In my last blog entry I focused on ways in which we can preserve our waterways, and protect our clean water, highlighting the piece “Mountain Stream” by Bonnie McLarty. Another of my favorite pieces in the Mother Earth project also features a beautiful waterway: the delightful Dunbar Creek that runs through the Laurel Highlands, just an hour or so east of Pittsburgh where I live. Robert Schultz, who nurtures a passion for fly fishing in this region, wrote a spectacular piece that portrays the journey of water—ever onward and forward, never passing the same place twice. The piece explores the peaceful eddies, as well as the rambunctious rapids and waterfalls that can be found along the length of Dunbar Creek. We see sparkling splashes, smooth-flowing areas, calm lulls, and places where the water is crushing, pulsing, and crashing over rocks in its path.
I, for one, would love to see Dunbar Creek—and all streams and rivers everywhere—to be protected against toxic contamination, irresponsible waste-water dumping from fracking, pollution from plastics and other garbage. We need to protect the beauty of these wild places, and we also need to protect the cleanliness of our drinking water. See my last blog post for links to more information about this issue, and what we can do to help solve it.
Visions of Dunbar was first premiered and recorded by pianist Tina Faigen on the 2006 album of Schultz’s original compositions and transcriptions. The album bears as its title the name of this same piece, Visions of Dunbar, and can be purchased on all major platforms.
Pittsburghers are lucky enough to be the first to hear several of Schultz’s brand new works in an upcoming concert on April 20, 2019. This program will feature the World Premiere of three new Schultz works with performances by pianist Tina Faigen, as well as soprano Anna Singer, clarinetist Mary Beth Malek, cellist Paula Tuttle, and pianist Walter Morales.
Additionally, the program is presented as a Music for Food event by Chatham University so all donations will benefit this musician-led initiative for local hunger relief.
Schultz, Faigen & Friends 2019
Saturday April 20, 3:00 PM
James Laughlin Music Bldg.
8 Songs for Soprano and Piano Op. 50 (poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay)
Anna Singer, soprano / Tina Faigen, piano
Trio for Piano, Clarinet and Cello, Op. 52
Tina Faigen, piano / Mary Beth Malek, clarinet / Paula Tuttle, cello
Finale for 1 Piano - 4 Hands, Op. 47
Tina Faigen and Walter Morales, piano
And for Pittsburghers reading this post, you can also hear Schultz's Visions of Dunbar at my Mother Earth CD release concert and party (details below).
Mother Earth CD release concert and party / Becky Billock, piano
Sunday, April 28, 2019
Levy Hall, Rodef Shalom
4905 Fifth Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15213
Advance tickets: $10 general / $5 student
At the door: $15 / $5
“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”
--British poet W. H. Auden
I’m a water drinker. Those who know me know that I’m REALLY a water drinker. Sometimes if I’m out with friends and I want to be a bit festive, then I kick it up several notches and order sparkling water! Once after being asked what I would like to drink, a friend overheard me say, “Just water, please.” Just water? she said. No, no, no, you have to say, “Water is my drink of choice!” Indeed, water is my drink of choice.
Beyond the obvious life-sustaining necessity of drinking water, I love being near water in nature. Give me a lake, a pond, a stream, a river. Or if I’m in a city, a fountain will do. In particular, hiking along a mountain stream is one of exquisite pleasures of my life. Not only do you have the sound of the water, pressing its way between boulders, splashing and sparkling in the sun, gurgling between clumps of moss, but there’s also the wonderful reassurance that with a stream close by, we can refill our drinking supply at any time.
The other day I was practicing Mountain Stream from Bonnie McLarty’s Pole Mountain Suite, with visions of various mountain streams that I love burbling around in my head. The idea of putting together a video collage featuring Bonnie’s piece came to me as a sudden inspiration. I wrote to Bonnie right away and she responded enthusiastically about the idea. This video is a result of that day’s creative impulses.
Given my love affair with water, it’s very disturbing to think about how careless humans are with this precious resource. Around 80 percent of our wastewater is dumped untreated back into our waterways, causing disease and pollution that effects human health as well as that of wildlife. One of the most thorough articles I’ve read about the pressing issue of fighting water pollution is this one from the Natural Resources Defense Council.
