South to Sevilla

…a nearly all Dutch crew… Brussels and fly to Seville

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I am typing this on an iPhone on our drive to Maastricht where we will rendezvous with a nearly all Dutch crew: a flamenco guitar player, a flamenco dancer, a photographer, a camera man (videographer), and the manager. Together we will leave for Brussels tomorrow and fly to Seville where we will stay in a villa with a pool. We will work with a famous gypsy family to download their brain — the secrets of flamenco.

Future topics

There is plenty to write about, if I have infinite time and energy, on subjects related to music and why it’s important to continue to ask such questions and engage science to find the answers. Or interview people with insight and foresight,…

When I got online tonight (Friday 10th April 2009 at 10:30 pm) I had intended to reflect upon our recent concert in Amsterdam. Then I got sidetracked by interesting articles on benefits of music on children, adults, and the elderly; the importance of programme notes; and various summaries of medical reports and other indepth reportage as discovered and collated by the Unlikely Entrepreneur Cynthia Wunsch.

Her blogs led me to Science Daily, where I quickly searched on the topic of music. There I found “When musicians play along together it isn’t just their instruments that are in time – their brain waves are too” in the article titled “Guitarists’ Brains Swing Together.” Being closely synchronised is a main challenge and requirement in our piano and guitar duo playing. I wonder if our brains are in tune with each other.

A few months ago, just before Christmas 2008, I had bookmarked an article in the Economist, called “Why Music?” Shakespeare’s “if music be the food of love, play on…” sums up the themes of my life: music, food, and love, albeit not necessarily in that order. The article is worth reading again and again. I noticed it because I had simultaneously found another article on music and the mind in the Gramophone magazine (Dec 2008).

There is plenty to write about, if I have infinite time and energy, on subjects related to music and why it’s important to continue to ask such questions and engage science to find the answers. Or interview people with insight and foresight, such as human resource professionals who see skill deficiencies in today’s labour force. They say that “Workers benefit more from art than math and science.Now that’s a welcoming thought — that my return to full-time education to study music, after a left-brained education & employment, was not in vain. Is the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) the new MBA (Master of Business Administration)?

I shall add to this blog entry when I see more topics to write about. Earlier today, I had an idea to arrange music for piano and guitar, compose something that would be interesting for us to play, and …. I need a depository to store my ideas before they vanish or get replaced!

Last stop on earth

Do the residents know this is their last stop on earth? Will our music make any difference?

When we go and shake their hands afterwards, we could sense they’re trying to tell us something with their watery eyes and lingering grips.

We entered the grey building from the back, where we had barely found a spot to park the car.

“Are you sure you want to take this entrance?” asked the Dutch guitarist suspiciously.

“Why not?” I noticed it looked like a door for staff only. “What does it say?”

“It says morgue in Dutch.”

“You mean, dead bodies?”

It suddenly dawned on me why we were invited a second time to give a memorial concert at a large nursing home in Amsterdam a year ago. They held such concerts four times a year. Those were sombre events preceded by dinner with the staff. I had played the piano solo version of my Elegy there. They loved the slow movement of Chopin’s piano concerto in E minor.

Do the residents know this is their last stop on earth? Will our music make any difference?

When we go and shake their hands afterwards, we could sense they’re trying to tell us something with their watery eyes and lingering grips.

In the early days, we’d try very hard to get to know the residents at the smaller elderly homes, some as few as a handful of well-dressed octogenarians. We would greet them and chat with them while sharing tea and snacks together. Those were cozy settings in stately homes a few hundred years old. After a year of driving two hours each way to villages near the German border and appearing at the same homes once a month, we abandoned our futile attempts to bond with these nearly forgotten citizens.

What we could be sure of, from those visits, was that live music did indeed make a difference. It released them from the present. They spoke with their eyes. Conversations didn’t matter. They chose to remember the long ago past, before we were born.

The long and winding road towards our first duo CD

Our first recording was attempted just before our debut in London in May 2003. There was a big problem with balance, not helped by a concert grand and the power trip I had over the guitarist.

Revised from Facebook Notes, Sunday 21 December 2008

“Do you have any CDs of your duo?”

This is a typical question we answer with “No. We are working on one.”

