The Toccata Syndrome

Just as in the last post about volume, let’s have a look at something that is found in Melosophia, but definitely also in the world at large.

ornament5bWe are always, well, many of us most of time, impressed by music that is hard to play, and musicians who can play very fast. This is a central aspect of “virtuosity”. That that word is related to virtuous and virtue is often forgotten, if known at all.

The word “toccata” is related to touch. Grove defines it as A piece intended primarily as a display of manual dexterity, often free in form and almost always for a solo keyboard instrument. I would suggest that the toccata is Yang in quality, outwardly directed, active, showy, manly.

It or its principle can be seen as a sort of bragging, sometimes even a circus act.

piano hoffnungAs a classical musician I have to admit that this impulse — not one of our highest impulses — is alive and well in the classical field, in many a pianist and singer, not to mention violinist and bassoonist.

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The impulse sometimes grows into a syndrome.

As a music critic I quite often meet with new, contemporary music that has gotten joyfully stuck in this groove. I would call this groove the Toccata Syndrome, in turn part of larger stylistic trend that I call neo-populism.

Let me clarify neo-populism. After many a year of totally ignoring the audience (and of course being ignored BY them) some composers felt a great longing to return to the fold and a great thirst for the energy drink Applause. Like a dehydrated wanderer in the desert they almost started hallucinating about success with the public, about being carried in the streets by a cheering mob. Some of them turned to writing toccatas (not necessarily calling them that).

I myself write quite difficult music at times but not with a view of eliciting a great roar at the end. But this is what I hear in some modern pieces where the final applause almost seems to be a calculated part of the piece. The cheer comes right after that incredibly virtuoso run that ends in a fabulous tutti chordBravo!!!

Talk about being a like-whore, or applause-whore.

Those are maybe too harsh words, because this show or demonstration of what one can do, as composer or musician (I recall a conductor almost committing hara-kiri during Ravel’s Bolero, a piece that practically plays itself) seems to be, if not Universal, at least very human. And by no means only a male impulse when you consider that females — in more subtle ways — are just as much showing (off) themselves and their “talents”. The stress need not be on playing or singing but on lifting up, stretching, accentuating, coloring, exposing.

In this non-musical, non-obvious sense many women have even more toccata impulse than men. “Display of manual dexterity” can be the putting on of make-up

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Enough talk, let’s have some music. Here is a example of not manual but pedal dexterity, very much in the toccata spirit.

And now, fasten your seat belts! Here comes a musical firework from the man whose playing tells you (at least me) to practice more….

Finally an example of a more contemporary “toccata”. Wait for the roar at the end.

You might object that I am too critical here. Why heap abuse on a natural impulse?

You could be right. As to these three examples, the first I find impressive, the second fantastic, in execution and the ingenuity of the arrangement. The third disturbs me a bit.

Why?

Because it makes me, the listener, a mere admirer. The focus is on what the musicians are doing, on technique and dexterity. I discover really nothing about myself, more than that I am impressed.

The best music, I would suggest, goes both ways; it points both to the music/musician, and to the listener. It includes them both in a marriage that one could almost call “democratic”. Which is not the case with a football star and football supporters. Or a virtuoso musician and a wildly cheering audience.

By all means, let us musicians show the world what we can do. But let that doing also include how SLOW and SOFT we can play….

VOLUME!!!!

This article is not about music but only one aspect of it: volume. This is also something very important outside of music. (However, it is also an aspect of what some call “Musica humana”.)

How do we dominate our surroundings, prove our worth and raise our status? There are many answers to this, but one popular way to do this is by VOLUME.

Volume can pertain to music, noise or merely amount of output.

Let’s look at the last example first. I was once mailbombed by some angry young men. They sent 6000 e-mail containing trash to my mailbox. This was an act of aggression, of course, proving (or so someone thought) strength, muscle and ability to hurt.

This can of course have a negative effect. If I publish 100 posts on Facebook every day (volume) many will think that I am a tiresome figure and unfollow my posts. My (facebook) status would go down, not up.

ornament5bNow let’s leave the online world and move to a living room or coffee house and study another kind of social dynamics.

The people in the room speak with different voices, with different volumes. Some are very soft-spoken, some shy and hardly audible, while others have voices that carry far.

