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 would have been very much among them.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

More Sapphics

As long as we're talking Sappho, let me note that the Sapphic stanza provides a very attractive metric for non-lyric composition as well. Here's a modest example, using  Sapphic stanzas and chromatic tetrachords, from a set of pieces I made for my daughter to play:

Friday, March 13, 2015


The New Yorker has a fine review-article coinciding with the publication of Diane Rayor's new volume of Sappho translations (Diane is an old friend and it's been an intellectual adventure and aesthetic pleasure to be able to watch her shape and re-shape her Sappho over decades.)  The reviewer, Daniel Mendelsohn, has also attached an article about trying to recover the music in Sappho's poems, here, including a recording of a Sappho "performance" by the late Columbia classicist Stephen Daitz. With all respect to Prof. Daitz, while we get an exaggerated version of the pitch accent of spoken Ancient Greek, I don't think his recitation actually recovers much music. Much better is something like this reconstruction by Douglas Leedy which actually dares to compose a melody that complements the natural pitch accent of the Greek:

Friday, March 06, 2015

Composing, or: From One Wreck to Another

You finish a big project and what's left over?  Wreckage: Flotsam, jetsam, lagan and derelict.  Some on paper, some in the head, some sounds still ringing.  Some can be recovered, recycled, others can be abandoned, most without regret. The next piece, always the next piece.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Slow Death by Administration

Pay attention to Stephen Soderberg's post about the growth, no explosion, in degree programs, through specialized MBAs, in Arts Administration or Management, here.

There are a couple of things going on behind this that I'd like to emphasize, albeit with less of Stephen's diplomatic grace:
  • The first is that growth in such programs comes directly from the pressure on higher education to create ever more asses-in-seats, fee-bringing programs, regardless of any actual, real world need for graduates of such programs. 
  • The second is credentialism in fields that have gotten along perfectly well without formal credential systems for a good long time. When I first came to Germany I did a lot of English teaching, to bankers and brokers in particular, feeling part of a noble-enough tradition, going back at least to James Joyce, of liberally-educated native speakers teaching individualized courses in their own language for too little pay, as an interim working situation which found a natural optimum for student and teacher alike and was sufficiently profitable for even the greediest language school; but already at that time, a quarter century ago, the first signs were emerging that institutions in the UK, many of them private, were introducing credential courses in FL teaching. I haven't encountered any evidence that language teaching has gotten any better as a result of the credentialing.  I'd like to see evidence that credentialed music administrators are more effective.*  
  • The third is that these programs are overwhelmingly filled with students taking out massive personal loans. And these are loans that are incredibly hard to pay back from the small salaries in the small number of position available. 
  • And the fourth is: where is the normative arts administrator position that demands a normative arts administrator training? and where is the performance deficit or expected growth in such positions that would demand producing more from cookie-cutter training programs? Every single position of the sort, in my experience, has a distinctive profile of requirements. Some require more artistic experience, others require great writing skills, others are primarily PR, others personnel management, others bookkeeping/accounting, others fund raising, or contract writing, lobby work, or general management skills. Many of them demand only modest management skills, but an amiable personality and familiarity with the local community. In almost all cases, someone trained or with work experience in one of these specific areas would be more useful for the job than someone with pseudo-academic traveling papers. 
  • And finally, Point the Fifth, there is the unmistakable trend that growth in administration/management in the arts leads to less spent on actual artists and artistic content. Yes, we do need competent, knowledgeable, friendly, and (com)passionate arts administrators to help make the magic happen, but the magic remains the object, not the institution.

* As another piece of credentialism, hasn't the invention of the professional music theorist — and with it, dedicated music theory tenure track lines — been a net loss to composers who would otherwise have been considered for the gigs? Yes, it's a day job for composers, but it's a often a very good day job and composers do have a pretty good historical record as theory teachers.  (Inasmuch as some composers who had been actively seeking a more secure role for composers in academe — I assume we all know that essay that was originally titled "The Composer as Specialist" — were also active in the invention of the academic theorist, it's another example of composers acting in their own worst interest.)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Pop's Stereo Cabinet

A musician's individual musicality — that completely internalized sense of how music goes — comes directly out of, and is a reaction to, the music he or she knows best, and knowing best is often knowing first.

What music did I know first?  Surprisingly, I don't remember much "children's music" beyond the folkish and patriotic songs we sang at school; I can still sing "Put Another Candle on Your Birthday Cake" and the theme songs of too many TV programs.  We had a lot of children's 78s, 45s, and LPs, but they were heavy on narrative (i.e. 78 box sets of 'Hopalong' Cassidy adventures) and light on music.

To some extent I was shaped, within my cohort, by the music I didn't hear much of.  I grew up in a 60s/70s household almost completely without rock'n'roll; with parents born in the 1930s, they just missed it, my father too old, my mother married too young, for it. My mother came from a Lawrence Welkish-family (a faithful Welk watcher, her mother played Irish sentimental music at the piano) and she thought Elvis was a hick and sure, our entire family watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, but that culture-wide event was a novelty, not a musical, act, with as much interest in the haircuts as anything else. Instead, the music my mother liked ran to Broadway shows — nothing really current, but more the shows she had seen as a teenager in Sacramento: Showboat, South Pacific, and later some Petula Clark and some of those Mighty Wind-ish "folk" acts.  But popular music has an astonishing background radiation effect and I'm constantly surprised at how much rock repertoire  I do know, without ever having properly paid attention to it and there is of course considerable remedial listening that took place in college, in Santa Cruz, where I lived in dorms with 24/7 of intensive stereo blasting and a student body that, by and large, took their left end of pop music very seriously.

As a kid, I probably knew more pop music from the first half of the century than the second.  Besides my grandmother, the other important live music experienced from an intimate distance was from a "honky-tonk" player who played everything by ear in the "black key" keys — B, F#, C# — and from a neighbor during our years in Mt Baldy Village, who owned a player piano with a healthy collection of rolls, all popular, none recently so.

But the music I liked as a kid that I now remember best was that in my father's LP collection.  It was very small, maybe 20 albums at most, but carefully selected on his limited budget, and just about filling the available storage space in the speaker cabinets.  He had had more musical training than my mom, and though I wouldn't know it until, at twelve, I bought a neighbor's piano (a Broadwood upright labeled "made in San Francisco", the only one of the brand I ever encountered, with a light touch and a sweet sound (the neighbor, Mr. Starr, had long been retired from his Ford dealership and was a WWI vet, an ambulance driver, who also gave us kids his old Army uniform with those amazing wool knickers)  for 100 dollars, saved from a paper route) was actually a pretty good piano player.

From that record collection, I remember

The Moldau.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice (in a box, apparently the first, free, sample item in a promotion for a classical LP subscription series.)
— The Franck Symphony in d minor.  (Like the Smetana above, Pop had heard Wallenstein conduct it at a LA Philharmonic concert which he was able to hear as an usher (Apparently he ushered and otherwise worked concerts a lot, including a concert by Judy Garland (!) at the Shrine Auditorum, where he heard her sing Somewhere, Over the Rainbow with tears flowing only to walk backstage, take a drink and say "that'll hold the bastards."))
— the Montreux recording of The Rite of Spring with its Henri Rousseau cover.
— a disc with Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta b/w the Schoenberg Five Pieces for Orchestra; one summer, around 1950, on the USC campus, he stumbled into a concert by the Hungarian String Quartet which played through the Bartók quartets in a series (he never did hear the sixth quartet because he was asked to show a ticket for the last concert) but was so impressed that he bought the first Bartók recording he could find, and got the Schoenberg in the bargain.
— The Stravinsky Violin Concerto— The 1957 Pal Joey film soundtrack album.
— The original Broadway album of The Most Happy Fella.  Okay, my father had his showtunes, too.
— Two Martin Denny LP, Exotica and Primitiva.  During his draftee naval tour of the Pacific on the USS Lexington, my father had heard Denny play when his aircraft carrier docked in Honolulu in '57 and from his reports, it seems that clubbing around the faux-Polynesian sound world was a big part of his bachelor years
— A sound effects LP of railroad sounds that came with Pop's stereo, so he could show off the stereo effect.
— Cal Tjader's Latin Jazz Concert. (Between the Bartók's celesta, the Denny and the Tjader, was I destined to love mellophones?)  This was something special for a small kid" the disc was red and the cover had a cartoon of a bullfight arena, with the Tjader band playing in the middle, while in the stadium there are text balloons rising with messages like "Nixon go home."