We have been saying this for years.

Our first recording was attempted just before our debut in London in May 2003. There was a big problem with balance, not helped by a concert grand and the power trip I had over the guitarist. If he complained that I was too loud, I’d shrug my shoulders and reply, “tough luck!” It took a lot of recording, listening, and re-recording before I learned to compromise.

Not all pieces from the London session were good enough for a CD, but we managed to extract a few audio clips for our website, such as Fantasia of Swiss composer Haug and the less serious extracts from Happy Hour Sandwich of Austrian composer Schwertberger.

After several more recording sessions, we concluded that it was very difficult to record the piano and the guitar. We needed time to experiment with positioning of the microphone and our instruments. We booked the main hall of the Utrecht Conservatory on many occasions for this very purpose.

We have not played the Sonata of Mexican composer Ponce in quite awhile. Amsterdam-based composer Allan Segall’s When Back, Stravinsky, and the Who Met is a favourite of those who grew up with The Who.

We even tried to record ourselves at home, using a Mac webcam and stereo microphones for youtube.  Bach’s Badinerie arranged by Robert Bekkers for piano and guitar:

Some live recordings yielded surprising results. Lan Chee Lam’s Drizzle (2007) would have been even more exciting to watch because I go into the piano and pluck the strings. The outdoor summer bugs (what do you call them?) in Cortona, Italy provided good percussive effects to Henk Alkema’s Sailor Talk (2007).

The entire Maui concert (December 2007) was audio and video recorded. Below is an extract from the first piece written for us, by the Haarlem -based composer Erik Otte.

Danza de la Vispera from Suite Rio de La Plata (2004) by Erik Otte

We saw what it took to create the perfect close miking environment at the Houston Public Radio last December: a sound-proof recording studio with a grand piano and several good microphones. One result from our live performance was David Harvey’s Floating from Little Suite which we will premiere in its entirety in Spain in early May.

What about an empty church?

The sound engineer Gaston Matthijsse, invited us to Belgium to try an old church in Vaals, famous for being on the Dutch-Belgian-German border. When we arrived in early May 2008, much to our chagrin, the reverberation was too high as most of the furniture had been removed. Still, we spent an entire day recording an entire CD-worth of music, three centuries of music written for piano and guitar. Robert loaded it on his ipod to listen closely and decided that we needed another try. This time, a full church.

It was for this reason that we set up a live recording in a monastic church in Warmond on 30 November 2008.

Summer (3rd movement) from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, arranged by R.A.Bekkers

However long and winding it is to record our first CD, we can at least confidently say that no CD will capture the live concert experience. Having said this, we are keen to try podcasting!

Getting ready for a concert

How do you react if one makes a mistake, such as playing a wrong note, a wrong chord, playing something too early or skipping a beat? There is no “undo button” to correct the situation. It’s all moving too fast. Not only do you have to anticipate the next move and prevent a wrong move, you have to cover up a wrong move if it happens.

Revised from “Getting ready for a concert” Facebook Notes, Monday 8 December 2008

Why is it necessary to be in shape (physically and mentally) to perform in a concert?

A concert is a real-time experience. In a duo situation, a performer not only has to be alert to his/own movements but also that of the other musician. It’s necessary to hear well and anticipate because performing chamber music is not only about making a sound from your instrument but mixing the sound with other(s).

How do you react if one makes a mistake, such as playing a wrong note, a wrong chord, playing something too early or skipping a beat? There is no “undo button” to correct the situation. It’s all moving too fast. Not only do you have to anticipate the next move and prevent a wrong move, you have to cover up a wrong move if it happens.

It’s a dead giveaway to show you have made a mistake by your facial expression. I didn’t know this until a few ladies in the audience told me they enjoyed my performance but felt that perhaps I didn’t because of the way I frowned. I learned afterwards never to show that I made a mistake or that my duo partner made a mistake.

How do you get yourself prepared for such a real-time “battle”? I say battle because it’s like fighting the chance of imperfectly executing your prepared moves. How do you get totally alert and stay focussed when you’re on stage?

