Sound Spaces

Nancy Marie Brown
June 01, 1996

"Are you a musician? If I used a little jargon—"

man plays violin as other man plays piano

Pianist Timothy Shafer slouches sideways in his straight-backed chair. His partner, violinist James Lyon, has both his feet up on his seat, in a half-lotus. They're the same age (34), they're wearing the same tie (a swirly violin-and-piano motif), and they're trying to explain to me why the Strauss and the Stravinsky on the CD version of their Carnegie Hall debut (in February 1995) sound as if they were recorded in two vastly different spaces: To my ear, Stravinsky's Suite Italienne sounds brittle, bright, as if recorded in a white formica kitchen; the Strauss Sonata in E-flat, by contrast, is rich and lush—the mic could have been in a forest or a velvet-hung drawing room. But both were recorded at Penn State, the Duo insists, a few months after their Carnegie debut, in an empty Eisenhower Auditorium, same mic, same engineer.

"We probably look at the quarter notes differently in the two pieces," Shafer continues. "The length of a quarter note in Strauss is different than the length of the note in Stravinsky: In Stravinsky, there's more space between one quarter note and the next quarter note."

"A lot of the difference is in the violin," says Lyon. "In Stravinsky, each note has a separate bow movement—" He raises an imaginary instrument to his chin and saws, zip, zip, zip. "In Strauss, it's almost like humming." Zummm, he draws out his arm. "You want one note to continue to the next."

"It's actually the composers that do it, not us," says Shafer. "That austere sound of Stravinsky is written into the composition. The Strauss is heart-on-your-sleeve romantic stuff. When you read Strauss, there are full five-note chords going on."

Lyon turns to Shafer. "What is it Stravinsky said? What we put in the program notes?"

"Stravinsky didn't want his music to be interpreted, but executed."

Lyon smiles. "He's saying that to performers who have a good idea of style."

James Lyon's bow-hand is marked by a crooked index finger. "I was a fool. I was playing around some rocks," he recalls. He was a teenager at the famous Interlochen music camp when the accident happened. One of the teachers ("he wasn't even my teacher") visited Lyon in the hospital, told him of his own hand injury and how he had retrained himself, and convinced Lyon that being a musician was still possible. "It would've wrecked a concert piano career. I still can't move that finger very fast."

Son of a music education professor ("he never made me practice"), Lyon had played flute in the school band "and even electric guitar, which I can't imagine, in the stage band," before settling on the violin because "I just liked playing it." His current mix of teaching and performing he describes as "very healthy." In Penn State's School of Music, he notes, "We don't have star performers who don't teach, and every teacher is actively performing.

"I refuse to become overspecialized," he adds. "When you get down to saying, 'I specialize in first finger,' or 'I'm a vibrato expert,' that's going too far." But when asked if he sometimes wouldn't rather be a concert star like Itzhak Perlman, he looks at Shafer and admits, "There are days when we would."

"I wouldn't agree," Shafer objects. "I had it in my mind since I was 15 or 16 that I wanted to play and teach. I like to travel and I like to be at home." At five, Shafer hung around the piano while his mother, a church pianist, practised, but by his teens he was playing trombone and convinced he would be a band director. It was a "goal-oriented" piano teacher who made him switch.

"Piano being a solitary instrument—you practice alone and you play alone—the social part comes through teaching it," Shafer says. "But if you just teach, you end up quoting yourself from years past. You lose your authority of deed. And"—he acknowledges Lyon's "Itzhak" wish with a boyish smile—"there is a kind of high that comes from performing. I don't understand all these people who bungee jump just to get the high we get from what we do every day."

"Itzhak Perlman gets paid to play Carnegie Hall. We had to pay them," Lyon says ruefully, acknowledging that the University picked up much of the tab for the Duo Concertant's February 11, 1995, matinee performance of works by Stravinsky, Beethoven, Debussy, and Richard Strauss.

"It was a nice day," says Shafer.

"It felt like a celebration of who we are and who helped us get there," says Lyon. "Everything was in our favor. Carnegie Hall has a good warm-up facility, good acoustics, a really nice piano. This is how it's supposed to be—a combination of warmth and clarity—"

"There's a reason that hall has the reputation it does," Shafer notes.

"What you did on stage was what they were going to hear in the audience," Lyon concludes.

Among the 200 listeners in the 268-capacity hall were music critics Harris Goldsmith and Edith Eisler. "We were glad to have them there. You really can't count on a reviewer coming out," says Lyon.

In fact, although Eisler was sent by Strings Magazine ("We felt big," says Shafer. "We were on the same page as Midori."), the Duo had to front Goldsmith's expenses. "A week to 10 days before the concert," Lyon says, "this guy called me. He said if we'd cover the costs, he'd send a reviewer out." The caller ran a sort-of musical matchmaking service, pairing reviewers and musicians with magazines too small to have a critic on staff, particularly not such a well-known critic as Goldsmith. "The publication he was writing for nobody knows," says Lyon, "but my colleagues knew Goldsmith's name. He's an independent contractor. Paying his expenses didn't mean he'd say nice things, guaranteed, but at least he would come.

"He did have constructive criticism," Lyon adds. "He was most critical of the Beethoven." (The often-played "Kreutzer" Sonata.) "That's another reason it's not on the CD, besides the fact that it would have made the CD too long."

