b Riding East: August 2006

Monday, August 28, 2006

Robert Schumann

I've been on this Schumann thing for a while. I never tire of his chamber works. While driving to Wyoming with the family, I had the St. Lawrence String Quartet recording of his first and third quartets in the car. I couldn’t stop listening to it. Hopefully this link to the second movement works: Schumann Quartet #1 Second Movement. You can buy the disk on Amazon.

While working on his Fantasy Op 17, I read a biography by John Daverio, "Robert Schumann: Herald of a New Poetic Age". (Apparently Daverio, like Schumann, also threw himself in a river -- the Charles? -- but, unlike Schumann unfortunately, actually succeeded). I found the biography to be persuasive. I confess that I broke down in tears when I read of Robert’s final days in the asylum, how Clara finally managed to visit him shortly before he passed away, and how apparently he recognized her. No need to recap the book here, but I was struck by the creative, literary dimension of this composer. All his life, it seems, he considered himself as much a poet as a composer. Certainly his lieder bring poetry to a new level, combining text with the color and nuance of tone.

I enjoy the fresh ideas Schumann brings to his music. For example, in his Op 17 Fantasy in C, the first movement "Ruins" (I guess this title didn't survive) starts with a dominant bass line (G) and a broken chord, likely a dominant 11th or a combined dominant + subdominant. You really don't get the tonic (C) in root position until the final few bars of the piece. And it ain't a short piece! As far as form, the developed theme is suggested only in fragments and finally stitched together, again, in the final few bars. When the full theme is finally stated (from Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte, Op.98), you wonder where you have heard it before as it sounds vaguely familiar. The piece dates from the early 19th century (1838/9).

I wonder whether Robert wrote his Hausmusic to pay the bills. I guess his Album for the Young, written for his children (Robert and Clara had seven), was one of his top sellers. His fantasy was not; apparently even Clara stopped performing it on her tours after only a year or so. I previously believed that his Kinderszenen, like the Album für die Jugend, were also written for children. Certainly they are more straightforward than other keyboard works of his. Yet, according to Daverio, it was not intended for children per se, but rather was Robert's attempt to capture scenes from his own childhood.

I took a cut tonight at recording the first piece of the Kinderszenen Op 15, Schumann: Kinderszenen: Von fremden Ländern und Menschen. It's a straightforward read, but when you climb into the score you realize there are subtle choices. Consider a few examples:
  • What is the tempo? Schumann gives 108mm per quarter, but several editors suggest that in the neo-romantic style, 80mm per quarter would be more accurate. I tried both and like both, but prefer the slower tempo. (I had the same question with the 66m per quarter in the third movement of his fantasy. Apparently Clara's edition had 66mm per dotted quarter; I find her tempo too fast. Here, I think the 66mm per quarter is accurate.)
  • He ties the G in bar 6 -- the first time he holds the tenor voice. Why? Perhaps this is the first time he doesn't skip the subdominant, and he wants to hear the melodic shift. The tie seems to help maintain the longer phrase.
  • Notice the rests in the bass when the A theme is first stated, but then the sustained tones when B theme is stated, suggesting a duet between soprano and bass voices in B but not A.
  • It's easy to over-voice this piece. I tried to ease off my voicing on the soprano (melody).
  • What to do on the repeat? I use a different dynamic for A -- Baller usually liked that.
  • Notice the fermata in the last bar of B, but not at the end of the bar. How do you handle the final notes of this phrase after the fermata? I chose to expand a ritard. but not the same duration as the fermata.
  • I don't consider the final note of this bar an up beat to the next phrase.

Anyway, you get the idea -- perhaps there is never just a straightforward read.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

More Recordings

I sat down this afternoon and recorded a few more of my preludes, plus some Bach and Ravel. It's not perfect, but I'm out of gas at this point. I listen to this stuff and realize that I remain an amateur. For example, I rush the Courante -- if I could only take more time. Tone control is getting better, but I'm still far from where I'd like to be.