A thin, wiry member of the congregation stands up. After having surveyed the room for two minutes he is now convinced that nobody else has anything of Real Worth to say — so he is going to teach everybody a lesson. (Standing up is in itself a sign of high status; think of a classroom with sitting students and standing teacher. It is easy to understand (see) who is supposed to be knowledgeable and “wise”.)

The thin guy does what many of us do at times; he uses his voice to dominate his surroundings. With a certain tone, volume and inflection. All of this, if not his words, says “Listen up! What I am going to say is IMPORTANT. I am RIGHT and you should just shut up and accept it.”

Few of us use say those exact words; many of us use our voice to say just that. Dominance through sound, not word, is a somewhat jungle-like behavior.

Me Tarzan, you Shutup. Me Politician, you Try to silence me if you can.

ornament5bHowever, things can become even more jungle-like, for example when we move out into the street.

I spend a lot of time sitting at sideboard cafes, reading, writing, watching people. Obviously a lot of traffic is flowing by. Cars, pedestrians, motor cycles. As we know both cars and bikes are capable of making growling sounds, reminiscent of lions and tigers. VRRROMM, WRRROOOOOOOOM!!

Just listen to this inner-city wildcat.

On a small scale drivers use a short version of this when waiting at a red light. Pedestrians might not know why they suddenly feel an urge to run across the zebra: often it is because the driver has produced this motor stress sound, a mini-wrooom.

One can argue that the maxi-wrooom, of which I unfortunately hear a lot, is childish. My hearing is very sensitive, for me it’s almost like torture.

But childish or not, the driver stepping on the gas is somewhat reminiscent of the speaker who thinks that he is right and everybody else should LISTEN UP. He takes a large part of the auditory blanket, occupies a large part of the soundscape.

Nobody is allowed not to notice him. (I write him because I this mainly concerns males, both speakers and drivers. Women have other tricks.)

There is a saying “Loud noise, small dick”. I wish this was taught in lesson one in driving schools.

While some of us are trying to raise our status by volume, both in traffic and in the living room, many actually see it as lowered. As somebody said, just because you silence somebody does not mean that you have convinced him.

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Volume of course in itself does not mean loud volume, even though I have used the word in that sense. We have an interesting saying: “it speaks volumes”. This does not concern decibels but meaning (a meta level).

We can clump together both meanings: It speaks volumes when you try to dominate your surroundings by volume.

There are people who are very soft-spoken and never raise their voice, but they have around them an atmosphere that is — loud and clear. We can call it inner security or certainty, calm self-trust. We hear it with other ears than the psychical.

This is another way to show high status and prove worth: without trying. Not everybody is listening on that channel, of course. We are often duped and seduced by appearances.

Who did Roxanne fall in love with? The stupid but handsome Christian — while the brilliant, sensitive but long-nosed Cyrano was left in the shadows. That is, until Roxanne came to her (higher) senses and understood that what she really loved in Christian was his words… which were really dictated by Cyrano. At last she saw who and what she loved, but then it was too late, Cyrano was already dying.

Ah, the romantic ramifications of this. I think the world is generally impressed by loud volume, seldom by soft-spoken inner strength. In the next Yuga perhaps.

ornament5bBut even before that we can note that volume can be both soft and loud, and that soft Yin can actually be stronger than hard Yang. This is the Taoist attitude.

Water is the strongest (most supple) elements, partly because it never breaks but goes around things. And when it wants, it collects itself into a roaring (yes) Tsunami and crushes everything.

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Tweet seats and the misunderstanding of the concert hall

Greetings, musical thinkers.

This melosophian excursion will be somewhat polemic and might even resemble an Op-Ed article. That cannot be helped; in every country there are things one does not like or is very critical to.

That applies to Melosophia as well.

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Let’s start at home.

Very probably most people can answer the question “What is a bedroom, a hall, a kitchen?”. Most of us know what a church or a football stadium is. A gym is a clearly defined space, so is a restaurant.

But what is a concert hall? The answer is seemingly simple: A place for playing and listening to music, often classical music.

Yes, but what is its deeper function? That´s a very good question for a long winter or summer night.

