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Undine and Understanding

It’s been a while! Here’s a new piano recording. Maurice Ravel’s Ondine, a beautiful oneiric piece about a water nymph attempting to seduce you to the bottom of a lake…

(It begins ppp – those glistening pianississimo waters – you may need to turn up the volume. Cell phone speakers not recommended.)

It’s one of my all-time favorite pieces in solo piano repertoire. There’s a few things to explore in this entry, from the music of this specific piece to bigger picture questions – such as why do I do any of this?

As a computer-scientist-turned-pianist roaming the planet interacting with other humans with as varied backgrounds, it turns out not everyone I encounter appreciates or understands classical music, or cares to. However, if you’re curious enough to ask why someone would devote her life to the art of piano playing, or want to discover how to enrich your existence in this universe via an old art but just don’t know how, I’ll unpack that below.

First, about the recording I posted above.

Ondine is the first in a famous suite of three pieces, Gaspard de la Nuit, often considered one of the most difficult pieces in standard piano repertoire. The other two, Le Gibet and Scarbo are absolutely gorgeous as well, far darker and crazed at times, demanding virtuosity in different flavors. I often play the whole set in live performances because it’s just so much fun. Perhaps I’ll record and upload those at some point as well.

Gaspard is an incredible composition, in classical form but with richly post-impressionistic aspects, compelling storytelling, and amazing colors and harmonies unique to Ravel’s neo-classical aesthetic. Written in 1909, it’s based on a series of three poems by Aloysius Bertrand. Here’s the poem Ondine:

( … … . . I thought I heard
A faint harmony that enchants my sleep.
And close to me radiates an identical murmur
Of songs interrupted by a sad and tender voice.

Ch. Brugnot – The two Spirits)

» Listen! – Listen! – It is I, it is Ondine who brushes drops of water on the resonant panes of your windows lit by the gloomy rays of the moon; and here in gown of watered silk, the mistress of the chateau gazes from her balcony on the beautiful starry night and the beautiful sleeping lake.

» Each wave is a water sprite who swims in the stream, each stream is a footpath that winds towards my palace, and my palace is a fluid structure, at the bottom of the lake, in a triangle of fire, of earth and of air.

» Listen! – Listen! – My father whips the croaking water with a branch of a green alder tree, and my sisters caress with their arms of foam the cool islands of herbs, of water lilies, and of corn flowers, or laugh at the decrepit and bearded willow who fishes at the line. »

Her song murmured, she beseeched me to accept her ring on my finger, to be the husband of an Ondine, and to visit her in her palace and be king of the lakes.

And as I was replying to her that I loved a mortal, sullen and spiteful, she wept some tears, uttered a burst of laughter, and vanished in a shower that streamed white down the length of my blue stained glass windows.

Can you hear the isomorphism with the music? From the opening, to the progression of streams, to the rejection, weeping, and sudden burst of laughter and streaming splash of vanishment at the end?

Ondine is one of those pieces which instantly resonated with me on first encounter. Immediately I decided I needed it, to absorb it into my being. I was filled with frisson listening as well as playing it. Those beautiful melodies, the rising and falling images of the watery world, the trickling intervals and climax in the middle, the story as well as the technical challenge…

When I love pieces in this way, I learn them quite rapidly, at a velocity surprising to many pianists. I may have lucked out on having a sort of neuroplasticity reasonably suited to the task. At age 17, Ondine took me 5 days from first reading to complete memorization. I recall having essentially breathed it nonstop in those days. (Side note: it seems that the more I exercise the neuroplasticity muscle, the more neuroplasticity I gain. For instance, I learned Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto in 3 weeks, and after that I learned Tchaikovsky’s 1st in 2 weeks. Hopefully someday I’ll be able to learn scores simply by reading them on a flight or something – I hear legendary tales of the rare pianist who can do such a thing).

Over the years, I’ve gradually refined Gaspard de la Nuit while working on countless other pieces and growing musically. This will be a lifetime journey.

The current rendition has reached some level of polish, in which the technical execution and interpretation has finally passed my personal threshold where I’m willing to record it, but it could of course be better. It’s likely I’ll upload a different, ideally improved, recording of this same piece somewhere down the line to note any progress.

