What is Blues, Preludes & Feuds
Blues, Preludes & Feuds is a seamless blend of original solo piano music and story, presented in an innovative platform, delivering deep technology-art interactions.
The music skillfully wends around the narrative in an organic flow, telling the story in its own way: Improvisational. Structured. Meaningful.
The story? A funny, reflective tale of growing up in the politically charged times of 1960s Chicago, becoming a budding teenage jazz musician, and later, a composer.”
(Read an interview with Peter Saltzman about the background of his new work.)
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Blues, Preludes & Feuds is
A Sample from Blues, Preludes & Feuds
The following track and chapter come from the app, Blues, Preludes and Feuds. Click links to the left to read/listen to the entire work.
Middle C is Not
Prelude #0 (The Theme)
I’m four years old. How am I supposed to know what to play? For that matter, how are you ever supposed to know?
The piano bench beneath me is covered with a striped green-and-white fabric, material left over from the couch in the den. The Steinway upright in front of me is a sober dark brown. My legs don’t come close to touching the ground—using the pedals is out of the question.
I align myself with the middle of the piano, middle C. Technically, middle C is not the true center of the keyboard—there are more notes to the right than to the left. That fact will bother me for years to come. Nevertheless, aligning myself with that note is one of the rituals I adhere to prior to playing.
The piano sits on the white-carpeted living room floor of apartment 8W, our three-bedroom condo on West Wellington Avenue in Chicago. The living room, like the elegant prewar building itself, is fairly formal, though not forbidding. It is, in any case, rarely touched by the grimy little hands of kids like me. We almost never play in here. In fact, I’m usually not in here at all unless there’s company and my presence is required.
At those times, I’m likely to be sporting a blue blazer and clip-on tie, sitting uncomfortably among extended family or my mom’s budding, left-wing political circle. But because the far southwest corner of the living room—abutting the foyer and as far away from the formal furniture as possible—is the only viable place in the apartment to place a piano, it sits there. Isolated, somewhat out of place. And I sit there with it.
My fingers hover silently over the keys. I won’t play anything until I figure where they’re supposed to go.
* * *
Knowing where you’re supposed to go. Knowing what you’re supposed to play. The next step, the next note. It’s a matter of commitment to a direction. But which direction? The possibilities are infinite, of course. And each of the directions has its own set of lifelines with streams and tributaries that have their own set of lifelines. Ad infinitum.
Am I talking about music or life here? It doesn’t matter. The two were inseparable. Me. The piano. Our apartment building. The neighborhood. A connected sense of isolation and possibilities.
The building was a block west of Sheridan Road—with its settled and sedate high-rises—and a block east of Broadway, with its rough-and-tumble, inner-city, low-rise storefronts. The building sat between the two worlds, seemingly taking on elements of both. Most of its occupants were young families, comfortable, but not quite settled. Striving, perhaps for a chance at the more settled wealth to the east, but not too far removed from the struggles to the west.
A semicircular driveway led to the front entrance, covered by a green canvas canopy. It wasn’t quite high-end, but all about class on a budget.
I still can see the uniformed doorman standing in the dark-green-and-gold-marbled lobby. He’d greet my family by name and with a smile. Then, with a quickly raised eyebrow and an outstretched arm, he’d hand us off to the elevator man, who’d be sitting slightly stooped on his stool in the elevator, reading the sports section of the Tribune. He’d look up and hastily come to life—closing the paper, stepping out to the side of the elevator, and holding out his arm to welcome us. Then he’d close the door and accordion safety gate, and turn the heavy, black iron crank. We were on our way.
* * *
I begin with a single note, middle C: the root, the tonic. Home. (Om?)
“Hold on, please,” he says, arriving at our floor and adjusting the elevator until its floor is aligned with the foyer floor.
I’m always rooting for the guy to get it right on the first try. A few master operators manage a perfectly aligned stop on the first try. Others struggle, inching up and down a few times before nailing it. Then there are the younger guys or the building super who fills in when the elevator pros are on break—they settle for leaving a half-inch gap before opening the doors to let us out.
With only one note, there is no music—just pure sound. Nevertheless, it’s a sound that has a kind of physical force born of its willful perturbation of air, which had been content to be left alone, or at most, jostled by seemingly random disturbances. This is the first, and maybe the only, necessary rule of making music: disturb the air, make it move. Purposely make it dance.
