Several people had expressed an interest in how I make my recordings — so I posted an explanation of my methods that includes far, far more detail than anybody actually wanted.
I’ve tried to include enough technical detail to make it genuinely useful to others setting out to record pianos and/or set up home studios, but I also tried to keep the discussion at least semi-approachable to the casually interested but not technically inclined. Whichever of those categories you fall into, I hope you’ll find it interesting.
We live in a time of superhuman performers. The stars of the classical piano world do things that hardly seem humanly possible — certainly that are far beyond me — and people love it, demand it. It’s a mixed blessing: on the one hand, it’s amazing to hear the most difficult works performed with such ability; on the other hand, the emphasis on the performer, the great cult of the virtuoso, can make us forget about the music itself. Should hearing a piece of music be like watching somebody juggle 9 bowling balls on a tightrope, or like embracing an old friend?
It is often true of the composers dearest to me, Chopin first among them, that much of their finest work is their least virtuosic, and thus their most neglected. How many virtuosic pianists just gloss over a little piece like this one? (Yes, Martha Argerich, I’m talking to you.) But it is a masterpiece, not simplistic but simple, yet as wonderful as any music we pianists have the chance to explore — and painted in so few strokes, with such subtlety…. The world of music could learn from the world of math a reverence for the simple and elegant. Genius shows itself in simplicity.
So here, brave listeners, take a moment to forget about virtuosity and performers and Grammies and all that nonsense, and listen to the music itself as if it matters.
Prelude Op 28 No 6 (in B minor)
An old favorite, brought from the past to the present for your listening enjoyment.
Prelude Op 28 No 9 (in E major)
I love the steady outpouring of energy, the unbrokenness of the flow as it goes through such a dramatic series of changes, the perfect balance of the different sections, the tremendous sense of scope of this mere 95 seconds, a single printed page of music. Chopin is totally my hero.
Esoteric Musicological Aside
There’s an interesting controversy about this piece: in certain places, Chopin notated the melody as dotted eighth + sixteenth on top of three triplets. For those of you who don’t know music notation, that’s corresponds to the fractions 3/4 + 1/4 = 1 beat on the top, and 1/3 + 1/3 + 1/3 = 1 beat underneath. With me so far?
Now if you work out the math, the sixteenth note (that 1/4 of a beat) should come slightly after the last of the three triplets — but in the autograph Chopin very clearly and consistently notated it directly above that last triplet, implying that they should come at the same time. So his math and his visual language contradict each other; which do we take?
Composers did sometimes write dotted-eight + sixteenth as a shorthand for (quarter + eight) triplet — that is, the rhythm that would make them line up. That was a sort of outdated practice in Chopin’s time, but it’s still quite possible he would have done it. His obvious visual positioning, which really is quite consistent in the autograph, suggests that’s what he was doing. And at other points, he used a double-dotted rhythm to show very clearly that last note of the melody coming after the three triplets (at 1:02, for example), and in those spots, he doesn’t align the notes vertically in the autograph. I really think that “at the same time” is what he meant, and that’s how I play it. (I differ with the venerable Paderewski edition on this question.) For a fun home experiment, compare to your favorite recording!
Today’s improv is a bit of fun with one of my favorite sounds from extended piano technique, made by damping a low string with a finger or two at about the point where the copper winding ends. This sound also makes a prominent appearance in the second movement of The Broken Mirror of Memory.
I have been practicing some new material to record, and I’m getting the piano tuned later this week in anticipation of actually recording it. So stick around — I hope to have a few treats for you in February!
Last night’s concert was a delight to play in — and the audience tells us they had a good time as well. My third ballade was a bit fudgy, but got enthusiastic comments nonetheless. And people surpised me by also really liking the Dance for Remembering and Forgetting and especially the Entropic Waltz. It seems that the sensual surface of the first and the humor and recklessness of the second won out over the strangeness of the music. Say what you will about the Lone Artist maintaining the Integrity of their Vision in the face of an Unforgiving Society — it’s always gratifying when people actually like what I do!
I was actually feeling kind of discouraged about the completely lackluster, conversation-stopping, everyone-stares-at-their-shoes-and-shuffles-uncomfortably response to my request for suggestions on keeping In the Hands going. (Three days after that post, I have one donation and zero reader comments.) A successful performance was a tonic for my spirits. A second tonic came last night from Leslie Ball, who asked me to play accordion at Balls Cabaret on the spur of the moment. I said with minor distress that I didn’t know what I would play, and she said, “Oh, Paul, everything you do is beautiful!” Well…shucks. I don’t think that’s actually true, but it’s just about the nicest thing you could say to a performer. (I’ll provide a future aside at some point about how the word “beautiful” to me encompasses a far greater range of experiences than “pretty.”) What a good soul she is!