So. Why do I do any of this?

Because music is great and I love it.

Because I want to experience and share the raw emotional, intellectual, and spiritual power of this music.

Because I believe the experience of great music opens our mind to fresh and powerful post-linguistic ways of thinking and relating, not limited to the constraints of mere words, and empowers everything else we do in life.

Because it brings us closer to mastering ourselves and understanding each other.

Because whenever people line up to thank me after a concert, sometimes tears in their eyes, telling me how much I’ve improved their day, that itself already makes everything worth it.

Some may think this pursuit is frivolous. Some folks from non-musical communities, like the activist, security, and other tech communities I’ve engaged with, don’t understand why I’d put this much time, indeed a lifetime, into this old inscrutible art. Some falsely enlightened people have been confused or even grown upset at me for spending so much of my time and resources on classical music when the world is on fire. But I would have to say that it’s precisely because the world is on fire that it’s ever more important to bring beauty into it.

Yes, put out the fires, prevent the self-destruction of civilization – and I strive to do my part whenever possible (sometimes excessively, which I’ve learned from) – however, if your circumstances allow, there is no reason to then deny yourself the experience of art and creation. To deny like this is a form of suicide. It reduces the agility of the mind and spirit, squanders talent and time, and fosters unfulfillment and ineffectiveness in the long run.

Attention spans are at an all-time low, and instant gratification is now mandatory. Classical music requires the opposite indeed, which is likely why it seems inaccessible to many. It demands much of the mind, but as a result, strengthens it. Yes, we don’t have the modern prescribed 3 minutes 30 seconds – sometimes it’s 30 minutes, or even hours. Sometimes we have strange dissonances and uncomfortable tensions, sprawling structures that are hard to grasp or tap ones toes to. But the reward is magnitudes greater.

It’s true that classical piano involves a giant, expensive, and impractical contraption that is also essentially a piece of luxury furniture, and that the practice of pianism requires tremendous time and energy which implies tremendous privilege. It’s true that it’s steeped in higher-privileged culture and has the same historical baggage of other disciplines dominated by the legacies of dead white men. There are certainly issues there. However, as a person with very different background and trajectory, (mind you, if you think I’m just another girl who had asian parents forcing her into piano, you are very mistaken on many levels) my existence, and success, may allow opportunity to shift the culture.

In any case, music remains beautiful. It doesn’t care about things like your skin color or gender identity (though in the music itself, sometimes motifs and other musical devices might offer feminine or masculine characters as part of the musical narrative). Age of the performer might influence the effectiveness of the performance in terms of emotional depth, and certainly being alive rather than dead greatly assists with the act of music-making. For pianists, having 10 fingers is recommended, but sometimes even 5 works. Other than that, music is just intrinsic and universal.

Anyhow, I hope this has helped create some shared understanding somewhere.

So what about that recording above, and what’s my plan now?

After quite some time engaged with mustachianism and lots of luck, I’ve accumulated sufficient privilege and arranged my affairs (AKA peaced out from the tech dayjob) such that I don’t need to worry about capitalism for a little while. I’m very grateful for my current circumstances which allow me to focus on practicing and performing. So I’m going to focus on making the world more beautiful, sharing my performances on the internet as well as live. The rest of the time, rather than be drained from a dayjob, I get to take better care of myself, by doing things like exercise, read lots more books, and have time to deposit words upon a blog such as I’m doing right now.

It does feel really good to finally get a recording up. There’s been some delay with construction and other projects, but now I finally have a music studio somewhat acceptable for making recordings. If you observe my older videos, you may notice a drastic shift in production quality. Hopefully this continues to improve as I learn and gain more experience with the equipment and methods involved in producing video recordings. There might be another post on the way illustrating the music room construction adventure.

This Summer, I will experiment with recording in many different ways, with a goal of posting a recording every week. If you like my piano playing, and want to see more online, certainly feel free to subscribe and click those little thumbs-up buttons. It’d be quite encouraging as I figure out the whole YouTube thing. The internet’s pretty neat!

Now it’s time to go practice.


Last updated on May 22, 2017

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Last Update: 2017-05-22 00:00 UTC