Monday, March 30, 2009

The Ancient Habits of Musicians

Afarensis reports on the excavation of a 2700-year old tomb in Yanghai, China:

The burial is that of a 45 year old male. The grave goods included bridles, archery equipment, a harp, a leather basket, and a wooden bowl. Both the basket and the bowl were filled with vegetative matter - about 789 grams (~ 1 pound 11 ounces). Radiocarbon dating was performed and a calibrated date of 2,700 years BP was returned. Analysis of the vegetative material indicated it was Cannabis sativa. Furthing testing indicated it was psychoactive.

Yep, a harp and psychoactive vegetative matter. No doubt we will soon see some cultural conservatives rallying around this ancient evidence of the connection between music, dope, and death.  

K.V. Narayanaswamy

During a recent viewing of A Composer's Notes, Michael Blackwood's Philip Glass documentary, I noticed that Glass's comments about the importance of Indian music were made during a concert in Chennai (Madras) featuring the South Indian vocalist K.V. Narayanaswamy (1923-2002). I had the fortune to hear KVN (as he was called) live only once, and it was one of the most astonishing concerts of my life. Considered one of the finest Karnatic vocalists of the 20th century, he was, in universal terms, a real classicist, with no gesture or ornament wasted. While capable of the most virtusosic runs and most complicated rhythmic patterns, the music was clearly more important to him than his own ego and he always focused on getting to the core of the raga and composition at hand. In this video (one of several of KVN on YouTube, all of them rather rough, but still valuable), in Raga Ranjani, pay close attention to the exquisite intonation of the third degree of the scale, sung to the solfege syllable "ga", especially towards the end of this clip.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


Sommerzeit, the local version of "Daylight Savings Time" has just begun in this part of Europe, extending daytime by one hour. Try as I may, I cannot imagine making music to be played in daylight -- even my out-of-doors music prefers the night --, so this supposed energy-saving measure registers as more of a music-saving measure, with the lengthened afternoon shoving the prime concert time into ever-later and, for working people, marginal hours. There are, perhaps, composers and musicians with sunnier dispositions, who know how to make the magic of a musical performance function under natural light and before an audience which is fully alert and awake (unlike the evening audience, advantageously prone to reverie and other semi-conscious states), but I am not one of them. Even in musical traditions -- those of India in particular -- in which modes and compositions are designed for and understood as belonging to particular hours of the day, the bulk of the repertoire is evening music, suggesting that the musical advantages of the early darkened hours are widely recognized.

See also this item from 2007: Nocturnal.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Our Other Orchestra

Here's a Google map of gamelan orchestras in the US.   Compiled by Chad Bailey Nielson, it's color coded: blue for central Javanese, red for Balinese, green for Sundanese, teal for Cirebonese, and purple for mixed.  The gamelan, in one variety or another, has rapidly became an alternative orchestral form in the US, and not a few composers have had more large ensemble experience with gamelan than with traditional western orchestras.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Vanishing Niche

Here's more evidence that the big online distributers are increasingly turning away from niche business, in this case via recommender systems. This is not a good development for new music.


The half-joke in the Clinton years was that if the amount of wealth which had been transferred upwards had gone in the other direction, we'd have called it a revolution.  It was only a half-joke because most people remained comfortable enough and the word "revolution" had lost much of its currency in the dull years that followed the '60s and 70's.

Now, here's a small article by Felix Salmon that seems to have the general measure of temperaments these days right, and, to be honest, I'm more than surprised by the ease with which terms like revolution, class, and even class warfare are now being thrown about:

"That dream is shattered -- and, what's worse, it turns out that very overclass is responsible for the working classes' own present straits."

Musicians, and especially new musicians are very much on the the margin of any debate structured in terms of class, let alone warfare and revolt.  (Cage or Cardew's writings about revolution now seem odd, even quaint)  We have the pocketbooks of the working class, yet make our livings by packaging our selves and our wares for the pleasure of an intellectual and capitalist class and the state that they have made.   But the condition and survival of new music in rough times is a serious topic, serious in the practical terms of assuring our livelihoods, but also in the aesthetic terms of the nature of our work.   Sometimes, historical examples provide some guidance.  However, for better or worse, it is next to impossible to generalize about new musical pratice in previous times of stress, as there is no general pattern.  Beethoven, Berlioz, and Wagner were each influenced, profoundly, by revolutionary times, but they are too far in the past to provide transposable examples.   After the First World War and during the Vietnam era, there were moments of true musical radicalism, some of which may now echo well with the popular anger of the moment, I suppose.  But after the Second World War, there was a turn to cooler forms of modernism, and during the Great Depression, the coincident styles of neo-classicism, folkloric nationalism, and socialist realism were all aesthetically conservative, if populist, moves.  Of course, technology is always the wild card here:  it may just be that the means of musicial pro- and repro-duction are efficient and cheap enough to sustain a greater diversity of both substance and style.   The half-joke of the '60s, that the revolution would not be televised, may have to be revised to the affirmative that the revolution will be online.



Embedded, from the Opera Ball to the Pancake Breakfast

There is no musical genre as resource- and personnel-intensive as opera, and yet, despite the extravagant costs and the fairly limited potential size of its audience, opera and the institutions which produce it continue to maintain prestige and position even through the deepest of downturns, when other musical institutions, even those requiring much more modest resources, are seriously affected.  There are several reasons for this special status, both artistic — opera is a unique amalgam of activities and can present spectacle, virtuosity, and complexity for both eyes and ears — and social, but I suspect that the social considerations are the more critical.  Opera is embedded in local social networks, and often wealthy and powerful networks, with the prestige of these networks lending opera the aura of importance, class, value, and indispensibility.  