Our Lakeview East neighborhood on the Near North Side is—like most Chicago neighborhoods in 1965—pre-gentrified. It varies not so much from block to block, as from building to building. Our building is one of the nice ones, with a large fenced-in playground where the resident kids congregate. Several of them are my friends. More than a few of us go to the same nearby private school.
The apartment building is like our dorm. We freely hop around between the units and take the inner back stairs to avoid long waits for the elevator. The back doors are often left unlocked. My mom will eventually grow tired of the chumminess.
In an unfinished section of the playground, we throw rubber balls against the windowless west brick wall of the building—a thirteen-story handball court. We hang out at each other’s apartments. A kid on the second floor puts saccharin in his Coke because he claims it’s not sweet enough by itself. He’ll grow up to be the producer of a local foodie TV show.
A girl in my grade at school has more conservative, stricter parents and is never let out of her fourth-floor apartment without parental supervision—even to play in the playground. We are occasionally allowed to visit her apartment, but she’s not allowed in ours. There’s a stiff formality at her apartment that’s lacking in the others. She’ll grow up to be a psychotherapist.
Maybe, I think, her parents don’t like Jews. Or maybe they are Jews—the older, more conservative German stock that turn up their noses at their tougher, unrefined Eastern European cousins. Not that I or my three siblings, as third-generation American Jews, are particularly tough. Mostly we’ve gone soft by the third generation, but we’re still loud and argumentative—the last vestiges of shtetl life.
There are several young, upwardly mobile, secular-liberal, third-generation Russian/Ukrainian Jewish families in our building. All of us are completely assimilated. Being Jewish means we celebrate Chanukah instead of Christmas.
From the starting point of a single note, there are infinite possibilities. I can go anywhere. But infinity must be constrained. To move beyond the realm of sound—from potential music into actual music—a choice has to be made. I have to go somewhere, but I’m not prepared to travel very far. I need to get my bearings first. So for the second note, I settle for a tentative step upward to the 2nd degree of the scale. Still not really music, but at least there is progression, both in rhythmic time and in sonic space.
Tentatively, in groups of three or more—because boys always travel in groups of three or more—we venture out beyond the confines of the building and its connected premises: playground, parking lot, and fallout shelter adjacent to the playground. At first, we just hang out on the sidewalk in front of the building, where the doorman can keep an eye on us . . . at our parents’ request.
This particular day, it’s saccharin-loving Danny from the second floor, Jack (his younger brother), David (my older brother), and me.
“I can say a bad word,” Danny says as we restlessly dance around in front of the building, keeping our eyes on the doorman because we want him to see how cool we are out here by ourselves.
“What bad word?” I ask.
“Fuck. And shit.”
Whoa! I’d heard about those words—maybe even heard them spoken inadvertently by passing adults. But this was the first time I’d heard someone my age conjure them up out of thin air. I’m not really ready for it and look away, trying to pretend I didn’t hear anything.
“I’ll bet you can’t say it, Peter.”
“I don’t know. Maybe I can say it.”
“Say it then.”
“Fuck. Or start with shit. That’s easier.”
“Sh . . . ”
“Fuck, shit, fuck shit . . . ”
“Cut it out, Danny,” my brother says. “The doorman will hear you.”
“He’s inside. Anyway, we should kick somebody’s butt.”
“I don’t want to,” Jack whines.
“Of course, you don’t. You’re a snot-nosed baby.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Come on Danny, leave him alone,” I say. “Let’s go to the drugstore.”
“I don’t have any money,” he says. “But, hey, we can beat someone up and take their money.”
“I don’t know, what if they beat us up first?” says Jack.
Ignoring his brother, Danny adds, “Or . . . or . . . oh, this will be great! We can make a gate across the sidewalk and charge people to get by.”
“How we gonna build a gate?” I ask.
“We don’t build a gate, you dummy. We are the gate.” He spreads his arms out wide. “We stand side to side, hold hands like this, and block the way. Except I’m not touching Jack’s snotty booger hands. Then we charge people to get by.”
David laughs at him. “Nobody’s paying a quarter to get by. They’ll probably beat us up. Maybe a nickel.”
“Fine, a dime. We split it four ways, except I get extra since I thought of it.” He lines us up side by side, interlocking our fingers. It’s a wide sidewalk though—and we’re too small to stretch across it.
