Comments on Alive! with Music from students, faculty & others.
Comments on James Boyk's other activities.
EE107/Mu17, "Projects in Music & Science"
Music Lessons & Coaching
Alive! with Music, now in its 30th year, is a weekly series of free, casual music/talk sessions open to all, with students specially welcome. Musical knowledge is not required! Meetings are Wednesdays, 4:30 to 6:00 p.m. during term-time. Feel free to arrive late or leave early. Through June, '04, meetings are in Student Activities Center Room 1 (SAC 1), a few steps from the Olive Walk on the Orange Walk. Anyone can show you where it is. It's building #58 on the Caltech map.
Alive! with Music
Informal weekly sessions of music & talk
moderated by Caltech Pianist-in-Residence James Boyk
(Updated November 25, 1999)
Free, Casual & Open to the Public. No musical knowledge required. Held in beautiful Dabney Lounge, at the heart of Caltech, in Pasadena, Wednesdays 4:30 to 6:00 p.m. in term-time. Feel free to arrive late or leave early. All welcome: Caltech'ers and members of the public, musicians and non-musicians, adults and children. (Miv Schaaf of The L.A. Times wrote about her visits.) You are welcome to perform, no matter what your instrument, style or level of play. (Occasionally, a meeting is bumped for a Glee Club rehearsal. To check, email up to the day before. On the day, call x. 6353; from outside Caltech, 626 395-6353.)
Physics major Tony Lee performs Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto in preparation for Caltech/Oxy Orchestra's Concerto Competition.
Shahram "Bob" Ardalan '01 offers a tune for Richard Grayson to improvise on.
Listening to Richard Grayson with concentration, amusement, and incredulity: Christoph Baranec '01, unknown lady, Brigitte Roth '99.
Sarah Okawa plays Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Sonata...
...as her husband, physics post-doc Yuji Okawa, listens with others.
Sean Hardesty '04 performs the Walton Viola Concerto as preparation for his appearance with the Caltech-Oxy orchestra in a month.
Discussing the interpretation with James Boyk. The very able accompanist is Eugenie Ngai.
Dana Sadava '03.
Dana Sadava plays Benjamin Lees.
Post-doc Nathan Dalleska, Eleanor Park '00 and Katie Noyes '00 about to perform the Brahms duet, "Die Schwestern" ("The Sisters").
The performers talking with the class.
The Caltech Quintet performs Shostakovitch. Candace Chang '00 and Arjun Mendiratta '00, violins; Heide Li '96, viola; Todd Murphey, grad student, 'cello; Dan Rogstad '00, piano.
Grad student 'cellist Todd Murphey and violist Heide Li, '96.
Heide Li '96 and listeners.
Listeners and performers interact.
Violin major Elise Dalleska, Boston University '00, performs Bach and Ysaye. (She is the sister of Caltech post-doc pianist Nathan Dalleska. Photo Ben Brantley.)
Elise Dalleska and James Boyk discussing interpretation. Photo Ben Brantley.
Grad student Tina Paulin following the discussion. Photo Ben Brantley.
Working on Beethoven's C Minor piano/violin sonata with Dan Rogstad '00 and Candace Chang '00.
Grad students Mike Vanier and Shanti Rao.
Violinist Candace Chang '00.
These sessions, which I've done since April of 1974, always start from live music and talk; and they attempt to teach people to listen actively, to be "participating listeners," as I say. A group of students from the chamber-music program, for example, played part of a Schubert string quintet and asked those in attendance to help them prepare for an upcoming concert by offering comments. The comments led to ideas for different ways of playing certain passages, which the quintet tried out on the spot. These experiments helped both players and listeners get to know the piece better, and showed vividly how big a difference in musical impact can be created by different ways of playing the same notes.
A week or two later, the 'cellists from the quintet, undergraduate Cyrus Behroozi and grad student Tom Lloyd (a former professional musician), took turns playing a short piece by Bach, then traded 'cellos and played again, so listeners could hear what part of the sound is due to the player and what to the instrument. Everyone was startled at how much was due to the instrument, and a lively discussion ensued, with many requests from listeners that the 'cellists carry out specific experiments. After everyone was satisfied that the 'cello really was important to the sound, then the listeners urged Cyrus and Tom to trade bows while keeping the same 'cellos. This showed that the bow, too, can have a substantial effect on the sound. While we knew that a fine 'cello can cost a lot, we learned in this session that some bows cost $50,000 and more. Odd to pay that much for a curved piece of wood!
Another week, I performed Mozart's sonata in A minor, engaging listeners in a detailed discussion of its mood. (A useful way of addressing this with people unaccustomed to talking about such things is to ask, "If this music is the sound track, what's happening on the screen?") Listeners who had not known the piece previously commented that each movement seemed packed with turbulent and tragic feeling. Then I told them that Mozart wrote this sonata just after the death of his mother.
Guitarists from the USC outreach program have enriched one or two sessions a year. Performers and listeners all remark on how lovely the guitars sound in Dabney--I ask the listeners to move to various positions in the room and report on how the sound differs. This has led to discussions of how room acoustics affect not just musical sound but the interpretation itself; and usually we get into a bit of discussion on what this implies about correct recording technique. (I've started a Q&A forum for music-related audio questions, and another forum for questions from music students and teachers about practicing and teaching; especially from those using my book.)