Which isn't to say much of anything new, except perhaps this: New music doesn't need the scale or the prestige of opera, much less the institutional status.  Indeed, it would probably lose much of its essential character — its novelty and urgency — if placed under such institutional care.  However, to thrive, even at the margins, new music needs a similar social embedding, a connection to civic life.  No, nothing as large in scale and extravagance as the annual Opera ball, rather something more like the annual pancake breakfast the local Little League holds, an event that brings a community together in regular intervals, does some useful outreach and fundraising, and does so in an informal and comfortable way.  That said, we can skip the paper plates and plastic forks (can we stipulate that there is nothing worse than eating syrup-drenched pancakes off a paper plate with plastic forks?).

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Too Big To Fail

The current crisis in banking is, in large part, due to the massive deregulation of the financial sector, which included a removal of restrictions on the types of business that single institutions can carry out as well as the end of restrictions on interstate banking, creating the banks (and other private financial institutions) which are now identified as "too big to fail."

I contend that new music appears much less lively, diverse, and interesting than it actually is because there is a similar concentration of public attention on a limited number of markets, venues, and providers.  A recording on Nonesuch, for example, is more likely to get reviewed and will receive optimal distribution, while recordings on more local and upstart labels and without the backing of a major media firm like Warner, will largely be ignored.  A one-off performance in New York before an audience of 12 in a Soho loft gets reviews, but a run of 12 sold-out performances on Cape Cod is ignored entirely.

The more egregious effect, however, is on the music itself.  A commission for orchestra is rare and an orchestra is a large and expensive institution, and composed as it is of a mass of people with well-practiced working habits, even quite talented people, tends to learn new things slowly, so rehearsal time is precious.   Consequently, presenters tend to play safe with the orchestra, the musical institution "too big to fail," and play it safe by choosing composers with track records for playing it safe and working successfully with other orchestras (remember second grade: "plays well with others"?  diplomacy is ofen a real substitute for real musical interest).  The chosen few composers, in turn, protect their track records by providing just enough novelty ear candy to maintain the aura of the new while fundamentally remaining in the safety zone in terms of both performance difficulty and audience receptivity. 

This situtation is most unfortunate because it seriously misunderstands the central function which risk plays in musical change and underestimates the capacity for serious musicians to successfully negotiate risks.  Each landmark in music history can be reasonably heard as an example of a composer and performers successfully resolving risks.  (There are even a small number of extraordinary works in which the risks have never been successfully mastered, yet it still seems worth our while to keep working at them).   The relationship between success, failure, and risk in music-making is something altogether different from that in commerce and finance, but I daresay that music managers have been doing as damn bad a job as their colleagues in finance in risk management.    


If the anarchic qualities of musical change and discovery are to be taken seriously, then the writings of Paul Feyerabend seem increasingly useful.  Take this small text, for example, on epistemological anarchism, and substitute "compositional" or "aesthetic" for "epistemological". Or take this, from Against Method, and substitute "music" for "science":

“The idea that science can, and should, be run according to fixed and universal rules, is both unrealistic and pernicious. It is unrealistic, for it takes too simple a view of the talents of man and of the circumstances which encourage, or cause, their development. And it is pernicious, for the attempt to enforce the rules is bound to increase our professional qualifications at the expense of our humanity. In addition, the idea is detrimental to science, for it neglects the complex physical and historical conditions which influence scientific change. It makes our science less adaptable and more dogmatic: every methodological rule is associated with cosmological assumptions, so that using the rule we take it for granted that the assumptions are correct. Naive falsificationism takes it for granted that the laws of nature are manifest and not hidden beneath disturbances of considerable magnitude. Empiricism takes it for granted that sense experience is a better mirror of the world than pure thought.”

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Another St. Patrick's day has past, which in the US has become a curious spectacle of elective affinity for an imagined identity.  Bars and parades are full of one-day-a-year patriots drinking green beer, singing A Nation Once Again, without ever wondering if the supposed nation was ever there in the first place, let ago ready for reappearance. And don't get me started on corned beef and cabbage... 

I'm as much of a mutt as most Americans, with some fractional advantage to those ancestors whose last European home was in Ireland (with the rest from Holland or Britain),  We've kept in touch with relations on that island and my mother even has an Irish passport, but identifying myself as Irish-American seems odd.  In fact, the whole business of program note biographies and encyclopedia entries which inevitably begin with some national identity (American composer Philo T. Boxtop... ) seems even more odd.   How obligatory or meaningful is such an identification? Does a composer identify musically with a nation state?  With a piece of real estate?  With a language or the traditional customs of some tribe or folk?  

(For the record, my earliest haplogroup (M168) hasn't made me any more attached to the Rift Valley, although I am certainly fond of Doro Wat and Injera).

My personal attachment to the mountains, desert and coast of California is real, but it seems presumptive to claim that they are embedded in my music.  On the other hand, my few years on the East Coast were mostly unhappy and more foreign, in their way, then time spent in places where I had to get my passport stamped.  (A few weeks in the Deep South of the US were certainly the most exotic experience of my life.)  So identification as an American composer seems rather coarse to me, no matter how honored I'd be to share the designation with Ives, Cowell, or Cage.  