Seen from the perspective of the experimental science domainology I would say that it is a kind of meditation hall. Actual meditation halls, and also churches, are in a similar way rooms and spaces for changing our brain- and heart-waves.

Brain-waves

For now, let´s limit ourselves to the concert hall as a place for housing classical music. The reason for this is twofold: 1) the volume level, often very low, and 2) the emotional-aesthetic content, often very intimate, introspective, and even fragile.

As to volume level we know that a small unruly child can quite easily disturb a symphony orchestra. Compare this with a hefty rock concert where even the most loud-voiced audience member couldn’t disturb anyone, or even make himself heard.

This is the acoustical reality of the the musician-listener relationship in different musical arenas. Classical can be more brittle than a crystal vase.

The psychological-aesthetic-emotional element is even more important. Here it is necessary to ponder different genres of music from a bird´s eye view. This is quite a task, and something that very few of us have done.

As a musical omnivore and private researcher into the mechanics of listening I suggest the following very broad generalizations.

Hard rock and similarly rough music with a lot of horsepower and testosterone: Very Yang, active, outer oriented music with a lot of Mars energy (sometimes Uranus and Pluto).

Pop (an enormous field by itself), easy going and easy flowing music, often keeping within the safe borders of the three minute tune formula.

Jazz often contains a lot of nervous, caffeine-like energy. All the solos and improvisation point to a strong element of show, display and virtuoso exhibitionism.

Classical is the oldest member of the genres, containing the most diverse music and exhibiting variety almost bordering on multiple personality disorder. To get an idea of its age, let me note that the nowadays well known Hildegard von Bingen walked on Earth about 1000 years ago. Compare this with pop and rock that isn’t even 100.

Now, older is not = better. I am just pointing out this age thing to show that classical music has a long pedigree. It is a old tree with many branches and confusingly many offshoot.

If we just look at similarity it´s rather easy to recognize and define something as jazz or rock, while classical music from different periods and composers might nor resemble each other at all, perhaps excepting the use of similar instrumentation. (There are definitely fewer saxophones and electric guitars in classical music.)

Now lets get back to our concert hall and imagine that we are going to a classical concert. You buy the tickets days or weeks in advance. The day arrives, you dress up perhaps, arrive at the concert hall. hang in your clothes and find your seat. You look around to see if any of your pals are here, browse the program and prepare yourself for what is to come.

The orchestra enters, applause. Tuning, then silence. The conductor and soloists enter, more applause. And now — the big silence before the storm. The concert can begin!

All these steps are a stairway, downward sloping, to slower vibrations.

One can of course argue that going to a jazz or rock concert includes a similar preparation and “tuning” of oneself. Expectations, dressing up, adrenaline, etc.

And important keyword is adrenaline. I know that there is a pre-concert “tuning” of ourselves also in jazz and rock. However in classical music this tuning is generally a down-tuning, like going from 440 Hz to 432. We are moving towards slower brainwaves. Slower, calmer, more relaxed, meditative.

the concertThe phrase “altered state” is actually very relevant for classical concerts. I am not saying that classical concert are always seventh heaven. On the contrary I can personally be very bored at times, especially when hearing classical “standars” for the nth time. But the room and the situation DOES inspire and invite slower brainwaves. (Of course this also depends on the program. Offenbach operetta would generate less Alpha than a Chopin nocturne.)

Without being religious about it (more than indirectly) I see the concert hall as a close relative to the church.We do not necessarily talk of God and Jesus, often we don´t talk at all, but the message that comes across is very spiritual.

Some people, including classical musicians, judge me as hopelessly conservative for saying this. In that case I suggest that they study their own sphere of work more closely. Mentally, in one´s head, one can be very much a contemporary person, immersed in social media, mobile phones and apps. But classical music, as a mature and even old genre builds on a heritage with very deep roots. It is in many ways not in harmony with, not “contemporary” with our society, especially not its technological development.

This is no error, there is nothing wrong with this. On the contrary, the aspect of not being with the times, is — when you contemplate the times, mass media spewing violence, trivia, entertainment and distracting link baits on us all — a good thing.

Not being with the times might even be the most important aspect of classical music!

