Sunday, November 27, 2016

Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros had a rare presence and that presence will continue; it had a spiritual, even mystical, character, capable in her music of heights, yet was reliably down-to-earth, mostly tender, sometimes fierce, but often profoundly funny.  She was a pioneer in musical theatre pieces (Double Basses at Twenty Paces, Big Mother is Watching You, Crow II, Rose Moon, Njinga the Queen King, Io and Him and the Trouble with Her,  The Island of Maps), in the use of electronics in music (I of IV, Bye-bye Butterfly, and all of her work founding or co-founding electronic music studios and with the live music enhancement innovations of the Good Sound Foundation reflecting her continuous interest in sound as and in environments), and in her tight wire walk between composition and improvisation in which she found unique balance — and extra-musical echoes — in her special genre of innovation, the sonic meditation.  She was always a performing musician — an accordionist, first (I have to note that the solo accordion part to Ramon Sender's astonishing Desert Ambulance was made for her, a part with verbal instructions on a parallel tape track heard only by the soloist), but also a horn and tuba player, singer, electronicist, and (see above) an occasional bandoneon player — but her instruments were just instruments, means to ends rather than virtuoso objects in themselves, and ends in question were, ultimately, sharing her own presence and making articulate its, and our, place in the environment.

(As a Californian, I think I have to throw in the phrase "appropriate technology" here: Pauline's accordion would co-evolve with her, first being retuned in a just intonation with a series of just fifths on one side separated by just major thirds, and on the other the fifths separated by harmonic sevenths, later the whole thing becoming midi-fied, as an elaborate, bellows-breathing, controller.)

May I note one aspect of her work that I find to have a powerfully feminist component?  Though she had formidable chops in conventionally written notation (see, for example, her early Songs to texts by Duncan and Olson, the Variations for Sextet, or the Trio for Flute, Piano and Page Turner (I can't help but note the importance of her teacher, Robert Erickson, in arriving at these pieces)), her mature music did not privilege that form of transmission over texts, images (mandalas, in particular, or oral/aural-transmission. When Oliveros introduced herself and her Sonic Meditations in a 1971 issue of Source: Music of the Avant-Garde magazine, she was frank and most radically, for me, in her identification as a natural being (a two-legged human, to be exact, keeping the company of many animals) and with Sappho as an archetype (I suppose we'd now prefer 'role model') of suppressed women composers:
Pauline Oliveros is a two-legged human being, a female, lesbian, musician, composer among other things that contribute to her identity. She is herself and lives with her partner... along with assorted poultry, dogs, cats, rabbits and tropical hermit crabs. She is devoted to the elevation and equalization of the feminine principle along with the masculine principle. The feminine principle is subjugated in both women and men, personally and transpersonally. She believes that Sappho, the great Greek poetess was the archetype of women composers and that the destruction of her work by the early Christians is representative of a movement which eliminated and suppressed all models of women a creators in the arts. She is further devoted to uncovering, establishing, and encouraging new models to which women and the feminine side of men can relate.

The Sonic Meditations that followed were text scores, dedicated to the ♀ Ensemble (and that other pioneer, Amelia Earhart (!)) and were not intended primarily for concert performance but as "group work" for developing "positive energy."   Now, some of this now has a somewhat dated or faded tone, given the whole "new age" or "human potential" thing that came in intervening years (and yes, to be honest, I'm not completely at ease with Oliveros's program of "Deep Listening" (though I have pushed enough for a not unrelated "slow listening", here)), but above and beyond its solely musical attractions, this work was prescient, honest, and suggested productive ways of changing the way in which people made and used music, not just as passive consumerism.  And however faded, I suspect the next years will bring some new urgency to the more political, especially feminist, aspects of this work. I'm not sure exactly what Deep Listening is, and it may be, to some extent, musical snake oil (a thought Oliveros probably would have enjoyed laughing at) but, to the extent that it's not casual listening and that it opens musical listening up to the wider experience around the music, the people engaged in it, the environment around it, it's a good thing.

There will likely be many memorials online and off, each focusing on different aspects of her work. Here I'd like to emphasize this environmental dimension, which I think has roots in the notion of her teacher Erickson that "every composer composes his/her environment", in the expansiveness of the Bay Area's emerging genre of theatre pieces (the "Chamber Opera" version of La Monte Young's Poem for Chairs, Tables, Benches, etc. may have been the first of the kind), and in work that Pauline and Douglas Leedy were first doing in the Bay Area in the 1960s, likely beginning with Leedy's garden party music Exhibition Music 1964, and continuing with self-sustaining electronic enviroments by both (Leedy's Electronic Zodiac and Entropical Paradise are the best-known examples of this work) but, ultimately, I think, for Oliveros, evolving into refined electronics for enhancing live instrumental and vocal performances.  Ever a great collaborator, one of the major events in her early career was the first major festival of the work of David Tudor (for which event she wrote Seesaw for bandoneon and accordion duet (the players were on one such piece of playground equipment) with "possible minah bird obbligato" (yes, her pet bird participated)) and although Tudor began as a mentor, I think it was Oliveros's example that enouraged Tudor in his own environmental-musical concerns, from the scrapyard loudspeaker Rainforest to the insect sounds of Dialects or his later investigations of natural underwater sounds.


                                (Photo: David Tudor, Douglas Leedy, N.N., Pauline Oliveros, ca, 1969)
Pauline Oliveros is dearly missed (have I mentioned that I already miss her voice, so comfortingly droll and slightly drawling?), but I'm certain she'd counsel that we use this opportunity to simply keep making music, her music, your music, our music, and pay deep attention to the world it is in.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Karl Kohn is 90

Congratulations (as it happens, from Bali, but that's another post) to composer Karl Kohn on his 90th birthday! Although Karl and his duo-pianistic partner Margaret Kohn have given up their concertizing (they were perhaps the finest duo piano team in the US, with fantastic performances of everything from En Blanc et Noir to Visions de l'Amen, the Bartok Sonata, Structures, Piano Phase, the Ligeti...), he continues to compose in his distinctive athematic style, poised between total chromaticism and the local suggestion of the tonal. Viennese-born, a student of Piston and Fine at Harvard, but longest in California, which is marked by a certain touch of the fantastic that often emerges in the desert

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Chris Brown in his Primes

I don't have much to do with recordings, but I can recommend this new one, by Chris Brown, of his Six Primes for solo piano in a 13-limit just intonation, with each piece or movement in the set using a intervallically distinct subset of the tuning.  (This is mining resources in a very rich tonal vein; Douglas Leedy's masterful Pastorale for chorus and retuned piano four-hands uses a tuning differing from Brown's by only two notes (for intonation enthusiasts: the 13s in Six Primes take the place of syntonic comma-lowered tones in Pastorale.) Although Brown and I shared teachers at Santa Cruz, the classicist N.O. Brown and composer Gordon Mumma, we were some years apart (his performance of a Pousseur piano work and work with homemade electronics were legend by my time)  and have only met once or twice over the years, but each encounter with his music has been a strong one for me and this recording shows him at an exciting conjunction of long-term concerns, with what appears to my ears to be a potent balance between the compositionally strict and extemporaneous.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

A Tempo

Just to note that I've been particularly enjoying reading the journal Tempo of late.  From the late Bob Gilmore's  editorship to that of his estimable successor, Christopher Fox with a lively reviews section under Juliet Fraser, Tempo has been on a lively streak.  In high school, I used to pour through back issues in the stacks of a local college, fascinated, as the topics in Tempo were reliably a little exotic to me. Though less parochial than the Musical Times with its strengths in music from the UK (with an apparent balance between mainstream, modernist, and experimental streams) and the continent, it was, for me, still a Brit's ear view of things, and I continue value it for just that, for frequently pointing out and orienting me to music with which I wouldn't have otherwise engaged.


Saturday, May 28, 2016

Repression, Reduction...Resistance, Renaissance

Sergej Newski writes about the lively radical music scene in Russia today, finding advantage at the margins of the officially possible (or, officially invisible), but straight to the roots of the musical.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Radical Music: Fragments of a Manifesto

Sounds articulate precise dimensions in physical space; musical sounds also articulate precise dimensions in social and private spaces.

*****

Use the minimum of resources or means required. Less is often more.

Find the core question or idea in a work. Choose and use your materials to best frame that question or idea.

All musical ideas and all musical instruments (save the vibra-slap) are potentially useful. None is universally useful. (Save the vibra-slap, which is never useful.)

But having practiced the virtues of economy, allow yourself, from time to time, a bit of extravangance, some conspicuous production and consumption.   In the end, the economy of musical production is like the bellows of a concertina, expansion necessarily paired with contraction.

*****

Go to extremes, in whichever parameter you use, including extremes of moderation.

Question parameters. A parameter is someone else's way of dividing up the aural experience. Explore the edges and boundaries of and between pitch and timbre and rhythm and dynamic and form. Explore and break boundaries between music and not-music.

Music, the physics of musical sound, the psychophysics of music, and the neuroscience of music are different concerns, each with its own territory and terminology. How might they relate? How might they not relate? What unique elements of cohesion does music bring to these disciplines and how can they extend the potential for new forms of musical activity?

*****

Follow an idea in all its consequences. Find the end of a process or pattern. Push a system to its design capacity and then push beyond it.