There are many factors contributing to the ongoing pollution of our waterways, ranging from factory chemicals, to fracking wastewater, to agricultural runoff. The beef industry is one of the worst offenders due to both the high consumption of water, as well as the large quantity of contaminants that make their way back into the streams, rivers, and groundwater. Becoming vegetarian, or at least limiting one’s consumption of beef, will make a difference towards protecting our clean water. We also need to make sure industries are held responsible for how they deal with their wastewater and toxic chemicals.
The Mother Earth project features a whole set of pieces dedicated to water, only one of which is Mountain Stream by Bonnie McLarty. Tides of Manaunaun by Henry Cowell describes the ancient and mythical forces of water from the time preceding human life on earth. Karen Tanaka’s Water Dance III is a jubilant celebration of the sparkling and joyous quality of water, conjuring imagery of a burbling stream or fountain. Patrick Burke’s Cumulus Humilus explores water in cloud form. In Sounds of a Fjord by Kaja Bjørntvedt (which I wrote about extensively in an earlier post) we take a journey to a place where water is the connecting force. Robert Schultz’s Visions of Dunbar portrays a beautiful waterway from near my hometown of Pittsburgh—Dunbar Creek—where, as in any stream or river, the water runs ever forward along its inevitable trajectory to the sea, never traversing the same place twice.
Part of the goal of the Mother Earth project is to raise awareness for the protection of our clean water. I’ll drink to that!
Learn more about the Mother Earth project at www.beckybillock.org
The moment I had the idea of putting together the Mother Earth program, I knew I had to include one of the sets from Karen Tanaka’s Children of Light. This delightful work is comprised of over 20 short pieces, each one based on and inspired by a different animal on the endangered species list.
Karen Tanaka, who at a young age wanted to become a veterinarian, later was able to find a way to show her passion for animals by shedding light on threatened species through her music. Children of Light is organized into five sets and I’ve chosen to include the fifth and last set on the Mother Earth album. Following Northern Lights (the prelude piece to the set), the subsequent movements feature animals from North and South America: Galapagos Land Iguana, Marsupial Mole, Florida Panther, and Polar Bear.
Several criteria are evaluated to determine whether a population of animals should be included on the Endangered Species list, including whether the habitat of the species has been damaged or destroyed, and whether the species has been over-exploited by commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational uses. The good news is that once a population of animals are given the specification of “Endangered Species,” they receive a number of special federal protections and in numerous cases the protected species has been successfully rejuvenated. One of the more prominent success stories is the Bald Eagle. In the 1960s the number of breeding pairs dwindled from just 500 to under 400. Today, after years of concerted effort to aid the eagles’ recovery, we now have over 7,000 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states! Another success story is of the Florida Panther—one of the animals featured in Tanaka’s set. Although the Florida Panther’s comeback has not been quite as dramatic as that of the bald eagle (there are still fewer than 100 individuals in the species), its seemingly inevitable extinction seems to have been staved off. Undoubtedly there is still more work to be done for the Florida Panther as well as other threatened species.
So what can we do about it? For further reading about the issue, I recommend this article from the National Wildlife Federation. To find a list of animals that are currently on the Endangered Species List as well as an opportunity to donate, visit the site for the World Wildlife Fund.
Lastly, (and—I’m not going to lie—I really love this one!!) you can BUY CHOCOLATE to help support endangered species. Yep, you heard that right! Endangered Species Chocolate can be found in many mainstream retail stores such as Target, Whole Foods, and others. You can find a retailer near you or find an online retailer through this website.
I’m thrilled to help raise awareness for endangered species through playing these charming pieces by Karen Tanaka. I want the world that I pass along to my children and grandchildren to be as richly biodiverse as possible. The loss of species impacts more than just the individual animal populations and habitats directly surrounding that species--the changes often ricochet out to have prominent effects on the bigger picture due to food chain shifts, and changes in the environment.
And let's face it--a world with no polar bears in it would indeed be a sadder place.
Walking Alone in the Forest -- Germaine Tailleferre
I live just a few steps away from Schenley Park, a sprawling urban park in the heart of Pittsburgh’s East End separating our Squirrel Hill neighborhood from the Carnegie Mellon and UPitt campuses in Oakland. The bulk of the park is comprised of urban forest, through which numerous trails twist and wind. These very trails are featured in my new short video, Seule dans la forêt (“Walking Alone in the Forest”) by Germaine Tailleferre.
