Wednesday, May 31, 2006


Dorodango: lumps of mud polished into shiny spheres, made by small children in Japan.

A good Freudian would blame it on early childhood training: some musicians need to get everything perfect, every detail accounted for, every surface polished and neat; others need to leave some things unfinished, unsaid, a bit messy, uneven; most musicians probably find themselves between these extremes, balancing or oscillating. But I think that there's probably a better music-evolutionary reason for this particular form of biodiversity: it keeps our musical lives lively and interesting, full of variety, even if the basic materials available to us are all pretty much the same.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

My literary ambition, before I die, to write a text without one parenthetic phrase enclosed between commas, parentheses, brackets, braces, dashes (be they single or double), ellipses, or any other punctuation device now known or yet to be invented.

(I expect to die at a very old age, shot by a jealous and angry grammarian).

The Convivial Cage

John Cage's musical enthusiasms were broad and he enjoyed sharing his discoveries. Not only his closest colleagues -- Wolff and Feldman, for example -- got his praise, but also composers in ever-wider circles, crossing genres, borders, and generations. He was -- unlike many of his colleagues -- a faithful concert goer and in his last years, if he was in town, he'd be somewhere almost every night. When he was away at Festivals and Conferences, he tried to make a point of being (his words) "one hundred percent" in attendance. I imagine that he saw himself as a member of the community (a member, not a citizen, for the community represented no state), and his interest in that community was more than duty. From La Monte Young or Pauline Oliveros or Alvin Lucier, to the composers in the Once group or the Tone Roads group, the extended family of musicians around the Cunningham company, he was curious, receptive, and supportive. (Milton Babbitt tells about meeting Cage for lunch to discuss the Composition for Four Instruments; Cage was enthusiastic that Babbitt had not avoided triads and other configurations suggesting tonal music. Of course they were talking at cross-purposes, but the point is that they were talking!) He was sometimes critical, of Virgil Thomson (I believe that the Cage half of the Hoover/Cage monograph has some extraordiarily incisive and clear analytic writing on music, and it has been unjustly ignored (but nevermind, I guarantee that there will eventually be at least one dissertation written about Cage as a music theorist)) or Glen Branca, and sometimes puzzled, for example by Richard K. Winslow. From the composers in my own generation, I recall his enthusiasm for music by Gordon Monahan and Mitchell Clark. In later years he singled out Philip Glass, putting him in Cage's alphabetized theatre of ghosts, and Stephen Albert, for the Symphony: RiverRun, product of a shared enthusiasm for Finnegan Wake. Cage used the word "convivial" to describe Glass's music, but that word really fits well to Cage's own works, and particularly those of his last years. Not only was he an active member of his community, but he was trying to compose in a way in which the balance, between sounds and silences, and among the sounds between loud and soft, was itself convivial: a sustainable ecology of sounds, shared on the basis of non-compulsion, mutual respect, and considerable faith in the prospect that when one is open and inventive, good things can happen with even the most modest of means. Damn it, I miss the man.

Listening habits of the leadership class

The media has taken great interest in the recorded music tastes of politicians, with the Ipod listings of C. Rice and H. Clinton in particular receiving thorough scrutiny and analysis. The balances between genres and the relative political leanings of those genres are hot topics, as is the possibility that a politician may be hedging in public about the true nature of their listening habits. Is one of them purposely slanting her purported workout list to the MOR? Or is another watering down her list with pop standards so as not to appear too highbrow ?

The pointlessness of this exercise is that musical tastes are being represented by Ipod frequency-of-play lists. But don't we all know that the music we love most is not the music we utilize the most? The music that we use functionally -- to get to sleep or to exercise or to do housework by -- has to fullfill criteria quite independent of whether it is the "music we like most". In fact, it may often help that such functional music is music that we can hear without listening to it closely. And the music that we really love? Well, we tend to treasure it and take it in measured doses and only at the right time and circumstance in order to give that music all the attention it demands.

Sunday, May 28, 2006


Some people manage to summon huge reserves of anger for music that they don't like. Just mentioning the names Schoenberg or Cage or Babbitt or Boulez on a listserv can usually guarantee an extended verbal assault. On the one hand, it is a good thing that music inspires passion, and I can understand this reaction when the music is forced upon the listener, without warning, and without escape. (Personally, I like some advance warning that music will be loud, and I like to be able to leave or plug my ears if it is too loud; as far as I'm concerned it's the same as protecting the rights of non-smokers to remain non-inhalers of smoke). In general, however, our most intensive musical experiences, when the music is not incidental to advertising or background for films or tv, the experiences where we can concentrate on the music itself, are in situations where we can assert considerable amounts of choice. So in the face of that choice, this anger towards music that one doesn't like is rather more an impulse to control the music that others hear, and that's just not civil.

