Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Film Music

Roger Bourland has a post on the film music Oscars, and pleads the case for the full-service film score.

This is going to make me terribly unpopular with many of my composer colleagues, but in general, I think that music on film should be limited to that played by visible instruments or coming out of onscreen sound sources (Robert Bresson: "No music as accompaniment, support or reinforcement. No music at all. The noises must become music" See also Bresson's notes on film sound), but I do make a major exception for genre films, space opera and the like, in which a kind of music has become part of the artifice we understand as "action".

An orchestral tutti in the vacuum of space is as implausible as the sounds of the artillery fire in space, and genre films constitute one of the few areas in which the west has a fairly complete and functional system of artifice and affect; at times, it's almost baroque in its subtle celebration of the implausible, but if the composer is too coarse, the whole thing falls apart. (If you don't believe me, watch Richard Rush's The Stuntman (1980), a brilliant film nearly destroyed by one of the least sensitive scores ever thrown together; on the other hand, the pairings of Hitchcock/Hermann and Huston/North are filled with still-revelatory examples of the use and creative misuse of musical affects. Both Hermann and North (especially when orchestrated by Henry Brant) were astonishingly economical composers as well.

Playwright Edward Albee, in an interview this week, spoke about the film of his Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: "...I saw a rough cut, the movie was so much tougher before they put in that awful soppy music. I don’t like movie music, being told how to react."

If only more producer/artists/composers could summon the courage to not tell the audience how to react!


Just a terminological note. I've recently read a couple of articles dealing with "new complexity" composers. In both articles, mention was made of metres in which the denominator was a number other than a power of two, e.g. 2/3 or 7/12 or 4/5. In both articles, these metres were described as "irrational". Such metres may be unusual or unfamiliar, or even conceptually difficult, but they are not irrational, as they are perfectly normal ratios of whole numbers. Let's save the term "irrational" for relationships that really are irrational, okay?

Now that that's settled, wouldn't it be nice if Finale or Sibelius would allow one to have non-powers-of-two demoninators in their time signatures, or at least allow it without some elaborate kludge? (This is not an obscure request, and certainly not one predicated on a particularly complexist musical ideology. Imagine a piece bopping along in half notes in 2/2 time, it switches to triplet halves, and then one measure of 2/3 time is filled with two of those triplet halves (that is, thirds), before continuing on in a new 2/2 time with the new half equal to one old third. Nothing sophisticated, but a lot of work with an off-the-shelf notation program.)

More Light: Taylan Susam

Taylan Susam is a composer who has generously shared a number of scores with me, and now has a web page of his own with scores to download. The notation in his pieces is radically concentrated, often to just a bit of prose and a field of random numbers or single pitches on staves. He's interested in some very basic elements of music -- intonation, continuity, contrasts between sounds and silences -- and this radical concentration is anything but a naive response to those elements. I look forward to hearing more.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

New MusikTexte

The new issue (112) of MusikTexte is out. The issue contains a large section in memory of James Tenney, a feature article on Gerhard Stäbler, and a large thinking-piece "Die Ausdehnung der Gegenwart" by Tilman Reitz.

I like MusikTexte very much, and the present Tenney issue -- like the Ligeti and too too many other memorial issues before it -- is giving proper recognition to an important musician, but I would wish nothing more for MusikTexte than the luxury of a run of five or six issues focusing on living musicians.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Generating Heat, Generating Light

We've all heard the talk about the low-level of attention, support, appreciation, etc. for new, contemporary, and experimental music. After having spent too much of the past two weeks monitoring activity in the online new music blogs and fora, I've come to the conclusion that one problem is that we, as a community, are generating simply too little heat: too little new of interest in the way of sounds, scores, or ideas, and too little controversy or passion, and even too little in the way of intellectual challenges. But most of all, through the underwhelmingly small amount of material we present to the world, we're simply giving out the impression that nothing is really happening in little Newmusicville. At this point in time, a new music equivalent of the "Instapundit" could probably get by with a bi-weekly post delivered by burro.

It's not so much a matter of clever promotion, it's more a matter of reporting and record-keeping. More information has to be out there, and more useful information. Media are cheaper and more accessible than ever, but we hardly have a presence, and when we have a presence it's shocking to see and hear how badly we use the media. Composers' webpages are usually prefaced with lists of institutional affiliations, awards, and scholarships. Come on, children, grow up! No one cares about your diplomas and merit badges! Dare to say something about your music and yourself first (or at least pretend for a moment that you are not the in-vitro product of those institutions). And composer's blogs are rare, and usually far too timid. Why the caution? Is is fear of repercussions from hiring and prize committees? It's a composer's job to have a posture, an attitude, and opinions about music, and it's through that posture, attitude, and opinions the we make the decisions that form our work, making it distinct from the work of others. We are going to disagree, and often be disagreeable, but that's how we keep music lively. We talk about it, in and among ourselves, all the time, but why are so few willing to make it public and write it out?

In a functioning cultural landscape, there is no way that this blog by this composer ought to be in the top 50 music blogs. I could list 50 other composers off the top of my head who ought to be out there before or instead of me, with their sharper ideas and sharper words. And there are hundreds more about whose work I'd like to know more: tell us what you're writing, or about with whom you're working. Got any fresh program notes to share? How about some sound or score snippets?

There are dozens of schools around the planet with lively composition programs, with pieces being produced by the rows and rows of apt disciples. Tell us about it. There are schools with staffs of faculty composers, each with a handful of grad students: show us your work, UCSD, UIUC, Yale, Eastman, Princeton, Cal Arts, Mills, Den Haag, Berlin, Brunel! Academic activity is supposed to end in publication, and online publication is a much better service to both you and to the new music community as a whole than via direct deposit to a personnel file in a closed cabinet. A composition professor who is not encouraging his or her students to get online is not helping those students, and students who are not getting online by themselves are not helping themselves.

As people who take music seriously, who want to present work in a high qualitative standard of production and presentation, we want both heat and light. But that second quality, light, is only going to be recognized if the context is known, and, I assume for most composers, that context is one rich which is rich in experiences of sounds and ideas, precedents, contemporaries, sketches, fragments, missteps, even failures, such that it is only by keeping the volume of our recorded activities high will we ever be able to let potential audiences even begin to recognize the qualitative in our work.

Heat and light. Don't take this as a rant, but as a sober recognition of opportunity. Never before has there been such an opportunity to present ones work in its own depth, not to depend upon the received local cultural and historical context. This is an opportunity to fashion an optimal context for an encounter with your work, to share it, and yes, to promote it. For better or worse, this, my friends, is the direction that publication will inevitably go, and not taking the opportunity now carries a risk for your own work, but also for the new music community at large, and that is the risk of becoming invisible, inaudible, and irrelevant.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

From a dark place with a hard edge

Paul Greenhaw is a composer and video maker to whom attention should be paid. Here's his web page.

Although most of the works on his web pages are in elegantly used just intonations with electronic organs with or without percussion, an older piece, D5W, played by the Lloyd Rodgers Group, has stuck with me particularly. D5W has something to do with hard rock music, a trajectory shared with a lot of other new musics, but its clarity -- though in any given moment, unpredictable -- of construction and straight forward discipline set it apart from those who have turned to rock resources for either the primitive or the complex. This is not rock deconstructed, but rock detourned, in the situationist mode (aha! a few clicks forward and I've found that Greenhaw also knows his Situationists).

The just intonation scores are also a good reminder that just intonation is not inevitably a way of making pretty little sugar plums even prettier, but rather a way in which to insure that the materials have clear relationships and hard edges, no matter how gnarly they may become. This is the route less taken in the just intonation world, but Partch (at his best), Young, Kraig Grady, among others, have signaled the potential here.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Landmarks (23)

Robert Ashley: In Sara Mencken Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women (1972) for voice and electronics. (A sound file is here).

From its Florentine origins, opera has been essentially all about accompanied song, and it's generally been clear that the song is the figure against the ground of the accompaniment. The accompaniment provides the continuity (basso continuo and ritournello) while action, the ruptures in the continuity, come from the texted melodies.

With Robert Ashley's operas, this figure/ground distinction is made unstable, and is perhaps most unstable in In Sara Mencken Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women, his setting of a text by an author, John Barton Wolgamot, whose biography, despite decades of cult attention, remains obscure. (The text is described and the author recalled, marvelously, in two articles here by Keith Waldrop and Robert Ashley, the latter also introducing his composition.)

Ashley creates this instability by allowing the text itself to become an element of continuity rather than change. He reads the text breathlessly (or rather his reading of the text was made breathless by editing out all of the breathing), and the electronic "accompaniment" is generated by syntheziser patches (made with Paul DeMarinis) which respond to the comings and goings of selected pairs of names in the text.

