Doing What I'm Passionate About

First selfie with the new piano in situ!

First selfie with the new piano in situ!

So the piano was delivered a week ago, and I’ve barely been able to pull myself away from it.  I haven’t lived with a piano in my own space in some six years, and even then, when I lived in NYC the Steinway in the apartment actually belonged to my flatmate, a professional pianist, so my access was not 24/7, let’s say.  But as I’d bashed my head against walls since my late teens to make my biggest passion and worst habit my career, to not have this basic tool to do what I do has been a serious handicap.  Just to be able to sit and play, other composers’ music as much as my own, keeps my own creative juices flowing.  And while porn may sustain me another couple years at best, music is for life.

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Me, supervising musicians in a pit.  Note my score under my arms; I’m already making revisions!

Some of you have asked what exactly it is I do when I’m not making porn.  You know I’m trained as a composer, having studied at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.  I’ve written for small ensembles, like this set of four Cuban-inspired Dances for clarinet and piano:

You can hear that movement here:

At the other extreme, works for large orchestra; this ensemble would require about eighty performers on stage:

Besides piano many of you know already that I play tuba.  I also sing bass and countertenor, and I’ve dabbled in a number of other instruments.  However, most of my work has been performing what I best refer to as “music preparation”.  Generally this means working with material that already exists, editing it or arranging it or just copying it.  It’s a tiny little niche in the rather small world of classical music; I also dabble in jazz and broadway/cabaret, but to less of an extent.

Photo Aug 28, 16 34 24

The simplest of variants of this is simply taking a composer’s manuscript and making the fine engraved copy that can be sent to publishers and put in front of performers.  This will include incorporating rehearsal marks, cues in parts, and other critical marks that ease performance, as well as simply identifying and correcting errors in the musical text.  Sometimes this is quite easy.

Sometimes its much more difficult.

Sometimes it involves transcribing into modern notation an older means of notating music, or one of the experimental means of notation that composers dabbled with in the 14th and 15th centuries, and which modern musicians are not accustomed to deciphering.

More involved, I arrange and orchestrate works.  There is an operetta by the late nineteenth century German composer active in Vienna, Oscar Straus, called Tapfere Soldat (commonly translated as The Chocolate Soldier), loosely based on Shaw’s play Arms and the Man.  Straus had a gift for melody, and every tune in this work is something you walk away from whistling.  He enjoyed great popularity in his time, but fell from fashion at the turn of the century, and was largely forgotten by the time the Third Reich started actively destroying any materials of German Jewish composers they could get their hands on.  As a result, despite there being many piano reductions of the score, we were having trouble coming up with any published orchestral score.  And the couple recordings I listened to involving orchestra were remarkably “flat” sounding anyway, not terribly interesting.  We came to realize that the orchestrations used in those recordings were made recently from the piano-vocal score, which had a bare minimum of accompaniment.  As the piano-vocal that was widely sold and hence survived would have been published so amateur musicians could play the songs at home, they were kept simple.  Examining similar works by Straus’ contemporaries whose works we have better representation, like the Strauss brothers (not related to Oscar) Josef and Johann Jr., Emmerich Kálmán, Franz Lehar, and Franz von Suppé to name a few, we confirmed that the original full score would have incorporated countermelodies and muscial gestures not reflected in the piano-vocal.  As this more complex orchestration no longer seemed to exist, whether due to Nazi obliteration or later neglect, we decided to recreate what might have been, matching the style of the day as much as possible.  This orchestration, for twelve instrumentalists, was used in a fully-staged production at the Bard Music Festival for three weeks in 2010.  I’ve prepared a full script for the musical, calling it Arms and the Man to distinguish it from mere translations of the Straus original, drawing dialogue directly from Shaw’s play and making new translations of the German lyrics for the songs to match.  And now I’m sending this around to operetta companies in the States to try to get further performances of what has proven to be a really charming and funny play with some super music.