I would add that in a world that is hypnotized by action, that cannot sit still for three minutes without hailing out an iPhone or similar gadget, classical music very much represents Yin, the still, feminine, inward looking and inward moving tendency. It is very centripetal, drawing us towards, not away from, the Center.

inwardPeople say that classical music is in a crisis. I would say several crises. Many modern composers are lost in private navel-gazing and can sometimes not even read music (!), while concert institutions are worried about the audience being too small, or too old. Hm, is somebody surprised when the genre itself is thousand years old?

If I ran a concert hall I would of course also think of how to get a full house. But my methods would differ from many current methods.

What happens today is very much a kind of popularization that I call walking all the way over the bridge. We can make a paraphrase of the subtitle of Nietzsche´s last book Ecce Homo and call it “how one becomes what one is not” (Nietsche didn´t have the last “not”.)

We have all heard of penis envy. Classical music suffers from pop-envy. I am sure that pop and rock musicians don´t feel that “Gosh, we have to learn from the symphony orchestras and dress in tailcoat from now on.” No, those genres are doing their own thing, trusting that it’s okay to present pop and rock AS pop and rock.

The classical field does not have the same self-trust and seems to reason in terms of “REMAKE”. I haven´t heard anybody say the word, but I can almost hear the thought: pimp my symphony…

Clearly the classical field is not content with things as they are. That is understandable and not strange. That people don´t appreciate it enough is admittedly a sorry state of affairs.

But what is even sorrier is that the classical field does not understand ITSELF!

When it starts to behave as if it was pop, then I would diagnose schizophonia. We are familiar with Nigel Kennedy´s coiffure and the low decolletages of many a female musician and singer. I have so far seen few midriffs à la Britney Spears, but things are bad enough as it is.

The relation with Internet, World wide web and social media is especially deplorable. Musicians who protest against their concert being filmed with iPhones are being reviled for it! The bad habits of an entire generation of ononists  — people who want to be constantly online, always On-On, never On-Off — are being accepted as normality.

That bad habits are turning into norm is no reason for accepting them. Not if we know what we are doing. But as I say, classical music has lost sight of what it is, and only looks at what it lacks, a large/ larger audience.

So it also becomes, in sorry Facebook fashion, a like-whore.

One manifestation of this desperate hunt for “likes” is tweet seats. A certain number of seats in a concert or opera hall are reserved for tweeters, ononists who cannot be without their favorite communication toy for two hours.

Nobody seems to want to use the word licentiousness (too long, too hard to spell) about this inability and disinclination to leave the mobile phone if not at home then at least in the cloakroom. No, we don´t want to make demands on the poor audience. We will go all the way over the bridge, so that they don’t need to use their tired muscles.

As I, a traveler in Melosophia, see it, this is the Royal Road to non-self-realization, to becoming what one is not. Classical music, after a truly wonderful past, is now about to lose itself to fashion, and not to musical fashion — which can be bad enough but is always expected — but to techno pop fashion, the craze for being online, not with the music and the slower brainwaves it engenders, but with the pals sitting at the pub asking where one is and why the hell one is so late.

ornament5bYes, this was something of a rant. Not everything is rosy in the world of music, if you thought so .-)

Thank you for joining me on this little excursion to Melosophia, a country whose citizens withstand, oppose and sometimes fall prey to the stormy winds of fashion.

The facdotal stuff, or, Musical toppings

On my journeys to Melosophia I am lead to many reflections about how we listen to music, and how we talk about it.

The first factor in no small degree influences the second; words get in our minds and into our ears. Words often “cover” our ears, so that we almost hear what we think. (Compare, the Emperor’s new clothes.)

Imagine a sandwich. Sure, the bread is important but most people will agree that it is what we put on it — cheese, salami, mozzarella, avocado, etc. — that makes it tasty and appetizing.

The toppings!
The toppings!

In his extremely funny book “The Bachelor Home Companion” P. J. O’Rourke describes another kind of sandwich: the sandwich sandwich.

“Two pieces of bread with a piece of bread in between.”

No, we cant have THAT. We must have toppings!

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Music also has toppings. But the relation between bread and toppings is the opposite here, at least in my view.

The “bread” is the first, most important and essential ingredient while the toppings are secondary, if not downright distracting and disturbing.