On the other hand, though I've been in Europe for a long enough time, coming here was unplanned and unexpected, personal rather than professional, and staying here is as much due to relatively good schools and health care for the family as any geographical or cultural attachments, of which I have few and increasingly fewer.  That said, whenever a work of mine is played here, the advertisement is inevitably of a work by an American composer, which I can sometimes get the organizer to temper to Californian, but when a piece is programmed in the States, I just as inevitably get the qualifier "Frankfurt-based." (Does that mean I'm following in the steps of Telemann, Humperdinck and Hindemith, or that I ought to be expert in the writings of Goethe or Adorno?  Or maybe I should have a special relationship to Rindswurst or Grie Soß?)

This lack of attachment comes with advantages and disadvantages.  Musically, especially for work with experimental ambitious, this detachment can lead to a useful distance from habit or tradition.  But there are real practical disadvantages in not being a fully enfranchised member of the local polity:  my status is perpetually that of a tolerated guest (and during the Bush wars, even this was not always clear) and I can't vote here, but must pay the same taxes as those who can.  At the level of the nation-state, this pains little, but I do like to participate in local affairs. More critical, however, is that I often fall between the cracks for music presenters and musical funding sources.  Not being German, my work can't be supported by a number of sources and not being resident in the US, a number of sources there are — whether by rule or by practice — cut off from me.  But most critically, the attachment of one label, whether American or experimental or minimal or serial or complex or neo-/archao-/post-/prae-/ad hoc-whatever, can lead to the uniform identification of all of ones work with that label.  If your particular label does not fit the fads and fancies of the current programming season, tough luck.  (And if you hairstyle doesn't fit, even worse luck...)

Years ago, in grad school, I noticed that most of the composers in New York, the most saturated marketplace for composition in the US, tended to discipline themselves so that their work was ever-more focused on a particular specialization.  This is probably an inevitable behavior in such a market, and to its credit, New York manages to support competing streams of music-making to some degree or another, but it also leads to precisely the labelling described above.  I'm less interested in catalogues of composers than in individual works of composers, and sometimes only even in moments, marvelous moments, in those individual works, so this labelling is essentially a filtering device for programmers and marketers and a distraction, away from the music, for me.  Moreover, the capacity for talented composers, and American composers perhaps particularly so, to, chameleon-like, elect one identity or another, just like American politicians all becoming Irish for one day in 365,  is something that surely should raise suspicion. 

You would think that, with all of the ease of communication and travel, such labels should be increasingly discounted.  (Not disregarded, just discounted).   I suppose, however, that an economically marginal activity like new music is going to hang onto these for sometime longer in that the filtering, segregating, and isolating effects still have an economic function, a crude but practical filter on a supply of music far in excess of demans.  Restraint of trade, one might say.  But if we practice a bit more suspicion of the labels, perhaps we can restore some more valid utility to them.  There are, indeed, qualities that are inescapably French to the music of Berlioz, Debussy or Boulez or American about the music of Ives or Piston or Harold Budd, and it can be useful to talk about these qualities, if the talk is more than an arbitrary, casual and prejudiced application of labels, but rather as nothing more than an opening to a discussion of real differences in music.   

Just when we thought we were done with Bushian slips

On his plans to write a book:

"I'm going to put people in my place, so when the history of this administration is written at least there's an authoritarian voice saying exactly what happened," Bush said. (from here)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


I spend as little time with recordings as I can, but a recent gift of the Sony boxed set of 22 cds worth of Stravinsky-led Stravinsky has provided an excuse for an all-Stravinsky marathon.  Boy, with very few exceptions (and maybe only The Flood, at that), this is all renewable music.  Both the music itself and the fields of association around the music are incredibly rich,  with each new listening suggesting new paths in and out of the music.   I'm particularly struck this time by how useful irony is to Stravinsky in creating this manifold if not open-ended quality.  Neither Viennese expressionism nor Russian mid-20th century musical sarcasm have this particular power.  

It's probably not good to play favorites with so much good stuff, but I am very taken with the disk which included the ballets  Apollo, Agon, and Jeux des Cartes.  Agon has always been a favorite — with its crispy and splittered orchestration, so well-made for nimble feet (those galliards, those bransles!) — and Jeux des Cartes is a romp with amazing, almost non-sequitorial, roll-offs and flourishes for the various shuffles and gambits (I've never been sure whether the game described should be more in the style of Lewis Carroll or of Ian Fleming).  But this time, it is Apollo that captured me.   There is something naive, almost artless about surface here, but Stravinsky always manages to pull in something unexpected, if only the smallest bit of uncanny voice leading.  And likewise, although the string ensemble initially appears a neutral, plain, a monochromatic white even — the score, a ballet blanc, after all, is full of white space — by the middle of the variations (in which Apollo partners with each of three muses in turn), the ensemble comes to seem almost too bright, too colorful.  The whole is refined yet radiant, completely in keeping with the title character.    


Continuing Ed

I've been brushing up on Fourier transforms, which can be useful in musical applications.  This video lecture series by Brad Osgood of Stanford  at Academic Earth has been helpful.  Too bad there aren't any courses in music at AE yet.  

Friday, March 13, 2009

Standards of (Performance) Practice

Composers depend upon performers to turn marks on paper into real sounds and — when everything works out — music. When the music works, it's often far from clear which party is most responsible. On the one hand, some scores are so robust, they can survive the worst approximation and most dispirited rendition. And on the other hand, I know some musicians who can take my breath away just playing scales, so the actual notes played, or supposed to be played, are beside the point. But when the music doesn't happen, it's just as difficult to assign blame. Performers can sabotage a piece, but maybe the notes were never going to be music in the first place.

