Respighi: Six Pieces for Solo Piano (Scherbakov)

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’ve not paid much attention to the work of Ottorino Respighi. Oh, I know he wrote “The Pines of Rome,” and “The Fountains of Rome,” and “Festivals of Rome.” For godssake, I even lived in Rome and have seen the pines, some festivals and hundreds of fountains. But if you asked me to hum something from one of these piece, I’d be hard-pressed.
Not that I haven’t heard them like, a thousand times, since they used to get played again and again on the local classical radio channels, especially on the call-in request shows.

If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound? If Respighi plays in the background, did I actually hear it? He was 17 years younger than Debussy, and I tend to pigeon-hole him either in the Impressionist school, or maybe as an anachronism like Rachmaninoff–poised between Romantic and Cubist or Atonal music.

He was first noted for his violin and viola virtuosity, playing in string quartets as as principle violist in St. Petersburg, with the Russian Imperial Theatre. While in Russia he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, and later, living in Germany, reportedly studied with Max Bruch.

Returning to Rome, he taught composition at the St. Cecilia Conservatory, where he managed to weather the Mussolini years trying to remain a-political though he did promote his music for nationalistic purposes. At the same time, he championed more vocal critics of fascism like Aurturo Toscanini.

Today, I’m posting something I stumbled upon while surfing youtube. It’s six pieces for solo piano. From Wikipedia, I see that he wrote operas, ballets, symphonic works, quite a few chamber pieces. His list of works does not include any works for piano, so maybe I should update the Wikipedia entry. Do any of you know anything about his piano works that you can steer me to?

Here’s a piano sonata I just found.

Giya Kancheli: Chiaroscuro (ECM New Series 2442)

Here’s a composer I never heard of before.  Born in Tblisi, Georgia in the former Soviet Union, Giya Kancheli, emigrated to Belgium in 1991.  He’s been pretty prolific, writing seven symphonies and scores for films and plays, which are not widely known outside Eastern Europe.  The Kronos Quartet, Mstislav Rostropovich, Kurt Masur, and many other conductors have championed his works.  Here’s a link to the world premiere of “Chiaroscuro” from 2010.

And here’s the Wikipedia entry on him.

A nice find on a cold winter’s night.

Source: Giya Kancheli: Chiaroscuro (ECM New Series 2442)

Penderecki: Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima

I turned 60 this past summer. That means I was 9 when Malcolm X was shot and 10 when the former racist, Lyndon Johnson, signed the voting rights act in 1965. I was 12 when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. They didn’t call Lee Harvey Oswald or James Earl Ray, “thugs” or “terrorists.” But the fear they inspired put a palpable damper on the optimism for change that had begun in the early 1960s.  The government didn’t help.  J. Edgar Hoover, tyrant obviously as mentally disturbed by his inability to reconcile his own sexuality, (like Hitler, by the way), had gone after King, the Blank Panthers, The Students for A Democratic Society with wiretaps and even blatant propaganda.  For example, I remember seeing this billboard on my way to Boy Scout camp one summer.


Most urban whites fled to the suburbs after the riots of 1968 and the forced busing of African Americans from poverty stricken school districts to “white,” schools increased the created animosity among whites and reversed the dream of racial harmony that had started. Today, I heard on Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me, that the African American Hip-Hop artist, actor, and movie producer, Ice Cube, had been bused into a white neighborhood. When asked what he thought of that, he said it was great, because it exposed him to other people, other music, other ideas, and showed that there was a different world out there. Listen to the full interview here.

The pessimistic funk that followed in the decades following was like a Sword of Damocles handing over the world’s head.  To dull the pain, the 70s turned into what Tom Wolfe called the “Me Decade.”  It should have been called “the me-coke-disco-addiction decade.”  Wolfe called this “atomized individualism.”  Political leaders invented more bogeymen–Brezhnev, Pol Pot, The Cold War, OPEC, The Yom Kippur War, Bangladesh, Idi Amin, the overthrow by the USA of a democratically elected government in Chile, the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympics, skyjackings, Watergate, the murder of Steve Biko, the hostage crisis.  For more fun reading, look at Wikipedia’s entry on the 1970s.  Toward the end, there was some slight hope–the Mideast Peace accord brokered by Jimmy Carter.