Prelude #10

Prelude #11

Prelude #12

Ravel: A la Maniere de Borodine

Bach: French Suite #4: Allemande

Bach: French Suite #4: Courante

Bach: French Suite #4: Sarabande

Bach: French Suite #4: Gavotte

Bach: French Suite #4: Menuet

Bach: French Suite #4: Air

Where is the Gigue, you may ask? I need a few more days on this piece. The ornaments don't sound right at tempo...

Did you realize that each piece in the suite is a baroque dance? According to G. Henle Verlag's Urtext, the Allemande is a German processional dance in 4/4 time. The Courante was originally a French ball-room dance but now under Italian influence is graceful but extremely serious in rhythm. The Sarabande is a Spanish dance with grave melody and emphasis on the second beat. The Menuet -- a favorite French dance of the period, named for the small steps it used. Etc.

I find it strange that most contemporary classical music has little to do with singing and dancing (unless you call Broadway classical!) It almost seems like music is becoming more ethereal over time.

Friday, August 25, 2006


I'm working with Jin-Dong Cai to learn more about orchestration and conducting. One of our first exercises was to orchestrate a piano piece. I chose Debussy's Canope from his second book of preludes. I believe Debussy had a miniature Egyptian burial doll on his desk, the story goes.

I looked at this piece with George Barth and made the argument (convincing or not) that the structure was built on a pentatonic key which defines the melodic line in the opening. The harmonic progression follows this line throughout, moving more or less up and down by fifth.

Here I include an mp3/midi of the orchestration version, as well as my full orchestration score. If your orchestra would like to perform it, send me a note and I'll forward all parts.

Debussy's Canope: Prelude #10, Book II
Orchestration Score of Canope

Piano Performance

Charles Ives: Concord Sonata, "The Alcotts"

It was a real treat to work on this piece with Dr. George Barth. John Kirkpatrick's score for the Alcotts was invaluable. You might visit Yale's online archive of Ives.

Prelude #1

Prelude #3

Prelude #6

Prelude #8

Opus 7: Inferno: Andante Agitato

Opus 7

Inferno: Andante Agitato
Inferno: Andante Agitato score

Under construction. Not complete. Missing violin solo in B theme, setting of text to chorus,...

This work is based on text from Dante's Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto II, 127:130
Copyright © Princeton Dante Project.

As little flowers, bent and closed
with chill of night, when the sun
lights them, stand all open on their stems,
such, in my failing strength, did I become.

The chorus text is of the same Canto II, lines 88-90 [Beatrice]:

'We should fear those things alone
that have the power to harm.
Nothing else is frightening.

As far as influence for the piece, I've been listening to a lot of Stravinsky lately, including his Symphony of Psalms. What a masterpiece.

In this piece, I attempt to explore overtones. The concept: any fundamental, particularly in a bass register, should not be considered only as the fundamental but instead as the set of partial tones it produces and the implied harmony. Hence any fundamental is not a 'point' but rather a vector through the tone space. Timbre obviously alters the trajectory of that vector, or perhaps more accurately the fundamental (start point) and partials (trajectory) define the timbre. The 'tendency' of the trajectory is influenced by context, namely previous tones and/or combined tones.

The question for me: when fundamental vectors intersect, does this influence the sound of the combined fundamentals, or perhaps their tendency? Or taken another way, can an implied melodic line shape the progression (tendency) of sets of fundamentals?

I noticed on the piano that certain combinations of fundamentals intersected at various points, or pitches, in higher registers. (This experiment of course depends on the type of tuning, but let's keep it simple for now). There are several cases where three tones in a register (so three of a possible twelve) have a common intersection point in a higher register. There is only one case where four tones intersect, and ironically, this case is the dominant 7th chord, the intersection being a major second three registers up. So, the fundamentals C-2, E-2, G-2, B-flat-2 all intersect D5. If you play this dominant, do you hear D5? It works even better if you slightly flat E-2. The concept becomes a bit more interesting if you can use semi-tones or altered tunings.

I admit this is little more than a restatement of the obvious, but yet the insight helps me to visualize tones and progressions, and perhaps better understand their relationships and tendencies. I no longer think of tones as static points, but rather dynamic vectors with a defined trajectory. The tendency of these vectors is bent and shaped by the context.