However, if the consequences of a process are obvious, is it necessary to carry out the process in full?

Consider the possibility of multiple versions, or realizations, of a work. Or accept the first version and move on to the next work without looking (listening) back.

Break, subvert, or invert cause and effect.

*****

There is an indeterminant number of ways of arriving at the same musical surface and it's not possible to determine the best or most efficient or most elegant way.  Worrying about this is an ethical issue, not an aesthetic one.
Start from nothing, from first principles, without assumptions and build a better (sound) world from the ground up.  Or start with everything and scrape, sculpt, and erase away, making the real, existing (wise, tired) world better.
Limits and rules: anything we compose could, potentially, be through-composed,  by taste and experience, but sometimes the alternative, carrying out rules applied to a limited set of materials, in the manner of a game (a music game, like a language game) carries much less anxiety and leads to surprises rather than the habitual.

*****

The radical music is about complexity.  But not necessarily that complexity.
Complexity is an elusive quality: It can be algorithmic complexity (for all that's worth) or the complexity of acoustical phenomena when heard in greater detail or the complexity of historical or social context.  Sometimes highly dense phenomena can only be heard coarsely and sometimes the simplest of conditions can overwhelm the senses.  A universally applicable and acceptable definition of either "sufficient" or "over-" complexity is impossible. (To paraphrase Potter Stewart, you know it when you hear it). When people make and listen to sounds, to music, one form or another of complexity is inevitable. Don't give it a second thought. No, strike that, don't give it the first thought, but keep it well in mind as a second.
Every piece of music has an element of the improvisational, extemporaneous, accidental, capricious, prejudiced or arbitrary. Is a piece of music interesting because of this? Is a piece musical because of this?

*****

Experiment with scale, both the smallest, most local, and the grandest, most global, as well as the most anonymous quantities in-between.

Boredom is only a function of time, and a function with several variables.

*****

Modest work done in a serious way, leavened with levity, can carry large ambitions.

History is both a playground and a minefield, and a composer can and will write and rewrite music history with reckless disregard for the difference between a playground and a minefield.

                                                                                                                      (2007, revised 2009)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

What is Counterpoint? (1)

If I ever write a novel, it might be based on two women I happen to know, each in her early 40s, who meet periodically — once a month, if I recall correctly — for lunch at a franchise of a steakhouse chain in downtown Frankfurt.  Not having much in common, they don't talk about much; they enjoy each other's company, but more than that, I surmise, they both like having that regular appointment with a good steak.  Between lunches, they don't have any contact at all, as their personal and professional lives are otherwise completely independent from one another.  In real life, each lives on opposite sides of the city and both are professionals: one woman is an attorney with a successful private practice in a niche area and has been married, mostly happily, for over 20 years, with a pair of high-achieving kids, the other is in marketing and has had some struggles with her career and personal life of late.  In  my novelization, I would take license and make these careers and lives even more separate from one another, with one woman having reduced to halftime work while her son, with a learning disability, finishes school while the other woman, with little in the way of settled domestic life, would be constantly on the move doing her work in international corporate espionage. The form of the book would be a series of steak lunches with both women together, not saying much of anything, settled and static, separated by pairs of solo chapters of great contrast, yet allowing each lifestyle to project its own range of securities, uncertainties, and even dangers.  (Ideally, each pair of parallel chapters would be read simultaneously. Whether this could be invited by having the texts printed on facing pages, or in alternating lines of the text, or some other method altogether (think: left and right channels of an audio book), remains to be explored.)  

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Notation

(Composer Richard K.) Winslow's Law: If you want to repeat a piece of music exactly, learn it by rote. If you want to guarantee that it changes over time, write it down."

(Chef) Jacques Pepin stated the equivalent: "The recipe is only the expression of one moment in time."

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Alvin Lucier is 85

Congratulations to Alvin Lucier on his 85th birthday.  He's doing very well and actively composing, which for Lucier means continuing to explore the ways in which a pieces of music can be composed so that acoustical phenomena are made more vivid.  I'm told that his works-in-progress at this moment include a solo glockenspiel piece in which the attack and sustain are reflected off different walls in the performance space and a quartet for celli in which only bow pressure is used to change the pitches of the open strings.  I'm fortunate to be able to call Alvin my teacher (indeed, my Doktorvater) and have worked as his publisher for many years. Here's to many more pieces, many more years!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Z is for Zombie

When the cultural history of the Obama years gets written, it will be hard to avoid the predominant role in television drama of the disaster-dominated genres:  from internal conspiracies (both corporate and governmental) to alien, angelic/demonic, and time traveler invasions, to epidemics of the viral (both corporate and governmental) and supernatural (vampires, zombies, etc.) sorts, the serials have pictured a world (but usually focused on the US) under siege and struggling mightily, with heroes, villains and many posed ambiguously in-between. While this trend certainly build on long histories of prior examples and it got into gear during the Bush II years, it really exploded under Obama and I can't help but assume that this came in substantial part from Hollywood (usually presumed to be of the "left") cynically creating product for viewer demographics (usually presumed to be of the "right") that pointed to a huge audience potential for paranoid tales addressed to those who think that their natural hegemony in the world has been taken away.  Each of the genres in question is well-suited to addressing one or another of the paranoid strains in our culture, with ethnic or racial and sexual themes vying with hidden exercise of abused corporate or state powers for the greater resonance and potential for volatile audience identification.   At the same time, it must be acknowledged that the greater the catastrophe represented, the greater the opportunity for conflict-driven drama  both compelling and complex enough to be sustainable over several seasons.

Of all the genres represented in this era, I suspect that it is the zombie story that is going to be the one end times genre that most attaches itself, in future histories, to the Obama terms.  While there are certainly elements of other genres, alien invasion (with aliens locatable in both a supposed Kenyan-born president and refugees or immigrants crossing borders, but also in the body-and-brain-snatched Kansans who so cheerfully continue to vote against their own best interests) or vampires (who inevitable have carried a charge that is both sexual and violent in their appearances in literature and dramatic media), that make strong competition and will likely continue to resonate in the future, the zombie, as notion and as dramatic form, offers both intrinsic and extrinsic qualities which strongly suggest that its shelf life is both limited in duration and limited to this era.  The first reason is simply the failure of the zombie literature to come up with a fictional science that even plausibly accounts for the biology of a zombie, for example the energy requirements for indefinitely sustaining, let alone mobilizing, a zombic folk on ever scarcer sources of food. (This is, eventually, that problem of a parasite killing off its own host.)  The second reason is that the limited brain function, i.e. focused solely on feeding and no longer capable of learning, make the long-term prospects for a walking brain dead rather low both as a fictional competing population and as a population with potential to generate further narratives.   It is no wonder that zombie epics inevitably turn to more human-vs.-human competition and away from the human-against-zombie business as the zombies inevitably slow down, decay, and cease to increase their populations relative to the remaining humans who must have qualities of strength or intelligence, perhaps immunity, to have survived.

I think the record of the Obama years has been and will be mixed, but it will be a valiant one, and it's a twist for all those who saw Obama as representing the head of an invading force. The twist is that Obama & Co. have not been the zombies, but rather the president-as-zombie-killer, with some (but, mind you, not enough) successes in a struggle against a resentful part of the population driven by ideas — zombie ideas — that are obviously dead but nevertheless continue to drive them forward

*****

Those observations made, I ought to say something about zombie ideas in music.  There are definitely aspects of musical production and reception that, for better or worse,  may likely (if not already) be seen as zombie ideas, for example the traditional manager, impresario, and publisher, or licensing income from broadcasts derived from advertising,  But I don't think that actual ideas in music can become zombies.  To restate Schoenberg's observation that "there is still plenty of good music to be written in C major", there are no zombie ideas in music, just zombie composers and players who make dull music by failing to discover the potential in even the oldest of ideas.

(This is the end of a second alphabet on this blog. The date and number of words in each item in these alphabets were determined by chance, the contents were through-composed.)


Sunday, February 21, 2016

Brute Force and All That

This business with the FBI wanting Apple to create a tool to unlock the iPhone of the San Bernadino terrorists has been fascinating to follow, not least because it appears that the method the FBI has settled on is brute force — in this case, systematically trying every PIN combination — but brute force is here limited by the iPhone which allows only 10 mistaken attempts and then erases the data on the phone (or bricks it altogether — I've heard competing accounts), so the Bureau wants Cupertino to give them a way to shut down this 10-strikes-and-you're-out security feature. (Apple is refusing, for all kinds of really good, sensible, reasons which others explain elsewhere with more detail and authority.)

Now, brute force is something that should be familiar to composers. For all of our plans and schemes and charts and systems, at some point there inevitably seem to be decisions to make that have to rely on brute force, rigorously trying out each solution on a list (whether formal or informal, in the head or on paper or screen) of possible solutions until one that works is found  (the sketches of Beethoven or Ives sometimes suggest such a procedure.)  If you're lucky, you stumble on a workable solution fast, but more often brute force gets refined as trial-and-error, optimally with successive error suggesting ways to sieve through the list to get more likely answers, but it can nevertheless be a damnably long process, and not a few composers find themselves bricking the work sometime along the way. (If you're really lucky, you get both the right answer and some insight into why it is the right answer along the way, an example of a piece revealing its own rules, or even "theory" in the course of composition.)

