The Sounds and Music of Open Space
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.
Monday, February 15, 2010
Blog posting written by Jairo Geronymo, pianist, Nurnberg, Germany
The Berlin Wall fell on November 9th, 1989.
Twenty years later 31 heads of state (current and past) gathered in Berlin to celebrate this historical occasion. Everybody from Hillary Clinton, Russian President Medvedev and French President Sarkozy to historical titans Mikhail Gorbatchov and Lech Walesa showed up.
Angela Merkel, the German Chancelor, met in the morning with Gorbatchov at the Bornholmer Strasse Bruecke. It was the first bridge between West and East Berlin to be opened in 1989. It is also famous as the place where many spies were exchanged during the Cold War years.
Attended by ten thousand people soaked by rain, the evening celebrations started with a concert on the Pariser Platz, the area immediately on the east side of the Brandenburger Gate. The Staatskapelle Orchestra conducted by Daniel Baremboim--he had been in Berlin in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell-- played excerpts from Beethoven and Wagner.
Herbert von Karajan conducted the Berlin Philharmonic from 1955 until April 1989. He catapulted it to international prominence and made an impressive number of recordings. His successor was the Italian Claudio Abbado.
But it was the Jewish-American Leonard Bernstein that staged, on Christmas Day 1989, a massive musical celebration by leading an international orchestra on the east side of the Brandenburger Gate. In a typically grand gesture, he changed the words of Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy" to "Ode to Freedom." (http://www.notablebiographies.com/Be-Br/Bernstein-Leonard.html#ixzz0XJUTN3Mo).
The 2009 Pariser Platz concert also featured a new reunification song by Paul van Dyk (http://www.paulvandyk.com/) called “We are One”. The title is in English, not in German. Paul van Dyk grew up in the old East Berlin and feared the Stasi (the secret police in East Germany) because he constantly broke the law by listening to ‘decadent’ radio from West Berlin.
Radio waves and its music travel easily through walls, whether concrete or ideological. Paul van Dyk and a handful of friends had parties on basements for trusted friends who they knew would keep them out of prison by not reporting their underground musical activities. Later Paul became a DJ. He is now is internationally renowned in the techno world. If you have ventured out to dance at a club anywhere in the world, you probably have danced to his music.
After the concert, Angela Merkel led dignitaries through the Branderburger gate, holding hands with Lech Walesa, the man responsible for the Solidarity movement in Poland and Gorbatchov, the most influential person in the opening of the east. Fireworks exploded as they crossed the gate, which was partly destroyed by Napoleon. The gate was rebuilt on the border between east and west Berlin, and is now a symbol of Germany.
Angela and friends walked towards what was for me the highlight of the evening.
1,000 domino pieces had been lined up from the Potsdamer Platz to the iconic Reichstag, passing by the striking Jewish Memorial. They tumbled as a representation of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
At seven feet tall, these domino pieces, had been painted by children. Two hundred came from abroad. Each had a special message of friendship and faith in the future. On one of pieces, the two Berlin towers, one in the former east, one in the former west, hugged each other. In another, there were pictures and names of grade school students-- most of the names were not German names. All the dominos spoke of hope, equality and inclusion.
The political and social symbolism of falling dominos is obvious. We strive for a world devoid of walls. But is it possible for us really to be one with the world, without losing our identity?
Many former east Germans still miss aspects of their former lifestyle under state communism.
So can music unite us, transforming differences into unity? The walls in music seem to be older than the Berlin wall -- and apparently stronger.
Maybe the answer to all these questions lies in diversity and respect for each other’s tastes and values.
I would contend that there is space for Beethoven and Paul van Dyk (I certainly do not want to dance in a club to Beethoven’s music…) as well as life in New York or North Korea. But it is critically important that we always work to keep the physical and musical channels open.
Whether constructed out of concrete or quarter notes, it is okay by me to have walls-- as long as there is also, always, a gate.
Friday, February 5, 2010
Blog written by Jairo Geronymo, pianist, Nurnberg, Germany
Large cities often struggle with a contingent of people living on the fringe. In Europe, they often migrate from other countries; only the next generation will function within the society like natives. These foreigners to these new environments their music, their customs and their cuisine. Delicious foreign food easily crosses boundaries--and always sells.
