Saturday, December 15, 2018

Make Me Care: Writing About Music

The Rizzo/Wheeler Piano Duo

This blog entry first appeared on “The Cross-Eyed Pianist”

“In the caress of notes, Cassie knew nothing of fire, death, loss, or fear, just love plucked from Bach’s hands, to Eric’s, to her own—spoken in a language too deep for words.”
—excerpt, The Waco Variations

 Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.  And while I can’t speak to dancing or architecture, this cliché sums up the problem of using words to describe what is fundamentally an experience, not a concept. Whether listener or performer, we enter into the world of the notes and receive and respond to the music through the lens of personal experience and understanding.  And, because everyone’s experience and taste is different, how does a writer capture in words the sensation of sinking one’s hands into the piano keys, or the eerie magic of “one mind” that occurs when musicians perform together? 

Write what you know.  It’s another accurate cliché.  As a lifelong pianist, I know music.  I know the experience of making music, and of listening deeply to others.  As a writer, I know my character, Cassie, and how she falls in love to Bach and allows herself to grieve through the music of Rachmaninoff and Liszt.  I write the common ground between what I know, what Cassie knows, and the human truths that connect all of this to music. 

Show, don’t tell.  A writer’s cliché.  If I tell the reader that Cassie and her boyfriend Eric, had a good performance of a Bach double concerto, it’s dull boring.  Showing makes it tactile.  It makes it real.  It makes it matter.

“In the second movement, Cassie stopped being aware of any reality beyond the music.  The competition, the judges, her hair, her dress—none of it existed.  The notes defined her universe.  And as she and Eric passed the sensuous lines back and forth, she dissolved into them.  She was the piano, and the piano was her.  She was Eric, Eric was her.  And Bach was what held everything together.  There were no mental pictures and no stories.  Just the music, and Eric, and the piano, which seemed to grow out of her fingertips.”
—excerpt, The Waco Variations

Make me care, I used to tell my piano students.  Don’t just press the notes.  No matter how beautifully you phrase a line, if you don’t have anything interesting to say, you’re just speaking phonetic music.  Writing requires the same because readers deserve entry into all aspects of the moment, not just a description.  In both art forms, if the notes or the words don’t communicate something beyond themselves, everything comes out flat and lifeless.  

Another quote: the visible is the invisible written down.  As musicians and writers, we use what’s concrete  (notes, words) to point to intangibles: love, joy, loss, hope, and a myriad of other human emotions. It’s an internal landscape we all share, and because of this common ground, music—and writing about music—is about bringing the listener or reader into a new world through our shared emotional doorways.  We don’t need to know why a piece of music moves us to tears, or how a paragraph conjures up an entire world.  We experience it. We feel Cassie’s struggle with an unfamiliar piano and we know her belief that somehow she can communicate with her deceased parents through the notes of Liszt’s Sposalizio.

“Taking a deep breath, she put her hands on the keys, closed her eyes a second, and then played the opening lines.  The muted upper register hampered her attempt to get a bell-like tone in her first right-hand arpeggio section.  She tried to play through it, thinking of each note as being wrapped in thick velvet.  Perhaps the clarity was there, at the center of all that velvet? What the piano took away from the upper register it gave back in the middle; when Cassie started what she always thought of as the prayer-like section—the one where she sensed she needed to breathe the notes rather than just play them—the velvet tone gave the notes a warmth she had never before been able to achieve on any other piano.  The sounds matched the one she had been hearing in her mind, and the magic of reality matching the ideal was so strong that she could feel the hair on her arms bristling.  Normal life fell away, and for those breathless moments she sensed that the notes were getting through and that somehow, someone was on the other side, hearing all the love and loss she poured into each pitch.”
—excerpt, The Waco Variations

Writing about music is, ultimately, writing about humanity because that’s where power of the best music and literature resides.  The form—the architecture—only points to the bedrock truths we all share.  We love, we grieve, we celebrate, we mourn, and we seek (and sometimes find) meaning in the most unexpected places.  

