Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Welcome to my new blog! Actually ... I'm still constructing and working on the design of this space. It should be all up and running by the end of November.

My name is Michael Arnowitt. I am a pianist in Montpelier, Vermont in the USA and will be sharing here my thoughts on classical and jazz music, along with, from time to time, my views on the occasional non-music topic.

These posts will hopefully give you a fly-on-the-wall view of what it's like to be a concert pianist. You'll get a sense of my journey as I prepare music for performance and then take it on the road. I'll try to relate some of the more interesting experiences that I have both on and off stage ... as they say, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The title of my blog, Sweet Spontaneous, is from an e.e. cummings poem that I like very much. Naturally, the word "spontaneous" also refers to my growing interest in improvisation.

As a teaser, here are some of the subjects I am currently writing up to be the first few blogposts. You can also visit my web-site at www.MApiano.com where I have already posted some of my essays and articles from past years.

Upcoming blog topics

1. Musings on Mozart
I recently had the great good fortune to perform one of the very best piano concertos of all time, Mozart's Concerto no. 23 in A major, K. 488. I had learned this piece as a student, but had not performed it since my teenage years. As the summer months went by that led up to my performances this past September, I was struck by many beautiful details I missed on the first go-round, in particular in the area of orchestration: the subtle ways the piano interacts with the strings and woodwinds are a side to Mozart's genius I hadn't fully appreciated. This blog post also will discuss my practice of improvising the soloist cadenza (moments where the orchestra is completely silent), my feelings on how to do this and how not to do it, and a description of how it went over at the concerts.

2. Olivier Messiaen's World of Birds
My practice time the last few months was mainly devoted to working on two pieces by the French composer Olivier Messiaen, one a piece called "The Robin" written in 1985 and another a piece about the creation of the universe, part of his masterpiece Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jesus (20 Views on the Child-Jesus), composed in 1944, a fascinating piece depicting the big bang, spiral galaxies, thunderbolts, stalactites, carillon bells, and the kitchen sink. This blog entry will explore what I learned about the music while practicing, and how I tried to realize these interpretive ideas in performance.

3. Celebratiing the Rats?
Comments on our rush-rush society and how the live concert experience can offer an refreshing antidote, although many performers of today have an unfortunate "breathless" style that I feel is unconsciously affected by their frantic environment. I'll write here thoughts on everything from music performance philosophy to cell phones, Twitter, media, and more.

4. John Cage and the Sounds of Silence
One of the most famous pieces, or perhaps non-pieces, of the twentieth century, was John cage's 4'33". For some reason I recently was reminded of some experiences I had performing this piece about 25 years ago.

5. Painting and Music
I recently started doing some experimental performances combining my piano improvisations with the simultaneous live creation of paintings by some of my artist friends. I'll write here some thoughts I have about what might be the parallel elements in a painting canvas and a piano performance, plus a look at Paul Klee and other artists of the early twentieth century who tried to create musical elements in their artwork.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The 10 best classical pieces of the past millennium

by Michael Arnowitt

Here's a list of great pieces of the past thousand years - for the most part, I selected compositions that were either extremely influential on the future development of music, or pieces that were high points of their eras.

At some point I'll try to post here a few personal thoughts on each piece's significance and why it made my top 10. But for now, here's the list and I invite your comments.

Believe me, it wasn't easy to pick Bach or Beethoven's greatest piece.

Back in 2000 I was artistic director of the Vermont Millennium Music Festival, a novel event that presented in chronological order representative music from the year 1000 to the year 2000. It was quite an adventure to research all the nooks and crannies of music history and I definitely came away from the experience with a great admiration for how much incredible music composers have created, and continue to create. As a performer, I try to support composers and their ongoing magic act picking notes out of the air, taking their ephemeral thoughts and sensations and turning them through the language of music into something that can move and touch others.

1. Hildegard - Symphonia (composed 1140's)
2. Perotin - Viderunt omnes (composed c. 1198)
3. Guillaume de Machaut - Messe de Nostre Dame (composed mid-1300's)
4. Thomas Tallis - Spem in alium, for 40 solo voices (1573)
5. Claudio Monteverdi - Orfeo (1607)
6. Johann Sebastian Bach - Brandenburg Concertos (1717-1721)
7. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - String Quintet in G minor, K. 516 (1787)
8. Ludwig van Beethoven - Symphony no. 3 "Eroica" (1803)
9. Igor Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring (1911-1913)
10. Olivier Messiaen - Quartet for the End of Time (1940)


Favorite food flavors

Here are some of my favorite flavors, with the most favorite near the top of the list.

1. raspberry
2. chocolate
3. sesame
4. turmeric
5. almond
6. sour cream
7. balsamic vinegar
8. coarse freshly ground black pepper
9. whipped cream
10. mango

As you can see, I like comfort foods in the dairy, fruit, and sweets departments, plus some of the aromatics and spicy and smooth foods that stimulate your tongue.

I heard the jazz singer Diane Reeves duck an interviewer's standard question of what other musicians do you like to listen to these days with a reply that she was really getting into cooking. I wish I had any culinary talent, but I'm just a terrible cook ... but a most appreciative eater. In fact, just thinking about my food top 10 is getting me hungry!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

My 10 favorite jazz recordings of all time

My 10 favorite jazz

by Michael Arnowitt

1. Mingus Ah Um
This album has for me the perfect balance of free-blowing improvisation and artistic written-out music, forward-driving swing anchored by Mingus' bass and Dannie Richmond's dynamic drumming and calm repose. Mingus takes the raw wail of the blues and moves it far beyond the usual cliche, back to its expressive roots as the cry of a people.

