Living and Music: Britten String Quartet 2 and Refusal as Essential to the Human Spirit

One of the best things about being at Aspen Music Festival and School this summer is the other group in the Advanced Quartet Studies being the Omer Quartet comprised of Mason Yu, Erica Tursi, Joe LoCicero, and Alex Cox. We’ve grown up with them at school in Cleveland and it has been a privilege to see how far they’ve gone together and how they are continuing. A couple weeks ago, they performed the 3rd movement of the Britten String Quartet 2 in our weekly quartet studio class and they had me in tears. Since then, I have been listening to the quartet non-stop trying to understand why I was so moved. While I want to focus on the 3rd movement, the first two movements play pivotal roles in setting up the 3rd movement as the emotional core of the piece so I want to touch briefly on how they create and then destroy the stability of the key of the piece.

The first movement starts with a graceful C major chord expansion. This C major chord suspends, becoming the backdrop for the other voices which are safe to wander. They stay close at first, just loosely weaving in and around the chord. This opening always strikes me as mystical and not yet awake…or perhaps even pre-sentient. The weaving voices develop preference or primitive urges to stay on certain notes…this slight defiance by the weaving voices to the backdrop chord motivates it to change to something which will hopefully offer more stability. The Chord goes to G and then D… all this time, the voices are still searching. They get excited at the D chord and hover around it, obsessively cadencing until everyone suddenly dissolves into a high C, nostalgic for the opening. After this there are empty gestures made by the weaving voices, now utterly confused about their key after the remembrance of the C. One of the violin parts now starts working towards some kind of consciousness while the others pulse and suddenly we have sentience or the start of a new day. The whole quartet alternates leaping fast notes and little existential shrieks. It reminds me of being in a city in the morning when things are getting started and everyone is declaring or celebrating their lives, hawking their wares. Something particularly impressive about Britten’s compositional writing in this quartet is all the ways he can bring the personal and the universal into juxtaposition or conversation with one another. The opening is so universal with just a hint of the personal being formed. The part I see as a city seems almost like a birds-eye view of universal life with little zooms and flashes of people falling in step with each other, with you. Then everyone lapses into anxious utterings again, searching and the parts are written to be not quite together so that you hear the personal searching and loneliness of every voice (personal) but because they happen together, it reads also as universal. This happens the whole quartet- the same gestures and expressions happen in all the parts but at different times, creating universal personal emotion. The first movement ends cradled in the mystical C major chord of the opening. But while the C major chord expands, the other voices tiptoe the main rhythmic motive of the movement with pitches that still every so slightly defy the C major safety of the chord by wandering.

The second movement starts with unison fast figures while others do unison lurches or barks. These fast figures start becoming just one note apart from each other, giving the impression of trying to and being unable to catch up. The fast figures here do not seem unrelated to the anxious utterings of the first movement- without the score I would guess they are close to being the same figures sped up and closer together in pitches, giving them an even more harried feeling. These fast figures are paused a couple times when an instrument has an outburst of drunken hysteria which then return to the fast figures once again. The movement ends with the same lurches as the beginning, so consecutive as to give an eerie rocking back and forth instability.

The third movement begins with the lurches of the second movement, now much slower. This is no longer a reflex, primitive or careless as it was in the previous movement. This motive is now deliberate and profound. All the voices have the theme of the third movement and the difficult task of surpassing these lurches to the C Major of the piece together. They get there, but immediately, the viola lapses back to the Bb which starts the piece. Now everyone alternates two notes of the theme…calling out to each other or murmuring to themselves. Here as the other voices start to become personal and move, the cello part keeps insisting F to C. When the voices continue to wander, the cello part moves up a range and goes G to C, trying to show the way back to C with a stronger and brighter cadence. This is the seed of struggle which not only launches this movement but also the whole piece. Is it in our nature to question, to seek what isn’t safe?
Once again in the opening of this movement, Britten shows off his ability to make the universal and the personal one thing compositionally by giving them all the theme together at the same time and then breaking it into small pieces for each voice to speak out, still at the same time. The movement puts the voices through melancholy and resignation, unintelligible garbling, and pure anticipation in the form of the insistence of repeated gestures. There are moments where it seems the music has completely lost pulse as well as key…everyone in the aether, unrelating to each other, sequencing, going in circles latching on to nothing. Slowly, aimless melodies start to have purpose and the cello once again starts scales with trills at the tops cadencing back and forth in C major, showing the way. The first violin gets inspired and does the scales in the cadenza but gets lost…this affects everyone as they start playing again, ghostly trills almost in horror while the cello plays the theme, clearly lost as well. This is where I started to really lose it in the Omers’ performance. The cello cadences at the end of the theme, but this cadence hardly registers because we are traumatized by the randomness of intervals and purposelessness of everything that has occured in the last 10 minutes. The soft trills in the other parts miraculously cadence with the cello, giving us our first tentative taste of real C Major chord. The first violin, emboldened by this first taste launches into a C major scale but gets rerouted to the theme now encapsulated in outrageous, bewildered chords. The other voices tremolo, moving their bows as fast as they can in frenzied anticipation, wondering if they can find their way back. At the end of the theme, instead of going down, the first violin in these wild chords finds a way to change the direction of the theme to cadence up instead of down. This is finally what gets the other voices in their tremolo to find C Major. The first violin then takes the victorious plunge of a C major scale but slips into the Bb which starts the theme we have been struggling with the whole movement. But this time, the other voices immediately step in with an enormous C major chord, not letting any doubt in. The whole thing searching theme is played now again but between every note of the theme is a violent unshakeable C major chord. And this is what moved me so much. Because the chords keep going. And they play these chords together except for one part where they alternate, once again making the universal personal.