Last night, I went to a pretty good performance of The Makropulos Act (alternatively: Affair, Case, Matter, Secret, or Thing.)  Now, Janáček worked rather methodically with his vocal rhythms and contours based on spoken Czech musically heightened and he had a personal set of harmonic principles (not quite a system: categories and principles, somewhat along the lines of Hindemith.) But these together tend to function more as a spur to local invention than in any calculated continuity over greater distances (with two exceptions in Makropulos, in almost-arias given to the comic Count Hauk-Šendorf in the Second and E.M. herself in the Third Act) and his writing is ever being driven forward by a kind of brute force, a sustained intensity of imagination, or, as Morton Feldman, at times also a brute-forciste, put it: concentration.

Brute force works by trying out all of the possible combinations or possibilities, typically in some logical order, which certainly helps to keep track of things when the list is long.  And although I've been talking about going through lists while composing, in order to select an optimum item from the list for a finished score, this line of musing also invites some thought about the subject of exhausting such lists within works of music.  [Simple example: much 12-tone music (not all, but much) features a succession of exhaustions of the 12-pitch class collection, some music extends this exhaustion to other aspects or parameters of the music.]  Personally, I go back and forth on the issue.  I use lists of all possible combinations all the time in my music, I love Gray codes (and Beckett Gray Codes in particular) and have recently been working with all the possible relationships in abstract time (that is, ignoring the precise durations) two or three or more sounds might have to one another. But if, for example, a strict process has been initiated, while I understand the aesthetic of letting the process continue to completion,  to be perfectly honest, I'm not always on board with having to personally accompany it all the way to the end (to be honest, some health scares affected my attitude here, giving me some degree of seriousness to the question of how I spend my time that I didn't really have before.) Let me point to two very different recent articles on the topic: Dean Rosenthal, here, on "Approaching Completeness" and a recent dissertation, by Zachary Bernstein (Reconsidering Organicism in Milton Babbitt's Music and Thought (sorry I don't have a more precise reference at hand)) which, among other interesting things, digs into the lists that don't get exhausted in the subject composer's music.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Landmarks (52)

Lloyd Rodgers: Trio (1975).   A piano trio in one movement (audio recording available here) from a remarkable left coast composer who has stayed put on the left coast, neither seeking nor receiving much attention east of the Sierras. On the surface, this is a piece of tonal music with familiar features, 17-some minutes long, taking a grand neapolitan harmonic arch from A minor to a chaccone in Bb natural minor with a finale in a shimmering — yes, arpeggios and tremolos — A major bridged by the initial material, now in in Gb Major, and a Db Major Adagio.  But nothing here is really as it seems, or, more precisely, nothing here happens quite when it should be expected happen but reliably, in hindsight (hindhearing?) exactly when it ought to have happened, as this is music about finding strangeness and beauty in the smallest temporal details.  I've known this piece from a recording for years but only recently saw the score. It looked nothing like what I ever imagined. Through the use of spatial notation within metered measures — some of which looks like nothing other than a Schenker graph —, successions of measures of measured but unequal lengths, and, in the Adagio, non-metric recitative-like passages,  Rodgers has assembled a set of tools which, in effect, revisit the radical potential of rubato and do so in a compelling and pragmatic way.  (Special attention should be given to the solo piano introduction, in spatial-within-measures notation, which begins as if in the middle of things on a first inversion triad (sometime I should post a complaint about how composers have forgotten how powerful inversions can be!  Rodgers never forgot!) and then allows successive harmonies to smear into one another, typically with grace note figurations. The feeling is less of extemporaneity than of a memory slowly coming into focus.)  I have no idea how this ravishing music was actually made, how much method or how much improvisation, no madness, no sensibility, is in here, or what the proportion or balance between the two might be, but I'll claim it as a landmark of the west coast radical music, quite in company with the later works of Robert Erickson or of Rodgers's comrade Douglas Leedy, or his colleagues in the legendary Cartesian Reunion Memorial Orchestra, but also some of the Cold Blue composers.  (I'll take a wild guess that Roy Harris's 1936 Piano Quintet is also in the DNA of Rodgers's Trio; Rodgers knew Harris well.)  The minimal impulse, likely the best known aspect of the radical music, was to eliminate distractions (this was also the earliest definition of minimal visual art) in order to hear more of a sound or sounds in a music; here, Rodgers does exactly the same thing, using the non-distraction of a familiar tonal environment to force attention to musical time.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Hold your breath

Schoenberg, in his Fundamentals of Musical Composition, the small book in which he gets most clearly down to practical issues of form and his own stylistic tradition, identifies the phrase as the "smallest structural unit"  (he calls it "a kind of musical molecule", thus implicitly putting the single tone or note (i.e. the things we count when we count to 12 tones (as one supposedly does when practicing a famous method of composition associated widely with Schoenberg's name)) at a kind of atomic level.)  More interesting, to me, is his defining the structural meaning of the phrase as "a unit approximating to what one could sing in a single breath."  This is very concrete and naturalistic as a definition and immediately gives the phrase, as a unit consuming some amount of time, both a certain range of duration and an implicit shape.  Range: a breath can be short or long, regular or irregular, you can lose your breath, temporarily or altogether. An asthmatic (like Schoenberg himself) might well find his or her music marked by sudden stoppages and shortnesses of breath (see episodes of Schoenberg's String Trio or the rapid patter in parts of Pierrot Lunaire.)  But at the same time, once you begin with breath as part of your premise, there is always the dialectical potential of breathlessness, non-stopping. Stravinsky damned the organ for never breathing, but traditionally, it's been the perpetual motion of the violin that has been associated with the diabolical. And shape:  the phrase has to begin (obviously) and sometimes does so with signals, like pick-ups, and though it be the "smallest structural unit", it usually has an ending too, like a bit of punctuation (typically ,-ish, but also ?-ish, !-sh, or .-ish (I happen to like ;-ish or :-ish, such that the next phrase complements or explains/disambiguates the first) which could be rhythmic, either strong or weak, or pitch, often a falling off, Schoenberg noting the use of smaller intervals and fewer notes (or, as we'd say, a decline in density of activity (i.e. we're out-of-breath.)   All of this, so far, could be useful in any kind of music with tones, but Schoenberg identifies some features that are distinctive to his own tonal-harmonic tradition, specifically that the phrase typically outlines a single harmony or a simple succession of harmonies (it is worth noting that Schoenberg, already in this "smallest structural unit" for a traditional tonal music finds himself using a linear expansion of a vertical sonority (or vice versa), a central premise of his own (much of it, post-common-practice-tonal) music) and that this outline is typically drawn from a small handful of techniques: arpeggiation, adding upbeats, altering rhythmic values, adding passing tones, appoggiaturas and cambiati, adding repetitions of tones, and ornamenting. So far so good. (You may exhale.)

Monday, February 01, 2016

Symphonic Impromptu

An awkward repeat is like a bad second date. A discussion among social media friends recently dove into the repeat of the exposition in the first movement of Brahms's Fourth.  Most performances* are said to skip the repeat and we appeared to go along with the consensus that, as written, the effect was clumsy, even deadening (try it for yourself with a piano transcription) and this omission was less of a sin than the sin of committing a repeated exposition.  Now, the awkward effect here, of jumping without tonal preparation from the Eb Major of the end of the exposition back into the c minor of its beginning, is and was awkward only within the context of the piece's own idiom.  Jumps like it — indeed even tonally more exotic jumps — happened readily in other repertoire (for the stage, in particular) and just a generation or so later would become rather ordinary in much concert music (remember my assertion earlier here than concert music was not, traditionally, the platform for innovation that theatre music was), and the tonal relationship here, of relative Major to minor is not a distant one, but here, within the setting of a work of such classical qualities, associations, and aspirations, it was a jump not taken. Brahms, who managed both smooth and sudden changes of all sorts in his music, but also knew how to balance his propriety with his adventures, certainly knew better, but still he wrote that repeat marking. Did he write it wanting it taken, nevertheless and damn the clutziness? Did he want it taken as an option? Or was that marking just a bit of vistigial notational business, a functionless tail wagging the dog's historical consciousness in this landmark-in-the-making?  (Not being a musicologist by trade or inclination, I can safely admit that I am foggy about an historical issue in notation and performance practice: at some point, the routine of taking repeat signs to mean actually — albeit perhaps with ornament or embellishment — repeating the material between ||:s and :||s, the ||:s and :||s actually became formal markers nodding to the tradition of repeating a structural unit before going on (or, in some cases, ending or even going back even further) and this point was certainly preceded by a long period of treating repeats as options (indeed the optional repeat was an essential tool in making music for dance, particularly social dances in which momentary decisions by hosts, musicians, dance masters or the dancers dancers themselves might requiring going forward, going back, or stopping on a dime (insert the locally and historically appropriate coinage) but at some juncture it simply became okay with everyone to write a repeat sign you didn't really mean to be taken as such and you could be rest assured that everyone would ignore said marking with all the bliss that conscientious ignorance gives us.  Nothing to see here, move along.  But then again: twenty or twenty-five years later, who'd jump at that jump anyway?  Brahms's little bit of unprepared tonal motion went from too awkward to use the repeat to not awkward enough to use it.  And that's a decent example of how tonal motion works (or doesn't) both within a piece of music and without it.

