I Am Sitting In A Room

Commentary and thoughts on (mostly) classical music.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Brush with fame

Last time I was in Prague, I met The White Stripes.

At the time, the Stripes were just hitting radio with the single for “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” and no one else in our group had really heard much of them. I knew just enough to expect the Jack and Meg White on the CD covers.*

Contrary to my expectations, the members of the band we met were two (wild and crazy) heavy-set, drunken mittel-europäische guys. They were very nice, especially Jack. They bought us drinks and tried to pick up our women. I asked after Meg and was disappointed to hear we had just missed her.

* The real Jack White should reconsider his look from the
new album; getting a little too close to Michael Jackson. Meg works; she looks like she stepped out of Interview with the Vampire.

Thursday, June 23, 2005


My lady arrived in Prague today – without me.

I love the city, but I have a one-sided view of it. Having only ever been in July*, my Prague is the restored Baroque jewel of Malá Strana, Old Town Square and the castle area. The hills, parks and gardens are at their greenest and Smetana’s Vltava plays on a permanent mental loop.

Someday we’ll get out there in the winter so I can round out the picture with Kafka’s Prague – walk the streets in deep gloaming, visit the
Museum of Torture Instruments, and hit the S&M clubs in Nové Město.

*High tourist season, unfortunately.

Dancing with B.D.

The better half has gone to compete in the Internat’l Rudolf Firkušný Piano Competition. (Best of luck!) Not surprisingly, Czech music figures in the Firkušný’s requirements. The competition is sponsored in part by the Smetana Music Society, and Bedřich* specifically gets quite a bit of attention.

Smetana was a top-flight pianist. In his early years he campaigned to be a Czech Liszt** and was successful enough that his composing career sometimes got pushed to the shadows. Like Beethoven, Smetana’s hearing deteriorated over time (he dramatized the onset of deafness in the String Quartet “From My Life”). By the late 1870’s, when he wrote his Czech Dances, he couldn’t hear at all.

The Czech Dances are the peak of Smetana’s piano output and probably the best Czech (solo) piano music before Janáček. They’re in two sets. The first contains four Polkas; the second set, with ten pieces, uses a variety of dances and folk melodies as its basis. The dances have none of the desolation found in the last movement of the E minor Quartet. Instead, they are more like Ma Vlast – sparkling music inspired by the composer’s homeland. To quote an
Amazon reviewer: “I love the freshness and spontaneity of Smetana, the nationalist elements displayed naturally and with pride but without descending to mannerisms.”

The piano writing is technically difficult, with a lot of variety throughout the set. There are effective showpieces (the Furiant is my favorite), melting tunes, and sprightly dances in abundance. Pianists interested in getting beyond the standard 19th-century rep. would do well to look into the Czech Dances.

* B.D. to his friends. The picture is me and B.D. kicking it by the river in ’02.
** I knew a pun on ‘czech’ would slip through. The double pun is a bonus.

Monday, June 20, 2005


I visited the Rothko Chapel* for a while this morning in an attempt to soothe some inner torment.

I don’t meditate, though I have managed to have some meditative experiences while listening to recorded music. (I seem to remember some of the earliest accompanied by Pink Floyd’s
A Saucerful of Secrets.) I’m not religious or particularly spiritual, either; most of the profound moments of my life have come alone outdoors or at concerts (another variety of alone). But things in my mind had gotten tangled into knots and sometimes anything's worth a try.

The chapel opened as a non-sectarian meditation space in 1971. It is an austere octagonal room dominated by grays of all tint and depth. Indirect sunlight from above lights the room brightly on clear days like this one. There are fourteen large Rothko canvasses on the walls, most in dark slate. The north wall is the nominal front of the chapel with a triptych whose center painting is a huge rectangular purple bruise.

On first sight, the Rothkos might seem to be solid colors. But they’ve been painted; they have texture, irregularities, varied hues. Hanging for thirty-five years has given some wave to the canvases, too. So there’s a lot to look at in these paintings.