I would normally say, “Let’s just forget the 1980s.”  The Reagan-Bush years that started systematically disassembling the middle class to enable corporate soul-less materialism.  But then, in 1989, something miraculous happened: the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Suddenly the sword was lifted and we no longer had to live under the constant fear of nuclear annihilation.

So it took 21 years, from 1968 to 1989, almost the turn of one generation for the zeitgeist in the US, at least, start to change. The 1990s, by contrast, brought optimism back, and our Millenial Children grew up in an optimistic time.  The prosperity of the Clinton years, the advances in computers and the internet, the Oslo accord, the Convention on Bio-Diversity, WHO removing homosexuality from its list of diseases, and of course Harry Potter.

2000s–back to fear after 9/11 and the real start of another dark ages of racial hatred.  Then, amazingly, in 2008, 40 years after 1968, the US elects Barack Obama as president.  In a way, since then, it’s like the US went back in time.  The 2008 financial crisis didn’t help, which decimated the middle class, and like most countries in the midst of economic hardship, xenophobia has started to soar.  Will it take another generation, until 2028, for us to purge ourselves if this insanity.  Maybe the Millenials who grew up for the most part, without the racist attitudes of their grandparents, will save us.

The other day, I was talking to a colleague about half my age about the passionate speech that President Obama gave to try to stop gun violence that kills about 7 children per day in the US (that’s about 16,000 preventable deaths in the last seven years.)  That lead into a discussion about how crazy the political process has become and the active and coded racism that has been directed at Obama since then.  HE’S ASKING FOR COMPASSION, PEOPLE.  Instead the next day, the New York Times does a report on the Twitter-storm that the Republican candidates’ shiny boots have caused.  Is there any rational political discourse any more?  I said to her, “At sixty, it’s really disappointing having to watch this racism a second time in my lifetime.” The quote by George Santayana comes to mind: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

So for today, I chose this shocking piece of music by Krzysztof Penderecki, composed in 1960.

Penderecki wrote it in the late 50s (around the age of 25) under the influence of composers like Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg.  It uses microtones, making it sound particularly discordant, and has the performers bow behind the bridge, slap their instruments, or improvise at random points on their instruments’ scale.  Of course serial and atonal music is a type of intellectual game, but when he first heard it performed by an orchestra, Penderecki experienced such an emotional reaction, that he dedicated the piece to the victims of Hiroshima, saying “Let the Threnody express my firm belief that the sacrifice of Hiroshima will never be forgotten and lost.”

According to Wikipedia, “A threnody is a song, hymn or poem of mourning composed or performed as a memorial to a dead person.

It is interesting to watch this version which scrolls along the score as the music plays:

If this music sounds somewhat familiar to you, it’s because Stanley Kubrick used it in the film, “The Shining.” It evokes horror. The horror of young children looking up into the sky at the sound of a plane and then hear bombs fall (think Syria today) followed by a hot blast that either rips them apart or melts away their flesh. That this is going on in the 21st Century is unconscionable. If you have children, or remember how beautiful life might have been as a child, just think of the horror and fear and desolation and senselessness when anyone dies from preventable violence.
I didn’t necessarily want to start the New Year on such a bleak note. In fact, every day, I meet young people who seem not to have grown up with the biases and limitations of the racism practiced by their parent or directed against their ethnic group. It is refreshing and gives me hope.

Penderecki turned hopeful too, and his later works have become more straightforward. About this he says: “The avant-garde gave one an illusion of universalism. The musical world of Stockhausen, Nono, Boulez and Cage was for us, the young – hemmed in by the aesthetics of socialist realism, then the official canon in our country – a liberation…I was quick to realise however, that this novelty, this experimentation and formal speculation, is more destructive than constructive; I realised the Utopian quality of its Promethean tone’. Penderecki concluded that he was ‘saved from the avant-garde snare of formalism by a return to tradition’.

Here’s an example of his later work: “Violin Concerto No.2 ‘Metamorphosen'”


Edo Lullaby

If you could flip a switch (or take a pill) to be happy, would you? And would it really work?