* I have to fess up that this "most performances" business is based on the word I've heard on the street and a quick search through several sources online, It is a traditional factoid or even dictum that I learned in school, but have never actually seen it back up by anything resembling actually statistics.  I'll go along with the notion that it's been true for commericial recordings.  But it could very well be that a majority of performances are taking the damn repeat and the larger musical community hasn't actually registered it, treating these double-dippings into the exposition as private eccentricities in local performances. But, for the moment, let's accept the (apparent) consensus and move on. Preferably from the exposition straight into the development.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Y is for Yonder

I've long had a toy theory that in the Vorspiel to Das Rheingold, via the entrances of the instruments and their relative positions in the pit, it's possible to tell which side of the Rhine you're supposed to be on, as the water moves from North to South.  Of course, this theory gets mixed up somewhat with the unorthodox seating under the cover of the Bayreuth pit, but the notion that the physical placement of instruments in a space can lead to a sensation of motion is not fanciful at all.  One of the features I neglected to mention in my post about Thomas Brodhead's edition of Ives's 4th Symphony is that Ives included fairly elaborate instructions regarding the dynamics in the second movement and how these might be refined through actual placement of the musicians, in some cases suggesting either physical movement of the players or an enlarged ensemble.  To date, this appears not to have been done in performance, but it is surely worth trying.  The potential for this was certainly evoked in Jose Serebrier's quadraphonic recording, in which the mobile perspective of the composer/listener is strongly suggested (in fact, I might now characterize Ives's approach as film sound design before films had sound design!)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

X is for Xenophilia

Sometimes, sending a score out into the world is like writing a love letter, addressee unknown.

Friday, January 22, 2016

More than a Survival Guide to Ives's 4th

This video may be on the musicologically wonkish side for some, but I find it fascinating: it's an introduction by Thomas Brodhead to his critical and performance edition of Ives's 4th Symphony. Brodhead has taken an admirable strategy to producing practically usable performance materials that both make difficult passages more readable for individual players, sections, and conductor(s) (it can be useful to have more than one conductor for sections of the work), but also preserves the many performance options that Ives left.  Perhaps most importantly, for me, Brodhead restores the precise proportional time relationship between the main orchestra and the separate percussion ensemble in the fourth movement, something that has been basically faked in the past; this is regrettable, not least because with this relationship intact, the prescience of Ives's invention here is immediately obvious.  

Thursday, January 21, 2016

W is for Waking

Much, if not most, of my work composing is routine, even mechanical, realizing in details all the consequences of my grand plans and lesser follies. For this, the small hours of the night seem best, and drifting into dreams (and sometimes providential error!) reliably gives those details an added dose of fantasy that might otherwise be lost to the routine.  Editing, the work I like least, is done best in the afternoon, the dullest part of my day. But it is in the waking moments that my best composing gets done, or better: begun, composing music at the same time you're composing yourself, and, when both fortunate and focused, being able capturing some of the spark remaining from the productive sense and nonsense of musical dream-work. It's not unusual for me to rush straight from bed, not quite awake, not quite still asleep to a keyboard or to paper and pen and try to capture just a few sounds from rapidly fading memory. Like trying to catch mercury.  No, not transcribing whole, finished pieces from dreams, but carrying musical ideas and impulses from dreams forward into waking life and real music to be played and heard.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

V is for Velocity

...it's as if we're in a contest between the speed of tongues and hands and fingers, the length of breath and bow arm, and the resonance of the sounding body or echo in the room all on one side and the speed of listening, the length of attention, and the acuity of memory on the other. And the magic is that neither side ever loses...

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

U is for Underground

When poet/playwright/actor/artist/activist George Hitchcock was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1957 and asked to state his profession, he said (truthfully): "I am a gardener. I do underground work on plants".

In some recent research into the new music of the '60s, the phrase "underground music" turned up with some frequency.  Now it may well be that the shelf life of the term, music-wise, has run out and now we reserve "underground"  for extreme and secretive political movements, but it would be a shame if that were the case, in my opinion not least because musical history amply demonstrates that a little subversion of the normative order has always been musically useful.  There is simply something vital to the idea that something  relatively unknown yet lively and well worth digging for — in this case music, or musical techniques, or ideas about music made in alternative ways — lays immediately below the surface of our everyday musical lives.  It might be argued that with all the information-conveying media available to us now that nothing, really, is ever too far beyond reach to be considered underground, but if anything has been demonstrated by the famed notion of a long-tail, the narrow end of said tail is so invisible (inaudible, in this case) that it might just as well be physically (as opposed to virtually) underground as the social networks in which it shakes are not of great volume or visibility.  







Monday, January 18, 2016

T is for Thread

I like to misuse the phrase "through-composed"; instead of referring to an opera without formal divisions (into recitatives, arias, ensembles etc.),  My misuse is idiosyncratic and more generic, using it for pieces that are composed (and subsequently performed) from a beginning to an end, without much in the way of pre-planning getting into the way, and more or less as a single continuity.  But that doesn't mean — for me at least — an actual absence of any structural substance or the guidance of planning or theory or rules, rather that this substance, and the plans and theoretical stratagems and tactical rules, simply become apparent or articulate to me during the actual composing.  And as they become apparent, they either form a set of constraints which I strictly obey in service of — let's call it — coherence, or I find myself doing things which irritate or, eventually, break my provisional sense of coherence and force a reformulation (which may be formal, notated in sketch or words, or informal, on the fly and in my head) to restore, if not an order, at least an orientation, to an apparently larger musical world that is the piece in progress.

I could characterize this project as drawing and following a line (with all regards to my teacher, La Monte Young, my lines tend to not be straight: they wander, or better meander (I've long wanted to write a piece called Meander Scar (which would refer to the long-term motion of river beds, but also the sculptural shadow drawing of Richard Tuttle))) but line is perhaps too loaded musically (and more than musically, see Paul Klee's line taking a walk in his wonderful Pedagogical Sketchbook) and I think too immediately of lines=voices in early polyphony or the long line in romantic melody, and I'm thinking here of an aspect of continuity that is much larger than tune (tune being the breadbox of musical quanta, in which a note is a bite, a measure is a slice, and a whole loaf the stuff that ends in crusts) and, so. even better, I go with thread.   Threads have length but not much width, can be held taught or lax or twisted, can be led or followed or go astray, be spooled away, dropped, broken, torn.   As a composer, I do all of these things with a thread, and as extemporaneous as each stitch may appear (or sound, in this case), this isn't automatic stitching or sewing or writing, because pulling a thread is an act of control, with a history and a forward direction.


Friday, January 15, 2016

What? Vibrato again?

I posted this response to a recent article over at New Music Box:

For me, the issue of vibrato does not reduce to the binary of vibrato/no vibrato and does not have anything to do with emulation or contrast with boys’ choirs, but it has everything to do with musicality and control. As a composer, there are times when I honestly do want a straight and clear tone with precise intonation in a particular register and I want to ask for it specifically, from singers and instrumentalists (yes, flutists…) The use of vibrato, and its speed and depth is a performance and — potentially — compositional, variable. (See the late and great Andrea von Ramm’s landmark essay, “Singing Early Music”, in Early Music Vol. 4, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 12-15.) Recognizing this and requiring this from oneself or others as a singer, voice teacher, choral director, or composer can, however, go against some strongly ingrained, but typically local and parochial, notions about what good vocal quality is, and can create resistance from strongly ingrained performance practice traditions and habits that refuse to recognize this as both variable and an advantage. Particularly difficult are arguments that one form of production is more or less “natural” than another or produces certain physical or physiological advantages; fortunately, we have too many counter-examples from the world’s varieties of music to let these arguments ride. I would even go so far as to assert that any strong position regarding technique, whether with voices or instruments, vibrato included, is as likely as not to be taken cover for laziness with regard to modifying or acquiring new techniques. And also, a strong and continuous vibrato is, frankly, too frequently used as cover for less accurate intonation in both vocal and instrumental performance.

Fortunately, I think there is ultimately something moot to arguing this out: there is no standard model for a musician and her or his technique, there are real differences in physiology and musical taste, and this rich variety stands matched to a rich variety of composers, catalogs, and repertoires. No singer or player can nor need fit all repertoire, no piece of music can nor need fit all singers or instrumentalists and there certainly need not be any lack of mutual consent in playing a piece of music. And, as a composer, that’s okay with me, because it makes our musical lives — and perhaps our lives in general — both livelier and more convivial.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

L'Histoire du soldat

First, let's get the inevitable joke out of the way:  With the popularity of the online investigative program The Serial Podcast, we can only anticipate The Aleatoric Podcast and The Minimal Podcast and The Complex Podcast and The Neo-Romantic Podcast...