This piece attempts to define an harmonic progression based on the implied melodic line: chromatic up, and then whole tone up. All chords are inverted dominant sevenths that form the intersection of this implied melodic line. I use dominant sevenths to maximize intersection points, and thereby implied melody.

I use a uniform (tedious?) meter for context throughout, with the nuance of a sub-meter: an 'upbeat to a beat', two-upbeats to a beat, and then three. I'll add a solo violin on the recap of the A theme in the near future...

Opus 6: Nocturnes

Opus 6

A set of nocturnes for chamber orchestra in which I, contrary to late 20th century wisdom, embrace song and dance.

Nocturne #1
Nocturne #1 score

Dedicated to my wife Tina.

Nocturne #2
Nocturne #2 score

The B theme is lifted from Shostakovich String Quartet #1, Third Movement. G.C. wanted us to modulate to the flatted 6th, and here I do so (twice). It seems every time I visited Grandma and Grandpa Hillstead, they had that Lawrence Welk show on the T.V. I anticipate another arrangement here with some winds and brass.

Nocturne #3
Nocturne #3 score

I didn't realize that the A theme was lifted from Wagner's Tannhauser until Dr. Berger heard it. I was looking for a way to smooth out the progression on thirds and so introduced a secondary dominant -- voila, Wagner. And by the way, don't argue at night -- you are too tired and should simply go to sleep.

Nocturne #4
Nocturne #4 score

Dedicated to my brother Greg who is a little sharp, or rather lives in a world that is a little flat. I can only imagine what it must be like. You can't just modulate up a minor second. I wonder if Greg would be happy in Naples.

Opus 5: Eastern Suite

Opus 5

Three chamber works built largely on octatonic scales.

Clouds and Flowers
Clouds and Flowers Score

The goal was to integrate the primary motif from Debussy's Nuages with the Jasmine Flower Chinese folk tune. I found this exercise non-trivial. Note that the score calls for a violin in pizz -- I intend for this to be a traditional Chinese pipa if possible. The work has nothing to do with my marriage to my Chinese-American wife, but if it did, I would clearly be the flower and she the clouds...

Looking Back
Looking Back score
Looking Back organ score

This piece calls for a brass octet, including trumpet, three French horn, two Trombone, and two Tuba. Or alternatively, one accomplished organist. I experiment here with tone clusters and octatonic harmonies. Dedicated to my late father.

Riding East
Riding East Score

An image of two on horseback riding against the setting sun. I clipped the central motif from Jonathan Berger's Doubles string quartet. The arpeggiated strings with the integrated theme in thirds was modeled after Chopin's Ocean Etude, No. 12 in C minor, another piece I played as a boy.

Opus 4: Purgatorio

Opus 4

I attempt to set a limited chamber orchestra to text from Dante's Purgatorio, specifically Canto I and Canto XIX. These were technically the first pieces I wrote (excepting the first piano prelude), virtually all completed between October and December of 2005, prior to much of my early training in theory. The first three pieces, set to Canto I, are more or less complete; the second four pieces (written first), set to Canto XIX, are not complete.

When I first started meeting with Dr. Jonathan Berger, we decided to look at text in order to compose a song cycle. It was an interesting point in my life to explore this idea. I had just begun the process of transitioning out of my career, and was struggling to make sense of what I'd done and what I might do next. Thank goodness I'd come across Mark and Terry, my "coaches"!

One question that recurred: what is the point of the journey? I'd been so goal-driven throughout my life: point me at the next hill and I can't wait to begin marching. I would climb to the top. Reaching the peak, rather than pausing to reflect, I would seek out the next hill. Find Italy? Find Paradise? And who is Beatrice?

I was haunted by Dante's dream in Canto XIX of Purtagorio, such vivid poetry. Initially, Dante sees an image of a stammering, crippled woman. Yet as 'the sun revives', Dante discovers instead a lovely siren, singing the most soothing and comforting song. Is the image false, the siren only tempting Dante? I long for the song of the siren. I'm tired of the journey, and question the point of reaching the next 'destination'. I wonder whether Dante felt the same way.

Calliope Arise (Calïopè Surga)
Calliope Arise Score
Calliope Arise Original Score

Dante summons Calliope to ‘accompany my song with those same chords whose force so struck the miserable magpies’. Calliope’s voice arrives in the final bar.

Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Canto I, 1:12
Copyright © Princeton Dante Project

To run its course through smoother water
the small bark of my wit now hoists its sail,
leaving that cruel sea behind.

Now I shall sing the second kingdom,
there where the soul of man is cleansed,
made worthy to ascend to heaven.

Here from the dead let poetry rise up,
O sacred Muses, since I am yours.
Here let Calliope arise

to accompany my song with those same chords
Whose force so struck the miserable magpies
that, hearing it, they lost all hope of pardon.

Oriental Sapphire
Oriental Sapphire Score
Oriental Sapphire Original Score

Oriental Sapphire (Dolce Color d'Orïental Zaffiro): In Dante’s first moments on Earth (again), he notices ‘the sweet color of oriental sapphire’. The pentatonic keys (and Dante’s world) change every few bars – only Calliope’s voice (motif on partial iv7-v7-i in pentatonic a-minor) is constant.

Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Canto I, 13:18

Sweet color of oriental sapphire,
hovering in the calm and peaceful aspect
of intervening air, pure to the horizon,

pleased my eyes once more
as soon as I had left the morbid air
that had afflicted both my chest and eyes.

The Fair Planet
The Fair Planet Score

‘The Fair Planet (Lo Bel Pianeto) that emboldens love’: Dante is struck with Earth’s intrinsic beauty. In contrast to Oriental Sapphire, where the key varies and the melodic line is constant, in the Fair Planet the melodic line is implied by the harmonic progression.

Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Canto I, 19:27

The fair planet that emboldens love,
smiling, lit up the east,
Veiling the Fishes in her train.

I turned to the right and, fixing my attention
on the other pole, I saw four stars
not seen but by those first on earth.

The very sky seemed to rejoice
in their bright glittering. O widowed
Region of the north, denied that sight!

‘Femmina Balba’ I, II, III, IV: The Stammering Woman, Song of the Siren. UNDER CONSTRUCTION.

Femmina Balba I
Femmina Balba I Score

Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Canto XIX, 1:9

In the hour when the heat of day,
cooled by earth and at times by Saturn,
Can no longer temper the cold of the moon,

when geomancers see their Fortuna Major rise
in the east before the dawn,
which does not long stay dark for it,

there came to me a woman, in a dream,
stammering, cross-eyed, splayfooted,
with crippled hands and sickly pale complexion.

Femmina Balba II
Femmina Balba II Score

This cello duet (need to fix the score -- sorry) was improvised by midi keyboard input. I don't use this technique often.

Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Canto XIX, 9:15

I looked at her, and as the sun revives
Cold limbs benumbed by night,
so my gaze gave her a ready tongue

And then in very little time
straightened her crooked limbs
And tinged her sallow face as love desires.

Femmina Balba III
Femmina Balba III Score

Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Canto XIX, 16:24

And with her speech set free
She started singing in a way
That would have made it hard for me to turn aside.

'I am,' she sang, 'I am the sweet siren
Who beguile mariners on distant seas,
so great is their delight in hearing me.

I drew Ulysses, eager for the journey,
With my song. And those who dwell with me
Rarely depart, so much do I content them.'

Femmina Balba IV
Femmina Balba IV Score

Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Canto XIX, 25:33

Her lips had not yet closed
when there appeared a lady at my side,
Holy and alert, to confound her.

'O Virgil, Virgil, who is this?'
she asked, indignant. And he came forward
With his eyes fixed on that virtuous one.

The other he seized and, ripping her garments,
laid her front bare and exposed her belly.
The stench that came from there awoke me.

Opus 3: Chamber Preludes

Opus 3

I love chamber music. I've played little so far in my studies. My 'preludes' opus one, two, and three include chorale preludes, piano preludes, and this set, chamber preludes.

Prelude #2
Prelude #2 score

Dedicated to Dr. Jonathan Berger. How often do you come across one of the top living composers and discover that he is kind and nurturing? Jonathan suggested I look at other scales such as the octatonic early on to branch out a bit, hence this piece (and Riding East, Clouds & Flowers, etc.). This "piano" prelude requires a cellist... And, yes (of course), that is a computer, not me.

