This week I finally went to see The Music of Strangers, the 2015 documentary about the Silk Road Ensemble, the world-fusion band created some years ago by cellist Yo Yo Ma.The music is an enchanting mix of east, west, north and south, classical and jazz… and, understandably, it took some time for the group, and the music, to coalesce.
A former child prodigy, it turns out that the most famous cello player in the world never really felt like the author of his own destiny. (His son reports growing up thinking his dad worked at Boston’s Logan Airport, since he was always going there.) Hence the search for something more than his decades of concert touring, resulting in the Silk Road Ensemble. The group aims to promote cultural awareness and harmony through touring and education initiatives intended to bring comfort and understanding to a hurting world.
When I told my 21-year-old daughter I was going to see the film, she recalled Ma’s appearance in the kids’ animated series Arthur, in which the character D.W. addresses Ma as “Yo Mama!” (I still think Arthur was the best-written children’s show ever made.) Ma also appeared on Mr. Rogers’ Neighbourhood, and the delightful clip is included in the film.
The Music of Strangers also goes into some depth to profile its various members, including Kayhan Kalhor, master of the Persian kamancheh, a stringed instrument played like a cello (though quite different in both appearance and sound). Kalhor is a tragic figure, for whom the plight of his Iranian family and countrymen is etched in the lines on his face. He rarely smiles, and we are happy for him when we learn that he has married… though eventually it is decided that he cannot live in Iran with his bride, and theirs becomes a Skype marriage.
In the film, Kalhor’s sadness is contrasted with the exuberance of Spaniard Cristina Pato, who plays Galician bagpipes. You read that right–bagpipes, from Spain. She is one of only three women in the ensemble of seventeen (really, Yo Yo? that’s all you could find?), but her feminine charisma, shall we say, more than compensates. If you doubt that a woman can look sexy playing the bagpipes, check this out! (One wonders how the men stay focused on their scores.)
Kalhor and Pato and the other ensemble members are all passionate about preserving and furthering their instrument’s heritage, and their association with Ma and ensemble has brought them to world prominence. This video showcases both Pato and Kalhor and gives the flavour of this wonderful mix of artists and musical styles.
All that’s missing is a Hardanger fiddle player.
Another treat from my visit to Oslo this summer was a delightful demonstration of folk dancing accompanied by traditional Norwegian fiddle-playing at the Norsk Folkemuseum.
Having recently started learning to play the fiddle myself, I have become fascinated by the Hardanger fiddle, or hardingfele, which is a thing of stunning beauty, as well as, apparently, being very difficult to learn to play (and quite unlike a regular violin). The women pictured above took turns playing (both expertly) while the other performed a traditional dance with the young man in the trio, who also played two other instruments while the ladies danced.
The hardingfele is usually ornately decorated, with mother of pearl inlay on the fingerboard and tailpiece and black ink designs on the body. In addition to the usual four strings of a violin, there are four or five strings underneath, which resonate in sympathy with the top strings. Many different tunings are used, depending on the region and the requirements of the piece. Much of Grieg’s music is infused with elements of these folk tunes, and according to Wikipedia (my main source of information so far), Grieg wrote pieces for the hardingfele as part of the score for his Peer Gynt suite.
I wasn’t quick enough to capture the mini-presentation on the hardingfele the day I was there, but, fortunately, someone filmed the same young woman demonstrating this remarkable instrument on another occasion, and posted it on YouTube. I invite you to take a look here.
The highlight of my summer was a trip back to Oslo, Norway with my three kids (two teenagers and a 21-year-old), where I lived for four charmed years in the early-1970s. My piano teacher, Hilde Ringlund (pictured above), at the time a student at Norway’s Academy of Music, is now deputy principal of this august institution. And last month we met again for the first time in 42 years! Hilde served us a traditional Norwegian lunch and gave us a tour of this wonderful place, where we also met some of her colleagues.
Hilde was an excellent teacher, and it was wonderful to see her again and to hear about her life. She introduced me to the music of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, which I have loved ever since. Hilde played for us Grieg’s Nocturne, Opus 54 No. 4… and then I sat down to play Halling, Opus 38, No. 4. (Nervy, I know. I couldn’t resist the chance to play a Hamburg Steinway D!)
I’m excited to revive my blog, and I look forward to sharing interesting piano-related content more frequently, starting today, with this fascinating article from Clavier Companion on how piano tone is (and is not) achieved.
Author Chad Twedt explains why esoteric theories about how a pianist can create a richer, subtler tone by, for example, moving his fingers in towards the backs of the keys as s/he plays, are, essentially, nonsense. The truth is, the the pianist can not change the timbre of a note without also affecting its volume. The physics of this are very simple: playing the key harder (i.e. depressing the key faster) sends the hammer to the string more quickly, which produces more volume. And vice versa — playing more softly results in the hammer striking the key more slowly, which produces less volume. Thanks to pianos’ escapement mechanism (also known as “letoff”), the final eighth-of-an-inch that the hammer travels towards the string is achieved under the momentum created by the player, but at that point it’s floating towards the hammer independently of the player’s control. It matters not whether the key is struck at the front or the back. Fascinating stuff!
