Thursday, September 9, 2010

Schnozz hands!

I.

I am lucky to work at a first-rate, top-drawer, high-level research institution. This means that, among other things, going home and staring out the window is considered work.

For you see, and for those of you playing along at home, staring out the window is a big part of a composer's process. What the composer creates from this process, after lots of staring out the window, is research

Which doesn't sound exactly right. Davy must now recontextualize.

Recontextualize — which composers do anyway. Staring out the window is all about the recontextualizing. As is lots of music.

Need proof? The second theme of the Waldstein being in E major instead of the traditional G major is a large scale recontextualization of the E at the top of the piece's first sonority. Actually, its second sonority. Dude, it begins on a lone C, then the chord happens. But I am getting way off topic here. Not to mention, kind of cosmic.

At my research institution, we faculty are expected, in addition to teaching, to produce research and artistic creations. Note that the two are on parallel tracks. Note also that my research institution is sufficiently enlightened to give equal stature to artistic creations. Almost invariably, though, the people sitting around long tables in dark rooms charged with evaluating quantity and quality of such stuff have concrete standards for evaluating research but need a lot of help evaluating artistic creations — mostly with similes and by analogy, as it turns out. Is a CD "like" a book? Is a public performance "like" a juried paper? Is a standing ovation "like"a good review in a journal? Is writing a symphony "like" writing a book? Is getting a symphony performed "like" getting a book published? Is getting a symphony published "like" getting a book published? Is staring out the window "like" staring into a microscope? What's the creative equivalent of a 17-page journal article with 23 footnotes?

But the point is. Staring outside and noticing that a brown spot has appeared on the lawn where one wasn't before — that's recontextualizing. Therefore it's process. Therefore it's artistic creation. Therefore it's like research.

If I were Frank Zappa, I would then up and write a Brown Spot Tornado. Rim shot.

II.

One important topic that gets taught in first year theory is the pedal point. Named after the pedals on the organ, of course, for pieces when they get the opposite of happy feet. Most theory-takers associate the pedal point with the bass, and yes, it's the most convenient place to put it, especially if you have sad feet. In a nutshell, it's a note that stays put even as the chords change.

So tonic pedals (already pedal point is abbreviated to pedal, since it's what we do) are most common at beginnings and endings of pieces, and dominant pedals most commonly prepare recapitulations — the resolution to the tonic after such a long wait causing a structural downbeat. There are plenty of pop songs with pedals that go into this lecture, because they exist: Prince's 1999 starts with a dominant pedal that resolves quickly enough to a tonic pedal.

The lecture finishes with the poor cousin pedals — notes not in the bass that hang around. So there is the top-voice tonic pedal in, say, the Hill Street Blues theme, and a middle voice guitar pedal on the dominant in You Keep Me Hanging On — in the latter case, note how the engineer plays with that pedal by moving it from speaker to speaker, causing potential dizziness for the attentive listener or house pet. Note also how a metaphor is created by the unyielding pedal note that keeps hanging on.

Keep in mind the distinction between a tonic pedal and a wah-wah pedal. The latter doesn't get taught until third year theory, oddly enough during the banjo-writing unit. I can't explain why.

In the classical realm, the usual example is the opening of the K. 331 sonata of Mozart. The dominant, E, is always there, played by the left thumb. When I demonstrate this as a middle-voice pedal for my class, I normally go all out. The middle voice is so easy, just one note! Watch how easy! And I play the right hand as notated, the bass line as notated, and the repeated E's with my nose.

Since the advent of cell phone cameras, I only do that once per year. Though this is not by any means the only class of the semester in which I hear Do it again! I didn't have my cell phone out! a lot. After all, since I can balance a piano bench on my head, why would I not?

III.

Once there almost seemed to be commercial value to my piano études — by which I mean I'd written six of them consecutively on intervals, like Debussy, and the first book of études had sold almost nine copies — I gave myself a challenge to write a whole book of them within a year, while also writing the other pieces on my plate and also teaching the fall semester with an overload. Be it noted that I played the piano with my nose twice that semester, since the overload was an extra section of first year theory. I was taking the spring semester off without pay, and a colony hop was lined up. As far as being lined up goes, a colony hop was.

I had written a few of those intervaltudes at the MacDowell Colony the previous summer, and already one of the writers called me nothing but étude dude. Here's an example: Hey étude dude! Here's another: It's the étude dude! And yet another: Save a spot for étude dude!

Would I be typecast as the piano étude guy? This was to be the third book of ten études, zooming me past Chopin on the all-time list of piano études by those of Polish extraction. Actually, they tried extracting the Polish from me once, but they didn't bring big enough tweezers. They also brought a harp. They didn't say why.