I just toured a brand new shopping center in the middle of Frankfurt. Designed by a star architect, it has a great deal of flash and some virtuoso features, and has received a lot of press attention. But almost everywhere there are small details in the construction that have gone wrong: surfaces not smoothly joined together, walls too roughly plastered, light fixtures that are not sealed properly, windows slightly out-of-line, a hinge to fire extinguisher box on crooked so the thing doesn't quite close... all of these small things gone amiss are the architectural equivalent of wrong notes. There is a clear failure in performance practice here, but I understand that the construction industry deals with such failures in terms of tolerance, legally codified as standards of practice. The assumption in the building trade is simply that some percentage of the work will not be done to spec, and the on-going negotiations between client, architect, and contractors during construction largely concern whether or not that percentage is acceptable. The ideal execution — note perfect, in musicians' terms — is just not a possibility and everyone goes into the project understanding this.

I think composers and musicians have some advantages here over architects and builders. Musicians really do come closer, and more often, to the note- and style-perfect reading of a score, than builders come to perfect realizations of ideal architectural plans. Also, the working relationship between composers and musicians is rarely loaded with the monetary considerations that a major work of architecture must have, and, in general, composers and musicians work together with considerable respect and even a mutual cultivation of talents (and even careers). At the very least, a musical error (whether of composition of performance) is ultimately a transient event. We can survive a bad piece or a bad performance and move on to something better. An error in execution of an architectural plan, on the other hand, can carry a risk to life and limb that render any smaller aesthetic considerations trivial. But the greatest advantage of all that music brings is the fact that it is entirely possible for a performance to err from the letter of a score and nevertheless capture the piece in spirit, or even go beyond it. In musical performance, the ideal is not the enemy of the real, but a means to it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Free and Open Notation

MuseScore is a promising free WYSIWYG music notation program, licenced under GNU GPL. It already has a set of features superior to Finale Notepad or other entry-level notation packages (offering, for example, unlimited staves and a set of microtonal accidentals), making it ideal for most classroom applications and probably good enough for serious projects requiring only conventional notation.  It appears that the programmers are actively working on some additions required for more complex scores like nested tuplets.  It's cross platform, but currently only for Linux and Windows, with Mac available only in a prototype version.  The output I've seen from MuseScore is comparable in style to that of Lilypond.


"From the modernism that you want, you get the postmodernism you deserve." -- David Antin

Monday, March 09, 2009

From Materials to Music

I've been working in just intonation since my freshman year in high school, in 1975 or 76, when the music of Lou Harrison and Harry Partch first registered.  The beauty of the pure intervals was the first attraction, but soon, the whole business of organizing tones into scales and systems became an attraction of its own.  But a scale or a system is not yet music, but rather material with potential to be used musically.  The diagram (or lattice — German Tonnetz — or manifold) describing a tuning system is a static entity, rather like a map from which a useful route has not yet been discovered.  

My first lattices were all at right angles, following the models of Martin Vogel and Ben Johnston, with chains of fifths (ratios of 3:2)  running horizontally and major thirds (ratios of 5:4)  vertically.  Adding ratios of higher primes, especially 7, 11, and 13, was an on-going problem, solved with transparencies or other kludges.  I literally stumbled into a way of animating my lattices, turning the static information on the lattice into information about successive events in a score, when I came across an article by Shohei Tanaka (1862-1945), a Japanese scientist who wrote a dissertation in Berlin in the late 19th century on Just Intonation, in which he advocated a 53-tone equal temperament for the approximation of a just intonation based on pure thirds and fifths.  Tanaka used a lattice in which the lines of fifths and thirds were at a 60-degree angle to one another, and added lines indicating the minor third relationships as well, thus presenting major triads as upward pointing triangles and minor triads as downward.  This started to look more like music to me, and quickly, all of the moves that characterize smooth voice leading in tonal music started to appear as simple moves on this hexagonal lattice.  The tones connected directly to a single tone were the fifth above and below, the major thirds above and below and the minor thirds above and below.  The vertical mirror of a major triad was the minor on the same root, horizontal neighbors sharing the central tone were in a dominant-tonic relationship, and triad described by triangles sharing one face had mediant relationships.  At the same time, I started to recognized that the most compact voice leadings I was learning simultaneously in my study of figured bass realization were compact moves on the lattice, while progressions that were more exotic tended to be represented by greater distances on the lattice.

In the spring of '78, I went to San Diego to visit the Partch instrument collection then housed at SDSU under the watch of Danlee Mitchell.  I showed Mitchell my attempts at latticing Partch's scales and Mitchell said immediately that I had to visit Erv Wilson, a name I had recognized from the second edition of Partch's Genesis of a Music (Wilson, a professional draughtsman, had done the diagrams for Partch and had also suggested the layout for one of Partch's instruments, the Quadrangularis Reversum).  Wilson lived in East LA, and I soon arranged to visit his house, one of the oldest in the city, located at the edge of the arroyo into which the oldest — and now, almostly quaintly small — freeway in the city, the Pasadena, had been dug.  Wilson was in his front garden when I arrived, sorting bags of corn hybrids collected from his ranch in the mountains of Chihuahua, Mexico.   He looked through my collection of lattices and scores and at an adapted hawai'ian guitar I  had brought along and immediately took me in to his dining room, where he sat me down at the table and started to teach some more economical, elegant, and tonally suggestive ways of mapping tones on paper, or in the three dimensional models of dowels and spheres suspended throughout his house.  It was a total revelation to see how Wilson could accomodate far more than the lousy two or three dimensions I could capture on paper, as he casually drew examples with four, five, even eight dimensions represented.  But these examples were not Augenmusik, but acoustically immediate and vivid, as Wilson's house was filled with re-fretted guitars, a collection of flutes, and a number of keyboard percussion instruments, of metals, wood, and bamboo, each apparently to a different tuning system, with alternative keyboard layouts of Wilson's own exquisite and ergonomic designs.  (Wilson's ear is amazing: once, while using his scalatron out in his garage to tune up some aluminum tubing, I was periodically interrupted by his shouting out the ratios of each new tube "256/243! 16/15!, 13/12!"). 

