recordings by Nathan Carterette

some of you have been inquiring about the Arsenal Duo recording from Stambaugh Auditorium in March. we were scheduled to make a studio recording of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, as well as Virgil Fox's arrangement of Bach's Come, Sweet Death in May but due to scheduling conflicts that has been rescheduled. Those two pieces will be recorded in late September at Stambaugh and hopefully available for release a couple of months after that. 

Wolf Hall and the memory palace by Nathan Carterette

When I was a young piano student I had a very inspiring teacher, who was always pushing me to the edge and beyond of my limits. A small suggestion from him would lead me into a frenzy of concentration.  Once he suggested I learn Schumann's Carnaval, and I memorized the entire piece in two days, practicing after school until dinner. 

I absorbed a lot, and memorized fast, but even for me that was a feat, though I was so enthused with the music that I didn't question or examine it until much later. Every movement in Carnaval has a title, some from the Commedia dell'arte, some from his private imagination, some people from his real life, or some dance or scenario. They all lend themselves to visualization, and as separate characters or moods, they are easy to distinguish. It was this visualization that allowed me to absorb the music so fast, and even now when I play it, I can see the characters in the Lodge, the house where I learned it. 

Unbeknownst to me I was using the memory palace technique, sometimes called method of loci. It came up only a year or two ago on the Diane Rehm show, and I knew it right away! It involves spatial memory and weird imagery. Take any object, or in the case of music a starting point and a finishing point, attach to it some image that is conspicuous, and put it in a room, or in a tree, or coming out of a sewer grate, or floating in a cloud. There on that object is attached to your memory in a certain way, and to recall it, you only need to picture part or all of your scene - the location, or the strange image.

Schumann did the work for you in Carnaval, if you have enough imagination to tack onto his titles. But the spatial memory is also crucial; there are endless places to use as your memory palace. 

anyways recently I read the miraculous novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the story of Henry VIII told through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, his most powerful servant. Her interests lie in how Cromwell obtains and uses his power, and a skill that sets him apart from his other competitors at court is... The memory palace!  

Mantel conjectures that that as a guerrilla soldier in Italy he learned the technique, which came down from Simonedes in Greece and Cicero in  Rome, and therefore had a command of faces, facts, figures, land entitlements, conversations, intrigues, whatever, that he could recall for his own purpose at any time. It's worth quoting a passage: 

in Italy he learned a memory system and furnished it with pictures. Some are drawn from wood and field, from hedgerow and copse: shy hiding animals, eyes bright in the undergrowth. Some are foxes and deer, some are griffins, dragons. Some are men and women: nuns, warriors, doctors of the church. In their hands he puts unlikely objects, St Ursula a crossbow, St Jerome a scythe, while Plato bears a soup ladle and Achilles a dozen damsons in a wooden bowl. It is no use hoping to remember with the help of common objects, familiar faces. One needs startling juxtapositions, images that are more or less peculiar, ridiculous, even indecent. When you have made the images, you place them about the world in locations you choose, each one with its parcel of woods, of figures, which they will yield you on demand. At Greenwich, a shaven cat may peep at you from behind a cupboard: at the Palace of Westminster, a snake may leer down from a beam and hiss your name.

later, when Cromwell is discussing a duke with someone, the issue of their land entitlements comes up; a "spider scurries from under the chair and supplies him with a fact." And there he has the exact entitlements, and when they were given. 

definitely the memory palace is a function of his character, and a source of his power, in the book. I think it also contributes to the particular fast pace of the story, and it's situation in time. This book comes to life through its use of the present tense, but also the passage of time: events are always attached to Saints days, or liturgical seasons, and occasionally to fixed dates. cromwell's memory gives the current time texture, and in effect ties everything together, since we see it all from his point of view. It's as powerful a literary device as a practical one. 

busoni and aristotle by Nathan Carterette

there's a striking similarity in these two passages:

For the word ‘nature’ is applied to what is according to nature and the natural in the same way as ‘art’ is applied to what is artistic or a work of art. We should not say in the latter case that there is anything artistic about a thing, if it is a bed only potentially, not yet having the form of a bed; nor should we call it a work of art. The same is true of natural compounds. What is potentially flesh or bone has not yet its own ‘nature,’ and does not exist ‘by nature,’ until it receives the form specified in the definition, which we name in defining what flesh or bone is.
— Aristotle - Physics, Book II
The term ‘musical’ is used by the Germans in a sense foreign to that in which any other language employs it... ‘Musical’ is derived from ‘music’, like ‘poetical’ from poetry, or ‘physical’ from physic(s). When I say, ‘Schubert was one of the most musical among men,’ it is the same as if I should say, ‘Helmholtz was one of the most physical among men.’ That is musical, which sounds in rhythms and intervals. A cupboard can be ‘musical’ if ‘music-works’ be enclosed in it.
— Busoni - A New Esthetic of Music

on one hand Busoni is pointing out the absurdity of the term musical as applied to individuals, given that unless they are singers (he mentions in a footnote) they themselves do not produce musical sounds. a cupboard (music box, I thinkdoes, or an instrument, even if manipulated by people. on the other hand, he consistently saw and described in his treatise music as a living spirit, and a being unto itself. at the end of this chapter he adds a characteristically 'artistic' coda:

A thousand hands support the buoyant child and solicitously attend its footsteps, that it may not soar aloft where there might be risk of a serious fall. But it is still so young, and is eternal; the day of its freedom will come. - When it shall cease to be ‘musical.’
— Busoni - A New Esthetic of Music

More thoughts on a Reader's Manifesto by Nathan Carterette

going back to Myers Reader's Manifesto provokes some mixed feelings. I remember not being thrilled about it at first, mainly because he's very critical of Paul Auster, my mother liked Paul Auster, and I couldn't stand it when anyone criticized something my mother liked! it's just all too mortifying. But I know enough at least now to admit that 'Smoke' was a terribly boring movie.

looking through his other published criticism I see a takedown of Denis Johnson (Tree of Smoke) and Toni Morrison, two authors I'm reading now, so that's unfortunate. Unfortunate because he is so convincing. There certainly are ridiculous metaphors in "Jesus' Son," and maybe I would have given Johnson the benefit of the doubt, the thought that there was a deeper thought there, except for Myers ruthlessly literal critique. 

but he is definitely wrong in one area. Here he quotes a passage from cormac McCarthy's "All the Pretty Little Horses***," critically: 

While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who's will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who's will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who's will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)


the syntax is indeed silly. But Myers also disapproves of the subject matter:

"The obscurity of who's will, which has an unfortunate Dr. Seussian ring to it, is meant to bully readers into thinking that the author's mind operates on a plane higher than their own—a plane where it isn't ridiculous to eulogize the shifts in a horse's bowels."

But in literature nothing is ridiculous, until a writer makes it so. Here is Nabokov, from a short story called "A Bad Day*****," writing much more artistically about the very same subject:

"From time to time this or that horse would half-raise its tail, under the tensed root of which a bulb of flesh would swell, squeezing out one tawny globe, then another, a third, after which the folds of black skin would close again and the tail droop."

unfortunately I have a good memory for things like this! 

*** Odetta singing 'All the Pretty Little Horses'

***** Mika singing 'Rain' (Baby, I hate days like this)

How I became a Famous Novelist - The Manifesto by Nathan Carterette

Steve Hely's 2009 novel "How I became a Famous Novelist" tells the story of a pathetic bachelor, Pete Tarslaw, who games the New York Times best seller lists to crank out a trashy, pseudo-literary novel, a pre-fab best seller awaiting movie rights. 