It was the summer of 1999, Beff and I were still living full-time in Maine, and I began with the chromatic wedgetude, in memory of Earl Kim.

For my next trick, I thought I'd write a 'tude in which the pianist would have to play with his or her nose. I had experience playing piano with my nose, after all, and writing something beautiful given proboscan restrictions would definitely make my brain bigger. Plus, I'd already written an étude for thumbs and pinkies only, and one for the index fingers only. Dude, restrictions ce sont moi!

IV.

So I embarked on what was officially a research trip. I drove to Beff's workplace — the University of Maine — in order see if it was possible to play both black and white keys with my nose on every piano in the joint. It was good research. It was necessary research. For you see, the first three practice rooms I entered had pianos with flat lids that just 'bout gave my forehead enough leeway to play some black keys as well as the white keys with my nose. I tried a black key glissando on one of them, and it made me sneeze. I hope I didn't leave any evidence of that particular research behind. I hadn't brought tissues.

The fourth piano, though. Had one of those curvy one-piece lids that blocked my forehead and disallowed any keys being nosed except the white ones. Thus for the sake of the nosetude, my possible nasal vocabulary was reduced by five twelfths. I couldn't even play black keys with my forehead on this piano (obviously thinking ahead to an étude that I never got around to) — and not just because none of the Polish in me had been extracted.

Even though Schönberg famously said that there was still much great music to be written in C major, I'm pretty sure he didn't mean that any of it would be for the nose. So diatonic or modal white-key music wasn't in the cards. Nor was it in the tall grass.

V.

Then came time to conceive and to write. I went directly to a window and stared, returning quickly with the piece's template. First and foremost, the music must sound serious and as beautiful as I can make it, given the size of my brain. Secondly, the part for the nose, besides being all on the white keys, must be structurally essential (how many noses aren't?). Thirdly, I must use the epigraph "Give me a pianist, and make it lean" on the score. And fourthly, the nose shouldn't always play — the drama (if that's what you want to call it) of having the nose exit and return would be part of the form of the piece. Just like at the doctor's office.

Thus, a five part structure that's really fun to say out loud: nose, no nose, nose, no nose, nose. Not unlike a concerto movement, really — solo, tutti, solo, tutti, solo. Which is less fun to say out loud.

In concerti, too, there are various kinds of combinations of musical materials that happen. They just do. So if the notes work out — and they did — there would be something musical associated with the nose and something else associated with no nose and in the second no nose, the two somethings would be played together. Yes, just like the denouement of The South Park Movie and tons of musicals, except less complicated.

To make the nose essential — and also to give plenty of space to giant-craniumed pianists (Brainiac, say)— the nose music is in the middle register and the hands at the extremes of the piano. Hence, the opening, which can not be played with only two hands. And here I inform you that the musical examples are copyright © by C.F. Peters.

Since the nose can play two notes, it occasionally is asked to. Actually, the person owning the nose is asked to. Noses have no free will of their own, especially when there's Claritin™ at hand.

The no nose music turned out to be more quickly-moving and more flowing, so it turned out well when the nose music joined in — note the lower voice in the right hand, entirely on the white keys. The upper voice was heard already in the first no nose music.

Pause to reflect. Add eight instruments to that music and you will have a No Nose Nonet.

I was satisfied that it was good music, kind of pretty. I wrote in the notes for it that the nose part may be played by a third hand or by an extremely well-trained pet. I moved on to the next étude.

VI.



VII.

The third book of études was finished the following March. Various pianists had copies of the recent 'tudes and some were learning some of them.

Geoffy told me he would premiere Schnozzage (the title is a pun with a dog treat called Snausages) and a few other 'tudes on a concert of the Phantom Arts Ensemble, and at my research institution. Things didn't work out that I could make a rehearsal before the concert, so I'd be seeing it and hearing it for the first time at the performance. I know Geoffy and his playing well enough that he always gets it right, so that was cool.

Schnozzage was in middle of a set of three or four 'tudes, and it came after one of the whizbang ones. I was sitting in the middle of a row, fairly close to the piano. I like to see the hands. Geoffy finished the whizbang one with a flourish. Then he got all serious. There was a brief pause. The music was put on the stand.

He took off his glasses and placed them to the right of the music. There was a brief inhalation. Then his entire torso, it seemed, rigid and with the hands in the stress position, rotated in the direction of the piano, and landed on the keys. The first sonority of the piece was perfectly synchronized.