My use of collections of pitches related by just intonation remained rather unadventurous for some time, as I was essentially replicating the most familar moves in tonal music. This was hard to square with my attraction to more experimental music.  Working with La Monte Young  provided one decisive step in this direction.  The harmonic motion in La Monte's pieces is very much understood as motion around a lattice, with formal sections of works restricted to subsets of the total collection of pitches (incidentally Xenakis is up to something similar in Herma) , but La Monte's avoidance of ratios involving the number five whether as tones used directly or as combination tones creates very different tonal environments, and a number of works allowed performers to improvise within the constraints of rules which effectively constitute the voice leading rules in these new environments.  These rules are related, also, to the "cuing" pieces of Christian Wolff, which have also been very important to me.  I made a number of pieces in which performers moved by a small set of rules through pitch materials, including a set of just intonation Mazes and equal tempered pieces, the best and most-played of which was Multnomah Riffs of 1981.  In Multnomah Riffs, the players worked through a score of four repeated measures or frames, from which pitches could be selected, and played at any time within the frame, omitting or repeating any tone so long as the sequence of tones was preserved.  My friend Jonathan Segel, known perhaps best as a member of the band Camper Van Beethoven, contributed an ostinato for celesta to keep track of the frames.

A second decisive step was provided by a small piece by the mathematician and composer David Feldman called Going Places, for two violins.   Going Places is essentially a canon for the two fiddles, chasing each other in a random walk (run, actually) across an open-ended lattice of major and minor thirds.  Encouraged by David's example, I soon wrote a number of pieces involving random walks across both open-ended and closed lattices of various dimensions, and eventually started trying different sets of constraints and changing the lattice, sometimes quite dramatically, in the course of a piece.  These lattice moves were also related to Lou Harrison's "interval controls"  (Elliot Carter, famously, uses a related technique).  

I would later encounter works by Yuji Takahashi and James Tenney that use similar techniques; I am particularly fond of Tenney's principle, in Changes for six harps, of establishing a tonic, jumping to someplace tonally distant from the tonic, and returning by the simplest possible root motion, often a descending series of fifths, thus recapitulating very familar harmonic territory.  As my own strategies for working with tonal motion had generally been symmetrical, even dualistic, Tenney's example was an important one, in that it better resembled the assymetry of real tonal musics, for example in the German tradition in which I can go to IV or V and IV to I or V but V can only go to I.   (For some great counter examples, with their own assymetries, from non-German traditions, consider the V-IV of the blues, or the extended subdominant chains in Berlioz's Marche Troyenne.)  

In Charles Seeger's breathtakingly prescient little treatise on Dissonant Counterpoint, he introduces the principle that the structure of an existing tonal system can be maintained, but the precise content be changed, in his case changing the hierarchy of consonant and dissonant intervals in a contrapuntal texture.  Following Seeger's example, in these unfamilar tonal environments, whether in just intonation or mapped to an equal temperament, there is plenty of opportunity to experiment with both the rules and material hierarchies, while still preserve qualities that are clearly tonal.  (The musical and mental agility on display in this and other examples of Seeger's writings has provided a decisive spark for experimental music for several generations past and will continue to provoke for several generations to come.  If anyone asks, I'm a card-carrying Seegerite.) 

(I haven't let go altogether of my youthful dualism:  when I come across the so-called half-diminished seventh chord in classical works (Bach and Mozart, especially), it still makes a lot of sense to think of it as a subharmonic chord, the exact inversion of a dominant seventh chord, and I think that it is sufficient that this chord is arrived at melodically, by voice leading and counterpoint (the Tristan "chord" is another example), without having to argue about the physical and psychophysical status of the subharmonic.) 


At the moment, I am mostly interested in the relationship between the group of tones in play locally and globally,  and especially our sense that a tone belongs or doesn't belong to a moment in a piece or a whole piece.  Erv Wilson's ideas about moments of symmetry come into play here, in that subsets of a tune system can exhibit similar properties of coherence.   Classical diatonic tonality, with its matruschka-doll construction of chords, diatonic scales, and chromatic scales, is one example.  Recently David Feldman demonstrated that there are only a small number of distinct and connected graphs of a diatonic scale onto a 3,5 lattice.  (I'll let David publish his own result, but the number should be easy enough for you to figure out on your own.   He has also figured out the distinct graphs for sets of 12 pitches on this and on other lattices, a calculation which is not so easy).  This was very interesting to me because I have made a number of pieces that could be considered "pan-diatonic" and Feldman's lattices suggested something  more to the point, in that each graph, while preserving the letter names, had an alternative harmonic profile, much like individual moments in real tonal music.  Sometimes an A is the fifth above a D, sometimes it's the third above F, but not necessarily both at the same time.  The graphs could be realized in just intonation, or mapped to an equal temperament, or to an unequal temperament designed to best represent a particular graph or set of graphs.  Moreover, these graphs suggest particular melodic paths, rows, if you will, with built-in harmonic properties.  This line of working strikes me as very rich and, possibly, very musical. 

