So, Friends, here’s what I wrote after spending that precious time in September 2015 talking with Peggy about Jan and Gil and chamber music. At one point, because I had asked a question, Peggy jumped up, grabbed headphones for us both, and put on her CD of Jan and Gil’s Brahms songs. We sat together and listened, she pausing the recording over and over as she described what we were hearing and what it had taught her decades ago. It awakened my listening self. I remembered. I don’t know what this might become, but I knew as we sat on her couch in her Upper West Side apartment that I must write about it all.
Margaret Kampmeier quietly entered her family’s dining room, the thin black cord trailing behind her. Around the corner, the stereo, where she’d plug in her father’s Stanton DYNAPHASE FORTY headset. Gingerly, she pulled out one of the straight-backed caned chairs and sat at the table. She set aside the ringed napkin and lay down on her mother’s lace tablecloth two records in their sleeves, Debussy and Brahms Songs. She picked up and placed the bulbous blue and silver earphones over her head. Everyone was asleep—her mother, father, her brother. The headphones weren’t necessary, but she’d become accustomed to them during this, a private nightly ritual in which the world around her fell away.
When had he bought all these albums? Peggy (as she still is known) had grown up listening to her father quote song texts and lines from libretti. Opera or song, it didn’t matter; his appreciation for music and singing, palpable. Mr. Kampmeier was a scientist, not a practiced musician and a great lover of music, adoring above all else the human voice.
A professor at the University of Rochester, he’d collected Jan DeGaetani’s work because of her reputation as an Eastman professor of voice and because he admired her singing. When Peggy was sixteen, she and the family were living in Baden Baden, Germany during one of her father’s sabbaticals. They often traveled to other cities as tourists to hear, among other adventures, concerts. One night, the family traveled to a neighboring city to hear Jan and Gil Kalish perform.
A pleasant evening, a blip on the screen for this American teenager just beginning to consider practicing seriously the piano once she’d given up her first instrument of choice, percussion. And yet, ironic, this early crossing of paths: Peggy Kampmeier would play in Jan DeGaetani’s studio at Eastman School of Music and later study with Gil Kalish at Stony Brook University.
DeGaetani and Kalish’s partnership is why Peggy sat in her darkened living room, night after night, that summer after graduating from Eastman School of Music.
Dropped needle. Scratches.
Pick up the needle. Drop again.
Führt zum Tanze
…leads into the dance
Sein blauäugig schönes Kind;
Schlägt die Sporen keck zusammen,
…his lovely, blue-eyed miss;
Kicks his spurs smartly;
Czardas music strikes up.
[Lieder of Johannes Brahms. The Zigeunerlieder Op. 103. From a collection of Hungarian folk-songs. No one ever corroborated the folk origins. So popular, the original setting for vocal quartet and piano, Brahms arranged eight of the Gypsy Songs for solo voice and piano. Heard first this way in 1889. Folk music was in. Artists across Europe and North America were integrating melodies and gestures from an oral tradition: what has been known as the music of the people, shifted and changed through the re-telling. Soon Béla Bartók would study and integrate the traditional songs in Hungary. And later still, Jan DeGaetani would perform and record, even for a US president, the songs of Stephen Foster, American folklorist and composer.]
[Brahms said, they are “a cheerful piece of nonsense.”]
The opening flourish, a gesture because of the way he plays it, the space he leaves just before her pressed lips for the B of Brauner, followed by her own flourish, the rolled r.
This is the opening to #5 of Brahms’ Ziegeunerlieder. The space allowed between the soft consonant B and that rolled out R, the why of it, how this affords Gil to answer with his next attack. Playful, whimsical, that bruised Brauner inviting him and us to hear the uneven yet symmetrical puppet dance of this rhythm, duple against triplets, voice and piano.
This is musical gesture and Peggy is knowing it for the first time.
She listens to the song entirely, then drops the needle again.
The flourish, another flourish, the give and take, resting and rushing between the two as they demonstrate how they’ve made sense of Brahms’ music. It’s in part interpretation. In part, the language. How do Jan’s choices about voicing consonants and vowels—about colors and dynamics affect Gil’s choices for the piano? The meaning of the word, the phrasing dictates what sounds they should make, independent of each other and together.
It’s inflection. From note to note, what happens to the shape of a phrase, the dynamics, timing. The rendering of musical thought in sound.
First, there’s a choice to embody the music on the page, the seemingly restrictive notations, and then there are choices as to how to do it and why. Gesture creates fluidity that cannot exist alone on the page in black and white. Perfection within the beat, the meter, is not the goal. It’s about how they move around the beat.
The three verses come and go in minutes. Each slightly different than the previous in gesture. It’s as if Peggy can see the puppets, the stage, the strings bobbing and flicking above the wooden toes and fingers, image because of sound.
It’s just wood and metal, the piano. It’s a machine. You put energy into a machine and you get something out of it. How does he do it, match the human voice, this voice of Jan’s, in dynamic, rhythm, color? [Peggy’s wonderment then, unexpressed; now, understood.]
Pitch sharing. They’re swapping pitches. She hears Jan end a phrase and then Gil on the piano picks up that same, grabs the space left from her abandoned note and colors it, voices it so that we can hear it, him. The line. The integration of these two voices. He continues the message.
Sometimes he’s playing the exact pitches she’s singing or has just sung. Peggy hears his striving for the aura of the sound Jan has created and inhabited. The piano is a percussive instrument, yet his attack, the point of impact, finger pad to ivory key—what you’d assume is the moment and reason of sound—is not what he’s after. He woos what pronouncement begets.
This is where the nuance and beauty lie. This is why they can do that pitch sharing so well. She’s singing on a column of air, and he’s finding the vibration of the sound.
Peggy tells me this is when and how and why she learned to be a chamber musician.
I think of my twenty-something self staring at a De Kooning painting in the National Gallery of Art wondering about that splash, that swath of dark red in the middle of an otherwise blue, white, gray—discernable canvas.
I think of myself as a teacher of young people assigning Emily Dickinson, wondering, how many times does it take to read her poems before I will be able to fully enter them?
I think: She said it many times, in many ways, for many different publications: Chamber music was my first love.