You have 57 Notes — Play Them Wisely!

Here at McVirgo Manor, Saturday afternoon often means Saturday Afternoon at the Opera on CBC Radio 2. It’s one of the benefits of living so close to our neighbors to the north (or in our case, south!)

This past weekend, the featured opera was Debussy‘s Pelléas et Mélisande, which is not the best-known opera — nor the best-known of Debussy’s works — but it’s a pretty cool piece.

What I like about the CBC’s opera broadcast is the commentary and interviews they play before the piece begins and between acts. McDoc and I were particularly amused by an interview with Scott Irvine, the tuba player from Canadian Opera Company production we were about to hear.

One of the first things Irvine and the host, Bill Richardson, discussed was the fact that the tuba only has 57 notes during the 2.5 hours of the opera, and doesn’t play at all in two of its five acts. Irvine didn’t seem to mind his limited role very much; he’s a composer as well, and said he enjoyed having so much time to just listen to the piece. And anyway, I think tuba players are used to this sort of thing. As Irvine said,

One of the hardest things about being a tuba player is not zoning out when you’re not busy… If it were a Broadway show, we’d probably be sitting in the pit reading books, but you don’t do that in classical music.”

McDoc wondered aloud why musicians who aren’t playing have to just sit there, especially if they’re out for an entire act. In my experience, orchestra pits tend to be pretty cramped, and having people shuffle in and out would be disruptive, if it were even possible. (Don’t let the fire marshall see how they pack ’em in! 😉 )

And as far as the ban on books or other pastimes — I’ve seen people sneak a book onto their music stand during rehearsal; I even remember seeing the women who played the, I believe, four notes that the celesta has in Kindertotenlieder take up her knitting while the rest of the piece was being rehearsed. But yeah, during performance it’s a no-no, even in situations where the orchestra isn’t seen by the audience. Classical music is Serious Business, don’tcha know! 😉

I’ve had the good fortune on a couple of occasions to play the piano a few orchestral pieces — I’m referring to situations where the piano is part of the orchestra (typically grouped with the percussion section), as opposed to a concerto soloist. One of the challenges of it, in addition to counting the vast measures of rest you usually have (and aside from a few cues, you don’t have the other players’ music in front of you to follow along), is having to burst into virtuosity after sitting still for long stretches of time. It’s kind of like sprinting, I guess, and it’s a little bit hard to stay warmed up while waiting on the sidelines.

That reminds me: when I was an undergrad at U.C. Berkeley, I got to play the piano part in Witold Lutosławski‘s Concerto for Orchestra. During the semester when we were rehearsing the piece, the composer came to the area to conduct a concert of his music, including the Concerto, with the San Francisco Symphony. A fellow orchestra member and I attended the concert, and charmed our way backstage to meet the maestro afterwards.

He was a very kind man, and when I told him I was playing the piano part in his piece, he laughed and told us what happened to the first pianist to have that gig. Evidently a pianist was secured at the last minute — whether due to someone else canceling, I don’t recall. This pianist was a great soloist, but not accustomed to playing with an orchestra — and keeping up with a part full of rests! He got lost early on in the piece, and never caught up. He was too embarrassed to face Lutosławski after the performance, even when they ran into each other years and years later!

Fortunately, seasoned orchestra players like our tubist friend above, as well as percussionists and others who have just a few notes (but very important ones!) usually avoid that kind of humiliation. 😛

And lest you worry about them getting bored or feeling left out with so little to do, consider this: they aren’t paid by the note… so some players might be perfectly content with a light part! 😀

Speaking of light parts, aspiring opera composers (like me) and weary would-be opera fans alike might take comfort in this pithy quote from Debussy, which Irvine cited in this interview: “in opera, there is always too much singing.” And no, the singers don’t get to read the paper while they wait for their next entrance! 😀

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    Pirate Music!

    Do you know what day it is?

    That’s right, me hearties, it’s International Talk Like a Pirate Day!

    The holiday was invented by two guys from Oregon back in 1995, but really, do you need a historically valid reason to great everyone with “Arrrr, matey!” for one day out of the year?

    McDoc is a TLAPD enthusiast, so that’s how I got reminded of it… but what does this have to do with music, you ask?

    No doubt you’ve heard a tune called the Sailor’s Hornpipe — it has shown up everywhere from cartoons to orchestral concerts:

    And it has influenced other important works as well:

    Nice nose solo at the end of that one, huh? It’s actually a tin whistle — a particularly easy instrument to carry on board ship.

    Want more pirate music? Here’s a page that lists more pirate-themed groups than I ever imagined existed!

    Want pirate music RIGHT NOW? You can listen to a whole internet radio station devoted to it!

    But of course, the most important thing on this day is to be able to Talk Like a Pirate. Here’s a tutorial that will get you well on your way:

    Now ye know what to do, ye salty sea dogs! Have at it!

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    Breakin’ the Law… or Not!

    Wherein Miss Music Nerd gets a small slice of legal education!

    First, the background: A couple of people have asked me if I have any plans to cover the songs played at the Republican National Convention, like I did for the Democratic one.

    I was pretty clear toward the end of the DNC’s week that I wasn’t willing to do the same thing the following week. It was partly a time management thing — watching 5 hours of C-SPAN followed by a couple hours of typing it up and finding all the linky-links was a big commitment.

    But even more than that, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sit through the RNC without repeatedly being tempted to throw my digital piano at the TV, and that wouldn’t have done anyone any good. 😛

    I admit it: I’m a partisan. Hey, when have I ever claimed to be objective? 😉

    I looked around online a little bit during convention week to see if anyone else had taken on a task parallel to mine, and I didn’t find much; there was more coverage about bands who performed elsewhere in St. Paul in protest of the RNC. (Here’s all I have to say about that! 😛 ) Now, after the fact, music blogger Carrie Brownstein has a comprehensive roundup of what was heard both in the convention and outside of it.