Of course these chords could be anything. But I like to think of them in the context of refusal. Britten had just visited the concentration camps and seen horrific things. The bleak and desolate landscapes in the third movement seem like they could have been influenced by his experiences. So do the senselessness of the drunk interlewds and the unintelligibility of the fast figures in the second movement. After everything that has just been emotionally invoked on us, the strength the piece ends with is incredible. This end translates for me personally into defiance. Refusal to accept certain things in the world as they are, refusal to be passive about certain things in the world and most importantly, it shows me that refusal and defiance are essential for the human spirit and for the Arts. I am encouraged to be violently impassioned for the things, ideas, and people I love.

like this quartet, which I will one day study with the score and write about in a paper. but for now, there is blogging. Just go listen to the piece. I’m doing it no justice…
but I refuse not to try,
Ling Ling

Living and Music: Mahler 10 and it all comes up roses

As my first school year at Rice comes to a close, I have Mahler on my mind…and not just because of the wonderful Mahler 2 the Shepherd Symphony performed Friday. In my mind, no composer quite captures sehnsucht the way Mahler does, and that is just how I feel at the end of this school year…at the close of the last 2 years. I remember a few years ago, I got to see this concert- of The Cleveland Orchestra doing Mahler 10. I knew nothing about Mahler 10- had never heard it or even heard of it. I was seized. The symphony starts with the viola section in unison, sounding bitter and paranoid with miserly half-steps and persnickety rhythms. And then, Pierre Boulez gives one big solemn flap, a gigantic tock, and the rest of the orchestra comes swooning in. I remember not being able to breathe because of the beauty, and so unexpected after the unison viola prologue. I remember thinking that this must be what it is like to be in love. And I guess I was right because I found out later that while writing this piece, Mahler’s life was a mess. He had found out about his wife’s infidelity (though on the last page of the score of this piece he wrote for her “To live for you! To die for you!”) and his heart was failing. He wouldn’t finish the piece, in fact, before dying.

This piece is painfully dissonant. I guess the last couple of years have been hard on me because I understand the desire to be alone all the time…and I have experienced new heights of bitterness, paranoia, and distrust not unlike the opening of the Mahler 10 Adagio. There is a dissonance in that opening, but nothing like the dissonance which happens in the soaring beauty of the whole orchestra when it comes in. And I get it now. That cliche about bad helping us understand and value good. There is dissonance and pain worth experiencing… because is there anything as beautiful as when the whole orchestra comes in? And there is pain and dissonance not worth experiencing. Dissonance in community, with people and as a result of people…with the whole orchestra- there is beauty there. Different from the pain and dissonance of being alone and angry. I’ve been listening to Mahler 10 a lot this week in light of things not making sense. Things don’t make sense every moment in the world, but with the Boston Marathon, things made no sense a lot closer to home and people I love. Listening to the complexity of pain and beauty in Mahler helps me understand how communities should respond to tragedy by grieving together, not alone. It reminds me of the roles and responsibilities, even capabilities, we have to help each other and to swoop in with swooning beauty when others are being unison viola sadness.

And it helps me personally. Because Mahler was going through some tough times, but out of all this- facing infidelity, mortality…he was able to contribute to society, to humanity…a work of yes, dissonance and sadness, but incredible beauty. When I listen to Mahler sometimes, it is so beautiful I feel like I am drowning, drenched, steeping in roses

Ling Ling

Living and Music: Arcadiana, O Albion and Friendship

I’ve mentioned a little in previous posts (Beethoven 127) how much I think music can teach us about how to improve as communities, people, etc. I wanted to write about a piece which is really teaching me. My quartet this semester is working on Thomas Ades’ Arcadiana and it has been an amazing piece to work on. Every movement is challenging and so compositionally creative while still inferencing the past in a clever and resonant way. The heart of this piece is the 6th movement, O Albion. You can listen to it here-

First of all, this movement really reminds me how amazing string quartet playing and orchestral playing can be. You can take 4 people, or 70+ people from all different walks of life who have all had different days who walk at different speeds and play different instruments and breathe and beat their hearts at different rates, expanses, directions and they can sit down at an agreed upon place and start and finish something together.