Friday, February 23, 2007


(More Friday food blogging).

Unless under restraint, I will eat any waffle, and I like them all. The Brussels (or "Belgian") version is rightly held up as an achievement, especially when served hot from a vendor on a wintery street, sprinkled with powdered sugar and unfashionably generous in both fat and sweetness and its yeastiness, but Belgium also has the Liege waffle, with its caramelized sugar surfaces. Other traditions prefer a thin waffle, approaching the territory of the filled waffle biscuit (the Dutch syrup waffles are worth mentioning). But in the end, my preference is the buttermilk waffle of my childhood. The waffle is somewhat fixed in my mind as a sweet breakfast food, a vehicle for fresh berries and maple syrup, but dropping the single spoon of sugar gives it great and relatively unexplored potential as accompaniment to a savory dish. This recipe works well in either an American-style iron with medium-sized holes or a Belgian-style iron.

Buttermilk Waffles

Mix together:
2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon soda
1 - 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar

1-3/4 cups buttermilk
2 eggs
6 tablespoons melted butter

(For lighter waffles, separate the eggs, mixing the yolks in with the buttermilk; beat the whites just until stiff, then fold the whites in after the liquid ingredients).

Thursday, February 22, 2007

A Tea Service (Unused Opera Scenaria (1))

Today, her fifth birthday, my daughter received a small-scale china tea service, and the most immediate parental concern was figuring out how best to store and handle all the little cups, saucers, pitchers, and sugar bowl, so that not a one would end tearfully in even smaller pieces.

I'd spent most of the past few days fighting a fever, which is not necessarily a total loss as sometimes I get my best ideas from a fevered mind. Okay, not always best or even usable, but it is possible to turn a fevered mind toward something other than self-pity. Today, I dedicated part of my fever to opera scenarios, and one of them came in a pleasant conjuncture with Emma's toy china.

A Tea Service. In the first scene, a couple receives a china tea service for twelve for their wedding. The successive scenes, which should each represent progress of three to five years, are each begun with the breaking of pieces so that the couple is able to invite one or more persons fewer to join them at their tea.

Sometimes the breaking of a cup or saucer is tearful, sometimes a source of laughter, once a reason for anger, once -- in connection with an odd number of places at the table --, for jealousy, and in the final scene, the duet during which service for two is reduced to service for one, some tenderness.

The music could start out, in the first scene, using all twelve tones, and with the loss of each place serving another tone would disappear. (Or is that too much like Stockhausen's Am Himmel wandre ich in reverse?)

Or, the music could change style with each scene. (Nah, the whole point of having a tea party is that it doesn't change).

Or maybe the libretto could be self-descriptive, like one of Tom Johnson's operas. (That's more like it, but that's what Tom does really well, better than I ever could).

The fever broken, and replaced by an ordinary headcold, this scenario is now officially abandoned, a pleasant companion for an afternoon's reverie, but not attractive enough to actually compose.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Although never able to establish a public presence in the concert hall due to insurmountable stage fright, the surviving recordings of the violinist Isolde Löffel have long been recognized as musical achievements of the highest rank. Learning today of her announced retirement from active recording, we should take a moment to consider the magnitude of her virtuosity, and recognize with some sobriety that the level reached by Frau Löffel is unlikely to be reached again.

Löffel was able, over a span of two and 1/2 years, to record an unprecedented amount and variety of repertoire under the guidance of her producer Lucien Pittstop-Menard, encompassing everything from late 17th century Italian concerti to works of more recent vintage -- Cage, Ferneyhough -- that have been only otherwise been tackled by leading contemporary music specialists. Even more astonishing has been her ability, in each bit of her chosen repertoire, to duplicate or go one step beyond the technique of the best known artists.

Her recording of the Cage Freeman Etudes is, in every parameter, save one, the very equal of the performance by Arditti. And that single altered dimension is perhaps the most musically powerful, velocity. She was able, in fact, to record the complete set in precisely half the duration chosen by her rival. (This technical marvel is only compromised by the misfortune of having apparently been recorded at a sampling rate of one-half that usually associated with CD quality).

But the quality of her performances goes far beyond the essential and audible aspects of musical parameters, for one cannot but recognize that her recordings were also accomplished under the circumstances of a life seriously compromised by her circumstances. That she was able to reproduce -- albeit at a modern pitch of 442 Hz -- a series of more than 70 Heifetz recordings that are note-for-note identitical, down to the last bit of silky portamento and syrupy vibrato, with the "originals" -- save for the aforementioned absolute pitch -- is near-miraculous even in the long context of the history of recorded sound. That she was able to render these recordings in the late 1990's, while working full-time as a childrens' librarian for the Yankton, South Dakota Public Library is a genuine miracle, given that in this series of recordings, she manged to represent with staggering emotional depth and complete chronological caprice in one record the complete inheritance of the Petersburg/Auer violin school, and in the next, the finest in historically informed or avant-garde performance practice.

Yes, listening to any of her recordings alongside the ostensible "originals" will inevitably reveal that hers are the more profound experiences precisely, as critic L. J. Segrob has put it: "(she) has enriched, by means of a new technique, the halting and rudimentary art of listening; this new technique is that of the deliberate anachronism and the erroneous attribution." This technique, above all, has introduced a fundamentally democratic and egalitarian approach to artwork, as again, I must quote Segrob: "every man should be capable of all ideas and I understand that in the future this will be the case."

Monday, February 19, 2007

Happy Presidents' Day

As an American abroad, I wish my compatriots a happy Presidents' Day and would like to put in a special word for my favorite President, David Rice Atchison. Atchison, as President Pro Tem of the Senate, held the Presidency for a day, as President Polk had already left office and the President-elect, Zachary Taylor, refused to be sworn in on a Sunday. During the Atchison adminstration, the nation enjoyed peace and prosperity and, well in keeping with the spirit of Thoreau's dictum that "that government which governs best governs not at all", Atchison is reported to have largely spent his term sleeping. In Atchison's own words: "I went to bed. There had been two or three busy nights finishing up the work of the Senate, and I slept most of that Sunday."

So, from the depths of an anarchic heart, and in appreciation of his demonstration that a mighty nation can survive without a government, here's to you, David Rice Atkinson, the 12th, and possibly finest, President of the United States.

Ethnographic Notes from an Old Country

From the Fasnet (Allemanisch/Schwäbisch Carnival) parade this afternoon in Schramberg.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Still Waiting for Young Caesar

SFMike of the (San Francisco) Civic Center blog has a terrific photoblog-review of the new production of Lou Harrison's opera Young Caesar. The instrumental "Favorite Tunes From Young Caesar" cassette has had a special role in our household as lullaby music for our kids, and I did listen one to a recording of the original production, so I've been curious to hear the latest version, as the opera has been a moving object, going from chamber opera for puppets, to choral opera, and now, with more full-blow arias and real people on stage. The original scoring, for five musicians playing dozens of instruments, western, non-western, and newly-made, and all in just intonation, was replaced by a modest western orchestra in the second version, and this new version has reintroduced some of the original instrumentation. It sounds like the libretto has been improved somewhat, but not enough. Personally, I would have gone back to puppets (Mr. Harrison kept a few of the rod puppets from the original production in his house, and was particularly fond of the puppet of Caesar's father, who is having a heart attack upon learning of his son's exploits in Bythinia; he also pointed out the advantage of puppets: for the final Barcarolle, a fleet of ships is supposed to set sail, and with puppets, doing fleets of ships is not especially problematic).

When I did my own puppet opera (The White Canoe, with a libretto by Edward Gorey), I had had some trouble with the recitatives; I wrote to Lou with a urgent request for advice. Lou counseled me to follow his practice in Young Caesar and just use noteheads without stems, not indicating a precise rhythm, allowing the singers to use a more natural speech-like rhythm. However, I think I was right, in this case, not to follow the advice, as the precisely notated rhythm kept things moving forward, and that was especially important in The White Canoe, which was both an "opera seria" and funny.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


The composer Ernst Krenek lived for many years in Palm Springs, and, although his works received most of their performances in his native Austria, his music did turn up from time to time in programs in California. I had learned the name first from his little book, Studies in Counterpoint, which was actually an introduction to writing melodies in a twelve-tone technique. I found it in the Claremont Public Library in 9th or 10th grade and actually did a number of exercises from it, the beginning and end of my twelve-tone career.

Once, while I was in college in Santa Cruz, Krenek rolled onto campus as part of a tour down the state by a string quartet playing an all-Krenek program. Krenek showed up at the Music Department office, expecting to have a talk with students. Someone, somewhere, had failed to organize the event, but they quickly telephoned about and soon found four or five of us willing to join Krenek for a chat.

