Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: Done, Gone, and Looking Ahead

Compositionally, the past year has been a good one for me, providing time for consolidating some older ideas and experimenting with new ones.   I'm particularly pleased with a book of music for mixed consort (flute, clarinet, guitar & percussion) called Neglected Topiary,  a gentle, but still rather hard-line quartet for melodicas, The Long March*  and two pieces for woodwind ensemble based on Gray Codes: Came & Went for trio and A Beckett-Gray Code for quintet.  The Beckett-Gray Codes, which I use to control scoring patterns, have become something of an obsession, and the piece I'm working on now, for the L'Histoire instrumentation, with the percussion treated as soloist, tentatively called Six or Seven, Whatever it Takes, continues this line of work.  There have been the usual number of bagatelles (recorder, keyboard, chorus), occasional pieces (including a set of five-fingered birthday pieces for Walter Zimmermann, Some Handywork),  and the usual arrangements and other work-for-hire along the line,  and outlines of projects for next year are emerging (including some incidental music, a collection called Six Simple Machines, and two longish solo pieces (Meander Scar and  Pareidolia) as well as a brief operatic project concerning two sisters, the favored one of whom has the habit of secretly sucking out all the water in the despised sister's fish tank with a long straw, so that, all-in-all, this year is rather seamlessly flowing into the next.    


* a pseudo 1950's serial bebop piece for solo melodica should also be mentioned.**

** or maybe not. 

Monday, December 28, 2009

Some one thousand, three-hundred and nineteen items later...

... Renewable Music had its fifth anniversary on the 15th of December.   If you haven't yet, please check out the two anthology projects (A Winter Album with new works for piano by 15 composers and Melodica! with works for that instrument by 13 composers);  if you happen to be a composer yourself, please consider contributing to the up-coming and long-awaited A Spring Album of percussion music.  

This experiment in composerly blogging, originally just making public the sorts of notes I habitually write to myself in manuscript margins and on cocktail napkins and the backs of envelopes, has covered some interesting territory, including a month of writing a new whole piece each day and assorted forms of cogitation, agitation, and even experimentation with the blog as literary/critical form.  Thanks for reading, (cor)responding and — if you care to stick around — expect more of the same! 

Saturday, December 26, 2009

More Light! More Space! More Time!

Composer Taylan Susam is asking all the right questions in a short essay, here.  I like this, especially: In my opinion, the supposition - uttered by many contemporary musicologists - that the numerical relation between music and the cosmos is mimetic by nature, is plainly false. Music is more of a parallel manifestation of the harmony that also governs the kosmos. The numerical relations are to music what the projector light is to the cinema.  

I disagree, too, with the mimetic supposition. I believe that it introduces an unnecessary — and distracting — distinction between nature and art, whereas it should be abundantly clear that works of art are part of natural history, just like the human beings who make them, and making a distinction between art and everything else and calling that everything else "nature" simply avoids the hard project of explaining what it is that makes artwork special within the domain of the natural.

Someplace else, I wrote that Sounds articulate precise dimensions in physical space; musical sounds also articulate precise dimensions in social and private spaces.   That is right, methinks, as far as it goes, with physical, social and personal spaces relating to one another like nesting dolls, but I don't think that it goes far enough, in that time is not represented.  Sounds are events in natural history and there is an inseparable intimacy between sound and the experience of time passing, indeed, sound is a means for making that experience articulate. 


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Landmarks (43)

Sometimes the moment just requires one piece of music, and only that piece.  I had such a moment this evening when I just needed Heinrich Isaac's motet Quis dabit capiti meo aquam? (1492).  As a lament on the death of Lorenzo de' Medici ("the magnificent"), it's about as elite as a piece of art can get, and the rest-in-peace sentiment is definitely not a sentiment I share*, but still: is there anything as devastatingly beautiful as this?  