There were also a few jazz recordings dating from his clubbing times in 1950s LA: Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, of course, but his favorite was a 10" 78 with two sides by "Poison" Gardner & His All-Stars, a favorite boogie pianist who Pop heard mostly at The Melody (pronounced "Mellow-Dee") Club in South LA.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Screen villains, real villains

In the Dr. Seuss-authored The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), the evil piano teacher Dr Terwilliger (Hans Conried) abducts 500 boys to play his enormous two-tiered and fantastically curved piano at his "Happy Fingers Institute."  In last year's Whiplash, a high school jazz band teacher (J.K. Simmons) is so driven by his own notion of perfection that he becomes abusive, possibly even driving one of his students to suicide.   Yes, the mean music teacher is an authentic screen trope, one suspects with deep roots going back to myths of musicians with demonic gifts, for dramatists a useful villain.  And to be completely honest, both Conried and Simmons were compelling and memorable in their, respectively, comic-camp and dramatic performances.

However, both performances reflect a real presence in music training, the abuse of power and authority, often reaching the sadistic. This is totally unnecessary for achieving musical results, entirely outside the spirit of the musical and plain wrong, morally, ethically, and often legally. Although, with the advantages of being male, tall, and fairly self-assured, my own personal experience with cruelty in music education and practice were almost trivial — a band teacher who, in frustration at a bunch of 12-year olds with loud instruments, too often had no pedagogical tools left but screaming, yelling and throwing things at the ground, a college musicianship teacher from the Boulanger school (famous for endlessly proclaiming its "love of music") who would hit our wrists with a ruler if we played something wrong, or working with well-known composer who inevitably threw tantrums (yelling, flying drumsticks, slamming doors) before performances — there are far too many colleagues who have experienced far worse, in forms of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse, and far too many of these are never able to recover.

Such abuse always begins with unequal balances of power and in this music teachers are no less prone than others in roles of authority: officials, bosses, religious leaders, athletic coaches, or teachers in general. We should expect that music teachers should be held to the same restraint in exercising that authority and power which we demand of all of these figure and abuse should cause appropriate action, from removal from teaching environments at a minimum to criminal prosecution when warranted.  But music teachers who use the virtues of their art form — that abstract "love of music" or that will to "perfection" — to excuse their human vices deserve, I think, additional rebuke: if they have to resort to violence or abuse to produce their music, then they have left the realm of the musical entirely.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Playing the Sea-Changes

A phrase that turns up far too often in legal briefs and business management texts is "orchestrating a sea change."   I have to object.  Not so much to the notion of a sea change (or seachange or sea-change) which is a lovely notion, and even more so for its inherent ambiguity.  It seems that the term doesn't appear earlier than in Shakespeare's Tempest, when Ariel sings (in "Full Fathom Five") ...Nothing of him that doth fade, /But doth suffer a sea-change,/into something rich and strange,... to Ferdinand, reporting on the apparent death by drowning of Ferdinand's father.  Here the change wrought by the sea is personal but significant, but the term can, in fact, describe change in two dimensions, one of scale and one of speed, for the observed actions of moving water can push flotsam and jetsam onto a beach in a blink or smooth a small stone or shape the edge of a continent over years or millennia, or with a sudden great flood or tidal wave make changes of frightening scale.

(I can't help but add this passage by the late mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, in part describing his working method: "La mer s’avance insensiblement et sans bruit, rien ne semble se casser rien ne bouge l'eau est si loin on l'entend à peine ...Pourtant elle finit par entourer la substance rétive, celle-ci peu  à peu devient une presqu’île,  puis une île, puis un îlot, qui finit par être submergé à son tour, comme s’il s’était finalement dissous dans l’océan s’étendant  à perte de vue...[...] C’est ‘l’approche de la mer’, par submersion, absorption, dissolution – celle où, quand on n’est très attentif, rien ne semble se passer à aucun moment: chaque chose à chaque moment est si  évidente, et surtout, si naturelle, qu’on se ferait presque scrupule souvent de la noter noir sur blanc, de peur d’avoir l’air de bombiner, au lieu de taper sur un burin comme tout le monde...C’est pourtant la l’approche que je pratique d’instinct depuis mon jeune âge, sans avoir vraiment eu à l’apprendre jamais." )

Yes, sea-change is a great pairing of words, so all the shame to have it get moored down as business jargon, and particularly so when the mooring is done by the verb "to orchestrate."  Do we really need this additional reduction, no, discounting of the art of orchestration to an act of technocratic or bureaucratic manipulation?  He orchestrated a sea change in the office supply market.  Or:  She was widely seen as orchestrating a sea change in personnel management through the strategic adoption of the "Human Resources" label for her specialization.  These sentences wouldn't have the same effect if the word "composing" replaced "orchestrating", would they?  Why does "to compose" continue have the soft edge and caché of the creative while orchestration handles a skill, a routine, and certainly nothing frightening  (and yes, nothing is more frightening than the creative (remember "Dick" Cheney's worst epithet for the 9/11 highjackers was that they were creative? (Which was, incidentally, the same assessment that Karlheinz Stockhausen made and was skewered for making!))

I'd like for my own composing — of which orchestration is an integral, not separable, part — to aspire to making sea-changes.  To the degree that a new piece can challenge me — and possibly others — to hear in some new way, then it sometimes even succeeds.  I certainly have gratitude and envy towards my colleagues who, to my ears. are to be able to make their own sea-changes even more reliably!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Getting it right, not getting there first.

I heard a terrific performance of Varèse's not-often-enough heard Arcana last night (by the HR-Sinfonieorchester under Peter Ruzicka*) — the pacing and balance were just right, between the brass and everyone else as well as in those tricky dry percussion-dominated segments — and this was a useful reminder of what a tight and forward-moving piece Arcana is, particularly when compared to the composer's other, earliest suriving large orchestra piece, Amériques which, arguably more exuberant and inventive throughout (those sirens!), tends to stall at moments through its dependence on brute force for continuity as it lacks the strongly cohesive elements present everywhere in Arcana.

* Yes, this was another one of those Forum Neue Musik concerts that didn't really feel so much like a, well, new music concert.  It did feel well-composed as a concert, with nice internal connections (particularly a common use of reference pitch complexes or sonorities throughout pieces) as well as contrasts between the four pieces: Crumb's A Haunted Landscape, Ruzicka's own Spiral (a concerto for four horns and orchestra), a Scriabin arrangement by Haas and the Varèse.  But it was the almost century-old Varèse that was most fresh in sound, the Crumb was an audience-friendly overture (someone quipped that it was a "Prelude to an Afternoon of  Modern Music Clichés", which was not far off the mark, although I think the problem comes with the lack of development of those clichés, particularly the use of exact repetitions, which in this style, sounds too much like stock modernist-imitat film music), the Ruzicka was very professional but missed many opportunities to go from professional to interesting (in particular, one would have liked to hear some more independent use of the four soloists) and was ultimately not memorable, and the Haas arrangement of Scriabin's 9th Sonata was mostly very good, but his promising ideas with the use of an accordion and some percussion were defeated in this performance by their physical isolation in the hall, such that sounds that should have been striking within the ensemble texture were made them the aural equivalent of sore thumbs.  This should have been a concert in the regular season of the orchestra, not a Forum Neue Musik concert.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Landmarks (51)

Alan Hovhaness: Symphony for Metal Orchestra [Symphony No. 17] Opus 203 (1963)

I hadn't planned to go past fifty items on this landmarks list — thinking that that number was already presumptuous, even indulgent, on my part — but there are still some pieces that I have to shout a bit about.  I've had the score to Hovhaness's 17th since 9th grade, when I used the prize money from a local composition contest to buy an handful of scores from Ralph Pierce Music in Pomona, California (this was a very special music store; Pierce sold pianos and sheet music and had an assortment of the latter quite unlike anywhere else in the 'States — when I finally saw the famous Patelson's in New York some years later, my first thought was simply "Ralph Pierce doesn't have to worry about the competition.")  Hovhaness's small set of keyboard pieces, Bare November Day, a prelude and five canzona-like "hymns" in odd scales, was already favorite Hausmusik for me, and I had worn some grooves in recordings of scattered examples of his orchestral music, particularly Symphonies (and not just Mysterious Mountain, which I always found lacked the unpredictability that Hovhaness's great model, Sibelius, had) borrowed from a local library.  What music-obsessed 14-year old wouldn't be impressed by the idea of a metal orchestra?  So I've lived with this score for a long time, and can still recall the excitement of working out its mechanics, figuring out how Hovhaness could use simple and efficient of means to achieve engaging surfaces and deeper textures that are, to the ear, far from simple. Indeed, to the ear, the piece often suggests the "textural" musics of the European Avant-Garde of the same historical moment, but Hovhaness arrived there from a very different point of departure.