I came late to The Serial Podcast and found the first season to be fascinating, both as investigatory journalism (with both virtues and faults) and for its use of the medium, an audio-only program released in regular intervals over time with a both a continuing and a cumulative effect.  Through the gradually accretion of detail, an apparently closed story opened itself up through first minor irritations in the established narrative and then through the gathering sharpness of texture and features, leading to additional evidence and doubts and, perhaps, plausible alternative narratives that have actually invited revisiting of an old case.  Of course, it's of foremost importance that a justice system is shown to be an instance for increased justice,  but as the investigation here was not far from a detective story, with the combination of real leads and false trails and the persistent and skeptical voice of the investigator (here journalist Sarah Koenig): exactly the elements that make the genre so engaging.  I've always been fond of radio drama and can't wait to hear where she leads the story next. As a composer, used to musical works in which attention is sustained for minutes, perhaps tens of minutes in a single evening's stretch,  I'm definitely impressed when encountering work that sustains interest over an hour, and then from one week to the next, even as, in this case, the story came to no clear conclusion. Reasonable doubts and all that, perfect thing to listen to while cooking or copying music.

In the second season, as far as we can tell from the first four episodes, not only the subject but the form is altogether different from the first. With the public announcement immediately before the first episode was broadcast that the subject, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, would be prosecuted by a US Army court martial for desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, listeners were made clear of this difference. The legal process is ongoing, not revisited history, and the basic elements were established:  Bergdahl did break the Army's rules and walk away from his post.  Whatever one thinks of the presence of US troops in Afghanistan or of military conventions in general, it was a naive and stupid thing for an individual soldier to have done.  If he had legitimate criticism of his superiors, as someone who had signed up for an enlisted position and most likely been drilled and re-drilled with the rules of organization and his expected conduct in that position, he should have had a better sense of the actual resources and limits permitted him.  We can agree that he was treated horribly in an astonishingly long captivity (especially for someone with such limited linguistic skills or cultural preparation), provided no useful intelligence to his captors, and did try to escape when escape was possible.  I think Koenig could have established all of that in a single episode and that would have been that for the Bergdahl story. But my impression is either that she's got something larger and longer in the works, or she really has no idea where the story is going to go except for a vague description of a story that "spins out in so many unexpected directions" and "extends far out into the world.  Her notice this week that the story would now continue on a bi-weekly rather than uni-weekly basis, with at least one additional previously unplanned episode in order to accomodate material previously unknown to her, doesn't decisively support either view.   The four episodes so far have expanded the topic in concentric rings around Bergdahl, giving his story more texture, but my gut feeling is that there is very little more there, that it won't continue to drop substantial details and doubts about that individual's soldier's story, but I think we may well learn more of some larger stories about, for example, Pakistan's internal relations, and its relationship to its neighbor Afghanistan and to the United States, an ugly story about which we don't learn enough.  My guess is that the Army will convict Bergdahl — I don't know how they could remain within their own rules and not do so, such is the nature of institutions like the Army — but hope that his time, deprivation, and torture in captivity be treated as punishment enough. If, however, Koenig decides instead to tighten the circles of the story back around Bergdahl, there are some cultural questions that could be usefully explored about the background of a small town kid from Idaho, home-schooled, from an Orthodox Presbyterian family who would spend time in a Buddhist monastery, a cyclist in car country without an auto driver's license, someone who'd given up studying martial arts and fencing for ballet.  The idea that someone with that background could sign up and be expected to fit into the institutional life of a rigorously hierarchical social organization like an Army strikes me as unlikely, but it does also strike me as perhaps piece and parcel of the same kind of confused "patriotism" that one too often encounters in the US today (see: militias, tea baggers, Bundys....)  In any case, I'll keep listening: I like forms that defy my predictions.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Epochal notice

Let it be noted that the predominant musical genre and style of the day is Post-Interesting Music. However regrettable, this is not an altogether unusual state of affairs and experience has shown us there is not much more to be usefully said about it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Strauss, in fragments

Going to a performance of Der Rosenkavalier seemed like the right thing to do this last weekend. Although it's not the kind of recreation an experimental composer would seem likely to go in for, when done well, it reliably cheers me up and as this year — not personally, but generally — started out with wanting a good dose of cheer, recreate I did.   In a very good performance at the Frankfurt Opera under Sebastian Weigle, I was struck this time by how modern the 1911 piece is.  While typically reckoned as the beginning of the composer's romantic-conservative turn, it is still built so edgily on stylistic, or rather music-about-music, citations and fragmentation that the whole has a continuity more of a piece with Elektra (1909), his first collaboration with librettist Hofmannsthal*, than with the smoother operas to come, from Ariadne auf Naxos (1912) onward.  Although Strauss's score doesn't have Ives's contrapuntal mettle, with his fragments and citations linear, in series, rather than overlapped or parallel, and he's more for stylistic than exact quotes of tunes, it really does belong in the same modernist ballpark as Ives, with nostalgia playing a similar role (it's easy to forget that at the time of its premiere, the pseudo-Mozart and almost-Johann-Strauss-Waltzes in Rosenkavalier were not fashionable objects of nostalgia and Ives's citation corpus was, and was increasingly so, similarly out-of-the-moment. (I won't push Ives-Strauss much further, but can't help but note that both shared a similar device for hanging a shimmering and harmonically ambiguating cloud over nostalgic material — for example, here, Strauss with his use of celesta and flute and Ives with a separated group of five violins and harp in the first movement of the 4th Symphony.)  Strauss's fragmentation had a great resonance in its time, with, for example, Bartók's enthusiasm for the broken continuity of Also Sprach Zarathustra reflected directly in works from the tone poem Kossuth to the Dance Suite (1923.)

About the subject of the opera and its libretto, I'll just note that although this opera has the formal shape of the classical comedy, with thwarted young lovers asserting themselves with a prank against the — here, oxen — heavy, it is more like a late-Shakespearean dark comedy or romance, a meditation on aging, on fickle men and wise women, with a fairly realistic take on the various sub-classes of the Austrian (or any) aristocracy,  the servants and supplicants. Above and beyond the obvious attraction to Strauss of writing for three strong women's voices of distinct types, Hofmannsthal gave Strauss a extremely rich set of contrasts in characters to reinforce or play against musically and this meant, in the absence of the contained forms of classical arias and recitatives — which allow for a suspension of dramatic time for emotional consideration and repose — a surface of constant radical shifts in texture and time.
_____

*This, too: I should be writing something smart or clever about Hermann Broch's essay, "Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time, Art and Its Non-style at the End of the Nineteenth Century", but smart and clever fail me here: just read the damn thing.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Pear-shaped, flame-shaped

Satie's Trois Morceaux en forme de poire (1903 (with the opening movement, a 7th Gnossienne, dating to 1891 as a part of the incidental music to the play Le Fils des étoiles)), for piano, four hands, is a favorite piece with a favorite title.  But I've always found that title an awkward fit for the music, too comic, too awkward, silly even.  (Satie could do comic, awkward, and yes, silly, but that doesn't describe these pieces, even granting that the Trois Morceaux  is actually a suite framing its titular Three Pieces with two movements in advance and two following for a total of seven movements.) But I think it's likely that I've been fundamentally misunderstanding this.  How would you describe, in a single word, the shape of a (European) pear?  There's a perfectly good, if mostly forgotten, word for that shape: spelled either pyriform or piriform. (There is ambiguity about the etymology here, the former suggests a Latin root, pirum for pear, but the latter of which comes from the Greek πῦρ, flame.)  The image of a flame immediately suggests a character altogether different from that which we now associate with a pear-like form: a body in which most weight has drooped or dropped to its bottom, or even a event or action which has gone badly wrong. Gone South = Gone pear-shaped. But these pieces don't do that at all.  Could Satie have been referring more to the lithe and pyric pear, tapering in and up to the top, rather than the amply-bottomed, bulbous, pear, tapering out and down to the bottom? The progression of the three pieces at the center of this suite —   Lentement / En Leve / Brutal  (slowly/rising/brutal) — certainly suggest more of a flame than a bottom-heavy fruit.  A bit of research into pear history also tells us that the present premiership of the apple among orchard fruits is relatively recent and Satie would have come of age within the closing era of the regency of the pear, then thought more elegant and, as now, more delicate than its Rosaceae family cousin. The title of the Trois Morceaux en forme de poire  is aspirational not deprecating.

Monday, November 30, 2015

S is for Snowflake

Music makes a storm:
each new sound has a shape of its own
yet the whole flows;
its continuity, a flocking,
as so many snowflakes,
chiming eccentric spectra
a-gust in concert.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Mumma on Mumma and More



I've been reading the new collection of composer Gordon Mumma's writings, edited by Michelle Fillion, Cybersonic Arts: Adventures in American New Music (UI Press.)  It covers territory most widely associated with Mumma's career: at the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music in Ann Arbor, with the ONCE Festival, the Sonic Arts Group/Union, and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, with colleagues including Ashley, Tudor, Cage, and Oliveros, but also his less familar but equally important engagement with a geographically wider American Music is well-represented here. The volume includes more explicit writings about his own compositional work for both electronic and "acoustic" instrumental resources than has been previously available.  Mumma has a precise and engaging writing style with a very distinct sense of balance between the explicit and the open or (provocatively) unresolved, whether the matter concerns notes, personalities, politics, or something larger we might venture to call a distinctive aesthetics.  (Balance, I have found, is a central concern in his music, whether playfully pushing analog circuitry in or (more productively) out of balance be it by the sounds of a horn or the movements of dances in a real space or working with pitches which seem to be arguing stubbornly against their own axes of symmetry (and in the various-sized -Mographs series for piano(s), tectonically so.)  Fillion's introductory materials are clear, usefully giving context to the writings but also suggesting wider lines of inquiry. I'm biased here — Mumma was/is my teacher, I publish some of his works at MaterialPress.com — but I can recommend this book without

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

R is for Resolute

Thomas Pynchon's three novel-length detective stories (The Crying of Lot 49, Inherent Vice,  and Bleeding Edge) each describe investigations by intrepid if improbable investigators that tend to turn in unexpected ways, encountering strange people in strange situations, all the while gathering inconclusive evidence of increasingly obscure reliability or even relevance. The world becomes less clear through the steady accumulation of detail. We do, in fact, know more, we are perhaps even wiser (perhaps mostly wiser about our own persons), but we have not necessarily solved the mystery. Indeed, the exact nature of that mystery is postponed (N.O. Brown: "The dynamic of capitalism is postponement of enjoyment to the constantly postponed future.")