He talked at length about his "famous" (Krenek's own term) opera Karl V, of which not one of us had then heard a note, and then played a recording of one of his quartets. The response was not enthusiastic. He opened the room up for questions. There was silence for a moment and I blurted out the first thing that came into my head, which was to ask if he had known Josef Matthias Hauer, a composer who had developed a body of techniques for composing based upon using the entire twelve-tone gamut that were both roughly contemporary with those of Schönberg and substantially different in conception. Krenek responded that no, he did not know him well, and that he found Hauer's music to have exhibited a "profound emptiness".

The group of students in the room took in those words, "profound emptiness", nodding to one another with the particular sense of appreciation that can probably only be described by an appeal to the Californian Zen ethos of those days under the Jerry Brown Governorship. Hauer? Profoundly empty? Sounds cool to me.

Krenek noticed the reaction, and then said, "I mean this, of course, as a critique."

I've since heard quite a bit of Hauer, and Krenek's characterization has proven to be quite appropriate. But, writing now as a terminal Californian, I don't consider "profound emptiness" a critique.

Loneliness or Conviviality?

For a musician, the tension between individual identity -- identification with ones own music, and personal statisfaction with the music's quality -- and conviviality, the capacity of music to connect to others, is often irresolvable and sometimes unbearable.

The words are chosen carefully here: identity is something other and more than ownership, the work is rather more like an extension of ones person and is as different from the work of another as one person is different from another person. Conviviality is a term of John Cage's, and was a quality he recognized in both the ensembles and the renewed but not retrograde tonal languages of composers like Glass or Reich. The connection to others found in this conviviality is something other than communication, unless we both reduce communication to the most basic level, like the communication of diseases, and raise it, to something approaching perfect empathy.

There are two pictures of composers that never sit quite comfortably with one another: the lonely artist taxing mind and soul in his garret (think of Sebastian Bach retiring each evening armed with a bottle of brandy to empty while composing*) and the public artist either triumphantly received or completely misunderstood. These images are perhaps reconciled in the popular imagination in the moment of Beethoven's funeral, in which the streets of Vienna were packed to mourn the loss of a popular but still very private public figure, yet Beethoven had spent his last decade effectively challenging every element of his music that had led to precisely that wide acceptance.


In our musics, composers have a tendency to stage this conflict as a tension between the immediate surface of the music and that which lies beneath it. I owe my teacher Alvin Lucier a lot, but this is a particularly large debt: Lucier counseled me to get away from the notion that an attractive surface or veneer was necessary or even, in any honest sense, a net addition to a work of music. Lucier's advice was to distill the work to its essentials, to its core idea, and to allow both depth and surface to emerge naturally from this distillation. This absence of a clearly delineated surface does not mean that the music is less polyvalent, less deep, or less rich, rather that the complexity of the whole was not immediately separable into its layers or parts. You might compare it to the difference between a massive piece of hardwood, let's say a chunk of rosewood, and a particle-board plank with a rosewood veneer. In the hardwood, the complexity of patterns and relationships goes all the way through and across the wood, and each cell is marked by a history unique to the whole. The veneer, on the other hand, is effectively stripped away from one of its dimensions, its natural, historical depth, and glued to a compacted mush of fragments of lesser lumber even more anonymized.

Lucier's advice came to me at an important moment. Many of the composers whose work I had treasured, the first generation of minimalists, had been moving decisively away from a music in which one surface (the "notes" played or sung) was principally a means towards the production of an acoustically complex whole. The notes were often of little intrinsic musical interest in themselves, save for their capacity -- through amplification, repetition, overlaying, phasing, interference, combination tones, etc -- to become something else, richer in both detail and depth. Indeed, the music of Reich, Glass, and others, became largely a music about those notes, those damnably uninteresting notes, and although this may have opened their works to a larger audience of musical consumers, there was definitely something substantial lost in the move. The conviviality of the mass audience had replaced the more intimate conviviality of the older audience, one that was measurably smaller, but also one that had been committed to the notion that our practice of listening, real existing listening, if you will, had the potential to change.


In the end of Morton Feldman's interview with Walter Zimmermann, Feldman speaks of young artists and their attraction to the convivial. Feldman offers his blessing:

"But God bless them, and good luck to them... and all I could wish them in life is to be lonely."
* For some reason, I'm also reminded of the story, possibly apocryphal, of an episode of The French Chef, in which Julia Child drops a piece of poultry, and -- without missing a beat -- grabs it from the floor, looks right at the camera and says her never-mind: "remember, when you're in the kitchen, you're all alone."

Friday, February 16, 2007

Beating Paths

Steven Schick's The Percussionist's Art: Same Bed, Different Dreams (University of Rochester Press 2006) will be useful and provocative to any composer considering writing for percussion, and perhaps even persuasive to composers who have never considered the possibility. The book is less a how-to-do-it-handbook with data on instruments, ranges, set-ups, mallets, and notations, than a meditation on how a score translates into rehearsal and performance, and how a musician assembles his repertoire. And in both of these aspects, the information is relevant to musicians in general, and not only the sub-tribe of percussionists.

Schick is one of the leading percussionists in an especially rich generation (William Winant, Robyn Schulkowsky, Tobias Liebezeit, Matthias Würsch... I could go on and on), and his chosen repertoire of solo and ensemble works is both broad and set at a consistantly high level of quality, from Ferneyhough's Bone Alphabet to Lucier's solo triangle piece Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra, and from Varese's Ionisation to Reich's Drumming. Even his tours into some repertoire outside of my taste spectrum (i.e. Wuorinen) was worthwhile; at least now I know a bit better why it doesn't work for me.

The author's meditation goes well beyond the narrow boundaries of the musical disciplines, and the connections he makes to culture in general and to his own life are never superficial nor are they colored by new-agey sentiment. The relatively new tradition of serious music for percussion in the west is both a music of the frontier ("drums along the pacific" is the term of art, I believe) and one that necessarily connects to traditions of percussion music external to the west. The risks in making these connections are obvious: superficiality, if not flakiness, and imperial appropriation rather than respectful exchange, and the author treads well here.

One last thing: Mr. Schick must be a fine teacher.

The Dan-Dan Tree

(Some more Friday Food Blogging: final noodle edition).

Folk songs often come in families of tunes with variations great and small and they cross borders in surprising and delightful ways. The same can certainly be said for recipes, and I have always taken a special interest in food borders -- tracing, for example, the dumpling border which roughly follows the edge of the modern state of Bavaria, extending eastward into the Czech Republic, but fizzling out somewhere before the Solvak border. And how about the Asian sauce borders? From China to Vietnam, soy sauce gives way to fish sauce, which extends through mainland Southeast Asia, but somewhere around Malaysia is replaced by Ketchap, the molasses-sweetened soy sauce (and, thanks to colonial Dutch trading routes, reaches around the planet with the fruit sauces of Africa and the West Indies, onward to the universal (sweet/salty/sour/bitter/umami) tomato ketchup of North America).

A favorite food puzzle for me has been the Dan-Dan (or Tan-Tan) mein (noodle) family. These are noodles with a sauce, but the noodles I've encountered can be vermicelli-thin or spaghettoni-wide, made from fresh pulled or cut or extruded dried noodles. They can be served hot or cold. The sauce can be paste-like based on sesame +/- peanuts, or it can be based around ground meat. It can be Americanized as a mostly peanut-butter affair. It can be mild or very spicy hot, or anything in between. It may be joined by scallions, cucumber pieces, or the mysterious and Michelin-man-like-rhizome known only as the Szechuan preserved vegetable. It seems to be a Szechuan specialty, but Taiwanese have taken it up as their own. It seems to have entered American Chinese restaurants in the 1970's, as a little-noticed item in the back of the restaurants daring enough to venture away from the traditional California-Cantonese repertoire, sometimes as Dan-Dan Mein, more often as something like Cold Noodles Sesame Sauce.

So how do you choose a single recipe for what is actually a family of recipes? Answer: you don't, it requires a recipe tree instead.

DAN-DAN MEIN (担担面 or 擔擔麵 or 擔擔面)

Step One: Choose a noodle and cook appropriately. Ideally, you should learn to pull or cut your own noodles, but that's probably work for another lifetime. So try out a few Chinese (wheat not rice, and -- as much as one can talk about authenticity here -- egg appear to be non-traditional) noodle sorts. Fresh noodles are great, but not necessary, and if you lack a Chinese noodle source, spaghetti will do in a pinch. It's between you and your wok.

Two: After draining your noodles, choose quickly: hot or cold? If you want them cold, rinse them in cold water and go to step three. If you're among the some that want them hot, and wish a meat sauce, go to step four, otherwise, go to step three with your cold brethren.