The Symphony for Metal Orchestra comes in the middle of what might be called Hovhaness's Japanese period, during which he was able to spend time in Japan listening to everything he could and gaining some practical playing experience with traditional instruments.  He wrote, i.a., several chamber operas connected to his experience of Noh music and dance dramas (the first of which predates Britten's first Church Parable, also Noh-connected), featuring instrumental ensembles with multiple flutes and percussion, and in some cases, multiple trombones. This metal symphony is part of that same ensemble concern, in which the pitched texture is often based around modal monodies amplified by simultaneous variations, often densely chromatic, and the model, rather than the Noh ensemble, is more that of Gagaku, court music, with the massed flutes and trio of trombones recalling the ryuteki (flute) and hichriki (cylindrical reed instrument) in their deliberate melodies graced by slides and movement between unison and not-quite unison playing.  Senza misura sections for the six flutes in the third and fourth movements recall both the loosely canonical wind introductions in Gagaku repertoire, but also recalls the textural quality of some European 15th century vocal polyphony, and despite the continuous play between modal, chromatic and portamenti lines, the net tonal effect is generally static.  The five part percussion ensemble here — glockenspiel, two vibraphones, chimes and tam-tam — allows both for similarly clustered pitched writing in the metallophones to that of the winds as well as a suggestion of the formal markers found in the percussion of many Asian large ensemble musics.  However, in its instrumentation and in the level of playing technique demanded, the percussion writing here does seem dated now, dated back to an era in which the variety and technique expected from the percussion section was generally less on both counts;  one imagines that, had the piece been written a decade later, Hovhaness could and would have done much more with the percussion.  

Setting aside a more substantial argument about whether this piece, for 14 players, "really" is a symphony, this a four movement piece (Andante, Largo, Allegro, Adagio) that inverts and retrogrades the tempi of a stereotypical classical symphony (instead of Fast, Slow, Fast, Fast, it's Slow, Slow, Fast, Slow), but even that Allegro is actually in a paradoxical tempo (the flowing sixteenths in the first vibraphone are predominantly repeated tones (also paradoxical is the relationship between that vibraphone and the other percussion — which is the solo and which is the accompaniment?), such that we're really talking about a piece in all slow movements, somewhat in the manner of East Asian court musics; nevertheless, Hovhaness achieves a sense of pacing within this slow spectrum of tempi that is frequently magical.

Finally, a note about the provenance of the piece: It was commissioned by the American Society for Metals (now the professional research society ASM International) for their annual meeting, which naturally makes one wonder why organizations of the sort don't do more commissioning of the kind — new works of music with thematic connections to their own work —  nowadays?

Monday, February 02, 2015

Ezra Sims (1928-2015)

News comes that the composer Ezra Sims has died.  He was a fixture in Boston New Music and a well-know practitioner of microtonal music, but was always an independent and his music fit into no category other than his own.  Alabama-born, he studied at Harvard and then a Mills College under Milhaud  (the number of interesting composers who worked with Milhaud at Mills was unreasonably large and remarkably heterodox!)

Sims turned to his own microtonal practice via a process of determining the tones he needed to produce his melodic and harmonic needs, including representation of septimal and higher ratios, optimally locally in terms of just intonation and then mapped that set of 18 or 19 tones onto the 72 equal division of the octave, which allowed him both unlimited transposition as well as intervals that usefully gained tonal ambiguity under temperament, thus allowing uncommon voice leadings via common tones.  The polymath and musical lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky delighted in telling the story of how, making an inference from Sims catalog, he (Slonimsky) mistakenly added a String Quartet No. 2 (1962) to the works list in Sims's entry in Baker's Dictionary of Music & Musicians, when, in fact, there was no such work. Yet. Sims felt obliged to keep the notoriously accurate Slonimsky's reputation intact, so in 1974 he composed a work with the title String Quartet No. 2 (1962) for a five piece ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, viola and violoncello.

I did not know Sims well, but our longest interaction, in getting an article of his ready for Xenharmonikon, a journal I edited for a time, was a delight.  He was clear about what he wanted (a quality that is not often found in composers writing prose), he had a healthy sense of humor, an equally healthy disregard for large-scale musical organizations (and he did know something about scale, being an active organizer the Dinosaur Annex new music ensemble in Boston.)

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Timing is everything. Especially when anytime is the right time.

You have one minute and during that minute, you may strike a woodblock once. When, in that minute, do you strike it?

Repeat this, substituting, for example, a cowbell or a tam tam or an electric doorbell for the woodblock; then repeat this, substituting, say, two or four and a half or eleven minutes, maybe three quarters of an hour or one month or a season or a year or a lifetime for the single minute; then repeat this, substituting must for may. Finally repeat this, remembering that "you may strike" includes the option not to strike at all.

Do we have a style, now? Do we have an aesthetic, now?


The exercise above comes directly from a piece by Kenneth Maue composed in the late 1960s or early 70s in which a large gong is brought unnanounced into a prominent position in a public space and struck once.  The gong player stands ready with the beater, so any audience present will anticipate the sounding of the gong, but there is no information, no signal about when that might happen (and once it happened, no signal about what would happen next, up until the performers moved the gong out the space.)  This is also related to Cage's use of time brackets — stretches of time into which sounds should occur — which he would illustrate to the public by moving his arms like a moving hand on a clock (a practice begun with the conductor's part to his Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957-58) and instruct a volunteer to make a sound at some point, any point, within one revolution.  Some volunteers would make a sound right at the start, others tried to divide the time span precisely in half, clapping or stomping or shouting just as Cage hit six o'clock and switched from his left to his right arm, others waited as long as they could to make a noise before the clock ran out at high noon or midnight.  And still others would choose some other less simply or rigidly marked point on the dial.  But this is all really about how composers and players and listeners deal with musical time, all the time.  The rhythmic character of a music can be located on various continua, one of which stretches between absolute precision with regard to orientation to an ongoing pulse to absolute disregard for the same. Another quality of a music is the way in which it invokes — or doesn't  — different subdivisions or multiples of a pulse, still another concerns a sense of anticipation or belatedness in relationship to a pulse that a musician brings to the articulation of a sound in time. And to this I would add the option to not play, to "throw away" a note, something (unfortunately, AFAIC) deprecated in most classical music performance with its all-too-often practiced emphasis on playing a score "note true" and not "dropping" anything.  When a rhythmic practice regarding a particular relationship to the beat becomes a common practice for a performer or group of musicians, then we readily identify it as a style.  And when that style is something like Viennese expression or swing (in which there is a rather strict relationship between the degree of the inequality of a divide beat and the tempo) it can be something quite special,


Just two footnotes to the above.  (1) An explicit possibility of dropping notes is recognized in Cage's later sets of virtuoso Etudes for piano and violin in which the player was instructed to simply play through as if the notes were present.  Similarly, Douglas Leedy, in his Serenade for one or more recorders, encouraged out-of-doors performances in which the players were not necessarily visible to each other or an audience. When I observed that, on a windy day, when, due to more air going in the beak than coming out of it, a recorder would frequently be unable to speak, the composer said, just play on as if the tones had been there, preserving the larger continuity even if details were missing. (2) With some trepidation at wading into a more popular body of water than I usually allow myself, I'll note Bob Dylan's recent album of song covers associated with Frank Sinatra. Critics have been — unsuprisingly given the disparity in styles and general cultural associations between the two — grasping for something that makes a meaningful musical connection between the two singers and have mostly been frustrated at the odd coupling. Let me suggest that the connection here is one of musical technique, in particular one of rhythmic style, but not of a shared style, rather of simply having individual styles that are equally marked by being able to play more liberally along a continuum between sharply articulated metrical rhythm and ametrical utterances than most musicians as well as to throw away material in uncanny ways and to do both reliably enough that we can recognize an individual style.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Monochord Does Matter

I am very pleased to be able to share a treatise on the monochord by Bhishma Xenotechnites,  an extraordinary musician and scholar, who has been my teacher and friend for almost 40 years. I have previously called attention here to several compositions of his as well as a major book on singing classical Greek epic, lyric, and dramatic verse. This new essay, Monochord Matters or The Power of Harmonia can be understood as a report on how an ancient and simple instrument, the monochord (or, classically, Kanon) — essentially a stretched string with a bridge somewhere along its length — opens up a world and a worldview, the part of the quadrivium we usually call music, but more precisely known classically as harmonics, the art/science that begins most concretely — physically and sensually — in the realm of the rational. The author wisely keeps the balance, no, the tension, between perception and reason which is the central dynamic of the enterprise, unresolved.  

A PDF of the text is available here, as well as at the link provided by Charles Shere, whose item on Monochord Matters is worth reading.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Bob Gilmore, 1961-2015

News comes 'round that the musician and musicologist Bob Gilmore is gone and gone far too soon. Gilmore specialized in the performance (in particular as keyboardist with the Trio Scordatura) and study of music with alternative tunings.  His biographies of Harry Partch and Claude Vivier are landmarks, he edited the valuable collection of writings by Ben Johnston and had only recently begun an exciting tenure as an editor of Tempo.  Gilmore's recent series of podcasts about music he valued are well worth your attention, here.  We never met in person, but our paths crossed by post and email and online many times over at least twenty-five years and with our shared interests (i.e. Partch) and serious disagreements (i.e. Radulescu), a long promised and oft-broken sit down to chat is now postponed for ever.  He was a smart, kind, and generous man and will be sorely missed.