After the success of that work, the following year Bard decided to do an adaptation of Noël Coward’s musical Bittersweet.  Coward, writing this in the 1930’s, set the frame of the story in Paris in the years coming into World War II, following an elderly lady’s reminiscing of her youth in a gilded age of the 1870’s and ’80’s.  His style hence straddled the jazz era of the 1930’s and the waltz era of the fin de siecle.  Our director thought it might make the story stronger if we updated it, setting the framework in 1960’s cold-war Europe looking back on the 1920’s & ’30’s as the gilded era.  As such, we had to recast a lot of the music into a more apropos style.  As many of the characters are in fact musicians, and stage instructions often call on them to “improvise a jazz version of such-and-such a tune at the piano” or some such thing, many of these improvisations had to be created essentially from scratch.  The great tune of the musical is a waltz tune “I’ll see you again”; at the end of the musical, back in the 1960’s, one of the younger characters creates a modern version of the song, completely missing the meaning and point of it.  The original version suggests he makes a foxtrot, but as that made no sense in a 1960 setting, here’s the original, and my piano “improvisation” drawing on the Beatles’ Michele, Ma Belle as the model.

Again, this required not only the rearrangements for the entire show, but again orchestrations to be prepared for a pit of 12 instrumentalists, as well as writing parts for the actors on stage to perform as well, and of course doctoring those to the actual ability of those actors to perform on a given instrument!  All of these folks can sing, but when stage directions call for specific ones to play piano, violin, concertina (okay, we managed to make the accordion go away)…  This was a challenge!

More involved are projects where music has to be reconstructed.  For every work of classical music we have a full set of materials for, there are hundreds which either fell from fashion at some point and have yet to be rediscovered.  Remembering that before the advent of photocopiers, music either had to be engraved and published, an expensive prospect only lavished on the few works publishers knew they’d be able to sell, or had to be copied out by hand.  If you wanted a set of opera parts, you usually had to hire a copyist somewhere in proximity of an extant score to copy the score and parts out, one at a time.  Hence many works only existed in one or two copies, many of which are in somewhat ratty condition considering how much use they may have endured in their day, or how they may have been stored in the meantime.

The Viennese composer Franz von Suppé wrote over a hundred operettas, most of which are completely forgotten.  Indeed, Suppé himself is really only remembered today for two overtures, the ones to Poet and Peasant and Light Cavalry, both familiar to anyone who watched Loony Toons cartoons in their childhood.  A few of his musicals were about earlier composers still popular in the 1860’s, notably one based on Mozart in 1854.  These musicals not only had stories very loosely based on biographical parts of the subject’s life, but also incorporated the most popular tunes written by that composer.  His musical Schubert, written in 1864 and based on the music and a very spurious biographical legend around the early nineteenth century composer Franz Schubert, enjoyed huge popularity for ten years after its premiere, but then faded.  Again, the only part of the score which was published publicly was the overture; the rest of the score and parts were put in a trunk, stuck in the theater’s attic, and forgotten about.  So when the Bard Music Festival wanted to perform this operetta, there was a hunt for the score.  It was found, but after a century of neglect, it was rat-eaten, water-damaged, faded…  And further, I wasn’t given the original but a really badly-done photoscan.  From this I had to make a full performing edition.  Pages were missing, pages were illegible.  I at least had the full lyrics and dialogue (in German), so I was generally able to identify when I was missing music, and as many of the tunes were familiar Schubert melodies, I was almost always able to reconstruct exactly how much music was missing in any of these holes.  Having copied out as much as I could, I spent weeks combing through and filling in the voids.  The result was performed at the Bard Music Festival to acclaim in August of 2014, and a recording of the performance is on Spotify.

