The Sounds and Music of Open Space
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Blog post written by Jairo Geronymo, pianist, Berlin, Germany
For the past two years, I lived in Nuremberg and commuted to teach in Berlin. On the train during my four hour commute on a train traveling at 190 miles per hour, I wrote many blogs. Many were reflections on a concert or topic that concerned Berlin.
Two friends, a French conductor and a Spanish violinist, have queried why their respective countries are so fixated on their capitals. Barcelona offers some competition to Madrid’s hegemony, but Paris reigns supreme in France.
In contrast, Germany is strangely decentralized. Frankfurt is the economic center, Dusseldorf the fashion center, Munchen the Beer and Lifestyle center, and Berlin the government center. In terms of the arts, many cities like Cologne, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Munich, Berlin…and even Nuremberg offer varied cultural events.
Nuremberg enjoys a golden medieval past as an engineering, crafts and cultural center. It is the only city that has a Wagner opera written about its singing inhabitants.
Every summer in Nuremberg, there is a Festival called Blaue Nacht or Blue Night.This is a ‘happening’ type of event, where blue shades cover all the lights in the old city. Every art gallery, cinema, museum, church , school, university, and the castle presents t something related to the color blue throughout the night. Exploring a color, these events naturally favor the visual arts.
The Blue Night Festival spurred me to thinking, what about about a D Minor Festival?
Last year, the four-story high inner courtyard of a school was draped in blue fabric and white balloons, all backlit. The visitors were taken to a small platform in the center of this heavenly place and could talk through hanging minimalistic microphones to (supposedly) God. The space was very silent. I think that I should have asked God which type of music She listens in Heaven.
This year, there was a percussion concert with mostly marimbas that seemed like the perfect musicalization of the color blue. It occurred in a 14th century church (http://www.st-klara-nuernberg.de/), all lit in blue. The subtle sounds, so rarefied and hypnotizing, were truly dreamy. Bluey, not Bluesy.
2010 marks the 175th anniversary of the first Passenger Train in Germany, the Adler, connecting Furth and Nuremberg .
The Deutsche Bahn Museum in Nuremberg celebrated this event during the Blaue Nacht by commissioning a special work by a French ‘vertical’ Dance Theater Group called ‘Compagnie Les Passagers’ . They built a structure with a square canvas panel 40 feet tall. Artwork painted on this panel celebrated the Adler on which the performers would ‘walk’. The performers were hung from the top of this structure by cable attached to their waists. Through incredibly strong upper body muscles, they walked and danced on this hanging piece of Blue Art. When they jumped out of the canvas panel, the lack of horizontal gravity made them levitate effortlessly. It was like watching a ballet from above, without gravity.
I was astonished and amused by this technical ‘tour de force.’ But I was also impressed by the musical choices: French impressionist music. Afterwards, I could not have imagined anything else. The obvious is not always people’s first choice. Debussy, Ravel, and Satie were the perfect musical match for this simple, and yet extremely complex, performance. Impressionism was the first artistic movement of the 20th century to occur simultaneously in music and the visual arts--the marriage of hearing and vision. Blue and …
Since the 19th century, scholars have studied synesthesia, a ‘neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway’.
So before I start thinking seriously about the visual aspects of my D Minor Festival, I must ask you a question I hope you will answer in the comments section of this blog: which color would you paint your favorite piece of music?
Monday, May 10, 2010
Blog written by Jairo Geronymo, pianist, Berlin, Germany
During my (too) many years as a starving doctorate student at the University of Washington, I splurged on subscriptions to the Seattle Opera (http://www.seattleopera.org/index.aspx).
Seattle Opera mounts gargantuan productions like the whole Ring of the Nibelungen by Wagner as well as non-standard repertoire as the Dialogue of the Carmelites by Poulenc and Florencia en Amazonas by Daniel Catan.
John and Ruth Briehl, two friends of mine, attended the same performances as I did. We would meet at intermission to discuss the tenor’s acting capabilities, the soprano’s vocal clarity, how wonderful the contralto aria was, the scenery effectiveness, and, when lucky, the inevitable operatic ‘accident’.