Sitting in front of Rothko’s mammoth black and purple windows, I couldn't go blank. My mind wrote a running commentary. I tried to stop it, but I’m so used to journalizing my thoughts that I couldn’t.

Unable to turn my mind off or channel my thoughts, I stared ahead at Rothko’s monoliths. After a while, something looked back at me. From the purple panel emerged something like a crude straight-line drawing of a voudon spirit or an Afro-Cuban
orisha. The bruised face watched me, annoyed. My foot fell asleep.

A couple came in. He led a circuit of the room, taking in the Rothkos as museum pieces. She followed in flip-flops. (I had worn
flip-flops, too, but mine were off and hers were flapping.) After noting that all of the Rothkos looked basically the same and spotting the cushions on the floor for meditating, he decided to sit down. The cushions were spaced apart, so she took up one on the opposite side. Seated on the floor, he lost his self-assurance. They looked furtively at each other. He looked at Rothko; she continued to look at him. Within a minute they were gone. You could almost see them cross the item off a list: Rothko Chapel.

I was there for a reason. I was searching for peace - or direction, or something. As it turns out, you can't search for peace. I didn’t answer any lingering questions of existence, either. But some anger melted away and I did stop some of the voices in my head, which had been getting frenzied.

Clouds dimmed the incoming light. The gray room took on a glower, foreshadowing Northern winters to come. When the sun came back, a new purple shape foregrounded in the center panel: female lips, broadly shaped into a grin, with dancing eyes above. I left calm with hope for renewal.

* I'm embarrased to add here that I have not yet heard Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel.

Saturday, June 18, 2005


Did some expanding of the links on the sidebar. Added several great blogs that should've been on the blogroll (In the Wings*, On an Overgrown Path, vilaine fille, twang twang twang, etc.). Women are much better represented now. You want more blogs? Get 'em somewhere else! (Like Alex Ross's side bar or TSR's Les rouleau des blagues.)

Also, I've been playing with del.icio.us and set up a feed further down the sidebar. I still want to do some tinkering with the look of the blog, but that may take me a while as I really don't know what I'm doing. Everything you see up here now is the result of muddling.

*One of Heather's many highlights is this dialogue between Evgeny Kissin and his manager.

In Brief: barmusic

Somehow I never managed to scrawl* a few words about the barmusic concert a couple weeks back. I didn’t go in with reviewer’s ears on, but there’s still no good reason for this neglect, especially as EKB and I enjoyed the concert.

It was a grab-bag of a program. Almost all of the music seemed to revel in the act of performance, from Erwin Schulhoff’s 1925 Duo for Violin and ‘Cello to pieces from the postminimal repertoire of the
Robin Cox Ensemble by Cox and Joseph Koykkar. Shaun Tilburg threw himself into the role of musician/actor for Songs I-IX by Stuart Saunders Smith, a mix of Gertrude Stein-like textual absurdisms and John Cage’s kitchen sink percussion works. The Rosta Jazz Avengers had a brief set that consisted of a long-limbed free composition and a short (and less-successful) tune.

Only Ligeti’s short Hommage à Hilding Rosenberg leaned more toward the “composerly,” though in its intricate polyphony of double- and triple-stops the piece did draw attention to the amazingly broad sound produced by the two strings. Its intense brevity made a good excuse to hear the work twice, leading off each half of the program. The two members of the
Enso Quartet who played the Ligeti created an engrossing sound world that seemed to stretch time; I was shocked to see the piece clock in at only 1’09” on the CD I have at home.

The laid-back and involved crowd at the Axiom, a roadhouse-cum-indy theater space with a ramshackle wooden bar in one corner and the stage in another, made for a nice change from most of the concerts I’ve been to this past year. And I’m fully in favor of “drinks allowed” concerts.

See also: Houston Chronicle

* A word I’ve always liked, but becoming sadly anachronistic.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Marching toward Gilead

Links re: the U.S. House Appropriations Committee’s movements on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. NYT, editorial. And Bill Moyers on CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson. Update: More from NYT on Tomlinson & CPB internal politics. #2: NPR reports [6/17] that the House reinstated future CPB funding that was to have been zereoed - but not until 2008; FY06 cuts (over 25%) remain intact.

