The Keyboard in My Life
First of all, I’d like to preface this week’s post by apologizing for the snarkier-than-normal tone of my previous entry; I didn’t at all mean it as any kind of derisive comment directed toward the AA, but rather as a comment on my own intense social anxiety and feelings of being “out of place” in an environment that is fortunate to engage some of the most brilliant minds in academics, policy, and the arts on a regular basis. Honestly, it’s a wonderful privilege to be able to have a front row seat to so many of the invited speakers—supreme court justice Stephen Breyer’s talk on the Dred Scott Decision was a particular high point, and on April 29th there’s another talk I’m greatly looking forward to: Eric Holder discusses closing Guantanamo. It takes all kinds of donations and connections to make these events possible, and I think that overcoming some of the inherent awkwardness of these fundraising activities will become absolutely crucial as I transition from young composer to less-young, slightly more experienced composer.
So I’d actually like to base this post off of a really good conversation I ended up having with a dinner guest one night, the kind of dinner guest that I am always excited to talk to: someone who enjoys and is interested in music, but has not pursued it as a professional career—he worked for an architectural firm in Stuttgart, I believe, had briefly played piano as a child, and now continues to enjoy music as a frequent concertgoer. He really wanted to know what kind of music was being written in the States right now, and he also wanted to know how the piano figured into my writing.
I told him that while I can barely play the Bösendorfer upright in my apartment, I’m always happy to use it when actually writing for the piano; but I have a strange habit in that I otherwise prefer to employ a really low-quality electronic keyboard. He found this to be very amusing and so we got into a fruitful discussion about it.
I’ll paraphrase from the conversation my reasons for pursuing this method: first and foremost, when I’m writing music for an instrument that isn’t a piano, I don’t want to get seduced into writing piano music. One way that I’ve found of overcoming the tendency to doodle around on the piano is to use a keyboard so utterly deficient that it can’t be played in a satisfying manner—right now that honor goes to the Giovanni Rollout Keyboard, which is small, travels well, and is guaranteed to be completely worthless in any endeavors approximating musicianship. Sometimes I like to doodle and improvise, but sometimes I like to make sure I’m really visualizing the particular sounds I want and not stumbling into someone else’s sounds just because they come easily to my fingers. In those cases, the rollout keyboard is perfectly adequate for balancing voicings and also ensures I’m not confusing my “performance” sketches with the actual music (not a difficult task when your instrument’s tone is a crass yet expressionless “BUZZ!”)
It felt good to be able to describe a fairly strange-sounding idiosyncrasy to a total stranger and have a remarkably enjoyable conversation as a result; I even learned a lot about how architectural firms operate, information I probably would not have sought out or encountered in everyday life. The point is, whenever we composers can overcome some of our own shyness and reveal something important about ourselves—in other words, when we resist the urge to be “snarky”—we go a long way toward creating an environment in which our own musical interests no longer seem so alien.
Meanwhile, for truly unwanted dinner guests, denizens of Berlin-Wannsee need look no further than the Wildschwein that have become plentiful of late. Remember the Bumpus Hounds in “A Christmas Story”? Wildschwein are kind of like that—they’ll root through anything! They’re becoming such frequent visitors to the AA that the main office has finally decided to crack down.