Piano Music for relaxation and reflection

Quartet for the End of Time 

A global pandemic, protests that one hopes will galvanize systemic changes and encourage conversations so long overdue, a world in flux...It may seem like the end of time as we know it.

In 1940 in a Nazi prison camp in Poland, Olivier Messiaen composed and, with three fellow prisoners, performed "Quatuor Pour la Fin du Temps" ("Quartet for the End of Time"), his musical response to and reflection on his world in flux.  He wrote, "I am convinced that joy exists...joy is beyond sorrow, beauty beyond horror."

I have listened to this composition many times, and was recently moved to send for the score in order to explore it and gain a deeper understanding of it.  With considerable practice, I could probably deliver a passable amateur performance of the challenging piano part.  But two of the movements -- V. and VIII., both transcendent in beauty -- are readily "playable."  So while listening to the recording, I have played along with the cello in the first movement and the violin in the other.  This has been a musical meditation for me - a brief and welcome respite from the noise of the world...the kind of mindful pause that music engenders.

One Step Backward Taken 

In the midst of this global pandemic, we are being asked to...pause, to simply...stop (not so simple to do), or, as Robert Frost so eloquently expresses in his poem, step backward.  

Not only sands and gravels
Were once more on their travels,
But gulping muddy gallons,
Great boulders off their balance
Bumped heads together dully
And started down the gully.
Whole capes caked off in slices,
I felt my standpoint shaken in the universal crisis.

But with one step backward taken
I saved myself from going.
A world torn loose went by me,
Then the rain stopped and the blowing,
And the sun came out to dry me.

I think of my piano piece "Rapids" as a soundtrack for his "universal crisis" and "How the Sun Rose" as an underscore for the aftermath.

My favorite line from John Donne's "No Man is an Island" is "For I am involved in mankind."  Let's step back for a while, acknowledge and celebrate our common humanity, and know that the storm will stop, and the sun will come out to dry us...together.

 

A single string stirring neutron dance 

I have always liked that phrase from Michael Shorb's poem "Geese."  I often reflect on it when observing flocks of birds soaring as one during migrations. There is a rhythm and harmony to this "dance" that is musical.  In hindsight, I think this must have been part of the inspiration for my piano composition "Stirrings."

GEESE by Michael Shorb

Just north of Valley Falls
rust mustard hue of
fading autumn
     chills the marsh
last storm of
Canadian geese
stuns the flyway
imprinted engines of feathers and cries.

I wonder how they'll
thread their way
how instincts born of spanning
northern frosts and raw
walnut air
navigate interstate
haze to pinpoints in
South American distance
zeroing back with
each unerring swoop
to splashdown
   on a mountain lake
where reeds bend
mirrored in watery
reflections
of their own swaying

they and the vanishing geese
a single string
stirring
neutron dance
shifting
branches of the actual
surrounding me like
breath returning
when everything else
       is gone.

Mont Blanc Soundscape 

My daughter and I celebrated milestone birthdays recently with a grand adventure: the "Tour du Mont Blanc," a long-distance hike that circles the Mont Blanc massif and passes through France, Italy, and Switzerland.  The daily hikes were challenging and exhilarating.  And that's what we wanted.  Embarking early each day, my daughter seemed to view every lengthy ascent as a personal  affront as she aggressively attacked them  Though not quite as aggressive, I was able to keep up.  We packed lightly, but were glad we had our rain gear up in the chilly cloudy mist of Grand Col Ferret, our first aid kit for a minor mishap, and ample water.  We arrived a few hours before dinner at our hotels, each a unique and charming postcard property, where we enjoyed the warm hospitality and delicious meals.  We took far too many pictures - who could resist?!  But I will particularly relish recalling the sounds along the way: the rustling leaves, the streams and waterfalls, the buzzing bees among the wildflowers, each friendly "bon jour" from fellow hikers, my huffing and puffing, the church bells, and above all the cowbells ringing in the distance. In the coming months I will attempt to express my impressions of our tour in music.  One thing is certain.  The orchestration will include cowbells!

The Rapture of Music 

I am compelled to post this verse from the The Radiance Sutras.
It speaks for itself and for all of us who have been privileged to experience, if only momentarily, James Joyce's "aesthetic arrest" when carried away and lost in music. Once again, as Emily Dickinson wrote, "stunned by bolts of melody."

Immerse yourself in the rapture of music.
You know what you love. Go there.

Tend to each note, each chord,
Rising up from silence and dissolving again.

Vibrating strings draw us
Into the spacious resonance of the heart.

The body becomes light as the sky
And you, one with the Great Musician,
Who is even now singing us
Into existence.