Arts groups should keep a careful eye on how CPB’s dismantling affects public broadcast institutions. With every cultural dollar contentiously vied for, losing 15% of a budget - about what PBS relies on from CPB - can be crippling. PBS's situation will become even more precarious when the individual stations are forced to make hard decisions about what they can afford to show. How will PBS retool? Will it be able to recast itself as a new type of institution if it comes down to it?

These are the same considerations arts institutions should be gearing up to face. An extended neo-con dynasty will get around to putting the NEA on the chopping block before long, too. Drew McManus is constantly noting that arts managers e-mail him with comments about his blog,
Adaptistration. I wonder if any of them are taking up his advice. Certainly I hope they’re working on contingency plans for when arts funding patterns we’re accustomed to change.
Margaret Atwood once said, “I delayed writing [The Handmaid’s Tale] for about three years after I got the idea because I felt it was too crazy.” Then changes began and extrapolating to the dystopian version of the U.S. she called Gilead seemed more plausible. This is in the early ‘80s. With 20 years of momentum leading up to today, the force of the neo-con movement is petrifying.
Also, I recently heard the first half of
Poul Ruders’s opera The Handmaid’s Tale via OperaCast [via vilaine fille]. It’s really good. I intend to snap it up when/if it comes out on DVD.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Strange Fruit

Resolved, That the Senate--

(1) apologizes to the victims of lynching for the failure of the Senate to enact anti-lynching legislation;

(2) expresses the deepest sympathies and most solemn regrets of the Senate to the descendants of victims of lynching, the ancestors of whom were deprived of life, human dignity, and the constitutional protections accorded all citizens of the United States; and

(3) remembers the history of lynching, to ensure that these tragedies will be neither forgotten nor repeated.

The Senate passed this resolution Monday by voice vote. Reports are that the resolution had only about 80 signatures. Shameful. There should have been a roll call, with every Senator standing up to not only vote ‘aye,’ but to recite these words and apologize to the country. The House passed anti-lynching legislation several times over the years; when measures reached the Senate floor they were killed off by conservative, white Southerners via – wait for it – the filibuster. Shameful.

The NewsHour presented a powerful interview Monday (read, listen or watch it here) with the great, great granddaughter of one Anthony Crawford, who was lynched in 1916. Mr. Crawford was a black landowner, an active citizen and patriarch of a strong South Carolina family. He was arrested for cursing a white man, in a brawl caused by Crawford's unwillingness to accept an unfair price on his crop of cotton seed.

And all the Senate could do was apologize 90 years later for its ignoble impotence.

By the way, if you don't know the chilling Billie Holiday song Strange Fruit, read here and seek out a recording.

Friday, June 03, 2005


Just released: eighth blackbird’s newest is an all-Frederic Rzewski disc featuring the Pocket Symphony – which has made Lawrence Dillon’s 111+ Influential Works list despite this being the first available recording. Also on the disc are two of his early classics, Les Moutons de Panurge (hence the sheep on the cover) and Coming Together.

Cedille Records’s page for the CD has some enjoyable discussion between Rzewski and eighth blackbird. I love this exchange about the melody for Les Moutons:

Rzewski: I remember I was walking down the street in Paris near the Ecole Militaire [in September of 1968] and I had just bought one of these Philips micro-cassette recorders. They had just come out. And I was having fun, just, you know, playing with it. And I was walking down the street and I just whistled this tune [ … ]

Matt Albert: And that’s just the tune, as it occurred to you, as you wrote it?

FR: Completely. That tune is absolutely what I whistled walking down the street.

MA: Really?

FR: I didn’t change it at all.

MA: You whistled a 65-note tune…

FR: Yes

MA: …In f minor slash major?

FR: Yes.

MA: Okay. (laughter)

FR: Yes, and then I transcribed it. And I think of course, I’ve lost the original recording.

MA: Of you whistling?