Monday, November 19, 2018

"Author, Author" podcast with Ed Goldberg of

Over the years I've had a long relationship with AllClassical radio, a Portland, Oregon station that is broadcast locally and streamed globally.  In addition to providing me with my morning soundtrack, they've been extraordinarily supportive of my performing--both by playing tracks from my CDs occasionally, and featuring me on two of their popular Thursdays@Three live performance programs.

The station's support continued when I wrote my novel, The Waco Variations when announcer and author Ed Goldberg read my book and invited me to be part of his long-running "Author, Author" podcast series.  We met at AllClassical's studio where we discovered that we had shared interests in baseball, writing, and the music of Bach, among other things.  His insightful questions (and my nervous answers!) can be found here:

No artist succeeds without help from others.  I owe a huge debt of gratitude to AllClassical for what they do to champion classical music and musicians in a world that says this music is no longer relevant.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Something Close to Tango by Jennifer Griffith

What do you get when a classical pianist/jazz vocalist/composer/lifelong player of Nazareth tangos gets commissioned to write a 1 minute piece for piano?  Something Close to Tango, of course.

In Jennifer's words, "tango for me conjures up music of Ernesto Nazareth whose tangos brasileiros my mother loved and often asked me to play for guests."  Juxtaposing rhythms and styles from Brazilian and Argentine tango, this one-minute gem is like a stolen glimpse into the lives of others--perhaps seen through an open door or spied from the window of a moving train.  We can guess at the story behind the scene, but it always remains tantalizingly mysterious.

I've been lucky to have known Jennifer for decades.  We first met in a piano master class for professional pianists and we bonded over a shared love of music, books, and the world of ideas and beliefs.  Her compositions include operas, choral works, chamber music, orchestral pieces, art songs, and a few piano gems such as this one.  She brings her fierce intellect and passion for beauty to everything she does.

To order this tango (and learn more about Jennifer), visit her website:

This casual home performance was filmed by Bob Wall.

Monday, November 12, 2018

An International Review of 'The Waco Variations'

‘The Waco Variations’ – a novel by Rhonda Rizzo

A review by Frances Wilson (aka "The Cross-Eyed Pianist") 

On April 20, 1993, sixteen-year-old Cassie watches her world burn to the ground. A week later—far from Waco, TX and the Branch Davidean fire that claimed her family, friends, savior, and the only life she had ever known—Cassie enters a new life—a strange new ‘normal’ life after being ripped from a cult and forced to function in routine society with little knowledge of how to navigate reality.
Cassie has just two goals: to play the piano and to learn how to be normal. Her love of music, especially the music of J.S Bach, is her only thread to a past she buries under her “normal” façade, the thread that holds her together where therapy and religion fail. But Cassie’s habit of using music to hide from her emotions fails her and she must grieve the truth about losing her family and her world in the Waco fire and begin to let time, and Bach, heal her. And only through Bach’s music can she dare to feel the loss of her parents.
When US authorities raided cult-leader David Khoresh’s compound in February 1993, it led to 10 deaths and a 51-day standoff that ended when a fire killed more than 70 men, women, and children. Those who survived Waco were forced to confront the dark things Khoresh did: narcissistic and abusive, he was deeply controlling yet charismatic and personable.
This well-crafted and sensitively-written novel by American pianist Rhonda Rizzo does not shy away from presenting Khoresh and his cult in unsentimental terms, but rather than offer long descriptions, small disturbing details are slipped into the narrative in the form of flashbacks by Cassie, the protagonist, as she tries to come to terms what has happened to her and her family, and comprehend her parents’ life choices. The complex story of Cassie’s struggle to process the trauma of Waco and resulting PTSD, and the extraordinarily closed world of a religious cult, is told in unsentimental, vividly realistic terms, and Rhonda Rizzo’s own musical background brings an authenticity and authority to the descriptions of the music, including the experience of studying and performing music, the hot house, competitive atmosphere of music college, and the special pleasures (and difficulties) of playing with other musicians.
This is as much a coming-of-age novel as a book about recovery and renewal, and Cassie’s naive, tentative entry into a normal teenage girl’s life of fashion, boys and alcohol is presented in bold, believable terms: her relationships are not always straightforward and her attempts to fit in, despite her unusual background, are familiar to anyone who has felt like an outsider.
In one of those serendipitous encounters which sometimes happen via my blog, the author contacted me out of the blue to ask if I would review her book. I’m so glad I agreed, as I found The Waco Variations a real page-turner, and, ultimately, a wonderful celebration of the restorative powers of music. The novel offers a universal message – that music has the power to touch our souls, to heal and calm, and so much more…..