The arguments summoned by the angry often attempt definitions of the musically acceptable, territory explored by Plato and the emperors of the Choson dynasty with equally ugly results. Music must have a beautiful melody, remain in a certain mode, be faithful to the spoken language, be danceable, only use consonances, or admit dissonances when resolved properly to the admitted consonances, not be played at certain times, be only played at certain times, be only sung by men, or when sung by women, then not in the presence of men, be tonal, not use instrument, not use organs, not use accordions, not use amplification, only be composed of sounds with harmonic spectra and must conform to the know limits of our psychoacoustical apparatu, it must not use drums or other makers of noise, and most of all, it must entertain as the musician is obliged to the listener. (Not.)

If I want to entertain, I will pick up a tin whistle and a hat and play for Euros on the Zeil in Frankfurt, or I will dig out a coat and tie and do lunch at the Russian Tea Room, planning my papering and conquest of Carnegie Hall, or I will score a few more industrial training films or adult entertainments or space operas, or I will write radio jingles for clogged-drain specialists. But that'd be another job description for me, another career, and I suspect that I'd make a better dim sum chef. The music I'm interested in making comes without a set list of acceptable qualities. As far as my music is concerned, the extent and limits of what music is and what it might be and how it might be used are still unknown, and I'd like to explore that, at least in a modest way. And neither the angry listserver nor the waitress down at Hoho's nor the King of Zembla nor the Pope of Pittsburg nor the CEO of the Yoyodyne is paying to support my music habit, so it's none of their business. And if the angry remain angry, I'll just tell 'em to change the channel and get a life of their own.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Lost in translation

So I'm reading Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul: Memories of a City and something in his first chapter doesn't sit quite right with me:

So pay close attention, dear reader. Let me be straight with you, and in return let me ask for your compassion.

It's that word, compassion. If he had asked the reader to bear with him, for patience, or tolerance, I wouldn't have given it a second thought, but asking readers for compassion is strange. I don't know anything about Pamuk's religious beliefs, but he is writing about Istanbul, and the word compassion has a special resonance for me in a context that is, at least potentially, Islamic. I know that Muslims address their prayers to a deity who is "merciful" and "compassionate", so compassion -- if that is the right translation -- is clearly something important to the faithful. It's important in many religions. For Christians, the deity's compassion is understood, not asserted, based in the belief that the deity became a human being, shared human suffering, and demonstrated how one should act in the face of the suffering of others. But the assertion of (and the need by the faithful to constantly re-assert) the deity's compassion in an Islamic context, without a deity who has physically shared in human suffering, strikes me as something quite different to Christian belief and practice, and I can easily imagine that that difference plays an important part in the distance between the two faiths. But then again, I may well be following an error in translation and comparing concepts which are not , in fact, comparable.

Friday, May 26, 2006

A road less taken

Back in High School (the late Pleistocene, on a continent far, far, away), my introduction to the musical avant-garde came mostly from libraries and radio broadcasts (especially those by David Cloud and Carl Stone at KPFK, the Pacifica station in LA, which then still had a committment to new music). Among the marvelous artifacts of the era were issues of Source: Music of the Avant-Garde. It had already stopped publication by the time I starting going through them (okay, I'm not that old), but luckily, the music library at Pomona College had a full set, and with written permission from Prof. Wm. F. Russell, long-time chair of the music department, I was allowed to leaf through them, albeit under the watchful gaze of one of the undergraduate librarians, probably certain that the kid from the wrong side of the Santa Fe tracks was going to abscond with a copy of one of those multi-colored, spiral-bound, oblong tributes to an era of extravagance already fading into the dull malaise of the times.

There is a remarkable amount of music, or musical directions, for which Source showed prescience -- Reich, Partch, Lucier, Ashley, Oliveros, Cage, Feldman -- and a few less-well-knowns that ought to be better known -- Leedy, Lentz, Childs, Hunt. But Source also had its share of misses, and one genre in particular seems to have nearly gone the way of the passenger pigeon: the theatre piece. In part, this is probably because performance art emerged as a genre with its own institutional presence and conventions, but also because a lot of theatre pieces just didn't work well or well enough on their own terms. (Theatrical elements were not the sole preserve of the avant-garde -- George Crumb would ask for masks and candlelight, as did countless Crumb-camp followers). But still, perhaps some of these pieces ought to be reconsidered. The scores to Daniel Lentz's theatre pieces are visual delights in the Source volumes, and while a bit slapsticky (i.e. a grand piano giving birth to a toy piano, an idea which could have come from a commedia dell'arte lazzi routine), sometimes a bit of slapstick is in order, and I'd really like to witness some of them someday. Kagel and his students (among them Maria de Alvear and Carola Bauckholt) have maintained a music-theatrical tradition in Germany, and it'd be a shame if the American repertoire just disappeared. I regret never having experienced Olivero's Double Basses at Twenty Paces (a duel, with referee and seconds, between two contrabasses) or Sender's Desert Ambulance.