While creating this video, I got a chance to discuss with my daughter Evelyn (who was helping me shoot the film) why our forests are so important to us—why they are important for her, and the generations that come after her. We are lucky to have a forest a stone’s throw from our doorstep, but there are places in the world where the forests are disappearing at an unprecedented rate.
It turns out that deforestation accounts for the loss of around 18 million acres of trees every year (roughly the size of Panama), according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It’s hard to fathom how this sort of devastation can continue without a second thought to the impact on the global environment. I guess it’s easy to think that someone clearing away a rainforest on the other side of the world doesn’t really impact my life right here. But nothing could be further from the truth. To learn more about why our forests are important and what we can do to protect them, watch this beautiful brief presentation by National Geographic.
In addition to the work being done to preserve forests globally, I’m so encouraged about what is going on right in my own neighborhood. Our Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy has an ongoing project to help our urban forests retain their resiliency. You can read more about the project here.
Consider supporting the global and local efforts to preserve our green leafy friends. It’s one way to reduce our carbon footprint, preserve the natural beauty around us, and provide our kids with a better future.
ABOUT THE MUSIC VIDEO
I had a lot of fun creating the music video Seule dans la foret (“Walking Alone in the Forest”). I wasn’t actually alone while making the video because my daughter Evelyn came along to assist. We had a delightful time throwing leaves up in the air together, catching falling leaves from trees, and we even had an unexpected adventure when Evelyn was bounding down a narrow path and suddenly left her shoe four feet behind her stuck in the mud!
The music by Germaine Tailleferre is a sneak peek of my Mother Earth album--Walking Alone in the Forest is the opening track on the recording . There’s not a lot of background information about the circumstances of Tailleferre writing this little gem of a piece. There’s not a lot of biographical information about Tailleferre in general, which is unfortunate. It’s clear she was writing a whole raft of large-scale works around the time Seule dans la foret was published and I’m so curious how she came to set this down on paper. It seems so out of proportion with her other projects at the time. Did she jot it down for a student or friend? I haven’t been able to find anything out about Michele Desgraupes-Giraudeau, to whom the piece is dedicated. Was she just simply bored one afternoon and decided to dash off something quick and delicious? Did she have a particular experience that inspired it? None of my sleuthing has turned up any clues.
Tailleferre did have a special friendship with Ravel for a time in the early 1920s before this piece was published. Tailleferre would visit him at his beautiful estate Montfort-l'Amaury and in addition to hashing through music together, they would take long walks through the countryside. Perhaps she would occasionally walk through the woods there on her own. This is the setting I imagine when I play Seule dans la foret—Tailleferre taking a break from writing to go out and gather inspiration in the fresh air.
Meet Kaja Bjørntvedt, the composer of the new commission “Sounds of a Fjord” that I’m including on my 2019 Mother Earth album. I suppose every collaboration has an interesting story, but I am particularly fond of thinking about how Kaja and I came to work together on this project.
Back in 2011 I attended the Congress for the International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ. I had traveled to Flagstaff alone from Pittsburgh where I live. I was a presenter at the conference, but I didn’t know anyone else personally who was attending. I met quite a few people over the course of the week, but I also spent a decent amount of time doing what many of us do now when alone in a crowd—looking at my phone. One evening I was sifting through email on my phone as I waited for an event to start. The lobby was filling up and someone came and sat at the opposite end of the couch where I had planted myself. All of a sudden I had an overwhelming premonition that I should introduce myself. I’m not generally a person who reports experiencing “psychic” moments such as this—I had never had any such experience, and I haven’t since then. However, it was such a strong feeling, that I felt I had to follow the lead. I put my phone away and went over to introduce myself. As you’ve already guessed, that person was Kaja Bjørntvedt.
We immediately hit it off with that easiness you feel when you meet a kindred spirit. I learned that she was a Norwegian composer who was at the time living in London. Having married into a Norwegian family, and having spent a lot of my adult life adopting many Norwegian traditions, it was exciting to make the connection. It turns out that the feeling I had had which prompted me to meet Kaja wasn’t all that strange for her: she had, in fact, met her own husband at a “Free Hugs” event in which they both showed up to offer free hugs to strangers!