I think that this is a quality shared with all the best "tales of ratiocination" (as Poe had it): from Oedipus, Hamlet, and the death of Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter onward. The process of discovering, in each of these, is so much more vital and compelling than any actual discovery of a definitive or settled fact or detail.  Things continually resolve without necessarily ever getting any more clear.

Often, I think, music is compelling precisely because it is resolute, moving forward (La Monte Young: "draw a straight line and follow it"), without necessarily coming to a definitive resolution (perhaps better: "draw a meandering line and find yourself by getting yourself lost.")  We spend a lot of time in counterpoint and harmony classes learning about resolution, which is offered implicitly as a kind of restitution of tonal order or, — less morally loaded — as a return to comfort zones (sensory consonance being relatively comfortable) and always in the direction, as the term of art has it, of "dissonance resolving to consonance."  But this avoids the truth here, that without the relief of dissonance, consonance is not audible as anything in particular; they're just directions in continua, not absolutes.  (Tonal prolongation is, indeed, a form of postponement of enjoyment to some postponed future.)  It's all about moving along continua, oscillating between investigating the unknown and bopping back into the comfortable. Going places but not necessarily ever getting there.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Q is for Quantum

I've opined here before that one of the reasons music works is that we, listeners, have a weak sense of what is the same and what is different in music.  This weakness creates significant room for all kinds of tonal ambiguity and illusion, allusion and variation to take place.  (An example: the sense that a piece of tonal music starts and ends in the same place, but — and reliably often so — a simultaneous sense that the ending is marked by some significant difference from the beginning. Think about it: it really does happen all the time!)

Here's another reason why music works: we have a degree of uncertainty about what the smallest bit of significant musical information is.  This uncertainty creates some useful room for variation in what might be called the level of attention paid to music.

To some extent, we go about our lives as practical musicians operating as if this is a settled matter: notes, those round blotches with stems attached, are the atoms or quanta of music.

I recall a transcription exercise, when studying ethnomusicology, in which everyone in the seminar was given the task of transcribing the same English folk song.  My own transcription was picayune, I tried to capture small pitch and rhythmic movements, whether due to design or error, with odd time signatures and several tempo changes, lots of 32nds and some tuplets, some bits of vibrato, even a sustained microtone or two.  I used those impressive-looking IPA characters for the text. It looked like something by Berio, ca. 1964. In stark contrast, one of my colleagues, who happened to be from West Africa, on the other hand, wrote it out in 4/4, straight quarters and halves, rounded up or down to a C major scale.  And the remaining class members made versions that were everywhere in-between.  Which transcription was correct? Which was incorrect?  Any or all, depending upon what you're attending to in the music, or for what you intend to use the transcription.  I imagine that my transcription could be used to recreate that particular performance — it would be something virtuoso to accomplish, but still possible —, but in some real sense, my colleague's more minimal transcription might be a more faithful — and certainly a more practical for performers — edition of the song.  Maybe the varied results in this exercise just illustrate that transcription is, necessarily, an analytical project, and there are many legitimate ways to analyze the same stretch of music.

In a large piece of writing many years ago, I worked with the idea that composers in the 20th century tended to focus on music as either single indivisible notes, as larger series or strings of events, or as activity taking place within the space occupied by the note. Of course, in practice, the best musicians attend to music at all three of these levels simultaneously, sometimes emphasizing one more than others, but we do tend to think of a musical performance as something that is ideally secure at all of these levels.  And better yet, there is considerable room for compellingly musical work which tugs at the boundaries of these levels.  I remember, for example, some field recordings of music that were, at first listen, rather reduced in material variety. A quarter-and-halves transcription would have sufficed, the tonal resources were not even pentatonic. But the music was compelling, and repeated closer listening revealed that there was in fact a whole world of rhythmic sophistication in the music that I had missed altogether. It was to be found in what I had probably casually dismissed as vibrato.  In fact, the vibrato was extremely regular and controlled as to speed, depth, and shape and I had almost missed it altogether.  Similarly, in his works which use the beating of closely-tuned intervals, Alvin Lucier often creates an environment in which conventional parameters — pitch, rhythm and tempo, timbre — become less distinct, the boundaries between them often fluid.  The tempi in Lucier's quartet, Navigations for Strings, for example, become paradoxical as it is unclear whether the prevailing tempo is that of the tones articulated by the players or the beating rates between those tones, and these rates follow independent, but generally opposed or contradictory, trajectories. I have been listening to this string quartet for 20-some years, and I'm still amazed at how my sense of the piece bounces between hearing it as basically a fast or a slow piece.  What a rich field of possibilities!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

P is for Predictable

Many years ago, in Santa Cruz, I knocked on David Cope's office door, probably to get his signature on some piece of superfluous-but-obligatory bureaucratese, or possibly to get a glance at his latest piece (he was then in the habit of composing scores, in a somewhat public way, with the manuscript paper lining the walls in the conference room attached to his then-office.) He had a cassette playing in the background, Sibelius's 6th, I think.  He said "I love listening to Sibelius. Even after listening to the same piece so many times, I never know exactly what is going to happen next, he never does the predictable."

Friday, July 03, 2015

All Things Brant

There's a new Henry Brant page, here, with information about the composer, known best for his pioneering work in spatial music and his unique approach to orchestration.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Yearbooks lost and found

Long since disappeared into that void formed by too many moves — between houses, between towns, across one continent, then an ocean, and then back and forth within another continent (hopefully to stay put for a while (I'm tired of moving)) —are my copies of my high school yearbook.  And more to good, I say, that that era of youth, but bad haircuts, has vanished from the evidence room.

But at least there is THE EXPERIMENTAL MUSIC YEARBOOK, here.  No bad haircut photos in it, but plenty of good things to read, hear, watch.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Letters of Recommendation, a Modest Recommendation

This year, even more than years past it seems, I've heard colleagues complain loudly about the letter-of-recommendation season, and these colleagues come from among both the letter-seeking and letter-writing.  A routine expectation has developed that all applicants for scholarships, jobs, and advancement need to accompany their applications with three letters of recommendation (LORs.) Now, there are a few large institutions with job placement offices that have got a system in place for reproducing application portfolios complete with copies of "to whom it may concern" LORs, and in many cases this system works well enough, but most applicants find themselves asking their LORs-writers repeatedly for letters and more LORs-writers dutifully generate those letters, and in many cases, write updated or entirely new letters tailored to the particular job or opportunity. All of this amounts to a lot of time and effort and no small amount of social awkwardness, and when the actual statistics of the crapshoot that these job markets and such are considered, most of this effort, — including LORs that are written in very thoughtful and considerate ways — is simply lost in the mass of materials received.

As someone who is (mostly) out of this business — rarely applying for anything and almost equally rarely being solicited for recommendations — may I be considered a neutral party when I make the following recommendation to persons or institutions taking applications for scholarships or jobs?

Do not require completed LORs for initial applications.  Instead, require that applicants provide a list, with titles and accurate and up-to-date contact information, of three persons qualified to advise on the applicant and her or his work.  Perhaps specify if you'd like to hear about teaching or performance or compositional work or scholarship or collegiality in particular and encourage the applicant to nominate people who could write or speak authoritatively to that particular area.  Do not require applicants to ask these people for LORs themselve, but, after having made a narrow selection from your applicant pool, contact these persons directly.  This is an indication to the recommending party that their opinion has been sought out confidentially and is being taken seriously in a process with some chance of success.  This is respectful of both your applicants and your recommendors, at the very least in terms of their time, and it is also more likely to yield recommendations that are less generic and more responsive to the particulars of your situation and search.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Experiment, maybe not, invention, maybe better