We actually witnessed a real ‘wardrobe malfunction’ as the Governess in The Turn of the Screw continued her high B flat, arms up in the air and one breast exposed. Three thousand people gasped. She chose not to compromise the music. She waited until the end of the aria to get herself back into the dress. Covering the whole stage with the train of her red velvet dress was a powerful but impractical symbol of blood. What an unforgettable moment: dramatic music, red blood velvet, an exposed breast.
Since those glorious years with the Seattle Opera, Ruth Briehl and I have seen Zeffirelli’s production of Tosca with Aprile Millo at the Met (http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/) to celebrate her 80th birthday; Cosi fan Tutte at the historical Nurenberg Opera (http://www.staatstheater-nuernberg.de/inhalte/index.php?menu=100) and in a month, we will see our first opera together in Berlin.
Berlin has four government subsidized Opera Houses. As a result, the repertoire and production style can be unconventional: they do not dependent on monetary support from ticket sales. The Staatsoper Oper is the most traditional. It is closed until the end of the summer for renovation. The Deutsche Oper is the grander, the Komische Oper is often the most innovative and the Neukollner Oper is ‘l’enfant terrible’.
On the specific weekend that we would like to see an opera, the Komische Oper presents Abduction from the Seraglio (Mozart) and Fidelio (Beethoven), the Neukollner Oper presents Leben ohne Chris (Bohmer) and the Deutsche Oper presents Nabucco (Verdi) and Turandot (Puccini). If I am going to pay seventy euros for a ticket,I want Puccini to make me cry so I am tempted to lobby for Turandot.
I have seen Zefirelli’s gigantic production of Turandot for the Met with Eva Marton and Placido Domingo as well as Seattle Opera’s production with Jane Eaglen (http://www.janeeaglen.com/), whom I had accompanied a couple of weeks earlier....long story. These two grand, but traditional productions, are imprinted in my mind.
The Deutsche Oper’s production of Turandot is contemporary. In the famous “Riddle Scene” the Chinese princess Turandot wears a glitzy evening dress and the disguised prince Calaf wears a dark gray suit seated by an Ikea table while being watched by China’s emperor from a high Tribune that looks like a watch tower along the Berlin Wall (http://www.deutscheoperberlin.de/?page=spielplandetail&id_event_date=4612228).
The opera world now is filled with stars like Anna Netrebko, recently featured in Playboy magazine’s list of the “Sexiest Babes of Classical Music” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Netrebko). The poster for Haydn’s Orpheus and Eurydice at the Bode Museum (as if Berlin did not have enough Opera houses - http://www.orpheusimbode.de/konzept.html) could be mistakenly taken as soft porn. Operatic pornography.
The advertisement poster for Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball Tour shows her wearing a metal globe (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Monster_Ball_Tour) while the Deutsche Oper poster for Othello (Verdi) features the ‘blackened’ Barbara Schoneberger wearing a blonde wig and caressing an equally ‘blackened’ horse (http://www.deutscheoperberlin.de/index.php?page=spielplandetail&id_event_date=4606129). Both posters are strangely sexy.
So my initial question “Should the fat ladies wear Galiano or only Chanel?” does not apply to the singers but to opera itself. Should opera productions remain traditional like a Chanel suit or can these productions be like a wild John Galliano dress (http://www.johngalliano.com/)? Interestingly, the Tosca production by Zefirelli on the MET, that I saw in 2006, was on the news last year when a new production was booed at opening night (http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/musical/2009/10/05/091005crmu_music_ross).
Again we face the same question, should opera lock itself in time?