Three features stand out for me: the devastating drop of the bass in the opening phrase, a single gesture which casts everything that follows into the darkest hues; then, where the poet Angelo Poliziano, punning on Laurel/Lorenzo, lets lightning strike, Issac has the tenor sing Laurus tacet and  one of the four voices drops out, marking Lorenzo's absence with an absence in the musical texture; and then there's the bass line, which takes a bit of chant, Et requiescamus in pace, restating it five times, but at each pass it is sequenced down a scale step,  a bit of technique that is obvious, minimalist even, yet uncanny in its effect (in the passacaglia which ends my string trio, Figure & Ground, I plain stole Isaac's idea of an ostinato which develops systematically with each reiteration, in my case in extending in length rather than modulating it).  There is much more to treasure here, with the textural and harmonic variety of the entire work providing a strong counter-charge to a work with pre-compositional, even systematic, elements. 

What most devastated me at this moment, today, was that I couldn't locate a copy of this music. It doesn't seem to be available online and my old photocopy of the original notation (from which I first sung this piece, in Idyllwild in '76 under the conductor Jon Bailey)  is nowhere to be found. But fortunately, a piece of this strength has a way of imprinting itself in memory; could one ask anything more of a lament? 


* For the record, when I go, I want my ashes to be placed in an hourglass, so that, at least in one way, I may keep on working.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Dept. of Libretto Opportunities

Sometimes you come across a blog item that just begs to be turned into an opera libretto.  Here's one by the blogging mathematician Tanya Khovanova, that is just bursting with suggestion and promise: 

Gelfand’s Memorial

(The mathematician) Israel Gelfand’s memorial is being held at Rutgers on December 6, 2009. I was invited as Gelfand’s student.

My relationship with Gelfand was complicated: sometimes it was very painful and sometimes it was very rewarding. I was planning to attend the memorial to help me forget the pain and to acknowledge the good parts.

I believe that my relationship with Gelfand was utterly unique. You see, I was married three times, and all three times to students of Gelfand.

Now that I know that I can’t make it to the memorial, I can’t stop wondering how many single male students of Gelfand will be there.

Material Press Blog

My blogging has become somewhat promiscuous, as I'll now also be contributing to the Material Press blog at  Expect lots of news about new scores and performances of works by Material Press composers, including Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma, Hauke Harder, Markus Trunk, Douglas Leedy, Ann Warde, Jonathan Segel, and Daniel Peter Biro.

Landmarks (42)

Joseph Haydn: Die Vorstellung des Chaos from Die Schöpfung (Hob. XXI:2)(1796-98).

The overture to this oratorio, the "representation of chaos", takes the form of a fantasy. In late 18th century concert music, a fantasy was an improvised solo keyboard genre, a showpiece for a virtuoso composer-performer, and often characterized musically by bold harmonic experimentation. (The fantasies left by Mozart are the best examples of the genre, if necessarily tamed and edited in their notated form.) In this case, however, the fantasy is through-composed and orchestrated, which is entirely appropriate for a composer who was not himself a popular virtuoso performer, but rather a Tonsetzer and orchestrator of spectacular skill and invention.

The function of chaos within the oratorio's narrative, "representing" a state which is not representable, and in ambiguous relationship to any eventual representable state, is that of presenting maximum contrast to the defining event it anticipates. To this end, Haydn uses and sustains every harmonic trick, turn, misdirection and ambiguity at his disposal for the entire length of the overture so as to delay a difinitive arrival at a simple cadence to the tonic c minor.