While I'm comfortable enough with the phrase "experimental music" (let me cheerfully remind that Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue was premiered at a Paul Whiteman concert billed as "An Experiment in Modern Music") particular when the outcome of the compositional work is unknown, and because there is a known historical repertoire or tradition to which this label — sometimes more, often less, accurately — is attached, I may be more comfortable with identifying music as inventive, or individual works as inventions.  Though my immediate nod of acknowledgement  here goes to poet Charles Bernstein (in his essay/interview collection Attack of the Difficult Poems), there is a legitimate tradition in music of using the term, from the contrapuntal keyboard Inventionen of Bach (in his "learned" mode) to the handmade circuitry virtuosi of more recent days (with added hat tips along the way to the fathers of Charles Ives and John Cage as well as those imaginatively monstrous soundmaking inventions of a Percy Grainger or Harry Partch and every Wagner Tuba or Sousaphone you'll ever encounter.) The term invention gets us usefully out of characterizing and evaluating a work based on whether a precise and verifiable experimental method has been carried out and takes us more, well, musically, into a realm of trial and error in composition, performance and audition, with evaluation — does this "work"? is this compelling? does this stretch of sound — this potential (hat tip to the Oulipo here) music — actually achieve the musical? — usefully returned to questions of aesthetics or taste rather than experimental demonstration without relinquishing the thrill associated with the experimental that comes from the potential, the risk, of failure.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Our music's history has more texture than the textbooks say

Received music history and the repertoire or canon that comes alongside it is necessarily streamlined and condensed.  It's got to fit into concert programs, program notes, survey course semesters and textbooks and, whether as advocates or critics, we tend to try to make it fit some larger arc, trajectory, argument or narrative.  And so both works of monstrous extraordinariness and ordinary repertoire get selected and fit, and much gets lost, forgotten or simply set aside as inconvenient in the process.  And that's mostly okay, because most musical ventures can be lost or forgotten without major loss, making room for further refinement, other voices, and even some altogether new ideas. But the inconvenient omissions often require some attention, if only to tug at the edge of our certainty with regard to our arc, trajectories, and narratives and see if we needn't recalibrate or retell them.

Here's a narrative-challenging example, from my work on the Douglas Leedy Nachlass, a previously unpublished and — I believe —  publicly unperformed piece dated 5 April 1964 with the title Spatial Rotation of 10 to 20 Like Instruments:


The 10 to 20 instruments — the composer suggests either clarinets, French horns, trumpets, violas or cellos, providing fingering charts for clarinets or horns — are to be distributed widely throughout the performance space.  Each of the instruments may begin at the beginning of any measure (excepting those measures in which a tone has already begun), continuing left to right, top to bottom (and back to the top), continuing strictly to a common tempo which varies by and is exactly proportional to the number of players, until returning to the initial point.  The pitches consist of the outer tones, b and e'' and eight tones microtonally spanning the interval between a raised f#' and lowered a', so that a maximum-content static but internally continuously changing sonority is produced which could be though of as an inversion of a triad on e, in which the internal tone is varying, blurred, and beating within the space among the plausible thirds above the tonic.

I have not heard this piece except in a rough mock-up on my computer, so I will reserve judgment about whether it "works" or not as a concert work, but I do think that it has a distinct character and internally engaging sonority that could only be richer in a live performance in a real space.  To the point, now, it is very striking in its historical context, reflecting the individual concerns at that time and place of the composer and the "scene" in which he was then working, and I believe that it presents some real challenges to our sense of how music history subsequently went, in particular as there as aspects of the piece which strongly connect to some music of the 80s or 90s by composers including Cage, Feldman, Tenney, or  Lucier.  To understand its position in the Bay Area scene, consider that it was written at approximately the same time as Terry Riley's In C, the Spring of 1964 (In C would receive its first performance in November of the same year) and that it was written while the composer was in the graduate composition seminar at UC Berkeley.  The surviving materials suggest that it had been read through in some form by student musicians for the seminar but not in a public concert; indeed it is difficult to imagine the piece getting played on either practical or aesthetic grounds in that setting and my suspicion, based on conversations with the composer is that he was discouraged both by the unlikelihood of gathering 10 to 20 like instruments with players sympathetic to the piece and the lack of sympathy from Berkeley professor Seymour Shifrin. But nevertheless, the score represents a nexus of Leedy's  interests: a non-developmental or even uneventful environmental music, a static harmony based on a fixed gamut of tones,  a degree of indeterminacy, canons, intonation, mathematically-determined time lengths, and something broader with regard to texture that looks forward to — and perhaps helps explain — his stay in Poland during 1965-66.

_____
Score example Copyright 2015 Estate of Douglas Leedy & Material Press, Frankfurt am Main

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What do we call our music?

Today I was looking over the program for a concert of the THIRD ANNUAL FESTIVAL OF THE AVANT GARDE, held in San Francisco in 1966 and then minutes later two festival announcements for the coming summer came across a social media feed, one for a "(n.n.) festival of experimental music, sound art and media", the other for a "(n.n.) 2015 Festival of Contemporary Music."  Why is the oldest festival, and the one that uses that ex-military term, the one that sounds to me, at this moment in history, the most intriguing and fresh  (and not only because that THIRD ANNUAL FESTIVAL had not been preceded by a FIRST or SECOND, let alone followed by a FOURTH)? Why is it that "experimental music, sound art and media" doesn't carry the charge any more that any mention of media did, say, in the MacLuhan heyday of 40-some years ago?  And why does anything with "Contemporary Music" in its title say nothing more or less than "snooze fest"?  

Yes, The New Music has a nomenclature crisis, a branding problem.  It doesn't help that we can't unambiguously use The New anymore in the US or other anglophone contexts (unlike in German-speaking countries in which the Neue Musik term still has some charge, almost a century late), at the very least ever since the New Music America Festival days (1979-90), during which time the New Music label got diluted internally by an increasingly diffuse content message (in large part due to a necessary increase in programming diversity, but still diluting the brand name) and was externally occupied  by an "alternative" popular music trade fair (but then again, new as in novel was never going to be a useful external label for a particular tradition as each tradition can and will have its own novelty acts.)

I don't have a solution to this.  After the New Music, there will always be another New Music. Contemporary Music is supposed to be what's happening now (though usually sounds like what happened then.)  I happen to like experimental music, but it's a label about means not ends, too internal to compositional or technical concerns and without much suggestion to potential listeners.  I like The Radical Music even more, but for a particular direction of music-making, and I'm a party of one here with regard to the name.  So in the meantime, until we can agree on terms, maybe we can just settle on making and listening to, well, music?

Composition is (sometimes) Research.

A recent article by the English composer John Croft with an assertion for a title, Composition is not Research, has received a lot of social media attention within Newmusicland.  Within the narrow context of academic employment for composers and the even-more-narrow context of evaluating the non-teaching, non-service activities of faculty composers, the title is mostly true, but only for the reason that most of the music faculty composers anywhere write is going to be quietist in nature, producing usable repertoire, but not music which asks questions about the nature, extent and limits of listening in general or music in particular.

I make a lot of music that falls into that quietist comfort zone too, but I also make music with a more radical or experimental nature and, reliably often, characterizing it as a form of research is not only fair but accurate.  When — and I'm just following Cage here — the outcome of a compositional procedure is unknown, then characterizing the work as experimental, indeed as experimental research, is fair.   The method, using a speculative thesis, testing it, repeating it, advancing conclusions, trying alternatives and consequential procedures, etc. is research plain and simple. Moreover, the areas of exploration enters into the fields of acoustics, material sciences, psychoaoustics and cognitive science which are established areas of scholarship. I find that composition which engages these areas adds an interesting and challenging aesthetic dimension to the research at the same time it risks adding to the given definitions of the music.

Thus, I am comfortable in asserting that this kind of work is research suitable to a university setting and suitable materials for evaluation as research whether for degree or academic employment and advancement.  My sense, however, is that the more urgent  question behind an article like Croft's is a question of the place of aesthetic production without an explicit research dimension, i.e. repertoire music designed as reliably performable rather than requiring compositional, performative and auditional risks, within a research program or institution.  I don't know the history in British institutions, but this has been wrestled with in US academia since after the Second World War in which the decision of an institution to offer graduate degrees to composers reflected a serious division among institutions, with some insisting on a terminal master's degree of some sort for composition, others promoting degrees based principally on creative work, MFAs, DMus etc., and others recognizing a PhD in composition as a form of research.  However, that era of wrestling on principle soon gave way to a considerable loosening of the categories and even — let's say it — degree inflation, such that many institutions established doctoral programs with PhDs or DMus-ez without investing much in their distinction. And, with regard to faculty hiring, there seems to be little discrimination based on the presence of a research program per se, but certainly on aspects of publication (commissions, performances, recordings, sheet music) and when the publication of written words is expected, composers are not always expected to produce scholarly papers in the manner of musicologists or theorists, but material that more immediately represents the composer's viewpoint, source literature not secondary, if you will.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The occasional is okay, too.

A treasured older couple in our neighborhood just got married after 29 years of wilde Ehe (I'm leaving it in the German — "wild marriage" — because the English equivalents are not quite right: "common law marriage", "shacking up", "living in sin" etc.) and I congratulated them by writing an ironic little wedding march with that title, for piano four-hands.  It has a few tricks, but it's tonal and traditional enough both to have the desired recipients cheered and to have me worried about having subconsciously plagiarized a phrase or two (which is one of those risks you will always have when writing tonally and traditionally!)

I mentioned this to an old friend from Newmusicland, played it through once, and was immediately read the Riot Act from the Newmusicland Code of Conduct:  "You can't do that!" my friend said, "you're supposed to be making New Music, not... (as he repeatedly jabbed the score with his forefinger)... that!"