Several Wednesdays in the last few years have seen installments of my exploration of Prokofiev's piano sonatas nos. 6, 7 & 8. These epic works, known as the "war sonatas," were written simultaneously during 1939-44. They're demanding for both performer and listener, but worth it for their deep meaning and stunning emotional impact. I played them all on one program in October, 1996--now I know why no one else plays them together--and I'm continuing to mix and match each of them with other pieces on more conventional programs, for instance the one I gave in February of 1998.
When we discuss the interpretive process, or anything else for that matter, we always do it interactively, raising interpretive questions and asking the group to answer them. Often we take votes as a way of focusing the issues. "You don't have to be right," I say, "but you must vote!" I think that an untrained listener listens better after voting so as to justify the vote he or she made. It's quite astonishing how sophisticated listeners can become about interpretation and performance with just a bit of practice.
Of course we introduce the importance of whole-body movement, or dance, to all music-making by having everyone get up and move to a performance; and the importance of songlike playing by having people sing a melody in a variety of ways. Thus, even though the group is arranged around the instrument being played, it's always active and interactive, never passive.
When a clarinetist played for the group, someone asked how the instrument would sound if played from the balcony; and the clarinetist walked up and tried it. (It was hauntingly beautiful. One reads that the hull designs of many racing yachts would actually travel faster through the water backwards; perhaps the same is true of some concert halls, that they sound better with performers and listeners reversed!)
We're constantly trying things like this. If a singer has an accompanist, what happens if the piano lid is opened fully instead of partially? Answer: The open lid lets out more of the harmonics in the sound and makes the sound not so much louder as clearer. This lets the pianist achieve the same lucidity while playing softer, and this in turn makes the singer's job easier. Just the opposite of what most singers believe will happen!
In a Brahms trio, a melody is begun by the violin, then taken over smoothly by the 'cello at a point where it's hard to hear the difference between the two instruments. Let's ask the players to switch over a note or two earlieror laterand see if the transition works as well. (It doesn't. Brahms knew what he was doing.)
Anyone may play. Some are advanced, many are not. Once in a while, I give a piano lesson to someone who has never touched the piano before, as a demonstration of how much can be accomplished in one hour. More frequently, I do a 'master class', a sort of public demonstration lesson, with a more advanced player.
A surprising number of Caltech students are accomplished musicians, and a few have gone on to professional careers; for instance, pianist Kathleen Kong and bass-baritone Dean Elzinga, who has sung at the Metropolitan & Glimmerglass Operas. Many students have a serious interest in playing, or in listening intelligently.
Here is some of what we heard during 1997-1998:
Oct. 8: Caltech post-doc Jindrich Zapletal played his own compositions.
Oct. 15: Caltech grad student Shanti Rao performed the "Variations on a Hungarian Song" by Brahms, and we discussed this unusual and seldom-heard piece. We also heard the improvement made to the acoustics of Dabney Lounge by 50 square feet of sound-absorbing material placed to reduce the 'slap' of end-to-end reflection.
Oct. 22: French hornist Brian Drake of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and pianist T. J. Lymenstull of the USC faculty performed an entire recital, including works by Beethoven, Dukas, Shmidt & Heiden.
Oct. 29: Professional clarinetist Margaret Thornhill and I performed & discussed Weber's Grand Duo Concertant, an operatic, virtuoso extravaganza in three movements.
Nov. 5: The group and I completed our exploration of Schubert's heart-breaking Impromptus, Opus 90.
Nov. 12: A marriage made in heaven the sound of classical guitars in the acoustics of Dabney Lounge. USC student and faculty musicians performed.
Nov. 19: Caltech senior Evan Tsang performed Chopin's noble Polonaise in A-flat & one of the Nocturnes for a master class with me.
Nov. 26: Beethoven the Magician: I played & discussed Beethoven's last work for piano, the Six Bagatelles, Opus 126. "Nothing fancy," says Beethoven, "nothing up my sleeve; yet I will move you to tears and laughter."
In January I devoted a series of meetings to familiarizing attendees with the music of my upcoming February 15 recital. The idea of really living with, and gaining intimacy with, great pieces of music is no longer a familiar one in our culture; and the chance to hear the same program repeatedly in a setting which invites discussion of the experience can be precious. Those who attended these sessions commented vigorously on how much more deeply they experienced the concert itself.
Another example came up when clarinetist Margaret Thornhill and I brought in a concert program we were preparing. One of the works on the program, Weber's "Grand Duo Concertant," was written in 1816, and the instruments of that day, both piano and clarinet, were quite different from modern ones. The physical and resulting sonic differences create performance problems that are fascinating, and turn what must have always been a difficult piece into one that some regard as impossible. (That is, it would have been easier to play on the correct "period" instruments.)
The last work on the program was the Brahms Sonata in F Minor (sometimes heard in the version Brahms wrote for viola instead of clarinet). It is a gem of close-worked beauty, like an exquisite small silk Oriental rug. It's only the second work by Brahms I've ever performed. I've always agreed with George Bernard Shaw that "Brahms is nothing but a sentimental voluptuary with a wonderful ear," but a piece like this one is bringing me around to a different point of view.
Alumnus Alexander Zeyliger '95, of northern California, came back to campus to give a song recital just for Alive! with Music. It was a special treat to hear the Russian language so beautifully sung, and it was delightful for me to see a Caltech alum, working full-time in a technical field, pursuing musical art so actively and with results so satisfying to himself and his listeners.
Copyright © James Boyk 1997, 1998, 1999. All rights reserved.
Photos: Bob Paz, Caltech, except as noted.