So the beginning of this movement, the four of us align our breaths, exhale, and play together on that exhale. To be alone a whole day and suddenly to share breath is an insane experience I overlook everyday. But immediately, one of us diverges. We keep diverging from each other, stepping out on our own and meeting again on the same notes. I wonder if this is how rivers and lakes would feel- independent and meeting and diverging. Always, the gesture is a response to the impetus of the very first. In a string quartet, you are always trying to find the sound of another and the right way to respond to another, especially in a piece like this. I wonder how my friendships and relationships would be different if I put the same effort and ways of searching into them. Whenever one person plays the collapsing gesture, another person rushes in to do the same, like the way waves slowly hit upon the same things. I can see this in choreography so easily- clean white room, sparse birch floor, 4 people standing, take a step at the same time. Because of some inner yearning, an accidental step, arms fling out, and slowly close in again. Another person, either unconscious or aware of the other, has the same inner yearning, does the same. The end of the movement finds the two violinists and the cello resolved on an Eb chord. The viola however, keeps doing the gesture slowly and instead of finally meeting us where we are, the 2nd violin unresolves and joins the violist in unknowing. This is also a beautiful example of friendship- to leave the comfortable place to be in solidarity with another. You may not both have found the Eb chord, but you have found each other, is that better? Worse? Who can say.

I guess all I have to say is that I’m inspired by this piece to search deeper in my friendships and not to overlook the importance of sitting down with people from different walks of life who have had different days, etc. (which is everyone) and really connecting with them. This movement reminds me with one simple gesture passed around by all four people that a lot of us, if not all, are made of and act out of the same fears, needs, and loves. Day to day, I overlook others’ fears/needs/loves in favor of viewpoints that support my fears, needs and loves.

I’d like to stop,

Ling Ling

Society and Music: Wozzeck and music as incrimination

There are a lot of the things the Arts can be. Uplifting, beautiful, harrowing, etc. In the past few years I had decided that what I found most valuable in my experiences of the Arts could be summed up in two words; nourishing or enjoyable. Lately though, I have been thinking more about the kinds of responsibilities the Arts have.
Today I saw the open dress rehearsal for Houston Symphony’s Wozzeck. They will be performing March 1 and 2. I was blown away by the production- the orchestra and singers sound great, but most of all, the story, written 100 years ago is so relevant today. The gross differences in decadence and poverty of the times it was written in are no different from our OccupiedWorld. At the heart of the story is a man Wozzeck and his wife Marie (the 99%) who are so oppressed and hurt by the world around them it becomes inevitable that all they can do is hurt and oppress each other. Wozzeck from the beginning has, in this order, his intelligence, morality, and then sanity questioned because of his poverty. Wozzeck is a neglectful husband and father because he is so plagued by his demanding work for the Captain and his medical trials for pay by the Doctor. (These titles instead of names for the 1% equivalents in the opera make them even more relatable to big banks and corporations and bring up interesting associations in our presently war-driven and over and under medicated world) Because of this his wife Marie embarks on an affair with the Drum Major. She is found out by Wozzeck who is then continually bullied by the Captain, Doctor, and Drum Major about her infidelity. They drive him to madness as he murders Marie and then commits suicide. The opera ends with their child all alone after being bullied by other children telling him his mother is dead.
Yeah, not really a feel-good opera. But I was inspired. When Marie first resists the Drum Major, he says “I can see the devil in your eyes!” she then gives in to him saying, “So be it. Everything is going to hell.” This is a woman who does not believe she has choices which can change her life or the world around her. This opera shows us the danger of that kind of mindset.
So I left inspired to make choices for myself and the world around me, but I was also inspired by this new role of the Arts …new to me anyway, of holding an audience accountable and in a sense, incriminating them. Berg in a way was making a political statement with this opera about how societies can oppress…he was exploring social, cultural, and mental health issues of his time. I am so inspired by how this opera participates not just in music history, opera history, history of music theory (because it is an important and highly impressive work on all those accounts), but how it participates in history and transcends opera and music to be a work of humanity in response to the world. That is what makes Wozzeck for me, an enduring work.
So go see it if you can…March 1 (technically tonight) and March 2.