The other day, I heard a Radiolab story that said for at least 20 years, drugs have been developed that can cure alcoholism. The reason they are not widely taken is because since the early 20th Century, 1) Alcoholics Anonymous has been very influential, and 2) very few medical schools give courses on how to treat addiction. The podcast went on to day that AA only has about a 5% success rate. AA’s philosophy, even though they say alcoholism is a disease, basically has the message that it’s a moral failing to become addicted and only by surrendering to a higher power can one overcome it. So if you could take a drug to cure your alcoholism, you wouldn’t have done the moral work needed to be accountable for your life (and the damage you did to others while drunk).

Radiolab interviewed a guy who was really successful while a drunk, but who then eventually realized it was killing him. So he tried the drug therapy. It worked perfectly. He no longer wanted to drink. However, he felt life was not as interesting and also, the drug did nothing to address any psychological issues he might have had. The piece ended with him consciously quitting the meds and becoming an alcoholic again. The researcher interviewed said we are hardwired to find things — especially chemicals — that give us a jolt of dopamine, or relax us, or make us more socially competent or attractive. In fact, we evolved this way because people who act that way get to pass their genes on through mating.

Another researcher said these drugs are at the point now where Prozac was 20 or 30 years ago. Back then, there was stigma tied to taking drugs to alleviate depression and the dominant schools of psychology often treated it through psychoanalytical, group, behavioral, or cognitive therapy. However, now it’s much more accepted and in 10–15 year’s time, anyone with an addiction will not have to feel guilty taking a pill to cure their addiction.

Having been besieged by depression on a number of occasions, mostly triggered by major life events, I have tried the various types of talk or behavioral therapies including EMDR and EFT. Alone, they only have gotten me so far, or perhaps were successful for a while. But what’s been more effective is a combination of talk therapy and medicine. And last year, after going through another episode, I finally tried to be less passive in the journey and work hard to try to beat it.

By chance, I happened to receive a notice for a 8-week, online course on Happiness, offered for free by Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley. Until Martin Seligman came along, most mental-health therapy was designed to cure the “illness.” Psychologists didn’t really study peak performance, optimism, or what’s now known as positive psychology. That is, what tools and strategies have humans evolved that lead to happiness. Happy people tend to be more successful, live longer, and be healthier. By tools I mean psychological tools like emotions, empathy, social connectedness, altruism, gratitude and forgiveness, etc. The course presented studies and research that basically, just as we developed “flight, fight, or freeze,” as a strategy to deal with danger (think sabertooth tigers), we developed the positive emotions and behaviors to make us help one another, thereby ensuring that a group will survive. Biologically, no man can really be an island.

At the same time I was taking this course, I had also started to study Buddhism, especially through the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh. In addition, I found the website of Tara Brach, a Buddhist psychologist who lives near my town. Both these writers and lecturers comment on what are the four rooms, or the four bramavaharas, of Buddhism — Love, Joy, Compassion, and Equanimity. Oddly enough, in its own way, the 8 week psychology course was demonstrating that there are biological and evolutionary bases for these ways of living and interacting with others and the world. The course actually ended on the positive effects of actively practicing Gratitude and also Mindful Meditation.

For the first time in my life I felt that I understood the world. Pain and suffering comes from anger at believing the world has dealt us a bad hand or is out to get us. When we take that to the extreme, we become insular, withdrawing from and not trusting others. To be so alienated from others is toxic. Babies, for example, in orphanages who do not get picked up and touched by human hands fail to thrive. If we filter everything through our fight, flight or flee evolutionary hard wiring we end up acting in destructive ways (this is known as amygdala hijack). If, however, we can catch ourselves, breath, slow down, think, we will have much better outcomes.

So coming back to my initial question, if I could flip a switch (i.e., take a pill) and instantly cure depression, would I? And would it be successful? The pill can stop the pain, but alone it will not be as effective as learning to have rich relationships with others and realizing that love, loss, joy, and suffering are all part of life and are constantly coming and going.

I hope your Equanimity will bring you a Joyful, Loving, Compassionate New Year!

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