A friend of mine in college once actually had a dream with a theatre piece by me in it, a piece I hadn't, but really wish I had, composed. If I recall correctly, this piece takes place at night, on a star-lit field, with instruments (now I'm composing: crosscut saw, horn, concertina, perhaps a viola) playing slowly against the background of a slow-moving complex of sine waves. (I was really into sine waves back then). A young woman with long hair walks barefoot across the field to a small table. On the table is a knife, a lemon, a white porcelain bowl, and a small paintbrush. She cuts the lemon in half, squeezes the juice of one half into the bowl, gently paints a line of lemon juice on the cheek of each person in the audience, and then exits, all as slowly as possible.

Invisible orchestras

Someone's come up with a theoretical basis for designing invisibility cloaks. While there might be some use for this in arranging a covert rendez-vous or slipping out of a restaurant in advance of the check, I can't imagine a better use of invisibility cloaks than in orchestration. Why? Nothing kills a surprising instrumental entrance better than having the surprising instrument visible in advance of the surprise. Imagine that an orchestra is on stage, playing an initial theme when suddenly, out of nothingness, a piano and a pianist appear to restate that theme. Or what to do about trombone sections or mighty choruses that are supposed to hang around until fourth movement finales? Cloak 'em. And opera singers with the right voices but the wrong bodies for their roles? Cloak 'em.

I just hope that someone is working on a cone of silence as well, for coughing audience members and horn players in fear of cracking their solos. Cloak 'em all.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

More optimism

M. Keiser, of Music in a Suburban Scene writes:

"I have corrupted... the soft and moldable minds of fellow dorm-dwellers with my strange musics."

Which threw me into nostalgia, for Hallowe'en 1981, blasting LPs of Einstein on the Beach onto the dormitory quad at College Five, UC Santa Cruz. Prematurely air-conditioned supermarkets and all the other pleasures of a youth well-spent.

Putting things in order

Faced with an awkward working schedule for the past week (dominated by a four-year old underfoot, allowing work only in fits and starts, late nights and early mornings), I decided to make a set of short pieces, twelve little piano preludes to be exact, one for each tonic, in fifths, from Ab to C#, each with a duration between 30 seconds and one minute. I wanted to make pieces suitable for home music-making, playable by students or amateurs willing to stretch their tastes and techniques a bit, and, more privately, I wanted to dip into a pool of techniques that I've poured together over the years. I made the decision that processes or systems, once begun, did not have to cycle through to completion; time was short, and they could simply remain suggestive. I had the notion that once I committed to completing a set of 12 pieces, the requirement to complete any other list was effectively revoked. The pieces could be tonal, or modal, or neither, or something ambiguously posed in-between any of these environments.

Clear enough, and I've basically finished nine of the 12, but now I'm stuck on a basic formal issue. I just don't know whether the playing order should be Ab to C# in ascending fifths or C# to Ab, descending. On the sharp side, things are more abstract, even primitive at times, while the flat-keyed pieces are more "musical" in some traditional sense, and the Ab prelude, in particular, would provide a rather sweet way to start or to end. I could leave it up to the player, but that strikes me as disingenuous, or even cute, and that's not what these pieces are about. (I do, in fact, leave plenty to the player in terms of tempi, articulation, dynamics, but that's just my view of the standing contract between composer and performer).

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Up Front

Composer Dennis Báthory-Kitsz is booking a year of commissions online in a project called "We are all Mozart". Whether you want a 30-second solo or an evening-length opera (or anything
in-between), he can schedule your commission into his working calendar for 2007. AFAIK, this is the most audacious and ambitious action of its kind since Pauline Oliveros was selling "cheap commissions". Báthory-Kitsz says that the project is designed to "to create new works and change the perception of the music of our time". While I share the target of completing at least one small work every day, just to keep composerly chops in practice, sucessful completion of a whole year of commissioned work will constitute a remarkable performance in its own right.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Making music with the instruments you have, not the instruments you want

Over the past few years, and not only out of a parent's sense of duty, I've had the opportunity to hear quite a few school music concerts, at the elementary and Gymnasium levels both in Hungary and in Germany. Instrumental ensembles in schools do not have the traditions or standardization found in US schools, they don't have rooms built for ensembles, they don't have stocks of loaner instruments, and, as ensembles as not taught as courses, teachers usually can expect one rehearsal per week. Given those constraints, they do a valliant job. Not having to have bands march certainly helps (in Germany, marching appears to be reserved for the military (which, in past-war Germany has little public presence), for Carnival-season drum and bugle corps, and the Schalmei bands associated with organized labor (increasingly rare)). But music teachers are usually stuck with the instruments that students happen to be learning privately, and without loaners for the less popular and more expensive instruments, the teachers have limited abilities to steer violinists toward violas, or wind players away from flutes and saxophones. That means that the teacher has to go into concerts with odd doublings or substitutions and either going on stage with two dozen flutes or forcing the two dozen flautists to rotate.