A good night’s sleep helps. I have seen the detrimental effects of a late night’s sleep and jetlag. You can only stay 100% focussed for so long, and it becomes extremely hard when you’re fighting a lack of sleep. There is enough to battle on stage without having to fight the desire to fall asleep. It’s happened to me when I’ve “blacked out” in seconds to a dream-like state simply from lack of sleep. That’s toxic for the other performer.

Keeping in shape is another way to be prepared. I take regular exercises in aerobics, weight-lifting, yoga, and pilates. The guitarist is training for a marathon. In the Netherlands where there are safe cycle paths everywhere, cycling is THE way to travel from A to B. Cycling is tough in dark, wet, windy, gloomy winter weather. I still don’t know how the Dutch manage to carry things in the rain on their bicycles without getting wet. But they certainly stay trim and fit.

The relationship between the performers has to be clear and good. Misunderstandings, resentment, and other unspoken disagreement all get in the way of a good performance. Long ago I used to get stressed out before a major performance, and I’d argue with the guitarist and get mad. After awhile, he figured out that I was just nervous. With better preparation, good night’s sleep, physical exercise, better communication, and getting to the venue with plenty of time to spare, we now avoid such stressful confrontations.

Finally, a good diet and regular routine helps. My father always preached the Chinese way of walking the middle road and achieving balance in life. As impetuous a risk-taker as I am, I have learned that “extreme” living requires compensation at some point. If I eat too much, I feel uncomfortable. If I eat the wrong thing, I react. There is comfort in knowing the certainty of routine, as boring and predictable as it may be.

One more thing — a very important one: Don’t overeat before a concert, for digestion takes away concentration. I once cooked and ate a huge meal just before giving a full moon concert in North Wales. Not sure how the guitarist fared, but I will never forget that bloated feeling of fighting to focus on the music and finish before my stomach takes over everything else. Musicians are naturally hungry after a concert. And hungry musicians are eager to play.

Related stories:
Preparing for a concert, March 2004 Bussum

Competing against the weather, June 2004 Den Haag

The second set and Schumann’s Traumerei, June 2004 Bussum

The nuts and bolts of a duo concert

The last concert we gave in November 2008 took place in a monastic church in a village north of Leiden (home of the oldest Dutch university). We drove there in the snow. We received a standing ovation and did an encore out of courtesy.

Revised from “Starting a blog of my concerts” from Facebook Notes, Wednesday 3 December 2008

My life these days revolves around concerts. That is, performing on the piano, with my duo partner — the classical guitarist. Hence our rather generic name of “piano guitar duo.”

It begins with fixing a date, time, venue, and programme — blocking off a chunk of time on the calendar. Then practising (by myself), rehearsing with my duo partner, and preparing for the concert. When the day arrives, it’s the usual ritual to put on my make-up, fill a thermos flask with hot rooibos or other herbal tea & sometimes make sandwiches or other light snack to eat in the car, drive there, warm up and check the accoustics, change into concert clothes, and play.

My duo partner meanwhile has the arduous task of finding the route on Google Earth and jotting down the necessary phone number and address. [After he received the surprise free gift from his mobile phone provider for New Year’s Eve, he started using the iphone’s GSM facilities instead of the old paper ritual.]

I never don’t know what to expect in terms of the quality of the piano and the acoustics, unless we get to rehearse before the day of the concert. Because the piano and the guitar are “attack” instruments (rather than the “sustain” kind of string and wind instruments), it’s necessary to get the balance right. The quality of the sound we produce is highly dependent on the acoustics of the room and the piano.

We have to get there at least half-an-hour before the concert, preferably one hour before, to permit enough time to warm up and adjust to the acoustics and instruments. If the acoustics are too dry, I have to use more pedal. If too resonating (like in a big church), I sometimes avoid the right pedal altogether. If the piano is too loud, I may have to close the lid completely and reluctantly.

I usually never get to see the piano or the venue beforehand, unless it’s a place my duo has performed before. So far, of the concerts we’ve given in the past 7 years, it’s always been for the first time at that particular venue. The surprises make interesting stories, enough to fill a book or a television series.