Three: Add noodles to a sauce containing

(a) either (1) toasted sesame paste (not Tahini) alone, or (2) tasted sesame paste and ground peanuts or natural peanut butter, or (c) peanut butte alone
(b) salt, garlic, ginger, green onion, hot pepper flakes, and szechuan peppercorns to taste
(c) a bit of soy sauce, perhaps a bit of rice vinegar
(d) perhaps some Szechuan preserved vegetable

then go to step five.

Four: Add noodles to a sauce containing

(a) ground meat (beef, pork, or lamb) fried with
(b) salt, garlic, green onion, ginger, Szechuan peppercorns and
(c) either hot sesame chili oil or a spoonful of soy beans in chili sauce
(d) some soy sauce

to which may be added toasted sesame paste and maybe a pinch of sugar.

Five: Garnish with any of the following: small pieces of cucumber, green onion, fresh coriander, sesame seeds. Strongly peanut-flavored sauces favor cucumbers and bean sprouts.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Landmarks (22)

Morton Feldman: Piano and String Quartet (1985)

At 70 minutes or so, Piano and String Quartet is a stroll in the park when compared to the monumental journeys found among Feldman's late works. But scale is not so much the issue here as balance, both between the piano and the quartet and between the forward-moving continuity and the coherence of materials. Absolute coherence would be an absence of dynamic in any parameter, while a sense of continuity is maintained, perhaps paradoxically, only by the perception of change, in that one only registers and remembers differences. (Jeez, that's awfully Deleuzian. Continuity will be a topic in some upcoming posts). Feldman often worked at the minima of both forward motion and dynamic change, but his intuitive and virtuosic grasp of the lower limits is here always and scrupulously clear.

It's hard for me to imagine this played by any other musicians than Aki Takahashi and the Kronos Quartet of the era, for whom it was written, and who premiered the piece in an unforgettable late afternoon at the County Museum of Art in Los Angeles during the New Music America festival. (I went with my father; before the concert we had spent the earlier part of the afternoon with many tens of thousands at a USC football game. Families are like that. Or at least mine is.) Takahashi can arpeggiate like no one else (the piano part, written mostly on one stave, is almost all arpeggios, both measured and unmeasured as broken chord, with a few grace notes here and there) and the Kronos brought the proper stoic dignity to their parts, in which only the cello emerges, and only then from time to time, with an identity separate from the near-anonymity of the string ensemble.

It occurs to me now that the subject of Piano and String Quartet is finding an answer to the question: "What does a broken chord break?" First of all, the chords break silences, in that age old match of violence and the sacred that Rene Girard describes best and Feldman knew even better. Second, distribution of a chord over time creates ever-new scoring patterns, both between quartet and piano, within the string ensemble, and, strategically, perhaps, between the cello and the rest. Further, the piano tones are broken in the entries against the sustained-but-metrical tones of the strings ring into indeterminant endpoints in the cloud of the constant Feldman sustain pedal; the tempered - and somewhat non-committal - tones of the piano subtly interfere with the directionality of the accidentals in the non-tempered string parts, while the strings all play into the piano's live wires over the raised pedal. This resonance, in which the quartet is effectively borrowing the piano's sustain pedal, confuses, indeed breaks the distinction between the piano and the quartet. Sometimes breaking things is a way of putting them back together.

(In San Diego in early 1987, before he played a recording of this piece to students at UCSD (Feldman had invited me to sit in on his seminar), I have the distinct recollection that Feldman called Piano and String Quartet his "favorite piece". My recollection may be wrong, but no matter: the idea that it might have been his favorite is simply impossible to dismiss.)

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Begin modestly and let things fall where they may: an interview with David Cope

(Photo: David Cope, trumpet, Steed Cowart, umbrella, and Daniel Wolf, kite, April in Santa Cruz Festival 1983).

Daniel Wolf: You are well-known for your surveys of what might be called the "landscape" of new music. In your books and teaching, your approach has been broad and descriptive rather than selective and critical. But I do know you as a composer with your own influences, with strong tastes and preferences, so let's be a little bit more selective and critical. How do you locate your own music in this landscape?

David Cope: I have spent a great deal of time attempting to *not* include my biases in my writings on new music. I am sure that to some degree I have failed; but not for lack of trying. I have missed some ideas, works, and composers that I should have covered and probably vice versa. My basic principle, however, has always been the same - to cover the material as objectively as I possibly could, leaving it to readers to make value judgements.

As you point out, however, I do have my own tastes and preferences that I exhibit whenever I choose a CD to play, a particular concert to attend, and so on. I also exhibit these tastes and preferences in my compositions. For example, I love the music of the Navajo Indians and I have included particular instances of this music in many of my works over the past forty years. I do this for a number of reasons: I grew up in the desert Southwest, I am part American Indian myself, I have spent some time on the Navajo Reservation, and so on. Several of my Navajo works are available on Smithsonian-Folkways recordings.

How these works (and my algorithmic and experimental works) fit into a current landscape I have no idea. I have spent most of my life on the outside looking in (or possibly on the outside looking out).

It seems to me that caring where one fits into a landscape quickly leads to one trying to fit into that same landscape. I don't want to compose for such a reason. I'd a lot rather compose to suit myself and let others determine, if they care to, where my music might be located with respect to others.

DW: Doesn't the association with the Southwest, beyond the physical landscape and connections to Native American culture and mythology, also have a connection to more recent cultural geography? By more recent cultural geography, I meant, in particular, the contrast that often features in your music between very static materials and dramatic ruptures in that stasis. That contrast is carried by a formal rhythm or pacing that I can only liken to travel along desert highways, like the old Route 66 stretching through the desert, punctured by the old filling stations with their mechanical pumps and coke bottle machines, and ending in the ruckus of Hollywood...

DC: I don't usually think of my music in these terms. However, I certainly admit to loving pitch fields (static pitches scattered widely in register and playing as if initiated by some unseen force - a la wind chimes, of which I own several hundred). I then choose certain pitches to, as you say, puncture" the otherwise quiet "terrain" with motives important to the work's structure. I love the geography in the triangle between Winslow, Window Rock, and Canyon de Chelly, a landscape that is at once serenely quiet and yet incredibly deceptive - a thunderstorm of dangerous proportions can interrupt almost without warning.

DW: But would it be wrong to make a connection to a few other composers -- Varese, Partch, Childs, to name three very different personalities -- for whom the desert has been significant?

DC: I have loved Varese's music since my early twenties, have conducted his Octandre several times, and have included analyses of his music in many of my books. I use Partch's music and photos of his instruments in my classes routinely and consider him one of the most underrated composers of the 20th-century. I fondly remember Barney coming to my home and telling me of his exploits at Deep Springs College where he often lay in bed shooting scorpions off the wall with an ammonia-filled squirt gun. An amazing character. I took great pleasure in publishing his tome on indeterminacy in an early issue of The Composer Magazine. So, I suppose there would be connections between me and those composers.

However, I don't dwell or often think of such things - too busy making music.

DW: In addition to your interests in the natural and information sciences, you have been a lifelong reader of science fiction. I remember well your excitement at going to Heinlein's house with Phillip Jose Farmer. My own interests in that direction have always been more towards what might be called "social science fiction", so I may be out of my depths here, but I have to wonder if the license that science fiction has with relationship to "real" science plays a role in your composing: a science fiction novel, in the end, doesn't have to meet any standard other than that of being a good novel, it's consistency has to be internal, not consistence with the world external to the novel. Is there any parallel to be heard in your music?

DC: Thanks for reminding me of these memories. It is true that Heinlein lived up the road a mile or two from me here in Santa Cruz before he died, and that Philip Jose Farmer and I spent many years trying to get funding (unsuccessfully) to do an opera together, and that I do enjoy reading science fiction. It is further true that I spend a lot of time with matters scientific in the mainstream sense of the word, loving mathematics and astronomy especially. I never really saw a contradiction between the two, more that one is an extension of the other. My wife says that I don't need to think out of the box, since I never had a box in the first place.

In response to your question, I can't imagine that these interests don't have an effect on my music, and I do very much try to instill in my works an internal logic, even though I know that this internal logic will not suffice as the sole process of composing. However, whether this is a result of my interest in "sci fi" and/or of "sci not fi" I have no idea. It is certainly not something I consciously attempt to infuse into my works. Even my algorithmic music is largely built on databases of other music rather than rules I've written and, therefore, interestingly seems less rather than more influenced by the sources you mention.

DW: Mary Jane (Cope)'s remark is spot on, and it also speaks to a certain wild streak in your work. I don't know of another composer, for example, who would literally set off fireworks in the theatre, as you did in the finale to your Vectors (in addition to the bagpipes, percussion, electronics, and the two marching bands). But in the absence of that box, what factors or constraints guide you in deciding that this material does or doesn't belong to a piece by David Cope, or that a piece goes one way and not another?