Metre, lost and found

A while back, I wrote a bit about the first of Schoenberg's Three Piano Pieces Op. 11 from 1909.  I can't quite let the topic go without mentioning something extraordinary that goes on in with his use of musical time. I'm using the words "musical time" here, because what he is after is something that, although rather modest in scale, is really outside the box for "rhythm" in everyday usage and here you can hear (and see, in the notation) Schoenberg really stretching the limits of notation.

Look at the gesture in measure four and the first quarter and a half of measure five.  The right hand part then gets repeated twice, each time augmented in duration and with two different arpeggiations of its two voices, the last repetition with an added contrapuntal voice in the middle of the bass clef. The left hand part, on the other hand, gets detached from its position synchronized with the attack of the b-g' dyad of the right hand and instead enters with a delay of first one eighth after the dyad and then in an arpeggio g' - b - left hand.  The left hand figure is not, however, in augmentation, but maintains its eighths-over-a-sustained-bass dimension, with, however, a ritardando over the last statement.

Now, there are precedents for all the details here, so I don't want to make a priority claim for Schoenberg, but I do want to indicate how much this is at once in the spirit of his own tradition and in dissonance to it. The Wiener Espressivo tradition from which Schoenberg's music came was at once — coincidentia oppositorum — a strongly metric one and one that delighted in a continuity of subtle and not-so-so deformations of the metric, both within a measure (leading to great inequalities of beat lengths) and between measures and phrases, with a highly flexible tempo overlaid in frequent accelerations and slowing-downs.  These deformations could come about from a marking (rit., accel. etc.), traditional performance practice, or spontaneously.* The measure unit throughout this, however, remained very clear, perhaps a marker of the centrality of dance to the style (with its necessity to regularly mark the moments when feet were expected to touch ground.)

But Schoenberg here goes astray at the measure with his augmented durations in the upper voices making a written-out ritardando with some expressive arpeggiation, so the figure crosses the barline before measure five and floats away from any metrical attachment in its two further iterations.  But the left hand maintains the eight-note tempo strictly and then with a verbal, rather than written-out, ritardando of its own.  Something has to give here, and that something is the metrical strength of the barlines at measures five, six, seven, and eight, but that left hand figure at measure eight, even under the ritardando marking, very clearly leads us to the (unsounded, but felt) downbeat and new, slower, tempo at measure nine.   So we have a two-handed figure get separated into a decelerating and a steady part which loosen enough to detach from the metre, floating over five bars, yet come back in synch to form a sensible anacrusis to the next phrase.

I think this little waltz phrase with which this piece begins and then periodically, if fragmentarily, returns to (note the smooth but startling deformation of the metre into a few measures of 4/4 on the last page of the piece) opens a particularly rich field of prospects and problems with musical time that Schoenberg only touches upon here (or later in his catalog, which would continue to be dominated by his strongly conventional sense of metre and phrase.)
* My impression is that Schoenberg's composing here (as frequently in other works) was, in large part, improvisatory, with reconciliation to notational practicalities a secondary thought.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Nicolas Collins, more than a nostalgist

Composer Nicolas Collins, Professor in the Department of Sound at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Editor of the Leonardo Music Journal, has been very usefully sharing some of his archives online. First off,  he's dedicated a page to the work of Stuart Marshall, composer, film/videomaker and activist, here.  Second off, his website includes a lot of very good things, including his Freshperson notebook from his first class with Alvin Lucier at Wesleyan (for the record, Marshall, Collins & this blogger were all students of Lucier (I didn't overlap with either & never met Marshall); also for the record, Collins is a far braver soul than I in sharing one of his undergraduate notebook; with any luck, I've managed to make all mine (helpless, tangent- and bad poetry-filled as they were) go away.) And third off, he's made a web-based recreation of one of his own landmarks of electronic music, the feedback-based Pea Soup, from 1974, here.  This is all new music that remains news, so pay attention!

Monday, December 01, 2014

So much more to learn

I've recently appreciated reading composer Lauren Redhead's thoughtful blog. She makes useful connections between aesthetically deep and completely practical issues — like performing organ music for a darkened auditorium — in concrete ways that usefully suggest interesting opportunities or openings for new music.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Johnson on Harmony, Soderberg on Theory (& Yes, I Get in a Lot of Words Edgewise)

The estimable Tom Johnson has just published a book on harmony, Other Harmony, "other" here indicating. heterodox to the mainstream of contemporary music theory and history teaching.  I haven't yet read the book, but some of the names sticking out from the online summaries — Euler, Hauer, Forte, Messiaen — make it appear very interesting indeed, in particular as ways of arriving at a greater diversity of voice leadings.

I think about theories of harmony a lot — perhaps too much for my own good — as both a practical and an intellectual concern.  A useful theory has got to do a handful of things at once:  It has to offer a taxonomy of resources within a given tonal system or environment, first among them managing the diversity of chords available (which need not always be simultaneities and need not always be complete and may sometimes be visited by guests or non-chordal tones, yet retain their identity) in terms of both their own content and their distance/relatedness to other chords and larger collections of tones but also in terms of the movement between chords, which is voice leading (which need not always be elegant or "parsimonious", a current term of art (I can't emphasize enough how important I think voice leading is; voice leading is a strong distinguishing quality among repertoires and I believe that it's the useful bridge between counterpoint — which I believe should be taught first — and harmony.))

That distance/relatedness exists in terms of both quality (yes, chords can be located qualitatively on a continuum of sensory consonance and dissonance (and yes, you have to consider things like registration and voicing and timbre and dynamics and duration (and yes, chords can be puns, simultaneously being identifiable in two or more ways)); yes, two major triads share a quality independent of their root relationship) and function within larger tonal contexts (scales, keys, and systems or networks, or collections and aggregates; yes, chords can be functionally dissonant independent of their sensory qualities (and yes, there's that punny business))   Finally, a theory of harmony should have the capacity to distinguish and describe individual and local harmonic practices, the things that an individual piece, an individual composer, or a particular repertoire do distinctively.  (These typically emerge not only in the choice of materials but in their temporal orderings.  Example:  in much repertoire, dissonances typically resolve forward to consonances. Example: the western classical, or "common practice", tradition allows IV to come before V but generally not V to come before IV; popular repertoires often do not share this prohibition.)

Ultimately, a theory of harmony is a tool that helps composers make more interesting or compelling works, helps players and musicians to engage with the works both practically and more deeply and is also a tool in discovering — or negotiating, as the case may be — the aesthetic foundations of our practices as composers, performers and listeners: not just what are our harmonic practices but what are our harmonic preferences?  

Stephen Soderberg is currently in the middle of a very thoughtful series of blog items about theory and its feedback relationships to practice.  I believe that hovering behind these relationships are, however, some psychoacoustic or neurological considerations and some private or social preferences that mix together and form or contribute to aesthetic criteria.  The entire twelve tone and set-theoretical project (from which tradition Stephen is working)  has a lot to admire about it, but attention to sensory considerations was not a prominent feature and, inasmuch as the tradition was or is pre-compositional or speculative theoretical, there was precious little said about the criteria with which musical works produced on the basis were to be appraised as successfully musical or not.

I was very impressed by the concern expressed by the late Heinz-Klaus Metzger that we are operating in a criteria-free era, but I suspect that we do, in fact, operate with criteria, but that we are almost painfully inarticulate about them.  (Yes, there were/are local and underground rules — they might be about octaves or starting rhythmic figures on downbeats or forbidding exact repetitions — but those are usually cloaked by the doctrine of deniability that governs things like admissions committees and awards panels.)  I will even go so far as to assert that we tolerate a lot of bad musical production because of this avoidance or even loss of the ability to be articulate about what we like and don't like (dare I go even further — this being aesthetics after all —: about what we find beautiful and not beautiful?.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

from 100 Questions Composers Are Not Often Asked by Journalists

Nr. 3 What's your day job?
Nr. 8 Do you now use or have you ever used a 12-tone row?
Nr. 9 Do you now use or have you ever serialized a parameter?
Nr. 10 Do you now use or have you ever used chance operations?
Nr. 12 If you were sent to a desert island and could only bring two Betamax cassettes of Hollywood youth films from the 1970s and 80s, what would they be?
Nr. 15 How many notes are too many notes?
Nr. 16 How many times have you been invited to attend a concert or festival featuring your music only to find out that the promised accommodations are a living room sofa or a mattress on the basement floor and a sleeping bag?
Nr. 17 On how many of those occasions did you have to share the sofa or mattress with a stranger?
Nr. 20 How many times have you been invited by a promoter or arts administrator to do lunch at the Russian Tea Room?
Nr. 21 On those occasions, were you asked to go Dutch or did the promoter shout "dine and dash!" leaving you with the bill?
Nr. 23 Have you ever composed under the influence of caffeine, nicotine, or other narcotics or controlled substances?
Nr. 32 If you could have any other superpower, what would it be?
Nr. 33 Are you now or have you ever been a member of a show choir?