Live from Here 

I've been a fan of "Live from Here," the weekly PBS radio show, since it filled the time slot claimed for years by "A Prairie Home Companion."  Every week I'm newly amazed at what Chris Thile "comes up with" on his mandolin - creative arrangements, dazzling dexterity, new musical ideas.  So to witness the live  broadcast from the second row in Dallas last week was a joy. As is the case with music, a live performance takes it to another level.  The enthusiastic audience was treated to folk, garage grunge, new age, classical, Texas swing, C&W, and R&B musical genres - all performed by expert musicians and sparked by the infectious energy of the host.  And they even performed a poignant piece - relevant in these times - tied to an Emily Dickinson poem....


Much Madness is Divinest Sense
To a Discerning Eye -
Much Sense - the starkest Madness

'Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail
Assent - and you are sane - 
Demur - you're straightway dangerous
And Handled with a Chain

 

Hodie 

Hodie - "This Day" 

I have two Christmas musical traditions: raising my voice enthusiastically - though not always accurately - in the superb Dallas Bach Society's annual Messiah sing-along, and listening to - actually luxuriating in - my recording of Vaughan Williams' Christmas Cantata, Hodie.

Composed when he was 82, Vaughan Williams juxtaposes words from the Scriptures with secular poetry penned by Milton, Hardy, Drummond, Herbert, Ursula Vaughan Williams, and others. Joyful, dramatic, and majestic - subtle, haunting, and sublime, this radiant work never fails to move and inspire me.  As Michael Kennedy writes in his album notes, "Hodie is the music of goodwill, from the heart and mind of a great English visionary." The final chorus exclaims:


"Ring out, ye crystal spheres,
Once bless our human ears,
If ye have power to touch our senses so...

"And heaven as at some festival,
Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall."

Merry Christmas

Fire-fangled Feathers 

Of Mere Being

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze décor.

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings.  Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
                        - Wallace Stevens

This poem is a favorite of mine.  Wallace Stevens gives us facts simply stated.  There's the tree; there's the bird; the wind moves through the branches, etc.

We instinctively use our minds eye to picture the scene he paints with his words.  But where is this scene?  He says: "...at the end of the mind, beyond the last thought...on the edge of space..."  That is, beyond words.

What we do, or think, or feel doesn't matter.  These things simply exist.  They just are.  And as Emily Dickinson wrote:

Existence - in itself
Without a further function -
Omnipotence - Enough - 

So how do we access this elusive space beyond words, between thoughts, where we simply exist, just are, and mere being is enough?

For some, meditation.  For others, prayer as presence and contemplation. Through dance.  And for many of us, through music, the language that begins where words leave off.

 

The Poetry of Earth 

The sounds of nature are all around us all the time wherever we are.  But we have to pay attention and somehow listen through the noise of our daily lives.  Hearing the music of bird songs, waterfalls, and wind through the trees on a recent trip to Kings Canyon National Park, reminded me of John Keats' poem "On the Grasshopper and the Cricket."  Evidently taking on a challenge by a fellow poet, he wrote this in an hour.  The prompt was to write a sonnet about a grasshopper and a cricket. Clearly John Keats was in tune with the sounds of nature.  Here are fourteen lines that remind us to be grateful for the music, the poetry, the gift the earth gives us everyday.

The poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper's - he takes the lead
In summer luxury, - he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
The poetry of earth is ceasing never:
On a lone winter evening, when the frost
Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The Cricket's song, in warmth increasing ever,
And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
The Grasshopper's among some grassy hills.

 

 

A Die Walkure to Remember 

"This high-intensity performance will surely rank as a legend in Dallas musical history."

So writes Dallas Morning News Special Contributor Scott Cantrell following the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's concert performance of Wagner's Die Walkure -- a performance I was fortunate to witness and experience.  During the last decade outgoing Music Director Jaap van Zweden has molded the DSO into a first-tier ensemble.  And along the way he has delivered numerous legendary performances.  While difficult to rank, I cannot imagine a concert topping this one in sheer intensity, musical expression, and emotional impact.  The story may be convoluted, but in Wagner the music tells the story.  Van Zweden read the story and communicated it  in spectacular fashion guiding the singers and super-sized orchestra to the delight of the appreciative audience.  Soon he leaves for his new post as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic.  He ends his Dallas run with performances of Beethoven's Ninth.  I eagerly anticipate the open rehearsal I will attend later this week.  I suspect that true to form he'll deliver a Ninth to remember!

What does it mean? 

Recently I heard a series of episodes of "Exploring Music" in which Bill McGlaughlin investigated music and meaning - certainly an elusive concept.

Soon after, I attended a concert and was moved by performances of Francis Poulenc's "Stabat Mater" and Herbert Howells' "Hymnus Paradisi."

The tragic events many years ago that precipitated the compositing of these dramatic works by these composers were similar.  The performance by the orchestra, soloists, and choir under the directions of a fine conductor was first rate.  And for whatever reason, I was in a receptive frame of mind that day, ready for immersion in the glorious sounds that enveloped me.

So what did the music mean?

An answer is not easy to express in everyday language.  Poets and philosophers have responded eloquently to their impressions of musical moments in their lives.