DC: The premiere of Vectors set for the Cabrillo Festival the previous year had been cancelled leading to the performance to which you refer. My wife was delighted to get the box of gunpowder out of storage in our garage. Aside from you in one of the marching bands, I remember my four small sons wearing baseball uniforms and marching up the aisles waving American flags while the explosions lit everything from overhead. The lyrics of Vectors are quotes from Charles Ives, one of my idols, and it was great fun bringing his words to life again.

I love people and other animals very much and so I try not to hurt them in any way. Apart from that, everything is possible it seems to me. My process of inclusion is very simple: I begin works modestly and let things fall where they may naturally as the work progresses. Vectors began as a simple set of songs for voice and piano with Ives texts and as I began to understand what those texts said and meant, things just kept raising their hands and saying "choose me, choose me." In the end, it seemed unavoidable not to do what I did with the piece. That performance was twenty-eight years ago, and I still have people come up to me and ask about it.

DW: One of the ideas I carried away from my undergraduate years -- which included study with you and Gordon Mumma -- was that a piece should have a certain amount of depth. Not complexity, necessarily, but depth, in concerns are something of an afterthought. How does a composition teacher help students balance this pressure with other aspects of a work? Might a liberal arts setting be helpful in this regard to a young composer?

DC: I like to say that a good piece of music is like the proverbial onion; peel back one layer only to find yet another layer, and so on. Certainly a liberal arts setting helps (both in school and in life) and I highly recommend it. I also think that this is where music theory can help composers the most.

By analyzing pieces for their allusions, timbral content, structure and form, and so on, and not just their pitches as is so often the case unfortunately, young composers can see the insides of example music and, hopefully, listen in like ways. And to me, listening intelligently is the best teacher of all.

DW: How does a teacher deal with what might be called the double bind of "model composition"? In model composition, you are asked to follow the "rules" of an observed style to, in effect, add a new piece to a known repertoire. A successful exercise does just that, but a successful composition, on the other hand, will inevitably have to do things that are inconsistent with those rules. Do you, as a teacher, make a distinction between an exercise and a composition?

DC: I do not make such a distinction. From the very first day of beginning composition I tell my students that they are composers and students, not student composers. Stravinsky writes: "Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit." (from Poetics of Music, p. 68) To me, *every* composition uses a model (or, more likely, models), whether it (they) be explicit or implicit, conscious or subconscious. However, inconsistencies should not only be allowed, but celebrated. Chopin's Nocturnes are fairly poor examples of modelled John Field Nocturnes. They are also extraordinary music where Field's music to me is not.

DW: Over the years, you have concentrated on a number of areas, doing research that has directly led to compositions, but always in projects with ramifications larger than those followed in a single piece of music. For example, at one point in time, the use of mixed- or multi-media was an interest, and then computer synthesis, then instrument building and tuning systems, and over the past 20 years or so, you have been engaged with questions that might be broadly described as concerning musical intelligence and style. While each of these areas is rich enough for a lifetime of creative work, is there another area beyond these that is emerging or may emerge for you as a central concern?

DC: I have never really consciously planned what has occurred musically in my life, Changes have come about more or less naturally as I work. Therefore, I don't view my life as a series of disparate styles, but rather as a continuous evolution. As a consequence, I have no idea what's down the road for me. What I am doing now is continuing to work with Emily Howell, my computational composer/partner, in developing (her) style and composing new works. Her first album will be available in about nine months. I am finishing a book called Computer Music Analysis. Other than these things, I continue building and using telescopes and developing non-violent board games.

This interview was done by email over the past week. David Cope's website is here.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Sartorial note

Evening dress, in the form of a black coat with tails and black bow tie, has its last refuge in the odd couple of the High School Prom and the Orchestra. Composers tend to dress somewhat downward, as a class, but a class with many sub-class distinctions. I'm always impressed to look at the web pages of big US music faculties, to gaze upon the (still mostly male) tweed-and-tied composition professorate, and I have a special fondness for pictures from the 1950's and '60s, especially those of composers gazing at tape recorders, oscillators, and wall-unit-synthesizers, looking very stern, but proper, in their narrow black ties. But that's certainly more of the past -- I remember as a kid in the late 1960's that it was simply expected that one dressed up to fly in a plane or go to dinner in a restaurant of any sort -- and that has changed a lot. Cage was definitely among the first to challenge the tie standard with a taste for ties a bit more adventurous than the standard black (a taste he shared with Boulez), and his transition, via American denim, to French laborers' blue uniforms, was something of a landmark in composerly attire. One might also mention Stockhausen's affection for white Mexican cotton shirts, or La Monte Young's wardrobe moves from '50s hipster to Indian cottons to his latest magenta biker look.

Although I own a number of ties, I haven't worn one in several years, with my stock aging nicely in a moth-free environment, waiting to come back into fashion. I believe that the last one was a bolo tie (my grandfather, born on a ranch near Paso Robles, has always worn them, so I come by the affectation honestly; Jim Tenney also favored bolos).

Generally speaking, I keep my shoes on for concerts. My graduate school, Wesleyan, is well-known for its program in world music, and many concerts are held in the World Music Hall, which was built without chairs, but with a terraced and carpeted seating area instead, in order for the audience to sit comfortably on the floor. (Sitting on the floor and new music are often combined -- Boulez had "pillow concerts" with the NY Phil, Morton Feldman liked to invite guests to his home to listen along while lying -- like beached whales -- on some of his precious anatolian carpets). For most events in the World Music Hall, especially the extraordinary concerts of South Indian and Javanese music, audiences and performers alike were unshod. As a student in the experimental music area, I used to joke that we were the ones who kept our shoes on, but when we had concerts in the World Music Hall, gazing sternly into our tape recorders, mixers, and oscillators, our audiences still had to go shoe-less.

Monday, February 12, 2007


"Those who don’t learn from history used to have to relive it, but only until those in power could find a way to convince everybody, including themselves, that history never happened, or happened in a way best serving their own purposes—or best of all that it doesn’t matter anyway, except as some dumbed-down TV documentary cobbled together for an hour’s entertainment."

From Thomas Pynchon's preface to George Orwell's 1984.

The tone around this page may often be too moralistic for some readers, especially when it comes to an insistence that new musics be historically engaged. But damn it, you open the papers each morning, or hear the "latest" in film scoring or big- commissoned works for big-name orchestras, and you have to wonder: what is the alternative?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Fat Crayons and Musical Pidgins

I remember once, in an ethnomusicology seminar, comparing transcriptions of a solo vocal performance by an Appalachian woman. My transcription looked something like Circles-era Berio: lots of notes with very small values, microtones duly noted, considerable rhythmic nuance, a lot of detail that came from listening to the recording again and again, and making great use of an ajustable-speed cassette player. A colleague from West Africa, a master musician in his own repertoire, produced a transcript that couldn't have been more different. His transcription was in quarters and halves, restricted to five white notes, with probably 1 glyph on the page for every 15 of mine. At first some of the seminar members were a bit uncomfortable with the West African's transcription and excused it with apologies for it not being "his" music. Of course, if we were really doing ethnomusicology, that was an odd response. With further reflection, although my score had more information, we came round to a consensus that my colleague's certainly had more novel information, and might even have had more valuable musical information. Forests and trees, you know?

The first time I attended the Holiday Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, I woke myself up one night with a bit of anxiety. This was the heyday of the Complexers at Darmstadt and these folks were turning out scores so full of notes -- and oh-so-tiny notes -- that I suddenly had a vision of all the course- goers being sent for an exam in the gym (the ever present odor of Darmstadt's institutional kitchen especially vivid). We all got our musical blue books, Brian Ferneyhough stood before us with a clock and a gavel, and signaled for all of us to start composing. I then noticed that all of my colleagues were writing away with their micro-nibbed Rapidographs, but I had been handed a box of fat, kindergarten-sized Crayolas , as if to label me most efficiently as "American, Mimimalist, not one of us". This notation anxiety hung over me for the rest of the Course, but I was somehow relieved to learn that most of the complexity tribe actually wrote fairly big notes and then reduced their scores with a photocopier. Lesson: a lot of complexity is only a matter of appearance.

I remember that the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently ran a Feuilleton article which called Firefly the "best science fiction series of all time", a judgement I share. (No, I haven't seen Serenity yet; it won't even open here until November). One thing I really liked about Firefly was the pidginization of Mandarin amid the generally gentille frontier English. (Firefly is basically a western, but it's set 500 years in space-faring future with a handful of deep, dark secrets to keep a bit a paranoia in the air; it's something like a negative image of The Wild Wild West). The Mandarin is used in the two places where pidgins usually develop: for swearing and for trading. I've noticed lately that the development of a European Pidgin English is well in swing. The first sign is abundant: the prefered epiteths of young Europeans are increasingly English even when adequate local lexicons exist, and commercial advertising is the same. When I have interacted with non-native English speakers speaking English, I have noticed that I am often at a disadvantage in that I expect their English to have the same associations and nuances as my own, and communication often fails at critical points. On the other hand, I have never seen such expectations get in the way of two non-native speakers communicating. On the other hand, the non-Native usage has a lively inventiveness of its own, and strikes me as increasingly rich in nuances that cross linguistic boundaries which are beyond my own experience.