Through the course of our conversation I learned that she had signed up for a bus tour the following day to the Grand Canyon. I had rented a car for the week—my hotel was not close to the conference site—and was also planning to go to the Grand Canyon the next day. I had planned to take a lengthy hike, and stay late to also get a glimpse of a glorious iconic Grand Canyon sunset. The bus tour did not allow for that flexibility, so I offered that Kaja just come with me and bail on the organized trip. Without hesitation she agreed to the plan, and that’s how we ended up spending a very long and fun-filled day together in one of the country’s most impressive National Parks. During the whole 16+ hour excursion, I don’t think we stopped talking even once!
After the conference was over, all the usual connections followed… Facebook friendships, notes now and then catching up on life, follow-ups on each other’s projects, etc. Several years later Kaja and her husband had a baby and decided to move from London back to Oslo (it’s no secret that raising kids in Norway is pretty ideal!) We continued to stay in touch and eventually we planned this collaboration, with Kaja writing a piece for piano and electronics that I would then perform as much as possible. Kaja submitted a grant proposal for Norwegian funding for the project, which was accepted.
I was very invested in having a piece by Kaja for my Mother Earth project that was inspired by the fjords and/or mountains of Norway—some of the most beautiful areas imaginable on earth. At some point during the writing process, Kaja wrote me a quick note saying, “It’s hard not to be inspired by the fjords when I have this view out my window!” Attached was a picture of the Oslo Fjord that she could see right from her office window where she sat composing!
Kaja writes about the piece: A fjord is a fantastic story of water, with many chapters going back all the way to the ice ages. The fjords were carved by a massive sheet of ice up to three kilometers thick that covered the land. Over time, the glaciers expanded and contracted as water accumulated or melted. These changes created movement that scoured the land beneath the ice mass. As the glacier melted, the mass of ice crushed rock and earth, generating a deep U-shaped valley called a fjord.
Living by, and having grown up next to a fjord, I have always had the sea close to heart. The fjord has a vast complexity of sounds, sounds that I like to imagine reflect the creating of the fjord throughout the ages: deep and pulsating, sometimes wild, sometimes calm. Sometimes like a stream where the water meets the land, yet deep and dark the further out you are. Never still, always moving. Reminiscence of waves that have formed far out at sea. Reminiscence of ice melting and land crumbling. The wind travelling in a passage between the mountains on either side, creating a flute-like sound.
In the haunting electronic track that accompanies my acoustic piano part, I can also trace a feeling that seems to reach back to the ancient Viking heritage that is so part and parcel with Norwegian identity. I’m thrilled that not only do I get to showcase Kaja’s piece here in the States, but I also have the opportunity to play it in Norway and Iceland in May 2019. It will be such a thrill to present the Norwegian premiere of the piece with Kaja in attendance, and just a stone’s throw from the vistas that inspired the piece!
It is especially meaningful to me that the beginning of our friendship took place at the Grand Canyon, and that now our first musical collaboration is on the topic of fjords—both valleys that are formed over centuries from the earth’s water and ice patterns. Sometimes valleys divide, but in this case the valleys are what connect us.
Kaja Bjørntvedt (born 1981) is a Norwegian composer with international engagements. She creates electro-acoustic soundscapes for performances within contemporary dance, theatre, art-installations and films, as well as writing acoustic music for various ensembles. She also loves mixing live instruments with electroacoustic music. In her work, she explores the connection between sounds, movements and visuals, whilst searching for different ways of presenting music to the audience. Her music is published by Musikk-Husets Forlag and Tetractys Publishing, with music included in the Trinity Guildhall Graded Exams Syllabus.
You can get a copy of the album by beoming a "Friend of Mother Earth." Early backers really mean a lot in a project like this. If you're planning to buy a copy of the CD, reserving early helps immensely with the initial costs of production. Thanks in advance for your support of the Arts! Support the project here.
I am beyond ecstatic about my Mother Earth project. The music is powerful and engaging. I’m including some old favorites and some fantastic new pieces that I’ve fallen in love with. There are pieces from eras gone by, and contemporary works. I’m playing pieces by composers who I admire from a distance, and others by composers who I count as dear friends. I was lucky enough to have my commission funded for a new work by Kaja Bjørntvedt, my dear Norwegian composer friend. (How Kaja and I met is a fun story that I’ll save for another time.) And all of them celebrate our beautiful planet—a perfect fit for this outdoorswoman. I’ve worked on many recording projects over the years, but this one feels more cathartic than the rest, perhaps because of what all I’ve gone through to get to this point.