What are musical “toppings” then? Clearly not avocado or cheese. Musical toppings are sometimes visual but in classical music most often mental elements. (I would say the opposite situation in popular music. Lots of images, and “image”, less learned musical analysis.)

MUSICAL TOPPINGS:

  • Facts
  • musical analysis
  • history
  • anecdotes

We need a word for this, to distinguish bread from topping. I have coined the word “facdotal” for it, not perfect but not bad. The facdotal elements of music are not something we hear as musical sound waves. Still they get into our heads, as thought waves, concepts, ideas, theories.

And since our heads are used to and sometimes enjoy facdotal stuff (anecdotes can be great fun) we don’t mind our bread being covered with this fare.

Unless we do. And I do.

We know that hi-fi aficionados dislike noise and care very much about removing distortion. They are on a quest for clean, authentic sound. I can understand that, because I also want to remove distortion, but at another level. Not from the stereo or loudspeaker but from my head. This distortion is to a large degree toppings.

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The facdotal toppings of music can be seen as clothes. Let me be somewhat erotic and say that I often prefer my music naked. No cheese, no opus numbers, no anecdotes, no guru, no method. Just the plain essential bread of music. Music in itself, musik an sich.

Let me give two examples of oh so common facdotal toppings. They come from Wikipedia and concern Chopin’s Ballads. Let’s see what kind of mental invitations these comments are sending out, what they want us to think about.

Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23, composed in 1831 during the composer’s early years in Vienna, was a reflection of his loneliness in the city far away from his home in Poland, where the November Uprising, a war against the Russian Empire’s
oppression of his people, was happening.

  • “early years in Vienna”
  • “reflection of loneliness”
  • “far from home”
  • “November uprising”
  • “oppression of people”

Quite a lot of heavy topping I would say, in just one sentence.

Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47, dating from 1841, is dedicated to Pauline de Noailles. The inspiration for this Ballade is usually claimed to be Adam Mickiewicz’s poem Undine, also known as Świtezianka.There are structural similarities with the “Raindrop Prelude” which was inspired by the weather in Majorca during Chopin’s disastrous vacation with George Sand. These include a repetitive A-flat which modulates into a G-sharp during the C-sharp minor section.

  • Adam Mickiewicz’s poem Undine [should I Google it?]
  • Świtezianka [?]
  • structural similarities with the “Raindrop Prelude” [okay…]
  • the weather in Majorca [ah, the weather!]
  • disastrous vacation with George Sand [George? I didn’t know Chopin was gay…]

And to top THAT let’s add the final touch of some technical jargon:

  • repetitive A-flat which modulates
  • the C-sharp minor section

That was a mouthful…

SandwichPlease understand that I am no enemy of knowledge or culture. Knowing things seldom hurt. However, thinking about what we know (or think we know; many anecdotes are just good stories) while at the same time absorbing music can obscure the essence and the “bread” of it.

That’s it for now, I am out of mental gas…. No final summing up, you have to do that yourself. Maybe over a big juicy pastrami sandwich.

Collection of silences: 1

As I wrote in my last post, classical music has a very close  — and happy, I would say — relation with silence. That can not be said about all genres of music, for example techno or dixieland.

But let’s not have a competition, trying to prove who is best and most superior. Let’s leave the question of genre and focus on silence.

Silence is not much to focus on, you might say.

But it IS. It really can be. In this series I am going to present a number of pieces where we can discover or rediscover silence.

Just as there are different kinds of music (happy, dark, violent, tender or listless) there are different kinds of silence. I will not be a boring professor and name them or make a catalog.

Let’s just sink our auditory teeth into these slices of “nothing”…

ornament5bI will start off with a classic, Claude Debussy’s “L’après-midi d’un faune”, a piece you might or might not know. If it is new to you, I envy you. Imagine, hearing this for the very first time!

Let me just point out, without talking about minutes and seconds, that silence is to be found at the very beginning of the piece.

Enjoy.

PS: Just one more thing. Even though I find the images to this video very poetic and congenial I recommend listening with closed eyes. At least the first time. Allow you ears the rare luxury to be exclusively pampered, leaving all other senses aside.