Friday, November 2, 2018

"Meet the Artist" Interview With Frances Wilson (aka "The Cross-Eyed Pianist)

Full confession:  it took me several months to get my nerve up to contact the author of one of my favorite music blogs, The Cross-Eyed Pianist, and ask her if she'd be willing to read and review my novel, The Waco Variations.  Pianist, writer, concert reviewer, blogger, and music lover Frances Wilson's blog is followed by over 8500 people and as such is one of the top-rated classical music sites in the world.  Well, Wilson couldn't have been more gracious.  Thanks to my other favorite piano blog, Piano Addict, she'd already heard of my book and was eager to read it.

Wilson's "Meet the Artist" interview series is a popular element of The Cross-Eyed Pianist.  As my resume is much more less illustrious than many of the pianists she features, I was surprised and thrilled when she asked me to be part of this series.  Her questions and my answers can be found here:

And while you're on her site, peruse her writing, read other interviews, and (especially if you're a pianist), follow the blog.  I have for several years; it never fails to inform and inspire.

Monday, October 15, 2018

A Musical Soirée with Widney Moore, Pianist

Long ago, before concert hall and YouTube performances, piano music was presented much the same way that it is in this video:  at home and for friends.  There's an intimacy and communication that more formal performances can't duplicate, and sometimes (as in the case of this performance), you get lucky and the magic is captured on film.

This short performance features Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's Für Alina  and Spiegel im Spiegel, along with two short Debussy selections.  Für Alina, dedicated to a friend's daughter, was written as a consolation for Alina's mother when Alina left home to live in England with her father.  Spiegel im Spiegel (mirror in a mirror) was originally written for piano and violin, although it has been arranged for many other instruments as well.  Both pieces reflect Pärt's unique composition style known as "Holy Minimalism" or "Mystic Minimalism," and both require the pianist to settle into stillness, accept the beauty in simplicity, and play the space around the notes more than the notes themselves. When performing them (or listening to them), there's a sense of time both standing still and expanding simultaneously.  I suppose that could be one of the reasons why the music of Pärt is so frequently requested as deathbed music.

The pianist Widney Moore had a long career as a gallery owner and an award-winning textile artist. Later in life, after reading Noah Adams' book Piano Lessons, she decided to learn to play the piano.  Each year she prepares a program to take to Sonata--the Vermont piano camp for adults that Adams made famous in his book--and she plays the pieces for Portland friends before she leaves.  And while she would never describe herself as a professional pianist, she's a true musician who plays with tenderness, beauty, and peace. When she was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer last November, we feared she'd not live to play another program.  Yet, miraculously, here she is, playing better than she ever has--playing with the simplicity and clarity and gratitude that only a life well lived can bring to music.

While I watched Widney play this program last month, I was struck by the power of Pärt's and Debussy's music in the hands of a pianist who has lived the depth of every note. This simplicity, this calm acceptance--this is the "holy grail" we all seek in our playing: true purity of heart.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Modal Preludes, Opus 30 by Alexander LaFollett

Did you know that there are 462 heptatonic modes?  I didn't either, until I saw Alexander LaFollett's modal system.  Do you know why you should care that there are 462 hetpatonic modes?  Because Alex writes beautifully constructed pieces in many of these modes and yet somehow each piece is both accessible and foreign at the same time.  I always think of them as communiques from another sound universe.

These three pieces are the first set of Modal Preludes that Alex wrote for the piano.  They're youthful works, composed when Alex was a teenager (he graduated from college at age 16--no, that's not a misprint).  I've had a long relationship with these pieces, both as a performer and a teacher.  They move from a quirky, almost mime-esque first prelude to a stormy second prelude into a raucous third prelude that is anchored by an almost jazz LH rhythm.  All three preludes reflect the capricious energy of youth.