 "A Reader's Manifesto" is an article by BR Myers published in 2001 in the Atlantic (I thought originally anonymously, but can't confirm) ripping to shreds techniques of "literary" best sellers like Proulx, Auster, McCarthy, delillo and others.

going back to the manifesto after several years I'm totally convinced it was the source material for Hely's novel. All the literary pretensions are appropriated by Tarslaw: the vague metaphors, the assumed wisdom in all things rural and folksy, the unrealistic high falutin language that would never sound good read aloud (as opposed to real southern grandiloquence), the pointless repetition, and so on. The novel is like a dramatization of Myers complaints. 

Here is Myers quoting David Guterson as an example of "generic literary prose" from "Snow Falling on Cedars:" 


On the night he had appointed his last among the living, Dr. Ben Givens did not dream, for his sleep was restless and visited by phantoms who guarded the portal to the world of dreams by speaking relentlessly of this world. They spoke of his wife—now dead—and of his daughter, of silent canyons where he had hunted birds, of august peaks he had once ascended, of apples newly plucked from trees, and of vineyards in the foothills of the Apennines. They spoke of rows of campanino apples near Monte Della Torraccia; they spoke of cherry trees on river slopes and of pear blossoms in May sunlight.


Here is Hely quoting from Tarslaw's fictional "Tornado Ashes Club:"  


 "do you remember when we went to the old Presbyterian church?" Grandmother said. "The church up in Gethsemene? Up in that notch of mountains that they called a village?" yes, said Silas. I remember. I played in the rhododendrons. Pretended they were a cave. Pretended they were a pirate's cave and I was burying treasure... He remembered. Remembered the touch of old sorrowful hands, pressing against his scalp. Remembered the sight of somber nods, passing one another in the pews and aisles. Remembered the taste of maple syrup, poured over pancakes at a mournful breakfast.


the pancakes at the end are a particularly delicious touch. Once again it's all there: wise old characters, too much pointless description, non-dramatic repetition, and non sequitur at the end. This is perfect literary parody worthy of George Saunders in "My Chivalric Fiasco."  

Tarslaw reaps all the self-perpetuating awards noted in Myers essay, but becomes more and more conflicted as earnest people see his commercial success as literary merit, rather than the hodge podge he knows it is. His character does have sincerity, established in the opening paragraph which is essentially an apology for his actions (we find out at the end this is his confessional memoir, another cliched pulp genre),  but succumbs to envy and perhaps the corrosive effect of capitalism on art. He is left particularly dispirited after encounters with a soulless mystery novelist and a high powered Hollywood producer, only searching for the bottom line.

his big insight is the melding of "art" prose with this bottom line, personified in Preston Brooks and his insufferable books. But he is crushed in a debate with Brooks, who puts him in his place as a cynical upstart unworthy of the world of letters.  He does that by pretentiously reciting a litany of human pain that he himself never experienced. Tarslaw's downfall is actually his sincerity. Brooks knows enough never to give up the game. 


Marian Anderson by Nathan Carterette

today is the 75th anniversary of Marian Anderson sticking it to the Daughters of the American Revolution and giving a concert for 75,000 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial! She didn't sing this but it's a classic recording of her singing, capturing both her intimacy and the drama. the four characters (narrator, father, son, and erlkönig) are amazingly etched out..

Travelogue - Iowa City by Nathan Carterette

Iowa City is like a fantasy theme park for literati. I have never seen one place where so many people who are dedicated to literature obscure and classic are gathered together. Every restaurant, coffee shop, bar we went to was full of people all seemingly versed in the same stuff. It's a fantasy world where everyone has read the latest Iowa review, the poems of Denis Johnson, the journals of David Foster Wallace, and most treacherously each other's writing; on top of that they are ready to discuss it down to the last paragraph, even if it is 2 am at the Foxhunt.

I tried to point this out to my hosts: nobody comes up to me in public to rave about the latest Golijov, or published letters of Ligeti, or whatever. I guess I wish they did. But they just smiled and patted my hand. It's just the way it is for them!

Travelogue - Clarksville by Nathan Carterette

the Others have come south. Clarksville is covered in ice after a sleet storm yesterday.. I was supposed to play the Goldberg Variations at Austin Peay State U, but everything is shut down. 