Nr. 34 What's the difference between a prepared piano and a ready piano?
Nr. 36 What Hollywood actor should play you and your love interest in the made-for-tv biopic?
Nr. 41 How does one properly eat a peach using only a knife and fork?
Nr. 42 Can you bake a souffle?
Nr. 43 Can you debone a fowl in less than 45 minutes?

Nr. 44 Can there be a teleological suspension of the ethical?
Nr. 48 In your concert experience, what venue has provided the best free reception food?
Nr. 49 If composers got concert riders, what would you insist on having in yours?
Nr. 54 If Stockhausen really was from Sirius, could you explain how humanoid life would have developed and survived in a binary star system?
Nr. 55 Can you name two living composers whom you suspect to actually be aliens?
Nr. 61 Brahms or Wagner?
Nr. 62 Verdi or Wagner?
Nr. 63 Debussy or Ravel?
Nr. 64 Ives or Mahler?
Nr. 65 Schoenberg or Stravinsky?
Nr. 67 Nico Muhly: Ghost or Monster?
Nr. 68 Who serves imperialism more: Eric Whitacre or Mathias Spahlinger?
Nr. 74 Shaken or stirred?
Nr. 75 Innie or outie?
Nr. 76 Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly?
Nr. 77 Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin?
Nr. 79 If you were to be the celebrity endorser for a consumer product, what would that product most likely be?
Nr. 82 Did Richard Nixon steal the 1968 Election by secretly persuading Saigon to abandon the Paris Peace Talks?
Nr. 83 Did Ronald Reagan steal the 1980 Election by secretly persuading the Iranian government to delay releasing the US Hostages?
Nr. 86 Do you know the combination of the cupboard?
Nr. 93 What is your weapon of choice in a Zombie Apocalypse?
Nr. 94 Does Pierre Boulez cast a reflection in a silvered mirror?
Nr. 95 Why isn't there more music for Flexatone?
Nr. 96 How many cowbells?
Nr. 97 The Vibra-Slap (TM): Why? and How do we make it stop?

Nr. 100 If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?

Wednesday, November 05, 2014


So if you're sitting in a restaurant after a concert with a crowd of Newmusiclanders, nothing will likely stop the conversation sooner than mentioning in passing that you happen to like a piece by Alan Hovhaness. Sure, he composed a lot and he composed not only for virtuosi (Stokowski and the Ajemians, to begin with)  but much for semi-pros, locals, and other amateurs, and yes, you can recognize the reuse of similar techniques again and again in his catalog*, but he was a freelance composer composing practically and pragmatically, composing not from a masterpiece ethic but composing repertoire to be played, and when he was on his game, he could be very inventive indeed, coming up with remarkable (and remarkably robust and efficient, in terms of performance practice) ways of making striking music.

But his music has had a reception problem, not a musical problem. Part of the reception problem was that he came from the Boston area, not New York, and was something of an outsider even there, and then, when he settled in Seattle, would remain decidedly outside of the NY sphere. Part of the problem is, perhaps, that his influences (Sibelius, the reimagined Armenian music of Comitas, Handel) were off-fashion, and his friendships (Cowell, Cage, Harrison, Brant, but also Hanson**) were as well, and that he was prematurely (and thus, like Cowell, often superficially) a "world music" composer, thus the stickiness of the orientalist and Armenianist labels.

But inventive he was: above and beyond his modal and metrical experiments, in moving from strict canon to loosely canonic to the textural use of non-coincident repetitions he was ahead of a game that Ligeti and others would famously play later. His Noh-inspired chamber operas, The Burning House and Pilate predate Britten's Church Parables. All that said, here's Hovhaness's Symphony for Metal Orchestra (flutes, trombones and percussion), one of his stronger pieces.
* One of my own teachers, who had has a composition lesson with Hovhaness as a young man, insisted to me (and later in print) that Hovhaness's "secret" to his prolific composing was a prolific use of repeat signs.  A survey of his scores will quickly convince that exactly the opposite was the case: Hovhaness's actual use of repeat signs in his scores is very limited, wide stretches of material that initially seem repetitive turn out to have many subtle variations, and man, the guy wrote and wrote a lot of notes in longhand. He was prolific simply because (a) many people asked him for new pieces and (b) he just plain spent a lot of time at his desk composing (the story goes that Hovhaness would compose all night and sleep all day. I can respect that.)  
** Mr Harrison once told me about being sent by the Herald Tribune to review an all-Hovhaness Town Hall concert.  Hovhaness had a certain reputation in New York and  Harrison had come prepared to pan the concert, inviting Cage as his guest. All of the Coplandites and all the 12-toners were there, and were apparently loudly dismissive of the music which just didn't do any of what their own music did. But Harrison liked the first piece, Cage agreed, and they decided to wait for something not to like. But that something, Harrison reported, never came.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

In Public

So there's a story going around about a classical pianist who wants a four-year-old review of one of his concerts scrubbed from a newspaper's website.  (Lisa Hirsch writes about it well, here.) While the pianist mentions the EU "right to be forgotten" court ruling, the pianist's argument is an appeal to "the truth" over the review — and a review that was certainly not "over the top in sheer negativity and toxicity" as the pianist claimed.

The problem here is that by performing publicly, a musician becomes a public person. No, not to the extent that aspects of his or her private, non-musical, life become public, but certainly the quality of her or his performance is public and it becomes a proper subject of public discourse. (The EU ruling is completely irrelevant here as it deals with the rights of private not public persons, and search engines rather than content sites.) There is no abstract "truth" here beyond the circumstances of the program we can stipulate as given: time, place, personnel, repertoire, tempi, and, in a general way, whether the musicians were playing together or in tune. Whatever abstract or Platonic truth a musician carries around in her or his head cannot be stipulated, we can only discuss what we hear and perhaps speculate upon what the musician(s) performing wanted us to hear and whether this succeeded or not.   In the end "the truth" we actually approach in our conversation is that of the actual performance, the sounds in the air, in the room, before that particular audience (and you get the audience you have, not necessarily the audience you want!), not the ideals trapped in someone's head.

Some reviewers may be mean-spirited at times, maybe even always, and some reviewers are kind to a fault, but that's a matter of negotiation between readers and editors.  Performers enter into those negotiations at their professional peril, because the decision to perform publicly means an agreement to enter into a community of discourse, with its own terms, history, and dynamics. And that history, including the critical record, can't be censored or erased, but it can be positively engaged through thoughtful argument and — better — more convincing performances.

Musicians (and I write now as a particular sort of musician, a composer) are generally best advised to just listen to the discussion, take from that discussion whatever is convincing and useful to you, and move on to the next rehearsal or the next piece prepared enter the dialog again as a musician, not as debater or censor, and learn to take some joy in the unpredictability and human unevenness of our performances which — while we (both performers and audiences) sometimes will have some off-nights, even some really badly off-nights — is the substance that makes our best pieces, our best performances, most lively and compelling. Complaining about a bad review is rarely a good public strategy for a performer and never a good private strategy.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Reading Composer Biographies

My current pile of books-in-reading happens to have a number of biographies and autobiographies of composers.  I'm more than a little ambiguous about the biographical.  I'm far more interested in learning about the environment — both physical and musical/intellectual — a composer has lived in than in the social, psychological and intimate aspects of a life, because such environmental aspects more reliably attract and engage me to and with a music than expressive aspects. There is also something unseemly about knowing too much of the private life of a composer above and beyond the intimacies one senses when engaging with her or his music, which is personal in a very different way. But still, a biography can be a useful tool in discovering how a music came into being, discovering how parts of the real world or the world of ideas get remade or transformed into musical worlds. For this purpose, I like to have more technical detail than current publishing tastes allow, so a few of the books on my end table leave me wanting more,

...for example Bob Gilmore's biography of Claude Vivier (Claude Vivier: a Composer's Life (University of Rochester Press, 2014), a sensitively written portrait of the composer's life, with both the tragic beginning as an orphan in Quebec and the violent end in Paris too few years later handled with immense care and without reckless speculation. Gilmore makes some useful connections between the life, enthusiasms and personality of the composer and the musical work, and is particularly good in allowing the voices of those who knew Vivier to come through, but there is scarcely any suggestion, let alone detail or notational examples, of the actual materials and techniques that went into the music. To be honest, Vivier's music has a surface that I have never been able to get past and the enthusiasm of musicians I trust for the music makes me wish for something to help get beyond that surface.    