Alexander has written for strings, winds, soloists, small ensembles, and (luckily for me), piano, including more Modal Preludes which will  appear in the blog on a future date.  All this information, along with his bio (and his explanation of his modal system), can be found on his website.  Most importantly, the website is where to order these fantastically fun pieces.

To order:

This casual home performance was filmed by Bob Wall.

Sunday, September 9, 2018


When I started the No Dead Guys blog a couple of years ago, I thought I was the only blogging pianist with a mission to champion living composers by putting out videos of their music.  Last week, thanks to the wonder of modern networking, I found MOVING CLASSICS TV which does what I've been doing on No Dead Guys, only bigger and better.

A musical internet channel founded by Munich-based musicians and enterpreneurs and run by classical pianist, Anna Sutyagina, this site gives contemporary music a creative face on the Internet.

In their own words, "MOVING CLASSICS TV stands for zeitgeist, creativity and new ideas. We present new music videos and interviews with composers from all over the world every week. It is an invitation for all listeners to make a new image of our present times with contemporary music: discover the beauty of contemporary music, listen to our times and experience what we call „echt zeitgeisty“. For the composers from all over the world MOVING CLASSICS TV is a unique platform to present their music, to get exposure and feedback from listeners and sell the music sheets. We are using Social Media for the promotion of Moving Classics composers."

Several of the videos presented on No Dead Guys have been included on MOVING CLASSICS TV,  and I look forward to many happy hours perusing and listening to the wealth of beautiful piano music featured on this site, especially those recorded by the expressive Anna Sutyagina.  The introspective video I chose for this blog--"For Mattia" by Douwe Eisenga--is a gorgeously-played example of the music featured on MOVING CLASSICS TV.

To visit the site:

Thursday, July 26, 2018

VLA by Alexander J. Schwarzkopf

I heard Alexander play this piece a few days ago in the middle of a swelteringly hot late afternoon concert.  The sheer space and complexity of VLA felt like a much-needed splash of cold water in the middle of an over-wrought program—bracing, startling, and uncompromising.  I briefly entertained the idea of playing it myself, but then quickly reminded myself that I’m a “tune-and-a-beat” pianist, and besides, when Alexander plays it this well, why shouldn’t he be the featured performer?  

Alexander was gracious enough to provide me with his program notes and so here, in his words, the background and interpretation of VLA:

The VLA (Very Large Array) is located on the west side of the Magdalena Mountains outside of Socorro, New Mexico.  The VLA is comprised of 39 moveable radio dishes that sit on railroad tracks.  The tracks are designed in a Y formation and each span 13 miles. This site has been used by scientists such as Einstein and many others to make some of the most incredible discoveries about blackholes, distant stars and other galactic phenomena. 

I was introduced to the VLA by a poet and artist, John Barney, with whom I am collaborating to create a large-scale composition where we are investigating various manmade landscapes in New Mexico and the ways in which they interface with the earth and their natural surroundings. The VLA is a curious landscape, one that I’d not seen the likes of prior to my initial visit.  There is a lot left the imagination, as only a small number of the dishes are actually visible at any given point. This is precisely one of the motivations for my particular take on this landscape.  I stood and imagined how this array acts as both a transmission and receiving point for humanity to further understand the immensity of outer space.  

My interpretation of VLA hinges on the intersection between the human being standing beneath the stars in wonderment and the representation of imaginary waves and threads of sound conducted by the extremely powerful antennae on the dishes into sound. I began the process by creating a work of visual art that represented my concept of the universality of this communication, resulting in a piece that represents the form of a galaxy or distant formation of stars, like a constellation.  Further, this piece of art also represents a depiction of a synapse in the brain, linking the ethereal concept of distant life or energy bodies with our thinking apparatus. The artwork emerges from the center of the page, the tone D.  From that point, each thread that emerges creates one of the transmissions. If the piece were to be read like a clock, one would begin with the line beginning at the center and moving to 3 o’clock, thus proceeding to read the remainder in a counterclockwise fashion, always beginning in the middle and moving toward the outer parameter of the page. The composition unfolds as a series of waves that I treat like new iterations or readings that recombine and envision the same material in the original piece.  Through the application of various processes to understand this material, I create an environment wherein the material dialogues with itself.  There are 7 waves, each having distinctive characteristics, temperament and tempi. Each wave explores contrasting timbres within unique textural contexts.  Wave 6 is the only point in the piece where I present the entirety of the original thematic material in reverse, directly preceding the restatement of the theme proper.