The tonal structure, built on an octatonic scale, attempts to move around by thirds more or less, using mode switching to facilitate progression to the adjacent third. Moving a tri-tone away works as a tonal shift more so than a cadence or progression. I'd offer that an octatonic scale would, perhaps, work better with semi-tones, hence the prevalence of trills throughout. I may need to adjust one interval for the cello -- I don't think it can be played...

Prelude #7
Prelude #7 Chamber score
Prelude #7 Piano score

The piece is built on the second (interval plus ...). Basic structure. The goal was for the second itself to suggest a harmony and implied progression. I also want to play more with bells and vibraphones. I wonder why more music is not written for these colorful timbres.

The inspiration here was my home between the hours of 7:30 am and 8:17 am. The horns suggest the calm parent. The trumpet in seconds, of course, is my daughter calling (make that screaming) for her mama every few minutes. And why is it that while we are getting the kids ready for school and out the door, we ascend the stairs five times for every time we descend the stairs? Eventually, as the rhythm suggests, the best you can do is put your feet in the stirrups and enjoy the ride. I can't decide if I like this piece or not. But my wife claims that it is 100% accurate.

Prelude #9
Prelude #9 score

An assignment from Giancarlo Aquilanti's music theory class -- I think Music 22. The goal: establish a tonic and theme for A, modulate to B, establish B, return to A, and eventually A in tonic. The other goal: use a sequence with an augmented sixth chord. I dedicated this small morsel to the friends in the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Need to change the ending here -- the soprano voice doesn't work.

Prelude #10 piano
Prelude #10
Prelude #10 score

An assignment from Spring Quarter for Music 23 (music theory) at Stanford. Giancarlo Aquilanti is a gifted composer -- I enjoyed every lecture. This time I set a chorale prelude to a brass quintet. I juxtapose soprano (French horns) and bass (tuba) with slow, on the bar lines against alto (trumpet) and tenor (trombone) lines move in eight notes, with voice leading in a duet of sorts. G.C. dictated the bass line here for the assignment.

Opus 2: Piano Preludes

Opus 2

I'm not sure these are preludes so much as intermezzi. I use the term prelude loosely so as to focus my attention on development versus categorization for now. The influence of Schumann and Brahms is clear. I'm studying a number of their works and attempting to understand, better, their approach.

I played a lot of Brahms with my teacher Adolph Baller. He passed away around 1994. I'll never forget playing the Beethoven first concerto with him at his home in Palo Alto. I wrecked my car (yellow '79 Honda Civic) driving back to campus one day -- I was still singing the end of the second movement of this masterpiece and was distracted (or perhaps more accurately not on the road driving my car at the time). Baller taught me Brahm's Opus 118 and 119. I wish we had done 117 also, but I'll take what I have.

I'm studying the Schumann Fantasy, Op 17, with Dr. George Barth right now. Just finished practicing some on the second movement -- Trophies. What a poet. I love Schumann's Kinderszenen, a true masterpiece. I've been reading that lately as well, in addition to some Ravel, including the Borodin Waltz and also his Sonatine. I sense that Ravel must be related to Chopin. Still a strong basis in dance with beautiful harmony and color. I suspect Chopin was more adept at improvisation (but not the more gifted at orchestration!). Dr. Barth seems to be one of the few people I've known who is not only an exceptional pianist, but also an exceptional musicologist. Now, how can one claim to understand musicology unless one can play?

How can you write piano music unless you know how to dance and sing? I'm learning how to sing. Perhaps I need to learn how to dance. I recall playing in a Master Class with the St. Lawrence String Quartet. These guys are unbelievable. I remember Geoff Nuttall trying to explain the meter to a girl, Tracie, who was performing a Bach Toccata. Geoff offered to dance to the implied meter to illustrate, of course wearing bright red shoes. Singing, Dancing, Pro-creating -- Bach certainly understood humanity.