Some of the more laudatory lines from Goldsmith's and Eisler's reviews grace the CD's back:

The Stravinsky, in an alert, often humorous reading, showed both players well in command of their instruments and to have, furthermore, a goodly command of the stylistic vocabulary of this confection. The rhythms were bracing, the balances adroitly gauged, and there was more than a modicum of the grit and acerbity that this tongue-in-cheek material calls for. —Harris Goldsmith, New York Concert Review

Their ensemble and balance were excellent. . . . They were at their best in Richard Strauss' youthful, romantic Sonata, which had sweep and ardor and sounded beautiful." —Edith Eisler, Strings Magazine

In a similar way—by picking out the best phrases—the Duo distilled their 20-hour recording session in Eisenhower Auditorium into a 62-minute disc.

"What did we take out?" Shafer shifts in his chair and smiles. "Page turns. That's all, just page turns. Page turns and air noises. Garage noises. Ventilation noises."

"Even the piano making noises we didn't want," Lyon adds. "Like, my piano—" He motions toward the upright along the wall. "—the pedal here squeaks a lot. That comes back to haunt you. We had a piano technician on call all the time.

"Actually, our splices were limited to sections," Lyon explains. "We designated sections based on page turns, played each section three or four times, then went on." The disc was pieced together from the best recordings of each section.

"You see, they're different animals, performing and recording," Shafer adds. "Recording has set a new standard for performing—we're used to hearing note-perfect renditions of pieces—"

"And performers don't tend to take as many risks any more," adds Lyon.

"But people still do listen differently," Shafer continues. "It's like a blind person having a heightened sense of hearing? There's a visual aspect to the live performance. When both stimuli are there, both are moderated. But a recording— In a dark room, you can repeat, you can zero in— Recordings are made for scrutiny. Live performances are made for the event, for the—I hate to say it—entertainment value."

"No two people feel music exactly the same way," Lyon says.

Having finished the story of "how Jim and Tim got to play together," and admitting that having been delivered by the same obstetrician really had nothing to do with it (except to make conversation), Lyon tries again to explain to me exactly how it is that two individuals can become a duo—can complement each others' playing without competing. He watches Shafer, as if looking for a cue.

"People don't even hear pitch exactly the same. Which isn't a problem for us," he glances in my direction, "because his pitch"—another backhanded wave at the piano—"can't move. If we were two string players, that would be more important."

"I have sensed in working with Jim," Shafer says, picking up the theme, "that there's a kind of rhythmic energy occurring that we sort of mutually send back and forth, a kind of charge that happens. It's our sense of time, of feeling rhythm in a similar way, of dynamic tension, of where you're headed—"

"With a phrase, you mean?" Lyon interjects.

Shafer nods. "Charging to the same place and feeling that instinctively."

"We're responding to each other's playing," says Lyon. "We're not hearing the music in our minds and wanting our playing to be exactly like that. We're more realistic. We're taking what we have and doing something good with it, instead of having this unattainable fantasy. Maybe."

"It's like driving on a long, straight interstate," Shafer says. "You could have one person focusing on the windshield and one on the end of the road. Can you see that? We're more compatible."

"Or," says Lyon, "it's like you're running and you trip—your body can't say, 'Okay, guys, the right leg messed up, but we're going through with it,' and keep on running. I put my ear out for Tim's part. It develops. And some of it doesn't even develop until you perform it."

"Your performance is tempered by the fire of the audience."

Lyon nods. "You sense the drama of the statement you're making."

"It's constant awareness," Shafer adds. "Adrenaline heightens your awareness and you become more sensitive, more aware—"

"But there's a thin little barrier that has to be there," Lyon objects. "You might think you have to become the music, but in the best performances, there's that thin barrier. You're saying, 'This is me playing the music.' You can describe something perky like the Stravinsky without being perky: Your presentation just has to be perky. It's getting close enough without losing yourself."

"The cow is black and white, like tuxedos, get it?"

Lyon hands me their CD, called Out Standing in Our Field: the cover sports the Duo Concertant in tuxes, with violin, grand piano, and cow. Cow? In a field. A piano in a field?

Lyon laughs. "You're very much in control of your own product as musicians," he says. "You want to have your hands on it."

The concept began as a recruiting poster. "We get ribbed by musicians in city schools," Lyon says, "that Penn State is out in a cow pasture somewhere." They decided to use that complaint, tongue-in-cheek, to make their CD appeal to a broader audience, "without going over the edge and getting punk haircuts," Lyon adds. "The juxtaposition of the tuxes and the totally informal—what could be more informal than a cow? It means you don't have to be highly educated to enjoy our music. If it's a good concert, any layperson should enjoy it, not just the specialist who can say," (he puts on a fake accent) "'The first cadence in the third bar was a little—'"

Shafer smiles. "Across musical history, almost every composer has some folk influence," he notes.

Both being natives of Charleston, West Virginia, Shafer and Lyon are comfortable in a rural setting. They hope someday to tour their home state, playing music by West Virginia native George Crumb, whose "Black Angels" was recently recorded by the punk-haircut-sporting Kronos Quartet.

Just the name Crumb makes me cringe, expecting dissonance. How can the same Duo encompass the lush, romantic Strauss, the crisp, classically-inspired Stravinsky, and the dissonant, difficult Crumb? And why would they want to?

"The sounds, actually," says Shafer.

"He has a very unique vocabulary," says Lyon, "but it isn't superficial. With some composers, you get the feeling that the emperor has no clothes, but Crumb's vocabulary was arrived at through a remarkable knowledge of sound."

"Your musical taste," Shafer continues, "develops depending on what you've heard—"

"That's your eyehole on the world," interjects Lyon.

"—what you grow up with, what you become accustomed to."

"Crumb isn't our language," concludes Lyon, "but it's a language we respect."

James Lyon and Timothy Shafer are associate professors of music, 233 Music Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-0431. Their work is supported by the School of Music, the College of Arts and Architecture, and the Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies at Penn State.

Last Updated June 01, 1996