The beauty of these operatic masterpieces will always speak to the public so why not break the barriers of tradition and present opera as edgy and sexy as pop music? I often do not get amused by fancy video clips where the music repeatedly goes over the same three chord sequence so I think that Ruth and I should see a wild production of Turandot by Puccini. I am sure that I will cry with Liu’s aria, even though in the picture she looks like a college student gone backpacking! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tB_GSbufVI4&feature=related)
Thursday, May 6, 2010
Blog written by Jairo Geronymo, pianist, Berlin, Germany
Last month a former student of mine at Ithaca College, Justine Popik, visited me for a weekend in Nuremberg. She told me that her classmates would take note of my (in) famous catchy phrases about music. I have been known to use any means possible to get students to remember certain concepts.
In one class, I asserted that the fourth degree in a scale can be harmonized with either the subdominant or dominant seventh chord--a bisexual scale degree. I am sure that the students in that class still remember the sexual inclinations of the fourth degree of a scale.
Justine mentioned to me that one of her favorite phrases that she heard from me was: “You thought that you came here to learn the A flat minor scale but I will teach you the art of seduction”. I do not recall how I came to such a statement . It might be related to the fact that every scale had its ‘dance’ so that students would remember the fingering patterns. There is a video on YouTube of my students dancing the B flat minor scale Dance on the Commons, in downtown Ithaca.
Today’s blog is about how to practice the piano. These rules can be used with any other instrument and somehow they can sublimate themselves into important life lessons. I present them as life lessons but fell free to interpret them as your own ‘art of seduction’ lessons!
1.For every task there is an appropriate tool! Paul Fritts, an internationally known Pipe Organ builder (http://www.frittsorgan.com/) once told me: ‘The right tool can make any task easier’. The ‘right tool’ in music is ‘knowing how to practice’. It can make learning a piece a more simple, efficient and enjoyable process. However, the right tool willl not work without the basic materials. The building blocks of every instrument are scales, chords, arpeggios, etc. The music will suffer when these technical aspects are not appropriately under control. It is a good idea to warm up by playing basic technical exercises in the key of the piece to be studied.
2. Drink five glasses of water every day as opposed to five gallons every Friday! In order to learn well and efficiently, we need to understand how our brain works. It is impossible to learn a piece of music in one session. Focused daily practice with repeated patterns is needed in order to allow the brain to create a stable protein chain and thus remember the music. One hour everyday adds up to much more than seven hours once a week.
3. Measure it twice, cut it once. It is imperative to learn the music correctly from the beginning. The brain ‘records’ everything that we play so when we play a passage five times incorrectly and then finally once correctly, the brain has recorded all six versions and under pressure, during a performance, might deliver the incorrect version of that passage.
4. Do not drive like a maniac! Nobody learns to drive at 80 miles per hour on a freeway in Los Angeles. We teach our brains new movements by repeating them several times, slowly. Learning an instrument requires that same discipline. The brain can understand and remember the correct sequence of movements in order to produce the right sounds SLOWLY.
5. Do not covet your neighbors Beethoven Sonata. Compete only with yourself; too many instrumentalists stop playing because they cannot play according to the highest standards. Each person has a story to tell. Every honest, worked out message through music deserves to be heard.
6. If you don’t have something nice to say, do not say anything! This is for mature players only. Young players should be exposed to all types of music and learn the beauty of each style, period, and composer. Good programming is half the battle won. Do not play repertoire which you do not believe in. Loads of beautiful music is out there waiting to be played. Do not waste your time with pieces through which you have nothing to say. An audience can forgive wrong notes but never a musical lie.|
7. Just do it! Many times, it is difficult for me to get to the piano bench. But once I start to practice, time flies. I am totally absorbed by this enthralling activity. I advise my students to set practice times. In the same way that a student has a fixed time for Math or English classes, there should also be a set time for practice.
8. Do not take the easy route. Students often spend too much time going through easy passages. They do not dedicate enough enough attention to problematic ones. I recommend my students to start learning a piece by working on the difficult spots first. This means not only the technically but also the musically difficult passages.
I hope that these rules will help you through the methodical and yet magical process of learning an instrument.
However, there is much to be learned about life (and seduction) through how we learn music. Enjoy it!
Sunday, April 25, 2010
Blog written by Jairo Geronymo, pianist based in Berlin, Germany
I will move to Berlin this summer.