(from a talk in California, January, 2009).

Sunday, March 08, 2009


I heard a very good performance of the Maderna Violin Concerto (1969) on Friday evening with the HR-Symphonie Orchester (there was also a bang-up performance of Punkte, but that's a piece that is almost standard rep for the HR-ers).  As well as it was played, the Maderna disappointed because one of the central features of the work, the spatial separation of the orchestra into several sub-ensembles, didn't really add anything to the music and maybe even detracted from it.  In the concerto, the soloist is positioned conventially, front-and-center, next to the conductor, there are two bowed string ensembles, one immediately behind the soloist and the other at a distance, there is a plucked string group (mandolin, guitar, three harps),  the brass, the percussion, and a wall-o-woodwind to boot.   The spatial distribution was limited to positions in the stage proper, everthing directly in front of the audience, with spatial distinctions largely reducible to left-right, and upstage-downstage.  

The writing for the violin solist was lovely, with cadenza-like playing overwhelming any concertante playing, which made for a pleasingly unusual concerto form.  The problem was that the music for the various sub-ensembles was rather undifferentiated, and distrubuted through the course of the concerto rather too discretely, more in sequence than simultaneously, now this then that, and rarely this against that, rendering any charge the spatial segration might have added rather muted.  (In fairness to the composer, a great deal of sequencing and timing in the concerto are decided, ex tempore, by the conductor, so an alternative interpretation might have led to a more pleasing use of resources.) 

Asking an orchestra to reposition itself for a single piece in a concert is often a stumbling block to getting a work programmed, so if you wish to have spatial elements in a piece, you have to be able to convince others of the added value of the extra effort.   It occurs to me that there might be some general principles of polychoral arrrangements that can be extracted from this experience and might assist in making the case to concert organizers for their utility, necessity, and/or attraction:  

(1) If the spatial distinctions are limited — from the audience's perspective — to a single wall, then the differences in the character of the music played by individual groups can usefully be amplified when heard sequentially.  

(2) If, however, the ensembles are more physically distinct — again, from the audience's perspective — then more subtle differences in the character of the music played by the separate groups in sequence can be usefully underlined.  

(3) If groups are playing simultaneously, however, the more proximate the groups are, the more mixed their sounds will become, thus reducing the separation and clarity of the individual streams in the result polyphony.  


(4) when two widely separated groups are playing similar music simultaneously, the effect of the spatial separation can be reduced.  

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Setting up shop, new music style, looking for the perfect strip mall

On my last visit to California, it became clear that I had been missing something rather obvious. The Los Angeles strip mall is the distributed center of culinary innovation.   The strip mall is the low rent versatile retail property on the main drags of the city and countless suburbs and fronting residential neighborhoods, many of them centers of immigrant communities.  A strip mall is a place where commercial experiments can be tried out with the most efficient commitments of money and time, and the relatively small size of the shops allows for optimal distribution of the risks of business failure.  The combination of the strip mall as a commercial theatre, an large first-generation immigrant community of uncommon diversity,  geographical proximity to both Pacific Rim and North/South trade in foodstuffs, and well as the astonishing productivity of California agriculture makes for unprecedent variety, both in the number of traditional cusines represented or recreated in every degree of "authenticity"  (note the inverted commas: This I know, I know, for the new musicology tells me so)  and for hybrids and other forms of innovations.  (There are actually even lower levels of commerce: for years, smaller citrus crops like kumquats and mineolas were collected from backyard networks rather than groves for supermarket sales, or the Oaxaquenan woman around the corner who sells tamale in banana leaves with black mole, or the wagons that deliver edible exotica (Korean burritos, anyone?)  crisscrossing the Southland on secret schedules designed to evade health department inspection tours.)

The low-rent path to innovation takes place in music, too, but we don't yet have a precise equivalent to the strip mall.  (For recordings, the internet functions well, but I'm talking live, local performance here.)  Major institutions are simply so heavily invested in capital designed for the most traditional and prestigious forms of music-making, and thus cannot take on the financial risks that presenting music which breaks traditional patterns in one way or another may create. If you have one hall for music in town, and it seats 1000 to 2000 people — which is not uncommon in Southern California suburbs — then you will be looking for events that will consistently bring in 1000 to 2000 people, while innovative work needs the try-out in the hall that seats 50 to 100 people.  

The large institutions, by design, are limited to a small number of newer projects, carried out in slow motion, thus they will forever only be able to support a small number of artists, mostly figures who present the least risk to the continuity of the institution.   That's why, in the era of mainframe computing,  big, well-supported computer music centers were far less successful in actually turning out finished pieces that those working with solder-yourself circuitry and the first generation of personal computers.   But that's also why we won't hear Robert Ashley at the Met or the NYCO and West Coast composers in the experimental tradition are now shut out of opportunities at the Cabrillo Festival in favor of composers, mostly East Coast, who already show up regularly on major East Coast orchestral programs in the regular seasons.       


The figure in a clearing is a rich musical topic or texture.  Something happens occurs before, or against, or within, a background.  That background may be somewhat atmospheric or suggestive (musically or extra-musically), but it must also be somewhat neutral, audible but not listened-to. How is such a background made in a work of music?