Haydn's Chaos would provide a critical point of reference for musical landmarks to come: the Vorspiel to Tristan und Isolde, certainly, with its parallel use of ambiguity and delayed definition of a tonaliy, but certainly, also, in Schönberg's Prelude to the Genesis Suite, Op. 44, in which the undefinable pre-creation state is "represented" by an atonal fugue, a paradoxical if not chaotic construction, given the importance of tonal function to the identity of a fugue.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

From a Final Exam

Verismo opera and Alvin Lucier's I am sitting in a room: compare and contrast as examples of naturalism in musical drama.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

An update from the lattice of coincidence

It's earlier this evening, I'm reading in the canteen in the basement of the Frankfurt Opera. I'm there to chaperone my daughter who is an extra in La Traviata, and generally enjoying the managed chaos and bustle of the place. A man with a cimbasso (that contrabass valve trombone required for much Verdi and Puccini and looking all the world like a design from the desk of Dr. Seuss) walks by. Two trainers with a handsome pair of dogs — who are to play police dogs onstage — walk by. A rehearsal pianist practices on a table top. The stage manager calls for fog to be readied. It happens that my reading has just reached Richard Taruskin's passage on Verdi's Wagner anxiety. There's a television in the canteen monitoring the music and action onstage and, even before the applause begins at the end of an act, the canteen-keeper casually switches the TV over to a broadcast of the Valencia production of Die Walküre. As singers and musicians wander in to eat or drink before returning to The Fallen Woman, some enter cheerfully humming bits of Libiamo ne' lieti calici only to be drowned out by Ho-jo-to-ho!-s sung by the woman on TV swinging around over the stage on a big hydraulic lift. Jeez, methinks, even there, deep in the heart of a house given over for an evening to Verdi, R.W. has once again managed to get himself unavoidable.

More signs of the decline in listening

I prefer live music to recordings, to the point that I actively avoid recordings. I do listen to the radio when I drive or do chores and I do own hundreds of cds, but I've only bought a couple which were immediately connected to compositional projects. The rest just accumulated, mostly as gifts or calling cards from musician friends. I don't encourage recordings of my own works, and I prefer getting to know the music of others, both new and old, through score reading, which means making sounds, however rough or approximate, with my own hands and mouth. I like to make music on my own or with friends, I like to listen to and watch others make music, and I prefer that recordings not be used as an economical substitute for these activities, that is to say, I think that, whenever possible, recordings should not be used to put musicians out of work.

While recordings are clearly valuable when music has been composed expressly for recorded media or as documentation of performances — historical or distant — which are otherwise inaccessible, I dislike the constraints to audition posed by mediated through loudspeakers, the lack of control over my physical position with regard to the sound sources, the tendency in sound design to flatten dynamic contrasts, and, to be perfectly honest, I have an uneasy relationship with the temptation presented by recorded media for the the user to skip through and mix up composed works.

Once a work has been packaged for a recording (and often even composed specifically for the constraints — in time or dynamics, for example — of a recording), it becomes an indefinitely divisible and recombinant commodity, over which the creator has virtually no more control.

Recent technological developments in the most widely used forms of recording have not been encouraging for other reasons: for the first time in the history of audio recording, the most prominent new format has been one without a significant increase in sound quality in any aspect or parameter. The sole virtue of an mp3 file is its portability (small digital files, perfectly reproducible and cheaply transferable), useful, in principal, in a commodity, but not one which has proven to be particularly or sustainably lucrative. It is especially disheartening, now, to read that:

In February, a music professor at Stanford, Jonathan Berger, revealed that he has found evidence that younger listeners have come to prefer lo-fi versions of rock songs to hi-fi ones. For six years, Berger played different versions of the same rock songs to his students and asked them to say which ones they liked best. Each year, more students said that they liked what they heard from MP3s better than what came from CDs. To a new generation of iPod listeners, rock music is supposed to sound lo-fi. (Read the whole thing here.)

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

What's buried behind Lufkin's diner?

This is Charles Olson reading his poem "The Librarian" in 1966 (hat tip Ron Silliman). The rhythm of this performance is so compelling, especially the way the caesuras are articulated and those insistent lines at the end ("Where is Bristow? When does 1A get me home? I am caught in Gloucester. What's buried behind Lufkin's diner? Who is Frank Moore?") are intoned as if they are the most urgent matters in the universe. Some poems need to be heard to be believed.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Schubert: Sublime and Funky?