Maybe my relationship to contemporary European art music is a bit like that of a pidgin speaker to the language which is being pidginized. I don't "get" all of the complexity that the tradition carries with it, but I bring my own complexity to it. I may draw my scores with big fat crayons instead of fine-point draughting tools, but my big fat crayons come in 64 different colors.

(encore post from 10/02/05)

Saturday, February 10, 2007

I dunno

The official Stockhausen website has a new-ish page with video and audio files. I've watched the two files with excerpts from pieces composed for the new 24-hour cycle, Klang. I have not been decisively moved from my old impression about Stockhausen -- that his best work came before he got lost in Kontakte -- and am distinctly uneasy about a certain clunky- or even clumsiness in the writing (or is it supposed to sound so naive?), but the two pieces have some qualities that invite a second hearing. I honestly have no idea what to make of either, and am particularly curious to hear what anyone else makes of the piece for two singing harpists, Freude.

One other thing about Stockhausen that ought to be noted is that, in spite of some serious institutional support early in his career -- in Darmstadt, at the WDR, and, for a time, a Professorship in Cologne, recordings from Deutsche Gramaphone, and publication by Universal Edition -- that support has largely closed down, and he has functioned for the past two decades or so as an independent composer with his own cottage industry for publication, recordings, and even teaching. Opinions about the music aside, this is a significant development for a "big name" European composer, perhaps as significant as the transition from courtly patronage to freelancing that took place in the late 18th century, and it ought to be registered as such.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Alligator Pears

(Some Friday Food Blogging).

The best avocado is a a ripe one, and they fall from the tree not-quite-ripe. The best that I've had have been either from Southern California (especially around Escondido) or Central Mexico. But not all of us are fortunate enough to live near enough an avocado tree to catch one at that optimal moment just before falling, so we have to make do with fruit that has been picked early enough to travel great distances. In Europe, we get serviceable ones from Chile or Kenya, depending upon the season, but I've never had an edible avocado from either Florida (over-watered) or Israel (hard, under-flavored). In general, those with the darker and more reptilian skin will have more flavor than those with smoother skin, and I'd advise staying away from any that are rock-hard, as they'll spoil before they ripen, while those with some tenderness have the potential to ripen at home. But this process happens to require one special piece of equipment: the brown paper bag. Yep, wrapping the fruit inside a brown paper bag and storing it at the back of a counter at room temperature for a day or two should do it.

I'll eat almost anything with an avocado in or around it, but like it best as the simplest Guacamole -- mashed with a fork (never puréed) and mixed with just a bit of cumin powder, salt, lime juice, and flaked dry red chilies (I use New Mexico chilies). Some people will add tomatoes, roasted onions, cilantro, sour cream, etc. to this, but I think that that runs the risk of turning a precious avocado into a 1960's Better Homes & Gardens dip. And if I'm ever that nostalgic, I'd just as soon ruin my blood sugar level with a hot slice of pineapple upside-down cake, or even that fruit salad with the little marshmallows in it. Nope, an avocado has such a rich and complex enough flavor on its own, that a mimimalist approach is required.


"Menschen wie wir sollten nie Concessionen machen!" (People like us should never make concessions!) -- Gustav Mahler, from a letter to Richard Strauss, 1894.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Happy Fingers

The Internet Archive now has the trailer for The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T., the 1953 live action film to a script and design by Dr. Seuss, the pre-eminent moral philosopher of the late 20th century. The movie, for which the trailer is no substitute, is really sort of a mess, but brilliant at times, atomic even, and the best film yet about evil piano teachers. The young hero of the film, by the way is one Bartholomew Collins (left, played by Tommy Rettig, wearing the beany of the Dr. Terwilliger Happy Fingers Institute), who, of course, has grown up to write a well-known blog about pianoing and other things.


Over at the New Music Box of the American Music Cartel Center, a younger composer, Evan Johnson, has an essay contrasting "European composers" and "American composers". It's a topic I think about a lot, out of some necessity (I've been a Californian composer in Europe for almost 18 years), and so Johnson had my interest. Unfortunately, he lost it quickly when he fell into the trap of representing the two by highly selective communities of composers, comparing two narrow and distinct bandwidths from within very broad spectra, ending up with a misleading comparison of composers, institutions, and audiences. This falls apart altogether when Johnson identifies John Cage as "a quintessential European Composer".

The Atlantic ocean is a big pool of water, and a lot of information doesn't make it from from one side to the other. The loss of information in the case of new and contemporary music is especially acute, and what is lost most is a sense of the bandwidth of the local musical cultures The music from a foreign shore which interests most is either going to be the best-marketed or the most exotic, and the vast swath of music in-between is mostly lost. Germany, for example, has not only a Stockhausen (a name known to many in the US), but a Rihm, a Lachenmann, and a Walter Zimmermann in various flavors of an avant-garde. But, with perhaps the exception of Henze, there is little awareness in the US of the large numbers of composers who write in more conservative or traditional idioms: a Killmayer, a von Schweinitz or an Enjott Schneider, a film composer (and the only remaining "serious" composer on the board of GEMA). Germany also has its own minimalism with Otte, Hamel, and many others.

The claim is made that by Johnson that European composers, are said to have a greater sense of their historical position than Americans. In fact, it's probably the Americans, who more often have to teach common practice theory and repertoire to pay for bread and butter, that look back the most. But tragically, for American music education, this "looking back" is seldom done with neither historical and ethnographic detachment nor the imaginative license that is our birthright. You want to learn orthodox music theory or history nowadays? Move to America. And Americans are said here to be individualists, composing ultimately for only their "own purposes". On this point, I have simply yet to see a significant difference between continents: both have their pioneers and both have their camp followers, both music cultures are enriched by the former and sucked dry again by the latter.

What America does have is that distance and license described above, and in particular, the possibility to approach music directly. For that reason, the most interesting music is inevitably going to be made away from conservatory and other large institutional settings, in which the program is to reduce distance and license from the European tradition. What American does not have are major institutions willing to support these most distinctively American impulses in music making, thus major orchestras program the works of composers whose ideas and techniques emphasize a competence with the technique of the received repertoire. We are thus in the odd situation in which a major American composer, someone who really brings something additional to the table, like Robert Ashley, has never had a significant opportunity to work with an orchestra.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Minimal Film

One of the benefits of recent technology is a resurgence in experimental film, and an amazing increase in their availability. (I'm particularly fond of the offerings at UbuWeb, which include Robert Ashley's Music with Roots in the Aether, a work which changed my musical life.)

The webcam, in particular, has reopened a chapter in experimental film, the one in which the camera, unmanned, is simply allow to roll, whether in front of live actors, objects, or simply the weather. As impressive an experience as the 24-hour film Empire (1964) -- in which Andy Warhol let a camera run 8 hours, from dusk to dawn, in front of the Empire State Building -- was, I have to say that it really has nothing on the live Cheddar Vision TV, which shows a piece of West Country Cheddar Cheese doing what it does best: age. If Empire was boring, this is really boring. This is minimalist, it represents a gradual process, and it's arguably even a kind of music made visual, as the process is the end product of vibrating spores and bacteria. Is it art? The cheese making, for sure, inasmuch as it is a form of artifice, modifying natural processes for aesthetic ends. But the film itself, Ithinks, could do with some more inventive lighting. And maybe a soft filter...

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Remembering Lou Harrison

I. on 14-16-19-21-24

Said Lou: No garden is complete without a muse. Here’s mine.
She’s Euterpe or maybe Terpsichore, Polyhymnia’s yours.
The garden stretched beyond the house and vanished in redwoods and Pacific fog.
The man had no edges. His spinet sat over a gong. The soup pot never emptied.
Yankee patchwork and flannel met batik and silk. Failing Roman liquamen: use some Thai fish sauce.

Partch did wood and bamboo, Lou did aluminum and iron.
Aluminum oxide shines like silver (Lou’s middle name) in air.
And air was Lou’s element, each word out of his mouth resonant, measured, round.
Large in every format. He never lost his dancer’s step, his zorries snapping anapests,
Crashing down from a near perfect pirouette, shouting: “Whatever happened to ballet for fat men?”