Closing our eyes…. isn’t this how life is? When we have a breathtaking experience — of food, nature, perfume, love — we close our eyes and savor it with our inner vision. This applies to music as well; by shutting off vision we strengthen listening. Especially in a world as visually overcrowded (littered?) as ours this should be mentioned.

Enough talk. Now music!

How is classical music unique?

So what’s so special about YOUR kind of music? some people ask classical musicians. As if we all were von oben snobs. Which some (a few) of us ARE, but that shouldn’t reflect negatively on the music.

Let me try to partially answer that question. And bear in mind that even though I am a classical pianist and composer I am no “homeboy”; as a listener I have traveled wide in the country of Melosophia.

So, a quick answer.

— If we compare different genres (classical, jazz, pop, rock, hip-hop, etc.) we can see that classical is an old beast. How old depends on how we are counting, but let’s say around thousand years? That’s old, an extra zero compared with other genres.

Old and I would say mature. Classical is out of kindergarten (even if we like to be scherzando childish at times).

hoffnung tuba-beer— It understands the values of softness, silence, meditation and inward turned centripetality. Classical music is not materialistic, praising money, fast cars and gold necklaces. Much of is it “religious”, turned towards a spiritual world.

There is no such thing as a gangsta sonata (but due to the unfortunate, modern tendency of desperately trying to be “with it” there might be one next year).

— Classical music has the highest level of Yin of the different genres, at least in our Western world. (Eastern music is a world to itself.) In a world caught up in Yang, often of a negative kind (action orientation, speed, stress, the fast buck, etc.) classical music can act as a balancing force.

— Classical musicians understand the meaning of long-term. Nobody ask how long it took a pianist to learn the pieces for his recital. And if it took a really LONG time, nobody says: The concert was an artistic success but a financial failure! We are (relatively) free from the germs of Taylorism and cost-effective hinking.

For example, Vladimir Horowitz was approached by a young fan after a recital.

Fan: Maestro, how do you play that phrase in bar 26 so beautifully?
Horowitz: Simple, my dear. It only took all of my life.

— The classical domain is far from a totally harmonious and ethical paradise, however, we do have a special place reserved for the Muse. It’s not just about our own careers and number of Twitter followers. The words inspiration, dedication and service (of things invisible) represent real values for us.

ornament5bThat is enough for now. However, check my first post about the silent aspect of classical: Collection of silences – 1.

The contents of Melosophia

Greetings

This first text is not going to be long, but high flying.

I mean that I will try to be like a bird and look “down” on music from above. What I see-hear is almost impossible to describe: all the sounds, rhythms, noises, instruments and voices.

To be able to talk about Melosophia we need some kind of language or mental models. (It is the same with wine, without a vocabulary we can only say “Ah… ohhh. I really like that A LOT!” or “This one tastes better than the first one”. Primitive, almost like being back in the Stone age.)

However, the usual technical descriptions and analytical tools are not used here. They refer too much to a micro perspective.

Be open to another perspective. At the same time, do not expect perfect analytic models. This is an exploration in progress.

ornament5bWhen I try to fly really high this is what I see in the wonderful country of music:

Tendencies (Yin, Yang, centripetal, centrifugal)
Talents (musicality, sight reading talent, etc.)
People (musicians, singers, conductors, etc)
Things (instruments, CD-s, etc)

Is something missing from this, surely incomplete, list? Music, of course.

THINGS are not very interesting. The PEOPLE of Melosophia are in many ways interesting. The TALENTS are extremely interesting, especially when seen as not only belonging in Melosophia but also in the world at large. (For example, the ability to listen and to hear well are essential for musicians, but also important in our everyday lives.) The TENDENCIES help us finding and seeing a larger perspective, as from a satellite in the stratosphere.

This was our short overture. Let the adventure begin.

Welcome to the journey

Welcome, music lovers

Maybe I should call this odyssey, because this is no ordinary one-day trip.

“Melosophia” is I word I made up one long winter night. It means music wisdom but I also use it for the entire domain, or country, of music: Music-land, containing ALL things, tendencies and talents musical.

Of course I don´t know it all, but enough at least to dare to call me provisional guide of this expedition. (I am pro vision.)

enharmonic greetings

Ladislaus Horatius (musician, composer, writer)