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

This was the first Brahms I ever learned to play. It looked to me like a relatively easy piece, simply because it doesn’t have all that many notes — but I was wrong: never having played Brahms, I didn’t recognize the difficulty that was there. Brahms doesn’t always divide his music into clear layers of melody and accompaniment; he’ll have bits of melodic thread appearing in different voices, different layers. None of these threads is complete in itself, but they form a complete whole that doesn’t emerge from any single place. Much like Renaissance polyphony, the “foreground” of the music emerges from a delicate interplay of layers.

So yes, not many notes, but this piece turned out to require a great deal of care in fingering and voicing, to give just the right weight to each note, and the right shape to the many parts. After I “got it” with this one, I found it much easier to work my way into other Brahms. Playing music requires a certain empathy with the composer; it is much like making friends.

Though it proved a bit tricky to learn, it’s certainly not tricky to listen to: the music is pure bliss, and though it passes through many landscape-changing shades of light and dark, nothing breaks the floating bubble between the first note and the last.

Intermezzo Op 116 No 4
Paul Cantrell, piano

Here’s an older piece of mine, newly remastered. I’ve gone back and forth in the past on whether I like this one, but I like it very much today, so I’m publishing it!

The title is based on my mishearing of a Tori Amos lyric (from Cruel). I generally go for titles that are evocative and somehow seem to fit, without actually having any clear meaning that listeners will try to impose on the piece — I want the title to be an opening into the music, not a box to stuff it in.

Another one of those “openings into the music” is the little epigraphs I often put at the end of the piece. I almost always choose both the quote and the title after writing the music, so they’re more a reflection on where I ended up than an explanation of what I was doing. The epigraph for this piece is a hokku by Masahide:

Now that my storehouse
has burned down, nothing
conceals the moon.

In a Perfectly Wounded Sky
Paul Cantrell, piano

For those following along with the audio engineering side of things, I used a touch of a look-ahead limiter on this one (which I usually don’t do), because of the huge variance between the attacks on the harsher chords and the very quiet intervening sections. I also cranked the scaling on the Gain Shaper a hair higher than usual.

For those interested in music notation, here is the score. Fun with parallel fifths!

I’m a fellow of diverse musical tastes, and there are a great many composers I love who don’t appear in the meager list over on the right of this page. So it’s a delight to post this recording, because I get to add a “Schubert” category. Yay for Schubert!

This is another one of the recordings I made in the living room of my teacher, Don Betts. He’s playing a little gem of Schubert’s that one doesn’t hear often — in fact, I’d never heard it at all until he played it for me. When I looked up some recordings by others, I was surprised to find that most people play it very fast, even presto, making it a silly sort of sing-songy horse gallop. Now admittedly I’m a slow tempo kind of guy, and heck, maybe Schubert intended it to be a silly horse gallop, but man do I ever prefer Don’s tempo.

Schubert’s music is a rarified world, full of repeating simple patterns built from the same few simple ingredients, where subtle changes create tremendous moments — just a shift from minor to major, and a whole new world opens up. In Don’s performance, you can feel the weight of each of those little moments, the overwhelmingly vast interior of this tiny little world, like one of Georgia O’Keefe’s flower paintings.

Piano Piece D946 No 1 (in E flat minor)
Donald Betts, piano

Speaking of repeating patterns, there’s a stretch at about 1:40 that sounds almost like a bit of 20th century minimalism. I wonder if Philip Glass likes Schubert? (Hmm. Apparently so. You know, you could probably get a decent Glass parody by taking some random Schubert, and repeating each measure 2-4 times.)

I tried a slightly different approach with the sound on this one than with the Arabesque. It still doesn’t sound quite right — honestly, I wish Don would come to my studio to make some recordings, but he wanted to do this at his house, and when he decides that things should be a certain way, his mind is not easy to change! I guess I sympathize: it’s a bit of a hike over here for him. Anyway, if anybody feels like comparing, let me know what you think of the different sound.

Continuing with the work of remastering all my existing home recordings, here’s a Chopin nocturne I posted almost exactly one year ago. It is a subtle, spare thing, and its spareness makes it much more difficult than it sounds. Listening to this recording again, I think I could play it better now; perhaps I’ll record it again in the future. A really fine piece of music is a lifelong exploration, so I’m certainly not opposed to posting new versions of pieces I’ve already recorded! Still, this recording is decent — the idea of the music certainly comes across, and the new sound really helps.

Nocturne Op 55 No 1 (in F minor)
Paul Cantrell, piano

My favorite moment of many favorites in the piece: the magical chromatic spiral toward the end (it begins at 4:25 in this recording). It was a delight picking that apart one note at a time, figuring out how Chopin put it together — then feeling it sinking comfortably into muscle memory, the ears and the fingers an organic living whole. I marvel at Chopin, and playing his music is humbling — but the wonderful thing about being a musician is that I get to make it my own all the same. (If any of you out there let out a longing sigh as you read that: it’s never too late to start (or restart) piano lessons!)

Since In the Hands was featured in Adam Curry’s Podfinder (Thanks Adam!), a lot of people have been asking how to subscribe to this podcast in iTunes.

Please note: This is not the support web site for iTunes. These are instructions on how to subscribe to this podcast. That’s it. For general help with iTunes, please contact Apple. General questions about iTunes posted here will be deleted.
(It’s amazing how many people post iTunes support questions here anyway. Truly, I fear for humanity’s future.)