It reminds me of another piece of piano-related nonsense I heard recently from a professional singer, who tried to tell me that the two outside strings of the 3-string notes in a piano’s high treble are purposely slightly de-tuned to create a “vibrato,” similar to a singer’s vibrato. (He didn’t know that I’m a piano technician. I politely informed him that every tech’s goal is always to tune those three strings in perfect unison!)
Read the article here.
This is a very special piano for the discerning performer. If you know of anyone who may be interested, I invite you to contact me at the contact link above. Thank you!
First of all, we are very sorry if you were affected by the recent flooding!
Obviously pianos and water or not a good combination! A piano that was actually sitting in water will need some attention and we are able to help you assess and determine the amount if damage, estimate to repair and determine if it is worth the repair cost.
The last thing you want is your piano drying out too fast! DO NOT use a heater or blow dryer in anyway as you will destroy your piano!
Even if your piano was not sitting in water, the exposure to the humidity alone can have serious impact on a piano! Watch your piano carefully, make note of changes that you observe or hear. It can take 6 months or longer for the real impact to become apparent!
Please call us if you have questions or concerns.
from Michael Lipnicki Fine Pianos, Calgary
I’m back! I know, it’s been a while. I was inspired to get back to my blog when my sister sent me this wonderful YouTube video. Enjoy!
Here’s an interesting article from The Atlantic on people whose work, when done right, usually goes unheralded. The main examples cited are magazine fact-checkers and anaesthesiologists…. but there is also a paragraph about Peter Stumpf, the piano technician for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Enjoy!
On the afternoon of February 16, heading out to a tuning, I turned on the car radio to hear the CBC’s Tom Allen introduce Grieg’s “Gangar,” also known as Norwegian March, from the Lyric Pieces, Opus 54, No. 2.
I let out a great whoop of joy and turned the volume up full blast, because this is one of my favourite pieces, and it is seldom heard. (Thank you so much, Tom–you made my day.)
This piece has great significance for me. In 1972 my parents and I moved to Oslo, where my father took up the post of Canadian Forces Attache at the Canadian embassy for four years. I was eleven.
We moved into a fabulous 5-bedroom chalet-style house on the side of Holmenkollen mountain. I’d been taking piano lessons for a few years, and started studying with Hilde Ringlund, a student at the University of Oslo, and a most excellent teacher.
I did play a couple of the lyric pieces for Hilde, but not this one; it was a little too advanced for me at the time. However, there was a family on our street named the Evensens (I believe the father was of Norwegian descent, though they were from Denver), with two teenagers, Nancy and Erik, who were both pianists. I got to know Nancy well, since she often babysat me when my parents went to diplomatic functions in the evenings. I also hung out with her and Erik at their house, where they had a grand piano which was painted antique green! (It was the seventies.)
Gangar is the only piece I remember them playing, which is curious to me now. I had never heard it before, and I loved it immediately. As in so much of Grieg’s work, the influence of Norwegian folk music is very evident. I did once visit Grieg’s home, Troldhaugen (now a museum) on a holiday trip to Bergen with my parents, but my memory of it is dim.
I continued my piano studies at boarding school in England, and later in Ottawa, though I wasn’t much for Conservatory exams, and like so many people, I always struggled with practising. By age 15 I had packed it in. Twenty-five years later I bought my Heintzman and started playing again. I had never played Gangar, but I had never forgotten it… and so I searched it out, found it in the Schirmer edition of the Lyric Pieces, and started learning to play it. I never really mastered it, but I still derive great pleasure from trying! And it remains my all-time favourite Grieg piece. I realize its power for me is entirely connected to my memories of Norway. My mother and I often went to concerts at the Munch and Vigelands museums in Oslo.
I found two recordings of Gangar on YouTube. The first one is pretty good; I like the tempo, and the performer’s notes about his interpretation. The second is by the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter from a concert he gave in Greece in 1993. (He died in 1997.) I find Richter’s tempo a bit lugubrious; but I do prefer his way of playing the ornaments. The other fellow starts them right on the downbeat, which to me is too early, and takes away from the charm of the syncopation. (If you listen to them one after the other, you’ll see what I mean.)
Thanks to the Bergen Public Library for the use of this lovely photo of Grieg and his wife Nina playing a duet. (According to Wikipedia, the piano is a Steinway, and was a silver wedding anniversary gift to the Griegs. I wonder what he played and composed on previously?)
I’m filing this one under Inventive Uses for Dead Pianos. (And Guitars.) It needs no further commentary. Enjoy!