The other day my father mentioned to me that northerners shouldn't make fun of southrons who seem to freak out at a little dusting of snow. Now I see why, it starts wet then turns to a case of ice. Clarksville is officially a meat freezer right now. 

Bach is off. No great loss for me, I wasn't expecting an Austin Peay shower of gold.  

schoenberg and bach by Nathan Carterette

somewhere along the line, schoenberg provocatively compared his music to mozart's, saying something about how it was more like mozart than not, or that everything he learned as a composer he learned from mozart, or something equally grand. being too literal myself, i took him at face value; once after an open dress rehearsal at severance hall i asked mitsuko uchida (who was playing the schoenberg concerto op.42) what she thought the similarities were; she clearly didn't care for the question but toed the party line herself and said there were a lot, without bothering to enumerate them - probably for the best.

whatever. in truth i haven't found it a useful comparison. in my experience of schoenberg's piano music, it's more useful to compare him to bach, in the way that the polyphony proliferates, and that all the individual voices are melodically or motivically designed. glenn gould's comparison was schoenberg to the franco-flemish masters a hundred years before bach, but bach was in the business of perfecting their arcane techniques anyways, so we'll go with mine.

flipping through schoenberg's 'theory of harmony' the other day - yes, my life is that glamorous - i found a fascinating but incomplete analysis of a chorale from bach's st matthew passion, no25 'Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh' allzeit' (What my God wants, should always happen). it comes in chapter 17, non-harmonic tones, and basically is about how what theory calls 'ornament' or 'passing tone' is sometimes essential to the harmony, or artistry, of the work in question.

schoenberg begins by commenting on how each of the four parts is written melodically, which as i said is pertinent to his own music (thinking especially of op.23). he points out that if you omit what we box in as 'passing tones,' the result would be something of very poor workmanship; he is emphasizing that they are determinative artistic choices. then he points out that the 'passing tones' in the inner voices of the first phrase form chords on their own, that are in dissonance with the tune but engage the poles of the tonality (I, IV, V), and he goes on to relate that to their rhythmic placement, etc.

if we took them as such in analysis, we would find an eleventh chord (e-g-b-d-f#-a) in the third beat, but nobody analyzes like that. i don't think. still, schoenberg's insight is a strong one because he showed how bach's harmony is much more nuanced, and in flux, then rules of theory can convey. i think we instinctively hear this, but to be aware of it is another thing entirely.

playing the preludes and fugues of the well-tempered clavier, i have often found that a so-called 'vertical' approach, that is, thinking in terms of chords rather than individual lines ('horizontal'), is counter-intuitively more useful in achieving the clarity of the individual lines, because after all they have to relate to each other harmonically in the end; they derive their inflection from that relation. his most pungent dissonances tend to be hidden and indirect, either with suspensions or space in range, but they contribute as much as anything to affect and atmosphere and mood.

in the grand coda to the prelude in f# minor book II, there's a tied e# in the middle voice that comes first as in the C# chord, the dominant, but when the other voices land on the downbeat, they form an augmented harmony that is fantastically dissonant (a-e#-c#) and seems to vibrate. yes, the e# easily resolves to f#, but to degrade that chord in our mind to a suspension or passing tone is criminal from an artistic point of view.

well, that's just another reason why i love schoenberg. not many people share that passion, and that's why i find myself blogging about his theory textbook at 4.30 am.


welcome by Nathan Carterette

this is going to be a blog for casual thoughts, and also full-length essays that i write for music i play. those essays are sometimes used as program notes or liner notes or whatnot, so they are more in depth.

my interests are the piano repertoire from the virginal Elizabethan days to the avant garde music of today; as a hobby i read, just to name a few at random: James, Kazantzakis, Faulkner, Mishima, Wodehouse, Tolstoy, Nabokov, and lots of ancient epics such as Nibelungenlied, Homer, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the like. i'll post thoughts about those from time to time.