(1) silence (Cage's rhythmic (metrical), and — later — time bracket (ametrical) structures.

(2) a scattering of small events (Berlioz: "intermittent sounds"), distributed irregularly and unpredictably. 

(3) erdodic form (Tenney):  completely and randomly filling the available time with events, so that no orientation, temporal or otherwise, on the basis of the background is possible.

(4) events occuring in absolutely regular and preditable intervals of time, providing a strict temporal reference, possibly references for pitch, timbre.

(5) a drone, a continuous sound providing a pitch, but no temporal reference.

(6) a contrapuntally independent stream of music, speech, or environmental sounds.

I love the coincidence here of completely full and completely empty backgrounds.  [Is a blank canvas white or black?  The complete physical spectrum of light tells us one thing (white is a broad spectrum of light, black is an absence of light) while the real experience of visible light, the colors with which a painter works (with a spectrum that our mind folds back up on itself, connecting reds to blues) suggests the opposite: white is the absence and black is completely full.]  This figure usefully focuses on the issue of audibility/inaudibility. While the figure and ground idea is, at root, contrapuntal, the immediate compositional issue is whether or not the listener should be aware of the counterpoint, and this audible/inaudible quality (now you hear it, now you don't)  is determined by the material relationship, the similarity or dissimilarity, between the figure and ground.

See also these Notes on Continuity and this post on Ives and Mahler.


Photo of the Day

The pianist, composer, and politician Ignace Jan Paderewski playing the piano at the Paso Robles Inn,  Paso Robles, California.   My father's parents both remembered hearing Paderewski play there.  He came to Paso Robles for the hot springs and mud baths and eventually bought two ranches near the town (one for himself, one for his wife).   Aside from the famous Minuet a la Antique,  one of the staples of the Music the Whole World Loves to Play repertoire and ballet classes everywhere, I know none of Paderewski's own music.  Perhaps something to investigate.

(Also this: An article by Paderewski on tempo rubato.)

Appropriate Technology

Question for the day: Who was the first major composer to regularly transport him- or herself by bicycle?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Time Capsule

Some years ago, I rescued a pile of sheet music from my Grandmother's piano bench.  The collection included a bunch of primers and elementary courses for beginners — my Grandmother gave lessons from time to time — including a number of volumes by a prolific compiler of piano methods, John Thompson, all of which appear to still be in print.  In search of some material for my daughter, I recently thumbed through one of these, John Thompson's Easiest Piano Course, which carries  a copyright of 1955.  

While the little book is nicely laid-out, and is not badly organized as a course, including well-integrated lessons in notation, the treatment of both hands (and two clefs) from the beginning with equal emphasis, and some surprisingly adventurous harmonizations for the teacher to accompany the student, the book soon introduces material that is uncomfortably inseparable of an era gladly gone, and suprising to encounter in an educational work still in print: The Old Cotton Picker,  In a Rickshaw  (a bit of pentatonic chinoiserie accompanied by a picture of a man in a western suit and hat riding in a carriage pulled by a man in traditional Asian clothing), and The Banjo Picker (with a minstrel-style blackface caricature).

While there is no reason to suppose that Thompson's intentions were overtly racist, and it seems likely that he was just gathering arrangements for young hands of tunes with patriotic and Americana themes  (the collection also includes Yankee Doodle, The Seabees, and The Paratrooper), and he may even have intended to project a — for its time — culturally diverse viewpoint, it is hard, if not impossible, to escape the complex and often ambiguous  (minstrel shows, for example?) baggage carried by these materials, even when they were once part and parcel of American musical life.  But using these materials today introduces some heavy culture baggage into childrens' piano lessons.    

So — although it sometimes raises some ethnographic issues of its own — I'll be starting my daughter on the Bartok Mikrokosmos  instead.  For the time being, Thompson's time capsule can stay in the piano bench and perhaps, when it comes time to discuss historical topics in a serious way with my daughter, it can usefully be revisted as realia, illustrating a far different time.


High School Musical

I went with my son last night to his Gymnasium's production of Die Dreigroschenoper.   Popular musical theatre is not my thing, but this was an altogether happy affair: staged in exactly the right spirit, viewed in good company, and though Brecht's reworking of Gay's Beggar's Opera remains borderline Machwerk as a play, with some serious drags here and there, once again I had an opportunity to renew my attachment to Weill's songs in their original orchestration.  Too many years ago, I played celesta and harmonium and a bit of percussion in a college production, so I have some hands-on experience with the piece, which is a blast to play in as an instrumentalist.   The scoring, originally for seven players doing an astonishing amount of doubling, is mostly carried by the piano or harmonium, but lines are strategically assigned to winds, especially saxophones, which gives some of the most lyrical bits a raw surface, making the whole, in turns, rough and — surprisingly — tender, flavored with choice moments for celesta, cello, bandoneon, banjo, or Hawai'ian guitar, and the right amount of percussion: a ponderous timpani in the parody overture and otherwise, just punctuation, with a woodblock and a small cymbal, here, or a tom-tom, there. This is robust music which the band of students, with a couple of faculty ringers, handled just fine, but it can also provides interesting stylistic challenges to the best players (no less a band than Ensemble Modern has a standing gig accompanying the local professional production, and their attention to details of historical performance practice is remarkable). 