Living and Music: Bach for alleviating “the existential attitude”

I remember discussing King Solomon’s texts in their relevance/irrelevance to the Dvorak Cello Concerto with a friend last semester and I would find myself so discouraged afterwards thinking about the whole “vanity of vanities…nothing under the sun is new” text. After all, I work in a creative field…and I’m human. In my post-conversation “bourbon mood” I would think, oh god, it’s true! Nothing is new under the sun…what is the point of practicing, creating…living?
During the time I was having these conversations, I was auditing a theory class with Anthony Brandt at Rice and a lecture he gave on Bach (fugues, in particular) banished all further existential woes from my life. (so far.)
We studied the incredible efficiency of Bach’s motivic use. There is not a single note that does not stem from a seed planted at the beginning of the piece. Bach does every possible combination, permutation, amalgamation of these notes. It sounds so logical in an unmoving way when described like this but actually, it is a beautiful process. Each Bach fugue starts with a subject and an answer. This subject will shape the rest of the piece…to quote (loosely since I couldn’t write as fast as he was speaking! stress!)

” your identity shapes your destiny. The fugue subject lives its’ life through the fugue. Fugues are all character studies that have their own destinies. Their lives are seen through…maximized by the composer. At every point, the composer asks how the subject can be the most itself. A fugue is asking and exploring….how does something live? Survive? Perpetuate itself? Reproduce?”

And as he was saying that, I understood. Vanity of vanities. Nothing is new under the sun…but that mindset in a fugue…that cycling and recycling doesn’t make it any less thrilling, interesting, or inventive to listen to. Rather, it is exciting to listen to how we “create” or manipulate with the already created. These pieces are worth listening to, playing, and living through.

I was reminded of all this stuff from last semester because of a book I am reading by Ljubica Ilic. She writes:
“I put next to each other works by 17th and 20th century composers, trying to discover what it is about their music that awakens the sense that they are somehow similar. What is it in Marini and Monteverdi that resounds in Stockhausen and Berio, what is it in Grandi that we hear again in Schoenberg, and what is it about Stradella that resembles Weill?
And this got me thinking…is the history of music like one big Bach fugue? Is there a subject in one century and an answer centuries later? I don’t know and I’m excited for this book to shed light. But for now, her “thesis” statement sounds a lot like “Vanity of vanities- there is nothing new under the sun.” And that isn’t scary to me anymore. That takes the pressure off. Nothing new under the sun means my feelings have been felt before (or even now) in some capacity. My thoughts have been thought before (or even now) in some capacity. And my whole person can find bits and pieces of itself in the world… past, present, and future. Nothing new under the sun has come to mean that I am not alone.

Ling Ling

Media and Music: Bluebeard’s Castle and HBO’s Girls, Season 1

As Valentine’s Day is coming up, I remember February 14, 2008, when I saw an unstaged production of Bluebeard’s Castle by the Cleveland Orchestra with Boulez conducting and Michelle DeYoung and John Relyea as Judith and Duke Bluebeard.

Bluebeard’s Castle has been one of the most important pieces in my life and like a favorite book, something I can come back to as a reference point that will tell me something about life and where I am in it. I remember the first time I watched it, I read the program notes during intermission in addition to reading program notes online right before leaving for the concert. What can I say…sometimes, I really like to be prepared… and sometimes I really want to be surprised. In this performance, I was both. The program notes I had read all told the standard story of Bluebeard’s castle- a wide-eyed and naive newlywed named Judith marries Duke Bluebeard (by all accounts, a shady fellow) and he takes her to his cold and gloomy castle where he refuses to let her open 7 doors. The whole opera is basically her begging to open the doors, and the Duke relenting slowly. At the end, she opens the last door and yup, all the rumours are true…his former wives are all there. He then kills her and she joins them in his 7th room.

However, even though the program notes all insist his wives are dead, and Judith joins them, the libretto and the music point to a different story. I just didn’t buy him as a murderer. I also had such sympathy for his at the end…it didn’t seem fair that he should be all alone in his castle again. And I believe that Bartok and Balazs intend for us to be sympathetic to Bluebeard.

I would love to study the score one day and study it in-depth. But I only have the libretto now (which I will jump around in to make my points), and a DVD of Solti’s production with Sylvia Sass and Kolos Kovats.

Soon after they enter the castle, she discovers his castle is sighing in anguish and weeping. This is the first sign for me that they have entered into his psyche. (Should have brought Ms. Frizzle.) He calls constantly throughout the opera for Judith to be careful-

Through and through my castle trembles. You may open all the others. (He gives her the second key and their meeting hands seems to melt in the red glow.) Judith, careful, ’tis my castle. Go with breathless caution, Judith.

