Recital Recap (Thoughts on Success)

My recital wasn’t perfect.

This isn’t surprising. I haven’t counted exactly, but I had several thousand notes to play, and there are a lot of ways a note can come out wrong. It can be the wrong note, or out of tune, or not attacked cleanly, or left cleanly, or the wrong length, or not well blended with the notes on either side . . . and that’s not even getting into issues of phrasing and making compelling musical shapes. Playing a note correctly involves an intricate coordination of fingers, breath, and tiny muscles in the mouth, and a minor change in any of those can lead to failure.

So yeah, I made some mistakes. Some of them I noticed in real time as I was playing, and others I’m sure I’ll discover as I spend time with the recordings. In many ways, this is what classical training is: a relentless honing of one’s ability to ferret out mistakes and correct them. I’ve had a lot of that training, and I’d like to think I’m at least halfway decent at said ferreting out and fixing. I have a running list of areas for improvement in my playing, and I’m sure some of those will be reinforced by listening to this recital.

But I think it’s important to note that fixing everything on that list isn’t really a goal I have. It’s very easy to equate technical perfection with musical success, but I think that’s wrong. I don’t make music to show off my technical prowess. I make music to make people feel things.

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The Scaffolding of Theory

My favorite internet comment of all time was one I saw way back in middle school, or possibly my first year of high school. It was in a music discussion forum the name of which I am too lazy to recall, and it read simply “Remember everyone! Music theory is a theory and not a fact!”, as tho someone somewhere out there was taking a valiant stand against the forces of analysis in favor of some kind of sonic creationism.

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Infinite Canvas

Late in season 9 of the United States version of The Office, there is a scene where Oscar Martinez, a gay accountant, comforts Angela Martin, another accountant, who is sobbing in his car over the ruins of her love life. On its own, with minimal setup, it would be a moving scene, but coming as it does after nearly a decade of storytelling, it has a depth that can only come from layers and layers of backstory. Oscar and Angela have been bouncing off each other for years, sometimes as friends, more often as enemies, and the accumulated weight of that past gives the scene in Oscar’s car an oomph that would be impossible to attain otherwise.

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Scones of Anxiety

In the middle of the Tisch App Blogging Hiatius, I came down with a bit of a head cold, which meant I spent one weekend doing pretty much nothing but eating, sleeping, and watching TV shows on Netflix. Having recently finished The X-Files, I decided to check out other things Gillian Anderson’s been in, and watched the first episode of The Fall. Without giving too much away, it’s a police procedural where Anderson is working to solve some very unpleasant crimes, and, while she continues to be an incredible actor and the unquestioned standard bearer for sardonic, unimpressed eyerolls, I decided it was just a little too intense to fully appreciate while drowning in phlegm. In a haze of decongestants, I remembered that I’d heard good things about The Great British Bake Off, and found the one season currently available on Netflix in the US. “Perfect”, I thought, “A show about baking. This should be nice and relaxing.”. I could not have been more wrong.

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[one] and the Backstage Door

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the Contempo Flux contemporary chamber music class’s final concert of the term out at UCLA. It was a diverse program full of interesting pieces — many of which were new to me — and the level of playing was, on the whole, phenomenal, but there was one piece in particular that stuck in my mind: Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s [one] [YouTube] for piano and percussion inside said piano.

It’s not the sort of piece I would normally be drawn to. Misty and atmospheric, it unfolds slowly and freely, with little sense of melody or rhythmic pulse. If I’d only been listening to a recording of it, I honestly would’ve been kind of bored — it’s just not my jam. But watching it happen in person was a deeply engrossing experience, and one that I’d very much like to have again. In thinking about why, I realized that it was because [one] is very close to being a theatre piece.

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Because It's Hard

Ludwig Milde's tenth concert study for bassoon is a cantankerous, twisty little piece in C# minor. It is awkward and uncomfortable to play, and it is difficult to make the notes speak with the required rapidity. It is, in other words, Not Fun to practice.

I mention this specific étude not because it is unique in Milde's output for its difficulty, but because it's the one I happened to be working on when I was doing college visits my junior year of high school. On one such visit, I played for George Sakakeeny at Oberlin Conservatory. After working on some techniques specific to various problem spots, he asked why Milde hadn't written the thing a half-step lower in C minor. It would make everything much easier to play, and would probably sound better given the natural resonances of the bassoon after all. The answer he was looking for, and the only answer I find satisfactory, is that he wrote it where he did because it's hard.