All of this was made ten times sweeter by the fact that my parents were here to visit from Colorado for the weekend. They are the very best of all for putting me in good spirits, for reminding me just what it is I generally mean to do by living! Oh, I’d best pull myself in, lest I have to start a third blog dedicated entirely to gushing about them! But I’m sure all the people who spent time with them this weekend would agree: there would be plenty of material for that.
Sorry for the lack of a recording this weekend. I’ll be back on the bus next Tuesday.
As any of you who have ever learned a piece of music or made a recording know, what I’m doing here is a lot of work. It’s amazing how much time it takes to post two recordings a week. Just the mechanics of recording, editing and mastering are a chore for single person — even a simple improv ends up taking at least an hour or two of work to record, prepare and post. The compositions of others often take many dozens, hundreds of hours to learn, polish, and get a good take; my own compositions take many hundreds of hours more to write before I even start learning to play them in earnest.
This is not meant as a sob story — it’s work I love doing! — but it does raise the question, “How on earth do you find all that time, Paul?” My secret is that I’m jobless: I quit my last job in May, and have been living off savings since. (I also do a little freelance writing for MPR, but it doesn’t pay much.) The months since May have been some of the most enjoyable I’ve ever had, but all good things must end: my savings are running out.
This means that, as things stand now, there there are only a few months of In the Hands left. When I’m finally “down to me last few coppers,” as Wallace puts it, I’ll have to get a job. When I get a job, I’ll have very little time for the piano.
It’s too bad. I’m having fun with this! (I hope you are too.) So I’m wondering: what can I do to keep this project going?
I am interested in your ideas: how can I raise money? Would you be interested, for example, in buying CDs? Classy “In the Hands” T-shirts? Having body parts signed? (I would draw lines with that one.) I want to keep the recordings themselves free to download — that’s part of my unwritten mission statement for this site — but perhaps there are other creative things I could do. Or perhaps not enough people are genuinely interested enough in what I’m doing to keep it going. I really don’t know, and I’m open to opinions. What do you think?
As a first step, I’m now accepting donations. The era of wealthy patrons is gone, but I wonder: can an online audience of ordinary people do today as well as the nobility did in the 18th century? Can all of you together be a patron? I don’t know. You might at least help stretch the lifespan of In the Hands: by my estimate, if every single regular reader / listener contributed a mere $10 right now, it would pay for another month of music; if some people went beyond that, In the Hands could almost be sustainable. If you have been enjoying following along with my experiments, if there was one recording you found particularly moving, please think about what the music is worth to you and consider a contribution.
Here’s another piece from the suite of dances I’m working on, the same set which also includes the Entropic Waltz and Cradle Waltz.
The composition, which was tricky, has actually been done for a while … but learning to play it has proved quite a bit of work! Though it may not sound like it, the piece is quite difficult — it has different layers moving in different registers of the keyboard, and so playing it essentially involves using two hands to create the illusion of three or four.
Actually, I’m still just barely able to play it, so this is just a rough performance to give an idea of how it works. The layers don’t have the independence and evenness I’d like, and it’s a bit faltering and probably a hair under tempo. Still, if you use your imagination, I think there’s enough here for you to get the idea.
Dance for Remembering and Forgetting (rough version)
I’ll be working on this piece all week to give a hopefully slightly more polished performance at Keys Please next weekend, along with the Entropic Waltz!
Todd Harper, Carei Thomas and I will be having our annual celebration of music, friendship, and
keyboards on Saturday, Feb 5. Our special guest this year is Laurie Witzkowsi, singer, drummer
Song of Keys Please
8:00 PM Saturday, February 5
Macalester College Concert Hall
St. Paul, Minnesota
$10 admission (all students free)
Rehearsals have been going well, and this stands to be a rollicking good time, as the past three were! Carei has a little bit of inspired madness called Synescalatoria that is bending my poor brain into weird knots. I mean that in a good way. I’ll be doing a new piece and the third Chopin Ballade. And yes, I will be playing the accordion again (just a very little, as I still don’t really know how to play the darn thing). Do come if you can.