So I began the hunt for the large, well situated, extremely comfortable, well designed, charming, impressive, and of course, reasonably priced apartment.
The real estate market in Berlin is very different than what one would expect in such a large city. I have heard horror stories from colleagues and friends living in Manhattan. They have shared that to get the perfect apartment at a reasonable (…) price one must be smart and aggressive beyond any measure.
Germany has strong laws to protect renters and only a few empty apartments come up for sale. One would expect that they would sell quickly. Quite on the contrary, they linger forever on the German version of realtor.com (www.immobilienscout24.de).
I believe that in large cities, many people able to buy an apartment often remain renters because there is no risk and sacrifice in their comfortable but unprofitable renter experience. My blog is not about housing politics so I will move on to the housing needs of our friend musicians.
Listening to a concert or a recital in a theater is a very different experience compared to listening to your neighbor practicing, no matter how accomplished the musician is. Serious musicians practice for hours, with systematic and repetitive techniques that can bring the worst out of pleasant neighbors. The acoustic guitar, the harp and early keyboard instruments luckily can play on, undetected by irate disturbed neighbors.
For their sound to blossom, all instruments need a certain amount of air volume. If you play the Tuba or have a large grand piano, it would be better to move straight into a theater! Colleagues that own houses sometimes have carved, through many creative artifices, the perfect place to practice undisturbed from neighbors and family.
I was only once accosted in the elevator by a furious neighbor regarding my long hours practicing a Prokofiev Piano Concerto. I was young and had the stamina to go on for hours banging away on the keys. The concerto that I played so well, to the delight of so many, made my neighbor hate the day in which Prokofiev (or I) was born! Today, luckily, I can learn music faster than my neighbors can get annoyed. However, that takes a lot of planning!
In large cities, where most musicians live in apartments, the situation is worse. Musicians need to consider carefully the architectural and psychological elements of their prospective nests. Is there a way of having nobody living underneath me? Are the walls thick enough? Is there a baby living one floor above me? Can I practice at school? Musicians that do not pay attention to these aspects can pay a high price. A colleague of mine in Berlin is being sued by her neighbor and this summer will go through an extensive renovation in order to isolate her piano room acoustically.
Piano Shaped Object (PSO) and Patience
Like many colleagues I have at home a keyboard with weighted keys. Sometimes I use it late night or in the early stages of learning a piece. However, this robs me of the sensual experience of discovering a new piece as it was supposed to be, free and unashamed of its powers. New melodies, surprising harmonies and powerful climaxes do not sound the same on a plastic PSO (piano shaped object) and headphones cannot duplicate the acoustical experience of an instrument speaking freely where its sound can bloom.
Most painters do not work with the rarefied white light that fed old masters in Holland. Most musicians cannot afford the perfect space for the sound of their instruments to bloom.
So I plead with everybody that once enjoyed any type of music: be patient with your neighbor musician while she or he practices. Their future audiences will thank you!
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Blog written by Jairo Geronymo, pianist, Nurnberb/Berlin, Germany
During my teenage years, I joined a theater group that specialized in children’s musicals. I helped with the scenery, rehearsed the singers, and recorded all the background music. I also acted and sang in one of the plays: “Everything is Blue in the Blue Land” (http://www.livrariacultura.com.br/scripts/cultura/resenha/resenha.asp?isbn=8572722025&sid=89824519712210258011020111). That meant wearing make-up so I would not look like a pale corpse onstage. Bold make-up.
In my native Brazil, I have recorded a couple of times for a TV program called “Metropolis” (http://www2.tvcultura.com.br/metropolis/). Metropolis was a hip late-night variety show that also featured the elite of classical music in Sao Paulo City. I was the pianist in the chamber music group Novo Horizonte, directed by the innovative British conductor Graham Griffths (http://www.pianoclass.com/sistema/revista.pl?i=1&cmd=entrgrahamg).