Growing up in Brazil, I heard the accordion on old French recordings and at the winter Folk Festivals, generally accompanying dances that vaguely resembles square dance (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RetlvTcLj8). For me the accordion was an instrument of character but certainly not cool. I never considered playing or owning one until two years ago, when my garage sale buddy bought one for me, amidst a fierce price escalation. Garage sale etiquette is highly regulated and treasured by the ‘regulars’.
My accordion is fake white ‘mother-of pearl’. I intend to buy a white polyester suit to be properly dressed when I first perform on it publicly. Maybe not. I play it at home a couple of times a year. Its haunting sounds urge me to learn how to play it properly. Its sound evokes foreign lands and laments something lost. Melancholic foreign music always sells.
Two subway stations in Berlin attract accordion players of the highest caliber. Alexanderplatz, in the heart of the old East Berlin and Stadmitte; the ‘middle of the city’ station left on the fringe during the “Berlin Wall” years and now back to its deserved central place (http://www.berlinverkehr.com/netze/051212sumetro.jpg).
Often I hear a duo of violin-accordion at Alexanderplatz that leaves nothing to desire in terms of ensemble, intonation, and certainly passion. All passersby do not seem to notice the quality of this duo, like when Joshua Bell played Bach on the Washington subway (http://amnesiablog.wordpress.com/2009/01/13/he-played-the-violin-in-the-subway/).
The connection between the subway lines U2 and U6, in Stadmitte, is through two long wide corridors, connected at a ninety degrees angle stairway with a plateau. Virtuoso street musicians have noticed this acoustical gem.
The first time that I heard the richly reverberating sounds of Bach’s “Wedge” Fugue in E minor (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=idhHq1mn1XA&feature=PlayList&p=7BA785A65B04C10F&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=3) I was struck. Was that a famous organ in a north German cathedral disguised as an accordion in a subway station thirty feet bellow the street level?
Since this experience, I have heard many polkas but also Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky symphonies, the Planets by Gustav Holst, Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakhov, the Four Seasons of Vivaldi and, of course, Carmina Burana! These highly trained musicians do not carry themselves according to the level of their craft. I imagine that they came from the former eastern block, where education was affordable for the talented. Later, they drifted over to the commercial side of the world. Here, they do not seem to be able to package their craft into a sellable product.
This brings me to Lady Gaga. I like her a lot because she personifies the unconventional and yes, I always want to dance with her music. Like Madonna, she comes from a Catholic background, exploits unusual sexual themes, and has been able to reinvent herself at every turn. She rules the video clip world and young consumers buy her wares. I watched an interview with her at “Wetten, dass…?”, the most popular variety show on German TV, and she was so ‘cool’ that she sounded a bit ‘slow’.
Lady Gaga is a savvy businesswoman careful of her brand, so I am sure that this too was staged. It did not matter; her outfit astonished everybody. Fashion has always been an integral part of her persona. She knows how to market herself.
I have written before about music merging into a multimedia art. The tendency is for opera singers also to ‘look’ good; for violinists to pose in Chanel dresses on their album covers, for programming to incorporate themes. I have no problem with that.
However, from a purely musical point of view, Lady Gaga does not have the training of some of these street musicians that I mentioned. There is no question that she has been able to package her musical product into something consumers will buy. I would certainly pay 10 Euros to enter a club where her music will be played. Should those accordionists learn something from Lady Gaga? Do they have a chance if they do not play a fashionable instrument and look attractive? Do they need to invest in reinventing themselves? Yes. No. Maybe.
I do not resent the power of advertizing and marketing: it is all a question of choices. However, the training of an artist is a long and arduous process. I wish every aspiring musician would first embrace and excel in the history, technique and language of their art, then branch out into multimedia. Hopefully, they would still look great after all this time shuttling between the library and the practice room.
“Life is change, growth is optional”. We all know this adage. Some musicians choose to be different—they decide to follow the not so economically successful path of musicians of the past. There is space for all out there.
So go out and dance to Lady Gaga’s music. Life is short. But do not forget to drop a coin when music touches you, especially when an unassuming, over-educated musician performs it, thirty feet below a busy street intersection.