I was taken aback by the vehemence of the complaint, too much so to have an immediate replay, but now that I've had a chance to breathe normally, I wish I had said: "It's time to get over the idea that a composer is a kind of brand with a certain fixed market identity.  Most of us are much more interesting than that and can do more than one thing, whether within music, or beyond music. Sure, the best of us will have a sensibility that projects itself throughout our catalog, idea, styles, practices, and ethics that can often allow a listener to successfully "name that composer!" But not always, not consistently so.  Interesting composers and good composers — intersecting but not identical sets — are inevitably inconsistent because the issues they are concerned with and the circumstances they write in or for are always changing, and the composer responds to that change, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing (and when failing, the best fail spectacularly!)  A composer's work has trajectory, but it also necessarily has variety and it is done within lifetimes of events and occasions that aren't always of the same importance or general interest, and if a composer happens to also make work that fits such events and occasions, even if you find it to be Kitsch or worse, if others find it useful or appropriate isn't that still a net enrichment rather than a loss?  And even if you disagree with me still, (a) please rethink how committed you are to composers having to have market identities, and (b) so far as I know, no one holds a license to tell me to compose this or not to compose that, and that empty set, that no one, excludes you and me both" and (c) isn't it okay just to have some fun, sometimes?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Gentlemen, seriously?

So this 2015 Geneva International Competition in Composition has an international jury with five senior composers on it, all male, and the five younger composers selected by that jury as finalists are all male as well. (Thanks for the link, here.)  Above and beyond the ridiculousness of plopping down 100 Swiss Francs to participate in a crap shoot like this, I can't hold the finalists responsible for their selection from the paramutual field; indeed, even in a demographically more balanced jury it is possible they might just have been the five to have been selected, but I do think that the organizers of the competition itself as well as the sponsoring Reine Marie José Foundation have some serious explaining to do for selecting an all male jury and each one of the jurors has some explaining to do as to why they accepted a place on an all-male jury. Why did none of these jurors turn down the appointment to the jury and suggest a woman colleague to serve in their place? It's 2015, so I think it's fair to ask Pascal Dusapin, Luca Francesconi, Dai Fujikura, and Wolfgang Rihm why they accepted a place in such a jury and to ask Michael Jarrell why he would accept the chair of such a jury.  In the photo, it looks like all five jurors are having a perfectly chummy time together, but come on, it's 2015 and as fair-minded as you each may well be, Gentlemen of the Jury, the optics just don't work anymore, and instead they suggest an atmosphere of, well, chumminess rather than diversity and openness.  At the very least, the organizers and the jury owe the finalists an apology, because their selection will forever be discounted by the fact that it was made by an all-male jury, like one of those asterisks after a track record qualifying it because of the altitude, wind direction, absence of competition, or subjective judging.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A life, a catalog

Over the past few weeks, I've had the opportunity to assist with compiling a provisional catalog of Douglas Leedy's/Bhishma Xenotechnites's musical works, with a parallel, if less detailed, organization of his writings and correspondence.  I suppose that this is work that a properly credentialed historical musicologist or archivist is supposed to do, but I think that a composer/publisher does bring a useful perspective as well and, in the case of a catalog with its particular nexus of concerns — not just the postwar avant-garde, but the west coast radical or experimental music, tuning theory, Carnatic and Javanese music, early western music, electronic music, and Classical Greek and Latin — the overlaps with my own interests and experience are advantageous.  Plus (and objectivity be damned) I knew the guy.  But actually handling the sketches, drafts and manuscripts of nearly 60 years of composing life and simply ordering them chronologically inevitably conveys more of the rhythm and texture of the life lived alongside the work than I had known before and, in the process, uncovered a large amount of music that was previously unknown to me (and much of which had been inaccessible to the composer himself for many years) so that I think I have a better grip on how the various phases of the composer's work connected, for example from the radical Bay Area scene to his stay in 1965 Poland to his electronic environments and then the deep engagements with historical and non-western musics alongside his increasing attention to intonation. With this intense study, I've only grown to appreciate the man more — not always the inevitable result of musical-biographical study — as well as confirm my commitment to getting more of this music out into the world (about which I'll have more to write later.)  

A catalog of works does not contain the life of the artist who made it, but it is a kind of tracing or shadow, of that life.  Sketches show steps and — just as usefully — missteps or paths not followed. Manuscripts are often affixed with the place and date of composition and together with programs, reviews, and letters, the basic contour of the life, in terms of motion through space, can be established.  Marginalia and other material evidence hints at the social and environmental connections (i.e. names of performers and appointments for rehearsals; that sketch written on the back of an angry, but unsent, letter to a politician; a switch to using Kenaf rather than dead tree paper.)  I don't personally subscribe to composition as a literal, biographical means of expression and for the most part, Leedy did not either, but many works are written to mark occasions or events in the composer's life and if the biographical does not directly attach meaning to a work, it can often be useful in understanding the connections between works in the catalog, how the composer went from one idea or practice to the next.  The life is not the work, but much of it is certainly found in the space between entries in the catalog.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Douglas Leedy - Bhishma Xenotechnites

I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing late Saturday of Douglas Leedy, also known as Bhishma Xenotechnites, composer, music and classics scholar, teacher and friend. The native of Portland was 77 and had been ill for a long time, but the news still comes as a shock, having just moved into a hospice facility in Corvallis, Oregon.

In his life and work, Doug followed an extraordinary trajectory away from the current trajectory of western civilization, with his passions for nature and the environment directing his musical searches, rejecting both virtuosity (he had been an orchestral hornist) and the (not quite) equal-temperament of the piano, digging deep into the past of European music (he founded and directed the Portland Handel Festival, where he conducted rare performances of the oratorios Theodora and Jeptha from the continuo keyboard), to Ancient Greek and Latin Music as well as an intensive study of South Indian music in Madras with the great vocalist K. V. Narayanaswamy. As a composer, he had studied at Pomona College with Karl Kohn (but was closest to William F. Russell, the director of choirs and Department Chair) as well as with Lukas Foss as Crofts Fellow at the Berkshire Music Center in 1958 and then went to Berkeley where he studied with Seymour Shifrin, William Denny and Joaquin Nin-Culmell and was part of an extraordinary group of students including La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, and Paul A. Epstein. Upon completing his MA in composition, he began work on a (never-complete) dissertation on the songs of Berlioz and played horn in the Oakland Symphony and San Francisco Opera and Ballet orchestras.

His Bay Area years included the premieres of chamber and theatre works, including his Octet: Quaderno Rossiniano, an assembly of Rossini fragments, mostly from internal instrumental parts and Decay, a theatre work composed in collaboration with Ian Underwood and staged by Robert Moran. Leedy's Wind Quintet, a piece of considerable complexity, earned the enthusiasm of Gunther Schuller who commissioned a new work for the Tanglewood, Usable Music II in Bb for (untuned) wind ensemble, a work featuring the instrumentalists cynically reciting texts drawn from Piston's orchestration textbook through their horns.  The reception in the Berkshires was one of considerable controversy (that Leedy was not invited back to the Tanglewood event 2008 celebrating the "class of 38" is one sign that the scandal had not waned!)  He spent years abroad in Venezuela and Poland. Called to teach first at UCLA, where he established the electronic music studio and was commissioned to compose several albums of electronic music, including the landmarks of environmental music (i.e. "ambient" music before ambient music was a thing) The Electric Zodiac and Entropical Paradise.  (Selections from the latter were featured in the soundtrack album to the film of Slaughterhouse Five;  realizations of one of the Entropical Paradise pieces have become standard repertoire in the analog synthesizer community.)  He later taught at Reed College in Portland before exiting the academy for a life of even more intense but strictly independent scholarship, which culminated in his late settings of ancient lyrics — a substantial portion of which he could sing from memory — as well as a monograph on the subject, which I have pointed to here before. Among his major later works are Canti, music for contrabass and chamber ensemble composed for Bertram Turetzky, Sinfonia Sacrae, for soprano, viola da gamba and harpsichord, books of music for keyboards in just and meantone tunings, Pastorale after Horace for chorus with retuned piano, 4-hands, Sur la Couche des Miettes for mixed ensemble, a Piano Sonata in memory of John Cage, and Three Symphonies for unison orchestra, without conductor or rehearsal.

I first met Doug at the Early Music Workshop in Idyllwild, California, led by my teacher Shirley Robbins. I was 14 and we have been corresponding ever since, making it now 39 years. He gave me a copy of Lou Harrison's Music Primer and I will forever be grateful for that, a perfect gift for an aspiring composer with experimental ideas. He was the last of the great letter writers; though he would sometimes use the Internet in a library, he didn't own a computer of his own or use email. We sometimes telephoned, most memorably during the days while Mt St Helens, above Portland, was erupting, but he could get cranky on the phone. He preferred pen and paper and each letter is beautiful to read as well as to look at and his concerns went from the environment to politics in general, to music ancient and much less so. A vegetarian, he kept a good garden whenever he could and kept his environmental footprint small. I don't know believe in the notion of 36 Tzadik, hidden righteous ones who secretly keep the whole planet in order by justifying humanity to God, but if I could be allowed a smalled gathering of the righteous, inspiring personal confidence in humanity, Doug, Bhishma, would have been very much among them.

Update: Charles Shere has a fine tribute here.