When I was writing the 'tude I hardly had time to think about what it would look like when played. All the nose-playing I'd ever witnessed was with my own nose, after all. Plus, I was busy making it work formally and musically. But I didn't think about what it looked like.

It was so.

Fucking.

Funny.

I don't remember much about the performance because I was expending so much energy keeping the guffaws that wanted to burst out from doing so. Miraculously, there was no sound of laughter from me, or from anyone else in the hall. Red-faced from exertion, and with tears coming out of my elbows, I finally got to laugh during the thunderous applause. And the people around me, every one of them, leaned over to me and said, "I'm glad you thought it was funny, too."

But it was supposed to be beautiful, too. Which I finally got to notice when I got the recording of the concert.

VIII.

Shortly thereafter, Amy Briggs was embarking on her 'tudeathon and learning two dozen of them at a time. There was some question as to whether she would be able to perform Schnozzage, however, because she has a small nose, and in test runs she couldn't get much of any sound. It was perhaps a good thing that she hadn't had to teach pedal point in the middle register by that point.

Then I got a breathless call from her. I can play Schnozzage! I can play Schnozzage! It turns out that she figured out a way involving the ocean of the motion that doesn't depend on length to produce a beautiful sound. Judy Sherman called it the most expressive nose in the business.

I hadn't realized that the technique for playing the piano with the nose could potentially be pornographic. There was still so much to learn.

At the recording session, Judy announced that the tape was rolling and we were ready to start recording. There was a pause. Then Amy's voice on the monitors: This piano smells funny. If there were aisles in the control room, we would have rolled in them.

Meanwhile, we made the 'tude movies and I would play them for anyone who wouldn't run away. Schnozzage was always the popular one. Just as it started, the most frequent comment was, "Oh no, she's not going to ..."

IX.

Max Baer, Jr., was typecast as Jethro. Even in a guest spot on Love Boat wearing a suit and playing a millionaire, there was no way it was anything but Jethro dressed up. Bob Denver, even given the sterling example of Dobie Gillis, was typecast as Gilligan.

Yes, I have watched Love Boat. There is much for which I must atone.

I, meanwhile, was already typecast as étude dude within a very small circle, but was in danger of becoming The Nose Guy. "Hey, études! You wrote that nose piece, right? Funny!"

When Amy was giving an all-Davytude concert at my research institution, I got a call from the local newspaper. The guy on the other end wanted to write a feature on the concert. "It should get you a nice audience. (pause) Is Amy going to play the piano with her nose?" "Yes." "Good, that will be the focus of the story!" I'm pretty sure if I'd said no, there would have been no article. Who's going to turn out for a concert of mod piano music if there's no playing with the nose?

Crap. I'm The Nose Guy.

Amy has played Schnozzage around a lot, and when there's been press, the nose aspect is always played up. For every mention that it's a nice piece, there are plenty more that say she played with her nose! Ain't that zany? Liner Notes Danny did a good job in that regard.

Thankfully I wrote ninety-nine other études that don't use the nose, or at least not on purpose. Stride. That one's pretty good. Funk. Clave ...

X.

When Amy was in town for her research institution concert, I was in residence at the MacDowell Colony, which is not far. Amy agreed to do an abbreviated concert for MacDowell's outreach program, for a few dozen schoolchildren. I got to do fun narratives before each 'tude she did, and she herself talked about the music, too. Some of the other residents at the Colony came to the event, as well. Schnozzage was in that concert's repertoire, and before it started, Amy invited the kids to come closer to watch.

Afterwards, the kids got to ask questions. Some of them did not yet understand the distinction between asking a question and sharing. Thus the question Bach is my favorite pianist. And the question I'm working on Golliwog's Cakewalk.

Later I got a nice handwritten note from one of the resident writers who'd been at the event. She raved about Schnozzage, how beautiful the music was, and especially about its visual effect. In her description, it looked like a religious experience — that with the face on the keys and the arms and hands spread as if in supplication, it was as if the performer was praying to and worshipping the music, in perfect submission to it, as performers should be.

That visual aspect hadn't occurred to me until then. She was right.

I shouldn't have laughed.

I have gotten that same reaction a few other times, too. Imagine that — music with multiple interpretations.

Geoffy's wife commented to me, not knowing what the MacDowell writer had told me, that yes, Schnozzage could look funny, but it also looked like the performer was praying to the music, and it seemed rather profound.

Okay, that's now my story. And I'm stickin' to it.

XI.

Rick Moody called Schnozzage in its meditative slowness, astringent and incredibly sad. He then makes some very astute and poetic observations. That's also my story. To it will sticking also be done by me.