Thomson’s Solitude: a portrait of Lou in New York. Lost.
Later, warm of welcome, generous, enthused, but troubled at core.
Another artist (Pynchon) exhiled to Aptos preached the creed “Keep cool, but care.”
New York was not Alexandria, but Aptos became Alexandria dreamt new.
And Lou’s dreams of Alexandria’s fall, and a fall to come, were meant to trouble our sleep as well.

II. in the free style

Lost wax. The discipline of a form to be filled. A rhyme to keep. A control to chance. The unexpected curves taken by a tune fit to a rule. Ratio. Everything out of order brought in again, but newly aligned. A new melody is a new line. There on the coast that does not face the old world, a chance to realign, to sing a new song, or the old song sung anew, the old psaltery restrung. The canon remeasured. A chance to realign the old canons. Dreaming of Ptolemy in a newfoundland.

Missing Robert Duncan and John Cage, now Nobbie Brown and Lou Harrison. Waiting for war. Waiting for a new song to break this speechlessness. A need for sounds, instruments, of metal. Of spectra cracked, fractured. A need for counterpoint, for differences made plain and clear. A need for a new ratio.

Missing my teachers. And so far away from home. Making a new home in the old land: Emma, now 11 months, cries at five past midnight. Echolocation. She falls quickly back to sleep, comforted that the dark is not so deep. Every night the same. Every night a new cry, a new song. Can I give her a sense of ratio, a sense of proportion? Will she, too, learn to dream of Alexandria?

Budapest, Hungary 7 February 2003

NB 14:16:19:21:24 is the original tuning for Gamelan Si Betty, the "free style" was an approach to just intonation used by Lou in which each interval was tuned to the next, instead of working with a predefined scale.


Note on manuscript margin:
while using conventional resources (instruments, notation, even pitches and rhythms), push edge of the "musical" to or past the point of doubt: is this still music?

Monday, February 05, 2007

Names and destiny

At the behest of his publisher, Schönberg added suggestive, if not programmatic, subtitles to his Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 . Although the titles were afterthoughts to pieces composed as absolute music, audiences have persistently "heard" seaside rustling, gentle tides, and lake trout jumping to the the third movement, with the original title Farben (Colors), now somewhat hidden behind the subtitle "Summer Morning by a Lake".

I recently finished two string quartets, my fourth (actually a replacement for an abandoned piece) and fifth. The working computer files into which I entered the scores carried the names Autumn and Winter, respectively, by which I was simply identifying the project of the current season. While composing, I had absolutely no programmatic let alone meteorological notions about either of the pieces. On a whim, I sent out a few copies of the scores to some trusted musician friends, leaving the file names as titles for the quartets. The main response to the scores have been (1) compliments on "capturing" the feel of the seasons, and (2) questions about my plans for Spring and Summer.

This reaction has been surprising, as program music is not in my portfolio, and even if it were, I doubt that I'd do seasons as I'm stuck, psychologically, in a kind of permanent seasonal lag: it's either mid-November, or simply too damn hot.

Nevertheless, I'm going to leave the titles in place, in the spirit of a somewhat more sober whimsy, but I think that this experience has been a good lesson in the utility of generic titles. I will be more careful with casually titling pieces in the future (thank goodness I didn't call the files Irene or George or Clubbing Baby Seals or Baghdad or Rainbows, Puppy Dogs, & Unicorns, or even "Tulips & Elephants). And no, there won't be quartets for Summer and Spring. That'd be someone else.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Topical Music

Pliable, has a post about the first-ever outbreak of the Avian Flu in Britain. Here's a recent prose score by the composer Bhishma Xenotechnites related to the same topic:
H5N1 (Environmental Music )

This music is for whistlers, or very high treble instruments from any musical tradition (either/or, I think, but maybe one or two whistlers could be in a qroup of instrumentalists, but not vice-versa) . Winds or whistlers need to produce a steady tone of at least 20 seconds' duration. Time is to be indicated by the sound of antique cymbals at intervals as will be specified below. No sounds may be produced or amplified by means of electronics.

Sound any pitch at all (not just "scale pitches") above f''' (which is ca. 1400 Hz.) . There is no upper limit. Choose a pitch and let it sound out steadily (no vibrato) for as long as it can be held; violins, 30 seconds or so up to around a minute (not more). Coming to the end of a tone, take a silent rest of one to two thirds the length of the tone that you just completed. Then repeat the same cycle using next a different pitch. The level of the loudness: not particularly high, but make a full sound. (Crescendo at the start and at the end a fade are good, so long as the pitch is steady.)

The performance will last at least six minutes, or longer, if the performers agree on a duration; the composer thinks the best result will probably ensue if the tone-rest sequence is performed at least a dozen times, and perhaps not more than about twenty, though a still longer performance could be done.

At the first sounded note, the piece will begin. The antique cymbals, as a sort of marker, will be struck three times, at well spaced intervals, and then twice in close succession at the end — five seconds or so apart. On hearing this signal, the performers will finish the tones, one by one, that they may be sounding, and when the last tone falls silent, the performance ends.

Listeners: what you will hear is what you get.

Bhishma Xenotechnites

(some minor revisions, 2007)

(cc) Part of the Public Domain, 2006.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Sounds alike

Marc Geelhoed is a perceptive critic with a considerable range of interests, so it's disappointing to read this:
Jo Kondo's two brief works Isthmus and An Elder's Hocket set a few Asian-sounding ideas free in a small ensemble, let them scurry around for three minutes, then turn them off. Development is an evil word to open-space advocates and to Kondo, apparently. They were cute, and were warmly received, but I couldn't help but think that Lou Harrison wrote better Japanese music.

I can't help but wonder how Geelhoed defines Japanese music. Since American music is music made by Americans, I kinda assumed that Japanese music was music made by Japanese.

It's disappointing that the programmers chose only two shorter pieces by Kondo, but both are fine pieces. In An Elder's Hocket, Kondo is explicitly about some connections (it really is a hocket), and the referends of his characteristically ambiguous tonality can be quickly sorted out (early Cage, late Stravinsky, and early 70's Soho).

While Lou Harrison was much more engaged with Chinese, Korean, and Javanese musics than with Japanese, he did, in fact, write three pieces with explicit connections to Japanese music. However, on closer inspection each of these turn out to emphasize their distance from actual Japanese practice: one movement of Harrison's Pacifika Rondo is an hommage to Gagaku, Japanese court music, but instead of the stately regular metre of Gagaku repertoire, it is constructed from a very strick pre-compositional plan based upon permutations of measures with varying lengths; the Suite for 4 Haisho is an experimental accompaniment for Noh drama using conjectural reconstructions of medieval instruments; and the Suite for Sangen, for shamisen, features a Prelude that uses Indian Jhalas and an Estampie that is an explicit hommage to European early music. I think that it's fair to say that Harrison was knowledgeable about Japanese music, but he didn't compose much of it.

Blog with Hand-Raising

The composer Tom Johnson used to perform a Lecture with Hand-Raising, during which audience members were invited to raise their hands when they heard something they liked, upon which Johnson would repeat the approved passage. The text of the lecture, I believe, concern repetition. (Another one of Johnson's lectures was the Lecture with Singing, likewise with a self-similar text concerning the curious and inexplicable fact that everytime he gave the lecture someone in the audience would suddenly start singing.)

So from now on, this is officially a Blog with Hand-Raising. If you read something you like, raise your hand, and I'll repeat it. Starting now.

Oh come on. Stop with the singing.


An email came this morning which referred to an item here as an "essay". My apologies for any confusion. The working premise here is that the items on this blog are neither articles nor essays, they're just items from the journal of a working composer. Some of the ideas are well-thought out, others raw or half-baked, and none of them aspires to the formal status of an essay.

Just wanted to get that straight.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Would you be interested in a round of Omaha Hold 'em Prof. Ferneyhough?

My father always told me that, rich or poor, it was better to have some money. Well, Brian Ferneyhough shouldn't worry for a while. He's just won the Ernst von Siemens Prize, an honor and a nice bit of change to boot.

Prof. F.: If you happen to be reading this, and happen to need some advice on where to spend it, I do believe that I'm in a unique position to advise. We can do lunch.

Not sexy

Dennis Báthory-Kitsz makes a good case for the music of Babbitt and some cohorts in their own era of good feeling. I agree that there is some interesting and sometimes fine music there, and I have often been in the position of defending it to my own detriment (although Babbitt & friends were often downright nasty to the composers I consider to be my teachers). I particularly like a characterization of the twelve-tone and serial moment made by Earl Kim once at Cal Arts, when he said that it was an attempt to give back to music some of the dignity it had been denied in the brutality of the mid-twentieth century, and it found that dignity in the most sophisticated intelectual tools of its time. But this was definitely an uneven repertoire when taken as a whole. There is often an unfathomable distance between a good Babbitt piece and an average piece by one of his camp followers.