2. Any recording by the pianist Art Tatum (your choice)
He was the most imaginative pianist ever, by a good margin, and was particularly sensitive to piano textures, creating innovative new sounds using particular regions of the piano. Sadly, most pianists then and now keep their left and right hands locked in the same general place from beginning to end. Tatum's hands were liberated, not self-imposed prisoners.

3. Empyrean Isles
Most jazz players are into simple self-expression. It is the superior musicians who really listen to each other and once in a while a combo comes together with a perfect balance of voices and styles so the whole truly becomes greater than the sum of its parts. This album, with Herbie Hancock (one of my favorite pianists of all time), Freddie Hubbard (one of my favorite trumpeters of all time), and Tony Williams (my absolute favorite drummer of all time) is one such miracle album: I only wish they had recorded it in the days of CDs so they would have had more space to record more tunes.

4. Aura (Miles Davis)
I could say this is my all-time favorite Miles album, but I rather suspect he didn't play a large role in its evolution. It's an amazing suite of pieces, each a depiction of a particular color.

5. Ella Fitzgerald - Here Comes Charlie
An absolutely amazing small combo album. Ella is my favorite jazz singer. To me she has the perfect vibrato, not too much, not too little, and her ability to jump from any note in her range instantly to any other note with absolute solidity of tone made her the finest vocal improviser we have yet had. Her version of "You're My Thrill" on this recording is outstanding.

6. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers - The Jazz Messengers (1956)
I've always been a big Art Blakey fan. This great recording near the beginning of his career with the Jazz Messengers features the quicksilver bop trumpet lines of Donald Byrd. The group is incredibly together: Blakey's drumming provides the group both its energy fuel and its cohesive center.

7. The best of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross
This is just a plain fun compilation of this one-of-a-kind vocal trio who put humorous words to famous instrumental solos. Jon Hendricks' exciting, super-agile performances on "Cottontail" and "" are out of this world.

8. The best of Clifford Brown
I know, I know, everybody's favorite trumpeter these days is Miles. Not me. I'll take Clifford Brown any day of the week. His amazing cross-country rides on the trumpet are pure life-giving. OK, there's a trend here ... Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, Clifford Brown - to me, the great virtuosos are not at all "less deep" than the others, but rather the incredible excitement and imagination their superlative skills could tap into give me a musical thrill

9. Portrait in Jazz
I have to agree with the common widsom that Bill Evans' greatest recordings were his early ones. Hif first trio with Scotty LaFaro and Paul Motian has so many incredible cuts on it, featuring the trio's amazing listening skills and some of the best upright bass playing ever recorded, diverse playing in all regions of the instrument and an unparalleled balance of rhythmic activity and calmer longer notes. No wonder Evans was depressed when LaFaro died tragically at such an early age.

10. Bobby McFerrin - The Voice
This live solo album has to be heard to be believed. McFerrin is a one-man band, singing bass line, melody, and comping fragments all by himself with a wonderful spontaneity.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Favorite poets

Here is a list of some of my favorite poets.

1. Anna Akhmatova
2. Rainer Maria Rilke
3. e.e. cummings
4. William Shakespeare (more in the plays than the poems)

These are really my big 4, but here are a few more poets I might also put on my short list:

5. Gertrude Stein
6. Ted Hughes
7. Stéphane Mallarmé
8. Dylan Thomas

I guess you get the idea. Most of the poetry that attracts me is rich in imagery and sensitive to the sounds of the words and the cadence of the phrases. The exact meaning or storyline often escapes me as I tend to get overly focused on the sensory aspects of the pictoral and aural elements of the lines, and how they change through time as the poem progresses. Being a musician, time, rhythm, and sound are naturally always on my mind.

You might want to check out my description of a new lecture-demonstration I have created, called "The Music of Poetry."

Monday, November 16, 2009

The 10 best classical composers of the past millennium

by Michael Arnowitt

OK, I admit a more accurate title would have been "My 10 favorite composers of the past millennium." My friend the composer Dennis Bathory-Kitsz used to teach a music appreciation class for adults and he once decided to ask all the participants to bring in their favorite record for the next class. Much to his surprise, two people brought in discs by Delius.

So, yes there are a few on my top ten list that I can't honestly say are objectively one of the ten best composers of the past thousand years, but happen to be incredible personal favorites of mine. And conversely, I decided to omit a few possible choices of composers who were among the very best, but I just don't have any affinity for their music myself.

I selected these composers on the following criteria, from most important to least important:

- overall quality
- personal affinity
- historical importance in and around their own time
- influence on composers who lived far after their time

I couldn't bring myself to rank these choices, so just listed them in chronological order.

1. Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377)
2. Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1410-1497)
3. Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594)
4. William Byrd (1543-1623)
5. J.S. Bach (1685-1750)
6. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
7. Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
8. Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
9. Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)
10. György Ligeti (1923-2006)

Honorable mentions to the Top 10
Pérotin (c. 1200)
Josquin Desprez (c.1440-1521)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

If I had to pick the greatest all time classical composers from my top 10, I would probably choose Bach and Beethoven. Bach, for he was not only the greatest and most joyful writer of counterpoint ever, but he also figured out how to write a strong bass line (every ppop song of today owes a debt to Bach) and even more importantly, he is the model for how a melody in the treble should interact with a bass line. Beethoven also would make my all-time Top 2 because he was the first to put forward the idea that a composer's primary impulse should be their own individual persona rather than their social environment such as religion, the court, dance, theater, or any other externality. The miracle is that Beethoven's anti-social nature and turning inward produced music that was truuly universal, and that has been the model for most composers ever since - the hope is that by digging deep into your soul you will be paradoxically better able to connect with others, perhaps akin to the thought of the ancient Chinese Taoist Chuang-Tzu that you can see the whole world by staying in your room.