...or Thomas Clark's Larry Austin: Life and Works of an Experimental Composer (Burik Press, 2012.)  At 68 pages of expository text plus some front and end matter, this is a sketch, hardly a book, and a career as productive as Austin's deserves more.  I have always found it a remarkable factoid of American musical life that, during all those wild years of producing the journal Source: Music of the Avant-Garde, Austin was director of bands (both marching and concert) at UC Davis and the few hints we get of Austin's real struggles as an experimentalist in that and other academic settings really deserve better documentation. So the biographical part deserves some thickening, but the treatment of the compositional work really requires more depth and detail.  It's not enough just to attach a list of the "approaches" a composer uses as Clark does here (Clark's list starts with "Fractals, Algorithmic modeling..."), we really want to get some idea of how those approaches are used to produce actual works of music which apply those approaches to actual materials extending in time.

...or Charles Shere's Getting There (Ear, 2007), which is really the author's life (up to age 29) up through his student years, prior to establishing his mature compositional work, so there's hardly any talk about musical technique but, in this case, it's all the more interesting because of Shere's vivid account of growing up between Berkeley and a rough farm further North, an improbable start to a creative life which draws so much from modernism, from Stein to Duchamp to Cage.

I'm currently reading a very recent book by Albert Breier, Walter Zimmermann: Nomade in den Zeiten (Wolke Verlag, 2014),  which is a much more philosophical work, accompanying the transfer of Zimmermann's archives to the Berlin Academy of the Arts, and is organized by theme: Puzzle, Figure, Word, Childhood, History, Paradox, The Nomad.  The biographical and the musical-technical have a serious presence here, but it is somewhat secondary to the intellectual project (which is not so unusual in recent German musicology (indeed, not so unusual in recent German music, which is so often "about something".)) In any case, it's a substantial book and deserves a more in-depth report.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

In Praise of the Accidental Critic

The fine blogger and occasional critic Lisa Hirsch has posted a notice about the upcoming Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.  It's apparently become a kind of national conference for classical music critics, both established professionals and those beginning their careers, including both collegial shop-talk and craft-oriented workshopping. This is a good thing, as far as this non-critic is concerned, because I'm a composer who is an eager user of criticism, as it can bring perspective and ideas to my experience of music as both listener and maker, to both individual works and performances as well as to help make sense of music as both historical and local repertoires.  And when it is well-articulated it can be like having an additional set of ears: as much as I trust my own ears, they can often miss a sound or mistakenly assume that two sounds I put together actually belong together. A good critic can make you listen harder; at the very least she or he should write in a compelling way, so that — agree or disagree — you want to read more closely.  (But also see this post.)

But I also recognize an alarm in this gathering and an immensely practical one at that: the featured names on the program include what may be a working majority of the current full-time professional newspaper critics in the US.   This has never been a large number, but it is now really only a handful with few signs that papers out there are in a rush to increase their classical coverage (many critics are now asked to cover other areas and as well), let alone add FTE's with a dedicated critical portfolio.  And alternative media aren't creating jobs either, with a substantial part of the critical burden now having to be taken over by laypersons, with little or (mostly) no pay, amateurs in the best sense of the word, but also exploitees, in the worst sense of that word.  My alarm, though, is not about the end of the profession (lots of professions go extinct, see here)  but first in the poor job we're doing in directing audiences to the new loci of activity, as the old cachet of the newspaper-employed critic is often a distraction from the work of some writers with ears who are really doing the heavy lifting these days.  Yes, this often means bloggers ("death of blogging" meme set aside for the moment) and a blog like Mark Berry's Boulezian — to take a non-US example — is regularly as substantial or more so than newspaper criticism these days, and — big bonus points — reliably forces me to engage with ideas, opinions, and tastes I do not share.  And secondly, my alarm concerns the developmental aspects of this conference and others like it which are part and parcel of a mini-industry which has emerged with conservatories, departments, and schools of music offering formal courses of study in criticism, often with the overt (!) intention of easing music degree-holders out into a real world in which there are fewer gigs for working musicians, while neglecting to note that there are fewer gigs for working critics as well  (and these programs in criticism are often in the shadows of music management programs, academically even more questionable and looking beyond graduation to a sinking career perspective. (Need I add that the covert intention of these programs is simply boosting enrollments, with total disregard for any market demand?)

To be absolutely honest, though, what I fear about programs like this most is the potential to have criticism get too institutionalized, too professionalized, in the sense of acquiring greater uniformity in style and character.  The best English music criticism I know, from Tovey and Shaw to Thomson, Rich, Shere and Tom Johnson,  has come from people who have more or less stumbled into producing criticism, not one of whom owned formal traveling papers as a critic, but each of whom brought good ears and a unique posture and voice to the task, sometimes hitting their stride intuitively from the start but more often from learning on the job.  It would be a shame if all this movement towards formal credentials and professional conferencing and all that were to lead to any disregard for — or even an end to — the accidental critic.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Ives, 140

Ives on his 140th. Local and universal. Critical and Utopian. Ordered and spontaneous. Sentimental and experimental. Sacred and profane. Landscapes as self-portraits, theatres of deep memory. Taking the freedom offered by isolation to compose the impossible. How can a musician best be a citizen?

Also this: the oft-noted parallel between the landscapes of Mahler and Ives is real, out of the same musical-historical impulse, but in Mahler (as in the figures-in-clearings of Beethoven and Berlioz before), we're immobile, sitting in one place listening to the world pass by, and only in Ives do we listeners move through the landscapes as well, especially in the second movement of the 4th Symphony and throughout the Second Orchestral Set. This is a whole 'nother quality of engagement and the implications are still open.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Wrong-Note Music

Sometimes we (musicians, mostly, but maybe others) think and talk about music, neoclassical music in particular, as "wrong-note music"*, with the idea that behind a piece of music with a witty and/or droll and/or eccentric surface there is some historical source from which it departs.  This idea is sometimes a useful way of getting closer to pieces which "work" while doing things "wrong."

A friend on Facebook (not a "friend") recently posted some notes about a moment in a Schoenberg piano piece (Op. 11, Nr. 1) in which a tone doubled at the octave appears to "resolve" down a semitone, contextually a "dissonant" octave resolving to a "consonant" seventh.  I was struck by two things in this fragment, one of which was that we don't talk about Schoenberg's music as "wrong note" music in the way in which we might with music by Stravinsky or Hindemith or neoclassicists. I think this is mostly because, with Schoenberg, there are not — or at least not readily — "right note" repertoire sources hiding behind the piece at hand.  This is because Schoenberg did not compose directly with models, grabbed with cheerful disregard for sequential music history, but honestly saw his own composition at the sum end of a sequence.**   The second thing was that this "free atonal" piece is really a good example of a piece that didn't really didn't follow the rules of either traditional tonal voice leading (for example, that tone doubled at the octave was an implicit doubled third above the root, a bitter of awkwardness that would have been avoided in more conventional tonal contexts and might have been witty in Stravinsky, but was here indeed awkward, hence inviting a "resolution" which is stylish (as in "Wienerisch') but doesn't either resolve the awkwardness or introduce much wit)  nor was it yet even attempting the "rules" that would emerge later, and most explicitly with his 12-tone technique (for example, paying attention to complementary distributions of pitch resources.)

But these two observations suggested to me that there actually could be a "right note" piece — not a real, historical piece, but a real bit of either more tonal and/or strictly proto-12-tone music — behind Schoenberg's "wrong notes"  and that it would be interesting to try to dis- or recover that hidden piece.  Here's one possibility:
*Yes, the abundant quotation marks in this item are intentional.
** I should stick something in here about how Schoenberg's compositional practice, particularly in pieces like this, was less a careful, slow, and formal working-out of the implications of material than a fast, if not frenzied, improvisation on the page, working more from musical instinct than planning and intellect.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On White

There's a new volume of The Journal of the London Institute of 'Pataphysics out (Number 8), an elegant small volume organized by topics in alphabetical order, dedicated to the "exploits and opinions" of the John White, a fine composer with a unique breadth of interests from the rigorously experimental (often using systems or constraints) to the intuitively through-composed and historically fantastical, compiled and authored by Dave Smith, with numerous other contributors, complete with an accompanying pair of cds in their own jacket (= Number 9.)

In my other role, as publisher at Material Press,  I've been very happy to recently add a substantial selection of Mr White's works to the catalog, including a large selection of his Piano Sonatas.

And, in case you haven't seen it already, here is Tim Parkinson's video interview with John White in the composer's home.

Friday, September 05, 2014

From An Alphabet.