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Making Up and Making Over

Western concert music, with its centuries-old tradition(s) of scholarship and study, has some very specific terms for very specific things: Essential Structural Closure, a modulation to the flat submediant, and my go-to bugaboo hexachordal combinatoriality — these all refer to pretty specific things and those specific things only.

Western concert music, being a rowdy and living tradition practiced by untold numbers of people with wildly different levels of formal education, also has some terms that can pretty much mean anything you want.

"Arranging" falls decidedly into the latter category.

I think most people, even non-musicians, have a pretty firm grasp on what it means to compose something. The specific process will vary from person to person, but at its heart, you go into a room with a blank piece of paper, and you come out with a piece of music. For some people, that involves literally sitting at a piano and plugging away, for others it involves fiddling with audio samples in a computer program, but either way, the result is much the same: The composer is the person who decides what sounds happen when*.

Arranging is much more nebulous.

At one end of its possible meanings, you have what can also be called transcription: Taking a work originally scored for one ensemble and scoring it for a different one, as with the concert band version of Leonard Bernstein's Overture to Candide compared to the orchestral original. Calling something a transcription implies a high degree of fidelity to the original source material. The instruments change, but the form remains the same. If you run across something labeled as a transcription, you wouldn't expect to find different harmonies or new countermelodies, at least not in the way that most people use the term today.

At the other end of the scale, you have things like Jimmy Mundy's arrangement of Louis Prima's "Sing, Sing, Sing" for Benny Goodman, which alters almost every aspect of the original**, up to and including the melody itself. (Few arrangements take this degree of latitude in the concert music world, what with our general reverence for scores and source material, but it's absolutely common practice in jazz and other less score-based musics.)

A lot of things fall somewhere in the middle. When William Schuman arranged his New England Triptych from orchestra to wind ensemble, he transcribed the first two movements with minimal alteration, but completely revised the third, nearly doubling it in length from its original incarnation. Gustav Mahler's piano parts for the piano-vocal versions of his Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs are not simply reductions of the full orchestral score from his orchestral arrangements.

Then, too, there are cases where the orchestration — the determination of which instruments play which notes — is so striking, so specific that, even tho the melodies and harmonies of the original are preserved in every detail, it seems misleading to call the new work "just" an arrangement of the previous one. The most iconic instance of this is probably Anton Webern's arrangement of one of the fugues from Johann Sebastian Bach's Musical Offering — Webern's meticulously detailed and relentlessly modern scoring transform Bach's exacting counterpoint into a psychedelic whirlwind of motives and fragments; it's an arrangement, sure, but one so strongly marked by the arranger's aesthetic that one almost wants to give them co-compositional credit for the resulting masterpiece. (You don't need two different people, either. The end of Igor Stravinsky's Svadebka (aka Les noces aka The Wedding) is another place where "the notes and rhythms being played" and "the instruments playing them" seem impossible to separate; orchestration and composition become one. (The passage in question, where frenetic energy gives way to the purified ringing of bells, begins around 8'17", but the whole thing is worth a listen if you have the time.))

Given this nebulosity, it might be tempting to dismiss "arranging" as a useless term. To the contrary, it's precisely this nebulosity that makes it useful. I can say that I'm "arranging" some of the music from Window Full of Moths for wind ensemble, and I don't have to clarify that, while the second movement is essentially a transcription of "Beside You", the third is a mixture of the opening of "Hey" and a radically altered version of "Stop Dreaming", with some new material thrown in to stitch them together, and then —

Arranging encompasses all these things in a way that gets at the core of what I'm doing: This music existed before. I'm changing it in some ways so that it exists in another form as well. Some of these changes are small, and some of them are big, but for the most part, we neither need nor want to get bogged down in the nitty-gritty specifics of which are which. Having a catch-all like "arranging" lets us get away from worrying about arbitrary distinctions on a continuous continuum and gives us more time to spend actually making art.


*There are, of course, exceptions where composers leave room for other people or things to make some of these decisions. For now, I'm simply ignoring this type of composition, but I think it can be subsumed into this framework with little difficulty.

**I am not actually 100% certain that this is the original arrangement given the sheer number of recordings of this tune and Spotify's spotty bibliographic information. If someone could confirm this or provide a link to the actual original arrangement, I would greatly appreciate it.