The truth is, I’ve had this Mother Earth program on my mind for over six years. Back in 2011 when I conceived of it, I subsequently got busy adventuring with my trio-mates Maureen and Elisa, and didn’t have time to really sink my teeth into solo work. Chamber music is rewarding and fun and I readily poured all my energy into it. In addition, as a trio we had some pretty fantastic and unparalleled opportunities that we were able to take advantage of. Meanwhile, my solo project faded into the recesses of my mind. The collection of pieces for the Mother Earth program did shift and evolve over time, as I intermittently devoted stray thoughts towards which works I should include. I continued plotting, even though I couldn’t devote time to practicing it.
Finally, in the summer of 2017 I decided it was time for me to get back to my solo work for real. I stepped down from my role in the trio and decided to dive headlong into the Mother Earth pieces.
Then I injured my elbow. I wish I had a better story—like I fell while summiting a 12K foot peak, or I sprained it pulling a child from a burning car. In reality, I was working on a minor home improvement project and I twisted something a little bit too aggressively with a screwdriver. I felt a twinge at the time, but I didn’t think it would amount to anything. I was going on vacation the next day, so I figured that when I resumed my normal life after some down time I’d be good as new.
Fast forward a few weeks. I returned to Pittsburgh full of energy to dive into my new solo program only to discover that I couldn’t play the piano at all. I still optimistically thought it’d pass within a few weeks, so I waited. And waited. And then I waited some more. Any time I would practice even a little, the pain would skyrocket so that I couldn’t sleep at night. After about a month of this, I got depressed. I couldn’t practice, or do computer work (using a mouse or typing were equal pain triggers). I threw myself into my teaching and parenting in an effort to distract myself. But the truth was, I was scared. I started to wonder if I would ever be able to play again. The absurdity of the whole thing was not lost on me. The headlines playing across my mind read: Pianist ruins career attempting to fit a chain into an eye-hook. How idiotic.
By October I started seeing a physical therapist and obsessively doing the exercises she assigned me. It was two steps ahead, one back, for quite a while, but eventually around December things started heading in the right direction.
Sometime during this whole saga I wrote a quick note to my former teacher, Craig Sheppard. The note was unrelated to my injury and I can’t even remember saying anything to “tip him off.” However, Craig being Craig, he was somehow able to intuit that I had something major going on. I ended up spilling my entire story to him after his generous invitation to do so, and he shared several personal experiences that flooded me with hope. I fervently believe this conversation was the psychological turning point I needed to bolster my efforts toward recovery. It turns out that—surprise!—the blues didn’t really help to nudge me in the right direction.
At some point I was able to figure out that the pain was caused by tension in a particular part of my arm. As a piano teacher I deal with this sort of thing every single day, so I figured I would just have to teach myself the way I teach a beginner. So I did. I started with about 5 minutes a day, playing scales at a snail’s pace. Constantly checking and rechecking to obliterate any tension. Then I worked up to 10 minutes. The first day I was able to practice for a full hour felt like a revelation.
After that I was able to increase steadily until, by the end of February, I was back to being able to practice six or even eight hours with no adverse effects.
Recently I was reflecting on the state of the planet, which I have been doing even more than usual now that I’m working on my Mother Earth project. From the start, the motivation for my project has been to inspire a greater level of care towards the earth. I couldn’t help drawing an analogy to my own personal experience. Between pollution, global warming, deforestation, depletion of natural resources, and a host of other concerns, our planet is hurting too. We’ve injured it by doing silly “home improvement” projects.
Maybe it’s time to take a step back. We need to relearn our technique like beginners. Figure out how to do this earth-stewardship thing carefully and correctly. If we do it right, we may get back up to speed sooner than we think. Here’s to a full recovery for Mother Earth!
You can get a copy of the Mother Earth album by becoming a backer at my GoFundMe site. Early backers really mean a lot in a project like this. If you're planning to buy a copy of the CD, getting one by reserving early helps immensely with the initial costs of the production. Thanks for your support! Support the project at GoFundMe.