This hints at the vulnerability he is entering into with the opening of each of door.

For me at the time, the 7 doors and what they contained were representative of all the ways we get to know one another in intimate relationships. Through the 1st door is his torture chamber…a metaphor for his violence, aggression and cruelty. The 2nd door is his armory- the sides of him that are strength, male and dominance. Judith had to beg for the 1st and 2nd keys, but after asking for the third key, Bluebeard replies , “Three more heavy keys I give thee.” That is because the next three are parts of himself he has pride in. Behind the 3rd door is his treasury- hidden glittering riches amassed in his soul. The 4th is a beautiful garden, a place of growth and gentleness. The 5th a kingdom, a vast country, representative of his creative spirit and ruling power. Judith keeps asking for more – and eventually the 6th door is unlocked to reveal only tears and the 7th carries his three former wives, still alive. Judith then joins the wives. and Bluebeard is left alone singing,
“Henceforth all shall be darkness,
Darkness, darkness.”
I remember thinking this was an opera about how it can be too much to know everything about another person; that knowing too much about one another could doom a relationship. It was a big surprise to me after reading the program notes that the wives at the end of this interpretation of the fairy tale were alive. Could Judith have loved him and lived if the door that opened had been full of dead wives? I don’t know. But knowing they were alive- that they were forever a part of his “castle” and the construction of it…that was what doomed the relationship in my eyes. And that was why she semi-willingly joined them, and Bluebeard, having been played to think total honesty would save their relationship, was left alone in darkness.

I watched Bluebeard’s Castle again tonight. And I had a very different experience…one colored by a recent viewing of Salome (also Cleveland Orchestra, this past May with Nina Stemme in the titular role) and HBO’s Girls, season 1. I feel now, at my older age of 23, that I have met many Judith’s, Salome’s, and Hannah’s in my years as a teenager and a twenty-something. Girls who think they love and that their love somehow makes them invincible…and their actions beyond reproach.
The way Judith uses her love to guilt Bluebeard and manipulate him is recognizable in my behavior and the behavior of those around me.

Bluebeard is constantly aware of the kind of intimacy in which they are entering.
“Here we are now. Now at last you see
Before you Bluebeard’s castle.
Not a happy place like your father’s.
Judith, answer. Are you coming?”
“Dearest Judith, are you frightened?”
“Judith, Judith, would it not be
Happier in your father’s castle,
Roses rambling round the terrace,
The sunlight dancing on the roof?”
He warns her and reminds her of her choices in the matter because he wants her to be happy.

She probably thinks she is in love with him…but really, she is only in love with the idea of her love. And the idea of her love as a salvation to her new dark and moody husband. It’s the classic tale of good-girl-wants-bad-boy-because-she-can-save-him!-and-he-will-,like,-totally-change! Example:
“I shall dry weeping flagstones
With my own lips they shall be dried.
I shall warm this icy marble,
Warm it with my living body.
Let me do it, let me do it
Darling Bluebeard!
I shall brighten your sad castle,
You and I shall breach these ramparts.
Wind shall blow through, light shall enter,
Light shall enter.
Your house shall glitter bright as gold.”
“Light and air will cheer your castle.
Happy sunshine, laughing breezes,
They will cheer your joyless dwelling.
Open, open, open!”

Eventually, in her begging she accuses him of not loving her ,”Don’t you love me?” and when he asks why? why do you need to see behind the doors?, her answer is always something along the lines of, “because I love you!”…when the only one behaving out of love in this opera is Bluebeard. He understands that love and intimacy are things that need to be proceeded in with caution. Whereas, for her, this is almost a game. How much of him can she conquer? How much of him can she save? And change into what she wants? How much is she entitled to? She desires only to be desired and in the end, knowing others have conquered before and will forever be “entitled” to parts of his castle is what besmirches her to him. This reminds me of Salome- these girls think they love and they “love” at any and all costs…including the life of John (Salome’s “love”) and any possible relationship (Judith and Bluebeard.)

Which brings me to the first 3 minutes of this video from episode 10, Season 1 of Girls. Spoiler and profanity alerts so don’t watch if you don’t like either of those things

here’s to no games,

Ling Ling

Living and Music: the Grosse Fugue and the/anti/synthesis

I’ve been thinking a lot about a conversation I had with a friend last semester about thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. We both agreed that after a year of many changes, I was at the time undergoing “antithesis.” I have often thought about this conversation since that talk and maybe once a week I try to evaluate where I am in the process (still on the way to synthesis.) One day, I would love to study the following in-depth, but for now, just some speculations I see connecting the triad and Beethoven’s op. 130 and Grosse Fugue. It’s interesting to think about all these possibly unrelated things and how they can relate to each other and to me in my time of antithesis.