For me on that particular day, any meaning arose from the depth of my experience of the music.  And I guess this experience occurred at the intersection of the composer's inspiration and craft, the performers' interpretation, and my (the listener's) context.

Now I'm listening to John Coltrane.  What does this music mean?  I can't readily say.  But I know I like it.

"It tolls for thee." 

I wrote the piano piece "It Tolls for Thee" as a response to the killing of five police officers in Dallas in July of 2016.  However, it could have been written in reaction to the mass shooting in Las Vegas today or the myriad other tragic events in recent history.  In all of these instances I am reminded of the words of John Donne expressing our common humanity and our ultimate connection with each other.

"No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.  If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.  As well as if a promontory were.  As well as if a manor of thine own or of thine friend's were.

Each man's death diminishes me for I am involved in mankind.  Therefore, send not to know for whom the bells tolls.  It tolls for thee."

Dale Cook 

Our musical community lost a friend and colleague to a freak accident.  Drummer Dale Cook played with Peter Nero and Doc Severinsen, among others.  He was a first call session player, and can still be heard on many familiar sports themes, network production tracks, and ads.  Upon reflection I realized that he played on every one of my recording sessions over a 35 year period.  He delivered the life, the soul, and the groove - no matter the style of music.  A consummate practical joker, he had a wonderfully mischevious sense of humor.  A great talent, a great guy, and a great loss. The music lives on.

What a Musical Week! 

It's been a musically exhilarating few days.  I caught the excellent documentary "Chasing Trane" about John Coltrane - his life and musical journey. And subsequently purchased two more of his albums. I'm streaming the 2017 Cliburn Piano competition and watching jaw-dropping performances by young pianists from throughout the world.  And I'm completing a project in which I get to record with three of my favorite musical cohorts.  Amidst all the nonsense, chaos, and endless chatter that surrounds us, we still have music!

Good Morning, Midnight 

Emily Dickinson wrote many of her poems in a hymn-like form - with four line stanzas, rhyming schemes, and meter.  In her poem "Good Morning, Midnight" her words "sing" in the form of The Blues.  What she says and how she says it begs for a musical interpretation.  My piano piece of the same name is my attempt to express her lament.  Now I just need someone to sing it!
Good Morning -- Midnight --
I'm coming Home --
Day -- got tired of Me --
How could I -- of Him?

Sunshine was a sweet place --
I liked to stay --
But Morn -- didn't want me - now --
So - Good night -- Day!

I can look -- can't I --
When the East is Red?
The hills -- have a way -- then --
That puts the heart -- abroad --

Your are not so fair -- Midnight --
I chose -- Day --
But -- please take a little Girl --
He turned away!

Possibility 

I am always encouraged and rejuvenated after reading this poem.  To me it extols creative expression in poetry, music, and the visual arts. It communicates a refreshing attitude toward life.
I dwell in Possibility --
A fairer House than Prose --
More numerous of Windows --
Superior -- for Doors --

Of Chambers as the Cedars --
Impregnable of Eye --
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the sky --

Of Visitors -- the fairest --
For Occupation -- This --
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To Gather Paradise --
...Emily Dickinson

The Saddest Music Ever Written 

That title caught my eye.  Yes, it refers to Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. Certainly, anyone compiling a "top ten" list would have to include this piece at or near the top.  But what is it about this music that moves us so, that makes it the default soundtrack for communal grieving on so many occasions?  What is its place in Barber's oeuvre?  How does it "work" musically?  In his book Thomas Larson probes these questions and more.  This is a memoir, a biography, a discourse on aesthetics, and personal reflection on one hundred years of cultural history.  But even more, it is an invitation and reminder to listen to this masterpiece with fresh ears and revel in its mystery.  Larson cites Leonard Bernstein: "Why do so many of us try to explain the beauty of music, thus depriving it of its mystery?  He directs readers to landmark performances conducted by Schippers and Slatkin.  Both outstanding and sublime.  I have to admit I only knew Barber's Adagio and his Piano Concerto. The book introduced me to his vocal music, in particular, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a setting of a James Agee poem, and Dover Beach, based on a poem by Matthew Arnold.  I have gladly added these to my recordings.

The Joy of Music 

For expressions of sheer joy, just look at the faces of the artists in the documentary The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. The documentary tells the story of the Silk Road Project from its beginning in 1998, focusing on the stories of several of the key players. The outreach and music-making continue today building cultural connections and celebrating our common humanity through the language of music. From the web site: "We know that music cannot stop a bullet or feed the hungry, but it can bring empathy and joy to places where they are in short supply."

"For Eileen" 

My mother celebrated her 90th birthday recently.  Those family members who could came and ate and laughed and retold the timeless stories that never seem to age.  And neither does my mother.  "For Eileen" is based on a song written years ago for another occasion. My mother has often encouraged me to "do something with it."  So I did. You can't turn down your mother!