Piano Music for relaxation and reflection

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 cod 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!

"I'll tell you how the Sun rose..." 

I won't claim that Emily Dickinson's poem was the conscious inspiration for my piece "How the Sun Rose," but I am sure it was "working" in my subconscious.
 
I'll tell you how the Sun rose --
A ribbon at a time --
The steeples swam in Amethyst,
The news, like Squirrels, ran --
The Hills untied their Bonnets --
The Bobolinks -- begun
Then I said softly to myself
"That must have been the Sun!"

But how he set -- I know not --
There seemed a purple stile
That little yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while --
Till when they reached the other side
A Dominie in Gray --
Put gently up the evening Bars
And led the flock away.

"...what would the Dower be, had I the Art to stun myself with Bolts of Melody!" 

What a phrase!  Pure Emily Dickinson.  With irony she expresses the emotional content of the encounter between artist and spectator in an art form.  Philosophy Now devotes much of its current issue (#108) to essays on art.  What is art?  Who decides?  What is art for?  Why does art matter?  Thousands of years ago, what compelled our ancestors to draw on the walls of caves?  And what were they expressing?  We view these drawings and recognize in them a common humanity.  This connection, this encounter permeates art in all its forms, and we are the richer for it.  
 
I would not paint - a picture -
I'd rather be the One
Its bright impossibility
To dwell - delicious - on -
And wonder how the fingers feel
Whose rare - celestial - stir
Evokes so sweet a torment -
Such sumptuous - Despair -

I would not talk, like Cornets -
I'd rather be the One
Raised softly to the Ceilings -
And out, and easy on -
Through Villages of Ether -
Myself endued Balloon
By but a lip of Metal -
The pier to my Pontoon -

Nor would I be a Poet -
It's finer - Own the Ear -
Enamored - impotent - content -
The License to revere,
A privilege so awful
What would the Dower be,
Had I the Art to stun myself
With Bolts - of Melody!


 - Emily Dickinson

"Music's language connects us with the stars." 

Such reflections populate Ethan Hawke's joyful film "Seymour: an Introduction."  The thoughts are those of Seymour Bernstein, once an acclaimed concert pianist, now a beloved teacher, mentor, coach, and philosopher.  In the film, Mr. Bernstein shares his invaluable insights on interpretation and technique in master classes and private lessons.  He converses with former students about the piano, aesthetics, and life.  He meticulously selects a Steinway for an upcoming performance.  He practices a tricky Scarlatti phrase and probes passages of Brahms and Schuman for the meaning behind the music.  This film connects us with a star - a guiding light for musicians and art lovers.  Where's my piano?  It's time to practice!

The Healing Power of Music 

 "Music is a therapy. It is a communication far more powerful than words, far more immediate, far more efficient."  
Yehudi Menuhin's observation attests to the healing power of music.  
Pianist Greg Howlett has published a web site - healing music.org - that explores the topic with essays and testimonials and contains links to musical resources. 

"You can look at disease as a form of disharmony. And there's no organ system in the body that's not affected by sound and music and vibration."
Mitchell Gaynor, MD  




 

Coast the Wind 

Hart Crane's images in this poem are so vivid and true.  I suspect the song and the bird in the first stanza inspired me when writing "Coast the Wind."
 
Forgetfulness is like a song
That, freed from beat and measure, wanders.
Forgetfulness is like a bird whose wings are reconciled,
Outspread and motionless, --
A bird that coasts the wind unwearyingly.

Forgetfulness is rain at night,
Or an old house in a forest, -- or a child.
Forgetfulness is white, -- white as a blasted tree,
And it may stun the sybil into prophecy,
Or bury the Gods.

I can remember much forgetfulness.

- Harold Hart Crane

 

Jazz Fantasia 

I never fail to hear Miles or Charlie Parker or Satchmo's Band while reading this terrific poem. 

Drum on your drums, batter on your banjoes
Sob on the long cool winding saxophones.
Go to it, O jazzmen.

Sling your knuckles on the bottoms of the happy tin pans.
Let your trombones ooze,
And go hushahusha-hush with the slippery sand-paper.

Moan like an autumn wind high in the lonesome tree-tops,
Moan soft like you wanted somebody terrible,
Cry like a racing car slipping away from a motorcycle cop,
Bang-bang! You jazzmen,
Bang altogether drums, traps, banjoes, horns, tin cans -
Make two people fight on the top of a stairway
And scratch each other's eyes in a clinch tumbling down the stairs.

Can the rough stuff...
Now a Mississippi steamboat pushes up the night river
With a hop-hoo-hoo-hoo...
And the green lanterns calling to the high soft stars...
A red moon rides on the humps of the low river hills...
Go to it, O jazzmen!

Carl Sandberg
 

 
"Where words leave off, music begins."  
- Heinrich Heine