I’ve always thought the way the first movement of op. 130 opens with a descending unison half-step before blooming out of it is indicative of the greatness and/or violence to come at the end of the piece with the Grosse Fugue. The first fugue motive is one (often starting on the same notes as the piece) which starts with  repetition of the first note (insistent!) and then an ascending half-step. So is the Fugue the antithesis of the thesis of the beginning half-step motive? The reaction to the first movement’s proposition? Or is the whole piece a moving of thesis to antithesis? And is this then a game of half-steps?

Or what about the beklemmt (choked) section in the 5th movement, Cavatina. The first fugue subject remnisces on the beklemmt a couple is the Fugue the antithesis of the Cavatina thesis?

Or is just the Great Fugue itself an exploration of the triad? Sonata form, Fugue, and Theme and Variations…three forms for three kinds of thesis? The thesis of the one subject…the sudden introduction of a second as antithesis which is violent, confusing, pretty, and finally synthesis of the two subjects at the end?

I really don’t know. And of course, it’s more than entirely possible the triad has nothing to do with this piece.

And is all this just fate with a capital F? I’m mean now but this is a good thing because the “thesis” wasn’t that I was nice. The “thesis” was that I was afraid. I wonder what synthesis will look like…and if I will stroke my chin and be all, but of course! There was never another way for me to end up? Thinking about all of this reminds me of a favorite Elliot Smith song, “Independence Day.” The lyrics “Stay who you are, don’t go too far…” And I just think…

what if it’s too late Elliot?

but I digress,

Ling Ling

Living and Music: How to play the Heiliger Dankgesang?

The third movement of Beethoven’s 132 is considered to be one of the most moving pieces of music ever written.  If I were to begin working on the quartet now, the first decision I would want my group to make is whether we would play the Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart or (A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode) as a reality. When you go through something rough, is it possible to go full circle and get out of it, no remnants of pain? Or are you just a changed person, and every moment…even those of joy, have been changed from that experience?

I could go into, and if I ever work on it… will go into Beethoven’s use of Lydian Mode in this piece and his use of it in op. 127. Analyze the piece. And I might want to think, yes, he wrote this particular movement out of thanksgiving and joy, but what about the other movements? And what does it mean that the 3rd movement is not meant to (that we know) stand alone…but is the middle, the heart of a piece? Does the 3rd movement transform the direction of the piece or the cohesion? There is a lot to think about in this decision. But I’m not interested in those particular questions right now.

I guess I just want to know….how should we present music to audiences? Life is hard sometimes- do we want to hear the honesty of that in music? Or is there something to be said about music that stays or comes back intact, unjaded, whole? Does it transcend what has happened before or is it fooling itself? Is Art meant to be a reprieve we experience together? A yes…we know the world isn’t like this, but in this piece, it can be and we can experience it together? Or do we want to be confronted by hard truths together? and which of these two brings us closer together as humanity? If someone could just answer these really quick that’d be great thanks.

Of course there are not just two ways to present music, and I think both are necessary for different pieces, etc. And there’s not just two choices and two kinds of people which is what it seems like I’m saying. This is just my current thought struggle on how I would or wouldn’t play one of my favorite pieces of music.

Ling Ling

YES shorter post achieved!!!

Living and Music: Beethoven op. 59-2 and Heartbreak

I remember going through a really tough time in my life a few years back…I mean a good ten months of crying and trouble sleeping and eating. All throughout that time, I listened to Beethoven op. 59-2’s slow movement. I didn’t understand until I took my Beethoven Quartets seminar last year why I was so drawn to this piece and I actually thought that it was morbid and weak to keep listening to a slow movement that was not the happiest. But what I mistook for indulgence, was actually subconscious recognition of the healing this music was doing in me.

You see, what I went through at the time, was the hardest thing I had been through. It was to me, traumatic. Just as traumatic as, let’s say, the first movement of op. 59-2. The whole movement is a struggle between e minor and F major. It starts with open fifth chords, sounding almost like a call to arms. Silence. The statement in e minor. Silence. The same statement in F Major. Stalemate. And then the movement takes off in small unnatural lurches and just when some fluidity in motion is reached, the open fifths again. Silence. I remember my professor Susan McClary relating this movement’s key hostility to graph vs. host. Yeah…it was an awesome class.

