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.