The Keyboard in My Life

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.


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3 thoughts on “The Keyboard in My Life

  1. coreydargel

    I’m sad to see you back down from your earlier post. The AA needs to know how difficult it can be to make it through a long event at which you are forced to interact with a random variety of strangers (while knowing that these strangers provide critical support for the AA). How stressful!

    The AA ought to sit at least two residents/fellows together at each table, so you don’t feel alone. And they ought to find out from each of you what your interests are (besides music) and decide who you’re sitting with based on your interests, not based on some arbitrary system. Or they should provide you with information about the people you’ll be sitting next to in advance, so that you can do a little research and not feel lost in the conversations.

  2. pgblu

    I don’t want to stir the pot too much here, but I for one was glad to see your apology, which was both called-for and graciously handled.

    If you’re surrounded by people who don’t share your interests, isn’t that an opportunity to learn about something new? To see it as a situation to be feared is, I think, a real shame. To see it as something to be mocked is, I think, kind of snotty.

  3. Kyle Werner

    Dan, I was very interested to hear about your use of the keyboard. I do something very similar: I have an old Yamaha MIDI keyboard from the mid 90’s. I’m looking at it now – it sits right by my computer here on my desk. I too find that its utter expressive feebleness allows me to use it as a compositional tool, not as a vehicle for writing pianistic music. Many people, especially old composers, talk about how Finale/Sibelius’ midi playback has a terrible influence on composers. However, I think composing with an acoustic piano holds similar pitfalls when composing for instruments other than the piano. There is no substitute for a good imagination and “inner ear”; but when I need a little help finding the notes, the nasty old keyboard is just the right tool for the job.


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