Monday, January 31, 2005

Generational Chatter

Among the new music blogs and newsgroups, there's been quite a bit of chatter about Kyle Gann's blog item on generational differences. I was born in the gap between the baby boomers (like Gann) and the children of baby boomers, which might account somewhat for having a perspective different from Gann's. By the time I got to University, I had the possibility to study with composers (Harrison, Mumma, Young, Lucier) from the experimental side of the tracks, and I didn't face the kinds of struggle with teachers through which my own teachers had gone. In the network of schools to which I belonged, the American experimental music tradition had as legitimate a lineage as any other, and the more significant professional performance possibilities were well-recognized (although the academic prize-, scholarship-, and job-placement capacity remained firmly outside of the experimental scene). By 1985, when I had finished my MA and decided that a move to New York was not realistic for me, the scene there was already splintered and mixed-up. Uptowners were programming downtown music in the hopes of increasing their audiences, and some "native" downtowners (John Zorn is Gann's example, but it just as well could have been Elliot Sharp), were composing music that often sounded more like something from the other part of town, even though Zorn's game-based pieces had a decidedly downtown pedigree, being related to Christian Wolff's "cuing" pieces, for example. More critical for me, as a young composer, and deeply disappointing, was a fundamental change in the way certain minimal musics were understood. Works by Reich, Riley, Glass, Young had been heard as much for the acoustical grafitti that was a by-product of the notes played, as well as for the re-encounter with tonality also suggested by those notes. (Something was terribly wrong for me when I heard a performance of drumming by Steve Reich and Musicians, and the vocal reinforcements of resultant patterns were simpoly omitted.) But the downtown scene was never monolithically defined by a tonal, repetitive, meditative genre nor was it ever defined by a lack of complexity, but rather the location and character of that complexity. As important to me as early minimalism were the social constructions of Ashley, Wolff's cues, or the circuitry of Mumma, none of which neccesarily led to a simple tonal surface. La Monte Young was the composer of both Two Sounds and The Well Tuned Piano. And what about the central figure of John Cage? Or Morton Feldman? Or Jo Kondo?

I agree with Gann that there has been a change in the last decade or so, but I don't quite follow this:
Many Europe-oriented, grad-school-trained composers have taken to launching their careers from Downtown spaces as being hipper.

He's buying into a trope about Europe that just doesn't fly, Wilbur. These composers are not Europe-oriented, they're career oriented, and they want to send in all the box tops and push all of the buttons necessary to get gigs in the US. They know nothing about European music in the past thirty years and they study with composers who are famous within US Academe but unknown in Europe. (A friend at GEMA told me that the serious American composers most-played in Germany over the past fifteen years are Cage, Ives, Feldman, Lucier, Reich, Glass, Adams, with Gershwin and Bernstein floating in and out of the list). By and large, Europeans interested in American music identify the experimental tradition as the real McCoy, and the academic scene is basically unknown. [N.B. There is a computer music network, where the connections between Paris and Palo Alto/Berkeley/MIT/San Diego are real, if in constant, funding-determined, flux. But this network is in a niche of its own, where a reconciliation between the former main-frame uptowners and micro-computer downtowns was forced long ago by technological developments.]

But I do hear a connection between the music of the careerists and the move by Reich and Glass away from the acoustical experiments of their earliest works. To my ears, it's an attachment to flashy, exciting surfaces and detachment from ambiguity and the larger issues surrounding the condition of music to which the experimental attitude first opened our minds and ears.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Richard Barrett Interview

Ian Pace has posted an interview with composer Richard Barrett at Barrett struck me as the strongest composer of the complexity gang, and I have wondered about the relationship between his politics and his music making. This interview deals very directly with that topic. New music is a form of resistance, and in this interview, Barrett gives this resistance one possible (socialist) profile. My own views are decidedly more left-liberal/green (being too much a misanthrope ever to be a good socialist), but the simple shared recognition of the potential for music to resist the status quo leaves ample room for an alliance of broad sympathies.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Composers' web pages

I spent a while this morning surfing through composers' webpages. Many are impressive, with smart layouts and striking graphics, but the content often makes one wonder about the intended readership. I estimate that 90% of the biographies on these pages are basically lists of academic degrees and prizes and almost none try to say something about the music. Possibly good C.V.s for prospective academics but lousy promotionional materials for music. If the readership is gathered primarily from among composers and other musicians, then listing institutions, degrees, and prizes may be a convenient shortcut for establishing some parameters (or pedigree?) with which a composer's work might be characterized. But that's just performing for the choir, and a webpage ought to be able to do more than that. While writing meaningfully in a compact way about music is almost impossible, if the idea of the web page is to call attention to one's work, then go for the impossible and say something about the work.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Landmarks (1)

(This is the first of a series)

Night Music
(1960) Richard Maxfield

First heard on the lp New sounds in electronic music [1967] (including works by Reich and Oliveros, ODYSSEY 32 16 016)

Night Music caught me first for its sound and then, later, for the elegant technical means - what you hear are only the difference tones between the supersonic bias signals of a tape recorder and a supersonic oscillator tone. Gordon Mumma pointed out that as Maxfield was essentially performing with the erase head, this is synthesis without input. But the novelty of vituosic performance techniques in music is (for me) short-lived. The aspect of this piece that has stayed with me is its form, which strikes me as uniquely balanced between what James Tenney calls Ergodic form - statistically flat, without formal landmarks - and its references to a long tradition of pieces about figures in clearings, starting, perhaps, with Beethoven's 6th, "Pastorale" Symphony, and continuing through Berlioz, Ives, and Messiaen. But Maxfield is not giving us single figures in his clearing, instead he populates his landscape with such numbers and every manner of insect or bird, that he achieves a density that borders on stasis.