To order a copy of this (and other) pieces, visit:

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Enterprising Pianist: The Magic of Spontaneous Creativity

Piano Addict (, one of my favorite piano websites, invited me to write a guest blog this week and it gave me a chance to chat about one of my favorite topics--creativity.  And this surreal picture?  Just a random (creative) shot through my window on a sunny day--no special effects or filters.

To read the article, follow this link...and while you're there, browse some of the other excellent blog entries by other pianists.

The Enterprising Pianist: The Magic of Spontaneous Creativity

Friday, July 6, 2018

A Schenkerian Review of The Waco Variations, by Dr. Dave Deason

This blog entry comes courtesy of the fantastic composer Dave Deason because when someone writes a book review that is actually a musical Schenkerian analysis (and writes it so well), it has to be shared with others.

This video is a short introduction to  the man who continues to write such beautifully crafted yet approachable music.  You can find more about him at his website: 

And now, without further introduction, The Waco Variations as reviewed by Dr. Dave Deason.

Wittgenstein once said that you get tragedy where the tree, instead of bending, breaks.  In Ms. Rizzo’s new novel, The Waco Variations, the fragile boundary between bending and breaking stands as the central premise that keeps the reader on the edge of his or her seat.  Will Cassie be able to “bend” and thus keep moving forward in the slow process of healing? Or will she “break”, turning what seems to me to be always on the very brink of a tragedy into a full-fledged tragedy? One cannot be sure, even at the very end.  One can only hope that Cassie’s story survives the “bend”.

For the general reader, Ms. Rizzo’s book stands as a superb example of a novel by a wonderful writer, whose first novel reveals a work that should be read by everyone who appreciates beautiful imagery, emotional expressiveness, and dramatic intensity. It is easy to imagine how Ms. Rizzo will build on these skills in subsequent books, which I hope she does.

For the musician, however, Ms. Rizzo’s book also features many useful and subtle connections with music, especially to the music to JS Bach.  As I was reading the book, some of my experiences as a Professor of Music Theory began to reassert themselves.  One of these experiences particularly struck me: how much of this work can be viewed as one might approach a formal analysis of a musical composition, say, from a Schenkerian perspective.  In this approach, some characters with their subjectively associated key suggestions would be represented in place of the Urlinie, while more central characters might be substituted as the bass brechung. (Of course, such an application would be regarded as heretical by any Schenker enthusiast, but this application in just an attempt to transfer one theoretical concept to another discipline.)

After all, the very structure of the book, while clearly influenced by Bach’s Goldberg Variations (such as the 30 chapters/variations, the initial Aria and the final Aria Da Capo), also might be called in a central “tonality”, which, for me, is C minor.  Why C minor as opposed to, say, G major as in the Goldberg?  For one thing, the first letter of Cassie’s name starts with C, which is the tonal center in both Bach’s C major and C minor Double Concerti. A coincidence? Possibly, but the association seems, at least to me, to be provocative.)

My feeling that it begins “in” or should I say “on” C minor and ends similarly, suggesting a single overall tonality, a key element in Schenkerian theory, for example.  In fact, the whole book suggests various related “keys”, such as possibly F minor for Naomi, who seems to exude cynicism almost to the point of outright Nihilism. In Schenkerian theory, the Ursatz, or fundamental structure requires the bass brechung to be the Dominant of the central key, ultimately returning to the Tonic.  This role (Dominant) is, of course, critical to the structure of a piece, which I see here as that portrayed by Maureen.  Cassie and her relationship with Maureen, I believe, may be seen as providing the fundamental background structure, through which other characters, such Eric, Joel, Mark, Greg, and others, occupy various levels of middleground. What actual levels I would assign them to is beyond the scope of this review.  All of them, however, contribute to the overall prolongation of the central key of C minor, or Cassie.  It is important to see Naomi and Maureen as kind of, shall we say, “ritornello” characters, due to their re-appearance throughout the novel, similar to the returning orchestra tuttis periodically in the Double Concertos and other pieces.

