Monthly Archives: March 2013

090: Antisagging

Adjective: antisagging (not comparable) – (manufacturing) Combatting the tendency of paints and other coatings to sag. “Bentonite clay is often used as an antisagging agent.”

TODAY on flaglock: Julian describes how weird it is to play his own music, and describes a few scenarios of wishful thinking.

I was up ’till some ungodly hour of Monday morning working on a composition, a student composition for Music 25A. It’s our midterm exam: compose a short (sub-sixty-seconds) piece using our knowledge of harmony and perform on Friday. I scheduled the compulsory review office hours for today, and so I had to finish it all on Monday morning.

Unbelievably, I churned out twenty-eight measures of vaguely ordered music. And I did it all in C major! It’s written in simple ternary form in 6/8 time. I’m inwardly satisfied with the “development” and “variations” (quoted because I know how awful they must be) in there. The GSI pronounced my piece as a “harder” one more for “professional” pianists, though I think I’m supposed to take that as a backhand rather than a compliment. She seemed okay with my harmony, too, which I take to heart.

In preparation for the Friday performance, I went to the rec room to practice the piece I’d written. I’ve always imagined that playing your own music must be easy, because you surely must unconsciously tailor it to your own technique and style.

The triple meter suited me, yes, but nothing else really did – the nine-tuplets in the trio show that I really bit off more than I could chew while composing. And to make the whole thing fit together (an overall soft mood stands at odds with my brilliant ending) cohesively is something of a challenge. Interlocking octaves finish off the piece (because I couldn’t resist). I won’t do that again.

I like to think this piece kind of sets off my “Opus 1.” Everything before shall be Opus Zero. I will dub this a Prelude and write twenty-three siblings for it, moving through the circle of fifths. And they will be for my own use.

And now, wishful thinking follows.

All the great magicians and illusionists of our world are part of an enormous secret society of wizards and witches (for real!) who leave room in their tricks for people to think they can divine a solution. It is in fact magic, but they have to pretend to be fallible. Houdini was assassinated by an ungodly curse, which he fought bravely. David Copperfield is actually a lower-tier wizard who compensates with charisma.

Fermi’s Paradox has a simple resolution: playfully sadistic alien generals. They have blockaded our solar system to prevent any intelligent life from making contact with us. And when we finally discover for ourselves evidence of extraterrestrial life, they will teleport into our asteroid belt and commence their invasion, leading us into the final struggle for our lives.

There really is some higher power in the universe, and it’s just holding out to make sure it’s got all the stupid and annoying people all accounted for, to be more efficient about wiping them out in one fell swoop.

Japanese forests abound with friendly, furry forest spirits that are enormous and huggable and adorable and take your Dad’s umbrella but give you lots of seeds and aaaaaaaahhhhhh. What I wouldn’t give to actually meet a Totoro.

There’s a bright future for humans, and heat death will never happen. Everyone can frolic in the meadows with butterflies and ponies (and nobody will have allergies – that’s very important) without a care in the world. People may grow old and die, but they do so on their own volition, after settling all their affairs in this life before passing on to the next.

While I’m dreaming, I may as well wish for a meaningful life after death.

Imagine a world where everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.

Instead of ending with Vonnegut, I would like to conclude with a poetic and tragic line of Conan Doyle:

“A few words may suffice to tell the little that remains … and there, deep down in that dreadful caldron of swirling water and seething foam, will lie for all time the most dangerous criminal and the foremost champion of the law of their generation … him whom I shall ever regard as the best and the wisest man whom I have ever known.”


088: Parvocellular

Adjective: parvocellular (comparative more parvocellular, superlative most parvocellular) – (biology) Having small-bodied, punctate neuronal cells

TODAY on flaglock: Julian thinks Rachmaninoff and Schubert. Asian pianist defense.

“serge rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 4, op. 40 – Revised Version, 1941 – Reduction for 2 pianos – New Corrected Edition, 2003; Boosey & Hawkes.”

I disagree with the unflattering close-up of the composer’s face and the particular romanization of his name (and the capitalization! Ugh!), but I can’t complain about the contents. Inside that book is the concerto I’ve been eyeing for months. And now, I finally get to start reading it.

First thing I did on the night I got it was listen to Michelangeli, the score in hand. Only then did I appreciate his technical perfection: he runs through passages of terrifying difficulties at dizzying speed. This is what I hold to be my gold standard and this is what I have to play up to. Oh boy, am I ever in for the rough ride.

The first movement is rough reading. The only reason why I’m not fond of reading Rachmaninoff is that (like many other later-time-period composers) he has rather thick and less predictable writing. That is not to degrade other composers (e.g. Chopin), but merely to note that my tiny brain finds it easier to play harmonic mad libs with Mozart than with Ginastera. The second and third, though, seem to mainly pose challenges in the interpretive department (but I’m not concrete-sure yet, though).

Lyra and I have decided to take up Schubert’s Allegro in A Minor D. 947 (op. 144). A preliminary reading suggests this is going to be a very nice (and easy-to-read) step back from Debussy and Rachmaninoff. I’ve been practicing Images (at least Reflections in the Water) pretty hard this week; I’m proud of my progress.

Today, when a passage in my Chopin suddenly cleared up like a blocked sinus, I realized slowly that unfettered musical expression must come first from a refined, mature technique; shoddy, half-assed scaffolding collapses quickly, bringing the music to an ear-piercing halt. This will be important later as I ramp up my practice.

Is it wrong for an Asian person to be a pianist? (This isn’t about me. This is about actual professionals.) As Fou Ts’ong proves, no, it’s not necessarily wrong. It can be incredibly right, as a matter of fact. But as Lang Lang and Yuja Wang and Yundi Li (“YUNDI?”), stacked from most to least controversial, prove, there can be some stunning difficulties in uniting a divided musical world over some of the best stuff in history.