So, in the face of a fit of flutes, we've either got to start playing up the advantages of learning oboe or viola or horn (you'll never be lonely if you take up the bassoon!), or start composing and arranging interesting music for flute choirs, or silver-heavy orchestras. A few years back, I made a piece -- a kind of concerto -- for the Swiss pianist Hildegard Kleeb and a Spanish student orchestra. I had to take the instruments they had, which meant too many flutes. But, in retrospect, having five flute parts and a piccolo and a full set of saxophones turned out to be one of the key elements in the piece. It's certainly not a well-behaved orchestration, but it is an orchestration you'll never forget.

Being given an unusual instrumentation to work with is certainly a major constraint on the composer, but maybe composers ought to think more like escape artists, and figure out ways to convince the audience that nothing can hold us down. Figuring out what to do with two dozen flutes is surely the least of our worries.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Awkward Choreography

I like being on the receiving end of applause as much as anyone, and I'm fond of the physical act of applauding after (and especially, between) pieces, if mainly for the chance to unwind a bit from the intensity of close listening. I even find that the high noise content of applause functions as a kind of ear cleaner, wiping away the old sounds, making room for the next.

The problem with applause as an indication of appreciation is that it is a simple sign executed by a mass. It's usually too coarse an indication of what, exactly, has gone right or wrong. With old or familiar music, it's not possible to distinguish between the piece and the performance (or between individual participants in the performance -- conductor, soloists, ensembles). When the work played is new, and the composer is present, this provides added uncertainty to the message. How do you applaud a new piece that you like despite an inadequate performance? How do you applaud a great performance of a work that is otherwise the aural equivalent of a marshmallow?

Applaus gets some disambiguation when it accompanies bowing, as the individual participants each get their turn at the stage apron. But the composer is a serious disadvantage, as she or he ordinarily has to make her or his perp walk from somewhere in the audience all the way up to the stage. That can often mean having to sustain a lengthy period of applause, and when the applause dies out before she or he has been able to bow, we are in for a shared moment of awkwardness. To avoid this possibility, it's probably best to stand and take your laurels from the auditorium, wave a hand or a hankie in gratitude to the performers and then sit right back down as soon as you can.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Music theory: a good read?

A side pleasure in many old music treatises is their form -- a dialogue, typically between a student and a master. While the dramaturgy is usually at a low level, there is at least some literary aspiration in play, a quality seldom featured in more recent theoretical works.

Once, in a moment of admitted light-headedness, I considered the possibility of writing a pair of theory textbooks with literary ambitions of their own. I suspect that the first, Topic of Counterpoint, could have been the first music textbook to sell a million copies, albeit largely under false expectations, while the second, The Rime of the Ancient Harmonizer, might well have been the first harmony primer composed entirely in ballad stanzas.

Fifths, octaves, everywhere,
And all of them parallel!
Fifths of horns and voices crossed,
Learn to hide them well.
The sixth, augmented,
Counts its varieties internationale:
Whether Italian, German, or the French,
Each, over-used, can sound banal.
A dominant seventh chord, with four different tones,
Alone and complete, presents no trouble.
But when it resolves to another dominant, seventh'd,
One of the tones must now be doubled.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Admirable folly

La Folia is an online music review with a healthy dose of contemporary music.

Monday, May 01, 2006

David McAllester

The ethnomusicologist David McAllester has passed away. One of the four co-founders of the Society for Ethnomusicology, his contributions to the study of Native American music, especially Diné (Navajo), were great. His books on Peyote Music and the Diné Enemy Way are classics. Originally an anthropologist, he switched his affiliation to the music department at Wesleyan (where I was lucky to be the TA for his "Worlds of Music" course). David delighted in singing and dancing, and, in his lecture hall, it was often contageous, which was a marvelous way to make the case that knowledge of the world's diversity of musics was general, not specialized, and belonged in the center of the educational experience.

David had an ethical hard core. He was a CO during the Second World War. He had been quite literally adopted by his Navajo informant family, and had become so trusted by some Native American musicians that they allowed David to make documentary recordings of sacred repertoire only under the condition that David closely supervise the conditions under which the recordings were used, a condition that he honored completely. Although most of David's work concerned traditional repertoire, his ears were always open and alert to new developments in music made by Native Americans, be they pop, country, Mormon, or "New Age". He was not imune to John Cage's (an important visitor to Wesleyan) challenges to the extent and limits of music making, and I recall his enthusiastic response to Pauline Oliveros' ceremonial opera Crow, to Stockhausen's Am Himmel wander Ich, and to David Cope's The Way.