The group had had just one female, the violinist Tania Guarnieri (http://www.taniacamargoguarnieri.com.br/). Tania is the daughter of the composer Camargo Guarnieri and bigger than life in both her music and personality. Once, before an appearance on the show, we had applied make-up appropriate for studio lighting.
We had to wait for a couple of minutes under fluorescent lighting, before our ‘live’ broadcast gig. Tania looked at herself in the mirror and exclaimed: “I cannot play Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” wearing the make-up of a prostitute!” Tania’s colorful remarks remind me of the strange means toward good ends embodied in make-up for television and film: ‘Prostitute’ make-up for the masses, natural make-up for the concert hall.
Last week for the first time in my life, I wore hand make-up. I was the ‘hand double’ for a production filmed in Berlin. The film is called Auf den zweiten Blick (On a second look). There is already a Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/pages/Auf-den-zweiten-Blick/267826739499?ref=mf) . I will post further information about the film when it is released.
My first contact was with the First Assistant Director, Xiana Yago, a young Spanish woman living in Berlin. The director, Sheri Hagen (http://www.kino.de/star/sheri-hagen/filmografie/131839.html) is a gorgeous young black woman. In this film, the protagonist, Pan, is a white piano tuner with existential problems. He falls in love with a black gallery owner, Till, who is married. I was thinking that this film and its production does not get any better: a biracial gay relationship portrayed by a black woman. I wish the two men were Jewish and Palestinian!
I lent my hands to three short scenes. The shooting took almost a whole day. First, I was dressed in identical clothing to Pan (the character who I was doubling). Then, I spent some time with make-up. It was not easy to hide the inch-long scar on my left hand --but everything is possible with movie make-up… My first scene was to be the ‘playing hand’ for the piano tuner when he felt alone and disillusioned (musical translation: aggressive fast playing). This task was easy to accomplish with C. P. E. Bach’s "Solfegietto".
In the second scene, while Pans plays, Till sits next to him and starts improvising. In this scene, they acknowledge their differences and their attraction to each other through music. At one point, according to our director, their hands needed to touch each other.
The hand double for Till was Reggie Moore (http://www.culturaldiplomacy.org/index.php?en_programs_reggiemoore), an experienced New York jazz pianist now rooted in Germany.
During the lunch break we planned the musical aspects of our ‘seduction’ scene. When should the jazz improvisation start? How should we show musically the connection and sparkle between the two? How each other’s music would be affected? When should the hands touch? The last question had an easy answer: the D Flat chord. After a two-page avalanche of sixteenth notes, time stops for a moment and life rests on a low D flat.
Reggie Moore and I rehearsed the music and did a preview for Sheri Hagen, the director. Although she liked our musical portrait of the scene, she wanted a much longer contact time between the hands.
We were glad to get to the D flat chord and let our hands touch each other for five seconds while we reviewed mentally the next chord progression in a jazzier style.
I hope that this moment will not be left on the editing table. I look forward to seeing the two actors gazing lovingly at each other while Reggie and mine hands touch in a flawless sequence. I know I will laugh remembering us two not-so-glamorous musicians touching hands while thinking: F minor 7th, C major, G dominant 7th, and so on while hoping to meet at the final tonic! Here is a sample from that scene: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/video/video.php?v=1269755477164
In my third scene, I play slowly, pensively, sensually. I cannot reveal more to you; I do not want to give away the film plot. I want you to go see the movie and enjoy my two seconds of ‘hand stardom’.
I must admit I was a bit nervous because I know everything recorded stays forever. I once played Prokofiev’s first Piano Concerto--coincidentally in D flat major—for 3,000 people in a Frank Lloyd Wright designed theater. Under the visual and aural scrutiny of so many people, I was nervous. In last week’s film shoot, I recorded in front of an audience of only twenty crew members. But I will be heard by many more filmgoers and musicians in a situation beyond my comfort zone.
Hence, I raise my cup to the Seventh Art, where everything is possible, with perfect and imperfect worlds colliding to convey a message of hope. And where life, even for a second, can hang on a D flat chord.