    But there was one news item that caught my attention in regard to the RNC, and spurred me to do a little bit of investigation.

    I learned from a few news sources (here, for example), that Ann and Nancy Wilson, the sisters behind the rock band Heart, had objected to the use of their song “Barracuda” as ‘theme music’ for vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. (Just typing that name gives me heartburn, I must say. See what I’m willing to put myself through for the benefit of my readers’? 😉 )

    Now, here’s where I have a confession to make. I occasionally wade through the comments sections of online news articles and various news- and politics-related blogs. Oh, I’m sure I’m not the only one — after all, I presume that the comments are being written by human beings (though I would be open to alternative theories), and perhaps you, too, gentle reader, have engaged in this activity as well. So why do I feel all confess-y about it? Because too often, it’s like wading through fetid, stinking GARBAGE, that’s why! it’s like eating a meal of of pork rinds, x-tra-greasy potato chips, Funions (it’s a vegetable!) and Cheetos, with a selection of Ho-hos, Ding Dongs and Sno-balls for dessert. And then wondering why you have a stomachache afterwards.

    I hope that by saying this, I don’t discourage anyone who might want to comment here, by the way. On the contrary, I heartily encourage it, because I know that you can do so much better than the folks whose spelling errors go way beyond the threshold of understandable typos, and who seem to be attached to the caps lock key to a rather unhealthy degree. Let’s show ’em how it’s done, ladies and gentlemen! 😀

    My point is, I noticed while reading these comments that there was some confusion out there as to the legalities of the situation.

    Some folks saw this as an open-and-shut case of copyright violation — the theft of intellectual property. Others were aware of the licensing fees that organizations pay to use copyrighted music (please notice the proper past participle of the verb ‘to copyright’ — that’s copyright, not copywrite; therefore, copyrighted, not copywritten. Are you feeling my schoolmarm schtick? 😉 ), but were unaware that artists do have some legal recourse when they object to how their music is being used — in addition to the power to generate negative publicity with their objections (the latter strategy being arguably more effective).

    First, the licensing issue. In the U.S., there are three organizations that collect royalties on behalf of artists when their work is performed publicly (playing a recording counts as a ‘performance’ for this purpose): ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. (Yours truly is a member of BMI; an artist can belong to one of these — no double-dipping!) They are known as performance rights organizations, and they are among the good guys — membership is free, and they perform an administrative function on behalf of artists that would prevent any new music from being written if the artists had to take the time to do it themselves!

    Concert venues and other performance spaces generally pay blanket licensing fees to the PROs, who then divvy up the fees proportionally among the artists. In most cases, you don’t have to get the artist’s permission to use the music, either; you just have to pay for it.

    One question I had was whether the RNC was covered under the Xcel Energy Center’s blanket license. According to this Slate Magazine article, the Xcel Center’s license only covers sporting events for the teams who call it home. The article also reports, though, that the RNC did pay for its own license, according to a spokesperson.

    So, the RNC was within the bounds of the law in using the song — at least that one time.

    The frontwomen of Heart have had their representatives issue a cease-and-desist letter to the McCain-Palin campaign. If the campaign were to continue using the song, the Wilson sisters could sue for damages under a couple of legal concepts:

    • “Derivation of goods”: use of the song would make it appear that Heart is endorsing something they don’t wish to endorse.
    • “Irreparable damage”: the implied endorsement could harm their reputation with their fans.

    I obtained this info from a friend in the recording industry, who was also curious about this issue and was able to speak with an attorney about it.

    It’s all pretty much moot, though; it’s highly unlikely that the campaign will ignore the cease-and-desist letter, because of the negative publicity that would come from it. This isn’t the first time the campaign has dealt with this issue; I can’t help but wonder why they haven’t learned to anticipate these kinds of things. 😛

    One last thing: prior permission isn’t needed for a public performance, but campaign commercials are a different story. Use of music in TV and movies requires another kind of license, called a synchronization license, and you do have to get the artist’s permission for this one. That’s why Jackson Browne is currently suing the McCain campaign.

    This whole thing gives me the same feeling I get when I see an actor attempting to play a conductor onscreen, but failing to perform the motions of a conducting pattern in a way that even remotely relates to the music: “Come on!” I always want to say, “There are plenty of musicians around who you could consult so you’ll have a clue about what you’re doing! I’m available, for example!”

    Well, not in this case. 😛

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    McDoc’s Awesome Birthday Score!

    McDoc did good. This morning he presented me with this book, which I hadn’t heard of, but which was actually written, it appears, especially for me.

    I mean, it’s a nerdy book about Elvis Costello. Cha-ching! 🙂

    The smart money says that I’ll be post more about this as I read it!

    Miss Birthday Nerd!

    21 at last! 😉

    Oh, and look who decided to show up to the party! 🙂

    I share my birthday with two other famous composers: Peter Maxwell Davies and Antonín Dvořák. The Davies coincidence is cool, because he wrote one of my very favorite pieces, Eight Songs for a Mad King. The sad thing is, my CD of it got sucked into the ether during one of my moves… ah, the peregrine, vagabond life of the musician… And there’s no youtube of it, can you believe it? Well, it’s really cool, you’ll just have to take my word for it!

    I’m sad to report that I have a bunch of errands to run today, but the bright side is that McDoc has the day off, so I’m sure he and I will find time to go do something fun to celebrate.

    Meanwhile, here’s a fun song to dance to. No disrespect to Max or Tony, but there’s a time and place for everything. 😉

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