FR: Yeah, I don’t know what happened to it.

Molly Barth: That’s too bad.

MA: That would be fun.

Robert Gable has aworks pages for Les Moutons and Coming Together. Here's a program note for the Pocket Symphony by the composer.

* This picture of Rzewski has always looked to me like actor
Jonathan Pryce in a wind machine.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Concert Anncemt: barmusic Saturday

Andrea Moore, Houston-area percussionist and IASIAR reader*, sent me the following announcement:

barmusic 2005 presents music by Erwin Schulhoff, Gyorgy Ligeti, Robin Cox, Joseph Koykkar and Stuart Saunders Smith.

Featuring Houston ensemble The Rosta Jazz Avengers playing original music and music by Brandon Ross.

Saturday, June 4 at 8:00 PM, The Axiom, 2425 McKinney - $10 at the door. For information, call 713-522-5356.

Come on out & support live new/contemporary music.

* I just found out - it's kind of bizarre to suddenly consider the readers you didn't even know you had. <maniacal laughter> My public! </maniacal laughter>

Meme Too

Picking up on a current meme:

Total volume of music on my computer. Laptop: 9.44 GB in 1,940 “songs.” Desktop: 7.13 GB in 1,593 files.

Last CD I bought. Esa-Pekka Salonen, Wing on Wing. Sadly my finances this year have kept me out of the CD store (PS – Houston has a classical-dedicated CD store. It’s true! Joel’s Classical Shop at the corner of Bissonnet & Wesleyan.)

Fortunately, I’ve been able to continue exploring
music lists* thanks to Rice University’s Music Library. Currently out on loan: Michael Finnissy, Etched Bright with Sunlight; Mangus Lindberg, Kraft & Piano Concerto; Juilliard Orchestra playing Druckman, Schwantner & Stephen Albert.

Song(Piece) currently playing. Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3 in f minor - streaming the first recital of final round at the
Van Cliburn Competition. Roberto Plano is playing. He’s a convincing musician with a great sound – an audience favorite, too. But after watching him play Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli in the semifinals, EKB (who is working the piece up for competition herself) noticed a lot of tension in his playing that affected the Tarantella section at the end. The first movement of this Brahms Sonata had some audible cracks, too. I’m beginning to wonder if he won’t injure himself before he manages to finish all three performances (a 50-minute recital and two concerti) in the finals.

Five songs(pieces/albums) I listen to a lot or that mean a lot to me. Liszt Sonata in b minor. Discovering the Liszt Sonata (and some of the named Beethoven sonatas) in high school was what got me back to playing the piano. Everything I’ve done since has its roots in those first CD’s I borrowed from the public library. Schnittke Piano Sonata No. 2 – one of the most moving and shattering concert experiences I’ve had. Recent frequent spins: The Bad Plus’s cover of “Flim.” Stephen Hartke The King of the Sun, Cibo Matto “Flowers.”

Argh! It’s hard to keep this from turning into a “favorites” list – one things reminds me of another and all of a sudden how can I keep from listing Talking Heads, Medeski Martin + Wood, Janáček? (or Little Walter, Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite, the Barber Cello Concerto, Beethoven 3, Guy Davis, Mikel Rouse’s Dennis Cleveland, Etta James’ gospel-tinged cover of “Take it to the Limit,” CCR, The Lounge Lizards, Souvenir of Florence, The People United!, Ligeti Etudes, etc. etc.)

Five people to whom I’m passing the baton. I usually don’t like to subject my friends to forwarded memes, jokes, or stories. (Though I guess it doesn’t specify friends … ) If you're interested in carrying on, feel free - and let me know when you post yours.

* Sequenza 21 composer/blogger Lawrence Dillon’s list of 111 (or so) Influential Works since 1970 is my latest exploration guide.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005


It's been requested that I post something new to push Jean-Yves off the top of the page. So, I hereby recommend you usher in the summer months with some chifles (plantain chips). They're available unsalted and in some other flavors, but I'm a purist; I like 'em salty. Mmmm, plantanos. [drool]