlying chord progression. Instead of a nervously flitting thing, it becomes a smoothly unfolding one. That reading brings us to what is to me the essential nature of Schubert: a tiny thing with a vast interior, a world opening from a single moment.

Impromptu D899 No 4 (a.k.a. Op 90 No 4, in A flat minor)
Donald Betts, piano

There is one more recording from Don’s living room I’ll post. After that, he recently made two more in the concert hall that are quite special that I’d like to share with you.