Monday, March 02, 2009


When first exploring new music, I was excited and impressed by special effects or extended techniques.  As a musician, I eagerly — and to the dismay of my band director — tried to master all the tricks (many of them staples of Spike Jones's City Slickers)  found in Stuart Dempster's The Modern Trombone, especially those involved with altering the spectrum of a tone or playing broken or falsett tones, in-between the ordinary modes of resonance.  At the same time, many of the clever effects in scores by composers like Crumb or Childs got tried out in the safety of my parents' house, on and inside the piano, an old violin, my brother's clarinet, my sister's harp, or on the steady stream of other instruments borrowed from school.  A lot of this was like learning to perform a magic trick, as far as I was concerned, I just wanted to know how it was done and I had little interest in practicing enough to have the fluency required to put it onstage.  

Piano preparations, two sorts of fluttertongue, all sorts of objects to mute tubes or strings, seagull calls from gliding harmonics... wonderful stuff, and extraordinary when a good musician incorporates them seamlessly into her or his technique.   Indeed there are some techniques —  like wind multiphonics, directing the breath so that the tube vibrates at several modes simultaneously, producing a chord — that are so context-, instrument-, and performer-dependent that they are compositionally daunting to incorporate into a work and frequently best left to virtuoso composer-performers who are writing for themselves, or, as is often the case, improvising. 

At the same time, I took two warnings into consideration.  The first was from a talk by Terry Edwards of the Electronic Phoenix Ensemble, in which he remarked that EVT, or "Extended Vocal Techniques", really meant "Everyday Vocal Techniques", which I took to mean that all of these noises had a perfectly ordinary context (visit a busy playground if you don't know what I mean) and that the "standard" modes of singing had their own special status with respect to this larger context.  The second observation was a devastating single word critique I once heard in response to my youthful enthusiasm for a Crumb piece: "precious."  That critique I took as an invitation to more seriously consider the economy of sounds within a work,  a project which continues to be active. 

Recently commissioned to write a piece for a chamber ensemble known for doing all sorts of special techniques and effects,  I went into my bookshelves and dug out a number of works on extended techniques which I had eagerly studied years ago.   They are sort of like cookbooks, with recipes for one sound or another.  (My copy of Gardner Read's Contemporary Instrumental Techniques, which I bought new in 1976, had long ago fallen to pieces from overuse, just like my old copy of The Joy of Cooking.)   But I soon returned the books to the shelves and wrote a piece of some 17 minutes that uses very little more than modo ordinario, and two strategically important events in the score that could be considered special effects are essentially visual, intended to break the continuity as well as to defeat the likelihood of a sound recording.   It's not that I've lost any allegiance to these special effects, but the composition in progress never required them, and in my new piece, if things work they way I've planned, modo ordinario will be quite special indeed.


Events, not Waves

Current reading: Sounds: A Philosophical Theory (OUP 2007) by Casey O'Callaghan offers a — to my ears,  musically suggestive, if never musically explicit — new approach to sound and our experience of sound, based, for a change, not in the traditional models of perception derived from vision, but in a model unique to sound and framed no longer in terms of waves in a medium but rather of events in our own environment located at or near objects or events which cause objects to sound.  The writing style is lively and makes some heavy matter refreshingly accessible to non-philosophers.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Misfired Canons

An initiative for the promotion of new music based in Cologne, ON, has released a "key works list of new music."  The organizers have not been shy of the word "canon" and the list is presented as "Cologne's Guide to New Music."  The whole thing is here.  The hat tip goes to MusikTexte, the current issue of which has a fascinating review of the list and the process of arriving at it.  Gisela Gronemeyer, MusikTexte editor notes that the creation of the list was dependent upon voluntary nominations, reflects the institutional biases of the jury, includes nothing by composers outside Europe and the US  (interestingly enough, the US-Americans included are overwhelmingly experimentalists, not the major institutional figures) and, shockingly, includes no women.

Now, making lists can be useful in examining one's experiences and biases, or at the very least, fun, in the fashion of a parlor game or meme.  (I hope that my own on-going and entirely personal series of "landmarks" is understood in this way; it's not a "best of" list, but a list of works intimately tied to my own musical biography, works that changed the way in which I listen.)   List-making, in an attempt to describe a canon is, however, an inherently troublesome business, bound to reflect, on the one hand, the inevitable biases of the canon-makers's own personal experiences or professional interests, and equally bound to create complaints — many of them completely justified — at exclusions or over-emphases.  While most lists of the kind are harmless, a serious problem can ensue when a list aquires some official status, and with it, power to affect programming or commissions or other assignments of favor or material goods.  Were ON's list only an historical record of the preferences and predelictions of a single community of musicians at one point in time, it would be useful and unobjectionable as historical or ethnographic data.  But the attachment of ON's list to a program for the promotion of new music with more than personal or local ambitions is highly problematic. 


A Hard Day in Analysis

Here's a physicist's analysis, via FFT, of the opening chord to A Hard Day's Night.  (Hat tip Tyler Cowen.)  As the pop era's moral equivalent to the "Tristan chord" (an ambiguous event in a work of tonal music which continues to create great puzzlement and a regular stream of authoritative pronouncements), I'm sure music theorists will be busy with this for years to come.


Here's a new site (in Spanish), with sound files, texts, and photodocumentation about the Mexican composer Julián Carrillo, whose work was largely microtonal ("El Sonido 13"— the "13th sound") , often requiring the construction of new instruments.  

It's interesting that Mexico produced three important pioneers in musical tuning systems: Carrillo, Augusto Novaro (about whose work too little is known), and Ervin Wilson, with whom I was fortunate to start studying while in High School.