A 22 year old ghost named John Cage has just invented a way of using a Cribbage board as a cheese grater. Marcel Duchamp finds the invention useful and creates a new, four dimensional version of The Large Glass entirely from aging bits of Swiss cheeses in a variety of colors. James Joyce wraps the whole thing in newspaper and posts it to Trieste, insisting that it would acquire a tasty patina in the sea air. Erik Satie is now wondering what has become of his Cribbage board, but Cage quickly distracts him with a new variation on the mesostic, suggested by an 11-year old ghost named Norman O. Brown. Brown calls it a polymorphousperverstic, as the letters of the generating word can occur at any position in a line or nowhere at all. Satie is delighted and quickly forgets his Cribbage board. Cage offers him a plate of freshly grated Tilsit.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Orphaned Scores

I've recently been involved with trying to bring back into print some scores for interesting — and, to my ears, significant — music that have gone out of print due to publishers' neglect or demise. (And often a mixture of the two, as the waves of mergers in music publishing have often meant that the multinational behemoths that are the new owners have literally no idea what is in their catalogs, especially in the tiny business niche that is sheet music for new and experimental concert music, and when called attention to what ought to be there (as witnessed by, say, contracts with composers or rights assignments with PROs), they have no idea where to find the sheet music.)  I won't go into details now, but I've had some modest successes and there seem to be promising developments in the works. Renewable Music, indeed.

But let me take this occasion, as a publishing composer, to give my composer colleagues some simple advice: Don't enter into a sheet music publishing contract unless it is clear and explicit what will happen if the publisher fails to keep a work in print, whether by sale or by rental, or fails to perform any promotional or rights management services stipulated in the contract, or should the firm be merged into another publisher or should the firm be shut down.  While the standard operating basis is that an assignment of publishing rights is permanent, this is not necessarily the case.  A composer and a publisher may enter into a contract with a restricted term and there is no reason why a composer should not be able to avoid having her or his work get orphaned by a publisher by requiring the publisher either perform to the terms of the contract or return the pre-publication or pre-editorial materials and all publishing rights to the composer, thus allowing the composer to publish the work directly or to reassign the rights to another publisher.  Yes, a publisher who keeps the work available and otherwise performs properly — even in the event of extreme downturns in the market for the work in question (and they will happen!) — should be assured of the continuing status of the contract (after all, each contracted work is an asset contributing to the present and future well-being of the publishing house) and, yes, when a contract is terminated the publisher's investment in editing and/or printed stock should be compensated by either the right to continuing selling for some period, or the right of the composer to purchase, that stock (a factor that may be less important in this age of publish-on-demand and electronic publishing.)

And, as a composing publisher, let me remind my publishing colleagues that this is, indeed a niche business, with very modest stakes and amortization of investment only in either the very short or the very long haul and for most music, never at all, and that in the end we keep scores and other performance materials available because of a plain selfish reason: we want to keep our musical lives lively with the music which we believe in. Nevertheless, I will cheerfully contend that if a publisher goes into this understanding upfront the modest scale and potential of the market and organizes and economizes accordingly, perhaps in some complementary combination with other repertoires or services, this can be a viable business and, if you respect the composer and the music, there is no reason why this should not be reflected in the contract through terms which guarantee that the work will be able to stay available,  should your activity on behalf of the work stop or even if your firm expires.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

O is for Open

In the 1960s, perhaps a bit earlier, a lively conversation started about "opening up" musical form, or even more directly, about a formal genre marked by such an opening, an "open form." This might mean that the composer opens up the continuity of a work to the non-obvious sequences, or that additional choices are given to the performer with regard to the same, or perhaps listeners might engage the form of the work in ways other than the simply chronological.  Sometimes this would work out to something less than a real opening, just a denser but still finite network of possible paths through a work (and, in some cases (Stockhausen, Boulez), it turned out that those possible paths were much more constrained than advertised), other times the opening was so open that the specific identity of a work was called into question.  The discussion had high points (the comparison between Feldman's Intermission 6 and Stockhausen's Klavierstück XI was one of them) but just sort of faded. Maybe it would be useful now, particularly in view to the increased pressures on the traditional concert format and the possibilities of new and/or alternative performance and listening enviroments, to begin this conversation once again.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Taking More Time

I was just perusing the prose score to a work by Douglas Leedy, Ocean Park 2 (or, Entropical Paradise Lost) from 1969-70.  It's one of Leedy's environmental pieces  (he was a pioneer in the field,  before the label "ambient" took hold in the 70s, with his models Satie/Milhaud and spatial/environmental music traditions like those for wind bands or carillon) and uses an ensemble who have recordings which they play back on portable cassette players of or related to his own synthesized work Entropical Paradise (released as a 3-LP album in 1968 by Seraphim Records.) While it is notable as a useful solution to the problems of presenting recorded music in live recordings (the performers begin, seated, among the audience, and then exit the hall with their sounding cassette players in tow) the most striking aspect of the score to me was this:

"Ideal total duration: 6-7 minutes."

By contemporary music concert standards, 6-7 minutes has come to represent a very brief duration for a program item, making an incredibly modest demand on an audience.  We have come to expect pieces pushing 20 minutes or so, whether at Da Proms or Da Rmstadt or at some Laptopping or Circuitbreaking gig.  Indulging the better part of an hour is not rare. Have we, as audiences, really become so much more patient?  Or do composers, generally speaking, really have that much more to say and require so much more time to say it?   While I would like to say yes to both of these questions: yes, that there has been some social-psychological change in the past decades (yes, Marge, those years of yoga class have paid off!) which has led to a net increase in listeners' patience and, yes, composers have gotten both smarter and more productive of compelling music, I just can't discount some other concerns, for example, the practical one, that once over a threshold of, say, 10 minutes, the license fees for a concert performance go up significantly (or simply, more time played means more money for the composer) or that concert organizers prefer to minimalize the number of items on a concert.  I don't, a priori, have any opposition to a piece of long duration (in fact, many of my best friends...), but do find the ratios between material and duration as well as between audience patience and composerly indulgence to be important but frustratingly sensitive to assess in advance (yes, an ideal total duration is hard to find) and  I do find it unfortunate, for too many reasons, that it's probably much harder these days to put a three-minute solo piano piece (or a 6-7 minute piece for cassette playing ensemble) on a program than it is to take up a much larger fraction of an hour with pieces demanding significantly more resources.

Monday, July 28, 2014

In our era

The Rambler (Tim Rutherford-Johnson) has some interesting theses about these musical times, identifying them as "classical".  I agree with this, though I prefer to label this an age of repertoire (thinking that there were also pre-classical eras of repertoire as well, the "Galant", for example, was also a time in which a body of techniques and styles were widely shared and emphasized subtle variety more than radical or dramatic difference (contrasting with the spirit of a "Masterpiece Ethic" of later times.))  He concentrates on technology, specifically digital, as the immediate cause here, and that's right (especially to the extent that, for example, unless you're a real laptop wonk yourself, it's getting very hard to say that one particular laptopper is going to be reliably more interesting or innovative than another)*, but I think that there is also a concentration, if not reduction, of the space for ideas and inventions (as would be expected given the tremendous growth in these in the 50s through 70s: there are a lot of tough acts to follow) as well as what might be best called The Once Thing, which means, largely due to the imbalance between supply of freshly produced compositions and the available number of venues, that most new music gets played once, if at all, so a composer's best strategy is either to attempt to make each piece a radically different, life-changing, one-time-only, all-in masterpiece, gambling that the monster of imagination can shake things up in a fundamental way, or (and this is the less anxiety-producing path) to treat each piece as an incremental development in a string or pool of ideas, in other words, a style, repertoire, or yes, a brand. And yes, a brand is a attribute of work in a competitive market, and all that that means.

* Rutherford-Johnson also hints at something here, with his illustration of a shelf of recent long-format TV series, that needs to be taken even further.  Because it's the fragmentation of the TV business that has made these formal innovations (and they're real, at least from The Wire on, and can be terrific if the energy is sustained) and new and experimental musicians certain should recognize that some of our best work has come from not only fragmentation, but marginalization!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

N is for Non-Stop

We (musicians, composers in particular) tend to have a lot invested in the habit that a piece of music is taken in in a single stretch.  Okay, operas and ballets have their acts and intermissions and symphonies and suites have their movements, but the assumption is that the audience receives a whole work of music in as close to one near-continuous audition as possible.  (There are some parallel arguments about the unity of the content of the work taking place in that continuity, but that's for another time, another place.)  There is definitely value to be had in this and some exquisite and exquisitely long works (think La Monte Young or Morton Feldman) have their lengthy continuity deep in their compositional and auditional DNA, if often risking that boundary of gullibility between the musically sublime and a cultic ritual of exaggeration, but it not an absolute value. Pieces of brief duration, pieces that can be heard and processed well before joints start to ache or chair start to squeak or fits of coughing flock in and the concert hall air becomes stale, can be just as profound an experience, given the right balance of material and time.