The last concert we gave in November 2008 took place in a monastic church in Warmond, a village north of Leiden (home of the oldest Dutch university). We drove there in the snow. We received a standing ovation and did an encore out of courtesy. We had arranged for a recording engineer to record the 1 hour concert and a photographer to take professional photos of us afterwards. There was a lot of equipment and setting-up. The concert was also video recorded by a student of the guitarist, see below.

Summer (second movement) from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, arranged by R.A. Bekkers

Trio for violin, guitar, and piano by Jacob ter Veldhuis

I found a score by the Dutch composer Jacob ter Veldhuis in the public library. The score for “Trio” looked simple. The title specified a great deal of flexibility: for flute, alto recorder or oboe; zither or harpischord or piano; and guitar. There was no mention of violin. But why not?

Adding a third instrument to piano and guitar changes the entire dynamics. At our first trio rehearsal, I was amazed at the sound of the violin.

It was loud and flamboyant, which meant I could be equally loud and flamboyant. I could finally bring out the grandness of the mighty piano, no longer straitjacketed by the obligation to kowtow to the soft sounding guitar.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. The guitar could be loud, too. But most of the time, it sounds best plucked gently, producing the sort of intimate music you want to fall in love with or fall asleep to.

The guitarist has always pronounced that the guitar possessed far more potential than the piano. It is capable of producing more colour, texture, and differentiating qualities of sound than the piano which consists basically of hammers that produce 88 pitches, unless you dare venture inside the piano to pluck its strings. The guitarist needs two hands to make a tone while I need only one finger to make a sound on the piano.

The difficulty of making a sound (according to this guitarist and his friends) makes the guitar more superior, in other words. Perhaps that explains why there are many more virtuosic pianists than virtuosic guitarists….. but performance virtuosity does not necessarily mean that it’s easier to master the piano.

The violin also requires two hands to make a sound. In fact, it requires a bow most of the time. I had tried teaching myself the violin so that I could compose for it. I gave up after 5 minutes because my body ached from the awkward positions of holding the bow in one hand and the violin on the other, not to mention the contortion of holding it in place between my chin and shoulder.

Early in my conservatory education, I asked a fellow classmate to give me violin lessons. At the first lesson, she spent over an hour showing me how to hold the bow with my right hand. Two weeks later, she spent another hour showing me how to hold the violin. I complained that I just wanted to make a sound so that I could read the notes and produce some music. To my disappointment, she said that I was lucky to already learn how to hold the violin and bow in just two lessons. She spent the first year learning just that!

Thus it was most magical to hear the violin being played less than a meter from where I sat at the piano. For such a small instrument, it was capable of producing all kinds of sounds and effects: the familiar bowed sound, the plucked sound of pizzicato, the staccato sound of the bow bouncing on the strings like tiny stones skipping on a lake, bowing on the neck, bowing near the bridge, muted sound, and far more effects in virtuosic contemporary pieces.

Paul Richard’s “Falling on Lobsters in the Dark” gave me the opportunity to hear such effects, especially the different ways that the combination of violin, guitar, and piano could portray different types of fear. We played this piece in two violin recitals, the open day for prospective new students, and the first Chamber Music Marathon concert at Utrecht Conservatory.

For our second Chamber Music Marathon concert, I found a score by the Dutch composer Jacob ter Veldhuis in the public library. “Trio (opus 48a)” was a 1990 commission, first premiered in 1992 by flute, zither, and guitar in Deventer, a city which became popular for the film industry for locations in Arnhem whose centre was destroyed during the Second World War. As Jacob ter Veldhuis as the composer-in-residence for my final year at conservatory had supervised my “Elegy for Ensemble” piece, I decided that it was worth trying this piece.

The score for “Trio” looked simple enough to sightread. The title specified a great deal of flexibility: for flute, alto recorder or oboe; zither or harpischord or piano; and guitar. There was no mention of violin. But why not? By now, I had become accustomed to substituting single-voiced treble instruments for each other. It was easy to do on the music notation computer programme I used to compose my ensemble pieces. As the range of the violin is larger than the flute, it shouldn’t be a problem to manage a reduced subset of the pitch range.

Below are video recordings of our interpretation of Jacob ter Veldhuis’ Trio (opus 48a), performed after our premiere of “Rendering 7.”

Trio I. Allegro

Trio II. Andante

Trio III. Allegro