e minor wins in the end….but that is not the point. By the end of the movement, you’ve been jerked around both keys so frequently and abruptly you have been traumatized. And then immediately following this e minor ending, the slow second movement in the reverse, E Major, rushing in to reverse the damage. But this E Major…has been wounded by the first movement. Each instrument enters individually in isolation, almost groping blindly for each other. The way the notes move, even visually is up, down, up down, up down. And the chords are doing the same- every other chord wants to collapse into minor…but it keeps reaching up instead, correcting itself. As McClary said…”All the wounds of the 1st movement are laid bare and being healed here.” At this point in the class, I was moved because I recognized myself in the music and it was because the music…the composer, had recognized humanity. As you keep listening, you realize what a precarious movement this is….the voices all tiptoeing around each other, halfsteps muttering and getting us into trouble because there it is! The call to arms from the 1st movement! But instead of a struggle, the slow theme slowly seeps in, ameliorating the alarm, though damage has been done…the rhythmic gesture comes back crippled.

This is great music to me. It isn’t an outpouring of joy and beauty like other movements and pieces are, but it is honest. In my time of sadness, I needed this- something that, like me, had been affected by 1st movement trauma, but kept striving not to collapse into minor. In this way, Beethoven was one of my greatest friends during this time because he wasn’t telling me things were going to be okay, but he was showing me that I am not alone in being affected by something that has happened to me and that I can choose to keep reaching up for the next chord. It is amazing to me that someone who did not listen to me, but rather, whom I listened to hours on end, helped me heal.

So thanks for that. Great talk, Beethoven. Thanks for knowing I would need that 2nd movement after the 1st…

Janacek Short Story

The second semester of my first year at Rice started this week. One of the things I’m most excited about is the writing class on short stories I will be taking. This reminded me of my first (and only) short story I wrote a couple years ago and I thought I would post this as the “before.” This was written for my 1st Master’s recital at CIM to be a companion to the Janacek Sonata for Violin and Piano. It is my attempt at a Russian short story. There are four chapters to go with each of the four movements. I only have a YouTube of the performance, not an audio recording so… Credit and thanks to my dad for shooting the video, my amazing pianist- incomparable Pi-Ju Chiang and my pageturner, the extremely versatile Dorothy Ro. (Olympics Leapfrogging Champion 1999)


“ougghghggghh how could you!! How could you do this to me, after ALL that I do for you!” Her anger ripped from the depths of her bowels and she wailed, spitting and hissing at him. “I hate you! Why can’t you love me? Please please won’t you LOVE ME.”

The chandelier shook with every entitled step she took while he tried with empty gestures to persuade her to stop prowling, calm down. “didn’t we have good times?” she interrupted wistfully, wringing her hands together. “but you always have to RUIN US.” she clutched at his arm, pleading now…”don’t you love me? Don’t you? Can‘t we please move to the country? Away from them?” NOUOUGHGH. Her whole body quaked as she sobbed and pushed him away. Tomas protested, trying feebly to arrange his arms around her. NOUUGHGH!!! She was livid now, her lips flapping unintelligibly, bone white finger pointing at him. The decibel of her wails were filling the empty home, shaking the horrified chandelier, their pathetic situation being magnified in all the watchful crystal of their unused tableware as she launched again into her tirade. Her body giving way she was hunched on all floors crawling at an incredible speed. With renewed urgency Tomas tried to catch her, to stop what he was sure would be madness. And suddenly, turning to grasp blindly for him, her eyes misted over breathlessly “ohhh, but when things were good weren’t they just wonderful” warmth returning for a moment to her face.

He nodded sadly, regretfully.

Her eyes flashed, her grip, hardened talons leaving a mark. She seethed through her teeth “but you ruin us, you hate me.” her guttural growling stopped, face slackened, grip failing and her eyes were blank. “don’t you love me? Do you?”

In a fit of impossible strength and agility she overturned the tables and chairs as she rushed out of the room.

And full of proud disdain, she left him there, left him on his knees, mouth open at her madness. And a faint smile could be seen creeping into the corner of her mouth as she left knowing she had been triumphant.


Things were going well in their country home now, their daily lives routine and effortless. Of course, there were those insidious moments where the resentment and venom in their sides shuddered to the surface, sharpened unexpectedly and caused a malice and edge in their otherwise idyllic setting. But her gaze which at times turned hostile searching the blank helpless face in the mirror would soften and blur with tears. And she would relent to remembering

I remember those times, when we would tremble awake, content in this quiet grandeur. Our waking as sweet and confused as our slumber, the world fading to just you, just me. Time was speeding up or suspending, we were unsure..we were unsure about so much. Slowly shaking our heads at each other, disbelieving, marveling and trusting this…this thing that had happened between us, what made us both completely powerful and completely helpless.

And their daily lives were tender and dedicated to serving each other. Always, some small problem would arise causing sweet anguish and sadness but only ,it seemed, so there could be comforting holding reassuring I love you I love you I love you.