Each of these pianists have technique beyond question (at least, I think so. I’m open to debate and argument and flaming). However, each has respective vices that may or may not be extra-musical: Lang Lang, frequently hawked as “Bang Bang” by the linguistically challenged, is known for his keyboard antics and ability to sustain fortissimos over long periods; Yuja Wang, whose agent needs a good slap upside the head, is too often marched to the ivories in terrifically skimpy dresses and flashy high heels; she too is already being tracked on several keyboards for some Brahms-Paganini controversy and for alleged “lack of emotion;” Yundi Li has gone from “lost little boy” to “gender questionable,” and his agent needs a good flaying, too; he, too, seems to suffer from “lack of emotion.”

I use quotes to indicate where opinions are taken from other people and are almost certainly not in line with my own.

Allow me to establish my position: as I have stated before on Amazon, I refuse to defend any person on grounds of a shared ethnic identity; pianists are no exception. You can be Chairman Mao or President Hu (is he still president? Whatever) or President Ma (I HOPE he’s still president, right?) for all I care: if I think your skills at the piano are no good, I’ll SAY so. I don’t care if you won the so-and-so competition, you’re still fair game for my critical sniping.

Am I suspicious? The above paragraph seems to put me on neutral ground, but … let’s see …

I am not overfond of Martha Argerich. She was one of the first artists I bought, and so her recording holds a special place in my head. But she really loves Need for Speed, Piano Drift – and there’s no arguing that she’s a technical wizard. But sometimes, the speed gets to me – there’s an art to racing beautifully, and sometimes the “racing” part overpowers the “art” bit and that can … well …

I don’t like Vladimir Horowitz at all. He strikes me as a slightly powered up Lang Lang, well-versed in the school of fortissimo (and of steep-gradient dynamics) and whose virtuoso arrangements will forever live on in every aspiring (and wannabe) pianists’ dreams. But was his playing amazing? I rather disagree. Like Argerich, he doesn’t really believe in speed limits. There’s been more than one (several, I think – I have definitively verified two) recording where he completely bent things out of proportion (i.e. fell way out of sync with the orchestra); in addition, his solo piano recordings REALLY don’t take much at face value – he has his own style. Style is good. Style is individual. But too individual, I don’t know … admittedly, Horowitz was stock-still at the bench, and so you can’t call him out for Lang-Lang-ish playing … no, no, I just don’t agree with his manner of musical expression at all.

I really love Mikhail Pletnev. I won’t even expound on why. He’s wonderful. I’ll be sure to keep on the lookout for his recordings in Taiwan and elsewhere.

If I were to praise Blechacz any more than I already have, I may as well collapse this blog into Preludia and hell with the irrelevant other tiny percentage of subjects I write about.

Evgeny Kissin is an old friend. Yes. I like him a lot.

Michelangeli! I have not forgotten you. You’re amazing. Will buy at the first opportunity.

Rubinstein, I haven’t heard enough of you – but yes. You’re most certainly clear of the “dislike” zone.

It is safe to conclude, I think, that I am not biased towards members of my own race at all. I’m not at all fond of Lang Lang, Yundi Li releases don’t excite me unduly, and Yuja Wang … hmm … introspection required.

But I see nothing unemotional or boring about their playing. I detect a disproportionate amount of vitriol aimed at Asian pianists; it’s bizarre how many people can hate a certain group at the same time.

… am I wrong in guessing that this could be a covert streak of racism? After all, what better place to voice an outdated sentiment than under the guise of a relevant critique? “Black people can’t play violin.” “The French really suck with horns.” “Middle-easterners don’t know how to work a sitar.” “Yellow people are really unemotional at the piano.”

Nobody says “yellow people,” I know, but that’s a weird habit of mine that stems from the sallowness of my own skin.

Let me put in a good word for Asian pianists: we’re on our way. Give us some years and some recordings; we promise we’ll deliver. (Not me personally, mind you. Just “we.”)

There is hope, though; I have seen several stalwart supporters of the better-known Asian pianists like Yundi Li and Yuja Wang (less for the latter, but she is still young). Nobuyuki Tsujii is giving the West a run for the money after his victory at the Van Cliburn Competition.

I keep my fingers crossed. In the meantime, I’m waiting for the Beethoven album (Yundi) to depreciate.


087: Reflags

Verb: reflags – Third-person singular simple present indicative form of reflag.

I’ve done it! In the first hour of 1 March 2013, Joe Hisaishi has been dethroned from the top of my scrobble-charts. Rafał Blechacz, as is right and good, takes his crown, two hundred and three years to the dot after the birth of Frédéric Chopin. The winning scrobble, chosen ahead of time, was “Polonaise in A flat major Op. 53.”

To celebrate both this and Chopin’s birthday, I’m having a lonely internal musical gala: $1.50 earphones blasting lots of non-Chopin all day long! We have Kun-Woo Paik with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Antoni Wit) on Prokofiev’s third piano concerto, Blechacz making some performances, Daniel Barenboim conducting Staatskapelle Berlin through Beethoven’s first symphony, Mikhail Pletnev with The Philharmonia on Tchaikovsky’s third piano concerto, and Yuji Nomi who makes a special appearance with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra to conduct his incidental music for The Cat Returns.

And if we get through all that, Joe Hisaishi will make an extra-special appearance with both the New Japan Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra in a dazzling performance of selections from his film scores.

To round off the day, though, I will for sure conclude with Blechacz’s reading of Chopin’s two piano concertos with the Concertgebouw led by Jerzy Semkow, in order of composition.

It’s a beautiful day, meteorologically speaking, and musically speaking.

Many happy returns, Monsieur Chopin.