I suppose that the problem was simply that the Babbittonian high twelve-tone style was -- when examined as a broad body of compositional technique -- too easy to use. Choose your set type. Choose a series. Build an array ot two with a set of properties you like (or better yet, use an existing array, as the damn things are hard to make, and recycling something at the precompositional level is totally on the level, dude). Assign your parameters to arrays, or "lynes" or partitions of arrays. Then start writing out you score, with all the elements undetermined by the pre-composition -- which could be repetitions of tones or their durations or grouping tones into phrases -- essentially improvised on paper. Unfortunately, some folks are better improvisors than others. When Babbitt is at his best, he uses these free elements to underline or make connections across a piece in an audible way, and he clearly has the memory and puzzle-solving skills required to pull something like this off. And when he's off -- as in All Set, for example, or Post Partitions -- it just goes to show that the experiment doesn't always work.

And Dennis's use of the adjective sexy for Babbitt's music: sorry, I don't buy it. While clever and witty at its best, sexy is not the word I would have used, and frankly, as someone who's heard a lot of stories about new music, I've never heard a story about going to summer camp at Princeton, Tanglewood, or Darmstadt with sexual conquest as the prime target.

You own it, you name it.

"I'm not particularly this or that." -- Edward Gorey

With the luxurious distance of an accidental expat, I have followed with interest a number of recent controversies in the US regarding names. Some of them have concerned taboo names, especially names for ethnic, religious, or other groups. May they be used or not? And if they are used, by whom and under which circumstances? When a forbidden word does get used as a slip of the tongue, do we judge the speaker against his ot her record, or do we assume that the slip of tongue was carrying the speaker's honest and uncensored opinion? Others controversies have concerned deliberate misnaming, for example, the practice by many Republicans, from the Resident on down, of referring to their opposition as the "Democrat Party" instead of Democratic. And still more controversy belongs to the practice of deliberately wearing down a name: "liberal", "civil rights", "privacy", "intelligence", "accountability".

It seems to me that one principle underlying all of these controversies is that speech communities tend to recognize a right to name people, things, or ideas. That right is usually associated with ownership and authority, and recognition of ownership or authority by a community only comes with a general acceptance of a name. For example, the convention in the west has been that parents name their children, and our dual names carry both a sign of the legal relationship -- the family name -- and a mark of individual power associated with that relationship, is found in the individual name chosen by the parent. There are, however, many groups or systems in which the right to name children is otherwise assigned, for example to a cult or group leader, and in many slave systems, owners issue names to children in the place of the parents.

When Republicans, with considerable discipline, systematically rename their opponent party, they are trying to assert a form of ownership: yes, Mr. Bush has "reached out" to the new majority in Congress, but he is reaching out on his own terms, and those terms include naming the opponent.

When a name is attached to some form of oppression, liberation from that oppression comes with a positive reassignment of the right to name, a process that can be long, delicate, clumsy and full of contradictions. Thus we have the sensitive situation in which the "x"-word is generally, but not universaly, forbidden. Members of the group formerly labelled "x" may use it, and often with abandon, as an instrument for satire, invective, and subversion.

The practice of wearing down, radically devaluing, or even inverting the meaning of names in the course of political discourse is a dangerous one. I had always thought that examples of the sort, in Orwell's 1984 or in Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, couldn't literally happen here, but the US is now a country run by two liberal parties (left- and right-liberal, but classically liberal in their roots both of them), but neither of them dare identify itself as liberal. It's a country where wars are no longer declared but force is authorized, and where an escalation is supposed to be meaningfully distinct from a augmentation.


Does this have anything to do with music? Well, yes, if only in a political theatre of greatly reduced power and material consequence. There are, in fact, many instances in which names associated with a music and the process in which those names are given and accepted or rejected deserves some critical attention. Tonality. Minimalism. New music. Contemporary music. Experimental music. Modern. Post-modern. Classical music. Entertainment. None of these terms can be defined in any way which would be acceptable to everyone. (A situation which doesn't particularly both me BTW). Often, it is unclear whether a term is neutral, pejorative, or positive. Sometimes -- as in the cases of minimalism or experimental music -- a pejorative use can be turned around via an alternative assertion of ownership or authority, and that turn around can be empowering.

The history of electronic music is especially loaded with the politics of naming: when the technology was rare and closely guarded, individuals and institutions carefully managed their ownership over resources and -- as a consequence -- styles. Music concrete or electronic music or synthesized electronic music each had early institutional identities, and those institutions closely managed what could be done and by whom. But even as the technology has become more equibally available and distributed, there is still considerable institutional leverage over what may be done. "Electronic music" in the studio at UCLA as taught by Roger Bourland, if I understand it correctly, is essentially a course in the production of soundtracks. At Mills, or at Wesleyan, it can be making sound installations or building your own circuitry. And there are other institutions in which "electronic music" is simply the realisation of a written score.

In the case of minimalism, before composer and critic Tom Johnson adopted the term from art criticism, and initiated a process of acceptance which has generally stuck, other terms were bandied about: static music and process music are two which still seem to have considerable descriptive power. Minimalism was, at first, as much rejected by the composers involved as rejected. But it had an enfranchising power, so much so that other composers could be included (just from the west coast: Erickson, Leedy, Moran, Budd, Lentz, Oliveros, Dresher, Adams), music from outside the states might be included (Kondo, Otte, Walter Zimmermann, Jeney, perhaps Buckinx), and new roots or prehistory were discovered (not only Young's Trio for strings, but also Satie, early Cage, Wolff, Feldman, maybe even Yves Klein). And with that enfranchisement, the name became currency (which must be recognizeable, portable, divisible, durable), and composers are always gracious recipients of currency.


Recently, it was big news in the academic music theory community (well, okay, big news for a small pond) when the theory faculty of the Yale Music Department decided to change the naming or labeling practice in their harmony teaching. From now on, functions and bass notes are in, and the roman numbers are out. From what I have heard, the core theory sequence also intends to focus on a much more targeted repertoire for analysis and composition on historical models. San Jose State University has made an even more radical change in its theory teaching curriculum: "Music Theory" has been replaced with "Music Systems", with the idea that a wider variety of approaches would be taught to accomodate a much larger variety of repertoire, that is no longer concentrating on functional harmony and the classical European "common practice". This more radical change has not received a lot of attention from the academic music theory community, although I suspect that it speaks to some larger trends, while the Yale re-labeling is essentially a refinement of a teaching tradition with a long pedigree. Not being a music educator, I don't have a nickel's interest in either naming convention, but I anticipate some interesting mixes of argument and institutional prestige as one practice or the other is accepted or rejected by other institutions.

Buckwheat noodles

(More Friday food blogging).


Pizzoccheri (flat buckwheat pasta), a green (I've used either savoy cabbage or swiss chard) sliced in slender strips, and cubed potatoes are boiled together, drained, and served with garlic, butter, fontina cheese, and a bit of sage. Salt and black pepper to taste.

(Here's a detailed recipe with video).


This is winter food, made from the products of a marginal agricultural zone. It's homeplace is in the case, the mountains and valleys of Northern Italy, especially Valtellina. But I will always associate with Bregaglia, in Switzerland.

I was introduced to Pizzoccheri by pianist Hildegard Kleeb and composer/trombonist Roland Dahinden in Bregaglia (also known as the Bergell). Hildegard and Roland had invited my wife and I to go hiking with them down the steep and narrow valley which stretches from St. Moritz all the way down to Chiavenna in Lombardy. Bregaglia is a protestant, Italian- and Rhaeto-Romanche-speaking niche in the generally Catholic and German-speaking Canton of Graubunden. It's perhaps best-known as the home of the Giacometti family of artists, and one can detect, in the dark and narrow valley, the origins of Alberto Giacometti's craggy and elongated figures.



As in the far north of Italy, the Japanese have made a virtue out of farming on marginal soils, and the poorman's buckwheat has become a real luxury. The word soba is either the grain buckwheat, or thin noodles made from buckwheat flour with some binder, usually wheat flour. The best soba noodles are usually considered to be those with the most buckwheat. Look for ni-hachi on the label, indicating two parts wheat to eight parts buckwheat. Some sobas are flavored: yam, seaweek, green tea, mugwort.

(Here's a great page on making your own soba: Watch for the punchline: "You are very good sobatician.").

Boil according to the label. Serve either cold, with toppings (nori seaweed, soy sauce, mirin, grated daikon radish, fresh okra, tororo (yam-paste), wasabi) , or hot in a miso broth, plain or with toppings (green onions, vegetable or shrimp tempura, fried tofu, fish-cake, or maybe a raw egg).

Taking the license awarded to any Californian, I like cold soba with sliced avocado. But everything else I know about soba, I owe to Alvin Lucier.