So that’s what I do to earn my keep.  And I’m only looking to broaden that…  Not only writing more music and increasing my performances, but also perhaps picking up a new instrument or two.  I’ve always wanted to learn to play theorbo.  I want to play bagpipes again; I haven’t played since my teens.  And along the lines of bagpipes, while the Great Highland bagpipes are what most folk think of (and are a distinctly outdoor instrument!), I’d also love to learn to play the Northumbrian Smallpipes, a much sweeter and softer instrument, better suited to indoor use and playing with other instruments.  All I have to do is come up with one to start learning on…  Anyone know of one for sale?

No?  Well, thanks to you all I’ve got this absolutely amazing piano, and after years away from one I’ve finally started playing daily again.  Jeese, seems I can use the practice!

14 comments

  1. David Steele says:

    You are such a talented man. Very impressive in many ways. I look forward to watching you grow.

  2. Lyne says:

    Well, I knew you were a talented composer and performer but I had no idea of everything you are able to do. It’s sounds like a fascinating and complicated work. I remember a post where you explained that your folks decided to introduce you to lessons after they heard you play the piano better than the piano itself when it was on a roll…that you actually repeated the performance of some sort. Sorry if the details are not exactly what you wrote but it’s basically my understanding. I strongly believe that some individuals have talent but also have a gift, which I believe you do. Your passion for your work is unequivocal and you are great at transmitting it. Seeing you smile as you have been in the last few days is a great payment for us that participated in the campaign. Looking forward of anything and everything that’s coming ahead. Thank you for sharing! Hug!

  3. Christopher Braham says:

    Proud of You for keeping up with Your Musical Passion!

  4. David Calhoun says:

    Theorbo! In that you have instruments in common with the ED of Seattle’s Early Music Guild, Gus Denhardt, who switched and did a doctorate in lute at Indiana’s early music institute.
    I still want to bring you a harpsichord … it’ll give you an excuse to meet my boy Peter Sykes of Boston, now teaching at juilliard …

    Great stuff. Keep it up.

  5. Aiva Rin says:

    A truly talented man. I truly hope to hear alot more from you

    Much love

  6. Marnie says:

    Dirk,
    Thank you for keeping this kind of music alive! It is so beautiful and I would love to awaken to the sound of the piano being played such as this in my home.
    Have a beautiful day!

  7. Cyn Duby says:

    I had an inkling of your depth and breadth of talent. I knew you NEEDED the piano. I knew it was like me being without pen and paper, unable to write. That I understood. But I had no real concept, even after pelting you with questions and receiving generous and patient answers. Having, at a time long ago, transposed and transcribed short pieces of music either into another key or just to have more copies (this was in the days of mimeographs, before Xerox LOL) I feel I can imagine … but, truly, I can’t.

    There are truly no words to describe the total awe in which I view your talents and this part of your life. I know enough to understand how impossible the work you do is and, therefore, I can appreciate the effort, the intelligence, and the talent it would take.

    And I shake my head silently and gratefully. Thanks for sharing your gift, your process, your joy and your journey with us.

  8. Tom Bosway says:

    Your smiles in these pictures say it all!

    “If music be the food of love, play on,
    Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
    The appetite may sicken, and so die.”

    ― William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

    Best, Tom.

  9. Londoner says:

    Wherever do you find the time to, erm, squeeze it all in?

    And how I agree with you about the Northumbrian pipes, it is a particularly sweet sound, and we don’t hear it often enough outside its immediate home, though the BBC will occasionally feature Kathryn Tickell in a national programme.

  10. יוסי says:

    חמוד אני אוהב אתך

  11. Steve Sloane says:

    I’m behind ya Champ! We’re all behind ya! Lot’s of love man!

  12. יוסי says:

    Hey you why you do not see them much social networking

  13. יוסי says:

    תרגם

    אני מאוד אוהב אתך
    מציג תרגום של אני מאוד אוהב אותך
    במקום זאת תרגם מ- אני מאוד אוהב אתך
    I love you very much

  14. DavidD says:

    Such scholarship is a huge task. People have no idea how many small, incremental bits of progress it takes to get to the end. Congrats. Glad you have settled down enough to have a piano again.

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