We really need to have more of Maxfield available. And not just the electro-acoustic works, which have received some welcome attention from the latest generation of electronic musicians. He studied with Sessions, Henze, Babbitt, and Cage. Before his turn to the studio, Maxfield had been a prolific composer of notated works for chamber and small orchestral forces, beginning with neoclassicism, in Berkeley moving on to 12-tone techniques, and continuing these at Princeton. After Princeton, he took -- and then took over - Cage's course at the New School, making a major change of allegiance to the experimental side. This transition from academic to experimental music making catches my attention. Was Maxfield one of the first to recognize the Princeton path as a dead end?

(It's a kick now to look at the list of 12-tonish composers in Babbitt's 1955 essay, "Some Aspects of Twelve-Tone Composition": roughly a third of the names are obscure, or obscure as composers, another third made significant changes in allegiance away from 12-tone techniques (Maxfield, Robert Erickson, Rochberg), and the rest used techniques that deviated seriously from 12-tone orthodoxy (Riegger, Perle). I've never bought either the Babbitt-line on the centrality of 12-tone technique or the anti-Babbitt-line claiming a hegemony for 12-toners over the awarding of academic prizes and positions. Babbitt himself has composed and written about music with integrity and a certain charm, filling out the ramifications of a narrow, precisely defined space in the universe of possible musics, another eccentric figure in a culture full of musical eccentrics. Babbitt's true camp followers are few and lack his invention and wit, and as bitter as the battle often seemed, Babbitt is in may way closer to the experimentalists than to the standard-issue musical academics. The friendships between Babbitt and Feldman or Babbitt and Cage were genuine, if not marked by much comprehension for each others' projects, and many composers were enriched by study with Babbitt - believe it or not, La Monte Young (later a close friend of Maxfield) had planned on studying with Babbitt, but Babbitt's injury in an auto accident intervened in his plans and Young ended up at Berkeley, becoming, in two years, a central force in the west coast scen, and a pivotal figure in minimal music. (And, in truth, most academic prizes and positions go to the harmless, hardworking harmony instructors in music departments with large bands and well-fed football teams.) That said, there is definitely a ergodic aspect to Babbitt's music, as any given sample of any work of his is going to tend to have a flat distribution of pitch classes, registers, instrumental combinations, dynamics, placement of tones within the prevailing metre, etc..

Friday, January 14, 2005

Mid-winter reading

At the moment, three books are stashed in strategic locations around the house, for reading in-between composing, writing, cooking, childcare, and assorted crises:

(1) Roger Penrose, The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe. This is my big, fat, serious book, and at 1000-some pages, it's the book that'll either take up the most time, or so rapidly defeat my modest preparation in math and physics that I'll be properly embarassed for the rest of my blogging career for ever mentioning the damn thing. So far, it's much better than Penrose's earlier efforts for general audiences, despite the fact that he really doesn't hold back on any of the techniques needed for his arguments. I especially like his honesty about matters of opinion and speculation.

(2) Lady Muraski, The Tale of Genji. This is a re-read of an old favorite. While I'm not in any position to judge the accuracy, Seidensticker's translation is simply a great read, and the comfortable strangeness of the world described is unlike anything else in literature I know. This is both much better social-science fiction and much better English prose than anything on the sci fi/fantasy shelves.

(3) Julian Rubinstein, Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts. This is my just for fun reading. Rubinstein captures much of the spirit of post-change-of-system Hungary, but for all of his enthusiasm for his subject, my impression (after almost five years here) is that his hero, Attila Ambrus, is actually representative of a fairly common stock figure in Hungarian society: an unintentionally funny, super-patriotic displaced transylvanian macho, surviving by holding down multiple jobs, and wondering exactly how's he's supposed to fit into a system where the rules are anything but clear.

Thursday, January 06, 2005


Henry Cowell's New Musical Resources was begun in 1917 under the guidance of Charles Seeger, essentially completed by 1919, waited for publication until 1930 and was remaindered in 1935. But the book was anything but a failure. Recognition of the book as a source of rich ideas for music experiment has steadily increased. Three ideas in particular have continued to invite composerly invention -- tone clusters, the integral use of rhythmic units subdividing the whole tone other than factors of two (i.e triplets, quintuplets, septuplets, etc.) and the translation of harmonic ratios into rhythmic proportions.

I first read NMR in 1976, in the summer before I turned 15, and a mixture of Cowell, Kuhnau (one of his Biblical Sonatas included three-tone diatonic clusters), and Mozart (those suspensions in the Catalogue Aria) found itself written into my first piano sonata, a sonatina really, where the finale reprise of the rondo has the melody stated in octave wide diatonic clusters. Fun stuff.

I don't think Cowell's "overtonal" claims for clusters have held up, although it would be interesting to make pieces where the clusters are really tuned up in harmonic ratios. IMO, the charm of clusters lies rather in their ability to superimpose precise melodic directionality and a fuzziness about their precise identity. Douglas Leedy's Piano Sonata 1994, (Material Press), a single movement work of ca. 12 minutes duration, composed entirely of octave-wide diatonic clusters is exemplary. It's noted ingeniously, with a typewriter, indicating by letter name the bottom and top notes of each chord, and occasionally with a prefixed # or b to indicate a change in diatonic collections from the collection with all white keys to one with a sharpened F or a flattened B. It's a remarable work, at once severe, lyrical, minimal, and dense. The only thing a bit like it is Cage's original, solo piano version of Cheap Imitation - Cage's name is even encoded in the score - and perhaps some Cowell, at his naive best.