“People can just go around, you idiot,” my brother says.
“Spread your legs wider,” Danny says. We do, but Jack loses his balance and falls over. “We need more people.”
“I think Andy’s in the playground. I’ll get him.” I return with him and his older sister, Debby.
“You guys are stupid. I should tell,” she says.
“You better not tell.” Danny gives her a look.
“Okay, but you guys are still stupid.” With that, she runs off.
We form our line and wait for the first victim. A big, gruff guy smoking a cigarette starts coming down the street toward us. We aren’t as stupid as Debby thought—we quickly move out of his way.
“The hell you guys doin’?” he laughs, looking back at us.
We laugh back at him.
“Fuck,” Danny says, standing tough.
“Stop saying that.” His brother rolls his eyes.
An old lady—dressed in a dark wool coat and babushka hat—starts walking our way.
“Now that’s more like it.” Danny smiles and gives us a nod, signaling us to reform the gate.
We block her way. “Ten cents to get by the tollbooth, miss,” Danny says.
She stops, looks at us, and smiles. “Well, you little boys are so cute, I’ll give you a dime each!” She fishes the coins out of her purse.
“Thanks, miss!” Turning toward us, Danny smirks. “You see?”
We continue the process for ten minutes—moving out of the way for younger women or any guy, only charging old ladies. Some negotiate down to a nickel, but all of them think we’re pretty cute and pay up.
But we push our luck. A severe-looking lady with a cane comes toward us, loudly muttering to herself. A part of me knows we should stop right there, let her go by, and head for the drugstore, satisfied with our 15-minute earnings.
On the flip side, we’re on a roll—and admittedly, blinded by our unexpected success. I look askance at Danny, thinking the lady looks a bit crazy. But we’re all committed now.
“Ten cents to get by, miss!” we yell in unison, emboldened by our earnings.
She stops, stares at each of us, then scowls.
“Who do you little shits think you are? I’m going to tell your mommies!” She looks toward the building and sees the doorman, who has been studiously ignoring us, through the glass doors. “Doorman! Doorman!”
He comes out, calmly, deferentially. “Yes, miss?”
“These little devils are trying to extort money from me just to walk down this street. I want you to tell their mommies.” She breaks through our line, and Jack falls over.
The doorman shakes his head at us.
“You boys . . . ” He walks back inside.
“Fuck,” I sigh.
Gaining confidence after the initial step forward, I’m ready to venture further afield from the safety of the root. So for the third note, I jump upward, the interval of a 6th, landing on the 7th degree of the scale.
There are more school friends in various buildings and private homes down and around the block. We head east down Wellington toward Sheridan. A shy but proud girl from my class lives in the building around the corner. We play over there occasionally, but she’s too serious, never laughs at our gross boy jokes about gassers and wieners. She’ll grow up to be a lesbian environmentalist.
More often, we head west, turn right on Pine Grove, the street abutting our building’s parking lot. We make a quick stop at the tiny house of another kid from our class—a quiet, thoughtful boy, who is protective of his angry mother. She’s always upstairs in her bedroom with the lights off, eyes covered with a cold wet cloth. He says she has chronic migraines, whatever those are.
“Jeffrey! Get me a damn glass of ice water!” she yells down to him. We’re embarrassed, but he doesn’t seem to mind. Whatever she needs, he runs to get it. He just rolls with it. He’ll grow up to be a physician.
We stretch the boundaries 10, 20, 50 feet at a time. By the time I’m five, we work our way toward Broadway and its rougher elements.
I jumped too high, too soon. I immediately take a step downward to the 6th degree, taken aback, maybe somewhat embarrassed by my own boldness. Regardless, I’ve now taken the first steps toward making music with a completed motif—the germ of a musical idea. With each additional note, the infinite possibilities narrow, becoming more and more constrained as the accumulation of notes begins to add up to something with purpose. Infinity constrained is still infinity, but somehow more limited. With just four notes, I’ve made a declaration of intent that will reverberate throughout the rest of the piece, limiting its possibilities. A direction has been set. I can no longer go just anywhere.
Our destination is the drugstore on the northeast corner of Broadway and Wellington, where we will steal candy and run back home. Straight to the drugstore, pilfer some candy, straight back home. Always in groups of three or more. Don’t turn right on Broadway. Don’t go north.