Prelude #1
Prelude #1 Score

This simple piece, obviously influenced by Chopin's E-minor prelude (which I played as a boy of course, who didn't?), was improvised more or less. I've attached the original score I scratched out -- noting that I lacked any formal theory instruction at the time. I was trying to make a tone cluster imply different harmonies with subtle changes. I'm also attached (too attached) to the juxtaposed tonic/subdominant (I think I was profoundly influenced by the second movement of Schumann's piano quintet).

Prelude #3
Prelude #3 Score

Dedicated to Giancarlo Aquilanti. Winter Quarter, Music 22: establish the tonic! I should have taken another day to get the return of A in my fingers -- I rush the variation a bit. At some point in my life, I'll wrestle a lot of the anxiety to the ground, and have more control over my performances. I'm convinced the rushing has little to do with my performance and more to do with inner conflict that remains unresolved.

Prelude #6
Prelude #6 Score

I need to record this again. My interpretation has changed somewhat. Plus, this performance is a little sloppy. Strange how I spend all of my time practicing Schumann, Bach, Debussy, etc., but little time on my own stuff.

I modeled this piece after Brahms Intermezzo Op 76 No 4 and Schumann's Des Abends Op 12. I played the Intermezzo as a boy in a piano competition in Utah and choked. My brother Greg and I also played the Poulenc Double Piano Concerto, and played it well (unlike the simple Intermezzo). My brother and his partner Keith took my wife Tina and me to see the goofy Labèque girls play the Poulenc with the San Francisco. Bright red and bright purple dresses. Red had a spasm every few bars, and I'm surprised she managed to return to her piano bench after each 'gesture'. Whiplash?

It's all about voice leading in the end, I suppose. I wrote this piece in a hotel room down at Disneyland. I'd neglected spending time with my kids as I was so caught up in music studies and writing. After Tina and I put them down, I developed the structure, motifs, and harmonic framework to this piece. Of course I can't really finish it until I play around on the piano. I'm only capable of hearing so much without the piano. The piece is for my kids, Noah and Charlotte.

Prelude #8 Piano
Prelude #8 Piano Score
Prelude #8 Orchestration Score

I wrote this piece after learning of the unusual circumstances surrounding my Grandmother Evelyn's death.

My goal was to build a tonal duet (A theme) that was a flash-back. Periodically the piece moves to the transcendental present (B theme). As the piece progresses, time moves forward to the present (B theme dominates). The tonal structure erodes, survived by only motifs and ultimately ending with an unusual cadence.

Prelude #12
Prelude #12 Piano Score

The piece is developed on the major seventh, with a basic ABA structure. I'm trying to imitate some techniques of Ravel, where a dissonant harmony can work with some (but not too much) repetition. Of course my definition of dissonance here is a 19th century one! I try to suggest in the piece that a major seventh chord is in fact poly-tonal.

Opus 1: Chorale Preludes

Opus 1.

A handful of chorale preludes. I hope to set all to text over time. I'll probably need to reorganize these preludes.

Tina and I enjoy singing in Gregory Wait's Memorial Church Choir. We also joined Steven Sano's Stanford Symphonic Chorus this past spring for Mozart's Requiem.

Chorale #1
Chorale #1 score

Dedicated to my late father Jerry Petersen Smith. I'm not particularly religious, except that I enjoy singing hymns and chorales -- it reminds of my time in Utah in the LDS Church. I cherish these memories, mostly as I feel closer to my father. He passed away in June of 2000. This is the most simple of the preludes, and came from an assignment in Music 21.

Prelude #4
Prelude #4 score

Dedicated to my late grandmother Evelyn Hillstead. She came and visited us a few months (February of 2006) before she passed away. She attended the Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco to see and support my wife and son. The next day she attended the service at the Stanford Memorial church with my family. We sang the hymn quoted in this prelude. My mother played this prelude on the organ at my grandmother's funeral.

Prelude #5
Prelude #5 score

Dedicated to my mother, Karen Hillstead Smith, my first piano teacher, and truly one of the most gifted musicians I've heard play. Many sacrifices to help me study with Dr. Smith at BYU all of those years before Stanford.

Prelude #11 piano
Prelude #11
Prelude #11 score

I love Sibelius. I took a cut at a variation on Finlandia. I'll use the text (eventually) from "Be Still My Soul".