You should be able to subscribe as follows:

  • Click this link to open In the Hands in iTunes.

  • Click the “Subscribe” button.

If that doesn’t work, you can subscribe manually:

  • Copy the following URL:
  • Open iTunes. Go to the “Advanced” menu, and choose “Subscribe to Podcast.”
    iTunes screenshot
  • Paste the URL you just copied, and click “OK":
    iTunes screenshot

That should do the trick!

On this subject, I have a favor to ask of In the Hands listeners. The reason people are having trouble subscribing is that Apple hasn’t included In the Hands in their podcast directory. It’s been submitted, but hasn’t shown up yet. Their support department has been completely useless — they just sent a form letter saying that submitted podcasts show up within two weeks (it hasn’t), and didn’t respond to my second inquiry.

So, I’m kind of stuck, but you can help: go to the iTunes request page, and request that iTunes include the “In the Hands” podcast. Maybe if they get some requests from several different people, they’ll start paying attention.

Update [2005/09/26]: I’ve finally shown up in the directory, though I’m still not appearing under the “music” category. After over a month of waiting, I finally filed this as a bug report on Friday (as Michael suggested below) — and by Monday morning it was in the directory. Methinks Apple is not running a very tight ship with this whole podcast directory thing. Sort of unusual for them — they usually do really fine work and are on the ball.

Update [2005/09/27]: ItH has vanished from the iTunes directory this morning. However, iTunes support did finally send a response to my latest inquiry: it seems to consist of all of their canned responses for podcasters pasted one after another in a single long email. It it hilarious. It now looks as if their support department is not actually staffed by humans at all, but by a bot — and a rather stupid bot at that. I wonder if it’s reasonable to submit “iTunes support department fails Turing Test” as a bug?

In the Hands is primarily for my own recordings, but today I have a special exception to make: over the summer, I recorded Don Betts, my piano teacher, playing in his home. Don has made a great many excellent recordings over the years — including the Chopin album available on this web site — but these recordings we made in his living room are something entirely different. They have a special kind of magic about them. The Chopin album was recorded in a concert hall, and it has a concert hall feeling: it’s Don the performer, playing a big piano in a big space, and with a big manner to match. The way I really think of him, though, is Don the teacher: playing to an audience of one, not performing so much as sharing, hoping you will share his love and his sense of wonder for the music. These recordings are the first that truly capture the Don Betts I know best.

We recorded several pieces, and after much fiddling with EQ, I finally have the first recording prepared and sounding quite decent (though more work is needed!).

Arabesque (Op 18)
Donald Betts, piano

Recording in this setting posed some challenges: I had to adapt a recording setup designed for my home studio to an entirely different piano in an entirely different space. It took some experimenting to get mic positions that worked. Don’s piano isn’t a concert instrument, and there was a funny buzz to contend with, plus the noises from outside — you can even hear Don’s fingernails clicking on the keys! I worry a little that listeners used to hearing clinically perfect studio recordings will be put off, but I think you’ll find that there is so much life in this music, your mind won’t notice the surface details for long. Close your eyes and imagine: you’re standing next to a master of the art, in his home, sharing with you what he loves.

I’m hardly the first to note that the US government — the president in particular — have shown unforgivably shoddy leadership after Katrina. But we can’t wait to help until we’re asked; when our leaders fail, our responsibility as individuals doubles. Please consider donating to the American Red Cross right now.

All right, I admit that it’s not exactly directly related to piano music, but I have to share what my dad is up to. He’s a psychologist who (roughly speaking) deals with learning, with helping people learn how to learn, and has written what I think is quite a marvelous book about raising intelligent children — not in the narrow and fairly silly Mensa sense of “intelligent,” but in a broad, practical, rich sense of the word that might challenge some ideas you have about what intelligence really is. His writing is full of wisdom, optimism, and just plain good advice; it is a wonderful book, of interest even if you’re not a parent. And yes, I say that in part because he’s my dad, but I mostly say it because the book is really good.

Anyway, I’ve put together a web site to support the book, We’re putting the full text of the book up on the site one chapter at a time, and there is also a news section (discerning readers may note a faint similarity in the blog software!) and a forum for discussing parenting and the mysterious human mind and that sort of thing. The site is only just hatching out of its shell, so we’re looking to get feedback, and get discussion rolling in the forum. It would be wonderful if all of the good and discerning people who read In the Hands made a visit. (Pretty please!)

Here, to whet your appetite, is a favorite passage of mine from the first chapter of the book:

You’ll do your best job for your child if you’re having fun. I want to help you approach the task of raising your child with confidence and pleasure. Every word here is meant to calm a fear, almost a panic, that has come to pervade the way our culture thinks about children. We seem to be taking childhood awfully seriously as we step into the new millennium. We hear that our children will have to fight and claw their way into the world if they expect to do more than survive. Even when we try not to listen, the messages of ruthless competition, dwindling opportunity, increasing demands — the threat to these people we love so much — chews on us. It makes us fearful. It can even corrode our common sense and our natural instincts. Our children have to be prepared! Every minute is important! Every homework assignment has to be finished!

Wanting to prepare our kids for the worst, we are, paradoxically, in danger of giving them a taste of it. Real intelligence, I constantly argue, is built on a base of enjoyment. Learning is what humans do best. It is our natural state. When we try to force the process, we are in danger of thwarting our own good intentions.