But the durations of the biggest musical works are somewhat modest when compared with those required to read very long works of literature or episodic television dramas or some computer games.    I'm something of an obsessive reader (and re-reader) of big novels and some are so engaging that they begin to take over my waking life (and much of the dream life in-between), and although I try to give as much continuity as possible to the experience of reading, there are inevitable breaks (sleep, eat, personal necessity, kids, dog, spouse, work...) which, ultimately, don't seem like intrusions, just part of the larger continuity that, say, My Fortnight Reading Against The Day (or whatever) happens to form.  (Okay, this is just a guess on my part. I haven't actually tried  reading a book in such a way that all distractions could be eliminated and total continuity is assured (and, come to think of it, actually have no interest in trying such an experience, thinking of what it might entail: an isolation chamber, tied to a moderately comfortable chair, tube feeding, adult diapers, massive amounts of caffeine and/or Modafinil.)) Do we accept such breaks in the continuity of reading literature when we continue to assume that a piece of music has to be heard all at once to "really get it"?

I'll contend that the big novel, like the serious television serial of recent years, and perhaps the computer game, offers some formal opportunities for the large musical work, both in terms of flexibility and complexity but also the potential for extension, if we can simply take a more relaxed approach to continuity. (In part, this is why recorded music so rapidly overtook concert-going.  Also, those famous attempts at multi-day opera cycles (Wagner, Stockhausen, Braxton) have come to depend on their being able to be taken in pieces, often widely separated in time and wildly rearranged in continuity.)

Friday, July 11, 2014

(Not Just) Fun and Games

Stephen Soderberg has a typically thoughtful post, from his on-going series on "Music Theory Today", which uses the notion of music as a game.  The usual framework for thinking of music as a game is that it works with a finite set of rules yet their application can lead to a (potentially) infinite set of of outcomes (whether pieces, performances, or auditions.)  Innovation — unexpected new varieties of music — are understood as coming from unexpected, yet still strict, applications and combinations of these rules.  But that's not the only way to think about these innovations.  One way is to think in terms of rule-breaking.  (I can't help, in this case, but think about the (probably apocryphal) legend of the invention of Rugby Football, when a footballer suddenly picked up the ball with his hands and ran for it and, I supposed, all his teammates and competitors spontaneously agreed that this was okay.)  And a regime of rule-breaking would presumably run in fits and starts of testing the extents and limits of the known rules, sometimes by cunning, often by accident, and then periodically revising the rule book to better reflect the current state of play.  But this view is still based in the notion that there are, in fact, rules, and that their understanding and application is shared.  But what if we're really playing a kind of game like a Wittgensteinian language game, and we bop along on that notion of a shared rule book and shared interpretation of those rules, but every so often we get a kick from the reality of obvious dissonances between how different people are performing, in the form of ways of making music that simply don't follow the set of rules we've been operating under?   It's not just a more imaginative application of the rules we've agreed upon and neither is it a breaking of one or more rules, it's a message that the whole scheme of rules we think have defined music-making, have been fundamentally off.  Sometimes, this suggests a social gap of some sort is at play: I once heard a conversation between two famous experimental music composers that went on for twenty minutes or so before each of them realized that they were talking about different things (as it happens, one was talking about "Polish mead", the other about "Polish meats"; how they ever got to that pair of topics, I'll never know, and each of them was solidly puzzled about why they should be conversing about such things (to be fair, each was exhausted after some long days of travel, rehearsals and concerts), but they chatted happily enough along, simply enjoying each others' company until a third party intervened and asked what they were talking about, thus popping that little balloon of misunderstanding.)  But other times, I think this is due to the fact that our joint or individual operating "Theory of Music" really is only ever a provisional one and that there is a great deal of indeterminacy about the causal relations between theories of music and actual music making, that there are an indefinite number of ways of arriving at the same musical outcome (not to mention all the uncertainty around our weak definition of "same" wrt music) and that it is far from clear whether any one particular way is or even can be more correct than another, or even if it is actually possible for us to determine this. What all this means is that we have a lot of room to maneuver before, during, and after music making.  And if that doesn't give you some optimism about the future of music as an art with as-yet-unknown variety, I don't know what else does!

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Exercises and the Cadence

I've mentioned my fondness for Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style (1947), in which the same (pointless) story is told and retold in a large variety of writing styles, 99 to be precise — telegraphic, in Alexandrines, as reported speech, in metaphors etc. —, and the exciting thing, of course, is that it invites the reader to exercise her or himself stylistically, too. It strikes me that we musicians already had a variant on the idea in Alfredo Casella's The Evolution of Music Throughout the History of the Perfect Cadence (1924, but do see the posthumous edition, which updates the "evolution", even finding a perfect cadence in a Boulez score.) The variation here is that the same (pointless) story is the perfect cadence, but Casella did not compose his stylistic examples himself, instead finding them in historical musics, and by presenting them in historical order, he makes a narrative of the whole that Queneau's unorganized set of 99 does not.  John Cage was famously enthusiastic about the Casella volume (but do see the first edition, which does confirm with Cage's narrative of the exhaustion of the cadence.)

Casella the composer is a figure that we've had trouble with.  Although there are remarkable aspects of his work — a good portion of his music (mostly instrumental, and at its best often as exercises in historical, especially Baroque, styles) is quite wonderful, his own piano rolls and sound recordings present a very fine pianist, he was a leader in both promoting new and old music, for which he was perhaps the person most responsible for the revival of the works of Vivaldi... heck, he was even Arthur Fiedler's predecessor at the helm of the Boston Pops — he was also very much on the wrong side of world history, politically, and there are concrete aspects of his musical activity, for example founding the so-called "Corporation of the New Music" together with D'Annunzio and Malipiero, two very murky figures, that continue to be more than uncomfortable.

Monday, June 30, 2014

About Time

About time.
Opening time.
The beginning of time.
Where does time come from?
Where has the time gone?
A long time.
A short time.
No time.
Zero time.
Time and a half.
In the meantime.
A sense of time.
Telling time.
The test of time.
Time will tell.
Set the time.
At the tone, the time will be.
Time zones.
Time's arrow.
High time.
A fine time.
The use of time.
Time and money.
Time is money.
Being and time.
Being on time.
Enough time.
Quality time.
Spending time.
Me time.
We time.
Father Time.
Taking time.
Tea time.
Stolen time.
Lost time.
Waste time.
Find time.
Make up time.
Time is of the essence.
All the time in the world.
Trying times.
The Texture of Time.
A rough time.
The best of times, the worst of times.
The test of time.
Doing time.
Serving time.
Treading time.
Nap time.
Reading time.
Playing for time.
Time and motion.
Old time.
Recent times.
Half time.
Time and Tide.
Time for good behavior.
Time served.
Time travel.
Time creeps along.
Time flows.
Time flies.
The time ahead.
The time until.
Call time.
Time off.
Time out.
Time in.
Time running out.
Time on our hands.
Time to run.
Filling time.
Treading time.
Good timing.
Bad timing.
Timing is everything.
Time on our side.
Closing time.

Friday, June 20, 2014

There's always a first time...

From today's Irish Times:   Lucier will perform I Am Sitting in a Room in Dundalk Gaol on Friday. It will be the first time he has performed the work in a prison... (source)

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Lesson in Film Music from Morton Feldman

Morton Feldman, in one of those true stories that has become the stuff of legend and notoriety, composed music for the film Something Wild (1961) that was rejected by the director Jack Garfein and replaced by a new score commissioned from Aaron Copland. Feldman's score was said to have been rejected because of the use of a very gentle celesta in the (very disturbing) rape scene which is central to the film's plot.  Chris Villar's Morton Feldman pages (the most important source for Feldmaniana online) now has a video of the scene in question with the Copland score as used in the released and, for comparison, a mock-up, with the Feldman score in its place.  (See this page, and scroll down to Something Wild.) The result is a real lesson for anyone interested in the potential of background music to affect the entire experience.  Copland's music is rather innocuous, though oddly off-balanced as scoring given the registral limitations of the sound recording technique then available and it is —probably intentionally — most effective when it cuts out altogether, letting the silence with only intermittent environmental sounds on-screen take over.  The Feldman, on the other hand, continues throughout and has an overpowering psychological effect; personally, I found this version almost impossible to watch because of this unrelenting, if gentle, continuity.  It really holds the viewers focus on the victim, with whom the music is associated. (The mock-up eliminates the background noises and Foley work and, although it's not possible to know if they would have been included had Feldman's music been used, their absence makes the Feldman a much more vivid component of the drama, while doing nothing in the way of Mickey Mouse accompaniment of the imagery or motion.) Strongly recommended.