What about the character Ms. Rizzo refers to only as “He” or “Him”? In Schenkerian theory, the Urlinie can be an 8-line, a 5 -line, or a 3-line.  Although differing opinions can be made, I feel that the 3–line is the most appropriate here, as it is the third of a triad which defines whether the final triad is either major or minor.  For me “He” is what makes the C tonality as a minor one, and “His” continued influence lead to my view that the whole novel as belonging to C minor. 

Often in musical compositions, especially in the music of Bach, the listener is presented with a Deus Ex Machina conclusion, which substitutes the major third for the original minor third.  This has the effect of giving an almost uplifting effect to the piece.  In other words, things may be not so bad after all.  Can we se this in The Waco Variations?  As I nearly reached the end, as mentioned before, I could either see either a “broken” Cassie, or a “bent” Cassie.  Ms. Rizzo seems to leave that decision up to us.  For me, I DO see it as major, as I truly want to see Cassie survive her ordeal.

In conclusion, though some may feel that subjecting this book to a Schenkerian view might be too far outside of Schenker’s original concept, the obvious musical associations, coupled with the familiarity of Ms. Rizzo’s excellent musical background and her accomplishments as a pianist, just seemed too tempting to pass up.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Waco Variations a novel

This book came to me long after I'd decided that the writing side of my life was best expressed in articles, essays, and blog entries.  But, to adapt an old cliche,  this novel is what happened when I was making other plans.

The book is (of course) about music.  It's also about survival and recovery.  I've included a short description:

On April 20, 1993, sixteen-year-old Cassie watches her world burn to the ground. A week later—far from Waco, TX and the Branch Davidean fire that claimed her family, friends, savior, and the only life she had ever known—Cassie enters a new life—a strange new ‘normal’ life after being ripped from a cult and forced to function in routine society with little knowledge of how to navigate reality.
Cassie has just two goals: to play the piano and to learn how to be normal. Her love of music, especially the music of J.S Bach, is her only thread to a past she buries under her “normal” façade, the thread that holds her together where therapy and religion fail. But Cassie’s habit of using music to hide from her emotions fails her and she must grieve the truth about losing her family and her world in the Waco fire and begin to let time, and Bach, heal her.  And only through that music can she dare to feel the loss of her parents.
The Waco Variations celebrates the tenacity of the human spirit and the healing power of music. 
This story is available on

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Three Intermezzi by Paul Schoenfield

I was introduced to Paul Schoenfield’s music a couple of years ago when the Oregon Symphony performed one of his compositions.  It blew me away.  The next day I wrote him a fan email and was thrilled by his quick reply.  When I purchased a copy of his piano duet, “5 Days in the Life of a Manic-Depressive”, Paul graciously included his Three Intermezzi as a gift.

These three introspective pieces are works he says he wrote just to please himself, specifically, “music my hands feel like touching and sounds my ears enjoy perceiving.  The music is intimate, serene and contemplative.  It’s the sort of music I improvise at night with the lights out and the house empty.”

I’ve included all three Intermezzi in this post because I feel they progress so beautifully from one to the next.  It’s rare to find modern music that borrows much from the past (Bach and Brahms are two influences) yet is still fresh.  The challenge, of course, is to allow it to sound improvised, all the while never losing sight of the introspective nature of each one.  They’ve been a joy to learn.

The videos were shot by my friend Bob Wall, in my home.

To order a copy of this lovely music:

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Adagio, from Gazebo Dances by John Corigliano

John Corigliano’s Gazebo Dances depict the sorts of pavilions often seen in the center of small towns across the country, where ad hoc local bands play concerts on warm summer evenings.  Corigliano’s depictions of the mixture of the bombastic energy of marches and dance pieces, and the inevitable clashes and crashes of under-rehearsed ensembles is evident in the other three movements of this suite.  Adagio, however, is a moment of true reflection, tenderness, and almost tragic beauty in the midst of the celebration.

Molly Wheeler and I have recorded the complete Gazebo Dances.  I featured our recording of the Tarantella previously on this blog.  The suite continues to be one of our favorites, and this performance was part of a concert we gave a year and a half ago.

To order this music, visit