A passage in Cornel West's recent memoir (Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud),  has been getting some attention (see here or here):

“The basic problem with my love relationships with women is that my standards are so high -- and they apply equally to both of us. I seek full-blast mutual intensity, fully fledged mutual acceptance, full-blown mutual flourishing, and fully felt peace and joy with each other. This requires a level of physical attraction, personal adoration, and moral admiration that is hard to find. And it shares a depth of trust and openness for a genuine soul-sharing with a mutual respect for a calling to each other and to others. Does such a woman exist for me? Only God knows and I eagerly await this divine unfolding. Like Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship in Emily Bronte’s remarkable novel Wuthering Heights or Franz Schubert’s tempestuous piano Sonata No. 21 in B flat (D.960) I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky love that I crave!”

Most of the attention has been, well, of a mirthful variety.  To be honest, I find the critics who have found West to be seriously misreading and misappropriating Wuthering Heights to be persuasive, but as a musician, I've gotta say, yeah, at his tempestuous best, as in the Bb Sonata, Schubert was definitely craving himself some of that sublime and funky love.  

(Now I'm sure we're all wondering what our blogging Brother Jeremy Denk might think about this; that is, if he can find a moment away from Chopin...)


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

You Can't Step Into The Same Orchestra Twice

In the West, professional orchestras are the last survivors of a particularly archaic distribution of labor.* Their productive work continues to be done in a collective mass under strict hierarchical control and has benefit not in the least from any advances in technology or though more efficient means of personnel organization.  To the contrary, the very identity of the orchestra as such continues to be defined by promoters and consumers alike by its strength in numbers and the quality of the sound produced is very much dependent upon balances of forces designed in the 19th century in which the "chorus effect" of massed strings, in which all the tiniest differences among players ostensibly playing the "same" music are synthesized into a single stream, which is surprisingly distinct from the simple sum of its parts. 

One result of this archaic construction is that an orchestral performance, including all of the prerequisite rehearsals, is a preposterously expensive cultural commodity, one that in major industrialized countries cannot be produced without massive subsidies, whether private or public (or mixed, as in the case of tax breaks for private contributions).  The question of the "survival of the orchestra" as a civic institution largely depends upon how a community — or some elite subgroup of a community's leadership — values the product in relationship to its costs.  This construction often lends the orchestra an aura of prestige for these elites (and those who aspire to the elites) which is not unlike that associated with other valuable antiquarian artifacts, with the critical difference that the essential product of an orchestra is a performance, ephemeral and not concrete, so less marketable, even when commodified as audio recordings, and certainly not the object of meaningful financial speculation against future returns, for a music performance is a perishable good.

But what I really want to write about is the orchestra as an ephemeral institution and, consequently, as an ephemeral musical quality.  The personnel of an orchestra is entirely stable for only short periods of time, between the changes due to retirements and replacements, often to the practice of ringers and substitutions, and certainly due to the continuous and recombinant dynamics of a community, both within the orchestra itself, between sections (have you ever met a woodwind player really happy about sitting in front of the brass?) and within sections (what does it really mean, in terms of the psyche, to be second chair second fiddle?) and, especially, between the orchestra and its conductors.  The local radio orchestra, for example, under specialist guest conductors, plays brilliantly in late 20th and early 21st century repertoire, probably as well as any orchestra around, and the presence of the orchestra has certainly been one of the reasons for staying here in Frankfurt.  But under their principle conductor, in standard repertoire, they're a completely different and, I find, dispirited, band, one I listen to under increasing duress.  While, as an outsider, I can only guess at some of the dynamics involved — dynamics of contrasting musical styles (often following an east-west divide)  and personal demeanors — I do recognize that the personal chemistry involved is unimaginably complex (the three-body problem being famously unsolveable.)     


*I am well aware that there is a strong argument for the institution of the opera — above and beyond its orchestral subunit — as a more dramatic holdover from a long-gone economy of scale, but I believe that opera is a beast with some very different qualities, a theatrical spectacle that continues to have a social cachet rather different to that of the orchestra.