Until one day those little what-ifs flapped in the periphery of the mind, coupled with furtive glances and then that shocking terrible dismay, what a shame. small mouth gaping open at a party, and now a reckoning! And I’m dissolving here on the floor my body crumpled, face arranging and disarranging, a cubist nightmare, and everyone looking past their beaks at me can see the disgrace. I don’t understand please please don’t be cruel.. I’m helpless to understand, what does this mean? and your silence, your looking away, and then I understood

burn!!!!!!! ohhhh Burn burn it buuuuurrrrns. Jagged breaths, rasping grasping at the tablecloth at my beautiful dress don’t fall, defiant, shaking my head spitting I don’t believe you. oh! Collapse at your feet, please, I’m begging please please love me? you can still choose me. No! no!!!! ohhhhhhh and she could feel in her blood some dormant primitive creature relentlessly building infernally until at last, she screamed.

The scream faded in her mind as she returned from her remembering. And now she was despondent in their empty new home again, their empty marriage again. A shell of what they used to be, empty casing of who she used to be.

But there were mornings and days when they were surprised to find their quiet grandeur again, and to find it broader and richer. To find there are unexpected rewards of a love which has passed through disillusionment.

If you listen close to the fine glassware yet unpacked in their new home, you can still hear that scream resounding and echoing around and around trapped, like the strange music of ice cubes dropped in water, crackling sinking tinkling like small fissures in a marriage, a heart.


The whole outdoors was a percolating beehive of dreadful anticipating. As the train numbingly rumbled away she began her determined steps, unwavering in her decisions and righteousness. The wind and rain came down at her in torrents, slashing at her dress, tearing after her heels. Still, with a steely gaze fixed straight ahead she arrived. Her hands white and clenched, hair slick and dripping daggers of murderous intent. Facing the dark oak door, she raised her right fist, illumined by sharp knives of lightning and pounded three times.

There she was, in a long dressing gown, pooling around her skinny ankles like a dark red substance. Her blank eyes nonchalant and expectant. Nausea swept through me in waves. My throat mangled, I tried to cry or speak, but only strange sounds escaped, half-moans seemingly repressed by her hard demeanor. “Let me guess”, she began in her cold musical voice.. “You’ve come to beg for some kind of agreement? But how pitiful you are!” She laughed softly, derisively. Her smile abruptly wasted away from her face, she tapped her long elegant fingers against her temples. “Oh but this won’t do!” She pouted grotesquely, “I’m terribly sorry, but what could you have to offer to someone like me?” And now something within me was happening. Listening, I could hear strange bubbles in my blood engorging, filling slowly with solidity. My arm hairs were standing on end and I remembered again that things would be okay. That I would make them okay.

And now the indoors was buzzing with a strange green glow. The two women began their game of running around in the room, one so shocked by the audacity, indelicacy of the other, yelping aloud in surprise as she grappled on the floor. The other chasing her with a curved dagger, around and around, ripping at her dressing gown, (what was blood? What was silk?) biting at her heels until finally she collapsed on the other and her white fist clenched over her with the dagger, (illumined by lightning), let fall three sharp stabs.


She awoke with mild confusion, everything around her blurred and unfamiliar. Suddenly, accusations ricocheted in her head, ending in suspense. She unsteadily got to her feet and looked around at her strange enchanted setting. The accusations continued to interrupt her thoughts, causing uneasiness and throbbing head pain. Her gaze fell to a picture of Tomas on the dresser and her eyes softened; he looked so happy and handsome! But with fascination, she realized something was wrong; this was not a place or picture she recognized. Uncertain, she looked around the room for hints of where she might be, everything lavishly beautiful and strangely innocent. The assaults in her mind continued, halting her steps and causing her to buckle uncontrollably. And slowly… shudderingly, horror and despair were dawning on her. Could it be? What are these feelings? The truth, past and present were fitting together in their disjointed awkward way until she knew! She KNEW! She had done it she had killed!! The accusations towered now and throttled through her head, shocking her whole body while she looked helplessly at the sheath in the other room.

But I HAD TO! I HAD TO DIDN’T I? FOR US, for me…, I WAS PROTECTING US, oh no, no! more than that, I was SAVING US. I HAD TO.

didn’t I?

Exhausted and tense with doubt, drained of any physical energy she sank to her knees. But yes, she thought, hands clasped to her heart…it had to be done; a wave of sickly righteousness rose in her heart only to recede in a final disillusionment.

She quietly wandered away from the room, returning to her country home. She could have lived happily ever after but for the crippling and unexpected accusations continuing to echo in her mind; a general sense of unease and fear haunting her every hour.